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Trump, Truman, and why Transgender People should be allowed to serve.


President Trump’s call for banning transgender people from serving in the U.S. military is indefensible.

This does not even rank as the most dangerous action taken by the administration this week; efforts to strip millions from healthcare and to roll back Title IX sexual assault protections pose far more immediate danger than tweets that have yet to be implemented through policy. What is remarkable is the day the President chose to make this announcement: on the 69th anniversary of President Truman desegregating the armed forces, President Trump chose, in a new way, to re-segregate them, by denying fifteen thousand current service members the right to continue their service.

I suspect in the upcoming days, people will try to minimize President Trump’s tweet calling for the ban of transgender service members. Some will point out that his words carry no legal weight, or may suggest that he is simply trying to stir a debate and spin a news cycle. While this may be true, it does not change the fact that the Commander in Chief would be willing to cavalierly impugn the service of thousands of his own soldiers, and threaten their jobs and fundamental rights as a means of scoring a political point.

I also suspect that soon we will see what has been a familiar pattern during this administration. Many conservatives will attempt to continue their game of having it both ways with Trump. They will try to keep an arms length from the President and his tweets, but then in the coming days will criticize liberals in their reactions, minimize the importance of the issue and then, under some veil of rational objectivity, argue that perhaps there is something to the argument that transgender people should not continue in the military. They, just as much as the President, are  wrong. There is no case to be made to ban transgender people from continuing their service.

President Trump and his supporters claim that banning transgender people from the military is supported by the military, helps better chances for military victories, saves medical costs, and is less disruptive to military unit cohesion. Absolutely none of those claims are true.

The Pentagon is not in support of such a measure, did not encourage it, and was not even aware that President Trump was going to announce it.  On the civilian leadership side, Senate Armed Services Chairman Republican Senator John McCain is opposed to the measure, along with ranking Democrat Jack Reed. To suggest that America’s military leadership was calling for this ban is disingenuous.

There is little evidence that transgender people cannot serve in combat, let alone in “any capacity,” at the President suggested. The President did not explain what changed about transgender soldiers that suddenly made them unsuited to carry out their duties they have already been carrying out for years. Even conservative critics who may have religious objections to the concept of gender fluidity or characterize the transgender identity as a mental disorder cannot explain why transgender military personnel who are subject to the same training, screenings and standards of other recruits are unable to preform as soldiers. Furthermore, one could concede virtually every argument on the transgender debate to the right, and that still does not disprove that transgender soldiers have historically been able to serve just as well as any other soldiers. Israel currently has transgender people serving and has one of the greatest fighting forces in the world, and the United States has as many as fifteen thousand transgender people serving, including in combat roles, and every day they help ensure victory, including the day President Trump announced his plan to ban them from continuing to serve.

The amount of medical costs saved, compared to the service provided by these brave service-members, is marginal. President Trump announced a fifteen-billion-dollar military budget increase; surely that could absorb these costs. As it stands, the Pentagon spends more than five times amount per year providing Viagra to service members as it does in paying for transgender service members’ medical expenses. For a President who cares little about bringing down the debt or curbing defense spending, it is remarkable that he chose this as the one area to save money on, when it comes at the expense of thousands from being able to serve. As often in politics, this isn’t really about the money.

The final claim Trump made was that transgender people serving in the military is disruptive. What is remarkable about the claim is that he makes it as if there were not currently thousands of transgender people currently serving proudly in the military. They did not imagine themselves as disruptive when they woke up this morning and put on their uniforms, calling him their commander in chief. They did not suppose they were disrupting the military when they enlisted, trained, and said goodbye to their loved ones as they were shipped overseas. They did not believe they were being disruptive to America when they risked their lives for their country, giving their commander in chief and his supporters the very freedom to call them disruptive and demand for their ban. What I imagine would be disruptive would be to, after years of loyal service, end the careers of thousands of service members, deny the dreams and ambitions of countless more by discharging them from their service and sending them home without honor. They were willing to make a sacrifice that their President (and myself) was not willing to make, and yet they are being told they are not good enough to service; not because they are bad soldiers or bad people, but because of who they claim to be.

You do not have to agree with being transgender as a legitimate identity to realize that this is a big country, and that people are going to believe and even identify in ways we don’t always agree with, but that that is not an excuse to deny them their fundamental rights, or a chance to serve. Such thinking is short sighted, small minded, and runs counter to the values and history of the America I know.

Every generation, there has been a group of Americans who longed to serve their country they loved but were denied because their differences would prove too “disruptive”; African-Americans, women, gays, Catholics, immigrants, Germans, Jews, Japanese, and others. And, sure enough, every time integration was disruptive; some in the unit felt uncomfortable, some officers had troubled adjusting, some politicians used it as an issue to rile up voters, but every time the unit got over it, the country moved on, and America continued to boast the greatest fighting force in the world.

In the end, President Trump is selling America and our military short. Our people, and our armed forces, have never been homogeneous; we have always, in the words of Whitman, contained multitudes. We are not fragile; we do not break or become irrecoverably “disrupted” by living or serving alongside people who are different from us. I refuse to believe the same military that bled at Gettysburg and waded onto the shores of Normandy is too fragile to handle the continued presence of transgender service members. We are made of tougher stuff than that.

After all, America was born out of disruption. It’s part of who we are. Disruption is the story of the thousands of African-Americans who fought in the Civil War to set others free, even against the wishes of many politicians and officers. It’s the story of the segregated Tuskegee Airmen, who fought for a country who wouldn’t fight for them; of Lenoard Matlovich, who fought in an army that said his love was less real; of Ann Dunwoody, who enlisted in a military that had no desire to give any women a seat at the table, and left it as a four star general. And it’s the story of fifteen thousand transgender service members; who, facing scrutiny and prejudice, disrupt people’s prejudices and comfort zones for a chance to risk their lives in order to stand for their country, even when their country won’t stand by them. This disruption that Trump and others fear is part of what unites the differing multitudes that call themselves Americans; a vast people uninhibited in disrupting what has been, in hopes of replacing it with what ought to be. That’s the America Harry Truman knew, and the America that Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand.

There is one bright side to this new debate over transgender service in the military. For almost every minority group in America that has struggled to be included and treated equally, the path towards equality ran through military service. That’s why Frederick Douglass passionately argued for African-Americans being able to serve in the military during the Civil War, despite the fact that most Northerners did not think they would make for good soldiers. He argued that blacks, more than being able to “stop a bullet as well as a white man,” could exemplify the same dignity and honor of a white soldier, making their equality self evident.

The same will be true in the debate for transgender service members. More than being able to “stop a bullet” as well as another soldier, transgender have shown and if given the chance will continue to show the same excellence, skill, courage, and devotion to their country as any other soldier. Like all soldiers, they sacrifice much and risk all, from enduring  long months apart from family to being willing to lose their lives in service to the country they love. They are not “mentally ill,” “perverse,” “confused,” or any of the other slurs cast their way. They are American heroes, capable of the noblest of deeds and deepest altruism we know. Most remarkably, they are doing all of this for a country that will not even fully recognize their rights, and for a commander in chief who does not even want their service. That is what’s remarkable; that Trump and others want to ban a service they don’t even deserve, yet transgender service members still want to fight for their right to serve anyways.

Let that be the moment years from now when we say transgender rights and equality became a self evident truth. Even when America was showing transgender people our worst prejudices, transgender service members continued to serve, and showed America at its very best.

 

 

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What Kind of Year Has This Been?

  
As a New Year approaches, I believe that it is worth asking what kind of year has this been. I believe it has not been a particularly good one.

It would be hyperbole to call this the worst year on record, and it is worth remembering that, for most of us in this country, our worst years are better than millions of others’ best. However, it would be short sighted to not admit that this was not an ordinary year, and this is not an ordinary time. People will study this year for generations. This year, more than bringing forth new challenges, revealed deeper troubles in our country, troubles that will be difficult to overcome.

  
With two months having passed since the election, it cannot be understated how abnormal and, in my view, troubling the events of this election year have been. I need not repeat everything I have found distressing over this last year. It would be incorrect to regard last year’s events as a more dismal “politics as usual.” Something truly historic happened, and in my view was a dangerous break from our political traditions, that was most distressing for what it revealed about us rather than what it revealed about our candidates.

  
 Some, in seeking to reconcile themselves with the events of this year, have tried to turn the election into something that was an inevitable, perhaps even welcomed, new chapter of our history. I have read many articles reminding us that the election of Trump, while shocking, is understandable given the legitimate anxieties of working class whites. However, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if black Americans, who are severely more economically depressed than whites, dealt with their challenges by electing a black man who appointed black power figures to his administration, called for a registry for whites in order to vet them to ensure they’re safe, and who said “whites bring crime, they’re rapists, though some I assume are good people.” I suspect that candidate would not get far, given it is already controversial to even say that black lives matter.

  
 This year did not play host to a debate over policy, or a clash over ideology, there was a moral element to this. Fundamentally, this election was a referendum on what it means to be an American: why does this country exist, why is this country great, and who does this country belong to. The two different answers to that reveal two Americas that seem vastly, perhaps irreconcilably, different. This difference comes not just from differing views on issues, but a differing view of history and reality. There used to be a time where we agreed on what ailed our nation, but we disagreed on how to solve those problems. Now, we do not even agree on what the problems are. There is a new sort of relativism that governs our debates. Climate change and crime rates are matters of opinion. With a President-elect who entered politics by peddling conspiracy theories, “fake news” has become mainstream. No longer do we all receive the same news and facts from a few newspapers or channels. Instead, we can retreat into our insular communities, where we read only what our friends share on social media, confirming our biases, and giving an article written by a conspiracy theorist the same platform as one written by a Nobel Laureate.

  
It wasn’t just the election that made this a distressing year. The refugee crisis, and the images of the genocide that strangled the streets of Aleppo, reminded us that our inaction and indifference is just as much a choice as action. The global retreat from one another, and surrender of reason to fear, with elections like Brexit, and the rise of authoritarian, nativist nationalism, should give anyone pause who can recall the politics that nearly destroyed Europe in the 1930s. Bombings in Nice and Brussels alerted us that the sort of violence we comfortably cordon off to distant and more troubled portions of the globe can occur much closer to home. In June, just a year after love finally won in our courts, a gunman in an Orlando nightclub shattered our naive but blissful assurances of peace. We lost fifty futures that night, and fifty people who were loved and needed. The fabric of our community, for both those who were gay and those who are straight, wore a little more thin. When this sort of violence is present, mindless but with definitive, destructive design and purpose, our whole nation is degraded.

  
 In the midst of the tumult of this year, we lost the celebrities who gave us comfort, laughs, wisdom and hope. We lost those who we needed to raise our spirits after Orlando: musicians who brought forth love, like Prince, Cohen, and Bowie. Actors who moved us to feel deeply, like Rickman, Reynolds or Fisher. Those who made us laugh, like Wilder. We lost those who could give us hope during the most dismal of politics: athletes who gave us new measures of what was possible, like Ali, and pioneers like John Glenn, who reminded us that with hope and daring, we can even slip the surly bonds of this earth. We lost those who made us think, and those who gave us the courage to challenge our own prejudices, like Adams and Harper Lee. We lost giants in a year when we felt most scared and small.

  
If I could describe what I have been feeling in the last year, it is that I feel like I am living in history, but not a good chapter. This is no ordinary time. We are torn, not by two differing ideologies, but two different conceptions of what America is. On Election Night I saw weeping faces and heard choked voices of friends of mine, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, who wondered if their country still had a place for them. I walked by Trump Tower that night, to see a sea of cheering faces, most of them male and white, but most believing with sincerity that their country had been saved. The young people I meet at Ivy league campuses, cadets I met at a conference at West Point and conservative students at my own college seem to engage with different realities. At my work, I receive phone calls from people around the country voicing their complaints on politics, and many of them seem to have different understandings of what our history even is, and who we even are. Conversations with family and friends over the holidays make me wonder how deep this gulf is and how difficult it is to cross. Facts are now opinions. We are retreating behind walls and closing ranks with those like us. Americans view each other with mistrust. Character of public officials no longer counts. Conspiracies have become mainstream. Aged prejudices have resurfaced. Misogyny, thin skinned bluster and crude bravado have been confused with rugged masculinity. Sexual assault has been reduced to “locker room talk.” Nationalism and even neo-nazism have reared their ugly heads. Violence tears at the fabric of our communities. The unconscionable has become conscionable. Up is down, and the bottom has fallen out. I’m reminded of William Butler Yeats’ words: 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 That is what kind of year this has been. Anarchy. Not just anarchy of the political and social orders. Moral anarchy, the kind that makes us question if our fellow citizens have the same understandings of right and wrong. It is not the anarchy that yields protests or begets violence that is most disturbing, but rather it is the anarchy of thought and conviction that denies understanding why protests occur, cannot agree on who or what is to blame for violence, and that retreats into a comfortable and bitter isolation that is most distressing. Some people, such as those among the historically disadvantaged in our nation, such as African-Americans, or Native-Americans, may remark that, in some respects, none of these feelings of alienation in one’s own land is new. It is worth remembering that.

  
These are difficult times for our country, but I think that things can get better. We can ill afford apathy, nor can we afford an accommodating spirit that sanctions recent events as normal or acceptable, or that tells us to be silent in calling out what is wrong. However, I am convinced that we cannot afford the burden of hate. We must be filled with hope. I am not speaking of an idle optimism, or a fleeting fantasy. When I speak of hope, I mean believing that things can always be better and recognizing that we all have a moral obligation to work hard to make that so. We must work first by trying to heal our nation’s wounds. We heal these wounds, not by pretending our problems do not exist, nor by seeking to honor ourselves by finding blame in others, but instead by determining what these wounds are, and working with earnestness to stop the bleeding. We can only do this with good faith, and with a willingness to recognize the humanity in one another, and discover all that we share. Only then will our problems be less daunting.

 In the end, the fear a police officer feels while on patrol is not too different from the fear a young black man may feel when confronted by an officer with a gun. The love a gay couple in Brooklyn shares is not dissimilar to the love between a straight couple in Alabama. The love of country felt by a Texan who wants to build a wall around America is not that far from the love of country an immigrant feels that drives them to risk their life to come and live in America. The fear of terror that a white person feels when they see a Muslim refugee is much like the fear of terror felt by that Muslim that made them a refugee. Imagine the heartbreak of losing a child, so you can know a bit better what it feels like to lose your child to gun violence, whether it be the work of a gang, a gunman, or even a police officer. Imagine what your Christmas would have been like if you were unemployed, and you may know the tip of the frustrations of the displaced, industrial working class. Imagine never having the money to ever celebrate Christmas, and with every holiday as a reminder of loved ones taken from you too soon that year, and you have a glimpse of what life is like for many on the Southside of Chicago, in the delta of Mississippi, in forgotten corners of Detroit, and on the desolate prairies of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

  
This is not to say that all people’s opinions are right in their own way, but rather that all people, even those who are wrong, are people, and that we owe it to them to find the good in them, to seek their better angels, to not give up on them, and to find grace and understanding in us. We should treat those we disagree with like family we disagree with; wrong, but never irredeemable. It is up to us to tap into what Marilynne Robinson called “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

  
Surely then, with that reservoir of goodness, surely then with that active hope, we can make 2017 better than 2016. Our lives are far too short, and the work to be done too great, to be stagnant in hate and distrust, rather than to move with hope. Next year, we are all going to have to do a lot better, but I think we are up for that task. I am reminded of another giant we lost this year, Donald Henderson. Few people know his name, but millions live because of his work. In 1967, he said he’s eradicate smallpox, a disease that killed 500 million people in the 20th Century, and untold hundreds of millions more in the centuries before that. Ten years later, smallpox was gone. It’s miraculous. The eradication of smallpox has been called the single greatest humanitarian achievement known to man, accomplished by someone who so few of us know, we didn’t even realize we lost him this year. Never underestimate your ability to make gentler and nobler the life of this world. Not with a world that can make someone like Donald Henderson. Not after doctors have just created a vaccine for Ebola this month. Not after peacemakers ended decades of war in Colombia this year. Not after NASA’s confirmation of the discovery of water on Mars, reminding us that we always can redefine the limits of what is possible. Not as long as we live in a world that painfully calls for change. The future is still our story to write.

That is where I am at the end of 2016. Troubled, but hopeful, more acutely aware of the challenges we face, and more convinced of our capacity to meet them. I hope we will learn from this year, that we can learn from how deep we can go. I remember Dr. King’s words the night before he died, that “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” As I look on the final night of this year, with darkness blanketing everything below me, I have no choice but to look up. When I do, I still can’t help but be awed by the stars.

My thoughts on the election

  
America has a lot of explaining to do.
America needs to explain why we would elect someone who bragged about sexual assault. America needs to explain how we will ever explain to college students why sexual assault is wrong if we think it is something the holder of our nation’s highest office can brag about. America needs to explain how we can tell the victims of sexual assault that their stories need to be heard if their President thinks otherwise.

The 81% of Christian white evangelicals who voted for Trump need to explain how electing a man who brags about “grabbing women by the p*ssy” and has boasted of his infidelity is their best choice for President. These value voters need to explain what it is they actually value.

The military conservatives, the ones who told us it was unpatriotic to question the Iraq War, need to explain why they voted for a man who says POWs are not real war heroes, who denigrates Gold Star families, who says that he has sacrificed as much as the families of fallen soldiers, who calls our military a disaster, who invites a foreign power to commit espionage against the U.S. government, who praises dictators, who says he knows more about the military than the generals, and who claims Bush was to blame for 9/11.

Constitutional conservatives need to explain why they would elect a man who threatens our democratic institutions, who seeks to ban entire religions from entering the country, who censors reporters, and threatens to jail his political opponents.

Voters concerned over Clinton’s integrity need to explain why sitting on the board of one of the most praised private charities in the world, and conducting email practices previous state departments practiced as well, is worse than operating a fraudulent university, cheating on taxes, stiffing contractors, and using his foundation to pay for his legal bills.

Voters who couldn’t vote for Clinton “because she lies” need to explain why they voted for a candidate who has been routinely ranked by independent fact checkers as the most dishonest candidate in history.

People who preferred Clinton as President but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either candidate need to explain why they wanted America to do the work for them of electing her, and why they get the special dignity to stay above the fray. 

People who say their vote doesn’t count need to explain if, when added to millions of others claiming their votes don’t count, their vote still would not have made a difference.

America needs to explain why experience in government is no longer a prerequisite for the highest office of government.

America needs to explain why a man who claims a person’s Hispanic heritage disqualifies him from being a judge is well suited to pick supreme court nominees.

America needs to explain why a man whose own staff thought he should not be allowed to handle his own Twitter account should be allowed to handle our nuclear codes.

America needs to explain how parents can tell disabled children that their President really didn’t mean it when he mocked the disabled.

America needs to explain how teachers are going to assure their Hispanic students that their President doesn’t actually think their parents are rapists.

America needs to explain how Muslim parents will tell their families that this is their country too.

America needs to explain how we can assure our daughters not to worry, the President would never sexually assault them, because they’re not even a 6.

America needs to explain why it elected Donald Trump.

In 2012, I decided I wanted to be as informed as possible on the 2016 election. For the next four years, I read at least one article on the election a day. I watched every debate, every convention speech, and read every poll. I wrote in 2015 that I thought Donald Trump would be the nominee, but I thought, in the end, particularly after the tape, party loyalty would not be enough for the GOP to make such a dreadful Faustian bargain. Surely, normal politics would be put at the wayside, given how abnormally unqualified and morally reprehensible Trump proved to be. I really tried to convince those around me, conservatives I know at school and at home, to vote against him. I am overwhelming disappointed that after all this it would end this way.

To be clear, I’m not sad that Clinton is not President: she would have been a compotent, though uninspiring leader. I would not respond this way if any other GOP candidate won. Donald Trump is something wholly different: he is unqualified, morally abhorrent, and represents the closest America has ever veered towards fascism.

 I normally scoff at remarks like this, but this time it was true: this was the most important election in a generation. This election was a referendum on what it means to be an American. The question was not what policies we ought to pass, but why is our country great, what do we consider morally conscionable, and who was this country made for. Last night, America decided this country was for the “real Americans,” and exit polls or Trump rallies tell you who those are. They’re more likely male, almost exclusively straight, and predominantly white. Never before had an election seemed more like two different candidates engaging with two different realities and speaking to two different nations. 

We will spend years litigating this election, finding blame. Maybe the media gave in to sensationalism. Maybe Democrats took working class whites for granted too long. Maybe this was the inevitable reaction to electing our first black president. I know for certain, however, that many conservatives, including ones I grew up with, admire, and go to school with, need to ask themselves why they let this happen. The thing is, Trump didn’t convince the GOP to adopt his brand of politics: the base already wanted it. Conservatives need to think how they allowed their party to get to that point, and if they’re comfortable having enabled his election. William F. Buckley said that a conservative is “someone who is willing to stand athwart history and yell stop, even when no one else is inclined to do so.” The conservative Republican Party is gone, and Donald Trump is President, and too many conservatives were unwilling to yell stop.

So, what’s next? I’ve encountered an entire range of reactions last night. A friend of mine said he wasn’t surprised, that people make bad choices and America isn’t a great country. Another friend said democracy sucks. I had several LGBTQ friends of mine in tears at what happened, unsure why the country would turn back progress, and why half their country doesn’t want them here.

I wrote an article a couple days back, when I thought Clinton would win, about how, regardless of who would win, I’m hopeful because of the strength of the American people.

With the displays of American democracy at its worst in this election, I find my optimism in remembering that this ugly side of America is part of a greater picture. We are a vast nation. We are full of contradictions. We are stubborn, and sometimes terribly wrong. We often give in to shallowness and enjoy sensationalism and spectacle too much for our own good. Yet in spite of that, we always manage to beat back our baser natures and summon what is best in us in order to do what is needed. That’s the story of how women reached for the ballot. That’s the story of how love finally won last year. That’s the story of how we heard a man stand on the Lincoln Memorial and tell us about his dream. We are not deplorable. We are big hearted and big minded, and while we often fight the growing pains that come with progress, we do not avoid debate, nor do we fear the unknown. That is the story, after all, of how our nation was born.

A lot of that seems naive now, but I still believe it. I still count myself an optimist. I believe that, with work, things can get better, and that we all have an obligation to make that so. That’s my understanding of hope, and I don’t think my hope is unfounded. Voters were convinced by the wrong guy, but they can be convinced again. I still believe truth and justice will have the final say, but people are going to have to work for it. I still believe that nothing in democracy is irreversible, and that the only unequivocal restraints on political change are the limits of you and your fellow citizens’ ability to persuade the public.

So if you’re disappointed with the results of this election, don’t move to Canada. Don’t stop being interested in politics, because politics will always have an interest in you. Don’t stop believing that positive change is possible: we have done so much the last 200 years to think that now. And don’t give up on your fellow citizens. They voted for someone who is deplorable, but they’re not. Talk to them, listen to them, and convince them. We need to, not destroy or denigrate others, but persuade our fellow citizens to reject Trumpism. It is America’s new great task.

So if you’re asking what is next, the answer is not giving up. If this election teaches us anything, it’s that we can’t take our democracy for granted. We can’t take progress for granted, or even respect for human decency for granted. Now more than ever is the time to get involved in politics. Now more than ever is the time for activists, for debate, and for dreamers. The cynics and demagogues had their day, but that day won’t last forever; in America, it never does. Progress took a few steps back, as it has before, but the building of a more perfect union cannot stop now. Cynicism, apathy and despondency cannot reign now. Not when there are cities to save and students to inspire. Not when people’s voting rights are threatened. Not when the cries for racial justice still go unanswered. Not when there are people wondering if their lives matter. Not with millions of people who can lose the healthcare they gained for the first time. Not when the right of couples in loves to stay married is on the line. Not when there are immigrants living in the shadows, wondering if this nation of their dreams is still living up to its promise. Not with victims and future victims of sexual assault too scared to speak out. Not with millions of women and our young girls still waiting for the glass ceiling to break. There is too much to do, and our time on earth too short, to give in to apathy, to cynicism, or a bitter resentment towards our countrymen that will drive our country even further apart.

No matter what anyone says over the course of the next four years, this is a country belongs to all of us. It is not the domain any one class can claim. No Americans are more ‘real’ than others. I think we will all believe that one day. So I’m not going to stop betting on America yet. Trump will shake this country but he cannot break it. We are not that fragile. We are made of tougher stuff than that. We will survive, we will move on, we will endure. I have no doubt that we will stare down the cynics and summon what is best in all of us and make our country whole again. I love this country so much. I’m sad that Trump took the White House, but my hopefulness, my belief in others, those are things he can never take. 

America’s Great Task: Rejecting Donald Trump

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I deplore hyperbole and sensationalism in politics. I am quick to remind people to keep  our politics in a broader, historical perspective. I respect people from both parties, and while some Presidencies have been better than others, I have believed that, whether America is under Democratic or Republican leadership, our country will broadly be fine.

Thursday night, watching Donald Trump accept the nomination for President, I was the most genuinely frightened I have ever been in my life.

A year ago, I predicted that Trump could be the Republican nominee. I didn’t realize how frightening of a prediction I made.

I have routinely dismissed outlandish comparisons of Trump to fascism. After Thursday night, no longer.

I regularly mock the notion that “this election is the most important one in a generation.” This time, I’m not so dismissive.

Let’s talk about that convention.

From night one, I realized this was not a normal convention. Usually, conventions are upbeat, take some jabs at the record of the opposing nominee, and then present a positive vision of change. This was different.

On the first night, Pat Smith called Hillary Clinton a murderer, holding her responsible for her son’s death. It felt reminiscent of Cindy Sheehan calling Bush a murderer due to her son’s death in Iraq; except the DNC never put her on stage. I’m not sure if the RNC thinks Bush is a murderer due to the 84 American deaths in embassy attacks during his presidency. Then, Rudy Giuliani, a once self described liberal Republican, gave a speech where he screamed at the top of his lungs, warning America of the dangers of terrorism, like an apocalyptic preacher. What America ought to do beyond our current 13,000 airstrikes launched against ISIS? Make sure we say the word Islamist more often.

The next night, Chris Christie conducted a trial of Clinton. The crowd all week chanted “lock her up.” This Republican Party makes Ken Starr look like Mother Theresa. Chanting for the arrest of your political opponent and accusing her of murder without substantiation feels like something out of a fledgling dictatorship, not a country where Jefferson once said “we are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.”

The words said along the margins of the convention may have been more startling. Congressman Steve King argued that whites have contributed more to civilization than any other “sub groups.” Convention speaker Antonio Sabato said Obama “absolutely is a Muslim.” Trump advisor Senator Baldasaro called for Clinton to face a firing squad. I’d be startled, but I’ve heard right-wing people I know say identical statements before. To be clear, however, this kind of rhetoric never occurs at a typical convention.

On the third day, Ted Cruz gave a speech that was both a courageous stand for principles and a political power play (yes, it can be both). He gave an eloquent defense of Reagan conservatism. He was booed off stage. The outsider Senator was not radical enough for this convention. Conservatives got to watch on live TV as their conservative party was officially taken over by right wing populist nationalists.

Watch the last RNC and compare it to this one. See the difference in policies proposed, along with the difference in tone. There was no conservative message of optimism, little mention of the founders, Reagan, or other conservative staples. The primary focus was tearing down Clinton and the status quo. Rarely was it mentioned how Trump would achieve his goals, though that is to be expected, as cults of personality rarely do nuance or specifics.

It seems almost pointless to fact check  this convention. Trump is using the general public’s fatigue with ‘political correctness’ as a blanket to cover his routine factual incorrectness. Why bother pointing out Clinton is no more ‘abolishing the 2nd Amendment’ than Reagan did with his gun control bill,  that Iran is dismantling its nuclear missile program and is helping fight ISIS and not the other way around (the notion that Shia Iran would aid Sunni ISIS is amusing),  and that Clinton opposed Assad while Trump has supported him. Would Trump’s supporters care if they read that Trump’s tax slashing plan would explode the deficit, that crime is falling and not rising, that America is enjoying increased respect abroad not less, that Obama has overseen historic periods of job growth not job loss, that illegal immigrants and refugees are less likely than white Americans to commit violent crimes, and that illegal immigration is actually at historic lows? Probably not. Facts are stubborn things, and apparently were too stubborn to endorse Trump or attend the RNC.

Still, I did not know whether the convention, with all its unconventionality, would be effective. And then Trump delivered his speech, the longest acceptance speech in at least 48 years. There was no softening, no effort to make up with conservatives and no pivot towards the general election. He doubled down. He painted America in apocalyptic terms, as a once great nation undermined by politicians and Democrats seeking to weaken this country. This America was lawless and under siege from terror. This America had left behind the ‘forgotten people,’ the ‘great silent majority,’ who work hard, love the country, and aren’t politically correct. He would be their voice. He would be their champion. He would make America great again. It’s not difficult to read between the lines of his Nixonian address. The fear Trump is tapping into doesn’t line up with facts but, rather, with a feeling. He’s tapping into the feeling that an America where white heterosexuals were the basic conception of what it means to be an American is slipping away. That’s why they are the real Americans. That’s why they wish to “take the country back”-take it back from the others. Certainly, there are other reasons people support Trump: party loyalty, disdain for Clinton, or frustrations with being left behind by globalization, but the ethos behind Trump’s references to his white masses as “real Americans” and his desire to “make America great again” is, at its core, the cry of a displaced social class wishing to reassert its dominance.

People have asked me if we have seen anything like this before: Nixon’s Silent Majority and calls for “law and order” as a response to increased racial integration and liberal social policies is an obvious comparison, though Nixon was oddly both more conservative and liberal than Trump. Trump, like Nixon, thrives off of victimhood: both loathed the media and intellectual elites, claiming they were biased against them. They relished in a “one man against the world” attitude, shared by their white supporters who believed they, not minorities, were the real victims of oppression. Trump is unique insofar as he is less experienced and qualified than Nixon, more radical in his policies, and is in a media-reality TV culture that helps sustain his efforts. Whether Trump believes in the fears he’s outlining or not, I don’t know, but he’s instilling them in others, and exploiting them effectively. As he gave his vision, easy to grasp, and hard for his crowds of cheering followers to resist, I felt what I felt the day he announced he was running for President: it is hard picturing him lose.

The greatest tragedy of Trump is not that he says what he says, but that people were ready to embrace his words. The tragedy of Trump is what he reflects in us. Sadly, his success should not have surprised anyone. Some in the GOP (though not all-just many of its loudest voices) have been playing with compromising facts and playing into fears for short term political gain for years. There was Nixon, after all, but there were more to come. In 2009, the GOP invoked fears of ‘death panels’ in trying to stop the Affordable Care Act, even though that law was originally the brainchild of the Heritage Foundation and Newt Gingrich. The NRA regularly raises fears that the government will ban all guns, even as Democrats propose watered down gun bills that pale in comparison to Reagan’s proposed gun control legislation. For a generation, right wing talk radio and Fox News made the case that Democrats don’t just have different means than Republicans at helping our country, but that they actively wish to weaken this country and are a threat to America. Liberals aren’t just of a different political stripe; they are “not real Americans,” to borrow from Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin.

Surprised that John McCain was called “not a real war hero” the moment he disagreed with Trump? Remember that John Kerry was not a real war hero to the right wing the moment be questioned the policies of President Bush. You shouldn’t be shocked that Trump wants to target civilians and increase the use of torture: after all, Rush Limbaugh already told us that Abu Ghraib was just soldiers “blowing off steam” and Palin already reminded us that “water boarding is how we baptize terrorists.” For the right-wing nationalists, President Obama isn’t a typical center-left politician: no, he is a radical with a foreign worldview who is deliberately trying to weaken America, and is not a real Christian. When millions are convinced that their political opponents are less American, and want to purposefully weaken this country, then of course they will turn to someone like Trump to give them what they deserve. No, not a conservative agenda, but a man who will take their country back for them. In this respect, even though Trump is not a conservative, the Republican Party, and many conservatives in that party, laid the groundwork and enabled him, creating the environment that allowed him to take over and reshape the party in his image. Conservatives are not being honest if they do not recognize their complicity in that.

This is scary for liberals and conservatives alike. We are witnessing the most illiberal candidate in our history launch a dismantling of conservatism. The Republican Party was transformed from a conservative party into a right wing populist nationalist one. The new answer to problems is not limited government, but the power and anger of a strongman. Gone is the caution, the religious deference and the love of freedom that defined conservatism, and that I respected. Republicans who think that, four or eight years from now the voters Trump persuaded will repudiate their steadily entrenched dogma are naive, particularly if Trump wins. Meanwhile, Trump’s nativism, intense illiberality on virtually every policy question makes him an equally atrocious affront to liberals. Liberals should take no glee in battling Trump: a strong America is one with two sensible parties. Furthermore, it should be concerning to all voters that Trump is an affront to both of the most dominant American political ideologies.

Trump’s greatest affront may be, ironically, to the American identity itself. Trump claims to be for the people, but that claim is as farcical as his assertion that he believes all lives matter. He is for the silent majority of people, the people not in Steve King’s subgroups: to his supporters, he’s saying ‘I’m for people like you.’ Surely he’s not the voice for the disabled, for liberals, social conservatives, Hispanics, refugees, or Muslims. He is ‘for us’ and ‘against them,’ an admittedly persuasive stance. He is relying on the simplest of feelings: fear, anger and strength.

But ignore his inexperience, his predilection for falsehoods, and gross narcissism. Ignore his thin-skinned and vindictive pettiness, his lack of knowledge on issues or understanding of our democratic-republican government, his school yard bullying and shoddy business record. Ignore his destructive policies, like his prescriptions on trade, his wall with Mexico, withdrawing from NATO, his willingness to assist the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or ban on Muslims, and his inability to explain how he will implement any of them. Ignore that he is, in my view, the single most unqualified nominee of a major party in our political history-and I don’t say that without examining all the other nominees in our history. By Trump trumpeting that America is the domain of ‘real Americans,’ the silent majority, and by implying that his opponents are less American; whether that be by banning Muslims, mocking the disabled, denigrating women and Hispanics, calling into question the patriotism of war heroes, and censoring reporters, he is pulverizing something integral to us as Americans: E Pluribis Unim, out of many, one. This “America first” candidate is assaulting what has been embedded in America: that all of us are first among our fellow citizens, no group of us is more entitled to the blessings of liberty than another, and that this country is too vast for one opinion or just one kind of “real American.” That is the greatest danger Trump presents: even if he cannot pass any of his agenda (which is wishful thinking) if elected, Trump has the ability to change the very fabric of democracy in America. Trump being the voice for “real Americans” and standing against the “others,” whether they be political opponents, reporters or racial and religious minorities, marks an unraveling of what our founders intended our democracy to be. The result is a mob rule at best and an authoritarian state at worst, where our great leader, the strongman, determines who is and who is not part of his real America. Already, Trump ally Newt Gingrich has called for Muslims to be rounded up and forced to pledge their loyalty and deported if they don’t fall in line. Conservatism may have helped create the political climate; populist nationalism may have been the Trojan horse he used for his rise, but make no mistake: with Trump as President, America is flirting with fascism. The backdrop of crisis and calls for order are already there. The common enemy of the state, the others, has been identified. The cult of personality around a leader who will make them great has been established. All that is left is the oath of office.

I love this country. In spite of what is going on, or perhaps because of it, I want to get involved in our politics, and I’d encourage all of you in suggesting that this election speaks to the need for more people to get involved in politics, not for more people to become cynical. In this beautiful country of ours, yes,  we are great because we created the world’s largest economy, boast the greatest fighting force, and because of the achievements of our inventors and scientists, but we are also great because of our character. Embedded in us as a people is an optimism that tells us that we need to believe that things can get better, and that it’s our job to make that so, even if it means sticking our neck out to fight for justice for others. That’s how we first declared our independence. That’s why colonies from the south and Mid-Atlantic stood with Boston in 1775. That’s why we fought a bloody Civil War to makes others free. That’s why we fed Europe after World War One, saving a continent, and why we saved a continent from fascism two decades later. It’s why men and women came together to secure women the right to vote. It’s why we marched across a bridge in Selma. It’s why we banished smallpox and vanquished polio. It’s why we signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and PEPFAR. It’s why both gay and straight people can cheer that love wins.

That is how we have boldly answered the call to history: with optimism and wide eyes, with big hearts and hard work, with heroism and with hope. That’s how we carried the cause to which our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors. That’s how we built a more perfect Union.

History calls us again. America faces the greatest challenge we have faced in a generation; whether or not we can overcome our baser instincts and heed, what Lincoln called, the better angels of nature. America has been put to the test, the test of whether it can reject Donald Trump. That is the great task remaining before us.

Trump must be defeated. The damage to both liberalism and conservatism he presents may be irreparable: the damage he threatens to the soul of America, unconscionable. Conservatives, defeat him by voting your conscience and voting for Johnson or a write in, and save your party. Don’t be fooled into doing otherwise: the notion that Trump could pick a qualified Supreme Court justice ended the moment he said Gonzalo Curiel is unsuited to judge a case because of his Hispanic heritage. Furthermore, his ignorance in regards to the Constitution, disdain for the separation of powers, and the real threats he poses to conservatism in the long term should make clear that Trump asking for conservatives to ignore his flaws because he will stop Clinton from appointing Supreme Court justices is a poor Faustian bargain. Conservatives, content yourselves with controlling the senate, and forcing Clinton to appoint moderate justices. For liberals, this is more simple: defeat him by uniting behind Clinton and elect her this fall.

Alexis De Tocqueville once observed that “America is great because she is good. When she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

Don’t make America great again. Keep it good, and we will continue to be great. The world is watching us. Let them say that, in this time of turmoil, we faced this challenge, and became a new “greatest generation.” Let it be said that we answered the call of history. Let it be said that we remained dedicated to continuing  the work of building a more perfect union.

2016 Primaries Recap: What I got right and what I got wrong. 

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With both parties now turning to their nominating conventions, the 2016 Presidential Primary campaign is officially over. This has been an extraordinary race, one that I feel will be written on and studied for generations, much like the election of 1968. Here, before we turn our gaze to the general election, I’m going to share a few of my thoughts on the race, and examine the predictions I made last summer when this race began and see how they held up.

For starters, this was not the race anyone signed up for. It’s easy to forget, but before the campaign began, Clinton was the most admired politician in the country, and the most admired Democrat among Republicans. No one thought she would lose 22 states to a 74 year old socialist senator from Vermont.

On the GOP side, this was supposed to be a race where a young, forward looking GOP had a contest between its best and brightest. This was the election where, after McCain and Romney’s defeats and the GOP’s lurches to the right, they’d  pivot to the center, expand their base, and cease existing as the party for rich white men. Bush, Rubio, Christie, Paul, Kasich, Walker, Jindal, Cruz, Fiorina-a formidable lineup, and that was only half the eventual field.

That all changed. The optimistic GOP was stillborn, turning to a negative politics unseen in the last 100 years, short on substance, lacking nuance, and brimming with hyperbole and extremism. The GOP doubled down on hardline stances and went further to the right on issues like immigration and gay rights, the exact opposite of the RNC’s post 2012 game plan. The campaign that started with Rubio’s call for a “New American Century” and Bush’s “Right to Rise” a GOP convention supporting a ban on Muslims, claiming Clinton and Obama were murderers, and a Republican Representative arguing that whites have contributed more to civilization than other groups.

This was not the race anyone was planning for.

Remember who the original GOP frontrunners were? Bush, Christie, Paul, Rubio, Walker and Huckabee all led the GOP field at some point before 2016. They won 1 state between the six of them.

And Ted Cruz? The Senator called a “wacko bird” by John McCain, loathed by Boehner, McConnell, George W. Bush, and the GOP leadership? Who thought he would be the establishment’s last hope, earning endorsements from the Bushes, McCain, and others in GOP leadership?

Remember how Republicans attacked the patriotism of anyone who questioned the foreign policy of George W. Bush, even if the person doing the questioning was a war hero? Well now they voted for a guy who is to the left of Michael Moore on 9/11 and has suggested Iraq was better under Saddam.

Oh, and yeah, who thought the nominee could be Donald Trump? Well, I did. But more on that soon.

Last summer, I made a handful of predictions on the 2016 race.  There were five big things I got right, and three big things I got wrong:

What I got right:

  1. Donald Trump winning the Republican Nomination

Okay, I’m going to take a victory lap on this one. Last summer, virtually everyone, from stat wizard Nate Silver to newspapers like the New York Times, The Economist, The Washington Post, from columnists like George Will to cable pundits to our politicians themselves, said Donald Trump had virtually no chance of winning the nomination. It was nearly unanimous across both parties. In August, I argued that he had a very strong chance. I did hedge my bet: I said conventional wisdom preferred Bush or Rubio, but I felt, in my heart, that Trump would be the nominee. Here’s what I wrote back in the beginning of August:

Here’s why Trump is formidable: first, he has no future in the GOP, so he can say things that would end other candidate’s careers (such as calling John McCain not a real war hero). Not being a politician frees him from those rules, and, ironically, years of conservatives saying “government is the problem” had made Trump more trustworthy to GOP voters than actual conservatives in government. Second, the voters who like Trump aren’t voting for him in spite of his offensive statements; they’re voting for him because of it. Every conversation I’ve had with a Trump supporter, they’ll tell me they like him because he ‘tells it as it is.’ Other candidates calling on Trump to apologize just strengthens his image as a man willing to ‘tell hard truths.’ The media saying Trump is too right wing just makes him more popular with his base because they think the problem with the GOP is that they’re not conservative enough. That is precisely why after every single outlandish comment Trump has made this campaign, despite the outrage, his numbers have only gone up. Further, while other GOP candidates are following the RNC’s 2012 autopsy that suggested they pivot towards the center, Trump knows that primary voters don’t care about the RNC or its autopsy reports. They view the GOP as a weak institution that allowed a black, Kenyan socialist to come into power and radically reshape America. Trump realizes that GOP voters have become more right wing since 2012, and more nationalistic since the rise of ISIS. If he continues this, and if the rest of the field remains fractured and starved for media attention, then yes, Donald Trump could become the Republican nominee…

(continued)

… it’s hard to imagine ‘The Donald’ ranking fourth in New Hampshire and dropping out after a bad Super Tuesday like just any old candidate. That’s something a ‘loser’ would do, to borrow one of his favorite words. I suppose that leaves him two routes; exiting the race before the voting begins due to ‘media bias,’ or, perhaps, not ending up like a ‘loser,’ and actually winning the nomination.

Conventional wisdom says that it’s going to be Bush or Rubio. However, I don’t know if this is a conventional election. With the direction the GOP has gone the past few decades, with phenomena like Limbaugh, Fox and Palin, and with Trump’s imperiousness to political gravity, I’m only more convinced of what I thought when I heard Trump’s announcement speech: I don’t know how he can lose.

So yeah, I predicted that an unqualified and dangerous candidate could win the GOP nomination before most anyone else did. And I was right. Congrats to me…I guess.

2. The surprising strength of Ted Cruz.

From the start, I thought that Ted Cruz was running the smartest campaign. His views were closest in line with GOP primary voters (closer even than Trump), and while Trump’s entry hurt most GOP candidates, it helped Cruz. Last summer, when Cruz was 8th in the polls, I argued that he had a chance to win Iowa, and was a dark horse for the nomination. Because of Trump’s presence in the race, Cruz would appear more reasonable that he would have otherwise, and, with the establishment candidates fractured, Cruz could position himself as the conservative alternative. Which is, as it turns out, exactly what Cruz did, earning himself the runner up title this primary season.

3. Walker as a paper tiger.

Remember when Scott Walker led the GOP field and told everyone he was going to win Iowa? While it’s easy to forget given how early he dropped out, Scott Walker entered the race as a stronger candidate than Rubio, Cruz and, yes, Trump. However, I wasn’t sold on Walker’s chances, even just a few weeks after he entered the race:

Personally, I do not think Scott Walker will be the Republican nominee. He is a policy lightweight and is relatively boring; more debates will show that, and the first one already has…and he will fade.

As it turns out, six weeks after writing that, Scott Walker had another boring debate performance, was at less than 1% in the polls, and then dropped out of the race.

4. Rubio’s Failure to Build a Base.

My outlook on Rubio was split: I viewed him as the candidate with the biggest upside (I still believe that), but one who could also find himself without a base or a path to the nomination. Here was my take last summer:

…as without a clear base, he [Rubio] remains low in the polls, but importantly, many voters’ second choice. He will need to seize the spotlight currently monopolized by Bush and Trump; continuing his strong debate performances can help do just that…ultimately, Rubio’s campaign can end in two ways; he can remain everyone’s second choice, and, without an obvious base of support, sputter out after failing to win any of the four first states. Alternatively, Rubio can set himself apart as a generational candidate of change, unite the party, and sail to the White House on the currents of optimism. I do not know which one is more likely.

What happened? Rubio came third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire, second in South Carolina and Nevada, and found himself without a base on Super Tuesday.

5. Carson’s Rise and Fall.

Last summer, Ben Carson was on the rise, and by the fall, would rival Trump for his lead in the polls. Here was my prediction last August:

Carson’s campaign is almost scripted with its feelings of political déjà vu; an outsider becomes a frontrunner in the summer, only to reveal a lack of policy expertise, and his campaign, without many veteran operatives or the requisite funding, buckles and breaks in the fall. Forget about Carson; just remember Wesley Clark, Fred Thompson or Herman Cain, and you’ll know how Carson’s story ends.

And we know the rest.

What I got wrong:

1. The Democratic Race

This isn’t based on anything I wrote, but rather, what I thought. I never thought Clinton would maintain her high approval ratings and not face a primary challenge. However, I did not think that Bernie Sanders would present such a strong challenge, and win 22 states. As it turned out, Democrat voters didn’t like Clinton as much as they originally claimed to, and the email scandal provided an opening to exploit that, giving Sanders more support than he otherwise would have gotten, even he still never really had a shot at the nomination (my take: half of Sanders’ supporters were voting for any Clinton alternative. If Biden ran, he could have taken the nomination).

2. The Irrelevance of Super PACs.

When this race began, most pundits were predicting that, in a post Citizen’s United environment, Super PACs would allow many candidates to raise massive sums of money from single donors and stay afloat later into the primary process. I thought so too. That didn’t happen. Sure, candidates raised lots of money in their Super PACs-that didn’t help raise money to run the day to day operations of their campaigns. Candidates-including Perry, Walker and Jindal-found themselves forced to exit the race due to financial troubles even while sitting on vast war chests in their Super PACs. Additionally, two candidates without large Super PACs did quite well for themselves. Their names? Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. So much for the “rise of Super PACs.”

3. Chris Christie and Everything that Happened There.

I have said Chris Christie is the best retail politician in the GOP with the worst sense of political timing. That view was vindicated this election. I said not to underestimate his debating prowess-that was vindicated with his tour-de-force in New Hampshire that basically cost Rubio the nomination. So what did I get wrong?

Even if he doesn’t win…Christie will emerge with a better reputation than he had when he entered the race, that I am sure of.

Yeah, I missed the boat there. Christie was enhancing his reputation among GOP voters…until he endorsed Trump. Sure, it made sense: back the winning horse. The problem was, everyone else saw how nakedly political it was. Christie, a guy who campaigned on entitlement reform, endorsed Trump, who was opposed to entitlement reform. The two disagreed on foreign policy, immigration policy, and a litany of issues. The result? Christie seemed like an opportunist, devoid of principles, willing to debase himself to make it on Trump’s ticket. And obviously that worked out well.

Why I missed the mark? I knew that Christie had bad political timing. I just didn’t know it was that bad.

 

And that’s it. I’ll write about the General Election soon. This race is historic and nasty in equal measure, but I’m still going to write about it. For all the bad things that have gone on in this cycle, this is still politics, and politics, as it has been said, is the most American thing you can do.

CNBC GOP Debate: Who won and who lost?

Republican Presidential Candidates Hold Third Debate In Colorado

Another GOP debate has come to an end, and it was decidedly the least enjoyable debate thus far. The conversation seemed less like a natural step towards determining the next leader of the free world and was more reminiscent of the conversation at a bad Thanksgiving dinner. Rand Paul was your nephew complaining about not getting enough food, Ben Carson was your uncle who showed up high, and Marco Rubio was the sexy foreign exchange student you’ve been making eyes with all night. A few candidates emerged from the melee of finger waving, fact denying, and moderator bashing better than they entered, but I question if anyone felt better about the state of democracy after the debate.

A note before I continue: much has been made of CNBC’s handling of the debate. I’ll admit, their moderator casually asserting ‘this is the first real debate’ because ‘CNBC is the best’ was amusing, given the debate that followed. Like, we’re talking about CNBC, a network whose slogan has been ‘good enough of news to be played in a hotel lobby during breakfast without you asking the manager to switch channels,’ and ‘the 4th best news channel to end with the letters BC,’ scratch that, forgot about BBC, make that fifth best.

Many conservative viewers complained that the questions were too antagonistic, and that the moderators were clearly biased. The candidates capitalized on that, giving Cruz, Rubio, Christie and almost every other candidate an applause moment just by attacking the moderators. While I will say that many of the questions were uninteresting, and that CNBC didn’t control the flow of dialogue well (in those respects they were bad moderators) I’d submit that attacks on fairness weren’t always, well, fair. First, for the majority (not all) of the questions, CNBC was simply asking the candidates to explain and defend their records. It’s not their fault that the Republican Party has lurched so far to the right, or that many candidates have proposed ridiculous policies. Second, even if questions were ‘biased,’ having an unsympathetic moderator better prepares candidates to deal with hard questions from the other party. Finally, it’s important to note that we are talking about the race for President. If a candidate defending their record, even focusing on the flaws of their record, is too difficult, perhaps they shouldn’t be running for leader of the free world. By and large, it’s a common theme for the GOP to prefer to complain about purported media bias rather than discuss the issues, perhaps a recessive gene that’s been passed on since Richard Nixon. Both parties could benefit from tough questions, though perhaps they could be asked more artfully. Ok, I’m done.

To the rankings:

Winners:

  1. Marco Rubio

Rubio has done well in every debate, but this night he shined. Rubio entered the debate as the possible alternative to both the ‘moderate’ Bush and conservative Trump and Carson. Rubio’s takedown of his old mentor, Jeb, made Bush seem weak and desperate while Rubio appeared to be every inch of a statesman. Rubio stayed on message, stayed positive, and turned each question to his advantage. He continues to be the most naturally talented communicator in the race, and is another step closer to becoming  the nominee.

  1. Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz has been running the smartest campaign in the race. He has the most campaign cash on hand, has a strong field organization, stays on message, is an excellent debater, and is well positioned to sweep up Trump and Carson’s voters should they fall. Tonight, Cruz did exactly what he needed to do. He took on the moderators rather than the other candidates (Newt Gingrich called, he wants his debate strategy book back), stayed on message, and appeared more human even while remaining polished. Yet, by Rubio taking the spotlight, Cruz can watch the Senator rise and fall while he lurks in the wings before sweeping to the front right before Iowa.

  1. Chris Christie

Second only to Rubio in terms of natural political talent, Christie turned in another excellent performance. He stayed focused on attacking Democrats and the moderators, presented some thoughtful policy, and was funny. Perhaps this might jumpstart a comeback, particularly if Kasich and Bush slip in the polls. Or this might not make a difference, and be too little, too late. We’ll have to wait and see.

Break even:

  1. Carly Fiorina

Polished, but not particularly memorable. It’s difficult to imagine people choosing to vote for her after the debate who otherwise wouldn’t have. Still, it was free media, and gave her largely invisible candidacy another moment in the spotlight. Nothing was lost for Fiorina that night, though she should begin to worry about becoming too reliant on debate performances for her campaign. 

  1. Donald Trump

Other than the Kasich put down, Trump was not a bully in this debate, and was surprisingly quiet. Some critics may point to this as sign that his shtick has worn thin and that voters are beginning to move on. However, Trump knows he has a loyal base, and he emerged from the debate unscathed. That’s all you need as the frontrunner.

  1. John Kasich

Kasich decided that night that he was going to be the adult in the room that got mad as hell about how far right the GOP has gone. He did that well, and also reminded (almost too often) viewers of his record. The trouble is that, with Carson, Cruz and Trump taking 60% of voters, it’s hard to say whether or not Republicans are even willing to listen, let alone agree, to Kasich’s ramblings. He’s veering towards Jon Huntsman territory, and by that I don’t mean to suggest he’s on the verge of a Mormon conversion. One bright spot is that, if Bush does implode, Kasich might be able to make a play for his voters; however, it’s hard to imagine, if judging just by this debate, why they wouldn’t instead go for Rubio or Christie.

Losers:

  1. Ben Carson

Carson baffles at debates. He turns in sleepy performances, meanders around questions, and presents policies that often fail to make any sense. In spite of that, his poll numbers go up. Carson had another such night. I’m not really willing to project what exactly is going to happen.

  1. Mike Huckabee

Huckabee is trying to stay relevant in the race, and it’s not working. He continually defended entitlements, which while courageous in the GOP, it’s hardly a winning issue. He appeared to be more like an angry pastor who watched fascist propaganda for speaking tips than he did a folksy preacher; that’s not good. He is another step closer to dropping out.

  1. Jeb Bush

Jeb would have been better off risking the wrath of Barbara and skipping the debate to smoke a joint outside with Rand. He took on Rubio early in the debate and lost, and that loss hung over the room for the rest of the night. He gave his usual talking points on his record, which is fine, but he should know by now that warranted, reasonable, nuanced policy proposals aren’t going to persuade voters in the age of Trump and Carson. Also, the kiss comment was weird. You can put ‘a warm kiss from Jeb’ next to ‘Amish erotica’ and ‘Cinnabon catered wedding’ as the least romantic and enticing things in the history of love. Jeb, with slumping polls, needed a good debate. Rubio took his spotlight. Jeb might not ever get it back. Jeb needs a comeback, needs to prove that he can bring something that the other candidates (particularly Rubio) can’t, and needs to do all this quickly. It can be done: ask John McCain or John Kerry about last minute surges to the top of the pack. The trouble is, half of Bush’s appeal was that the was the ‘inevitable frontrunner.’ When you’re no longer inevitable, just why are people voting for you?

  1. Rand Paul

Consistently the worst GOP debater, he was largely irrelevant throughout the evening. Rand could have ordered a pizza, played some blues, or streaked across stage and no one would have noticed. Put him next to Huckabee as ‘next major candidate most likely to drop out.’

And that was the debate. What were your thoughts?

Who won and who lost the CNN GOP debate


Presidential Primary debates are a lot like hot dog eating contests; it’s never clear if anyone actually walks or waddles away as a winner. Since the advent of television, primary debates have been a staple of the nominating process. These ‘debates’ hardly qualify as debates in the truest sense of the word; if anything, they’re nothing more than unified press conferences. However, debates do present a chance for the candidates to clash, to explain themselves, to sell their case to the people, and to engage in a direct comparison with some of their rivals.

Wednesday night’s GOP debate was rather heated, with candidates routinely engaging in a fierce back and forth, and the moderators were more than willing to allow themselves to be interrupted or dismissed. Since there were eleven candidates on the stage, many of whom were trying to appeal to different sets of voters, it’s hard to claim that anyone ‘won’ the debate. Just take the last GOP debate in August; Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie gave well informed answers, while Ben Carson and Donald Trump’s answers lacked serious policy specifics. Nevertheless, it was Trump and Carson who rose in the polls in the weeks that followed.

With the limitations of political analysis in mind, here’s a brief ranking of the winners and losers of the GOP primary debate, from first to eleventh.

  1. Carly Fiorina

It wasn’t so much that Fiorina’s policy answers were better than her rivals-simply naming leaders or saying words like ‘comprehensive,’ ‘Shia,’ and ‘tactical’ together in a sentence does not mean you have any experience beyond watching Homeland or West Wing-but it was enough for voters to be convinced that she has the policy knowledge to lead the country. Furthermore, her attacks on Trump landed the hardest, and knocked Trump off of his game for the second half of the night, particularly with her response against the ‘face’ comment. Why Fiorina’s performance matters is that, currently, she has low name ID; this means that her performance expanded her ceiling of possible support, giving her new voters to persuade who otherwise would have not even known who she is. Unlike Trump or Clinton, who are universally known, Fiorina has plenty of room to rise.

  1. Chris Christie

As I’ve said, Chris Christie is one of the most naturally talented politicians in the race, and he reminded us of that tonight. His answers on 9/11, regarding the Fiorina-Trump feud, entitlements, and drug policy all earned applause from the crowd, and showed an optimistic but tough candidate. Christie is more than likely still crowded out of the race, but he certainly helped his cause tonight, and might begin to experience a McCain like resurrection in New Hampshire if he keeps this up. The question is this: can Christie get a second chance as a frontrunner, or will voters decide he’s just not as flawed as they once thought?

  1. Jeb Bush

Bush’s performance was assuredly mixed: though he sounded like the smartest guy the room, he also veered into boring politician answers at times, and suffered some verbal miscues. However, during most of his tussles with Trump-over speaking Spanish, his wife, Trump’s casino designs, Iraq, and Trump’s support of Democrats-Bush definitely came out on top, looking like the President of the chess club taking on the playground bully. His smoking weed confession made him appear much more human, and his “sorry, Mom” comment may have been the best joke of the night. None of this assures a Bush resurgence. Bush’s fate depends on what part voters remember; the boring candidate with the last name Bush, or the guy who was willing to fight Trump and win?

  1. Marco Rubio

Rubio was largely ignored throughout the first half of the debate, and while he didn’t clash with other candidates, when he did answer, his answers were easily the most eloquent of any on that stage. Rubio certainly didn’t lose anything tonight, and continues to impress pundits, but his campaign’s chief problem still persists; despite his immense talents, he still has yet to make himself relevant to the race.

  1. Ted Cruz

Cruz is continuing his under the radar strategy, and it’s working. His answers on Iran, Kim Davis, and abortion all appeal to the GOP base, and while he may sound a tad too polished, hard-right Trump and Carson voters have to be thinking ‘maybe this guy will be my second choice; he seems like the most conservative one there.’ That is exactly where Cruz wants to be; well positioned to scoop up Trump and Carson voters if they falter.

  1. John Kasich

No longer the hometown kid, Kasich’s performance was less stellar than his last one, though he still turned in a solid performance. He clearly seemed reasonable, and he staked out his position as a maverick and defended himself well, though GOP voters outside of moderate New Hampshire may not care for his centrist streak. Also, I think everyone has his spiel about his record just about memorized. We get it. Ohio is doing really well.

  1. Scott Walker

I’d wager Walker had a better night than the first debate; his ‘Apprentice’ line got a good reaction, though it was obviously scripted. However, as the night went on, his answers seemed nothing better than standard issue right-wing pandering, without the panache of Trump, eloquence of Cruz, or depth of Rubio. Mired with low polling numbers, Walker is quickly becoming irrelevant, and seems more and more out of his depth.

  1. Ben Carson

Difficult to assess. I thought Carson’s performance was mediocre in the last debate, yet he has risen to 2nd nationally in the polls. This time, however, I think he failed to deliver any truly great lines, or present himself as a better candidate than his rivals. I could be wrong, however: even though Carson answers every question as if he’s answering a phone call at 4AM, that still hasn’t stopped him from being popular with evangelicals craving a candidate with no government experience whose name is not Donald Trump.

  1. Donald Trump

Always the hardest candidate to rank. Trump, as he proved in the first debate, can defy political rules, cross lines and still see his poll numbers go up. I’d wager this debate was different; the trouble wasn’t that Trump gave incoherent policy answers or said rude things (like calling Paul ugly or making fun of candidate’s low polling numbers), it’s that he seemed like a bully who picked fights and lost them. Fiorina and Bush particularly got the better of Trump, questioning his temperament, his honesty, and his conservative bona fides, garnering applause in the process while the room was silent for Trump (though 500 people barely show the attitude of the country). Perhaps none of this will effect Trump and he’ll continue to rise, but I believe that with other candidate’s visibility increasing, and with his lackluster performance, other candidates may begin to close the gap.

The best debate picture in the history of debate pictures.

The best debate picture in the history of debate pictures.

  1. Rand Paul

Rand Paul had a bad first debate, and a fairly bad second debate. Trump’s putdowns clearly unnerve him, and by the second half of the debate, Paul was left whining ‘I’d like to address that’ only to be ignored by moderators, candidates, and audience alike. For a man who was once the frontrunner, his campaign is now on death’s door: he will need to turn in better performances than that if he wants to win.

  1. Mike Huckabee

On the way to the Reagan Library, there is a Soup Plantation buffet. Everyone, including Huck himself, would have either preferred if he spent his evening there, or wouldn’t have noticed if he did.

Altogether, these past two debates have been fantastic political theatre. Proof enough are the 23 million Americans who tuned in to watch. The next debate will be for the Democrats next month, which, given the small field, will be drastically less entertaining. That could be altered instantly, however, if one man finally decides to join the race: Joe Biden.

Who did you think won?

And who do you think lost?