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Ed Kilgore’s post on a particularly hackish National Journal profile of Joni Ernst brings to mind the question of why specific Republicans wind up becoming media darlings, while others do not. Sometimes it makes sense: John McCain is a very limited political talent, but as someone who has lifelong training in dealing with elites in the military and political worlds, it’s not surprising he has a very good understanding of how to cultivate them. But I have no idea why Joni Ernst has managed to enjoy such laughably favorable coverage or, conversely, what Bruce Braley has done to merit such poor coverage. I guess the media would rather tell the story of a plainspoken farmer and soldier–a veritable Cincinatus!–rising to power than a former trial lawyer who goes for the capillary and commits gaffes. And just off the top of my head, I can see why the media was more interested in pumping up truck-ridin’, nude photo-posing bad boy Scott Brown over a dull underachiever like Martha Coakley. Or, the ultimate example, plainspoken “outsider” George W. Bush over boring, sweaty Al Gore. But placing drama and narrative over substance is, while understandable, utterly unacceptable, and it happens often enough that Democrats should do everything they can to flag it when it occurs.

I’ve been very skeptical of the near-certainty that many people have over a GOP Senate takeover, in large part because I’ve never believed that the GOP will win Iowa or Colorado. For Colorado we have to rely on pollsters’ longtime inability to accurately poll Hispanics and the Democrats’ turnout machine, but in Iowa there are new data that make this point. Bruce Braley has run a Martha Coakley-level campaign, missing a chance to disqualify early a legitimately crazy opponent in favor of some scattered weak attacks and a whole lot of nothing. It’s been pretty pathetic, but nevertheless, I reckon he will still win.
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Another possible catchphrase: No rules, just right. Oh wait, damn it, a steakhouse took that.

In this profile of embattled, unimpressive freshman Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, we get this quote from the head of his outfit, No Labels:

“[Bera] is the most important member of our Problem Solvers – of the entire group,” [No Labels chief Mark] McKinnon said. “He stepped up immediately as a freshman to take a leadership position. He was out early advocating on our big issues like No Budget, No Pay. And he immediately supported our strategic agenda, getting right into the working group. He is our poster congressman for No Labels.”

“No Budget, No Pay” is exactly what it sounds like: if House members refuse to pass a budget, they don’t get paid. Now, to be fair, I can see why a gang of professional bipartisanship fetishists would find this idea appealing: it adds an incentive to pass a routine bill, presumably with more bipartisanship. But the idea that this silly gimmick is one of their self-described big issues is incredible because it’s such a stupid idea if your goal is anything other than braindead populist grandstanding. For one thing, the loss of a couple days’ or weeks’ pay would seem to pale next to representatives infuriating the base, opening themselves up to a primary challenge and possibly ruining their careers. For another, most members of Congress are millionaires who would probably not even notice the money was missing. There’s the messy fact that the budget isn’t as important a document as the individual spending bills that Congress passes, so gaming the system by, say, passing a budget and then engineering a standoff over the Farm Bill would not trigger the bill. Does that mean we do this for all must-pass bills? Does anyone really think that this will make Congress better if we do it? And needless to say, it’s another “punish both sides” remedy even though Democrats have zero history of playing budget obstruction efforts to the bone as Republicans have, so even if it mattered, Republicans could quite conceivably use it as leverage. Additionally, I really have to question whether mechanisms predicated on forcing people who disagree to get along really actually work: it seems more likely that they will have the effect of creating resentment over the manipulation.

I have to admit to not following the No Labels agenda all that closely because centrists’ sentimentality obliterates any potential effectiveness there, but this agenda is even stupider than I would have thought. The notion that this is the best idea they have is some half-assed, crowdpleasing, know-nothing populist gimmick really is quite amazing, because even a cynic of bipartisan fantasies like me can easily think of a couple of better ones that they could use. For one thing, I could easily imagine campaign finance reform that ended the dark money structure having at least some positive effects from a pro-centrist perspective. Absent the dark money pool, red state Democrats–i.e. the type most willing to make centrist deals in most areas of policy–have a much better shot of hanging on. Ending the status quo where a congressperson’s every waking moment is spent cultivating donors could only help as well, and weakening the influence of ideological donors couldn’t hurt. But that would mean adopting one party’s political priority and investing in their success. So no. Advocating much stronger protection of voting rights and a better electoral system would seem to lead to more participation and better representation, but again, Democrats want that, so no. But even something like pledging to support the opponent of anyone who supports a government shutdown or a debt ceiling standoff would obviously just advantage Democrats, which is obviously unthinkable. Both parties are at fault, you know. So you have to do this even-handedly and procedurally, and here’s where the denial really fucking seeps through: how nice it must be to imagine that a mere procedural problem is all that needs to get fixed in order to get those bipartisan juices flowing. (Let’s not forget that President Obama seemed to subscribe to this theory until some point last year.) So, basically, No Labels has No Point For Existing, especially since their only other area of interest seems to be to tinker with electronic recordkeeping, the sort of fifth-tier issue that is so minor they might actually be able to get something done on it, but doesn’t exactly strike me as part of a bold new agenda. It’s damn hard not to agree with Bera’s Republican opponent here:

[Doug] Ose, who spent three terms in Congress through 2005, served on the board of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership. Still, he criticized No Labels for not voluntarily disclosing its donors and said he suspects its real motivation is raising money to pay its executive.

“I think No Labels is a do-nothing group,” [Ose] said. “I think Congressman Bera has established a record as a do-nothing member. And I think they are both faking it and are a perfect match for our do-nothing Congress.”

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I didn’t realize this, but apparently we somehow managed to cut spending and revenue lower than Paul Ryan himself proposed back in 2012. To be fair, the federal budget would undoubtedly be much uglier and more regressive if he had his way. But it simply did not have to be this way.

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It’s worth noting that at this point, Scott Walker has committed multiple heresies against acceptable conservative doctrine in his attempt to win another term, previously on taxes and now on abortion. I’m strongly disinclined to believe that this will hurt him next month, as the Republican Party and its donors are strongly invested in securing a Walker win, but if he does in fact win and then run for president, he’s going to have a very difficult time dealing with this stuff.

The cast watches a rough cut of the film they’ve worked on. Renner directs an upward glance at the clock.

I’m a nut for heist films, the rigorous plotting and the execution going sideways, it works so often for me. Obviously it’s tough to top Kubrick’s The Killing, but I even found things to like in the Edward Burns film Confidence, which wasn’t exactly minting Oscar gold. So, naturally, I figured this Bahs-tahn crime caper would work just fine for my needs, but I’ve rarely seen a movie as ostentatiously mediocre as Ben Affleck’s The Town, which squanders a great start and winds up being intensely boring. And the reason it does this is, essentially, because the movie both clearly wants to be a morally-ambiguous, sympathetic antihero drama like we see all over cable television but also bends over backward to try to make you like its main character, to the point of compromising any semblance of drama. The end result is a character who, aside from his profession, has basically no flaws and is such a collected supergenius that he is never in real jeopardy. He’s Will Hunting minus the problems, essentially. At one point he insists he’s never killed anyone, and the movie tries to justify this by having like five-minute shootout scenes involving machine guns where the only things getting hit are police cars, which given the volume of bullets and ricochets, seems impossible. By the end of the movie it’s a miracle the Boston Police Department isn’t resorting to having to rent cars for their officers. That’s what we’re working with.

Anyway, the movie proceeds along a couple of different tracks. The main story is about Affleck’s character being torn between his new love, a the manager of a bank recently robbed courtesy of Affleck’s crew, and his best friend/literal partner in crime played by Jeremy Renner. Also in the mix are Jon Hamm’s steely FBI agent, and Blake Lively’s cocktail waitress/fuckbuddy to Ben Affleck. This all should in theory be fun and interesting, and sometimes it is, but the real problem is Affleck’s character: he’s simply too smart to ever be in any kind of real danger, or to be forced to compromise his code in order to survive. And then there’s the anticlimactic ending–I won’t spoil it but to give you a sense of what kind of drama we’re dealing with, just imagine the scene from Breaking Bad where Walt and Jesse are stuck in the RV while Hank is outside waiting for them. How do they get out of this one? Now, imagine that instead of the diabolical prank they played on him, that they just put on wigs and fake beards and just snuck out the back, after all that buildup. Not very satisfying, eh? One might expect Affleck to be put in a situation where he has to kill someone else in order to survive, or where he does it by accident and has to deal with it. But no, he keeps his hands clean throughout the entire film! So when he leaves the business at the end of the movie, it’s not motivated by any kind of moral revelation or character growth, so much as he wants to have the chance to hook up with Rebecca Hall. Because that’s how this type of plot ends it has to end there, even though it makes absolutely no sense.

The reek of compromise hangs over this movie. Affleck’s other two movies, Gone Baby Gone and Argo–both of which I quite like–are unafraid to move in relatively adventurous directions, while in The Town the film is stuck directly in the middle of the road, a movie seemingly designed for eternal showings on TNT to dads with divided attention. I don’t blame this on Affleck, who manages to inject some style and personality into the movie in multiple places. And the acting is fine across the board, with Renner (unsurprisingly) as the standout, who gives his character depth and tragedy that suggest the better movie this could have been. But in the process of sanding off any rough edges of Affleck’s character, we wind up with a character with no real flaws or weaknesses of any kind, and since there’s no chance he’ll even possibly screw up there’s no reason to care that he wins, because it is meaningless. Additionally, the Boston in which he lives is seemingly meant to be gritty, but it doesn’t look it at all, almost as if they wanted a gritty feel but still wanted to make the city look great. Yet another compromise that turns the whole thing into the filmic equivalent of plain oatmeal. Also worth noting that the premise of the movie–that there’s a section of Boston that has the highest proportion of bankrobbers in the country–is never paid off, as we never see different crews hobnobbing together, seeing whether that would be riven with rivalry or positive and friendly, or whatever. That seems like a cool idea, but for all it figures in it might as well not have even been brought up, since the only bankrobber characters are the ones we follow. It’s a metaphor for a movie that stakes out some interesting ground initially, then does nothing with it. There are interesting things around the edges, but this is as predictable as it gets. Let’s hope Affleck continues to make movies that are not like this.

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If only…

I just spent a moment re-reading the president’s speech on ISIS from a month ago. It’s well-constructed, although ultimately substanceless in terms of making the case to do this (guess having public opinion behind you for the moment obviates that task) and it’s worth noting that this is really the only argument he gives for involvement:

In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality [emphasis mine]. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists — Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.

So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East — including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region — including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners — including Europeans and some Americans — have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

I may have missed something, but does this argument actually wash? Is ISIS really that unique? The Taliban actually did commit genocide against a racial minority, after all, not just a threat. al-Qaeda has killed journalists–Daniel Pearl comes immediately to mind–not to mention 3,000 people in New York. Admittedly, we did actually wage war against those two specific groups, but they actually did kill off a lot of Americans before we did it. The rest are, unfortunately, not uncommon at all. So I have to wonder, is this really the logic of fighting a multi-year war sans Congressional approval? In essence, simply being bad people is now a sufficient cause for war, and an ill-defined, long-term war at that. A direct action to strike back at the people responsible would be merited. But destroying the entirety of ISIS? There is simply no logic here.

Now, I had no illusions that Obama would be a dove. I did not suspect that he’d be so willing to use force as often as he has, though the makeup of his staff and his long-time goal of cultivating “centrist” opinionmakers in Washington who happen to be reliable hawks were reliable indicators. Still, it’s still sort of shocking to me that this war seems to be based entirely on horror and disgust, which, while entirely understandable and merited, do not reliably tend to produce good foreign policy. Obama’s argument here makes no real logical sense, and the second part essentially concedes that it’s not necessary for national security, which means that there’s really no argument here whatever, so it has to be read as an indication of his emotional state. He simply hates these guys, which again, is the right response. But launching a war based on emotional reactions is eerily reminiscent of Bush, and a strategy of airstrikes and guiding allies to fight the bad guys is so similar to Vietnam so as to make no difference, only it’s even less likely to work without ground troops. Obama knows he loses the base if combat troops set foot in Iraq, but he went forward anyway. This has to be interpreted as, again, an emotional decision, not a logical one. Larison is right that simply calling the whole thing off would make the most sense, but given that the ISIS war isn’t about anything other than reaction, political ass-covering and emotion, I tend to doubt it.

Remember when everyone talked about how Obama was so cool-headed, strategic and logical? It’s been a while since I heard it too. Probably around the time his foreign policy approvals were in the positive zone.

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