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As I’ve written more than once, Obama didn’t win the 2008 primaries because people hated Hillary Clinton. Some did, but many of his supporters thought Hillary was perfectly acceptable. Obama won them because of the contrast he cut with George W. Bush in every sense: background, style, intellect. Clinton obviously offered a contrast as well but it wasn’t as dramatic as the one Obama offered: Obama is neither white, nor a Boomer, nor an Iraq War supporter, nor part of a prominent political family. Clinton is all of those things, as was Bush. Replacing a white evangelical with some studied roughness around the edges with a secular black intellectual who was (and remains) quintessentially smooth was an unspoken driver of Obama ’08. I’m speaking mostly of the primaries here: in the general election, fundamentals reign mostly supreme. But I think that was a bit part of the general as well.

Looking at 2016, I was wondering who it is that could have a similar kind of pull for the Republicans, and I think the only real one that plausibly could is John Kasich. Just look at the field. Bush is drowning under the weight of his own family baggage and weaknesses as a candidate. He’s the exact wrong kind of contrast they’re going to want to draw with HRC. Walker has quickly faded and clearly seems to have no feel for presidential level politics. Rubio is obviously a possibility but he’s taking exactly the wrong angle, trying to cast himself as another biography-driven, cool and charismatic Obama type when that is simply not the mood of the moment, nor is he a natural fit for that persona. (Obama would never have grabbed the water bottle.) Go down further and it just gets crazier. Huckabee and Cruz are at this point interchangeable Tea Party dimwits who won’t get anywhere near the nomination. Trump is Trump. Fiorina and Carson have not one day’s worth of experience in office between them. And so on. But Kasich? Almost a perfect response to Obama, if you think about it. Conservative, but with some willingness to break with orthodoxy. Actual blue collar roots. An unexciting but popular politician with significant executive experience. That’s a pretty good contrast, and certainly a better one than the others can provide. But stuff like this makes me think that he’s also the sharpest political operator in the Republican field. Kim Davis’s actions are hilariously counterproductive, more likely to kill off resistance to marriage equality than to spur mass backlash. To drag her case through the courts and then just ignore the ruling? Dumb. Putting aside Davis’s own serial marriages, there’s simply no real principle at stake here. If Davis doesn’t want to sign the licenses, she can always resign. But she won’t. Hilariously, she has forced conservatives to back a literal incarnation of their oft-invoked vision of crooked, parasitic government employees who draw paychecks and don’t do their jobs. Kasich understands this and condemns it, and is also going for a kind of Sister Souljah moment here, finding an undamaging way of breaking with the cultural politics that much of the country has fallen out of favor with. It says something about the field that nobody else has thought to do this, even though none except for the two aforementioned dimwits have actually made a show of standing with the woman. It’s not going to change the race on its own, but it’s a sign of tactical sophistication, if nothing else. And unless you want to count what Trump’s been doing as tactically sophisticated (which is not quite how I’d describe it), then this is rare indeed.

I’m beginning to think that Kasich might be the only person who could conceivably beat Clinton, barring some kind of economic disaster, though obviously he’s going to have his problems with his party’s purists and obviously there’s that Lehman Brothers thing. But no pol is without weakness, and I’ve not seen as well played and subtle a moment as this from the other candidates. Something to keep an eye on.

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Atrios’s post on parking reminded me of my hometown (a certain exurb of Sacramento, though I doubt it’s the only place that has done this), which a few years back caught onto the nationwide trend of revitalizing downtowns by building a bunch of huge aboveground parking garages all around downtown. Naturally, they’re completely free. And almost completely unused, as downtown remains a ghost town, full of vacant storefronts and a few places where everything in the window is bleached out because nothing has been changed in a decade. Last time I was there at 7 PM and there were maybe eight people I could see out on the street. It’s not dangerous, just nobody goes there because when you go for undirected sprawl for fifty years and then try to create some kind of focal point, it doesn’t really work out.

Parking isn’t a reason to go anywhere. It is an incentive, perhaps, but nobody says something like, “Well, I really wanted to go to San Francisco, but it’s really hard/expensive to park there, so I won’t go.” Or, “Let’s go to the suburbs of Chicago for our vacation, they have plentiful parking out there!” If you want people to go to your downtown, you have to ensure that they have reasons to want to go there. “I can park there for free” is not a reason. Hell, you can park for free at a CVS. But figuring out that whole “giving a reason” kind of stuff is hard, and building parking is easy. That might be why it always gets built.

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Could you say no to that face?

My skepticism of Hillary Clinton remains unaddressed. Between her largely terrible, fanatically hawkish foreign policy record and her long history of being a poor judge of character and ability, you really have the makings of a very special presidency in terms of staffing the government and running foreign policy, two of the biggest responsibilities of any president. I am leaning towards Sanders at the moment because he seems like the best overall package–O’Malley has the administrative side covered and Webb has a foreign policy I largely like, but both have major deficiencies apart from those areas–but I’m not really sure he’s got what I’m looking for either. I agree with Bernie’s message and I do think he connects, but ultimately people concerned with the issues he’s discussing should be working to elect a better Congress. That would make more of an impact. The difference between Clinton and Sanders with a Congress like the present one would be fairly small on domestic policy, I think. Working for that seems a bit pointless. OTOH, the difference between a president who once joined with Joe Lieberman to essentially declare pre-emptive war on Iran and one who might actually keep us out of every damn conflict that doesn’t concern us that the media picks up and shakes around is a very different story. Sanders might be such a person–he did vote against Lieberman-Kyl, after all, along with a depressingly small number of Democrats even after everyone had turned against the Iraq War–but he talks about foreign policy even less than Clinton. Still, he’s my choice at this point.

Does Biden fit the bill? Well, the guy certainly has been right more often than Clinton on foreign policy. The federal structure he proposed for Iraq way back in the day has recently been quite vindicated by events, and during his time as Vice President he’s counseled restraint more often than never, which is how often Clinton has done it. But I fear that his entry into the race is based on a reaction to the bullshit Clinton scandals rather than a desire to hold her accountable for the actual mistakes she’s made. If he wanted to run on that basis, nothing’s been stopping him before now. So I’m wary of it.

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Jeb Bush apparently comes out in favor of demanding plain text communication only on electronic devices. It should be noted that he’s not the first authoritarian “conservative” from an Anglophone country to do so, a sure sign that our overlords are rattled by the notion of privacy that they can’t actually break with impunity if they want to. It’s difficult to even properly rant about this because it’s clearly an uninformed old guy shooting from the hip on the stump. Bush couldn’t explain any of this stuff if he was asked. I doubt he could tell you what PGP even stood for. So we have a struggling Republican candidate, who’s basically just running to serve out his duty to keep Bushworld’s lights on for a few more years, making wild and ignorant statements about subjects he doesn’t understand, and feels the need to accent this with fearmongering moralism (“evildoers” brings you back, doesn’t it?).

This has never been more ironic:

george w bush miss me yet

It’s like the fucker never left.

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It’s one of my pet peeves. Moral relativism as a concept isn’t interchangeable with hedonism, as conservatives commonly use the term. That may be revealing of something in their way of thinking but it just ain’t true. Real moral relativism can be found in the fact that people who are “in the tribe” can ask for and expect forgiveness while people on the outside are ostracized for basically the same offense. Such as, Bill Clinton on the one hand, and David Vitter or now Josh Duggar on the other. Or, say, a belief that other sides’ fighters can be tortured, but obviously not our own. It is inextricable from tribalism, an oversimplified and even childish morality, and strong feelings of superiority. Needless to say, the major practitioners of moral relativism in America are and for some time have been conservatives.

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An ongoing question. Either Chris Christie or John Kasich would be a perfectly adequate substitute in terms of ideology and his record of experience, and while Bush no doubt sees his experience as more valuable as theirs because it’s his, theirs is current (as opposed to…). Most likely explanation is some combination of (1) this is just what Bushes* do, and (2) keeping the Bush machinery warmed up for his son’s inevitable presidential run next decade. (My guess is 2024, which means current Texas Governor Rick Abbott better watch his ass, because there’s no doubt Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush is going to have to move him out to move on up.) Just keep in mind that we haven’t gone more than one consecutive election since 1980 without a Bush on the ticket. This is not accidental. Though it would be richly ironic if Jeb’s sucky campaign finishes out what his doltish brother couldn’t and leaves the machine in ruins, which would make for some lovely symmetry. One can always hope! * Ones who didn’t get caught robbing us blind, anyway…
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Reading about the Donald Trump campaign day after day has gotten me thinking about one of the most influential–and mostly forgotten–media figures of our modern era, Morton Downey Jr. No, he wasn’t Iron Man’s brother, he was a career media guy who, among other things, had a right-wing talk radio show in the very time slot on Sacramento radio that Rush Limbaugh took over after he left (we native Sacramentans have so much to be proud of) and later had a televised talk show that was, for a moment, the biggest thing on television. It was a very big deal, actually–the obvious progenitor of the angry political confrontationalism of Bill O’Reilly, though it included a lot of the trashy/sleazy material that would later find a home with Jerry Springer and Maury Povich. Hell, even someone as anodyne as Jay Leno borrowed some moves from the guy, namely the running into the audience and shaking hands bit. Seriously, all of that stuff gets traced right back to Downey. And, for a year or so, people couldn’t get enough of it. Downey became a TV superstar who somehow managed to fit a music career alongside taping a daily show into what wound up being a very short window of fame. (Seriously, you have to check out his music. It’s insane.) Watch this (featuring a surprise special guest) and tell me that Trump isn’t cribbing Downey perfectly:

Downey’s show keyed off of confrontation. It was a sort of fantasy for very, very angry people: Mort Downey would tell the smartypants pointyheads to their face exactly what they wanted to say to them. There’s no intellectual component to the debate whatsoever. The clip is interesting because Paul is clearly getting the better of the argument on intellectual terms, and obviously is used to dealing with a hostile audience. But he clearly wasn’t used to dealing with someone who had no interest in debating ideas, and was only using Paul as a prop, in effect. He starts to get rattled. Downey keeps escalating, invades his space, lobs gratuitous insults at Paul. And yet Paul winds up looking not much better in the end. Now, admittedly, Ron Paul is a crank in real life, and is perhaps not the best example of a stable person. But this shows just how brilliantly Downey’s method of confrontation worked. Downey is clearly able to reach down into a person’s emotional core, bully them, shatter their composure. Paul after a point just sounds crazy, even though the points he makes are generally solid. It’s Downey who maintains his composure and control, so he ultimately “wins” in the eyes of his audience. Downey may prefer “scum” to Trump’s “loser”, but it’s the same basic strategy of using confrontation to allow an audience to experience some measure of uptake on their anger, vicariously of course. (Also, if you watch long enough, you get a spiel from Congressman Charles Rangel which serves as a forgotten reminder of just how avidly black elected officials supported the war on drugs, once upon a time.)

What ended Downey’s brief reign as the hottest star on television? As the truly excellent documentary about Downey from a few years back tells us, the show ran out of gas because, after a certain point, they couldn’t book guests anymore. Nobody was desperate enough to air their views and get subjected to such savage treatment. As a result, the show simply couldn’t provide the sort of confrontation that set it apart in the first place, and became increasingly reliant on the sort of sleazy programming that would become commonplace on Springer in the next decade. Didn’t save Downey, though, as his show was canceled not quite two years after it began, a mere part of the cycle of self-destruction that characterized Downey’s life generally. (Modern equivalents of Downey–O’Reilly and Bill Maher come to mind, though the latter obviously has different politics, both only go up to a certain point in their confrontations in order to keep guests coming and ensuring a steady dose of conflict that keeps those ratings aloft. Downey didn’t and maybe couldn’t.) Trump’s campaign has been highly successful in much the same way Downey was: by providing the thrill of confrontation with all manner of superior know-it-alls: the mainstream media, John McCain, Megyn Kelly. He knows how to deal with all of them, the respectable types are shocked, Trump wins. But eventually he’ll run out of targets, just like Downey ran out of guests. There are only so many people he can get into a public spat with, and eventually when he runs out of new ones, the thrill will be gone. Then and only then will his poll numbers begin to fade. The real question is: when does this happen? November? Next August? You really have to wonder if the Republican Party will actually be able to field someone other than Trump as the nominee if he’s able to suck all the oxygen out of the room until then. Couldn’t happen, you say? Keep in mind that Silvio Berlusconi–an extremely Trumplike figure–actually served multiple terms as Prime Minister of Italy. During which time he did such things as: have (not alleged, he was convicted) sex with underage prostitutes, comment incessantly and crudely on the attractiveness of female politicians, have all manner of tangles with legal authorities over enriching himself at public expense, not to mention speaking positively of Mussolini and Hitler. His Wikipedia controversies section is longer than most peoples’ full entries. Didn’t matter. After years of political instability and politicians’ scandals, people were extremely, utterly pissed off, didn’t trust politicians, loved the brash anti-politician. In fact, were he not legally ineligible to run for office, he could be running the country right now. Obviously, that’s a different country with a different political system. But people are people.

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