What Brett Kavanaugh Really Thinks

Confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh will, if past is prologue, subtract significantly from the public understanding of what a Supreme Court justice is supposed to do. Senators will invoke impressive-sounding principles with the weight of cotton candy. We will hear that “judges should not legislate from the bench,” even as no one will discuss when exactly the Supreme Court is supposed to have done that in the past 50 years. We will hear platitudes such as the one offered by John Roberts, when he compared a judge to an umpire who calls “balls and strikes,” ignoring that in baseball, umpires have radically different strike zones. We will hear calls for “judicial restraint,” which translated means, “I want the court to exercise restraint except when it can reach a decision I approve of.” We will hear Kavanaugh, like every nominee before him, solemnly intone that Roe v. Wade is Continue reading “What Brett Kavanaugh Really Thinks”

Why Liberals Should Stop Whining About the Senate

“The conservative takeover” of American politics, the New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote not long ago, “hinged on ruthless power politics: the G.O.P. exploiting its unearned advantage in the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate, and the Supreme Court itself.” Reaching for an especially damning piece of evidence, Cassidy pointed to the “two senators for every state” rule, a constitutional quirk that has led to a system “where the 1.7 million residents of Idaho receive the same number of representatives as the 39.5 million residents of California.”

Like Cassidy, virtually every critic of the Senate compares the plight of California with that of a ruby red-state like Idaho. If Google is a guide, the state most often cited is Wyoming, with its measly 579,000 residents. Yet almost no one points to the identical outrage in which the 28.3 million residents of Texas receive Continue reading “Why Liberals Should Stop Whining About the Senate”

Trump Is Nothing Without the Senate

For Democrats looking to win back a piece of national political power, the House is where the heart is. With a gain of 23 seats needed for control, and the Cook Political Report listing 29 Republican seats at risk (and only three imperiled Democrats), it’s a plausible political target. Earlier this week, Barack Obama’s political action committee, Organizing for Action—granted, with a highly unimpressive track record in the past two midterms—announced it would throw its energies into some two dozen House races with what a spokesman called “an all-hands-on-deck movement.”

But if the goal is to thwart the wholesale, radical changes in policy that President Donald Trump’s administration is pursuing, the House is the wrong target. It’s the Senate that has been the most significant political player of the past four years. Although the president has made himself the obsessive focus of friends and foes, it was the Republican Continue reading “Trump Is Nothing Without the Senate”

Thinking the Unthinkable: What If Trump Succeeds?

Let us assume for the moment that Donald Trump is an “idiot” and a “f—-ing moron” who hasn’t got a clue about the substance of legislation. (These judgments, if multiple news reports are accurate, come from the president’s current chief of staff, his former secretary of state and any number of Republican legislators, respectively). Let us draw from countless accounts of his conduct going back decades that the president is mendacious, graceless and a misogynist on steroids, whose character, temperament, historical cluelessness and utter incapacity for self-reflection make him by any measure the most unfit occupant of the White House ever.

Now: If you accepted these assumptions, how hard would it be to grant the president any credit for … anything? Could you embrace the old adage that “even a stopped clock is right twice a day”? Or would your wholesale revulsion at the president’s conduct simply make it impossible Continue reading “Thinking the Unthinkable: What If Trump Succeeds?”

The Left’s Year of Magical Thinking

It’s Wednesday, November 7, 2018, and the Democrats have awakened to the taste of ashes in their mouths. Despite the poll numbers and the pattern of history, Republicans have somehow managed to keep their losses small enough to retain control of the House. They’ve even picked up a seat or two in the Senate.

How could this have happened? Was it the gerrymandered House districts, the flood of dark money from the Mercers and the Kochs, the suppression of voters in key states?

Maybe. But should that Democratic disaster come to pass, a good deal of the explanation would lie in an aphorism often misattributed to Voltaire: “I can take care of my enemies, but Lord protect me from my friends.” Some of the most damaging blows to Democratic hopes this year are friendly fire.

The most recent—and most harmful—came from John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court Justice, Continue reading “The Left’s Year of Magical Thinking”

The Hollywood Hit Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist

Everybody knows that Hollywood’s a hotbed of liberal-left-elitism, pumping out virtue-signaling propaganda in films and ceremonies, right?

So the idea of a movie celebrating fascist dictatorship as the answer to America’s dilemmas seems, at the least, highly improbable.

But that is exactly what a mostly-forgotten movie offered 85 years ago amid the throes of economic upheaval—a time that is more like our own than you might think. It also offers us significant insights into what tempts countries to travel down an authoritarian road.

In the early spring of 1933—with a quarter of Americans out of work, with banks failing by the day, threatening a complete collapse of the financial system, as farmers watched their crops rot in the field—“Gabriel Over the White House” premiered. The film, directed by Gregory La Cava, had been rushed into production with the financial help of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and it was designed Continue reading “The Hollywood Hit Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist”

When Bobby Decided to Run

Mid-winter half a century ago was a dispiriting time in the office of Senator Robert Kennedy; at least if you were hoping Kennedy would challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination. There was no secret about how RFK felt bout LBJ (and vice-versa)—they hated each other. One day, the poet Allen Ginsberg stopped by the senator’s office, and with a bemused RFK and some of his staff looking on, chanted the Hare Krishna.

“What is that?” Kennedy asked.

“It’s a mantra for the preservation of the universe,” Ginsberg said,

“You might want to take that to the fellow at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Kennedy replied.

This was more than the “mutual contempt” of Jeff Shesol’s great book on the RFK-LBJ feud. The Vietnam War was taking hundreds of American and countless Vietnamese lives a week, to no clear purpose. Back home, the country’s racial divisions were Continue reading “When Bobby Decided to Run”

When Richard Nixon Used Billy Graham

As countless obituaries remind us today, Billy Graham knew every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama; he was a White House visitor for decades. The Southern Baptist preacher known as “America’s pastor” was by turns counselor, confessor and confidant to chief executives from both parties.

The first visit, to Truman in 1950, did not go well. When Graham and fellow evangelists revealed the details of their conversation, and staged a prayer session on the White House lawn, Truman labeled him a “counterfeit,” seeing him as more a publicity-seeking opportunist than a pastor. But Graham persisted, seeing the national stage as possibly his biggest chance to influence America’s spiritual life—and even the course of the nation’s history.

Across the decades, he gained unique access to the power centers of American life. Publishing magnates William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce helped propel him to fame; financial and business leaders saw his Continue reading “When Richard Nixon Used Billy Graham”

Midterm Limits: Why Democrats Shouldn’t Get Too Confident About November

There are two assertions about midterm elections that are endlessly recited with firm confidence. First, the president’s party almost always loses seats in Congress in midterm elections, and second, the fate of the president’s party is directly tied to his or her approval ratings. Yet there are rarely mentioned, but significant, caveats to these putative iron laws of politics.

The first is that aggregate numbers can be misleading. If you do the math, you find that in the last 21 midterms, the party holding the White House lost an average of 31 seats. But this is like saying the average wealth of Jeff Bezos and nine insolvent people is $10 billion. The “average midterm loss” conflates massive defeats with insignificant changes in the congressional landscape that left the president little or none the worse for wear—and in a few cases even improved his lot. And second, it obscures the fact Continue reading “Midterm Limits: Why Democrats Shouldn’t Get Too Confident About November”

Not All State of the Union Addresses Are Terrible

Gerald Ford may not have been the most eloquent of presidents, but he deserves serious credit for asserting in 1975, “I must say to you that the State of the Union is not good,” citing recession, inflation and a national debt rising to the then-shocking level of $500 billion. It was an unexpected departure from the hackneyed cheerleading that is part of the president’s annual address to Congress, a speech that has become an annual exercise in overhyped, underwhelming significance.

There are genuinely significant moments in these addresses, but they are separated by decades. James Monroe in 1823 wrote to Congress, “Separated as we are from Europe by the great Atlantic Ocean, we can have no concern in the wars of the European Governments nor in the causes which produce them.” He added that when it came to the nations in the Western hemisphere, “It is impossible for the Continue reading “Not All State of the Union Addresses Are Terrible”

Oprah Could Be Great for the Democrats. In 2018.

The frenzy about an Oprah run for president was as predictable as it is misplaced—not because it concerns the estimable Ms. Winfrey but because it reminds us once again that our collective obsession with the presidency ignores where the really consequential power lies. If we grasp that basic fact about American political life, we can find where Oprah can make a huge difference—this year.

Given President Donald Trump’s capacity to capture 99.8 percent of media attention at any given moment, it makes superficial sense to see Trump’s election as the key to hugely significant political change, and to see a possible Oprah run in 2020 as the next one. But when you look at what has changed in the Year of Trump, it becomes clear that the really significant election was what happened in the United States Senate. Had Democrats managed to capture the chamber in 2016, much, indeed Continue reading “Oprah Could Be Great for the Democrats. In 2018.”

John B. Anderson: The Great Independent Hope

If there were a Hall of Fame for Memorable Political Moments, you’d find Ronald Reagan’s 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech in a prominent place. In the next wing, you’d find Barack Obama’s keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

You’d have to wander into the Hall’s more obscure corners to find a nod to the night of January 5, 1980. But for one brief shining moment—OK, make it six months or so—it looked something wondrous had happened in American politics: the birth of a credible independent candidate for president.

It was on that night, in the first primary debate among Republican presidential contenders, that a 57-year-old U.S. representative from Illinois with prematurely white hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a stern demeanor giving him the look of a no-nonsense college professor (or maybe a Puritan preacher from colonial days) threw a series of rhetorical hand grenades into the campaign.

Continue reading “John B. Anderson: The Great Independent Hope”

Republican Control of the Senate Hangs by a Thread

Only one Republican senator ultimately didn’t vote for the tax bill—and it wasn’t because of concerns about the debt, or the tilt of the bill toward the wealthiest Americans. It was because John McCain was back home in Arizona, battling life-threatening brain cancer.

Mississippi’s Thad Cochran did make the vote, after missing votes throughout the fall, due to a persistent urinary tract infection. The health of the 79-year old Cochran has raised questions about whether he will be able to serve out his term, which has three more years to run.

Should the health of these two senators force them to step down, the political consequences could be hugely consequential. Arizona would have two Senate seats in play in 2018. Democrats have already targeted the seat of retiring Republican Jeff Flake, finding encouragement in the narrow results of Arizona’s presidential contest (Trump won with a 3.5 percent plurality, contrasted Continue reading “Republican Control of the Senate Hangs by a Thread”

Why the Russia Scandal Is Nothing Like Watergate

It’s been framing the national conversation for months. The day after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last May, the New York Times headlined its front-page analysis: “In Trump’s Firing of Comey, echoes of Watergate.” And with each guilty plea, with each new speculation about what Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating, the echoes grow louder. Can a president obstruct justice? Or, is it true that, as Richard Nixon once famously said, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal”? If Trump’s actions don’t rise to a criminal offense, might they meet the highly vague standard of an “impeachable” offense? If Trump fires Mueller, would that be the second coming of the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon’s dismissal of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox set the nation on an inexorable path toward impeachment, averted only because Nixon resigned? To watch CNN most days, as its convoy of Continue reading “Why the Russia Scandal Is Nothing Like Watergate”

Has Trump Made Approval Polls Meaningless?

It’s been just another 24 hours or so in the alternate political universe where we dwell. The president of the United States has retweeted incendiary—and some inauthentic—videos of supposed Muslim depredations that brought angry words from America’s oldest ally, and even from INFOWARS—home of Alex Jones’ conspiracy theories. His press secretary says it really doesn’t matter whether the videos are true or false. In another tweet, Trump implied that Joe Scarborough may have killed someone in his office—a death investigators have unequivocally ruled a tragic accident stemming from a heart condition—and hints at something sinister about a top NBC News executive. We are told by the New York Times that the president now says the voice on that infamous “Access Hollywood” tape—for which he publicly apologized in October 2016, and for which Billy Bush was fired—may not be his at all, and he has been reanimating the baseless, racist smear Continue reading “Has Trump Made Approval Polls Meaningless?”

How Roy Moore’s Misdeeds Are Forcing an Awakening on the Left

Are liberals having a moral awakening? Watching the political contortions of Republicans to defend a candidate accused of sexually molesting teenage girls, Democrats and liberal pundits are reckoning publicly with their own history of fervid rationalizations on behalf of a recent president. But this should be just the beginning of a painful re-examination.

This new consciousness was glimpsed first in a tweet from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, a commentator of stoutly progressive persuasion. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is,” he wrote, “it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”

It was glimpsed in passing in a New York Times editorial, Ground Zero of conventional liberalism. “Remember former President Bill Clinton, whose popularity endures despite a long string of allegations of sexual misconduct and, in one case, rape—all of which Continue reading “How Roy Moore’s Misdeeds Are Forcing an Awakening on the Left”

Trump’s GOP Firewall

“Political Science” may be an oxymoron, but there is one rule in politics that approaches scientific certainty: A president, no matter how beleaguered, can survive if he retains significant support within his party.

Lyndon Johnson abandoned re-election when some 40 percent of the voters chose Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, triggering Robert Kennedy’s entry into the race. Richard Nixon was doomed when his congressional base eroded; six GOP members of the House Judiciary Committee voted for at least one article of impeachment. Bill Clinton survived when only five of 211 House Democrats voted to impeach him, and not a single Democratic senator voted to convict.

Now, with indictments unsealed and Washington churning with feverish speculation about where Special Counsel Robert Mueller might strike next, and as GOP insiders tell reporters that “the walls are closing in,” President Trump can find at last temporary comfort in this enduring Continue reading “Trump’s GOP Firewall”

The Deafening Silence of the Republican Lambs

If you are one of the millions of Americans who believe that a dangerously unfit man is presently occupying the Oval Office, you are likely to be cheering the words of Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. On Tuesday, having announced their respective retirements in 2018, the two Republicans were unsparing in their denunciations of the titular leader of their party.

President Donald Trump exhibits “a flagrant disregard for truth and decency,” Arizona’s Flake thundered from the Senate floor, denouncing “the coarseness of our leadership.” Trump’s conduct is “reckless, outrageous, and undignified,” Tennessee’s Corker charged earlier in the morning. “He is debasing our nation.”

It is the kind of language that not so long ago—10 months ago, to be more precise—would have hit the capital like a meteor. Now, apart from celebratory op-ed pieces and chatter on cable and social media, it will likely have “all the impact Continue reading “The Deafening Silence of the Republican Lambs”

The Deafening Silence of the Republican Lambs

If you are one of the millions of Americans who believe that a dangerously unfit man is presently occupying the Oval Office, you are likely to be cheering the words of Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. On Tuesday, having announced their respective retirements in 2018, the two Republicans were unsparing in their denunciations of the titular leader of their party.

President Donald Trump exhibits “a flagrant disregard for truth and decency,” Arizona’s Flake thundered from the Senate floor, denouncing “the coarseness of our leadership.” Trump’s conduct is “reckless, outrageous, and undignified,” Tennessee’s Corker charged earlier in the morning. “He is debasing our nation.”

It is the kind of language that not so long ago—10 months ago, to be more precise—would have hit the capital like a meteor. Now, apart from celebratory op-ed pieces and chatter on cable and social media, it will likely have “all the impact Continue reading “The Deafening Silence of the Republican Lambs”

The Tragedy of John McCain

It was near the end of 2007, and the presidential campaign of John McCain, left for dead six months earlier, was beginning to show signs of life. With no money, a skeleton, unpaid staff and a press corps taking bets on the date of his surrender, the Arizona senator was drawing the kinds of crowds in New Hampshire that had propelled him to a primary victory there in 2000.

“So, senator,” I asked him half-seriously. “Is there something about you that requires you to be dangling off a cliff with a fraying rope before you can start to succeed?”

“You know,” he said with a laugh, “there might be something to that.”

In a sense, much of McCain’s adult life can be defined by Vince Lombardi’s observation that “the real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back.” The rebellious, sometimes reckless Naval pilot Continue reading “The Tragedy of John McCain”