Friday, July 31, 2015

Throwing Softballs

For the past two decades, MSNBC has played off Fox News with a decidedly liberal format.  Yes, they've had Joe Scarborough ever since 2003, but he was often critical of his fellow Republicans as well, jibing them for their slip-ups and pitfalls.  Unfortunately, he has become every bit as dogmatic as his conservative brethren in recent years, especially now that he contemplates running for Marco Rubio's vacated Senate seat.  For that matter, so has MSNBC.  Watching Chris Matthews become increasingly conservative in his opinions is a very sad indicator of this network, which has long relied on him as its anchor.

Recently, Matthews had Ted Cruz on his show, and pitched nothing but softballs, allowing Cruz free reign to peddle his book with nary a challenge.  Last night, Chris asked Debbie Wasserman Schultz to explain the difference between a Democrat and Socialist, placing Bernie Sanders into the socialist camp.  The conservative media has run with this interview as they have many Matthews clips as of late.

One of the few liberal talk show hosts they had left has been dumped in favor of bringing Chuck Todd on board, who is one of those so called "moderates" who leans to the right on almost every issue.  Bernie Sanders, among many others, was disappointed with the cancellation of The Ed Show, as it cut one of the few honest liberal voices left on mainstream television.

I suppose we can look at this as just a matter of ratings, as this is what drives television networks.  However, the question then becomes how much of our politics is shaped by corporate decision making and here neither the Democratic nor Republican party is exempt.  MSNBC acts as a surrogate to Corporate America just as much as Fox News does, and Chris Matthews is obviously no exception.

Rachel Maddow tries to keep the liberal face of MSNBC, but she comes across as extremely pedantic with very little humor.  It is very hard for me to make it through one of her episodes.  However, she continues to do well in the ratings, so Comcast keeps her in the line up.  It may turn out that she is the lone remaining liberal voice on MSNBC.

Making matters worse is that Jon Stewart will be leaving The Daily Show on August 6.  We lost Stephen Colbert last year.  The new faces have yet to generate much attention on Comedy Channel.  The one bright spot is John Oliver on HBO, whose weekly show has become a big hit among liberals.

Of course, Jon loved going after his friends at MSNBC almost as much as he did those at Fox.  He could be particularly hard on Chris Matthews.  John Oliver has also had his fun with Matthews, mocking the MSNBC pundit's appalling record as political prognosticator.

Over the years, Chris Matthews has gotten very little right and no longer seems to be in step with what is going on in the Democratic Party.  Like so many who have moved to the center politically over the years, he has lost touch with the roots of the Democratic Party, which is exactly what Bernie Sanders is trying to revive.  Ever since Bill Clinton, the DNP has promoted itself as a pragmatic political party, filled with neo-liberals who in most cases look very little different from their neo-conservative counterparts.  Both represent corporate interests and rely equally on Super PACS to fund national campaigns.

With few television outlets available to liberals, they have taken to the Internet to get their message out.  Granted, sometimes it can come across as painfully naive, but at least it speaks of the once proud progressive movement that was the Democratic Party.  Debbie Wasserman Schultz shouldn't be having to defend her party's "socialist" roots.  She should be having to explain why the Democratic Party no longer is seen as particularly progressive.  But, of course, Chris is not the one to ask that question.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Go Team USA

American students typically stumble in math and science, with the United States ranked a pitiful 36 in math proficiency worldwide, but don't tell that to the US Math Team, who took home the gold medal in this year's International Math Olympiad.  The event was held in Thailand.  In recent years, it has been dominated by China and other Asian countries.  The US team generally holds its own, but hadn't won the event since 1994.

Not surprisingly, there has been little coverage.  The International Math Olympiad is a seated competition and doesn't have the same drama as the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  The students are given six tough questions and graded by judges.  The best overall team performance takes home top honors, but gold medals are also awarded individually.

As you can see from the above photo, the American team is a diverse group, which also is indicative of the nature of American education, which ranges dramatically from one school district to the next.  There have been attempts to create a national standard, most recently Common Core, which has come under a barrage of fire this campaign season.  Forty-four states subscribe to Common Core, but support has dwindled considerably and one can expect some states to drop out, if not see the program done away with all together if the Republicans win the White House.

These particular kids go through a battery of tests leading up to a summer camp that determines the participants.  They are the top of the tops, and should be greatly commended for their efforts, but unfortunately most Americans don't seem to care.  You see local papers taking pride in members that came from its' school districts, but not much in the way of national coverage, outside of periodicals like The Atlantic.

It's too bad because this was a major accomplishment and one that US schools could use to build their math and science programs on.  Alas, it is sports that American covet most.  You won't see any of these kids on a Wheaties box, but they will all go onto prestigious universities, probably with full scholarships.

Anyway, I thought it was worth noting and now I will see if I can tackle one of the questions:

Determine all triples (a, b, c) of positive integers such that each of the numbers: ab - c, bc - a, ca - b is a power of two.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

O Israel, My Israel

It seems we have a bunch of Old Testament Christians, as Israel has become the shining light of the Republican Party, the beacon by which they are guided in all things domestic and foreign.  How else to explain this great love for Israel, which has really only sprung up in the last two decades?

Mike Huckabee was so upset over the new Iranian nuclear deal that he felt Obama was marching Israel to the "door of the oven."  I suppose if Donald Trump can get away with such hyperbolic remarks why can't he, but here was not only the President but just about every Jewish league in America chastising Huck for such obscene references on the campaign trail.

For many Republicans Israel represents our only ally, as right wing conservatives seem to have missed the part that virtually the whole world approves of this international agreement, as it was ratified unanimously by the United Nations.  Netanyahu has been one of the few world leaders to speak out against the agreement.  The others being a handful of Arab leaders who aren't too keen to see Iran challenge their hegemony in the region.

Bibi knows which side of his bread is buttered and has dispatched his "big guns" to Washington to lobby Congress against the Iranian nuclear deal.  For the better part of two decades Bibi has acted as a "Shadow Senator" in Congress, calling upon his conservative allies in Washington to side with him as he runs roughshod over UN resolutions concerning Palestine.  The encroachment on the West Bank has largely been during his administrations.  From time to time, he's raised the specter of Iran, usually in apocalyptic terms, which resonates with the Dominionists in Congress who believe that Armageddon is upon us in the form of this nuclear deal.

Not that a single one of them has read this agreement, mind you, much less offered an intelligent opinion on it.  They have lashed out against it, hoping that they can convince 13 Democrats to join them against a promised veto by President Obama.  The guy they are going to go after is Chuck Schumer, who has already said he is against it, but he may be having second thoughts, because unlike these yahoos he will probably read it before rendering a final opinion.

It's going to take a lot of cajoling and maybe a few trips to Chuck's favorite diner to get him onboard this unprecedented attempt to override the President on foreign policy.  Any reasonable interpretation of the nuclear agreement would suggest that it puts off Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons, not "pave the way" as Bibi suggests.

After all, Bibi has been crying for two decades that Iran is on the cusp of a nuclear warhead, but unless they have a doomsday bomb buried in the mountains somewhere none has been forthcoming.  So, why would this agreement speed up the process, as Iran already has the ability to enrich plutonium, as well as missiles to carry the payload, if it chose to?  Doubling down on sanctions, as the Donald has suggested, isn't going to stop Iran.

Unfortunately, Republicans these days aren't known for deductive reasoning, but rather for hyperbolic venting.  Take Tom Cotton, who seems to fancy himself an expert on Iran.  He's the one who crafted that "open letter" to the Iranian foreign minister a few months back.  He has now compared John Kerry to Pontius Pilate and has advocated military action against Iran to deal with the nuclear question once and for all. The junior Senator has made quite a name for himself in his first year in office.

Ted Cruz took the attacks up another notch by calling President Obama the "leading financier of terrorism against Americans in the World."  No public censure here, as the Republicans did when Cruz called Mitch McConnell a liar or Donald Trump questioned John McCain's hero status.  Not a peep from the Republican majority, not even Senator McCain.  This after John Kerry defended McCain against Trump.  It's like the very mention of Iran leads to an aneurysm in the Republican brain and all they see is red.

I don't know how one communicates with them on the subject.  There have been Senate hearings, but you get the sense the Republicans didn't listen to a word spoken by John Kerry, Jack Lew and Ernest Moniz.  Instead,  Republican committee members used the event as a stage to voice their own misinformed opinions.  Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said bluntly to Kerry, "I believe you've been fleeced."  This is the same guy who wanted to nix these negotiations before they even got started.

Meanwhile, Obama and Kerry are forced to respond to these outbursts at press conferences in foreign countries.  The President had to take time out from his historic visit to Ethiopia to address these absurd statements.  These shameful displays are what tarnish the American image abroad, not President Obama, who has to explain to the international press that these outlandish opinions don't reflect on the nation as a whole.

The Republicans are so busy appealing to their very narrow party base that they've lost all sight of a greater world.  You might as well sink all the continents underwater and just have the Red States of America and Israel popping above water.  This is their political map of the world.

The irony is that Netanyahu is loathed in Israel.  His party, Likud, didn't even win 25 per cent of the vote in the country, and was forced into alliances with hard line religious parties to form a very thin ruling majority in the Knesset.  He is attacked by the state newspapers and was forced to apologize for his outlandish comments leading up to the March election.   He hangs on as Prime Minister by his finger nails, yet seems to have convinced the Republicans and for that matter the Press in America that he represents Israel.

The other irony is that the vast majority of Jews in America vote Democratic.  Nearly 70 per cent of American Jews voted for Obama in 2012, down about 10 per cent from previous Presidential elections.  In fact, American Jews didn't even vote for Reagan.  Here's a breakdown of Jewish voting since 1916, and not once have Jews ever voted for a Republican Presidential candidate.

It gives you a pretty good idea of the fantasy world the Republicans have created and managed to impart on a large part of the American electorate.  It's kind of a Game of Thrones for them, whatever basis in reality this world view has can only be found in the Old Testament, as you won't find any modern-day parallels, other than those that reinforce their antiquated opinions.  They believe they have Israel's best interests in mind, when all they really want is another war to show their valor in combat.  Why not the rump state of ancient Persia?  Who knows maybe Tom Cotton will even don his fatigues again to go into battle himself like an Old Testament King.

Sadly, this is how deluded the Republican Party has become.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Summertime Blues

There doesn't seem to be a cure for these "Summertime Blues" as the Donald continues to hog the television limelight.  While he may be a gift for comics like Jon Stewart, one can only ask how long can you ride this "rollercoaster of blow jobs," as Stewart described it.  Trump is even trolling CNN now, calling in on Jake Tapper's State of the Union and launching broadsides at Hillary Clinton.  This gave Republicans a bit of a reprieve, as the Donald had been blasting them right and left on the campaign trail.

More interesting was Bernie Sanders on Meet the Press, as he refused to let himself be pigeon-holed by Chuck Todd, who was anxious to portray Sanders as a gun nut.  Todd also tried to turn Sanders "confrontation" with Black Lives Matter into an issue, but here again Sanders cut him off before the host had a chance to set the narrative.

While Trump has been America's Id the past few weeks, Sanders has been America's conscience, but unfortunately Bernie doesn't get as much air play as Donald.  Bernie hasn't exactly shot up in the Democratic polls either, languishing at 18 per cent, while most Democrats continue to support Hillary by a whopping 57 per cent.

It seems Democrats, unlike Republicans, want to win in November 2016 and figure Hillary is their only hope, while Republicans flirt with Donald like they would a floozy at a local bar.  I suppose Republicans will eventually come to their senses and rally around one of the establishment candidates as they usually do, but in the meantime why not have a little fun with this orange-haired temptress that says everything you want to hear in a candidate.

Bernie seems to be striking the right notes in the Democratic Party, but mostly among the liberal wing of the party, which as we can judge by the poll numbers now represents less than one-fifth of Democrats.  It's not like Bernie is way out there in left field.  He isn't reciting passages from Karl Marx or calling for a socialist state.  Nevertheless, he seems to make many Democrats uncomfortable with his confrontational style, as he presents what are hard truths, namely that we have let ourselves become controlled by a corporate oligarchy which is stifling the middle class.

Hillary presents the same theme in a softer tone, which allows her greater access to this oligarchy, or "Billionaire Class" as Bernie calls it.  She is loaded with cash and will be able to mount a long, hard campaign which most likely will force Bernie to bow out by the Super Tuesday primaries.  He's done well with campaign contributions, but nothing on the level he would need to sustain his bid beyond the initial primaries.

These Billionaires aren't all bad.  You have Warren Buffett and Bill Gates calling for tax hikes and greater government investment.  Buffett has even tried to encourage alternate energy sources by investing in wind farms, and we all know the great philanthropy work the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation does.  This is a far cry from the Donald, who has been deemed as "the least charitable billionaire in the world."

The Donald clearly represents the Me-First attitude that resonates among Republicans.  After all, this is a party that wants to drastically curtail welfare programs and require individuals to take drug tests before getting food stamps.  The GOP also wants to tightly control what an individual can buy with those food stamps, firmly believing that many welfare recipients dine on lobster and big Porterhouse steaks.  This is something only a man of Trump's wealth and stature should be allowed to do.

Yet, here is Trump saying he also champions the middle class.  His approach is from another angle than Bernie, claiming that immigrants are destroying the working class, not big business, and that we need to kick these bums out of the country.  The Donald even donned a trucker's cap for his little rally on the Mexican border to identify with Blue Collar America.  It doesn't matter that his entertainment industry relies on this cheap immigrant labor.  He brushes aside criticisms by saying he can't check everyone on his vast payroll.  I imagine most of his labor is subcontracted anyway.

The Donald has a big advantage over his political opponents in that he is as slippery as an eel.  Jake Tapper tried to draw Trump out in the ad-hoc interview, pushing him to better define his positions, but the flaming billionaire was having none of it, controlling the interview from start to finish with his bravado style.

One of the odd things in this country is that most Americans seem to have great admiration for the Billionaire Class as if they are the Masters of the Universe Tom Wolfe facetiously described in The Bonfire of the Vanities.   We all want to fly first class or rent a stretch limo or stay in a first class suite at the Trump Plaza Hotel or some other luxury hotel.  The average wedding today costs $26,000, and as much as $70,000 in the Big Apple, because we want our daughter to feel like a princess at least for one day.  Everyone is waiting for Trump's campaign to flame out, but it may have a lot more fire than pundits think, largely because many Americans crave the life that Trump leads and are drawn to him like moths to a flame, or in his case day-glow orange hair.

Long gone are our working class roots.  We live in an age where most persons look at investments to carry them through their lives.  Whether it is a home or investment portfolios or both, we try to see where we can make the most money.  This is why wages suffer, because the first thing any business on the stock exchange does is cut its payroll to boost its quarterly earnings.  No broker recommends traditional forms of savings with the interest rates so low.  They try to hook you into medium-risk money market accounts where you have the potential to "earn" back ten per cent in dividends, twenty when times are good.

Bernie is trying to call our attention to the unsustainable nature of this kind of investment but we rarely listen to our conscience.  More often we let ourselves be strung along by our Id, our "gut" in other words, throwing caution to the wind as we would in one of Trump's casinos, believing for a moment that we can hit the jackpot to pay for our little indulgence.  It's only after we get over the hangover that we painfully listen to Bernie's words and say next time.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Politics of Star Trek

Ted putting on his best Captain Kirk impersonation

In an effort to further divide Trekkies, Ted Cruz opined on rival Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard, considering the former a working-class Republican and the latter an effete Democrat.  It was one of those free-flow interviews that Cruz relishes, able to sound off on anything and everything, but the actor who played Captain Kirk had a bone to pick with Ted.  William Shatner is a Canadian citizen and considers himself politically independent, as he says was the same for the character he played so many stardates ago.  Not that it really matters other than to show that Ted is not a Gen X hipster but rather a traditionalist when it comes to his pop culture icons.

Ted seems to enjoy playing the clown, even mimicking all the main characters of The Simpsons.  It wasn't very successful, but heh anything to identify with the masses.  It's a far cry from the Donald, who gets so easily offended that he resorts to name calling and giving out personal phone numbers whenever someone has the audacity to question his motives.

Here was Anderson Cooper asking him the simple question how he planned to overcome his largely unfavorable rating among voters, and Scrooge McDuck got all huffy and puffy and fired back that the problem was Cooper himself and the media, which conducts such silly polls.  Who cares about a Washington Post poll when the Donald proudly proclaims he is leading across the board?

At least Ted has a self-deprecating humor about him.  He doesn't get surly when challenged in an interview.  He knows he has his supporters behind him, and that he will always be seen favorably in their eyes.  Being interviewed by the New York Times shows what a good sport he is.  After all, it was the NYT that chose to keep him off its best-selling books list, claiming he was bulk buying his latest piece of pulp non-fiction.

Ted chose to focus on pop culture, or at least the interviewer did, which he seems to know something about.  You get the feeling this guy binge watches syndicated reruns on TiVo or Netflix to calm him down after a stressful day, as he rarely seems to show any stress on the campaign trail.  Even when assailing President Obama or Mitch McConnell it doesn't appear that he harbors any real grudge against these guys.  He's just using them as cannon fodder to ignite a spark in his assembled crowds.  There isn't the mean-spirited nature that characterizes the Donald.

Does it really matter who was the better Starfleet commander?  It's not like Trekkies are going to vote for him anyway.  Ted fielded the leading question and gave the answer expected.  The scariest part is this self-styled Evangelical candidate, who is an avowed climate change denier, is overseeing the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Space and Competitiveness, which oversees NASA.  What would Captain Picard think of that?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Old School

At 55 bucks, I guess you could still consider the "Chucky T" a bargain in today's world of high-priced tennis shoes, but for what you get you would probably be better off with a pair of Keds, although I don't imagine they come cheap anymore either.  The Converse All-Star is an iconic brand, made so when Chuck Taylor endorsed the shoe in 1923.  It was worn by all the NBA greats well into the 1970s, including Wilt Chamberlain who scored his legendary 100 points against the New York Knicks in 1962.

You could get blue or white high-tops.  Our coach went with blue to match our uniforms.  Chucky T high tops cost $12 as I recall, which adjusted for inflation would be about $50, so I can't complain too much about the price today.  My daughter badly wanted a pair of white low-tops.  The shoes provide very little support, but when you're young it doesn't really matter.  However, no serious basketball player today would wear these shoes on the court unless it was in some retro charity game.

Nike bought Converse in 2003 but was afraid to make any major changes to the shoe other than offer a myriad of new colors and patterns.  Still the traditional blue and white shoes are the most popular, and can be matched with just about any outfit.  But, I guess sales have slipped a little over the last ten years, and Nike decided to upgrade the shoe with more bouncy foam material and better arch support, which should reduce some of the shock.  It is also bumping up the price to $75.  But, I doubt it will ever regain its place in the NBA.

You can still buy the classic shoe, as it seems there will always be a market for it.  Other retro tennis shoes like Vans remain very popular, made famous by skateboarders Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta in the 1970s.   Two Frenchmen recently brought back the Feiyue, a Chinese tennis shoe from the 1920s that has become this season's "it" shoe.  I guess we just can't quite bring ourselves to let go of the past.

Welcome to the Big Top

The Republicans have raised a big tent but it isn't the tent they had imagined.  What they have now is a big circus tent with Donald Trump as its Ringmaster.  Only problem is that he wants confusion to reign and not order, lashing out at his rivals, pundits and perceived nemeses alike.  The latest stop on his whirlwind tour of the country is the Mexican border at Laredo, Texas, where he fired up small crowds with his overused invectives, as if his mere presence alone brought down the number of illegals crossing the border.

To read this WP article, he didn't make that much of a "splash," as many border officials chose not to attend his rally, and the Laredo mayor appeared overly cautious in regard to the Trumpster's statements.  No problemo, The Donald rattled on just the same because he knew his message wasn't for local consumption but rather for national consumption, showing that he isn't afraid of El Chapo or any notorious Mexican who may be thinking to take out a hit on him.

Rick Perry is among the growing number of Republicans who has had enough of the Donald, but there isn't much he can do about it at this point. The only thing the GOP can hope for is that Trump self-destructs, and the sooner the better.  With only two weeks before the first televised national debate, Trump is clearly in command of the event, leading in the polls by double digits and setting the debate topics in loud bold letters.

The other problem the GOP faces is that while some candidates have come out strongly against the Donald.  Others have supported him, notably Ted Cruz.  Even Ben Carson has offered praise for the Trumpster, presumably because he and Ted want some of that mojo that Donald has to rub off on their forgotten campaigns.

Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham is doing his darnedest to get into the debate, showing the many ways he can destroy his cell phone after the Donald gave out his number.  Lindsey has called in a lot of favors, appearing on a great number of talk shows in the run up to the debate, hoping he can crack the three per cent needed for an invitation.

The first GOP debate promises to be the biggest event of the season and no one wants to be left out.  Here's how Forbes handicaps the "State of the Debate" as of yesterday.  Rick Perry is currently sitting on the number ten spot, with Rick Santorum only 0.7 per cent behind him.   This particular poll only gives Trump a two-point edge over Jeb Bush, but other polls have him as much as 11 points ahead of Bush, so the GOP will have to come up with its version of the Bowl Champion Series combined poll to sort out the final order.

It turned out to be a pretty good ploy, as it calls much more attention to the debate than it deserves.  None of these guys have distinguished themselves in the early going.  Jeb threw another wild pitch on Medicare, saying he would phase it out if elected President.  Apparently, this was in an appeal to the Koch Brothers, who have vowed to put upwards of one billion dollars into this year's election cycle.  Of course, this was the guy who sold out the Florida education system with vouchers, and is still promoting the same failed notion anywhere he can.

The Republicans candidates all have teed off on Obama's Iran nuclear peace agreement.  Scott Walker has been the most vociferous, saying he would "blow up any Iran Deal" on "day one."  Even Rand Paul, initially a supporter of negotiations, is hedging his bets, demanding there be a military trump card.  No one ever said it was off the table, not even John Kerry, but the aim here is to avert war not find unwarranted excuses to have another one.

If fifteen losers weren't enough, John Kasich threw his hat into the ring this week.  Ohio will be a hotly contested state but very few people know Kasich outside Ohio, so he has a lot of catching up to do if he plans to be at the debate come August 6.

Clearly the man of the hour remains Donald Trump pulling one stunt after another that has left his political opponents bemused, bothered and more often bewildered as how to react to him.  Whatever he says seems to strike home with the base of the Republican party.  His pernicious attacks on John McCain, Lindsey Graham and now Rick Perry only serve to endear him more to his rabid following.  By comparison he has been rather tame with the others, particularly Jeb Bush, but all that could change in two weeks.

The Debate promises to be a huge ratings bonanza for Fox News.  You were wondering why they were riding in Trump's coach?  All this cheerleading from the Fox crew serves its own interests, as Fox will be televising the first debate in Cleveland, the home of Rock and Roll.  If nothing else, Gov. Kasich can be there to greet the contestants.

This is the State of the GOP.  The Republican National Committee has no one to blame but itself for allowing events to swirl out of control like this.  The RNC was hoping it could raise a big tent and potentially lure disgruntled Latino and Black Democrats into their fold, but the Donald has pretty much killed that notion, although he loudly proclaims that Latinos love him.  So far, there hasn't been much demonstration of that, but Donald knows all too well that it doesn't matter as far as the primaries are concerned.  This is all about appealing to the angry white male voter, assuming Trump will stick around for Iowa and New Hampshire in January.

Donald doesn't like to spend his money, what little liquid cash he has.  As Mark Cuban pointed out, the numbers Trump has been throwing around are meaningless, and a recent assessment placed Trump's net worth at $1.4 billion, well below the $10 bn he most recently claimed.  This means he will either have to fork out his hard-earned cash or tap into a motherlode of contributions, as he has to quickly organize campaign committees in the states he plans to run in, otherwise he might not even make it on the ballot.  So far, there hasn't been much indication that he has put any thought into these pesky matters.

Further proof, not that one needs much, that Donald is just riding the early wave of this political campaign as one big publicity stunt and will pull out long before the first primaries roll around.  This is why guys like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson pay deference to him, as they want the sloppy seconds that spill over from his overfull plate of poll numbers.

The problem for the GOP after the Donald leaves is what to do for an encore.  No one had been able to generate anywhere near this much excitement among the Republican electorate to date, and there is nothing to indicate that anyone of them will be able to pick up where the Donald left off, which means a lot of folks will simply head for the exits.  Like it or not, Trump has been good for the Republican party, energizing it where all others had failed.  Of course, it wasn't exactly the type of excitement the GOP wanted, but then beggars can't be choosy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Longest Yard

Obama has always been about the long game, which has left Congress scratching its collective head as its members typically play for short term games.  In part that is because they are always having to think about re-election every two years.  There rarely appears to be any overall strategy from either Democrats or Republicans, but rather an attempt to steamroll bills through Congress when one party or the other believes they have the numbers to do so.

In Obama's first two years, the Dems had the number to push through a Stimulus Bill and Affordable Care Act that became the defining issues in the 2010 midterms when the Republicans recaptured the House.  They couldn't very well overturn the Stimulus Bill, since it was only designed to last 3 years, but they made the ACA their pet issues, trying in vain to override it 50 times.  The Obama administration has made it an imperative to carry through on the ACA, and survived state and Supreme Court challenges in getting the long anticipated health insurance exchanges off the ground.

However, the battle over "Obamacare" cost the President a vote on an energy bill he badly wanted to push through Congress.  Democrats failed to get behind it and Republicans staunchly opposed it.  Obama had already included a number of energy efficient programs in the Stimulus Bill and has used his executive powers to carry out other initiatives.  But, his biggest coup came last year when he reached an agreement with China to cut down on carbon emissions, the two countries being the biggest abusers in this regard.

Needless to say, the Republicans were up in arms.  How dare Obama negotiate a deal like this behind their back.  They wrongly believed it compromised America's energy policy.  To this point, Obama had largely been portrayed as an ineffectual president in the conservative media, but after this historic agreement and his executive order on immigration reform, he was now seen as a dictator and a tyrant. The Republicans thought they had won a mandate in the 2014 midterms when they took full control of Congress, but here was the President negotiating energy policy and pursuing immigration reform on his own and there was nothing they could do about it.

As Ezra Klein writes, Obama has discovered an ingenuous new strategy to counter Republican opposition.   He lets Congress alone and expects Congress to leave him alone.  The President has chosen to work within his purview, no longer trying to push contentious bills through Congress, but rather staking out a new foreign policy that presents the United States in an entirely different light.

He followed up the China agreement with official recognition of Cuba, and if that wasn't enough began negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program.  He had always said he was willing to negotiate with autocratic governments, but saved it for his final two years in which he had no worries of how it would reflect on him in the polls.  Oddly enough, his poll numbers have shot up ever since he embarked on this course, much to the chagrin of Congress.

It's not just Republicans, but Blue Dog Democrats who saw Obama as the enemy.  Mary Landrieu made a last ditch effort to shove the Keystone pipeline down the Congressional throat in an effort to win a run-off election in her home state of Louisiana, which would benefit heavily from this pipeline.  Obama refused to budge and poor Mary failed to get the votes and lost her Senate seat.  This sent a pretty clear message to other recalcitrant Democrats who have kept Obama at arm's length.

It isn't so much a new Obama as it is a more emboldened Obama.  I think he understood the nature of his tenure from the beginning, and at each stage did what he could do to steer the country in a positive direction.  Throughout his embattled six years leading up to the 2014 midterms, he worked with the Federal Reserve to stimulate the economy when it needed it.  As a result, the economy grew steadily throughout those years and finally started producing meaningful jobs at the beginning of his second term.  The official unemployment rate now stands at 5.5 per cent, well below the 6 per cent Mitt Romney promised if he was elected President.  Yet, Presidential candidates like Jeb Bush still bemoan what they regard as a "failed economy."

Time and again, Obama has outsmarted and outflanked his opponents, both within and without his Democratic Party.  One can ascribe this political savvy to a tight inner circle that has always kept the long game in mind, determined to carry out this administration for a full eight years and leave a substantial legacy.  That inner circle has changed over the years but the fundamentals have stayed in place.

Cabinet members have complained of being ignored.  Leon Panetta offered the lengthiest rant in his memoirs published last year, but the reality of the situation is that we live in a much safer world today thanks largely to what has been a consistent foreign policy that balances diplomacy with military action, and has earned the respect of other nations.   It seems that Panetta, like other disgruntled former cabinet members, was simply trying to score points in the press in an effort to peddle his "tell all" books.  I'm sure you can find the book in the bargain bin today.

It remains to be seen whether Congress challenges Obama on Cuba and Iran.  Opponents would need a veto-proof majority of 67 members in the Senate to do so, which is a pretty tall order, even if Chuck Schumer stands beside Mitch in opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement.  Democrats learned the hard way in 2014 that it was a mistake to distance themselves from Obama and I doubt those up for re-election will do the same again.  Even Hillary is offering guarded praise for the nuclear agreement, and as we all know she doesn't trust Iran.

I well imagine we will be seeing more Democrats embracing Obama on the campaign trail this time around, as they all want his new found popularity to rub off on them.   He has also given them the issues they should fight for, proving that climate policies, immigration reform, gay marriage, renewed ties with Cuba and a more peaceful foreign policy are all popular with the national electorate.  The Republicans can hold onto the Southern and remote Western states.  But, in this year's battleground states the pressing issues favor the Democrats, and they have Obama to thank for putting them front and center, provided of course they don't fumble the ball on the one-yard line.

Monday, July 20, 2015

El Comandante

Has the Trumpster gone too far this time in besmirching the character of Senator John McCain?  It remains to be seen, but Mackie is not a favorite among the Teabaggers, so I'm sure Donald's words resonated with his Iowa audience.

The Bush campaign similarly discredited McCain's and Kerry's war records in 2000 and 2004.  For Rove, the mastermind behind these two campaigns, it was a desperate gesture to keep Mackie at bay in 2000, and undermine Kerry's Vietnam War record in 2004.  For Trump it all seems to be part of a game he is playing, stirring unrest among the "crazies," as Mackie called a Phoenix audience that vociferously supported the Donald in one of his campaign speeches.

The Human Hair Piece has gone after McCain on numerous occasions.  It seems part of a strategy to play off all the frustration and anger in the base of the GOP, which feels it has been shortchanged by its leaders.  There was a failed attempt to "teabag" McCain in 2010 in his last Senate re-election bid.  Apparently, it emboldened the 78-year-old Senator to run for yet another term.  He's been in office since 1987.

While most Republicans are tired of Mackie, they don't doubt his military bonafides.  Even Democrats stay clear of this subject, as we saw in 2008 when Gen. Wesley Clark, who had endorsed Obama, questioned McCain's military record.  Obama subsequently dropped Clark.  Veterans are usually given a free ride, especially those who were prisoners of war.

The Donald doesn't believe in free rides and wants to see McCain out of Washington, along with just about everyone else.  He hasn't shown any respect for anyone on the campaign trail, dumping on his opponents every chance he gets, notably Rick Perry who he called "dumb" and a failed governor.  In Donald's mind, he is the only one with the intelligence necessary to be the chief executive of this country and everyone else is just a stand-in for the failed policies in Washington.  Little wonder his message resonates among the base of the GOP, who thinks pretty much the same.

But, attacking veterans of any stripe is considered taboo, especially when you have no military record of your own.  This doesn't stop the Donald though, who feels he has done more for veterans than anyone else.  He even had a military color guard at his third wedding.

In an odd way, Trump reminds me a little of a New Yorker from long ago, Aaron Burr, who openly defied the government and allegedly threatened to set up an independent government in the northern Mexican territories, which we later came to know as Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.  The Burr Conspiracy haunted Thomas Jefferson.  So much so, that the President ordered the arrest of his former Vice-President and made him face trial.

Trump similarly seems to be trying to get into the heads of his foes, drawing them out into the open where he hopes to expose them as frauds.  When Bill Maher did the same to him four years ago, the Donald was none too happy being compared to an orangutan.  Trump actually produced his short-form birth certificate to prove he was legitimately human and sued Maher for not giving $5 million to charity as he promised to do.  Maher had a field day with this stunt, which took Donald a while to live down.

I would suggest to Trump's opponents to adopt similar tactics, as all they are doing right now is playing into his game.  You can't take a guy like this seriously.  You have to go after him Bill Maher style, as that is what truly ruffles his overgrown mop of hair perched all too carefully atop his head.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Closely watched trains

Go Set a Watchman is flying off the bookshelves as many persons are dying to find out what happened to Scout.  However, some credits are a skeptical of this "sequel," which was apparently written a year before To Kill a Mockingbird.

It wouldn't be the first time an author wrote a prequel to a previous book, but for whatever reason Go Set a Watchman wasn't published in its day and we were given the young Scout instead.  I doubt Harper Lee or her publisher could have imagined the power this book would have, bolstered by a movie two years later that featured Gregory Peck as the much revered Atticus Finch.  The book is one of the most recognized American novels, selling more than 40 million copies worldwide.

Mockingbird was set in the 1930s.  Scout was a precocious young girl who idolized her father, narrating the trial in which Atticus defended a young black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.  Scout sneaks into the "coloured gallery" to witness the event, with Atticus finding himself at odds not just with the prosecuting attorney but the community as a whole, which had made up its mind that Tom was guilty.

Scout was telling this story in retropsect,  and it could very well have emerged from the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, which the publisher rejected at the time.  Atticus didn't so much take the case as a civil rights advocate, but rather out of respect for the law.  In this earlier novel, Atticus has many of the same petty biases as other respected white Southern men of his era and didn't feel that Blacks were ready to vote yet.  Atticus quotes Thomas Jefferson, who believed that the right to vote is earned not given.  Sadly, we learn the Atticus supported the status quo in the South, and this was really nothing more than a Pro Bono case out of deference for Capurnia, who had raised Atticus' two children after the death of his wife.

No longer Scout in Go Tell a Watchman, Jean Louise comes back to Maycomb, Alabama, as a self-possessed young woman who finds herself butting heads with her father and others over civil rights issues.  It is the kind of didactic first novel you would expect from an idealistic young writer trying to reconcile herself with her Southern roots.  It isn't too hard to doubt this novel came first, but Adam Gopnick thinks that at the very least the novel went through some editorial revisions that take To Kill a Mockingbird into account.

Go Tell a Watchman has come under attack mostly by critics who feel it dilutes the power of the former novel, and that we will never be able to look at To Kill a Mockingbird the same way again.  That might be so, but then maybe we interpreted Mockingbird in ways we shouldn't have, and this newly released previous novel "corrects" some of those impressions.  I guess some novels shouldn't be revisited, as we would prefer to hold onto our illusions.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Search for Good Nature

I used to watch David Brooks and Mark Shields debate the issues on PBS.  It was a much more thoughtful and nuanced exchange than you would find on any of the other networks.  They didn't shout each other down or cast ad hominems at each other.  Unfortunately, it got boring after a while as you knew where each person stood on an issue so you pretty much knew what to expect.

Over the years, Brooks has tried to present himself as the conscience of social conservatism, a kind of "middle way" that is appealing to both Democrats and Republicans alike, at least those who consider themselves "moderate."  He is critical of Democratic leaders, but at the same time gives praise where he considers praise is due, such as applauding Obama for what he regards as a relatively "scandal-free administration."  No faint praise for a man who regards Reagan as one of the leading lights of conservative politics.

You won't see him jumping ship to Fox News as Juan Williams did.  Brooks abhors yellow journalism, preferring instead to moonlight as an Op-Ed columnist on the New York Times, although I'm not quite sure which came first.  Pico Iyer writes a glowing review of Brooks' new book, The Road to Character, in which the author searches for his own soul through role models he believes define true character.

It's a well-used format.  Brooks however picks some unusual figures for his pantheon such as Ida Eisenhower, the mother of Ike, George Eliot and Francis Perkins.  Nice to see women figure into these defining characters, as most books of this genre typically present male archetypes.  Brooks also explores St. Augustine, using him to question the moral superiority currently being exhibited by the Religious Right in America.  By Brooks' own admission, he doesn't go very deep into any of these character studies.  It' a kind of once-over-lightly survey in the search for good nature, as Yvonne Roberts wrote for The Guardian.

In Brooks' defense, he's a political pundit not a philosopher, even if he name-drops Nietzsche and offers up The Lonely Faith of Man by Rabbi Soloveitchik, a modern-day Maimonides.  If anything, Brooks is trying to get readers to look past this narcissistic world we live in and be more like "Adam II" who tries to find himself by first losing himself.

Brooks apparently doesn't believe in the Art of Shelfishness, as promoted by Ayn Rand and adopted by Neo-conservatives and Neo-liberals alike.  He thinks we should return to a more natural order in society, promoting what he calls "an older moral ecology."  All well and good, but given that we live in an Age of Twitter it makes it pretty hard to reconcile these deeper yearnings with a time in which immediate gratification is the norm.

I don't think you can expect too much from this book, unless you are a Brooks' fan, but it is nice to see someone try to bring a more civil level of discourse to the political debate.

Failure to Launch

The Hillary campaign seems to be languishing here in the early going largely because of her unwillingness to stake out any position on the pressing issues of this election cycle.  She was met with skepticism and eventually derision in New Hampshire as she tried to lay out her position on climate change.  She may be able to get away with this "neutrality" in the general election, but she still has a set of primaries to face and Bernie Sanders is from Vermont and should do quite well in the Granite State, especially since he is not afraid to stake out his position on climate change and other key issues.

Once again, we see Hillary acting like the primaries are hers for the taking.  Granted, Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina are still a long way away, but with Bernie building momentum each week on the campaign trail, he could have a very healthy head of steam come next January and very easily overtake her in the initial primaries.

The other big problem is Bill.  This guy is very anxious to get back in the spotlight again.  Yesterday, he said that the Crime Bill he pushed through Congress back in 1994 was a big mistake.  While it is nice to see some measure of contrition among politicians, it doesn't bode well for Hillary that her husband is essentially admitting to the current high rate of incarceration in this country, which may have put a dent in the overall crime rate, but has made prisons the fastest growing state-funded business enterprise in this country.

With so many states now having decriminalized marijuana use and a handful even making recreational use legal, you would think the Hillary campaign would seize on this issue as a means to reduce the number of drug-related sentences that lead to prison overcrowding.  Several state governors are on record as supporting this move, not to mention police departments, with the notable exception of the NYPD.  Yet, Hillary continues to duck the issue, like she does climate change, unwilling to ruffle the feathers of social conservatives who still represent a big chunk of the Democratic Party.

On Iran, Hillary has similarly adopted a wait-and-see stance, even though her husband pushed for a similar agreement with North Korea back in 1994.  I suppose this is now seen as a mistake too, as nothing came out of it, even after George W. Bush tried to restart negotiations during his administration.  This after labeling North Korea as part of the axis of evil.  It makes one wonder what Hillary would have done if she was still Secretary of State.  Would she be pursuing this current nuclear agreement aggressively as John Kerry is doing?

Hillary has had the last two-and-a-half years to sit on the sidelines, distancing herself from the Obama administration, as she plans out an administration of her own in the future.  Unfortunately, it seems she has been spending the bulk of that time amassing an enormous war chest of campaign contributions which she doesn't want to spend in the early going.  Content, it seems, to let Bernie have his say, while she bides her time for the primaries.

As the town hall event in New Hampshire demonstrated, she is not prepared to address any of these issues head on, which makes one wonder why she even invited unsolicited questions to begin with.   All she could bring herself to say was that she would continue the Obama climate agenda, which hasn't exactly wowed environmentalists.

With the alternative being a Republican climate-change denier in the general election, I guess Hillary feels she doesn't have to spend much time on this issue, or any other issue for that matter as she will present herself as the voice of moderation, the comforting "mother" that her campaign manager seems to think Americans would prefer to the bellicose male candidates running against her.

That may be so but it doesn't inspire persons to come out to vote for her.  Rather it creates an air of resignation, not much unlike that we saw in 2000 when Al Gore failed to ignite the base of the Democratic party.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Clearing in the Distance

Olmsted as seen by John Singer Sargent

Over the years I've found myself drifting more toward landscape architecture, as my wife and I do more projects in this regard.  Slowly, I've been learning about plants and trees and how best to come up with a garden that reflects the seasons of the year.  I've given up straight lines for winding paths as I search for curves that best reflect the nature they are set in.  For this reason, I've become a big fan of Frederick Law Olmsted and Edouard Andre, the respective American and European masters in modern landscape architecture.

There really wasn't landscape architecture in America until Olmsted appeared on the scene in the second half of the 19th century.  Witold Rybczinski reflects on how Olmsted was able to seamlessly blend nature and the manmade in A Clearing in the Distance, his biography of the American master.  Olmsted's works ranged far and wide, including Montreal, which Rybczinski had made his home for many years.  He had always assumed the Mount Royal was natural until he learned that Olmsted had designed over a century before.

I'm not new to Olmsted.  I visited his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, many years ago. It is a sprawling shingle style house covered in vines and set in a man-made woodland.  Olmsted had done the park system for Boston as he had done New York. Boston being much smaller, Olmsted was able to tie the city together with an "emerald necklace" that gives it a distinct beauty.  Olmsted's home is administered by the National Park Service, which is fitting since he was one of the major advocates of a national park system in the 19th century.

I was however new to Edouard Andre, who as it turns out was a great friend of Olmsted, sharing a similar organic sense of how a city and park meld together as one.   Andre had designed the gardens for several estates in Lithuania, not to mention countless other works throughout Europe.  The estates still reflect his character despite the intervening Soviet years.  I guess the Soviet planners also mistook the gardens as "natural."

Olmsted's work are so profuse that pretty much every American has happened on them whether intentionally or not.  He also advised others on the layouts of parks and cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery, urging General Montgomery Meigs to keep it simple and sublime.  Olmsted's sons carried on his legacy, continuing to design parks throughout the United States under the family name.

Rybczinski is not only interested in the landscape architect but also the man behind all these works.  Olmsted was born in 1822.  He took a break from his work to organize relief services for the Union military during the Civil War.  He had been working on Central Park before the war broke out.  Afterward, his career took off, but not without a few run-ins as Olmsted was insistent that his projects be carried out exactly they way he imagined them.  As a result, he and Leland Stanford parted ways over the design of the campus at Palo Alto, California, although Olmsted remains credited for the work.

I often look to Olmsted for inspiration and am currently exploring the relationship between Edouard Andre and him through their letters.  It is truly a pleasure to walk through their parks and estates and see the symbiotic relationship between their works and nature, not to mention the smell of the budding plants and trees in Spring as the parks awake after a winter's slumber.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ted Cruz's America

Ted Cruz desperately wants to get his book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, so much so that the NY Times detecting block buying and chose not to list his book at all.  This practice has been going on for quite some time.  Conservative groups buy these books in bulk creating the illusion of bestsellers, they then distribute them through various outlets second hand.  To be fair this isn't much different than the various book clubs that promote history or mystery or whatever genre of fiction or non-fiction, but they aren't necessarily trying to make a book a bestseller, which is the case with much of the conservative block buying we see today.

These political candidates and pundits believe that being on the NY Times bestseller list give their books legitimacy.  It moves their thoughts beyond the conservative parlors and onto the national stage.  They will do just about anything to promote these books, even going on The Daily Show to pitch them, even if it means a few embarrassing moments with Jon Stewart.

Ted is just the latest victim of this practice.  David Barton got called out on The Jefferson Lies three years back for buying his own book in bulk then distributing it through his Wallbuilders site.  The end result was that it drew more attention to this specious history book than Barton wanted, as he was getting called out by fellow Evangelicals like Warren Throckmorton, who wrote a full-length rebuttal to Barton's book and actively pushed the publisher to drop the title when it was discovered the huge amount of factual errors in the book.  I doubt Ted will have to worry about a retraction from his publisher as his book is a combination of memoirs and opinions, so he won't be held to the same level of scrutiny.  But, this little episode does tarnish him a bit.

One of the more amusing segments was Ted Cruz visiting Hardball with Chris Matthews.  for whatever reason, Matthews pitched Ted a bunch of softballs, which he pretty much hit out of the park.  Chris even took Ted's side on Castro, saying how "we rooted like hell for him" when Fidel first came to America, only to be sold out by the Dictator.  Matthews would have been 14 at that time and Ted not yet born.  Of course, Ted runs with this intro telling us all about his father's Cuban years.  It is painful to listen to because Matthews fancies himself a bit of an historian and should know better what all transpired in the fateful years of 1959 to 1962 that led to a Communist state in Cuba.  What's worse is that this allows Ted to pitch the bunk we've been hearing from the Republican side that we shouldn't normalize relations with Cuba until the Castros are gone from Havana.

What's interesting is that Cruz engages in some of the same red-bating as Barton did in the introduction to his book on Jefferson, claiming that elite universities like Harvard are hotbeds of "trendy Marxist philosophy," essentially disqualifying its professors from offering unbiased views on American history and contemporary events.  Barton can be excused to some degree since he majored in religious education at Oral Roberts University and never attended one of these elite schools.  But, Ted graduated from Princeton and Harvard.  He was praised for his debating skills and was senior editor of the Harvard Law Review.  However, he claims in his book that his outspoken conservative views kept him from becoming President of the Review.

Like so many conservatives today, Ted portrays himself as a victim, not only by the liberal academic elite but his fellow Republicans who called him out for his faux filibuster.  Although in this case Ted sums it up as being "too cocky for my own good."  Several GOP senators are challenging Ted's claims in his book.

Ted is desperate to steer some of the attention Donald is getting toward him and the more controversy he stirs up with his book the better.  Who knows persons may actually start buying it on amazon.  But, he will have a hard time catching up to Harper Lee, whose new old book, Go Set a Watchman is a runaway smash hit,   Funny enough, Harper Collins published both books.

The Party Crasher

If you remember from a few years ago, Borat toured America, stoking racist sentiments wherever he went.  One of the most memorable scenes was when Borat led a country bar room in a bawdy rendition of "Throw the Jew Down the Well."  Not too many Americans knew of Sacha Baron Cohen at that point or that Borat was one of his characters on the Ali G Show in Great Britain.  As a result, Borat took America by surprise, even doing rodeos with his unique interpretation of the national anthem, which was met with confusion and eventually boos as I don't think the audience caught the lyrics.

Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo thinks that Donald Trump is a similar plant meant to stir unrest in the GOP.  He even goes so far as to suggest the Democrats planted him, specifically the Clintons.   It may be that Curbelo's thoughts are not as absurd as some people think, as the Donald is a showman first and foremost and he may very well be doing his own version of Borat in America.

Trump is not generally known for his integrity, yet his in-your-face personality is appealing to a great number of persons who have shown much interest in his candidacy.  James Fallows is partially right in that Trump is just another Herman Cain, generating excitement which will very soon dissipate.  No one has mounted a successful off-the-wall candidacy like this except at the state and local level.  But, the longer the Donald stays in the race the more he stirs up all these unchecked emotions, which will present some serious problems for the GOP down the line.

The Herminator said some pretty wild things four years ago but when he agreed to debate Newt Gingrich in front of a live audience, Herm melted on screen. All those nifty little campaign slogans like his 9-9-9 tax plan went out the window, as Herm was clearly not ready for prime time.   It was a great coup for Newt, who got a big bounce from that televised episode.

I don't think any GOP candidate would be willing to sit down with Trump in a similar situation, but nine of them will get their chance at him at the first debate hosted by Fox News on August 6, which might be appropriately titled Battle Royale. This has become a very eagerly anticipated debate largely because of Trump.  He has garnered virtually all the media attention since declaring his candidacy, reducing other boisterous candidates like Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee to the fringes.  This will be Trump's show.  How the other candidates react to him will determine their fate.

The Party Crasher has turned the GOP upside down.  I can sympathize with Curbelo, who wants a legitimate Republican nominee, but he has to ask himself if the GOP truly represents his interests.  What Trump has done is expose the fault lines in the Republican Party and clearly the GOP is tilted far to the Right.  Curbelo's dreams of immigration reform are the last thing on most Republicans' minds.  Trump's interest in this campaign may be nothing more than to expose this rift, but did the GOP really think it could conceal it?

Most of the other candidates have similarly voiced such sentiments in less colorful ways.  Even Jeb Bush, Curbelo's choice, is probably reconsidering the position he staked last month on immigration reform, given the Donald's meteoric rise in the polls.  Trump's bold-faced Nativism has forced Republicans to confront the most radical elements within their party and it isn't pretty.

Yes, the Donald could very well be a plant, as all this unrest benefits the Democrats should they ever decide to distinguish themselves in this campaign.  So far the only candidate stirring up any excitement is Bernie Sanders, which the media tends to regard as the Dem's own version of Donald Trump, despite the fact that Bernie actually is a public servant with a long committed record to liberal principles.

Trump has no commitment to any principles except the art of making money.  This is a guy who ran as a Reform Party candidate extolling a "middle way" in 1999, a Birther in 2012 and now a Know Nothing Nativist in 2016.  Whatever stake he has in this campaign is in his own interest, not the Republican Party and certainly not the United States.  The Donald seemed as anxious to cut media ties as he did debt-ridden businesses when he declared bankruptcy four times.  The Miss USA pageant has been a ratings loser for decades and hit rock bottom this week.  Miss Universe does little better.  Losing these pageants or his line of clothes at Macy's is no skin off Donald's nose.  In fact, he is treating it like a red badge of courage.

What he seems to be positioning himself for is the next big deal, turning the GOP campaign into a reality show, which he appears to want to milk for as long as possible.  The upcoming Republican debate will be like an episode of Celebrity Apprentice with him front and center, exactly where he wants to be.  It doesn't matter whether he wins or loses.  Everyone will be talking about the Donald the next day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

It's a Brand New Day!

It will probably fall on deaf ears in Congress but this "historic deal" with Iran has sent oil prices plummeting as it looks like a whole new source will open up to oil production.  For weeks now we've been hearing from Republican candidates how the Obama administration sold out its allies, yet this deal was reached through six countries, including Russia, and the EU.  The negotiations also had the full sanction of the UN, which will be administering the inspection of Iranian domestic nuclear and military sites for the next ten years.

Of course this isn't good enough for our conservative friends in Washington, or the Donald, who believes that the duplicitous Iranians got the better of the US on this deal.  The foreign allies they refer to are Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are likewise not too happy about this nuclear deal as it brings Iran back onto the international scene, as most economic sanctions would be lifted if Congress approves the deal.  A military embargo would remain in place for the next five years.

Our man Mitch has called pitching this deal to Congress a "hard sell."  I don't doubt he would have a relatively easy time lining up votes against the nuclear agreement, as there are many Democrats who are against it as well, notably Chuck "The Schmuck" Schumer, scheduled to be the next Democratic Senate Leader when Harry Reid steps down.  These cold warriors simply can't get past Iran being an existential threat to the United States and their good buddies in Israel.  Saudi Arabia also worries that an unfettered Iran will spark more Shi-ite uprisings, not to mention challenge its authority in OPEC.

What frustrates conservatives the most is that the Obama administration is radically reshaping the nature of American Foreign Policy, bringing it into the international mainstream.  His recognition of Cuba late last year and now this nuclear agreement with Iran represent a decisive move away from the Bush Doctrine that has dominated American FP since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Every Republican candidate is campaigning against these FP moves except Rand Paul, who favors normalization with Cuba and is open to negotiations with Iran.  This has made him a favorite target among his peers, notably Marco Rubio, who has trashed Rand on Cuba.  But, Mitch seems to have softened a bit since assuming the leadership of the Senate, willing to work with the President on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so there is hope Mitch will be open to the nuclear agreement, as long as there is something in it for Republicans.

Of course, the Donald felt he could have done all this in a week, by "doubling up and trippling up" sanctions.  Not that we could have imposed any harsher sanctions than we have already done, short of going to war.  Now that an agreement has been reached, he no doubt will take credit.

On the Democratic side of the Campaign Trail 2016,  Hillary has expressed her support for negotiations, but expressed her reservations at the same time in pure "Clintonian" fashion.  Sadly, it seems too hard for many persons in this country to get past events that took place 35 years ago, still viewing Iran in the same dark-cloaked world of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Whatever happens in November 2016, a small window of opportunity has been opened for a brand new Foreign Policy that may become the Obama doctrine if he is able to carry through on it in his remaining 18 months in office.  If enough pieces are in place before he steps down it will make it very difficult for the next president to blithely overturn these measures, as has been suggested by many of the GOP candidates.

The interesting thing is that these bold Foreign Policy moves have all occurred since Hillary stepped down as Secretary of State.  Kerry has been Obama's foot soldier on FP, showing negotiation skills the Donald could only dream of having, and that Hillary didn't show while she was leading the State department.  To be fair, these bold moves usually don't come until the last two years of a two-term President, but it is clear that Obama has worked much more closely and efficiently with John Kerry than he did with Hillary Clinton.  Makes me wonder who the Democrats should have running for President to carry forth this legacy.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Atlas Shrugged: The Soap Opera

Seeing Ann Coulter extol the virtues of Donald Trump reminds me of Dagny Taggart lavishing praise on Henry Rearden, the steel magnate, in Atlas Shrugged.  But, whereas Rearden decided to pull out all his money from a Depression-era America and hide out in the Rocky Mountains, Donald Trump is actually running for President and Ann Coulter believes he can win.

I don't think we can underestimate just how dumb the base of the Republican electorate is.  The Donald played to a packed hall in Phoenix this weekend, offering up even more red meat to his GOP opponents, saying he couldn't believe he was tied with someone as stupid as Jeb Bush.  If you recall, he became a Tea Party darling four years ago when he took up their birther cause, and similarly ridiculed Mitt Romney as he shot up in the early straw polls.  As Yogi Berra would say, it's deja vu all over again.

The man who considers himself a self-made billionaire and no doubt has much of his money hidden away in offshore bank accounts has once again captured Teabaggers' hearts.  They love his no-nonsense Nativism, as they know no more about immigration than the Donald does, who has overestimated the amount of illegal crossings by at least three times.  He takes individual incidents like the recent shooting in San Francisco and projects it onto Mexicans as a whole.  He even goes so far as to claim that Mexico is purposely dumping the worst elements of its society on the United States, as many conservatives felt Castro did back in 1980 with the infamous Mariel boatlift.  At least that time it was partly true, this time it is pure conjecture on the Donald's part, but the Teabaggers are eating it up like popcorn at a double-feature matinee.

As you know, it only takes one incident to justify all our worst fears.  Many Americans seem to live in an almost constant state of paranoia and the Donald has unleashed all those deep-seated fears, with cheerleader Ann Coulter acting as his advance press.  Fox News is as well, unable to resist the ratings bonanza in Trump, lining him up for all their faux news and talk shows.

The question remains what is the Donald's interest here?  Surely, he doesn't actually think he can win the nomination, much less the White House?  There has to be some other motive behind all this excessive hyperbole and race bating.

Most political pundits outside the Fox news circle think Trump is just playing this for his own personal gain, hoping he can cash in on all this attention with another reality show or some other entertainment venture -- maybe even a Donald Trump amusement park.  It is very hard to take anything he says seriously unless of course you are a Teabagger.  Regardless, Trump is the number one show in town right now and everyone wants a piece of the action.

This is what draws Ann to the Donald.  She is having a bit of a resurgence lately, after being given up for the political walking dead.  If she can attach herself to the Trump bandwagon she looks to have a serious spike in book sales, as she is peddling pretty much the same message in Adios, America!  Both see the United States in rapid decline due largely to illegal immigration, even if there isn't a shred of evidence to back up their claims.

I admit it's fascinating to watch but at what point do you say enough is enough.  Last time around, Obama called Trump on his birther bluff and produced his long-form birth certificate.  This essentially derailed the Donald's presidential aspirations, as he pulled out of the race shortly thereafter.  It's a little more difficult to call Trump on his most recent bluff as no one document is going to convince hard-line conservatives that we don't have an immigration problem.

The Donald has seized on the one issue he can ride throughout the primaries if he chooses to do so.  Of course, all the other GOP candidates have seized on it too, but as Ted Cruz noted, the Donald has a much more "colorful way of speaking."  It's pretty hard to match Trump's level of rhetoric even for someone like Ted, who can be quite colorful in his own way.  So, is Ted now auditioning to be Donald's running mate?  Or, have we not seen John Galt yet?

Here's to you Mrs. Robinson

You know Dustin Hoffman has become an old man when he says they don't make movies like The Graduate anymore.  While it is true the late 60s and early 70s saw a wonderful resurgence of the American melodrama, it's not like you can't make those kind of movies these days.  They are just not done in Hollywood studios, as the fascination with Marvel and DC superheros tends to take top billing.  I suppose you can blame Christopher Reeve for that, as he was the one who brought Superman back in vogue in the late 70's.

Richard Brody considers it a "misplaced nostalgia" to put too much stock in The Graduate.  The studios still turn these types of melodramas out from time to time, usually at the end of the year in the lead up to the Oscars, as this is prime material for best actor and actress nominations, as well as supporting roles.  It's also a sure bet for screenwriting.  The bigger problem, as Brody points out, is that these movies rarely provide a return on their investment, so they are more or less vanity projects.

It's at the Independent level where you see melodramas still being regularly made, as you can work with an inexpensive ensemble of actors and produce something light and fun that appeals to the folks of Sundance or South by Southwest (SXSW), and get picked up by a big name distributor.  If you're lucky like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarrantino you can even get big name actors involved for nothing more than a return on the profit, what little there usually is.  I would certainly hold up The Royal Tenenbaums and Pulp Fiction to anything made in the 60s and 70s.  In fact, there is a wonderful retro quality to both films that make them look like they came from that era.

Not that long ago, I saw Adventureland, which I thought was a wonderful movie about kids trapped in between high school and college.  It was set in the summer of 1987.  I guess the time the director came of age. It involved kids working at an amusement park in Pennsylvania.  The biggest name was Kristen Stewart, from the Twilight saga, but it proved to be the breakout movie for Jesse Eisenberg, who reminded me a little of a young Dustin Hoffman.

For whatever reason, Hoffman treats the idea of the American melodrama as a lost art.  You see veteran directors still making melodramas, like Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, but this genre is more often the purview of young directors hoping to break into Hollywood.

One veteran director who continues to make melodramas outside of Hollywood is John Sayles, who broke onto the scene with Return of the Secaucas Seven back in 1979, his second full length feature.  He used the proceeds from Piranha to help fund it.  Sayles has also made excellent historic melodramas like Matewan and Eight Men Out.  He continues to produce all his own movies, seeking independent funding.

Some years back, Jim Jarmusch found out how difficult it is to work with studios when Miramax offered to fund one of his films, Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp, Guy Farmer and a host of intriguing cameos including Robert Mitchum.  Jarmusch had written into his contract that he had final editorial word on his film.  When he presented the final product to Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax exec wanted a different ending.  Jarmusch said no, so Weinstein gave the film a very limited release out of spite, pretty much killing Jarmusch's foray into Hollywood.  The film however became a cult classic and made Jarmusch a hero among Indy filmmakers for holding his ground.  Unfortunately, Jarmusch hasn't quite managed to match that same level of filmmaking in his subsequent efforts, although his most recent film, Only Lovers Left Alive, offers a fresh new look at the nocturnal world of vampires with a captivating Tilda Swinton.

Here in lies the rub.  If you want to make melodramas that are close to the heart, it is best to stay away from Hollywood, as you find yourself subject to the producers' whims and vagaries.  So many projects end up being shelved because half way through production a studio executive doesn't see any money to be made or simply loses interest in it.  Robert Altman's The Player was a great satire on the making of a Hollywood movie.

The talent is still there.  New names yet to emerge.  You just have to look to the film festivals and not the Hollywood studios to find them.