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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Ted Cruz

Lindsey Graham abandoned his conscience — or maybe he never had one

Stephen H. Provost

Dear Senator Graham,

I’m going to put this to you directly: What does Mr. Trump have on you?

I’ve been watching politics a long time. It’s a game in which opportunists routinely “adjust” their positions to catch latest updraft in public opinion. The man you tried to convict and remove from office two decades ago was famous for it. Governing by polls, they called it.

But we’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill Clintonian flip-flop here. We’re talking about a 180-degree turnabout in your opinion of a man he called a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot” and a “kook not fit to be president” just four years ago. Today, you’re one of his most avid supporters. This isn’t a flip-flop; it’s as a transformation that would make any good chameleon green enough with envy to stand out in the greenest rainforest.

A Washington Post story claimed you’d provided some answers to this question: You wanted to “be relevant” and declared, “If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business.”

I’d say the more appropriate answer is, “If you don’t want to serve the people and the nation’s highest good, you’re in the wrong business.” And that’s what you’ve always said you were doing. You positioned yourself as a person of conscience and, whether or not people agreed with your conclusions, you crafted something of a reputation for following that conscience.

Until now.

Conscience, what conscience?

So, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy your explanation that this is simply a case of political pandering in an attempt to be re-elected. That kind of explanation that would work in explaining your typical, everyday political about-face, but this is something else. Plenty of other legislators fell in lockstep behind the “race-baiting xenophobic bigot,” but they were not the kind of people who boasted of working across the aisle and speaking with an independent voice. You were.

Take your colleague from Texas, Senator Cruz, for an example. He did an about-face on Trump, too – even after Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on his wife (whatever that meant) and smeared his father without justification. But let me point out two important distinctions: First, Mr. Cruz never had the reputation for integrity you cultivated and, second, his support of Trump hasn’t been nearly as public and vocal as yours has been.

I know you’re not a big fan of Senator Cruz: You once likened a choice between him and Mr. Trump in these terms: “It’s like being shot or poisoned.” So, in deference to that statement, I’ll choose a few other examples to illustrate my point: Your conversion regarding Mr. Trump isn’t politics as usual, it’s bizarre, even by Washington’s standards.

It’s tempting to say that, now that Trump’s in office, that you were, in fact, poisoned. But I suspect this poison emanates from within. Here’s why:

Hypocrisy writ large

I invite you, Senator Graham, to think of your colleagues who have earned reputations as people of conscience. Imagine if Bernie Sanders repudiated democratic socialism and became a Republican. Or Rand Paul started speaking out in favor of foreign intervention and tax increases. Imagine if the late Senator John McCain had started decided to oppose all campaign finance reform. These are men who, it’s clear, have held to their beliefs regardless of which way the political winds were blowing, and you depicted yourself as one of their number. If any of them did what I’ve just described, they would be labeled the biggest hypocrites in Washington.

But now, I’m afraid you’ve got that title all to yourself.

What you said about Trump being a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot” could have just as easily been said about David Duke. You know, the former KKK grand wizard. It was unequivocal. If you were wrong about it, you owe Mr. Trump the most abject of public apologies. If you were right, you owe that same apology to the American people. But since Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in apologies, and you are now one of his unapologetic disciples, I don’t expect you’ll issue one – even to him.

I’m even less optimistic you’ll offer one to the American people, and at this point, it doesn’t really matter, because that reputation you built as a “man of conscience” is pretty much toast. If your mysterious about-face regarding Mr. Trump hadn’t incinerated it, your willingness to stand by while he threw your supposed friend, Senator McCain, under the bus most certainly would have. Friends don’t act like that; assholes do.

Two possibilities

So, I’ll ask you again: What does Mr. Trump have on you? Think carefully before you answer, because if you say, “nothing,” there’s only one real alternative: That you were never a person of conscience in the first place, and it was all just a brazen act from the beginning. That would make you the worst kind of political troll. Worse than Clinton or Cruz or even Trump himself, because Trump – while a shameless con man – never pretended to be a man of conscience. You did.

That leaves us with two possibilities: First, that you are a true man of conscience who’s been undone by something so dark and despicable that you forsook that conscience and hitched yourself to Trump’s amoral bandwagon. I’m not talking about your rumored-and-denied homosexuality; that’s no longer (thankfully) the political or social liability it once was, even among Republicans.

This would have to be a whole lot more damaging than that. It would have to be downright humiliating. I have no idea what this sword of Damocles might be, and perhaps it doesn’t even exist. But if it doesn’t, we’re left with only one other option: that you never a man of conscience in the first place. That you’re an even bigger huckster than the “Art of the Deal” guy himself, and that your entire, well-cultivated image was nothing but a fraud from the outset.

Those are your choices. Think hard and choose wisely.  I’ll be waiting for your answer – not that I ever expect to get it.

 

 

 

 

Bernie Sanders no slave to the McGovern Effect

Stephen H. Provost

Some Democrats are still scared of George McGovern. They look at Bernie Sanders, and they see someone “too far to the left” to win the general election.

That’s the conventional political wisdom. But keep in mind that this same “conventional wisdom” all but guaranteed that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee in 2008 and dismissed the notion of Donald Trump being anything but a flash in the pan this year.

Even Nate Silver’s analytics-driven FiveThirtyEight was flat wrong (along with a lot of other pundits) in predicting that Clinton would win this year’s Michigan primary handily – probably the most badly bungled prediction since “Dewey defeats Truman.”

Political punditry isn’t exact, and it’s not a science.

Sometimes, it’s nothing more than spin: advocacy disguised as analysis.

Other times, the pundits are so full of themselves they believe their own “infallibility” hype. They get cocky, and they get it wrong.

And often, they’re wrong about the future because they’re wrong about the past. Certain assumptions are just repeated ad nauseam on cable TV until they become a sort of political gospel.

This is where the McGovern Effect comes in.

Ever since the Democrats nominated “peace candidate” George McGovern in 1972 – only to watch Tricky Dick Nixon annihilate him in the General Election – they’ve been deathly afraid of history repeating itself.

Nominate someone too far to the left, and it’ll be another massacre. So the conventional wisdom says. Just look at liberal Mike Dukakis, who failed to work any Massachusetts miracles against George Bush I.

It’s the gospel truth.

And because a lot Democrats today have accepted that gospel, they look at Bernie Sanders and see George McGovern staring back at them. They look in the other direction, at Hillary Clinton, and they see a last name that’s shared by a relatively moderate two-term Democratic president.

No brainer, right?

Go with what works.

Except they’re so worried about history repeating itself that they’re ignoring a more recent, more telling precedent. All they have to do is look across the aisle.

Reagan's revolution

Four years after McGovern lost in that landslide, a Republican challenged the incumbent president from the right and nearly beat him. That challenger was, of course, Ronald Reagan – who scared establishment Republicans out of their wits. He was too conservative, they thought. They remembered what had happened to Barry Goldwater in ’64 when he won the nomination from the far right: LBJ had destroyed him in the general election, just as Nixon later buried McGovern.

The GOP establishment breathed a sigh of relief when they saw incumbent Gerald Ford hang on by the skin of his teeth to defeat Reagan … only to watch him lose to Jimmy Carter in the general election.

We all know what happened four years later: Reagan won the nomination on his second try and defeated Carter for the presidency.

Historically speaking, Sanders resembles Reagan a lot more than he does McGovern. Or Goldwater. Or Dukakis.

For one thing, like Reagan, he’s generating the kind of excitement his primary opponent can’t match. Hillary Clinton is about as exciting as Gerald Ford was – without the clumsiness but with a whole lot more political baggage. Would Reagan have carried enough enthusiasm into the general election to beat Carter in ’76? We’ll never know. But we do know he beat him four years later.

By then, Ford was out of politics and Carter was a wounded president, crippled by a sluggish economy and the Iran hostage crisis.

That made him vulnerable – in much the same way the Republicans are vulnerable this year. Will the Republican nominee be Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? It hardly matters. In either case, the Democrats will face someone with the kind of anemic approval ratings that resemble Carter’s a lot more than Nixon’s.

The opposition

This is where the McGovern Effect breaks down even more.

In Nixon, McGovern faced an incumbent who was highly popular at the time among everyone except the far left. Naturally, the far left voted for McGovern, and everyone else chose Nixon.

The same held true for Goldwater and Dukakis, both of whom were victims of strong opposition far more than their own ideology. Goldwater was up against the heir to a charismatic president whose death was still being mourned a year after his assassination. And Dukakis’ opponent, the first George Bush, was Reagan’s chosen successor. Kennedy and Reagan: the two most iconic presidents of the second half of the 20th century.

Somehow, the names Trump and Cruz just don’t have the same gravitas.

On top of this, Sanders also has an advantage in social media that McGovern could never have conceived of.

Does this mean Sanders’ nascent revolution is destined to repeat the Reagan revolution’s electoral success?

I’m not going there.

What I will say is that anyone who dismisses Sanders as a viable Democratic candidate based on the McGovern Effect is ignoring some powerful evidence that points in the opposite direction.

“Destiny” and “inevitability” are the language of pundits who crow about their predictions and then end up eating it. The crow, that is.

A sparrow might just tell another story.

We’ll have to wait and see.

Standing up to political bullies

Stephen H. Provost

Vote for me. Or else.

I'm sure this is not what Theodore Roosevelt had in mind when he coined the term “bully pulpit” in reference to the presidency.

These days, presidential candidates seem hell bent on trying to bully one another – and the voters – into submission with all the gusto of an MMA athlete (minus the peak conditioning and the sense of honorable combat). They talk over one another relentlessly on the debate stage, conduct push polls, call one another names and make implicit threats.

Republican candidate Marco Rubio questions Donald Trump’s penis size, and Trump responds by labeling him “Little Marco.” Others are dismissed as stupid, weak, pathetic or wacko. Trump speaks in sweeping generalizations, declaring that Islam “hates” America and referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists. This isn’t just bigotry, it’s bullying. And Trump - whose most famous quote is, "You're fired!" - isn’t shy about doing it.

He refused to disavow an endorsement by a former leader of the KKK, a racist group that virtually epitomizes violent bullying, eventually blaming his response on a bad earpiece. A campaign rally in Chicago turned violent when fistfights broke out between his supporters and protesters. Trump’s response? Pin the blame on the protesters, whom he labeled as “thugs.”

He also asked supporters at a rally to raise their right hands and repeat a pledge to vote for him on Election Day “no matter what,” then warned them that “bad things happen if you don’t live up to what you just did.”

Intimidation and manipulation

Intimidation is the bully’s stock-in-trade. Candidates often use it in the context of a political protection racket, playing on the public’s fears by warning of a perceived threat, then casting themselves in the role as guardian or savior. Trump did precisely this when he denigrated immigrants and vowed to build a wall to “protect” us from them. But his implicit threat about “bad things” happening to supporters who don’t live up to their pledge takes intimidation to a whole new level.

Vote for me. Or else.

Trump may be the worst, but he’s far from the only bully on the block. His main rival for the GOP nomination, Ted Cruz, sent out an official-looking mailer to Iowa voters labeled VOTING VIOLATION. “Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record,” it warned, adding that “a follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.”

So much for the secret ballot. Big Brother Ted is watching you.

And if you think Republican bullies are the only ones in the schoolyard, think again. A piece by Nolan Dalla describes how a caller sought to bully him into voting for Clinton by using a so-called push poll. Such phone calls seek to “push” citizens into voting for one candidate by asking questions that contain negative (and sometimes false) information about his or her opponent.

In this case, the caller labeled Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, “divisive” and declared that he had “blocked” gun-control and immigration-reform legislation (ignoring the fact that no single representative in Congress can “block” anything by himself).

I haven’t been push polled, but I have encountered Clinton supporters who don’t hesitate in attempting to bully others. Some have gone so far as to accuse those who don’t support her of misogyny. (My standard response: Did you support Sarah Palin for vice president in 2008? If not, does that make you a misogynist?)

Clinton herself even tried to bully Sanders on the debate stage by interrupting him – and he had the temerity to stand up to her by saying, “Excuse me, I’m talking,” her campaign responded with an email criticizing his “tone.”

Remember: She interrupted him.

That’s another typical tactic of a bully: accusing the victim. Interrupting someone is universally considered rude, yet the Clinton campaign tried to depict Sanders as the villain because he stood up to her.

Personal experience

Why does any of this matter to me? Because it hits close to home. I was bullied relentlessly in junior high school, and I learned how to recognize it. It’s ugly.

Even when candidates aren’t acting like bullies themselves, they often subject themselves to lobbyists and their sponsors, who practice another form of bullying: offering financial support to those they feel will support their causes. Or they count on their most passionate supporters to act as unacknowledged surrogates who’ll attempt to prod, harass or shame people into voting for them.

Do you want me to support one bully because the other one is worse? That’s not on even on my radar screen anymore. Been there, done that. The idea of being a pawn on a power struggle between two bullies doesn’t appeal to me. I value myself enough not to put myself in that position again, and I suspect plenty of other voters do, too, which is why many of them so often decide to stay home on Election Day or vote for third-party candidates.

I refuse to settle for a nation where bullying is the status quo, where the “art of the deal” is more important than public service, where push polling and influence peddling are par for the course, where I’m pressured to support one candidate out of fear the other option will be worse.

You can’t stop bullies until you stand up and declare, “I will no longer accept this.”

The ends don’t justify the means, and the lesser of two evils isn't good enough. It never was.       

• • •

Incidentally, Theodore Roosevelt, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article, ran the most successful third-party campaign in the modern U.S. history, winning more than 4 million votes to finish second, ahead of the Republican candidate.

His attitude toward bullying indicates he wouldn't have thought much of today's candidates. "Ridicule is one of the favorite weapons of wickednes," he once said and, on another occasion, "Politeness (is) a sign of dignity, not subservience."

About that phrase he coined: “bully pulpit” … for the record, he used “bully” the way it’s used the in the expression “bully for you” – as a synonym for fantastic, wonderful or jolly good.

None of which, I hasten to add, applies to the state of political discourse in these United States, circa 2016.