Gray Lady Splits the Baby

Lest you think I am in any way a well-adjusted individual, last Sunday night—when I could’ve tuned in to the season premiere of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—I found myself spending an hour with “The Weekly” on FX, in which the New York Times editorial board met with seven of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, one by one, as it decided which one to formally endorse. (Two others were interviewed but not included in the show.) In the end, the Times opted for a choose-your-own-adventure approach to field-winnowing, selecting both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar as its preferred nominees, leaving it to readers to figure it out from there.

Given both the import and weirdness of the Times’ verdict, this would seem the ideal moment to reflect on the broader question of how much impact endorsements of office seekers actually have in this third decade of the 21st century: Whether the recommendations of media outlets—newspapers in particular—directly influence people’s votes and, if so, how many.

The premise is sound enough: While ordinary citizens may be too busy or ill-informed to fully understand weighty matters of state and determine which candidates for office are best-equipped to handle them, newspapermen and women devote their lives to exactly that and are presumably experts in their field. Like movie critics, their judgement is theoretically deeper and more informed than yours or mine, and their recommendations—while hardly etched in marble—can serve as a useful exercise in edifying those who wish to be edified.

As to whether this works in practice, the honest answer is that we’ll never know for sure. The act of voting is complicated—the result of a million small considerations congealing into a particular shape at a specific moment in time—and generally not attributable to any one thing. This is especially true for the country’s impressionable swing voters, whose ultimate decision at the ballot box may well be determined by the last TV ad they see or the last tweet they read. To the extent that endorsements play a major—or even ancillary—role in some cases, few voters will explicitly tell a pollster, “I voted for Amy Klobuchar because the New York Times told me to.”

Recalling my own voting history in high-stakes races—which, if you count primaries, include four votes for president, four for governor, five for senator, and two for mayor—I can identify exactly one instance in which a newspaper endorsement actually swayed me from one candidate to the other. It was during the Massachusetts gubernatorial race in 2014, when the Boston Globe—an otherwise left-wing outfit—sided with the Republican, Charlie Baker, over his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, on the grounds that Baker, a former healthcare CEO, had proved himself a competent and effective chief executive, while Coakley’s most notable accomplishment was to have lost a U.S. Senate race—in Massachusetts!—to a conservative Republican who wore denim jackets and drove a pick-up truck.

Liberal that I am, it would’ve been the default move to vote for Coakley anyway; her Senate loss notwithstanding, she had served two perfectly respectable terms as the state’s attorney general. However, once the Globe made its case for Baker, I felt as if I had been given permission—and cover—to cross the aisle in favor of the guy who I suspected was, in fact, the stronger choice of the two. Had the Globe gone with Coakley, I doubt I would’ve had the nerve.

Of course, this was all predicated on the aforementioned idea that editorial boards are these faceless, all-knowing philosopher kings, smarter and more dispassionate than us mere mortals, endowed with the wisdom of the ages and concerned solely with the well-being of the republic.

Deep down, we know this isn’t entirely true—indeed, one of the delights of “The Weekly” is to see the Times editorial writers in all their quirky, bumbling glory—and I would be remiss not to mention that only two of the 100 largest American newspapers endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and look how well that went.  Undoubtedly, the influence of the op-ed section of major publications has been on the wane for quite some time, and the pattern is likely to continue as such.

Nonetheless, for those of us who still read the paper every morning and believe a free press is all that stands between the United States and tyranny, news publications will remain a beacon in the search for truth and justice in the world and a bulwark against the corruptions and obfuscations of public men. If their views on presidential candidates don’t come directly from God and no longer count as the proverbial last word on the matter—if, indeed, they ever did—they should nonetheless be taken seriously and with the deference owed to an institution whose core mission—guaranteed by the First Amendment—is to ensure the survival of liberty and freedom in our society, now more than ever.

In the future, though, it would perhaps be most prudent to endorse only one candidate at a time.

The High Ceiling

Can a woman be elected president in 2020?

Hell, a woman can’t even be named best director at the Oscars in 2020.

The nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced on Monday morning, and arguably the most egregious blind spot on this year’s roster (there were many) was the omission of Greta Gerwig, the maestro behind the dazzling new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” which was released on Christmas Day to sold-out audiences and universal acclaim—including from Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, who wrote that Gerwig’s sophomore project “may just be the best film yet made by an American woman.”

And yet somehow the Academy couldn’t find room for Gerwig among its five honorees for direction, despite nominating “Little Women” for best picture and five other categories, including Gerwig for adapted screenplay.

It makes one wonder: If the director of a near-flawless treatment of one of America’s most beloved novels can’t get nominated for best director, what woman can?

Indeed, in the entire history of the Oscars, only five female directors have ever pulled off such a feat: Lina Wertmüller in 1977, Jane Campion in 1994, Sofia Coppola in 2004, Kathryn Bigelow in 2010, and Gerwig in 2018, for Lady Bird. Notably, the only victor in that group, Bigelow, won for a gritty, testosterone-driven war film, “The Hurt Locker,” that contained virtually no women at all.

The message here is clear enough: Women are rewarded for excellence, but only when playing by men’s rules in a man’s arena. This has been the case more or less since time immemorial, and it will continue to be wherever men are calling the shots, which the Academy—68 percent of which is male—still most assuredly does.

I offer this all-too-obvious assessment as a prelude to the even larger gender controversy of the week: Elizabeth Warren’s claim that Bernie Sanders expressed doubts in a one-on-one meeting in 2018 that any woman could defeat Donald Trump in the election on November 3.

Sanders has received a fair amount of grief for this alleged assertion (which he strenuously denies having made), particularly during Tuesday’s Democratic debate, when a moderator baldly took Warren’s side in the dispute. What has gotten lost in the kerfuffle—at least among those arguing the loudest—is the apparently less-than-self-evident fact that, if Warren’s account of their meeting is accurate, Sanders’s only substantive point was that a plurality of Americans are too sexist to vote for a woman for commander-in-chief—an argument many women have been making for decades, often for good reason. If Sanders is a monster for agreeing with this sentiment, what does that say about the sentiment?

In truth, we can never know for sure whether sexism—specifically, bias against female leaders—is the primary reason a woman has not yet become commander-in-chief, nor whether such a bias will prevent the likes of Warren or Amy Klobuchar from being elected this time around. The matrix of considerations that factor into any individual voter’s thinking in the ballot box is often too intricate to be reduced to any one thing, nor do out-and-out misogynists tend to volunteer their prejudices to a pollster or anyone else (outside of a locker room, that is).

That said, social science, common sense and the entirety of world history would very strongly suggest that implicit sexism in the public square is still very much a thing and will continue to dog every female candidate for high office from now until the end of time. To deny this is to deny a reality that is staring us directly in the face.

This doesn’t mean the Democratic Party shouldn’t nominate a woman for president in 2020, or in any other year. (Personally, I’d be thrilled not to vote for a man in a general election ever again.) It just means that doing so invites complications that a male nominee has the luxury not to worry about—namely, the latent (if not blatant) perception among millions of Americans that a woman is simply not suited to command the largest military on the face of the Earth, however brilliant or savvy she might be.

It’s not fair and it’s not rational, and it certainly shouldn’t be passively accepted without a fightas both Warren and Klobuchar seem to understand. But it’s most assuredly a real phenomenon in this most patriarchal of nations, and blaming Bernie Sanders for pointing it out—if that is, indeed, what he did—is a profoundly silly and counterproductive use of Democratic voters’ time.

If the best revenge is to live a good life, then the best way to counter endemic sexism in the American body politic is to be the strongest presidential candidate one can possibly be. Women have always been held to an impossible standard in any field traditionally dominated by men—politics chief among them—and until human nature evolves beyond the lizard brain mentality that presumes men are meant to lead while women are meant to follow, female leaders-to-be have little choice but to continue proving themselves worthy.  It’s only a matter of time before the message finally breaks through.  Until it does, we’ll always have “Little Women.”

Bernie Again

I haven’t the slightest idea whom I’m gonna vote for in the Democratic presidential primary, which will be held in my home state of Massachusetts on March 3, aka “Super Tuesday.” That gives me 51 days to get my act together, although, truth be told, the longer this process has dragged on, the more undecided I have become.

At various moments over the past year, I have given serious consideration to no fewer than four of the Democratic candidates for the party’s nomination—some for weeks or even months at a time—without fully committing to one over the others, and I expect not to make up my mind for good until the final hours before casting my ballot—as my state entitles me to do as an unenrolled (i.e., independent) voter.

In 2016, life was simple: You were either Team Hillary or Team Bernie. Coke or Pepsi. Door No. 1 or Door No. 2. While our two-party system has repeatedly shown the many limits and aggravations of having a binary choice at election time—and all the days in between—there was a certain comfort and clarity in the ideological starkness between those two very different options four years ago and the worldviews and possible futures they represented.

Today, by contrast, I find myself surveying the still-absurdly-large field of pretenders and reflecting that when it comes to the democratic (and Democratic) electoral process, bigger is not necessarily better. While having a panoply of races, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds represented among our public figures may be an inherently positive development in the evolution of the species, it also imposes an acutely cumbersome burden on the average voter, who frankly has better things to do with his or her time than parse the minute—and often superficial—differences among a gang of largely interchangeable agents of anti-Trumpian liberalism.

Which is all a fancy way of saying that, after all the pomp and circumstance of this campaign—the debates, the advertisements, the journalistic think pieces—maybe I’ll just make it easy on myself and go with Bernie for a second time.

Indeed, I opted for the junior senator from Vermont at this juncture in the previous cycle. Not because I thought he could win—by the time the Bay State’s turn came around, Secretary Clinton’s nomination was more or less a fait accompli—but rather because of the sheer indestructability of his convictions relative to Clinton’s endless hedging, equivocating and triangulating.

The joke about Sanders in 2016 was that, as Joe Scarborough quipped, he’s “been saying the same thing since 1962”; that he is basically a one-trick pony—a latter-day Eugene V. Debs striking out for the rights of the downtrodden, seeking a fairer and more equitable society in which the top 1 percent doesn’t control 99 percent of everything.

Four years hence, as the Democratic Party has drifted ever-farther to the left, Sanders remains more or less exactly where he has always been. The known-est of known quantities. The democratic-socialist-for-life who will sing his gospel of wealth redistribution until the last dog dies.

In this way, there are really two types of left-leaning voters: Those who find Sanders’s ideological rigidity inspiring, and those who find it insufferable. While I have always firmly been a member of the first group, I am not quite what you’d call a “Bernie bro,” nor am I prepared to walk across hot coals or jump off a bridge in order to bring about the so-called Revolution. As a skeptic-bordering-on-cynic, I lack the imagination to assume anything close to Sanders’s plans for fully-subsidized healthcare and education could be implemented in my lifetimenor am I certain that they should beand I find the cult-like arrogance of his minions tiresome and counterproductive.

At the same time, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the philosophy of entering a negotiation demanding everything and settling for half, rather than demanding half and settling for nothing, and there is reason to believe the sheer zeal of Sanders’s economic views would yield at least a modicum of forward progress on the issues about which he cares the most—much as Donald Trump’s zeal on immigration has produced substantive (albeit horrifying) changes along our southern border.

In that vein, there may be no more glowing or succinct characterization of Bernie Sanders as a public official than from the winner of the JFK Library’s “Profiles in Courage” essay contest in 2000, who wrote of Sanders, “His energy, candor, conviction, and ability to bring people together stand against the current of opportunism, moral compromise, and partisanship which runs rampant on the American political scene. He and few others like him have the power to restore principle and leadership in Congress and to win back the faith of a voting public weary and wary of political opportunism.”

That essay writer was Pete Buttigieg, making the 2020 case for Bernie perhaps a bit too convincingly for his own good.

At press time, Sanders is either leading or tied in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. As with his closest competitors, were he to win both of those states, the nomination would become his to lose. Should he become the nominee at the Democratic convention in July—an eventuality that virtually no mainstream media outlet even considered until last week—it will be because a critical mass of the electorate (possibly including me) reached the same conclusion Mayor Pete did two decades ago: If the Democrats are going to lose the next election, they might as well do it honestly, with a nominee who embodies their true values and will fight like hell to defend them.

It’s a nice way to win, too.