2020 is Not 20/20

Now that the 2018 midterms are finally, blessedly behind us, the 2020 presidential campaign can officially begin—and, with it, the mother-of-all-$64,000 questions:  Who will be sworn in as commander-in-chief on January 20, 2021?

The correct answer—or at least the most likely—is Donald Trump.  Like Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton before him, Trump in 2020 will carry all the built-in advantages of incumbency—money, familiarity and the presumed endorsement of his party.  Add to that his utter shamelessness and Triumph of the Will-style campaign rallies, and you have a nearly unbeatable force of nature that the Democratic Party is thus far unprepared to vanquish on a national scale.

That said, if the Democrats manage to field a challenger to Trump who succeeds in becoming the 46th president, history suggests he or she will be someone none of us is taking seriously today—and probably won’t take seriously until maybe a week or two before the New Hampshire primary some 14 months from now.

Lord knows this was the case two years ago, when the very notion of Donald Trump as a public official struck the entire media-industrial complex as an absurd fever dream until around 10:30 on Election Night.  So, too, was Barack Obama’s candidacy, eight years earlier, seen as a quixotic curiosity against the Hillary Clinton juggernaut until Obama nabbed one more delegate than Clinton in the Iowa caucuses and turned the entire 2008 narrative on its head.

Then there was the previous Democratic golden boy, Bill Clinton, who began the 1992 primaries all-but-unknown outside his home state of Arkansas and didn’t win a single primary until Super Tuesday—nearly a month after the Iowa caucuses, where he placed a very distant third.  Going back even further, much the same was the case with Jimmy Carter—a Southern governor who emerged from essentially nowhere and charged to the front of the pack, accumulating delegates and raw popular excitement along the way.

As I see it, the lesson from this is twofold.  First:  If the Democrats are interested in defeating Trump in 2020, the worst they could possibly do is to nominate a known quantity.  And second:  Anyone who believes he or she knows how the Democratic primaries will shake out is utterly and irretrievably full of it and should be ignored for as long as possible.

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Nice and Not Crazy

I’ll begin with a confession:  I like Charlie Baker.  I like him a lot.  When he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2014, I voted for him on the assumption that he was a competent, decent, even-tempered guy who shared most of my core values and would play well with others on Beacon Hill.

After four years on the job—and on the eve of his likely election to a second term—Baker strikes me as a competent, decent, even-tempered guy who shares most of my core values and plays well with others on Beacon Hill.

Broadly speaking, Baker has been exactly the sort of governor I expected him to be, and I’ve never once regretted endorsing him the first time around.  All things being equal, I would have no qualms voting for him again on Tuesday, if only in recognition of the refreshing normalness and temperance of both his administration and his own character.

And yet, in 2018, all things are not equal.  Our country runs on a two-party system, and over the last several years, one of those parties has retained a minimal sense of civic responsibility, while the other has lost its goddamned mind.

For all his personal and political strengths, Charlie Baker is a card-carrying Republican at a moment in history when Republicans, as a group, have proved themselves both unable and unwilling to govern in a rational, productive manner—opting, instead, to tether themselves to the moral abomination that is President Donald Trump.

Until this changes—that is, until Trump ceases to be the embodiment and figurehead of the present-day GOP—I simply cannot stomach lending support to any candidate who identifies with the same party as our insane commander-in-chief.

In some ways, this is unfair—if only in this one case.  As Massachusetts residents well know, Baker is about as un-Trump-like as a Republican could possibly be in 2018.  He’s the guy, for instance, who signed a first-in-the-nation bump stock ban following the massacre in Las Vegas last October.  He’s the guy who (belatedly) supported a law protecting transgender rights, and is now defending said law against a ballot referendum that would reverse it.  He’s the guy who violated his own “no new taxes” pledge in order to fund paid family leave and raise the state’s minimum wage.  He’s the guy who, when asked to pick three words to describe President Trump, chose, “Outrageous.  Disgraceful.  Divider.”

With a record like that, one wonders why Baker doesn’t just get it over with and declare himself a Democrat—or, at the very least, pull a Jeff Flake and publicly lament that the GOP of yore is nothing like the GOP of today.  With an approval rating in the upper 60s and arguably the most liberal constituency in the nation, what, for heaven’s sake, would he have to lose by turning his back on the Republican Party once and for all?

While we wait for a satisfactory answer, the good people of Massachusetts have another choice for governor this year in the person of Jay Gonzalez—like Baker, a former health insurance executive and secretary of administration and finance—whose progressive bona fides are unassailable and in perfect sync with those of the commonwealth he hopes to lead, up to and including his pledge to enact single-payer healthcare and tax the rich to pay for it.

Indeed, from transportation to the environment, from education to civil rights, Gonzalez’s pitch to voters can roughly be distilled to, “I will do what Baker is doing, but with more enthusiasm and higher taxes.”  As a candidate, Gonzalez has effectively diagnosed Baker’s most glaring flaw—namely, his maddening reluctance to tackle major problems in a bold, aggressive manner—and spoken truth to lameness in arguing, “The measure of whether our governor’s doing a good job shouldn’t be that he’s nice and not crazy.”

Fair enough.  But if that’s really the case, why is Gonzalez—the more natural ideological fit for Massachusetts—currently trailing Baker by nearly 40 points in the polls?

My own answer—the one that nearly drove me back into Baker’s arms until the final days of this campaign—is that America deserves two fully-functioning political parties, each populated by the best and brightest minds available, and when it comes to the GOP, Charlie Baker is about as good as it’s gonna get.  If we throw Baker out with the bath water, his party’s ideological center of gravity will move ever-farther to the right, which in the long run would bode well neither for the party nor America as a whole.  That may not be reason enough for liberals to vote for him on November 6, but it’s nonetheless sufficient to make one feel a slight tinge of relief that he’s probably gonna stick around for another four years.

Unknown Unknowns

“What if we were wrong?”

So mused Barack Obama to an aide shortly after November 8, 2016, as the election returns poured in and it became clear Donald Trump—not Hillary Clinton—would be the next president of the United States.  After a full year of assuming someone as vulgar and cruel as Trump could not conceivably be elected commander-in-chief, Obama was suddenly faced with the possibility that he lived in a very different country from the one he inherited eight years earlier—and perhaps he should’ve seen it earlier.

It is the rare politician who has the nerve and humility to admit he was (possibly) mistaken, but the truth is that even us private citizens are loathe to acknowledge personal weakness and tend to avoid doing so at almost any cost.  In the tribal world we now inhabit, certitude takes precedence over nuance every time, because when all discourse is reduced to a zero-sum blood sport, there can be no such thing as ambiguity, complexity or doubt.

With 18 days until the midterms and control of Congress hanging ever-so-precariously in the balance, it is my fondest wish for my fellow Americans to take a cue from President Obama and stop being so goddamned certain about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Surely, if the last election cycle taught us anything—about our leaders, our politics and ourselves—it’s that there’s almost nothing we can claim to know beyond doubt, and the consequences of assuming otherwise can be catastrophic.

To wit:  If the biggest mistake the left made in 2016 was to assume Trump could not possibly win, it stands to reason their biggest mistake in 2020 will be to assume he could not possibly win again.  This despite the fact that a) his three immediate predecessors were all re-elected handily, and b) Trump himself continues to defy all laws of political gravity, maintaining a fairly consistent—albeit consistently tepid—approval rating no matter what unholy nonsense is going on around him.

That so many liberals still refuse to see what is directly in front of their nose—namely, that Donald Trump is, thus far, politically unsinkable—is reflective of the blue team’s broader intellectual weakness of believing Trump and his acolytes are a bunch of rubes who have nothing useful to teach them.

But what if they do?  What if Trump’s personal indestructability is attributable not merely to rank stupidity on the part of 40 percent of the electorate, but rather to concrete policy achievements and genuine political skill?  What if Trump is smarter and shrewder than his critics give him credit for?  What if there are certain issues on which he has acquitted himself well, and not merely through beginner’s dumb luck?

What if, say, the 2017 tax bill really did supercharge the economy and make most Americans lives better?  What if Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea really did bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table?  What if Trump’s proposed Mexican wall really would protect the U.S. from drugs and criminals spilling across our southern border?

Then there are the issues that extend well beyond Trump himself.  For instance, what if the federal government really is overstuffed with bureaucrats and regulations and deserves a bit of thinning out around the edges?  What if the direst predictions about climate change are overblown and the proposed solutions not worth the cost?  What if single-payer health insurance leads to less efficient care?  What if armed guards at schools prevent more gun deaths than they cause?  What if political correctness—on campus and off—has become so pervasive that it now poses a real threat to free speech in the public square?  What if Brett Kavanaugh didn’t assault Christine Blasey Ford in 1982?

None of these questions are settled—some may never be—yet nearly all of us act like the answers are obvious and not worth debatingand, what’s more, that those with differing views are not just wrong, but evil, beyond redemption and deserving of our bottomless contempt.

The result of this—as any clear-eyed person can see—is a society of angry, arrogant, insufferable boors for whom a question like “What if we were wrong?” is treated like a punchline, eliciting guffaws and eyerolls instead of even a moment’s thoughtful pause.

In this disheartening period of civic discourse, I am reminded of a 2006 speech by the late British-American pugilist Christopher Hitchens, who challenged his audience to ask itself, “How do I know what I already think I know?”

“It’s always worth establishing first principles,” Hitchens argued.  “It’s always worth saying, ‘What would I do if I ever met a Flat Earth Society member?  Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round?  How sure am I of my own views?’”

Finishing the thought, Hitchens cautioned, “Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think, you’re bound to be OK because you’re in the safely moral majority.

In 2018, there is no such thing as consensus, and we should start acting accordingly.  Not by abandoning all the values we hold dear, but simply by recognizing that ours are not the only values that have value.

To the Bride and Groom

The following toast was delivered at my brother’s wedding on Sunday, October 7, 2018.

First, congratulations to Brian and Tina on finally becoming husband and wife.

Thanks to Brian for making me best man.  Since you know I have no intention of returning the favor—not soon, anyway—I assume you’re just paying me back for all the Little League games I attended in high school.  I knew that would pay off eventually.

It’s a pleasure to be back in the Greater Yorktown area for this momentous occasion.  I never would’ve guessed that seeing Hamilton would be the second-biggest event of my week.  But then, it’s not every week that my baby brother gets married to the finest woman he (or I) have ever met.  Not even Lin-Manuel Miranda can top that.

Seven years ago, on Christmas Day, Brian boarded a plane to Israel and met a nice girl from Washington Heights.  When he returned 10 days later, he spent a full year raving about what a magical, life-changing experience it was, and how he’d never be the same because of it.  It was only the following Christmas, when I actually met that girl for the first time, that I finally understood what he meant.  As it turns out, he was not talking about the falafel.

And, of course, he was right.  Everything had changed.  He had met the woman of his dreams and it was full steam ahead.  Three years ago, in June, as we were sitting on a dock on Martha’s Vineyard, Brian told me that he was going to ask Tina to marry him.  And, in the end, it only took him another 28 months to do so.

As I stand here today, I could not be prouder or more relieved that events of the last seven years have led Brian to this moment.  I’ve known him his entire life, and I haven’t seen him this happy since the night Mom and Dad got us an N64 for Chanukah.

I’m pretty happy, too, for my own particular reasons.  Before Tina came along, Brian was basically an uncultured frat boy whose idea of high culture extended about as far as Adam Sandler and the WWF.  What’s more, he seemed almost to revel in rejecting my many attempts over the years to infuse my own, much more refined tastes into him, leading to such moments as when he called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the worst music he’d ever heard in his life.

But now, seven years after that fateful encounter in the Holy Land?  Well, he’s still a frat boy—we had his bachelor party in New Orleans, for heaven’s sake—but he is also responsible, generous, engaging, literate and, dare I say, sophisticated.  Today, he patronizes local arts organizations, reads The New Yorker, experienced The Who and Bruce Springsteen live, actually watches the DVDs I send him on his birthday, and even managed to see Hamilton before I did.  (They know a guy.)

Now, I’ve been trying to knock some good taste into Brian practically since the day he was born, and so while I would love to take credit for all—or, frankly, any—of the above—the truth is that all glory goes to Tina, his other and, let’s be honest, much better half.

Simply be being herself, she has become the Henry Higgins to Brian’s Eliza Doolittle.  In the years they’ve been together, Tina has not only made Brian a better man, but she’s made him want to be a better man, because he knows that a woman as smart and clever as her deserves every measure of devotion that he can give, and it’s to his everlasting credit that he’s willing to give it all.

He’s gonna be the best husband he can be.  The best brother, the best son.  He’s gonna make our family great again.

Something Nice to Say

I suppose you’ll regard me a sentimental old fluff, but I’ve always had a soft spot for politicians who say nice things about their opponents.  Partisanship in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere has grown so absolute in recent years, mutating into more and more of a zero-sum blood sport, that it feels outright quaint when some senator or other puts in a good word for a colleague of the other party—especially when he or she has no particular reason to do so.

As the nation commemorates the death of John McCain—war hero, senator and two-time presidential candidate—a great deal has been said and written about the moment in 2008 when McCain defended the honor of Barack Obama against the racist ranting of some idiot at a town hall.  (The audience member called Obama “an Arab.”  McCain responded, “He’s a decent family man.”)  While one can argue McCain’s retort was itself racist—who knew Islam and decency were mutually exclusive?—it was plainly, if clumsily, meant in a spirit of generosity towards a man who, at that moment, posed an existential threat to McCain’s greatest ambition in life:  the presidency.

While that flourish of sportsmanship had acquired near-mythical status even before McCain’s death, what has been largely forgotten is how careful then-Senator Obama was about showing due deference to McCain every time his name came up.  Watch any stump speech from that period, and you’ll find Obama preceding virtually any criticism of his electoral adversary with some iteration of, “John McCain is an American hero and we honor his service.”

For Obama, there were both moral and strategic reasons to maintain an effusive respect for McCain’s personal history and character, and they reflected well on both men.  Having not served in the armed forces himself—much less withstood five-and-half years of torture as a prisoner of war—Obama understood he could not attempt to out-patriot McCain without making himself look ridiculous, so instead he simply conceded the point and moved on.

In so doing, Obama demonstrated both a humility and self-confidence about his lack of military service that few other non-veteran politicos (including a certain sitting president) possess.  It was as if to say, “I don’t need to be the braver man in order to be the better president.”  In the end, the American people agreed.

Because presidential (and other) elections have grown exponentially nastier over the past decade, with candidates loath to cede the slightest advantage to their challengers—reticent, indeed, to view them as human beings—it has largely fallen to the press to coax a touch of class out of these otherwise soulless contests.  More often than not, televised debates will feature some version of the question, “What is one thing you admire about your opponent?”  It’s an entirely worthy query to include in a public forum, precisely because so few politicians are willing (or able) to provide an honest answer.  As such, their responses often provide a useful insight into their psyches.

Historically, the most typical response is an approximation of Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, when she offered that the most (read:  only) admirable thing about Donald Trump was the apparent love of his family—a weak, lazy, evasive answer that recalls Bill Maher’s quip, “Hitler’s dog liked him.”  Oddly, Trump’s (forced) compliment for Clinton—“She doesn’t quit; she doesn’t give up; I respect that”—registered as the far more genuine and heartfelt of the two.  Who’d a thunk?

More impressive still—not least for its specificity—was Elizabeth Warren in her first Senate race, in 2012, against Republican incumbent Scott Brown, whom she complimented in a debate for his Senate vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that had prevented LGBT soldiers from serving openly.  As a liberal Democrat in Massachusetts, Warren would’ve had good reason not to mention what was arguably Brown’s most progressive act in the Senate—i.e., the decision most likely to win him a decisive number of Democratic votes on Election Day—yet, instead, she gave him credit for doing the right thing at a critical moment, unafraid that it would backfire at the polls.  In the end, it didn’t.

And why should it have?  For all the junk energy the public derives from WWE-style political gamesmanship, Americans equally appreciate—and are presently starved for—such old-time virtues as generosity, modesty and temperance from their representatives on Capitol Hill.  We may no longer expect that sort of upstanding behavior from these disreputable people, but seeing as we continue to pay their salaries and bear the consequences of all their official acts, we should jolly well demand nothing less.

Speaking well of one’s counterparts, however disagreeable, constitutes a form of charity in an otherwise bankrupt world—a means of acknowledging someone else’s humanity even while engaged in a political duel to the death—and it is my fondest wish that more public figures would run the risk of making other people look good every now and again, understanding that, in a roundabout way, it will make themselves look pretty good, too.

Cult 45

Way back in 2015, when the candidacy of Donald Trump struck most of America as a joke, many of us floated the theory—with tongue only half in cheek—that Trump was actually a Democratic Party plant, installed in the GOP primaries to discredit the entire Republican Party and ensure Hillary Clinton would be elected president in November 2016.

While history has rendered this hypothesis obsolete, there remains the underlying assumption upon which the theory was based, which is that Trump serves as a moral Rorschach test for every would-be conservative in America.

Posed as a question, the test is simply this:  How many of your so-called principles are you prepared to sacrifice on the altar of the most unprincipled man in America?  How many bridges are you willing to jump off before realizing that each one leads to nowhere?

If Donald Trump shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, would you still vote for him in 2020?

Of course, it was Trump himself who asserted early on that the answer to that last question is “yes” among his core supporters, and if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that he couldn’t have been more right.

At this point in his presidency, Trump is not a public servant so much as a personality cult, and as the corruption piles up and more and more of his deputies get hauled off to prison, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a certain fraction of the American public—roughly 30 percent, although estimates vary—who are so emotionally invested in Trump—the man, the brand, the whatever—that no amount of criminality is strong enough to penetrate the bubble of loyalty that exists between the commander-in-chief and his fellow travelers, the latter of whom appear utterly incapable of seeing what is directly in front of their noses—namely, that the man they worship is a crook.

They’re not drinking the Kool-Aid.  They’re injecting it intravenously.

As with all personality cults, the fundamental problem isn’t the leader himself; it’s his followers.  Any schmuck can stand on a platform and declare himself king.  The question is whether there is a critical mass of people desperate and gullible enough to hand him the crown and obey his every command.  There is no con without a mark, and it remains truly frightening how many of them the 45th president has acquired and maintained from the moment he entered the political fray.

While Trump undoubtedly constitutes the most insidious personality cult in American life today, his is hardly the only one from which to choose.  Unseemly as it might sound, Republicans hardly have a monopoly on prostrating themselves to a populist politician who promises them the moon.

How else to describe the famous “Bernie Bros”?  You know them:  The far-left supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who quote his über-progressive platform word-for-word and will expound for hours about how the 2016 primaries were rigged—rigged, I tell you!—against their beloved Bernie by the evil Democratic Party establishment.  Never mind that Hillary Clinton received 3.7 million more votes than Sanders, winning 34 contests to Sanders’s 23:  The point, sayeth the Bros, is that Sanders was the only Democratic contender who could’ve defeated Trump in 2016, and in 2020 it is he—and he alone!—who could pry Trump from power and usher his socialist utopia into existence.

Sure sounds cultish to me.

This is not to imply a moral equivalence between Sanders and Trump, only one of whom is a repugnant, shameless charlatan with no sense of basic human decency.  Say what you will about the junior senator from Vermont and his pie-in-the-sky ideas, but Sanders has shown not a whiff of the racism or xenophobia that—odious as they are in one person—can quickly grow dangerous and deadly when harnessed by millions of mindless lemmings who believe they are acting on the Dear Leader’s orders.

And yet, in the end, a cult is still a cult, and the unifying characteristic of all cults is mindlessness—i.e., the willful suspension of one’s intellectual faculties in service of a singular Great Man to whom all loyalty is owed and from whom all of life’s problems will be solved.  If the unquestioned adherence to Trump by the MAGA crowd takes this tendency to new heights—or should we say depths?—by and large, much the same was true for the most hardcore supporters of Barack Obama, whose very existence was seen as a panacea for all the partisan discord ravaging Washington, D.C., circa 2008.

In time, of course, a majority of Obama’s admirers came to realize that, for all his personal qualities, the 44th president could not walk on water after all, and was as capable of betraying his campaign promises as any commander-in-chief who came before him.

Will the aura of infallibility eventually break among those who worship Donald Trump—a man who, unlike Obama, seems to truly believe he can do no wrong?

Meet me on Fifth Avenue for the answer.

A Woman in the House

Will 2018 be the year of the black woman in Boston?

Massachusetts’ primary elections will be held on September 4—the day after Labor Day, regrettably—and while there are several interesting intra-party races across the Bay State this season, far and away the most compelling is the Democratic nominating contest for the 7th congressional district between incumbent Michael Capuano and his challenger, Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley.

District 7—encompassing most of Boston and a handful of surrounding towns—is the most ethnically and racially diverse in the state (only one-third of its residents are white), yet it has been represented for the last 20 years by Capuano, a straight white man, who has not faced a serious challenger from either party since his first campaign in 1998.

The main reason for this—apart from the historical tendency for incumbents to be re-elected at a near-100 percent rate—is that Capuano, 66, is an unabashed across-the-board liberal who has consistently spoken and voted in the interests of his constituents since the day he took office.  (Among other things, he boasts perfect ratings from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Human Rights Campaign, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the NAACP.)  As such, the good people of the 7th district have found little reason to make a change in who represents them on Capitol Hill.

Until now.

Ayanna Pressley, 44, who has been resoundingly re-elected to the Boston City Council biennially since 2009, is gunning for Capuano’s seat without any particular beef with his record or worldview.  Offered the chance to differentiate her political views from his, Pressley is wont to change the subject or talk herself into a corner, underlining the awkward fact that when it comes to the proverbial issues, there is virtually no daylight between these two candidates.  Line-by-line, pound-for-pound, Capuano and Pressley embody two sides of the same liberal coin.

Pressley’s real argument—enunciated in every interview and every debate—is that there is more to being a congressperson than having the right views or voting the right way.  That in a district where being left-of-center goes without saying, it is equally (if not more) important that a representative possess the life experience and perspective necessary to champion the needs of America’s demographic underdogs, of which her district contains multitudes.

As a black woman with a turbulent upbringing (she speaks of being the victim of multiple sexual assaults in her youth), Pressley presents herself as precisely the sort of person District 7 needs in 2018:  A poised, energetic, indefatigable advocate for her fellow women and people of color, prepared to stand toe-to-toe with House Republicans in defense of everything from abortion rights to criminal justice reform.  If she and Capuano are more-or-less ideologically interchangeable on paper, Pressley is the one with real skin in the game—and, by implication, will fight just a little bit harder for the kind of society her district wants and deserves.

The down-and-dirty truth is that Pressley is running for Congress as if Capuano didn’t exist—or, more precisely, as if his were an open seat and Capuano had no institutional advantage and deserved no benefit of the doubt.  (Capuano regularly cites his seniority as a virtue.)  She is running, in short, because she wants to—and why on Earth shouldn’t she?

Indeed, if this race weren’t a referendum on a 20-year incumbent, it would almost surely be Pressley’s to lose.  Beyond being a black woman in a minority-majority district, Pressley is the more polished public speaker of the two, as well as the more photogenic and the one more adept—for better or worse—at inspiring a rambunctious, loyal following among her would-be constituents.

Does this mean she’ll win the primary on September 4?  The polls say no—an August 2 survey had Capuano ahead, 48-35—but then again, the polls also said Joseph Crowley would beat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York on June 26, and look how well that went.

By any measure, Michael Capuano has been a faithful, passionate and effective representative of Massachusetts’ 7th district these past 20 years (I lived there for eight of them).  His defeat, should it occur, would be a major loss for the people of Boston.  Then again, a victory by Ayanna Pressley would almost surely be a major gain.