Biden His Time

Here’s a political question for us all:  Was the death of Beau Biden in May 2015 the most consequential event of the 2016 election?

Prior to being diagnosed with the brain cancer that would ultimately kill him, Beau Biden was a rising talent in the Democratic Party, serving as Delaware’s attorney general and generally assumed to be destined for higher office of one sort or another.

He was also the son of Joe Biden, then the sitting vice president and presumptive leading contender for the Oval Office in 2016.  By all accounts, the elder Biden was fully intent on a third run for president—following failed attempts in 1988 and 2008—and it was entirely due to the timing of his son’s illness and death that he decided to take a pass and effectively cede the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton.  And we know how well that went.

It’s the great political “What if?” of our time:  Would the 2016 election have ended differently had Joe Biden been in the mix?

With regards to the Democratic primaries, God only knows.  Maybe Hillary would’ve cleaned Biden’s clock—as both she and Barack Obama did in 2008.  Maybe he would’ve self-imploded through some embarrassing self-own, as he did in 1988 when it was found that he had plagiarized several of his campaign speeches.  Maybe he and Hillary would’ve fought to a protracted, bitter stalemate, allowing a third, outsider candidate (*cough* Bernie *cough*) to sneak past both of them.

But if Biden had somehow bested all his Democratic counterparts and emerged as the party’s nominee, could he have defeated Trump on November 8?

Answer:  Obviously yes.

Of course Biden could’ve defeated Trump in 2016.  Of course he could’ve flipped 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—i.e., the three states that wound up swinging the whole damn election.  Of course he could’ve appealed to a not-insignificant chunk of white, semi-deplorable working-class folk who otherwise find Democrats acutely irritating and Hillary positively intolerable.

Yes, in an alternate universe, Joe Biden could’ve been sworn in as the 45th president on January 20, 2017.

I say “could’ve,” not “would’ve,” since any counterfactual involves an infinite number of variables we can’t even begin to imagine.  What’s more, given the historically low occurrence of one political party winning three presidential elections in a row, it’s hardly inconceivable that Trump could’ve defeated any number of Democratic opponents in that strange moment of populist rage—not least the one most closely associated with the outgoing administration.

That said, hindsight strongly suggests Biden would’ve navigated the 2016 campaign more adroitly than Clinton did—if only from a lack of questionable e-mails or a sexual predator spouse—and may well have made the biggest mistake of his life in choosing not to take the plunge when he had the chance.

The relevant follow-up, then, is whether Biden’s apparently imminent entry into the 2020 primaries—for real this time!—will follow through on the untested promise of 2016 and serve as the de facto Obama restoration half the country has craved for the last two-plus years.  Or, instead, whether Biden’s moment really has come and gone, and the best he could do would be to sail off into retirement as a beloved (albeit slightly pervy) elder statesman.

In other words:  Having become as respected and endearing as almost any public figure in America today, why would Biden risk becoming a loser and a laughingstock yet again for the sake of one last roll in the hay?

The short answer is that Biden just really, really wants to be president.  Always has, apparently always will.  How badly, you ask?  Well, badly enough to address multiple recent allegations of unwanted physical contact by insisting that he regrets none of it and isn’t sorry about a damn thing.

And what about it?  On the subject of #MeToo-era sensitivity about men behaving predatorily, let’s not kid ourselves:  In a society where “Grab ‘em by the pussy” yielded support of 53 percent of white women, who’s to say “I enjoy smelling women’s hair but I’m also pro-choice” isn’t a winning route to 270 electoral votes?

The only certainty about the 2020 election is that no one has any idea how it will shake out—particularly those who claim they do.  Biden could defeat Trump in the sense that anyone could defeat Trump, although the converse is equally true.  Is he the most “electable” of all the Democrats in the field?  With 301 days until the first primary votes are cast, how much are you willing to wager that the word “electable” holds any meaning whatsoever?

I’ll leave you with this possibly-interesting piece of trivia:  The last non-incumbent former vice president to be elected commander-in-chief in his own right was Richard Nixon in 1968.  Care to guess how many times it happened before that?

Answer:  Zero.

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The Bernie Conundrum

The Massachusetts Democratic primary is scheduled for March 3, 2020—exactly one year from Sunday—and, oddly enough, I haven’t yet decided for whom I will vote.  With a dozen-odd officially-declared candidates to choose from—and God knows how many more waiting in the wings—I see no particular rush in picking one potential future president over another.  Apart from anything else, I try always to bear in mind Christopher Hitchens’s observation that politicians tend to work a little harder for your vote if you haven’t given it away in advance.

That said, I can’t help noting that the Democratic candidate for whom I voted in the 2016 primary is also a candidate this year.

The hopeful in question is of course one Bernie Sanders, the cranky junior senator from Vermont who was into Democratic socialism before it was cool and whose supposedly loony-toon advocacy for universal healthcare has since become a core tenet of Democratic Party orthodoxy in one form or another.

In 2016, I supported Sanders over Hillary Clinton on the strength of his integrity and liberal bona fides—as Joe Scarborough quipped at the time, “He’s been saying the same thing since 1962”—and I would be prepared to support him over any number of other contenders in 2020 for the exact same reasons.

And yet…

You see, my feelings about Bernie Sanders have grown rather complicated as of late—not by Sanders himself, per se, as by his most ravenous defenders and by what he represents in the American body politic.

Since 2016, my (somewhat cheeky) bumper sticker shorthand for Sanders has been, “Trump, Minus the Racism.”  For all the obvious differences between the two men—to quote Matt Taibbi, “Sanders worries about the poor, while Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat”—there were (and still are) certain ways in which Sanders’s and Trump’s views of the world overlap.  Then and now, both reject the so-called wisdom of the Washington, D.C., establishment of both parties.  Both understand the corrosive, something-is-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark role of big money in our political system.  Both are scornful of America’s overly-expansive presence on the world stage.  Both are happy-warrior populists who say exactly what’s on their mind without any filter between their brain and their mouth.

And both inspire a measure of loyalty from a core group of supporters that can only be described as cult-like.  On one side is the Basket of Deplorables.  On the other are the Bernie Bros.

For both groups, the American Dream has effectively become unreachable for all but the most privileged among us—thanks largely to several decades of “rigged” policies by the nation’s elites—and nothing less than a wholesale blowing up of the entire system is sufficient to restore America to its former glory.

The problem with framing our country’s class and cultural divide in quasi-apocalyptic terms—appealing as it sounds at first blush—is that it naturally leads one in search of a savior—someone who presumes to walk on water and spin straw into gold.  And once such a messianic figure is found, it becomes increasingly second nature to view him as infallible—and, more alarming still, irreplaceable.

With Trump and Sanders both, that is precisely what has occurred.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump made a wretched spectacle of himself by describing the United States as a raging dumpster fire and proclaiming, “I alone can fix it.”  While Sanders himself has not quite sunk to such depths of solipsism and delusions of grandeur, his fans have gladly taken up the cause on his behalf, crying all over social media, “Bernie is our only hope!”—implying, with more than a hint of a threat, that if Democratic primary voters opt for one of Sanders’s gazillion intra-party competitors instead of him in 2020, they will shop around for an alternative, Jill Stein-like figure to support in the general election.  As far as they’re concerned, if Bernie can’t have this country, we might as well let it burn.

Needless to say, not all Sanders supporters are obstinate ideological absolutists.  After all, I’m a Sanders supporter and I’m not absolutist about much of anything beyond the correct way to eat a slice of pizza (handheld, folded in half, obviously).

What worries me, however, is that the amplifying—and, dare I say, toxic—effects of the interwebs will cause Sanders to be singularly associated with a gang of humorless, rabid, mansplaining lemmings, thereby turning off millions of otherwise “gettable” voters on both sides of the national divide, greatly narrowing his path to victory and, should victory come, making his operation look less like an organic grassroots political movement and more like the Church of Scientology—a place where unquestioned fealty to doctrine is required at all times and the perfect is forever and always made the enemy of the good.

I guess what I most desire for the 2020 election and our next president are skepticism, nuance and a wee touch of humility every now and again.  We’ve now lived more than two years under a commander-in-chief who seems to truly believe he has never been wrong about anything—or, at the very least, will never admit as much publicly—and who views dissent of any sort as a threat and a nuisance rather than an opportunity for personal and political growth.

Are we sure Bernie Sanders—the man whose views haven’t changed in half a century—is the ideal corrective to this state of affairs?  Is it really enough to replace one stubborn old mule with another simply because the second is smarter, kinder and more dignified than the first?

I don’t have the answer to that question today.  Ask me again in a year.

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.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

It says a lot about America that John McCain was never elected president.  It says even more that, in retrospect, we sort of wish he had been.

Indeed, all the way back in 2001, during an interview with Charlie Rose (ahem), Bill Maher cited McCain—recently defeated in the GOP primaries by George W. Bush—as among his favorite Republican politicians.  “He’s everyone’s favorite,” said Rose, to which Maher dismissively retorted, “Then why doesn’t he win?”

It’s a damn good question, and a useful lens through which to view our entire political system.  As McCain clings ever-more-precariously to life—having spent the last 10 months ravaged by glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer—we might reflect on the strange way that our most accomplished and admired public officials tend not to rise all the way to the Oval Office—and why a great many more never bother to run in the first place.

On paper, McCain would seem exactly the sort of person the Founding Fathers had in mind as a national leader:  A scrappy rebel from a distinguished family who proves his mettle on the battlefield, then parlays that fame into a steady career in public service.  (He was first elected to Congress in 1982 and has never held another job.)

While hardly a first-class intellect—he famously graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis—McCain’s grit and endurance through five-and-a-half years of torture and deprivation in a Vietnamese prison forever burnished his reputation as among the most indefatigable men in American life—someone who would speak truth to bullshit and hold no loyalties except to his own conscience.  Having cheated death multiple times, here was a man with precious little to fear and even less to lose.

Against this noble backdrop, it would be the understatement of the year to say that, as a two-time presidential candidate, John McCain was a complicated and contradictory figure—perhaps even a tragic one.  In 2000, he established his political persona as a crusty, “straight-talking” “maverick,” only to be felled in South Carolina by a racist Bush-sanctioned robocall operation that McCain was too gentlemanly to condemn.  (The robocalls implied, among other things, that McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh was an out-of-wedlock “love child.”)

Eight years later, having learned a thing or three about brass-knuckles campaigning, McCain scraped and clawed his way to the Republican nomination—besting no fewer than 11 competitors—only to throw it all away with the single most irresponsible decision of his life:  His selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

With nearly a decade of hindsight, the science is in that choosing Palin—a world-class ignoramus and America’s gateway drug to Donald Trump—constituted the selling of McCain’s soul for the sake of political expediency.  Rather than running with his good friend (and non-Republican) Joe Lieberman and losing honorably, he opted to follow his advisers’ reckless gamble and win dishonorably.  That he managed to lose anyway—the final, unalterable proof that the universe has a sense of humor—was the perfect denouement to this most Sisyphean of presidential odysseys.  He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

The truth is that McCain wouldn’t have won the 2008 election no matter what he did, and this had very little to do with him.  After eight years of George W. Bush—a member of McCain’s party, with approval ratings below 30 percent in his final months—the thrust of history was simply too strong for anyone but a Democrat to prevail that November.  (Since 1948, only once has the same party won three presidential elections in a row.)

If McCain was ever going to become president, it would’ve been in 2000.  Pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War and post-Bill Clinton, a colorful, self-righteous veteran could’ve wiped the floor with a stiff, boring policy wonk like Al Gore.

Why didn’t he get that chance?  The official explanation (as mentioned) is the reprehensible smear campaign Team Bush unloaded in the South Carolina primary.  However, the more complete answer is that Republican primary voters throughout the country simply didn’t view McCain as one of their own.  Compared to Bush—a born-again Christian with an unambiguously conservative record—McCain was a quasi-liberal apostate who called Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance” and seemed to hold a large chunk of the GOP base in bemused contempt.

McCain’s problem, in other words, was the primary system itself, in which only the most extreme and partisan among us actually participate, thereby disadvantaging candidates who—whether through their ideas or their character—might appeal to a wider, more ideologically diverse audience later on.  Recent casualties of this trend include the likes of John Kasich and John Huntsman on the right to John Edwards and (arguably) Bernie Sanders on the left.

On the other hand, sometimes primary voters will do precisely the opposite by selecting nominees whom they perceive to be the most “electable”—a strategy that, in recent decades, has produced an almost perfect record of failure, from John Kerry to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton.

By being his best self in 2000 and his worst self in 2008, McCain managed to fall into both traps and end up nowhere.  Indeed, he may well have been a victim of bad timing more than anything else—as was, say, Chris Christie by not running in 2012 or Hillary Clinton by not running in 2004.

Then again, all of history is based on contingencies, and it is the job of the shrewd politician to calibrate his strengths to the tenor of the moment without sacrificing his core identity.  However appealing he may be in a vacuum, he must be the right man at the right time—the one thing Barack Obama and Donald Trump had in common.

As Brian Wilson would say, maybe John McCain just wasn’t made for these times.  Maybe he wasn’t elected president because America didn’t want him to be president.  Maybe his purpose in life was to be exactly what he was:  A fiery renegade senator who drove everybody a little crazy and loved every minute of it.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been any good as commander-in-chief anyhow—too impulsive, too hawkish—and maybe we’re better off not knowing for sure.

Will someone of McCain’s ilk ever rise to the nation’s highest office in the future?  Wouldn’t it be nice if they did?

Searching for Sister Souljah

Last weekend, a gang of racist and anti-Semitic terrorists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, murdering a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others in an unambiguous show of intimidation and blind hatred toward a wide swath of their fellow human beings.

In response to this clear-cut example of American white supremacy run amok, the president of the United States did what he does best:  Blame everyone but himself.  Provided a golden opportunity to appear presidential for the first time in his life, Donald Trump instead managed to denounce violence and bigotry in general but somehow forget to identify the groups responsible for the violence and bigotry perpetrated on Friday night.  The unrest in Charlottesville, Trump said on Saturday, was the fault of agitators “on many sides”—an argument he amplified on Tuesday, when he attempted to equate the “alt-right” with the heretofore non-existent “alt-left.”

As with most previous instances of Trump saying the exact opposite of what he should have said, there was no mystery as to why he avoided condemning neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates by name:  They are his most loyal and vociferous defenders.  Every one of them voted for him last November, and losing their support now would constitute an existential threat to his presidency in the election of 2020, if not sooner.  As ever, Trump’s only true instinct is self-preservation, and if a second civil war is the cost of winning his next campaign, so be it.

What Trump desperately needs—what America desperately needs—is a Sister Souljah moment.

As students of the 1990s will recall, Sister Souljah was an African-American musician and social critic who reacted to the 1992 Los Angeles race riots by remarking, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”  Asked to comment, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton renounced any association Sister Souljah might’ve had with the Democratic Party, saying, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Clinton’s unequivocal disavowal of left-wing extremism—in the heat of a presidential campaign, no less—won plaudits as a mild profile in political courage, positioning him firmly in the center of the Democratic Party, while also drawing suspicion from many on the far left.  In the years since, the term “Sister Souljah moment” has become shorthand for a politician distancing himself from elements of his own ideological team, thereby risking his political fortune for the sake of moral rectitude.

To be sure, examples of such brave stands since 1992 have been few and far between.  Perhaps the most famous—and costly—condemnation came in the 2000 GOP primaries, where candidate John McCain bellowed to a crowd in Virginia, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”  While McCain’s bold (if equivocating) rebuke to the then-dominant “religious right” helped further cement his reputation as a straight-talking “maverick,” it did him no favors at the ballot box:  As it turned out, most Republican primary voters liked the religious right just fine, thank you very much.

Much more recent—and, arguably, much more admirable—was an interview with Bernie Sanders in February 2016, during which CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the issue of “Bernie bros”—i.e., Sanders enthusiasts whose pathological antipathy toward Hillary Clinton seemed rooted almost entirely in rank misogyny.  “Look, we don’t want that crap,” Sanders told Tapper.  “Anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things…we don’t want them.  I don’t want them.  That’s not what this campaign is about.”

The Tapper interview didn’t receive a huge amount of press at the time, but it was a signal test of character for the feisty senator from Vermont, and he passed with flying colors.  While there is nothing difficult about decrying sexism in all its ugly forms—or at least there shouldn’t be—Sanders went a step further by specifically disowning the people who are sexism’s leading practitioners—namely, his core voters—and, what’s more, by suggesting that if those idiots didn’t get their act together right quick, he would just as well not have their support at all.  He’d rather lose honorably than win at the hands of a bunch of cretins.

That moment is a mere 18 months old, yet today it feels unimaginably quaint—a relic from a long-bygone era in which chivalry was not a four-letter word and basic human decency was considered more valuable than gold.

Will America witness another Sister Souljah moment like that again?  Will we ever get it from the man currently in the Oval Office?

Indeed, it is very easy to imagine how such a disavowal would be arrived at, since Donald Trump has been offered one opening after another to give it the old college try.  Faced with the murderous, torch-wielding skinheads who comprise his natural constituency—and his electoral firewall—he would merely need to step up to a podium and proclaim, “Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of bigotry represent a cancer on the American way of life and will not be tolerated so long as I am president.  Furthermore, I cannot in good conscience accept the vote or endorsement of any individual who holds such poisonous views, for I could not live with myself knowing that I had gotten to where I am on a platform of race-baiting, violence, hatred and cruelty.”

Should Trump ever issue a statement to that effect—and mean it—it would signify a willingness not just to throw his basket of deplorables under the bus once and for all, but also to enlarge his base of support to include at least a sliver of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who do not currently approve of his job performance as commander-in-chief but could potentially change their minds in the future.  It would enable him, at long last, to become a president for all Americans—not just the ones in the SS boots and the white hoods.

Could Donald Trump ever rise to that occasion?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Darkness on the Edge of Town

On the evening of November 5, 1980, a 31-year-old rock ‘n’ roller in a sweaty white shirt stood at a microphone in Tempe, Arizona, and ominously intoned to a crowd of thousands, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”

With that, he launched into one of his signature fist-pounding anthems, whose opening lines declare:

Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland

Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man

I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand

The man on the stage was Bruce Springsteen, and the previous day’s “what happened” was the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the United States.  The song, “Badlands,” was written and recorded two years prior, but its driving rhythm section and portentous lyrics seemed to capture the national mood as no other track could—at least among the American left.  It was as though Bruce had been saving it up for just the right moment.  As it turned out, the dawn of Reaganism was it.

Indeed, the prince of the Jersey Shore would spend the balance of the ensuing decade fortifying his reputation as an apostle of blue-collar America—the embodiment of the desperate, unwashed workingmen who felt betrayed and abandoned by their country and government in favor of the upper 1 percent.  In this milieu, the Reagan administration, with its tax-cutting, “trickle-down” economics, would, in short order, become Enemy No. 1.

From that concert in Tempe onward, Springsteen’s whole musical identity assumed a more political bent, his songs coming to reflect the times as much as the dreams and inner torment of the artist himself.  Where Bruce’s earlier work breezily spoke of young love on the boardwalk and hemi-powered drones screaming down the boulevard, by 1978 he was already losing faith in the institutions that had raised him—the government, the social compact, his family—and increasingly threaded this perceived societal drift into otherwise personal tales of love, hatred, anxiety and midnight drag racing.  (A typical lyric from that time:  “You’re born with nothing / and better off that way / soon as you’ve got something they send / someone to try and take it away.”)

Because this heightened social awareness and unease coincided with the Reagan Revolution—and also because of his open advocacy for such people as John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—Springsteen has long (and rightly) been associated with the Democratic Party and its base.  So it came as something of a shock for me when I recently re-listened—for, say, the dozenth time—to Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, and found that, song-for-song—in some cases, like-for-line—the record seemed to speak directly to the plight of the prototypical Trump voter in 2016.  Contained in those tracks—and, by implication, in the mind of the man who wrote them—are most (if not all) of the fears, disappointments and anger that drove millions of bitter, hardworking citizens—many of whom voted for Obama twice—to turn to Donald Trump as the last best hope to save the soul of their beloved, beleaguered country.  In many ways, Springsteen’s Nebraska—35 years old in September—serves as their voice.

You could begin with the album’s title track, which recounts the (true) story of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo who senselessly murdered their way across the Midwest in the 1950s, only to conclude, “They wanted to know why I did what I did / well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  Immediately following is “Atlantic City”—a concert staple to this day—whose protagonist bemoans, “I got a job and tried to put my money away / but I got debts that no honest man can pay.”  Worse still, in “Johnny 99,” we learn, “They closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job / but he couldn’t find none.”  And so forth.

What is most consistent, and ominous, in these tracks—today and in their original context—is how inexorably the weight of economic despair eventuates in violence.  Along with the aimless, homicidal couple in the opener (“Me and her went for a ride, sir / and ten innocent people died”), the man in “Atlantic City” is forced to join the mob to make ends meet (“Last night I met this guy / and I’m gonna do a little favor for him”), while Ralph, aka Johnny 99, knocks off a town clerk in a drunken rage, later pleading to a judge, “The bank was holdin’ my mortgage / and they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man / But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Indeed, experience teaches us that certain acts of violence spring purely from desperation, hunger and a general lack of good options in life, and the ordeal of the 2016 election did little to disabuse us of this notion.

To wit:  It is a matter of public record that the core of Donald Trump’s minions viewed themselves (rightly or wrongly) as the most economically stretched class of people in a generation—folks without jobs, prospects or any real political power—and that Trump’s campaign, in turn, was the most physically intimidating in modern times, with scores of campaign rallies descending into fist fights, the aggressors egged on by the candidate himself, who bellowed, “If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” adding, “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”  (He didn’t, of course.)

Certainly nothing good can come from lashing out at your own society in such an ugly way.  Yet Nebraska does not look down on its characters when they commit despicable acts.  Bleak as it is, the album is fundamentally an exercise in empathy for those whose circumstances have led them to feel that a life of crime is the only choice they have left.  In their shoes, are we so sure that we wouldn’t behave the same way?

Encouragingly, perhaps, Springsteen himself has not changed his view on this one whit.  In an interview with Rolling Stone last October—during which he couldn’t summon a single positive word for the president-to-be—he posited, “I believe there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years, and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution.  And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. […] And that can be very appealing.”  Asked if he is “surprised” to learn that the man who inspired his 1995 song “Youngstown”—an elegy to the American steel industry—is now a Trump supporter, Bruce responded, “Not really.”

Trump, he seems to agree, is what David Brooks once characterized as “the wrong answer to the right question.”

Which is all to say that Springsteen understood the American electorate in 2016 better than the Democratic Party—as, in their own way, did the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and that unless the party makes a more honest reckoning with its relationship to America’s basket of deplorables, it will be quite some time before Democrats win back the House, the Senate, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

If you’ve lost Springsteen, you’ve lost America.

Hillary Clinton for President

What is the absolute worst thing you could credibly say about Hillary Clinton?

That is, once you remove the sexism, paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that define—if not consume—so many of her most passionate, deranged critics, what is the central compelling argument against Hillary being elected president of the United States?

I don’t know about you, but I’d hazard that her pathological duplicity will always take the cake.  The view that Clinton is inherently dishonest—that she fudges the truth even when it serves no strategic purpose—has dogged her for the better part of a decade now, not least with me.  Ever since her 2008 primary fight with Barack Obama, I have consistently doubted Clinton’s basic integrity and judgment whenever she’s on the campaign trail, suspecting that her pursuit of power has become so all-encompassing—and her protective shell so thick and impenetrable—that she can’t help but look shady whenever she finds herself in a political and/or ethical bind.

Oftentimes this criticism is unfair.  The authoritative fact-checking site PolitiFact has characterized 51 percent of her public statements as “true” or “mostly true” and another 24 percent as “half-true,” meaning that she outright lies only about one-quarter of the time—a fairly impressive batting average for such a high-profile figure.

And yet I must say—based on what is directly in front of our noses—that, on multiple key occasions, she has more than lived up to those worst elements of her reputation.

Consider, for instance, the way she reacted to Bernie Sanders’s demands to release transcripts of her highly-lucrative speeches to Goldman Sachs.  Accused of being dangerously close to Wall Street and the big banks—and issued a direct challenge to prove otherwise—Hillary and her supporters’ two-pronged response was to insist that a) It wouldn’t be fair for only Clinton to expose herself in this way, and b) There’s nothing interesting in those speeches, anyhow.  Trust us.

Surely I don’t need to spell out why that combination of non-answers is such a glittering red flag for someone running as a champion of the working class?  If there really isn’t anything surprising or incriminating in those talks—if they are as innocuous as we are led to believe—what’s the justification for keeping them a secret?  What is the political benefit of stonewalling about something that—according to Hillary—is no big deal in the first place?

There’s nothing conspiratorial in looking at baldly evasive behavior and concluding the person in question is hiding something that, if it became known, would imperil his or her chances of being elected leader of the free world.  As a rule, public officials do not go out of their way to conceal information that makes them look good.

During the Watergate investigation in 1973-74, Richard Nixon attempted to keep his White House tapes private because he understood that once their contents became public, his presidency would be over.

However, what Nixon did not understand—and what Hillary Clinton and every other 21st century politician damn well should understand—is that everything becomes public sooner or later, which means that any concerted effort to suppress information is indicative of either extreme paranoia or actual wrongdoing.  While Clinton has never once been found guilty of the latter—despite the GOP’s best efforts—her clear and ongoing penchant for the former counts as a serious character flaw that, if she is elected, will inevitably cause unnecessary and utterly avoidable problems for her in the Oval Office.

(As a footnote:  Thanks to WikiLeaks, some of those speeches were released last month.  While they did, indeed, reveal a cordial relationship between Clinton and various Wall Street fat cats, they were evidently not damaging enough for the public to ultimately give a damn.)

Now, I’ve written about all this before—as has virtually every other political junkie on planet Earth.  I mention it again now as a reminder—to myself and others—that we all must enter Election Day 2016 with both eyes open.  The choice America makes today will have enormous global consequences—good ones, bad ones and everything in between—and each of us needs to assume a measure of personal responsibility for how we mark our ballots this time around.

My own model for how to do this is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher whose “categorical imperative” theory of ethics intoned, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

In the context of a presidential election, I take Kant’s commandment to mean:  Cast your ballot on the assumption that it will actually determine the winner.  Presume every race—presidential, congressional, mayoral, etc.—is an exact tie the moment you enter the voting booth, and that you will be held personally liable for what happens thereafter.

In other words, don’t vote for merely symbolic reasons and/or to make yourself feel morally superior.  Don’t vote strictly as a form of protest against a system you don’t like, or based on an imagined, ideal version of America that doesn’t exist.

I wonder:  Of the 5 or 6 million people voting for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, how many really, truly want him to be the most powerful man on Earth?  How many of his supporters saw that interview with Chris Matthews, in which Johnson couldn’t name a single foreign head of state, and thought, “Yup, that’s the guy who should be in charge of the world’s indispensable superpower”?

None of them, I hope.  From his (admittedly rare) public appearances in national media, Johnson has revealed himself to be a total dunderhead on issues of major global importance, and had he gotten even a fraction of the coverage that the two major-party candidates have received, he likely would’ve come off as even more ignorant than he already has.  Had he opted to run in the Republican primaries instead, he would’ve been knocked out in a week.

In truth, Johnson isn’t a serious alternative to the two-party system so much as an idea of one.  As with all protest candidates, his supporters are voting for him because he can’t win, illustrating that third-party voting is the ultimate expression of cheerful abdication—a way of participating in the democratic process without having skin in the game once the dust has settled and the business of governing resumes.

It’s a pretty neat trick, when you think about it—the electoral equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.  You can rest easy about having exercised your most elemental democratic right, while also smugly bragging, to yourself and your posterity, that you bear no responsibility—none, I say!—for the unholy mess that ensued when the rest of America didn’t follow your lead.

If that helps you sleep at night—makes you feel pure and clean and leading a life of high principle—I guess there’s nothing I can do to stop you.  I’m sure that in some parallel universe—or perhaps some past or future life—I, too, have drunk the alluring elixir of the Lost Cause.  Indeed, it was just last March that I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and that’s gotta count for something.

But the fun, hopeful part of this election ended a long time ago, and I have since resigned myself to the depressing fact that the universe does not always give you precisely what you want every minute of every day.  And when your favorite dish is no longer on the menu, you have to suck it up and move on to Plan B.

In this case, Plan B involves a woman who understands the intricacies of Washington politics and the intrigues of international relations as deeply as anyone who has run for president in my lifetime.

Hillary Clinton will make many mistakes while in office, will alienate much of the country most of the time, will always be under a cloud of suspicion for behavior both real and imaginary, and will never be as naturally charismatic and hip as her predecessor and former rival, Barack Obama.

And yet—on this day, with the choices that are in front of us—Hillary Clinton is the last best hope for an America whose values I share.  Values like pluralism, multiculturalism, rule of law, religious freedom, sexual freedom, marriage equality, gender equality, racial equality, diplomacy, free trade, environmental protection, a free press, and the principle that healthcare should be a fundamental human right.

I voted for Hillary on October 24, the day the polls opened in my home state of Massachusetts.  It was not the most enthusiastic I’ve ever been at the finale of a presidential election.  However, given the alternatives, this was by far the easiest decision I’ve ever made in the sanctity of a voting booth.

I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.  I understood the risks, the drawbacks and all the horrible, terrifying unknowns.  But life itself is a risk, with every choice we make riddled with possible complications that we may or may not be able to anticipate.

And in the end, I find there is no amount of personal reticence toward Hillary Clinton that can outweigh the fact of two of the most powerful words in the English language:

“Madam President.”