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For 2020, More Stupid Pundit Tricks (As If We Needed Them)

Back in the eighth grade, when the world was young, I used to keep an annotated list ranking my feelings about girls I fancied. Imitative of Top 40 radio, the list got updated regularly. Favorites rose or fell depending upon who’d smiled at me in the hallway or let me walk them home from school. My list remained the deepest of secrets, an index of hopeless infatuation.

Has there ever been a bigger dork?

Thankfully, nobody but me knew the fool thing existed.

Indeed, I hadn’t thought of my foolishness for decades until The Washington Post recently unveiled its own version: a “Post Pundit 2020 Power Ranking” — a Top 15 list of Democratic presidential candidates in descending order of probability by the newspaper’s political mavens. It’s supposedly based upon the hopefuls’ “holistic viability to trounce Trump,” a jokey bit of alliterative jargon seemingly intended to make light of the whole enterprise.

“Holistic viability” signifies that nothing’s too trivial to be off-limits. As for “trounce Trump,” if we’re going all junior high school here, why not “dump Trump”? “Hump Trump” works for me too.

But then, I grew up in New Jersey.

The clowning continues with the Post’s thumbnail descriptions of participating staffers: “progressive brawler Greg Sargent, voice of the millennials Christine Emba … Republican stalwart Hugh Hewitt, ex-Republican stalwart Jennifer Rubin,” etc. It’s almost as if the 2020 power pundits — more alliteration — had no wish to be taken seriously.

For all of that, I intend no blanket disrespect. If there’s a single columnist (and frequent TV performer) who is today’s progressive MVP, it’s Jennifer Rubin. And “ahead-of-the-curve expat Anne Applebaum” is a serious historian. Her book Gulag: A History, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. I have enormous respect for her work. Applebaum understands Russia like few others.

Even so, the whole thing strikes me as redolent of journalistic bad faith: a Heathers slam-book for print pundits wearied by substantive campaign coverage and possibly jealous that American presidential elections have become something akin to the fraudulent spectacles we call reality TV shows.

In this regard, it may be significant that senior Washington Post (and NPR) columnist E.J. Dionne is not among the power pundit voters. He has pointedly lamented the “Triviality Feedback Loop that is the Trump presidency,” adding that Trump’s “I’m-The-Only-One-Who-Matters approach to politics fits well with the needs of modern media, both social and traditional. Clicks, page views and ratings encourage everyone to dwell on individuals more than issues.”

Exactly what the power pundits are all about.

Spoiler alert: Of 15 potential candidates, the Post‘s panel judges Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) the likeliest to secure the nomination, although nobody outside her home state of California has ever cast a vote for her. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is ranked second, followed by old-timer Joe Biden, no-hoper Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and so on. Bernie’s in there somewhere. Bringing up the rear are some even longer shots: Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Who?

Meanwhile, the kinds of insulting trivialities the nation’s self-infatuated pundits have long used to ridicule previous Democratic candidates are already in evidence. Remember Al Gore’s bald spot and three-button suits? John Kerry windsurfing and his choice of the wrong — indeed, downright “inauthentic” — cheese on his Philly cheesesteak sandwiches?

Meanwhile, everybody supposedly wanted to have a beer with George W. Bush, a down-to-earth regular guy (and recovering alcoholic). And, quite coincidentally, the worst American president since the mid-19th century.

Until now.

Because an American presidential election is above all a TV show, print pundits must go to considerable lengths to get noticed (and, if possible, appear on TV). Hence the Post‘s made-for-TV power ratings. Readers are treated like so many children watching Saturday morning cartoons, candidates like animated characters.

So anyway, here we go. Right down the slippery slide to mass-market inanity: clothing, hairstyles, food choices, sexual peccadilloes. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand eats fried chicken with a fork (inauthentic). Sen. Corey Booker is a self-righteous vegan (snob). Amy Klobuchar yells at the help (bitch). Elizabeth Warren listed “American Indian” as her race on a Texas bar application (phony).

Actually, hold the phone. Warren’s blunder almost certainly dooms her candidacy, because it’s frankly laughable. (I once reported my race as “1500-meter freestyle,” but the registrar made me correct it.)

As for Trump, assuming that he’s still president in 2020, his idiosyncrasies are well known and heavily discounted. Because his 2016 campaign and his entire administration have been an extended professional wrestling extravaganza, his supporters revel in his matchless vulgarity.

Democrats are more vulnerable. Is that a fake smile or a real one?

Which candidates would you like to see naked?

I promise you, we will get there before it’s all over.

Pundits Hated Trump’s Nonsensical Foreign Policy Speech

The reviews are in for Donald Trump’s widely anticipated foreign policy speech, and the overwhelming consensus was that it was an unmitigated disaster, full of contradictions and policy prescriptions that annoyed pundits and commentators across the spectrum.

In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart wrote that Trump’s amalgamation of various Republican foreign policy talking points contrasted with the traditional Republican line (neoconservative remnants of the George W. Bush administration). This was about as generous as reviews of the speech got: that it was bad, but not any worse than normal Republican fare, just… different.

Trump, by contrast, assesses regimes based on whether they’re taking advantage of America. And in his view, they pretty much all are (Israel excepted). Some are taking advantage by building, or trying to build, nuclear weapons (North Korea, Iran), some are taking advantage by sending America their “rapist” immigrants (Mexico), some are taking advantage by stealing American jobs (China), and some are taking advantage by making America pay for their defense (most of Europe). Because Trump focuses as much on economic threats as on military ones, he doesn’t divide the world morally the way standard Republicans do. In his speech, he didn’t utter the words “freedom,” “liberty,” or “tyranny.”

The Washington Post’s Daniel Drezner used his column to lament watching the speech sober, and then proceeded to point out the numerous contradictions (sometimes within a couple sentences of each other) in Trump’s speech.

Trump will demand that allies pay more for security but nonetheless believes that they would trust a President Trump more than the current president. He blasts policies that tried to promote democracy in the Middle East but then pledged to be “strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments.” He said the nation needed to become more “unpredictable” and then promised to offer “a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy.” The speech reads like someone stitched together pieces of fabric without bothering to see if anything clashed.

The Economist was not impressed by the businessman’s approach, stating plainly that the world is far bigger and more unpredictable than Trump thinks it is.

Alas this description of statecraft as a series of deals, brokered in eyeball-to-eyeball negotiations with foreign powers, bears no resemblance to real diplomacy. For an American president, world events arrive in an unending rush, and cannot be tackled one by one, by appointment. Nor can geopolitical and commercial rivals be dismissed and forgotten like disappointing business partners, for all Mr Trump’s bravado, as when he said that if America and China do not find a mutually beneficial relationship “we can both go our separate ways.”

In the Republican presidential frontrunner’s telling, even the knottiest problems in geopolitics are simple exercises in brinksmanship—ready to be solved at speed once a steely negotiator like President Trump is sitting behind the big desk in the Oval Office. Thus the campaign waged by many previous presidents to stop European and Asian allies free-riding on American military spending will be solved if he is willing to “let those countries defend themselves.”

The New Republic struggled to explain his foreign policy coherently, primarily because a coherent foreign policy wasn’t articulated at any point during the speech.

Attempting to sum up Trump’s foreign policy vision is an impossible task. He declared that America is “finally going to have a coherent foreign policy,” but literally nothing could be less coherent than the rambling, uncharacteristically telepromptered speech he gave today. He is against the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya; but he also complained that there was no intervention to assist persecuted Christians in the region suffering at the hands of ISIS. President Obama is a global puppet-master who installed the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt following the fall of Hosni Mubarak; yet he is also an impotent fool who lets the world humiliate the U.S. at every turn, a Trumpian obsession that my colleague Michelle Legro calls the Dangerfield Doctrine (“that’s the story of my life, no respect!”). He nodded to Republican foreign policy hobbyhorses: the U.S. sailors taken “hostage” by Iran in January, Obama’s alleged reluctance to name the “real” threat facing America (i.e., Muslims). But he subtweeted George W. Bush as often as he did Hillary Clinton, bringing up his opposition to the Iraq War over and over again.

Even conservatives joined in on the Trump-bashing. The National Review, which staked its ground month ago with an “Against Trump” cover, criticized Trump’s brand of politics and its ineffectiveness in the international arena.

What is incoherent, though, is populism — Trump’s brand. It is knee-jerk demagoguery: Say whatever will get a rise out of the masses; don’t fret over whether it is at odds with whatever bromide you’ve previously spouted; and, when called on the inconsistencies attack the messenger.

Today’s speech conveyed no comprehension of what caused ISIS to rise — of where it came from (al-Qaeda), of what drives it ideologically (sharia supremacism), or of the fact that it is just a subset of a much bigger challenge. Trump merely continued to do what populists do: He told you the people you love to hate are incoherent and incompetent. He never mentions that he was with them all the way, and never offers a reason to think he is any more coherent and competent — just more shallow.

As it stands, it’s increasingly unlikely that Ted Cruz or John Kasich will be able to stop Trump before he crosses the 1,237 delegate threshold he needs to win the Republican nomination outright. But the invective directed towards his foreign policy “ideas,” if they can be called that, bodes ill for his presidential ambitions, and even worse for the world should he manage to get his hands on some nuclear weapons.

A Brutal Holiday Season On Cable And Social Media

One of the most optimistic documents ever to cross my desk was a scoring guide for judges evaluating teams in high school “ethics bowl” competitions. It’s been much on my mind during the bitter blaming season that has overtaken holiday cheer since the shocking murder of two New York City policemen.

Ethics bowls might sound like an ivory tower exercise, but in fact they require students to think hard about many of the issues that fuel today’s polarized politics. Teams have sparred in recent years over gay-to-straight conversion therapy, paid maternity leave, illegal immigrants, veils that cover the face, prayer at school graduations, rising drone use, anti-terrorism tactics, euthanasia, abortion, voting in the other party’s primary, demanding a nurse of a certain race, and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that freed corporations to spend heavily in campaigns.

In the political arena, such topics would be red meat and the “winners” would be those who came up with the most provocative quote, headline or tweet. The students are judged by a different set of metrics. Was the presentation clear and systematic? Did the team clearly identify the central moral dimensions of the case? Did the presentation indicate awareness and thoughtful consideration of different viewpoints? Did the opposing team offer a relevant, insightful response? Did the presenting team counter in a respectful, productive manner?

When I ran down the list this week for one of my sons, age 29, he interrupted before I could finish. “They’re going to be unemployable,” he said. “That’s not how things work these days.”

Tell me about it.

Civility and restraint were not the first instincts of the commentariat after officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were executed at point-blank range in Brooklyn as they sat in their patrol car. The suspect, a mentally disturbed Baltimore man who used the same gun to kill himself, had hinted on social media that he was seeking revenge for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police.

With that, a difficult conversation about police-minority relations erupted into a raw, personal blame game. Among the chief targets were President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, and protests ignited by the failure of grand juries in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY to indict cops responsible for the Brown and Garner deaths.

“We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said on Fox News, a statement that earned him a “Pants on Fire” rating from PolitiFact. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said on the same network that “it’s really time for our national leaders, the president, it’s time for the mayor of New York [City] and really for many in the media to stop the cop bashing, to stop this anti-police rhetoric.”

Former New York Gov. George Pataki earned more than 4,300 retweets of this tweet: “Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of #ericholder & #mayordeblasio. #NYPD.” Patrick Lynch, the president of a city police union, said there was “blood on many hands,” starting “at City Hall in the office of the mayor.” Police turned their backs on the mayor when he arrived at the hospital where the two slain officers’ bodies had been taken.

Obama has been a model of balance. He typically says that the police have a dangerous job, no one needs them more than high-crime minority communities, and there’s a “gulf of mistrust” that must be bridged. He seems to have come under attack for acknowledging the “reality” that sometimes people are treated unfairly and for encouraging peaceful demonstrations as part of a push for change.

De Blasio alienated cops by mentioning that he advised his teenaged, half-black son to be extra careful if he’s stopped. That’s just common sense, but it grated coming from a mayor who sharply criticized some police policies in his 2013 campaign and who, once in office, hung on too long to a top aide whose son and ex-con boyfriend posted social media rants against the police.

Still, whatever you think of Obama, de Blasio or Holder, whose Justice Department is investigating some three-dozen departments for civil rights violations, it cannot be off limits to analyze and try to improve police performance. And there’s no excuse for the harsh and irresponsible attacks unleashed by this tragedy, especially from current and former public officials.

I dug up the ethics bowl scoring guide because I needed an antidote to the lashing out. I needed a reminder that in some pockets of America, teenagers are being taught how to disagree without trashing the other side. These students are held to much higher standards than today’s headline grabbers. Right now, only 20 states hold high school ethics bowls and relatively few students participate. But if you are looking for a glimmer of hope, it will do.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Zombie Ideas Live On Even Though They’re Wrong

Oct. 20 (Bloomberg View) — We are in the business of making mistakes. The only difference between the winners and the losers is that the winners make small mistakes, while the losers make big mistakes. –Ned Davis

I began my career in finance on a trading desk. You learn some things very early on in that sort of situation. One of the most important things is that while it’s OK to be wrong, it can be fatal to stay wrong.

Unfortunately, that standard doesn’t apply to people whose work isn’t evaluated on a daily and objective basis via their profit and loss results. In many fields, such as politics and policy making, there are lots of shades of gray when it comes to being right or wrong.

And quite bluntly, that is a shame. As a society and a nation, we would all be better off if the people who are consistently wrong paid some sort of price for those errors. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen enough these days.

Some bad policy decisions will lead to the occasional elected official being turned out of office. That — unfortunately — is the exception, not the rule. I doubt history will rank George W. Bush and Barack Obama among our great presidents, but both were re-elected despite being unpopular. Between gerrymandered congressional districts and apathetic voters, even the most incompetent elected official has almost lifetime tenure.

What underlies all of this nonrecourse bad policy? It is much more than corporate lobbying and partisan politics. The worst of today’s political malfeasance is being driven by failed ideologies. Zombie ideas that refuse to die have become enshrined in our collective intellectual legacy. The people behind these have been insulated from the economic costs they impose.

Blame the billionaires.

They are ones who fund the think tanks. These think tanks in turn consider it their jobs to promote the ideology of their benefactors, regardless of its intrinsic value or demonstrable worth.

This theme keeps coming up again and again. About a year ago, I reminded people of a letter written to the Federal Reserve in 2010 warning that the central bank’s asset purchases risk “currency debasement and inflation,” none of which occurred. That meme propagated, leading to a series of articles across the blogosphere and mainstream media. Most recently, Bloomberg News tracked down the signatories to that letter, to see if they were willing to acknowledge that they were wrong. Not a one was willing to admit error. Perhaps the lack of contrition is best summed up by this New York magazine headline, “If Being Wrong About the Economy Is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right.”

These errors have a persistence that shouldn’t continue once the invalidity of the underlying belief system is demonstrated. But they continue on, as zombie ideas that refuse to die. Consider the following short list of disproven ideas, all based on concepts that originated from or were widely dispersed by think tanks or their benefactors:

• Homo economicus (profit maximizing economic actors)

• Austerity as a virtuous policy during recessions

• The efficient-market hypothesis

• Tax cuts pay for themselves (supply-side economics)

• Self-regulating markets

• Shareholder value

• Rational Investors

Some of the bad ideas that come out of the think-tank world eventually acknowledge that they are untrue by slowly morphing into a new shape.

Let’s consider a few of these bad ideas. The pushback against anthropogenic climate change, or manmade global warming, has gone through a three-step process: First, there were the simple denials: It doesn’t exist, temperatures aren’t rising, etc. The next step was: OK, climate change exists, but it’s a natural phenomenon, not manmade and is caused by sunspots or the end of the Ice Age from 10,000 years ago. The last phase is simply to say, regardless of the cause, it costs too much to do anything about anyway. Grist provides a thorough debunking of denialism in all its forms; if you want a more scholarly approach, try The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society.

We saw a similar progression during the financial crisis, including many attempts to negate the role radical deregulation of financial markets had as an underlying cause of the crisis. American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto were the leading proponents of the anything-but-deregulation causation. First, they blamed the Community Reinvestment Act — the anti-redlining legislation that had nothing to do with subprime lending. Next, it was the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Administration. When that didn’t hold up, they blamed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. When most of the subprime loans that went bust were shown to be from private lenders that didn’t follow Fannie or Freddie guidelines, they quietly changed the subject.

As we have noted before, there simply is no penalty for pundits who keep getting it wrong.

As investors, we suffer greatly when we make an error that we fail to reverse. That was what Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio was referring to when he said “More than anything else, what differentiates people who live up to their potential from those who don’t is a willingness to look at themselves and others objectively.” But it’s as true about our society as it is our P&L. The sooner we recognize that, the better off the country will be.

AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary