Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Springtime for Spicer

Spicer's indefensible Hitler analogy -- to paraphrase "even Hitler was not this bad..." was the clear result of reverse engineering - "What can we possibly say to explain the complete US policy backflip on Syrian intervention that occurred within a matter of days?" Well, Assad has shown himself over a period of years to be an unbelievably horrible mass murderer, so what changed? Bombing a hospital? No, as horrible as it is, that is not new. Dropping chemical weapons - OK, let's go with that one, but, as awful at that is, how is that so much worse than the preceding horrors perpetrated by Assad?  We need to say this is much worse, so let's say Assad is even worse than Hitler. Sometimes, when Spicer bumbles in his responses, one gets the impression he is uncomfortable in this role - lying and exaggerating, but pretending he has no awareness of his own behavior.  The problem here is that we have a president who has relied exclusively on tactics to gain advantage throughout his working lifetime and who has no relevant knowledge and no interest in the requirements of his job and is determined to avoid hiring people who know what they are doing. We can expect continued reliance on tactics without a strategy.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nuclear Option

Today we are seeing the ability to filibuster Supreme Court justices in the Senate disappear, the so-called "nuclear option". That was easy. Actually, the decision by Mitch McConnell last February not to allow the Senate to consider any nominee of President Obama, no matter how moderate, was the real nuclear option, in terms of momentousness, but the name was already taken.

Given the continued erosion of the comity of the Senate over recent decades, we are better off dispensing with the supermajority requirement and possibly other Senate prerogatives (judicial holds) which only function well within a spirit of cooperation. The sooner the system falls under its own weight, the sooner we may be able to achieve comprehensive reform of the federal government, including electoral reform. That can only happen if Democrats gain substantial power at the national level, which only happens if there is strong negative reaction to Trump and the Republicans because for Republicans, the current system is working just fine, thank you.


It's Not Me, It's You

With the ascendance of Donald Trump and Republicans in power in Congress, we are nevertheless experiencing a rash of tactics denying personal responsibility, which is fascinating given the party's emphasis of personal responsibility as a talking point on government policy.

Trump famously denies responsibility and deflects attention with a lie. A lie can more powerfully distract from reasonable discourse than a true statement. True statements lead to meaningful discussion, which is a place Trump shuns. Blaming Obama is his favorite sport.

McConnell blames Democrats for the his failure to permit the Senate to consider any Obama Supreme Court appointee in 2016, saying, to paraphrase - "Does anyone believe he Democrats would have done anything differently if the roles had been reversed?". Actually, yes, I believe they would have held hearings on the appointee of a Republican president, but there is no way to prove what would have happened in that alternate universe. McConnell's tactic distracts from meaningful discussion. No one in the press seems to ask him whether he is concerned about the destructive effect of his actions. His claim amounts to - "The Democrats are bad and I am just as bad.". Seems to merit more discussion of where that leads for a society. And for some reason, what the Democrats would have done in the imaginary world is ripe for discussion, but just before the November 8th election which HRC was expected to win, Republican leaders -Cruz and McCain - were talking about maintaining a Supreme Court of eight justices, or even fewer, if Hillary Clinton became president.

Finally we have Devin Nunes recusing himself from the House Intelligence Committee investigation following a series of shenanigans, but is he responsible for his own bizarre and compromising actions? No, he bears no accountability and blames anyone but himself:

“Several leftwing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics. The charges are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power."

Nunes scores a double, or maybe a triple or quadruple there - (1) blaming 'leftwing activist groups', not his own suspicious activities AND (2) deflecting attention to the "unmasking" issue, which (3)  is itself a concocted distraction from the Trump tweet on 'wiretapping' which (4) is itself a distraction from the Trump team's extensive ties to the country formerly known as the Soviet Union.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Is a Statement a Lie if It is Deliberately Misleading?

Republican strategists understand the power of narrative and the importance of controlling the narrative. The investigation of Russian ties to Trump and the Trump campaign demand a counternarrative. Simply challenging the developing narrative of Trump's strong and longstanding ties to Russia is not enough. That would put Republicans on the defensive, like Hillary Clinton and Democrats in the Benghazi hearings. Like Hillary Clinton  and her email server.

No, despite the Russian attack on American democracy in 2016, Republican members are asserting their authority in Congressional hearings today by pursuing the narrative that leaks of classified information are the crime worth investigating - that somehow the constant stream of lies by the president are 'OK', but the leaks are politically motivated to create a false narrative about the current regime (accuse your opponent of the underhanded tactics that you yourself are employing)

And so, as USA Today reports,  Trey Gowdy presented Comey with a list of individuals including Obama and former members of his administration and asked one-by-one whether they "had access" to the information that was leaked. Comey dutifully answered "Yes" to each one.

Shortly thereafter, Sean Spicer opened his press briefing with the announcement that Comey said that prominent officials in the Obama administration could have leaked the information about Russian ties. But Spicer's statement strongly implies Comey offered up a statement to this effect, not that Comey responded "Yes" in general terms based on the office of each named individual. So, yes, deliberately misleading statements are lies.

Once again, the Republicans demonstrate their ability to control the narrative with a pattern of:

Deny - deny the Russian connection to Trump
Deflect - deflect attention to various members of the Obama administration
Distract - distract by raising a different issue that is completely irrelevant, in this case leaks of information
Accuse - accuse the persons to whom the spotlight is deflected of the wrongdoing concocted as a distraction.

Deny, deflect, distract, accuse. It works every time! The accusation against a yet to be determined high-ranking Obama official creates a false equivalence between the Obama administration and the Trump administration - you see, these are all just unproven allegations.

Feel better now?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Normal Times

In "Sexist Political Criticism Finds a New Target: KellyAnne Conway" the NYT makes an interesting editorial decision - placement of this piece in the straight news section rather than as opinion. Yet the piece reads as an opinion piece with its strongly expressed views of good and bad behavior. '
The Times rates this article News because, in their view, Times readers are mostly pro-Hillary and anti-sexism as is the Times. So if they go against the grain of their own usual thinking and that of their readers in a piece, it qualifies as news rather than opinion. The piece is a hit job on "the liberals" - really men, who are misbehaving. Sort of a "you are not as liberal as you think you are" or "you are no better than they are."
So what is so bad about this?
The Times has set formulas for news articles in the realm of politics. The standard formula is, in order to prove that you are not being unfair, you need to balance pros and cons of one "side" with equal and opposite pros and cons of the other "side". You are not a reporter. You are not even an arbiter. You are more like a mother being fair to all of her children, no matter what, seeking balance at all times.
But forced balance is not a path to objective depiction of reality. Forced balance leads only to balance, not understanding. If opposing sides are not equal, that is, different in some important way, it leads to drawing false equivalence and distraction from meaningful context - what is really happening.

Forced balance would have meant looking for the good in Hitler, to take an extreme example.

The striking thing about the KellyAnne Conway/Hillary Clinton equation article is just how strongly the NYT adheres to its balance formula for the News section.  "Misogyny, it seems, remains a bipartisan exercise." is one line in the article that screams out - OK, this is news, because we are being balanced.
The arguments in the article become strained and twisted several times, usually in a moment seeking balance.

"But she noted that while Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, is portrayed as an “evil genius” who cannily promotes images of an America at risk from immigrants and foreign competitors, Ms. Conway is depicted as “crazy” for devising and promoting similar messages."

Why in the world are we comparing Bannon and Conway, who have played different roles?  Bannon is almost exclusively the strategist behind the scenes and Conway frequently a spokesperson (until recent weeks). Bannon never needing to justify the actions of this administration, but Conway on the spot, answering tough questions like "Why does the president lie all the time?" similar to Spicer (until recently).  And who exactly has been calling Breitbart "an evil genius"? For that matter, who has been calling KAC a "slut" as the article states. How about naming those sources instead of generalizing in the passive voice. Poor editing. And KAC is called "crazy" for promoting "alternative facts". Isn't that reason enough?

Maybe a more on-point article would say that Conway invites contempt to the point that her critics find themselves behaving in ways they would normally find contemptible. "But these are not normal times." as the Times likes to say in a throw-away line that leaves a better explanation up to you, the reader.

Ultimately, in order to accurately report the news in context, the NYT will need to adjust their standard formulas for reporting so that the News section (this one is in the U.S. subsection) permits fair, accurate, objective reporting which, when politics is involved, does not require forced balance as the definition of objectivity.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Trumpian Way

The Trumpian Way dictates a single approach to questions about possible wrongdoing. Never clear the air. Always obfuscate thus:

If called on to investigate, react with indignation.
DENY any possible wrongdoing.
DEFLECT negative attention to a different person.
DISTRACT attention by raising an irrelevant issue.
ACCUSE someone who is an opponent or even an impartial judge of wrongdoing, preferably by tying the person on whom you deflected attention to the issue or action which you raised as a distraction.

Trump's accusation that President Obama had him wiretapped falls into this category along with two added benefits. Backed into a corner, Trump is lashing out using false victimization and the big lie. His accusation is so extreme - in the category of "if it is true, then President Obama did something illegal and horrible." That serves to distract from - what a second, you are just changing the subject away from yourself. Always blaming others when things go wrong, but happy to take credit you do not deserve.

Somehow, the argument is that Obama, no longer president, and the Democrats, need to be investigated over and over again based on an unsubstantiated charge that they may have done something illegal and there is somehow urgency, despite Democrats holding no measurable power in the federal government. But the possibility that Trump and his team are corrupt and beholden to Russia now and on a continuing basis, potentially a grave crisis for American democracy, should not be investigated with any urgency. Just trust us. Why? Well because we are always ready with accusations against anyone who says we need to be investigated because the evidence is compelling.

We also have:
FALSE EQUIVALENCE and
WINNING THROUGH INTIMIDATION

Trump's technique makes use of false equivalence. An investigation of those out of power can never be as urgent as an investigation of those holding all the power.

An urgently required investigation of the current administration - urgent exactly because they are the current administration is made to appear at least equal in urgency to a proposed investigation of the prior administration who no longer hold any power. And the accusation functions as intimidation.

Intimidate the press by berating them in the daily briefing. Intimidate the press by freezing out organizations who are defined as "unfriendly" because they are not overtly friendly like Breitbart and Fox. Intimidate individual companies by singling them out for criticism.

CHANGING STORIES

Members of the administration including Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions delayed coming forward about lies until events forced their hand. Stories are vague and changing. Memories are foggy, even of events a few months ago.

The president and his administration behave like they are guilty of major wrongdoing that they want to conceal. This permanent campaign against American values and national interest can only succeed if Republican leaders continue to facilitate the destruction of our democratic institutions.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Substance Free

Republicans have long used investigations as a political tactic. The subject of the investigation automatically appears guilty or at least compromised. The original matter of investigation may yield absolutely nothing, but enough information is uncovered to start up a new investigation. New investigation, but same person is the target. Ask anyone named Clinton.
With Republicans in absolute power, the tables are turned. The preferred target of investigation remains HRC, but a miasma of concerns surrounds DJT. What to do? Double down on HRC? That was the plan if she had been elected, but now, maybe too transparent a tactic.
If you are a Republican in Congress thrilled with finally possessing power to dismantle the federal government - "see, we told you the federal government does not work, except for the military" - you avoid investigating DJT.
Any investigation of DJT, once started, makes him look guilty. Any information uncovered may make him look guilty. 
Republicans don't want that. Republicans in Congress will seek to water down any investigation and try to distract from what they are doing. Ironically, policy discussion, which they avoid during election campaigns with ad hominem attacks on opponents, may be used to distract from substantive accusations against the White House. But don't worry, discussion will focus on how important their proposals are for the financial survival of the nation. 
Don't expect a sudden shift to substantive treatment of the issues any time soon.