Thursday, June 27, 2019

I Watched a Debate! Part 2

I watched the first debate, so I kind of felt obligated to watch the second as well. Fair is fair (though I did miss the first half hour). Tonight certainly felt a little more eventful and punchy than last night -- in part because Biden was such an inviting target. It was a bit surprising to Harris take the lead on the Biden pile-on, though. I would also say there was a wider range of views expressed on stage than there were last night, where it really was a near-universal convergence on a broadly progressive vision.

Most importantly, I think there was more of a "shake-up" tonight compared to last night, where for the most part everyone just treaded water. Here we saw a candidate who had struggled to gain traction really shine (Gillibrand) and two who had been near the top really stumble (Harris and especially Biden).

Now for individual assessments:
  • Joe Biden: Not a good night for him. True, he was in a tough spot, as he clearly had a target on his back and was taking a lot of heat from other candidates. But he didn't do himself any favors, either. He was garbled, he had little narrative other than "I was next to Obama when he did a bunch of great things", and his exchange with Harris on school busing was the worst moment in the debate that didn't involve Marianne Williamson speaking. This is the sort of performance that a lot of us feared would start his inevitable unraveling. C
  • Bernie Sanders: While not exactly scintillating, I'd say this was a successful night for Sanders. Somebody drilled into him that he needed to not be overtly antagonistic to the other Democrats on stage, and he for the most part stayed disciplined on that score. The ending bit where he specifically complimented the other "good ideas on stage", before pivoting to his need for a political revolution, was the right frame. And while I don't think he really stood out, he didn't need to stand out -- he just needed to stand back and watch Biden go into free-fall. A-
  • Kamala Harris: One of my early favorites, but I have to say I was not impressed. She seemed shaky and unsure of herself, like her nerves had gotten to her. She improved as the night went on, and got lucky that Biden's truly terrible answer on busing bailed her out at one point, but overall she did not seem ready for primetime and that surprised me. C+
  • Pete Buttigieg: He's a good speaker, but not a lot else was going on. He'd clearly prepped the hell out of the question on the shooting in South Bend, and the answer wasn't bad, but he got baited into being defensive in an exchange with someone (Bennett?) that did not go in his favor. Still, on the whole, he probably held steady. B
  • Kirsten Gillibrand: She was, in my view, the breakout winner. She was smart, composed, and substantive, and had a clear narrative around protecting women and families. I liked Gillibrand before, but had kind of written her off because she wasn't getting any traction in the polls. I wonder if she might see a bump after tonight. I thought she was really strong. A+
  • Michael Bennet: Seemed like a fine, basically progressive generic White guy, which isn't good enough for a guy like him in a field like this. C+
  • Eric Swalwell: Had a bunch of smirky little lines that weren't as clever as he thought. Otherwise unremarkable. C
  • John Hickenlooper: He really seemed committed to red-baiting, and I do not think it's a winning strategy. He's, at best, third on the depth chart for the "moderate" lane behind Biden and Klobuchar, and Klobuchar in particular would wipe the floor with him (possibly literally, if he forgets to bring a salad fork). D+
  • Andrew Yang: He's at his best when talking about the freedom dividend, which makes sense since that's his signature. On any other issue he sounds like a tech bro who thinks doing well in Silicon Valley qualifies him to run the world. Do you remember when we were all aghast at Mark Zuckerberg running for President? This is the same thing, except less interesting. I do not think drawing a straight line from "enthusiasm on Reddit boards" to "Democratic debate stage" is proof that our democracy still works. C
  • Marianne Williamson: Who is this women? What is that accent? Why is her first call as President to the Prime Minister of New Zealand (to say "nuh-uh -- we're the best place to raise a child!")? It was physically uncomfortable listening to her tonight. I don't know what specific conspiracy theories she believes in, but I have no doubt she believes in some. F
At this stage in the game, I'm mostly concerned with winnowing the field down to something manageable so we can actually have a reasonable nominating contest. So here's my take on who (from both evening's debates) should drop out (or at least be cut from future debates), based on their performance and my assessment of whether there's any plausible route for them to make a serious play in the contest.
  • Drop-outs: Williamson, Swalwell, Hickenlooper, Ryan, Delaney.
  • Bubble (they should probably all drop out too, but it's early and I'm feeling nice): Yang, Bennet, Gabbard, Inslee, De Blasio.
UPDATE: Reading through others reactions, wow am I ever in the minority re: Harris (and again -- I'm a Harris fan! She was my off-the-blocks favorite! So this isn't anti-Harris hostility). And obviously it matters more what others think than what I think. Likewise, nobody else seems to have even noticed Gillibrand, let alone given her the sort of breakaway credit I did.

Yesterday I think my views aligned with the CW, today clearly they don't. But since most of my appraisals were based on my assessment of "will this appeal to people", you should take the crowd's wisdom over mine. Harris surge!

SCOTUS Just Set Off an Arms Race

On partisan gerrymandering, Anthony Kennedy was maximum Anthony Kennedy -- puttering around, leaving open the possibility that there could be a constitutional objection without ever pulling the trigger on any individual case -- until finally he left the court, leaving the matter unresolved and the door open for the Court to do whatever it wanted.

Today, John Roberts slammed that door shut, holding on behalf of 5-4 conservative majority that partisan gerrymandering was a non-justiciable political question.

When I was but a wee lad, first encountering the political question doctrine, I did so in the context of the "one person one vote" cases. Many states had gerrymandered their legislative chambers (and sometimes congressional districts) with wildly uneven population figures -- one state senator might represent 2,000 people, another 200,000. It was a ridiculously perversion of democracy that vastly under-weighted the voting power of certain (usually urban) residents.

But in Colegrove v. Green, the Supreme Court said that it couldn't touch the issue -- it was a "political question", for which the remedy had to come through the democratic-legislative process. This, of course, was a joke: those very legislators the Court suggested appealing to were the prime beneficiaries of the gerrymandering, and by virtue of the gerrymandering were immune to even huge majoritarian pressure to redraw the lines. Of all the places to demand especial deference to the legislative process, drawing district lines is perhaps the most ridiculous. I've always taken a dim view of the political question doctrine, no doubt because Colegrove gave such a negative first impression.

It is fair to say, then, that today's decision is the worst political question ruling since Colegrove. Chief Justice Roberts even includes the same limp apologia that individuals upset with partisan gerrymandering can appeal to the legislature for change -- again, the same legislature whose power is constituted through the gerrymander. As Justice Kagan notes in dissent, this is -- to reiterate -- the worst possible location to apply the political question doctrine. And the majority's claim that the issue is just too-gosh-darn convoluted for judicial review defies credibility. Much the opposite: lower courts had been successfully converging on reasonable, common-sense standards for adjudicating these claims. The reason that the Court decided to make its political question determination isn't because there were no available justiciable standards; it's because it was afraid that there were were available justiciable standards.

So where to now? In some states, state-level litigation remains available -- though this is patchwork (it's obviously not going to go anywhere in, say, Wisconsin). Other options include using referendum to bypass the gerrymandered legislature outright and place redistricting in the hands of a non-partisan commission -- though the constitutionality of that move was only recently established via 5-4 vote in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Redistricting Commission, with Roberts among the dissenter and Kennedy writing the majority opinion. Fortunately, we can rely on the Roberts court to show a healthy respect for preced--sorry, I can't actually finish that sentence.

The reality is, in most states, the main effect of the Court's decision won't be to trigger some fantasy-land popular resurgence that manages to somehow leverage democratic forces of accountability on an issue that is literally designed to insulate legislators from democratic accountability. The main effect will be to trigger an arms race. And as bad as things are now, they can get much worse.

You think the 7-1 Dem/Rep gerrymander in Maryland is bad? Here's an 8-0 map -- what wonders you can do if you can just chop up the Eastern Shore to bits! What's to stop them? Why, honestly, should they stop? Do you honestly think Republicans in Florida will hesitate on this? The rational move for legislators is to try and maximize partisan gerrymandering, to lock in their own power and kneecap the opposition.

And let's not overlook the looming threat to the Voting Rights Act here. Nominally, one effect of the Court's decision is to channel more gerrymandering claims into claims of racial bias rather than partisan bias, since the former remains justiciable while the latter isn't. But we're already seeing Republicans responding to those claims by explicitly saying "our goal wasn't to disenfranchise Black voters, it's to disenfranchise Democrats -- who just happen to be Black." Put aside the Court's general hostility to the Voting Rights Act, and the overall theme of the Jurisprudence of the Second Redemption ("It is impossible for any amount of evidence to establish any government actor has ever done anything racist ever -- with the exception of when they try to help Black kids go to college"). This partisan-not-racist rationale is actually reasonably plausible -- and the Court couldn't have more openly endorsed this strategy if it had waved a green flag and sung an ode in its praise.

This Court has issued many disastrous decisions. Some of them are minor in scope but stand out for their cruelty. Others are far-higher profile in the damage they've done to our national fabric. Most of them, though, at least have the "virtue" of being the product of democratic processes that can be undone through democratic processes. This decision -- which very much should be seen as a companion to Shelby County -- degrades and decays the basic democratic quality of the American form of government. It actively resists the prospect of democratic revision; it actually encourages and will no doubt accelerate the de-democratization of the American state.

It is impossible to overstate how dangerous this is. Our country already has many -- too many -- areas designed to subvert and undermine the majority will (the Senate, the Electoral College, the colonies in DC and Puerto Rico, among others). We are sliding -- and the Court is facilitating the slide -- towards systems of permanent minority rule, where the majority is by design and in perpetuity blocked from exercising power. That cannot stand. The best we could hope for is that this pressure eventually would be released by the judicial system. With that vent now blocked, I fear we might in the future -- perhaps not the far future -- see a far more tumultuous explosion.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

I Watched a Debate!

I normally am not a big fan of political debates, and that goes triple when there are still approximately sixty-seven candidates in the field and maybe five with an actual chance of winning.

But I was invited to a debate-watch party tonight and, deciding to be a sociable sort, I went. Here's my thoughts:

  • Everybody played nice. There weren't a lot of sharp shots or jabs between the candidates; there seemed to be a real desire amongst everyone to keep it positive. As someone who very much values "no fighting", I liked to see that.
  • It also seemed to be the case that the candidates all converged around a pretty similar progressive vision. We saw minor skirmishes around, e.g., abolishing private insurance outright versus retaining it alongside a public option -- but if that's the "debate" in the Democratic Party, then we really have seen a major progressive victory.
  • That said, one consequence of this general positivity and agreeableness was that there often weren't clear differences between the candidates, or opportunities for anyone to really stand out. I didn't really see much reason to reshuffle my preferences. And so I suspect and worry that this nice-nice won't last, as candidates realize they need to take swings in order to differentiate themselves.
For the most part, then, my sense was that all the candidates did "fine". "Fine", of course, is much better for a candidate polling well like Warren than it is for a candidate who needs to break out of the pack, like Ryan.
  • Elizabeth Warren: Defined "fine". Surprisingly vague on policy details given that she "has a plan" for that. B+
  • Cory Booker: While I liked the "identity politics" focus -- special shoutout for specifically giving mention to violence facing Black trans individuals! -- I can see how others might view it as pandering. It did sometimes seem calculated. But I thought he was pretty good. B+
  • Julian Castro: A lot of people are saying he had a particularly good night. I didn't think he really stood out, but he was treated like he was on the A-list tier, which might ultimately be more important. Probably benefited most from this debate having only one of the true top candidates (Warren) on stage. B+
  • Amy Klobuchar: Seemed a bit shaky to me. On the one hand, she's clearly the "moderate" voice of the group, on the other hand, it still was a pretty emphatically progressive vision -- we're talking a narrow band here. B
  • Beto O'Rourke: Of all the (broadly defined) "top tier" candidates, seemed to have the worst night. Nothing abut him stood out, he felt very generic and empty suit-ish. Just run for Senate already. C
  • Bill De Blasio: Probably the most pugnacious candidate on stage, and not coincidentally also the candidate who I shifted most on -- alas, from "not thinking about" to "actively disliking". I guarantee you put this guy in a room with five women and he'd never let any get in a word edgewise. He really tried to steam-roller the moderators. Had a bunch of lines that I suspect would've been bigger applause lines if the audience wasn't already primed to hate him. D+
  • Jay Inslee: Second to De Blasio on the "pugnacious" quality. Somewhat volatile -- on the one hand, did a very good job emphasizing his progressive record as Governor. On the other hand, he's running a campaign based on climate change but went for the cheap-shot applause line on the "greatest existential threat facing America" question. C+
  • Tulsi Gabbard: No less terrible than she was before, but now I also think she might be a robot. Her first answer, nominally replying to a question about women's equal pay but entirely about her record of military service, certainly won the award for least responsive answer of the night. Got real lucky that the genocide/responsibility-to-protect question wasn't directed her way (which it absolutely should have). D+
  • Tim Ryan: Seemed to have those Michele Bachmann eyes. Rails against coastal "elitals", though I suppose I'm outing myself as one for pointing it out. Still, boo for being a divider. C-
  • John Delaney: It's really impressive how this guy is from my home state, has been running for President since approximately the Iron Age, and yet I still can't remember anything about him. I didn't recognize him when they first cut to him for an answer, and then, five minutes later when they returned to him, I had already forgotten who he was again. Poor guy. D+

New Developments in the Right To Discriminate

A new survey measures people's attitudes towards businesses discriminating against various types of customers -- gays and lesbians, transgender individuals, atheists Muslims, Jews, and African-Americans. There are some really interesting takeaways.

  • Republicans are -- across the board -- more likely to favor permitting discrimination than Democrats or Independents. This is true across all customer-identities.
  • However, Republicans also exhibit considerably more variance across different groups -- tolerating discrimination against certain sorts far more than others. At the top end, circa 45% favor permitting discrimination against gay, lesbian, and trans individuals. At the bottom, only 18% favor it when it comes to African-Americans. Meanwhile, Democrats never stray out of a tight 14% - 19% band for any group -- suggesting a cadre that (perhaps for some libertarian freedom-of-contract reason) supports the "right to discriminate" on principle.
  • Given the recent high-profile controversies about businesses serving gay customers and the extent to which GOP politicians have sought to make it into a culture war front (ex: Indiana, Masterpiece Cakeshop), I wonder if the commitment to the right to discriminate against LGBT individuals is having the effect of "dragging up" GOP support for a similar right as against other groups -- people believing that if they don't support a "right to discriminate" against Jews, then there can't be a right to discriminate against gays either. This hypothesis, however, clashes with the willingness of many Republicans (noted above) to just happily accept the double-standard.
  • That said, again given the degree to which the GOP has sought to put the right to discriminate against LGBT customers into the news, I'm actually shocked that the figures here are so low. Again, we're talking (slightly) less than half of Republican voters, and less than a third of Americans total. There's actually a pretty strong bipartisan consensus against the position GOP politicians have been staking out.
  • In the religion-bowl, Atheists are disliked more than Muslims are disliked more than Jews. The difference is very stark among Republicans (37% support a "right to discriminate" against Atheists, 32% against Muslims, 24% against Jews) but much narrower among the population writ large (24/22/19, respectively).

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Duncan Hunter Screws His Wife, and Apparently Every Other Woman in His Vicinity

When Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) was charged with misusing campaign finance funds, he made headlines by quickly moving to throw his wife under the bus. It was an impressively classless move even by his standards, but now we might have some insight as to why his forever partner received such limited loyalty. Apparently, Rep. Hunter used his misappropriated campaign cash to finance five -- five -- different affairs.

His I-have-to-imagine-soon-to-be-ex- wife has already plead guilty and is apparently cooperating with the prosecution.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Lori Lightfoot Goes Orthodox

I just wanted to flag this nice little story about the new Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who took a trip to visit the small Orthodox Jewish enclave in West Rogers Park and apparently blew away the locals.
[Rabbi Shlomo] Soroka said that Lightfoot herself pitched the visit to West Rogers Park, the city’s biggest Orthodox enclave, after the Poway synagogue attack in April.
“It was her idea – ‘What do you think about me coming to visit on a Shabbos and seeing firsthand what you’re describing, and impart to the people a sense that the mayor cares,’” Soroka recounted.
Lightfoot spent part of the Sabbath afternoon after synagogue services concluded walking the streets of neighborhood, meeting with leaders and talking with passers-by, learning about their security concerns and some of the particular needs of Orthodox communities, like eruv wires. 
The visit was not publicly announced by City Hall; there are no pictures of the visit on the mayor’s social media pages, and the mayor’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
But Soroka said the lack of a photographer on Shabbat showed Lightfoot’s sensitivity to community concerns, as well as proving that this was a genuine concern to her and not just for show. 
“In advance of the visit, we requested that we shouldn’t have photographers on the Sabbath, to keep with the sanctity of the day – it may not violate the letter of the law, but the spirit of what it’s supposed to be,” Soroka said. “And that’s a tall order….Pictures are important and messaging is important. And the message I got back is, ‘She’s not coming for the photo op, and if this is something that’s a cultural sensitivity, she would like to respect that.’” 
People who were there told the Forward that Lightfoot was a big hit with the crowd. A rabbi gave her a blessing that God should grant her wisdom; people on the street offered her water bottles; someone else gave her two challahs, a bottle of wine, and a saltshaker “because she’s going to shake things up,” Soroka said.
The story also notes that no Chicago mayor had done such a visit in decades, including its recent Jewish mayor Rahm Emanuel. I'm neither Rahm's biggest fan nor his biggest detractor, and I do think that some of Rahm's absence is attributable to (as the article notes) the suggestion the members of ethnic minorities sometimes don't feel the specific need to reach out to their own community.

That said, I do think Lightfoot is demonstrating a distinct shift in style here, particularly her decision to avoid doing it is a photo-op or a big press flaunt. She's just quietly going about her business, listening to constituents, and apparently blowing crowds away. Good on her. And it's nice to see a story about politics that really is just ... nice, in a completely uncomplicated way.