Monday, February 29, 2016

Handicapping Hillary

A few days ago on the Young Turks, Cenk Uygur offered the proposition that Hillary Clinton was a weak general-election candidate for the Democrats. His analysis mirrors one I've been offering for months in various internet venues. Cenk, it seems, has run into some resistance to this; Saturday, he and the rest of the TYT gang contemplated the question of whether they'd been too hard on Hillary. They haven't. If anything, they've been going far too easy on her on the question of her electability. I've gotten often ferocious feedback from both Hillary backers and from Democrats who are anxious about tearing down the candidate they think will eventually win the nomination and have to face the Republicans. But every day seems to bring more information that further buttresses my conclusion. Though it is, strictly speaking, outside the central focus of this blog, I thought I'd spend some time here outlining that conclusion and the facts, inferences and perceptions that led me to it.

Two Obama terms hang heavily over the present election. Any 8-year presidency is a significant drag on the candidate of the incumbent party. After so long, people just get tired of an administration. In the modern era, George Bush Sr. managed to succeed an 8-year Reagan in 1988 then one must go all the way back to Harry Truman, who barely squeaked by Thomas Dewey in 1948, to find the next-most-recent example of three sequential administrations of the same party.

The evidence for the drag being exerted by the Obama administration is all around us. In the 2014 midterm congressional elections, Democrats stayed home in droves, resulting in the lowest voter turnout since 1942 (and Republicans recapturing the U.S. Senate). In the current cycle, the Democratic debates have consistently underperformed the Republican debates, usually by significant margins. The highest-rated GOP debate (from August) drew an astonishing 24 million viewers while the highest-rated Democratic debate (in Oct.) only managed 15.3 million. The lowest-rated Republican debate (14 Jan.) still drew 11.1 million. The debate at the bottom of the Democratic pile (from 4 Feb.) had only 4.5 million viewers.[1] Participation in the Democratic primaries and caucuses to date has been down across the board, by huge margins everywhere except New Hampshire (where it was only down 13% from 2008). At the same time, Republican participation has been up by huge margins in every contest so far.[2]

Electing a candidate of a two-term incumbent party is like pushing a very large rock up a very steep hill. Hillary Clinton, the candidate many Democrats seem poised to anoint their 2016 standard-bearer, comes already laden with so much baggage she'd have a hard time just getting all of it up that hill without the rock. And as the campaign continues on, she just keeps adding more and more to it. 

Some observations from ringside: Clinton is like the absolute worst breed of politician. Cynical and manipulative, she'll say just about anything to win the moment without regard for how it squares with what she said the day before, without any concern for whether it even remotely approximates reality and with no thought as to the larger or longer-term implications of what she's saying, meaning she is both undisciplined and, let's just put the matter bluntly, an imbecile. But while so many of her peers on the national stage have managed to hone the politician's favorite pastime (lying) into a fine art, Clinton absolutely oozes insincerity. Everything that comes out of her positively reeks of phoniness and fakery. And, of course, much of what comes out of her is, which only makes this impression worse. Among other things, this renders her entirely incapable of effectively selling all her cynical flipping and flopping about. In her quest for power, she regularly--and easily--sheds old personas in favor of new ones based strictly on temporary need. She's against gay marriage then she's for it; she's for the Iraq war then she's against it; she's for the Keystone XL pipeline then she's against it; she's for harsh mandatory minimum sentences (and in 2008 slammed candidate Obama for calling for reducing or eliminating them) then she's against them. Back in April, Domenico Montanaro did an excellent breakdown of Clinton's "evolution" on the matter of right-wing "free trade" deals over the years; she always says she's against them whenever an election looms then "evolves" into supporting them when in office.

Though specifically focused on those "free trade" deals, that article is a perfect microcosm of Clinton's entire political career. It also points to another unsavory and damaging trait: To the extent that Clinton holds to any principles at all, they're ones that are anathema to the base of her own party. Clinton is a rightist on most issues of significant import. She's a war-monger who, in real time, never met an intervention she didn't like, a National Security Statist, who voted for the USA PATRIOT Act over and over again,[3] a Tough On Crime-er who pimped the right's garbage "superpredator" meme in the '90s while supporting policies that helped turn the U.S. into the major jailer on Earth. She aggressively prostitutes herself and her potential future administration to every entrenched Big Money interest who will drop a few million quarters in her collection box.

In close quarters, Clinton is easily frustrated and when challenged to any real extent, she tends to collapse into a desperate morass of transparent deceptions and diversions. When, in a November debate, the question of her Wall Street backers came up--an entirely predictable question, given her opponent, and one for which the candidate should be prepared--she responded by saying most of the donors to her campaign are women and then invoking 9/11 as an excuse for aiding Wall Street. Utterly unresponsive non sequiturs aimed solely at getting her past the moment by drawing cheap applause from her followers. In a debate earlier this month, it was noted that Clinton had far more support from Democratic elected officials than her opponent, to which Sanders replied, "She has the entire Establishment or almost the entire Establishment behind her. That's a fact. I don't deny it." Clinton didn't like being associated with the "E" word and shot back with, "honestly, Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the Establishment." And so on. This sort of thing may allow her to get by a moment with Sanders, a fellow who has, to his own disadvantage, bent over backwards not to attack her, but a Trump, a Cruz, a Rubio certainly won't show that kind of restraint and such non-responses won't fly with a general-election viewership either.

In a race that has been loaded with an inordinately high number of presidential hopefuls, Clinton has proven the second-most disliked candidate. Only Republican Donald Trump scores worse. A quick trip to Huffpost Pollster shows Clinton averaging a favorability rating of only 40%; except for a handful of anomalous polls, Clinton's favorables have been declining since Sept. 2010, below 50% since July 2014 and underwater--more people disliking her than liking her--since April 2015. Trump's favorability rating has been below 50% in every poll in the Huffpost archive, which has Trump polls going back to May. At present, Trump is averaging a 36.3% favorability rating, 57.7% unfavorable.

Conventional wisdom holds that a candidate whose approval is consistently below 50% is a dead duck in a two-way general. The upcoming election holds the potential for an unusual challenge to that, a clash between two such wildly unpopular candidates. It's a recipe for a very low-turnout election, which, of course, favors Republicans, among whom Clinton has been a focus of sustained hate since she first burst on the national scene in 1992.[4] They may not like Trump but they outright despise Clinton and the prospect of her in the White House will have them showing up in droves to vote against her (that's also part of why she'd make an utterly ineffective president). On the other side, eight years of Obama is already repressing turnout to an alarming degree. In any election falling at the end of a two-term presidency, the opposition party tries to tie the candidate of the incumbent party as closely as possible to the fading incumbent president, presenting that candidate as merely a third term for that president. It usually works. In this cycle, the basic connection is obvious--Clinton was an Obama employee for years--but Republicans won't even have to try to tie her to the president; she's done it for them. Instead of trying to steer her own course, Clinton has spent weeks trying to portray herself as Obama's twin, praising  him and his administration, standing up for his "legacy," promising to perpetuate it. In the context of the larger election, this is suicidal. No one is energized by the prospect of yet another Obama term starring a faux-bama. Clinton did it because she wanted to win the South Carolina primary and needed the vote of the state's black population, among whom Obama is still extremely popular. It worked. She inflicted potentially quite serious harm on her own national prospects by tying herself to a lame duck with which the public has grown weary merely so she could win a big victory in a safe red state that won't vote for her or any other Democrat in the general anyway--one of the many examples of how Clinton authors her own eventual destruction.

A Quinnipiac poll released a few days ago matched Clinton and Sanders against the major Republican contenders. Clinton was in a statistical tie with Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, the latter of whom dropped out of the race right after that poll went to press, but she was defeated by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich. A full 58% of respondents said they held an unfavorable view of Clinton. Sanders, meanwhile, defeated every Republican and 51%, including even 22% of Republicans, said they had a favorable view of the candidate (in his House and Senate races in Vermont, Sanders always manages to draw a significant Republican crossover vote). Sanders attracted a much higher percentage of independents and even a slightly higher Republican crossover in these match-ups.

Head-to-head polling at this early date isn't going to tell one with any certainty who will win in November but it can give one a picture of where things stand and, over time, where they're heading. Early in the campaign, Clinton led all of the Republicans by healthy margins but her standing in this polling has progressively disintegrated, matching the even longer-term disintegration of her favorability ratings. Both have been on their way down over an extended period and though she's already fallen behind the Republicans in the head-to-head, she hasn't, with over 8 months still to go, even hit any sort of bottom yet. Sanders' favorability ratings, by contrast, started in the basement, as few knew who he was when he entered the race, and has gone up, up, up; it's currently averaging 50% with only 38.9% unfavorable and hasn't plateau'd yet. Unfortunately, there's a sparsity of head-to-head polling for him--one of the ways the corporate press has treated Clinton as inevitable was by rarely ever bothering to commission head-to-head polls featuring Sanders. What does exist is spotty compared to that available for Clinton but it does show Sanders performing substantially better than Clinton against potential opponents.

While the Obama presidency casts a long shadow over the coming election, another element undoubtedly exerting a considerable drag on the Democratic vote is a less-prominent nugget found in the guts of various polls over the last few months: over 70% of Democratic respondents tell pollsters that regardless of who they, themselves, support, they believe Clinton will be the eventual nominee. The notion of Clinton's inevitability, a phantom which Clinton, her surrogates and the corporate press have worked so hard to instill, can't help but be demoralizing to those who don't like Clinton. In her short-sighted effort to defeat Sanders, Clinton has been offering a sort of "No, We Can't" campaign. She has reinvented herself as a candidate pimping many quite watered-down variants on Sanders' policies while arguing the Sanders versions, which are extraordinarily popular, simply aren't politically realistic and should be discarded. She's very aggressively argued that Democrats shouldn't even try to pass single-payer healthcare because it would lead to a contentious debate--the ultimate conservative argument that, if accepted, would preclude ever accomplishing much of anything for simple lack of trying. This "No We Can't" talk is, to note the obvious, defeatist--about as uninspiring a campaign slogan as one could invent--and can't help but alienate huge swathes of potential Democratic voters Clinton would need to win a general.

At the moment, Clinton continues to benefit from the widespread belief--another Clinton-generated phantom--that she would have the best chance of winning the general. For example, Quinnipiac asked, "Would you say that Hillary Clinton would have a good chance of defeating the Republican nominee in the general election for President or not?" 85% of Democrats said yes. Asked the same question of Sanders, only 69% said yes. Something that makes this particularly interesting is that this is the same poll that shows Clinton losing to those Republicans while Sanders beats them all. What's more, Sanders, in those match-ups with Republicans, drew a larger percentage of the Democratic vote than Clinton. 61% of respondents said they thought Sanders "cares about the needs and problems" of people like themselves vs. only 42% for Clinton; asked if the candidates shared the respondents' values, 50% said Sanders did,[5] while only 39% said this of Clinton; 68% said Sanders was "honest and trustworthy" vs. only 30% who would say that of Clinton (among Democrats, 87% said this of Sanders vs. 65% for Clinton). Matching a pattern that has appeared in polling on this campaign, the very polls in which Democrats assert a belief that Clinton is more electable than Sanders are the ones debunking that notion.

How does all this add up?

While Clinton has gleefully put the other side's Obama noose around her own neck, Sanders isn't as subject to that dynamic. He's always been to the left of Obama--as Clinton is stupidly fond of noting, he thought Obama should face a primary challenge in 2012--and he's an outsider, a maverick, an independent who very visibly has the entire Democratic Establishment against him. Anyone who accused him of just being the third Obama term would most likely be greeted with laughter. There's no way to entirely escape the drag exerted by a two-term presidency, to be sure, but Sanders would definitely be the least affected by it.

Sanders is also an energizing candidate all his own. People are excited by him. He's an inspiring figure who attracts larger audiences than any other candidate, has brought into the political process lots of people who wouldn't ordinarily participate and has managed to field a serious presidential campaign against a Big Money-backed candidate on small campaign contributions from ordinary people--an incredible accomplishment. He has a broadly popular program that allows him to draw plenty of independents and Republicans to his cause, which is reflected in both his past electoral successes in Vermont and his polling. He's a candidate people want to vote for, rather than just another they don't really like but end up backing because they think the other side is even worse. He's hope. And because Clinton represents the very corruption Sanders is battling, a Clinton win would itself prove quite demoralizing. It would be read--and not unfairly either--as a corrupt Democratic Establishment in league with a corrupt press helping a corrupt candidate with a bottomless bank account[6] provided by corrupt Big Money interests breaking Excalibur. Breaking hope.

When it comes to Clinton, she's an energizing candidate too--remarkably energizing, in fact. It's just that those she energizes are on the other side, while she demoralizes her own and goes out of her way to alienate Sanders supporters. Anyone tired of Obama--and that's most people--certainly won't find anything to support in her effort to convince everyone she'll be the third Obama term. For those who prefer the right-wing side of her and pine for more warfare, more prisons, more government surveillance, more "free trade" to hasten the deindustrialization of the U.S. in the service of corporate profits, why support her when the full-strength version is available over in the GOP? At the same time, Clinton has reinvented herself this season as an attenuated copy of Sanders but if one finds those policies appealing, why choose the watered-down version from a candidate who doesn't really believe in them anyway and would discard them as soon as there was no election in front of her when the real thing is available? If one just wants to win, why choose a candidate whose numbers have already sank beneath her Republican rivals and are still falling, one who is off-putting to everyone outside the party yellow dogs while energizing the opposition in a year in which it's already going to be difficult to organize a successful campaign? It isn't just that Sanders would have a much easier time in the general; it's the fact that, even if one manages to "win" with Clinton--a very long shot--one hasn't really won anything.

Clinton's profile is that of a loser candidate. She wouldn't stand a chance against any remotely credible alternative. Many think that's quite a significant caveat given the Crazy Train that is the 2016 GOP but before being too dismissive of their chances, it would be prudent to consider for a moment what people have accepted as "credible" in the past. None of this means Clinton definitely would lose but she is a very weak general election candidate in a year in which a much stronger one is available.

That's my take on it.

--j.

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[1] Democratic debate ratings:
13 Oct. 2015 - 15.3 million viewers
14 Nov., 2015 - 8.5 million viewers
19 Dec., 2015 - 7.8 million viewers
17 Jan., 2016  - 10.2 million viewers
4 Feb., 2016 - 4.5 million viewers
11 Feb., 2016 - 8.03 million viewers

Republican debates:
6 Aug., 2015 - 24 million viewers
16 Sept., 2015 - 23 million viewers
28 Oct., 2015 - 14 million viewers
10 Nov., 2015 - 13.5 million viewers
15 Dec., 2015 - 18.2 million viewers
14 Jan., 2016 - 11.1 million viewers
28 Jan., 2016 - 12.5 million viewers
6 Feb., 2016 - 13.2 million viewers
13 Feb., 2016 - 11.62 million viewers
25 Feb., 2016 - 14.5 million viewers

[2] Turnout in Democratic Primaries:
Iowa caucus - 240,000 caucusgoers in 2008 vs. 171,000 this year
New Hampshire - 288,672 voters in 2008 vs. 250,983 this year
Nevada - 120,000 caucusgoers in 2008 vs. 80,000 this year
South Carolina - 532,000 voters in 2008 vs. 367,000 this year

Turnout in Republican Primaries:
Iowa - 122,000 in 2012 vs. 186,000 this year
New Hampshire - 248,475 in 2012 vs. 284,120 this year
South Carolina - 603,000 in 2012 vs. 737,000 this year
Nevada - 33,000 in 2012 vs. 75,000 this year

[3] And at a debate in October said she didn't regret doing so, calling the measure "necessary."

[4] Back then, Bill Clinton was the Democratic presidential candidate but multiple speakers took to the podium at the Republican National Convention to denounce Hillary Clinton. As going after a candidate's wife in this systematic manner really had no precedent in presidential politics, it raised a lot of questions and provoked a great deal of discussion.

[5] And, in fact, Sanders' views reflect those of the broad center of America. That his number here isn't even higher looks an awful lot like a major failure of media.

[6] All that money from all those Big Money interests is the one advantage in a general Clinton has over Sanders. It definitely isn't one about which to brag.

Friday, February 26, 2016

ABClinton

ABC News has a serious Clinton problem. Hillary Clinton is currently locked in an ever-tightening race against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. The public may hold to the quaint notion that it's the job of the press to cover this, not to try to decide it, but those in the corporate press apparently have a very different idea about their role in the campaign. Most big news outlets have adopted a two-pronged strategy for how to approach the matter. The first is what Sanders supporters have called the "Bernie Blackout." Sanders is simply ignored. The second, closely related, is that Sanders, when he is mentioned, is marginalized, treated as a fringe, unelectable crank, his presence in the race analyzed solely in terms of how it affects Clinton, as if Clinton is inevitable and he's just some annoyance. The Tyndall Report gives a good overview of how the evening newscasts of the Big Three networks have handled this. In 2015, these programs devoted 121 minutes to coverage of the Clinton campaign while the Sanders campaign received only 20 minutes. All three programs have done a wretched job but ABC's World News Tonight was the worst offender. When Sanders officially entered the race in April, WNT devoted less than 20 seconds to this development, with even part of that devoted to recording Hillary Clinton's reaction. News from or about the Sanders campaign then disappeared from the newscast through December.[1]

On paper, Sanders is a great news story. When he jumped into the race, he was over 50 points behind Clinton in most polls, a bare blip of whom few had ever heard. Since then, he's managed to float a campaign funded by small donations from his supporters until he's within a few points of his Big Money-financed, long-established Establishment rival and not only beat her in one contest but destroy her. As of this writing, the two are tied in the delegate count. On paper, it's like a ROCKY movie, a tale of an underdog making it to the top. Something Americans love.

Except Sanders is a candidate of the left. His policies may represent the broad American political center but they make him absolutely unacceptable to the media gatekeepers of American "democracy." A big part of Sanders' Rocky story is that he overcame the resistance of nearly the whole of the American corporate press and that's not a story that press is willing to tell any more than he's a candidate with whom that press is going to do anything except ignore and marginalize.[2]

ABC News has been a leader in this effort.[3] On weekdays, ABC's coverage of the Democratic primaries is handled by Cecilia Vega. Vega is senior national correspondent and an anchor of the weekend WNT newscast. She isn't a stringer narrowly assigned to covering just the Clinton campaign--not officially anyway--but day after day, that's what she mostly does. She certainly isn't in the pay of Hillary Clinton but far too often, her "news" reports on the Democratic race are virtual Clinton campaign ads.

By every available metric for judging such things, viewers of the first Democratic debate, held in Las Vegas in October, seem to have concluded Bernie Sanders won the evening but in a phenomenon much remarked-upon by media critics and liberal writers, the mainstream press overwhelmingly presented Hillary Clinton as the winner. In her WNT report on the event, Vega opened by showing a smiling Clinton being cheered on by supporters while, in Vega's words," taking a "post-debate victory lap" and asserted "Clinton gets high marks for her center-stage performance." Vega's entire report is, in fact, built around Clinton. How Clinton intends to respond to the email controversy from her time as Secretary of State, how Clinton is "setting the stage" for her appearance before the House Benghazi committee, how Clinton is "trying to show a likable side." Vega plays a clip of Clinton's rehearsed responses about wanting to get past the email issue and "talk... about what the American people want from the next President of the United States" and an extended clip of Clinton jabbing at her enemies. There had been four other Democratic candidates on the stage that evening, all with programs of their own, and they'd engaged in a spirited debate on a wide range of issues but viewers of WNT would have no way of knowing that. The others were barely even mentioned, the only clips shown of them being those that bolstered Clinton--Lincoln Chafee briefly challenging Clinton on the email matter followed by Clinton's dismissive, applause-line reply and Sanders defending Clinton on the same question. In the post-report discussion, anchor David Muir also opted to focus on Sanders' defense of Clinton and while Vega notes the Sanders campaign had raised more than a million dollars after the debate--itself a record and a pretty significant story that went unmentioned in the report itself--she ends by saying "Hillary Clinton's team is calling yesterday's debate the best day of the campaign so far." If the Clinton campaign had released a summary of the debate, it would have looked exactly like this report. And other than a later segment in which, in part, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump was asked to critique Clinton's performance, this was the only coverage of the event offered by WNT.

Vega's work on the campaign is persistently plagued by this same Clinton-centric approach. She spend most of her time on Clinton, tends to analyze every development from Clinton's perspective and frequently extends to Clinton or Clinton surrogates a platform from which to offer their perspectives themselves, a courtesy not extended to Sanders. She positions Clinton as something akin to the heroine of a reality show and rather than treating Sanders as a candidate for President of the United States, Vega reduces him to some mysterious outside force the heroine must overcome.

Clinton and Sanders went into the final leg of the Iowa competition in a statistical tie but the final WNT report before the caucus was again mostly focused on Clinton. "To the Democratic side tonight and Hillary Clinton," opens David Muir, setting the tone for what follows. Cecilia Vega's report shows Clinton at a campaign stop waving her fist and preaching to her followers with great vigor while Vega helpfully notes "Clinton is fired up." We get images of Bill and Chelsea Clinton smiling, waving and speaking on Clinton's behalf. "Tonight, Clinton feeling the love" from Iowa "and packing in the crowds" and we get a shot of a long line waiting to see the heroine. "Look at how far back it stretches."[4] Vega gives us Clinton's campaign mileage then turns to Sanders, asserting the Clinton rival was "still on the attack, accusing Clinton of smearing him" on the matter of healthcare and showing a brief clip of Sanders on the stump. Clinton was smearing Sanders with her assertion that he wanted to dismantle reform and leave people with nothing while he tries to institute an all-new and difficult-to-pass program. The matter is unexamined by the report; Clinton is all smiles, family and confidence, Sanders is the bitter guy "accusing Clinton of smearing him." Vega spends a whopping 30 seconds on Sanders, part of it showing musicians singing "This Land is Your Land" at a Sanders event (!!!), then quickly gets back to Clinton, devoting the rest of the report to Clinton's suggestion that a recent story about emails containing "top secret" information being found on her private server from her time as Sec. of State was, as Vega, puts it, "a dirty trick." The post-report discussion is focused on Clinton's last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts in the state, with a few words about Sanders volunteers knocking on doors.

The New Hampshire primary presented a much more one-sided contest--going into it, Sanders led by double digits--but while Sanders fared somewhat better than usual in the final WNT report before the primary, "somewhat better" still meant the Clinton campaign got most of the time and all of the love. Vega is on the case again. There's a smiling Clinton meeting with supporters then Bill Clinton hitting the stump on his wife's behalf, confidently joking he expects to be the next president's spouse and charging that Sanders supporters on the internet make grossly inappropriate comments to female Clinton supporters. This remarkably ugly effort to play the Sexism Card has been repeatedly floated by the Clinton camp and its surrogates but though its substance has been repeatedly debunked, Vega doesn't challenge it. Worse, when she briefly speaks to Bill Clinton herself, she instead prompts him to continue the attack, asking, "Do you think the Sanders campaign is playing dirty?" Bill, to his credit, declined. Next, there's former Sec. of State Madeleine Albright on the stump with Hillary: "Just remember, there's a special case in hell for women who don't help each other!" Big applause. Finally, Vega gets to Sanders, noting that he's "feeling confident" then showing half a sentence from Sanders on the stump and a brief segment from Sanders' appearance over the weekend in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live. Following her usual pattern, Vega doesn't speak with anyone from the Sanders campaign, not for a reply to Bill's charges, not for anything.[5]

The Nevada caucus presented another case in which polls were showing an extremely tight contest. In the lead-up to it, Vega turned in the worst report I've ever seen from her insofar as the present subject is concerned. She introduces her report by, as always, analyzing the developments in the election from the perspective of how it affects Clinton. As the report opens, Clinton is shown smiling and posing for pictures with supporters. Vega says Clinton is "putting her best face forward," while a Vogue headline--"Will Hillary Clinton make history?"--floats across the screen. In Vega's telling, Clinton, in an interview with the magazine, was "revealing one weakness with the campaign: herself." She quotes Clinton as saying "I'm great at advocating for other people... But I'm not so good at really promoting myself. I just find it hard to do." That Clinton is really something, eh? So humble she sees her humility as so great as to be a disadvantage but she persevered anyway. Vega notes that both Clinton and Sanders "are trying to promote themselves to minority voters ahead of Nevada and South Carolina" then decides to give Clinton a hand at it, showing a clip from a Clinton ad of Clinton comforting an Hispanic child! Then Clinton at a campaign stop with "the tearful mother of Sandra Bland," a black motorist picked up on a minor traffic violation who then ended up dead in her jail-cell under mysterious circumstances, sparking outrage. A clip of Bland's mother: "I'm one of those mothers who met with her [Hillary Clinton] and was able to make it through." While standing behind a Clinton campaign logo that says "Fighting for us." Vega continues: "With Clinton and Sanders now in a virtual tie, we went to her Brooklyn headquarters to ask her campaign manager about those polls." Vega asks said campaign manager, "What is Bernie Sanders doing in Nevada that you're not? He's ahead right now." It would seem to make a lot more sense to ask someone from the Sanders campaign such a question, the thing Vega never manages to do in her reporting and doesn't do here either. Clinton's campaign manager even says so: "You'd have to ask him what he's doing." Vega closes her report by asking the fellow his prediction on the Nevada caucus; he unsurprisingly says "we're gonna' pull it off."

Again, this is allegedly a news report on an American presidential caucus in which two candidates are competing but an update on the status of the campaign produced by the Clinton camp itself couldn't be any more favorable than this sorry spectacle. As a news report, it's so one-sided as to veer into unintentional parody.

And this is what's going out every day and night on ABC's major news programs. I've mostly kicked around Cecilia Vega here but the problems I've identified run throughout ABC's coverage of the campaign and of course the news division's higher-ups are who put all of it on the air. Much of it is also chronically superficial horse-race reporting, light on substance, stupid and with many partial sentences and quick, quick, quick cuts to hold the no-attention-span viewers among the audience--a slice of the ongoing conversion of mass-media journalism to reality tv. Anyone depending on this for actual information on a race to decide the next President of the United States is being terribly ill-served, while those who believe American democracy is a fundamental fraud will find nothing but confirmation in it.

--j.

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[1] In his count, Andrew Tyndall includes items either from or about the campaign. When candidates are merely mentioned in another story about something else or some other candidate, this isn't included in his total.

[2] Even big press outlets that outright despise Hillary Clinton (like, for example, the New York Times) will choose her over any left candidate (like, for example, the New York Times).

[3] Last year, elements of the fringe right got their panties all in a bunch over the fact that ABC's George Stephanopoulous had made a donation to a charity established by the Clintons but hadn't disclosed it on the air when he interviewed an author who had published a smear-book tarring that charity. The manufactured outrage spilled over until the head of the Republican National Committee announced that he wouldn't allow Stephanopoulous to MC any Republican debate (something that wasn't going to happen anyway). Entirely absent for the furor was the genuine conflict of interest involved in Stephanopoulous, a longtime Clinton loyalist and former Bill Clinton employee, working on the Democratic primary in his capacity as a newsman and, if Clinton is the Democratic candidate, covering the general election. I don't cover any specific infractions by Stephanopoulous in this piece but his position as ABC's chief anchor and chief political correspondent, doesn't look good in light of what I do cover.

[4] The moment can't help but bring a chuckle to political junkies who have noted the enormous, often record-setting crowds Bernie Sanders has drawn--far larger crowds than any other candidate of either party and often in very conservative localities--only to see the phenomenon almost entirely ignored or downplayed by the corporate press. Some candidates' crowds, it seems, are more equal than others.

[5] For months, observers have complained about and picked apart journalists' lazy habit of drawing transparently false equivalence between the campaigns of Sanders and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Sanders completely destroyed Clinton in New Hampshire. The next morning on Good Morning America, Vega's recap of the primary covered both the Republican and Democratic races and she deployed that same trope. "The consensus here this morning: voters are fed up with the Establishment. And the message they want to send: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump need to be taken seriously." Though Sanders had just won by the second-biggest margin in a contested Democratic primary in New Hampshire history and had captured more raw votes than anyone from either party ever in that contest, Vega actually gives him less time than any of the other candidates covered! While Trump drew a little over 100,000 voters, Sanders drew over 151,000 yet the report devotes 23 seconds to Trump and only 17 to Sanders. Even 2nd-place Republican finisher John Kasich was given more time (18 seconds). And guess who got more time than anyone? Hillary Clinton may have been flattened at the polls but she won the battle of the coverage. She was given 30 seconds--14 in the report proper and 16 in Vega's post-report comments, wherein Vega, as usual, insisted on analyzing the results solely from the perspective of how they affect the Clinton campaign. Sanders, in the report, remains a mysterious figure--while the report includes brief clips of post-primary interviews from both Trump and Kasich, the big winner of the evening is only shown in some brief moments from his victory speech.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Of Money, Politics, Hillary Clinton & Illusions [Updated Below]

Masterdebation Dept.- American presidential races are a $2+ billion, year-and-a-half-long "reality" show,  most of it as fake, scripted and full of low-grade melodrama as the worst of the lot. Theoretically, they determine who will be next to hold the single most powerful office in the history of the world. In practice, they offer up a series of carefully-crafted illusions intended to distract, bedazzle and give the impression of a functioning democracy wherein one's vote actually matters and wherein the choice between wholly-owned representatives of the same Big Money interests is real and has a meaningful impact on the direction of the nation. In this pageant of phantoms, presidential debates are one of the featured attractions. The Democratic candidates participated in one Thursday night. In the course of it, a question was begged, one that pulled a thread that, given the proper attention, would threaten to unravel not only the relatively small-fry campaign of Hillary Clinton but the baseless fabric of this entire empire of illusions. Unfortunately, there's no one to give it that attention. Rather than acting as a watchdog, the American press largely functions as an integral part of that empire.

In American politics, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is an odd duck indeed. For many years, he's come perilously close to identifying, in very blunt language, the big lie at the heart of American "democracy":

"...with a political campaign finance system that is corrupt and that is increasingly controlled by billionaires and special interests, I fear very much that, in fact, government of the people, by the people, for the people is perishing in the United States of America... Let us be frank, let us be honest: the current political campaign finance system is corrupt and amounts to legalized bribery."

Money isn't the most important issue in American politics and government; it's the only issue, the thing that overwhelms every other consideration, the thing around which everything else revolves. To mount a serious run for a major office, politicians must, in almost every case, prostitute themselves to the entrenched Big Money interests. Those who are most successful at this almost always win then spend much of their time in government servicing their clients' needs. On every matter of real importance, money determines policy. In recent years, multiple Supreme Court decisions, of which the Citizens United ruling is but the best known, have left in tatters even the utterly ineffectual campaign finance laws that existed prior to them. Among other things, these rulings have given rise to the super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of candidates, dark money groups that can do the same but without even publicly disclosing their donors and the use of LLCs as anonymous fronts to donate to super PACs, increasingly turning the super PACs too into super-dark-money groups. These cauldrons of corruption, brimming with the bribes of billionaires and Big Business, often outspend the candidates themselves and join with the already-obscene amounts of money those candidates raise to drown out any trace of democracy.

Liberal pols sometimes offer lip-service objections to this sorry state of affairs but when it comes to actively rejecting it, Bernie Sanders walks the walk. He refuses to prostitute himself to Big Money. No array of deep-pocketed super PACs orbit his candidacy. He's financing his presidential bid mostly via small donations from ordinary people. He's the real candidate Ted Cruz only pretends to be. He speaks frequently and forcefully against the current system of "legalized bribery" and in favor of a robust program he's offered to try to reform it.

The belief that it can be effectively reformed is perhaps an illusion of Sanders and other liberals.[1] In rejecting the money-is-speech rationale offered by the Supreme Court for dismembering campaign finance law, Sanders doesn't address the legitimate free-speech implications of that equation--something that, of course, can't just be dismissed. At the same time, the idea that the current state of affairs can be fixed by merely reforming campaign finance seems naive, a radical underestimation of the extent of the problem. Aside from being owned by Big Money interests, most members of congress are drawn from the professional classes and are, themselves, millionaires, who are not only serving their wealthy patrons but have a personal investment in perpetuating the prerogatives of the powerful. That--preserving those prerogatives--has been a focus of government in the U.S. from the birth of the republic, enshrined in a constitution written by aristocrats terrified of a public uprising and trying to protect their own interests.[2] And, of course, if reform would be effective, the Big Money interests that pull the strings of government would simply prevent it from going forward. It's possible these problems are simply too intractable to be responsive to mere reforms. But Sanders wants to have a go at it.

And as every poll on the subject reveals, the public is with him. A CBS News/New York Times poll from June is typical. 84% of respondents, including even 80% of Republicans, believe "money has too much influence" in political campaigns; 85% said politicians "promote policies that directly help the people and groups who donated money to their campaigns" most of the time (55%) or sometimes (30%); 39% said "fundamental changes" are needed in the campaign finance system, while a further 46% said "the system for funding political campaigns has so much wrong with it that we need to completely rebuild it." Americans understand the problem, even if they underestimate the extent and significance of it.

Politicians keep an eye on polls. In the presidential race, Sanders isn't alone in denouncing the current campaign finance system. Last year, Hillary Clinton, his chief Democratic rival, decried what she called a "political system hijacked by billionaires and special interests," rhetoric directly echoing Sanders, and calling for a package of reforms that was essentially a watered-down version of what Sanders has long proposed. To be clear, Clinton has talked about this issue for many years and it would be inaccurate to suggest, as some have, that her current push is just her aping Sanders. Her rhetoric, however, has certainly been, shall we say, influenced by his. More broadly, Clinton has been echoing and even cloning Sanders' rhetoric and proposals on many issues throughout the campaign. In the lead-up to the Iowa caucus, this trend accelerated. This isn't really surprising--Clinton has a long history of suddenly espousing selective progressive values whenever there looms an election in which such talk is politically beneficial.[3] Her commitment to those values has an unfortunate habit of disappearing as soon as the pending election is over.[4] Her commitment to campaign finance reform can be gauged by her activities shortly after endorsing the idea in the current presidential race--as reported by the New York Times, Clinton

"will begin personally courting donors for a 'super PAC' supporting her candidacy, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has fully embraced these independent groups that can accept unlimited checks from big donors and are already playing a major role in the 2016 race.

"Her decision is another escalation in what is expected to be the most expensive presidential race in history... Mrs. Clinton’s allies hope that with her support, the top Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA Action, will raise $200 million to $300 million. That is on par with what the largest Republican organizations, such as the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads super PAC and its nonprofit affiliate, spent in 2012."

Sanders has tried, either valiantly or stupidly (depending on how one evaluates such things), not to wage a campaign of personal insults but he has been critical of Hillary Clinton's ties to Wall Street. Wall Street is one of many Big Money special interests supporting Clinton's presidential efforts but it's by far the biggest, backing her with nearly $18 million.[5] Sanders has also noted that Clinton took $675,000 in speaking fees for a trio of speeches to Goldman Sachs (which is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Clinton's lucrative business of sucking up six-figure speaking fees from regulated industries). Clinton and Sanders have clashed over this in the past. In a November debate, the subject provoked one of the most bizarre moments of the campaign; Clinton, in defending herself against the charge that she's too close to Wall Street, offered an utterly irrelevant, wrap-herself-in-the-flag invocation of the 9/11 terror attacks and said "I'm very proud that for the first time, a majority of my donors are women."[6]

Yes, that really happened.


At Thursday's debate, all of this came to a head. Clinton, who lacks any trace of Sanders' reticence to engage in personal attacks, began lobbing bombs from the opening bell. In a dig that backfired, Clinton pointed out that some prominent Democrats from Sanders' home state of Vermont have endorsed her, to which Sanders replied, "I will absolutely admit that Secretary Clinton has the support of far more governors, mayors, members of the House. She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her. That's a fact. I don't deny it." Bristling at association with the dreaded "e" word, that thing of which no one this campaign season wants to be a part, a clearly miffed Clinton said "honestly, Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment." Faced with this meaningless, connected-to-nothing Grrrl Power demagoguery, Sanders replied:

"What being part of the establishment is, is, in the last quarter, having a super PAC that raised $15 million from Wall Street, that throughout one's life raised a whole lot of money from the drug companies and other special interests. To my mind, if we do not get a handle on money in politics and the degree to which big money controls the political process in this country, nobody is going to bring about the changes that is needed in this country for the middle class and working families."

Clinton was even less pleased with this: "Yeah, but I--I think it's fair to really ask what's behind that comment. You know, Sen. Sanders has said he wants to run a positive campaign. I've tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be. But time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to--y'know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. And I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly. But you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received. And I have stood up and I have represented my constituents to the best of my abilities, and I'm very proud of that. So I think it's time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks..."

At that, the key moment in the entire debate, the assembled crowd of Democrats erupted in a torrent of boos aimed at their own party's frontrunner.

Sanders, in his reply, knocked this out of the park merely by noting the obvious:

"Let's talk about issues, all right? Let's talk about why, in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street provided--spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions? Well, some people might think, yeah, that had some influence. Let's ask why it is that we pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, and your medicine can be doubled tomorrow, and there's nothing that the government can do to stop it. You think it has anything to do with the huge amounts of campaign contributions and lobbying from the fossil fuel industry? Let's talk about climate change. Do you think there's a reason why not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real and that we need to transform our energy system? Do you think it has anything to do with the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil pouring huge amounts of money into the political system? That is what goes on in America... Y'know, there is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system. And in my view, it is undermining American democracy and it is allowing Congress to represent wealthy campaign contributors and not the working families of this country."

Clinton's own comments go to the fundamental fraud that is Hillary Clinton, the creature who insisted "we have to end the flood of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our election, corrupting our political process and drowning out the voices of regular people" then immediately began soliciting donations to a super PAC, hoping to raise more dirty money than ever from special interests. At this debate, she said "we [she and Sanders] both agree with campaign finance reform" right after she'd made a forceful case that no effort at campaign finance reform is even needed. She insists she never changed a view or a vote for a buck; every other pol in government says the same thing. And, of course, it's as demonstrably false with her as it is with all the rest. As a candidate for the Senate in 2000, for example, then-First-Lady Clinton made a public show of opposing an horrendous Wall Street-supported bill aimed at stripping bankruptcy protections from consumers. Once she won her election though, she flip-flopped and adopted her Wall Street paymasters' position on the legislation, concocting a false narrative about superficial reforms justifying her vote for it. For years, she supported the Trans Pacific Partnership, backed by not only Wall Street but many other interests who had purchased a piece of her. "The gold standard in trade agreements," she called it. During this campaign season, when such a view is politically damaging, she's suddenly saying she's opposed to it, opposition which will evaporate immediately after election day. She has a long history of opposing such ruinous "free trade" agreements when running for office only to switch to supporting them when elected. And so on. That's how the game is played. In place of any real evaluation of the effects of money in politics, Clinton perpetuated an intelligence-insulting illusion that attempted to undermine the entire argument for trying to divorce the two.[7]

Clinton's thin skin in the face of a perceived slight won out rather spectacularly over her reason in this affair and one could argue that a smart pol who knows her own hands aren't clean wouldn't have gone down this particular rabbit-hole but at the same time, Clinton knows some things. She knows most of the press won't scandalize--or even cover--her hypocrisy (it hasn't). She knows that no matter how much news orgs may hate her, they'll side with her over a left candidate any day. She knows her Republican rivals can't hit her on these matters because they're all just as dirty. And she knows the press won't and Sanders (for various reasons) can't give voice to that ugly truth, the one that lies at the heart of not only this matter but of the empire of illusions that is American politics and government:

She's bought and paid for; they're all bought and paid for.

--j.

---

[1] And though Sanders identifies as a social democrat, a sort of liberal/socialist hybrid, most of his program is comfortably liberal.

[2] Arguably, even calling the current state of affairs "corruption" is a misrepresentation. It may be more accurate to simply characterize it as the way the system is supposed to operate.

[3] For that matter, she'll espouse whatever she thinks will be politically beneficial at the time. She spent most of her career in public life opposed to gay marriage when support for it was a dangerous proposition at the polls; she only flipped on that one well after the public had come to support it.

[4] In chasing the Democratic nomination and trying to differentiate herself from Sanders, she's put herself in the uncomfortable position of denouncing Sanders' proposals as unrealistic even while aping many of them herself. She conflates Sanders' advocacy of single payer healthcare with Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare and characterizes it as Sanders wanting to "tear up" Obamacare and "start over again," leaving millions without healthcare, an absolutely outrageous lie which she makes worse by arguing that, because single-payer would lead to a contentious debate, it shouldn't even be tried--the ultimate conservative argument that, if accepted, would mean nothing ever got done at all. One has to believe this "No, We Can't" campaign has contributed to her recent decline in the polls. Exhibiting a shamelessness that is impressive even for an American politicians, she even invoked Harry Truman against the idea of single payer (Truman, of course, fought to establish a single payer healthcare system).

[5] Though Wall Street is her top donor by a mile, Clinton isn't the top recipient of Wall Street largesse. That distinction falls to Jeb Bush, who has received over $35 million; Clinton is the second-most-favored. Like most Big Money interests, Wall Street likes to play all sides and has bought a piece of every major candidate in the race. It's also the top donor to the campaigns of Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Chris Christie. It's Ted Cruz's second-biggest donor. It even bought a small piece of Donald Trump, who is mostly self-financing his campaign.

[6] Clinton also offered an outlandish misrepresentation of her own fundraising; Sanders had noted that most of his campaign contributors were ordinary people donating small amounts and Clinton replied, "I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small..." But in fact, 78% of the money given to her campaign committee came from large individual contributions of over $200, while she also has a number of super PACs and Carey committees (super PAC hybrids) that have raised nearly $48 million to try to elect her--her take from her small individual donations amount to less than $19 million. By contrast, 72% of Bernie Sanders' campaign war-chest come from small individual contributions.

[7] In a January debate, Clinton attempted to parry Sanders' assertion that she was too close to Goldman Sachs and Wall Street by asserting, "Sen. Sanders, you’re the only one on this stage that voted to deregulate the financial markets in 2000... to make the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission no longer able to regulate swaps and derivatives, which were one of the main causes of the collapse in ’08." The reality? The legislation in question, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, couldn't pass on its own merits in 2000 so it was tacked on to an unrelated omnibus spending bill at the end of the year and legislators were given the choice of either voting for the entire package or the government would shut down. Faced with this blackmail, Sanders, like all but three legislators, did so. Years later when Gary Gensler, the CFMA's key author, was appointed to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Sanders, still fuming over this, tried to block the nomination. The punchline: The CFMA was pushed by Bill Clinton, Gensler was a former Goldman Sachs partner Clinton recruited to be a Treasury undersecretary and today, Gensler is the chief financial officer for the presidential campaign of--wait for it--Hillary Clinton.

True story. And because the press refuses to correct her, Clinton, with Gensler still managing her money, repeated her line about Sanders voting for the CFMA at the Thursday debate.


UPDATE (17 Feb.) - After that MSNBC debate, Hillary Clinton appeared on CBS News' Face the Nation and continued to try to undermine the case for campaign finance reform:

"What the Sanders campaign is trying to do is link donations to my political campaign or really donations to anyone's political campaign, with undue influence with changing people's views and votes. I've never ever done that and I really do resent the implication or as I said the other night the insinuation."

After losing the New Hampshire primary in a one-sided massacre, Clinton, from the other side of her mouth, asserted "you're not going to find anybody more committed to aggressive campaign finance reform than me," but David Sirota and Andrew Perez, writing in the International Business Times, note that:

"Only days later, Clinton’s campaign is launching a fundraising blitz that includes events with representatives of industries that have significant business interests before the federal government. An International Business Times review of fundraising invitations found that the Clinton campaign’s nationwide tour includes events with corporate officials from the food, investment and energy sectors--all of which have vested financial interests in the policies that the next presidential administration will decide."

The IBT article goes on to detail these fundraisers, including...

"Next Tuesday, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to appear at back-to-back fundraisers co-hosted by officials from Wall Street colossus BlackRock--including Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s former State Department chief of staff and a current board member of the Clinton Foundation. According to Politico, a BlackRock fundraiser for Clinton had been scheduled for last week, but Clinton's campaign postponed it until after the New Hampshire primary following criticism of her Wall Street ties by her opponent, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont."

...and it outlines plenty of pending BlackRock business before the next presidential administration.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The "Populism" of Ted Cruz & the Real Thing [Updated Below]

Populistical Dept. - Playing at being a rebel has become fashionable this political season. In the midst of an electoral process, a system of government and a society utterly dominated at every level by Big Money interests, the cry of "more anti-Establishment than thee!" is thrown by every Republican presidential candidate at his rivals in a race in which each positively stumbles over the others in trying to out-anti-insider them. The corporate press largely plays along with this silliness, the extremely dubious notion of a revolutionary conservative resulting in barely a raised eyebrow (or headline). So Americans are treated to the Orwellian farce of a bunch of pols raving against an Establishment even as they compete for its highest office, spending, in pursuit of that office, millions of dollars they raised by prostituting themselves and their would-be presidential administrations to the same Big Money interests that already dominate everything.

One such candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, won the Iowa caucus Monday night--only 72.4% of caucusgoers opposed him (a larger percentage opposed all the others). Cruz has long crafted an image of himself as a populist crusader, an "outsider" bravely battling an entrenched and corrupt Establishment. In a rambling, frequently bizarre victory speech in Iowa Monday, Cruz mated a clinically high opinion of himself with his peculiar version of "populism":

"Let me first of all say, to God be the glory. Tonight is a victory for the grassroots. Tonight is a victory for courageous conservatives across Iowa and all across this great nation. Tonight, the state of Iowa has spoken. Iowa has sent notice that the Republican nominee and the next President of the United States will not be chosen by the media, will not be chosen by the Washington Establishment, will not be chosen by the lobbyists but will be chosen by about the most incredible, powerful force where all sovereignty resides in our nation, by we, the people, the American people."

Presumably, the 72.4% of Republican caucusgoers (and the 100% of Democratic ones) who voted for someone other than Cruz aren't "American people"--no doubt cowardly, undocumented Lithuanians doing the bidding of the media/Washington Establishment/lobbyists. Those backing him are "courageous conservatives," as if they face deportation to Guantanamo for this act.

That "courageous conservatives" phrase, which appears repeatedly in Cruz's speech, is actually the name of a super PAC established to raise and spend unlimited cash from Big Money sources on behalf of Cruz's election effort. Cruz is being backed by 11 such super PACs, more than any other current presidential candidate of either party. Four of them have raised millions while four more are into six figures:


In common parlance, "grassroots" refers to bottom-up movements run by ordinary people. If one is feeling charitable, one could suggest Cruz seems to be employing a new and rather exotic definition of same in asserting his win was "a victory for the grassroots" but as it turns out, he's simply being deceptive. From later in his speech:

"From day one, this campaign has been a movement for millions of Americans across this country to organize, to rally, to come together. Whatever Washington says, they cannot keep the people down. And tonight is a testament to the people's commitments to their yearnings to get back to our core commitments: free market principles, constitutional liberties and the Judeo-Christian values that built this great nation. When the Washington lobbyists settled on other candidates in this race, when the media in one voice said a conservative cannot win, nationwide, over 800,000 contributions poured in to TedCruz.org, as courageous conservatives said 'Yes, we can.' 800,000 contributions at TedCruz.org, with an average contribution of $67. That is the power of the grassroots."

Actually, that's a misrepresentation. Turning once again to the Center For Responsive Politics, we learn that Cruz's campaign committee had, by the end of December, raised over $46 million and that 58% of that came from large individual contributions of more than $200, not small ones. The small ones made up less than $20 million; the pro-Cruz super PACs, which raise money from millionaires and billionaires with no legal limits on their fundraising, had doubled that--$39 million--and as the New York Times reported, "more than 95% of the total contributions to super PACs supporting Ted Cruz came from donations of $1 million or more, more than any other candidate."[1]  One wonders which "Judeo-Christian values" the financiers behind them represent. Briefly.

Populism has a very mixed record in the U.S. It's a field in which, over the years, a lot of both good and very bad characters have toiled. At its heart, it's a democratic movement of ordinary people against corrupt and abusive elites. The latest right-wing variation of it projected by Cruz and his fellow Republican presidential candidates, on the other hand, is a counterfeit, a phony "populism" that protects and defends those same elites by directing public anger and frustration away from them and on to scapegoats--usually people with even less power than those being pitched the faux-"populist" scam. When one listens to Ted Cruz, one walks away with the impression that the biggest problem facing the U.S., by far, is illegal immigrants, followed, way down the scale, by Muslims, both groups that have absolutely no power in the U.S. The former can't participate in the political process at all; the latter constitute a micro-fraction of the population (0.9%).[2] Cruz freely mingles with even those who openly call for the execution of homosexuals and advocates an ugly, anti-gay legislative agenda. In his victory speech, Cruz thanked Tony Perkins and "my friend Steve Deace" for their support of his campaign. Perkins is the head of the Family Research Council, a reactionary, anti-gay hate-group that portrays homosexuals as mentally deranged, predatory pedophiles who should be made illegal. Deace is a local Iowa radio talk-show host who offers that Democrats are waging a "war on whites," calls gays "homo-fascists," their homosexuality an "unAmerican and pagan ideology," and other such charming assertions.

Cruz thanked a lot of people in that speech. He thanked slime like Perkins, Deace and James Dobson. He thanked his god. He thanked some of his campaign officials and some nameless volunteers. He thanked several volunteers by name and told their stories in some detail, though none singled out for that treatment was actually from Iowa. He never thanked Iowa for voting for him,[3] a curious omission for a "populist."[4] There were others even more conspicuously missing from his "thank you" list. Hedge fund CEO Robert Mercer, for example. Mercer demonstrated "the power of the grassroots" a few months ago by pouring $11 million into electing Cruz. Mercer is also a big contributor to the Club For Growth, which has, itself, spent a lot of money on Cruz over the years. Cruz didn't thank Farris and Dan Wilks, "grassroots" oil fracking billionaires who gave $15 million to Cruz super PAC Keep the Promise. He didn't thank Toby Neugebauer, "grassroots" founder of Quantum Energy Partners, who ponied up $10 million. No public appreciation for real-estate giant CapRock Partners, though they've shown Cruz $10 million in appreciation so far. No "thank you" for Goldman Sachs, one of the largest financial institutions in the U.S., even though he's one of the top recipients of Goldman Sachs political contributions.[5] Joseph Konzelmann, a GS managing director, even hosted a Cruz fundraiser in December. Konzelmann wasn't thanked either. Thanking--or even mentioning--such interests, the real power behind Cruz, would make his campaign look a great deal less like the proletarian uprising he's trying to sell and a great deal more like what it actually is, entrenched interests fielding a mouthy demagogue who, if elected, will do their bidding.

Cruz is good at that as well. Like any name-brand Texas politician, for example, Cruz is a favorite of the oil and gas industry. He may not want to say so in public but he certainly shows his appreciation for their support when he's on the job:

"The junior senator from the Lone Star State has shown his loyalty to the family biz by proposing to end the ban on offshore drilling, allow unrestricted fracking, abolish the Energy Department, slash corporate taxes, and block cap-and-trade."

Cruz faced some opposition in Iowa from advocates of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which keeps the state's corn-growers in the oil business. Like any good oil industry shill, Cruz opposes the RFS, mischaracterizing it as a "subsidy" even while supporting his Masters' pet subsidies. Challenged on the point, Cruz insisted he supported ending all subsidies, right before launching into a soliloquy about how something like the Intangible Drilling Cost deduction, a special perk enjoyed only by the oil industry that costs the public over $1 billion/year, isn't really a "subsidy."

Get it?

Genuine populism seeks to use the power of democracy to reform abuses. Cruzite "populism," while deflecting public discontent away from powerful malefactors and on to relatively powerless groups, defends government action (or, as the case may be, inaction) on behalf of the Powers That Be, particularly those that be payin' Ted Cruz's campaign power bill, while relentlessly demonizing government action that challenges their prerogatives. Cruz always wants to use the state against immigrants, Muslims, gays but suggest raising the minimum wage so businesses will have to cough up better than starvation pay and he'll have none of that. And to add insult to injury, he'll even explain how this refusal to assist those at the bottom of the pile--America's real grassroots,[6] who could use a hand--is for their own good. It's a cynical con and a responsible news media would have called bullshit on it a long time ago.

--j.

---

[1] Bernie Sanders, currently seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, is running the closest thing to a genuine populist campaign American presidential politics have seen in many a moon and provides a good contrast here. Sanders has raised over $72 million for his effort, 73% of which was in small individual donations. He doesn't have a single affiliated super PAC, doesn't accept funding from any and has even rejected the idea of unaffiliated super PACs working on his behalf (when one formed with that idea, Sanders had his lawyers send the org a cease-and-desist letter).

[2] Cruz wraps his anti-Muslim bigotry in the rhetoric of opposing "terrorism" but regularly manages to blur the lines between terrorists and Muslims in general. His real game can be divined from his inconsistencies on these issues. Whenever he talks about "terrorism"--which is quite often--it's always terrorism by Islamist rightists. Non-jihadist rightist terrorists, which are a much bigger threat within the U.S., are entirely absent from his commentary on the issue. When a right-wing group released doctored videos falsely alleging that Planned Parenthood officials were selling "baby parts" from aborted fetuses for profit, Cruz enthusiastically promoted this lie. "They were certainly caught on film, that there is no doubt that they were selling baby parts. That is unambiguous... The videos show senior Planned Parenthood officials selling the parts of unborn children," and Cruz promised to sic the Justice Department on the org on his first day in office as president. When this lie led a deranged rightist to shoot up a PP facility in Colorado, killing three people and wounding 9 others, Cruz's initial response was to claim the shooter was a "transgendered leftist activist," an entirely false characterization Cruz pulled straight out of his ass. He rejected the notion that the superheated--and false--anti-PP rhetoric about "selling baby parts" could have led to the shooting and even lashed out at "vicious rhetoric on the left, blaming those who are pro-life." When the rhetoric is coming from Muslims, though, Cruz sings a different tune. He all but endorsed government monitoring of mosques, saying they "have been a nexus for promoting jihad."

[3] A particularly tasteless omission given that, at one point, he did go on a rather long tangent in which he thanked New Hampshire for, back in 1980, voting for Ronald Reagan, a candidate who lost the Iowa caucus that year to George Bush Sr.

[4] Indeed, as the quoted material already suggests, he positioned himself as a sort of messianic figure and the tone of his speech consistently left the impression he thought he was doing Iowans and the rest of the U.S. a favor by running for president and allowing them to coalesce around him. He asserted that he and his "courageous conservatives... earned the votes of 48,608 Iowans" (emphasis mine), spoke of "your incredible victory that you have won tonight" (emphasis his), said his winning was "a victory for millions of Americans who have shouldered the burden of 7 years of Washington deals run amok" and so on. His only hint of humility was a single line about how his supporters understand that "no one personality can right the wrongs done by Washington."

[5] Cruz's wife is a managing director for Goldman Sachs, on temporary leave of absence at the moment while the campaign plays out.

[6] The extraordinary popularity of raising the minimum wage--a proposition that consistently garners over 70% support in polls--sways "populist" Cruz not an inch.

---

UPDATE (3 Feb.) - It seems I'm not the only one objecting to Cruz's phony "populist" line. On Tuesday, Cruz got so lost in his "grassroots campaign" fantasy that he sent out a fundraising letter in which he flat-out denied the existence of his Big Money benefactors. He wrote:

"I will never get--nor do I want--money from the D.C. lobbyists or the special interest billionaires... Last night, we showed America that only the power of the grassroots will ultimately defeat the Washington Cartel."

This was too much for Russ Choma at Mother Jones. Today, he writes:

"Fresh off his victory in Iowa, Ted Cruz is intensifying his anti-Washington rhetoric, even as his campaign barrels forward fueled by large amounts of cash from the people he claims to stand against. In an email to grassroots supporters sent Tuesday afternoon, Cruz begged recipients to hurry up and send cash to help him fight 'the Washington cartel,' and he claimed falsely that 'I will never get--nor do I want--money from the D.C. lobbyists or the special interest billionaires.'

"Not only is this not true; it's easy to prove, since Cruz has a well-documented history of bagging money from lobbyists and special-interest billionaires."

Choma cites information from the Center For Responsive Politics, which documents nearly a hundred lobbyists who have given money to Cruz. He cites some of the "special-interest billionaires" who have as well (and, of course, I cited several of them in my article above). "The Cruz campaign," Choma reports, "did not respond to requests for comments."

---

UPDATE 2 (4 Feb.) - Cruz plunges deeper into his "populist" fantasy--now he's comparing himself with Bernie Sanders. Sam Frizell of Time reports, that, at a campaign event in New Hampshire, Cruz said "you know what? In many ways I agree with Bernie in diagnosing the problem":

"Cruz went on to say that lobbyists and special interests have an outsize influence on government, stymieing competition and businesses. 'And what we see in Washington is the Washington cartel, these career politicians getting in bed with the lobbyists and special interests, growing big business, growing the moneyed and powerful influences the influence and power of the administration,' Cruz said."

Frizell notes that the two candidates "have fundamentally different philosophies and there is hardly a policy opinion they would share," and notes that Cruz "recognizes these differences too": 

"'Now where Bernie and I differ is the solution,' Cruz said. 'Bernie thinks the solution to government being fundamentally corrupt is to have a whole lot more government. I think that’s nuts. But I agree with the problem.'"

Here, Frizell falls down on the job rather badly. While reporting that Cruz makes such a show of raging against "politicians getting in bed with the lobbyists and special interests," Frizell entirely fails to note Cruz's own quite comfy relationship with those same interests. As this author noted in the above article, the actual contrast with Sanders on this matter is quite sharp but though the comparison is the subject of the article he's writing, Frizell declines to explore it.