Friday, September 23, 2016

Trump's Lying Game

Paul Krugman tells it like it is in The New York Times.

Here’s what we can be fairly sure will happen in Monday’s presidential debate: Donald Trump will lie repeatedly and grotesquely, on a variety of subjects. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton might say a couple of untrue things. Or she might not.

Here’s what we don’t know: Will the moderators step in when Mr. Trump delivers one of his well-known, often reiterated falsehoods? If he claims, yet again, to have opposed the Iraq war from the beginning — which he didn’t — will he be called on it? If he claims to have renounced birtherism years ago, will the moderators note that he was still at it just a few months ago? (In fact, he already seems to be walking back his admission last week that President Obama was indeed born in America.) If he says one more time that America is the world’s most highly taxed country — which it isn’t — will anyone other than Mrs. Clinton say that it isn’t? And will media coverage after the debate convey the asymmetry of what went down?

You might ask how I can be sure that one candidate will be so much more dishonest than the other. The answer is that at this point we have long track records for both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton; thanks to nonpartisan fact-checking operations like PolitiFact, we can even quantify the difference.

PolitiFact has examined 258 Trump statements and 255 Clinton statements and classified them on a scale ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” One might quibble with some of the judgments, but they’re overwhelmingly in the ballpark. And they show two candidates living in different moral universes when it comes to truth-telling. Mr. Trump had 48 Pants on Fire ratings, Mrs. Clinton just six; the G.O.P. nominee had 89 False ratings, the Democrat 27.
Unless one candidate has a nervous breakdown or a religious conversion in the next few days, the debate will follow similar lines. So how should it be reported?

I am not calling on the news media to take a side; I’m just calling on it to report what is actually happening, without regard for party. In fact, any reporting that doesn’t accurately reflect the huge honesty gap between the candidates amounts to misleading readers, giving them a distorted picture that favors the biggest liar.

Yet there are, of course, intense pressures on the news media to engage in that distortion. Point out a Trump lie and you will get some pretty amazing mail — and if we set aside the attacks on your race or ethnic group, accusations that you are a traitor, etc., most of it will declare that you are being a bad journalist because you don’t criticize both candidates equally.

One all-too-common response to such attacks involves abdicating responsibility for fact-checking entirely, and replacing it with theater criticism: Never mind whether what the candidate said is true or false, how did it play? How did he or she “come across”? What were the “optics”?

But theater criticism is the job of theater critics; news reporting should tell the public what really happened, not be devoted to speculation about how other people might react to what happened.

Now, what will I say if Mr. Trump lies less than I predict and Mrs. Clinton more? That’s easy: Tell it like it is. But don’t grade on a curve. If Mr. Trump lies only three times as much as Mrs. Clinton, the main story should still be that he lied a lot more than she did, not that he wasn’t quite as bad as expected.

Again, I’m not calling on the news media to take sides; journalists should simply do their job, which is to report the facts. It may not be easy — but doing the right thing rarely is.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Why Isn't Clinton Further Ahead?

John Judis explains on Talking Points Memo.

If I had to bet on this election, I’d still put my money on Hillary Clinton. But there is a big question about why she is not doing better. When presidential candidates face opponents who can’t even command the support of their party’s leadership and leading interest groups, it’s usually landslide time. Think of Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Richard Nixon against George McGovern in 1972. And Trump has less support in his party’s leadership than either Goldwater or McGovern had. Yet if the polls are to be believed, the race between Clinton and Trump is close.

I don’t accept some of the explanations proffered by her supporters: that the media tilts toward Trump or that there is a silent majority of racists and sexists in America. I think she does suffer from representing the party that has controlled the White House for the last eight years and for 16 of the last 24. In these cases, voters accumulate grievances with a long half-life that affect their view of the current candidate. And the candidate finds it difficult to advocate dramatic change without appearing to repudiate her predecessors. But I think that in addition to this handicap, Clinton suffers from having run a less than stellar campaign – one sadly reminiscent of Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Beyond not wanting her opponent to be president, I have my reasons for supporting Clinton – and they begin with Supreme Court nominations – but I can’t think of three positive reasons why the average voter would support Clinton. Her own ads have been almost entirely devoted to warning about a Trump presidency, which is why complaints from her camp that the media devotes too much attention to Trump run hollow. Voters want to know what she really wants to do as president. When I presented this conundrum to a friend, he pointed me to Clinton’s website, where there are detailed proposals on 38 issues – from climate change and campus sexual assault to HIV and AIDS and protecting animals and wildlife. But that’s not really what I mean by standing for something.
Political campaigns are thematic. They are not about detailed proposals. That’s what governing is partly about, although politics is crucial to governing, too. The most successful campaigns can be summed up in slogans and simple demands. I think of Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988 (who had to face the third term problem), Bill Clinton in 1992, George W. Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008. These campaigns had easily remembered slogans -- yes we can, compassionate conservatism, putting people first, kinder, gentler nation, making America great again (Reagan and Trump) and they had simple programmatic proposals – end welfare as we know it, an across the board 33 percent tax cut, read my lips; no new taxes, withdraw from Iraq, and not a dime from special interests. Trump’s campaign is very much along these lines, which is one reason he has gotten this far. Clinton’s is not. Nor was that of Dukakis (competence, not ideology) who at one point in the summer of 1988 was 17 percentage points up on Bush.
Compare for a moment Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton's response to the consumer fraud perpetrated by Wells Fargo. During Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, Warren told Stumpf, “You should resign. You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.”
By contrast, Clinton’s response was an open letter to Wells Fargo customers. “I was deeply disturbed when, last week, we found out that Wells Fargo had engaged in widespread illegal practices over many years… Today, Wells Fargo’s CEO will appear before Congress. He owes all of you a clear explanation as to how this happened under his watch. There is simply no place for this kind of outrageous behavior in America.” Clinton then went on to present a raft a proposals for reforming the banking system.
These are reasonable proposals, but they belong in a transition committee’s report on financial reform. Did Clinton expect that many of Wells Fargo’s customers would actually read this letter? By not singling out Stumpf and not taking the kind of tough stance that Warren did, Clinton missed a golden opportunity to tell voters what she really cared about – and do so without alienating a significant bloc of voters. And it certainly wouldn’t have put her at odds with Obama. I simply don’t understand why Clinton and her campaign took a pass, but it’s more or less characteristic of her campaign, and it is one important reason Trump has pulled close to her in the polls.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Taibbi on False Balance

Matt Taibbi weighs in on the "false balance" controversy in Rolling Stone.

No doubt about it, the country is in a brutal spot right now. We are less than two months from the possibility of one of the dumbest people on the planet winning the White House. And it seems that all anyone's talked about this week, whether around the water cooler or on TV news, Twitter or Facebook, is the lung capacity of Hillary Clinton.
That sucks. But it's not all the media's fault. This is classic horse-race stuff, and if you're getting it, it's at least in part because you spent decades asking for it.
The campaign has devolved over time into an entertainment program, a degrading and vicious show where the contestants win the nuclear launch codes instead of a date with a millionaire.
Under the rules of this reality series which media consumers turn into a gigantic hit every four years, collapsing in front of a cell-phone camera at a 9/11 memorial service is more important than a dozen position papers.
It just is. You proved it when you clicked on that video of the episode last weekend and didn't read a compare-and-contrast piece on, for instance, the candidates' banking policies.
Trump himself is feeling the business end of that dynamic right now, having just reversed himself on the birther question in spectacular fashion. His "Yes, Obama was born in America, but Hillary started the birther controversy and I ended it" routine is dumb enough and full of enough lies to keep reporters busy for a good news cycle or so, until the next fiasco.
An important news story or 10 will likely die on the vine while the country obsesses over Trump's latest foot-in-mouth episode. That's the paradox with this candidate. Even the people who wish he didn't exist can't take their eyes off him. No amount of "contextualizing" or pointing out his flaws and deceptions can walk back his gravitational pull on audiences.
This is true of a lot of dumb things that take up space in the news pages, from Joe Arpaio to the Kardashians. One could argue that the users of the public's airwaves have a higher responsibility to properly inform the public that outweighs the need to chase ratings and give airtime to clown acts, but that ship sailed a long time ago.
Ask any reporter who's tried to make the news less stupid at any time over the past 40 years. Most of those people end up beggingProPublica for lunch money, while the horse-racers and celebrity-humpers get panel shows.
Ask reporters like Juan Carlos Frey, who struggled to get anyone to pay attention when he reported on mass graves of undocumented immigrants discovered along the border of Texas. 
In truth, the media landscape is massive and there's room to cover everything. It's worth noting that the exploration of Trump's iniquities and unfitness for office in the last year has been truly awesome, both in terms of raw volume and vehemence of tone.
Anyone who tries to argue that there's insufficiently vast documentation of Trump's insanity is either being willfully obtuse or not paying real attention to the news. Just follow this latest birther faceplant. The outrage is all out there, in huge quantities. It's just not having the predicted effect.
So media consumers are reduced to blaming the closeness of the race on a species they've practically made extinct with their choices over the years: investigative reporters.
The irony is, the Clinton Foundation thing is a rare example of an important story that is getting anything like the requisite attention. The nexus of elite connections that sits behind tales like Bill Clinton taking $1.5 million in speaking fees from a Swiss bank (and foundation donor) while that same bank is seeking relief from Hillary Clinton's State Department is exactly the kind of thing that requires the scrutiny of reporters.
This is particularly true since the charity is a new kind of structure, with seemingly new opportunities for conflicts, and an innovation that is likely to be replicated in the future by other politicians – perhaps even a future President Trump himself.
Such investigative reports on the mechanics of political influence are also exactly the sort of thing that media audiences routinely ignore, unless by some lucky accident they happen to be caught up in the horse-race drama of a Campaign Reality Show.
So if your complaint about these reports is, "Why now, at this crucial moment?" there's a very good answer. If these stories came out at any other time, you'd be blowing them off! And probably in favor of The Biggest Loser, or a show about people eating bugs for money. Which brings us back to the key point in all of this.
I'm as worried as anyone else about the possibility of Trump getting elected. But if it happens, it's not going to be because The New York Times allowed a few reporters to investigate the Clinton Foundation. It'll be because we're a nation of idiots, who vote the same way we choose channels: without thinking. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Double Down, Hillary

Hillary Clinton is catching flak for her "basket of deplorables" comment about Donald Trump and his supporters. She should drop the "half" piece but continue to press the important truth that Trump has destroyed previous norms of political discourse.

On December 7, Donald Trump strode out in front of the assembled television cameras and did something unusual: The stream-of-consciousness candidate read a prepared statement.
It said: "I, Donald J. Trump, am calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on."
Trump didn't break a law that day; he broke a norm. Major politicians cansingle out particular religious groups for discriminatory treatment in the United States. They just … don't.
They don't do it even when they might find votes through bigotry. The restraint isn't entirely altruistic. Norms are enforced through powerful, if informal, mechanisms in American politics — in this case, widespread condemnation from politicians of both parties, as well as (accurate) accusations of bigotry and racism.
But Trump isn't bothered by the guardrails of American politics. As I've written before, his most salient characteristic is that he operates entirely without shame. He doesn't care if he's condemned, or called a bigot, or shown to be a liar. He cares about the polls, and he cares about winning, and he sees everything else as negotiable. In this, he truly is a dealmaker: If the cost of the presidency is being seen as a racist, he'll pay it.
To understand the danger Trump poses, though, it's important to recognize what happened next. Banning all Muslims from traveling to the United States, for any reason, went instantly from being a proposal so bigoted and outlandish that no one had even considered it to a proposal at the center of the American political debate. It was discussed. It was polled. It was normalized.
This is the lasting damage that Donald Trump has already done to our political system. Operating entirely without shame, he has normalized bigotry and hate. He has brought the racist, misogynistic, homophobic fringe into the mainstream. This what makes this election historic. Trump's hateful bigotry must be called out in the plainest terms and Hillary Clinton must be the one to do it. Josh Marshall nails this important truth on Talking Points Memo.
Donald Trump has not only brought haters into the mainstream, he has normalized hate for a much broader swathe of the population who were perhaps already disaffected but had their grievances and latent prejudices held in check by social norms. This isn't some minor point or critique. It's a fundamental part of what is at stake in this election, what makes it different from Obama v Romney when we had a critical election but still one that was mainly about different policy directions for the country. This election has become a battle to combat the moral and civic cancer Trump has injecting into the body politic. (I know that sounds like florid language but it is the only fitting and valid way to describe it.) Backing down would make Clinton appear weak, accomplish nothing of value and confuse what is actually at stake in the election.