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The Blue Dog test


The Blue Dog Democrats in Congress for years have attached themselves to a piece of hard political logic: If you run toward the center, instead of toward the left, you’ll pick up more votes in districts considered competitive between Republicans and Democrats.

That idea, accepted and rejected with equal fervor in various parts of American politics, soon will receive an almost perfect field test in Oregon, in the revised fifth congressional district.

The Oregon fifth, which in its old iterations - it was redistricted last year for the coming decade - elected Democrat Kurt Schrader to the U.S. House seven times, has been a politically marginal district. It has leaned Democratic throughout that time, but only barely; a Republican win there never has been out of the question, and Democrats cannot take it for granted.

The largest single population center of both the old and new fifth is Clackamas County, which itself is a political battleground. While the other two big counties of the Portland metro area (Multnomah and Washington) are solidly Democratic, Clackamas edges a little blue but wanders all over the partisan map. It voted for Democrats for president and the U.S. Senate consistently over the last decade, but while supporting Schrader each time, voters denied support several times to fellow Democrat Earl Blumenauer in the slice of the county that was in District 3. And remember that Clackamas voted Republican for governor in 2014, 2016 and 2018.

Its state legislative delegation is split too. Currently, it has four Democratic and five Republican state senators, and nine Democratic and three Republican state representatives.

Schrader, whose base in Clackamas reaches back to his state legislative days, has done consistently well there. While losing overall this season’s district five Democratic primary contest to Jamie McLeod-Skinner, he still retained Clackamas (52.6 percent to 46.8 percent).

He had other advantages, including not only the usual boost from incumbency and an endorsement from President Joe Biden, but raised more than three times as much money as McLeod-Skinner.

His loss could be attributed partly to the redistricting change in the district, which sliced off most of his old territory to the west (the Salem-Keizer area and Polk, Lincoln and Tillamook counties) and added lands east of the Cascades, in the Bend-Redmond area, where he hadn’t run before and where his opponent already had a political base.

But the in-party revolt in the Democratic base was primarily against Schrader’s positioning as a blue dog - a relatively conservative Democrat. (This is not just an ideological label but also a formal caucus group in the U.S. House.) The irritation grew with Schrader votes on pandemic policy, regulation of drugs and several fiscal bills, and his description of the second impeachment of Donald Trump as “a lynching” (though later he voted in favor); it was exemplified after the primary with his vote against a gun control measure passed by the U.S. House.

All of this hurt Schrader in the primary, but might it have positioned him better than McLeod-Skinner in the general election?

That upcoming contest, between McLeod-Skinner and Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, looks competitive. The national Cook Political Report, which earlier estimated the race as “leans Democratic,” has been shifted to “toss-up.”

For now, “leans Democratic” - a small advantage in that direction - actually seems the clearest evaluation.

The new district 5 has a small built-in Democratic tilt. The much-used Dave’s Redistricting site estimates the Democratic vote in the district at six percent higher, over the last three general elections, than Republican (50.6 percent to 44.6 percent). The large Deschutes County vote, strongly Republican a couple of decades ago, now tilts Democratic, and McLeod-Skinner has been building her base effectively there; her big win in the Bend area gave her the margin she needed to beat Schrader. (She lives in rural Jefferson County.) Her campaign probably has a burst of energy from the upset in the primary.

If she has an edge, though, it’s not large. Chevez-DeRemer is an experienced candidate too, a candidate for the Oregon House in 2018 (she lost to Democrat Janelle Bynum) and served as mayor of Happy Valley city from 2010 to 2015. She too had a competitive primary and won it convincingly. Her campaign will be well funded. But she also has a string of stances and connections - on abortion, health care and the 2020 presidential election among others - that Democrats already have signaled they can hit.

This fall’s election in the fifth, then, will pit a Democrat and a Republican each from what roughly passes for the center of gravity in their parties. That will amount to a direct choice between two ways of representing the new Oregon fifth, and a serious fight lies ahead.


Little’s new budget


Gov. Brad Little gave a preview of some items likely to be included in his proposed budget for next year, and he focused on two areas which have long needed attention in Idaho: childcare and housing.

The governor is not the only one who’s raised these issues in recent months. Business leaders and economic development people have long associated both issues with the need to grow the state economy.

Without childcare, working parents and particularly single moms, can’t afford to enter the workforce or to return to work. And without affordable housing, lower income folks are priced out at ever owning a home, a major step in the development of a viable middle-class.
To some extent both problems will be solved in the private sector. As wages rise, childcare becomes more affordable, but if it’s out of reach, it’s hard to make it work financially.
The childcare industry is a relatively low margin one. Childcare providers struggle to find good help by raising wages, but just as prices rise, more people can no longer afford it. And with wages in Idaho being relatively low, potential workers today can do better in other fields. A continuing labor shortage has thus heightened the issue.

On the housing front, low-income housing, particularly in carefully selected areas, would enhance community downtowns and fill in what are now often vacant lots.

Developers can’t afford to build this low-income housing if they can’t make it work financially. So they focus on higher-end properties, such as single dwelling homes in subdivisions where the margins are better and there are usually fewer restrictions on zoning, etc. That’s an area where local governments can help by reducing or eliminating red tape and superficial zoning restrictions.

Both issues are on the radar county governments, to whom Little outlined his thoughts at the end of September. He didn’t put any numbers out there nor did he prioritize these goals with others. But it was clear from his remarks at the Idaho Association of Counties annual meeting that he wants to give both topics more attention.

Of course, the usual anti-Little naysayers in the House will object to both ideas. Taking their orders from the Idaho Slavery Foundation, they’ll spout the usual we- can’t-do-that line. That’s their line if any idea comes from Little.

When it comes to child care, this group is stuck in the past in which mothers stayed home with their children and didn’t need to work. It’s a picture from the past. As we all know that’s no longer the case.

When it comes to housing, they’ll oppose it too if for no other reason than it’s Little’s and thus will be framed as another government intrusion into what should be private sector decisions in every case. They will not put it quite this way, but what they’re really saying is that people should not have government assistance in these areas. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, a modern version of social Darwinism. Can’t afford housing or pay for child care? Get a better job or don’t have kids.

Oddly, the loudest opponents in the House are a handful of angry, strident women who wrap many issues in so-called “family” terms. Their extremist ideology puts them against a government role in just about everything.

But these malcontents shouldn’t deter Little from raising both issues. The legislature in its budget setting and policy process should give both ideas consideration. They should tell the Slavery Foundation that they shape policy, not the tiny group of noisy, big-money oligarchs from out of state and their candidate puppets.

This of course will require political courage. It’s an election year and no one wants to be thrown into the maw of Wayne Hoffman’s insidious attacks. But it’s time for legislators and the public to send Hoffman and his ilk to the trash heap of Idaho political history.

On childcare, Little said he envisions support for more training for childcare workers in positions that are notoriously hard to fill. One idea he mentioned was to incentivize small businesses to work in small groups to provide quality daycare to attract young people as employees.

Again, he didn’t throw out any specifics. Those will come later as he prepares the states proposed budget for the Legislature in January.

It’s not unusual for governors to float trial balloons ideas in advance of legislative sessions, and that’s what Little is doing here. There have been other attempts to look at both issues and with the state now sitting on a solid economic future and a large surplus, it would seem the time is right to address both childcare and low-income housing.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at

I just shot him


“Oh, shit! I just shot him!”

Do you get it now? All of you who badmouth and mock the people who believe Black lives matter, do you understand why Black people are no longer staying silent and taking it on the chin? No, probably not. I don’t expect even the events of this week could move you to take a stand for Black lives.

Because I know many of you like to add an “only,” thereby completely and selfishly changing the message to one of twisted superiority, allow me to point out the statement “Black lives matter” is simply a reminder to those who need to hear it. Sadly, there are there a lot of you. So if you must add a word, please make it “too.” As in “Black lives matter, too.”

I’m not talking about an organization. When I say “Black lives matter,” I refer to what should be a universal element of human relationship — we’re all human beings so why should our worth be tied to the color of our skin? It shouldn’t, but I am ashamed so many of you retreat into that defensive white preservation posture the moment you hear someone proclaim that Black lives matter. You know what? Black lives do matter.

This week painted what may be the most vivid picture yet of exactly why some of us must take a specific stand for Black lives. When a young Black man can be “accidentally” killed by “very senior” training officer Kimberly A. Potter who is unable to tell the difference between her service weapon and her Taser, people like me get angry. The video demonstrating the panicked incompetence of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota law enforcement personnel as they fumbled about trying to arrest 20-year-old Daunte Wright was almost unbelievable, considering it took place just minutes from the courthouse holding the trial for the infamous murder of another unarmed Black man. When the world’s attention is focused on your area as it conducts the trial for the murder of George Floyd, you’d think police would be on their most professionally restrained behavior.


Was it worth it, Brooklyn Center police? Reportedly, you stopped Wright for an expired tag or the air freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror but then you discovered he had a misdemeanor warrant so you decided to try to arrest him. Unfortunately, three fully-kitted Brooklyn Center police officers were unable to subdue an evidently sober, unarmed man who looked like he weighed about a hundred pounds. And when he panicked and tried to flee, you panicked and killed him.

Over a misdemeanor and an expired tag or a stupid air freshener.

I guess “law enforcement” is taken with a particularly deadly gravity in Brooklyn Center. Jaywalkers get five-to-ten, right? I know, I know, it was just an accident. Anybody could’ve done it. Sorry, but it’s not just an accident when you are given the power of life and death and you misuse that power. When I screw something up, no one dies.

If the bumbling incompetence of Minnesota’s finest hadn’t resulted in the death of yet another young Black man, it would’ve been eclipsed by the dull-witted screaming of the rubes who play police officer in Windsor, Virginia. This time, the unarmed Black man they assaulted and humiliated was as innocent as innocent gets.

Actually, innocent doesn’t do U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario justice. Nazario, who is Black and Latin, was returning from drill duties with the medical corps when Windsor police officer Joe Gutierrez and an unidentified officer had trouble seeing the temporary license paper legally and appropriately taped in the rear window of his new Chevrolet Tahoe. As a Black man who has abundant reason to be leery of law enforcement, Nazario turned on his four-way flashers and slowly drove to the closest well-lighted area, which happened to be beneath the canopy of a nearby gas station.

This caution apparently infuriated Gutierrez, who escalated a simple traffic stop — a stop initiated over no violation — into a guns-drawn felony-level stop, exactly the sort of situation Nazario was trying to avoid. Screaming at Nazario, the police officers seemed utterly out of control, a state contrasted by the very careful calm of Nazario. When a Black man who happens to be a commissioned officer in the U.S. military is treated like an animal by enraged redneck cops, it is almost physically painful to watch. That these bumpkins with guns and badges are allowed the authority of life and death over honorable men like Nazario is sickening.

“I’m honestly afraid to get out of the car,” Nazario said, his hands held up in supplication.

“Yeah,” Gutierrez shot back. “You should be.” What a professional.

“I’m serving this country and this is how I’m treated?” asked Nazario calmly. “What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” Gutierrez screamed back.

It got worse when the out-of-control Gutierrez pepper-sprayed Nazario. I was disgusted to see these two cops acting like, well, pigs. Yes, they behaved like pigs. The calm man in the car being detained should never be the one carefully asking the police to calm down. Gutierrez and his partner unnecessarily escalated this situation to one that could easily have ended like the ones in Minnesota.

Maybe the worst part came at the end when things had calmed down and Gutierrez seemed to be having second thoughts about his awful conduct. Then, Gutierrez the pot-bellied hick had the chutzpah to lecture Nazario the dignified soldier. In a sane world, the erudite army lieutenant would’ve been lecturing the doofus cop.

The Windsor incident occurred in December 2020 but didn’t receive widespread media attention until Nazario filed suit against both officers on April 2 in U.S. District Court. Of course, Virginia’s attorney general jumped aboard the bandwagon on Monday when he announced an investigation into patterns or practices of unlawful conduct at Windsor P.D.

Like clockwork, the resignations and firings in both incidents began.

Brooklyn Center’s Potter and Chief of Police Tim Gannon have resigned. Windsor’s Gutierrez was fired but the unidentified officer with him and Chief of Police Rodney Daniel Riddle remain — many are calling for their termination. But aside from these appropriate firings and resignations, why are we hiring these people in the first place? Why aren’t we considering measures that would minimize the risk of hiring morons and, failing that, making sure they didn’t get re-hired by another jurisdiction after a previous for-cause firing?

People close to me wear badges — I am no stranger to the difficulties facing law enforcement today. It is probably the most difficult, thankless job on the planet at the moment. But I’d be naive to believe that much of law enforcement’s difficulties weren’t self-inflicted when police agencies emphasized arming over training, control over de-escalation, a sense of power over a sense of community. More broadly, waiting for the powder keg to explode before listening to the concerns of the Black community might have been the worst blunder of all.

No young Black male can be criticized for being afraid of a simple traffic stop. Not when kids can be shot for an expired tag, when a dad can be asphyxiated for a crappy misdemeanor, or a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army can be treated worse than a dog. I could list dozens of other examples.

So I ask again: do you get it now? Do you understand why Black people are angry? Do you understand why Black mothers are worried sick about their sons? No, I didn’t think so.

Book report


What follows are some reflections on 10 of the books I read for the first time this year - not necessarily the 10 best, but the 10 that left the strongest impression, that drew my attention back weeks and months after I first consumed them. Not all are new, but they all (with one exception) were new to me this year. Collectively, they made up for me some of the better parts of 2020. This was, if nothing else, a good year to kick back and read.

They're listed here in alphabetical order (by author name), not preferential ranking. that would be too problematic for books as different as these.

Stephen Brusatte - The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (2019). There's some new science here informing Brusatte's descriptions of the long-ago beasts and their world, but what grabbed me was the way the material was organized: As a historical narrative, not just of the dinosaurs but also of the world around them, and how and why it changed over time. He walks the reader through the story of the dinosaurs from the beginning to their (mostly: birds excepted) end, with the arrival of a rock from outer space. Instead of the usual circus parade of odd critters, we get here a story of how and why they developed as they did. It's surprisingly gripping. And you may gain a whole new appreciation for our avian friends in the process.

Andy Greenberg - Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin's Most Dangerous Hackers (2020). From years of reporting - largely out of the magazine Wired - How cyberattacks grew and mutated and spread around the world, with detailed accounts at their best describing massive attacks in Georgia and South Korea, among other places, and burrowing inside two Kremlin-based organizations that seem to have been responsible for much of the worst activity. There's also a fascinating account of an American cyberattack on Iran (relating to its nuclear program (which spanned the Bush and Obama administrations. A stunning piece of investigative reporting.

Matthew Horace and Ron Harris - The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America's Law Enforcement (2018). Harris worked from street level to top administration in law enforcement at the local, state and federal levels over 28 years, which is one part of what informs in this book on policing and race. The other part is that he is black. I read seven on eight books on law enforcement this year, and this one stood out for the thoughtfulness and emotional crunching Horace exposed, even if there were layers of cause and solution he didn't unearth as much as he might have. Horace loves law enforcement, has devoted his life to it, believes powerfully in its mission, but he does not shrink from the problems, which he acknowledges amounts to something much more than just a few "bad apples."

Fletcher Knebel - Night of Camp David (1971). The paperback cover carried the tag line, "What would happen if the president of the U.S.A. went stark raving mad?", and the book amply carries through on the premise. The novel, a solid popcorn story I first read back in the 70s, became an unexpectedly hot seller this year. Can't imagine why. The story is actually somewhat tamer than what we've been exposed to in the last few years, and the novel's ending was more uplifting than anything we in this year have any reason to expect in real life.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn - Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020). All right, it's here in part because the central story in this book is set about five miles north of where I live. (And from time to time I walk through the location pictured on the front cover.) But there's also the unusually pragmatic take it sets in a subject area - inequality and our social difficulties - often given to politics, moralism and the dismal side of sociology. Kristof was raised outside Yamhill, Oregon, and the directly-told center story here is about the people there - and why, when some of them (such as Kristof) wound up doing very well, others saw their lives crater, crash and often end far too soon. The why of this, supplemented by other useful stories from around the country, make useful food for thought. It's not the whole story, but it encompasses a lot of it.

Jill Lepore - These Truths: A History of the United States (2019). Lepore has been an excellent bringer of fresh perspective on American History for years in her New Yorker articles, and a great big, massive slab of her take on American history makes for a real treat all by itself. It is set up in part as a corrective to some other broad-brush American histories, spreading less time and attention on the traditional national heroes, elections and military actions than most such books so, and pouring a lot of space into the marginalized - the American history of slaves and their descendants, and of women, get quite a work through. This isn't necessarily the only book on American history you'd ever want to read, but it belongs on a short list that you should, partly as a useful balance to almost everything else out there, and partly because of the beauty of the writing and the laying-out of connective tissues that are Lepore's hallmark.

Henning Mankell, Laurie Thompson (translator) - The White Lioness (2011). Series novels less and less stay in my mind for long - too often the writers seem to stretch out their material, thinning each book, milking the series. Even some of the more interesting-set detective stories in this century have fallen prey to the tendency. On top of that, translated novels often lose some of the original freshness of language. So why is this Kurt Wallender book (the third in the series about that Swedish detective) here? It helps that the translation here seems more artful and lively than most. More important, aside from the neatly complex - as opposed to over-complicated - story which makes a logical if stark juxtaposition of rural Sweden and roiling (and dangerous) parts of South Africa, the locales between which the book is split - and never really unites.

Barack Obama - A Promised Land (2020). The former president's first memoir, Dreams from my Father, was written long before he launched his political career, and carried a distinctive and sharply honest voice; to read it is to know it wasn't written with a political campaign in mind, and that it was crafted by someone who really could write well. This first presidential memoir (a second is planned, to follow from the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid) has a good deal of that feel, despite the very different subject matter. More than any other presidential memoir I've read, it conveys the sense and feel of what doing the job and living the life of a presidency must actually feel, look and sound like, through the lens of a specific personality.

Chibundu Onuzo - Welcome to Lagos (2017). More often than not, if I'm going to read a novel, then I want to read something novel - something I haven't read before, that introduces me to new people and places. The Inspector O novels, the first few of them anyway, set in North Korea got my attention a few years ago for that reason. And so did this stand-alone, a tale about a couple of deserters from the Nigerian army - who'd had enough of the murder and abuse of the people in rural villages - and wander off to the megalopolis of Lagos, where the story turns strange and amusing and insightful, meandering between issues of simple survival and governmental corruption. Some reviewers have criticized its wandering nature toward the end, and some readers might be slowed by the distinctive localized language (though I found it worth the effort), but if you read this you'll get a clearer picture than you otherwise would about life in a very different part of the world.

Stuart Stevens - It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (2020). The preceding parade of books on this post notwithstanding, I read a bunch of books about current politics during the last year. Quite a few were pretty good, but a lot of them overlapped and seemed to run together. Among the many blasts at Trump and the many ruminations by Republicans over the last couple of years, this one by Stevens stuck out to me for the sheer level of personal emotion: The degree to which Steven appears to have exposed his outright agony over where he has been, what he has done and what he contributed to. To those who hurl invective to the never-Trumpers on the lines of, "See what you did?", Stevens replies, "I know. I know. Now we need to put it all out on the table, and figure out how to fix it."


This isn't really voting day any more, since so many people already have cast ballots.

But it is voting deadline day - your last chance to help decide our future.

Make sure that by 8 p.m. today (if you're in the Northwest), you do it.

See you on the other side ...

Again, for emphasis: An endorsement


Re-running our endorsement in the presidential contest. Now get your vote in, right away.

In approaching a half-century of writing about politics, I’ve never written a candidate endorsement before. Now, in this fearsome fall of 2020, it’s beholden on us all to speak up.

This is an endorsement of Joe Biden for president.

I’ll try to keep this as short and simple as I can. The case can be made best at length - whole shelves, maybe libraries, of books make the case either for why Biden should be elected on November 3, or - especially - why the incumbent, Donald Trump, should not. But there seems little point in rehashing all of it; I’d be writing and you’d be reading (if you were that determined) for weeks.

You could argue that I made an endorsement - or, actually, anti-endorsement - four years ago. Then, I published a series of 100 posts outlining 100 leading reasons - not the only reasons, just those I thought most crucial - why electing Trump would be an enormous mistake. Nearly all of it, I think, holds up; the negatives those 100 posts pointed out then have sprouted over the last four years into much of the walking catastrophe we’ve seen since. Still, that was only an argument against, and it applied only to what might happen: Once in office, Trump should be judged primarily on the basis of what he has done there.

And we should remember a few of those reasons …

Trump has been the most dishonest public figure - not just president, not just political figure, but the most dishonest public figure of nearly any sort - in recent generations. Nothing he or the people who work for him can be relied upon, and that has been the case since day one. The outright lies alone number in the thousands.

Trump cannot be depended on to protect our country. We cannot even tell, from the weight of his actions and statements, whether his loyalty is primarily to this country. He repeatedly has taken the side of dictators and adversaries of the United States over our own people, over the troops he commands and the intelligence agencies that work for us. We know that he has held secret conversations - under unusual, even unprecedented conditions - with leaders of countries adversarial to us, and not reported back to us what was said. He and his family have had business dealings with several of them. He owes, we are told (and this appears to be undisputed) hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, we know not to whom.

Trump has done whatever he can to turn the government of this country - the government we pay for and that operates under our authority - into a service bureau for his personal benefit. He sees the Department of Justice not as an agency to deliver legal service for the country, rather as a personal legal service for him. One agency after another is seen in a similar light: The Department of State, in one atrocious example, has been perverted for use as a political dirty tricks operation. (And let it be remembered: The case for impeachment from a year ago was and remains rock solid.)

Trump has divided this country more than any president before him. The election of Abraham Lincoln may have helped trigger the Civil War, but he spent his whole presidency in a crusade for union and unity. In contrast, Trump has declared flatly his loyalty to people who “like” him and virtually declared war on everyone else. He has tried to start baseless criminal actions against his political opponents, leading supporters in chants calling for imprisoning his opponents. He has tried to undermine and damage one institution in this country after another, including the news organizations which are among the few checks on him. He has found one group after another to serve as a target to inflame his base, to the point of repeatedly encouraging white supremacists and their activities. He has lent implicit egging-on support to the id of his base to attack other Americans - which led with easy predictability to the recent conspiracy to kidnap and possibly kill a state governor; to which his response was to blame that conspiracy on the governor. The Trump Administration's own FBI has called groups like this one of the top threats facing the country today; Trump offers them comfort and support. (The frequently extremist court appointments many of Trump’s supporters like so much also have contributed, badly, to this nation’s divisions.)

Trump has demonstrated no awareness or understanding of the principles of justice and liberty this nation always has aspired to. He does not even give lip service to such concepts as freedom and the aspirations of individuals. He has made clear that in his world view, only one individual matters - himself.

Trump has undermined our ability to govern ourselves by making repeated statements and actions aimed at undermining our elections - most notably the next one, and perhaps worst of all by refusing to say he would accept the verdict of the election results. Or maybe worst of all his (and often his party's) efforts to jam, manipulate or suppress the vote - to deprive Americans of their right to choose their leaders. Either way, his statements and action show he is uninterested in a government of, by or for the people: He is a dictator wannabe, and will be if he can get away with it.

Trump is hopelessly incompetent. He was a vastly overrated businessman - by many accounts failing badly and needing his 2016 presidential campaign as a personal marketing gimmick - but as president he has been much worse. “I alone can fix it” was a lie from his first nominating convention; like a large wild animal in an antique shop, he has demolished or damaged nearly everything he has touched, not least the reputations of the people so unwise as to work in his administration, and the once-proud political party whose banner he carries.

Trump has turned fact and science into an irrelevancy. In a universe of "alternative facts," we have a government of only incoherence, whether the subject is climate change, foreign policy, education or almost anything else.

Trump has damaged our standing internationally. He has mindlessly torn up useful agreements and damaged our key alliances, and given priceless assistance to almost every nation around the world that wishes us ill. He has managed to get wrong almost everything about our most complex relationships - notably China.

Trump has damaged and continues to try to further damage the well-being of our people. The most obvious example is in his thoughtless and self-centered approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, a weak and counterproductive miasma that has made him the reason tens of thousands of Americans have died. Not content with that, his administration has moved aggressively to take health insurance coverage away (formerly through legislation and now through a still-alive legal case his administration is backing) from tens of millions of Americans - a breathtaking attack on his fellow Americans at any time, but bad almost beyond belief in a time of pandemic. He has damaged the governmental agencies he is supposed to manage; his attempts to wreck the Post Office, on an apparent mission of personal spite and for his attempted political benefit, is only one recent example. Trump’s base likes to credit him for an economy faring well pre-Covid-19, but that was simply a continuation of the economic structure set in place during Barack Obama’s second term; the economy’s collapse this year (by no means over) would have been far less painful under reasonably capable administration.

Much else - many other issues or concerns that ought to be disqualifying for a president or any other office of public trust, and probably ought to be included here - may be debatable. But these points are clear, established and for all meaningful purposes irrefutable. You need no more than the public record and Trump's own statements and actions to anchor them. There is no substantial positive case, for anyone other than a true believer, for the incumbent.

These problems are not ideological: They do not relate to a “liberal” or “conservative” point of view (whatever those may be). These problems are worse. Each and every one of these problems should constitute a clear disqualifier from the presidency.

Donald Trump is by a very long shot the worst president in the nation’s history, and whoever your choice for second place was a whole lot better.

And the subtext of all this, across the board, is that all of it would get much worse in a second term.

But enough about the incumbent. I write here to endorse Joe Biden.

The first point in doing that is to emphasize that none of what I just said about Donald Trump is or would be true of Joe Biden. Unlike the incumbent, he is not ignorant of the nation, its operating principles and aspirations, the needs of its people, or the functioning of its government. His loyalty to the nation and its people is without question. How successful he would be at healing the divisions is an unknown, but he would at least try, rather than deliberately become the human wrecking ball the incumbent is. He would almost instantly improve our standing in the world and our relationships with other nations. He would re-establish some stability and an ability to practically cope with problems (Covid-19, for one example), an ability the current leadership lacks completely.

But the case for Biden doesn’t rest just on a relative absence of negatives.

He is deeply experienced in governing, and he has a good track record. He was a loyal and from all appearances highly capable vice president, and a central advisor in the Oval Office for eight years; he knows how the place runs, and could step in competently on day one. He served respectably in the United States Senate for decades. His own state - during periods both when it was dominated by his own and by the opposing party (it has shifted over time) - approved of the job he did. He chaired two major committees, and was commonly spoken of positively by members of both parties. Republican John McCain famously was a close friend. Biden has not served in the military (and neither did Trump) but family members have, and he has had a close tie to the national defense (and he does not trash it, as the incumbent so often has).

Probably more important than all this, you can hear in Biden’s speeches and his interactions with people - not just now, in the campaign, but through the decades - his awareness and understanding of what the United States is, the principles that animate it and make it a special place. He understands those things and internalizes them.

Biden also has an understanding of the substance of the presidency, the serious problems and the changes coming, foreign and domestic. He does have a grasp of the real world, not the construct of fantasy-conspiracy illusions so sadly popular in his opposition.

Biden has shown a level demeanor, a calm temperament and an ability to cope intelligently and appropriately with setbacks and problems. He has shown that he understands the office of the president and the federal government are not about him but about the people of the country, and he has not only said explicitly but demonstrated that he can and will act in the office in the larger good, not on the narrow behalf of himself and his most intense supporters.

Oh, and while this ordinarily wouldn’t be so big a point of distinction between two presidential candidates, it is in this case: Joe Biden, from all appearances, history and description, is a decent guy who cares about other people. When that quality is so completely absent in the opposition, it does matter.

Much of this does not, in itself, make Joe Biden a super-spectacular choice for president. Many people I have known, including quite a few politicians of both parties, have had many of these qualities too. They are not on the ballot. Joe Biden is. And he has what it takes to be a good president.

Some elections I have seen over the last half-century have involved difficult choices. This is not one of them. Considering the alternative - and don’t delude yourself that anyone other than the Democrat or the Republican is a real option - this should be the easiest presidential choice of our lifetimes. Of our nation's history, for that matter.

So here’s the endorsement: In the general election, vote for Joe Biden for president.

(photo/Gage Skidmore)

About the same


The subtext underlying last night's Democratic presidential debate was the election coming up in three weeks: The caucuses of Iowa, which likely will mark a significant inflection point in the race to the Democratic nomination.

The widespread and probably accurate view is that four candidates are closely bunched together near or at the lead: former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Oneother senator, Amy Klobuchar, seems clearly to in a well-behind fifth place but has some chance, in the hotly-contested caucuses of a state similae to her home of Minnesota, of exceeding expectations.

The tension over this comes in part from an unusual but clear fact: The polling numbers are tight enough that, given the vagaries of the Iowa's byzantine caucus system, there's no realistic way to know which of the four major candidates will emerge on top: What the order of finish will be. A plausible case can be made for any of the top four finishing first or fourth, an uncommonly fluid situation (and fascinating for those of us who enjoy watching), and even a not-unreasonable longshot scenario for Klobuchar.

It reminds me of a something similar: The long-running debate over which of the candidates would be most or least able to defeat Republican Donald Trump in November.

The realistic answer: Their chances all would be close to the same.

Consider Biden, who probably most often has been described as the strongest of the contenders against the president. He would bring definite strengths: White House experience, deep political experience generally, strong support within his own party, strong support among minorities Democrats are counting on to vote, a generally good reputation and affection by many people who aren't even political allies; among other things. But there are minuses. He would not excite many Democratic activists, he has had trouble with campaign organization and fundraising (and getting campaign spending under control), age gas been an issue with him, and he is perceived in many quarters to be more of a mainstream stand-patter than an overturner of applecarts - an image not greater in line with the mood of the day. The pluses and minuses balance.

So do they balance with the others. Sanders has clarity and focus and a massive and extremely motivated support base (Biden's is wide but not deep); his campaign organization and funding are in fine shape; while his age shows visibly, you can easily forget it when watching the energy he brings to the field. There are also a number of Trump voters who might more easily flip to him than to any other Democrat. On the down side, his rhetoric and Democratic Socialist label are off-putting to many; many Democrats may resent the idea of nominating a contender who doesn't even consider himself one of them (not to mention having little background in supporting Democrats for office, at a time when the Senate hangs in the balance); the health issue will not vanish entirely; and so on.

You can run through the same exercise with Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, and come up with similar results: A balance of pros and cons, arguments in favor and against any of these contenders. Most analyses have tended to focus on one particular strength or weakness of one or another of them, and promote or diminish their chances on that basis. Look at the larger picture, with all of these elements in place, and what you see is a field of candidates with genuine strengths and counterbalancing weaknesses. They're all different among the various candidates, but which plus or minus you focus on may say more about you (or the analyst) than it does about which would be the strongest candidate.

This works another way too. Any of these candidates may gain votes from some quarter that another candidate might not, but they also lose. Maybe Biden could pick up some centrist and minority votes that, say, Warren might not; but Warren might draw votes from millennials and upscale suburbanites that Biden might not. And so on around the circle. (Of course, in a general election context, all of that is also pretty speculative anyway.)

Here's a larger point. In nearly any election with an incumbent on the ballot, the nature of the incumbent is a lot more important to the outcome than the nature of the challenger. That will be much more true than usual in 2020; the vote for and against Trump is far more likely to be decided by attitudes toward the incumbent than it will be attitudes toward the challenger.

Message to Democrats, then: Quit chasing your tail and driving yourselves crazy. Choose a good nominee. That's the the best you can do and, from this vantage point, that looks to be sufficient.

Fake news


Post-truth is pre-fascism.
► Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny, Tim Duggan Books (2017)

The English Telegraph newspaper noted in April 2019 that “As well as being a favourite term of Donald Trump, [fake news] was also named 2017 word of the year, raising tensions between nations, and may lead to regulation of social media. So great is the danger, the ‘Doomsday Clock,’ which symbolises the threat of global annihilation, remains at two minutes to midnight thanks to the rise of fake news and information warfare, its keepers have said.”

And that much is not fakery. But a lot else is.

As this was written, here are a few samples from the site, which reviews questionable information and debunks a lot of what’s out there:

“Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has not proposed giving Social Security benefits to ‘illegal aliens,’ as a popular meme claims. ... An image of elected officials playing a computer card game has gone viral on social media. But the photo is from 2009, and it shows state lawmakers in Connecticut, not members of Congress. ... Former President Barack Obama, like many major party presidential nominees before him, released his tax returns – despite a popular social media post that implies otherwise. ... President Donald Trump didn’t call for the ‘death penalty’ for ‘suicide bombers,’ as social media posts say. That’s a made-up quote from a satirical story published in 2017. ... A doctored photo circulating on Facebook falsely claims that a California middle school congratulated President Donald Trump ‘on reaching his 10,000th lie.’ The image came from an online generator that lets users enter their own text.”

That’s just from one part of the front page.

What is “fake news”? Many things. It may include satire and humor pieces, and writings that specifically were intended as fiction – but might not have been taken that way. There’s also poorly researched or otherwise sloppy news articles that weren’t intended to be misleading, but through poor standards (and we should remember how small and short-handed many newsrooms are becoming) wind up contributing to misinformation. And outright propaganda.

The staff said that much of what it reviews include popular memes and viral emails and social media reports, and sometimes the exact category – other than that the contention in the piece was false – can be unclear: “Our first story was about a made-up email that claimed then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted to put a ‘windfall’ tax on all stock profits of 100% and give the money to, the email claimed, ‘the 12 Million Illegal Immigrants and other unemployed minorities.’ We called it ‘a malicious fabrication’ – that’s ‘fake news’ in today’s parlance.”

Incorrect or even made-up information about the world around us has grown to be a real problem. In our household we routinely sift through what’s real and what’s either satire or otherwise not reality-based.

But that’s a matter of fact versus fiction. In a sense, that’s not too hard to deal with; most of the time you can (if you’re willing to keep your mind open to do the work of sorting) work through to what’s real and what’s not. Inevitably, if you do, sometimes you’ll find data that supports your world view, and sometimes you’ll find something that undermines it. The latter is useful, if you’re into thinking: It means you may get to add another level of sophistication to the way you interpret things.

Then on the other hand, there’s this from the just-released survey American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy, from Gallup and the Knight Foundation:

“Seventy-three percent of Americans say the spread of inaccurate information on the internet is a major problem with news coverage today; this percentage is higher than for any other potential type of news bias. A majority of U.S. adults consider ‘fake news’ a very serious threat to our democracy. Americans are most likely to believe that people knowingly portraying false information as if it were true always constitutes ‘fake news.’ Four in 10 Republicans consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be ‘fake news.’”

The study noted that “The research community often defines ‘fake news’ as misinformation with the appearance of legitimately produced news but without the underlying organizational journalistic processes or mission. However, some political and opinion leaders, including Trump, commonly label news stories they disagree with or that portray them in a negative light as ‘fake news.’”

Reading critically, however, is not a skill that comes equally to everyone. Consider the story of

That site (no longer live) was launched in February 2017 by James McDaniel, an American ex-pat living in Costa Rica. Observing the unreliability of so many web sites, he decided to launch one consisting of made-up articles, including such headlines as “Obama tweet: Trump must be removed, by any means necessary.” “Whoopi Goldberg: Navy SEAL Widow was ‘Looking for Attention’.” “Man pardoned by Obama 3 months ago arrested for murder.” None were true; all were fantasy, as McDaniel readily acknowledged.

The site picked up enormous viewership; within 10 days it collected more than a million views. McDaniel remarked, “I think that almost every story I did, or at least the successful ones, relayed off of things that Trump supporters already believed. Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Hillary (Clinton) is a demonic child trafficker,” McDaniel said. “These are things much more widely believed among Trump supporters than I had previously thought. ... I saw how many fake ridiculous stories were making rounds in these groups and just wanted to see how ridiculous they could get.” He even included disclaimers that the stories were fiction, but traffic barely slowed.

Paul Simon has turned out to be right about people who hear what they want to hear, and disregard the rest.