Holy Embarrassment.

I am not a particularly religious person.  I do not pray or attend church regularly.  I am one of those “Christmas & Easter Christians” who twice a year puts on my best red sweater / pastel button down and checks “church” off the to-do list en route to honey baked ham and apple pie.  

As a child, my parents took me to Sunday School every week for the majority of my young life.  My mom’s father was a religion editor for a major newspaper and my dad’s parents attended church every Sunday until they were physically unable to get there.  From these upbringings they knew the importance of the church not necessarily as a connection to the big guy upstairs, but as the foundation of a proper moral compass.

Stories about the Good Samaritan and other parables that showed the importance of living by the Golden Rule are what still stick with me all these years later.  I learned about Christianity as the religion of people who would rather spend their Thanksgiving in a soup kitchen rather than sipping from crystal glasses, of people who would give the shirt off their back to someone in need, and of people who show kindness to all others above all else.

This is why this recent trend of states – North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi to name a few – considering and/or passing laws in the name of “religious freedom” that serve only to restrict the freedom of others has me completely baffled.  Looking back, I cannot remember a single parable, sermon, or story that ended with the pastor saying “and that is why Jesus refused to wash the gay man’s feet.”

I don’t remember that happening because such a tale would have flown in the face of every moral lesson the church is supposed to teach.  If all of these “Christian bakers” wanted to demonstrate the true nature of their Christianity, rather than reject payment from Adam and Steve for their wedding cake, they would deliver it with a handwritten message of good luck for a lifetime of happiness and prosperity.  

Over the course of history religion has been used to justify some truly horrible things.  The reason this country was founded on the basis of religious freedom to start with was because of the vast persecution of the religious minorities who first came here.  Our founders would be rolling over in their graves if they knew that the First Amendment of the Constitution was being used to justify the denial of services to Americans, by Americans.

Remember the Golden Rule? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Simple, right?  Help others in their time of need.  Be good-natured and accepting as there is not a soul on this planet who wishes to be discriminated against.

If toddlers can grasp that concept, then elected leaders should be able to, too.

Photo Credit: [L”Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP]
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Chris Matthews’ Trump Checkmate

Over the past week, Donald Trump added a few more soundbites to the Titanic-sized library of such moments.  Now, right beside Trump’s calls for a wall along our southern border and all of his grotesque comments toward women, sits Trump’s refusal to rule out nuclear weapon use in Europe and his statement that women should be “punished” for getting abortions. 

In an in-person interview with often the abrasive, yet exceptionally smart MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Trump stated that should abortion become illegal, women – and not fathers – should face punishment for getting an abortion.  The soundbite has since been chopped, packaged, and replayed thousands of times across all networks and forced Trump off message to defend his pro-life stance.  It is one of the first times during his campaign that Trump has appeared flustered and frustrated by a media onslaught.

Unlike many of Trump’s other distasteful lines, which came about unprompted during off-the-cuff speeches, these remarks on abortion were elicited following a brilliant setup by Chris Matthews.  After taking a question from the audience about abortion, Trump delivered a prepared one-paragraph response that boiled down to him being pro-life with the “three exceptions.”  Instantly, Matthews set the trap and began walking Trump down the path that would lead to Trump’s punishment quote.

Much like a chess player dreaming up a guaranteed checkmate, Matthews began asking Trump questions that took him through a logical reasoning exercise on what the term pro-life means.

The logic goes something like this.  If a politician is pro-life, then should they get their way, abortion would be illegal.  If abortion is illegal, it is a crime.  If it is a crime then it must carry sanctions – a fine, jail time, probation, etc.  Within those steps,  many pro-life activist identify abortion as murder.  So if abortion is illegal and abortion is murder, then women who get them should face the same penalties as murderers.

Branding the over one-million women who get abortions each year as murderers is a much harsher and less desirable political stance than identifying as “pro-life” and that is why Trump’s comments are so controversial.  It is a rather simple logical route to get there but no other pro-life politician has had their feet held to the fire in this same way.  All Matthews did was breakdown what the term “pro-life” means in practical terms, knowing that the end result would be Trump saying exactly what he said.

“Yes, there has to be some sort of punishment.”

This was more than Matthews probably hoped for.  Not only did Trump step directly into the soundbite trap, but rather than use legalese and mention a sanction or penalty, he chose the word “punishment” with carries with it a condescending connotation of denouncing wrong from right.

At the end of the day, who can say if this gaffe will affect Trump at all.  In this bizarro world for all we know it will take his poll numbers higher.  But part of stepping into the hot white light of presidential media scrutiny as an untested candidate is the susceptibility to falling victim to traps set by a more skilled debater and interviewer like Matthews.

Rather than move on to the next question after Trump’s attempts to dodge an answer, Matthews engaged him on a personal level, discussing the role of the Catholic Church in abortion policy, and then returned to the interview to zero in on Trump’s own stance.

More journalists should follow Matthews’ example and push Trump beyond his domineering comfort zone.  If we are to avoid swearing in President Trump next January, moments like this will become increasingly more important.

The Fall of Marco

The sun has set on Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign and he must now return to his average job in his average office and ponder what happened.  In the Age of Trump this is not an easy question to answer, as everything we thought we knew about politics is null and void.  But even in this topsy-turvy, oh-my-god-is-this-happening election season, Rubio failed to make good on some basic tenets of running a successful campaign.

For starters, despite his attempt to brand his youth as an asset, it was not.  His lack of record in the Senate gave him no accomplishments of any consequence to point to and his career in the Florida House hardly gave him requisite training in how to handle the intense pressure of the national media.  Being the rookie in the race led to countless unforced errors that routinely undermined his authority that he was ready to lead.  Finally, the emergence of Donald Trump and the unconventional campaign put the final nail in the coffin of the hopes of the GOP’s young rising star.

One of Marco Rubio’s favorite tag lines throughout his campaign was that the wasn’t going to “wait his turn” like the establishment wanted him to.  He said that politics shouldn’t be about electing someone because they had checked off items on a bureaucratic bucket list, but about electing someone who was right for the moment. And the current moment in 2016 required a young, hopeful, inspirational freshman senator who could unite warring political factions around the country.  Does this sound familiar?

It should, because Rubio’s party just spent seven years eviscerating a president for running a campaign based on that identical platform.  The Republican Party claims that part of the reason Obama has so royalty screwed America is because he was a freshman senator who abdicated his elected duties for campaign events in pursuit of higher office.

With that harsh message about electing an inexperienced symbol of change seared into their minds, the Republican electorate had a hard time buying what Rubio was selling when it came to his experience.

The positive aspect of not having a long list of political accomplishments to your name is that you are unhinged from the ball and chain of your recorded positions.  The negative part of being able to brand yourself is that if you brand yourself poorly, then not only do you have no record, but now also a poor reputation.

When Rubio first came to the Senate, he attempted to stake out a role as serious senator who could be the of the new conservative party.  He secured a spot on the revered Intelligence Committee where fellow senators remarked that he seemed to grasp concepts quickly and thoroughly.  Most notably though, he was a member of the now infamous Gang of Eight that worked to craft the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill.  

The part of the bill that ended up sinking it was the portion that granted a path to citizenship over 13 years to those currently here illegally.  As the Republican party caved to their base and veered sharply away from this compromise, Rubio got political cold feet and joined the stampede from the center.

Here is the problem with that shortsighted reversal.  Three years later as Rubio was fighting for his political livelihood, five states voted on March 15th whose voters all viewed “amnesty” favorably.  But by this point, the damage was done.  His monumental flip flop showed the voters that not only was he unsupportive of their favored policy, but that he didn’t have the backbone to support them when the going got tough.

For all of Ted Cruz’s faults – and oh are there many – he is steadfast in his convictions. He persists in his stances no matter how unpopular they are, even forcing a government shutdown in 2013 that temporarily damaged the reputation of his entire party.  Voters admire conviction, even when it is occasionally wrong, and many saw through Rubio’s Charmin-soft outer shell.

It wasn’t just Rubio’s long term positions that he failed to stay consistent on.  Throughout the campaign his stump speech and message seemed to change with the wind.  He started his campaign with a message of hope, preaching that America’s greatness could only grow.  As it became apparent that this was not year to sell hope, he shifted to a message about America’s “depleted military” and sagging economy. By contrast, John Kasich stuck to his message of positivity and look who is still in the race.

Later as Trump further pushed the campaign into third grade recess territory, Rubio decided that he too, needed to leave the classroom for the playground. For nearly two weeks he traded high minded policy arguments for punch lines about Trump’s fingers, hair, and well… other body parts.  

But he wasn’t done yet.  When that strategy remained in stuck in the mud, he apologized to the country and said he was embarrassed by his own remarks.  Rather than make him appear presidential, it made him look unprofessional and unprepared for the rigor of the national spotlight.

Being a public figure isn’t an easy task by any means, but running for president is a whole different ballgame.  In a piece in Esquire describing the infamous “Dean Scream,” Howard Dean candidly admitted that “the honest truth is that {he} wasn’t ready for prime-time.”  That being a Governor of a small state wasn’t the same as have every statement dissected with a fine toothed comb by every media outlet in the nation.

Rubio faced this same shock.  From his reaching for the water bottle during his rushed State of the Union response to his repetitive robot-like gaffe during a recent primary debate, Rubio clearly wasn’t ready for the constant, diamond producing pressure of a presidential campaign.  

All of these moments individually may not have been fatal, but combined they painted a picture of a young, overly ambitious politician who wasn’t ready for the national stage.  In presidential elections, image matters and many voters couldn’t couldn’t get over the image of Rubio as a candidate who was constantly trying to find his chi.

Sadly, even if Rubio were a polished candidate who had a solid set of positions, he still likely would have succumbed to the behemoth that is the Trump movement.  Trump was the worst possible candidate for someone like Rubio.  

Trump is brash and confident, Rubio is tepid and calculating.  Trump could care less what anyone thinks of him, Rubio only cares what others think of him.  Trump could sell water to a well – or steaks to an electronics store – and Rubio couldn’t even convince those outside of his hometown to vote for him.

Having already declared that he is retiring from the Senate at the end of this year and also closed the door on a run for governor, it is unclear what path Rubio plans to chart for himself at this juncture.  Alas, only one person can win the presidency and as he said it himself, he had a good season but didn’t win the Super Bowl.

Photo: Paul Sancya, AP

Bernie’s Gift to Hillary

Hillary Clinton’s biggest vulnerability is undeniably her perceived untrustworthiness among voters.   But Bernie Sanders won’t talk about it.

Long before she had even announced her candidacy, Republicans had all but attempted to tar and feather Clinton over issues ranging from Benghazi to her email practices to whether or not she let her top aide take too much paid vacation.  The smear campaign has worked, as Clinton’s favorability numbers plummeted and the road to her previously assumed coronation has proven rocky.  However, Clinton’s current opponent, Bernie Sanders, refuses to pursue this line of attack.

I’d be tempted to say this is because primary opponents aim duke it out based on issues important to their voting base rather than personal attributes, but the Republican contest has proven that entirely false.  That race has become a sophomoric school yard rumble where the word “liar” has been used more frequently than “taxes.”

This past weekend, during a debate in Flint, Michigan, Sanders sharpened his attacks to a new level and repeatedly – and angrily – insisted Clinton let him finish speaking.  Despite the obviously increased level of animosity, Sanders never crossed into attacking Clinton’s character.  In fact, Sander’s most memorable line of the campaign so far has been declaring that the public was tired of hearing about her “damn emails.”

While a high-minded campaign around important issues might be refreshing to voters, Sanders is arguably costing himself votes by steering clear of what has been an incredibly effective attack on Clinton.  Polls show that when voters are asked if they trust each candidate, Sanders scores nearly 20 points higher than Clinton.  Most pollsters would identify that as a prime talking point to be exploited and produce positive gains for his campaign.  Yet still, Sanders won’t do it.

This hesitancy to attack Clinton on a personal level has been a godsend for her this spring.

Despite Sanders’ victories in a handful of primaries so far this year, Clinton is still an odds-on favorite to secure the nomination in the summer.  Despite the heated rhetoric, there won’t be any television ads this fall featuring fellow Democrats questioning whether she can be trusted.

By contrast think about what the Republicans will have to face.  It doesn’t matter who emerges from the Republican field, they have all said – and had said about them – incredibly nasty things about each others personalities, character, and even looks.  Why does Clinton need to run an ad calling Marco Rubio unprepared to lead when she can show Chris Christie saying it.  Why does she need to call Donald Trump a loose cannon when Jeb Bush and every other Republican has, too.  

The reality-tv-like nature of the Republican primary has spawned record levels of voter turnout and if this trend continues into the fall, Clinton is going to need Democrats to be equally as inspired to make it to their polling locations in support of her.  She has already seen lackluster enthusiasm levels and nothing would make that uphill climb steeper than to have attacks of untrustworthiness coming from within her own party.

After the Democratic convention in July, Clinton will have a whole host of things to thank Sanders for.  For one, he has made her a better candidate, forcing her to focus on issues that are important to the Democratic base that she may not have otherwise. But beyond that, she should thank him for not further stoking the flames behind the most damaging question voters have about Secretary Clinton: Can she be trusted?

 

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Brian C. Frank

America’s 2016 Nominee? Themselves.

American’s have decided to vote for themselves this year.  No really, they have.  In the swelling support of Donald Trump, voters have shown that they would rather elect someone who shares their flaws than a leader of the traditional presidential mold.

Nearly every candidate not named Trump has spent years carefully crafting their image.  Honest, hardworking, caring, decisive.  Even Ted Cruz, who tries mightily to be viewed as an outsider, has a finely tuned political brand years in the making.

Most people are far from perfect and have flaws that range from occasionally lying to moments of racism to selfishness and arrogance.  Trump is unabashedly all of these things and in an age where polished politicians have been cast as the enemy, this mirror recognition is sufficient.

Trump may be a liar, but so are most people.  A 2002 study by the University of Massachusetts found the 60% of people tell at least one lie in every conversation.  Some of Trump’s supporters undoubtedly see this personal quality reflected in his candidacy as a sign of normalcy.  Trump claims to not have heard Jake Tapper say “KKK,” and well, who hasn’t forgotten a project at work and told their boss they didn’t get the email.  It may not be right, but the common man does this every day.

A polished politician, on the other hand, doesn’t have this luxury.  They are elected to be shining pillars of personal conduct and ethical purity.  Ted Cruz recently saw his poll numbers take a dive after days of harsh media coverage surrounding ethically questionable statements and tactics by his campaign.  The attacks were so effective that he fired his communications director to try and repair his image.  Meanwhile, non-politician Trump won a majority of Super Tuesday primaries just days after claiming a bad earpiece prevented him from condemning the Ku Klux Klan.

More likely than not that was a bold faced lie.  As HBO’s John Oliver pointed out earlier this week, Trump’s difficulty in condemning David Duke hinted that he was either racist or pretending to be, neither of which is decent.  If it was the latter – and I suspect it was – it was an incredibly effective dog-whistle to many within his core constituency.

Across the south there are still those who wouldn’t identify themselves as racist, but will still sing David Allen Coe songs with plenty of gusto.  To them, Trump’s hesitation in rebuking the David Duke endorsement was a nod that he is like them, someone who is forced to mask their internal compass because it doesn’t mesh with the decency norms of today’s society.

Then there is the matter of Trump’s wealth.  Candidates in every past election cycle have been ridiculed for being out of touch with the common man due to their vast fortunes.  The difference is that each of them were trying to run away from their upscale lifestyles while Trump embraces it as emblematic of the success others could see if he is elected.

For example, in 2008 John McCain tried to shrug off his inability to remember how many houses he owned.  Meanwhile, Trump holds press conference in front of a plane with his name emblazoned on the fuselage.  

This works because what American doesn’t dream of jet-setting around the world in their own jet.  It’s the embodiment of the American dream that we yearn for from a young age.  To a blue collar worker, seeing someone of Trump’s wealth preach a doctrine of unapologetic winning is exciting and inspiring.

Trump doesn’t need voters to ascribe to all of his opinions.  Rather, he just relies on people who can say “Hey, I’ve been there too. I can relate.”  Have most Americans not at one point thought about the satisfaction gained from torturing those who planned 9/11?  You bet they have.  But actually doing so would be in stark contrast to how America operates.  

George Washington once said that we should treat our prisoners in a way that proves the moral superiority of the American cause.  That wisdom is precisely why we elect leaders who have the temperament to steer us away from the temptation of revenge.

Nearly all of Trump’s support can be seen through this lens.  There is a substantial bloc of Americans want to “take America back” and to them a wall along the southern border sounds glorious.  A true leader knows how damaging that is.

Trump isn’t campaigning on the platform of being a leader.  He is campaigning as a megaphone for every dark thought buried deep in America’s conscience.

Career politicians though, spend so much time trying to appear perfect that any chinks in their armor revealing those human flaws can prove fatal.  Someone like Trump has proved immune to these traditional poison pills because he has never pretended to be a polished politician.

Make no mistake about it, politician or common man, Donald Trump is no statesman. He is, however, a perfect patchwork of frustrated American personalities and that may just be all he needs.

Trump’s Televised Puppet Show

If Donald Trump wins the presidency he better give every major network host a front row seat at his inauguration. It is the least he could do.

For months now they have eaten out of his hands like a puppy in pursuit of a Beggin’ Strip.  They repeat his vociferous accusations, his vulgar quips, his insults, and his lies.  They provide the hot air for every single ludicrous trial balloon he floats.

Seriously, does the truth even matter anymore? Does good journalism?

On February 22, Trump re-tweeted an allegation that Marco Rubio was not eligible for the presidency because his parents were immigrants.  It was outrageous, egregious, and preposterous.  

Yet all day on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, every single anchor drank the Kool-Aid, attached their puppet strings, and led with the “Is Marco Eligible” story hour after hour.  This wasn’t only done by antagonistic hosts like Joe Scarborough but by “respected journalists” like Andrea Mitchell.

I honestly do not get it.  In no way shape or form was this news.  It was an outright cheap shot and yet every major network gave it credence when they covered it with 1000% more seconds of airtime than it deserved.  A 15-second review of the account of the original tweeter @ResisTyr would reveal that Trump was quoting a Tea Party wacko, not a vetted political scientist.

But you’re right, maybe that is too much to ask of a major network.

These same people wonder how Trump manages to stay at the top of the polls.  This is precisely how.  As Newt Gingrich pointed out so astutely on Fox and Friends the other morning: “Look, {it is} because of you guys. Donald Trump gets up in the morning, tweets to the entire planet at no cost, picks up the phone, calls you, has a great conversation for about eight minutes, which would have cost him a ton in commercial money, and meanwhile his opponents are all out there trying to raise the money to run an ad. Nobody believes the ad.”

To further this point, a few months ago Trump phoned in to CNN and stated that the reason he says outrageous things is solely to remain in the headlines.  Host Carol Costello stared blankly back at him as she is wont to do, letting Trump’s admission that he was using her as a puppet fly right over her head.

Over the next few months he has proceeded to say outrageous thing after outrageous thing, and do you know what happened?  Every morning Costello leads the A-block of CNN’s Newsroom with “Donald Trump says…”

The journalistic argument is that there is an obligation to cover the front runner, but I don’t buy that for one second.  From the day Trump descended down his escalator to declare his candidacy, the media hasn’t looked away.  But staring is about the extent of their efforts.

They haven’t analyzed, they haven’t dug, they haven’t questioned.  They have just blindly regurgitated every last word that has come out of his mouth.  Even when they do push back on his claims, it is with barely enough force to move a feather.

The Huffington Post once made a noble attempt at addressing the Trump problem by promising to cover his candidacy in their entertainment section.  But alas, as with every high school kid who claims they won’t drink, after missing out on all the fun week after week, they too found themselves standing around chugging a Trump Lite.

But the truth is, Trump really isn’t entertainment.  His candidacy is scary and threatening to the American tradition in so many ways.

At a rally in Vermont, Trump kicked out protesters while shouting instructions to deny them their jackets so they would learn their lesson standing jacket-less in the frigid Vermont air.  And then in Nevada he said he wished a protester harm to the point that he would have to “leave on a stretcher.”  And do you know what the media did?  They chuckled and dismissed it as just Trump being Trump.

As it has become painstakingly obvious that the Trump bubble isn’t going to burst anytime time soon, the media has an obligation to treat him the same way they would have treated Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.

Stop reporting his tweets like breaking news and giving legs to stories that are more deserving of being ignored like body odor in an elevator.  Stop airing every single one of his rallies live as if it were Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate.  Stop laughing at his antics that are an embarrassment to American democracy.

This is someone campaigning to be the president of the United States.  The highest, most respected, and honorable office in the world.  We are supposed to be the nation of freedom, of compassion, of caring, and of goodwill.  Trump’s nasty and mean-spirited campaign is more befitting of an African dictator than a major party candidate in the United States and it’s high time the national media stopped treating it as a joke.

 

Mitch McConnell Has Forgotten His Poker Face

Mitch McConnell has forgotten his poker face.  Last week he placed his opening ante in a remarkably large gamble.  In what many consider to be a new political low, Majority Leader McConnell issued a statement a mere hours after Justice Scalia’s death was announced saying the Senate would not consider a new Supreme Court nominee under President Obama.  This is a gamble in its own regard, but then yesterday voters in South Carolina gave Donald J. Trump a rousing mandate heading towards the Republican nomination.

In a normal presidential election year this gamble would have a decent chance of paying off.  Most elections in the past couple decades have been relatively close and only but a couple times in the past hundred years has a member of a two-term president’s party been elected.  Thus, by waiting until next year, McConnell could envision a Republican president nominating the next Justice.

However, this isn’t a normal election year and if Donald Trump becomes the nominee next fall, we will more than likely end up with a Democratic president.  McConnell is taking a huge personal risk here and the blame will fall squarely on his shoulders should the chips fall on the wrong side of the table.  

The Republican electorate is shaping up to bet the farm on Donald J. Trump as their nominee for the White House.  While he may have gained traction among blue collar Republicans as a symbol of the revolt against the political establishment, he has very little – some would say no – appeal among Independents and Democrats.  Failure to broaden his support would likely lend him to the same fate as Wendell Willkie, the last business mogul candidate, who lost in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

If Trump or any other Republican loses in the fall, McConnell will likely be left with a narrower majority in the Senate and a new Democratic president who will have a mandate to nominate a Justice of their choosing.  After all, in McConnell’s hastily released statement he asserted that the people’s decision next fall should speak for the type of Justice to be nominated.  

Before the South Carolina primary, there was still a glimmer of hope that Republican voters would come to their senses and choose a more classic candidate.  But the Trump machine kept rolling, fueled by record turnout and relentless media coverage keeping him in the headlines.

Trump’s base of support primarily comes from white, non-college educated voters.  Along with picking off parts of the evangelical and hardline conservative vote, Trump has formed a speckled coalition that likely can carry him to the Republican nomination.  The problem however, is that his brand is unlikely to appeal to anyone whom it hasn’t appealed to thus far. His divisive nature has alienated Hispanics, Muslims, women, Democrats and a host of other voters whose support is required to eventually secure 270 electoral votes.

All of this makes McConnell’s hardline stance on the Supreme Court nomination that much riskier.  If Trump succeeds in becoming the Republican nominee and then fails to form the broad, bi-partisan coalition needed to win the general election, then McConnell’s bet will have backfired.

Had he not issued such a reactive statement last week, McConnell could have played his cards in a number of other ways that would have allowed him to hedge his bets against next November’s outcome.

First, he could have issued a statement saying he’ll give the Obama’s nominee a fair hearing. Then as the year wore on, he could delay, stall, and offer countless excuses until the Senate recesses for the campaign season next fall. With the clock expired he could then blame Democrats for picking an “extreme” candidate and failing to reach a consensus on the next Justice.

Or, with the American people’s best interest in mind, he could have used his position as a power-broker in the Senate to force the President to nominate an ideological centrist whom the Senate could confirm, thus denying Democrats the full liberal shift they foresaw with Scalia’s passing.

While neither of those tracks would produce a 100% ideal outcome for McConnell, they would certainly be preferable to allowing a President Hillary Clinton to nominate and confirm a truly liberal Justice.

Only time will tell how this story plays out, but if I were a betting man, I’d place my money that it won’t end well for Mitch McConnell.  His overt attempt at obstructionism to deny President Obama the ability to seat a new Justice on the Supreme Court was short sighted, reactionary thinking that will in all likelihood produce a worse result for conservatives than the alternatives.

Photo Credit: Getty