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When it wasn’t terrifying, Donald Trump’s “campaign-style” rally was stale.

Trump needed this. His first month in office has been an unmitigated disaster. There are not only daily—practically hourly—reports from the West Wing of extreme incompetence, but Trump’s fourth week in office was defined by a major scandal: the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Things are not going well and Trump is clearly over-matched—when he isn’t bored—by the responsibilities of being president.

His “campaign-style” rally—ominously pitched as the start of the 2020 campaign—existed primarily to make Trump feel good about himself. Getting back on the campaign trail was a way to regain his mojo. Trump needs crowds to tell him that he is good and is doing a good job, because every other available metric—polls, reporting, basic cognitive functions—say that he is, in fact, doing a very bad job and that he is historically unpopular. He got that on Saturday—in many ways, Trump’s rally most resembled his rallies from mid-August 2016, when it seemed like his campaign was crashing to earth. The biggest takeaway from the rally was that Trump seemed genuinely happy in a way that he hasn’t since he took office.

It was, in effect, a greatest hits rally. Like going to see Boston or .38 Special in 2017, Trump did tired versions of old favorites: He talked about the border wall (now, hilariously, the “great border wall”) and companies moving overseas and the terrible Democrats and how the federal government is getting screwed by private companies. At one point, resembling late-period Lenny Bruce, he read the travel ban executive order to the crowd to point out ... something. He brought out a rabid fan to say a few words, which was probably the silliest thing I’ve ever seen a president do. Melania kicked things off by reading the Lord’s Prayer. It was a weird rally, in other words, but only because Trump was president—in most ways, it seemed like the kind of rally Trump did over and over again in the long summer of 2016.

One thing that was missing—perhaps the reason why the rally felt so unfocused and unmoored—was a foil. In 2016, Trump had Hillary Clinton, a career politician with ties to the corrupt establishment he was railing against. In 2017, Trump has nothing. He tried to hit two abstractions: the Democrats, who don’t have the power to really oppose his agenda, and the media. Trump’s attacks on the media and the First Amendment are genuinely ominous—on Saturday Trump quoted Thomas Jefferson to decry the “fake news” media. “I want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news,” Trump said at the beginning of his speech. It’s clear that Trump’s attacks on the media are meant to delegitimize one of the few American institutions capable of holding him to account. But Trump’s attacks on the media, though more pointed—he is now claiming that the news media is making up entire stories, which is insane—have always been at the center of his speeches to large crowds.

Trump’s rally will be held up by his surrogates on the Sunday shows and by press secretary/unwanted household pet Sean Spicer as proof that the polls that suggest that a clear majority of Americans disapprove of his presidency are “fake news.” That Trump is still leading a movement and that thousands of people at a rally somehow equal or negate the millions who are concerned about his ability to lead the country. But what was most notable about the rally was that Trump retreated to the safety of the stump speech—it may have been the least newsworthy event of his calamitous young presidency.

June 28, 2019

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Andrew Yang is the most YOLO candidate ever.

Moderately successful businessman and “random opinionated person” Andrew Yang may have been the breakout star of Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate—if only because of his proposal for a so-called “freedom dividend.” This is basically just Yang’s marketing term for a Universal Basic Income, under which every American adult receives $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year.

This would solve a lot of our problems, Yang said—including climate change.

Would this actually work? Who knows! I mean, is it really the craziest thing in the world to think that if everyone had a little more financial cushion, more people would be OK with making some of the temporary financial sacrifices that will become necessary over the next 11 years to rapidly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? If anything, it’s just as crazy as Joe Biden’s assertion that he can turn America’s entire vehicle fleet electric by the year 2030 without the help of Republicans. And hey, maybe if everyone had $12,000 more per year, they’d be willing to buy those electric cars. So, might as well try it, right? The human race only lives once, after all.

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Sanders’s “rotating judges” idea actually makes some sense.

On Thursday morning, the Supreme Court handed down two major rulings on gerrymandering and the census, and yet, only a few hours later, with the candidates gathered in Miami for the second Democratic debate, the moderators never raised the high court, nor did they ask how, if elected, the candidates would handle its emboldened conservative majority.

They came closest to tackling the issue in an exchange about Roe v. Wade and what the candidates would do to protect abortion rights if it were overturned. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders replied by saying he opposed adding additional justices to the bench, a solution several other candidates have proposed. “I do not believe in packing the court,” Sanders said. But “I do believe that constitutionally we have the ability to rotate judges to other courts.”

Huh? It’s not clear what this plan would entail—Thursday’s format wasn’t conducive to in-depth answers—but Sanders provided some clues about what he meant at a forum in April, when he offered up a similar proposal. “What may make sense is, if not term limits, then rotating judges to the appeals court as well,” he told the audience. “Letting them get out of the Supreme Court and bringing in new blood.” The proposal is constitutionally dubious, to say the least, and might require a amendment, but it’s not without merit if it gets rid of corrosive confirmation battles and tempers ideological divides among the justices.

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Damn right it’s a climate crisis.

The moderators of Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate devoted seven minutes to the subject of global warming. But nothing the candidates said during those seven minutes advanced the conversation as much as the first twelve words Senator Kamala Harris said about climate change during Thursday night’s debate.

Asked to explain what she would do about climate change, Harris first took a step back. “I don’t even call it climate change,” she said. “It’s a climate crisis.”

The idea that we should replace the term “climate change” with “climate crisis” has been bubbling up in environmentalist circles for a long time, but it started gaining mainstream attention last month, when The Guardian announced that it was changing its official style guide to recommend terms like “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” over simply “climate change.” The reasoning, according to Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, was simple accuracy. “Huge-scale and immediate action is needed to slash emissions, but they are still going up—that’s an emergency or crisis,” she said. “Extreme weather is increasing and climate patterns established for millennia are changing—hence breakdown.”

Since then, more media outlets have started changing their terminology. As Grist reported last week, that includes Spanish news agency EFE and Noticias Telemundo, the top U.S.-based Spanish-language news provider. Their reasoning was similar, Telemundo’s executive vice president of network news Luis Fernández said:
“The scientific community and linguistics experts agree that the world is facing a climate emergency.”

By pushing that conversation further into the mainstream on Thursday night, Harris did the planet, and its inhabitants, a much-needed favor.

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Cable news still doesn’t know how to talk about police violence.

On June 16, a South Bend, Indiana, police officer shot and killed a man named Eric Logan. The police officer shot him. Logan died. The mayor of South Bend is running for president, and is on the debate stage tonight. Moderator Rachel Maddow asked Mayor Pete Buttigieg about the incident.

She referred to it as an “officer-involved shooting,” a bit of obfuscatory cop-speak that is endemic in TV news despite the supposed mission of “news” being to inform its audience as to what happened, instead of forcing viewers to guess.

The officer was involved because he did the shooting. From what I could determine the last time I wrote about this, police departments invented the phrase in the 1970s or 1980s, and TV news—always dependent on cops for sensationalist stories designed to scare viewers into coming back tomorrow for more—adopted it without anyone involved stopping to think about whether the term made any sense.

Mayor Buttigieg used the term too. If you can’t be clear and honest about who did what when a cop shoots someone, you shouldn’t be in journalism or politics.

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Kamala Harris just took Joe Biden to school.

Biden had a clear strategy and it worked for most of this debate. He came in deciding to act like a frontrunner, using weasel words on tough questions about immigration and health care, and largely staying out of the fray. The other candidates could spar about ideology and policy, but Biden reminded people again and again that he worked with Barack Obama. He continuously reminded the moderators that he was out of time, a sign that he—unlike most of the other people on the stage—had something to lose by speaking, not something to gain. Whenever the moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands in response to a question, Biden did a strange thing with his hand—holding it out, instead of raising it, acting like he had something to say without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing to what was asked.

That changed when Kamala Harris pivoted a discussion about Pete Buttigieg’s response to a recent police shooting in South Bend to Joe Biden’s record on busing, race, and civil rights.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” she said. But “it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two US senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country.... You also worked with them to oppose busing.”

Biden was definitely prepared to defend his recent comments praising two notorious segregationists he worked with in the Senate in the 1970s. But he wasn’t prepared for Harris’s all out assault on his record as one of the staunchest opponents of court-ordered school busing during the same period. That record undercuts Biden’s defense of working with segregationists—that he did it to pass civil rights legislation—and makes it clear that he was actively part of propping up the opposition to integration.

Biden couldn’t have responded in a worse way, bungling his answer by not only defending busing but making a states-rights argument. But it also drew a line between Biden on both generational and racial lines. Biden keeps turning the conversation back to his time working with Barack Obama, but he clearly can’t defend his record as a senator in the same way. Harris found his Achilles heel.

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Gentlemen, you can’t fight here, this is the debate stage!

Senator Kamala Harris’s first attempt at a breakout moment in this debate was a painfully rehearsed line designed to be dropped the minute there was some cross-talk she could break into: “Hey guys, America does not want to witness a food fight. They want us to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”

It won immediate, sustained applause, and a bit of predictable Twitter approval. It’s a good line, superficially, and probably good strategically: A large number of hardcore partisan Democrats desperately hate conflict.

Those Democrats are, unfortunately, undermining their party’s political well-being. This is a debate. Everyone on stage is supposed to be making a case for why they should be president, which, when facing other candidates in an election, is traditionally done by drawing distinctions between yourself and your opponents.

More broadly, the line speaks to the self-defeating tendency of Democrats to imagine that their own affinity for compromise reflects the median voter’s preference for conciliatory politics. People say they hate partisan conflict, yes—but they vote for people who draw sharp distinctions between themselves and their (negatively defined) opponents.

Like I said: It was a good line for Harris in the moment, but it was a cynical line masquerading as a plea for unity.

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The debate moderators are addicted to right-wing talking points.

Chuck Todd predictably emerged as one of the villains of the first debate, derailing a decent policy discussion with a seemingly endless barrage of right-wing talking points. He, for instance, asked the candidates not about gun control, but to speak to Republican fears about gun confiscation. He asked Julián Castro if his immigration reform plan amounted to “open borders.” The charitable reading of this strategy was that he wanted Democrats to speak to swing voters. But it’s June in the year before the election. They don’t need to persuade skeptical voters, they need to explain their policies. His line of questioning didn’t do that and it basically ruined what was otherwise a fine opening debate.

Unfortunately, the second debate has largely revolved around the kinds of GOP talking points that Todd is addicted to. The debate opened with Bernie Sanders being asked how he would pay for Medicare for All. How we would pay for policies like Medicare for All has been the focus of much of the moderators’ attention, not explaining what those policies would actually do. At the same time, they’re pumping up candidates like Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, who have been the most aggressive critics of the Democrats’ turn toward “socialism.”

This is partly a result of how the two debates were drawn. Wednesday’s was (accidentally) the kids’ table debate, and the moderators asked questions about policy. Now they want them to fight, but not about their substantive differences. They want them to fight in cable news-ready soundbites. And it’s going to get worse—Chuck Todd will be on soon.

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Will anyone be brave enough to try to take down Joe Biden?

Or should that be stupid enough?

The first Democratic debate was notable for the absence of two pronouns: Donald Trump, the man who the eventual nominee will take on next year, and Joe Biden, the current Democratic frontrunner. Trump was, of course, impossible not to mention, but was avoided whenever possible. Biden, however, never came up at all.

He wasn’t on the stage then, however. He will be tonight. The perception among many—myself included—is that Biden’s support is soft, and that voters only need to be reminded of his sizable baggage, his somewhat creepy persona, and his penchant for saying dumb stuff to flock to a different candidate. Given that he’s already made two sizable gaffes, on abortion and race, there is plenty for the other nine Democratic candidates to take on.

But it might not be worth it. Going after Biden might be a disaster if a candidate is polling in the low single digits. Recall Chris Christie’s entertaining dressing down of a robotic Marco Rubio in a February 2016 debate. Rubio limped on afterwards, but never regained the glow of a potential challenger for the throne. Christie, meanwhile, didn’t see a boost for his own candidacy. It was, as my former colleague Elspeth Reeve wrote at the time, something akin to a political murder-suicide.

One crucial difference: That took place in February of 2016. The Iowa caucuses had already taken place. We’re more than six months away from an election. Candidates right now have an incentive to play nice. Of course, if Biden stays in the lead, he could end up cementing his status. That is, unless someone is crazy enough to take him on.

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Isn’t it time for NBC to get a less peppy debate tune?

Heading into the second Democratic debate tonight, many are hoping for more climate talk and fewer non sequiturs. Personally, I’m dreading the music, which will almost certainly be the same as last night’s. Sure, it’s a minor matter—an aesthetic detail of short duration. Still. It’d be nice, particularly this year, if NBC would ditch its usual fanfare for something a little more understated. The Olympics-meets-Indiana Jones intro soundtrack feels too flashy, too entertainment-oriented for the present moment—more suited to something people watch with popcorn and a beer, rather than a knitted brow and a bottle of Xanax.

Like the Democratic candidates gamely discussing tax brackets and health care last night while ignoring this unprecedentedly erratic presidency, blaring something that sounds like it was written up by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for an Erroll Flynn movie right before we’re about to hear about drowned immigrant children abrades the senses (and the morals) a bit. There’s something a little Hunger Games about the aesthetic: signaling spectacle and entertainment in the face of a political climate that’s actually disturbing.

While we’re on the subject, as a few folks asked on Twitter last night: Why are these debates still taking place in front of live audiences? Isn’t it time to cut the whoops and claps, letting the candidates discuss their proposals like the world-shifting policies they are? Do we really still need sound effects like a ‘90s sitcom?

June 27, 2019

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The Democratic debate was a milestone for transgender rights.

When politicians discuss the rights of transgender Americans, they often place an outsized focus on whether trans women should be allowed to use the bathroom in peace. But the issues facing the trans community are far more diverse, and often far more consequential—and during the first Democratic primary debate on Wednesday night, two candidates made an effort to highlight that fact.

While answering a question about abortion rights, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro said that he would expand abortion access for everyone—that is, not just for cisgender women, but for trans men and others who are capable of getting pregnant. “A person’s right to choose is under assault,” he said, consciously using gender-neutral language. “I don’t just believe in reproductive freedom. I believe in reproductive justice. And what that means is just because a woman—or, let’s not also forget someone in the trans community, a trans female—is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose. So, I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion.”

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker also placed some focus on the transgender community—specifically on black trans Americans, a group disproportionately affected by hate crime and police brutality. “We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African American trans Americans and the incredibility high rates of murder now,” he said. “We don’t talk enough how many children, about 30 percent of LGBTQ kids, who do not go to school because of fear.”

The comments represented the first time Democratic candidates spoke about issues facing the trans community on a major debate stage, beyond the context of the bathroom.