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Don’t listen to Mark Penn.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Bill Clinton’s former pollster promises Democrats the key to victory: a rightward shift. While the debate over what direction Democrats should take will rage all the way to 2020, Penn’s column is notable for its bad faith, its blatant contradictions, and its misreading of liberal politics. It feels like a dispatch from a bizarre parallel universe, where abortion and LGBT rights are not under attack, where a balanced budget is still the apex of “serious” policy thinking, and where America does not suffer from grotesque wealth inequality:

After years of leftward drift by the Democrats culminated in Republican control of the House under Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton moved the party back to the center in 1995 by supporting a balanced budget, welfare reform, a crime bill that called for providing 100,000 new police officers and a step-by-step approach to broadening health care. Mr. Clinton won a resounding re-election victory in 1996 and Democrats were back.

This passage neatly illustrates the dangers of thinking in politics in simple, electoral terms. Penn ignores the real-world outcome here: welfare reform resulted in an increase in deep poverty, and broken-windows policing entrenched institutionalized racism. But Bill Clinton won, so who cares? It also sidesteps the primary reason Gingrich & Co. stormed to power in 1994: Clinton’s aborted attempt to pass a universal health insurance program, which is now a mainstay of the Democratic Party platform.

Penn’s confused thinking is evident elsewhere. Take this passage:

There are plenty of good issues Democrats should be championing. They need to reject socialist ideas and adopt an agenda of renewed growth, greater protection for American workers and a return to fiscal responsibility. While the old brick-and-mortar economy is being regulated to death, the new tech-driven economy has been given a pass to flout labor laws with unregulated, low-paying gig jobs, to concentrate vast profits and to decimate retailing. Rural areas have been left without adequate broadband and with shrinking opportunities. The opioid crisis has spiraled out of control, killing tens of thousands, while pardons have been given to so-called nonviolent drug offenders.

Reject socialist ideas—but protect workers! Protect workers—but stop regulating companies to death! Expand broadband and solve the opioid crisis—but never, never forget fiscal responsibility!

Penn also addresses the party’s approach to the working class. According to Penn, Democrats alienated this group by shifting leftward on trade, immigration, and policing. There is a simple test for determining what is a serious political opinion in 2017 and what is not, and it is this: Does the writer understand that the working class is not all white? In Penn’s case the answer appears to be “no.”

Furthermore, issues like trans rights—Penn singles out the bathroom debate as a culture war flashpoint—aren’t electoral death for Democrats. In North Carolina, Roy Cooper unseated Pat McCrory due largely to McCrory’s unpopular support of the so-called “bathroom bill.”

But Penn is used to being wrong. After working for Bill Clinton, he worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign—she lost, of course, to Barack Obama, who ran to her left at the time and is mostly absent from Penn’s version of history, despite uniting the party’s factions and winning the general election twice. (Penn concludes with an ode to “can-do Democrats in the mold of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton”—not Obama.) He also worked for Tony Blair, that paragon of centrist war-mongering virtue; Blair recently covered himself in glory by calling for a similar return to the center, just before Labour’s unapologetically left-wing manifesto earned it unforeseen success in the U.K.’s snap election.

It is telling—deeply, devastatingly telling—that Penn has apparently learned nothing from his decades in politics. His thoughts are stale; his politics are discredited. The Democratic Party should ignore him for its own benefit—and ours.

May 24, 2018

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Trump’s pardon of Jack Johnson is rife with ironies.

Johnson, who became the first black world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908, was a prime example of how sports are intertwined with racism in the U.S. His victory came as a shock to white Americans. Cynical promoters exploited the backlash by casting a series of challengers as “the Great White Hope.” Johnson’s matches became arenas of racial combat, often leading to outside-the-ring violence when white boxing fans rioted after his victories.

In 1912, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act because he had dated a white woman; he fled to Europe and lived in exile for years before returning to the U.S. in 1920 to serve his sentence. On Thursday, President Donald Trump pardoned him. The New York Times reports:

The president called Johnson “a truly great fighter, had a tough life,” but served 10 months in federal prison “for what many view as a racially-motivated injustice.” Mr. Trump said the conviction took place during a “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States.”

The push for Johnson’s pardon had been going on for many decades. President Barack Obama resisted on procedural grounds—posthumous pardons are rare, and this one had not been cleared by the Department of Justice—but also because Johnson was accused of physical assaulting women.

Merits aside, Trump’s pardon of Jackson is curious given that the president is a cultural heir of those who exploited Johnson. In 2005, Trump proposed to NBC a season of The Apprentice pitting a white team against a black one. “It would be nine blacks against nine whites,” Trump explained in an interview. As a politician, Trump has continued the American tradition of attacking black athletes to stoke racial conflict. On Wednesday, he said of NFL players who don’t stand for the national anthem, “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”


Commentary still can’t forgive Philip Roth.

The writer, who died Tuesday at 85, had a checkered history with America’s foremost Jewish literary magazine. Commentary published his first story for a national outlet, “You Can’t Tell A Man By the Song He Sings,” in 1957, and continued to publish him for years, including two of his most important essays: “Writing About Jews” and “Writing American Fiction,” both manifestos detailing his literary agenda.

But starting in the late 1960s, the writer and the magazine took different paths. With his career-making novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Roth emerged as a savagely funny satirist of American mores and celebrator of the male libido. The novel appeared at the very same time that Commentary, under the editorship of Norman Podhoretz, moved politically to the right. In a wounding polemic, Irving Howe attacked Roth for his vulgarity. Roth responded by satirizing Howe and the magazine as stuffy hypocrites in his 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson.

Not even Roth’s death has ended the feud. On a Commentary podcast on Wednesday, editor John Podhoretz continued the war that his father had launched. He lambasted Roth’s essay “Writing American Fiction” as “one of the most sheerly anti-American, violently anti-American things ever written.” Aside from American Pastoral, which Podhoretz reads as a defense of bourgeois life, he has little use for Roth. “There is nothing in his books about love,” he said. “He did not really know much about ordinary life, he never had a job, he never had a marriage, he didn’t have children.... Love was something that was clearly totally absent from his life.”

In fact, Roth was twice married, worked as a teacher, and had many friendships and relationships. His books are filled with loving portraits of his parents and his brother. Not that a novelist needs either marriage or children to be great: Jane Austen and Flannery O’Connor, both better writers than Roth, died unmarried and childless.

As for Roth’s supposed anti-Americanism, Zadie Smith was closer to the mark when she wrote in The New Yorker that “Roth was an unusually patriotic writer, but his love for his country never outweighed or obscured his curiosity about it. He always wanted to know America, in its beauty and its utter brutality, and to see it in the round: the noble ideals, the bloody reality.”

Podhoretz’s conflation of criticism of America with anti-Americanism is fitting, though, since that was one the main reasons Commentary and Roth parted ways. It’s just a shame that Roth is no longer around to satirize a second Podhoretz.

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Trump’s letter to Kim Jong Un reads like a conscious uncoupling.

Sixteen months into Donald Trump’s presidency, picking at his writing and speaking style feels old: Much ink, Google confirms, has already been spilled on the president’s tone, which is more energetic and informal (critics might say more puerile) than previous presidents’. But Trump’s latest composition, released Thursday, has real import: a letter to Korean leader Kim Jong Un canceling their upcoming summit in Singapore.

Trump’s letter is remarkably personal. Comparable statements from previous administrations have employed a combination of first-person plural, with the “we” usually representing the administration, and the distant third person. When the Obama White House cancelled a meeting with Putin in 2013, its statement never addressed anyone in the Russian government by name. We value the achievements made with Russia in the President’s first term,” it read. “However, given our lack of progress ... we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit.

Trump’s announcement came as an open letter addressed specifically to Kim Jong Un. “We greatly appreciate your time, patience, and effort with respect to our current negotiations,” the letter politely begins, then quickly moves to the first and second person: “I was very much looking forward to being there with you. Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”

Amid the familiar saber-rattling—“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used”—what stands out is the intimacy. The letter reads less like a thrown gauntlet and more like a passive-aggressive celebrity statement on a bad breakup: “I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you.”

Long-distance relationships are tough.

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Donald Trump just pulled out of the North Korea summit.

The president on Thursday abruptly announced that he would not be participating in a planned June 12 meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un.

The ostensible reason for Trump’s decision to cancel the summit is the “open hostility” of North Korean officials, who have, over the past week, threatened a “nuclear showdown” with the United States and pledged that they would not fully renounce their nuclear arsenal. (It’s worth noting that the president and his allies have goaded the North Koreans by proclaiming that Libya was a model for what they hoped to accomplish with North Korea, which resulted in Libya losing its deterrent power. Muammar Gaddafi is now dead.) The decision to cancel the summit means that the two sides are back where they were a few months ago, when they were regularly threatening one another with annihilation. As Trump writes in his letter, “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

The fact that talks won’t be taking place is, obviously, not good. Trump didn’t get much from the months-long thaw besides the return of three American hostages, and may have ended up creating a rift with the U.S.’s ally South Korea. But, given Trump’s temperament and limited understanding of international relations, a breakthrough was highly unlikely—at least in a summit between the two leaders. Trump would have found it difficult squaring his tough talk and steep demand of total nuclear disarmament with the give-and-take of diplomacy. In fact, because North Korea would never agree to give up its nukes, and because Trump has said he would accept nothing less than total disarmament, there was a good chance that the Singapore Summit would have failed, which would have raised the risks of military escalation.

There’s no magic bullet—or magic summit—that will resolve the North Korea situation. Trump has finally acknowledged that. But in Trump-ian fashion he’s done so in a way that escalates the situation and alienates our allies.

May 23, 2018

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The NFL will now punish teams if players protest racism and police brutality.

That’s the practical impact of the league’s new national anthem policy unveiled on Wednesday—a surrender to President Donald Trump and other conservatives who spent last season falsely accusing NFL players of disrespecting the military by kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The NFL’s rules had been ambiguously worded on whether players could be fined or disciplined for protesting during the anthem. The league’s new policy resolves that ambiguity in Trump’s favor: Players are now explicitly required to “stand and show respect” during the anthem, or else stay in the locker room during the pre-game ceremony. Fines for violating the new rules would be levied against the team itself, not individual players.

In a statement, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered bromides that failed to address the implications of the new policy. “The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed,” he said. “The platform that we have created together is certainly unique in professional sports and quite likely in American business. We are honored to work with our players to drive progress.” That’s an audacious claim to make while instituting punishments for players who silently protest.

The new policy will likely thrill Trump, who spent last fall denouncing the protests and demanding that league owners fire anyone who took part. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” the president told supporters at an Alabama rally last September.

No one has been fired for kneeling, but teams have used more subtle means to retaliate against protesting athletes: Former NFL players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid have accused owners of blackballing them for their political advocacy. The NFL players’ union, which is representing both men in their arbitration cases, issued a statement today saying it wasn’t consulted about the new policy before it was announced.

May 22, 2018

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Scott Pruitt encounters his biggest security threat yet: reporters.

A female Associated Press journalist was allegedly manhandled by the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief’s security force on Tuesday while attempting to cover a national summit on drinking water contamination. According to the AP, guards stopped the journalist at a security checkpoint inside the EPA’s headquarters, and told her she wasn’t allowed at the two-day event, where Pruitt was delivering opening remarks. When the reporter asked to speak to an EPA public-affairs person, the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building,” the AP reported.

The female journalist—yet to be identified—was one of several reporters the EPA barred from attending the the National Leadership Summit on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), which are hazardous chemicals linked to cancer. CNN and environmental news outlet E&E News were among the banned, while The Hill, Politico, The Wall Street Journal and CBS were allowed to attend. EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told The Hill this was because there was limited space for press. However, The Hill reported there were several “vacant” seats in the media pen during Pruitt’s remarks. Pruitt did not take questions after his speech.

Tuesday’s altercation may be the most high-profile security incident Pruitt has faced in his 15 months as EPA administrator. That’s saying something, considering that Pruitt insists on having a 24-hour security detail composed of 19 agents and at least 19 vehicles, costing taxpayers at least $3 million. Pruitt has repeatedly said this expense—as well as his frequent first-class travel—are necessary because he faces unprecedented security threats. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy mocked Pruitt last week over that justification, saying, “Nobody even knows who you are.” Pruitt’s treatment of the press suggests he wants to keep it that way.

May 21, 2018

Courtesy of Muscogee (Creek) Nation

The Supreme Court takes up a case that could turn half of Oklahoma back into tribal lands.

The justices announced on Monday that they will review Royal v. Murphy, an unusual death-penalty case out of Oklahoma. At issue is whether the state had the jurisdiction to prosecute Patrick Murphy, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, for the murder of another Creek man on what was once tribal land. (The federal government normally prosecutes serious crimes between Native Americans on tribal lands.)

Oklahoma argued in the lower courts that Congress extinguished the Creek lands when it dismantled tribal governments in the early twentieth century. But the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Murphy’s favor last summer, concluding that those lands remained legally intact because Congress had not explicitly abolished them. As I noted in March, Oklahoma warned the justices that the decision would have dramatic implications:

If the Tenth Circuit’s ruling stands, the state’s criminal jurisdiction in that territory would be reduced to minor offenses like traffic violations and crimes against non-Indians. Federal and tribal courts would take over all other cases, with serious crimes left to the federal government to investigate and prosecute. State officials cast the loss of jurisdiction in dire terms, especially if the Murphy ruling is applied to other tribes. “Stripping Oklahoma of criminal jurisdiction over all Indians in this densely populated area, or even worse, in the entire eastern half of the state, would render Oklahoma a fractured, second-class state,” Oklahoma officials told the Supreme Court.

Legal experts I spoke with downplayed the state’s grim portrayal, and Murphy’s lawyers told the justices earlier this year that the state’s “claims of mass disruption are overstated and misdirected.” States routinely hammer out agreements with tribal governments to handle criminal-jurisdiction matters, they argued, and the regulatory impact would be minimal under existing legal precedents. Oral arguments will be heard in the case after the Supreme Court reconvenes for its upcoming term this fall, and a ruling could come as soon as this winter.

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Venezuela is on the brink, and the U.S. might push it over.

President Nicolás Maduro has won a second term. The opposition boycotted the election, and turnout even in Maduro-friendly areas was quite low, according to The New York Times. Hunger, hyperinflation, and skyrocketing malaria rates can have that effect. During the campaign, turnout to rallies was reportedly boosted by food being handed out on the buses.

But neither Venezuela’s general slide into the “failed state” category nor the opposition’s accusations of vote-buying stopped Maduro from celebrating his victory Sunday night. “The opposition must leave us alone to govern,” he declared.

The big question is whether the United States—which along with the European Union, Canada, Chile, and Panama has not recognized the legitimacy of these elections—will slap new sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports. In February, then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson floated the idea. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted his thoughts on the election yesterday, omitting threats of sanctions but calling for Venezuela to free Josh Holt, a 26-year-old American held in Venezuela for two years without trial.

If the U.S. does target Venezuelan crude, the effect would likely mimic that of a sledgehammer on an already teetering three-legged chair, although whether it would actually dislodge Maduro, rather than merely crippling his people, is up for speculation.

May 18, 2018

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Trump is sending abortion rights back to the Reagan era.

The president on Friday is set to propose a new “gag rule” for health care organizations like Planned Parenthood. The return to Reagan-era abortion regulations will cut federal funding to any organization that “promotes abortion or refers patients to a caregiver that will provide one,” The New York Times reports.

Currently, federal funding for abortions is banned in most cases. But anti-abortion advocates have long made it their priority to cut funding from any health care facility that performs or even refers patients for abortions. Under the new proposal they would get their wish, with strict regulations imposed on Title X, the only federal program funding family planning services in America, providing approximately $286 million a year to low-income people.

Planned Parenthood, which receives $50 million to $60 million annually from Title X, risks losing its funding if its employees discuss, perform, or advise on abortions.

Cecile Richards, who recently stepped down as head of Planned Parenthood, told NPR, “This is absolutely extraordinary that we would now be gagging doctors and health care providers from giving women their legal information and even referring them for potentially live-saving health care.”

The policy is based on Ronald Reagan’s 1988 regulation that made it compulsory for abortion services to employ separate staff and have physical separation from their family planning services. Both Trump and Reagan switched between pro-choice and pro-life stances, but found their feet firmly in favor of their evangelical and socially conservative supporters. In January, Trump even became the first president to join anti-abortion activists at the March for Life, which he claimed was a “movement born out of love.”

Santa Fe High School was already on edge before today’s mass shooting.

A gunman reportedly opened fire in the southeastern Texas school on Friday morning, killing at least eight people. A suspect has been taken into custody. In a scene now familiar to all Americans, the students were corralled by armed officers outside the building as local TV news helicopters hovered overhead.

But this scene is especially familiar to Santa Fe, because it also happened less than three months ago. On February 28, the school went on lockdown for more than an hour after students and teachers reported hearing “popping sounds” outside.

A sweep of the area found no threat, but it unnerved the school.

“We got behind the teachers desk,” student Jessie Auzton told NBC affiliate KPRC. “I wasn’t scared. Everyone was crying, then I started getting upset.”

Daniel Williams described texting with his daughter Madilyn during the lockdown. “It was nerve-wracking trying to talk to her via text,” he said. “Florida was on my mind. On social media, people were talking about popping sounds, active shooter, you hope your child is OK.”

Williams was referring to the shooting two weeks earlier at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after which the superintendent of Santa Fe schools had written a letter to reassure parents and staff.

“Safety and security has long been and continues to be a priority in our district,” Leigh Wall wrote, noting that the district had seven full-time police officers and five part-timers, “all trained in current nationally standardized protocols to respond to emergency and active shooter situations. All district employees receive annual training and participate in drills routinely throughout the year. The district also actively participates in regular safety, security and intruder assessment audits to ensure safety and preparedness in crisis situations.”

Today showed the limits of such preparedness.