Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Without a Score Card, You Don't Know the Players

It Is Getting Tough to Know When to Cheer
The old saying, yelled out by concessioners under stadiums from Boston to Saint Louis, was that you needed a scorecard to tell who the players were. Or, on Broadway, you need a playbill, else you won't know that in tonight's production, the role of Max Bialystock will not be played by Nathan Lane.

Yesterday, President Trump officially fired the director of the FBI, James Comey. 

The media are in full froth over the issue, but it's tough to tell who is yelling "Boo" and who is yelling "Booo-urns."

In his monologue, Democratic party mouthpiece Steven Colbert (that's Col-bear, with a pseudo-French accent, and not COL-bert) announced the firing to his audience, who immediately applauded.

Colbert was plainly non-plussed, and corrected his audience on the appropriate response, reminding them that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had urged the decision, as if to say, "No you ignorant glove-puppets. This is BAD."

The problem that this presents is that, for months, Comey, and the way he prosecuted the case around Hillary Clinton and her e-mail server, has been a leading causus belli for the Clintonistas, as they desperately look for dry land in the sea of "How was our pre-selected queen denied the coronation we were told was inevitable?"

Just last week, yet further data from Nate Silver and his Five Thirty Eight blog pointed towards Comey and his letter "re-opening" the investigation into what Clinton aid Huma Abedin had sent to her husband - disgraced New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, a bombshell (dud, really) that was released just weeks before the election.

So, just what are we supposed to think about this latest event? 

Here is how I see it.
  1. The optics of the firing look horrible, Whatever the reason given by Trump (including the claim that Comey's mishandling of the Affaire Clinton was the last straw), sacking the head of the FBI, three months into his administration, after apparently providing various actual and implicit votes of confidence, looks bad, if nothing else.

    This surely triggers questions - rhetorical, in the case of the anti-Trump camps at the Washington Post and New York Times, - about whether the firing is meant to derail the investiations into alleged collusion between the President and the Russians.

    The legitimacy of government rests on the appearance of providence and honesty. A whiff of suspicion can be fatally poisonous.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes - who will guard the guadians, in the words of Juvenal. At the very least, the timing of the firing undermines faith in the idea that those in power have checks on malfeasance. This leads to....

  2. The most direct question right now was asked last night by Chuck Schumer:

    The first question the administration has to answer is why now. If the administration had objections to the way Director Comey handled the Clinton investigation, they had those objections the minute the president got into office. But they didn't fire him then. Why did it happen today?

    Trump, as he is wont to do, responded with a sophomoric tweet, calling the New York Senator "Cryin Chuck Schumer." Now, there is an old saw that the most dangerous place in the world to be is standing between Senator Schumer and a camera, but in this case, Schumer is correct.

    Trump needs to respond as to why they canned Comey now, as opposed to last week, or two months ago. Or even, the day after Trump took the oath of office. Schumer is absolutely right that investigations into the allegations against senior government officials need to be taken seriously, and conducted independently.

  3. The Attorney General (or, as AG Sessions has recused himself, Deputy AG Rosenstein) needs to appoint, once and for all, an independent special prosecutor. A democratic country cannot function properly if there is even a reasonable suspicion of improrpiety.

    I know that there have been calls for previous administrations to do so on several occasions, and that they failed. Most of the time, this is political grandstanding. But there are serious allegations here, and a sizeable number of Americans believe them.

    This needs to be settled, once and for all.

  4. I still believe that the whole "Russia hacked our elections" is a red herring, meant to undermine the legitimacy of the current president.

    The results of the past November were shocking. Everyone - myself included - expected that Hillary Clinton would be elected. I expected it to be a fairly comfortable margin. The polls all leaned that way. Most of the national media treated the Trump campaign as quixotic at best, and comedic in a less flattering light.

    It did not turn out that way, and so enormous quantities of cognitive dissonance had to be overcome.

    Perhaps James Comey (who, thus until yesterday, was Public Enemy Number 2 - just behind Trump himself - among partisan Democrats) and his "Sorry, not sorry" letter about the Clinton email server at the 11th hour made the difference. Perhaps it was the overconfidence and, frankly, incompetent strategy of the Clinton campaign, who apparently ignored panicked calls from their own camps in Wisconsin and Michigan that something was not right. Maybe it was her own-goal stupidity of making a remark to a room full of coastal elites about how much of middle America were "deplorable" racist boobs.

    But the Russia "hacks" almost surely had no real impact. The information in them were released in a somewhat steady stream over the whole summer. No one revelation had any measurable impact in the polls. None.

    They made Podesta look idiotic, and Clinton like a calculating, elitist snob (both, apparently, are true, as no attempt has been made to argue that the leaks were false, only ill-gotten).

    The bottom line is this: Hillary Clinton lost because black voters, who put Obama over the top by huge margins, simply did not show up. Hillary did not lose because too many angry white men voted for Trump; she lost because too few disgruntled black men failed to vote for her.

    Silver's 538 Blog is an excellent source of data and analyses, even if it is reliably left-leaning. This analysis should put to bed the arguments over just what happened.

    The Democrats need to face the facts here: Had Hillary Clinton gotten the same number of votes as President Obama had in 2012 (which does not even account for population growth), she would be in the White House.

    The Democrats lost because they selected a terrible, unlikable candidate.

    Russia did not make Hillary Clinton. God and Wellesley College did.

  5. People in social media who refuse to say "President Trump," and refer to the president as "45" look like adolescent asses. You think you're clever. Guess what? If you don't know who the loud, drunk idiot at a party is, it's you.

    Trump is the president, so put your shirt and your shoes back on, go home, and sleep it off.

  6. Russia did not "hack" the elections; they did apparently engage in high-level espionage. That is not a good thing, obviously. But we need to put our big boy and big girl pants on and face the fact that this is something that every government - our own included - engages in. Up until two years ago, I had been living in France. I was in Paris when the US had to admit that we were eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of the leaders of France, Germany, and likely, other alleged "allies" of ours. The French and Germans, of course, put on a show of faux outrage. For a couple of days.

    But they did not make it a national obsession.

  7. It's true that Russia is not an ally of the US. Their attempts to steal information from American citizens and political organisations is to be condemned. But let's stop the infantile pretending that this is some unique breach of protocol.

    And whilst we are at it, it is hypocritical to me - in the extreme - that many of those who condemned Ronald Reagan for calling The Soviet Union - a nation whose leaders, explicitly, stated that they would be "at our funeral" - an "evil empire", and who insisted that Alger Hiss was just a humble civil servant now act as if the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is the Worst Man Ever.

    It's partisan bullshit guys. You're embarassing yourselves, so give it a rest.
We need to stop jumping up and down like kids on a trampoline. The president should stop dicking around and put someone who is both actually and apparently independent in charge of a real investigation. Let's get to the bottom of this, and if Flynn or others colluded with Russia, put them in prison. Let's stop pretending that the president was elected because Russia "stole" the election. 

Monday, 8 May 2017

In France, the Dragon Is Stayed....For Now

Macron Faces Down Le Front National
The vote outre-mer has been counted, and despite the over-stated fears of many, France's erstwhile Prince Philip (Emmanuel Macron) has ended the threat of the woman selected from central casting to play the role of Malificent (Marine Le Pen).

In the end, the vote was not close by US standards, with Macron pulling 66% of the final tally.

Social media and the news are abuzz with memes of various types - ranging from relief that Good has triumphed over Evil, to a sort of gloating "The French once again show to be smarter than the Americans," ostensibly because they "resisted" the pseudo-nationalism in rebuking Le Pen, where our dim Deplorables put Hitler himself into power.

This interpretation of reality is, of course, facile and reductive, but does contain some interesting fodder.

The first is this: the victory of Emmanuel Macron is a political earthquake in France. Macron, 39 years old, has never held any sort of elective office. He briefly was appointed by former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (who himself tried for the top spot of President in the primaries and embarassingly failed) to be the Minister for Finance and the Economy. In that Role, Macron was the face behind a series of neo-liberal labour reforms that, along with subsequent attempts to revive France's moribund economy, faced extreme opposition, culminating in violent "protests" in the streets of Paris. Valls (who used somewhat undemocratic procedures to push la Loi Macron and its companion, la Loi El Khomri through the French Assembly) took most of the fall.

Macron formed his own political party from whole cloth in November - just six short months ago - and in the end, benefited from some extremely fortunately-timed news leaks managed to reach the second round of election Sunday, facing off against Le Pen.

This is significant less because of his age (at 39, Macron will be the youngest leader of France since Napoleon) or that he lacks any real experience in governing, but because of the damage done to the two leading French political parties.

France has a system of election that is somewhat unique - in order to be elected, one candidate must get 50% of the vote (it's worth noting that, since 1988, only three times - Bush, 2004, and Obama, 2004/2008 - has a candidate been able to pull this off.) There are two rounds (tours in French) in which people go to the polls. In the first, all parties participate, and if no candidate succeeds to get the majority, there is an almost immediate second round two weeks later.

This year, the two leading parties in France - the Parti Socialiste (the traditional centre-left party, who currently control the presidency) and Les Républicains (the traditional centre-right party) each failed to gain the second. The current incumbent, Francois Hollande, was sufficiently unpopular that he did not even stand for re-election, something that had never happened in modern French politics. The opposition leader, Francois Fillon, found himself enmeshed in a corruption scandal, and was unable to survive.

Imagine a situation in the US where neither a Democrat nor a Republican is even on the final ballot; that is what has happened in France. There is discussion in the French press about how either is going to survive the catastrophe. 

The second is this: the fact that the candidate for the Front National managed to get more than one third of the vote in a system peculiar as the French electoral machine is also something of a political earthquake.

The FN are almost existentially radioactive in France - the party has roots that tie back to the Vichy French World War II collaborationist regime, and its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of this year's candidate) has been infamous for his not-even-subtle anti-semitic and racist remarks. While the press and social media describe the "landslide" for Macron, in truth, the result is sufficiently 'positive' for the FN that the French bien pensants are afraid despite the outcome. 

In the end, Le Pen fille was defeated - as predicted - by a wide margin of 2:1. Her party, despite attempts to scrub it up, remains toxic. And in the end, her performance in a live debate during the final days of the campaign was described as a "naufrage" (shipwreck) by most accounts. On too many questions, she came across not as frightening and racist (which was not necessary in this case, as this is the popular view of many), but as ignorant and incompetent.

The French, among other things, demand that their government know and understand the rules and procedures of governing. After all, the word "bureaucracy" has French roots. When Le Pen fumbled and stumbled upon just how she planned to defend the value of the sacred French pension scheme in a world where France moved out of the Euro and back to the Franc (essentially, maintaining two parallel currencies), any doubt about the outcome, and there really wasn't any, was done.

One curious thing about the elections is this: Emmanuel Macron was able to portray himself as a political outsider, which is on its face, true. Again, he has pretty much zero experience, it is only true on its gilded face.

Macron is almost a canonical example of how the French system throws up its candidates. Born to an upper-middle class family, he married a (much older) heiress to a chocolate fortune. He was sent off to Paris from the periphery for his final year of high school at one of the most elite schools in France, took a masters degree from Sciences Po (one of the "right" schools), and ultimately wound up at the École nationale d'administration (ENA), which is often ridiculed as a sort of political finishing school.

Macron was later thrust into a very lucrative position at Rothschilds, the banking titan. Along the way, he made all the 'right' connections (his best man was Henri Hermand, a millionaire many times over, and significant political impressario, who over time was a large donor to the PS). 

Put simply, Macron is an "outsider" the way that the Koch brothers in a sense are "outsiders". He's better at PR, younger, and more handsome.

The question remains, how will he govern? His En Marche! party will likely be a small minority in the French assembly, and thus, he is going to be forced to forge alliances with the PS (many of whom are angry and resentful at his opportunism), the EELV (the Green party), who likely will be quite hostile to his neoliberal economic policies, and the MoDem party - a centrist, "third way" group. 

I wish him a lot of luck.

Macron is telegenic and glib. He looks the right way and says the right things. And he has once again allowed France to hold the Dragon at bay.

But if he is not able to deliver - in France, double-digit unemployment (which was the nadir of the US economy during "the worst recession since the Great Depression") is the new normal - what then? Macron has won kudos from the globalists for embracing the "invade the world, invite the world" policies, pledging "active" involvement in the various wars on terror around the world, and simultaneously welcoming "refugees" en masse that these adventures create. He inherits an extremely divided nation (France breaks along the same fault lines as the US: the vibrant, urban centres like Paris enjoying wealth and amenities that would make the Bourbon kings envious went for Macron by nine to one. Outside in la France périphérique (beyond the glittering, new-economy cities of Paris), the vote was much closer. 

Macron seems to recognise that his challenge is to try to bring France together. The crisis in France is psychological as much as it is actual, as the nation debates what the future looks like, and just what the actual values of the French people are, rather than the slogans that the intellectuals mouth to their intellectual inferiors.

Can he do this? What will happen if he cannot?

In 2022, if Macron and those who rule France have not sorted these questions, the Dragon will likely return.