THE HIGH PRICE OF LOW POLITICS
At least no one will ever have to wonder again about why President Biden gives so few press conferences. That was like watching someone pass a kidney stone on live television. Woof.
But Biden managed to stay upright through the process, and the crabby members of the press corps can now go back to looking for palace intrigues and writing about his stalled agenda for a while. That’s not to say Biden didn’t do any harm. His iterative attempts at talking about Russia’s menacing of Ukraine surely made things worse inside an already fractious NATO. That’s not good when the forces of illiberalism are learning how to work as a team.
Not to be any cornier than I usually am, but I have to point out the obvious: We are in the moment that many of us have been worried about for a decade. Putin wanted a weaker NATO and a politically dysfunctional United States, and we have obliged him. There’s not sufficient political appetite in either party—or in the transatlantic alliance— to make a threat of force sound credible. If Biden did take a hard line, the pro-Putin, nationalist voices in the GOP would mute what would have once been loud support from the opposition party. And there’s certainly no significant roost of hawks on his own team, which is quite telling.
Democrats spent much of the previous seven years in a state of high excitement over Russian meddling and encroachments. While many of their allegations were overhyped, they are being proven right in the main: Vladimir Putin has relentlessly sought to weaken the Western coalition against him to assert Russian control over the free people of Eastern Europe. The people who were the most alarmed over the idea that the previous president was a “Russian asset” etc. should be the ones now talking loudest about the threat Putin poses to liberty and stability. Some of them are, but many seem to be focused elsewhere.
The lack of American resolve in backing Putin down means that the eventual conflict with Russia or its proxies will be more costly. America’s sickly political culture is too expensive to be sustained, so get over it, people.
Here endeth the sermon. We have TONS to share today, including a mailbag about to burst at the seams, so let’s get right to it.
TIME OUT: YOU BET
I’ve never been much for professional poker, but I was still fascinated by writer Keith Romer’s tale of how artificial intelligence is changing the game. “Piotrek Lopusiewicz, the programmer behind PioSOLVER, counters by arguing that the new generation of A.I. tools is merely a continuation of a longer pattern of technological innovation in poker. … ‘So now someone brought a bigger firearm to the arms race,’ Lopusiewicz says, ‘and suddenly those guys who weren’t in a position to profit were like: ‘Oh, yeah, but we don’t really mean that arms race. We just want our tools, not the better tools.’’ Besides, for Lopusiewicz, solvers haven’t so much changed poker as revealed its essence. Whether poker players themselves recognized it, or wanted to, at its core the game was always just the maximization problem John von Neumann revealed it to be. ‘Today, everyone at a certain level is forced to respect the math side,’ Lopusiewicz says. ‘They can’t ignore it anymore.’” Read it all HERE.
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A SIGNIFICANT SILENCE ON A BIG VOTING RIGHTS EXPANSION
Writer Russell Berman has turned up at The Atlantic with an overlooked question for national Democrats: What about New York City’s new law allowing noncitizens to vote? Even many ballot-access activists have stayed schtum on what should count as one of their greatest achievements to date. But America’s largest city opening the franchise to some 800,000 legal immigrants comes at a price for Democrats nationally. Such a high-profile advance for noncitizen voting makes it harder to defend against claims that Democrats are undermining election security. Yes, on the specifics—the elections are local in nature, etc.—there is a case to make, but not a convenient one and certainly not at a convenient time. Read it all HERE.
He’s not wrong: In his latest newsletter, comedy writer Jeff Maurer further illuminates this intra-party tension: “Activists demanded that Biden make a big, public push on voting rights. They did this despite the fact that Democrats clearly lack the votes to overcome the filibuster. An often-downplayed reality is that [Joe Manchin] and [Krysten Sinema] aren’t the only Democratic senators who aren’t ready to scrap the filibuster — at least three other Democrats still need persuading. I don’t blame activists for pushing for action, nor do I object to spending political capital on voting rights — I agree with both things! But once the handwriting was on the wall, they should have let the bill die a normal death. Instead, they continued with calls for undefined ‘action’, which led to a high-profile speech and a sure-to-fail vote scheduled for Martin Luther King’s birthday (pushed one day because of weather). They basically forced Senate Democrats to take a highly public loss in what has already been a Detroit Lions-esque season, and they coerced the president into starring in a prime-time special that could have been called Impotent Joe’s Extremely Public Sure-Fire Failure Extravaganza.” Read it all HERE.
C’mon, bro: It’s certainly a competitive space, but you’d have to say Bernie Sanders is the most consistently overrated politician working in America today. There were moments when Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris seemed to surpass him, but they were Icaruses of incompetence. Sanders has flown through two failed presidential campaigns and several overhyped “moments” when he failed to lead progressives to the Democratic Socialist promised land, all the while raising big bucks and soaking up mostly favorable press coverage. Here’s a guy with a track record about the same as Ted Cruz’s, but who is treated like a real power player. Like this headline: “Sanders says he is open to supporting primary challenges to Sinema, Manchin.” First off: No duh. Sanders’ affiliate groups have been bombarding the Democratic moderates for months and the senator from Vermont himself has been open in his contempt for Manchin and Sinema. Sanders acolyte Rep. Ruben Gallego has been tuning up to primary Sinema for months and could jeopardize the seat for Democrats in 2024. But West Virginia? There aren’t enough progressives in West Virginia to host a bean dinner. But the contributions and media attention will continue to pour in.
Trouble at Del Boca Vista: The superiorly sourced Jonathan Swan collected some fascinating tidbits on former President Donald Trump’s deepening resentment of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis is trying out the tough-guy role contra Trump, an extension of DeSantis’ refusal to follow Trumpsters and Trumpophobes like Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, as well as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and promising to stand aside for Trump in 2024. The former president is not liking it: Here’s Swan: “Trump is trashing Ron DeSantis in private as an ingrate with a ‘dull personality’ and no realistic chance of beating him in a potential 2024 showdown, according to sources who’ve recently talked to the former president about the Florida governor.” I’m very doubtful about DeSantis’ ability to out-Trump Trump, despite the governor’s extravagant upsucking to the nationalist right. But I’m not sure I see this working out well for Trump, either. A lingering feud with your home-state governor of the same party is never a good thing for a presidential candidate.
Gosh! There’s a lot to wade through in Politico’s dispatch from Idaho’s looming GOP primary war between Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, but this is a race you’re going to want to watch: “In a way, Idaho’s 2022 election season began in January 2019, soon after newly elected Gov. Little and Lt. Gov. McGeachin took office, when she launched what would become a campaign to upstage and undermine Little each time he left the state. McGeachin (pronounced “McGeehen”) started by posting a photo of herself posing in front of the state capitol with two members of the Three Percenters, a militia movement named for the debunked claim that just 3 percent of colonists fought in the American Revolution. She even swore several of them into the ranks and followed up by appearing with members of the John Birch Society and other far-right groups.”
It’s cruel and they’re unusual: It was bad enough that former Clintonistas Dick Morris and Doug Schoen have been winding up the possibility of a THIRD presidential run by Hillary Clinton. Even if it’s only as target practice for Murdochland and the kookier corners of the right-wing press, junk like this and this from people in no position to know is both distracting and depressing. Certainly, I put nothing past the ambition of the Clintons. No human beings in public life—other than Donald Trump—are more immune to shame than the former first couple. But it doesn’t end there! Andrew Cuomo, almost as shameless as his fellow New Yorkers, is sitting on more than $16 million in campaign cash according to a report out this week. Might he be plotting his comeback? Hmmmmm … Click, click, click and find out! Again, I put nothing past Cuomo in terms of his thirst for power and attention, but like with the Clintons, there is zero indication that outside of their families and the consultants they employ, that anyone wants another helping. In Trump’s case there is both motive and opportunity, making his revenge bid very newsworthy. But that’s not so with Cuomo and the Clintons. I know it is a slow season for political news, but give us a break!
Pretty please, read this: Rescuing Socrates, the new book by Roosevelt Montás, is generating lots of discussion among academics. That includes a great deal of criticism for the Columbia University teacher’s effort to hold on to Socrates, Plato, the foundations of moral philosophy, and a truly liberal education for new generations, especially for students raised in poverty and non-white students. With a new essay, my friend and AEI colleague, Thomas Chatterton Williams, joins Montás in his foxhole: “The purpose of an education is liberation. And the ideas and traditions that support that liberation are not and can never be crudely racialized as one group’s property, thinned out and flattened beneath the rolling pin of identity. We are not only one thing (Dominican! Brown! ESL!) and ideas are not black or white. They are good or bad, worthy or not worthy, useful or not useful—judgments that can shift and evolve with time, and not always for the worse.” Please take a moment to read the whole thing HERE.
WITHIN EARSHOT: BITTER CLINGERS
“Always cling to the nurse for fear of something worse.”—A Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament paraphrasing Hilaire Belloc when speaking to Politico to cast doubt on the effort in the party to oust beleaguered Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“Coming at you from sunny Austin, [Texas], and I’m hoping that you can add some color to the nonsense going on down here. [Beto O’Rourke] for Texas Governor? It’s almost like the Texas Democrats want to lose. What do you think is the point of this campaign and do you see any possible path to Beto winning? Recognizing that he’s got name recognition and will probably be able to raise a lot of money outside of the state, I still don’t understand how any of the fundamentals have changed in the positive for him. Look forward to your thoughts!”— Amy Francois, Austin, Texas
I think a good question to ask here, Ms. Francois, is “Or whom?” This is not a great year for any Democrat to be seeking the Texas governorship. Yes, Gov. Greg Abbott’s popularity has suffered. He’s seeking a third term, which smacks of imperiousness. Plus, he oversteered a few times trying to please GOP primary voters. Abbott also surely paid a price for the state’s 2021 power outage debacle. And yes, Texas is trending Democratic over the longer term. But for now, Texas is still a Republican state and this looks like a good year for Republicans. If Abbott could win his second term by 13 points in the bad Republican year of 2018, one would imagine the odds look pretty good for the GOP when it’s the Democrats lugging around an unpopular president with a stalled agenda. But somebody has to run on the Democratic side the same way that Republicans will have to field a candidate in New York and California. Of the universe of people who could win the Democratic primary, O’Rourke is almost certainly their best bet. He has universal name identification and, as no Democrat will ever tire of observing, came within a couple of points of knocking off a sitting senator. I stipulate the aforementioned nature of the 2018 electoral cycle and the fact that his opponent was one of the most politically maladroit and disliked figures in recent history, but O’Rourke still did well. In a state where Wendy Davis was once the doyenne of Democratic politicos, O’Rourke has at least some standing. As for himself, O’Rourke resembles nothing so much as a lost boy. His presidential campaign seemed like it was one of those moody Netflix series that you can’t quite tell whether it has ended on purpose or if it just got canceled. Maybe he sees this as his way back to reality after skateboarding into weirdsville in 2020. That’s fine, as far as it goes, for him and for Texas Democrats. The concern here is for Democrats elsewhere. Like the Steelers in my youngest son’s NFL playoff bracket, O’Rourke represents a sentimental nuisance to Democratic hopes in 2022. National Democrats should read with alarm the news that O’Rourke raised more than $7 million in his first two months in the race. Much of that money almost certainly came from small-dollar donors who don’t live in Texas, but feel nostalgia for the days before O’Rourke revealed himself to be simultaneously inconstant and tedious. He’s got the contact lists from 2018 and 2020 and can now pander for dollars. That’s money and attention that would be better expended elsewhere.
“Perhaps you can explain to me the business case for podcasts. I mean, who in the productive segments of society has sufficient surplus time to spend ingesting the burps, ummms and “y’knows” of a couple (or gawd help us more) of wonky commentators sharing their mutual self-certainties. Not to deny or denigrate their abilities or experience … the sad truth is the useful information imparted during a 60 minute podcast could be distilled, concentrated and thickened for edifying consumption in a 10 or 15 minute paragraph. How many empty hours per day are available for podcasters to capture? As we used to say in the Marketing Department: ‘What’s the value proposition? Who’s gonna buy this thing?’”—Pat Brennan, Marquette, Michigan
I don’t know whose podcasts you’ve listening to, but if you’re ingesting burps, get the heck out of there! All that you say about podcasts is, or at least can be, true. But the same could be said of television and radio. The number of hours devoted to vacuities in American media are depressing to think of. Imagine how many millions of people will sit for hours watching Super Bowl coverage before kickoff. The game will have been analyzed to death and any original thought long ago ground into paste. But still, we will hear from scores of mumbling ex-jocks in plaid suits about “fundamentals” and “X factors” and how “defense wins championships.” Talk about ingesting burps! But then, most media products aren’t very good. A little of it is excellent, most of it is passable, but a lot of it is just terrible; and quality and popularity are seldom closely correlated. More than 20 million people watched Oprah Winfrey interview the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, for goodness sake. But that’s okay, because we are free to choose what we like. Surely one who lives in a place where it will count as a heat wave if it hits 20 degrees this weekend can be sympathetic to the idea of different strokes for different folks. As for the marketing part, podcasts in general are a smashing success. Listenership keeps going up, up, up. It’s just that there are still too many podcasts chasing too few listeners. Big outfits like Spotify, Amazon, and Apple keep broadening the number of offerings ahead of what will be an inevitable consolidation. Most of what’s new is not great, especially from a production-value standpoint. But there is a lot out there old and new that is truly wonderful. The Remnant from Jonah Goldberg here at The Dispatch remains one of the best, most edifying listens every week for me years after its launch. But David French’s new podcast, Good Faith, is already a treasured addition to my queue after just a couple of months. I always get something valuable out of Bari Weiss’ smart podcast, Honestly , which debuted last year. I never miss Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend (unless he has a politician as a guest), going on several years now. O’Brien’s 2019 interview with Bob Newhart remains one of the best things I’ve ever heard. I’ve gone through something of a podcast journey myself of late. A year ago, I was the co-host of one of the top political podcasts in the country. We had scads of listeners and had been at it for years. Now, I’m trying to get a new podcast off the ground, Ink Stained Wretches. We’re taking a few weeks off since my co-host just had a beautiful baby girl, but I’m excited for the chance to continue to cultivate a new audience. There’s no marketing algorithm that would have advised me joining the ranks of the doomed legion of new podcasts, but I think we have something to say and I think it’s worth hearing—and it’s a good bit of fun, too. Only about a third of all small businesses survive for 10 years, but nobody hangs the “open” sign thinking they will be part of the 66 percent that fail. So it is with us podcasters. I hope you’ll give it a listen and find some offerings that don’t give you indigestion.
“I stumbled across a wonderful term of art on Twitter the other day: embuggerance. ‘Any obstacle that gets in the way of progress’ The Twitter usage was obscure: ‘Such words put up a permanent embuggerance against those who would try to drive a Marcionite bulldozer over Paul’s theology to make the law wicked, profane, and unjust.’ But what a wonderful word. I can see it being deployed in political coverage. As in ‘Biden repeatedly rams his rhetorical bulldozer against the Senatorial Republican embuggerances he succeeds only in fortifying their positions.’”—Robert Knudson, Riverside, California
It certainly speaks to your erudition and decency, Mr. Knudson, that it was “embuggerance” that snagged you and not the adjectival reference to Marcion of Sinope. But lest you get yourself in trouble, we should say that it is a bit of a dirty word. Embuggerance comes from British military slang and would be a cousin to the American G.I. term “snafu,” which was originally an acronym for “situation normal, all *blanked* up.” In this case, the root word of embuggerance is “bugger,” which in an earlier time you would not have said of an Englishman unless you were prepared for a fight. (Probably still true for some …). The embuggerance is impeding progress by doing, ahem, something, to the project. It is a wonderful word, and I think its British public school/military origins adds to its wonderfulness. But just be advised, lest you hit a snafu…
“I think you don’t read the comments on the site, but I would ask that you do. Many comments are good and insightful. Maybe not mine. But some of my fellow subscribers put thought into their comments and I think it would be worth engaging with them if you’d like to have a more interactive newsletter. At the very least, they can help you gauge the temperature. … Another reason to watch the comments is that, as one commenter put it, commenting is a way ‘to share it with the rest of the class.’”—Ben Connelly, Lexington, Virginia
One of the things I love about The Dispatch is our effort to reclaim the idea of a comments section. Once, long ago, in an internet far, far away, the comments were interesting. Now, the comments in most places are to discourse as a bus-stop Little Caesars is to cuisine. By limiting participation to members and keeping a close eye out for miscreancy, we’re carving out a space for decent people to exchange ideas. But not for me. If I spend a day working on something, I’m not inclined to go log in and see what folks are saying—good or bad. I’m through with it for at least a while, and willing to let it stand on its own. I’d much rather talk to readers after they have had time to think it through and craft a response to me here. I have popped into the comments a couple of times since joining El Dispatcho, and found lots of frothy conversation and plenty of good-natured back and forth. But it’s not usually about what I wrote, except as a jumping off point. My favorite was the fellow who said that he hadn’t read the piece, but liked the headline and would go back and read the rest later. He was there to talk with his friends and rivals and be part of a larger conversation. That’s wonderful, and while I’m sure he did go back later to read what I wrote, he was there for the chinwag. I like it up here, where we can have longer chats and, obviously, I get to set the playlist. Plus, I mostly refuse to have any kind of discussion with people who don’t identify themselves. Real human interactions take place between real humans, not their online avatars. I would also caution you against that “gauge the temperature” business. Comments, like the social media sites that have mostly obviated them, reflect intensity, not sentiment. Who could be moved to tweet or post that they have blandly positive feelings about an initiative or a “take?” It’s like online reviews: lots of five-stars and lots of one-stars. Rhetorical excess is common in such spaces because talking that way is more likely to produce, Heaven help me, “engagement.” Ambivalence isn’t useful in a lively discussion, but is a powerful force in politics. Mistaking intensity for sentiment is getting us in lots of trouble these days, and giving unhappy amounts of power to fringe groups. As for “sharing with the class” what are we doing here in the mailbag but reading our notes out loud for everyone? I’m quite impressed with the response so far, even if it has necessitated me spending much of my time on this section for the first few weeks. My hope is that we will find a steady rhythm here, and you will enjoy this back-and-forth almost as much as you do with your friends in the comments.
You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and always good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission anonymous. My colleague, the perspicacious Samantha Goldstein, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!
HOSERS OF INSTAGRAM
Jalopnik: “Onlookers were shocked as a woman driving across a frozen river in Canada crashed through the ice and plunged into the freezing water. But that isn’t the shocking part of this story. It seems that residents in Old Mill Way were further confused by the whole scenario when the driver stopped and posed for a selfie on the rear of her sinking car. The woman, who has not yet been named by authorities, plunged into the Rideau River on Sunday evening at around 4:30 p.m., after wintery conditions seemingly froze the river solid. … Zachary King, one of the onlookers who organized the rescue attempt, told CTV News Ottawa … he was shocked to see the stricken motorist snap a selfie as she stood on the rear of her car. King added: ‘We pulled her out and were like, ‘what the hell were you doing?,’ and she was like ‘oh just having fun’.’”
Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a forthcoming book on media and politics. Samantha Goldstein contributed to this report.