Trump, Putin and journalism in the post-truth world: A philosophical dialogue

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My conversation with Matti Virtanen, as it appeared online in Finnish.

During my latest speaking tour of Finland, I’ve been discussing the policy implications of the Trump presidency with business leaders, university students and business school alumni. But I’ve also had the chance to talk to some of the top editors in Finland about the ethical and journalistic challenges facing American reporters trying to cover a very different kind of president.Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 1.20.05 PM

Here is my conversation with Matti Virtanen, a veteran journalist with Talouselämä. Click here to read his article in Finnish.

Q: If you look at Trump’s communications as a whole, what do you think is the main difference between his and a professional politician’s rhetoric?

A: Trump’s rhetoric is more colorful and less “politically correct” than an average politician. He seems to enjoy being incendiary and provocative. He never fears the consequences of his own words.

Q: Much of political discourse is full of exaggerations and embellishments, and statements that are meaningless or “not even wrong.” Where do you draw the line that differentiates all this from lying?

A: Lying is intentionally or knowingly saying something that is untrue. It is the same as the distinction between a killing and a murder. Murder is killing with malicious intent. Lying is telling falsehoods or untruths with malicious intent. Saying that 3 million “illegal aliens” voted — and all voted for Hillary Clinton — is untrue. Once you are told it’s not true and you keep saying it, it’s a lie. (Or if you knew it was untrue when you first said it, it’s a lie.) The difference between Trump and typical politicians is that Trump’s supporters do not hold him accountable for not telling the truth. Average supporters and his advisers will lecture the press, saying you are “taking him too literally.” It’s dangerous territory for the media and for politicians when the truth is a philosophical concept and not an objective reality.

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Talking Trump in Finland.

Q: What are the most obvious lies that Trump has expressed in office? (Three examples will do, let’s forget the campaign lies for now.)

He falsely stated, over and over, that he had the biggest Electoral College landslide with Ronald Reagan, when, in reality, Barack Obama (twice), Bill Clinton (twice) and George H.W. Bush all had more. He stated without evidence that Obama tapped his phones in Trump Tower, something flatly denied by the FBI and the former Director of National Intelligence. He claimed, without offering evidence, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because 3 million illegal immigrants voted for her. He said she won New Hampshire because of “massive” voter fraud. Elections officials in the states he mentioned all denied his claims, which he has repeated over and over since then. Also, he said more than 100 former Guantanamo Bay prisoners were released by Obama and have returned to the battlefield. (All but nine were released by Bush.)

Q: How is the system equipped to counter lies from the White House?

A: The media ecosystem is not set up to deal with serial lies from public officials, or, as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called them, “alternative facts.” Trump’s strange relationship with the truth has left reporters in an uncomfortable position: report his claims factually, as you would with most public officials, and become part of a disinformation or propaganda campaign — or state that the president of the United States did not tell the truth, which makes many Americans believe that you are taking political sides and are part of “the opposition” to Trump, as Trump aide Steve Bannon puts it.

Q: Why is he getting away with lies better than his predecessors, who were also not quite immune to the syndrome?

A: Many of Trump’s supporters say it is just “Trump being Trump.” They think it is refreshing to have a “politically incorrect” president. Some find it entertaining to see the establishment ridiculed. Thus far, none of the falsehoods seem to have harmed Trump’s public standing. His approval rate has changed relatively little since it dipped during his first week in office, despite a barrage of reporting on false statements from the president.

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Speaking at an AmCham Finland “Brief on the Go” in Helsinki.

Q: What is the threshold that would trigger a formal, legal investigation of the president’s lying?

A: Either a Democratic-controlled Congress (in two years at the earliest) or a lie on a sensitive national security subject, such as his relationship with the Kremlin or possible blackmailing of him by Vladimir Putin or Russian intelligence.

Q: How long can the Republican Party remain united in defense of presidential lying?

A: Party leaders are following their followers. As long as Trump’s support among rank-and-file Republicans remains above 80 percent, as it has been since he assumed office, Republican elected officials will be cautious in they criticism. Some Republican elected officials have dismissed some of Trump’s statements as incorrect (such as his allegations of voter fraud or his claims about wiretapping), but they have not broken with Trump politically. As long as Republican voters do not abandon Trump, he will maintain a base of power in Congress.

Q: How likely is it that we are going to see an impeachment process against Trump?

A: It won’t happen as long as the Republicans control Congress — unless there is evidence that he sold out the United States to Russia for business purposes or under threat of blackmail. There is no evidence of that now. Short of that, it won’t happen in the next two years. I think it would be a mistake for Democrats, should they take control of Congress in 2019, to immediately initiate impeachment proceedings. It would look like crass politics. It would be smarter to have oversight hearings and see where the evidence leads.

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Q&A in Helsinki

Q: What if the Department of Justice refuses to appoint a special prosecutor? Does the Congress have any way around that?

A: Excellent question. Congress can’t appoint a special prosecutor, but it can create a bipartisan investigating committee or empower an independent, bipartisan commission. I think the commission approach is the most likely. It will be less inflammatory and more likely to get at the truth, quietly and over a longer period of time.

Q: How would you rate Trump’s lying if you compare it with the untruths from Russian and Chinese governments?

A: Trump’s relationship to the truth is similar to Putin’s. They both say things that are demonstrably untrue. With the Chinese government, there is a lot of “partisan spin,” but rarely does the government say things that can be easily contradicted. One way or another, an American president doesn’t want to be compared to Putin or other authoritarian regimes when it comes to credibility.

Q: What about the personal level: how do you feel about the situation?

A: I feel that it’s a tough time to be a reporter. You must have a thick skin and be willing to be bullied and threatened. Thus far, no harm has come to an American reporter, but many of my former colleagues have been subjected to online harassment and even phone calls at their homes. The old rules of fairness apply to our reporting, even if the norms of truthfulness are shifting. Reporters have to adjust if they want to maintain their integrity and shed light on the words and deeds of public officials.

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Pay no attention to the man behind the podium.


The rise of Trump explained in four graphics

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How did he get this far this quickly?

A little more than a year ago, when Donald Trump opened his presidential campaign by gliding down the golden escalators of Trump Tower, with paid extras hired from the New York theater community to pad the crowd size, it was easy to dismiss the real estate mogul as a self-promoting dilettante more interested in publicity than politics.

So many people got it so wrong. His Republican rivals, in the famous words of George W. Bush, “misunderestimated” him. The Pundit Elite kept predicting that just one more embarrassing gaffe would extinguish his White House hopes. The nation’s best newspapers kept churning out damning investigative pieces questioning Trump’s business acumen, his honesty, his ethics, his wild flip-flops on issues and his command of basic knowledge of the world ~ and it seemed to matter nary a bit.

Historians will be discussing the Trump phenomenon for decades. Yet here we are, the general election upon us. How did Donald Trump, a political neophyte and nearly lifelong Democrat, emerge as the self-proclaimed champion of conservative values, the master of the Republican National Committee, and the voice of angry white people?

It’s easy to oversimplify Trump’s appeal, but I’d like to try to explain the rise of Trump in four informational graphics.

#1: Americans have grown increasingly alienated from major institutions

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Until the 1960s — amid Vietnam, civil rights struggles and social unrest — Americans had almost universally positive views about basic institutions in U.S. society. The trend has been downward ever since. But there has been a significant drop in the past decade in institutions as diverse as religion, schools, banking, the news business, the courts, and, of course, the Congress. There are two major reasons: self-inflicted wounds, such as congressional dysfunction and the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal, and a partisan media led by Fox News, which has made it a constant theme of its programming to tear down institutions in order to rebuild America in its ideological image. Donald Trump positioned himself as the champion of the “little guy” against all the big, bad institutions — from Wall Street, to the news media, to big business, to the “rigged” Congress and court system … even against the Pentagon generals who know less about military strategy than the reality-TV star.

#2: There has been a rapid, dramatic shift to the left on social issues

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Within the past decade, the United States reached a tipping point on social issues. On gay rights, the nation went from strong opposition to same-sex marriage to overwhelming support for the new reality that was blessed in 2013 and 2014 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The younger generation — Democrat, Republican and those disgusted with both parties — is almost unanimously in favor of social change that affects women (“no means no”), gays (“marriage equality”) and the environment (climate change is real, not a Chinese-inspired hoax). This rapid shift has proven to be disconcerting to many older people, particularly men, who cling to (no, not their guns and bibles) their now-unpopular views. They want to say no to social change. Trump says they’re right. And he says that he’s their voice.

#3: We’ve seen a partisan reversal on globalization

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For decades, Democrats were the protectionists and Republicans were the free-traders. Democrats, influenced by labor unions and environmentalists, resisted trade liberalization as bad for workers and the environment. Republicans embraced globalism and immigration as good for business, good for America, and, ultimately, a net plus for American workers.

Not any more. The Republican Party, radically altered by a massive influx of middle-aged white men displaced by a global economy for which they no longer have the requisite skill set, has become the party of protectionism and economic nationalism. They see immigrants as a threat to American jobs and American values.

Democrats and independents are now more open to international economic liberalization than the Republican Party, the traditional home of the U.S. business community. Trump is the big winner in this new reality. His “America First” backers crushed the internationalist Republicans like Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries and are challenging Democratic dominance in the nation’s economically distressed industrial heartland.

#4: People now get political information from self-selected partisan sources

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We live in parallel information universes. Left-of-center Americans rely on a mix of CNN, NPR, MSNBC and the New York Times for their political and government news. Most of those news outlets present news from a predictably liberal mindset. Right-of-center Americans overwhelming rely on Fox News and local radio for their information. Fox and the Rush/Hannity/Coulter axis is not just conservative, it is almost anarchic in its desire to tear down institutions of the “elites” and the “establishment” while advocating for the grievances of whites who feel they are innocent victims of racial minorities, immigrants, non-Christian religions, China, Japan, Korea, Iran, Israel, Mexico, NATO … you name it.

The result of this Great Information Divide is that facts have become obsolete. The news of the left may be biased, but it is rooted in objective fact. Nonpartisan fact-checking websites can tell you how often politicians tell you the truth or lie to you. The news of the right has increasingly become resistant to globally accepted facts (evolution, climate change) and has allowed the virus of “fake news,” often generated in countries like Russia and Macedonia, to infiltrate the political mainstream. As Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said after Fox News retracted a false story that Hillary Clinton would soon be indicted, “The damage was done.”

Social media has exacerbated the divide. Citizens follow information sources on Twitter and Facebook that confirm their preconceptions of reality. This has become the first post-fact-check presidential election. Trump, with his finger on the “tweet” button of his smartphone and a knack for creating viral content, is the perfect politician for this moment in history.


Late demographic shifts scramble election: Trump gains among Midwestern men, wealthy Latinos; Clinton soars among unmarried white women, upper-middle-class whites

The index logoIs the election over yet?

A lot has happened in the five months since Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump wrapped up their parties’ nominations after divisive primary battles. Trump has been entangled in a series of scandals of sexual, financial and prevaricatory natures. Clinton has been entangled in a series of scandals related to email servers, Russian-hacked emails and some guy named Weiner. Trump has been caught in a scandal about his foundation’s spending. Clinton has been caught in a scandal about her foundation’s fundraising.

I don’t believe in the media fiction of faux fairness through equal-opportunity faux scandal coverage. I’m just trying to make a point: A lot has happened in the general election campaign, but the relative popularity of the two candidates with the American public has changed very little. Since June 5, Trump has gained 3.3 percentage points on Chinton nationally, according to Reuters polling.

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A slight Trump trend nationally, but big shifts among demographic blocs.

But within the slight national shifts to Trump, there have been significant demographic shifts that have altered the election on the ground in the 50 states. And that is what the election is about: a collection of contests for the electoral votes of 50 states, one territory (the District of Columbia) and five congressional districts in Maine and Nebraska.

Since June, I have been analyzing the partisan presidential preference of 100 demographic subgroups – 34 “battleground” groups and 33 favorable to either Democrat Clinton or Republican Trump — using polling data from Reuters. And there has been significant movement among the swing groups. Both ways. Trump has strongly improved his standing among most traditional Republican groups, like Southern whites and wealthier Latinos. Clinton has consolidated and expanded her support among almost all subgroups of women and has extended her leads among higher-income and highly educated voters, reflecting historic shifts among those once-Republican groups. On the flip side, Trump has gained significant ground among less-educated whites and white Catholics, resulting in a narrowing of Clinton’s once-daunting advantage in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and turning Ohio and Iowa into prime Trump targets.

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Clinton maintains an overall edge, but Trump has made gains among some traditional Democratic blocs.

Going into the final days of the election, Clinton leads in 16 of the battleground groups I identified, Trump leads in 14, and one is tied. (Three others – veterans, families of veterans, and Mormon women – have polling sample sizes too small to analyze.)

The momentum at the end is with Trump. Trump is gaining ground with 19 of these 31 battleground groups, while Clinton has improved her standing with 10 of them. Two subgroups have not moved perceptibly over the past five months.

Among my battleground demographics, Trump has gained the most ground in the Great Plains, among Latinos earning >$100K (where he has cut a 50 point Clinton lead in half), divorced white voters, Midwestern men, white Catholics and Southern white men with college degrees. The GOP nominee’s gains among less-educated Northern white men continues a realignment that was evident in the 2012 presidential results, when Barack Obama lost ground with these voters, costing him the state of Indiana and narrowing his victory margins in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Clinton has gained the most ground among unmarried white women, wealthy and upper-middle-class whites (white voters earning more than $150,000, whites earning between $75,000 and $100,000 a year), Midwestern white women, and white voters under the age of 40. (Bernie Sanders supporters have settled on Hillary.)

As you can see from these trends, the Midwest has become a curious electoral stew, as white men have moved strongly toward Trump while white women have shifted just as strongly toward Clinton. It underscores just how divisive the 2016 election has become.

My analysis of the Electoral College is that Clinton has a decisive edge based on the current numbers because of her continuing strength in suburban areas and among high-income and highly educated voters. That is particularly important to Clinton because these voters are concentrated in swing states that are essential for Trump to carry if he is hoping to reach the 270 Electoral Votes needed to win.

Trump’s only hope for a come-from-behind victory would be a sharp increase in his support among independent-minded voters with high incomes and college diplomas. Clinton could cement an Electoral College landslide if she gains ground among less-educated women or highly educated whites in a swath of the country stretching from North Carolina to Arizona.

Here are the “innards” of my analysis. First, you can look at which groups are the most pro-Trump or pro-Clinton. Then you can analyze the battleground groups by trendline: from those trending Trump to those trending Clinton.

I welcome your feedback on this project.

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Stronger Together

Battleground voting blocs: Clinton 16, Trump 14, Tied 1

Great Plains TRUMP +28 … SWING between Clinton -39 and Clinton -20
White divorced TRUMP +17 … SWING Clinton-23
White southern women with college degree TRUMP +15 SWING Clinton-10
White Catholic women TRUMP +13 … SWING Clinton-20
Midwestern white men TRUMP +13 … SWING Clinton -22
White southerners with college degree TRUMP +12 SWING Clinton-9.9
Southern white men with college degree TRUMP +12 SWING Clinton-14
White Catholic TRUMP +11 … SWING Clinton -20
White Catholic men TRUMP +9 … SWING Clinton-22
Whites 50-65 TRUMP +8 … SWING between Clinton-4 and Clinton+5.1
Whites earning between $50-75K TRUMP +6 … SWING Clinton -7
Whites earning between $50-$100K TRUMP +3 … SWING Clinton -10.2
Married voters TRUMP +1.4 … SWING Clinton +4.5
White women, no children at home, TRUMP +0.6 … SWING Clinton -4.3

Whites earning between $75K-$100K Tie … SWING Clinton +17

Voters earning between $50K-100K CLINTON +3.6 … SWING Clinton -9.8
Lean conservative CLINTON +2 … SWING between Clinton+6 and Clinton-2
Homeowners CLINTON +2.7 … SWING Clinton-1
Men CLINTON +3.5 … SWING Clinton -10.8
White men under 30 CLINTON +3.5 … SWING Clinton -8.8
Independent CLINTON +4 … SWING Clinton+7
Midwestern white women CLINTON +5 … SWING Clinton +12
Midwest CLINTON +6.3 … SWING C-5.9 Clinton +1.6
Voters earning $75K+ CLINTON +6.7 … SWING Clinton -13.7
Women CLINTON +9.7 … SWING C-1.6 Clinton +1
Great Lakes CLINTON +16 … SWING C-2 Clinton +13
Whites earning >$150K CLINTON +18 … SWING Clinton +21.2
White single, never married CLINTON +23 … SWING Clinton +17
Whites -40 CLINTON +20.6… SWING between Clinton -4.3 and Clinton +19.4
Latinos earning >$100K CLINTON +24 … SWING Clinton -26.9
Unmarried white women CLINTON +27 … SWING Clinton +19.1

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Make America Great Again (Washington Post Twitter photo)

Battleground trendline (from strongest point of each candidate to final numbers): Toward Trump 19, Toward Clinton 10, No Trend 2

Great Plains Trump +28 … SWING between Clinton -39 and Clinton -20
Latinos earning >$100K Clinton +24 … SWING Clinton -26.9
White divorced Trump +17 … SWING Clinton -23
Midwestern white men Trump+13 … SWING Clinton -22
White Catholic men Trump +9 … SWING Clinton -22
White Catholic women Trump+13 … SWING Clinton -20
White Catholic Trump +11 … SWING Clinton -20
Southern white men with college degree Trump +12 SWING Clinton-14
Voters earning $75K+ Clinton +6.7 … SWING Clinton -13.7
Men Clinton +3.5 … SWING Clinton -10.8
Whites earning between $50-$100K Trump +3.0 … SWING Clinton -10.2
White southern women with college degree Trump +15 SWING Clinton -10
White southerners with college degree Trump +12 SWING Clinton -9.9
Voters earning between $50K-100K Clinton +3.6 … SWING Clinton -9.8
White men under 30 Clinton +3.5 … SWING Clinton -8.8
Whites earning between $50-75K Trump+6 … SWING Clinton -7
White women, no children at home Trump +0.6 … SWING Clinton -4.3
Homeowners Clinton +2.7 … SWING Clinton -1
Midwest Clinton +6.3 … SWING between Clinton -5.9 and Clinton +1.6

Women Clinton +9.7 … SWING between Clinton -1.6 and Clinton +1
Whites 50-65 Trump +8 … SWING between Clinton -4 and Clinton +5.1

Lean conservative Trump+2 … SWING between Clinton+6 and Clinton -2
Married voters Trump +1.4 … SWING Clinton +4.5
Great Lakes Clinton +16 … SWING Clinton -2 and Clinton +13
Independent  Clinton +4 … SWING Clinton +7
Whites -40 Clinton +20.6… SWING between Clinton -4.3 and Clinton +19.4
Midwestern white women Clinton +5 … SWING Clinton +12
White single, never married Clinton +23 … SWING Clinton +17
Whites earning between $75K-$100K Tie … SWING Clinton +17
Unmarried white women Clinton +27 … SWING Clinton +19.1
Whites earning >$150K Clinton +18 … SWING Clinton +21.2

Previous posts:

>>>A look at 100 key demographic blocs, and how Trump and Clinton are faring among them
>>> The changing South, the educational chasm and Latino backlash: 10 takeaways from a deep analysis of polling data
>>> Who are the undecided voters in 2016? Mormon women, wealthy Latinos, Midwestern white women

Methodology:

The Index analyzes the 2016 presidential election through the voting preferences of 100 different demographic blocs. Thirty-three of them are part of Donald Trump’s Republican base. Thirty-three of them are part of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic base. And 34 of them are battleground groups — keys to both candidates’ paths to the White House.

The information for the feature comes from Reuters’ polling data, which is available, open source, on the internet. I am using Reuters’ rolling five-day averages for most of my analysis. I chose Reuters’ numbers because the global news service makes the information available to anyone. You can check behind me to examine my methodology — or to create new searches of your own.


Day 4 Analysis: Hillary Rodham Reagan

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Did I step into a time machine and wake up in 1984?

“USA. USA. USA.”

“We are the greatest country on this planet,” said retired Marine Corps General John Allen.

American flags waving robustly in the convention hall. Speakers attacking Russian leaders. Sheriffs, veterans, wounded warriors, generals, families of slain cops. God and America.

No, no, this is not 1984. But this is where Ronald Reagan’s optimistic vision of America has taken us.

Welcome to 2016, and one political party’s presidential nominee used Reagan as the inspiration at her convention. The other harkened back to the fearful days of the first “America First” movement in the shadow of Hitler’s rise, the walled-off, fair-trade America promised by Senator Smoot and Representative Hawley, and the hot-button racial rhetoric (if we judge by his approving tweets) of David Duke.

This is not an America I expected to be covering … or living in. It’s a world in which the optimistic legacies of Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush unite against the dark knight of the new American order, Donald Trump.

Yes, America is divided. Deeply divided. Its diversity is lauded by some, feared by others. Its rapid era of social change makes some joyful, others angry. Its no-limits gun culture is treasured by some, lamented by others. Its economic collapse of 2007-2008 has left many deeply distrustful of American institutions, from banks to big business to government.

The times have given us a new Republican Party, one that bears little resemblance to the Party of Reagan. As a historian, I wonder whether this is a one-election aberration (like Wendell Wilkie’s outsider takeover of the GOP in 1940) or a fundamental shift in America’s political lines.

Hearing speaker after speaker at Hillary Clinton’s convention refer to Ronald Reagan, I recalled reading a newspaper editorial early in the Reagan era headlined “Franklin Delano Reagan,” as a nod to Reagan’s frequent invocation of FDR. On the final night of the Democratic National Convention, we could have modified that headline this way: “Hillary Rodham Reagan.”

It’s morning in America. On the other side of the street.

Like Reagan, Clinton is not embracing the policy agenda of the other party. But like Reagan, she is seeking to unite her hard-core party loyalists and disaffected members of the other party. Like Reagan, who gave Democratic hawk  Jeane Kirkpatrick a platform at the Republican National Convention in 1984 to reject the changes in the party she long had backed, Clinton found speakers who implored disillusioned Republicans to switch sides.

“This year, I will vote for a Democrat for the first time,” said Doug Elmets, a former Reagan administration staffer from California. Former Virginia GOP activist Jennifer Pierotti Lim tried to convince reluctant Republicans not just to stay home but to actively thwart Trump — “to not only oppose Donald Trump but to support Hillary Clinton.”

 

 

Clinton’s acceptance speech was vintage Hillary Clinton, more like a Bill Clinton State of the Union speech with a list of dozens of policy priorities than a poetic paean to a shining city on a hill, as depicted by Reagan or the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo. But its “we’re all in it patriotism” and unabashed Northern Methodist morality made it a rhetorical antidote to Trump’s “only I can solve it” message.

Leading up to Clinton’s speech were some of the most powerful speakers of the week, who skewered Trump with ridicule and passion, as they also made the case for Clinton.

Kareem Abdul-Jabaar introduced himself to America as fellow basketball superstar Michael Jordan. “I did that,” he said, “because I know Trump wouldn’t know difference.”

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Donald Trump “smears the character of Muslims,” said Gold Star dad Khizr Khan of Charlottesville, Virginia.

There was no such levity in the words of Khizr Khan, a proud Muslim American whose son Army Captain Humayun Khan died in a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2004.

There was no way Clinton could bring more raw emotion to her speech than Khan. She didn’t try. She delivered a well-written speech effectively, if not effusively. It will be remembered more for its historical import than its historically important phrases.

Still, for the sake of the social media world in the year 2016, one zinger will go viral: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Clinton came into her convention week as a flawed messenger of a divided party. She remains a flawed messenger, but the party has been unified, with the exception of a small band of Bernie boo-birds who will choose a Green Party candidate who this week compared Clinton’s Democrats to Hitler’s Nazis.

To a large swath of America, Clinton will never be acceptable, and Trump will be the lesser of two evils. Or the man who can save America.

Trump’s campaign released a statement dismissing the speech as “a speech delivered from a fantasy universe, not the world we’re living in today.” Roger Ailes couldn’t have said it better. You’ll hear these talking points a lot in one of America’s two parallel political/media universes.

Beyond the spin is the bottom line. There is always a convention “bounce” in the polls. Trump, despite a poorly organized convention, got a bump as a result of the effective demonization of Clinton over four consecutive evenings. I predict that Clinton will surge in the polls, gaining the ground she lost and then some.

As American conventions give way to the Olympics, Clinton is likely to be in the lead. But the election remains in the hands of the Ronald Reagan optimists. The vision they choose  in November will be the face of America in the decade ahead.


Day 3 Analysis: Love, love, love (but not for Trump)

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The dichotomy of America is apparent at the two national political conventions.

Hope vs. fear.

Love vs. anger.

Experience vs. political newcomers.

Diversity vs. shades of white.

Meryl Streep vs. Scott Baio.

Cagney + Lacey vs. The Apprentice.

Hiring vs. Firing.

Gracious loser (Bernie Sanders) vs. unrepentant enemy (Ted Cruz).

It Takes a Village vs. Burn the Village Down.

Even without saying a single word, the Democratic convention has won the battle of images. People look happier, even the Bernie boo-birds. People act happier, especially the elected officials. People seem happier to be speaking there.

And then there is the messaging.

The Republican convention did a very good job sowing doubts about Hillary Clinton, particularly on the subject of emails. It exposed her vulnerabilities as an imperfect messenger. But it missed an important opportunity to demonstrate to America that Donald Trump has any policy vision for America. Voters left that convention without any idea what Donald Trump would do on health care, taxes, budget priorities, trade, relations with China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, NATO, Mexico … the list goes on and on. The only clear policy prescription is that he will build a wall. And Mexico will pay for it.

Clinton’s convention has artfully followed a three-pronged strategy:

  1. Rebuild the battered reputation of the candidate, whose positive ratings fell below 30 percent in one post GOP-convention poll.
  2. Lay out a specific set of policies on family leave, equal pay, minimum wage, anti-terrorism, college tuition and loans, infrastructure, national defense strategy, small business development, job retraining, veterans’ care … the list goes on and on.
  3. Shatter Trump’s reputation one speech at a time. His lawsuits. His persistent sexism. His dissembling. His university. His nativism. His steaks. His admiration for dictators. His treatment of contractors. His crude insults. His outsourced neckties. His ego. “He has no clue about what makes America great,” said Vice President Joe Biden. “Actually he has no clue, period.” Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed Trump as a fraud: “I’m a New Yorker, and I know a con when I see one.” John Hutson, a retired admiral, said it most harshly: “I used to serve in the Navy with John McCain. I used to vote in the same party as John McCain. Donald, you’re not fit to polish John McCain’s boots!”

Wednesday night’s show was carefully calibrated and artfully executed. I identified 10 themes that were repeated over and over by speakers ranging from assassination survivor Gabby Giffords to President Obama. The themes almost always reflected an implicit (or expressed) contrast with Trump:

 

  • Clinton is qualified — some, like Obama, called her the most qualified presidential candidate in history.
  • Clinton is persistent. On health care, 9/11 first responders, foster children.
  • Clinton is loyal.
  • Clinton is tough. Just ask Obama about the 2008 primaries.
  • Clinton has the temperament needed to be president.
  • Clinton possesses humility. It’s not about her. It’s about solving problems.
  • Clinton cares. Speaker after speaker gave personal examples, something almost completely lacking at the Republican convention.
  • Trump is a bad person. That theme might have been overdone, but, hey, there are lots of examples.
  • Trump bad businessman. Same as above.
  • Trump is crazy. Well, that may not have been in the official convention script, but Mike Bloomberg went there when he ad libbed “let’s elect a sane, competent person.”

Clinton is a flawed candidate, with a four-decade track record of political controversies accompanying her long record of accomplishments. But, for a week at least, Democrats are Photoshopping out the blemishes. Former Defense Secretary and CIA chief Leon Panetta, who has publicly criticized President Obama’s security policies, rhapsodized over Clinton.

“She is smart. She is tough. She is principled. And she is ready,” he said.

Both Obama and Biden got personal in their endorsement speeches. “No matter how much people try to knock her down, she never, ever quits,” Obama said. The outgoing president’s optimistic rhetoric about America included shoutouts to Republican icons such as Teddy Roosevelt and evoked the “Morning in America” imagery of Ronald Reagan. In November, Obama said, “the choice isn’t even close.” While praising Clinton he warned about a “self-declared savior” and “home-grown demagogues.”

The agony of many Republicans, from Bush loyalists to hard-core conservatives, speaks to the success of the Democratic speeches on Wednesday and the failure of Trump to inspire any positive vision for his supporters.

As Obama finished his oration, the convention hall’s audio system blared the song “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

Democrats can only hope that is the case. There’s still a long time between now and November 8.


Day 2 Analysis: History, and her story

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The Washington Post’s captured this photo of Bill Clinton as he wrapped up his speech.

His voice is weaker. His right hand occasionally trembles. His stamina for 90-minute orations is no longer Castro-esque. (Then again, neither is Fidel’s.) But Bill Clinton showed Tuesday night that he can still inspire the Democratic party faithful and connect with average Americans beyond the Beltway bubble and cultural elites.

With his wife’s presidential candidacy endangered by the widespread perception that she is unlikable and untrustworthy, the 42nd president meticulously rebuilt the case for a President Hillary Clinton  by reciting, slowly yet steadily, a string of anecdotes that wrote a very different biography of the woman he met at the law school library more than four decades ago.

Hillary Clinton has admitted, in an uncharacteristic moment of public self-reflection this year, that she’s not a natural politician or a fluid public speaker. Her husband, for all of his flaws that we all know all too well, is a natural. And his skills, diminished slightly with age but still daunting, were on display at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Many of Bill Clinton’s critics say his public life is all about Bill ~ sort of the rap against his former friend and longtime admirer Donald Trump. But for 40 minutes on the second night of the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton kept the focus on Hillary. And if the biography was a bit sanitized (none of the “bimbo eruptions”),  it was heart-felt and detailed. Anecdote by anecdote, it built a case for a caring woman who gets things done.

 

 

And as the speech reached its denouement, the former president faced head-on the “lock her up” iconography on display at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

To Bill Clinton, if not the Hillary skeptics, the Cleveland Clinton is bogus. Hillary Clinton has two images, her husband said: “One is real. The other is made up.”

“You nominated the real one,” Bill Clinton concluded, as if anyone was in doubt where he stood.

Clinton critics will be quick to dismiss his oration as another performance from a master showman, the man who allegedly could cry from one eye for the cameras. The hard-core Hillary doubters will never be sated or satisfied.

One longtime Clinton fan, Donald Trump, has even changed his opinion of the man whose candidacy and foundation he once generously supported:

Overrated or terrific, Tuesday was a historic day. For the first time, a major political party in America nominated a woman as its candidate for president. Indeed, it was history. But, for the sake of the general election, Tuesday was more about her story.


Day 1 Analysis: Heavily scripted convention tries to make Clinton seem more authentic

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Hillary Clinton has the nomination, but Bernie Sanders had the passion on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

Americans claim to want their politicians to be “authentic.” Even if the authenticity comes by way of Hollywood (like Ronald Reagan’s aw-shucks, cowboy hero persona) or Madison Avenue (Bill Clinton’s rural roots in “a place called Hope”).

That’s one of the things I’ve heard over and over from Donald Trump supporters. Some concede he’s a bigot, others admit he’s a bully and a blowhard, many acknowledge he’s a narcissist of the first order. But they like how he’s willing to “stick it” to “them.” The “them” is elites (however you choose to define them), minorities, foreigners, Muslims, the “politically correct,” even his fellow Republicans.

Hillary Clinton has a problem with this concept of being “real.” Many voters remain uncertain of who she is at her core, what she believes in, who she trusts, or if she can be trusted. Only 30 percent of Americans consider her honest and trustworthy, according to a pre-convention CNN poll. It’s imperative for Clinton to use her week in the national media spotlight to shift public perceptions of her, if she is to win what is now a close race with Trump.

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Hillary Clinton’s image has been damaged during the 2016 campaign, as seen in HuffPost Pollster graphic.

On the first day of the convention, Team Clinton may have tried too hard. Message: she cares. Message: She’s passionate about people’s problems. Most of the speeches were too smooth and too predictable. (Exceptions: Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders. More on that later.) 

“Every speech here feels vetted to death,” Adam Nagourney, Los Angeles bureau chief of the New York Times, wrote during a convention liveblog. “I’m sure they have an extensive speech reviewing-shop.”

The action on the convention podium was disciplined and carefully scripted, even if the crowd was raucous and often off-script. Somehow, the DNC managed to squeeze the intelligent ridicule out of Al Franken. Instead of coming off as clever, he came off as somebody reading a speech written by someone else, which it undoubtedly was.

The most unscripted moment of the event came when Franken and comedian Sarah Silverman were directed to waste time so that ’60s music legend Paul Simon could get comfortable at his piano. She filled the “dead time” with a pointed message to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd: “You’re being ridiculous.”

Franken, who became famous as a political commentator by roasting Rush Limbaugh as “a big, fat idiot,” looked momentarily stunned. Then the convention returned to script.

The most effective scripted moments came during First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech. In a speech praised by political analysts from both parties, she described her life in the White House and its impact on her family. In a gentle reminder that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, she noted that the 2016 election will determine “who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” She also noted politely that you can’t solve complex policy problems in 140 characters.

“Michelle Obama tonight delivered one of the best speeches I have ever seen in my career in politics,” former George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon wrote on his Facebook page.

Obama was followed by a keynote address by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was predictable in her attacks on Trump and her “proud” support of Hillary.

(The password of the night was “proud.” Democrats are proud of Hillary.)

Warren’s address, which did not receive nearly the applause of Obama’s, served as a bridge to Bernie Sanders’ gracious speech endorsing Clinton. The Vermont senator spent 30 minutes making the case both for Clinton and against Trump, all the while thanking his supporters in the Democrats’ socialist, populist revolution. It was no concession speech. He conceded no ground. But he did advance the cause of party unity.

One Sanders speech is unlikely to mollify his hard-core supporters. Acrimony  was evident everywhere on Monday. In state delegation meetings. On the steamy streets of Philadelphia. And in a convention hall that was packed (unlike Cleveland), but abnormally unresponsive to speakers’ calls for unity — at least until Obama and Sanders came along late in prime time.

“It was a rough day earlier on,” Senate Democratic Leader-in-Waiting Chuck Schumer admitted on NBC. But it could have been worse, he quickly added: “Compare this to Ted Cruz”

If this was your first time watching a national convention, you might think these public displays of division are bad news for Democrats’ hopes of winning. But for those of us who’ve seen Democratic schisms in the past, this was relatively mild. Past divisions have been deeper and far more fundamental. Take it from this Republican activist:

Team Hillary hopes that’s the case.