Fair and Unbalanced

Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."


The Democratic race made a dramatic turn in Debate VI Thursday night. After weeks and months of trying and failing, Hillary Clinton basically conceded that she couldn’t out-progressive Bernie Sanders, the self-styled socialist.

So if Clinton couldn’t out-progressive him — how could she, Sanders pointed out in the night’s strangest exchange, if she bragged about being pals with, yes, Henry Kissinger? — she decided she would out-Obama him.

And as Sanders was giving his many younger supporters a refresher course in Pol Pot and Cambodia and other various Kissinger outrages, Clinton was saying that her Obama friendship was the one that really mattered and that, she said, is where Sanders falls short.

It was a much easier lift, particularly if shamelessness is a guiding principle, as it is for nearly all politicians. Some of you may be old enough to remember the 2008 triple-overtime contest for the Democratic nomination, back when the race got so ugly that people wondered whether Clinton supporters would actually vote for Barack Obama in the general election.

They did, of course. When it came to it, the Clintons delivered for Obama as if nothing had happened between them, as if each hadn’t accused the other of playing the race card, as if no one had ever mentioned the words “fairy tale,” as if Obama were not seen in Hillaryland as the Great Usurper. And now Obama is delivering for Clinton, even if he’s winkingly neutral in the race.

From the beginning of the primary battle, Clinton has anointed herself the keeper of the Obama flame, but now she has gone further, accusing Sanders of making Republican-style attacks on Obama and then, in Clinton fashion, had all the damaging quotes ready for the audience and for the fact-checkers. Sanders called it a “low blow,” which it was, but, I’m guessing, an effective low blow.

It got even lower. From Clinton: “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our President I expect from Republicans. I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”

Sanders was flustered. Or flus-tehed. One of Sanders’ most appealing features is that he’s at once an idealist and an iconoclast. And like many liberals, he has felt, at times, that Obama was too willing to compromise, too flexible when he should have held firm and — like, say, Clinton — not consistently progressive enough. This is not a new thing. Liberals have criticized every Democratic president, just as conservatives routinely feel betrayed by Republican presidents. In my lifetime, LBJ was forced out of office by liberals over Vietnam. Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter in a primary. Bill Clinton was the welfare-reform-era-of-big-government-is-over triangulation president.

But this case may be a little different. There’s no mystery here. For Clinton to win the nomination, she needs Obama-like numbers from minority voters, particularly African-Americans who make up about half the voters in the South Carolina primary. While Obama remains extremely popular among most Democrats — you can consult any poll — he is particularly popular among black voters, and particularly when they see Obama being attacked.

And so Clinton referenced a recent MSNBC interview in which Sanders said Obama had failed in bringing Congress closer to the will of the people and then, let’s say, stretched the point, nearly to breaking.

“Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the Presidential leadership test,’’ Clinton said. “And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment.

“He wrote a foreword (actually a blurb) for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers’ remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy. And I just couldn’t disagree more with those kinds of comments.”

Clinton probably won the debate on points — she didn’t get loud when Sanders got loud; she used Obama, once again, as a life raft when she was accused, like Obama, she says, of being waist deep in the big money —  but the debate itself probably had little, if any, impact on the race. What Clinton wanted to accomplish after her New Hampshire shellacking was to show, as they say, a way forward. She hopes she’s found it. You’ll be hearing Sanders’ supposed hits on Obama again. And again.

And here’s the other shift in emphasis. Now that the race has left Iowa and New Hampshire for more, uh, diverse parts of the land, Clinton is saying the voters want a more, uh, diverse candidate. As Clinton said in her closing statement — the final words of the night — she’s all for making sure Wall Street would “never be allowed to wreck Main Street again.” But, she said, that’s not all she’s for. It’s not the only problem America faces.

“I’m not a single-issue candidate,” she said, “and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.”

She then went on to name some other issues. Racism, racial justice, sexism, gay rights, workers’ rights, abortion rights, the right not to have lead in your drinking water. And as if to help out, Sanders went all single message in explaining that he would “absolutely” be better addressing racial issues than Obama — yes, he said this — because he won’t be giving “tax breaks to billionaires.”

OK, Sanders is mostly a single-message candidate. It’s his strength and his weakness. The intersection of Wall Street and income inequality has hit Democratic voters, especially young voters, especially voters in un-diverse Iowa and New Hampshire, exactly where they live. But now the race moves on, and the question is whether Clinton’s polling strengths among minority voters will change the race.

The Congressional Black Caucus PAC just endorsed her. John Lewis, the icon of living civil rights icons, said he knew Hillary and Bill Clinton from civil rights days, but had never met Sanders back then. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that Clinton’s Super PAC — I think you remember that Bernie doesn’t have one — is making a big cash buy that will attempt to tie Clinton ever closer to Obama.

So now Clinton seems to have found a message, if not a single message, of her own, for which Sanders has already fashioned his own singular reply: “One of us ran against President Obama. I was not that candidate.”

And this is how you’d expect it to go this year. You knew Obama would be central to the 2016 race. But who knew it’d be on the Democratic primary?


Clarification 2/14/2016: This story originally stated that the Congressional Black Caucus leadership group endorsed Hillary Clinton. To clarify, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC did, not the caucus itself. 

Photo credit: Creative Commons, Flickr. AFGE and Ted Eytan

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders win New Hampshire.

The winners in the New Hampshire primaries were, as you might have heard, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. In related news, the world has turned upside down.

Yes, it’s just as big as that.

Neither result was a surprise – for once the polls were dead on – but both results are still hugely shocking. The only question at this stage of the race is which party establishment is more panicked by which brand of populist (the Bernie kind or the billionaire kind).

As I write this, Sanders sits at around 60 percent of the vote and didn’t just win 85 percent – yes, 85 percent – of the 18 to 29 vote, he won men, he won women, he won dogs, he won cats, he beat the Clintons, he beat the hell-bent women-shamers, he beat establishment politics, he beat the odds. No, Bernie clobbered the odds. He might have even won the African-American vote if, in fact, New Hampshire had any African-Americans to speak of.

Worse, for those in the Democratic establishment anyway, the Sanders campaign has successfully tagged Hillary Clinton as a well-paid friend to Wall Street — a tag she will spend the rest of the campaign trying to figure out how to live down. Imagine how bad it would be if Sanders had actually gone negative. Instead, it was the Big Dog who went negative against Bernie, and you saw where that got the Clintons.

Yes, the smart money says that Clinton is still the heavy favorite, that she has a lock on the minority vote (Latinos in Nevada; blacks in South Carolina) and that, at some point, voters will figure out that Sanders can’t win in a general election. But who’s to say minority voters, given the chance, might not feel the Bern? Besides, once you lose New Hampshire by 20 points, as Clinton has, inevitability becomes a much harder sell.

Still, for those of us who dismissed Sanders as a summer fling – that might have been me — it’s now the dead of winter, Clinton may be shaking up her campaign, and by March 15, there will have been something like 30 more states in play. I don’t know that Sanders can keep up. I don’t know how he’ll sell in the South. I don’t know how he’ll sell in states where he’s still a relatively unknown quantity. But this kind of win guarantees at least a few things — that the race is going to last for a while and that Sanders’s message, which is attracting many millions of small donors and many millions of dollars, will get heard. In fact, he’ll be on Colbert tonight.

Which brings us to that other TV star — the Donald. After absorbing an embarrassing loss in Iowa, in which he apparently had either forgotten to put together a ground game or didn’t know what a ground game was, Trump came to New Hampshire as an official loser, which was supposed to put the whole Trump magic to rest. Sure, he still had the xenophobic, sexist, bigoted, wall-building, vulgarity-cheering vote to count on, but, he had to be wondering, would that be enough? Well, it turns out Trump didn’t just win. He doubled up on runner-up John Kasich and left all the would-be front-runners struggling for words (Jeb!: my campaign is “not dead”) and for air (Marco Rubio with his “it’s not on you, it’s on me”).

Trump, meanwhile, reverted to form, telling his supporters, in what amounts to the Trumpian ethos, “We are going to make our country so strong. We are going to start winning again. . . . We don’t win with anything. We are going to start winning again, and we are going to win so much, you are going to be so happy.”

OK, not everyone is happy. Imagine Trump as the GOP nominee. If you can’t, maybe you haven’t been paying enough attention. Something is going on, and no one knows quite what to do about it. New Hampshire was where the Republican elites hoped to find their establishment-lane candidate to rally around. Now, the same pundits who wrote endlessly about GOP lanes are deriding the whole concept. Kasich, who finished second, has little money and little appeal in the next group of states. As I write this, Jeb! is in fourth place, just ahead of Rubio, who was the anointed one before his disastrous debate performance, which he couldn’t quite, uh, dispel.

The hope for Republican elites is that Trump tops out at 35 percent, that he’s the beneficiary of a big field and that eventually the field will narrow. But the problem is that the one best placed to stop Trump is probably Ted Cruz. Let’s consider that again — if it’s not Trump, it could be Cruz. And yeah I’d give Republicans the edge in the panic face-off.

On the Democratic side, we know it’s routine for them to fall in love, at least briefly, with the true-believer lefty in the race. It’s unprecedented, though, when it’s a 74-year-old, don’t-stop-believin’, self-described socialist. Now Sanders’s call for political revolution has won him one state and nearly won him another and he gets a chance to prove that mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire are more than demographic flukes.

Meanwhile, it’s getting late and Clinton is still looking for a message that inspires voters. What she has always counted on is that as the longstanding enemy of Republicans, she’ll be embraced by most Democrats in the end.

So, can Clinton lose? Can Trump win?

History would say no in both cases. But at least for one night, it’s not clear that history has anything much left to say.


Photo credit: Phil Roeder, Creative Commons, Flickr.  Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr.


Of all Peyton Manning’s many remarkable career statistics, this one may be the most remarkable of them all:

When Manning inevitably announces his retirement sometime over the next few days or weeks, he will become only the second Hall-of-Fame-caliber quarterback in NFL history to have gone out on top, with a Super Bowl victory in his last game, with the storied sunset beckoning, with no more worlds to conquer.

John Elway was, of course, the other one. And the fact that it was Elway who recruited Manning here, with just that promise, makes it a storybook ending on top of a storybook ending  on top of, yes, a storybook ending.

Elway had to agonize before deciding to retire. You may remember his Hamlet-in-a-helmet tour. But Manning, who’s at the end of his contract, won’t have that problem. The Broncos have already said they’re moving in, you know, another direction. And no other team will pay a then-40-year-old-with-no-feeling-in-his-fingertips the kind of money that superstar quarterbacks who sing Nationwide jingles routinely earn.

Manning has no choice but to retire. In a Super Bowl that was supposed to match Manning, in his fading glory, with Cam Newton, in his nascent brilliance, we saw instead the NFL reveal itself in a sack-filled, quarterback-stripping tribute to ferocious defense. It was a violent reminder of the NFL’s problem with violent collisions, probably the last thing the league needed. In any case, Manning completed just 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards — not even a good half by Manning standards — to go with an interception, a fumble and five sacks. Newton fared little better.

But certainly Manning understands, as few understand, the way in which he now gets to frame the moment — how he won his second Super Bowl on guts, while dragging his famous right arm with him all the way to glory. What better ending?

When Elway was hired to become the Broncos’s general manager, some wise guy — OK, it was me — wrote of the great potential for small-t tragedy. No one, I wrote, gets two happy endings in life, not even born-to-be quarterbacks like Elway. There are limits, I said, and life, if you’re not careful, will make you pay for hubris.

I was wrong, of course. Very wrong. In four years, Elway has guided his Broncos to two Super Bowls, winning one, and now he not only has (sports-style) heroics to his resume, but also claims to being a (sports-style) genius. And Elway got there by making two incredibly risky decisions. The first was in winning the war to get Manning, who was set free by the Indianapolis Colts after those four neck surgeries, allowing Elway his one chance to dump the much-loved, if much-overrated-by-his-fans, Tim Tebow. And the second was in reducing Manning’s role when Elway saw, after the 43-8 Super Bowl loss to Seattle, that he needed more than the record-setting gunslinger to win another Super Bowl.

And so he fired a coach who had just won 13 games, hired a defensive coordinator who had been out  of a job for a year, spent every dime he could find (including a few he forced Manning to return to him) on defensive talent and built a more balanced offense and, more importantly, the best defense in the league. The defense owned the game, while making a claim as one of the best defensive teams in memory.

And there you have it: Manning, maybe the greatest quarterback of them all, who revolutionized the game, goes out top as a complementary player, as masterminded by one of the league’s other great quarterbacks, one who lost three Super Bowls before winning his last two.

Elway was also injured in his last season, but he never lost his job. If Manning did briefly lose his, it was only to make the story better once he got it back. He was booed, too, and maybe for the same reason. As we got to Super Sunday, though, no one with any respect for how storybook narrative works could have thought that Manning would go out any other way than with a victory (meaning you had to take the points).

You saw it play out in the awards ceremony. The MVP was either Von Miller or Beyoncé — both had stolen their part of the show – and Miller got his on-the-podium interview, as did Elway, but, in the end, it was Manning, after his night of often unsightly struggle, getting the final word.

That’s because Manning was the story — his life and his times and his ending. He can thank Elway and the defense for that. He can hope that he’s walking away without the game having done him any permanent damage. He can know that he’s walking away with two Super Bowl rings.

But even though Manning said he needs time to reflect on his future, we can be sure he has already made up his mind. Because in spite of his promise to drink a lot of Budweiser after the game, Peyton Manning knows, as some would say, exactly what he’s doing.


It was great theater, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an act.

I’m guessing Hillary Clinton actually believes that there’s too much big money in the political system, corrupting everything and everyone it touches — except, well, her. And that Bernie Sanders, if he were honest with himself, would know that, too.

It’s a theory. And, more than that, it was a strategy.

And it was a way, finally, for Clinton to answer the Wall Street/Goldman Sachs question, for which, if we’re honest, there is no good answer. In fact, we’ve seen her give inexplicably bad answers. It was 9/11 that made her do it. She was “dead broke.” And in the Wednesday night town hall, when asked about the $675,000 for three speeches, she shrugged and said that’s what they were offering. It was a gif and a gift.

But there we were one night later, in the second of the back-to-back episodes of the Bernie-Hill Show, the first of the many head-to-head debate confrontations to come, and Clinton was on the attack.

The situation was obvious. They had fought to a virtual tie in Iowa, Clinton seeming to have pulled out a tight win that included winning a series of coin flips, of all things, while losing more than 80 percent of the 18 to 29 vote. And now in New Hampshire, where she had come back to beat Barack Obama in 2008 despite trailing by 11 points — her comeback based on the still-recalled near-tear moment — she was now trailing someone everyone had once considered a fringe, one-message candidate by 20 points or more. She wasn’t just losing on enthusiasm. She was also losing on losing. In the year of the outsider, Clinton is pure establishment. And even in rejecting the label, she later name-checked Henry Kissinger, who — for those who may not remember him — was someone people who support Bernie routinely call a war criminal.

Sure, Clinton remains the heavy favorite to win the nomination, and liberal candidates routinely make futile runs, with varying levels of success, at Democratic establishment types (Dean, Bradley, Hart et al) but none of them was a self-described Democratic socialist who says, as Sanders did in the debate, that “The business model of Wall Street is fraud.”

How do you fight that? Does Clinton really want to debate the fairness of the American economic system with Sanders? But backed into a corner, Clinton did what you’d expect her to do — she came out swinging.

The debate began on the question of who is really the progressive in the party. Since Sanders is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist and Clinton is a mainstream Obama-style liberal, there’s really no debate, but we had one anyway. Clinton said that Bernie was the purist “gatekeeper” of all things progressive, and that by his definition, Obama, Biden and the late, great Paul Wellstone didn’t quality. This was part of her dreaming-is-fine, but-getting-things-done-is-what-really-matters tact.

It was working, for something like a half hour, although Sanders made his case for effecting real change, if not actually showing how to pay for it or how any of it might get passed through Congress short of Bernie’s political revolution. But if you watched the cranky old man with the unkempt hair and the Brooklyn accent, it’s no secret why those millennials searching for something or someone to believe in have picked Sanders.

And then came the Goldman Sachs question, and whether the Clintons could raise obscene amounts of money from Wall Street and get paid obscene amounts for making canned speeches and still be trusted to reform Wall Street.

Clinton faced at least two problems.  One is the fact of the money. I mean, it’s a lot of money, even these days — and for what? Everyone knows for what. And the second problem, the bigger problem, is judgment. How could anyone planning to run for president in 2016 fail to see how this would be used against her?

After all, there is no Bernie Sanders in this race without the issues of income inequality and big banks and the 1 percent. But it didn’t need to be Bernie. It could have been Elizabeth Warren. Actually, it could have been anyone. In this climate, Clinton would have been better off giving paid speeches in defense of the Oscars.

But this is Hillary Clinton we’re talking about. And so even if there isn’t a good answer, even if Sanders was standing there representing one of the nation’s few unsullied-by-money politicians, Clinton did what she could. She attacked. She accused Sanders of accusing her — and anyone else taking speaking fees or donations from “interest groups” — of being “bought.” She said she was tired of the “innuendo” and the “insinuation.”

“Enough is enough,” she said, talking directly to Sanders, who had that Bernie-eye-bulging-in-disbelief look on his face. “If you’ve got something to say, say it directly … I think it’s time to end the artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks, and let’s talk about the issues that divide us.”

Artful smear? By Bernie?

The crowd booed a little (and cheered a little), and it didn’t solve Clinton’s problem, but it did put Sanders on the defensive — he gave out a Bernie o-o-o-h and the eyes bulged.

If big money has corrupted Clinton, she wanted to know, show her some examples. She can point to the Wall Streeters and hedge funders who have funded attacks against her for decades. Wasn’t that proof whose side she was on?

Sanders didn’t attack Clinton. He could have, just as he could have on the emails. Instead, he attacked the system, insinuating, yes, that Clinton is part of the system.

Sanders: “Let’s talk about why, in the nineteen-nineties, Wall Street got deregulated,” Sanders said, going back to Bill’s Wall Street dance.  “Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street provided—spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions? Well, some people might think, yeah, that had some influence.”

As the debate headed into its second half, Bernie faltered on foreign policy — bringing everything back to Clinton’s 2002 vote on Iraq, allowing Clinton to get off the line that nothing that happened in 2002 will help us defeat ISIS today. There were a lot of “I think Secretary Clinton” is right answers, and if that’s all the debate you saw, you’d wonder why Bernie has been such a phenomenon.

It’s a year, looking back, in which someone like Sanders was inevitable. And now Clinton’s Wall Street problems of 2016 are not unlike her Iraq problems of 2008. And now we’re left wondering how she’s going to answer it next time.


Photo credit:MSNBC via Vox. 


The voters have finally spoken, and, in a surprise, at least to the pollsters, it turns out they had a lot to say.

First, they handed the Donald his first-in-the-nation loss, and to Ted Cruz at that. Trump gave a brief, humbled, un-Trump-like concession speech which made you wonder, now that his winners-win tour is over, if we shouldn’t have seen this coming.

Of course his poll numbers were bloated. What about him isn’t bloated? Of course he didn’t have the kind of on-the-ground organization that it takes to win in Iowa. He was too busy strapping on his gold-plated seat belt for the nightly Trump One flight back to New York. At least he didn’t call Iowa voters stupid, so that’s progress of a kind. But the question is whether Trump still gets the same Trump-like treatment from the media now that he is, in Trump’s understanding of the word, a loser.

The winner, of course, was Cruz. Despised by the Republican establishment, and by so many others, Cruz ran on the basis that being despised must mean he’s doing something right. In what other political season could that work? Yes, he also ran as the evangelical favorite in an evangelical-heavy state, but don’t mistake him for a Huckabee or a Santorum. He’s much closer to a Richard Nixon, winning by sending out fraudulent mailers and railing against New York values.

Still, the real GOP winner was third-place finisher Marco Rubio, or so we’re told, especially by Rubio. If you listened to his, uh, victory speech, you understand why people say he tends to get ahead of himself. But he did finish strong and he is the Republican most feared by Democrats, if not necessarily by Cruz or Trump. In what looks to be a three-way race, we can look forward to Cruz and Trump in their tag-team takedowns of Rubio’s Gang of 8 adventure and his adventures with a checkbook and whatever other vulnerable points the oppo boys can find.  (Poor Jeb! would surely love to join in, but after getting 3 percent! in Iowa, why would anyone listen?)

But at least Republicans know who finished one-through-three. The biggest story of the night was on the Democratic side, where Bernie Sanders forced Hillary Clinton into a virtual tie. If it wasn’t strictly a loss for Clinton, it might as well have been. Clinton said she was breathing the favorite’s “sigh of relief” while Sanders was telling the underdog’s story of how he had come to Iowa having “no political organization … no money …no name recognition, and we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America. And tonight, while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie.”

It allowed Sanders to say that Iowa was the beginning of a political revolution and leaving Clinton — who might end up with a slight advantage in delegate count on the basis of two coin flips – looking for the barricades.

The troubled Democratic establishment — yes, it was a bad night for any kind of establishment – – is now wondering what to do next. Bernie may have proved he’s for real, but that doesn’t mean, however, that a 74-year-old democratic socialist is going to be elected president. And so you can see the Democrats’ problem.

If many Democrats love Bernie and love Bernie’s passion but fear that Bernie can’t win, and if they don’t love Hillary and if Hillary is faced with a long slog against a message candidate and winds up too damaged to win, where does that leave them — other than with a cleared-for-Hillary field that doesn’t provide any alternatives? No Biden. No Warren. No time for a 1968-style Bobby Kennedy intervention. Even Martin O’Malley has dropped out.

Sanders gave a late-night charged speech designed to make sure everyone knew his victory was about something. To the young voters who overwhelmingly turned out for him — the entrance polls, which are like exit polls but different, say he received a remarkable 84 percent of the 18-to-29 vote — the electability argument must be something old people talk about. Sanders is winning the future, even among young women.

A Clinton win in Iowa, a convincing win anyway, was meant to put a quick end to this infatuation. Sanders would win in New Hampshire, where he has a home-field advantage, but Clinton, with expected strong support from minority voters, would then run off a long list of easy victories, and at least one dynasty would survive.

Now, the tie goes to the 74-year-old socialist who, politically speaking, had no business being anywhere close. And now Clinton, a losing veteran of the long slog, may be facing another. She’s still the heavy favorite to win, but it may not be as easy as that. She’s been favored plenty, and, in any case, winning isn’t enough. She also has to find a way to make the case that Sanders can’t achieve what he’s promising and, if she wants to win in November, find a way to sell Bernie’s young supporters on her own unradicalized version of the same message.

In her speech Monday night, Clinton couldn’t declare victory or any kind of revolution. Instead, after the tie vote,  she said how “excited” she was to continue the debate with Sanders. She even tried to look excited. For his part, Sanders, who tends to look more exercised than excited, is happy to debate, but wants a schedule that would have them on stage all the way until May. The voters in Iowa apparently wouldn’t have it any other way.


Photo credit: Michael Vadon, Creative Commons, Flickr; Marc Nozell, Creative Commons, Flickr; Marc Nozell, Creative Commons, Flickr; Phil Roeder, Creative Commons, Flickr