SOMETIMES FAITH TAKES OVER

I am generally a deeply cynical person when it comes to politics, but there is a part of me that is always trying to have a little bit of faith that they will get it right. That faith is rarely rewarded. In most cases giving the benefit of doubt upfront is just a recipe for future disappointment. I remind myself often to try – at least try – to give it anyway.

Waking up to the news that the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine has been put on hold due to what is being called a "rare disorder" involving blood clots in six recipients was pretty deflating. I think the vaccination drive can be successful with or without any specific company's product (it might take longer, but losing one brand wouldn't bring the whole process tumbling down) so even if it ends up withdrawn entirely I think we'll get past that. What is upsetting is the certainty that this will reinforce anti-vax sentiments in those already inclined toward skepticism, and no amount of data and reason will convince people that six reactions out of seven million (!!) recipients is lightning-strike level odds.

I am trying very hard to have faith that there was a good reason for this decision, and the CDC/FDA did not withdraw one of the vaccines over such a small number of reported adverse reactions. Because if that's truly all there is to the story, the harm they will do in giving fuel to anti-vax skepticism will outweigh any good they might do by studying these reactions. In my best impression of an optimistic person, here is the benefit-of-doubt version of why they might have good reason to do this: we are focusing on the wrong denominator. The total number of JNJ shots in the data pool is nearly 7 million, and 6 cases out of that is very few. However, if all six of the cases are from a specific sub-group in the population, it *may* be reasonable to sound some alarms.

Information is conflicting but it appears that these blood clots occurred in women age 18-50. That's a big demographic, but it's only a part of the overall population of data. This is especially true given that the elderly have been prioritized so far and are almost certainly overrepresented (maybe by a lot!) in the data. To take this to the point of being ridiculous, imagine that there were 6 blood clots out of 6,800,000 shots, but that all six occurred in left-handed 21 year old male Jews. There are obviously only a handful of people meeting that description in the pool, so six adverse reactions out of that small group could be legitimately worrying.

Now. The natural reaction is, OK why not keep giving the vaccine to everybody other than women 18-50. It seems unlikely that an announcement that a certain vaccine is dangerous for certain people would be ignored by the rest of the population. "There may be a problem with this vaccine" is a statement that most people will hear and draw conclusions without waiting for qualifiers. Even if reactions so far are limited to a sub-group, they may be playing it safe and taking it as a potential sign of larger problems.

That's the goodwill interpretation. I assume – I have to assume – that the people in charge of these decisions have a very good reason for having done this. The problem is, I think their risk modelling is entirely based on clinical data and might not account for the very real possibility of consequences beyond that – namely that the withdrawal could fuel a wave of negative sentiment among people on the fence about getting vaccinated. It doesn't require much in the way of an excuse to allow people to talk themselves out of something they don't really want to do anyway.

Ideally "Is this going to look bad?" isn't THE guiding principle for medical decision-making, but public health has the word public in it for a reason. Perceptions matter. If it does turn out that six adverse reactions was enough to prompt this kind of decision in the middle of a public health crisis, that will be…extremely unfortunate. That will seem, at least from our armchairs, like a bad or at least questionable decision. Introducing an element of doubt and distrust about the safety of vaccines into this equation is very costly, and I'd be willing to bet there's a raft of prescription drugs with a higher incidence of side effects. Yet those drugs are approved because it has been determined that the benefits outweigh the risks and costs. In this situation the risks and costs include perception, like it or not. And while I doubt the CDC models for skepticism and doubt – How could they? – it has to be considered here. The damage that is done in this case will be permanent, and no statements of reassurance later will wash away the now-durable perception that one of the vaccines is unsafe.

MAKE IT OBVIOUS

Mitt Romney recently proposed a plan for child care benefits that received a ton of positive attention – the quest for Good Republicans never rests – for being even more generous than the one Biden proposed. That's true only by some measures, and depending on which part of the benefit you decide is most important the Biden plan could be superior.

As is always the case with these things, Romney's proposal came with some pretty substantial fine print. The apparently generous plan would come at the expense of eliminating TANF and other direct-assistance programs aimed at the poor. This is a similar problem to Andrew Yang's early UBI proposals, which seemed like a great cash benefit until you realized it would replace, not be added to, almost every other social welfare program. So you're likely to be losing money overall. These details, even when they're not enormously complex, are hard for people to process. People like simple programs that are easy to understand.

In my view there is one and only one way in which the Romney plan is better, but it's crucial: he proposes administering the program through the Social Security Administration, whereas Biden's proposal, as is typical, would be through the IRS.

This has been an enormous problem for Democrats, I think, since the 1980s: all social and public policy must go through the tax code. There is a tactical reason for doing it that way, since it allows social policy to be framed as "tax cuts," and everybody likes tax cuts. Or at least things are harder for conservatives to attack if it can be framed as "tax relief for our hardest working blah blah blah."

Here's the problem, though: very few people are attentive enough to really grasp that a policy represents the government handing them a big pile of money when it happens via the annual filing of tax returns. This means that millions of people benefit from social welfare programs without realizing that they are benefitting from social welfare programs. How many homeowners really deduct their mortgage interest and property taxes from their income – saving themselves hundreds or thousands of dollars in the process – and think, "Wow, the United States Treasury just gave me ($500, $1000, whatever)?"

Nobody does. That is why for decades middle-class subsidies such as that have not been perceived as handouts, which they are. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is the same; it provides tons of assistance to millions of people, none of whom really grasp "The EITC gave me $2000 this year" or whatnot. When people get money refunded to them at tax time, it's likely to be mentally processed as "I overpaid the damn government and now they owe me some of my money back."

Instead, imagine that the property tax and mortgage interest deductions, as well as the EITC, were replaced with an envelope that arrived on the 15th of every month with a stack of $100 bills and a letter reading, "Here is your payment for the (insert name here) benefit which Congress has appropriated for you under (law). This is a benefit. It is intended to alleviate the costs of (child care, home ownership, etc)."

Try that and tell me it wouldn't make people feel differently over five or ten years than the standard byzantine process of filing a tax return and the black box spitting out a refund (or asking for more). When a person gets an annual tax refund it isn't immediately clear what that money represents – I must have overpaid! – and lacks a connection to any specific program or policy. Whatever Congress eventually decides to do to provide a child care benefit, people must be made unambiguously certain that they are receiving a child care benefit to the tune of $3000 per year or whatever. Maybe that feels crass to you, instinctively, and your instinct is to say "Taking credit for helping doesn't matter, as long as they are helped."

But providing this kind of stealth social welfare is a big part of how readily Americans are hypocrites on that issue, slamming "welfare" and the government taking from Me to hand the money to Thee. Rebuilding faith in government and the social welfare state is going to begin with the very simplest step of making sure people are made aware of how much the government is already giving them, and doing for them. You will never convince everyone with that tactic, of course. Some people will still say "Bullshit, it's my money anyway until you stole it from me." But there are a lot of people out there benefitting from programs that they simply don't perceive as welfare policies that put money in their pocket.

Social policy AS SOCIAL POLICY, not disguised as tax policy, needs to make a comeback. I'm frankly stunned that Mitt Romney would be the person to propose such a thing, but whether or not he realizes that avoiding the IRS is consequential it very much is. Programs like Social Security and Medicare endure because enough people like them, and people like them because it is immediately and directly obvious what Social Security and Medicare give them. When people can see the benefits they will fight to keep them. When it's all invisible and in the background and feels like little more than a number punched into TurboTax, they won't. They'll continue to benefit while perceiving themselves solely as payers and never as the payee.

BUY LOCAL, BUT ALSO FUCK OFF

One of the pains in the ass of moving to a new place is finding a new one of all the basic things you don't need often but need more often than Never. Eye doctors are a great example. Is the eye doctor an integral part of your life, your thoughts, and your routine? No. But you do need to see one annually, or whatever.

I chose a local optometrist essentially at random and got my eye exam. Lots of euphemisms were used to avoid telling me, "You're aging so your vision will continue to get weaker." Very kind of him. Like most people I have no vision insurance, so the exam was paid for out of pocket.

I understand that most optometrists make their money not by doing eye exams but by selling glasses; lenses, frames, or both. There's a healthy markup involved, which we all know now because we can compare the prices the brick-and-mortar optometrist charges with internet prices. What they desperately want their patients to do, of course, is to buy the glasses from them before they go home and order them online for less money. I get it. It's how they make their cash.

This place hit me (and presumably all customers) with a heavy dose of "Support your local small business please" including putting a large gold sticker bearing that phrase on my prescription – no doubt aimed at inducing some pangs of guilt when I entered my prescription online. Fortunately for them, I prefer not to order stuff online when I can buy the same thing locally with minimal effort. So they didn't need to preach at me, I was prepared to pay higher than Discount Eye Place Dot Com prices to, well, obey the sticker.

My better half had already purchased frames for me as a birthday gift. Lovely. So, I said, I'll be a lenses-only customer. I've bought glasses both online and from brick-mortar shops before. I know what lenses cost, roughly. Same with frames.

Based on my prescription for progressive lenses, the price they quoted me was – I shit you not here – $1060 plus tax. Just for the lenses. $1100, essentially. It turned into a Monty Python routine for a second, me asking him to repeat it twice to make sure I wasn't mishearing him or having a stroke.

I looked calmly at him, not sure if I should start laughing, and said, "No. No, that's not what lenses cost." And then I walked out and went home. Tried several places online. All prices were between $200-300. It suddenly felt like they were asking me "Please buy local!" with a big smile, but also giving me the finger with that price.

Look. I get it. Online is always cheaper because their overhead is minimal. I was prepared for it to cost more. But…not three or four times more. That's just dumb. And the thing that really irritated me is: You know goddamn well they aren't making those lenses in-house. They're being made somewhere else – maybe even at the exact same Lens-o-Matic Factory all the online places use to manufacture their lenses! – and shipped out. It's farmed out to the lowest cost supplier.

The only rational explanation I could concoct is that perhaps the local universities (the megaemployers of the region) have vision insurance plans and the optometrists maximize their prices according to the limits of what those insurers will cover. If Vision Insurance says they reimburse up to $1060 for lenses, then I guess why the hell not charge $1060 for lenses. The customer (with insurance) certainly doesn't care. Other than this hypothetical I'm just baffled as to how that place ever sells a pair of glasses.

We are constantly put in the awkward and untenable position of being told we are responsible for things we do not actually have the power to fix – that *we* must save our small businesses, but at the same time being confronted with an economic reality that compels us to seek out low prices. You're a bad person if you shop online rather than at your local stores, but finding a way to make ends meet keeps getting harder. I don't *have* $1100 to spend on anything right now, let alone plastic lenses I can get for 1/3 or 1/4 the price.

I don't have any solutions here, only that helpless feeling of consuming in a way I am well aware is bad but not being able to afford the alternative of doing it the good way. I don't blame this one optometrist's office for the economics of healthcare or vision care in the United States, and no part of me wants to see them suffer. At the same time, the Please Buy Local principle has to be priced at a level people can actually afford.

2020 LIEBERMAN AWARD WINNER: RON DeSANTIS

(Ed: please see the previous post for a discussion of how the choices for this year were narrowed down. See also Jeb Lund in the New Republic, who scooped me on DeSantis as the Least Valuable Player of 2020. We did not coordinate this; I guess DeSantis just really stood out.)

Ron DeSantis is the poster child for how this country failed during the pandemic. Yes, Donald Trump is bad. Yes, Congress is bad. But the day-to-day impact of the pandemic on our lives was 99% dictated by state and local governments. They decided what was open and what was closed; how schools would teach our kids; what unemployment relief would be available for the out-of-work; what public health recommendations or requirements would be enforced; how seriously the government would take contact tracing and other steps to mitigate the spread of the virus; what help was available to the professionals whose jobs obligated them to deal directly with sick people.

Every one of these decisions was made by your mayor, your town council, your governor, your state legislature. Despite our tendency to focus on national politics, the decisions made in Congress mostly amounted to what sort of financial aid would be offered to the other units of government responsible for dealing with this. Trump illustrated a failure of leadership, and his refusal to treat the issue seriously or attempt (even despite limited presidential powers) to coordinate some kind of coherent, consistent nationwide response cost many lives. But state governors and big-city mayors were particularly well-positioned to ignore him and make different choices. Most did. Ron DeSantis didn't. As if taking daily directives from right-wing media and Facebook comment sections, DeSantis and his state full of vulnerable older people did everything wrong. Literally everything. There wasn't one thing that could have been done from the Governor's mansion to make the pandemic worse in Florida that DeSantis did not do.

DeSantis is what he looks like, which is a mediocre hack with the intelligence of a golden retriever (seriously, just look into his eyes and tell me there's anything going on behind them) who, like that breed of dog, excels at showing the one characteristic necessary for preferment and advancement in an authoritarian organization: loyalty. Slavish, brainless, dog-like loyalty. And like a young Communist apparatchik attaching his lips to Stalin's ass in the hopes of being noticed and blessed with favor, DeSantis' time in the governor's mansion has been devoted to aligning himself with the Trump movement that he expects – correctly, as it appears – to become the driving force in the GOP over the next decade or more.

While many Republican leaders were and are happy to placate Trump or the OANN crowd rhetorically – calling covid the "china virus" and downplaying its seriousness and whatnot – the game they talked was not necessarily the game they played. But DeSantis, he didn't just mouth the words. He acted like he believed every single word of it. He didn't say "Schools should be open" simply because he thought it would please Trumpers, which it certainly did. He is that kind of uniquely blank mental slate that can digest and believe his own bullshit; he is effective as a propagandist because there is no mechanism in his brain that prevents him from absorbing the propaganda and treating it as the truth.

What truly separates DeSantis from the pack, though, is his year-long campaign to withhold information – at different times attempting to conceal data about infections and deaths in nursing homes, then hospitals, then schools. Throughout 2020 DeSantis attempted to further the propaganda goals – open the schools, "reopen the economy," carry on life as if nothing is happening – by the classic authoritarian trick of simply withholding or falsifying data. All year long he muzzled local public health officials, ordered state-level public health officials to clam up, and, in the run-up to the November election, simply stopped reporting covid cases and deaths (which both "mysteriously" fell in the preceding weeks). He attacked people who spoke out or blew the whistle. He refused to make even the tiniest and least controversial concessions to reality – releasing bare-bones data about school district infection rates, for example – without the concerted efforts of whole communities.

DeSantis is, in short, the archetype of what the Republican Party is now: rich, incredibly stupid pricks simply making up their own reality without any reference point in the world around them. If you don't want covid to be a problem, just don't count the deaths or infections and you won't have a covid problem. If you don't feel like changing anything, just insist that it's fine to carry on life as normal. Think it into being. Again, many Republicans and many Americans talked the talk, but we've shown part of our incredible powers of hypocrisy lately with the vaccines – people who expressed skepticism about the virus all year were and are more than happy to barge to the front of the line to get protected from it. DeSantis, like Trump, is the rare example of someone who actually seems to believe the things he said all year. It's 2021 and there's zero indication that DeSantis has any sense of covid being real or dangerous. He actually believes the shit churned out by the right-wing media to entertain the angry and the feeble-minded.

In a situation that called for the kind of Leadership Cosplay Americans eat up – look at how much mileage Andrew Cuomo got out of simply holding daily press conferences in which he acted like he was taking the virus seriously – DeSantis managed to be the only governor whose public approval went down due to covid. We saw people who were dead in the political water like Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer experience a 10-15 point leap in approval simply by doing the absolute bare minimum of attempting to take the pandemic seriously. DeSantis didn't. And he didn't in a way that was more consistent and sincere than anyone else in a similar position. He neglected to take it seriously *and* actively took steps to make it worse. When doing something would have helped he did nothing. When doing nothing would have helped he did something and made it worse.

Congratulations, Ron DeSantis. You are a shining example of everything that made 2020 unnecessarily horrid for everyone. You're a real piece of shit, in the finest tradition of the Lieberman Award. I hope you fall down the stairs.

SPOILED FOR CHOICE

The time draws near for the annual Lieberman Award winner, the world's foremost award for being the absolute worst human being in a calendar year. And while I could (and do) plausibly say this every year, looking at the past 12 months leaves me wondering where even to begin.

No, seriously. How do I even start to sort through all the bad things that happened this year and the people responsible for them.

It is too easy and too trite to simply do Trump every year. I am of the school of thought that Trump is a symptom of all that's wrong with our politics and our society, not a unique or aberrant manifestation of something that had to be forced on (at the very least) a large minority of Americans. To focus exclusively on Trump is to suggest – wrongly – that ridding ourselves of Trump solves the fundamental problem. It does not, and I think the actions of a lot of people over the past four years (and especially recently) demonstrate how much bigger than him our problem is.

Similarly, it seems a major stretch to give the award to anyone in opposition, no matter what mistakes or misjudgments they're responsible for. To say "Well the Democrats didn't do a very effective job of fighting Trump"…it may be true, but the structure of the sentence alone is enough to show where the real problem lies. Yeah, they need to get their heads out of their asses quickly and figure out how to prevent Trump or something worse than him from returning to power in 2024. But truly the worst people? Not in the running.

There's also a temptation to start casting around the media, since the elite end of that industry did such a comprehensively terrible job in 2020. It's as if they set out to prove how little they learned from 2016. However, a substantial part of the media was committed to providing accurate information about the pandemic; as low of a bar as that is, the non-right wing media certainly could have made things worse by indulging the kind of both-sidesism they bring to their political reporting. As for right-wing outlets like OANN or Fox, what's the point. They did nothing more or less than what they always do and what anyone could have expected them to do.

The strongest temptation is to point the finger at millions of Americans who refused to take the pandemic seriously for their own ignorant or selfish reasons, but I found myself pulling up at the last second. Yes, people are idiots. But there are people in this country whose job it is to keep this ship afloat notwithstanding how dumb people are. I believe that people were as dumb as they were permitted to be; you can't have state and local governments (to say nothing of the national) telling people "Be safe" while issuing mask "recommendations" and reopening bars and restaurants because nobody wanted to pony up to provide financial support to businesses or individuals. When basic public health precautions are "recommendations," you have left the door open for people to be idiots. When you permit bars and hotels and vacation resorts to be open and eventually full of idiots, the idiots did nothing more than what idiots could be expected to do. The more important question than "Why are these people so dumb?" is why we made it so incredibly easy for people to do the dumbest possible things throughout all of this. To call the signals governments sent during the pandemic "mixed" is an understatement.

So, ultimately that is where I ended up focusing, where my gaze kept falling over and over: on state and local elected officials, the people most directly responsible for the rules that dictated what would and would not take place, what individuals could and could not do. For better or worse, neither the president nor Congress has the power simply to order everyone to stay home, to open or close the schools, to let people go to bars, to require certain public health precautions. They blew it. You can point to examples of people who did a better job than most, or even a few who did legitimately well. But as a group, they failed miserably, torn between the desire to "be safe" and also to reopen everything as fast as humanly possible. They did what universities did – for financial reasons they brought undergraduates to campus under ridiculous – like, patently ridiculous – plans to prevent contagion and then when the plans that obviously were never going to work did not work they wagged their fingers and said "Gosh, you students blew it." No, the decision-makers who came up with such an abysmal plan that it relied on tens of thousands of 19 year olds behaving completely responsibly at all times blew it. Blaming individuals is easy and often makes people feel good. But it's misguided. The people who define the choices and the options available to people, they are where we should focus.

IT WORKED, WHY ARE YOU SAD

Biden won, or will win shortly, but nobody seems very happy. That's understandable. The next four weeks and then the next four years are going to be miserable. Everyone can see it.

But what many of you really wanted was some big blowout, a massive repudiation of Trump. You didn't get it. It's disappointing and it has undermined your faith in your fellow voters.

Here is the thing, though: despite the criticism I leveled at the Biden campaign throughout – I felt it was far too safe and conservative an approach, it worked. It worked exactly like the people who came up with the idea to beat Trump with Biden set out to do. Biden was a careful, safe, unambitious play to win back (narrowly) some states Hillary Clinton lost very, very narrowly in 2016 – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. And it worked. That is what happened. Amazingly, a campaign that aimed low and didn't make big promises and that made an appeal amounting to "Hey, Trump's bad, that guy's bad, I'll be better!" managed to add Arizona to the Democratic column. In light of what an amorphous, no-promises campaign they ran, it's incredible they did as well as they did.

You cannot get a big nationwide forty-state blowout simply by showing up. They chose what they felt was the safest path to defeating Trump – pick an old, smiling white male, have him promise not to change much of anything, and win back states they lost in 2016 by less than the margin of error. To get a big nationwide blowout would require a similarly big, bold, ambitious campaign offering voters some big alternative vision, not "Let's get back to the way it used to be."

All I'm saying is, you can have Joe Biden as the nominee, running a conservative campaign that wins back the margins, or you can have a nationwide blowout a la Ronald Reagan in 1984. You can't have both. You got what you wanted; he won. Expecting him to win spectacularly was completely out of line with the campaign that he ran or with the choice of Biden as the nominee. Democrats have proven, notably in 2016, that voters in some places are more than a little lukewarm toward their ideological worldview. You can't simply expect everyone to get enthused about it and bury Trump by 20 points when the nominee's key attribute, even according to allies, is that he'll keep the seat warm.

THREE OUTCOMES

At any moment I am persuaded by one of the following three outcomes tomorrow, depending on my mood and the last piece of information I thought about.

First and foremost, since about a billion people have asked, yes of course I voted for Biden I live in possibly the most competitive swing state. You all know my theory about voting; it's an instrumental act, not a venue through which we engage in the expression of our deepest selves. The problem with a lot of people is that voting for the guy isn't good enough, they also expect people to act excited about it and refrain from any criticism. Mostly I think that's pure projection. You have your own doubts and you lash out at people who verbalize them. Having doubts is understandable. Liberals and Democrats as a whole all still feel burned from 2016 when it seems very few people (myself included) saw it coming. There will always be doubts.

So, here's what I think could happen tomorrow, bearing in mind that 95 million people – a truly staggering number, about 2/3 of the 137 million who voted in 2016 – have already voted.

The most likely outcome is this conservative electoral projection of Biden coming in at 290. Essentially, I believe the election comes down to Michigan and Wisconsin. If Biden wins both, in accord with his current narrow polling leads in both states, there is virtually no way for Trump to win. In this projection I'm giving Trump a *lot* of benefit of doubt, giving him Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa. And Biden can choke, lose one more important state (Arizona? Wisconsin?) and still win in this scenario. However, having one state be the difference between victory and defeat would be a bad outcome, since that would greatly increase the odds that some kind of Republican chicanery could swing the outcome.

In a scenario where Biden wins 290+ EV, I think Trump makes a colossal amount of noise – no matter what, he will scream until the day he dies that he was cheated in this election – but ultimately goes away. It will just be an extremely unpleasant 80-90 days. Most of the GOP seems to be expecting to lose the White House; McConnell has said as much out loud. I think they're perfectly content as a party to spend a couple years from the minority turning a Biden presidency into a complete disaster. They're good at it.

Remember that at his core, Trump does not put effort into anything, does not have the attention span to pull off a long, grueling post-election process, and doesn't even like having to do this job. Slinking away, crying foul, and cashing in on a central role in the right-wing media universe would suit him fine. As for the psychology of refusing to admit he lost, he will simply get around that by refusing to admit he lost.

A second possibility is that in multiple states the election is so close that nobody knows for days or weeks who really won. This is, from Trump's perspective, as good as a win. We saw in 2000 how good the right is at muddying the waters, sowing doubt, calling into question the validity of results, and general election-thieving. Trump will declare victory immediately while Biden will make some "appeal for calm" saying it's too soon to know who won, and that will be the first step to Biden losing in this scenario. A big part of W's success in 2000 was simply declaring that he won and acting like he was the winner for a month. That matters. The best case for Biden in this "bunch of super close states" scenario is winning the election in a series of court decisions and governing under a pall of illegitimacy. Of course Trump would too, but the right doesn't care about appearing legitimate while liberals tend to.

The third possibility is that all of the available data is badly flawed and Trump simply wins outright tomorrow. Everybody has been so focused on the potential for the GOP to steal the election that it appears not to have been considered that Trump might not have to. I do not subscribe to theories which posit that every poll is wrong and every polling error is in the same direction. Nor do I believe that the big Democratic edge in early voting is totally irrelevant. Republicans are currently pushing the narrative that people secretly support Trump but are too "shy" to say so. Have you met one Trump supporter, ever, who wasn't screaming the fact directly in your face? Anyway, there have been multiple analyses of the "shy Trumper" theory and there appears to be no empirical support for it whatsoever.

As for when we will know which scenario we face, I believe it will be apparent more quickly than many people are fearing. I've seen "end of the work day on Wednesday" proposed as a reasonable deadline to know who won unless the outcome is very, very close. There will be various courtroom challenges to follow immediately regardless of what happens. That is unavoidable. But remember, as I've been reminding you for a while, the "steal the election in court" gambit only works, maybe, if you have to flip one state. If Trump has to do it in like five places simultaneously it seems extremely unlikely.

Frankly, and I know many of you don't want to hear this, but if the Democrats couldn't come up with a candidate and campaign that could defeat this absolute moron by more than a tiny fraction of votes in multiple states at once, then why in god's name did they choose this candidate and this campaign strategy. But I don't think it will come to a debate like that. I think Trump won very narrowly in 2016 – more narrowly than anyone recalls accurately – and it's a real stretch to claim that one out of every 100 people who voted for him last time will not be voting for him again. He won by so little in a couple of states that he can afford no loss of support at all. I know Trumpers are loyal, but I see no reason to believe that no one – literally no one – gave him a "Well, why not!" vote in 2016 and didn't like what they saw. Whether those people abstain or hold their nose and vote for Biden, it helps Biden.

Overall, I think a lot of liberals are convinced that Trump is some kind of absolute evil genius and that no matter what happens, he will win, somehow. That reflects the trauma from the surprise defeat in 2016. In reality I see a guy who is an awful, awful politician who ran a ridiculous campaign and has a fanatically loyal but probably not big enough core of supporters. If Trump does win after the way he not only governed but campaigned in 2020, this country is farther gone than any of us imagine.

What I believe you're going to see is similar to 2018 – the Democrats will have an overall win but maybe it won't be the big blowout you were hoping for to restore your faith in your fellow Americans. Because let's be honest, what you're hoping to see is a massive repudiation of Trump and what he stands for. The more likely outcome is that he loses by a solid but unspectacular number of votes because he is terrible at politics and especially terrible at campaigning. It will be, despite all the noise and chaos of the next three months, pretty boring on paper.

I hope.

EVERYTHING MOVED AROUND US

I think Americans, as individuals and as the institutions we create, are very bad at learning lessons from our mistakes. The media, for example, appears to have learned very little from its plethora of mistakes in covering Trump during the 2016 election. Here we are four years later, with all of the consequences clear, and they made an effort last week to circulate this patently ludicrous – really, it makes no sense whatsoever – "Biden laptop" scandal from the New York Post, an organ renowned for its careful investigative journalism and integrity.

The thing is, it hasn't gone anywhere. 90% of Americans have no idea what right-wingers are shrieking about when they say "Burisma," 8% think it's a soccer team, and the remaining 2% are addicts of (or grifters from) the Trump Cinematic Universe who nobody listens to outside of those confines. It's a non-story, despite the fact that Trump is flogging it with all his might and major media outlets gave it some air last week.

I doubt Americans have soberly internalized the details of the story and, after careful consideration, rejected it as implausible. I believe that on a more basic level, Trump has shot himself in the foot by unintentionally raising the bar for what counts as a "scandal" that rises to a level that our political discourse will actually pay attention to it. Once you've experienced all the things Trump has done over the past four years, he is finding (to his own detriment) that getting anybody to give a shit about some supposed email on supposedly Hunter Biden's laptop. The "Her Emails" thing that worked so well in 2016, or at least seemed to work well, now seems quaint to the point of comedy. For four years Trump stretched to the breaking point what would be tolerated as acceptable or even normal in American politics, and now he's discovering too late what every performer who relies on shock value learns: the dose must always be increased to have the same effect.

Here in North Carolina we see an even clearer example, with the revelation of embarrassing text messages by the Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, which the flailing, unpopular incumbent leapt upon like a life preserver. Certainly nobody would argue that what Cunningham did is awesome, but the story simply had no staying power. Beyond that, Cunningham's poll numbers actually went up – not because it somehow helped him to be publicly humiliated, but because the "scandal" simply didn't register at all. That classic political scandal, marital infidelity, seems silly and frivolous now to any voter who wasn't desperately looking for a reason to hate Cunningham in the first place.

I don't think we will ever go back. Things that would have been campaign- or career-ending in 1990 just aren't going to move the political dial anymore. There are too many other things on the table for voters right now (and remember that the average person will devote only limited attention to politics) for anyone to get excited about the mildly interesting titillation of a "politician cheats on wife" storyline. Maybe compared to the dullness of, say, the Jimmy Carter years such a thing might be leapt upon by voters and the media as a rare interesting tidbit in otherwise boring politics. Now, Trump got what he wanted. He vastly increased public tolerance for political malfeasance, which is what all autocrats want because it makes it easier for them to steal with impunity. But in getting what he wanted, he also let all the air out of the only thing in electoral politics he or the right-wing noise machine really know how to do.

BAD TIMING

The House hinted Thursday afternoon, then leaked Thursday evening, a plan to form a commission as part of the procedures outlined in the 25th Amendment. The stated purpose would be to determine if the President is fit to serve, which we all know he is not (by any number of criteria).

Look. You know me, Mister "Do Something!" But the timing on this is just…it's spectacularly bad.

The election is in three weeks. It really, really looks like Biden is going to win and maybe even win by a substantial amount. He has received a real boost – remember, the main message of his candidacy is "Are you sick of this asshole? I promise I'll be nice and boring and normal!" – from Trump's utterly unhinged and very likely drug-addled behavior of the first week of October.

Like impeachment, the 25th Amendment idea is dead on arrival because it simply isn't going to get the votes in the Senate. I do not understand at all the political value of reintroducing the idea of removing Trump by means other than the election right before the goddamn election. I strongly believe the House mishandled impeachment, approaching it "quick and narrowly" to win GOP votes (LOL) and to avoid letting a protracted House trial … uh I think their logic was it would create a backlash of support for the President. Whatever. They did what they did and it didn't work.

Now, when Trump really does seem to have effectively dug his own grave with his behavior and with his mystifyingly bad campaign (Ads in California! No ads in Iowa! Whatever man!) they're doing something Trump really, honestly could use to build some minor last-minute "Look what they're trying to do to me" sympathy.

Make absolutely no mistake: the country writ large may finally have turned on Donald Trump, but they don't especially like Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi either. Biden has successfully made a "Hey, I'm not so bad compared to that guy!" case, which frankly I wasn't sure he could do. When we are just arriving at the point where it seems highly unlikely that Trump could reverse his current downward trajectory, the Democrats should not even be thinking about doing anything to change the narrative. Focus on voter turnout and Trump should be DOA (the specter of fraud and post-election chicanery is another matter).

Proposing a commission to declare the president insane that will die in the Senate serves absolutely no purpose at this point – certainly none positive, and in the worst case it could serve a negative one. If there was a time for this, it was years ago when it could have mattered, but of course probably wouldn't because of the GOP hold on the Senate and party-wide commitment to ride Trump down to the bottom.

This is just stupid. It is grandstanding, and it's not even good or useful grandstanding. It comes at the moment at which the absolute last thing the Democrats appear to need is grandstanding. Congratulations, you're winning. I think you finally got this guy. Don't start thinking now. Just let him finish himself off without offering the lifeline of potential martyrdom at the hands of people only marginally less hated than himself.

FRACKED IF YOU DO

At a recent CNN event Anderson Cooper accused Biden of "trying to have it both ways" on fracking (check out my minicast on nuclear fracking, btw) by refusing to condemn the practice but also promising to be the anti-climate change / pro-environment president. Biden's position, which he clarified, proved Cooper correct: he doesn't want to ban fracking, but he wants to stop issuing new fracking permits. That's supposed to make everyone happy, but of course in reality it just gives everyone something to point at and be dissatisfied.

I'm not criticizing Biden; I point this out because I think fracking is the ideal example of a trap issue for Democrats. Forget all the "culture wars" stuff. Fracking, and environmental issues in general, do a superior job of positioning them between a rock and a hard place. Pun intended.

On the one hand, you have environmental voters and younger people who are convinced that the climate crisis is real and imminent. They want bold, immediate action to address it. On the other hand, you have the working class and organized labor constituencies who see the reality that oil & gas industry work is some of the last well-paid blue collar work left in this country. If you don't believe me, take a trip through North Dakota and look at how $60+ per hour (dirty, dangerous) fracking jobs have transformed that state's economy and population.

What do you really expect a candidate to do in these economically depressed midwestern and plains states, not to mention out west: walk into town and say "Hey I see you finally got something going here, got some money coming in, got some steady work. Well, I promise to shut it all down!" At the same time, "Let's just ignore this climate change stuff" is…well, it may not be a politically suicidal message but it's actually suicidal. In the non-metaphorical sense. Older people mostly don't care, but it's increasingly being recognized as a life-and-death problem. A crisis, even.

The only way to play it, in theory, would be to promise to transition people from economically positive but environmentally destructive work like fracking to economically positive, environmentally positive industries. Promise them high-paying jobs in different lines of work, and deliver. The problem is the Democrats have played this card before – hell, Bill Clinton campaigned on "Your job will go away but we'll get you an even better job" in 1992. People have long memories and they simply don't believe it anymore. For this to work, there will have to be something tangible to show voters. Democrats, when in power, will actually have to do it. Then and only then they can plausibly go to voters and say, look at this. This is the deal. We will do this for you like we did it for X, Y, and Z.

That will mean an end to derisively referring to plans to make the economy work in favor of the environment as "the green dream or whatever." And most of all it will require that thing the modern Democratic Party seems to dread the most – long-term thinking. They'll have to admit that they can't please everyone in the short-term and work toward presenting voters with an everyone-pleasing option in the near future. Because right now this is a trap and there's no good way out of it. The solution is to work to avoid being in the same trap in the future.