Friday Talking Points [342] -- Chasing The Scooby Van

[ Posted Friday, April 17th, 2015 – 17:11 PDT ]

Strange but true, the "Scooby van" is now part of our political lexicon. Hillary Clinton herself is apparently to blame for this one, as this was the playful name she came up with for the van she used to get from New York to Iowa this week. The media, as it will be doing for the next year and a half over pretty much any new aspect of Hillary Clinton's campaign (and we do mean "any new aspect at all -- even the laughably trivial"), quite predictably, freaked out.

Looking at the "Scooby van" through the lens of talking points (as we are wont to do, here), we have to say that one thing struck us about Hillary's choice: her inattention to the proper geeky level of detail. Ask any Scooby Doo fan, and they'll tell you the van in question was actually called "The Mystery Machine." Hillary is showing the same level of cultural tone-deafness as when she flubbed her big opening line, saying: "Live from New York, it is Saturday Night!" She may not have been the only guest host in the entire history of the show who failed to properly say "it's" instead of "it is," but she sure was the first one we ever noticed, cringing all the while. Hillary's getting plenty of other grief this week, over all sorts of microscopic things (our favorite: Jimmy Kimmel's alternate logos for Hillary), so we'll quickly move on from that sort of thing. We wouldn't want to get trampled by the rest of the media, chasing after the Scooby van, to put it another way.

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Death And Television

[ Posted Thursday, April 16th, 2015 – 17:10 PDT ]

No, even though "tax day" was yesterday, that title is not a pun on the two inevitable things in life (although, now that I think about it, it certainly could be used in such a fashion). It is meant, instead, to be read literally.

The question of when it is permissible to show death on television is in the news today because of a scathing commentary by Jon Stewart over the media's relentless showing -- unedited, unpixelated, and in full -- the recent video of a man shot in the back while running from a cop. Stewart didn't get into several aspects of the editorial decision to run the video, instead he was mostly focused on what he called turning the video "into screensaver mode... running as background wallpaper in your discussion," on cable news shows. He then detailed why he was so annoyed:

Listen, news media, turning the last moments of someone's life into 'newzac' that just plays in the backgrounds of discussions slowly robs those images of their power. And more importantly the people in the videos of their humanity. And we've gotta nip this trend in the bud, because unlike Blockbuster, these types of videos ain't going away.

Fair enough. But I take a slightly different position. I must admit that I, too, was rather surprised at the news media running the clip unedited, but mostly because it was so rare for them to do so. I've commented on two aspects of television and death previously, so a quick review is in order first.

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Is The Marijuana Vote Up For Grabs?

[ Posted Wednesday, April 15th, 2015 – 17:29 PDT ]

There are very few political issues today which have not already become firmly entrenched along the same basic party lines that all our other political issues hew towards. In most cases, it's a matter of "Democrats believe X, while Republicans insist on Y." On one issue, though, there is a sizeable (and growing) bloc of voters who are not only cross-partisan but also so committed they could be called "single-issue voters." I'm speaking of the marijuana vote. And it could be up for grabs next year.

Being for marijuana reform has become an all-or-nothing thing these days. It used to be that the pro-reform people would eagerly accept tiny incremental changes. That is no longer true, because voters across America now have the examples of four states and the District of Columbia where recreational marijuana is legal for adults to use as they see fit. In none of these jurisdictions has the sky actually fallen, it now almost goes without saying. Much like the shift in the gay rights movement from demanding civil unions to accepting nothing less than full marriage equality, in 2016 the shift among pro-marijuana voters is also going to be profound, because legalization is now an achievable reality for them to fight for. Medical marijuana is a weak and unsatisfactory substitute nowadays, in other words.

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Rubio Goes All In

[ Posted Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 – 15:10 PDT ]

Yesterday, Senator Marco Rubio became the fourth candidate to officially announce his intentions for the 2016 presidential run. He now joins Ted Cruz and Rand Paul in his own party, and Hillary Clinton across the aisle, as official candidates. I have to say, one thing about Rubio's candidacy is impressive, even if you don't agree with anything the man stands for. Rubio is going "all in," in poker terms. If he doesn't win his party's nomination and go on to win the White House, then he will almost certainly be out of a job when the dust settles. That shows a degree of commitment that few other politicians ever make these days, casting aside a cushy Senate seat for the chance at becoming president. As in poker, he's shoved all his chips to the middle of the table for one bet that could leave him at the top or flat broke. And, I have to say, that in and of itself is an admirable thing.

Marco Rubio will be an interesting candidate for other reasons, as well. At the moment, it is impossible to tell whether his strongest assets might turn out to be his biggest weaknesses as well, which always makes for an interesting campaign. Rubio's announcement, planned for weeks, kind of got its parade rained on by Hillary Clinton announcing a day earlier. Rubio deftly played off Hillary's announcement in his own, though, portraying himself as a young fresh voice in contrast to old and stale -- both directly linking Hillary Clinton to this description as well as implying that the same applied to Jeb Bush. Rubio is "tomorrow," fighting against the entrenched forces of "yesterday," which is always an impressive political trick to pull off for any politician. Voters, especially in presidential contests, are indeed thinking about the future more than interested in refighting past battles. Rubio, so far, is the youngest person in the race, and he's playing it up as a positive thing.

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Will Hillary Show Up To Netroots Nation?

[ Posted Monday, April 13th, 2015 – 16:54 PDT ]

And so it begins. Hillary Clinton is now officially in the race for the White House. Her announcement, like pretty much everything else about her upcoming campaign, will be microscopically analyzed within an inch of its life. Was she too generic? Was she appealing enough? Where were the specifics? What about Bill? And what was up with that laughably 1970s campaign logo? Most of these deep-dive analyses won't make a tiny bit of difference, in the long run (well, OK, that logo is pretty bad, hopefully that's the first thing Team Hillary decides to change...). But it'll certainly give all the pundits something to do in the meantime.

As campaign rollouts go, Hillary is obviously going for the lowest key she can manage. She hasn't even scheduled any big rallies or events for the first few months, and her announcement video didn't even show her face until the minute-and-a-half mark. She has, obviously, learned her lesson about the whole "inevitability" thing from the last time around. She is going to start campaigning by going on a "listening tour," starting in Iowa. This worked wonders for her as a senator, and it could be valuable if she meets some interesting people and does actually listen to their concerns along the way. The most interesting thing about her launch is that she's actually driving from New York to Iowa. Well, not personally driving (she's still got a Secret Service escort, like all former First Ladies), but still -- traveling the country's Interstates is a lot better way to reconnect to the common man and woman than chartering an airplane. Sure, it's a stunt, but it could turn out to be more than that, depending on the people she meets in the rest stops of the Midwest.

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Friday Talking Points [341] -- Jeb Bush, Hispanic?

[ Posted Friday, April 10th, 2015 – 16:31 PDT ]

So, apparently, Jeb Bush used to think he was Hispanic. At least, that's the box he checked when he registered to vote, a few years back. While immediately created much online amusement (my favorite: "It's pronounced 'Heb' Bush"), it does raise an interesting but tangential question -- and not just for Bush -- in the upcoming presidential primary process: Do Republican ballots in all states require full legal names for candidates?

This question is bigger than it first may seem. Because at least three candidates on the Republican side will be running their campaigns using nothing more than nicknames. And only one of them is even a common nickname for any of their given names. To put this another way, will Republican primary voters be offered the choice between John Ellis Bush, Rafael Edward Cruz, and Piyush Jindal? Those are the legal names of "Jeb," "Ted," and "Bobby," respectively. As noted, "Ted" is the only one of these that is easily-understood (replacing "Edward"). So how will these names actually appear to the voters? Has any one of the three actually changed their full legal name?

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An Anniversary Worth Remembering

[ Posted Thursday, April 9th, 2015 – 17:03 PDT ]

On this day, 150 years ago, the Civil War began its end. The fighting didn't stop immediately, but today was the significant turning point in the conflict. Exactly one and a half centuries ago, Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant in a tiny Virginia hamlet called Appomattox Court House. This was the beginning of the end for the Confederate forces, and for the Confederacy itself.

I am no student of Civil War history, I should mention, so I have no brilliant or original insights to offer today. The Civil War looms large in American history, and draws not only scholars interested in research but also military enthusiasts and re-enactors. There's a very good reason why Americans can become so obsessed about the Civil War, and the reason is that it is the only war really ever fought solely on American soil. Not many commemorate the War of 1812, and the Revolution was fought for our independence from Britain (so it doesn't really count as a war on "American" soil). This leaves the Civil War as the only conflict which left a large legacy of battlefields and other sacred sites scattered around the country. To remember other major wars we participated in, American veterans must travel to the foreign lands where they were fought -- but the Civil War left its mark here at home, from Gettysburg to the battlefields of the South and the West, to (finally) Appomattox Court House.

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A Hard Look At The Big Blue Wall

[ Posted Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 – 17:13 PDT ]

It's becoming accepted conventional wisdom in Washington that Hillary Clinton is quite likely going to skate to the Democratic nomination for president. This disappoints many, since pundits love conflict in politics above all else. No conflict means having to write a whole lot of stories about a primary race that is over before it begins, which no political writer wants to do. But is there an even bigger buzzkill out there for political writers? Is the 2016 presidential election almost as easy to predict as the Democratic nominating contest?

The very idea terrifies conservatives, because the pronounced slant is so heavily tilted in the Democratic direction. George Will has been talking about it lately, in fact, warning Republican primary voters to choose someone who can successfully attack "the big blue wall" that faces them (Will even likes to get hyperspecific about the ideal Republican candidate: the one who can convince suburban Philadelphia voters to vote against Hillary, thus shifting Pennsylvania, thus dismantling the big blue wall). If Will is right, the crucial 2016 questions to ask are obvious. Will the big blue wall hold firm in 2016? Will Republicans hammer some cracks in it? And, most importantly, just what is this big blue wall in the first place?

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Cruz, Paul In

[ Posted Tuesday, April 7th, 2015 – 16:58 PDT ]

Senator Rand Paul announced today (to absolutely nobody's surprise) that he is running for the Republican presidential nomination for 2016. He joins only one other official candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, who made his own announcement a few weeks ago. On the Democratic side, nobody has officially thrown their hat in the ring. Such announcements are happening much later this presidential cycle, due to quirky financial advantages of our crazy campaign finance legal system (if it can even be called that, anymore, after the Supreme Court's evisceration). But I'm getting distracted, and veering off the topic at hand, which is paying proper attention to those candidates who actually are declared candidates. Since nobody else has officially stepped up to the podium yet, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul deserve at least a moment in the spotlight.

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Cake Wars Getting Stickier

[ Posted Monday, April 6th, 2015 – 16:49 PDT ]

Not since the line "Let them eat cake!" was supposedly uttered have delicious baked goods been so central to a political upheaval. Yes, we have entered what might be called the political era of "Cake Wars," it seems. Now, I don't mean to trivialize an important civil rights issue by relegating it to the dessert cart (as it were). But with all the political frenzy about both religious freedom and discrimination, the pundits always seem to come back to the same classic case: a baker contemplating whether to bake a cake for a gay wedding. It reduces the moral and legal arguments to a case that is both easy to understand and downright ordinary. What strikes me, though, while listening to the argument rage, is that most people on both sides of this argument haven't really come to grips with the larger implications of what they're advocating. To stretch the metaphor one last time, things could get a lot messier, as when a mischievous spouse mashes a slice of cake into their newly-wedded loved one's face at the reception (an admittedly bizarre ritual some couples feel honor-bound to perform, for the entertainment of their guests). That's right, folks -- the Cake Wars haven't actually gotten sticky enough, yet.

Because this Sunday was Easter, the political chat shows invited a number of Catholic bishops on, as they normally do. This time, however, the interviews couldn't remain focused on the Christian holiday but instead all were forced to venture into the political question of religious freedom versus civil rights -- a question that Indiana and Arkansas had just finished struggling over. The bishops all stood strongly for their right to their beliefs, of course, and many of them tried to thread the needle of: "We don't want to support discrimination, but we actually do think bakers should be able to discriminate when it comes to wedding cakes," to one degree or another. What it really all boiled down to was supporting the right of a business to discriminate against gay weddings, while simultaneously being horrified of the word "discrimination." They wanted the right to discriminate, but didn't want it to be called that, in essence.

That's all fine and good for them -- there's no law that says religious leaders aren't allowed to attempt their own political spin, after all. Because they found themselves not just giving their usual annual platitudes about the importance of Easter but instead having to comment on a current political issue, it's easy to give the bishops the same leeway every other political commentator gets.

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