The Vaulting Held

[ Posted Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 – 16:34 UTC ]

The tragic fire at the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral could have been a lot worse, especially at level of the ground floor. But to a large extent this further catastrophe was avoided. Images from within the cathedral show a surprising amount of the floor to be relatively unburnt, including standing pews made of wood. The thanks for this miracle, though, belong not to God but to some unnamed Medieval stonemasons -- those who did the design and construction of the building's vaulted ceilings. Because their vaulting held fast, widespread damage at ground-level was averted.

When you examine the architecture of a cathedral, one thing quickly becomes apparent: there's really not that much to actually burn. Almost the entire building is made of stone, metal, and glass -- none of which burn very easily. The only extensive use of wood is in the construction of what might be called the "attic" and the roof itself. This is where all the flames were coming from in the videos we all saw from France while Notre-Dame de Paris burned.

Anyone at all interested in the subject of cathedral architecture would be well advised to go down to their local library and see if they have a copy of Cathedral, by David Macaulay (1973). It is an illustrated children's book which details in pen-and-ink drawings how a cathedral is built, from the ground up. It is fascinating and well worth a read, as the architectural drawings are so good that even adults will enjoy learning how cathedrals are laid out and actually constructed. Or, if you're more inclined to read a thick, multigenerational saga, you could always check out The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett, which begins with an intentionally-set fire in a cathedral attic and follows one family of stonemasons through the construction of an English cathedral in the Middle Ages.

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[ Posted Tuesday, April 16th, 2019 – 17:05 UTC ]

Bernie Sanders bearded the Fox in his den last night. He outFoxed them, plain and simple. Rather than shunning Fox News, Bernie accepted an invitation from them to hold a town hall meeting on air. And he not only held his own, at some points he even appeared to have the Fox audience solidly behind him. This defies a whole lot of media storylines, and punditary heads are still exploding in Washington as the impact of Bernie's town hall reverberates.

Voters, according to many pundits, are supposed to be easily pigeonholed into easy-to-discuss categories. These categories are mutually exclusive, meaning any one voter simply cannot occupy multiple pigeonholes simultaneously. Since they're all single-issue voters, once they've aligned on that issue then nothing else matters.

Such oversimplification may be convenient for people attempting to analyze "what voters are thinking," but it doesn't really reflect the real world at all. Most voters are complex people, caring about many different political issues to varying degrees and also caring about politicians' personalities to a varying degree. Some arguments can sway voters, and combinations of issues voters really care deeply about often defy facile "left/right" framing. Maybe you're an evangelical who strongly supports legalized marijuana. Perhaps you're an environmentalist who is anti-abortion. Such combinations don't easily fit in the usual media narratives, obviously.

But getting back to what happened last night, the Democratic Party has officially put Fox News outside the pale. Earlier this year, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez announced that none of the Democratic debates would happen on Fox, because they are nothing short of a propaganda outlet for the president. Bernie Sanders, however, obviously thinks it is a good idea to appear on Fox in a formal setting, because he believes there are plenty of Fox News viewers who might be persuaded to vote for him. He's probably right about that. Rather than shun Fox, Sanders made an appeal to their viewers, and ultimately it may prove to have been the smarter strategy.

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First Quarter Democratic Fundraising Numbers Are In

[ Posted Monday, April 15th, 2019 – 18:11 UTC ]

Today is not just the day when millions of Americans have to file their income taxes, if is also the day when the millions of Democratic presidential candidates also have to file their first quarter fundraising numbers. Well, that's a slight exaggeration, but it certainly seems like millions at times, doesn't it?

Early fundraising numbers aren't completely irrelevant, but there has been a noticeable shift this election cycle over what has happened in years past, at least within the Democratic Party. It used to be that early fundraising represented mostly the ability of the candidates to sweet talk big-money donors into backing their campaigns early on -- a measure of the prowess of convincing the movers and shakers within the party of any particular candidates' chances of winning. This time around things have radically changed, because now the race is to woo small donors, rather than big-pocket money bundlers.

This, like many things about running for president as a Democrat, has changed as a direct result of the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders. Sanders proved that raising money from mostly small donors was indeed a viable model for launching a major presidential primary campaign, a thing which had previously only been speculated about. Bernie equalled Hillary Clinton in raising money, but while Clinton relied on a big-donor network, Sanders was able to raise similar amounts from an army of small donors (who famously gave an average of "27 bucks" each). Suddenly something which had only been posited as a political science theory was shown to be a realistic way of running for president. This time around, many Democratic candidates are following in Bernie's footsteps and eschewing big donors in favor of only going after grassroots support. More people are "voting with their dollars" than just a small universe of big-money donors, in other words.

Let's take a look at the full list, at least as of this writing (some candidates are reporting very late in the day, especially those with not-so-impressive totals). From the lowest total reported to the highest:

  • Wayne Messam -- $83,745
  • John Delaney -- $1 million (see note A)
  • Julián Castro -- $1.1 million
  • Marianne Williamson -- $1.5 million
  • Andrew Yang -- $1.7 million
  • John Hickenlooper -- $2.2 million (see note B)
  • Jay Inslee -- $2.25 million
  • Kirsten Gillibrand -- $3 million
  • Cory Booker -- $5 million
  • Amy Klobuchar -- $5.2 million (see note B)
  • Elizabeth Warren -- $6 million
  • Pete Buttigieg -- $7.1 million
  • Beto O'Rourke -- $9.4 million
  • Kamala Harris -- $12 million
  • Bernie Sanders -- $18.2 million

Two notes are necessary to explain some of these numbers.

[A] -- John Delaney reported $12.1 million raised, but over $11 million of that was his own money, so $1 million raised from actual donors is somewhat of an estimate.

[B] -- Both John Hickenlooper and Amy Klobuchar got a little cute with their numbers, reporting money raised for both the primary and general election cycles as one lump sum. The other candidates are all reporting only money raised for the primaries, so Hickenlooper and Klobuchar are gaming the system to some degree.

There are a number of conclusions we can draw at this point in the fundraising race, even though it is still very early on in the actual primary race. While there are a number of expected minor candidates grouped together at the bottom of the scale (less than $3 million), the surprise here was to see Julián Castro's name among them. Many people commented when Castro entered the race that he might have missed his historical window to run, and it's looking like that observation may be panning out. There's even competition for "young upstart from Texas" for Castro to contend with. So far, Castro's campaign has largely fizzled, but he could always turn this around with a breakout debate performance or something.

Going one step up the fundraising ladder, we find four senators who really should be doing better. Kirsten Gillibrand is the worst of the lot, raising only $3 million even though she hails from a very wealthy and populous state. Gillibrand's campaign has been as lackluster as her fundraising figures, which is probably a big reason why they're so low. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar aren't doing much better, especially considering Klobuchar's gaming of the numbers. Elizabeth Warren is doing the best of this bunch, raising twice what Gillibrand did, but she was a national political figure even before she ran, with much higher name recognition than the other three in this group. Warren has been running a solid campaign, but she obviously is having to compete for progressive donors with Bernie Sanders. Without Sanders in the race, in other words, Warren's numbers would likely have been a lot higher.

The real breakout winners in the first quarter are the next two on the list, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke. In normal times, neither a small-town Midwestern mayor nor a failed Senate candidate would have much of a chance in a presidential nomination race, but these are anything but normal times. Both O'Rourke and Buttigieg have benefited enormously from positive media attention, but more importantly they're matching media interest with actual voter support in a big way. O'Rourke raised more money, but he already had a nationwide donor network to tap left over from his Senate bid, so the total announced by Pete Buttigieg is really the most astonishing number in the entire list. Both candidates have already had their breakout moments, and if they can back it up with a few solid debate performances, they'll both be considered top-tier candidates from that point on.

Only two candidates broke the $10 million barrier in the first quarter. Kamala Harris comes from the largest state in the country, in terms of people and in terms of donors, so it's not that surprising she was able to amass so much money so fast. Harris is also, to date, the most successful African-American candidate and the most successful woman running. Both of these are notable achievements, in such a crowded field. Harris got some early media attention, but this has somewhat faded over the past few weeks (while the cameras turned to O'Rourke and Buttigieg). But Harris is obviously in the race for the long haul, and has to be considered one of the frontrunners at this point.

Way out front of the pack, however, is Bernie Sanders. Sanders also made news today by releasing 10 years of tax returns, but that's a subject for another day. Sanders raised more money than the bottom nine candidates combined, and raised more than twice any other candidate other than Harris (who managed to raise two-thirds of what Bernie did). That is impressive.

Bernie hasn't gotten nearly his due in the media, which isn't too surprising considering how they treated his first candidacy. He's been leading the polling of declared candidates since the start by a healthy margin, and now his fundraising numbers are also way out in front of the pack. Any other candidate would be getting nonstop coverage as "the man to beat" and "the clear frontrunner," but so far very little of these sorts of stories have appeared. Of course, this is partly due to Joe Biden still playing coy with his announcement, since once Biden does join the race he'll instantly be either neck-and-neck with or out in front of Bernie Sanders. But until that does happen, the media is more content to seek out the next breakout candidate rather than seriously discuss the man obviously leading the race so far.

Other than polling, fundraising numbers are the only clear data points we have to measure the relative strength of the field of Democratic candidates. In June (before the end of the second fundraising quarter), we'll also get to see them in a debate, which could serve to shake up the race in a big way. But for now, these are the only solid numbers we have to gauge donor support for all the Democrats. And the big overall conclusion is that this time around the race for money is a lot different than in years past, with at least four of the top five fundraisers targeting small donors rather than the usual party fatcats. This has made the fundraising much more (small-d) democratic, and is a welcome change to the process.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


Friday Talking Points -- Another Fun Week In Trumpland

[ Posted Friday, April 12th, 2019 – 17:20 UTC ]

Welcome back! Our Friday Talking Points column has been on a forced hiatus for the past month, due to a rather severe bout with the flu. But while we're up and running once again, we're still not at 100 percent, so we're going to foreshorten our usual weekly roundup introduction this week. Instead of attempting the monumental task of getting back up to date with a month's worth of craziness from Washington, we're going to just write a generic introduction that should be able to stand in for just about any week in the Donald Trump era. Call it a "Mad Lib" fill-in-the-blank do-it-yourself rundown. Everyone ready? Then here we go....


Generic Weekly News Roundup

President Donald Trump embarrassed himself today by claiming [TOTAL LIE], and then following up on Twitter with [INSANE CONSPIRACY THEORY]. Both were immediately disproven by [WIDELY AVAILABLE AND INDISPUTABLE FACTS]. When asked for comment, the White House merely stated that "the president's words speak for themselves." Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway was quoted blaming [ANYONE BUT TRUMP] for the whole fracas.

Earlier, Trump had fanned the political flames by tweeting [HATE-FILLED RANT], which once again clearly violates the Twitter rules of conduct; but when contacted about it, the head of Twitter stated: "We're going to interpret his tweet as [TOTAL HORSE MANURE RATIONALIZATION] rather than being savagely directed at [VULNERABLE MINORITY]."

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Senate To Herman Cain: Nein. Nein. Nein.

[ Posted Thursday, April 11th, 2019 – 17:25 UTC ]

When pizza magnate Herman Cain ran for president, he came up with a snappy slogan for his inane tax plan: "Nine, nine, nine." Donald Trump apparently thought the man was a financial genius, because he recently nominated Cain for a seat on the board of the Federal Reserve. But today, the Senate sent both Cain and Trump a very clear (Germanic) message: "Nein, nein, nein."

Four Republican senators went on the record today stating that they'll be voting against Cain's nomination. In a Senate where Republicans only enjoy a 53-47 majority, that is enough to tank his nomination. For the record, the four GOP senators who have now publicly opposed Cain's nomination are: Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Kevin Cramer, and Cory Gardner.

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The One Problem "Medicare For All" Must Address

[ Posted Wednesday, April 10th, 2019 – 16:50 UTC ]

Bernie Sanders made some news today as he unveiled his most recent version of a "Medicare For All" bill in the Senate. Notably, four of his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination in the Senate signed on to his bill (this is notable because normally this wouldn't happen -- normally each candidate would put out their own version and argue that theirs was superior to all the other candidates' efforts). Sanders has long been a champion of single-payer health care, of course, and his is the strongest voice on the issue mostly because he almost singlehandedly pushed it to the fore in the Democratic Party. Four years ago, it was considered (sneeringly, by most "serious" Democrats) to be "too radical" an idea to ever happen. Now, it is so mainstream within the Democratic Party that each presidential candidate is measured by whether they support Medicare For All, or merely some weaker or more incremental version. That is a sea-change, and one that Bernie should rightfully be proud of.

But having said all of that, I'd like to put aside all the personality politics today to discuss the core idea itself and one of the key selling points that Democrats are going to have to eventually make, if it ever is to become a reality. There are plenty of selling points that will need to be made to convince enough Americans that Medicare For All is the best way to go for it to become a political movement, most of which I'm going to ignore today to concentrate on one central issue instead. Most of the other fearmongering about Medicare For All can be successfully countered with some version of a very easy answer: "Go ask your parents/grandparents if they like their Medicare, and then ask them if they'd give it up to return to private-sector health insurance." That's a pretty all-encompassing comeback to most of the demonization of Medicare that is sure to come from the other side.

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Another Horserace Column

[ Posted Tuesday, April 9th, 2019 – 17:23 UTC ]

It's time once again to take a look at the emerging 2020 Democratic presidential field. Those of you who sneer at horserace columns would be advised to just skip today's offering altogether, we should point out right up front. And as usual, we have some new candidates and some updates on the current horde of hopefuls.

We've refined our ever-changing column format this time around, adding a "campaign news" segment at the start, followed by the three tiers of candidates and then some conclusions. This format may endure, or it may get tweaked further as the race develops, but for now it'll have to do.


Campaign News

The biggest news is, once again, no news. Joe Biden is looking and acting more and more like an actual candidate, but so far has remained coy about what he's up to. Since he is still playing this game, we are going to ignore him for the remainder of this column. When he announces, we'll include him in the field, but as it stands we've got so many others to keep track of that Joe will have to wait his turn. He did make some news for his past "handsiness," and he attempted to get beyond it by explaining that times have changed since he entered politics -- but this may be counterproductive in the long run for two reasons: times have indeed changed and Joe isn't sounding all that in tune with where things stand now, and it only serves to highlight one of Biden's weakest points (his age). Irony alert: most pundits missed it, but this whole storyline was truly oxymoronic: "Biden out of touch, for previously touching too much."

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Nielsen Out, As Trump Doubles Down (Yet Again) On Xenophobia

[ Posted Monday, April 8th, 2019 – 17:12 UTC ]

Political scapegoating of immigrants is certainly nothing new in American politics. Even a cursory look at American history shows this to be true, from the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in the 1790s, to the anti-Catholic-immigrant "Know Nothing" Party of the 1850s, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the scapegoating of Mexican laborers in the 1950s (Operation Wetback). Being anti-immigrant is about as American as apple pie, as horrifying as that might sound to those who are more comfortable sweeping such excesses under the historical rug. Donald Trump, in other words, did not singlehandedly create xenophobia, instead he merely revived a longstanding tradition of using the issue successfully as a political bludgeon.

Xenophobia is central to Trump's political persona. It is impossible to separate the man from the issue, in fact. From his first political speech announcing his bid for the presidency ("they're rapists...") right up to today's news of Kirstjen Nielsen's ouster as Secretary of Homeland Security, Trump and xenophobia are intractably interlinked. It's who he is, and nobody should be surprised by any of it by now.

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Trump Faces Reality, Twice In One Week

[ Posted Friday, April 5th, 2019 – 18:17 UTC ]

[Program Note: OK, I'm feeling slightly better, but still nowhere near good enough to tackle a real Friday Talking Points column. I tried to write this column yesterday, but didn't make it very far. So I thought I'd finish it up today and hopefully by next week I will have recovered to the point where I can start posting regularly once again. Thanks to everyone for the "get well soon" wishes, and thanks to everyone for their ongoing patience in dealing with the interruption in service here. Oh, and... Wash your hands! Take some vitamin C! You DO NOT want to get this year's flu, trust me....]


In an extraordinary turn of events, President Donald Trump has had to face reality not once but twice within the same week. Seeing as how this has only happened a handful of times throughout his entire term, this double-shot of reality is rather notable. The last time he was forced by those around him to readjust his worldview to actual facts was after he had hastily announced he was pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria. It took weeks for his advisors to force him to backtrack on this decision, but in the end they successfully convinced him. This time around, though, it took only days -- and it happened not just once but twice.

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Comparing Bernie 2020 To The 2016 Race

[ Posted Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019 – 17:16 UTC ]

Before attempting to draw any comparisons or contrasts between Bernie Sanders and the rest of the 2020 Democratic presidential field, what I find rather ironic is to compare his second bid for the White House to two of the candidates from last time around: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Because, whether he likes it or not, Sanders is now close to occupying the position that Clinton held the last time around, and (if he's lucky) he might just follow the path Trump charted in the 2016 race.

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