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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Can Trump Be Stopped?

Can Trump be stopped? Not if the race doesn't get down to a two-person race really soon. My sense is that Marco Rubio has the best chance to beat Trump ("Donald Trump Should Be Worried About Marco Rubio, Not Ted Cruz"), but if Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Ben Carson don't drop out in the very near future, it won't matter. Trump will be the GOP Nominee. God help us all.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Too Bad More People Can't Be Like Antonin Scalia

If only more people could be like Antonin Scalia. "What!", you're saying (well, at least my politically liberal friends are). I'm serious, though. It's well known that two of Scalia's best friends on the Supreme Court were Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagan, two of the court's most liberal members. In fact, when Justice Souter announced his retirement from the bench, Scalia lobbied for Kagan. Talking wth David Axelrod, who at the time was a senior advisor to President Obama, Scalia remarked ("Scalia once lobbied Obama adviser to get Kagan on Supreme Court"):
I have no illusions that your man will nominate someone who shares my orientation. But I hope he sends us someone smart... Let me put a finer point on it. I hope he sends us Elena Kagan.
In a time when most of us tend to paint our political opponents as immoral, stupid, or both, Scalia was a breath of fresh air. He didn't let his ideology get in the way of friendship or civil discourse. He also apparently had the ability to laugh at himself. As Stephen Colbert recently noted ("The Late Show - Stephen's Tribute to Antonin Scalia"), when Colbert spoke at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2006 (the Bush Administration was still in "power"), Scalia was the only conservative to speak with Colbert, saying that he was "Great! Great!" (and this was after Colbert had made fun of Scalia in his monologue).

We need more people like Antonin Scalia (and fewer people like Donald Trump) who take their beliefs and positions seriously but not so seriously that they can't relate to others with whom they disagree.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Jeb! Bush Has Finally Thrown in the Towel (Thank Goodness!)

I have this image of Jeb! Bush pacing back and forth in his hotel room asking, "How the hell (or maybe, "heck" -- not sure if he cusses) am I losing to that buffoon Trump?" I sympathize, but after watching Jeb! on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert back in September, it was clear that he wasn't going to excite too many people. He was boring and uninspiring, which is probably why the longer he was in the race, the less Republican voters liked him ("Jeb Bush’s Path To Defeat Began A Year Ago").

Jeb's departure should help Marco Rubio. Not all of Jeb's supporters will shift their support to him, but most probably will. And if Ben Carson and John Kasich are honest with themselves, they'll drop out too and give the Republican party the three-person race it deserves ("The Three-Cornered Fight for the Soul of the GOP").

Note: The original title for this post was, "Jeb! Bush Needs to Go" but he dropped out of the race before I had time to finish it.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Will the Senate Confirm Obama's Supreme Court Nominee?

The unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia has provided President Obama with the opportunity to nominate another justice to the Supreme Court before leaves office next January. There's a catch, of course. Presidents may nominate potential Supreme Court justices, but they they have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and there's a strong likelihood that because it's currently controlled by the Republican party, it will not act until after the general election in November.

Unless.

Unless it appears that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders (or maybe both) are poised to win in November and Senate Republicans fear that they'll nominate someone even more liberal than President Obama's nominee. In such a scenario I think it's highly likely that the Senate will confirm whomever President Obama nominates.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

What Exactly Is (Was) Chris Christie's Strategy?

For some time political pundits have been telling us that New Jersey governor Chris Christie is by far the best debater of the presidential candidates. His skills were on full display last weekend when he completely undressed Marco Rubio in front of a national audience. But this begs the question: Why focus on Rubio? As others have noted ("Maybe Chris Christie Should Have Taken On Donald Trump") Christie's been running low in the polls, not because he's been losing voters to other establishment candidates like Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich, but because he's been losing voters to Donald Trump:
But for Christie, whose yard signs boast of a candidate “telling it like it is,” the biggest problem of all might be Trump. Trump has usurped the Christie brand of being the unrepentantly loudmouthed alpha male who will tell you the truths that other candidates avoid.
Yet, throughout all of the debates he has avoided going after Trump; instead, his primary target has been Rubio. Perhaps its because he and Trump have been friends for some time. Or, who knows, maybe it's been his secret plan all along to help Trump win the nomination. Although this seems unlikely, and Christie probably really does want to be President, his strategy may have succeeded in taking Rubio out, but it hasn't done him any favors either. Put simply, he targeted the wrong guy, and it appears to have cost him. In fact, there's a strong likelihood that he'll drop out of the race altogether ("Chris Christie Heads for Home To Reassess His Campaign"), while others (including Marco Rubio, who finished ahead of him in New Hampshire) will continue to soldier on against front-runner Donald Trump.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Give Denver's Offense a Little Credit

The dominant narrative following the Denver Broncos' upset win over the heavily favored Carolina Panthers is that the Broncos' defense carried a somewhat anemic offense led by an aged and banged-up Peyton Manning, thus once again "proving" the oft-repeated mantra that great defenses win Super Bowls. I don't think anyone would question how well the Broncos defense played. They shut down one of the best offenses in the NFL. But a great defensive performance is also a function of how the opposing offense plays (and vice versa). When the 49ers beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV 55-10, clearly the 49ers' defense played better than the Broncos' defense. But was it because it was a superior defense, or was it because the 49ers offense was so damn good? Hard to know.

There's another problem with the dominant narrative. Namely, that the Carolina defense also played great. It held the Broncos offense to fewer total yards than the Carolina offense. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. As FiveThirtyEight noted last week ("Inside One Of The Best Defensive Matchups In Super Bowl History"), the Broncos and Panthers ranked 1-2 in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) ratings. Of course, the Broncos' offense wasn't as good as Carolina's and that certainly accounts for some of the disparity in yards allowed by the two respective defenses.

Still, I think Denver's offense deserves a little credit. Anyone who watched the NFC Championship game a couple of weeks ago will remember what Carolina's defense did to the Arizona Cardinals' offense. Carson Palmer was under constant pressure, something he didn't handle too well (actually, most quarterbacks don't handle it too well - "Tom Brady Couldn't Take the Pressure". That did not happen in this game. Why? I suspect because of great preparation (kudos to the Denver coaching staff), great offensive line play, and, well, Peyton Manning didn't panic like Carson Palmer did. Manning's (probable) final game will not go down as one of his best, but let's not dismiss it altogether.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mountain Top Experiences

The Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1–9Mark 9:2–8Luke 9:28–36)) tells the story of when Jesus and three of his apostles -- Peter, James and John -- climb a mountain (traditionally held to be Mount Tabor in lower Galilee, Israel) in order to pray. There, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light. He is then joined by Moses and Elijah and a voice from the sky (presumably God's) calls him Son. As our pastor recently noted during worship, the story is so embellished with symbols, metaphors, and literary allusions, it's hard to take seriously. It's not believable.

That said, many people have had Mountain Top experiences, moments in their lives when the Divine breaks into our midst and sometimes leaves us breathless (New Testament scholar Marcus Borg once wrote about such an experience although I don't think it occurred on a mountain top). Since there is no reason to suppose that Jesus, Peter, James, and John were incapable of experiencing such a moment, the fact that over time the story about their experience took on increasingly unbelievable elements, doesn't mean that it didn't happen.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Classy Guy, That Trump

In his book, "The Art of the Comeback," Donald Trump brags, "If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller." Similarly, in his book "Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life" Trump wrote that he's been with married women: "Beautiful, famous, successful, married -- I've had them all, secretly, the world's biggest names." Evidently, his supporters think this is great (unless, of course, it happens to be YOUR wife he's been sleeping with).

Shortly after Trump attended worship services on the Sunday before the Iowa caucuses, Nebraska Senator (Republican) Ben Sasse challenged Trump on his marital infidelities:
You brag abt many affairs w/ married women. Have you repented? To harmed children & spouses? Do you think it matters?
And then with regards to President Obama's penchant for issuing executive orders (and Trump's fondness for the use of eminent domain):
You talk A LOT about ‘running the country’ . . . as tho 1 man shld ‘run America.’ Questn5: Will you commit to rolling back Exec power & undoing Obama unilateral habit?
Then Sasse concluded:
These r sincere questions & I sincerely hope u answer rather than insult.
Trump's response?
@BenSasse looks more like a gym rat than a U.S. Senator. How the hell did he ever get elected?
Classy guy, that Trump.

Note: It was from a George Will column ("After Iowa, will Republicans finally get a contest without Trump?") that I learned of the existence and content of the tweets between Sasse and Trump. I did, however, need to consult other sources for some of this post's content.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Donald Trump Should Be Worried About Marco Rubio, Not Ted Cruz

As the beginning of this week, most of the nation assumed Donald Trump would win Iowa's Republican caucuses. Trump certainly believed he would. As he remarked just a couple of days prior to the caucuses,
The folks in Iowa have been amazing to me. They've been amazing. I'm even leading in all of the polls in Iowa now. Some big ones are coming out I guess — but they don't even matter anymore, to be honest, because we're so close to the end, what difference does it make.
Of course, Trump didn't win the Iowa caucuses. Ted Cruz did. And Trump isn't happy. In fact, he has accused Cruz of stealing the election and is calling for Cruz's win to be nullified or that a new Iowa vote to take place. Cruz's campaign, evidently, sent an email that told caucus-goers that candidate Ben Carson was dropping out of the race, a claim, of course, that wasn't true (at least not yet -- it will happen eventually, however). There is little empirical evidence that this had much of an effect on the final results, however, since in the end Carson won 9.3% of the vote, which was a little bit lower than the final Des Moines Register poll (10.0%) and little bit higher than FiveThirtyEight's predicted result (8.7%).

More importantly (at least for Don Trump supporters), Trump needs to stop focusing on Ted Cruz and pay more attention to his real competitor, Marco Rubio. Rubio may have only finished third in Iowa, but as I've noted in previous posts ("Don't Write Marco Rubio Off Just Yet" "Rational Actors, Irrational Outcomes, and the GOP Nomination"), Rubio is positioned to attract increasingly more votes as establishment candidates, such as Jeb! Bush, Chris Christie, John Katich, drop out of the race. Rubio doesn't even have to win the New Hampshire primary. All he has to do is finish a strong second, which should force at least two of the three establishment candidates to drop out (or, rather, "suspend their campaigns").

There is evidence that mainstream Republicans are beginning to see Rubio as the candidate who has the best chance of winning in November. Since the Iowa caucuses, Rubio has received several key endorsements, including one from South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican member in the U.S. Senate, and Rubio is now the new leader of FiveThirtyEight's "Endorsement Primary" ("Marco Rubio Is Now Winning The Race For Endorsements"). Endorsements are a surprisingly accurate predictor of who eventually win the Republican and Democratic nomination :
There has been a lot of debate this presidential campaign about how much influence party elites have on the nominating process, but endorsements have historically been among the best signs of which candidates will succeed in primaries. And although four more endorsements and a slight lead in points do not make Rubio a lock as the choice of Republican elected officials, this bump is a sign that members of Congress could be starting to see him as the most acceptable option for the nomination. (Rubio has yet to receive an endorsement from a sitting governor.) Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led our list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.
It will be interesting to see how things shake out in New Hampshire. According to the polls, Trump holds a YUGE lead, somewhere around 20% over Cruz and Rubio. There is still a week to go, however, and I think it's unlikely that Trump will win by that much. A win of 5-10% is more likely. Who knows, he may not win at all.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Marilynne Robinson: Traditional Christian, Political Liberal

Probably because of the perceived alignment between conservative Christian theology and conservative politics, many Christians who lean to the political left instinctively embrace the theological left, assuming that theological orthodoxy is incompatible with political liberalism. Many, in fact, assume that Christianity is incompatible with political liberalism. As the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson notes,
I am a Christian. There are a number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean. . . To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal (The Givenness of Things, p. 159).
One, however, does not need to abandon traditional Christian beliefs in order to embrace political liberalism. Jim Wallis, the evangelical founder of the Sojourners community, is probably the best known example, but so is Robinson. Robinsons is a public intellectual. In addition to her novels, she delivers lectures to a wide variety of audiences, from groups of scientists to college undergrads. And she is unembarrassed that she holds traditional Christian beliefs:
I have spent all this time clearing the ground so that I can say, and be understood to mean, without reservation, that I believe in a divine Creation, and in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the life to come. I take the Christian mythos to be a special revelation of a general truth, that truth being the ontological centrality of humankind in the created order, with its theological corollary, the profound and unique sacredness of human beings as such (The Givenness of Things, p. 222).
But one could hardly characterize her as a political conservative. Take for instance her stance on religious freedom and marriage equality:
I understand that marriage equality offends some people's religious sensibilities, and I know that denial of basic civic equality offends the religious sensibilities of others. My own, for example. Why does only one side of this question merit attention as an issue of religious freedom? My denomination blessed the unions of same-sex couples until the minute it could instead perform marriages. Was not our religious freedom constrained by law until the state supreme court acted, and wold it not be again if the Governor Jindals of the world had their way? Why is this controversy, insofar as it is conducted in the language of religion, so one-sided? I never feel more Christian than I do when I hear of some new scheme for depriving and humiliating the poor, and feel the shock of religious dread at these blatant contraventions of what I, as a Christian, take to be the will of God. And yes, I can quote chapter and verse (The Givenness of Things, p. 162).
One shouldn't confuse Robinson's orthodoxy with fundamentalism. She's a mainline Protestant (she was raised Presbyterian and now attends a United Church of Christ church in Iowa) who approaches scripture in a non-literalist way. For example, in discussing Jesus' temptation in the desert, she notes that the words placed on Jesus' lips all come from the Torah, indicating to her that the author of this narrative is trying to make a theological, rather than a historical, point.

None of this is to suggest that Christians shouldn't hold heterodox theological views. A very good theological case can be made for what many call "Progressive Christianity." But as Robinson (and Wallis) illustrate, one doesn't need to abandon Christian orthodoxy in order to embrace political liberalism. However, I suspect that many Christians do just that. Rather than let their theological beliefs drive their politics, they let their politics define their theology. And in my opinion, that is unfortunate.

Note: President Obama is a fan of Robinson and has visited with her to discuss her work. Links to the conversations between the President and Robinson can be found here ("President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa") and here ("President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II")