Posted tagged ‘Elections Have Consequences’


June 7, 2016

Attention conservation notice (thanks, Cosma Shalizi):  What follows is some political naval gazing, a trip down memory lane to scan the GOP primary just gone by.  The TL:DR — what a craptastic effort by all concerned.  If you’ve nothing better to do, read on, and snark at will in the comments.

Not to aggrandize one of our more feeble trolls, but something that personage produced in a comment yesterday caught my eye.  Donald Trump, we were told, more than once, is INVINCIBLE (sic on the caps and bold).

What convinced our troll of this fact?

That the Gauleiter of Midtown Manhattan had defeated “the deepest primary field in history” (quoted from memory).

Well, a ruby in a dungheap is still a gem, and that remark caught my attention.  So, in a waltz down memory lane, I went to look up that deep field, here in the order in which they formally entered the campaign:

Ted Cruz.  Jeb Bush.  Ben Carson. Chris Christie. Carly Fiorina.  Jim Gilmore. Lindsey Graham.  Mike Huckabee.  Bobby Jindal.  John Kasich. George Pataki.  Rand Paul.  Rick Perry.  Marco Rubio.  Rick “don’t Google me” Santorum. Donald Trump, and Scott Walker.


Let’s review:

Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul:  first term senators of no accomplishment.

Carly Fiorina:  a failed business tycoon whose sole claim to fame is her near-destruction of one of the most respected corporations in tech.

Ben Carson:  a neurosurgeon who calls to mind the old joke:  “What’s the difference between God and a surgeon?”  “God knows he’s not a doctor.”

Jim Gilmore:  Jim Gilmore.

George Pataki:  George Pataki.

Rick Santorum: where to begin? Lost his last election by 30 points or more; hasn’t improved on extended acquaintence.

Chris Christie:  not yet indicted.

George Pataki:  smart boy glasses didn’t work.

Bobby Jindal:  Kenneth the office boy left the governor’s mansion in Louisiana as the single most potent unifier in state history: everyone, Democrat, Republican, Martian, loathed this incompetent poseur.

Mike Huckabee:  book salesman masquerading as Torquemada.

Scott Walker:  goggle-eyed homunculus almost instantly revealed as a small-time grifter utterly unsuited for the big time.

That leaves four:  Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and the ferret-headed swindler himself.

Jeb?, Graham and Kasich had at least recognizably plausible credentials to mount a presidential bid.  Jeb, of course, was burdened with the worst name in politics, a record in Florida that mostly consisted of having the good sense to preside during a housing boom and to get out before the crash, and an easily torpedoed post-government high-class business-grift career.  Worst of all of course, he turned out to have zero talent as an actual working politician.

Lindsey Graham was always a “message” candidate.  Yes, he’s a senator with actual legislative experience, and on paper he’s at least plausible.  But at no time did he actually capture the interest of a significant faction of the party.  It’s conceivable, at least, that if the Republican field had been the same size as the Democrats — five at the most — he might have had a chance to move from being McCain’s mini-me to some more plausible shot at the nomination, but if I were the Emperor of all the Indies, I’d be farting through silk, and that hasn’t happened either.

John Kasich, as a lot of commentators pointed out, was the most plausible “conventional” candidate on a paint by numbers sort of analysis:  federal experience, re-elected as governor of a large, diverse and swing state, actual policy knowledge.  (All bad policy, of course, but at least he understands the task.)  For all that’s wrong with him on his actual merits, I can’t deny that at the start of the campaign season, he actually appeared to be someone who could say “I’m running for president” with a straight face.

Hence the obvious response to “INVINCIBLE!”  This was the political analogue to a boxing undercard of stiffs, tomato-cans, punchers with slow feet, cutesy fighters better at dancing than fighting and so on.  These were the bouts you arrange so as not to undermine the confidence of a still-raw devotee of the Sweet Science.  They were, as it turned out, palookas.

IOW:  A well-stocked bench does not equal a strong bench, and it’s worth thinking about that a little as we move on to the general.  The Republican party is in a dominant position in state governments and in Congress.  Despite that, it has a dearth of those who can plausibly put themselves forward as national leaders.  And it’s not getting better with the up-and-comers.  Sasse?  Cotton?  Ernst? New Mexico’s Martinez, in a party now led by an anti-Latino bigot…and so on.

Or think on the surrogates the two nominees-presumptive can bring to bear on the campaign at hand.  As lots have noted, Hillary gets POTUS, FLOTUS, Uncle Joe, Senator Professor Warren, and some guy named Bill as her starting five.  Combover Caligula (thanks Betty!)? Chris Christie. Somebody.  Somebody else.  Somebody’s twin nephews.  Or, if we take his former rivals expressions of support seriously:  Christie, Rubio, and I don’t know, maybe a couple more.

I’m not writing this to gloat or to suggest that the election is over.  It’s not.  Trump is many things, but what makes him dangerous is that he has a dedicated, too-large base of support he knows exactly how to motivate.  We let our guard down, he and they win; the country and the world loses.

But that phrase “a deep bench” still needs examination.  The 2016 Republican primary is, as our troll suggests, a measure of the state of the party.  There’s no doubt it commands power. What’s striking, though, is how thoroughly mediocre are those who wield it.

Which is, of course, why they must be destroyed, their cities sacked, and their fields sown with salt.

Factia Grandeava Delenda Est.

Image: Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools, c. 1494-1510.

Up Next: The General

April 30, 2013

So — we know what’s coming up next in Massachusetts: Ed Markey vs. Gabriel Gomez.  Markey’s a 36 year veteran in the House; Gomez is an alledgedly “pure” non politician with all the attributes the national Republican Party wants to see — Latino, a former Seal, private-equity “job creating” vampire.

We’ve seen how this can play out even in not-as-liberal-as-our-rep Massachusetts.  Remember Senator Coakley?

There are real, big differences this time of course.  No Obamacare debate, nor teabagger summer of 2o09.  We’ve seen the Republican party in its howling glory a lot in the last two and half years, and Massachusetts Democrats are profoundly committed to not seeing Scott Brown II play at any multiplexes next year.  Not to mention Ed Markey isn’t Martha Coakley, for which I’m grateful indeed.  But I’m deeply mindful of what about a dozen of us heading out to canvass for Markey on Sunday heard from this guy:

Dukakis crop

Mike Dukakis was a damn good governor, and he would have made a much better president than Bush the elder.  Dukakis is particularly admirable because, in the tradition of the good guys, he hasn’t dropped out of public life or public service just because he’s not running for anything anymore.  And boy does he know his home town.

I’d never met him before, and so after we chatted for a while, he asked me where in Brookline I live.  I’m on a truly minor one block long street which boasts a grand total of, I think, seven houses that actually have addresses on our road (we’ve got a couple more on the corners that the larger through streets claim).  I said the street name and started to explain where it was and he stopped me.  “I know them all,” he said, and I believe the man.

So what did he say?  He told us to get out and knock on every door — not just Sunday, but as much as we could before today, and then again, as much as we can, over and over again between now and June 25th, the day of the general election.  We’ve seen what happens when we don’t, he reminded us — and the he said not to pay any attention to the numbers.  “I’m the guy who was 40% ahead of Ed King with five weeks to go and lost that election.”  (Quoting from memory, backed up by this interview.)

The point is obvious, right?

Ed Markey is a hard core, old fashioned liberal.  The kind of senator we need right now, in ever greater numbers.  He’s going to start out with a substantial lead.  About three times as many Democrats as Republicans voted in this primary.  Markey’s vote total alone exceeds the GOP vote for all three of their candidates.  And he can lose.  If he doesn’t campaign better than Martha Coakley did, he may well lose.  He won’t, both because I think it is actually physically impossible to do a worse job in an election than Coakley did, and because he’s not stupid.  He’s not a charismatic guy at all, but he works and works and works.  Which is all good.

But there are no guarantees.

So my wife and I will be handing over a few more bucks, and we’ll be hitting the phones and knocking on doors.  The state party’s a lot smarter than it was when it let Brown blindside everyone three years ago, and the national party isn’t going to let this one slip either.  But if any of y’all are in the area, we could use your help.  Ask Mike Dukakis.  He’ll tell you.

A Modest Proposal: A Science Initiative for the Obama Administration

November 7, 2008

Update: I’ve just submitted a very short version of the thought below to our new President-elect (I can’t tell you how much I like writing that)…which is a way of letting y’all know that the Obama campaign’s vision of participatory democracy is open for business here.

Now the work begins.

As discussed on this blog, perhaps too often, federal science funding for the last eight years has been tough to miserable, with research support ranging from just ahead of inflation to notably behind.  Given what’s going on out there (paging Mr. Lehman….) it’s no one’s idea of a safe bet to assume that the dreamt-of doubling of basic research funds is going to occur anytime soon.

But I’d like to lay down one relatively cheap marker that would, I think, have a significant impact on both the culture and the productivity of American scientific research to a degree disproportionate to the underlying amount of dollars.  It’s not a new idea, and hardly original to me –but seeing as it has been completely out of court for almost a decade, I think it bears repeating, even if it is old news to veterans of the business.

It’s simple:  create a pool of no or few-strings attached new money* to support young researchers and scientists-in-training to create the space to foster creative, even wild-ass ideas.

I’m looking at the three engines of daily research:   graduate students; post docs; and young principal investigators.

The basic parameters:  tuition/stipend support for a lot of graduate students — just to pull a number out of the air, say one thousand per year.  (That’s a lot by some measures, not that many for the country as a whole…but the goal at the cutting edge is to make sure that everyone who can in fact work on that edge has the means to do so.  And the point is not so much the support for the students themselves…it’s the indirect support to the top labs across the country the resource of “free” young top talent would provide.)

Same again for postdocs.  Maybe five hundred here –more numbers out of the air.  Up the grant amount for the support/stipend a bit to include some discretionary funding, enough to get the winners to conferences and around to the labs of potential collaborators.  Again such support serves multiple goals:  launching promising careers, subsidizing good labs, and fostering a network of young talented scientists around the country.

And finally, perhaps most important, get real research cash in the hands of young PIs, in a significant expansion of a program President Clinton established in the ’90s.  Currently, the NSF nominates up to twenty young scientists and engineers for grants of up to $80,000 a year for five years (down from 100k/year under Clinton; remember, the Bush years have not been kind to American science, and hence to long term American prosperity and security).  The White House OSTP makes the final selection, and if you are one of the few, the happy few, you get released from the full burden of satisfying the grant process to support your research at the most critical moments of your career.

I’d like to see that juiced — a lot — given my bet that there are more than a dozen or so young researchers on whom it might be worth the country’s money to risk a bet.

And I do mean bet.  All of this is a gamble. Folks selected for any level of this kind of program will be chosen not based on a track record, but on promise, on evidence of creative thinking.

The other  key to the idea is that the application/nomination process be as simple and as stripped down as possible.  None of these phone-book sized grants proposals.  Brief narratives of the projects; a CV; letters of recs and that’s it.  Not even a budget; these would be either be student/postdoc support, which is what it is, or real discretionary research money: go crazy folks, have a party.

Not every person given such free rein to think and work will rise to the opportunity.  But every scholar and thinker I’ve talked to over thirty years or so who has had the chance just to do the work without worrying about justifying results that have not yet been achieved has described a kind of turbocharging of their thinking that comes as they focus on the ideas, and not the grant writing process.

I know that it  goes against the grain to give cash away without a full case being made for all the reasons a given experiment, a given line of research, is likely to produce useful outcomes within the grant period.  Certainly some of these liberated young researchers will be less effective than others.  But the attempt to make a perfect match between funding and product outcomes can produce such risk-averseness — not to mention an enormous amount of time and energy devoted to the mechanics of the funding process that the outcomes are worse and the efficiency of the money spent is less than desired even if everything works out just fine.  If you want to catalyze big hits, then some failure rate has to be endured.

In any event, measured against the federal budget as a whole, even a very ambitious program of no- or loose-strings-attached grants and researcher support doesn’t add up to that much.  This is the cheap end of the business — and it seems to me that this would be a good place to start creating the sense of intellectual play, of possibility that tell the American research community that it is time to start looking at those crazy-like-a-fox ideas again.

Of course, I work at a major research university that will be scrabbling for funds over the next few years, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?  But even disclosing such damning conflict of interest, I have to say that my direct experience here is that the amount of discretionary funding it takes to enable someone to take a flyer on a cool idea is shockingly small, and potentially transformative.

As a side, and program-self-congratulatory-note, check out this video, made by my students on work supported by a pocket of money MIT biologist Anthony Sinskey.**  It describes what happens when someone finds a way to support a wild goose chase, even against his better judgment.

*That is:  don’t pay for this by robbing the already starved existing pools of research funding in the federal budget.

**This video, made by the rest of my students tells the same story with a different twist. Both are fun.

Image:  Harriet Moore, “Michael Faraday in his Laboratory in the Royal Institution,” nineteenth century.