March 19, 2019

Three Unneeded Presidential Candidates

The pool of candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination is large and growing. This is a mixed blessing, and some of the contenders are not helpful additions to the race.

It is gratifying, of course, that so many people are qualified (or see themselves as being qualified) to seek the presidency. Before hats began being thrown into the proverbial ring, I had a short, if tentative, list of those I thought reasonable candidates. My list included few of the present hopefuls, and at least one person on my list shows no inclination to run. It is good to have choices, though, and to learn of qualifications of which I had been unaware. But such a large field creates problems by its size alone.

Campaigning is expensive, and, although some candidates have reported striking fund-raising success early on, I worry that there will be insufficient money to create anything like a level playing field for all the players. But the advent of Donald Trump has energized the Democratic faithful, so my concern could be unfounded. I plan to give money to at least one candidate.

The value of presidential debates has been questioned, but debates among candidates for the nomination are undoubtedly useful, since, invariably, not everyone is well-known. With so many candidates, however, it is difficult to design a debate format that allows all candidates to be compared head-to-head. Certainly, the “kids’ table” plan used by the Republicans in 2016 was not satisfactory. I think Democrats are determined to avoid that mistake, but it is difficult to imagine a debate scheme that works equally well for 5 candidates and for twenty candidates. The fairness and usefulness of debates are difficult to assure.

Because there are so many contenders, it may be hard for voters to distinguish candidates from one another generally and from similarly positioned rivals specifically. Some candidates claim to be progressive, and others are pitching themselves as moderates, though they may not use that word. (Certainly, no Democrat is claiming to be conservative.) Devising a linear ordering of candidates from centrist to leftist is difficult enough, and it is complicated by differential financial support and the vagaries of debates and media coverage. Other factors complicate the choice faced by voters—issues of sex, race, age, experience, and aggressiveness.

With so many people running, our usual voting system is not well-suited to selecting the people’s choice. For example, the progressive vote could be split among left-leaning candidates, allowing a more moderate candidate to gain a plurality of votes. Delegate selection is not winner-take-all everywhere, of course, but, in an ideal world, we would be using some form of ranked preference voting in all our elections. (See, for example, “The People’s Choice (Round Two).”) Unfortunately, such an innovation is a hard sell. Don’t discount a crapshoot.

On the positive side, the presidential-primary process is a kind of trial by ordeal. Over a period of months, candidates invariably stumble. The nature of their mistakes and how they recover from them offer insight into their character, their staff choices, and their capabilities. One hopes that such insight helps voters make better choices.

Considering all of the foregoing, there are three candidates I would prefer not to see in the Democratic race: Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden.

It concerns me that Beto O’Rourke is fundamentally a pretty face. He is winsome, articulate, handsome, youthful, and devoid of significant political accomplishment. Admittedly, youthfulness is not to be despised, but I worry that O’Rourke will draw support from older candidates of substance. I fear that Trump would eat him for breakfast.

There are two obvious strikes against Bernie Sanders, in my mind at least. First, he is not a Democrat. Why do we even let him run in Democratic primaries? Admittedly, he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, but one has to ask why he avoids casting his lot with the party whose nomination he seeks. If he does not win the nomination, he will remain only a near-Democrat. More importantly, Sanders is—pardon the ageist rhetoric—old, even older than Donald Trump. If elected president, he would begin his term at age 79. Is it a fair bet that he could remain a capable executive and commander-in-chief through two full terms? Surely, we do not want to elect a one-term Democratic president. Sanders has proposed interesting objectives, but it is less clear that he has practical policies that could reasonably implement them. One can only guess at Sanders’ foreign policy priorities. His candidacy will drain votes from younger left-leaning candidates without Sanders’ name recognition and fund-raising ability.

Finally, we come to Joe Biden. In his way, he is as charming as Beto O’Rourke, though his propensity to hug anything that moves is a little creepy. Unlike some other candidates, no one seriously questions Biden’s qualifications—Trump would, of course—though, admittedly, he has some slipups in his past. Biden is nearly as old as Sanders, however, and I think that should be considered too old. Moreover, in the Democratic field, he is clearly a moderate. His name-recognition advantage may keep the party from selecting what I think is necessary to beat Donald Trump, namely, an aggressive liberal (or aggressive progressive, if you prefer).

The race for the Democratic nomination is just beginning. As of this writing, Joe Biden is still doing his Hamlet impression, but few doubt that he will enter the fray. I hope he does not and does not do well if he does. I hope people will see Bernie Sanders as a grumpy old man unlikely to gain the support of those who do not support him already. And I hope that Democrats will see Beto O’Rourke is a promising candidate in need of additional experience and accomplishment.

However the primary season plays out, it is likely to be a wild ride. Stay tuned.

March 4, 2019

Six Language Quibbles

What is wrong with the sentence below?

Both accused each other.

This is but one of the issues I deal with in a new essay on my Web site titled “Six Language Quibbles.” You can read what drives me crazy here.

March 3, 2019

An MLB Safety Concern

While watching a Spring Training baseball game the other day, I saw a fielder practically trip over a chair used by a ball girl in foul territory. Her chair need not have been a safety hazard. I’ve added an essay about this situation on my Web site. You can read “Another MLB Safety Concern” here.

February 19, 2019

A General Principle Regarding Odd Results

A few days ago, I baked cookies from a recipe published by The New York Times, a kind of salty chocolate chip shortbread. I had originally intended to bake the cookies for a Christmas Eve reception, but I was just getting around to it. Besides being intrigued by the ingredients of the cookies—including flake salt and demerara sugar—I was pleased that the recipe supplied both volume and weight for each of its dry components. Being able to weigh ingredients promised a foolproof baking experience.

Well, maybe not. The dough was very crumbly and difficult to work with. The baked cookies were just OK but were too chocolatey, a fact that reminded me of an oddity I noticed during preparation. The recipe called for six ounces of chocolate chips. I measured out chips from what was supposed to be a 12-ounce bag. Six ounces of chocolate chips seemed to require about three-quarters of the bag. I didn’t think deeply about this at the time, but I wondered if Ghirardelli wasn’t playing fair.

The next morning, I had cereal for breakfast, and, as I usually do, I measured out a 56-gram serving on my kitchen scale. The quantity of cereal seemed to be about what I usually put into my cereal bowl. I recalled, however, that the last time I had cereal, my 56-gram serving seemed substantially larger. I began to see a pattern I should have noticed earlier. Had my scale gone bananas?

After breakfast, I decided to check my scale’s calibration. Although I didn’t have a set of standard weights, I did have a few items of known weight, if only approximately so. I began with a three-pound hand weight. According to my scale, it weighed about 2.5 pounds. My other three-pound weight weighed about the same. I next tried weighing some coins. A nickel, which is supposed to weigh 5 grams, came in at 3 grams. At this point, I concluded that my kitchen scale had lost its mind. Time for another scale.

Eventually, I found a Cook’s Illustrated story rating kitchen scales. This led me to order an outrageously expensive Oxo scale from Williams-Sonoma, mercifully, with a 20% discount for God knows what reason. Alas, the scale is back ordered at the moment. I look forward to receiving it next month.

The next day, I checked the batteries in my scale (two AAA cells). They checked out fine and supplied almost exactly the same voltage. I really do need a new scale.

There is a lesson here, one that has nothing to do with baking. The lesson is this: When a result is out-of-the-ordinary, one should not ignore it or be happy if the unexpected result appears favorable. Instead, one should check out whether something is amiss, as it probably is. This principle applies to the behavior of computers, cellphones, cars (especially) and people. Stay alert!

February 13, 2019

Breakfast Encounter

I had a rough morning, so I decided to have breakfast out. I went to Crouse Café, which serves only breakfast and lunch, and which does a particularly fine job of breakfast. I sat down in a booth, took off my hat, gloves, and jacket, and got comfortable.

I soon became aware of someone sitting at a table facing my booth a few yards away. The person was a 20-ish, bearded male speaking what I guessed was Arabic. He wore earbuds and was carrying on a lively conversation on his cellphone. What was weird was that, although no one was sitting across from him, he spoke and gestured as though someone was. It was as if an invisible companion, with his back to me, was participating in the conversation. Were it not for the earbuds, I might have thought the guy was conversing with Harvey.

When I talk on the telephone, I don’t believer I act in the same way I would were I participating in a face-to-face conversation. Of course, I don’t observe myself in such circumstances, so I may behave stranger than I think.

Have others seen the behavior I did this morning? Do you think it is common?

January 15, 2019

Why Concern About the Trump-Russian Connection Is Not Simply Paranoia

If President Donald Trump did not have a problematic relationship with the Russian government and if he were a mentally healthy person of normal intelligence, he would recognize that appearances raise legitimate concerns about that relationship, and he would offer a satisfactory explanation for those appearances, rather than constantly asserting that “there was no collusion.”

January 14, 2019

Protecting Already-Born Women

Having read the extended report by the editorial board of The New York Times titled “A Woman’s Rights,” I was distressed to read the story in my local paper, The Indiana Gazette, that carried the headline “White Seeking Change to Pennsylvania High Court’s Decision.” “White” is the powerful local state senator Don White, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision referred to ruled that a woman cannot be charged with child abuse for her drug use during pregnancy. A Gazette story a few days earlier explained that
The Supreme Court’s main opinion said the law’s definition of a child does not include fetuses or unborn children, and victims of perpetrators must be children under the Child Protective Services Law.
I immediately recognized the danger in Senator White’s proposal. After a couple of days’ consideration, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Gazette that was published last week. The text of my letter follows:
I oppose state Sen. Don White’s efforts to facilitate prosecution for child abuse of mothers who have taken illegal drugs (“White seeking change to high court’s decision,” Sunday).
Whereas his appears to be a sincere effort to protect the innocent, it is actually a step toward granting personhood to the unborn and abridging the constitutional rights of women. Attributing personhood (and therefore rights) to the unborn is a legal minefield intended by anti-choice activists ultimately to outlaw abortion and perhaps even birth control.
In the near future, it could allow for such absurdities as prosecution for homicide of less-than-perfect mothers experiencing miscarriages. Senator White’s proposal must not become law.
Lionel Deimel
Indiana
Whether my letter will cause people to rethink their initial reaction to Senator White’s proposal, I don’t know. I hope it will.

Can We Find Common Ground on the Wall?

The government shutdown caused by President Trump’s insistence that Congress appropriate nearly six billion dollars for his border wall continues into this week. A wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico is a wasteful and ineffectual project dreamed up by the Trump campaign to rally Trump’s most rabid and ignorant voters. The Democrats, fresh from a major win in the recent midterm elections, see an opportunity not only to derail an ill-conceived project but also to deliver a devasting blow to a dangerous and incompetent president. Trump recognizes the threat and is seeking to avoid defeat at all costs.

I suggested earlier that the current standoff will likely end when constituents pressure the Congress to reactivate those parts of the government that have been closed down. At that point, a funding bill could be passed over a presidential veto. Before that happens, Trump may declare an “emergency,” which could trigger a constitutional crisis those outcome cannot be predicted. Is a compromise available that delivers at least a partial victory to each side? I think there is.

Trump’s wall is clearly a wacky idea that, even if built, would not fulfill his promise of its being paid for by the Mexican government. That said, our southern border already contains lengths of barriers that have been considered necessary and effective by both Republicans and Democrats. Trump’s funding demand clearly will not complete a Great Wall of America. However, what if the president proposed building a specific type of barrier in specified places and articulated credible justification for the project? If he is incapable of doing this, gridlock will continue. If Trump can offer a rational argument for a limited construction project and not just his I-want-it-so-you-have-to-give-it-to-me reasoning, perhaps politicians can find a compromise to fund an enhanced border barrier and reopen the government.

Likely, neither the president nor congressional Democrats will be fond of my suggestion, but, if politics is the art of the possible, there may be a way forward to be had on the table.

January 5, 2019

A Prediction

I am not in the habit of making predictions regarding political events. Prognostication too easily leads to embarrassment. Nevertheless, today I confidently stick my neck out: The partial government shutdown will not last a year (as President Trump suggested it could) or any substantial part of a year. You can take that prediction to the bank.

As we enter the third week of the government shutdown caused by Trump’s insistence of being granted billions of dollars—the latest number is 5.6—for construction of a wasteful and unnecessary wall on our southern border, neither the president himself nor the newly empowered Democrats seem inclined to abandon the presently held position. Trump views wall-building as the fulfillment of a major campaign promise, though he seems to have forgotten the other part of his promise, namely, that Mexico would pay for the wall. Democrats, emboldened by their electoral success in the recent midterms, are presenting a united front against funding Trump’s Folly, though not against money for “border security.” Each side believes it would be suicidal to relent.

Democrats, however, have the stronger position. The government shutdown, contrary to Trump¹s confident, yet uninformed, prattle, is not popular, particularly among those whose livelihood is being threatened by it. Moreover, Trump has gleefully taken credit for the shutdown, though he now is trying to pin the blame on the Democrats. The Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, on the other hand, have presented a picture of reasonableness, being willing to pay for border security and to accept funding priorities previously adopted by a Republican Senate.

Long before the year Trump has suggested a shutdown might last, Americans will revolt. They will insist on having their National Parks, airport security, and income tax refunds. The Trump base may stick with its champion, but Republican members of Congress will see the writing on the wall. If they continue to support the president and his infantile tantrums over wall funding, their own continued employment will be in jeopardy. Republicans will eventually have to respond to the angry cards, letters, and phone calls from Americans demanding an end to governmental insanity and a return to business as usual. Calls for money to build a wall will be few and far between.

In the end, President Trump will lose and lose big. His intransigence may itself be sufficient to make impeachment seem like the only reasonable way forward.

God save the United States of America!

January 4, 2019

Congress, Grow a Backbone

For the past two years, Congress, under Republican control, refused to pass bills—in many cases, even refused to consider bills—that President Trump had declared he would not sign. Undoubtedly, congressional Republicans and the president were often in agreement regarding public policy, though likely not always. Party loyalty was assuredly being put before concerns for the public good.

The Founding Fathers created a form of government consisting of three branches. Those branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—were related to one another, but they were intended to possess a substantial degree of independence. In particular, it was not the intent of the Constitution that the president would be the determiner of what bills Congress would pass.

To a remarkable degree, President Trump has merged the legislative and executive branches into a unified body for the creation of public policy. More worrisome still has been the Republican packing of the judicial branch with judges holding unpopular views, but views consistent with those of our current, unpopular president. It is not hyperbolic to suggest that the checks and balances built into the polity of the United States of America are threatened as never before.

A ray of hope for democracy is represented by the capture of control of the House of Representatives by members of the Democratic (not Democrat!) Party. Democrats are immediately challenging what has become the status quo. The House has passed spending legislation consistent with what the Senate passed in the previous Congress. That legislation lacks funding for Trump’s ill-conceived wall, however. The Senate should concur with what the House has done and challenge the president to veto the legislation. Surely, Trump would be inclined to exercise a veto, but doing so would likely be widely unpopular, particularly among workers being deprived of their livelihood by the current partial government shutdown.

Congress has an opportunity to assert its independence and should do so forthwith. It is unlikely that Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell will allow a vote on legislation the president doesn't want, but allowing the Senate to vote on the legislation passed by the House will give the Senate, Senator McConnell, and the American people more power. Congress’s growth of a backbone just might force the president to do something he doesn’t want to do. At the very least, it would put President Trump between a rock and a hard place.