The Pasty Little Putz tells us all about “How Obama Lost America.” He insists there are four explanations for the Democrats’ biggest problem heading into the midterms. MoDo, in “A Cup of G.I. Joe,” says Howard Schultz of Starbucks says America is good at sending people to war but bad at bringing them home. He has a plan to help. The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Flying Blind in Iraq and Syria.” He asks with no reporters inside ISIS territory to document the war, how do we know what’s happnening on the ground? Gee, Tommy, you’re a reporter and I’m sure you have a passport… Mr. Kristof tells us “Teenagers Stand Up to Backpage,” and that some brave girls who say they were sold for sex on Backpage.com are fighting back in lawsuits that could have far-reaching implications for sex trafficking in America. Mr. Bruni considers “The Pitiful Wimper of 2014″ and says voters abhor the status quo. He also has a question: When will someone present them with anything truly different? Here’s The Putz:
The midterms have featured many variables and one constant. Whether they’re running as incumbents or challengers, campaigning in blue or red or purple states, Democratic candidates have all been dragging an anchor: a president from their party whose approval ratings haven’t been north of 45 percent since last October.
The interesting question is why. You may recall that Mitt Romney built his entire 2012 campaign strategy around the assumption that a terrible economy would suffice to deny Barack Obama a second term. Yet throughout 2012, with the unemployment rate still up around 8 percent, Obama’s approval numbers stayed high enough (the mid-to-upper 40s) to ultimately win. Whereas today the unemployment rate has fallen to 6 percent, a number Team Obama would have traded David Axelrod’s right kidney for two years ago, but the White House hasn’t benefited: The public’s confidence is gone, and it doesn’t seem to be coming back.
So when and how was it lost? When President Bush’s second-term job approval numbers tanked, despite decent-at-the-time economic numbers, the explanation was easy: It was Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. But nothing quite so pat presents itself in Obama’s case, so here are four partial theories instead.
He gets blamed for Republican intransigence. This is the explanation that many Obama partisans favor, because it lets him mostly off the hook. The theory is that with the country as polarized as it is, and with the public inclined to blame the president for gridlock, the natural state for presidential approval ratings is a kind of regression toward the low 40s. This regression can be interrupted only by either some major unforeseen event or the emergence of a challenger — Romney for Obama, John Kerry for George W. Bush — who reminds voters that they dislike the other party more. But once the challenger is beaten, the process resumes: Just as Bush’s post-9/11 ratings declined steadily except when Kerry was on the scene, so too Obama’s numbers were doomed to decay once he won a second term.
It’s the economy — yes, still: This explanation raises an eyebrow at the last one and says, come on: If the economy were enjoying a 1990s-style boom, surely Obama would have a decent chance at Clinton-level approval ratings, gridlock or no gridlock! But even with the improving employment picture this recovery is still basically a disappointment, especially for the middle class. So the contrast between Obama’s position in 2012 and his weaker one today isn’t necessarily a case study in the economy not mattering. It’s an example of voter patience persisting for a while, and finally running out.
It’s Obamacare — yes, still. This is the closest equivalent to Bush and the Iraq War: The health care law is Obama’s signature issue, it remains largely unpopular (even if support for full repeal is weak), and its initial stumbling coincided with the sharpest second-term drop in the president’s approval. Fixing the website may have stabilized the system, but by design Obamacare still creates many losers as well as winners, and a persistent dissatisfaction with shifts in coverage and costs could be the crucial drag keeping Americans dissatisfied with their president as well.
It’s foreign policy — and competence. One of the interesting features of the 2012 campaign was that as much as the economy made Obama’s sales pitch challenging, he had an edge that Democratic politicians often lack: The public trusted him on foreign policy. But that trust began to erode with the Edward Snowden affair, it eroded further during our non-attack on Bashar al-Assad last fall, and recent events in Ukraine and Iraq have essentially made Obama’s position irrecoverable: His approval rating on foreign policy is around 35 percent in most recent polling.
But this harsh judgment probably isn’t explicitly ideological: The public isn’t necessarily turning neoconservative or pining for the days of Bush. Instead, it mostly reflects a results-based verdict on what seems like poor execution, in which the White House’s slow response to ISIS is of a piece with the Obamacare rollout and the V.A. scandal and various other second-term asleep-at-the-tiller moments. It’s a problem of leadership that reflects badly on liberalism but doesn’t necessarily vindicate conservatism.
And it’s because it isn’t explicitly ideological that the Democrats still have a chance in many states on Tuesday. From North Carolina to New Hampshire to Georgia, their candidates are being tugged downward by the Obama anchor, but they’re still bobbing, still only half-submerged, waiting for undecideds to break (or just stay home).
In many ways, Republicans have enjoyed in 2014 the kind of landscape they expected in 2012: a landscape in which nobody save Democratic partisans particularly supports President Obama anymore. What we’re about to find out is whether, amid that disillusionment, just being the not-Obama party is enough.
Next up we have MoDo:
When I close my eyes, I can easily flash back to a time when it was cool to call people in uniform “pigs” and “baby killers.”
If you had any family members in the police or military in the Vietnam era, you know how searing that was.
Now we give our veterans respect, early boarding at airports and standing ovations at ballgames. Yet it’s becoming clear that it’s not enough.
With no draft and fewer than 1 percent volunteering to serve, most Americans have no personal connection to anyone who went to Iraq or Afghanistan. There’s a schism between the warriors and the people they were fighting for.
Instead of ticker-tape parades, the veterans returned to find Americans in a crouch, wishing they could forget the military adventures of the last decade. Hollywood was turning out movies showcasing heroic veterans, but they were from World War II. And scandals scarred Walter Reed and an ill-prepared Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The government does a very good job of sending people to war,” Howard Schultz, the C.E.O. of Starbucks, told me in New York this past week, “and a very poor job of bringing them home.”
Schultz was more conversant with espresso shots than rifle shots when he was invited to speak to West Point cadets about leadership in 2011.
His father had served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II but never spoke of it. As a teenager, he sat in front of the TV with his mother when it was announced that young men with draft numbers from 1 to 125 were going to Vietnam.
“When I tell my story to my kids, they think I’m making it up: ‘What do you mean there was a lottery?’ ” he said. “And I remember it was literally a lottery where they picked out balls. And my number was 332, so I didn’t go. But I would have.”
After touring what he called “the sacred ground” of the military academy, he started to speak and choked up.
“It is I who should be learning from you,” he told the cadets. “You are the true leaders.”
It is good to cast your company in a patriotic glow, of course. But Schultz is also a man of open sentimentality, obsession with transformation and ferocious enthusiasms — be it for coffee, mermaids, basketball, biking, Israel or China. His epiphany at West Point led to an odyssey with veterans, a mission to get Americans to have more “skin in the game.”
“Before going to West Point, I had never even spoken to anyone in uniform,” he shares in a new book he wrote with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post war correspondent. “As I look back, I’m embarrassed.”
He put former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the Starbucks board, committed $30 million from his family foundation to projects including research on post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma, and he visited the Pentagon, Walter Reed and military bases. He and Chandrasekaran produced “For Love of Country: What our veterans can teach us about citizenship, heroism, and sacrifice,” a slender volume with harrowing and heroic stories of war and coming home. Schultz’s proceeds will go to the Onward Veterans fund, which was created by the Schultz Family Foundation.
The coffee czar joined a growing list of corporations getting good P.R. by pledging to hire a million veterans, even though there are only about 200,000 post-9/11 veterans out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Schultz has hired 1,000 vets and spouses and committed to give jobs to 9,000 more by 2019.
He has organized a Concert for Valor on the Mall on Veterans Day, featuring stars from Bruce Springsteen to Eminem to Rihanna, a way to celebrate soldiers and urge the public to get involved with veterans’ groups vetted by Gates and Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The free concert, put on by Starbucks, HBO and JPMorgan Chase, will be shown live on HBO, even for those without subscriptions.
Schultz said that many vets he talked to had lost “a sense of core purpose.” He writes that tens of thousands of vets have grave injuries that will require a huge financial commitment and that healthy vets eager to join the work force “are too often viewed as damaged goods.”
There is a discernible P.T.S.D. bias among employers. Veterans Affairs estimates that 11 percent to 20 percent of the more than 2.4 million post-9/11 veterans suffer from P.T.S.D. I wondered if it was harder because of the sour view of the two wars. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey in April, 50 percent of the vets polled didn’t believe that Iraq was worth fighting and 41 percent didn’t believe Afghanistan was worth it.
Pfc. James Cathcart — suffering from P.T.S.D. and looking for work in Colorado in January — expressed his anguish to The Times’s Richard Oppel Jr. after ISIS raised its black flag over Falluja, Iraq, where so many Marines and soldiers died and were wounded capturing the city twice: “Lives were wasted, and now everyone back home sees that. It was irresponsible to send us over there with no plan, and now to just give it all away.”
But Schultz said that in his private chats with vets, “I never had one conversation where anyone brought up the politics. What I did hear, countless times, is, ‘I want to go back.’ ”
Chandrasekaran said that we need to weave the vets, recovering from the strain of multiple tours and terrains strewn with I.E.D.s, back into the American narrative.
“In 1946, if your neighbor was watering the street at night because he was kind of crazy from shell shock, you knew that everyone coming back wasn’t crazy because your brother or son or husband had served and was successfully transitioning,” he said. “We don’t have that common understanding anymore. So if someone goes and shoots up Fort Hood, there are all those people who think all vets are a bunch of killers-to-be. And that’s not the case. So the aperture needs to widen.”
Schultz produced glossy film clips for the concert. One shows the macchiato mogul, wearing an Army-green down vest, greeting troops with his blonde wife, Sheri, as heart-tugging piano music plays. I note that it is bound to make viewers wonder if he’s partly motivated by a desire to run for president.
“I have an interest in trying to make a difference,” he said. “I don’t know where that’s going to lead.” He believes that “the country is longing for leadership and for truth with a capital T.”
The American dream is frayed, he says, adding: “We’ve lost our collective and individual responsibility, and to a large degree our conscience, and that has to be addressed. And that is linked to a dysfunctional government and a lack of authentic, truthful leadership. Am I depressing you?”
If the people who send troops off to war aren’t risking their own children as well it’s easier. Bring back the draft. Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, has accompanied its brutal takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria with the kidnapping and beheading of journalists. Any Western journalists who would dare to venture into ISIS territory today would be risking their lives every second. So the United States is now involved in the first prolonged war in the modern Middle East that American reporters and photographers can’t cover firsthand on a daily basis, with the freedom to observe and write what they please and with the sustained presence to offer perspective on how the story is evolving. That is not good.
But it gets worse. The Times reported last week that ISIS had one of its British hostages act as a combat reporter in a propaganda video from the Syrian town of Kobani, “forecasting that the town is about to fall to militants despite waves of American airstrikes,” and suggesting that ISIS was getting even more savvy in promoting its cause by adopting the techniques of a 24-hour news channel. “ ‘Hello, I’m John Cantlie,’ the hostage says in the video, dressed in black, ‘and today we are in the city of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border. That is, in fact, Turkey right behind me.’ ”
And it will get even worse. Dylan Byers, Politico’s media reporter, wrote on Oct. 23 that the F.B.I. had sent a bulletin to news organizations warning that ISIL had identified reporters and media personalities as “legitimate targets for retribution attacks” in response to the U.S.-led airstrikes.
What are we missing by not having reporters permanently present inside ISIS territory? A lot. We can’t answer for ourselves important questions: How is our bombing campaign being perceived? Is it drawing ISIS fighters and local Iraqi Sunnis closer together or pushing them apart? How is ISIS governing, running schools and the justice system, and how is this perceived by Iraqis and Syrians under its rule? What motivates so many losers and lost souls to join this jihadist movement? Do we have the right message directed at them? I could go on.
Retiring Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns recently authored a piece in Foreign Policy magazine with his parting advice to American diplomats. He quoted Edward R. Murrow, the CBS News giant, advising incoming diplomats that the “really critical link in the international communications chain is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact — one person talking to another.”
The same is true for reporters and photographers. Sure, polls, graphs and Twitter feeds are important. They are one form of data. But interviewing another human being about hopes and dreams, fears and hatreds, is also a form of data collecting and analysis — something the best diplomats, journalists and historians rely upon. You can’t capture in numbers a raised eyebrow or a wry smile or the fear in a refugee’s eyes or the regret in a militiaman’s voice. Sometimes just listening to someone’s silence speaks volumes.
I often reflect on interviews I did with Egyptian women at an all-female voting station in the poorest neighborhood in Cairo in the 2012 election that brought a Muslim Brotherhood leader to the presidency. Almost all of them had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. But when I asked why, not a single one cited religion. Instead they said that Morsi would bring jobs, security, sidewalks, better living conditions and an end to corruption — in short, better governance. Morsi was eventually toppled for bringing none of those, not because he was impious.
Recently, Vice News used the veteran Al Jazeera and Arabic photojournalist Medyan Dairieh to produce a compelling documentary from Syria, called “The Islamic State.” But that was a one-shot deal done with “conditions in order to get in and get out with your life,” Jason Mojica, the Vice News editor in chief, told a panel at N.Y.U., according to The Huffington Post.
I asked Mina al-Oraibi, assistant editor of the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, how an Arabic daily covered ISIS:
“We have our correspondents supported by a few local stringers who risk their lives by being in touch with us from Iraq. However, we have a blackout from ISIS-controlled areas in Syria, especially Raqqa. In Iraq, our use of phones and emails to get information leaves us worried about the safety of these reporters, and often they are working without knowing how they will eventually get paid. … Having said that, our coverage is enriched by networks of Iraqis and Syrians reaching out to tell us their stories, in addition to relations with Iraqis, Syrians, and other Arabs who have either interacted with some ISIS militants or had relations with them when they were under other banners.”
But the reality, she added, “is that much of what we know is either from ISIS militants, or anecdotal stories from observers or people with families in places controlled by ISIS.”
Indeed, ISIS is telling us what it wants us to know through Twitter and Facebook, and keeping from us anything it doesn’t want us to know. So be wary of what anyone tells you about this war — good, bad or indifferent. Without independent reporting on the ground, we’re in for some surprises. If you don’t go, you don’t know.
And now we get to Mr. Kristof:
If prostitution of children is illegal, why is it that we allow an estimated 100,000 underage girls and boys to be sold for sex in America each year — many on a single American website, Backpage.com?
That’s a reflection of law enforcement priorities, but several brave girls who allege that they were pimped on Backpage are trying to change them. They are fighting back in lawsuits that could have far-reaching implications for sex trafficking in America.
Two young women who say they were each sold on Backpage at age 15, and raped hundreds of times as a result, are suing the company in Boston in federal court. Another suit is winding its way through Washington State courts, pursued by three girls who say they, too, were sold for sex on Backpage — in the case of two of them, when they were 13 years old.
The girls in the federal suit are represented pro bono by a major Boston law firm, Ropes & Gray, which has five lawyers on the case. The suit charges that Backpage has “perfected a business model that profits substantially from aiding and participating with pimps and traffickers in the sexual exploitation of children.”
“When on Backpage, I was advertised in the same way as a car or a phone, but with even less value than a bike,” says one of the girls who is a plaintiff in the federal suit. “Men would view their options, and if I seemed like the best one, they would call.”
Now 17, she says she was sold for sex on Backpage when she was 15 and 16; she estimates that she was raped 1,000 times as a result. She is seeking damages and whatever injunctions the court finds appropriate, but she is not explicitly seeking to close down the entire Backpage site.
Some readers may scoff that this is about censorship of free speech. No, it’s about human rights — because one of the most searing rights abuses in America is the sexual exploitation of children.
Nor is the issue prostitution. Whatever one thinks of legalizing sexual transactions among adults, we should all be able to agree that children shouldn’t be peddled like pizzas.
The federal suit lays out what it says is a pattern of Backpage blocking efforts by police or families to trace missing girls and boys. According to the suit, Backpage systematically scrubs photos in sex ads of metadata that would allow authorities to track down people in them.
Backpage also makes it hard to search for missing girls by allowing scrambled phone numbers in sex ads. If you sell a dog on Backpage in the pet section, you must post a numeric phone number; sell sex with a girl, and you can use a nonsearchable version — such as zero12-345-six78nine — that makes it more difficult for police or family members to locate a missing child with a simple Internet search.
Likewise, Backpage allows ads to be paid for with untraceable credit cards or even with Bitcoin. It doesn’t require any age verification or real names.
I first wrote about Backpage a few years ago when it was used to advertise a 13-year-old girl being enslaved in Brooklyn. One day the pimp dropped her off at an apartment building and waited at the entrance to make sure she did not run. She hurt too much to endure another rape, so instead of going to the apartment that had ordered her, she randomly pounded on another door and begged to use the telephone. She called her mother, and then dialed 911. The pimp is now in prison, but Backpage profited on the ad — as it always does.
Attorneys general from 48 states have written a joint letter to Backpage, pleading with it to stop exploiting children.
Liz McDougall, the lawyer for Backpage, declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuits, but she told me: “We remain committed to effective measures of prevention and successful prosecution of this heinous crime.”
That’s absurd. Backpage claims to report possible sex-trafficking cases, but Yiota Souras, the general counsel of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says that “Backpage’s reporting is not conducted in good faith.” Souras says that if parents report to Backpage that their teenage daughters are being sold on the site, the company doesn’t always remove the ads or prevent new ads for the children from being posted.
The lawsuit says Backpage floods the authorities with reports of possible underage girls to pretend to be helpful, while actually impeding the effort. Meanwhile, Backpage refuses to use screening software that might actually detect ads for underage girls.
Americans rightly waxed indignant at the way the Roman Catholic Church or Penn State turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of minors. But our entire society does the same thing.
Isn’t it time to stop?
Lastly we get to Mr. Bruni:
Imagine a house ablaze. Now picture a team of firefighters pulling up to it. They behold the flames shooting through its roof. They feel its heat on their faces. And they get in position to fight it.
With squirt guns.
That house is America, and those rescuers are the candidates in these misbegotten midterms.
We’re living through a chapter of uncommonly durable and pronounced pessimism, when a majority of adults don’t think their kids will have as many opportunities as they did; when there’s waning faith in social mobility and a widening gap between rich and poor; when our standing in the world is diminished and our sense of insecurity has intensified accordingly; when the environment itself is turning on us and demanding the sorts of long-term adjustments we’ve seldom been good at.
And yet nothing about the discussion during these long months of campaigning has fully reflected that or been scaled to it. None of the candidates have spoken with the necessary urgency or requisite sweep. No one has stepped forward with originality, authenticity and a pledge to tear up the dreary political script of recent years and lead us into a future that we’re ceasing to believe in.
In Iowa, Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley talked of Harleys, hogs and chickens. In Florida, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott bickered over a fan. In Colorado, Mark Udall’s focus was more womb-centric than “The Handmaid’s Tale.” While I believe strongly in reproductive freedom and salute him for defending it, I also wish I could tell you, without intensive research, what sort of script he has for restoring this country’s confidence.
But I don’t know the answer — for him or for just about any of the other 2014 candidates. I know where they stand on the minimum wage and maybe on immigration reform, though there’s been a whole lot of waffling there. I know that they think the Islamic State is evil and Ebola scary.
But a visionary plan? A detailed route back to the optimism at the core of the American character? I didn’t catch those, so I’d be wary of any party leader or pundit who tells you that there’s a clear moral to the outcome of Tuesday’s voting, a bold lesson. After a sometimes breathtakingly cynical campaign bereft of big ideas, few Americans will actually be voting for anything or anyone, at least in the congressional contests.
The midterms have had too little real substance to have too much predictive relevance.
In The Los Angeles Times a month ago, the columnist Doyle McManus drew attention to a poll that “asked voters if they intended their choices to send a message to Washington.”
“Only 13 percent said they would be voting in support of Republican policies,” McManus wrote. “An even smaller number said they would be voting in favor of Democratic ideas. The largest group of all, 42 percent, said they didn’t have a bigger message in mind at all.”
Many of them won’t even like whichever politician they wind up voting for. In Senate race after Senate race, they’re choosing between the lesser of evils. At least as many voters have unfavorable as favorable views of both the Democratic and Republican candidates in Iowa, in North Carolina, in Georgia and in Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell, the Republican, marveled recently at a sinkhole that had opened up in the state’s moist earth. I think of that maw as nature’s response to the election, its attempt to wipe the slate clean, or rather swallow it whole and start from scratch.
It was in Kentucky that the Democratic aspirant, Alison Lundergan Grimes, provided the election’s defining moment, refusing to say whether she’d voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. With an eye toward whatever calibrations might constitute a winning formula, she tossed character, honesty and any kind of mature conversation with voters to the side.
Analysts of this election have cast it as a referendum on competence, a referendum on Obama, a referendum on an economic recovery that’s been slow and spotty. There’s some truth to each of those observations, and to the sum of them.
But if Republicans wrest control of the Senate, it will mostly reflect the particularities of the individual races and states themselves, and the larger takeaway, to the extent that there is one, will be the same as the takeaway from most of the last five elections. The turnover in the chamber will be a retort to the status quo, which is a Democratic Senate majority, along with a Democratic president.
For more than a decade, consistently, more Americans have said that the country is on the wrong track than have said it’s on the right one. This is remarkable.
And in almost every election during that span, the party in control of the White House, the Senate or the House of Representatives has changed. It’s been a nearly constant seesaw, with a sustained message from voters: What we have isn’t working. Give us different.
If you’re the candidate of continuity and sameness, whether a Republican or a Democrat, you’re quite likely vulnerable. That’s why Udall’s aides raised a stink when his opponent, Cory Gardner, ran a TV commercial underscoring the generations of politicians in the Udall family. Udall said it represented an out-of-bounds personal attack, which was ridiculous. What it did was weld Udall to the status quo, and that rightly spooked him.
Being welded to the status quo obviously spooks Hillary Clinton as well, and that’s why, if she runs for president, she’ll bang the “first woman ever” drum in a manner that she didn’t last time around. It’s a way to argue that putting another Democrat in the White House after Obama isn’t mere perpetuation.
The leaders of whichever party fares better than expected or at least better than the other in the midterms will talk a lot about 2016, claiming not just victory but a proven connection with the zeitgeist and what Americans really want.
Your correct response to this inevitable aria of self-congratulation will be laughter, or maybe tears, because what Americans crave and fantasize about is difference of a magnitude and a passion — you might even say an audacity — that was absent from this election cycle.
Here’s a wager for 2016, based not on 2014 but on our trudge through the doldrums and government sclerosis of so many years now: The spoils will go to the candidate who comes to the conflagration with more than a toy and a piddling amount of water.