Archive for the ‘Bruni’ Category

Bobo from yesterday, Friedman and Bruni

February 10, 2016

I had some minor eye surgery yesterday, so didn’t spend any time on the computer.  But I couldn’t POSSIBLY not post Bobo’s cri de coeur from yesterday, titled, and you can’t make this stuff up, “I Miss Barack Obama.”  Turns out that President Obama is okay after all…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Let’s skip the disingenuous ode to Obama. Of course he’s a decent man. But instead of mourning the upcoming loss of his grace and equanimity, we ought to be lamenting the loss of eight years of potential that Republicans squandered in their utter refusal to work with him. Conservatives like Mr. Brooks have undermined everything he’s stood for, and helped to create the polarized chaos out of which these embarrassing excuses for Republican candidates have emerged.  Brooks dismisses them all, except that he find Rubio charming when he breaks out in a nervous sweat and robotically repeats talking points under the pressure of a Republican debate. Imagine how charming he’ll be when North Korea launches missiles.”  Poor Bobo has a terrible case of the flop sweats.  Today The Moustache of Wisdom ponders “The Many Mideast Solutions” and says our presidential candidates can retire their platitudes about standing with Israeli and Sunni Arab allies.  Mr. Bruni considers “Feminism, Hell and Hillary Clinton” and says gender informs her quest, but it’s not the main reason to be for or against her.  Here’s Bobo from yesterday:

As this primary season has gone along, a strange sensation has come over me: I miss Barack Obama. Now, obviously I disagree with a lot of Obama’s policy decisions. I’ve been disappointed by aspects of his presidency. I hope the next presidency is a philosophic departure.

But over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply.

The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free. Think of the way Iran-contra or the Lewinsky scandals swallowed years from Reagan and Clinton.

We’ve had very little of that from Obama. He and his staff have generally behaved with basic rectitude. Hillary Clinton is constantly having to hold these defensive press conferences when she’s trying to explain away some vaguely shady shortcut she’s taken, or decision she has made, but Obama has not had to do that.

He and his wife have not only displayed superior integrity themselves, they have mostly attracted and hired people with high personal standards. There are all sorts of unsightly characters floating around politics, including in the Clinton camp and in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. This sort has been blocked from team Obama.

Second, a sense of basic humanity. Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. You can only say that if you treat Muslim Americans as an abstraction. President Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.

He’s exuded this basic care and respect for the dignity of others time and time again. Let’s put it this way: Imagine if Barack and Michelle Obama joined the board of a charity you’re involved in. You’d be happy to have such people in your community. Could you say that comfortably about Ted Cruz? The quality of a president’s humanity flows out in the unexpected but important moments.

Third, a soundness in his decision-making process. Over the years I have spoken to many members of this administration who were disappointed that the president didn’t take their advice. But those disappointed staffers almost always felt that their views had been considered in depth.

Obama’s basic approach is to promote his values as much as he can within the limits of the situation. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has been so blinded by his values that the reality of the situation does not seem to penetrate his mind.

Take health care. Passing Obamacare was a mighty lift that led to two gigantic midterm election defeats. As Megan McArdle pointed out in her Bloomberg View column, Obamacare took coverage away from only a small minority of Americans. Sanderscare would take employer coverage away from tens of millions of satisfied customers, destroy the health insurance business and levy massive new tax hikes. This is epic social disruption.

To think you could pass Sanderscare through a polarized Washington and in a country deeply suspicious of government is to live in intellectual fairyland. President Obama may have been too cautious, especially in the Middle East, but at least he’s able to grasp the reality of the situation.

Fourth, grace under pressure. I happen to find it charming that Marco Rubio gets nervous on the big occasions — that he grabs for the bottle of water, breaks out in a sweat and went robotic in the last debate. It shows Rubio is a normal person. And I happen to think overconfidence is one of Obama’s great flaws. But a president has to maintain equipoise under enormous pressure. Obama has done that, especially amid the financial crisis. After Saturday night, this is now an open question about Rubio.

Fifth, a resilient sense of optimism. To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.

People are motivated to make wise choices more by hope and opportunity than by fear, cynicism, hatred and despair. Unlike many current candidates, Obama has not appealed to those passions.

No, Obama has not been temperamentally perfect. Too often he’s been disdainful, aloof, resentful and insular. But there is a tone of ugliness creeping across the world, as democracies retreat, as tribalism mounts, as suspiciousness and authoritarianism take center stage.

Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.

About the only thing I’ll add to that is to take everything he said with a larger than usual pinch of pink Himalayan salt because he cited Megan “Where Does That Decimal Point Go?” McArdle.  Now we get to TMOW:

In December at the Brookings Saban Forum on the Middle East, Atlantic magazine reporter Jeff Goldberg asked the right-wing former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman this provocative question: “Things are shifting radically not only in non-Jewish America but in Jewish America as it concerns Israel and its reputation. My question is: (A) Do you care? (B) What are you going to do about it? And (C) how important is it to you?”

“To speak frankly, I don’t care,” Lieberman responded, adding that Israel lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Give Lieberman credit for honesty: I don’t really care what American Jews or non-Jews think about Israel.

That conversation came back to me as I listened to the Democratic and Republican debates when they briefly veered into foreign policy, with candidates spouting the usual platitudes about standing with our Israeli and Sunni Arab allies. Here’s a news flash: You can retire those platitudes. Whoever becomes the next president will have to deal with a totally different Middle East.

It will be a Middle East shaped by struggle over a one-state solution, a no-state solution, a non-state solution and a rogue-state solution.

That is, a one-state solution in Israel, a no-state solution in Syria, Yemen and Libya, a non-state solution offered by the Islamic caliphate and a rogue-state solution offered by Iran.

Start with Israel. The peace process is dead. It’s over, folks, so please stop sending the New York Times Op-Ed page editor your proposals for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. The next U.S. president will have to deal with an Israel determined to permanently occupy all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including where 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians live.

How did we get there? So many people stuck knives into the peace process it’s hard to know who delivered the mortal blow. Was it the fanatical Jewish settlers determined to keep expanding their footprint in the West Bank and able to sabotage any Israeli politician or army officer who opposed them? Was it right-wing Jewish billionaires, like Sheldon Adelson, who used their influence to blunt any U.S. congressional criticism of Bibi Netanyahu?

Or was it Netanyahu, whose lust to hold onto his seat of power is only surpassed by his lack of imagination to find a secure way to separate from the Palestinians? Bibi won: He’s now a historic figure — the founding father of the one-state solution.

And Hamas is the mother. Hamas devoted all its resources to digging tunnels to attack Israelis from Gaza rather than turning Gaza into Singapore, making a laughingstock of Israeli peace advocates. And Hamas launched a rocket close enough to Tel Aviv’s airport that the U.S. banned all American flights for a day, signaling to every Israeli, dove or hawk, what could happen if they ceded the West Bank.

But Hamas was not alone. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, sacked the only effective Palestinian prime minister ever, Salam Fayyad, who was dedicated to fighting corruption and proving that Palestinians deserved a state by focusing on building institutions, not U.N. resolutions.

They all killed the two-state solution. Let the one-state era begin. It will involve a steady low-grade civil war between Palestinians and Israelis and a growing Israeli isolation in Europe and on college campuses that the next U.S. president will have to navigate.

Meanwhile, a no-state Syria — a Syria that Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers only partly control — will be a chest wound bleeding refugees into Europe. I am certain that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is deliberately bombing anti-regime Syrians to drive them into Europe in hopes of creating a rift in the European Union, strain its resources and make it a weaker rival to Russia and a weaker ally for America.

And the non-state Sunni caliphate (ISIS) and rogue-state Shiite Iran will feed off each other. I love it when both Democratic and Republican candidates say, “When I am president, I’ll get Sunni Arabs to take the lead in fighting ISIS.” Gosh, I bet Obama never thought of that!

The Sunni Arabs are never going to destroy a non-state ISIS as long as Iran behaves like a Shiite rogue state, not a normal one. It’s true, Iran is a great civilization. It could dominate the region with the dynamism of its business class, universities, science and arts. But Iran’s ayatollahs don’t trust their soft power. They prefer instead to go rogue, to look for dignity in all the wrong places — by using Shiite proxies to dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana and Baghdad.

So my advice to all the candidates is: Keep talking about the fantasy Middle East. I can always use a good bedtime story to fall asleep. But get ready for the real thing. This is not your grandfather’s Israel anymore, it’s not your oil company’s Saudi Arabia anymore, it’s not your NATO’s Turkey anymore, it’s not your cabdriver’s Iran anymore and it’s not your radical chic college professor’s Palestine anymore. It’s a wholly different beast now, slouching toward Bethlehem.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

I’m 51. My health is decent. And while my mother died young, there’s longevity elsewhere in the family tree.

I could live to see an openly gay presidential candidate with a real chance of victory.

Will there be a “special place in hell” for me if I, as a gay man, don’t support him or her?

I can guess Madeleine Albright’s answer. She more or less told women that they’re damned if they’re not on Hillary Clinton’s team.

I’m still trying to get my head around that — and around Gloria Steinem’s breathtakingly demeaning assertion that young women who back Bernie Sanders are in thrall to pheromones, not ideas or idealism, and angling to score dates with the young bucks in the Sanders brigade.

That’s right, “democratic socialism” is a known aphrodisiac: the oyster of politics. There’s nothing like denunciations of oligarchs to put you in the mood.

Also, has Steinem forgotten about lesbians? More than a few of them support Sanders, and it’s not because of the way some 26-year-old doctoral candidate looks in his L. L. Bean flannel.

There’s a weird strain of thought swirling around Clinton’s campaign: that we should vote for her because she’s a woman. Or that she’s inoculated from certain flaws or accusations by dint of gender. Or that, at the least, there’s an onus on forward-looking people who care about gender inequality to promote her candidacy.

I care about gender inequality, and I don’t buy it. It’s bad logic. It’s even worse strategy. People don’t vote out of shame. They vote out of hope.

Perhaps that was among the lessons of Clinton’s defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where she lost to Sanders among all women by at least seven percentage points, according to exit polling, and among women under 30 by more than 60 points.

Clinton is on sturdy ground, morally and tactically, when she mentions a double standard for women. So are her surrogates. Actually, there are so many double standards that you couldn’t fit them in a column eight times the length of this one, and she has bumped into plenty, including, yes, the fuss over her raised voice.

But the argument that she’s somehow not a full-fledged member of the establishment because she’s a woman — as she contended during the most recent Democratic debate — is nonsense. On that night, she also echoed a past statement to CBS News that she “cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president.”

Really? Anyone? Off the top of my head I can think of a person who might quibble with that. His name is Barack Obama.

Admittedly, there’s no easy way to navigate the terrain she inhabits. Eight years ago, she denied her campaign the romantic sweep of Obama’s by playing down and trying to correct for gender. This time around, she was advised, rightly, not to repeat that mistake. But how to do that without going too far?

I think she started out perfectly, with incontestable reflections on women’s challenges in the workplace and with casual asides about the historic nature of her bid. Discussing her age, she said, “I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”

But more recently, things have fallen out of whack. Bill Clinton’s diatribeabout the misogyny of some Sanders supporters sounded like a defensive outsourcing of blame for the Clinton campaign’s disappointments in the polls and the returns: the narrowest of victories in Iowa followed by the resounding New Hampshire defeat.

The Clintons are always quick to point fingers and slow to look in the mirror. On top of which, Bill Clinton’s invocation of sexism felt too pat, his citation of gross language on Twitter (which, sadly, brims with it) too easy.

Clinton’s gender indeed matters. Just as you couldn’t properly evaluate Obama’s arc without factoring in race, you can’t see her accurately without recognizing that she’s a woman of her time, with all the attendant obstacles, hurts, compromises and tenacity.

That informs — and, ideally, illuminates — her perspective. And her presidency would carry a powerful, constructive symbolism that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

But those are considerations among many, many others in taking her measure and in casting a vote. To focus only or primarily on them is more reductive than respectful, and to tell women in particular what kind of politics they should practice is the antithesis of feminism, which advocates independence and choices.

We’re all complicated people voting for complicated people. We’re not census subgroups falling in line.

I’ll go to the barricades for that imagined gay candidate if he or she has talents I trust, positions I respect and a character I admire. If not, I’ll probably go elsewhere, because being gay won’t be the sum of that person, just as womanhood isn’t where Clinton begins and ends.

Friedman and Bruni

February 3, 2016

In “Social Media: Destroyer or Creator?” The Moustache of Wisdom says a man who helped set off the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt has drawn some conclusions about “Facebook revolutions.””  Mr. Bruni, in “Hillary Clinton’s Dutiful Slog,” says her campaign declared victory in Iowa, but she has no reason to celebrate.  Here’s TMOW:

Over the last few years we’ve been treated to a number of “Facebook revolutions,” from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the squares of Istanbul, Kiev and Hong Kong, all fueled by social media. But once the smoke cleared, most of these revolutions failed to build any sustainable new political order, in part because as so many voices got amplified, consensus-building became impossible.

Question: Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things?

Last month an important voice answered this question with a big “ yes.” That voice was Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee whose anonymous Facebook page helped to launch the Tahrir Square revolution in early 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — but then failed to give birth to a true democratic alternative.

In December, Ghonim, who has since moved to Silicon Valley, posted a TED talk about what went wrong. It is worth watching and begins like this: “I once said, ‘If you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet.’ I was wrong. I said those words back in 2011, when a Facebook page I anonymously created helped spark the Egyptian revolution. The Arab Spring revealed social media’s greatest potential, but it also exposed its greatest shortcomings. The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.”

In the early 2000s, Arabs were flocking to the web, Ghonim explained: “Thirsty for knowledge, for opportunities, for connecting with the rest of the people around the globe, we escaped our frustrating political realities and lived a virtual, alternative life.”

And then in June 2010, he noted, the “Internet changed my life forever. While browsing Facebook, I saw a photo … of a tortured, dead body of a young Egyptian guy. His name was Khaled Said. Khaled was a 29-year-old Alexandrian who was killed by police. I saw myself in his picture. … I anonymously created a Facebook page and called it ‘We Are All Khaled Said.’ In just three days, the page had over 100,000 people, fellow Egyptians who shared the same concern.”

Soon Ghonim and his friends used Facebook to crowd-source ideas, and “the page became the most followed page in the Arab world. … Social media was crucial for this campaign. It helped a decentralized movement arise. It made people realize that they were not alone. And it made it impossible for the regime to stop it.”

Ghonim was eventually tracked down in Cairo by Egyptian security services, beaten and then held incommunicado for 11 days. But three days after he was freed, the millions of protesters his Facebook posts helped to galvanize brought down Mubarak’s regime.

Alas, the euphoria soon faded, said Ghonim, because “we failed to build consensus, and the political struggle led to intense polarization.” Social media, he noted, “only amplified” the polarization “by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic. My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, hate speech.”

Supporters of the army and the Islamists used social media to smear each other, while the democratic center, which Ghonim and so many others occupied, was marginalized. Their revolution was stolen by the Muslim Brotherhood and, when it failed, by the army, which then arrested many of the secular youths who first powered the revolution. The army has its own Facebook page to defend itself.

“It was a moment of defeat,” said Ghonim. “I stayed silent for more than two years, and I used the time to reflect on everything that happened.”

Here is what he concluded about social media today: “First, we don’t know how to deal with rumors. Rumors that confirm people’s biases are now believed and spread among millions of people.” Second, “We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and thanks to social media, we can mute, un-follow and block everybody else. Third, online discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. … It’s as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars.

“And fourth, it became really hard to change our opinions. Because of the speed and brevity of social media, we are forced to jump to conclusions and write sharp opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs. And once we do that, it lives forever on the Internet.”

Fifth, and most crucial, he said, “today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations. … It’s as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other.”

Ghonim has not given up. He and a few friends recently started a website, Parlio.com, to host intelligent, civil conversations about controversial and often heated issues, with the aim of narrowing gaps, not widening them. (I participated in a debate on Parlio and found it engaging and substantive.)

“Five years ago,” concluded Ghonim, “I said, ‘If you want to liberate society, all you need is the Internet.’ Today I believe if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet.”

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Late Monday, as the unfinished vote count suggested the slimmest of victories for Hillary Clinton, she stepped to a microphone, flashed an Oscar-worthy smile of triumph and told supporters that she was “breathing a big sigh of relief.”

She wasn’t. She isn’t. And she definitely shouldn’t be.

That’s not because what happened in Iowa — almost a tie between her and Bernie Sanders — substantially loosens her grip on the Democratic presidential nomination. Iowa was better terrain for Sanders than much of what lies ahead, and the dynamics that made her a heavy favorite to be the nominee before the state’s caucuses make her a heavy favorite still.

But Iowa demonstrated, yet again, what a flawed and tarnished candidate she is. And on the Republican side, the caucuses augured the possibility of a retreat from the party’s craziness and the rise of an adversary, Marco Rubio, who could give her trouble in a general-election matchup.

She should have trounced Sanders. Yes, he communicates authenticity to an electorate ravenous for it and has given potent voice to Americans’ economic angst. But little in his Senate career suggests that he’d be able to turn that oratory into remedy.

He’s no gushing font of political charisma. He’s a 74-year-old, self-proclaimed socialist who until fairly recently had minimal name recognition outside of Vermont.

President Obama clearly prefers Clinton. And in a poll of Democrats showing up for the Iowa caucuses, well over half said that they wanted someone who would continue Obama’s agenda — which is the precise pledge that Clinton has been making over the last few weeks — while only about one-third said that they preferred someone more liberal.

Even so, Clinton appears to have edged out Sanders by mere decimal points. How to explain it?

Perhaps with the sturdiest truism of politics: Elections are about the future. And so much about Clinton screams the past.

A rally of hers that I attended in Iowa last week actually began with a highlights reel of Clinton through time, including plenty of footage from the 1990s.

I understand why. The retrospective underscored her extraordinary experience. But nothing in her subsequent speech looked forward as stirringly as those images looked backward.

She’s forever stressing what she’s put up with, what she’s survived. “I’ve been around a long time,” she said in Des Moines a week ago, answering — but not really — a young voter’s question about the dearth of enthusiasm for her. “They throw all this stuff at me, and I’m still standing.”

It’s the language of drudgery and duty rather than inspiration, and she can sound as if she’s collecting on an i.o.u. and asking voters to complete hertrajectory rather than begin one of their own.

Bill Clinton may well garner applause, but every time he stumps for her, it’s an implicit promise to revisit yesterday, not to chart tomorrow. On Monday night, he and Chelsea stood with her as she spoke, and I was struck by the overwhelming familiarity of that tableau. It has been with us for a quarter of a century.

At this point the Clintons are royalty, and royalty sits at a remove from all else. Among Democratic caucusgoers most concerned about voting for a candidate who cared about people like them, 74 percent picked Sanders, while only 22 percent chose Clinton. (Martin O’Malley got the remainder.)

For caucusgoers acting primarily on the basis of who they deemed most “honest and trustworthy,” 83 percent voted for Sanders, while just 10 percent voted for Clinton. That’s the toll of all the attention to her emails, a topic that’s not disappearing anytime soon.

She has a habit, whether addressing a large group or a small one, of diving so deeply into the weeds of a subject that she doesn’t so much impress listeners as exhaust them. To her credit, she has educated herself more thoroughly than other politicians. But she somehow hasn’t learned to wear that erudition lightly.

For months Democrats have been heartened by the absurdity with which Donald Trump infused the Republican primary and by the prospect of him or Ted Cruz as the party’s nominee. But his second-place showing could be his twilight, and Rubio’s strong third-place finish supports the scenario that he’s the one.

He poses a bigger threat to Clinton. He understands that she, like Jeb Bush, is an awkward fit for the national mood, and he’d try to take advantage of that. He leans hard on his youth. He talks about a new generation.

Clinton needs to persuade voters that as much as they’ve seen of her, she can still lead them to a place they’ve not yet seen. She hasn’t succeeded, and she slogs on from Iowa much as she did eight years ago: with more to prove than to savor.

Brooks, Bruni, and Krugman

January 29, 2016

Bobo thinks he knows “What Republicans Should Say.”  He says David Cameron has outlined a truly conservative, pragmatic response to poverty, and we need an American version of it.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “This is why conservatives make my skin crawl. They treat poverty as a disease that some people catch, and then try to cure it by improving their character. Feed them religion instead of steak. Teach them how to live in poverty instead of paying higher wages.  Conservatives fret about values, as if they don’t emerge from the day-to-day experiences of people who struggle through unemployment and the economic abandonment of entire cities.”  Mr. Bruni, in “G.O.P. Debate Stars the Ghost of Donald Trump,” says during a night of spirited exchanges, there was no getting away from the spirit of the missing Republican front-runner.  In “Plutocrats and Prejudice” Prof. Krugman says an unspoken agenda is behind the ugliness in American politics.  Here’s Bobo:

For a few decades, American and British conservatism marched in tandem. Thatcher was philosophically akin to Reagan. John Major was akin to George Bush.

But now the two conservatisms have split. The key divide is over what to do about the slow-motion devastation being felt by the less educated, the working class and the poor.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have appealed to working-class voters mostly by blaming outsiders. If we could kick out all the immigrants there wouldn’t be lawbreakers driving down wages. If we could dismantle the Washington cartel the economy would rise.

In Britain David Cameron is going down another path. This month he gave a speech called “Life Chances.” Not to give away the ending or anything, but I’d give a lung to have a Republican politician give a speech like that in this country.

First, he defined the role of government: basic security. In a world full of risks, government can help furnish a secure base from which people can work, dream and rise.

Cameron argued that both sides in the debate over poverty suffered real limitations because they still used 20th-century thinking. The left has traditionally wanted to use the state to redistribute money downward. The right has traditionally relied on the market to generate the growth that lifts all boats.

The welfare state and the market are important, but, he argues, “talk to a single mum on a poverty-stricken estate, someone who suffers from chronic depression, someone who perhaps drinks all day to numb the pain of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Tell her that because her benefits have risen by a couple of pounds a week, she and her children have been magically lifted out of poverty. Or on the other hand, if you told her about the great opportunities created by our market economy, I expect she’ll ask you what planet you’re actually on.”

Cameron called for a more social approach. He believes government can play a role in rebuilding social capital and in healing some of the traumas fueled by scarcity and family breakdown.

He laid out a broad agenda: Strengthen family bonds with shared parental leave and a tax code that rewards marriage. Widen opportunities for free marital counseling. Speed up the adoption process. Create a voucher program for parenting classes. Expand the Troubled Families program by 400,000 slots. This program spends 4,000 pounds (about $5,700) per family over three years and uses family coaches to help heal the most disrupted households.

Cameron would also create “character modules” for schools, so that there are intentional programs that teach resilience, curiosity, honesty and service. He would expand the National Citizen Service so that by 2021 60 percent of the nation’s 16-year-olds are performing national service, and meeting others from across society. He wants to create a program to recruit 25,000 mentors to work with young teenagers.

To address concentrated poverty, he would replace or revamp 100 public housing projects across the country. He would invest big sums in mental health programs and create a social impact fund to unlock millions for new drug and alcohol treatment.

It’s an agenda that covers the entire life cycle, aiming to give people the strength and social resources to stand on their own. In the U.S. we could use exactly this sort of agenda. There is an epidemic of isolation, addiction and trauma.

According to an AARP survey, one-third of adults over 45 report being chronically lonely. Drug overdose deaths of people ages 45 to 64 increased 11-fold between 1990 and 2010. More than half the American births to women under 30 are outside of marriage. Poorer parents are too strained and stressed to spend as much quality time raising their kids. According to the sociologist Robert Putnam, college-educated parents spend 50 percent more “Goodnight Moon” time with their kids than less-educated parents.

Meanwhile social support systems are fraying, especially for those without a college degree. Religious affiliation is plummeting. Since 1990 the number of people who declare no religious preference has tripled. Social trust is declining. Only 18 percent of high school seniors say that most people can be trusted.

There are two natural approaches to help those who are falling behind. The first we’ll call the Bernie Sanders approach. Focus on economics. Provide people with money and jobs and their lifestyles will become more stable. Marriage rates will rise. Depression rates will drop.

The second should be the conservative approach. Focus on social norms, community bonds and a nurturing civic fabric. People need relationships and basic security before they can respond to economic incentives.

But Republicans have walked away from their traditional Burkean turf. The two leading Republican presidential candidates offer little more than nativism and demagogy.

David Cameron has offered an agenda for a nation that is coming apart. There desperately needs to be an American version.

Next up we have Mr. Bruni, writing from Des Moines:

Donald Trump’s absence, of course, was the most compelling presence.

At the Republican debate here on Thursday night, Fox News didn’t put up an empty lectern. It didn’t need to. Trump was remembered. Trump was invoked. His ghost lingered, because he’d reshaped his Republican rivals’ images, reconfigured the challenges in front of them, rewritten the rules of this extraordinary race.

“Let’s address the elephant not in the room tonight,” said Megyn Kelly at the very start, and there was no doubt that the tusked behemoth in question had an oddly shaped swirl of vaguely cantaloupe-colored hair. She then asked Ted Cruz what message Trump’s failure to attend the event sent to the voters of Iowa.

Cruz didn’t just discuss Trump. He imitated him.

“I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” Cruz said. Addressing Ben Carson, he added: “You’re a terrible surgeon.”

“Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way,” he continued, “I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up.”

He was mocking Trump, but in the process affirmed that everything revolves around Trump.

Almost a half-hour later, he was still making fun of Trump.

“If you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage,” Cruz warned sarcastically.

Marco Rubio got in on the action by chiming in: “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.” The point of reference remained Trump, who was also the subject of some of the first words out of Jeb Bush’s mouth.

“I kind of miss Donald Trump,” Bush said. “He was a little teddy bear to me.” He then claimed that in debates past, he had taken on Trump more boldly than any of his competitors on the stage. Trump, in other words, was the proof of his mettle, the dragon that he alone set out to slay.

Shortly before the event began, Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News, tweeted, “Republican candidates must be looking forward to tonight’s debate. Speaking without Donald getting all attention.”

Wishful thinking.

Trump got plenty of attention, because the drama offstage matched the drama onstage. For the two days leading up to the event, the main story — seemingly the only story — was his decision to skip it: Political suicide or stroke of genius?

In the hours before it, CNN could speak of almost nothing but Trump. It kept flashing footage of the fan-packed rally he had orchestrated just a couple of miles from the debate, to compete with it.

“There are thousands who have waited hours throughout the day,” the anchor Erin Burnett marveled.

When her colleague Anderson Cooper then interviewed a CNN correspondent at the debate itself, the first question he asked her was about how the debaters were likely to adjust to a Trump-less event.

“His shadow is looming large, even though he is not there,” Cooper said to the correspondent, then he turned to the network’s panel of political analysts, who talked about Trump, Trump, Trump.

And here I am, writing about Trump, Trump, Trump.

It’s impossible not to. It would be irresponsible not to, because believe it or not, hate it or love it, he’s the Republican campaign’s great and sobering lesson to the country, telling us things about its discontents that we didn’t properly understand. He’s the campaign’s undeniable force of gravity, exerting a pull on everyone and everything around him.

You could feel that pull at the debate, where the toughness with which Kelly grilled Cruz and Rubio on immigration — even showing footage of past remarks that caught them in flips, flops and contradictions — was a clear demonstration of her readiness to put any candidate on the skewer, not just Trump.

You could feel that pull in the fieriness of many candidates’ manners and the extremes to which they pushed their positions. Trump has set the temperature of the conversation, and it’s a blistering one that had Rubio pledging over and over to keep Guantánamo Bay open and stuff it full of terrorists.

You could feel that pull above all in the duration and emotionalism of the immigration discussion itself. It’s Trump’s promised wall and Trump’s pledges to deport millions of immigrants that have made this issue so prominent and compelled Republican candidates to take harder lines than they previously had.

On Thursday night, those lines tripped up Rubio and Cruz, whose difficult time onstage had everything to do with the fact that Trump wasn’t there. He’s the front-runner; he would have been the main target. Without him, they drew more fire.

“I’m kind of confused,” Bush said of Rubio’s approach to immigration reform over the years. “He led the charge to finally fix this immigration problem that has existed now for, as Marco says, for 30 years. And then he cut and run because it wasn’t popular among conservatives, I guess.”

Rubio didn’t have a persuasive response, but later went after Cruz, insinuating that he once had an approach to immigration less unyielding than the one he’s promoting on the campaign trail.

“Now you want to trump Trump on immigration,” Rubio said.

Political observers have been waiting for Rubio’s breakout moment, and many predicted that he’d have it at this debate. He didn’t. Put frequently on the defensive, he reverted to lines he’d used before and nuggets from his stump speech, and he kept returning to ISIS and military might, military might and ISIS. He came across as overly programmed, one-dimensional and itchy to go to war.

And Cruz couldn’t banish a sour expression and an air of grievance.

Three of the underdogs — Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul — had the best moments. Christie circled back too frequently to his beloved, overworked boast that he would make sure that Hillary Clinton never again got close to the White House, but he had a terrific retort to Cruz’s and Rubio’s explanations of their legislative histories on immigration reform.

“I feel like I need a Washington-to-English dictionary,” Christie said.

Bush was genuinely funny, as when he reintroduced Trump toward the end of the debate.

“I mentioned his name again just if anybody was missing him,” Bush said.

Missing him? Not really. I’d be glad to have him gone for good.

But he isn’t and he wasn’t, not on a night when the candidates molded their answers to the reality (and the reality show) that he’s created, not when they felt obliged to bring him up, not when he dominated the discussion without even taking part of it. Nifty trick, that.

Elephant, bear, dragon: Those aren’t the right beasts.

What the debate made clear is that Trump is all fox.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Every time you think that our political discourse can’t get any worse, it does. The Republican primary fight has devolved into a race to the bottom, achieving something you might have thought impossible: making George W. Bush look like a beacon of tolerance and statesmanship. But where is all the nastiness coming from?

Well, there’s debate about that — and it’s a debate that is at the heart of the Democratic contest.

Like many people, I’ve described the competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as an argument between competing theories of change, which it is. But underlying that argument is a deeper dispute about what’s wrong with America, what brought us to the state we’re in.

To oversimplify a bit — but only, I think, a bit — the Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil. Or more specifically, the corrupting influence of big money, of the 1 percent and the corporate elite, is the overarching source of the political ugliness we see all around us.

The Clinton view, on the other hand, seems to be that money is the root of some evil, maybe a lot of evil, but it isn’t the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right. This may not seem like a very big difference — both candidates oppose prejudice, both want to reduce economic inequality. But it matters for political strategy.

As you might guess, I’m on the many-evils side of this debate. Oligarchy is a very real issue, and I was writing about the damaging rise of the 1 percent back when many of today’s Sanders supporters were in elementary school. But it’s important to understand how America’s oligarchs got so powerful.

For they didn’t get there just by buying influence (which is not to deny that there’s a lot of influence-buying out there). Crucially, the rise of the American hard right was the rise of a coalition, an alliance between an elite seeking low taxes and deregulation and a base of voters motivated by fears of social change and, above all, by hostility toward you-know-who.

Yes, there was a concerted, successful effort by billionaires to push America to the right. That’s not conspiracy theorizing; it’s just history, documented at length in Jane Mayer’s eye-opening new book “Dark Money.” But that effort wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as it has without the political aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, and the resulting flip of Southern white voters to the G.O.P.

Until recently you could argue that whatever the motivations of conservative voters, the oligarchs remained firmly in control. Racial dog whistles, demagogy on abortion and so on would be rolled out during election years, then put back into storage while the Republican Party focused on its real business of enabling shadow banking and cutting top tax rates.

But in this age of Trump, not so much. The 1 percent has no problems with immigration that brings in cheap labor; it doesn’t want a confrontation over Planned Parenthood; but the base isn’t taking guidance the way it used to.

In any case, however, the question for progressives is what all of this says about political strategy.

If the ugliness in American politics is all, or almost all, about the influence of big money, then working-class voters who support the right are victims of false consciousness. And it might — might — be possible for a candidate preaching economic populism to break through this false consciousness, thereby achieving a revolutionary restructuring of the political landscape, by making a sufficiently strong case that he’s on their side. Some activists go further and call on Democrats to stop talking about social issues other than income inequality, although Mr. Sanders hasn’t gone there.

On the other hand, if the divisions in American politics aren’t just about money, if they reflect deep-seated prejudices that progressives simply can’t appease, such visions of radical change are naïve. And I believe that they are.

That doesn’t say that movement toward progressive goals is impossible — America is becoming both more diverse and more tolerant over time. Look, for example, at how quickly opposition to gay marriage has gone from a reliable vote-getter for the right to a Republican liability.

But there’s still a lot of real prejudice out there, and probably enough so that political revolution from the left is off the table. Instead, it’s going to be a hard slog at best.

Is this an unacceptably downbeat vision? Not to my eyes. After all, one reason the right has gone so berserk is that the Obama years have in fact been marked by significant if incomplete progressive victories, on health policy, taxes, financial reform and the environment. And isn’t there something noble, even inspiring, about fighting the good fight, year after year, and gradually making things better?

Friedman and Bruni

January 27, 2016

In “Friends and Refugees in Need” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that a tidal wave of people threatens to overwhelm our top ally, the E.U.  In “The Twinned Egos of Cruz and Trump” Mr. Bruni says the Republican front-runners are quite the self-infatuated pair. What does that say about the future of politics?  Here’s TMOW, writing from Stockholm:

Now in his last year in office, President Obama is in legacy mode. He has much to be proud of. But if he doesn’t want his achievements muddied by foreign policy, he’ll spend his last year redoubling his efforts to contain the Middle East refugee crisis before it goes from a giant humanitarian problem to a giant geostrategic problem that shatters America’s most important ally: the European Union.

I know — putting “European Union” into the lead of a column published in America is like a “Do Not Read” sign. Maybe I should call it “Trump’s European Union.” That would go viral. But for the two of you still reading, this is really important.

The meltdowns of Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Mali, Chad and Yemen and our takedowns of Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan — without proper follow-up on our part, NATO’s part or by local elites — has uncorked the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This tidal wave of migrants and refugees is a human tragedy, and their outflow from Syria and Libya in particular is destabilizing all the neighboring islands of decency: Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan and Turkey. And now it is eating away at the fabric of the E.U. as well.

Why should Americans care? Because the E.U. is the United States of Europe — the world’s other great center of democracy and economic opportunity. It has its military shortcomings, but with its wealth and liberal values, the E.U. has become America’s primary partner in addressing climate change, managing Iran and Russia and containing disorder in the Middle East and Africa.

This partnership amplifies American power and, if the E.U. is hobbled or fractured, America will have to do so many more things around the world with much less help.

At a seminar in Davos, Switzerland, sponsored by the Wilson Center, I interviewed David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, which oversees relief operations in more than 30 war-affected countries. He made several key points.

First, one in every 122 people on the planet today is “fleeing a conflict” at a time when wars between nations “are at a record low,” said Miliband, a former British foreign secretary. Why? Because we now have nearly 30 civil wars underway in weak states that are “unable to meet the basic needs of citizens or contain civil war.”

Second, he said, last year the rescue committee assisted 23 million refugees and internally displaced individuals. Some 50 percent of those going to Europe come directly out of Syria and most of the rest come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea — and the international humanitarian relief system “is now being overwhelmed by the numbers.”

Last year, within the E.U. bloc there were 56 million truck crossings between countries and every day 1.7 million crossings by people. Preserving that free movement of trucks, trade and people, Miliband added, is a huge “economic prize,” but it will not be sustained if E.U. countries feel swamped by refugees who can’t be properly registered or absorbed.

More and more countries are now sealing their borders, and anti-immigrant parties are rising everywhere. Sweden has imposed border controls, and its ultranationalist Sweden Democrats party has grown from the fringe to one of the largest. Many in Germany, Sweden and Austria, which have accepted the lion’s share of refugees so far, want to seal off Greece from the E.U.’s passport-free internal travel zone if Greece — the first port of entry of many refugees — is unable or unwilling to hold them.

In the past few days, The Guardian reported, national leaders and top E.U. officials warned “that Europe’s passport-free travel zone could crumble within weeks, risking the dissolution of the union.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was well intentioned when she opened her country to 1.1 million Arab, African and Afghan migrants last year, but it was also reckless of her to think that so many immigrants, primarily Muslims, could be properly absorbed so quickly into society in Germany — a country that took two decades and billions of dollars to absorb East Germans. Merkel’s open-door policy drew even more refugees to the E.U., and now that the Germans want to stop the flow, their neighbors won’t take them.

“This refugee crisis is a real arrow pointed at the heart of the European Union,” said Miliband. “There is no solution that confines itself within the borders of Europe.” As long as there is “war without law and without end in Syria,” the refugee flow will continue, with all its destabilizing implications.

Obama did not cause this Syria problem, and he can’t fix it alone — but it’s not going to get fixed without U.S. leadership. I have shared the president’s caution about getting involved on the ground in Syria. But I now believe we need to take another look at establishing some kind of U.S./E.U./NATO safe zone inside Syria and Libya to create space for refugees to remain in these countries. It’s not a panacea or cost-free, but letting this refugee disaster fracture the E.U. will be a lot more expensive.

Next up we have Mr. Bruni, writing from Osceola, Iowa:

For a few minutes I wondered if I’d wandered into the wrong barn.

Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, was introducing the candidate I’d come to see, but with descriptions that bore no relation to the candidate I’d come to know.

He called this man “one of the great listeners that I’ve ever been around in my entire life.” He praised him as “a person who is full of humility.”

Then it hit me: Perry was playing defense and asserting the precise virtues that the candidate famously lacks.

Because when most people think of Ted Cruz, they don’t think: listener.

And when Cruz took the microphone and made his remarks, I hardly thought: humble.

It was Tuesday morning, six days until the caucuses. Dozens of voters sat among bales of hay and cows could be heard mooing in the background at such perfectly staggered intervals that I suspected a soundtrack rather than the real thing.

Cruz explained what he regarded as the seven battles of our time, and guess who was the conquering hero in each? (Hint: not Barack Obama.) He expressed the need for a Ronald Reagan of the here and now, and guess who’s perfect for the part? (Hint: not Donald Trump.)

His voice swelled and swooped and dropped at times to a whisper so fraught with foreboding that it belonged in a bad afternoon soap. There are speakers who smoothly get the job done, and then there are those who dance to the music of their own voices, pirouette after pirouette. Cruz is the 2016 campaign trail’s prima ballerina.

But then Trump is its black swan.

As each tries to muscle the other into the wings, they emphasize their contrasts. So does the media, describing the dissimilar paths that these two Republican front-runners traveled.

But to me they’re as alike as they are different, with an overlap that helps to explain the intensely, passionately negative reactions they elicit. They’re both transcendently — and transparently — self-serving and self-infatuated. They scale new pinnacles of egotism in a profession (politics) and pursuit (the presidency) that’s already a veritable mountain range of it.

They’re grim prophecies come true. Many of us have worried that the increasingly circuslike, invasive, round-the-clock nature of modern campaigns would frighten off anyone with an inkling of modesty, an iota of self-doubt. Who would endure this ordeal and make this bargain?

The answer, all too often, is someone who finds the spotlight so mesmerizing that the ugliness on its periphery doesn’t matter, or someone whose hunger for validation is so prodigious that only Air Force One will sate it.

Here in Iowa four years ago, I marveled at the Everest of vanity that was Newt Gingrich. But he doesn’t even reach base camp on the slopes of Trump, whose campaign is one bottomless, boundless soliloquy of self-congratulation. On Sunday he stunned journalists by sitting through a church service, but it wasn’t really the religious gesture that impressed them. It was the fact that for a solid hour, he assumed a posture of deference, and he couldn’t brag.

Cruz is cut from the same flamboyant cloth. It’s striking how many explorations of his past wind up focusing on the magnitude of his confidence, the scale of his ambitions and the off-putting nakedness of both.

As a cocky teenager, he said that his life goals were to “take over the world, world domination, you know, rule everything.” He separately wrote of plans to “achieve a strong enough reputation and track record to run for — and win — president of the United States.”

That last detail comes from a recent story in Politico whose themes included Cruz’s zest for attention, quickness to grab credit and utter self-consumption. It opened with a scene in which Cruz, gearing up to run for the Senate, visits George W. Bush to get his backing, then holds forth at such tone-deaf length about his disruptive plans for the Republican Party that the former president is appalled and repelled.

In The Times on Monday, Matt Flegenheimernoted discrepancies between Cruz’s accounts of his vital contributions to Bush’s legal team during the 2000 Florida recount and the memories of others. “There are a lot of people who claim to be in Florida at the time of the recount,” Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s campaign manager, told Flegenheimer.

Every successful politician is a self-promoter. Every campaign is a sequence of boasts. In an ideal political environment, the narcissism is tempered and the worst narcissists foiled.

But the current ecosystem is toxic, and Trump and Cruz flourish. Neither demonstrates an especially robust appetite for listening, though listening is important. Both are full of a great many things. Humility isn’t among them.

Friedman and Bruni

January 20, 2016

The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “What If?”:  What if the eras of the E.U., high growth in China, expensive oil and newly independent nations’ economic foundations are all over?  In “Rethinking College Admissions” Mr. Bruni says a new report suggests that we’re on the cusp of important, necessary changes in the way colleges evaluate applicants.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Zurich:

Just get me talking about the world today and I can pretty well ruin any dinner party. I don’t mean to, but I find it hard not to look around and wonder whether the recent turmoil in international markets isn’t just the product of tremors but rather of seismic shifts in the foundational pillars of the global system, with highly unpredictable consequences.

What if a bunch of eras are ending all at once?

What if we’re at the end of the 30-plus-year era of high growth in China, and therefore China’s ability to fuel global growth through its imports, exports and purchases of commodities will be much less frothy and reliable in the future?

“Now that this debt bubble is unwinding, growth in China is going offline,” Michael Pento, president of Pento Portfolio Strategies, wrote on CNBC.com last week. “The renminbi’s falling value, cascading Shanghai equity prices (down 40 percent since June 2014) and plummeting rail freight volumes (down 10.5 percent year over year) all clearly illustrate that China is not growing at the promulgated 7 percent, but rather isn’t growing at all. The problem is that China accounted for 34 percent of global growth, and the nation’s multiplier effect on emerging markets takes that number to over 50 percent.”

What if the $100-a-barrel oil price era is over and all these countries whose economies were directly or indirectly propped up by those prices will have to learn to grow the old-fashioned way — by making goods and services others want to buy? Thanks to steady technological advances in America for fracking, horizontal drilling and using big data to identify deposits,OPEC’s pricing power has disappeared. Countries that have set their budgets based on $80- to $100-a-barrel oil will find themselves vastly underfunded just when their populations — in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia and Venezuela — have surged.

What if average is over for countries? During the Cold War you could be an average, newly independent state with artificial borders drawn by colonial powers. There were two superpowers ready to throw foreign aid at you, educate your kids in America or Moscow, build up your armed forces and security services and buy your crummy manufactured exports or commodities.

But what if the rise of robots, software and automation mean that these countries can’t rely on manufacturing to create mass labor anymore, that the products they can make and sell can’t compete with Chinese goods, that climate change is pressuring their ecosystems and that neither Russia nor America wants to have anything to do with them because all either wins is a bill?

Many of these frail, artificial states don’t correspond to any ethnic, cultural, linguistic or demographic realities. They are caravan homes in a trailer park — built on slabs of concrete without real foundations or basements — and what you’re seeing today with the acceleration of technology, climate change stresses and globalization is the equivalent of a tornado going through a trailer park. Some of these states are just falling apart, and many of their people are now trying to cross the Mediterranean — to escape their world of disorder and get into the world of order, particularly the European Union.

But what if the E.U. era is over? Reuters reported this week that Germany is telling other E.U. countries that if they don’t prevent the influx of more refugees into Europe from the Mediterranean and “relieve Berlin of the lonely task of housing refugees, Germany could shut its doors.” Some Germans even want a border fence. One senior conservative was quoted as saying, “If you build a fence, it’s the end of Europe as we know it.”

What if the era of Iranian isolation is over, just as the Arab system is collapsing and the two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians is history? How will all those molecules interact?

And what if all this is happening when the two-party system in America seems to be getting most of its energy from the far left and the far right? Bernie Sanders’s platform is that we can solve our most onerous economic problems if we just tax “The Man” more. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are running on the theme that they are “The Man” — the strongman — who can magically fix everything.

What if our 2016 election ends up being between a socialist and a borderline fascist — ideas that died in 1989 and 1945 respectively?

And what if all of this is happening at a time when our government’s ability to stimulate the economy through either monetary or fiscal policy is constrained? Unless we go to negative interest rates, the best the Fed can do now is rescind the tiny rate hike made in December. Meanwhile, after all the vital government spending to stimulate demand after the 2008 crisis, there is no consensus in the country for another big round.

These what-ifs constitute the real policy landscape that will confront the next president. But here’s the worst “what if”: What if we’re having a presidential election but no one is even asking these questions, let alone “what if” all of these tectonic plates move at once? How will we generate growth, jobs, security and resilience?

There’s still an opportunity for someone to lead by asking, and answering, all of these “what ifs,” but that time is quickly coming to an end, just like the last dinner party I ruined.

I’m sure he can ruin a dinner party just by showing up…  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Over recent years there’s been a steady escalation of concern about the admissions process at the most revered, selective American colleges. And little by little, those colleges have made tweaks.

But I get the thrilling sense that something bigger is about to give.

The best evidence is a report to be released on Wednesday. I received an advance copy. Titled “Turning the Tide,” it’s the work primarily of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, though scores of educators — including the presidents and deans of admission at many of the country’s elite institutions of higher education — contributed to or endorsed it. Top administrators from Yale, M.I.T. and the University of Michigan are scheduled to participate in a news conference at which it’s unveiled.

“Turning the Tide” sagely reflects on what’s wrong with admissions and rightly calls for a revolution, including specific suggestions. It could make a real difference not just because it has widespread backing but also because it nails the way in which society in general — and children in particular — are badly served by the status quo.

Focused on certain markers and metrics, the admissions process warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy. It jeopardizes their mental health. And it fails to include — and identify the potential in — enough kids from less privileged backgrounds.

“It’s really time to say ‘enough,’ stop wringing our hands and figure out some collective action,” Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s education school, told me. “It’s a pivot point.”

Weissbourd is one of the directors of the school’s Making Caring Common project, which produced the report. He’s also the author of research that was one motivation for it — specifically, a survey of more than 10,000 middle- and high-school students that asked them what mattered most: high individual achievement, happiness or caring for others. Only 22 percent said caring for others.

The new report contemplates how the admissions process contributes to that psychology and how it might be changed. Some of those alterations would simultaneously level the playing field for kids applying to college from less advantaged backgrounds.

“Colleges spend a huge sum each year sending signals that influence the behavior of millions of students,” the report notes. Why not rethink those signals to reshape that behavior?

The report recommends less emphasis on standardized test scores, which largely correlate with family income.

It asks colleges to send a clear message that admissions officers won’t be impressed by more than a few Advanced Placement courses. Poorer high schools aren’t as likely to offer A.P. courses, and a heavy load of them is often cited as a culprit in sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression among students at richer schools.

The report also suggests that colleges discourage manic résumé padding by accepting information on a sharply limited number of extracurricular activities; that they better use essays and references to figure out which students’ community-service projects are heartfelt and which are merely window dressing; and that they give full due to the family obligations and part-time work that some underprivileged kids take on.

Stephen Farmer, the vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, praised the report as consistent with his school’s desire “to be humbler and more alert to the many ways in which people can stake a claim on a place here.”

He said that the school had already, for example, downgraded the importance of “A.P. everything,” which doesn’t necessarily measure true ability or intellectual hunger.

“Just making people jump through hoops because we can — we don’t want to do that,” he told me, especially when some hoops are so arbitrary that “we might as well be admitting these people on the basis of their height or the size of their neck.”

“Turning the Tide” follows other reexaminations of the admissions process. A growing number of colleges have made the SAT or ACT optional. And late last year, more than 80 colleges, including all eight in the Ivy League, announced the formation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, which is developing a website and application process intended in part to diversify student bodies.

Colleges are becoming more conscious of their roles — too frequently neglected — in social mobility. They’re recognizing how many admissions measures favor students from affluent families.

They’re realizing that many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions. And they’re acknowledging the extent to which the admissions process has contributed to this.

But they still need to stop filling so much of each freshman class with specially tagged legacy cases and athletes and to quit worrying about rankings like those of U.S. News and World Report. Only then will the tide fully turn.

Bobo, Cohen, Bruni and Krugman, and not Kristof

January 15, 2016

In “When Beauty Strikes” Bobo gurgles that modern art has certain kinds of social value, but we have suffered the loss of an old understanding of how beauty transforms the soul.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “I miss the days when Mr. Brooks simply tried to convince us to vote Republican. Since recent candidates have pulled that rug out from under him, he now tends to wax philosophical. His conservative urges have not left him, but they’ve changed form. Instead of an artist descending to the level of pundits, our pundit has become an artist, masterfully constructing a platonic ideal of a world, and longing for a time that never really existed.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Fermi, Sinatra, DiMaggio — and Capone” says the benefits of immigration outweigh the costs, but American openness is shrinking.  Mr. Bruni says “Trump and Cruz Set an Ugly, Nasty Tone” and that with time running out, the Republicans went for broke at their most venomous meeting yet.  Prof. Krugman has a question:  “Is Vast Inequality Necessary?”  He says of course not, despite what many of its beneficiaries believe.  Mr. Kristof treated us to more of his tweets and is being ignored again.  Here’s Bobo:

Across the street from my apartment building in Washington there’s a gigantic supermarket and a CVS. Above the supermarket there had been a large empty space with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space was recently taken by a ballet school, so now when I step outside in the evenings I see dozens of dancers framed against the windows, doing their exercises — gracefully and often in unison.

It can be arrestingly beautiful. The unexpected beauty exposes the limitations of the normal, banal streetscape I take for granted every day. But it also reminds me of a worldview, which was more common in eras more romantic than our own.

This is the view that beauty is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself. This humanistic worldview holds that beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal.

By arousing the senses, beauty arouses thought and spirit. A person who has appreciated physical grace may have a finer sense of how to move with graciousness through the tribulations of life. A person who has appreciated the Pietà has a greater capacity for empathy, a more refined sense of the different forms of sadness and a wider awareness of the repertoire of emotions.

John O’Donohue, a modern proponent of this humanistic viewpoint, writes in his book “Beauty: The Invisible Embrace”: “Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. … Without beauty the search for truth, the desire for goodness and the love of order and unity would be sterile exploits. Beauty brings warmth, elegance and grandeur.”

The art critic Frederick Turner wrote that beauty “is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe.”

By this philosophy, beauty incites spiritual longing.

Today the word eros refers to sex, but to the Greeks it meant the fervent desire to reach excellence and deepen the voyage of life. This eros is a powerful longing. Whenever you see people doing art, whether they are amateurs at a swing dance class or a professional painter, you invariably see them trying to get better. “I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart,” Vincent van Gogh wrote.

Some people call eros the fierce longing for truth. “Making your unknown known is the important thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote. Mathematicians talk about their solutions in aesthetic terms, as beautiful or elegant.

Others describe eros as a more spiritual or religious longing. They note that beauty is numinous and fleeting, a passing experience that enlarges the soul and gives us a glimpse of the sacred. As the painter Paul Klee put it, “Color links us with cosmic regions.”

These days we all like beautiful things. Everybody approves of art. But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty. We live, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in an essay for The Times Book Review, in a post-humanist moment. That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones.

Over the past century, artists have had suspicious and varied attitudes toward beauty. Some regard all that aesthetics-can-save-your-soul mumbo jumbo as sentimental claptrap. They want something grittier and more confrontational. In the academy, theory washed like an avalanche over the celebration of sheer beauty — at least for a time.

For some reason many artists prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence). Meanwhile, how many times have you heard advocates lobby for arts funding on the grounds that it’s good for economic development?

In fact, artists have their biggest social impact when they achieve it obliquely. If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.

The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good — the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

President Obama showcased a Syrian immigrant, Refaai Hamo, during his State of the Union address as evidence of “our diversity and our openness,” qualities that have long defined and sustained the United States.

But given the degree of openness America has offered Syrian refugees over close to five years of war in which a quarter of a million people have been killed, this political choreography qualified as serious chutzpah.

Hamo, who lost his wife and daughter in the war, is one of about 2,500 refugees Washington has admitted since 2012. That’s roughly 0.06 percent of the 4.4 million Syrians who have fled their country, most of them marooned in neighboring Middle Eastern states, many staggering into Europe.

In fact Hamo, in his relative isolation on this side of the Atlantic, might better have been offered as a symbol of the closing of the American mind — its post 9/11 susceptibility to fear of terrorism, its anxiety about downward social drift, its uncertainty about the future, its postwar fatigue, its plague-on-all-their-houses dismissal of the war-without-victory Middle East.

Obama tried to inject hope. That’s where the world began with Obama. Yes, we could. In truth, after seven years in the White House, he seemed weary himself, straining for conviction.

As the world knows by now, Obama’s temperament is more inclined toward explanation than exhortation. The president is primed to out-reason the Islamic State — they want this, so we’ll do that — as if reason even flirts with the outer galaxies of the Raqqa universe. When feeling does take over, as with Obama’s passionate appeal this month for America to rein in its gun madness, the effect is particularly powerful because rare.

Republicans have sought to block Obama at every turn, not least on immigration, balking even at his plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. The politics of anti-Muslim bigotry will not be far from the surface throughout this American election year.

For everyone — from Donald Trump to rightist parties in Germany and Sweden — itching to close borders, the sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have become the great I-told-you-so moment. Germany last year admitted 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, of whom close to 40 percent are Syrian. That’s a huge number. Sweden’s admission last year of up to 190,000 refugees is also substantial, relative to its population.

In small towns, when hundreds of newcomers abruptly arrive, social tensions are inevitable. Far-right forces — Germany’s Pegida movement or the Sweden Democrats — believe they can benefit.

The refugee flow is unlikely to stop. Saudi Arabia just took a hatchet to already forlorn international peacemaking efforts through a mass execution that infuriated Iran. No peace is possible in Syria until the Saudis and Iranians both want it.

Still, I’d bet on Germany and Sweden, societies that have absorbed substantial numbers of refugees in the past, to prove resilient, and the aging European countries most open to immigration to be the more dynamic over time. What happened in Cologne was vile. Chancellor Angela Merkel has rightly spoken of “disgusting, criminal acts,” and responded by toughening laws. She should go further. As a woman who reached the pinnacle, addressing refugees who have fled Muslim countries where women are often demeaned, she is uniquely placed to address the direct relationship between successful societies and female dignity, freedom and independence.

Meanwhile, let’s keep some perspective. Even the most aggressive estimate of the number of asylum seekers involved in the Cologne incidents still leaves more than 1,099,500 newly admitted refugees in Germany who had nothing to do with what happened.

Merkel has done the right thing. Where would Europe be today with 1.1 million desperate people trudging from closed border to closed border? The Western responsibility for the Syrian debacle is immense. Her decision, alone among leaders, implicitly acknowledges this fact. Germany, over the past quarter-century, has absorbed 16 million former East Germans and ushered them from the paranoid, subjugated mind-set of the Soviet imperium. Its large Turkish community is unevenly integrated, but ever better with the years. Germany will handle the current influx.

Immigration is a challenge but also a measure of the confidence of a society, its preparedness for self-renewal. That confidence is low in America right now. “The dignity of a person is untouchable” — so begins Germany’s postwar Constitution, with words drawn from bitter experience. Merkel has shown the conviction that this idea can eventually be absorbed by everyone now in Germany. She will be vindicated.

The United States, between the 1880’s and 1924, admitted about 4 million Italian immigrants. As Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, observed to me, “We got Enrico Fermi, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Antonin Scalia — and Al Capone. Who in their right mind would suggest that the Italian immigration was not a great blessing for our country?”

Call it the Capone Principle: Costs of immigration are outweighed by benefits.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

Remember that phase of the campaign when Ted Cruz spoke no ill of Donald Trump, who returned the favor?

You may now forget it. Bury it. Write its obituary, in a pen dipped in acid.

At Thursday night’s Republican debate, the two frontrunners didn’t merely spar, as was expected. They glared at and scolded each other with a venomousness that was initially mesmerizing, then horrifying and finally just sad—very, very sad.

The trajectory of the Republican primary has been one of growing pessimism, intensifying acrimony and abundant pettiness, and it reached its ugly nadir on the stage in North Charleston, S.C.

This happened when Cruz was asked to respond to Trump’s claim that he might not qualify as a “natural-born citizen” eligible for the presidency. Cruz was ready for it, asserting that as recently as four months ago, Trump had sung a different tune.

“Since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed,” Cruz said. “But the poll numbers have, and I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa.”

The two men argued about what the numbers really said, Trump insisting that his were bigger. They battled over the legitimacy and motivations of a Harvard law professor who had weighed in skeptically on Cruz’s eligibility. They traded barbs about Trump’s mother. Yes, his mother.

Some of their lines were wicked—some of Cruz’s, at least. He’s frighteningly talented at this sort of thing, and told Trump: “I’m happy to consider naming you as V.P., and so, if you happen to be right, you can get the top job at the end of the day.”

But as the scabrous exchange went on (and on) and John Kasich visibly slumped in frustration and the other candidates gaped in what seemed like genuine disbelief at the length of this endless digression, it was impossible to be entertained or amused.

The only sane response was sorrow—that this is a presidential election in the greatest democracy on earth, and that blowhards like Trump and Cruz are, for now, setting the pace and the terms in one of our two major political parties.

Over the course of this sixth meeting of the leading Republican candidates, serious issues were indeed broached, and the candidates raised legitimate questions about what President Obama had and hadn’t done to make Americans feel safe. They had a warranted discussion about whether the American economy had improved enough and in the right ways.

But the tone eclipsed the substance, and the tone was nastier than it had to be, sometimes to the point of pure silliness.

With the Iowa caucuses less than three weeks away, the New Hampshire primary right after that and several of the seven men onstage still looking for elusive traction, they went for broke: exaggerated words, extreme claims, voices raised high and chests puffed out as never before.

Trump was, as ever, at center stage.

For such a small-minded man, he hovers so large over this country’s political landscape, casting the longest and most sinister of shadows. He was the sire of President Obama’s State of the Union address, which could be heard as a point-by-point retort to the gloom, doom and bigotry that Trump peddles. He was the sire of Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response, which was as concerned with chastising him as with contradicting the president.

And he was the sire of this debate, inasmuch as the anger that he summons and the uncompromising toughness that he projects have infected his adversaries, tugging them toward truculence. On Thursday night, several of them seemed intent on out-Trumping Trump.

Chris Christie didn’t merely portray himself as the most effective opponent for Hillary Clinton.

“If I’m the nominee, she won’t get within 10 miles of the White House,” he proclaimed.

He didn’t merely state his differences with Obama. He compared the president to “a petulant child” and made him a promise.

“We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall,” he said. Trump couldn’t have expressed it more crudely.

Rubio, for his part, wholly abandoned the upbeat message and mien that once defined him. There’s no sunshine in a race that orbits around a star as dark as Trump. There’s only thunder, fear, apocalyptic musings and bellicose vows to exert America’s muscle around the world.

Rubio talked about handing out many a “one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.” Cruz talked about “the full force and fury of the United States of America.”

Rubio and Cruz squared off against each other just before the debate clock ran out, with Cruz calling Rubio soft on immigration and Rubio calling him soft on national defense. But it wasn’t typical political theater: It was more sneering and more savage than that—jarringly so.

“That is not consistent conservatism,” Rubio said of Cruz’s record. “That is political calculation.”

Cruz insisted on ample time to respond. “He had no fewer than 11 attacks there,” he said, and then, addressing Rubio directly, added: “I appreciate your dumping your oppo research folder.”

By the time it was all over, I was fantasizing about Trump’s promised wall, only it didn’t separate the United States from Mexico. It separated Cruz from Trump, Rubio from Cruz and all three of them from the rest of us, who are looking for leadership, not egos and vitriol.

And last but never least here’s Prof. Krugman:

How rich do we need the rich to be?

That’s not an idle question. It is, arguably, what U.S. politics are substantively about. Liberals want to raise taxes on high incomes and use the proceeds to strengthen the social safety net; conservatives want to do the reverse, claiming that tax-the-rich policies hurt everyone by reducing the incentives to create wealth.

Now, recent experience has not been kind to the conservative position. President Obama pushed through a substantial rise in top tax rates, and his health care reform was the biggest expansion of the welfare state since L.B.J. Conservatives confidently predicted disaster, just as they did when Bill Clinton raised taxes on the top 1 percent. Instead, Mr. Obama has ended up presiding over the best job growth since the 1990s. Is there, however, a longer-term case in favor of vast inequality?

It won’t surprise you to hear that many members of the economic elite believe that there is. It also won’t surprise you to learn that I disagree, that I believe that the economy can flourish with much less concentration of income and wealth at the very top. But why do I believe that?

I find it helpful to think in terms of three stylized models of where extreme inequality might come from, with the real economy involving elements from all three.

First, we could have huge inequality because individuals vary hugely in their productivity: Some people are just capable of making a contribution hundreds or thousands of times greater than average. This is the view expressed in a widely quoted recent essay by the venture capitalist Paul Graham, and it’s popular in Silicon Valley — that is, among people who are paid hundreds or thousands of times as much as ordinary workers.

Second, we could have huge inequality based largely on luck. In the classic old movie “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” an old prospector explainsthat gold is worth so much — and those who find it become rich — thanks to the labor of all the people who went looking for gold but didn’t find it. Similarly, we might have an economy in which those who hit the jackpot aren’t necessarily any smarter or harder working than those who don’t, but just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Third, we could have huge inequality based on power: executives at large corporations who get to set their own compensation, financial wheeler-dealers who get rich on inside information or by collecting undeserved fees from naïve investors.

As I said, the real economy contains elements of all three stories. It would be foolish to deny that some people are, in fact, a lot more productive than average. It would be equally foolish, however, to deny that great success in business (or, actually, anything else) has a strong element of luck — not just the luck of being the first to stumble on a highly profitable idea or strategy, but also the luck of being born to the right parents.

And power is surely a big factor, too. Reading someone like Mr. Graham, you might imagine that America’s wealthy are mainly entrepreneurs. In fact, the top 0.1 percent consists mainly of business executives, and while some of these executives may have made their fortunes by being associated with risky start-ups, most probably got where they are by climbing well-established corporate ladders. And the rise in incomes at the top largely reflects the soaring pay of top executives, not the rewards to innovation.

But the real question, in any case, is whether we can redistribute some of the income currently going to the elite few to other purposes without crippling economic progress.

Don’t say that redistribution is inherently wrong. Even if high incomes perfectly reflected productivity, market outcomes aren’t the same as moral justification. And given the reality that wealth often reflects either luck or power, there’s a strong case to be made for collecting some of that wealth in taxes and using it to make society as a whole stronger, as long as it doesn’t destroy the incentive to keep creating more wealth.

And there’s no reason to believe that it would. Historically, America achieved its most rapid growth and technological progress ever during the 1950s and 1960s, despite much higher top tax rates and much lower inequality than it has today.

In today’s world, high-tax, low-inequalitycountries like Sweden are also both highly innovative and home to many business start-ups. This may in part be because a strong safety net encourages risk-taking: People may be willing to prospect for gold, even if a successful foray won’t make them quite as rich as before, if they know they won’t starve if they come up empty.

So coming back to my original question, no, the rich don’t have to be as rich as they are. Inequality is inevitable; the vast inequality of America today isn’t.

Friedman and Bruni

January 6, 2016

In “Up With Extremism” The Moustache of Wisdom offers us the radical campaign platform we need, but he says we’re just not ready for it.  In “The Clintons’ Secret Language” Mr. Bruni tells us that Bill and Hillary have a marriage like any other — it’s unknowable from the outside.  Here’s TMOW:

From its very inception, Donald Trump’s campaign for president has been life imitating Twitter. His candidacy is built on Twitter bursts and insults that touch hot buttons, momentarily salve anxieties and put a fist through the face of political correctness, but without any credible programs for implementation.

Where Trump has been a true innovator is in his willingness to rhetorically combine positions from the isolationist right, the far right, the center right and the center left. If I were running for president, I’d approach politics in the same way: not as a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian or a centrist.

I’d run as an extremist.

The agenda that could actually make America great again would combine the best ideas of the extreme left and the extreme right. This year is probably too soon for such a radical platform, but by 2020 — after more extreme weather, after machines replace more middle-class jobs, after more mass shootings and after much more global disorder — voters will realize that our stale left-right parties can’t produce the needed answers for our postindustrial era. Accelerations in Moore’s law, the market and climate change are transforming the workplace, the environment and nation-states, leaving people feeling insecure and unmoored.

It’s time for a true nonpartisan extremist, one whose platform combines the following:

■ A single-payer universal health care system. If it can work for Canada, Australia and Sweden and provide generally better health outcomes at lower prices, it can work for us, and get U.S. companies out of the health care business.

■ Expansion of the earned-income tax credit to top-up wages for low-income workers and introduction of a negative income tax to ensure a government-guaranteed income floor for every American. In an age when machines are gobbling low-skilled jobs, we’ll need both.

■ Common Core education standards as the law of the land, to raise education benchmarks across the country, so high school graduates meet the higher skill levels that good jobs will increasingly demand. But those higher standards should be phased in with funding to enable every teacher to have the professional development time to learn the new curriculum those standards require and to buy the materials needed to teach it.

■ Controlling low-skilled immigration while removing all limits on H-1B visas for foreign high-skilled knowledge workers and doubling the research funding for our national labs and institutes of health to drive basic research. Nothing would spin off more new good jobs and industries than that combination.

■ New accelerated tax incentives and elimination of all regulatory barriers to rapidly scale up deployment of superfast bandwidth for both wire line and wireless networks to ensure that next-generation Internet services are developed in America. And borrowing $100 billion at today’s super-low government interest rates to upgrade our ports, airports and grids and to create jobs.

■ Bans on the manufacture and sale of all semiautomatic and other military-style guns and government offers to buy back any rifle or pistol in circulation. It won’t solve the problem, but Australia proved that such programs can help reduce gun deaths.

■ To pay for all this, a phased-in innovation and tax agenda that incentivizes start-ups and hiring. That means: Slash all corporate taxes, income taxes, personal deductions and corporate subsidies and replace them with a carbon tax, a value-added consumption tax (except on groceries and other necessities), a tax on bullets and a tax on all sugary drinks — with offsets for the lowest-income earners.

We need a tax system that shrinks what we don’t want — carbon, sugar and bullets — and incentivizes what we need. If we slash corporate taxes, many more companies will want to locate here, and the ones domiciled here will have the incentive to bring home foreign profits and plow them into research and new business lines.

■ An independent commission appointed to review Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley to determine which, if any, of their provisions are needlessly making it harder for entrepreneurs to raise capital or start businesses. We need to be sure we’re preventing recklessness — not risk-taking.

■ Copy Britain: Strictly limit national political campaign spending and the length of the campaign to a period of a few months. It makes it much harder for billionaires to buy candidates.

■ Increased military spending and ensuring that our intelligence services have all the legally monitored latitude they need to confront today’s cyberenabled terrorists — because if there’s one more 9/11, many voters will be ready to throw out all civil liberties. And with the world cleaving into zones of “order” and “disorder,” we’ll need to project more power to protect the former and stabilize the latter.

In sum, our slow growth, inequality and national security challenges require radical solutions: strengthening safety nets, curbing the bad environmental and health behaviors that are bankrupting us and paying for it all by sharply incentivizing risk-taking, innovation, investment and hiring.

That calls for a nonpartisan extremist for president who’s ready to go far left and far right — simultaneously. That’s my 2020 vision, and in four years the country just might be ready for it.

One of the biggest pimps for W’s clusterfck wants increased military spending…  How special.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Remember the Gores? Al and Tipper? At the Democratic convention in 2000, they shared that hungry, happy kiss, and it was more than a meeting of lips. It was a window, or so we thought, into a partnership of enduring passion and inextinguishable tenderness.

They’re separated now. Have been for more than five years.

And the Edwardses? John and Elizabeth? He resembled a Ken doll. She didn’t take after Barbie. That endeared them to voters — endeared him to voters. Only later did we learn about his double life, the furious fights and the copious tears.

We know nothing of other people’s marriages. Nothing at all.

So why do we pretend otherwise? Why do we make so many assumptions and judgments?

And why, every election cycle, do we treat candidates’ spouses and unions as the keys to their characters?

We can’t trust what’s paraded in front of us any more than we can take what journalists and opponents dig up as the essential truth. A person’s intimate life isn’t readily fathomed, and on the inside tends not to look anything like it does on the outside.

Bill Clinton hit the campaign trail this week. That brought back memories, or rather Donald Trump hauled those memories to the surface, and we were reminded anew of all that Bill and Hillary have been through (and have put us through): the infidelities, the intern, the lies, the smears.

We were also reminded of Hillary’s role in defending him. How did that square with her claim to be a champion of women? It’s fair to ask.

But the fascination with the Clintons as a couple goes beyond that question, beyond those scandals, to the belief in many quarters that we can divine something essential about each of them by the fact that they teamed up and stayed together.

According to her fans, it’s a measure of her understanding that people are broken, of her capacity for forgiveness, of her belief in commitments. According to her foes, it reveals a thirst for power that redeems any heartbreak and transcends all humiliation.

It could be proof of both — or neither. The answer isn’t gettable. Talk with six different people who know the Clintons well and you hear six different appraisals of their bond, each presented with unalloyed confidence.

I’ve been told that they light up around each other as they light up around no one else.

I’ve been told that there’s no extraordinary spark there, just a storehouse of shared memories, an accretion of endurable disappointments, a daughter, a granddaughter and a friendship.

I’ve been told that they’re really business associates, intricately involved in each other’s lives because they’re jointly invested in the perpetuation of their political relevance.

I’ve been told that they talk more than anyone would imagine. I’ve been told that they talk less.

In New Hampshire on Monday, when he described his first encounters with her some 45 years ago, he called her “the most amazing person” and said, “Everything she touched, she made better.”

Maybe that was a deeply felt tribute. Maybe just a great line.

Heidi Cruz will also be in New Hampshire this week. She’s a busy evangelist for Ted, half of a couple who present themselves as perfect. Perhaps.

Or perhaps, as the cringe-worthy outtakes from a Cruz campaign commercial suggest, they’re just equally meticulous about the script on which they’re collaborating, equally intent on a triumphant denouement.

I’m less and less interested in guessing, because I’m more and more aware of how compartmentalized people are, of how flawed and fruitless it is to extrapolate from one chamber of their lives to another. The stingiest spouse and parent can be the greatest boss, and vice versa. Someone who’s selfless and principled in one context is sometimes the opposite in another, as if there’s only so much goodness to go around.

And no chamber resists exploration and explanation like that of a marriage or comparable relationship.

We’re certain that we have it figured out — who musters the most patience, who makes the greatest sacrifices, who’s pure, who’s sullied — until it falls apart. Then we gape at the pieces, because none are recognizable.

We’re certain that social climbing or religious devotion is a couple’s glue, when what matters more is the secret language of goofy endearments that they speak. Or the unremarkable daily rituals that they’ve grown to relish. Or the tempo of his speech. Or the timbre of her laugh.

And when we come to our sweeping conclusions, we’re not perceiving but projecting, and we’re using couples to cling to our idealism or validate our cynicism. It’s a foolish game under any circumstances. It’s a dangerous one en route to the election of a president.

So of course Mr. Bruni, the male MoDo, plays the game of sniffing in the panty drawer.  Butthead.

Bruni, solo

December 30, 2015

Bruni seems to be slowly morphing into MoDo.  Today he gives us “The Juicy Subplots of 2016” in which he has questions:  Will Barack Obama bust loose? Will Bill Clinton lay low? Will it all come down to New Hampshire?  In the comments “Socrates” from Downtown Verona, NJ has this to say:  “Thanks for the Soap Opera review, Frank.  But this isn’t General Hospital, Days of Our Lives or As The World Turns.  This is reality for 320 million Americans looking for an ounce of journalistic and political leadership from those in a position of power in a 0.1%-hijacked country.  We don’t need another intellectually bankrupt reality show distraction with color commentary from the fourth estate.”  Here’s Bruni/MoDo:

In American politics, one narrative — one question — eclipses all others: Who will become the 45th president?

But there are dramas within that drama. There’s also suspense aplenty beyond center stage, and much of it does not involve Donald Trump, a third-party candidacy or the specter of a brokered Republican convention. This column, in the spirit of the holidays, will be a Trump-free zone.

Some of the following subplots could greatly influence the outcome of the presidential contest, while others have big implications for the sway and the health of the Republican and Democratic parties.

They’re just a glimmer of what 2016 has in store.

Barack Obama Unbound. He’s zipping down the road with Jerry Seinfeld. He’s unzipping his lip with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio. He’s intensifying his fight against climate change.

As President Obama pivots into the final phase of his presidency, he seems to be heading in a new direction, toward greater candor, fewer inhibitions, no apologies. He has felt muzzled and misunderstood for much of his time in the White House. I sense a catharsis coming.

And it could complicate the inevitably strained etiquette between him and the Democratic presidential nominee, meaning Hillary Clinton. She’ll have to defend many aspects of his legacy and disparage others as she does and doesn’t campaign for a third Obama term. He’ll react to this as someone who’s losing his limited patience with political gamesmanship, who’s tired of playing the punching bag and whose aides and associates are sometimes aghast at the Clintons.

Side note: Watch for Joe Biden, by design or accident, to blurt out something harmful to her at some point.

Bill Clinton on the Loose. Until recent weeks, it was almost possible to forget him as presidential-race factor. Then Hillary Clinton, in the last Democratic debate, tagged him as a key economic adviser in any second Clinton administration. Her campaign confirmed that he’d be popping upmore often on the campaign trail. And references to his Oval Office misdeeds and the Clintons’ marital psychodrama started to creep back into the news.

All of that was a fresh reminder that his proper role in, and impact on, his wife’s candidacy is unsettled and unclear. He remains both wildly charismatic and maddeningly undisciplined. He connotes both prosperous times and cynical scheming.

There’s no legitimate worry that his presence might eclipse and diminish hers, but the two of them together root her candidacy as much in the past as in the future. So how to deploy and integrate him? Is it controllable?

All Eyes on New Hampshire. I don’t mean the state’s Republican and Democratic primaries in February. I mean the United States Senate election in November. The balance of power in the chamber could hinge on the battle between the Republican incumbent, Kelly Ayotte, and her Democratic challenger, Maggie Hassan, the state’s governor.

It won’t look like many other Senate contests. New Hampshire’s peculiar political realities mean that neither candidate is likely to be especially nasty or ideologically strident; each may well emphasize consensus-building and look for opportunities to flex independence from the party that’s paradoxically pumping enormous resources into her race.

And their matchup will underscore New Hampshire’s encouraging record of electing women to prominent public offices, where they’re still frustratingly underrepresented nationwide.

A Tale of Two Mayors. The Democratic mayors of two of the nation’s three most populous cities are under enormous strain, their approval ratings low, their approaches to governing under attack. I speak of Bill de Blasio in New York and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, each of whom has acknowledged the need for redemption in 2016.

But while de Blasio’s greatest problems are with white voters, Emanuel has lost the trust in particular of minorities, who are justly outraged by the deadly actions of his city’s police officers.

The methods and success with which these remarkably different men chart their comebacks warrant scrutiny, harboring lessons about the Democratic Party’s ability to bridge diverse constituencies and about the most effective style of leadership for fractious, tense times.

Religion on the Run. Same-sex marriage became the law in 50 states despite the opposition of many prominent church figures. The percentage of Americans who don’t subscribe to any organized religion steadily grows.

And that means that whoever winds up with the Republican nomination has to figure out how to play down the primary’s degree of God talk and moralizing without alienating voters on the so-called religious right, who could cause a distracting scene, impede the party’s outreach to moderate and younger voters, and decide to sit out the election.

Can the party soften its image, adapt to the times and expand its appeal while satisfying evangelicals? Its success in presidential contests could hinge on that.

Mr. Bruni is capable of reasoned, insightful columns.  Too bad he’s stopped writing them lately.

Bruni, solo

December 23, 2015

In “Blood, Sweat and Trump” Mr. Bruni says the Republican front-runner’s latest swipes, at Hillary Clinton, reveal some exceedingly strange hang-ups.  No shit, Frank, what gave it away?  Here he is:

Everybody pees.

That’s actually the name of a public service campaign by the National Kidney Foundation, and I thought it a needless statement of the obvious until Donald Trump brought me to my senses. Apparently some people think that the laws of urology don’t apply to them. Apparently Trump is in this category.

On Monday he said this of Hillary Clinton’s mid-debate bathroom break: “I know where she went. It’s disgusting. I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting.”

He didn’t specify why. But it’s difficult to find anything indecorous about Clinton’s behavior unless you see it as entirely volitional and utterly controllable — something you do to indulge yourself, something that can be put off for hours or forever, an emblem of your weakness. I guess in Trump’s world, only “low energy” people need to go.

That would make sense, given how fantastical his cosmos is. It’s a place where thousands of Muslims in New Jersey publicly cheer the fall of the World Trade Center; where a stretch of the Potomac River alongside a Virginia golf club of his magically becomes a Civil War site; where his own net worth changes by an order of billions from one moment to the next, in accordance with his need to puff up his chest.

Why wouldn’t it also be a place where people relieve themselves only if they’re losers and they’re intent on a messiness that they can avoid? Maybe Trump really doesn’t pee. Maybe he outsources that to a Mexican immigrant in his employ.

You have to hand it to him: He divines character flaws where no one else could or would. Through his warped lens, there’s shame in John McCain’s imprisonment in Vietnam, horror in Clinton’s use of a toilet, dysfunction in each bead of Marco Rubio’s sweat.

Those last two items underscore his bizarre obsession with, and objection to, body fluids. In early November, Daniel Lippman of Politico noted that Trump had “remarked on Rubio’s perspiration at least eight times in the last seven weeks.” On two of those occasions, Trump suggested that sweating would put Rubio at a disadvantage in negotiations with Vladimir Putin, who would find him too soggy.

The fluids of women in particular rattle Trump. When a lawyer who was questioning him during a 2011 deposition asked for a break so that she could leave the room and pump breast milk for her 3-month-old daughter, he was unhinged.

“You’re disgusting,” he berated her, according to a story in The Times earlier this year by Michael Barbaro and Steve Eder. Then he stormed out of the deposition.

More famously, he reflected on Megyn Kelly’s interrogation of him at the first Republican presidential debate by saying that “you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

Clinton’s bathroom break — or, more precisely, Trump’s revulsion toward it — lies at the intersection of his misogyny and his fastidiousness. He’s a germophobe who once labeled himself “a clean hands freak,” called handshakes a “terrible custom” and said that the obligation to engage in them was one of the great curses of celebrity like his.

Even so, a kidney doctor I know was baffled by his latest outburst.

“Urine is sterile,” Maya Rao, an assistant professor of nephrology at Columbia University, pointed out. “It’s not ‘disgusting.’ Wow. I literally feel like I’m dealing with an elementary-school child and we’re talking about cooties.”

Trump is routinely — and rightly — tagged as a playground bully, but that phrase doesn’t do full justice to his arrested development, his potty mouth and the puerile nature of his vulgar bleats.

He taunts people for being unpopular, for being unattractive, for physical disabilities. The altitude of his debate vocabulary is only millimeters above “I know you are but what am I,” words that he’ll surely utter before this is all over.

On Monday he not only cringed at Clinton’s bathroom visit, he mocked her loss in the 2008 presidential election by substituting a phallic verb for the word defeated.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is your Republican front-runner. It’s probably too late to teach him manners, but maybe not to teach him biology: When you imbibe fluids, you excrete fluids, sometimes through sweat, often through urine.

And while “the typical person goes to the bathroom every three or four hours,” said Matthew Rutman, a urologist at Columbia, that frequency increases for someone who’s older, who’s enduring stress, who’s ingesting caffeine. In other words, for most presidential candidates.

Everybody pees. But it’s the rare man-child who finds that worthy of ridicule. And it’s up to voters: Is that the kind of exceptionalism you want in the White House?

Friedman and Bruni

December 9, 2015

In “#You Ain’t No American, Bro” TMOW tells us that Donald Trump is doing real damage to America’s ability to lead a coalition, the only vehicle that can effectively address ISIS.  Mr. Bruni thinks he knows “What to Tell Donald Trump,” and he says the planet’s neediest billionaire is aiding our enemies by playing into their narrative.  Here’s TMOW:

Two weeks ago, I was in Kuwait participating in an I.M.F. seminar for Arab educators. For 30 minutes, we discussed the impact of technology trends on education in the Middle East. And then an Egyptian education official raised his hand and asked if he could ask me a personal question: “I heard Donald Trump say we need to close mosques in the United States,” he said with great sorrow. “Is that what we want our kids to learn?”

I tried to assure him that Trump would not be our next president — that America’s commitment to pluralism runs deep. But the encounter was a bracing reminder that what starts in Iowa shows up in Kuwait five minutes later. Trump, by alienating the Muslim world with his call for a ban on Muslims entering America, is acting as the Islamic State’s secret agent. ISIS wants every Muslim in America (and Europe) to feel alienated. If that happens, ISIS won’t need to recruit anyone. People will will just act on their own. ISIS and Islamic extremism are Muslim problems that can only be fixed by Muslims. Lumping all Muslims together as our enemies will only make that challenge harder.

But if Trump is wrong, is President Obama right? Partly. He’s right that the only way you can sustainably defeat ISIS is with a coalition. We need moderate Sunni Muslim forces to go house to house against ISIS in Iraq. We need Sunni spiritual leaders to go heart to heart and delegitimize the ISIS message everywhere. And we need Iran to make clear it supports an equitable power-sharing agreement in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, so moderate Sunni Arabs will fight ISIS rather than seeing it as their shield against Iran.

What Obama also has right is that old saying: “If you’re in a poker game and you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s probably you.” That’s the game we’re in in Iraq and Syria. All our allies for a coalition to take down ISIS want what we want, but as their second choice.

Kurds are not going to die to liberate Mosul from ISIS in order to hand it over to a Shiite-led government in Baghdad; they’ll want to keep it. The Turks primarily want to block the Kurds. The Iranians want ISIS crushed, but worry that if moderate Sunnis take over its territory they could one day threaten Iran’s allies in Iraq and Syria. The Saudi government would like ISIS to disappear, but its priority right now is crushing Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. And with 1,000 Saudi youth having joined ISIS as fighters — and with Saudi Arabia leading the world in pro-ISIS tweets, according to a recent Brookings study — the Saudi government is wary about leading the anti-ISIS fight. The Russians pretend to fight ISIS, but they are really in Syria to protect Bashar al-Assad and defeat his moderate foes.

It’s not exactly the D-Day alliance. It’s a deck full of jokers, none of whose priority is defeating ISIS and replacing it with a multi-sectarian democracy in Iraq and Syria, which is our goal. And yet, I worry: These ISIS guys are smart and wicked. The longer they control territory, the more likely they’ll acquire something really scary, like a dirty bomb.

Sufficient U.S. ground forces could easily crush ISIS, but the morning after — when we try to put in place a decent local government to replace our troops — we’d face those mixed motives of all of our coalition partners. So what to do?

I’d do a bit more of everything: Apply more pressure on our Sunni allies to join the anti-ISIS fight with troops on the ground; call on the Saudis and other Sunnis to loudly delegitimize ISIS; deploy more U.S. and NATO Special Forces; make clear to Iran that we might have to put the nuclear deal on hold if Iran is not a more constructive partner in Iraq and Syria; and stress that while we know that the violent jihadists are a minority among Muslims, the notion that they’re a totally separate and distinct group is not true. ISIS ideology comes directly out of the most puritanical, anti-pluralistic Salafist school of Islam, which promotes a lot of hostility toward “the other” — Shiites, Jews, Hindus, Christians. Clearly, some people are taking permission and inspiration from this puritanical Islam to murder and sow mayhem. I can’t reform it, but a movement of Muslims must, because it is isolating their whole community.

There are some good signs. NPR reported Monday that “when a man wielding a knife stabbed three people at an East London subway stop on Saturday evening and shouted, ‘This is for Syria,’ as he was being handcuffed … an onlooker yelled, ‘You ain’t no Muslim, bruv!’ using slang akin to ‘bro.’ ‘You’re no Muslim. You ain’t no Muslim,’ he repeated.” The man who made the statement has not been identified, but the hashtag ‘#YouAintNoMuslimBruv’ began trending worldwide,” no doubt propelled by Muslims. That’s what we need more of.

As for Trump, well, he may be a deal maker, but he’s no poker player ready for the Middle East five-card stud sharks. His xenophobic rhetoric and unrealistic, infantile threats of massive bombing make up the kind of simplistic hand you’d play in “Go Fish” — not in this high-stakes game. Beyond playing into ISIS’s hand by denigrating the U.S. presidency and our democratic ideals, Trump is doing real damage to America’s ability to lead a coalition, the only vehicle that can effectively address this problem.

#You ain’t no American, bro.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

“You know how you make America great again?” Senator Lindsey Graham said on CNN Tuesday morning. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”

Fine by me.

But before we give him that send-off, there’s a whole lot else we should tell him, not that he hears anything other than his own voice and the applause of people who mistake a trash-talking bully for a blunt-talking leader.

We should tell him that we’re on to him. We now fully realize that nothing he says — certainly not this dangerous claptrap about preventing all Muslims from entering the United States — is meant as an earnest proposal, as serious policy.

No, he’s just an addict whose drug of choice is attention, and he can’t get enough of it. He’s learned that if he presses the lever the right way, with the right provocation, out pops another hit of saturation media coverage, of all Trump all the time.

As the weeks and days go by, he has to press harder, escalating from the deportation of Mexicans to hallucinated street celebrations in Jersey City to the surveillance of mosques to this latest idiocy. What does he care if he’s likened to George Wallace, to Joseph McCarthy, even to Adolf Hitler? Those men aren’t even ranting anymore and they’re still talked about. Nowthat’s celebrity!

We should tell him how transparent and pathetic his nonstop, unsolicited boasts about polls and crowds have become. No matter the question, his answer is that he’s leading the pack. No matter the challenge, his response is that he got a standing ovation.

And so it went on Tuesday.

“Massive audience!” he bragged of the supporters who’d turned out for him the previous night. “Thousands of people inside, thousands of people outside — they couldn’t even get in!”

We should tell Trump that the man who constantly invokes his popularity is the one who worries that he’s unlovable. The man who refers incessantly to his riches is the one who frets that he’s worthless.

Is there a needier billionaire on the planet?

We should tell him that we, too, question the intensity of Barack Obama’s focus on the Islamic State and the terrorist threat, and that even on Sunday, when Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office, we didn’t see quite the passion that this moment demands or quite the strength that a fearful country craves.

But what Trump just did took pressure off the president by redirecting the conversation from his tentativeness to Trump’s insane overreach. We should tell him that, and we should add that he has practically collaborated with the enemy by playing into a narrative of Muslim persecution and a grand war between civilizations.

He has given the Islamic State and other barbarians a piece of propaganda as big as any of his resorts and as shimmering as any of his office towers.

We should tell him that by setting a standard of such outlandishness and a reference point of such divisiveness, he’s helping his Republican rivals, whose own recklessness doesn’t draw the scrutiny that it otherwise would. Nothing’s shocking in the context of Trump.

So Ted Cruz reacts to the San Bernardino massacre by visiting a firing range and promising such extensive bombing of the Middle East that he’ll find out “if sand can glow in the dark.” But are we reading about him as the second coming of Barry Goldwater? Not so much, because we’re reading about Trump as the second coming of the last century’s worst fascists.

We should tell him that even a huckster extraordinaire like him can’t sell himself as smart while acting so dumb. He’s going to bar Muslims only temporarily, he insisted — just until Congress figures out “what the hell is going on.”

But he also portrays members of Congress as nincompoops who can’t figure out how to tie their own shoelaces. So Trump’s temporary is forever, at least if we apply logic to his illogic.

What’s not forever: our surrender to his insidious grandstanding. Our obedient witness to it. We in the media should tell him that once he fades from this presidential race, is no longer a candidate for anything and there’s no urgency or compelling public interest in having him phone in to the morning news shows, he’s fired. Cut off.

It’s cold turkey, Trump. We don’t need the ratings, not when they come with the ravings. We should be — we must be — better than that.

And he will fade, probably starting now, because while there are scared Americans and petty Americans and moments when all of us lose our way, we’re not lost enough to keep indulging him. We’re nowhere near that far from greatness.


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