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Harold Stassen was a rising Republican star in the late 1930s and 1940s. Nicknamed the “boy wonder” of Minnesota politics, in 1938 he was elected governor at the age of 31, after two terms as the Dakota County district attorney. He gave the keynote address at the 1940 Republican National Convention. Governor Stassen resigned in April 1943 to serve as a naval commander on Admiral Bull Halsey’s staff in the Pacific theater during World War II. Still in uniform, Stassen was an American delegate to the San Francisco conference that led to the creation of the United Nations.

Former Governor Stassen ran a credible campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1948. Relatively few states held primaries in those days, and Stassen won more of them than any other candidate. With Stassen leading, New York Governor Thomas Dewey made his stand in the Oregon primary, where polls showed Stassen leading.

Dewey and Stassen agreed to a debate before the Oregon primary, broadcast on national radio. The topic was whether the Communist Party should be outlawed, and Stassen, despite being clearly the most liberal candidate in the race, took the “pro” position and Dewey stood “anti.”

Dewey famously said that “you can’t shoot an idea with a gun,” and it was generally believed that Dewey had beaten Stassen in the debate. Dewey then won the Oregon primary with about 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Stassen, and re-took the momentum from Stassen.

At the convention, delegates were divided among three major candidates – Dewey, Stassen, and Ohio Governor Robert Taft – and several minor candidates. It took three ballots for Dewey to win a majority and the nomination – the last Republican convention to go to more than one ballot. (Democrats last went more than one ballot in 1952, selecting former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson on the third try.)

Although Dewey beat Stassen, he lost the election to Harry Truman, the Chicago Tribune’s reporting to the contrary notwithstanding. Stassen was appointed president of the University of Pennsylvania, where he served for five years, followed by two years in an appointive position in the Eisenhower Administration.

Stassen ran for president again in 1964, barely registering in the primaries and winning no convention delegates. In 1968, he won even less of the primary vote, but did get two delegates. He tried again in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992, to no discernible effect. He became known not as a one-time governor and national leader, but as a “perennial candidate.” The pathos of his candidacies was only underscored by the ridiculous toupee Stassen wore in his later years.

It is a truism of political campaigning, even if not entirely true, that candidates don’t drop out because they’re losing; they drop out because they’re out of money. But in a post-Citizens United world, it’s not clear that even losing candidates ever need to run out of money.

This year’s Republican presidential campaign counts five candidates who do not reach a 5 percent polling average in any of the first three voting states. If a candidate can’t crack 5 percent in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, three very different states, the candidate really should give up, even if the money hasn’t run out.

The five candidates in question are Carly Fiorina, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Huckabee and Santorum ran reasonably well in 2008 and 2012, respectively, rendering them vulnerable to the illusion that they are popular; they are not. Fiorina and Paul are certainly well known, both having made national splashes. Their problem is not a lack of voter awareness, it’s a lack of voter approval. And I have no idea what Gilmore is doing, or thinks he’s doing.

Fiorina has never held public office, although she lost a Senate race in California in 2010. Santorum and Huckabee haven’t held office for nine years. Gilmore’s term as governor ended in 2002, although he chaired a Congressional advisory committee until 2003. He ran briefly and unnotably for president in 2007, and ran for Senate in 2008, losing by almost 2 – 1 to Mark Warner. Paul is a first-term senator who must either quickly re-focus on re-election to the Senate, or find himself unemployed in 2017.

Not everyone can be president. There’s no disgrace in running and losing. But running for president, or for anything else for that matter, when there is no chance to alter the campaign, much less win it, looks an awful lot like Harold Stassen pretending to run for president at the age of 85 under a truly awful toupee.


Targets of Democratic Opportunity – U.S. Senate

Saturation media coverage of the 2016 presidential race has so far largely crowded out coverage of the 2016 Senate races. The majority party controls the Senate agenda, even if a cloture-proof minority of 40 or more can largely block that agenda.

Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election in 2016 – 24 currently held by Republicans and 10 currently held by Democrats. Six Senators are not running for re-election – three Democrats and three Republicans. Republican Senator Rand Paul can’t legally run both for re-election to the Senate and for the presidency, but, given how badly his presidential campaign is going, it’s likely he’ll withdraw in time to run to keep his Senate seat.

By two important measures, 2016 is a year of opportunity for Democratic Senate candidates. First, more than twice as many Republican seats than Democratic seats are up for election. Second, seven seats are up that are held by Republicans in states that went for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 – Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. By contrast, no Democrat seats up for election are in states that Obama lost either time.

Democrats have reasonable chances in six out of those seven seats:

  • Republican Marco Rubio is vacating his seat to run for president. At least two of the Democratic candidates, Representatives Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy, would be viable in November.
  • Ohio Republican Rob Portman is likely to have a tough re-election race against former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland. Strickland lost a very close re-election race to John Kasich in 2010, which was an unusually good year for Republicans.
  • Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey may have a rough time with the Democratic nominee – who could be former Congressman Joe Sestak, who narrowly lost to Toomey in 2010.
  • Assuming that New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte gets past a likely Tea Party challenge, she will face Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, who is polling well so far.
  • Illinois Senator Mark Kirk seems likely to face Democratic Representative Tammy Duckworth in his bid for a second term. Duckworth is a popular veteran of the Iraq War who lost both legs while serving as a helicopter pilot. Duckworth might clobber Kirk in a very blue state.
  • Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson will probably run against Russ Feingold, who lost re-election to Johnson in 2010. Feingold has been polling consistently ahead of Johnson.
  • Of the seven Republican seats in states won twice by Obama, only Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley looks reasonably safe. Even that could change if Grassley faces a serious challenge from the very narrow space to his right – for instance, from Representative Steve King.

Two other Republican seats present interesting opportunities. In Louisiana, Republican Senator David Vitter announced after he lost the governor’s race to John Bel Edwards that he would not run for re-election to the Senate. Louisiana holds a “jungle primary,” in which candidates of all parties run in one race, and if no one gets 50 percent of the vote the top two finishers contend in a run-off. If several candidates divide the Republican vote, the run-off can be between a promising Democrat and a problematic Republican – as happened with the Vitter-Edwards race.

Indiana Republican Senator Dan Coats is vacating his seat, in a state that voted for President Obama in 2008 but not 2012. Indiana is a pretty red state, but in addition to voting for Obama in 2008 Indiana elected Democrat Joe Donnelly to the Senate in 2012 after the Republicans nominated Tea Party candidate Rchard Mourdock over long-time Senator Richard Lugar. If Indiana Republicans go crazy again in 2016, the seat becomes a viable target for Democrats.

The current Senate is divided 54 to 46 for the Republicans, counting independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King as Democrats. That means Democrats have to pick up five seats to take a majority if the next Vice President is a Republican, or four seats if the VP is a Democrat – plus one more seat for any currently Democratic seat that is taken by Republicans.

Barring a Republican presidential landslide, a Democratic Senate majority is a serious possibility regardless which party wins the White House.


I am a Muslim

Three types of harm would result if Donald Trump’s call today for a ban on Muslim immigration were to become law. First, we would deny safe haven to decent people fleeing the tyranny of ISIS, the death and destruction of Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs, the repression of the Iranian ayatollahs, or the poverty of Palestine – solely because those people are Muslim. To ban Muslim immigration is to hang a sign from Lady Liberty’s neck, “out to lunch.” Emma Lazarus’s hymn would need a codicil: give us your tired, your poor, unless they worship Allah.

Second, we would tell American Muslims, nearly three million of our brothers and sisters, that they do not belong, that in the United States of American they are strictly second-class citizens. Muslims who have been present on American land since 1528, when a Moroccan slave named Estevanico was shipwrecked near present-day Galveston. Muslims who descend from Revolutionary War soldiers Yusuf ben Ali and Bampett Muhamed. Muslims who descend from Bilali Muhammad, a slave who became an imam for 80 other Muslim slaves, all of whom fought the British during the War of 1812. Muslims who descend from the 292 Muslims known to have fought in the American Civil War.

Third, we would diminish ourselves. Our most shameful historical episodes involved the banishment of the “other” – African-American slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment camps, the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Seminole Trail of Tears. Those banishments mark us as capable of great horrors. By such acts we tell ourselves that we are not after all motivated by principle or optimism or generosity, but by fear and prejudice, that we are not a noble but a despicable people. In the end we denigrate ourselves far more than we denigrate the “other” we banish.

The third harm is the far greatest of the three. It was that harm that moved Richard Attenborough to put these words in Mohandas Gandhi’s mouth:

I am a Muslim, and a Hindu, and a Christian, and a Jew, and so are all of you. When you wave those flags and shout, you send fear into the hearts of your brothers. That is not the India I want. Stop it! For God’s sake, stop it!”

In the face of fascism, whether Trump’s or anyone else’s, all people of good will are Muslims. We must all be Muslims.

White Addicts Matter

Last Friday, the New York Times ran an article documenting a shift in American attitudes toward drug addiction:

“When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.”

Unlike the urban African-American drug addicts of decades past, today’s white drug addicts evoke “care and empathy,” the Times said.

Right on cue – the very same day the Times article ran – the Huffington Post picked up a video clip of New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie speaking passionately and personally about drug addiction during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire – a state not marked by urban concentrations of African-Americans – has of late suffered from something of an epidemic of heroin addiction, and the problem got plenty of attention before Christie’s talk on Friday.

Christie spoke of his mother’s nicotine addiction. I’ve seen enough nicotine addiction in my life to know that it is a powerful addiction, very hard to kick, and that the urge remains strong pretty much throughout the life of an ex-smoker. Still, the example seemed a little odd – Christie said his mother began smoking at the age of 16 and was diagnosed with lung cancer at 71. Smoking no doubt impaired her health and functioning for the half-century leading up to her diagnosis, but she still lived a productive life.

Christie’s second example was closer to the mark. He told a story about a hugely successful law school friend who, in his early 40s, became addicted to a prescription painkiller, Percocet. Christie assessed his friend’s success by his good looks, the good looks of his wife and three daughters, his education, his income, his career, his house, and his physical fitness.

All of that success was lost to Percocet, and after ten years of addiction, Christie’s friend died alone in a hotel room next to empty bottles of pills and vodka. There but for the grace of God, Christie said, went he.

The human species evolved to be compassionate. In the course of normal psychological development, our capacity for empathy fully forms by the age of 20. But sometimes we stubbornly resist compassion. And sometimes after long resistance, our empathy turns on as if someone flipped a switch.

Ronald Reagan’s AIDS policy turned on a dime after his friend, Rock Hudson, died from the disease. Many a public figure, from Dick Cheney to Rob Portman, came to favor same-sex marriage only after a close family member came out.

The human species evolved to be compassionate, but we also evolved to be tribal. We empathize much more readily with people we regard as being similar to ourselves; thus our tribalism impedes our compassion. When heroin addiction was perceived as a problem of urban African-Americans, the response of our white-normative political culture was to blame the addict for “bad choices” and to throw the addict in jail.

But now we see good people, our people, becoming heroin addicts, and our empathy switches on like a light bulb.

It’s hard to regard it as a bad thing that Dick Cheney favors same-sex marriage, or that Ronald Reagan did finally come around to regard the AIDS epidemic as worthy of federal response. It’s hard to argue that Chris Christie’s advocacy for treatment instead of incarceration for addicts is a bad thing.

Still, the duality of our capacity for compassion is discouraging. Humans evolved to be both tribal and compassionate, and those two traits can be at odds. But humans also evolved to have reason – unique among the species, we are capable of thinking about our own thinking, of critiquing our thinking, and of changing it. Maybe it’s idealistic to hope that the electoral process would be one of those places where reason would be at a premium.

It remains to be seen whether our new-found compassion for our drug addicts will be generalized to those other drug addicts. If so, then this is an important moment in our socio-political history. If so, we can only mourn the unnecessary loss of so many drug addicts who went before this moment. We can only mourn our own need to lose a close friend to drug addiction in order to see the addict as a victim in need of help instead of a criminal in need of punishment.

Things Are Looking Up

Don’t get me wrong – I like Bernie Sanders, a lot. Where he and Hillary Clinton disagree, I’m more likely to agree with him than her. I just don’t think American will elect someone who calls himself a socialist, even if he’s not really a socialist. (Sanders is a social democrat, not a socialist – but that’s a subject for a different post.)

I personally don’t think Donald Trump will, or even wants to, win the Republican nomination. But the mere possibility that Trump might win the nomination, combined with the unelectability of Sanders, if he were to be the Democratic nominee, threatens us with Donald Trump as the president of the United States, commander-in-chief, finger-on-the-nuclear-button and all.

Given the stakes, and the contemporary partisan divide, it’s much more important to elect the Democratic nominee than to nominate the perfect Democratic candidate.

So Clinton’s top-notch performance before the House select committee on Benghazi, on the heels of her top-notch performance in the first Democratic candidates’ debate, was a huge relief. In an odd way, it was also a big relief when Carson overtook Trump in national polling this week.

Carson is just a soft-spoken version of The Donald: Obamacare is slavery, gun control is for Nazis, people decide to become gay in prison. So on the face of it, Carson leading the Republican candidates is not really an improvement over Trump leading the Republican candidates.

But here’s the thing: Carson overtaking Trump shows that Republican primary voters have not settled on a candidate. Fully 80 percent of Carson supporters told pollsters that they aren’t sure they will end up voting for Carson – so there is plenty of opportunity for Carson to follow Trump out of contention. Americans have never elected a president with utterly no government experience, and Republicans have never nominated a candidate from the full-out loony right.

The betting markets give Marco Rubio a large lead in the Republican race, and the betting markets have a better record than early polling. A President Rubio would be no gift to American history, but his downside is a whole lot shallower than the downside of either a President Trump or a President Carson.

And Jeb Bush might yet make a come-back.

Don’t Know Much About History

During my senior year at Harvard College, the faculty debated and ultimately approved a “core curriculum” to replace the World War II-era “general education” curriculum. The general education requirements were few and broad – in addition to the course requirements of their major, undergraduates had to take a course or two each in natural sciences (including math), social sciences, and humanities. By comparison, the core curriculum requirements were specific and numerous – as I recall, an undergraduate had to take courses in 13 specific fields to graduate.

I remember being very glad that I was graduating under “general education” and would not be subject to the “core curriculum.” The core curriculum requirements covered mathematics and specific sciences like biology and physics. My experience suggested that those of us who majored in social sciences and the humanities were relatively well versed in the natural sciences – my own public high school, and I think American high schools generally, do a relatively good job of teaching mathematics and the natural sciences. Before going to college, I had taken courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, and a course called “earth science.” I knew how to balance a chemical equation and how to solve a quadratic equation, how to calculate an object’s acceleration, and how to disprove Zeno’s paradox with calculus. I knew all ten minerals in Moh’s scale of hardness, and I knew the differences between kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera and species.

The science majors I knew tended to have much narrower focus, and the pre-meds were the worst of the science majors. They had the hard sciences down cold, but all too many of them had not the first clue about philosophy, literature, political science, history, psychology or sociology. As the core curriculum debate progressed, I resented the implicit proposition that I, a social science major, was as ignorant of math and science as the science majors were of social sciences and the humanities.

Ben Carson brings me back to that feeling. Dr. Carson is a highly intelligent, highly educated, highly accomplished man, but his ignorance of social sciences and the humanities is staggering. Carson is so ignorant of slavery that he imagines that Obamacare is its moral equivalent. Carson is so ignorant of Nazism that he compares President Obama to Adolph Hitler and recommends reading Mein Kampf for an understanding of the Obama presidency. Carson is so ignorant of Communism that he compares President Obama’s governing platform to Cuba and the Soviet Union.

There’s a scene in a West Wing episode, when President Bartlett is running for re-election: Josh asks Donna about self-important quotations that Bartlett’s opponent gave from Immanuel Kant and Robert Frost. The Sorkinian dialog shows us that the idiot opponent had quoted the passages without really understanding them. Josh calls the opponent’s campaign a “fortune cookie candidacy,” capable of simple aphorisms but incapable of deep thought. Josh says of Bartlett:

“When the President’s got an embassy surrounded in Haiti, or a keyhole photograph of a heavy water reactor, or any of the fifty life-and-death matters that walk across his desk every day, I don’t know if he’s thinking about Immanuel Kant or not. I doubt it, but if he does, I am comforted at least in my certainty that he is doing his best to reach for all of it and not just the McNuggets. Is it possible we would be willing to require any less of the person sitting in that chair? The low road? I don’t think it is.”

Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson’s presidential candidacy is a test of whether we, the American electorate, are willing to require more of the president than “just the McNuggets” – whether we will continue to expect our national leaders to have the capacity to engage in deep and meaningful thought.

How Many More?

Since September 11, 2001, mass-murderers with legal assault weapons have killed more Americans than have been killed by Islamic terrorists. We have spent trillions fighting Islamic terrorists but we can’t bring ourselves to ban assault weapons or limit the size of magazines that feed bullets to those weapons.

The American Right is willing to defund one of our most important health care providers for the poor, Planned Parenthood, because that organization performs abortions, but is unwilling to take any significant action at all to control access to assault weapons. There is no measure too extreme in the Right’s crusade against a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, but there is no measure acceptable to the Right to protect against the proliferation of military weaponry. The Right pleads the Second Amendment in defense of its paralysis on guns, but is utterly unphased by the Fourteenth Amendment source of the right to abortion.

Today another nutcase on another campus in another state took at least 10 lives with a weapon that would not be available to civilians in a rational society. But when it comes to firearms, we are not a rational society.

Ten dead in Oregon.

Ten dead in Oregon.

How many more?


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