Monthly Archives: November 2014

Interstellar: Science, Sci-Fi, and the Humanity Thing

Image courtesy of Legendary Pictures/Paramount

Image courtesy of Legendary Pictures/Paramount

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

 The vast majority of science fiction writers, producers and directors—along with all the detachments of set designers, cinematographers and lighting designers—face a simple, yet inescapable conundrum: Stanley Kubrick forever changed the template for sci-fi on the big screen. Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s masterful, sweeping novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey raised the bar for sci-fi, then, deftly set it permanently in place.

Just as no screenwriter or director can fully escape the rules of gravity set down by Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather, no director ventures into the world of science fiction without some degree of homage or outright obedience to Kubrick’s vision. Deviate or disregard those canons if you like, but expect the risk factor to increase exponentially—as was the case with the increasingly unpleasant and pointless Alien sequels in a franchise that should have ceased after number two; likewise, with the Predator brand, each film becoming a little more absurd.

The stand-alones can be worse—Event Horizon, for example, which backfired despite great ensemble casting and what appeared for the first 20 minutes to be a great plot. Prometheus was even worse: Ridley Scott and unlimited, dazzling digital special effects did not prevent the movie from becoming the biggest rehash of previously tread visuals and themes from the vast Ridley Scott portfolio. Avatar, while sumptuous and layered and filled with gorgeously-executed effects, likewise failed for its lack of originality: Dances With Wolves meets The Abyss, or something like that. James Cameron poured all his known tricks into one colorful epic, and the result at times is pure boredom, with brief moments of visual originality and genuine beauty.

Only in recent years have the sci-fi writers attempted to challenge Kubrick’s monolithic laws of film gravity and attraction—by understanding and obeying those laws just as if they were in the physics classroom. And that brings us neatly to Alfonso Cuaron’s appropriately-named Gravity, which starred Oscar winners George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. What makes Cuaron’s masterpiece so masterful is its scrupulous adherence to—well—the laws of gravity, and all other manner of physics as well. Though some complained the movie was essentially a vertigo-inducing amusement park ride, its fidelity to scientific principle, while still infusing genuine action and thrills, made Gravity a joy.

The recent release of Interstellar proves that some writer/directors still have the cajones to challenge our minds while attempting—wherever possible—to not venture off the pages of that astrophysics textbook. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception; Batman Begins), Interstellar makes what appears to be a self-conscious effort to place itself on the same level—or close to the level—of Kubrick’s great 1969 masterpiece. It falls a bit short, of course, but what is surprising perhaps is how close Nolan comes to achieving the impossible: redefining sci-fi for a new generation of movie-goers. (By the way, I do not count George Lucas’s epic Star Wars among the players in this dogfight, since it stands alone very nearly in a class by itself—a genre which Lucas basically reinvented).

Interstellar starts out with a modest enough premise: for reasons unclear to most of humanity, crops are failing on Earth. Top soil is being replaced by dust, water is scarce, and few things other than corn are left to grow in barely sufficient quantities. Society in the United States and a few allies remains upright, but only marginally, and much of the planet is facing famine. Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), our protagonist single-father, is, like almost everyone in the heartland, a farmer of corn. He is also a former pilot and one-time astronaut—handy skills, as it will turn out. Thanks to an antiquated military drone left wandering the skies, which crashes near Coop’s farm, and in large part because of what appears to be messages arriving in some paranormal fashion each day in his daughter’s book-filled bedroom (more about that later), he and his pre-teen daughter stumble upon a top secret NASA facility where scores of the best American scientists work around the clock to save the planet.

Now, take a deep breath: yes, screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan have made things absurdly convenient at this point in the story (what are the odds that a skilled former astronaut would live two farms and a cornhusk toss away from an underground NASA workshop?). But the coincidences don’t end there: one of his old NASA colleagues runs the secret facility, where, among other things, scientists and engineers have constructed a massive rocket/transport/space-station whatchamacallit—stocked with supplies and ready for launch. All that’s left is for Cooper to say his goodbyes and convince his daughter that he’ll return from space on what already seems a long shot for humanity.

The good news is, once you’ve accepted all of this neatly arranged setup, things start to go well in the sci-fi department. Predictably, Cooper and his carefully picked team are sent into space with a sort of Hail Mary pass mission—find a hospitable place in which to restart/reboot humanity. But, as we all know from physics 101 and a hundred viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, you can’t just hop into your rocketship and speed off to an inhabitable world. Even those stars with demonstrable evidence of orbiting planets are an immense distance from our Earth—hundreds, thousands, even millions of years away. (Real-world example: it took a well-designed NASA spacecraft three years just to reach a comet right within our neighborhood, and now that it has arrived, its batteries have died).

So now things start to come together, science-wise. The trouble with the Earth’s crops, we understand, may have something to do with gravity, and gravity is being affected by the arrival within our solar system of what appears to be a wormhole—a passage through the space-time fabric which, NASA hopes, will allow a few select explorers to venture to a handful of star systems with planets that could, just maybe, meet the requirements of supporting human life. In fact, we learn, a few other missions have already been attempted using the newly-discovered portal through space. The gang at the secret NASA facility have no way to know for sure if any of the previous missions have succeeded; each one has been a gamble, each a roll of the dice that humans may survive in some distant place. Each mission has two optimal outcomes: astronauts return to Earth intact with news and data about a distant planet worth human attention; or, if things go wrong with the space-time deal—they become colonists; stay put on the new planet, and begin the human race anew.

Most of the explorers already sent on these missions are single, with few family members. In Coop’s case, he must make a decision: there is the profound risk that he will never see his two children or his doting father-in-law again.

Nolan works the angles of the space-time paradox well from this point forward. Like his mind-bender, dream-world movie Inception—in which a team must go into layers of shared dream states to engage in industrial sabotage—Nolan appreciates that some things are absolute, while others are not. Coop and his team are sent toward an area known to contain a black hole. Here, the laws of Earth-bound physics do not always apply, and the minutes and hours do not tick off at the same perceived rate as back home. A couple of hours spent on a planet covered in waist deep water, and a mishap recovering evidence of a previous NASA mission, roll more than 20 years off the Earth clock in less than 120 minutes. Now, Coop’s preteen daughter and teenage son are grown-ups, and Coop has already become a grandfather. Thus director Nolan bends time even as he bends the minds of his audience, and a subsequent roll of the dice to a planet inhabited only by one man, Dr. Mann (played by Matt Damon), ends in near catastrophe and the partial destruction of the main spacecraft. Left with few options, and with decades rolling off their clocks back on the beleaguered Earth, Coop and his one surviving crew-member Brand (Anne Hathaway), must make the ultimate gamble—use the barely-imaginable space-time forces of the nearby black hole to attempt and end-run around failure.

Nolan smartly does not expect every audience member to have an elementary knowledge of wormholes, black holes, and orbiting bodies, so he closes the gap by employing reasonably well-presented, well-timed summations by Coop’s crew members and others. Far from slowing things down, these mini-lessons help to pin things together and clarify the risks these voyagers are taking at each new step.

Wormholes, as they are loosely called, are space distortions in which two disparate points in the universe are within striking distance because the universe itself—or some incarnation of it—can be bent or folded to create a shortcut. Black holes, as many readers already know, are the collapsed remnants of massive stars—places of extremely compact mass where gravity is so powerful it prevents everything (including light) from escape. Black holes are not visible in the conventional sense, but can be detected with certainty nonetheless since they bend the surrounding light in a manner known as gravitational lensing. Get close enough to a black hole and even time will distort; some astrophysicists believe that the intense power of a black hole will bend time relative to one’s proximity to the event horizon.

Nolan works well with these remarkable elements of the known and unknown universe, incorporating solid science with the not-too-fanciful to basically create a movie which obeys the laws of physics—at least as we understand them. Both Nolans—Jonathan and Christopher—burnished their understanding of space physics by collaborating with a real, bona fide Cal Tech astrophysicist, Kip Thorne. Thorne helped guide the filmmakers when it came time to give shape and life to the phenomena illustrated in the movie, most especially the black hole, which instinct and intuition tells us to avoid.

In the end—and not to spoil anything for readers—Cooper enters the black hole directly. It is his only chance of altering the time-space template in an effort to save humanity, and still preserve a tiny chance of seeing his family again. Once inside the full effect of the black hole, there is new clarity regarding the occasional “supernatural” events which had occurred on that sprawling bookcase in his daughter’s bedroom decades earlier.

But if Stanley Kubrick’s most consistent theme throughout his films was to illuminate the forces which dehumanize us, Nolan approaches the equation from the opposite direction. 2001: A Space Odyssey is famously cold and chilling, especially in the middle sequences. For Kubrick, the paradox is that the proto-human apes are the most bonded and communal, whereas the technologically advanced space travelers of the future are so bled of humanity that they become almost mechanical. Nolan dismisses this thesis outright. Interstellar’s explorers are all-too-human in their fears, worries, doubts and emotions. Despite the risk to the mission and even to humanity, Cooper continually frets about the promise he made to his pre-teen daughter. Dr. Mann (Damon), has been fractured by desperation and loneliness as the only member of a team to reach his distant, frozen planet. In his emotional swell of desire to see his home again, Dr. Mann risks the lives of the others and nearly obliterates the mission. Brand (Hathaway) has a love interest among the colonists on still another of the planets where humanity might have a chance to start over. And at nearly every checkpoint along the way, all of the film’s characters question the balance between purest science and heartfelt emotion; between the human desire to explore and learn, and the equally compelling tug of family, community, love, and the primal instinct to further the species.

Interstellar is not to be confused with an action flick or a high-stakes thriller (though the ten minutes or so spent inside the black hole were edited for maximum tension and suspense). Like its predecessor, Gravity, Interstellar’s pacing is built around phases of routine and calm, punctuated by genuine danger and fear. Nolan lets the physics and science dictate the surprises and the timing.

But there are flaws on this point as well: the movie takes a painfully long time to get started, and during this prelude it provides only cryptic explanations of the condition of man and the planet to boot. It may be the only sci-fi movie ever to spend the first one third of its running time in corn fields, along dusty dirt roads, or in the principal’s office at the middle school. As a result, at close to three hours, the movie feels too long—unnecessarily long—though the interminable opening stages do give McConaughey ample opportunity to show us he is a great performer, even when trading off of highly skilled actors like John Lithgow (Coop’s father-in-law) and Michael Caine (NASA’s aging Professor Brand).

But for science fiction buffs, Interstellar is a solid winner—about an 8.5 or 9.1 on the scale of ten. Its digital special effects are dazzling and effective, and most importantly wisely deployed—rarely travelling over-the-top as might be the case with a clumsier production, or in the action-based blockbusters where the effects are the story. This care and prudence with the effects meshes agreeably with the “science” part of this sci-fi adventure to create a film worth seeing on the big screen (don’t wait for Netflix of HBO on this one). In short: Interstellar effectively melds real science, the mind-bending joy of sci-fi, and deeper questions about humanity and family into one neatly produced epic.

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The Book of Life: Movie Review

Image courtesy Reel FX Animation/20th Century Fox

Image courtesy Reel FX Animation/20th Century Fox

By Kathryn Mineer, Thursday Review contributor

More often than not, the concept art for a movie is far more grandiose than the actual finished product. Character designs are simplified, color palettes are toned down, and all the more intricate minutiae seems to get lost altogether in the translation from artist’s vision to silver screen.

Jorge Gutierrez decided his animated film—The Book of Life—would not suffer a similar fate. Decreeing that his film would include all the “glorious art” that usually only sees the light of day in the “The Art of” type-books, or in those magazine articles featuring “what could have been” glimpses of storyboards, Gutierrez avoids compromise and surpasses expectations. The Book of Life is a feast for the eyes, filled to the brim with vibrant color, charming characters, and loving attention to every detail. It’s hard not to be captivated by this fast-paced tale set in the heart of Mexico.

The story starts out with two boys—Manola and Joaquin—who are both vying for the heart of their female friend, Maria. Two deities of the afterlife—La Muerte and her husband Xibalba—notice this and use their young love as the basis for a wager. Xibalba rules over the Land of the Forgotten, where departed souls with no one to honor them after their deaths waste away in misery. La Muerte reigns over the Land of the Remembered, a land of eternal celebration where those whose families honor the memories go to spend the afterlife in style. Tired of spending eons in such a depressing place, Xibalba bets that if Joaquin wins Maria’s heart, he will switch domains with La Muerte. Likewise, La Muerte bets that if Maria falls in love with Manolo, Xibalba will cease meddling in human affairs forever.

Not satisfied with just sitting back and watching, however, Xibalba tips the scales in his favor, gifting Joaquin with a medal that grants him near invincibility. When Maria returns from boarding school in Spain as an adult she finds that Joaquin has become a famous hero admired by everyone in town due to the medal’s influence. Manolo has also grown up, becoming a bullfighter as per his father’s wishes despite his own desire to be a musician. Both do their best to impress her and when it becomes evident that Manolo’s sincerity has charmed Maria over Joaquin’s ostentatious showboating, Xibalba intervenes, forcing Manolo to undergo various trials in the afterlife in order to return to the mortal world and be reunited with Maria.

The entire narrative is framed under the pretext of a museum guide using wooden figures to illustrate the tale to a group of children on a field trip and the movie definitely feels like it was made to appeal to children first and foremost. The characters are all heavily stylized and the plot moves at a fast—at times bordering on hyperactive—pace. The entire movie clocks in at 95 minutes, and while the filmmakers do pack in a lot of heart into those 95 minutes, at times the film felt more like a long episode of a television cartoon than a feature film, especially in regards to the comedy.

Many of the jokes relied on funny voices and slapstick to land the laughs, and many—in this reviewer’s opinion—missed the mark. Even though I wasn’t particularly wowed by the comedy, however, the visuals and the movie’s overall message certainly make it worth seeing. The story behind The Book of Life is a story about following your heart despite what others might expect of you and many of the characters defy the stereotypes of what they’re supposed to be. Manolo is a thoughtful, gentle hero who isn’t afraid to show his emotions, Maria is a fearless, strong-willed leader who never becomes a damsel in distress, and Joaquin – who easily could have become a typical jilted lover who turns on his friends – overcomes his jealousy to fight alongside them for what is right. Aside from its character depth, the film’s music also triumphs, featuring everything from traditional up-tempo Mexican dance to mainstream hits—at one point Manolo strums out a heartfelt cover of Radiohead’s song “Creep” on his guitar—all culminating in an absolutely breathtaking ending musical number.

The Book of Life’s true strength lies in its visuals above all else—it is a loving, immaculately detailed tribute to the rich color and culture of Mexico. In this way it is unlike many of the other animated CGI films that hit the market these days. Whereas many films are made with big budgets to make even bigger profits, The Book of Life is the result of an artistic vision and a dream made reality. It has a heart to it that makes it worth watching and definitely makes it worth the ticket price.

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What Now for Hong Kong’s Occupy Central?


By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

Hong Kong’s intense political pressures just won’t go away. This is bad news for Beijing, which hoped to once and for all quash the demonstrations and minimize disruptions by systematically clearing out protesters from key city areas and from central locations.

The protests, which have been escalating—sometimes moving in ebbs and flows of activity and intensity—since late spring and throughout the summer, entered a new phase this week as hundreds of protesters barged into the city legislative facility, entering through a side door and overpowering security guards and bailiffs. The government responded by dispatching a large contingent of riot police armed with batons, shields, and pepper spray—but the security forces did not attempt to enter the building. Instead, a standoff ensued in which police now confront the determined protesters. A larger group of protesters massed outside, many deterred by the police.

Those protesters, like the tens of thousands which have occupied the streets and city squares for months, are demanding free elections—which, in this case, means elections without the interference of Chinese officials.

At the heart of the contentious struggle is the issue of how candidates for Hong Kong posts will be chosen. China has mandated that all candidates be screened and more-or-less handpicked by a select committee of party officials in Beijing. The Hong Kong protesters—who are generally known as Occupy Central—want the right to choose their own candidates through direct, local voting. The movement also seeks universal voting rights for all Hong Kong citizens. Occupy Central is named for the area in downtown Hong Kong called “Central,” a large financial and business center with some wide open spaces between the high rise structures.

Under agreements reached when Hong Kong was cut loose from the United Kingdom in 1997, at which time the city was reunited China, Beijing would allow Hong Kong residents to maintain their traditional of democracy despite the mainland’s template of a single party system—i.e., the Communist Party. The partnership was called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would be given its autonomy, but it would still be a part of greater China.

But this uncomfortable relationship has been slowly, and some would say predictably, breaking down in recent years.

China has mandated that any candidate running for public office in Hong Kong must first meet a screening requirement by a committee in Beijing. In fact, no candidate’s name can be placed on a ballot without first being approved by this special committee. Occupy Central sees this as an unacceptable form of micromanagement by Chinese officials, who seek to hand-select candidates who will reflect the prevailing party view set down in Beijing. Further, many in Hong Kong see this meddling by Beijing as the first of many steps toward forcing the city-state into complete, docile compliance with the top party officials. In short: what is the point of holding elections if citizens have no control over how candidates are chosen?

But the authorities in Beijing don’t see it that way. There, where generations of political chiefs and government operatives have risen and fallen based on allegiance and loyalty to a single party (or to the doctrine set down by s single individual) a freewheeling process of selecting candidates based on the messy and unpredictable template of mass primaries, competing parties and clashing personalities would be tantamount to utter chaos. Beijing wants no part of the sort of disorder that democracy produces when it comes to the initial selection of candidates. Elections for all major city and state positions are scheduled for 2017.

But China needs Hong Kong’s vibrant economic engine and its power to pump millions of dollars each day through the financial sector. For this reason, protesters angry at China’s unvarnished meddling in Hong Kong’s politics have chosen the financial district and its dozens of banks, insurance companies, investment firms, brokerage houses, and corporate offices as the primary target for disruption. Financial watchdog groups and international business analysts have worried all year about the impact that Occupy Central might have on Hong Kong’s financial power. As the protests have become larger and more disruptive, so too have the disruptions to the economy. Worse, some business analysts suggest that Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s democracy may suppress future investment, damage confidence, and force a downgrade in Hong Kong’s otherwise reliable financial ratings. A postponement of the 2017 elections would be a disaster for confidence in Hong Kong, and may lead to an exodus by businesses and investors who would simply take their offices and cash elsewhere.

Though much of the Occupy Central movement’s activities have been peaceful, there has been an increase in violence over the last few weeks. The protesters who broke into the legislative chambers were angry because of official edicts and court orders requiring the immediate removal of barricades, hand-painted signs, roadblocks, food vendors, and tents placed by protesters in certain areas of the financial district.

And though widely followed in the western media and in much of the Asian press, the Occupy movement receives scant attention within the media of China. When it does receive attention, the movement is often characterized as hooliganism, or dubbed “an illicit campaign.” Beijing regards Occupy Central as tantamount to anarchy and lawlessness, and considers Occupy’s goal of open elections to be a first step toward social breakdown.

Not all Hong Kong business leaders agree with the Occupy movements methods, even if they do agree with the general principles of democracy, universal suffrage, and open elections. Several major business groups and trade groups along with the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, have denounced the protesters for their disruptions to the marketplace and the economy. But the Hong Kong Bar Association, along with several smaller business trade organizations, have denounced instead the police and the Chinese government for smothering democracy and for using excessive force to quell the mass demonstrations.

Since August and September, when the protests began to reach their crescendo, Occupy Central has grown into one of the biggest anti-Beijing movements since Tiananmen Square. The movement consists of tens of thousands of protesters, many of them students and young people, along with an estimated two thousand tents, three thousand sleeping bags, and hundreds of street vendors set up to provide material support and food service. The protests grew so large in early October that some businesses in the area around Central were forced to close or maintain irregular hours. And though by early November the movement lost some of its peak numbers, thousands of students still remain. Now, there are concerns in both Hong Kong and Beijing that things might ramp up again—with tens of thousands occupying Central and adjacent streets.

But parallel to Occupy Central’s key demand that Beijing recognize Hong Kong’s right to democracy without interference from a committee, is economics—not global economics, the market realities of one of the most crowded places on Earth. Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places to live, with real estate prices and rental costs that greatly outstrip income levels. Many survive by going deeply into debt, and others simply share cramped spaces in Hong Kong’s many sleek high-rise towers. Younger people tend also to live at home with parents and grandparents, sometimes well into adulthood, and in fact on average, middle-income Hong residents tend to stay with parents until well into their early 30s. Hong Kong has the dubious distinction of having mortgage rates and home prices which are now 15 times gross annual revenue—prices driven up by millionaire investors and over-speculation. This makes an already overcrowded city (Hong Kong’s population density is roughly 17,000 people per square mile) even more economically challenging for middle class residents.

For many political analysts and business experts, the question becomes: how much longer will Beijing tolerate the disruptions of Occupy Central without a heavy-handed crackdown? Or, conversely, at what point does the protest movement win the day—triggering an acknowledgement by China, and perhaps even concessions, establishing Hong Kong’s right to democracy, even in it messiest incarnation?

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Why Voter Turnout Mattered in the Midterms

Image courtesy of Reuters

Image courtesy of Reuters

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The Republican Party’s massive sweep earlier this month of U.S. House and U.S. Senate elections cut across nearly all the geographic boundaries and traditional regional lines. Republicans not only consolidated their edge in the normally red areas of the red states, but the GOP also made inroads almost everywhere we have been told were now safe havens for Democratic candidates—Maryland and West Virginia, to name just two striking examples.

Ahead of the midterms, there was much talk about the anti-incumbency mood around the country. This anti-Washington fever has been building, made worse by what many Americans see as a pointless combination of petty squabbling, name-calling, and simple gridlock. President Obama and Congress can rarely agree on anything.

But to the surprise of many analysts and journalists, the midterm outcomes were more startling and potentially game-changing than was predicted. The GOP, presumed to be on the path to a slow death by the forces of shifting demographics and self-immolation, rebounded—exceeding even the wildest expectations of its own pollsters and strategists. Those GOP incumbents thought to be the most at risk proved easy winners. Mitch McConnell’s comfortable, early victory in Kentucky served as political weather warning for the remainder of that long Tuesday night and sleepless (for some) Wednesday morning. It was Democrats, nearly everywhere, that were in trouble that night.

Hardest hit, or so it seemed, were those Congressional and state candidates who had so openly and brazenly fled from President Obama, seeking instead to soak up some of the political strength and aura of Hillary Clinton instead—presumed front-runner for the presidency in 2016. That night would prove to be one of the worst for the Clinton brand name ever, as more than a dozen House and Senate hopefuls lost to Republicans in races that should have been close, closer, and cinches for easy wins. Only in New Hampshire did the Clinton franchise help a half dozen state candidates—mostly women—to victory. Clinton may be able to shake-off the dust and debris, but by campaigning alongside so many losing candidates, she has inadvertently handed the GOP the marketing tools they need to show she is not inevitable. Worse, she may have clumsily invited other Democrats to openly challenge her in primaries and caucuses—something unthinkable only six weeks ago.

For Democrats, there was a problem. A loss that Tuesday in some of those states was probably inevitable—the result of predictable dips in the approval rating and popularity of the President. The sixth year of two-term chief executives is often their worst, and the midterms will reliably reflect that voter angst and frustration. But in this case, Democrats clearly expected some gains, and seemed genuinely unprepared for the vast red landslide that ensued on Election Day. Republicans may not be winning the popularity contest—at least according to the exit polls conducted across the country—but Democrats aren’t winning the hearts and minds of the voters either. Even the President’s dismal popularity, coupled with a relentless, mostly nationwide strategy by GOP candidates to run a lot of campaign ads linking Democrats to Obama, does not go far enough to explain the Democrat’s catastrophe in November.

Then there were those cases of independent candidates challenging Republicans—most notably in Kansas where Greg Orman mounted a decidedly outside-of-the-box campaign to oust longtime Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican with a deep polling deficit only months before the election. So eager were Democrats to dislodge Roberts, they forced their own duly-nominated party loyalist out and began campaigning full throttle for the independent Orman—this, even as Orman steadfastly refused to make any commitments about which party he would caucus with once in Washington. But even this gambit failed. Roberts won easily, and Orman gets to go back to his business interests in the Sunflower State.

Now, the shocker for many readers: Republicans managed to win, and win big, but they didn’t outspend Democrats nationally. In fact, most of the so-called “tight” races saw spending which was more-or-less equal between the major candidates and their big-spending backers. In Florida, for example, Charlie Crist and his legion of big-money donors spent about the same amount that was spent by Rick Scott and his GOP allies.

And other than some accusations about electronic vote count shenanigans in Colorado (more about that later), there were no complaints about stolen votes, hanging chads, mishandled computers, or hacked registrars’ offices. Even the contentious narrative about voter suppression didn’t come into play this year: Democrats lost so badly in some states that poor voter turnout, in the form of disinterest and even rejection, was clearly the catalyst for the party’s disaster at the polls. The party that had clearly won a major victory—thanks largely to smart, savvy voter participation—only two years ago, was now left powerless in the face of sea of political disengagement.

The worst turnout levels were in Indiana, Texas, Utah and New York. This is a paradox, since Democrats like to generally make a direct correlation between educational achievement and high voter participation. Why did New York end the day with the fourth lowest turnout? Indiana is a swing state, crucial to both Republicans and Democrats. Yet it came in dead last, with a miserly 28 percent turnout. Utah and Texas are decidedly red states.

Colorado had the fourth best turnout in the country, in part—some analysts believe—because it converted to an entirely mail-in ballot process, one of only two states in which the majority of ballots are mailed-in (Oregon is the other). Only Maine, Wisconsin and Alaska had better turnouts than Colorado and Oregon.

Back some months ago, in April to be specific, Thursday Review received a few strongly-worded emails from several of our liberal readers and followers regarding our article entitled “Turnout Trumps Spending.”

Here at TR we had expressed the unmitigated, immoderate view that voter turnout still carries a wallop, and that concerns about spending often unfairly receive the lion’s share of attention. One need look no further than the presidential elections of 2012 to see how this can play out: strategists for both the Obama and the Romney campaigns had each concluded—correctly—that the election would hinge upon turnout, especially in several key counties and metro areas in Ohio and Florida. Both parties spent record millions in those TV markets, but both parties exerted even more firepower on making sure people went to the polls. A mountain range-sized pile of cash is not enough if your people don’t show up to vote.

Turnout is traditionally higher in a year in which there are presidential candidates on the ballot. By contrast, turnout can dip to lower levels during those off-years in between the presidential cycles. Turnout in 2014 was very low, the lowest in fact in more than 70 years. For both the 20th and 21st centuries, this year’s 36.3 percent was the lowest since the record-breaker low-water-mark of 1942.

The New York Times, in an editorial a week after the 2014 midterms, saw it as a two-pronged problem. “Republicans ran a single-theme campaign of pure opposition to President Obama,” said the Times, “and Democrats were too afraid of the backlash to put forward plans to revive the economy or to point out significant achievements of the last six years.”

The Times view is a reasonable interpretation, perhaps, but it does not go far enough to explain the political vortex that occurred that Tuesday.

If voters were genuinely disgusted with both parties, as so much of the media seemed to suggest (based on pre-election polling and exit polling) why didn’t the GOP suffer a more serious setback itself? Libertarian, independent, and other third party candidates should have seen a significant spike in interest from voters shopping for alternatives to the two mainstream options. Voters in Florida could choose between several well-funded third party options, including Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, yet widespread disgust at the negative campaigns of Scott and Crist drove few voters toward these non-traditional options. Likewise, significant third party movements in North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia failed to become the decisive disruptors widely predicted in advance. And in the aforementioned Kansas, Orman’s independent candidacy not only failed to trigger the ouster of Roberts, but may have expedited the collapse of a rare opportunity for Democrats to deny the GOP its traditional lock on Kansas’s representation in Washington. Further, despite some pre-election talk that Libertarian Gaylon Kent would make a numerical difference in Colorado’s closely-watched U.S. Senate election, in the end Kent grabbed only about 2.6% of the vote—not enough to have altered the outcome.

Only in Vermont did a Libertarian candidate muster enough voter support to temporarily rock the system, where Dan Feliciano, running for governor under the Libertarian banner, denied both Democrat Peter Shumlin and Republican Scott Milne a clear majority (under Vermont law, the General Assembly must choose the next governor in January; since the Assembly is made up of a majority of Democrats, and because Shumlin’s final tally places him slightly ahead of Milne, Shumlin is expected to be declared the victor by the Assembly unless Milne concedes).

But what about the aforementioned Colorado, where—contrary to recent voter behavior—there was a unusual disconnect between the results for governor and the results for Colorado’s widely-watched U.S. Senate race? One of the GOP’s most famous victories came at the expense of incumbent U.S. Senator Mark Udall. Udall, who had run one of the most unabashedly liberal campaigns, lost to Republican challenger Cory Gardner. Udall had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Affordable Care Act, and his positions on issues ranging from the Hobby Lobby case to his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline put him at odds with many voters in Colorado—a state often called a “battleground” by CNN and Fox News for its sometimes pivotal importance in the Electoral College. In recent years Colorado was widely thought to be moving leftward, but Udall’s defeat at the hands of Gardner may indicate that the Centennial State is not as liberal as some had thought.

Gardner won by 48.3 percent to Udall’s 46.2 percent—close, but not necessarily the cliffhanger some thought the race might have become. Tuesday’s early, wide vote count leads by Gardner made it appear that he might win in a blowout, but late-arriving returns from Denver and Adams counties—Democratic strongholds—denied Gardner his landslide, but did not deprive him of a safe win. Besides, late-arriving vote tallies from urban areas often produce final results that seem to skew or alter the trajectory of early returns. Still, Gardner’s victory was in keeping with national patterns that night: often, as the Senate went (and that was generally red), so went key U.S. House, state legislature, and gubernatorial races. The GOP benefited from this “group coattails” effect.

But, conversely, Coloradans re-elected Governor John Hickenlooper. As in most states, the GOP had waged a robust challenge to Hickenlooper, linking him to Obamacare, questioning his position on gun control, and berating him for his decision to grant a reprieve to an infamous death row inmate, Nathan Duncan, who was convicted of killing four people in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. Despite this, Hickenlooper survived and defeated his Republican challenger Bob Beauprez, albeit only after a particularly long night of vote counting.

Though there was only scant reporting of the problem in the Colorado press, and even less discussion nationally, there were concerns throughout that long Tuesday over what appeared to be repeated attempts by someone—or some group—to hack into the state’s voting system. Election Day volunteers, student volunteers, poll watchers, employees and elections supervisors were aware of the cyber-attacks, but were also informed that the state’s computer security people were on top of the situation. Despite an effort to outflank the hackers, a decision was reached in the early afternoon to briefly shut-down the entire statewide system, then perform a basic reboot—with all vote numbers up to that point locked-in. At around 2:00 p.m., the shutdown/reboot took place. When technicians brought the system back online about 20 minutes later, a strange thing had happened: John Hickenlooper had suddenly and mysteriously gained approximately 25,000 votes. Though it would have been theoretically impossible for anyone to have cast or counted votes during that 20 minutes, somehow thousands of votes appeared in Hickenlooper’s column. There were questions about vote shenanigans, though no one really knew where to look for answers, or how to sort out what had just happened.  Colorado’s mail-in ballots were being counted by machines, and there was easy way to resolve the sudden anomaly.

The governor’s race remained a squeaker through the long night, but by the next morning—with Hickenlooper’s lead growing—those mysterious 25,000 votes mattered less and less to reporters. In the end, the governor would claim his re-election by about 52,000 votes statewide. It remains to be seen whether anyone in the Colorado GOP—or any independent watchdog group—intends to demand a closer look at what happened that afternoon and evening in Colorado.

The general view is that Coloradans split their allegiances in ways that did not reflect the national voting patterns—anomalous, perhaps, but not unheard of. The Greeley Tribune pointed out that a switch of only 30,000 votes statewide would have shifted the outcome of either of Colorado’s big races—Hickenlooper versus Beauprez, or Udall versus Gardner. Another theory, assuming that there was no meddling with the vote totals in the governor’s race, is that Hickenlooper—unlike many of his Democratic brethren in House and Senate races nationwide—used his perceived centrism to effectively distance himself from President Obama. For most Democrats the strategy did not work; in Hickenlopper’s case it appears to have succeeded.

Finally, there is the case of Alaska, where Democratic Senator Mark Begich conceded only as recently as Monday night, calling to congratulate Republican Dan Sullivan nearly two weeks after the polls had closed. Despite most media and election groups calling it a victory for Sullivan as early as last week, Begich stubbornly held onto the notion that recounts might turn the final count in his favor. The Alaska Board of Elections show that Sullivan defeated Begich by roughly 7700 votes—a razor close number in many states, but by the low population standards found in Alaska, a comfortable 2.8 percent victory.

Why did Begich wait so long to concede what most observers considered a done deal? Begich himself first won his U.S. Senate seat only after patient and painstaking recounts in 2008—an election in which he apparently trailed incumbent Ted Stevens until every stray vote was finally counted…nearly two weeks after the polls had closed. Back then, Begich won by mere 4000 votes.

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Tesla: A Case of Supply Versus Demand


By Thursday Review staff

Billionaires can afford to lose some money, and sometimes it makes perfect sense—especially if what they seek is a game-changing result for all that toil and investment.

Elon Musk’s automotive division, Tesla Motors, just closed another unprofitable quarter, reporting to investors a loss of about $74.6 million for the third quarter of 2014. This is about twice Tesla’s loss when compared to the same quarter in 2013. But that’s only the bad news for the unconventional car maker: Tesla has seen its overall sale steadily increase.

More importantly, Tesla’s sales figures topped the industry analysts’ estimates, confirming Musk’s vision as being less risky than some have suggested. Tesla has been selling its cars at a healthy clip, and figures indicate that it may reach $1 billion in overall sales by the end of this year. Currently, Tesla is reporting nearly $932 million in sales for the first nine months of 2014—up from about $600 million for the same period last year.

Musk and his team at Tesla explain the discrepancy this way: production of cars cannot keep up with demand, and, as a direct result, lots of extra cash is being spent trying to find a way around the production problems. Tesla, which is plans to invest billions to open a massive battery plant in partnership with Panasonic, has been hampered by the inability to produce its innovative lithium-ion batteries fast enough. Though demand for the pricey cars continues to rise, the battery problem remains intact.

Still, industry experts see fortune on the road ahead for Tesla. Battery partner Panasonic—convinced of the potential profits for Tesla’s green cars—has committed to a long-term investment in producing lighter, more efficient batteries. So sure is Panasonic of future earnings, the Japanese conglomerate recently announced plans to begin ramping down its production of many other consumer products, redirecting its energies toward smart batteries and green car components.

Tesla also plans to revamp its current factories to improve production of its cars, which include its bigger seller, the Tesla Model S Sedan. In addition, Tesla hopes to be ready no later than one year from now to be selling its newer Model X.

Musk does not see demand as the central issue, and many automotive analysts agree. Musk’s problem, ironically, is producing the vehicles fast enough. The factory retrofit may help, as Tesla intends—if at all possible—to reach an output of 100,000 new cars during 2015.

“Despite losing almost a month of production due to factory retooling,” Musk said in a press statement posted on the Tesla website, “we delivered the highest number of Model S vehicles ever, with several new records set in North American and worldwide.” Tesla also hopes to continue its rapid construction and maintenance of its recharging stations, which are currently located in about 126 locations across North America (about 123 of these are in the contiguous 48 states). Tesla hopes to roughly double that number by the end of 2015.

Tesla car-owners can use Tesla’s Supercharger stations at no cost, and cars can typically be recharged between 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the life left in the battery when charging begins. The Tesla website says that “optimal” charging takes about 40 minutes. Tesla currently has its stations located in strategic spots along major highways and interstates, and its marketing material invites car owners to consider taking the time to get a meal or shop while the vehicle is being recharged. Tesla cars can also be charged overnight in a driveway or garage.

Delays rolling out the new Model X, which is a small SUV, have also hampered some of the sales estimates. On this point Musk accepts responsibility personally, telling reporters that he sometimes lets his perfectionist side interfere with the calendar and timetables. But most auto analysts and green energy analysts see Tesla’s long range plan as solid, and cite Panasonic’s massive investment as evidence that others in collateral industries must agree wholeheartedly with the positive outlook for the California carmaker.

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The Cost of Going Back to Iraq

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Though not outwardly acknowledging that the current U.S.-led coalition using heavy air power to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria has proven inadequate for the task, President Obama and Pentagon officials raised the stakes this past week by authorizing the U.S. military to send 1500 additional personnel to Iraq. The new 1500 troops would roughly double the number of American military personnel now in Iraq.

Their mission: to quickly train additional brigades of Iraqi troops and Peshmerga units for what may be a long and difficult fight against ISIS, also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. According to the Pentagon, U.S. troops will train an additional 12 brigades—instructing those units in the use of mostly-American-made equipment, instilling discipline, and preparing the newly minted fighters for direct combat on the ground.

The White House and the Pentagon were consistent in their position that the new troop deployments would be placed neither in combat roles, nor in forward positions that might put them in harm’s way. As a parallel task the new American units would be establishing several training facilities for the preparation of new Iraqi recruits.

The President said he would ask Congress to authorize $5.6 billion in additional military funds to pay for the new deployments, and to fund the cost of the air campaign against ISIS. The White House and the Pentagon made the announcements on Friday, a few hours after the President met with Congressional leaders over lunch. Of the requested money, at least $1.6 billion will be set aside for the “Iraq Train and Equip Fun,” according to the White House.

The current air campaign has included the heavy use of targeted strikes by bombers and jet fighters, as well as cruise missiles and drones. Though the air campaign has helped to stall much of the rapid advance of ISIS, the radical militants have proven more difficult to dislodge from many areas than the previous estimates of the Pentagon and the White House.

ISIS formed in the chaotic environment of the long, bloody Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year. Merging fighters and units once loyal to Saddam Hussein with a variety of al Qaeda groups, along with some anti-Assad rebels, ISIS organized itself into a working army. In spring of this year, ISIS swept through northern Syria and across northern Iraq, moving quickly and bringing terror with it.

In front of the advance of ISIS, the Iraqi army collapsed—abandoning equipment and weapons. ISIS was able to quickly advance to within 35 miles of Baghdad, and it was also able to capture scores of cities and towns once the scenes of intense, costly battles where Americans lost their lives. ISIS also captured oil facilities, seized banks and public offices, imposed laws which reflected a radical interpretation of Islamic law, and murdered thousands of civilians. ISIS’s advance gave the militants control of areas as far north as the Syrian and Iraqi borders with Turkey, and as far west as the border checkpoints at Jordan.

ISIS has said it seeks the establishment of a caliphate, and it does not recognize internationally agreed upon political borders.

Intense fighting has raged along parts of northern Syria at the Turkish border for many weeks, as ISIS seeks to consolidate control of areas once left under the auspices of Kurds and other ethnic minorities. The fight for control of the border town of Kobani has been particularly violent, as Kurdish fighters attempt to resist a continuing onslaught of heavily-armed ISIS militants. On some occasions the fighting between Kurdish forces and ISIS units has come to within a few hundred yards of the border fence which separates Syria from Turkey. The U.S. was reluctant to use air power in the fight for Kobani, but eventually did use some targeted air strikes starting about ten days ago. The air strikes were credited with helping to stall ISIS’ advance, but ISIS still controls many sections of Kobani.

Many military analysts, including ex-military commanders and officers, question whether the Iraqi army can be adequately-trained for the task of confronting ISIS, even after months or years of training by U.S. forces. Others are concerned over what they see as mission-creep: a few hundred Americans are sent in to a combat situation, followed inevitably by a few hundred more, until eventually the U.S. and its allies are committed to a full-scale war. Military analysts and some in Washington point to two clear examples: the long American involvement in Vietnam, which began in an “advisory” capacity but which ultimately took the lives of 58,000 U.S. forces; and the current plan to train the Iraqi army, an almost exact replay of the scenario the U.S. faced as it began its withdrawal from the last Iraq war in 2011. The question is whether the U.S.-led training this time around would be sufficient for what is now a Herculean task.

The air campaign has succeeded in destroying more than 200 armed vehicles once part of ISIS ground operations, and some targeted air strikes have also taken out tanks, artillery positions, weapons caches, and even some suspected key militant commanders. Some air strikes on the first night of the Syrian phase of the operation were targeted at members of the Korasan Group—largely unknown in the West but known to some in the intelligence community as perhaps more dangerous than ISIS. And just this past week more strikes were focused on Korason members, in particular a highly-skilled French bomb-maker who intelligence officials in the U.S. believe had developed and tested a powerful explosive which could be embedded in a working laptop computer. That same bomb-maker was also believed to have developed type of explosive which could be used by soaking clothing in flammable materials. Communications between some Korasan members seem to have indicated that the group was preparing to use the laptop device to blow-up a civilian airliner or other high-profile target.

As of last week, the U.S. and its coalition partners had carried out more than 400 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and 325 air strikes against ISIS and Korasan positions in Syria.

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Only 733 Days Remaining


By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

With a scant 733 days remaining before the presidential elections of 2016, time is running short for the candidates. No, I am not trying to be funny or ironic—just stating a cold, hard fact.

2016 is what is known as an open year: no incumbents or past incumbents will be running, and unless Joe Biden makes good on his halfhearted attempt to generate talk of a candidacy, there will be no vice-presidents rising to the top of the party ticket. Dick Cheney’s too old, Al Gore’s out of the game, Dan Quayle won’t return our calls.

There are, of course, two household names in the room. Each name represents a long franchise, and each of those franchises can claim great success, but each also has baggage—lots of baggage.

Hillary Clinton is the presumed—and at the moment—the only front-runner for Democrats. She has been running for President more-or-less continually even longer than Mitt Romney, and her de facto candidacy includes deep roots—DNA which can be traced back more than a decade.

When asked outright at events and lectures and interviews, her obfuscations and evasions about her candidacy are, in fact, her way on confirming what we already know. She is running, flat out. Lessons learned from her bruising, bloody campaign in 2008, she may in fact use a similar playbook. Only this time there will be no mistakes. She intends to clear the room of all pretenders and challengers early—very early if possible. And this is why the talk has been so unnaturally limited when the subject of other Democrats comes up in polite company, or impolite company, for that matter.

The scuttlebutt is that there are still unhealed wounds and bad blood from 2008, when a bitter primary and caucus campaign pitted her against the upstart Barack Obama. That year, knives were traded for chainsaws; incendiary bombs exchanged for nukes. That the Democrats survived without a replay of 1968 Chicago remains a testament to how much the party truly wanted victory after eight years of George W. Bush.

So far this year, Clinton’s coy approach has worked well. A year of continuous scrutiny and round-the-clock talk of her as-yet unofficial candidacy has not fazed her. She has remained cool under a variety of pressures (try doing a talk show and a live auditorium appearance every day; then try three times a day, every day) and not a single Democrat—other than Biden—has stepped forward to express even a hint of interest in challenging her presumed candidacy. And there has been no reason for Clinton to rush—in fact, the longer she waits, the greater the interest in Hillary. To quote Willie Wonka, the suspense is terrible…I hope it will last.

One could say that things have gone swimmingly for Hillary Clinton. That is, until last Tuesday.

Though not torpedoed directly by Republican firepower, Clinton will nevertheless have to immediately initiate repairs and modifications. The GOP’s sweep of the map on Tuesday was not only swifter and wider than anyone expected, it came with breathtaking totality—most especially to the more than two dozen Senate and Gubernatorial candidates, sprinkled across the landscape, who sought refuge from the deep unpopularity of President Barack Obama by campaigning instead alongside Hillary Clinton. What seemed like a stroke of genius has now, on several levels, complicated life for Hillary and for Democratic strategists everywhere.

As we mentioned in our article the day after the elections, Obama’s low job approval ratings are not uncommon in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all faced this same scenario. Those low poll numbers can easily—and predictably—weigh down upon the midterm elections, often with serious effect.

But President Obama’s poll numbers also reflected a general feeling by many voters that the White House was particularly sluggish on handling the major issues faced by Americans this year: the Ukraine crisis, ISIS, a war between Israel and Hamas, the still-sluggish economy, a border crisis involving children and teenagers, the Veterans Administration, and even the Ebola Virus.

Enter the Clinton franchise. Bill and Hillary, always game for public appearances, speeches, and the talk show circuit, rode to the rescue of legions of Democrats facing tough battles with Republicans, most of whom had rebranded the election as a referendum on the President and his performance. The Clintons were everywhere, almost literally, standing next to candidates in places as diverse as Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Colorado, Maine. There was Hillary hugging Michelle Nunn in Georgia, or embracing Bruce Braley in Iowa. Bill did his part too, including appearing in numerous slickly produced television ads—like the ones produced on behalf of Charlie Crist in Florida.

With Hillary Clinton attempting to burnish the brand name as much as possible—building loyalties, currying favor, tallying the brownie points, energizing the base, and rallying the party faithful—it seemed like a logical and useful way to keep her non-candidacy alive and on track. But, like those pesky credit-default-swap things that once helped wreck an economy, no one expected the market to go down. In this case, Team Clinton could not have expected this much carnage across so much of the battlefield. Republicans won in a rout, grabbing governorships, stealing the U.S. Senate, and upping their advantage in the U.S. House to a level not seen since Harry Truman was President.

That Red Tide swept through every region and every state, and left few island outposts standing. There was a similar GOP landslide back in 1980, but that was when Republican candidates—at almost every level—had grabbed a hold of the substantial coattails of Ronald Reagan.

So this raises the obvious question: lacking an Obama coattails, did Democrats ally themselves smartly when they bought into the great Clinton Franchise in 2014?

Or, as some might fairly suggest, should the question be reversed? Was it smart of the Clintons to have spread their valuable name into so many doomed quarters?

On the night of the elections, Kentucky’s Rand Paul—himself a presumed GOP candidate for 2016—suggested that the referendum voters faced was not about Barack Obama (that, he said, was already established), but about the future of the Democratic Party, and by extension the near future of its presumed standard-bearer. Hillary had chosen to very publicly and lavishly attach her name and reputation to two dozen major campaigns, only to watch as most of those elections ended the night swimming in that tsunami-like Red Tide.

One of Thursday Review’s political strategy contacts, who asked not to be identified for the purposes of this article (and also the article we posted on Wednesday) suggested that it is not so much a case of the Clinton’s spreading their goodwill too freely as it is a case of devaluing the endorsements and the co-option. Worse, this source said, it will make Hillary Clinton look like a loser even before her campaign has begun.

“It not only devalues the power of her name,” he said, “it shows her to be a poor judge of political conditions in the field, and that might be something Republicans can translate to mean she would turn out to be an inconsistent, erratic, or poor manager.” Others have suggested that Clinton’s share-the-stage debacle might be more problematic within her own party, inviting—horrors—other Democrats to consider stepping into the fray. If blowback from the 2014 fiasco continues to haunt the Clinton brand name for a few months, you can bet that non-top-tier (translation, non-Clinton) Democrats—Andrew Cuomo, Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick, Brian Schweitzer—will begin to weight their options for 2016.

For potential Republican candidates, many of whom are already hankering for 2016, the midterms—coupled with the Clinton brand name fiasco—makes the road ahead that much more appealing. The top contenders within the GOP were also spending a lot of time on the campaign trail in support of the brethren, and experts suggest that one can easily gauge which ones are serious by measuring the amount of time spent campaigning in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Though no Republican has officially declared their candidacy, it is widely assumed that the top tier consists of Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee. Also being discussed: Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, Sam Brownback, Tim Pawlenty, and Rick Perry.

But what about Jeb Bush? For many Republicans, the last name Bush still carries both weight and resonance. The possibility of a Clinton versus Bush rematch in 2016 has been discussed widely, including in these very website pages. Bush had been keeping his profile at a modest altitude for the last nine months or so, sticking to his business activities, promoting his book on immigration, and talking education. But a flurry of activity—mostly but others within the Bush clan—in recent weeks has again raised the possibility that he is seriously weighing a run for President. More importantly, if he was previously considering sitting on the sidelines out of a certainty that Hillary Clinton was inevitable in 2016, he may now be reconsidering the environment. In the view of some GOP strategists, all bets are off: not only are Democrats vulnerable over the next few years, but the leading Democrat—indeed the party’s presumed standard-bearer—just lost a major battlefield skirmish before war was even declared.

In the meantime, the press was busy today reporting that Washington was back to business as usual, with Republicans making high-profile pronouncements about finally breaking through the gridlock (by sending a record number of bills to the White House to be vetoed), and Democrats continuing to hold to the line that the elections were not a referendum on President Obama, nor Democrats, nor anything else for that matter.

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Have the Midterms Damaged the Clinton Franchise?


By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Originally posted November 5, 2014: Yes, it’s true: there are only 734 days remaining before the next presidential election, which happens to be November 8, 2016—for those of you already dreading the next big cycle of negative campaign ads. For now, most Americans (citizens in Louisiana are sadly exempt) can once again enjoy local television ads from car dealers and accident attorneys.

Almost—but not quite—lost in the hubbub and hue & cry over Tuesday’s election results: the Clintons, and what the GOP’s dramatic take-over of the U.S. Senate may portend for an almost certain presidential run by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Fleeing from what many analysts saw as contagiously bad job approval ratings and low popularity, Democrats avoided campaigning alongside President Barack Obama. Obama’s numbers were, to some at least, downright toxic—a not unheard of state-of-affairs for the sixth year of a two-term presidency. But to make matters worse for Democrats, GOP candidates were uniform in their strategy of defining this election as a referendum on Obama.

So instead, many Democrats in high profile races chose to co-opt the Clinton brand name. Hillary and Bill Clinton each campaigned alongside numerous Democratic candidates, and in some cases even participated in expensive, slick television ads. Such was the case in Florida, where gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist (once a Republican, now a Democrat) saw his political campaign supported by carefully crafted endorsements by former President Bill Clinton. So too was the strategy in Georgia, where Michelle Nunn was all-too-happy to have Hillary Clinton at her side at various campaign stops across the Peach State. Political coupling with the Clintons seemed a smart move: piggyback on the powerful coattails of the person certain to be the front-runner for 2016, and someone for whom—so far—there are no true rivals.

But in the end, as a few exit polls and independent polls have revealed, the Clinton franchise—however formidable, well-funded and well-oiled—had little impact on those races. And according to some eager GOP strategists and potential candidates, Hillary’s high-profile presence on the campaign trail may have caused self-inflicted damage to her presumed candidacy.

Tuesday’s election results brought dozens of defeats to the Democrats. In the GOP sweep, Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate, and raised their numerical advantage in the House to levels not seen since the end of World War II. Republicans won big in Kentucky (where the race was expected to be close), Maine, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, Georgia, Arkansas, West Virginia, and a dozen other states. The GOP gained in nearly all arenas—from governorships to state legislatures, from top state posts to Congressional seats. The central narrative instantly evoked one basic question: how will President Obama adjust his tactics to accommodate what will no doubt be a difficult two years ahead?

Republicans have all along said that this midterm election would be a referendum on the President; Democrats have sought to scrupulously avoid any direct linkage, suggesting that this election was instead a referendum on Washington gridlock and partisanship.

But Kentucky’s Rand Paul has taken the turn of events to be a referendum on the future, more than the past. Paul suggests that voters are already expressing disapproval of Hillary Clinton as much as Obama.

Like many top Republicans—and some crestfallen Democrats—there is a sense that Hillary Clinton may have damaged her reputation by so publicly lending her name and support to so many losers on Election Night. One political strategist I spoke to suggested hubris elicited a sense that she could spread the power of the franchise too far and too thinly.

“Even a presumed candidate with as much clout and name-power as Hillary Clinton has to be careful,” this person told us (they asked not to be identified for the purposes of this article), “to not lend the name out to too many people, too freely, too loosely. It can be dangerous, and it can sully the name. Jeb [Bush] was careful with his support of Rick Scott, and with his support for Joni Ernst in Iowa. Hillary just handed it out like she was giving away Halloween candy. And you can bet the Republicans are going to hang that albatross around her neck for sure—Clinton backed a dozen losers.”

In fact, a few of Hillary’s candidates did win, notably Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania and Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire. But the list of those who won with the partial use of Clinton’s coattails is short indeed. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky posted an amusing set of images online called HillarysLosers, in which more than a dozen of her handpicked protégés are on display as they campaign alongside Clinton.

Potential GOP presidential candidates too spent lots of time campaigning for other 2014 candidates, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa was especially attractive for the leaders of both parties as it gave those politicians with eyes on 2016 the chance to do two things at once: build good karma and loyalty among fellow Republicans; and make oneself visible in a very important early caucus state. But what worked for Republicans like Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence did not seem to work for Hillary Clinton. While the President spent 72 minutes gloomily explaining to the White House press corps why he will go on with business as usual, you can bet the top brains and strategists for Clinton were busy rewriting their playbook for 2016.

The problems for Hillary Clinton are suddenly more complex than they were only days ago. For one, Clinton must immediately and quickly uncouple her campaign’s narrative from the long list of Democrats who were defeated on Tuesday. Her longstanding projection of de facto winner is at stake, and unless she acts quickly, other Democrats may sense an opportunity (the Clinton strategy all along has been to position her non-candidacy in such a way as to frighten off the competition). Secondly, if rank and file Democratic voters sense that Hillary Clinton is NOT inevitable, it may further enable and empower intraparty opposition.

Lastly, Clinton has invited Republican candidates to link her directly to what they will define as the failed policies of Obama. It goes something like this: the 2014 elections were a referendum on Obama; Hillary Clinton offered public and unconditional support to dozens of Democrats who lost in that election; therefore Hillary Clinton must be synonymous with Barack Obama, which means that it was a referendum on Clinton as well. Republicans will also surely make the case that Clinton’s two biggest 2014 investments—supporting Alison Lundergan Grimes in her efforts to oust Senator Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and backing Mark Pryor in Arkansas (Pryor lost to Republican Tom Cotton—were enormous and costly defeats for the Democratic Party. In McConnell’s case, the race was predicted to be close, but in fact became a lopsided affair even after millions of dollars had been spent on negative ads.

For his part, a notably downbeat President Obama explained to reporters on Wednesday that he will continue to conduct the business of his administration with no significant change in management style. The President, sounding mostly defiant, suggested the Americans were not unhappy with his performance as much as they were angry at a Washington mired in gridlock and petty bickering. Despite the persistent attempts of numerous reporters to gauge the President’s personal take on the election outcomes and the GOP wave of success, the chief executive evaded making a definitive political analysis, and refused to accept any responsibility for the debacle.

The President also said he did not have any immediate plans to make personnel changes at the White House.

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Ben Bradlee, Washington Post Editor, Dies

Image courtesy of Washington Post

Image courtesy of Washington Post

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Late Tuesday night, when my fiancé glanced at news on her smartphone and told me that Ben Bradlee had died, she asked me if I knew who he was. Of course I knew, and I responded by saying he had been—among other things—the editor of the Washington Post. Then she asked, “what was his claim to fame?” He was the editor of the Washington Post. Enough said, I assumed. But, she repeated: but, what was his claim to fame?

Bradlee was editor of the Post during the presidency of Richard Nixon, she said. I smiled. In fact, some historians might argue, one could just as easily turn the equation around: Nixon was President during Bradlee’s tenure as the chief newsman at the Post. Arguably, as a direct consequence of Bradlee’s stewardship of the newspaper, Nixon would ultimately resign the Presidency.

Bradlee was the top editor at the Washington Post for more than a quarter of a century, and during that time he took the Post from a second-tier, second-rate status to a point when many could argue that the New York Times had—by the early 1970s—only one genuine rival, and it was in the nation’s capital, not in Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston. Bradlee accomplished that Herculean task by combining old school qualities of relentless hard, gritty work and supervisory finesse in the newsroom, with a tough form of journalism which bordered on aggressive. He was also at times fearless, as in his decision—in consultation with the Post’s then-owner Katherine Graham—to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers in spite of a robust attempt by the Nixon administration to suppress publication. Allied briefly with arch-rival New York Times, the Post successfully argued the case for publication in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Benjamin Bradlee was old school to a fault. He was born Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee in Boston, Massachusetts in 1921, a direct descendant of a handful of the first colonials to arrive in New England in the early 1600s. His family tree is peppered with the sort of lineage which connects verifiably to European princes, duchesses, counts and kings. Born into wealth, he attended the Dexter School and St. Mark’s Academy, then, went on to Harvard where he double-majored in English and Greek. While at Harvard, he joined the Navy ROTC.

He also served in World War II, and because of his communication skills and writing talent, he joined the Office of Naval Intelligence in 1942, serving in the Pacific in communications roles throughout the war. But Bradlee was not always hunkered down in code-rooms and radio shacks—he saw action in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, one of the biggest and most violent battles of the War. He also saw action in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.

Using some family money as the seed, Bradlee was briefly a part-owner of a small newspaper called The New Hampshire Sunday News, which he helped to found in 1946. After getting the fledgling paper up and running, he sold his share to his partners. Weeks later he went to work for the first time as a reporter for the Washington Post. His first stint with the Post lasted until 1952 when he went to work as a writer for the Office of U.S. Information and Educational Exchange (USIE), a bureau with the central purpose of preparing written material, brochures, articles and films for use by the CIA, State Department staff, and other government personnel. Rumors have persisted to this day that Bradlee may have participated in a CIA black operation in his stint as a reporter for Newsweek magazine in 1957, when he interviewed several members of a pro-Algerian rebel group opposed to French colonial authority in Africa. Later, Bradlee would become the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek. Ultimately, Bradlee would be instrumental in the sale of Newsweek—then on the auction block—to the Washington Post in the late 1950s. The $15 million sale would result in Bradlee being paid in stock in both publications, a move that proved profitable for both Bradlee and his employers.

Bradley continued writing and editing, and after proving his mettle as a reporter and editor, he was promoted to the job of managing editor of the Post in 1965, and later executive editor in 1968.

After taking over as editor, Bradlee successfully fused the in-depth feature writing and long-form journalism associated with major magazines, with hard-hitting, unflinching investigative pieces. He also shifted more front page and A-section emphasis to national political stories and the political process. It was in keeping with this dictum that Bradlee found himself and the Washington Post briefly allied with the New York Times. Each of the papers had come into possession of Xerox copies of thousands of pages of a top secret Pentagon report on the Vietnam War—a study which had been commissioned a few years before by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and compiled by a dozen researchers, analysts, and writers. The study was titled innocuously U.S. Decision-Making in Vietnam, 1945-1968. Among the writers and analysts for that massive, 3000-page report was Daniel Ellsberg, a Rand Corporation employee and former Defense Department employee.

Once a strong supporter of the war in Vietnam, Ellsberg had become deeply disillusioned, questioning the morality of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Ellsberg leaked copies of the so-called Pentagon Papers to reporter Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, and later, also to the Washington Post. Despite the fact that the Nixon administration was not implicated in the report (the study covered only the years up to 1968; Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969), President Nixon was outraged by the brazen misuse of secret documents, and may have also worried—unnecessarily, as it turned out—that Ellsberg may have come into possession of later documents purloined during the period when Nixon and Henry Kissinger had secretly developed plans to escalate the war.

Accordingly, the Nixon administration used the considerable resources and power of the executive to stop both the Times and the Post from further publication of the Pentagon Papers. The matter moved rapidly through the courts, and in the end the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers. The ruling was (and remains to this day) one of the most important freedom-of-the-press cases in American history.

Later, and perhaps most famously, Bradlee trusted his instincts and supported the work of two previously unknown young reporters—Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—when the Post stumbled onto the strange story of a burglary at the Watergate hotel and office complex. On the night of June 17, 1972, five Cuban-American men dressed in high-end suits were found plundering around inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee, which in those days leased office space at the tony Watergate. The five burglars were caught with electronic bugging equipment, envelopes with cash, a small notebooks—one of which contained backline phone numbers to the White House. Woodward was sent to the arraignment that weekend. Within a day or two, Woodward was joined by Carl Bernstein.

Their investigation would turn into the biggest political story of the 20th Century, and would ultimately result in the downfall of a president. But were it not for the craggy, profane, irascible Bradlee—whose reporting and editing instincts were at the top of their game—the great investigative story might not have ever got off the ground. Bradlee, like his two young reporters, sensed that the story had more to it than what appeared on the surface. Though he was sometimes tough on the pair, he backed them when things got tough—excoriating them when they made mistakes, demanding that they dig more deeply to get to the truth, shepherding them through the challenges, and, in short, insisting that their reporting reflect the Post’s fiercely competitive standards.

Bradlee also cultivated and expanded the role of an independent press. Patriotic to his core, Bradlee nevertheless felt that without independent journalism and aggressive, non-deferential reporting, that government, appointed officials and elected leaders would stray from their essential roles in a democracy.

Among other things, Bradlee raised the bar for accountability journalism not merely for the Post, but also for most major newspapers in America.

Prior to Bradlee’s stewardship as editor, the Washington Post had won only four Pulitzer Prizes. By the time Bradlee had retired, the paper had won 17 more Pulitzers.

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