Noah Millman

Failures to Communicate

So, let me see if I have this right.

The sorts of people who show up for a Mitt Romney fundraiser want to hear that 47% of the country should be written off because they are not financially self-supporting for whatever reason. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

The sorts of people who show up for a Hillary Clinton fundraiser want to hear that 50% of their opponent’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” because they are racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

The elite, intellectual supporters of Donald Trump include the kinds of “alt-right” neoreactionary types who believe that the only hope for our civilization is to make Elon Musk dictator. Needless to say, for them the only important thing is for their opponents to be defeated and for them to finally taste power.

Andrew Sullivan, centrist-liberal-conservative iconoclast, was so panicked about Trump’s populist threat to democracy, that he found new wisdom in Plato’s political ideas, and called for the deployment of any means necessary to stop him, because sometimes you have to destroy a democracy in order to save it.

Our own Rod Dreher, a religious right populist, has a forthcoming book calling on religious traditionalists to focus less on engaging with the world and more on protecting themselves and their children from the malign forces of the larger culture. The sorts of people who don’t hold to traditionalist views can no longer comprehend those views, and its important to make that incomprehension mutual.

Heck, last week a writer’s festival censored a writer for telling writers that they should feel free to write whatever they want.

I hesitate to give in to the counsel of despair, but it really does feel like we are all decreasingly interested in using words as anything but weapons.

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The State of the Race

I take a somewhat different view from Daniel Larison of the state of the race, much closer to Ross Douthat’s view.

Douthat’s main points are that if the polls continue to tighten, then Trump will be in a position to possibly win; that the most-likely scenario for polls continuing to tighten is for third-party candidates not to fade; and that Trump has a bit of an advantage in the electoral college in a very close outcome. I tend to agree with all of those points.

Larison takes issue with what he sees as Douthat’s implicit assumption that Trump will be able to mobilize voters that show up as supporters, particularly if they are disproportionately infrequent voters. It’s entirely fair to question whether these people will actually show up (since they usually don’t), but I’m not sure that a strong ground game (which Larison correctly points out Trump doesn’t have) actually makes as much of a difference for these voters specifically. The thing about a ground game is that it’s primarily about getting voters you’ve identified to the polls. If you don’t know who your voters are, because they’re historically disconnected from the political process, then that’s harder to organize around. If any plausible scenario for a Trump victory revolves around him generating enthusiasm among unlikely voters who likely aren’t on anybody’s list, then the ground game may not be Trump’s most important game — compared to whatever strategy does motivate these people to come out and vote for him.

Of course, you can still lose if you generate higher turnout among unlikely voters but also fail to deliver your more traditional voters, the sorts of people a good ground game is designed to bring out. So I still think it’s reasonable to assume that Trump’s poor ground game will cost him — just not necessarily for the reason Larison gives.

The rest of Douthat’s argument, though, strikes me as pretty solid. Nate Silver has been saying for some time that Trump may have a slight edge in the electoral college if the race is extremely close, for the very reasons Douthat highlights: Trump lags a typical Republican nominee in a bunch of red states more than he does in some of the traditional swing states. In other words, Trump’s vote is arguably more efficiently distributed than a typical Republican nominee’s.

That doesn’t mean that Trump is more likely to win than a typical Republican nominee. It means that if the election is close, then Trump has a bit more of an edge. But it could simultaneously be true that, with Trump on the ticket, it’s less-likely to be close in the first place.

Meanwhile, third-party candidates are very hard to model, both because there’s little history and because the history that we do have is highly idiosyncratic. (How much do George Wallace’s, John Anderson’s and Ross Perot’s campaigns really have in common?) Which means that many different scenarios are plausible once you make the assumption (as Douthat does) that Johnson and Stein don’t fade as the election gets closer. And one very plausible scenario could be that Johnson and Stein wind up hurting Clinton more in the swing states, while they hurt Trump more in the safe red states. And in the extreme case, yes, that could lead to the sort of scenario Douthat outlines at the end where Trump wins without a plurality in the popular vote.

In theory, it’s also plausible that the opposite could be true, and third-party nominees could hurt Trump more. Anderson initially looked like he was going to hurt Reagan, but wound up hurting Carter. This year, Stein could fade, and Johnson could become the vehicle for libertarians, Mormons and other folks who would never vote Clinton but don’t want to assent to Trump, and could thereby tip Nevada and New Hampshire to Clinton to win a race where she marginally loses the popular vote. Right now, though, it feels like Clinton hasn’t held on to the younger voters who went overwhelmingly for Obama, and hasn’t closed the deal with moderate Republican-leaning suburbanites who she needs to offset losses among working-class whites who are swinging Trumpward. Some of the former are going to Stein and some of both are going to Johnson.

Finally, the electoral college needle that Trump needs to thread isn’t nearly as narrow as Larison suggests, because the swing states tend to swing together. Yes, it’s true that Clinton has a larger electoral college base (states where the projected margin has been larger than the national margin). But arguably so did John Kerry in 2004: Bush won only 254 electoral votes by a margin at least equal to his national margin of 2.4%, while Kerry won 237 electoral votes by at least 2.4% in an election where he lost the national vote by that margin.

But all that means is that a large Clinton victory is more likely than a large Trump victory. If Clinton wins every state where she has at least a 40% chance of victory according to Nate Silver, she’d win 348 electoral votes. If Trump won all the same states, he’d be at 266 — just shy of a majority, needing New Hampshire to put him over the top. If those states were all independent contests, than a sweep like that would be vanishingly unlikely. But they aren’t — a victory in Ohio means a victory in Florida is more likely as well. Which is why Trump has a real shot at victory — about 1 shot in 3 according to Silver.

I still would bet on Trump to lose — and I think his odds are worse than 1-in-3 to win. But that’s because of my personal read on him as a candidate, and Clinton as a candidate. I think the numbers are somewhat cyclical, so Clinton’s last big boost has been followed by a drop; I think Trump is going to be poorly served by the debates; and I think the window for events to significantly transform the campaign in Trump’s direction is closing fast. By the numbers, though, he’s totally got a shot.

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What Is to Be Done About Aleppo?

My latest column at The Week is about Gary Johnson’s appalling ignorance:

I didn’t even know that Aleppo was a place — I thought it was an acronym. Which is pretty embarrassing — at least TheNew York Times knew Aleppo was a city, even if they weren’t sure which one. But, as I learned in about five minutes from Wikipedia after I left the studio, Aleppo is in fact the site of a crucial conflict between the Syrian government and a variety of rebel groups. The four-year struggle has destroyed much of this ancient city, and resulted in more than 25,000 fatalities in the city and the surrounding province through the beginning of this year.

So, now that I know what and where Aleppo is, what would I do about it as president?

I don’t know. Do you?

Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t. She was a strong advocate of intervening in the Syrian civil war from its earliest days, just as she was one of the strongest supporters of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and of President Obama’s war in Libya, which she called “smart power at its best.” Those countries are now, along with Syria, hotbeds of ISIS activity. She has repeatedly called for a no-fly zone in Syria, at the risk of war with Russia, even though a no-fly zone would be ineffective at protecting civilians.

Donald Trump certainly doesn’t. His plan is to let Russia defeat ISIS. But Russia never had any interest in defeating ISIS, but instead focused on shoring up Bashar al-Assad in his battle against other rebel groups — the groups active in cities like Aleppo. In other words, Trump’s plan to save Aleppo is to let Russia help Assad destroy Aleppo.

So I really don’t know what to do about Aleppo. And in that ignorance, I’ve got good company.

But the real question is: Should I know what to do about Aleppo? Should you?

Read the whole thing there. And then watch this.

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Free Speech Is For Jokers

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Rod Dreher asks, apropos of this clown:

Let me put it like this: if some alt-right joker played Pokemon Go at the Auschwitz site just to get a rise out of people, how would you feel about Polish authorities jailing him?

If some alt-right joker did that, I’d expect him to be evicted from the site, and have no other sanction applied. If he refused to leave, I could understand him being forcibly removed, even arrested for creating a disturbance or some other misdemeanor if his resistance was serious enough. In terms of legal sanction, I’d expect at worst that he’d be assessed a fine. Anything more severe strikes me as clearly excessive. And even those sanctions are only appropriate because free speech is not a license to disrupt, and I’m assuming that the hypothetical alt-right joker was being actively disruptive. If he’s minding his own business, then even eviction sounds excessive.

When the American Nazi Party marched through Skokie, they were entirely within their rights. Those Westboro Baptist jerks who brandish signs saying “God Hates Fags?” That’s protected speech, provided they are not directly harassing individual people. Ditto for anti-abortion protestors waving graphic images of dismembered fetuses; if they don’t disrupt access or harass individual people, they are wholly within their rights. Ditto for cartoons depicting the founding prophet of Islam as a pedophile, or Ronald Reagan as a zombie cannibal, or Hillary Clinton being raped.

Of course, Russia is not obliged to be absolutist about free speech; few countries are. But that’s the way free speech works: the test cases are jokers, clowns and jerks, and if you don’t pass the test when your personal god is being blasphemed against, then you don’t really believe in free speech.

UPDATE: So, based on the comments, the main objection to the above is that playing Pokemon Go isn’t speech, but action. Granted: playing Pokemon Go in a sacred space (whether a church or a Holocaust memorial) is not a statement of any kind; it’s just being rude. The appropriate thing to do with somebody rude is to ask them politely to stop being rude. How would I feel about jailing somebody for rudeness? I would feel like the jailers were completely out to lunch. My bottom line remains: what we’re talking about is laws against blasphemy, and I’m categorically against blasphemy laws.

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The Last of the Sensitive New Age Jewish Guys

Gene Wilder was something special.

I don’t just mean his extraordinary comic talent. He had that, of course, but the pool of talent is always being refreshed and renewed. And I don’t even mean that he was such a mensch — which he was as well. Believe it or not, there are nice guys born every minute, and not all of them are suckers.

But Wilder had a very distinctive persona, one that I valued enormously, and which I fear has passed from the scene for good.

Wilder was part of a wave of Jewish screen actors in the late 1960s and 1970s who made “Jewish leading man” a thing. Of course there had been plenty of Jewish leading men in Hollywood before this, from Kirk Douglas to Paul Newman to Tony Curtis. But they didn’t “play” their Jewishness as part of their persona. And there were Jewish leading men who did “play” their Jewishness — you can go back to Groucho Marx for examples.

But Gene Wilder, along with guys like Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould and others of their generation, did something new by being as unambiguously Jewish as they were, with all the quirks and foibles that came along with that, while simultaneously being leading men. Not sneaking or insinuating or conning their way into the position: just being there. Their moves were recognizably Jewish, but they were legitimate moves. You could see why they would work.

Wilder, though, had different moves than most of the others. While Hoffman and Allen and the rest were working the “smart is sexy” angle, Wilder’s thing was: sensitive is sexy.

Think about the sequence at the bar early in “Stir Crazy.” In his conversation with Richard Pryor, it’s clear that he’s slept with multiple women at the bar; he’s a “player.” But there’s not only nothing braggadocious about the way he talks about the women he’s known; he reminisces specifically about their qualities of soul. This ingenuousness, and this interest in the hearts of people he only knows casually, clearly has a great deal to do with how he’s gotten to know them intimately so easily. It’s what gets him into danger, both at the bar and, later, in prison. But it’s also the way he gets himself out of danger. He leads something of a charmed life, because he’s fundamentally innocent, but an innocent possessed of the usual human share of lust and fear.

“Innocence” is not a quality I associate with his knowing compatriots. But it’s what made Wilder’s victories in his films so compelling. He wasn’t a yearning, striving, hungry Duddy Kravitz type. He didn’t expect the world to hurt him — he was surprised when it wanted to hurt him, over and over again. And then he was delighted when it didn’t.

That innocence, and that sensitivity, is a quality Wilder brought to virtually all his roles, from Leo Bloom in “The Producers” to Avram in “The Frisco Kid.” And with it came a profound sadness, because the world just isn’t as sensitive as he is, a sadness manifest from “Willy Wonka” to “Blazing Saddles” to his performances as the Fox in “The Little Prince” and as the Mock Turtle in a television version of “Alice in Wonderland.” But it was a sadness, not a whiny hurt. Wilder wasn’t a man child looking for a mother to soothe him, of the kind we have plenty of these days. He was a man, with a man’s desires and a man’s knowledge of the world, but with a child’s heart.

It’s a rare quality in any person, at any time, and a precious one for that reason. In whom, among our leading men, does it live now?


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The Evolution of a Joke Campaign

My new column up at The Week traces the evolution of the Trump campaign. It’s always been a joke. But the nature of the joke has changed over time.

First, Trump was a Shakespearean fool:

A year ago, I asked the question: Why not Trump? It was a funny question for me to ask, I wrote, as I had “barely ever thought about [Trump] over the past 30 years, and never seriously,” and that “Trump’s greatest weakness as a candidate has always been the utter ridiculousness of the proposition.”

But the 2016 election desperately needed Trump. Before his entry, it looked likely that in the end former President Bill Clinton’s wife would face off against former President George W. Bush’s brother. The election would have been pure trench warfare, with both candidates aiming to vindicate their party’s preexisting positions, and avoid any reckoning with the ways in which they have failed. Trump changed all that. Suddenly, what was going to be a slog turned into a circus.

This wasn’t the dispiriting clown car of 2012 in which candidate after delusional candidate did their pandering little tap-dance before the cane pulled them off into the wings. Trump was different. From the moment he descended his golden escalator, Trump dominated the stage — not merely because he was entertaining, but because he exposed the folly of his betters. As Jan Kott said of the Fool in King Lear, Trump also “does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty, and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good.”

It felt like America needed to hear from a fool like that. From foreign policy to trade to immigration, Trump punctured the comfortable Washington consensus that everybody knew was right even though anybody could see it wasn’t working.

Then, Trump won the nomination, and became the Lord of Misrule:

He treated New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie like a glorified manservant, because everybody likes having a fat guy around. After selecting Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, he leaked to the press that he doubted his own decision, and publicly stated that he chose Pence mainly for reasons of party unity. Then he put on a thoroughly embarrassing convention seemingly designed to repel anyone who wasn’t already a loyalist.

There was something wickedly funny about this, watching those who had conspicuously failed to muster the will to rescue their party from this travesty wrestling with their consciences over just what it would take to cause them to abandon ship. And there was something especially delightful in watching them realize that they had sold their birthright for a mess of potage that wouldn’t even be served.

Then, as his standing in the polls dropped, the joke got darker:

Trump has long trafficked in conspiracy theories, some unfortunately common among a distrustful populace, some tailored to partisan hysteria, some simply bizarre. But increasingly, Trump has prepared his supporters to believe that a conspiracy is afoot against him specifically — and, hence, against them. Warning repeatedly that the upcoming election will likely be stolen, Trump has protected his own psyche and public image against loss at the price of threatening the legitimacy of the democratic process itself. . . .

Add into the mix Trump’s gleeful introduction of some of the most unsavory elements into our political culture, and a new picture emerged, not of Trump the entertainer, but of Trump as The Joker, an agent of pure, uncontrollable chaos.

And now?

Go read the whole thing there for the punch line.

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Why The Clinton Foundation Is Gross

The Clinton Foundation is back in the news because of the possibility that donors got special access to the Secretary of State, which has always struck me as the least-interesting argument for why the foundation is a problem. If a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire wants to get a meeting with somebody high up in Washington because he’s got a favor he needs done, he’s going to figure out a way to get the meeting. And if the favor is innocuous, or somewhat nocuous but unlikely to be noticed, he’s going to get the favor done. Anybody who thinks otherwise, or that there is any meaningful difference between the parties on this score, is dreaming.

No, the Clinton Foundation has been called a shakedown racket because it wasn’t trading access for donations — it was going to people who were already going to get access, and asking them to pay a toll for it.

Is that a problem? Well, that depends on how you feel about a former President and a hopeful future President creating an organization with their name on it, hobnobbing with the rich and famous all over the world on the organization’s dime, having the organization hire their relatives and long-time aides — and having the organization be a charity.

That, when I think about it, is what sticks in my craw. If the Clinton Foundation were Clinton Associates, a Washington consultancy that advised global solutionizers on how to optimize their solutionizing, and they hired a bunch of relatives and long-time aides, traveled all over the place optimizing the hell out of everybody’s solutionizing, and made it understood that it would be a good idea to hire them for at least some of your solutionizing needs if you plan on doing lots of business in Washington, that would be . . . pretty much par for the course.

But because it’s a charity, and because what Bill, Hillary and Chelsea do for that charity looks precious little like what Jimmy Carter does for Habitat for Humanity, it just makes me feel a little disgusted.

Is that reasonable? I’m not sure. There’s something disturbing about concluding that I’d be less upset if it were a for-profit venture blatantly trading on the Clintons’ access. Wouldn’t I rather they at least put their vanity in the service of a worthy cause? Am I unaware that the game in big-time philanthropy is all about figuring out how to shake down super-rich people for big donations? What’s my problem?

But reasonable or not, it’s how I feel. There’s something just plain gross about oleaginous self-branding on this scale. It’s almost . . . Trumpian.

Of course, if it were the Trump Foundation, they wouldn’t actually raise any money, or make any grants at all. But still.


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Flood The Zone?

My colleague Rod Dreher has truly been doing God’s work helping his Louisiana neighbors in their hour of acute need. He’s also been scathingly furious at the media for their apparent lack of interest in either the disaster or the response.

My latest column at The Week has the temerity to suggest that this rage may, itself, be a product of mis-placed media values:

The flooding around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy, but it’s barely made the front page, overshadowed by the Olympics and Donald Trump’s latest antics. Nor have the political leaders of either party seen fit to speak about the disaster. President Obama remains on vacation, and both major party nominees for president have largely ignored Louisiana’s plight.

The silence has been so deafening that it itself has become the story, with an increasing number of think pieces, ranging from angry to ruminative, asking why we aren’t talking more about the floods. The floods aren’t news, but our indifference is.

But what does the indifference signify? Not that the disaster is actually being ignored by those who can make a difference, that’s for sure. South Louisiana’s residents have actually done a spectacular job of responding to the crisis. The “little platoons” have deployed themselves, just as Edmund Burke said they would. As well, national organizations like the Red Cross and federal agencies like FEMA have mobilized promptly, and have promised the resources necessary to respond and recover. The “system,” so far, is working.

Read the whole thing there.

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A Tale Of Two States

From the beginning of the campaign, we’ve been hearing that Pennsylvania is the key state (you might even say the “keystone” state) to Trump’s strategy for victory, because his unorthodox positions on trade and immigration could pull in disaffected blue collar white voters who feel both parties have abandoned them. And, also from the beginning of the campaign, Republicans have fretted about Trump’s racially-divisive rhetoric being a potential problem for the GOP in states like Florida with large and growing non-white and Hispanic population.

So it’s probably worth noting that Trump is consistently underperforming his national numbers in polls of Pennsylvania, and that he’s consistently outperforming his national numbers in Florida.

Trump is also outperforming his national numbers in heavily-Hispanic swing state Nevada, while underperforming in largely white and frequently cranky New Hampshire. States like Georgia, which should be very safe for a Republican, or North Carolina, that should only be competitive in a 2008-style blow-out, are actually looking about as good for Clinton as Florida is. Meanwhile, states like Arizona remain close even as the national numbers have moved strongly in Clinton’s favor.

What do I conclude from the above?

Tentatively, I conclude the following.

First, polarization cuts both ways. Alabama and Mississippi have very large minority populations. They also have very racially-polarized voting. If you’ve got a white majority, even if it’s a relatively narrow one, and you can mobilize that majority to vote as a bloc, then you can win even if the other bloc votes in a similarly solidaristic manner. Arizona, Nevada and Florida all have narrowing white, non-Hispanic majorities — but they are still majorities, at least for now.

Second, achieving that kind of polarization is more plausible when there is a real divergence of interests between the groups. Arizona, Nevada and Florida are all states with large numbers of recent Hispanic immigrants — but also with large white retiree populations. There’s a generational divide that lines up with an ethnic/racial divide, which may drive economic competition between groups that are relative strangers to each other.

That may explain why Trump is doing relatively better with these particular swing states. But why is he doing worse in places like Pennsylvania?

Well, one possibility is that for all his rhetoric, Trump actually has very little to offer on the economic front. His Detroit speech, for example, was mostly a rehash of very standard and longstanding Republican boilerplate. Relatedly, his emphasis on racial and cultural issues may reinforce the impression that he doesn’t have any actual answers to manufacturing decline. But most important, Trump may be losing white-collar whites at a rate that more than offsets any gains he’s making among blue-collar voters.

This may also explain Clinton’s relatively strong performance in states like North Carolina and Georgia. Prosperous, Republican-leaning suburbanites in these states, a contingent that includes many internal migrants from states like New Jersey, Michigan and Ohio, may not be looking to overthrow the establishment, because the establishment is working for them.

Trump is following a version of the “Sailer strategy,” and what he may be proving is that the strategy only works when white voters view their situation as highly precarious and see racial and ethnic solidarity as a compelling response. And while that may be true in certain states, it just isn’t true on a national basis. Instead, a strategy of mobilizing blue collar whites who feel left behind threatens to undermine the position of more successful communities, driving them to the other party.

That’s probably a good thing for the country, overall. But it’s a bad thing for the constituency Trump is speaking to, who need a tribune who could actually get them a seat at the policymaking table, and not just drive them to further marginalization.

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Clinton’s Next Move

Meanwhile, I’ve got my own column at The Week, about how Clinton should capitalize on Trump’s horrible no good very bad week:

Hillary Clinton has had a good week.

She concluded a successful convention that united the Democratic Party and positioned her as the presidential candidate who believes in America’s future. In its wake, her opponent has gone into full meltdown mode, attacking a Gold Star family and, in response to widespread outrage, doubling down on his attacks. Worse still, at least from a partisan Republican’s perspective, he’s threatened to withhold his support from Republican officeholders like House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) who have been critical of some of his more outrageous outbursts. And as his standing in the polls has fallen, he’s begun encouraging his supporters to view any loss as the illegitimate result of a rigged election.

The panic has gotten bad enough that there is talk of mass defections from the Republican leadership. All of which no doubt has the Clinton campaign ecstatic. If she can win over a good number of relatively sane Republicans, surely she’ll win in a landslide.

I’m not so sure. And even if I were sure that it would work, I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do.

First of all, it’s not clear how many head of cattle those big-hatted Republican leaders are actually driving. Remember, in the Republican primaries, 70 percent of the vote went to the two candidates deemed least acceptable to the Republican leadership. For all we know, Reince Preibus himself could endorse Clinton and it wouldn’t move the needle.

Second, Clinton still needs to turn out her own voters. Let’s say she actually could get the endorsement of Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Jeb Bush. How would Democrats who favored Bernie Sanders during the primaries feel about that? Is she so sure that the gains she made on the Republican side would outweigh the losses she’d face from her own base?

Third, Trump’s entire campaign strategy has been running against a rigged system — and against the leadership of both parties. Bipartisan support for Hillary Clinton only reinforces the narrative that got Trump the nomination. Is she so sure that wouldn’t help him in the general election as well?

Fortunately, Clinton doesn’t need to win over Republican leaders. A Mitt Romney endorsement of Gary Johnson would be worth far more than any prominent Republican defections to Clinton herself. Clinton does need to reach out to college-educated whites — whom she has a good shot at being the first Democrat to win in 60 years. But doing so doesn’t require her to pinch policy ideas from Paul Ryan. It’s enough that she portray herself as steady, mainstream, and non-radical.

Clinton is already doing that, and her vice presidential pick reinforced that message. But the other thing Clinton needs to do is limit her losses among white voters without a college education — Trump’s base. That effort would be set back badly by an overt pitch for elite Republican votes — because these are the very people who voted in record numbers to repudiate the Republican leadership. So what can she do to limit her losses in this crucial demographic segment?

Read the whole thing there if you want to know what I think.

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