Noah Millman

Hamlet’s Ghost in Vegas

With Biden still in the process of getting to yes, the subtext of tonight’s debate is likely to be: does he have an opening or doesn’t he? And the answer to that question really has two parts: how strong does Clinton look, and how weak does Obama look?

If the dynamic on stage is a commanding, experienced Hillary Clinton facing a passionate, populist insurgent and a handful of irrelevant, hopping fleas, then Clinton looks strong, and Biden has less of an opening. Similarly, if all of the candidates on stage take pains to run against the Obama legacy – from whatever direction – then they have clearly made the calculation that his legacy is a net-negative, and, again, Biden has less of an opening.

But, if the dynamic on stage is a beleaguered Hillary Clinton facing challenges from all sides on her hawkish foreign policy and her closeness with Wall Street, and she responds testily or incoherently to these challenges, then there’s more clearly an opening for Biden to get in. And if the Democratic candidates are more united in blaming the Republicans for the unsatisfying aspects of the Obama years, and stress the vital importance of denying them the White House, then that suggests an awareness of the need to tread carefully in criticizing Obama in a Democratic primary, and, again, Biden has more of an opening.

So which will it be?

I think we have a pretty good idea of how Sanders is going to operate on the stage. He’s going to make the case for a sharp left-turn without personally being especially critical of either Obama or Clinton. And I think I can guess how Clinton would respond if Sanders were the only one on stage with her – she’d avoid engaging in ideological argument, but make the pragmatic case for herself as someone who can advance progressive ideals most effectively. And if that’s the game, then there’s little opening for Biden.

All of which means that tonight will be the first, and possibly last, chance for the until-now hopeless candidates to shape the race. If Webb and O’Malley are out for blood, they will draw it. The openings are there, in both foreign and domestic policy. And then we’ll see how Clinton – and Sanders – respond once there’s blood in the water.

Meanwhile, what I am really hoping for is that Chafee gets a question about the metric system.

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Shakespeare on Film

olivier henry v

A commenter on my last post asks:

For TAC readers (like me) who might like to undertake a Shakespeare-on-dvd project could you please recommend 6 or 8 film adaptations that might make a sound beginning?

Well, sir: it depends what you are looking for.

Are you looking to encounter faithful productions of the plays? Then I’d recommend looking for strong productions that have been filmed. The BBC Shakespeare Collection has the virtue of completeness. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada has recorded a number of their productions on film, with more expected every year. The RSC are filming their productions as well – I’m probably not as up to date as I ought to be on all the fabulous options that are out there if your goal is to encounter the plays in performance and don’t happen to live near a Shakespeare festival.

Or, are you looking to see filmic versions of Shakespeare’s plays? In which case, what you encounter may be more or less faithful to Shakespeare’s language, and is unlikely even to seek to be faithful to either Elizabethan or contemporary theatrical convention, because it’s a different medium. Here, again, there are a huge number of interesting choices.

Are you interested in getting a sense of filmic history? In that case, you should definitely see Olivier’s “Henry V,” which is partly about the transition from stage to screen – and the Max Reinhardt version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” because of its astonishing Golden Age of Hollywood cast – and move on from there through Joseph Mankiewicz’s “Julius Caesar,” Orson Welles’s “Othello,” Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” etc.

Or would you be curious to compare different approaches to the same material? Then pick a play that many directors have tackled – say, compare versions of Hamlet by Olivier, Kozintsev, Zeffirelli, Branagh, Almereyda and, of course, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas.

There are adaptations that stray far from the original Shakespeare, like Peter Greenaway’s film, “Prospero’s Books” or Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard.” And there’s a whole world of adaptations that don’t use Shakespeare’s language at all, from “West Side Story” to “Ran” to “Ten Things I Hate About You.”

If you’re looking for a handful of personal favorites, though, here are some of mine:

  • Throne of Blood” – I would say the most compelling version of Macbeth I’ve ever seen; absolutely chilling. The Polanski version is also very worth checking out. And there’s a new “Macbeth” on the way to our shores that I’m very curious about. But Kurosawa’s version is really in a class by itself.
  • The Chimes at Midnight” – just an astonishing film and performance, and a good demonstration that sometimes the best move in adapting Shakespeare is to be absolutely ruthless at making him your own. I prefer it to Welles’s other Shakespeare adaptations, all of which are worth looking into.
  • My Own Private Idaho” – an exceptionally creative film in its use of Shakespeare’s language to elevate a contemporary story; the film was also important to me as I approached my own effort at adapting Shakespeare for the screen.
  • Richard III” – Richard Loncraine’s film is another one that was very important to me in thinking about my own work, and is also huge fun and full of brilliant performances. And it’s also a perfect antidote to “The King’s Speech.”
  • Slings and Arrows” – the Canadian television series is just not to be missed if you have any interest at all in Shakespeare.

And, of course, there are a great many well-regarded films of Shakespeare that I haven’t yet seen.

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A Rose By Any Other Name

Shakespeare doll

I’m a little late to this particular party, but the big news in classical theater circles is that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has announced an ambitious plan to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English:

OSF is commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English between now and December 31, 2018. By seeking out a diverse set of playwrights (more than half writers of color and more than half women), we hope to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation. Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions. We are also excited about the potential for a highly engaging national conversation about language that this project could prompt, and we hope you’ll join in that conversation on Facebook and Twitter. Check back often for updates and glimpses into the work being done by our extraordinary set of playwrights. Play on!

Reactions so far have been varied, and frequently vehement. James Shapiro is extremely skeptical:

However well intended, this experiment is likely to be a waste of money and talent, for it misdiagnoses the reason that Shakespeare’s plays can be hard for playgoers to follow. The problem is not the often knotty language; it’s that even the best directors and actors — British as well as American — too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean. . . .

I’ve had a chance to look over a prototype translation of “Timon of Athens” that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been sharing at workshops and readings for the past five years. While the work of an accomplished playwright, it is a hodgepodge, neither Elizabethan nor contemporary, and makes for dismal reading.

To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse. They will search for them in vain in the translation: The music and rhythm of iambic pentameter are gone. Gone, too, are the shifts — which allow actors to register subtle changes in intimacy — between “you” and “thee.” Even classical allusions are scrapped.

By contrast, John McWhorter hails the effort:

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

But none of these rationalizations holds up. Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries.

In “Hamlet,” when Polonius famously advises Laertes to “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” much of what he says before that point reaches our modern ears in a fragmentary state at best. In the lines, “These few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character,” look means “make sure that,” and character is a verb, meaning “to write.” Polonius is telling Laertes, in short, “Note these things well.”

He goes on to say: “Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment,” which seems to mean that you should let other people criticize you but refrain from judging them—strange advice. But by “take censure” Shakespeare meant “evaluate,” so that Polonius is really saying “assess” other men but don’t jump to conclusions about them.

We can piece these meanings together, of course, by reading the play and consulting stacks of footnotes. But Shakespeare didn’t intend for us to do that. He wrote plays for performance. We’re supposed to be able to hear and understand what’s spoken on the stage, in real time.

And Daniel Polack-Pelzner highlights the way in which the terms of the debate are distinctive to this particular point in history:

For poets, playwrights, editors, and actors from the seventeenth century through much of the nineteenth, Shakespeare’s language wasn’t intoxicating so much as intoxicated: it needed a sobering intervention. These days, we tend to assume that productions can change anything about Shakespeare (the setting, the period, the characters’ race or gender), as long as the script stays intact—cut or reordered, perhaps, but not rewritten. This is a fairly recent notion. Until the late Victorian era, stage performances usually observed the setting and period implied in the play, but they transformed the language. Shakespeare’s script was the first problem that a production had to remedy. . . .

So what changed? How did Shakespeare’s original texts regain their popularity? German Romantics had something to do with it. They rebelled against French neoclassical restraint and cited Shakespeare’s unruliness as a liberating precedent. British critics in the nineteenth century followed suit, celebrating Shakespeare’s capacious characters and poetic imagination instead of worrying whether his plots fit Aristotelian unities or if his style matched Augustan decorum. Rather than subject Shakespeare to critical standards, Shakespeare became the standard. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge apologized for importing the clunky term “psychological” from the German, but he said that English lacked a word to capture Shakespeare’s “Philosophy of the Human Mind.”)

Then, with the rise of English as an academic discipline in the Victorian era, scholars took over the business of editing Shakespeare, working to establish more historically authentic texts, rather than correcting poetic defects—an editing goal matched by the nineteenth-century taste for spectacular antiquarian stage productions. . . . George Bernard Shaw feared that the Victorian tendency to see Shakespeare as immune from criticism verged on “Bardolatry,” warning that “it is false admiration to worship him as an infallible demi-god.” But Shakespeare was well on his way to becoming secular scripture. In the twentieth century, New Critics enshrined Shakespeare’s plays as complex poetic art, unified through patterns of metaphor, irony, and paradox, and generations of students were compelled to write exegeses of his linguistic richness. If witty intricacies appeared opaque, that was the fault not of the poet but of the audience who failed to grasp his genius. . . .

In light of this history, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s translation project seems fairly conservative. . . . Although accessible, stylish play scripts could offer handy entry points for Shakespeare newbies, one almost wonders why O.S.F. needs thirty-six playwrights (and supporting dramaturgs) to do the sort of clarifying work that annotations to modern editions have been doing for years. In its combination of updating and deference, O.S.F.’s commission looks like an eighteenth-century project couched in nineteenth-century terms.

I want to get more information about the project, hopefully directly from the Festival itself, before writing more fully on the subject. But here are my initial thoughts.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with adapting Shakespeare. Some of my very favorite versions of Shakespeare – like Akira Kurosawa’s film, “Throne of Blood” – are adaptations that stray significantly from their source. Indeed, Shakespeare has to be adapted very nearly every time the plays are performed. Many of the plays have multiple, incompatible variations, and most are too long to play effectively for current audiences.

Indeed, some of that adaptation has likely already been done before a director ever sits down to make his own cut. The reason there’s an original spelling movement is that there is a case to be made that modernizing the spelling has erased important shades of meaning present in the original – and of course, that “original” was itself not published by Shakespeare at all, and so was filtered through who knows how many contemporary ears and hands before reaching print.

If all O.S.F. is doing is extending this process one more step, then really they are doing the work of a dramaturg – and perhaps that’s actually what is the primary impetus for the project. If so, it’s a worthy purpose. Most working actors don’t have the opportunity to get a thorough classical education. Ditto with most working directors. And many productions can’t afford a real dramaturg, or don’t have the time to really work over the text and study the footnotes. I can see the value for theaters with fewer resources than O.S.F. to having versions that are, frankly, easier to play than Shakespeare often is.

But if that’s the goal, it’s not the audience that primarily needs help. Yes, occasionally you do have to change a word here or there just to make a line play sensibly. I’ve done this myself – in a screenplay adaptation of Timon of Athens, I changed the word “generation” to “derivation” to make the intended meaning – “of the same descent,” not “of the same age” – clearer. But more often than not, you don’t. McWhorter, above, frets about audiences being able to understand that when Polonius says “look” he means “make sure that” or that when he says “character” he means “inscribe.” But I guarantee you: if the actors are totally clear on the meaning, and know how to speak verse, the audience will get those lines with no problem at all. I took my son to see Hamlet for the first time when he was not quite six years old, and he got it. (His review: “Hamlet talks too much when nobody’s listening.”)

The problem is when the actors aren’t totally clear, and there’s nobody involved in the production with the knowledge (or the time) to clarify.

And that’s a real practical problem. It won’t do to lament lack of classical training and leave it at that. For one thing, training costs money. And not just directly, but indirectly, in terms of opportunity cost. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that pursuing classical training can be actively harmful to your career as a working actor, in that it signals to casting directors that you are likely to have hifalutin’ notions about art and won’t submit to the time constraints of a television or film shoot. (On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that once you break into film and television – assuming you do – your classical training will be enormously beneficial even when what you’re playing could hardly be compared to Shakespeare. Think Alec Guiness in “Star Wars.”)

The harder Shakespeare is to do, the less-likely ambitious, career-minded types of actors and directors are to do him – or to do him well, with attention, as opposed to imposing some preconceived idea on the plays and roles. That just means that the general theatrical culture gets progressively more cut off from Shakespeare. And if the general theatrical culture has less access to Shakespeare, that’s bad not only for Shakespeare but for the general theatrical culture. We shouldn’t ever be building walls in this area, but only bridges.

Beyond that, my main question is why limit themselves to these kinds of dramaturgical emendations, assuming that’s what they are doing. If you’re going to hire some of the best working playwrights, why not get a distinctive version of King Lear – something really new? Some plays cry out for serious work – you can’t mount an incomplete play like Timon of Athens without doing some serious surgery on the text. Why simply translate it? Why not do a real adaptation, and make it a play that works?

David Ives has done wonderful work adapting Corneille and Molière, blending the French playwright’s spirit with his own and producing new works that are funny and contemporary and full of heart – and all in rhyming pentameter (itself an adaptation, since the originals are in hexameter). Why not have that be the model of how to update Shakespeare for contemporary audiences? Hamlet is never going to be displaced in performance by a single modern “translation,” if only because too many directors are going to want to return to the source and come up with their own Hamlet, just as every actor will. But I would dearly like to see Lin Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona or Troilus and Cressida – and I wouldn’t want him to do it with one hand tied behind his back.

In any event: as I say, I hope to have the opportunity to speak for people actually involved in the project. When and if I do, I’ll report on what they say.

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But God Loves Standardized Tests


I know I’m three years late to this one, but if you are looking for proof of a God who actively intervenes in history, look no further:

A reading passage included this week in one of New York’s standardized English tests has become the talk of the eighth grade, with students walking around saying, “Pineapples don’t have sleeves,” as if it were the code for admission to a secret society.

The passage is a parody of the tortoise and the hare story, the Aesop’s fable that almost every child learns in elementary school. Only instead of a tortoise, the hare races a talking pineapple, and the moral of the story — more on that later — is the part about the sleeves.

While taking the test, baffled children raised their hands to say things like, “This story doesn’t make sense.”

Antitesting activists have taken up the cudgel, saying that the passage and the multiple-choice questions associated with it perfectly illustrate the absurdity of standardized testing. And by Friday afternoon, the state education commissioner had decided that the questions would not count in students’ official scores. . . .

While the furor over the test passage seems to have achieved phenomenal proportions in New York — one boy has already posted a picture on his Facebook page of a T-shirt with the motto “Pineapples Don’t Have Sleeves” — it has caused similar ripples across the country.

It turns out the same passage and questions, perhaps with variations, have been used at least as far back as 2007 in states like Illinois, Arkansas, Delaware and Alabama, and every time, elicited roughly the same spectrum of incredulity, bafflement, hilarity and outrage.

In the dada educational future toward which we are all hurtling as fast as possible, there will only be one reading passage, and one set of questions, and this will be it.

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God Hates Renoir


This may be the best news I’ve read all year:

It’s nothing personal, says Ben Ewen-Campen, he just doesn’t think French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is much of a painter. Monday, the Harvard postdoc joined some like-minded aesthetes for a playful protest outside the Museum of Fine Arts. The rally, which mostly bewildered passersby, was organized by Max Geller, creator of the Instagram account Renoir Sucks at Painting, who wants the MFA to take its Renoirs off the walls and replace them with something better. Holding homemade signs reading “God Hates Renoir” and “Treacle Harms Society,” the protesters ate cheese pizza purchased by Geller, and chanted: “Put some fingers on those hands! Give us work by Paul Gauguin !” and “Other art is worth your while! Renoir paints a steaming pile!” Craig Ronan, an artist from Somerville, learned about the protest on Instagram and decided to join. “I don’t have any relationship with these people aside from wanting artistic justice,” he said.

Usually, when the actual news reads like something from The Onion, that’s a really bad sign. But this is just delightful. I can only pray that this sort of protest becomes a regular phenomenon at cultural institutions everywhere.

And also that this particular protest succeeds. Because Renoir really does suck at painting.

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The Sanguinary Legacy Of Partitionism

Between Damon Linker’s and Peter Weber’s columns, it appears to be partition week over at The Week (where I have also been known to hang my hat). Linker’s pro-Biden column leans heavily on then-Senator Biden’s having mused about partitioning Iraq to make the case for the Vice President’s foreign policy acumen, while Weber suggests one-upping Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war by supporting an independent Kurdistan.

Daniel Larison lays into both proposals in his usual fashion. But my question is: where’s the historical evidence advocates might bring forward to make their case for partition as a solution to inter-communal conflict?

The partition of India that created Pakistan is among the most famously sanguinary examples, but it’s not like history is full of successfully-imposed divisions of states. Northern Ireland’s status remains contested long after the Republic has moved on to more important questions. The Korean War never ended. The Vietnam War didn’t end until the partition of that country was undone on the battlefield. The crackup of Yugoslavia has finally achieved a kind of stasis after multiple foreign interventions. The breakup of the former Soviet Union left irredentist groups in Trans-Dniestria, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, has famously destabilized Ukraine (which may yet itself be partitioned if things really go badly) and may yet tear apart NATO member state Estonia. And, of course, much of the Middle East is the fruit of the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.

If I were looking for examples of successful partitions, I’d start with the “velvet divorce” between Bohemia and Moravia on the one side and Slovakia on the other. But of course, that’s an extreme outlier case in which both sides agreed from the outset on the desirability of separation. Other states have achieved independence on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, and have gone on to have cordial relations with their former metropole, but again, the precondition for success was agreement, won through some combination of superior force or persuasion. The track record of partitions imposed as a solution to irreconcilable ethnic or ideological difference is abysmal.

And when have we been in a position to impose such solutions anyhow? If we had said, some time in 2006, say, that we support the partition of Iraq, where would we have gotten the authority to implement it? Who within Iraq, apart from the Kurds, would have signed on to such a plan? If the government didn’t support our plans, we’d be in the awkward position of fighting against the government we had installed and were obliged to defend. Or, alternatively, we might have been in the position of implicitly endorsing ethnic cleansing intended to change the facts on the ground in advance of implementation of such a plan.

When someone talks about America “backing” an independent Kurdistan, what is generally meant isn’t securing an agreement by the Syrian or Iraqi government to recognize that new state’s independence, so that inter-communal relations could resume on a normal and equal inter-state basis. What’s meant is the assertion of a right to independence, and providing the material support to back up that assertion with force. It means, by definition, escalating the inter-communal conflict, in the hopes that victory for the side we are backing can be achieved expeditiously enough that the other side sees no alternative but to surrender.

And Syria and Iraq are not the only players in the mix, just the weakest. If Kurdistan is ever going to be a secure state, it will only be with the acquiescence of powerful states like Turkey and Iran that rule most of the territory where the Kurds live. The price it would take to win that acquiescence at the negotiating table is hard to fathom. Logically, one should assume that the price it would take to win it on the battlefield would be all the higher.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Kurdish ambitions. Kurdistan is kind of like 19th-century Poland, a country that ought to exist, and only doesn’t because of a historic injustice. But it’s worth recalling that what it took to restore Poland to the family of nations was the carnage of World War I; that World War II began with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin to reverse Polish independence; that the worst of the Nazi crimes were committed on Polish territory; and that after the war Polish national territory was forcibly relocated westward (Poland was the only victim of Nazi aggression to be treated in this fashion), after which Poland finally found the blessings of peace under Soviet domination.

This is not, I think, a model we should encourage the Kurds to emulate.

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Challenge the Washington Consensus with TAC

tac antiwar realism restraint covers

It’s that time of year again.

Last year, around this time, I wrote a post asking you to support The American Conservative, saying:

TAC is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign, the catch phrase for which is “realism and reform.” And, as catch phrases goes, it’s not bad. Who, after all, is going to come out in favor of “delusion and sclerosis”?

Who, indeed? Little did I anticipate the 2016 Presidential contest.

Today’s Republican party may aptly be described as the party of delusion, living in a world where omni-directional belligerence is global leadership, where massive unfunded tax cuts are the height of fiscal responsibility, and where ignorance of basic facts is not merely tolerated but applauded as evidence of authenticity.

And today’s Democrats, running on the status quo at a time when more than two-thirds of those polled say the country is on the wrong track, and set to be led by the wife of the previous Democratic President, whose primary challenger is a 73-year-old self-proclaimed Socialist—how better to describe them than as the party of sclerosis?

It’s a depressing spectacle.

And more depressing than the spectacle itself is the fact that the bulk of the press treats it as precisely that: a spectacle. As if the country can be counted on to take care of itself, and we can content ourselves during elections with rooting for our preferred team and enjoying the show.

But not all of the press takes that attitude.

Last year, I made a point of saying that TAC didn’t have a party line, and wasn’t interested in promoting a particular ideological agenda. And that’s still true. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we believe, and it doesn’t mean we take a purely spectator’s interest in public affairs.

If there is one thing that unites the diverse factions and unclassifiable individuals around here, it’s the conviction that the Washington consensus in foreign policy needs to be questioned. That America needs to rediscover the virtues of restraint, to set priorities among our interests and desires, and to learn to work with other powers on common interests rather than attempting to dictate terms to ally and adversary alike. We’re holding a conference on the subject in November, and, as with our last such foray, we’re eager to use such discussions to build bridges between conservatives and liberals who, differing on other matters, see how vital it is that on matters of war and peace, a different voice is heard.

Because it is a different voice, one that gets heard relatively infrequently in the councils of either party, and is heeded even less. It’s striking, and depressing, to observe how, after the disastrous war in Iraq, and the substantial failure of our nation-building effort in Afghanistan, the current administration still found itself intervening in Libya, half-heartedly engaging in the Syrian civil war, and cheering on a Saudi war in Yemen—and did so even though people at the highest levels of the administration, including the President himself, expressed skepticism about the efficacy of such interventions. The pressures, internal and external, in favor of action are so predominant that it nearly always seems prudent, in a political sense, to give in to them.

So we have to change those pressures. And that change has to start with a persistent, ongoing effort to open up the national conversation to voices that advocate restraint, without equivocation or embarrassment.

And that’s our job.

I can’t say, as Churchill did, that if you give us the tools we’ll finish it, because that job truly is never-ending. But I can say that if you don’t give us the tools—the support we need to keep writing and publishing and arguing—then we’ll be finished.

And if you’ve read this far, you probably don’t want that to happen.

So please, in this one area, don’t err on the side of restraint. And, to the degree that you are able, show your support for The American Conservative.

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Who’s Next?

republicans 2016 - christie fiorina walker paul bush walker

With Walker out, I assume Chris Christie is ordering his staffers not to answer the phones.

But seriously: the debates appear to be doing their job in winnowing the field down from a huge number to a more reasonable-sized field. Kasich impressed in the first debate – and he’s still standing. Rubio impressed in the second debate – and he’s still standing. Perry couldn’t move the needle, and Walker moved it the wrong way – and they are out. Jeb . . . well, he’s a Bush, so he’s got more rope. But not an infinite amount thereof: at some point, if he can’t consistently outpoll his fellow Floridian, he’ll come under pressure to drop out and consolidate the establishment-acceptable vote.

The only problem is, that vote looks to be no more than a quarter to a third of the total, at least at this point.

Take the three non-politician candidates: Trump, Carson and Fiorina. Carson and Fiorina do not ring quite the alarm bells that Trump does among the establishment, but I am assuming that nobody among the party’s leadership or major donors is anything less than appalled at the prospect of being stuck with a complete political novice like Carson, or a disastrous failure of a CEO (and failed Senate candidate to boot) like Fiorina at the top of the ticket. But collectively, they pull in more than 50% – not only nationally (54% average across the most recent 3 polls), but in each of Iowa (56%), New Hampshire (54%), South Carolina (58%) and even Florida (58%) where Bush and Rubio are native sons.

Then, add to that total the vote for those candidates with actual experience whom the establishment still likely finds unacceptable: bomb-thrower Ted Cruz, one-time libertarian gadfly Rand Paul, and Duggar family publicist Mike Huckabee. That group collectively polls 15% nationally, 15% in Iowa, 12% in New Hampshire, 11% in South Carolina, and 8% in Florida.

I’ll call the rest of the field establishment-friendly: Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Christie – that crowd. I’ll include in that group hopeless-cause candidates – Graham and Pataki and Jindal and so forth – because if they weren’t hopeless they’d be acceptable, and therefore I assume their votes could readily be won by another “normal” candidate more readily than, say, Cruz’s or Trump’s.

That group – all together – polls at less than 25% nationally, as well as in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, rising to 32% only in the Bush-Rubio state.

And those numbers haven’t moved all that much – particularly not the national ones. There’s been a lot of volatility in just the last couple of weeks. But the numbers for the “outsiders” versus “insiders” have been pretty stable.

Does that mean that consolidation won’t be enough to put one establishment-acceptable candidate over the top? Not necessarily – but it does mean that that candidate, whoever he is, will need to be able to do more than consolidate those voters already showing a willingness to vote for an “insider.”

Who would you bet is best-placed to do that?

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Pay Iran To Take Syria’s Refugees?

Procyk Radek /

Though I’ve long been skeptical that Iran is actually open to an across-the-board rapprochement, I heartily agree with Daniel Larison and Stephen Walt that we should not actually seek to minimize the chances of such a thaw in relations, but should do everything we can to maximize the diplomatic value of the opening created by the nuclear deal. In that spirit, I’ve got a modest proposal:

Pay Iran to take in Syria’s refugees.

The moral logic of such a proposal is not hard to articulate. Iran, as the main supporter of the Syrian regime, bears a heavy responsibility for the refugee situation in the first place. So it makes sense to demand that it take a primary responsibility for caring for the refugees, along with the Gulf states and Turkey, the main supporters of the rebels. The main moral claim on Europe with respect to the refugee crisis is that it has greater financial wherewithal to shoulder the burden than countries in the region. Shouldering a large share of the financial cost would show that Europe’s states recognize the justice of that claim.

The practical logic is also clear. In general, it makes sense to settle refugees near their homes, because the goal should be for them to return home after the conflict that displaced them is settled. And, indeed, the bulk of the refugees have settled in countries neighboring Syria: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — but not in Iran. Moving displaced populations on to Europe relieves pressure on those neighbors to resolve the conflict, and in fact abets Syria’s government (and some rebel groups) in their efforts to “cleanse” the areas under their control of populations deemed insufficiently loyal.

Finally, economic migrants might be far less interested in making a home in Iran than in Germany — so such an arrangement would deter them from trying to blend in with the refugee population to take advantage of Germany’s generous one-time offer of asylum.

Politically, meanwhile, this would be a substantial coup for the Iranian regime. It would highlight the country’s return to good standing in the international community, and show that it is capable of playing a constructive role regionally. It would enable Iran to brag of its tolerance in accepting non-Shiite, non-Muslim, and non-Persian refugees. It would embarrass the Gulf states, which have also taken in no refugees in spite of their wealth and direct responsibility for the conflict. And it would earn Iran some much-needed hard cash.

Jeremy Beer has been making an argument in these pages and others for a more charitable and less philanthropic approach to helping those in need – one focused on the human being before us and our relationship to them rather than on abstract efficiency in delivering services. You tell me whether my modest proposal is in harmony with the spirit of his argument, or thoroughly out of it.

But first read the whole thing over at The Week.

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Time To Dissolve The GOP Electorate and Elect a New One?

Steve Rhodes / cc

Reihan Salam, appalled by the state of the GOP nominating process, wants to create a Council of Guardians to vet candidates before putting them before the voters:

Anderson and Cost envision a Republican Nominating Convention, in which roughly 3,300 delegates, 3,000 of whom would be elected by rank-and-file Republicans in their local communities and the remainder of whom would be Republican officeholders, would select five official candidates. . . . I won’t bore you with the mechanics, but the basic idea is that you’d eventually be left with a manageable number of candidates who’d then be asked if they actually wanted the nomination, and those who said they were up for it would then be whittled down to five officially-sanctioned candidates.

The best part of this kooky scheme? This convention would take place in February of the year of the election. These candidates would then take part in a series of debates, moderated by Republicans for Republicans, interspersed with a series of three regional primaries, in which party members would vote for their favorite candidates. . . . [I]n this system, the GOP nominee would be chosen by the end of April at the latest. Such a short, focused campaign would give less-moneyed candidates a better shot at securing the nomination, and it would free up candidates with real jobs to focus on them rather than on begging Sheldon Adelson for his sweet casino money.

Well, yes, it would – and if the GOP electorate had a great deal of trust in their party leadership, such a reform would probably go over reasonably well with GOP voters. But if they had that trust then it would also be unnecessary (though possibly still worth considering as a way of saving time, money and energy).

And of course, the fact is that not only is there no such high level of trust, the overwhelming evidence is that the voters positively loathe the leadership of the party. That’s why not only Trump (who started out rich and famous) but Carson and now Fiorina are doing so well, and why Cruz is trying to position himself as an insurgent like them rather than as a sitting Senator: because the GOP leadership is wildly unpopular with its own party’s voters.

Why it is so unpopular is a good question. The Trump phenomenon suggests the possibility that ignoring the base on touchy issues like immigration has alienated them – but it also suggests the possibility that there’s a much broader distaste for the economic priorities of the leadership and the donor class, and a far greater willingness to entertain heresies like higher taxes on some forms of wealth and income and greater government involvement in healthcare – provided that they are enacted by people they trust (i.e., not Democrats, but also not the current Republican leadership). But even if that’s not true, and the GOP electorate is as down-the-line movement conservative as the leadership would like it to be, and is just angry because that leadership compromises too darned much with a Democratic President, how exactly is an effort to restrict popular involvement in the selection process going to win those angry voters over?

I’m all in favor of reducing the influence of large donors over the nominating process of both parties. But I’m at a loss to see how precisely Salam’s proposal would do that. Wouldn’t those donors make abundantly clear to the Nominating Convention who they would be willing to support, and what they have to say to earn that support? Who would be financing the local parties in this scenario – and thereby underwriting the careers of the people vetting the candidates? And, really, how different is his Republican Nominating Convention from, say the Iowa caucuses, which are dominated by local GOP machers, and which Salam laments for having undue influence over the selection process?

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the Democratic Party has a pretty similar nominating process to that of the GOP. Anybody can run, and it takes some combination of raw talent, money, fame, organization and media savvy to get in the game. And yet their process has not descended into an appalling circus – and no, even in the unlikely event that they nominate Bernie Sanders, that wouldn’t be evidence that it has done so. So why blame the nomination process itself for the circus in the GOP?

The evidence of the last few cycles is that the GOP’s voters deeply distrust the leadership. The evidence of the response of many insiders to this most recent cycle is that the distrust is mutual. If you want to solve that problem, you probably shouldn’t start by institutionalizing it.

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