Jack Hitt: The key to understanding the New Hampshire primary: lawn signs. We realized this eight years ago, when we were driving around the Granite State, stealing them. Kevin and I have been arguing political strategy ever since the Democrats decided that Walter Mondale was just the right guy to take on Ronald Reagan. And every election since, we’ve gotten together to study—and sometimes even travel to see—comparable levels of stupid. The lawn sign thing started like any souvenir collection, but our vandalism had standards. We never stole any individual’s sign from a private yard. We only pinched those that were in a town commons, on a highway shoulder, or were damaged and so, according to Kevin, needed stealing.
Kevin Baker: In 2008, the car was crucial. It was Jack’s back-up car, as in, a back-up for his bicycle, maybe. The windshield had last been squeegee’d long ago, circa Dick Cheney’s first heart, and the wipers had been ground down to long metal shivs that wouldn’t so much clear away flying slush and snow as coat the windshield in a impenetrable copper screen. Whenever we had to use them, we’d say, “Initiate the cloaking device”—immediately followed by our Sarandon and Davis-level screaming down the highway. But it was worth it since we were going to hear Chuck Norris elaborate on Mike Huckabee’s tax reform plan.
JH: Pretty soon, we made it a contest to find the most obscure lawn signs we could. We assumed that the rarest specimens would belong to one of the fringe candidates, such as Vermin Supreme, a performance artist who ran on promising every American a free pony, or maybe Dr. Mark Klein, the retired psychologist and “fathers’ rights activist.”
But, no. It was Fred Thompson, star of infomercial and Senate, whose entry into the race just a few weeks before had been greeted with messianic excitement by the Republican rank-and-file. His lawn signs proved the hardest to find. It turned out that Thompson’s organization was every bit as lazy as its standard-bearer.
Sure enough, come election night, ol’ Fred finished sixth, with 1.23 percent of the vote. The lawn signs don’t lie.
KB: I want to add here that we also, accidentally, finished off Rudy Giuliani’s campaign in New Hampshire that year. His headquarters were located in a small suite of rooms on a second floor storefront, in Manchester. We walked upstairs to see if anyone would talk to us, but the four or five workers present were too busy raising money over the phone to pay attention.
But there it was: a great, big, four-foot long “RUDY!” sign that was just too beautiful to ignore. Without a word between us, I scooped it up and headed for the stairs. Profoundly jealous, Jack snatched his consolation prize, the sole Giuliani sign in a downstairs window. It wasn’t until we walked away that we realized we’d desaparecido-ed Rudy’s entire campaign HQ, hauling away any indication that it existed. And he did, in fact, vanish soon after that.
JH: So here we are, back again in New Hampshire. Even before we reached the front desk at the Residence Inn in Concord last night, we were buttonholed by a candidate for president of the United States: one Richard Lyons Weil, an affable, 63-year-old native of New Orleans whom the Furies seem to be chasing around these United States. Mr. Weil—a lawyer—lost one home in the Crescent City to Hurricane Katrina, and another in Nashville to the flood of 2010.
Actually, it’s amazing that it took that long to encounter a candidate. There are 30 of them running in the Republican primary, 28 on the Democratic ballot, including Weil. (The candidates are distributed in different, random orders at New Hampshire’s 313 polling sites. Weil is number 14 in the township of Bean’s Purchase, population zero, as of 2010. Hillary Clinton is number 18.)
We considered immediately changing our hotel reservation to avoid whatever horrific meteorological event God was thinking of siccing on Weil next, but decided to interview him instead. Living in an RV in Ft. Collins, Colorado, Weil, a part-time singer-songwriter now, is running on a 16-point “Reboot America” platform that is a good deal to the left of Bernie Sanders’s. He tells us, solemnly, that he’s doing it “because I’m a Jew. And the way people talk now is the way they did before Hitler.”
Yes, here it is, your theme for Decision 2016: Everybody, even the fringe candidate radicals, want America back. Or to paraphrase the old Sondheim song, they want it the way that it was, even if it never really was.
KB: This is also the year that the national media seems to have finally, completely swallowed itself. I call it “The Curse of Teddy White,” the man who first made a cottage industry out of covering the inside game, the “process,” with The Making of the President, 1960, and its five sequels.
Earnest as White was, his coverage was generally about as penetrating as a loofa sponge. Every mainstream candidate he liked came off in a beatific light, including Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. People he didn’t like, such as George Wallace, were mostly ignored. Protestors, such as a group of pickets demonstrating against Barry Goldwater’s Neolithic stand on race at the 1964 Republican convention, were dismissed as “beardies.”
White’s successors have delved deeper and deeper into process, but probed less and less into the issues—all the while making themselves more and more into celebrities.
With this election, it seems as if we're witnessing a mass manic episode.
One could cite any one of a dozen major media commentators who have moved from being reporters to God-like campaign consultants, pompously telling us just how the candidates should be doing everything. Take the night of the Iowa caucuses, when the Teddy Whites seemed mostly worried that Hillary Clinton had made a really, really serious blunder by giving her victory speech before Cruz was finished with his. Chuck Todd clucked that “this was a bad mistake by them.’” Andrea Mitchell called it “the most extraordinary thing I’ve seen in some time.”
Really, Andrea? More extraordinary than its being 75 degrees on Christmas Day? Or the rapid acidification of our oceans? Whatever.
JH: What I find even more frustrating is how the media tries not to make a big deal of the fact that the old Tea Party, now Freedom Caucus, types no longer tweak or spin an issue here or there in their favor, but have now built an entire worldview that breaks with all known reality.
Did you see Trump’s immigration commercial?
It shows one of those infrared pictures of hundreds of Mexicans streaming into the U.S. The footage was quickly exposed as fake. Those people were Moroccans. Why? Because there isn’t an immigration crisis of epic proportions in America. The number of undocumented workers here peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million and has been dropping steadily, now down by about a million.
If it were just one or two issues on which either party was deranged, this would be just another election year. But the Trump/Cruz/Carson/Fiorina wing of the party is disconnected from reality on just about every issue: Obamacare has driven up costs, more guns make us safer, climate change is a fraud, tax cuts to the rich are the only we way we can have economic growth, foreign aid is consuming our budget, whites suffer more discrimination than blacks, Hurricane Katrina was Obama’s fault, crime is on the rise, unemployment is up, Obama is a Muslim, Russia humiliated America in the Ukraine, the Great Recession started in 2009, the deficit is growing, the economy is in shambles, abortion is out of control.
Each and every one of those claims is not just untrue, but easily verified as such. And yet, if you add up the Trump/Cruz/Carson/Fiorina vote, almost 60 percent of Republican voters live in this offshored reality. I mean, there’s political spin (which you get on both sides), but this year it seems as if we’re witnessing a mass manic episode.
KB: It’s easy to conclude that this sort of magical thinking—even conspiracy-laden, totally batshit crazy thinking—is no stranger to American politics. This is, after all, the country that gave us the Anti-Mason party, and the Know-Nothings. It’s the country that tried to settle the West by seriously proposing the theory, “Rain follows the plough.” And Ronald Reagan tried to convince us that trees “caused pollution.”
But I read—and write—a lot of history, and I can say that I don’t know of another time when so many have believed in so much that is so false, and so inane. I’m inclined to believe that we’re witnessing something different now, something more sinister and strange.
JH: A. J. Liebling said that there were two ways to cover any media circus (and every presidential campaign is but the most rarefied media circus there is): in the thick of it with a push broom cleaning up the mess or from a balcony with a cocktail in hand. We’ll be in the thick of it, with a cocktail.
We’ll find the Richard Weils (or they’ll find us, as more often happens). There will be rallies—Fiorina, Christie and Hillary will get a visit tomorrow. And we’ll try to go a bunch of places other reporters won’t. One of the big issues in New Hampshire is heroin addiction. The state has just been ravaged by opioids, so we’ll be gathering our own focus group of former addicts later this week. Down in South Carolina, we’ll be visiting with voters on the beach, dealing with the reality of climate change alongside friends who insist it doesn’t exist. We can’t promise that we’ll be able to entirely explain what has made America go crazy this year, but we’ll be looking for signs.
Kevin Baker: Everybody has his own golden age. For Republicans, it’s usually some vague period before 1965, or maybe the Reagan era. For Democrats, increasingly, it’s the Bill Clinton years. And for Karl Rove, it’s when Bill McKinley was president and you could still get a free pickled egg with your five-cent beer.
You have to go all the way back to the Vietnam War, though, to find a moment when people all across the political spectrum raged so fiercely against “the establishment” as they do now. And yet even amidst all the turmoil of those years, the establishment didn’t fall. The reason was that most Americans were living better than they ever had before.
The first three postwar decades were truly the golden age of working- and middle-class life in this country. In 1963, the average assembly-line worker in Detroit was making the rough equivalent of $100,000, in wages and benefits. It was tough, grueling work, but the wife could stay home and look after the kids, there was a vacation cabin on the Upper Peninsula for a few weeks in the summer and the next generation could go off to a cheap and excellent public university.
Even among the considerable parts of the population that had been savagely oppressed for decades and who were denied the full benefits of the postwar boom as a result, there was rising hope. (Detroit also boasted the highest rates of black home ownership in the nation.)
What the more radical protesters of the era never understood was that most of the country was never going to abandon the establishment when they had it so good. The question is: does that firewall of hope exist today?
Jack Hitt: That’s what’s so striking about New Hampshire this year: The fear is palpable everywhere we go. At a Christie “town hall,” held at the Gilchrist Metal Fabricating Company in Hudson, New Hampshire, yesterday, a woman in the audience told the governor, “I haven’t decided yet [who I’m going to vote for],” at which point Christie raced across the room and took a knee before her chair.
Everybody laughed, but then the woman said, in a tremulous voice, “I am 53 years old and very nervous about retiring. My husband works his ass off and he paid into social security. And I am really afraid of it going away.”
At the same rally, I encountered five college students from a State University of New York (SUNY) branch who were going to see every candidate, Democratic and Republican. They were bright and smart and ambitious—and worried that their futures had already been narrowed because they couldn’t afford to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for private colleges.
Spend enough time talking to these voters, and it becomes clear that the anti-establishment candidates, Bernie and Trump, wildly different though they may be, are largely talking about the same anxiety. Poll after poll shows that the two centers of economic concern now are “well-paying and secure jobs” and “college tuition.” Both sets of voters are deeply apprehensive that the economy of the near future is going to exclude them. They feel as if it’s been set up for somebody else.
KB: The establishment narrative in America is broken, which is why everyone, absolutely everyone in this race is an “outsider” candidate. (Except poor Jeb.)
At a rally on Sunday afternoon, Carly Fiorina—the daughter of a high federal judge, and a corporate executive whose golden parachute from Hewlett Packard alone was worth $21 million—ended her talk with an exhortation to her fellow “citizens” as if she were Robespierre calling for the heads of the Girondists before the National Convention:
“Citizens, it is time. We must take our future back. We must take our politics and our government back. Citizens, join me, fight with me, win with me. We can, and we will, take our country back!”
For Chris Christie, swaggering about New Hampshire yesterday like a saucy bear after his debate performance, the outsiders are governors, like himself, unlike those insider members of “the United States Senate [where] they tell you when to show up, where to sit, what to do, and they give you a list of questions beforehand, tell you to vote yes or no on them.”
Even Bill Clinton, his voice in full campaign mode, hoarse and ragged, tried to insist to the crowd overflowing the gym of Manchester Community College that Hillary Clinton—former first lady, former U.S. senator, former secretary of state—was really an outsider, because of all the fights she had waged on behalf of children’s welfare, legal services and women’s rights.
The prevailing establishment narrative—its Democratic version, at least—is one that Bill did a lot to popularize: the idea that if you “play by the rules,” work hard and get a college degree or two, you’ll make out fine in the globalized economy of the twenty-first century. But not much of that feels true anymore.
If many people all across America seem to have been flirting with what were once considered fringe candidates such as Trump or Sanders, it’s because the establishment’s solutions now ring even crazier.
KB: So, can the establishment survive New Hampshire? To divine the results, we turned to our secret West Coast source, a former political operative we will refer to only as “Big Rosie,” a.k.a. Rick Rosenthal, a former Democratic operative turned hotshot Hollywood lawyer.
JH: Big Rosie is somewhere over six-foot-eight and wears an enormous fedora. As a former field organizer, he is extremely sensitive to structural problems for a campaign—such as the inability to raise money—and factors that usually elude the poltroons of the big media, such as the energy of the candidates and the ground-game competency of their supporters. Big Rosie actually outdid Nate Silver when it came to predicting the 2008 and 2012 election totals. This year, he looked at Trump’s lack of a real organization—and his supporters sitting on their hands at rallies—and called his demise in Iowa weeks before it happened. Here in the Granite State, Trump’s people didn’t even ask for the voting rolls, so they are essentially operating blind.
Over the next four years, someone in a state house, or maybe on a reality television show, is going to do a better job of harnessing all the fear and rage.
KB: In New Hampshire, Big Rosie also notes that the state’s voters, especially on the Republican side, “tend to look for electability” in a candidate. They’re not always right, but it’s still a major factor in making up their minds.
Trump doesn’t seem especially electable—and, Big Rosie astutely notes, his big hobbyhorse, immigration reform (“reform” in this case meaning “ceaseless persecution”), ranks only fifth on the list of what New Hampshire voters consider the most important issues in the race.
So Big Rosie calls tonight’s race this way:
On the Democratic side, he thinks that Bernie Sanders will score a victory over Hillary Clinton, but not by a massive margin, “maybe ten points or so.”
JH: Big Rosie describes John Kasich as a candidate almost “tailor-made for New Hampshire.” People here perceive him as highly electable in a general election. He is also rising steadily in the polls, seems to be increasingly well-organized and has engaged with the state’s problem with opioid abuse (a topic we’ll tackle tomorrow.)
It’s no wonder that on election morning a biting commercial from a mysterious Super PAC went up denouncing Kasich for his “banking” and “Wall Street” background. (He once managed the Lehman Brothers office in Columbus, Ohio.) There are 44 ads a day in New Hampshire denouncing Kasich as either a bankster or “an Obama Republican.” Jeb Bush, we’re looking at you.
KB: In other words, the establishment should survive its test in New Hampshire, and it will probably survive the general election, too. But the problem isn’t with the revolution—it’s with its would-be leaders. The Donald is oozing back into a puddle of his own sloth—and, probably, ambivalence at the prospect of actually having to fix the country. And for all of Bernie’s authenticity, it’s doubtful that the American people are going to elect a 75-year-old man whose default gesture is signaling for a new soup spoon at Dubrow’s. (Hillary Clinton must be thanking the sweet Lord that Elizabeth Warren chose not to run for president.)
Meanwhile, voters remain skeptical, anxious, angry. All they need is a viable alternative. In the next election or two, someone in a state house, or on a reality television show, is probably going to do a better job of harnessing all that fear and rage. If that happens, we’ll have an election that offers fundamentally different choices from anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
Other Oddities From the Road:
Worst Argument: Bill Clinton lauded his wife as “the best change-maker” in the race. “She always makes something good happen,” he claimed, and went on to praise her famous, failed “Hillarycare” effort. She had “an excellent plan … but we just couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate.”
Which, when it comes to “making change happen,” is the whole point, no?
Most Ominous Sign: I swear we’re not obsessed with lawn signs, but there really is something going on with them this year. Where there used to be entire slopes of interstate cloverleafs jammed with dozens of different signs, now a few sit tilted in the snow. Several people told that us campaign organizers don’t even ask them about them anymore. Maybe it’s the result of Citizens United, where every candidate has a billionaire or two in the pocket, or maybe it’s the rise of surgical campaigning where social media can isolate individual voters by their very own private hot-button issue. The exploding lawn signs of elections past were emblems of mass grassroots participation in politics. No longer.
Best Solutions-Oriented Approach: “Common sense isn’t common anymore,” a machinist called Phil told us at a Fiorina rally, hearkening back to his own golden age. “We have to put labels on everything. Remember jarts, those giant lawn darts? You can’t get them any more. We should get rid of the warning labels and thin out the herd.”
Primary day in New Hampshire turned crisp and clear in the morning, bringing out the crowds and the enthusiasts and the crazies. In the lobby of our hotel, we encountered a pair of young journalism students from Ohio thrilled to be involved in their first election, and a 72-year-old woman with bright red toenails showing through her sandals who told us how handsome Donald Trump is.
“Just look at that great smile,” she cooed.
After running into a mob of infectiously youthful Sanders supporters in Concord, we made our way to The Millyard, an enormous complex of old mill buildings that the city of Nashua is now trying to remake into “mixed-use.” Signs on doors and offices offered up fencing lessons and lighting fixtures and barre, and we could hear a piano being plunked in the distance as we sat around a table and talked about how swiftly young lives can be derailed, and what might be done to put them right.
Six of the eight people at the table with us with us were heroin addicts. Another was a meth addict. Another an alcoholic. All attend the Nashua chapter of Heroin Anonymous as part of their recovery. None of them look like what most people think of when they think about a heroin addict, which was one of their main points. Ranging in age from 21 to 38, they all appeared young, healthy, even beautiful. All of them worked, and several were in college. Seven of the eight were white.
Seven of them were also supporting a candidate in the primary: two for Sanders and one each for Clinton, Cruz, Rubio, Christie and Bush. Not all of them could vote. “I’m a felon,” Jasmine, a 31 year-old Sanders supporter, told us in the blunt fashion of those who are serious about their recovery programs. For years, she said, she had embraced the “lifestyle” and even the idea of her own, early death. Now she works at Chick-fil-A and sports lovely, cursive tats on her forearms, reading, “Only God Can Judge Me” and “God is Love.”
How to help people like Jasmine is the issue that has sandbagged all the candidates this election cycle. In the national media, the problem of widespread drug addiction among respectable (read: white) people emerged seemingly out of nowhere, and now it piles up more bodies every day than driving fatalities. But “the heroins,” as the Nashua addicts refer to themselves, know that it’s been there all along.
“It's not like in the movie when the alcoholic in a trenchcoat is under the bridge drinking, and the heroin addict is in the alley overdosing,” says Brion, an engineer and the smooth-faced, 37-year-old moderator of the group. Unlike Jasmine, he did not embrace his own self-destruction. He got hooked when he was 14, and continued to use as a family man working a full-time, high-powered job.
He told us how at the end of the day he used to run into many of the other professionals and tradespeople he worked construction projects with on the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts: “You’d see ’em and say, ‘What’re you doing here?’ and they’d say, ‘Same thing you are!’”
The numbers are crazy: in New Hampshire, one person will die of an overdose almost every day this year. In Manchester, the cops seized 200 grams of heroin in 2010; in 2015, it was 27,000 grams. The pattern is so alarming that in October, participants in a WMUR Granite State poll ranked drug abuse as the most important issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, surpassing jobs and the economy. From 2003 to 2013, the number of heroin deaths nationally has quadrupled, to 8,000.
The exposure of our collective “dirty laundry,” as Maggie called it, left the candidates in New Hampshire sounding uncharacteristically empathetic. Nearly half of the Republican candidates had personal stories of their experience with the addictions and deaths of loved ones. Carly Fiorina spoke movingly of losing a step-daughter, Ted Cruz a half-sister, Chris Christie a dear friend. Jeb Bush recounted how his daughter Noelle went to jail for abusing anti-anxiety medication and smoking crack cocaine: “She went through hell, so did her mom, and so did I.”
All right, so Donald Trump, congenitally unable to sympathize with anyone, vowed that his famous wall would solve the problem: “[Drugs are] pouring across the Southern border, and we’re going to stop everything.” Still. Most of the candidates addressed the subject with rare nuance and insight.
Yet welcome and rare as such moments are in elections, the politicians have carefully avoided the issue of just how this scourge reached such proportions in the first place. Much of the media has cast it as a heartfelt cry of white despair, and/or that of a displaced middle class. This is undoubtedly part of the story, one the massive, abandoned mills of Nashua bear mute testimony to.
But the mills started moving out of New England even before the Great Depression of the 1930s. The other, dirty little secret of our new epidemic is that it was planned and marketed in the boardrooms of Big Pharma, as cunningly as the sales campaigns of rotten mortgage bonds that tanked the world financial system in 2008.
“Opioids”—or painkillers, as normal human beings call them—hit the market in the late 1990s. Drug executives at Purdue Frederic later conceded—under oath, in court—that they actively deceived doctors by marketing Oxycontin early on as “abuse-resistant,” insisting that the number of users who got addicted was “less than one percent.” Some drug companies may have been more well-intentioned—or willfully naïve. Fenatyl, for instance, was marketed as a “time-release” drug that would give patients carefully limited doses of painkillers at safe intervals. Grind it up and take it altogether, though, and it provides a kick 30 times more potent than most street heroin.
Purdue targeted doctors who prescribed painkillers most liberally, and sales reps were incentivized with bonuses that could reach as high as a quarter-million dollars. The bonus money was a drop in the bucket when compared to the soaring profits. So were the fines that the federal government meted out when it tried to rein in the campaign to addict America. After pleading guilty to fraud in a 2007 lawsuit, Purdue paid a $600 million fine, which sounds like big money until you understand that the market for Oxycontin alone last year was $3 billion.
The human cost of this has been appalling. From 2003 to 2013, prescription painkiller sales quadrupled, and so did overdose deaths.
Everyone around the table was extremely conscious of what an industry not just drug peddling but drug recovery has become, especially in New Hampshire, which ranks 49th out of the 50 states in public—and affordable—programs to help addicts. Many private programs cost a small fortune, forcing addicts into all sorts of ruses to secure treatment.
Tracy, a slight woman with dirty-blonde hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, remembered fellow addicts who would get drunk, even though they didn’t like alcohol, “because that way they could fail a breathalyzer test and get help for alcoholism on their insurance.” John, a dark-bearded 23-year-old now studying psychology, talked of how others would cross the border and “pretend to be homeless, down in Massachusetts,” which has started a number of groundbreaking programs to fight drug abuse and keep addicts out of our bulging prisons.
All wanted the federal government to support supervised, effective, long-term programs, instead of the shorter-term state and private programs that now punt addicts back out onto the streets in as little as two weeks. “I’m not a huge fan of Big Brother and going straight federal with everything,” said Tracy, a Cruz supporter. “But I do think that as serious as it is, it needs to be taken away from the municipalities and states. Someone needs to man up and federally govern this.”
“If you could come up with a pill that would cure this, I would take it. But then I’d probably think, ‘I wonder how two pills would make me feel.’”
She wrote up an entire detailed paper for our meeting, on the sorts of things she thought might work, while Brion compared the problem to our recently renewed war on cancer. “If you look at the federal money that goes into these cancer research departments, they are closely monitored. ‘What are you doing with the money? Is there a program?’ ” he said. “Can we guide these research centers for addiction so that they are not under the rule of thumb of whoever owns it?”
No one believes there’s such a thing as a cure-all. Jessie noted that he was in a long-term program for two years, but the day after he came out, he picked up his old addiction and “died” on a hospital table before being revived.
“If you could come up with a pill that would cure this,” John said ruefully, “I would take it. But then I’d probably think, ‘I wonder how two pills would make me feel.’” No pill is likely to come anytime soon. President Obama has recently proposed spending a well-targeted $1.1 billion on drug addiction nationwide, but like almost every other major initiative he has floated since 2011, it is likely dead-on-arrival in Congress. Several of the candidates have developed plans for tackling the problem—John particularly liked Hillary Clinton’s idea to set up a database that would keep addicts from “doctor shopping” for liberal prescribers.
But even with bipartisan support, reforms are likely to encounter strong obstacles. A few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was set to issue new guidelines that would limit how doctors could prescribe opioids. Then it was hit with a lawsuit from the Washington Legal Foundation, a libertarian advocacy group that regularly litigates in the interests of drug manufacturers. The group was outraged that one of the CDC’s decision-making bodies included the president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. She was, the foundation raged, an “opponent of opioid prescriptions.” The CDC has delayed the guidelines.
We left The Millyard at sunset, around the time of the heroins’ scheduled meeting. Through the lighted windows of the old mill floors, we could still see boys wielding epées and girls pivoting on pointe. All over New Hampshire, people were still queuing up to vote. The message they sent included nothing about drug addiction. Exit polls showed that they cared most about jobs, and the economy and—among Republicans at least—terrorism. Donald Trump promised to build his wall again in his victory speech, and keep all the bad things, and all the bad people, on the other side.
Other Oddities From the Road:
Big Rosie was so depressed by his missed predictions that today he forewent his usual breakfast—eight scrambled eggs, a rasher of bacon, a steak, a small stack of pancakes, toast and a pitcher of orange juice—in favor of a fruit cup. We tried to console him by pointing out that he was one of the very few pundits to pick Kasich at least as high as second. Big Rosie will bounce back.
If Bernie were to face off in the general election against Trump, it would be the first all-New York race since FDR ran against Thomas Dewey in 1944, a match-up of giants. Before that, the only such all-New York contest was between another Roosevelt—Teddy, the sole president ever born in New York City—and one Alton Parker, an obscure Tammany Hall judge nominated by the Democrats in 1904 (mostly to stop William Randolph Hearst). Don’t bet the house on this happening. And what if Michael Bloomberg jumped in, too, generating an all-NYC “battle of the boroughs”? (Trump is from Queens, Bernie from Brooklyn, Bloomberg from Manhattan, or sometimes Bermuda.) In 1944, New Yorker Norman Thomas finished third, with 0.16 percent of the vote, running on the Socialist Party ticket. Bloomberg would probably do better. A little.
Jack has become a mobile germ factory, a walking, breathing collection of disease. I mean, this is like something out of The Strain. His coughs and sneezes have become Bunyanesque, and I expect at any minute that his pupils will dilate and his six-foot long, insect-like proboscis will snap out at someone’s throat (hopefully, Chris Christie, remember him?) and vampirize them. Sharing a hotel suite with the man is now like living in a tubercular ward. In Russia. In a prison. Nonetheless, he can still drive, wheeling down the icy, wet highways of New England like a NASCAR driver. We are on our way, thankfully, to the wafting tropical breezes of South Carolina, where we can immerse ourselves in his relatives’ hospitality and home cooking. I intend to jump directly into a full vat of she-crab soup.
Another of our distinguished contributors, Steve from Brooklyn, writes in: “Last night I was treated to Brian Williams saying that Hillary Clinton’s use of a teleprompter was ‘diminishing.’ Tell us about the ways that people can diminish themselves on TV, Mr. Williams.” And West Coast Kev notes that, “A socialist and a fascist each won by 20 points. Might not be the best year to be a triangulating centrist.” Keep the cards and letters coming, folks.
Kevin Baker: Sick and exhausted from our sojourn in New Hampshire and the death-defying drive that followed, we pried Jack’s frozen fingers from the steering wheel and hopped the Silver Meteor for Charleston, South Carolina.
Ah, Amtrak! America’s rolling showcase for technological regression. We sped along at a pace just over half as fast as a passenger train in 1930. We had our dinner not in Carolina, but parked in Washington’s Union Station, where the engine was switched from electric to diesel. They had to cut that lights for that, so we ate in full darkness until the porter handed us a glow stick to aid us in aiming our forks.
Our porter merely chortled when we asked her if the wi-fi worked, so we had her pull out the bunk beds in our compartment and tried to sleep. The problem with that was that the toilets up and down our train car, which also doubled as showers, made a startling cannon fire sound whenever they were deployed. Shouting ‘Fire in the hole!’ at every flush never got old. Down in the lower bunk, Jack snored like a drunken Hessian with a lung wound.
Jack Hitt: It was not easy to sleep given that Kevin mouth-breathed like a Varangian guardsman recently tossed from a high bluff. When I struggled to untangle my wafer-thin, blue Amtrak blanket, sparks of static flew like summer fireflies. If a fire had broken out, no one in that compartment was getting out alive.
We spent the rest of the night cowering in terror, until—in a stirring tribute to the approximate time the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter by the Confederate army—we pulled into Charleston station hours before dawn and marched off into what we had been told was a hotbed of political vice.
The Charleston Post and Courier has set up a “Whisper Campaign” hotline in an attempt to nip dirty tactics in the bud.
KB: “South Carolina on the Republican side is a viper’s nest,” a former Obama campaign worker informed Politico yesterday. The same article called the primary maybe “the seamiest underbelly of American politics” and warned its readers to expect a “coming blizzard of dirty tricks.”
ABC News claimed “the Palmetto State is notorious for its history of mudslinging, whisper campaigns and vicious rumors,” while The Washington Post described South Carolina as the “home to whisper campaigns, dirty politics, back-alley knife fighters” that are “all anonymous fliers and unlisted numbers.” “The dirty tricks of South Carolina are well known,” NBC correspondent Katy Tur told us.
This consensus is so pervasive it has even been internalized by many locals. The Charleston Post and Courier, here in this lovely city, has set up a “Whisper Campaign” hotline that concerned citizens can call, in an attempt to try to nip these dirty tactics in the bud.
South Carolina, home to the dirtiest politics in all the land? Really? Dirtier than, say, Whitey Bulger’s Massachusetts? Or Buddy Cianci’s Rhode Island? Dirtier than New Jersey, with Chris Christie’s Bridge of Punishment? Or my own New York, where the heads of both houses of the state legislature, Democratic and Republican, were recently packed off to prison on massive corruption charges?
Dirtier than Chicago? LOUISIANA???
JH: Growing up here, the reputation we all gloried in was not that we were sleazy and backstabbing, as the coagulating media opinion has it, but that we were sly and tough.
Our revolutionary hero was Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, whose most famous gambit was to taunt redcoats into chasing him into the local cypress forests, where they would become lost in a malarial quagmire infested with gators—with no knowledge of how to get out. The story you always heard about Sullivan’s Island is that the colonials lured the British into crossing the breach inlet knowing that the notoriously treacherous currents would drag them under and suck them into the ocean. The account is almost certainly not true, but that didn’t stop our mothers from telling us that when we were young swimmers.
South Carolina’s modern reputation as a haven of dirty tricks, though, is not really a South Carolina problem. It dates to a particular moment, the now legendary whisper campaign of 2000 that was perpetrated by outsiders. John McCain was running against George Bush and had the momentum, after trouncing Bush in New Hampshire by winning half the vote to Bush’s third. South Carolina would have to be the place to blunt the Straight Talk Express.
Flyers began to appear around the state mysteriously alleging that McCain had turned traitor in Vietnam, or was crazy. One Columbia shop owner, Mark Carmon, remembers leaving a campaign debate, and when he and his wife “got back to our car, there was a flyer under the windshield wiper saying something about McCain having a Negro child.” McCain and his wife Cindy had adopted their then nine-year-old daughter Bridget from a Bangladeshi orphanage, but by the time this bare fact had been properly amplified in the racist backwaters of the upstate, the question was, had McCain fathered an illegitimate black child?
The twin maestros of this modern dark art were Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. In 1980, when Atwater was only 29 years old, he was handling the congressional campaign of South Carolina Republican Floyd Spence. He falsely put it out that Spence’s Democratic opponent, Tom Turnipseed, was a member of the NAACP. Like many members of the media, Atwater also knew that Turnipseed had long ago suffered from teenage depression and had undergone a round of electroshock therapy.
At a press briefing, he arranged to have a fake reporter ask about Turnipseed’s “psychotic treatment.” Atwater responded that you had to be careful listening to Turnipseed, adding, “In college I understand he got hooked up to jumper cables.” The press pool guffawed, and Floyd Spence was re-elected handily.
KB: Atwater’s campaign against Turnipseed so impressed George H.W. Bush that he hired him to run his presidential bid against Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988. The result was the sleaziest presidential campaign of our time. Many people remember Atwater’s race-baiting “Willie Horton ad.”
Infinitely dirtier was Atwater coordinating a wholly false smear that claimed Dukakis suffered from mental illness. I vividly remember Atwater flunky Mary Matalin smirking winsomely into a camera and sneering on camera, “Real men don’t get on the couch!”
I can also recall overhearing a couple of young women in New York on the eve of the election, talking about how they couldn’t vote for Dukakis because he was “for bestiality.” It turns out that Atwater and his merry band of pranksters had picked up on a routine bill the Massachusetts state legislature had passed—and that Dukakis had signed—which erased various archaic laws, including one against man-animal love.
But still worse was how Atwater and company spread another completely false story—that Dukakis’s wife, Kitty, had burned an American flag. Who the hell ever goes after the other guy’s wife?
The Bushes do, that’s who.
Two years later, as a newly converted Catholic dying of a brain tumor, Atwater apologized to Dukakis for “the naked cruelty” of the campaign. But George H.W. Bush never apologized. And for the 2000 election, his son picked Atwater’s doppelganger in character assassination, Karl Rove to run his campaign. “South Carolina’s” assault on John McCain followed apace. Once again, W. had outdone his daddy.
JH: It’s no secret that the Bushes have long considered politics to be a dirty business—and therefore, one in which anything goes.
But now here is poor old John Ellis Bush, supposedly the smart one, up against the wall in South Carolina. Some have gloated that Jeb is really Fredo after all, not W. But it’s clear to me that Jebbie’s real problem is that he lacks a wartime consigliere while facing what must seem like the manifestation of all his family’s nastiest smear jobs come back to haunt him.
Trump slaps him at one debate after another with just the sort of inane and unfair accusations that generations of Bush hirelings used to knife much better men. Trump is, moreover, the consummate Bush nightmare: someone who simply can’t be slimed, fairly or unfairly. In the ultimate irony, Jeb has hit him again and again only with what is completely true: Trump has supported many Democratic causes and candidates over the years, he has filed for bankruptcy four times, he has no experience in government, he is not a practicing Christian or a good family man, he has been divorced twice, is vulgar and bullying and willfully insults Hispanics, women and many others.
Somehow, none of this matters now. Here we are in South Carolina, and the Bush family has run out of dirty tricks. Which means they’ve run out of nearly everything. Nothing could be finer.
Jack Hitt: The word on the street for days was that the South Carolina debate would be the Rumble in the Jungle that Republicans have long been waiting for. Either Trump and Cruz would knife each other, or one member of the establishment trio—Rubio, Bush, Kasich—would try to kill off the other two and emerge to take on Trump after he’d finished eating Cruz alive. The sense that a bloodletting was coming was only heightened by the news of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, which broke only a few hours before the debate began.
Kevin and I were in Charleston and attempted to find a great local sports bar where riotous Republicans would be cheering their candidate. Instead, they were actually cheering their teams, so we retreated to my sister’s house in Mount Pleasant where the gorings paired nicely with a finger of bourbon. To our surprise, when all the shouting finally ended, the general conclusion in the media was that Trump had badly overstepped the line and would now be forced to pay. Pundits have been getting this wrong since last summer. For South Carolinian Republicans, red-hot-intemperance always trumps any distaste they might have for candidates who pick on the Bush family, use bad words or act like a horse’s ass. And sure enough, a CBS poll released Sunday morning showed Trump leading the field in South Carolina by 22 points.
Kevin Baker: I never thought I would say this, but Donald Trump looked presidential last night. Or at least, he looked presidential compared to the herd of jackasses arrayed against him, which is a huge difference.
Everyone else on stage once again came off as both heavily programmed and utterly shameless. John Kasich pleaded repeatedly for civility, but was eventually reduced to blurting out, “Jeez-o-man!” at some point. Marco Rubio spoke with a driving but hollow passion, leaving a litter of inanities in his wake. Ben Carson kept asking viewers to visit his website.
One by one, the other candidates showered Justice Scalia with praise for his strict, literal readings of the Constitution—and then piously demanded that President Obama appoint no one to replace him for the remaining 11 months of his administration, or at the very least come up with someone who would win “unanimous” approval—two requirements that do not exist anywhere in the Constitution. Only Trump scoffed that of course he expected the president of the United States to nominate someone for the court, and that he also expected Mitch McConnell and his Republican majority to stop the nomination—an acknowledgment of simple political reality that was regarded as heresy by his rivals.
For good measure, Trump also said that Ronald Reagan had once been a liberal, and that “apart from abortion,” Planned Parenthood “does do some wonderful things.” While the rest of the field trotted out the same old, tired Republican non-solutions—“if you want to get rid of poverty, get rid of regulations,” Ben Carson told us—Trump actually had the temerity to counter Jeb’s efforts to canonize W. by snapping, “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that.” In a normal year, these observations would be instant political suicide, but in this primary, they made The Donald look all the more like the true, outsider candidate, the one man capable of speaking the truth.
JH: Trump’s critics continue to dismiss him as a mere blundering bull who hurls vulgar tweets with impunity. This idea that Trump is some unthinking juggernaut misses his tactical cunning.
Observe what happened when Bush went for the standard thrust, trying to get worked up about Trump’s attacks on his family. Chin up and outraged, Bush charged, “He had the gall to go after my mother.” (“Gall”—a twerpy WASP word only used by pearl-clutching grandmothers at the country club.) Trump’s instinct, when provoked, is not always to maul his attackers. Sometimes he just runs a stick in the spokes to foul the other guy’s momentum.
“My mom is the strongest woman I know,” Bush said, as Trump leaned into the microphone and whispered: “She should be running.” Bush was totally thrown off his stride. “This is not about my family…” (huh?) he blurted, then dribbled off, hoping John Dickerson would ask someone else a question, which Dickerson mercifully did.
But when Trump does counter-attack, it can happen with full Viking bloodlust and an intent to behead. Cruz tried to tee up a big Trump offensive, but he was having a very bad night. He was wobbly from the start after Dickerson fact-checked him about Supreme Court confirmations in a president’s final year—a remarkable moment worth reviewing if only to see Cruz’s face when someone actually calls him out for making up the truth. Still, Cruz had obviously been practicing his Trump attack all afternoon with his handlers. He had a debater’s list of Trump failings on the tip of his tongue, but he didn’t get past the second one before the Scottish berzerker brought down his Lochaber axe directly into Cruz’s skull. “You probably are worse than Jeb Bush. You are the single biggest liar,” Trump said. (A two-fer, that one.) Cruz’s querulously angled eyebrows tightened more acutely as he reached for that country-club grandmother’s thesaurus, “I will say, it is fairly remarkable to see Donald…” Then Trump finished him: “He’s a nasty guy.”
Cruz was everyone’s punching bag last night—all stemming from Trump’s Twitter attack on him last week about the Carson deceptions in Iowa. Rubio charged that Cruz couldn’t be telling the truth about Rubio’s comments on the Spanish-speaking network Univision because “he doesn’t speak Spanish.” Cruz jumped in with some canned high school classroom phrase—Donde está el bano, or something—but Rubio went in for the kill: “Ted Cruz has just been telling lies. He lied about Ben Carson in Iowa. He lies about Planned Parenthood. He lies about marriage…”
All the booing only showered Trump in precisely the kind of hatred that will win him more votes.
I thought Rubio had a brilliant night all around. He alone understood how to use the popularity of George W. Bush in the state. South Carolinians have a rich appreciation for ill-tempered authoritarianism that might date to our long love affair with the military (the Citadel is in Charleston) or one of our sumbitch forefathers. Remember Reagan’s “I paid for this microphone” or W’s “I’m the decider”—pure catnip to a South Carolinian. That is why W is coming out of hiding for his brother Jeb in the Palmetto State. And yet while South Carolinians admire W’s toughness, few here like much else about him. (They also remember that he blew the nation’s surplus on numerous wars and new entitlements, and it’s why the Tea Party—which was originally born out of disappointment with Bush, not Obama—is so strong here.)
Jeb is actually making a mistake bringing the physical person of W into the state. You want to invoke W and isolate his greatest conservative strength without awakening memories of all the disasters—the way Republicans love to invoke Reagan in Berlin (“Tear down this wall!”) and not the semi-demented man who kissed up to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini by sending him a birthday cake. Rubio showed everyone how it’s done. Right after another dust up with Trump swatting Jeb around for his brother’s “lies” about weapons of mass destruction, Rubio declared: “I just want to say, at least on behalf of me and my family, I thank God all the time it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore.” The audience roared.
KB: By the end, the debate had devolved into continual squabbling, interrupted only by the almost incessant campaign commercials now bombarding South Carolina. Like a deranged robot in some science fiction novel, Jeb Bush’s filthy rich PAC, “Right to Rise,” keeps pumping out invective for his moribund campaign, most of it ads directed against Rubio. Meanwhile, Cruz’s own wacko attack ad against Hillary—an “Office Space” spoof in which a shades-sporting woman in a pantsuit and two trim young men destroy a server with a baseball bat and their bare hands—only succeeded in making Clinton look younger, cooler, and more fun than she actually is.
JH: The most cunning move of the night was Trump turning the entire studio audience into just another candidate in the room and then slapping them around, too. He wallowed in the boos and threw them right back into the auditorium. When he first trashed Bush—“Jeb is so wrong”—the audience roared its disapproval. Trump popped them with a line he’s used before: “That’s Jeb’s special interests and lobbyists talking.” True enough, the audience was largely stocked with Bush, Cruz and Rubio supporters. Trump noted that he was alone there except for his wife and son.
In all-star wrestling, there is at least one move per fight that’s known as the Holy $h!t moment. (We know this because the written scripts of these wrestling shows have been leaked, and it is a term of art, spelled exactly that way and referred to as the Holy $h!t.) Often that moment comes when the winning wrestler takes a break from toying with his opponents and steps up onto the ropes to taunt the studio audience into booing him. Why? Because the audience he’s really speaking to is on the other side of the camera. He’s talking to the viewing audience who admire his derring-do. He’s taking on the whole damn house! He’ll stop at nothing to entertain us!
Trump’s voters feel betrayed by the other candidates on the stage, by the RNC and by the establishment audience in that room. All the booing only showered Trump in precisely the kind of hatred that will win him more votes. At one point he was trashing W’s Iraq War and the boos started to swell. Trump: “I only tell the truth, lobbyists.” Immediately, they shut up and listened as Trump railed that W wasted $5 trillion on useless wars—money that could have been spent at home on jobs to “rebuild our infrastructure.” He was sounding like Bernie Sanders for a moment, and yet the chastened room just took it in silence—as far as Trump is concerned, like the pansy-ass little weakling audience that they were.
The Debate’s Seven Most Inane Statements:
“My dad fled Cuba in 1957. He was just 18. He couldn't speak English. He had nothing. He had $100 in his underwear.” —Cruz
“Two days ago he said he would take his pants off and moon everybody, and that's fine. Nobody reports that.” —Trump
“And we need to put people on the bench that understand that the Constitution is not a living and breathing document.”—Marco Rubio
“You can fill out your taxes on a postcard and we abolish the IRS. If you want to see the postcard, I’ve got it on my website.”—Ted Cruz
“Josef Stalin said, if you want to bring America down, you have to undermine three things: our spiritual life, our patriotism, and our morality.”—Ben Carson
“Look, I won the lottery 63 years ago when I was born, looked up and saw my mom.” — Bush
“Vladimir Putin... called me a genius, I like him so far, I have to tell you.”—Trump
Jack Hitt: “You are not going to believe this,” Jimmy Carroll said, hustling us down the beach on the Isle of Palms, right outside Charleston. “You have to see it.”
We arrived at the south end of the island, near the redcoat-swallowing breach inlet we wrote about yesterday, and found a battered gazebo slumped on the beach. “This used to be 100 feet back in the dunes,” Carroll said. “You can go on Google Maps and hit time lapse. Go back only four or five years and you can see the change is that dramatic.”
Carroll isn’t an environmentalist; he’s a very successful real-estate agent and just a pleasure to be around. In fact, he’s precisely the guy who has seen up close all of the catastrophic effects of climate change, as well as the odd thinking that accompanies them. “Everybody realizes that we are having more ocean-oriented events, yet I still see people buying on the ocean,” he said. “It’s like going to Vegas and rolling the dice.”
Most of the country might not think that a state as conservative as South Carolina would even be acting on this issue. All the Republican candidates for president either say that climate change doesn’t exist or is irrelevant. But the lowcountry, with its solid red constituency, is one of the increasing number of places in the U.S. where one can see some of the most aggressive and innovative work to combat the ravages of climate change.
Kevin Baker: To understand how we got to where we are today, it’s useful to take a look at the ghastly politics of, yes, flood insurance. Try not to get too excited.
Until about 1950, flood insurance was included in most basic homeowners’ policies. But when more and more Americans started buying houses, and more and more houses were being built on risky floodplains, insurers wrote flood protection out of their policies. By 1960, flood insurance was separate, scarce and pricey.
Trying to address this problem, Congress came up with a fairly practical, bipartisan fix. In 1968, it created something called the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Under NFIP, homeowners could get flood insurance that was subsidized by the federal government—but only so long as they bought or built homes in communities that enforced rules to prevent flooding
NFIP was designed to be self-supporting by homeowners, with money from their insurance policies going directly into the fund. It was even hoped—in those antediluvian times—that enough of a surplus would be accumulated to help homeowners through particularly large disasters. This never really came to pass, but for decades, NFIP did indeed prove to be self-sustaining.
Increasingly, though, local communities became lax about enforcing their floodplain ordinances, and the cost to the feds started to mount. At the same time, Americans started to flock to the water; since 1970, our coastal populations have increased by 40 percent.
By 2003, the General Accounting Office (GAO) was estimating that “repetitive loss properties” were costing NFIP up to $200 million a year. Thanks to cheap, federally subsidized insurance, people just kept rebuilding on ground everyone knew to be dangerous.
Steven Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense put it this way: “If you’re an 18-year-old and you buy a Ferrari, you’re probably not going to be able to get insurance. Even if you’re a 30-year-old driving a Chevy Cavalier, if you get in an accident, your premiums are going to go up. That doesn’t happen with flood insurance. We had properties that flooded 17 or 18 times that were still covered under the federal insurance program.”
Still, by 2005, NFIP remained solvent. Total payouts were less than a billion a year—chump change. Then came Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which forced NFIP to shell out $13.3 billion to Louisiana homeowners alone.
By mid-2011, NFIP was $18 billion in the hole, with revenues of only $3.6 billion a year. Despite its losses, low-risk flood insurance remained at an average of only $1,489 each year for homeowners; even high-risk flood insurance was just $2,633 annually. NFIP had to make up its deficits by borrowing from the Treasury. That is to say, the rest of us.
Clearly, something had to be done. And once again, Congress came up with a fairly reasonable bipartisan plan. Signed into law in 2012, the Biggert-Waters bill—don’t you just love it? “Bigger waters”—ended some of the worst abuses of the feds’ largesse.
“Biggert-Waters was one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress related to insurance,” claimed Howard Kunreuther, a professor at the Wharton School. For the first time, he said, the government would make property owners pay insurance premiums based on their real level of risk. No way Americans were going to go for that.
JH: What crashed Isle of Palms back in 2007 wasn’t a hurricane, but the collapse of the housing market. “Houses lost 50 percent of their value,” said Jimmy Carroll, who also noted that about one-half of the Charleston area’s 5,000 realtors at the time also dropped out of the business.
But now, new homes are going up everywhere. Driving us around town in his BMW SUV, Carroll pointed to a large new house being built on the beach. “I sold that lot for $1.8 million for a spec house, and the house is already sold,” he said. “So the market is back.”
And at a truly insane time. Barrier islands have a normal ebb and flow of sand. I grew up on this beach and saw the sand in front of my grandfather’s house expand for decades. Carroll has seen the ebb and flow, too, but thinks we’ve reached some tipping point. “In my lifetime, this is as bad as I have ever seen it,” he told me. The areas near the inlets are shedding beach at a clip that’s so fast it has affected his sense of ethics as a salesman. There are parts of the island Jimmy considers off-limits. “I won't sell land where it is erosional,” he emphasized again and again. “I don't want people calling me up.”
Down Ocean Blvd, we walked to the beach on a public path right beside two concrete trucks pouring a swimming pool in the yard of a $5 million house under construction. We gaped openly. In a few weeks the chaise lounges and the table umbrellas will be set around the pool. It’s going to be a stunning backyard. But the pool is literally a few dozen feet from where the escarpment plunges straight down into a high-tide surf. The owners may not know it yet, but in a few years, they’ll have one of those natural saltwater pools instead.
What we are likely to get is yet another quick, expensive fix for Band-Aid Nation.
KB: No, Hurricane Sandy wasn’t “the second largest natural disaster in U.S. history,” as the late, lamented Chris Christie liked to claim. But it did leave 117 people dead and cause more than $70 billion in damages across 24 states. It also capsized NFIP.
After Sandy, the program went $28 billion in the hole. And because of Biggert-Waters, the average cost of flood insurance leapt by 55 percent.
Horror stories abounded in the press. It was reported, for example, that Richard and Sandra Drake, of Union Beach, New Jersey, saw their annual premium rise from $598 to $33,000 between 2013 and 2014. Lurie and Michael Portanova, of Pennsylvania, had bought two buildings in their hometown in 2012—only to see their insurance rise from $3,000 a year to $26,868.
There were those who believed that lifelong residents of a shore town, who bought multiple waterfront properties there in an age of radical weather change, maybe did not deserve the support and protection of our federal government. But those individuals did not preside in Congress.
“Let me just say, all of the harm that has been caused to thousands of people across the country—[who] are calling us, [who] are going to lose their homes, [who] are placed in this position—is just unconscionable,” Rep. Maxine Waters proclaimed in a hearing to discuss the increase in insurance costs.
Two questions immediately came to mind: 1) Why was Maxine Waters calling her own bill, just passed, “unconscionable”? 2) Just how many calls was she getting from her constituents in California’s 43rd, an inner-city district which does not now and never has included any noticeable body of water, flood-prone or otherwise?
Those questions disappeared after I discovered that Waters’s top five campaign contributors are, in order: the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, the DCI Group (a top right-wing lobbying shop which once surreptitiously released a YouTube video mocking An Inconvenient Truth), AFLAC (you know, with the duck), PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG, a giant global conglomerate that was sued by Fannie Mae for signing off on some of the bad numbers that popped the housing bubble and nearly brought down the world’s financial system in 2008.
But I’m being cynical.
Let’s just say that Waters was honestly worried about Americans with beach homes. So, apparently were Senators Robert Menendez and Johnny Isakson, who demanded changes in Biggert-Waters. Governors, state legislators, insurers and home-builders from all over the U.S. jumped on the bandwagon.
In 2014, just two years after the original reforms to flood insurance subsidies took hold, Congress passed—and President Obama signed into law—the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act (FHIAA), which restored all those “grandfathered” properties to eligibility for federal subsidies, covered vacation homes again and limited flood insurance increases to a maximum of 18 percent a year.
“The weakened act is much less likely to slow down coastal development in flood zones, and that’s bad news for advocates of an aggressive climate change policy,” bemoaned Scott Gabriel Knowles, an associate professor of history at Drexel University and author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America.
He's wrong, though. If anything, the sort of booming coastal development now transforming Isle of Palms and dozens of other communities around America is likely to increase recognition of climate change and advocacy for a more aggressive policy to combat it. Unfortunately, it may bankrupt us all before it does.
The average American living in a floodplain, mind you, doesn’t get subsidized insurance. Of 5.5 million holders of flood insurance, only around 20 percent—usually some very wealthy people—get subsidies.
But as usual, they have us where they want us. Floods are already the number one disaster in these United States—and NFIP is still $28 billion in the hole. And as of 2011, the total value of floodplain properties insured by companies backed by NFIP was $527 billion.
That’s right—half a trillion dollars that all of us are on the stick for.
JH: At the north end of the island, Jimmy Carroll walked us out to the beach to show us the work being done to save it. A series of Wave Dissipation System walls lined the edge of the dunes, and, sure enough, the sand inside the walls was a few inches higher than outside, so they did appear to be working. In 2008, this two-mile stretch of the island, which is privately owned, decided to spend $10 million on “sand renourishment.”
He pointed to an offshore sandbar and recalled how trucks barrelled out there, every twelve hours at low tide, night-and-day, to truck back sand. “That lasted a few years,” he said. And it’ll probably have to happen again soon.
Carroll, who is on the Isle of Palms city council and cannier than any politician we’ve encountered on the trail thus far, steered away from using the words “climate change” and would not commit to what might be causing all the damage in his neighborhood. I ventured that it probably has something to do with the massive deposits we pump into the atmosphere. “No one is thinking in those kind of mega-terms,” he said. “We are all thinking in local terms and how it's going to affect us financially. I hate to say that we have to push that up to the higher levels of government.”
But we all know by now that those higher levels of government—with an obstinate, broken Congress and an embattled president on the way out—can’t be counted on to do enough to help Isle of Palms or any one of the other thousand communities just like it. Instead, what we are likely to get is yet another quick, expensive fix for Band-Aid Nation. No program that sufficiently addresses the cost of climate change, but a host of new industries—from the sand trucks on the levies, to the backhoes installing the sand bags and Lincoln logs on Isle of Palms beach—that will solemnly address all the symptoms. Oh, and maybe a new insurance plan, too.
At the far end of the beach, we encountered an enormous, five-story condo unit called the Ocean Club literally crumbling into the ocean, a tangle of broken concrete slabs and rebar.
“Yeah, people still live there,” Carroll said in response to our incredulous looks.
He assured us that the condo’s corner pilings, buried 40-feet deep in the sand, still held, and that the sea had totaled only the ground-level parking garage, but had “not hit the water or sewer lines.”
He walked us around the corner to point out a flag on a golf course right on the beach.
“That’s the 18th green of the Ocean Course,” he said, “It’s very famous. It was a par five. Now it's a par three.”
Jack Hitt: With both parties chronically incapable of settling on a nominee, we prepare to leave South Carolina—opting for the luxury of a JetBlue coach seat instead of one more spin cycle in an Amtrak insomnia suite. After the debate brawl on Saturday, in which no one—including the audience—managed to corral the bellowing Trump, the Republican campaign has imploded into whispers of a brokered convention, a third party candidate or a split party. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates are blowing up in Nevada—where Hillary was previously expected to win handily—and there is talk that younger black voters in South Carolina are giving Bernie a second look. And so the question that has been tormenting the Republican establishment for months—“My God, are we really nominating Donald Trump?”—is now also tormenting the Democratic establishment: “Bernie Sanders, really?”
Both parties now have to decide whether to support a candidate that a significant chunk of their own voters find depressing. Even Hillary’s most ardent supporters look away and admit that, yes, we will be bringing the fuming, belching, soiled Clinton machine back to town. Democrats and Republicans have other choices, very attractive to most of their voters, but the dynamic forces of the primaries are heading where they are heading. Soon enough, summer will be upon us when they will shed their mortal coils as mere candidates and the mythic elevation will take place. “I accept your nomination to be President of the United States.” And we will all have to start thinking very differently about these people.
Kevin Baker: Electing a president isn’t simply about selecting the best person available. It's about choosing the best person for an historical moment. As Bismarck said, a statesman “must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment.”
Sometimes you need an “offense president”—someone who will take seize a historic opportunity to rally the country behind ideas your side has been championing for years. Think a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan, a Jefferson or a Lincoln. Other times, you need a defensive president—someone who will protect the best of what your party has done when the footsteps of God are sounding fainter and fainter.
A good defensive president uses a variety of tactics, depending on whether he is trying to revive his party after a temporary setback, help it through a long spell in the wilderness, or accommodate it to an immutable change in the world that threatens its existence. He or she can push forward the interests of his or her side—and, one hopes, what is best for the country—by using every resource at their disposal. Through executive actions, canny appointments, and by taking every possible opportunity to win over the public and challenge and divide the opposition.
Harry Truman, for instance, took office when the country was temporarily exhausted by his party’s activism, not to mention a war and a depression before that. An accidental president, he was perceived as a much smaller figure than the giant who preceded him, Franklin Roosevelt. But Truman turned things around, playing up his “everyman” persona and taking on the new Republican Congress at every turn.
If you told as many different versions of your life story as Hillary has, you’d need a teleprompter, too.
His successor, Dwight Eisenhower, was seen by some conservative Republicans as just the leader to roll back the New Deal. But Ike correctly recognized that most of the Republican rank-and-file—as well as the country—generally approved of the reforms. In both domestic and foreign policy, with some notable exceptions, Ike struck a balance, while reining in the more radical elements of his party. In the process, he managed to recast the GOP as a moderate bastion of national defense and fiscal responsibility—and, amazing as it may sound to modern ears—a supporter of civil rights in the South.
Sixteen years later, Richard Nixon came out of a much more right-wing tradition, but he, too, saw that the spirit of the times was against conservatism. He would have to contend with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and Democrats dominating state and local politics in most of the country. So he made some calculated moves to coopt liberal issues, starting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and proposing a guaranteed national income and universal health care.
Nixon’s successes provided cover for a more thorough transformation. By pushing a combination of a relatively liberal economic agenda and conservative social policies, he was able to pry blue-collar workers away from the Democrats in the South—and much of the North.
How does all this translate to 2016? Well, we know that a Democratic president is not going to be able to pass any sort of wide-reaching agenda. Thanks to a long series of electoral disasters, Democrats have lost Congress and the overwhelming majority of governorships and state legislatures. And unlike Truman, Eisenhower, and Nixon, a Democratic president won’t have anyone to work with across the aisle. There is no consensus to be built on at least a few key issues, no chance to win over voters on the other side in the short term.
This means that one of the main tasks facing a Democratic president will be simply holding the line while the demographics swing—if they swing—and the party reorganizes. And if the next Democratic president is going to do nothing but fight for his or her political life against a constant barrage of imprecations, lunatic conspiracy theories, and baseless threats of impeachment—something that any and every Democratic president will now face at the hands of a thoroughly radicalized Republican party and its sleazy corporate masters—I really can’t think of a better defensive specialist than Hillary Clinton.
JH: Hillary’s flaw as a public figure has always been that she has so many personae that everyone gets the Hillary they want. Brian Williams scolded her, on the night of the New Hampshire primary, for needing a teleprompter to remember her own history. That was totally unfair. If you told as many different versions of your life story as Hillary has, you’d need a teleprompter, too.
And this is what terrifies Republicans, ultimately, about Hillary. It’s not that she’s a shiftless, unprincipled, cunning, teeth-gritting flipflopper; it’s that she’s as good at it as they are.
Today, strategic reversal of what one believed passionately only the day before is practically a requirement for exercising political power. (Watch Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell this week as he brazenly flip-flops on his principled position that a president has the constitutional obligation to appoint his own Supreme Court justices—a point he has written about at length.)
It’s precisely these transformations that make so many uneasy about Hillary, and for good reason. But it’s hard to think of another politician who has doggedly beaten back so many setbacks with new versions of herself. As feminist First Lady who wanted to be known as Hillary Rodham, she got burned and a few weeks later she was reborn as HRC, the good mother to Chelsea and baker of cookies. Remember how she became a tireless advocate for small-town New Yorkers in her first Senate run? Later, she was the careful, respectful student of military matters, when she needed to win over her skeptical colleagues in the Senate. She has been beaten and burned in every which way—and there are few politicians who have learned by fire not only how to create the (new) new Hillary but do it successfully.
Perhaps the best showcase for how a Hillary presidency might proceed was seen last October when she walked into the House chamber for the Benghazi hearings. What was true genius was not merely the hipster cool she maintained for eleven hours in the dunking chair. It was the ten days that preceded her arrival. At the time, the Republicans were beginning the 11th hearing and/or report on Benghazi—all of which reached the conclusion that Clinton was not to blame. Then Republican Kevin McCarthy went on Fox and blurted, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” Afterward, there was a constant barrage of items in the press about the partisan bias of this panel—a leaked transcript, a neutral staffer quitting because he’d been ordered to dig dirt on Hillary, then Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat, challenging one-sided procedure. By the time a rested and ready Hillary took her seat, the Republican chairman, Trey Gowdy, looked frail and afraid.
It’s what Marines call “preparing the battlefield.” Three days of airstrikes to wound and terrify the enemy, then you send in the devildogs for the kill. Those ten days were not random chance: It was tactical brilliance reminiscent of early Karl Rove. If only her campaign could ask the voter out loud, is Bernie capable of orchestrating anything as strategically successful as Hillary’s Benghazi appearance?
KB: I suspect that Bernie himself originally intended his campaign as no more than a useful protest, an attempt to push Hillary to the left. There is nothing wrong with that. But now that he has become a serious contender, what does he have to offer us?
My guess is that George McGovern started his ill-fated 1972 campaign with much the same objective in mind. It’s become a cliché to characterize McGovern as a starry-eyed peacenik who pushed the boundary of how far the left could go in America and led his party to disaster.
Actually, McGovern was a decorated bomber pilot from World War II, and a practical enough politician to win three terms in the senate from South Dakota. His liberalism was not far at all from the mainstream beliefs of his time. Had he decided to hold off running until, say, 1976, he might well have been elected—and might have made an excellent president.
Instead, running a ramshackle campaign without much of a plan as to how he might win or govern, he was crushed. His loss led the media to conclude that liberalism was probably finished in America. And yet in almost every way, he was a candidate with a much more attractive resume and far more effective political chops than Bernie Sanders.
Taking office at 75, if he can, Bernie would be the oldest president in history, in an age when the average American males lives to be a little less than 79. Would we even be voting for Bernie, really, or his vice-president?
The Clintons are, in many ways, disgusting. I vowed never again to vote for a-one of them after Bill nuked the safety net in 1996, in order to secure a few more votes in a re-election campaign he already had in the bag. If I thought that Hillary Clinton actually had a chance of passing any new program she devised, I probably would keep my vow.
But she doesn’t. No Democrat does, because we liberals couldn’t be bothered to come out and vote in an off-year and lost our majority. Until we do the long, hard work of clawing back representation in Congress and state governments all around the country, we need someone who can hold the barbarians from the gate. As FDR liked to say, “Some people can never understand that you have to wait, even for the best things, until the right time comes.”
JH: If Bernie’s victory in New Hampshire has actually eaten away at Hillary’s base support, we’ll soon know—she’ll develop a slight hint of hoarse anger to her voice, and some fresh intemperance for mortgage bankers. By the end of this week, as Nevadans go to their caucus and South Carolinians to their voting booths, she will sound like the reincarnation of trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt atop his steed. The pundits will express disbelief—not because Hillary has so instantly reversed course, but because it will work. She will win the nomination and in all likelihood the presidency.
Kevin says that she’ll be condemned to govern as a defensive president in the first-term Nixon mode. I don’t know. George W. Bush limped into the White House in 2001, and, once in office, he faced an enraged Democratic Party. Yet he managed to outmaneuver the scattered Democrats on message and tactics nearly every time.
If Hillary were president right now, her first Supreme Court appointment might be Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, a Mexican-American triple threat (Harvard, Yale, Stanford) who is beloved by Latinos. She’d float his name long enough to lure Republicans into trashing him. Which is key, because Marco Rubio’s seat in Florida is open this year, and any Republican forced to say that Cuellar should not be on the Court would probably lose. Then Hillary would hold a press conference, announce that the Republicans had politicized the process, withdraw Cuellar’s name and announce instead Illinois native Merrick Garland. The Senate seat there is currently held by Republican Mark Kirk and considered extremely vulnerable. And so on.
Obama would never do this because it is just not in his blood to battle politically this way. Fervent Hillary supporters don’t see Bernie ever thinking or acting in this manner either. The Hillary supporters know that there is only one person who has the scar tissue to fight like this. It’s why they so passionately support her.
If she were running this Supreme Court appointment, by the end of the summer, the vulnerable senatorial candidates would be wailing at the Republican leadership to get this issue “off the table.” So, a nominee would be confirmed and afterward, on the White House lawn, there would be Hillary, wearing that smile that drives her enemies insane, saying that the great strength of American democracy is our “ability to compromise.”