Monday, January 14, 2019

Why Democrats Should Be Wary of Tom Vilsack's Senate Bid

Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (D-IA)
One of the stories that got lost for me over the Christmas break that I wanted to weigh in on was the already-rumored candidacies of different Senate challengers for 2020, particularly a specific news item coming out of Iowa.  While he has been playing things quite coy, it's looking like Tom Vilsack is considering a run against first-term Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican who benefited both from running a stellar campaign in 2014 and also to some degree that year's wave (not to mention a shoddy Democratic candidate).  Vilsack would enter this race with near-universal name recognition and a perfect electoral record (he's never lost a race in the Hawkeye State), but a lot of Democrats (including yours truly) have been extremely skittish about Vilsack making a play against Ernst.  "Why?" you might ask, and here I am to tell you.

Vilsack, for those unfamiliar, is probably the most successful Iowa Democrat (save Tom Harkin) in the past three decades.  He served as mayor of Mt. Pleasant for a number of years before taking on two terms as Iowa's governor (sandwiched between the two governorships of Terry Branstad).  He briefly made a play for president in 2008, but that dissipated shortly, and eventually became part of Obama's "Team of Rivals" cabinet as Secretary of Agriculture.  In 2016, he was considered by most to be the runner-up to Tim Kaine in Hillary Clinton's veepstakes.  At 68, he still seems to have some electoral ambitions (as does his wife, the quite popular Christie Vilsack who once made an unsuccessful run against Steve King), and would probably get right-of-first-refusal in the state were he to make a go of it against Ernst.

The problem for me is that this is a dance Democrats have attended before.  While Republicans have been fine going back to the well in the past ten years for Senate candidates (look at former governor Mitt Romney being elected to the Senate from Utah just last year), Democrats have struggled, particularly with out-to-pasture former governors who want to make a play for the Senate, and then can't rebound because the state is too red.  In the past four cycles alone, Democrats have tried this with Bob Kerrey, Evan Bayh, Ted Strickland, and Phil Bredesen.  All four, like Vilsack, were popular in their day and won impressive victories for governor, but watched their states drift away from them to the point where they'd even struggle for the governor's race, much less the more partisan Senate contest.  They all four looked like coups at the beginning of the race for the DSCC, polled well throughout the race and then they lost by double digits.  While Iowa is bluer than most of these states, it has to be noted that even in the most favorable of environments they couldn't get Fred Hubbell across the finish line against Kim Reynolds, and that race also featured a moderate white guy against a dynamic young female conservative.

This should give anyone pause, and the stats for Vilsack are not strong even if you look further back. Since 2002 (the post Bush vs. Gore races), despite some truly great cycles (2006, 2008), only two out-of-office Democratic governors have picked up Senate seats from the other side (Mark Warner & Jeanne Shaheen in 2008), and only Shaheen did it by defeating an incumbent.  While this is admittedly a small sample size, it has to be noted that Shaheen and Warner did this in states that were moving further to the left, which isn't the case for Iowa.

One could be right to play devil's advocate here and state "if Vilsack can't beat Ernst, no one can," and there might be some truth to that, but it's worth noting the few Democrats who did over-perform in red territory in recent years were largely younger, dynamic figures who could cut their own profile statewide rather than have decades of experience already doing it for them.  Jason Kander, Beto O'Rourke, and Michelle Nunn all three come to mind as figures that may have lost, but did so by much smaller margins than any of these former governors and came much closer to success even with their state resistant to their party.

Iowa has no shortage of such candidates.  Newly-elected Reps. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer are clearly stars on the rise, though they may want to wait a cycle or two before jumping statewide, and new State Auditor Rob Sand feels cut from the same cloth as Kander or O'Rourke (and Josh Hawley proved this past year that voters don't really care if you office shop).  State Senate Minority Leader Janet Peterson has been rumored for higher office for a while, and JD Scholten got a lot of press when he came close to besting Steve King in 2018.  I personally think that while Vilsack is a good guy, the D's might be better off betting on a candidate whom every Iowa voter has an opinion on right off the gate, instead investing in a younger leader who might be able to better counter Ernst on the "who represents Iowa's future more?" question.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The State of the White House

I have avoided writing this article for over a year now.  Throughout the midterms, I was asked by pretty much anyone who knows my devotion to politics "who do you think is the Democratic frontrunner?"  And I had refused to discuss it because we had the midterms coming up, and the Democratic Party in particular never seems to care unless POTUS is on the ballot.  But the midterms are over, and Democratic candidates (serious ones, not the John Delaney ones), are actually starting to announce.  In the past two weeks, we've seen major announcements from Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro, and the rumor is we'll hear from Kamala Harris by the end of the month. So, I figured it was time to get my time capsule look at the Democratic nomination for president, and since you know the drill here (Top 10, #1 is most likely to get it at this point in time), I'm not going to drag this out more than I already have (particularly since this took two weeks to write & weirdly I'm doing this introduction last).

Honorable Mention: There are a lot of people considering runs for president this year (a LOT), but most of them don't warrant mention.  I'm going to get into this in an article coming out tomorrow, but while there will be at least one breakout star of this bunch (it's inevitable), history teaches us that Donald Trump is the rule, not the exception.  Most candidates in recent memory who won the nomination did not "come out of nowhere" but instead were relatively established before the race as serious competitors.  As a result, we have a few candidates who seem to be shooting a bit too high to start the race (Julian Castro, Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, anyone in the House save a certain charismatic guitar player from Texas should all try running statewide successfully before making this leap).  We also have a few statewide officeholders who are too bland (Jay Inslee, Jeff Merkley, Martin O'Malley) or too conservative (John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock) to win an election like this.  Terry McAuliffe is an intriguing choice that might have made this list if it were a dozen people long, but I feel like his Clinton years have too many skeletons to survive a nationwide campaign.  Howard Schultz is a billionaire who can self-fund (and unlike Trump, probably would), but it's doubtful that the Democrats will want a "liberal Donald Trump" as he will be described by the media; it's worth noting that Schultz definitely is a good orator (I've heard him speak live-he's impressive), but his labor practices running Starbucks will preclude him from making it through the primary if he ever polls high enough to be taken seriously.  Angelina Jolie is interesting, though I doubt she'd actually run (I do wonder how much appetite there will be for a celebrity candidate in 2020 in general, but I'd keep an eye on her after Trump), and Eric Holder is my #11 here and almost made #10 (I'm taking a risk on #10 as I think there's only nine serious candidates right now), but I do wonder if he'd be able to make it through the primaries knowing he'd be a risky bet for the general election (few national politicians are as loathed by Republicans as Holder, and keep in mind the Democrat will have to win over some Trump supporters in order to take the electoral college).  And Mike Bloomberg running is a joke, and I suspect he'll realize that about twenty seconds into the campaign when no Democrat gives him the time of day.

A Couple of Caveats: There are three names that would assuredly be on this list were they to run, so I think it's worth mentioning that they are not on this list because I don't think they will run (since all but one of the below names are purely speculative at this point, I figured I'd throw in this caveat).  The first name is Michelle Obama.  Obama would top this list (though I do wonder if she'd struggle to counter attack ads considering how badly it'd hurt her brand) if she were interested, but she has repeatedly made sure that people know she is not, and I take her at her word.  The same can be said for Oprah Winfrey, who would also be toward the top of this list if she ran, who has been slightly coyer about running but seems to be a candidate that has no interest in making this leap.  And finally, there's Hillary Clinton.  You can hear the groans from certain corners of the political world, but I think she'd be around #5 on this list if she were to actually make a go of the race.  We're going to be learning a lot about the Russia investigation in the next year, before votes start being cast, and repeatedly you're going to hear people claim the Democrats were cheated out of a victory in 2016, a victory that would have gone to Clinton.  I think if she thought she could win she'd run in a heartbeat, but she's aware that she'd struggle in the primary; that said, Clinton has a certain devoted group of supporters who are irate she never got to be president, and would adore seeing her being the one who takes down Trump.  I felt it was a mistake in 2004 for Al Gore not to run for president (I also thought it was a mistake for Clinton to miss that race as well).  I don't think she'd run, but she's a serious candidate if she does despite what the Limbaughs and Hannitys would say if she entered.

The Six States That Matter: We have become accustomed in recent years to hearing about a laundry list of a dozen swing states that matter, while the rest of the country is ignored, and since the 2000 election, these states have remained relatively static.  Places like Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, & Nevada have been the stars of each cycle, sucking up a lot of the time and energy of the candidates, and watching their issues come to the forefront, but that isn't how 2020 will work.  While practically speaking no one is going to give up on these states (it looks bad for states that are used to having their egos stroked), the only six states that will matter in 2020 will be Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina.  The first three are the three states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 that elected Donald Trump-were she to have won these states, all of whom had gone for the Democrats since 1992, she'd be president right now.  All three states went heavily back to the Democrats in 2018, making them plum for a Democrat to win in 2020.  The next three states all showed some progress for the Democrats in 2018 (Florida had razor-thin contests for governor/senator and elected Nikki Fried as Ag Commissioner, North Carolina elected a Dem Supreme Court Justice, & Arizona elected four Democratic women statewide), and are what could clearly be classified as swing states in 2020.  There are other states that will be close, but if Republicans are winning Minnesota & New Hampshire, they're probably taking the White House, while if Democrats are taking Iowa or Georgia, they likely have the win in the bag.  As a result I'm going to point out what kind of advantage these candidates might have in these six states below.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D-LA)
10. Mitch Landrieu

Age in 2020: 60
Who is He?: Mayor of New Orleans since 2010
Has Held Public Office Since: 1988,without exception
President Landrieu, The Pros: While it's not something I think can be readily duplicated, Donald Trump proved in 2016 that an atypical candidate can win under the right circumstances, and though I think another celebrity candidate might be a stretch in 2020, a mayor could be well-received, especially considering that the suburbs are going to be where a candidate wins or loses, and the suburbs are used to a big-city mayor being in the news & understands the scope of their job.  Landrieu is arguably the best-prepared and most interesting mayor considering a race this year, and unlike most mayors, has experience in statewide office (he was Lieutenant Governor for many years).  He also has done extremely well with African-American voters in his city, and his father was a major figure in the Civil Rights movement.  Plus, his sister Mary was a US Senator for 18 years, and would have connections with donors that Landrieu could tap into with ease.
President Landrieu, The Cons: "Who is Mitch Landrieu?" is likely the first sentence you just said, and you'd be correct to assume this is Landrieu's biggest deficit.  While lesser-known candidates have won national primaries before (think of someone like Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis), they're usually governors rather than mayors.  Landrieu is uniquely handicapped from his position due to the early primary schedule; while most states have a major metropolitan area that a mayor could harvest votes from in a split-race primary, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina do not, and by the time he'd get to Florida or California, Landrieu will likely be out of time to gain a foothold in the race.
States That Matter: Landrieu's long tenure as a successful mayor in a predominantly black city could be a major bonus in trying to turn out voters in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Charlotte, areas that will need to be better for the Democrats than they were in 2016.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
9. Amy Klobuchar

Age in 2020: 60
Who is She?: US Senator from Minnesota since 2007
Has Held Public Office Since: 1999, without exception
President Klobuchar, The Pros: America's two most popular senators come from the tiny state of Vermont, where all you have to do is lean left (and be loud about it) to keep your numbers north of 60%.  What's more challenging is holding near identical numbers in a state that Hillary Clinton won by only two points.  In a hyper-partisan era, Klobuchar has figured out a way to be a weirdly apolitical figure in her state, regularly winning areas of Minnesota that no other Democrat could possibly win.  That sort of smart, folksy "Minnesota Nice" figure would be a really strong counter to Trump, and while there are more liberal people on this list, no one could accuse her with a straight face of being "too moderate."
President Klobuchar, The Cons: Name recognition is a factor, but I don't know that it's as big of a factor as one would assume (like it'd be for Landrieu).  Instead, I wonder where her foothold is into this race other than winning Iowa.  Midwestern candidates frequently hang their head on winning Iowa, only to watch their dreams get crushed because their only strategy was to win Iowa.  Is Amy Klobuchar this year's Tom Harkin/Dick Gephardt, or can she pull off a feat similar to Jimmy Carter in 1976 & turn a victory there into a real campaign?
States That Matter: If she makes it to the general, Klobuchar's stance in farm country should be a big plus in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
8. Sherrod Brown

Age in 2020: 68
Who is He?: US Senator from Ohio since 2007
Has Held Public Office Since: 1975, with 2 years off from 1991-93 
President Brown, The Pros: Few politicians are as good at spelling out complicated economic issues to their constituents as Sherrod Brown.  The longtime Ohio Democrat, one of the only remaining Democrats who can successfully win that state, is a hero of blue-collar workers (despite the fact that with his Yale background & longtime political career he hasn't resembled them in decades), and would be a fascinating counter to Donald Trump as Brown is so genuine on the stump and would be going for the same voters that Trump convinced to abandon Democrats two years ago.  As one of the rare Democrats with a liberal enough background to succeed in a primary (from a red state), no one should dismiss Brown out-of-hand.
President Brown, The Cons: You'd think my problem here would be that Brown, a straight white man in a primary field that will be clamoring for diversity, would struggle to gain a foothold, but I don't think that's the case.  Brown, after all, will do well with Labor, which should help in Iowa and Nevada.  My problem with Brown is that his Senate seat will go red if he wins the presidency, and I think that will be a problem that'll be easy for his primary opponents to communicate to voters.  "Sherrod Brown's great, but we need him in the Senate" might not matter if he were the only candidate who could actually beat Trump, but Democrats don't think that right now and will probably be choosy, especially after Merrick Garland (I suspect pushing for a Democratic Senate to be a bigger deal than usual in 2020 due to RBG's near certain retirement/celebrity status).  As a result, I think Brown might have sunk his chances by not getting Richard Cordray elected last November.
States That Matter: Pennsylvania & Michigan have very similar voting profiles to Ohio, except they're much bluer.  Brown's ability to speak to said voters would surely be a plus for him.  Plus, he theoretically could make Ohio more competitive, nothing to sneeze at if the national polls show it closer than I'm anticipating right now.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
7. Bernie Sanders

Age in 2020: 79
Who is He?: US Senator from Vermont since 2007
Has Held Public Office Since: 1981, with 2 years off from 1989-91
President Sanders, The Pros: Sanders goes into this election with an army of supporters ready for his announcement.  The Vermont senator did surprisingly well in 2016, and history has been kind to runners-up when they run four years later for the nomination (Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney)-could Sanders turn a splintered field to his advantage, knowing that he'll start the race with a bigger piece of the pie than most other Democrats on this list?
President Sanders, The Cons: For every Bernie Bro, there's someone who is "anybody but Bernie."  Sanders age makes him more vulnerable than most (nearly 80-years-old, he's more susceptible to health-related rumors), but I think his biggest problem is that there is a large part of the Democratic Party who blames him for not dropping out sooner in 2016, splintering the party and denying Hillary Clinton a unified front headed into November.  This might not be entirely fair to Sanders, who did obviously campaign for Clinton, but it's there and what's keeping me from thinking of him as a frontrunner, when in most other situations he'd have to be considered one.
States That Matter: Sanders would need to appeal to working-class white voters, which seems like a Wisconsin and Pennsylvania situation.  I will say that of all of the candidates on this list, he arguably has the least obvious stronghold in the six states I profiled, due mostly to his proven (poor) track record with winning Latino and African-American candidates in the 2016 primaries.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
6. Kirsten Gillibrand

Age in 2020: 54
Who is She?: US Senator from New York since 2009
Has Held Public Office Since: 2007, with no exceptions
President Gillibrand, The Pros: Gillibrand is smart, great-on-the-stump, and coming from New York, can raise boatloads of money in relatively short order in a way that few others on this list would be able to do.  She's also got a unique ability to appeal to suburban voters-she's from New York, but represented upstate New York, so while she has had to rely in large part on New York City to win in the Senate for the past decade, she also does extremely well across the state and has an opportunity to make a play for suburban moms in a way that no other candidate is able to do.  Considering the strong shift among, in particular, college-educated white women to the Democrats in the past couple of years, this could be a huge coup for her in the generals, and if these constituents are passionate about turning out, in the primaries as well.
President Gillibrand, The Cons: Gillibrand has two major debits against her, one completely unfair and one relatively valid.  Proving that sexism is unfortunately a bipartisan issue, Gillibrand is frequently blamed in some circles for the resignation of Al Franken because she was one of the more vocal senators in calling for his resignation (despite the fact that evidence and multiple women point to clear inappropriateness on Franken's part).  This could hurt her with primary voters who are loyal to Franken despite it making them massive hypocrites.  The second, more valid reason that she could be vulnerable is Wall Street.  Representing New York, Gillibrand is cozier to business and financial interests than your average Democrat would be, and this would be a very easy weapon for the likes of O'Rourke, Sanders, & Warren to levy against her in the primary as these institutions are not popular with rank-and-file voters in an era where Democrats are increasingly left-leaning on fiscal issues.  Gillibrand's ability to manage these attacks will define her ability to win the primary.
States That Matter: I suspect that Gillibrand would be one of the better general election candidates if she made it there, and might be able to sweep all six of these seats because of her ability to appeal to swing voters in the suburbs.  Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan seem toward the top of the list, but if I were Donald Trump, she'd be the candidate I'd most worry about facing in 2020.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
5. Cory Booker

Age in 2020: 51
Who is He?: US Senator from New Jersey since 2013
Has Held Public Office Since: 1998, with 4 years off from 2002-06
President Booker, The Pros: Frequently it is commented upon that a president is succeeded by his polar opposite.  Four years after Richard Nixon, the consummate DC insider, was elected, he was succeeded by a humble peanut farmer from Plains, who was then succeeded by a folksy movie star then by a blue-blood White House lifer to a young, slick-talking philanderer to a bumbling family man to a black Harvard law professor who started from nothing to a trust fund racist who can't handle even the mildest of slights.  This isn't just a fun parlor game-it shows that America tries to correct the thing they hated the most about their last president.  As a result of continuing this trend, you would struggle to find a candidate on this list better suited to counter the cruelty, nastiness, and racism of the Trump administration than Booker, who comes across almost comically nice (he's literally tweeted me before to say "All the best" and wish me a nice day) and is meticulously woke.  Booker is going to play extremely well in living rooms across America (he'll nail the talk show circuit), and don't underestimate his ability to inspire people by basically being the anti-Trump (contrary to popular opinion, a challenger for the White House really only needs to be the "anti-incumbent" to actually win-they don't really need to have much else going for their campaign).
President Booker, The Cons: One of the things you can expect from the Democratic Primary is that it will be a lot kinder (at least on the surface) than a Republican contest would be.  There's an old adage that "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line," that feels particularly apt here, so you don't want to tear down each other on the campaign trail, and most attacks will be relatively substantive.  This is going to be a problem for Booker, because he's one of the few candidates on this list who strikes out in a major way on a key Democratic issue: school choice.  While Booker (smartly) voted against confirmation of Betsy DeVos, he did work with her in the past and has been supportive of school choice in a way that most other candidates on this list haven't.  Considering it'll be difficult to go against Booker on style or character, most of his opponents will likely define him as aligned with DeVos and Republicans on school choice, which would be a critical hit in a field where Democratic voters are relatively undecided & looking for justifications to winnow their field.
States That Matter: It's hard to tell if historically high black voter turnout in 2008 and 2012 can be duplicated in the same way for the second black president, but if so Booker would be able to have an advantage in places like Charlotte or Detroit.  His successful tenure as Mayor of Newark (and as a senator from a very urban state) also should help him with larger cities.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
4. Elizabeth Warren

Age in 2020: 71
Who is She?: US Senator from Massachusetts since 2013
Has Held Public Office Since: 2013, with no exceptions
President Warren, The Pros: I don't quite subscribe to those people who think that Warren would have beaten Hillary Clinton in 2016 had she run.  I think the only person who genuinely would have bested Clinton in the primaries was Biden, and he would have been an underdog; lest we forget, Bernie Sanders outperformed expectations-he didn't actually get close to winning.  That said, Warren has amassed a huge following and feels like she can get pretty much every one of the Bernie Sanders voters who would actually vote for a woman (and aren't just men who say they would vote for a woman, but when a literal one comes up they go running), and no other Democrat has more defined the policy priorities of the left during the Trump years than Warren (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be the future of the party, but her message feels remarkably similar to the present of the party, Elizabeth Warren).  Give her a stump speech, and she'll get liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire very excited.
President Warren, The Cons: Warren is not a natural politician.  That won't hold her back completely (neither was George HW Bush or Mitt Romney, and they both won their nominations), but she's a bit stiff and comes across as a Harvard law professor, which feels accurate because she is one.  She also royally bungled the ancestry question by saying "I'm a little bit Native American" (in so many words), and feels a lot like Hillary Clinton or Al Gore in the sense that she would make a fine president...but she could just never win the office.  Combined with Democrats being leery about betting on another Massachusetts liberal after Mike Dukakis and John Kerry, and you see why Warren just misses out on the Top 3 even if her crowd sizes are huge and her fanbase has some depth.
States That Matter: Warren's message will be one of economic populism.  That should play better in the Midwest, states like Michigan and Wisconsin, than it would someplace like Arizona.  Warren has also been bold in her conversations about criminal justice reform, which may make her stronger amongst black voters than Bernie Sanders was (giving her openings in places like North Carolina or Florida).

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX)
3. Beto O'Rourke

Age in 2020: 48
Who is He?: US Congressman from Texas since 2013
Has Held Public Since: 2005, with two exceptions (2011-13, 2019-Present)
President O'Rourke, The Pros: While it's occasionally eye-rolly that the Pod Saves America guys are salivating over O'Rourke (I don't listen to them because they seem to fall in love with every straight guy they can find), there's no denying that Beto O'Rourke has a gift that few politicians are able to achieve.  Arguably the most engaging speaker on this list, he'll stand out from the rest of the Democrats on the podium in a similar way to Barack Obama and Donald Trump before him.  It's not entirely clear if he'll actually run, but the fact that he got extraordinarily close to Ted Cruz in Texas of all places shows some serious skills, and there's an excitement around his candidacy that I don't remember seeing since a young Illinois senator a decade ago.
President O'Rourke, The Cons: For starters, he's a congressman who just lost a Senate race, and people don't lose elections and then win the White House without getting a victory in between.  History, yes, has a couple of examples (Abraham Lincoln lost a Senate race in 1858 but then won in 1860, while Richard Nixon lost a governor's race in 1962 & then won the White House in 1968), but Nixon had been a national figure for decades when he won in 1968, having served eight years as VP, and Lincoln was 160 years ago (and politicians have long gotten in trouble comparing themselves to Lincoln).  O'Rourke is not an old man, and may well want to try for the Senate seat in Texas this year instead, as he'd have a clear path to the nomination, and considering what he did in 2018, may be able to use presidential year turnout into a win there (and then have a much stronger position to run for POTUS in 2024 or 2028).  But I have to admit-I was a lot more skeptical of this in October when it looked like he'd lose by ten points than I was when he did better than people like Claire McCaskill or Joe Donnelly did-O'Rourke is the real deal, and he may never have the kind of momentum he has right now again.  If he has designs on the White House, he may be looking at his best shot.
States That Matter: O'Rourke's strong support among Latino voters (exit polls show him clobbering Cruz with Latino voters) puts him in a unique position to make a serious play for Arizona and Florida, two key swing states you're not seeing a lot of on this list.  Honestly, like Gillibrand, I think he might be one of the better options on this list if he were the nominee, provided he could get past the experience card with voters.

Vice President Joe Biden (D-DE)
2. Joe Biden

Age in 2020: 78
Who is He?: Vice President of the United States from 2009-17
Has Held Public Office Since: 1970, though not since 2017
President Biden, The Pros: Everyone likes Joe.  Biden has some of the best approval ratings in the country (you have to go to apolitical figures like Michelle Obama to get similar numbers), and shows up at the top of almost every poll you see of the D race.  He's the most experienced candidate, he does well with pretty much every Democratic base demographic, and honestly he clearly, really, wants this and knows he'll never have another shot at being the president (he ran twice, and likely would have run two years ago had his son not died).  In a wide open field, he's the only person who could generally be considered the frontrunner, and that helps more then you'd think (it's hard to argue he's in a worse position that Bob Dole in 1996 or George W. Bush in 2000 right now).  If 5-6 people on this list start splintering the vote, he's probably the nominee.
President Biden, The Cons: There's a few things.  The most obvious is Biden's age and gender.  In a party that is increasingly looking for younger, more diverse candidates, Biden is a nearly 80-year-old straight white man who has been in politics since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's mother was only seven.  It's hard to fathom that Biden would be able to win over vast swaths of primary voters who were hungry for a change in 2018, particularly considering how weak Trump's approval ratings are (if they were stronger, he might be able to sneak in as the "only person who can beat him," but that argument doesn't hold water even if he might be the "strongest" person who can beat him at this juncture).  His age also matters for practical purposes (the media will be watching his health and public statements with more scrutiny than they will Beto O'Rourke's), and he's considerably more moderate than many of these candidates-don't expect someone like Elizabeth Warren to avoid punches even against the venerable Biden.  Plus, he's going to have to find a way to get around Anita Hill without coming across as too defensive, or he could lose female voters fast.
States That Matter: Perhaps you've heard this before, but Joe Biden is from Scranton.  Honestly, between his PA roots and what Obama did for the automotive industry, no candidate on this list is better suited to picking up the three states that matter most (MI, WI, and PA) than Biden.  While I think Gillibrand or O'Rourke might be better at sweeping all six, if you are just focusing on getting to 270, a healthy Joe Biden is your best bet.  Also, because I love trivia-the Silent Generation is the only generation that has been able to legally become president and not done it yet-Joe Biden is almost certainly their last shot at ending that statistic (unless somehow Nancy Pelosi does it during an impeachment hearing).

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1. Kamala Harris

Age in 2020: 56
Who is She?: US Senator from California since 2017
Has Held Public Office Since: 2004, with no exceptions
President Harris, The Pros: There's a lot of reasons I'm putting Kamala Harris at #1 on this list, but one of the biggest is black women.  You can't become president without winning your primary, and increasingly you cannot win the Democratic nomination without strong support from black women.  Barack Obama proved this by winning over black women (against Hillary Clinton), and then black women proved to be the kryptonite to Bernie Sanders hopes in 2016.  Harris seems best-poised to win over black women not only because she's a woman of color herself, but because she is really good at pointing out the new unique struggles that women of color experience in their day-to-day lives.  She's well-liked among female voters in general, and has the right level of experience on a national level (she's in her first-term, but is a sitting senator so it's hard to paint her as either inexperienced or a career politician), & is better than most candidates at this list at going after Trump.  Harris's likely support from women of color is enough for me to think she's the prohibitive frontrunner before we see any actual candidates on the trail.
President Harris, The Cons: There are three things that Harris should be apprehensive of at this point.  The first, and this cannot be underscored enough: she is not the female Obama, which is something she was frequently billed as by a lazy press prior to her winning the Senate.  In 2012, she appeared at the DNC, and unlike Obama in one really cared.  It was an okay speech that made some raise their eyebrows over whether she was the future president she was being billed as.  There are things that Harris appears better at than Obama (she seems more attuned to DC than he ever was, which could make actual legislating that much easier if elected), but she's not as noteworthy of a speaker and feels more like a really good DA than a really good politician.  Secondly, relying on black women is a good, but not fool-proof strategy for a Democratic primary.  John Edwards did marvelously well with black women in 2004, but ended up losing because John Kerry was stronger among black men.  Watch Harris's numbers with black men as she continues her campaign, as that would be an opening for a Biden or O'Rourke if she cannot get similar levels of support.  And finally, it is always risky to bet on only one of the early states delivering you a pass to the rest of the contest, and Kamala Harris will need a victory in South Carolina if she has any hope of winning the White House.  If she cannot take the victory at that point, someone like Warren, Biden, or O'Rourke could take out their strongest opponent early as she'll have gone too long without a win and will be just a candidate for the veepstakes.  Still, I think Harris has to be considered the nominal frontrunner at this point in the race.
States That Matter: As I mentioned, if we could see similar numbers to those enjoyed by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 amongst the African-American communities, places like Florida, Michigan, and North Carolina would be strong bets for Harris.  I also think she speaks to Arizona voters in a way that other candidates don't on this list save O'Rourke.

There you have it.  In 2016 I did this and one of those candidates appeared prophetic (Clinton obviously won her nomination), the other foolhardy (Trump wasn't even on the list, and my initial choice of Jeb Bush looks laughable in hindsight considering his performance).  We shall find out a year from now what camp these predictions will fall under, but stick around as the race for the White House will be followed closely on this blog.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

OVP: Kings Row (1942)

Film: Kings Row (1942)
Stars: Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Betty Field, Charles Coburn, Claude Rains, Judith Anderson, Maria Ouspenskaya, Harry Davenport
Director: Sam Wood
Oscar History: 3 nominations (Best Picture, Director, Cinematography)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Each month, as part of our 2019 Saturdays with the Stars series, we highlight a different actress of Hollywood's Golden Age.  This month, our focus is on Ann Sheridan-click here to learn more about Ms. Sheridan (and why I picked her), and click here for other Saturdays with the Stars articles.

We are only two films into the career of Ann Sheridan as our January star, and I'm already starting to note a really strange pattern-Ann Sheridan gets top billing when she probably shouldn't.  I'm hoping, since I'm trying to learn about her as a leading woman, that this doesn't continue for our final two pictures, but last week she received second billing for The Man Who Came to Dinner when really the star of the film was the then-unknown Monty Woolley.  This week, while she's again one of the leads, few would argue that she's actually the lead of this film where she receives top billing, instead the film focuses more on up-and-coming actors Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan.  Kings Row is the best-known Sheridan film we're going to profile this month (give or take Angels with Dirty Faces, it's her best-known film period but I couldn't easily get a copy of that 1938 film), so I was excited to investigate to learn more about Sheridan (as well as to take a look at what is widely considered to be Ronald Reagan's best performance), and left kind of floored-Kings Row is a pretty sordid melodrama, one based on an even more scandalous book, that for 1942 comes across as quite shocking.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie is a soap opera with a lot of plot, but here's the gist of it.  Essentially it's two alternating tragic love stories, both started in childhood and then continued into adulthood.  The first, that takes up the top half of the movie is between Cassie (Field) and Parris (Cummings), and the back half is dominated by the relationship between Drake (Reagan) and Randy (Sheridan).  Both have a lot of intrigue and mystery behind the relationship.  With Cassie & Parris, she is largely ostracized by her classmates for having a strange mother (who clearly suffers from some sort of dementia), and is pulled out of school/society as a young girl, though she never stopped thinking of Parris as her first love.  Parris, as an adult, tries to gain the respect of her father (Rains), and secretly starts to see Cassie, but she's now nervous, frail, and constantly paranoid about being found out and about seeing the world.  At the halfway point of the movie, she is killed by her father in a murder-suicide after she makes plans to run away with Parris.  At this point, Parris flees to Vienna to become a well-respected doctor, and the plot shifts to his lothario best friend Drake, who is engaged to the doctor's daughter (Nancy Coleman), but her parents (Coburn & Anderson) disapprove of such a man dating their daughter, and as a result he ends up in the arms of the (literally from the wrong side of the tracks) Randy.  After a freak accident, Drake's legs are amputated by the doctor, and he is forced to deal with being crippled & broke (oh, right, his money was stolen by a banker-forgot to mention that).  Eventually, now a psychiatrist, Parris finds out the doctor had been a Mengele of sorts and there was no need for Drake's legs to be amputated (he had done this to anyone in town he considered "dirty"), and he must tell Drake the truth.

Following so far?  If you are, you're doing better than I did.  Kings Row is, despite being just over 2 hours long, probably 2 hours too short to accomplish this level of plot.  For example, the film's most harrowing scene (Reagan screaming after seeing that his legs are gone "Where's the Rest of Me?!?", a line he would later title his 1965 memoir), pairs really poorly with the jolly-good moment where Drake finds out that his legs were not stolen by an accident, but by the father of a scorned daughter.  Looking to the book, we find that there's a lot seedier explanations for what in the movie comes across as intentionally veiled.  For example, it's pretty clear in the book that the relationship between Cassie and her father is incestuous, and that both Parris & Cassie and Randy & Drake consummated their relationships before marriage.  In the movie, they managed to slyly sneak in that Cassie is pregnant if you look below the surface, but in the book it's not entirely clear whether or not she's pregnant with Parris's baby or her father's.  They entire cut out a gay character from the novel who tries to put the moves on Parris, and it's pretty glossy over the sadistic surgeon, framing him more as a "father scorned" than as a true monster of the community.  Watching Kings Row, I realized it's that rare classic film that would be primed for a more modern telling that's loyal to the book-HBO, if you want me to get writing it, let me know.

The film received three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Director, and Cinematography, none of which feels quite right but is understandable given the circumstances.  The movie isn't exactly good even if it's usually entertaining, throwing in too much plot and overstuffing with a lot of clutch-the-pearls moments to keep the audience entertained.  The cinematography feels relatively standard, though some of the closeup shots and especially the way that James Wong Howe frames Betty Field's face is intriguing.  Still, it doesn't feel like particularly inventive work, especially the year after Citizen Kane.

Sheridan, our star of the month, literally doesn't show up in the movie until we're 64 minutes into the picture.  I want to say Dev Patel probably takes that long to get into Lion (I haven't taken out a stop watch there, but it feels about right), but otherwise can you think of another film where the top-billed star doesn't show up until we're an hour into the movie?  Sheridan, for her part, is not as much fun as she was in last week's The Man Who Came to Dinner.  I liked her scenes where she tries to justify the casualness of her fling with Drake (it's pretty clear she doesn't consider him a potential-husband, but he's good in the sack so she's keeping him around), but once she becomes the doting girlfriend/wife, she loses all sense of personality with Drake and her performance suffers as a result.  Reagan (and I don't know that I'll ever say this again considering his abilities as an actor) is the best part of the film, particularly as a fun-loving rake in the first half of the movie, and it's easy to see how he became a star.  It's a pity he couldn't have translated this into some of his other performances, and we might have been spared his political career.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Why Not Everyone Should Run for President

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX)
Every presidential cycle, when there is an open primary, a cast of characters emerge.  There are the frontrunners, the past-their-prime candidates, the stalwart politicians who are too respectable to ignore but too boring to ever win, the gadflies who have just a good enough title in front of their name (frequently coupled with "former") to get on a debate stage...these are all cast members who show up at the show.  In 2020, though, after the shock win of Donald Trump four years ago, I'm seeing more-and-more candidates who fall into a newer category, one that occasionally shows up but by-and-large isn't a steadfast category in the primaries: the under-qualified candidate.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes someone "under-qualified" but mostly its someone you wouldn't traditionally consider "qualified" to hold the White House.  While no one is ever really "ready" for the presidency, a few groups of people are more prepared than others: Vice Presidents, Speakers of the House, high-ranking cabinet secretaries (particularly State and Defense), governors, senators, and to a lesser degree, top-ranking generals.  These are people who are already at the upper-echelons of the government, who know both the domestic & international roles of a president, and who know the seriousness of what they are undertaking.  This isn't to say that all of the people who hold these positions are qualified (Jim Inhofe, for example, is about as ready to be president as Donald Trump), but there's a sense of inevitability that someone with this resumé will win the White House.

In 2020, though, after the unlikely success of Donald Trump, more-and-more we're seeing people who would have been laughed at in previous cycles thinking about a run for the White House.  Rep. John Delaney was the first "serious" (the quotation marks are very much needed here) candidate to take a play for the White House, despite his only qualifications being a six-year stint in the House with no major accomplishments; his former colleagues Eric Swalwell & Tulsi Gabbard appear to have similar plans despite thin congressional careers & tenures.  Mayor Pute Buttegieg runs a city that is no bigger than a mid-level suburb, but for some reason thinks he can be a successful president.

Weirdly, one of the most popular trends of 2020 seems to be candidates who lost their races in 2018 and somehow think they should seek higher office as a solution.  Rep. Beto O'Rourke is the most famous of this group, but State Rep. Stacey Abrams and Mayor Andrew Gillum both have floated similar trial balloons, wondering if they can translate national fervor for their failed campaigns into runs for the White House.  Even State Sen. Richard Ojeda, who got clobbered in a race for an open House seat in West Virginia, appears to be running to be #45 in 2020.

It might be a bit condescending to group all of these candidates together, but I'm going to point out that if they all become serious candidates at the expense of more experienced challengers in 2020, we have taken away the wrong lesson from President Trump.  Ambitious politicians (which these people certainly are), surely can take away a lesson from Donald Trump that it doesn't much matter who actually runs for the White House, as long as you win, but the lesson should be that Donald Trump is a terrible president, someone who never should have run for the office in the first place.  Part of that is his policies, but it's worth pointing out that Donald Trump just isn't qualified to be president-he doesn't have the experience.  And while it's entirely possible that these candidates could make fine presidents in the future, none of them yet have the experience necessary for the job either.  They need to run for other offices before that happens.

One of the truly heinous things that Democrats have done in the past two decades (that Republicans have not done) is that they put too much emphasis on the presidency at the expense of other important offices.  Yes, the White House is important (alarmingly so in an era where Congress continually shirks its duties to check-and-balance), but winning the White House and not having a bench ultimately limits your ability to enact change.  All of these candidates should, if they want to become president, pursue lower offices first to prove that they can win something as important as the White House and to show that they want to grow the party.

State Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-GA)
Abrams, for example, has a prime opportunity to pick up a Senate seat for the party in 2020 by taking on David Perdue.  She did better than any Democrat has in Georgia for governor since Roy Barnes in 1998, and would be a stellar candidate to run against Perdue in 2020.  At only the age of 45, she could easily translate a term or two in the Senate into a very serious push for the White House in 2024 or 2028, and would be doing so as a successful senator who beat an incumbent to get her job, rather than as a recent statewide loser who'd seem to be trying for a Hail Mary pass rather than taking her chances seriously.

This is true for pretty much everyone on this list.  Buttegieg would be a great option for governor in 2020, Gillum could run for Senate or Governor in 2022, Swalwell or Gabbard could quickly climb the ladder in the House perhaps trying for the next open governor's race (both are so young they'd still be among the youngest presidents in a race in 2028 or 2032), and Ojeda could try for a rematch or (better yet) make a play for governor of West Virginia in 2020.  This would prove to voters that they can win tough races, which any run for the White House, especially against a sitting president, would be a great reason to vote for them in a future presidential primary.  In fact, the reality that John Delaney wouldn't take on a Republican governor in 2018 (forcing his very blue state to be GOP-led for another four years) basically precluded him from being a candidate I'd consider.  But right now, they simply aren't qualified to be president yet, and them engaging in vanity runs for the White House has real-world implications.

After all, as I mentioned above, the Democrats' stress on only the White House has cost them valuable ability to enact real change during the Obama administration and first two years of the Trump administration, something Republicans have been able to do.  The reason that Abrams sticks out to me in this regard is that she is probably the only Democrat who could plausibly defeat Perdue in 2020; the fervor she has with Georgia's black community, as well as her strong support in the Atlanta suburbs combined with a presidential year turnout could be enough to best the Republican incumbent.  Democrats need 3-4 seats (depending on who the Vice President is) to win the Senate in 2020, which will be crucially important if the next POTUS gets to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg & Stephen Breyer (very possible if they are not out of office during Trump's current term).  While 2020 is a better map for the left than 2018, getting a net of 3-4 is going to be tough, and a win from Abrams would go a long way in gaining the Democrats control.  Abrams's bid for the White House would be an extreme longshot at best, but her forgoing a Senate race could be the difference between RBG being replaced by an equally progressive successor or Mitch McConnell refusing to seat anyone until he has a Republican president.  That's what's at stake here, and why "anyone can run for president" is a dangerous game to play for candidates who don't have a strong pathway to the White House.

You'll notice O'Rourke's name is missing there, and I'll admit I don't really think Beto O'Rourke is ready to be president either; three terms in the House followed by a failed Senate bid are pretty scant credentials. However, based on his national poll numbers, it'd be difficult for me to argue that he shouldn't make this play.  It might be unfair (it's worth noting that the national media is giving a lot more credence for a straight white male who lost rather than someone like Gillum, Buttegieg, or Abrams), but O'Rourke has captured the national consciousness in a way these three haven't.  Unlike these candidates, I'd make a sincere argument that he could win the nomination in 2020 (I'll have my Top 10 list out this weekend, but be assured he's on it, and positioned relatively high), and such opportunities where you have a realistic shot at the nomination don't come around very often, so if I was advising him, I'd say he should run even though Texas also has a Senate seat in 2020 that would be worth exploring considering how close he came last year.

The rest of these candidates should tread lightly, though, because (contrary to political opinion), the recent belief "there's nothing to lose when you run for president" isn't really true.  A lousy run for POTUS can make your future runs look like sour grapes or kind of pathetic.  After 2016, for example, it's impossible to imagine a future where Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, or Rand Paul ever become president, even if they are still sitting senators.  The same could easily happen to Abrams, Gillum, Delaney, and the rest, but here they'd do so without a high office to fall back, biding their time in hopes of becoming a John McCain or Hillary Clinton or George HW Bush.  If Abrams loses in 2020, she'll be a two-time loser whose political brand would be shot; one of the most promising candidates of 2018 would disappear with almost nothing to show for it.  In my opinion, it'd be smarter for her to make a play in 2020 for the Senate or wait for a rematch against Kemp, making a big bet on herself where her odds are much stronger.  Other than O'Rourke, I'd say all of these candidates should pursue a similar path.  Donald Trump is a role model in virtually no way, but perhaps especially he's not a role model for aspiring politicians-he won in 2016 thanks to luck, timing, and probably Russian interference.  That's not a recipe that can be duplicated, and you'd be better off getting a more traditional launchpad before you make a play at the highest office in the land, rather than buying a lottery ticket that's going to do you more harm than good.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Film: The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Stars: Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Monty Woolley, Richard Travis, Jimmy Durante, Billie Burke
Director: William Keighley
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Reaction: 5/5 stars

We will start our "Saturdays with the Stars" series focusing on Ann Sheridan by looking at one of her better-remembered movies The Man Who Came to Dinner (if you have no idea what I'm talking about, click here & like Clarissa, I explain it all).  While they never seem to be as popular in modern cinemas (thanks to Hallmark & Lifetime, they've become hopelessly generic and almost comically interchangeable), a really strong holiday classic can have legs that most movies can only dream of, and while The Man Who Came to Dinner is hardly in the same pop culture class as It's a Wonderful Life or White Christmas, it still plays with regularity on TCM and is one of the few films of this era where Sheridan shares top-billing with a woman, not a man, as this is one of two Christmas classics starring Bette Davis (the other being Pocketful of Miracles).  Of course, for anyone familiar with the film, it is neither Davis nor Sheridan who deserve the top billing here, but instead the curmudgeonly (and until this point in his career almost completely-unknown) Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film focuses on Woolley's Whiteside, a noted humorist and radio personality who is famous for his acid tongue & sharp impatience with anyone that isn't himself.  Whiteside is on a speaking tour much to his chagrin, and is forced to have lunch at the home of Mrs. Ernest Stanley (Burke), but when walking into the house, he slips and falls on the front steps.  The doctor orders him to stay in bed, and as a result both he and his secretary Maggie (Davis) have to stay in the small town, with Woolley barking orders at his hosts, their staff, and his poor beleaguered nurse (naturally played by character actor Mary Wickes, as this was the only part she ever seemed to play, but did it with aplomb).  Maggie quite likes the situation, though, as she falls for a young newspaper man named Bert (Travis), and decides to quit her post, which forces Whiteside to pretend he hasn't recovered, in hopes of scheming a way to keep her on as his secretary.  His plan involves recruiting gold-digging actress Lorraine Sheldon (Sheridan) to come and try and steal Bert away from Maggie, which she doesn't succeed in doing (during one of many comic set pieces in the film, she is trapped in a sarcophagus after a change-of-heart by Whiteside and Jimmy Durante, basically playing himself). The film ends in proper Christmas fashion with Bert & Maggie in love, and Whiteside finding some empathy for the world around him...which quickly disappears as he slips on the front steps again & as a result is forced to go back to staying at the house with the Stanleys.

The film is a riot, and one I wish more people had caught (it was an awesome way to start our new series).  Based on the play by Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman, the movie is hilarious and wry, with Woolley, Davis, and Sheridan in sharp form (Travis is mostly there to be handsome, which he does exceedingly well).  I had never seen a film of Woolley's prior to this, and was surprised I knew so little about him.  The actor enjoyed a brief bit of fame after this picture, almost always playing snobs, and won two Oscar nominations before his cache wore off.  It's rare to find an actor starring opposite Bette Davis that can keep up with the bitchiness, but Woolley delivers, and I am excited to see more of him (one has to wonder if The Pied Piper nomination he won in 1942 was more a joint effort for his work here, as Whiteside is completely worthy of an Oscar nomination).

Our Star of the Month gets high billing, but is decidedly the third lead of the film (I picked the films based on billing, not actually knowing the content of the pictures).  Sheridan is sly fun as a broadly-played "glamour girl," and since I'm so unfamiliar with her (I've only seen one other movie she's made), I don't know if this is a departure for her or not (all of our other films with her this month will be dramas).  She has a great dynamic with Woolley & Davis, and while she isn't quite in their league, she rings out every joke with ace timing and I am already a bit of a fan-we'll see next week if she can succeed in arguably her most well-regarded film, but we're off to a good start with The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Each month, as part of our Saturdays with the Stars series, we highlight a different actress of Hollywood's Golden Age.  This month, our focus is on Ann Sheridan-click here to learn more about Ms. Sheridan (and why I picked her), and click here for other Saturdays with the Stars articles.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Ranting On...Kevin Hart & Ellen Degeneres

The Kevin Hart "hosting...never mind" incident was over so quickly when initially Hart was offered the gig that I wasn't able to weigh in on the decision, and didn't expect I'd have to in the future since it appeared it had gone to rest.  Now, over a month later the Oscars still haven't chosen a host, and suddenly it appears like Hart is back in the running, thanks in no small part to two-time Oscar host Ellen Degeneres, who featured Hart on her show, where she gave her unequivocal support, which matters coming from the most beloved LGBT figure in entertainment.  So here we are, with my first rant of the year, talking about why it would be inappropriate for Kevin Hart to be the next Oscars host and why Degeneres damaged her public reputation by wading into this situation.

Before I get into my thoughts, it might be a worth a refresher on why Hart, one of the most profitable and prolific movie stars working today, found himself in this situation to begin with.  Hart, who has enjoyed leading film roles for most of this decade but spent the decade before as an in-demand stand-up comedian, had a number of his past tweets and comedy routines come forward with frequently homophobic language.  He joked about beating his son for being gay, called another comedian "a billboard for AIDS," and used the word "fag" in several tweets in reference to gay men.  Hart's defense in the past was that people were more sensitive about such things at the time, but while he had addressed the jokes previously and said he wouldn't make them again, he had never actually apologized and in fact didn't apologize after the uproar of these tweets threatened his hosting gig.  Only after he chose not to host the Oscars did Hart finally apologize upon stating that he would not host the ceremony this year.

Since then, though, Hart has shown less genuine remorse and more felt that he was the victim of "PC Culture" and "internet mobs."  He frequently complained about how he had apologized and was being robbed of his dream job, but rarely seemed to reflect that the complaints of the people he had apologized to were valid.  He had, in fact, said homophobic things.  That might not make him a homophobe, per se (he could have just been misinformed about what these sorts of attacks mean), but it does mean that if he genuinely wants to set a different example for his career and for his fans, he needs to acknowledge that what he did was not only wrong, but contributed to a more homophobic society.

Because the reality is that jokes like those made by Hart actually do have real-world damage because they are emulated by his fans and seen as acceptable behavior by society as a whole.  I can tell you this through personal experience-most people learn they're gay not through their own burgeoning sexuality or through self-reflection-they learn it because they're being bullied for being gay.  I was called a "fag" for the first time when I was about ten, and it wasn't the last time it happened.  I understood what being gay was as a "negative" thing because it's what I was taught in pop culture.  What happens in movies, tv, and now social media is what shapes our perceptions of each other and ourselves.  When Kevin Hart, a straight man with a giant, privileged platform, gets to call gay men derogatory terms and joke about violence against young gay men, those people who dream of becoming "the next Kevin Hart" get to do so as well.  And that, whether intentionally or not, contributes to a culture of violence and prejudice against LGBT people.

This is something that makes many people, and indeed many people whom I've had this conversation with in real life, really uncomfortable.  The reality is that we've all said or done things in our past that we wouldn't want to be judged by today.  I know it's true for me that I've said things or made comments that I would instantly apologize for today because I've learned the context of what those statements mean.  While I've largely avoided saying homophobic things (being gay helps in this regard), my gut tells me that most if not all of the straight men in my life, emulating the forefathers of Kevin Hart on a playground or school bus, have probably said something homophobic either in jest or with the comfort of their other friends condoning their behavior at some point in their lives.  We emulate what we see as acceptable in those we look up to, and while they would regret & likely wouldn't wish to do it today, that doesn't mean that the pain it caused at the time wasn't real, and didn't impact someone's life.  As a gay man in his mid-thirties who still struggles in crowds and whose idea of self-worth is still damaged by years of self-hatred brought on by this level of bullying, I can attest to this fact.  I can also say that if one of the men who bullied me as a kid and teenager genuinely apologized to me now, I would accept that apology because I understand that people change and grow as we learn, and that's something we should all embrace-we can't change the past, but it's not acceptable to ignore it either.  Had Kevin Hart simply given a genuine apology right away, this probably would have blown over.

But Hart relied on "it's just a joke" as if that's an answer, and this points to one of the larger problems with the field of comedy in particular, an area of entertainment dominated in large part by straight men.  Threatened by a society that demands they, quite literally, "change their act," comedians ranging from Hart to Louis CK to Dave Chapelle bemoan having to reduce the homophobia or transphobia or their acts, and instead put the blame on LGBT people for being "too sensitive."  Never mind that their acts have real-world consequences.  Never mind that that you would struggle to name even one gay male comedian who has enjoyed the success of a Hart or CK or Chapelle (because there isn't one).  And never mind that many times, as is the case of Hart's tweets above, these comedians are less "telling jokes" and more running into a room and shouting "you're so gay!" and demanding a laugh as a result.  "It's just a joke" sits alongside "it's just locker room talk" as an excuse to continue to demonize people different than you.

No one should understand this more than Ellen Degeneres.  Few gay entertainers have taken as many bold actions in their careers as Degeneres, who decided to risk her television show in the mid-90's to make a stand for gay rights, appearing both on and off-screen as a lesbian woman.  Her career did suffer as a result of this-her show was quickly cancelled, and she struggled to find work until Finding Nemo and her talk show eventually made her into one of America's most beloved entertainers.  It's difficult for me to outwardly criticize a woman who has meant so much to the gay community, and whose advocacy & bravery helped change the conversation about gay rights in America.  Ellen coming out was the first time in my whole life I heard of a person being gay and didn't internalize it as something that was dangerous or something to hate in myself; I'm not alone in that regard.  It is hard for me to fault Degeneres for the largely milquetoast direction she's taken her career since-considering what initially coming out cost her, I don't expect her to continue to be a rebel for the cause & continually risk her career for the remainder of her life just because she was the first.  I also understand the microscope she is under as arguably the most famous gay person in the United States, to have a picture perfect life/marriage/career since to many people, she's their go-to gay person of reference.  Had she just not said anything, I don't think anyone would have cared that she hadn't weighed in on the Kevin Hart story.

But she did weigh in, and as a result contributed negatively to her brothers and sisters in the gay community.  By ignoring Hart's homophobic remarks and his refusal to take any responsibility for them, she chooses to absolve him rather than focus on the hurt he did to LGBT people.  This is likely due to her now enjoying an impossibly elevated status of privilege as a famous, wealthy celebrity rather than someone who faces the potential violence of homophobia and transphobia still prevalent in the United States and around the world.  It might also have to do with her catering to respectability politics and trying to make Middle America comfortable, even if it encourages prejudice against gay men.  Whatever the reasons, Degeneres hurt the gay community and their quest for equality and a world free from discrimination by using her position as a gay rights pioneer to try and help out Hart without letting him learn something from this experience.  If the Academy follows suit (which they may well do), it will appear as if what Hart said didn't matter, that he should only try and be supportive to LGBT people when there's something in it for him.  Degeneres badly bruised her legacy, in my opinion, by attempting to "make everything nice," but in the process just making a straight man who said homophobic things comfortable while further marginalizing LGBT people who are the real-world victims of Hart's comments and the culture they create.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Film: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Stars: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Vincent Price
Director: Charles Barton
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

A few months ago, we did a series highlighting the horror/monster films of the pre-1970 era of cinema, and one of the pictures I was most hoping to highlight was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  It was, in fact, the movie I was expecting to cap off the series with, considering it was largely the end of the first batch of Universal monster movies, but sadly Netflix decided it wasn't time for me to get that disc (I'm never going to complain about my little red envelopes too hard since, thanks to the demise of FilmStruck, Netflix discs are the best spot for actual movie-lovers and not just streamers who want to watch TV, but it is a bummer that it feels so arbitrary over which of your Top 5 films will actually come to you next, especially when you're planning a series).  However, by chance I caught this movie over the Christmas break (because who doesn't associate such a film with Christmas?), and didn't want to wait a full year to share my thoughts on the picture, so let's include it as an honorary member of the series.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film stars Abbott and Costello as Chick and Wilbur, respectively, but let's be real here-every Abbott & Costello movie stars them as themselves.  The two are baggage clerks charged with moving two items for a House of Horrors exhibit, a Frankenstein's Monster (Strange) and the remains of Dracula (Lugosi).  What of course we know and the duo soon realize is that these aren't just dummies for a horror show, but in fact the actual Frankenstein and Dracula.  They eventually meet up with Larry Talbot aka the Wolf Man (Chaney) who had warned them about the dangers of Frankenstein & Dracula, and wants to find a way to destroy the monsters.  Wilbur's girlfriend turns out to be in cahoots with Dracula, and is trying to seduce him to steal his brain to give to Frankenstein's monster.  A wild series of antics ensues at the castle, including a number of madcap chases, before all three of the monsters are destroyed, and Wilbur & Chick make out on a boat, claiming they want to be done with such adventures, only to be joined in a brief cameo by Vincent Price as the Invisible Man, lighting a cigarette on the boat.

The movie is silly fun, but man is it fun.  For those who haven't seen an Abbott & Costello routine or movie, it's usually predicated on Costello seeing and trying to explain something ridiculous to Abbott, usually without success.  The entire sequence where Lugosi and Strange come to life is a riot, as Costello keeps finding ways to just miss the monsters rising from their coffins, clearly seeing them but never catching them in the act when Abbott is there.  The duo had their struggles late in their careers, but here they have never been better, and it's easy to understand why this is regarded as their finest hour.  Costello has rarely been funnier, and it's a thrill to see them play opposite Lugosi, Strange, and Chaney, all taking on their iconic roles for the last time.

This feels like a fitting end to the horror icons of the monster movies.  We profiled so many of them in October it feels a bit wistful to bid them adieu in such a way, but the movies were increasingly played for laughs as the series' continued (look at Lugosi's Igor in the later Frankenstein pictures, for example, who regularly has dastardly intentions that even in the 1940's felt more parody than actually terrifying).  This was weirdly the only time other than the original Dracula where Lugosi would play his most iconic creation onscreen-the sequels either skipped Dracula entirely or had a different actor (like John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr) play the part.  It's a joy to see Lugosi, who would never appear in another major Hollywood studio film again & would instead be in truly horrible films for Ed Wood (while dying of a methadone addiction), get to have one last hurrah with the character.  Abbott & Costello are the obvious stars here, but I've become attached to Lugosi over our series and as a result he became something of a sentimental favorite with this picture for me.

Every October we do a recurring series of Monster Films, looking at pre-1970 horror/thriller films.  While it's not October, I still thought it'd be fun to add this movie to the list considering its important position in the horror film canon:

FrankensteinThe Bride of FrankensteinThe Wolf ManDraculaMad LoveSon of FrankensteinCreature from the Black LagoonThe MummyFreaksThe Ghost of FrankensteinIt Came from Outer SpaceThe House of FrankensteinThe Phantom of the OperaThe Masque of the Red Death, Invasion of the Body Snatchers