Jesters want the throne

Forget about playing shadowy, Nixonian dirty tricks on one’s political opponents. This POTUS race is shaping up to be all about the public trolling—with bonus points awarded for daffiness.

Exhibit A: After Marco Rubio got all sweaty in the endless CNN debate, Team Trump delivered a thoughtful care package to Rubio HQ, containing a case of Trump Ice Natural Spring Water (yep, that’s a thing), two towels printed with “Make America Great Again,” some Trump bumper stickers, and a note reading, “Since you’re always sweating, we thought you could use some water. Enjoy!”

Admittedly, Trump lives to publicly gig his adversaries—and has the soul of a carnival barker. But Hillary? Even as Trump was tweaking Rubio, the Clinton campaign sent the entire Republican field copies of her book Hard Choices. A cheeky comeback to attacks lobbed at Clinton during the GOP debate, the book arrived with a friendly note from Hillary: “From working to restore America’s standing in the world to bringing crippling sanctions to Iran to negotiating a ceasefire in Gaza, please enjoy all 596 pages of my time as secretary of state. With 15 candidates in the race, you’ve got enough people for a book club!”

Then there’s the desperate-for-attention Martin O’Malley. In August, the governor tried drawing Trump’s fire by rallying outside the billionaire’s Vegas hotel with a crowd of hotel workers looking to unionize. The next month, O’Malley pulled an outright goofy stunt aimed both at financial fat cats and the non-grassroots campaigns they fund. Longtime front man for a Celtic rock band, the governor donned his coolest black T-shirt, grabbed his guitar, and spent an hour busking on Wall Street to see if a guy could “make an honest buck” there. According to the video/fund-raising plea his team subsequently sent out, O’Malley pulled in $1.74 and a pack of gummy bears.

Presidential behavior clearly isn’t what it used to be. These days, even our aspiring commanders in chief feel compelled to display what fun-loving, down-to-earth characters they are. Blame it on social media or the Kardashians or Bill Clinton’s long-ago willingness to share with us his underwear preferences. But things are getting wacky out there on the trail. At this rate, I half expect to see Jeb! try to pants Rubio in some future debate.

Take my wife, please

Deep into the twelfth hour of the second Republican debate, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked candidates what notable woman they would like to see replace Andrew Jackson’s face on the $10 bill. Several made solid suggestions: Rand Paul proffered Susan B. Anthony; Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump went with Rosa Parks. Others punted: Jeb Bush bizarrely suggested “Ronald Reagan’s partner, Margaret Thatcher”—making you wonder if he really couldn’t think of an American lass worthy of U.S. currency. Carly Fiorina did that thing that women who don’t want to be accused of playing the gender card do: pooh-poohed the very notion that women are “a special interest” group who need such meaningless “gestures.” (I don’t know: as the mother of a ten-year-old girl, I’m all for reminding people that U.S. history includes some kick-ass women.) Ben Carson named his mamma.

But the answer that stood out—and not in a good way—came from Mike Huckabee, with his grinning, self-satisfied suggestion that his wife, Janet, be tapped: “I’ve been married to her forty-one years. She’s fought cancer and lived through it. She’s raised three kids and five great grandkids. And she’s put up with me. I mean, who else could possibly be on that money other than my wife? And then that way she could spend her own money with her face.”

Ick. Let us ignore for a moment that what begins as a cutesy-pie nod to Janet’s surviving cancer and motherhood winds up as a joke about how she likes to spend money. (Ha. Ha. Get it? The little woman has a shopping problem.)

More generally, Huckabee’s benignly sexist blather is the ultimate in cheap pandering. Candidates looking to score points with the ladies are forever tossing off some variation on the my-wife-is-the-real-superstar theme to try and show what appreciative, not-remotely-self-absorbed husbands they are. (Even the professionally abrasive Chris Christie isn’t immune. “Everyone thinks I’m the politician in the family,” he recently gushed to Time about his wife, Mary Pat. “But the politician just as good as me in the family is the woman that I met all those years ago at the University of Delaware.”) Are women still charmed by this sort of thing? More often than not, such flattery comes across less as genuinely admiring than as patronizing. (Yessiree, my gal could run circles around me if she wanted to!) I cannot imagine the husbands of female candidates putting up with this pat-on-the-head nonsense for very long. Although, if Carly Fiorina wants to give it a shot, I’d love to watch.

The civil servant’s lament

Pity the poor good-government crusader, forever championing a cause that, though worthy, is about as sexy as a pair of mom jeans. How is government reform supposed to capture the public, much less the presidential, imagination when up against more urgent perils like economic inequality, racial unrest, ISIS, and Donald Trump?

With the clock on the Obama era running out, Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, recently launched a classic, you’ve-failed-miserably-on-this-issue-thus-far-but-there’s-still-time-to-save-your-legacy Hail Mary. In a September 2 op-ed in the Washington Post, Stier criticized Obama for having abandoned his 2008 campaign promise to “make government cool again,” then listed a number of administration fiascos—the botched ACA rollout, the VA scandal, the OPM data breach, Secret Service agents gone wild—that might have been avoided if only Obama had been serious about reform. “But it is not too late,” Stier assured the president, before laying out his multipoint plan for tackling government inefficiency. He ends with this cri de coeur: “It is incumbent on the president to make up for lost time by investing—while he still has the power to deliver results—more of his energy and clout in improving how government works. In the process, he can help restore faith in the government’s ability to meet the needs of the American people.”

A little desperate, maybe. But you’ve got to give the guy props for fighting the good fight.

Bureaucrats with jet packs

To be fair, President Obama probably never had a prayer of “making government cool.” But what about Matt Damon? This fall’s action film The Martian (which raked in some $50 mil on opening weekend) is likely to do more for NASA’s image than a barrelful of POTUSes. Not only do Damon and his fellow astronauts deliver thrills with their MacGyver-esque plan to rescue Damon from the red planet, the support team members back on earth wield their science skills like a bunch of nerd ninjas. Not one of the bunch is stupid or venal or incompetent. Never have government geeks looked so good. (And FWIW, my middle school son and his friends thought the book was even better.)

Judge not, lest you be judged

I take backseat to no one in my conviction that Donald Trump is a toxic, narcissistic rodeo clown. That said, I genuinely felt for the guy when Ben Carson started taking passive-aggressive shots at Trump’s faith. Asked at a late-summer campaign stop in Iowa what he thought was the chief difference between him and the Donald, Carson primly offered up that he recognizes that success comes from God. As to whether Trump’s faith is sincere, Carson whipped out Proverbs 22:4. “ ‘The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life,’ ” he quoted. “That’s a very big part of who I am: humility, and fear of the Lord. I don’t get that impression with him. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Trump promptly fired back: “Who is he to question my faith? When I am—I mean, he doesn’t even know me.”

Now, I neither know nor care who is the truer Christian, Trump or Carson. I am, however, suspicious of any aspirant for high office who talks down the opposition by trumpeting his own biblically inspired humility.

Just ask JFK

In light of Ben Carson’s self-congratulatory piety, I wasn’t surprised when, not long after questioning Trump’s faith, the good doctor caused a kerfuffle by drowsily asserting that America should not elect a Muslim president because Islam does not jibe with the U.S. Constitution. (Presumably Carson is not referring to Article VI of said Constitution, which forbids religious litmus tests.) Everyone is entitled to his preferred brand of bigotry, I suppose. So perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that most of Carson’s fellow candidates greeted his remarks with little more than a yawn.

Still, one wonders what the seven Catholic candidates (6 R, 1 D) running for president really thought of Carson’s casual Islamophobia, given that their faith elicited similar antireligious sentiments in the ’60s. And what about Mitt Romney, who faced a lingering anti-Mormon bias in his 2012 run? The impulse to politicize religion and fuel faith-based anxiety never really goes out of style. And it invariably reminds me of the Max von Sydow line from the 1986 Woody Allen classic, Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

Full of hot air

When trying to make sense of a complicated, contentious policy debate, how do you know which side is talking rubbish? Easy. Whichever side Betsy McCaughey is on. A former lieutenant governor of New York and veteran of the conservative think tank world, McCaughey became a darling of the right in 1994, with a long piece in the New Republic dissecting—and decimating—Hillarycare. The piece was later shown to be a load of bunk, but not before supplying juicy talking points to reform critics. McCaughey subsequently served a term as lieutenant governor of New York, but thanks to several subsequent missteps (fueled by a fair amount of personal nuttiness), McCaughey’s political career short-circuited and she faded from public view. In 2009, however, she came roaring back as one of the most outspoken, apocalyptic critics of Obamacare. Admittedly, the competition was steep. But it was McCaughey who first floated the specter of death panels (though props to Sarah Palin for actually coining the phrase). Even some of McCaughey’s fellow conservatives started slapping her for her dishonest scaremongering.

McCaughey recently hit my radar screen again with a September op-ed in the New York Post, this time on the hot topic of climate change. Taking aim at President Obama’s Alaska visit, McCaughey mocked him for not understanding that “climate change has been happening forever.” This is, to be sure, one of the favorite arguments of climate change skeptics (and one that climate scientists will be happy to dismantle for you). Though, to be fair, McCaughey brings a tone of self-righteous hysteria to her scolding that few can match:

It’s a demonstration of Obama’s appalling lack of priorities. The president told his Alaska audience that “few things will disrupt our lives as profoundly as climate change.” Really, Mr. President? How about the epidemic of cop shootings in the United States, or the drowned toddlers washing up on Mediterranean shores as families flee the Middle East, or ISIS beheading thousands of Christians?
Obama says that with climate change, more than any other issue, “there is such a thing as being too late.” Tell that to a cop’s widow or the father who watched his family drown.

Reading the piece—part statistical cherry picking, part diatribe, and 100 percent McCaughey—all I could think was: Climate change skeptics really should be more careful about the company they keep.

How Tea Partiers could learn to stop worrying and love solar power

My husband and I are aiming to get solar panels installed on our home early next year. I’d like to tell you that this is all part of my deep commitment to being a good environmental steward, but that would be a lie. For me, a huge part of the appeal of solar power involves loosening the chokehold of the utilities. Now, my electricity provider happens to be Pepco, which earned the distinction of being the most hated company in America just a few years ago. But even disregarding the specialness of my particular provider, I simply don’t like monopolies and quasi monopolies. They tend to grow sloppy and lazy and greedy and entitled. (Just look at telecom giants like Comcast and Verizon, whom pretty much everyone hates.) And news reports of competition-phobic utilities laboring to find ways to block consumers from installing solar panels does terrible things to my blood pressure.

Which makes me wonder: With populist anger inflaming both ends of the U.S. political spectrum, is there an opening for green-energy advocates to fire up folks typically ambivalent about enviro issues with a stick-it-to-the-fat-cats-who-are-sticking-it-to-you message? Some solar supporters have been flirting with this approach for a while now (notably Barry Goldwater Jr. out in Arizona). But the presidential race could offer even more opportunities. Polarizing phrases like “climate change” or “greenhouse gases” or “renewable energy” need not ever be uttered. Someone just needs to find a clever way to remind fed-up voters—especially Tea Party conservatives—that Big Energy is conspiring with elements of Big Government to keep them tied to the grid forever. Just think of how much fun Donald Trump could have irking the Koch brothers with this issue if only he’d abandon his current “energy plan” of seizing all the Mideast oil fields.

If you can’t beat ’em, run against ’em

Perhaps the thing I find most troubling about the Republican approach to elections is not the attempts of money men like Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers to buy races. (Post-Citizens United, this is pretty much the way the game is played on both sides.) It’s all the energy the party is expending on curtailing voting rights (stricter voter ID laws, tighter registration guidelines, reduced early voting …). This strikes me as depressing not only because of its practical impact but also because it smells like a strategic surrender by the GOP—an acknowledgment that it is losing the demographic battle, but, rather than working to broaden its appeal, it’s instead working to make voting as onerous as possible for Americans who fall outside its shrinking base (i.e., anyone who isn’t old and white).

For this reason, I’m cheered when I learn of groups working on creative ways to increase participation in the system. Case in point: Jim Cupples and the folks at the BallotPath Project are looking to improve what they call the “candidacy turnout” side of the equation. With an eye toward facilitating access, the group is creating a giant database containing info on local offices around the country and what it takes to run for them. Politically interested citizens will be able to enter their address into the site and pull up a list of all the elective positions available in their area—from school board member to parks & rec director to utility commissioner to justice of the peace—along with the requirements for getting on the ballot. Originally launched with money from the Sunlight Foundation, Cupples’s project was taken up by the engineers and developers at NationBuilder in January 2015. The goal is to have data for the nation’s 100 most populous counties ready to roll before the site’s planned launch in January.

Who knows how much impact a project like this will have. I can think of a couple dozen hundred very good reasons why decent, sensible people might not want to run for office. But at least this is a push in the direction of more, rather than less, engagement.

“Please, make them leave”—Iowa voters

One thing I find encouraging about the GOP’s election thinking: RNC chairman Reince Priebus’s suggestion that maybe, just maybe, Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn’t always go first in presidential nominating contests. Not that he has anything against the first-in-the-nation voters, Priebus told National Journal, it’s just that “the party would benefit from bringing new ideas and fresh blood into the process.” Amen, brother.

Both parties could, in fact, do without having to suck up to the same subset of folks every single election cycle. I have long argued that Iowa has no business wielding so much power. The state’s electorate is too old, too white, too rural. But mostly, it is too entitled after so many years of having presidential wannabes grovel after the sliver of voters who bother to caucus. ’Tis well past time to work out a rotating schedule that would give other states’ voters a chance to have candidates cater to their pet issues. Fair is fair.

Hate the player, change the game

It was a rough autumn for Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund trader and founder of Turing Pharmaceuticals. When the news broke in mid-September that Shkreli had been engaged in some friendly price gouging—in August, Turing bought the drug Daraprim, a sixty-two-year-old antiparasitic used to treat toxoplasmosis, and promptly jacked up the per-pill price from $13.50 to $750—the thirty-two-year-old Shkreli became the smirking global face of corporate profiteering and all-around scumbaggery.

Social media promptly jumped on Shkreli with both feet, while politicians, including presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, vowed to investigate. Within seventy-two hours, Shkreli had taken his Twitter account private, deactivated his OKCupid profile (poor guy), and announced that Turing would dial back its price hike.

Shkreli is the kind of guy you love to hate. He likes to boast about how rich he is, and his immediate response to criticism of Turing was to tweet out defiant, Trump-style insults. More notably, he has an impressive history of corporate sleaziness for someone so young. According to the New York Times, pre-Turing, Shkreli headed another drug start-up, Retrophin, whose core business strategy was to buy up older, lesser-prescribed drugs, repackage them as “specialty” meds, and slap a boutique price tag on them. A year ago, Shkreli was fired from Retrophin, after board members accused him of using the company to cover losses from his hedge fund. A Wall Street denizen since the age of seventeen, Shkreli’s even more youthful shenanigans include being sued by Lehman Brothers for refusal to honor a put option (he and his hedge fund were ordered to pay Lehman $2.3 million) and pressing the FDA not to approve drugs made by firms whose stock he was shorting.

But it may be that Shkreli winds up doing us all a favor. The repackaging—and up-pricing—of older drugs, including generics, is part of a growing industry trend. Among other cases spotlighted by the Times was that of cycloserine, a treatment for multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis that, after being acquired by Rodelis Therapeutics this summer, shot from $500 to $10,800 for thirty pills. In response to the Turing uproar, Rodelis Therapeutics agreed to return cycloserine to its previous owner, a nonprofit group with ties to Purdue University, which pledged to bring the cost back down to earth.

But addressing the macro problem requires more than the occasional public shaming. It calls for changing the way drug companies are allowed to set prices, which currently happens with close to zero accountability. At the very least, greater transparency is needed regarding how prices are set. Patient advocates and some politicians—including Bernie Sanders, Senators Chuck Grassley and Ron Wyden, and Representative Elijah Cummings—have been looking into the issue for a while now. (On the local level, six states are considering transparency legislation.) But it took a figure as grotesque as Shkreli to provoke widespread public outrage—which, hopefully, will move this issue up the to-do list for more leaders. For that, at least, we can thank him.

Michelle Cottle

Follow Michelle on Twitter @mcottle. Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times editorial board and the Washington Monthly's Board of Directors. She was an editor for the Monthly from 1996 to 1998.