Creating an Osler Plan

Like many people, in the last week it suddenly and perhaps belatedly dawned on me that this lockdown, which I have been taking day by day, is going to last for another three months.  A week or two you can handle just by winging it.  Several months?  That probably requires some thought, even planning.

So I decided to think about it (!). 

But, how do you do that?

To make plans for the next three months, I used a technique that I am calling an Osler Plan.  It is named after Sir William Osler, one of Canada’s greatest ever physicians, and one of the four founding professors at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  (Yes, Osler was related to the Osler that founded the law firm Osler Hoskin, his brother Britton.  His other brother was stockbroker Sir Edmund Osler, politician and philanthropist, and one-time business partner of Sir Henry Pellatt).  Dr. Osler’s biography was very influential for me personally when I was growing up (both his biography itself – the 1940 bio by Harvey Cushing, which I discovered by accident at the age of 11 – and his famous 1913 speech to Yale students, “A Way of Life”), even though his personality was clearly different from anyone I knew, then or now.

One particularly unique thing about Osler was that, from a young age, he planned everything he did, every day, hour by hour.  He obsessed over wasting time, when a better daily plan could make him more productive.  I could never do that (seriously?), but it was a hugely interesting approach to life.

Hence, an “Osler Plan” for a pandemic lockdown.

One other diversion from the main topic.  I have named the plan, but I didn’t invent it.  This arose out of an internet exchange I had with a friend of mine in Hong Kong, who said this is what he is doing.  He too disclaimed credit, however, saying someone else suggested it to him. 

Sir William Osler, of course, had nothing to do with it.  Although, he probably would have liked it a lot. 

An Osler Plan has three steps:  baseline without pandemic; baseline with pandemic; and plan.

Simple, right?

Baseline Without Pandemic

In the period April 1st to June 30th there are 2,184 hours.  If there had been no pandemic, you would have been spending those hours doing various things, from sleeping and eating to meetings at work.  Every hour can be accounted for, if you spend the time to think about it.

Well, you have the time right now, so this is the first step.  In normal circumstances, how many of those 2,184 hours would have been spent on each activity? 

Don’t cheat.  This is not what you wish you would be doing, but what you forecast you would actually do.  (The wish part comes later.)  The truth may surprise you.

For example, someone who sleeps seven and a half hours per night on a regular basis will spend 683 of those hours sleeping (31.3% of their time).  If your sleep pattern is different than that, your hours will be different.  Don’t forget, for example, that hour you spend every morning, after you turn off your alarm, and before you get out of bed.

Similarly, most people spend a certain amount of time each day commuting to and from their place of work.  If you spend 45 minutes each way, each day, five days a week, but excluding holidays, that is 93 hours (4.26% of your time) spent commuting.  Your figure might be higher or lower.  Also, you may be able to do other activities (work, reading, crosswords, etc.) some of that time.  That should be accounted for as well.

There is a whole list of things you can do that are like this:  making and/or eating meals, time spent in the bathroom, including showers and baths, reading newspapers (paper or online), household chores, and so on.

Some things will be less obvious, but still important.  In the period April to June, I realized that I would spend at least 40 hours watching NBA games, and much more if the Raptors went deep into the playoffs, like last year.  I would also spend at least 40 hours watching major golfing events, like the Masters, the PGA Championship, and the U.S. Open.  For someone else, there might be similar hours engrossed in NHL playoffs, or the first three months of the Major League Baseball season, or Wimbledon Tennis, or the Tour de France, or the weekly UFC fighting events.

Outside of sports, you may be one that plants a new garden every year, or has a house upgrade project each spring, that sort of thing.  How much time would you spend on that?

Don’t forget work.  As a lawyer, I have to docket the time I spend on my work, and as a discipline I also docket the non-billable component of my work (like the administrative crap), so I start with a good idea of how many hours I would spend on that.  For others, they will have a harder time of it, but it is worthwhile to be careful about this.  Divide your time “at work” between actually working and other things, like lunch, breaks, or socializing.  Those things are important, but they are different.  Don’t forget time at conferences, or seminars, or other things that are work-related.

The key is to ensure that the breakdown adds up to 2,184 hours.  The first try, you will fall short, perhaps by a lot.  That is when you realize you average an hour a day playing Sudoku, or Candy Crush, or crossword puzzles, or just fiddling around on your guitar.  You may be forced to accept that your Facebook and Twitter time is not, in fact, “under control”.  You may even be shocked at how little (or how much, if you’re lucky) time you spend just hanging out with your own family or friends.

Once this exercise is done, you should have a realistic baseline, but your baseline is not over.  There is a second part, which is the aspirational part.

Look at the baseline activities, and ask yourself what other things would you wish you were doing in that period, or wish you were doing more. 

For example, my baseline includes 50 hours on my novel, which is about four hours a week.  I wish I could spend more time on it, maybe even three or four times as much.  That is actually doable in a non-pandemic future, but my realistic baseline could not include it.  I know how lazy I am, and novel writing is very hard.

You will have many things like that.  Maybe your “annual home fixup” isn’t in your baseline, because you know you will want to do it, but then not get around to it.  That is an aspirational activity.  Maybe you really really want to have a garage sale, so that your kids don’t continue to accuse you of being a hoarder.  Maybe the new gym opening down the street is calling your name, and you should – but probably won’t – join and start working out.  Maybe you always wanted to learn how to build a website.

Don’t forget personal things, i.e. “non-task” activities.  Most of us have some old friends with whom we would like to reconnect.  Some of us would like to adjust our use of social media, or start a hobby.  There are probably many things like that on your mental wish list. 

Now you have two baselines:  the real one, and the add-ons that probably wouldn’t make it to reality, but you still actually want to do. 

This may all seem like a waste of time, but bear with me.  It takes time, for sure, but it may be worth it.

Baseline with Pandemic    

The second step is to do the same exercise, but based on a forecast of how you expect to spend your time during the pandemic lockdown.  Note carefully:  this is not how you plan to spend your time, or how you want to spend your time.  Take a look at the last two or three weeks.  Use that as your starting point.  This is supposed to be a forecast about reality, not fantasy. 

Or, to put that another way, do you realize how lazy you’ve been the last couple of weeks?  Don’t ignore the truth.

I enjoy spreadsheets (yes, I said it – sue me), so I did my baseline without pandemic in Excel.  The next step – doing a baseline with the pandemic – was easier because of it.  I could basically do them side by side.

Some of your changes will be straightforward.  Commuting time may go down to zero.  Time spent each Friday night at the local pub?  Also zero.  That Sunday morning hockey game with the guys from work?  That’s gone, and also many other similar things.

Watching sports is also changing, because live sports have for the most part been cancelled for the next little while.  The Raptors will remain world champions for another year, and the Leafs will be able to avoid having their hopes dashed for another year.  All those hours you spent watching them?  Removed from the list.

Other things are more subtle.  Are you spending more time making and eating food, because you are eating out less?  Or, alternatively, are you spending less time, because you are ordering delivery for every meal, avoiding the crowded supermarket?  Are you sleeping less because you are less active, or sleeping more because you’re bored?  Are you using the lockdown as an excuse not to get out on your bicycle, or are you finding extra time to do one of the few physical activities still allowed?  Are you spending more time with your kids, and if so is that home schooling, or just getting to know them better?  And so on.

Work may be a little more complicated. Depending on your job, work may go from seven hours a day to four, or to one (or, if you’re a health care worker, twelve, but then you don’t have either the time or the need to do an Osler Plan; you’re too busy saving the rest of us).  You may be surprised at how productive you can be with less hours, but in any case you have to assess how many hours you are spending actually working now, in lockdown, and forecast that into the next three months.

On the other side, there are things you are doing a lot more already, like watching old TV shows that you (apparently) always wanted to watch.  Or obsessing over Covid-19 data on Worldometers.  Or spending two hours a day glued to the White House news conference, and associated punditry.  Or watching episodes of the Simpsons you’ve already seen three times.

Like the no pandemic baseline, this process will result, on the first run, in a total that falls far short of 2,184 hours.  Then you have to go back through it, and through your recent memory, to fill in the other things that are making up the rest of the time.  The true time-wasters, probably.  They count too.  In some respects, they are the most important.

Your Osler Plan    

All of the stuff you’ve done so far is about gathering and organizing data (whether real, forecast, or potential), which is the first and usually most important part of making any good plan.  Plans are just scenarios for the future, and they are always built on a foundation of data and assumptions.

The last step is to re-state your next three months’ activity in a way that makes you happier, and treats this enforced isolation as an opportunity rather than just a curse.  Create a new, better, future scenario.

Some things will jump out at you.  Now you can actually clean the basement, or plant a vegetable garden.  You have no more excuses.  And, think of how good you’ll feel, knowing it is done, and you did it.

Other things should jump out at you, but may not.  Can you spend more constructive time with your family, now that you’re cooped up anyway?  What can you do together that you haven’t done in the past, when everyone was off doing their own thing much of the time?  What about learning a language together, or planning a big family trip for next year?  (One person I know is getting his young daughter, an aspiring ballerina, to teach him how to dance.  Facebook users are enjoying their videos of the lessons.)

When you are doing this, you are doing two things.  First, you are reducing the time spent wastefully, like that 150 hours (6.9% of your time!) on White House press conferences.  Second, you are moving some of the activities on your wish list into reality.

What is most amazing about this whole exercise is that you can add a lot of aspirational things to your plan, and still have time to relax and enjoy.  Once you remove 500 – 1000 hours of dead time – both the lollygagging you normally do, and the extra laziness you could get away with during the pandemic because you have so much extra time – there is a lot you can accomplish if you want to. 

If you fill even half of that time with things that will make your life happier and better in the long run, that will be worth it.


Once you have your own personal Osler Plan, you still have to do it.  A plan is useless without implementation.

However, it is almost certainly easier than it looks.  Aspirational activities are often shunted aside by the weight of responsibilities and the clutter of a busy life.  When you aren’t as busy, and you are less in control of the future anyway, that is when those activities can be brought to the fore.

Even if you only do some of it, that is still an improvement over the alternative.  A clean basement, or a newly rejuvenated friendship, or a stronger bond with your kids?  Any of those things is a good thing.  If you accomplish only some of your Osler Plan, your life will still be much better.

At the end of this, when we are “back to normal”, whatever that new normal is, I’m going to be asking my two adult kids how they took advantage of the months of Covid-19 lockdown.  They’re going to ask me the same question, of course.  I want my answer, and theirs, to be a good one.

Sir William Osler would approve.

Jay Shepherd, April 7, 2020   

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The Rebirth of the Phone Call (For Men)

Remember when we used to talk to each other on the telephone?   I mean in real words, using our actual voices? Yes, really.

A guy I know told me today “I’ve connected with more friends by telephone in the last week than I did in the previous decade.”  True.  Me too, and apparently many others.

We have all seen the statistics.  Less than a third of North American households still have a landline, so the phone dedicated to voice calling is rapidly going the way of the buggy whip.  Smart phones, those ubiquitous and perhaps dangerous replacements for both phone and computer, continue to grow.  Today, there are 1.4 phone lines for every man, woman, and child in North America, the vast majority of them cell-based.

And on smart phones, the shift from “talking” on the phone to text and data based interactions has been stunning.  First emails, and then texting and instant messaging, have rapidly overtaken and surpassed voice calling.  The latest statistic is that, while voice calling has increased at slightly less than the rate of population increase (even as voice calls became much cheaper and easier), the rate of communication using data has increased at a compound annual growth rate of over 45% per year over the last decade (i.e. forty times what it was ten years ago). 

By the way, if you think those figures are extreme, that only means you are my age.  People under the age of thirty use data communications even more heavily, to the point where some of them avoid voice calls altogether.

All of this information is fine, but none of it is news. 

There is another step, though.  Ask yourself how much telephone conversations just to connect with others have dropped.  Not calls to order a pizza.  Not calls to wait on hold for the cable company.  What about just chatting on the phone with a friend? 

It is those more personal calls – calls that are truly people making social connections with each other – that have declined the most.  For many people, the half hour phone call with a friend to “catch up” has just disappeared.

Let me give you just one surprising statistic.  In the U.K., 2017 marked the first year that the total number of cell phone voice call minutes dropped compared to the previous year.  The voice call minutes per person had been declining for a couple of years, but now the overall total is declining.  In Canada, more than a quarter of all smart phone users now have five or less voice calls per month.  Fully 60% of those calls are 90 seconds or less.

Obviously this is in part because of social media, which allows daily, even constant connection with people that are close to you, or even not close to you.  We have developed the habit of sharing our lives with people we wouldn’t recognize on the street, just as much as we do with our friends and even family members.  It is a different sort of connection, of course.  Many say it hurts real relationships, even as it perhaps breathes some life into more tenuous “relationships”. 

Most people now prefer to send text messages rather than make a phone call.  So often what we want to say to each other is just communication of a piece of information.  For some, and particularly for those who are younger (and have lived their whole lives with smart phones), it is easier to send a text.  There is no interaction, it takes a few seconds, and the recipient doesn’t get the ability to tie you up for a longer time, or on other matters that you maybe don’t want to deal with right now.

All of this is fine, and we could argue forever on whether the good parts of this shift outweigh the bad, or vice versa.  Some would even argue that we interact in person more because our normal “internet-based” connections are not as interactive and personal.  I know lots of people who would prefer to meet for a coffee or drink rather than talk on the telephone. 

Enter Covid-19.

For the last couple of weeks, we haven’t been able to interact with our friends and family in person, and that is likely to continue for at least a month or more.  Of course, we still have social media, and email, text, and instant messaging.  We have lots of ways to communicate, many more than we ever had years ago.

That is clearly not enough.  What “social distancing” is reminding us is that we need the ability to engage with others in real time.  It is a human desire, that ability to connect in a manner that allows us to be “together” as we communicate.  Texts and emails are back and forth communications.  First it is your turn, then my turn.  It can be a conversation of sorts, but even so-called instant messaging only allows communication in the sense of a tennis match: separate messages back and forth across the net.  It is a less engaged and less immediate form of interaction.  (At least in tennis you can see the other player.  In messaging, it is even less personal than that.)

As a result, in the currently more isolated situation while we fight a dangerous pandemic, many people are turning back to the telephone.  It is not as good as interacting with people in person, but when that avenue is cut off, the voice call (or, for some people, the video call) is the next best thing.

But here’s the thing.  For a lot of people, this is a rusty skill.

There are probably three reasons for that.

First, there is a greater level of actual engagement required in a phone call than in messaging.  Yes, I know many of us are used to conference call meetings and the like, but that is not in any way the same.  In a conference call meeting, you can be as engaged as you like, or just an slightly interested listener.  There are always lots of people to carry the conversation.  Not so when you are on the phone with a friend.  There are only the two of you.  Your mind can’t wander.  You are spending time with your friend.  Nothing else can intrude on your thoughts. 

Second, when voice calling was the norm, we all had to have some ability to read conversational signals from tone and timbre.  Not able to see a person’s face, or body language, we instead read their voice.  Some people were very good at it.  Others, not so much.  Today, this is often a lost art.

Third, as “chatting” on the phone has become less common, we have adopted a mentality that phone calls must have a purpose.  You call someone to discuss “something”.  The idea of calling just to connect has faded.  What this means is that, today, when we are connecting with people on the phone because we are physically isolated, we are at more of a loss as to how the conversation should unfold.  That ability to just let a conversation flow – wherever it may go – is something that we understand in an in person setting, but may feel is less natural in a phone call.

To put that more simply, if you call a friend just because you know you won’t have a chance to hang out over the next month or so, it is easy for them – or even you – to redefine the call as “checking up on them to see that they’re OK”.  That’s all very nice, but it isn’t the point, and a check-in is not the same as a real conversation. 

Interestingly enough, when I discussed this whole telephoning thing with a woman of similar age to me, she noted that she talks on the phone with friends on a regular basis, and the Covid-19 situation hasn’t really changed that very much.  For her, it is not a “rusty skill” at all, and she thought that would be true for many other women she knows. 

The men she knows, on the other hand, never talk on the phone with anyone.  (She laughed!)

It has been always thus, of course.  If you look back in the scientific literature, you will see many studies of the differences in telephone habits between men and women.  Numerous studies demonstrate that women spend more time on the phone, and have longer conversations.  More to the point, they are significantly more likely to use the telephone for what is called “relationship maintenance” purposes. 

Those of a certain age would remember the comedy routine, recycled by many top comedians, contrasting men and women on the telephone.  Two men would have a call of thirty seconds to arrange to meet for lunch.  Two women would have the same call, to arrange that same lunch, but spend fifteen minutes to do so.

Or, this more recent one-liner from comedian Kevin Burke: “Women will call other women on the phone just to talk.  If a man calls me on the phone just to talk, I owe him money.”

But now we’re all stuck in our little physical bubbles for the next while, and suddenly men have only the telephone to connect with other people.  For many of us, we have to re-learn how to do that.  Or learn for the first time, in some cases.

All of which suggests that, if some enterprising women would like to do a webinar on how to talk to people on the telephone, we men could certainly use the help.

Jay Shepherd, March 31, 2020

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Those Damned Baby Boomers

The Covid-19 pandemic is testing the patience (and maturity) of many, as social distancing clashes with personal preferences and lifestyle.  While the news is full of immature young people partying on the beaches in Florida, it appears that many thirty- and forty-somethings are more concerned with the outrageous incorrigibility of their parents, the baby boomers.

Apparently adult children are scandalized by their boomer parents ignoring the dictates of social distancing, and acting as if they are invulnerable.  An article in the Globe and Mail earlier this week described the efforts of one such responsible adult to convince her parents that, for example, the proper reaction to government-mandated restaurant closures is not to have a house party.  A bar in Toronto, which acts as a sort of social club for its regulars, has put brown paper over its windows and continued to operate in secret, packed every day with boomers.  Many of those regulars used crowded buses and subways to get there.  Their more mature kids can’t get them to stop going.  A friend of mine tells me his kids won’t visit his place, because he and his wife, in their seventies, still have regular bridge parties for their friends.  A recently retired couple is trying to find a cruise line still operating.

The theme is that baby boomers are blissfully unafraid of the risks, and so are unwilling to restrict their lifestyles as any sensible adult would do.  Their kids try to convince them to self-isolate, but find that their boomer parents simply won’t listen to common sense.  Their parents, they say, are so oblivious to their own mortality that they will put themselves, and others around them, in danger of contracting the disease.

Now, I’m a baby boomer, and I take exception to that criticism.  I am not throwing any parties, and I’m not going out to underground speakeasys and the like.  I have foresworn public transit and other crowded places.  I pledge not to join any bridge clubs, or go on any cruises.

Of course, I didn’t do any of those things before. 

But still.

My protestations aside, if you just look around, it does appear to be true that not all seniors are heeding the call for social distancing.  Just look at Donald Trump and the boys in their daily press briefings.  “M. l’Orange, can we introduce you to the concept of two meters?  You do know what a meter is?”

It is also undoubtedly true that a large percentage of baby boomers are generally resistant to heeding any advice given to them by their children (who “can’t possibly understand what we’ve been through”).  Although in this regard, I do note that baby boomers, when they were in their thirties and forties, did not hesitate to give their own parents lots of essential advice, guidance, and instructions. 

Their parents wisely ignored them as well.

But I digress.

This is actually supposed to be a serious article, about a serious subject.

Many of you know that I am a regulatory lawyer, but most probably don’t know that over my forty-year career the other area of law I’ve done most of the time is wills and powers of attorney.  These days, I only do a few every year, usually for close friends, but I’ve probably done a thousand or more over the years.  It doesn’t pay very well, but as a lawyer it is one of those rare times when you have a chance to truly engage with your clients.  They open up, talk about their lives, their families, their self-perception even. 

I love it.

This process – making a will, as well as the rest that goes with it – is a bigger deal than most people think.  I like to tell clients that it is the most important single financial transaction most people will do in their lives.  It deals with all of the assets and money and “things of value” (including sentimental value) you have accumulated over your life, and it involves all of the people (and causes) that you love and care about the most.  Not only that, but if you fuck it up, by definition you’re not around to fix it. 

Oh, and there are lots of legal, tax and other implications, some of which could mean a lot of dollars, one way or another.  It’s easy to fuck it up.

A power of attorney for property, the other part of the money aspect, is the same, except that it applies when you’re not yet dead, but you are mentally incompetent.  Same issues apply, plus you’re still around, so any screw up could also affect your care.

Also central to that process – separate from all the money questions – is what some people call “the end of life discussion”.  It is a discussion about how a parent who is ill, or injured, or in a compromised mental condition (dementia, coma, or whatever), or otherwise unable to make decisions for themselves, wants their loved ones to act. 

There are more questions than you might think, and they are often both difficult and revealing.  The questions include things like:

  • Who is going to make medical or other care decisions?  Your spouse?  Your kids?  Just some of them, the sensible ones?  (There is a document called a Power of Attorney for Personal Care that allows you to designate who the decision-maker(s) will be.)
  • Do you want to be kept alive at all costs, or allowed to die when your time comes?  Should the doctors be instructed to use “heroic measures” to keep you alive, for example?  Or, if you are going to die anyway, or you are in pain, do you want to have them follow a “Do not resuscitate” order?
  • If there are dangerous or addictive or experimental treatments that will help to relieve your pain, or extend your life, do you want them or not?  Which ones?  With what restrictions, if any?
  • What if your doctor doesn’t follow the kids’ instructions?  Do you want them to change to someone else, or to keep your regular doctor even if he is doing what he thinks is best and ignoring what you want?
  • Are there religious rites or practices that should be instituted if you’re close to death?  Is there a particular priest, or rabbi, or imam that you want involved?  I’m no longer surprised with how specific – and detailed – people can be when it comes to questions about religion.
  • Where do you want to live when you are ill or incapacitated, and not able to make the decision for yourself?  Do you want to be in the familiar surroundings of your own home, or in a long term care residence?  How should your loved ones balance cost vs. comfort, particularly if you are yourself not really comprehending the situation? (One client of mine told her kids that, when the doctor said she had less than a month to live, she wanted them to bring her to her Muskoka cottage, so that in her last days she could watch the sunset from the dock every day.)

These last several questions are often the subject of another document, called a Memorandum of Personal Care, in which the person answers those questions in their own way, thus giving their kids guidance later, when it matters.

I always recommend to older clients that they either discuss all these things with their adult children directly, or even invite them to a meeting with me when we discuss them.  Kids learn a lot about their parents in these discussions, and – no surprise, perhaps – parents learn a lot about their kids.  As long as the discussion never turns to money (which can make it go south pretty fast), it tends to be productive and enlightening.

The reason I thought of this right now, when I’m working from home and I can’t do wills and powers of attorney right now anyway, is that many people find a thorough discussion of their own death to be a sobering (and even a bit intense) experience.  People, like the baby boomers those ungrateful wretches are complaining about for blowing off Covid-19, will get very serious if you talk to them about what happens when they are going to die.

People don’t like to think too much about their own mortality, and it may well be true that baby boomers are among the worst offenders. 

But parents do want to make sure that their kids understand their wishes, both financial and non-financial, when the time comes.  Of course, communicating your wishes to your kids requires that you actually know what those wishes are.  That means you have to think about it, i.e. spend some time thinking about your own mortality. 

Therefore, my suggestion to those kids that can’t get their parents to listen to advice during the pandemic, is this.  Approach your parents, not to talk about Covid-19, but to have the end of life discussion.  Tell them that, in this time when people are dying of a new disease, you realized that you don’t know what they want if suddenly they are very ill, and they can’t make decisions for themselves. 

Don’t talk about money.  In this respect, you should probably assume that they already have a will.  They probably don’t, but if you raise it then you sound like you want to talk about their money.  Baby boomers don’t like that.  (“Why should we talk about that?  It’s my fucking money.”) 

Instead, it is better to talk only about their personal care, emphasizing that it is a discussion that you have to have when they are young and healthy.  Ask them some of the questions listed above.  Get them talking about their wishes, what they want to happen, what they think you should decide when they are unable to make those decisions. 

Baby boomers love to give their kids instructions (well, so they say), so they will likely not be resistant to this discussion.  On the other hand, there are three positive results that will probably follow.

First, you will learn things about your parents, and they will learn things about you.  All good.

Second, they may decide to take the appropriate actions to execute a Power of Attorney for Personal Care and a Memorandum of Personal Care (and a Will and a Power of Attorney for Property, if they don’t have those).  They should do this anyway, but if you are not recommending it, but just asking questions, they are more likely to take this step.  Don’t recommend anything.  Just get them to talk.

Finally, they may become more conscious of the impacts of their behaviour, particularly during this pandemic.  Ironically, after all the advice you have given them about social distancing and other safe behaviours has been completely ignored, a discussion in which you don’t even mention any of that may be exactly what causes them to get it.

They will think it’s their idea, of course.  Let them think it.

By the way, if you’re a baby boomer reading this, why have you not had the end of life discussion with your kids?  Maybe now is a good time?

And stop throwing those wild parties.  

  • Jay Shepherd, March 20, 2020
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Defeating Trump – And Now This

[This is the fourth in a two-part – yes, I know, I know – series on the U.S. Presidential election 2020.]

Bernie needs a Hail Mary, and Covid-19 is his only chance.

Well, maybe that is an oversimplification.  But, hear me out.

For Bernie to win the nomination, he needs to win Florida.  Currently, the polls show Joe beating him by a margin of almost 3:1.  Ridiculous, right?  Bernie would need a miracle.

Enter Covid-19, the coronavirus that is upending the lives of most people in the world.  As of today, the Florida primary is (surprisingly) still going ahead on Tuesday, with special precautions to limit the risk of infection, both for voters and for poll workers.

Bernie can no longer use his best advantage, large rallies, to energize his supporters.  His last shot is the head to head debate tomorrow night. 

In that debate, there are three things he can’t do:

  • He can’t just keep repeating his stump speech with variations, flapping his arms around to denote sincerity.  Been there, done that.  Continuing that message is like running off tackle from your own 20 with 30 seconds to go, down a touchdown.  Not in any way a Hail Mary.  (Given the recent cancellation of all sports for the foreseeable future, I thought you’d enjoy a sports metaphor, i.e. a reminder of all that stuff you’re missing.)
  • He can’t attack Joe.  In this time when the message from everyone has to be, in the words of those famous political scientists, the Beatles, “Come Together”, Bernie has to make nice in this debate.
  • He can’t argue that he will be better at handling things like a pandemic.  Oh, he can talk about how Medicare for All would improve the country’s response to pandemics, but that’s about it.  Bernie or Joe?  Both will do a good job with the next pandemic, and infinitely better than L’Orange.  To say anything else would smack of opportunism.  And, would be incorrect.

What Bernie can and should do is make young people the entire theme of his debate performance.  His only remaining (and remote) route to a win is to mobilize young people in much bigger numbers than he has so far.

Florida presents him with a chance to do that, in two very different ways.

First, most voters are going to think very carefully about whether they go to vote this Tuesday.  There were more than 1.8 million voters expected to come out (based on the 2016 primary, plus many voter registrations since then), but the strong likelihood is that turnout will be considerably lower than that. 

One problem Sanders has is that his younger voters (under 30), while “committed” to him, are less likely to vote generally.  Put another way, they are more likely to find a reason, on voting day, to skip it and do something else.  That could be long lines, odds against Bernie winning…or risk of catching a disease.

On the other side, one problem Biden has is that older voters (45+), who will break strongly for Joe, and make up 64% of the Florida Democratic voters (more than 3.6 million of them), are also those most at risk if they venture out to the polling station.  This will be made worse by the fact that Florida is closing some of the polling stations in assisted living and other seniors’ residences, in part because it is harder to get poll workers for those locations. 

Bernie, therefore, has to deliver a strong rallying cry to young voters to get out and vote this time.  He has to remind them that the problems in America are ones that will be left to them to handle pretty soon.  The virus will pass.  The problems will not.  This is their shot.  They can’t afford to be complacent.  Even though it is hard, even risky, they have to suck it up and go to the polls.

Florida only has about 850,000 Democratic voters under 30, but Bernie can be fairly confident of getting two-thirds of those who vote.  If his supporters are further motivated, he could do better.  He probably needs a 75-25 split of young voters, which means a turnout of at least 400,000 younger voters (about 60% higher than 2016), to even have the slightest chance.

At the same time, he needs older voters to skip the ballot box in massive numbers (although obviously he can’t suggest that).   This is likely, but will it be enough?  The answer is almost certainly no.  Even with a huge young turnout, and a large winning margin in that group, Bernie would need more than half of over 50 voters ( of the one-third who otherwise would have voted) to stay home, to have any shot at winning.

That, however, leads to the second part of the youth theme. 

Almost 30% of the Florida Democratic electorate are African-American (more than 1,500,000 registered).  Hillary got 81% of those who voted (about a third of them), and Joe will likely get a similar percentage.  Joe’s percentage may be down a little bit, just because he will lose some of the older black voters who decide not to vote, but his strength with black voters, and Bernie’s weakness, is well known.

Bernie has to deal with this problem, and Jesse Jackson is not the answer.

Bernie has to announce, on Sunday night, that Andrew Gillum will be his Vice-Presidential running mate.  As part of his pitch to younger voters, he would argue that Gillum, at 40, represents the next generation of leaders in America, and will be an integral part of his administration.  His focus would be on Gillum’s youth and new ideas, and not on his race. 

From a tactical point of view, Bernie should probably announce the choice of Gillum in his closing remarks, and as part of a short discussion of some of the other younger legislators he would be considering for his Cabinet (AOC, Stacey Abrams, Andrew Yang, etc.).  He has to have Gillum’s agreement, of course.  The rest, he can just speculate on as “interesting options”.  (“Unlike Joe, my list of potential Cabinet appointees will include people like…” etc.)

An alternative approach is to announce the Gillum pick as part of his opening statement.   It would help set the stage for his theme of youth, and it could also throw Joe off his game.  One of Joe’s weaknesses is that he doesn’t think as well on his feet as some of the others, including Bernie.  He will be well prepped for this debate, but he is unlikely to be prepared to deal with a VP announcement.  It could impact his entire debate performance.

On balance, though, it is probably better for Bernie to make his announcement at the end.  He can still emphasize youth at the beginning, and throughout, and then use his closing statement to demonstrate his real commitment to younger people by naming Gillum.  He also ensures, by that timing, that his choice of VP dominates the post-debate discussions.

Honestly, even with a Hail Mary like this, there is almost no chance that Bernie will win Florida.  He is more likely to get 500,000 votes, to Joe’s 1,200,000, assuming in those numbers there will be a low turnout driven in part by lack of interest. 

On the other hand, if Bernie doesn’t win Florida, that’s the end of his campaign for all practical purposes.  Any remote chance he had would be gone.

My guess is that Bernie won’t do anything like this.  He’ll say the same things he always says, and by the end of the night on Tuesday his last shot at the presidency will have well and truly missed the mark.  He will have added a lot of good ideas to the political debate, but ultimately failed to have grasped and held onto the brass ring.

     –    Jay Shepherd, March 14, 2020

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Defeating Trump – The VP Sweepstakes

[This is the third in a two-part – yes, I said two part – series on the U.S. Presidential election 2020.  Now that reality has made it all more complicated, the analysis had to evolve.]

So now it is down to two:  Joe Biden, who seems intent on self-destructing even as the voters back him, and Bernie Sanders, that old “socialist” Senator from Vermont.  Biden will be 78 on inauguration day in 2021, while Sanders – 14 months older – will be 79. 

It is hard to imagine who Trump would prefer to face.  Both have weaknesses he can exploit, yet both poll well in hypothetical head to head elections against The Donald.  In part, that is because Trump has weaknesses Joe and Bernie can exploit.  And, of course, Old Orange Hair is going to be 74 on inauguration day in 2021, so not exactly the fountain of youth himself.

All of this rampant senescence means that the role of Vice President is going to be even more important in 2020 than in any other year since…well…forever.  Unless something miraculous happens, the U.S. will inaugurate its oldest ever President on January 20, 2021.  Even Ronald Reagan, in his second term of office, was not that old when he was inaugurated.

Selecting a Running Mate

So let’s speculate on vice-presidential candidates.  Just for fun.

Ignore the Republicans.  Yes, yes, I am aware that Donald Trump is planning to dump poor Mikey Pence on July 16th (the date the Democratic presidential candidate gives his acceptance speech), and replace him with Nikki Haley.   Haley, of Sikh descent, is only 48, and hopefully will be able to deliver her own state of South Carolina, and well as some votes from women and from younger voters.  South Carolina is not in play in any case (reliably Republican in 2020), and Haley is unlikely to deliver either young or female voters that would otherwise vote for Uncle Joe or Uncle Bernie.   Of course, Trump didn’t need Mikey to deliver Indiana either, so go figure.

Anyway, the Trump ticket doesn’t matter.  Voters will vote for Trump, or against him, and their vote would be the same if the VP candidate was the neighbourhood dachshund.  (Although there is no truth to the rumour that replacing Trump with a dachshund would be a step up in presidential quality.  Bite your tongue.)

There are approximately 260,000 Americans who would like to be considered for the second spot on either a Biden or Sanders ticket, that being roughly the number of politicians in the U.S.A. right now who are Democrats or their fellow travelers.    There may be another 50,000 or so who are not currently politicians, but still think they could do the job (like Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer). 

In order to narrow it down, Joe and/or Bernie will have to apply some screens.  What are the must-have or wanna-have attributes in a vice-presidential candidate?  Well…

  • Credible president.  In the famous words of Adlai Stevenson (mocking the vice-presidential candidacy of Richard Nixon), the Vice President is “a heartbeat away from the presidency”.  Sarah Palin, for example, was not a credible president.  (Neither was Nixon.)
  • Demographics.  Many pundits are already talking about the necessity for the Democrats to have a woman, or a person of colour, or even better a woman of colour, as the VP on the ticket.  The spectre of one old white man going up against another old white man is just too much for many in the party to bear.  Choose the right person, they say, and they might even bring you some additional votes from demographics you can’t get yourself.
  • Geography.  A VP from a swing state is good, but only if they can deliver the state.  The problem, of course, is that many Democrats come from solidly blue states.  Quelle surprise.  A VP from California is not going to help you win California.  Maybe you’ll win by 35% instead of 30%, as Hillary Clinton did, but you get the same 55 electoral college votes.  Trump won 93 electoral votes from five states (Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) that Obama won in 2012.  Can you help deliver some of those states?
  • Skillset.  Despite the complaint of many VPs that the job doesn’t include any actual responsibilities (John Nance Garner said the role is “not worth a bucket of warm spit”), a VP whose skills complement the President can be an advantage, both during the election campaign and in the White House thereafter.

Joe Biden’s Choices

Wikipedia lists about forty individuals that might be considered as running mates for Joe or Bernie, but in reality at least half of them are not realistic. 

The most obvious choice for Joe (and maybe even Bernie until she endorsed Joe the other day) is Kamala Harris.  African-American, a woman, very good on her feet, she seems to tick all the boxes, until you look a little deeper.

Harris is from California, so she is not going to help you by delivering a swing state.  While she is a woman, and the right age (55), she never resonated with the suburban white women that you really need to get, and African-American women will already vote for Joe in massive numbers.  For whatever reason, she didn’t attract young voters, and with her middle of the road views she certainly won’t help to energize the Bernie Bros.  She does provide a hard edge, on contrast to Joe’s “guy next door” backslapping.  Voters will believe she can get shit done, and roll over anyone who gets in the way.  They just won’t care as much, because the VP job is not so much about doing things. 

Elizabeth Warren is in a slightly different situation.  She also won’t help you win a swing state.  Even Joe beat her in her own state of Massachusetts, which is reliably Democratic anyway, and there is no future in which the Democrats win her birth state of Oklahoma.  She does attract suburban white women, and she has a level of gravitas that many find is lacking with Joe.  Despite her age (70 – she fits in well here), she has some support among younger voters, particularly younger women, a lost cause for Joe. 

Warren’s biggest advantage, though, is that she is markedly to the left of Joe.  While they would have to work that out between them, her ability to keep Bernie’s supporters in the fold is likely much better than anyone other than Bernie himself.  And, keep in mind, people will see in her a serious potential president, if that “heartbeat” eventuality happens.

One problem with choosing Warren as VP is that she would be a wonderful Secretary of the Treasury, but perhaps she could do that too.  Who says a VP has to just sit around waiting for the president to die?

Two other names come up if Joe believes that Texas is credibly in play.  Beto O’Rourke, while another white man (not really optimal), is at 47 able to attract a much younger demographic than Joe, including a strong following in the Latino parts of the state.  He gave Ted Cruz a real battle in the 2018 Senate race, so you have to wonder if he might deliver enough new votes for Joe to take Texas, a state that has slowly been moving toward the Democrats over the years.  Trump had a 9% lead in Texas in 2016, which hasn’t elected a Democratic president since Jimmy Carter.  Can O’Rourke change that?

Sobering facts:  Hispanic voter turnout in Texas in 2016 was 40.5%, compared to non-Hispanic white turnout at 63%.  Trump won Texas by 808,000 votes, but getting the Hispanic turnout up to 63% could erase that differential and more, particularly when you take into account the changing demographics (both ethnicity and age) in that state.

So maybe a better Texas bet would be Julian Castro.  At 45, he is also young, and while he doesn’t resonate as much with younger voters as O’Rourke, he would likely still bring a bunch.  His further advantage (aside from being a Latino of Mexican descent – although not really fluent in Spanish) is that he is a progressive, and he supported Warren after dropping out of the presidential race.  After Warren, he is the running mate most likely to bring Bernie Bros to Biden.

Castro’s problem is that so many people get the impression he is not ready for prime time, sort of a Latino version of Dan Quayle.  He seems to be that guy whose heart may be in the right place, but who maybe gets by too often with smiles and nice talk rather than action.  He was on the short-list to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, but was not selected.

Another high profile person (along with Harris) to endorse Joe is Cory Booker.  Booker, for seven years a Senator from New Jersey, and for seven years prior to that the Mayor of Newark, was a presidential candidate and is a politician with – except for his first mayoral bid in 2002 – a strong winning record.  He even speaks Spanish better than Julian Castro.  At 50, he is right in the age sweet spot.  His policies, although very liberal, are still considered pragmatic.  He might feel more comfortable with a progressive, but endorsing a moderate like Joe would not have been a stretch.

The most obvious strike against Booker is his unusual personal life for a politician (i.e. a bachelor with no kids).  Although rumours that he is gay have proliferated through his career (he is too woke to deny them), his girlfriend is Rosario Dawson.  Still, there is a persistent sense that he’s “not like the rest of us”.  That could hurt the ticket in middle America.  This is exacerbated by the fact that he has been an elected politician for almost all of his life, since the age of 28.  (Of course, that is true of a lot of the vice-presidential hopefuls.)

That’s not why he would be a poor choice.  He is up for re-election as U.S. Senator from New Jersey, a seat that is now considered “Safe Democratic”, but has historically gone back and forth.  If the Democrats want to get control of the Senate, they can’t afford to lose Booker’s seat.  If Booker is the candidate, he wins in a walk.  If it is anyone else, the result is not so clear.  While the potential Republican challengers are not a strong bunch, there is no obvious replacement for Booker on the Democratic side.  (Bill Bradley is 76, so he is young enough to run for President, of course, but he is probably too old to step in for Booker in the Senate race.)

A dark horse candidate would be Susan Rice, former Ambassador to the United Nations and former National Security Advisor under Obama.  Rice, who has endorsed Biden, is well acquainted with him as they both worked in the Obama White House.  She is 55, and as a woman of colour may be a counterpoint to the relentless old white male theme of the election. 

Despite that, she is unlikely to be selected.  Aside from being the quintessential Washington insider, she also has lots of baggage that could hurt the ticket when Trump gets his hands on it.  Remember Benghazi?  Many Republicans said Benghazi was her fault.  Later she was embroiled in a controversy when she wanted to disclose confidential information in intelligence reports.  She is often cast as a person not liked by colleagues, and in fact withdrew from contention as Secretary of State under Obama because she would not get confirmed.  She also scrapped a bid to run against Republican Senator Susan Collins when it became clear that she could not win it. 

In short, Rice is not going to be Biden’s choice.

What about Buttigieg, Steyer and Bloomberg?  No, no, and no, for all the same reasons that they were never going to win the presidential nomination.  (Bloomberg’s money, however….well, certainly.)        

That leaves two women from swing states, both of whom have endorsed Joe. 

Amy Klobuchar is the long-serving Senator from Minnesota, a swing state that went to Clinton by a thin margin in 2016.  She can certainly deliver that state, and even made a credible showing of her own presidential campaign.  At 59, her age is just about right, and Biden knows her well from working with her when she was a senator and he was Vice-President.

Klobuchar is somewhat to the left of Joe, but certainly nowhere close to Bernie in her views.  She is a much more pragmatic politician, seeking lots of little wins rather than going for the big ones.   Thus, she is not going to be much help getting the Bernie Bros to turn out to support Joe.

What she does have going for her is two things.  First, she has almost no baggage.  In many ways, her CV reads like the perfect politician, a winner many times, someone who gets things done, and a person entirely free of scandal.  Second, she is likely to be able to appeal to the suburban white women that would otherwise not support Joe.  She won’t help with the African-American voters, but Joe doesn’t really need much help there. 

Would the American public look at her and say she is a credible president?  Except for Elizabeth Warren, she likely does better on this metric than anyone else.  Her only real problem is that sometimes she appears to be too nice.  You feel like she wouldn’t have a chance against Trump.  She would wilt under the pressure.  However, as long as Joe is responsible for dealing with The Slimeball ©, she might be a good addition to Joe’s ticket.      

Another possibility that is not much discussed is Gretchen Whitmer, the newly elected 48-year-old Governor of Michigan. After fifteen years in the Michigan House and Senate, she was elected Governor in 2018, winning every single district.  Not much doubt she can deliver Michigan in a presidential campaign, and her profile may even help with Wisconsin next door.  (She would be a better choice than Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, for both those reasons.)

Like Klobuchar, Whitmer could help Joe with white women, but she is not likely to help with progressives.  She has opposed Medicare for All, but fought hard for the expansion of Medicaid, and is generally a staunch moderate on most issues.  Her views, and those Joe has espoused, are pretty similar.  Many of her issues in the past have been ones of particular concern to women, including expanding the availability of childcare and full-day pre-kindergarten. 

Her biggest drawback is that she has only been governor for a little over a year.  Republicans will certainly make a big deal over whether someone with no national experience, and little experience being the person at the top, is ready to step in if Uncle Joe falters.

Whitmer is therefore another credible choice, so don’t be surprised if Joe nails down those 16 electoral votes by choosing her as his running mate.

Bernie Sanders’ Choices

Let’s be clear.  Bernie was never going to win the Democratic nomination for president.  The Democratic establishment is not in a million years going to put a wild card like Bernie up against the 2016 wild card, Donald Trump.  They will just look at the states that might be in play, and conclude that Bernie has no chance of winning them.

Florida?  Seriously?  Pennsylvania, Joe’s home state?  Politics is “the art of the possible”, and for Bernie those two states are not possible.  Sometimes honesty has a price.  Bernie’s comments on Castro’s Cuba, and on fracking, were honest and probably even right, and they will get Bernie more votes in New York and California (which the Democratic candidate wins anyway).  But these 49 electoral votes in Florida and Pennsylvania, which were close for Clinton and wins for Obama, are not available to Bernie.  Sorry.

Can Bernie change this with his selection of running mate?

Elizabeth Warren is a little more moderate than Bernie, but still well to the left of Joe.  Many Bernie supporters are already talking about a Bernie-Liz ticket.  Although that would be more ideological than political (she can’t bring any swing states, or black voters, or any other voters that don’t otherwise support Bernie), there is some logic to it.

That is not going to happen, for perhaps a sadly mundane reason.  Elizabeth Warren wants to be president.  She explored the possibility in 2015, and has thought about it many times since.  She is 70, so this year is her last chance.  Which presidential candidate provides her best chance of being a heartbeat away from the presidency?  The answer is obvious.

Thus, Warren will not accept a partnership with Bernie.  Unless Biden chooses another running mate soon, Warren will endorse Joe Biden within the next couple of weeks, because that’s her last remaining route to the presidency. 

Many people are saying the best political choice for Bernie is Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state minority leader and long time member of their House of Representatives.  Abrams lost a close contest to be Governor of Georgia against the incumbent, Brian Kemp, amid accusations by Abrams and others that he cheated in his oversight of the election in which he was involved.  Abrams is currently suing the state of Georgia for that election result.  She also founded and heads Fair Fight Action, a national organization to fight voter suppression.  Before her political career she was a tax lawyer (so she can’t be all bad).

Abrams has endorsed Bernie and supported him actively, and her political views are certainly similar to his.

Could Abrams help Bernie win Georgia?  Trump won those 16 electoral college votes by a 5% margin over Hillary, meaning Bernie/Abrams would have to shift at least 220,000 votes.  That is a big nut, but keep in mind that, even with rampant voter suppression, Abrams only lost to Kemp by 55,000 votes.  For context, Kemp won the previous time around, in 2014, by 200,000 votes, and the time before that, in 2010, by 250,000 votes. 

Joe will be writing Georgia off, and Bernie would too, unless Abrams is his running mate.  With Abrams, Georgia may be in play.  (Mississippi, where she grew up, is a lost cause.  Wisconsin, where she was born, does not see her as a Wisconsinite.)

Abrams may also help Bernie with African-American voters, especially women, throughout the country.  Bernie has had some difficulty connecting with them.  Abrams could therefore help Bernie in Florida and Pennsylvania.

So what’s not to like?  The real problem is that Abrams has been a “rising star” for years, but right now she’s out of office.  At 46, she still has lots of time, and she would be a stronger candidate if she had a broader political resume.

Julian Castro would be a bold choice for Bernie, just as with Joe, but that is probably not to be.  Bernie doesn’t appear to need much help with Hispanic voters (except in Florida), and Castro would not help him with his main weakness, African-American voters.  Ideologically Bernie and Castro are fairly close, true.  On the other hand, both are seen as talkers, and Bernie would benefit from someone on his ticket who is known to be a doer.

Could Castro help deliver Texas?  See above.  The answer is a very tentative maybe.

An even bolder choice would be Andrew Yang.   

Get off the floor.  That is not as silly as it first appears, and there is no call for laughing at this highly serious analysis.

Yang is from New York, so can’t help much there except to be the contrast to the other New York rich guy.  He is one of the youngest of the potential running mates, and his persona resonates well with young urban voters.  That may help a bit in Austin, and Madison, and Phoenix, and Detroit, all in potential swing states.  However, those voters are Democrats anyway, particularly if Bernie is the presidential candidate.   The big benefit would be if Yang could increase turnout in those areas.  Sadly, that is exactly what Bernie expects to do himself.

What Yang does offer is pragmatism.  His style is about decisiveness, not ideology or theory.  He is a real doer.  Voters who are hesitating about Bernie the revolutionary may be comforted by the presence of Andrew the practical.  We can’t actually deliver Medicare for All right now?  OK, what can we deliver?

For exactly those reasons, of course, Bernie will not choose Andrew Yang.

On the hustings in Michigan, Bernie revealed his new endorser, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.  Jackson, who is from Michigan, showed up in Grand Rapids to talk about how Bernie has been there for black folks for decades. 

Bernie needs help attracting African-American voters?  Maybe Jesse can help? 

This is not to be.  Jackson is also 78, and is for that reason alone disqualified from being a heartbeat away from the presidency.  He is also old news to most African-Americans.  Yes, a distinguished record, but he first ran for president himself in 1984.  African-Americans listen to other voices today.  Jesse Jackson no longer has the influence he once had.

Catherine Cortez Masto is the recently-elected Senator from Nevada, a state Clinton barely won in 2016.  She is of Mexican and Italian descent, and at 55 is a good age for a vice-presidential running mate.

Cortez Masto comes from a political family, and grew up knowing people like Harry Reid, the iconic Nevada Senator and former Senate Majority Leader.  Reid, who first became Lieutenant Governor of Nevada in 1971, when Cortez Masto was 7, endorsed her to take over his Senate seat when he retired in 2016.  She then won, but with a less than overwhelming margin.    

A moderate, Cortez Masto is more often touted as a running mate for Joe than for Bernie, particularly since Joe needs more help with Hispanic voters and her political positions align with his.  However, she is not likely to be on Joe’s short list.  Bernie, on the other hand, could choose her as a moderating influence on his public image, and in order to improve his changes with female voters.

Bernie is not likely to do that, but one can hope, right? 

Finally, there is Andrew Gillum,  the former Mayor of Tallahassee and recent loser in the Florida gubernatorial campaign against Republican Ron DeSantis.  Gillum, the youngest of the vice-presidential hopefuls (40), and who has in the past been endorsed by Sanders, is a strongly progressive Democrat but still a little more moderate than Bernie.  In the 2018 election for Florida governor, he lost by 0.4%, just 33,000 votes out of the more than 8 million cast. 

In many respects, Gillum has a resume similar to Abrams:  a political scientist, not a lawyer like Abrams, but like Abrams he was in local politics for most of his life (since age 23), then had a failed but close run for governor.  The difference between them (aside from Gillum being a black male, and Abrams a black female, and Abrams having graduated from Yale), is that Gillum has a good chance of delivering Florida if he is on the ticket.  Not guaranteed, by any means, but he has demonstrated that a democratic socialist voice can be heard in Florida if you take the right approach.  

And Then There Were None

Predicting the result here is difficult. 

The more important choice, of course, is Biden, because he is the odds-on favourite to become the next presidential nominee.  His smart selection is Elizabeth Warren, because she adds intellectual capacity and toughness that are not Joe’s strengths, and she energizes the Bernie Bros.

However, because Joe is not actually the smartest person in the world, he probably won’t pick Warren.  He is very political, though.  Therefore, he is more likely to select Amy Klobuchar to help him get Minnesota, or Gretchen Witmer to help him get Michigan.  Both would be solid choices, especially if he is confident he can get Pennsylvania and Wisconsin without anyone’s help, which is probably true.

In one sense, Bernie’s selection of running mate is more meaningful, because he is now the underdog. 

In a general election, Bernie will have a reasonable shot at taking Michigan and Wisconsin, with 26 electoral votes, because Jill Stein’s votes in those places were well in excess of Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton.  If Bernie can’t get those Stein votes, he shouldn’t be in the race.  But, unless he can get Florida or Pennsylvania, he still doesn’t have a legitimate path to victory.

Only Gillum offers him a reasonable shot at Florida (not a lock, by any means), with the hope that Gillum would also help Bernie get the support of black voters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  It still means Bernie has to win states that won’t like some of his policies, but Gillum at least improves his chances (from zero to something a tiny bit higher). 

It turns out, analyzing the vice-presidential sweepstakes is much harder than predicting the results of the presidential election. 

In the end, there is just as much likelihood that Bernie will select Jesse Jackson, or Joe will select Susan Rice.  The machinations going on behind the scenes could produce any number of completely improbable results, and an interesting presidential election this year.

     –    Jay Shepherd, March 10, 2020

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Defeating Trump – Really?

[This is the second of a two-part musing about the 2020 American presidential election.  Today, a longer piece on “Who will win the Democratic nomination?”]

If we assume that Trump can in fact be defeated, the next question is whether the Democrats will nominate a candidate who can achieve that goal.  The answer is not really obvious.

Having now seen the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the least representative states in the U.S.A., and having seen the candidates participate in the bloodbath Wednesday night that they claimed was a debate, there are seven people left with a legitimate shot at the Democratic nomination.   They are none of them perfect, and none of them are remotely saviours, but of course all of them are better than Donald Trump. 

(That doesn’t mean they can beat him.  Lots of people are better than Donald Trump.  Lots.)

Let’s look at the survivors.

Joe Biden

Start with the early front-runner, Joe Biden.  Joe is a spring chicken, at only 78 years old, and he has the advantage that the electorate already found him suitable for the presidency by electing him Vice President in 2008 and 2012 (just ask him).

Joe has three problems. 

First, he was never the smartest guy in the room.  He’s not stupid, but he’s more of a relationship person, not a rocket scientist.  Beside some of the other candidates, he can look pretty pedestrian.  Now, Donald Trump looked pretty stupid beside some of his rivals, and look what happened.  Still…

Second, Joe appears to have only one message:  “I’m the only one here who’s done any of this stuff.”  While that is true to a certain extent, that message is now getting old.  Against Donald Trump, it won’t cut it.  Trump has been President.  A bad one, to be sure, but Biden doesn’t have an experience advantage.  So, what else can he offer against Trump?  Policy proposals?  Not really. 

Third, and sadly, Joe appears to have lost a step.  Not everyone can get to the age of 78 and still be 100% as vigorous and on point as they once were.  Even in the Wednesday debate, when he was at his best, he was still a step behind everyone else on the stage (except Michael Bloomberg, but we’ll get to him).

Biden’s declining polls are a reflection of the fact that Democrats are seeing a sad truth.  He is no longer their best and brightest.  I like Joe Biden, who’s a good classical politician with his heart in the right place.  He can’t be President, and he won’t.  Even if he did get the nomination (spoiler alert:  he won’t), Donald Trump, five years younger, and without a moral bone in his body, will have him for breakfast. 

Mike Bloomberg

Now let’s talk about Michael Bloomberg. 

In this cycle, Wednesday night was our first direct exposure to Bloomberg, and he was terrible.   One performance may not be entirely fair, but we already know his reputation as a poor speaker and debater who often seems to care very little what people think of him.  That’s a good attribute for a CEO/entrepreneur, sometimes, but not in a politician.  At least, you can’t let people know you don’t give a shit what they think.  You at least have to be able to hide it.

That doesn’t mean that Bloomberg cannot win the nomination (or the Presidency).  Never underestimate the impact of a billion dollars.  He just starts with some disadvantages.

It is true that he was mayor of the country’s largest and most complicated city, New York, for twelve years, and despite some negatives was a very successful mayor (especially compared to his predecessor, Rudy G.).  On the flip side, he is a rich New York Jew, which will lose him a few votes in some parts of America.  (Yes, I know that’s not fair.  It is just true.)

Winning New York three times means he knows how to win, and he certainly has the credentials for the White House.

On the other hand, in order to win, Mike Bloomberg will have to do at least three things (that we know of) and he has to do them fast:

  • Authorize any woman who has signed non-disclosures with his company to speak freely, as long as they tell the truth and they respect the privacy right of other individuals (excluding Bloomberg).  If he can’t take the “I have nothing to hide” approach when it comes to #MeToo, he loses the moral high ground to Trump, and is not a viable candidate.
  • Release his tax returns before Super Tuesday.  Similar to the non-disclosures, this is a transparency/nothing to hide issue.  Saying his taxes are complicated makes him sound like Trump.  As long as he’s just another billionaire, he is not going to win the nomination.
  • Make a public statement that the amount he spends to defeat Donald Trump is not in any way dependent on whether he is the Democratic nominee.  He has to say:  “I have decided to spend $1 billion to save our country from an evil President, Donald Trump.  Whether I am the nominee, or it is someone else, I will still spend that billion dollars on this election.”

Even if he does all of these things (he won’t), there is still only a small chance the Democrats will make him their nominee.   The spectre of two New York billionaires fighting over the Presidency will be too much for most Democrats, and a person who was a Republican in 2008 is always going to have a problem getting a nomination from the Democrats.

Tom Steyer

If we’re talking about billionaires, let’s not forget Tom Steyer.

Let’s be clear.  Tom Steyer is a child.  At 62, he is young enough to be the son of Joe Biden (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter). 

He is a billionaire (barely), but not in the same vein as Mike Bloomberg.  Bloomberg started and built his own company.  Steyer was a hedge fund manager.  He made smart decisions, and made lots of money, but he was solely a money guy.  He never actually built a real business.  (Of course, Bloomberg made his billions selling services to money guys, so there is less difference than first appears.)

What Steyer can claim is that, a long time ago (at least fifteen years), he saw the moral high ground and decided to go there.  He embraced socially responsible and environmental investing, and made it work.  He embraced charitable activities, and was successful at that as well.

Still, another New York rich guy (technically Jewish, but really closer to born again Christian) is going to have issues.  He is a true believer in liberal causes, and no-one doubts his heart is in the right place.  His major charitable activities go back decades, and he has been a supporter of the Democratic Party for almost forty years.  His credentials are much better than Bloomberg. 

But Tom Steyer suffers from not having the skills of a politician when he is placed on the big stage.  That should be a good thing, some say, but if you can’t communicate your message on a debate stage, or in a town hall, then your true believer status almost doesn’t matter.  You’re not going to be the guy.

Don’t count Tom Steyer out.  As a compromise candidate – more left than Joe or Pete, but not as much as Bernie or Elizabeth, and still a real live billionaire who believes in anthropogenic climate change, he would be viable.  He could unify the Democratic Party, offering something for everyone, and face Donald Trump head-on.  Backed by the whole party, he would be a formidable challenger to incumbent Trump.

None of this is likely, despite the underlying logic.  In some respects, it is too bad.  He might be the best choice for President among all of them… but he won’t be.  Unless Tom Steyer gets a major endorsement (Barack Obama?  Elizabeth Warren?  Joe Biden?) to vault him into the first tier of candidates, he is not going to be the nominee.

Amy Klobuchar

Next up is Amy Klobuchar.  If you look at this from a traditionalist point of view, she is the perfect candidate.  She is from the Midwest (although a consistently Democratic state), and she has been a successful at Yale, University of Chicago, and as a lawyer.  She won three Senate elections, the last two in landslides.  She knows how to win.

Klobuchar has also accomplished a lot as a senator.  In both Democratic and Republican senates, she has been effective in getting things done.  Her voting record is also solid on the issues that matter to Democrats today.

So what’s not to like?

The bottom line is confidence.  Whether Amy Klobuchar is actually self-confident or not (she probably is), she comes across as nervous or weak around strong personalities.  This is not a male/female thing.  No-one makes the same criticism of Elizabeth Warren.

The debate on Wednesday night was a perfect example.  Pete Buttigieg (and others, including Warren) attacked Klobuchar on her record and her policies, and Klobuchar didn’t show enough fight in her response.  She fought, sure.  Just not enough.  And this is not the first time.

She is a nicer person, perhaps, than the rest of them (Minnesota, you know – almost Canadian), but the willingness to fight is important in a Presidential election.  Even if you don’t accept that testosterone-style behaviour should be a prerequisite to the Presidency (I don’t), in fact it is.   Women still have to show they are at least as tough as men – while still being nicer than men – to be electable. 

Is it fair?  No.  Is it reality?  Yes.  Just ask Hillary Clinton.

Amy Klobuchar is another one that shouldn’t be counted out.  The Democrats may well go in this direction in order to select a moderate that doesn’t have the baggage of Biden or Bloomberg (see above), or Buttigieg (see below).  If they do, though, they had better invest a lot of time and money to get behind her in the election.  Otherwise, she will not beat the bully, Trump, in a general election.

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg could be the grandson of Biden or Sanders (do the math).  That probably disqualifies him from the nomination already.  Does anyone know a 38 year old who is ready, today, to be President of the United States? 

This is despite pretty good credentials.  At the age of 18, he won a prestigious national prize with his essay on – you can’t make this stuff up – the political courage of Bernie Sanders.  He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, won a Rhodes scholarship, and got his masters at Oxford.  He was a decorated soldier who spent seven months in Afghanistan, while he was mayor of South Bend.  He also speaks eight languages.

And, of course, he was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city of more than 300,000 people about 150 km east of Chicago.  He spent eight years as mayor, winning an overwhelming re-election in a small Midwest city despite coming out as gay before that election.  This is another politician who knows how to win (at least in heavily Democratic South Bend).

Oh, and one more thing.  He is an exceptional public speaker, sometimes called the “white Obama” because he speaks in complete sentences. 

But Mayor Pete’s youth isn’t the reason he is not electable.  Mayor Pete is gay.  Americans are not going to elect a gay President in 2020, much less one who is married to another man, and would thus have a “First Lady” who is a man named Chasten.  Mayor Pete might win in 2028.  He will not win in 2020.

I have a lot of problems with Pete Buttigieg, a career politician who is often far too smooth (i.e. slippery) for my tastes, but it is not his real failings that will lose him this nomination.  Instead, it is something that shouldn’t matter – his sexual orientation.  If just 2% of voters who would otherwise support the Democratic nominee are too socially conservative to vote for a gay man, Donald Trump will be re-elected.  Democrats know this. 

Sorry, Mayor Pete.

Bernie Sanders

That leaves us with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the socialist and the witch.

Bernie is another career politician: all politics, all the time for his full 78 years.  That means, depending on your perspective, that either a) he has never actually accomplished anything productive in his life, or b) he spent his whole life fighting for what he believes in. 

After ten years as mayor of Burlington, Vermont (population under 40,000 when he was mayor), Bernie was elected to the House of Representatives in 1990, and then the Senate in 2006.  In his almost 30 years in Congress, he has steadfastly remained an Independent.  He was the victim of cheating by some members of the Democratic Party in the 2016 Presidential election, and lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton.

By now, Bernie is an open book to all Americans.  Everyone knows what he believes in, and no-one – not even his worst enemies – doubts his integrity (well, maybe Trump does, but he doesn’t count).  He is a very good speaker with a distinctive New York style despite 52 years living in Vermont.  Many senators and representatives respect his intellect, his abilities, and his moral compass, even if they disagree with him.

Bernie, however, made a critical mistake:  he deliberately accepted the label “socialist”, saying he wouldn’t apologize for being a socialist.  As many Canadian columnists note, Bernie’s idea of being a socialist would put him in the mainstream in Canada, but a label is a label.  There are generations of Americans brought up to believe that socialism is bad, even dangerous.  America is different from other countries because it is not socialist, or communist, or any of those other bad things.  The American dream exists precisely because America has rejected socialism.

What this means is that everything Bernie says is filtered by voters through the socialist label.  Medicare for all is not like Canadian health care;  it is instead one step away from a “welfare state”.  And, it will cost trillions of dollars, so taxes will go up.  Way up.

While Bernie is trying to communicate that his policies are in pursuit of equality, not a welfare state, the socialist label is going to be pasted on his back like a target throughout 2020.  Not only will it hurt him against Donald Trump, but it will hurt those running down ticket – representatives and senators who will have to disavow Bernie’s “socialist” tendencies, or risk being painted with the same brush.

Bernie Sanders could probably save his campaign, and win the nomination, by selecting a running mate who is more middle of the road, and doesn’t carry any socialist baggage.  If he let it be known, quietly, that his running mate would be Kamala Harris, for example (assuming she could be convinced to support him, which she probably could), and she started stumping for him in key late voting states, that could take the edge off his socialist label, and make him electable. 

Sadly, Bernie is not likely to do that.  Perhaps that is exactly why he should not be elected President.  They say “politics is the art of the possible”, and Bernie knows that quite well after his decades in Congress.  If Bernie is not willing to do what is necessary – such as choose a moderate who is also a woman of colour to be his running mate – he is sending a message that he will not be an effective President. 

The polls say that Bernie Sanders would beat Donald Trump head to head.  Bernie reminds people about that daily.  Unfortunately, Bernie would not in fact beat the Donald in an actual election.  Socialism is acceptable to many voters in the big cities, which will go to the Democrats in any case.  In Michigan, and Wisconsin, and Florida, voters will not choose a socialist President.

The other wild card is the super-delegates.  If Bernie doesn’t have enough delegates by the time he gets to the convention – and I don’t think he will – then he will not be the nominee.  The members of Congress and others who are not pledged delegates will not choose someone who has always refused to be a member of the Democratic Party. 

Elizabeth Warren

Does that mean Elizabeth Warren is the one who will beat Donald Trump?

Ignore the political nuances for a moment, and just ask yourself whether Elizabeth Warren would be a good President.  Easily the most intelligent of the seven candidates, Warren has been a lawyer, a teacher (of special needs students), a Harvard law professor and author of five well-regarded law books, and a U.S. Senator.  Her history of championing the little guy while at the same time being an unabashed capitalist means you can trust her to do the right thing, but still do it well.  She is feared by Wall Street, all the while rejecting socialism and supporting the free markets.

Still on that theme, Warren is different from all of the other candidates in that all of her policies are well thought out, and in each case backed by a detailed plan.    

Now turn to the political side.  Warren has been a champion debater since high school, but that is intellectual debate, not political debate.  In a classical debate, none of the other candidates can touch her.  As a political debater, on the other hand, Mayor Pete and perhaps Bernie are better than Warren.

Warren has also been hampered by a tactical mistake.  Heeding the (incorrect) advice of her experienced political advisors, she adopted a stance and persona of unifier and voice of reason.  Still trying to look tough (see Amy Klobuchar, above), she also want to appear nice.  In short, she made the same mistake as Hillary Clinton.

The problem was that she didn’t really appear all that nice, and the persona she was wearing didn’t make her more relatable.  She is never going to be everyone’s buddy, like Joe Biden.  She’s always going to be distant, the “brainiac” who isn’t really like the rest of us.  All the fake persona did was make her appear weaker, and more like the other politicians on the stage.  

In the Nevada debate on Wednesday night, faced with declining poll results, Warren jettisoned that approach in favour of being the real Elizabeth Warren.  The real Elizabeth Warren has been called shrill, and harsh, and many other things.  On the other hand, no-one hearing the real Elizabeth Warren in the Nevada debate doubts that she knows what she’s talking about.

The result?  Standing next to poor, defenceless Mike Bloomberg, she savaged him so badly that you almost felt sorry for him.  Any doubts that she could handle Donald Trump were gone.  Her destruction of Mikey was proof of what will happen when she goes up against that other New York billionaire. 

Elizabeth Warren has lost some of her momentum, and it remains to be seen whether she can reverse that trend by reverting to the real Elizabeth Warren. 

Warren has improved her situation a little by her apparent informal selection of Julian Castro as her running mate.  Castro is a good politician who can tap voter demographics that will not naturally warm to Warren.  He is also a progressive but in a more moderate vein than Warren or Sanders.

The additional step Elizabeth Warren should take is to increase her emphasis on how moderate her positions are, relative to Bernie.  If she can position herself as more moderate than Bernie, yet more progressive than everyone else, she can still be the successful candidate in a close nomination fight.

And, of course, Warren vs. Trump is almost certainly a Democratic victory.  The only question is whether she can actually make him cry on national TV.  As a bully, that’s what he deserves, but she might still be a tad too nice for that.


It is too early to predict the winner of the Democratic nomination, although it appears unlikely that it will be Biden, Bloomberg, Steyer, or Buttigieg.  If Klobuchar can bring all of the moderate votes to her side, it could be her, but that is a long shot.  More likely it will be Sanders or Warren, and if those are the two final choices, my money is on Warren.

Of course, maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

  •  Jay Shepherd, February 21, 2020
Posted in International Affairs, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Defeating Trump

[This is the first of a two-part musing about the 2020 American presidential election.  Today, a short piece on “Can Trump be defeated?”  Next week, “Who will win the Democratic nomination?” 

Please forgive me.  I couldn’t resist.]

I am struck by the depressing sentiment I hear from many people in the U.S. that Donald Trump, as an incumbent president, has an insurmountable advantage in the upcoming presidential election.

Maybe there’s a reason for this feeling, I thought.  Don’t just discount it because the idea of the American public repeating the same mistake twice is incomprehensible.  Maybe the feeling of impending doom has a basis in fact. 

Seeking information, I went to the history of U.S. presidential elections, expecting to find that, indeed, when a person has been elected president once, they almost invariably win if they run for a second term.

I looked at the elections since 1824, when the modern method of electing presidents started.  (Some would exclude 1824, but I included it.) Thirty-eight presidents have been elected using that system.

Much of this was new to me.  As a Canadian, I never studied U.S. presidential history in school, and in any case I’m probably less drawn to history than most true nerds.  Nevertheless, the subject has many interesting characters, and more than a little intrigue.  Certainly not dry.

So, is there an incumbency advantage?  Apparently, not so much. 

Of twenty-two presidents that have been elected once, and then sought re-election, seven of them lost the next election, and two more (Pierce and Hayes) didn’t even get re-nominated.  (A 41% failure rate).  Of those re-elected, one (Cleveland) was actually defeated in his first attempt to get re-elected, but came back four years later and was successful. 

Two elected presidents (Polk and Buchanan) did not make a second run at it.  Both would almost certainly have lost. 

In addition, of the nine presidents that succeeded to the presidency through the vice-presidency, four were not re-nominated by their parties, one (Ford) was nominated and lost, and four won their subsequent re-election bids.  Two of those latter four (Truman and Johnson) then wanted to try for a second re-election, but neither succeeded in garnering the nomination.  Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate on his second try at re-election, but lost, and Coolidge famously declined to run for a third term, saying ten years was too long for one person to be president.

Thus, only sixteen incumbent presidents have been re-elected, and three of those were spurned when they went after further re-election.  Of the other twenty-two, only three walked away from the chance.  Five died during their first term, thirteen tried to get re-elected, but failed, and one got re-elected on his second attempt. 

The reason we think that incumbency is such an advantage is that, of the eight presidents immediately preceding Donald Trump, five of them were elected twice (Nixon, Reagan, G.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama), while three of them were not (Ford, Carter, G.H.W. Bush).  Thus, there has been a recent history of apparent incumbency advantage, at least slightly more than has been the case throughout U.S. history.

However, there are some other interesting facts to ponder.  Of those thirty-eight presidents elected, only twenty-one of their first elections were in essentially two-person races.  The rest had strong third party or even fourth party candidates that skewed the data.  This is relevant because 2020 is also likely to be a two-person race, as was 2016.

Of those incumbents who were re-elected, and who were elected first in a two-person race (eight of them), six had a majority of the votes in their first election, from FDR at 57.4% in 1932 and Jackson at 56.0% in 1828, down to McKinley at 51.0% in 1896.  Only Cleveland, at 48.9% in 1884, and George W. Bush, at 47.9% in 2000, had less than a majority.  Cleveland lost his next election to Harrison, but won on his third try four years later.  Bush was re-elected, but had already joined a select group bearing the ignominy of becoming president while being rejected by a majority of the voters.

Further, of the two presidents that won two-person races, and then were not re-nominated, both (Polk and Hayes) had less than 50% of the vote in their election win.

Donald Trump had 46.0% of the vote in his 2016 election, in fact losing the popular vote to his opponent.  No person except Trump has ever won the presidency in a two-person race with 46% or less of the popular vote. 

Trump takes that a step further, though, because he is one of only five presidents who lost the popular vote, but still won the presidency.  Of the four previous “elected losers”, two ran for re-election and lost (Adams and Harrison), while one tried to get re-nominated and failed (Hayes).  Only George W. Bush won a second term, and despite the overhang from 9/11, and a strong economy from 2002-2004 (much higher than today), his re-election was still pretty close.

None of the previous elected losers lost as badly as Trump.  Trump’s losing margin (to Hillary Clinton) of 2.65 million votes is about five times that of the next largest losing margin, the 0.54 million vote loss by George W. Bush (to Al Gore).  At least Bush lost a close one.  Trump simply got trounced.

And it gets even worse.  Since 1945, Donald Trump is the first president (out of thirteen in that time frame) who has had net disapproval ratings by the U.S. public for all of his first term.  Even Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush, all of whom failed to get re-elected, had better approval ratings than Trump, both up to this point in their presidencies, and overall.  All of these former presidents (except Trump) averaged positive public approval over most of their first term, and no incumbent got re-elected with a negative approval rating.

Incumbency has a lot of pluses, whether fiscal, political, or psychological.  On the other hand, the public sees what an incumbent does.  An incumbency advantage can also be an incumbency disadvantage in the right hands.

In this case, the U.S.A. has a president who won by a fluke, and is a certified rotten apple.  Historically, presidents who have not managed to get the approval of a majority of Americans, and did not have a solid win the first time around, have an uphill battle to win again.

All of this suggests that the White House is there for the taking by the Democrats.  They can still screw it up (that being the subject of the next part of this article), but if they don’t, Trump – arguably one of the worse American presidents in their history – will be a one-term president.

  • Jay Shepherd, February 15, 2020

Posted in International Affairs, Politics | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments