Saturday, May 28, 2016

The 10 Best Short-Lived Series From The Past Decade

We've all been there, finding ourselves attached to a new series and really getting into it only to discover that the rest of the world doesn't share our enthusiasm for the show.  A cancellation headline hits us like a punch in the gut and our mind scrambles for any possible lifeline may be possible to save the show.  As television programming, even network TV which for all the badmouthing it takes from pay-per-view-cable snobs, has offered more sophisticated storytelling in recent years, it's become easier to really, really get into a show when it's legs get cut off in a way that wasn't quite as tangible as when more conventional series got cancelled 25 years ago.  With that in mind, here's an homage to the 10 series from the last decade that were let go after one full season or less that less the biggest mark when they were formally canceled.

#10. "Life on Mars" (2008-2009)--A great cast featuring Harvey Keitel, Jason O'Mara, and Michael Imperioli along with some very clever writing helped make this police drama set in 1973 New York City sparkle, its gimmick being a modern-day cop suddenly wakes up 36 years before his time and applies his modern sensibilities working a beat within the framework of the rules (or lack thereof) of the mid-1970s, unable to understand why he's lost in this time warp.  It was comparable to "Quantum Leap" in a number of ways even though the character stayed in the same role week to week.   The series only lasted 17 episodes but was a lot of fun while it was on.  For better or worse, it lasted long enough to have closure and explain the context of the lead character's time warp, insane and unsatisfying (to most) as the resolution ultimately was.

#9. "The Good Guys" (2010)--Matt Nix, the showrunner of USA's long-running action-adventure show "Burn Notice" came to network TV in the summer of 2010 on Fox with a silly but fun cop show about a hapless middle-aged detective whose remained on the police department payroll for decades exclusively because he happened to save the mayor's daughter's life in the 1970s.  Bradley Whitford played the annoying and incompetent Dan Stark, partnered with youthful straight-man Colin Hanks.  There were moments the show got too silly for me, but it brought back memories of the classic over-the-top police comedy "Sledge Hammer!" from the 1980s, only with the budget of a modern action show.  It lasted 20 episodes which was probably a sufficient run for the one-joke series but was a lot of fun while it lasted.

#8. "Vegas" (2012-2013)--CBS pulled out all the stops in 2012 with a period piece set in 1960s Las Vegas featuring a collision of worlds between the cowboy law enforcement culture represented by Dennis Quaid and the emerging mob culture represented by thuggish casino boss represented by Michael Chiklis.  Carrie-Anne Moss and Jason O'Mara supplemented a strong cast and the three-dimensional chess game playing out between Quaid and Chiklis was the backbone of the show.  And it started out with considerable success, getting boffo ratings Tuesday nights.  But at some point in the midseason ratings started to dip and CBS wanted to test out a new show in that time slot, relegating "Vegas" to Friday nights where ratings collapsed and where the creative energy began to wane, reverting to standard CBS procedural fare.  It was a bad combination and led to a cancellation that seemed unthinkable only a couple of months earlier.  "Vegas" actually finished as the #20-rated show of the 2012-2013 season yet still got cancelled because of the late-season collapse.  Frankly though, if the showrunners were running out of inspiration to the degree those last several outings indicated, the network probably did them a favor by not bringing it back.

#7. "Game of Silence" (2016)--This is kind of the show that inspired my list since it is ongoing (four remaining episodes) yet was just formally cancelled by NBC last week.   The premise is an original, with a group of adult males pushing 40 who were involved in a fatal car accident when they were young boys and sentenced to a boys detention facility called Quitman that was a peyton place of abuse and pedophilia run by a monstrous warden who is now running for Congress on a "family values" platform.  The four men decide to reunite to try to take down the warden and all the corrupt and enabling guards on his payroll.  Six episodes in, it's been very suspenseful and well-crafted, with a number of nicely played twists and revelations that make for great television.  I hope there's some closure at the end of its limited run this summer because the series deserves it.

#6.  "Traveler" (2007)--TV was really starting to get good again in the mid-2000s and the success of modern classics such as "24" and "Prison Break" seemed to inspire a new wave of fast-paced and suspenseful serialized shows.  One of the best was "Traveler" which opened with a trio of college guys partaking in what they though was an innocent prank that led to a terrorist bombing at the Smithsonian, with an intense manhunt to follow and a wave of plot twists that played out nicely.  I'm not sure what ABC's problem with this show was but they sidelined it until summer and then cut its episode order from 13 to 8 before it even aired.  It generally got good reviews so it wasn't like I was the only one who found this show interesting.  Whatever the case, it ended with an unresolved whimper in July 2007, never to be heard from again.  It deserved at least 13 episodes, if not 22, to fully play out the storyline.

#5. "Chicago Code" (2011)--Fox got in on the wave of harder-edged cable-style police dramas back in 2010 and had a winner on their hands with the three-dimensional "Chicago Code", documenting the seedy underbelly of corrupt local government machinations in the city of Chicago, particularly the brilliantly corrupt Alderman Ronin Gibbons played by character actor Delroy Lindo who used an elaborate ring of patronage to keep a tight grip on friends and enemies alike.  Jennifer Beals played the new Police Superintendent who naively tried to do right and change the crooked culture of the department and its connection with corrupt politicians (none more than Gibbons).  Great performances throughout and it was always thrilling to see the chess match between the police and Alderman Gibbons, who always seemed to be one step ahead of them.  It lasted an all-too-brief 13 episodes following its premiere in February 2011 and regrettably did not get renewed for the next season.  I figured for sure it would come out on DVD and was hopeful to at least pick that up, but strangely, it never did get released.

#4. "Chase" (2010-2011)--Even with the reinvention of the crime drama/action show on network television in the 2000s, most of the shows were more serialized and had a different feel than the 80s era action shows from my youth that I so enjoyed.  But perhaps more than any other show of the last decade, "NBC's Chase" stood out as a throwback to the action shows of a bygone era, featuring a team of US Marshals chasing after a new target each week in Texas.  The cast was solid, the stories were clever, and the action was solid for network TV.  The show got off to a decent start ratings-wise but didn't survive a timeslot change from Monday to Wednesday and was rather abruptly cancelled in January 2011.  There were five episodes left in the can that eventually aired on Saturday nights in the spring of 2011, and I'll have to concede those last episodes didn't live up to the standard of the early episodes and perhaps made NBC's decision to cancel easier.  I was pleased to get 18 episodes out of the show, most of which were great, but still would have liked to have seen what the show could have done with a second season had the opportunity arose.  I'd have been even more pleased if it came out on DVD, which unfortunately it did not.

#3. "Do No Harm"  (2013)--Few shows in recent years have had as absurd of a premise as the NBC drama "Do No Harm", a modern-day take on Jekyll and Hyde with actor Steven Pasquale playing the split personality role of righteous brain surgeon Jason and ruthless drug dealer Ian, but the previews looked so ridiculous I just had to check it out.  Sadly, I was one of few who did as the ratings were absolutely disastrous, but the country missed out on a masterfully crafted 13-week adventure with outstanding performances that made you laugh, roll your eyes, and sit on the edge of your seat in gripping suspense almost every episode.  NBC pulled the poorly rated series after only two weeks but I kept a close eye on it knowing it would likely return in the summer to burn off the remaining episodes, and thankfully it did, playing out its entire run firing on all creative cylinders.  I'm almost glad this show only lasted 13 episodes because the premise would not have lent itself to an extended run, but was it ever a hoot while it lasted, a throwback to a prior age of series but adjusted for modern viewer sensibilities.  I'd give up my first-born to get this series on DVD but it'll never happen.

#2. "Harper's Island"  (2009)--Why is it that the best shows of the last decade got such piss-poor ratings?  Such was the case with the promising CBS murder mystery which premiered to heavy promotion in the spring of 2009 in a decent time slot but did so badly in its first three episodes it was shipped off to the Saturday night ghetto for the remainder of its 13-episode run.  The show was dark and gory unlike anything else I've seen on network TV, featuring a wedding party on an isolated Pacific Coast island with an ugly history and a resurfaced serial killer offing the members of the wedding party "one by one" in devilishly elaborate and clever ways.  The cast was great and the slow burn of the narrative was nicely played all around, taking several episodes before the wedding party began to realize the extent of the danger they were in.  In most cases, serialized mysteries such as this disappoint in their resolution, but after flirting with a resolution that would have seemed unsatisfying, they came up with a great curveball in the finale that just about nobody saw coming.  I'm rewatching this show on DVD right now and enjoying it immensely.  There's no way it should have gone beyond its originally 13 episodes, but it's a damn shame that so few people were around to watch those 13 because they would have liked it.

#1. "Gang Related" (2014)--I was pretty excited when Fox revived "24" for the summer of 2014 for an abbreviated 12-episode season, but if you had told me that "24" would only be the second best show Fox would air in the summer of 2014 and ultimately get upstaged by the action-drama "Gang Related", I'd have questioned your mental health, but that's exactly what happened and it was pretty clear from the pilot that "Gang Related" was my kind of show.  Terry O'Quinn and Cliff Curtis brought some minor league star power to the cast, but all of the performances were good and the show's central premise was what sold it, focused on the conflicted loyalties of Ryan Lopez, a young cop taken in by the Acosta crime family as a young boy who was then foisted into the Los Angeles Police Department to work as a double agent and do the bidding of the crime family.  Lopez was a good guy trapped in an impossible situation, and had an endless litany of suspensefully nervous moments trying to work both sides and not blow his cover.  Cable snobs looked down their noses at it as being a ripoff of "The Shield", and having never seen that series I can't comment on whether it is or isn't, but I know compelling TV when I see it and "Gang Related" was 13 weeks of uninterrupted awesome with some of the best hours of programming I've seen in years.  Ratings were poor, but Fox had low expectations for the summer and word was that they were expecting to renew it for the following summer.  Unfortunately, a couple of months later, the cancellation news came in and I was distraught.  Worse yet, the show got replaced by the lukewarm "Wayward Pines" the following summer...and somehow that show did get renewed despite not doing any better in the ratings.  If any show in TV history was deserving of a second season, it was "Gang Related", but instead it has to settle for the being the best 13-episode series in network TV history.

Going through this list, it's regrettable but quite likely to deduce that more great series will come out in the decade to come and not live up to their ratings potential despite being better than just about anything else on the air at the given time.  But it's a safe bet that if there's a hidden gem out there I will find and do my best to let the world know what it's missing.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

What Does Donald Trump's Path To Victory Look Like?

Ten days ago, an unthinkable proposition one year earlier became America's reality....Donald Trump became the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for President.  It's rather stunning that the nation hasn't spent these past 10 days in an aghast paralysis that such a development would be possible in the world's only remaining economic superpower, so it's rather striking that American life has gone as if this is business as usual.  There are conflicting signals about Trump's general election viability with a variety of theories on what a Trump nomination means for the long-standing red-state/blue-state divide.  Few of the smart guys saw the Trump phenomenon coming in the first place and many denied it was actually happening every step of the way, so perhaps quoting conventional wisdom is a poor choice all-around this cycle, but my sense is that they're right that the range of Trump's possibilities extend from a (relative) landslide double-digit defeat to an extremely narrow Electoral College victory.

There are two scenarios where Trump attains a narrow Electoral College victory, and the first is entirely uncomplicated.  He could benefit from a combination of incorrect polling data and low Democratic base turnout.  Polling has gotten less and less reliable in recent years with the demise of the landline, leaving even the best pollsters scrambling to accurately assess public opinion.  So let's say polls show Hillary ahead by 7-8 points going into election day.....but their polling models were as far off to the Democrats' artificial favor as they were in the 2014 midterms.  This could help suppress the Democratic base's turnout, thinking Hillary has it in the bag, while allowing Trump to sneak in and win a number of states with growing minority populations that would be out of reach for Trump if the minority vote came out at 2012 levels.  Much as we're told that nonwhites hate Donald Trump with the power of a thousand suns, it is not without precedent for the Democratic Party's nonwhite base to sit out elections and I'm not yet convinced they will have the fire in the belly to oppose Trump or support Hillary at levels needed to stop Trump.

But for the second scenario, let's operate under the theory that minority voter turnout will rival that of 2012.  If that's the case, Donald Trump's path to victory is only doable through an inside straight through the Rust Belt.  Several quadrennial swing states have growing minority populations and have been trending Democratic for a few cycles now.  If those minority voters turn out in respectable numbers, Trump is toast in Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and probably Florida.  Florida is particularly important since previous Republican victories in the state depended upon strong GOP support among Cuban-Americans, but this demographic has been trending away from the GOP for a few cycles anyway and early indications this cycle is that they have no use whatsoever for Donald Trump.  If the Cubans are gone from the GOP on top of other unfavorable demographic shifts in Florida, the Republicans have a nightmare on their hands trying to get to 270 electoral votes.

That only leaves a handful of swing states where Trump would have to vastly overperform John McCain, Mitt Romney, and even George W. Bush.  There are only two blue states from 2012 that I think have an even-money chance of flipping to Trump in 2016, and they are Ohio and Iowa.  I'm not formally predicting that Trump wins them at this point, but for the sake of this "path to victory" exercise, let's give Trump these two states on the strength of his populist, blue-collar message delivered to those state's demographically friendly white working class-heavy voters.  Together, the two states are worth 24 electoral voters so add them up to the 206 electoral votes Romney got and we're up to 230.  But the pickings get very slim very quickly after that.....

It's hard to gauge right now whether Trump's brand of secular and populist Republicanism will sell in the northeast better than the disastrous performances of prior Republican nominees or not, but even if it does, New Hampshire is the only northeastern state Trump would have a prayer of overcoming massive Democratic voter advantages.  This state has been trending Democratic in recent cycles so it's a reach for Trump, but for the sake of the exercise let's give him NH's four electoral votes, bringing him up to 234.

Wisconsin is also theoretically doable for Trump.  Ted Cruz did very well in Wisconsin's primary, indicating a coolness towards Trump's brand of politics, but at the same time, Trump's county-level victories over Cruz occurred in the vast rural counties of northern and western Wisconsin, which are the bellwether counties in Wisconsin, so if he can translate primary wins in places like Wausau and La Crosse into general election victories, he could narrowly win here.  It's a longshot--and even more of a longshot in demographically similar but more inelastically Democratic Minnesota--but it's possible.  So stack up 10 more electoral votes for Trump from Wisconsin and put him at 244.

It gets ever harder from there as we move onto Michigan, which Obama carried by nearly 10 points in 2012.  There's a reasonable line of argument that Obama overperformed the Democratic baseline in Michigan in 2012 because of the auto bailout he supported and Mitt Romney opposed, and that the state is likely to be closer in 2016 without that built-in advantage, particularly given Trump's campaign pitch directed so specifically towards a state like Michigan.  But there's little in the data to support such an abrupt rightward turn for the state, particularly with as horridly unpopular as its current Republican Governor is. The media's long-standing association with Michigan as a "swing state" seems to be driving the narrative more than anything else.  I don't think Trump can win Michigan but if he does, it puts him up to 260 electoral votes.

And that leaves Pennsylvania.  The media likes to throw Pennsylvania in with Michigan and Ohio as Rust Belt states, imagining that Trump's populist campaign message will lasso in retired steelworkers in the Pittsburgh collar counties by the hundreds of thousands.  Certainly if this election was being held with the Pennsylvania demographics of 1988, that might be possible, but the media narrative ignores that for a generation now, Pennsylvania's elections have been won or lost in its growth zone which is the Greater Philadelphia area.  And from everything we know about the socially liberal, upscale suburbs of Philly, they are not the kind of place where Donald Trump would have much appeal.  In fact, the Republican that was probably best positioned to win over suburban Philly was the guy they ran four years ago, and Romney nonetheless fumbled.  Trump would need to win an otherworldly number of votes in shrinking blue-collar counties to make up for what he seems very likely to lose in Greater Philadelphia.

But just for the sake of argument, let's say Trump manages to win Pennsylvania but doesn't get Michigan.  That would be the difference of 260 electoral votes and 264, still below the 270 he needs to win.   If recent turnout models hold and disqualifies Trump from victory in the aforementioned demographically unfriendly Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and Florida as I speculated, then Trump would need to run the table on Ohio,  Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to win a bare 270-268 Electoral College majority.  And even with Iowa and New Hampshire on board, he has no path to victory without Pennsylvania, last won by a Republican in a Presidential election in 1988.  It's a tall order to say the least, and would depend upon virtually everything going Trump's way in terms of suppressed turnout models amongst the Democratic base.

Trump's nomination victory proves anything is possible, and Hillary is a special kind of awful for a Democratic nominee that presents its own challenges for the Democrats.  But it's really hard to see how Donald Trump is well-positioned to win over converts at this stage of the race that aren't already on his side, and Hillary would have to run the worst Presidential general election campaign since Michael Dukakis to allow Trump to gain at her expense to that degree.  I'd give Trump about 10% odds at victory.  The headwinds he's facing are enormous, and that becomes even clearer when you break down the states Trump needs to persevere in the Electoral College.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Should The Minimum Wage Be $15 An Hour?

In the earliest stages of the debate on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour a couple of years ago, it seemed like a typical bargaining posture to me.  No way, I figured did the striking fast food workers really believe they were gonna get $15 an hour.  They were simply putting in a high opening bid in hopes of negotiating their way to something like $11 an hour.  It seemed like a savvy ploy, and one that would ultimately bring considerably more good than harm in a nation where wages are at the lowest level of gross national product in recorded history.

But starting with the Seattle airport, the $15 an hour experiment became a reality.  And from there, a few larger cities like San Francisco also adopted $15 an hour minimum wages and just this month, two our of nation's three largest states--California and New York--implemented statewide $15 an hour minimum wages to be phased in over the course of the next several years.  Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley both endorsed nationwide $15 an hour minimum wages in their Presidential campaigns and held Hillary's feet to the fire for her more cautious $12 an hour position.  But this past week, even Hillary has relented and succumbed to the momentum towards $15 an hour, so long as it's phased in over an extended time period.  It's now clear that $15 an hour was not simply a negotiating posture...and it's becoming law in jurisdictions that represent a significant portion of the nation's population.

But is it sound policy?  I'm in the camp of California Governor Jerry Brown, who reluctantly signed the law but conceded it was a high-stakes experiment.  While conservatives and libertarians always freak out and channel their inner Milton Friedman any time there's a national debate about the minimum wage, even raising it from historic lows to slightly above historic lows, but the basic principles of Economics 101 suggest that there is a risk if the wage basement is raised above a certain tipping point.  If the cost of labor rises above what the market can bear, some combination of price hikes, layoffs, and automation can theoretically do more harm than good.  Is $15 an hour above that tipping point?   Minimum wage expert Alan Krueger, generally a proponent of higher minimum wages, believes it may be and has been urging caution in going too quickly to $15 an hour.  I tend to agree.

So are lawmakers in California and New York passing $15 an hour minimum wage requirements into law either naive or crazy in taking such a bold experiment?  Maybe a little, but what doesn't get reported is that both states' hands are near the point of being forced to do something because there are so many low-wage workers qualifying for public assistance that the states are being driven to bankruptcy trying to bankroll all of it.  And why are so many workers in these states qualifying for public assistance?  There are a number of factors, but arguably the biggest is that there are so many employers in retail, health care, food production, and especially fast food that pay wages so low that taxpayers have to fill the void with public assistance.  If these workers made $15 an hour, public assistance spending would contract substantially.  So to the states, it ultimately becomes a question of whether billion-dollar multinational corporations with steep profit margins should be paying livable wages to their workers.....or whether they should be given a "wage subsidy" in the form of public assistance born by taxpayers to keep their workers out of poverty.

This would be an easy question to answer in favor of making the businesses pay more if the businesses didn't still  hold the whip hand in the debate.  The biggest concern is a movement towards automation, rendering the majority of existing fast food jobs obsolete in the event of labor costs going to high and adding even more instability to the process.  It isn't at all outside the realm to imagine the fast food giants making this transition in the face of $15 an hour minimum wages and reports suggest the technology may be there to do just that.  With this in mind, I'd prefer the same $12 an hour minimum wage that Hillary was originally advocating as the most sensibly cautious approach.  Even at its highest level of value historically, I believe in 1968, the minimum wage would be worth about $11 an hour in today's value.  Going more than 50% higher than most historical precedent just seems like more than what the job market can absorb.

But the most troubling part of the minimum wage increase debate has nothing to do with whether the increase would be economically sound policy.  Most troubling is how the prospect of low-wage workers getting a raise is perfect fodder for exploiting the usual intra-class resentments.  All too often, the group of people most loudly and passionately rallying against a higher minimum wage for low-income workers are....their own working-class neighbors.....seething with jealousy and resentment at the prospect of "those people" getting paid more for an honest day's work.  The fact that a minimum wage increase injects more demand into the economy and facilitates an environment where everybody's wages ultimately go up matters not at all to them, even if thoroughly explained.  Their jealousy and resentment runs so deep that they'd rather lose out on a raise themselves if it means their neighbor is able to climb just a little bit out of the gutter.

This is the primary reason why so many downscale voters are receptive to the Republican Party's economic message.....the obsession with making sure that your "unworthy" neighbor takes it on the chin.  Interestingly, most Americans are theoretically opposed to the rising tide of inequality in our economic system and pay lip service to the unfairness of our current arrangement where the rich devour nearly everything the economy produces.  But when a practical effort to offset some of that inequality is introduced, they reflexively go into attack mode because at the gut level they believe low-income workers deserve what they get.  The same is true with the public assistance angle that people are constantly getting their panties in a wad about, sometimes legitimately.  For as much grumbling as they do about all the people on public assistance, a higher minimum wage would reduce the need for so much public assistance to so many workers.....yet they still passionately argue against it.  Ultimately, what matters most to them is an economic caste system with a clearly defined bottom......a bottom that they are obsessed be occupied by people other than themselves at all costs and will rail against any effort to scramble that status quo.

With all that in mind, the experiences of California and New York and their new supersized minimum wage will be fascinating to track.  There's a decent chance they pushed the envelope too far and will face rising unemployment as a result. But there's also a chance the higher wages among currently low-income residents will trigger a multiplier effect of economic activity and corresponding wage growth for everyone in those states while simultaneously freeing up some money in the budget currently going towards public assistance for all the workers about to get a big raise.  If it's the latter and the minimum wage increase is a success, it'll be fascinating to see if other states follow suit....or if they still resist because resentment for your neighbor getting a raise still matters more than crafting a healthy economy and job market.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

America Wants a Messiah

Since I was a young boy, I've always been into the political horse race....REALLY into it.  The nature of the beast, and the media's breathless coverage of it, makes it relatively easy for a good share of the population to get swept into the pageantry of primary and general elections for President.  But what separates me from (apparently) virtually everybody else who gets most attached to Presidential politics is that I don't go into the race looking for a messiah around every corner.  The one exception was in 1992, when I thought Iowa Senator Tom Harkin walked on water in his doomed pursuit of the Democratic nomination that cycle.  I was 14, so I feel my naivete about what one man can be expected to accomplish simply by winning a Presidential election was a little more justified than what I've witnessed adults young and old treat Presidential candidates since.  I'm sure there's always been a degree to which a hopeful nation channels its desires onto a charismatic leader going back to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, but in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, the public really seems to have lost its mind in how high it sets its expectation bar for Presidential performance.

At one level, impassioned enthusiasm for electing leaders is a good thing, as we need a certain level of energy to keep a democracy functional.  There was a fair degree of enthusiasm for both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot back in 1992 that seemed proportionally appropriate.  I wasn't a fan of George W. Bush or the politics of his supporters, but I never got the sense that even the so-called "Bush-bots" treated Dubya with the same degree of hero worship that they treated Ronald Reagan then or now.  I was too young in the early 80s to pick up on the far right's love affair with Reagan at the dawn of his Presidential career but he was clearly the first example in my lifetime of a political leader elevated to superhero status by his fans.  And despite a turbulent Presidency that created more losers than winners and set the template for America's long-term death spiral into becoming a Wall Street subsidiary, Reagan is the only political figure of my lifetime looked back upon as a messiah by large swaths of the population committed to Reagan's brand of tribal trench warfare politics.

But far and away the most common examples of messiah politics have emerged in the last decade where a new idol seems to emerge every five minutes....the newest shiny object on the scene who represents an empty vessel for a certain demographic of the population to tags their aspirations onto.  The clearest example of this is of course Barack Obama whose oratory sent "thrills up the leg" of cable news anchors and led crowds full of awestruck young supporters at his rallies fainting at his undying charisma.  As most politicians do, Obama fed this beast with the way he ran his 2008 campaign, waiting until after he was elected to downplay expectations of what was gonna assuredly be one of the most challenging Presidential terms in American history.  Nobody in their right mind had any expectation of prosperity raining down upon America following Obama's election given the hole America was in back in 2009, but it was nonetheless expected by millions of people who had assigned messianic powers to Obama based on the charisma of his speeches during the campaign.  Now I certainly haven't agreed with everything Obama has done over the course of his two terms as President, but have nonetheless been quite impressed with where the country has ended up at the end of his tenure compared to where it began.  But most Americans, even his supporters, want to see the country go in a different direction moving forward.  The Obama Presidency was a letdown to them....and given the expectations, how could it not be?

During the Obama era, the Republicans have made numerous attempts to manufacture their own messiah, with mostly ineffective results.  Bobby Jindal and Bob McDonnell are some of the clearest examples of hero fails the Republican establishment tried to foist on people, but some degree of short-lived messiah accolades stuck with Chris Christie and Marco Rubio before it became clear they fell far short of expectations even to the least discriminating audiences.  But a genuine messiah did emerge on the Republican side during the Obama years with "crazy grandpa" libertarian Ron Paul, whose cult was smaller than Obama's but considerably more the point of hijacking state conventions in 2012 and turning over the primary and caucus outcomes to replace the delegates for the winning candidate with Ron Paul flacks.  The modestly sized faction of Ron Paul followers fervently believed what Obama's supporters believed a few years earlier....that installing this one man as the nation's leader would change everything entirely for the better.

Which brings us to 2016, where a nation more angry, agitated, and in need of hero than ever before has managed to find two more out of this year's selection of Presidential candidates.  Bernie Sanders is an unlikely figure to emerge as an aspirational vessel to America's youth, but that's exactly what has happened as Bernie's brand of democratic socialism sounds pretty good to a nation of young people looking at a higher and higher price of entry in pursuit of the American dream with dramatically shrinking returns on the back end.  Bernie hits the nail on the head in diagnosing nearly everything that's wrong in America, but far more than Obama eight years his messiah bona fides are poised to fall disastrously short in a political environment where even the basic functions of government are obstructed to the point of paralysis.  Even if Bernie were to overcome very long odds and get a mandate from the American people to lead the country, the checks and balances of the American government would prevent him from accomplishing all of his lofty goals, especially in a nation this polarized.  The young people who view him as their savior would definitively get their hearts broken in the most soul-crushing way.

But surpassing Bernie, Obama, and every other false messiah in recent American political history is Donald Trump, a masterful snake oil peddler who has whooped a neglected faction of the Republican base into a frenzy with a populist, paleoconservative pitch that is as vague as it is phony.  Picking up on all the unsavory trends from recent political campaigns and melding them into one toxic hairball, Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign theme makes Obama's "hope and change" pitch from 2008 seem like a labyrinth of intricacy by comparison.  But where Obama had some actual policy points hidden beneath the airy salesmanship, everything Trump is offering is a bag of feathers.  From assuring us that Mexico will pay for a wall on our border to rewriting trade deals to going after terrorists' families, the entirety of Trump's policy agenda is supposed to be accomplished entirely by the force of his personality.  The fact that the establishments of both parties who he'd have to work with if elected hate his guts matters not at all to Trump's sales pitch or to the people buying that sales pitch.   The traditional rules of getting things done in Washington only apply to mere mortals after all, and with Trump, Americans are electing a messiah!

It's gotten to the point where I wish parties would not elect charismatic candidates anymore.  Much as Democrats stick their noses up at the memories of Al Gore and John Kerry's campaigns against George W. Bush, there was no expectation that either of their hypothetical Presidencies would defy gravity and fix everything wrong with the country simply based on their soaring oratory, the strength of their conviction, or their past successes in business or reality TV shows.  The flip side, of course, is that such technocrats do not inspire high voter turnout, meaning we're caught in a vicious cycle where every four years both parties are expected to put up somebody "inspiring" enough to make crowds faint in their presence....or at least punch black people in the face.  The only real solution to this messiah cycle is for the American people to grow up and realize the limitations of both the office of the Presidency and political leaders' ability to control events.  If the messiah du jour doesn't reverse the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression in the first six months of his Presidency and you're already declaring him a failure and a disappointment, then you probably believe in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny too. 

I used to believe a President had the power to single-handedly reverse all the nation's endemic problems and return us to a fantastical golden age.....but then I got old enough where I had to shave my facial hair.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Battle for the Senate in 2016

As is so often the case in Presidential cycles with high-drama debates and primaries front and center in the political sphere, Congressional races tend to get overshadowed.  Suddenly, however, with the death of Supreme Court justice Scalia last week, the Senate races became a lot more important as the Democrats need either four or five seats, depending on who wins the White House to have a Senate majority in 2016.  And while I'm generally bearish on the Democrats' prospects this cycle as they attempt to hold the White House for a third consecutive term, the Senate class up this year is the class from 2010, where Democrats got pasted.  As a result, the Republicans hold an unusually high number of vulnerable seats in blue and purple states so if a polarizing GOP nominee (say, Donald Trump) is at the top of the Presidential ticket, there's a very real possibility that the Democrats could win the four or five seats they need.

Many of the races have yet to fully take form and have primaries where the winner will be determinative for the two parties' chances.  And of course there's always the chance of a would-be "safe" seat blowing up for one party such as Minnesota in 1990 or Virginia in 2006.  But barring a shocking turn of events, the following seats are likely to stay in the hands of their respective parties....

For the Democrats:
California--Barbara Boxer (open seat retirement)
Connecticut--Richard Blumenthal
Hawaii--Brian Schatz
Maryland--Barbara Mikulski (open seat retirement)
New York--Chuck Schumer
Oregon--Ron Wyden
Vermont--Pat Leahy
Washington--Patty Murray

For the Republicans:
Alabama--Richard Shelby
Alaska--Lisa Murkowski
Georgia--Johnny Isakson
Idaho--Michael Crapo
Iowa--Chuck Grassley
Kansas--Jerry Moran
Kentucky--Rand Paul
North Dakota--John Hoeven
Oklahoma--James Lankford
South Carolina--Tim Scott
South Dakota--John Thune
Utah--Mike Lee

I'm somewhat reluctant to put open seats in the slam-dunk category but particularly given that this is a Presidential year, it's almost unthinkable that a Republican would win in either California and Maryland.  As for the rest of the seats, there's a varying degree a volatility in them where the opposing party has at least a small chance of picking them off.

Arizona--Three-decade incumbent and former GOP Presidential nominee John McCain is going for a sixth term.  As was the case in 2010, McCain first has to get through the primary in his own party with State Senator Kelli Ward challenging him from the right.  McCain is a favorite to prevail in the primary and likely will be in the general election as well, although he has a strong challenger in Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick.  Only five Democrats nationally hold Congressional seats in districts won by Mitt Romney in 2012 and Kirkpatrick's vast district taking in giant swaths of northern and eastern Arizona along with northeastern fringe of the metropolitan Phoenix is one of them.  McCain can likely overcome any possible headwind at the top of the ticket should Trump or Cruz get his party's nomination, but if Ward is able to prevail in the primary, Kirkpatrick would be even money to pick up the seat for the Democrats.  Still, a lot of things will have to go right for the Dems to wrestle this seat away.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Arkansas--Democrats are bullish on former US Attorney Connor Eldridge, their young Senate candidate challenging one-term Republican incumbent John Boozman, who unseated Democrat Blanche Lincoln in a landslide in 2010 but who is considered such a backbencher in the Senate that even his own constituents don't really know who he is.  Consider me highly skeptical that the Democrats have any chance in Arkansas, where former popular Democratic Senator was crushed by 17 points in 2014.  Every indication is that Arkansas has realigned into one of the reddest states in the country in just a few short years, and even though Eldridge is running as an old-fashioned moderate Arkansas Democrat like the ones who thrived in the state until recently--and even though the state's former First Lady Hillary Clinton is odds-on to be at the top of the ticket--I still think Boozman will prevail by 20 points or more.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Colorado--Democrats dodged a bullet when Republican Congressman Mike Coffman declined to challenge incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet, but another former GOP Congressman--Scott Tipton--now seems like the Republican best positioned to take on Bennet.  Considering Bennet managed to narrowly prevail against a strong challenge in 2010, he won't be an easy target, especially since Colorado has continued to trend leftward in the years since and 2016 will have Presidential year turnout.  Barring devastating headwinds at the top of the ticket for the Democrats, Bennet is definitely the favorite here.  Prediction: Leans Democrat.

Florida--The most wide open Senate race in the country is in Florida, the open seat vacated by Marco Rubio, with contested primaries in both parties making it tough to handicap this early in the cycle.  The frontrunners on the Republican side are current Congressmen David Jolly and Ron DeSantis, with DeSantis being the more conservative of the two that Democrats are hopeful to run against.  The Democratic side features two Congressmen of their own.  One is the young moderate Patrick Murphy from south Florida who beat right-wing Allen West in 2012 and won re-election handily last year in a district Romney won.  He'd be the strongest candidate by far, but first has to get past a primary challenge from the mercurial progressive Alan Grayson.  While the foul-mouthed and mean-spirited Grayson would be a disaster in the general election, there's a very real chance he could win a Democratic primary.  It's next to impossible to handicap this race with the current level of uncertainty but given that any chance of a Democratic victory
likely requires Murphy to emerge victorious in the primary, you have to give the Republicans a small early advantage from this far out.  And if Rubio manages to get the nomination for his party, he will likely have some coattails in his home state that will benefit the GOP Senate nominee as well.  Prediction: Tilts Republican.

Illinois--The closest the Democrats have to a sure thing this cycle is in Illinois, where Republican Mark Kirk eked out a one-point victory against a slimy challenger in the political perfect storm of 2010.   Illinois has become a heavier and heavier lift for Republicans in the last generation but has recently showed signs of polarizing between Chicago and the rest of the state.  If that intense polarization plays out again in 2016 and the downstate counties are a sea of Republican red, Kirk could make it close, but with Presidential turnout it's really hard to imagine him winning, especially since he'll have a stronger challenger this time since his likely Democratic challenger is Iraq War veteran and amputee Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth.  The Democrats are really having an unprecedented disaster at the top of the ticket if they can't pick up this seat.  Prediction: Likely Democrat (+1 for Dems)

Indiana--Republican Congressman Dan Coats came out of retirement and won his old Senate back in 2010 but already wants out again this cycle, leaving an open seat with two current members of Congress vying on the Republican side...Marlin Stutzman from the Fort Wayne area and Todd Young from the state's southeast corner.  The Democrats were unable to get their choice (former Senator Evan Bayh) but got a decent recruit in former Congressman Baron Hill who held the same southeastern IN seat that Young now holds back in the 90s and 2000s.  Hill is a long shot in increasingly Republican Indiana, but if Stutzman gets the nod on the GOP side, Hill will have a parochial advantage in hanging onto the conservative Democrats in his old southern Indiana seat that have largely trended Republican in recent years. Still, a helluva lot of things would have to go right for the Dems to win this seat and with Hillary at the top of the ticket the chances get even slimmer.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Louisiana--On the outer edges of competitiveness is the open seat in Louisiana vacated by Republican David Vitter after his stunning upset defeat in last fall's gubernatorial race.  A humbled Vitter announced his retirement from the Senate after losing that race, and Democrats were briefly optimistic of their chances, particularly if Mitch Landrieu got into the race. Landrieu declined, however, and the Dems are left with no strong candidate to face off against a number of top-tier Republicans vying for the seat including House members John Fleming and Charles Boustany.  The Dems have very low chances here, but after winning a Governor's race only months ago with similarly lopsided odds, it's too early to declare this race over.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Missouri--Democrats have a very strong candidate in Secretary of State Jason Kander, the youngest statewide elected official in the country, to face off against incumbent Republican Roy Blunt.  A decade ago, this would have likely been a genuine tossup, but Missouri has really hardened into a red state during the Obama era and unless Blunt really steps in it (Todd Akin-style) or Kander proves to be an absolute rock star, the Democrats aren't gonna be winning here with Hillary at the top of the ticket.  Prediction: Likely Republican.

Nevada--The Silver State gave us the marquee Senate race in the country in 2010 when Harry Reid overcame polls showing him DOA and won decisively.  Reid is retiring this year and his absence is likely to produce another barnburner of an open seat contest.  The Democrats are likely to go with former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, and would have identity politics on their side in pursuit of females and the fast-growing Latino population in the state.  The Republicans are running a strong challenger as well with Congressman Joe Heck, who has represented a two-time Obama-voting district in the Las Vegas suburbs for several years.  Heck will likely face some headwinds in increasingly Democratic Nevada in a higher-turnout Presidential cycle but fellow Republican Dean Heller narrowly prevailed in such a climate in 2012 and Heck has a very doable path to victory as well if he can hold some of the crossover support he's maintained in his home Congressional district.  Still, Cortez Masto has a small advantage looking from afar.  Prediction: Tilts Democrat.

New Hampshire--Another hotly contested race will be always-volatile New Hampshire where GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte is facing a challenge from current Governor Maggie Hassan.  There have already been a number of polls showing this race very close to deadlocked.  Perhaps more than any other Senate race in the country, this race is likely to come down to who is at the top of the ticket for each party.  If I was Ayotte, I would much rather be running with Rubio at the top of the ticket for the GOP rather Donald Trump, despite Trump's big win in the New Hampshire primary a couple of weeks ago.  And the death of Antonin Scalia could represent another challenge for Ayotte as moderate New Hampshire voters are more likely to want a Democratic Senate to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.  All things being equal, Ayotte would probably pull this one out, but some trends are breaking against her and make me think Hassan may have a small advantage, but an advantage that may well not materialize in another seven months.  Prediction: Tilts Democrats (+2 for Dems)

North Carolina--With the changing demographics and political profile of North Carolina, Democrats thought Senate backbencher Richard Burr would be a soft target in 2010 but didn't even come close to upending him in that year's GOP wave.  Six years later, Burr could still be potentially vulnerable given his unimpressive favorables but just about every high-profile Democrat passed on challenging him, leaving a small-city mayor the Dems' best prospect.  In 2008, Kay Hagan won an upset in a very similar environment but it's hard to believe 2016 will prove to be as perfect of a political storm and 2008 was.  Prediction: Likely Republican.

Ohio--Definitely among the top tier of competitive races in 2016, first-term Republican Rob Portman appears quite vulnerable and stands poised to face off against popular and charismatic former Governor Ted Strickland.  There are some signs that Strickland may not be as strong of an opponent as he looks on paper though.  For one thing, he's 75 years old.  He also faces a primary challenge against a Cincinnati city council member that could potentially bloody him heading into the general and his fundraising haul has been mediocre.  Plus Portman is a pretty polished campaigner and if Hillary proves to be a headwind at all at the top of the ticket, it could work to Portman's advantage.  While I don't rule out Strickland at all if 2016 turns into a decently Democratic year, I think the conditions warrant giving Portman the edge here to hold his seat.  Prediction:  Leans Republican.

Pennsylvania--Another top tier competitive race is in a neighboring Rust Belt state.  Republican Pat Toomey squeaked out a narrow victory in the 2010 GOP sweep and has been working to build a moderate profile in the years since.  It seems to be serving him well as Toomey has higher approval ratings than the other incumbent Republicans considered most vulnerable this year.  A fractured Democratic field with a hotly contested primary is also helping Toomey's cause, as establishment Democrats are rallying behind Katie McGinty, the former Chief of State to Governor Tom Wolf, but former Congressman Joe Sestak, who narrowly lost to Toomey in 2010, is returning for an encore to the chagrin of the Democratic establishment who are not fans.  It's anybody's guess who between McGinty and Sestak will win the primary at this point, and it's hard to know which is the better option to topple Toomey in November.  In order to win, Toomey needs to win a good chunk of votes from suburban Philadelphia that will likely vote for Hillary in the Presidential race.  These voters are pro-choice, however, so Toomey will not be served well if the election becomes a referendum on the Supreme Court as it likely will be.  Still, Toomey has emerged from his first term strong enough to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Prediction: Leans Republican

Wisconsin--Polls currently show former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold with a comfortable lead over the guy who unseated him in 2010, Republican Senator Ron Johnson.  While the Dems appear better positioned than not to win this seat back, I still think they're spiking the football a little early here as Feingold is a notoriously poor campaigner and could get swamped in a sea of right-wing special interest money as he was before.  Furthermore, Hillary at the top of the ticket would not be likely to offer Feingold any tailwinds in Wisconsin.  I'm hesitant to declare poor-performing Republicans toast after 2014 when the previously unimaginable re-elections of guys like Paul Le Page and Mike Grimm became a reality, and Johnson fits that category perfectly.  Prediction: Tilts Democrats (+3 for Democrats)

So as of now late February, I'm seeing the Dems falling a little bit short of picking up a Senate majority.  Even more so than traditional cycles these races will be a little easier to call after the primary cycle when the nominees are selected because in some cases, especially Florida, the winner of the primary will almost certainly mean the difference between a Democratic gain and a GOP hold.  And if the Democrats do manage to win back the Senate in 2016, it'll be a rental because they're extremely overexposed heading into the Senate class up in 2016 with a ratio of something like 26 Democratic-held seats and 7 Republican-held seats.  It's all part of the reason I'm having a hard time mustering up much excitement for this election cycle as even if Democrats defy the odds and hang on to the White House for a third consecutive term due to a trainwreck of an opposition party, they're poised for an epic ass-whooping two years later in the midterms that will make 2010 and 2014 look like the good old days by comparison.  Still, with the Supreme Court at stake, 2016 will nonetheless be an extremely consequential year and the Democrats had best take advantage of any kind of victory they can get while they can get it.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

My 20 Favorite Album Cuts From Country CDs I Own

I got a new CD player (yeah, I know...I'm the last dinosaur) for Christmas to replace my old one which was routinely skipping, and as a result I've been revisiting a lot of my old CDs that have been accumulating since 1994 in the days since.  I'm always struck how some of my favorite songs were never released as singles, a phenomenon that's been occurring since the dawn of albums I'm sure but one that I thought worthy of recognition even amongst the relatively small selection of music I've accumulated over the years.  Obviously my list is not a representative sample of all never-released-as-singles country classics lingering out there, just a list based on my own limited collection.  I thought it would be fun to document them on my blog.

#20. "Two of the Lucky Ones"--Billy Dean
For several years in the late 90s and early 2000s my mom would forage through the discount CD bin at retail stores and buy some clearance CDs selling for less than $5.   Some of these were quite weak but there were some diamonds in the rough.  Billy Dean's 1993 "Fire in the Dark" CD was a mixed bag with a couple of good singles but little else worthy of Dean's more memorable songs over the years.  But this midtempo cut documenting a couple's years of staying together amidst all of their friends and families' marriages falling apart was nicely sung, had good lyrics, and a strong, addictive melodic hook.  It was right in Billy Dean's wheelhouse and unfortunate that he never released it as one of the singles.

#19.  "I Was Here"--Lady Antebellum
There were plenty of mediocre ripoffs of Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" in the years following that song's smash success, but the best was this 2011 midtempo cut where the narrator vows to find her way and make a difference in whatever she does.  I first heard the song on a "20/20" segment profiling the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and took notice.  While the lyrics are relatively hum-ho, Lady Antebellum lead singer Hillary Scott's terrific vocals and the melodic arrangement are what make the song powerful and emotional.

#18. "Joe and Rosalita"--Phil Vassar
There are few CDs in my collection as terrific from beginning to end as Phil Vassar's self-titled debut album from 2000, and Phil was rewarded with five top-15 hits on radio for the effort.  Phil's subsequent work never lived up to it but this debut effort was packed with 11 above-average songs that were all worth listening to to experience the album in full, complete with Phil's trademark keyboard licks bridging between two cuts on a few experiences.  Aside from the stellar singles, the best album cut was "Joe and Rosalita", an uptempo number documenting a young couple's burning passion from high school to young adulthood that often got them in a wee bit of trouble, all set to a rollicking beat of sizzling fiddle riffs and Phil's keyboards.

#17. "One Day You Will"--Martina McBride
Perhaps the single best voice to come out of country music in my lifetime is Martina McBride, and while she's best known for her power-vocal performances, it's nice when she slows things down and lets the beauty of her voice dazzle in its purest form, as she did in "One Day You Will", an understated cut from her 1997 "Evolution" album.  There were already six singles released from this album, and I believe they were all top-10s, but it's too bad they couldn't have held out for a seventh single to give this gem a wider audience.

#16. "The Things You Said to Me"--The Mavericks
The Miami-based band the Mavericks defied categorization when they first came out but managed to find commercial success in the mid-90s without betraying their eclectic sound, and did so most impressively on their most successful album, 1994's "What a Crying Shame", a practical anthology of oldies country sounds and oldies rock sounds that managed to sound fresh and new with lead singer Raul Malo's incredible vocals and fantastic musicianship backing him up.  All of the songs on the CD were great, but the album cuts that always stands out is the 50s-style rocker "The Things You Said to Me" which channels the sound of an early Elvis with a beat so addictive I've heard random people humming it over the years.

#15.  "The Other Side of Midnight"--Sylvia
Few singers have come through Nashville with vocals as pure as early 80s hitmaker Sylvia, so it's a shame that her legacy is tainted as the auteur of the lowest-denominator country-pop of the urban cowboy era.  I frankly think even her clunkiest efforts on that front were a far sight better than the bro-country drivel saturating country radio 35 years later, but the dirty little secret is that much of her material was fantastic, particularly on her early albums.  But even by her fourth album--1984's "Surprise"--she cranked out some great cuts, the best of which being the ballad "Other Side of Midnight", a song where both the melody and Sylvia's vocals are so silky smooth they take me to a zen state whenever I listen to it....that rare feeling when all is right in the world for three minutes just because of great music.  (not great audio)

#14. "A Kiss is Worth a Thousand Words"--BlackHawk
One of the best and most distinctive country groups of my lifetime is BlackHawk, forging a unique sound that embraced elements of country and southern rock in the mid-90s, and doing so with above-average songs at almost every turn.  But even a lyrically average song such as this one found its voice on BlackHawk's outstanding 1995 "Strong Enough" album, which cranked up the guitars and blew the roof off the place in a way I've rarely encountered on a country CD.  Something about the melding of Henry Paul's lead vocals with the harmonies of fellow band members Van Stephenson and Dave Robbins, along with a pitch-perfect country-rock melody makes this my favorite of the five album cuts never released as singles on one of the best commercially successful CDs to ever grace store shelves.

#13. "Pink Bedroom"--Rosanne Cash
Never before in the history of commercial country music has a star artist come to a stylistic crossroads and successfully declared "Fuck it....I'm making a rock album and calling it country!" in the way that Rosanne Cash did with her audacious 1985 "Rhythm and Romance" album.  Artists like Ronnie Milsap and Eddie Rabbitt had dabbled in infusing country music with rock stylings in the early 80s but Rosanne Cash broke down all the walls and went full-on Pat Benatar with an album that would still defy belief if it was released today, 30 years after country music has embraced rock as a natural component of its sound.  Amazingly, country radio embraced it and the album produced four top-five hits.  The most fun track on the album was this John Hiatt-penned rocker about a teenage girl rebelling against the stuffed-shirt corporate world of her parents that she sees on her horizon, all set to a pitch-perfect Bo Diddley-meets-Joan Jett arrangement.

#12. "Somebody Save Me"--Chalee Tennison
I picked up Chalee Tennison's massively underrated 2001 sophomore CD on eBay about a decade ago for the one single that was a semihit that I just had to have in my collection, but never could I have anticipated how first-rate the whole 12-song CD would be.  Tennison's vocals and lyrics exude authenticity in a way that very few commercial singer-songwriters can pull off.  You believe Tennison has lived every word of what she sings about, and while there are any number of great choices to select on the underappreciated album, the best is this polished slow-to-midtempo cut where the narrator is the "friend" always lending emotional support to others while quietly crying out for her own that just isn't coming.

#11. "You Keep on Loving Me"--Sherrie Austin
For the life of me I can't figure out why drop-dead gorgeous Aussie-born Sherrie Austin was never the tour de force in country music that her vocals, stage presence, and song selection would indicate.  The unevenness of her 1999 sophomore CD was sort of explained it, but the lack of complete radio allegiance to her first-rate 1997 debut continues to mystify nearly 20 years later.  All but a couple of the songs from the album are fantastic and three of them were semi-hits on radio, but of all the memorable cuts that never got to be hits at all, Austin's self-penned "You Keep on Loving Me" which closes the album is the most impressive and indicative of the kind of sound that I think could have set Austin apart from the crowd had she explored it more deeply, with powerhouse vocals and a wildly dramatic midtempo arrangement that came to a blazing finale at the song's closing notes.  It was the kind of song that felt like it could go along with an emotionally charged movie finale.

#10. "Stronger than I Am"--Lee Ann Womack
One of the best CDs in my collection is Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" which dazzles from beginning to end with a mix of surprisingly dark songs of varying tempos and genre influences all set to Lee Ann's one of a kind vocals which we hear far too little of on radio today.  Most of the songs on the record feature something to love, but the most poignant is the stone cold country ballad "Stronger than I Am" featuring a single mother narrator impressed by toughness of her baby girl in the face of their adversity, in contrast to her own difficulty turning the page after being abandoned by the baby daddy.  The closing lyric wraps things up nicely...."she's just like her old man....stronger than I am".

#9. "Pick Up the Tempo"--The Thompson Brothers Band
One of the more unique country acts to emerge in the last 20 years was the Massachusetts-based roots college-aged rockers The Thompson Brothers Band, whose sound was an eclectic combination of Steve Earle, Neil Diamond, and Creedence Clearwater.  There was a ton of potential to their stripped-down country-rock sound but they needed a little more time to improve their songwriting skills before they were foisted on the shallow and skeptical minds of country radio.  They still managed one big hit video on CMT but other than that their tenure in the country music scene was limited to a single album released in 1997.  The best song from the album was the closing cut, a reimagining of Willie Nelson's "Pick Up the Tempo", where they really did pick up the tempo, joined by Steve Earle on vocals and cranking up the guitars to produce a performance worthy of the very best country-rock is capable of and all within the context of their no-frills, just-the-basics-ma'am musical production.

No Audio Clip

#8. "You'll Never Know"--Kim Richey
I had just sensed based on the two semihit singles released by Kim Richey from her 1995 debut album that it was likely to be my kind of CD so I took a gamble and put it on my Christmas list.  The gamble paid off as the CD represented a mature-in-sound-and-lyrics variation of country-pop I hadn't experience on country radio up to that point.  While the dim bulbs at radio never took to Kim, other Nashville artists noticed as four of the songs from her debut CD were picked up other artists, and released as singles.  The late Mindy McCready had a top-20 hit in 1998 with her competent version of Richey's best album cut from the CD, a lushly produced midtempo number about a woman doing her best to pretend she's over an ex-lover even though she's still dying inside.  Richey's version operates at a whole different level as McCready's, however, with haunting background vocals augmenting Kim's emotionally charged lead vocals, and a very elaborate and distinctive musical arrangement as a backdrop.

#7.  "Stay the Night"--George Ducas
Yet another underrated singer-songwriter from the mid-to-late 90s who was just a little behind the times when he kicked off his commercial career in Nashville, forwarding a progressive variation on traditional country music at the very moment when country radio was beginning to circle the wagons around the safe and familiar.  George nonetheless scored one outstanding top-10 hit from his solid debut CD, but it was his hitless 1997 sophomore CD where he busted wide open with an eclectic anthology of Tex-Mex toe-tappers, tear-in-my-beer country ballads, and guitar-charging uptempo rockers that put the mainstream country-rock acts of the era to shame.  His best effort was the jangly "Stay the Night", a song with an uptempo hook and closing guitar solo that combined with Ducas' vocals just seemed custom-built as an anthem for a campy werewolf or vampire plotline even though the lyrics only touched upon a monster show theme with a couple of metaphorical flourishes.

#6. "The Real Me"--Rosanne Cash
No commercial country singer has released ballads that have the kind of lyrical rawness as Rosanne Cash.  These songs are usually dark and introspective where the narrator reaches an epiphany and becomes honest with herself about a broken relationship.  While nothing from this Rosanne Cash subgenre could compare to 1982's #1 hit "Blue Moon with a Heartache", the closest she ever came was this fantastic album cut from 1987's "King's Record Shop", her most successful commercial endeavor.  The lyrics were smart, deep, and cutting, with a fitting musical backdrop subtle enough to let Rosanne's vocals carry it.  I would have preferred if this song was released as the album's third single rather than the comparatively mediocre midtempo "If You Change Your Mind", and I suspect it would have been just as big of a hit on the charts.

#5.  "Dead of the Night"--Tammy Cochran
Tammy Cochran had a couple of undistinguished modest hits on her 2001 debut album, but it wasn't until the poignant--if epically depressing--class reunion ballad "Life Happened" from her 2002 sophomore album of the same name till I stood up and take notice.  As luck would have it, she performed at my county fair in 2003 and I was taken by the number of dark story songs she sang and then reported being on her latest album.  One song in particular really stood out, the incredibly dark midtempo "Dead of the Night" with one of the most haunting arrangements I've ever heard, which she reported writing after watching a Lifetime movie.  I was so impressed I bought the CD. The song features an abused nine-year-old girl who kills her father who "thought he hid that .45" just before "daddy crossed that line".  Yikes!  Nowadays, female country singers glam up the idea of murdering their cheating husbands/boyfriends, but Cochran's emotional lyrics made it clear the girl forced to pull the trigger would be scarred for life as a result.  No surprise this one was never released a single but I'm grateful I heard it in concert and was thus compelled to purchase the CD.

#4. "Someone's Out to Get Me"--Steve Holy
It was years after Steve Holy's 2000 debut album that my mom came home with it from the discount bin at ShopKo, having spent like $3 on it.  There was one single from it I really liked but I went in with very modest expectations given how lukewarm I was on the other three songs from the album that were released as singles.  What a pleasant surprise that the album cuts were exceptional, featuring Holy's modernized take on Roy Orbison and their contemporaries The Mavericks through the prism of modern commercial country.  Holy didn't have the vocal chops of Orbison or Raul Malo but his smooth tone was nonetheless well-suited for these kinds of songs.  But as much as I liked the entire album, standing out the most was the fiendishly clever tongue-in-cheek horror show anthem "Someone's Out to Get Me", which cheekily depicts the faux paranoia of a man expecting to be "attacked" by his significant other's libido, all set to a campily haunting midtempo arrangement that is pitch-perfect for the tone of the song.  Like George Ducas' "Stay the Night" listed above, this song would be great for the soundtrack of a lighthearted horror movie or TV show.

#3. "You're a Legend in Your Own Mind"--Sylvia
The 1982 sophomore effort by Sylvia was a masterpiece, a collection of country-pop classics with a couple of very traditional cuts thrown in just for balance.  The syrupy ballad "Sweet Yesterday" was the odd selection for first single, but it's too bad the uptempo "You're a Legend in Your Own Mind" wasn't released as one of the album's three singles as I suspect it would have given Sylvia additional career momentum after the smash pop crossover "Nobody".  "Legend" was a more fun and better produced  ripoff of Carly Simon's "Your So Vain", with super-slick production elements unlike anything heard in country music before.  Perhaps the slickness of the production is what kept nervous record company executives from releasing it as a single, but it stands out as one of the biggest sins of country music history because it was a song that desperately needed a more widespread platform.

#2. "A Thousand Memories"--Rhett Akins
If ever there was a country album that represented the perfect hybrid of 90s-era new country with a believable hard rock edge, it was the 1995 debut album from Rhett Akins, an album that blended the best of both genres and fused blaring rock guitars with enough fiddles and twang to effectively impress both audiences.  And while the album enjoyed some commercial success, it didn't enjoy nearly enough.  Rhett had the vocal chops to become a star but a credible case could be made that he wasn't quite ready for primetime to successfully interpret a good song vocally.  Nonetheless, his country boy vocal stylings nailed the heartfelt uptempo breakup title track, a song that was lyrically interesting but taken to an entirely different level with an out-of-this-world 90-second guitar riff at the end that still stands out 20 years later as one of the most sophisticated I've heard, giving the song an unforgettably raging energy level that would-be listeners really got screwed for never hearing.

#1. "Halfway House"--Rosanne Cash
One album cut from Rosanne's groundbreaking 1985 "Rhythm and Romance" album has already made this countdown, but I saved the most earth-shattering for last, the electrified rocker "Halfway House" which is lyrically ambiguous but widely interpreted as an autobiographical double entendre from Rosanne's personal struggle with drug addiction in the months before she produced this album.  The song starts out with a vintage 80s synthesized keyboard surge that blends with rock guitars for the choruses, continually building momentum throughout the course of the song before all hell breaks loose at the end with a soaring arena rock backdrop unlike anything anybody before or after would imagine a country song would song like.  Any country music purist should stay miles away from this song but anybody who wants to discover what a country song on the extreme edge sounds like should check out this 30-year-old classic which I recall listening to as a young boy on my mom's cassette player in the early morning getting ready for school.

My purchases of modern CDs have become extremely rare in recent years as the availability of online music has so dramatically changed the business model.  And it's a shame because a lot of great songs recorded as album cuts are being heard by even fewer people than 20 years ago when music sales were more brisk.  Had I purchased CDs in the last 10 years as frequently as I did in the 10 years prior, this list might look quite a bit different.  The best I can do is seek out some album cuts from online here and there and see if I find any hidden treasures. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Hillary vs. Trump: The Cycle Where Coalitions Get Upended

The 2012 Presidential election cycle seemed custom-made from the beginning as a cycle in which the Democratic Party had a pretty powerful message to send to blue-collar America.  Jobs were slowly but surely rebounding from the depths of the Great Recession and Barack Obama's signature action in that recovery was to bail out General Motors and Chrysler, a decision that seemed risky at the time but paid immediate dividends in the form of rebounding jobs in the industrial Midwest, when the almost inevitable consequence of not bailing out Detroit would be a complete collapse of the entire auto manufacturing industry and the supply chain that fed it. 

Meanwhile, the opposition party's frontrunner for President and eventual nominee was a guy who spent his entire professional career shutting down factories and passing the savings on to the corporate boardroom. After getting into Presidential politics, Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt", opposing the auto bailout endorsed by the rookie Obama administration and vowing to do to General Motors and Chrysler--and its workers--what he had done to every other company he laid his fingerprints on.  And months after unofficially getting the nomination, Romney's choice for running mate was a man whose top priority in public life was to take away working people's Medicare.  How, I thought to myself in August 2012, could Obama possibly get so lucky as to be running against the Romney-Ryan ticket?

And just in case the message to working-class America hadn't been made abundantly clear by the GOP's nomination of the Romney-Ryan ticket, Romney made sure to give them one more reminder with his videotaped screed to a room full of rich Republican megadonors that he had no interest in representing "those people" who didn't earn enough money to fall into his tax bracket.  A half century earlier, a Republican ticket like this would have been laughed out of the room by dominant margins by working-class voters.  Instead, the Romney-Ryan ticket held the Democratic Party to a mere 39% of the white vote, and even that 39% number was propped up by upscale whites.  Working-class whites supported Obama with numbers closer to 33% nationally, a nearly 2-1 victory in favor of the guys who took away their jobs in the past, wanted to take away even more of their jobs if given half a chance, thinks they're parasites mooching off the government, and just for good measure, wants to take away their Medicare so that the richest 1% can get more tax cuts.  Even in the best-case scenario environment for Democrats, the tide was turning rapidly against them among working-class whites....but it's about to get much, much worse.

The reason it's gonna get worse is that heading into the 2016 cycle, the Republican frontrunner is running on a campaign of "making America great again, sticking it to China, and demanding immigrants get in the back of the line" while Democrats' campaign is centered around gun control, immigration liberalization, and Black Lives Matter.  If Donald Trump was less of a loose cannon and an asshole personally, his message would probably be enough to win him the 2016 election against likely Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.  But since Trump is loose cannon amateur, I suspect the same upscale whites who turned against John McCain in 2008 because his running mate was not ready for primetime will vote for Hillary in supersized margins.  But as long as Trump keeps running a campaign touching the themes his primary campaign is centered around, I think he not only maintains the GOP's 2-1 grip on working-class whites, but grows upon it, picking off potentially millions more two-time Obama voters in the Midwest who held on for the Democrats one last time in 2012 when the Democrats were still running as the party of the working guy while Republicans were running as the party of the management.

These divergent coalitions are likely to result in a sweeping Hillary win, at least in the popular vote as she'll undoubtedly dominate in LBJ vs. Goldwater-style numbers in the northeast and the West Coast, and probably do well enough among upscale conservative-leaning whites in the Midwest to hang on to the blue states of 2012 and offset likely losses among blue-collar whites in the same states.  It'll be a pyrrhic victory though because, just as with Goldwater's loss in 1964 that realigned what would become an ascendant future coalition, Trump's loss will win over millions of new converts to the GOP while positioning the party to get back most of the defectors who vote against him in two short years.  In other words, Trump's message is likely to flip working-class whites into a near monolithic bloc of Republican voters who won't flip back....whereas the Greenwich, Connecticut, and Wayzata, Minnesota, crowd that defects to the Democrats in 2016 will likely be on loan for one cycle only, flipping back to the Republicans in the 2018 midterms and staying there far more often than not to give them a dominant majority.

Now it's still too early to declare Trump the Republican nominee.  If GOP primary voters suddenly get their act together and nominate Rubio or even a generic Republican like Jeb!, Christie, or Kasich, they're likely to poach the majority of the voters Trump would be poised to pick up in 2016....white working class voters bristling about Democrats who can't stop talking about gun control, immigration, and Black Lives Matter.  If this were to come to pass, I suspect the Democratic share of the overall white vote would drop from 2012's 39% to something more like 35% in 2016.  If the GOP nominates Rubio, they'll get far more than the 27% of the Hispanic vote that Romney got.  And no matter who the Republicans nominate, I suspect that Obama not being on the ticket ensures both lower turnout among blacks and a Democratic share of the black vote that drops from 93-94% to 91-92%, a consequential amount given that the party is mortgaging its future on permanently overperforming among nonwhites and giving themselves virtually zero margin for error in doing so.

For all the talk by the Democrats about "demographics being destiny", their coalition has only delivered for one man in the last four election cycles, a man who will never be on the ballot again.  If the Republicans further strengthen their hold on whites because of a tone-deaf Democratic Party pushing the last remaining blue-collar whites off the ledge, the GOP's dominance in Congressional and legislative districts will be unbreakable for at least a generation, allowing Republicans to dominate an overwhelming majority of the legislation coming out of statehouses and Congresses that Democrats' best hope of stopping is occasionally squeezing out just enough a coalition to win a few Presidential elections.  At least in the near term though, the rate at which the Democrats are hemorrhaging working-class whites won't be enough for them to even pull that off.

And it's an open question whether the upscale whites that have trended Democrat in the last generation will continue to align with the party either.  I'm not sure how prolific the culture of white-shaming so prominent on college campuses today is in the real world, but if upscale whites are openly and endlessly excoriated in the national conversation for their "privilege" to the point of rendering their voices silenced, that will come with a backlash as well.  The events of recent years seem primed to trigger racial polarization throughout society that will inevitably reach out into our politics.  There's no tangible economic benefit for upscale whites to be aligned with the Democratic Party so if the party base starts villainizing them in public discourse, their reversion to the political party of their parents is likely to be an easier transition than working-class whites generation-long walk away from the Democrats has been.

The Republicans have problems of their own as the unhinged nature of their leading candidates and the primary voters who are supporting them indicate, but they are succeeding in continually moving the goalposts of American politics rightward.  Six months ago, Ted Cruz was considered an unimaginably radical Senator and an unmitigated disaster for the party in the unlikely situation he'd ever be their nominee.  But at the dawn of 2016, Cruz is now seen as the guy who the Republican  establishment will breathe a sigh of relief about if he's able to beat Trump.  Ultimately none of this matters though as long as Democrats choose to forfeit the voters who they successfully appealed to in 2012.  A lot of otherwise smart people seem to think Obama's impressive coalition in 2012 will be locked in place moving forward, with demographics only increasing their advantage.  Common sense says the historical patterns of partisan voting tides will hold and that coalitions within each party will keep evolving and realigning.  Common sense also says that betting the farm on consolidation of a nonwhite voter base with historically lethargic turnout and which is centrally located in a select number of urban areas that greatly dilutes its distributionary benefits is a good recipe for losing the overwhelming majority of elections.  And frankly the fact that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are even in the ballgame in this election contest speaks volumes about how rough of shape the Democrats are really in.