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The Politician Recap: Election Day – Vulture

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The Politician

The Voters
Season 2

Episode 5
Editor’s Rating

5 stars

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix/NICOLE RIVELLI/NETFLIX

The high watermark for the first season of The Politician, give or take a performance of the Billy Joel classic “Vienna,” was “The Voter,” the fifth episode of the season. A short, savage little story, it captured election day at Saint Sebastian High School through the eyes of a single undecided voter: bored, uninterested, and ultimately aggravated by the process, with flickers of interest and engagement typically spoiled by the callous and overzealous actions of the students actually working on the campaigns. It’s a vicious little gem. We’ve now arrived at the fifth episode of the second season, and what do you know: It’s called “The Voters,” and like its predecessor, it shows us the election from the citizen’s perspective. “The Voter” was a bitter pill, but “The Voters” is something else entirely. It is both warning and praise, a call for action and optimism.

This time our subject is not an apathetic compulsive masturbator. We latch onto a mother and daughter, each passionately committed to one of our two candidates. And the lede’s gotten a bit buried here: the mother, Andi Mueller, is played by the great Robin Weigert, here described as “looking like an Upper West Side therapist who incorporates macrame in her practice.” She’s a longtime Dede Standish supporter who values pragmatism and experience. Her daughter, Jayne Mueller (Susannah Perkins, also excellent), is a Hobart campaign volunteer who’s passionate about the climate crisis and blames her mother’s generation for their ambivalence. They begin their morning with a spirited discussion that becomes a screaming match, all prompted by the New York Times article James set into motion in the last episode.

From there, the episode splits in two. Directed, as “The Voter” was, by series co-creator Ian Brennan, it follows Andi to the polling place where she spends the morning volunteering, and tags along with Janey as she puts in hours supporting the Hobart campaign. The camera mirrors the narrative in that it makes the candidates and their surrogates remote figures that wander in and out of frame, their flaws and strengths cast in a new light thanks to this shift in perspective. Janey witnesses shouting matches between the campaign staff, gets a full dose of Andrew, listens to McAfee talk about “zero waste bullshit” and her tendency to broadly generalize everyone she meets in the context of whether or not they’re a gettable vote. Andi, on the other hand, begins her day rolling her eyes about the media and Payton and decides to try to warn Dede Standish about the increased turnout among young voters.

If “The Voters” were just a little bit more predictable, if it were cynical and cautionary in the way of its predecessor, both Muellers would be totally disillusioned. Maybe they wouldn’t vote. Maybe they would, but would walk away dissatisfied. Maybe they’d both switch to the other candidate. But Andi and Jayne’s stories aren’t parallel. Yes, they each get a dose of disillusionment, but the two doses are fundamentally different. Jayne’s is about the reality of politics. It’s thanks to McAfee’s snap judgments, but it’s also Payton’s frank admission that a position can be both sincere and politically expedient. In that conversation, Payton stops being an idealized figure and becomes a person — a person with flaws, a person who needs to be held accountable, and a person who does genuinely want to do some good in the world. Politicians aren’t superheroes. That doesn’t stop Jayne from cheering wholeheartedly.

Andi’s reckoning is something else entirely. She’s confronted by herself. That’s the place from whence the optimism of “The Voters” springs. Both Jayne and Andi encounter elements of their fight from that morning, but Jayne finds a little confirmation of part of her mother’s argument, while Andi sees herself, defensive and dismissive, refusing to acknowledge the role her generation has played in the destruction of our environment. Dede and Hadassah push back, touting achievements and experience, paying lip service to the big ideas while inadvertently making it clear that it’s just not a priority.

So there’s a twist ending: Andi votes for Payton. Not because he’s perfect, not because practicality and experience aren’t valuable, but because change is a precious thing. “It’s your turn,” she says. And no matter which candidate wins the election, in this one household, change does.

The Politician is a hell of a mixed bag in general. Its soapiness can be a lot of fun, even when — especially when — it’s ridiculous. But sometimes a simple story can be a great way of exploring ideas or making an argument, and as a one-two punch, “The Voter” and “The Voters” are an incredibly accomplished pair. Brennan’s thoughtful direction links them; they are differentiated by their shapes and, for lack of a better term, morals. Each acts as a sort of parable or morality play smack in the middle of all the madness, and in the middle of the middle is Payton Hobart, confronted by a voter and challenged unexpectedly. And for all Payton’s considerable flaws, he responds honestly. He listens, and he doesn’t lie. Sadly, that’s perhaps the most optimistic thing, not just about “The Voters,” but about The Politician in general. People speak, and every once in a while, Payton listens. And that, my fellow Americans, is better than nothing.



Talking Points

James gets fired in profane fashion. It won’t stick.

Payton’s decision to take a cold shower and recycle the water as a publicity stunt is a nice throwback and maybe even a sign of personal growth.

It’s no surprise that Weigert is great here, but so is Perkins. They’re great together and great separately, and this is going to sound silly, but Perkins is also a great phone actor. Lots of actors are surprisingly bad at pretending to talk on the phone.

Another great thing about both “The Voter” and “The Voters”: their short run times. They are exactly as long as they need to be, not a moment longer.

At this point it’s a safe bet that the third season will also include a “voters” episode. Maybe it’ll be about voter suppression? An episode that takes place entirely in line at a polling place?

A question that somehow hadn’t occurred to me until now: this is a primary election, yeah? The winner of this race will become the Democratic nominee for the state senate, and then presumably will win or run unopposed?

A nice little sliding doors moment to consider: How would this episode have changed if either Dede or Hadassah had in fact been in possession of Dede’s walking shoes?

Costume of the episode: I haven’t been giving enough love to McAfee’s amazing suits. This one in particular gets a thumbs-up. Skye looked stylish as hell, too.

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Maryland GOP governor releasing book on his tenure, politics – EverythingGP

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Hogan, wrote that he will begin hosting a number of virtual events and conversations with some prominent Republicans later this month. They include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Govs. Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As NGA chairman, Hogan has led the group of governors amid tensions with the Trump administration in response to the pandemic. In March, for example, he criticized the administration for confusing messaging. Hogan said at the time that the president’s timeframe for a national reopening appeared to be running on a schedule made of some “imaginary clock,” as states struggled to manage hot spots of the outbreak.

Hogan also clashed with the White House in April when the governor announced a $9 million purchase of 500,000 virus test kits from South Korea. Hogan said the Trump administration had made it clear that states had to “take the lead” on testing and “do it ourselves.” Trump criticized Hogan at a White House press briefing, saying Hogan didn’t need to go to South Korea and “needed to get a little knowledge.”

In 2018, Hogan, who is term-limited, became only the second GOP governor in Maryland to be re-elected in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1.

Hogan’s book will include material about his challenging first year in office, which included riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who suffered a spinal injury in a police van.

Later that year, Hogan was diagnosed with B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in June 2015 and underwent chemotherapy. Last month, the 64-year-old governor announced he had his final, five-year anniversary PET scan, which confirmed he was still 100% cancer free.

Brian Witte, The Associated Press

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When American Politics Turned Toxic – The New York Times

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BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE

Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party

By Julian E. Zelizer

When did American politics take the wrong turn that led to our present era of endless partisan warfare and hyperpolarization? According to the Princeton University history professor Julian E. Zelizer, politics went pear-shaped in the period from January 1987 to March 1989, when the maverick Republican representative Newt Gingrich rose to power, which culminated in the forced resignation of Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright. Zelizer makes a convincing case that Gingrich not only “legitimated ruthless and destructive practices that had once been relegated to the margins,” he also helped to degrade Congress’s institutional legitimacy and paved the way for the anti-establishment presidency of Donald Trump.

Although “Burning Down the House” is not the first history to cast Gingrich as lead assassin in the murder of bipartisanship and effective governance, it is an insightful if deeply unflattering portrait of Gingrich himself, highlighting his signature traits of arrogance, ferocity, amorality and shoulder-shrugging indifference to truth. It’s not surprising that Gingrich declined the author’s interview request. And the book’s narrow time frame, which stops well short of Gingrich’s leading the House Republicans to their 1994 electoral triumph and his subsequent elevation as speaker, supplies a detailed and nuanced historical context that makes Gingrich’s actions more understandable if not excusable.

Gingrich first won election to Congress in 1978, representing a district based mainly in the northern Atlanta suburbs. It was a transitional moment when an older generation of Southern Democrats was being displaced in Congress both by reform Democratic “Watergate babies” and a rising wave of conservative Republicans like Gingrich. Zelizer’s masterly 1998 work, “Taxing America,” focused on one of those old Southern Democrats, Wilbur Mills, who chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee from the 1950s through the 1970s.

[ Read an excerpt from ”Burning Down the House.” ]

Gingrich’s adversary, Jim Wright, was a Texan born in 1922, from a political generation between Mills (born in 1909) and Gingrich (born in 1943). A protégé of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, he was sufficiently a part of the old Southern Democratic tradition that he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But he soon regretted that vote and supported the Voting Rights Act the next year.

Zelizer’s portrait of Mills made clear that many of the old Southern Democratic committee chairmen were inclusive dealmakers concerned to reach bipartisan agreements and move legislation forward — with the glaring exception of any issue involving race. Zelizer doesn’t quite spell this out, but while Wright clearly was not a racist of the old stripe, neither was he a dealmaker of the same caliber as they were. That was partly because the post-Watergate reforms prevented the kingpins from negotiating behind closed doors, and partly because of ideological sorting within the parties. But it was also because House Democrats by the 1980s, convinced that Republicans would be permanently in the minority, regularly abused their majority power.

Democrats denied minority legislators adequate staff, excluded them from committee deliberations, gerrymandered their districts and even, Republicans were convinced, stole elections. Wright piously recorded in his diary that Republicans were making it impossible to “rely upon the gentlemen’s rules which have prevailed for all of my 30 years in Congress,” but the speaker broke plenty of norms himself with his parliamentary rule-bending. And despite the Watergate babies’ desire to remove money from politics, the Democrats did little to halt the stream of funds from lobbyists, private money and special interests that flowed principally to the majority party.

Those to whom evil is done do evil in return. Democratic bullying made moderate Republicans willing to empower Gingrich — their support was critical to his election as minority whip in 1989 over a more conciliatory candidate — and to tolerate his scorched-earth tactics. Gingrich insisted that the only way to end the Democrats’ four-decades-long majority was for Republicans to destroy Congress in order to save it. They would have to “put aside their concern for governance until they regained power,” according to Zelizer. They would seek to persuade the public that Congress had become “morally, intellectually and spiritually corrupt,” in Gingrich’s words, and to overthrow Speaker Wright as the embodiment of that illegitimate establishment. In pursuit of these ends all means were permissible, including the shattering of traditional customs, the destruction of opponents’ reputations and the embrace of maneuvers long held to be off-limits, like shutting down the government.

Zelizer argues that Gingrich made the media unwitting accomplices to his partisan crusade, just as the unscrupulous anti-Communist demagogue Joseph McCarthy had done in the 1950s. “The number-one fact about the news media,” Gingrich observed, “is they love fights.” By provoking confrontations with the Democrats, Gingrich would gain media attention — even more so when he succeeded in goading the Democrats into retaliation, which he portrayed as further evidence of their tyranny. The Woodward-and-Bernstein-inspired influx of young investigative reporters into Washington, most of them educated and well intentioned but ignorant of the practical operation of politics, offered a decisive opportunity for Gingrich, who “instinctively grasped the possibilities for taking advantage of their idealism.”

Zelizer sees Gingrich’s “masterstroke” as the co-option of reform-oriented institutions that, in Watergate’s wake, were supposed to make government more accountable and progressive. The ethics charges that Gingrich brought against Wright were, in Zelizer’s view, mostly spurious. But scandal-seeking journalists served Gingrich’s cause by churning out so many thinly sourced stories about Wright’s supposedly shady involvement with Texas oil executives and bankers that the leading good-government organization, Common Cause, felt compelled to call upon the House Ethics Committee to investigate him. This instantly transformed what otherwise would have seemed “a shabby partisan coup” into a respectable campaign, giving cover to Republicans who previously were reluctant to enlist in Gingrich’s vendetta and undercutting Wright’s Democratic defenders. From then it was just a matter of time until Wright was forced out.

Zelizer provides a moving description of Wright’s farewell address, in which the resigning speaker decried the “mindless cannibalism” that had overtaken politics, and he delivers an eloquent indictment of all those responsible for Wright’s downfall. These include Gingrich, of course, along with the journalists and good-government organizations he made his patsies. But they also include the Democrats who failed to stand by Wright, thus incentivizing Republicans “to ramp up their efforts and engage in even more brutal fights,” and Wright himself, who couldn’t adapt to a new era of partisan warfare.

Zelizer reserves some of his harshest verdicts for the Republican Party leaders who naïvely believed they could harness Gingrich’s insurgency. He acidly observes that while Republican gatekeepers of the early 1950s used McCarthy to attack their opponents, they never made the renegade senator their leader. Many, perhaps most of the Republicans of the Gingrich era deplored what the minority leader Bob Michel called “trashing the institution.” But Republicans who upheld reasoned opposition, bipartisan compromise, civil discourse and mutual respect deceived themselves about their ability to control the revolution and ended up being devoured by it. To quote the Talking Heads song that shares the title of this book, “Watch out — you might get what you’re after.”

Many social scientists believe that the partisan polarization that now afflicts us was all but inevitable, a byproduct of geographic and ideological sorting that led to more consistently ideological parties. If Newt Gingrich hadn’t pursued no-holds-barred partisan warfare, according to this line of thinking, someone else would have. But Zelizer forcefully counters that this view “denies agency to the politicians and leaders who pushed partisan combat into a deeper abyss at very specific moments.” The battle to overthrow Wright, he concludes, was one of those critical turning points “from which Washington never recovered.”

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China-Africa: Its the politics, stupid! – The Africa Report

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