Abbreviated Pundit Round-up: in the debates, not in the debates, and saying so long to Sarah Sanders

Nature has an editorial that demands a broader audience.

A researcher steps forward and says he has plans to edit the genes of babies. He wants to alter a gene called CCR5 to protect children from HIV. He seems to have the skills, tools and position to do so — and he starts to tell other scientists about his plans.

When Chinese scientist He Jiankui did this, the story went famously wrong. Jiankui pushed ahead with his work quietly, and last November announced the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies. He was quickly and universally condemned for acting recklessly and ignoring risks. Meanwhile, scientists whom He had told about the work beforehand were criticized for not raising the alarm.

Of all the dystopias envisioned in the previous century, 1984 has certainly been the most predictive of where we are today — if you haven’t read it since someone assigned it to you in 10th grade, I urge you to pick it up and try it again. It’s a very good book. Certainly loaded with a lot more nuance and insight than you ever uncovered in high school. 

But the dystopia that seems to walk closer by the day is Gattaca. In fact, the forces that shape that particular nightmare seem almost unstoppable.

Now this scenario is playing out again. Nature this week reports that molecular biologist Denis Rebrikov at the Pirogov Russian National Research Medical University in Moscow says that he plans to create babies with an edit of the same gene. The proposals are controversial, and already scientists are raising doubts about the credibility of Rebrikov’s claims and his understanding of the risks. But whether or not his plans go forwards, the proposal shows that He was not a lone rogue and that other scientists will move swiftly to pursue human germline gene editing in the clinic — making changes to DNA in sperm, eggs or embryos that will be inherited by future generations. That steps up pressure on the scientific community to intervene and regulate such work.

While I’m thinking on this subject, I urge you to read the short story Of Silence and Slowtime by Karawynn Long, a beautiful and painful look at what can be lost even only edit out the “problems.” 

Paul Krugman on Elizabeth Warren’s plans for everything.
New York Times

Not long ago, political pundits were writing off Elizabeth Warren’s political chances, but recent polling makes her an increasingly plausible contender, and her comeback has been getting her a sudden wave of favorable media coverage.

Will she actually be the Democratic nominee? If so, will she win? I have absolutely no idea. Nor does anyone else.

But the political strategy powering her comeback is interesting. And I think many observers are missing a key reason her strategy seems to be working — namely, that her agenda is radical in content and implications, but well grounded in evidence and serious scholarship.

I cannot think of a better year to be a candidate whose position is simply “I’ve put a lot of study into these things, I’ve consulted real experts, and I’ve worked out detailed plans rather than slogans — plans which I will lay out for you right now.”

Normally, would-be presidential nominees campaign on some combination of personal narrative and soaring rhetoric promoting broad themes: “I’m a war hero/symbol of the American dream/longtime challenger of the Establishment, and as president I’ll bring us together/drain the swamp/fight the power.”

Warren, by contrast, has been rolling out substantive, detailed policy proposals — many, many substantive, detailed policy proposals. Traditional punditry says that this should be a turnoff, that voters’ eyes will just glaze over at the proliferation of white papers.

“Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that” has already become something of a national in-joke. Except it’s not a joke. She’s not leading with her “gut” or claiming to be smarter than anyone about anything. She’s just laying out the statistics and putting down policy and numbers. It’s like a cool breeze out of the east.

Laurie Roberts on the “shoplifting” incident in Phoenix. 
Arizona Republic

The video is chilling.

“Get your f–king hands up,” a Phoenix police officer is heard screaming, over and over again. “You’re gonna f–king get shot.”

One officer is seen handcuffing a young African American man who is face down on the asphalt, then yanking him up against a patrol car and roughly kicking his legs apart.

“When I tell you to do something you (expletive) do it!” the officer screams.

“I am,” the man calmly replies.

Meanwhile, another officer has his gun drawn and briefly pointed at the back seat of the SUV, out of which emerge a pregnant woman and two young children.

Watching this video, you would guess the police were in the process of apprehending a dangerous felon, sweeping some violent menace off the mean streets of Phoenix.

Normally, when writers are dealing with local news I skip over them. But how these officers dealt with an incident that supposedly started with a 4-year-old picking up a doll in a dollar store has become part of a sad, national saga. As of yesterday, the officer who brutally kicked the young man had been moved to desk duty, but the man who directed a gun at a pregnant woman and two children under five, and who turned in a report stating that he did so because he “believed his life was in danger,” is still on the streets, gun and all.

“Clearly, the officers felt empowered to be disrespectful and abusive,” civil rights activist Jarrett Maupin said, in alerting reporters to the incident. “What we demand to know is, what kind of background these officers have? They held toddlers and a pregnant woman at gun point, grabbed a mother and infant by the neck, dislocated a 1 year old’s arm, endangered a delicate pregnancy, terrorized and tortured a young father, and nobody was charged or jailed. These officers must be held accountable. We want justice.”

Art Cullen wants to add one more name to the split-in-half debate.
Storm Lake Times

We were glad to meet Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana on Monday when he campaigned at Better Day Café for the Democratic presidential nomination. It’s a shame the rest of the nation won’t have the same opportunity in televised national debates later this month organized by the Democratic National Committee. Of the 23 or so candidates, only 19 will make the first two debates based on their polling averages or having at least 65,000 individual donors. Bullock is not among them because he was wrestling with a Republican legislature in the Big Sky state until just a few weeks ago. He has campaigned in Iowa over the past year, but stepped it up last month.

Maybe the best thing about Cullen’s column through the early days of the campaign season is that it often provides a very different, very Iowan, view of how the candidates are doing. This isn’t the first time he’s had a column discussing a candidate who has otherwise slipped from, or never appeared in, the national conversation.

It’s too late for Bullock and the debates.

The DNC is trying to set some limits on the debate field. Nineteen already are too many.

Them that writes the rules can unwrite them. The DNC’s job is to unseat Donald Trump. Period. If that means writing a waiver for Bullock, who won a state that Trump won by double digits. He wears blue jeans and scuffed square-toe cowboy boots. He talks with cattlemen and strip miners. He speaks New West, like Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee. Steve Bullock is an entirely credible candidate who can win Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio. But he can’t if he is shut out of the nomination process, which is what the DNC is doing.

Yeah, but, sorry Art, those are all really awful reasons for including Bullock. And it makes this whole column sound like “we need a tough white guy who acts like Trump to beat Trump.” Which … no.

Joan Walsh waves her farewell to Sarah Sanders.
The Nation

The just-announced departure of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders means very little. It’s not like she’s conducting the daily briefing; she stopped doing that more than three months ago. Reporters say the briefing room, which once bustled with jousting journalists and administration figures every single day, is now dusty and forlorn—a metaphor for the state of truth and justice under the Donald Trump administration.

Sanders lied so routinely it’s tough to make a list of her greatest hits. One big one came out in Robert Mueller’s report, when she told reporters she’d heard from “countless” FBI agents who were happy that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. That was pretty clearly untrue; Comey was popular with FBI staff. Then she lied about her lie, telling Mueller it was a “slip of the tongue,” even though she was reading from a prepared text.

Donald Trump is running the most opaque, secretive White House in recent history. Sanders was a heavy contributor to shutting out the light.

Of course, sometimes she got caught lying because Trump hung her out to dry. She tried to stick with the cover story around Comey’s firing—that it had to do with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s finding fault with his handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. But hours later Trump told Lester Holt, “I was gonna fire him regardless of the recommendation,” and linked it to the Russia investigation.

Sanders never seemed to have a problem switching her lie. That’s the advantage of just not giving a #[email protected]%.

Virginian Heffernan on Sanders and Trump’s collection of female proxies.
Los Angeles Times

The Trump White House is a bit like Shakespeare summer camp: not enough substantial parts for the girls. The female roles at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are for craven ladies-in-waiting who are allotted very little moral agency, let alone opportunities for heroics. They subvert their ambitions to their overlord’s; they lie, in short. …

A shrewd, unholy trinity has settled for lesser roles: the liar-handmaidens Hope Hicks, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway. The president, according to Michael Wolff’s latest book, “Siege,” likes to see these three in a “cat fight,” in which each undermines the others as she competes to lie most robustly on his behalf.

I wouldn’t even know how to handicap this fight, though the sheer speed with which Conway can throw insults and that’s-not-English nonsense, along with her snickering disdain for anything approaching morality, probably gives her the edge.

Trump has often treated Sarah Huckabee Sanders as if she were the possession of her father, Mike Huckabee, on loan to him as a scullery maid.

The melancholic former White House Communications Director Hicks, choleric counselor Conway and splenetic Press Secretary Sanders aren’t just complicit in the president’s depravity. They have managed to advance it.

Now there’s an accomplishment.

Michael Tomasky on what’s really in the way of launching impeachment in the House.
Daily Beast

All [Nancy Pelosi’s] critics are carrying on about her lack of guts. But I don’t think it’s guts she lacks. What she and the Democrats generally lack is imagination—the imagination to think of creative ways to get on offense and put Donald Trump and the Republicans on defense.

Because the Democrats sound defensive. All the time. Think about this. Here we have a president of the United States who has clearly broken the law. And who just casually said he’ll break it again. And we have a party, his, full of people who are ignoring his lawlessness, or worse abetting it. Trump is the one who’s murdering democracy, but all the rest of these people are either holding the body or standing there and watching, amused.

Trump should be impeachable just for what he’s said about the Hatch Act. He’s not just ignoring the law, but encouraging violations.

If you watched any cable Thursday morning, you saw some Hill reporters catch some Republicans as they walked down the hall and ask them for comment on Trump’s remarks. None denounced Trump that I saw. Some said I would call the FBI if that happened on my campaign. Others, Joni Ernst of Iowa notably, scurried away. But no one that I saw said anything like: The President is dead wrong, and we can’t tolerate that kind of talk out of a president. And none of them will.

They can’t afford to. Republicans have already surrendered everything else about their party. Loyalty to Trump is the only thing left.

Will Bunch on the Trump voters still voting for Trump and the shape of the coming election.
Philadelphia Inquirer

Take a look at Pennsylvania, home to those aggression-loving Trump voters and a state that some experts think will decide the 2020 race. Last month, a poll showed that Biden — born in Scranton, and close to the state’s Democratic establishment — would trounce Trump by 11 points in Pennsylvania if the election were held now. Sanders would also beat the president, the Quinnipiac poll found, but only by 7 points, and then there’s that glass cliff. Warren also wins the head-to-head in the Keystone State, but just by 3 points. And Harris-vs.-Trump was a tie.

Uhhh, Will? Let’s just say that starting with Pennsylvania as your first example, and moving on to … hang on, this is all just Pennsylvania, is not exactly a fair measure of the eventual outcome of either the Democratic primary or the general election.

Clearly, Biden has a big (though shrinking slightly) lead among the Democrats by convincing voters that he’s the only guaranteed winner against Trump. “Biden is the safe choice—or so he appears today,” Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia presidential historian, told me. “He’s a known quantity with loads of experience, and people figure he’s unlikely to go off in a wild direction. The other choices are riskier.”

But do voters think Biden won’t go off in a wild direction because he’s Biden — or because he looks like 43 of the 44 dudes who came before him?

Or, option three, you’ve taken as your only point of reference a state, and specific areas, where Biden was born. About the only possible surprise here would be if Biden were not ahead.

Nancy LeTourneau on Donald Trump, mafia boss.
Washington Monthly

Contrary to the claims made by his attorney general, the president basically said, “Yeah, I ‘colluded’ with the Russians and I’d do it again.” What he described was such a clear violation of federal election laws that the chair of the FEC felt the need to remind the public that they prohibit a candidate from accepting assistance from a foreign government. …

Based on what we’ve seen from this president, he is probably telling the truth when he says that he’s seen a lot of things over his life (i.e., crimes), but according to his way of thinking, “You don’t call the FBI.”

One of the reasons that statement has the ring of truth is that he said something similar back in 1993 during testimony before the House Subcommittee on Native American Affairs. Trump claimed to have a list of mafia incidents that occurred at Native American casinos. But when asked whether he had given that list to the FBI (rather than simply use it to malign the casino operations of his competitors), he stated that that was not his job.

Charles Pierce feels sorry for the people who ended up in the purple pool.

On Friday, the DNC announced the results of what is alleged to be a blind draw to determine who will be in which group and, therefore, who will debate on which night in two weeks. From the Washington Post: …

As should be obvious, the second night’s lineup is the Group of Death. The two frontrunners mano y mano, as well as both Buttigieg and Harris. On the first night, Senator Professor Warren seems to have what March Madness savants refer to as a good path. After the announcement, of course, as is common to many of these exercises, there was the spinning and the spinning.

The Warren group also seems like it has the best possibility for some relative unknown to break through. I feel particularly bad for Kristin Gillibrand, who I have liked — apparently alone — since she entered the race and who has scrambled over the threshold only to end up in the death pool.

David Von Drehle on how Jeffrey Epstein demonstrates the utter lack of justice in the U.S.
Washington Post

According to superlawyer David Boies, “dozens” of women who could give testimony about being sexually assaulted as girls by mysterious financier Jeffrey Epstein are silenced by settlements they reached with their alleged assailant. The exact number is yet another secret in this least transparent of criminal cases. “Three dozen or eight dozen, I don’t know, but there are dozens,” Boies told me recently. He himself represents two alleged Epstein victims bound by “non-disclosure agreements” (NDAs).

Because Epstein can afford to buy silence, he may succeed in shuttering the window of accountability pried open in a South Florida court back in February. U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra ruled that federal prosecutors — led by the current labor secretary, Alexander Acosta — broke the law by entering a secret sweetheart deal to allow Epstein to serve a cushy sentence without facing evidence that he assaulted more than 30 underage girls in Palm Beach.

That ruling may prove hollow, however, if the alleged victims are now gagged by their settlements with Epstein. What a galling next chapter that would be in this appalling story.

Epstein, whose enormous and unexplained wealth attracted a circle of friends that included Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, actor Kevin Spacey and Britain’s Prince Andrew, travels from mansion to mansion while poor men accused of lesser crimes rot in prison.

The idea that someone could actually be bound by an NDA that concerns criminal behavior seems itself like something that should never be upheld in court.

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