Post-December Debate: Trends Leading Up To Iowa

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President Obama presents a teary-eyed Vice President Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Thursday

The December debate turned out to be one of the most engaging events in the primary season this year. This pretty much applies to just the second half of the debate, as the first half was incredibly uneventful. Each of the candidates must have been told during the break. “Listen, you need to go out there and start punching!” It certainly worked, and some surprising things took shape.

Even then, let’s all stop to remember the dumbest question ever posed, “who would you give a gift to, and who would you ask for forgiveness?” As Joe Biden would say: come on, man!

Now, to be clear, it is not likely that there will be any massive change in the polling besides the current trends. However, the effect of the media’s reaction may be felt in the first caucus of Iowa.

Here, we’ll be going over the performances of each candidate, their current trajectory, and what they should probably be doing to win the first state. After all, even small campaigns can pick up steam after an early win. Look at Barack Obama in 2008: he was trailing Hillary Clinton all the way up until his win in Iowa. On the other hand, look at how both Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, and Ted Cruz in 2016 were unable to really capitalize on those victories. It all depends on the pulse of the voters and the organization of the campaign.

BERNIE SANDERS

Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign event, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Bernie did incredibly well in this debate. He was clear and passionate, as is the norm. What I am happy about is that he finally started to take the gloves off. Bernie turned his attention towards the two leading moderates, Biden and Buttigieg. He joked that they were in a competition for who has the most billionaire donors.

Aw, just look at Pete’s face when he said that!

Further, he connected that with the corruption of the American political system of today. Without seeming like a jerk, he made his opponents look like corporate tools compared to him. Thanks to the depletion of contenders on stage, Bernie and Joe Biden finally had a healthcare spar.

While I admit to preferring a Medicare-for-all program, an argument can be made that it led to a draw. Both Bernie and Joe made their case for and against, and left it at that. Hopefully, there will be more opportunity to point out the flaws of a means-tested public option.

Bernie surprisingly received the most speaking time during the debate, clocking in at over 20 minutes. This can only help his campaign, as it’s been my theory for a while now that the Democratic base is behind all of his platform initiatives.

Let’s look at the trends surrounding the debate. He has been consistently gaining momentum since mid-October. A few months ago, he had to go through an emergency heart procedure, which caused all of mainstream media to essentially count the days to his departure from the race.

Not only did this moment galvanize his base of hardcore followers, but it also brought newly elected Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar to bravely endorse him at his lowest moment.

This is not something typical politicians do. Most will abandon ship when the going gets tough. However, these three Justice Democrats got their start in the political revolution Bernie started in 2015. After hosting the largest rally of 2019 in Queens (which I attended) he started to slowly gain in the polls. This is unmanufactured ascension which was virtually ignored by CNN, MSNBC and other networks.

What happened was Bernie’s volunteer organization was gaining ground, just as the media began turning on Elizabeth Warren in the Fall. This December, Bernie has been in 2nd place in Iowa, 1st place in New Hampshire, and 2nd place nationally (reclaiming the position from Warren). The mainstream media may actually start noticing him after this, so watch out for the current blackout to turn into negative coverage.

Success in Iowa depends on the volunteer/grassroots organization, of which he has the largest and most dedicated. His strategy: bring in independents, non voters, young people, non-white voters, anti-establishment Democrats in the Yang and Tulsi camps, and working class people. Meanwhile, his campaign needs to convince Warren and Biden people on caucus day that he has the best shot to win against Donald Trump.

Going after Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden is the right move, and he should continue pointing out their corporatism. That’s what led Bernie to tie with Hillary Clinton last time, so he should do it again with them. However, he should think about hitting Buttigieg more so, as he currently holds first place in the state.

Somehow. Liz Warren is still technically an ally, and the best option is to not alienate her supporters by attacking, but to distinguish himself as the best progressive candidate. Liz’s numbers are suffering, and their second choice is Bernie anyways.

Overall, his chances to win are good.

PETE BUTTIGIEG

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Pete Buttigieg was attacked by everyone on the debate stage, and while it wasn’t a disaster, he definitely came off as a smug, corporate hack. His answers continued to be vague and flowery. While this nebulous posturing might have worked 10 or 20 years ago, it falls flat in today’s zeitgeist.

He had no satisfactory response to the attacks on his experience, “policies”, and the infamous wine cave. He easily suffered the most in this round. Not as disastrously as Kamala Harris or Beto O’Rourke’s debate failure… but as a media construction, it still hurts nonetheless.

This barrage was expected a month ago, when he began taking Elizabeth Warren’s voters in early state polls. November was a great time for Pete, as he continued receiving endless adoration from media pundits while escaping any legitimate criticism on his job as South Bend Mayor. The candidates up on stage in November weirdly avoided a tangle with the new flavor of the month, even as word got out about his fake endorsement list, bad record on racism, and obvious flip-flop on healthcare.

It took a while, but once protests began cropping up at Pete Buttigieg events, the news networks began to finally pay attention. While it hasn’t be drastic yet, the networks are slowly turning on Pete, like Warren and Harris before him.

Since the start of December, there has been a dip in support as Bernie, Mike Bloomberg, and Amy Klobuchar (of all people) have risen.

If he wants to succeed in Iowa, he needs to siphon support from Liz, Amy, and Joe. Despite his earlier tactic of playing up the “uniter” archetype, he would be better off tearing down the smaller competition who are chipping away at his numbers. This may be risky, as that opens Pete up to more criticism, but, unfortunately for him, his supporters are not committed to him. He’s got to show that he’s the best for the early state.

His chances of scoring a win are good.

AMY KLOBUCHAR

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Amy Klobuchar caught the media’s attention this time around, and this may shift their adoration to her as the main moderate. While I recognize that this is a low bar, the December debate was her best yet.

Amy was very aggressive towards Pete Buttigieg, pointing out his inexperience as only an evil regional manager could. Amy even angled herself as the uniter, giving compliments to Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. It may boost her standing in Iowa, if the exchange is covered well, of course.

Not every fight goes positively. Look at poor Julian Castro.

Aside from the debate, Amy has been slowly benefiting from the downward slopes of Warren and Buttigieg in recent weeks. Despite this positive situation, her ability to win the state of Iowa depends on a number of outside factors… as her organization is middling compared to Bernie Sanders.

In order to sustain a real rise, she needs to be even more aggressive. Stop with the cheesiness. Don’t promote a stupid dance. Don’t let people know about your reputation as an abusive boss. And pray for the media to start showering you with love. She isn’t as naturally talented as Liz or Pete, so this supposed uptick may not even materialize… but who knows?

Amy’s chances of winning are still low.

JOE BIDEN

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Joe Biden didn’t help or hurt himself in the debate. And that means this was his best performance of the year. He finally started making coherent sentences and managed to avoid putting his foot in his mouth for once.

Not exactly high praise, but for someone who called a voter fat, bragged about a child’s obsession with his hairy legs, recounted his confrontation with Corn Pop, and bled out of his eyeball, this was a good moment.

He sustained attacks from Bernie, coming to a draw on healthcare. At the same time, he came across looking evasive on his foreign policy record when asked about Afghanistan. Joe’s reparations answer was utter nonsense, but it wasn’t as bad as calling Obama, “the first African-American that is articulate and bright” from 10 years ago.

He also looked stunned at being called out for his list of billionaire donors, which was just delicious for Bernie Sanders supporters. Overall, he seemed overshadowed by the others. I can’t see how this helps him in Iowa.

He’s at fourth place in the first state, which is abysmal for a supposed frontrunner. If he can keep the heat off him for the next month or so, he might have a shot at getting the Pete, Amy, Liz, and other moderate voters to coalesce behind him in the caucus. But really, the only case he can make is “I’m the frontrunner now, so why go with someone else?”

His chance to win in Iowa is so-so. The reason his chances aren’t low is that the noncommittal moderate voters currently shopping around may just decide on Joe during the caucus night. Never count out the perception of being the “most electable”.

ELIZABETH WARREN

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Elizabeth Warren did decently enough during the December debate with her laser focus on corruption. It’s a winning message, as shown by the successes of the current progressive movement.

But very now and then, Warren’s messaging it gets derailed by dumb talking points… the kinds of eye-rolling statements that remind me of Kamala Harris’ Twitter Ban BS. What I am talking about is her repeated point about taking hundreds of selfies.

Honestly, that is laughable as an argument. It was an obvious ploy to get more young voters, and it failed, in my opinion. She brought it up so much that the audience actually started giggling when she brought it up.

Additionally, Elizabeth Warren was pretty much forgotten about on the healthcare debate and foreign policy sections. However, Liz got a good shot in at Pete about his wine cave fundraiser, implying that he is beholden to rich donors. While technically you could call it a draw due to Pete’s rebuttal about her own fundraising hypocrisy, it’s a win for her.

Because it was a damn wine cave Pete went to. And you can’t defend begging wealthy people for money while sipping the finest alcoholic grape juice money can buy.

That being said, It’s hard to say that that moment was enough to get back to the top of the polls like she was a couple months ago. She began dipping hard once the media turned on her in the Fall. In fact, her descent can be traced back to her backtrack on Medicare-for-all, proposing an overly complicated plan that attempted to address every criticism that’s been lobbed so far. The media think that her support for single payer is why she is failing, but those of us on the ground know it’s from her own trepidation on embracing the program.

As of now, Warren’s in third place in all the first states and nationally. If she can keep hitting Pete in Iowa, she might be able to bounce back once something (like the wine cave) sticks. You see, she claims this middle lane where Liz appeals to both Bernie people and Pete/Amy/Kamala people, and if she can successfully thread the needle at the caucuses by grabbing some voters here and there from everyone, she can win Iowa.

All she needs is another shot of momentum. After all, her organization is pretty strong compared to the others, and really… the only things stopping her are Bernie, Pete, and herself.

Her chances of winning Iowa are still good overall.

ANDREW YANG

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Andrew Yang had a really good night with the amount of speaking time he was given. Like Bernie, he seemed like an outsider commenting on the absurdity of the system. He brought forth his fresh perspectives and ideas, and that has helped him garner 3%.

However, he’s been at this state in the race for months and months. He feels like Ron Paul in that his message is unique enough to get attention, but it’s clear that he doesn’t seem to have much of a shot anywhere. He appeals to anti-establishment types and independent voters, like Bernie.

In order to win Iowa, he would have to replicate his strategy as well: bring in non voters, young people. Unlike Bernie, he is unlikely to pull from any other candidate.

His chances are low.

TOM STEYER

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Tom Steyer has the worst shot to win Iowa, and it’s tough to see him score a win in any county. He is trying to position himself in the Liz lane of appealing to both business-friendly moderates and climate-wary progressives. However, his status as a billionaire who bought his way on stage hurts him immeasurably. Tom doesn’t own the issue of climate change, but seems to really believe it. His ads in New Hampshire are so annoying that the voters there actively dislike him.

He could only win Iowa if Bernie, Joe, Andrew, Amy, Pete, and Liz all drop out. And even then, he might get beat by Tulsi or Cory.

Low chances, obviously.

VERDICT

  • In conclusion, these are the candidates with the best shot to winning Iowa: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg.
  • This is the candidate that has an average chance of success: Joe Biden.
  • And here are the ones with the lowest chances of picking up the state: Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer.

Everyone else has basically a 0% chance. I don’t think we should even bother with the rest of them anymore. Yeah, that includes Bloomberg. 100 million dollars of ad buys in Super Tuesday states without appearing in one single debate will only hurt Joe Biden and help Bernie. 

Knives Out is a throwback that satirizes life today

Credit to the CBO

2019’s Knives Out is a murder-mystery whirlwind of a movie, written and directed by Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi, Looper). Inspired by the many works of Agatha Christie, Johnson sought to create his own whodunnit story… in his own special Rian Johnson-y way. Namely, by throwing convention and expectations out the window in favor of subversive self-reflection and satire.

This strategy doesn’t always lead to universal applause.

As you may recall with 2017’s The Last Jedi, Johnson employed this to the Star Wars franchise. He turned Luke Skywalker into a grumpy recluse who still hasn’t triumphed over his own dark side. The trifecta of swashbuckling heroes established in J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens all fail in their missions by the end of the film. Yoda sets the last books of the Jedi Order on fire. The big bad Supreme Leader Snoke gets dispatched of quite unceremoniously. All the while, many fans were just interested in space battles, sword fights, and good guys saving the day. While this earned critical praise, it turned off a portion of movie-goers.

Rian Johnson’s inclinations towards subverting expectations are still seen in Knives Out. However, this movie didn’t have a built-in obsessive fanbase. That made the job of twisting the murder-mystery genre relatively harmless, and allows audience members to experience this satire with unbiased eyes. With all this being said, Knives Out is a film about power at it’s center. There are all these elements swirling around: mystery, suspense, comedy, etc. But it all connects to the central theme… almost like a donut.

Let’s take a look at it’s plot. Acclaimed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) suddenly died in his room on the night of his 85th birthday. It appears to be a suicide, but Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is suspicious. The entire family, played by wonderfully talented actors, all seem to have a vested interest in taking the patriarch’s fortune. Each member is so deeply entrenched in their own sense of entitlement that they don’t even recognize just how privileged they are. Not one of them has gotten to their place in life without the financial support of the rich grandfather.

For example, his daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) owns her own real estate empire, of which she is very proud of. But it is revealed that she got her start from a million dollar loan from Harlan. The son, Walt (Michael Shannon), is the handpicked owner of Harlan’s publishing company, and is not at all responsible for its day-to-day operations. And there’s the daughter-in-law, Joni, who has been living off the family for years since her husband died. There are other members of the Thrombey clan, but for now it should be clear that these are talentless, selfish leeches.

It becomes clear that the only one Harlan ever trusted was his nurse and caretaker, Marta (Ana de Armas). Everyone, with the notable exception of Marta, is played up as over-the-top caricatures. Detective Blanc is a ridiculously confident Southern gentleman who sticks out like a sore thumb. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) is an obvious send up of upper-crust conservative Trump supporters who are oblivious to their own racist thoughts. This really eases us into rooting for the everywoman Marta, even with her quirk of vomiting at the mere thought of telling a lie.

The first act prepares us to get ready for a classic whodunnit… until it switches to Marta’s perspective. As it turns out, she believes that she accidently killed Harlan due to a mix up of medications. Harlan, in an act of protecting Marta, makes his death look like a suicide by slitting his own throat. This is all revealed within the first half, and just like Rian Johnson, our idea of a murder-mystery gets flipped around.

Now, we are sympathizing with the accidental killer who is too pure to lie. As she plays Watson to Detective Blanc’s Sherlock, we stop seeing the PI as the protagonist, earnest as his intentions might be. We don’t want Marta to be sent to prison for a mistake, nor do we want her undocumented mother to be deported as a result. Let’s recap the themes here:

1. We have a family of privileged, spoiled rich kids trying to get a piece of their murdered patriarch’s wealth. Turns out that while many of them could’ve murdered him, none of them did. Or so we see right now.

2. We have the perpetrator, who is actually the most moral, kind, and loving person in the movie. She is a poor caretaker who comes from an undocumented immigrant family.

3. We have a Southern detective poking around the estate in the middle of Somewhere, New England.

The, uh, knives really start to come out once Harlan’s will is read. Keep in mind that throughout the first act of the movie, the family’s attitude towards Marta ranged from dismissiveness to polite cordiality. A running joke is that they never bothered to ask where her family comes from (Ecuador? Uruguay? Brazil?) Richard attempts to use her as an example of “good immigrants” who don’t cross the border illegally. Marta is friendly with the other “help”, Fran (Edi Patterson) and Joni’s supposedly woke daughter Meg (Katherine Langford).

This all changes when it is revealed that all of Harlan’s fortune, possessions, properties, and companies were bequeathed to Marta! Like a switch, all of the Thrombeys turn on her. Even Meg tries to convince her to relinquish the inheritance; after all, her tuition money for her fancy college is going to disappear. When a phone call fails, she outs Marta’s mother as undocumented. So much for friends.

The film then turns from a whodunnit into a suspense thriller, just as she is rescued by the gloriously apathetic black sheep of the family, Ransom (Chris Evans). As we later find out, not only is he equally selfish, but he was the secret culprit all along. Ransom (whose name is kind of a big tell) is just another privileged jerk that wants a claim to his “ancestral home”.

When Detective Blanc and Marta work together to expose Ransom, the real point of the movie is made clear: wealth and power should be distributed to the masses, and nepotism is garbage. We do not live in a meritocracy, where those that are hardworking and talented are guaranteed to be rich and successful. For the most part, wealth is largely inherited, and those that benefit tend to believe in their own innate superiority.

It was only through a convoluted series of events that Marta was able to “earn” her fortune. Knives Out does imply, however, that good things eventually come to the good-hearted: every selfless action Marta took led to the arrest of Ransom.

The closing shot is of a young woman of color from an immigrant family looming over the balcony, looking down on the pompous WASPs who used to make the mansion their home.

Finally, we realize that this is a satire of modern life, masked in the tropes of the genre Rian Johnson loves.

JoJo Rabbit: A Oasis In A Comedy Desert (SPOILERS)

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Director Taika Waititi has established himself in recent years as one of the film industry’s greatest comedy filmmakers. Not that there is much competition these days; he joins a peculiarly small list of successful modern comedy directors. This includes the likes of Edgar Wright, Adam McKay, and Judd Apatow. Perhaps there are a few more to mention, but it seems to me like we should admit something about the film genre nowadays. There isn’t much going on!

It wasn’t even that long ago that audiences were flocking to the theater for profanity-laden movies about screw-ups that finally begin to grow up. To be perfectly frank, it seems like the era of Will Ferrell and Seth Rogan are over. I guess people just don’t find the man child narrative very entertaining anymore.

My hypothesis for this downfall of that era of comedy is that it came some time in 2016. Now, I wonder what happened in that year that would’ve turned audiences off from watching likable doofuses improv lines about their genitals.

THE CONTEXT

Maybe Donald J. Trump.

I know, it sucks that I have to bring this guy up right before diving into a comedy set in Nazi Germany. But I think it’s important to set the context for why JoJo Rabbit was made, especially in the current cultural climate.

After Trump, a tacky rich guy with a reality show, was elected president of the United States in 2016, comedy and satire changed. Here was this gross, sleazy character from a comedy film now controlling America’s military and ICE patrols. Children get locked in cages, neo Nazis march through the streets in support of the Confederacy, and mass shooters are crediting right wing rhetoric for their actions.

Turns out Vince Vaughn finding out he has to sit through four Christmases isn’t going to be entertaining enough to lighten the mood.

Audiences are quickly becoming more serious, more grim, more politically minded in a age of increased authoritarianism. Unfortunately, it seems most comedians and comedic filmmakers are floundering at the changing times.

Will Ferrell’s last big film, Holmes and Watson, was garbage. It reeked of man-child antics… and we’re kind of experiencing the consequences of that now. Judd Apatow hasn’t directed a major comedy since 2015’s Trainwreck. The Seth Rogen/James Franco team was shattered after the #MeToo Movement exposed some dark secrets on Franco’s part.

Both Edgar Wright and Adam McKay have managed to survive in today’s environment. Keep in mind, however, that Wright’s Baby Driver was an action film. And McKay’s Vice was more of a drama.

So, why is it that Taika Waititi’s movies are funnier to me than anything in the last five years? Why does this year’s JoJo Rabbit work so well in this day and age?

THE SETTING

So, let’s take a look at JoJo Rabbit’s setting, as that is as important to this film’s comedy as it’s actors and writers.

Picture this: it’s the last few months of World War Two in Nazi Germany. Any objective observer can see that the regime is on it’s last legs. Some Germans see the writing on the wall, and are waiting for the conflict to finally end. Others are actively undermining the Nazis by spreading literature and hiding Jewish families. And then there are the fanatics… the Germans who are so deluded about their future that they couldn’t believed that Adolph Hitler would shoot himself in the head.

This self destructing world of tragedy and sadness apparently had some hilarious moments in it. The protagonist, JoJo (played by Roman Griffin Davis) is a little Hitler Youth member that is fully indoctrinated into the Reich’s propaganda.

JoJo is hilariously misinformed about a great many things, from his own sense of superiority to the superstitions about Jews. His imaginary friend, played by Waititi, is Adolph Hitler himself. Hitler is played mostly as a sort of goofy sidekick/mirror, reflecting all the thoughts going on in JoJo’s mind.

The film starts at Youth Camp, where the new generation of Nazi soldiers are raised. It then shifts to his home life with his mother, played by Marvel alum Scarlett Johanssen. The main conflict of the film begins when JoJo discovers that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls.

After being exposed to his supposed enemy for an extended length of time, he learns that she’s just a human being, and imaginary Hitler is wrong (surprise!). The last beats of the film are more dramatic than funny, as it goes from the death of JoJo’s mother to the climactic last battle versus the Allies. And the two kids emerge from the wreckage dancing together in the street.

THE MESSAGE

The message goes deeper than, “Jews are actually just regular people”. The film is really about questioning your beliefs. It’s marketed as an “anti-hate satire”, but I think that description is a bit too simplistic.

Towards the start of the film, JoJo get into a brutal accident that hinders him from joining the army. He feels like a monstrous outcast, even if the lasting scars aren’t as ugly as he imagines. By that same token, he views Jews as monstrous outcasts as well. It’s not an overt thread, thankfully, but you can connect JoJo’s feelings of being different from the other Germans meld into a shared commonality with Elsa as outsiders.

Obviously, Elsa has it much worse, but it’s this situation that forces the two together. Eventually, JoJo starts to interact with her… at first as an ‘interrogation” for his planned expose on Jews. This eventually leads to regular conversations. Which leads to a friendship, which JoJo seems to not even realize. And, of course, he falls in love.

The film’s message is that hate, even deep-seated hate that’s been indoctrinated since childhood, can be undone through friendship and love. Towards the end of the movie, JoJo is caught up in a chaotic battle between the Nazis and America. He would have likely died had it not been for the growth of a conscience. He rejects the Nazis, and kicks imaginary Hitler out the window, Captain America style!

There’s a term for this: deprogramming. It is what happened to Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the hateful, cultish Westboro Baptist Church. She was born into a close-knit family that built a new religious sect on extreme acts of bigotry and anger, doing things from protesting military funerals to spreading anti-gay /anti-Jewish hate. They would make signs that read, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and say things like, “Jews are the real Nazis”.

Megan didn’t know any better… it was something her father, mother and grandfather believed in. It wasn’t until she was exposed to Twitter, where she could have conversations with people outside the Westboro Baptist Church. The man that convinced her to leave the Church eventually became her husband, who happens to own a blog entitled Jewlicious.

Today, Megan recently released a book detailing her experiences and eventually falling out with her family.

As you can see, this isn’t a hollow message lazily slapped on a goofy comedy. This is an example of communication with people you disagree with actually working.

THE LESSON

This is a lesson for comedy filmmakers on how to make a successful comedic movie nowadays.

While the film has slapstick, it isn’t mindless physical comedy.

While the film has some dramatic moments, it’s not a dreary drama.

While it has a message, it isn’t beating the audience over the head with it.

Taika Waititi is seemingly an expert in balancing humor with serious material, and that happens to be what, in my opinion, modern audiences are waiting for.