Ezra Klein

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Ezra Klein of Vox has an excellent interview about meditation and much more with Yuval Noah Harari, though I don’t know that I’m buying the main premise which is that the Israeli historian can so ably communicate such cogent ideas because of his adherence to this “mind-clearing” practice.

If that’s so, then I would have to suppose Harari was meditating far less while writing Homo Deus than when composing Sapiens, because the follow-up, while still worth reading, is not nearly as incisive or effective as his first book. (Jennifer Senior had a very good review of the sophomore effort in the New York Times.)

What separates Harari from other historians trying to communicate with a lay audience is his ability to brilliantly synthesize ideas in a very organic way. Even when I’m not sure if I’m totally buying one of these combinations (e.g., Alan Turing created a test in which a computer could pass for a human because he spent his brief, tragic life trying to pass for heterosexual), it still provokes me to think deeply on the subject.

I would assume this talent is more a quirk of his own brain chemistry and diligent development of natural gifts than anything else. Of course, meditation could be aiding in the process, or, perhaps, the practice of Vipassana is more correlation than causation. I doubt even Harari truly knows for sure.

The two opening exchanges:

Ezra Klein:

You told the Guardian that without meditation, you’d still be researching medieval military history — but not the Neanderthals or cyborgs. What changes has meditation brought to your work as a historian?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Two things, mainly. First of all, it’s the ability to focus. When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else. This is a discipline that I have brought to my scientific career as well. It’s so difficult, especially when you deal with long-term history, to get bogged down in the small details or to be distracted by a million different tiny stories and concerns. It’s so difficult to keep reminding yourself what is really the most important thing that has happened in history or what is the most important thing that is happening now in the world. The discipline to have this focus I really got from the meditation.

The other major contribution, I think, is that the entire exercise of Vipassana meditation is to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what is just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Almost 99 percent you realize is just stories in our minds. This is also true of history. Most people, they just get overwhelmed by the religious stories, by the nationalist stories, by the economic stories of the day, and they take these stories to be the reality.

My main ambition as a historian is to be able to tell the difference between what’s really happening in the world and what are the fictions that humans have been creating for thousands of years in order to explain or in order to control what’s happening in the world.

Ezra Klein:

One of the ideas that is central to your book Sapiens is that the central quality of Homo sapiens, what has allowed us to dominate the earth, is the ability to tell stories and create fictions that permit widespread cooperation in a way other species can’t. And what you count as fiction ranges all the way from early mythology to the Constitution of the United States of America.

I wouldn’t have connected that to the way meditation changes what you see as real, but it makes sense that if you’re observing the way your mind creates imaginary stories, maybe much more ends up falling into that category than you originally thought.

Yuval Noah Harari:

Yes, exactly. We seldom realize it, but all large-scale human cooperation is based on fiction. This is most clear in the case of religion, especially other people’s religion. You can easily understand that, yes, millions of people come together to cooperate in a crusade or a jihad or to build the cathedral or a synagogue because all of them believe some fictional story about God and heaven and hell.

What is much more difficult to realize is that exactly the same dynamic operates in all other kinds of human cooperation. If you think about human rights, human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven. They are not a biological reality. Biologically speaking, humans don’t have rights. If you take Homo sapiens and look inside, you find the heart and the kidneys and the DNA. You don’t find any rights. The only place rights exist is in the stories that people have been inventing.

Another very good example is money. Money is probably the most successful story ever told. It has no objective value. It’s not like a banana or a coconut. If you take a dollar bill and look at it, you can’t eat it. You can’t drink it. You can’t wear it. It’s absolutely worthless. We think it’s worth something because we believe a story. We have these master storytellers of our society, our shamans — they are the bankers and the financiers and the chairperson of the Federal Reserve, and they come to us with this amazing story that, “You see this green piece of paper? We tell you that it is worth one banana.”

If I believe it and you believe it and everybody believes it, it works. It actually works. I can take this worthless piece of paper, go to a complete stranger who I never met before, give him this piece of paper, and he in exchange will give me a real banana that I can eat.

This is really amazing, and no other animal can do it. Other animals sometimes trade. Chimpanzees, for example, they trade. You give me a coconut. I’ll give you a banana. That can work with a chimpanzee, but you give me a worthless piece of paper and you expect me to give you a banana? That will never work with a chimpanzee.

This is why we control the world, and not the chimpanzees.•

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Trump Doral golf course in Miami

Donald Trump, Mussolini with moobs, could no doubt do grave damage to America in just four years with his toxic mix of narcissism, bigotry and poor judgement. But isn’t considerable damage already done before he even enters office if the majority choose to elect a white supremacist and aspiring fascist? Haven’t we become a strange and different thing, not quite America? For all the troubling fear of foreigners, wouldn’t we have become something foreign to what we’re supposed to be? We’ll have voluntarily surrendered our principles to a sickening degree, created a landscape where the heinous could become routine, where “unthinkable” things, as the GOP nominee puts it, are possible.

From Ezra Klein’s Vox piece about the new abnormal:

What we just witnessed in Cleveland and Philadelphia defies our normal political vocabulary. We are used to speaking of American politics as split between the two major parties. It’s Democrats versus Republicans, liberals versus conservatives, left versus right.

But not this election. The conventions showed that this is something different. This campaign is not merely a choice between the Democratic and Republican parties, but between a normal political party and an abnormal one.

The Democratic Party’s convention was a normal political party’s convention. The party nominated Hillary Clinton, a longtime party member with deep experience in government. Clinton was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, the runner-up in the primary. Barack Obama, the sitting president, spoke in favor of Clinton. Various Democratic luminaries gave speeches endorsing Clinton by name. The assembled speakers criticized the other party’s nominee, arguing that he would be a bad president and should be defeated at the polls.

That isn’t to say that Democrats didn’t show divisions or expose fault lines. They did. Political parties are chaotic things. The Democratic Party’s primary was unusually bitter, and listening to the loud “boos” of Sanders’s most committed supporters, there’s real reason to wonder whether Democrats will fracture in coming years. But for now, the Democrats nominated a normal candidate, held a normal convention, and remain a normal political party.

The Republican Party’s convention was not a normal political party’s convention.•

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Unlike most Americans who aspire to the Presidency, Donald Trump would like to break the world’s kneecaps with a ball-peen hammer. 

The 2016 GOP convention, political torture porn, has at last concluded, and its main kooky message lingers: The world is a dangerous place, especially for those white and blue, and at an extremely evil time like this, we need someone even more evil, a remorseless figure who will do unthinkable things, and that person is strongman Trump. He will protect us, this orange supremacist, this synthesis of Mussolini and Mayor McCheese

Never mind that the GOP flag-bearer’s behavior resembles that of a mentally ill person, a delusional sociopath, or that crime and economic statistics make it plain that the last eight years have been very good to America, from low murder rates to high Wall Street earnings. Even wealth distribution, that stubborn ill, has been adjusted somewhat under President Obama. Wage rates remain sluggish as they’ve long been, but it’s a mistake to view this election as one about money. It’s identity politics to the utmost and the attempt by one awful person to sell a violent culture war. It could work. If Trump loses horribly, it’s a death in the gutter for the modern GOP. If he wins, our entire country will have fallen from the curb.

The opening of Ezra Klein’s sobering Vox piece about the horrifying rise of an American fascist:

Tonight, Donald J. Trump accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president of the United States.

And I am, for the first time since I began covering American politics, genuinely afraid.

Donald Trump is not a man who should be president. This is not an ideological judgment. This is not something I would say about Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio. This is not a disagreement over Donald Trump’s tax plan or his climate policies. This is about Trump’s character, his temperament, his impulsiveness, his basic decency.

Back in February, I wrote that Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.

He has had plenty of time to prove me, and everyone else, wrong. But he hasn’t. He has not become more responsible or more sober, more decent or more generous, more considered or more informed, more careful or more kind. He has continued to retweet white supremacists, make racist comments, pick unnecessary fights, contradict himself on the stump, and show an almost gleeful disinterest in building a real campaign or learning about policy.

He has, instead, run a campaign based on stoking fear and playing to resentment. His speech tonight invoked a nightmarish American hellscape that doesn’t actually exist. His promise to restore order made him sound like the aspiring strongman his critics fear him to be. “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he said. “Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.”•

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Elon Musk has been on a Nick Bostrom bender for awhile now, spending big money hoping to counter Homo sapiens-eradicating AI, after devouring the Oxford philosopher’s book Superintelligence. This week, the Mars-positive mogul contended humans are almost definitely merely characters in a more advanced civilization’s video game, something Bostrom has theorized for quite some time. Two excerpts follow: 1) The opening of John Tierney’s excellent 2007 NYT article, “Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch,” and 2) Ezra Klein’s Vox piece about Musk’s Sims-friendly statements.


From Tierney:

Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

This simulation would be similar to the one in The Matrix, in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits.

You couldn’t, as in The Matrix, unplug your brain and escape from your vat to see the physical world. You couldn’t see through the illusion except by using the sort of logic employed by Dr. Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.•


From Klein:

By far the best moment of Recode’s annual Code Conference was when Elon Musk took the stage and explained that though we think we’re flesh-and-blood participants in a physical world, we are almost certainly computer-generated entities living inside a more advanced civilization’s video game.

Don’t believe me? Here’s Musk’s argument in full: 

The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following. Forty years ago we had pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.

Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.

If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.

So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.

Tell me what’s wrong with that argument. Is there a flaw in that argument?•

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Those dubious domestic missions, the Wars on Drugs and Crime and Terrorism, have preyed on American fears, allowing for the militarization and emboldening of police forces, which, when unloosed in a racially divided society, leads to a body count and heartbreak, as we’ve seen in Ferguson. At such times, when it seems a continued open season on black males, when prosecutors and police officers try to keep their stories straight but end up sounding crooked, when a dunderhead like Don Lemon is allowed to glibly speak his dangerous ignorance into the camera, it’s incumbent upon good people to address the obvious. From “Officer Darren Wilson’s Story Is Unbelievable. Literally.” by Ezra Klein does at Vox:

“There are inconsistencies in Wilson’s story. He estimates that Brown ran 20-30 feet away from the car and then charged another 10 feet back towards Wilson. But we know Brown died 150 feet away from the car.

There are also consistencies. St Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch said that Brown’s DNA was found inside Wilson’s car, suggesting there was a physical altercation inside the vehicle. We know shots were fired from inside the car. We know Brown’s bullet wounds show he was only hit from the front, never from the back.

But the larger question is, in a sense, simpler: Why?

Why did Michael Brown, an 18-year-old kid headed to college, refuse to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk? Why would he curse out a police officer? Why would he attack a police officer? Why would he dare a police officer to shoot him? Why would he charge a police officer holding a gun? Why would he put his hand in his waistband while charging, even though he was unarmed?

None of this fits with what we know of Michael Brown. Brown wasn’t a hardened felon. He didn’t have a death wish. And while he might have been stoned, this isn’t how stoned people act. The toxicology report did not indicate he was on PCP or something that would’ve led to suicidal aggression.

Which doesn’t mean Wilson is a liar. Unbelievable things happen every day. The fact that his story raises more questions than it answers doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

But the point of a trial would have been to try to answer these questions. We would have either found out if everything we thought we knew about Brown was wrong, or if Wilson’s story was flawed in important ways. But now we’re not going to get that chance. We’re just left with Wilson’s unbelievable story.”

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GoogleX, the Bell Labs-ish moonshot division of the search giant, may pay off financially in the long run, but it’s likely producing a short-term profit in non-obvious ways. From Ezra Klein’s new Vox interview with Peter Thiel:

Ezra Klein:

I want to try to draw out this idea of a company’s mission a bit more. Imagine two versions of Google. The non-mission oriented Google is, ‘We want to build a search engine that’ll be the best search engine in the world. If we’re dominant in that market, we’re going to be able to extract huge advertising revenues.’ The mission-oriented one is, ‘Our goal as a company is to categorize and make accessible all the world’s information.’

Peter Thiel:

Yes.

I think the second description is certainly far more inspiring. Maybe it starts by building a much better search engine, but then maybe over time, you have to develop mapping technology, maybe you start building self-driving cars as a way to see how well your mapping technology works. It certainly, I think, feels very different to the people working at the company. I think Google still is a very charismatic company for a company of its size.

Ezra Klein:

That’s an interesting point. Google does all of these things that are not obvious profit drivers. The massive effort to digitize books, the decision to send camels across the Sahara to work on mapping the desert. A lot of that, they’re losing money on. But it’s partially a recruitment tool — it makes them, in your word, more charismatic than their competitors.

Peter Thiel:

One level in which these companies do still compete very much is for talent. Silicon Valley is very competitive with Wall Street banks. And there’s a way in which the day-to-day jobs are similar: people sit in front of computers, the people went to similar colleges and universities, even the office floor-planning is kind of similar. There are more similarities than one might think. But the narrative at Google is much, much better than at Goldman. That’s why they’re beating a place like Goldman incredibly in this talent war.”

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Many Kentuckians who now have Obamacare love the care and hate Obama. When it comes to affordable health insurance, they need it, they want it, they wish they could live without it. Passages follow from a BBC piece about the health-care reform that dare not speak its name in the Blue Grass State and an Ezra Klein Vox post about the aftermath of the Halbig case ruling.

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From Claire Bolderson’s “Obamacare in Kentucky: The luxury of seeing a doctor“:

“Liberty Sizemore leans back in her chair and beams. The 26-year-old filling station cashier has just been told her enrolment in Obamacare is complete.

Now she can have her first routine doctor’s appointment for seven years.

‘I am so happy,’ says Sizemore as she waits at the Grace Community Health Centre in Clay County, Kentucky, ‘I’ve not had insurance since I turned 19.’

But Sizemore is also nervous. She is seriously overweight and was warned in her teens that she was likely to develop diabetes. Without health insurance she has not been able to afford tests or check-ups to see if she has indeed got the disease.

‘I’ll go to the hospital only in an emergency,’ says Sizemore, who is still paying off the $10,000 bill for removing her appendix two years ago.

‘That’s what’s on my credit card right now,’ she sighs, ‘hospital bills.’

Sizemore is one of 421,000 people in Kentucky who’ve signed up since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, came into force last October.

Like many, she now qualifies for Medicaid, the government programme that pays for health care for the poorest Americans. Under the new law, the federal government offers states money to expand Medicaid so that many more people on very low wages, like Liberty Sizemore, are covered.

There are also federal funds for new state insurance exchanges where Americans can shop for private plans. Some plans are heavily subsidised by the government, depending on the applicant’s income level.

Kentucky is one of a minority of states – and the only one in the South – to have taken Washington’s money and embraced all the reforms.

But it has done it without embracing the man after whom they are named.

‘The president is not all that popular in the state,’ says Democratic Governor Steven Beshear, pointing to Mr Obama’s 34% approval rating in Kentucky (eight points below the latest national figure reported by Gallup). ‘So we don’t talk about Obamacare,’ he explains.”

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The opening of Klein’s “No, the Halbig case isn’t going to destroy Obamacare“:

“The Halbig case could destroy Obamacare. But it won’t. The Supreme Court simply isn’t going to rip insurance from tens of millions of people in order to teach Congress a lesson about grammar.

As Adrianna McIntyre explains, the Halbig case holds that Obamacare’s subsidies are illegal in the 36 states where the federal government runs (or partly runs) the exchange. The plaintiffs rely on an unclearly worded sentence in the law to argue that Congress never intended to provide subsidies in federally-run exchanges and so the subsidies that are currently being provided in those 36 states are illegal and need to stop immediately.

This is plainly ridiculous. The point of Obamacare is to subsidize insurance for those who can’t afford it. The point of the federal exchanges is to make sure the law works even in states that can’t or won’t set up an exchange.

For Congress to write a law that provides for federal exchanges but doesn’t permit money to flow through them would have been like Congress writing a transportation law that builds federal highways but doesn’t allow cars, bikes or buses to travel on them.

That was…not what Congress thought it was doing.”

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If members of Congress weren’t paid for days the government is closed and they had no way to recoup the money, there would be no shutdown. And if you’re not making a sacrifice, you’re not making a stand. Of course, the GOP is sacrificing something huge–its last claim to being more than a fringe party–but that sacrifice isn’t intentional. There are three possible reasons for the shutdown:

  • They Think They’ll Win. While this clearly makes no sense to you or I or anyone with any level of sanity, it’s possible that a party, cloistered from the majority or just good sense, thinks somehow Obamacare is going away because of this gambit. Not likely that too many of them believe it, but possible at least for some of the more flat-earth Republican reps. 
  • They’re Putting Personal Gain Ahead Of the Party. Oval office in 2016 be damned, the Republicans in Congress are more concerned with fundraising in their own districts so that they can remain in power. For a party that says it hates the government, these are people who will sell out any potential national ticket in the next national election to out-wingnut future contenders who might challenge them in primaries. This is almost certainly true to some extent.
  • They’re a Poorly Organized and Suicidal Party. I wrote several times during the 2012 Presidential campaign that I disagreed with the prevailing wisdom that Republicans would have no alternative but to return to normalcy if President Obama was reelected. (Obama himself used this reasoning during a debate.) That never was going to happen because it’s no longer a party based on strategy or reason. John Boehner has no authority because there is no authority in anarchy. The GOP is a protest party now and nothing more. And when tens of millions of Americans newly have health insurance with no death panels, no sky falling, this shutdown will be ever more damning. Until all power is lost, the GOP will not remake itself, will not be viable again. It’s not just common sense that works against them–it’s demographics as well.

The opening of Ezra Klein’s new Wonkblog interview with National Review journalist Robert Costa:

“Ezra Klein:

Walk me through the math of the House GOP a bit. Most people seem to think Boehner has around 100 members who largely back him and don’t want a shutdown, and it’s a much smaller group, a few dozen or so, who want to take this to the brink. So why doesn’t Boehner, after trying to do it the conservative’s way as he has been in recent weeks, just say, we’re voting on a clean CR now, as that’s what the majority of the House Republican majority wants?

Robert Costa:

Ever since Plan B failed on the fiscal cliff in January and you saw Boehner in near tears in front of his conference, he’s been crippled. He’s been facing the consequences of that throughout the year. Everything from [the Violence Against Women Act] to the farm bill to the shutdown. The Boehner coup was unsuccessful but there were two dozen members talking about getting rid of him. That’s enough to cause problems. Boehner’s got the veterans and the committee chairs behind him, but the class of 2010 and 2012 doesn’t have much allegiance to him.

The thing that makes Boehner interesting is he’s very aware of his limited hand. Boehner doesn’t live in an imaginary world where he thinks he’s Tip O’Neill and he can bring people into his office and corral them into a certain vote. So he treads carefully, maybe too carefully. But he knows a clean CR has never been an option for him.

Ezra Klein:

But why isn’t it an option? A few dozen unhappy members is an annoyance, but how is it a threat? Wouldn’t Boehner be better off just facing them down and then moving on with his speakership?

Robert Costa:

So there are 30 to 40 true hardliners. But there’s another group of maybe 50 to 60 members who are very much pressured by the hardliners. So he may have the votes on paper. But he’d create chaos. It’d be like fiscal cliff level chaos. You could make the argument that if he brought a clean CR to the floor he might have 100-plus with him on the idea. But could they stand firm when pressured by the 30 or 40 hardliners and the outside groups?”•

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Bill Gates has, unsurprisingly, taken a data-driven approach to disease eradication during his second and staggering act as a philanthropist of the highest rank. Aiming to eliminate polio in the near term from the entire world as it has been in India, he told Ezra Klein of the Washington Post how the intransigence of illness is often not virus nor bacteria but misinformation:

Ezra Klein:

So what did we learn that made eradication possible in India?

Bill Gates:

The two things that were done super well were social mobilization and mapping where the houses were. When somebody would refuse to take the vaccine, they would mark it down and they would have either a political leader or religious leader come in and convince them. Dealing with refusals is a huge part of this. If your team goes in, maybe they don’t speak the dialect, they’re not the same caste, the family has heard a rumor that the vaccine is bad, there’s many reasons you get refusals, and so you need follow-up for refusals. Usually you’ll get 10 to 20 percent refusals. But if there’s been a rumor, you get much higher refusals.

Ezra Klein:

A rumor that, say, the vaccine is bad, or it makes you sick?

Bill Gates:

Yeah or that the U.S. government uses vaccination campaigns to sterilize Muslim women. Vaccination always has problems with rumors. The U.S. doesn’t achieve nearly as high a vaccination rate as many countries. Vietnam is 99 percent vaccination, the U.S. is about 95 percent. Because people just hear ‘Oh, what about autism or something.’ But it’s particularly bad in poor countries.” (Thanks Browser.)

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President Obama has been criticized for not communicating his message well enough to the American people during his first term, but perhaps that effort would have been time wasted. There are probably moments when an American President can define the narrative, but usually they’re just being led by it, at best framing it. You’ve probably already readThe Unpersuaded,” Ezra Klein’s smart New Yorker piece on the topic, but here’s an excerpt: 

“No President worked harder to persuade the public, Edwards says, than Bill Clinton. Between his first inauguration, in January, 1993, and his first midterm election, in November, 1994, he travelled to nearly two hundred cities and towns, and made more than two hundred appearances, to sell his Presidency, his legislative initiatives (notably his health-care bill), and his party. But his poll numbers fell, the health-care bill failed, and, in the next election, the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in more than forty years. Yet Clinton never gave up on the idea that all he needed was a few more speeches, or a slightly better message. ‘I’ve got to . . . spend more time communicating with the American people,’ the President said in a 1994 interview. Edwards notes, ‘It seems never to have occurred to him or his staff that his basic strategy may have been inherently flawed.'”

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