A Post-Obama Democratic Party in Search of Itself

Pelosi eventually acquiesced and rescheduled the election for Nov. 30. In the end, her only opponent was Tim Ryan, a young congressman and former high school quarterback star from Ohio’s 13th District, the ailing industrial region surrounding Youngstown and Akron. Ryan offered a splash-of-cold-water speech just before the vote: “We got wiped out,” he said, according to a recording of his remarks. “We’re toxic in the Midwest, and we’re toxic in the South.”

Pelosi won easily, but fully a third of the Democratic caucus voted against their leader, and Ryan’s insurrection seemed to have left a mark: After the election, three well-liked and nonrebellious members — Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and David Cicilline of Rhode Island — were chosen by the caucus to help manage the rebranding of the party. The three of them spent the first half of 2017 dutifully interviewing nearly every member of the caucus and conducting more than a dozen listening sessions with authors, pollsters and former Obama cabinet secretaries. They hosted a dinner at which the party’s various factions — the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, the conservative Blue Dogs and the New Democrats, among others — mingled as if meeting for the first time.

In late July, Pelosi, Bustos, Jeffries and Cicilline stood on a stage with six other Democrats under a wiltingly hot summer sky in the city park of Berryville, Va. — a town of 4,306 residents in a purple district within easy driving distance of Washington — and unveiled their new agenda, titled “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.” The phrase, which had been poll-tested by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was an intentional echo of F.D.R.’s New Deal — and, less intentionally, of a Papa John’s pizza slogan. But its biggest debt was to the author of “The Art of the Deal,” and to his crimson-jowled populism.

“A Better Deal” called for retraining in America’s fading manufacturing sector, renegotiating trade deals, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and fighting the corporate consolidation that had affected the prices of everything from eyeglasses to beer. None of the 10 speakers invoked President Barack Obama. In fact, one of the key provisions in “A Better Deal” — renegotiating drug prices for Medicare recipients — was an implicit rebuke of the former president, who had agreed with the pharmaceutical industry to freeze Medicare drug prices in exchange for its support of the Affordable Care Act.

But even before the rollout, Pelosi diminished the substance of “A Better Deal” in an interview with The Washington Post, clarifying that it was not “a course correction, but it’s a presentation correction.” A Quinnipiac poll in August found that only 33 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of independents had a favorable opinion of the new Democratic agenda. The self-consciousness of the rebranding, one congressman mused to me at the time, “seems like what you would do in a different era.”

There was a stiff-jointedness to the whole spectacle, a sense of the Democrats’ trying to regain the use of muscles they had let atrophy over the previous eight years. Obama, after all, used to make this sort of thing look easy. Conflating the American story with his own — “This is who we are” — the president conveyed, even in policy irresolution, an unshakable sense of his and America’s place in the world. “I love the guy, I miss him,” Scott Peters said of Obama. “But organizationally, the party is in disarray. We’re at the lowest level of elected officeholders since Hoover. We got a bit lazy and found ourselves relying on Barack Obama’s charisma, and it left us in bad shape.”

Barring seismic developments, the G.O.P. is still likely to control both the White House and the Senate until at least January 2021. But nine months into Trump’s presidency, the chances of the Democrats’ retaking the House are much better. Multiple polls in recent months have shown generic Democratic candidates beating generic Republicans by as many as 15 points — a spread that, in past elections, correlated with winning more than enough seats for the Democrats to gain a House majority next year. And if they do, the consequences will be enormous. A Democrat-controlled House in 2019 would very likely derail the Republican legislative agenda. It could also conceivably set the stage for impeachment proceedings against the president — a move that many Democrats have openly proposed for months now.

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But the Democrats’ path back from the wilderness is not a short one. No president since Ronald Reagan has won the presidency as convincingly, twice over, as Obama did — but those victories papered over an extraordinary decline in his party that became suddenly unignorable on Nov. 9, 2016. The Democratic National Committee today is an understaffed, demoralized bureaucracy. It has raised less than half of what its Republican counterpart has taken in so far this year. (Other party organizations — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — are faring better.)

Democratic presidents have generally been less than attentive to the financial and electoral health of their party, during and after their presidencies. The Northwestern political-science professor Daniel J. Galvin writes in his 2010 book, “Presidential Party Building,” that since John F. Kennedy, each of them “neglected, exploited or undercut his party’s organizational capacities.” Galvin found that this maltreatment was because such presidents had operated with “deep and durable majorities” in Congress. After the Democrats lost theirs in 1994, President Bill Clinton awakened to the virtues of party-building. Galvin predicted that Obama would most likely have sufficient reason to do the same.

Instead, Obama was every bit as indifferent as his predecessors. After he took office, his campaign’s formidable grass-roots organization, rechristened Organizing for America, became what some party leaders complained was a “shadow organization” that drained resources from the D.N.C. while championing the president rather than the Democratic Party as a whole. The president did not have anywhere near the kind of close relationship with the last D.N.C. chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, that George W. Bush had with the Republican National Committee chairmen Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman.

In 2012, Obama’s campaign chose not to contribute any money to the D.S.C.C. during that cycle — and then, emerging from its victory that year with a $20 million debt, the campaign promptly offloaded it onto the D.N.C. In early 2014, Obama assured Senate Democrats that keeping the Senate majority was his “No. 1 priority.” Months passed without any further action. Finally, two months before the midterms, Obama informed Harry Reid by phone that he was authorizing a $5 million transfer of D.N.C. funds to Senate election efforts. Reid tersely replied, “It shouldn’t have been this hard.”

Few of the Obama campaigns’ innovations have meaningfully outlasted his presidency. Their once-pioneering digital-organizing operation, for example, went largely to ground in 2016, while the party failed to fully grasp even the basics, like the usefulness of digital advertising. “What I can tell you,” says Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, who oversaw an analysis of the party’s shortcomings in the last election cycle, “is that our candidates and their staff told us that the Republicans did much better digitally than we did. And they spent more than us on digital.” (Teddy Goff, Obama’s former digital director, says: “I sincerely wish the technology built in the two Obama campaigns had been put to better use for 2016 and races down the ballot.”)

State Democratic Party leaders complain about O.F.A. — rebranded again recently as Organizing for Action — hoarding campaign resources to little end. And Priorities USA, the extravagantly funded super PAC that was started to support Obama’s 2012 campaign, never built the kind of entrenched ground-level presence maintained by its analogues on the right. In contrast, Americans for Prosperity, the conservative network financed by David and Charles Koch, spent the Obama years establishing a network of more than three million activists in 36 states and mobilizing them to protest against Obamacare, environmental regulations and tax increases — becoming what the group’s president, Tim Phillips, described to me as “a state-based long-game organization that would always be there.” The current chairman of Priorities USA, Guy Cecil, acknowledges the disparity: “Most of our activities, most of our structures, are built around individual fights, or individual candidates, or individual organizations, and I think that’s put us at a disadvantage.”

Organizational and technological lapses do not fully account for the Democratic Party’s travails. “All that stuff is like the field-goal team,” the Obama strategist David Axelrod told me. “None of it will help you if you haven’t already moved 80 yards down the field. Being technologically proficient wouldn’t have saved Obama if he didn’t also have a consistent, compelling message.”

But that message had grown threadbare by 2016. No longer was it sufficient to campaign on hope and change, or even on the president’s successful efforts in 2009 to stave off a deep recession. The uneven economic recovery raised questions about the party’s obliviousness to the impunity of Wall Street and the gap between the megawealthy and everyone else. Hakeem Jeffries, the New York congressman who was an author of “A Better Deal,” admits, “We developed a blind spot for the economic challenges that still remained unmet.”

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By the end of Obama’s presidency, the Democratic Party had lost nearly a thousand seats in state legislatures across America. It had forfeited its majority in both the House and the Senate. A mere 16 of the nation’s 50 governors were Democrats — and that number dwindled to 15 in August, when Jim Justice of West Virginia announced with a grinning Donald Trump at his side that he, too, had decided to become a Republican.

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Clockwise from top left: The congressional candidates Randy Bryce, Kelly Mazeski, Jared Golden, Dave Min, Boyd Melson and Matt Longjohn.

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Illustration by Matt Dorfman. All photographs from candidates’ campaigns.

A few days after the election, Ian Russell quit his job as the deputy executive director of the D.C.C.C. and cashed in his frequent-flier miles on a trip to Ireland. He watched Trump’s swearing-in on his phone in a Dublin pub over a pint of Guinness, and then a few more. The following morning, he threw his bags in a rental car and began a sort of weeklong post-traumatic odyssey, rambling westward to the coast.

Russell, now 33, had spent the past six years at the D.C.C.C. trying to help the Democrats regain the House majority that they lost to the Republicans in the 2010 midterm election. During every election cycle, political journalists and donors would file into one of the drab conference rooms inside the D.N.C. headquarters near the Capitol and watch as D.C.C.C. officials like Russell unveiled maps and polling data in support of the claim that this election cycle — unlike the last one — was going to break for the Democrats. Each time, Russell maybe half-believed it.

But election night left him reeling. It wasn’t just that Trump had upset Clinton — including in Russell’s home state, Michigan — or that the Democrats emerged 24 seats short of a House majority. What gnawed at him was a fear that Trump might actually win over Democratic voters more lastingly. Benton Harbor, a few miles down the road from Russell’s hometown in the western part of the state, lost its last Whirlpool manufacturing facility years ago. The childhood friends of his who remained in the area had renounced the Democrats and were now Trump voters. “Trump could transform American politics,” he remembers thinking at the time. “He could truly scramble things.”

But Russell’s fears of a unifying, postpartisan pragmatist in chief swiftly proved unjustified. Rather than focusing on jobs and infrastructure projects, Trump immediately set in motion an attempt to repeal Obamacare and ordered a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, which was met with demonstrations at airports across the country. On Jan. 30, the nonpartisan Hill analyst Stuart Rothenberg published a column headlined “Trump’s Fast Start Likely Puts the House in Play in 2018.” Rothenberg reasoned that overly aggressive new presidents tended to be judged harshly by the electorate in the middle of their first term. “The House map favors Republicans, but the midterm dynamic could well prove more powerful,” he wrote, listing 20 Republican seats — out of 24 the Democrats would need to flip the House — that, if typical midterm election patterns held, would most likely be imperiled. “Nothing is yet guaranteed, but don’t be surprised if the House is up for grabs in the fall of 2018.”

Late on his last evening in Ireland, Russell was drinking a final Guinness and listening to a passable folk band at the Palace Bar in Dublin while halfheartedly scrolling through the news back home on his phone when he came across Rothenberg’s column. He read through to the end with an accelerating heartbeat. It seemed big news to him that Rothenberg, a dispassionate prognosticator, had confidently issued such a prediction just 10 days into Trump’s presidency.

Back in Washington, Russell joined a relatively new political media consulting firm, Beacon Media, and started hunting for prospective 2018 House candidates. In early March, he traveled to California’s Orange County — historically a G.O.P. stronghold, though its wealthy population included growing numbers of Asian-Americans who tended to vote Democratic. In Irvine he met with Dave Min, a wry 41-year-old law professor who had worked on the Hill as a senior policy adviser to Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader, and at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

Min, the father of three young children, had never considered running for political office before. But he was also a son of Korean immigrants and was appalled by the Trump administration’s attempts to ban Muslims from entering the United States. The incumbent congresswoman of California’s 45th District, Mimi Walters, was a little-known two-term Republican who had never faced serious opposition. She had won by nearly 18 points in 2016, but Clinton beat Trump in the district by more than five points. A strong anti-Trump sentiment in 2018 could work to Min’s benefit. In April, he told Russell that he was in.

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Russell then traveled to the Illinois suburbs just west of Chicago. Like California’s 45th District, the Sixth District of Illinois had been reliably Republican for decades. But Clinton beat Trump there by seven points, and already its six-term congressman, Peter Roskam, was avoiding public appearances lest he be called upon to answer for the president. The progressive women’s group Emily’s List had referred Russell to Kelly Mazeski, a longtime public servant on local boards and commissions who had already decided to challenge Roskam. Mazeski was a breast-cancer survivor whose platform, she told me recently, was “health care, health care, health care.” Russell helped Mazeski time her announcement for May 4, the day Roskam and his fellow House Republicans voted for a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Scores of candidates were announcing their intentions in terrain recently considered inhospitable to Democrats: West Virginia, Texas, Kansas. Some aspirants Russell met lacked the talent to match their enthusiasm. Others were hot property and elected to go with one of Beacon Media’s competitors. But by Labor Day, Russell and his firm had picked up 10 Democratic challengers. Among them were a few beguiling dark horses, like a 46-year-old physician and former Y.M.C.A. national health officer from Portage, Mich., named Matt Longjohn. Undeterred by his lack of political experience, Longjohn was challenging Fred Upton, a Republican who had represented Michigan’s Sixth District for three decades.

Russell himself grew up in the Sixth District and cast his first ballot as a registered voter against Upton in 2002. Back then, the incumbent seemed invincible. But now, after leading the committee that wrote the legislation seeking to eviscerate Obamacare, Upton was avoiding town halls and any other public events.

Still, when I met Russell recently, his optimism was tempered by previous electoral disappointments. The Democratic Party now has more candidates than it can support, and next spring is likely to be a season of what national Democratic officials tactfully refer to as “messy primaries.” And even with Trump as a foil, Russell’s candidates were struggling to make a case for themselves. “Right now it’s such a target-rich environment for us,” he told me. But “we’re having trouble explaining why we’re the heroes and the Republicans are the villains. At some point, our narrative will have to become more coherent than it is now.”

In pursuit of the 24 seats Democrats need to win the House, the D.C.C.C. intends to target 80 Republican-held districts — a dozen more than the party went after in its 2006 bonanza year, when it captured a majority after gaining 31 seats. Many of next year’s seem to be fanciful propositions, or strategic plays designed to force the G.O.P. to spend resources where it would rather not. In other cases, the D.C.C.C. is counting districts held by controversial Republicans — Chris Collins of New York, with his aggressive advocacy of a biotech firm in which he held substantial investments; Duncan D. Hunter of California, with the possibility of a federal indictment for supposed campaign fund malfeasances hanging over his head — who nonetheless appear safe, at least for the moment. But four Republican representatives in potential swing districts — Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Dave Reichert, Charlie Dent and Pat Tiberi — have already announced their retirement in advance of 2018, and more are expected to follow before the end of the year.

Only two times in the last century (during the Great Depression and after the Sept. 11 attacks) has a president’s party not suffered electoral losses midway into his first term. Those losses — an average of 32 House seats in each such midterm since 1862 — increase to 36 when the president’s approval rating is under 50. President Trump’s polling average has never once exceeded a favorability rating of 48 percent, and it now hovers at about 37 percent.

“I think the best thing the Democrats can do,” Zac Petkanas, formerly the director of rapid response for the Clinton campaign, told me, “is find as many people with a pulse, with a D next to their names, in as many districts as possible, and run on Obamacare and standing up to Trump.” But so much of the politics, and political mood, of Trump’s presidency is off the map of previous experience that other Democrats have seemed at times at a loss for how to respond. What to make of the late August NBC poll, for instance, that showed Democrats being viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of those surveyed, which was better than Republicans (61) and Trump (61), but also Pelosi (64)? Was that good news or bad news? And what about the D.C.C.C. focus groups and polls yielding the conclusion that voters broadly dislike Trump but are also put off by candidates who profess to be “standing up to Trump,” on the grounds that such resistance will only guarantee more dysfunction in Washington?

Republicans are hopeful that, Trump being the exception to almost every political rule, the historical trends of wave elections will also not apply to him. “Clinton came up against a wave in 1994 because he had campaigned as a centrist but then led with gays in the military and Hillarycare,” Karl Rove, the former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, told me. “The 2006 election was a wave because Republicans were defending the Iraq war and crippled by a late-breaking ethics scandal. Democrats faced a wave in 2010 because of Obamacare. So it’s been issues that have driven wave elections. This time around, I think it’s more a personal antagonism to Trump. And the question is, how critical will that be in shaping the attitudes of swing voters?”

But by Rove’s own analysis, two of the last three wave elections were triggered by health care policies that did not approach the deep unpopularity of the G.O.P.’s attempts this year to repeal or otherwise roll back Obamacare. And Trump’s base cannot be counted on to prevent a wave in 2018, because a key constituency — less-educated white voters — is a group that tends not to show up during midterms. They may have even less motivation to do so next year, considering Trump’s periodic denunciations of the Republican lawmakers who will need their votes.

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But in four special elections to fill seats vacated by House Republican incumbents this year, the Democrats fell short — and in the case of Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, lost by four points even after raising an unheard-of $23 million. His was the most expensive House race ever, and the fact that Democratic donors spent so heavily on a loss may help explain why the party’s fund-raising has diminished since then. The Democrats’ base — young and nonwhite voters — is no better than Trump’s at showing up for midterm elections and is unhelpfully clustered in urban districts. Many suburban and rural districts were artfully gerrymandered by Republican state legislators after the 2010 census and have proved impenetrable since then; they aren’t likely to change hands without a healthy number of recent Republican voters being persuaded to vote Democratic.

There is also a less quantifiable problem, the one that vexed Pelosi’s team in the months after the election: the Democratic Party’s chronic difficulty explaining just what it stands for. “There’s a deep worldview among conservative intellectuals that moved its way through a fear of fascism in the 1940s, through think tanks and campaigns and the California tax revolt of the 1970s,” Felicia Wong, president of the progressive Roosevelt Institute, says. “And basically the Democrats don’t have that. The New Deal was one thing, and the Great Society was another thing. The party never fully recognized that Jim Crow and segregation were economic decisions. That left Democrats with an incoherent economic argument. The result is that they lack a historical vocabulary.”

Questions about the interplay of race and economics, of course, aren’t just historical after the 2016 election — as much as politicians and operatives might want them to be. Plenty of progressives hold the view, as the MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid has argued on Twitter, that white working-class voters “resent the changes that racial and religious multiculturalism have brought to societies where people like them have been the majority.” But a former colleague of Reid’s at MSNBC, Krystal Ball, now president of the People’s House Project — which seeks to elect Democratic congressional candidates in G.O.P. districts — insists that the primary motivation of these voters is economic. “People who are holding onto their livelihoods by their fingernails thought that at least Trump gave a crap,” she says. “Maybe it was a pack of lies he was selling them, but at least he didn’t hold them in contempt. And frankly there’s a lot of contempt from certain corners of our party. And a billion dollars’ worth of ads saying we’re not elitists won’t change that.”

Early on the morning of July 27, a group of House Democrats held a private gathering in the Capitol basement with a special guest: Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff, who over a decade ago, when he was an Illinois congressman, served as chairman of the D.C.C.C. Looking ahead to 2018, Emanuel offered a broad-brushstroke plan of attack: “Find the specific issues that resonate in your district,” he said, according to one meeting participant’s notes. “We want to appeal to Trump voters who are already pulling away from him.” In particular, “Suburbs are our best opportunities.” On the matter of ideological purity, he was blunt: “It’s not a question of left versus center — it’s forward versus backward.”

If this advice sounded familiar, it was because Emanuel advocated the same strategy a dozen years earlier, when he was trying to lift his party out of the trough it had occupied since the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of the House by the Republicans in 1994. Emanuel focused on recruiting more centrist candidates who were well liked in their districts rather than on ideological darlings of the national party. “The people who criticized me back in 2006 were from my own party,” he told me recently. “When I was recruiting candidates, I’d get yelled at: ‘Why is he getting all these sheriffs and military guys?’ It’s because they were running in red districts!”

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Photo illustration by Jamie Chung. Obama photo: F Scott Schafer.

The election cemented Emanuel’s legend as a tactician — none of the Democrats attending the July 27 meeting expressed skepticism about his advice — but his strategy has never sat well with the party’s progressive activists. “I would just point to the fact that Rahm Emanuel’s Democrats who won in 2006 couldn’t hold those seats,” Stephanie Taylor, a founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (P.C.C.C.), which supports, trains and funds candidates, told me.

She was referring to the nearly a dozen Democrats who rode the 2006 wave into Congress, only to wash back out of it with the Tea Party wave four years later. (Three more had lost in 2008.) “I would suggest a counterfactual,” she went on: “If we had true economic populist champions who made the case to the American people about fighting for a strong economic agenda, we might have had more lasting success.” Or as the P.C.C.C.’s other founder, Adam Green, put it to me: “If there’s a Democratic wave in 2018, progressives won’t just ride that wave — we will cause that wave.”

Of course, activists like Green and Taylor also vowed to be the tip of the party’s spear in the previous cycle, with not much to show for it. Indeed, the Breitbart chairman and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon scornfully likens the Democrats’ ideological tussles to a “pillow fight,” further charging that progressives will never accomplish their goals “until they have a Breitbart on the left,” he told me. “Our stock in trade is going after the Republican establishment. There’s no one like that on the other side.”

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Most if not all Democrats are more than happy to watch Bannon’s kamikaze antics wreak havoc on the opposition. Still, some in the party rue the lack of pugnacity on their own side. “There are two types of Democrats,” David Krone, Harry Reid’s former chief of staff, told me one afternoon this summer in the Midtown Manhattan office where he now works as a consultant for an investment firm. “There are killers, and there are whiners. Unfortunately, we have too many of the latter and not enough of the former.”

Krone considers piety an obstacle to progressive policies. “Democrats are not that pure,” he told me, with a biting smile. “All those guys have a transactional component to them.” Under Reid’s leadership, the Democrats managed to pass important legislation like the Affordable Care Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act while also thwarting a stream of conservative bills generated by the Republican-controlled House. But it was also Reid who held his colleagues to the deal that garnered the pharmaceutical industry’s support for Obamacare by agreeing to take Medicare drug prices off the table. When the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 opened the floodgates for outside-group contributions, Reid did not join the chorus of bemoaners. Instead, he ordered up a super PAC, called the Senate Majority PAC, to help keep the Senate in Democratic hands during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. “Reid just never pretended to be something he wasn’t,” Krone said. “You don’t want to pass health care? Fine. Don’t make deals. Keep losing.”

In the Democratic Killers Hall of Fame, Krone places Emanuel and Pelosi. But lately, Krone observed, the party seemed to be tilting toward the whiners — beginning with the excuses offered for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. “It’s insane,” he said. “They freaking lost! They can blame anyone they want to, but they fail to look in the mirror.”

The 2018 cycle, Krone argued, was no time for squeamishness. Again he cited the example of his former boss Reid, who, like many Democrats in 2010, was a heavy underdog going into his final Senate race. Rather than be cowed by a Republican field that, at the peak of the Tea Party movement, had been infiltrated by the party’s fringe, Reid turned that to his advantage. His campaign waded into the Republican primary, targeting the most formidable G.O.P. opponents one by one until the only one left standing was Sharron Angle: a Tea Party favorite who once crusaded against water fluoridation and claimed multiple American cities were under the rule of Shariah law. Reid beat her easily.

By way of contrast, Krone pointed to Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin senator who, with John McCain, was a standard-bearer for campaign-finance reform, as well as a crusader for civil liberties during the Bush years. Feingold lacked Reid’s appetite for the jugular, losing to Ron Johnson in 2010 and then again in 2016. “He had his foot on Johnson’s neck, and then he let up, because he was up in the polls,” Krone lamented. “They don’t hand out participation trophies in politics.” If the party limited itself to high-minded campaigning and legislating, “We’ll lose again, and Kennedy” — the Supreme Court justice — “will retire, and Trump will get to appoint another conservative crazy, and the Democrats will wonder how things got to be so horrible.”

Still, the party faces a conundrum in its pursuit of Trump voters whose anxieties aren’t just economic but cultural as well. Prevailing in some red districts may require, at minimum, tempering the party’s progressivism on social issues. “When anybody talks about a so-called litmus test for candidates, that upsets me,” Representative Cheri Bustos told me. “I’m from Illinois, where I’m the only downstate Democrat in our entire delegation. I’ve been a Democrat my whole life, and my core values are very much in line with what hard-core Democrats believe. I don’t ever lie about my views. However, I also don’t talk about issues that are by their very nature divisive. If asked, I’ll answer I’m pro-choice. But then I’ll get back to the economy.”

But a week after Bustos and I spoke, the D.C.C.C.’s chairman, Ben Ray Luján, enraged liberal groups by saying that his organization would not oppose House candidates in favor of restricting abortion. Seeking to douse the fire, Meredith Kelly, the D.C.C.C. communications director, released a statement clarifying that the D.C.C.C. listed abortion rights as among the “fundamental tenets of the Democratic Party” and that the recruits it was backing “represent the values of the party.”

Adam Green of the P.C.C.C. was adamant on the prospect of anti-abortion recruits: “We wouldn’t welcome candidates who are pushing anti-choice policies into the big tent any more than we would welcome racists and people who want to deregulate Wall Street.” Green wasn’t buying the implication by Bustos and other moderates that the Democratic Party will regain a majority only if it backs away from progressive ideals. He urged me to talk to Rick Nolan, a progressive rural Minnesota congressman who, he said, “wins the right way.”

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Nolan is a folksy 73-year-old journeyman politician and businessman who has long advocated a single-payer health system. He also hunts, fishes, makes his own maple syrup and in other ways stays attuned to the culture of Minnesota’s Eighth District. Taking Green’s advice, I asked Nolan whether he would welcome an anti-abortion candidate into the Democratic caucus. “Wholeheartedly,” he said. “If there’s a fault today among Democrats, it’s that they’ve got the worst litmus test known to humankind. If we want to achieve the goals progressives want, we’ve got to get back into the majority. Democrats are damned fools if they don’t see that.”

There was one thing on which the Democrats I interviewed, across the spectrum — Adam Green, David Krone, Krystal Ball, Meredith Kelly — agreed: that I should watch a YouTube ad that was posted in June on behalf of a 52-year-old Wisconsin ironworker named Randy Bryce. Bryce, whose prodigious mustache has earned him the nickname Ironstache, is aiming to unseat the current officeholder of Wisconsin’s First District, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House. The emotionally charged ad announcing his campaign culminates in a challenge: “Let’s trade places. Paul Ryan, you can come work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.”

One rainy late summer afternoon, I met up with the ad’s creator, a 42-year-old Army veteran named Bill Hyers, in a Washington hotel bar overcrowded with well-dressed young professionals. Hyers was sipping an old-fashioned when I arrived. He was dressed in a T-shirt and khaki shorts, his preferred business attire. Hyers has successfully managed the campaigns of well-established Democratic politicians like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, and his own politics are straightforwardly liberal. At the same time, he harbors a Holden Caulfield-esque disdain of insincerity and believes that this quality, more than whining or ideological perfectionism, explains his party’s state of decline.

“What’s terrible about Democrats like Rahm Emanuel,” Hyers said, “is that it matters more to them if you’re a candidate who can raise money from very wealthy people than if you have an argument to make. They look at everything through the old Clinton triangulation strategy. Put out very carefully prepared statements. Don’t let anyone get to your right. Deny and ignore. Never have an honest dialogue. It was a bad strategy back in the ’90s. But it’s even worse today, because we can now have 24-7 access to candidates, and people can see when they’re not being authentic. Everything Hillary Clinton did was carefully scripted — they could see that.”

Hyers’s client Bryce has been the undisputed breakout star of the 2018 cycle so far; the announcement ad has attracted millions of views. (Such enthusiasm, it should be said, does not yet make Bryce any less of a long shot: The D.C.C.C. does not currently include Wisconsin’s First District among its 80 targeted seats.) The afternoon we met, Hyers showed me a rough cut of an ad for his newest client, a former Army champion boxer and ex-opioid addict from Staten Island named Boyd Melson — known in the ring as the Rainmaker — who is running for New York’s 11th District. Melson’s YouTube rollout, like Bryce’s, is replete with stirring proletarian imagery: neighborhoods festooned with American flags, an aloof Republican incumbent dodging town halls, Melson alone in the ring pummeling the air with slow-motion jabs. It suggests a trailer for “Rocky Goes to Washington.”

“I can only take a little credit for them,” Hyers admitted after the two-and-a-half-minute ad came to an end. Bryce’s and Melson’s ads, he told me, had a co-producer: Matt McLaughlin, a veteran of TV advertising who “didn’t know campaigns and politics, but he knows art.” Hyers did not think the party’s need for “authentic candidates” and a little theatrical verve were incompatible. If anything, the role the confluence of those two perceived assets played in Trump’s victory is one of the few inarguable lessons of the 2016 election.

This lesson, however unacknowledged, is playing out across the 2018 electoral landscape. In Kentucky, a former Marine fighter pilot named Amy McGrath appears in a bomber jacket, declaring that her “new mission” is to “take on a Congress full of career politicians.” Assessing her candidacy’s apparent long odds, she says, with a cockeyed grin, “We’ll see about that.” Another web ad shows a dashing scientist in a white lab coat: Hans Keirstead, a pioneering stem-cell researcher now running to represent California’s 48th District and billing himself as the very definition of a “problem solver.”

In mid-August, I spoke to Ian Russell’s latest client, a telegenic Marine veteran and two-term state representative from Lewiston, Me., named Jared Golden. Lewiston today is a hollowed-out exoskeleton of a textile mill town. “Our way of life is under attack here,” Golden said. “We’re a classic case of the America that’s being left behind. The social-identity issues that have been emphasized in Portland don’t resonate in rural Maine. It’s damaged the Democratic brand here, to be honest. We’re a community of hard-working people who may not be highly educated, but that doesn’t mean we’re not intelligent. The majority of the folks here voted for Donald Trump, and I can tell you that the description of them as a basket of deplorables is just dead wrong.”

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Golden told me that his neighbors had until recently thought of themselves as Democrats. Golden himself still is. When we spoke, he had just decided to run in Maine’s Second District against the Republican incumbent, Bruce Poliquin. Golden would be the fifth Democrat to enter the race. He seemed to have little use for the national party’s “A Better Deal” pitch, telling me, “It’s going to take more than a glossy new policy document to take back the U.S. House.”

What, then, would it take? A few days after I spoke with Golden, Ian Russell traveled to Lewiston and shot his candidate’s announcement ad. It mixes twilit images of small-town Maine with footage of the candidate in combat fatigues; later, he jogs down a country road wearing a T-shirt that says, “Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body.” The ad excoriates the Republican incumbent but also bipartisan trade deals and unnamed political leaders who push “issues that don’t impact your life.”

The word “Trump” is not mentioned in the two-minute ad. Nor is the word “Democrat.”

Correction: November 1, 2017

An earlier version of this article included an erroneous figure for the number of times a president’s party suffered no electoral losses midway into the president’s first term. It is two times, not three.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/magazine/a-post-obama-democratic-party-in-search-of-itself.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

A Stranger From the Past Confronts Roddy Doyle’s Latest Hero

Victor’s efforts to place Fitzpatrick in memory may be futile, but they lead him to recall the central milieu of his boyhood: the Christian Brothers school, one of many in Ireland, where he was educated by a faculty of stern Catholic priests. At first, we get memories of the bullying inflicted by Victor’s fellow students: beatings from the older kids, homophobic slurs. It wasn’t all bad, though: “We suffered together,” Victor tells us, “and it was great.” But the looming enigma of Fitzpatrick drives Victor to darker places in memory: The priests, it seems, were disciplinarians, often abusive ones. Sometimes, we soon learn, they even touched the boys inappropriately. In fact, Victor was one of them, and in fact it was the headmaster groping him sexually under the pretense of teaching him self-defense.

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Victor remembers not only this abuse, but the moment of its original excavation from memory, during the happy days with Rachel. He wakes violently from sleep beside her — “I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart” — and tells her everything. The abuse, we realize, is partially responsible for many of his life’s failures: his writer’s block, his ineptness as a husband and father. Eventually he confesses the abuse, impulsively, on the radio, earning both public sympathy and derision.

“Smile” sags a little bit in the middle, as Doyle chronicles Victor’s somewhat idealized relationship with Rachel. Though we know it’s destined to end, their romance is a shapely, familiar tale about a poor boy, an underdog, managing to land a beautiful, ambitious and moneyed girl; Doyle gives it a poignant, honeyed glow. And the story of sexual abuse, while harrowing, appears not to have ruined its victim; Victor has come to terms with it at last.

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But has he? There are signs, even during the more sentimental sections of the book, of some deeper darkness we haven’t been shown, one that Victor hasn’t allowed himself to look directly at. He contradicts himself, doubling back and changing his story. He suddenly admits, out of nowhere, that he and Rachel were never really married; Victor just calls her his wife to avoid having to explain their unconventional union. And what about Victor’s son? We know he has one, but we never hear about him. Are they estranged? Did something happen to drive them apart? And why, specifically, did the marriage — the non-marriage — end?

More ominously, Fitzpatrick disappears for a spell, and Victor worries — both for the old tosser’s well-being and for his own safety, as though the man might jump out of the shadows and strike him down at any second. As the book nears its conclusion, this paranoia comes to seem justified: Fitzpatrick follows Victor into the supermarket, threatens and harasses him, says, “I know where you live.” An encounter at the pub shakes things up further: Fitzpatrick brings up the Christian Brothers school, makes a sexually suggestive comment about a woman Victor’s trying to date. We fear that some final confrontation is in the offing.

In Fitzpatrick, Doyle has created an extraordinarily creepy antagonist: a bully who plays dumb but always gets under the hero’s skin, a clumsy oaf who nevertheless can disappear like a cat into the darkness. Fitzpatrick’s physical presence is palpable and unsettling, uncanny even. He forces Victor into corners, breathes into his face, and stands between him and his friends; drink doesn’t seem to make him drunk. He positions himself on the barstool so that Victor has to look up the leg of his shorts.

“Smile” is something of a departure for Doyle — it’s the closest thing he’s written to a psychological thriller — but it nevertheless showcases his well-loved facility for character and dialogue. His ear and eye are peerless. On Rachel’s father: “Everything about him said rugby player who had not been good enough.” On a woman Victor likes: “She was different. She wasn’t Rachel. She was fattish and human. And curious.” The ordinary, seen through Victor’s eyes, has a special gleam; after a skillfully described but prosaic urban scene, we get: “What I’d just seen and heard had been great — the gulls, the cats, the girl, her knees, the shout. It had been wonderful.”

The book’s ending, though, is anything but prosaic. It is shocking and disorienting, and literally made me gasp in horror. It does serve to justify and explain some of the roteness of the middle section; nevertheless it’s likely to divide readers.

Nothing wrong with that, though — what’s the point of a book everybody agrees on? If you manage to break up a book group or two, as “Smile” is likely to do, you know you’re onto something.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/books/review/roddy-doyle-smile.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Teaching Bats to Say ‘Move Out of My Way’ in Many Dialects

In these chambers, the researchers played different soundtracks to the pups continuously, starting from birth. The tracks sampled calls from actual bats, each mimicking a cave or tree roost with 300 bats in it, but featured different ranges of pitch.

For a few months, the bat mothers were also kept in the chambers and would regularly communicate with their offspring. But at 14 weeks, when a pup would normally become independent in the wild, the mothers were set free. At this point, the researchers started recording the pups’ vocalizations every few months until the bats reached adulthood.

Over time, the scientists found, the three pup groups took on distinct dialects. “When we examined the dialects more carefully, we found that they were similar to what the bats were hearing — the high-pitched group shifted toward higher-pitched calls and the low-pitched group shifted toward lower-pitched calls,” Dr. Yovel said.

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An Egyptian fruit bat in flight.

Credit
Jens Rydell

He added that the difference between the calls the bats learned from their mothers and the ones they adopted from the soundtracks could be considered similar to the difference between New England and Texan accents. And while it’s not known whether bat colonies in different locations naturally communicate with varying frequencies, Dr. Yovel said, “our findings suggest they do.”

Next, his team wants to see how dialects affect the bats’ social behaviors. “If I teach a few bats a new dialect and then send them into a new colony, how will they be treated?” he said.

The research also touches on broader evolutionary questions, like whether human vocal learning emerged independently, or whether it’s a more primitive behavior, spread across the mammalian kingdom, Dr. Yovel said. So far, aside from bats, vocal learning has anecdotally been reported in just a few other nonhuman mammals, including whales, seals and other primates.

Mirjam Knörnschild, a bat expert at the Free University of Berlin who was not involved in the study, suspects vocal learning takes place in far more species.

“The departure from the classical songbird model intrigued me most about this paper,” she said. “I think vocal plasticity, or vocal learning, is something not rare, but prominent, in the lives of many animals.”

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/science/bats-dialects-vocal-learning.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Momofuku Ssam Bar Keeps Evolving Under a Singaporean Chef

In the very beginning, Ssam Bar sold three kinds of Korean burritos. Dana Bowen, writing for The Times’s cheap-eats column, called them “enjoyable enough,” then spent the rest of her space on the after-hours experiments that Mr. Chang and three other cooks were serving late at night, like a whole roasted pork butt, to be pulled apart with tongs that quickly become as joyously greasy as everything and everybody else at the table.

By early 2007, when Frank Bruni weighed in, the after-hours experiments had taken over the menu, which offered previously unimagined combinations of kimchi, country ham, hamachi, rice sticks, fish sauce and organ meats. Ssam Bar had become “a nearly full-fledged restaurant in near-perfect sync with the times,” Mr. Bruni wrote. Apparently it wasn’t done fledging yet; he returned in 2008 to promote it from two stars to three.

Review overkill? No. Ssam Bar wasn’t just changing its menu. It rewrote the rules by which critically acclaimed restaurants were supposed to operate, stripping away comforts (chairs with backs, sound systems with a “low” setting) and amenities (reservations, unshared tables), and gambling that everybody would be too stunned by the food to complain.

It worked. Ssam Bar mounted a guerrilla attack on the dining establishment, and it won before anybody quite knew what was going on, Mr. Chang included.

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A steamed Chinese bun filled with white sturgeon caviar and bacon-ranch dressing.

Credit
Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

There followed a long period of refinement and maturation, which is more than some guerrilla outfits can say. The wine list now takes more than 20 seconds to read, and is especially worth exploring for fans of gamay and sparkling wine. (Or both — there’s a sparkling gamay.) Under Matthew Rudofker, the executive chef from 2010 until May, Ssam Bar expanded beyond pork shoulder to other sizable cuts of meat: rib-eyes, briskets, whole ducks.

Over the years, like many of Mr. Chang’s restaurants, Ssam Bar was increasingly infiltrated by modern techniques, fermentation, cutting-edge plating styles and umami-building tricks. The kitchen worked at a very high level, but at times it felt slightly deracinated, as if it drew much of its inspiration from other islands in the Momofuku archipelago.

Carefully but confidently, Mr. Ng is moving away from that style and toward one of his own. He has gone back to the traditions of Asia, particularly street food and Singaporean cuisine. Like the char on that smoldering banana leaf, his techniques tend to be premodern, even though he has worked for nobody but Mr. Chang since moving to the United States in 2011, starting with an externship at Ssam Bar during culinary school and rising to chef de cuisine at Momofuku Ko.

Mr. Ng has been trying his hand at the fish-shaped cakes from Japan known as taiyaki. He has a terrific idea for what to do with them: stuff them with foie gras. In his hands they’re almost French, because he fills the molds with croissant dough rather than pancake batter and glazes the crust with honey and white port. Over the top he strews some candied puffed rice that would make a fine breakfast; the whole dish would make a fine breakfast, come to think of it, although you’d stand up afterward knowing your day had already peaked.

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Sizzling eggs arrive not quite set in a cast-iron pan hot enough to finish cooking them at the table. The heat also softens a slice of pork terrine, which melts to coat the eggs. When I first tried this open-faced omelet, the eggs had been poured around a handful of chanterelles. Now they’ve been replaced by smoked bluefish.

To make one of the most original corn dishes I’ve seen in a long time, Mr. Ng cleaves the cobs lengthwise into quarters and fries them until they curl. They are dusted with spice. You pick one up with your fingers and swipe it through a black aioli of squid ink or a white streak of whipped ricotta, which will melt like butter. Then you eat the kernels from the cob as if you were gnawing the meat off a baby back rib.

These new dishes live alongside some legacies of Mr. Rudofker’s regime. There are cured sardines on long fingers of toast spread with hozon, the fermented chickpea paste that in this case plays the role of butter very well.

Big cuts of meat are still offered. They have to be ordered ahead, but a variation of the rotisserie duck can sometimes be had on the spur of the moment. The breast is rubbed heartily with five-spice powder and fanned out over rice, the idea being to wrap it in lettuce with fried shallots and gochujang, without getting too distracted when the duck’s fried bones show up about 15 minutes later.

As if he had realized that a restaurant that acts like a teenage punk is not as endearing once it reaches middle age, Mr. Chang redid Ssam Bar last year. The seats and bar stools have backs. The communal tables have been replaced by smaller ones where you sit only with people you know. Somehow the noise has been tamed.

You won’t have tinnitus by the time you get to Mr. Ng’s Singaporean coconut pie, which has a smooth, sweet, wobbly, pandan-scented filling like chess pie, a dome of whipped cream made from coconut milk and a dark brown drizzle of coconut-sugar caramel.

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Atmosphere Now with backs on the seats and private tables, the dining room is more comfortable and even, strange as it sounds, adult. Service is serious in its professionalism if not in its demeanor.

Sound Quieter than you remember.

Menu singlepage.com/momofuku

Recommended Dishes Sardines on toast; uni over rice; white sturgeon caviar bun; fried curly corn on the cob; sizzling eggs; foie gras taiyaki; extra-spicy shell-on shrimp; banana-leaf roasted skate; rotisserie duck; roasted fish ssam; coconut pie. Prices are for appetizers range $12 to $28; main courses, $24 to $30, with others that feed more than one and are priced accordingly.

Drinks and Wine Very well-made cocktails and an impressive wine list with deep holdings in Beaujolais and Champagne.

Price $$$ (expensive)

Open Daily for lunch and dinner.

Reservations Accepted.

Wheelchair Access The dining room and accessible restrooms are on the sidewalk level.

What the Stars Mean
Ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor, fair or satisfactory. One star, good. Two stars, very good. Three stars, excellent. Four stars, extraordinary.

This information was last updated: Nov. 4, 2017

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/dining/momofuku-ssam-bar-review.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Running a Marathon? Think Hot Tub, Not Ice Bath, Afterward

Faced with these largely disappointing experimental results, researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and other universities began to wonder recently about heat. Might warming muscles after hard exercise help them to regain strength and power?

To find out, they invited five fit, young men and women to a human performance lab and sat them in front of arm-pedaling machines. Then they asked each volunteer to spin the pedals through a series of brief but grueling intervals, followed by 20 minutes of easier but almost nonstop exercise, while the researchers tracked their heart rates and power output.

This routine was designed to exhaust the volunteers’ arm muscles. Many processes are involved in muscular exhaustion, but the one that is best understood is the depletion of the muscles’ glycogen, which is the name for their stored carbohydrates. Once the muscles burn through most of this fuel source, they become weak, tired and cranky, like toddlers in need of a snack.

The Swedish scientists suspected that finding ways to rapidly replenish these stores might help the muscles to recover relatively rapidly from their fatigue.

So they asked their volunteers to consume large amounts of carbohydrates in the two hours after their session of hard pedaling but not to otherwise coddle their muscles.

Then on subsequent visits to the lab, they had the young people repeat the pedaling workout twice more, and immediately afterward, slip long cuffs over their arms that could be heated or chilled with water coils. The cuffs were warmed during one session to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and chilled during another to about 5 degrees. The volunteers wore the cuffs for two hours while also downing carbohydrates.

Finally, at the end of each session, the men and women repeated the interval portion of their original pedaling, since it was the most tiring.

And each of them could pedal hardest at that point if their arm muscles had been warmed beforehand. Their power output then was “markedly better” than after the other two sessions, the scientists write in their paper, suggesting that their muscles had better regained strength. Their power was worst after their muscles had been cooled.

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But these results, while interesting, could not explain why heat might be goosing recovery, so the inquisitive scientists next turned to individual leg-muscle fibers obtained from mice. They attached the fibers to a mechanism that could record the strength of contractions and then zapped the fibers with electricity so that they contracted, over and over. The researchers noted when these contractions slowed, indicating the fibers had grown pooped.

They then tired other fibers before dousing some of them with glycogen and subsequently warming or cooling all of the fibers and restimulating them a final time.

They also examined whether warming or cooling had affected how much glycogen the muscle tissue absorbed.

As with the young men’s and women’s arms, the muscle fibers turned out to have recovered best after being heated — but only if they also had been exposed to glycogen. When the fibers had not received any refueling after their exercise, they did not regain their original power, even after pleasant warming.

The lesson of these findings, published in the Journal of Physiology, seems to be that “warming muscles probably aids in recovery by augmenting the muscles’ uptake of carbohydrates,” says Arthur Cheng, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute, who led the study.

This study looked only at one aspect of recovery after exercise, however, concentrating on how tired muscles might best regain their ability to generate power. It cannot tell us whether warm baths might lessen muscle pain after long, hard exercise. (Unfortunately, most recent studies suggest that nothing substantially reduces this soreness, except time.)

But the study does provide a rationale for filling your bathtub with warm water after a marathon or other hard exertion, grabbing a sports bar or chocolate milk to replace lost carbohydrates, and settling in for a long, revivifying soak.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/well/move/running-a-marathon-think-hot-tub-not-ice-bath-afterward.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

The Plot Against America – The New York Times

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Paul Manafort appeared in the Federal District Court in Washington on Monday.

Credit
Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

On Monday morning, after America learned that Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Manafort’s lobbying partner, Rick Gates, had been indicted and turned themselves in to federal authorities, the president tried to distance himself from the unfolding scandal. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” the president wrote in one tweet. A few minutes later, he added, in another, “Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”

At almost the exact same time, news broke suggesting that the F.B.I. has evidence of collusion. We learned that one of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy aides, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his attempts to solicit compromising information on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. Despite Trump’s hysterical denials and attempts at diversion, the question is no longer whether there was cooperation between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but how extensive it was.

In truth, that’s been clear for a while. If it’s sometimes hard to grasp the Trump campaign’s conspiracy against our democracy, it’s due less to lack of proof than to the impudent improbability of its B-movie plotline. Monday’s indictments offer evidence of things that Washington already knows but pretends to forget. Trump, more gangster than entrepreneur, has long surrounded himself with bottom-feeding scum, and for all his nationalist bluster, his campaign was a vehicle for Russian subversion.

We already knew that Manafort offered private briefings about the campaign to Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The indictment accuses him of having been an unregistered foreign agent for another Putin-aligned oligarch, the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Trump wasn’t paying Manafort, who reportedly sold himself to the candidate by offering to work free. But he intended to profit from his connection with the campaign, emailing an associate, “How do we use to get whole?” If there were no other evidence against Trump, we could conclude that he was grotesquely irresponsible in opening his campaign up to corrupt foreign infiltration.

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But of course there is other evidence against Trump. His campaign was told that Russia wanted to help it, and it welcomed such help. On June 3, remember, the music publicist Rob Goldstone emailed Donald Trump Jr. to broker a Trump Tower meeting at which a Russian source would deliver “very high level and sensitive information” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. responded with delight: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

The guilty plea by Papadopoulos indicates what information Trump Jr. might have been expecting. An obscure figure in foreign policy circles, Papadopoulos was one of five people who Trump listed as foreign policy advisers during a Washington Post editorial board meeting last year. A court filing, whose truth Papadopoulos affirms, says that in April 2016, he met with a professor who he “understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials.” The professor told him that Russians had “dirt” on Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” (The Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta had been hacked in March.)

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/opinion/mueller-manafort-indictment.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

When a Man Needs a New Suit

But suits happen — for weddings and funerals, for important meetings in stiff and even some not so stiff places, and for days when you might feel like shattering a few ankles on the way to the hoop.

And so it was with an open heart that I endeavored to refresh my closet this month, or at least engage with some new silhouettes, at the new Brioni flagship on Madison, and also at the Boglioli shop on Bond, which opened quietly last summer.

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At Brioni, the fabrics are lush, the construction immaculate.

Credit
Stefania Curto for The New York Times

As suits go, I prefer Italian. British cuts strangle me, physically and emotionally. American suits, in so much as there is such a thing, have a certain stolidity to them. They are designed for earnest, dull labor, and, even in a fancy fabric, tend to hang like drapery.

The Italians grasp the eroticism and power of tailored clothing. At the Brioni store, that extends to the décor, heavy on marble and wood, with ample space to gaze upon the racks as if you are on safari. What the suits here lack in imagination they make up for in touch: The fabrics are lavish, the construction immaculate, if slightly old-fashioned.

I tried on options in super 180 ($6,450) and super 200 ($10,475) wools that were austere and unreasonably luxe. I am tall and broad, and these options made that an asset, not a liability.

Still, there was a quietness to the energy of these suits, which felt destined for a nice enough table at the Pool in the reopened Four Seasons. They screamed wealthy executive, not wealthy executive with panache. (Surprisingly, the other clothes did better at that, particularly a burgundy moto jacket, $6,450, and a luscious baby blue turtleneck, $950.) You could shop here and be ably outfitted for a season’s worth of benefit dinners, but never once be the most provocatively suited man in the room.

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Which is the point, of course, but not an approach that speaks to my Isaia-loving soul. The Boglioli store was, for me, more soothing. That carpet, made of purple, yellow and gray squares, would be perfect in my apartment. The fabrics communicated vim and joy, like the icy blue overcoat that screamed loudly, though not in my size ($2,000).

A fashionable couple came in to the store when I was there, and the woman instantly gravitated to this coat, trying it on and engaging a clerk about the possibility of having it tailored. (While we’re here, it turned out there was, indeed, one black belt, in suede. It was lovely but maybe a little too delicate.)

I admired the sport coats in heavier fabrics, including a beige herringbone ($1,950). But I was most intrigued by the company’s “K” jacket — generally called deconstructed, but which my salesman referred to as “empty.” It had a cheeky, philosophical bent to it. It was a robust read on a middle-market sport coat, both peacocky and sly. Paired with some green corduroy pants ($375), it wasn’t a suit, exactly, but it would do the job.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/fashion/when-a-man-needs-a-new-suit-brioni-boglioli.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

The Solution for Skin Ailments Could Be Right Under Your Nose

Dr. Gallo and his collaborators published their results earlier this year in Science Translational Medicine.

“It’s the first time anything like this has been shown,” said Elizabeth Grice, a research dermatologist and microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the experiment. “What remains to be seen is whether this kind of treatment can reduce the severity of skin disease over the long term.”

Only in the last few years have scientists seriously studied how to therapeutically modify the skin’s native colonies of microbes. Understanding this unique microbiome may yield new ideas for treating various dermatologic conditions.

Some studies suggest, for example, that people prone to acne carry more of the microbe Propionibacterium acnes on their skin. A disturbance in typical bacterial populations leads to conflict between P. acnes and neighboring species, the theory goes, which in turn triggers an inflammatory response in the skin.

In another study published late last year, Dr. Gallo and his colleagues injected a beneficial strain of Staphylococcus epidermidis, along with some food that only it could digest, into the ears of mice. The combination treatment, known as a synbiotic, encouraged the growth of S. epidermidis, which in turn reduced both the number of P. acnes and level of inflammation in the mice.

Other scientists have been reporting similar findings. In 2014, a team in South Korea and the United States showed that an extract from Helicobacter pylori — a common resident of the human stomach — also can inhibit P. acnes and decrease skin inflammation in mice.

Scientists in Canada have demonstrated that people who take both probiotics and antibiotics have significantly fewer acne lesions after 12 weeks, compared with people who take only one or the other.

Several private companies are racing to capitalize on a growing consumer appetite for probiotic cosmetics, toiletries and topical treatments. The biotech company AOBiome offers a “live probiotic spray,” for instance, that is meant to replenish populations of beneficial skin bacteria.

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Many microbiologists worry, however, that the science is nowhere near advanced enough to justify the proliferation of these products. Scientists still have a lot to learn about what microbial ecosystems look like on healthy skin, how they change during illness, and how to safely interfere.

Topical probiotics can easily rub off and be transferred to other parts of the body or other people, Dr. Grice pointed out. Just because a microbe kills one species of pathogen does not mean it is unwaveringly “good” or peaceful.

And what if the bacteria in a lotion or spray were to infiltrate the body via a cut or scratch?

Dr. Grice agreed, however, that the idea is intriguing. Whereas typical antibiotics and antiseptics indiscriminately kill all kinds of bacteria throughout the body and drive the evolution of highly dangerous microbes impervious to existing drugs, probiotics may be much more selective.

And probiotics that successfully colonize the body have the unique ability to evolve in concert with a surrounding ecosystem. After all, genuine microbe-based therapies are not just cocktails of molecules; they contain living organisms that persist and adapt. Dr. Gallo calls his experimental lotion an “evolutionarily honed” treatment.

“There are so many new potent medicines right under our nose,” he said.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/26/health/acne-eczema-skin-bacteria.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

What Virtual Reality Can Teach a Driverless Car

“This is why we think we can move fast,” said Luc Vincent, who recently started an autonomous vehicle project at Lyft, Uber’s main rival. “This stuff didn’t exist 10 years ago when Google started.”

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There are still questions hanging over this research. Most notably, because these algorithms learn by analyzing more information than any human ever could, it is sometimes difficult to audit their behavior and understand why they make particular decisions. But in the years to come, machine learning will be essential to the continued progress of autonomous vehicles.

Today’s vehicles are not nearly as autonomous as they may seem. After 10 years of research, development and testing, Google’s cars are poised to offer public rides on the streets of Arizona. Waymo, which operates under Google’s parent company, is preparing to start a taxi service near Phoenix, according to a recent report, and unlike other services, it will not put a human behind the wheel as a backup. But its cars will still be on a tight leash.

For now, if it doesn’t carry a backup driver, any autonomous vehicle will probably be limited to a small area with large streets, little precipitation, and relatively few pedestrians. And it will drive at low speeds, often waiting for extended periods before making a left-hand turn or merging into traffic without the help of a stoplight or street sign — if it doesn’t avoid these situations altogether.

At the leading companies, the belief is that these cars can eventually handle more difficult situations with help from continued development and testing, new sensors that can provide a more detailed view of the surrounding world and machine learning.

Waymo and many of its rivals have already embraced deep neural networks, complex algorithms that can learn tasks by analyzing data. By analyzing photos of pedestrians, for example, a neural network can learn to identify a pedestrian. These kinds of algorithms are also helping to identify street signs and lane markers, predict what will happen next on the road, and plan routes forward.

The trouble is that this requires enormous amounts of data collected by cameras, radar and other sensors that document real-world objects and situations. And humans must label this data, identifying pedestrians, street signs and the like. Gathering and labeling data describing every conceivable situation is an impossibility. Data on accidents, for instance, is hard to come by. This is where simulations can help.

Recently, Waymo unveiled a roadway simulator it calls Carcraft. Today, the company said, this simulator provides a way of testing its cars at a scale that is not possible in the real world. Its cars can spend far more time on virtual roads than the real thing. Presumably, like other companies, Waymo is also exploring ways that its algorithms can actually learn new behavior from this kind of simulator.

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Test drivers used a Lexus sport utility vehicle, built as a self-driving car, to map an area in Phoenix before a journey without a driver in control earlier this year.

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Reuters

Mr. Pratt said Toyota is already using images of simulated roadways to train neural networks, and this approach has yielded promising results. In other words, the simulations are similar enough to the physical world to reliably train the systems that operate the cars.

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Part of the advantage with a simulator is that researchers have complete control over it. They need not spend time and money labeling images — and potentially making mistakes with these labels. “You have ground truth,” Mr. Pratt explained. “You know where every car is. You know where every pedestrian is. You know where every bicycler is. You know the weather.”

Others are exploring a more complex method called reinforcement learning. This a major area of research inside many of the world’s top artificial intelligence labs, including DeepMind (the London-based lab owned by Google), the Berkeley AI Research Lab, and OpenAI (the San Francisco-based lab founded by Tesla’s chief executive Elon Musk and others). These labs are building algorithms that allow machines to learn tasks inside virtual worlds through intensive trial and error.

DeepMind used this method to build a machine that could play the ancient game Go better than any human. In essence, the machine played thousands upon thousands of Go games against itself, carefully recording which moves proved successful and which didn’t. And now, DeepMind and other leading labs are using similar techniques in building machines that can play complex video games like StarCraft.

That may seem frivolous. But if machines can navigate these virtual worlds, they can make their way through the physical world.

Inside Uber’s autonomous car operation, for example, researchers have trained systems to play the popular game Grand Theft Auto, with an eye toward applying these methods, eventually, to real world cars. Training systems in simulations of physical locations is the next step.

Bridging the gap between the virtual and the physical is no easy task, Mr. Pratt said. And companies must also ensure that algorithms don’t learn unexpected or harmful behavior while learning on their own. That is a big worry among artificial intelligence researchers.

For this and other reasons, companies like Toyota and Waymo are not building these cars solely around machine learning. They also hand-coded software in more traditional ways in an effort to guarantee certain behavior. Waymo cars don’t learn to stop at stop lights, for example. There is a hard and fast rule that they stop.

But the industry is headed toward more machine learning, not less. It provides a better way to train the car to do tasks like identifying lane makers, said Waymo’s vice president of engineering Dmitri Dolgov. But it becomes even more important, he explained, when a car needs a much deeper understanding of the world around it. “Robotics and machine learning go hand in hand,” he said.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/business/virtual-reality-driverless-cars.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

What Worries? Big Tech Companies Post Glowing Quarterly Profits

“I do not see, to be honest, anything between Amazon and a trillion-dollar market valuation except D.C. and Brussels, and at this point it looks more likely that it’s Brussels,” Mr. Galloway said, referring to the headquarters of the European Union.

Amazon showed on Thursday how it continues to play by rules that cause fits of despair among conventional retailers. For a company its size and age, it reports meager profits, choosing to plow the cash generated by its business into new growth initiatives like video streaming and devices.

Amazon said its net income for the quarter that ended Sept. 30 was $256 million, or 52 cents a share, compared with $252 million, also 52 cents a share, during the same period last year.

But Amazon also gave investors the numbers they love to see, a 34 percent jump to $43.7 billion in revenue, as it continued to nibble away at the pocketbooks of customers. The company’s cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services, jumped 30 percent to $4.58 billion in revenue, which Wall Street loves because it accounts for most of what little profit the company reports.

Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods Markets has sparked concerns from rivals that the company could become a terrifying new force in the huge category of grocery retailing. During the quarter, Amazon said, Whole Foods added $1.3 billion to its overall revenue.

The most remarkable sign of Amazon’s growth may be its rise in head count, most of which occurs in its warehouses. At the end of September, Amazon had 541,900 employees, up 77 percent from a year earlier.

The average earnings estimate compiled from analysts by Thomson Reuters was 3 cents a share, and the average revenue estimate was $42.14 billion.

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Next week, Google’s top lawyer, along with general counsels from Facebook and Twitter, will testify in front of lawmakers investigating how Russia used social media and technology platforms in the United States to influence the 2016 election.

But as Alphabet reported another blockbuster earnings result on the back of strong sales of search advertising, the inquiry and any potential fallout were not discussed.

On a conference call with financial analysts, Ruth Porat, Alphabet’s chief financial officer, and Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer, were not asked about Google’s pending appearance before Congress.

Unlike Amazon, Alphabet gushed profits. Alphabet reported net income of $6.73 billion, or $9.57 a share — surpassing Wall Street’s earnings forecasts by more than a dollar. The company is bringing in more revenue — up 24 percent — while squeezing more profit from every dollar it brings in.

In July, when Alphabet previously reported quarterly results, investors shrugged off a $2.7 billion fine from the European Commission, the European Union’s administrative arm. The fine temporarily hit the company’s bottom line but did little to slow revenue growth or demand for its advertising.

Alphabet accounts for about 32 percent of all global digital advertising spending, according to research firm eMarketer. When it is combined with Facebook, the pair account for roughly half of all internet ad spending in the world.

With earnings showing no signs of slowing, Alphabet continues to amass a cash war chest. The company’s stockpile of cash and marketable securities topped $100 billion — or roughly the market value of Goldman Sachs.

Microsoft is mentioned less frequently as a potential target for regulators, in part because it already went through an agonizing antitrust saga in the 1990s and 2000s, one that hobbled it when big shifts in technology were looming.

But in the past several years, Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, has revived the company, in part by redoubling its focus on cloud computing, where it has emerged as a credible No. 2 competitor to Amazon.

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While Microsoft is not the fearsome leviathan it once was, it is still a moneymaking machine. On Thursday, the Redmond, Wash., company reported net income of $6.58 billion, or 85 cents a share, up from $5.67 billion, or 73 cents a share, the previous year. Revenue was up 12 percent to $24.54 billion.

The average earnings estimate compiled by Thomson Reuters was 72 cents a share, with revenue of $23.56 billion. Its shares jumped 3 percent.

Microsoft executives credited much of the company’s success in the quarter to growth in its cloud computing business, which encompasses everything from online storage to internet-based versions of Microsoft’s Office applications that customers subscribe to rather than purchase.

The company said its commercial cloud business had brought in $5 billion in revenue, up 56 percent from the previous year.

While Microsoft’s attempts at selling some kinds of devices have been a disappointment — its foray into making smartphones was a bomb — its Surface line of computers showed positive results, rising 12 percent to $1.04 billion in revenue.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/26/business/big-tech-company-earnings.html?partner=rss&emc=rss