Moving to the Middle

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S1: The following program has words that were once banned in Boston, as they say, no, not Bucky Dent or Manhattan clam chowder, much worse words than that in the.

S2: It’s Tuesday, August 18th, twenty twenty from Slate’s The Gist, I’m Mike Pesca.

S3: Political conventions were once actual events covered by television. Over time, the political content bent toward and yielded to the televised imperatives. So the pandemic just sped along what was happening anyway.

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S4: And last night’s DNC proved that political conventions are nothing but TV shows with the theme of politics and often with but a loose theme of politics. For instance, last night’s final speaker immediately establish credibility by saying enough of you know me by now.

S5: You know that I tell you exactly what I’m feeling. You know, I hate politics.

S4: And yet she seems fairly adept at politics. She hates politics like Barry hates being an assassin or like Joel Embiid just isn’t that into basketball. They still seem pretty good at it from time to time. Of course maybe Michelle Obama was helped by the fact that her thesis was Donald Trump bad president. Also Donald Trump worse man than president. It does seem that the building blocks for that particular case are plentiful and sturdy, no matter how you stack them. Another featured speaker last night was John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio.

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S6: America is at a crossroads.

S4: Kasich sought to illustrate his opening sentence by attacking not just the Trump administration, but subtlety. He was standing at a literal crossroads or at least a fork in the road, because while the camera did pull back enough to see sex, DeGeneres and gentlemen wearing pleated slacks on a gravel road, it didn’t zoom out quite enough to see if the roads were crossed or merely merging. I was also worried for those who listen to this address on radio or who are visually impaired, perhaps a special rendering of the John Kasich on the news theater could be presented. You know, here in America, we have gone badly off track.

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S7: It is time to pull out of this nosedive.

S4: I know, I know, I can’t believe I’m here either, and maybe you can, judging by what your eyes are doing at this moment. Aside from the featured speakers who we all knew, there are other speakers who focused on the administration’s horrible response to covid the administration’s inherent indecency and especially the administration’s tendency toward racism, Joe Biden himself led a video discussion about racial justice, which included the chief of police of Houston, the head of the NAACP and the mayor of Chicago.

S5: Mayor, how are you prioritizing the many things you have to do to as we try to tackle in a way that we haven’t before, systemic racism in the city?

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S4: During the night, viewers were presented with family members who are grieving for those who were killed either by police or by acts of urban violence. These were just regular citizens, sympathetic and hurting, looking for answers, hoping Joe Biden and the Democrats would have them. But a few hours earlier in the night, the Republican National Convention announced their version of counterprogramming.

S8: By the way, five on your side has confirmed that Mark McCloskey will be among the speakers at next week’s Republican National Convention. McCloskey and his wife, Patricia, made national headlines in June after they confronted protesters in front of their central west and home with guns.

S4: You can’t accuse the Republicans of wanting to fool voters into a false choice. They go high. We go high powered semiautomatic rifles. The McCluskey’s, if you remember, are invitees to the convention of the Law and Order candidate because they brandished weapons and are currently being charged with felony counts of unlawful use of firearms. You know, when I heard the news about the McCluskey’s, I honestly thought, oh, that’s just a rumor. Or their lawyer is somehow overhyping the actual invite. Or maybe it’s a faint. It’s designed to detract from this week’s DNC. And maybe the real contribution of the McCluskey’s will be, and I don’t know, an aerial shot of the state of Missouri or something. But now it appears all I’m not going to say on the up and up, but something that actually happened. The deputy national press secretary for Trump’s re-election campaign confirmed the McCluskey’s are invited to speak. So it really does put this particular convention, the Democratic one in perspective. I mean, these questions like was John Kasich visually awkward? Sure will salivates. Start off tonight, a bit stiff schumi. Does the candidate himself stand to be overshadowed by the vice presidential candidate? Could be. But these are all details. These are possible imperfections and the nuances of messaging. The Democrats are running against a group that pushes forward as its answer to America, a couple whose claim to fame is brandishing weapons in such a careless manner as to get them charged with a crime. This isn’t a choice between, I don’t know, maybe Andrew Cuomo isn’t the perfect coronavirus messenger. This is a choice between one group of people who don’t want Americans to die and one group of people who deny the existence of a society encompassing scourge and answer it with two people who we wouldn’t even know the names of if they hadn’t committed illegal acts which could have killed innocent people. Oh, yeah. There’s also another big factor that Trump wants the shower heads to be wetter. So there’s that. You know, I think it might just be time to switch horses midstream.

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S3: On the show today, Slate’s Will Saletan also reflecting on the first night of the DNC and looking forward to the rest of tonight’s.

S1: So this week, we’re going to recap and reflect upon the previous day’s DNC, the previous night’s DNC with a rich tapestry of guests here in my quilt, the first essential square, Will Saletan. He writes for Slate. He is particularly our national correspondent. He just kind of bites off a piece of interesting every once in a while. No one better to have on than him to talk about what we just saw. Hello. Well, thanks for joining me. Hey, Mike, great to be here. So first question, the burning question among the Republican females named Whitman, who was the best?

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S9: Well, we had to Whitman’s Anna Whitman. So by the end of the evening, I was at wit’s end.

S1: Yes, OK, don’t worry. We’ll cut that out. Go on.

S9: Sorry. The non Whitman the Whitman was the only one who did not look really, really old. But in terms of their presentations, I mean, Christine Todd Whitman is from so long ago, I’m kind of shocked anybody remembers her. She was a governor and she you know, I thought I thought it. Meg Whitman hardly had any lions, didn’t she? She got she spoke for like two seconds.

S1: Right. And I think she identified it. She talked about her time at Google and somehow sidestepped the fact that she’s CEO of Quebec. And I know why that doesn’t have as much resonance today. But in all seriousness, there was to some extent in the convention the Democrats were trying to do a few things. But one of the things was making the choice of Joe Biden safe for Republicans or would be Republicans or maybe people who voted for Trump. And highlighting that effort. Was John Kasich at the crossroads overall? What do you think of his speech or their efforts to assure someone who might have been Republican curious in the past to cast their lot and vote with Joe Biden?

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S6: Yeah, I thought they went in really hard on that theme.

S10: They had a whole bunch of Republicans. They had Kazik, they had the Wittman’s, they had a whole bunch of voters who were former Republicans or who had voted for Trump and had changed their mind. They had that quite compelling video from the young woman in Arizona who was whose father had voted for Trump and who said told her he regretted it and and he had died of covid. So they were leaning really hard into it. The thing that really struck me from the outreach to Republicans was that those videos and those speeches did not shy away from saying Joe Biden is not a man of the left. They said very clearly, Joe Biden, they used phrases about reaching across the aisle. I think Amy Klobuchar said, if you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes, there was some a couple of those folks in the the videos from voters talk, use the word normal. Joe Biden is normal. He will restore us to normalcy. Now, there is obviously a whole wing of the Democratic Party that does not want to go back to normal. And one of the themes that came out of the Democratic presidential primaries was normal isn’t good enough. Normal wasn’t working. Normal is how we got Trump. But this convention leaned really hard into the idea that Joe Biden is normal, that he will restore bipartisanship and that this will be a to a bipartisan administration.

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S1: Right. So I guess that the phrase or the word normal can be taken in a few ways. And maybe some people who are proposing more daring, shall we say solutions, would say what’s abnormal about this or what’s abnormal with the abnormal thing is, for instance, being the only country in the world that doesn’t have some form of nationalized health care. Right. And others might, you know, just object to the fact that there is a judgment based on that which is normal or that which isn’t normal. But I think the big thing that voters will take away, why they’re using normal is as a contrast to that which is abnormal, meaning Donald Trump. And I don’t think you have to do too much math or connect too many dots when someone says Joe Biden is normal to make the connection as opposed to the abnormality, not of socialism or anything else, but the abnormality of the guy in the White House right now.

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S9: Yeah, and I have to say, look, I am I am a person of the middle. I am a centrist. So this appealed to me. And I think it still makes political mean.

S10: This obviously made political sense, like in the nineteen nineties and the twenties, the idea was, you know, if you if you’re the party in the middle and the other party’s the extreme, you’re probably going to win elections, you’re going to hold power, you’re going to get what you want. I still believe that is basically true. There are people now on the left of the Democratic Party who don’t like that idea, who feel that that that depresses turnout. But I think the logic of it is still strong. You will, especially when you’re running against Trump, who, as you point out, is abnormal in all kinds of bad ways. When people talk about Trump’s abnormality, a lot of what they’re talking about is sheer moral abnormality. And so there was a lot of emphasis on showing that Biden is simply a decent human being, that kind of normality.

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S1: Right. And so I think that they were definitely trying to communicate that through commission. In other words, just saying over and over again, you’re safe with Joe, he’s a normal guy, but then there are the questions of omission. What are the things they shouldn’t be saying so as not to step on that message or to get their opponents, either in the Trump campaign or FOX, to emphasize things that were said at the DNC that might contradict the idea that Joe Biden is normal and moderate. And, you know, I’m sure that Fox News are bad faith actors and maybe people in the middle won’t be so swayed. But I do also sense that in political conventions, a lot of effort is put into not saying the dangerous thing, not saying the off putting thing. It’s only been one night, but do you see that going on?

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S6: Yeah, no, I think they’ve been pretty careful about that one. You know, if you if you’re looking at this convention from sort of an opposition standpoint, you have when you do opposition research as a campaign, you do it on yourself. What is the thing that we’re saying or doing or that we’ve done that will hurt us? And so I think this convention was fairly well vetted for that. The one the thing that I thought most likely is anything that sounds like we are for protests to the point that we’re against cops that can be used against you in a kind of law and order theme.

S10: And there was a lot of effort made. Joe Biden was shown talking about good cops that had Art Acevedo, the police chief in Houston, talking about good cops, how much they had, bad imagery of a black protester hugging a white cop. A lot of effort made to sort of show we’re not against cops, we’re just for police reform. There were also, of course, a ton of flags, a lot of patriotic imagery. You might recall that Michelle Obama had previously gotten in trouble for saying during her husband’s administration about she she had only recently become proud of America. I forget what her exact quote was. I should make sure to get it right. But it was inferred that she was somehow anti-American. Before then, she had tried to make everybody understand. No, that’s not what she meant. And she was really careful in her remarks last night to talk about her love of America and the best of America and how this is what we really we really are America at its best. Not not what we’re seeing now.

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S11: Right. So I’m going to read to you this is a Mark Lillah op ed. And Mark Lillah is a Columbia professor and he’s been on the show and his op ed, the year that he wrote it, which was in twenty sixteen, was the number one we can review op ed or New York Times op ed all year. And he was talking about not that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats of 2016 did anything wrong, but it was putting his finger on identity liberalism. And he wrote, Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interest in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you were going to mention groups in America, you would better mention them all. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded, which, as the data showed, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions.

S1: OK, I heard Lello when he was saying that there was a lot of debate. There are a lot of people who push back at the very idea of identity politics, but there seem to be some truth to it then. And I was thinking about do they avoid that now? I looked at the schedule today. If you look at all the events before prime time, it’s just a different meeting of the different interest groups. So there’s the Jewish meeting in the LGBT meeting, in the Latino meeting. And more than that, being fine. That’s good. And should represent what the Democratic Party could be a big tent. Now, I have some thoughts on this, but do you think that that is something that the Democrats are trying to avoid or should be trying to avoid to represent themselves as a tapestry of everyone, but, say, the white working class who they needed to court last time?

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S9: Well, they’re certainly trying to sort to show diversity as unity. I mean, the themes last night, diversity was obvious. They were showing people of every color, of every background. One of the things that I thought was thematically interesting about last night was this phrase, we, the people which kept reappearing. And so we watched conventions and it’s boring. Know, you just took a phrase from the Declaration of Independence or from the Bill of Rights or from whatever, you know, that that phrase, I think, was being used to emphasize that the diversity was the diversity of one people. You know, another thing that was really interesting last night, a lot of talk about the George Floyd protests, but about how the representation of America in the George Floyd protests was so was universal was there were tons and tons of white people out there. They really made a point of showing that and talking about that.

S1: That is that was where my thoughts lead me, because as I was. Reflecting on that little argument that whenever Hillary or many Democrats would get up there, they do the roll call of different identity groups and working class whites were left out. What strikes me is that to the extent it was true in 2016, we have to it and we could debate that. But we all have to admit it’s much less true now. And the polling shows that, you know, suburban white people are on board with Black Lives Matter. I mean, the sentiment black lives matter, maybe not every detail of what the leadership of the Black Lives Matter organization is. So even if you think that that was a misstep, if you do almost the same things as 2016, I think it will resonate with people more. And not just because Donald Trump is, you know, as horrible as people think he is, people’s attitudes have changed. Demographics have changed a little, not as much as Democrats always hype them as having changed. But I do think people’s attitudes have changed such that more of that and leaning into that is much more advantageous to the Democrats now than it was even four years ago.

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S9: Right. OK, but let me be a little bit more of a downer here. Let’s let’s let me be a little bit harsher and do sort of a opposition research style assessment of this convention. What is the thing when I think about last night, what is the thing that could get Democrats in trouble? Now, I agree with you that the numbers, the polling numbers have changed on race and the racial appeals to white folks don’t work the same way they used to, not to the same extent. However, I think that a blind spot that Democrats have is the term racism or systemic racism. They need to be really careful about this. You’ll recall that in twenty sixteen, the vice presidential debate, the I think the phrase was implicit bias. Hillary Clinton talked about implicit bias, which Democrats thought was a gentle way of talking about racism. Right. It’s not that you’re deliberately racist. It’s just that you have an implicit bias in your head. And that’s what so but Mike Pence totally went off on that. And it might not work the same way for Republicans, but Democrats need to be careful about this language. Last night, I heard the phrase systemic racism over and over and over again. Now, I my impression is that when Democrats talk about systemic racism, they mean to soften it. They mean it’s not you. It’s the system. Right. It’s a caste system. It’s not that you’re looking at a black person or a Latino and you’re saying, I won’t give the job to you because you’re black or Latino. It’s that that person, as a consequence of two generations, three generations, ten generations of tast of oppression is not equally positioned. Right. So you have to like you have to counter for that. So it’s the system that’s the problem. But the phrase systemic racism might set off some white people in a way that Democrats don’t intend. I wonder whether Democrats either need to put more work into explaining what they mean by systemic racism or choosing a different word, a word other than racism to describe the caste system that they’re talking about.

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S11: I think caste system is worse than or more harsh or more thumb in the eye than systemic racism, systemic. I’m not I’m not a particularly WOAK individual, but to me, systemic racism seems pretty just factual, empirically true. But I understand what you’re saying, that there are that there are areas that maybe to voters will see a no go zone. But I was texting with a friend of mine this morning reflecting on the convention. She’s a political reporter. And we were talking about how Joe Biden has become this sort of idea as much as a man. And I said he’s sort of a word cloud like tragedy, decency, Catholicism, not Trump and Amtrak.

S1: And then she said and then she said, you left out white, but willing to say systemic racism if you tell him he has to. So I think that there is I don’t know how you can avoid if you avoid the phrases you will be or if you avoid the sentiment or if he is just saying he was seen as leading that discussion. I mean, he was put there in the middle leading that discussion on race with Laurie White Foot and different African-Americans and I think for now and 2020 and realizing you’re not going to get some voters who are just motivated by racial grievance. And that’s fine. I think it’s a it’s a good positioning, actually. I understand what you’re saying, but I think it’s I think it’s the right positioning for Biden.

S9: Yeah. I mean, this is the kind of thing where you need a pollster to come in and test various terms. My hunch is that if you were to replace the word racism and with something else and describe the same phenomenon, it would be easier for more white people to digest people who don’t think of themselves as racist and who would be open to some of these appeals that Democrats are making to Republican voters or former Republican voters. But that’s just a hunch. You know, we’d have to test it. Can I flag one other thing from last night that I thought was really interesting on the subject of normalcy and mainstream? Bernie Sanders in his speech. So here’s the guy who pushed really hard through the whole primary campaign to push the party to the left, a very strong progressive agenda, an economic agenda. And then we don’t want any of this soft, mushy middle of the road nonsense from our party. We want to stand for big, bold ideas and all that. And when it came time for him to give his speech, he spoke one of the most unifying speeches. He talked about love and compassion. He talked about he opposed instead of opposing talking about class warfare, he talked about the most unifying theme, which was war against authoritarianism. Where for democracy, like who isn’t? OK, well, Donald Trump. But setting that aside, it was a very mainstream message. And Bernie Sanders during that speech said something really interesting. He said ideas that used to be we’ve succeeded. Our movement of the left has succeeded. Ideas that we talked about that used to be considered radical are now considered mainstream. And I thought that was a really interesting formulation because he was saying both we still own it. We still believe in those things. We’re still pushing for them. And that he’s he’s embracing the idea that this is normal, this is the new normal. So he’s trying to appease people in the middle without compromising any of the policy ideas.

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S11: Yes. Bernie was not trying to burn down the house. He was trying to build it, as evidenced by all the lumber behind him.

S9: I thought it was really odd for a guy to be talking about climate change in August with a lot of firewood behind him.

S1: Well, you know, at that age, you need a couple of sweaters. You get a little chilly. You start complaining about the nip in the air. Yes. We’ve all been there. So are you. How many conventions have you been to?

S10: Oh, gosh, I can’t even count. I mean, you know, going back to going back to the 80s a long time.

S1: Do you think they had value as conventions per say?

S9: Yeah. I mean, you know, the value is obviously quantifiable in the in the post convention bounce. I mean, Michael Dukakis got this amazing convention bounce, which then vanished. But, yeah, they they boosted the numbers of the party holding the convention. It used to be a big deal. Who went first, who went. And you know what the timing of polls was. That’s less true today.

S1: But do you miss anything of the real convention? Because conventions were essentially a TV show that was covered like it was an event. You know, they had the veneer of it being, you know, it evoked when conventions mattered and people came in undecided and there were thirty six ballots to elect a candidate and there were floor fights over the platform then for the last, you know, 20 years, that became less and less true until it was, you know, totally performative and just a TV show. So I was watching last night saying, all right, well, if it’s essentially just a TV show, we drop the fiction that it’s anything other than a TV show and we surrender to the Democrats and the Republicans putting on their own TV show. What’s wrong with that? Well, what’s wrong with that? What do you think?

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S6: I kind of liked it. What part of what I like about the surrender that you’re describing is that they are they’re getting rid of the pretense that anyone who’s not a party insider should watch anything other than the primetime. Right. And they shortened the prime time. There were all these complaints about Alexandrea or Cassio Cortez and other speakers only getting a minute, only getting two minutes. What’s wrong with a minute? I mean, one of the things that I think we’ve learned from social media and from Twitter is a lot of people, right. At one thousand or two thousand words, something they could have written in a sentence and a lot of speeches that used to be an hour long and a half an hour long, 20 minutes long. They don’t need to be that long. You can say a lot in a minute. You can say a lot in two minutes. And last night, a lot of people did. So I think there’s been some pretty good discipline enforced by shortening the overall length of the TV part of the convention and shortening the speeches, getting more people saying, speaking in fewer words and being more concise.

S1: Yeah, as a master of social media knows, the strength of tick tock is that they limit you to a minute. You could do a lot in a minute. And also, what does she need a prime time slot for? What does she need a political convention for? It’s good to have it burnishes the brand. But, you know, most of her successful tweets are going to hit a lot more people than even a slot in eight thirty at night on the East Coast at a political convention. I kind of thought that the fight between AOK and Kasich was contrived, that Kasich got so much time. I timed it. It was a little under four minutes. So this is this is some huge political fight to have one minute versus four minutes of an undying network. Television doesn’t make sense to me.

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S6: Right? I mean, you could have taken it would be an interesting exercise to do it. Maybe somebody has to take past conventions long, windy. We’ve got all day. We’ll make people to watch us for hours. You could just edit them down and you would have something that looked like this convention, so when you now have a convention that looks like an edited form of previous conventions, I would call that success. And if you if you know, if you were watched all of last night as I did that, you probably I don’t know if other people felt the same way. I thought the worst parts of the convention were every time a politician stood at a podium. Those people that, you know, they’re trying to bring the relics of the old convention style into the modern age and just looks ridiculous. You know, Michelle Obama talks to the camera and that’s that feels normal. Now, that feels like a way to connect with ordinary people.

S10: The podium just distances you and make you look a little bit contrived.

S11: Yeah. And I also saw that you noted and I didn’t pick this up, that some of these speeches were apparently recorded days ago. And you can tell you can almost carbon date them by the reference to the number of people who have died of covid.

S6: Yeah, that was horrifying to me. It was there were a lot of people were talking about a hundred and seventy thousand dead. Those are the people who are speaking live or just recorded or whatever. I mean, I couldn’t tell apart from what was missing, if some you know, Michelle Obama doesn’t talk about the post office, OK? That’s how I know it didn’t happen. Didn’t happen in the last week. But the numbers, the covid numbers, by the time we got to her, there was one hundred and seventy thousand. One hundred and sixty thousand, I figure, OK, that’s a week ago. One hundred and fifty thousand a little before that.

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S9: And that’s just horrifying that we can do a sort of death analysis of when you I mean, I don’t mean to be morbid about it, but we’ve become so inured to the death count that when you see the numbers changing by ten or twenty thousand because somebody happened to record a more than a week ago, that’s just dismaying to have these speeches moving in increments of ten thousand lives every week, every couple of weeks. That is just it’s it’s it’s terrible. And what’s more terrible is that we’ve gotten used to it. And I’m really afraid that when we get to the Republican convention, there’s just going to be no mention of how many dead Americans there are, let alone the dead people all over the world.

S1: So let’s talk about that. That’s the last thing. And I should commend people to your masterful reporting where you really looked at every time Trump made an utterance about covid and connected that to what the death toll was. And you make a compelling case that his inattention and that’s the nicest thing I could say about it, has cost Americans tens of thousands of lives. The major theme, a major theme. But I think the most dominant theme of the first night was that maybe it wasn’t if you did an analysis of content, but that’s just what came across to me. That was the gut punch. Do they get away from that? I mean, can they hit that too hard? What’s the right amount to emphasize the horrors of coronavirus?

S9: I don’t think they hit it too hard. I don’t think they need to hit it that hard. You know, in the entire history of Donald Trump’s presidency, he has always been able to tweet something new to create a new fight, a new controversy, and draw attention away from whatever the news is until this this thing will not go away. He has it has defeated him. I mean, obviously, it’s killing people. That’s the number one thing. But politically, he has not been able to drown it out. It just keeps coming back because people keep dying. And there is just something about people dying that you can’t fake a away. You can’t pretend it isn’t going on. So I don’t think they hit it too hard. I don’t think they need it to. The thing that Democrats can do didn’t really occur to me until last night when I was watching Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. Cuomo really leaned into this message. He said, in this crisis, the coronavirus crisis, we’ve seen a truce that government matters, that it determines whether we live or die. It has been a really long time since Democrats have had an issue where they could show the power of government, the necessity of government to people who normally don’t care about it. You can’t privatize this. You can’t you know, that’s not a matter of economic growth. It’s not a matter of get the government off my back. It’s that people are dying. We need testing. We need mitigation. We need vaccines. We need therapies. We and all of this stuff. This is government stuff. So there is a possibility that coming out of this crisis, Democrats can establish themselves as, yes, we’re the party of government and that saves lives.

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S11: Will Saletan is national correspondent for a little a plucky little outlet called Slate Dotcom. Thanks so much. Well, thank you, Mike.

S3: And that’s it for today’s show, The Gist was produced by Daniel Shrader, Margaret Kelly, an executive producer for Slate podcast. Alicia Montgomery, they are offering a John Kasich on the news theater type service for the speeches of all political figures. Here’s a sample. And now we’re opening and we’re opening with a bang. We’ve been talking about the movie. This is better than a V. This is a rocket ship.

S12: So why Houston?

S3: We have a problem, though. Just wondering if the Republicans only signed up the McCluskey’s because Bernie gets his schedule was filled with parades. And thanks for listening.