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May 08, 2012 12:33 PM Yawning Towards November

By Ed Kilgore

Is it true that people involved in MSM political coverage have a vested interest in making presidential elections look incredibly close no matter what? Sure. Is it also true that for a whole host of reasons political actors have a vested interest in exaggerating the differences between the two major parties and the consequences of any one election? That’s true as well.

But Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi takes those largely irrefutable premises, and reflecting his own vested interest in his own well-established point of view, breezily dismisses the 2012 presidential contest as an impending Obama blowout that won’t make much difference in real life. And not only that: it’s boring!

Well, when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and it would take a very unusual election to shake Matt Taibbi of his conviction that major-party politics in this country is largely a bread-and-circuses diversion from the underlying reality that corporations are in charge of the real show. If you think that, then of course anything short of an overturning of the fundamentals of American society will be of limited significance or interest to the sophisticates who have figured it all out.

But however you feel about Taibbi’s premises, his specific claims about Election ‘12 are, to put it mildly, not terribly well documented. There’s this, for example:

The Republican base is angrier and more determined than it ever has been, yet Republican voters picked as their nominee the one candidate in their slate of primary challengers who depresses them. This is exactly the John Kerry scenario. Kerry was never going to win, either, and everyone pretty much knew that, too. But at least in the Kerry-Bush race there was a tremendous national debate over the Iraq war, which many people (incorrectly, probably) thought might end more quickly if a Democrat was elected.
This year, it’s not like that. Obviously Republican voters do hate Obama and genuinely believe he’s created a brutally repressive socialist paradigm with his health care law, among other things. But Romney was a pioneer of health care laws, and there will be dampened enthusiasm on the Republican side for putting him in office.

In 2004, is it true “everyone pretty much knew” Kerry was going to lose? I seem to recall that wasn’t at all clear on Election Night, when the exit polls showed Kerry winning Ohio (and with a small lead in Florida), and his high command was toasting him as the next president of the United States, or even the next morning, when Kerry’s decision to concede was hotly contested. It wasn’t just MSM bloviators who thought Kerry would win a couple of weeks (or a couple of months) out, either; the widely subscribed-to “incumbency rule” of political science (that undecided voters would break against an incumbent late in a close race) suggested Bush was in deep trouble. Were all these people, right up to and even beyond Kerry’s concession, lying to us? And was it really liberal lack of enthusiasm for Kerry that beat him in the end? Personally, I’d argue Kerry might well have won had he chosen a different general election message that didn’t overemphasize his Vietnam war record, or if he hadn’t made a fatal lapse into Senate-talk in explaning his vote on Iraq appropriations. Taibbi’s entitled to his opinion on this, like everyone else, but it’s simply not true “everyone knew” the results were foreordained the moment Kerry became the presumptive nominee.

As for the stakes in the current elections, Taibbi is equally dismissive of anyone’s point of view but his own:

Obama versus Bush actually felt like a clash of ideological opposites. But Obama and Romney feels like a contest between two calculating centrists, fighting for the right to serve as figurehead atop a bloated state apparatus that will operate according to the same demented imperial logic irrespective of who wins the White House. George Bush’s reign highlighted the enormous power of the individual president to drive policy, which made the elections involving him compelling contests; Obama’s first term has highlighted the timeless power of the intractable bureaucracy underneath the president, which is kind of a bummer, when you think about it.

Okay, I get it. But even if you think Obama has been a disastrous failure, or has betrayed the progressive coalition that supported him in 2008, the fact remains that if Mitt Romney is elected president and (as will probably happen if he wins) Republicans maintain control of the House and secure control of the Senate, the Ryan budget will almost certainly be enacted and implemented during 2013. If Obama wins, it won’t. If Romney wins, the odds of a constitutional right to abortion surviving the next four years go down to something like single digits; If Obama wins, it’s a very different proposition. If Romney wins, a war with Iran becomes something like a 50-50 proposition; not so much if Obama wins.

Perhaps none of these things matter as much as Obama’s failure to reverse many Bush-era civil liberties policies, his failure to pursue single-payer health reform; his failure to nationalize the banks or pursue criminal penalties against corporate malefactors; his failure to convince the country that Keynes was right after all. But they actually do matter to a lot of people who will be affected by little things like the destruction of the New Deal and Great Society social net, and the potential unravelling of the constitutional structure that has made anything approaching progressive policies possible over the last several decades.

But it will all be so boring, concludes Taibbi, presumably for the benefit of those of us who don’t buy his assumption that it’s already over and really doesn’t matter:

Obama versus Romney is the worst reality show on TV since the Tila Tequila days. The characters are terrible, there’s no suspense, and the biggest thing is, it lacks both spontaneity and a gross-out factor. In Reality TV, if you don’t have really sexy half-naked young people scheming against each other over campfires in the Cook Islands, you need to have grown men eating millipedes or chicks in bikinis drinking donkey semen. And if you don’t have that, you really need Sarah Palin.

I dunno. If Taibbi’s wrong about the fore-ordained outcome, then I think it could get pretty savage down the road, and even a both-sides-are-all-corporate-whores pundit like Matt should understand you don’t need Sarah Palin now that Palinism has become the prevailing ethic of the GOP. But yeah, it may get boring. But I’m sure Taibbi will find ways to remain entertaining in describing the ludicrous futility and poor taste of it all. It’s sometimes easier to mock the whole show when you really just don’t give a damn.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • bmcchgo on May 08, 2012 12:49 PM:

    Nice takedown Ed. As a partisan Lefty, I sometimes forget that we can be just as shrill and loose with the facts as those on the Right that we condemn regularly. Smug missives like this from Taibbi makes me now question all the great work he has done on the financial meltdown.

    Reading this make me think of Taibbi as the cynical, hipper version of Tom Friedman.

  • DAY on May 08, 2012 12:49 PM:

    I am currently reading Robert Caro's lofty- and lengthy- work on LBJ. And so should young mister Taibbi.

    Only the naive enter the polling place, thinking they are electing an Emperor of the World. Oh, that it were true. . .

    To put it more plainly, omelets/breaking eggs, sausage factory,ox goring, etc. Oh, and "politics ain't beanbag".

  • mk3872 on May 08, 2012 12:58 PM:

    Taibbi always finds a way to portray the classic Generation X attitude of "why bother?" and "who cares?".

    He is GenX cynicism defined.

    BTW, Ed, when you write a take-down of someone's ludicrous position on something, you do yourself a disservice by trying to kiss-up at the end as you do in you last paragraph.

  • Ron Byers on May 08, 2012 1:00 PM:

    Ed I appreciate your post a great deal. The biggest challenge the President has is the complacency that comes from a loudly held belief that November will be a blow out.

    We all have to keep in mind that during the primaries, Romney carpet bombed his opponents into submission. We have no idea what Citizens United money is going to do.

    I think Taibbi might be right, but then again, Romney will win if we act like we think the President will win in a walk.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 08, 2012 1:04 PM:

    "It's all just the corporations, man," is a good way to be permanently cynical and self-disempowering. We don't have many levers to move the world, no, but IMHO that means when we get one, like voting, or like arguing with idiots, we'd damn well use it and push as hard as possible.

  • J. Michael Neal on May 08, 2012 1:04 PM:

    Matt Taibbi offers vacuous analysis and a bitter diatribe aimed at everyone not named Matt Taibbi. Film at 11.

    This is what he does. He views the entire world as if it's Vladimir Putin's Russia. Or perhaps his vodka soaked half decayed memories of Vladimir Putin's Russia. He is a second rate Christopher Hitchens imitator, thinking that angry sarcasm is a substitute for actual journalism and that subject knowledge is not only irrelevant but obviously means that you've been co-opted by The Man. All that is assuming that he's not just a fraudulent liar.

    His coverage of the financial crisis was painful to read. He clearly has no understanding of the subject and no interest in acquiring any. This leads to him getting basic facts wrong, being unable to grasp what anything actually means and having no idea when someone is completely bullshitting him.

    Taibbi isn't an antidote to the mainstream media. He's all of its worst tendencies taken to their logical extreme.

  • c u n d gulag on May 08, 2012 1:19 PM:

    Where's Hunter S. Thompson when we need him?

    He could have written a great book about the coming election season, which I think will be brutal and disgusting.

    Our economic woes and lingering joblessness are still the primary concerns in peoples minds.

    Corporations and rich individuals will throw money at PAC's to influence the election their way.

    And, as the Republicans continue to spiral towards madness and blatant racism, what won't they try or do in the hopes of thwarting a 2nd Obama term?
    I wonder how long it will be before we hear the "N-word" coming from the right?

    I wonder what Thompson's title might have been?
    "Fear, Advertizing, and Loathing, on the Campaign Trail."

  • SadOldVet on May 08, 2012 1:27 PM:

    Update...

    Is it true that people involved in Corporately Owned Media political coverage have a vested interest in making presidential elections look incredibly close so that they can sell more advertising?

  • Jeff In Ohio on May 08, 2012 1:27 PM:

    "it would take a very unusual election to shake Matt Taibbi of his conviction that major-party politics in this country is largely a bread-and-circuses diversion from the underlying reality that corporations are in charge of the real show"

    Meh, it's easy for writers with no stake in outcomes to be overly dismissive and not see that while corporatists and oligarchs do have unusual amounts of influence in American politics, it does not mean that elections do not have consequences. Anyone with a vagina an aging parent or caring for young children with little cash flow understands this basic idea. Further, it bugs me to no end that writers like Tallibi who demonstrate a high degree of intelligence forget that American democracy and the very idea of republicanism is a game of inches, not yards; of small victories, not giant conquests.

  • c u n d gulag on May 08, 2012 1:28 PM:

    J. Michael Neal,
    Taibbi uses hyperbole and over-exaggeration to make his points. As well as 4-letter words.

    I think he's got a pretty good idea of what this whole economic mess was about, its causes and consequences, and explains things in an entertaining way.
    Kind of like Krugman meets Thompson.

    Maybe I'm wrong.

    Is there a Conservative writer/columnist who, without or without hyperbole, but with a firm grasp of reality and facts, you'd recommend we read instead?

  • $2Bill on May 08, 2012 1:31 PM:

    For those who justify disinterest & disengagement repeating the Wallace/Nader line "There ain't a dimes worth of difference between the two parties", remind them there's only a 2% difference in genetic material between humans and chimps too, but that difference is ENORMOUSLY important. Tocqueville was right, the future of our democracy depends on who we elect. Some may bitch & dismiss the whole process, me I'm walking precincts.

  • SadOldVet on May 08, 2012 1:32 PM:

    But even if you think Obama has been a disastrous failure, or has betrayed the progressive coalition that supported him in 2008, the fact remains that if Mitt Romney is elected president and (as will probably happen if he wins) Republicans maintain control of the House and secure control of the Senate, the Ryan budget will almost certainly be enacted and implemented during 2013. If Obama wins, it wonít. If Romney wins, the odds of a constitutional right to abortion surviving the next four years go down to something like single digits; If Obama wins, itís a very different proposition. If Romney wins, a war with Iran becomes something like a 50-50 proposition; not so much if Obama wins.

    Perhaps none of these things matter as much as Obamaís failure to reverse many Bush-era civil liberties policies, his failure to pursue single-payer health reform; his failure to nationalize the banks or pursue criminal penalties against corporate malefactors; his failure to convince the country that Keynes was right after all. But they actually do matter to a lot of people who will be affected by little things like the destruction of the New Deal and Great Society social net, and the potential unravelling of the constitutional structure that has made anything approaching progressive policies possible over the last several decades.

    Ed hits the nail on the head 100%!!! Those of us who have had and will probably continue to have issues with Obama must understand that we have to work even harder to make sure that Obama does not lose to RMoney. We will have unhappiness with a 2nd Obama administration. We will have disaster with a 1st RMoney administration!

  • Joe Friday on May 08, 2012 1:34 PM:

    Taibbi: "The Republican base is angrier and more determined than it ever has been, yet Republican voters picked as their nominee the one candidate in their slate of primary challengers who depresses them."

    Is this a form of the Peter Principle ?

  • SecularAnimist on May 08, 2012 1:49 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote: "... it would take a very unusual election to shake Matt Taibbi of his conviction that major-party politics in this country is largely a bread-and-circuses diversion from the underlying reality that corporations are in charge of the real show"

    There is overwhelming empirical evidence that Taibbi's conviction is correct, and zero evidence that it is wrong. Corporations rule America. They use the government to do so when it suits their purposes; and they ignore and/or trample the government when that suits their purposes.

    Which is not to say that there is "no difference" between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, because America's corporate ruling class is not a monolith.

  • Joe on May 08, 2012 1:51 PM:

    Is it really true that if Romney gets elected, the Ryan budget will become the law of the land? Will the GOP Senate have 60 votes? Will all those congresspeople who support the plan because they know it doesn't have a chance in hell of passing still support it?

    I think this glib, pro-Obama belief that the election of Romney will somehow end the Republic is just as fevered and blinkered as Taibbi's belief from the other side of the argument.

    We all have blinders. Even, obviously, you.

  • jjm on May 08, 2012 1:55 PM:

    Taibbi says, "Obama versus Bush actually felt like a clash of ideological opposites."

    I thought Obama ran against McCain?

  • J. Michael Neal on May 08, 2012 2:06 PM:

    c u n d gulag:

    Maybe I'm wrong.

    You're wrong. If you're relying on Taibbi for your information, you have no idea what happened. The idea that Krugman and Taibbi are saying the same things doesn't withstand a through reading of them. Their headlines are the same, but the details are dramatically different. That's aside from the fact that I don't think Krugman understands politics at all.

    All of this is quite aside from the fact that Taibbi is also habitually dishonest. I did a close reading plus research of one of his columns about a year ago and posted the results in a Balloon Juice comment thread. The best possible interpretation of it is that he has no grasp of the subject matter and did minimal research on the events he describes. The worst interpretation is that he willfully lies to his audience in order to make his points.

    http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/02/21/fortunate-son/#comment-2441850

    Is there a Conservative writer/columnist who, without or without hyperbole, but with a firm grasp of reality and facts, you'd recommend we read instead?

    No, though it's interesting that you leap immediately from the fact that I think Taibbi is useless to the assumption that I must be a conservative. That's not the case. In fact, I think part of the problem with Taibbi is that he has so many people chasing after chimerae that won't do anything to fix the problems rather than focusing on good solutions.

    Just because you're a liberal or leftist (though I think that describing him as such is overly generous to the extraordinary narcissism that Taibbi brings to the table) doesn't excuse ignorance.

  • POed Lib on May 08, 2012 2:13 PM:

    GEEZUS, people, I am simply beyond amazed. Romney would be a FUCKING DISASTER. The notion that he would be survivable is beyond moronic. We WOULD be at war with Iran inside of 2 years, and Israel would instigate it knowing that Romney and the Christian dominionist insane lunies would simply go along. Obama will restrain and constrain Israel.

    Romney is a fucking disaster, and would be worse than Bush.

  • Joe on May 08, 2012 2:26 PM:

    Here's something to ponder. According to my calculations, the last time the GOP won the presidency without either a Californian or a Texan on the ticket was ..... 1924. Yes, that's right, 1924. Is Romney a Californian by virtue of his car elevator beach pad in LaJolla? Or will he pick Karl Rove as his running mate?

  • DisgustedWithItAll on May 08, 2012 2:31 PM:

    Anybody that thinks this election is a foregone conclusion or boring is, let's be frank, stupid. Anybody paying attention understands what is at stake and to yawn at that and try to convince others it's a yawner is irresponsible citizenship. Shame on that idiot. Unbelievable.

    @Joe 1:51 pm:
    You can't be serious. Passing Ryan's budget won't require 60 votes in the Senate. (Even if it did, give McConnell the keys to the car and the filibuster is gone if Republicans control the House and Presidency. It's straight back to the Gilded Age.)

  • DisgustedWithItAll on May 08, 2012 2:35 PM:

    POed Lib is right. Romney would be a absolute FUCKING disaster and it wouldn't require a war. With a Republican Congress, you could just assume the 20th century didn't happen. If you don't understand that by now, it's already over and you're partly responsible for the coming disaster.

  • SecularAnimist on May 08, 2012 2:40 PM:

    Here's what's at stake in this election:

    1. Obama will not do what is necessary to stop anthropogenic global warming from destroying human civilization and likely causing the mass extinction of most life on Earth.

    2. Neither will Romney.

    3. So, what's at stake is competing plans for rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on May 08, 2012 2:51 PM:

    @SecularAnimist 2:40 pm

    I don't think your point 1 is founded. He might not do everything that is needed, but there will be advances made.

    Point 2 is a certainty.

    The climate deniers are on their last arguments. They can't keep on trying to deny the science because their lie is simply going to stop fooling most reasonable people. (They will however continue arguing non-intervention with easily-debunked economic non-science arguments.)

    Conclusion: Game over for the Earth if Romney is elected. Hope (sorry) still lives if Obama is elected. Choose.

  • mudwall jackson on May 08, 2012 3:48 PM:

    SadOldVet on May 08, 2012 1:27 PM:

    Update...

    Is it true that people involved in Corporately Owned Media political coverage have a vested interest in making presidential elections look incredibly close so that they can sell more advertising?


    sadoldvet, you couldn't hit a barn with a beach ball if you were standing two feet in front of the broad side.

    it's the story, dude, it's the story. always the story. doesn't matter if it's the rotary club, city council or a presidential election. reporters and editors care about the story because it's their story. journalists care about readership or viewers for some very basic reasons so they're going to try to make a story as compelling as they plausibly can. but generally speaking, they don't give a shit about advertising revenue.

  • Eisbaer on May 08, 2012 3:49 PM:

    OK, yes Taibbi was wrong in that Kerry's 2004 loss was not preordained and that there will be differences (important ones too i am willing to concede and i am sure Taibbi would too if pressed) in the sort of legislation that would be passed if Romney is elected. but this isn't the whole story and distorts Taibbi's views somewhat. for starters, Taibbi has never denied that there are important differences b/w Democrats and Republicans on social issues. however, this is b/c the Democrats have foregrounded their socially liberal positions while moving to the right on economic issues. after all, there are gay hedge-funders and you can bet your bottom dollar that Goldman Sachs bigwigs don't want to have their teenage daughters forced to resort to back-alley abortions should they get knocked up or have children be subjected to Evangelical nonsense like Intelligent Design. this passes for a "social conscience" amongst that lot.

    no, what irks Taibbi and many others (including myself) is that there is increasingly little difference b/w the Democrats and Republicans on economic issues, making the Big Banks and corporations accountable for their misdeeds and even on civil liberties (drones anyone?). given the track record of Obama and the Congressional Democrats -- e.g., Obama putting forth his plans to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (on his OWN initiative), the fact that Bush-era tax cuts are still on the books even though they were supposed to expire in 2010, blah blah blah -- and that Obama's "populism" seems to be transparent & empty electioneering in light of his actual record, a little skepticism if not outright cynicism is not only understandable but essential. so sorry if it's a thorn in the side of those who are still doe-eyed about President Change We Can Believe In.

  • SecularAnimist on May 08, 2012 3:54 PM:

    DisgustedWithItAll wrote: "He might not do everything that is needed, but there will be advances made."

    If you don't stop the car before the car goes over the cliff, the car goes over the cliff.

    This is what people don't get about global warming. It's not like health insurance "reform" where we can cut deals with the corporations and muddle along indefinitely with compromises and half-measures like the ACA. Yeah, sure, many people will suffer unnecessarily -- but it's not the end of the world.

    The laws of physics don't compromise. Nature doesn't cut deals. We either do what is needed, or we don't.

    When global agriculture fails due to global warming-driven mega-droughts, and civilization, already battered by the onslaught of weather of mass destruction, is collapsing in the face of world-wide famine, I don't think anyone will be praising Obama for doing half of what was needed to prevent it.

  • Mitt's Magic Underpants on May 08, 2012 3:55 PM:

    All this is true only because the Dems won't have the guts to filibuster.

  • c u n d gulag on May 08, 2012 3:59 PM:

    J. Michael Neal,
    I won't argue with you. It seems like you really looked into Taibbi.
    I enjoy his hyperbole, and over-the-top sentences.
    I'll look at him differently from now on.

    And, I can see how you could feel that I inferred that you were a Conservative.

    What I should have said, "Since I read Krugman, Baker, and a number of other Liberal, or left-leaning, economists, is there anyone outside that group that I should be reading who has reasoned, fact-based, articles and columns that I you suggest I read?"

    I like to learn.

  • schtick on May 08, 2012 4:02 PM:

    Isn't the world going to end on 12/21/12 anyway? If Romney is elected he won't even be sworn in.

  • Joe Friday on May 08, 2012 5:04 PM:

    Joe,

    "Is it really true that if Romney gets elected, the Ryan budget will become the law of the land? Will the GOP Senate have 60 votes?"

    They won't require 60 votes. They could pass it under reconciliation with only 50 votes and the VP sitting-in as the tie-breaker. Yes, under the rules of reconciliation, the legislation is supposed to only reduce the budget, but the Republicans used reconciliation to pass the Chimpy Bush tax cuts for the Rich & Corporate which exploded the deficits & debt, but when the Senate parliamentarian balked, they just replaced his ass.

    ReTHUGlicons.

    "I think this glib, pro-Obama belief that the election of Romney will somehow end the Republic is just as fevered and blinkered..."

    Nobody is being "glib", you're merely being naive.

  • MuddyLee on May 08, 2012 5:15 PM:

    Grownups know that it's an imperfect world and you have to choose between the lesser of the evils when you vote. There is no hope for the USA to be a sane place to live if Romney wins the White House and the Republicans also control Congress. There is SOME hope for sanity if Obama wins a 2nd term, especially if the Congress isn't completely controlled by Republicans. Forget Romney's record as a moderate in Massachusetts - he's trying to make Republicans forget it. Electing Romney means giving more power to religious extremists, to climate change deniers, to huge corporations, and to people in the top one or two percent of annual income (I won't say "income earners" - they have engineered too many tax breaks for themselves to deserve that description.)

  • DisgustedWithItAll on May 08, 2012 5:17 PM:

    @SecularAnimist 3:54 PM:

    I'm very up on climate science and the problems and understand very well the consequences and incorrigible nature of Nature.

    But there's also the incorrigible nature of the politics. We have a choice. For me, it is clear which of the options is better and it is better on EVERY issue.

    You have two choices. Choose.

  • Matt on May 08, 2012 6:29 PM:

    It's very simple: The perfect is always the enemy of the good. Personally, I look at liberal whining e.g. "HE DIDN'T GIVE US SINGLE-PAYER" or "HE DIDN'T CLOSE GUANTANAMO" and I simply say "yeah, because he was busy doing other things you claim to care about while um, keeping us from sinking into another great depression."

    And another thing that annoys me to no freaking end: WHY DOES EVERYONE ASSUME THE PRESIDENT HAS SOME KIND OF IMPERIAL POWER????????

    I mean honestly, the president literally can't do anything without congressional support. If you see your president making attempts at passing the things you want and watch it die in Congress, maybe the problem is with, you know, Congress. And maybe you should have voted in the midterms instead of leaving it to voters like myself to try and prevent that republican sweep.

    (and a last btw: if you were observing politics prior to the midterms, saw how crazy the republicans were becoming, and still didn't vote, well screw you.)

  • pjcamp on May 08, 2012 10:36 PM:

    I recall Democratic bloggers using the so-called incumbent rule to convince themselves that the polls actually meant the exact opposite of their results.

    Yeah, everybody who was remotely honest with themselves pretty much knew Kerry was going to lose from the moment he let the Swift Boat attacks go unanswered.

  • 4jkb4ia on May 09, 2012 10:40 PM:

    We didn't learn anything of the sort about an intractable bureaucracy. We learned that Obama picked some people who struck him as experts. Some of them got through confirmation, some (Warren) did not. Some were unquestionably good for the country, some were not so unquestionably good. But if Obama cannot staff the bureaucracy with most of the people he wants because of a dysfunctional Senate then the bureaucracy as defined as career civil servants or just the logic of Washington is not stopping him because it has to be that way. The best possible outcome for Obama hasn't been tried yet.

    Obama and Romney may be two calculating centrists. But they have to appear to the base of each party as if they are the best that that base can get, and this could take in people who pay attention only every 4 years.

  • 4jkb4ia on May 09, 2012 10:43 PM:

    Also with the over-the-counter contraceptive issue and the smog issue we learned that this WH can issue orders when it feels like it.