Saturday, March 26, 2016

Donald Trump Is The GOP, The GOP Is Donald Trump

It gets exhausting writing about Donald J. Trump. Almost as exhausting as watching “the shows” spout conventional wisdom about why he is doing well and what the Republican party plans on doing to stop him. Were he what the inside the Beltway crowd has convinced themselves he is - some sort of sui generis mash up of Huey Long, George Wallace, and Benito Mussolini, it would be easy to dismiss his popularity as a one-off. A perfect storm of personality and moment, that point at which the dying gasp of (mostly) disaffected white voters railed against a system and party it thinks has abandoned it to free trade and multiculturalism while showing its belly to the world by refusing to lead the fight against capital R, capital I, capital T radical Islamic terrorism.

But such analysis is simply too facile (and false). That thesis ignores Trump’s across-the-board (not to mention geographical) success. While it is true that Trump cleaned up in the deep South, and particularly in areas with fewer college graduates, he also prevailed in places like Illinois, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Connecticut - all of which have heterogenous electorates where Trump garnered the votes of CEOs and their workers alike. Indeed, were Trump anyone other than Trump, a candidate whose victories spanned such a diverse segment of age, income, and geography, the chattering class would have deemed this race over long ago.

But the Republicans’ attempt to separate themselves from Trump has been equally foolhardy. House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a speech this week bemoaning the tenor of the political debate in this country, but Ryan’s apologia missed the forest for the trees. The Republicans do not have a messaging problem but rather, a message problem. When you support restricting voting rights, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, shutting down abortion clinics, and show antipathy toward gays and lesbians, it should be no surprise that your party struggles to elect a President in a national election. Yet, because Republicans have successfully gerrymandered House districts to a point where their incumbents are more threatened in primaries than general elections and have scooped up Governor’s mansions and state legislatures, they have shown little interest in considering why their Presidential results are so poor. 

The Republican “fever” Obama hopefully claimed would break in 2012 has instead deepened. It is not just Trump’s rise, but in the Senate’s refusal to take up his nominee to the Supreme Court, the almost instantaneous condemnations that flow from the mouths of Republicans in the wake of things like terrorist attacks in other countries and the boilerplate rhetoric of almost every Republican nominee for President not named Trump questioning everything from Obama’s loyalty to the country to whether he is subverting the Constitution that is indicative of mainstream  Republican thought - Trump is simply refracting that ugliness back in a coarser, purer way.  

Even as Trump marches inexorably toward the nomination, plans are afoot to insulate down ballot candidates from what party elders fear will be Trump’s landslide defeat in November. Endangered incumbents like Mark Kirk and Kelly Ayotte are already making the pivot to try and show they are bipartisan in an effort to appeal to voters who might otherwise punish them for their obstruction of President Obama. And such a strategy may work. Republicans are far more invested in framing Trump as an invader out of step with its party’s orthodoxy than in seeing him as a representation of it. 

Instead of addressing the cancer inside its own party, Republicans can rely on an incurious media that missed Trump’s appeal entirely and has written his political obituary over and over again to no avail. This should not be surprising. For years, the media poo-pooed the unprecedented tactics deployed by Congressional Republicans; instead using their all too comfortable “both sides do it” frame even as Obama was demeaned in the basest ways, insulted before a joint session of Congress, and his very legitimacy as a U.S. citizen called into question. That off-year elections, which skewed older and white, swelled Republican ranks in both houses of Congress did not hurt either. This toxic brew created the virus that now infects the GOP, but the thing about pathogens is they cannot thrive without a host body. In the Republican Party, Trump found a fertile breeding ground. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Bernie's Last Gasp

With a five-for-five night on Super Tuesday II, Hillary Clinton attained a practically insurmountable delegate lead against Bernie Sanders. While the Clinton team is itching to start aiming its fire on Donald Trump, the erstwhile Vermont Senator is showing no sign of going quietly into the gentle night. 

I am here to say it is time for Sanders to quit the race. It is not just the nearly 2:1 delegate lead Clinton has amassed, the 2.5 million more votes she has received than him, or the near mathematical impossibility of him catching her, it is also for the good of the party that all Democrats, like minded Independents and concerned Republicans begin the task of forming the coalition that will keep the White House in Democratic hands for another four years. 

But, says the Sanders team, what about 2008? Hillary contested every single primary before bowing out. True, so far as it goes, but this is not 2008 for several reasons:

  • Obama and Clinton were neck-and-neck in the popular vote throughout and practically so in the delegate race. Clinton is millions of votes ahead of Sanders and whether you want to use “pledged” delegates as the benchmark or “pledged delegates plus super delegates,” her lead is far more than Obama’s was against her at any point along the way;
  • The Democrats had a tail wind in 2008 because George W. Bush was incredibly unpopular. Even before the Wall Street collapse in September, Bush’s favorability had taken massive hits because of Hurricane Katrina, the endless fighting in Iraq, and the slowing economy. Republicans were also seeking to hold the White House for a third consecutive term, something not often done.
  • Speaking of that third term, Obama is still incredibly popular with the Democratic Party and has a roughly 50% approval rating overall. While this accrues to the nominee to succeed him, the best way to lock in that support is to hew to policies that build on those already achieved, not calling for a political revolution that people are not clamoring for.

Sanders has achieved an enormous amount and the passion of his supporters cannot be questioned; however, his continued presence saps precious resources that will be needed in the fight against Trump for no particularly good reason. The idea that he will be competitive in places like New York (where Clinton served as Senator for eight years, won two landslide victories and the 2008 primary against Obama) or California (which she also won in 2008) or Pennsylvania (ditto, along with its long history of support for President Clinton) is simply not credible.

The Democrats have a unique opportunity not just to buck the no-party-gets-a-third-term trend, but to win back the Senate and eat into the Republican majority in the House. With Hillary atop the ticket competing against Trump, predictions for House races are already shifting toward “toss up” or “lean Democrat” that had previously been safe and the Senate map, which was already favorable for Democrats, will become more so. A President Clinton coming into office in 2017 with a Senate majority and a Republican House with a 10-12 seat majority may actually be able to get things done.

Conversely, Sanders backers must acknowledge the reality that the “revolution” he claims to be leading has simply not come to pass. He lags with many of the constituencies that make up the Democratic coalition and has lost badly in places like Florida, Ohio, and Virginia that will be critical in November. Down ballot Democrats may run from his support and otherwise vulnerable Republicans may survive. While he should be lauded for his narrow win in Michigan, other state victories in places like Maine and Nebraska were with vote totals that were far less than what Clinton received in a single city like Chicago or Miami. 

Moreover, a Sanders nomination would embolden Republicans to dump Trump and rally the party to a consensus nominee like Paul Ryan because Sanders would be an incredibly weak general election nominee. Polls may show him to be competitive right now, but hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent turning him into the second coming of Karl Marx. Say what you will about Hillary, she is a known commodity and someone who has survived decades of Republican barbs.

Lastly, while it is entirely possible that mainstream Republicans like Colin Powell (who endorsed Obama twice), Bob Dole, or George H.W. Bush might endorse Hillary over Trump, giving tacit permission to Republicans to vote their conscience for fear of turning over the country to him, it is impossible to imagine them doing the same for an avowed democratic socialist. Her ability to attract Republicans who view her as an acceptable alternative to Trump is simply not true of Sanders.

Were Sanders an actual member of the Democratic party and had he spent the last 25 or 30 years of his career doing the rubber chicken circuit helping to elect down ballot Democrats and sitting in state meetings building friendships and alliances with key leaders at the local level, he would understand the concept of “for the good of the party.” Hillary understands this because she has been campaigning for Democrats since George McGovern in 1972. In 2008, she not only put Obama’s name in nomination at the Democratic National Convention, she campaigned vigorously for him, went on to serve as his Secretary of State, and her husband gave a re-nominating speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention so comprehensive in its defense of Obama’s record that Obama himself said he was going to appoint Bill Clinton Secretary of Explaining Stuff. 

I hold out far less hope that Sanders will give a full throated endorsement of Clinton or campaign for her or encourage his supporters to donate to her campaign. He has been a one-man band for decades and holds no allegiance to the Democratic Party; if he did, he would know it is time to quit.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

State of the Race - Super Tuesday II

Now that Super Tuesday II is over and both parties have just about settled on their nominees, let’s take a quick look back at some lessons learned about what has undoubtedly been the strangest election cycle in a long time:

The Hostile Takeover of the Republican Party Was Not Hard or Expensive. Donald Trump has stampeded his way to the GOP nomination largely on TV appearances and a Twitter feed. He has spent less than $25 million, did not even start advertising until January, and eschewed the conventional retail campaign tactics in Iowa and New Hampshire that are supposedly essential to winning those states (he finished a close second in the former and won the latter in a walk). Meanwhile, his opponents raised (and spent) close to $200 million to little effect. In Florida, they threw more than $20 million in negative ads at him and he still won by 18 points. Trump barely broke a sweat while outlasting current and former Governors and Senators that made up the biggest (though not the “deepest”) field of Republicans in history. For as odious as his politics are, his achievement may be the most impressive feat in recent political history.

Horse Race Reporting Has Completely Taken Over Presidential Politics. Did you know Marco Rubio wants to completely eliminate the capital gains tax? Or that Rand Paul called for temporarily stopping Muslims from 32 countries from entering the United States? That Chris Christie wanted a massive overhaul of Social Security? Of course you did not because the media has become completely consumed by polling and “who won the day” analysis popularized by publications like POLITICO and cable shows like With All Due Respect. At the same time, there has been even more emphasis on faux controversies like whether Hillary Clinton tipped properly at a Chipotle instead of a deeper dive into the policies of the candidates. 

The Media Could Not Make Marco Rubio Happen. No candidate benefitted more from favorable media coverage than Marco Rubio and no candidate so successfully manipulated the press for his own gain. He spun a third place finish in Iowa into a “victory,” sold the media on a “3-2-1” strategy in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, then ignored it when it turned into “3-5-2,” and finally bought himself another month in the race by selling himself as the consensus candidate even as he was getting rolled in state after state. When he trained his fire on Trump, it backfired spectacularly and then, in a final swing of shamelessness, he bemoaned the tone of a campaign he helped lower by making allegations about hand size and pants peeing. 

The Bern Is Real. Readers of my blog know where my allegiance lies, but I will give the 74-year old democratic socialist his due, his campaign legitimately tapped into left-wing frustration and his fundraising prowess is remarkable. The media coverage of him has been awful throughout. There is no question the media was slow off the mark in seeing his popularity, but they have now overcorrected even as he is at a 60/40 deficit in both delegates and the popular vote against Hillary Clinton while she enjoys a more than 9:1 lead in super delegates that will ultimately push her over the top - which is how Obama won the nomination in 2008 even though he and Mrs. Clinton split the popular vote very close to 50/50. Sanders has been the most effective insurgent since Gene McCarthy in 1968, but he has also benefitted from tissue thin vetting that has given him a wide berth to drum home his message. After losing all five races on Super Tuesday II, he would rise in stature if he dropped out, but instead, he will soldier on, even though he has no chance of winning the nomination. 

The Establishment Is Dead. At varying times, TIME magazine anointed Rand Paul “the most interesting man in politics,” Marco Rubio “the Republican savior,” and Chris Christie simply “THE BOSS.” (caps in original). This was before Jeb Bush brought his family name into the race and immediately vaulted to the top of the polls. Paul dropped out after Iowa, Christie after New Hampshire, and Bush after South Carolina. Rubio limped on with little money but plenty of endorsements and media support (see above) before dropping out after being humiliated in his home state of Florida. Other candidates, like 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum, 2008 runner-up Mike Huckabee, three-term Texas Governor Rick Perry, and South Carolina’s senior Senator Lindsey Graham, barely registered before quitting to no ado. If a year ago you had a reality TV star and the most hated man in Congress as your two most likely victors in the Republican field, bravo.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Book Review - Too Dumb To Fail

Presaging what will surely be a flood of books about the 2016 campaign is Matt Lewis’s Too Dumb to Fail, equal parts polemic and screed by a card-carrying member of the conservative media establishment (Lewis is an editor of The Daily Caller and regularly appears on “the shows”). Lewis’s thesis is simple - the ideas that undergirded the so-called “Reagan Revolution” have been jettisoned by the Republican Party, which needs to get back to being a party animated by the big, bold ideas that, according to Lewis, led to Reagan’s ascent.

While one cannot question Lewis’s conviction, he cherry picks information to suit his point of view. Perhaps this is simply my own political perspective, but if the first step in solving a problem is admitting its existence, readers will find little comfort here. It is not simply the pot shots Lewis takes at President Obama, Democrats, or the definite article “The Left,” it is the failure of his book to come to terms with some basic facts about Saint Ronnie. 

While the hagiography embraces Reagan’s bumper sticker appeal - low taxes, less government, and a strong national defense - his record was not that simple. Yes, Reagan cut taxes in 1981, but he subsequently raised them - several times - during his time in office. His attempts to rein in the federal government barely moved the needle on the actual number of federal workers (Republicans would have to wait for some guy named Bill Clinton to arrive before a meaningful reduction occurred), and the massive military build-up was done on the government’s credit card, leading to swelling budget deficits that undermined any suggestion of fiscal restraint. And this is without even getting into Reagan’s signing of a bill in 1986 that granted “amnesty” to millions of undocumented individuals, his decision to “cut and run” from Lebanon in 1983, or his sale of sophisticated weapons to the Iranians and the shifting of the proceeds from those sales to Nicaraguan Contras, action that should have gotten him impeached. 

Similarly, Lewis whistles past the graveyard of other recent Republican apostasies. The Second Iraq War barely rates a mention, the Great Recession is an afterthought, and the massive deficits accumulated under recent Republican administrations are barely touched on. Meanwhile, President Obama is dismissed as a paint-by-numbers liberal who has attempted to foist any number of evil government policies on a gullible electorate, not the least of which is of course the Heritage Foundation idea that people be required to purchase health insurance, which forms the core of what we now call Obamacare. 

Lewis also overstates the direness of the state of the Republican Party. The Obama years have been phenomenal for the GOP at the state level, where they control more than half the governorships and legislatures. Indeed, but for a single house of the Kentucky Legislature, the entire Old Confederacy is under Republican rule - a decimation of the Democratic Party that has been as total as the Republicans in the Northeast. In Congress, more Republicans are seated in the House of Representatives than at any time since 1928 and they also hold a majority in the Senate.

On public policy, for all the Republican kvelling about Obama’s overuse of executive authority (itself a pile of Grade A horseshit), after Sandy Hook, states passed more laws expanding gun rights than restricting them, and many states in the South have all but eliminated access to abortion. At the national level, the battle over tax policy has been won by Republicans with the assent of Democratic Presidents who have defined up the “middle class” from $250,000 under President Clinton to $400,000 under President Obama, who, incidentally, signed the law that permanently codified 99% of the George W. Bush-era tax rates. Reductions in capital gains and carried interest rates have shifted wealth upward, with many millionaires paying lower marginal rates than middle class wage earners while the amount of federal spending going toward so-called “discretionary” parts of the federal budget are at Eisenhower-era lows. 

And therein lies the limitation in Lewis’s argument. On the one hand, there is little interest in seriously examining the Reagan Revolution and its distortion by Republicans to suit their facile arguments about things like taxes, the military, and domestic policy and on the other, they have suffered no political consequences for it - indeed, but for the Presidency, Republicans have not held so many offices at the federal and state level in eight decades. 

What Lewis is left with is a lot of Poli Sci 101 ruminations on political philosophy and a few well-placed critiques. For example, Lewis rightly criticizes the anti-intellectualism of his party and its failure to adjust with the shifting winds of social change. He points to the weakening of the party structure and the rise of outside groups as one symptom of why there is less party unity and fidelity. Instead of having extremism rooted out, the party has been overtaken by its most intransigent members. In an alternate universe, Senate Republicans would be willing to give an Obama nominee to fill Justice Scalia’s seat a fair shake, would have negotiated (and voted for) the stimulus bill, and provided suggestions that could have incorporated more conservative policies into the Affordable Care Act - but Lewis cannot bring himself to suggest even these modest concessions.  

When it comes to solutions, Lewis goes for some unusual options - promoting “New Urbanism” - and more conventional choices - hello, outreach to Hispanics. But even here, he cannot mask his disdain for “the Left.” After a pages-long screed over how “the Left” politicizes climate change, the best Lewis can muster is the idea that it is okay to question the science but not demonize it (never mind that the Republican Party literally stands alone among all political parties in the Western Hemisphere as questioning man’s role in climate change). Similarly, instead of questioning (and offering answers to) the near total rejection of Republicans by African-American voters, Lewis glides right past this problem to focus on attracting other minority groups. In doing so, he misses the opportunity to mine what is a deep vein of skepticism toward his party by people of color based on the policies they advocate and the message they send. Finally, he encourages young conservatives to be well-read, but fails to identify anything other than standard conservative reading material as a starting point for their education. 

Any reckoning for why the Republican Party is so monochromatic and why the demographics that are making it harder and harder for them to compete for the White House will be lost so long as there are no electoral consequences in off year elections and at the state level. In the meantime, while the chances for winning in November become more remote with every batshit crazy Donald Trump incident, the reality is the GOP is that one election away from complete control of the federal government - hardly a political party in decline.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

State of the Race: Super Tuesday

Super Tuesday is in the books. What happened and where do the two parties stand on the way to the White House? Republicans handed Donald Trump wins in blood red states like Alabama and Arkansas and deep blue states like Vermont and Massachusetts. He also won Virginia, which is a swing state in the general election, along with several other contests. Ted Cruz triumphed in his home state of Texas, next door neighbor Oklahoma, and the lightly contested Alaska caucus. Marco Rubio finally got on the board with a win in Minnesota, but had a string of third-place finishes except a strong showing in Virginia, where he placed second. No one is dropping out and there are winner-take-all primaries in Ohio and Florida in two weeks. 

In the last week or so, the full weight of whatever is left of the Republican establishment has coalesced around the idea that Donald Trump must be stopped at all costs. The only problem is that the party itself - the actual voters who are going out and casting ballots - disagree. It is not a small thing that Trump is winning contests across the board. He is not, like Ted Cruz, a seemingly regional candidate nor is he someone who is only garnering support from a small segment of the electorate, like Marco Rubio. Any other front-runner who was getting the votes of conservatives and moderates, the rich and poor, in regions throughout the country, would be spoken of as the presumptive nominee, but Trump is no ordinary candidate. His comments and statements are considered poison by Republican elites and they fear he will lead them to electoral disaster. 

If there is a silver lining, albeit a slim one, for those in the Dump Trump orbit, it is that Trump did not sweep Super Tuesday, as some predicted. There may be just enough of a gap in his support to deny him the nomination outright, but the idea that his supporters will accept having the nomination go to someone else is as unlikely as Trump himself accepting such a result. Then again, the next two weeks will be critical - every resource remaining will be deployed to beat Trump in Ohio, Florida, or both. At the same time, Trump will need to put real time, energy (and money) into combating this strategy. If he is successful, he wins the nomination. If he is not, get ready for every political reporters wet dream - a contested part convention.

For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton swept the south by huge margins and narrowly won in Massachusetts. Bernie Sanders won in his home state of Vermont and took caucus wins in Colorado, Minnesota and a primary win in Oklahoma. Mrs. Clinton won the majority of delegates awarded, but Sanders collected a nice haul as well. He has the money and desire to continue the race even as his path to ultimate victory appears to be nearly shut. Hillary Clinton has amassed an insurmountable lead over Bernie Sanders when her pledged super delegates are factored in, but because the states apportion delegates to the convention proportionally, it is unlikely she can win the nomination based on the primaries and caucuses alone but Sanders cannot catch her either. He can stay in the race and continue accumulating delegates but will fall well short of victory. He is in the same position Secretary Clinton was in back in 2008 and while he has every right to continue his campaign until the end (as she did), he has lost. Were Sanders a member in good standing of the Democratic party, he might be open to a discussion with party elders about bowing out gracefully, content with the knowledge that his presence in the race has brought the issues he cares about to the fore, but he is not and has no stake in the party, which he has simply rented for the purpose of running for President. 

Of course, this did not hurt the Democrats in 2008. While Hillary and President Obama competed until the end, she pivoted quickly and gave the then-Senator a full-throated endorsement and campaigned aggressively for him throughout the general election. Will the same be true of Sanders? Again, were he a card-carrying member of the party, I would feel more sanguine, but the reality is that he is not and he owes no loyalty to the Democrats to advance his career. At best, he has one more election in 2018 for another six-year term in the Senate which he should win easily regardless of how he handles his loss for the nomination. If anything, he could become a nuisance and not an ally if a hypothetical President Clinton is not sufficiently progressive on the issues that matter most to him. 

For Republicans, their options are a Trump nomination or using party rules to deny him that honor. Either way, the party will be deeply split and weak going into the general election. For Democrats, it is simply a question of how Sanders wants to lose - with dignity and class, or swinging, bleeding Clinton of money and resources she will need to win in November. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy