Saturday, February 27, 2016

Trump is the GOP.

The improbable success of Donald Trump’s unorthodox campaign for the presidency is broadly disconcerting even if its most immediate effect is on the Republican Party.  From his announcement in one of his many self-named buildings through his most recent debate, Trump has brought us a style part Huey Long, part Berlusconi, part Le-Pen.  It’s a toxic mix.  He is a brash demagogue whose most consistent weapon seems to be the insult.  If that’s his idea of American greatness, pity us.  To say it’s painful to watch would be a gross understatement.  In fact, it’s a bit frightening.  Whoever wins the Republican nomination; it’s clear that Donald Trump has changed the game.  I totally underestimated his candidacy.  Even so, I continue to believe that, if nominated, he won’t prevail in November.  That’s why I see Trump as more a Republican problem than a Democratic one.  This is not to dismiss that his rise reflects something in the country that should concern us all.  Bernie Sanders may, to some degree, tap into parallel frustration — one that whoever wins the presidency must seriously address — but he does so with positive decency.  Sanders may talk revolution, but he is a builder not an ego-driven destroyer.

When Trump entered the field, and despite that most of them shared a hard rightist ideology that I deplore, it seemed the GOP had a pretty strong bench.  At the time, many thought the November race was likely to see a Bush vs. Clinton contest, but other possibilities seemed just as likely.  What Trump has shown, and what may account in part for his surprising rise, is that the bench was wide but exceedingly shallow.  In retrospect we may come to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much that Trump proved to be a formidable candidate but that all the others were spectacularly weak.  This in itself should shine a different light on the party that currently controls both houses of Congress.  Perhaps they are so deft at saying “no” because there is no “yes” there.

But the immediate issue is Trump.  We know that his personal demagogic style has found a following, perhaps a growing following.  A large field has enabled him to “win” the first primaries with minority support.  He’s used the large “bench” to his advantage.  The winning has only fueled his ego and been used to rev up his supporters.  Among them for sure are people who are simply frustrated, disappointed and fed up, but there is also a good representation of those who simply are in fear of and hate “the other”.  That’s why his xenophobia plays so well.  With hot and seemingly undisciplined (don’t believe that for a moment) rhetoric, he uses them both.  Super Tuesday could set him on an unstoppable course toward the nomination.  Trump will do or say anything to fire up a crowd and more specifically to win.  He hates loosing.  And that’s critical to remember going forward.  Of course, he could extend his winning into March and still be denied the nomination if all but one of the others leave the race.  But by that time the image that Trump is the GOP will have solidified.  The damage has already been done.

Trump winning the nomination spells trouble for the Republicans in November, denying him the nomination might put them in an even weaker situation.  Remember, the Donald hates losing.  If I’m right about that, the chance of him mounting an independent candidacy is very high.   Billionaire Ross Perot who did just that in 1992 was known for a big ego, but it’s dwarfed by Trump’s.   Not only would an independent race by Trump further weaken the GOP’s presidential chances in the fall, it might have a huge impact on downstream candidacies.  The House is likely to remain in their hands but Senate losses could be greater and even governors might fall. 

So it’s truly mystifying that the party’s establishment has failed to mobilize itself behind a single candidate.  Perhaps they all assumed Jeb! could do it for them, not realizing that rather than being the Bush family wonder, he is its most empty suit.  Some have suggested that they outwitted themselves in allowing the Tea Party to morph from a tool into a controlling power.  It’s interesting that two of the candidates still standing — Rubio and Cruz — are products of Tea insurgency.  Unlike Romney, McCain or Dole, the current cohort of candidates, are not “of them”.  They don’t come from, or belong to, the traditional political or business class.  The present hard right party is out of sync with the major funders, who may be money-centered conservatives but who increasingly depend on a generation of employees (including immigrants) who reflect a changing America.  Moreover many of them are not personally socially conservative.  They might have made a big mistake in supporting the Teas, but they aren’t stupid and won’t repeat that error.  They like to be in control and have prevailed in part by knowing when to cut their losses and pivot in another direction.

While boasting his business credentials, Donald Trump (like the Teas) is not one of them.  He is of the unpredictable type. He doesn’t play by the rules and certainly isn’t someone whom they can control.  Trump likes to do things “MY way”, to make his own rules.  Imagine one of the Koch brothers with a reality TV show, or suffering multiple bankruptcies and calling them victories.  He boasts being his own man and to be self-financed.  He suggests independence, but he also knows that the moneyed class upon whom the Bushes and others relied can’t bring themselves to support him.   Note that none of them have mustered their existing PACs to advance his candidacy.  It’s likely that Koch money will continue to focus on state races, but some will simply go unspent.  That won’t help Republicans this year and perhaps beyond.  The party of Trump is turning its back on its sugar daddy. 

Trump’s rise does say something about the country even if he only represents a minority of the whole.   The visceral Republican hatred of Obama has laid bare an ugliness that abounds in part of the land.  It’s not surprising that, in contrast, the tone and content of the Democratic primary race, heated as it may be, is focused on the positive, on inclusiveness rather than exclusion.  When all is said and done, Trump or Trumpism seems to have captured the GOP long before the Donald threw his crazy hair into the ring.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Everything has changed.

I started writing this post yesterday morning with the following opening paragraph:

Make no mistake; nothing will be at greater stake come November 1st than the future of the United States Supreme Court.  The next president is likely to appoint the justices that will determine the court’s direction in the foreseeable future.  Policies, domestic and foreign, can be changed by elections.  Only rarely can the court be rebalanced.  This is one of those times.  So it isn’t only the Supreme Court that will be at stake, it is our future as a nation.

What followed, partially in the context of possibly having the first female president, was focused on the court’s three women justices and the important void they have started to fill in what, until Sandra Day O’Conner, had been an exclusive male club.  That’s still important to consider but, needless to say, is momentarily overtaken by the stunning, sudden and unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia.  With his passing everything has changed.  Given Scalia’s momentous Second Amendment Heller vote — one of the few times he wrote the majority opinion — it seems almost fitting that he succumbed while on a hunting trip.  If I am right that the future of the court is more at stake this election cycle than usual, his death has, at the very least, foreshortened the calendar.  Now President Obama, the former law professor, will have an opportunity to rebalance the court.  He will face enormous opposition and, given the makeup of the Senate, may not prevail.  Regardless, he has made clear his intention to “fulfill [his] constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor”.

A vacancy on the high court with just eleven months remaining in the president’s term has the potential of creating a near term dual constitutional crisis.  First, brought on by subverting the right and duty of a sitting president to name justices.  That right being withheld would be to say the least highly divisive.  Second, the potential for creating a stalemate in which the court will be rendered ineffectual or even powerless at a time when there are so many critical cases pending.  Of course, Obama will, as he said, “in due course” put forward a nominee for the senate’s consideration.  In parallel to that, the court calendar will move forward — cases will be presented, deliberations held and votes taken.  Where cases are less controversial majority (at least 5-3) decisions are possible.  But, given recent history, one has to expect 4-4 deadlocks on many, perhaps all, of the most momentous cases.  Here decisions would revert to the last lower court decision, effectively as if the high court had never taken the case.

When the president and senate majority are in the hands of different parties, confirming court appointments are always challenging.  That is magnified manyfold when a seat on the Supreme Court is at stake.  Obama may have the potential of rebalancing the court, but his options in the kind of justice he might appoint are probably limited.  To be given any chance of approval, it will have to be someone with impeccable and widely recognized legal credentials.  She or he will also have to be someone who, unlike Scalia, is not an overt ideologue.  That suggests an open-minded jurist whose decisions won’t be fully predictable, foregone conclusions.  In our polarized time, whomever he appoints is likely to disappoint, perhaps in differing degrees, both those on the left and the right.  As Harry Enten of Five Thirty Eight suggests, the nominee is likely to be more in the mold of Stephen Breyer than say a Sotomayor or Kagan.  Note that I’m not talking an O’Connor or Kennedy, but certainly a liberal leaning moderate rather than someone of the predictable legal left.  As a constitutional scholar, Obama understands what qualifications are needed for the court.  As president, he will also be mindful of both realities of his own situation and that the court will loom even larger as an issue in the fall election.  What he does could effect the outcome.

Interestingly, Obama faces exactly the question confronting Democratic primary voters in the Clinton-Sanders contest.  Does he take into account the realpolitik of confirmation with the Senate at hand — does he make the pragmatic choice — or does he go for a-come-whatever ideologically comrade candidate?  All at once, the hypothetical of the current campaign is facing him, and us, in real and immediate time.   Obama’s record (before the last few months) would suggest that he is likely to go for the pragmatic, what’s achievable, rather than go for broke.  When it comes to the Supreme Court that may actually be the right thing to do. 

Until very recently, justices on the court evolved over time.  They may have been appointed with some ideological history and certainly by presidents of one party or another, but their decisions were not baked in from day one.  Ingoing conservatives and liberals moderated their views over time.  More important, they were able to judge cases, to the degree that is humanly possible, on the facts rather than on any pre-conceived notion or predictive ideologically driven outcome.  It was, and remains, the kind of judicial process that we would all want if presenting our case before this or any other court.

Obama has an opportunity not merely to rebalance the court, but to send a message — a reminder of what an ideal court should be.  Will he, or can he, take that opportunity at this highly charged moment?  I just don’t know, but hope so.  Would I prefer another Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the bench?   You bet I would!  Would I like to see Citizens United reversed, Roe being sustained, even strengthened, and unionism upheld?  Absolutely, and passionately!  But I’d be happy with another open minded Breyer on the court, with an Obama appointment rather than throwing the dice on what November might bring.  We’re in for an interesting few months ahead.  Expect that “due course” appointment to come sooner rather than later.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Can't get the Bern.

For the pro-choice party, we’re left with little of it in this primary season.  That’s troubling.  I so wish we had a broader array of contenders for the Democratic nomination.  I’m thinking, for example, of senators like Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and, of course, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.   Democrats do have a strong bench.  Its members deserve more sunlight than they’ve been given (or taken for themselves).  The last person I expected to run was Senator Bernie Sanders in part because, while voting with Democrats, he has never (as Paul Starr writes in the Atlantic) chosen to join the party.  In fact, as Starr points out, he “has long excoriated it in unsparing language.”   Now he wants its most coveted nomination.  If a Senator Warren were in the mix, it’s doubtful he would have gotten as far as he has.

As any reader of these posts knows, I agree with Bernie Sanders on many issues.  He’s right about income inequality and the unfettered power of big business.  Our political system is dominated and corrupted by money, magnified after Citizens United.   The ACA is a step in the right direction, and not an insignificant one, but it would be far better (and I think cost-effective) if we had Medicare for all.  We need a sustaining minimum wage.  These, along with a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, is why his message resonates with many Democratic voters, especially young people.  It has clearly found an enthusiastic following and has succeeded in pushing Hillary Clinton further to the left.  That’s a good thing.  The trouble is, no matter what happens in New Hampshire tomorrow, I just can’t get the “Bern”. 

While Bernie’s campaign is impressive and this seems to be a year of the unexpected candidates, it’s striking that not a single senate colleague supports him — not one.  In contrast, former Senator Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by 39 current and 8 former members of the chamber.  Even his fellow Vermonter, Howard Dean who also ran as an outsider, supports Hillary.  You may chalk that up to the “establishment”, which in part may be true.  But I’ve always thought what your peers and coworkers — the people who know you best — think of you speaks volumes.

But lack of colleague support is not why I can’t get the Bern.  I was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama, a similarly unlikely candidate in 2008.  I remain so.  His campaign, focused on change (albeit in a different context) brought an excitement and drew crowds that Americans rarely see and haven’t seen since.  He did this at a time when many of his natural followers, myself included, were deeply torn between the hope of having the first African American or first woman president.  In the end, Obama prevailed because he had something special.  He “fired” us up.  While other candidates and indeed presidents have been gifted orators, he stood out in our time with soaring and beautifully crafted rhetoric.  The combination filled his listeners with hope and anticipation — perhaps more than was warranted.  That definitely had a downside for his presidency.

I continue to believe that many Obama supporters read into his words what they wanted, perhaps needed, to hear.  What he actually said and what they were sure they heard didn’t always match.  That mismatch has had a profound impact on his popularity, especially so on the left.  Many liberals consider him a deep disappointment.  They fault him for not living up to what they expected — the words and promises they “heard” him make.  They complain that the ACA does not go far enough — it’s not the single payer plan they were sure it could have been.  Some feel that he was not tough enough on Republicans, didn’t assert himself.  They expected a roaring liberal; they got a left-of-centrist.  We are still at war in the Middle East and have not closed Guantanamo.  In short, Obama hasn’t delivered. 

I certainly share in some of these disappointments.  I also understand that Obama never promised universal Medicare or that it couldn’t have been enacted is beside the point.  That his central message, beginning with his ’06 convention speech and through the 2008 campaign, was breaking down the walls between “red” and “blue” America is no excuse.  That extricating America from foreign policies firmly in place long pre-dating George W Bush isn’t easy, or perhaps even possible in the short term, doesn’t matter.  Many Americans are rightly frustrated and angry.  The nature of that frustration and anger may be different but it’s what has brought Bernie and, yes, the likes of Trump to the fore.  I get it, understand it.  Much of that anger stems from the economic and other factors that I wrote about in my last post.  While focused on the presidency, some of it, and for many people much of it, comes from frustration with the unkept promises by candidates on all levels of government.  It results from loose of-the-moment campaign rhetoric aimed a winning office.

There remains a huge difference between blogging (not to mention around the dinner conversation) and having the responsibility for managing and getting things done.  I can afford to express hopes and disappointments unburdened by the limitations and difficulties of execution.  In relatively a similar way, there is a vast difference between pontificating on the senate floor and having to perform in the White House.  I know it’s wishful thinking, but that well known difference should inform those who embark upon the presidential campaign trail.  That's especially true for senators who, like their counterparts in the House, often stand in the way of presidents executing the ideal.  It isn’t a cliché to say that governing is far tougher than campaigning — Mario Cuomo’s “poetry verse prose”. 

In the end, that’s why I can’t get the Bern.  Sanders rightly rails against indisputable wrongs.  He speaks of revolution, but fails to give me any idea of how he might deliver.  As Frank Bruni writes, “little in his Senate career suggests that he’d be able to turn that oratory into remedy.”   I may be agree with much of what he says, but maddingly he is no more specific on how he would accomplish it all than is Donald Trump whose person and ideas I abhor.  You may find that harsh, and even be offended by the comparison, but sadly I think it’s true.  I don’t want to be given promises that have no chance of being kept.  Bernie talks of revolution, but Americans as a nation — even those who agree with the ideals to which he gives voice — don’t do “revolution”.  Sure, we had one back in 1776 but since then, if anything, we have been consistently resistant to change.  Look at the unpopularity (albeit fired up by distorted Republican hyperbole) of the ACA.  Whatever change we permit is incremental.  In my view, presidential candidates at the very least have to remind us of the realities of governance.  They need to be specific and realistic especially so in a challenging time like this where government is divided and is likely to stay so for years to come.  Rhetoric that merely inflames is not enough.

So what really gives with Bernie Sanders?  Why are crowds of young people gathering around him?  The answer may be simple: he isn’t Hillary.  More to the point, many Democrats still can’t get excited about her candidacy.  The fault for this sits squarely at her doorstep.  The New York Times supports her because she is highly competent, better prepared for office than anyone in the running.  So do I.  I wish with greater enthusiasm and passion.  I wish she was combining her display of readiness with some real vision.  Ironically, if she were promising what Bernie is, I’d have much more confidence that at least some of it might be accomplished.  She’s not and I hope his candidacy may push her to do so in the months ahead.

This is truly a strange presidential year.  I’ve been thinking about Bernie and Hillary as well as their Republican counterparts.  The fact is that somehow they all seem to be the wrong messengers.  There is the aging Sanders representing a generation of whom he is not a part and whose future he won’t share.  There is Hillary breaking ground for women, for a different kind of future while, as Frank Bruni pointed out in his piece, is essentially credentialed by, even mired in, the past. Objectively speaking, she’s even an odd messenger, of a transformed 21st century women's movement.  On the other side, think about the high living, personal plane chauffeured billionaire whose real estate manipulations have priced out his hometown’s middleclass.   He “speaks” for frustrated people who couldn’t afford to spend a night in one of his luxury hotels or play on his gilt edged namesake golf courses.  Think of Republicans as a group who gain the votes from exactly the people who are hurt most by their policies, ones that continue to favor the rich and keep wages low.  All strange messengers — all seem a mismatch for our time.

Alas, that’s where we are.   We can say that Hillary Clinton sucked all the air out of a potential contest in 2016 for other Democrats.  But they are all  grownups who made the decision not to run.  She is an imperfect candidate when many of us so long for perfection.  All candidates for public office carry some baggage — just like all of us.  Hillary Clinton carries more than we would like.  I’m not suggesting here that those who have “the Bern” lack real enthusiasm.  Far from it.  I, along with others who do support Hillary still suffer from an enthusiasm gap.  Going forward, I remain convinced that the Bern won’t carry Sanders to the nomination if for no other reason that, current crowds not withstanding, too few people really have it.  I can only hope that Secretary Clinton will give us reason to insure her victory in the fall.  The alternative is unthinkable.