Thursday, August 11, 2016

A friend of the devil is a friend of mine.

The Tweet: Firebrand Steve King endorsed Hillary's ability to work across the aisle. What better way to sell her to Republican voters who are done with Trump?

Steve King (R-IA) said it this week to an audience at the Iowa State Fair. “I’ve sat across the table with Hillary Clinton eye-to-eye, and when you’re working outside of staff and outside of the press she is somebody I can work with.”

Much is made of public opinion polls that suggest that a fair percentage of the Republican electorate believe that Hillary Clinton is a follower of Lucifer. But here is Steve King, a leader of the House Freedom Caucus and darling of the Tea Party, suggesting that Hillary Clinton is someone he can work with.

This is an important point that must not be lost. Steve King famously loathes President Obama, but apparently shares the more positive view of Hillary expressed by former Congressman and GOP stalwart Vin Weber (R-MN) during the Republican Convention in July. "The story line seems to be at the grassroots level, the Republicans just hate Hillary Clinton, they all want her in jail, blah blah blah. Ain’t so. Not true in the Congress. The people who served with Hillary Clinton in Congress as Republicans got along with her, respected her, and worked with her. Didn’t agree with her, don’t want her to be President, but the notion that she will come in hated by everyone in Congress simply is not an accurate statement."

Hillary has moved ahead in national polls over the past few weeks. In the wake of one inexcusable episode after another--his spat with the Gold Star Khan family, the Second Amendment comments and his new rigged election narrative--Donald Trump's poll numbers in both national and battleground state polls have deteriorated, with his support falling into the 35-40% range.

An increasing number of Republicans are prepared to not vote for their party's nominee--Trump has been losing ground in particular among educated white women, and to a lesser extent among educated white men--but it is less clear that those voters, having decided not to vote for Trump, are willing to take the next step to support Clinton.

A large share of Republicans, on and off Capitol Hill, share Steve King's view of the President. They find him to be patronizing and aloof. And, to be fair, the disdain is mutual. If there is a part of his job that President Obama has shown that he dislikes, it has been meeting and dealing with Republicans in Congress as his Constitutional equals. He and John Boehner may have a good time playing golf now that the former Speaker of the House is retired, but back when Boehner was Speaker, he made little effort to hide how much he disliked dealing with the President. Whomever was to blame, Obama's early promise of bipartisanship rapidly deteriorate into mutual antipathy.

One of Hillary's campaign strategies has been to tie herself closely the President Obama, which was particularly important as she faced the challenge from Bernie Sanders. As the campaign moves into the fall, she should use her history of and commitment to working across the aisle as an opportunity to put some light between herself and the White House, as she reaches out to voters who are less positively inclined toward the President.

It is a difficult step for people to turn their backs on a political party that they believe in and that is part of their identity. Republicans--as well as Republican-leaning independents--who are disgusted with Donald Trump nonetheless share in large measure negative views of Hillary. That, as they say, is baked in the cake. Hillary needs to demonstrate to those Republicans who are prepared to abandon the candidate of their party that there is reason to believe that, as president, she will be a more reasonable collaborator with Congress than President Obama has been. King's words this week present an opportunity to make the case, as House Deputy Majority Whip Tom Cole (R-OK) has suggested, that Hillary "could be easier to work with than the President has been."

Hillary should embrace Steve King's comments. She should talk about when she worked with King and say a nice word or two about him. She should then expand her comments to mention issues on which she has worked with Republicans, and which Republicans that she worked with. She can use the opportunity to discretely put some distance between her and the President--who would probably be willing to acknowledge that he did not care for working with Republicans in Congress, and offer that many of them probably think more highly of her than they do of him. It is, after all, a low threshold.

Hillary's comments should not overstate the case, but should provide enough detail that reporters would want to contact the Republicans in question to verify what she said. Those Republicans, many of whom themselves detest Trump--even if politically they are not prepared to disown him--would likely acknowledge, as Steve King did, that in the real world, Hillary Clinton is someone they have worked with, that they respect and that they can imagine working with in the future.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor her surrogates can tell Republican voters that she is respected across the aisle, and by implication that relations between the White House and Congress might be better on her watch than they have been over the past four years. They must hear that from Republicans who have worked with her over the years. Hillary's objective should be to have Republican members of Congress--in whatever subtle ways it can be achieved--become testifiers on her behalf, and in doing so give Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters a rationale to acquiesce to, if not embrace, her candidacy in November. Steve King's words were a validation of Clinton from the most unlikely source. If King--a firebrand of the right and Trump supporter--has a nice word or two two say about Hillary, one can only imagine the comments that John McCain or Lindsay Graham or others might say, should they be asked.


Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The party of Booth.

The Tweet: Each @realDonaldTrump outrage is calculated to boost election day turnout. These are not gaffes. His strategy is Grover Norquist on steroids.

Each time Donald Trump makes some outrageous statement, the media goes crazy, demanding that he apologize and walk back his comments. Predictably, embarrassed Republicans plead with his campaign strategists to get him under control, to have him use a teleprompter. Yet for Donald Trump--the reality TV celebrity and leader of the Birther movement--all of that outrage, from the media as well as establishment Republicans, is part of his strategy. Last week, Trump denigrated the voting rights act and suggested that the fall election would be rife with voter fraud. This week, it was about the Second Amendment, barely skirting language promoting political assassination, if not civil insurrection. Next week, perhaps he will focus on abortion mills, or the killing of Christians.

These are not gaffes, and the candidate is under control. Each outburst is geared toward a singular objective: turnout of his base on election day. Despite all the outrage, none of this should be new to establishment Republicans. After all, Donald Trump's electoral strategy is essentially the strategy of energizing target voter groups that Grover Norquist developed decades ago, this time on steroids.

Last weekend marked the 51st anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Old school Republicans continue to cherish the role that the GOP played in the passage of both the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commemorated the event with the following statement recognizing Republican leadership in its passage: “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a monumental step forward in ensuring equal rights for every American, and today we honor not just that legislation, but also those who devoted themselves to its passage."

Voting Aye that day a half-century ago were 30 of the 32 Republican Senators, constituting 94% of the GOP members of the Senate. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, the two Nay votes were long-time Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond--who had converted to the Republican Party a year earlier to protest the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--and John Tower, the first Republican elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. In contrast, 70% of the Democratic Senators voted in favor of the Act, with all 16 dissenting votes coming from the states of the Confederacy.

Priebus was by no means the first GOP leader to hang his hat on GOP support for the 1960's civil rights acts to curry favor with minority voters who have shied away from the Republican Party in recent decades. In its Growth and Opportunity Project--the internal assessment of the challenges facing the GOP in the wake of the 2012 presidential election--the authors noted that "The African American community has a lot in common with the Republican Party, and it is important to share this rich history."

That rich history dates to the Civil War, when the GOP was both the Party of Lincoln as well as the Party of Frederick Douglass, and continued on through the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Just last month in Cleveland, GOP wise man and former Congressman Vin Weber (R-MN) fell back on the 1960s votes in arguing why a reasonable share of Black voters should be willing to look to the GOP as their political home. Like Weber, House Speaker Paul Ryan embraces the identity of the GOP being the Party of Lincoln, and, like Weber, Ryan is loath to acknowledge that today's Republican Party is no longer the Party of Lincoln, much less the party of the Voting Rights Act.

A half century ago--in the wake of the civil rights acts and cultural turmoil of the 1960s--Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and their political strategists redrew the political map, while setting the GOP on a path that brought it to where it is today. As described in Kevin Phillips 1969 book, the Emerging Republican Majority, that strategy entailed luring the rural and working class white voters to the GOP, while casting off the Party's historical commitment to Blacks and liberals that dated back to the founding of the party.

And the strategy worked. As presented here in data from Gallup, in the 1960 presidential contest, Richard Nixon and the GOP won 51% of the white vote and 32% of the non-white vote, while winning 50% of the overall popular vote. Twelve years later, in the 1972 contest, Nixon and the GOP won 68% of the white vote and 13% of the non-white vote, and increased its overall share of the votes cast to 62%, as the constituencies represented by the 16 dissenting Democratic senators migrated to the Republican Party. Beginning with Nixon's Southern Strategy, and continuing through the Reagan Revolution, the GOP successfully swapped its historically large share of the Black vote for what had long been the Democratic white votes of the "solid south" and working class constituencies of the former New Deal Democratic coalition of FDR.

Under the watchful eyes of long-time running buddies Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, the GOP mastered the use of racial dogwhistles and social wedge issues to stir the passions of the white working class electorate that emerged as the new base of the GOP, as well as voter suppression strategies to reduce Democrat turnout. Grover Norquist built what for decades became the core Republican electoral strategy of energizing single issue voting groups--pro-gun, pro-faith, pro-life, anti-tax, among others--to boost election day turnout. Barack Obama may have been indelicate in his references to Republican base voters clinging to their guns and their religion, but it was, nonetheless, elemental to the electoral strategies embraced by Norquist, Atwater and Rove.

With the nomination of Donald Trump, Nixon's Southern Strategy has come full circle. What started as an electoral strategy now threatens to trample the last vestiges of the Grand Old Party. As Maine senior Senator Susan Collins suggested this week in an op-ed denouncing Trump's candidacy, "Donald Trump does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country."

Yet, notwithstanding her own political and moral clarity, Susan Collins, like many in the Republican Party, seem to be missing the larger context underpinning the rise of Donald Trump. The New York billionaire is not the cause of the decline of the Grand Old Party, rather, those forces were set in motion decades ago.

Recent polling suggests that Trump is losing ground with core constituencies that many in the GOP view as integral to his chances in November. He is down by as much as 30% among educated white women, for example, a group that Mitt Romney won by 6%. Even educated white men appear to be slipping from his grasp. Ryan and others continue to believe that when confronted with this data, Donald Trump will change his ways and pivot toward the center, moderating his language as well as his more extreme positions.

But Donald Trump sees the Republican landscape differently, and his strategy has been consistent from the day he entered the race. He is not seeking to replicate and then expand on Mitt Romney's failed election campaign, he is taking a different tack entirely. Trump is looking to build an electoral victory from among the same alienated and resentful white working class constituencies Kevin Phillips described almost a half-century ago, but with those voters at the center of an electoral majority rather than as as subordinate participants in a larger coalition.

The chart above presents two data sets relevant to Trump's electoral strategy: non-hispanic white turnout, and turnout among less educated voters, in this case non-high school graduates. For Trump, white voter turnout--and in particular less educated white voter turnout--is the key to his victory in November. Those white working class voters who were brought to the GOP to provide an election day advantage will no longer be an appendage to the Republican Party, they will be the Republican Party. Trump's strategy may not be successful, but there is method in Trump's madness.

White nationalist activist Peter Brimelow summed up the Trump campaign succinctly the other day. “Trump’s only path to victory is a Brexit-type spontaneous popular surge. In fact, that’s all he’s ever had going for him. To get that, he has to raise Nationalist issues, like immigration/TPP, that will terrify the GOP Establishment and enrage the MSM [main street media].”

For decades now, those voters that Donald Trump has courted have dutifully supported one Republican after another who paid homage to their social issues, but ignored the economic devastation laying waste to their communities. This time around, they have in Trump a candidate that speaks their language, and, as far as they are concerned, the rest of the party can either fall in line--as they did for decades--or slink off into the shadows. Establishment Republicans may not like what they see, and what it says about what has become of the GOP, but Donald Trump is in charge now and he knows exactly what he is doing.


Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Dire consequences.

The Tweet: @realDonaldTrump willing to tear down public confidence in democracy itself if it serves his own interests. Shameful!

A friend from Tennessee wrote to me this morning:

As I continue to experience what might be described as "the recurring bad dream about a Trump presidency," I can now say that it his statements about NATO and our role and obligations to it that worry me the most.  The reason is that should he pull out or decline to fulfill our treaty obligations as he has threatened, there could be an irreversible multi-legged collapse in world order.  That outcome coupled with his itchy nuclear trigger-finger could spell disaster, comparable to any sequence of events in past history.

... I truly fear that Trump's bravado, his blinding ego, and his ignorance could be a bad, bad mixed cocktail for the U.S. and the world.

My friend's words left me musing about what it is about Trump that worries me most. There are certainly options here. There is the wall, the rapists rhetoric, and the Muslim ban. There is the facile enchantment with Vladimir Putin and indifference to Europe. There is the short tempered man with his finger on the trigger. And then there is all of that rhetoric taken together, and its impact on the rest of the world looking on with trepidation and wondering what is happening here.

So many of us have family that came here from elsewhere. My grandparents traveled by foot and boat for four years, leaving Russia during the turmoil of the Revolution and World War I--landing for a while in Turkey and Moldova before making their way here. My grandmother came illegally, as it turns out, as she feigned being her brother's wife, as he had papers and she did not. For all the criticism that one can easily be cast toward the United States--corporatism and cowboy capitalism come to mind--it remains an essential country in the world, one that other nations turn to when all else fails. But more to the point, it remains the country that people strive to get to, when time comes to vote with their feet.

But all of Donald Trump's most egregious rhetoric pales compared to his most recent foray into preemptive election nullification. At the Republican National Convention, the theme of election nullification lay barely below the surface of all of the anti-Hillary diatribes. After a couple of days of lock her up chants, it seemed only a matter of time before one Trump advisor, Al Baldasaro, concluded that Hillary's conduct constituted treason, and that "anyone that commits treason should be shot."

This week, faced with declining poll performance, Trump pronounced his belief that the election was being rigged against him. When things have been looking down, Trump has used the rigged game narrative to great effect. It was after his loss to Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin primary, when the Senator from Texas seemed on the verge of making a serious challenge to the Trump campaign, that Trump rolled out the rigged game rhetoric to great affect. In that iteration, the rigged game was about the economic decline of the American middle class, and the perfidy of American--and Republican--elites that had rigged the system against the working man. And it worked. From that low moment, Donald Trump regained his mojo, and never looked back.

But now, this rigged game that Donald Trump sees is American democracy itself. Trump cannot reconcile his decline in the polls with the continued enthusiasm of the crowds that flock to hear him every day. And no doubt, many of those who flock to see him cannot imagine how Trump could be foundering if not by the nefarious efforts of the media and those same elites who have rigged the economic system against them.

But Donald Trump is not a man who walks through any serious social critique or analysis to arrive at his conclusions about the rigging of the system. Trump is all about tactics, and he fully expects that his new rigged election narrative will drive the passions of his base, and his comments over the past few days that the impact of the Supreme Court striking down voter suppression laws over the past few weeks will have the effect of allowing people in some states--people who are not Trump supporters--to vote as many as ten times on Election Day.

There is a tradition in Delaware called Return Day, that dates back to colonial times. Two days after Election Day, the winners and losers march together in a parade through the streets of Georgetown, DE. This photograph from Return Day 2010 shows U.S. Senator Chris Coons and his Tea Party backed campaign rival Christine O'Donnell a they literally "bury the hatchet," to put the animosities of the recently ended campaign. Return day is not about the candidates, but it is about the public, and the importance of all candidates bringing their supporters along to accept the validity of the results of the campaign that has just ended. A democracy in which the supporters of the losing candidates do not accept the validity of the results will not long endure.

I have great fears about the ease with which Donald Trump uses language to his own ends. As he said to the New York Times editorial board, building a wall along the Mexico border was not something he had given any thought to, he only brought it up because he was losing his audience and needed something new to amp up the energy and excitement. So it was with the rigged system in the wake of his loss in Wisconsin, and so it was again this week with the rigged election in the wake of his declining poll numbers. As he found himself back on his heels--losing ground in the wake of the Khan family confrontation and new defections amount Republican leaders--his new rigged election rhetoric changed the focus of media attention, and communicated a new sense of urgency to his base.

The outcome in the fall election is expected to depend in large measure on how effective each campaign is in turning our their base. Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher suggested at a symposium during the Democratic convention in Philly that--notwithstanding the recent attention to white suburban woman--the presidential election will hinge on overall white voter turnout. If white voter turnout is 70% of the total, Trump cannot win. If white voter turnout is 74%, he likely will win. Based on this summation of the election, the Clinton campaign is right to be concerned about enthusiasm and turnout among its Black and Latino base--particularly in the wake of the selection of Tim Keane as her partner on the ticket--while Donald Trump is making a sound tactical decision if he can turn the heat up under his base by asserting that the election is being rigged against them--and him.

My friend from Tennessee is right to be concerned that Trump's bravado, his blinding ego, and his ignorance could be a toxic combination for the U.S. and for the world in a commander-in-chief. But that presumes that he wins. My greater concern is for the damage that Donald Trump is fully prepared to do to undermine public support for our democratic institutions, if, in doing so he believes he can advance his own interests. That is damage that he is prepared and capable of doing, whether he wins or loses, and that may have even more dire consequences for our nation in the wake of a Trump loss that it would in the increasingly unlikely event that he wins.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Conduct unbecoming.

One thing Donald Trump is clear on is his view that there is no such thing as bad publicity. After his wife was found to have plagiarized her convention speech, he confirmed his view enthusiastically.

But the problem with publicity is that it is like crack, and Donald Trump is a publicity and attention addict. First Trump got publicity for run of the mill rude statements. Then, as those became commonplace, he had to amp up the level of outrage to get the same buzz. You could see it in his prior Birther life, and we have seen it over the course of the primaries. He explained this back in January to the New York Times Editorial Board.

At a meeting with The Times’s editorial writers, Mr. Trump talked about the art of applause lines. “You know,” he said of his events, “if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”

And so it has been, as he has lobbed in one new proposal after another to keep people's attention. Deporting Mexican immigrants. Banning Muslims. Starting a trade war with China. For a year now, he has made it all up as he has gone along.

Over the past week, needing new headlines to trump the Democrats gathering in Philadelphia, Trump escalated his rhetoric to new heights. First, he reaffirmed his indifference to NATO and suggested that he would not commit to coming to the defense of a NATO ally under attack, notwithstanding our mutual defense commitments under the NATO alliance. It was, in the words of former George W. Bush State Department official Nicholas Burns, "The most reckless statement made by any American leader since the founding of NATO."

Then, in the wake of Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee internal emails--that caused a furor just as the DNC convention opened in Philadelphia--Donald Trump encouraged continued Russian hacking of the Clinton campaign. Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, immediately recognized the lines that Trump had crossed--encouraging both cyber attacks by a foreign power against Americans, as well as foreign meddling in an American election--and tried to walk back Trump's comments. “If it is Russia," Pence commented soberly, "and they are interfering in our elections, I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences.” 

But Trump was undeterred by his running mate's insubordination, and went on to tweet out his press conference comments encouraging new Russian cyber attacks. As the Trump campaign clearly established on day one of the Republican National Convention last week, there is no action that is not justified if it helps to defeat Hillary Clinton. What Pence recognized as bordering on treasonous conduct, Donald Trump saw as just one more opportunity to garner attention and attack his adversary.

Last week, with his acceptance speech in Cleveland, Donald Trump found himself among a rarified group of political figures who achieved the Presidential nomination of the Grand Old Party. And just as he destroyed the traditions and decorum of the Republican nomination process over the past year, it took Trump barely 24 hours to drag the prestige of being the Republican nominee into the gutter, with a new name-calling, taunting tweet about Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

For mainstream Republicans trying to find a way to support their party's nominee, Trump's behavior must be dispiriting. Perhaps those Republicans are willing to ignore the racial and xenophobic rhetoric. Perhaps they can convince themselves that the worst aspects of Trump's plans--the wall and the Muslim ban--will never come to pass. And perhaps they can convinced themselves they can ignore all the noise and bluster and hang their hats on the benefits of his massive tax cuts. But whatever their rationale, those Republicans have to come to believe that Trump will begin acting in a manner that comports with being the nominee of the Republican Party. In the weeks leading up to the Republican convention, many of them had come to convince themselves that once Donald Trump was given the nomination and found himself walking in the shoes of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, he would rein in his worst instincts, that he would tame his unrelenting narcissism and craving for attention, and grow up. Just a little.

But it was not to be.

On the domestic side of the ledger, ours is a system of checks and balances. The Mexican wall will never be built because Congress plays a roll in such decisions. The Muslim ban will not take place, because we have a judiciary. But foreign policy is the purview of the President, and the Constitution provides the executive with broad latitude to unilaterally determine the United States' conduct in the world. There is a reason that the earliest and firmest revolt against Donald Trump within the GOP came on the grounds of foreign policy. As Michelle Obama said in her speech the other night, in the world of foreign policy, you need a person who is steady and measured and well-informed. Whatever he might be, Donald Trump is none of those.

Now, Trump is not only praising Vladimir Putin as his kind of guy, not only encouraging nuclear escalation among the nations of east Asia and the dismantling of our European alliances, now he is sanctioning cyber warfare attacks by one of our most capable international adversaries against his political opponent. And he is able to get away with it because he believes that as long as he brandishes the specter of Hillary Clinton, he has the cudgel necessary to browbeat Republicans who are reluctant to fall in line.

Donald Trump believes that he understands his audience well. This week, a CNN poll gave him a six point bump in the wake of the Republican National Convention, his strongest performance to date. But within the details of the poll the news was not so positive. While Trumps support grew among uneducated white voters a result of the red meat convention, his support among educated white voters actually declined.

The arrogance of his stance of blackmailing recalcitrant Republicans has not been lost on many in his own party. Foreign policy Republicans--Brent Scowcroft, Ken Adelman and Bill Kristol among others--have been among the most vocal in opposing Trump under any circumstances, because they understand the unilateral power of the President in foreign affairs, and the great risk that a Donald Trump presidency would present, to America and to the world.

Lingering behind all of the Trumpian anti-Hillary rhetoric is a recognition within Republican circles that Hillary may not be all that Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and others have worked so hard to make her out to be. At a forum in Cleveland during the convention last week, Deputy Majority Whip Tom Cole (R-OK) was sanguine about the prospects of working with a President Hillary Clinton, who, he suggested "could be easier to work with than the President has been." 

Former Congressman and long-time party wise man Vin Weber (R-MN) went farther: "The story line seems to be at the grassroots level, the Republicans just hate Hillary Clinton, they all want her in jail, blah blah blah. Ain’t so. Not true in the Congress. The people who served with Hillary Clinton in Congress as Republicans got along with her, respected her, and worked with her. Didn’t agree with her, don’t want her to be President, but the notion that she will come in hated by everyone in Congress simply is not an accurate statement."

There is a long time left to go in this campaign, which in many respects doesn't really start until Labor Day. It used to be that the opposing party stayed silent during the other party's convention week. Clearly, that is no longer the case, and for his part, Donald Trump is incapable of keeping quiet. But this week, by jumping on the story of the Russian hacking of the DNC, he may have only hurt himself.

Sure, all publicity is good publicity for a reality show celebrity, but as the CNN poll suggests, educated white voters--and particularly relatively moderate Republicans--cannot be pleased by either the conduct or the words of their nominee over the past week. Not only is he incapable of keeping his sophomoric rhetoric under control, but he glories in it. It is one thing to admire Vladimir Putin, but it is quite another to suggest that encouraging foreign attacks on our homeland by a foreign power is an acceptable stance for a presidential nominee.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Delusional.

Two months ago, Ted Cruz summed up what many had come to believe about Donald Trump:

"The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don't think this country has ever seen... Everything in Donald's world is about Donald. And he combines being a pathological liar, and I say pathological because I actually think Donald, if you hooked him up to a lie detector test, he could say one thing in the morning, one thing at noon and one thing in the evening, all contradictory and he'd pass the lie detector test each time. Whatever lie he's telling, at that minute he believes it."

In his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump believed every word he said. If anyone was surprised by the tenor of Trump's acceptance speech, it only means that they didn't watch any of his stump speeches over the course of the campaign. He might have been reading from a prompter, but the speech was vintage Trump. As is his custom, he either lied or misrepresented data to fit his narrative, he demonized individuals and institutions as part of the global conspiracy of corruption and incompetence--this time he added the FBI to his list--who stand in his path.

There was nothing new in the dystopian tenor of the picture he painted of America. This has been central to his rhetoric since the day he announced his candidacy in June 2015. His anti-immigrant, anti-trade and anti-Muslim themes, the anti-Semitic and white supremacist dogwhistles, have been interlinked in his vision of a working class America beset by crime, economic insecurity, and the predations of political and corporate elites.

Trump honed his skills at stoking the anger and resentments among older, working class voters as the leader of the Birther movement, and throughout his campaign he has never deviated from his core message. In his acceptance speech, Trump painted himself as the working class hero, who will champion the forgotten and voiceless Americans. Just as he did with the campaign slogan Make America Great Again, in his speech he succinctly summed up his message: I am your voice. In his narrative, and as rabidly embraced by those in attendance last night, the working class are the ones who have been the victims of crime and wage suppression at the hands of immigrants. They are the ones whose jobs have been lost and they are the ones who struggle to make ends meet as the result of trade deals that have enriched corporate leaders and politicians.

Many traditional Republicans--those who have been enriched by globalization, free trade and open borders--prayed that he would pivot in this speech. As if to signal that there would be no kinder, gentler, more compliant Trump in the offing, the day before his big speech, Donald Trump doubled down on his anti-NATO, pro-Putin stance that has enraged the Republican foreign policy establishment. Asked what he would do if Russian tanks rumbled into Estonia, Trump suggested that the United States has more important things to worry about than the fate of Europe. Americanism, not globalism, as he put it last night, has been his stance for a better part of a year now. So much for global leadership.

Trump did pivot in this speech, it just wasn't in the direction that establishment Republicans--or conservatives for that matter--had in mind. Conservative pundits have warned from day one that Donald Trump was not one of them. He was pro-choice before he was pro-life. His mangling of "Two Corinthians" was a sure sign that there was no bible on his nightstand. He was, they warned, a New York liberal; balls-to-bones, as the Oracle would have put it.

Over the course of the convention, you could see the magnitude of the pivot coming. Over the course of this convention, the Trump children have moved front and center as the apostles of the Church of Donald Trump. In his speech on day three of the convention--a speech largely overlooked because he was the speaker immediately following Ted Cruz--second son Eric Trump began to shift the vision of what we should expect from a Trump administration. He offered barely a nod to conservative principles, suggesting instead the rebuilding of the nation's infrastructure, its run down neighborhoods, and its schools. Ford, Nabisco, Carrier and other companies would bring their factories back home. It was not just that Eric Trump's vision was more FDR than Ronald Reagan, but his appeal to an audience will beyond the normal range of the GOP.

To the unemployed voter sitting at home watching me right now, wondering how you're going to make your next mortgage payment, or rent payment, my father is running for you... To the schoolteacher forced to walk through metal detectors each and every day into an underfunded school, my father is running for you... To single mothers, to families with special needs children, to middle class families who can no longer afford medical benefits sufficient to cover their everyday needs, my father is running for you.

The next day, Ivanka Trump took it one step further. First, as if to confirm what skeptical conservatives had long concluded about her father, she let the partisan audience know that she is not a Republican. Then she proceeded to expand her brother's summation of the Trump vision to include affordable childcare for all, equality of wages for women, and paid maternity leave.

The speech that Donald Trump ultimately delivered was his standard stump speech appended to the most significant commitment to what can only be described as liberal, big government spending and social priorities--for lack of a better term--than I can recall. "Every action I take," Donald Trump stated, "I will ask myself: does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson who have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child America?"

And yet the partisan Republican audience went wild each step of the way, even as Trump's commitments wandered farther from the right and deeper to the left. The assembled hard core of the GOP--the same crowd that had cheered on Laura Ingraham's red meat attack on the leftward drift of modern society and assertion of the individual work ethic as the solution for what ails those same youths--similarly applauded their candidate's commiseration with unemployed African American youths and Latinos living in poverty as they did for his obligatory nods to the Second Amendment and deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

And then came Trump's comments about the Orlando terrorist attack, and his commitment to protect the LGBT community:

"The terrorist targeted the LGBTQ community. No good. And we're going to stop it... As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology."

[Note: Andrew Sullivan commented while live blogging the speech: "I keep giggling at “LGBTQ”. Who actually uses all five consonants, except those saying it for the first time? But Trump seems genuine in his support for gay people and our humanity. It’s cynical and sincere."]

And the crowd went nuts yet again, to such an extent that even Trump seemed to be perplexed at the enthusiastic response. This is, after all, the Republican National Convention that has restorative therapy for gay children as part of its platform. When the crowd settled, he went off script to comment: "And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering what I just said. Thank you. Thank you."

Trump's speech was a home run, from a political standpoint. From any objective viewpoint the tenor of the speech was nakedly authoritarian, and from a content standpoint it was utter nonsense. There has likely never been a convention speech that offered so much to so many, with so little to back it up. Bernie Sanders was raked over the coals for advocating a higher educational entitlement projected to cost $75 billion a year. Donald Trump, meanwhile, proposed $10 trillion in tax cuts, said he would pay off $19 trillion in national debt, and now proposes to rebuild the nation's transportation and other infrastructure at a cost of trillions more. He will eliminate ISIS and Islamic extremism (eliminating Saudi Arabia, perhaps?) Yet there is no uproar, only the cheers of a political party that has not only suspended disbelief, but seems content to move forward with a candidate who can only be described as delusional.

Donald Trump not only knows his audience, but their commitment to him now transcends their commitment to the Republican Party. From the early days of his campaign, Trump has been at odds with central tenets of modern Republicanism. This election year that was supposed to be dominated by billionaire campaign contributors and the social Darwinist principles advocated by House Republicans. Trump upended all of that from the get-go, with his attacks on globalization, free trade and the corruption of political money.

Rather than pivoting back toward the GOP mainstream, Trump used this speech to broaden his working class appeal, and to show his supporters--to their evident glee--the alignment of their interests with those of others in similar economic circumstances--single mothers, Latinos and African Americans. For decades, this alignment of interests among working class whites and minorities has been the Holy Grail in the Democratic Party. It was astonishing to see Trump pursue that path, just days before the Democrats gather in Philadelphia.

The success of this speech will be seen in the weeks ahead in whether it shifts Donald Trump's unfavorability rating in public polls. Like Hillary Clinton, Trump's success in the fall will depend on a combination between his success in driving up negative perceptions of her, as well as moderating negative perceptions of him. While this speech appears on the surface to constitute an effort to expand his voter base to include the single mothers, African Americans and Latinos that he appealed to in his speech, it is more likely that the pivot was targeted toward suburban white woman.

Suburban Republican woman living in the battleground states of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Colorado have been a critical swing group for several election cycle. According to public opinion polling, more than half of college educated white voters, and women in particular, have indicated that they view Donald Trump as racist. For those voters, softening the negative view of Trump as a racist, xenophobic bigot is critical if he is to have a chance to win their votes, and in turn the election, in November. The Trump campaign needs to make it palatable for suburban women to tell their friends they are supporting Trump. Thus, a speech that put the travails of African American youths, struggling Latinos and the persecution of the LGBT community front and center.

The speech, like his campaign, was a tour de force of egoism and self-delusion. But as Ted Cruz suggested, he believes every word of it. And as we learned over the course of the week, his children believe every word of it. And if the roars of the crowd are any measure, the assembled base of the Republican Party has united as one and believe every word of it. Now it comes down to college educated Republican women. If they buy into the sincerity of his words--and set aside, or at least suspend, their revulsion at the years of racial, xenophobic and bigoted rhetoric that have defined his political career--this speech will come to be viewed as a critical moment in the election.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reaping what you sow.

For the third day in a row, the morning-after headlines were not what the Trump campaign could have wanted. Tuesday, the morning after day one, with its theme on Make America Safe Again, the media storyline was not of a Republican Party unified to save the nation from a Hillary Clinton Presidency, but instead on the plagiarism in Melanie Trump's speech.

Wednesday morning, after day two, and its focus on Make America Work Again, the media focus was not on the vision and leadership of Donald Trump, and his unique capacity to cure all that ails us, but instead the mangled responses to the plagiarism issue by Campaign Manager Paul Manafort and Donald Trump himself.

And as the sun rose on the fourth and final day of the convention, the headlines said little about how Trump would Make America First Again or the introduction of rock solid conservative, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, as Donald Trump's running mate. Instead, the entire focus was on the prime time speech by Ted Cruz, not only refusing to endorse Trump, but giving license to conservatives across the country to not give Trump their vote.

The conventional wisdom is that conventions provide candidates with their last opportunity to send a controlled message to the voters, and, along with the debates, are one of the few chances a candidate has to shift voter perceptions. In that regard, the first three days of this convention have moved the needle in the wrong direction, as each morning the narrative coming out of the convention has been about campaign problems, not deliberately crafted campaign storylines.

Even more than allowing the plagiarism issue first to happen and then to fester, allowing Ted Cruz to reject the nominee from center state--in front of a prime time national TV audience--was an astonishing blunder. The Trump campaign has insisted that they knew what was coming, and no doubt they did. But they are damned if they knew, and damned if they didn't. If they knew the tenor of the speech Cruz was going to give, he should have been assigned a speaking role early on the first day, or even none at all. If they didn't know, they were not paying attention, perhaps a worse indictment.

Ted Cruz never endorsed Trump, and had not given any private assurance that he intended to. Perhaps as the convention approached, Donald Trump--the master of the deal, after all--believed that he could bring Cruz around, but if by Monday it was still up in the air, it was inexcusable to allow the third night speaking slot--positioned right before the introduction of the Vice President--to stand. Not since 1964--when Nelson Rockefeller refused to endorse Barry Goldwater--has a vanquished primary candidate declined to endorse a major party nominee, and Rockefeller was not allowed to make his feelings known in front of a prime time audience of twenty million people.

The RNC convention is an ingathering of a tribe of sorts. By design, the delegates represent a narrower political spectrum than that of the Republican Party as a whole. They share a proscribed world view and moral outlook, and represent a delimited demographic. By and large, the delegates are white and they are old. At one point, as I sat in the arena with my colleague Jay--both of us in our 60s--he leaned over at one point and commented that he felt like a kid in that crowd.

The third night theme was Making America First Again, though it will be best remembered for perfidy and betrayalRadio talk show host Laura Ingraham began the evening. Ingraham is a smart, aggressive partisan who gave a red meat speech narrowly cast to her audience inside the arena, a homily simmering with anger that affirmed the collective values of the assembled masses. We worked from the time we were young children. My parents didn't believe there were any jobs Americans wouldn't do.... I asked my mom once, when I was young, why are there people burning the American flag? Because their parents didn't teach them about respect.

It is all about respect.

Who is it that those people [Democrats, protesters] respect, exactly? Many in public office don't respect the rule of law. [turning to look into the camera] Isn't that right, Mrs. Clinton. 

It is sad to see this happen to the country that we love... We deserve better, and we can do better. Donald Trump understands that we have to turn this around. That we have to restore respect, on all levels of society. He is a leader who will restore respect.

This convention has been an irony-free zone. Lost on the crowd was the irony of Ingraham suggesting that Donald Trump was the man to model and restore norms of respect and decency to our politics and institutions. This, after all, is the man who built his campaign around taunts and name-calling reminiscent of a Kindergarten sandbox, who all but stood ready to bare his penis to the nation to prove his virility.

The most powerful speaker of the night was African-American pastor Darrell Scott, who preached his testimony to Trump's character. "I've known him for quite some time. I know he's not a racist. I know he's not a xenophobe. I know he's not a misogynist. And I just would love to be able to convince everyone of that." Trump, he continued, "is very image-conscious. He's very concerned about his brand and about his appearance." 

Those in the arena may not need convincing, but Scott's words, and those of others who spoke about him in glowing terms, stood in sharp contrast to the persona that Trump has deliberately cultivated over years in the public eye. His flirtations with, if not sponsorship of, the lunatic fringe as a leader of the Birther movement provided the jumping off point for a presidential campaign that has led to a widespread view that he is in fact a racist, a xenophobe, and a misogynist.

As was the case last night, the strongest case for Donald Trump was made by one of his children, in this case Eric Trump. Unlike his older half-brother Donald Jr. who speech the night before was well delivered, but oddly disconnected from anything that their father has said he stands for, Eric Trump provided an articulate argument for the Trump agenda as he has represented it over the course of the past year. In contrast to the mainstream conservative speech 24 hours earlier, this speech was pretty much New York liberal, with the exception of a nod to the Second Amendment. Eric Trump called out the unemployed, teachers and single moms, as people his father would fight for. He touched on race and gender. He promised that his father would rebuild that the nation's infrastructure, bring Ford and Nabisco and other manufacturing plants back home, rebuild urban neighborhoods, make our schools the envy of the world and put the fat cats in their place.

To his family, Donald Trump is a titanic figure, good and kind, respectful and uplifting, and both Eric and Donald Junior assure us that he can do the impossible. But they, of course, are his children. Yet little or none of this comes across in his public persona, were he comes across as nasty, petty, a sociopathic narcissist, a serial liar and a con man. These are not my words, they are from those he has run against, in a campaign built around attacking his opponents, not with opposition research or reasoned arguments as one might have expected from the man described by either of his sons, but with taunts and labels and what ultimately deteriorated into twitter-enabled, high-tech lynchings, as he leveraged his millions of followers on social media to publicly shame, blame or humiliate his opponents.

Perhaps for Trump it is all strictly business, just the sticks and stones of political campaigns, but just as Darrell Scott suggested that Donald Trump is very protective of his brand, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio--and others down the line--are protective of their's, and the belittling taunts, attacks and innuendo came to be seen as deeply personal. And last night was time for payback. Trump's attacks on Cruz were perhaps the most personal. Casting tweets out to a social media audience of millions, Trump made fun of Heidi Cruz's looks and intimated in that way that only Trump can that Cruz's father--whom he reveres much as Eric and Donald Trump revere their father--had been complicit in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Revenge, they say, is a dish best eaten cold, and it is hard to believe that Ted Cruz did not take deep, personal satisfaction at the opportunity to stand before 20 million people and exact some measure of revenge.

I don't know if Laura Ingraham knew what was coming, but she did go out of her way to taunt the anti-Trumpers, those who had lost but who had not come on board. Perhaps that was about Jeb and John Kasich as much as Ted Cruz, but knowing what lay ahead in the evening, she appeared to be talking directly to Ted Cruz. Ingraham found the unwillingness of those who have chosen not to endorse Donald Trump outrageous and infuriating. But the moral lesson she had omitted from her speech was the one about reaping what you sow. To those in the arena, who exploded with rage as they realized toward the end of Cruz's speech what was coming, Ted Cruz was the traitor. But perhaps history will write the story differently.

Monday night was the defining night at this convention so far, because Monday night is when it became clear that the Trump candidacy is not about Donald Trump at all. It is not about who he is, or his fidelity to one wife or three. It is not about whether he can fix America as his son's so fervently argue, or if he actually hit his ceiling in terms of his ability to solve public problems when he fixed the Wohlman Skating Rink in Central Park. It doesn't matter if he releases his tax returns, or if he even paid taxes. Or whether he is a Christian or a Conservative, much less a Christian Conservative who has accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. And it certainly isn't about whether or not Trump has a successful convention. This campaign is only about Hillary Clinton, now described by Ben Carson to the wild endorsement of the assembled delegates as nothing less than an accomplice of Satan himself.

For those who have gathered here in Cleveland, that apparently is enough. But last night, Ted Cruz suggested otherwise. He suggested by what he said and what he didn't say that this year, it is the GOP that has sold its soul, and for that, he is reaping the whirlwind. It may earn him the enduring hatred of the conservative movement that he still hopes to lead, and cost him the future shot at the presidency that he covets.

But it does not mean he is wrong.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

RNC Day 2: Veering off message.

Day two of the Republican National Convention started auspiciously. Somehow, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort missed the memo about campaign crisis management that suggested that when you make a mistake you acknowledge it, deal with it and move on. Faced with the fiasco of Melania Trump's convention speech having taken lines from Michelle Obama's convention speech eight years ago, Manafort chose to deny that the similarity in the words was anything more than a casual coincidence. As the saying goes, if you put one million monkeys in front of a million typewriters, one of them is bound to peck out the complete works of Shakespeare. But it was not enough to deny the obvious, Manafort then pivoted to point a finger at the root cause of Melania's problem: The Clinton campaign. When Hillary is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy them. 

Manafort's strategy of denial and deflection was both bad management and bad politics. Trump's entire political career has been built on casting aspersions on individuals and groups alike, beginning with his championing of the birther movement. During the campaign itself, he began with Jeb Bush and the entire country of Mexico, and moved on from there. Now, for some reason, Manafort and Trump both seemed to think that Melania deserved the benefit of the doubt, as Trump lashed out at the media for paying any regard to the issue.

Manafort's efforts to stonewall the plagiarism problem only egged people on. By the time Trump staffer Meredith McIver stepped forward the next day to admit culpability for inadvertently including Michelle Obama's words in Melania Trump's speech, the damage was done. The focus on Melania had turned social media attention to the fact that she apparently lied on her publicly published bio, which states that she graduated from college in her home country with a degree in design and architecture, while according to her biographers she dropped out of college after her freshman year. Perhaps more damning, if less discussed, was that it proved both Manafort and Donald Trump himself to by liars and hypocrites. First they denied the facts, and then pointed the finger of blame at Hillary and the media. It may have started as an innocent mistake, but by their actions Manafort and Trump together compounded the damage, to Melania, to their convention, and to their own efforts to prove themselves ready for prime time.

Appropriate to the focus on Melania's education and work visa history, the convention theme of day two was Make America Work Again. It lacked the punch of day one, when the theme of Make America Safe Again was easily melded with attacks on Hillary Clinton as the root of our national sense of insecurity. Day one began with terrorism, moved on the immigration and then ended up with the urgency of sending Hillary Clinton to prison for her high crimes and misdemeanors. At best, for Republicans, the end result of day one was the articulation of a campaign strategy that will unite the Republican Party and put it on the path to victory in the fall. At worst, should Hillary prevail in the fall, the waves of vitriolic, anti-Hillary diatribes that constituted the day one agenda will serve as the basis for the nullification of the validity of the election and lay the groundwork for four years of ever more bitter national division.

The tone of the second day of speeches was plodding by comparison with the first day. Despite the fact that the deterioration in working class white worker wages was supposed to be the root cause of voter anger and catalyst of the Trump candidacy, the Make America Work Again agenda and discussions of policy or what a Trump administration might actually do sparked little evident enthusiasm across the delegate ranks. Speaker of the House and RNC Convention Chairman Paul Ryan (R, WI) tried to galvanize interest among the gathered delegates in his much-vaunted public policy agenda to little avail. Ryan is a protégé of former New York Congressman and Vice Presidential candidate Jack Kemp, often described as the voice of "bleeding heart conservatism" in the Republican Party. Ryan, who continues to resist a full throated embrace of his party's presidential nominee, is a true believer in the notion that politics is a contest of ideas, and that public policy is the anvil on which political parties should be measured and tested. Make America Work Again was right up his alley.

Yet as Ryan spoke, the arena was silent. Perhaps the apparent delegate indifference reflected the views presented in a Politico article on the convention that suggested that while the delegates "all seem to agree the Obama economy is a ghastly mess, except for the economy wherever they happen to live." Whatever the reason, those delegates sat on their hands as Ryan argued for ending identity politics and building an economy that offered respect for all. "So much that you and I care about," Ryan argued "...stands in the balance in this election." Nothing but silence. All that was left for Ryan to do was to appeal to the unity of the party--code now for the capitulation of anti-Trump forces--"What do you say that we unify this party..." Finally, Ryan won the big roar that he had sought, and he exited the stage.

Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R. CA) followed Ryan and made a plea for a more expansive Republican ethos. "Republicans," McCarthy suggested, "believe in an America that is not divided by race and ethnicity and gender." Wild cheers from a small wedge of California delegates seated right by the stage, while the rest of the arena was silent. "Government will help those who truly need it, and help all to rise." Cheers again from California alone. Like Ryan before him, McCarthy's only moment of engagement from the crowd came in his closing words, when he invoked the words guaranteed to win the crowd. "Ronald Reagan...City on a Hill..." McCarthy said, pandering to his audience, and finally bringing cheers and applause across the hall. And like Ryan before him, he was gone.

The theme of the final night of the convention is slated to be Make America One Again, yet the tenor of the crowd through the second day remained one of vilification of Trump's enemies, both within the party and beyond. The delegates on the floor roundly booed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R. KY) each time he was introduced on the podium. And each time state delegations entered the votes for other candidates during the nomination process, there were boos and catcalls. Donald Trump himself called into a radio show during the day one testimony of Patricia Smith--pushing the most vivid speech of the day from the TV screens--to trash Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has declined to endorse him. While Paul Manafort and Chris Christie both publicly castigated the Bush family for not signing on.

Donald Trump personally established the tone of nasty, personal invective and yet both he and his campaign staff seem genuinely surprised that he is viewed as a liar, a racist and a bitterly divisive figure, both inside and outside of the Republican Party. The testimonies of many who know him paint a picture of a man fundamentally different than the image that Trump has cultivated of himself in his political life, dating back to his embrace of the Birther movement. Trump has built his campaign around the art of blaming and labeling, and it continues to define the campaign. It began with his attacks on Jeb Bush, who this week penned an op-ed in the Washington Post, wistfully suggesting that Donald Trump does not reflect the principles or inclusive legacy of the Republican Party. Paul Ryan has struggled to assert Bush's sentiments. But the crowd is having none of it, and is committed to the vilification of the enemies within, much less those without.

Chris Christie's speech took the attacks on Hillary Clinton to a new level. Each of the delegates I have met here have been friendly and affable, yet in the arena, as a crowd, they have been easily moved to the edge of being a riotous, angry mob. Role playing a trial of Hillary Clinton, with himself as the prosecutor and the delegates as the jury, Christie willfully encouraged the mob, amping the rhetoric up to new highs and giving license to the delegates for their continued chants of LOCK HER UP! Christie went beyond Benghazi and the email issues to put new arguments on the table. Most astonishing was his accusation that she was personally responsible for the kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Guilty, roared the crowd. LOCK HER UP!


Christie’s was the most powerful and most engaging of the night’s speeches, and its success tells much about how weak the Make America Work Again theme was. When in doubt, rip Hillary. And if Christie's speech was off the theme, Donald Trump, Jr's was not much better. Trump was tanned and articulate, brilliant if you were a fan, smarmy if you were not. His speech was a perfect example of why it is great to be a speechwriter. Conservative scholar Frank Buckley wrote the speech and used it as a platform to present his own ideas, in his own words, and hear those words coming out of the mouth of a handsome, articulate and aspiring politician.

The only problem with Junior's speech was that it had little or nothing to do with the economic agenda that Donald Trump has articulated to date. There was little or nothing about trade. Nothing about immigration. Nothing about corporate greed or Wall Street. Nothing about preserving social security. Nothing about the range of issues, incendiary or otherwise, that have become party of the Trump oeuvre over the past year. Instead of the Trump agenda--an agenda that has in many respects had more in common with Bernie Sanders than with the GOP--Buckley wrote and Junior gave a speech that was, quite literally, right off the pages of The American Spectator, a monthly conservative journal, with a focus on reducing regulation and allowing school choice. It was a good speech. It won wide praise. It simply had nothing to do with the campaign that his father has run to date.

Instead, Donald Junior offered a simple vision of how his father would Make America Work. Simply stated, his father can do anything. For him, the impossible is just a starting point, so he will simply fix it. Junior laid out one theme after another and said that with his father at the helm, the nation would be transformed. There were no programs, there were no proposals. The was none of the policy that Paul Ryan holds dear. Just his father. And there would be no more data. Trump's are not about data, they go with their gut. It bore a remarkable similarity to the campaign we are watching, and no doubt if Donald Trump wins the presidency, it will only affirm his confidence in his gut. He will fix America, his son is quite certain of it. I could only recall a story that former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt told about a conversation with George W. Bush in November 2009. "Barack Obama," the outgoing President commented, "is about to find out that it is not as easy as he thinks it is." 

The day came toward its close with the words of former presidential candidate Ben Carson. In his unique, soft spoken manner, Carson had nothing to say about making America work again, and instead offered the most scathing indictment yet of Hillary Clinton. With a syllogistic reasoning mirroring God is love. Love is blind. Stevie Wonder is blind. Therefore Stevie Wonder is God. Carson made the argument to the rapt faithful in attendance. Saul Alinsky cited Lucifer. Hillary Clinton wrote about Alinsky. Therefore Hillary Clinton is a Satanist.

Enough said.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Remember her in all you do.

Day One of the Republican National Convention may be remembered for many things. 

There was the floor fight over the adoption of the report of the Rules Committee. This was a key vote because adoption of the rules as presented by the committee would drive the last nail in the coffin of the Never Trump movement and their effort to free delegates to vote their conscience on the first ballot. The acting chair, Representative Steve Womack (R. Arkansas), called for a voice vote on the report of the Rules Committee and quickly awarded it to the Ayes, and indeed from up where I was sitting in the nose-bleed seats in the upper level of the arena, it sounded like 55-45 or so in favor of the Trump supporters.

The anti-Trump forces on the floor rebelled and called for a roll call vote. Under party rules, they were entitled to demand a roll call vote if they had the support of a majority of the members of at least seven delegations. The pro-Trump supporters tried to drown out calls for a roll call by chanting U-S-A., U-S-A, while the anti-Trump delegates changed Shame-Shame, in response.

Then there was the silence from the podium, as Womack left the stage and Trump forces scurried to squelch the opposition on the floor. After what seemed to be an uncomfortably long time, Steve Womack reappeared, with his counsel huddled by his side, and reported that while nine state delegations had petitioned for a roll call vote, a recount of the petitioning state delegations indicated that three of them no longer had sufficient votes to petition for a floor vote, as delegates in each had changed their votes.

One has to wonder what sort of backroom arm twisting had led to the change of heart--old school threats, or perhaps offers of future vacations at Mara Lago--but the end result was a second affirmation of the rules by a voice vote. "We are in now in uncharted territory," lamented anti-Trump Senator Mike Lee (R. Utah), though Lee seemed to have a short memory, as both the uprising and its denouement seemed tame by historical political convention standards. It lasted all of 20 minutes or so.

Or perhaps the first day of the convention will be remembered for Melania Trump's emergence from the shadows of her husband's campaign to give a careful, graceful speech, befitting the trained supermodel she once was. She promised a campaign, like all Trump undertakings, filled with “drama and excitement.” Few commented on the irony of the appearance of the new hero of the American conservative movement--a movement built on religious and moral principles of which fidelity and commitment are surely a part--on stage with his third wife. Melania's speech was overshadowed by the apparent cribbing of lines from an earlier convention speech by Michele Obama, a problem that was compounded first by Melania's suggestion that she had written the speech herself, and then the denial by Trump advisor Paul Manafort that any plagiarism had in fact taken place. But unless the campaign continues down the path of denial of the obvious, it would seem unlikely that mistake will have any enduring impact.

But the unchallenged star of the show on the first night was the woman who was not present. For the divided Republican Party seeking a path forward, the first day of the convention was all about Hillary Clinton. This will no doubt be the pattern of the days to come, and will constitute the core strategy for the campaign to come. The hatred of Hillary Clinton is raw, it is deep, and it is consuming.

Conversations I had with delegates over the course of the afternoon suggested that each had their own reasons for coming to embrace the New York billionaire. There was Diana, a delegate from Arkansas, who had built her own business over forty years. She picked Trump from the get-go from the field of candidates first and foremost because she wanted a candidate who knew what it meant to meet a payroll, and was tired of politicians.

There was Donna, from Boston, who embraced Trump early on. Terrorism is the issue that attracted her to Trump's campaign--in large measure in response to the Boston bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers--and particularly his unapologetic language. She said she is tired of having to be careful about what she says and how she says it, and things people need to toughen up. "I am sure you think I'm crazy," she said, smiling, "but I think Islam should be illegal." I reassured her that she was, as I smiled back.


There was Drew, from Texas, whose motivating issue was Obamacare paying for sex reassignment hormone therapy for a four-year-old. "The parents should be in jail," he commented, leaving aside the obvious question of where he had come up with a story that he fervently believed.

But if each of the people I talked two saw something different in Trump, they shared a common disdain for Hillary. Each day of the Convention is designed to have a different thematic spin on Making America Great Again, and the theme of the first day of was Making America Safe Again. While media reports have focused on the chaos around the rules committee vote and Melania Trump speech fiasco, inside the hall, the speeches were visceral and interconnected. And each of them tied back to Hillary Clinton's culpability for peoples fears and insecurity.

First came Benghazi, and the testimonies of young men who had fought there and older women who had lost children. Then came illegal immigration and the testimonies of those who had lost siblings and children in the gun and drug wars along our southern border and in other areas. Then came the deaths of police officers. Blue lives matter, and more important, rules matter. They are what bind society together.

At root of all of the testimony, on foreign policy, on immigration policy, and on domestic law and order, were the interconnected themes of the duplicity of Hillary Clinton--whose decisions were criminal, who was indifferent to the personal suffering that ensued, and who was herself above the law--and the courage of Donald Trump as the antidote. Hillary Clinton, one presenter commented, wants to be president because it is good for Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump wants to be president because it is good for America. The Donald Trump of this GOP could not be more different that the Donald Trump seen by Democrats and in much of the media, much less as described by Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and other vanquished candidates. Gone is the sociopathic narcissist, the man who makes it up as he goes along and says whatever it takes to keep his audience engaged, this Donald Trump--their Donald Trump--is a selfless patriot, poised to save the nation from impending collapse.

The most powerful speaker was Patricia Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, who died in Benghazi. Her grieving testimony was riveting. "Hillary Clinton lied to me, and then called me a liar." A mothers grief. "Hillary Clinton is a mother and a grandmother of two. I am a mother, and a grandmother of two. How could she do this to me. Donald Trump is everything Hillary is not. He is blunt and strong. He will not hesitate to kill the terrorists who threaten American lives. He will make America stronger. The entire campaign comes down to a single question. If Hillary Clinton cannot give us the truth, why should we give her the presidency. She deserves to be in prison, she deserves to be in stripes."

For all the talk about chaos on the first day, the simple truth is that the Republican Party will coalesce around its nominee. Even die hard movement conservatives, who must recognize that Trump has become a conservative as a matter of political expedience, will not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Trump may only have 70% support among Republicans today, but come election day, and a binary choice between Trump and Hillary, that support will be well over 90%.

With the rules committee vote behind them, the path toward uniting the Republican Party is clear, and it is Hillary. The path for the Democratic Party is less clear. Certainly, the majority of Bernie Sanders supports will end up with Hillary, but unlike the Republican electorate, which tends to be older, Democrats--and in particular Sanders supports--are younger, and turnout in fall elections tends to be a function of age. In Hillary's favor is that her campaign must have always assumed low turnout among younger voters. Her problem will be that a fair share of most enthusiastic Democratic voters in the primaries were young and were for Sanders. Bringing them out in the fall may not be an easy task.

After the first day in Cleveland, it seemed apparent that the fall election will be less about reaching out to moderate voters than turning out the base. America is politically divided, and this election portends more of the same. The theme of the fourth night is supposed to be Making America One Again, but that is an illusion, if it is a sincere intention at all. But they have a good chance of Making the GOP One Again. In that regard, Donald Trump had a good first day. Forget the commentary about chaos, this was about red meat, and there was a lot of it. As long as Republicans remember Hillary in all they do, she will show them the path.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Puerto Rico, Congress and the rule of law.

Late last week, in a remarkably bi-partisan manner, the House of Representation passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. If the legislation makes its way through the Senate and onto the President's desk, it would establish a financial control board to govern the finances of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico--similar to how municipal financial crises have been handled over the past half century. A moratorium would be established on the repayment of more than $70 billion of Puerto Rico debt until the new financial control board determines what needs to be done.

The legislation achieved support across the aisle in part because it involves no appropriation of federal funds, and thus does not provide a bailout for Puerto Rico from taxpayer funds. Instead, it lays the groundwork for a "bail-in," by which whatever financial relief is made available to Puerto Rico government will come from holders of Puerto Rico bonds who will "voluntarily" provide financial relief to the Commonwealth by forgoing all or a portion of what is due to them.

Few of the actors on the ground seem to be particularly happy with the proposed solution to the Puerto Rico crisis, which is touted along with the bi-partisan support for the legislation as further evidence of its fairness. To Puerto Rican activists, the Congressional imposition of an undemocratic financial control board is a usurpation of Puerto Rican sovereignty and marks a return to colonial rule by Congress. To investors that hold Puerto Rico bonds, the legislation lays the ground work for the unilateral abrogation of legal contracts and constitutional protections upon which financial markets rely.

But both of these perspectives are flawed at the most fundamental level. The proposed Congressional action does not suggest a return to colonial rule for the simple reason that Puerto Rico is a colony. And the proposed legislation does not grant any new power to Congress to intervene in Puerto Rico's contractual relationships and unilaterally dictate the terms of a restructuring of Puerto Rico debt, as Congress has always had complete authority to do so. The Puerto Rico financial crisis is unlike any other state or local government financial crisis--or Greece for that matter--because Puerto Rico is unlike any other state or local government. Indeed the Puerto Rico financial crisis is not a financial crisis at all, but evidence of two deeper problems that that the House legislation fails to address. First, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, and does not want to be. Second, Congress is responsible for the administration and welfare of the territories, but it does not want to be.

A bit of history and background are important to understanding how Puerto Rico and Congress got into the current situation. Puerto Rico is war booty, won by the United States--along with the Philippines and Guam--under the Treaty of Paris that marked the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, whose status under the U.S. Constitution has remained unchanged in the intervening century. Under Article 4 of the U.S. Constitution--in what is referred to as the Territories Clause--Congress is responsible for the administration of the territories. Territory is America-speak for colony. The United States has had many territories over the years. Some, like the Philippines, have gone on to become independent, while others petitioned for and were ultimately granted statehood.

In 1952, the people of Puerto Rico proposed, and Congress and the President approved, a constitution giving home rule to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In the Spanish version of that constitution, the name given is Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico--or literally the Associated Free State of Puerto Rico. However, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled, neither the granting of home rule, nor adding commonwealth or associated free state to its name, changed the status of Puerto Rico as a territory, nor lessened the authority of Congress over its affairs. While in the eyes of many, the approval of the Puerto Rico constitution changed everything, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, it actually changed nothing.

This week, the Supreme Court once again affirmed the Constitutional status of Puerto Rico as a ward of Congress. At issue was the Puerto Rico Recovery Act that would have allowed Puerto Rico to bypass Congress and unilaterally set the terms of a restructuring of its debts. During oral arguments earlier this year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed intent on ignoring the essential fact of Puerto Rico's territorial status and its exclusion by Congress from the federal bankruptcy code when she suggested that Puerto Rico must have the latitude to restructure its debts. “It is inherent in state sovereignty that states have to have some method, [of addressing issues of insolvency]” Justice Sotomayor argued, conflating the rules governing states with what she seemed to feel should also apply to Puerto Rico.

In a similar vein, Justice Ginsburg asked, “Why would Congress put Puerto Rico in this never-never land? That is, it can’t use Chapter 9 [bankruptcy], and it can’t use a Puerto Rican substitute for Chapter 9.” But Congress did not put Puerto Rico in never-never land, the Constitution put Puerto Rico in the hands of Congress. Under current law, and as consistently affirmed by the Supreme Court, Congress is the bankruptcy court for Puerto Rico. It is the sovereign parent with full power and responsibility for the welfare of Puerto Rico. That may be never-never land in the eyes of Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, but it was not never-never land in the eyes of James Madison. And this week, in a 5-2 decision--with Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissenting--the Supreme Court once again reaffirmed the plenary authority of Congress over Puerto Rico, as set forth in the Territories Clause.

This week's ruling by the Supreme Court cast a light on the failings of the legislation that passed the House just days earlier. As satisfying as it might be in this era of anti-Wall Street hostility to solve the Puerto Rico debt problem with money taken from bondholders, the House legislation will do little or nothing to fix the constitutional dilemma that is the underlying problem: Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States but does not want to be, while Congress is responsible for the administration and welfare of the territories but prefers to ignore its responsibility.

For decades now, Congress has failed in its essential Constitutional responsibility for the welfare of the territories, most notably in the case of Puerto Rico. Members of Congress sat on their hands as one Puerto Rico administration after another pursued policies destructive to the long-term health and fiscal sustainability of the Commonwealth, for their own political gain. In the early 1990s, pro-statehood politicians on the island advocated for the elimination of the Section 936 tax provisions that had been essential to the economic development of the island and that sustained an estimated 165,000 manufacturing jobs--and as much as 40% of the island's GDP. For years, Puerto Rican activists advocated for the closure of the Roosevelt Roads naval base and, in particular, military operations on the island of Vieques as part of their anti-colonial political advocacy. Political leaders of both major parties circumvented the balanced budget requirement of the 1952 English language constitution approved by Congress, choosing to follow a legal interpretation of the Spanish language version of the same constitution to sanction their layering on massive debts for operating purpose. And politicians of both political parties as well conspired in undermining the solvency of the worker pension fund that now stands as the most underfunded public pension fund in the country.

And all the while, Congress took one step after another--some by commission and others by omission--that undermined the viability of the Puerto Rico economy, giving little heed to the long-term implications of its actions, much less its Constitutional obligation. It conspired in the elimination of Section 936 of the IRS code, it approved the closing of Puerto Rico military facilities, it turned a blind eye to the underfunding of the Commonwealth pension system, and it looked the other way as one Puerto Rico governor after another circumvented the balanced budget requirements of their own constitution and built up debts they knew they could not afford.

Against this background, the Puerto Rico debt crisis is about constitutional principles and the rule of law as much as it is about fiscal mismanagement. Article VI, Section 8 of the Puerto Rico constitution approved in 1952, states that "In case the available revenues including surplus for any fiscal year are insufficient to meet the appropriations made for that year, interest on the public debt and amortization thereof shall first be paid, and other disbursements shall thereafter be made in accordance with the order of priorities established by law." This is a provision that was draft at the Puerto Rico constitutional convention, approved by Congress under its responsibilities set forth in the Territories Clause, signed by the President, and ratified by the people of Puerto Rico.

That kind of constitutional establishment of priorities only matters in bad economic times, such as Puerto Rico is experiencing today. After all, as long as things are going well and there is plenty of money to go around, such constitutional protections do not come into play. That is why we have constitutions, after all, to set forth the rules when problems arise, when people don't agree.

The problem of Puerto Rico dates back to the vision of James Madison for how the new republic was going to manage its territories. Last week, the House choose the easy path out of the current crisis by defining the problem narrowly as a debt crisis. Debt is an easy problem to solve in the short term, particularly when you have the power to change the rules with the stroke of a pen, as Congress does in the case of the territories. But the path that the House has chosen is fraught with unintended consequences. Should it choose the easy path forward of forcing a write-off of debts by bondholders, investors will be on notice that no territorial obligations will be secure going forward. If Congress chooses to undermine the sanctity of contracts and the rule of law and point the finger of blame at the bondholders, rather than in the mirror where true accountability lies, it will only undermine the long-term finances of all of the territories.

There is a solution that would uphold the rule of law and affirm constitutional governance, and it is a simple one. The laws securing each of the bond contracts should be upheld. As provided by Article 8 of the Puerto Rico constitution, those bonds that are general obligation bonds should be repaid from the first claim on all revenues as established therein. The bonds that are payable from a first claim on sales taxes should be repaid as those bond contracts require, so long as the sales tax revenues are sufficient to repay them. And so on down the line. Bonds whose claims are weaker, or that by law compete with the limited resources that will be left over, may not get repaid at all. That is what those bondholders agreed to, and the risk they undertook. This would not be a Congressional bailout, but rather an affirmation of the rule of law and the sanctity of contracts upon which so much else depends.

Congress is not obligated to repay any bondholder, Puerto Rico is. But if after paying the bondholders what they are contractually owed--under terms established in its own constitution--the Commonwealth cannot meet the health and safety needs of its people, Congress remains responsible to provide for the basic welfare of those citizens. Congress aided and abetted this problem as the building blocks of this crisis were put in place, one year after another, and it cannot now look in shock and horror at the mess that has come to pass on its watch, and change the laws and demand that others pay the bill.

The fundamental problem that underpins the Puerto Rico debt crisis rests in the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, decades after America has lost interest in being a colonial overlord. But until that basic fact of Puerto Rico's territorial status is changed--and the constitutional options are statehood or independence--Congress must do more than just lay off the consequences of its own failure on others. Justice Sotomayor may have been wrong on the law, as Justice Thomas suggested in his terse opinion for the majority, but with respect to public policy she is right. Both Puerto Rico and its bondholders must have a set of rules upon which both parties can rely when things do not work out. And in the present crisis, people should not ignore the fact that one of the main instigators of how things turned out was Congress itself.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.