Saturday, April 30, 2016

Left behind.

The contrast between the images could not be more stark. The Sunday New York Times top story above the fold, In New Age of Privilege, Not all Are in Same Boattrumpets the new Gilded Age. "That segment of the population," says the former CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines of their über elite passengers, "wants to be surrounded by people with similar characteristics." He was referring to The Haven, the exclusive section of the company's newest ship Norwegian Escape, where NCL's wealthiest passengers travel in a world of their own and have little, if any, contact with the rest of the ship. Further on, the article tells us, Delta Airlines picks up its highest end customers in a Porsche to ferry them to their connecting flights in Atlanta and New York.

Then there is the rise of Donald Trump. This was to be the year when a small cohort of billionaires expected to put their stamp on the Republican nomination and a candidate of their choosing into the White House. But from the moment Donald Trump descended down the escalator at Trump Tower to face the waiting media and announce his candidacy, it became apparent that this year was not going to go according to plan.

Donald Trump's success in trampling sixteen challengers to the Republican nomination should have alarm bells ringing across corporate America, as well as in the cloistered Haven on board the Norwegian Escape. It is one thing to see young voters in the Democratic Party flocking to the siren call of a democratic socialist--after all, that is what young voters have done for generations. But to see middle aged, white Republicans, suburban and rural alike, flocking to the banner of Trumpian economic resentments signals a far deeper problem than whatever drumbeat of protest might emanate from the socialist wing of the Democratic Party.

Many of those economic resentments are well-founded. Over the past four decades, the economy of the world has been transformed by United States economic policies supporting globalization and free trade that have produced growth in real incomes for hundreds of millions of people across the world. While the opening up of the world economy has greatly benefitted the wealthiest Americans--with technology and finance now the leading paths to great wealth, according to Forbes--the middle class Americans have not fared so well, as real wages have remain stagnant for the better part of four decades.

From the perspective of many Americans, the economic system is rigged. Globalization has pitted American workers in a wage competition death match with lower paid workers across the world. New technologies that seemingly offered the prospect of increasing labor productivity and wages have instead proven to exacerbate the problem in many industries. Instead of increasing wages, in a globally competitive labor environment where capital is mobile and abundant, productivity growth instead enhances the return on capital, further exacerbating the concentration of income and wealth.

However one describes the economic conditions that have given rise to the hoards flocking to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rallies--Republicans tend to describe the problem as wage stagnation while Democrats prefer to frame it as income inequality--the underlying data suggests a quandary that should concern all Americans. One does not have to believe a word that Donald Trump says to appreciate the importance of the issues that have led to his rise. The thousands upon thousands of people who regularly show up at Trump rallies have focused attention on long-standing economic policies that have enriched the few while undermining the stability of American families and their faith in the future.

Titans of the tech world are ecstatic about their vision of the tech-enabled world that lies just beyond the horizon. Advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printers and biotechnology offer a future that will accelerate the disruption of service and manufacturing industries alike. It is a future, in their minds, that reduces the need for mundane work and increasing the opportunity for unconstrained creativity. Yet looming behind this utopian vision lies the inevitability of continued elimination of existing jobs and pressure on real wage for the average American worker, further exacerbating the stratification of incomes and wealth. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, 47% of Americans could not come up with $400, in cash or from credit cards, in an emergency. For that half of America, no glowing vision of the future could make up for the prospect of losing the source of livelihood they now have.

Pressed to respond to the neo-Luddite fears of a future that will only exacerbate the economic pressures that have been steadily encroaching on American middle class incomes, tech guru Marc Andreessen has argued the oppositeTechnology will solve any environmental crisis created by economic growth, and the steady growth of global GDP attests to the absolute good created by the combination of exploding technological innovation and economic globalization. Yet he has neither sympathy nor a solution for the adverse economic impacts of the combination of technology and globalization on those employed in sectors of the economy that have been or inevitably will be disrupted and destroyed.

Arguments against fears about the continued adverse impacts of technology and globalization tend to focus on positive aggregate data and trends, as Andreessen suggests, while the people who show up at Trump rallies are individuals whose own lives and families have been adversely affected. Trends don't vote, while individuals do, and there lies the rub for those who envision a future of greater freedom and creativity--but fewer jobs. For the nerds in the Silicon Valley, the future glows like a shining city on a hill. “We have this theory of nerd nation," Andreessen commented, "of forty or fifty million people all over the world who believe that other nerds have more in common with them than the people in their own country." The problem is, while that segment of the population, like those vacationing in the rarified quarters aboard The Haven, might prefers just to live among themselves, they are part of a democracy filled with people who right now believe that they and their families are not part of that bright future, and will never live in that city on the hill.

There are no easy solutions to the problem that we now face of an economy that is no longer serving the interests of a large share of the American population, and certainly Donald Trump has not offered any. But as Donald Trump suggested in his foreign policy speech last week, every other nation designs its economic and trade policies with the welfare of their citizens first and foremost in their minds, and he is arguing that it is time that the United States does the same. The argument that American support for free trade and globalization has uplifted real incomes for billions across the globe, and that therefore the policies have been successful--they have produced the greatest good for the greatest number--is running up against the reality that only American citizens vote in American elections. Set aside for the moment the empathy gap evidenced by Andreessen's words, the practical reality is that democracy means that a disaffected popular majority can upend the status quo, even if they don't have a better solution in mind.

Tech visionary and billionaire Peter Thiel is part of a Silicon Valley libertarian crowd that imagines a way of exiting from the country that enabled him to make his billions. He suggests building floating cities in the ocean, just for them. It sounds eerily like The Haven, a place where he and his friends--and their billions and billions of dollars--could escape from the oppression and drudgery of life in America. "An opt-in society,Thiel has suggested, "ultimately outside the US, run by technology.” 
But right now, they are all still part of the United States. The greatest country in the world, it has been said, but one whose economy and politics are pulling it in opposite directions. The gulf between the reality in which the wealthiest Americans live and the preponderance of the American electorate is getting wider every year, and exiting, as Peter Thiel proposes, is neither a solution nor a moral stance. Whether he intended to or not--or even understands it or not--that is the problem that Donald Trump has put on the table, and it is one that is not going to be easy to solve.

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rigged game.

Conservative talk radio icon Mark Levin screamed it out last week, to all who would listen: Donald Trump is taking conservatives for a ride. And this week, GOP voter screamed back: We don't care! The New York billionaire, whose political philosophy can best be summed up as narcissistic pragmatism, cleaned up in the five states that voted this week, winning 54 to 63% of the vote in the three-way contests. Ted Cruz, the movement conservative that more closely shares Levin's worldview, barely broke out of the teens.

Lest one write off the results to the liberal northeast, Trump initially turned heads in this year's contest when he swept South Carolina and unexpectedly bested Cruz across the fertile conservative heartland of the deep south. Levin was not saying anything that we have not heard before, but at some point conservatives are going to have to look in the mirror and consider that their electorate might not be who they thought they were. Trump is on the verge of seizing the GOP presidential nomination, and it is about time that people stop suggesting that he is little more than a blowhard and consider that he might have some serious political chops.

Trump is, after all, about to win the Republican nomination, and only in the past few weeks has the man assembled anything resembling a professional political staff. He has taken on and systematically disposed of fourteen rivals, from a group that included nine state governors and four U.S. Senators and was decreed early on in the process to constitute the most formidable slate of Republican contenders for the presidency ever assembled. It goes without question that almost every one of those who he defeated had a greater claim on the nomination--in terms of substance and credentials--than he did. Seriously. Rick Santorum turned out to be an afterthought in this year's Republican field and never moved from the JV debate table to the main stage, but he was a Senator from a major industrial state who won eleven states in the GOP primaries just four years ago. For his part, Jim Gilmore was a successful Attorney General and Governor of a major state, and he was never even invited to the JV debates. Yet while Santorum and Gilmore were each serious public figures with solid political bona fides, neither were more than an afterthought in this race.

People mock candidate Trump at their peril. Jeb Bush tried to dismiss Trump's methods as the taunts of a child in a sandbox, but Trump's attacks, however childish they might have seem in the moment, resonate because they strike a nerve. Jeb did lack a sense of energy and passion for the job. Marco Rubio was too young and inexperienced. Similarly, Trump's "lyin' Ted" barbs at Cruz for mixing his religion in with political rhetoric touches on many people's distrust of candidates who intermingle the two.

Trump's most recent narrative, however, has been inspired. The game is rigged. As of this week, Donald Trump has won 52% of the delegates that have been awarded through primaries and caucuses while winning only 42% of the votes cast, yet he has successfully attacked the Republican National Committee for rigging the rules of the game. Against him. Perhaps even more to the point, he painted Ted Cruz--whose share of the delegate count was roughly equal to his popular vote share--as the establishment insider on whose behalf the game has been rigged.

Few may recall--the dynamics of the campaign have evolved so quickly--but Trump launched the rigged game narrative at the moment of his greatest weakness. He had just lost the Wisconsin primary and been shut out by Cruz in caucuses and state conventions in North Dakota, Wyoming and Utah. Trump, the man who touted himself as a can-do CEO, was caught flatfooted, standing helplessly in the klieg lights as Ted Cruz wrested delegate majorities away from him in Louisiana and Colorado. Nothing was rigged, Trump was simply being pummeled by a Cruz political organization that understood the rules of the game and had built an organization--including over 280,000 volunteers across the country--designed to fight and win the battle for delegates on a state by state basis, exactly it has been done from time immemorial. Trump, as best one could tell, had no organization, he had no volunteers on the ground of any note. He had his family, and not a whole lot else.

Yet out of lemons, Trump made lemonade. It is all a rigged game, he pronounced. And this time it was the Cruz team that looked on helplessly, as the media bought Trump's rigged game narrative, hook, line and sinker. Like Trump's attacks on Jeb Bush and others, the rigged game narrative worked because it resonates with the underlying anti-establishment anger that has been the subtext of this year's presidential cycle. Trump's slogan may be Make America Great Again, but from the day he joined the race last June, Trump has fed off of the anger and resentments of a large share of the Republican electorate who believe that our economy and political system are rigged against them and their families. Forget the fact that Trump has actually benefitted from the primary rules, and has won a greater share of delegates than his share of the votes that had been cast, Trump's supporters easily embraced his cri de guerre that the nomination process was rigged against him--and against them.

Three graphs help explain the anger of the Republican base voters that have cast aside traditional conservative shibboleths in favor of Trump's economic populist rhetoric. First, there is the oft-mentioned statistic that American worker wages are the same today in real terms as they were four decades ago. As presented here, while US gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and world GDP per capita have both grown steadily in real terms (adjusted for inflation) since 1973, American worker earnings have not. Stated more simply, the era of globalization, free trade and technological change have benefitted billions around the world, just not the American family.

A second graph, below, illustrates how even the flat worker earnings illustrated above masks differences across the population over time. Illustrated here are the changes in real family incomes over time, aggregated by the level of education of the head of the family household. As shown here, over the past quarter century--a period during which American workers have found themselves increasingly in competition with lower cost workers across the globe, in the wake of the globalization of corporate supply chains and free trade agreements that give foreign made industrial and consumer goods relatively unfettered access to US markets--educational attainment has become essential for families wanting to sustain their incomes in real terms, and to prosper. As this shows, particularly since the financial collapse in 2008, families with heads of households with less than a college degree have seen substantial declines in family incomes.

Finally, while both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have tapped into voter resentments toward a Washington establishment that is seen as doing the bidding of donors and lobbyists, often at the expense of working Americans, Bernie Sanders has added a sharp anti-corporate rhetoric. This third chart illustrates the 17% decline in wages and salaries as a percentage of GDP since the 1970s, as compared with near doubling of after-tax corporate profits over the same period, to current historically high levels.

Those who continue to be puzzled by Donald Trump's appeal should take heed. As suggested by the data summarized in these three graphs, the system has been rigged. Rigged may be a harsh term, as United States globalization and free trade policies have engendered the steady growth in global GDP per capita that has lifted economies around the world and reduced the share of the world population living in extreme poverty by over 50%. But from the standpoint of domestic politics, our economic and trade policies have been pro-trade, have been pro-capital, and have punished labor. Stated another way, they have been pro-donor, anti-voter. Forty years ago, Howard Beale screamed out, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.' Perhaps we should only be surprised that it took this long.

The Cruz strategists were caught off guard by Trump's pivot and the power of his rigged game gambit. After all, it was Trump who had benefitted disproportionately by the rules--who had received more delegates than votes--yet he was the one whining. It was Cruz who was following the rules, yet it was the Cruz campaign that was being pilloried for stealing delegates, for undemocratic practices, and--in the greatest irony of all--for being the point person of an establishment plot to steal the nomination. Ted Cruz, after all, is the movement conservative who has little or no following among the establishment cabal of DC donors and lobbyists. But for the emergence of Donald Trump, this might have been Ted Cruz's year. Cruz was supposed to be the outsider in the race in an outsider's year. Trump, as Mark Levin tried to convince primary voters in advance of Tuesday's vote, is a fraud.

Donald Trump might be a fraud, and he certainly is no movement conservative. But he has proven to be a dexterous politician who continues to grow and adapt. In the wake of his loss in Wisconsin, Trump hit bottom. Paul Ryan emerged as the insider white knight that might save the party from implosion, while Ted Cruz became the favorite in the eyes of many to win a contested convention. Trump's response was swift. He sacked his political team, replaced them with long-time Republican insiders, and launched his rigged game attack on the Republican National Committee. Three weeks ago, many across the GOP pronounced Trump's demise in the face of Cruz's Wisconsin victory and deft political moves at state delegate conventions. Now, less than three weeks later, the campaign conventional wisdom has been upended again. Where just weeks ago Ted Cruz was on the cusp of being anointed as the front-runner for a nomination that Trump was seen as sure to lose on the first ballot, today Trump has reestablished his dominant position as the presumptive Republican nominee.

Hillary Clinton is the next person up against Donald Trump, and she had best bring her "A" game. For months now, she has found herself playing defense against Bernie Sanders, whose attacks mirror Trump's rigged game narrative, and as of yet she has not figured out an effective response. This week, with an eye to the fall campaign, Hillary tested out a mocking attack on Donald Trump. Donald Trump does not know the American people, she suggested. He needs to stop flying around in that big jet, going from his palatial home in Florida and his penthouse in New York, and get to know the American people.

Sixteen Republicans who took their best shot against Trump can tell Hillary that mocking him as an out-of-touch plutocrat is a non-starter. If he has done nothing else over the past nine months, Donald Trump has proven that he has his finger on the pulse of a large swath of the electorate. He may be rich, but voters don't care about that. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were rich. And so, incidentally, are Bill and Hillary Clinton.

When Donald Trump says it is a rigged game, it resonates with voters because that is what they experience in their daily life. And they are not just making it up, it is all there in the data. For decades now, American policies have helped the rest of the world grow and prosper--to lift all boats as it were--while little of it trickled down to the average American family. As sixteen candidates before Hillary have already learned, when you make fun of Trump, it only alienates you from voters who have come to believe that he is the one who--as Bill Clinton would say--feels their pain. He will be a tougher foe that polls suggest, and Hillary and her advisors should learn from those who went up against him and failed. He is no fool, and did not get as far as he has by accident.

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

Friday, April 15, 2016

Be careful what you wish for.

The Emerson College poll released this week confirmed once again why the Republican Party is so eager to topple the Donald Trump bandwagon. Among the poll sampling of 1,043 likely voters that mirrored the turnout profile from the 2012 general election, the New York billionaire and reality TV star was viewed unfavorably by more than 60% of the electorate. Matched against his favorable rating of 34.5%, the Emerson College poll suggested that Trump has a "fav-unfav" rating of negative 26.1.

The fav-unfav rating, like the right track-wrong track rating, has long been a key metric in political polling. A high net favorable rating is a strong indicator of electoral performance, a high net negative bodes the opposite. Opposition research is critical in politics for the simple reason that it is often easier to increase the negative perception of your opponent than to increase the positive perception of yourself.

Over the past month, the Never Trump movement has catalyzed around Ted Cruz as its knight in shining armor to take down the Donald, or at least to keep him from winning a first ballot nomination in Cleveland. The motivations behind the Never Trump movement are myriad; its coalition partners begin with establishment Republicans and major donors and extends in any and all directions from there. There are those who simply believe that if nominated, Trump will be pummeled in the fall by Hillary. There are those who dread the down ballot impact, the prospect of losing the Senate, and--God forbid--the House. There are the movement conservatives who decry the fact that Trump is not a conservative in good standing, or perhaps not even a Republican at all. There are the neoconservatives who fear Trump's appeal to isolationism and apparent willingness to cede regional hegemony to Russia and China. And then there are those who simply believe that, on his own merits, Donald Trump is an odious candidate.

With Trump's loss to Cruz in Wisconsin, the Never Trump movement had come close to accomplishing its purposes. In the intervening days, it has become the new conventional wisdom that even with strong performances in New York and states across the northeast over the next several weeks, Donald Trump cannot achieve a first ballot victory in Cleveland, and that if he fails to win on the first ballot, he has no prospect of winning the Republican nomination.

Just as it is on the cusp of achieving its goal, participants in the Never Trump movement are about to come face to face with its unintended consequences. And thus will be born the Never Cruz movement. Even as the GOP establishment moved against Trump, the fear of an empowered Ted Cruz must have loomed in the darkest reaches of their fevered imaginations. Never Trump was a practical imperative, but Never Cruz remains the deeper, far more personal passion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example prefers not to have Trump on the ticket--he wants to hold onto his job, after all, and losing the Senate would cost him dearly. But President Ted Cruz? Dante Alighieri could have imagined no greater torment for McConnell and his caucus.

The irony buried in the cross tabs of the Emerson College poll is that in Ted Cruz, the GOP may have turned to a candidate that may yet make Donald Trump look like the safer choice. While the Emerson College poll suggests that Trump is viewed unfavorably by 60.6% of the likely voters, Cruz is viewed unfavorably by 70.3%. Where Trump is viewed favorably by 34.5% of the likely voters, Cruz is viewed favorably by only 22.3%. Trump's fav-unfav rating of negative 26.1 looks positively sunny compared to Ted Cruz's rating of negative 48.0. 

RealClear Politics, which tracks these things over time, Donald Trump's average favorable/unfavorable rating is –35.1, or somewhat worse than the Emerson College rating. If you look back over the nine month arc of the primary season, Trump's rating has been consistently negative. When he first announced his candidacy, he came out of the gate at a negative 49, and since then hast tended to hover in the range of –15 to –35.
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Not so with Ted Cruz. He started out the gate in slightly positive territory, and over the ensuing months hovered in slightly negative terrain, –5 to –15, for most of the campaign. This seemed to be a remarkably positive rating for a man who was uniquely reviled among his peers in the U.S Senate. As one Republican commentator suggested when asked about Cruz's relatively sanguine net unfavorability rating, give it time, voters just haven't gotten to know him yet. Indeed, over the past month or so, as Cruz has moved to center stage, his net negative rating has steadily declined into the –25 to –35 range. At –48, the Emerson College rating could be an outlier, or it could be a signal of worse things to come for the Texas senator.

Even as they have endured the turmoil of their own nomination fight, Republicans have been salivating at the prospect of running against Hillary Clinton in the fall. Clinton is widely viewed as a weak general election candidate, for reasons that have become evident in Bernie Sanders' successful challenge. She has problems with trust and honesty--two factors reflected in the fav/unfav metric--and, like Cruz, her standing in the public eye has deteriorated over the course of the campaign. A year ago, Clinton's fav/unfav ratings were consistently strong, in the range of positive 15 to positive 35. Then, in the face of continued attacks from the GOP over her email and Benghazi, and not doubt in large measure due to Sanders' (+5.3 fav/unfav, btw) unrelenting assault on her character, her fav/unfav rating as gone south, and now has settled into solidly negative terrain, in the range of –10 to –15.

But, notwithstanding Hillary's problems, the success of Never Trump and the rise of Cruz appear to have distinctly benefited Democrat prospects in the fall, if prediction betting sites are to be believed. For months, predication sites held steady at giving the Democrats a 60-65% chance of winning in the fall. With the advent of Never Trump and the rise of Ted Cruz, even as Hillary's negative rating settled into negative territory, the odds turned steadily stronger in Democrats favor. Since the beginning of March, the odds of a Democrat victory in the fall have increased steadily to nearly 75%. It should be small comfort to Democrats, however, that they appear to have the upper hand while their candidate is viewed increasingly unfavorably across the voting public.

Over the past several months, the focus of the GOP establishment has been on stopping Donald Trump. Those efforts bolstered Ted Cruz's prospects of winning the nomination, and since the beginning of March, the likelihood of Cruz winning the nomination, as measured by online prediction sites, rose from 15% to over 40%. But as the stop Trump phase of the primary campaign comes to an end, a new story line will likely emerge. It has been barely a month since the Never Trump forces coalesced, and yet very soon many of those who joined the fray under the banner of Ted Cruz to stop Donald Trump will turn against their white knight. This is the fairy tail scenario that John Kasich--with his +10.8 fav/unfav rating--believes will carry him to the nomination. A Kasich victory in Cleveland seems unlikely, but so does the prospect of anyone but Trump or Cruz winning the nomination, lest total havoc ensue.

Over the past week or so, the prospects of Ted Cruz winning the nomination, as measured by online prediction sites, soured a bit, falling to 31%. Donald Trump, meanwhile, got some of his mojo back. After falling to below 50% in the wake of his Wisconsin defeat, the likelihood of a Trump nomination as suggested by prediction sites is back up to 60%. For his part, Kasich is at 8%, while Paul Ryan, who tried best this week at a Shermanesque disavowal of his interest in the nomination, is at 83 to 1, or barely 1%. Marco Rubio is hanging in there at less than 1%, or 166-1 odds. Mitt Romney, for those who care, is at 250-1.

While Donald Trump's high negatives have been a continuing topic of conversation over the course of this election season, fav/unfav ratings have not been discussed as a determinative factor as much as they were earlier on in the campaign. Perhaps that is because the focus on Trump and his remarkably high negatives distracted attention from the strongly negative fav/unfav ratings garnered by other candidates. But as the spotlight has swung to Ted Cruz, his net negative fav/unfav rating has crept up into Trumpian territory.

In contrast with her prospective GOP rivals, Hillary Clinton's negative fav/unfav rating, as bad as it is, just doesn't yet seem to be as much of a factor. It is an odd way to view a campaign, but as the online prediction sites seem to suggest, Hillary's prospects of winning in the fall can remain high even as her fav/unfav rating remains negative, as long as the candidates that she is prospectively running against are viewed more negatively by the voting public than she is.

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

Friday, April 01, 2016

Slip sliding away.

This weekend marks the halfway point in the presidential primary season. It began with the Iowa caucuses on February 1st and ends when California and four other states weigh in on June 7th, when one-eighth of the total number of delegates will be awarded. In most presidential years, states clamor to move to the front to the pack, where Iowa and New Hampshire garner all the media attention and seem to be the most important states in the nominating process. But this time around states at the end might turn out to be the pivotal ones. Two weeks ago, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seemed on the verge of locking up their respective party nominations, but now appears that we may not going to know who the winners are until all the voters have had a chance to weigh in, or even until the party conventions in July.

At the halfway point in the primary season, both political parties are in uncharted territory. Four of the five remaining candidates have significant flaws. Donald Trump's negatives are off the charts. Based upon the most recent Bloomberg Politics poll, he is viewed unfavorably by 68% of the national electorate, against favorable rating of 29%. Ted Cruz is not far behind, with an unfavorable/favorable rating of 55% to 32%. On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton's failure to put away a 74 year-old socialist Jew from Vermont is manifest in her own unfavorable/favorable rating of 53% to 44%, in contrast with Bernie Sanders' standing as the only remaining candidate viewed positively by the American electorate with ratings of 52% favorable vs. 41% unfavorable.

After putting together a winning streak, winning or tying six primaries in a row in mid-March, Hillary has lost the last five contests, and now looks to be pummeled by Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin this Tuesday. The polling there is ominous. According to the most recent Fox Business poll of Wisconsin voters, Sanders leads Clinton by almost 50 points among voters 45 years old and younger. She might remain the presumptive Democrat nominee, but her lead is getting smaller and smaller in the voted delegate column, and she knows better than anyone else that the Superdelegate count--where she holds a commanding lead--is ephemeral. She had the Superdelegates eight years ago. Until she didn't.

Part of Sanders' success rests on the simplicity of his message: the political and economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy, and it is time that we did something about it. As the certainty of her winning the nomination has faded, Clinton has become increasingly tetchy in the face of Sanders' narrative that she has been corrupted by Wall Street and corporate money. But railing against Bernie's "lies" as she did this week will only exacerbate her problem. The simple truth is that luring big money has been an essential element of Clintonism--think Johnny Chung, Mark Rich and the Lincoln Bedroom--and Bill Clinton boasted that winning over Wall Street to the Democratic Party was a major success of his New Democrat movement, even if the price paid was Wall Street deregulation and the 2008 financial collapse. The money, for better or worse, is part of the Clinton brand.

It has become conventional wisdom to suggest that Hillary Clinton does best when her back is against the wall, but another way of saying that is that she does best when she is losing. Suffice it to say, that is a risky strategy. If she loses big in Wisconsin, and her poll numbers continue to erode in New York as they have been, by the end of the month her lead in the voted delegate count could shrink to the point where California will actually matter. And no one should be fooled by the notion that the Superdelegates provide a buffer. At the end of the day, it will be next to impossible for Hillary to win the nomination if she loses the voted delegate count. It would be just too un-democratic.

At the midpoint in a movie script, the plot takes a major turn, and this appears to be the case as we reach the halfway point in the Republican race. For the better part of the past year, it has become a routine media riff to predict why the [fill in the blank] comment by Donald Trump will be his undoing. He insulted Megan Kelly. He insulted John McCain. He insulted Mexico. He insulted the entire Muslim world. Yet time and time again, the New York businessman turned reality TV star proved his resilience as his poll numbers rose each time the media predicted his demise.

But the man who has single handedly turned an entire primary season into a reality show may have finally succumbed to reality. This week, he may have finally done it. He may have finally made enough missteps that even his loyal base may begin to see through the facade of a man who has no earthly business being President of the United States. First, he had an interview with the Washington Post. It was a banal non-event, and certainly nothing that on its own would have a material impact on the race. He said nothing that he had not said at his rallies. But that was the point. Given the chance to pivot, to begin to demonstrate in front of the mavens of modern journalism that he is a serious man, he could not rise to the occasion. Behind closed doors he doubled down on why it mattered what size his hands are. He could not say what he would do about ISIS, only that it was critically important that when faced with Marco Rubio's genitalia innuendo, he had to strike back.

Then there was an interview with the New York Times. Perhaps chastened by his performance days earlier with the Post, Trump stayed on message and his foreign policy answers were actually interesting. He makes a strong case for the value of strategic unpredictability in international affairs, but what was evident once again was that every response was off the cuff. Given the opportunity to demonstrate the sound gravitas of his realpolitik worldview, it was just Donald Trump, riffing with the media as he has been riffing for the past nine months.

Then it all came to a head in a town hall interview with Chris Matthews. Faced with the question from Matthews as to whether a woman who has an abortion should be punished in the event that abortion was made illegal, Donald Trump looked visibly perplexed. He stumbled for an answer, before finally concluding that if abortion is murder, the woman who conspires in that murder must face punishment. It was not the successive days of cleaning up his answer that was notable, but rather the fact that after nearly a year running for president, as in his interviews with the Post and the Times, Donald Trump was still making up his answers as he went along.

Over the past week, the price of Trump's lazy, extemporaneous approach to politics started to become more tangible. The Republican primary season has been a riveting reality show, and as such it should have been no surprise that a reality star might excel at the give and take, the punch and counterpunch. But the truth is that the primary season that we follow every day is just one step in how the delegate selection process works. There are, as it turns out, each state holds its own convention, or similar process, to select the actual delegates that will attend the national party conventions, and each of these delegates are individuals whose political views and commitments may not reflect the will of the primary or caucus voters in that state. But even more to the point, the Democratic and Republican Parties are private organizations that make their own rules, and as in any game, the rules are important.

Last week, Ted Cruz schooled Donald Trump on the real world of Republican Party politics. Trump won the Louisiana primary back on March 5th, but last week Cruz emerged from the Louisiana delegate selection process with the largest share of the actual delegates. Perhaps most important, Cruz won five of the six seats assigned to Louisiana on the important rules committee for the national convention. Each state, as it turns out, has its own convention and own rules around delegate selection. Delegates who may be bound to Trump on the first ballot will quickly abandon him on subsequent ballots. And, perhaps most important, the rules will not be established until the first days of the convention, by a rules committee to be determined through actions at each state convention, and unsullied by the results of the primaries and caucuses earlier on in the process.

And it gets worse. This week, in the face of a concerted "No Trump" backlash, Donald Trump appeared to retreat from his vow to support the ultimate Republican nominee, if it is not him. Trump's words threw into doubt the status of the 50 delegates Trump won when he swept the South Carolina primary in February. South Carolina rules require a party loyalty pledge and Trump's petulance could cost him those critical 50 delegates and move his first ballot delegate count in the wrong direction.

At the midpoint in this saga, Donald Trump appears to be suffering what could be a cataclysmic reversal, one that could rewrite the direction of a drama that has kept us glued for so many months. The reversals in delegate commitments that Trump has experienced were not accidental. The campaigns that are being run by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are complete opposites. Ted Cruz is a dedicated and cunning politician who understands that victory in politics is about blocking and tackling. It is more about work that goes on behind the scenes involving thousands of people than it is how one man performs in front of a camera. The Cruz team has spent more than a year paying painstaking detail to the rules of the game in every state and the critical players in every county. They know exactly what they are doing, and they know that Donald Trump does not.

The irony is that Donald Trump is supposed to be the businessman. It is the cornerstone of his campaign narrative. He will fix America, he will make America great again, because he can set goals, define a strategy, build a team and execute a plan--in short do all those things that people in business do that people in government do not. But this week it has all been laid bare. As it turns out, there is no strategy. There is no team. And there is no plan. There is just Donald Trump, riffing away as the cameras roll. And as we learned this week, the more serious the issues get, the more specific the questions, the more he is adrift.

Time will tell if Trump can recover, one more time, and, perhaps more important, if he has the potential to be more than he has demonstrated to date. But we have reached the midpoint in the script, and this is where the protagonist is supposed to suffer a reversal, and on the Republican side it appears that he has.

For both the Democrats and Republicans, Wisconsin will be a pivotal day. As we pass the halfway point, both party frontrunners are struggling to sustain their advantage, both are vulnerable. As much as people have been girding themselves for a Clinton vs. Trump matchup--in particular the candidates themselves--it is still possible that the candidates in the fall will be Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz. That would be an unbelievable outcome. Unbelievable, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

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

Friday, March 11, 2016

Ted Cruz's long game.

It was not much more than a week ago that Republican insiders were having animated public discussions about how Donald Trump could be deprived the GOP nomination. The consensus was straightforward. Unlike the consensus a few weeks earlier--that Kasich and Cruz needed to drop out of the race to clear the field for a Trump-Rubio death match--the new consensus was that that they should all stay in the race. This time, the goal was not finding someone who could beat Trump to the 1,237 delegates needed for a first ballot victory in Cleveland in July, but instead simply to deny Trump a first ballot victory.

If Trump could be denied an outright majority of the delegates, the new strategy suggested, he could be defeated on the first ballot. Then cooler and wiser minds could prevail, and the GOP establishment could select someone else to lead the ticket in the fall. Lost in all of the scheming by Republican insiders, however, was any thought that one or more of those candidates might have their own plans in mind, or have priorities that might go beyond whether or not Donald Trump won the nomination. While Marco Rubio would have been delighted to have others pushed out of the race on his behalf, John Kasich made clear that he intended to live or die on the results in the Ohio primary. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, had no intention of being guided by whatever the GOP establishment might cook up. 

It turned out that this new consensus strategy didn't last much longer than the previous consensus strategy. Last week, Mitt Romney declared Donald Trump to be a fraud, a phony and a danger to America's future, and beseeched the GOP primary voters to reject Trump and vote for someone--anyone--else. The irony was lost on no one--except apparently Mitt Romney--that four years after he sat in a private luncheon of wealthy donors and made his infamous 47% speech, a speech where he assaulted the character of nearly half of the American electorate, Romney thought he had the moral authority to guide the electoral choices of those very same Americans, who now constitute the core of Donald Trump's support.

Then, just days after Romney's speech, a coterie of billionaires and GOP luminaries met in secret to plot their own anti-Trump strategy. The secret cabal--whose proceedings were live tweeted by conservative commentator Bill Kristol--included Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with political operatives from many of the campaigns that Trump has vanquished, all with the aim of launching an ad blitz to point out to voters Trump's less-than-sterling credentials to be the GOP nominee.

Romney's speech was indeed a searing indictment of Donald Trump, but he said nothing that Trump voters have not heard before, and at the end of the day his speech and the gathering of billionaire donors had exactly the impact on the race that one might have expected. It validated the central premise of Donald Trump's campaign: the donor class of the GOP have been having their way for decades now, and election after election have used the votes of the GOP base to win power and pursue policies that were good for the donor class but have left the average GOP voter in the dust.

On the Tuesday following Romney's speech and the weekend meeting of the Illuminati, the voters gave a defining middle finger to Mitt and the GOP establishment. Tuesday was perhaps Trump's biggest day of the campaign. Unlike Super Tuesday, when his sweep was blemished by a loss to Cruz in Texas, this Tuesday was a defining, contemporaneous romp in the deep south and mid-west that in normal times--and were he a normal candidate--would have left the hearts of Republican big-wigs atwitter.

While Trump was the big winner on Tuesday, it was a big night for Ted Cruz, as well. Cruz--no doubt the most cunning of the GOP candidates--is playing a more complex game than the rest, and therefore the importance of the results on Tuesday for his plans may have been lost on many. Cruz's objectives are twofold: either topple Trump in a convention strategy, or come out of the 2016 race best positioned to lead the conservative wing of the party for a run against President Clinton in 2020--with visions of a weakened president, à la President Bush 1992. Simply put, one way or the other, Ted Cruz plans to be the next Republican president of the United States.

Cruz has skillfully risen to the top of the anti-Trump contenders, and GOP anti-Trump schemers should have no doubt that he will oppose any convention deal that puts anyone but himself at the top of a down ballot vote. The leaders of the cabal will have to choose between him and Trump--truly a choice of the devil you know vs. the one you can only imagine--but there will be no nomination for Marco Rubio, for John Kasich or for Paul Ryan, as no doubt some still imagine. Should one of those names be put in nomination, Cruz will retreat to the moral high ground and lead the cries demanding that the election not be stolen by the establishment from the candidate that won the most votes.

The vote this past Tuesday was a triumph for Cruz because it marked the death knell of Marco Rubio. Rubio hurt himself with his puerile antics attacking Trump in the run up to Super Tuesday. Since then, his vote totals have waned and this past Tuesday he did not win a single delegate. Should he lose his home state of Florida this coming Tuesday, as polls widely suggest, he will not only be out of the race, but his brand as the future of the Republican Party will be in tatters, leaving Cruz standing alone as the 44 year old Cuban born senator of the future.

Despite sharing the anti-establishment lane in this year's GOP competition, Trump and Cruz are starkly different. While Cruz has touted his hard earned anti-Washington bona fides, his campaign is straight from the Republican Party playbook. His stump speech and voter targeting has adhered with absolute fidelity to Grover Norquist rules. He pounds on the Second Amendment, religious liberty, reigning in entitlements and reducing the debt. He attacks federal intervention in education, gay marriage, and eminent domain. At the same time, he has offered a tax plan that is music to the ears of his largest donors in the hedge fund and oil and gas worlds. His proposal to replace the current progressive income tax system with a 10% flat income tax and a 16% value added tax would constitute a massive shift in the distribution of the income tax burden from the wealthiest Americans to the rest of the population.

In contrast, Donald Trump has turned his back on almost every issue that Cruz--and Norquist--deems sacrosanct.

Faced with the impending nomination of Donald Trump, many across the GOP have been migrating through the five stages of emotional response to a tragic event suggested by Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. By and large, the long denial phase ended with Trump's victories on Super Tuesday. The anger, the bargaining and the depression are evident in different forms. The anger has been widespread, the bargaining in the myriad strategies to forestall what increasingly looms as inevitable. And then there is the depression, manifest in bemoaning the inevitable breakup of the GOP. 

Donald Trump will likely be the nominee of the Republican Party. And despite the indictments of his character and his capacity to serve, come November he will have the support of 95% of the Republican establishment. Bill Kristol pronounced that he would rather see Hillary Clinton in the White House than Donald Trump, and many Republicans have voiced support for a third party conservative to preserve the integrity of the conservative movement, but that anger will subside and many, if not most, will find their way and their rationales for supporting the xenophobic narcissistic New York billionaire.

It might be a difficult path, but they will have help. First, there is Ted Cruz. If the choice is Ted Cruz vs. Donald Trump in Cleveland in July, the leadership of the party would ultimately prefer to have Donald Trump as their nominee. It will not matter that Cruz is a strict adherent to core Republican principles, while Trump is not. It is not business, it is strictly personal. They may each be narcissistic megalomaniacs, each in their own way, but Trump, at least, is a man you can deal with. His brand is to negotiate, while the Cruz brand is to never negotiate. It will be an easy choice, particularly for Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader who Cruz has taken special pleasure in defying and humiliating over the years.

And then there is Donald Trump's silver bullet. Hillary Clinton. Senator Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) followed the path first blazed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, when he declared that Donald Trump would be a better choice for president than Hillary Clinton even if he had failed to disavow the endorsement of former Klan leader David Duke. Hillary Clinton is powerful motivation for Republicans to make it to the polls, even for a man that has been so widely excoriated as unacceptable by so many, for so long.

Barring some surprises on Tuesday night, the nomination of Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee for president will enter a new phase. This will be the acceptance phase. It will not be easy, there will be a lot of words that will have to be walked back and hatchets that will have to be buried--he might be a fraud, a phony and a danger to America's future but he will be their guy. Soon, faced with the reality that a third party run--be it by disgruntled conservatives or neocons--would only assure defeat in the fall, the elders of the party will start to make quiet arguments about why Trump is not so bad, not compared to Hillary at least. Even Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) will likely fall into line, or at least will quietly recede into the background. And Trump will try hard to mute some of this rhetoric, and to behave a bit more... presidential.

Meanwhile, as Marco Rubio quietly slinks back to his home in West Miami, Ted Cruz will gear up for the next phase. He knows that Hillary will crush The Donald in the fall, leaving him as the ultimate winner of the 2016 GOP campaign, the unchallenged leader of the conservative movement, prepared for his next run--the one that he always thought was the one that would put him in the White House--against President Hillary Clinton in 2020.

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

Friday, March 04, 2016

The coddling of repugnant bigotry.

We are now in truly uncharted waters. This week, on Super Tuesday, Donald Trump won across all demographic groups. He won by thirty points in liberal Massachusetts, and twenty points in deep south Alabama, making the choice of Donald Trump to be the GOP nominee perhaps the only thing that Massachusetts and Alabama have agreed on since Appomattox Courthouse.

While much was made of Trump's stumbling, attenuated disavowal of the endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, voters--particularly those in my native state of Massachusetts--simply did not seem to care. Republican leaders, on the other hand, have been particularly exercised by what appeared to be Trump's flirtation with the KKK.

House Speaker Paul Ryan voiced the rebuke expressed by many across his party. "If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln."

Starved of attention and struggling to assert himself into the political debate, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney chimed in, tweeting out that the "coddling of repugnant bigotry is not in the character of America."

But for the seriousness of the issue, watching GOP leaders reaching for the moral high ground would have been comical. After all, the coddling of repugnant bigotry is not only in the character of America, it has been a core political strategy of the GOP for the better part of thirty years.

The coddling of repugnant bigotry used to be the purview of the Democratic Party. The party of Thomas Jefferson was, of course, also the party of slavery and Jim Crow and states' rights--all those things that for so long the Grand Old Party stood against. The Republican Party remained the party of civil rights, right up through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for which it provided nearly unanimous support, while the Democratic Party was riven with dissent and the southern wing of the party stood firmly with its segregationist traditions.

Then, in the wake of his narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968, President Richard Nixon seized the moment to entice alienated southern white Democrats from their ancestral political home to the Republican Party. The appeal to those voters was explicitly racial; with its embrace of the segregationist south, the GOP set aside the mantle of the Party of Lincoln, it compromised its core principles of limited government and individual liberty, in favor of the progeny of Jim Crow.

Nixon's Southern Strategy and Ronald Reagan's ensuing outreach to white working class "Reagan Democrats" honed the GOP appeal to the racial and cultural resentments that abounded in the 1970s and 1980s in the wake of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests and the broader cultural upheaval of the 1960s. They transformed the nation's political landscape. The last time a Democrat won a majority of the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

While the GOP and the conservative movement rallied over the ensuing decades around Ronald Reagan's lofty language about liberty and freedom, the core election day get out the vote strategy became rooted in the leveraging of voter resentments and fears. Ronald Reagan political strategist and Karl Rove running buddy Lee Atwater described the nakedly racial nature of the Republican tactics in a 1981 interview"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'n--ger, n--ger, n--ger.' By 1968, you can't say 'n--ger'... so you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.... You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than n--ger, n--ger."

The coddling of repugnant bigotry was a gift of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the modern GOP. It underpinned Richard Nixon's language around law and order. It was the purpose behind Ronald Reagan's folksy anecdotes about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and "big bucks" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. Then came the Willie Horton ad in 1988 and the smearing of John McCain for miscegenation in 2000. Then there were the voter referenda in 2004 defining marriage in state constitutions, used to drive up anti-gay evangelical white vote. And the racial slurs of Barack Obama go without saying; the photos of Obama as an African witch doctor; Rush Limbaugh's celebrated playing of "Barack the Magic Negro." And, of course, there was the birther movement.

The protests of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and others notwithstanding, the coddling of repugnant bigotry has been integral to the success of the modern Republican Party. It was the price Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan paid to rebuild the power of the GOP in the electoral college, and all it cost the party was its soul.

In the wake of KKK-gate, Conservative pundit and former Congressman (R-FL) Joe Scarborough went off on a rant that garnered national attention. "It’s breathtaking. That is disqualifying right there... Is [Trump] really so stupid that he thinks Southerners aren’t offended by the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke? Is he really so ignorant of Southern voters that he thinks this is the way to their heart?"

Echoing Scarborough's outrage, long-time GOP political consultant Ed Rogers wondered out loud. "Was he trying to send a signal specifically to the Southerners he thinks are racist when he initially would not disavow the KKK? I always resent it when Northerners like Trump think of Southerners as naturally racist. But so far, it doesn’t appear that Trump is being penalized for having made that assumption. It’s all very discouraging."

When I asked a senior GOP campaign operative on one of the presidential campaigns what he thought of Scarborough's and Rogers' indignation at the notion that racial tactics were still salient in today's new south, he replied simply, "clearly Joe and Ed don't get out enough. Once you are outside the cities, not much has changed."

Voters in Massachusetts and Alabama--worlds apart culturally and politically--both ranked "tells it like it is" as the most important characteristic in the person they chose to vote for. One underpinning of the Trump phenomenon is the view across the electorate that their political leaders are not being straight with them, and Paul Ryan's words provide a case in point: "There can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals." They were noble words, but they are also deliberately disingenuous. Everyone knows that there are games and evasion in politics. Everyone knows that political parties prey on people's prejudices. The voters who are rising up against the political establishment are not stupid, they are just tired of politicians treating them as if they are.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Big Chair in the Oval Office.

Late last fall, Republican media strategists Alex Castellanos and Gail Gitcho tried to interest several top Republican donors in funding a campaign to take down Donald Trump. “We want voters to imagine Donald Trump in the Big Chair in the Oval Office, with responsibilities for worldwide confrontation at his fingertips,” the two politicos apparently wrote in their memo to the donors. But that image did not win them any backers.

This week, even after his latest round of racially charged comments, the reality TV show star and billionaire developer is expected to dominate Super Tuesday and the SEC primaries, winning as many as 12 of 13 contests. Come Wednesday morning, his delegate count may well approach 400, or just over 50% of the total number delegates awarded to date across the five person field. Over the next two weeks, a further 545 delegates will be up for grabs in seventeen states. When the dust settles, 61% of the delegates will have been awarded, and, if his current levels of support in public opinion polls do not abate, Donald Trump will have secured upwards of 75% of the number of delegates that he needs to win the Republican nomination on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this coming July.

Standing in his path is Marco Rubio, the chosen champion of a Republican establishment that is reeling from their abject betrayal by a large swath of the base of their party. Like Horatius at the gates, defending Rome from the infidel Etruscan mob, Republicans have turned to the 44 year old, first term senator from Florida, to protect them from the devastation sure to befall party and country should Trump prevail.

How the Republican establishment could have settled on Marco Rubio as their champion--from among a field that Republicans themselves saw as wide and deep--boggles the mind. Eight years ago, Republicans mocked Democrats for nominating a first term senator--just a few years out from being a state legislator--whose main claim to fame was his ability to give a good speech.

Sound familiar? The Greeks in the heyday of Sophocles and Aristophanes could have produced no greater ironic script. Watching Marco on the Republican debate stage this week, just a few weeks removed from his merciless thrashing at the hands of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, made a further mockery of the seriousness of his candidacy. Marco has been urged for weeks by establishment party leaders and pundits to take the fight to Trump, and so he did. And each time he struck a blow--"You hired Polish workers!" or "Your ties are made in China!"--he could not resist looking up at the audience with that Alfred E. Newman grin, literally pumping his fists to the whoops of the cheerleaders placed in the crowd. Look, he was saying to the donors whose trust he needed to restore, and to his mother who has yet to fathom how far her little Tony has risen, Did you see that!  

The next day, prompted by Trump's continuing sophomoric taunts about Rubio's tendency to perspire under the klieg lights, Rubio plowed ahead. Apparently thrilled with his newfound skill at playing the dozens with the GOP frontrunner, Rubio speculated before a crowd in Dallas that his retorts on stage had made the Donald pee his pants. And it got worse.

Marco's gleeful engagement in the mudslinging that has become the Republican debates will not wear well. Rubio's central problem as been his complete and utter lack of gravitas; the difficulty that he has when any but his staunchest supporters imagine him sitting in the Big Chair in the Oval Office. Rubio was pummeled by Chris Christie in earlier debates not because of irrelevant taunts, but because of relevant ones. Rubio indeed has no material experience in what Chris Christie--or any of the governors in the GOP race for that matter--would consider the real world. He has run nothing, he has managed nothing. Far from running the budget of a state--or the nation in the case of John Kasich--Rubio has famously struggled to run his own check book. In Alex Castellanos's imagery, Rubio is sitting in that big chair, his high boots straining to reach the floor. Grinning his toothy grin, he feels the leather on the long arms of the chair, looks at the expanse of the Resolute desk--as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did before him--and, giddy with the excitement of the moment, imagines what he will say to his mom that night.

Chris Christie endorsed Donald Trump because he simply could not endorse a man who was widely viewed in Florida--as conservative pundit and former Sunshine State Congressman Joe Scarborough likes to point out--to be an empty suit. Christie is not alone in his contempt for Marco. Jeb Bush detests Rubio not simply for failing to support him in return for the support Jeb showed Marco over the years, at at a more fundamental level for Rubio's lack of respect for what experience means, and why it matters. Rubio's disrespect was not just for Jeb, it was for the office of the presidency.

For his part, John Kasich chafes each time some emissary from the desperate reaches of the GOP suggests that he should step aside for the first term senator. One can imagine Kasich channeling his inner Moe Greene from the Godfather. You know who I am? I am the Governor of f--king Ohio. I was the Chairman of the House Budget Committee. I balanced the Federal budget when Marco Rubio was running around in short pants. I am a serious man. Who the f--k is Marco Rubio, and who gives a s--t if he can give a good speech. You want me to step down and run as Marco Rubio's VP? No, he steps down. He can run as my VP. I don't step down.

Marco Rubio is out of his league. He likes to tout his foreign policy chops in the debates, but somehow always has to raise his voice when he does, as if to find gravitas from volume that is not rooted in experience or evidenced by wisdom. It is not simply the hubris--that other gift of Greek tragedy--of the words coming from a man with little experience beyond sitting in Senate hearings, it is that his presentation is always scripted. You just know that if questioning were to go to a second or third level, he would struggle to acknowledge or deal with the complexity that real issues in the real world present.

Ted Cruz, and certainly Chris Christie, show great dexterity in following a debate and responding to the nuances that unfold. Not so with Marco. Once he is off script, he ceases to follow the implications of even his own words. This happened in the last debate. Donald Trump, the New York liberal masquerading as a right wing demagogue, was on the ropes. Struggling to defend his vaguely formulated proposal to replace ObamaCare, Trump repeated a line that he has said often. "We simply are not going to have people dying in the streets, that I can tell you." To which Ted Cruz retorted, "who is going to pay for it?" Then Marco piped in, "this is a Republican debate!" Rubio was trying to mock Trump's liberal sentiments, but seemed to forget that it was people dying in the streets they were talking about. Perhaps he might have said, "This is America, we don't let people die in the street, but Donald's plans lack any substance..." Instead, he essentially said, "hold on there, we're Republicans, letting people die in the streets is what we do..." He was adrift.

A governor, any governor, would immediately understand that letting people die in the streets is not an acceptable outcome. That is why we usually look to governors when picking presidents. Government has certain responsibilities. Republicans and Democrats can disagree on where the limits of government end and individual responsibility begins, but people dying in the streets falls pretty clearly on the same side of the line as national defense and natural disaster relief. It is something that until last week's debate, no one who is a serious candidate for higher office has suggested that they favor.

Marco Rubio is not ready. Chris Christie knows this, John Kasich knows this, and Jeb Bush knows this. And deep down inside, most of the big dogs of the GOP who have endorsed Marco Rubio know this. He is not the savior of the GOP that people want to imagine--not this time around anyway. He is the one who should step aside, before he gets crushed in the Florida primary. Leaving now, before the deluge, will preserve his viability in his home state, where he can return and run for governor in 2018. Then, perhaps in 2024, when he is in his early 50s and has some experience under his belt, when he has qualifications for the position he seeks, he can return to the national stage and take his shot at the Big Chair in the Oval Office.

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

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The GOP of Donald Trump.

Today's GOP is not the GOP of Ronald Reagan, it is not even the GOP of George W. Bush. Many of the shibboleths that have underpinned GOP strategy for a quarter century, including the rules set forth by Grover Norquist, are no longer germane to GOP voters whose incomes have been stagnant for two decades or more. Instead, those voters have turned to the economic populism and nativism of Donald Trump.

The Republican Party has long been split between its establishment and conservative wings. This year was not supposed to be any different. There was expected to be an establishment lane and a conservative lane. Competitors in each lane would battle each other, and then the two remaining champions, one of the establishment and one of the conservative wing of the party, would fight for the future of the party.

This was the way things had been for a half century or more. It was Nelson Rockefeller vs. Barry Goldwater in 1964, Gerald Ford vs. Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980, George H.W. Bush vs. Pat Buchanan in 1988. What used to be wings of the party were now going to be called lanes.

But there was one significant difference introduced over the years. Beginning late in the Reagan years, Grover Norquist developed his coalition of single issue voting groups that became central to Republican electoral strategy over the ensuing quarter century. Norquist's issues, including the famous no-tax pledge, along with anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-property and other faith based issues, reflected the GOPs appeal to southern Democrats and communities of faith.

While there continued to be candidates from the establishment and conservative wings of the party, overall Republican political strategy centered around fealty to the commitments that Norquist articulated. The notion of the Republican Party as a big tent became tightly circumscribed. It was no longer enough to be a person of balance and prudence; in Norquist's world, to be a Republican candidate began with a commitment to certain non-negotiable positions, literal adherence to a party line.

Against that presumption of fealty to certain issues, Republican pundits were mortified to watch as Donald Trump trampled on one Republican shibboleth after another. He suggested the rich should pay higher taxes. He defended the services Planned Parenthood provides for women. He suggested Vladimir Putin should be our ally, and we should let Iranian troops should take care of ISIS. He said we should stop fighting wars and use that money instead to rebuild our own country. He defended eminent domain and the taking of private land for public purposes. He said the Iraq war was a huge mistake and he blamed George W. Bush for 9/11. And, most of all, he suggested that our entire political system has been corrupted by large individual and corporate contributors who give millions and millions of dollars to political campaigns, and get billions and billions of value back in return.

Donald Trump did all of this, and after each politically incorrect utterance, just when pundits thought he had gone too far and his campaign would finally crater, his standing in the polls remained rock steady or went up. Trump put to bed the theory of lanes, as in three states now, with vastly different slices of the Republican electorate, an economic populist and nativist during a time of economic anxiety, Trump trounced the Republican field in every voter demographic category, among moderates, conservatives, evangelicals and independents, among all ages and education levels.  It is not just that Trump didn't care about what GOP elites thought he was supposed to care about, but that Republican voters didn't either. After two decades of stagnant middle class incomes, Grover Norquist's rules and Ted Cruz's conservative patter had simply lost much of their salience to many Republican voters. In that light, Donald Trump isn't deviating from what it means to be a Republican, he is rediscovering it.

The neoconservative foreign policy that led us into Iraq has not been opposed just by Donald Trump on the Republican side, but also by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. And as Rand Paul has been preaching for years, this is not an un-republican stance. For the better part of the 20th century, the Republican Party preached caution in foreign policy, if not isolationism. Ronald Reagan led a massive defense buildup and escalated the rhetoric of the Cold War, but proved cautious with respect to actual conflict. In the 1996 Presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole castigated Democrats as the war party--a reference to the post-WWII wars in Korea and Vietnam launched by Democrats--and George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 arguing for more humility in foreign policy and against the nation building efforts of the Clinton administration in the Balkans and Haiti. However, neoconservatives won W's ear, and after fifteen years of failed interventionist policies in the Middle East, it should not be surprising that many across the GOP are prepared to retreat back to the party's more cautious roots.

Neither is Trump's support for Planned Parenthood a break with GOP traditions. Planned Parenthood is an organization with long and deep Republican roots--Prescott Bush, father and grandfather to presidents--was among its leaders. Even the abortion issue was once a less partisan issue than it has become, as in the pre-Norquist years, support for a woman's right to choose was evenly supported by Republicans and Democrats.

A key tenet of the Trump campaign has been the deep corrupting influence of political money and his rejection of campaign contributions. Trump's critique of politics and money mirrors that of two unlikely bedfellows--Bernie Sanders on the left and billionaire Charles Koch on the right--each of whom share Trump's view of a political system captive of companies seeking strategic and economic advantages that tap the federal budget and distort the competitive marketplace, all at the expense of the rest of the country.

While industries have long used Washington to serve their interests, the bailouts of the banks in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, coming on the heels of two decades of stagnant middle class incomes, led to increased public scrutiny of the intersection of the government and the supposedly free market economy. The "private profits, socialized risk" framing of the bailout of the financial sector by hedge fund manager David Einhorn encapsulated the critique that has underpinned the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, that political money has created a world where the federal government protects the wealthy and politically connected at the expense of average Americans. 

The Republican and Democrat presidential candidates are each running campaigns that place them toward the extremes of the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders is a socialist, while Hillary Clinton is fighting to claim she is right there with him. Ted Cruz is as conservative a candidate as we have had in memory, while Marco Rubio is straining to match him stride for stride. Jeb Bush, a very conservative candidate by any traditional metric, was a center-right candidate in a year when there has been no market for moderation.

But even as candidates are striving to demonstrate their bona fides to the activists of their parties, the distinctions as to what constitutes a Democrat and what constitutes a Republican has in many respects blurred. Trump and Sanders are running anti-corporatist campaigns with respect to campaign money, while Marco, Ted and Hillary have accounts bursting with special interest cash. Trump and Sanders are staunchly opposed to free trade, while Clinton and Rubio will argue that free trade is essential to American leadership in the world. Even Bernie Sanders is not as much of an outlier as many presume. Critics of Sanders' proposal to make public college tuition free make it sound like the opening shot of a new Bolshevik revolution, yet two years ago, to wide acclaim, Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam made the first two years of public college free for students in Tennessee.

It is increasingly apparent that Donald Trump is going to be the GOP nominee. While establishment Republicans are tying themselves into knots suggesting how Marco Rubio may yet wrest the nomination away from the New York billionaire, Trump is leading the field in a race designed by the Republican National Committee to favor an early front-runner. Between now and March 15th, thirty states will hold their primaries, and as of today Donald Trump is leading in every state polled by ten points or more, except for Ted Cruz's home state of Texas. Based on the current state of play, and absent some dramatic event, it is reasonable to expect that by the time the polls close on March 15th, Donald Trump will have amassed as many as 950 of the 1,200 delegates required to secure the Republican nomination, while Marco Rubio may not have won a single one.

The conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton has the most to fear from Marco Rubio--and indeed she has proven herself to be vulnerable to competitors who can give a good speech--but a battle with Donald Trump should be what keeps her up at night. After the polls closed in South Carolina, Jeb Bush finally folded his tent. Jeb was a candidate whose profile, if not his politics, was most similar to Hillary's--political pedigree, relevant executive experience in the world, detailed policy prescriptions, deep establishment ties, and tons and tons of big money--and he was pummeled by Trump, whose attacks came quickly and cut to the quick. Trump has proven himself to have an instinct for a candidate's weak spots and an inclination to go for the jugular. Hillary is a candidate with glaring weak spots, and if Hillary finds herself up against Trump in the fall, she should be prepared for an onslaught of attacks that will include critiques he has already used to good effect against Jeb and that Bernie used to pull even with her early on, as well as other accusation that we can only imagine.

It is not simply Trump's skills at political combat that should concern Hillary, but the political repositioning he has undertaken as Republican candidate, his willingness to embrace positions that have been at odds with Republican orthodoxy but that expand his appeal to voters across the political spectrum. No one in modern politics should understand what Trump is doing better than Bill Clinton. Clintonism, as it came to be known, is defined by the flexibility to read the electorate and triangulate among constituencies to optimize the political outcome. Bill Clinton ended welfare as we knew it, attacked Sister Souljah and cozied up to the banks to solidify white support and attract political contributions from Wall Street. In doing so, he secured his position in the political center and undermined the Republican monopoly on big money, all the while knowing that the left of his party had nowhere to go. In a similar manner, Hillary Clinton has effectively ended the Sanders insurgency--though his supporters have yet to understand this--by securing the black vote and daring the white progressives that support Bernie to stand against the minority communities whose welfare they believe they stand for.

If they meet in the fall, Trump will not be playing from the normal center-right Republican playbook. Instead he will attack Hillary from the left as well as from the right. He will pick up on Sanders' foreign policy themes, on the failures of the war in Iraq, of regime change in Libya, and in Syria. He will go farther than Sanders has on political contributions, on Wall Street speeches, and bring back the selling of the Lincoln Bedroom. He will go after the soft corruption of the Clinton Foundation. And, much to Hillary's chagrin, he will paint her with the high costs of ObamaCare, the payoffs to the industries that benefitted, and its failure to assure healthcare for the neediest Americans. As his Republican rivals have found, he will be light on policy substance and hard to pin down politically, but he will articulate issues that resonate with voters.

The GOP establishment seems unable to grasp that much of the Republican orthodoxy is simply less germane in a time of economic anxiety. It is notable that while each Republican candidate has proposed massive tax cuts to pay obeisance to Grover Norquist, those proposals have garnered little attention. It is not that Donald Trump is changing the party, the party was changing before he arrived. But he, like Bill Clinton, understood that the successful candidate would be the one that recognized that change and responded to it. Jeb Bush knew when he got into the race that today's Republican Party is not the GOP of his father, or of his grandfather for that matter. But as he learned in South Carolina, it is not even the GOP of his brother anymore. It is becoming increasingly clear the Republican Party today is the GOP of Donald Trump. That is something that Marco Rubio and the establishment are only beginning to understand.

Friday, February 19, 2016

On the eve of the South Carolina primary.

The death of Antonin Scalia might have come just in time for Ted Cruz. South Carolina is supposed to be the state where Cruz makes his stand against Donald Trump, where he vanquishes the New York liberal. A win in South Carolina would--according to plan--give Cruz momentum going into the "SEC primaries" that will quickly follow on March 1st.

No one talks about the "deep south" anymore, or uses the term confederacy for that matter. Now, it is the SEC primaries. A bit more cosmopolitan. More Peachtree Center, less Duck Dynasty. For non-football fans, the SEC is the Southeastern Conference, and the SEC primaries include Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, with Louisiana following shortly thereafter. It is the most recent iteration of Super Tuesday, the effort begun in the 1980s to put a southern, conservative stamp on the presidential nominating process.

South Carolina and the SEC primaries are essential to the Cruz campaign. Unlike the traditional strategy of going to the right in the primaries and tacking back to the center in the general election, Ted Cruz aims to turn out evangelical and conservative voters in both the primaries and in the fall with a campaign built on passion and commitment to conservative principles, and state-of-the-art micro-targeting of the electorate. The deep south, the states of the Southeastern Conference, have a larger share of evangelical and conservative voters. It is Ted Cruz country and his plan after winning Iowa was to replicate that win in South Carolina and then roll up delegates across the south.

Donald Trump was never supposed to be in the picture. The Cruz campaign introduced the language of "lanes" that has dominated analysis of this year's battle for the Republican nomination. According to the Cruz strategy, Cruz would dominate the conservative lane, taking out the Rick Santorums and Mike Huckabees of the world, while Jeb Bush was expected to take out Marco Rubio and whatever other contenders might show up in the establishment lane by early March. Then it would be a mano-a-mano death match for the soul of the GOP between Cruz and Jeb.

Lane theory has proven to be a catchy concept, even though things have not quite worked out as envisioned. Donald Trump has complicated the lane paradigm, as he does not fit into any narrow political label or lane. In New Hampshire and in pre-election polling in South Carolina, Trump has dominated across every slice of the GOP primary electorate--moderate, conservative, Tea Party and libertarian--and according to a recent CNN poll, Trump leads Cruz nearly two-to-one in South Carolina among white evangelical conservatives.

Last week, the race in South Carolina appeared to be upended when Donald Trump went full Michael Moore at the nationally televised Republican debate, attacking George W. Bush for lying about weapons of mass destruction, launching the Iraq War, creating turmoil in the Middle East and costing the nation trillions of dollars. It was a rant that one would have imagined coming from Bernie Sanders, castigating Hillary once again for her Iraq war vote, but, to the shock of the listening audience, it was the leading Republican candidate taking on the entire Bush clan a week before the vote in South Carolina, a state widely viewed as Bush country.

Despite the shock that rippled across the Republican landscape, Trump's poll numbers did not crater after his anti-Bush tirade. Instead, in the week leading up to the South Carolina vote, Trump maintained his lead, while Cruz's numbers appeared to have flatlined and trends suggested that Marco Rubio might pass Cruz into second place.

The death of Antonin Scalia has offered Cruz the opportunity to refocus conservative attention on the future of the Supreme Court and increase the urgency of his message. Cruz quickly painted the question of the replacement of Scalia in stark, dystopian terms. If Scalia were to be replaced by an Obama nominee--or one selected by Bernie, Hillary, or Donald Trump for that matter--Cruz described the world that would unfold as a place of unfettered abortion on demand, the obliteration of the Second Amendment, and the end of liberty in America. And he set the requirements for a new justice in extreme terms, stating specifically that even a nominee comparable to Chief Justice John Roberts would fail his test of fealty to conservative principals and declaring that he would filibuster any nominee that did not meet his standard.

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared within minutes of the announcement of Scalia's death that the nomination of a successor should be left to the next president, McConnell was not focused on President Obama as much as he was seeking to preempt Ted Cruz. He knew that Cruz would swiftly try to seize control of the situation, and so he has. McConnell's comments might have seemed extreme to some, but if he did not engage the anti-Obama base, he would quickly have been sidelined by Cruz, whom he has watched successfully undermine the regular order of Senate business whenever it served his political ambitions. If Cruz proved himself unwilling to yield to McConnell's leadership when Cruz was a backbencher in the Senate, McConnell knew that there was no limit to what Cruz would be prepared to do now that his presidential ambitions are on the line. Cruz's threat of a filibuster validated McConnell's concern; after all, who threatens to use the filibuster when their party is in the majority?

Mitch McConnell is fighting a war on multiple fronts. A political pragmatist who has been battling House Republicans for the past year to demonstrate that the GOP can be a responsible governing party, McConnell's preferred course would be to have the Senate consider an Obama nominee in due course, and then reject it if they so chose. But his room to maneuver is now limited by Cruz's eagerness to use the Supreme Court issue to advance his presidential ambitions. McConnell understands that a Democrat may be elected in the fall, and that any justice nominated by Barack Obama under the current circumstances would likely be more acceptable than whomever a President Clinton or Sanders might put forth fresh off a victory in November. But he also knows that his efforts to impose regular order would only lead to a Cruz filibuster and support Cruz's likelihood of winning the nomination. And McConnell, along with most of establishment Washington, believes not just that Cruz is unelectable in a general election, but that a Cruz defeat could cost GOP control of the Senate along the way.

Just when Cruz thought he had achieved a tactical advantage this week by his aggressive stance with respect to the Supreme Court, Donald Trump trumped him once again and won the news cycle. Cruz may have found a new tack to take on the President and the GOP establishment, but Trump took on the Pope. Like Trump's tirade against George Bush, some might have assumed that picking a fight with the Pontiff would be a losing bet, but in largely evangelical South Carolina, as well as much of the south, rebuffing the Pope may actually play well. It is notable that when asked his view on the kerfuffle between Trump and the Holy See, Marco Rubio--himself a Roman Catholic--came down on the side of his Republican adversary.

Saturday will tell a lot about how both the nomination is going to play out, as well as Ted Cruz's continuing battle to usurp the leadership of the Senate. If Cruz outperforms pre-primary polls in South Carolina, as he did in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the passion around the death and looming replacement of Antonin Scalia should enable him to draw an increased share of evangelical and conservative to his crusade, offering him the prospect of pulling even with, if not ultimately overtaking Trump as the campaign rolls across the South. If he does, McConnell will be hard pressed to give ground on his commitment to block consideration of an Obama nominee. If, on the other hand, Cruz falters and is overtaken by Rubio, McConnell will have greater room to maneuver, and the Republican establishment may finally get the race that they have been hoping for: Marco Rubio going one-on-one with Donald Trump--the only candidate competing in the Trump lane--with Ted Cruz, the candidate they most revile, fading from contention.