Saturday, September 24, 2016

Tax hikes are for losers.

Maybe it is just me, but why would a candidate like Hillary Clinton pronounce to the world that she wants to raise the estate tax to 65%. I get it, it would be on the billionaires, and we all want to get a piece of their money. It is about income inequality, and perhaps a bit about plain old jealousy.

But it's the politics of it that baffle me. Right now, six weeks or so before Election Day. Is it because the icon of the left, Elizabeth Warren, just had a lot of face time undressing Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf about that bank's most recent egregious conduct--paying a fine of $185 million, along with a bonus of $123 million to the executive whose conduct led to the fine--so Hillary is under a bit of competitive pressure to up her game as a warrior for the left? Has her campaign calculated that the estate tax rate pronouncement will be the final appeal necessary to bring Bernie voters into the fold?

Or have they simply lost their minds?

I actually thing this hurts more than it helps. With respect to recalcitrant Bernie voters, it only validates once again their deep conviction that Hillary will say whatever it takes to get elected. Why else would she say it now, on the eve of the election, if it wasn't part of your plan before? It is just further evidence that her convictions are transactional.

On the other hand, what better way to spook independents, and the 20% or so of persuadable Republicans who are hanging in the balance between her and Donald Trump, than by lobbing a huge tax increase out there. I know, it is supposed to be about taxing billionaires, but the truth is that it will be read by swing voters as a cavalier proclivity to go after other people's money. First, it is the billionaire, who knows who will be next.

This is, of course, the defining difference between Democrats and Republicans. Before the Reagan Revolution, the consistent trope of Republicans was that Democrats liked to tax and spend. Then the GOP learned to love spending, leaving the defining difference that Democrats like to tax. And that, in case they have never noticed over the years, is a practice that few across the electorate are actually fond of.

Why say anything at all about taxes? The man she is running against has proposed enough spending increases and tax cuts to outstrip anything Clinton might do in her wildest dreams. Sure, he has scaled back his original tax cuts--which were estimated by the conservative Tax Foundation to cost the federal government $10-12 trillion in foregone revenues over a ten-year timeframe--to a more modest $3-6 trillion. And that is just on the tax cut side of the ledger. Add in his plan for beefing up the Pentagon, doubling Hillary's proposed level of infrastructure spending and his commitment not to touch core entitlements, and Donald Trump's fiscal plans are beyond the wildest dreams of any Democrat, much less an independent socialist from Vermont.

When Bernie Sanders proposed a college tuition entitlement with an annual cost of $50-60 billion, the cacophony of demands for the details of how he was going to pay for it was deafening. And so it goes for any Democrat spending initiative, as the deficit hawks circle in the skies, looking for blood. But for the trillions that Donald Trump has proposed, we have heard barely a word. Some of it is because no one really takes anything Trump says seriously, and some of it is the double standard that has come to be applied to Democratic fiscal plans vs. Republican tax cuts.

So why on earth would Hillary indulge this media double standard? And why would she commit the fatal sin of Walter Mondale in his debate with Ronald Reagan. Back then, as now, Mondale felt obligated to tell the world he would raise taxes, while Ronald Reagan simply promised the world tax cuts, feeling no obligation to say how he would be paid for them. Growth, the Gipper insisted, with a wink and a nod. Growth will pay for it all.

And that is Donald Trump's answer today. Even Trump's closest economic advisors don't try to mask the enormity of the deficit hole that his tax cuts and spending plans would create. Writing in the Washington Post this week, UC-Irvine business school professor Peter Navarro and investor Wilbur Ross trumpet the growth that his plans would create. "Trumpnomics would generate millions of additional jobs and trillions of dollars in additional income and tax revenue."

This is the dynamic scoring argument that has been used since the Reagan era to justify moving away from traditional balanced budgets. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But unlike prior versions, this time around neither Navarro and Ross, nor the Tax Foundation, deny that Trump's program would cost less than trillions of dollars under the rosiest of scenarios. Their argument is that growth is good.

And indeed it is. It may not cure all ills, but whatever ills it does not cure are only made worse without it. Growth, Hillary, that is the word you should be looking for. Forget tax hikes, just point to growth, and call it a day.

Cryin' Ted.

The Tweet: Showing bounds of ambition that exceed the bonds of family, Ted Cruz gave it all up for Trump. Meanwhile, Bush 41 showed what love of country looks like.

Ted Cruz did it. The final capitulation. The heat down in Texas must have been unbearable on Senator Cruz. The threats of primary challenges in 2018 stood as an obstacle to his ultimate ambition of running against President Clinton in 2020. So Ted Cruz endorsed the man he quite accurately labeled a pathological liar--the man who humiliated his wife and slandered his father--showing again that the bounds of ambition exceed the bonds of family.

He cloaked his perfidy within the longest Facebook post imaginable. A tweet would have sufficedInstead, Cruz went on... and on... falling back, ultimately, on the binary election logic that felled his compatriots. Marco Rubio laid it out eloquently when Rubio endorsed the man he had accused of being a con man: better a con man who stands for nothing than the Hillary Clinton that has been so diligently demonized by the Republican Party for so long. "By any measure," Ted Cruz declared--his famous ability to against the tide of Republican opinion escaping him--"Hillary Clinton is wholly unacceptable."

But a con man and pathological liar is just fine? From the days following Cruz's defeat in the Indiana primary, when he finally gave up the ghost on his presidential campaign, GOP leaders have struggled to find their rationales for why the con man who has no casual acquaintance with the truth would nonetheless be an acceptable choice for the Oval Office.

Some, like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have convinced themselves that the man who envisions tax cuts estimated to cost between $2.6 and $5.9 trillion, while committed to massive increases in defense and non-defense spending, would nonetheless embrace the Ryan Plan budgets. Others assure themselves--with no evidence to support it--that when the time comes, Trump's thin skin and quick twitter finger will give way to a presidential demeanor and better judgement.

And so it is now with Ted Cruz. In his Facebook manifesto, Cruz points to the six key issues that made his choice necessary. The Supreme Court, of course is number one. Donald Trump has hung the Court over the GOP like a cudgel. Cruz was accurate in his assessment of the dangers Trump poses to the Republic, but all that is set aside in deference to Trump's promise "to appoint justices 'in the mold of Scalia."' The rest of Cruz's manifesto is little more than standard Republican talking points. Obamacare. Unleashing America's energy sector. Immigration. Terrorism. And finally, in the ultimate irony of a man issuing his political manifesto on Facebook, Internet freedom.

Cruz concludes with an Orwellian summation. "Hillary Clinton is manifestly unfit to be president... and Donald Trump is the only thing standing in her way." Manifest unfitness to serve. This is an odd place for Cruz to stand his ground, as polling has consistently suggested that 60% of the public deems Trump unqualified to serve as president, while a comparable percent say Clinton is qualified. After many months of contemplation and prayer, it seems evident that Ted Cruz has decided to set aside his higher duty to the nation, and join that share of the electorate that is choosing to vote for a man they believe is unqualified to serve.

In the days before Ted Cruz offered his long-winded rationale for his final capitulation, another Republican holdout reached a different conclusion. Speaking with members of a board on which he serves, former President George H. W. Bush indicated that he would be voting for Hillary Clinton. Bush '41 is a forgotten man in the Republican pantheon. A patrician of the northeastern Republican tradition, he was part of, but never a true believer in, the Reagan Revolution. He opposed his son's military adventurism back when Donald Trump still supported it. But, most importantly, he was, and clearly remains, a believer in America and its role in the world.

It is in the international arena that Donald Trump presents the greatest risk for America. Perhaps he will surprise the world as President. Global adulation was over the top for Barack Obama, and he failed to live up to the unreachable hopes and dreams that were laid on his shoulders, and now global apprehension regarding a Trump presidency might be similarly beyond the bounds of reasonable pessimism. Perhaps, as in the upcoming debates, Donald Trump can only exceed expectations as President because the bar will be set so low.

But for George H. W. Bush, it is not enough to hope and pray that Trump is not who he appears to be--as many Republicans are doing today. Bush is enough of a realist to judge a man by his words and stated aspirations, and Donald Trump's words suggest a bleak future for the New World Order that George H. W. Bush did so much to create.

The first President Bush was among the principal architects of the world order that Donald Trump is running against. Bush worked in Washington during the Cold War, and imagined a world where the west and the nations behind the iron curtain would compete economically instead of through nuclear brinksmanship. And that is the world that has come to be, and one that has changed the face of our nation. Jeb Bush spoke his father's words in the Republican primaries, celebrating the globalized world and the energy that immigration brings to our country, while embracing the stern, pre-Trumpian GOP mantra that in this new world order workers and families facing economic competition must pull themselves up by their bootstraps, go back to school, and do whatever it takes to make the lives of the next generation better, if the current generate faces hardship.

President Bush could not buy anything that Donald Trump is selling. The fomenting of anti-immigration resentments, the victimhood of the core Trump electorate, the bleak portrait of America being sold by the New York billionaire, perhaps the blatant courting of radical right, and--more than anything--the mercantilist perspective that abdicates America's leading role in the world.

By all appearances, Ted Cruz capitulated to Donald Trump out of his own political self-interest, and yet it seems inevitable that in abdicating his principled stance, and showing political weakness and venality, he will be punished over time. Should Donald Trump lose, the repercussions within the GOP will be fierce, and Cruz's capitulation will cost him. Should Trump win, Cruz will become irrelevant to the party, to say nothing of being vulnerable to whatever vengeance Trump chooses to exact on him for his slanderous words. Trump is a man from the world of Jimmy Breslin, after all, a world where revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

Ted Cruz looked all the worse against the backdrop of Bush '41. George H. W. Bush was never appreciated as a man of principle, yet in this toughest of moments for Republicans, he showed his convictions. Cruz, on the other hand, has carefully cultivated his image as a man of principle, standing against the expediencies of the moment. He was facing was a lose-lose situation, and perhaps it would have cost him either way he played it. But if he didn't cry no mas as he did this week, at least then he could have moved on with his integrity intact.


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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Negative interest rates and the rise of populism.

The Tweet: Negative interest rates, a concept that many struggle to comprehend, reflect an urgent effort to kick-start economic growth in moribund economies. It is a race against time to forestall the rise of populism and the loss of confidence in democratic institutions.

It is all connected: flat growth in Europe and continuing deflation in Japan, the rise of right-wing political movements, and central bank policies leading to negative interest rates across the globe.

Cheap Money June 14, 2016Negative interest rates. The concept inherently makes no sense. Interest rates are often described as the price of money. If a price of something is negative, it suggests that someone will pay you to take it off their hands. And that is actually the case with money today. Investors now give money to most governments in Europe with the promise of getting back less money later. Not less money adjusted for inflation, but less money.

Negative interest rates and the rise in populist political movements in Europe are both linked to bad economic conditions. While mainstream politicians and economists might deny we are in a global recession, the fact remains that economic growth is flat to negative across a large swath of southern Europe, growth in Germany is barely positive and Japan remains in a deflationary spiral. Trump voters may not believe it, but the United States is actually the good news story today in global economics.

In subtle ways, negative interest rate policies and populist political movements are reinforcing each other. Negative interest rates are a radical effort by central bankers to kick-start their moribund economies, while that same economic weakness is emboldening right wing political parties that have historically won popular support in bad economic times. Right wing politicians are pointing to the failure of central bank policies as evidence of the corruption and incompetence of the old order they propose to replace, while central bankers fear that continued economic weakness will further public unrest, weakening faith in democratic institutions and ultimately threatening the integrity of the European Union.

Just a couple of years ago, few economists imagined that negative interest rates could be a sustainable national policy, and yet, today, negative interest rate policies have been embraced by 23 advanced industrial nations as they struggle to rekindle economic growth. Monetary policy--the basket of tools that central banks use to modulate economic activity and control inflation--used to be constrained by "the zero lower bound," meaning that rates could not go below zero.

Today, there is no longer a theoretical floor beneath which interest rates cannot go. While estimates vary, across the globe as much has half of publicly global government debt--$10 trillion or so--now trades at negative interest rates, as illustrated here. And it is no longer limited to governments. Bonds issued by several European companies, including Shell Oil, Siemens and Unilever have negative yields.

As a general matter, we tend to think of falling interest rates as a boon to the economy, for governments in particular. As the long-term cost of capital declines, investments of all types became more affordable. Homeowner refinance mortgages, freeing up household cash for other purposes. Lower interest rates mean that your credit is good. If lower rates are better than higher rates, why aren't negative rates better than positive rates?

They aren't better because they speak to a global economic that is broken, and where politicians and central bankers are taking extraordinary and desperate measures to put Humpty Dumpty back together again after all of the traditional strategies have failed. Over the past two years, as negative interest rate fever has spread across advanced economies, I have taken every chance I can to ask people I run into--economists, bankers, traders, hedge fund managers (yeah, I know, I need to get out more)--what they think of negative interest rates. To a person, they are befuddled. No one knows what the implications are going to be, because we have never traveled this path before, and, importantly, the longer interest rates remain negative, the more troubling becomes the question of how we get back to the world that we once knew.

Now that we have crossed the great barrier of what was once the zero lower bound, we are literally in uncharted waters. Negative interest rate policies and quantitative easing are flooding the world with cash. Asset values held by the wealthiest are rising, while for the average family and for retirees savings are being gutted. And few, if any, public officials can tell their constituents what it all means and where we are headed, leading to a spiraling downward in public confidence in political and central bank leadership. In Japan, where negative interest rates are now being felt at the household level, the Bank of Japan is facing growing demand for large denomination bills. Imagine what it means to a modern economy that depends on a functioning banking system if people conclude--as a matter of rational analysis, not conspiracy theory--that cash literally stuffed into a mattress is worth more over time than savings deposited in a bank.

It has now been nine years since the summer of 2007 when global markets first started to seize up, and eight years since the global collapse in 2008. Eight years is not a long time in the lifespan of major economic collapses and recoveries, based on comparisons with comparable banking system collapses in the past--as Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff document their book, This Time is Different--but it is a lifetime in a democracy.

As the post-2008 economic stagnation has dragged on and popular discontent has grown, Europe has seen the rise in right wing political movements across the continent. The 2008 collapse is not the cause of all that that is ailing the advanced industrial economies--arguably the immigration crisis in Europe is now a greater source of societal stress there than economic stagnation--but it has exposed deep tensions between our economic system and democratic institutions.

Historical data suggests that recovery from a major economic collapse can take a decade or more. Policymakers know--as recent elections across Europe have demonstrated--that the public lacks anything close to that kind of patience. Negative interest rates--an economic strategy that has never been tried before, and a concept that many struggle to comprehend--reflect the pressure that global central bankers are under to jumpstart the world economy as public discontent continues to deepen.

It is impossible to say whether negative interest rate policies are working or not, as it is impossible to know what conditions would be in Europe today were those policies not being followed. But we do know that things could be worse, a fact that cannot be far from the minds of European policymakers as they see the rise in right wing parties across Europe today. In the wake of the last global economic collapse--eighty years ago--the rise of right wing parties was swift and furious. By early 1933--a little over three years into the Great Depression that came after the 1929 collapse--Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany.

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hillary's words.

The Tweet: Gaffe or strategy, Hillary's words focus attention on who Trump is, and the fringe groups that will march into the White House with him if he wins.

It just seemed like an incredibly dumb thing to do. Regardless of what one thinks of the xenophobes and racists that constitute a fair share of Donald Trump's base, how could Hillary call a large share of his supporters deplorable?

I understand that polls suggest that 65% of Trump supporters believe President Obama is a secret Muslim, and that 59% buy into Donald Trump's Birther theory. It does not surprise me to read that 40% of Trump supporters believe that Blacks are lazier than Whites, that 31% support banning gays from the United States, or that 16% are white supremacists. Not one of those figures surprise me. This is America; it is an enormous country and full of people whose views I disagree with. And many whose views I find deplorable.

Donald Trump has pandered to the most chauvinist elements in the country from the opening minutes of his campaign. He just made an impresario of the alt-right--that loosely knit community of white nationalist, white supremacist, anti-semitic, nativist and other reactionary groups that live at the far right fringe of American politics--the head of his campaign. He has turned the nation's politics into a Kindergarten sandbox of name-calling and spite.

Donald Trump's fragile ego, his erratic narcissism, and his wanton affiliations with the most extreme reactionary groups in our country constituted Hillary Clinton's single greatest competitive advantage. Why then, in one scripted moment, would the Clinton campaign give away the moral high ground by resorting to partisan name-calling? As much as her supporters might claim that the data above supports her words, insulting the electorate is something you just don't do.

It all makes no sense. It is hard to fathom how a woman who has been mentored for decades now by Bill Clinton could make such a stupid mistake. Bill Clinton was weaned in the real world of politics--southern politics at that--not some imaginary world where people all believe and behave as we might wish they would. He did not berate voters he disagreed with, instead, he famously felt their pain, and then pandered to them when electoral realities warranted.

Bill Clinton's welfare reform, his Sister Souljah moment, and his crime bill were all tailored to appeal to the prejudices of the white working class voters who are now flocking to Donald Trump. Hillary's denunciation of Black "super predators" was supposed to mark her own rite of passage into the realpolitik world of dog whistles, that well honed art of pandering to the less educated white electorate whose votes have been critical to both major political parties for decades.

With that history, it seems inconceivable that Hillary's words were an off-the-cuff gaffe. This was not Barack Obama caught talking off camera eight years ago, with his prescient description of the Trump electorate: "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Hillary's words were in the written text of her remarks, they were loaded into the teleprompter.

That is to say, they were deliberate, pre-meditated. Given the incendiary nature of the content, using that language had to have been a strategic decision.

Hillary Clinton is not the only one who disdains the xenophobes, homophobes and racists--as she describes them--who are flocking to Donald Trump's banner. A large share of the electorate of both political parties has been disgusted by Trump's success in dragging the presidential race down into the deepest gutter of our politics, while elevating those whose views are most repugnant to a new level of respectability. This was the point Hillary made right after the controversial "basket of deplorables" comment:

"And he [Trump] has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people -- now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks -- they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America."

This, indeed, has been Donald Trump's seminal achievement. He has elevated and legitimated truly odious political forces, even has he has moved in recent weeks to elevate his own stature and respectability. One has to imagine that as the Presidential race tightens and moves into its final weeks, the intention behind Hillary's remarks was to refocus media and public attention on who Donald Trump is--who he was as the champion of the Birther movement, who he was during the most egregious moments of the Republican primary season, and who he was when he chose Steve Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart Media and champion of the alt-right movement, to be the head of his Presidential campaign.

Campaign tactics are not always what they appear to be. Over the past several weeks, Donald Trump has reached out to the black community, with visits to Detroit and Philadelphia, yet the focus of those efforts was about improving his standing among educated white Republican women, a demographic that he is losing badly. Looked at from that perspective, Clinton's words look like a deliberate tactic to remind voters--particularly those same educated white Republican women who dislike the racial and anti-immigrant tenor of the Trump campaign--exactly who they are getting in bed with.

Donald Trump has reacted predictably to Clinton's words, arguing that the disrespect that she showed for his voters should disqualify her from public service. But he is on shaky ground. The more vehement he becomes in defense of his most angry and loyal voters--who wildly cheer his most egregious comments--the more he risks proving Clinton's point, and in turn alienating other potential voters.

Each time the Trump campaign struggles to disavow their strong support among fringe right wing groups, it is one more reminder that the influence of the alt-right now permeates the Trump campaign organization. This week, Mike Pence struggled to explain away the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, even as he refused to acknowledge that Duke's views are deplorable. David Duke's response on Twitter applauding Pence's words could only add fuel to the issue.

The race has been tightening, as this graph from 538 politics suggests, with momentum swinging in Donald Trump's direction. His high negatives remained evident in newly released polls, but the impact of his most outrageous comments has been fading. Hillary's campaign knows that her best chance of winning is if the race is a referendum on Donald Trump. Her words may have been a gaffe, or it could have been part of a strategy--albeit a risky one--to refocus voter attention on who Donald Trump is, and who will be marching into the White House with him, should he win this November.

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Hail Maria.

Donald Trump's trip to Mexico this week has the potential to be a game changer for his campaign. In what was clearly a Hail Mary tactic, Trump flew to Mexico between a fundraiser in California and a speech in Arizona to meet with Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto.

It is hard to imagine that a meeting could have lower expectations than a visit by Donald Trump to the President of Mexico, and, against that backdrop, Trump outperformed. It was not simply that he was gracious--almost diplomatic--but that he reframed the discussion away from who pays for the wall toward issues of hemispheric common purpose, specifically border stability, the problems of drug cartels and guns, and the common problem that both countries have with the evisceration of manufacturing industries in the face of Asian--primarily Chinese--competition.

The opportunity to fly to Mexico came just at a moment when Trump badly needed to change the discussion around immigration away from his contentious diatribes about Mexican rapists and a border wall that for more than a year have been central to building support among his core voters. Like his campaign narrative about race over the past several weeks, the trip was less about changing the math around the Latino vote than about the white vote, which has always been the focus of his campaign. It was a high risk/high reward gambit, but Trump stood at the podium with a man who by all accounts detests him, behaved himself and even showed some diplomatic skill. It is a low bar, but he cleared it.

Despite the barely disguised glee among Democrats as Donald Trump's fortunes in the battleground states continued to sink over recent weeks, Trump's campaign is not imploding, it is arguably becoming more focused. Earlier this month, Trump finally pivoted. After months of Republican anguish, their nominee for president did what Republican leaders have been looking for him to do. As the Labor Day kick off to the final stretch of the presidential race approached, he shook up his staff and started listening to them, and, for several days at least, he spoke from a teleprompter.

This, however, was not the pivot that Republican leaders had in mind. Out was long-time establishment Republican Paul Manafort. In his place, Trump brought in right wing conspiracy monger and GOP tormentor Steve Bannon. If Paul Ryan thought things were going to get easier, he must have been sorely disappointed.

From the day he announced his campaign in June 2015, Donald Trump has been clear about the electoral theory underpinning his campaign. It is all about white voter turnout, and it is right up Steve Bannon's alley. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, the GOP spent a lot of time examining what went wrong. Famously, the official RNC diagnosis was that the party needed to become more diverse. What had once been the Party of Lincoln feared that it had lost Black voters for good and was at risk of making a similar mistake with Latino voters.

But there was a minority report of sorts, which was encapsulated in a piece written by Sean Trende in the days following the 2012 election entitled The Case of the Missing White VotersTrende's thesis, updated earlier this year in light of the Trump candidacy--and as reflected in the turnout numbers shown here--was that a large share of white voters--particularly less educated white voters--were no longer turning up to vote in presidential election years, and that the GOP could win back the White House if it reenergized these voters.

Karl Rove, along with a slew of other Republican analysts, were wildly derisive of Trende's thesis. Rove did not dispute that millions of white voters had not shown up, he just said they weren't conservatives. But Trende hadn't said that they were conservative, only that they were Republican voters. He emphasized instead that they were secular, less educated and economic populists--more like supporters of Ross Perot than the southern and evangelical voters that fit the normal profile of the Republican base.

Revisiting his 2012 article in 2013--almost two years to the day before Donald Trump entered the presidential race--Trende foreshadowed the Trump campaign succinctly: "This doesn’t mean embracing “big government” economics or redistribution full bore; suspicion of government is a strain in American populism dating back at least to Andrew Jackson. It means abandoning some of [the GOP's] more pro-corporate stances. This GOP would have to be more "America first" on trade, immigration and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics." 

The simple truth is that Trump's campaign has eschewed traditional GOP themes--small government, free trade, personal responsibility, and the like. Instead, Trump's pitch has been part old-time Democrat free trade bashing and part George Wallace race-bating. There is more Huey Long in his pitch than Ronald Reagan--other than tax cuts, the obligatory price of entry into the GOP primaries--and not even a smidgen of Paul Ryan. The only Republican of recent memory that Trump is emulating at all is Patrick Buchanan.

The problem with Trump's theory of the missing white voter has from the outset been turnout and education. Trump's strongest support has been among the least educated voters, who, historically, have the poorest record for turning out on election day. From 1988 to 2012, turnout among voters with less than a high school diploma declined from 37% to 33%, while overall non-Hispanic white turnout increased from 56% in 1988 to 65% in 2008, before dipping, as noted above, to 62% in 2012.

As much as Trump's new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, might claim that Trump support is understated in the national and battleground state polls, his most avid, less educated white supporters are historically tough to turn out on election day. Indeed, Trump's campaign messaging since Conway and Bannon took over has been less about pumping up his less-educated base than softening his image among educated whites in the hope of stemming his losses among those voters.

For all the flurry of media discussion about Trump's outreach to African American voters since Conway came onboard three weeks ago, that rhetoric has had far less to do with black votes than white ones. The campaign's objective is less to increase Trump's black support in polls from 2% to 9% than it is to stanch his deteriorating support among Republican women. This is Kellyanne Conway's specialty, and Trump has clearly heard her message that to win back moderate Republicans--notably women--he has to act a bit less like a racist thug.

As it turns out, Mexico President Peña Nieto extended his hand just at a moment when Trump needed one, and gave him the opportunity to change the media focus from an immigration discussion that was spiraling out of control, to a discussion of the U.S. and Mexico's collective hemisphere interests. Peña Nieto invited both candidates, but only Trump took him up on it, and he made good use of the opportunity. It matters little whether or not they discussed who was going to pay for Trump's wall, as President Peña Nieto suggested in a post-meeting kerfuffle. What matters is that just at a moment when Hillary Clinton's own problems appear to have led to some tightening in some national polls, Donald Trump stood on the public stage and behaved himself, and suggested to educated white voters, who have increasingly been slipping from his grasp, that they might be able to vote for him after all.

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

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.