Monday, September 28, 2015

Jeb fades to black.

Free stuff is back. Responding to a man at a South Carolina Republican gathering last week who observed that Republicans had little visible support among African Americans, Jeb Bush harkened back to the Romney campaign four years ago. Unlike the Democrats, Bush suggested, his message to black voters was not to "get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff." Rather, Bush explained, his vision is of a world where African Americans "can achieve earned success."

Jeb's is a message that might work if it came from his political protégé Marco Rubio, a child of immigrants and product of Miami-Dade County public schools. But Jeb is the scion of a generations-old political family and the product of Phillips Andover Academy. The notion of earned success is a bit harder to parse for a man who was given his first job by his father's close friend James Baker at a bank that Baker owned. From then on--whether in his real estate or political pursuits--Jeb's career was nurtured through the extensive Bush family relationship network.

One of the things that sets Jeb apart from Donald Trump is that Jeb seems to have no idea when he is being offensive, while Trump relishes every moment of it. Bush's free stuff meme--that African Americans vote Democrat because they get free stuff--is not just paternalistic, it ignores the long history of the African Americans as supporters of the Republican Party--the party of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, after all--up until the post-World War II era, and the political machinations by the GOP that prompted black voters to shift their political allegiance.

Harry Truman's integration of the Army and the ensuing Democratic Party embrace of civil rights as part of its party platform in 1948--in the face of bitter opposition from the segregationist "Dixiecrat" wing of the party--started the migration of black voters to the Democratic Party. The passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s may have prompted further movement of the black electorate, but it is important to note that Republicans in Congress voted in larger percentages for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 than did Democrats. It was Richard Nixon's active outreach to invite the southern segregationist wing of the Democratic Party to join the GOP that marked the end of significant black support for the Republican Party.

It was not the free stuff that the Democrats offered, but rather an affirmative decision by the Republican Party to trade its historical base among New England Republicans and black voters for the southern and segregationist wing of the Democratic Party. To suggest that African American voters left the Republican Party in search of free stuff has the history wrong. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, blacks did not leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left them.

Jeb seemed oblivious to the fact that he was proffering his free stuff narrative while campaigning in a state that had only weeks earlier lowered the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds--a flag that had been raised in 1948 at the time that the Dixiecrats walked out of the Democratic Party convention. He seemed to see no irony in his bemoaning the appeal of free stuff in a state that seceded from Union lest its white population and economy be deprived of the ultimate free stuff: the free labor of enslaved black Americans. And he no doubt gave no thought to the fact that the State of South Carolina is among the largest recipients of free stuff from the federal government--that is to say from the rest of us--as each year it receives back from the federal government far more than its citizens pay in taxes, with 2014 net revenues from the federal government equal to 26.7% of its gross state product. Far from being a state built on earned success, South Carolina is built on a culture of free stuff.

Jeb's defense of his remarks this week on Fox News Sunday--reiterating his assertion that people "don't want free stuff"--are truly the words of a man who was born into wealth. Of course people want free stuff. We want roads and education and prescription drugs and other people to fight our wars. And we don't want to pay for them. The World Wide Web and the social networks that now consume our free time are built on people's preference for free stuff, even if they have to trade away their privacy in the bargain. And despite his wealth, Jeb is no different. Jeb--like his tormentor Donald Trump--could have chosen to fund his own political campaign, but he prefers to take hundreds of millions of dollars of other people's money, money that Jeb continues to insist is free--that it comes with no strings attached--despite the scorn that Trump rightfully heaped upon him for that suggestion.

Jeb just cannot get out of his own way. Early on, he stumbled over the question of the Iraq war, and could not bring himself to accept that for most Americans the trillions of dollars spent and tens of thousands of young soldiers killed or maimed--not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties--have not led the nation to a better place. Then he offered a tax plan that delivers massive tax cuts to the rich in the midst of a campaign where Donald Trump has drawn an angry Republican base to endorse his call to increase taxes on the rich. More recently, Jeb published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal suggesting the wide ranging steps he would take to spur deregulation, only to find his plan ridiculed by the normally conservative readership as little more than a pandering road map for business lobbyists and campaign fundraising.

Jeb increasingly has the aura of an aging football coach trying to get by on a playbook of a prior era. Donald Trump has made waves this year by channeling the anger of Republican primary voters who for decades now have seen their incomes stagnate and prospects for the future dim. Trump has begun to raise questions of class privilege and income mobility, issues that for too long have been forbidden topics in our political discourse. But Jeb has been unable to adapt his message or his narrative on earned success to even recognize the differences between his world and that of most Americans. It is not just his inability to grasp the disdain among the Republican base for his brother's record of war and spending, but Jeb has shown himself to have a tin ear for the very real resentments toward the political class and economic elites that have become central to the race. Instead, he just keeps returning to the bromides of the Reagan era--cut taxes, cut regulation, and it will be morning again in America. His meme about free stuff and earned success is just par for the course.

But no one is buying what Jeb is selling. Bush might continue to be the frontrunner among the Republican field based upon prediction models, but that just shows how difficult it is has been for the political cognoscenti to believe how poorly Jeb is performing. With all that money and all of those connections--the free stuff on which his campaign of inevitability was constructed--it is finally sinking in that Jeb himself may simply not be up to the job. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Left, right and center.

According to a Monmouth University poll released this week, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 43% to 36% among likely New Hampshire voters. Up until now, Sanders has not been taken seriously by most observers in the media. The man is a socialist and this is America, after all. Even as Sanders surged past the presumptive Democratic Party nominee in the polls in the first primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, political observers have continued to view the erosion in Hillary's support as an indicator that there is an opportunity for Joe Biden. Sanders is simply not taken seriously.

It is the word. Socialist. Commentators are quick to suggest that Sanders is not taken seriously because he is so far outside what is labeled as the consensus mainstream of American politics. Yet that is not true. Rather, it is the positions of the political parties that have shifted.

Over the past several decades, the entire political spectrum has shifted to the right. Thus, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and others who would have been viewed as being on the extremes of the political spectrum a few decades ago are easily within the mainstream of the Republican Party today. On the other hand--particularly since the Clinton administration--the Democratic Party has migrated toward the center. Elizabeth Warren, whose views would have been well within the mainstream of the Democratic Party in the pre-Clinton years now is viewed as a radical of sorts.

Just because Bernie Sanders is on the left fringe of the two main political parties today, that does not place him on the fringe of American political thought. His main policy positions--for which he was excoriated on the pages of the Wall Street Journal this week--are more neo-Roosevelt than neo-Marxist. National health insurance, Social Security, rebuilding infrastructure, and low cost tuition at public universities sound remarkably like the political platforms of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon, but today clearly are outside the accepted range of political debate.

Bernie Sanders' speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia this week may have woken some people up. It was an impressive performance on several levels. First, for the political maturity and respect he showed in speaking before a large evangelical Christian audience that he knew would not be supportive of many of his views, and second for the passion and clarity of the delivery. Sanders acknowledged areas of disagreement at the outset--views on abortion and gay marriage--and then framed the challenges of social justice, poverty and income inequality as moral imperatives common to Jews, Protestants and Catholics. While a Jewish politician speaking before an evangelical Christian audience may seem like an odd precursor to the visit of Pope Francis to Congress next week, Sanders' focus on issues of social justice and poverty mirrors many of the themes that the Pope has continued to address. In the Republican dominated Congress next week, Pope Francis will confront the mirror opposite audience--members who support the Church's opposition to abortion and gay marriage, but who oppose both his weakening of Church doctrine on those issues and his embrace of issues of social justice, poverty and income inequality.

The same day that Bernie Sanders spoke in front of 12,000 people in Virginia, Donald Trump was speaking to a gathering perhaps twice that size in Dallas. Unlike Sanders, Trump is always speaking to an adoring crowd these days. But like Sanders, his message is increasingly shaking up traditionalists within his party. Sanders and Trump are suggesting a melding of left and right on issues of economic, financial and tax policy that is frightening many on both sides of the aisle. Both Sanders and Trump argue for changes to the income tax that would increase the tax burden on the wealthy. Both Sanders and Trump describe the economic status quo as a rigged system that benefits a small group at the top to the detriment of the large middle class. Both Sanders and Trump embrace economic reforms that would punish the outsourcing of jobs. These positions are traditional fare for the socialist Sanders, yet are ones that have lost favor in all but rhetorical terms in the Democratic Party over the past two decades. Trump's castigation of a rigged system that benefits the wealthy, calling for increased taxes on the rich and the elimination of the special tax treatment afforded to hedge fund and other asset managers, and suggesting in his Dallas speech a 35% tariff on imported manufactured goods, all place him far outside the mainstream of the present-day GOP. Like Sanders, Trump's rhetoric is not as far outside of his party's tradition as some like to think. Trump's rhetoric in many respects mirrors the presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan in 1996, whose "peasants with pitchforks" insurgency assaulted GOP policies that served the interests of corporate and financial elites to the detriment of the middle class. 

Last week, Jeb Bush released his own tax reform plan. The Bush plan is a version of traditional Republican tax policy in the post-Reagan era, reflecting reductions in nominal tax rates across the board and a narrowing of deductions. The impact of Trump's rhetoric and increased focus on the issue of income inequality were reflected in the Bush plan by the elimination of the carried interest provision and increases in the earned income tax credit.

While supporters heralded Bush's elimination of the carried interest provision and increases in the earned income tax credit, the bottom line of the Bush plan is that it would deliver an estimated 53% of the estimated $3.6 trillion in tax reductions over ten years to the top 1%. Six months after giving a policy speech that decried an economic situation where "only a small portion of the population is riding the economy’s up escalator," Bush produced a tax reform plan that provides an estimated $82,000 tax cut to the wealthiest taxpayers, while the annual savings to the other 99% of taxpayers would range from $500 to $1,500.

The timing and substance of the Bush proposal were startling. As the standard bearer for the political center, and still in the eyes of many the presumptive nominee, Bush continues to demonstrate a tin ear. Several months ago, he stumbled badly on questions about the Iraq war and Iraq policy going forward. Now, he chose to publish a tax reform plan that did little but further demonstrate his inability to read the mood of the electorate whose support he is seeking. Even if he believed that the Republican base would ultimately embrace the kind of tax cut plan that has long been central to the Republican playbook, Bush failed to pay heed to the power of Trump's populist rhetoric and recognize that perhaps, just perhaps, this was not the moment in the campaign to launch a tax cut proposal that once again disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans. 

For years, there have been issues where the left and the right were in alignment. Concern over the power of Wall Street, corporate welfare, trade policy, and federal power over education policy come to mind. But the power of the center has long trumped the ability of those on the left and the right to drive public policy on those or other issues. Right now, Sanders and Trump are driving the political debate. Sanders may be a socialist, but the issues that he is raising have broad appeal and a long history of support within the Democratic Party base. In a similar manner, Trump has tapped into resentments toward corporate and financial elites that have a long history within the GOP, and those who suggest that Trump is not saying anything substantive about policy are not paying attention.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Sins of the father.

Jeb is playing defense, but for no good reason. After all, Bush is the true conservative in the race for the Republican presidential nomination and should be entitled to the support of the Republican base. His record as Florida governor demonstrates his bona fides as a fiscal conservative. His treatment of Terri Schiavo, harnessing the power of the state to keep a dying woman alive demonstrated his bona fides as a Christian conservative. His argument for affirmative American actions to support a floundering Iraqi regime demonstrates his fealty to Neoconservative foreign policy principles. Yet day after day, Bush is mocked by a man who has no such bona fides, a man who seems to be making it up as he goes along, a man who has done everything short of mocking his manhood.

This is not the race that Jeb wanted to run. The man who swore that he would only run for president if he could run a campaign infused with joy continues to struggle under Trump's barbs. There is little evidence of joy in Jeb's campaign, his demeanor instead is alternately angry, annoyed and fed up. Jeb pronounced when he declared his candidacy that he was willing to lose the nomination if that was what was required to remain a viable candidate in the general election. Of course, Donald Trump understood the silliness of that formulation: you cannot win the general if you do not win the nomination first. So Donald Trump is taking Bush at his word and helping him lose the nomination. This week, Jeb's numbers fell solidly into single digits, while Trump numbers continue to rise.

Jeb's claim that he would prefer to lose the nomination than compromise his principles is admirable in some philosophical sense, but the notion that he will not calibrate his campaign to the tenor of the electorate violates a time-tested mantra for Republican electoral success since Richard Nixon: go to the right in the primaries and to the center in the general election. Of course, a central tenet of that strategy is duplicity. You tell the right wing of the party one thing to win the nomination, you tell the nation something else to win the election. It is exactly that duplicity that appears to have led the Republican primary electorate to reject a host of traditional politicians in favor of the two men now leading in the polls--Donald Trump and Ben Carson--neither of whom has held elective office.

Jeb understands that essential duplicity. He understands that time-tested strategy. He just suggested as a condition of his candidacy that he wouldn't play by those rules.

Centrist Republicans and independents who recall Jeb's father with fondness looked at Jeb's prospective candidacy and thought it should be a slam dunk. Just go to the electorate and say, I am my father, not my brother. And say it over and over again. Domestic policy? I am my father, not my brother. More important, foreign policy. I am my father, not my brother.

But the world according to centrist Republicans and independents is irrelevant to the Republican primary process, and as much as George H.W. Bush has found great favor with voters as time has passed, conservatives will always see him as the man who violated his sworn pledge and raised taxes, and whose fidelity to the pro-life cause was always in question. To the primary electorate, particularly the evangelical base of the party, I am my father, not my brother would have to be flipped to I am my brother, not my father. And that was the path that Jeb chose. Forget standing on principle, or even showing reasoned judgment, Jeb went so far as to say that his brother would be his primary advisor on foreign policy.

Centrist Republicans and independent just shook their heads in wonder.

Jeb's struggles to win the affection of the right wing of his party mirror his father's struggles thirty-five years ago. George Herbert Walker Bush ran for president as a traditional Republican Party candidate in 1980, just as the years of the GOP as the party of sound money and social moderation were coming to an end. Bush entered the race as the favorite of the GOP establishment wing, only to be soundly trounced by Ronald Reagan as the primary season got rolling. 

Like Jeb today, Jeb's father ran up against a candidate who skillfully and passionately appealed to the right wing, activist base of the party, an electorate who then, as now, were particularly disdainful of the establishment wing of the GOP. The Ronald Reagan that Bush ran against was more similar to Donald Trump than many care to remember. Today, pundits like to recall Ronald Reagan as the sunny optimist who described America as a shining city on a hill, and as a politician willing to cross the aisle and share a drink and a story with Tip O'Neill after a day's work was done. Those pundits fault Donald Trump for not conveying the positive, uplifting message that Ronald Reagan did.

Yet their's is a revisionist history of the times. Just as Trump is vilifying immigrants and playing to the nativist sentiments of the GOP primary electorate, Reagan's campaign was imbued with barely coded racial rhetoric that was abhorrent to New York and New England Republicans, but was effective in solidifying the support of the historically Democrat southern and rural electorate that was first brought into the GOP by Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy. In a campaign strategy orchestrated by Lee Atwater to attract supporters of the segregationist and 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace, Reagan flew to the Nashoba County Fair in Mississippi to demonstrate that he stood with southern whites against the civil rights movement, and he sprinkled his campaign rhetoric with stories vilifying "Cadillac driving welfare queens" and food stamps abuse by blacks. Reagan also scorned the traditional fiscal prudence of the GOP in favor of supply side economics and a tax cutting fervor that Bush famously labeled as "voodoo economics." 

Jeb's father's final capitulation to the new realities of the GOP did not come in his acceptance of Reagan's offer of the vice presidency, but rather in Bush's selection of Reagan political operative Lee Atwater to run his successful 1988 president campaign--a campaign characterized by his no-tax pledge, and the racial fear mongering manifest in the Willie Horton campaign ad.

Jeb's father and brother won the White House by embracing the advice of political strategists and long-time running buddies Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. There was no nonsense about running campaigns that were joyful or subordinating politics to principles. George H. W. Bush learned to eat pork rinds when Lee told him to, to walk away from his pro-choice and other sentiments of his traditionalist GOP heritage, and to sign off on racially charged wedge campaign tactics. President Bush 41 and President Bush 43 did not run on their own terms, but embraced the strategies that their advisors laid out for them.

Jeb prefers to point to Trump as the cause of his campaign woes, and like his father before him, Jeb seems to be discounting the appeal and effectiveness of an opponent he personally and politically disdains. Yet the obsession with Trump may be masking Jeb's larger problem--which he should have learned from watching his father's defeat in 1980 and victory in 1988--which is that his own conviction that he is the candidate truest to conservative principles will not suffice as a campaign strategy. Donald Trump may not be Ronald Reagan, but the Ronald Reagan that whipped Jeb's father was not the saint of people's imagination either. Jeb might have the better resume, he might be a man of compassion, but neither experience nor compassion are the currencies of the moment.