Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Big Chair in the Oval Office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The GOP of Donald Trump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 19, 2016

On the eve of the South Carolina primary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The untimely passing of Antonin Scalia.

When I was in my teens, I used to love reading the screeds of Lyndon LaRouche and various Trotskyite factions pasted on walls and the outside of mail boxes in New York. Even Dr. Bronner's Christian mystic rant about the unity of faith. There is something pure and liberating in a good rant. The more unhinged the better. It works better than waterboarding to suss out the fanatics in the world around us.

Then came the World Wide Web. Dr. Bronner's unleashed. Every person their own bottle of soap, free to inscribe what they will.

And so it was this morning. The day after Antonin Scalia was found dead at a ranch in west Texas. From natural causes.

Sure. Like that story was going to hold up.

It is now widely accepted across the web--now, there is an oxymoron--that Scalia was murdered. According to recent poll of 400 Likely Conspiracy Believers published at RealClear Conspiracies, 52% of those polled reject the official accounting of Scalia's death. Of those who reject the official accounting, 67% suggest that Barack Obama was responsible, seeking to change America; 42% believe he was killed by the Clintons, because it is what they do; while 22%, mostly under the age of 29, believe it was a collaborative effort of Obama and Hillary seeking to undermine Bernie's attacks on Wall Street. (Huh?)

Of these explanations, only the second one holds any water. Obviously Obama didn't do it. Obama knows exactly what he's doing, as Marco Rubio explained over and over. If this was the path he was going to take, he would have done it last year.

As is normally the case, these accusations mask a deeper explanation, that may never be uncovered. It may sound a bit too close to Pelican Brief, or an Oliver Stone film, but there are times when reality imitates art. So here goes.

Antonin Scalia was murdered by a right-wing, evangelical Christian, Texas oilman billionaire. We will call him Sheldon, just to keep things anonymous. Any similarity to Sheldon Adelson is purely unintended. After all, Sheldon is a Jew from Boston. If he was going to do it, Scalia would have died in his sleep at a resort in Macao, or on a settler outpost on the West Bank.

The other Sheldon, the one who had Scalia put down, is a courageous Christian who has invested tens of millions of dollars in Ted Cruz's campaign. Cruz's election is critical to him for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the oldest and most compelling rationale for these things. Money. The value of Sheldon's oil holdings have been destroyed by the decline in price of oil from $100 per barrel down to $25. The driver of continued weakness in global oil markets is the looming entry of millions of barrels of new supply coming onto world markets from Iran. This was made possible by the Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions.

Ted Cruz has committed to tearing up the Iran deal on his first day in office and reimposing sanctions on the mullahs.

The two largest looming impediments to the election of Ted Cruz are the US Constitution and Donald Trump. The greatest irony of Scalia's death is that the passing of the titan of Constitutional originalism benefits no one more than it does Ted Cruz, a man who fashions himself as the greatest patriotic defender of the words of the Constitution.

While the kerfuffle around whether Ted Cruz is a "natural born" citizen--a requirement under the Constitution for being President of the United States--seems to have died down, the simple truth is that to a Constitutional originalist, Cruz is manifestly not eligible for the highest office in the land. Unless, of course, as the other Constitutionalist in the race, Rand Paul, suggested, the land is Canada.

Sheldon, like Cruz himself, understood that his eligibility to serve was likely to be tested. They both had great faith in Scalia's fealty to the words of the Constitution, and that as much as Cruz was his preferred candidate, the words were clear. Scalia stood as the greatest obstacle to a majority vote in favor of Cruz when the issue came before the Court.

Then there remained the Trump factor. Trump demolished Cruz in the New Hampshire vote across all demographic and political categories, but more devastating was that Cruz only polled 8% among non-evangelical voters. His sophisticated turnout strategy had worked brilliantly in Iowa, but if he were to drive other voter groups--Libertarians and non-evangelical conservatives most notably--to his corner, he needed to turn up the flame on the urgency of the campaign, and draw attention to his deep conservative credentials.

One might have thought that killing Justice Ginsburg would have been a more likely target--after all, it would draw attention to the Court without costing the Court its greatest herald of conservative jurisprudence, but--in addition to the risks that Scalia presented to Cruz's eligibility to serve--Scalia was the titan of the right, and nothing, absolutely nothing, would drive turnout from the conservative quarters more than the prospect of Barack Hussein Obama appointing Scalia's replacement. Except, perhaps, giving that power to a New York reality show billionaire with deep liberal credentials.

The untimely passing of Antonin Scalia.
When I was in my teens, I used to love reading the screeds of Lyndon LaRouche and various Trotskyite factions pasted on walls and the outside of mail boxes in New York. Even Dr. Bronner's Christian mystic rant about the unity of faith. There is something pure and liberating in a good rant. The more unhinged the better. It works better than waterboarding to suss out the fanatics in the world around us.

Then came the World Wide Web. Dr. Bronner's unleashed. Every person their own bottle of soap, free to inscribe what they will.

And so it was this morning. The day after Antonin Scalia was found dead at a ranch in West Texas. From natural causes.

Sure. Like that story was going to hold up.

It is now widely accepted across the web--now, there is an oxymoron--that Scalia was murdered. According to a recent poll of 400 Likely Conspiracy Believers published at RealClear Conspiracies, 52% of those polled reject the official accounting of Scalia's death. Of those who reject the official accounting, 67% suggest that Barack Obama was responsible, seeking to change America; 42% believe he was killed by the Clintons, because it is what they do; while 22%, mostly under the age of 29, believe it was a collaborative effort of Obama and Hillary seeking to undermine Bernie's attacks on Wall Street. (Huh?)

Of these explanations, only the second one holds any water. Obviously Obama didn't do it. Obama knows exactly what he's doing, as Marco Rubio explained over and over. If this was the path he was going to take, he would have done it last year.

As is normally the case, these accusations mask a deeper explanation, that may never be uncovered. It may sound a bit too close to Pelican Brief, or an Oliver Stone film, but there are times when reality imitates art. So here goes.

Antonin Scalia was murdered by a right-wing, evangelical Christian, Texas oilman billionaire. We will call him Sheldon, just to keep things anonymous. Any similarity to Sheldon Adelson is purely unintended. After all, Sheldon is a Jew from Boston. If he was going to do it, Scalia would have died in his sleep at a resort in Macao, or on a settler outpost on the West Bank.

The other Sheldon, the one who had Scalia put down, is a courageous Christian who has invested tens of millions of dollars in Ted Cruz's campaign. Cruz's election is critical to him for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the oldest and most compelling rationale for these things. Money. The value of Sheldon's oil holdings have been destroyed by the decline in price of oil from $100 per barrel down to $25. The driver of continued weakness in global oil markets is the looming entry of millions of barrels of new supply coming onto world markets from Iran. This was made possible by the Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions.

Ted Cruz has committed to tearing up the Iran deal on his first day in office and reimposing sanctions on the mullahs.

The two largest looming impediments to the election of Ted Cruz are the US Constitution and Donald Trump. The greatest irony of Scalia's death is that the passing of the titan of Constitutional originalism benefits no one more than it does Ted Cruz, a man who fashions himself as the greatest patriotic defender of the words of the Constitution.

While the kerfuffle around whether Ted Cruz is a "natural born" citizen--a requirement under the Constitution for being President of the United States--seems to have died down, the simple truth is that to a Constitutional originalist, Cruz is manifestly not eligible for the highest office in the land. Unless, of course, as the other Constitutionalist in the race, Rand Paul, suggested, the land is Canada.

Sheldon, like Cruz himself, understood that his eligibility to serve was likely to be tested. They both had great faith in Scalia's fealty to the words of the Constitution, and that as much as Cruz was his preferred candidate, the words were clear. Scalia stood as the greatest obstacle to a majority vote in favor of Cruz when the issue came before the Court.

Then there remained the Trump factor. Trump demolished Cruz in the New Hampshire vote across all demographic and political categories, but more devastating was that Cruz only polled 8% among non-evangelical voters. His sophisticated turnout strategy had worked brilliantly in Iowa, but if he were to drive other voter groups to his corner--libertarians and non-evangelical conservatives most notably--he needed to turn up the flame on the urgency of the campaign, and draw attention to his deep conservative credentials.

One might have thought that killing Justice Ginsburg would have been a more likely target--after all, it would draw attention to the Court without costing the Court its greatest herald of conservative jurisprudence, but--in addition to the risks that Scalia presented to Cruz's eligibility to serve--Scalia was the titan of the right, and nothing, absolutely nothing, would drive turnout from the conservative quarters more than the prospect of Barack Hussein Obama appointing Scalia's replacement. Except, perhaps, giving that power to a New York reality show billionaire with deep liberal credentials.

For Sheldon, it was all on the line: his fortune; the oil markets; the Iran deal; Ted Cruz's eligibility to serve; the prospect of Donald Trump holding the future of the nation and the Court in his hands. Scalia's visit to the ranch in West Texas solved all his problems.

Someday, Michael Moore may make a movie about this. Until then, Scalia’s death will remain fodder for conspiracy theories and outrage on the right, pushing into the background the more likely explanation that is hiding there in plain site. And that is exactly what Sheldon is counting on.

Note: This piece is satire, except for the references to Dr. Bronner’s, and not a real conspiracy theory. Justice Scalia was a friend and colleague of my father-in-law, and they worked together on the administrative law section of the ABA. He was at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Scalia, but greatly enjoyed his friendship and his humor. Nothing written here should be taken to diminish Antonin Scalia, or those who mourn his passing, in any respect.

POSTED BY DAVID PAUL AT SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2016


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Strange bedfellows.

Donald Trump has his finger on the zeitgeist. Speaking to his gathered supporters after his New Hampshire victory, he observed that if the unemployment rate was really 5%, as suggested by official data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he never would have garnered the support that he has. The real unemployment rate might not be the 28% that Trump suggested, but low labor force participation rates and high underemployment rates, as well as stagnant real incomes--factors that people experience in their day-to-day lives, buttress Trump's essential point, and the BLS itself publishes an alternative unemployment rate calculation of that suggests a rate that is twice the official figure. However one views the official data, exit polls from the New Hampshire primary suggest that for Democrats and Republican voters alike, the economy is far and away the greatest problem facing the nation.

This should not come as a surprise to party leaders. After all, according to US Census data, median household income today is where it was twenty years ago, in real terms (adjusted for inflation), and effectively the same as it was at the end of the Reagan administration. It is an old story. The rich are getting richer, the highly educated are doing fine, but the less educated are getting poorer and the average American family has been treading water for decades now. Notwithstanding this dichotomy, the US economy has been a global success story. Since the 1990s, US gross domestic product has risen consistently and shown greater resilience in the face of economic downturns than any other advanced nation, and US policies supporting free trade and open markets have engendered an era of economic growth and declining rates of poverty across the globe. But if that success has had winners, it has had losers too.

Party leaders and candidates can learn a lot about the reality facing voters from primary elections. The New Hampshire primary is particularly interesting because it is an open primary, meaning that people can vote for whomever they want, as in a general election. As such, it might be a less useful gauge of the state of the competition in either party--for example, we do not know what percentage of those who voted for Donald Trump were Democrats or independents, or for that matter how many Republicans voted for Hillary or Bernie--but it provides an interesting snapshot of the tenor of the electorate as a whole.

In New Hampshire this week, 47% of the electorate voted for either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, the two candidates who were running the most direct appeals to voters who are unhappy with the economic status quo. It might seem counter-intuitive to some to look at the vote from that perspective, but the campaigns of Sanders and Trump are more similar than a cursory profile might suggest. At a time when the electorate is being described as increasingly divided and partisan, there is a remarkable degree of alignment among two campaigns that are viewed by many as representing the left and right extremes of the political spectrum.

Both the Sanders and Trump campaigns speak directly to the anxieties and anger that many working Americans feel toward a political system that has ignored their welfare. They have each focused on the corrupting influence of campaign contributions on our politics, and blame the plight of American workers and their families in part on the unholy alliance of those who give and those who receive political contributions. Sanders's most effective attack on Hillary Clinton has been that she was corrupted by the money she took from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms. Trump attacked Jeb Bush and others as puppets, whose strings would be pulled by the donors who fund their campaigns and their Super PACs.

As Trump pointed out in his victory speech in New Hampshire, he and Bernie Sanders both oppose free trade and its role in eviscerating middle class incomes. They both oppose the special tax treatment accorded to hedge fund managers and others in the finance industry. They both criticize Obamacare as being an expensive healthcare solution that was designed to protect the interests of insurance companies, big pharma, and other industries who have been massive contributors to politicians on both sides of the aisle. While Trump has disavowed his former advocacy of a single-payer healthcare system, last week he reiterated his core, distinctly non-Republican belief that no American should be without health insurance, paid for by the government if need be. Sanders and Trump both opposed the Iraq war, with Trump suggesting in a Republican debate that he would rather have seen the $4 trillion spent on military intervention in the Middle East used instead to fund roads and schools and hospitals and infrastructure, and both continue to express skepticism of deepening US involvement in the turmoil in the Middle East.

In the 1996 Republican primaries, Pat Buchanan ran a nativist campaign of "peasants with pitchforks" against economic elites, immigration, free trade and military interventionism. Today, after three decades of GDP growth that has provided little benefit to the average American family and wars that have cost much but accomplished little, Trump is running on the Buchanan playbook, but in much more fertile terrain. However, unlike Buchanan--or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz for that matter--Trump is not a culture warrior. He gives a nod to guns and abortion, but it is a perfunctory nod at best. His campaign, like that of Bernie Sanders, is about money and politics and the economic insecurities of the American family.

Even though their messages are clear, establishment Democrats and Republicans alike are at a loss as to how to deal with the winners in New Hampshire. Republicans, who have been waiting for months for Trump to crash and burn, crossed their fingers and hoped that the Trump insurgency had died in Iowa and that their prayers had been answered with the ascendancy of Marco Rubio. But after Rubio's debate debacle a week later, Trump outperformed even his lofty poll numbers in New Hampshire and establishment Republicans are once again letting the possibility of a Trump nomination sink in.

If anything, the Democrat establishment is worse off, facing the prospect of the farthest left member of the U.S. Senate--not even a Democrat actually--toppling Hillary Clinton and becoming the standard bearer for the party in the fall. For all the enthusiasm Bernie Sanders engenders, and a platform that is not as extreme as his rhetoric over the years might suggest, a Sanders candidacy leaves visions of George McGovern dancing in their heads. And that is not even fair to McGovern, who was a traditional, pro-market Democrat who was castigated for opposing the Vietnam War and proposing a negative income tax plan (that turned out to be a precursor to the now-wildly popular earned income tax credit). Establishment Democrats are acutely aware that a loss in November will leave the party without the White House, the Senate, or the House--to say nothing of the Supreme Court--and are loath to cast their lot with Sanders.

Republican candidates who decried Trump's bigotry and xenophobia early on have come to realize that he has his finger on the pulse of the electorate and now mimic his views on a number of issues. On the Democrat side, the oddest aspect of the campaign has been Hillary Clinton's determination to prove that she is as progressive as Bernie Sanders. Like Republicans trying to be as nativist or bigoted as Trump, it is a futile effort. After all, Bernie Sanders is a socialist running as a Democrat--a democratic socialist to use the new, softer language--and therefore she is simply not going to be able to flank him on his left. But more puzzling is why she would want to. The more Hillary tries to be who Bernie is and not who she is--a center-left politician who is comfortable traversing the halls of power--the more she exacerbates her deeper problems of trust and authenticity. Hillary has been among the most visible members of the Democratic Party establishment for decades now. It does not matter if this is an anti-establishment year, Hillary has to run as herself.

It may well be that by the end of the summer the Trump and Sanders challenges to the establishment will recede. After all, Hillary remains the overwhelming favorite on the Democrat side and Trump is, well, Trump. He really can't be the nominee of a major political party. But the issues they are pointing to are real. For years now, the system has been rigged in favor of people with money. Working class voters of both parties have seen their livelihoods undermined by free trade deals that shipped jobs overseas, bankruptcy reforms that have made it nearly impossible for them to dig themselves out of difficult circumstances, and intellectual property laws that have increased the costs of prescription drugs, just to name a few. One piece of legislation after another--each bought and paid for by major industries--has tilted the playing field against them.

That is the dirty secret of the corruption of our democracy. While all the hoopla has been generated around Citizens United and the hundreds of millions of dollars funneled into presidential campaigns and Super PACs, the real action has always been on the legislative side, where lobbying expenditures and political contributions--now approaching $5 billion a year--have delivered real results, year after year, all tracked and available for anyone who cares to look at OpenSecrets.org.

Nearly half of the voters in the New Hampshire primary cast their ballots for two very different candidates with surprisingly similar messages. If establishment Democrats and Republicans don't understand why, they haven't been paying attention. For decades now, each of the political parties have been paying more attention to those who fund their political campaigns than to the plight of those who cast the ballots, and now they are reaping the whirlwind. This year, voters flocking to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are declaring, in the famous words of Howard Beale--the news anchor who rails against the establishment in Network--that they are mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump might go away, and if they do, the political establishment will breath a sigh of relief. But it is also possible that they aren't going to go away. Instead of their near-50% of the vote waning away, it might just continue to rise, and one of them might actually be elected president this year.