Politics

George Will’s excellent column this week explains well why Donald Trump staying power in the Republican nomination fight is likely limited. As Will explains, Trump is not a real Republican.  A recent convert, his political beliefs do not add up to anything approaching a conservative political ideology. He’s been tolerated thus far because other more viable candidates assume that eventually he will implode. If he doesn’t, the Republican establishment will kick into gear via Super PACS to assure his destruction.

Having said that, Trump is likely larger threat as an independent candidate in a general election because his appeal cuts across party lines (even more so than Ross Perot). Democrats who are currently enjoying this circus may need to recalibrate should Trump launch an independent bid. His appeal to working-class – what we once called Reagan Republicans – cuts both ways.

As a political observer, two facets Trump’s candidacy continue to fascinate me.  First, part of his appeal resides in the misguided belief that American democracy could function better if it operated more like corporate America. This is perhaps true if we mean that corporate America is necessarily more efficient that democratic governance but it is also (by definition) less democratic. Corporate America typically empowers its leaders, democracy limits them. This is particularly true in the American political system which is built around the principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and limited government.

Our fascination with Trump is not only yet another reflection of how poorly we understand our political system but also with a little we like the practice of democracy. In the abstract we love democratic governance; but the more we watch it, the less we like.

It also reflects our unwillingness to take responsibility for our current dysfunction, is the world elected representatives somehow magically arrived in Washington without having ever been elected.  Over the past several decades, we’ve increasingly elected more ideological, less pragmatic representatives. Yet, we are surprised when the political system becomes bogged down in gridlock and dysfunction.

Second, bluster is not principle. Donald Trump’s willingness to say exactly what he thinks strikes many voters as refreshing, and gives the illusion that Trump is motivated by principle rather than raw political calculation. When you add up the sum total of all that he says, however, he is – in the words of Winston Churchill – “a pudding without theme.” American voters have a long mistaken speaking with volume for decisiveness and enthusiasm for sincere belief, but Trump takes the triumph of style over substance to new heights. He is hard to pin down but says things with such force and certainty that it is hard to escape his image as decisive, principled, and – yes – ideologically grounded. Far more conservative politicians have been branded RINOs and defeated by a Tea Party surge.

Perhaps a broader lesson is about the limits of ideology in American public discourse. To be conservative is to identify with a conservative label and to dislike liberal alternative. Trump captures the dislike and the anger even if he is an imperfect representation of conservative issues. If he succeeds – which I think is still unlikely –  he will change the definition of what it means to be conservative.

Donald Trump and the Definition of Conservative

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Politics

The Rise (and Fall) of Donald Trump

Ignore the surge in the polls, Donald Trump has no long term viability as a candidate.  His current standing is mostly based on name recognition, media coverage, and a willingness to speak more “candidly” than the typical politician.  Trump not only seems different, he is different.

Just not in a good way.

First, as we have seen this week with his comments about John McCain, there is a high probability that he will eventually self-destruct. Infatuated with the sound of his own voice and overly confident in his own abilities, Trump talks too much and with too little discipline. This may be a great trait for a professional commentator or reality show celebrity but not for the leader of the free world or for a presidential candidate.

Second, when the time comes (if there is a need),  the Republican Party establishment will bury Trump.  Think Newt Gingrich in 2012. His tendency for “candid” comments means there is a long record of quotable material that won’t play well with the Republican base. As Dan Balz of the Washington Post summarizes:

“Trump’s candidacy for the GOP nomination is a knot of contradictions. He disparages the Affordable Care Act but has called for a universal national health-care program. He calls himself pro-life after earlier saying he was pro-choice. He wants to expand Social Security benefits. He has repeatedly mocked his opponents in the most personal ways. Could someone like that unite the Republican Party or the country?”

Now add in a long history of business dealings that make Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital look like child’s play and you have enough raw material to swell even the most feckless consultant with confidence. While Trump hasn’t personally filed for bankruptcy, he has routinely used bankruptcy as a business practice. Trump’s explanation ” I never went bankrupt but like many great business people have used the laws to corporate advantage—smart!” might play well on Wall Street but will be a difficult sell on Main Street.

The GOP field has – to date – been mostly reluctant to go after Trump primarily because he is more politically dangerous than he is politically competent.  If you are watching a time bomb, it is better to just wait until it blows up. They are hoping this will happen without them having to light the fuse. Their real fear is not that he will win the Republican nomination but – having failed to win the nomination – he will run as an independent dooming Republican chances in 2016.

The news media have also been complicit, giving Trump more coverage than all the other candidates combined. They would do a great service by following the Huffington Post’s lead and not covering him as a serious presidential candidate. That is too much to hope for, but as his polling numbers surge, the news media will eventually have to scrutinize his record. When they do, Republican primary voters will find it lacking.

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Politics

Winning by Losing: The Politics of Running for President When You Have Little Chance of Winning

Watching Governor Bobby Jindal mount a quixotic campaign for president has led many observers – and not just Jindal critics – to question why run at all if you have no chance of winning.  You can ask the same question about any number of growing crowd of Republican contenders from Lindsey Graham to Chris Christie to Donald Trump.  While some of the reasons are deeply personal, there are also more systematic explanations.

First, the more candidates that enter the race – particularly in the absence of a clear frontrunner, the smaller the share of the vote any candidate needs to potentially become viable. In most national polls, Jeb Bush is leading the pack but only has 15-20 percent of the vote. As a potential candidate, you don’t need the ground to shift very dramatically to become competitive.

Second, call it the Obama Effect or the Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum Effect. Many of these candidates remember that: (1) President Obama beat the established, heavily advantaged and overwhelming favorite Hillary Clinton in 2008 to win the Democratic nomination; and (2) In 2012, a number of Republican candidates emerged as the “anti-Romney” candidate for brief flicker of time but none could capitalize on the opportunity. Rick Santorum who got beat by 16-points in his last Pennsylvania Senate campaign managed the strongest and most sustained challenge. Nearly every single announced candidate this go-round is at least as strong as Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum in 2012. Their hope is to catch fire and transition into a major contender.

Third, in politics winning isn’t everything, particularly if you are focused just on the 2016 election cycle. For many of these candidates, their goals are not narrowly focused on a 2016 win but rather to emerge as a future leader of the Republican Party. Candidates like Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal can run in 2036 and still be younger than Hillary Clinton is today. Running now helps to establish an organizational presence, a funding basis for future elections, and establishes them as a potential voice for the Republican Party should Democrats win in 2016.

Fourth, winning the presidency isn’t the only “win” from running a national campaign. Any number of the candidates currently on the campaign trail will likely have cabinet level positions should a Republican win the presidency. If a Republican doesn’t win the presidency, they will be in position for television gigs on Fox News or The Blaze Network, or with national think-tanks like the Heritage Institute, the CATO Institute, or the Family Research Council. As Mike Huckabee has demonstrated, losing a presidential bid is not always a bad career move.

Finally, some candidates run not out of personal ambition but to influence the campaign agenda. The best example here may be on the Democratic side where Bernie Sanders seems unlikely to win the nomination but will almost certainly have a liberalizing impact on the Democratic Party. On the Republican side, this Republican nomination is not just about who wins, but the future direction of the party.

Overall, the question to ask then is not why are they running when they have no chance of winning, but rather what do they hope to gain out of a failed presidential bid? In most cases, there are real tangible benefits to losing a presidential nomination including (but not limited to) improving your chances for the next go around.

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Politics

Gay Marriage and the Supreme Court: The Fight Has Only Just Begun

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision today on gay marriage is unquestionably historic, just do not believe the issue is settled. Here is why.

First, while the Court is the final arbiter of constitutional meaning, it is has “neither force nor will, but merely judgment.”  The Supreme Court can issue rulings but it cannot enforce them. When faced with a ruling like, President Andrew Jackson famously declared “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Within this context, it is perhaps helpful to recall Brown v. Board (1954) which declared that schools should desegregate “will all deliberate speed,” opening the door to obstruction and delay.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, for example, has already declared Louisiana not recognize or offer gay marriages. And Texas Governor Greg Abbott will issue a directive designed to protect religious freedom against today’s landmark ruling. More than sixty years after Brown, and after making considerable progress from 1960-1980, American public schools are as segregated today as they were in the late 1960s.

Second, Supreme Court decisions often spur the losing side into political action. Consider, for example, the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision and the politics of abortion. This landmark decision mobilized pro-life advocates. Pro-choice advocates, believing the battle was permanently won, demobilized. The result has been a long series of state government restrictions followed by court decisions whittling away at the core protections provided via Roe v. Wade.  States currently with bans on gay marriage may well explore ways to limit this newly minted protection, and the decision will have other unanticipated and unintended consequences.

Regardless of what follows, this is a landmark decision worth celebrating today.  But tomorrow, the political groups and organizations that made this decision a reality will need to get back to work. The fight over equal rights has just begun.

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Politics

Why Can’t (and Won’t) Control Campaign Spending

Once upon a time long long ago, I believed in the capacity for campaign finance reform to fix our broken political system. While I continue to believe it is possible in the abstract, it is practically not feasible. We lack the political will. Apparently, I am not alone. The New York Times quotes FEC chairwoman Ann Ravel as saying, “The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” meaning that there is little the FEC can do to regulate campaign money.

Much of my early research was dedicated to the premise that political science was too often used to defend an untenable status quo. Showing correlations between money and votes, for example, scholars would claim that campaign spending limits in combination with public funding of elections would undermine competitive elections and democratic political participation. Connecting campaign spending to individual survey responses further purported democratic benefits such as more knowledgeable voters (as measured by name recognition and recall) and greater self-reported interest in the campaign. Campaigns unquestionably cost money, so limiting spending could, in theory, adversely affect democratic political outcomes.

All of these propositions can be fairly questioned. Cutting spending to zero would make it impossible to campaign, but how much money was necessary to run a competitive election? Even the work defending the role of money in the political process acknowledges that campaign spending is subject to the law of diminishing returns but what at point did “the law of diminishing marginal returns” mean that additional spending was no longer effective in persuading or mobilizing voters? Moreover, if campaign spending might inform voters, its ability to do so was dependent on the clarity and honesty of campaign messages. Candidates committed to obscuring their message might just as effectively misinform voters or persuade voters via deceptive manipulations. What good was additional campaign spending absent a thoughtful framing of political decisions?f my interest in the substantive arguments about the effect of money on politics remains strong, my interest in campaign reform has waned over time. Not because I believe it is theoretically impossible, but because it is practically impossible. The courts will inevitably undermine reform by equating money with political speech. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

While my interest in substantive arguments about the effect of money on politics remains strong, my interest in campaign reform has waned over time. Not because I believe it is theoretically impossible, but because it is practically impossible. The courts will inevitably undermine reform by equating money with political speech. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

1. The courts will inevitably undermine reform by equating money with political speech. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

2. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

3. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

4. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because while they claim to be concerned about money in politics, they aren’t willing to do anything about it.  The less active and engaged are mostly apathetic while more active partisans are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

On this count, the Democratic Party is the far more frustrating. With the rare exception of politicians like John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as a campaign issue, not actually engage in reform.

So I have mostly given up, accepting that the best thing we can do is to try to direct the flow of money into the political system in ways most likely to clarify vote choice or to mobilize voters. This can be accomplished by allowing unlimited (but disclosed) contributions to candidates and political parties, removing the incentive for large donors to create or contribute to outside groups (i.e., SuperPacs). This hardly solves every problem. Candidates and parties will still obfuscate and misinform, but they are at least potentially held accountable at the ballot box. Contributors and active participants will continue to matter more than mere voters, but at least there is some incentive for candidates and parties to engage in mobilization efforts. Unfortunately, unless we want to think more deeply about the meaning of the First Amendment and the relationship between money and speech, it is the best we can do.

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Uncategorized

Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley in 2016? (No, Not Really, But Maybe?)

Instead of talking Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton in 2016, maybe we should discuss Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley. I am not entirely serious about this but here is what we know:

  1.  The Republican Party will have a crowded field but will essentially be competing for two sets of voters. Conservatives appealing to the ideological base versus establishment candidates appealing to moderates and “practical” conservatives. Scott Walker, elected in blue-state Wisconsin and the survivor of union-led recall election, has the potential to appeal to both sets of voters.  In 2000, Republican money and organization very smartly united behind George W. Bush early in the campaign process minimizing competition. The only wrinkle was John McCain who apparently didn’t get the memo and made the nomination look potentially interesting until getting decimated by negative campaigning in South Carolina. The Republican Party heading into 2016 is considerably more chaotic making such a strategy untenable, the process far less predictable, and Jeb Bush far less inevitable.  Bush unquestionably brings a lot to the table in terms of money and organization, but he is no sure thing when it comes to the nomination.
  2. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks unbeatable but it is worth remembering that she also looked unbeatable in 2008. The ideological base of the Democratic Party never really embraced the Clintons (Bill or Hillary) and the politics of compromise and triangulation, and has ongoing doubts about a Hillary Clinton presidency. Those doubts are starting to emerge and will be expressed more loudly and clearly as we move closer to the nomination.  The email scandal and the reemergence of Monica Lewinsky are just the beginning. While it is tempting to believe these stories will be pushed solely by Republicans, there are plenty of Democrats willing to play along.  Assuming no other serious candidates emerge, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has the potential to capture this dissatisfaction and mount a serious challenge. How serious may well depend on the deftness of the Hillary Clinton campaign and her ability to reassure doubters and unite an uncertain base.

Neither of these outcomes is particularly likely, but the field for 2016 is hardly set, and voters may well be in a mindset of rejecting “politics as usual” which means rejecting the obvious and safe political choices.

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Uncategorized

Hillary Clinton’s Email

News stories don’t just happen, they are created. They endure when they fit an existing narrative or when they serve some useful purpose.

This isn’t an apology for Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email for State Department business, but the story provides interesting insight into her position in the 2016 presidential race and why she is vulnerable despite considerable advantages. First, she is a clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination but for all the attention given to the Tea Party on the right, the left has its fair share of Tea Party envy. These are liberals who have spent too much time watching Aaron Sorkin dramas and waiting for Josiah Bartlett to seize the Democratic nomination and articulate a principled and uncompromising version of Democratic politics. These Democrats have no love for the Clintons who they see as the embodiment of compromise and triangulation, and a corrupt politics of cynicism and manipulation.

Republicans, for their part, have a slew of candidates, but none – at least without the last name of Bush – appears capable right now of competing with Clinton.  Wounding Clinton now can only help the Republican Party by renewing questions about Clinton morality. The familiar storyline from the 1990s of the Clintons disregard for rules reemerges.

With skeptics on the left and enemies on the right, the scandal will most likely linger (unless some new story can push it off the agenda) because it fits into a comfortable narrative. For Hillary Clinton, there is no easy escape. The best way to end the story – releasing the emails – will raise a whole new set of new questions and pushes her campaign (even further) off-message.

The email raises plenty of questions about Hillary Clinton’s fitness to be president, but it also raises questions about who benefits from her downfall. Republicans are the obvious answer, but they aren’t the only beneficiaries at least when it comes to controlling the Democratic nomination and the future of the party.

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