Debating Hillary

Donald Trump may attract more viewers, but the trajectory of the Hillary Clinton campaign is – by far – the most interesting storyline of this campaign.  Hillary Clinton began the 2016 campaign as she did in 2008: A prohibitive favorite with a vast array of organizational and financial resources. The driving narrative of her campaigns has been that she is an inevitable nominee and an electable candidate. When that wears thin, she finds herself on uncertain ground, unsure of who she is as a candidate, or why her campaign matters.

Her difficulty in connecting with voters is often discussed as a matter of trust, but it is really a question of authenticity. We didn’t trust Bill Clinton but we knew who he was and we liked him despite (or because of?) his faults. Her movement to the left this election cycle (relatively to 2008) is symptomatic, her flip on the Trans-Pacific Partnership a case-in-point. The search for what she need to be to get the position she wants.

Bernie Sanders suffers no such problems. He is authentic, challenging the status quo with a Quixotic campaign. He is likable even if we disagree with his positions because he is genuine. It is nearly impossible to imagine him winning the Democratic nomination, but there is no doubt that he has changed the course of the campaign. Voters, he said, will “contrast my consistency and my willingness to stand up to Wall Street and corporations, big corporations, with the secretary.”

The challenge for Hillary Clinton is to use Bernie Sanders as a foil for demonstrating her own authenticity as a person and a candidate and to establish a narrative for her campaign separate from electability and inevitability.


This was an interesting (though long and protracted) debate where the front runners did most of what they needed to do. Hillary Clinton is better in a debate format that in a lot of venues. The interaction helps her and she appears smart, well-informed, and engaging. She plays well off of others. Toward the end of the debate when she got a question on maternity leave she even showed a flash of Bernie Sanders’ style outrage. And, it became clear over the course of the night that she will increase position herself as an outsider as a woman.

Bernie Sanders was Bernie Sanders, consistent, forthright, and genuine. Going into the debate, I was unsure how he might come across but the fact that is unapologetic about who he is is endearing. He likely “won the debate” with his sound bite on being tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s damn emails. It was a great moment that allowed him – at once – to be generous to an opponent and critical of the news media and Republicans.

Some of his answers may not play well in the long run – embracing democratic socialism, for example, where he seems far outside of the mainstream. The fact that he embraces these answers and uses them as an opportunity to explain his views works well for him. The question remains, however, as to whether it expands his base?

Martin O’Malley did fine but I don’t think we’ll enough. He had an important misstatement on Assad and Syria, though I think he just misspoke. The problem is – he needed to have a home run and he didn’t hit it out of the park. I thought he was at his best when he responded to Sanders saying “we already did that in Maryland.” If his campaign ever took hold, he claim the mantle of a “reformer with results.”

Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee were not helped at all by being on the stage.

Finally, I have no idea what Joe Biden will do, but I don’t think this debate opened the door to a presidential run any wider. If Biden was waiting for a sign in the form of a crumbling Clinton campaign, I don’t think he got it.

2015 Democratic Debate Notes


Thanks for Nothing, John Boehner

Those who believed John Boehner was an ineffective Speaker may soon learn an important lesson in democratic leadership. You can’t lead where others are unwilling to follow. His successor will likely be a leader who believes more fervently but to no greater effect. The cure to ineffective government resides not with more effective congressional leaders but with unified government and overwhelming majorities. Given contemporary political divisions, this is unlikely; but even if such a government were to emerge in 2016, it would likely be fleeting, lasting only until the 2018 midterm elections.

We may not like dysfunctional government, but we like functional governments empowered by democratic majorities even less.

More generally, American politics is currently plagued by widespread misperception the only thing needed to make democracy more effective is louder, more forceful, and less compromising leadership. It is view almost entirely divorced from the realities of a political system which divides, checks, and limits political power. It is a view curiously unaware of a divided and polarized electorate. And, it is a view almost completely untethered from a historical understanding of the U.S. Constitution.  If you have policy goals other than shutting down the federal government, political compromise isn’t a sign of weakness in the American political system, it is a necessity.

Perhaps more dangerously, it is a misperception that explains the appeal of Donald Trump and a deeper longing for leadership that ignores political constraints in the name of expediency and efficiency.  Too many of us believe that democracy should reflect our views while ignoring the perspective of those who disagree with us. Too many of us believe that persuasion should occur via political bluster rather than through thoughtful deliberation, that forcing the other side to back down is the definition of democratic leadership.

This leaves us at a curious impasse. Our expectations for how government should function are disconnected from the actual functioning of government. In a political system that demands compromise, we elect uncompromising representatives and then express surprise and dismay when the system grinds to a halt.

John Boehner, for all his faults, tried to make that system function. He was duly punished for his efforts. In a few months, we will miss him but we’ll be too busy blaming his successor to realize it.


The central drama that will play out in tonight’s GOP presidential debate is how the pack of mainstream candidates, languishing in the polls, will confront Donald Trump. Trump has benefited to this point by a widely held – but so far incorrect assumption – that if you stay out of his way long enough he will eventually crash and burn. Yet, Trump has (surprisingly) proven to be more resilient as a candidate than many of us (myself included) would have ever believed, surviving a series of gaffes and missteps that would have felled a lesser candidate.

For the pack of mainstream candidates stuck in the middle (or perhaps more accurately at the bottom), the time has come to stop waiting for the inevitable collapse and push Trump into the wall. The trouble is, if Trump does crash, he’ll take several other cars with him, including the driver who forced him out the race.

Here is where a large field of candidates makes a difference: Were Trump matched with any of the other candidates in a two-person race, the strategic calculation to attack would be obvious. In a multi-candidate race, attacks are riskier as they often impose a toll on both the attacker and the attacked. The candidate that emerges from this overcrowded field may well be the candidate who stays out of (and above) the fray. Think Ben Carson or John Kasich.

But these “stuck in the middle” candidates have other strategic imperatives they must also consider. In order to continue to garner campaign contributions and build the organizations necessary to run a successful presidential campaign, they need to show that their campaigns are gaining (and not losing) momentum. The trouble confronting Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and others is that they appear to be backsliding from contenders and front-runners to also-rans. To combat this, they need a strong and assertive performance to show that their campaigns are not “low energy.”

The polls, in this sense, do matter; though it is not simply a matter of who is winning and who is losing. In mid-September, we are still in the beginning chapters of the 2016 presidential campaign. The question of who is gaining ground and who is losing ground – and who is emerging as a viable and electable candidate  –  is far more important. The early front-runners in this election cycle – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul – need to reestablish their candidacies by making a strong claim as to why they should be the nominee.

The most direct path is to stand up the classroom bully.The risk, of course, is that Trump has proven he will hit back.

Who Will Stand Up to Trump in the Second GOP Debate?


Watching Kim Davis, the erstwhile Kentucky County Clerk attempting to thread the needle between free speech, doing her job, and contempt of court, I am reminded of this quote from the socialist leader Eugene Debs.

“I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.”

Debs was speaking in Canton, Ohio, in protest of World War I. Unlike Davis, he understood that free speech is not speech without consequence. Debs knew well he might spend time in prison for exercising his First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction in a case that temporarily narrowed the definition of free speech.

Davis’ political protest, supposedly grounded in a deeply held religious belief in the sanctity of marriage (despite multiple divorces), appears to stop at the jailhouse door.

Kim Davis, Eugene Debs, and First Amendment Consequences


You can acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is smart and talented while also conceding that she is not a very good candidate. While some of her struggles undoubtedly reflect broader culturally engrained gender stereotypes, her most pronounced flaw as a candidate is that she lacks charm. The more she campaigns the fewer people support her.

I say this, by the way, not as a critique but as a fan.  Clinton politics – pragmatic in its aims, fiscally responsible, and moderate in its approach – has great appeal. In another era, Hillary Clinton was and would have remained a liberal “Rockefeller” Republican, committed to liberal social policies and responsible governance.  Her pragmatic moderate politics is no small part of her problem. The Democratic left has never trusted her or, for that matter, embraced the Clinton legacy. Disappointed by the moderation of Presidents Clinton and Obama, they continue to pine for a “true” liberal.  Hillary Clinton is not that candidate.

This is her second time down the road from inevitable juggernaut to vulnerability to crisis mode and, perhaps, defeat.  The problem she confronts is that – as in 2008 – the most powerful arguments for her campaign are electability and inevitability. When that veneer is stripped clean – when she is exposed as electorally vulnerable – her support crumbles.  The comparison to 2008 is instructive. In September 2007, Clinton led President Barack Obama by 21 points (46 to 25). His victory in Iowa gave Democrats the chance to reconsider her candidacy and her inevitability. The decline in her support from over 60 percent to under 50 and the rise in her unfavorable numbers this early in the campaign are causes for alarm.

Her current challenger – Bernie Sanders – is less formidable. Charlie Cook’s assessment of Sanders is spot on: “Has any mem­ber of Con­gress dur­ing the past 23 years been less con­sequen­tial, less ef­fect­ive, and taken less ser­i­ously than Sanders? Is there any Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or less able to win a na­tion­wide gen­er­al elec­tion?” Though one might recall that at the start of 2008, Senator Barack Obama was inexperienced and not well known.

Her current challenge -overcoming her own weaknesses as a candidate while convincing the Democratic faithful that she has more to offer than electability – remains. Worse, as she looks less and less inevitable, the challenge of making a case for her candidacy grows.

Despicable Me: Hillary Clinton’s Challenge Remains


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