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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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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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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Frustrating Politics: Why We Can’t Reach Across the Aisle

Just an observation.

Liberals tend to believe that if conservatives only knew as much as they did there would be no disagreements. Differences of opinion are based on conservative ignorance and would disappear if conservatives would only stop watching Fox News and start reading the New York Times. This attitude creates a liberalism that is self-righteous and annoying.

Conservatives tend to believe that liberals hold wrong (and often immoral) values. While they may be book smart, they lack common sense and have no clue how the real world works. Differences of opinion would disappear if liberals would go to work and start paying taxes. This attitude creates a conservativism that is self-righteous and annoying.

“We are intellectually superior to you” versus “we are morally superior to you” is no basis of a functioning two-party system.

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Giving President Barack Obama Some Credit (Begrudgingly)

I was never swept away by the Barack Obama in 2008 and have yet to be fully won over by his presidency. He is too aloof, too impersonal. Even when he gets the policy right, he struggles politically. And while it may be fashionable to blame an obstinate and ideologically rigid Republican Party for Washington’s dysfunction and gridlock, the excuse is a little too convenient and far too easy. Politically adept presidents successfully soften their political opposition. Under President Obama, partisan lines have hardened.

Having said that, the data – and not mere opinion – provide a much more positive assessment of Obama’s tenure as president.

If I were going to draw a historic parallel to Barack Obama, I would go with President George H.W. Bush. Sandwiched between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and lacking Reagan’s or Clinton’s charisma, his presidency has been greatly underappreciated.  The economy was never objectively as bad as portrayed in the 1992 election and the budget compromise that proved his undoing – because it violated his “no new taxes” pledge – helped to move government spending from Reagan-Bush deficit spending to a Clinton era surplus.

Many of President Obama’s policies – the economic stimulus, Wall Street bailout, and health care reform – have been similarly unpopular and yet may they have set the stage for economic recovery and growth. At some point, Americans (myself included) may have to – begrudgingly – give him some credit for his policies if not his politics.

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