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


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.


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.