In a year when a majority of the Republican electorate – xenophobic and angry – fixates on the fanciful notion that political inexperience presents the only sure path back to the White House, it should have been obvious that the immigration reform embracing, “low energy” former governor of Florida, the consummate insider in an outsiders race, would be doomed.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls it “the fall of the House of Bush,” the ultimate meltdown of the ultimate “establishment” Republican family. Jeb is toast, says Frank Rich, “History will look back at him, if it looks at all, as a world-class fool and the last exhausted gasp of a GOP that no longer exists.”
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother…
Even popular culture seems to be conspiring against Bush. Truth, a glossy big screen “serious movie” starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as his CBS ’60 Minutes” producer, revisits the controversial story of brother W’s National Guard service in the Vietnam era. Reviews of Truth have been all over the map with many negative, but the film will still remind voters in both parties, not to mention the scribbling class, of Bush 43’s checkered presidency, as well as that whole entitlement thing at the moment brother Jeb would rather talk about, well, anything else.
Donald Trump “emasculates” Jeb for his lack of passion and mocks him as the candidate of “mommy and daddy,” while delightedly reminding everyone that the last Bush was a YUGE disaster.
The hard right in the GOP dislikes Bush more than any Democrat. The Red Statewebsite is on deathwatch for the crown prince of Kennebunkport, unable to contain its disdain for a guy who was a very conservative big state governor, but now is a “entitled” pariah: “The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging you have a problem. The problem here [for Bush] is not that the electorate and party have changed but rather we are, for the first time, seeing the Emperor’s new clothes. We are seeing the people who believe they are entitled to lead — ‘rule’ is actually the word they would like to use — do nothing but propose the same tired old solutions because that is the way that it has always been done. Quite honestly, if you aren’t angry you either haven’t been paying attention or you are part of the problem.”
The Challenge of Getting Better…
Perhaps Jeb is destined to be his generation’s Robert Taft, the conservative scion of that famous American political family who was forever the bride’s maid, never the bride, always the pretender who never completely excited fellow Republicans.
Every campaign manager’s not-so-secret wish is that their candidate gets better over the course of a race. A slow start can often be overcome in a long race if the candidate gets steadily better. Bush started his campaign slowly and seems to have gotten more inept as the Iowa caucus approaches. His smack down by Marco Rubio in the most recent Republican debate has been widely seen as Jeb’s Waterloo.
“You could blame political malpractice — bad aides, bad advice, bad strategy. A hundred million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to,” writes Tim Egan of Bush’s debate debacle. “But the fish stinks from the head down, as any Sicilian grandmother will tell you. Bush owns this debacle, the third in a row. The debate broke him.”
Somehow a 112-page PowerPoint document detailing the Bush campaign’s line of attack on fellow Floridian Rubio, as well as internal polling information and plans for advertising ended up in the “in box” of David Catanese, the senior politics writer for U.S. News & World Report.
There are only two realistic explanations for the “leak.” It was either an enormous mistake on the part of a crashing campaign that hit the “send” key without thinking, or more likely it was a well-timed effort to inform the Super PAC supporting Bush (under our crazy system the PAC and the campaign can’t legally communicate or coordinate efforts) of Bush’s strategy over the next couple of months. By the way, that Bush Super PAC is still sitting on $100 million that it can use to jumpstart the “Bush comeback” storyline.
Maybe in this deranged campaign season that has seen the old, tried and true political playbook shredded, a cool $100 million doesn’t buy you love in Iowa or New Hampshire, but it can buy a lot of television time and that is going to be better than fighting over debate moderators.
Bush, on life support or already dead, has performed one statesmanlike service to the party that for the most part seems hardly able to tolerate his existence. Reading that dense PowerPoint details the Bush fixation on Rubio, the young protégé who now threatens to eclipse the one-time mentor. It’s a story line out of Shakespeare and, while Bush waits like the New York Mets for the “break” that may never come, Rubio’s moment may have now arrived and for the young senator that may mean peaking too soon.
“Rubio and President Obama have strikingly similar profiles,” the leaked Jeb strategy document says,” first-term senators, lawyers and university lecturers, served in part-time state legislatures for eight years, have few legislative accomplishments, and haven’t shown much interest in the process of advancing legislation and getting results.”
There is hardly a more poisonous charge than comparing a fellow Republican to the hated Obama and that line of attack, had it been employed by a more skillful candidate in the recent debate, might have had impact among GOP primary voters. At the least, Bush’s Super PAC now knows the talking points for Iowa as Rubio, who has flown below the radar for much of the pre-primary season, finally gets vetted in earnest. If Bush can’t have the nomination he seems hell bent on making sure that Rubio won’t either.
By Definition a Dynasty Has Staying Power…
Still, I’m in a small universe of observers who says of Jeb – not to fast. Say what you will about the white shoe, old-line establishment Bush Dynasty, like the lowbrow Duck Dynasty, it has staying power, even in re-runs.
Patrician “Poppy” Bush somehow navigated his way through the Watergate implosion – he was party chairman during Nixon’s final fall – then sought the presidency, lost and settled for the second spot, which positioned him to serve Ronald Reagan’s third term.
The elder Bush was never a great campaigner – remember Big Mo – but he made up for it with dogged determination and an ability, well hidden behind the nice guy demeanor, to go for the political throat. George H.W. finally met his match when tangling with the founder of the Clinton Dynasty.
All of which is another way of saying: get ready for the “Bush Rebounds” stories. You heard it hear first. In the enormously fractured modern Republican Party anything is now possible. The favored son of the dynasty may not have what father and brother possessed, including the instinct to Swift Boat opponents, but a guy with a $100 million Super PAC and 100 percent name ID may yet have the staying power to outlast this completely crazy cast of contenders.
Jeb Bush has been a perfectly awful candidate so far, but even the Mets, dead at mid-season, made it to the World Series. When everything is crazy anything is possible.
Conventional political wisdom holds – we all know how “conventional” the current campaign has become – that Bernie Sanders has no (nadda, zip, zero) chance of becoming the Democratic nominee for president, let alone reaching the Oval Office.
Unthinkable, the Beltway Gasbags say, that the former mayor of the People’s Republic of Burlington wins, even though Vermonters have been sending him to Washington since 1991.
Sanders must then be doomed by his age? He is 74-years old.
Or maybe it’s his unruly shock of white hair that looks like it was styled in a wind tunnel. Maybe he’s too Jewish. Maybe its because he comes from Vermont, a small, weirdly shaped state that unless you are from New Hampshire (or Canada), most Americans couldn’t find on a map.
Or perhaps it’s the native New Yawker in Sanders, who sounds like a Big Apple cab driver, well at least he sounds like the kind of cab driver New York had before all New York cab drivers started sounding like they grew up in Somalia or Pakistan.
None of his apparent political shortcomings – age, hair style, positions – fully explains why Sanders has a “he can’t be elected” problem. His real problem is the “S” word – he’s a s-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-t.
Actually, Bernie describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” which in real life – and in Europe and Canada – means he believes in the democratic political process – things like elections, representative government, trying to convince others to agree with you. But, he also believes the system is too often rigged to leave out the little guy. What a radical idea. He’s actually been very consistently saying this for, like, 40 years.
Still, in our politics describing yourself as a “democratic socialist” is a little like being convicted of child abuse while reading Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. It is the kiss of political death this socialism.
But why? Why has only the United States among the rest of the world’s industrial and, yes democratic societies, never had a particularly serious socialist political movement? Canada, France, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, on and on have a 20th Century tradition of what Sanders calls democratic socialism, but not the United States.
But before we lock up the women and children and worry about nationalizing the railroads, let’s consider what Sanders (and others of similar ilk) have actually said and done over the course of American history and why the term and the idea have become such political kryptonite.
In their book It Didn’t Happen Here – Why Socialism Failed in the United States authors Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks observe that an American “working class party,” with a foundation of trade union members, never caught on in the U.S. precisely because what social democrats offer is what many Americans already believe they have – “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist society.” The authors call it Americanism.
In essence, although most Americans would never say it this way, we have long embraced a political philosophy – Americanism, if you will – that is wrapped up in our aspirations, our myths, and our ideas of exceptionalism. Americanism is also deeply rooted in our notion that our political system is in no way separate from free market capitalism and that by extension, capitalism translates to “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist” society.
As a result, when a political candidate suggests that capitalism might not be the complete answer to American issues like wide spread poverty, racial or class inequality or, just to mention one of Sanders’ key issues, making certain every young person who wants a higher education gets one.
Capitalism = Democracy…
For most of the 20th Century the Americanism equals capitalism construct has defined American politics. To suggest that capitalism might not be the answer to every one of society’s issues has been a good way to get branded with, well, the socialist label. Suggest that the really wealthy need to pay a greater share of taxes because, well, they can afford to do so and you are guilty of “class warfare,” the ugly twin of socialism.
But it wasn’t always so. Once the Sanders’ notion of “democratic socialism” was seen as a legitimate alternative to the policy prescriptions of conservative Republicans and more left of center Democrats.
In the election of 1912, one of the most interesting, complicated, and important presidential elections in our history, four major candidates sought the White House. Two of the contenders – Theodore Roosevelt, running on the Bull Moose ticket, and the election winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson – were certainly not socialists, but did advocate a robust form of progressive politics that included sweeping attacks on the excesses of big business, support for organized labor, and improvements in the lives and economic conditions of working Americans.
A third candidate, incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft, was a kind of “establishment Republican” of his day and ours. Taft would not be out of place or uncomfortable in the modern Republican Party of John Boehner or Jeb Bush. Taft was a candidate embraced by big business, a big man with little interest in the kind of “activist” presidency that Roosevelt or Wilson personified.
The fourth major candidate in 1912 was a socialist – Eugene Victor Debs, an Indiana-born, railroad union leader who ran for president five different times. Debs captured nearly a million of the 15 million votes cast in 1912 – his issues then were essentially Sanders’ issues now – and that election proved to be the high water mark of American socialism.
Eight years later Debs was running for president again, but this time from behind the bars of the federal penitentiary in Atlanta where he was doing time for speaking against U.S. involvement in the Great War, a victim of the era’s hysteria about “radicals” who dared to veer from conventional ideas about American patriotism.
The “Radical” Ideas of Eugene V. Debs…
At the end of Debs’ trial – he was convicted under the Sedition Law of 1917 – he spoke to the court and said, in part:
“In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity…”
In his fascinating history of the Socialist Party in America, historian Jack Ross details the number of elected officials in the country who were elected on a Socialist ticket, most of them at time Eugene Debs was the American face of socialism. Ross’s list makes for interesting reading.
When Milwaukee and Many Other Cities Elected Socialists…
In the first two decades of the 20th Century, hundreds of Socialists were elected to city councils, as mayors, and state legislators in nearly every state. Wisconsin – take that Scott Walker – elected literally hundreds of Socialists and Milwaukee had a Socialist mayor nearly continuously from 1910 to 1960. One of those mayors, Daniel Hoan, served from 1916-1940 and another, Frank Zeidler, from 1948-1960.
These so called “sewer socialists” sounded a good deal like Bernie Sanders in their demands for greater focus on the needs of the working class and they governed well, providing efficient and effective city governments. They would not have been re-elected time and again had they not been good at the nuts and bolts of governing and a good place to look for evidence of Sanders’ version of democratic socialism is his time as a small town mayor.
Butte and Anaconda, Montana had Socialist mayors before the Great War. Socialists were elected as county clerk and sheriff in Minidoka County, Idaho in the same period, a place where no Democrat has been elected in decades. The city of Sisseton, South Dakota had a Socialist mayor and Nebraska elected a Socialist to the state board of regents. But no more.
With the exception of the owners of a few Che Guevara posters leftover from the 1960’s, American socialists are about as prevalent today – and relevant – as, well, Che Guevara.
“Socialism only works in two places: Heaven where they don’t need it and hell where they already have it.” – Ronald Reagan
My own theory as to why the socialist philosophy failed to gain greater political traction in the United States relates to the aggressive and very effective demonization of American socialists that began in the post-Civil War era, accelerated during the Red Scare of the 1920’s, climaxed with Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s, and has remained a key fixture of conservative political rhetoric ever since. The steady branding of “socialism” as far outside the American mainstream, combined with the conflating of “democratic socialism” with Soviet communism sealed the political fate of the heirs of Eugene V. Debs.
In post-World War I America, the Palmer Raids, initiated by the attorney general in a Democratic administration, rounded up thousands of “radicals,” many of them immigrants, and hundreds were deported because of their alleged leftist or un-American attitudes. America suffered a “red scare” that tended to feature more violations of civil liberties than any real threat to national security.
Congressional committees and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI later lavished attention on leftists in Hollywood, the media, and in government. Increasingly little if any distinction was made between “democratic socialists” and communists, even though you can plausibly argue that anti-communism (and anti-socialism), with all its excesses, has been a far more powerful force in American politics than any theory advanced by Karl Marx.
Joe McCarthy’s “red baiting” in the early 1950’s briefly made him the most feared and loathed man in the country and his reckless methods destroyed careers and reputations. Every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt has been called a socialist or a communist by someone on the political right. Roosevelt, a New York multi-millionaire, was no socialist and, ironically, may have actually saved the country – and American capitalism – from moving to a radical leftist place during the Great Depression. Still the far right, even now, laments the “socialist” agenda of the New Deal.
Even FDR was a “Socialist…”
Roosevelt did accomplish some radical change – massive spending on public works, breaking up the huge and often corrupt utility holding companies, creating an old-age pension program that has proven to be kind of popular ever sense – and FDR did try to implement large scale planning of the economy with the National Industrial Recovery Act. The Supreme Court told him no.
I love the story of Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins testifying before Congress on the legislation we now call Social Security. A skeptical senator, probing for the Achilles heel of the idea that the government might create actually create a program we all pay into in order to provide a degree of security for all of us in old age, pressed Ms. Perkins: “Isn’t this just a tiny bit of socialism,” the senator asked. No, she replied, it isn’t.
Loyalty Oaths, Alger Hiss, the John Birch Society…Oh, My…
After World War II and into the Cold War, Harry Truman, in so many ways an exemplary president and person, instituted “loyalty oaths” to root out communists (who now interchangeably were also called socialists), state legislatures debated the so-called “Liberty Amendment” to the Constitution in the interest of making America more American, the John Birch Society equated American political liberalism with Stalinist communism, and we fought a war in Southeast Asia designed to stop the insidious expansion of the socialist/communist ideology.
Richard Nixon owed his national profile while still a very junior member of Congress to his pursuit of Alger Hiss, one of the few people from the 1950’s who actually did have questionable allegiance to his country. Nixon, according to his most recent biographer, clung to the memory of his victory over Hiss, ironically, all the way to détente with Moscow and his historic opening to China.
You can write your own 21st Century sentence about what we used to call “Red” China, and as you do, remember that the Chinese president recently dined at the White House with the CEO’s of Microsoft, MasterCard, Netflix, Oracle, Walt Disney, and Morgan Stanley – socialists all, I’m sure.
Bernie Sanders probably won’t be president and you didn’t hear it here first, but like many democratic socialists in America’s past – from Debs to Norman Thomas, one of the most impressive Americans of the last century, to Michael Herrington to the old mayors of Milwaukee – his ideas have relevance and, if you listen closely, contain an important message about what America says it is, but has not yet fully become.
None of these socialists advocated or even privately believed, Sanders included, in violent revolution or the kind of reprehensible system Stalin built in Soviet Russia. They believed in using the tools of democracy, including persuasion and elections, to bring about societal and political change.
But, given our often-tenuous grasp of our own history, not to mention inability to consider nuance, that message gets lost, while the label – “he’s a socialist-slash-communist” – stings and sticks.
“In America today, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the millions of families in the middle are gradually sliding out of the middle class and into poverty,” Sanders says. ”In the final analysis, the people of America are going to have to say that the wealth, labor and natural resources must be used to benefit all the people, not just a few super-rich.”
That is not much different than what the old railroad union member Gene Debs said on the eve of going to prison in 1919 for speaking his mind: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
The Worst Features of Petrograd and the Gilded Age…
It has long been un-American to embrace such language – the workers versus the governing class – but in an age when the super wealthy and super powerful at the very top of our social order display, as historian Jack Ross has written, the “worst features of both Petrograd and the Gilded Age,” the guy who will not win is making lots of noise and lots of people, including many younger Americans, judging by the polls, are listening.
“The concept that motivates us is a community good as opposed to the concept of an individual pursuing their own self-interest and that somehow the public good comes out of that,” Frank Zeidler, the one-time Socialist Mayor of Milwaukee once told the Nation magazine. “Our concept is that a pursuit of the good of the whole produces the best condition for the good of the individual.”
Bernie Sanders may not get to the White House, but he may convince a new generation of Americans – a generation sick and tired of too much money in politics, too much power in too few hands, and too little hope for a shrinking middle class – to think seriously about what that dreaded word – socialism – might really be all about.
“The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done…We have got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know, they know are never going to happen.”
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for John Boehner who served notice last week that he’ll step down in a few weeks from what used to be the second most powerful job in Washington.
Boehner always seemed ill cast in the role of shrill partisan. By most accounts Boehner actually thought, unlike the 40 or 50 ultra-right wingers in his caucus that members of Congress are sent to Washington legislate.
You remember legislating? Stuff like passing an annual budget – the fundamental business of the legislative branch – to actually fund the government. Rather Boehner’s House has lurched from one “continuing resolution” to another, from one government shutdown over the latest nutty cause or the latest spiteful desire to put the president in his place.
Boehner’s House, with the largest Republican majority since Herbert Hoover was in the White House, can’t pass a budget, but did vote, unsuccessfully of course, to repeal Obamacare more than 50 times. You get the feeling that Boehner’s tenure as Speaker of the House has been akin to the frisky dog that chased the car and caught it. Once Boehner grabbed the gavel from Nancy Pelosi he was mostly focused on trying to keep it by placating the reactionaries in his own party. But placating is not leading and Boehner will ultimately be remembered, I suspect, as a political non-entity from Ohio who somehow became an ineffective, indeed disastrous non-leader.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein has it right that Boehner and other Republicans who might actually like to engaging in using their majority to govern have been caught between the angry forces of the grassroots and political reality.
“It was inevitable that these two forces—radicals flexing their muscles, demanding war against Obama from their congressional foxholes, and leaders realizing that a hard line was a fool’s errand—would collide violently,” Ornstein writes in The Atlantic.
“The party outside Congress, including at the grass roots, has itself become more radical, and angrier at the party establishment for breaking promises and betraying its ideals. When polls consistently show that two-thirds of Republicans favor outsiders for their presidential nomination, it is not surprising that Ted Cruz would call his own Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor. Even insiders like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have been eager to treat McConnell and Boehner like piñatas.”
In other words, Boehner’s demise has been building steadily since the day he first gripped the big gavel and, while a certain sympathy for the soon-to-be former Speaker is in order, it’s also worth nothing that he – and other Republicans who know better – generally went along with the increasingly strident agenda of their most angry brethren.
The process that led to John Boehner’s decision to quit was actually set in motion on the evening of January 20, 2009 – Barack Obama’s first day in office – when a core group of radical Republicans met in the back room of a D.C. steakhouse and decided that their guiding principle would be implacable opposition to everything that the new president proposed.
“The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE.
Among those in attendance at this pivotal meeting: Senate power brokers and Tea Party darlings Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan.
McCarthy, of course, is the odds on favorite to replace Boehner as speaker and Ryan, the only other member of that group still in Congress, perhaps very wisely decided not to seek the top job in the House. The liberal writer David Corn quips that even Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s fictional, nasty and scheming congressman in the series “House of Cards,” would take a pass on the job of succeeding John Boehner.
The slash and burn strategy hatched by the Republican anti-Obama caucus in January 2009 worked like a charm to create Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, but at what cost? Well, for starters it cost Boehner his job and helped fuel the anger that has given the Republican Party a clownish real estate developer as its front runner and – I can’t believe I’m writing this – quite possibly its presidential candidate.
One wonders how the fortunes of the country and the GOP might be different had Speaker Boehner back in January 2009 asserted himself against the “no on everything all the time” caucus in his own party. What if Boehner, the golfer who likes to make a deal, had sought a politics of substance and collaboration with the new president? What might have been different if Boehner, the insider who had once worked with Ted Kennedy to pass “No Child Left Behind” had called out the “false prophets” in his own party from day one?
We’ll never know how things might have been different had Congressional Republicans decided to legislate around substance rather than agitate the grassroots through anger. What might have happened if Boehner had reached for a middle ground on health care, the stimulus and so much else rather than buying into the Tea Party mantra that the only way to deal with Obama was to consider him an unworthy pretender?
This much is certain: despite the hard right’s best efforts Obama’s agenda has mostly survived and Boehner and other “responsible” Republicans are tossing and turning at night thinking about a substance free demagogue like Trump or Cruz, both products of the GOP base that loathes Boehner and his Senate counterpart McConnell nearly as much as it hates Obama, leading their party into the next presidential election.
Leadership requires, after all, setting real expectations and occasionally calling a halt to the politics of constantly whipping up a fact free frenzy.
In the end John Boehner will take his permanent tan, his cigarettes, his Merlot and his golf clubs off to a K Street lobby shop and Kevin McCarthy or some other poor soul will be left to try and clean up the mess he has left behind. In order to get the job now, of course, McCarthy must promise to give the radicals in his caucus even more deference. Ironically, Boehner’s finest moment of leadership may have been his decision to quit and at least temporarily end the threat of yet another government shutdown.
But every sixth grader knows you can’t endlessly appease unreasonable bullies. You have to beat them. The political reality of John Boehner is that he couldn’t figure out how to win – and ultimately how to govern. His only answer, and even then short term, was to quit.
As Norm Ornstein say, “In the new tribal world of radical politics, the first constitutional office has lost its luster” and that, unfortunately, will be Speaker Boehner’s legacy.
It is said that without leadership the people perish. John Boehner has now given that old notion a new twist: Without leadership the leaders perish, too.
The old political axiom applies and, yes I know I’ve used it before, but in this case it is so very appropriate.
You can go from hero to zero just like that…and Scott Walker, the one-time next president of the United States, just did.
Has there ever been a bigger political dive off the high board and into the shallow end of the pool than that of the seriously under prepared governor of Wisconsin? We all remember presidents like Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman, but Walker seems in a different class.
Walker has re-defined political flame out. If the Packers folded like this Wisconsin would demand a review of the videotape. In Walker’s case the cheeseheads just have to have him back in Madison full-time, which seems penalty enough.
The guy is an ultra-conservative in notoriously independent Wisconsin. He survived epic statewide battles over union busting, teacher bashing and even a recall. Walker kicked at one of the great state university systems in America by diminishing the “Wisconsin Idea” that education is about more than just landing a job out of college, but also has something to do with being an engaged and informed citizen and improving lives. The not-ready-for-prime-time governor actually and secretly tried to re-write the mission statement of the university system to eliminate the lofty, aspirational language that speaks to his state’s aspirations and when called on the move tried to pass it off as “a drafting error.”
Sleazy suddenly became slimy and the errors were all his.
Still Walker confidentially rode a Harley and acted like he knew that Green Bay has a football team. He seemed to be every hard right Republican’s dream – a Midwestern swing state governor who might have appeal to Catholics, middle class white voters and the Tea Party. But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. The lightweight drowned in a substance-free pool of his own making. The best day of his campaign was his announcement; then it was all down hill.
Walker flip-flopped on same sex marriage, the 14th Amendment and abortion. He pandered on immigration and suggested that a wall between the United States and Canada might be a fine idea. He didn’t know ISIS from Appleton. Walker kissed up to Donald Trump and when that didn’t work he left the race saying that while sitting in church he was “called to lead by helping to clear the field so that a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field.”
Just for the record that wasn’t God calling, but a message a good deal more secular. Walker went from leading the pack to zilch in the polls. Hello…can you hear me now?
Walker was almost immediately discovered to be an empty suit, an ultra-programmed one-time Milwaukee County Executive who somehow became the chief executive of one of the nation’s great states. It was as though Walker had been miraculously cast as a Broadway leading man when he hadn’t proven that he could perform in summer stock or even community theater.
If Walker were from Texas rather than Wisconsin we’d be saying he was “all hat and no cattle.” More likely he was all curd and no cheese. His carefully scripted talking points sounded impressive on a small stage and seemed without substance when he tried to take his simplistic show national. Walker rode that Harley right onto an early exit ramp. His presidential campaign lasted two months. Not a record, but still below average.
America is a great country. Anyone can grow up to be president. Lincoln from a log cabin with a dirt floor. Wilson from a PhD and Princeton. Reagan and Nixon and Carter and Obama. Imperfect humans all, but not a lightweight among them. Walker, the labor killer of Madison, turned out to be lighter than air as a presidential hopeful, a candidate who couldn’t direct his own bloated campaign, let alone the country. In the slightly more than two months he spent padding around Iowa and New Hampshire, as the Washington Post reported, Walker’s “presidential bid had amassed a debt of roughly $700,000.” Quite the storyline for a college dropout who slashed the budget of a world-class higher education system and went after pensions in the interest of managing public spending.
Scott Walker is proof of another old adage. In politics you can fool some of the people all the time. Before it tanked Walker’s campaign raked in more than $5 million from the foolishly profligate Ricketts family, the owners of baseball’s Chicago Cubs. It was reported that Joe Ricketts, the family patriarch and TD Ameritrade founder, “settled on Walker after private meetings over the past year at his New York apartment and his ranch in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole valley. They bonded over their Midwestern backgrounds and conservative views on spending.”
The spending, it turned out, was all Walker’s. Walker was so sure of his political future, so certain of himself that he spent his donor’s money like there was no tomorrow. Turns out there was no tomorrow. Joe Ricketts might have better spent the $5 million he gave to Walker on a left handed pitcher who might have helped his historically pathetic baseball team in the post season. But then again that might be a case of good money after bad.
Walker also attracted the cash and attention of the really big money Koch brothers proving that being really rich isn’t always proof of being really smart, particularly when it comes to politics. “When the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination,” David Koch told a fat cat crowd in Manhattan last April, the billionaire brothers would really open their checkbooks. Makes you want to play cards – or Monopoly – with those guys.
Scott Walker now fades away to an asterisk in the American political story, a less than mediocre middle size state governor who parlayed a slash and burn style and the hot rhetoric of division into a belief that ideology and self-assurance can cover for a lack of real accomplishment and real substance.
We’ve all seen the type that Walker represents – the brash city councilman or too sure of himself state legislator who looks in the mirror while shaving and sees a man of destiny. The real image starring back, however, is just a reflection of old-fashioned ambition and the hubris that comes with believing your own press releases.
National pundits are suggesting that Walker’s tumble is all the work of another candidate who always oversells his accomplishments, but Walker’s crash is more about Walker than it is about Trump. Trump is a flashy neon sign, more sizzle than seriousness. Walker tried to present himself as the serious candidate of the angry right and set out to out flank The Donald, but he ultimately – and quickly – lacked the depth, validity and appeal to pull it off.
In the end many GOP voters seem to favor a flamboyant private sector non-entity rather than just merely an elected one.
“We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it. However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals. It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”
– Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
– – – – –
Let’s apply Hawking to the phenomenon of Trump and “cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”
The heart of Trump’s appeal to the ebbing and flowing 30-some percent of Republican voters who have kept him on top of the polls is – there is no nice way to say this – racist. Trump’s campaign, not unlike the manifestos of European right-wing nationalist parties in Great Britain, France, Sweden and elsewhere, is based on controlling immigration. The European versions are frequently described as “nationalist” or even “neo-fascist,” but we’re too polite to label our home-grown political hatred with such loaded terms, even if they apply.
From the announcement of his candidacy to his latest rally in Texas, bashing Mexican immigrants is the raison d’etre of Trump’s campaign. In his sweeping indictment of immigration back in June, Trump said Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems” to America including rapists, drug runners, and other criminals. He promised to build his wall to stop this, round up every illegal immigrant in the country and deport them and end the Constitutional requirement that any child born in the U.S., regardless of the status of his parents, is a citizen. So long “anchor babies.”
Not surprisingly, as the latest CNN poll suggests, “Among Trump’s backers, 87% support building a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, and 82% think children born to parents in the U.S. illegally should not be granted citizenship. Republicans who do not support Trump tend to agree with these views, but there’s greater dissent than among Trump’s backers: 65% support a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, 67% ending birthright citizenship.”
When Trump bellows that “Mexico is a threat to the United States” his supporters hear the dog whistle of race. Again the CNN poll: “Among Republicans…56% say they think Mexico is a threat, just 23% of Democrats and 37% of independents agree. Trump supporters are particularly apt to see Mexico as a threat, 64% say so compared with 48% of Republicans who do not back Trump.”
Trump, ignorant about so much of the American experience, may think he is on to something new with his anti-immigrant rants, but in fact he is a late, late comer to the cause of hate for those “different” than the rest of us.
Historian Kenneth H. Davis has written that you “scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret. Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself. Born before the nation, this abiding fear of the ‘huddled masses’ emerged in the early republic and gathered steam into the 19th and 20th centuries, when nativist political parties, exclusionary laws and the Ku Klux Klan swept the land.”
Earlier in our history various politicians – this was before reality TV jokers ran for office – scored political points by despising Catholics and, as Davis says, “a wave of ‘wild Irish’ refugees was thought to harbor dangerous radicals. Harsh ‘anti-coolie’ laws later singled out the Chinese. And, of course, the millions of ‘involuntary’ immigrants from Africa and their offspring were regarded merely as persons ‘held to service.’”
Trump’s xenophobia is as old, in other words, as the man’s huckstering manner. His appeal to a third of the GOP electorate masquerades under the cloak of an independent outsider, a non-politician, the guy who “tells it like it is,” but Trump is really just peddling the kind of hate that sadly has always coursed through the political DNA of a certain number of American voters.
Never forget that The Donald’s rise as a political figure was originally built almost exclusively on his demands that Barack Obama produce proof that he wasn’t born a foreigner. Recent opinion polls continue to confirm that significant numbers of Republican primary voters, despite all evidence, continue to believe this nonsense. Trump’s “birther” credentials really imploded long ago, mostly thanks to Obama’s masterful put down of the clown at a famous White House Correspondents dinner in 2011, but his resentment still boils.
“Trump’s humiliation was as absolute, and as visible, as any I have ever seen,” Gopnik writes, “his head set in place, like a man in a pillory, he barely moved or altered his expression as wave after wave of laughter struck him. There was not a trace of feigning good humor about him, not an ounce of the normal politician’s, or American regular guy’s ‘Hey, good one on me!’ attitude—that thick-skinned cheerfulness that almost all American public people learn, however painfully, to cultivate. No head bobbing or hand-clapping or chin-shaking or sheepish grinning—he sat perfectly still, chin tight, in locked, unmovable rage. If he had not just embarked on so ugly an exercise in pure racism, one might almost have felt sorry for him.”
Gopnik speculates, not unreasonably, that Trump’s decision to run for president was cemented the night that the upstart “foreign” Obama made him look like the fool he has long been.
Just for the record: Barack Obama is not a Kenyan, children born in America are citizens and have been since the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1868, Mexico is not a threat to the United States, we are not the “dumping ground for the world,” China isn’t killing us and the United States really is a nation of immigrants.
Occam’s razor advises us to adopt the simplest theory when attempting to explain a phenomenon or, as the great physicist says, cut out all the features that cannot be observed and believe what you can see and hear.
Seeing and hearing Trump leaves us with a contemporary, touched up, blow dried version of an anti-Irish, or anti-Catholic, or anti-Black, or anti-Chinese hater that has always found a place and some following in our politics.
The overwhelmingly white, older, angry Americans who find Donald Trump appealing shouldn’t be immediately cast off as misguided or hateful, but they are of a piece with their earlier American cousins. They have warmed to a man whose rise has depended on a message of hate against a certain class of people, which in turn has stoked fear among another certain class of people. It’s an old and despicable tactic updated to the age of Twitter and YouTube.
The fact that the race baiting engaged in by Trump and others on the GOP debate stage will make it next to impossible for Republicans to compete in a national election is well known to most of the party’s dwindling caucus of reasonableness, but the party remains a victim of its often xenophobia base, which has come to dislike moderate talk of immigration reform almost as much as it dislikes the Kenyan Muslim in the White House.
What Trump has done is neither new, nor even particularly inventive in a nation that is on the cusp of having a majority of residents who are people of color and fewer of those angry white folks like Trump. The one thing that is very American about Trump is that he has tapped into the racial resentment, indeed the hatred that has been part of American politics since the beginning.
“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
– Comedian George Burns
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We’ve just experienced a week in politics that was in turn sincere and something a good deal less. For once during this pre-primary season the guy with the squirrel on his head didn’t completely dominate the news. Rather two guys who will never be president and one who might, but hasn’t – and maybe won’t – announce showed us what the “real” campaign has been missing.
Let’s call it sincerity or, if you prefer, authenticity.
Vice President Joe Biden’s wrenchingly candid visit last week with Stephen Colbert on late night television was the “authentic” political moment of the week – maybe the decade. Biden, still coming to grips with the too-early death of his son, Beau, talked from the heart (not from the talking points) about loss, love, politics and what’s really important. Only a complete cynic could have watched the conversation and not felt that the oft maligned, gaffe prone vice president wasn’t a real guy dealing with the kind of real loss only a father (or mother) can know.
The pundits are all over the map about whether Biden will make a “late” entry into the Democratic primary contest and I won’t hazard a guess, but regardless of what Biden ultimately decides to do he has shown the tired and hungry voters what a politician who is also human looks like.
Two Guys Who Will Never be President…
Rick Perry, the oft-maligned former governor of Texas, in a way did something similar. Facing reality, as in no money and no support, Perry became the first of many to exit the Republican race. He might have held on a while longer, gone through the motions of another debate, but it seems as though Perry knew he was toast and pulled the plug on his toaster, er, campaign. For a guy who stumbled and bumbled through the 2012 campaign and spent the last three years attempting to re-invent himself with new glasses and serious policy pronouncements, Perry’s announcement seemed like a statement of authenticity from a guy who always looked like a deer caught in the political headlights once he got north of Austin.
The other unusually authentic moment in recent days was, from of all people, the stumbling, bumbling governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal. Jindal did what every other Republican presidential candidate and most every responsible person in the party wants to do – he went all Trump on The Donald.
“I want to say what everyone is thinking about Donald Trump but is afraid to say,” Jindal said as he ripped Trump the same way Trump rips everyone.
“He is shallow, there is no substance. He doesn’t know anything about policy, he has no idea what he is talking about. He makes it up on the fly,” Jindal said.
Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker correctly said Jindal was a “1 percenter [in the polls] with nothing too lose.” But give the governor credit for candor even if he was playing his Trump card in order to gin up attention for a campaign that is going no where. For good measure Jindal condemned Trump’s latest broadside disparaging Carly Fiorina’s looks, a comment Trump, of course, denied, but also clearly said.
“I think it’s pretty outrageous for him to be attacking anybody’s appearance when he looks like he’s got a squirrel sitting on his head,” Jindal told CBS News. Thanks to Jindal we have a new metric for the campaign: Trump leading in Iowa and in also in squirrels siting on his head. At long last the GOP campaign is getting down to substance.
The chattering classes – yours truly included – have spent the summer trying to fathom the rise of the Bloviator from 5th Avenue and, I think, the answers are many, complex and disturbing. But nothing explains Trump and the current political season more than the American longing for something real, even if in Trump’s case “real” means beneath contempt.
Say what you will about Trump, and I’ll say more soon about where he may be taking the Grand Old Party, but what you see is what you get. A letter to the editor writer in a paper I regularly read said it pretty succulently.
“I like what Donald Trump is doing even though I could never vote for him,” she wrote. “He is busy bulldozing the barricades of political correctness. Donald “Trumps” them all with his bravado. His campaign is a momentary breath of fresh air — freedom to speak our minds; thus the high rating in the polls. He has cleared the way for men like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to be even bolder without the media spinning their thoughts into unrecognizable smudge. Perception is everything. The number of people viewing the debates has doubled, and those voters are hearing the candidates for themselves. Yes.”
Yes, indeed. Trump may be a bully, a bore and buffoon, but he is a real bully, bore and buffoon. You can’t fake Trump’s kind of sincerity.
The Appalling Success of Trump…
The gifted historian Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian who understands leadership and American politics, correctly describes a significant part of Trump’s appeal.
MacMillan told the Globe and Mail newspaper: “I think there’s a real longing among the public for leaders who say, ‘Look, this is where I stand and this is what I think and, if you don’t like it, let me explain what I want to do and why.’ This dynamic is part of the appalling success of Donald Trump. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, and people – in my view completely mistakenly – find this authentic and refreshing in a politician.”
Trump’s appeal is more complex and more troubling than his “truth telling” in the cause of destroying political correctness, but his say-what’s-on-his-mind approach to politics is so completely at odds with the poll tested sound bites of John Boehner and Hillary Clinton as to truly make him appear to be something special to a sizable group of Republican voters.
Clinton’s handlers meanwhile are so desperate to set free their inauthentic candidate from her stilted self that they have hit the re-set button for about the twelfth time in the effort to try and make Hillary human.
“They want to show her humor,” one Clinton adviser said recently. “They want to show her heart.” The coming months for the still front-running Democrat will “be a period of trying to shed her scriptedness.”
The latest Clinton makeover prompted the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to quip, “Planned spontaneity? A scripted attempt to go off script? This puts the ‘moron’ into oxymoron.”
Ironically, perhaps the one thing each party’s polling leader shares is a need to behave like an authentic real person. Trump needs to begin to act and talk like a mature adult and not a completely self absorbed teenager who meets every challenge with a put down, while Clinton needs to act and talk like she’s not the political equivalent of the voice of GPS system in your car – all business and no humanity.
Joe Biden’s favor to the country last week was to show us how much we dislike phonies and appreciate authenticity. Being human after all shouldn’t require practice or makeovers.
“I’m not an old, experienced hand at politics,” Democrat Adali Stevenson said as he was about to lose the presidency for the second time in 1956. “But I am now seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”
Most of us intuitively know that Trump’s deliberate bluster and Clinton’s scripted calculation are manufactured characteristics that have more to do with their own deep seated insecurities than with the qualities we actually admire and seek in a leader. Real leadership is about being secure enough to listen, not just talk. It’s also about sincerity, humility, self-awareness, humor, empathy and decency. Gosh, those sounds like human characteristics.
Neither candidate currently leading the polls is likely during the interminable campaign to convince a majority of voters that they are real people with real human characteristics and are deserving of leading the country. Neither seems likely to win, as Adali Stevenson said, without proving they are unworthy of winning.
While fearing that we’ll be forced to settle for something less we keep looking for someone who doesn’t need to re-invent themselves in order to be “authentic,” we keep looking for a winner worthy of winning.
The Democratic frontrunner and heir apparent has essentially squandered a long summer than might have been spent creating feel good moments of connection with voters from Portsmouth to Portland. Instead she – and we – have endured the steady drip, drip, drip of detail about her still unfathomable and still unexplained decision to use a private, non-governmental email server while she served as secretary of state.
“Whether out of pride, stubbornness or something else, Clinton has misread legitimate concerns about her private e-mail server and what they say about her,” Dan Balz writes in the Washington Post. “As a result, she has badly mishandled the issue. She has treated it almost solely as a legal problem (which it could be) rather than a political problem — just as she seemed to approach the promotion of her memoir of her tenure as secretary of state as a book tour rather than the start of her presidential campaign.”
The drip, drip, drip – it’s like a faucet that makes a noise in the night keeping you awake – is going to continue into the fall and beyond. Hillary has seen to that.
I try to spend as little of my time as possible thinking about email servers. I prefer to think about the baseball season, the next book I’m reading or red wine from Burgundy, but nonetheless I’ve been doing my share of server maintenance, thank you very much. I’ve concluded I’m less troubled by the allegations that some obscure, but classified State Department memo from our embassy in Djibouti ended up unprotected on Clinton’s server than I am about what the entire tiresome episode says about Hillary’s judgment. It speaks volumes.
When Americans eventually get around to entering the privacy of the voting booth more than a year from now they’ll face a stark choice for president between two inevitably flawed human beings. Elections almost always come down to two less-than-perfect choices. Hillary Clinton may well be one of the choices and in the privacy of that polling place we’ll do the mental math on whether we are more comfortable with her, her history, her experience, her positions and, yes, her judgment than we are with this guy Jeb or Walker, Carson or, urgh Trump, or maybe someone else.
In the private deliberations that constitute the most personal aspects of the democratic process, we’ll decide which of the candidates we will be most comfortable with for the next four years. It’s always a bit of crapshoot. I think most of us make these decisions based on fundamental questions that we regularly apply to people we encounter in our daily lives. When we pull the lever or punch the ticket we want a sense that we can trust the president of the United States not to be stupid, or rash, or so removed from us and our lives that the most powerful person in the world simply can’t relate. In other words, we really want a president we can trust.
Which brings me back to that private email server. The fundamental questions about the Summer of the Server still hang in the air, including most importantly why? Why did she do it? Why go to all the trouble to circumvent the State Department’s own email system? Why hire your own people to manage that decision and then purge the emails not deemed “official.” Why? Why? Why?
And why, when it all began blowing up, why not deal with it forthrightly and candidly? Clinton’s belated explanation – really more a discussion than an explanation – of the computer decision was that she wished she would have done it differently. Really? Why differently? Because the entire episode has become a hassle that threatens to mess with your presidential campaign? Or was the decision just faulty judgment? Was the decision to go outside the regular email system just another decision like what to wear to the office or what to have for lunch? Clinton seems to suggest the decision received about that much consideration. But her explanation – or her expression of regret in doing it the way she did – doesn’t wash.
“At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people and has raised a lot of questions, but there are answers to all these questions,” Clinton told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in one of her very rare sit down interviews. “And I take responsibility and it wasn’t the best choice.” Clinton added that she used a private email set up when serving as a United States senator and just didn’t give the matter much thought. She should have and on that point judgment turns.
The only really plausible explanation for the private email is that Clinton did not want prying eyes to see her electronic communication. She can’t – or won’t say it – but that is the only reason for doing what she did and for creating one of the greatest self-inflicted political wounds in modern presidential history.
In the whole wide scheme of things, Clinton’s email issue may turn out to be a tempest in a crock pot – we still haven’t seen all the emails and probably never will – but as a glimpse into how a possible president of the United States makes decisions and evaluates issues it’s a picture window. Secrecy, legal arguments attempting to cover political problems and a raging sense of entitlement explain much of Clinton’s 40-plus years in public life. The email server is just the latest Exhibit A.
Consider what Clinton might have done and chose not to do when she left the State Department. She might have joined a prestigious university and lectured on international relations. She might have landed at a think tank where she could have penned her memoir and readied for another campaign for the White House. She might have emulated Jimmy Carter and humbly undertaken something like his global work for democracy and human health. The Clinton family foundation is certainly doing some impressive work, but Hillary is most directly connected to the foundation’s frequently questionable fundraising. Not three people in a hundred could tell you what the Clinton Foundation has actually done other than raise money enrich the principals.
The questions that surround the foundation’s money raising, particularly when that fundraising involved a once and future presidential candidate, were as predictable as the continuing questions about her emails ands servers. Clinton either missed the likelihood of scrutiny and scandal surrounding the Clinton Foundation or she simply decided the millions she collected in speaking fees and foundation contributions were a price to be paid to enjoy a personal income that permitted her and the former president to recently plunk down $100,000 for a two week vacation rental in the Hamptons.
Whatever you make of the high dollar talks and foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, it’s clear the candidate chose the one path in her post-State Department career that was absolutely certain to bring her grief and scrutiny as she pursued the White House. Clinton chose to parlay her celebrity and contacts in order to cash in, when good taste, ethics and better political judgment might have counseled a much different approach.
It’s the Judgment Stupid…
Arguably the biggest, most consequential vote Clinton cast in her single term as a senator from New York was to authorize George W. Bush to take military action against Iraq in 2002. That vote went a long way to costing her the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 when candidate Barack Obama brought up the subject time and again. It was then and remains today a judgment call that Clinton got wrong.
“I made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple. And I have written about it in my book, I have talked about it in the past,” Clinton said in May while campaigning Iowa. But in fact she persistently avoiding calling her vote a mistake until after she had lost to Obama and only admitted the error in judgment when, one suspects, she was again thinking about another bid for the White House.
Judgment is a funny thing. You know it when you see it. Lyndon Johnson pushing for voting rights legislation in the face of bitter opposition from southerners in his own party was not just a display of political courage, but an example of practiced political judgment. Escalating the Vietnam War was just the opposite. Ronald Reagan confounding conservatives in his own party on arms control, Harry Truman recognizing the State of Israel at the first possible moment and John Kennedy overruling his generals during the Cuban missile crisis are examples of judgment exercised in critical and enduring ways. It is what president’s do and what we hire them to do.
Hillary Clinton has a resume and history going for her. Her recent and enhanced appeal to woman voters still constitutes the real rationale for her candidacy. She may make it all the way, particularly given the opposition. Questions about her judgment may give way to loftier things, like whether the nation, at long last, is ready to embrace first woman in the Oval Office. But as summer turns to fall and the interminable campaign stumbles forward, Clinton stumbles right along limited in her ability to talk about real issues, while she deals with he judgment calls from the past.
Clinton’s most talked about television commercial from her 2008 campaign now strikes a sharp note with those of us who think she has a judgment problem. You may recall that commercial – a ringing telephone at 3:00 am with a voice over ominously suggesting that the person who answers a middle of the night call in the White House must be sober and experienced. The message, of course, was the Clinton was and Obama wasn’t.
Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe deftly responded a little over seven years ago to that commercial: “Senator Clinton had her red phone moment. She had it in 2002,” Mr. Plouffe said. “It was on the Iraq war – she and John McCain and George Bush all gave the wrong answer.”
Plouffe added, “This is about what you say when you answer the phone, what kind of judgment you demonstrate.”
That really is the point and also why Clinton will continue to struggle to convince voters that her judgment is up to the job she seeks. Ironically, all of Clinton’s big problems – the email mess, her post-State Department speaking career and her vote on war with Iraq – are not issues manufactured by her legion of opponents. These are unforced errors, the worst kind in politics and almost always the product of a lack of judgment.
Suppose you were an idiot and suppose your were running for president, but I repeat myself.
OK, I appropriated that line from Mark Twain, but it so perfectly captures the Summer of Trump and besides I couldn’t help myself.
Over our long summer of political discontent focused on “anchor babies,” insults aimed at “losers” and women who bleed, well, let’s don’t go there, the vast Republican field of presidential candidates has allowed a low-class real estate developer whose only high office has been in one of his tacky office buildings to repeal the essential rules of politics. Maybe the cooler fall temperatures have finally caused them to wake up and stop the madness.
It’s reported that the “low energy” Jeb Bush, the one-time GOP frontrunner and former governor of Florida, has finally decided to take off the kid gloves – they must wear them up at the Bush estate in Kennebunkport – and start hitting back at the man who has been “emasculating” him for weeks.
“Look, Jeb Bush was a very successful governor,” says Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, “he’s a thoughtful man, he was a good, conservative governor. But every day, Donald Trump is emasculating Jeb Bush, and Republican primary voters are not going to default to the establishment candidate who is being weakened by these attacks that go unresponded to.” Bingo.
At least since June most of the Republican field, and many observers (yours truly included) have maintained that Trump’s half-life as a contender would last about as long as his hairdo in a windstorm. But the big boor kept on boring, tapping into the deep resentment and, of course, nativism that has come to define those who populate the outer planets of the GOP solar system. In retrospect it should have been obvious that someone in the massive Republican field would vault to the front of the pack by channeling the anger that has fueled so much of the over the top opposition to Barack Obama for the last seven years. Trump, as my father use to say, may be crazy, but he isn’t stupid and he has tapped that deep vein of resentment, even hatred, directed toward Washington, immigrants, the Kenyan-Muslim president, Wall Street, organic food and, who knows, maybe even Megyn Kelly. She is a card-carrying member of the elite, after all.
Until Jeb Bush realized that “staying under the radar” was a political path back to forever being referred to as the younger brother who couldn’t cut the Republican mustard, Trump has completely dominated the political summer. He did so because he is different, which is more than just loud and offensive. He has ridden the crest of a wave of mostly white, middle class resentment about a country that is changing rapidly in a way that many Americans must find downright scary, even scarier than a bloviating real estate developer.
As numerous commentators have pointed out, Trump is just the latest incarnation of the “outsider” in American political history, the out sized personality willing to rhetorically attack the status quo, while offering little more than fire, brimstone and bluster. George Wallace played the part in 1968 and later. Huey Long in the early 1930’s did the same. Long was probably never a serious national threat to Franklin Roosevelt, but for a few brief moments in 1934 and before his death in 1935 he must have seemed a real threat. Ross Perot, Henry Wallace, Jesse Ventura and a host of lesser names have regularly appeared to appeal to the thirty percent or so of Americans who are always really pissed off about something.
What has been different with Trump is his mastery of the new tools of political communication and, of course, that the American public has never been subjected to such a full-fledge narcissist for such an extended period of time. Talk about different. Trump has been able to sustain his summer run with crude but effective marketing skills, four-minute hits on cable television, late night tweets that become early morning headlines and lately Instagram mini-commercials that may have been the catalyst convincing Jeb to jab back.
Every Trump tactic is just like the man: over the top, mostly devoid of fact, nasty and guaranteed to generate lots of attention. That’s the point – attack, attack, attack. Trump’s aggressiveness on the offensive – both meanings – makes General Grant in the Wilderness Campaign look like a low energy loser.
One of the oldest rules in politics is that the attack gets the attention, while the major policy speech gets ignored. Trump understands that rule and has been on the attack constantly since he joined the Republican race. Another old rule, especially true for Jeb Bush, is the fact that any political attack gone unanswered is an attack believed. When Trump repeatedly refers to Bush as “low energy” – essentially a wimp – and a “loser” who is “weak” he is really attacking Bush’s character rather than his policy positions. It’s a brilliant strategy that Bush had better match tweet for tweet.
So put me down in the camp of those, like Steve Schmidt, who think Bush had no choice but to get down in the hog swill with Trump. His task is very complicated, however, because of the dynamics of the Republican electorate. Bush wants to pull some of those thirty percent or so of really unhappy Republican voters over to his cause, but even more realistically he needs to present himself as a tough, decisive alternative to the loudest mouth in the race. Bush’s strategy of going after Trump is right, but the quality of his message and execution of his plan will determine if he has enough of the political attack dog in him to make the strategy work. I have my doubts.
Bush’s first major push back against Trump was ripped from the oldest and moldiest Republican playbook. Bush called The Donald a “liberal” and highlighted the nice things Trump has said over time about the Clintons. If Trump were a conventional politician that line of attack might have some legs, but the issues with Trump aren’t based on policy or anything that has to do with facts and reason. The disaffected won’t quit liking Trump because he got Hillary to his latest wedding or has had more positions on abortion than he had neckties. The Republican Party might reject him, however, if he starts to be seen as lacking in the essential quality that measures the ultimate success of any American president.
It’s all about the guy’s character. Bush needed to get under than mop of orange hair and tweak – and tweet – The Donald’s outsized personality, his enormous ego and his inability to let any slight go unanswered.
Trump is the grade school bully who couldn’t be stopped by appeals to reason or by complaints that he broke the rules or by tattling to the playground teacher. You have to shame him and call him what he is – a man whose ego and self-regard are so outside the realm of normal human interaction that he is dangerous, to himself, the Republican Party, the country and more.
Bush needs to dust off Ronald Reagan and say “there you go again…” when Trump unloads and Trump will keep unloading because he can’t help himself. Jeb might even anticipate a Trump attack on him by making the attack himself. “Donald says I’m low energy, and I admit that I like to sleep at two o’clock in the morning rather than sit up inventing nasty things to say about people.”
A more direct line would be to simply say: “Trump is erratic, undisciplined, a hothead, an egomaniac completely full of himself. He may have the right character to succeed in the unethical world of New York real estate where you buy and sell contacts with mayors and governors, where people cheat and cut corners to get ahead, but he lacks the character to represent the American people.”
I’d never refer to Trump as a “reality television star,” since that gives him too much credit. He’d always be a “frequently failed real estate developer.” I’d point out that some of the great companies in America have declined to work with Trump because he lacks honesty and character. “Trump’s made a career out of being a bully when American needs a leader.”
Belittle the man where it hurts him the most: his mattresses are uncomfortable, his ties are badly constructed (I’ve never had one, but I bet they are), the towels in his hotels are too small, he’s getting old and can’t chase younger women any longer so he’s decided to run for president.
Trump would come back, of course, from such an attack with a discourse on how successful he has been, how rich he is, etc., but Bush will need to stay focused on the great man’s character, which even those who current support him must know is hardly a match for any president since Warren Harding.
Bush is an inherently clumsy candidate who often seems unsure of what he wants to say or what he really believes, but the circumstances of the Summer of Trump and his declining poll numbers have now pushed him into a strategy he might have wisely adopted weeks ago. Trump reminds us that attacking is often succeeding in politics and he who would attack also needs to defend.
Bush had better jump in with both feet and start landing some haymakers. Such are the moments that define candidates. Can Bush be a better retail politician than he has been? Is there any fire in that gut? Is there any ‘there’ there? With regard to Trump, can he finally find a language to point out what most of the country already knows?
Sometimes you just need to call the schoolyard bully a jerk and hit him upside the head with your lunch box.
Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.
Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.
I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.
Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”
Return of “the primitives…”
It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.
The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.
Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.
In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.
Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.
Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”
Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.
OK…What’s Your Suggestion…
When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.
There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.
There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.
In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”
Rejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?
Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.
The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.
Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.
Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.
The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.
Hillary Clinton is campaigning as if she were running out the clock, trying not to lose rather than playing to win.
The late, great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was one of the great innovators in basketball. Smith, who died earlier this year and will long be remembered – especially by Duke fans – as a nice guy who rarely finished anywhere other than in first place.
Smith pioneered the use of analytics to assess the performance of his teams. He once said he would have been happy being a high school math teacher. His players adored him, even when he pushed them mercilessly during practices because he also praised and encouraged them lavishly during a game when everyone was watching.
Fellow coaches revered him and adopted his lessons. Every player on the bench got to his feet, for example, when a teammate left the game and Smith’s players knew they were expected to help a teammate to his feet after that teammate took a charge.
The Coach – or Candidate – as Innovator…
Coach Smith was also a very political man in a low-key, but effective way. He said late in his life that North Carolina would never have accepted him had they known how liberal he was. I doubt Hillary Clinton is much of a basketball fan, but the great Coach Smith could probably tell her a thing or two about the danger of going too soon into the political equivalent of the four-corner offense that Smith pioneered.
The four corner offense was Dean Smith’s brilliant strategy to hold on to a lead by killing the clock – holding the ball, passing, cutting, passing, cutting, passing and never looking to score. It was offense by playing it safe and often it worked just as planned. In the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in 1982, Smith’s team held the ball and a one point lead for the last eight minutes of the game before defeating Virginia. The final score was 47-45 and that game helped usher in the college basketball shot clock that essentially made Smith’s hold-the-ball offense obsolete.
Clinton’s flat, joyless, dull campaign, insulated from any meaningful contact with the press and featuring only tightly controlled interaction with voters is a strategy to run down the clock. Designed to be risk free, it is really the type of political effort that induces unforced errors.
Hillary: The Inevitable…Again
Clinton is presumed, apparently by her handlers and by herself, to be so far ahead of her Democratic challengers that she can coast to victory and then glide into the general election. To mix the sports metaphors, she could be using the primary as a political spring training to get in shape for the long regular season, but rather than taking extra batting practice she’s jogging out on the warning track. Clinton partisans proclaim how different things are this time than when she employed essentially the same approach and lost in 2008. But there is little evidence that Clinton’s “new” political approach is anything new, at all.
Clinton has lightened up a bit lately on the vice-like control that has been a hallmark of her approach to politics, but she still gives the impression she is trying to prevent a mistake rather than win an election.
Politico’sRachael Bade reported recently that Clinton went through all the motions at a cattle call Democratic event in northeastern Iowa, but rather than work the crowd and shake every hand in sight she briefly mingled and “then she disappeared behind a makeshift black curtain walling off a corner of the ballroom. Fans pushed up against the veil, trying to get a peak of the 2016 Democratic front-runner. But her security detail held them back, allowing only a handful to enter and see the hidden candidate before she left, leaving a swarm of disappointed voters who didn’t get a handshake.”
Her husband would still be in the room, waving off aides trying to get him moving, while he schmoozed and charmed voters. Not Hillary’s style.
The Clinton campaign launched a $2 million television ad buy recently in Iowa and New Hampshire that featured two well-produced, but strangely cold-blooded ads that were all about how Hillary’s mother had been such an influence in her life. I don’t doubt the genuine feeling, even passion, behind the message, but couldn’t help thinking as I watched the spots that Clinton can’t even talk about her mother without a tightly scripted pitch.
The commercials were designed to illustrate the human side of the candidate, to “re-introduce” the one person in the race – maybe Trump excepted – who we already know really, really well.
The latest commercials focus on the perseverance and courage of Dorothy Rodham and feature Clinton saying, “this is why I do this…” You can almost see the candidate and the ad maker huddling over a script parsing every word trying to gin up maximum emotion. A less controlling campaign and a more natural politician might have just let the camera roll, while the candidate talked from the heart about her mom, but that is clearly not Hillary’s style. She is so controlled she has become what Trump never will be – bland.
When Clinton enjoyed a big lead over Barack Obama back in 2007 she was content, way beyond the point she should have been, to play it safe and sit on that lead. She went into the four corners and lost any political momentum and then the Democratic nomination. She seems to have learned little from what must have been an extremely painful experience and failing to learn lessons in politics is often deadly.
Hitting the Delete Button…
The Clinton email saga has been the one consistent message swirling around her candidacy for months now and we may just be seeing the beginning. Clinton’s approach to campaigning – slow, measured, risk averse and secretive – is mirrored in her mostly ineffective response to the news that she used only a personal email set-up during her years as secretary of state.
So far she has offered no believable explanation as to why she went to all the trouble to work around the government’s own email system other than to say it’s no big deal and amounts to a would be scandal dreamed up by nasty partisans determined to attack her. That has essentially been Clinton’s response to every criticism dating back to the Rose Law firm and Whitewater.
One suspects she hasn’t offered a believable rationale for the email situation because there is no believable rationale. She went off the government system, installed her own private server managed by her own private contractor because she didn’t want to leave an electronic record of her correspondence that might one day be fodder for attack. It has now become clear that several key Clinton staff members used the same approach and now with the FBI involved there will be certainly more questions about whether information of a sensitive national security nature was compromised.
It all begs the question – why? And that question demands a follow-up: why stall and dither and hedge on dealing with the controversy? If there is nothing to hide, why hide?
The conventional political wisdom remains, even as poll numbers tighten and her favorable numbers tank – voters increasingly think she is about as trustworthy as Trump – that Clinton can’t possible lose the Democratic nomination. Under this theory her fundraising, her potentially historic status as the first woman president and her last name will ultimately carry the day.
The New York Time’s in-house conservative columnist Ross Douthat made his own fearless prediction this way: “Many things are possible. But to this soothsayer, it feels like a good time to double down on that thesis instead, and make my prediction as firm and wiggle-free as possible: Hillary’s going to win the nomination, and it isn’t going to be particularly close.”
Maybe. But it has also become clear that Clinton is no where near the natural political animal her husband remains and, in fact, she may be one of the worst candidates in terms of basic political skills of any “sure” winner in recent American political history.
Some other observers contend it is already just too late to depose Clinton as the Democratic nominee, but just see what happens if the email issue, or some yet unnamed scandal, reveals more and more vulnerabilities. And what happens if Clinton stumbles badly in a face-to-face encounter with Bernie Sanders or, heaven forbid, during an interview with a tough reporter.
Playing to Win…
When Dean Smith finally brought his four corner offense to near perfection, the NCAA changed the rules in a way that destroyed his strategy. Holding the ball would no longer work, so the great coach did the only sensible thing – he adapted. The great coach designed new strategies based on a new and different game and Smith’s Tarheels kept right on winning.
Politics isn’t basketball, of course, but politics, like the hoops game, is always about adapting, moving and being willing to call an unusual play that catches an opponent flat-footed. Dean Smith mastered the four corner offense and then when he needed to do something different he did. As one of his players said when reflecting on his methods, “He never coached not to lose. He coached to win.”
The Democratic frontrunner is playing not to lose and she may find that is a sure fire way not to win.