Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Very Very Scary Election

January 6, 2015

A friend once advised me that if I wanted Syncopated Politics to be a success, I had to do more than just write well, or insightfully. Rather, he said, content was good, but catchy headlines were better. Something to grab attention, something to cheer, or uplift, or even titillate.  A little Mad Man-like without the booze and the sex.

There is absolutely no question I have failed on the catchy headline front, no matter how gripping my recounting of some obscure tome or article or conference might be.  And, since every New Year requires a New Year’s Resolution, I am throwing caution to the wind, and coming out with some big.  We will try fear.  2016 will be a very scary year.

I have to admit, this wasn’t entirely original.  Rather, it was inspired by a brilliant observation by Mitch McConnell, “I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome."

Ok, so who is scarier?

Democrats first, since they have the White House.  First, what do the Democrats stand for?  Beats me, and I’m a Democrat.  I know what policies I would support, but they don't seem to intersect very well with the mush I think I am hearing from the Donkey side of the aisle.

And, the candidate?  Well, even though he’s not on the ballot, we need to talk about Mr. Obama.  He isn’t going to be transported up to Valhalla, bathed in gentle tears shed by a grateful nation.  His approval ratings are presently in the mid 40’s, and, while he might nudge them into the low 50’s, there is just not a lot of upward elasticity in that number. No matter what he actually accomplishes in the next two years, there is absolutely nothing he can do to move the needle with most Republicans.  They never accepted either of his elections in the first place, and they aren’t going to now.  So, to put it in Mitt Romney terms, the Democrats start with a handicap. 47% of the country may not be willing to give them another chance.

And yet, if you asked me about scary, I would tell you that Hillary Clinton is a bigger problem for the Democrats than Barack Obama is.  That is not intended to be a swipe at her intelligence, her experience, her competence or even her electability. She might very well find some votes in that 47% that Obama could never reach.  Rather, it’s a reflection of a basic law of political physics.  A Clinton (even a Rodham Clinton) sucks all the air (and most of the fundraising) out of the room.  That vacuum will be filled by her Republican opponents—and the discussion in 2016 will be not about ideas, but about Hillary’s age, her health, Benghazi, her speechmaking, whether Bill will go off the reservation, Benghazi, her considerable personal wealth, Benghazi, Bill, and whatever investigations the Republicans think they need to keep going for the next two years.  Need proof of that?  Just today, the GOP is floating a new rumor about Bill’s “appetites.”    

Fair? Yes, ugly, but fair. In politics, everything is public, and few have lived their lives in a more explicitly public way than the Clintons.  But, all that focus on Hillary means that she will either win, and the Democrats will develop no bench, and neither think anew nor act anew, or she will lose, and the Democrats will develop no bench, and neither think anew nor act anew.  As long as Hillary is in, she fills the whole screen as both crutch, and narcotic.  The Democrats will be like a fly frozen in amber.  A mushy fly in amber. 

Now, we can turn to the Republicans.  They, too, are damaged, and they, too, have a couple of major problems.  McConnell had it right.  Thinking of an all-Republican government is like going for a dental cleaning and exam at a new office. You don’t know who is putting the mask on, which penitentiary they did their training in and what they will find once they start scraping with the probe. But what you have noticed is there are an awful lot of them.  On the GOP bench, we have ambitious governors like Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker and ambitious ex- Governors like Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee.  Then, there are ambitious Senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Ambitious personalities like John Bolton and Ben Carson.  Even ambitious has-beens like George Pataki and Rick Santorum.  There’s also Rudy, for whom the word ambition is inadequate. And Mitt, although he says no, and John Kasich of Ohio, and maybe Rick Snyder of Michigan. 

Some of these folks are actually talented, thoughtful, and sane.  And that tees up another real issue for the GOP—just as the Democrats have too few people sucking up the air, the Republicans have too many.  Talented, thoughtful and sane may not win hearts and minds in the primary. What the GOP establishment wants is for unity behind one candidate and one conservative-but-don’t-worry-we-aren’t-crazy message.  The problem is, they don't know how to get there.  The loss in 2012 is still fresh in their minds. They kicked away a winnable election, not just because Mitt was a flawed candidate (all candidates are flawed) but also because 20-odd debates aired a lot of dirty laundry, a lot of personal animus, and some scary ideas. That is why they have taken steps to reduce the number of debates and select friendly moderators.  Less exposure, less of a possibility for scary gaffes.  But, in a wild-west modern media world where there are literally dozens of friendly places where, just among friends, a fringier candidate could say fringier things, and an angry host could rip into one of those talented, thoughtful and sane types, that creates an unwelcome volatility. 

What could change this dynamic? 

For Republicans, the 2016 election is theirs for the taking, but they have a dual challenge.  They need to first listen to Mitch and look like they can send to the President conservative, but rational legislation that has broad-based appeal.  That won’t be easy, as the base clamors for both the spoils, and revenge.  Then, they need to shepherd through one of those conservative but talented, thoughtful and sane types through the funhouse of the primaries.

For the Democrats, they need some skill, some luck, and some courage.  First, Mr. Obama has to be credible, picking his battles, standing on principle when he needs to, graciously giving ground when he doesn't, all while the world doesn’t collapse around him.  That’s the skill and luck part.  The courage part might be harder.  They need to challenge Hillary Clinton, from both the right and the left.  Maybe that’s Jim Webb and Elizabeth Warren, maybe it's some other combination, but the Democrats absolutely must have a conversation that leads to a coherent and credible set of policy proposals that reflects the desires of both wings of the party and addresses the bleeding away of support from some of their traditional allies. Hillary may not like it, but it will broaden the base, and, if she gets the nomination anyway, will make her a far stronger candidate leading a far more interesting party.

Of course, none of the above could happen. We may be asking for more than these people are either intellectually or emotionally capable of.

But, if you think it through, no matter what your ideological preferences, that really is scary.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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