Sunday, July 26, 2015

We Pick A Veep

We Pick A Veep

You have probably been obsessing, as I have, about who is going to be the next Vice President of the United States. 

If you are convinced it is Martin O’Malley, as much as it pains me to say this, and as important you are to me as a reader, I have to tell you this piece will not be about Democrats.  That is not to say I am expecting a GOP sweep in 2016, but rather the GOP field is so much more “interesting” that it draws me like the Sirens did to Jason and Odysseus.

The enormity of this task should not be underestimated—with this week’s entry of Ohio’s Governor John Kasich there are currently sixteen announced candidates for the GOP nomination and there are others who may be “praying on it.”  Several are actually competent and sane.

So, what goes into picking the person for the job that John Nance Garner (FDR’s for his first two terms) held in lower esteem than a bucket of warm spit?

The most obvious is balancing the ticket, both intraparty and to the public at large—contrasts in age, ideology, geography, and possibly, gender or ethnicity.  Obama and George W. Bush picked Biden and Cheney for their experience and gravitas, while Romney went for Paul for his youth and vitality.  Reagan picked George H.W. Bush, his most formidable primary opponent, to send a signal to moderates that he wasn’t a crazy war-mongering ideologue.  Kennedy picked LBJ, even though the men didn’t like each other, because the South was leery of a Massachusetts liberal, and a Catholic one at that.

Sometimes, candidates try to reinforce the brand—Clinton’s choice of Al Gore was seen as a clear statement of a generational change away from twelve years of senior citizens as Presidents.  Nixon had pivoted to a Southern Strategy (and the mainstream media can’t-be-fair trope) in 1968—his selection of Spiro Agnew doubled down on both.  McCain aimed for an age contrast, and went “maverick” in picking Sarah Palin (her last few years as self-absorbed reality queen dim memories of just how effective she was for most of 2008.)  

How about our Gaggle of GOP-ers?  Not unlike an all-you-can eat buffet?  The easiest way to start is with the obvious. 

Donald Trump is going to be the next…Donald Trump.  He’s not going to be Vice President. He would probably suffer ego breakdown if forced to lower himself that way. 

Ted Cruz is not going to be a Veep.  He fails the first few tests, regardless.  He’s not a ticket-balancer—Texas is solidly Red, as is the rest of the South.  He’s not really a generational change agent—his demeanor lacks the optimism of youth and is energetic only in negativity and disruption.  He’s not a logical pick for a more moderate Presidential candidate because he might adversely impact the ticket’s potential crossover appeal.  And Teddy doesn’t work and play well with others.  This past week he called Mitch McConnell a liar.  Cruz has a better chance of wresting the Presidential nomination through some quirk of the primary system then having any of the other candidates tolerate him sufficiently to pick him. 

Mike Huckabee is not going to get it, although that’s what I think he’s really aiming for.  Huck has veered too populist on core Republican issues such as cutting spending for the poor and elderly.  And he’s turned very edgy of late—his desire to appeal to the base is eroding his attractiveness to convincible moderate conservatives who took his social positions as an almost a pastoral function—as a minister, he would be expected to do so, but in a kindly manner.  Huck has tossed that identity over the side.

Chris Christie is not going to make it.  First of all, he’s following the career arc of Rudy Giuliani—his gigantic ambition has led him to sacrifice his state to get conservative street cred, so he’s unpopular at home.  It’s not at all clear he would turn Blue New Jersey even the hint of Purple.  Second, while Christie does have a sort of plain-speaking-kick-the-blank-appeal that’s worth considering, his appearance at the 2012 GOP Convention was not a winning one—one would have thought he was the nominee. Politicians have very strong egos, but I don’t see any of them happy sharing with a guy who craves the top job as much as Christie does. 

Bobby Jindal isn’t even worth discussing.  He’s at war with his own legislature, the credit rating of the state has crumbled, and he adds nothing to the ticket—both McCain and Romney carried the state by nearly 20 points.  He’s below the “Fox” threshold for getting into the debates.  Rick Santorum is also barely registering.  He claims to have blue-collar appeal, he says he will put Pennsylvania in play, but it’s illusory at best—he was crushed in 2006 when he ran for reelection to Senate.  Santorum might have a long-shot chance of being a “moderate” Republican nominee’s choice as a sop to the social conservatives, so I wouldn’t rule him out entirely, but there’s not enough light in his sun.  

George Pataki is barely a blip.  I can’t see what he adds, except a calm temperament meant to balance a very conservative nominee.  New York is not going Red, and if it does, it won’t be because of George Pataki. Lindsay Graham is like Pataki—he can’t break 1% and he’s charisma-challenged.  He could conceivably give some foreign policy credentials to a Governor, and so shouldn’t be ruled out entirely, but the base doesn’t like Lindsay, and South Carolina wouldn’t exactly be a “get” for the GOP. 

Rick Perry intrigues me.  He is the one guy who took Donald Trump on, and he did it forcefully.  I don't think his “oops” moment is relevant—if anything it might turn into a plus if others pile on.  He is just on the fringes of the Fox threshold and maybe won’t make it to the debate, has no chance of becoming the Presidential nominee, but I wouldn’t write him off completely as a Veep choice.  His Texan without the Cruz, and his language on certain hot-button topics, immigration and social issues, is less censorious than many of the nominees, and might allow him to pivot with credibility into the general election—on the border, he actually knows what he’s talking about.  He could be useful to a nominee from another region.  He’s a long shot at best, but it’s not impossible.

I’m pairing Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina because neither have any governmental experience.  Carson was an esteemed pediatric surgeon before retiring to become a conservative luminary.  He’s at roughly 6% and will make the Fox Debates.  Fiorina (at 1.3 %, and “out”) ran HP (some say into the ground) and had an unsuccessful candidacy for Barbara Boxer’s California Senate seat in 2010.   Neither has any chance whatsoever of getting the Presidential nomination, but they are “diversity” candidates (although the GOP is adamant about not playing “identity politics”) and Fiorina is especially skilled at needling Hillary Clinton, and would be an excellent surrogate.  I expect both to remain on the “short list” for a very long time, even if the ultimate nominee has no intention of picking them.

Rand Paul isn’t going to be the guy.  His appeal to the young is diminishing with each double down on conservative social issues.  He has some ideas that are not welcome to the business interests than help fund the GOP, and he’s way too isolationist on foreign policy.  Rand is a true third party candidate—if he can’t win the nomination on his own, he’s not going to be picked by anyone who fears having to reconcile his positions.  They will be nice to Rand in the debates, hoping to attract his followers.  But he’s not going to get invited to the dinner-dance.

Let’s move to the top tier, and then the dark horse.  Bush, Walker, and Rubio, and newest entrant John Kasich.  It gets more interesting.

I am ruling out Jeb Bush (for Veep), although I might be in the minority.  I just don’t see it. Bush will be nearly 64 at the 2017 Inauguration.  If the GOP nominee loses and Bush is on the ticket, he loses stature.  If the nominee wins, Bush won’t be able to run until he’s 71, and while Joe Biden is thinking about it, I don’t find it credible.  Bush needs to run and win now.  Otherwise, he can either go back to earning a fortune, or take a Cabinet post in a Republican Administration.

Scott Walker will not be the Vice Presidential nominee—if the GOP is smart, and I think they are. He may be the single most polarizing candidate not named Cruz the Republicans have.  He could win the Presidential nomination, and he could win the general if all the pieces fell into place, but he adds absolutely nothing positive to a GOP ticket.  He’s a pure party operative—a man who takes scalps and hands out favors.  A couple of weeks ago he tried to sneak language into the budget that would gut Wisconsin’s Open Records Law and keep his personal dealings private until after the election.  His entire campaign rests on his destruction of public service unions and cuts to higher education.  He defines every battle in terms of taking on the unions—and equates his ALEC-funded battles with them as the equivalent of succeeding against ISIS. He clearly has many supporters, he excites the base that wants to kick Democrats as hard as possible, but few people engender more pure hostility than Scott Walker.  He shouldn’t be ruled out—even his fiercest enemies admit he is cunning, but I think he’s too much of a chance to take for any GOP ticket that doesn’t decide to go scorched Earth negative.  He is just not the guy you add.

Rubio.  Ah, Marco.  Telegenic, well spoken, from a critical swing-state, and also a base-broadening diversity pick.  He has run a very quiet campaign so far, curiously so.  His recent polling numbers have been trending down.  He is going to make the debates, but his arc is a little disturbing.  He has four vulnerabilities that might keep him from the Presidential nomination. He was Jeb’s protégée, which makes it hard to take him on directly—and they can’t be on the same ticket.  He’s young, with a thin record of accomplishment (I know, that didn’t hurt Mr. Obama).  He either bungled or sabotaged or, as a matter of principle, scuttled bipartisan agreement on immigration (whatever the adjective, it hasn’t raised his stature.)  And, he has some questionable finances, including a major contributor hiring his wife.  I don’t think any of these things are killers.  He might still get the Presidential nomination—his path is far simpler than many of his opponents—and he would be a formidable opponent, and contrast, to Hillary.  But I have a hunch there is something else out there.   I think Rubio is trapped by his own image.  It’s hard to know what’s authentic in any politician, but Rubio has built a brand that is attractive, and tampering it is a risk.  Rubio shot back at Trump, but his response sounded peevish compared to Perry’s.  And he just called Mr. Obama “classless” which is a gratuitous insult I think he will come to regret.  Still, he has significant assets, and I think he is the only top tier Presidential candidate who is also in the top tier of Veep candidates. 

Now, to my dark horse.  Ohio Governor John Kasich.  Kasich actually has the best resume of any of the candidates.  He spent 18 years in the House, and was chair of the Budget Committee the last time we actually had a balanced budget, and spent time on the Armed Services Committee.  After working in the private sector for ten years, he was elected Governor.  He also tried an attack on unions when he came in, but when Ohio voters rejected it, he backed off and prioritized other things.  He speaks of his faith with conviction, but uses it to buttress a more compassionate approach to the poor and on immigration.  He balanced the Ohio budget without raising taxes and without crippling cuts to popular domestic programs.   He was reelected in a genuine landslide in 2014, in a state that went for Obama twice, and, unlike Walker, Jindal, and Christie, retains high home-state approval ratings.  Kasich has some issues.  He is decidedly not telegenic, not scripted, and not groomed, and he has some shortage in the charisma department.  He’s not going to rev up crowds.  He may not be sufficiently conservative for the primary activists, but if I were Fox News and I had the stake they do in getting a Republican elected President, I would want Kasich on the podium.  All the cards would have to fall perfectly for a Kasich Presidential nomination (and they won’t) but he would be a formidable Veep candidate.

That’s the Sweet Sixteen.  Actually, it’s the Formidable Fifteen.  In deference to your patience I left out others with their eyes on the prize: Rick Snyder, Peter King, Jim Gilmore, and John Bolton.

I also, as a matter of kindness, omitted Bob Ehrlich. 

Martin O’Malley beat Ehrlich. Twice.

It seemed like the right thing to do.

July 28th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Of Flags and Trumps

Of Flags and Trumps

There is a terrific moment at the end of the first season of “Mad Men”.  Don Draper is pitching two exceptionally nerdy-looking men from Kodak who have delivered a projector shaped as a wheel.  He’s filled it with slides of his family, and gently, he narrates.  He talks about nostalgia.  Nostalgia, he says, comes from the Greek, and “literally means the pain of an old wound.”  On the screen, he flicks images of him with his wife and his children, backwards and forwards, his past and present.  It’s not a wheel, he says, it’s a Carousel, that “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

I’ve been thinking about that place a lot the last few weeks, as history has been unfolding before our eyes.  It started with the horrific mass murder in Charleston, Governor Nikki Haley’s ordering of the lowering of the Confederate Flag, and the explosion of debate about heritage, the meaning of symbols, and the importance of a personal historical narrative. Then, almost comic if it weren’t so serious, has been the abrupt rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy, on the heels of his unfiltered expressions of contempt for people from south of the border.

Of Charleston, so much has been written so eloquently, reporting on so many acts of personal grace writ large and small, that it seems hard to even talk about politics.  

Yet, politics never truly takes a day off.  At its best, it can elevate, be a vehicle for doing great things and speaking great words.  But the temptation for maneuvering, looking for advantage, sensing the opportunity to amplify outrage is often too much to resist.  The initial response from Washington was a human one—take down the Confederate Flag that may have inspired a murderer.  Democrats had sponsored amendments to an Appropriations bill that would reduce or eliminate the sale and display of Confederate Flags in National Parks and in National Cemeteries, and those passed without debates and by voice vote. But last Wednesday, House Interior appropriations subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) added an eleventh-hour amendment that would nullify those amendments.  Calvert apparently had his arm twisted by House leadership, who were, in turn, reacting to pressure from some Southern states’ Members, who argued vociferously that this was a cultural issue that shouldn’t be influenced by non-Southerners. 

By Friday, House Leadership stopped work on the appropriations bill entirely, fearful that the Democrats would try to reintroduce the amendments, and force a public debate over the issue. They also moved a similar Pelosi-introduced Amendment to committee, where they expect it will expire for lack of light and air.  For now, that has worked—the House will not debate the flag issue, because it will not debate the “real government” issues--like Appropriations.  Without stating the obvious, that cannot go on indefinitely. But there is no pretty way to resolve it.

Politically, the Democrats have an easier path.  For many, the Confederate Flag represented insurrection.  It represented a war to protect a culture that dehumanized an entire race.  In later years, it represented defiance, as when George Wallace had it raised to oppose desegregation.   And, to be perfectly blunt, white Southern males who venerate the Stars and Bars aren’t flocking to vote Democratic. 

But for the Republicans, it’s much harder.  Their path to power is built on a solidly Red South.  The social issues that have become such a driving force also reflect the more conservative mores that predominate there.  And the refusal to abide by any laws, regulations, or Supreme Court decisions they don’t agree with is largely being led by Southern Governors.  It is an oversimplification to think the GOP is beholden to the South.  It’s far more accurate to say they reflect Southern values.  And part of Southern identity—and particularly the identity of those who vote Republican—is an admixture that incorporates the legacy of the Confederacy, of resistance to Washington, of the rebel and slave master, and the venerated ancestor. Think Robert E. Lee, and you can see the physical embodiment of that complexity.

So, this cultural argument would be a difficult enough conversation to be having at any time.  It is made far more difficult because it is occurring while Donald Trump has made a gigantic surge in polls largely on strength of an extraordinarily blunt and insulting approach to immigration—with a particular focus on the horrors of Mexicans.

Trump has a huge advantage.  He has a towering ego, he’s of the opinion that virtually all publicity is good publicity, he’s getting phenomenal feedback, and he has a personal brand that does not have to be consonant with what the GOP is selling.  A true free agent, but one who says he wants to run as a Republican, and recently disavowed a third party candidacy. 

That is a big problem for the party that, in a bow to future demographic trends, wants to appear to be a little more inclusive. Amongst friends, anything goes.  But Trump manning a Fox Debate podium in what was initially intended as advertising airs it out a little bit more than they are comfortable.

How to deal with it and keep the base energized? The initial reaction from the GOP Presidential aspirants has ranged from very, very quiet to very mild disagreement, to a “happy to share in Trumps’ good feelings.”  This shouldn’t be considered a surprise, no matter how discomforting it might be to the party professionals.  The Donald understands marketing—he knows what sells, and he see this sells very well.  Even Jeb has been advised to take on Trump very carefully—be graceful and show how Presidential you are, but downplay the Mexican stuff—even in responding to Trump’s (since taken down) personal tweet about Jeb’s wife.   

The base loves the Donald.  In Iowa, they worry about being swamped by Latino culture and language.  The state’s Latino cohort now stands at an overwhelming 5.3% of the population.  Any sane person could see it’s only a short time before even the speaking of English will be banned.  If it can happen in Iowa, it can happen anywhere, and it must be fought.  Donald Trump is ready to fight for Iowans, and a truly American culture.

Sounds ludicrous?  To my New York ears, surrounded by the cacophony of diversity that comprises the “Island at the Center of the Universe” it does.  And, I am in favor of a liberal immigration policy—liberal in the number of people they let in, hoping those people will follow the example of tens of millions of other immigrants, including my grandparents and great-grandparents, and become productive citizens.   

That being said, I think the Democrats will be shortsighted if they don’t recognize that Trump is at the fault line between principled opposition to the present immigration situation and the dark underbelly of at least some of that opposition.  The name-callers like Trump degrade the argument that you don’t have to be a racist or a xenophobe to insist on a tight border and strict treatment for those who came here illegally.  But that’s all they do—degrade it, not completely drain it of legitimacy.  

And that is the peculiar paradox of these issues, flags and immigration.  They require an understanding that there are times in which we can be graceful and somewhat wrong, and ugly, but somewhat right.  That community and history are not easily erased, and that changing hearts and minds takes time, and effort, and sensitivity from all sides. 

The politicians with true vision will grasp that and act on it—they will sense that most people are far more giving then their worst impulses, and what they really wanted all along was to find a path to ride Don Draper’s Carousel. 

“Round and around.  Back home again.  To a place where we know we are loved.”

July 13th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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