Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Modern-Aged Politico (2016 Vintage)

I am the very model of a modern-aged politico,
I speak a bit of James Monroe, and even Edgar Allan Poe;
The capitals of fifty states, I say with braggadocio
There’s Austin, Juneau, Baton Rouge and even Sacramentio.
I'm very well acquainted, too, with euros and the yen,
I understand how tax cuts will lead to greater Zen.
On Legislative omnibus, I have a lot of news,
And how to get through filibuster with just a little snooze.

I'm happy to say fibs for cash, it’s simple two plus two;
You do for me, you write a check, be sure I’ll do for you.
In short, in matters incognito, pianissimo, and Pinocchio,
I am the very model of a modern-aged politico.

I praise our mythic history, King Ronnie and Sir Ted,
I fear them both too liberal, but also very dead.
No Maynard Keynes or Galbraith, it’s Smith and Hayek pure.
Incentivize the job creators, of that I’m very sure.
I know Beretta from a Browning, a Ruger from a Glock,
My screen most fixed on Rush or Sean, I’m sure that’s not a shock.
When chance I turn to Maddow, yes, I shudder and I shake,
But secretly like Bernie—maybe he’s the vampire stake?

My heart is pure, I’m clear of sight, I find the open mike;
On social things I have no peer, no sin I don’t dislike.
In short, in matters embryo, peccadillo and falsetto,
I am the very model of a modern-aged politico.

In fact, I know that Zanzibar is very close to Minsk
And Putin tall and handsome, just like a Disney prince.
In healthcare yes I kept my Doc, I didn't have to pay,
But I’m a famous Senator, watch what I do, not what I say.
On borders, true, I like them firm, barbed wire on the top,
No amnesty for you, my friend, except to pick the crop.
Climate change I chance erupt, stick finger in the air,
Declaring I’ve got frostbite, you must be mad to care.

As all can see, I’m just like you, no distance on my flank.
My principles are yours, I pledge, you take that to the bank.
In short, in matters of the gut, it’s all simpatico,
I am the very model of a modern-aged politico.

In Iowa I love the corn, agricultural and rhetorical
In ‘Hampshire independence reigns, and I get all historical.
Should Charleston show the Stars and Bars, I won’t be very critical
Nevada’s got sand, and craps, and a lot of Sheldon Adelson.
On Super Tuesday I’ll take to wing, Virginia, Minnesota, N. Dakota and Vermont,
South to Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, of that you have no doubt.
Then there’s Colorado, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming, oh my head will spin.
Maybe I’ll skip Alaska and Boston, where I have no chance to win.

By now, I think I’ve shown you why I should be your President
I’ll even promise not to like a single DC resident.
I say without bravado that you’ll find no finer virtuoso
I am the very model of a modern-aged politico.

I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Can't Anyone Play?

The great Casey Stengel, manager of the epically awful 1962 Mets, once asked “can’t anyone here play this game?” The same has to apply to this stupendously bizarre political season.   

It is hard to believe how far we have come in just this year. In December 2014, everyone was swooning over the size and caliber of the GOP bench—so many accomplished individuals, such a diversity of experience and viewpoints.   Professor Larry Sabato, the highly respected analyst who leads the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, thought the field so deep and “chaotic” that, he didn’t want to pick a Top Tier.  He literally started with Second “the Big Boys”—Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie.  Sabato had Ted Cruz and Ben Carson alone in the “Outsider’ tier below them—and, in the tier below, “Establishment Alternatives” Mitt, Rubio, Kasich, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. 

What Sabato wrote made sense at the time, particularly in historical context.  The days of a Republican “Rockefeller Wing” are in the dustbin of history, gone not just to changing times but the increasing regionalization of the two parties.  The dividing line now is between types of conservatism; mainstream Establishment Republicans, who are practical and look to win elections and pass (not just propose, but pass) favorable legislation, and those of the harder right (Tea Party and Freedom Caucus types, who prize purity and hold mainstream conservatives almost in as much contempt as they do Democrats. 

The Presidential nominating landscape Sabato and other analysis were evaluating in late 2014 reflected that binary choice, either collaborative, or take-no-prisoners conservatives. The GOP party professionals shared this view, and drew lessons from 2012 regarding tone and demographics.  They tightened up institutionally to avoid a repeat of what they saw was the basic flaw of Romney’s 2012 campaign—too contentious and harsh-toned a debate/primary season created an overarching, alienating Republican message going into the general election.  Obama 2012 had been eminently beatable, and they had fallen short. Hillary was even more vulnerable, and the election even more winnable, provided the message and the messenger projected confidence instead of confrontation.  

The Establishment types knew they weren’t going to be able to completely neutralize the hard right.  But, they thought that the breadth of the GOP bench would attract new voters—Jeb had a swing-state base and appealed to Latinos, Walker and Christie had won in Blue states, and Paul, in his own esoteric way, appealed to younger voters.  Just as importantly, they felt they had constructed what amounted to a double-hulled tanker.  If the frontrunners fizzled, Rubio was Floridian, young and appealing, Kasich a solid, swing-state alternative to Jeb and Christie, and Mitt was more popular than Obama.  The Establishment also counted on something else—of the more “conservative” candidates, Santorum and Huckabee were loser-retreads, Carson a novelty who would excite the base without being a legitimate threat, and everybody hated Ted Cruz. 

Obviously, things have gone a bit awry since then, starting of course, with the arrival, and the staying power, of the USS Battleship Trump.  But I have become more and more convinced that Trump is more like an opportunistic infection—he’s possible because of the one thing no one anticipated—the manifest weakness of the GOP bench.  Instead of a group of All Stars, they have turned into a noodle-armed, iron-gloved bunch of singles hitters better suited to Casey’s Mets.

Walker is already gone—the appeal of his polarizing approach to the harder right evaporated when he demonstrated a complete lack of readiness for the top spot (don’t cry for Scott-he has gone back to Wisconsin and reapplied himself to extreme partisanship.)

The early promise of Paul is, for all intents and purposes, over.  He barely escaped the kiddie table before the last debate, and his movement towards orthodoxy (except on national security/foreign policy issues) has won him no new friends, while costing him freshness and appeal.  He has had a little bad luck—being a skeptic of the national security state at a time of renewed terrorist activity isn’t exactly timely—but the more people watch him, the more unmoved they seem to be.  It’s just a question of when he drops out—there were reports as far back as October that he was being pressed by McConnell to focus on retaining his Senate seat, which is seen at some risk.

Christie has just never caught on.  His poor early poll numbers forced him into the second tier debate, where he shone and escaped.  He does have real strengths—a true talent for retail politics—great at town halls, meet and greets, small settings, but it hasn’t moved the needle much.  What Christie needs—desperately—is for other like-kind “establishment” candidates to drop out.  Since Rubio isn’t going anywhere, that leaves Bush and Kasich.  Ideally, one or both would leave before New Hampshire on February 9th, where Christie’s got an important endorsement by the influential, and persistent, Manchester Union Leader.  Otherwise, unless his numbers improve, Christie may feel the hand on his back.

Much attention has been focused on the collapse of Jeb—for all his preexisting assets, he seems to register at absolute zero on the passion front.  The Hillary-Jeb heir-apparent dichotomy is really fascinating.  Hillary is getting better as she knocks off the rust.  Like her or not, she’s coming across as authoritative and in command of her facts.  Jeb seems just puzzled—the carefully plotted route to the Oath of Office, with huge fundraising, mass endorsements, admiring opinion pieces by sympathetic media-types, to be followed by carpet-bombing his opponents, leading to determined but ultimately token resistance, then the balloon drop seems to have had a central GPS programming issue. Bush, a man with feet of clay, seems completely ungrounded.  He could still come back—anything is possible in this outré year, but he’s going to need a lot of luck, and a lot more talent for political warfare than he’s shown to date. 

As for Marco, many people, Sabato included, thought he would not run if Jeb did.  Jeb was a friend and mentor, there was substantial overlap between Jeb and Marco’s supporters, and the expectation was that Marco would wait his turn.  This turned out to be wrong for a number of reasons, not the least of which are Marco’s ego, his impatience, and his apparent unwillingness to be satisfied with a mere US Senate seat.  Rubio has substantial skills—he’s attractive and a very good speaker and debater, but you wonder whether he has the staying power. Look under the charismatic surface and you see a hint of Sarah Palin.  He is openly uninterested in his day job.  His supporters fret he hasn’t spent much time building infrastructure in key primary states, and they worry he’s going to be outworked by Cruz, should the race devolve to a one on one.  I can’t help shaking the feeling that Rubio simply assumes he will step into the mantle of Establishment support when and if Bush drops out.  He is assuming their fear of Cruz (which is fundamentally different than the reaction to Trump) will induce them to pick a side (his), pressure some of the laggards to bow out, and provide him with cash and operatives at the national and state level.  He might be right—but my gut also tells me he’s going to have to work harder to show he earned it, and I don't know if Marco has it in him. 

Which, leaves the Establishment, and the electorate, where?  The Donald?  Teddy the Grinch?

I have absolutely no idea, because they seem to be the only people who know how to really play this game. 

And, to paraphrase another baseball icon, Yogi Berra, if the Establishment candidates can't find their fastball, and soon, it will be getting late early out there.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Digging the Long Ball

In baseball, there’s nothing more dramatic than a confrontation between a hard throwing pitcher and a massive slugger, standing there like a Paul Bunyan, giant arms coiled and ready.  The ball is either ending up in the catcher’s mitt, or 500 feet away.

Nike did a very funny commercial in the 1980s featuring Mark McGwire and the future Hall of Fame (but decidedly lean) pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.  Big Mac is launching them in batting practice, and, to the boys’ disgust, pretty women are swooning.  They try (haplessly) to work out, but despite their manly efforts, the biceps remain less than imposing, and the women still ask for Mark. “Chicks dig the long ball,” mutters Glavine.

Chicks (and roosters) dig the long ball in politics as well.  There is a real attractiveness to the candidate who unbuttons a bit, swings from the heels and hits them a mile.  Maybe not to actually marry, but Kate Mackinnon’s dead on impersonation of Angela Merkel nails it. Obama may be the polite guy who brings a corsage when he comes to pick you up, but Putin is the bad boy in a leather jacket who takes you to Makeout Point.   

Enter, the ultimate bad boy, Donald Trump.  There is apparently no end to his huge (“HUGE”) verbal swings, and once in a while, he hits one nine miles. Trump has twice the support of any other Republican candidate right now, and Ted Cruz (who is more the sharpened stiletto than the baseball bat) may now be second.  That is just not a coincidence—there is a HUGE audience for this type of batting practice.

Of course, Trump’s comments are making many Establishment types in the GOP cringe. First of all, with the probable exception of Cruz, they want one of their own—and part of Trump’s appeal is that he is decidedly his own man. But the second part is obvious—Trump swings from the heels, and his habit of saying incendiary things, while wildly popular in some quarters, is damaging their long-term strategy to rebrand themselves as a little more inclusive.  They worry about the impact, down ballot, that all that verbal angst will stir up. Trump, to their way of thinking, is hitting a lot of solo homeruns.

People sometimes fail to recognize the difference between civility and true acceptance. You can do without the latter if you can at least manage the former, and the Republican establishment was hoping for that.  Not every Republican is some sort of knuckle-dragging, bandolier-wearing, Rush-spouting, nativist yahoo.  Some are, just as there are stereotypical flaky/fuzzy/wimpy/PC Democrats.  But the majority of them are ordinary people who are attracted to a conservative message—social, economic, or both—and who’s children play with yours. They want a Republican, not necessarily an avenger.

To get there, to make all American Red, you have to win elections, and the party had done brilliantly in the last two midterms. President Obama has been the gift that has kept on giving at the state and local level.  Motivated Republicans have marched to the polls, and the vaguely disappointed and uninspired Democrats have stayed home.  If 2016 is about Obama, there is an excellent chance for a historic sweep, if the GOP can stay on message and be disciplined.

Not gratuitously offending people is an important step.  Targeting Democrats is fine, and slamming Obama and Hillary is always in season, but going after entire ethnic groups might be unwise. That Republican couple down the block doesn’t have to invite you over for dinner, but you aren’t going to be at all happy if your daughter comes home in tears when she finds out she’s been ruled out of a birthday party because of what color her skin was, where her grandparents came from, or where you worship.  You are going to remember that when you walk into the voting booth.

This was never going to be easy—the immigration debate is the gateway drug to a lot of personal ugliness, and the GOP primary voter is especially incensed on the issue.  But, if you take this back to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when Jeb was guaranteed the nomination, it was thought by that 2016 was a unique opportunity to reset relationships.  Jeb was the perfect messenger—married to Columbia, compassionate on immigration reform, moderate-appearing in temperament, and literally speaks the language.  Unfortunately, Jeb’s! campaign is about to become an *, so those days are about over.

To say party elders misjudged Jeb’s electability and personal appeal is an understatement.  But the GOP did have a deep bench—they offered several credible alternatives, all of who could have toned things down just a bit.  And, they had an ace in the hole—they knew that the Democrats were relying too much on a perceived Electoral College advantage when none really existed.   GOP could win in 2016 without Latinos and other ethnic groups, especially with the restrictive voting rules, gerrymandering, and other institutional barriers they put in place.  Nominate someone conservative but reasonable, don't motivate your opponents, and the door is wide open.

What they could not have expected was not only Trump, and his deliberately divisive language on immigration, but also a world on fire.  The Syrian refugee situation was, initially, a gift.  First, the GOP could criticize Obama’s handling of the Assad government and call for boots on the ground.  Then, when refugees were the issue, they could tie anti-immigrant sensibilities into a national security trope, making it less about people—and throw the evangelicals a bone by perhaps making space for Christian refugees.  Polling indicated that not just Republicans, but the American public as a whole, were resistant to Mr. Obama’s call for humanitarian resettlement.  You could call it three birds with one stone, and the party was happy.  But Paris and San Bernardino roiled the waters in unexpected ways--they made the theoretical existential risk feel real, and brought back the personal.

Once again, Trump strode to the plate, swung hard, and raised the stakes, by demanding no Muslims, period, be allowed into the country until “we figure things out.”  This has created a fascinating scrum.  The Republicans who, just a couple of weeks ago, supported the idea of keeping out all Syrian refugees (several Red States mobilized legislatively) and who were quietly fine with the slow burn of resentment towards Muslims (and the secret-Muslim-in Chief in the White House) are left with an awful dilemma.  There are 1.6 Billion Muslims in the world, they sit on a lot of oil, and Trump’s call has been met with opposition from foreign leaders (including, of all people, Bibi Netanyahu) and we just look silly—at least diplomatically silly. 

Except, here at home, where many people, and not only Trump voters, might agree, even just a little, with what Trump said. They don’t care what the Europeans think.  They wonder if most of the other Republican candidates, who quickly moved to distance themselves from Trump, were just being opportunistic because he’s leading and they need to tear him down. 

All the other Republican candidates save one—Ted Cruz, who is playing the smartest long game of any Republican.  Cruz is waiting for Trump to falter, but doing nothing to upset his supporters.  Cruz is all smooth words—Iago to Trump’s Othello.  He understands Trump’s primal force, and is running slipstream behind it.  He’s the guy who will take the walk from an upset pitcher after Trump launches one.

Cruz gets it—better than most.  No matter how repulsive some of Trumps statements may seem to you, you cannot deny facts.

It’s just the third inning, and chicks still dig the long ball.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

In Search of Outrage

There is a National Debt Clock in New York City’s Times Square area.  It is supposed to be a visual manifestation of how quickly we borrow and spend—a constant call to arms for those who see it to demand accountability of feckless electeds.  It was originally erected in 1989, was covered, briefly, when we actually stopped running deficits, at the end of the Clinton Administration, and then started anew when we returned to regular habits--with an even greater appetite. It's purpose was to elicit  outrage, yet tens of thousands of people look right past it every day.  We just don't care enough to do anything about this.

So it is, apparently, with overwhelming majority of mass shootings.  According to an article in the Washington Post this past Monday, there have been 351 mass shootings in the United States since the start of 2015.   A “mass shooting” is defined as one having at least four or more victims (three, apparently being too common to take notice of).   If you do the quick math, it means a bare minimum of 1,400 casualties from spraying bullets in a shopping center, or a movie house, or a school, or a place of worship, or any location where people gather.

Do we care?  Not all that much for the victims, it seems.  The casualty numbers keep growing, and the larger they get, the more inured we are to them.  In one respect, this may be a good thing—at least, in most, the families of the victims have the dignity of private loss.  But other incidents take on a symbolic value that seems to be just too tempting for us to ignore.  So we wade in, using the genuine grief of the families to advance whatever our personal agendas are—in effect, we hijack other people’s tragedy to serve our needs.  That a friend, a child, a spouse or a parent loses their life becomes almost irrelevant when the discussion turns to guns, or race, or the political ideology of the shooter, or the location of the shooting, or the targets themselves.

So it was in the Planned Parenthood shootings in Colorado Springs.  Twitter and the comment boards on major news sites lit up with all types of nasty anonymous postings, the ugliness pouring out like sludge from a ruptured sewer pipe.  In Colorado Springs, we hit the Daily Double—guns and abortion. 

It is precisely at this point where leadership was so important—when the tone of the discussion teetered on a razor’s edge between civility and coarseness.  To their credit, both National Right to Life and the conservative group Concerned Women of America expressed their concern.

But, for the politicians, particularly those running for the Republican nomination for President, the brutal acts in Colorado posed an acutely difficult conundrum—Iowa is two months away, social conservatives dominate it, and evangelicals in general have a disproportionate impact in certain Republican primaries.  Whatever their private feelings, they had to tiptoe up to the water’s edge of compassion while not offending hard-liners. Some did better than others—Kasich and Bush were careful (neither mentioned Planned Parenthood) but consoling, while Rubio and Christie, apparently watching their poll numbers intently, avoided any immediate comments. Carly Fiorina, declining rapidly and under fire for fibbing about an abortion video, launched a full frontal attack—against “the Left”.   Ted Cruz initially tweeted something along Kasich-Bush lines, but then, seeing an opportunity, and ostensibly prompted by a report in a hard right news aggregator, blamed a “transgendered Leftist Activist” for the shootings (the alleged murderer, Robert Dear, is none of the above.) 

If you sense a lack of empathy from me for their inner conflict, it is because it is not there. 
I understand how controversial the issue of abortion is, how deeply passionate people can be about it, but, for now, at least, it is entitled to Constitutional protection. That’s what the Supreme Court says and that is what is has been saying for more than 40 years, since Roe v. Wade. The right to an abortion is not unlimited,  a State or the Federal government can regulate after presumed fetal viability, but it cannot prohibit or unduly restrict it before then. 

I don’t want to re-litigate whether Roe was decided correctly, and I am fairly sure that four Justices would repeal it this minute if they had the chance, but that is standing precedent.  It has the same value as law as the Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which recognized a more expansive view of Second Amendment rights.  And the same as Citizens United, or the Voting Rights Act cases like Shelby, or Kelo v. The City of New London—the widely reviled Eminent Domain ruling. 

You don’t need to agree with the Court on any or all or those decisions, and you don’t even need to agree with every part of the Constitution and subsequent Amendments, to understand that we are a nation of laws and liberties.  Among those is the right to protest, vigorously, but non-violently, and the right to have the protection of the law to freely exercise all of your liberties, whether popular, or not.  The government cannot act to favor some over the other, or punish some for engaging in legal behavior.  Our universal ownership of an equal stake is the very essence of being an American.

This is the acid test of leadership in a democracy.  It isn’t coming up with the most brilliant policy prescriptions, or most wonderful programs, or making the most dazzling speeches. It is, rather, the steadfast willingness of elected officials to govern for the benefit of all the people, not just the ones who elected them.  It is their pledge to subordinate their personal philosophy and even their sense of outrage, and respect the law, and uphold it, whether they agree with it or not.  In the end, and above all, the victims of Colorado Springs were citizens and human beings—if your politics, or your political ambitions preclude you from caring about them, then you are unfit to hold any office, much less President of the United States.
The Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once described a scene in which a distraught woman, unhinged by the suicide of her son, comes to Singer’s father to seek solace.  In her agony, she loses control, curses, even denies the existence of God.

“No man is judged in his hour of grief,” murmurs the old man. 

Singer’s father was right.  No one should be judged in the throes of great loss.  But a corollary is true as well.  We are judged, all of us, in how we react to the pain and grief of others.  Monetizing it for partisan gain is the one unforgivable outrage.

December 2, 2015

editor's note.  This article was originally posted shortly after midnight, December 2, 2015.   A few hours later, the brutality at San Bernadino began.  The name calling moved seamlessly to a new tragedy, and we are not in the least bit closer to having any answers.   It has also been edited to correct an error in describing the location of the National Debt Clock.  

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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