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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