Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Drifting Towards Terra Incognita


I have been looking for some direction in this bizarre year, and, by happy circumstance, the New York Public Library announced that it has placed on-line a fantastic collection of digitized old maps.

What a treasure-trove.  Old maps are wonderful.  They have this explosion of fun-house mirror shapes, obscure or anachronistic names, and intriguing, evocative illustrations.  There’s a pontillistic stunner from 1507, “Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholom├Ži traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorū que lustrationes” My Latin is nonexistent,  but I’m fairly sure it relates to Vespucci’s explorations of the New World, and relied on Ptolemy’s “Geography” from the Second Century, AD, which attempted to synthesize all of the geographic knowledge of the time in one work, as source material.  The map includes an enormously narrowed and elongated North and South America, and, at the farthest point, running thousands of miles up the Western spine of the Americas, and jutting into the Pacific,  is “terra ultra incognito”, the “more unknown land.” 

I think we might be getting there in Iowa, New Hampshire, and everywhere else in the contiguous states (you can never be sure about Alaska.)  Terra ultra incognito—the undiscovered, un-mapped, unknown land.

No one has a clue just where the ground is, much less what’s in there.  The Democrats are trying desperately to sort out between heart and head, with a queasy feeling that terra incognito might be the place they will be heading in 2017 (the more cynical amongst them expect Republicans to try to impeach Hillary before the November election.)  But for the GOP, there seems to be a combination of dread and bewilderment.  I was astonished this week by two things—the National Review dedicating an entire issue to taking down one person—Donald Trump.  And, to counteract that, first came word that GOP big contributors are beginning to reconcile themselves to the possibility of a Trump nomination.  And, then, of all people, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who received the American Conservative Union’s “Conservative Excellence Award” for 2014---went out of his way to dis Ted Cruz—he personally introduced Trump at a Trump rally.  That would six-term, 82-year old Chuck Grassley? 

It is chaos out there. The plain fact is that no one seems to have a handle on anything.  There is a fascinating article by Byron York, the columnist for the conservative Washington Examiner, and Fox News favorite,  “GOP Fear and Loathing in New Hampshire”.  York describes “a remarkable level of confusion, frustration, and just plain bewilderment at what is going on in their state's presidential race. How is it that Donald Trump is leading his closest competitor by nearly 20 points?”

What York is observing, and hearing, is that few Republicans of the type that hang together at the “First-In-The-Nation Presidential Town Hall” know anyone at all who could possibly be supporting Trump. It’s inconceivable. And yet, there’s the Donald, with such a large lead that the Establishment candidates (notably, Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Christie) are in a frantic race to claim third (yes, Cruz is polling second right now), even if it is by one point. 

For Bush, Kasich, and Christie, who are doing abysmally in next-up Iowa, there is the growing conviction that two of the three will be pressured to pack up and go home, so the Establishment can make one last stand.  The three men have distinctly different problems.  Christie and Kasich should both poll well in this state, with its reputation for liking straight-talkers—and not so well in either Iowa or many of the Southern states on Super Tuesday. A solid performance gives them some credibility, and maybe a little momentum. But should they have a weak showing, it will heighten the perception of their personality-driven vulnerabilities.  

Christie has real assets—he’s great in the person-to-person interactions and unmatched in a town hall setting.  And many Republicans owe him for his good work as head of the Republican Governors’ Association.  But, he has one massive problem—his monumental self-esteem, and the sometimes-out-of-control pugnacity that goes with it,  He has a hard time distinguishing between blunt-but-attractive honesty, and throwing haymakers. Christie is a little bit of bully at times, and he’s taken to zinging Rubio every opportunity he gets.  Republicans love when Christie shreds Hillary, but are realizing that when Christie shoots off that howitzer of a mouth, there can be collateral damage—and Rubio, they fear, in this season of terra incognito, could be their last hope. 

Kasich has an entirely different issue.  He is the Anti-Cruz.  He’s good at government, not a great speech-maker, not particularly charismatic, and not a good debater—he doesn’t have the rhythms down.  In and of itself, that wouldn’t necessarily disqualify him, even in this crazy year.  His biggest vulnerability might be something quite perverse—his popularity in Ohio might make him a great running mate—so long as he doesn’t stay in too long and damage his brand, or anyone else’s.  He is polite, too, so he might go if asked.

Jeb has never been especially popular in New Hampshire—neither was his father, or his brother, and so I don’t think he needs to deal with irrationally high expectations.  But he can’t afford to crater.  The natives are restless with Bush and he knows it.  He is hoping to convince his backers to see him through to South Carolina (February 21st) where Bush family contacts and infrastructure will help and where Lindsay Graham endorsed.  Jeb’s got another problem—because of his family name, he’s Mr. Republican.  If he can’t get traction, he will be asked to leave out of a sense of duty while being offered a job in an incoming Administration.  And he’s going to have to accept it, and go.  Jeb is running out of time to be relevant.

That, of course, theoretically winnows the viable field down to four:  Trump, Bush, Rubio, and the “moderate” survivor.  Then Trump possibly fades, Cruz can’t expand his base, and one of the “moderate” consolidates support and becomes a serious contender.

Yet, this entire thing still doesn’t feel right to me.  I’m describing rational actors, but it’s the rational people who seem out of place.  Trump’s support has never seemed predictable—it’s almost impossible to define.  Cruz is so reviled that his own party Establishment fears him (“fears” is the correct word) more than it dislikes Trump—and is prepared to back Trump as a last resort.  And, in the race to stay in—I can’t see Christie walking away—I’m sure he feels far more qualified than Rubio—and he’s right.  Rubio is a dud.  If Christie stays, why shouldn’t some of the others?   Best laid plans won’t work if no one cooperates

I suppose when looking for a map to the future in politics, you look at the past.  One could draw comfort from the fact that January polls have not not necessarily been predictive, especially in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire. In 2004, pre-scream, Howard Dean was up by 6%.  In 2008, it was Hillary Clinton by 9.3%.  2012 had Newt Gingrich by 1.3%. Why should we be measuring the black crepe this soon?

We shouldn’t, except for this inchoate dread you feel when you think you may be reaching the edge of the explored world, even if you don’t really believe the Earth is flat.  

The ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers used the phrase HIC SVNT LEONES (“Here are lions”) when marking unknown territories on maps.  

It sounds better in Latin?  Maybe that’s because it’s a dead language.  

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ted's Gotham Gambit

Ted Cruz hates New York.  Hates it in all its detestable, soda-suppressing, libertine, multicultural, same-sex something, money-grubbing, Progressiveness.

When he’s not hating New York, he takes a moment to feel sympathy for whatever number of us (he graciously offers that it might be “millions”) who feel the heavy hand of liberal oppression on our throats. He delivers these comments with that marvelous Cruz smirk—the happy admixture of ego and malice that makes him so beloved by his adherents. 

Ted Cruz is an absolute genius. Not a nice guy: a divider, a score-settler, a man who can hardly wait to take charge and impose his special brand of “limited government”.  But, very clearly a man who knows the rhythms of his people, just as his friend-of-convenience turned foil, Donald Trump, knows the rhythms of his. 

My family and I are targets of Senator Cruz’s particular ire.  I live here, and while our lives are far more conventional and sedate than that estimable man’s most fecund fantasies, I don’t think he would appreciate our politics.

Which, of course, is exactly the point.  Ted Cruz doesn’t want to be my pal. He doesn’t much care whether he gets my support—if he actually wins New York’s electoral votes this November, the world will truly be turned upside down.   Given that, my utterly conventional nuclear family is anathema to him—I’m not rich enough for him to whisper sweet little nothings in my ear, and I’m completely worthless as a voter—even if I was a conservative.

So Ted doesn’t need me and my family and friends, but he can use us.  Like every New Yorker—especially the hardy city types, the ones who take subways and busses with an endless variety of people speaking a Babel of languages, we have a palpable value to Ted Cruz—as objects of derision.  That’s a tune that Ted will sing to all the non-New Yorkers who harbor doubts about our morals, our politics, and our very way of life.

Why does he do this?  Let’s start with the obvious:  We New Yorkers are aliens to the caucus-goers in Iowa, the flinty Manchester-Union devotees in New Hampshire, and especially the socially conservative primary voters in the Southern and Southwest Super Tuesday states.  When Ted talks about us, he more than winks at his base—he calls us out, and they love it.  His open dislike of us makes him more appealing to them.

There is also a rather deft silent handshake.  He is decidedly not going after all New Yorkers. Ted’s been working the money rope line, and he’s been collecting—even from those Eastern city-slickers and sinners.  Cash has no feelings to hurt—and cash is invested for a return. And, that astringent moral Calvinism that he plans for the country?  Not to worry—those are for the unwashed poor, working and middle classes, not to be actively enforced against the elites.  How is he doing? Not at all badly. Personally, if I were a wealthy New Yorker looking to invest in a Republican candidate for a good return, I’d pick someone other than Cruz, if for no other reason than it might be awkward socially if it came to light.  But, there are plenty of Supreme Court-sanctioned ways to put a marker down privately. And, once Ted is the nominee, I could show my party loyalty and my dedication to free market principles while also, if necessary, claiming some squeamishness about the object of my bounty.  A nice tax cut and some regulatory relief would salve any psychic disruption I might have.

Most importantly, Ted playing a high-level game of jujitsu with Trump.  Donald has done something no national politician has done successfully for close to half a century—he’s not just campaigning for people’s votes, he’s publicly cut out of the herd the votes he doesn’t want, specifically Muslims and Latinos.  It would be foolish to say that those exclusionary pronouncements are the only reason for his rise—Trump is a roll-up-your-sleeves-straight-shooter-I-can-fix-it candidate in an era of deep dysfunction in government, and that has a powerful appeal.  But Trump has found a way to mainstream what had previously been limited to social media and hard-right talkies—he’s discovered the same vibe that Garry Wills so brilliantly described in Nixon Agonistes when observing a George Wallace rally—the pulse of a crowd stirred viscerally by anger at specific people.  Cruz can’t match Donald for pure vitality—but his assault on my home town does two things extremely well.  First, it reminds people that Trump himself is no true conservative, but a thrice-married sybarite who probably shares his fellow New Yorker’s values: “socially liberal, pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion, focused on money and the media."   Second, Cruz is signaling to his base that he’s willing to spread the dislike beyond just some disfavored ethnic groups—Cruz will be the scourge of his (and theirs) ideological and political enemies, regardless of their backgrounds.

Smart, mainstream Republicans have noticed this.  They were slow to react to Trump—it took them too long to realize that Donald’s dissing of maybe 10% of the electorate was quite possibly enhancing his appeal to some of the rest of the 90%.  Donald wants to show a few less-well-dressed customers the door, ostensibly to make the rest of the shopping experience more pleasant.  And they can always say Trump isn't a"real" Republican. But Cruz’s rise has them completely flummoxed, because it appears he’s willing to cull a far greater number.  Cruz wants to use fire to purify the body politic. 

That frightens Establishment Republicans. They want to win badly, but worry about the Faustian Bargain.  The conservative columnist Michael Gerson just wrote, “For Republicans, the only good outcome of Trump vs. Cruz is for both to lose. The future of the party as the carrier of a humane, inclusive conservatism now depends on some viable choice beyond them.”

I’d be interested to hear the voice of “humane, inclusive conservatism” but for now, I have a more pressing concern.  Teddy doesn’t like us.  And he could be President.  That’s more than enough to keep me up at night in The City That Never Sleeps.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, January 11, 2016

The Powerball Election


Sometimes you find wisdom in unexpected places.

I was in a 7-Eleven this last weekend, feeding two of my more disreputable vices (Tostitos and Diet Coke) and I had to wait to check out because on the number of people buying Powerball tickets.  When I finally made it, the exhausted store manager asked me if I wanted one.  $900 million!  For a moment, he tried to persuade me, and then, he nodded and said.  “You don’t want to win.  That kind of money changes your life.”

It was a very counterintuitive, very perceptive point.  That kind of money changes absolutely everything.  The morning after, you would be famous, for something you didn’t accomplish.  In the weeks to follow, you would be inundated by offers to sell you things, crack-pot business ideas, requests for legitimate and not-so-legitimate charitable contributions, perhaps even the proverbial long-lost relatives.  You would be spending far too much time with your new best friends—your lawyers and accountants.   And after things had calmed down a bit, after you had written a thousand checks, done all your good deeds, bought every bauble you thought you would ever want, quit your job, partied, traveled, you might start to wonder if you really had more, or had just messed up the things you really valued in life. 

His comment reminded me of a three-minute clip I had seen of an old West Wing episode. In it, Toby and Josh are stranded by bad luck and bad weather in a hotel bar on some campaign swing in Indiana. Things aren’t going really well, the stock market has just crashed, and they both look completely exhausted. A middle-aged man ("Matt Kelley") is already there, nursing a beer, and he starts a conversation with a reluctant Toby.

Matt in town to take his daughter to see Notre Dame.  It’s a great feeling to do this, there's nothing like it, but he’s anxious about his life.  He speaks with pride about his kids, he and his wife make a decent living together, but it’s challenging, and he worries that it could fall apart—literally with the smallest misstep.  You couldn’t get more ordinary looking than the actor who plays Matt, or more familiar a type: A stocky, middle-aged, a bit stressed-out father and husband who wants to do right by his family.  He has his priorities straight, he knows what he wants, he knows what gives meaning to his life. He wants the challenge. “It should be hard. I like that it's hard. Putting your daughter through college, that's-that's a man's job. A man's accomplishment.  And yet, he’s looking for some sort of cosmic fairness.  But it should be a little easier. Just a little easier. 'Cause in that difference is... everything.”

I keep asking myself, are we in a “Powerball” Election, where people are going to buy a lottery ticket and hope that their lives are going to be completely transformed, or, are we in a “Little Bit Easier” Election, where the middle of the electorate decides, like our fictional Matt Kelley, that they value much of what they have, and just want things to get a bit better? 

Since 1932, we have really had only two Powerball Elections: Johnson-Goldwater, and Reagan-Carter.   History has a tendency to mark Goldwater as almost an experimental candidate, and Johnson was never at any risk of losing.  But Reagan, contrary to the present impression of him as sort of a benevolent, sunny man who cut deals with Tip O’Neill, was literally feared by a substantial portion of the electorate.  1980 was my first exposure to public polling, and the most persistent responses to an open-ended question about Reagan (where the respondent volunteers an answer) was that he was too extreme and would get us into a war.     

Reagan’s huge advantage, outside his personal charisma, was Carter’s failures. The economy was bad, and the Iranian hostage crisis was on the news literally every day.  A lot of the electorate felt like they had to make a change, even a risky one, so they bought the ticket.

Is that where we are? Both intra-party, and in the general electorate? The short answer is that no one really knows.  To start with, the focus groups and the public polling may have lost their predictive abilities—fewer and fewer people seem to be willing to participate, and if they do, to tell the truth.  And, the “nonpartisan” media is in eclipse, so there is less of an opportunity to get impartial evaluations. If you happened to watch President Obama’s Town Hall on guns, you saw an event in which there was divergent, but respectful dialogue between participants—until CNN went to its talking heads after it was over.

The Democrats began by basically sleepwalking in the march to Hillary—nothing has changed, this just another conventional election, with fairly straightforward issues, and (more quietly) Hillary is the one you should have nominated in 2008.  Maybe they were right, but there turned out to be two canaries in that particular coal mine—both named Bernie Sanders.  First, Bernie addressed the growing sense among part of the electorate that government is run for the benefit of the elites.  Second, Bernie is remarkably popular among college-aged women—far more popular than Hillary is.  That is a shocker, given the historic possibilities of electing the first woman President, and yet, there it is—for that age cohort, the feminist battles seem past, and Bernie is the one who is talking about issues that younger women (and men) care about.  Hillary will still win, but it’s less of a coronation than expected.  The yen for change is there.

As for the GOP, they are off on their own planet.  Yes, the usual components of the Republican coalition are there—the social conservatives, the traditional business types, the nativists, the 2nd Amendment folk, the tough-talking muscular foreign policy types and the conservative populists.  But relative specific gravities of these components have changed, and some no longer have any buoyancy.  There is some talk that what the party may be seeing is the beginnings of a permanent split between the business side, and what would have been the old pitchfork Pat Buchanan wing, now energized by Trump and the conservative media, and Cruz and his fascinating tango with the religious right.  In this analysis, the Establishment is gnashing its teeth because Trump is a “black swan event” and he and Cruz would look a lot less formidable, if only you didn’t have Rubio/Bush/Christie/Kasich vying for the same slice of the “mainstream” electorate. 

But, for at least this election, I’m not convinced of that.  The base likes Trump and Cruz, because they like what they are hearing.  For proof look at the increasingly harsh rhetoric of the “Establishment” candidates, and what you see is capitulation to the populists.  If I had to place one single bet right now, it would be that party elders would rather avoid a direct confrontation and a floor fight at the convention—because they fear they would lose, and lose control of the party apparatus.  If Trump/Cruz come in with strong poll numbers and delegates, one of them is going to get the nomination, and the formal backing of the party.  That doesn’t mean that the Establishment is going to like it (and it doesn’t mean that a few people from the business wing might not quietly vote for Hillary, who is true Establishment to the very core of her being) but I think they will do it. The Establishment has no choice—they have to close ranks behind the winner.  If a Trump or Cruz ticket helps sweep the general election, there will be plenty of spoils. If it loses, the Establishment can say “I told you so” and go back to business as usual.

So, are we going to get a Powerball Election—a stark choice between Hillary’s “A little bit easier” and a Trump or Cruz (or Trump/Cruz) “close your eyes and buy the ticket”?

I’m going to check with the 7-Eleven manager.  He seems to be the smartest man in the room. And I may need a lot of chips and Diet Coke on Election Night.  Or something stronger. 

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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