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)

Please join us on Twitter.