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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