Sunday, February 21, 2016

Trump Out-Foxes Them All

How does he do it?

Or, to synthesize conservative commentators seemingly everywhere, how can a man with multiple marriages, bankruptcies, and casinos, variant positions on seminal issues, and the broadest possible variety of insults—including calling a former Republican President a liar—possibly be the next Republican nominee for President? 

It has them gobstruck.  Michael Gerson might have framed it best last week, when, before South Carolina, he led with, “At first, in the summer of 2015, it seemed like a joke. Then a novelty. Then a bubble that must surely burst. Then a spectacle, overshadowing all the earnestness and experience of the Republican presidential field.

It has left those of us in the center and on the left a little stunned as well.  “President Trump?” 

It could happen.  How is fascinating—because if anyone seriously thought one year ago that a Donald Trump-like candidate could get this far, they didn’t make exactly make themselves known.  The more I watch Trump, the more I see the whole act, the more convinced I am that The Donald is winning by applying smart business principles. Success may come in many ways, but one of the surest is identifying an underserved market and dominating it.  That, in a nutshell, is what Trump is doing.

Imagine that you own a buggy-whip shop.  You make a decent living out of it, but with nine other competitors in your market, there seems to be no way to break out.  You have a handsome store, you have 24 varieties of buggy-whips, you’ve added free delivery and personal shoppers, but, after all that, you are still just making a decent living. One day, while sorting through invoices, you happen to notice that while just about all 24 varieties of buggy-whips sell decently, if you add up all the ones with shades of red, they represent a good 35% of your sales.

An idea is born. You call an architect, and over a single weekend convert your beautiful retail space into a plush salon of red.  No more heather, or taupe, or black, brown, no more blue—just reds.  Crimson, raspberry, rust, orange, burgundy, even hot pink.

It’s a hit.  What you found out was that many others shared your secret passion, and they flock to your store.  You add book readings, red coffee cups, even an all-red wine tasting once a month.  You have built a community.  Your competitors are getting killed, because while they might be getting 1/9th of your dingy old gray-black-brown-blue business, they are losing most of their reds to you.  Your sales double, and double again, your profitability higher still, because you don’t have to waste space with slower-moving items.

That’s what Rupert Murdoch did with Fox News.  He looked out at the dull media landscape, with major networks sending bland eminences out there to sell dull (liberal and dull) shades of buggy-whips, and realize he didn’t need to compete for every percent of market share with the same products everyone else was selling.  Rather, he could have complete market dominance in one area—and who cared about the viewers who wanted a traditional product?  Tune in to Fox with the right mind-set, and you can go weeks on end being educated and entertained and enabled with friends who tell you that there’s nothing in the world like red, and you are a special person for realizing it, and that people who want to wear other colors are the ones with the problems.  Reds stick together.   

This Murdochian lesson was absorbed by the master salesman, who incorporated it into his own brand.  Donald Trump doesn’t want everyone—in fact, he makes a point of saying some folk are just not welcome in his store.  That makes his product even more appealing to his core customers, who really don’t want to hang out with the people on the wrong side of the red rope anyway. 

Trump’s brilliance, however, has not been confined to just exploiting an exclusive market niche.  He has four other advantages.  The first is obvious—he’s Donald Trump, and gets an enormous amount of free publicity just as a result of his fame.  The second is structural—a multiplayer race is gold to him in a winner-take-most-or-all primary environment.  It’s like owning the buggy-whip shop selling all the red—his competitors are still getting customers, but with reduced traffic their overhead is now eating all their profits.  In South Carolina, Trump, with 33% of the vote, spread it out so well he got every single delegate to the Convention, even though Cruz and Rubio, combined, had substantially more “sales.” 

Republicans have comforted themselves with Trump’s “low ceiling” but they have also run up against another part of Trump’s secret sauce.  No one is really sure what that “low ceiling” consists of.  The Trump coalition is like nothing that makes sense using contemporary metrics.  In the beginning, when Trump was thought of as a loud-mouthed rich guy indulging himself, they guessed he might broaden their coalition, then fade from view in time for them to pocket those new voters while reassuring those he offended that the GOP big tent was quite big.  So, institutionally, they took a hands-off approach and let the media (including Fox) have at him.  Cruz, in particular, assumed that Trump’s people would warm to his appeal once Donald had had his fun, and was particularly nice to him.

Again, Trump confounded people with his staying power, leaving all his opponents with a terrible problem—they need to get Donald one-on-one (or, at least, one-on-two) to reduce that seemingly irreducible 30-odd percent he has.  That has meant that all the crabs in the pot have had to go after each other, leaving Donald to watch.  I saw a stunning number—only about two percent of the more than $200 Million campaign ad dollars were spent in negative ads against Trump himself—something that makes absolutely no sense, given that he’s the frontrunner.

The problem is now time as well as money.  We have three non-Trump candidates left (besides Carson)—Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich.  Each one of the three thinks they can take Trump one-on-one.           

Unfortunately for them, there won’t be mano-a-mano any time soon.  Cruz isn’t going anywhere—he owes nothing to the Establishment, and while he should have done better in South Carolina, there are a lot of southern states Super Tuesday.  Rubio should pick up a huge amount of cash now that Jeb is out—but some of Jeb’s voters may be more inclined to move to Kasich, who is closer in temperament to Jeb and didn’t “betray” him.  Since that could split the “moderate” vote, there are a lot of people really leaning on Kasich—and Kasich is out of money.  But Kasich is a legitimately different voice with his own lane to run in, and could take Midwestern states if he can hold on.  That’s why they have floated a "Kasich falls on his sword/ Rubio/Kasich super-team” rumor. 

Of course, it’s only February, and the sheer weight of Trump’s undisciplined language may finally take him down.  Or, he could just keep going and going, and it could take him down in the general election. 

Or, crimson buggy whips could become a national craze, and the Lincoln Bedroom may get gold bathroom hardware and be renamed the “Donald J. Trump Presidential Suite.”

Scary? It does make a lot of people see red.  Or get blue. 

I’ll give Michael Gerson a last word on who could be the next Republican nominee:

“Trumpism is an existential threat to conservatism.” 

Sly Fox, that Donald.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Scalia Trap

There are times when pure random fate accelerates the inevitable, bringing a cascade of coincidence, unexpected choices and unanticipated consequences.  We are at one of those moments.

I think it would be fair to say that no one ever expected Justice Scalia to pass away.  The GOP has been feverishly checking in on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (doesn’t she look pale….) for a near eternity, but Scalia seemed immortal-a vigorous, avid outdoorsman, his intellect displaying itself in ever more delightfully abrasive ways with each passing year.

But, now he’s gone, and the reality is that the political process must deal with it.  Presidential appointment power to the Court, with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, is set forth in Article 2 of the Constitution.  The President proposes, the Senate deliberates and decides.  When they are of different parties, neither gets their ideal. As to Supreme Court vacancies, historically they have been filled promptly, with nominees being given quick hearings. There is a practical reason for this: The Federal Court system can operate with fewer District Court and Court of Appeals judges while politics gums up the works. Vacancies on the Supreme Court are another matter—given the critical importance of many rulings on fundamental liberties, litigants should not have to accept 4-4 decisions while politicians preen for the cameras. 

Unfortunately, I expect a lot of preening for the cameras.  Republicans consider Scalia’s seat “theirs” (they also consider Ginsburg and Breyer’s seat theirs as well) and are unwilling to permit the nomination process to go forward.  Overwhelmingly, the loudest voices in the party, and their media supporters, are demanding that President Obama not nominate anyone. 

Of course, the President is going to nominate, as he should, and McConnell will resist, as he has said.  But the game really turns on who Obama picks, as opposed to whether he picks, or even whether his choice will be confirmed.  The Left will want him to nominate a true-blue liberal, and there are some issues that he really cannot back down on—reproductive rights in particular.  But if Obama nominates someone too liberal, he risks losing the moral high ground that he currently holds. The public knows that this is pure politics, but an overtly “Lefty” nomination would justify the Republican’s resistance.

Mr. Obama understands this.  He actually has a tremendous opportunity here—he can pick a highly qualified, universally respected person of the center-left, or center.  My own preference would be for a true centrist, because what I think the Court really needs is more Sandra Day O’Connors—Justices who would begin to repair the breach caused by the perception of rank partisanship that many people ascribe to any Supreme Court decision they don’t agree with.  But Mr. Obama does not consult with me on a regular basis, so I would imagine he will select someone a bit of the Left, but not strongly so—and someone already either on the Federal Bench, and confirmed with bipartisan support, or perhaps someone with time on the prosecutorial side and the bench, to demonstrate solid law-and–order credentials.   

The correct selection will put the GOP in a terrible quandary—especially since virtually everyone up for election must then declare their fealty to this position, and defend it.  Easy if you are from Texas or Oklahoma—not so easy if you are from a swing state, or in a swing district.  There are 24 Republican Senators up for re-election. Just a quick look at those from states Obama won in 2008 and/or 2012 shows you the risk: Ayotte of New Hampshire, Burr of North Carolina, Dan Coat’s seat in Indiana (he’s retiring), Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and our very own Marco Rubio, who is (officially) leaving his seat to seek a better place.  Add in the usually centrist Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, plus Rand Paul’s seat in Kentucky, which may be in play, and you can see the basis for real concern.  Just how do you explain to your constituents how someone highly qualified, someone you may have already voted to confirm, has suddenly become unfit?   

You can’t, of course, except to those who want to believe fairy tales.  That places on McConnell, the real gatekeeper, a huge burden.  McConnell has some of the most acute political ears in the country, and his highest priority—perhaps even higher than electing a Republican President, will be to preserve his majority. 

McConnell knows that the truth is that few people seriously believe that a President should not make appointments in his last year in office—even the conservative theorists currently trying to put an intellectual gloss on it know the Founders would be rolling in their graves.  Yet, if McConnell decides to go down this path, and obstruction succeeds, the genie is out of the bottle, we will have permanently re-defined the appointment process—and the powers of the Presidency.  I don’t think Mitch really wants that, and certainly not for a future Republican President.

Still, he is the most powerful Republican in the world right now—the one who’s decisions will be the most consequential.  He must choose a path—a true path, past the rhetoric and the ritual denunciations of Obama and anyone he nominates.  Infinitely complicating things for him will be having Cruz and Rubio right in the room (when they bother to show)—both there solely to advance their own interests, regardless of the potential impact.  The right Obama nominee makes for McConnell’s Sophie’s Choice—it’s either red meat, or do the tactically (and institutionally) smart thing.   

The issue, in fact, potentially diminishes every Republican it touches. It yanks Republicans harder right, of course, but it also swamps them in moral relativism at a time when they claim to want to restore the rule of law.  Do you think Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, Bush or Trump would accept these type of limitations on their own power?  Not a chance—but there is no good way to answer that question (which will be asked over and over again in the general election) and not sound like an utter hypocrite. 

A Supreme Court vacancy for an entire year?  Wouldn’t you love to wake Scalia for five minutes and get an Originalist’s point of view on that.

Maybe he couldn’t abide his seat being taken by someone less conservative.  But I think his intellectual side would win out, he would recognize the risks, and send a private note to the GOP: 

“Trap!”  Love, Nino.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Friday, February 12, 2016

Age Before Beauty

If you are of a vigorous disposition and enjoy the crisp New Hampshire air, you can try the “Presidential Traverse”, a 19-mile saunter across the Presidential Range.  Up and down you go, from North to South, Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce.

I said, “vigorous disposition” because this is no walk in the park.  “STOP” reads a sign from the Forest Service, “THE AREA AHEAD HAS THE WORST WEATHER IN AMERICA. MANY HAVE DIED THERE FROM EXPOSURE, EVEN IN THE SUMMER. TURN BACK NOW IF THE WEATHER IS BAD.”  

Eight potentially viable candidates (actually, eight hopefully potentially viable candidates) marched into the state to test their resilience.  Here is what we learned: Donald Trump has the vitality of a rhinoceros. Ted Cruz walked the entire distance without once stopping to look at the view.  John Kasich took so many pictures his Instamatic ran out of film.  Jeb Bush made it—Barbara commandeered a Right to Rise Helicopter and Jeb skydived, with his Dad, to the finish. Marco Rubio was so sure there would be a chorus celebrating his accomplishments that he wanted to do it twice. Chris Christie gave it a shot, for a peak or two, then channeled his inner Napoleon, and left the Grande Armée of his ambitions on the frozen tundra to return to Paris (or New Jersey).  Hillary surprised absolutely no one—she donned a high-tech pants suit, told Bill to stay out of trouble, and tweeted selfies.  She finished late, but she finished.  And Bernie—Bernie not only warmed up by shooting hoops, but led an entire posse of Millennials, Sound of Music style, over the Alps. 

How does Bernie do it? How does 74-year-old Democratic Socialist manage to attract not only blue collar New Hampshire workers but an astonishing 83% of voters aged 18-29.  The number is so unreal it looks like an election from an old Warsaw Pact nation.

Is it Hillary? Unquestionably, she can be uninspiring.  And, a lot of the press doesn’t particularly like her—even the mainstream and liberal press that is supposedly in the tank.  Hillary is the anti-Bill, a walking, talking command and control center for other’s schadenfreude. No margin is big enough, no explanation full enough, no speech emotive enough for her to escape criticism. 

But, for all that, in a lot of ways, their dislike of her obscures a larger issue—and it’s a larger issue for just about every conventional candidate, Democratic or Republican.  A 7/1 margin isn’t about Hillary Clinton.  It’s not even about Bernie Sanders.  It speaks to something that is not being addressed.

I got a small window into this last summer when I had the exquisite pleasure of stomping around Florence for a few hours with my teenaged daughter. In insane heat (100 degrees might look prettier when seeing the Arno as opposed to the East River, but it’s still insane) she wanted to talk about two things that really motivated her—the arts (she’s a musician) and politics (The Force is strong with this one.)  I’m not doing justice to her arguments by synthesizing them this way, but let me give it a shot.  Bernie Sanders interested her because he talked about things that were meaningful to her—economic inequality, a society built on mutual respect, education (and the cost of it) and public support for the arts. 

My daughter is very practical—she knows that the road ahead for her and her friends and future colleagues is a difficult one.  Classical music, and particularly opera, has a limited audience, growing older each year.  She knows it is largely supported by a comparatively few wealthy donors, and she appreciated what they were doing.  

But, the entire model struck her as fundamentally unreasonable—In Europe, cultural heritage—art, architecture, music, is cherished and prioritized.  In America it’s the first thing that’s cut from any budget, and often lampooned.  Tuition and associated fees are astronomical, and burden students with often-unsustainable debt payments that will drag on them for decades.  Conventional politics, and conventional politicians, were just offering more of the same.   

She had another point to make—that not only do different generations have different priorities, but when something like the arts are presented to a younger generation by people old enough to be their grandparents, they lose relevance.  The way to inspire participation is peer to peer.  

It was this last observation that has been rattling around in my head since then.   How does peer-to-peer translate to a 74-year-old who looks like he could have emerged from a Disney movie?  Perhaps because Bernie Sanders is personally empowering in a way that Hillary Clinton, or any of the other candidates, just isn’t.

There are basically three voting blocks in this election, and Bernie is speaking to each in his own way. 

The first are people of the status quo--not just the wealthy, but also a lot of middle-class people, who, in the post-World War II era, were part of an economy that generated stable jobs, pensions, and security. They also found relative stability and comfort in their neighborhoods, their cultures, and their beliefs. These folk have a tremendous interest in sustaining it.  Bernie's views, like his accent, grate on them.

The second is from working and middle class people who are on a downward slope. Their present job is not as good as the one their last one.  Their neighborhoods are in transition.  They are anxious about both the present and the future. They want to retrieve what was lost. These people are looking for help.  Some may hear in Bernie hope, others an attack on what they have left. 

The last is from the Millennials.  They have no memory of a brighter past because they never experienced it.  And little interest in sustaining the status quo, because what they see in front of them is an entirely different, and far less promising future where the economic elites continue to reap a disproportionate share, and they are paying to support entitlement programs that they never expect to be able to participate in.  And, all these decisions are being made by others, without input from them.  Bernie is not just speaking to them, he is listening. 

What the 2016 election is largely about is reconciling the stresses between these three tectonic blocks.  That means that the basic chemistry of conventional politics is starting to change, and the struggle is over which side gains the upper hand.  Trump obviously has a complex appeal to both some of the status quo voters, and the downward slope types.  He’s going to clean the stables, win the “ethnic” culture war, and “Make America Great.” But look at the rest of the candidates—Hillary, Jeb, Rubio, and Kasich, even Cruz, all are delivering essentially the same message—give them the keys, and they can drive the car better than Obama.  They differ on speed, on direction, on the relative awfulness of the President, but it’s still the same basic idea.  Put them in charge, they will manage the status quo, sprinkle a few extra favors in one direction or another, and things will improve.

That just doesn’t work for millennials.  They want a place at the table.  They want to be engaged.  Some of them, like my daughter, even want to be evangelists with their peers and those even younger.   Bernie isn’t just a warrior for them—he’s a warrior with them. 

I still don’t think Bernie is realistic, I don’t agree with many of his economic proposals, and I don’t think he is electable.  But I read David Brooks this morning, “Livin’ Bernie Sanders’s Danish Dream” and a few things came to mind: how (unintentionally) arrogant and condescending he comes off and how sure he is that what he attained is available to anyone with the desire, the effort, and the right moral framework. Brooks doesn’t mean any harm. He’s just the adult in the room, telling the kids how it’s going to be, what’s best for them.

David Brooks may be a man of the past—or even one of the present.  I think he, and the status quo, takes this round.

Bernie Sanders, all 74 cantankerous years of him, could be the man of the future.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, he may have gone to the mountaintop.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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