Thursday, March 24, 2016

Scorpions and Frogs

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The  frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too."

The Republican Frogs have reached the water, and waiting there for them are two scorpions, a large one with an unusual yellow head, and a smaller one, looking somewhat like a funeral director, his tail partially covered by his black jacket. The frogs quickly huddle together to decide a plan of action—do they hop for the hills, offer up ritual sacrifices to the Frog-Gods, or just let one of the gruesome things climb on and hope for the best? 

They got here because of an understandable but remarkably bad series of choices made by the GOP, going back to Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012.  Party leadership decided a change of direction was needed.  First, tinker with the rules to encourage early consensus.  Second, deal with demographic changes going on in the country by offering a more welcoming face to minorities—particularly Latino ones.  Finally, reduce the unattractive noise in the nominating process by holding fewer debates, with more sympathetic moderators and more supportive audiences. Burnish the brand. 

You can certainly see the logic of this, especially when you add in the ostensible deepness of the GOP bench and the immense but quiet influence of limitless money.  The thinking was the public would see a parade of successful Governors with gravitas, rising stars, the face of youth and diversity, and new ideas—the appearance of both quality, and an open process.  Back that up behind the scenes with cold cash, infrastructure, influential state politicians able to endorse and offer their own political machines to create inevitability and the aura of electability.  While you couldn’t predict the actual nominee you at least knew what the range of outcomes would be.

The party knew it had two distinct wings, the mainstream right and the hard right. Their conflict would be resolved through the system, with the slight edge to the hard right at the onset, given the number of conservative southern states that were at the front of the primary/caucus queue, then moving to territory that was more favorable to mainstream candidates.  Find a solid conservative early on, hopefully someone not too controversial, and that person would gain strength and an air of inevitability.  Even the possibility of a “fringier” candidate winning a few outlier states, and being divisive at the Convention (see, Pat Buchanan, 1992) was taken care of by Rule 40, which required that a candidate win at least eight states in order to have their name placed in nomination. 

It all made perfect sense, because the Republican leadership thought they knew Republicans.  Apparently, they didn’t.  There aren’t two wings of the Republican Party—there are actually three—mainstream right, hard-right, and populist right.  The error was the expectation that the populists were really just hard-right, and therefore already represented.  Better expressed, the GOP assumed that Conservatism was a largely fixed concept, all Republicans were basically conservative and shared the same goals, and the arguments were over approach—tactics and degree of confrontation,  and not substance. 

In effect, the GOP was still thinking of the Reagan model—business interests get what they want, social conservatives get what they want, and whatever awkwardness there might be between the two groups is subsumed by success, and by the popularity of the man in the White House.  Old-fashioned and out of date?  Maybe, but, understandable when you look at George W. Bush’s Presidency.  While he couldn’t match Reagan for general popularity, intra-party, he provided the same bridge between the sides.

What few were paying attention to were the growing number of people “under” that bridge—the group of populists who really didn’t fit into the ideological silo because their priorities weren’t being met.  No one was really helping these people on the economic and cultural issues that mattered to them.  The 2016 roster of Republican candidates, for all their supposed talents, gave the same speeches that could have been given a decade ago, effectively promising more of the same—no real answers, and therefor no place at the table for the populists.

Up steps Donald Trump.  First, he’s a huge celebrity, and, because of it, he is able to jump both the money issue and most of the institutional barriers the GOP had put in place.  Second, Trump perfectly represents the anti-politician in an age where politicians are detested. This is more than just “not being part of Washington.”  Trump tells his supporters, in effect, “look at those guys—nice suits, fancy words, but what have they really done in their lives? Nothing—they are all professional politicians.  I buy and sell people like that every day. Stick with me—maybe my words aren’t as pretty as theirs, my accent seems strange, but you and I speak the same language.  I’ll never talk down to you.  And my success will be your success.”  

As potent as the Trump message was, the initial institutional reaction to Trump was initially unbelieving bemusement. Most of the rest of the field continued to fight amongst each other, assuming that Trump’s candidacy was the equivalent of vanity publishing.  Sooner or later, his polls would drop, he would tire of it, declare victory, and go home.  When this didn’t happen, the Establishment, and the conservative media reacted by pointing out the obvious—that Trump wasn’t a “true” Republican and surely not a “true” conservative. 

Republicans are right—Trump isn’t one of them—and he’s certainly not a “true” conservative—if you define those terms strictly as they define them. But what they missed—and continue to miss, is that Trump’s supporters don’t value those qualities.  They have had a bellyful of “true” conservative ideas, and they haven’t helped their lives one bit. Talk doesn’t fix the transmission of the truck when it’s slipping. Trump, on the other hand, might not be perfect, maybe they disagree with him on some things, maybe he’s a little crazy, but, if you are headed to a knife-fight with the real world, do you want The Donald, or an Action Figure “True” Republican (with three outfits!) to take along? The answer for many is a little less theoretical polish and a little more brass-knuckled punch.

In their desperation, much of GOP has turned to openly scheming about fixing the convention, a blizzard of negative ads, and a creepy new-found affinity for the arachnoid Ted Cruz.  It could work—Trump probably won’t get enough delegates to clinch prior to Cleveland, and the GOP Establishment is leaning hard on Kasich to get out. 

But, even if Trump can be stopped, what of Trump’s supporters? Given the size of his voting bloc, the GOP needs them to put aside their loyalty and their peculiar desire to vote in their self-interest and instead focus on Obama and Hillary-hating.  Just go along, one more time. 

And, if he gets the nomination, what then?  How much support will he get from the GOP, what type of a show will Cleveland look like, and will down-ballot candidates go their own way?

All unknowns.  I suspect that secretly, many in the GOP hope for a brokered convention in which neither Trump nor Cruz collects nearly enough delegates, Trump is graceful, and a consensus candidate emerges.  Even if they lose, it’s just another election, and they can try again in 2020.  

But, right now, the frogs have gathered at bank, and the two scorpions are looking for a lift.

Remember the scorpion's nature, and pick your poison. 

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Alphabet Soup

With Terrific (or Terrible) Tuesday now in the books, this week’s edition of Syncopated Politics is brought to you through the collective wisdom of its readers and sponsored by the letter M.

I would rather not dwell much on yesterday’s news, Marco Rubio.  One look at a map of Florida shows how complete his collapse was—he was overwhelmed everywhere except for his home base.  His fall was so steep nationally, and statewide loss so great, that his future in politics has (prematurely, in my opinion) been called into question.

Rubio’s demise, once and for all, finally helps “dispel with the fiction” that this election is about issues and ideology. We are in a transitional period in American politics, where political philosophy is a classifier, but personality will be decisive.  Rubio, at bottom, was simply a brand, a form of packaging. His youth and appeal implied openness, but in fact he was just another ambitious conservative, virtually indistinguishable on policy from nearly every other Republican who threw their hat into the ring.  Ross Douthat made a very good argument that Rubio’s loss represents the end of George W. Bush-style Republicanism: a more inclusive, compassionate conservatism at home and an aggressive neo-con approach abroad.

I think Douthat is on to something—large chunks of the GOP electorate have abandoned one or both sides of the Bush approach—but I don’t think that’s the entire story.  Rubio’s ideas weren’t just rejected—it was Rubio himself that was rejected.  The electorate found him to be the wrong person to attain the goals they had set for themselves.   In short, they didn’t think Rubio was up to delivering.  

Of course, that’s basic political science, and basic human nature. For all the fine-tuning of message, with focus groups, and polling, and micro-targeting, it is the candidates themselves who have to carry it off—they need to project an appealing but authoritative competence.  The voters must hear that, and they must feel it. 

“Feel” is a very complicated thing.  I am not even sure how I feel, other then a sense of watching my cursor frozen over a GIF of a train wreck.  But, over the last couple of months, as the fields have winnowed down, I have received a lot of interesting comments from friends and readers.  Very few of those comments have been strictly ideological, besides a generic “too liberal” or “too conservative.”  Rather, many express an emotional reaction—their thumbnail description, often in a single word or phrase, of the type of person the candidate really is—and why they would consider voting for or against them.    

I’m going to start with “mogul”.  Why are people voting for Donald Trump?  A lot of it has to do with who he is, or at least what his supporters think he is, and “mogul” is his defining characteristic.  Trump is fabulously rich.  Trump can buy anything, and is un-bought.  Trump says what he wants, and can’t be shushed. Trump listens to no one.  Trump bangs heads together, because that’s what moguls do to get their way. Trump never has to take no for an answer. Trump will fix things himself, or he will get good people to fix them, because a mogul is all-powerful.  You might not always agree with him, or might not like exactly how he does it, but retain (not hire, a Trump is not “hired”) him as President, and there will be results. The frantic, disjointed, and too-late reaction of the GOP Establishment to Trump has its roots in a fundamental misunderstanding of this appeal. Moguls get what they want, period. 

Now, from another friend, the choice “momser” as applied to Ted Cruz.  Momser is not a very nice word (you can look it up) but it seems apt—Ted Cruz is not a very nice man. Care for more rarified language? George Will said Cruz was the “serrated edge” of conservatism.  Pick Ted Cruz because you like the piety he tries to exude at every public meeting, or because you think he’s a “Constitutional Conservative” but acknowledge that Cruz makes it a point of honor that he’s so disliked by so many. Politico reported that even now, when he’s trying to consolidate support behind him, he still hasn’t reached out to his colleagues in the Senate.  He has invited them to “join him” but built no bridges.  The promise of a Cruz Presidency is a continuation of that—a momser President, who will be a momser to his enemies, both abroad and at home.  In a profession that has more than its share of momsers, Cruz seemingly has no peer.

Two more words: Messy and Mensch.  Often used by the same people to describe both Bernie Sanders and John Kasich.  Messy, as in, couldn’t they get a better haircut, a suit that wasn’t brown, a more put-together speaking style, even a more coherent ideology?  Mensch, because underneath all that mess seems to be two decent men, authentic, unscripted, with good intentions, even though they clearly would go down radically different paths. People are comforted by Sanders and Kasich, even though they might not want them as President.

How about Hillary?  As might be expected, given the complexity of people’s reactions to her, two other words, “Mahesefa” and, of all things, PTA Mom.   

Let’s start with mahasefa, which is definitely not praise. It is hard to find a more polarizing public figure than Hillary Clinton.  There are a lot of people in this country who cannot stand Hillary Clinton—and not all of them are Republicans.  It’s not necessarily her policies—it’s just purely chemical. Hillary is the Democratic Richard Nixon for some—it seems inconceivable that anyone could actually feel different than you do.  My mahasefa friend is Republican-leaning but not ideological—and he sees something in Hillary that is dark and even evil.  Fair or not, that is the vibe he gets from her. There is no way to convince this supremely practical, rational man, otherwise.    

Now, to the PTA Mom part, and perhaps the most nuanced and sophisticated reaction to Hillary Clinton that I have ever heard out of anyone.  Hillary is the parent down the block who started advocating for a local Pre-K when she first got pregnant.  She was the one fighting for zoning changes when her toddler was in the wrong catchment area for the school she wanted him to go to. She got a grant for music and art in kindergarten.  She twisted arms for extra space and smaller class sizes. Demanded a new middle school be built because of alleged overcrowding.  No stone unturned, every string pulled, every politician schmoozed, every school administrator cell number in her rolodex, even down to the people at the DOE responsible for school construction.  We all know these people—women and men—most highly accomplished in the business world as well—who just don’t stop and don’t mind being unpopular while not stopping.   Often, we dislike them, but, at the end of the day, the school raised extra money for enrichments, there was an assistant teacher in the classroom, and there’s a roof garden that will be open in the Spring.  That’s Hillary Clinton in a nutshell.  Elect her President, and that’s what you are going to get—an often opaque and sometimes unlikable person who sweats every detail and will get things done. 

Who wins? Mogul, Momser, Messy Mensch, or Mahasefa Mom? Figuring this election out is like eating alphabet soup with a fork.  Put it in and see what letter comes up.  Besides, it seems to be the only dish on the menu.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Marco's Maddening March

No, you did not predict this.  Nor did I. 

It is March 10, and the two men most likely to be the Republican nominee are a noisy blowhard with a bizarre grab-bag of policies that defy description or even reality, and a nasty scourge who approaches his own crabbed view of purity and making enemies with the same Messianic zeal.

How about the wunderkind, Marco Rubio?  Crashing—in the four primaries this Tuesday night, he failed to take a single delegate, and wasn’t competitive in any of them.  His numbers in his home state of Florida are frightening—if five recent polls are any indication, and the early voting didn’t lead to a major Marco lead, Trump is going to take the state comfortably.   A Rubio campaign manager had a virtual screaming match on CNN to deny that some staffers are telling Marco to withdraw before next Tuesday, but there’s every reason to believe that those conversations have to be taking place, because a disaster in Florida could be a body-blow to his future political prospects for any office.

How did it go so wrong so fast? In part, because he got it so fast.  The Rubio package—intelligent, good-looking, charismatic, eloquent, and Cuban—was catnip to influential Republicans.  They elevated him very rapidly—and his electoral success convinced them that their bet was a good one.  It was effectively a blitzkrieg strategy—move fast, hit hard, and the logistics will either take care of themselves, or become irrelevant because you’ve already taken the prize. 

One of the problems with this approach in politics is that it is both time specific and personality specific.  Let’s start with personalities.  Marco did not exactly pay his dues or wait his turn—and that didn’t just apply to his relationship with Jeb!  You can view this as a political variation of Newton’s Law—every promotion Marco got, every endorsement, every contributor, had to have come at the expense of someone else—probably someone more senior, and quite likely, someone more accomplished.

People don’t like getting passed over—especially for someone who seemed like a trust-fund kid—and there was always someone stretching out a helping hand for Marco. One of the more interesting aspects of his Presidential campaign is that it’s arguable that he might have had a hard time winning re-election to the Senate, if he chose to run.  He's not exactly loved or respected for his efforts. 

Translating this approach to a Presidential context created a fascinating dynamic.  Go back and watch the body-language of the debates and see the differences in the interaction between the Governors, Cruz, Trump, and Rubio. Trump, they clearly see as a loon, and Cruz as an ideologue. But Marco seems to almost offend them. Why, they seem to be asking themselves, are powerful people in the party telling them to be nice to Marco?  Why are they being pushed out the door in favor of Marco?  Why is Marco himself telling them they should leave the field to him? And why is Marco’s Super Pac spending so much money tearing them down, instead of going after Trump and Cruz—the two people that the Establishment simply cannot abide.

How three remaining Governors reacted is a case-study in personalities. Kasich, as is Kasich’s wont, has kept his own counsel.  He’s rebuffed Rubio’s demands that he drop out, but has largely stayed out of the scrum.  Christie did what Christie does—he lost it.  Furious after Rubio’s supporters buried him under negative ads in New Hampshire when he thought he was gaining traction, he tore into Marco, diminishing them both a bit, then had a self-immolating Stepford-Wives moment and endorsed Trump.  Jeb’s approach is particularly telling.  Jeb has scheduled individual meetings with Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, but CBS reported that word from inside the Rubio camp is that they might not even want an endorsement—might damage the Rubio brand.  Perhaps nothing tells you more about the Bush/Rubio relationship, and, more specifically about Rubio, than Rubio’s apparent contempt.   

Does this matter, now that Christie and Bush are road-kill, and Kasich possibly not far behind?  Yes, and no.  This is where the “logistical” part of Marco’s strategy may ultimately bring him down.  He lacks the infrastructure in key states—he’s even weak in Florida.  Why is anyone’s guess, but it’s reasonable to draw the inference that he feels others will provide it for him.  This confidence (or arrogance) is presumably drawn from experience, but it may be misguided.  Rubio’s team seems to be clinging to two slim reeds: He will get the institutional support, and either Republican primary voters will come to their senses and, after Marco holds Florida, line up behind him and actually deliver sufficient delegates in the winner-take-all states to come, or, no-one will go to Cleveland with a majority, and a grateful Party will turn to him as a savior.

Are outright winner or savior still possible, now that blitzkrieg is a dead strategy?  Possible, but dependent on a lot of things going perfectly—and going perfectly soon, since Cruz (no matter how disliked) is getting a second look to bring down the mighty Trump.  The bigger question may have less to do with tactics, or whether Marco is really loved by his peers, or even whether he’s sufficiently hardworking.   It’s a matter of vibe, and an acknowledgement that there is a huge tectonic movement going on in the electorate that is almost as much emotional as it is ideological.  These changes are idiosyncratic—they don’t necessarily fit earlier voting models, and they involve multiple plates, all in motion at the same time. 

The catalyst is that people feel under assault—their values, their economic security, their communities.  And they are upset that government has failed to prioritize their needs.  They have different perspectives on who is to blame—it could be Obama, or the economic elites, or immigrants, or terrorism, or obstructionist Republicans, or Progressivism, but many are looking for someone to address their anxiety and their anger.   

This is where Rubio’s greatest misjudgment might have been made. He has been selling the only product he seems to have, a slick electability.  The problem is that he’s an emotional cipher who teeters out of control when he goes off script. Every one of the other candidates have a lane. Trump is going to thumb his nose at the world, and Cruz is going to flay Democrats.  Kasich is avuncular.  But Rubio—what does he offer?  He’s just about as conservative as Cruz but doesn’t have the ability to project an assassin’s promise.  His self-absorption keeps him from carrying off Kasich’s almost pastoral approach.  And Trump is, well, Trump. 

That is the paradox of the Rubio campaign, for all his personal gifts.  His ambition has always exceeded his willingness to serve.  As the Orlando Sun-Sentinel (who had previously endorsed Jeb) said recently "If you think Marco Rubio can unite the Republican Party under a winning banner, vote for him. But remember he has almost no experience, and has done little but run for office.  Then, he when he gets in office, he doesn't go to work very much." 

That just isn't going to cut it this year, and it should never be enough.  In January, Marco will pack up the few things he's left in his office and go home. He decided last year the Senate wasn't good enough for him.  Perhaps, finally, he will have realized that his candidacy didn't catch fire because he doesn’t really stand for anything that people value in their gut.  And when you don’t stand for something—when you don’t stand with someone—they won’t stand with you.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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