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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