Monday, September 19, 2016

The Princess and the Spy--On 3Quarks

by Michael Liss
"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."
—John Ellison, Dean of Students, University of Chicago

Friday, September 16, 2016

How Hillary Wins, Part I

Let's start ugly. If the election were held today, there is an excellent chance that Donald Trump would win. Polling is all over the place, but it clearly shows momentum in Trump’s direction, and at least one national poll, sponsored by the LA Times, has him with a significant lead. 

This shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. As bad as Trump can be, this was never, ever, a sure thing for Hillary, and reports of her staff telling her to “prepare for a landslide” were either fake, or evidence of the inexhaustible ability of the collective human mind to deceive itself. 

First, the idea that there is some kind of a Democratic “Obama” Electoral College firewall for Hillary is based on a series of false and dated presumptions. Eight years ago many in her camp felt that she would have been the far stronger general election candidate than the President. Hillary could compete in states that Obama shouldn’t have been able to—older, whiter, more conservative places where Obama’s liberal outlook and racial background would have been an impediment. And, so the thinking went, any Democrat willing to vote for Mr. Obama would certainly have backed Hillary, and with at least the same degree of enthusiasm.  That, combined with demographic changes, would be more than enough to rescue even a pallid campaign.

What was not taken into account was that Barack Obama was both a generational political talent, and a unique one. His appeal was and is very personal and apparently non-transferrable. He also generates extraordinary amounts of antipathy. The two mid-term elections, in 2010 and 2014, show how catastrophic the impact of Republican anger is on Democratic prospects when Obama isn’t on the ballot to inspire turnout. That rage has intensified as Obama’s approval ratings have risen and a conservative thirst for vengeance has gone un-slaked. Hillary Clinton on the ballot is just waving a red cape in front of that bull.

Second, Hillary starts with a disadvantage that, on its face, seems preposterous. She’s actually knowledgeable and experienced. Trump, by contrast, can only point to his gold cufflinks. But few of the voters seem to care.  Even the media, supposedly so much in Clinton’s tank, engages in bizarre doublethink. With Clinton, the microscope is out for every imperfection. With Trump, they assume he knows nothing, so they ask nothing of him.

Third, and we might as well just say it, Hillary can be a lousy candidate. She lacks something in her public persona and her demeanor that generates a connection with many voters. It’s important to make a distinction here between inspiring eloquence, which very few people truly have, and the subtler social skills of making people feel good about themselves in their desire to associate themselves with you.   

This isn’t necessarily about personal warmth—Obama has an almost impenetrable reserve—or even an Angela Merkel-style Iron Lady of Competence. Nor a smoothness on the stump—Tim Kaine projects authenticity, and Joe Biden empathy, and neither one of them is going to win the award for Mr. Suave. But some way of making your listeners feel part of what you are doing—some way to project that there’s something more to your candidacy than just yourself.

Hillary hasn’t been able to do that, especially with Obama's base. Younger voters who were excited by Bernie Sanders— because he showed interest in their issues and real fire—are indifferent to her.  Millennial women aren’t jazzed up by the historic nature of her candidacy, because it just doesn’t feel like anything special. It’s hard for them to relate to an era where women were largely unwelcome in the professions, and where secretary, librarian, and teacher (until marriage and child-birth) were the usual paths.  Hillary doesn’t move them—probably more because the “Moment” doesn’t appear to be that momentous, and if Grandma can do it, it’s probably not all that remarkable anyway.

So, uninspiring, controversial, a lightning rod.  Let’s add “trust” issues, coughing, pants suits. 

How to turn the ship around?

Let her drop the populist artifice and campaign as just what she is—experienced and tough, period. She can start by holding press conferences—take some hard questions, and if she hasn’t figured out the answers yet, sit on her staff until they moot-court it to death. For the questions she has no good answers, take responsibility and own up to mistakes.

Double down on the ground game—she’s going to need every ounce of it—don’t leave a single Electoral Vote on the table. Field offices, phone calls, registration, poll-watchers. Lawyers, where necessary. The money is there for the infrastructure, use it.

Let her toot her own horn—that’s what Trump does, and turn supposed vice into virtue. Instead of wiggling around in public trying to come up with answers about access in return for contributions, talk about what the Clinton Foundation actually did and does.  Roll out the accomplishments—numbers, places, structures built, NGOs aided.  

Take a fresh and cold eye, and properly evaluate the Obama coalition. Remember, there is an odd bipolarity that sticks to the President—outside of his almost unique bond with a segment of the electorate, there is probably an even larger group of Democrats (and some Independents) who are more critical of his Presidency, but are thoroughly disgusted with the way he’s been treated and alarmed at the alternatives. That’s a sentiment that has to be mined—and it can be done very successfully by people like Biden and Kaine at the national level, and, through surrogates, all the way down to college campuses. Issues matter here…explain the risks of an all GOP government, but emphasize that demeanor, tone, and respect matters just as much.

Last, finally, and maybe most importantly, change the slogan, in word and deed. “I’m with Her” is exactly what’s wrong with Hillary’s campaign.  Try “She’s with Me” and mean it. Show people you have their backs, show them you will fight for them on issues they care about, show them that there is something more to voting for you than just validating your candidacy. Give them a stake in electing you—show them you share their values and their aspirations.   

Do I think she can do all that? Actually, I do. This is a smart, capable person, who I think wants to good for as many people as she can. It’s just a little buried right now under an avalanche of negativity, some earned, a greater amount heaped on her. 

Time to dig out.  She is going to need a big shovel, but she can win. 

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

How Trump Could Win, Part I

A good friend, writing to me last year, watching the improbable rise of Donald Trump, wondered if we weren’t turning towards the anger, the xenophobia, and the dysfunction of 1920s and 30s Europe.  At the time, I thought his concerns were overstated. The American political system has almost always shown a type of awkward agility in dealing with fringe movements. It incorporates them, shaves the edges off them, feeds them a few crumbs (or sometimes a part of a loaf) and moves on.  We don’t usually have radical change here—it tends to be incremental and reflective of a popular desire to meet emergent needs.

A year later, as the rhetoric has ratcheted ever-higher, I’m wondering if my friend didn’t have a point, and I’ve been asking myself if we are, in fact, nimble enough to avoid at least a temporary trip to the abyss.    

In May of 1940, after the Germans invaded France, Marshal Philippe Pétain, “Hero of Verdun” then 84 years old, was, as a confidence-building measure, named Vice-Premier to Paul Reynard’s government. By June, with the Germans occupying roughly two-thirds of the country, Reynard was out, and he was put in charge. He went on national radio and announced “I make France the gift of my person” and asked the Germans for an armistice.  A collaborationist regime was set up in Vichy (later in Clermont-Ferrand), with Pétain as nominal Head of State, and Pierre Laval acting as the true head of the government.

The military and moral collapse of the Third Republic was so swift that it is hard to fully grasp. The country sorted itself out into winners and losers. Neighbors informed against each other, political enemies were imprisoned and property was confiscated. The French security services coordinated with the Gestapo to squelch dissent, and Jews were deported to concentration camps. Frenchman even volunteered to serve in the Charlemagne Division of the Waffen SS.

But at the center of this was an island of calm, Maréchal Pétain, an old and old-fashioned man held in enormous esteem, who saw his duty to his country: to spare them from physical destruction, to resist left-wing ideology, and restore traditional values of Work, Family, Fatherland.

To this end, Pétain offered France the gift of his person. He gave to it the remnants of a national pride, an expiation for sin.  And much of France accepted. They went back to their lives, went back to their work, and closed their shutters, and their eyes, to the injustices and indignities around them. They collaborated.   

Why? Historians have considered it—most have been unsparing in their judgements. France was alone among the occupied European countries in this. How did a great and cultured nation—even one battered by World War I, frightened by the rise of Bolshevism, riven by political disputes and the rise of radical movements turn this way? A great deal of blame can be placed on their leadership—ego and obstruction in political matters, fatalism amongst the General Staff of the army, a loss of nerve and will, a complacency with static older ideas, and finally, an inability to offer enough of anything resembling hope to an edgy populace.  When one cannot look forward, one often looks to the past.   

I am not comparing 1940 France to 2016 America, but some of the same forces are in play—the weariness, the sense of failure associated with the governing class, the fear of outsiders and the desire to purify, the loss of hope, even the desire to strike out at perceived rivals.   

In such fertile fields can grow a Donald Trump, a man who bases an entire campaign on a pervasive sense of resentment.  

It isn’t that Trump is actually qualified. Clearly, he shouldn’t be President. He does have strengths—I think his critics who point to his bankruptcies (and his probable non-payment of income tax) are missing the mark. Trump has played the system magnificently over the years, and a subscript of his campaign is his message that he will play the system for his supporters.  But, along with his volatile temperament, he both lacks basic knowledge, and the curiosity to obtain that knowledge.

And yet, as the tightening of the polls show, he’s at the doorstep. 60 million people, give or take a few million, are likely to vote for him. You can’t pigeonhole them—not everyone fits neatly into a description, a socio-economic or educational group, or any other demographic marker.

Still, there is a common tie among many—they are the ones who feel besieged by modernity. “Work, Family and Fatherland” sounds about right to them.  It renders irrelevant possible policy differences with Trump, even causes them to look away from his excesses. They don’t apply the same standards as they might to a more conventional politician. Rather, in search of a safe harbor, they accept Trump’s “gift of his person” and they think the rest will work itself out somehow. 

Why are Trump’s actual qualifications of so little import? There is a paradox at work here. The GOP has made the last seven-plus years about diminishing the Presidency while hyperbolizing every real and alleged flaw of its present occupant. They may have succeeded too well. The office is diminished—diminished to the point where Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan believe Trump will sign anything put in front of him. And diminished to where many in the electorate don’t believe that a bad President can do a lot of damage—that any risk in electing Trump is ameliorated by his expected powerlessness when it comes to the nuts and bolts of governing. 

Can he get the votes? There is plenty of enthusiasm out there for Trump, but the people who attend rallies will not, on their own, win him the Presidency. If he wins, it’s going to be because of the support of a far greater number who will just go along, like those who supported Maréchal Pétain. They will look the other way, ignoring his flaws, consoling themselves with the thought that difficult times require a strong hand, that the destination is more important than a little unpleasantness on journey.

Are they enough to take the prize? I don't know, but I can say that too much confidence in Hillary Clinton's supposed edge is akin to standing behind the Maginot Line.  

Beware the Blitz.  Yes, Trump can win. 

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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