The Democratic Party at the crossroads

By all indications, Trump is on a roll, if being on a roll means heading speedily downhill, like his ratings. His dismal 38% approval rating is unprecedented. Presidents have gotten lower ratings (most famously George W. Bush near the end of his administration) but not this soon after taking office. Trump can compare himself to Jimmy Carter, who also started his term with more disapproving him than approving him, but in Trump’s case it’s by larger margins.

As I said in my last post, I’d hand Trump an anvil but he doesn’t need it. He’s got one already, thank you and against all reasonable political instincts (which he is largely bereft of) he thinks it’s a hot air balloon instead. Trump is famously doubling down and playing to his base, but his base is pretty much his approval rating. This does not bode well for Republicans in 2018 and his reelection prospects in 2020. More savvy Republicans are already looking for ways to hang on and cut their losses. When not avoiding town halls they are subtly distancing themselves from him, at least in less red districts. Some are suggesting that repealing Obamacare maybe isn’t such a great idea after all.

Midterms are typically an assessment of the president and favor the party out of power. By that standard Democrats should do well in 2018 and the more Trump doubles down the better they will do. Taking back the Senate is still unlikely because Democrats have more seats to defend, and in redder states. Taking back the House is likely even with the existing extreme gerrymandering.

If you are a Democrat, things should be looking up even though things seem pretty bleak at the moment. Only 23% of Americans self identify as Republicans, a record low. This means the Republican Party’s lock on government is largely due to gerrymandering, which means it is artificial. It’s no surprise then that Republican states are working hard to further disenfranchise voters they don’t want voting. Their efforts were largely successful in 2016 so we should be no means count them out.

Unsurprisingly Democrats are craving a return to power. They would be wise not to expect it to be handed to them through Republican ineptness. That Hillary Clinton could lose to Donald Trump, clearly the worst major candidate for president in modern times, suggests they should be introspective right now. Many of us Democrats are mystified by our loss last year. I certainly was. I was right on the general dynamics (Hillary won by nearly 3 million votes) but she lost anyhow because of our biased Electoral College system. She lost principally because she could not persuade enough moderates in swing states to vote for her. Her approval rates during the campaign were always underwater, as were Trump’s.

Exactly why weren’t more of the right kinds of voters persuaded to vote for her, in spite of Trump’s numerous faults? Hillary had baggage and his name was Bill. This more than anything likely had to do with her lack of success when it mattered. For it was Bill Clinton that fundamentally changed the Democratic Party. The party lost its soul with his election and it’s still trying to recover it.

Bill Clinton was in many ways our first “Republican” Democratic president. He got through legislation that no Democrat would have dreamed of introducing, let alone passing. Bill thought he was being smart and the truth is Bill was and is devilishly smart. He invented the “triangulate your way to success” strategy that worked great for keeping him in office. Using it, he got legislation through Congress that likely would not have happened at all had George H. W. Bush been reelected. Consider:

  • Bill got the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) written into law. Independent candidate Ross Perot in 1992 predicted it would result in the loss of much of our manufacturing base and it did, and much more. In the process Democrats lost a lot of its voters who previously saw Democrats as working in their interest. NAFTA created a “you’re on your own” message to American workers. Previously Democrats were zealously protecting the working class.
  • Bill worked with Republicans to reform welfare. Benefits were time limited but in general turned out to be less generous than the old AFDC program. In doing so he lost much of the party’s poor base as well, or at least made them less eager to vote for Democrats.
  • Bill worked to deregulate the banks and Wall Street and brought in a whole new “corporate” wing of the party. It kept him in power but it didn’t really broaden the tent. By bringing in Wall Street, others found they had nothing in common with the party anymore but could find common cause with Ralph Nader and Jill Stein. It was hard to tell the fat cat Democratic Party from the similar Republican one.

Each of these was a major accomplishment that Republicans could probably not have done on their own. But Republicans working with a Republican-friendly Democratic president made these things to happen. In doing so Clinton fundamentally changed the Democratic Party.

It is certainly true that Clinton did many things that progressives liked. While these were not insignificant (Family Medical Leave Act, record expansion of jobs, high homeownership rate in history, increasing Pell grants) they really paled compared to these other actions as for its effect on the party. Clinton also gets credit for events that were outside of his control. Much of the prosperity of the 1990s was due to the tech revolution underway and the end of the Cold War. He did little to facilitate or shepherd the tech revolution. In any event, lots of jobs went overseas and many traditional Democrats did not feel the party represented them anymore.

Once in Congress, Hillary Clinton proved to be more like Bill than Bernie Sanders. She voted for two wars and took large amounts of money from wealthy Wall Street types. And she felt fine cashing in after leaving her Secretary of State position by giving speeches at inflated prices, often on Wall Street. No wonder then that so many thought she was not genuine. In any event there was little in her record that suggested she would really be a champion for the working class if elected. There was nothing in Trump’s record either, but his lack of a record was an asset. Clinton was a proven insider who had tuned out the working class. With Trump, at least you couldn’t say for sure he wasn’t.

With Trump’s foolishness comes opportunity for Democrats. Will Democrats figure it out this time? We’ll know soon, as the party will soon elect its next national chairman. We must win back these voters. If the next party chairman is another friend of Wall Street then gains will be fleeting at best for Democrats. In the eyes of many Americans, there is little difference between the two parties, as they will screw the working class either way.

However, if the Democratic Party returns to its roots and becomes a populist party again, it may recover its impressive historic strength. It looks like Rep. Keith Ellison will be the next DNC chair. This is a hopeful sign, because Keith seems to get this. If so the Democratic Party may be pulling away at last from the arguably disastrous Clinton years and back to representing the people that matter: the poor and working classes. We are the bulk of the country. Truly working in our interest and the party’s hold on power will be more predictable instead of ephemeral in the years ahead.

How the Democrats blew it and how to not blow it next time

I’m over the initial shock of the election, although it follows me into unwelcome places, like my dreams. The election seemed pretty easy to call in advance. Pollsters were in agreement. Everything had been sliced and diced. Although a two-term president is rarely succeeded by someone from his own party, it sure looked like with the worst Republican candidate ever things were going to break for Team Blue.

Obviously it didn’t, leaving pretty much everyone except Michael Moore and Scott Adams with egg on their faces. Heck, even the Trump campaign was planning for defeat. You could see in Trump’s “victory” speech that he was a bit shell-shocked by the whole thing; it’s almost liked he hoped to lose. Trump’s visit to the White House yesterday was also surreal. He had a stunned-bunny sort of look, like this is the last sort of job he wanted. And it’s worth noting that while Trump trounced Clinton in the Electoral College vote, Clinton still won the popular vote. She joins Al Gore and Samuel J. Tilden in the exclusive club of candidates who won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote (and who had not been president already.) By any standard, Trump’s election is not the will of the people.

In retrospect pollsters failed because no one had come up with a way to model the racist vote. Racists generally won’t self identify themselves but based on the results the unidentified racists were about 5% of voters, all voting for Trump. And the reason they couldn’t be identified before was that Trump was our first modern openly racist candidate, well, at least since George Wallace in 1968.

So it’s important to understand that even with the wind at their backs Democrats had the odds stacked against them. Generally presidents don’t quite deliver the change envisioned, even if they are well liked, so voters will be inclined to try the other party. And Trump was all about change. But he also had people enthusiastic about him. Enthusiastic people vote. While there certainly were Democrats enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton, most of us were half-hearted supporters. Those who show up to vote with the most passion get their candidate elected.

It’s not that Democrats didn’t have a change candidate. Bernie Sanders was that candidate. He had amazing crossover appeal. During the Democratic primaries, Sanders generally won the rust belt swing states that normally vote Democratic but were picked off by Trump. It’s impossible to know that if Bernie had been the party’s nominee whether he would have done better than Clinton, but my guess is he would have. At least some of Clinton’s firewall states would have fulfilled their function and that may have been the edge that was needed.

So it’s worth recalling just how Clinton got the nomination in the first place. It’s not that she didn’t do a lot to earn the nomination. But she was the Democratic establishment’s choice. Clinton spent years cultivating these relationships and of course she also had Bill to help her as well. It was obvious that DNC chairman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz had her finger on the scales for Hillary. But even if she hadn’t, long before Bernie had even entertained the idea of running for president, Hillary had an in with the various Democratic state party establishment. She had banked most of the party’s superdelegates. If every eight years is going to be a change election, it’s counterproductive for a party to have a system in place that discourages change candidates. The Republican Party did not, and it worked in their favor in this election.

So the lesson for Democrats should be clear: get rid of the party’s superdelegate system. To his credit Sanders brought this to the attention to the party after his nomination was out of the question, and sort of won. Superdelegates don’t go away but they will be reduced by two-thirds. This will make it easier for candidates like him to get a foothold in the future, increasing the odds that the eventual party nominee will be a rank and file pick, rather than the establishment’s. It’s a pretty good bet that rank and file will be closer to understanding who can actually win an election than the party’s elite as they won’t be living their lives in the insular political bubble that the party’s elite do.

But can real party change happen? Getting rid of most of these superdelegates helps. It would be better to get rid of all of them. What’s critical for 2018 though is to find a new party chairman that gets this. Howard Dean, who became the DNC chair after the 2004 election is willing to give it another try. His 50-state strategy was very successful. It allowed Democrats to regain control of the House and the Senate just two years later. We need Dean or someone who believes the same things. We don’t need Wasserman-Shultz or Donna Brazile again as both have proven ineffectual.

We also need to say goodbye to the Clintons. Both came with baggage and it dragged down the ticket, even if some of their issues were more smoke than fire. (Hillary’s emails, for example, was mostly a big nothing burger.) They represent the “new Democrat” that Bill Clinton invented in 1992. That business-friendly, Republican-lite branding no longer works and does not distinguish the Democratic Party. Both Bill and Hillary need to exit stage right. The party needs to hear from a variety of voices, hopefully mostly new voices to see what resonates within the party of today. The party is morphing too, but feels moribund. It’s a party that is increasingly diverse and multicultural. But it should not be the party of non-whites. It should appeal to those Trump voters who were sucked in by Trump’s popular and economic message. Whites still form the majority of voters in this country. Elections cannot be won without significant number of crossover white voters. For whatever reason, except for younger white voters, whites and white women in particular failed to deliver for Democrats in this election.

If you want people to vote for you, give them some compelling reasons to vote for you. Democrats failed here, choosing an establishment candidate with baggage and high unfavorables over a change candidate. Voters need to feel like the candidate is someone that gets their concerns, and has a track record of fighting for their issues. It’s hard to relate to a candidate who is a millionaire and gives $250,000 speeches to Wall Street firms. You need someone authentic with fire in their belly instead, someone a lot like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

The only good news for Democrats is that Trump is likely to quickly implode. He brings a lot of baggage to his presidency including a lot of civil suits and possible criminal charges for having sex with a minor. If he chooses to do those things he says he will do, he will piss off his voters who buy his brand but not most of his policies, like throwing undocumented immigrants out of the country. The Democratic Party need not be down for long. But if it is to recover quickly, it must do so with agility and intelligence. It needs to morph into a populist party again.

Trump is accelerating the Republican Party’s end

I gave in and started paying for online news, specifically the New York Times. My timing was fortuitous because I came across this article today that I might not have otherwise seen. It underlines just how damaging Trump has become to the Republican Party’s brand.

Trump is unlikely to win next Tuesday and I’m not losing any sleep over the prospect. It’s not out of the range of possibility, as I noted recently. Yesterday, election analyst and election guru Nate Silver posted a scary post-Halloween article on just how Trump might triumph against the forces against him. Considering the stakes of his winning, the prospects are scarier than Halloween ever will be. But even assuming he wins the Republican Party still has one foot in the grave.

As the article points out, this is because Trump’s candidacy prematurely stirred up a hornet’s nest of voters in Southern states that hadn’t necessarily accepted the Democratic Party brand. There was an opportunity during these last eight years for Republicans to rebrand the party, as its leadership tried fruitlessly to do after the 2012 loss. Instead, the party doubled down on the exact policies that allowed it to succeed in 2010, which amounted to opposing pretty much everything the other side proposed on principle. Then along came Donald Trump to take these toxic elements, whip them into a frothy frenzy, and ride it to a nomination and now to the final days of the campaign. It’s a message that sounds anti-woman, is definitely anti-immigrant and anti-minority.

The South of course is no longer a plantation economy. It is growing quite rapidly. Unsurprisingly the growth is coming mostly in its larger cities. The South is no exception to the general rule that when people live together more densely, they are more in each other’s faces.

And that’s what’s happening in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Austin, New Orleans and many other places in the South, and most of these cities have Democratic mayors. That’s not to say it’s entirely smooth. Few major cities are integrated and most have areas where certain ethnicities predominate. But there are enough, and daily doing your job puts you in touch with so many people from different cultures and perspectives that fear slowly moves to wariness, then to relaxation and then toward general acceptance of people for who they are, unless they are in your face.

When Trump pushes the buttons that excite his own largely white and more rural base, he stimulates reactions elsewhere too, mostly from the very people he is criticizing who are already living in the South, but in increasingly larger numbers as opportunities emerge mostly in its cities. This is allowing red states to become purple, putting states like Arizona and Georgia into potential play for Democrats. By turning them off, Trump is also turning them off on the Republican Party. This allows these people to form identities that tend to align with the Democratic Party. It’s not necessarily that they are drawn to the Democratic Party, it’s that there is no sane alternative. The Republican Party won’t go there. It will only retrench and become more steadfast and hardened in its positions.

As I noted many years ago, the Republican Party can’t win the demographics game. It must change or die. The longer it defers the process the less probable it becomes that they can pull it off at all. This is why I suggested last month that the Republican Party might be about to implode altogether. We’ll know after the election and it depends on whether Republicans control any part of government. Most likely the only part left that they will control will be the House.

Many Republican senators are already saying that if Hillary Clinton is elected they will refuse to consider anyone she nominates to the Supreme Court. More anti-governance though won’t buy them more votes. In 2010 this tactic brought in the Tea Party, but that market is tapped out. All Republicans can do is maximize the turnout of those already drawn to it. They cannot draw from voters turned off by their message, particularly when the people they scorn are exactly those they need to wield political power. Their actions will please their base, but hasten their demise, assuming the election doesn’t take care of that next week.

If somehow everything turns up roses for Republicans next week, their fundamental problem is still unsolved. They may be able to govern, but they won’t be able to change hearts and minds. If they gain or retain power, more of the same will simply drive animosity against them and exacerbate their inevitable decline.

For Republicans, it’s a game of heads I win, tails you lose. And Democrats are flipping the coin.

It looks like the Republican Party looks might Bull Moose itself again

And so it has begun. The conventional wisdom was that following Donald Trump’s defeat November 9 along with the likely loss of the Senate and possibly the House, the Republican Party would thrash and moan as they tried and likely failed to pick up the pieces and become an effective political party again. If you read me regularly you will have read this post where I tried to figure out whether this election would cause the Republican Party to just buckle or fall apart altogether.

What I did not expect when I wrote that post was that this would happen well before the actual election. Yes, the Republican Party is already disintegrating and of course you can thank Donald J. Trump for this. He spent most of the day lashing out at establishment Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Arizona Senator John McCain. Ryan won’t campaign with Trump anymore (while not rescinding his endorsement of him) but authorized any Republican member of the House to tack away from Trump where it makes sense. McCain is just one of the more prominent Republicans in Congress to say he won’t be voting for Trump. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the easily wounded and vainglorious Trump would lash out against these Republicans today. In his usual way-over-the-top tweets, he said these Republicans were actually worse than “Crooked Hillary”.

Ryan’s actions are entirely logical, at least for someone who is trying to maintain the Republican majority in the House. Ryan may be an ardent Republican but he knows how to add up the political math: Clinton will be the president elect, Democrats are likely to retake the Senate and if Clinton wins by seven percent or more the odds are Democrats will retake the House too. If Republicans lose the House, it means he won’t be speaker and given that the Tea Party will form the bulk of the diminished Republican minority he’ll be lucky to end up as minority leader. Being out of power really sucks so it makes complete sense for Republicans to cut their losses if it’s not too late.

Trump though does not operate logically. His feelings are hurt and he is in denial about his impending loss. People in denial go through predictable phases and he’s in the “lash out at anyone who dares to speak the truth” phase, which ironically will make not only his loss worse but aggravate it for all Republicans up for election.

It’s not too hard to predict what will happen the day after Election Day too. Trump is unlikely to concede but he is likely to call the election fraudulent. There may be civil unrest from Trump supporters, as I also blogged about. I do expect on Election Day that Trump “observers” will try to prevent voting or harass voters, at least in precincts with heavily minority communities. While Trump is unlikely to accept defeat, he can’t change the outcome. But what he can do instead is lash out at the Republican Party for not sufficiently falling in behind him. He will make establishment Republicans take the blame for his loss. Why is this not only likely but also almost certain? It’s because Trump never takes the blame for anything.

Clearly Trump commands a lot of loyal followers. They shout themselves hoarse at his rallies when they are not beating up on journalists and Trump protestors. He is the poster child for non-college educated whites. Since he lives for attention he’ll have every incentive in the world to become their champion. And since the Republican Party has failed him, he is likely to “fix” the Republican Party by taking his followers with him. In short, I think he’s likely to go full Bull Moose on Republicans after the election.

If so, this won’t be the first time the Republican Party has nearly cracked up. In 1912 former president Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican) joined the then relatively nascent Progressive Party. His endorsed Republican successor (and running mate) William Howard Taft proved insufficiently progressive after winning the presidency. The Progressive Party became the Bull Moose Party and Teddy became its nominee for president. The result 104 years ago was that Democrat Woodrow Wilson won instead, with Teddy a distant second and Republican Taft getting just eight electoral votes. Teddy got even with Taft, but lost the election in the process.

If this scenario plays out again after this election, Democrats will get yet another gift. It’s not hard to see Trump running again in 2020 but under his own party label, leaving whatever traditional Republicans are left to nominate their own candidate. If this happens Republicans will be in the trenches fighting other former Republicans instead of opposing Democrats, making Democrats hands on favorites in most races to win. The 2020 election might result in a Congress that would look familiar to Tip O’Neill when he was speaker in the 1980s; he commanded a huge majority of House Democrats. It also bodes well for Democrats in 2020 senate races too. This would be good for them because they will be defending more seats than Republicans that year.

The likely outcome of all this probably won’t fatally fracture the Republican Party. New parties face daunting odds and Republicans will still have an infrastructure in place for nominating, supporting and winning races, which is what the Bull Moose Party eventually figured out when they slowly came back to the Republican Party. This infrastructure is not easily duplicated. Given Trump’s poor management skills he would be uniquely ill suited to try to create a winning party under his own brand. While Republican chaos reigns, and particularly if Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Congress can institute real change, Democrats have the opportunity to profit handsomely from the chaos. Given the Democratic Party’s history, their odds are slim, but Democrats now lean far more to the left than they did eight years ago. It’s not out of the question.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed. The next few years could be glorious ones for Democrats, reset the rules of Washington and actually bring about the end to gridlock that Americans want. If so, it will be the Republican Party’s implosion that will make it possible.

Thanks in advance, Donald.

Should we applaud that a woman is likely to be nominated for president?

Is it remarkable that a woman will finally be leading a presidential ticket in this election? Yes it is, primarily because it took so long for it to happen. This makes Hillary Clinton’s status of the presumed nominee of the Democratic Party something of an embarrassment too. It might have happened eight years ago but of course Barack Obama narrowly won that nomination, which was also historic for transgressing the color barrier. So while this one took some time, it does say something that it was the Democratic Party that managed to pull two such historic nominations in eight years. Alan Keyes, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina never really had much of a chance within their parties. As for Hillary, I noted eight years ago that a woman’s time was likely to come soon.

Still, it is somewhat disappointing that of all the women out there that Hillary Clinton would be the first to get the nod. I am not one of those Hillary haters and I will happily vote for her in November. She was one of our better secretaries of state but was only a so-so senator from New York. Of course as first lady she had the opportunity to understand how the White House works and that’s one of my disappointments. Hillary was the opposite of an outsider. Her success came from being an insider and having the support of powerful people, particularly her husband Bill. Yes, some of her success due to being effective (but sometime catastrophically wrong) in office, but mostly it’s due to opportunity. Not many women can be married to a president of the United States. Her path to senator was smoothed over due to Bill’s connections. Her most distinguished role is really as secretary of state. In this she was a surprise pick and turned out to be a good choice. Obama had every reason to throw her to the wolves, but did not.

Maybe that’s how it has to go for our first female presidential nominee. Maybe it would be too daunting to have happened any other way right now. I say this not because I think that women don’t have these skills, but connections and establishment trust are imperatives, at least within the Democratic Party, and those are harder for women politicians as they are fewer in number and tend to have been in office for shorter periods of time compared with male politicians. Certainly she broke a glass ceiling, but not alone. Bill and friends of Bill did a lot of the pushing for her.

Hillary has high negatives that I frankly don’t get. I certainly have concerns about her judgment. Setting up a private email server was quite stupid and a more astute politician would have not ignored these red flags. While stupid, it was forgivable. It’s understandable that Republicans want to make hay over the killing of our Libyan ambassador and two others, but it’s quite clear from all the evidence that what happened was not her fault. She was hardly a perfect secretary of state, but she was a competent one and navigated that fine line quite handily between being empowered and following direction from the president.

Of course our foreign policy could have been handled better during her tenure, but the same is true of every secretary of state. We cannot control foreign events. All any president and secretary of state can do it position military and diplomatic forces effectively to reduce the likelihood of conflict. Diplomacy is tough and it rarely makes headlines. It involves creating and maintaining effective international collations. Radical change in foreign policy such as Trump would implement tends to not really be a good option. You must deal with the realities across the globe in all their enduring messiness. You should strategically move resources to reduce the messiness if possible. This can be done through long-term proactive strategies and the limited short-term application of military and diplomatic muscle when they can be effectively leveraged, such as with Iran.

Regardless, our next president will be either her or Donald Trump. While the choice is pretty obvious to me it’s apparently not obvious to plenty of voters. Voters need someone else to look at to help in their decisions, which is why who Hillary picks as her running mate may actually matter for a change. I don’t expect her to pick Sanders; they temperamentally too different as Hillary is a pragmatist and Bernie is an idealist. To me her choice is obvious: my senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren is frankly a far better speaker and communicator than Hillary is. Like Sanders she has a gift of connecting viscerally with voters. It’s unclear if Warren would accept this offer, although she had not ruled it out. Party insiders expect someone more milquetoast to get the nod. Tim Kaine and Sherrod Brown are names being bandied about. A prominent Latina would make a lot of sense but at the moment there is no one aside from Warren that would really be ideal.

I pity the fool Trump picks as his running mate and it’s unclear how many would accept. Newt Gingrich is not so secretly running for the position, but perhaps is less in the running since he has overtly criticized Trump over his racist remarks about the Judge Curiel, who overseeing the Trump University case. My bet is that he chooses New Jersey governor Chris Christie, because they are both temperamentally the same (bullies) and are both from the northeast. It would not surprise me at all if both the vice presidential nominees come from the northeast, which would be quite surprising as my area of the country is hardly representative of the rest of the country. Of course, time will tell.

I don’t worry too much about Sanders voters ultimately voting for Trump for the same reason that pissed off Clinton voters ultimately came around and voted for Obama in 2008. Wounds tend to heal given some time and there are five months until the election. In addition, pretty much all Democrats like and trust Obama. As long as the economy doesn’t implode, his opinions will carry a lot of weight. Obama endorsed Hillary today and will go on the stump with her next week. There is no downside for Obama: his legacy depends on having a Democrat succeed him. As this is a very rare occurrence (it hasn’t happen after two or more full terms since Harry S Truman) pulling it off would be another feather in his cap.

I also don’t worry about Trump finding a “presidential” footing. Like a leopard, there’s no way to change his spots. He may be a bit more cautious about putting his foot in his mouth but it’s not hard to predict he’ll do more of that than not in the months ahead. It really felt like with the latest reactions to his comments on Judge Curiel, he has finally jumped the shark. His hardcore supports won’t waver, but he has made it infinitely harder to bring in those with any doubts.

Barring some major external event and even given Hillary’s negatives, I don’t worry too much about the election either. She hardly has it in the bag, but she is intelligent and focused. Trump shows no inclination to be strategic, to raise serious money, to support fellow candidates or to act presidential. He’s effectively thrown his dice already and given the velocity and the angle it’s not too hard to predict he’ll land snake eyes.

The game is now truly afoot.

The southern strategy bites back

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently wrote that Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party permanently. In the past the establishment elite controlled the party. Unfortunately well-moneyed Republicans were relatively few in number. They had to find votes somewhere so they adopted a “southern strategy” that pandered to the fears and prejudices of those principally in the south. This included crass appeals to classists, racists, fundamentalist Christians and to those who wished for things to be the way they were in the 1950s, you know, when non-whites knew their place.

It worked quite well. Essentially the Republicans picked up formerly white southern Democrats when Democrats (some say unwisely) moved toward being more inclusive instead of the party of the white working class. Starting with Richard Nixon, Republicans realized that catering to people’s prejudices was a reliable vote getter. Republicans stoked then exploited these class divisions and anxieties so well that today the south and much of the non-coastal west is now a deep shade of red. Robinson said that Trump’s genius was to call to task Republicans because they didn’t follow through on their promises to this new base, actions like sending undocumented immigrants home. He said that Trump has fundamentally changed the party, wresting control from its establishment and making it explicitly a party centered on addressing these fears rather than merely pandering to them.

It used to be that in the Republican Party the tiger controlled its tail. The tail (the Tea Party, racists and Christian fundamentalists) now appears to control the party. We’ll find out for sure if Trump wins his party’s nomination. Even if Trump somehow slips, anyone who takes his place will have to sound a lot like him, which is why Ted Cruz won’t say anything bad about Trump while echoing most of his talking points. Counterproductively, the remaining Republican candidates are busy criticizing each other instead of focusing on Trump, at best a pennywise but pound-foolish strategy.

The Republican Party is thus on the cusp of becoming an officially anti-democratic party. It’s clear this is where they’ve been heading for a long time given their hostility toward the poor made manifest in egregious gerrymandering and increasingly odious voting restrictions. It’s like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Republicans have decided they are the pigs. What Republicans don’t want to admit is that any control they get must be tenuous at best, as the nation’s changing demographics will eventually overwhelm them. They already recognize their reality by creating egregious voter restriction laws. These stack the deck in their favor but they cannot last forever.

Trump’s policies are popular with his supporters because he is proposing actions that explicitly redress these problems. He wants to deport the undocumented and cut off a path to citizenship for those here legally. Do this and you can at least push off the date of white disempowerment. When Trump proposes a wall along our border with Mexico, what his supporters hear is not that it will deter the undocumented from coming into the United States, but that it is a concrete step toward moving us back to the 1950s when they were in charge and minorities knew their place.

An explicitly anti-democratic party should be very scary to the rest of us. It suggests that Republicans want a radical change to our constitutional government. Trump’s words at least suggest he plans to govern by fiat if he cannot get his way.

It’s understandable that many voters are frustrated with the gridlock in Washington. I am one of them. They want to elect someone that can end it. By supporting someone who will use non-constitutional means though, they tacitly are saying that this is the only way things can change. If elected, Trump’s methods appear to be to take action unlawfully and unilaterally if necessary. He can say that he ran on this promise, voters voted him in anyhow and thus he has their sanction. However, the problem of Washington gridlock has everything to do with excessive gerrymandering that Republicans spent decades working on to garner disproportionate political power. Gerrymandering gives power to the extremes and disempowers the middle.

Curiously many of Trump’s political supporters are not new Republicans but frustrated disempowered people in the middle who see him as their savior. You can see this because some of Trump’s policies are not traditionally conservative at all. His supporters are less concerned with whether the policies are conservative but whether he can make government function for the people again. They see Trump as a man of practical action who by using the force of personality and the presidency will untangle this Gordian knot. For decades the disenfranchised white working class has propped up the Republican Party’s power, with little to show for the support they were given. This gave an opening for the daring (Trump) to exploit.

I contend that what really irks Trump supporters are not the loss of white political power, but their ability to influence politicians to work for the middle class, as evidenced by their declining wages and more problematic standard of living. As Jimmy Carter has pointed out, we effectively live in an oligarchy now. The Republican Party is the champion of the oligarchy. And the oligarchy wants a sense of stability that leaves them in charge. Then they can exploit government and the country for their benefit, which in recent decades has meant a decline in the standard of living for most of us by redistributing income to the rich.

Trump supporters are realizing that they have been had and their votes for Republicans have been counterproductive, but for many they still can’t vote for a Democrat because most Democrats don’t believe in the specialness of whites that Republicans have skillfully exploited. However, it’s why Bernie Sanders can appeal to many Trump supporters, and visa versa, by channeling their economic frustrations. Both are speaking to them in a language they understand. Trump though has chosen to pander to the white working class.

Both parties have exploited working whites for many decades. Whites perceive that Democrats favor minorities at their expense, which they attribute to erosion in their standard of living. They also perceive that Republicans pander to them for votes but give power to the oligarchy instead. They don’t realize that by uniting with many of those they instinctively revile that government could work for them, and in the process work for everyone else too.

To make that leap they must see behind the façade, which is that white Christians are somehow more special than everyone else. I expect the smarter Trump supporters will leach off toward supporting Bernie Sanders instead.

Trump is a showman and a fraud. Those who want the real deal though need to support someone whose entire career has been toward making the government represent the people. By raising the boats of the middle and lower classes, the anxiety about these others should ease.

2016 Democratic Presidential Debate #2

Gone were the two pretend candidates. After the first debate Jim Webb figured out he was too mainstream to run as a Democrat this time around, sort of like the way John Kasich is figuring out no one wants to hear him because he talks common sense. Lincoln Chaffee, a former Republican himself like Webb, got in the first debate mainly because he could, but wisely realized he was getting zero traction and the longer he stayed in the sillier it made him look, so he also dropped out. Which left former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley as something of the odd person out in this second Democratic presidential debate from Iowa last night.

Like the first debate it was civilized and sober, a marked contrast to the freewheeling feel that often accompanies the Republican presidential debates. This debate though did get a bit heated from time to time, in part because the CBS moderators prodded the candidates. In one case Bernie Sanders did not rise to the bait when asked about a remark he made on Clinton’s emails. Clinton though felt it was okay to take a jab at Bernie on gun control, casting his votes against certain gun control votes to hers in favor. It put Sanders in something of a vise, because he voted the way his rural constituents wanted. Sanders though could land a little jab at Clinton by focusing on her catering to big banks, which she attributed to a natural reaction following September 11 when lower Manhattan had suffered such devastation. The logic was stretched, to say the least.

Sanders at least had authenticity on his side, but it didn’t seem to matter much. He pointed out that Clinton took money from PACs, while his campaign was PAC-free, and thus not tainted. The reason it didn’t help much is because Clinton is now a seasoned debater and not easily ruffled on the stage. And Democrats would be happy to have any of the three debaters as their party’s nominee. The debate was a bit sharper and at times heated, but I doubt it changed anyone’s preferences except possibly Martin O’Malley will get a modest bump with a solid and polished debate performance.

The terrorist incidents in Paris that killed 129 people on Friday of course were discussed at the start of the debate. The candidates agreed that terrorism like this was not the responsibility of America to solve alone, but generally was something on which America should lead. Sanders rightly pointed out that most of these sorts of wars come back to bite us. O’Malley got a gotcha question when asked if he could point to experience that would show he could handle complex international incidents like this. No governor of course would have this sort of experience so it was pointless to ask.

Sanders struck me as a little more grounded. In discussing terrorism, he argued that climate change was fueling terrorism. This is true in Syria, where a long-term drought is likely a result of climate change and feeding instability there. Unquestionably as the climate changes there will be more instability and mass migrations, and the latter will feed the former. Sanders was also correct in his analysis that the Defense Department’s priorities were pretty screwed up, with most of it going to maintain an inefficient infrastructure designed to address 20th century military problems, and comparatively little going to address terrorism itself. All candidates walked a fine line on immigration but unanimously agreed that Islam itself was not a problem, only those perverting it. There was none of the xenophobia against immigrants we saw in all the Republican debates so far.

All want to make college more affordable but Clinton wants to make is so students and parents are stakeholders. This effectively meant that she does not want a wholly free college education for our students. No one addressed the larger issue: with so many failing schools, fewer students are graduating with the skills to tackle college. A holistic educational solution is needed. Charter schools are probably contributing to the problem, as profit-driven schools have no incentive to keep poorer performing students.Overall O’Malley did well, but not enough to make him look unique or to offer a compelling reason to vote for him over Clinton or Sanders. Democrats are blessed with seasoned debaters as candidates, so if there are no major gaffes, the dynamics are unlikely to change. In this sense these debates aren’t particularly helpful for candidates gaining more popularity. I don’t expect much change in the polling in the weeks ahead.

Kudos to CBS News for live streaming the debate for all.

2016 Democratic Presidential Debate #1

Am I the only one bothered because you had to subscribe to CNN to watch the first Democratic Party presidential debate live last night? As best I could tell you could not watch the debate on cnn.com, at least not beyond a short free “preview” mode. You could watch it on cnngo.com, but you had to authenticate with your provider to get the debate stream, which meant CNN had to punch your ticket. My wife occupied the TV last night so I used the DVR to record it, but watched what I could online. With 15 million viewers just on CNN and lots more watching it online, the web stream stopped on me from time to time, which was frustrating. As for those too poor to afford cable or satellite TV, they were effectively disenfranchised. Debates should be made publicly available to all when they are broadcast. They should always mirrored on a C-SPAN channel and streamed on c-span.org if nowhere else. In addition at least one broadcast channel in each market should carry it.

For those of us moneyed enough to watch the debate live, the first Democratic presidential debate was quite a contrast from the first two Republican debates. Civility ruled, and even friendliness was evident at times between candidates. Five candidates is also a much fewer than eleven or sixteen. Jim Webb had a point that he was hardly allowed to get a word in edgewise, but both Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee were also frequently marginalized too. It was mostly the Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders debate. Each got about half an hour of airtime, nothing to complain about in a two-hour debate. If there were ruffled feathers, it was mostly from candidates toward the moderators for cutting them off.

A lot of coaching and practice certainly helped. For Clinton, the practice was mostly an exercise in personality refinement. For Sanders, the “democratic socialist” senator from Vermont, it was getting up to speed on foreign policy, not one of his strong suits. For Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee it was mostly about introducing themselves to a national audience. Bernie Sanders was new to a lot of viewers, principally the African American audience. Clinton exceeded expectations and succeeded in looking presidential and polished. Kudos go to her makeup artist, who succeeded in subtracting about ten years from her face. At age 74, it was far too late for Sanders, but at least he did not have the expectation that he was supposed to look younger.

The most embarrassing candidate was clearly former senator and governor Lincoln Chafee, rarely known or seen outside of Rhode Island. Looks should never disqualify a candidate, but he not only sounded awkward, he looked viscerally awkward. And he was simply not prepared for tough questions. I felt sorry for him after a while because he was so outclassed by the other candidates.

Martin O’Malley modeled the happy white middle-aged Democratic candidate of forty years ago, the sort of candidate we nominated by default in the past because he looked so familiar and harmless. O’Malley is no John F. Kennedy but he at least radiated sensibility. Unfortunately, his record as Maryland governor was spotted at best, as was his tenure as Mayor of Baltimore. He was easy to smile at when speaking, but he seemed a bit milquetoast. There just wasn’t anything there that drew you to him as a compelling reason to prefer him to the others.

Jim Webb too was new to most viewers. A one-term senator from Virginia, Webb ran a surprisingly successful quixotic campaign for senate some years back. He resonates strongly with a part of the Democratic Party that has sort of slipped away: the moderate domestically but hawkish militarily type. I think Webb would probably be a pretty good general election candidate, as he may be the only moderate in either party running for president so he would draw independents like crazy. He has sterling credentials and a firm grasp on the commander in chief side of being president. Unfortunately, there is no party for moderates anymore. The Democratic Party though at least embraces moderates. The Republican Party simply spurns them.

As the debate dragged on not only did it become the Hillary vs. Bernie debate but the choice seemed to be pragmatic progressive (Clinton) vs. ideological progressive (Sanders). Clinton impressed me in the debate. She did not make me anxious to vote for her, but she did reduce my anxiety should she win the Democratic nomination. She deftly handled the mostly bogus controversies surrounding her, in one case with the assistance of Sanders. While Clinton was polished, Sanders was too. Eloquent and passionate, he seemed to be the only candidate on the stage that was just being himself. Most observers gave Clinton the edge in the debate, but Sanders raised two million dollars from people after the debate and Google was overrun with queries from people wanting to learn more about socialism. Sanders was not just passionate, but passionately convincing. His long career demonstrates an ability to correctly line up on the issues.

So it should make for an interesting campaign and I look forward to more debates. Clinton proved herself not to be the stereotype projected by her opponents. Sanders doubtlessly got a lot of interest from people who did not know what he is about. Webb, O’Malley and Chafee are on the way out to pasture; they just don’t know it yet. Clinton needs to keep her projection going forward and Sanders needs to see if he can develop a critical mass of progressives to overwhelm Clinton’s natural advantages, principally with blacks and women. It all depends on just how fed up the American people actually are in this election. If the polls are right, Clinton should make no assumptions about a smooth path to the nomination.

Democrats are running on empty ideas

Writing on politics often feels like déjà vu. After the drubbing (or perhaps it’s more appropriately the shellacking, or maybe even the tar-and-feathering) Democrats took on Election Day, lots of lessons on how to do things differently were busy being debated. It’s 2004 all over again. Democrats beat themselves senseless in 2004 when President Bush won a second term. One thing that was done differently then was for Democratic leaders (primarily to placate the angry progressives) to appoint Howard Dean to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. Dean famously instituted a 50-state strategy, which meant deploying Democrats in all states, in all races, and putting people in the field to recruit candidates and knock on doors to put them on voter roles.

It’s hard to say if this was primarily responsible for Democrats doing so well in the 2006 midterms. In that election, we had the same dynamics Republicans had in this latest election and we won big. Namely, whatever party the president represents suffers in their 6th year. In Bush’s case though a lot of the animus was due to Bush’s failed strategy in the War in Iraq. Republicans were as demoralized then as Democrats were this time around. They knew their war strategy wasn’t working and it depressed their turnout. Democrats won control of the House and Senate in 2006, and leveraged their advantage to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Just as reactions about what Republicans should do now that they are in power are predictable, so I am sad to say were Democrats proposed “solutions”. Progressive Democrats like me largely spent the week after the election self-flagellating ourselves. Our solutions to rectify our situation were mostly a lot of finger pointing. Do any of these arguments sound familiar?

  • Democrats should have run on Obama’s record, not run away from it
  • Democrats should not have acted like wimps
  • Democrats needed a 50-state strategy
  • Democrats should have said what they would do differently
  • Democrats should have spent more time and money on anti-Koch ads

I didn’t give much in the way of money to campaigns this election cycle. It was in part because being retired I had less to give. But it was also due to a lot of milquetoast candidates, a lot of subprime Democrats simply trying to hold onto power, and a fundamental disagreement on how most candidates were running their campaigns. I was not inspired. In an earlier post, I mentioned my disgruntlement at fundraising strategies I was subjected to. The blistering emails were relentless and they all pretty much conveyed this message: their candidate would fail if I didn’t pony up more money right now. Not one of these emails from candidates and their fundraising managers tried to sell me on how they were going to effectively use the money I gave them.

Blanketing the airwaves with ads, if you have the money, is a time-honored means of getting your candidate’s message out. In truth though voters of both political stripes are inured to these campaign ads. We all think they contain doublespeak and don’t believe any of them are authentic. Mainly though these ads are a piss poor way to spend money. You might as well take that money and throw it down the drain. They speak of desperation.

Here’s what I really want to know about a candidate:

  • How do you stand on the issues I care about?
  • What is your plan for winning the election?
  • How are you going to engage Democrats and independent voters and bring them to your side?
  • What sort of campaign do you have to knock on doors of likely voters and get them to the polls?
  • In a short sentence, what best distinguishes not just from your competition, but also as a Democrat?
  • How will you be spending any money I give you?

Nationally, the Democratic Party has simply resumed bad habits. It quickly abandoned a 50-state strategy the moment Dean left the DNC and most of them were happy to show him the door. Dean changed the dynamics and ruffled feathers. He was not a comfy DNC chair. He tried to actually orchestrate the process of recruiting, promoting and electing Democrats. He worked to find and promote candidates that promised to do things that Democrats cared about and gave them a reason for voting. Once back in power Democrats resumed bad habits: mostly fighting with themselves. This resulted, among other things, in a watered down health care reform bill that principally rewarded the insurance industry. Individual senators became demanding and petulant instead of working cooperatively. It turned off voters and put the Republicans back in charge of the House in 2010, and now the Senate in 2014.

If you want more of the same, keep doing what you are doing. Democrats in Congress are busy doing just that. Harry Reid will keep his leadership post, but as minority leader. So will Nancy Pelosi. A corporation, which had so many years of “bad return on investment”, would toss these “leaders” out on their ears. House and Senate Democrats though simply cannot summon the nerve to do what’s in the best interest of their party. The predictable result will be the usual position papers and talk of new strategies with little in the way of follow through.

Defeat shows that the leadership cannot lead, so new blood is needed. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, should be the new minority leader in the Senate because she can articulate a compelling message and has the focus and determination to change the dynamics. Her promotion is to help with the Democratic message. I guess that’s good but hardly sufficient.

Democrats are largely riding on electoral dynamics. The good news is that so are Republicans. With Republicans though you can see where the new energy comes from: its Tea Party wing. They are the ones that really care. For Democrats, the energy is in its progressive wing. Smart Democrats should be fostering progressive candidates. For 2016 though the savvy Democrats and Republicans understand the dynamics will favor Democrats, and Congressional Democrats will be glad to ride that wave. It probably won’t bring them back the House, as the seats are too gerrymandered, but there is a better than even chance that Democrats will reclaim the Senate. That is, unless they nominate more of the same uninspiring candidates they did this time.

I am not as convinced as some that should Hillary Clinton run for president that she will be a shoe in. I was not enthusiastic for her in 2008 and I doubt I will be any more enthusiastic in 2016. It would be nice to have a female president, but I see little likelihood that she could change the dynamics in congress anymore than Obama did.

Savvy Democrats should be looking at 2020 and investing time and money to switch governorships and state houses from Republican to Democrat. In 2020 a census will be held, and it will trigger reapportionment. It will be state legislatures that will redraw congressional districts. Without a power shift there, the 2020s will likely be a lot more of what we’ve seen so far in the 2010s: a general absence of government. If you consider yourself a true patriot, this is where you should invest your time and money.

Putting the ick in Democratic

It’s a subtle thing but for many of us Democrats, a jarring thing. Republicans no longer seem to be able to call my party the Democratic Party. It’s the “Democrat Party”.

From my Washington Post today I learned that Republicans first called us the “Democrat Party” in 1976. I don’t recall it but slowly over the years it has picked up momentum. Now it’s like you can get kicked out of the Republican Party for calling our party its true name. You will never hear the term on Fox News.

Why do Republicans do it? I have two principle theories. The first is that since they abhor Democrats, saying “Democrat Party” it is jarring, and thus preferred. So it’s sort of like swearing. As I noted some time back, the purpose of swearing is to draw undue attention and emphasis. Four letter words are not just four letters for no good reason. It keeps it short, sweet and memorable because it is just one syllable. Democratic is four syllables, and that doesn’t roll off the tongue well for simple minded folk like Republicans. It must offend them that there are still three syllables in Democrat. So far at least they haven’t figured out a way to shorten it some more. Sometimes Democrats are called “Dems”, but I don’t hear Republicans use this much and it doesn’t sound particularly mean. Perhaps it will come over time. If it does it will probably get bastardized. Democratic Party, Democrat Party, Dems, maybe the Damns will be last, as in “that Dem Party, nothin’ but a bunch of god damns.” (Just a warning to Republicans: damn is a verb, not a noun. Oh wait, they don’t care.)

My other theory is that Republicans don’t understand elementary grammar. “Party” of course is a noun (at least in this usage), so “democratic” when it is used with party is an adjective; it must modify a noun. We are a party of Democrats, so we are the Democratic Party. A republic is a form of government with representational government. A party that believes in representational government would obviously be the Republican Party, not the Republic Party. This suggests that Democrats at least stayed awake in English class, while Republicans slept through it. Actually, this would explain a lot.

If Republicans truly believe in representative government, they have a strange way of showing it. Lately voter suppression is all the rage in red states. It’s not general voter suppression they are interested in, just suppressing votes from those who might disagree with their philosophy. So they keep adding burdensome and nitpicky hurdles to keep people of color or young people from voting. Their general intent is so obvious that yesterday a federal appeals court rejected Texas’s redistricting plan. The gerrymandering was so extreme that Texans did not even try to hide it. Texas Governor Rick Perry was proud of his plan.

“Republican” is just a label, of course. Curiously it can be used as both a noun and an adjective. The same is not true of democrat. However, Republicans don’t believe in representative government unless voters vote Republican. With voter suppression laws under the guise of cracking down on nonexistent voter fraud, they at least have a pretext for these laws. Sometimes they are more explicit. Some Republicans want to repeal the 17th Amendment, which requires the people of a state to directly elect their senators. Previously they were appointed by state governments, typically by the legislature. The 17th Amendment did not occur through happenstance. One of the major reasons the 17th Amendment was adopted was because some state legislatures were corrupt. Senators tended to represent the interests of those who funded the campaigns of people who sought state offices, thus ensuring that even state issues were not represented in Congress. Some Republicans today want to go back to that system, as it is what the founding fathers envisioned. In other words, they would rather have special interests control the Senate than the people. This is hardly in the spirit of a republican government.

Democrats, on the other hand, strongly believe in the democratic principle, which is that we are all equal and we each have an equal right to vote. This wasn’t always the case. Democrats today are spiritually the Republicans of 1862, when Abraham Lincoln was elected. In the 19th century, Democrats represented the wealthy industrialists in the northeast and land owning southern whites. It took many decades for the switch to happen. It began with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and likely ended in 1972 when George McGovern was nominated for president. Traditional southern Democrats realized that they were not Democrats and bolted for the Republican Party. Senator Zell Miller, an alleged Georgia Democrat, was probably the last one to leave. Miller gave a speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention sounding very much like the Republican he was. Today’s Democrats care very much about making sure that everyone who can vote can do so easily. It’s not that Democrats are not above a little gerrymandering too. Democrats in Maryland took their opportunity last year to make their state a little bluer, making some in the panhandle unhappy by combining their area with liberal Montgomery County. Unlike Texas, Maryland has no history of voter discrimination through gerrymandering.

Since Republicans seem intent to remain uncivil and call our party the Democrat Party, turnabout is fair play. I have been thinking of shortened versions of the Republican Party. We could simply call it the Republic Party, but that would suggest they actually believe in republican government, which clearly they do not. Since Republicans seem open to using any tactic, legal or illegal, to get their way, they remind me a lot of gangsters.

So I suggest Democrats brand them with a more appropriate moniker. Let’s call them the Rethuglican Party. At least it is accurate.