Who is going to be our next president?

The Thinker by Rodin

Who knows? At this point it’s probably easier to say who it won’t be. That likely includes any Democrat polling at under ten percent nationally. That almost certainly includes any of Trump’s Republican challengers on a quixotic quest to convince Republicans he’s the loser he is, since about ninety percent of them love Donald Trump. There is always the possibility of a great Trump implosion. It’s been long underway; it just doesn’t seem to make any difference. As I noted recently, there’s no bottom for Republicans.

Anyhow, sorry Kamala Harris, Corrie Booker and even Pete Buttigieg, who curiously raised the most money of any Democratic candidate last quarter. Mayor Pete though may be going for the consolation prize: being on the eventual Democratic nominee’s ticket. Not bad for the mayor of a city of only 100,000 people.

Will it be Joe Biden, the current presumptive Democratic frontrunner? If history is any judge, probably not. The odds favor whoever wins the Iowa caucuses. You have to go back to 1992 to find a case where the Democratic nominee did not first win in Iowa. That was because Tom Harkin was running and he was Iowa’s senator. He got 76% of the vote; Bill Clinton got just 3%. New Hampshire’s primary is hardly a bellwether; it’s more often wrong than not at calling the Democratic Party’s eventual nominee.

Polls will doubtless be all over the place between now and February’s Iowa caucuses. The Des Moines Register hasn’t polled the state since June when Biden had a comfortable lead. It will be interesting to see their next poll, since theirs in typically the most valid. Generally though the candidate with the most enthusiastic supporters is the one who ultimately wins, since they show up on caucus night. You have to look hard for Biden enthusiasts. If I had to pick a winner of that primary, it’s most likely to be Elizabeth Warren. At least, that’s the sense I’m gleaning from reporters following her around: she generates the most enthusiasm and highest crowd sizes.

The Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have the effect of quickly winnowing the field. They also perversely assure that white Democrats get an oversize ability to help pick the eventual nominee. Is this racism? It wasn’t intended that way, as it was set up at a time when our country was overwhelmingly white but today it looks racist. Multicultural Nevada now rings in third, with its caucus on February 22. After Super Tuesday on March 3, which now includes California, we’ll probably know with 80 percent probability who the Democrats nominee will be: whoever has racked up the highest delegate count. Barack Obama was the exception, although he did win in Iowa in 2008.

I don’t think the Democrats are going to nominate Joe Biden. It’s not just because of his gaffes and his tepid support. It’s because if you add up the polling for the other progressive candidates, they trounce him. As candidates drop out, it’s unlikely that those supporting progressives will realign behind Joe Biden. They are more likely to align behind Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders instead.

Warren probably has more enthusiastic supporters, plus Sanders is a known and older commodity. So I think the omens look quite good for Warren, who also happens to be my choice at the moment. Warren has been steadily creeping up in polls.

Democrats would be wise to nominate someone they are actually enthusiastic about voting for. That won’t be Joe. What brings out Democrats in droves on Election Day is someone new and different. Unfortunately, what they often get instead is someone tried, true and tired but favored by party insiders. Their candidate should be someone with good favorability ratings, particularly among independents. Currently, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders qualify. This will change. Biden’s are declining while Warren’s are rising. Many candidates have underwater favorability ratings solely because most voters don’t yet know who they are.

I’m rooting for Warren and have been giving her $50 a month for many months now. After people really listen to her, they tend to like her. She seems relatable in a way few Democratic candidates are. I’m betting that she wins the nomination and I hope the election too. If she does, I will definitely enjoy watching her debates with Donald Trump. Trump will never know what hit him.

No bottom for the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

It looks like I have been giving Republicans too much credit. I assumed there was some core group of Republicans who could agree, “This time Trump has gone too far” and bring him down. Apparently, there is no bottom for the Republican Party.

That’s because I assumed that there were some sane Republicans out there. But it looks like when push comes to shove, sanity takes a back seat to subservience and fealty. Republicans apparently love to take orders. They love authoritarians. I’m guessing it gives them some feeling of comfort that somewhere a Big Daddy is taking care of things. Having decided to get on the Trump train, they can’t seem to find a reason to get off, no matter how surreal and ridiculous it gets.

Signs are pointing to a huge train wreck for Republicans in the 2020 election. Some years back I pointed out that Trump would kill the Republican Party. To severely maim the party, Republicans have to lose both the presidency and the Senate. Barring some massive election fraud, Trump is destined to be defeated in 2020. He’s never polled over 50% and most of the time his approval ratings have been mired in the low 40s or lower. Winning with these sorts of negatives is possible only with massive voter fraud or a third-party candidate that siphons off a lot of Democratic votes. Both the 2000 and the 2016 elections likely would have elected Democratic presidents had it not been for the third-party spoiler effect. It’s not Trump’s base that will win him reelection, but Democratic fragmentation.

Winning the Senate requires flipping three Republican seats, which is a bit of a long shot but not impossible in a wave election. Aside from his base, Trump has managed to piss pretty much everyone off. But even among his base, he is bleeding supporters. White men support him, but according to polling he’s recently lost white women without a college education. Trump is losing farmers from his trade wars, and truckers are seeing major layoffs plus the latest tax law raised their taxes by doing away with a lot of their deductions. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is deeply loathed in his home state, with only 33% approval. He can’t even be bothered to pump up a pension fund for coal miners. Yes, in deep red Kentucky, McConnell may lose reelection next year.

Rather than face criticism, Trump does the only thing he knows how to do: reshuffle the deck. This means changing the subject, generally by saying things or posting comments on his Twitter feed that are increasingly outrageous. This is effective but it doesn’t actually fix the issues that got him in trouble in the first place.

Moreover, his pattern never varies. When he decided not to put those 25% tariffs on Chinese goods so people could enjoy nice presents under their Christmas tree mostly made in China, then of course when China added new tariffs on U.S. products as they promised it all went out the window. New tariffs were back on and markets plunged about three percent yesterday. They were doing fine until his announcement.

But just when you thought Trump couldn’t possibly get any wackier, he doubles down on the stupid. Just this week Trump:

  • Said he was the Chosen One, implying he was the King of the Jews
  • Said any Jew voting for Democrats was disloyal and un-American because they should put Israel first … uh, what? And how is putting Israel before the United States showing you are an American patriot? Oh wait, because Trump says so. Gotcha.
  • Ordered U.S. companies to leave China, even though he can’t
  • Decided he could issue an executive order to end birth right citizenship, as if he could unilaterally override the 14th Amendment
  • Blamed the chairman of the Federal Reserve for his economic woes because he wouldn’t cut interest rates fast enough, while apparently absolving himself of the blame of nominating Jerome Powell in the first place
  • Said he wanted to buy Greenland and canceled a summit with Denmark, which manages the island, in a huff because they wouldn’t consider it. Actually, Denmark couldn’t even if it wanted to. Residents of Greenland would have to decide. Oh, and he called their female prime minister “nasty”, his word of choice when acting like the obvious misogynist that he is.

We have a president that is, quite frankly, totally nuts and bonkers. Just one of these by a Democratic candidate like Joe Biden would sink their candidacy. But Republicans so far show nothing but increased fealty to a president who by any objective standard is mentally ill and could not be trusted to even competently manage a child’s savings account.

Moreover, a recession is clearly on the way and every action Trump takes seems to be designed to make it worse. It was tariffs that brought us the Great Depression. Doubling down on tariffs simply increases the odds that a recession will turn into a depression. And if there is a recession, there’s not a single adviser to the president who has either the smarts or the wherewithal to help lead the US out of a recession. The closest we have is Jerome Powell, and only because the Fed is independent of the executive and he can’t be fired. When you surround yourself by incompetent sycophants, well, you get incompetent sycophants. Hell of a way to run a “government” … don’t bother to actually govern!

I was thinking yesterday that the tanking stock market might finally be the straw that broke the Republicans’ back. Moneyed capitalists ultimately hold up Republican power. Yesterday, three percent of their wealth vanished because Trump’s ego was hurt. Likely a lot more of it will vanish soon.

The obvious remedy is the 25th Amendment and twisting Vice President Pence’s arms to get a majority of the cabinet to declare our president is too mentally ill to serve. I’ve been waiting more than two years for this intervention, assuming cooler heads in the Republican Party could prevail. While I still hope for it, increasingly it looks like I misjudged the nerve and sobriety of the Republican leadership. They are wholly captured by their captain, and appear ready to go down with his ship.

How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump has us just where he wants us: by the scrotum. Trump’s faults are many, but he does have some assets. He knows how to get attention and keep it on himself. He’s leading a three-ring circus and like it or not we are all dancing to his tune. Trump pervades our thoughts from morning until night, and often haunts our dreams too.

Which to my mind raises the larger question: how do we get out of this dance? The presidency is a unique office in that its occupant cannot help but make news every day. For an egomaniac like Trump, it’s the perfect position. Even so the default attention that comes with being president is obviously not quite enough for him. Which is why our carnival barker-in-chief always keeps a half dozen issues in reserve certain to inflame his enemies and cheer his supporters.

It’s abundantly clear that he is a compulsive liar but to somewhere between 40 and 44 percent of Americans that approve of him at the moment it’s apparently not an issue. Or perhaps it’s not enough of an issue to stop supporting him. If you are looking for entertainment, Trump certainly delivers a nonstop show. To his supporters it is mesmerizing; to the rest of us it leaves us queasy, feeling unmoored and sick. The USA we thought we knew that at least aimed toward fairness and justice seems to be gone. What’s left is the ugliest seam of America: forces long largely kept bottled up, with a president who loves to flout all rules and conventions.

If the entertainment is good enough, it’s hard to be aware that your pocket is being picked while it’s happening. With the exception of Trump’s richest supporters, the rest of us are getting shafted. He is pretty much doing exactly the opposite of the things he said he would do during the campaign. One small example: he was going to deliver us the best and most affordable health care ever. Instead, he constantly works to undermine the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid leading to millions more uninsured and higher premiums for those of us still ensured. He does this while whipping up a “Celebration of America” event because the Super Bowl champs, the Philadelphia Eagles, apparently didn’t want to visit him in the White House. It’s so much easier to watch these theatrics than to notice our financial mooring slip from under our feet.

While there have been populist presidents before, Trump is clearly is a category we have never seen before: contemptuous of the rule of law, openly racist with every action designed to feed his insatiable ego. How do we break his spell?

Usually elections are pretty effective. We’ll see what happens in November, but Trump’s slowly rising poll numbers suggests he has plenty more tricks in his bag as the election nears. He’s operating intuitively, convinced that by ever more inflaming his base he’ll also bring them to the polls to counteract an expected Democratic wave. So it’s not hard to predict he’ll get wilder, crazier and wilier as November approaches.

I have two thoughts on how to break the Trump spell that are sort of opposite of each other for your consideration.

Stand up to the bully

The one thing you can count on with Trump is his insatiable ego. It’s quite possible that Democrats can use his ego can be used to walk him right off a cliff. There is plenty of evidence so far that ultimately this approach won’t work because Trump is intuitively one step ahead of everyone else. I’ve written about standing up to bullies before, and Trump is the perfect example. Bullies draw energy from a crowd of bullies surrounding them, and Trump seems to have a limitless supply of these. Democrats need just the right person to engage Trump. It’s hard to know exactly who this person would be, but the key is for Trump to be challenged and ultimately to lose face in the eyes of his supporters.

Ideally it would be a woman, which is why my senator Elizabeth Warren comes to mind. She’s already been quite eloquent speaking against Trump but for the most part Trump has ignored her. But she could challenge him to a town hall debate. CNN is doing more of these. Some months ago it held one between Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz and it sure was interesting to watch. Warren takes no prisoners and is exceptionally eloquent. There is one way almost guaranteed to get him to show up: repeatedly say he’s too chicken to show up. I’m quite confident that in front of a national audience she could cut him down to size.

An even better confrontation would be a physical one. A prominent Democrat could challenge him to a wrestling or boxing match. According to Trump’s physician, he’s exceptionally healthy and has the body of a man half his age (cough cough). If he has to go up against a peer, perhaps former Vice President Joe Biden would do.

Ignore him and concentrate on pocketbook issues

This is probably what most smart Democrats will do instead. Trump is a self-activating egomaniac. If he cannot be controlled, then the next best thing is simply to ignore him. Egomaniacs feed on attention, so why give him any more? Most likely the only way he can get gotten rid of is through the ballot box, that is if we can keep our elections free enough to elect more Democrats.

By ignoring him and concentrating on pocketbook issues instead, Democrats can gain the political power needed to control the policy agenda again. This is done through winning back not just Congress but statehouses and governorships. National elections happen only every four years anyhow. Democrats need to point out how our standard of living is being systematically lowered except for the wealthiest. They need to promise to take pragmatic steps to address these concerns if given the power of holding office again. It’s unlikely that Trump’s approval rating will ever above the low 40s anyhow. If Trump must be addressed, simply run on “ending Republican corruption” and putting the American people first.

Anyhow those are my ideas. I’m open to better ones if you have any.

The bane of bad and ineffective political fundraising

The Thinker by Rodin

I once wrote about how most proselytizers are morons. I can add to that list the fundraisers for candidates running for political office, at least the ones that write me. And write me they do, constantly! Lately my email inbox overflows with fifty or more of these pitches a day all of which boil down to ohmigod the world is going to come to end right now if you don’t empty your bank account and send all of it immediately to my candidate!

Thankfully Gmail seems to recognize a lot of this garbage and throws it into a spam folder, which is good except that means I’d be seeing more than fifty of these a day if it weren’t. There may be a Can Spam Act but it doesn’t apply to solicitations for public office. This means there is no penalty for campaigns contacting me and so they do, over and over again.

Occasionally I do click on the unsubscribe link. Sometimes it actually works, but most of the time it doesn’t last for long. Sometimes I get more emails from the candidate later that same day, even after receiving an email telling me I was unsubscribed from future mailings. I went through a period of several months where I religiously clicked on unsubscribe links for the stuff that did come in my inbox. It rarely worked for long. There is no penalty for candidates swapping email lists. Candidates selling their lists to other candidates appear to be one of the principle ways they make money. The result is there is no way to turn it off.

Proactive contributors know what to do: create an email specifically for this crap and give that to these campaigns. This works fine if you are consistent about it. However, give out your primary email address just once and you are doomed. Your only choice is to abandon that email address for another one. Since almost everyone I care about knows my real email address and it is tied to more businesses and websites than I can count, that’s not an option.

I actually try to read some of this fundraising spam from time to time. Like Craigslist casual encounters postings that I review monthly, it can be amusing. In fact, I could make it a feature of my blog to highlight the sheer inanity of it all, as I actually have done before. Only unlike Craigslist casual encounters, which I assume most people don’t regularly visit, most of you are also getting this crap, so it’s probably not that amusing.

Nonetheless, they occasionally tickle my funny bone. I got one recently from “Vice President Joe Biden” but doubtless some low level staffer at the DSCC or DCCC instead. Joe told me he was personally reaching out to me. He even called me by name (as they all do, as they have harvested your name.) The inanity of it though was funny because there was nothing the least bit personal about it, other than substituting my first name into an email template, which they all do. Since Joe likely has my snail mail address, if he wants to personally reach out to me, he can knock on my door. There’s a good chance I won’t open the door but since he’s vice president I might. And I might give the DSCC, DCCC or whatever group he is soliciting for $50. So come on over, Joe.

Quarterly FEC fundraising deadlines, but now new made-up end of month “deadlines” seem to ratchet up the emails as the month ends. These days any poll that shows a candidate down a few points, or a poll suggesting they are close to beating an incumbent, will stimulate requests for money. It often feels though like they are simply making up stuff. In any event these pitchmen make used car salesmen took ethical. In the process they treat their potential contributors like morons, which probably means they don’t deserve a contribution.

In fact, most of the money given to candidates is wasted. Hillary Clinton of course is taking in heaping piles of money right now. I get not just email but snail mail regularly from her campaign asking me to send $100 or more now! How is she spending it? It’s being spent mostly to buy TV and radio time. This is a complete waste of money. I can find better ways to spend that money on something actually useful.

Why is it a waste of time? It’s because the number of us who are persuadable is vanishingly small. Look at Clinton and Trump’s polling numbers over the past six months. They have fluctuated a bit but their percentages are pretty much where they were six months ago, and Clinton still has the lead. And that’s because six months ago people already knew whom they were going to vote for — yes, our political opinions are that hardened. The vast amounts of the money Clinton is spending now is going for TV and radio ads and it’s pretty much all wasted.

If Clinton wanted to persuade me to send her money, her staff might document that they are spending it wisely. Campaign ads even in swing states aren’t going to move the needle. At this point in the campaign only one-thing matters: turnout. So I want to see a treasurer’s report showing 80% or more of contributions are going to fund turnout efforts. And I want to see evidence that this door knocking and phone banking is working. I want to read about the fleets of buses that will help minorities get to polling stations that are too far away; that they are helping poor people get voter IDs or that they’ve prepaid for a taxi to take these people to the polls who otherwise could not make it. Then I might cough up some more money. But to see it wasted on TV and radio advertising tells me the campaign is run by a bunch of hacks. I’m not spending my hard earned money to prop up the profits of Clear Channel, which owns so many of our nation’s radio stations.

The most effective time to spend money is at the start of a campaign, not its end. At its start the candidate is relatively unknown and needs introduction. Even this is a pretty poor use of campaign money. What we really need are candidates that speak to us; a candidate we can relate to. When that happens we become naturally enthusiastic and the money part tends to take care of itself. Witness Bernie Sanders nearly successful campaign this year as evidence. I gave him money when I saw real potential in the candidate. No one needed to prompt me.

Money is also well spent early in the campaign when memes are set. Obama did in Mitt Romney in June and July 2012 when his campaign brilliantly aired those “47% will never vote for me” ads, showing Romney’s disdain for the working class. Romney would have had a tough campaign regardless, but doing it then when voters were forming impressions about Romney as a genial guy was brilliant, but also fortuitous for the Obama campaign.

With a few exceptions like the Sanders campaign, campaigns in general seem tone deaf to what really works and how to spend and raise money effectively. I can tell the candidates worth supporting by their smart management and the way their candidate naturally connects with voters. The rest of them, including the Hillary Clinton campaign, don’t deserve my support until they demonstrate to me that they will use my hard-earned money wisely. It’s clear from these shrill solicitations in my inbox that the descendants of P.T. Barnum are running their fundraising and that’s a bad sign.

The vice presidential debate

The Thinker by Rodin

I don’t know whether to applaud or feel appalled. Maybe it’s okay to do both.

I spent much of this debate with my jaw agape as Vice President Joe Biden did everything to get attention but take off his shoe and bang it on his desk, a la Nikita Khrushchev. Whereas Barack Obama was unfailingly civil and understated in his first presidential debate, Biden went out of his way to be just the opposite with Mitt Romney’s vice presidential choice, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan. Because of Joe, the debate was more carnival than debate. Biden managed to speak more than Ryan and felt few constraints to let Ryan finish sentences. If Obama could have an evil alter ego, Biden emulated it. The result was that he dominated the debate and dominated the clock as well. He was often rude, frequently dismissive, interruptive and sneering, as well as often wide-eyed when Ryan spoke and chortling, always flashing his impressive set of pearly white teeth.

The contrast made Paul Ryan appear entirely reasonable, unless you tried to parse what he was saying, which rarely made a lot of sense. While Biden dominated the debate, I found Ryan far more telegenic. In particular a feature of his I had never noticed before struck me: his hair, particularly a part of his hairline that uncharacteristically falls down the center of his forehead in a point. It was mesmerizing, even more so that Biden’s antics. His pointy forehead hairstyle is bizarrely uncommon and curiously makes him look like Satan himself.

The Devil in Paul Ryan's hair
The Devil in Paul Ryan’s hair

Biden is known to be flamboyant, but clearly he pulled out all the stops during this debate. It’s unclear who “won” the debate although most polls give Biden a narrow win. No one will deny that Biden was not forceful. His tactics, strangely enough, came right out of the Republican playbook. Those of us following the many Republican debates saw it time and again as candidates tried to break out of the pack. Bizarre, rude and loud behavior usually worked, at least for a while, in getting attention. It did not succeed in producing a nominee with these qualities. In the end Republicans chose Mitt Romney, overall a milquetoast candidate. But that’s the point. Biden is the sideshow and he knows it. He is not being elected president; the choice is between Obama and Romney. His job was to shake up the dynamic moving against the president. His tactics may have made you want to put the kids to bed early, but they probably were rather effective.

Biden actually did something very unusual for a Democrat: he talked backed emotionally more than logically. This approach makes most Democrats uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable. But generally it works as a strategy. Biden was championing the strategies that made Democrats such as Molly Ivins and Ann Richards so effective, and which I argued in May that Democrats needed to adopt if they want to win elections. Most partisan Democrats were ecstatic with Biden’s performance. Finally here was a man unafraid to say to Republicans exactly why Republicans were so full of shit, and to do so in unambiguously emotional ways.

That’s how you break through the noise and change expectations, and breaking through the noise right now is essential. So in this sense Biden’s performance reflected genius. Take, for example, the so-called Romney-Ryan plan to balance the budget. There is no plan. They won’t articulate one that we can actually study. It’s just more of the same: cutting tax rates, assuming it will lead to huge economic growth, closing unspecified “loopholes”, pumping up the Defense Department’s already bloated budget, cutting the size and scope of the rest of government somehow without impacting Social Security and Medicare for anyone currently over 55, and somehow it will all magically work. It didn’t work in the 1980s under Reagan or in the 2000s under George W. Bush, but this is what they are promoting with almost no details about how it will work. It’s an entirely faith-based economic plan, based on a faith that has repeatedly proven misplaced.

Such an approach to governing should be dismissed; consequently Biden’s behavior certainly was merited based on Romney and Ryan’s faith-based economic plan. Romney recently castigated Obama for substituting hope for a strategy. Yet he is hoping that the magic of supply side economics will substitute for a real strategy and plan to reduce unemployment and grow the economy. No one running for president should be peddling this kind of crap and expect to be taken seriously.

Let’s see a Romney-Ryan detailed economic plan instead of a hope-filled campaign web page. Let economists weigh in on it. They won’t give us one. Until they do, they deserve all the contempt and scorn that Democrats can deliver. Joe Biden did voters a favor by making it clear that they are full of crap. The message was heard loud and clear because his body language told people unambiguously Republicans were full of crap. Message received. Perhaps it will motivate some voters still on the fence to take a look. If so they will realize that if any party is substituting hope for a strategy, it is the Republican Party. And any party that does this deserves the contempt that Biden unleashed on Thursday night.