The Republican unraveling

The Thinker by Rodin

The Senate’s rejection of a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act last night was a bit of a surprise, but certainly symptomatic of a Republican Party in free fall. It was really a roll of the dice and could have easily gone either way but either way would have been bad for Republicans.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) certainly found a great time to go “mavericky”. Perhaps his brain cancer diagnosis gave him an opportunity to vote his conscience for a change and cement something of a legacy. McCain got most of the attention but Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also bucked considerable party pressure in voting against this bill. In any event it was clear that many Republican senators weren’t actually in favor of the “skinny repeal” bill. Many voted for it only on the condition that the House moves it to a conference committee and create something else. The bill’s failure appears to be a harbinger that the leadership’s ability to ram legislation through by bypassing its committees is nearing an end.

The White House hasn’t gotten the lesson. As usual seems to be doubling down on the stupid. This has the effect of making the White House even more chaotic and paralyzed. It’s like Trump wants to do everything wrong and in the worst possible way. In my last post I advised Americans to buckle their seat belts because the turbulence would only get worse. It has, and dramatically so. I often feel like we are living in a parallel universe because our politics is so chaotic and disordered that it is hard to believe it’s real. The only question is what parts of the aircraft fail first and whether the nation can make something of a safe landing. Consider:

  • On Wednesday Trump tweeted that transgender people will no longer be allowed to serve in the military. He said this decision was made after consulting with his generals, which appears to be a lie. He certainly didn’t consult with his Defense secretary, who was blindsided. It’s unclear if this tweet will become policy. But it has caused a hell of a ruckus, with prominent Republicans coming out against it. It’s not hard to figure out why Trump did this. He’s creating distractions and trying to excite his base, which is only excited when he does hateful things to groups they dislike. Trump says this decision will save money and improve our military. But if carried out it would remove tens of thousands of transgender people from the military who are serving honorably and who the nation has already invested considerable time and money. So aside from the blatant discrimination it makes our military less ready and less ready.
  • New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is busy trying to act nastier than Donald Trump, if that’s possible. In his amazing, profanity-laden interview with The New Yorker, Scaramucci called the man who is supposedly his boss, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” and suggested Priebus was a leaker. He said of White House adviser Steve Bannon: “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” He says he plans to fire everyone on the White House communications staff. Oh, and he wants to kill all White House leakers.
  • Trump continues trying to figure out a relatively benign way to fire his earliest and biggest supporter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which he hopes can be done indirectly through his voluntary resignation. So far he hasn’t found the courage to fire him outright. Trump is very upset that Sessions recused himself from the Russian investigation, figuring it was Sessions’ duty to make it go away because of loyalty. He either doesn’t know that the Attorney General is supposed to be independent so the law can be enforced impartially or simply doesn’t care. In any event his true target is Sessions’ deputy, the only person who can fire Special Counsel Mueller. Trump needs a new sycophant Attorney General who will fire Sessions’ deputy, which Sessions can’t do because he’s recused himself. If he can then he has to hope to have the acting deputy fire Mueller. All this is greatly alarming Republicans in Congress because Sessions is seen by them as an excellent conservative hitting all the issues they care about. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has already said that he won’t hold any hearings for a replacement if Sessions is fired. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) also announced that if Sessions is fired he would pursue legislation to prohibit Trump from firing Mueller.
  • John McCain’s call for the return of regular order in the Senate received applause from senators on both sides, who have had enough of their leadership disempowering them. A revolt against their leadership is likely brewing.

Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have squandered their political capital. Trump feels the need to shake things up and bring in an ever purer, nastier and more loyal staff. He can’t compromise because he sees that as losing face. He’s certain that the way he has always done things will work in a republican system of government that requires compromise.

Feeling the pressure to get things done, both House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell are using insular and high-risk strategies to push through legislation that apparently is only supported by the slimmest of partisan majorities. Their system is breaking down, particularly in the Senate. Senators are immune from gerrymandering because the citizens of each state directly elect them. So the Senate is going to be more moderate than the House, and it’s this way be design, at least since the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913. In short, the institutional pressures and the simple desire for legislators to retain their seats are slowly overriding blind partisanship. We saw it yesterday in the votes of senators McCain, Collins and Murkowski.

Moreover, the executive branch is dissembling. The good news is that we have a competent Secretary of Defense, but it’s unclear if he can trump over a maniacal Donald Trump in a national security crisis. We also have a pissed off Secretary of State reputedly thinking of resigning and whose department is so understaffed that it is pretty much ineffective. We have branches of the executive at war with each other. And we have a president without the political skills to bring order to the mess he created and actually govern. In fact, we have a president that thinks not governing is governing. Thus it’s no surprise that there is massive dysfunction.

Look behind the scenes and it’s clear that institutional forces are marshaling, more significantly on the Republican side. Republicans are beginning to realize that they are better off without Trump. Fortunately, Trump gives them plenty of ammunition. Trump’s narcissism and cognitive dissonance will require him to become crazier and more erratic, which will feed the process. Ultimately, Republicans are going to war with each other, which should eventually render clear boundaries between traditional Republicans and Trump supporters. (Hint: the patriotic ones will eventually be seen as the traditional Republicans.) It’s all unnecessary if Trump would more toward political accommodation and begin governing rationally. It’s clear that he is incapable of doing so.

Constitutional crisis dead ahead

The Thinker by Rodin

Like many of you I woke up November 9 feeling nauseous, upset and wanting desperately to hide under my pillow. Actually, I didn’t sleep on election night. I tried but it just didn’t work. My heart was racing like a freight train. I didn’t have a stethoscope, but I’m sure my heart was skipping beats. It was made worse being in a hotel on election night and having to fly home the next morning. CNN was everywhere. With three hours between flights and stuck in Atlanta I wanted escape CNN but found no escape from it until I got home.

Days later I still hadn’t fully recovered but the shock of Trump’s election faded somewhat. That was until a few days ago when Trump started appointing and nominating people that will form his administration. I should not have been surprised that it was full of racists, misogynists, anti-environmentalists, pro-lifers, and pretty much the worst possible people for positions of power, including a U.N. ambassador with no diplomatic experience and a new Education secretary that hates public schools.

Then there was Trump himself, still clueless about the office he will inhabit in two months. He’s not going to prosecute Hillary Clinton he said, which at least had the effect of pissing off most of his supporters: you know the ones who delight in making people they hate suffer. They were relentlessly chanting, “Lock her up!” at his rallies. How good of you Donald, except that as president you would have no authority to do this at all. That would be a decision that your Attorney General could independently decide to look into, but anyone who has read the news in any detail knows that Hillary won’t be charged with anything anyhow because the FBI has already looked into it and there is no legal case.

It’s totally embarrassing how clueless Trump is about the actual powers the president has. You would think after campaigning for a year that he would have a clue by now. He doesn’t and he doesn’t seem to be appointing advisers who understand or will tell him the limits of the president’s powers. He plans to wing this presidency thing, like he winged his campaign, which guarantees he will continually do stupid and probably illegal stuff. He’s not even in office yet and he’s doing stuff that would have special prosecutors nipping at his heels in any other administration. You know, stuff like promoting his business interests when he meets with an Indian hotelier carrying his Trump brand or when talking to the president of Brazil. Then there is the goofy stuff, like for every new regulation he says he will get rid of two others. He just waives a magic wand and it will somehow get done.

A year or so back when I was contemplating a Trump presidency, I suggested that if elected both Republicans and Democrats would happily impeach and convict the guy. Now I am not so sure. Logically he has so much baggage that with his shoes tied together it shouldn’t take too many steps before he falls on his face. He disposed of the Trump University lawsuit this week (after saying he wouldn’t settle) but there are plenty more suits in the wings, and potential criminal charges if allegations of having sex with a minor can be substantiated. It’s unclear now whether House Republicans would impeach him or not. Their success is now tied to Trump’s. Even if impeached, would the Senate (also in Republican hands) convict him, when doing so would undercut the Republican brand and set them up for failure in 2018 or 2020? Or will he instead spend four years bullying his way through the Congress and let the voters sort it out in 2020? The latter is much more likely.

Everywhere he goes Trump is likely to be hounded by protesters. When protestors aren’t hounding him there will be plenty of Democrats in Congress as well doing their best to block his agenda. With Clinton’s lead in the popular vote now in excess of two million votes, and with suspicions by some of vote rigging in key precincts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, it feels like America is on the verge of being ripped apart. We will have open racists in the White House. If his plans come to fruition then at best certain Muslims might be in a national registry, at worst in internment camps like we did to the Japanese during World War 2. The feeling of injustice regarding the election is pervasive; the ineptness of the incoming administration looks catastrophic. Will Americans respect our constitutional government when it is at such variance with the popular will? What will we do when Trump orders entities like the National Guard to round up “illegals” in our sanctuary cities where mayors have pledged they will not let this happen?

Maybe many of these fears simply won’t come to pass. Trump seems to be signaling that he is going to kiss off many of his supporters now that he’s won the election: he basically cucked them. He told the New York Times that he would look into this climate change thing. Moderating on a few things though will hardly be enough because he will have cronies in place to do maximum damage. He shows both the temperament and the predisposition of someone willing to see what he can get away with through fiat. It’s clear that most of those who voted for him will cheer him on if he tries, and support him with their personal arsenals if necessary.

It looks like some eighty years after Sinclair Lewis wrote his novel It Can’t Happen Here, it’s happening today and it’s our misfortune to live through such times. Political institutions seem no longer moored to the constitution, but only to their party loyalties. In the 1970s both Democrats and Republicans came together to hold President Nixon accountable for actions by his staff to undermine the 1972 election. It led to Nixon’s resignation. Today, voter suppression is a feature of red states. I don’t see holding Trump accountable happening during his term. Except for a few principled Republicans like Senator John McCain, these characters are almost absent in the Republican Party.

It was this realization that made me feel sick and queasy again. I sense in my gut that our nation is in great peril, a constitutional crisis is coming, and it’s coming soon. I also sense that there are simply not the men and women of character that will do follow the law and our constitution.

I sure as hell hope that I am wrong.

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

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Obama demonstrates he is the real grown up in the room

The Thinker by Rodin

Our national government currently resembles a three-ring circus. Between carbon copy Republicans running for president on a platform of mostly hot air, pabulum from the so-called leaders of the U.S. congress and the weird rulings and opinions from our Supreme Court justices, a whole lot of nothing meaningful is happening in Washington at your expense.

There is thankfully one exception: we’re getting a lot of leadership from President Obama. And yesterday, the president tentatively scored a major win: a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, in concert with four other major powers that participated in the talks. The agreement reduces Iran’s nuclear capabilities over the next ten years and Iran gets release from the crippling sanctions against the country. This will be done through unfettered inspections of its nuclear facilities and sealed commitments to reduce its uranium stockpiles.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the agreement was announced but I was also grinning. In his first presidential campaign, Obama had promised change we could believe in. It’s been hard to deliver a lot of this change given the relentless obstruction in Congress, but this agreement should it be realized certainly will be change I can believe in. This is the kind of change I voted for, and it’s meaningful change.

While Republicans fall over themselves to deny global warming, restrict a woman’s right to an abortion and make life increasingly miserable for the poor and the wretched, at least Obama has kept his focus long term. While CEOs do conniptions to show higher quarterly profits, our president has ignored the rhetoric of the moment and concentrated on what we paid him for: real leadership. And boy did he deliver yesterday!

Consider what would happen if “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” John McCain had been elected president instead of Barack Obama. It’s pretty clear what would have happened based on McCain’s own words then and over the last six and a half years. Negotiate with Iran? It would not have been an option. It would have been framed as negotiating with terrorists. It’s quite likely that instead we would now be hip deep in another long, ghastly and frighteningly expensive war with Iran. Bombs would be dropping. Our ships would be shelling Iran’s shores. Aircraft would be dropping bunker-busting bombs all over the country, and maybe outside of it. Our troops would be dying, and overstretched in the area, which is already rife with conflict. That region would be even more so with a major war in Iran and the Islamic State even more resurgent. Consider what would be giving up now if we were at war with Iran: support for the Iraqi government, and the Kurds and pretty much anyone else trying to contain the Islamic state, and that’s just for starters. Our attention on other threats in Asia and Africa would be largely nonexistent.

This new war, as awful as it would be, would be far more awful because it would set in motion a series of future wars. Rather than contain Iran’s nuclear might, it would unleash decades of future madness in that region. Iran, which already hates America, would find it hated us even more due to the war. It would be working that much harder to undermine our national security through its proxies. You don’t have to look far in the Middle East to see how the hate business propagates endlessly. Israel and Palestine are locked in an eternal war fought as lots of major skirmishes. Each action by Israel or proxies for the Palestinians simply set up the participants for the next one, and further inflames tensions, making it impossible for them to cool. There is no military solution to their problems, just as there is no military solution to the West’s conflict with Iran.

The difference is that unlike Israel’s relentless intransigence, the United States can affect real political change through diplomacy instead of war. Obama figured that out long before he was president. He realized that the most important thing was to stop the cycle of hate and paranoia, because this puts out the flames of war. He spoke openly to the Iranian people that change was possible. He said that Iran and the United States did not have to be eternal enemies. He said we could resolve our conflict through diplomacy, but only if both sides were earnest and passions could cool. To improve the odds he worked with an international coalition not just to maintain sanctions on Iran but also to work together to find a peaceful way to lift them through a comprehensive agreement. And amazingly with the help of two hard working secretaries of state (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry) and of course our international partners (which gave us credibility), they pulled off this agreement.

Of course there are no guarantees that Congress will approve this agreement. It will probably be rejected, but because it is not a treaty, Obama’s veto of their bill rejecting it probably means he will win. This is because Congress probably can’t muster two thirds majority in both chambers to overrule his veto. Of course it is fraught with lots of potential pitfalls. But it also significantly reduces Iran’s nuclear weapon making capability and brings Iran back into the international community. It eases tensions and allows time for Iran’s demographics to take hold. It is a country full of young people, and it’s likely as they age they will have much more liberal values than their current leaders. You can see this from the satellite dishes on pretty much every house of size in Iran today. Iranians are more than ready to embrace Western values. They are just waiting for the political climate to change.

You will hear the usual noise from the war hawks about why this agreement is actually a calamity and how we are selling out our values not to mention our national security. In reality, Obama is holding us to our values, showing that we are a nation that values peace and goodwill. This buys real national security because when people don’t have reason to hate you, something called real peace happens. Obama is showing that we can model what is best about our country to the rest of the world again, rather than assert what is worst about it. He is reminding us of a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s when this was the United States and we really were that shining city on the hill. We sponsored the United Nations. We rebuilt Europe. We built international coalitions to handle the Korean conflict. We fed much of the malnourished world. We were an awesome country back then.

To quote the late Hubert Humphrey, I’m as pleased as punch with our president. Obviously he is not a flawless president. I too have major concerns with some of his decisions as president. However, his focus on a long game and doing the intelligent thing rather than the emotional thing certainly garners not just my respect, but also my deep admiration and gratitude.

Thank you for being one of the few grown up leaders in our government, Mr. President.

Slick

The Thinker by Rodin

I was one of those people watching the Obama infomercial last night. I didn’t actually watch it live. I was buying a rug at the time. After it was hauled home and laid out over our new wood floor, I took the time to watch it online. Man, that was one slick infomercial!

Frankly though, I have come to expect slick from the Obama campaign. If Obama wins the presidency next Tuesday as all but a handful of polls suggest, the credit will have to be shared equally between Obama, who is a uniquely compelling candidate, and his campaign staff which is running probably the best run political campaign I have ever seen.

It helps to have tons of cash, of course. Many of us older Americans are still in shock from learning of his $150 million haul in campaign contributions in September. In fact, I still cannot get it through my brain that Democrats, mostly through grass roots efforts, are raising more money than Republicans. Until recently, one thing you could always count on during a presidential campaign was that the Democratic nominee would be at a significant financial disadvantage. Typically, Republicans with their fat checkbooks raised and outspent Democrats two to one. It is my belief that this money advantage more than anything else explains why Republicans have disproportionately held the presidency for the last fifty years or so. Money buys access in the form of commercials, flyers, pollsters, number crunchers and data miners. Moneyed people, who are disproportionately Republican, also tend to either be or have more influence with powerbrokers.

The Obama team though changed the game. It starts with a compelling candidate. Clearly, Obama was not the ideal candidate, particularly when it came to experience. It would be easy to say Obama simply has charisma, but he is blessed with so many talents as a politician and speaker that it is hard to number them all. Among them is his natural eloquence, both spoken and written, as well as marked intelligence, sincerity, people skills and general niceness. I am sure there are Obama haters out there. You may loathe his policies, but you have to be part Grinch to dislike him as a person. Most politicians like, say, John McCain, paste a phony smile in front of a crowd. It is obvious that John McCain is not a happy man. That is not Obama’s problem. He smile is downright beatific. It projects the soul of a man who is at peace.

Obama’s problem though is not his liberal position on many issues. His real problem throughout the campaign has always been his race. While most Americans are not overtly racist, a sizeable minority remains reflexively racist, and an even smaller amount is overtly racist. Many of us are not even aware of our inner racism. I too sometimes have to fight feelings of wanting to walk on the other side of the street when a group of African American males is about to pass me on the sidewalk. I have to assume that a certain amount of racist feelings are hardwired into the primitive parts of our brains.

Thus, it is no small matter for us white Americans to turn off that part of our brains. Yet, for the most part, Obama has succeeded. Obama though had another unique advantage: having a black father and a white mother. He is not so much black as he is multiracial. Having grown up in predominantly white neighborhoods, he understands white America. He has spent his life traversing through it. In many ways, black America is more unfamiliar to him than white America. After graduation, he moved to Chicago specifically to get the African American experience that largely passed him by growing up.

Obama’s campaign is amazingly well managed. John McCain is getting (he hopes) some mileage by saying Obama is already measuring the drapes for the Oval Office. Here’s the thing: that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. It’s not that Obama is taking his election for granted, although the polls suggest he is a shoe in, it’s just that in a well managed campaign these are exactly the sort of activities you should be doing during this part of the campaign. If John McCain is not doing the same thing, he is inept at managing his campaign.

While it remains to be seen if a President Obama will be as successful a manager of the federal bureaucracy as he is with his campaign, his slick campaign can be taken as a very hopeful sign by us disgruntled citizens. It’s been a while since we’ve seen government work in any meaningful fashion. Obama seems to intuitively understand how to walk the fine line between leadership and management. The trick is to know who to pick to be your managers and exercising the right strategies to empower and police them.

With a few notable exceptions, the Obama campaign has been classy and always three steps ahead of the competition. Reporters following him on the campaign trail are a bit disgruntled because they too are being well managed. A well-managed campaign knows how to use the press to its advantage. This means many reporters have limited access to the candidate.

Running a presidential campaign is a huge project. It spans all fifty states and even goes abroad at times. Just the logistics of managing rallies would be intimidating enough, but there is also a huge, interconnected ground game underway. Since I have given the Obama campaign money, I too have been contacted, once a week lately, to see if I will attend rallies, or canvas my neighborhood, or call undecided voters. Obama is smart enough to know that at the grass roots level, people have to feel vested in the outcome. So to the extent possible the campaign staff is letting committed activists in neighborhoods take the lead on local canvassing.

One of the major reasons that Hillary Clinton lost was because she was out managed. The Obama campaign was always several steps ahead of her, and that was because they ran a better organized and more sophisticated campaign. While Clinton was worrying about winning primaries, the Obama campaign was caucus savvy and working both the grassroots and the Netroots ruthlessly. Obama runs a proactive campaign. Only a few times in this long campaign has his campaign suffered serious distractions. The only problem that turned out to be a major problem was his relationship with his incendiary pastor Jeremiah Wright. Even so, in time Obama was able to assuage most of these fears.

Yesterday’s final Obama infomercial was a brilliant conclusion to a meticulously well-managed campaign: well produced, heartfelt, pragmatic and timed to seal the deal. It moved us past the election to let us envision very clearly what an Obama Administration would look like. The vision was both pragmatic about the challenges and hopeful. It was a message I have not heard in a long time: a call to mutual service. In exchange for us stepping up to our civic and family duties, he would bend our recalcitrant government to make it work to meet the needs of ordinary citizens.

Sounds like a fair exchange to me. Well done!

The first debate

The Thinker by Rodin

My thanks to my friend Renee, who invited a whole bunch of us over to her house last night to watch the first presidential debate between Senators McCain and Obama. It is more fun to watch debates in the presence of other likeminded people. If you are a political junkie like me, the first presidential debate is the highlight of your political year. This year it is hard to imagine a debate where the issues mattered more. There as always was the stoic Jim Lehreh at his desk facing the candidates, two podiums and an audience full of eerily silent people lurking in the dark.

As theater, the debate did not quite meet my expectations. I only grudgingly give it a C. I came prepared for a good verbal swordfight but with a few exceptions, nothing like blood was shed. It soon became clear that Barack Obama was going to be gentlemanly throughout, no matter what mud was slung his way. If you are trying to appear presidential and bipartisan, this is likely a good strategy but makes for ho-hum television. Still there were so many missed opportunities to hit McCain. Obama reiterated the obvious ones, like McCain’s support for the Iraq War and his tendency to vote the party line. I guess it would have looked mean spirited to inflict too many wounds. McCain after all is an ex-POW and was tortured by the North Vietnamese. Perhaps Obama figured he should not suffer too much.

Frankly, I had far more fun watching and listening to Senator McCain than Senator Obama. The frequent split screen shots were quite revealing. I figure McCain must have cracked a molar from pressing his jaws so tight. While obviously trying to hide his true feelings, McCain’s face was actually a window into his soul. Basically, he was seriously pissed. For the most part, he could not actually come out and act pissed so instead we got many half smiles that looked totally fake while inside you could see that major earthquakes were going on. There were times when I felt certain that McCain was fantasizing about walking across the stage and giving Obama a shiner. It was perhaps borne out by his inability to look at Obama during the debate, and his halfhearted handshake before and after the debate itself.

Not that I was planning to vote for McCain anyhow but his body language and screwed up face just confirmed for me that I want neither he nor his vice presidential pick to have their hands anywhere near our nuclear launch codes. When he did criticize Obama, it was in a mean and condescending way: poor little Barack, he is so dangerously naïve and inexperienced.

Obama was, in a word, unflappable. For McCain, debating Obama turned out to be like being at a carnival game booth where you keep trying to hit the moving ducks and you find out that you never came close. Obama was consistently measured, respectful and when he criticized McCain, it was always based on the facts.

It was also hard not to contrast their styles. Obama has a broad and natural grin that just radiates sincerity. McCain looked like he had an inflamed hemorrhoid. You could see that at times not all his neurons were firing in the proper order. His sentences often rambled and his thoughts were not always coherent. He frequently repeated himself. He went on and on about earmarks, as if cutting them would seriously address federal spending. Puh-lease. If you really want to cut federal spending you have to cut Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, and neither of them are suicidal. Obama slipped up a few times too. He called McCain “Jim” at one point but quickly corrected himself. As a master speaker, McCain was wholly outclassed.

The pundits are suggesting that neither McCain nor Obama won the debate, but of those who had an opinion, Obama generally got higher marks. Who won really matters little. What matters is: did the debate change the dynamics of the race? Various focus groups of independent voters watching the debate showed that overall Obama did a better job of wooing independents than McCain. I doubt the polls will change much as a result of the debate but if they move at all, they will move toward Obama.

Overall, McCain performed better than I expected. While rambling and incoherent at times, I heard less of it than I anticipated. Moreover, there were times when he looked genuinely sincere and thoughtful. Those times though were few and fleeting. Behind in the polls, he felt the need to sling as much mud as he could at Obama to see if any of it stuck. In my opinion, none of it landed. In this jousting match, neither rider was thrown off their horse. Obama had McCain reeling a few times but McCain managed to stay on. McCain hit Obama’s armor a few times but neither he nor his horse had to check their stride.

Most of us were hoping that both candidates could be pinned down on the current economic crisis. Neither McCain nor Obama rose to Jim Lehreh’s bait, and gave circumspect replies that basically did not tell us how they felt about the package beyond some principles they wanted to see in the final legislation. Both seemed anxious to weasel around the question. That was disappointing but perhaps not wholly unexpected given that the issue is in such flux now. What legislation that finally emerges at this point is anyone’s guess.

The vice presidential debate next Thursday is likely to be far more entertaining.

Unsolicited advice for Senator Obama

The Thinker by Rodin

I have to hand it with Republicans. When it comes to a campaign playbook, they stick with what works. An election won is an election won, whether won fairly or through foul tactics. The last leg of the 2008 presidential campaign is shaping up to look a lot like the 2004 campaign, which is heavy on the negative advertising (generally because it works). This time the McCain campaign is running ads that are outright lies. They do not just stretch the truth; they actually lie. Perhaps the most egregious ad was this one where they claim Obama was in favor of sex education for kindergarteners, a lie debunked by many reporters and documented on FactCheck.org.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have proven that scruples only matter to losers. McCain has this one last chance to be president. With Bush and Cheney blazing the way, he can feel comfortable tossing his alleged principles aside and just do what it takes to win. All is fair in love, war and politics, apparently, including lying these days.

Fortunately, the Obama campaign is doing better than the Kerry campaign did and generally is swift in responding to attack ads. The problem is that the Obama campaign is responding. It is reacting. This is a poor way to win a campaign because the campaign is always on the defensive, which makes it hard to get its message out. The School of Karl Rove has validated some crucial lessons: elections are often won by whichever side stays on the offense. Rarely is a football game won through an interception.

The McCain campaign is playing the campaign game like a dirty game of rugby where you repeatedly kick the legs out from under your opponent. It is hard to grab the ball when your opponent keeps making you land on your ass.

Unlike the pathetically desperate McCain campaign, the Obama campaign does not need to resort to lies to go on the offensive. Joe Biden understands what to do, as did Harry S Truman. Tell the voters the truth and the opposition will think it’s hell. It becomes a matter of knowing which truth-telling shells to lob, when to lob them and where to lob them. It is time to lob some artillery shells and fortunately I know when and where to lob them, and which ones to lob.

For the moment, Sarah Palin is the wind in the Republicans’ sail. McCain’s pick has been surprisingly effective in picking off more disgruntled Hillary Clinton voters than expected. It is likely that these voters have a good gut feeling about Sarah Palin, but do not know some unseemly facts about her limited record. If many voters like her because they have a good feeling about her, those feelings need to be replaced by reasonable doubts.

These swing voters need to know that she has a history of vindictiveness. Voters need to be educated about her repeated efforts to use her influence as governor to twist the arms of the Alaskan State Police to fire her former brother in law. They need to know of her repeated attempts while she was mayor to fire the Wasilla town librarian for stocking books she did not like, as well as to ban books from their library. They also need to know that while mayor the town had a policy of charging rape victims the cost of rape kits used after they were sexual assaulted, as she did nothing to change the policy. The campaign should create ads like this and play them repeatedly in swing states where Hillary voters predominate, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri.

After a week or so, they should air ads demonstrating not only that she has a cruel and vindictive side, but also promotes policies anathema to many Clinton supporters. She is obviously no supporter of abortion rights, not even in the case of rape or incest. She does not support national health insurance, a cause dear to many Clinton supporters. She does not believe global warming is real. These ads should enforce a meme that she is inconsistent and her positions are outside the mainstream. Talking Points Memo, for example, put together this video that clearly shows that Palin repeatedly supported the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska before being against it. There is no arguing with video.

Palin is hardly someone who opposed to taking federal money. In fact, she proved especially competent acquiring it. She gave money to DC lobbyists to make sure that Wasilla got far more than their share of the federal dole. As it is, Alaskans already receive more federal dollars per capita than any other state. While mayor of Wasilla, she pulled in more federal dollars per capita than any other town or city in the state. The ads should end with her image positioned next to President Bush’s. “Stubborn. Says one thing but does another. If Sarah Palin becomes president, will she too just be more of the same?”

Doubtless, there is much more in Palin’s record that could be brought out, but a couple weeks of clever and focused advertising using my strategy would remove any luster she currently enjoys.

The Obama campaign should then run videos that emphasize his correct judgment vs. McCain’s incorrect judgment. Show him courageously speaking out against the Iraq War when it was considered anti-American to do so. Relentlessly hammer in the point that McCain voted with President Bush 90% of the time. Show that Obama’s tax plan would reduce taxes for 95% of Americans while making the rich pay more. Hammer in that McCain’s plan would actually give more tax relief to the richest 1% than they currently enjoy. There should be two major closing themes. The first: voting for McCain and Palin is like giving George W. Bush a third term. The second: judgment matters and Obama has demonstrated the wiser judgment needed to be president.

Yo! Obama campaign! Anyone there listening?

Lipstick on a pig

The Thinker by Rodin

What do you do when your party seems to be going down like the S.S. Titanic? Desperate times call for desperate measures. For the Republican Party apparently desperate times does not mean something pragmatic like actually changing the party’s orthodoxy into something that might look mainstream. John McCain’s hope for winning this election thus depends on a few gambles:

  • That a disciplined Obama campaign makes some fatal mistake between now and the election
  • That the racist factor in American politics is much higher than what is being communicated to pollsters
  • That some vague and largely unsubstantiated image of John McCain as a maverick will give independents a reason to vote for him. (Never mind that in real life, most of us want nothing to do with mavericks.)
  • That some fresh face on the ticket will distract voters from the disastrous policies that he is advocating

Following the Democratic convention, the Obama-Biden ticket picked up a predictable bounce in the polls. Most likely, much of this bounce will recede after the conclusion of the Republican convention. However, overall the polls will likely continue to show Obama ahead in the popular vote by a worst a couple percentage points. These national polls though overlook the far more important calculation: electoral votes. What matters is not so much the margin of his victory in the popular vote but the margin in the Electoral College.

Pollster.com provides a reality check. Based on an average of recent state polls, if the election were held today, Obama would have 260 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. McCain would have 179. That leaves 99 electoral votes in the toss up category. What is the likelihood that McCain could claim 91 of those 99 electoral votes? The answer is clear: without changing the dynamics of the race, almost no chance.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is working hard to pick up the remainder of the swing states. It is not just Obama’s message and personality that are working this magic. It is also lots of advertising and many people walking door to door to sign up and persuade voters. Even red states like Virginia and North Carolina are potential Democratic pickups this year. This has been unheard of for at least a generation.

McCain’s surprise pick of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his running mate is a clever parry to try to change these dynamics, particularly in the swing states where independent voters are increasingly drawn to Obama’s message of change and bipartisanship. Ms. Palin certainly gives us political types plenty to talk about. Those of us who spend our free time doing things like actually checking her record have plenty of concerns. Ms. Palin can perhaps bring a message of change, but she brings few bipartisan credentials. Thankfully for McCain, at least initially most Americans are more tuned in toward personality rather than issues. Palin comes across as fresh and spunky change agent. McCain’s hope is that these factors will persuade many voters to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket on the assumption that it will offer change.

John McCain also realizes that he is no Ronald Reagan. Obama is the Democratic equivalent of Ronald Reagan, and in my opinion the most eloquent and articulate political speaker of his generation. Sarah Palin is not naturally eloquent but she does radiate feistiness. She is McCain’s attempt to respond in an area where he is hopelessly outclassed. In that sense, her pick was perhaps not too surprising.

Palin also serves another important purpose: rallying dispirited Republican voters in a year when many are inclined to sit out the election. In particular, she energizes the socially conservative wing of the party with her no-compromise and some would say extreme stands on issues like abortion.

The dangers in a Palin vice presidency though are real. Yet, like The Wizard of Oz, her smokescreen is easy to penetrate, something I expect Joe Biden will do amply well in their vice presidential debate. Palin may have lots of personality, but her stands on many issues would make most mainstream Americans recoil. Her feistiness though is in reality hubris. Those who can perceive past her former cheerleader and sportscaster image realize that hubris is what got the Republican Party into its current predicament. In that sense while she is a new and younger face, in many ways she represents more of the same stupidity.

Neither McCain nor Palin can credibly offer a steady hand at the nation’s wheel. The problem with being a maverick is that by definition you are inclined toward unpredictable or obstinate behavior. Many may not like Obama’s positions, but it is hard to find issues on which he was for something before he was against it. (Campaign finance reform is one of the few that come to mind.) Generally, he is consistent and thoughtful, but he is not beyond changing a position if the situation changes. On the other hand, McCain’s record is rife with waffling and inconsistency. John Kerry never flip flopped the way John McCain has.

I suspect I am like most voters in that I want a clear understanding of where a candidate will lead us before I will vote for him or her. In his acceptance speech last week Obama clearly articulated that vision. You may not like it, but at least you know what it is. All we know about McCain and Palin’s vision is that they are likely to be abrasive if not abusive people in office. If the country is likely to tack in any direction under them, it will not be toward the middle. Their tendency toward being mavericks is no substitute for leadership and judgment. Instead, it is a red flag that indicates their lack of these virtues. I am far more concerned about McCain’s tendency toward impulsiveness and anger than I am about Palin’s, but knowing that she also has petty and vindictive tendencies is hardly reassuring. It suggests that if McCain could not fulfill his term she would be more of the same, of him. This is a very scary thought.

I doubt Palin’s elevation to vice presidential candidate will markedly change the dynamics of this race. Americans know what they do not want, and that is more of what we endured these last eight years. Neither McCain nor Palin can make a plausible case that the next four years would look that much different from the last eight, except possibly it would be done in a shriller manner than the generally taciturn Bush. Thus, Palin becomes yet the latest attempt by the GOP to put lipstick on its pig.

Look behind the Palin façade.

McCain’s health care non-solution

The Thinker by Rodin

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain is in the news today. He unveiled his comprehensive health care proposal: a $2500 tax credit for individuals and a $5000 tax credit for families to allow them to buy the health insurance plan of their choice. He believes that with such an approach that competition and the free market will make health care affordable so we can all be insured.

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Republicans like McCain must be from Pluto. It is amazing that reporters do not laugh him off the podium. McCain is not the first Republican to advance such a free market non-solution to our health care crisis. His proposal though is truly worthy of derision.

First, his plan is hazy on what to do with people with pre-existing conditions. He wants states to form insurance pools for these people, but his plan does not require any insurance company to be non-discriminatory. He also allows people to continue with their employer-based health insurance if they want. However, his plan would give employers incentive to ditch their health insurance plans altogether. Why should they pay for health care costs when the government will instead?

So assuming you do not have health insurance and an insurer will agree to sell you a health care plan then after your tax credit you will have to pay all the excess premiums, deductibles and co-pays. Naturally, your premiums will tend to be higher if you are older, have unhealthy habits or have a history of chronic health problems. I did price individual health plans on this web site. I checked plans in my zip code for a hypothetical couple age 40. The only plan I could find without any deductible was a plan with the HMO Kaiser Permanente. It costs $542 a month, limits you to their physicians and comes with a $20 co-pay any time you want to see a doctor. Generic drugs come with a $10 co-pay. Brand name drugs come with a $30 co-pay. So assuming you never see a doctor or take any medicines then after your tax credit you and your spouse will still have to pay $1504 a year. You can expect that as you age your premiums will go up. How much? If the same couple were 50 years old, they would have to cough up $872 a month, or $5464 after their tax credit.

Most likely, you have other bills to pay. You would want to reduce premiums and pay a yearly deductible instead. What is out there? Blue Cross/Blue Shield would be preferred. A 40-year-old couple would pay $259 a month for a plan with a $1000 a year deductible with an Anthem BC/BS plan. Unless you see the same doctor more than three times, co-pays are $30 a visit. If you see someone out of the network, the insurance company will pay 70% of what it considers a reasonable and customary fee. If your out of network doctor charges you $125, you file for reimbursement and your insurer considers $75 reasonable and customary, your costs come to $22.50 plus the amount over $75, or $72.50 a visit. This is of course after you have satisfied your annual deductible. If you see one of their preferred doctors then you just pay the co-pay. However, you may find, as I have, that a family member needs faster or better care than what you can get through a preferred provider. This plan costs $3108 a year if you never get sick or never need a prescription drug. In theory, you and your wife could pocket close to $2000 a year. If you are like most of us and get more than the sniffles once a year, you can probably add on that $1000 deductible, plus other co-pays for prescriptions. It’s hard to imagine that a tax credit will cover your health costs. If you and your spouse are age 50, the price rises to $333 a month.

Who is not paying? If you take the tax credit, your employer is not paying anything. Perhaps the money they might have spent to subsidize your health insurance will go to giving you a higher salary, but I would not hold your breath. Anyhow, I suspect the optimal cases I outlined are not close to your situation and you will need more health care. If I had to guess, I would guess that a typical family would be out $5000 to $10,000 a year on health care costs after their tax credit. I bet this is where most of us are at right now. In short, it will not necessarily improve your bottom line at all. Nor does it do anything to address the problem of rising health insurance. All this free market ideology sounds great but if it is so great why has it not worked so far? The same health insurance companies we have today are going to be offering roughly the same insurance they do now under McCain’s plan. By that time, of course it will be pricier.

Moreover, the older you get the more expensive insurance will become. You can try buying a less expensive health care plan, if you can find one, but health insurance is like sitting on a beanbag chair. If you pay a smaller premium, you get astronomical deductibles or unacceptable conditions and exclusions instead. It could mean, for example, that you cannot get the kind of health care you need when you need it, such as an organ transplant.

McCain’s health care plan also begs the question of how the tax credit will be paid for. He has already ruled out raising any new taxes. In fact, he wants to keep the tax cuts for the wealthy that he once denounced. It would probably help if we got out of Iraq but he has been quoted as saying he would be fine if we stayed there a hundred years. Even if we did get out of Iraq, the government would still be spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year more than it receives in revenues. Consequently, the cost of this health care tax credit would likely come from borrowed money. In some of my earlier blog posts, I pointed out that when the government borrows money from foreigners the effect is inflationary. It explains part of the high cost of commodities like gasoline. McCain talks about finding savings by cutting the size of government. However, every president these days says he will do it and none of them has yet succeeded. In any event, the real cost of government is not in running agencies like HHS or even the Pentagon. That’s pocket change. It is in programs considered largely untouchable, like Medicare, Medicaid and agricultural subsidies. The closest modern president to constrain the size of government was a Democrat: William Jefferson Clinton.

Clearly, this proposal is just more smoke and mirrors, providing the illusion that health care can be made affordable with doing nothing to address the underlying problems causing costs to spiral.

What will work? Many first world countries have nationalized health insurance. They offer universal quality health insurance and are doing it for a fraction of what we pay. If you have the time, you should watch Frontline’s Sick Around the World. You can watch the entire show on your computer. Washington Post Reporter T.R. Reid goes for Frontline to the United Kingdom, Japan, Switzerland, Germany and Taiwan to see how these countries provide universal health insurance. The mechanics of course vary by country, but it is clear that not all solutions require turning all health care professionals into civil servants or under-compensating physicians and health care professionals. I found Japan’s approach the most interesting. We could pick any of these models, have high quality and universal health insurance and pay considerably less per capita than we are currently paying, all without ever worrying about whether we could afford it.

Or we could put yet another Band-Aid on the problem, keep letting costs spiral out of control and believe that we can really cover everyone with tax credits, which is John McCain’s “solution” to our health care problem.

Will John McCain run for president?

The Thinker by Rodin

If I were a Republican I’d be getting damned worried right now. Bush’s reelection, considered a sure thing just a month or two ago (for reasons I don’t understand) now looks dubious at best. His poll numbers haven’t completely collapsed, with his approval ratings hovering at or just above 50%. Looking at polling reports though, there is not much good news for the president. The American people seem to distrust his leadership as commander in chief, and he gets negative marks on the economy. The latter may improve as the economy improves, but even Republicans are figuring out that Iraq and the war on terrorism will be liabilities for Bush next year, not accomplishments.

Candidates usually ride a president’s coattails but there can be a downside to the phenomenon. When a president becomes unpopular it may hinder candidates who align themselves with the president. We’ve seen this phenomenon before. In 1992 many Republicans distanced themselves from George H.W. Bush as it became clear that the poor economy and the unemployment rate would sink his reelection.

One factor that may work in Bush’s favor this time around is the lack of a spoiler in the race. Ross Perot was the spoiler in 1992 and 1996 and arguably Clinton might not have won at all had Perot not entered the race. In 2000 the spoiler was Ralph Nader, running for the Green Party, who almost certainly caused Gore to lose the election. It is unlikely that the Green Party will field a candidate this time, and even if they do liberals learned their lesson in 2000 and will vote for a pragmatic Democrat in 2004.

What’s a good Republican to do who pragmatically wants to keep control of the White House and Congress but is worried that Bush’s unpopularity may cause them to lose both? Numerous fissures are appearing in the Republican ranks as they learn to say no to Bush. For example, Republicans learned to say “no more, thanks” to Bush’s outsourcing initiative. Senate Republicans said no to his request for $20B in grants to the Iraqi government, part of his $87 supplemental funding bill for Iraq. It seems likely that in conference Bush will get his way, but it’s a close call. Many Republicans are getting sick of following Bush’s lead, and have ideas of their own they want to promote.

John McCain, who has never felt particularly endeared to George W. Bush and who frequently joins the Democrats when he thinks it is right, is one of those astute Republicans who is questioning the president’s policies in Iraq. He is calling for more troops in Iraq, saying it is clear that the number is insufficient to deal with the increasing terrorism and attacks.

Like Wesley Clark, John McCain has sterling credentials and a reputation for pragmatism and honesty. He is no ideologue. Moreover, he has a demonstrated ability to attract independent and swing Democratic votes. John McCain is one of the few Republicans I respect. It is possible, although unlikely, that I might actually vote for him. He is the Howard Dean of the Republican Party and represents a more traditional Republican than the neo-conservatives who seem to run the show at the moment.

I have to think he is weighing his options for a possible challenge to Bush in the Republican primaries. Granted, he would be at a huge disadvantage in the money game and would be getting a very late start. But he has a lot of name recognition and he comes across as a positive alternative to the president.

My bet is McCain is quietly exploring his options right now. I’d not be surprised if sometime in November he makes an announcement. Much will depend on how events unfold between now and then. Looking at the situation in Iraq in particular it is hard to see how it will improve. It is almost guaranteed to continue to deteriorate and will likely peak during the primary season next year. I think we will continue to see Bush’s poll numbers slip. By early next year I expect his approval ratings to be in the mid 40s, and might well be lower.

While McCain is likely exploring his options, so are lots of other nervous Republicans. They aren’t necessarily as vested in George W. Bush as it might appear. They are far more interested in maintaining power than they are marching in lockstep behind him. McCain is the logical person to coalesce around. Smart Republican money could come his way rather quickly.