An appreciation for George H.W. Bush

The Thinker by Rodin

There is perhaps some irony in the passing of our 41st president and the sad sack of shit we currently have as president. I loathed George W. Bush as president, but his father was a good president, which is hard for this Democrat to admit. George H.W. Bush was a moderate Republican from a different era, and one of the few Republicans that I genuinely respected and whose presidency was effective and well managed. In the future, if Republicans want to have any hope of having their nominee elected, he or she will have to act and look a whole lot more like 41 and a whole lot less than 45.

That 41 (I will use his number for convenience) did not win reelection was something of a fluke. He should have. It’s just that the 1992 election was weirdly complicated. Specifically, it had a viable third party candidate, Ross Perot, who managed to siphon off 19% of the vote. Most of Perot’s votes came from Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. Both parties learned from Perot’s candidacy. Mainly they learned to nip these in the bud and not let an independent candidate get in an official presidential debate in the first place. Perot was in many ways a harbinger of Donald Trump: plainspoken, rich but unlike Trump transparently honest. Tea-partiers to be found a lot to like in Perot: something unconventional and different who was also very concerned about spending and outsourcing. So did some Democrats, who didn’t particularly like Bill Clinton as their nominee.

41 was an effective president for many of the reasons that disqualify nominees today: he was one of those elite insiders. His father was a senator from Connecticut who groomed him for public life. 41 was thrown at a variety of bureaucratic roles and mastered them all from U.N. Ambassador to CIA Director. Bush was basically a stereotypical New Englander: born in Massachusetts, residing in Connecticut through his childhood years and spending summers in Kennebunkport, Maine. Officially he resided in Texas, but he never really seemed Texan. He was a New Englander in spirit, and that included his moderate Republicanism. New England is one of the few areas of the country where you can still find moderate Republicans.

Of course he was not a perfect president. It’s not hard to find things about him that rankled me, such as his cutting of funding for AIDS research. But he was unusually sober, and fully versed on the complexity of the modern world from having experienced it in so many roles in service of his country. He was perhaps best as Commander in Chief, assembling a coalition to evict Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, doing it at a modest and shared cost, and mindful (unlike his son) of the complexity of politics in the area, and the danger of removing Saddam altogether.

He was wise enough when running against Ronald Reagan to declare that Reagan was a believer in “Voodoo economics”, a term I’m pretty sure he coined. He was proven right; both Reagan, his son and now Trump ran up disastrous deficits. His attempt to stem the federal deficit by increasing revenues in a compromise with a Democratic congress earned him heaps of scorn from fellow Republicans, but it was a smart approach. Unfortunately this, plus an ill-timed recession largely due to the Gulf War ultimately doomed his reelection prospects.

In 2006, I rated our 20th century Republican presidents. George H.W. Bush is my pick as the best of the lot since Teddy Roosevelt. Pragmatic, world-wise, affable, sober and serious, he turned out to be the president we needed, just not the one we wanted.

History will treat he and his administration very kindly. It has already rendered judgment on his son’s, and it’s not flattering.

State of the presidential race

The Thinker by Rodin

And we’re off with another of my analyses of the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve now had a few primaries and caucuses. Super Tuesday is a week away. Its results will clarify a lot of things and may very well show that my analysis today was quite off the mark. So it goes sometimes for us pundits. But these analyses are what people seem to want. I do notice that to the extent that posts get liked or shared, it’s from these posts.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush has finally dropped out. Perhaps he felt he needed to make one last attempt in South Carolina to minimize family shame. Also gone are Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie. It appears that only three are really in the running now: Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Kasich is hanging in there along with Ben Carson but at this point those two are outliers. My betting is that Trump will be the nominee. I’m actually rooting for Cruz, not because I like him but because he’d be the easiest for a Democratic candidate to beat. He is so nasty. Rubio is the Democrats’ biggest threat. I expect that the Republican establishment will rally around Rubio but like with Jeb it’s probably a lost cause. Simply speaking, the Republican establishment simply doesn’t represent the Republican voters anymore. Republican voters don’t care about conservatism as they do about personalities. (Witness Trump’s recent takedown of George W. Bush on the Iraq War. It hasn’t affected his poll numbers.) They want someone who best channels their fears. Trump seems to do this best and is adroit and fending off competition. There is a slim chance of a brokered convention but such a convention would likely be the death of the Republican Party. Trump will bring the “establishment” in his coattails, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth from them.

On the Democratic side, Martin O’Malley is gone. Clinton showed a little moxie by winning the caucuses in Nevada on Saturday, but only by five points after Sanders predictably shellacked her in the New Hampshire primary. In actual pledged delegates she and Sanders are tied at 55 each, but Clinton claims a huge superdelegate lead. Superdelegates however tend to move toward the people’s choice. Clinton should know this best as she was boasting about this eight years ago. By the time the convention rolled around the superdelegates dutifully got behind Barack Obama, their party’s choice. So don’t pay much attention to the superdelegate buzz. However, Super Tuesday does favor Clinton. Eleven states are in play plus American Samoa and Democrats abroad. My predictions:

  • Clinton wins Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas
  • Sanders wins Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia

Of course the system is not winner take all, but the big prize is Texas (222 delegates). My guess is overall it will break 60% for Clinton and 40% for Sanders. Clinton should have some momentum coming out of Super Tuesday, but wins will be primarily a factor of the values in the states and especially the number of African Americans voting in these states. The national and state polls are mixed, but overall Sanders is catching up with Clinton. He must catch up quickly otherwise the delegate math will work against him.

Democrats need Sanders to win the nomination. This is because (like Obama in 2008) Sanders gives Democrats a reason to show up at the polls. Clinton (like Trump) is judged more unfavorably than favorably by voters and it’s unlikely that will change. However, Republicans are highly motivated in this election and they will be most motivated if Trump wins the nomination. So Democrats will need to at least match Republican motivation to win and Clinton is hardly a reason to get enthused. Polls consistently show that Sanders will win against any of the Republican candidates.

Understandably some Democrats are unenthusiastic about a Sanders nomination. Some don’t see him as a true Democrat because he only joined the party recently, having caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate. There are concerns that his socialist platform won’t sell or that he is too idealistic to be a good president, and would be a poor commander in chief. Clinton arguably addresses these concerns, but it comes at the expense of a higher probability of losing the general election. Sanders however is also likelier to have longer coattails and should bring in a new wave of younger and enthusiastic Democrats. You can’t really govern well without Congress behind you. Sanders is betting the farm on Democrats retaking the Senate and with a massive turnout in his favor Democrats could even retake the House.

One wild card is whether former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg runs for president as an independent. Should Clinton win the nomination (and particularly if Trump wins the Republican nomination) then a Bloomberg run is good for Democrats. The worst case is that Americans choose Bloomberg, which negates the worry that Trump would win. The likelier case is a repeat of the 1992 election when Ross Perot’s independent run effectively kept George H.W. Bush from being reelected, and put Bill Clinton in the White House. No independent has ever won the presidency so Bloomberg’s odds are slim at best, even with all his money, something he should know. He would also be effective in taking down Trump. It may take another billionaire to bring down Trump.

Anyhow, that’s how I read the tealeaves at the moment.

Donald Trump and the art of carnival barking

The Thinker by Rodin

Sorry about delays in postings, Razor fans. I’ve been occupied this week by a family reunion. Aside from deaths and weddings, reunions don’t happen very often in my family. The last scheduled one was in 2000. This one probably would not have happened either if I had not taken the initiative last year to find a location and to prod my siblings. Our reunion at Chenango Valley State Park was good while it lasted, but it didn’t last long. The weather at the park near Binghamton, New York (where most of us grew up) over the weekend was oppressively hot and humid, uncharacteristic of the region. It meant sleep was difficult, particularly during many extreme thunderstorms and torrential rains.

While we arrived last Saturday, siblings quickly started peeling away beginning on Tuesday. I ended up leaving early too. My wife developed an ear infection on a trip of her own, came home and started throwing up. She was weak and worried she might be developing pneumonia. So I drove back on Wednesday. My wife is improving but not without a lot of requisite suffering.

So I’m back and catching up on the news that I missed at the park while I sweated and tried to keep mosquitoes from biting me. There were no lack of interesting current events, but the media for some reason could not stop highlighting the latest crazy nonsense coming out of the mouth of Republican presidential “candidate” Donald Trump. Trump has developed a knack for sucking the oxygen out of the room, much to the consternation of his fellow Republican candidates that wanted the privilege instead. Unfortunately, their idea of doing this is to bash liberals, the poor, environmentalists and the Iranian government, which is hardly novel. Trump’s approach is to be more outrageous than any of the other candidates, and by an order of magnitude.

Trump has figured out a way to outdo them all by saying outrageous things not just about Mexican immigrants (suggesting most are rapists and criminals) but also his fellow Republicans. Most recently he suggested that Senator John McCain was not a war hero because all he did was spend five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison. It’s all pretty crazy stuff, but it seems to be working in getting cameras and microphones to follow him. Republicans seem to like people that are outspoken to the point of being insane and foaming at the mouth. They also like candidates that make unrealistic promises, like Trump’s promise to build a wall along our entire border with Mexico, which he says wouldn’t be hard or expensive to do. At the moment Trump holds what is likely to be an ephemeral lead in the polls among self-identified Republicans.

I’m still puzzling over what Trump is really up to but I doubt it’s the presidency. It’s clear that he likes attention. He made his fortune in part by being brazen and outspoken. His crazy remarks are par for his course. This is a man after all, who at least says he believes that President Obama was not born in the United States. Wind Trump back twenty years when even then he was making motions of running for president and his policy solutions were very mainstream. Today he is wild and outrageous, which makes me suspect he is not being sincere. Perhaps he is impossible to accurately psychoanalyze, but in my mind there are two distinct explanations for what is spewing out of his mouth: he’s either running a parody campaign realizing in advance he won’t win and is just out for some kicks, or he is a secret Democratic party mole.

I personally lean toward the latter explanation, in part because Democratic administrations tend to be good for business. Much of his fortune is based on greasing the gears of government to look favorably on his skyscrapers and casinos. It’s hard to imagine that a man as successful as he is could be so blindingly stupid. For example, he needs those illegal Mexicans he rails against to wash the dishes in his restaurants and casinos, and doubtless employs plenty of them already. He’s probably not a progressive, but if he is sane then he’s more mainstream than he lets on. I say this based on his actions, not on his mouth. He may be worth the ten billion dollars he claims he is worth, but he has had many failures in his career. Indeed, he is hardly a self-made man. He got his start courtesy of his father’s fortunes. Many of his projects have proven disastrous for himself and his partners. I figure he simply doesn’t care what people think about him. His extreme wealth gives him that privilege.

But he can command the media’s attention, which means he can control the media playground. Most smart political observers think his popularity will quickly peter out and when it does to keep the camera on him he will launch a third party run for president. He has hinted at such. Since he is drawing Republicans to him instead of Democrats, a third party run would simply fracture the Republican base and the party’s chances of acquiring the White House in 2016. The outcome would look a lot like the 1992 election, when independent Ross Perot also fractured the Republican base, leading improbably to the election of Bill Clinton, when the overall dynamics would have favored George H.W. Bush’s reelection. In any event, his candidacy is not good for the Republican Party in general and for the many candidates vying for the nomination. If he is to represent the Republican brand through winning the nomination, he may be the death of the Republican Party, which first rose with the election of Abraham Lincoln.

If Trump actually believes the crap he is spewing then he is untethered to reality, which is just a polite way of saying he is mentally ill. He is not. He is crafty. He knows how to get attention. You can’t get attention by being conventional. The Republican Party of today is hardly conventional. Indeed, it is not even conservative. It is radical. It takes a certain skill to command attention in such an arena, but he has the advantage that with so many candidates the media cannot focus on any of them. He does know how to be a carnival barker. Trump has the skill and has used it successfully in his career. He has learned the art of showmanship, and it involves learning how to be heard. That requires being very loud in a tone and manner that is discordant because it draws attention. He is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Try not to hear that. This is how he sucks oxygen out of the room and draws attention to himself. It’s a marketing strategy. And in marketing you learn that any attention, even negative attention, is better than being ignored. At least you are talked about.

It works but it generally doesn’t work in achieving a lofty goal like being president of the United States. It might if the standards and expectations of the American voter have degraded as much as Trump might be hoping they have. If they have then we must really depend on God blessing America, because Trump would be a disaster of a president. It probably would not take both Republicans and Democrats long to impeach and convict him out of office.