Republicans continue to make the rich richer and the poor poorer

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s pretty hard to keep up with the inanities coming out of the mouth our “president”. As a Democrat he sure embarrasses me, but I often wonder why Republicans are not. If retiring Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) is correct, most Republicans in Congress are embarrassed by Trump, but can’t summon the political will to say so.

Trumps tweets and remarks get weirder and weirder. This is probably due to 50% ignorance and 50% cognitive decline. Still, it’s quite embarrassing. Yesterday, a day after his Secretary of Energy Rick Perry declared that Puerto Rico was a country, Trump told a convention of evangelicals that he has spoken with the “president” of the Virgin Islands. So two top administration officials including our “president” don’t understand that both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are American territories. What’s next? Sending in the marines to take over these “countries”?

Yet on such capable shoulders we are entrusting our nation. The only thing seeming to restrain Trump from his worst impulses seems to be a few officials, principally Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Maddis and Secretary of State Tillerson. They are our firewall of sorts, although there is no guarantee they can restrain Trump. Reportedly they have a suicide pact: if one gets fired they all resign. In any event depending on one unflagging Chief of Staff to babysit Trump 24/7/365 doesn’t seem like a great plan. Trump might launch nuclear weapons against North Korea while Kelly is in the bathroom.

So what does all this have to do with the rich getting rich and the poor getting poorer? Nothing really. I am just venting. But in the boatload of stupid that has come out of Trump’s mouth and Twitter feed recently, there was this from his interview with Sean Hannity on Tuesday:

The country — we took it over and owed over 20 trillion. As you know the last eight years, they borrowed more than it did in the whole history of our country. So they borrowed more than $10 trillion, right? And yet, we picked up 5.2 trillion just in the stock market.

Possibly picked up the whole thing in terms of the first nine months, in terms of value. So you could say, in one sense, we’re really increasing values. And maybe in a sense we’re reducing debt. But we’re very honored by it. And we’re very, very happy with what’s happening on Wall Street.

Aside from the numbers themselves that are off, there is the amazing conclusion from Trump, a graduate of Wharton. Remember, Trump recently bragged that he could beat Rex Tillerson in any IQ test. Trump apparently thinks that gains in the stock market cancel out federal debt. This is surprising in itself, but apparently it only works if he is in office. It doesn’t apply to the Obama administration, which saw the longest sustained growth of the stock market in history. There is no doubt that the stock market is doing very well since he took office, but it’s not doing appreciably better than it did under Obama. Those of us with lots of stocks are just seeing our pile of wealth get larger and larger.

I certainly see it in our portfolio. We take $1900 a month out of it to supplement our retirement. Just our investments (almost all of it in retirement accounts) amounted to $795K on February 1, and is now valued at $857K. Add in our house and other assets are we are millionaires, if a net worth of about $1.41M means that much these days. Gains in the stock market though create wealth only for those who own stocks. Guess what? Many of those who voted for Trump don’t have much if anything invested in the stock market. That’s due in part because there is little money left over to invest in stocks. According to one study, in 2013 the top 1% alone owned 38% of the stock market. The top 10% owned 81.4% of stocks. That leaves 19% for the rest of us. I may be technically a millionaire but rest assured my assets are part of that 19%. In reality I am not even close to being rich, at least not by the standards of the top 10%. I sure don’t plan to buy a Tesla or fly on a private jet to Monaco.

To make money in the stock market though you need to invest regularly over many decades and hold onto the assets. And that’s only possible if you have money left over to invest in the first place. It also means that you also need a relatively secure job, so that you are not raiding your nest egg in lean times. You also need it just to get through recessions and downturns with your investments able to wait out the hard times. If you don’t have all these factors in your favor you probably won’t be investing much in stocks and if you do it will be periodic retirement investments during relatively flush times.

So the surging stock market is really creating wealth principally for the rich who already have plenty of it, exacerbating income inequality. At best its effect for the rest of us is indirect, perhaps by keeping unemployment low thus maybe pushing up wages a bit, or by stimulating investment in the economy. Nothing about the stock market’s rise though fundamentally changes things for the middle class, poor and working class.

Indeed, Republicans seem intent to make things worse. Just yesterday Trump ordered an end to Obamacare subsidies for the working class. This will have the effect of pricing almost all of them out of the health insurance market. This will make healthcare more expensive, increase the probability of bankruptcy due to medical debt and make their financial situation more precarious. In short, they are likely to be pushed down the ladder again. The major reason these classes saw any gains recently was from having affordable health care, which helped protect their assets.

Having tasted real health insurance, these voters are likely to be furious when they vote next November, particularly as the rich will keep getting richer. While the stock market may continue to surge until then, these changes will directly affect the financial stability of the middle and lower classes. It’s likely that when these voters realize they have been shafted once again that Republicans will pay a huge political price.

Ted Cruz is worried about a blowout if Republicans don’t deliver on tax cuts and repealing Obamacare. As he will discover next November these are the factors likely to cause the blowout.

The Trump trap, Part 2

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in March I discussed what could happen with Trump supporters when he loses. How will they deal with their feelings of disempowerment? It’s hard to say but it’s more likely to be ugly than not. Trump has opened the can of racism for all to see after decades of sensible Republicans peaking under its lid. It’s unlikely to go away when Trump loses. Should Trump want its mantle (and it’s likely he will, given his enormous ego) he can own it and its movement.

Today I want to ponder what his loss will mean to the Republican Party, which could actually be the Republican Party. It all depends on how badly the election goes for Republicans. With tightly gerrymandered districts, Republicans will probably retain control of the House. At worst the odds are about even that Democrats will retake the Senate. One credible analysis suggests Democrats need to win about eight percent more votes than Republicans for them to win the House. Given that is a pretty high bar, Republicans are likely to emerge from the election bloodied and bruised but not out for the count.

Over the last couple of decades, Republicans have been the more fortunate party in winning massive amounts of seats in Congress. They picked up 52 seats in 1994 and an astounding 64 seats in 2010. Democratic gains tend to be more incremental: 31 seats in 2004 and 24 seats in 2008. Presidential election years, particularly when a new president will be elected, tend to bring out Democrats. Democrats would have to flip 30 seats in November to wrest House control. It’s a high bar but not impossible, as they did it in 2004. Regardless, Democrats will pick up House seats. If they don’t gain the majority, it is likely their minority will be ten seats or fewer.

Democrats wresting total control of Congress and the Executive is a gram slam, last done in 2008. History tends to prove these majorities are ephemeral but while they last they allow Washington to move, providing the majority party can stay united. This is always problematic with Democrats.

A triple loss did not kill the Republican Party in 2008, but it did make them meaner and more ornery, pushing the party from mainstream to extreme. Trump has captured the party and turned it into an officially extreme party. Those Republicans left in Congress after November will come from more gerrymandered districts, which means they will be more extreme, not less. However, if Trump loses badly it will be hard for the remaining Republicans to escape the feeling that they don’t have an electable message. There is likely to be more fruitless soul searching by the Republican Party leadership on how it can reach out to new voters. This is hard to do if your party has essentially become a white nationalist party and demographics mean this will only make your party more in the minority in the future.

Moreover, the national disgrace of nominating Trump as their candidate in the first place won’t have new voters switching parties or coming into their movement. Whatever percentage of votes that Trump gets is likely the party’s ceiling in the future, unless they fundamentally redefine their party. If they can’t turn some purple states red, the party is unlikely to reclaim the White House for decades. Complete refusal to work with a Democratic president has proven counterproductive. More of the same – no matter how natural a reaction it will be – won’t improve the party’s chances of enacting its agenda in the future.

Republicans supporting Trump today won’t easily be able to walk it back. Texas senator Ted Cruz recently endorsed Trump, despite saying he would never do so. It’s unclear why he is preferable to Hillary Clinton, when Trump is a sociopath, serial adulterer, misogynist, liar and likely a lawbreaker as well, given shenanigans with his charity and apparently illegally doing business covertly in Cuba. By supporting him, Republicans are also tacitly endorsing policies hitherto anathema to Republicans: ending free trade, allowing the expansion of nuclear weapons, reducing our commitments to NATO and approving of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Any of these positions would have immediately disqualified any candidate in Ronald Reagan’s mind, and yet the pro-Reagan party has nominated a candidate his complete antithesis. How on earth do you get back to a governing majority after promoting this wreckage of a candidate?

My suspicion is that after four years or so of trying, Republicans won’t try anymore. Their brand is likely to be fatally tarnished by this election. The truly principled Republicans are actually very few, but the Bush clan seems to be among the few that simply won’t abide or vote for Trump. Most of the Bushes are likely to vote for no one, but as least one (former president George H. W. Bush) plans to vote for Hillary Clinton. When push comes to shove, few Republicans can actually put country before party.

The party must moderate and be more inclusive or die. Since it is now principally a party full of extremes, it is more likely to die, which means it is likely to Balkanize. There are a few people to watch to see what happens including Ohio governor John Kasich, New Jersey governor Chris Christie and House Speaker Paul Ryan. I think that within four years the Republican Party — while not ceasing to exist — will shrink yet again, with perhaps a third moving in a new direction under a new label and brand, perhaps under a Prosperity Party. Expect a couple of years while the party thrashes and ultimately fails to unite first. Those who put power over principle are likely to eventually win this test of wills because a party that cannot wield power is not really a party.

Republicans jump off the cliff

The Thinker by Rodin

National party political conventions happen only every four years. This week’s Republican convention in Cleveland though makes me seriously wonder if Republicans will have one in 2020 at all. I’m not alone. No less than former President George W. Bush is wondering if he is the last Republican president.

If you managed to tune into the convention, it’s hard not to escape the feeling of doom unfolding there. The Republican Party shows every sign that they have careened right off the cliff. It’s being bungled in just about every way a convention can be bungled. In case you haven’t had your nose to the news, here’s a small slice of the craziness going on in Cleveland at their convention:

  • At the start, there was a brief but doomed floor fight when delegates from Iowa tried to call for a vote that would have allowed delegates to vote their consciences. It appeared to have the support of enough states to actually get a vote, but the chair ignored it, thereby cementing Republicans’ reputation for not actually following a parliamentary process.
  • Melania Trump’s speech lifted whole sentences from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech, the sort of plagiarism that if done in school would get you a failing grade. It turns out that Melania admires Michele, a major problem for any true Republican. She said she wrote the speech herself, but later we were told that a speechwriter did, who eventually took the fall.
  • Last night former candidate Texas Senator Ted Cruz spoke, told delegates to vote their consciences and never endorsed Donald Trump, which got him plenty of boos. They let him talk anyhow even though he told them he would not be endorsing Trump. Trump eventually came out to take the spotlight off Cruz and back to where it belongs: on his glorious self. This will likely be mostly what people will talk about for days, rather than Trump’s convention speech but at least it puts the focus on Cruz and 2020. However, if Trump is true to form, his acceptance speech will likely be an incoherent ramble, so maybe not.
  • Less noticed was that House Speaker Paul Ryan also refused to explicitly endorse Trump at his convention speech. Like Cruz, he seems to know the ship is sinking and he wants to be one of the first rats to jump when it is politically safe to do so on November 9.
  • Tuesday was supposed to be a day to talk about how Republicans would fix the economy. Instead it became a day of vitriol where speaker after speaker went on the attack against Hillary Clinton, many calling for her to go to prison. One woman who lost a son in the Benghazi incident held Clinton personally responsible for his death, even though she did not explicitly authorize the ambassador’s trip to Benghazi. A state legislator in West Virginia called for Hillary Clinton to be hung causing United Airlines to suspend him as a pilot.
  • Apparently Ohio governor John Kasich was sounded out to be Trump’s running mate. The offer, apparently from from Trump’s son: you will do the actual management part and my dad will do the “Making America Great Again” part. Strangely, Kasich declined. It appears Trump is bored with the whole manage the country part of the presidency, and wants to outsource it.

Oh, and so much more! Tonight is likely to be equally as memorable as the first three days. Perhaps more memorable than the convention itself is the stunning lack of coherence out of the convention and the epic mismanagement behind the stage. Trump does not know how to delegate. He has a hard time getting people to work for him because he requires non-disclosure agreements and routinely sues employees who he feels have stepped out of line. His roster of speakers is mediocre and often surreal (Scott Baio, really?) and it’s not even clear if he really chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. It appears he had second thoughts and futilely tried to change it at the last moment.

Watching the convention on TV itself is just appalling. There is no way for an impartial viewer not to get the impression that Republicans are passionate and crazy lunatics. Democrats were pretty pissed at George W. Bush at their 2004 convention, but no one suggested that he was a lawbreaker, should be put in jail and hung. It never occurred to Democrats to be this kind of lunatic crazy. But we heard it from speaker after speaker, day after day at this convention. So how can you not escape the conclusion that Republicans are dangerously unhinged?

A convention is normally scripted and carefully stage-managed, but also the organizers think carefully about how they want to present the party to the voters. No one seemed to be doing either parts of this job, bungling the most important part of their sales job prior to the election. Also not going well: fundraising. The typical RNC donors cannot seem to pull out their wallets. Few staff are being hired to go into the field and organize voters. Trump himself seems wholly unconcerned about the party and his campaign’s anemic fundraising, assuming that force of personality will be enough.

The 2012 Republican convention looked like one where Republicans were teetering on the borders of respectability. This is clearly off track, off message and has little of what can be called organization. No wonder George W. Bush is concerned he may be the last Republican president. Republicans seem to be doing everything possible not just to lose, but also to lose epically.

To Democrats, this Republican train wreck has been coming for years. With a few exceptions though today’s Republicans just don’t see what’s coming. But if you want to destroy a party, well, have a party doing so! It feels like this convention will touch all the markers for what not to do. You had best stand aside of the wreckage.

State of the presidential race: May 2016 edition

The Thinker by Rodin

At least Ted Cruz has dropped out since my last look at the presidential race a month ago. He was the sort of candidate only Texans could love. Those of us in the other forty-nine states couldn’t quite understand why he had any appeal at all. Judging someone based on his or her looks is unfair, but it was impossible not to in Ted’s case. He’s been compared to Satan and an evil Mr. Rogers. His own daughter spurns his affections, at least on TV. His asymmetrical face actually made what came out of his mouth somewhat understandable: a take on conservatism so conservative that he looked like he had more in common with ISIS than he did with most Christians. Yet, for all his principle in the end he knew he had a losing hand. After losing in the Indiana primary he abruptly withdrew, as did John Kasich shortly afterward.

That left Donald Trump the last man sitting in this game of musical chairs. It’s clear to me now how he won the nomination. Bullying is also a form of distraction and by keeping other candidates distracted, he adroitly pulled chairs away. A couple of days ago the Associated Press declared him the winner. There will be no contested convention for Republicans this year. Even Marco Rubio plans to “help” Trump now, figuring Hillary Clinton is the worse evil.

No obstacles seem to be in the way of Hillary Clinton getting the Democratic Party’s nomination either, although she had not hit the magic number quite yet. She looks likely to win the California primary by twenty points or more, which is when it will officially be over. The indefatigable Bernie Sanders though keeps campaigning, although it’s unclear why. It was effectively over a month ago and it is still over.

Perhaps he is waiting for Clinton to implode. A damning State Department inspector general’s report on her private email server released this week perhaps gave some evidence that this scandal has legs. As an ex-government employee I considered her private email server to be audacious, as everything a public servant does as a public servant is part of the public record by law. The IG pointed out that while Colin Powell did use a private email account from time to time, he did not use it exclusively, nor did he create his own email server and use it for all his official email. Clinton’s claim that others had done the same proved shallow at best and erroneous at worst. The real issue is whether she sent classified material via her email server. Some was apparently sent to her from time to time, but it appears that none was ever sent by her. As someone who used to handle classified information, I can tell you the protection for classified material is crazily broad, making it virtually impossible to protect and sometimes to even identify. However, it is up to the sender to make sure such material is identified and sent via authorized and secure means only.

One thing Clinton has going for her is that Trump is proving to be his own worst enemy. He simply doesn’t understand (or care) whom he rattles or what he says. In the last week alone he has criticized the Republican governor of New Mexico, who is also the only Hispanic governor in the country and chair of the Republican Governors Association. He also launched a personal attack on a Hispanic judge who made demands for information on Trump University, which bilked students out of large sums of money. He promised to look more presidential but seems incapable of acting presidential. Instead, he acts and behaves the way he always has: as a loud mouthed bully. This suggests it’s the way he will run his general election campaign. It doesn’t seem that he cares much for the Republican Party’s establishment, although he is letting them raise money for him. This is a smart business decision as it lessens his financial losses, which were mostly illusionary anyhow. He has accepted donations all along but is otherwise financing his campaign with loans to himself. Then there was all the other crazy stuff he was saying: telling Californians that there is no drought in the state or that global warming is a hoax. For a party detached from reality, he made it not just unhinged but an island rapidly floating away from the continent.

Perhaps the reason he can’t act presidential is that he knows that doing so would be the death of his campaign. His campaign is an unlikely bet on a roulette wheel so you put all your chips on one number and hope for the best. Certainly his supporters don’t want him to act presidential. What draws them to him is his audacious “say anything” behavior. He needs to keep them energized through the general election. Pivot toward “the center” whatever that is and the energy simply flows out of his campaign. In fact, it’s clear to me that he doesn’t want to be president, at least president in the way it’s understood by the constitution, as he simply doesn’t like to manage anything. This became clear to me when he discussed what he is looking for in a vice president. Basically he’s looking for someone to actually run the government for him. As president apparently he sees his job to speak for the country. If he’s running for president, it’s more of a parliamentary system like Israeli president, who is the figurative head of state. Perhaps he knows himself well enough to know he can’t actually govern so that has to be outsourced.

Whatever it sure is a crazy election: definitely one for the record books. While no one expected Trump to secure the nomination no one who reads the tealeaves expects him to win the general election either. Barring a Clinton implosion or a huge national security crisis, I just don’t see a path forward for him, unless others create one for him through a popular but ill-advised third party bid. It doesn’t sound like Bernie Sanders is stupid enough to run as a third party candidate, but if he did he could be the one to inadvertently elect our first fascist president. It remains worrisome because Bernie is not really a Democrat. Rather he became a Democrat to have a chance of actually becoming president.

A real Democrat by now would sheepishly have conceded. It would not surprise me at all if he goes back to being an independent senator from Vermont after the election, who caucuses with the Democratic Party. Party loyalty means nothing to Sanders, as it means nothing to Trump. Sometimes though party loyalty has its advantages, such as nipping a third party run in the bud. It’s likely that Sanders won’t bite into this apple, but for the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, it’s what he needs to do.

Let’s hope that for all of Bernie’s passion on this one occasion unlike his supporters he uses his head instead of his heart.

State of the presidential race: April 2016 edition

The Thinker by Rodin

So it’s looking like Hillary vs. The Donald in November. Hillary is not too much of a surprise. The only real surprise was how close Vermont senator Bernie Sanders came to unseating her for the Democratic Party nomination. It is still technically possible for Sanders to pull an upset, but not realistic. He seems to be getting the drift by laying off staffers and concentrating resources on delegate rich California, the last major primary. Given that Sanders appeal is mostly with whites, it’s unlikely he’ll pull an upset in a state heavy with Latinos and Asians.

Just a week ago, it was even money that Republicans would have a brokered convention. It’s still possible but the odds are now probably only twenty percent, if that. Trump swept all five states in this week’s primaries, and in most states by convincing margins. Clinton lost only Rhode Island but squeaked by in Connecticut. Clinton trounced Sanders badly in Maryland and Delaware by 2:1 margins. Sanders will probably win Oregon, Montana and the Dakotas, but Oregon is the only state with significant number of delegates and California simply trounces it. Sadly, it’s over for Bernie. Rest assured he knows it too.

There is no viable path for Ted Cruz either in these remaining states and his “agreement” with John Kasich is mostly vapor, and proactively picking Carly Fiorina as his running mate will only make things worse. Indiana may be a pickup but none of the remaining states that are delegate rich are likely to break his way. Barring some unforeseen dynamic it’s over for the Republicans too. This brings some clarity for the general election. Both Clinton and Trump are underwater (are more disliked than liked), but Trump is much more so. Barring some bad foreign policy or economic news (the economy grew just .5% in the last quarter), Clinton looks like our likely next (and first female) president. Except for Clinton supporters though few will be enthusiastic about her as our next commander in chief.

This primary season has certainly been unusual, showing in general that the electorate (or those at least passionate enough to vote in primaries and caucuses) really would prefer someone completely different. Trump fills that bill, but scarily so. Clinton is true and tried but hardly exciting. The 73-year-old Sanders strangely fit the bill, but not enough to overwhelm the current Democratic establishment, which has a better lock on its base than the Republicans do. Oddly enough both Clinton and Trump are considerably older than presidential nominees tend to be. Clinton is 68 and Trump is 69. Trump is the same age as Ronald Reagan when he ran for president. Reagan was our oldest president but if elected Trump will be older.

One lesson that should be obvious is that our parties increasingly don’t represent the people very well, particularly those who claim allegiance to their party. Trump’s ascent proves that the issues that animate the party’s rank and file don’t animate Republican voters. As I noted, what Republicans really care about is maintaining white privilege and anything else is negotiable. Democrats too are undergoing a change in state. Establishment Democrats may titter at the idea of “democratic socialism”, but Sanders proves it’s the party’s future. The days of Democrats gaining power through triangulation and close ties to Wall Street (Bill Clinton’s strategy) are over. Hillary would be wise to acknowledge this reality.

The Republican Party is in much worse shape, but Trump may do the party a favor by reconnecting it with its base. What it will stand for in the future may be loathsome to the majority of Americans, but it seems to be what the modern Republican base wants. It’s not a way to grow an expanding party unless the party can shed its xenophobia, which is the catalyst for Trump’s unexpected rise. However, it could keep the party around and relevant for at least a while longer.

Despite the bluster, the odds certainly don’t favor The Donald. With two thirds of Americans basically saying they won’t vote for him, it’s hard to imagine how Trump can convince them otherwise. This is particularly true when he makes things worse by opening his mouth and saying stupid stuff, such as his latest comments on women and voting. Trump knows how to deliver sizzle, but there’s simply no steak there, much like his branded Trump Steaks. So the odds definitely favor Democrats, both in the presidential contest but also in recapturing the Senate. Even Republicans are concerned this may be a wave election that could remove their hold on power not just in the Senate but also in the House. It appears that lots of Republicans will sit this one out as they have no motive to vote for Trump, and thus no motive to vote at all.

Clinton’s instinct will be to tack toward the center but I think that would be a mistake. There is little point in holding power if you can’t wield it. Obama at least had two years of it, thanks to the Great Recession and Democrats holding both houses of Congress. It allowed the Affordable Care Act to get passed. Clinton may be setting her expectations too low. By tacking left instead of right, she can fire up the Democratic base. When they show up in force, as they did in 2008, they demonstrate who is really in charge. Gerrymandering and vote suppression are facts of life but since they affect principally red states, they won’t buy Republicans much in a general election year.

So for those of us reading the tealeaves, the voters sort of have spoken now. Much of what will follow is pretty well scripted. Trump has to hope for a Hail Mary pass to change the dynamics. Our economy is not great but unemployment is below five percent and our economy is still the envy of the rest of the world. Obama is unlikely to let a foreign policy problem fester to the point of explosion, but there are always wildcards. The dice are pretty much cast. Let’s see how they tumble.

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.

Republicans are simply racists and classists

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you watch the last night’s Republican debate; you know the one where Donald Trump snippily decided he would not attend because he doesn’t like questions that Megyn Kelly might ask? You did? Good for you and apparently you are more into politics than I am. I was certain I’d learn nothing new and from the reviews I was right. So now voters wait warily for the results of the Iowa caucuses next Monday night. Let’s hope the Republicans get it right this time.

Some pundits are predicting the demise of the Republican Party after the next election. I’ll be lifting a glass of champagne if that happens to be the case. Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t recognize his own party anyhow. Republicans after all freed the slaves and today’s Republicans want to make them slaves again. I won’t be lifting my glass too high though because as bad as the Republican Party is, I do think whatever phoenix emerges from its ashes could actually be worse.

What got me thinking this way was reading the latest Washington Post OpEd by conservative Charles Krauthammer. After the obligatory sentences saying how Bernie Sanders couldn’t get elected because America doesn’t elect socialists (conveniently ignoring the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four terms on an effectively socialist platform, and by overwhelming majorities), Krauthammer looks at the factions within the G.O.P. In particular he notes that Donald Trump is not really conservative, certainly not in the sense that he wants to rollback social programs. In the same paper, Fareed Zakaria notes that Republicans have given lip service to getting rid of social programs and in many cases expanded them. In fact, he notes polls that economically conservative Republicans are going for Cruz over Trump by 15 percent, while Trump wins by 30 percent over Cruz from Republicans holding “progressive positions”, such as on health care, taxes, the minimum wage and the benefits of unions.

Well, this is a head scratcher, until you think about it a little while. One possibility is that Trump is expanding the Republican base, pulling in (principally white) people that don’t tend to vote Republican, or vote at all, because no one in the party represents them. However, there is no evidence that Republican Party registration is increasing significantly nationwide, as this recent Gallup poll attests. Zakaria does quote Michael Tessler of the Rand Corporation, who provided his statistics. Tessler says: “Trump performs best among Americans who express more resentment toward African Americans and immigrants and who tend to evaluate whites more favorably than minority groups.” This is a polite way of saying Trump does much better with the party’s racists. This is not surprising until you think about what this actually means.

What principally unites the Republican Party (to the extent it is united) is not fiscal conservatism. It’s not the importance of federalism (state control). It’s not God, an aggressive foreign policy and it’s certainly not Jesus. It’s not even guns. Their principle shared-value is that they think they are special and deserve a singular status over the rest of society, who they mostly look down on. In short, most of them are racists, even if they can’t even admit it to themselves. It’s more acceptable to be a classist, instead of a racist, which many will openly acknowledge. This basically means they don’t believe in egalitarianism and that some for whatever reasons (status, wealth, race, education, values) deserve to be privileged. Moreover because they are privileged, they should not feel (and apparently don’t feel) ashamed of this. It’s this energy that Trump is harnessing. When push comes to shove, this is what Republicans care about.

I believe it is part of Carl Rove’s master plan. He fed these primal fears to give the Republican Party oversize stature. They feel it slipping away, which is why Republican-led states enacted onerous voting restrictions. Their loss of their status, real or in many cases imaginary is their greatest motivation. Trump was savvy enough to cut through the bullshit and go for the jugular. This is why he is leading in the polls. (It does help to have so many competing candidates that the opposition is scattered.)

After all, if you want power it’s not about making a logical case; it’s about making a resonating emotional case. Fear is a great motivator and Republicans excel at looking behind their backs. Trump succeeds by saying that those others not like us are the cause of our fear of loss of status and privilege. Throw out the “illegals” and things may not be well, but they sure will be better. He has ruled out major changes to Medicare and Social Security because he’s read the polls and knows his fans support programs like these. Tax cuts go disproportionately to the wealthy but welfare goes disproportionately not to the poor, but to the middle class.

Medicare and Social Security are just two ways to keep the middle pacified, but it’s only the beginning. There is the employer health insurance tax credit, which annually costs three times as much as food stamps. There is the home mortgage interest deduction, tuition tax credits and even energy efficiency credits that go only to those who can afford to take advantage of them. Power is secured through keeping the rabble happy. Trump knows there are plenty in the middle who understand their standard of living is wobbly. The last thing most of these people want is more uncertainty to their standard of living, but they are perfectly happy to add uncertainty to those who don’t think and act like them: the others. Me first!

The Romans quickly realized that the rabble wasn’t happy unless the lions ate a gladiator or two now and then. They made it convenient for citizens to enjoy this entertainment by allowing everyone in for free. Trump is metaphorically doing the same thing: he is harnessing the power that is already there. He plays the crowd the same way Itzhak Perlman plays the violin. He plays up the juicy expectation of red meat to come: walls along the border with Mexico and less of the other among us. He says: less of them means more for us and will make us (the privileged) great again. And so they dance and he knows that the rest of the party will come along in time. The Republican Party leadership seems to understand which way the wind is blowing. Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus recently said as much, and even elder statesmen like Bob Dole seem to be acknowledging they will fall in line too. Power is what counts; whatever message gives them that power is okay.

It’s just that because of Donald Trump it’s now out in the open. Even Republicans can’t deny it anymore because their leading candidate simply won’t. They are the party of people like them: white racists and classists. They just can’t hide from it anymore.

Reading the election tealeaves

The Thinker by Rodin

I skipped the last Republican debate (for the reason see my last post) but I did catch Sunday’s Democratic debate and even live tweeted it. The dynamics of the coming election are starting to clear up in my mind. The 2016 election, like the 2008 election is a change election. By this I mean a major change election, not just an “oh, I’m sick of the last guy, so let’s try someone that looks good.” It is an election where voters will express their frustration that change is not happening fast enough. The big mystery is whose change version will sell.

Curiously both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are echoing similar themes: do something already! Trump’s approach is radical authoritarianism. He channels the frustration of those who simply put getting things done ahead of the messy business of constitutional government. He will make sure things get done and it’s pretty obvious that he will do it by fiat if Congress and the courts won’t back him. This is crazily dangerous to our constitutional government, but there are a lot of authoritarian-based Americans out there, and they simply don’t care anymore because they can’t remember the last time government worked. Authoritarians are comfortable with the ends justifying the means, providing of course that the ends are ends that they agree with.

Sanders has a similar message. He has specifically ruled out being an authoritarian president but does say that he is a democratic socialist. He appeals to many Democrats and independents because his motivation for being president is clearly not ego-based, but part of a larger agenda. Ironically, by never being a formal Democrat he carries gravitas. He has been an independent representative and senator from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats. This gave him the freedom to vote his convictions rather than to feel he had to tow the party line to gain power. It was a politically smart thing for him to do. For example, it allowed him to vote against the 2002 resolution for the use of force against Iraq whereas others like Senator Hillary Clinton felt arm-twisted to do so to ensure their future political career. Moreover, Sanders is credible. He has been on the right side of history time and again. Even Trump can’t say that, although he has never run as a politician before. Trump’s politics though have been all over the place during his career. In some ways Sanders is conservative, as he votes his conscience and principle, whereas Trump rides the waves of perceived voter concerns.

Hillary Clinton and to some extent “moderate” Republican candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich represent institutionalism, i.e. the traditional party structure which is top-down and consensus-based. The others sense a grassroots uprising fed by the inability of government to act in the people’s interests. Of course each candidate has his or her own idea of what the people’s interests actually are, and they are often so bizarre as to be comical because they bear no resemblance to modern America or even to the values that pollsters report that register the most. Their values are whatever they see in the mirror and they move in circles that amplify that view. In general, Americans are impatient with political parties as they have evolved simply because they don’t represent their interests. Instead they feel pimped by them. They voted for people who say the words but don’t follow up with deeds.

What makes Sanders interesting to me is not just his politics, which I largely agree with. It’s that he is not so much interested in being president as fomenting what he calls a “political revolution”. Even his supporters don’t really understand where he is planning to go. Yes, he wants the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but what he really wants is Congress of and by the people again. If he wins the nomination you will see this in earnest, as he will move from venue to venue, including southern states, to build this grassroots political revolution: a “throw the bums out who haven’t acted in your interests” campaign. The odds are against him, particularly in the House, but politicians underestimate his power. Oddly, both he and Trump hold sway over some of the same voters. I expect that Sanders will be working to convince Trump’s voters that a political revolution is a better approach than Trump’s scary authoritarianism.

To some extent both Trump and Sanders supporters are masquerading their own motivations and anxieties, which they can’t seem to acknowledge. I don’t believe the authoritarians really want to recreate a fake 1950s “Leave it to Beaver” America. What they really want is a social contract again, i.e. a sense of normalcy. They are painfully aware that their carpet has been pulled up from under them. Their dads retired on pensions. They remember good public schools. They remember being proud of being American. But their cheese has been moved. Sanders response is to say, “Hey, your cheese has been moved and it’s not minorities and Mexicans. It’s big business and the very well off have bought an oligarchy”. Sanders has to convince these authoritarians that power comes from uniting on their common interests. This is why when he campaigns in the South he gets big crowds, often bigger than Trump’s. He is tapping into the same anxiety.

I have no idea how this will all fall out. No candidate is perfect and there are plenty of candidates who are reprehensible human beings and make you feel ashamed for your country. Just make no mistake: the real animus in this election is an often-inchoate feeling by many in the middle and on the sides that no one is truly on their side. Unlike Trump, Sanders has a consistent career of more than thirty years in politics that demonstrates he is on their side of these issues. You hear it in his voice and I certainly heard it during Sunday’s debate. Sanders was nearly hoarse from shouting at one point. There is conviction in is voice, in his mannerisms, in his eyes and in his demeanor that is stunningly authentic and sincere. This is certainly not true of Donald Trump, who has never held a consistent position about anything other than perhaps putting his personal profit over people’s needs. It’s not true of Hillary Clinton and it’s definitely not true with Republican weasels like Ted Cruz.

If people truly want an authentic candidate then I expect Sanders will increasingly resonate as they start to tune in, as they are doing during these debates. The question is: can it become a crescendo in time? There are many political and institutional forces that will put up obstacles to such a plain man from the heart, including Democratic Party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. During the next couple of months, this will all become much clearer.

The southern strategy bites back

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Republican Presidential Debate #4

The Thinker by Rodin

By now these candidates are all getting a bit uncomfortably familiar — at least to those of us that tune into these debates. With some exceptions though they all pretty much sound the same and parrot the same ideas. What made this latest debate a bit more interesting than the other ones is that from time to time some actual debating happened.

This debate, hosted by the Fox Business Channel and held in Madison, Wisconsin had a heavily conservative tone to it, which made the candidates happy after the last debate when the moderators had the audacity to backtalk the candidates with actual fact checking. Moderator questions came laden with assumptions that doubtless made its owner Rupert Murdoch happy. Stuff like this from moderator Maria Bartiromo:

Today the national debt is at record highs and growing unsustainably. Interest will be the fastest-growing part of the federal budget, tripling over the next 10 years. Social Security, the lifeline of millions of American seniors, is rushing toward insolvency.

In fact, the budget deficit has been cut by more than two thirds since the start of the Great Recession, virtually zero interest rates have made financing the debt a lot more sustainable, Social Security is reaching a point where it may pay out more than it receives, but is not anywhere close to insolvent as its assets are invested in U.S. Treasury Bills that will be redeemed to pay benefits. Given the false assumptions that underlined many of the questions asked, the only surprise was that some actual debating took place. As usual, it was the marginal candidates that did most of the pot stirring, i.e. John Kasich and libertarian Rand Paul because what do they have to lose?

Kasich went for being the only grownup in the room again, which he was. In fact much of the time he sounded like a Democrat, which was why toward the end he was actually booed by the audience. Kasich did feel neglected and felt compelled to barge into the debate at inopportune moment near the end, but in fact he got plenty of airtime. Kasich’s sensible and pragmatic solutions though were not something fellow candidates and the audience wanted to hear. I found myself agreeing with much of what Kasich had to say. If he had a realistic chance at the nomination, the party might also have a realistic chance of winning next year’s election.

Rand Paul was the other discordant note, in particular when he called out Marco Rubio for not being a true conservative because he wanted to give a tax credit to lower income people, which he accurately portrayed as an entitlement. On foreign policy Paul was definitely the isolationist and kept noting that defending the country costs lots of money and our foreign interventions usually backfire. Again, this did not win him any favors from other candidates or the audience because cognitive dissonance like this apparently gives them severe migraines. Everyone was like: just shut up Rand and John already!

I really wanted Carly Fiorina to just shut up already. She went on an impassioned rant about the need to cull regulations and to have zero-based budgeting. However, she wouldn’t adhere to the regulations of the debate to stop talking after her ninety seconds was up. Two bells calling time went blithely ignored as she just kept yammering and yammering. While the most egregious violator, she was hardly alone. One of the biggest yammerers from the last debate, Chris Christie, has been disinvited to the debate and sent to the humiliating “undercard” debate instead.

Picking winners was hard, but picking losers was easy. Kasich is likely to get undercarded soon because he speaks to a vanishingly small moderate base. Ditto with Rand Paul, for stroking libertarian feelings largely absent in the Republican Party. And Carly Fiorina is coming across as a simply nasty lady, so she will likely get undercarded again soon, particularly given her mediocre polling numbers which barely qualified her for this debate.

Donald Trump specializes in nasty, but with a dose of humor that Carly doesn’t have. He was repeatedly called out by Kasich for his impossible to enforce plan to deport all undocumented immigrants but as usual he said he could part water and get it done along with his thousand mile wall along our border to Mexico, which presumably they will somehow pay for. On this topic none of them noted that President Obama has been vigorously removing undocumented immigrants, something that gives most Democrats heartburn. However, they did latch on to his executive order that makes it less likely that these immigrants who are caregivers would be deported anytime soon. Apparently it’s really evil to keep parents and their legal children united.

Jeb Bush managed to improve his performance but not in a distinctive way. Marco Rubio held steady, coming on strong but falling back toward the end of the debate in part due to lack of airtime. Ted Cruz will probably get a bump, as he stayed with nasty and unrealistic, which is what Republicans want to hear. He did say he wanted to eliminate the Department of Commerce twice, which would be quite a feat. He also wants to eliminate the IRS, which is a great thing if you don’t want to go to prison for not paying your taxes. Cruz was mostly in comfortable La-La Land, which is where most of the audience wanted to be as well.

There were other amusing faux pas:

  • Marco Rubio actually talked about the “Democratic Party” when every good Republican knows the Right and Fox News has rebranded them as the “Democrat Party”.
  • Ted Cruz also talked about going back to the gold standard and how great the country was when we were on the gold standard. The Washington Post wonk blog though noted that the Great Depression was caused by slavish adherence to the gold standard.
  • Ben Carson claimed that by 1876 the United States was the largest economic power in the world, which no doubt was news to the United Kingdom, which claimed that title at the time.
  • Carson also said that the Chinese were deeply involved in the conflicts in the Middle East, while China has wisely largely stayed out of the conflict.
  • Donald Trump said we are losing jobs like crazy when we added 270,000 jobs just last month and we have netted jobs every month for the last seven years.
  • Macro Rubio said there was nothing more important than being a parent, effectively slamming singles.
  • Rand Paul wants everyone to pay a flat tax of 14.5 percent, less a home mortgage and charitable deductions. So a poor person earning $10,000 a year should pay $1450 a year income taxes, in addition to the sales taxes they disproportionately pay? It’s sounds fair I guess in Rand Paul’s insular world.
  • Carly Fiorina thinks it’s bad that Obamacare brought the uninsured rate below ten percent because of socialism or something.
  • Ben Carson said only 19.8 percent of black teenagers have a job, which would mean 80% of black teens do not, when in fact more than fifty percent of black teens do have jobs.

So there was the usual obfuscation and erroneous claims, par for the course for these fact-free debaters, but it seemed the more wrong the statistics were the more the audience ate it up. More dubious facts will doubtless be revealed in their next debate, which fortunately won’t be until December.

Next up: a second Democratic debate this weekend.