Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Trump's Misstep? [Updated]

I can't miss  an opportunity to comment on Trumps's latest shenanigans--not when he says something like this: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." (It was a press release; he hasn't--yet--started speaking in the third-person.)

I've been bullish on Trump's chances since the first debate, but I'm pretty sure this is the end of his bid for the nomination. For these reasons:
  1. He doesn't actually have enough support to win now; he needs to convince backers of other candidates as the primary goes on.
  2. While hardcore supporters won't abandon him, this is a disqualifying statement in the vein of Carson's pyramid granaries. Voters (and humans in general) constantly measure candidates not only against their own criteria, but against the perceived judgment of the population. It happens in social groups of all kinds. In politics, candidates sometimes get upgraded because of this psychological assessment (Obama in '08), but more often they get downgraded. Think Perry with his "oops" moment, Cain with the "Uzbeki-becki-stan-stan" comment, and Carson this year. I think it manifests as private embarrassment and a wish to dissociate yourself from someone who seems so absurd to the majority. When it happens, marking yourself as a backer threatens *your own* social standing, a risk non-hardcore voters will eschew. (In other words, think high school.)

  3. There is another candidate (or two) who basically believe the same things Trump does, but who will be disciplined enough not to issue a disqualifying/ embarrassing statement. I'm thinking Cruz mainly, but Rubio would do in a pinch. If there were only a Jeb as the alternative, it might be different.

Prediction: Trump will spend the next week trying to muscle through near-universal national and international condemnation, probably doubling down along the way. Critically, though, the GOP has finally found an attack point, and they will go after him mercilessly. In next week's debate (Dec 15), this issue will suffuse everything, and the other candidates will begin to emerge as plausible alternatives for Trump voters. His popularity, already stalled, will slowly erode on the way to Iowa--which was always going to be a tough win for a non-evangelical like Trump.
So like Carson, he'll just slowly fade away. Unlike Carson, he will not go quietly.

Update, Dec 9.
Hmmm, this would seem to undermine my thesis a mite:
Bloomberg Politics Poll: Nearly Two-thirds of  Likely GOP Primary Voters Support Trump's Muslim Ban

Almost two-thirds of likely 2016 Republican primary voters favor Donald Trump's call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., while more than a third say it makes them more likely to vote for him.
Probably for reasons of pride, I'm not ready to completely back off my prediction of Trump's demise, but this is powerful evidence that his support is real, racist, and in all likelihood long-lasting.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris, November 13, 2015

My thoughts are with those suffering the terror attacks last night in Paris. That includes not only the direct victims, but everyone who will feel the pain of this trauma. We should not exclude sympathy for those who committed the acts or those who wake this morning cheering them. Hatred is the source of violence, a confused state in which we think that acting on our hatred will somehow bring a positive result.

In moments like this, we can either try to open our hearts and find connection in our common humanity, or we can use these events to nurture the very hatred--the confusion--that led to the attacks in the first place. May all people, on this day especially, find peace and the source of peace in their hearts.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Republicans on Empty

About a half hour into the fourth presidential debate, I realized I was experiencing a new sensation: boredom. There was nothing new. The central allure of this batch of candidates was their outrageousness. Untethered from the strictures of truth, they have been free to offer wondrous and amazing promises: 4% annual growth (Bush), no, six! (Huckabee); a wall across the southern border (Trump), and the northern one, too! (Walker); flat taxes in the form of a tithe (Carson) and plenty of "dynamically scored*" budgets (everyone); a three-page tax code (Fiorina); no abortions for anyone, under any circumstances (most of them); cooperation from Putin (Trump) and the submission of our foes (everybody); and perhaps most improbably of all, cross-party harmony (Cruz, of all people, suggested that one).

None of these futures exist in a world governed by physics--or other humans--but no matter, it was great theater. Problem is, once you offer people the world in the first debate, what do you offer in the second--or fourth? Last night, the candidates continued to push around their old talking points but we, the ravenous mob they'd whipped up, wanted more. There is no more. There's no more left to promise.

Now the whole operation has become a defensive crouch, in which the candidates attempt to smile their way through defenses of these preposterous claims by force of will alone. One example: the moderator pointed out that job growth under Clinton and Obama way outpaced growth under the Bushes and asked Fiorina about it. She began her remarks, “Yes, problems have gotten much worse under Democrats” before robotically ticking off her own talking points.

There was one interesting undercurrent that heartened my lefty heart. Throughout the debate, the candidates continued to lapse into liberal complaints. This is a politician's natural response to voter discontent, but it is unfamiliar terrain for republicans. Last night we heard Rubio speak favorably about the importance of child care to working families, Cruz get populist about jobs (albeit in the context of assaulting undocumented workers), Carson complain about the power of big banks, Kasich talk about the greed of Wall Street, and a number of candidates reframe their (extremely regressive) tax plans in terms of "fairness." Their solutions are bizarre--because, after all, GOP policies were never designed to address these issues--but even addressing them at all shows reality is seeping into their thoughts.

All of this represents a subconscious recognition of the real issues in America--and that's not good for Republicans. Because, once they exit this reality-free bubble they've built for themselves, they're going to have to face real voters and real issues. And that could be tough.

(Horse race note: no movement. They have fallen into mostly static positions, and last night didn't shake anything up.)

*Dynamic scoring. When Republicans draft budgets with gigantic tax cuts (which is to say, when Republicans draft budgets), the math works against them. Enormous tax cuts mean revenues plummet and the budget deficit soars. To elide this reality, Republicans have come up with the idea that, owing to the effect of the tax cuts, the economy will become supercharged and grow improbably fast as a result. They want that improbable growth factored into the calculation and, sure enough, if you assume four or six percent annual growth, the deficit disappears! In actual practice, this effect has never been observed. (cf Bush tax cuts; Kansas.)

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Who Gets Carson's Votes?

Yesterday was quite a day for the front-runner in the GOP race (Ben Carson, whose lead mystified 98% of all democrats). It turns out that he has unnecessarily embellished a great deal of his personal biography. (If you become one of the world's best neurosurgeons, whatever your background, you can basically drop the mic and move on.) Because politics has become almost wholly tribal, righties spent the day going to bat for Ben, but I think we can all acknowledge that these are the revelations no politician ever recovers from. 

So the interesting question is: who benefits from Carson's 25 points in the polls? You'd think Trump at first blush, but probably not. Trump's support is weirdly ecumenical; he does well with all constituencies. Carson's support is almost entirely evangelical. Huckabee is off the main stage because Carson's ascent came entirely at his expense. Carson siphoned bits off Bush as well.

What comes next will be very instructive. (Assumption: by the Iowa caucuses, Carson will have lost twenty of his 25 polling points. At least.) If the mood of the party has shifted in the direction everyone always expected, Rubio and Cruz should expect to benefit. If the GOP electorate really is ready to take pitchforks to the establishment, Trump will. Huckabee and Santorum, the past two winners of the Iowa Caucuses, will also be playing for those votes.

Basically, though, I think Trump is the guy to watch. Carson's imminent collapse is going to help someone. If Trump gets those voters, it is going to be a VERY interesting election.

Friday, October 23, 2015


A few thoughts on this whole Benghazi thing. Let's start with a comment from conservative Byron York, writing in the conservative organ the Washington Examiner. He summarizes the Benghazi "scandal."
"At this point, there is really only one angle on Benghazi: Americans were in danger in a very dangerous country, security was deteriorating, and the State Department and Secretary of State did little, and in some cases nothing, to protect them."

Indeed. The reason Benghazi looms so large in the conservative imagination is that it is one of the few foreign-policy events that both 1) went sideways, and 2) isn't an indictment of the foreign policy adventures Republicans love. (A critique of Obama's failures--Libya, Syria, ongoing drone strikes--would have to come from the left, non-neocon side.) And as failures go, it is small and routine--the kind of failure that is part and parcel of any complex activity. 

What is (pick one: alarming, outrageous, dispiriting) to me is that we exited a presidency in which gross errors of judgment and competence WERE committed--ones that were anything but routine--and there was no reckoning. Like:
  1. 9/11 
  2. Iraq
  3. Halliburton et al
  4. Torture
  5. Katrina 
  6. The financial crisis
  7. Allowing N Korea to develop nukes
  8. And so on
So on the one hand we had a grossly incompetent and likely corrupt administration that was never subjected to political repercussions while on the other the GOP used the levers of official government power to politically attack routine activity. As a Dem this is somewhat frustrating, but as an American, it is shocking. When even conservatives acknowledge that the Benghazi committee is a political hit job and that the event in question was no scandal, the entire country and every media organization should be outraged. Mostly, though, we're treating it as a normal game of politics.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Lincoln Chafee Will Not Be Our Next President

A late comment on the Dem debate.

Let's start with the dynamics of the race. Hillary came in as the overwhelming fave to win this. Even Bernie's summer momentum hasn't amounted to a real challenge. He's leading in NH, but this is basically meaningless. New England is much like a single state (call it Red Soxia), and if he couldn't get a lead in neighboring NH, his campaign would be over. He still trails in other early primary states and by a huge amount nationally. Debates are one of those moments when a challenger can shift the dynamics of the race and make his candidacy suddenly seem plausible. (With the GOP's relentless attacks and the media fascinated with her troubles, this was a dangerous moment for the front runner.) So the question going in was whether Sanders could begin to look like a credible threat to win the nomination.

Viewed through that lens, it was a huge win for Hillary. After weeks of questioning her campaign, of trying to think of a Sanders candidacy as plausible, seeing them on the stage for five minutes restored the original dynamic. She was sharp and focused, as charismatic and warm as she ever gets, and she looked like the only candidate (Dem or GOP) who could actually be cast in the role of President.
O'Malley has anti-charisma and Chafee came off like the hapless Bobby Newport from Parks and Rec. Webb's a perfect candidate for 1988. (Though even then his contempt for actually campaigning would have doomed him.)

So that leaves Bernie: could he come out and look like a plausible major party candidate? With apologies to all the Bernie-ites out there: no, he could not. He did exactly the opposite, coming out with a performance that in tone and word said, 'I will win or lose as an uncompromising progressive.' It's exactly why people love Bernie, and it's why he won't win. People were joking before the debate that this would be a test to see if he could use his "inside voice." He did not. He didn't moderate his language toward business, provoking one of the most fascinating exchanges I've witnessed as the candidates discussed whether they were capitalists. (Bernie: no, basically I'm not.)

Other issues. He doesn't care about a lot of issues and was (literally) distracted talking about foreign policy. He's sideways with the Dem electorate on guns. I think the biggest problem is that is affect, both in his barking Brooklyn voice and relentless attacks on monied interests, will wig out the average (read: disengaged and low-information) voter. Since we liberals love this kind of rhetoric, we're drawn to Bernie. Average Dems will use their gut feelings to assess Bernie (since they won't have the info to assess his policies) and conclude he's a wild-eyed crazy man.

Bernie won't instantly collapse in the polls, and he will continue to drive Hillary in the progressive/populist direction. But he will not be the candidate. That was the takeaway from last night's debate: barring some shocking new scandal, Hillary's going to sail to the nomination. And debates will help her.

My guess is that she did so well last night that Biden will scrap his flirtation with a run. She's running as Obama's heir, and she's doing too well to give him an opening.

Updates. Chafee and Webb out, Biden not running. And then there were two. Oh wait, O'Malley's still in it. And then there were two.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Carnival Moves to CNN

These are less formed because I have to get them out quick before I wind down in advance of the radio marathon tomorrow.

1. Trump plateaus, Carson fades. He knows absolutely nothing about public or foreign policy--which is why he rocketed to the lead. (How else to prove your authenticity?) But he's garnered the know-nothing vote. Tonight's performance will only solidify fears by those who haven't already jumped on the Trump train. Carson, who quietly got tons of praise during the last debate (I have a political twitter feed that's about a third conservative), got zippo tonight. He's also ignorant, but didn't hit the moral/Christian themes that buoyed him last time. Trump may not lose a ton of support, but I bet he doesn't pick any up; Carson begins his inevitable fade.

2. Jeb! and Walker tanked. Of the two, Walker was by far the worst. He's got nothing. Faced with the abyss, he did a disappearing act. I predict he's the next one gone. Jeb! needed to reestablish himself as a plausible establishment alternative, but he did anything but. He's the Eli Manning of the pack. (Non-sportos will have to google that reference.)

3. Carly and Rubio are the big wild card of the night. The conservatives were loving Carly early on. She now stands as the only one to seriously sting Trump. But she has an extremely intense affect that wore badly. The love tapered off. She might get a bump in the polls, but she'll need to figure out how to mix it up and offer levity and warmth if she's going to move into the top tier. As for Rubio, he has always been the consensus media fave, and they were loving him tonight. By normal standards, he did well. He's got a naturalness Carly would do to study. But for whatever reason, he is dead to the base. I don't see anything here that will turn it around, but you never know.

4. Some interesting issues-related stuff actually emerged. The Iraq war came up (Jeb's worst moment: he probably fatally wounded himself if he ever gets to the general by claiming his brother "kept us safe"--yeah, except for that one time), and the candidates sparred. Bush's legacy is mixed, and there were some who repudiated the decision. Cannabis came up and had a few defenders. Carly was surprisingly off-key about it. There was a bizarre moment when Trump cowed the two doctors on the stage into not shaming him on his shameful anti-vax position. Taxes are also funny: Carson wants a minimum wage indexed to inflation; Trump's good with the rich paying more. Some of them even acknowledged the existence of climate change. Honest fissures appeared that will be interesting in the future.

5. Tone. Things were wild at the start, but the evening slowly resolved into a pretty standard political debate. That helped the normals and hurt Trump, whose campaign is predicated on drama and chaos. Huckabee has become angry Uncle Mike, Rand is coming to terms with the obsolescence of his campaign, Cruz is aggressively unlikable but to all of his ~8%, Kasich and Christie were basically reasonable but way out of step with the party (read: doomed).