hardline political news and analysis

Month: September, 2016

A Microcosm of the Campaign

The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump served as a microcosm of their characters, styles and campaigns. Clinton arrived prepared, poised and ready to bait Trump into responding to her most provocative attacks: his temperament, his tax records, his dubious business practices, and his lack of preparation. Trump arrived undeservedly confident of his debating skills and ability to do one-on-one to Clinton what he had done to a shelf-full of Republican primary opponents: bluster, intimidate and spew half-truths (at best).

Let’s be clear that what is important about the debate aftermath is not who scored the most points; this isn’t a high school state championship after all. What matters is (a) how voters – especially undecided voters, who hopefully watched – evaluate the candidates’ performances; (b) how the media describe what happened for those who didn’t watch or who need some guidance in sifting the wheat from the chaff; and (c) what the polls reflect in the days to come.

The immediate reactions were mixed, as they always are. CNN, whose commentators gave Trump’s performance higher marks than did MSNBC, ran a quick poll that found viewer evaluations favored Clinton by nearly a 2-1 margin. Democratic commentators naturally gushed over Clinton’s performance, especially James Carville who appeared nearly giddy in the debate’s aftermath. Importantly, Republican commentators, most notably Steve Schmidt (a former McCain strategist), was almost as apoplectic about Trump’s undisciplined behavior.

They key question for me, as with all issues related to campaigns, is whether the performance of each candidate persuaded voters to move out of the undecided category. It is difficult to believe that Trump’s vintage performance would move an undecided voter into his camp, whereas it is reasonable to conclude that Clinton’s measured, serious demeanor and exhibition of detailed information might well persuade some undecideds that she is the superior candidate. In that regard, rather than parsing each statement or answer, she was the winner.

The climax of the debate for me, hands down, was Trump’s unwise foray into a discussion of his temperament. In my earlier blog last weekend, I highlighted the temperament issue as the one I would have Hillary focus on; as it turns out, Trump did it for her. To be honest, I nearly dropped my pen when he claimed his greatest asset is his temperament. OK, let’s be clear: when your opponent hands you the line you can run with till Election Day, it’s been a good evening. Trump may be able to lay claim to some strengths as a candidate – the articulator of lower income white angst comes to mind – but no reasonably intelligent person would conclude his temperament is an asset, let alone his “greatest” asset. I could practically hear the film editors rushing to the editing room to re-cut all those commercials showing a volatile, explosive, vulgar Trump to insert his absurd statement as the introductory overlay. I wasn’t disappointed: it showed up within 12 hours, and it’s a doozy; plan on seeing it non-stop from now to November.

Clinton’s performance was not perfect by any means; occasionally she slipped into demonstrating that she was the smartest person in the room, reeling off acronyms and the names of obscure foreign leaders or adversaries. Her comeback on his charge that she lacked stamina was good – highlighting her globetrotting as Secretary of State and her 11 hour testimony on Benghazi before a House committee — but he had a good response (“wrong experience”).  More importantly, her answer opened what could have been a devastating segue into a discussion, in the hands of a more skilled debater, of her shortcomings as Secretary of State. But she also projected voluminous knowledge, an ability to parry Trump with a gentle put-down instead of an off-putting battering ram, and a willingness to sustain a smile on the split screen during Trump’s venal attacks. She skillfully raised differentiating issues that will cut against Trump with that undecided portion of the electorate –- equal pay, minimum wage, student loan relief – and found opportunities to remind viewers of his vile and un-presidential attacks on women, his shoddy business practices and his refusal to release his tax returns: all issues a voter not immersed or interested in policy nuances would easily understand. But she missed an opportunity to follow-up on his charges about manufacturers exporting jobs by pointing out that all of the products bearing his name are made overseas.

Trump showed some strength early on, but quickly dissipated into an angry, uncouth loudmouth who lacked both the substantive knowledge and – sorry, Donald – temperament to be President. He was doing pretty well attacking Clinton’s positions on trade, ISIS and deficit spending, and he forced her into what was unquestionably her worst stumble of the night, a full-throated defense of NAFTA. (You can be certain that mistake will be replayed exhaustively in battleground states hard-hit by job losses including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.) But Trump missed numerous opportunities to return to the issue and remind viewers what Clinton had just said, an amateur’s mistake. Meanwhile, he displayed an incredible tin ear to middle income voters, boasting he had paid no taxes on over $600 million in income last year (“That was smart”), hoping for a collapse in the 2008 housing market (“That’s called business, by the way”) and defending his refusal to pay contractors working on his construction projects. (Clinton should have mentioned there are thousands of such suits). As an attorney, Clinton should have pounced on Trump’s implication that he was innocent of racial discrimination in his rental practices because the Department of Justice suits were settled without an admission of guilt, which is no exoneration or dismissal of the charges. I was fascinated by Trump’s persistent assertion that he knew about foreign nations because he owned properties in various locales, and his admission that he took advantage of bankruptcy laws because he could.

Perhaps his most revealing statement all evening is one that voters should carefully consider. “My obligation right now” (note “right now,” in the midst of a presidential campaign) is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that’s what I do.” The American voter has reason to expect a little more attention to their well-being and security from a candidate for President.

Overall, a decent night for HRC, but not a knockout.  She deserves credit for being knowledgeable, managing Trump’s adolescent behavior and finding multiple opportunities for reminding voters of Trump’s unsuitability. Also, I give her and her team great credit for taking the debate deadly seriously, preparing assiduously, and not assuming that she could simply rely on experience and knowledge. She will have to demonstrate the same discipline in the two remaining debates and not fall prey to the assumption that because she vanquished Trump once, he will prove similarly inept in their future encounters.



Eve of Destruction

A few random thoughts the day before THE DEBATE, between book editing, exploring Santa Fe and deep anxiety over the presidential election.

The Debate

 OK, everyone’s heart is in their throat, realizing that all Trump need do is not foam at the mouth (a possibility) and he will be judged the equal of Clinton’s 40 years of public service and expertise.

My advice to the Clintonistas is simple: the only issue in this campaign is whether Trump has the temperament to be President. Sure, there are policy differences as well, but the gut question for rationale people even contemplating voting for Trump is whether he can be trusted to act responsibly. So Clinton should simply find as many opportunities as she can (and there will be many) to say to Trump: “Donald, that comment reflects exactly why you lack the temperament and judgment to be President. It is obvious your words and decisions would threaten the security of the people of this country.”

When Clinton is hit with provocative questions about emails, Benghazi or her supposed evasiveness, her response should not be to refute them substantively, but to dismiss them by saying, “The real issues are Mr. Trump’s complete lack of experience and his temperament that will endanger the safety of the people of this country.”

I also would not be opposed to finding an opportunity for this: “You know, I don’t think Mr. Trump would hire and architect or an engineer or a welder to work on one of his casinos of hotels if that person had never spent an hour doing such important work, regardless of whether he agreed with their opinions (or whether he intended to pay them for their work). Why would we entrust the safety and security of this country, and the American people, to someone without any demonstrated experience in dealing with the most complex national or international challenges?”

Gary Johnson: Will He Be Missed at the Debate?

Johnson’s absence increases the chances that Trump will be the candidate most likely to say something truly jaw-dropping. Here is a recent offering of the Libertarian’s musings that will not be offered on stage at Hofstra on Monday night:

“I mean, the plate tectonics at one point, Africa and South America separated, and I am talking now about the Earth and the fact that we have existed for billions of years and will going forward. We do have to inhabit other planets. I mean, the future of the human race … is space exploration.”

OK, as Bernie Sanders says: this is no time for a protest, 3rd party vote.

Congress: Who Is Driving This Train?

 End-of-the-session continuing resolutions and pre-election maneuvering are always fascinating (and a little unsettling) to watch, and this year proves no exception. As I have long noted, the conflict is within the House Republican Conference where the Freedom Caucus threatens to withhold support for a CR that might become law unless Speaker Ryan, House Democrats, the Senate and President Obama all do what the Freedomites demand. Not going to happen. So Ryan again likely will have to pass a CR with Democratic votes, although even that is looking problematic because Republicans are balking at providing assistance to Flint, Michigan residents following the water contamination debacle.

Some Republicans seem to have figured out they are doing grave damage to their party in battleground Florida by delaying the provision of the $1.9 billion requested by President Obama last February for addressing the spread of the Zika virus. Still, the Republicans are insisting on unrelated riders as the price for Zika funding, including a ban on the Securities and Exchange Commission requiring that public entities reveal their political spending. There’s a connection most voters would immediately appreciate: no money to stop a deadly virus unless you also agree to cover up special interest campaign spending! Every Zika case in the country – 19,000 so far — should be ascribed to Republican procrastination. Coming from the same people who profess so much concern for the unborn, one might have thought a more timely and compassionate response would have been in order.

Of course, Louisianans who are desperate to secure money from the federal government – which they disparaged when the Northeast required emergency aid – also wanted help responding to recent flooding. The willingness of these anti-Washington zealots to demand handouts (and not paid-for handouts, as they demanded in the past for Hurricane Sandy and other catastrophes) is really a marvel of self-serving hypocrisy, notable even by Louisiana standards (which are impressive). Perhaps they would have more time to consider the inconsistency of their appeal if some of the very same players were not also focused on trying to impeach IRS commissioner John Koskinen, who was not even in office when alleged (and disproven) investigations of conservative organizations were taking place.

Ryan’s “Relief”

 The beleaguered Speaker Paul Ryan has been spending the summer and early fall trying to avoid association with his Party’s presidential nominee. With an eye towards his own likely campaign four years from now, Ryan has been sweating the details of his own policy program to contrast with that of a possible President Clinton (and distinguish himself from his Party’s current nominee). Ryan is often given undeserved creds as a policy and budget genius, based largely on his ability to craft a House budget that passes only with Republican votes, needs no Senate agreement or presidential approval and thus demonstrates no particular political or legislative skill whatsoever.

What is important to note is that the tax plan embraced by this strategic and policy maven is decidedly reminiscent of every other Republican tax scheme for the past 40 years: high-minded talk about evening out the inequities in the tax laws, but stuffed full of policy that delivers most of the benefits to the very rich.

Under Ryan’s proposed tax rewrite, 99.6% of the tax cuts will go to the richest 1% of Americans. Before the masses take to the streets to celebrate Ryan’s tax relief plan, they might want to check who gets the relief. It isn’t them. No surprise.

By the way, this proposal is not quite the sharp reversal of policy Ryan would have us believe. In addition to being warmed over trickle down economic hooey, it tracks the tax laws approved by Republicans over the past decade that have showered $269 billion in tax breaks, not just on their favorite 1% of Americans, but on the wealthiest two-tenths of one percent!   That translates to 5,400 families! No report on how the trickling is going.

But the vast bulk of Americans aren’t ignored in the Ryan plan; at least not the poorest Americans who probably wouldn’t gain anything from tax cuts anyway. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens can look forward to $6.5 trillion in cuts to programs like Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition assistance.

Quick Quiz

OK, here is a quiz you might want to take the day before THE DEBATE.

Both of the following stories have been reported in the (loosely defined) press.   One is true; the other, I honestly believe, is not. Take a guess, and the answer will appear in the next DOMEocracy. Meanwhile, enjoy the debate.

o Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby

In June 1993, shortly after entering the White House, the Clintons adopted the infant survivor of a UFO, whom they named John Stanley Clinton. An observer told the Weekly World News, “He will almost certainly be educated and groomed for a life in public service.”

o One-fifth of Trump Supporters Disapprove of Lincoln Action

According to a January 2016 poll by YouGov, 20 percent of Trump supporters disagreed with Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. No word on whether they disapprove because it only applied to slaves situated in states in rebellion (i.e., Trump states), because they thought it should not have been issued at all, or because they think Lincoln’s Executive Order paved the way for President Obama’s unilateral actions.


Fire and Smoke

After a 4 day drive across much of the country and a week settling into our temporary housing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I am ready to resume writing DOMEocracy while completing my book on the House Class of 1974 and the impacts of congressional reform. There has been a lot of fire and smoke since the last DOMEocracy post – similar to the Zozobra festival torching of a 60’ high marionette I witnessed here – but after the smoke has cleared, does anything solid remain?

A number of earlier observations have proven accurate, at least in this still early point in a turbulent political year: Trump remains a profoundly disturbing, undisciplined, divisive and improbable (but not unelectable) candidate; Senate Democrats might narrowly win control, but (in my view), that is no certainly; House Republicans are putting a lot of partisan irons in the fire for use in early October; and Speaker Paul Ryan is confronting the same extremists within his Conference who doubt his fealty to conservative principals and his inclination to compromise with Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.

The Clinton campaign remains a careening force barely capable of staying on the tracks between non-issues (including her health), unresolved issues (the endlessly evolving emails), and inexplicable issues (why would Bill Clinton accept $17 million to glad-hand dubious for-profit educators at a time they are under investigation in Congress and his wife is contemplating a run for President)? One can only imagine the state of the polls if Secretary Clinton were running against virtually any other Republican.

House Democrats appear likely to pick up a number of seats – perhaps 15 or more – but predicting down ticket outcomes is very tricky, even when the outcome of the presidential race is a good deal clearer than it is today. Leader Pelosi continues to raise money and is adding races to her Red-to-Blue competitive list of challengers. The upbeat former Speaker refuses to rule out winning the House majority, which would unquestioningly return the gavel to her hand. The single biggest factor in that outcome and the election in general is the question of Republican turnout. Will GOP voters be so disenchanted with Trump that they stay home, or will they defy historical voter behavior and flood to the polls to support congressional candidates even if they intend to skip the presidential race? If Libertarian Gary Johnson continues to offer the kind of uninformed musings he uttered this past week (“What’s Aleppo?”), Republican voters may not even come out to vote for him in protest. GOP turnout will be crucial to Democratic prospects in the House.

While the rhythm of the presidential campaign will likely impact the House outcome more than any specific strategies hatched by the party leaders, Republicans have unwittingly provided Pelosi and Democrats with precisely the target that could resonate with voters. I downplay the significance of attacks referencing poor legislative performance or low numbers of votes; I don’t imagine such allegations influence undecided voters very much, and many, in fact, may be delighted that this Congress, for which so many Americans have only contempt, is passing few new laws. But the Republican inaction is providing a winning theme for Democrats: Republican mismanagement and extremism threaten the well-being and security of the American people. When voters feel there is something at risk, particularly for them and their families, they pay attention; when the risk is to an institution for which they have little regard, there will be minimal impact.

By failing week after week, month after month, to approve legislation sought by President Obama and Democrats to attack the Zika virus threat, Republicans are putting Americans at risk. By insisting on inclusion of irrelevant riders like defunding Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico, Republicans are sending a message that their extreme agenda is more important than the health and safety of the American people. The same argument holds true for inaction on gun safety legislation and immigration reform. Republicans would rather promote division, inaction and extremism than do what they are being paid to do: protect you, me, and millions other Americans who pay their salaries. So get rid of them and let someone else bring forward a reasonable gun bill, a balanced immigration bill, and a Zika control bill that will pass with overwhelmingly bipartisan votes. That is precisely the strategy successfully pursued by Democrats in 2006; the problem isn’t the institution, it is the people who are running it. So change the leadership by changing control.

Instead of addressing these urgent issues, Republicans continue to engage in the circular firing squad that was once the signature formation of Democrats. (As political scientists have noted, large majorities by definition contain more disputatious factions than relatively homogeneous minorities.) As I had anticipated, the Freedom Caucus zealots are thinking of spending September planning the impeachment of the IRS Commissioner, a fairly low priority for most Americans. Some are also discussing plans to censure the Democrats who sat in on the House floor in June to protest inaction on gun violence. Waste of time. And they are surely planning a few privileged votes holding Hillary Clinton in contempt for emails, Benghazi, and probably coughing. All designed to force Democrats into defending their nominee (which virtually all are unhesitatingly doing already).

They also are throwing up resistance to any long term budget deal that would lock in the agreed spending formula from a year ago, preferring either a government shut-down or a bloody fight over additional cuts and Obamacare riders that will once again leave their Speaker no alternative but to cut an unsavory deal with Pelosi and Obama. “How’d that work out for John Boehner,” asked Freedomite Paul Gosar of Arizona. Another GOP dissident recently told Politico that “the question many of us have is whether [Ryan’s] leadership is any different than Boehner’s.” The answer to that, as I predicted some months ago, is “no,” if Republicans refuse to back his budget and appropriations strategy to free the beleaguered Speaker from pleading with Pelosi for votes.

Accepting a deal to avoid what would be a cataclysmically harmful government shutdown five weeks before the election now seems likely to produce challenges to Ryan’s re-election as Speaker. So will bowing to reality and dropping the riders to the Zika bill, an absolute certainty unless Ryan wants to kiss off several GOP seats in Florida, including Marco Rubio. Acquiescing in an effort to ram the TPP trade deal through the Lame Duck session, as some are predicting (but I think unlikely) would create yet another dilemma for the pro-trade/business money dependent Ryan. Accepting any one of these scenarios could mean a real challenge for Ryan reaching 218 votes for Speaker, assuming Republicans are even in the majority. Recall that Boehner had two dozen “no” votes from the Right wing in 2015, and with a diminished GOP Conference including a higher proportion of nay-sayers in 2017, Ryan could face trouble for being anything but an obstructionist.

All of this maneuvering is understandably far beyond anything the average voter will follow. The question will be whether citizens remain so discouraged and fatalistic that they just give up on the whole operation and stay home playing Pokemon Go or watching Netflix. How much more ludicrous can it get? Sometimes it feels we are simply doomed to repeat the most demoralizing political experiences in recent memory:

  • Newt Gingrich diagnosing Hillary Clinton’s coughing spell and launching into a coughing spell of his own before hinting she might have a more serious problem than allergies. Sounds a bit like Bill Frist diagnosing Terri Schiavo’s coma, having never examined the patient.
  • Donald Trump asserting that had he rather than Obama been confronted with the Chinese failure to allow use of the official airplane stairs, he would have simply refused to participate in the G20 meeting. (“If that were me, I would say, ‘You know what, folks, I respect you a lot but close the doors, let’s get out of here.’”) That undiplomatic possibility revived memories of Newt’s own fit when he shut down the government because Bill Clinton didn’t talk with him enough on Air Force One, prompting one of the great Daily News front pages in history.
  • Or Trump assuring voters he has a “secret plan” to defeat ISIS, but he doesn’t want to talk about it before he is Commander in Chief.   Sounds a lot like Nixon’s 1968 secret plan to end the war in Vietnam, which continued until 1975.   At least Trump inspires confidence with his explanation of his ISIS strategy: “When I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine or maybe doesn’t.” Oh, good grief.

We have two months to go and we are three weeks from the first debate in what is already an interminable and inexplicable election season. I will be interested to see if the Southwest offers a different perspective as events unfold.