Democratic Presidential Nomination: Early Musings

As anyone within reach of media is aware, California Sen. Kamala Harris has just announced her candidacy to be the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nominee. She has joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, and several other people you (or at least I) have never heard of as announced candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. There are obviously many more prospective presidents intending to enter the race, rumored to include former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke; one will obviously need a huge screen – both wide and high — to watch any early debates among the Democratic hopefuls.

First, an admission (although one of which I’m confident that anyone reading these pages is already aware): it is virtually inconceivable that I won’t vote for whomever the Democrats nominate if President Trump is the Republican nominee. I have heard it reported that Mr. Biden has asserted that the primary consideration for Democrats in choosing a nominee should be who can beat the President; while I wholeheartedly echo Mr. Biden’s sentiments, I would add a second factor, which Mr. Biden has seemingly taken for granted: that the nominee actually be qualified to be president.

As part of a November piece posing that the President might ultimately choose not seek re-election, I noted that despite former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s obvious weaknesses as a candidate, she still won 232 Electoral College votes in 2016; I suggested that “any reasonably acceptable” Democratic nominee running against Mr. Trump in 2020 might understandably anticipate readily carrying the states Ms. Clinton had won, and that to win the presidency, the Democrat might therefore only need to win Pennsylvania (20 Electoral College votes), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10)—three states that no one had expected Mr. Trump to win – or, instead of Wisconsin, Arizona (11) (a state which the 2018 GOP Senatorial candidate narrowly lost after unabashedly embracing Mr. Trump).

This is not a handicapping note; it is clear that at least half of the Democrats who intend to seek the 2020 presidential nomination are yet to declare. However, since I am fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate, given the barrage of presidential campaign ads that await Wisconsinites in the fall of 2020) to live in what may be the ultimate swing state, I have the following early impressions as to some of the factors that might affect the Democratic nominee’s chances to defeat the President, admittedly influenced by my instincts as to what type of candidate can beat Mr. Trump in Wisconsin:

  1. S/he will have to look strong on the stage against the President.  Even aside from the mantle of the presidency, he is a master at diminishing the stature of his opponent (ask Messrs. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, among others). Americans will not hire a weakling.

 

  1. S/he will have to have the requisite knowledge and experience.  I suspect that a number of marginal Trump voters now appreciate that not everyone can do this job; Democrats should nominate someone who is perceived as not only able to stand up to Mr. Trump, but also to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

 

  1. No “identity” candidates. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s Morning Joe positively gushes when talking about all of the qualified women running for the Democratic nomination. Ms. Brzezinski lives in an elitist bubble. Our people want candidates that are interested in helping them. Any candidate that emphasizes his/her identity differentiator will, in my view, lose to Mr. Trump. Stick to the issues; let identity speak for itself (as then-Candidate Barack Obama did, brilliantly, in 2008).

 

  1. No shiny new toys. I understand that Mr. O’Rourke may be preaching “Hope” as did Mr. Obama, but Mr. O’Rourke couldn’t even win his own state’s Senate seat. His national experience is six years as the El Paso representative.  (Although I credit Mr. Obama for using his charisma to pull us out of the Great Recession, I would suggest that his four years in the Senate ultimately proved to be insufficient grounding for the presidency.) Millennials may be coming, but older people vote in stronger numbers.

 

  1. No overtly progressive candidates. A debate is reportedly raging within the Democratic Party as to whether it should go further left, in the manner of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or more to the center in the manner of … Bill Clinton. If winning the presidency is the Democrats’ goal, this seems to me to be an unproductive debate. The Democrats need the center to win. Independents’ and party moderates’ concerns about Mr. Trump center upon his demeanor, his veracity, his biases, and his disregard for our institutions, and much less on his substantive policies (whether they should be concerned with the latter is a separate issue). Given their abhorrence for Mr. Trump, all liberals will vote for whomever is the Democratic nominee. The conservative media will be very effective at painting any avowedly progressive Democratic candidate in scary tones. Don’t put up a candidate that some of Mr. Trump’s now-uncertain followers may be persuaded to find as alarming as he is.

 

  1. No unlikeable candidates (as contrasted with the affirmative need to be “likeable”). Mr. Trump is sufficiently unlikeable to a sufficient number of voters that there is no need for the Democrat to dazzle the voters … but s/he can’t be irritating in his/her own right. This may be a drawback for Ms. Warren, who occasionally seems too much the nagging schoolmarm.

 

  1. Have a credible plan to address the needs of a large swath of our economically desperate people. Mr. Trump’s supporters that yearn for a culturally homogeneous America are appropriately unreachable by a Democrat. The Democratic candidate must persuade those Trump supporters whose primary frustration is the lack of economic attention paid to them by both parties over the last 40 years that s/he hears them and has a plan to help them. Since polls show that most Americans now view the 2017 tax cut as primarily benefiting the rich, Mr. Trump may well have squandered his goodwill with this segment of his 2016 supporters.

 

I would submit that presidential elections are like football and basketball games: victory frequently depends upon matchups. Despite Democrats’ desire to emphasize their diversity, my current inclination is that their best chance to defeat President Trump would be to nominate either Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg; either has the gravitas to hold the stage against the President, can’t easily be painted as scary, and age won’t be a notable drawback. On the other hand, if the Republicans ultimately nominate a candidate not appreciably tarnished by Mr. Trump — for example, Nikki Haley — the matchup factors influencing victory might drastically change, and perhaps afford a different Democratic nominee greater electoral opportunity.  Much more to come.

Shifting Shutdown Stakes

Liberal talking heads are chortling about the latest polls setting forth Americans’ views regarding responsibility for the government shutdown [approximately 50% blame President Trump, 35% blame Congressional Democrats and 5% (from a certain perspective, perhaps the most discerning) blame Senate Republicans], and suggesting that the two sides are now so deeply entrenched that only an occurrence such as a general travel shutdown or air disaster – perhaps due to the absence of sufficient air traffic controllers or TSA officials – will bring it to an end.  These same liberal pundits clearly believe that if such an event occurs, it will be predominantly blamed on the President.  I’m not so sure.  One could pose that as things stand today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats have more at risk than Mr. Trump if there is a calamity or dramatic disruption in our people’s lives attributable to the shutdown.

First, Mr. Trump:  he has nothing to lose by holding out.  The 35% of our people that currently blame Democrats for the shutdown are his core base, and no disruptive or tragic circumstance is going to alter their opinion that the shutdown was caused by the Democrats.  The only thing that could damage his standing with his supporters would be his abandonment of his position; if he does so, he’ll be assailed as a weak capitulator by the alt-right and scorned as an impotent loser by the avid left.  (It is no small irony that alt-right commentators, and not his detractors, goaded him into the contest that now threatens the viability of his presidency.)  He does, moreover, have a unique advantage:  he cares only about himself.  What the shutdown is doing to others is of interest to him only insofar as it reflects on him.

Ms. Pelosi and Democrats face a different challenge:  while a portion of the liberal base (the alt-left, if you will) may be so interested in defeating Mr. Trump that they have lost perspective as to where the goal posts are, the real public relations battle here is over the impressions of independents and moderates of both parties.  Currently, these remain with the Democrats, undoubtedly due in significant measure to the President’s tactically idiotic public assumption of responsibility for the shutdown.  However, none of the reporting I’ve seen has shown the Democrats to have effectively articulated the moral case against the wall arising from Mr. Trump’s many bigoted pronouncements, nor have they made any meaningful effort to increase pressure on Senate Republicans by repeatedly informing the public that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to take up measures that Senate Republicans approved before the shutdown began.

Which causes me to suggest:  if Democrats sit on their hands and rely on current polls, and there is a tragedy or widespread disturbance in Americans’ lives arising from the shutdown, many of our citizens – already possessed of deep reservations about whether our government works any more – will blame both sides.  Confidence in our system will be yet further degraded.  It would call into further question Democrats’ premise that we are best served by a strong governmental presence.  Any outcome which further erodes our people’s already terribly-frayed trust may initially inure to the benefit of Republicans – who have little use for government – but, I would submit, ultimately benefits no American, because there have been few points in our history when we have been more in need of sound governance.

Although I’m obviously not shy about adding my two cents regarding what might be done to address a difficult situation, I have relatively little of a practical nature to offer here.  I would recommend that Ms. Pelosi do a much more aggressive job of articulating the moral case against the wall, and putting some fire under Senate Republicans; but additionally, I would have the staff come up with an aggressive set of demands that would resoundingly affirm a national welcoming stance toward immigrants in return for perhaps $1 Billion in wall funding:  not only a path to citizenship for DACA “children” and what the Republicans have already agreed to, but perhaps a legislatively-mandated doubling (from Obama Era levels) of the number of immigrants – both family- and commercially-related – annually allowed to legally enter the country, a path to legal status (if not citizenship) for illegal immigrants (not guilty of any other crimes) already in the country, etc., etc.  (Such proposals might garner support from some Republican donors in the commercial and agricultural sectors whose businesses depend on immigrants; the way to a reluctant politician’s heart is through his/her donor base.)  While Mr. Trump and his advisers would almost certainly reject such proposals, these overtures might persuade party moderates and independents that Democrats were indeed willing to compromise — to work for us – which will, hopefully, help shore up our people’s faith in the ultimate ability of our leaders to govern if there is a major disruption – or worse, a tragedy – that arises as a result of the shutdown.

Meacham: Ronald Reagan’s Hopeful Farewell

The attached link is to a New York Times opinion piece by historian Jon Meacham.  As most reading this are aware, I consider Ronald Reagan – despite the fact that in retrospect, I am troubled by the ultimate effects of some of the fiscal policies he initiated — to have been [at least up to this point — always have hope for the future  🙂 ] the best President of my lifetime.  I hope you can access Mr. Meacham’s essay.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/10/opinion/reagan-trump-speech.html

The Wall and the Swastika

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, on January 4, 2019:

“A wall is an immorality.  It is not who we are as a nation.…  This is not a wall between Mexico and the United States that [President Trump] is creating here; it’s a wall between reality and … [the President’s] supporters. … He does not want them to know how he is hurting them, so he keeps the subject on the wall….  We are not doing a wall … A wall is an immorality between countries.  It’s an old way of thinking.  It isn’t cost effective.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on January 8, 2019:

“As recently as 2015, Sec. Clinton boasted, ‘I voted numerous times to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in.’ … Obviously, that was then.  … Today, the new Speaker of the House is trying to argue that a physical barrier is ‘immoral.’  …  Now look, walls and barriers are not immoral.  How silly.  … [B]ack in 2006 … then-Senator Clinton, then-Senator Obama and [Sen. Chuck Schumer] were proud – ‘proud’ – to vote for physical barriers.  The only things that have changed between now and then are the political winds and, of course, the occupant in the White House.  So this is no newfound, principled objection; it’s just political spite – a partisan tantrum being prioritized over the public interest [My emphasis].”

One of the legal areas to which I devoted my career was trademarks.  Among the major tenets of trademark law is the stronger an association members of the public attach to a mark over time, the greater its power.  Occasionally, when speaking to our marketing folks about general trademark law principles, I would refer to the Swastika — perhaps the best example in history of the connotations a mark can gather.  Its design is artistic, symmetrical, and powerful.  It would have been a great mark for a gym shoe.  Over centuries, it enjoyed extensive and positive connotations across Eastern cultures and in this country.  I recall us seeing depictions of it in ancient Native American art during a recent trip to the southwest.

Its pedigree prior to the 1930s doesn’t matter.  While one could argue that any graphic design is just “a design” … the Swastika cannot be viewed as a design.  It was made synonymous with monstrous evil.

I would suggest that at least in the remarks noted above, Rep. Pelosi weaved disappointingly between the moral, political, and practical in trying to explain why she called the Wall an “immorality.”  While there are apparently valid concerns about whether $5 billion to extend the border wall is an effective means to enhance our border security, if the disagreement is framed in practical terms, it’s hard to contend that the government should be shut down over a mere fraction of the federal budget.  Either Ms. Pelosi couldn’t articulate her fundamental rationale (very unlikely) or didn’t want to inject provocative rhetoric into an already fraught situation (most probably).  For his part, Sen. McConnell’s indication that it is “silly” to label a wall “immoral” was, in the current context, possibly oblivious but more probably a politically disingenuous side step.  (I suspect that if one reviewed Sen. McConnell’s early Senate speeches – he was first elected in 1984 – one might well find that at some point, he called the Berlin Wall “immoral.”)

There has to be a higher principle than depriving the President of a political lollipop or the wall’s cost efficiency to require so many of our people within and outside the federal government to deal with the economic hardship they are now facing.  There has to be a purpose worthy of their sacrifice.  I would submit – being acutely aware that this impasse is creating no financial hardship for me – that there is.  The Border Wall shouldn’t be funded because — in the current context – it is no longer a “wall”; it is an immorality.  When Sens. Obama, Clinton, and Schumer were voting during the Republican Bush Administration to fund border construction, they were supporting a structural means for reducing illegal immigration.  When at the beginning of his campaign Mr. Trump declared Mexicans – and by extension, all brown-skinned peoples — crossing the border “murderers and rapists,” and as during the last several years he has repeatedly indicated that he will stop the (nonexistent) “invasion” he claims is occurring at our southern border through a “great, big, beautiful wall,” he transformed a structural means of reducing illegal immigration into a symbol of racial bigotry.

Sen. McConnell was unwittingly right on a couple of points:  2006 was then – when a border wall was just … a wall.  I suspect that under future administrations of either party, a border wall will again be considered merely a means to reduce illegal immigration.  However, while we have – using Mr. McConnell’s words — “the current occupant in the White House,” the wall is a trademark of hate.  Its funding should be rejected.  Hopefully, Democrats are holding fast for the right reason as our people’s financial hardships multiply.

Pondering Tonight’s Oval Office Address

In the last post, I referred to a concept, Naïve Realism, that I should have defined and seems likely to prevail among our people after President Trump’s Oval Office Address this evening.  In return for ending the government shutdown, the President is widely expected to call for the funding of additional wall construction along our southern border to stem what he and his cohort are claiming to be a “crisis” of illegal entry into our country by migrants and terrorists.  Mr. Trump may threaten to declare – although the Washington Post is currently reporting that it is unlikely that he will declare — a national emergency; such a declaration would reportedly provide him with what some pundits have described as largely unfettered authority to divert funds from other defense initiatives to the construction of the additional border barrier.

Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets aggressively point to government data as evidence of the lack of any emergency, and a number of commentators – including Chris Wallace of Fox News – have pretty effectively shown that literally only a handful of the 4,000 suspected terrorists that the Homeland Security Agency states that it detains at our borders every year are apprehended at our southern border.  [There appears to be an ongoing skirmish as to the relative threat posed by the 3,000 “Special Interest Aliens (SIAs)” that U. S. Border and Customs Protection reports it has encountered in 2018 at the southern border.  On one hand, DHS indicates that a SIA may pose a national security risk due to travel patterns and like factors indicating a potential nexus to terrorism; on the other hand, DHS states that a SIA designation does not indicate any derogatory information about the individual.  You be the judge.]

In short, this dispute has evolved into the kind of political rugby scrum that existed before the Trump presidency but has been exacerbated by it:  the President shouting an emotional, disingenuous, divisive message that stokes his base; Democrats and the mainstream media countering with facts that, while overall having the better part of truth, are presented with a highly partisan relish.

Mr. Trump’s supporters hope that his speech tonight will sway a larger segment of our citizens to his position; his opponents fear that such might occur.  This may prove to be another prediction that is only so much Noise, but I don’t think we’ll see much movement.

A while back, one of our sons gave me the book, The Three Languages of Politics, by Arnold Kling.  At one point, Mr. Kling refers to the concept of Naïve Realism, which he describes as “… each of us naively believ[ing] that our perspective is real, even though different perspectives contradict one another.”  He in turn cites a piece by Psychology Professor Matthew Lieberman, who describes Naïve Realism as “an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise adaptive aspect of brain function” which serves us well when perceiving the physical world but can readily betray us in the social domain of understanding, where “… our ‘seeing’ is driven less by external input and more by expectation and motivation.”  A link to Professor Lieberman’s (short) piece is below.

https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27006

“Naïve Realism” may simply be a highfalutin way of describing what we all know:  that we each more readily accept what we want to believe.  In any event, I would suggest that the President’s supporters – alarmed by the threat they believe exists at the southern border — will be moved by his address, and enthusiastically support any action he takes; his opponents – believing the President’s claims a political sham — will sharply dispute his assertions, and aggressively attempt to counter any measures he initiates.  Those anywhere in the middle will probably dismiss the whole fracas as political posturing – and simply want the government reopened.  Virtually no citizen’s opinion will be altered.  (Indeed, I wonder how many of our people are even still listening; Mr. Trump’s constant maelstrom seems to have exhausted not only his opponents but many of his supporters).

I am concerned about the ramifications of what appears to be Mr. Trump’s current course for two reasons, however:  first, his showing tonight will dilute one of the few tools of the office that he hasn’t already sullied to create a national consensus if our nation is ever confronting a true emergency during his presidency; and second, although his declaration of an emergency, either tonight or in the future, would presumably create a path to reopen the government by getting him – at least in the short run — the funding he demands while enabling the Democrats to have stood their ground, I fear that his invocation of an emergency will give Democrats a rallying cry to attempt to curb a President’s emergency powers.  It may likewise cause a judge to rationalize limits on a President’s powers that will adversely hamstring future Presidents.  The fact that we currently have an unprincipled and ill-suited person filling the office is, in my view, insufficient ground to limit the latitude to act in our behalf that we want at the disposal of an able and well-intended Chief Executive in the time of true national emergency.  (There is, of course, also the countervailing concern that could arise from any challenge to the President’s actions:  a judge’s rejection of limits on the President’s power could cause Mr. Trump, if over time he feels increasingly besieged, to feel dangerously emboldened).  I would submit that Congress – even in a more bipartisan, nationally-focused iteration than exists today – is by necessity too unwieldy to move with the resolve and alacrity required in a true time of need; further, I would venture that the chances are extremely high that we will more quickly return an able, well-intended individual (of either party) to the presidency than we will be able to install a majority of Senators and Representatives able to look beyond their own respective political self-interests to the good of the nation as a whole.

On Shutdown Machinations

Every one of us is to some extent caught in our own Naïve Realism, but it’s hard for me to see how Republicans escape the political box that the President Trump has created for them over the current government shutdown or how Democrats, if they are at all adept, can’t split the common front that Republicans – except for a few foreign policy issues when the President has gone too far – have pretty well maintained throughout the first two years of the Trump term.

If I understand the situation correctly, after Rep. Nancy Pelosi was sworn in yesterday as House Speaker, the House passed bills to reopen the government – absent any funding for Mr. Trump’s border wall — which were essentially the same measures that the Senate had passed in December with what then appeared to be the President’s support.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that he will not submit the bills to the Senate for a vote, presumably because they would garner sufficient bipartisan support to pass; if presented with such bills, Mr. Trump will be required to either capitulate on his demand for wall funding or veto them – either of which has much more political hazard than advantage for him.  Mr. McConnell’s refusal to introduce the bills has thus far engendered criticism from Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, both up for re-election in 2020 in states Mr. Trump lost in 2016.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suspect that there may be a number of other Republican Senators that are privately frustrated by Mr. McConnell’s transparently-partisan maneuvering (new Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr — who has performed steadfastly as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the last two years – perhaps among them).

Although one needs to guard against being swept up in the commentary of hyperventilating liberal talking heads, I heard a comment this morning with which it seems hard to disagree:  by failing to submit the bills for a vote, Mr. McConnell is politically protecting the President – at some risk to some members of his own Senate caucus.

The big donors of both parties are awash in money (which I consider one of the great current threats to our system of government – an issue to be held for a serious separate post in the future).  We have, for example, seen countless ads over the last couple of years funded by billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer, sharply criticizing Mr. Trump and calling for his impeachment.  It seems to me that if Democrats are interested in using the shutdown to drive a strategic wedge within the Republican ranks, they should ignore the President – there is probably no human in the developed world that doesn’t already have an irreversible opinion, pro or con, of Mr. Trump — and instead get their well-heeled donors to fund the construction of messaging stressing these points:

That for purely political posturing, Senate Republicans are unwilling to consider the same bills to open the government that they already passed in December.

That Democrats are willing to authorize as much money for border wall funding as Mexico certifies to Congress it has paid to the U.S. for such funding.  (I admit:  This is too easy.)

That while Senate Majority Leader McConnell refuses to allow the Senate to vote on the same bills to reopen the government and pay federal workers that Senate Republicans passed in December, Mr. McConnell’s spouse (Elaine Chao) serves as the President’s Secretary of Transportation, and Mr. McConnell’s brother-in-law (Gordon Hartogensis) is Mr. Trump’s nominee to serve as the U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.  (As Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional Mr. Dooley once observed:  “… [P]olitics ain’t bean-bag.”  Mr. McConnell has seemingly made himself as much of a target for Democrats as the Republicans consider Ms. Pelosi.)

My guess:  That kind of messaging, run in all but the deepest of red states represented by Republican Senators, together with the internal heat undoubtedly being generated by those in the Republican Senate caucus feeling endangered – a displeasure perhaps intensified by the realization that Mr. McConnell’s own bid for re-election in Kentucky in 2020 is probably best served by sticking with the President — would create an exquisite squeeze upon Mr. McConnell and ultimately result in significant Republican defections …

Wintry Musings

While snowblowing yesterday, I reflected upon the truly uninspired (or, if you prefer, lethargic, languid, listless, lifeless, spiritless, or … feel free to consult your thesaurus if you think there’s a more suitable adjective) performance by the Green and Gold this past Sunday, and compared it with the replay I happened to see of the Cleveland Browns’ energized performance in the final minutes of their narrow loss to the Baltimore Ravens.  My interest in the Browns has been piqued this season not only due to their recent resurgence from perpetual doormat but because Eliot Wolf, after being passed over after last season for the Packer General Manager post in favor of Brian Gutekunst, had immediately left Green Bay to become Assistant Manager in Cleveland.  As the snow flew, I pondered:  Based upon what I saw of the teams’ play in the final week of the regular season, whose position would I rather be in:  Mr. Gutekunst’s, or Mr. Wolf’s?  (It was a much easier question to answer than how to avoid having icy mist blow back in my face.)  I did indeed consider posting something about the apparent contrast after the driveway was cleared.  Opted for a wonderful cup of coffee instead.

Last night, I opened The Wall Street Journal, and found that its sports columnist, Jason Gay, included this aside in his review of the upcoming NFL playoffs:

“Perhaps I should put myself up for the desirable [Head Coach] opening with the Cleveland Browns, or the sketchier one with the Green Bay Packers.  Settle down, Cheeseheads:  the Browns are indeed a better job right now than the Packers.  The Pack may be the more august franchise, they may have an all-timer in Aaron Rodgers, but how many good days does A-Rod have left on the frozen tundra?  Cleveland, meanwhile, is young and stacked and shredding generations of football self-loathing.  Plus:  [Baker Mayfield, Cleveland’s young quarterback].  Love that guy.”

There was clearly no need for me to post.  And that coffee was mighty good.