Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is the Dawn of The Donald the Death of Democracy?

I normally dislike political blogs that merely comment on existing media pieces, but I’m making an exception.  This piece by Ezra Klein has been re-posted oodles of times on the Internet:

Klein asserts that we are entering a Brave New Political World in which outsiders will dominate our political landscape, because the parties have lost control of the message.  Outsiders will spread their own messages from a plethora of media outlets and the Internet, and Super PACs  will reduce the role of the party as a financial crutch. So, does this environment favor the loon over the more moderate professional lawmaker?  Are we really facing a world in which guys with monikers like “The Donald” are serious contenders? Are parties dead? Or, is Klein failing to look at past elections when he draws conclusions about today?

To give Klein his due, outsiders are playing a dominant role this year.  Consider this quote: “A lot of the people on the net have given up on traditional politics precisely because it was about television and the ballot box, and they had no way to shout back. What we’ve given people is a way to shout back, and we listen — they don’t even have to shout anymore.”

Said by…you guessed it! Senator Bernie Sanders!

Actually, no.  This is from Governor Howard Dean from January, 2004, back in the halcyon days when Meet Up gave Dean millions of low dollar donors and he soared in early polls. Pundits declared a new era of Internet-driven campaigns, crowning Dean’s consultant Joe Trippi a king…until the dream crashed and burned in the Iowa caucuses.

How about this quote:

"So long as they continue to reward the very power brokers whose avarice contributed to the destitution and perpetuated social injustice, the Democrats might as well be Republicans."

When did Senator Sanders say this? He didn’t.  The speaker here is Ralph Nader, from his post-2000 election book, Crashing the Party. Nader was the classic outsider from the left, calling Al Gore and George Bush “Tweedledee and Tweedledum, they look and act the same, so it doesn’t matter which you get.”  

So, insurgent outsiders on the left are nothing new, especially in the era of open primaries.

But what about the trio of new insurgents on the right, (The) Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and Ms. Carly Fiorina?  Sure, Trump is leading most polls, but support is hovering at 20% down from a peak of 30%.  So, is this radically new?

Consider this quote:

“What I can't stand are the back-room deals. They're all in on it, the insider game, the establishment game—this is what we're running against.”

Trump? Fiorina? Carson? No, this is Patrick Buchanan, who won the Republican New Hampshire primary over George Bush in 1992 with 38% of the vote.

And finally, we have Ross Perot, in his 1992 third party bid. The feisty, give-em-hell Texan claimed he could “balance the deficit without breaking a sweat” and thumped both the Democrats and the Republicans for ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) calling job losses to Mexico “a giant sucking sound.” Like the other insurgents, Perot received outsized media attention and softball press coverage for months. Early poll leader? How about a late poll leader! In June, 1992, after Bill Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination, an NBC News poll of 1,500 likely voters had Perot at 38% to Bush’s 30% to Clinton’s 26%. Ultimately, Perot garnered 19% in the November, 1992 general election.

Klein’s argument that 2015 represents a new media landscape is absurd.  The Internet is not new, nor is cable. Nader ran most of his Presidential bid in 2000 online as did Dean in 2004. GOP outsiders prefer to go where their base is listening: talk radio. Talk radio has been the choice of the conservative working and middle class for decades. Ross Perot self-funded and bought his own 30 minute network prime time infomercials. None of these outsiders needed the party in any conventional sense, either for financial backing or messaging support.

Finally, the outsider argument really only applies to the GOP this cycle. There are no outsiders on the Democratic side. Both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders are political old hands; Sanders has been in Congress since 1991. Neither campaign is lacking skilled staff, although Clinton maintains a healthy financial advantage. Sure, Sanders is running to the left but a quarter century career in Congress hardly qualifies him as an outsider.

Insurgents and outsiders are not new and they are not just a phenomenon of recent history.  Bull Moose, anyone? But what is different today?

Congressional gridlock is driving the outsiders this year.  Congressional approval ratings are at 10%, an absurdly low number, and one bound to have political consequences. If a candidate can tap that anger, he or she will see a bump in polling numbers. Substance matters far less than tone.  It’s not what Trump says, it’s how he says it.  The GOP  has been out of power for 8 long years and their base hates President Obama with the heat of the surface of the Sun. Where the GOP failed was in its internal messaging. Party leaders kept the base inflamed, but by promising action of on a host of items they could never deliver on: we will repeal Obamacare, we will eliminate Planned Parenthood, we will fight to end same sex marriage, we will lower taxes, we will sack the Iran nuclear deal, we will vanquish Obama and his minions. But the Republican Congress can do next to nothing with a Democrat in the White House.  Frustrated by gridlock they don’t completely understand, a small but noisy cohort of Tea Party activists capture Congressional seats. They add to the gridlock, causing rifts even within GOP ranks. Their sole legislative tactic is the government shutdown, which is wildly unpopular even among most Republican voters.  So, the rhetoric grows hotter as the gridlock grows more entrenched.

The left is angry, too. President Obama, like most Presidents, campaigned in poetry but governed in prose. The left, in 2008, envisioned a grand New Deal, which was never going to pass muster even with 60 Democratic Senators. Not all 60 of those Senators were ideologically on the left or in lockstep with them.  Once the Democrats were blown out in the 2010 Congressional midterms, progress slowed. The left wants dramatic action on climate change, jail to the bankers, and free college tuition. Ultimately, President Obama can do very little with a Republican dominated Congress.

Ironically, as a response to gridlock we are electing ever more ideologically driven member of Congress. Which adds to the gridlock. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will ever completely vanquish one another. Until we can start getting along again, the cycle will continue. We cannot govern by base support alone.

THAT is what we are seeing in the 2016 election, and it is alarming. Gridlock is our Brave New Political World.

You can receive notices about new posts on the Data Driven Beltway on Twitter @MichaelAgosta1 and, I’ll be live-tweeting the October GOP debate.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Who Can? The VatiCAN!

The Pope has landed in Washington, DC. What can we expect? An anathema directed at Mr. Trump might be too much to wish for, but one can pray.  Visits by dignitaries are as common in DC as rallies and ruckuses. Most accomplish very little. They generate a press story or two, our local constabulary adroitly keeps the crowds corralled and the traffic moving, and we quickly return to the daily grind.

Will Pope Francis break the mold?

Religion in America today looks nothing like the sweeping, hope-filled crusades of Dr. Martin Luther King’s day.  The dulcet tones of “We Shall Overcome” are distant echoes. Today, far too much of our religious dialog is in the realm of the ideological right; a bile-laden landscape with sweaty condemnations reminiscent of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.”  There is a religious left; you find them huddled in a few hundred Unitarian congregations clustered on the coasts, dutifully singing multi-lingual hymns. But the Unitarians have little political power and less social influence, aside from providing political cover for atheist politicians: the Unis will neither confirm nor deny whether or not an individual is on their membership rolls.

But Pope Francis is different. Maybe, just maybe, this visit will be different, too. We have a Pope who knows how to Pope. He is single-handedly shifting the Catholic church’s focus from “abortion,  abortion, abortion, I did not sleep with that male child, abortion” to “love the poor”, and “don’t plunder the planet, for Pete’s sake, it’s the only one we’ve got.” Pope Francis is breathing new life into old time religion, where the meek inherit the Earth and the adherents lead with love.

Maybe Pope Francis will soften the bile on the religious right, re-energize a giant, but soporific, American Catholic church and bring the left back in from the Godless cold. The left, of late, reviles all religion, apparently forgetting that Martin Luther King's first name was technically "Reverend." The left shed crocodile tears over Ben Carson’s Islam-bashing all the while assuming, carte blanche, that any Republican professing a belief in God would govern as a medieval theocrat. The left’s oft repeated mantra “Your religion ends where my rights begin” is no less intolerant of religion than “A Muslim should not be President.”

Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air, and may help bring America to a religious place more sane, and more indicative of what our Founder’s intended. Separation of Church and State was not penned as an atheist’s manifesto

Francis’s remarks over the coming days will likely unsettle both the left (abortion is a sin) and the right (climate change is a moral imperative). That’s a good thing. The moral absolutism in both camps is as obnoxious as it is bankrupt.  But we still have a long way to go. The Catholic hierarchy remains stuffed with arch-conservative Bishops. Francis’s visit will not tone down the nativist crap emanating from the Trump camp, nor the anti-Islamic rhetoric spewing from Carson’s pie hole. Pastors who lived by the bile will likely die by it, but maybe their power will be attenuated. Maybe, just maybe, Pope Francis’s injection of love and compassion will take root here and there. One can hope, and, dare I utter it, pray.