A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy

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Day 6: The Election Is in Play

Florida (aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

Political observation is partly instinct.  My instinct has begun to insist that Donald Trump will win the presidency.   Since Friday, the chance of his winning has been rising and now stands, according to FiveThirtyEight, at just above 30 percent.  Despite the flaws of political polling, the polls’ general direction is significant.  They’re showing a movement in favor of Mr. Trump, a decline in the number of states Secretary Clinton can count on, and a bulge in the number of states in the ‘toss-up’ column.  RealClearPolitics shows roughly the same pattern, with several crucial swing states now expected to go for Trump rather than Clinton, or too close to call.

The polls have probably always underestimated support for Mr. Trump, whom many respectable figures have been excoriating.  When I went to see my eye doctor last week, he mentioned the near-total absence of presidential yards signs around Chicago.  Whereas in most years, such signs proclaimed support for candidates openly, voters’ choices are more opaque in 2016.  Jake Novak of CNBC has argued that the same may be true of many polls: they may suffer from a systemic bias, caused by respondents refusing to participate out of a reluctance to admit support for a controversial candidate whose fortunes are down.

Meanwhile, articles out by Ryan Lizza and Thomas Frank identify the disillusionment that Hillary Clinton is battling.  James Comey’s announcement last week that the FBI would investigate a newly discovered cache of Clinton’s emails, found on the laptop of the disgraced husband of one of her top aides, added powerfully to the public’s gathering impression of misconduct, whether on the part of Clinton or of her circle.  This is freeing ambivalent voters from the obligation of voting for her as ‘the lesser of two evils.’  It will likely galvanize heavier voting on the Republican side.

The stock market has been declining markedly in advance of the election, and gold stocks have risen, moves suggesting that investors are bracing for a possible Trump win.

Image: Aerial of Florida, a key battleground state,
@ Susan Barsy

Day 7: Yes, It’s Scary, But Is It a Critical Election?

stereopticon image of a crowd gathered around a train to hear Roosevelt speak.

For all its drama and dismay, the election of 2016 might not end up being a ‘critical election,’ in the sense of marking a permanent change in the makeup or ideology of one or both of the parties. Whether the election ends up producing such change depends on which presidential candidate wins and how his or her party establishment behaves afterward.

If Hillary Clinton wins, her victory will mainly mark a continuation of the Obama years and of the centrism that has prevailed among Democrats since Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Secretary Clinton adopted a progressive platform at the time of the 2016 Democratic convention to placate Sanders’ supporters, but the Democratic establishment in general has given few signs of having adopted a dramatically new constellation of ideas. Instead, the tenor of the campaign on the Democratic side has been defensive, couched in terms of defending past accomplishments and promising to advance along the established lines.

If Donald Trump wins, it remains to be seen whether his victory translates into a broad and permanent change in the philosophy and direction of the GOP.  There is no question of 2016 being a critical election if Trump succeeds in getting his party to move in the direction he is charting: if he succeeds in associating Republicanism with a more inward-looking, pro-citizen, and anti-global ideology. In order to do this, Republicans would have to renounce their history of support for big business, which is now typically a transnational enterprise. Republicans would have to take the lead on reforming trade, recasting themselves as protectors of American workers and American industry. Hawkish Republicans would have to get in touch with their isolationist side. And the issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives would likely take a back seat to those having to do with the economy.

In most cases, a critical election is the culmination of broad and concerted changes already occurring within a political party, often in connection with the emergence of a charismatic standard-bearer. In 1860, for instance, Abraham Lincoln’s election was merely the capstone of a decades-long effort to incorporate anti-slavery into a broader platform of economic empowerment that would appeal to mainstream voters (who were white).  In 1828, Andrew Jackson’s election signaled the emergence of a new kind of party that combined a desire for retrenchment and austerity with an unwavering democratic appeal.  And, in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s election signified the arrival of a new kind of economic philosophy (henceforth known as ‘Reaganomics’), along with a newly potent faith-based conservatism intent on bucking certain types of modern secular change.

Trump is an outsider whose ideas the GOP mainstream has not embraced.  If he is elected, it’s unclear whether, or to what extent, other leading Republicans would feel pressed take up his agenda and ideas. Republicans in the House and Senate could act in contradistinction to him.  Were this to happen, the GOP as a whole would continue in a state of fragmentation and confusion.  Governmental paralysis, rather than lasting partisan transformation, would be the result.

Image: From this source

Political change

Walk the walk (DNC 2016) screenshot by Susan Barsy
A return to ‘normalcy’ after the US presidential election is unlikely.  Many of us are tired of the campaign, tired of the endless opining, poll numbers, and tweets.  Tired of the candidates and the unpleasant prospects they embody, we long for the closure of election day.  Election Day!  What then?

Underneath the candidates is an undeniable weakness in both parties.  Over a hundred GOP leaders have said they will not support their party’s nominee.  Yet Mr Trump was chosen through a much-contested primary, in which voters failed to coalesce around any of Mr Trump’s numerous challengers, rejecting both moderates and conservatives.  Moreover, disgruntled Republicans subsequently failed to rally around an alternative, despite a protracted explicit attempt that Mitt Romney led.  Leading Republicans know what they’re against.  But what are they for?

The Republican problem isn’t a lack of talent.  It is a lack of a unifying, majoritarian ideology.  This is why disaffected Republicans have proved unable to bolt (as they did, for example, in 1912, when the Progressives, disaffected with President Taft, broke away to support Teddy Roosevelt’s effort to retake the presidency).  Republicans as a group don’t agree on what they stand for, having honed their identity as the party of ‘no.’  Should leaders who can’t govern their party govern the country?  I don’t think so.

Less remarked on is the disturbing weakness of the Democratic party.  In an election cycle playing out as an epic battle of personality, the idea that the Democrats are just as beleaguered as the Republicans is inadmissible.  Yet the Democrats are arguably as benighted.  They bank too much on identity politics, while relying on a concept of the role of government that has scarcely been updated since the 1960s.

Besides the staleness of their ideology, Democrats are turning people off with their record of poor governance in some cities and states.  Here in Chicago, corruption and egregious mismanagement are synonymous with Democratic rule.  I personally have grown disaffected with the state’s Democrats, who as a group have not come out in favor of reform and government efficiency.

At the national level, Democratic leaders like Donna Brazile want citizens to think that the practices of the DNC and the Clinton Foundation are nothing to be concerned about; yet this is the very attitude that voters find unacceptable and disillusioning.  Who believes that, if elected, Hillary Clinton would ‘run a tight ship’?  The Obama Administration has been a model of probity; but a Hillary Clinton White House?  Hardly.

Besides winking at corruption and coasting along on a raft of outdated and expensive ideas, the Democrats suffer from a striking dearth of junior leadership and grass-roots organization.  When will their next generation of leaders appear?  It’s appalling to consider that Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Rahm Emanuel were, until lately, their brightest stars.  The most admirable and powerful figures in the party are all senior citizens, which augurs well from the point of view of experience but augurs a bumpy leaderless period ahead.

Thus, despite the all-but-extinguished condition of the Republican party, it is doubtful whether the Democrats will win control of the Senate, let alone the House.

The systematic weaknesses plaguing both major parties indicate that the nation is heading into, but scarcely concluding, a period of partisan re-alignment.  The ugly factionalism that is so distressing for citizens to witness and that poses a grave threat to stable federal governance is likely to continue for some time.  When major parties die, it can take a while.  In the short-term, the parties’ problems will cause widespread anxiety and confusion.  Ultimately, reorganization awaits the emergence of clean new leaders with viable modern ideas.

Image: “Walk the Walk” (DNC 2016).
Screenshot by Susan Barsy.

Note: this post has been modified from its original version.

Inside the Wigwam

The Wigwam, GOP convention 1860 Chicago(Courtesy of Library of Congress)
Nominating conventions came into being in the 1830s, after Andrew Jackson and his ilk turned party politics into a more egalitarian affair.  The elite caucuses that had once chosen presidential candidates gave way to more inclusive mass gatherings where delegates styled themselves as representatives of the people.  By the time the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, nominating conventions had become significant political events in the life of the country.  Journalists, artists, and photographers documented the appearance and actions of the delegates and the spirit and style of the gatherings.

This particular artist’s drawing shows the meeting of the Republican Party in Chicago in 1860, when the young anti-slavery party nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.  The Republicans went to the trouble to build a special hall for the convention, a vast domed wooden structure that they called the Wigwam.  (It stood at the corner of Lake and Wacker and was reportedly destroyed by fire in the late 1860s.)   Notably, the illustration shows a mainly female audience crowding the galleries to follow the proceedings.  (Women would not gain the right to vote until 1920.)

Faced with the likelihood that the federal government would sanction the spread of slavery into the West and strengthen its legal underpinnings everywhere in the US, those participating in the Republican convention believed it to be an event ‘on which the most momentous results are depending.’  ‘No body of men of equal number,’ the convention chair proclaimed, ‘was ever clothed with greater responsibility than those now within the hearing of my voice.’

The Republicans, though only a northern regional party, were intent on dislodging the dominant Democratic Party, which they did that November, against all odds.

Image from this source.

 

Trump at the Top of the GOP Heap

The GOP heap (April 2016), © 2016 Susan Barsy
With Donald Trump’s sweep of five more states yesterday, his two remaining opponents in the GOP are looking more and more like also-rans.  Trump has not yet sewn up the nomination, but the odds that he will are increasing.  His victory in the so-called ‘Acela’ states demonstrated, perhaps more than any win up to now, that he is not a fringe candidate—that he has broad geographic appeal and can secure votes among diverse demographics.  Last night, for example, he carried the Philadelphia suburbs, defying those who imagine that Trump’s followers are mainly people of low means and education.

Last night, Trump won more than 53 percent of the Republican vote.  Ted Cruz, his nearest rival, polled dismally, placing third in four of the five contests, more damning proof of the Texan’s unpopularity in the moderate eastern regions.  In remarks following his victory, Trump deftly portrayed Cruz’s recent procedural maneuvering (e.g. wooing convention delegates) as ethically dubious and irrelevant.  While Cruz hopes to win nomination on the convention’s second ballot, Trump expects to win on the first, rendering Senator Cruz’s efforts nugatory.

And, honestly, if Trump continues to moderate his tone, it is difficult to avoid concluding he will be the Republican nominee.  Last night’s remarks showed him looking confidently ahead to Indiana and beyond that to the general election, where he will offer Secretary Clinton a formidable challenge.

Our Political Parties Are Behind the Times

REAL CLEAR POLITICS is offering a mind-bending set of survey results showing how respondents would vote in hypothetical general-election match-ups.  A number of organizations conduct these surveys, and at the moment the results of all of them are pretty consistent.

Clinton vs. Trump
Clinton would win

Clinton vs. Cruz
Clinton would win, but more narrowly

Clinton vs. Kasich
Kasich would win

Sanders vs. Trump
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Kasich
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Cruz
Sanders would win

These fascinating results help correct the myopia that sets in during the primary season, when passions within the parties control the focus.  On the Democratic side, Sanders is losing the delegate race to Clinton, yet in a general election he might fare better than she.  His positions, though untenable, might be more palatable than the kinds of ideas the Republicans are touting, for according to the polls, he would beat any of the remaining GOP candidates handily.

Interestingly, Clinton, though holding her own within her party, would fare less well than Sanders nationally.  She will be lucky if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, because, of the three remaining GOP candidates, he is the only one she can probably beat.  She might be beaten by Cruz, and the lowly Kasich, according to these numbers, would defeat her easily.

Overall, these surveys highlight the blinkered condition of the parties.  Sanders, the candidate the Democratic establishment has refused to accept, points up the existence of a dominant voter base that Clinton’s candidacy isn’t capturing.  Clinton is electable, but Sanders is even more electable than she.  Old-style Democrats don’t want to see this.  They don’t want to abandon the comfortable centrist positions they’ve grown accustomed to.  They’re ignoring the reveille: new, more egalitarian policies are what the nation wants and needs.

On the Republican side, we see confirmation of what we knew from the start, that the Republican field was weak though large.  The two Democratic candidates are more in sync with national sentiment than are their counterparts in the GOP.  Overall, the Democrats are more likely to prevail.  Meanwhile, the GOP’s most viable candidates, Trump (on the basis of primary support) and Kasich (on the basis of electability), are those the party has been most unfriendly toward.  Cruz’s candidacy provides the sole hope for the staunchly conservative wing of the Republican party, a minority element that continues to jeopardize the health of a national mainstream Republicanism.

Neither political party has proved adept at accommodating the sentiments of the voters, who are demanding new leadership and significant ideological reform.

Will the Electorate Destroy the Political Parties?

Artist's sketch shows men talking excitedly at an open-air polling place in NYC.

Something utterly unforeseen could happen in this election cycle: the electorate could destroy one or both of the parties through primary voting.

Both the Democrats and Republicans are ‘hearing from ordinary America’, and the message is hostile.  On the Republican side, voters are heavily favoring Trump, a sometime Democrat and independent only weakly identified with the Republican Party.  On the Democratic side, voters have shown an unexpected interest in Sanders, a lifelong independent who is parasitically exploiting the Democratic brand.  Meanwhile, the veteran politicians who have come up through the parties have had an unexpectedly hard time making inroads against the spoilers, a sign that the parties are badly out of touch with the times.

We hear about the ‘establishment,’ but what is it really?  The parties, we are discovering, are impotent.  There is little capacity for concerted action among party politicians themselves.  If there were, they would have stopped these threatening insurgencies long ago, shutting out Trump and denying Sanders his putative connection with the Democratic Party.

Trump and Sanders are political bounders.  Who are their friends on the Hill?  How would either of them accomplish anything, were either handed the presidency?  Who would their advisers be?

Yet, faced with such a sub-optimal outcome, the senators, governors, and leading congressmen within each party have exerted no discipline, done nothing in unison.  Democratic governors and senators are not speaking out, urging voters to back Hillary.  Leading Republicans watch helplessly as, with each gladiatorial debate, their candidates further damage and degrade the party.  In the process, party feeling—that most basic of bonds—is being destroyed.

And all because Congress has failed to serve ordinary America.  The national leadership of both parties, as embodied in Congress, has shirked its duties.  Congress has not worked to create the virtuous circle of corporate responsibility, abundant skilled employment, and robust domestic consumption that would make our economy strong.  It has not confronted our ridiculous trade imbalance with China.  It has not resolved the issues around immigration and citizenship that are practically and symbolically urgent to millions of Americans.  Finally, Congress has ignored the fact that it must rein itself in and show the American people that it cares about efficient and effective governing.  Those who serve in the House and Senate have no sense of urgency—the urgency that both Trump and Sanders, for all their defects, are brilliantly communicating.

It’s wild and alarming to imagine the parties being destroyed from inside.  If Trump wins the delegate race, for instance, others within the GOP will face a choice: either embrace him and his ideology, back a ‘protest’ candidate, or break away to form their own new party.  Americans witnessed something of this sort back in the 1850s, when, over the course of a decade and in response to the festering problem of slavery, the Whig Party fell apart, the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and the Republican party emerged out of nowhere, sweeping Lincoln to prominence and victory.

Nothing so cataclysmic has happened in our lifetimes.  Yet, many signs indicate that the current party system is losing its salience because it has grown deaf to the people’s needs.  In such circumstances, parties can become defunct with surprising speed.  Trump, Sanders, and even Bloomberg understand that, for an intrepid candidate, the parties’ senescent condition spells personal opportunity.  Any of these candidates, if successful, would force a dramatic shakeup within the parties, transforming the political landscape of the nation and the capital.

RELATED:
Inside the Republican Party’s Desperate Mission to Stop Donald Trump’ (NYT)

Image: from this source.

This artist’s sketch from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows voters talking excitedly at an open air polling place in 1856.  The caption reads ‘Scene at the polls.  Boxes for the distribution of tickets.  Everybody busy.’  At that time, voting consisted of obtaining a pre-printed party ticket and putting it in a ballot box.  The three booths are labelled with the names of the three presidential candidates: Buchanan, the Democrat and victor; Fremont, the nominee of the new Republican (anti-slavery) Party; and Fillmore, who represented the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party.  Though the Democrats were victorious, the Republicans’ success in carrying some northern and eastern states created the impetus that would bring the new party to power four years later.

Could Donald Trump Become President?

Trump being interviewed after the 5th GOP debate.

Could Donald Trump become president?   The most recent GOP debate left me wondering.  Until then, I trusted that Trump’s status as Republican front-runner would evaporate when the earliest primary votes came in.  Now, I have my doubts.  Trump, who has been a candidate for just six months, gave proof in the debate that he’s learning what he must do to keep his lead and garner real votes.

Moreover, even as Trump’s field of rivals narrows, his potential as a political leader is becoming more obvious.  For better or worse, he is the lightning rod around which the energies and ideology of the party are reorganizing.  Trump may be destroying the old GOP, but, without him, the GOP would be dead.

Trump’s zenophobic views have drawn condemnation from his opponents, his party, and the media. Most continue to believe that Trump’s star will fade, leaving the nomination a battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  But what if that isn’t true?  What if, confounding these expectations, a re-calibrated Trump continues to lead?  Not only are Trump’s tactics shifting perceptibly, but some of his ideas are beginning to seem more plausible.  Last week’s debate, which 18 million people watched, gave Trump a chance to qualify and explain the logic of his most controversial pronouncements, which collectively stand as a rebuke to the sort of political moderation that has characterized all our presidents, Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan.

In the debate, Jeb Bush warned that Trump would not get to the presidency by insulting people.  In fact, Trump pointedly refrained from belittling his opponents that night: he didn’t even attack Ted Cruz (who had it coming) given the opportunity.  Likewise, most of those onstage refrained from challenging Trump directly.  As Trump pointed out, though, moderators repeatedly asked Trump’s challengers to comment on his ideas, a pattern that only confirmed his centrality.

Trump’s doggedness paid off in the skill with which he defended and refined some of his positions. Beneath his intolerable soundbites are more focused convictions, such as that the government should be tapping the nation’s best people to thwart the internet being used to promote violence and terror.  Trump believes that neighbors and families who wink at subversive terrorist behavior in the US should expect to be severely punished.

Overall, Trump (who is not a social conservative) is tapping into a frustration that the US is failing to use all the tools and resources that it has to maintain internal order and safeguard its global economic supremacy.  A natural ideologue, Trump is carving out stands on illegal immigration and domestic security that are compatible with his interest in ending economic policies and practices benefiting rival nations at the US’s expense.  Trump’s intentions jibe with the people’s desire to see the value of their citizenship restored.

So, could a toned-down Trump garner enough popular support to be president?  Like it or not, the answer is yes.  Trump, Cruz, and, yes, Jeb Bush are shaping the parameters of this epoch-making campaign.  Could any one of them defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election?

For a transcript of the debate, click here.
For a fact-check of the debate, click here.

Good TV is the front-runner, for now

People are asking what I think of the GOP race. I think the GOP lacks a strong candidate and that any analysis failing to factor in the entertainment value of the debates is seriously flawed.

The candidates are in a phase of competition now being referred to as the ‘virtual primary.’  This is rather insulting to voters, because the virtual primary doesn’t involve any voting. Instead, the media scrutinizes other measures extraneous to the democratic process to report on how candidates are supposedly faring, consulting betting pools, Nielsen ratings, fund-raising tallies, and public-opinion polls.  By these measures, Donald Trump and Ben Carson are leading, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are said to be gaining. Figures like Jeb Bush and John Kasich are said to be fading, to the point of being on ‘life support.’

Significantly, however, none of the fifteen remaining GOP candidates has dropped out since Scott Walker ended his bid on September 21.  Many commentators had predicted a rash of drop-outs from among the supposedly trailing candidates come November 1.  Yet, for now, all the candidates have chosen to stick around, possibly sensing that the supposed front-runners are unelectable and that the state-by-state primary votes will check the speculative nonsense of the virtual primary.

If, in fact, Republicans vote en masse to make a character like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Marco Rubio their nominee, it will spell another stage in the decline of the GOP.  Old-style Republicans who believe in collaboration and the preservation of tradition will begin drifting away, looking for a way to regain their rightful preeminence as a political force.  Go-it-alone candidates like Rubio and Cruz and fringe candidates like Trump and Carson do not enjoy the support of the party mainstream.  (See David Brooks’s op-ed in the New York Times on October 13, which elicited a deluge of assent from readers disappointed in the direction of the GOP.)

In the meantime, we are witnessing proof of the entertainment value of politics.  We can’t resist the cattle-call debates, because let’s face it, they’re damn good TV: ‘good’ in the sense of being unpredictable, juicy, and tangentially relating to matters of momentous seriousness.  These are the very elements that define great drama.  The debates have a circus-like atmosphere and are analyzed in the same performative terms that the commentators would apply to a boxing match or a new theater production.

The televised competition among the GOP candidates is entertaining, fantastical, and engrossing.  The possibility of an outlandish figure like Donald Trump becoming president presents a wild challenge to our collective political imagination.  Notwithstanding his red ferret-like face and ridiculous blond comb-over, Trump demands that we take him seriously.  He plays a wild card, rudely blustering and defying political convention.  His behavior, seen in purely dramatic terms, delivers a catharsis that many disaffected Americans find refreshing.  Trump also embodies attributes that citizens long to see in a political leader: certainty and a conviction of being competent to ‘reign.’  His style is the antithesis of candidates who are ruled by dweeby advisors and focus-group wisdom.

Trump’s intrusion into politics gives us something to ponder: for, were this particularly entertaining figure to become president, the effect on our political culture would be profound.  Yet my sense is that Americans don’t want cartharsis every day.  For now, Trump and the other candidates supply a unique form of entertainment–one that will dwindle in significance as audiences turn into voters and go to the polls.