Who Will Climb to the Top of the GOP Heap?

The GOP heap (photomontage), © 2015 Susan Barsy
My take on the declared Republican presidential candidates.  They are listed in reverse order, from least to most likely to rise to the top of the heap.  Those in red I consider to have no chance of winning.

16. Ben Carson  Lacks government experience.  Our nation and its foreign affairs are too complex to hand over to a novice.

15. Carly Fiorina  Her record as a business executive is too mixed to warrant considering her as a candidate for the nation’s chief executive.  She failed to gain the confidence of California voters in a run for the Senate, a proof of her unelectability.

14. George Pataki  Who?  To say that he’s missed his moment is an understatement.

13. Donald Trump  In his previous run, he proved himself a wash-out, using his candidacy to cast groundless aspersions against President Obama’s Americanness.  He’s followed this up with offensive remarks about Mexicans.  Basically a nativist, Trump shows an utter disregard for popular sentiment in putting himself forward again.

12. Ted Cruz  Smart, but too unlikable to be a viable candidate. He believes he needs no one else, a red flag given that our political system is based on interdependency.  Cruz has recklessly pitted himself against others, including wiser members of his own party, revealing a narcissism that’s pretty scary.

11. Mike Huckabee  He washed out in the previous presidential election cycle as soon as he faced primaries in the large urbanized states; what has changed?

10. Rick Santorum  Similarly, this guy has a problem tolerating diversity.  He fizzled out last time and hasn’t scored any big accomplishment to improve voters’ negative perceptions of him.   

9. Chris Christie  An east-coast media darling.  Someone who disavows responsibility for his underlings in the tiny state of New Jersey shouldn’t be put in charge of a vast federal bureaucracy.

8. Scott Walker  He’s far too provincial and inexperienced to be put in charge of America’s foreign affairs.  I’m not sure he could pass a course in geography.  Remember Rick Perry?  Walker is unlikely to fare well with a population that’s far more ethnically and racially diverse than that of Wisconsin.  Charges of corruption have already begun dogging him.

7. Marco Rubio  He’s smart; he’s likeable; but he isn’t ready.  While he’s shown his ability to ‘talk the talk’ with Florida’s diverse voters, I doubt that struggling Americans will find much to identify with in him.  He’s more of a wunderkind, a Latino JFK.

6. Bobby Jindal  Smarter and more nuanced than Scott Walker, Jindal is a talent with significant liabilities.  Though I wrote him off a long time ago after his abysmal 2009 State of the Union Response, he conveys more sophistication and sincerity when speaking off the cuff.  As a man of color, a Southerner (not a Floridian—big difference), and a child of immigrants, he speaks effectively about the need for cultural unity, a major underlying worry that American leaders seldom constructively address.  This guy doesn’t play identity politics—hooray!   He needs to get onto the national stage, but is running for president this time around really the best way?

5. Rick Perry  Like it or not, we have to pay attention to him, because he’s governing one of the largest of the states and by some measures it’s thriving.  He’s still going to have problems persuading anyone that he’s competent to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs, but his no-holds-barred pro-corporate approach to the economy is going to win him a lot of powerful backing.  He’s going to emerge as the leading pro-business anti-regulation candidate (unless he fails to beat those felony charges).

4. Lindsey Graham  An interesting candidate who’s got some name recognition and might be an effective president, given his extensive experience of Washington and the Senate.  He’s got foreign-policy chops, coupled with what pass for socially moderate views, but is probably too much of a hawk to prevail, given that main-street Americans wants to do less overseas.  He might do better than expected if he succeeds in mobilizing the southern and mid-Atlantic base of the GOP outside Florida.  On the other hand, he might suffer from “Senator-speak,” Christopher Dodd’s problem.

3. John Kasich  You haven’t been hearing much about him because he’s been too busy running Ohio.  Besides, this guy will never be much of a media darling.  Of all the truly conservative candidates, however, this one is the most formidable, because he is from a large industrial state, and is the most experienced of all candidates in addressing the nation’s profound economic pain on the front line.  I believe that as many of the less viable conservative candidates drop out, conservative voters will gravitate toward Kasich.

2. Jeb Bush  He will remain near the top because he is the safest choice.  Choosing the “Bush brand’ means getting all the human capital arrayed around the Bushes in their individuality—a factor positively associated with continuity in these changing and uncertain times.  Wigged out by all the unknown qualities of all the other candidates, many moderate and benighted GOP voters will pull the lever for Bush.  The candidate himself has yet to show that he has a ‘fire in his belly,’ making him vulnerable to more ardent rivals, like Rand Paul.

1. Rand Paul  This guy remains formidable because he’s one of the few candidates who could draw in a lot of voters who don’t normally swing Republican and beat Hillary Clinton.  Moreover, with his off-beat combination of libertarian and unorthodox views, Paul is one of the few Republican candidates who could actually catalyze the Republican Party and configure it into something new.   He’s won a lot of respect because of his willingness to assert his convictions without doing so (as Cruz has) at the expense of his party.  His opposition to the growing surveillance state and his occasional willingness to cross the aisle to support positions similar to those of President Obama mark him as a maverick and a game-changer within the GOP.  It would be cool if he could redefine the voting blocks that make up the GOP, something that hasn’t been done since the Reagan Revolution of 1980.

Democracy on the ground

Click on the image to view the New York Times interactive map of House election results.

Click on the image to view the New York Times interactive map of House election results.

This map of House election results from the New York Times dramatically conveys the state of democracy on the ground.  Because the entire House stands for election every two years, the results express the state of local sentiment better than Senate elections can.

The map does not correct for population density, so one must bear in mind that some of the vast red areas represent relatively few people.  Still, it’s sobering to contemplate the restricted appeal of a Democratic ethos.  Just think of all the Americans, living in all the varied settings pictured on this map, to whom Democratic party principles no longer appeal.  Democratic strength is extremely limited geographically, whereas, as David Brooks points out, it’s hard to deny that Republican conservatism represents the mainstream.  It’s ironic, because red regions contain many people who use and benefit from the sorts of programs and services that Democrats perennially champion and defend.  Well-being is not all that drives people to the polls.

The Democratic Party’s ethos no longer resonates with such voters culturally.  Instead, the party has become identified mainly with the coastal and urban regions where more educated people tend to gather.  Looking at this map, it’s easy to understand why ‘mainstream’ Americans resent the undue influence that urban elites exercise through the media.

Many Democrats I know, convinced of the morality and truth of their views, do not see a need to proselytize.  I once asked a liberal friend why she didn’t volunteer to canvas in Democratic campaigns, and she said, “I guess it’s because I’m right—and I think that, if other people can’t see that, there’s nothing I can do.”  It’s a shame, because the Democratic Party is becoming irrelevant to a huge natural constituency of small-town and working-class Americans who are just getting by.  In those broad regions where Democratic leaders are giving up, an important strain of political culture may one day die.

The Enduring Republican Grip on the House (NYT)

After the Red Wave: What Democrats Should Do

Republican gains in Tuesday’s elections delivered a stunning rebuke to Democrats and their party.  The GOP is resurgent, despite having teetered after the 2012 election on the verge of disintegration and decline.

The Republicans achieved this gain primarily by telling voters that, under President Obama and the Democrats, the nation has fared badly.  Republican candidates attacked both the style and substance of the administration.  They assailed a government that they styled as autocratic, expensive, and ineffective.  They railed against government intrusion, and (in the case of illegal immigration) against governmental laxness, too.  They chafed against laws and constraints they don’t believe in.  Most of all, Republicans succeeded by denigrating what will surely be regarded as this era’s most significant achievements, such as the government’s success at bringing the nation back from the brink of all-out economic collapse and at passing a radical yet tenable and comprehensive health-care reform bill.

Strategically, the GOP also took care to marginalize some of the worst kooks seeking to work their way up in the party’s ranks.  The Republican National Committee under Reince Priebus encouraged and supported more electable candidates whose messages would still resonate with conservatives.  The policy also served the goal of producing a Republican Congress that is more homogeneous and governable.  Anyway, as campaign strategy, it worked.  Even weak candidates like Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas won.

Sadly, the Democrats were afraid to be identified with their party’s strengths.  They also failed to deliver a vision of government, that, if consonant with their recent achievements, was fresh and forward-looking.  As the president’s time in office wanes, Democrats should be thinking about how to catch the next wave.  What should the Democratic Party be about, once heavyweights like Obama and the Clintons are gone?  The Dems are notably short on galvanizing up-and-comers who could breathe new life into what has become a too-staid and centrist political party.

Chiefly, though, the Democrats have failed to accommodate and adapt to legitimate criticisms of Democratic governance and ideology.  In particular, they do not seem attuned to the people’s desire for a government that, if powerful, is deft and efficient.  They have not cared enough about the national mood to break with the president and demand Congressional debate on issues like our open-ended bombing campaign against the Islamic State.*  Nor have Democrats cared enough about the middle and lower classes to attack the glaring issue of corporate responsibility, favoring a rise in the minimum wage, yes, but remaining silent on a host of policies that work against working-class prosperity while benefiting corporations and the interests of global capital unduly.

Renew themselves: in short, this is what the Democrats must do.  Dare to be a more interesting, local, peaceful, green, and economical party.  Dare to think small, and find new ways to promote prosperity that rely less on government spending and more on shrewd uses of information and technology.  Scour the countryside for young, charismatic, ardent, and innovative political thinkers.  Restore pride in American citizenship and civic culture.  And move beyond the paradigm of the social-welfare state in trying to figure out how to give a stagnant, suffering America what it wants and needs.

* The president has since called on Congress to debate and authorize the bombing campaign.

A talent gap that favors the GOP

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY, no matter how retrograde its ideas, has long outshone Democrats in its ability to attract galvanizing up-and-comers.  Eric Cantor’s startling fall is just the latest instance of a conservative “star” self-destructing, but one that underscores the Party’s uncanny ability to spot and exploit a long string of controversial media darlings: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan . . . the length of the list is downright alarming.

Cantor, though departing the House under a cloud, had become a nationally known leader at an impressively young age.  Figures like Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul have few Democratic counterparts.  Rising Democrats like Kristen Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren have yet to be given leading roles that would signal their stature within their party, and Warren, a latecomer to politics, is only now beginning to hit her stride.  Only the GOP has a cadre of young iconoclastic lieutenants with big responsibilities and long resumes.

The GOP’s leadership advantage derives not just from personality but from the very ideological conflict that has threatened to weaken it as a party.  In the last presidential election, outsized but deeply flawed figures like Palin or Herman Cain held our attention because they stood for something, because they were staking their claim to the soul of their party, and because something dramatically different was going to happen if they gained enough popularity.  Even as we despised them, they contributed paradoxically to the political system’s health, energizing the opposition and re-establishing the voting public’s unwillingness to tolerate meanness, character flaws, or dangerous ideas.

Only when President Obama leaves office will it be clear how decrepit the Democratic Party has become.  His youth and charisma have tended to compensate for the Democrats’ bland leadership and ideology, concealing how staid and, well, conservative, its major figures are.  Figures like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden are wonderful public servants, but they can hardly be said to represent a vanguard.

Disarray in the Republican Party has given the Democrats an opportunity to dominate and prevail.  Instead, the Democratic Party is languishing.  Democratic leaders have grown unaccustomed to risk-taking, and they have lacked the energy required to consolidate their power in the states, win back the South, or expand the breadth and fervor of their support among voters nationally.  Meanwhile, their inability to cultivate young talent leaves them poorly positioned to weather the generational change at hand.

The GOP’s marriage of convenience turns sour

Back in the spring of 2012, I wrote a post, Is the Republican Party Dying?, in which I surmised that the GOP, despite its already apparent fissures, was unlikely to collapse any time soon, because of the broad popularity it continued to enjoy at the state level in many parts of the country.  Now, in the wake of last week’s House vote on a bill to reopen the government, we have fresh evidence with which to assess the current condition of the party.

The GOP’s troubles appear to be growing, for, with the House vote that ended the government shutdown, the relative strength of the GOP’s intransigent right wing is clear to see.

Here is the vote count and its geographic distribution as depicted in a New York Times interactive graphic on October 17.  The yes vote (totaling 235 votes) was composed of 198 Democrats and 87 Republicans.  The no vote (totaling 144 votes) was composed entirely of Republicans unwilling to compromise, or to adhere to the advice of the moderate leadership of the party, as embodied in the House Speaker, John Boehner.

The size of the “no vote” is significant and startling, establishing that the more radical “Tea Party” element in the GOP, far from being a minority tendency as often depicted, comprises a MAJORITY of all House Republicans.  Far from being a “tail” that is “wagging the dog,” the Tea Partiers have morphed into the dog itself.  The only wonder is that they have not yet used their power to depose John Boehner–a miracle that has probably astonished the Speaker himself.

Regarding the “upcountry” character of these more radical Republican characters, the NYT map illuminates how difficult it will be to dislodge them, and why this faction so consistently overestimates its prospects for influencing the mass of the American population.  In many states where the suicide caucus lives, it enjoys a virtual monopoly.  In 12 states—including Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, and Arizona—all the Republican representatives are of the intransigent kind.

These blinkered souls believe, despite the mounting evidence of public opinion polls, that their views command the assent of the American mainstream, and they are confidently planning to extend their geographical sweep into more moderate Republican territory.  In the meantime, moderates, alarmed at the immoderation of their right wing, have begun planning to challenge them in the primaries.  The battle for control of the GOP will be hard-fought.

But for now, the rest of us have seen how dangerous and desperate political actors can be when trying to hold together a party that’s imploding.  Should we condemn John Boehner for accommodating the radicals, or be relieved that no more radical obstructionist is replacing him?  The GOP truly is a grand old party, and should its literally elephantine organization collapse, the attendant damage would be catastrophic, not just for the party, but, as we have seen, for the nation too.

Looking back on this period, historians will puzzle over the decision of the GOP to welcome this radical fringe into their party.  Even now, the traditional Republicans could recover their dominance by unceremoniously cutting the Tea Party loose.  Without the GOP’s support and legitimation, the radicals’ spell would be broken, and their national influence would evaporate overnight.

Moderate Republicans who believe that such destructive zealots are necessary to their party have forgotten about the massive bloc of disaffected voters in the center of the political spectrum, waiting for forward-looking parties and personalities to appeal to them.