Tuesday, February 09, 2016

New Hampshire Primaries: Slouching Toward the Brokered Convention

It's still early, with only two-fifths of the returns in from New Hampshire tonight. But Sanders is comfortably ahead of Clinton and, on the Republican side, chaos is comfortably ahead of consensus.
Recently, on one of Mike W's threads, I argued that:
The most chaos-inducing result for the Republicans in New Hampshire probably goes 1. Trump 2. Kasich 3. Bush 4. Rubio 5. Cruz. In that situation, and in a few other permutations close to that, all five of them have enough reason not to drop out of the race.
Currently, with 40% of the vote in, it's: 1. Trump 2. Kasich 3. Cruz 4. Bush 5. Rubio. (Cruz and Bush are less than half a percentage point apart, and have already flipped places once; they may flip again. Pretty close to the nightmare result, if you're looking for closure, or the dream result, if you're a civics geek/media nerd yearning for a brokered convention.

Basically, what this means for the GOP is that only Chris Christie is dropping out tomorrow. (Maybe Carson and Fiorina, maybe not; they're so far behind it doesn't matter.)

Rubio is very unlikely to drop out before South Carolina. Bush, with his deep warchest and stubborn pride, is going to call a third- or nearly-third place showing good enough to stay in. Kasich's second place is exactly what he hoped for to keep him in the race. So all three of the Bush/Kasich/Rubio troika are staying in; even if one dropped out, the party would not immediately coalesce behind one of the other two.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side it's simpler: Hillary will fight a pitched battle to defeat Bernie in Nevada and South Carolina, and hope to finish him off on Super Tuesday.

The day to look for is the Ides of March, March 15th, when Florida, Ohio, and Illinois vote. Any primary that isn't essentially wrapped up by that point is probably going the whole distance.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

A New Hampshire Primary Memory

It's the New Hampshire primary today. I grew up in New Hampshire, and I remember those elections fondly.
One of my my favorite memories, which I've blogged about a few years back, involves my Mom getting into it with Al Haig on the campaign trail back in the 80s. Haig was, of course, a retired general, former Supreme NATO commander, Nixon's last Chief of Staff and Reagan's first Secretary of State. Mom was a police lieutenant.
So, Mom, who was interested in the question, asked Haig a question about women playing combat roles in the military.
Haig responds with a story about a female war correspondent who was covering Vietnam (an irrelevant story, to Mom's mind, because it involves an unarmed woman with no military training). And Haig wound up his story with his big clincher: "As soon as the shooting started, my instinct was to throw that girl over my shoulder and run for the nearest helicopter."

Mom said, "I carry a weapon every day. Don't you call me girl."

And that's how they were quoted in the newspaper.
Sorry to repeat that story. I do love it.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at,  Dagblog

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

After Iowa: Republicans Still in Trouble

The day after the Iowa Caucus, the conventional pundit wisdom is that the Republican position improved and that the Democrats are somehow (and here things get a little cloudy and ill-defined) in trouble. This is because the conventional wisdom is 1) relative, 2) obsessed with direction, and 3) amnesiac. So the Republican result gets spun as positive, because things are relatively better for the GOP and moving in the right direction, so that's "good." We forget all about the fact that last week -- just last week! -- various Republican heavyweights were actively trying to prevent the very result that is now being hailed as Good News for the GOP. And we measure everything by expectations, rather than by objective standards.

But even if the Republicans have taken a step toward climbing out of their hole, they are still in a deep hole, with a lot of climbing yet to do. They don't have a front-runner. They don't have a clear primary field. The Republican presidential campaign has gone from Completely Doomed to merely Basically Doomed. It could be even worse for them, and sometimes has been, but don't be fooled. "Could be worse" does not mean "good."

The big success story is that Trump came in second, so the Republicans can start the parade. Maybe this is better than Trump coming in first, unless of course you remember that last week the Grand Old Party was trying to throw Ted Cruz under the bus and openly rooting for Trump to beat him in Iowa. So Cruz beating Trump is a victory condition, and Trump beating Cruz is a victory condition, which must be convenient. Unless, of course, we remember that both Trump and Cruz are horrible general-election candidates and more than half of the Iowa Republicans voted for one of them.

Part of today's thinking is that Trump, having had a setback and badly underperformed his polls, will now collapse like a cheap tent. To this I say, maybe. It's certainly true that Der Trump has not behaved like a traditional candidate, proving immune to things that would end most campaigns. On the other hand, this scenario counts on Trump behaving unlike a traditional candidate. The conventional wisdom has never been that someone who comes in second in Iowa by a few percentage points and holds a hefty in lead in New Hampshire is no longer anyone to worry about. The idea that Trump is done because he came in second in Iowa, where several polls were showing him in second place over the last month, strikes me as wishful thinking.

The Republicans can be pleased and relieved that Trump didn't roll up 35% of the vote. On the other hand, when you step way from the endlessly-adjusted expectations, you find yourself facing the fact that a psychologically troubled amateur with no ground game still got 24% of the vote. That is not good at all. And that psychologically troubled amateur, who is still leading in New Hampshire, has enough money to stay in the race all the way until the convention if he's feeling stubborn, especially because he doesn't have to pay for a ground game or even much advertising, and still take a significant slice of the vote. Trump can certainly keep someone else from building a majority. And if he actually starts paying for commercials, who knows.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio's 23% of the vote is allegedly cause for triumphant rejoicing, because he did better than expected and because one of the "electable" candidates got into the top three. So now the whole party can coalesce around Marco, right? Well, slow down. He managed to come in third. And he only got 23% of the vote. So his ability to expand to 50+% percent is still, ah, untested. So is Rubio's alleged ability to consolidate the "mainstream" or establishment vote, since most of his mainstream-y rivals basically abandoned Iowa and are waiting in New Hampshire, where three of them are polling at 10% or better. You can't say Rubio took the crown from Bush, Christie, or Kasich, since Bush, Christie, and Kasich conceded the round and are positioning themselves for the next one. Is Rubio the mainstream boy to beat? Maybe. But he still has to do it.

And then if Rubio emerged as the Sanest Remaining GOP Candidate, there's no evidence that he could beat Trump or Cruz. Rubio got 23% of the Iowa vote. Bush, Christie, and Kasich split less than 7% between them. That's barely 30% of the Iowa Republican electorate voting for sanity or electability. Meanwhile, if you add up the vote shares for Cruz, Trump, Carson, Rand Paul, Huckabee, and Santorum, you're seeing a very solid two-thirds preference, a supermajority, for a candidate who is bananapants crazy. Even if everybody gets behind Rubio, it's not clear that "everybody" is a majority of the party any more. The Bananapants Caucus is large and it's energized and it wants what it wants.

And while we're talking about the 30% threshold, how is it that none of the Republican candidates got to 30% of their own party's vote? Even the "winner," Cruz, did not get to 28%. You can say that this is because the vote is split so many ways. But actually, the vote is split so many ways because none of the candidates are very popular. None of them can even get one third of the vote. By contrast, in 2008 all three of the leading Democrats got a larger vote share than Cruz did this time. Part of that is because the Iowa Democrats shunt caucusers to second choices, but the third-place Democratic finisher in 2008, one Senator Hillary Clinton, got 29% of her party's vote, while 2016's glorious victor Ted Cruz doesn't quite have 28% of his party backing him.

(Oh, yes and because of expectations, Hillary's whisper-thin victory, or statistical tie, is supposed to be a huge comedown. On the other hand, she got nearly 50% of the vote in a state where last time she got 29%. Disaster!)

And while we're comparing Democratic and Republican vote tallies, we can ask ourselves how many people voted for the top two Democrats. We can't say in detail, because the Democratic Caucus only releases state-delegate counts, but we can use registration data, turnout history, and the published results to estimate a ballpark figure. If it were a close comparison we wouldn't have enough data, but in this case the ballpark estimate will do because Ted Cruz is not actually in Sanders's or Clinton's ballpark. Even using the most conservative estimates, both Sanders and Clinton each collected at least 10,000 more individual votes last night than Ted Cruz did.

Just under 187,000 Iowa Republicans caucused last night, out of 650,000 registered Republicans: better GOP turnout than the last two presidential cycles, where Iowa turnout was around 20%. (Here I'm using Dennis J. Goldford's turnout date from The Iowa Caucus Project, which is very much worth a look.) Of those 187,000, Cruz garnered just over 51,000 votes.

Now, there are 700,000 registered Democrats in Iowa (and 750,000 registered independents). Goldford's data shows that the last two contested Democratic caucuses, 2004 and 2008, had a turnout of more than 23% in 2004 and just under 40%, a whopping amount by caucus standards, during the Obama/Clinton/Edwards showdown of 2008. We don't know this year's turnout, except for meaningless media anecdotes, so lets err on the small-c conservative side and say that the minimum Democratic turnout is 20%, lower than in 2004. (We could get super-conservative and set it to 18% and it wouldn't matter much.) That would mean 140,000 Democratic caucusgoers, with much lower turnout than the Republicans this year, and that sounds very low, but let's stick with it.

If 140,000 people caucused for the Democrats and split nearly in half, that's just shy of 70,000 votes for the winner AND 70,000 for the runner-up. That means the second-place Democrat had to pull at least 18,000 or 19,000 votes more than the Republican winner.

(Don't like that number? Let's set Democratic turnout to a bottom-falling-out 18%, much worse than 2004. Now we have a mere 126,000 Dem voters, giving Clinton and Sanders a mere 62,000 votes and change. Still a five-figure advantage over Cruz.)

And of course, if the Democratic turnout was actually higher than that 20% (or 18%) minimum, the difference between Sanders's vote and Cruz's vote only expands. If we find that 25% of Democrats turned out, a fairly middling number by recent standards, that would mean that Sanders and Clinton each had around 35,000 more supporters than Cruz did last night. And if the Democratic turnout was even 30% (on the high side, but far below 2008's high water mark of 39-40%), then both Clinton and Sanders collected one hundred thousand votes apiece, basically doubling Ted Cruz's total.

These aren't exact figures, because we don't have the exact figures. They are only estimates of general scale. But the difference between Cruz's support (or Trump's or Rubio's) on one hand and Sanders's or Clinton's on the other, is not a matter of exact figures. You don't need most of the decimal places. It is a comparison of scale. Even if you low-ball Clinton and Sanders, they had to swamp Cruz in the raw vote count.

So obviously, as everyone on TV concludes, things are looking pretty tough for the Democrats.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, February 01, 2016

I Was Wrong About Hillary

Back in 2000, when Hillary Clinton was still First Lady and running for the US Senate, I thought she would be a bad fit for the job. Clinton was clearly very smart and talented, but I believed that her particular gifts made her a natural Cabinet Secretary: the very job that she couldn't hold as the sitting President's spouse.

I thought Hillary would be better running a department, which would allow her to draw upon her deep mastery of policy detail, than she would be as a legislator and campaigner. She wasn't the natural stump politician that Bill was, and I didn't think she would do well in the deal-making, back-slapping world of the Senate. I was wrong.

Clinton was an extremely effective Senator, and got re-elected without breaking a sweat. She not only adapted to the Senate, but she mastered it, becoming a powerful and influential member. So I was wrong, because I had underestimated Hillary Clinton.

Then, when she had lost her closely-fought nomination contest with Barack Obama and President-Elect Obama asked her to be Secretary of State, I thought that it was a mistake. Yes, of course, I thought she would make a great Cabinet Secretary, that it was a natural position for her gifts. But now that she was being offered state, I thought that she would be great leading any department but State.

I thought Clinton would be undermined by being the emissary for another powerful male politician, especially by one who had beaten her. She had been Bill's surrogate, and now she would be Barack's. The Secretary of State needs to a solid relationship with the President, or (more accurately) needs other foreign leaders to see her relationship with the President as solid. I disliked seeing Clinton in a job which made her so visibly dependent upon a male patron.

I was wrong. Again. Because I had underestimated Hillary. Again.

Clinton was a powerful and effective Secretary of State, who obviously had Barack Obama's ear and who was clearly respected by foreign governments as a heavyweight in her own right. Being Obama's deputy did not diminish Clinton; it elevated Obama. Clinton's gravitas underscored Obama's seriousness, and sending Clinton always signaled that Obama was taking someone seriously.

I was proud of Clinton's service. My favorite moment was during a meeting with various Arab leaders shortly before the Arab Spring, in which Clinton tried to persuade them to loosen up and reform their systems before they had problems. (Yes, she told them this before the Arab Spring. When you're right, you're right.) They threw back their reflexive deflection, "Why don't you get Israel to reform its behavior?" to which Clinton answered, without missing a beat, "We can't get a lot of our allies to do what we'd like them to do." Boom! There it is.

So I've been wrong about Hillary Clinton, on a consistent and semi-regular basis, for a decade and a half. I've given her my mealy-mouthed doubts, always saying that of course she's very qualified, but not for whatever particular job she was up for. I didn't think of it as a sexist objection, but let's be frank: I discounted her qualifications in every actual case, so that I would speak of her as gifted in the abstract but unqualified whenever she was up for an actual job.

Well, I'm done making that mistake. I've been wrong about Hillary Clinton a number of times. But I'm not going to underestimate her again. She has always surprised me, always exceeded my expectations, and I am never going to discount her again.

I'm ready for Hillary. But even if I weren't, Hillary is ready.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, January 30, 2016

This Election Is About George Bush

The Republican primaries have been chaotic, unpredictable, and in some ways unprecedented. They seem to get crazier every week. (If you predicted six months ago that Donald Trump would still be ahead just before the Iowa caucuses, you're part of a small minority. If you predicted six months ago that front-runner Trump would be boycotting a Fox News debate on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, well, you don't exist. No one saw that one coming.) But this election is not about Trump, or Cruz, or Jeb Bush. It's not about Obama or either Clinton, no matter how often the Republican candidates talk about them. The 2016 Republican primaries are about George W. Bush. The Republicans, and most of the media, won't bring up Bush's name any more than they can help doing, but that's part of the problem. Both the Republican Party and mainstream American journalism are doing their best not to reckon with, or even to recognize, the problems Bush the Younger has created.

The George W. Bush Administration was a catastrophic failure on the level of policy. Bush had enormous political success, thanks in part to the rally-around-the-Chief boost he got after September 11. He got almost everything he wanted done. But most of the things he wanted turned out to be wrong. He got his war in Iraq before the Afghanistan war was even finished, and left the US mired in both countries. He turned a budget surplus into a deficit. He pushed for financial deregulation and top-bracket tax cuts only to see Big Finance wreck the economy. He de-emphasized FEMA and botched the emergency response when an iconic American city drowned. This goes beyond partisanship. It's not that I don't like what Bush did. It's that he screwed up in disastrous ways. He was like some kind of Superfund Midas: everything he touched turned into toxic waste.

Policy failures this big only come along every generation or two in American politics. I think the closest comparison to Bush is Herbert Hoover, who was badly wrong on both the Depression and the threat of fascism in Europe. (Some might argue that Jimmy Carter's policies were failures, but even if that's granted the sheer scale of Bush II's mistakes dwarf any of Carter's setbacks. Would you rather have economic problems of 1980, or 2008?) And what usually happens after such a major policy failure is that a bipartisan consensus forms. The party that pushed for the mistaken policies gives up and switches to the other position. (Compare Richard Nixon's policy stances to Hoover's: the whole Republican party had moved on.) The Republican party gave up isolationism in the 1940s, and it adopted a more grudging and less generous approach to the New Deal it could not fully undo.

What is startling today is the degree to which the current Republican Party has refused to change after the debacle of the Bush years. They have not surrendered their positions. They have not conceded that their opponents were right. They have not even admitted that Bush was a failure, although he is unpopular even among their base. The behavior of the national Republicans since the 2008 election, and especially during the 2016 primaries, has been driven by the need to navigate around George W., the elephant in the room.

The immediate Republican response in 2008 and 2009 was to move into full opposition mode. Their own policies were in tatters, had been tried and failed. But rather than switch they fought, trying to do everything they could to derail Obama's policies. Much of the need to demonize Obama, beyond the element of racial animus, is the need to displace the disastrousness of the Bush II regime onto a scapegoat. Blaming Obama for Bush's failures is a core party belief at this point, because it's the only way to deny how badly Bush failed. This is why Fiorina can blame Obama for firing a general Bush fired, and Neil Cavuto can ask the GOP candidates, in all apparent seriousness, about "Obama's" 2008 financial crisis. And this has worked for them, psychologically and politically, in the short term. It gave them their majority in the House. But it is not clearly sustainable in the long run, and these primaries are exposing some of the strain.

The strange and lackluster quality of the 2016 primary candidates reflect a range of strategies for denying Bush's policy failures. The sheer fact that Jeb Bush is in the race, and that the party establishment originally treated him as the favorite, is clear proof of that denial. The Jeb (!) Bush position, which can never be articulated openly because that would require admitting previous failures, is that W.'s failure was simply a matter of execution. The implied promise is that a smarter, more competent version of Bush would make those Bush-II-era policies work. That's the implicit pitch for the other mainstream or mainstream-ish candidates, such as Kasich, Christie, and (by relative position) Rubio. The appeal is that one of these guys can execute Bush's failed policies successfully. That's a pretty dicey appeal when you say it out loud, and goes a long way to explaining why the mainstream-y candidates aren't getting much traction this year.

The second approach is the Not-Conservative-Enough position, the dogged belief that W. failed because he was too liberal, and that only a more extreme ideological rigor can make things work. This is the conservatism-hasn't-failed-it's-never-been-tried line of attack, embodied in different ways by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson. (Religious-right types Huckabee and Santorum may count, too.) As many people have noticed, this is analogous to the Goldwater approach in 1964, when Goldwater was part of the few Republicans who rejected the post-FDR policy consensus.

It's also worth noticing the preponderance of candidates who only emerged after Bush II left office. Cruz, Paul, and Rubio were only elected to national office in the Obama Administration, which absolves them all from any responsibility for the mistakes of the Bush years.

Finally, there is the Trump approach, which gets around a legacy of failed-but-never-renounced policies by having no policies at all. Trump moves the entire question to the levels of personality and fantasy. (His only concrete policy proposal, the impregnable southern border wall patrolled by various orcs, trolls, and Nazgul, is strictly on the level of fantasy.) Trump's active refusal to detail any policies is a feature and not a bug for his voters. He allows them to get around the question of what to do by taking actual plans out of the discussion entirely. He offers instead the fantasy of a strong, magically potent leader who makes things happen through the force of will. You don't need policies! You just need the Leader! It's gonna be huge!

Sooner or later, the Republican Party will have to come to Earth and adopt policies that actually work in the real world. It may take a number of electoral drubbings to make that happen. It may take electoral success followed by a disastrous return to failed policies, a second try that finally discredits those policies for good but at the cost of doing serious damage to the country. Or the party itself might go through some painful upheaval or realignment. But the longer it takes, the worse the consequences will be. The longer you deny painful reality, the harder you pretend that things are working when they're not, the worse it gets. It is remarkable that the GOP has hung on this long, this hard. And it's already unhealthy for the country. It's only going to get worse.

And here's where the media takes its share of the blame. The media has in many ways abetted the GOP's campaign against reality, through its reflexive "even-handedness" and its related refusal to cover policy, as opposed to politics. The media is so afraid of being called biased that it has largely shied away from admitting what is manifestly clear. Bush drove this country off this road into a ditch, but the media feels that saying so would be partisan, so it waffles about whether or not an upside-down car in a culvert has been safely parked.

Consider, for example, the "Obama's Katrina" meme, which has asked, repeatedly and erroneously, if a particular problem is "Obama's Katrina." That takes for granted, as some axiomatic rule, that if a president of one party makes a disastrous error that his successor in the other party will of course make a completely comparable error. That is obviously nonsense. "Is this FDR's stock market crash?" would be a stupid question, as would "Is this Carter's Watergate?" The "Obama's Katrina" meme isn't fair to Obama, but it's even less fair to George W. Bush, because it denies what is truly exceptional about him.

And after all, admitting the failures of Bush's policies would mean admitting the media's own failures, and the way it abetted him politically through its ersatz neutrality. Admitting how bad the Bush Administration failed would mean admitting how major newspapers failed to cover the run-up to the Iraq War, and how those newspapers got used to funnel false information to the public. It would mean admitting how the press cheer-led for Bush, and how it failed to vet his qualifications in the 2000 elections. Reckoning with the failures of the last decade will require major institutional change, change that will be terribly painful, both in the Republican Party and in the major media. Neither institution is willing to face that necessary pain yet. So both will continue to suffer, and so will we.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog