Tag Archives: Chris Christie

The Don and His Consigliere

“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” That playground taunt, delivered by Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona and accompanied by a poster, was the epitome of the Republican defense of President Donald Trump during the day-long testimony of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee. Admittedly, Trump — who acts like a mob boss — is a tough guy to defend, so it should surprise no one that the Republican strategy was to impugn the bearer of the bad news rather than to counter the substance of Cohen’s remarks.

Chris Christie, a former governor of New Jersey and a Trump defender, noticed the weakness of the GOP ploy. The president, Christie said, must have been “fuming that no one’s defending him.” Christie labeled the lame performance “either a failure of those Republicans on the Hill or a failure of the White House to have a unified strategy with them.” 

In truth, there was not much Republicans could do. Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina tried to defend Trump against Cohen’s accusation of racism by positioning an African American woman — Lynne Patton, a longtime Trump aide and current official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development — over his shoulder as a prop to demonstrate diversity. That piece of theater led to a scuffle later in the hearing when Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, labeled the use of Patton a “racist act.” Meadows bristled at the thought Tlaib was calling him a racist, but she insisted she was talking about the act, not Meadows.

For the most part, GOP members simply used their time not to poke holes in Cohen’s testimony — which would have been difficult because he provided documentary evidence for many of his charges — but to question his motives or to attack Democrats for holding the hearing in the first place. It seems Republicans on the Oversight Committee have no idea what oversight means, since they refused, when they were in the majority, to hold any substantive hearings to investigate credible charges of Trumpian misdoings.

Gosar of the playground taunts was disowned last November by six siblings, all of whom endorsed his opponent in the 2018 midterm election. “We gotta stand up for our good name,” said David Gosar in a political advertisement on behalf of his brother’s opponent. “This is not who we are.” But, it is who the member of Congress is. Gosar got so excited by his attack on Cohen that he stumbled over his words. Others also demonstrated a fair degree of apoplexy. Meadows looked as if he were about to have a coronary when he tried to nail Cohen for allegedly lying on a committee form about whether the former Trump aide had been paid for services by a foreign government. The dispute demonstrated only that Meadows had not accurately read the question on the form. 

Ohio Representative Jim Jordan expressed outrage that Lanny Davis — a friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton — represented Cohen. Jordan and others repeatedly attacked Cohen as a convicted perjurer. Cohen is going to jail for that crime, and other misdeeds. But, even liars sometimes tell the truth, especially when they have documents to back up their assertions. 

Much time was spent on Cohen as a would-be influence peddler and prospective recipient of lucrative book and movie deals. Numerous Republican members tried to get Cohen to vow he would not profit from his notoriety, which Cohen refused to do. Republicans also tried to portray Cohen as a grasping office seeker disappointed he did not get a job in the White House. All in all, the strategy of attacking Cohen as a dishonest criminal who should not be believed begs an important question: Why did Trump employ such a disreputable person for a decade?

The truth is, of course, that Cohen is much like Trump, who was something of a mentor to the younger man. Apparently, Cohen had easy access to Trump and his family. According to Cohen, he briefed Trump, Don Jr., and Ivanka at least 10 times during the 2016 presidential campaign about the Trump family’s attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. That gives the lie to Trump’s claim of no business dealings with Russia and implicates Ivanka for the first time in that sordid episode. One other family note: Don Jr. might want to inquire as to the veracity of Cohen’s statement that father thought son “had the worst judgement of anyone in the world.”

Cohen produced checks indicating Trump reimbursed his fixer for the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels while Trump was in the White House. Cohen also testified that he was present in July 2016 when Trump took a call on speakerphone from Roger Stone who said, “He had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” According to Cohen, Trump replied, “Wouldn’t that be great.” 

Cohen also offered tantalizing hints of more investigations. When one member of Congress asked about Cohen’s last conversation with his former boss, Cohen declined to give details, saying it is “being investigated right now” by federal prosecutors in New York. As for other instances of possible wrongdoing or crimes by Trump, Cohen repeated, “Again, those are part of the investigation.” Stay tuned!

The former consigliere reaffirmed that Trump operated like a mob boss. Trump never gave explicit instructions to Cohen to do wrong, but Cohen understood the “code.” Like a good Mafia underling, Cohen was not hesitant to threaten those who might stand in Trump’s way. When asked, Cohen said he issued about 500 threats on behalf of Trump (that includes threats of litigation) in his decade of employment. So, Cohen should not have been shocked that Trump used mob language in calling his former aide a “rat.” Nor should anyone have been surprised that on the eve of Cohen’s testimony, Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who has a history of incendiary comments, tweeted, “Hey @MichaelCohen212 — Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” (The tweet has been deleted, but the gist was repeated on the House floor.)

Cohen’s testimony — and the antics of a fool like Gaetz — demonstrate once again that, as Cohen pointed out, Trump corrupts everyone who comes in contact with him. That may be the greatest tragedy of this sordid presidency.

Posted March 1, 2019

Donald the King

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. — William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene 1. 

And, you thought George III was the last monarch on these shores. Not so, given the stunning assertions of executive power this weekend by Team Trump. King Donald is assuming the throne (gold, naturally) and is being outfitted for a gold crown. All that remains is a decree commanding that supplicants before the king kiss his ring and walk backwards while leaving the monarch’s presence.

The claims of absolute power began Saturday with the revelation by The New York Times of a 20-page letter sent in January by President Donald Trump’s lawyers to special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump’s lawyers claim the president, “by virtue of his position as the chief law enforcement officer,” cannot obstruct justice “because that would amount to him obstructing himself.” But, the lawyers write, “He could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry [into collusion with Russia], or even exercise his power to pardon if he so desired.” The lawyers also assert the president cannot be compelled to testify. There words — the notion that the law is whatever the president says it is — should chill any democratic-thinking American. 

On the Sunday talk shows, Rudy Giuliani, a current Trump attorney, continued the full-court press on this expansive view of executive power, arguing that the president probably has the constitutional authority to pardon himself. “He probably does,” the brash Giuliani said. “He has no intention of pardoning himself, but he probably — not to say he can’t.” Giuliani also said a pardon was “unthinkable” because it would probably lead to impeachment. “It’s not going to happen. It’a hypothetical point,” he added. 

The president has been thinking about pardons. Last week, he pardoned conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza and floated the possibility of pardoning TV personality Martha Stewart and commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois. All three had been convicted of crimes similar to those brought against Trump aides in the Russia investigation. And, the president has given some thought to pardoning himself. Monday morning, he tweeted,  “As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?”

Perhaps, but all the protesting of innocence and claiming of executive power suggest that Donald Trump — and those around him — are “uneasy,” as Shakespeare put it. No one knows how much the special counsel knows, but we do know the president obstructed justice. Trump told NBC anchor Lester Holt (and everyone in America watching) he fired former FBI director James Comey because of “this Russia thing.” Now, we learn in the January letter from Trump lawyers to Mueller, “The President dictated a short but accurate response” on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr., regarding stories that the younger Trump and others attended a meeting with Russians in Trump Tower to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. As Times reporter Maggie Haberman puts it in annotated notes to the letter, “This is the first time that representatives of Mr. Trump concede” his role in drafting the letter. The clear facts of presidential obstruction necessitated the lawyers’ insistence that the president cannot “constitutionally nor legally” obstruct justice.

The broad claim of presidential powers is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s assertion, told to David Frost three years after the disgraced president left office, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Most legal analysts believe a president has power to issue pardons and shut down an investigation, but if his motives in taking those actions are corrupt, then he has committed obstruction. As Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general, said, “The idea that a president can’t obstruct justice died with King George III, with a brief attempt at revival by Richard Nixon.” 

The letter to Mueller can be read, at least in part, as an attempt to lay down markers in the special counsel’s investigation. “This memo is a polite way of taking 20 pages to say, ‘He’s not coming in without a subpoena, and even then, you’re in for a protracted fight,’” said Jacob Frankel, a lawyer who worked in the independent counsel’s office in the late 1990s. Raising the possibility of a self-pardon is a warning, in the memo and by Giuliani and the president himself, that the president is prepared to escalate the dispute with Mueller by pardoning anyone under investigation. 

Trump and his advisers are playing a duplicitous game, insisting the president has the right to pardon himself while asserting he has no intention to do so because it might result in impeachment. “Listen, there’s no way that’ll happen,” said former New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie. “If the president were to pardon himself, he’ll get impeached.” Maybe, but House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the front-runner to become the next House speaker, seemed to disagree, claiming the only issue in the Mueller probe should be whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. “What I was concerned most about, like most Americans, was there any collusion?” the California Republican said, adding, “If there is no collusion, it’s time to wind this down.” Certainly, Republicans, who control the House now, have no intention of beginning impeachment proceedings against the president. Democrats may take over the House in the November elections, but even if they succeeded in impeaching Trump, it is hard to imagine enough Republican senators voting to convict to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority. Trump may not be the brightest president, but he probably can do the math (and, if he cannot, certainly, one of those lawyers could do it for him). So, do not rule out a presidential pardon of the president.

But, most Americans would view such an act as a terrible admission of guilt. “It smacks of royal authority,” Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School, said. “If a president can pardon himself, he’s basically saying, ‘Well, I’m above the law,’ and that sounds like the type of royal authority we rejected when we created America.” King Donald may not care about America’s history, but he has plenty of reasons to be nervous: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Posted June 5, 2018

You Get What You Pay For

Two of the least likable American politicians are sparring over hurricane relief. In one corner is New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, the most unpopular governor in the country (and, in the poll conducted in April 2017, the pugnacious Christie had serious competition in Sam Brownback, then the Republican governor who bankrupted Kansas). In the other corner, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, of whom Senator Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, once said, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”

Christie took Cruz to task for seeking federal dollars to aid flood-ravaged victims in Texas after Hurricane Harvey when Cruz voted against similar aid for the Northeast in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy. “[Cruz] talks about playing politics,” Christie said. “That’s what he did with people’s lives in 2012 and 2013. He was playing politics to make himself try to look like the most conservative guy in town.” The New Jersey governor asked his fellow Republican for contrition: “He should just stand up now and say, ‘You know what? I was wrong. I was wrong in 2012. It was the wrong thing to do, and now I hope that the people of New Jersey and New York are willing to let bygones be bygones and vote for relief for Texas.’”

Cruz, who defended his vote against assistance for victims of Sandy because the bill allegedly was “full of pork” (a claim fact checkers have disproven), quickly fired back. “I’m sorry there are politicians who are really desperate to get their names in the  news and are saying whatever they need to do that,” Cruz said. “We have a crisis on the ground of people who are hurting right now…. And, I’ll tell you, my focus, and I wish the focus of others, would be on saving the lives that are being threatened.”

The Christie-Cruz flap highlights the potential difficulties facing President Trump and congressional Republicans during the next few weeks as they confront basic acts of governance: Providing disaster relief, preventing a default on the nation’s debt, and keeping the federal government running. The difficulties are compounded by traditional Republican aversion to debt and a strong, activist federal government.

American public opinion increasingly has embraced the ethos of a small government providing fewer services. By a plurality of 44 percent to 40 percent, Americans in 1976 said they favored a bigger government providing more services to a smaller government with fewer services. The numbers have ebbed and flowed, reflecting often the ideology of the party in power, but by 2015 a majority (53 percent to 38 percent) chose a smaller government over a bigger government.

This year, a Pew Research Center poll shows a reversal of opinion, with 48 percent now saying they prefer a bigger government providing more services to 45 percent choosing a smaller government with fewer services. Though the numbers are close, the about-face in public opinion may provide an opening for Democrats considering a more vigorous set of policy proposals for the 2018 midterm election and the 2020 presidential race. A sense of the shifting tide on the role of government may underpin the movement of a growing number of Democrats toward supporting a single-payer healthcare option.

It may seem odd that a plurality of Americans support a more active government given the voting preferences of the electorate in 2016. The voters, after all, handed Republicans — the apostles of small government — the presidency and both houses of Congress. Republican control of Congress is the result of many factors, including gerrymandering and the preferences of Democrats to congregate in more populous urban areas, and may not reflect overall opinions on the role of government.

As for Trump, he is not a traditional Republican, if he is a Republican at all. On issue after issue, first candidate Trump and then President Trump favored an activist government. His vaunted border wall, unlikely ever to be built, would be a massive and expensive federal project. (Never mind those promises that Mexico would pay for the wall. You know who would pay for it.) Trump ran promising a huge expenditure on the national infrastructure, and he vows to interfere in free markets by imposing tariffs on foreign-made goods. He has pledged to preserve Social Security, anathema to hardcore, small-government conservatives.

Americans do not like to pay taxes (who does?). But, most Americans regard paying taxes as a civic duty and are offended not by their own personal tax rate but by those who are perceived as not doing their part. A Gallup survey taken this year shows that 61 percent of respondents believe the federal income tax they pay is fair. Other polls concur, showing that most Americans — including Republicans — think they pay “about the right amount” in taxes. Many are troubled, though, by the perception that the rich, including many corporations, do not pay their fair share. Also, there is a growing recognition that, while Americans may pay less in taxes than citizens of other countries, we also get less in return. In high-tax Sweden, for example, Swedes get free healthcare and child care, a generous retirement pension, low-cost college education, paid sick and parental leave, senior care, and so on. Some Americans get these things, as well, but only after forking over a lot more in out-of-pocket payments in addition to taxes paid.

The current Congress is not likely to consider public attitudes toward taxes as it votes for funding for disaster relief and the budget and for raising the debt ceiling. Nor are the possibly changing views of the electorate on taxation — and the role of government — likely to influence the coming debate on tax reform. Shifting views  on the role of government, though, may give Democrats an opening in future elections. But, for now, one thing in all these upcoming debates should be remembered: You get what you pay for.

Posted September 5, 2017

Threat to Our Democracy

Much of what Donald Trump has said and done during this campaign has been deplorable (word chosen deliberately). But, two statements stand out because they endanger American democracy: His threat to jail his opponent and his eagerness to declare the election rigged before any ballots have been cast.

Last Sunday evening, in the second debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Republican nominee twice promised to jail Clinton if he is elected. Then, in an effort to deflect attention from the tawdry tape on which Trump boasts of sexually assaulting women, he turned on Clinton and promised to appoint a special prosecutor “to look into your situation.” It is not clear why a Trump administration would need a special prosecutor since he has decided she should be jailed, but perhaps, like would-be dictators such as Vladimir Putin, who Trump has frequently praised, Trump believes a veneer of legality is useful.

“It’s a chilling thought,” said Michael Chertoff, who served as secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. “It smacks of what we read about tin-pot dictators in other parts of the world, where when they win an election their first move is to imprison opponents.” Another former Bush administration official concurred. “This is a manifestation of the same tendency to be willing to use the machinery of the state to go after one’s political enemies, which is very dangerous,” said David Rivkin, a former White House and Justice Department lawyer. And, as Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, noted: “The appearance of the justice system being used for partisan payback is poisonous.”

Trump, who is ignorant about policy and the machinery of government, seems unaware that the president does not appoint special prosecutors. Federal regulations empower the attorney general to make such appointments. Clinton cannot take much solace from the law, however, since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a likely candidate to be appointed attorney general in a Trump administration. Christie used his speech at the Republican National Convention to invite repeatedly the audience to declare Clinton “guilty” of a slew of alleged crimes.

Of course, if Trump is to be believed, he will not get to appoint a special prosecutor because he will lose the election since it is “rigged,” an accusation he has made many times on the stump in the last few months. “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” Trump told a rally in Columbus, Ohio, in mid-summer. But, in recent days, as his campaign has descended into chaos, he has intensified his claim the election will be stolen by the Clintons, pointing frequently to the possibility of fraud in African-American neighborhoods. As usual, the Republican nominee cited no evidence to support this assertion. Trump is much given to conspiracy theories (viz., the “birther” movement), so it is no surprise that he is claiming his opponents may be cheating. But, such an accusation serves only to delegitimize the democratic process, and it contains a thinly veiled threat to contest the election’s outcome in court. Trump is, after all, an extremely litigious “billionaire.”

Related to the claim of a “rigged” election is Trump’s unwillingness to promise he would honor the results of the balloting. At the end of the first debate, on September 26, the candidates were asked by moderator Lester Holt if they would accept the outcome if they lost. Clinton responded quickly, “I support our democracy. And sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But, I certainly will support the outcome of this election.” Trump, as is his way, hemmed and hawed until Holt repeated the question. “The answer is, if she wins, I will absolutely support her,” Trump said finally. But, a mere four days later, he backtracked, telling The New York Times in an interview, “We’re going to have to see. We’re going to see what happens. We’re going to have to see.” And, he followed that, with a claim at a rally in Detroit that voter fraud is “a big, big problem in this country.”

Trump’s supporters have bought into the assertion that the election is “rigged.” A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken last month found that half of Trump’s supporters are “not confident” their “votes for president… will be accurately counted this year.” The same poll found that 69 percent of Trump supporters believe “voter fraud” is common. Many Americans are convinced that in-person voter fraud is a serous problem, even though the evidence conclusively demonstrates that such fraud is exceedingly rare.

But, perception, not reality, is the issue. Clinton almost certainly will win in November, but it may be a pyrrhic victory if large numbers of voters believe she should be in jail and/or she won dishonestly. The nation has just come through eight years during which many Americans believed the country’s first African-American president was not a legitimate citizen of the United States, thanks in large measure to the racist lies promulgated by the current Republican nominee. Trump’s threat to jail Clinton and his claim that the election is “rigged” will encourage large numbers of people to believe that Clinton, too, is an illegitimate president.

Trump treads in dangerous territory because both assertions — the jailing of his opponent and the claim of massive electoral fraud — threaten the stability of American democracy. Our constitutional protections are fragile; they rely on the people believing the system is fair. As I have pointed out before, the great accomplishment of the American republican experiment is the acceptance by all — winners and losers — of the peaceful transfer of power. The willingness of George Washington to cede power to his successor was unprecedented and set the tone for future elections. Even more astonishing was the willingness of John Adams to acknowledge the peaceful transfer of power to Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800, since Adams and Jefferson represented opposing political ideologies. Only once in American history has a substantial group of citizens refused to accept the outcome of an election, and the result of that refusal was secession, the Civil War, and the deaths of more than 650,000. The one positive result was the abolition of slavery.

A woman at a recent Mike Pence rally advocated a “revolution” if Clinton wins. “Our lives depend on this election,” she told the vice-presidential candidate. “For me personally, if Hillary Clinton gets in, I myself am ready for a revolution.” To his credit, Pence quickly shut the woman down. “No, don’t say that,” he said. She responded, “I’m just saying it…. You know, I’m like Trump.”

Just one Trump supporter, but still unsettling… and a threat to our democracy.

Posted October 14, 2016

Safe Choice? Smart Choice?

Pence, no doubt, will shore up Trump’s standing with social conservatives. Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi and past Republican National Committee chair, calls Pence “a very solid, well-regarded person” who will allay the fears of social conservatives who wonder if Trump is really one of them. “He’s very popular among religious conservatives,” adds Barbour. Kris Warner, a West Virginia Republican, says, “I’m very impressed with his conservative credentials, and I think he will be a positive, stabilizing force for the Trump campaign.” Conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt predicts that the choice of Pence “should bring many #NeverTrump folks along.”

Pence brings some strengths to the ticket. In addition to soothing the fears of social conservatives, he may reassure the GOP establishment that a President Trump perhaps will not ignore their wishes after Inauguration Day. “We need someone who is steady and secure in his principles, someone who can cut through the noise and make a compelling case for conservatism. Mike Pence is that man,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Putting the governor of Indiana on the ticket could help Trump in the crucial states of the industrial Midwest, such as Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Pence is also a favorite of the Koch brothers, the rich ultraconservative moneymen who, so far, have indicated they are sitting out this year’s presidential election.

All true, but there are reasons to think Pence is not such a safe choice, that his presence on the ticket may hurt Trump’s chances in November. One problem — which is not Pence’s fault — is that perhaps no one can convince Trump doubters that the boorish New Yorker can be trusted in the White House. As S.E. Cupp, a conservative analyst, put it before the choice of Pence was announced, “I was asked recently if Trump picked someone serious for vice president — like Mike Pence — would that make me decide to vote for him. Which is like asking if I’d marry an asshole just because his older brother seemed nice.”

The Trump campaign may have miscalculated in choosing Pence, an arch right-winger whose stances on social issues are out of sync with the majority of Americans. Maybe he is not such a smart choice, either. On two issues, gay rights and abortion, Pence is so far to the right that not only does he not attract any voters who do not support Trump, he may damage the ticket among key voting groups with whom Trump is already weak.

Pence is the governor who signed the controversial 2015 law allowing religious conservatives to refuse service to gay couples just when support for same-sex marriage was intensifying in the United States and as the Supreme Court was poised to approve such unions. A firestorm greeted the law, with sports leagues, trade groups, and technology companies threatening to boycott Indiana. Pence proved inept at defending the law — see his painful interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC — and, then, under pressure backed down and signed a revision of the law that satisfied no one.

Because of his opposition to same-sex marriage, Pence helps Trump with religious conservatives especially since Trump has never shown the animosity to gay marriage that motivates many on the right. But support for gay marriage has increased dramatically in the last few years; one poll conducted this year showed that 55 percent of Americans support such unions with 37 percent against. Pence’s opposition to gay marriage may well damage Trump among young voters who are much more accepting of social and cultural change than their elders.

Pence also hurts the ticket among women. This past March, he signed into a law a measure that bans abortions based on a fetus having a disability. The strict measure angered abortion rights groups and faces a court challenge. Several female Republican lawmakers in Indiana thought the law so draconian that they voted against it. “It saddens me and makes me sick to my stomach…,” said Indiana House member Wendy McNamara, a Republican, who describes herself as against abortion. “It’s bills like these that make people like me really hate the system.”

The Clinton campaign likely will attack Pence on these issues, and it will also go after him for his questioning of science. Pence believes in creationism and doubts evolution. He also questions the veracity of climate change, a position that endears him to the Koch brothers. As late as 1998, Pence mocked the warnings of government officials who insisted on regulating the use of cigarettes. As a member of Congress, Pence advocated diverting money from organizations that cared for people with the HIV virus to “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Pence’s extreme conservatism helps Trump in areas where he probably does not need help, such as red states in the South and the Plains and parts of the West. Having Pence on the ticket may convince Alabamians that Trump is one of them, but if Trump needs help in Alabama, then he is in serious trouble. More importantly, Pence does not help, and may wound, Trump among key demographic groups — women and young voters — and Pence appears to do little to attract votes in key battleground states, such as Virginia, Ohio, and Wisconsin, to name a few, where Trump has to be competitive if he hopes to win in November.

Pence may appeal to social conservatives and assuage party regulars, but he may not be the “safe” choice that many claim. He is not the “smart” choice, either.

Posted July 19, 2016

Love at 15th Sight

“If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you,” Lindsey Graham, speaking at the Washington Press Club Foundation’s 72nd Congressional Dinner, February 25, 2016.

“He was my 15th choice. What can I say?” Lindsey Graham, explaining his endorsement of Ted Cruz for president, March 23, 2016.

What a difference a month makes! What a difference fear of Donald Trump makes! Endorsing Ted Cruz “tells you everything you need to know about Donald Trump,” the South Carolina Republican senator added in an appearance on The Daily Show.

Graham is not alone in his less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of the arguably most hated senator in Washington. Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush also have given Cruz a half thumbs up, with Bush taking to social media instead of holding a more traditional news conference, which would have required the two men to appear side-by-side, to praise the Texas senator for not being Trump. “For the sake of our party and country, we must overcome the divisiveness and vulgarity Donald Trump has brought into the political arena,” Bush wrote on his Facebook page.

For these representatives of the Republican establishment Trump vs. Cruz is the battle of who is less loathsome.  Much as they dislike Cruz, they fear Trump. Of course, not all the recent converts to Cruz’s corner actually want him to secure the GOP nomination. Many anti-Trumpistas hope that by backing Cruz they can prevent Trump from having enough delegates to win the nomination in the first round, forcing a contested convention. Romney said as much when he announced he was voting for Cruz in the Utah caucus because, he explained, “The only path that remains to nominate a Republican rather than Mr. Trump is to have an open convention. At this stage, the only way we can reach an open convention is for Senator Cruz to be successful in as many of the remaining nominating elections as possible.”

A more palatable and electable candidate might emerge from a contested convention, according to this line of thought. Perhaps, a deadlocked convention might turn to Paul Ryan or Romney to lead the Republican Party back to respectability after its flirtation with Trumpism. Or John Kasich might emerge as a compromise choice after the failure of Trump or Cruz to secure enough votes to win the nomination.

Of course, in an open convention, Cruz might emerge the victor. That would be bad for the party, goes the establishment’s reasoning, because Cruz would lose the presidency. But then again, establishment Republicans also expect Trump to lose — and to lose in a far uglier and more divisive manner that would endanger GOP control of the Senate and the House and have dangerous repercussions for the Republican Party for decades. Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and misogyny would scare away so many constituencies — young voters, women, Hispanics, and other minorities — that he would not leave Republicans with much of a party to rebuild.

Republicans lost the Hispanic vote by 71 percent to 27 percent in 2012. Trump’s threats to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants make him even less popular among Latinos. One recent poll shows the New York real estate mogul winning only 16 percent of the Latino vote in a matchup with Hillary Clinton (and the percentage of Latino voters increases in every election). Similarly, 73 percent of registered women voters have an unfavorable view of Trump, and 47 percent of Republican women say they could not support him.

Trump scares away the youth vote to such an extent that his candidacy might damage the party for a generation or more. One poll found Clinton leading Trump among respondents under 35 by 52 percent to 19 percent. Young people generally are more immune than their elders to Trump’s appeals to ethnic and racial resentment. Republicans have lost the youth vote for the last several elections, but a Trump candidacy might drive so many young voters to the Democratic Party as to weaken the GOP for decades.

A Cruz loss would be less catastrophic, allowing the party to live to fight another day. Cruz probably would have a less disastrous affect than Trump on the rest of the Republican ticket. Besides, establishment Republicans see a virtue in a possible Cruz candidacy in that it would be a test of the appeal of a far-right conservative to the electorate. Movement conservatives like Cruz argue the reason the GOP lost in 2008 and 2012 is because the party nominated moderate Republicans — John McCain and Romney — instead of true conservatives. If Cruz were nominated and then lost, ultra conservatives would be robbed of that rationale in future elections, and the establishment could go back to comfortably naming the Republican nominee in the future — if the party has a future.

To be sure, Trump has received some endorsements. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Governor Rick Scott, and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama are some of the biggest names to come out in favor of the reality TV star. But, Cruz’s endorsement list is much bigger, but not because of any sudden outpouring of love for the Texas senator.

Politics often involves choosing between the lesser of two evils, but never have the evils been, well, so evil. Pity the GOP voter, stuck with the 15th best choice.

Posted March 29, 2016

Winners and Whiners

The good news from the Iowa Republican caucuses is Donald Trump did not win; the bad news, Ted Cruz did. But the big loser in the battle between more odious and most odious (reader’s choice as to which man is which; as for odious, he finished third) was the Republican Party, which is saddled with the prospect of a nominee who is either utterly detestable, an eighth-grade bully, or a totally vapid blank slate.

The beauty of the Iowa caucuses — coming first in the selection process — is that so many candidates can claim the mantle of winner. On the Democratic side, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders won — Clinton because her razor-thin win is, after all, a win, and Sanders because a candidate who comes from nowhere to within three-tenths of a percentage point of winning is a winner. Besides, Sanders is a winner because he has set the agenda. His relentless attacks on Wall Street, big banks, and income inequality have pushed Clinton to the left, forcing her to argue that the differences between the two Democrats are more a question of style than substance, that she is for incremental change that does not threaten hard-won gains while he is for revolutionary change that could compromise recent accomplishments (for example, building on Obamacare vs. Medicare for all).

Pundits are playing Clinton’s narrow victory as a loss because it undermines the earlier narrative of her waltzing to the nomination. But, Sanders has been a credible candidate for months now, and he is likely to win next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, where polls have him up by 20 points or more. The tally will probably be closer than that, and Clinton will shrug off a New Hampshire loss since Sanders has the home-field advantage. After the Granite State, the terrain becomes more hospitable for Clinton as the candidates will be competing in states with large African American and Latino voting blocs. Both groups are solidly pro-Clinton.

With three winners in Iowa, the Republicans are luckier than the Democrats. Cruz is a winner because he won. Trump is a winner because he says he is. And Rubio is a winner because he broke out of the so-called establishment pack and came within a whisker of second place.

Trump appeared uncharacteristically subdued the night of the Iowa caucuses, but he quickly returned to his braggadocio self, saying the results from Iowa were “fantastic” and “unbelievable.” He tweeted, “Brought in record voters and got second highest vote total in history!” Trump’s candidacy is predicated on his telling voters — over and over — that he is a “winner.” It is a storyline that does not allow for second-place finishes, which is why Trump is hitting hard on the dirty trick the Cruz campaign employed when it messaged supporters to spread a rumor that Ben Carson had dropped out of the race. Trump says the Iowa results should be nullified because of Cruz’s “dishonest tactics.” That, of course, will not happen, but the claim of cheating allows Trump to pretend he lost because it was not a fair fight.

“So this is the moment they said would never happen,” Rubio said Monday night even though polls correctly predicted his third-place finish. Still, Rubio’s strong showing earned him the right to crow a bit. And, the Republican establishment is delighted: A supposed moderate from a swing state who is young and Latino. Hollywood could not have casted the great establishment hope better.

Except — just how moderate is Marco Rubio? He is anti-choice, even for victims of rape and incest. On immigration, well, he is a mess, but the most recent Rubio calls granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants “irresponsible.” His plan to tackle income stagnation among the middle class and to prime the economy boils down to the old GOP shibboleths of reducing taxes and eliminating regulations. All in all, there is not much difference between Rubio and Cruz.

Rubio is a far-right conservative who tries to sound moderate to appeal to the establishment. It is a hard balancing act, and it explains why Rubio is running such a cautious campaign. He gives the same bland speech everywhere. “Why do you deliver the same speech wherever you go?” he was asked at a New Hampshire town hall meeting this week. “Cause it’s my message,” Rubio said. “It’s the reason I’m running for president.” It may be his message, but Rick Santorum — who dropped out of the Republican race after Iowa and endorsed Rubio — tellingly could not name a single accomplishment of Rubio’s in the Senate when asked in a TV interview.

A cautious campaigner avoids mistakes but quickly becomes the butt of attacks. Already, other GOP candidates are teeing off on Rubio. “This isn’t a student council election, everybody. This is an election for president of the United States. Let’s get the boy in the bubble out of the bubble,” said Chris Christie, a snarky candidate who is getting more snarky the lower he sinks in the race. The New Jersey governor liked the “boy in the bubble” metaphor so much that he repeated it often. “OK? We know who the boy in the bubble is up here, who never answers your questions, who’s constantly scripted and controlled because he can’t answer your questions” he reiterated. Harsh maybe, but true.

Rubio offers voters his biography — he is the successful son of Cuban immigrants. He asserts that as a youthful Latino he has the best chance to beat Clinton in November.

Oh, and one more thing: Rubio claims he is nicer than Cruz and less caustic than Trump. True, but then the bar in both instances is set very low.

Posted February 5, 2016

 

The GOP Dilemma: Trump or Cruz?

The sound you hear is the gnashing of teeth as many in the Republican establishment cozy up to Donald Trump.

Not many in the GOP leadership are enamored with the Donald, but they believe he is a more palatable option than Ted Cruz — the other current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. “If it came down to Trump or Cruz, there is no question I’d vote for Trump,” said Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor and a fleeting 2008 GOP presidential candidate. “As a party, we’d have a better chance of winning with him, and I think a lot of Republicans look at it that way.”

The failure of the more traditional establishment favorites — Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich — to gain traction fuels, in part, the current movement to Trump. But, more significant is the establishment’s intense dislike of Cruz. Representative Peter King put it best: “Between Trump and Cruz, it’s not even close. Cruz isn’t a good guy, and he’d be impossible as president. People don’t trust him.” One Republican, who worked with Cruz on the George W. Bush 2000 campaign, said, “It’s a real quandary for Bush campaign people: Trump versus Cruz, who to vote for? And it would be a big quandary even if it’s Cruz versus Hillary Clinton. That’s how much they cannot stand him.” Cruz is despised by his colleagues in the Senate for single-handedly forcing a government shutdown in 2013 and for his generally harsh rhetoric, such as when he suggested that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a liar.

Many Republicans view Cruz as a rigid ideologue who would drag the rest of the party ticket to defeat. They fear Cruz would alienate moderates and swing voters with his take-no-prisoners brand of conservatism. “If he’s the nominee, we’re going to have wholesale losses in Congress and state offices and governors and legislatures,” said Bob Dole, the former Kansas senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee. At the same time, the 92-year-old Dole believes Trump is — despite his vitriolic bombast — a pragmatist at heart who could “probably work with Congress, because he’s you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.” Charles Black, a Republican operative, agrees: “You can coach Donald. If he got nominated, he’d be scared to death. That’s the point he would call people in the party and say, ‘I just want to talk to you.’”

Some Republicans do not believe either Trump or Cruz could win, but prefer Trump for fear (as Bob Dole suggests) of Cruz’s deleterious effect on the rest of the ticket. There is also concern that Cruz — if he made a close run this time around — would be positioned for another try in 2020. Better, goes this line of reasoning, to rent the party to Trump until election day than to suffer perhaps irreparable damage with a Cruz candidacy.

Others on the right — who identify themselves as true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool conservatives for whom the concept of limited government still has meaning — find the prospect of a Trump presidency frightening. Many note that Trump is not a traditional Republican. The New York realtor has espoused many socially liberal positions in the past, and a number of his policy pronouncements during his candidacy suggest a willingness to expand the size of government. Building a wall — “a beautiful wall” — along the border with Mexico would involve the government in an infrastructure project rivaling those of the New Deal, and his promise to deport 11-million undocumented workers would result in the creation of a gigantic police force to round up everyone in the nation without proper papers and a huge bureaucracy to process them.

Then, there is the question of Trump’s racism and xenophobia. Michael Gerson, who was George W. Bush’s speechwriter and now writes a column for The Washington Post, says, “Trump is disqualified for the presidency by his erratic temperament, his ignorance about public affairs and his scary sympathy for authoritarianism. But for me, and I suspect for many, the largest problem is that Trump would make the GOP the party of racial and religious exclusion.”

The National Review, a bellwether of conservative thought, ran an editorial last week criticizing conservatives who “have made it their business to make excuses for Trump…. Count us out. Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism  as heedless and crude as the Donald himself…. He is not deserving of conservative support in the caucuses and primaries. Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”

Republicans have only themselves to blame for their pickle — whether to support a detestable ideologue or a xenophobic authoritarian. The establishment’s unwillingness to challenge Trump in 2011 when he peddled “birtherism,” its tolerance of fringe groups spewing racist hatred of the president, and its acquiescence in Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” delusion have led it to the current Hobson’s choice of Cruz or Trump. The latest example of the party’s pusillanimity followed the National Review’s anti-Trump editorial when the Republican National Committee revoked its invitation to the venerable conservative magazine to co-host an upcoming debate. The RNC’s surrender to Trump is another indication that the bigoted huckster has become the face of the Republican Party. Or else the face is Cruz, detested by everyone.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who recently abandoned his own quest for the presidency, best summed up the unpalatable choice facing Republicans: “Whether you jump off a cliff or drive off a cliff, you’re still off a cliff.”

Posted January 26, 2016

A Crazy Selection Process

The first votes in the 2016 presidential election will be cast in the next few weeks — Iowans caucus on February 1 and New Hampshire holds its primary on February 9 — and the races are heating up.

The Democratic contest — long thought to be a coronation march to the nomination for Hillary Clinton — has tightened in recent weeks, with avowed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders leading in New Hampshire and drawing closer to Clinton in Iowa. The Republican free-for-all has Donald Trump with a solid lead nationally and in New Hampshire, but he trails Ted Cruz in some polls in Iowa. At the same time, there is an interesting race among Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich for the mantle of establishment candidate best equipped to derail the outsiders, Trump and Cruz.

The races make for good copy, and if you are a political junkie as I am, it is immense fun. But is it any way to choose a president?

The United States is a big, rollicking, diverse nation of almost 320 million people. Iowa and New Hampshire are relatively small states — just over three million people live in the Hawkeye State and fewer than 1.5 million in the Granite State — and neither state reflects overall national demographic trends. The United States — according to census estimates for 2014 — is 62.1 percent white, 17.4 percent Hispanic, and 13.2 percent African American. Iowa is 87.1 percent white, 5.6 percent Hispanic and 3.4 percent African American, while New Hampshire is 91.3 percent white, 3.3 percent Hispanic, and 1.5 percent African American. Both states have more senior citizens than the national average, and the percentage of women in the total population is lower in both than nationally.

An analysis of who voted in the Republican caucuses in Iowa and the Republican primary in New Hampshire in 2012 (since Barack Obama ran for reelection that year, there was no meaningful Democratic race in either state) further demonstrates how unreflective of national demographics the electorate is in these early contests. According to entrance polls in the Iowa Republican 2012 caucuses, the electorate was 99 percent white, 57 percent male, and heavily skewed toward older voters with 26 percent over 65 and 68 percent over the age of 45. New Hampshire exit polls reflected similar trends, with an electorate that was 99 percent white, 54 percent male, and 21 percent over the age of 65 and 69 percent over the age of 45. The population of the United States, by contrast, is 62.1 percent white, 49.2 percent male, and only 14.5 percent are over 65.

Of course, Republican voters nationally tilt white, male, and older. Mitt Romney secured a large percentage of the white, male, and senior vote in 2012. But, at the same time, he received a higher percentage of the non-white, female, and youth vote than participated in either the Iowa Republican caucus or the New Hampshire Republican primary that year.

Because Iowa and New Hampshire are the first two states to vote, they have inordinate influence on the nomination process. In first-in-the-nation Iowa, roughly 120,000 people attended each of the last two GOP caucuses. Those 120,000 Iowans are probably not very representative of a state that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In fact, those 120,000 caucus-goers may not be representative of Iowa Republicans. According to an analysis done by The New York Times, the northwestern corner of Iowa — settled by religious dissenters fleeing persecution in the Netherlands — backs the most conservative and religious candidates. The area remains ethnically homogeneous — the local slogan is “You’re not mutch [sic] if you’re not Dutch” — and it delivers such lopsided margins to the most conservative and evangelical candidates that it cancels the tallies of more moderate and populous areas of the state. The outsized influence of these conservative voters forces all Republicans to run to the right, pushing the conservative party to even more conservative positions. This time around, the Dutch region of Iowa appears to be a Ted Cruz stronghold.

If so, Cruz’s presidential ambitions will receive a bump thanks to a small number of ultra-conservative, evangelical voters in a caucus process attended by a small number of committed voters in a relatively small state that is not reflective of national demographic trends. If he does well in New Hampshire, an even smaller state equally unreflective of the nation’s diverse demographic makeup, Cruz could be poised to win several states as the primaries move southward.

It does not have to be this way. We do not have to have our presidential candidates chosen by a relatively few people who are not a cross-section of our increasingly diverse nation. A national primary for each party — or at least, regional primaries — would allow for an electorate that better represents the nation’s demographics to choose candidates to run in the general election. Holding a national primary — or perhaps four regional primaries on successive Tuesdays — would have the added advantage of shortening our absurdly long election process. In the United Kingdom — a successful democratic nation — an election campaign lasts only a month. Shorter campaigns could also mean less money spent, which in turn might lessen the baleful influence of big money on our politics.

But as for now, we are saddled with a system wherein a handful of people who do not look or think like the rest of the nation exerts outsized influence in the election of the leader of the most powerful nation in the world.

Posted January 19, 2016

 

Doom and Gloom on the Campaign Trail

You do not need to watch a vampire movie these days to be scared; just listening to the Republican candidates talk for a few minutes is enough to convince any sane mortal that the apocalypse is around the corner, or might even be upon us.

The biggest purveyor of doom and gloom has been Donald Trump. His campaign slogan — “Make America Great Again” — implies America is not great now. Do many Americans really believe that? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Regardless, Trump keeps peddling the doom and gloom, and people flock to his rallies while he maintains a double-digit lead in the polls.

“We’re not respected as a nation anymore,” Trump said in the last Republican presidential debate of 2015. “We don’t have that level of respect that we need. And if we don’t get it back fast, we’re just going to go weaker, weaker, and just disintegrate.” America is in such bad shape, Trump says, because “nothing works in our country,” and he warned the nation is headed toward “disaster.” In his raucous campaign announcement in June, Trump said, “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us.”

Doom and gloom works; just check out the polls on RealClear Politics. But, doom and gloom married to fear is more potent still. And fear is certainly part of Trump’s rhetoric, as it is for virtually all the Republican candidates. Trump launched his campaign by describing the image of supposed Mexican criminals, rapists, and drug dealers pouring across the southwestern border. In subsequent months, following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Trump added fear of the Islamic State abroad and Muslims at home to the mix.

The other GOP candidates have joined Trump in hawking a bleak outlook. Retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson compared the United States to a patient “in critical condition.” Jeb Bush accused President Obama of creating “the most unstable situation we’ve had since the World War II era,” and Senator Rand Paul suggested the United States is on the brink of World War III. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie claims “people across this country… are scared to death.”

The transformation of Senator Marco Rubio from an optimist to just another Republican pessimist shows how the spirit of Trump seized the Republican Party. Rubio started his campaign with the slogan, “A New American Century.” But that Rubio has disappeared from the campaign trail, replaced by a candidate who believes America is “a nation in decline” and who has accused the president of destroying “our military” while waging an ineffective battle against terrorists.

All of this doom and gloom is a far cry from the sunny optimism, perhaps naiveté, of Ronald Reagan. From the time he entered politics until he left the Oval Office, Reagan likened America to “a shining city on a hill” and a “beacon” for all seeking freedom. “It certainly is curious that Trump aligns himself so much with Reagan, yet is running a campaign that is antagonistic to Reagan’s glowing optimism,” noted Matt Motyl, a political psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In 1980, Reagan’s optimism helped him defeat President Jimmy Carter in an election held in the midst of a recession and the unfolding Iranian hostage crisis. Carter spoke of an “erosion of confidence in the future [that] is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.” The incumbent repeated his sober message frequently. “I cannot promise you everything will be better from this moment forward, that there will be no more sacrifice, because there will. And I will not lie to you and say that all is right in the world, because it’s not, or all right in our nation, because it’s not.” Reagan’s sunny disposition offered a stark contrast with Carter’s “crisis of confidence.” In accepting the Republican presidential nomination in July 1980, Reagan said, “I utterly reject that view… [that says] the United States has had its days in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith.”

Reagan often adopted a preachy and moralizing tone, but for a nation troubled by recession, humiliated by Iran’s holding of its diplomats, and locked in a Cold War with a nuclear-armed adversary, his words were reassuring, and they transcended the issues of the day. Reagan sensed that most Americans wanted to hear of the greatness to come rather than the despair of the past.

In this election cycle, doom and gloom has worked so far. But no votes have been cast, and Trump and the GOP candidates who emulate him are trying to rev up a base that believes the worst of the current occupant of the Oval Office and is convinced that he has led the nation into decline. But will Trump’s brand of pessimism work in a general election? Will it appeal to independent voters? Terrifying imagery and language may succeed when the candidates are appealing to mostly conservative voters in the caucuses and primaries, but the general election, when the two parties will be vying for independent voters, is still 11 months away. That is a long time to try to motivate people by fear and doom and gloom.

Posted January 12, 2016