Game On!

But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

Stephen Sondheim — “Send in the Clowns”

It is unclear what to make of Monday’s Iowa caucus results.  Analysts and pundits are busy parsing it in many directions.  So far I have heard that Hillary Clinton’s win was really a loss, Marco Rubio’s third place finish was a win, Bernie Sanders pulled out the biggest upset, Ted Cruz really knew how to do “retail politics” and Donald Trump is not unstoppable.  I suppose all of that means we can make of the results whatever we wish.

There are a few things that are apparent.  Projections, pundits and potential are all mostly in the past now that real people are voting.  The game is on.  On to New Hampshire.  There is no clear front-runner in either party even though various candidates would like to think that they are the inevitable nominee for their respective parties.

Perhaps we also know (or hope) that the reality show atmosphere of the Republican debates will be a thing of the past. Perhaps the clown show is finally over.  (Time out:  You may remember that Donald Trump boycotted last week’s debate on Fox News.  We will never know if that hurt him or helped him — many argue the latter because he would be asked some difficult questions.  Ever the entrepeneur Mr. Trump opined that they should pay him for his appearance as he was such a boon to ratings for the network, and felt that the questions asked him were “unfair” — even as Fox News claims it is the only network that is “fair and balanced.”  If I were a cynical conspiracy theorist, I would opine that it was actually a back room deal between Fox and Mr. Trump to boost ratings for each of them by creating a mock feud.  But I must stop myself from slipping into the slime that is unworthy of the citizens of our great country.)  Perhaps the next debates will be more substantive, but in truth, without Mr. Trump there, the last Republican debate was the most policy driven one they have held thus far.

There are a few things to keep in mind about the “winning and losing” that often get lost.  In no particular order these include:

  • Caucus goers in Iowa are not representative of the voters nationally.  For both Democrats and Republicans they tend to skew farther to the edges of their respective parties.  The last two winners of the Republican caucuses were former Governor Mike Huckabee and former Senator Rick Santorum.  Neither were much of a factor in later primaries.
  • The “winner” in the Republican caucus was Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who got 8 delegates. In second place Mr. Donald Trump (R-Manhattan) got 7 and in third place Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) got 7 delegates.  Out of 1,237 needed to gain the nomination.  (For the record, Dr. Ben Carson (R-Johns Hopkins) got 3 and Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich each got one.  Chris Christie got zero, along with Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, “other” and Jim Gilmore — “other” actually got more votes than Jim Gilmore.)  The “winner” got about six tenths of one percent — less than one percent — of the total needed for the nomination.
  • The “winner” for the Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got 23 delegates and the runner-up, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) got 21.  Former governor Martin O’Malley (D-MD) got no delegates but he did finish ahead of “other” and “uncommitted” in the voting.  Out of 2,382 delegates needed to get the nomination, the “winner” got about one percent of the total needed.

(Time out number two:  Out of the roughly 314 million citizens of the United States, these fifteen people are the best our nation has to offer?  No offense to any one of the candidates that have put themselves out there to run (well, maybe offense to two or three of them), but whoever ends up being the two nominees do not to me look like the best that we can do.)

One thing is clear, the economy of Iowa benefits from hosting the first test of the candidates among the voters.  I am not so sure the rest of us get much benefit from it.

The real impact of the caucus is the psychological aspects of winning or losing.  Especially this year. Given the number and variety of candidates running, many voters are undecided and more importantly to the candidates, many major donors have been sitting out this cycle waiting to see who is a viable candidate with a shot at winning, you know, the real election.  Additionally, some candidates found out that they have no realistic shot.  (Farewell Governor Huckabee, Governor O’Malley, and Senator Paul. All “suspended” their campaigns after Iowa.)

The rules of the Iowa caucus, for both Democrats and Republicans are a bit arcane.  I won’t go into them here, but even as one may argue that Iowa does not represent the country as a whole with respect to race, ethnicity, socio-economic factors, etc. it is also difficult to participate in the caucus. None-the-less, it is what it is and it does provide a chance to start narrowing the field.

Up next, New Hampshire.  While that state also may not reflect the make up of the rest of the population of this great nation, at least the good citizens of the Granite State cast a real ballot at a polling booth. What makes New Hampshire interesting is that independents can vote in either the Republican or the Democrat primary (but not both).  Expect more Republican candidates to suspend their campaigns after New Hampshire, especially those that only paid lip service to the Iowa caucus and put most of their effort into New Hampshire and still make a poor showing.

That said, I am not in the prognosticating business so I will not venture a guess as to who decides to retire from the field. I also am sure that we will still have a large field for a few more weeks.  At a minimum, however, it should start to reveal who has a realistic shot at being their party’s nominee.

Perhaps by early March, we can send out the clowns.


Happy New Year and Good Luck in 2016

As 2015 comes to a close, I wish each of you a wonderful new year in 2016 and hope that our country comes through the coming elections in better shape than what I fear may be the case given our experience over this past year.

I am normally an optimistic, the glass is half-full kind of guy, but I am discouraged by the political discourse of the last few months.  I am concerned that it will only get worse in the new year.  The rhetoric is depressing and may become more so as some candidates find that it works to their advantage to vilify others, and as some candidates become desperate to be noticed before they fade away.

I also learned long ago to stay out of the prediction game.  With the right knowledge and experience, it used to be feasible to make a meaningful, if not always correct, educated guess as to the direction of certain events and the resulting policy decisions that follow.  I do not feel that way anymore. Additionally, as I have expressed in previous pieces, I think that it is too early to begin discussing which candidates from which political parties will be our choices in November.  I have no idea who will make it through the spring and summer and emerge as a viable candidate.  Therefore, at this point in the process, I have no idea who I will vote for and I will try to keep my mind open as the campaigns progress.  That said, I have already decided who I cannot vote for no matter their popularity or the alternative candidate from the other party.  Out of the roughly 15 candidates combined in the Republican and Democrat parties still running (and sometimes it is hard to keep track) there are at least five that I know that I cannot vote for, no matter what.  Some fall into that category because of their hateful rhetoric and others because in my view, they are just plain unqualified to lead this country. Some fall into both categories.  Hopefully, they will not end up running against each other.

Logically, and historically, I know that we have experienced shameful demagoguery in campaigns past.  I know also that our nation’s history has had shameful periods of racism and bigotry that were considered main stream.  And as much as I would like to think that as a nation we have moved past those misguided beliefs, I know that some racists and bigots still exist in our country.

So the politics of racism, bigotry, hatred and fear — dealing in the mysterious “other” who are not like us and do not belong in our country — is, unfortunately, not new to this nation.  We now have at least two leading candidates, Mr. Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), that are experts at exploiting the fear and hatred of others and who also have little use for the truth should it not coincide with their narrative.  They seem to be very popular — although it is difficult to know whether that popularity will translate at the voting booth.  While I am deeply disappointed in their campaigns, it is really nothing new in our history.  What has truly discouraged me is the number of people who pollsters of all stripes tell us support their campaigns.  I knew there were bigots and racists out there, what is discouraging is the number that seem still to exist in the year 2015. And before someone gets their hair on fire, I recognize that not all supporters of Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz are bigots or racists.  I know that. However, too many seem to fit in that category.  By a lot. Anger and fear are powerful motivators, but when exploited for purely personal gain, it becomes dangerous.  Both Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz are well polished exploiters of those emotions.  I see their hateful ways reflected in all sorts of social media and other outlets.  Although I am never sure if the anonymity of social media creates more salacious comments “just because” — “trolls” that enjoy stirring things up — or if the anonymity of social media allows people to expose what is really in their hearts without fear of being considered haters, but whichever is the case, Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz through their speech and actions, make it okay to be anti-social.

Please spare me the accusations of “political correctness.”  For these two candidates (and others) claiming that they do not have to be politically correct has become a crutch.  It is an anti-intellectual and facile claim that assures that no substantive discussion of the issues is needed and that to be polite and not rude in political discourse is not necessary.  We are the worse for it.  Bigots and racists are given free rein to malign others.

Before Christmas, Danielle Allen wrote an interesting opinion piece about “political correctness.”  (It can be found here.)  The term, according to Professor Allen was first coined by James Wilson in 1793.  James Wilson was a representative to the Continental Congress and an influential member of the committee that gave us the Constitution and was one of the original Justices of the Supreme Court.  The first substantive case heard by the new court was Chisolm v. State of Georgia which established that individuals could sue states.  The decision was later effectively over-turned by the Eleventh Amendment. (I am not a legal scholar, but should one want to read an interesting analysis of the case, it may be found here.)  What is pertinent to this discussion, is that the rhetoric following a lazy interpretation of “politically correct” has subverted the original use of the phrase.  In some ways it may be better said as “correct politically” or Justice Wilson’s emphasis on “We the People” and his belief that sovereignty rested with the “people of the United States” rather than individual states.

This interpretation was presaged by a speech of his on July 4th 1788 following the achievement of the minimum number of states needed to ratify the Constitution.  In his speech he laid out the vision of the crafters of that great document, its importance and how it is up to us, the people, to vote for good leaders.  He emphasized how each vote was important (perhaps because his was the deciding vote for independence in the Pennsylvania delegation).  Or as he said in part in his stem-winder of a speech (original spellings used below, italics and bold are mine):

Allow me to direct your attention, in a very particular manner, to a momentous part, which, by this constitution, every citizen will frequently be called to act. All those in places of power and trust will be elected either immediately by the people; or in such a manner that their appointment will depend ultimately on such immediate election. All the derivative movements of government must spring from the original movement of the people at large. If, to this they give a sufficient force and a just direction, all the others will be governed by its controuling power. To speak without a metaphor; if the people, at their elections, take care to chuse none but representatives that are wise and good; their representatives will take care, in their turn, to chuse or appoint none but such as are wise and good also. The remark applies to every succeeding election and appointment. Thus the characters proper for public officers will be diffused from the immediate elections of the people over the remotest parts of administration. Of what immense consequence is it, then, that this primary duty should be faithfully and skillfully discharged? On the faithful and skillful discharge of it the public happiness or infelicity, under this and every other constitution, must, in a very great measure, depend. For, believe me, no government, even the best, can be happily administered by ignorant or vicious men. You will forgive me, I am sure, for endeavouring to impress upon your minds, in the strongest manner, the importance of this great duty. It is the first concoction in politics; and if an error is committed here, it can never be corrected in any subsequent process: The certain consequence must be disease. Let no one say, that he is but a single citizen; and that his ticket will be but one in the box. That one ticket may turn the election.

In other words, no government, no matter how well conceived and designed, can function properly unless good, educated, and competent people — not “ignorant or vicious men” — are elected.  The government is only as good as those elected to it.  In my view, we lost that principal and fundamental element to good governance with the likes of Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz.



What Just Happened?

It turns out it is impossible for me to resist writing about the recent shenanigans in the House of Representatives.  I did not intend to write more about it as it seems self-evident to me as to what occurred, but here I am writing none-the-less.  I’ll try to be brief in addressing two main points.

I think what we just experienced is primarily a battle for the future of the Republican Party.  I feel strongly that we need a vibrant two-party system as part of the checks and balances inherent in our way of government.  For this citizen, I hope that the mainstream Republicans in the Senate and the House prevail over the Tea Party zealots that prefer ideological purity over actually running the country.  To this observer, it seems a lot like fundamentalists trying to take over our nation.  Thankfully the cooler heads in the Senate prevailed, which actually is not unusual in the history of our legislative process and a reflection of the way it was intended to be done.  The House tends to be more impetuous and the Senate tends to be the more deliberate body willing to look at long-term impacts rather than the fad of the moment.  Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule on both ends of the equation, but generally the system works.  It worked this time, but it took way too long.  Time will tell what this all means for the future, but I hope that the fundamentalists in the House have figured out that Senator Ted Cruz is not the Speaker of the House.  In my view, Ted Cruz really is only out for himself and has merely hitched a ride with the Tea Party in order to gain attention for self-promotion.  The majority of Republicans in the House and Senate need to stand up to Cruz and his kind and appeal to the large majority of us that take a middle of the road approach.

I’m no fan of his, but kudos to Senator Mitch McConnell who is fighting his own re-election challenge from the far right.  He was missing in action for far too long, but got it done in the end.  Hopefully the experience for both he and Senator Harry Reid will lead to some productive efforts to straighten out the problems that we face in a bi-partisan manner.

My second thought has to do with opposition to Obamacare which, ostensibly, was the reason for the shutdown.  For now I will ignore the view that simply because it was championed by President Obama that there was visceral opposition to it regardless of its possible merits.  Instead I have several thoughtful colleagues that worry that our country cannot afford it.  This is a more reasoned argument and one that needs to be further explored.  As I have said in earlier posts, I do not believe that Obamacare will be trouble-free — no undertaking of such magnitude can be counted upon to be trouble-free.  However, the fixes should be well thought out and not attempts at outright sabotage to ensure its failure.  But I digress.  While I do not accept that the Affordable Care Act will be the ruin of our country, either socially or economically, let me concede for arguments sake that it may put a burden on our national finances.  I still do not get the logic behind the reasoning that what may (may) be a burden over the long haul — several years into the future — needs to be “fixed” by destroying the nation’s economy now.  That is what many Tea Party supporters and Congressmen tried to do with the run-up to the current Continuing Resolution (CR).  Some still say it would have been worth it and given the chance, they would do it again.  I do not get it.  While I am no Nobel Prize winning economist, I do understand what the Nobel Prize winning economists are saying, along with financial experts of every stripe and leading CEOs of major corporations.  All indications were that a failure to extend the debt ceiling would over time have a catastrophic impact on our economy and destroy any chance for a continued recovery.  Even those staunchly opposed to Obamacare were appalled that the Tea Party Republicans would be willing to cripple our nation economically in order to stop it.  I will never understand it.  Never.  Such an approach runs counter to everything that I understand as a patriotic American.  If every one of us acted this way to oppose laws that we disagree with (and there is probably some significant law that most Americans oppose and it is unlikely that it is the same one) then we would be a nation without laws and anarchy would prevail.

I just do not understand how people who say they love their country actually hate it so much that they are willing to risk destroying it to get what they want.