Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Three Options

Because this election cycle has wrecked so many seeming verities, it seems like a fool's errand to say anything with 100 percent confidence.  But one can say with some confidence that Republicans have three options in the presidential race: win with Donald Trump, win by modifying Trumpism, or lose.  A few thoughts on each option follow.

Win with Trump: Despite the current pundit pack mentality, Trump still does have a chance of winning the White House.  After an absolutely terrible month, with attacks coming from the media, Democrats, and even many Republicans, Trump lags 6.8 points behind Hillary Clinton in the RCP average.  In late June 2008, John McCain was about 7 points behind Barack Obama--and McCain had a much more unified GOP behind him.  It's true that McCain lost, but Republicans hadn't given up the presidency in June 2008.  Moreover, polls in many crucial states (including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, and Florida) often have a margin-of-error race between Trump and Clinton.  This suggests that, if the Trump campaign takes its game to the next level and the party unifies, there's a chance that Trump could close the gap.

However, that's could.  A number of steps would be required for that to happen.  The Trump campaign would need to show more discipline, improve its fundraising numbers, and do more to reach out to members of institutional conservatism.  More would have to be done to convince voters of Trump's sobriety and good judgement.  Moreover, more members of the conservative and Republican establishments would have to make some peace with Trump.  This doesn't mean that they would have to endorse him.  But it does mean that the rhetoric would have to be taken down a notch.  There could be no crusade to blacklist those who support Trump; such blacklists not only seem to run contrary to the intellectual modesty championed by traditional conservatism but also seem better suited to middle-school cliques than a serious national political party.  Both pro- and anti-Trumpers would have to let bygones be bygones in order to focus on the future.

Win by modifying Trumpism:  Adapting some elements of Trumpism or populism seems perhaps the only way for an anti-Trump coup in Cleveland or an anti-Trump third-party candidacy to lead to anything but electoral disaster in November.  Replacing Donald Trump with some other candidate at the Republican National Convention would seem very likely to split the party.  Whether one likes him or not, Trump did get a commanding plurality in the primary--at about 45 percent only a little less than John McCain received in the 2008 primary.  He might not have gotten to a majority of primary votes (something Barack Obama also failed to do in the 2008 primary), but he did get to a majority of delegates.  The only way this coup could have a chance of not gift-wrapping the election for Hillary Clinton would be for the eventual nominee to acknowledge that Trump's campaign had a point--about the struggles of the working class, the need for reform, and the importance of restored competence in governance.  Echo-chamber myths to the contrary, a conservative could adapt some elements of Trump's campaign without betraying conventional conservatism.  Making concrete pledges to cut guest-worker programs or to oppose TPP, for instance, could win over many of Trump's supporters, and neither commitment is outside the realm of conservative tradition or basic human decency.  Reaching out to Trump's prominent endorsers and assuring them that they have a place at the table would also be part of healing the wounds of a coup.

Similar points apply to a third-party candidacy.  In order to be anything other than a spoiler, a third-party candidate would need to be able to win some traditional lean-Democratic states, such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.  Addressing some populist concerns seems a plausible route to making those states competitive.  (Conversely, running on more marginal tax-cuts, more guest workers, and more trade compacts like TPP seems likely to keep a third-party candidate from having a chance in the swing states.)

In order for this strategy to work, anti-Trump forces would have to keep their focus on coalition-building rather than punishing their enemies on the right.  An emphasis in some quarters on mocking Trump and his supporters harmed anti-Trump efforts in the primary season (forthrightly addressing some of his supporters' concerns would have done far more to deflate Trump than another tiresome joke about the size of his hands),* and that emphasis would also hurt anti-Trump efforts in the general.

Lose:  This option would require the least amount of work (though, considering the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a candidate, it still does require some effort).  Some on the right might conclude that surrendering to Hillary Clinton might be the best in the long term.

However, Republicans and conservatives who support a Clinton victory should not kid themselves.  Those on the right who endorse Hillary Clinton are endorsing the candidate who has pledged the most obsequious fealty to left-wing ideology of any candidate in living memory.  Whereas George HW Bush trumpeted a "kinder, gentler" version of Reaganite conservatism, Hillary Clinton is running far to the left of Barack Obama in 2008.  She has pledged to expand executive power even further.  In her judicial appointments and staffing of the federal leviathan, Clinton will likely put in place advocates of cultural-politics radicalism.  On judges, it is unclear whether a Republican will end up appointing constitutional conservatives, but it is almost certain that Clinton would appoint left-wing ideologues.  A Supreme Court stacked with radicals could prevent or hamstring both conservative and moderate governance for decades.  Clinton seems likely to follow in Barack Obama's footsteps and try to federalize and polarize countless issues through the strategic deployment of the federal bureaucracy; under a Clinton presidency, expect more measures like the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which would make the federal government the de facto zoning board for all but the wealthiest communities.  In foreign policy, the Obama administration has either embraced, or has proven ineffective at challenging, those forces wreaking havoc with the international system, and it's unclear that Clinton has learned from these debacles. Her "homebrew" server is but a taste of the secrecy and recklessness awaiting us in a Clinton presidency.

Our current constitutional sclerosis could very well deepen under a Clinton presidency.  As in recent years, we could see a Democratic president make more expansive claims for executive power out of frustration with a recalcitrant Republican Congress.  Out of partisanship, the president's Democratic and media allies would provide political cover, Republicans would fume, and constitutional norms would further wither.  (That possibility assumes that the GOP does not go full Reservoir Dogs and utterly obliterate its congressional majorities in November.  In that case, the election of 2016 could be equivalent to the UK parliamentary election of 1945, when the Labour party used the huge majorities it gained to socialize much of the British economy and change the trajectory of British politics for generations.)

All this does not mean that Republicans or conservatives have to vote for Donald Trump.  But it does make clear what Republicans who endorse Hillary Clinton are signing on to.  It might also remind conservatives of the importance of rallying behind some candidate in order to give a non-Leftist viewpoint a real shot at the White House.

*Ted Cruz understood this fact, and that is part of the reason why he came closer than any of Trump's other opponents to victory.

Friday, June 24, 2016


A few scattered thoughts about the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union:

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of leaving, many flawed decisions by major policymakers paved the way for this result.  Eurocrats upset at this result have mostly themselves to blame.

The pro-Remain side often made simply a negative case, focusing on how bad Leaving would be.  Remain's "Project Fear" warned about economic disaster and moral disgrace if the UK left the EU.  Remainers often attacked proponents of Leave as backward-looking nativists and isolationists.  However, this tactic apparently came up short--which should be a reminder that the politics of shame can reach a point of diminishing returns.

The vote to Leave should not necessarily be seen as a turn toward radical isolationism.  A reckless transnationalism is in many ways the enemy of a productive internationalism.  The UK exiting the EU does create some international instabilities over the short term, but decisions made by many pro-EU forces on migration, trade, and other issues have likely increased instabilities much more.  Some of the decisions made by EU leaders have perhaps increased the chances of the current international system breaking down.

The European Union is not Europe.  Contrary to what many in the media seem to assume, an independent Britain can certainly enter into international negotiations with the rest of Europe.

National self-government has served as a process by which many of our inherent rights have been secured.  By expressing a desire to maintain itself as an independent self-governing nation, the United Kingdom is not exactly running afoul of the broader tradition of political liberties and rights in the Western tradition.  In fact, the desire to dissolve the nation-state into a transnational bureaucracy seems far more out of step with the history of liberty.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Trump Reaches Out to the Radical Middle

Donald Trump's speech yesterday attacking Hillary Clinton and laying out his own vision for the presidency has earned plaudits even from some of those on the right who are usually pretty hostile to The Donald.  Trump kept to the text of the speech and kept the focus on Clinton's weaknesses.

This speech comes at a time when the Trump campaign is in some danger.  The media narrative over the last few weeks--with talk of an undisciplined campaign, sinking poll numbers, and continued Republican attacks on Trump--poses risks for both Trump's hopes of winning in November and perhaps even his chances of seizing the nomination in Cleveland.  Perhaps this speech will change that narrative.

One of the more striking aspects of this speech was Trump's pivot to the radical middle, voters who support entitlements and are skeptical of transnationalist globalism, who support free markets but also want a strong public safety net.  The Republican coalition has relied on these voters for decades, and, as its hold on them has weakened in recent years, its electoral prospects have dimmed.  One possible route for Republican back to an enduring presidential coalition is to fuse some populist concerns (especially on issues such as trade and immigration) with conservatism.  By reconnecting with the "radical middle" and the working class, Republicans could strengthen their hands in numerous states, especially Rustbelt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.  That's not the only path to get to a governing presidential coalition--but it is one way (and a route that might not demand compromising that many core conservative principles).  Any Republican candidate can use such a strategy, and perhaps Ronald Reagan offered one iteration of that fusion.

Yesterday's speech invoked some of the themes of the radical middle.  Trump reversed the Hillary-centric #ImWithHer with #ImWithYou.  He argued that the trade and immigration policies promoted by both President Obama and Hillary Clinton will further undermine the American worker.  Trump put economics at the heart of this address.  When many Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the nation, he tried in this speech to identify Clinton with those who have charted national policy in recent years.  (An interesting subtheme of Trump's speech yesterday was his efforts to claim a conservative--or at least Republican--pedigree for some of his policy positions.  For instance, he quoted Abraham Lincoln on trade in order to justify Trump's skepticism of "free trade" deals.)

We'll see if this is just a one-off speech or part of a broader, disciplined strategy to pivot to a sustained pro-worker message.  We'll also see whether this is enough to change the current trajectory of the campaign.

A few other things seem comparatively clearer:  Continued struggles with the working class are a drag on Republican hopes of a national governing coalition.  Reaching out to the working class will require more than self-aggrandizing media feuds or sneers at the struggling as losers who can't cut it. Confronting the real challenges of the day will require less ideological posturing and more empathy, imagination, and daring.

Friday, June 17, 2016

If the Press Covered 9/11 the Way It Has Covered Orlando

A hypothetical fictional montage:*

From the New York Daily News front page 9/12/01:
An image of one of the planes going into the World Trade Center.  Headline: "Thanks American Airline Industry"

From the New York Times Editorial Board 9/13/01:
While the motivations of the 9/11 hijackers remain unclear, one thing is beyond doubt: they were the product of a culture of hate, that peculiar soil of the United States, which xenophobia and violence have watered for centuries.  While some, like former vice-president Al Gore, have tried the face the twenty-first century with cosmopolitan optimism, George W. Bush and his coterie have instead projected a Texan swagger that has alienated international allies and enraged many of those who seek opportunity but are denied this opportunity due to the petty bigotry of American immigration law.  The cultural imperialist chickens of Coca Cola, cries of "freedom," and nationalistic propaganda like Hot Shots! Part Deux have, as it were, come home to roost.
That fact that Mr. Bush quoted from the Psalms in his recent address to the nation reveals a theocratic zeal that both threatens the First Amendment and fuels acts of terror.  The history of the United States is a long tale of those using the name of religion to terrorize, murder, and pillage.  Invoking religious scripture in this context no doubt triggers more violence in the future and feeds into the broader culture of religious intolerance that helped bring the towers down.
For years now, Republicans have waged war on the fabric of American society, thereby creating the breeding ground for terror.  Mr. Bush's controversy-stained election sent the equivalent of a 767 into America's constitutional norms.  The right-wing agenda of tax-cuts for the rich and more subsidies for Big Oil has created an atmosphere of economic inequality, in which terrorists thrive.  The terrorist attack of earlier this week is only an explicit vision of that broader nativist reactionary crusade.
The thousands who died on September 11 were victims of a terrorist attack.  But they also need to be remembered as casualties of a society where hate has deep roots. 

A partial transcript of a September 13 CNN evening interview with John Ashcroft, in which the anchor absolutely grills the Attorney General:
Anchor: Mr. Ashcroft, how can you say you want to prosecute these terrorists?  I mean, how many times have you been to New York City for a reason other than a professional obligation?
JA: I've, uh, I've been there a few times.
Anchor:  A few times.  Nearly three thousand people died in the Twin Towers, and you've only been to NYC a few times?  And now you purport to talk about defending the lives of New Yorkers!?
JA: My job as attorney general is to defend the lives of all Americans.
Anchor: But isn't there a sick irony in the fact that you're here talking about defending all Americans when, as far as I can tell, you've never even worn an I-Love-New-York t-shirt?
JA:  Wha--what?  How do you know that?
Anchor: We had a team of researchers comb through every picture taken of you in the past year.  No t-shirt or sweatshirt or anything.
JA: Well, look, we've been coordinating with local law enforcement to identify...
Anchor: Hey, let's not get off-topic here.  Do you deny not having worn an I-Love-New-York t-shirt?
JA: I don't think I ever owned that kind of shirt, no.
Anchor: So I just kind of find it funny that you're someone who never expressed that much affection for New York and now, with the attacks of September 11, you're suddenly lamenting the loss of human life.  I mean, why should the members of the New York community trust you to defend them?
*Again, this is purely hypothetical fiction.  Neither the New York Daily News nor the New York Times published anything like this after 9/11.  Nor did CNN run any interviews like this.  The fact that these organizations did not run anything like this is kind of the point.  For the record, here is the actual front page of the Daily News on September 12.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Human Rights v. the Culture War

t has long been evident that the culture-war paradigm is inherently in tension with the goal of negotiating life in a free republic.  Civic life requires compromise, moral sympathy, and a respect for pluralism--all things that the all-or-nothing culture war declares an anathema.

The aftermath of the Orlando terrorist attack has also revealed that the culture war may undermine more directly human rights in general.  After a terrorist attack, there's something bizarrely disproportionate about news anchors hectoring elected officials about their Twitter feeds rather than asking tough, probing questions about how law enforcement can better identify terrorist threats and how national strategies can make such threats less possible.  We might rationally be worried by the fact that so many in the media and politics--from the New York Times to cable-news voices to major political figures--have spent far more energy excoriating their tribal enemies rather than the forces of terror.  With its random violence, terrorism seeks to nullify all of our rights.  (Of course, terror cannot ultimately undo our inherent rights.)  When the culture war takes priority over serious efforts to fight terror, the enterprise of defending our rights suffers.

We should mourn the victims of Orlando not because of their belonging or lack of belonging to any narrow identity group, but because they are human beings.  The slaughter of innocents is wrong--no matter their race, religion, sexual identity, or political beliefs.  Defending civil society requires the defense of the rights of all members of that society.  The attack upon Pulse was an attack upon the ability of Americans of all kinds to gather peacefully and without fear of violence, just as the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack upon the ability to speak, write, and think freely.

As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has suggested, great tragedies should remind us of our common fellowship.  It is an act of moral cowardice and cultural myopia to focus on our petty tribal fixations rather than our deeper duties to our fellow men and women.