How, in 1919, could he have known? “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats


   The Second Coming


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


William Butler Yeats       1919


And They’re Off! Handicapping the 2016 U.S. Presidential Horse Race


In the heady early-morning hours of last November 5, when most of the 2014 U.S. midterm races had finally been decided and conceded,  weary political commentators sat and closed their eyes for a brief rest.  After only a few seconds, as a unit they rose, refreshed, and launched into speculation about the 2016 Presidential race.

Today, with 15 months until General Election ballots are cast, the 2016 Presidential field is the most crowded in history.  The first order of business is the Primary season, through which individual states, beginning with Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, will help the parties to select their Presidential nominees.  Seventeen combatants are vying for the Republican nomination, while five have entered the Democratic race (so far; more on that below).

The race begins in earnest today with the first Republican debates.

I would like to offer some thoughts about what is at stake in this (and every) Presidential election.  I will briefly profile the colorful array of candidates and explain why the most important split in U.S. politics is not between the Democrats and the Republicans.

How Washington Works – A Citizen’s Summary


The Federal government is divided into three ostensibly co-equal branches: the Executive, headed by the President and composed of a myriad of departments and agencies led by political appointees; the Legislative, comprised of the House and the Senate, and charged with oversight of and budgeting for the Executive branch; and the Judicial, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is charged with evaluating the Constitutionality of actions taken by the other two branches.

For more about the Founders’ Constitutional design for the Federal government, please see my post of last autumn entitled, “What’s All the Noise About? – A Guide to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections.”

Today, official Washington, D.C., appears to be a den of iniquity fueled by money, avarice, power, and ego.  An incestuous network of consultants, lobbyists, and party leaders – many of whom are former government officials – works hand-in-hand with legislators and agency staff to craft laws and regulations.  Favors are sold to the highest bidder in exchange for campaign contributions, or for loan forgiveness, or for leniency in blackmail plots, or for Heaven knows what else.

Gargantuan Federal departments, many of which fall outside the scope of government as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, endeavor each year to spend or squander every penny of their annual budgets.  Perverse incentives dictate that any department not using its entire budget receives a smaller allocation for the next year.

Additional perverse incentives ensure that almost no Federal employee, regardless of level of incompetence, is ever fired.  Federal managers face mountains of paperwork if they ever wish to prune their dead wood.

Lawmakers and agency staff draft rules that micromanage citizens’ lives as well as industries across the economic spectrum.  In response, businesses, non-profits, and even foreign governments send lobbyists to Washington to represent their interests.  As the laws become more intrusive, lobbying increases, and the financial stakes grow.

Consequently, Washington’s entrenched leadership class, composed of long-term legislators, civil servants, consultants, lobbyists, and heads of non-governmental organizations (and their lawyers), is deeply invested in a system of graft that funnels money into their pockets (or, in some cases, into their campaign coffers) while shackling the citizenry with intrusive rules and regulations.

Ugly, isn’t it?  The stench hovering over Washington arises from more than its history as a swamp.

So what can be done?

The only way to reduce the corruption intrinsic to Washington, D.C., and practiced by both political parties, is to reduce the size and scope of the Federal government.  If regulations were scaled back, if laws were less intrusive, if taxpayer-funded handouts of “pork” were removed from Federal budgets, and if Federal departments and agencies were shrunk to more closely approximate the Founders’ vision, the need for lobbyists and consultants and their slush funds would evaporate.

None of these reforms appeals to the Establishment wing of either political party.

The Party Establishment and the Grassroots Rebels


The Democratic Party, founded in early 1830s, and the Republican Party, founded in 1854, control the levers of power in the Federal and State governments.  Each party garners roughly half of the vote in any given election.

The “base,” or “grassroots,” of the Democratic party is an alliance of academics, ethnic minorities, highly-educated professionals, women, homosexuals, young voters, and organized labor.  In general, the Democratic base believes that government at all levels can and should be used as a tool to redress what they consider to be social ills.

By contrast, the Republican base, which is generally more Caucasian, more devoutly religious, less highly educated, and more tied to the business community, believes that the most effective solutions to social problems, and the means to prosperity for everyone, lie in the individual liberty and concomitant individual responsibility that have long been central to the American experience.  Individual liberty necessarily requires small government.

The parties’ bases disagree sharply regarding the size and role of government, but there is no such schism between the Establishment wings of the respective parties.  Both favor the type of vast and convoluted government that sustains the Washington graft machine.  Since they serve Washington and not the citizenry, both Establishment wings are increasingly isolated from their grassroots voters.

Although the Democratic Establishment shares with its base a commitment to big government, the Establishment allies itself with Wall Street, large corporations, and deep-pocketed donors to an extent that alienates some in the Democratic base.

The relationship between the Republican Establishment and its base is so frail as to be on life support.  The Republican base has become increasingly disillusioned by candidates who espouse small-government principles on the campaign trail and then drop any such pretensions when they reach Washington.  For its part, the Republican Establishment treats the small-government base and the candidates they prefer as contemptible impediments.  In the 2014 election cycle, the Establishment made its disdain for the base clearer than ever by employing underhanded tactics in several hotly-contested primaries.

Every four years, during the Presidential Primary season, each party’s Establishment and its wealthy donors, who are accustomed to buying what they want in Washington, fight tooth and nail to ensure that the party’s nominee is “one of them,” a candidate who can help to maintain Washington’s status quo.

The most important schism in U.S. politics is not between the Democrats and the Republicans but between the entrenched “leadership class” and the taxpaying citizenry.  Our leaders and their surrogates in the media spew fiery, hot-button rhetoric to divide us from each other, and specifically to make everyone hate the small-government Republican base, while their endgame is the protection of their cozy, gold-plated, communal feeding trough.

Thus are the battle lines drawn for the 2016 Primary election season.

Candidates in the Democratic Field


From the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, conventional wisdom has suggested that selection of the Democratic candidate for the General Election would be less a nomination than a coronation.  In spite of four other candidates’ entry into the race, by media consensus the candidacy has until recently belonged to Hillary Clinton.

First Lady from 1992 to 2000, Senator from New York from 2000 to 2008, failed candidate for President in 2008, and Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012, Hillary Clinton has been preparing to assume the mantle of the Presidency for many years.  Perhaps out of determination to prevent surprises from derailing her triumphal run to the 2017 Inauguration, the reflexively secretive Clinton has run a hyper-controlled and almost opaque campaign this year, going as far as to refuse for weeks at a time to take questions from reporters and, later, to cordon reporters into a roped-off sidewalk corral.


In recent weeks, though, Hillary Clinton’s inevitability has suffered a series of blows from scandals that one might argue have been self-inflicted.  Scandal is not new in Hillary Clinton’s career.  Its rich history dates back to her husband Bill’s days as Governor of Arkansas.  (One can find more by searching in either Google or Wikipedia on “rose law firm,” “whitewater,” “travel gate,” or “Hillary Clinton commodities investment.”)

What has most troubled the Democratic party about Clinton’s difficulties of late is that the scandals are starting to seriously erode Clinton’s poll numbers.  Recent polls have shown Clinton lagging behind Republican candidates in key swing states, rapidly losing her lead over the other Democratic candidates in early primary states, and – most damagingly – underwater (i.e., with more disapproving than approving) in national voter approval and trustworthiness numbers.

Some voters are bothered by Secretary of State Clinton’s failure to foresee or prevent the loss of four American lives on 11 September 2012 in Benghazi, Libya.  Others might be bothered by her having lied to the families of the Benghazi victims while standing in front of the flag-draped caskets recently arrived on U.S. soil.  Still others might be disturbed that as a self-described feminist she proffers nary a word against female genital mutilation, honor killings, child marriage, or other horrendous oppression of women and girls common in countries that just happen to donate to her family’s foundations.  The appearance of other corruption related Clinton foundation donations might alienate still other voters.  In addition, she faces tough questions and possibly a criminal indictment related to the illegal private email server that she maintained in her home during her tenure as Secretary of State.

It is because of Mrs. Clinton’s plummeting approval ratings that the Democratic Establishment, and specifically the party’s non-Clinton faction (which is rumored to hate the Clinton faction), has scrambled in the press in recent days to float other candidacies.  Rumors are flying that Vice President Joe Biden or current Secretary of State (and 2004 Presidential candidate) John Kerry might enter the race. In response, the Clinton campaign is suddenly calling for the party to schedule a debate, which forum Clinton (ever keen to maintain control) had previously resisted.

Four other candidates have entered the race for the Democratic nomination:

  • Lincoln Chafee, 62, former Senator from and current Governor of Rhode Island, a former Republican turned Independent turned Democrat.


  • Martin O’Malley, 52, a former Governor of Maryland who is running third in most polls.


  • Jim Webb, 69, former Virginia Governor, a Navy veteran and former college professor.


  • Bernie Sanders, 73, Vermont Senator and devout socialist who is running second in most Democratic polls.


Bernie Sanders has drawn strong support from the Democratic base with his advocacy for a high minimum wage, taxpayer funding of all university education, single-payer health care, and forced redistribution of wealth.  It is in part Sanders’ strong showing in head-to-head polls against Clinton that have prompted Democratic party leaders to look for a new frontrunner.

The Democratic field might change dramatically in the next two months.  The posturing, gambits, and chess moves promises to be fascinating to watch.

Candidates in the Republican Field


The Republican Primary race offers the largest, strongest, and arguably most entertaining field in election history.  Among the contenders at the top of the polls are governors and former governors, Senators, and private citizens who have never held public office.  The field is also younger than usual and far more racially diverse than the current Democratic field.

Atop most polls is Donald Trump, outspoken 69-year-old real estate billionaire and TV personality.  Perhaps because he has no need to court campaign donors, Trump has set himself apart from his rivals with a series of brash denunciations of business-as-usual in Washington politics.


Trump’s appeal to the Republican base stems from his candor and his willingness to challenge the Republican Establishment.  His rocket-flight to the top of the polls ought to serve as a warning to the Establishment.  If party leaders commit the same error in 2016 as in 1996 (Dole), 2008 (McCain), and 2012 (Romney) – i.e., shoehorning their favorite candidate into the nomination – they will likely see in 2016 the same result: a loss in November.

The fire-from-the-hip impulsiveness that has propelled Trump to prominence may also be his undoing in the Primary race.  In light of his record of impolitic, unfiltered brashness, it is likely that eventually an outlandish statement will knock Trump out of the top tier of candidates.  If (when?) Trump falls, though, his supporters will not move en masse to the Establishment favorite.  This is an important point that seems to have eluded Republican party leadership.

In second or third place in most polls is Jeb Bush, 62, the former Governor of Florida, son of the 41st President, George H. W. Bush, and younger brother to the 43rd President, George W. Bush.  Jeb!, as calls himself publically in an effort to declare that he’s his own man, is the Establishment favorite.  He is unlikely to appeal to the base, because of his history of either hewing to the Establishment line on hot-button policy topics or, in a few recent cases, publically repeating Democratic talking points.  Bland and usually personable (except when name-calling at Donald Trump), he stumbled badly at the first candidates’ forum last weekend in New Hampshire, stammering throughout what one blogger called the worst performance of the evening.


Since Americans in general (and, historically, Republicans in particular) hate nepotism, Jeb faces a headwind by virtue of his last name that would persist after the end of Primary season if he were to secure the nomination.  He remains the party leaders’ top pick, though, because he would do their bidding.

Also consistently near the top of the polls is Scott Walker, 47, the current Governor of Wisconsin.  Walker is loathed, despised, and demonized by the media, because at the beginning of his term as Governor he took a stand against organized labor by partially restricting the collective bargaining rights of some public-sector unions in Wisconsin.  The ensuing high political drama saw weeks of protests carried out by teachers who were skipping school and culminated in the spectacle of Democratic state senators fleeing to nearby Illinois in an effort to scuttle the vote.  Walker and his legislative colleagues held firm.  The measure passed.  In the years since, Wisconsin municipalities have had an easier time making their budgets.  None of the dire consequences predicted by the State Capitol protestors has come to pass.


Walker is a bête noir to most of the media, but the truth is that he has done a good job as Governor of my home state of Wisconsin.  He took over a state with an ugly budget deficit and returned it to fiscal health.  Unemployment is down, taxes are down, and high school graduation rates are up.

To the Republican base, Walker represents victory for small-government principles.  He took controversial stands, held firm, and won legislative battles.  He has won statewide election three times – his original election in 2010, an attempted 2012 recall heavily funded by out-of-state Democratic interests, and his reelection in 2014.  Easy-going and articulate on the stump, he is said to have “won” the New Hampshire candidates’ forum.

If Trumps falls, Walker is one of the leading contenders to pick up his vote.  That said, Walker has yet to prove himself in national debates and specifically on foreign policy topics.  In my opinion, he would be well served if he were to drop his annoying habit (which he shares with a few other candidates) of referring to himself as “we.”

A candidate who arouses passionate feelings in both the base (admiration) and the Establishment (loathing) is 44-year-old Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Cruz has built a reputation during his two years in the Senate as a serious thorn in the side of the Establishment.  Cruz spearheaded several attempts to modify or overturn legislation especially troublesome to the Republican base, such as the Affordable Care Act.  Each such attempt was ultimately stopped by Republican Establishment leaders in the Senate.


Cruz is a highly articulate advocate for small-government principles.  He comes across as a clear thinker.  Off-the-cuff, he can be a brilliant speaker.

Counting against Cruz is the fact that his admirable verbal agility might turn some in the base, which historically distrusts demagogues, against him.  The fact that his wife is an investment banker might also put off some base voters who are suspicious of the world of high finance.

Cruz has created such a strong brand for himself, though, that if he performs well in debates, “gotcha” media interviews, and campaign events, his base support could carry him to the Republican nomination.

A fifth candidate who is especially intriguing is Dr. Ben Carson, 63, who retired in 2013 after a brilliant career as a pediatric neurosurgeon.


Carson grew up in abject poverty in Detroit.  His single mother insisted that Carson and his brother read a library book every week and submit to her a book report, which she proceeded to mark up.  Carson has said that it wasn’t until years later that he had realized his mother had barely been able to read the reports that she had graded.

After allowing his hot temper to steer him badly as a youth, Carson turned his life around and earned high grades in high school.  He turned down an appointment to West Point in favor of a spot at Yale, where he studied psychology, followed by medical school at the University of Michigan.  While on the faculty of The Johns Hopkins University, Carson was renowned as one of the best pediatric neurosurgeons in the world.

Carson rose to political prominence in February 2013, when he delivered a National Prayer Breakfast speech sharply critical of the present government’s priorities.  Since entering the Presidential race, after a few rookie mistakes with hot-button media traps, Carson has presented a consistent message of small government and personal responsibility.

From a pollster’s standpoint, Carson’s greatest strength is his favorability.  According to a recent poll from Quinnipiac University, Carson is the least known of all of the current candidates, but among the poll respondents who do know him, Carson has both the highest favorability and the lowest unfavorability of any candidate in the field.  In short, when voters get to know Carson, they like him and what he stands for.

Carson is articulate, soft-spoke, thoughtful, polite, and better than any candidate I have ever seen at laughing at himself.  If he performs well in the Primary season’s test events, he could be one of the last few candidates standing.

The 12 remaining candidates in the race for the Republican nomination are, in alphabetical order:

  • Chris Christie, 52, the charismatic and bombastic Governor of New Jersey, who can be a riveting speaker but who, because of his behavior in 2012, is viewed by many in the base as self-aggrandizing and/or untrustworthy.


  • Carly Fiorina, 60, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who has distinguished herself in media confrontations on the campaign trail.


  • Jim Gilmore, 65, a U.S. Army veteran and former Governor of Virginia.


  • Lindsay Graham, 60, U.S. Air Force veteran and Senator from South Carolina, who made his name in the House of Representatives during the 1998 impeachment trial of President Clinton.  During his Senate tenure, though, Graham has taken some puzzling positions, seeming at times rather like a ventriloquist’s dummy.


  • Mike Huckabee, 59, former Governor of Arkansas, TV host, and failed 2008 Presidential candidate.  Dispenses home-spun populism with unctuous charm.


  • Bobby Jindal, 44, the very successful Governor of Louisiana and one of two southern Republican Governors of Indian descent.


  • John Kasich, 63, Governor of Ohio and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Kasich has worked to shrink the size of government in Ohio, but for 2016 he seems to be trying to sell himself as an Establishment alternative to Jeb Bush.


  • George Pataki, 70, former Governor of New York, who was in office during the terrorist attacks of 9/11.


  • Dr. Rand Paul, 62, an ophthalmological surgeon and current Senator from Kentucky, who launched himself from the Libertarian movement built by his father, Dr. (and former Representative) Ron Paul.  Recently Rand Paul’s campaign has faltered, because he is reportedly unwilling to give big donors the face time they require.


  • Rick Perry, 65, former Governor of Texas, U.S. Air Force veteran, and failed 2012 Presidential candidate. Perry might be the most genuine and likable candidate in the Republican field, but his proclivity for committing gaffes will probably doom his candidacy early on.


  • Marco Rubio, 44, Senator from Florida.  The Cuban-American son of a maid and a bartender, Rubio has parlayed his good looks, intelligence, and strong speaking skills into a leading spot among the Republican Party’s rising stars.  Because of positions he has taken in the Senate on a few hot-button issues, Rubio is not trusted by some in the base.  Also working against him is his susceptibility to stumbling when he is in the spotlight.


  • Rick Santorum, 57, former Senator from Pennsylvania and failed 2012 Presidential candidate.  Santorum is an earnest and articulate advocate of a form of populism that fails to resonate with much of the Republican base.


Tonight in Cleveland, Ohio, the Republican candidates will hold their first debate, which actually had to be divided into two sessions in order to accommodate the bumper crop of candidates.  The top 10 in recent polling will meet this evening at 8 p.m. EDT, while the remaining 7 will face off in an “undercard” debate at 5 p.m.


The Democratic Side

As of today there is a Civil War brewing within the Democratic party that makes the Primary race very difficult for an outsider to predict.  If President Obama’s Justice Department proceeds on its current track toward indicting Hillary Clinton for crimes related to her private email server, the Party will probably find its nominee by enlisting someone, such as Joe Biden, who isn’t yet in the race.  If the Justice Department backs off, Hillary Clinton will almost inevitably be the nominee.

The Republican Side

Before considering 2016, a few words about what happened in 2012:

From the beginning of the 2012 Republican Primary season, a “non-Romney” candidate was always ahead of Mitt Romney in the polls: first Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Rick Santorum, the Newt Gingrich.  The fact that Romney never led until he only one opponent remained should have signaled the Establishment that the base didn’t like Romney.

Romney’s 2012 opponents all had attackable weaknesses.  After Rick Perry imploded from a debate gaffe, the Romney camp systematically took out his challengers through vicious ad campaigns and/or loaded debate questions, until Romney was the inevitable nominee.

At that point, the Republican Establishment arrogantly assumed that the pesky hayseeds in the base would do as they were told, swallow the candidate fed to them, and vote for Romney in November.  In this, the Establishment had miscalculated.  One reason Barack Obama won reelection, in spite of garnering fewer votes than he had in 2008, was that much of the Republican base stayed home, believing that the difference between a Romney presidency and an Obama presidency would be negligible.

(I think a Romney administration would have differed sharply from the current Obama administration in the foreign policy arena, but from the standpoint of size of government, the base voters who stayed home may have been right.)

In 2016, the “non-Jeb” field is much stronger than were the 2012 “non-Romneys” – better qualified, more experienced, more articulate, and less vulnerable to scandal.  The Republican Establishment will have a very hard time knocking off all of the “non-Jeb” candidates this time around.  I believe at least one from among Walker, Cruz, Trump, and Carson will finish the Primary season ahead of Jeb Bush.


That said, I will make one prediction with confidence: if Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton win their parties’ nominations, the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton.


Candidate photographs provided by Wikipedia.


Quote for Today

“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” ― Plato (ca. 425 – ca. 347 B.C.)


Happy First Birthday, Northwoods Listener!


A new adventure!  One year ago today, I published my first Northwoods Listener post, “3, 2, 1,…

Since that day, my 38 posts have drawn 8,449 views.  Readers have hailed from six continents and 82 countries, including such disparate lands as St. Vincent & and Grenadines, Moldova, Uganda, French Polynesia, Namibia, Vietnam, Jordan, Belarus, Indonesia, Slovenia, the UAE, Armenia, South Sudan, and Curaçao.

Twitter (1,418) and Facebook (956) have generated most of the traceable hits.  An additional 467 have come from search engines.  Among the 73 sets of search terms visible to me are these intriguing gems:

  • cary grant sunglasses north by northwest
  • russell wilson myers briggs
  • myers briggs russell wilson
  • cary grant puzzle 1000 pices
  • owen teale and final solution drama
  • frank pembleton ‘get out of my blood’
  • anthony quinn thanksgiving movie youtube christmas
  • the personable robin ellis
  • poldark the breathtakingly beautiful robin ellis
  • robin ellis has such a dreamy voice.

For those who are interested, here are the year’s eleven most popular posts, each of which was read more than 200 times:

1. Falling Hard for Captain Poldark (644 views)
A tribute to Robin Ellis, who portrayed the title character in the 1975 production of Poldark.

2. Going it Alone: Character Lessons from the Gladiatorial Combat that is Singles Tennis (576 views)
Gripping drama on the blazing-hot tennis courts of the 2015 Australian Open.

3. What’s All the Noise About? – A Guide to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections (366 views)
A detailed preview of last November’s U.S. elections, written for an international audience.

4. It’s the Size of the Fight in the Dog: Russell Wilson Proves the Experts Wrong (338 views)
A salute to the former Wisconsin Badger and current Seattle Seahawk star quarterback Russell Wilson, published four months before his catastrophic failure at the 2015 Superbowl.

5. Ninety Minutes that Changed the World: “Conspiracy” and the Wannsee Conference (290 views)
An historical perspective on the Wannsee Conference, the convocation of evil at which 15 representatives of the Third Reich set in motion the machinery for Hitler’s Final Solution.

6. San Francisco Cataclysm, 17 October 1989: The Day Baseball Saved Lives (222 views)
Memories of the magnitude-7.1 earthquake that rocked the Central California coast during the 1989 World Series.

7. Tennis on the Distaff Side: U.S. Open Preview, Part II of III (220 views)
A preview of the women’s singles competition at the 2014 U.S. Open, including players’ noise ratings.

8. I Was There: Remembering the MS Estonia Twenty Years Later (212 views)
My first-hand account of the horrors of the sinking of the MS Estonia.

9. From Forward Roll to Starring Role: Cary Grant’s Conscious Creation of Himself (210 views)
Archibald Leach’s transformation into Cary Grant.

10. Order out of Chaos: Life Lessons Learned by a Puzzling Aficionado (209 views)
The joys and challenges of assembling jigsaw puzzles, and lessons to be learned along the way.

11. Virtuoso Victor Borge, the Irrepressible “Clown Prince of Denmark” (204 views)
A paean to the always delightful Victor Borge, with excerpts of some of his best performances.

Among my personal favorites:

“Homicide, Sweet Homicide.” – Eight Reasons to Check out the Best Series Ever Produced for Network Television

ENFJ? ISTP? – I C U R YY 4 Me!

The Disco Beat: On the Fly with an Avian Impressionist


Close Encounters of No Kind in Particular.


To all my readers and followers, thank you!


P.S. Stick around.  I will return to full-time writing on the first day of September.







Classical Caveat: Cicero’s Words of Warning Ring Unnervingly True Today.


“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero
106 – 43 B.C.


(Next up: Victor Borge.)

What’s All the Noise About? – A Guide to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections


Civilization as we know it today would be in jeopardy if the Republicans win the Senate,” declared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, in a recent TV interview.

Although Leader Pelosi’s warning might be seen as overwrought hyperbole, the November 4th U.S. midterm elections will set the tone of U.S. policy and politics for years to come.

Today I would like to offer a quick guide to those elections – who is running, what is at stake, and the scheming and planning behind all of the noise.  If you are outside the U.S. observing the electoral sound and fury from a distance, or if you are a U.S. citizen hoping to cut through the 24/7 spin and punditry, buckle in for what I hope will be an entertaining and informative ride!

I will start by briefly describing the governmental bodies up for grabs on November 4th.  Next, I will summarize the history of the combatants (i.e., the two major political parties), their positions, and their relationships with the U.S. citizenry.  I’ll follow that by laying what is at stake on election night and perhaps finish with a few predictions.

The U.S. Federal Government

In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln described the American Founders’ vision for the U.S. government as “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789, described a republican government based upon democratic principles and specified that the Federal government consist of three co-equal branches: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial.

WH The White House in Washington, D.C.

The Executive Branch

The Executive branch is charged with executing Federal laws and policies and enacting Federal regulations.  Headed by the President and Vice President, the Executive branch consists of 15 Departments (such as Defense, Homeland Security, State, Treasury, and Justice) as well as numerous Agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, and others) and several staff organizations contained within the White House.  At the head of each Department is a Secretary.  The 15 Secretaries comprise the President’s Cabinet.

Cabinet Secretaries and Agency heads are nominated by the President and approved by the U.S. Senate. (More on that body below.)

Since 2014 is not a Presidential election year, no one in the Executive branch will appear on a ballot in November.  However, the budgets, personnel, and leadership of Executive agencies will be affected by the post-election status of the Legislative branch.

US_Cap The U.S. Capitol.

The Legislative Branch

The Legislative branch, or Congress as it is conventionally known, consists of two Houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives (often called just “The House” by Washington pundits) consists of 435 members.  With the stipulation that each state have at least one Representative, the Representatives are allocated in proportion to states’ populations.  Seven states have only one Representative each.  The most populous U.S. state, California, has 53 Representatives.

Members of the House of Representatives, who must be at least 25 years old, face election every two years.  In endowing the House with a large membership and frequent elections, the Founders intended that the House be both more partisan and more responsive to constituents than the smaller and more static Senate.

The Senate

The U.S. Senate consists of 2 Senators from each of the 50 states.  Senators, who must be at least 30 years old, serve six-year terms which are staggered to ensure that roughly one-third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years.  The Senate’s longer terms of service, higher minimum age, and equal representation per state were intended to create a body both more mature and more reflective than the House.

Powers and Duties of the Legislative Branch

The primary duty of the Legislative branch is the creation of Federal laws. This is supposed to happen as follows:

1. One of the two houses drafts, debates, and passes a bill.
2. The bill moves to the other house, where it is debated, amended, and passed in a new version.
3. Either the original house passes the second house’s version of the bill unchanged, or a Conference Committee composed of members of both houses creates a compromise version of the bill, which is subsequently passed by both houses.
4. When a bill has passed both houses, it goes to the President, who can sign the bill into law or veto it and send it back to the Congress.
5. If the President vetoes a bill, it can still become law if both houses of Congress pass it with two-thirds majorities each.

Any bill that raises taxes must originate in the House of Representatives. (For this reason, the President’s 2010 health care reform law is Constitutionally problematic.  That bill originated in the Senate, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law’s Individual Mandate is effectively a tax.)

In addition to lawmaking, the Congress is charged with responsibilities meant to serve as “checks and balances” on the other two branches of government:

  • Budgeting: Congress controls the purse strings of the Executive branch and the rest of the Federal government.
  • Oversight: Congressional committees are supposed to review the work of all of the Executive branch Departments and Agencies.
  • Declarations of War: Only Congress may declare war.

The Senate has several special responsibilities that it does not share with the House of Representatives:

  • Ratification of Treaties.
  • Approval of Cabinet Secretaries, Agency Heads, Ambassadors, and other Executive Branch appointees.
  • Approval or disapproval of the President’s nominees for the Federal judiciary.

SC The U.S. Supreme Court building.

The Judicial Branch

The purpose of the Judicial branch of the Federal government is to hear citizens’ cases involving Federal law and to examine the Constitutionality of actions taken by the other two branches.  Federal courts exist at three levels: the District level, which is the first to try most Federal cases; the Courts of Appeals, to which cases can be referred by the District courts; and the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court, which is the Federal court of last resort.

Federal jurists are appointed by the President.  If approved by the Senate, they serve for life.  Consequently, a President’s judicial choices – if they advance through a sympathetic Senate – can influence American law and policy for decades after the end of the President’s term.

NB The Nebraska state capitol building in Lincoln.

State Governments

The Founders intended for the Federal government to handle business that individual states cannot handle by themselves (foreign treaties, wars, management of a common currency, and regulation of interstate commerce) and for the states and municipalities to handle everything else (criminal law, civil law, property law, schools, etc.)

Like the Federal government, every state’s government includes separate and co-equal executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Like the Federal legislature, most state legislatures consist of two chambers.  State executives are called “Governors.”

The Combatants

At both the state level and the Federal level, domination of the government translates into power over citizens and control of tax money.  The size and intrusiveness of government has exploded in the U.S. in the last fifty years.  Consequently, the struggle for power is hard-fought and ruthless between the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.

Donkey The emblem of the Democratic Party.

A Brief History of the Democratic Party

The Democratic party emerged in the early 1830s as an alternative to the existing Whig and Tory parties.  Championing the importance of individual artisans and individual farmers, the party sought to diminish the residual European-style class structure in the then-50-year-old U.S.  The early Democrats favored agrarian expansion into the western North American territories and opposed government collusion with the banking system.  Sharing Thomas Jefferson’s view that government necessarily intrudes on personal freedom, the early Democrats sought to shrink government’s size.  They also argued that government-run schools “restricted parental freedom” and undermined religious education.

In the mid-19th century, the issue of slavery in the southern states split the party, with many northern Democrats shifting their allegiance to the newly-founded (and explicitly anti-slavery) Republican party.  Because Abraham Lincoln (the President who oversaw the Union’s war against the south in the 1860s) was a Republican, the Democrats owned the U.S. “Deep South” until 1964.

The Democratic party’s agenda has shifted numerous times in response to regional movements and internal squabbles.  The party was split by the issues of Prohibition (the Constitutional amendment that banned alcohol in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933), women’s suffrage, racial segregation, the existence of the Ku Klux Klan in the Democratic south, and unwillingness to reform the big-city “machines” that controlled patronage.

The 20th century moved the Democratic party in the direction of Progressive policies, i.e., the use of big government for the redress of social ills and the redistribution of wealth.  Programs implemented by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson forever expanded the size and scope of the Federal government and created both a welfare state and a population of citizens dependent upon it.

The Democratic Party Today

For many decades, Catholics, city dwellers, and members of labor unions have supported the Democratic party.  African Americans have voted strongly Democratic since the late 1930s.  Today, the grassroots Democratic base includes doctrinaire Progressives and opponents of war, immigrants and ethnic minorities, social liberals, Hollywood, and most doctors, lawyers, and other professionals with many years of formal education.

I have heard anecdotally that purist Progressives are disappointed with Washington’s Democratic “Establishment” because of the Establishment’s hand-in-glove cronyism with big corporations and banks and because of the Establishment’s willingness to embrace war for political expediency.  Grassroots Democratic purists complain that there is no difference between Establishment Democrats and Establishment Republicans.

Interestingly, an identical complaint comes from the grassroots base of the Republican party.

Elephant The emblem of the Republican Party.

A Brief History of the Republican Party

The Republican party was founded in 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin, by anti-slavery activists.  From its inception, the party was pro-business and pro-farmer.  It supported free markets, small government, and laissez faire economics.  The party was  moralistic, striving to eliminate sins such as slavery, alcoholism, and polygamy from 19th-century American culture.  The party’s moral activism appealed to many Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and Low Church Protestants of the era and alienated Catholics, Episcopalians, and members of other High Church denominations.

Because of the party’s anti-slavery roots, and because the first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln (no friend to the federalist yearnings of the South), the Republican party had no meaningful presence in the Deep South until the fourth quarter of 20th century.  For the same reasons, African Americans identified strongly with the Republican party until the implementation of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs in the 1930s.

Issues that split the Republican party through the late 19th and early 20th centuries were in many cases the same issues that troubled the Democrats: Prohibition (Republican support for which caused an exodus of pro-beer German Lutherans), tariffs and protectionism, opposition to urban political patronage “machines,” the curtailing of the powers of business monopolies, and the size and role of government.  In the early 20th century, Republican Progressives joined Democrats in embracing the expansion of government for the redress of social ills.

Republicans were responsible for the first state or territory to grant women the right to vote (Wyoming Territory in 1869); the first Hispanic state governor (1875); the first female member of Congress (1916); the first Jewish woman elected to the House of Representatives (1924); the first Hispanic U.S. Senator (1928); and the first Native American to be elected to national office (Charles Curtis of Kansas, who served as Vice President to Herbert Hoover in 1928). In 1964, Republicans strongly supported the Civil Rights Act in the face of Democratic opposition.

Recent decades have seen a battle between the Republican “Establishment,” centered in Washington and in other eastern cities and aligned with the Republicans in power, and the “Conservatives,” who are more closely attuned to the party’s grassroots voter base, for control of the Republican party’s agenda.

The Establishment accepts or embraces big government and high taxes – as long as Republicans instead of Democrats are in power and dispensing favors to their friends. The Establishment also tends to be somewhat socially liberal, willing to ignore Constitutional limits on Federal power for the sake of expediency, and hawkish about war.  Prominent Establishment figures have included Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and unsuccessful Presidential candidates Bob Dole (1996), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012).

The Conservative movement, spearheaded by Barry Goldwater in 1964 and represented most successfully by President Ronald Reagan, urges the party to hew more closely to the Constitution and advocates for free markets, lower taxes, limited government, fewer regulations, and a foreign policy based upon “peace through strength.”  Today, at the grassroots level the small-government message is embraced by the Tea Party and the Libertarian Republican movements.  Some prominent politicians who embrace small-government principles (and who are therefore despised by the Republican Establishment and by left-leaning news media) are Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul, Representative Justin Amash, Representative Jason Chaffetz, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

The Republican Party Today

The current geographic strongholds of the Republican party are the Deep South, home to many evangelical Christians and other social conservatives who joined the Republicans when Federal courts turned social policies from state issues into Federal issues in the 1970s and 1980s; the Plains states that run from North Dakota in the north to Texas in the south; the sparsely populated Mountain West states; and Alaska.

Grassroots conservatives have become increasingly disillusioned with cronyist Republican Establishment figures who campaign on conservative principles and then bend their efforts in Washington toward admission to the best cocktail parties, favorable coverage in left-leaning newspapers, and preparation for second careers as highly-paid political consultants.  In 2014, the Establishment has been openly hostile toward the conservative base, aggressively running against conservatives in Republican primary races and going so far as to pay Democrats in Mississippi to vote for the Establishment candidate in a Republican primary.

The Establishment’s recent ugly behavior may hurt them in November.  All conventional political templates predict that 2014 should be a strong Republican year, but current polling suggests otherwise.  More on that below.



What Is At Stake on November 4th

In the States

Legislative seats in all 50 states are up for election on November 4, as are 36 governorships.  Twenty-two of the 29 states with Republican governors and 14 of the 21 states with Democratic governors are holding gubernatorial elections.  According to recent predictions, 12 gubernatorial seats are “safe” or “likely” for Republicans, 7 are safe or likely for Democrats, and 17 are toss-ups.

Why does this matter?

The party that controls the governorship can more easily mobilize campaign and get-out-the-vote machinery for the 2016 Presidential election.  The party in charge also determines the boundaries of the state’s Congressional districts when districts are re-drawn every ten years.

In the U.S. House of Representatives

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election in 2014.  The House races this year are relatively unimportant, though, because the current Republican House majority (233 seats to 199 for Democrats) is projected to be safe, and because very few House races are actually competitive.

The two major parties, working together, have used voting data to engineer the House district boundaries into often absurd shapes to make them “safe” for one party or the other.  This process is named Gerrymandering, after the 1812 Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who created a Congressional district in the shape of a salamander to benefit his party.

Here are examples of two current Gerrymandered districts.

GM_1 North Carolina District 12

GM_2 Illinois District 4

Because of Gerrymandering, pollsters consider only 80 of this year’s 435 House races – 18.4 percent – to be competitive.  Current projections suggest that no more than a dozen seats are likely to switch from one party to the other.

Why does this matter?

The party with the House majority sets the House’s legislative agenda and controls all of the committee leadership positions.  The Speaker of the House is third in the line of succession for the Presidency.

In the U.S. Senate

By far the most important contest in the 2014 election is the fight for control of the U.S. Senate.  Currently, in the 100-member Senate, Democrats hold a 53-45 lead over Republicans.  The remaining two Senators are Independents who caucus with the Democrats.  To regain the majority, Republicans need a net gain of six seats.  In the current political environment, this is just barely possible.

Thirty-six Senate seats are up for election in November 2014.  Twenty-one of those now held by Democrats, and 15 are held by Republicans.  Pollsters rate 14 of the 15 Republican seats are “safe” or “likely” for the Republicans. Fourteen of the 21 Democratic seats are “safe” or “likely” for the Democrats.

According to recent predictions, Republicans almost certain to pick up the current Democratic seats in the conservative states of Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, likely to pick up Democratic seats in (again conservative) Alaska and Arkansas, and in with a chance in Louisiana, Iowa, and Colorado.  Unfortunately for the Republicans, an Establishment incumbent might lose in very conservative Kansas, because he queered the pitch with an ugly primary race.

Why does this matter?

Two words: judicial appointments.

Some judicial candidates believe that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted strictly in accordance the intent of its authors.  Other candidates view the Constitution as an imperfect guideline that should be improved upon in accordance with contemporary jurists’ inclinations.

President Obama will have the chance to nominate several Federal judges, and possibly a Supreme Court Justice, during this final two years in office.  With a Democratic Senate to confirm his preferred nominees, he could ensure that his policies survive future court challenges and that, for decades to come, any new policies “legislated from the bench” would conform to his ideology.

How will it all turn out?

Midterm elections during the sixth year of an eight-year Presidency are traditionally very strong for the party out of power (i.e., in 2014, the Republicans).  The U.S. economy continues to be sluggish.  The President’s landmark piece of health care legislation is wildly unpopular.  Recent polls find the President’s approval rating at new lows in the wake of numerous failures, both foreign and domestic, and scandals.  2014 should be a landslide Republican year.

And yet polls show the race to control the Senate to be tight.  Why? Most likely, in my opinion, because the Republican base is disgusted with the Republican Establishment leadership.  In 2012, one reason that Barak Obama won re-election was that many conservatives stayed home rather than vote for the stiff and bland Establishment candidate Mitt Romney.

Will conservatives sit out the 2014 election too?

Three Quick Predictions

1. Republicans will add a few seats to their majority in the House of Representatives.
2. Republicans will squeak out a majority in the Senate, although we may need to wait for final confirmation until a Louisiana run-off in December.
3. By 9 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, November 5, TV pundits will begin discussions in earnest about the 2016 Presidential race.

Quote for Today

Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia, to Benjamin Franklin, in 1787: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin: “A republic, if you can keep it.”