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.)