Friday, February 12, 2016

Debate Recap: Clinton Bets on the Democratic Coalition

Is the Democratic Party properly a coalition of multiple social groups, each with its own separable set of concerns and interests, or should it be an ideological vehicle that is dedicated to a single primary objective: breaking apart amassed wealth and its associated economic (and political) power?

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton argued over a number of things in Thursday night's debate, from the legacy of Henry Kissinger to their support for the policies of Barack Obama. On several other issues, they largely agreed with each other. But seldom has the fundamental difference between their conceptions of politics in general, and Democratic politics in particular, been as effectively revealed as it was on the stage in Milwaukee.

For Sanders, the solution to nearly every domestic policy challenge resides in reforming the campaign finance system and restricting the influence of wealthy and corporate interests. Even ostensibly non-economic issues like drug abuse and criminal justice are, for Sanders, closely connected to capitalist exploitation. Clinton implicitly criticized him as a "single-issue candidate" in her closing statement, but it's more accurate to characterize Sanders—at least on domestic policy—as a candidate who cares about many issues but views them as manifestations of a common root cause.

While she has responded to Sanders's rise by insisting that she, too, is dedicated to regulating campaign money and taking on Wall Street, Clinton rejects the claim that these measures will effectively address other social problems, as she stated explicitly in the final moments of the debate:

Yes, does Wall Street and big financial interests, along with drug companies, insurance companies, big oil, all of it, have too much influence? You’re right. But if we were to stop that tomorrow, we would still have the indifference, the negligence that we saw in Flint. We would still have racism holding people back. We would still have sexism preventing women from getting equal pay. We would still have LGBT people who get married on Saturday and get fired on Monday. And we would still have governors like Scott Walker and others trying to rip out the heart of the middle class by making it impossible to organize and stand up for better wages and working conditions. So I’m going to keep talking about tearing down all the barriers that stand in the way of Americans fulfilling their potential, because I don’t think our country can live up to its potential unless we give a chance to every single American to live up to theirs.

There is strategy at work here: Clinton is assuming that African-Americans, Latinos, feminists, union members, gays and lesbians, and other groups under the Democratic big tent do not simply view their own concerns and perceived injustices as limited to, or merely the consequences of, economic unfairness. But there's little reason to believe that her stated views on this particular matter aren't as genuine as are Sanders's, especially since they are consistent with the Democratic Party's traditional coalitional character; Sanders, of course, did not join the Democratic Party until he launched his presidential candidacy last year. (Observers looking for true moments of insincerity during the debate should consider the strong likelihood that both candidates significantly exaggerated the degree of their actual admiration for Barack Obama and his presidential administration.)

Sanders, as he repeatedly suggests, is staking his candidacy on the success of a political revolution. This is commonly understood as a transformational change in the broader electoral environment that would make previously unattainable goals (such as single-payer health insurance) possible. But Sanders is also seeking to redefine the Democratic Party, giving it an ideological nature that it has never previously had in its 200-year history. Clinton, on the other hand, is betting her own ambitions on the same multiplicity of group interests enduring for yet another election.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Don't Expect the Superdelegates to Stop Bernie Sanders

Under Democratic Party rules, all sitting Democratic governors, members of Congress, and members of the Democratic National Committee, and all sitting or former Democratic presidents, vice presidents, congressional leaders, and DNC chairs, enjoy automatic delegate status at the national convention. The creation of these "superdelegate" positions in the 1980s was designed to give the party's leaders some potential influence in the selection of the presidential nominee and approval of the party platform, as well as a formal participatory role in the convention every four years.

In 2008, the margin between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the pledged delegate count (those delegates allocated based on the results of primaries and caucuses) was sufficiently narrow that the superdelegates could have decided the nomination, mathematically speaking. In practice, however, any suggestion that the outcome among pledged delegates (which favored Obama) be reversed by the superdelegates was met with concerns—and even threats—that denying the nomination to the pledged-delegate winner would fatally split the party. Then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi went on record in March 2008 as questioning the legitimacy of such a turn of events, and enough superdelegates endorsed Obama on the last day of the primary calendar that his path to the nomination was cleared—prompting Clinton to quickly concede the race.

This time around, Clinton's massive lead in superdelegates over Bernie Sanders initially suggests a built-in advantage for her campaign, forcing Sanders to win a supermajority of pledged delegates in order to make up the gap. In the wake of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, some news outlets even reported that Sanders's landslide victory only netted him a tie in the state delegate count after factoring in the New Hampshire superdelegates (such as Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Governor Maggie Hassan) who have publicly endorsed Clinton.

But it's once again difficult to imagine the superdelegates actually working to deny Sanders the nomination if he places first in the pledged delegate count—even if most of them prefer Clinton or view her as a superior general election candidate. The norms of internal "democracy" within the party organization are sufficiently strong that the legitimacy of a Clinton nomination under such conditions would be widely contested. A firestorm would ensue that would extend all the way to the convention itself, if not beyond, tearing the party apart and significantly weakening the eventual nominee.

It's worth remembering that the current nomination system is itself the product of a crisis of legitimacy. After Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the 1968 presidential race, the Democratic primaries were dominated by anti-Vietnam War candidates Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, but Hubert Humphrey captured the nomination on the first ballot amid protests and violence both inside the convention hall and on the streets of Chicago (Kennedy had been assassinated by the time of the convention, but still would not have been nominated had he lived). The requirement that most delegates be selected by party voters rather than organizational leaders was adopted in response to the criticism that Humphrey's nomination did not reflect the anti-war sentiment of the Democratic rank-and-file that year.

So I would argue against paying too much attention to the superdelegates, whether you're a Sanders supporter angered by their lack of support for your candidate, a Clinton backer who views them as a reassuring backstop to your candidate's currently shaky campaign, or a neutral observer just trying to make sense of the process. The winner of the pledged delegate count will almost certainly be the 2016 Democratic nominee—or else the Democratic Party will really feel the burn.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New Hampshire: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. The importance of televised debates in presidential nominations, a distinctive characteristic of the 2012 Republican race, has reasserted itself this time around. It is likely that any non-disastrous debate performance last Saturday by Marco Rubio would have guaranteed him at least a third-place finish in New Hampshire and might have put him in the position to battle John Kasich for second place behind Trump. In either case, a sympathetic press corps would have given him positive coverage heading into the next stage of the race while buzzards would have circled around the Jeb Bush campaign. Instead, Rubio wound up placing fifth—albeit only one percentage point behind both Bush and Ted Cruz—and will face serious pressure to bounce back in South Carolina, while Bush lives on to fight another day.

2. The ideologically and stylistically moderate Yankee Republican vote has not completely disappeared in New Hampshire, to Kasich's temporary advantage. However, it will be difficult for Kasich to replicate his performance in the very different electorates of South Carolina and Nevada.

3. Trump continues to be a polarizing figure within the party, with significant proportions of Republicans voicing a dislike for him or reluctance to support him if he were to be the nominee. Yet Cruz and Bush also face resistance from a substantial fraction of Republican voters, and less than half of New Hampshire Republicans told exit pollsters that they would feel satisfied with a Rubio nomination. At the moment, none of the leading Republican candidates engenders broadly positive feelings within the party electorate.

4. Bernie Sanders's bigger-than-expected victory on the Democratic side does not dislodge Hillary Clinton from her position as the heavy favorite for the nomination. Yet it does signal that Sanders will be a serious competitor, perhaps extending the nomination race far into the spring. It is likely that the Clinton campaign will retool its message—Clinton's concession speech in New Hampshire appeared to foreshadow exactly such a development—to echo Sanders's anti-Wall Street themes while simultaneously appealing much more directly to the major social groups within the Democratic coalition, especially racial minorities.

5. Relatedly, Clinton is also likely to hug Obama even tighter (rhetorically speaking, that is) in the coming weeks. The Sanders campaign would be wise to prepare for repeated accusations that it represents a rebuke to the policies—and even the character—of the current incumbent. A race that turns into a referendum on Obama would not be in its strategic interest.

6. The Democratic Party is probably only a few years away from becoming a majority-minority party (about 45 percent of Obama's votes in 2012 were supplied by non-white citizens). After this election, there is likely to be a serious internal challenge within the Democratic National Committee to the privileged status enjoyed by Iowa and New Hampshire in the presidential nomination process, on the grounds that the heavily white electorates of those two states do not adequately represent the party as a whole. This effort may not succeed (Iowa and New Hampshire have beaten back threats to their dominance before), but it's hard to believe that the issue won't be raised. Even some Republican leaders may be sympathetic to a reform of the calendar, given the victories of outsider candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in the first two events of the nomination season this year, though changes to Republican party rules are much more procedurally difficult to implement.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Debate Recap: The Press Piles on Rubio

I'm not going to say that Marco Rubio turned in a great debate performance on Saturday, but the tone and volume of the media coverage might lead one to believe that he showed up drunk, kicked over his podium, and screamed that the Old Man of the Mountain got what was coming to him. Sure, Rubio's repetitive recitation of his memorized anti-Obama spiel was a strange and strategically unwise response to Chris Christie's accusation that Rubio was overly dependent on the repetitive recitation of memorized spiel, but the collective press judgment that this mistake could be—and, what is more, rightfully should be—severely damaging to Rubio's entire presidential campaign merely reinforces my view that debates are, on the whole, lousy ways to judge candidates.

But media coverage can have a self-fulfilling dimension, especially in primary elections. The fact that Rubio's public persona, as transmitted by reporters to voters, has turned on a dime from "charismatic savior of the Republican Party" to "out-of-his-depth automaton" (both dramatically exaggerated statements, though in opposite directions) three days before the New Hampshire primary is likely to damage Rubio's popularity among the Republican electorate. At the very least, it will be more difficult for him to sustain the "momentum" that he received from the Iowa caucuses—momentum that itself is principally the product of the highly favorable media interpretation of his third-place finish there.

On the other hand, expectations will be sufficiently lowered for Rubio's performance on Tuesday that if he merely runs a close third once again—and certainly if he does better than that—he will be able to claim a comeback that will likely return positive coverage to his campaign. He also benefits from the lack of a consensus alternative choice for those Republicans who are in the "ABCD" camp (as in, "Anybody But Cruz or Donald"). If Bush, Christie, and Kasich all finish within a few points of each other in New Hampshire, as polls now suggest is very possible, none of these candidates will have the standing to assert strong momentum of their own as the race moves to South Carolina.

Meanwhile, it seems ever more probable that the winner of the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary will be one Donald J. Trump. That this isn't the major story of the weekend tells you all you need to know about what a crazy campaign we're in.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Debate Recap: Who, Exactly, Is The Democratic Establishment?

Bernie Sanders subscribes to a simple theory of politics: the chief—if not sole—impediment to leftward political change is the power of moneyed interests, which have used their influence (primarily via campaign contributions and super-PACs) to compel members of Congress and other elected officials to block what would otherwise be common-sense policies. The popularity of this view among Democrats, especially liberals, accounts for much of Sanders's unexpectedly successful presidential candidacy. If you hate Wall Street, oil companies, and the insurance industry, and blame them for the growth of economic inequality, the failure of climate change legislation, and the absence of single-payer health care, says Sanders, you can best fight back against these enemies by supporting me.

Because Sanders is running in a Democratic primary, however, it is natural to ask whether his theory—which he repeatedly cites as an explanation for Republican extremism and intransigence—applies to the Democratic Party, and, if so, how. This is a more delicate matter, politically speaking. Since Sanders's worldview leaves relatively little room for honest disagreement over what he sees as obvious truths, it is only natural to conclude that he views the majority of Democrats arrayed to his ideological right as similarly co-opted by Wall Street donations and super-PAC dollars. On the other hand, he understands that many of those Democrats are popular within the party and its primary electorate, so it behooves him to talk in generalities about the flaws of the political system rather than specifically question the integrity of every Democratic politician or group that accepts Wall Street money, votes in a moderate fashion, or refuses to support his ideas and candidacy—even if his campaign is inherently implying that these other party actors are stooges or sellouts.

The Clinton campaign has been circling around this implication-but-not-accusation for a few weeks, looking for a vulnerability to attack, and it is clear from last night's debate that they have decided to try to box Sanders in. First, Clinton accused him, with no little personal pique, of questioning her own integrity via "innuendo" and "insinuation," engaging in an "artful smear" without having the guts to come out and accuse her of having been personally corrupted by wealthy interests. Sanders fought back by relying on his familiar analysis—financial deregulation and other measures were the result of a compromised political system—while refusing to take the bait to attack Clinton personally.

Second, Clinton wanted Sanders to name names. Who, exactly, are the corporate shills in the Democratic Party who, by implication, share the blame for blocking his favored policy agenda? Barack Obama? Joe Biden? Paul Wellstone? Jeanne Shaheen? Once again, Sanders knew better than to answer directly—Obama, he said, had done an "excellent job" even though "I disagree with him on a number of issues," and he returned to a more general systemic analysis rather than get drawn into an argument about exactly who was or wasn't politically compromised.

As both campaigns remember well, the biggest mistake made by Sanders in this race so far was his previous characterization of Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign as "part of the establishment" when he was asked why they had endorsed Clinton. The tension within the Sanders campaign between a general attack on a "rigged system" and a reluctance to criticize specific figures and groups within Democratic ranks reflects a recognition that Democratic voters might well share Sanders's general antipathy toward the "establishment" and corporate interests while resisting the acknowledgement that well-liked party figures—Clinton, Obama, prominent liberal interest groups—are guilty of being part of this "establishment." Last night's debate suggests that he will need to maintain this approach in the face of increasingly insistent attempts by Clinton to pin down the implications of his argument.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Most Democrats Aren't Liberals...Or "Progressives"

Yesterday, the political press took a temporary break from making fun of Jeb Bush to monitor a Twitter feud between (the social media staff of) Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over who could claim the most authentically "progressive" record—a dispute that was also briefly raised in the CNN-sponsored town hall in New Hampshire attended last night by both candidates. Sanders accused Clinton of having previously accepted the label of "moderate," arguing that "you cannot be a moderate and a progressive." The Clinton campaign responded by attacking Sanders's voting record on guns while accusing Sanders of a "low blow" in criticizing Clinton's credentials.

Fights over ideological bona fides are commonplace in the Republican Party but rare on the Democratic side. In large part, that is because most Republicans define their party as properly acting as the agent of conservatism, while most Democrats view their own party as representing the interests of one or more social groups. Democrats locked in primary battles may accuse each other of insufficient loyalty to the party, or to a component constituency within its coalition, but usually refrain from describing themselves as progressives (or liberals) or questioning the liberalism/progressivism of others.

Sanders, of course, is an ideologically-motivated politician who had previously declined to affiliate himself with the Democratic Party as a sign of his own independence from its non-liberal factions; the entire thrust of his attack on Clinton—and, by extension, much of the Democratic party apparatus itself—is based on an ideological critique. The Clinton camp, perceiving the popularity of Sanders's message among Iowa and New Hampshire voters, has gingerly attempted to associate itself with the "progressive" label even as it continues to insist that its candidate's more incremental, pragmatic approach is the best way to accomplish Democratic goals. But this is new territory for a party that is unused to publicly debating ideology as such, and it is clear that the Clinton side is wary of making statements on the topic that might prove counterproductive in a future general election.

For Sanders, the problem with getting bogged down in an ideological dispute is that many Democratic voters are unlikely to side with him. The distribution of ideological self-identification within the Democratic primary electorate in 2008, the last contested presidential nomination race, was as follows in the ten biggest states in the country, according to media exit polls:

California: 50% liberal, 37% moderate, 13% conservative
Texas: 37% liberal, 40% moderate, 22% conservative
Florida: 51% liberal, 37% moderate, 13% conservative
New York: 57% liberal, 33% moderate, 9% conservative
Illinois: 48% liberal, 41% moderate, 10% conservative
Pennsylvania: 49% liberal, 40% moderate, 10% conservative
Ohio: 40% liberal, 46% moderate, 14% conservative
Georgia: 47% liberal, 41% moderate, 12% conservative
North Carolina: 42% liberal, 37% moderate, 21% conservative
Michigan: 49% liberal, 41% moderate, 10% conservative

As we can see, self-identified liberals constituted more than half of the Democratic electorate last time around in only two of these ten states—and more than 51% in just one (New York). Even among the party base—voters committed enough to participate in relatively low-turnout primary elections—liberals are in the minority. Moreover, many self-identified liberals are unlikely to also consider themselves "progressives," the preferred term of the Sanders campaign but a label that is not widely used in contemporary American political rhetoric. When Sanders talks about progressivism, in other words, many Democrats either won't be inclined to take his side or won't even know what he's talking about, and his accusatory use of the word "moderate" seems to ignore the millions of Democratic voters who describe their own politics in precisely those terms.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Iowa: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. Donald Trump clearly underperformed his poll numbers. Some have suggested that he was hurt by skipping the debate last week, but it's more likely that polls systematically overestimate his support, especially in low-turnout, organization-dependent caucus states. (And don't be misled by all the talk about record turnout—in comparative terms, the participation rate in the caucus was still much lower than in most primaries.)

2. The evangelical-vs.-non-evangelical divide was somewhat overstated going into Iowa. Cruz benefited from the evangelical vote, but did not win it overwhelmingly. Similarly, he was not as dominant in the western, Steve King-represented section of the state as expected, but made up for it by running surprisingly strongly in the eastern cities and suburbs.

3. Ethanol is no longer the "third rail" of Iowa politics. My guess is that American politics has become strongly nationalized in the era of the Internet, national media, and partisan polarization, reducing the electoral importance of parochial interests.

4. Rubio was smart to declare victory after running a close third, and will benefit in the national media from the perception that he's best positioned to actually win the nomination. The unresolved question is whether he gets a bigger media bounce from coming in third than Cruz does from placing first—particularly in the conservative media that most Republican primary voters consume. If so, he could be well-positioned in New Hampshire to consolidate much of the non-Trump vote.

5. There really isn't a "Paul wing" of the Republican Party.  Ron Paul won 10% in Iowa in 2008 and 21% in 2012, suggesting that there was a significant bloc of libertarian-minded, non-interventionist Republicans that might become established as an enduring faction within the GOP.  Rand Paul, though a senator, only got 4% this time.

6. Bernie Sanders is a very talented politician with an attractive message and manner in the eyes of many Democratic activists and voters. Though his chances of actually winning the nomination remain quite remote, it's very surprising in retrospect that he did not seek a national political profile before this election.