Dec 1, 2015

The End of the Syrian Civil War

Why the Paris attacks are going to hasten the end of the four-year-old conflict

On the night of November 13, 2015, at about 9:20PM, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt near Gate D of the Stade de France, a large athletic stadium outside of Paris. The explosion took the life of the bomber as well as one victim.

Over the next 20 minutes, separate attacks were unleashed on 5 other locations throughout Paris: 4 restaurants and 1 concert hall. Three teams of terrorists carried out coordinated attacks throughout the city.

In all, 130 people died that night, and over 300 were injured. It was the deadliest act of terrorism against France in that nation’s history. The militant group known as ISIS took responsibility for the attack within days.

Near the body of one of the terrorists a Syrian passport was found. Speculation immediately swirled that one of the perpetrators was a Syrian refugee who gained access to the EU and then perpetrated the attacks. Records indicated that someone carrying the passport registered it on the Greek island of Leros several weeks earlier.

Critics immediately began pointing to the episode as proof of the danger of Western countries admitting Syrian refugees. The implication was that refugees from Syria were gaining access to Western countries in order to carry out terrorist attacks. The theory, however, was debunked in the following days. According to French intelligence officials, the passport belonged to a member of the Syrian National Army who died months before the attacks in Paris. It mattered little. The damage to the plight of Syrian refugees had been done.

The Syrian Civil War has been raging for more than 4 years now. Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on his people has resulted in the deaths of 250,000 Syrians. The number of people displaced by the conflict has reached 12 million – nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population. There are 4 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries. But perhaps most significant is the effect the refugee situation is having on Western nations at this time.

Applications for asylum to the EU and the US have more than tripled in the last year alone – from under 100,000 to about 332,000 this year. The pictures of refugees desperately trying to make their way across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe are heartbreaking to say the least. But it’s the attacks in Paris that have placed Western nations in an interesting dilemma where action on the conflict is all but unavoidable.

There are real security concerns associated with taking in significant numbers of refugees from the affected areas. It is relatively easy for ISIS operatives to use the cover of refugees to make their way to the EU and to the US. It doesn’t really matter that the passport found during the Paris attacks turned out to be a forgery, nor that there is very little threat from Syrian refugees themselves. (Worth noting here is that Syrian refugees are fleeing Syria mainly to get away from violence, including and especially from that perpetrated by ISIS. Also worth noting is that ISIS doesn’t want Syrians to leave Syria. They would much rather have them stay and serve as subjects, so giving Syrian refugees a bad name furthers ISIS’ goals.)

But what matters is that it has been shown that accepting refugees exposes Western nations to significant security risk. Even if that risk is from people only posing as Syrian refugees is damage enough. Yet closing borders paints the West as indifferent and ambivalent to one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades. It also, not inconsequentially, goes a long way toward affirming one of ISIS’ main claims: that the West is at war with Islam and with Muslims.

The West suddenly finds itself in an impossible situation: expose itself to real security risk or risk affirming one of ISIS’ main recruiting claims – that we are indeed embroiled in a clash of civilizations. And that impossible situation stems, mainly, from the lingering Syrian Civil War. Bashar Al-Assad has indirectly, unwittingly placed the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the world in an untenable position. And by doing so he has placed himself in an untenable position.

On the weekend following the Paris attacks, US President Barack Obama and Russian President (and main Assad supporter) Vladimir Putin were seen huddling one-on-one, engaged in what looked to be a serious conversation during the G20 summit in Turkey. Many wondered what they were talking about. My money is on Syria. Even if Putin has not agreed to the full removal of Assad from power, it would seem certain that he has agreed to some kind of transition-of-power plan. I found it not very surprising at all when in recent days Putin declared that “there is an understanding about where to go from here,” between the US and Russia on Syria.

Paris is about 2,600 miles away from the Syrian capital of Damascus. And there is no connection between the Syrian regime and ISIS, which carried out the attacks. But if there is one person who didn’t get a whole lot of sleep the night of the Paris attacks, it was probably Bashar Al-Assad. He could probably tell fairly quickly that a steep political price for the attacks was about to be paid, by him.


Nov 3, 2015

Ryan rises

Will Paul Ryan have an easier time as Speaker than John Boehner?

     Paul Ryan had a great week last week. After John Boehner announced he was stepping down from the Speaker’s role at the end of October it was widely accepted that Boehner’s number two, Kevin McCarthy, would step in and take over. But when McCarthy inartfully stated that the main impetus of the House Select Committee on Benghazi was to bring down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, he was forced by his colleagues to drop out of the Speaker’s race.

All eyes fell on Ryan. It was widely believed that Ryan was the only person who could unite the Republican Party. There was only one problem: he didn’t want the job.

Paul Ryan is chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, a powerful and influential post. Ryan calls it his dream job. He was not at all inclined to give that up in favor of a seemingly thankless job where he would be stuck in between a White House controlled by the opposite party and a recalcitrant base that views even the slightest compromise as capitulation.

At the same time, he understood that his party was in a difficult position. Because of the lack of viable alternatives he would have no choice but to step up and lead. He presented his colleagues with several conditions on which he would run, including switching the Party’s message from an opposition message to a proposition message and doing away the Motion to Vacate the Chair (a parliamentary procedure akin to filing articles of impeachment, but for a Speaker).

He also asked that his party unite behind him before the election, not after. Ryan didn’t want to campaign hard for the Speaker’s job. He wanted to be drafted. He didn’t want to squeak by with 219 or 220 votes (218 votes are required to win the Speakership); he wanted 230-240 votes. He wanted a mandate.

His colleagues acquiesced to all of his conditions, except for doing away with the Motion to Vacate the Chair. In the end he garnered 236 votes in the Speaker’s election.

Most House Republicans were eager to get the Speaker’s election out of the way because Congress was up against tight deadlines. The country was set to hit the debt ceiling today (Nov. 3) and the federal budget was to expire in the second week of December, risking a government shutdown. No doubt these things were adding to the Paul Ryan hesitation in seeking the job.

But then an interesting thing happened and Ryan’s week got even better. Unbeknownst to the rest of Congress, John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (a Republican), and the White House were involved in secret negotiations that would do away with a lot of the deadlines staring Congress down. They reached a budget deal last week that would set spending limits for 2 years, extend the debt limit until March 2017 and keep the government funded (and open) until at least October 2016. It was a deal that solved many (if not all) of Ryan’s immediate problems.

It infuriated conservatives but you have to believe it gave John Boehner just a little bit of satisfaction. He got to stick it the conservative wing of the party, many believed were largely responsible for ending his Speakership. And although publicly criticizing the process, you have to believe it secretly thrilled Ryan. He is now free to start his speakership unfettered by crises and showdowns.

The Speakership today is only a shadow of what it once was even just a few short decades ago in terms of authority. But if the first week is any indication, Paul Ryan is going to have an easier time of it than at least his most immediate predecessor.


Oct 27, 2015

Flipping without Flopping

How much will recent flips on policy positions hurt Hillary Clinton?

The US invaded Iraq in 2003. Later on that year an appropriations bill came to the floor that would provide troops with the supplies they needed to execute the war. The price of the bill was $87 billion.

John Kerry, then a Senator from Massachusetts, voted for a version of the bill that paid for the supplies by rolling back some of the Bush Tax Cuts. That version ultimately failed. Soon after, another version was put forward that paid for the bill the same way we pay for just about everything: by borrowing the money. John Kerry voted against that bill but that version ultimately passed.

In the midst of the presidential election a year later the George W. Bush campaign attacked John Kerry for that vote, saying among other things, that John Kerry didn’t support our troops when they needed it most. John Kerry, attempting to explain his reasoning for not supporting the bill said, “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

It was a statement John Kerry would never live down. He was painted as someone who was a waffler. Who wasn’t decisive. John Kerry would have other troubles during that campaign. Like not responding strongly enough to attacks by former service members who served with Kerry in Vietnam, but it was the statement on his support for the Iraq war bill that put Kerry on the path of trouble.

We value different characteristics in our elected leaders. We tend to value strength above all else. But one trait we seem to value most, and I would suggest that we value it even more than we think we do, is ideological consistency. The worst label someone can be tagged with in politics is flip-flopper.

Hillary Clinton has come out in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as many as 45 times by some counts. She was Secretary of State when negotiations began. At one point she even called it the “gold standard” of trade agreements.

So it came as a surprise when she announced her opposition to the deal earlier this month. She says the deal didn’t “meet the high bar” she had set.” Critics see political opportunism in Clinton’s change of heart. The AFL-CIO (the largest labor union in the country and fierce critics of the TPP), has held back on endorsing Clinton’s candidacy. AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, said in an interview last month that if Clinton takes a position against TPP they’ll know she’s looking for the union’s support, but is she doesn’t they’ll know she’s looking for their vote. Said Trumka:

"…And the difference is, if you get my vote, I come out on Election Day and I pull the lever. If you've got my support, I get up at 7:00 in the morning, I stuffed 200 envelopes, I make seven calls, I go knock on a few doors, and I get my neighbors all excited about voting for her as well. That's what's at stake for her.”

The calculation made here by Clinton is that the support she earns for coming out against the TPP far outweighs the criticism she’ll get from so blatantly switching positions on the issue.

She also made the same calculation with regards to the KeystoneXL Pipeline (an extension of an existing pipeline that would transport oil from the Alberta Tar Sands in Western Canada through the US to refineries on the Gulf Coast). Business groups support the deal, saying the project will mean jobs and be a boon to the economy. Environmentalists say the damage done to the environment by extracting the especially “dirty” Alberta Tar Sand oil from the ground are too great and oppose the project.

Because the project crosses international borders the federal government’s approval is required. In 2010, Clinton said her State Department was “inclined” to approve the project. Late last month she declared that she opposed the project. The calculation here, again, is that support from environmental groups will probably outweigh any criticism received from big business supporters who probably weren’t going to support her anyway.

In a poll taken a couple months ago, participants were asked for the word that first came to mind when the name of a presidential candidate was mentioned. For Hillary Clinton it was “liar.” Whether “flip-flopper” gets added to that list remains to be seen. But the question is will switching positions that she has taken just a few short years ago hurt her? Her new positions are more in line with the Democratic Party and seem to have gotten her more support than it has cost her. But can flip-flopping without suffering dire consequences continue for her? Time will tell.


Oct 21, 2015

The House that Newt Built

How Newt Gingrich sowed the seeds of dysfunction that are today plaguing Congress

There is chaos in the House of Representatives. Speaker John Boehner announced recently that he would be resigning at the end of October. His second in command, Kevin McCarthy has been forced to bow out of the race because of backlash over comments he made over the nature of the Select Committee on Benghazi.

Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Paul Ryan, has been identified as the only person who can unite both the ultra-conservative and establishment wings of the Party. There is only one problem: Ryan doesn’t want the job and will only accept it if a list of conditions is met.

It is the conservative wing of the Party that is widely seen as having forced John Boehner to resign. His unwillingness to shut down the government over, among other things, the budget and President Obama’s executive orders on immigration, has infuriated conservatives. One Republican member went so far as to file a motion to vacate the chair earlier this year (which is, in effect, a motion to impeach the Speaker of the House).

The conservative wing doesn’t have enough members to deliver 218 votes (the number one needs to be elected Speaker) for a potential candidate, and the establishment wing could not get enough support among conservatives to get a member whom they support elected. (The conservative wing of the party only numbers about 40 members but that is enough to prevent someone whom they do not support from getting elected).

And therein lays the dilemma: establishment Republicans can’t get anyone elected without support from the conservative wing, and the conservative wing won’t support anyone who establishment Republicans can get elected.

How did we get here? How did we get to the point where the third most powerful position in our government is a job no one wants? How did we get to the point where the outgoing Speaker is so thrilled to be resigning, he couldn’t help but sing “zip-a-dee-doo-dah, what a wonderful day,” as he was approaching the podium? How did we get to the point where any Republican who can garner enough support from his colleagues to get elected Speaker is automatically seen as illegitimate by a significant portion of his caucus?

In 1978 a young congressman came to the House of Representatives from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. As a freshman he called for the expulsion of Representative Charles Diggs, who had been convicted of embezzlement. It was a gutsy move for a freshman to call for the expulsion of a veteran lawmaker. Especially one of some stature (Mr. Diggs was the founder of the Congressional Black Caucus). In 1983 he called for the expulsion of two congressmen who were found to be having inappropriate sexual relationships with teenagers working as congressional pages.

In the mid 1980s, he made a habit of taking to the House floor and berating his democratic opponents, calling them, among other things, communists and challenging to come to the podium and defend themselves. The diatribes were usually delivered at night when House business had concluded and most members had gone home.

In 1984 then House Speaker Tip O’Neal ordered the cameras to periodically pan the chamber so that most of America got to see the congressman was speaking to an empty chamber while pretending he was speaking to a packed one. O’Neal declared that it was the “lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress."

In the late 1980’s the congressman led a crusade against Speaker of the House Jim Wright over a book deal whose sales seemed to be directed towards political supporters of Wright’s, as a way to circumvent campaign donation limits. It was during this time that the congressman began to view his fight with Democrats as a civil war that had to be, in his words, “fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars…”

In the early 1990’s he helped to expose major scandals in the House like the House Banking Scandal and the Post Office Scandal. With the help of GOPAC, a political action committee, he pioneered the use of language as a mechanism for controlling and defining his political opponents. In 1996 GOPAC issued a memorandum with words and phrases for republican candidates to use against their Democratic opponents. They encouraged using phrases that would draw a contrast with their counterparts. Words to use about themselves included: “courage”, “duty”, “freedom”, “liberty”, “moral”, “peace”, “prosperity”, “success” and “truth.” Words to use about their opponents included: “bizarre”, “cheat”, “corruption”, “crisis”, “decay”, “destroy”, “failure”, “radical”, “sick”, “steal”, “they/them”, “threaten” and “traitors.”

Incredulousness of most colleagues aside, the congressman was able to achieve success with these tactics. In 1994 Republicans were able to win the majority in the House for the first time in 40 years. The congressman would go on to be elected Speaker of the House where he would continue most of these techniques, culminating with the effort to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying under oath about an affair with a 22-yearl-old White House intern.

The question isn’t whether the congressman, Newt Gingrich, achieved a level of success with these tactics, but rather, at what cost?

All politicians attempt to persuade with heated and fiery rhetoric. Most politicians will use incriminating information against an opponent if it will deliver them a political victory. But what made Gingrich different was that he was the first politician to employ the strategy of de-legitimization. Under Newt Gingrich’s leadership, your political opponent was no longer a person with whom you had political disagreements with. Now they were “bizarre”, “radical” and “sick.” Members of the other party were no longer people whom you disagreed with on policy. Now they were, “traitors” determined to “destroy our country.”

Crimes should not be defended. Nor should the people who perpetrate them. No one should defend the embezzlement of tax payer money or members of Congress who engage in inappropriate relationships with teenage pages.

But what made Gingrich’s crusade disingenuous is that he was guilty of many of the same violations he pilloried his opponents for. During an unsuccessful congressional campaign in the late 70s, Gingrich himself also had a book deal with eerily similar circumstances as those he fought Jim Wright for. While he was orchestrating the exposure of the House Banking Scandal, Gingrich had 22 overdrawn checks, one of which for more than $9,000 to the IRS. He claimed to fight waste, fraud and abuse but earmarks nearly doubled under his tenure as Speaker from less than $8 billion to $14 billion. While he was spearheading the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Gingrich himself was having an extramarital affair with a House staffer 23 years his junior (that staffer would go on to become Gingrich’s third wife).

Ethics, in other words, was a red herring. It wasn’t about cleaning up the House or providing transparency and accountability to the American people. It was about subversion. It was about so de-legitimizing the other side that voters would have no choice but to be disgusted and vote for the other party. It was about destroying the House and taking over what was left. It was, in short, about politics.

The tragedy is that the effects from those tactics linger to this day and have apparently now consumed the Republican Party as well. Think of Gingrich’s tactics like an atomic bomb thrown at the opposite party in the House chamber. The direct blast may have affected Democrats on impact, but the fallout has now wafted over to the other side of the aisle and is now affecting Republicans as well.

Politics is a contact sport. Americans understand, even expect, the fights to be knock-em-down-drag-em-out affairs. But they also expect the system to work, to function. Newt Gingrich didn’t just introduce fierce techniques to politics, he introduced de-legitimization. The problem with de-legitimization, we’re now finding, is that it’s nearly impossible to de-legitimize one half of an institution without de-legitimizing the entire institution itself. And eventually even your own party.


Sep 29, 2015

Kinder, gentler GOP leadership

Can Kevin McCarthy succeed where John Boehner failed?

     Kevin McCarthy, Republican Majority Leader, is expected to be voted Speaker of the House now that John Boehner has announced his resignation at the end of October. House conservatives hope the change will bring about a shift in the way leadership worked with the caucus’ more conservative members.

McCarthy is the odds-on favorite to replace Boehner once he steps down. If he succeeds in doing so, it will mark one of the more meteoric rises to power in congressional history.

McCarthy, 50, is from Bakersfield, California. The son of a fire chief, he opened a business (a delicatessen) after winning a $5,000 lottery drawing when he was 19. He subsequently sold the Deli and put himself through school, attending California State University, Bakersfield. From the mid-1990’s until 2000 he worked for long-time Bakersfield congressman Bill Thomas. He was elected to the California State Assembly in 2002, and when Thomas retired, ran for and won his old boss’ seat in the House.

That McCarthy is poised to become Speaker less than 10 years after first being elected to the House is remarkable, but it is also a testament to his personal style. In his relatively short time in public life he has built a reputation as a listener, someone who takes the time to understand his constituents’ and peers’ concerns. McCarthy spends a large portion of his time meeting with colleagues in small groups and one-on-one. He keeps his office on the first floor of the Capitol making it more easily accessible, unlike previous majority leaders. After Boehner’s announcement on Friday, McCarthy spent the weekend calling every Republican member of the House asking for their support in the Speaker’s race.

Boehner was never regarded as an unfair Speaker – far from it. But there was some dissatisfaction within the Republican caucus with how Boehner treated members of the conservative wing of the party. Specifically, how he treated members who voted against him in Speaker’s races. (He reportedly stripped members of their committee chairmanships for opposing him. “I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior,” as he put it.)

But was the Republican caucus so fractious because of Boehner or did Boehner lead the way he did because the caucus was so fractious? McCarthy hopes it is the former and not the latter. Time will tell whether he can succeed in bringing Republicans together during a turbulent time or whether just by virtue of being elected leader he becomes a target as his predecessor did.


Sep 22, 2015

Joining the circus

Will networks prioritize cashing in on big ratings over substantive debate?

     I am a political junkie. Cable news is on in my house for hours at a time. I read CBO (Congressional Budget Office) reports with the enthrallment others reserve for gossip columns. I actually (yes, voluntarily) watch congressional hearings.

I do this partly because of personal interest in the nation’s conversations and partly because it’s my job. But I also do it because I believe there is one thing that, above all else, will allow us to cure a lot of the ills that have infected out nation’s body politic. And that thing is public engagement.

Engagement is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet to our political problems. If we want to get money out of politics we should get engaged. It will help keep the moneyed interests at bay. If we want to solve the dysfunction in Congress we should get engaged. It will help keep lawmakers honest. If we want to get elected officials to focus on the issues that matter to everyday Americans we should get engaged. It will help them understand that their record will be held against them come Election Day. My dream is that one day ratings for CSPAN are greater (or at least on par with) reality TV shows.

So imagine my joy when in the second week of August we found out that the ratings from the first Republican Primary Debate had broken a record. An unprecedented 24 million people tuned into a primary debate in the first week August! I was ecstatic. I thought to myself, alright! We have turned a corner.

Then the second debate happened and my feelings have become a little more, well, mixed. It became clear right from the opening minutes that the main goal of the debate wasn’t to allow for a spirited back and forth on the issues between a number of candidates (many of whom are qualified and who, to a large extent, remain unknown to the American public). The goal was to start food fights. To turn the debate into a WWE wrestling match. The goal was ratings for ratings’ sake.

The start time was moved up from 9pm EST to 8pm EST. The debate was extended by nearly an hour, from a little under two hours to a little under three (and by the end of the second hour you could begin to see the fatigue on the candidates’ faces). The first 10 minutes or so were exclusively about Donald Trump. The majority of questions thereafter were about him as well. They were either asked of him or of other candidates but were about him. If I had to summarize the debate I would do so by paraphrasing an old joke: But enough about you, Donald Trump. Let’s ask someone else a question. Jeb Bush, what do you think of Donald Trump?

Moving the start time up by an hour, extending the time of the debate by one hour and making the entire debate (both directly and indirectly) about the most controversial candidate was done, presumably, for ratings. Instead of trying to calm the air they chose to fan flames. And it worked. A little less than 23 million people watched the second debate, a record for CNN. And that is the cause of my concern.

If networks feel they have a once-in-a-generation chance to cash in on some big ratings and decide to do so, I can’t really blame them. One only hopes that networks understand that another rare opportunity is presenting itself: the opportunity to get millions of Americans off the sidelines and involved in the political debate in this country. I only hope that networks don’t favor one opportunity at the complete expense of the other.


Sep 1, 2015

Turnout vs Reachout

Does the Republican Establishment Bet on Growing the Tent or Energizing the Base?

     In the wake of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential loss, the Republican National Committee (RNC) conducted a post-mortem on the election and on the party itself. One of the report’s main conclusions was that Republicans must do a better job of reaching out to minority groups, especially Latinos. They cite, for example, that George W. Bush captured 44% of the Latino vote in 2004, while Mitt Romney captured just 27% in 2012. The report points out that America is changing demographically and those changes tilt the presidential election playing field in the Democratic Party’s direction, and if Republicans want to remain competitive they will have to “engage” minorities and show them “sincerity.”  

But there are some Republicans who disagree with that strategy. While they’re certainly not against making the tent bigger, they feel the party’s main priority should be energizing the base. Ted Cruz, for example, is fond of pointing out that whenever Republicans nominate moderates they lose (see Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney), and whenever they nominate true conservatives they win (see Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan). The thinking goes, true conservatives drive Republicans out to the polls and to election victories.

It’s a choice that can be summarized in this way: turnout vs. reachout. Should the party focus on energizing the base in an effort to get it to turn out in big numbers and vote on Election Day? Or should it concern itself more with reaching out to non-traditional sources of support in an effort to broaden the party’s appeal?

Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president about 3 months ago. He has quickly become a darling of the Republican base. In the beginning, most political watchers dismissed his campaign as a passing fad, a summer fling that would come to an end just as soon as voters returned from summer vacation and really started paying attention to the race.

But voters’ feelings toward Trump seem to be holding steady (and that’s why, as I wrote last week, it may be time to stop dismissing his campaign). But a question I’ve been concerned with ever since Mr. Trump burst on the scene is, how does the Republican establishment truly feel about him? Do they, as Reince Priebus, Chairman of RNC says, really believe that a Trump candidacy is “quite good” for the party? Or do they believe that someone who is a “base candidate” ruins their chances with minority groups and likely helps to hand the election over to Democrats? We may be starting to get some clues about their true feelings.    

The first question asked at the Republican debate a few weeks ago was whether there were any candidates who were unwilling to pledge their support to the eventual Republican nominee and not run as an independent. Trump, during the weeks preceding the debate, routinely said he would not rule out a third-party bid if he were not the Republican nominee. He was, predictably, the only one to raise his hand. Then came a question about Trump’s questionable treatment of women over the years from moderator Megyn Kelly.

Trump and Fox News got into a now-famous dust-up over the questions directed at him during the debate. Trump felt that he was being targeted and that the questions came directly from the top, Fox News management. He was probably right. It’s unreasonable to believe that the moderators, with all that was at stake, would be freelancing in that situation. Also, last week we learned that two states, Virginia and North Carolina, were contemplating new requirements for candidates wishing to appear on their primary ballots: that they pledge not to run as third-party candidates in the general election. These moves are largely understood to be targeting Donald Trump.

Then last week Fox News and Donald Trump once again got into a bit of a row when Donald Trump tweeted up a firestorm of criticism of Megyn Kelly, prompting Fox News to issue a lengthy statement in her defense and asking Trump for an apology. Megyn Kelly, prior to Trump’s tirade, tweeted out what appeared to be veiled criticisms of Donald Trump’s immigration proposals. Even the most causal followers of Mr. Trump’s know that he is not one to shy away from a fight. Were those tweets meant to goad Trump into another battle?

The question I pose above about how the Republican establishment feels about Donald Trump is worth considering because it reveals a much more interesting dynamic: how the Republican establishment feels about the Republican base. Do they really commiserate with conservative anger or are they just looking to leverage that anger into election victories? Do they really believe in the base’s power to deliver a campaign victory or do they believe that bigger-tent strategies are the only logical strategies going forward?  

We won’t know which strategy, turnout or reachout, the majority of Republicans will favor in 2016 for quite some time. Probably not until after the election is over and another post-mortem is conducted. But it’s interesting to see which side the establishment is beginning to bet on. And right now, it looks like they’re beginning to bet reachout.


Aug 25, 2015

The Return of the Silent Majority

Why it may be time to stop dismissing the Trump Campaign

     The mid 1960s saw a rapid escalation of US involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1967 and 1968 previously peaceful anti-war demonstrations, like the ones that took place on college campuses, began turning violent.

In October 1967 100,000 demonstrators marched in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. That night 30,000 of them marched on the Pentagon. After a brutal confrontation with soldiers and US Marshalls, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. In early 1968, members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War began participating in the demonstrations, throwing medals earned during their service in the war on the steps of the US Capitol Building. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, 10,000 anti-war demonstrators clashed with security forces outside the convention building.

Richard Nixon came into office in 1968 promising to bring the Vietnam War to an end and to restore “law and order.” Nixon’s plan for Vietnam included, among other things, training Southern Vietnamese fighters to take on more of the combat responsibility – a process he called “Vietnamization” – and persuading the Soviet Union and China to apply more pressure on North Vietnam. But he knew he needed time in order to get his plan to work. So he had to appeal to the American people for patience.

On November 3, 1969, Nixon gave a speech in which he asked the American people to remain united in their support both for him and the nation. He said:

“...I recognize that some of my fellow citizens disagree with the plan for peace that I have chosen. Honest and patriotic Americans have reached different conclusions as to how peace should be achieved….Well, one of the strengths of our society is that any American has a right to reach that conclusion and to advocate that point of view. But as President of the United States, I would be untrue to my oath of office to be dictated by the minority who hold that point of view and who try to impose it on the nation by mounting demonstrations in the street…So tonight, to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support. I pledged in my campaign for the Presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace. I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to keep that pledge…”

That speech would forever inject the concept of the “silent majority” into our political lexicon. It would go on to become known as the “silent majority speech.”

The “silent majority” denotes a large number of people in a country who hold certain beliefs and opinions but do not necessarily express them publicly. The people who go about their business every day and do not get involved in politics except for voting on Election Day. In 1969, Nixon used it to refer to the large number of Americans who did not participate in the violent demonstrations or drop out and join the counterculture. Nixon saw this group as being overshadowed by a much more vocal minority who were taking to the streets. He bet that if he appealed to the silent majority directly the message would resonate and he would win their support. He was right. Nixon’s approval rating shot from 50% up to 80% after the speech. In 1972, Nixon would be reelected in a landslide, winning 49 of 50 states.

There is a candidate today who is once again appealing to the silent majority, and once again asking for its support. That candidate is real estate mogul Donald Trump. Mr. Trump declared his candidacy two months ago and soon after, shot to the top of the polls. He has been there ever since. Most political watchers dismissed his campaign as a joke. It’s getting harder and harder to do that now.

It’s nearly impossible to turn on your television set these days and not see the majority of each news program dedicated to the Trump campaign. But what’s interesting about the wall-to-wall coverage of the Trump campaign is that its focus is less on the campaign itself and more about the disbelief political experts are feeling about it. How can this phenomenon be explained? they want to know. How long can this last? they wonder. How will Trump end? they ask.

I must admit, I hesitated quite a bit before writing this article. Is what the world really needs another article on the Trump campaign? I asked myself. But then I realized the real story here is not Donald Trump’s campaign. Rather, it’s the puzzlement the political establishment is feeling about the Trump campaign.

The political and media elites are completely befuddled at how Donald Trump can capture the support of so many Americans. They are completely confused about how he’s doing so well. But I’m afraid the reason is not as mysterious as it seems. Here’s the reason Donald Trump is getting so much support from Republican primary voters: He says exactly what we’re all thinking.

When he says things like Mexico and China and Japan are beating us on trade. That resonates with us. Why? Because inside, part of us feels that Mexico and China and Japan are beating us on trade. When he says the last thing we need is another Bush in the White House that resonates with us. Why? Because most Republican primary voters feel that the last thing we need is another Bush in the White House. When he says our country is in big trouble that resonates with us. Why? Because a large number of us feel that our country is in big trouble.

There are times when the blunt-speak does backfire and Donald Trump doesn’t quite read us as well as he thinks he does. Most of us do not believe that every immigrant crossing the southern border is a rapist, murderer or drug dealer. Most of us do not feel that Senator John McCain is a war hero only because he was captured.

But there is no denying that the majority of the things he is saying is hitting a nerve with the American people. And especially with Republican voters. Twenty-four million people watched the first Republican debate. It was the highest rated Fox News debate of all time. That interest was sparked, in large part, by Donald Trump. Last Friday Trump spoke at a stadium in Mobile, AL. Thirty thousand people showed up. It was by far the largest crowd any GOP presidential contender has been able to command thus far in the race.

His influence on other members of the GOP field is also beginning to grow. (A sure-fire sign a candidate is hearing positive feedback about a rival’s message from their own supporters is when they begin adopting some of that rival’s message as their own). As I wrote last week, Ted Cruz, seemingly emboldened by the Trump campaign, has taken his anti-Republican-Establishment-strategy to a whole new level. Scott Walker, a day after Trump unveiled his immigration plan, quickly tried to associate it with his own.

Trump is currently polling at about 24% in the GOP primary field. Critics are pessimistic about how long he can sustain that lead. Some say Trump is polling at his ceiling while everyone else is polling at their floors. Even if we were to accept that premise, 24% is still a large enough percentage of voting Republicans that it has to be reckoned with.

Few believe Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. Few believe that he will even be the Republican nominee. But here’s what the pundit class seems to be missing: he doesn’t have to be in order for us to draw some significant conclusions from this campaign.

It’s unclear whether today’s silent majority is capable of wielding the same level of influence as the one that supported Richard Nixon in 1969. America is very different today, politically, than it was then. But the most interesting questions raised by the success of the Trump campaign aren’t about Trump at all. They’re about us. The American voting public. Specifically, why is there such a disconnect between such a sizable segment of the American people and its elected officials? How is it that such a significant portion of the population feels like their voices are going unheard and their needs unmet? And just how much will those unheard voices manifest themselves as anger toward their elected leaders?

Donald Trump seems to have given voice to a frustration felt by a significant segment of the American voter. Questions like, “How does Trump end?” are the wrong ones. Because regardless of whether Donald Trump goes away the frustration he’s tapping into won’t. Politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, may be ignoring that at their own political risk.


Aug 17, 2015

Is Ted Cruz Playing the Trump Card?

Is attacking other Republicans just as beneficial as attacking Democrats?

     Donald Trump has vaulted to the top of Republican Primary polls. During the first several months of his campaign he has managed to insult just about every large group around. Most surprising though, are the relentless attacks he has leveled on fellow Republicans.  

He’s given out Senator Lindsey Graham’s phone number. He’s said that Senator John McCain was a war hero only because he got captured and became a prisoner of war. He’s called Jeb Bush weak on immigration and education. And yet, not only do his poll numbers not fall, they continue to rise. A fact that seems not to have been lost on Senator Ted Cruz.

Cruz is a vocal opponent of the Export-Import Bank. The Ex-Im Bank, as it is referred to, was created in 1934 as a way to spur business growth between US companies and foreign customers. It provides loans to foreign buyers of US products and provides loan guarantees to US exporters. In recent years it has become quite controversial in US politics, especially among Republicans. Establishment Republicans see it as an important pro-business entity that supports corporations. They are quick to cite the fact that it supports up to 200,000 American jobs.

Harder-line conservatives, such as Cruz, see it as just another form of corporate welfare. A government body that interjects itself into the free market and picks winners and losers. They note, for example, that roughly 83% of the loan guarantees the Ex-Im Bank made in 2012 went to one company, the aerospace manufacturer Boeing. The bank is often referred to as “Boeing’s bank.”

In May of this year it became clear that amidst the Republican squabbling over the bank, funding for the Bank’s charter would be allowed to expire for the first time in 80 years. Right around the same time, President Obama’s Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill, a bill that would allow the fast-tracking through Congress of international trade deals negotiated by the administration, hit a snag. At the last moment the TPA bill won the support of three pivotal Senators: Patty Murray (D-WA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). (Worth noting here is that Boeing has significant operations in both the states of Washington and South Carolina.)   

At that time Ted Cruz reportedly asked Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, whether a deal was cut with Senators Murray, Cantwell and Graham for their change in support and if so, what the deal was. According to Cruz, McConnell swore that no deal had been cut, not on the Ex-Im Bank or on anything else.

So, in late July, when on the cusp of the Senate’s summer recess, McConnell filed a procedural motion to bring a vote to re-authorize the Ex-Im bank to the floor of the Senate it became clear something was amiss. Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor and in a blistering speech, unusual in both content and tone, railed against the Majority Leader and accused him of telling “a flat-out lie.”

The speech was unusual not just for its violation of Senate decorum (rarely, if ever, do Senators take to the floor to call each other liars, and there is actually a rule against Senators using words that “…impute to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator…”), but also for the target of the fiery rhetoric: a fellow Republican. And a party leader at that.

Conventional wisdom says Cruz is cleverly positioning himself as a supporter and follower of Trump’s strategy so as to inherit his supporters if/when Trump drops out of the race. To be clear this is not a novel approach. Every candidate expects to win and therefore expects to inherit supporters from other candidates if/when they drop out of the race. What is novel here is the brazenness with which Cruz chose to attack the Republican Majority Leader.

The headline of this episode is not that the Ex-Im Bank got re-authorized. It’s not that Mitch McConnell may have lied to Ted Cruz. It’s not even that Ted Cruz called Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor. The real news here is the calculation that Ted Cruz is making. The bet that running hard against fellow Republicans will prove just as fruitful as running hard against Democrats. It seems that Trump has authored a blueprint on how to vault to the top of the polls in the Republican Party primaries that other Republicans are proving all too eager to follow.


May 18, 2015

Like it’s 1998

     The year was 1998. Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One” was on top of the pop charts. There was a lot of buzz surrounding the “X-Files” movie that was coming out that spring. I was a year out of school. I found myself sitting in front CNN. They were discussing awkward details of a stained blue dress.

The dress belonged to a 25-year-old former White House intern. An independent prosecutor had taken an interest in the intern because it was believed that the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, had convinced a good friend, Vernon Jordan, to give her a job in return for the intern, Monica Lewinsky, remaining quiet about a sexual relationship she had with the President.

I remember thinking to myself that the sordid details of this case, and specifically about the stained blue dress, can’t be right. This can’t be what the nation needs to spend all this time on. At the time the 24-hour news cycle was nowhere near as prevalent as it is today. Fox News and MSNBC were both less than two years old and still were not the opinion-shaping powerhouses they are today. But that didn’t stop the news outlets, namely CNN, from devoting as much time as they could to whether Bill Clinton had sexual relations with that woman and whether he asked her to lie about it.

Over the last several weeks we’ve again been inundated with stories about the Clintons, specifically about allegations of impropriety at the Clinton Family Foundation. The Clinton Foundation, a philanthropic powerhouse founded by Bill Clinton in 2001, is under scrutiny for failing to disclose donations made to it by foreign governments as well as foreign donors with close ties to foreign governments. Specifically during the years between 2009 and 2013 when Hillary Clinton was head of State Department. The implication is that the absence of such disclosures makes it impossible to ascertain just how much influence was gained by these foreign actors over one of the most powerful American families, not to mention an acting Secretary of State.

But secrecy surrounding the Clinton Foundation’s donor lists is not what got me thinking back to those days in 1998. I’ve yet to see any evidence that the Clintons sold influence to foreign donors in exchange for donations. Indeed most people share that view. We’ve seen our share of Clinton scandals over the years. From Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky to Hillary Clinton’s private email server. And while there are legitimate questions raised by these revelations into Clintonland, the question I find myself asking most often is, do these scandals warrant the level of attention they garner by our media or are they mostly political sideshows diverting our attention from far more important topics?

Did Bill Clinton try to get Monica Lewinsky a job to keep her from revealing their improper relationship? Seems entirely plausible to me. Was there influence traded with Secretary Clinton’s State Department in return for donations to the Clinton Foundation? Not any more than was traded when Halliburton was awarded billions in no-bid government contracts while their former CEO was Vice-President. Did Hillary Clinton deliberately delete emails that could possibly have cast her and her state department in a negative light before the press got to them? Probably. But if you were subject to the level of scrutiny that the Clintons are subject to you would have done the same thing. And so would I.

What to do about the incessant coverage? The simplest thing to do is to switch the channel. Don’t click on that sensationalized headline. Refuse to like that Facebook post. You see, these stories have no news value. Their value depends entirely on who’s viewing them and their personal view of the Clintons. If you are supporters of theirs you see these stories as little more than witch hunts. If you are detractors you see each new scandal as yet another example of immoral, win-at-all-costs Clinton tactics that prove why they should not be trusted with public office.

No, what’s got me thinking about those days in 1998 is that after all these years obsession over the Clintons has not decreased a bit. In fact it has only increased. And it has made me realize that this is what it’s going to be like for the next year and a half while Hillary Clinton is running for President, and possibly for the next five and a half years should she win. We’re all going to be sitting in front of our TV sets, listening to the details of the next Clinton scandal, wondering if there is anything more important we should be talking about.