Tag: US Presidential Candidates

The First Democratic Debate: Clinton and Foreign Policy

My overall view of the first democratic debate of the 2016 nomination contest probably tracks with the consensus. I should disclose that I’ve contributed to the Sanders campaign and support it, even though my views on some issues are more conservative.

In brief, Clinton showed herself a capable and exceedingly well-prepared politician. I jokingly commented on social media that this encapsulates her biggest advantage and her biggest liability. But, to be honest, it really is much more of an asset than anything else. She’s extremely smart, experienced,  and skilled at politics. She is also surrounded by people with strong messaging skills—at least when it comes to focused activities, such as debates.

Sanders came across as he does in all other campaign settings: passionate, focused on the issues, and unwilling to go after his rivals in a deeply personal way. It reinforced suspicions among some that the rationale for his candidacy resides in a desire to push the eventual nominee—that is, Clinton—to the left on economic issues. That may have been his original intent, but he remains the only serious alternative to Clinton; my guess is that he takes the support that he’s generated very seriously.

Sanders’ performance, and the reaction it generated, likely come from his “unorthodox” debate preparation:

Sanders’ team sees the first Democratic debate as a chance to introduce a fairly niche candidate to a national audience. So his team intends to let him do what he’s been doing. Far from preparing lines to deploy against Clinton — let alone O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb — Sanders plans to dish policy details, learned through a handful of briefings with experts brought in by his campaign.

At some point, the Sanders campaign is going to need to make a choice about whether to pivot to a more orthodox approach. Given that one of Sanders’ major asset is his genuine, rather than affected, authenticity, this presents something of a challenge.

I respect Webb a great deal, but I don’t think that tacking to the right on issues like Iran is either good politics or good policy. He’s out of step with the Democratic electorate, and he has no chance at winning the nomination. Chafee’s performance was poor, and does nothing to dispel the key question of his campaign: “why are you even running?”

O’Malley, on the other hand, was comparatively impressive. His attempts to outflank Clinton on the left—particularly on foreign policy—weren’t perfectly implemented, but they point in the direction of how to press these points. For example:

I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake.

You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.

I support President Obama. I think we have to play a long game, and I think, ultimately — you want to talk about blunders? I think [Putin’s] invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder.

And this, unsurprisingly, is what I want to talk about. Two of Clinton’s answers on foreign policy troubled me. But for different reasons. Continue reading


A Pre-Post-Mortem on Romney’s Defeat


It increasingly looks like Romney is gonna lose. Intratrade now puts that likelihood at 75%. Now it’s my understanding from the American politics subfield, in which I took exactly zero courses in grad school, that the state of the economy is supposed to be the great determiner of American elections. But somehow Romney can’t seem to win despite 8+% unemployment. So I’ll take that as a methodological opening for wild speculation – namely my own – masquerading as rigorous theory.

Given my masterful background in this field, which includes watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, still getting Fox News in my cable package even though I don’t live in the US (stop chasing me!), and having been a Congressional district slave staffer (Republican) 15 years years ago, here’s my take. And no, I have no great proof to back up these instincts, but as George W Bush’s decision-making style taught me, my gut is enough, and ‘data,’ or whatever you ‘academics’ call it, is for wusses. “We’re an empire now; we make our our reality,” and here’s mine:

1. That 47% video just killed him.

Wow. The polling after this just collapsed. The desperate ‘me too-ism’ of Fox News in response spoke volumes about how destructive that leak was. Scrounging up any dated recording of Obama also saying something dumb (or not) and then trying for 2 weeks to balloon it into an ‘affront to all Americans’ to stir indignation was just embarrassing. I wonder if O’Reilly and Hannity can say to Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch once in awhile, that some conspiracy-mongering is just too ridiculous even for them. If some old, vague Obama comment on ‘redistribution,’ which the government has been doing for almost a century, is now cause enough for GOP ‘outrage’ (ever noticed that Fox is always ‘outraged,’ btw?), then they’re effectively repudiating more than half the budget. Even in the GOP, I don’t think eliminating redistribution is majority opinion, and there’s no way the electorate will go for that, as it essentially re-writes the social contract on something –  a basic safety net – that most American simply assume now. Maybe Romney should apologize? I dunno; politicians do it in Asia sometimes. But doubling-down on that remark, as he has, is a sure-fire loser.

2. He can’t be who he really is, because the Tea Party holds him hostage.

I still think that the conventional wisdom that Romney is a moderate, trying to fool both himself and his party that he’s not, is correct. Even though the 47% tape looks like ‘smoking gun’ evidence that Romney is a clone of Jamie Dimon, I still don’t think so. Chait makes the strong point that Romney sounds like a ‘sneering plutocrat’ on the tape. Yeah, it’s pretty hard to get around that interpretation. But if I had to guess, I bet he was just saying what he thought they wanted to hear. Anyone who’s ever worked in an American campaign cycle knows the enormous pressure on candidates to pander to the mega-donors (as in the Romney vid) who make our campaigns possible (all the more reason for dramatic campaign finance reform, but that’s another story).

My own sense, still, is that Romney is moderate non-ideologue and probably not a wing-nut. I had affiliations with the Ohio GOP throughout the 1990s, and most of the people I knew were reasonable and sane, but under constant pressure from the right-wing to say/do outrageous stuff. It was always a battle to fend off some group insisting that the 10 Commandments be hung in member’s office, that the UN was taking over America, or called CNN the ‘Communist News Network.’ (All true stories.)
Instead, I think Bruni is right that the process of running for president has so distorted Romney that he just doesn’t know what to say anymore. He’s so desperate to win, so frustrated he can’t get traction against a weak president in a terrible economy, so flummoxed that his CV from the ‘real world’ doesn’t obviously out-stack a community organizer who somehow became president. So he’ll say almost anything anymore.

He wants to be a moderate who had a decent, centrist record as Massachusetts governor. He’s almost certainly proud that he put through ‘RomneyCare’ in Massachusetts (his signature achievement as guv), speaks French (who isn’t pleased they can speak a foreign language?), and turned around a major government project – the Olympics (that’s a huge achievement). But now he can’t say any of that, because the ideological right and its media network won’t abide it. Instead, he’s reduced to transparent, shameful phoniness like teasing Obama for worrying about global warming, when someone as educated as Romney obviously knows that science is not some liberal plot.

In short, he’s been running for president for so long, he’s so desperate, that he’ll say almost anything to anyone; he’s lost himself in this mess and doesn’t really know what he thinks anymore. And the voters have picked up on this and can’t figure out who he is (like Nixon in 1960). It’s sad actually, that a pubic servant with Romney’s reasonable credentials must pander so bad he loses respect for himself. It reminds me of Condoleezza Rice, a realist for 20 years, who suddenly ‘saw the light’ of neoconservatism when in power. Yeah, right – having direct access to POTUS every day had nothing to do with that.

This is yet another reason why the agonizingly long US election process is so awful. Most importantly, the horse-race element of it distracts government from governing for huge stretches of time. But it also wrecks the integrity of almost everyone who runs for high office, Romney included, sadly.

3. He comes across like Gordon Gekko just 3 years after the Great Recession.

Even if he isn’t a plutocrat at heart (maybe not) or a winger (probably not), he comes off just awful. Romney really needs lessons from the Bill Clinton ‘I-feel-your-pain’/George W Bush ‘who-would-rather-have-a-beer-with’ school of campaigning. I realize this is terribly shallow. Exactly what difference for government does it make if W comes across like ‘Dubya,’ while Kerry is a windsurfing dork? None at all. To this day, I still resent how the media read Al Gore’s earnest, over-read wonkiness as a flaw (?!!), while embracing W’s cowboy-hat-wearing folksiness. What c—!

But atmospherics count – a lot unfortunately, and Romney, a master of the universe, is a god-awful candidate – especially just 3 years after the Great Recession. As I argued earlier this month, how is it that a product of the financial services industry, like Romney right down to his perfect hair, got to be a presidential candidate just a few years after high street banking nearly wrecked the economy? That just floors me. Who wants that Jamie Dimon clone in the White House? (It’s bad enough when Dimon goes before the Senate Banking Committee and mocks the whole country.) Makes you wish Santorum had won…(*shiver*)…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


All Mitt Romney Really Needed To Know He Never Learned In Kindergarten

This is actually a pretty good checklist.

I’m busy with other projects–dissertating, researching, and watching Breaking Bad, in ascending order–but I wanted to point out that the problem with Mitt Romney’s statement about the attacks on Americans in Libya and Egypt is not what it tells us about foreign policy. We know very little about Romney’s foreign policy views, and it is possible that Romney himself hasn’t thought deeply about the it. (Indeed, my gut feeling informed intuition  has long been that most American presidents simply don’t have well-informed views on things like military intervention before they take office.)

The problem with Romney’s statement is that it was a poorly-chosen, poorly-timed message.

For all his presentation as a cautious businessman, Romney has consistently shown that he has little idea how to sell himself in person. True, he has good instincts about how to market himself–stay away from the media, keep the campaign largely on message, don’t worry about temporary roadblocks like Herman Cain–but that is entirely different from being a good spokesman on his own behalf.

Yet unlike a native politician, such as Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, or whoever is running for sheriff in your county this year, Romney lacks the finely honed filter that prevents him from unintentionally saying really dumb stuff.

The “two Cadillacs” gaffe, the “I like firing people” quote, that some-of-my-best-friends-are-NASCAR-owners slip–they are all qualitatively different from Obama’s worst verbal errors (“you didn’t build that” and, I guess, the “57 states” things), which are the products of fatigue and temporarily verbal confusion. By contrast, Romney’s slips have  comported with what many people (including, lest we forget, a substantial majority of Republican primary voters) thought he is: a distant plutocrat who’s only honest when he isn’t paying attention.

The most recent statement, which pretty blatantly politicized a moment of national grief, added a newer, sinister dimension to this image. Instead of Romney-as-clueless-Richie-Rich, we now have Mitt-the-Machiavelli, whose only thought is how the deaths of dedicated public servants affect his campaign. That this was not a slip of the tongue but the product of the campaign’s top strategists and, allegedly, the candidate himself speaks volumes about how the candidate sees himself. But it says nothing about how he sees the United States and its role abroad.

Late Update: I wanted to clarify the post’s relationship to its title. Why is Romney’s statement such a problem? It’s not that it’s part of a well-thought-out philosophy of “not apologizing” (both because the timing was wrong to release that critique, and because the philosophy is not well-thought out), as David Weigel at Slate implies. Rather, it’s that it shows that Romney may actually lack the kind of empathy that we normally presume that presidential candidates have. To be blunt, Romney may in fact be less empathetic than Nixon, whose career (as Rick Perlstein and others have argued) was in part driven by resentment at the slights, real and perceived, that the Establishment committed against the ordinary striver. This may not, in some grand philosophical sense, disqualify one from the presidency, but it normally disqualifies you from being a presidential candidate.


Obama as Hitler: He Wishes!

I used to watch all of the presidential debates when I was in my late twenties and early thirties. Even though my party allegiance was never in doubt, I wanted to know the contours of the debate even for the other side, what there substantive differences were, where the daylight between the candidates was, etc.

I don’t do this any more. Obviously one reason is that they are just not informative. None of the candidates truly embrace policy ideas, and even if they did, that isn’t what is rewarded. So during their primaries, in particular, they draw largely semantic contrasts between other nominees in an obviously disingenous way. They make stupid, canned jokes that generally fall flat. I hate bad jokes.

Well, he could.

But when they do get substantive, it is even more pointless. This is because they always talk about their Plan. Plan for Energy Independence, Plan for Tax Reform, Plan for Health Care. Apparently they are on their campaign website. Even assuming that anyone ever reads them, why do they bother?

Every four years we have this bout of collective amnesia in which we forget that we are not electing a dictator for four years, but rather the head of a particular branch of government who has to contend with 535 idiots down the street. Even if Obama wanted to be Hitler, he couldn’t.

Now it might be better if the President is also not an idiot as well, and I suppose his Plans tell us something about whether that is the case. But nothing anything like any of these Plans will ever get passed by Congress, so what is the point of pointing out the tiny differences with other nominees, particularly in the same party?

An illustrative example: Obama went hard at Hillary in 2008 on her mandate for individuals to get insurance as unnecessary and perhaps draconian. “My plan wouldn’t require individuals to get insurance,” he said, or something like that. First, it was a dumb idea. You need the revenue from healthy people to pay for sick people. Any third grader gets that. Second, who the f*ck cares about Your Plan? Congress is just going to mangle it into something unrecognizable anyways. And they did. Obama didn’t even take his plan and make it his opening bid.

Really, all we need to know is whether you support universal health care or not? Do you believe that we should drill for oil right offshore? Should we tax the rich at a higher rate than currently? A simple yes or no will do. This is all we really need; everything else is extraneous and ultimately inconsequential. And we don’t need 18 months to get this down. Save your $200 million dollars. Fill out a questionnaire, shut up, and we’ll let you know in November.


Cuba: El Tiante’s pitch

Let me followup Peter’s post on Cuba. Legendary and colorful retired pitcher Luis Tiant had this to say about the Cuban embargo:

“I think it’s crazy,” Tiant said. “Everybody does business with Cuba – Latin America, China, everybody – and what is the difference? We are 90 miles from Cuba. We don’t have a relationship with them. That’s crazy. It makes no sense to me.

“The people have suffered enough. They’ve gone through a hard life. Forty-six years I’ve been out. I hope it changes.”

As for Peter’s question about the choice between domestic politics and the national interest? While neither of the two remaining Democratic candidates for president have called for lifting the economic embargo, it seems pretty clear that Barack Obama’s position is less hawkish.

Indeed, Obama wrote an op-ed about Cuba last summer for a Miami paper suggesting that the US should reduce some restraints on travel and remittances.

Clinton’s response was not promising.

Hillary Clinton continued her recent attacks on his perceived foreign policy naivete, insisting that “until it is clear what type of policies might come with a new [Cuban] government, we cannot talk about changes in the U.S. policies toward Cuba.”

It’s too bad the Democrats didn’t have a real primary in Florida this year so that these issues could have been debated more publicly.


Huckabee: conservativism and liberalism

Patrick Deneen, one of my colleagues at Georgetown, has a terrific discussion of Jonah Goldberg’s critique of Huckabee:

I can’t remember a more deceptive piece of agitprop in recent American politics. Goldberg is a free-marketeer, small government (i.e., let the market do as it will), big national defense (i.e., U.S. should run the world in our best interest), secular-minded “conservative”: i.e., there’s not an actual conservative bone in his body. In “Old Europe” he would more accurately be called a liberal. What galls in this exchange is Goldberg’s apparent Burkeanism which is a thin mask on his deeper commitment to the instabilities fostered by “free” markets and the preeminence that contemporary Republicans place on individual choice and thoroughgoing mobililty. The call to “just stand there” is a “conservative” defense of liberalism (i.e., “just stand there” means “let us be as free and mobile and individualistic as ever”); the call for “change” in several cases (Huckabee in particular) points in the direction of being a “revolutionary” defense of conservatism. This is the paradox and conundrum of contemporary American politics: the true conservative appears to be the revolutionary whereas the “conservative” is a liberal in wolf’s clothing.

Read the whole thing.

H/T to Russel Arben Fox, himself the author of a great post on Huckabee.


The more things change

Mitt Romney’s explaining how only someone from outside Washington can make change happen. Where have we heard that before?

This particular canard seems to be one of the most unchanging features of American politics. It works because of another consistent feature of American politics: the endless forgetfulness of the American voter.

Regardless, I assume everyone else notices that the arguments about “change” among the Democratic and Republican candidates have become completely indistinguishable.


Primary notes

Some random thoughts on the Presidential race, filtered through the lens of multiple pain killers and a muscle relaxant:

1. Huckabee’s “horizontal” versus “vertical” politics line appears to be a very good example of multivocal signaling. It sounds, to many Americans, like another version of Obama’s rhetoric about elevating politics above partisan bickering. But it also appears to be code for a politics centered around man’s relationship to god, rather than human relationships.

2. I’ve recently come around to the view that Democrats should root for Romney. Not because he’d be easiest to defeat in the general election, but because he’s the most pragmatic and least ideological Republican contender for President. Those are the same characteristics, however, that, in McCain’s words, make him “the candidate of change.”

3. Paul’s opposition to the war and the current assault on a wide range of civil liberties should not, under any circumstances, blind otherwise sane Democrats, Republicans, and independents to the fact that he believes that placing monetary policy in the hands of congress will reduce inflation, that a return to the gold standard will solve high oil prices and rising medical costs, and any number of other assorted lunacies of the right-libertarian fringe.

4. An Obama/Clinton ticket (or, for that matter, a Clinton/Obama ticket), contra John Holbo, brings no clear benefits to the Democratic party. The lesson of Kerry’s disastrous choice of Edwards as his running mate, in my view, is that nominees should choose running mates who either (a) balance some important weakness in the Presidential nominee or (b) put a state/region in play. Politicians like Richardson, Bob Graham, Salazar, Bill Ritter and Janet Napolitano fit this bill. Richardson and Salazar are both particularly good choices given considerations involving the Hispanic vote. Mark Warner would have been perfect, but we need him running for Senate in Virginia.

For that matter, Edwards would be a terrible choice for Vice President for either Obama or Clinton. Kerry was right when he initially dismissed him as a choice because, to paraphrase, Edwards couldn’t even win reelection in North Carolina.

5. Edwards’ direct, and Obama’s more nuanced, attack on Hilary Clinton as a candidate of the “status quo” is tactically smart but strategically stupid. The Democrats should not go into 2008 suggesting that their own party represents current failures. Not only will this hurt downticket races, but it will help the Republican nominee make the case that he is also an “agent of change.” The mantra needs to be that “the status quo” = “Bush and the Republican Party.”

6. I like all of the major Democratic contenders, and would be happy with any of them as the party’s nominee. But I do find myself marginally more sympathetic to Clinton than to Obama right now, in part, I suspect, because I find myself recoiling at the implicit sexism associated with many of Obama’s supporters’ attacks on her. These are people who would, under other circumstances, be flogging anyone who accused a woman of being “shrill” or “bitchy” if she displayed passion (see, also, Kevin Drum), yet they will happily throw gender-charged epithets at Clinton. Many of Obama’s supporters also seem completely ignorant of Clinton’s early record with the Children’s Defense Fund and with the Watergate inquiry.

I also find some of the change rhetoric coming out of the opposing camp tiresome. “Special interests” are bad, but unions, abortion-rights groups, and other liberal, er, special interests are good. Lobbyists are bad, unless they support me. And so on and so forth. I also worry that all of Obama’s uplifting rhetoric isn’t going to matter for squat when the Republican attack machine comes after him. If he wins the nomination, I sure as heck hope he’s ready. On the other hand, the poor performance of the Clinton campaign in adjusting to the Iowa second-place tie doesn’t exactly reassure me about them. So, at the end of the day, I’m glad I won’t have to vote until the race is (most likely) decided or until (less likely) there’s a lot more information on the table.

That being said, I’m leaning away from Edwards. And I voted for him in the 2004 Maryland primary. I guess I liked Edwards 1.0 better than 2.0. Still, I wouldn’t shed tears if he’s the nominee.

As the intra-Democratic vitriol increases, we should remember that we have an embarrassment of riches this year. And, as my wife reminds me, I shouted up to her during the 2004 Democratic convention that she’d better “come watch, because we may be looking at the first black president of the United States.” Then I stood up, and discovered that our floating wood floor was literally floating on our basement floor. Sigh.


CNN Suppresses Diversity, Polar Bears

Greetings, all. Though I think Daniel hoped my early posts would concern mass killing (or, perhaps, the conquest of the Alpha Quadrant), I couldn’t help but comment on CNN’s Republican YouTube debate for my inaugural post.

Mainly, I wonder how different the debate would have been if the 35 questions aired had been chosen based on YouTube page views and comments, rather than selected by the media elite to fit the issues the candidates were prepared to discuss.

Demographics, for example. Out of the 35 videos selected for the debate, I counted only 6 featuring women. Only 2 featured people of color. And the debate of the “family values” party features no questions from minors, although many of the nearly 5,000 entries were from youth.

Too, the subject matter seemed peculiarly out of touch with the concerns of many voters. Few questions about foreign policy (Darfur, anyone?). Nothing about climate change (maybe because kids were under-represented as stakeholders – ever since polar bears became the poster children for global warming I know mine have been up in arms). And not a word about how the candidates would differentiate themselves from the policies of the Bush Administration.

But then again, perhaps I assume too much about the total population of entries. Could the digital divide simply result in a massive over-representation of gun-toting white males among the population of those submitting YouTube videos?

A fascinating qualitative analysis could and should be done on the total dataset of video entries to measure the gap between the population of entries and the sample that was used tonight to represent “the public agenda.” The findings would have important implications for our assessment of the YouTube debates as a genuine populist shift in electoral politics, rather than an attempt of the media barons to co-opt the emerging power of Web 2.0.


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