Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 November 2015

Can the Dems “Pull a Reagan” in 2016?


[For comment on the Dems’ Saturday-night debate, click here . I’m keeping this post up because it’s relevant to the debate; in fact the debate in part confirms it.]

Whoever wins the GOP nomination, it’s almost impossible to imagine him or her actually winning the White House. Once known for its order and discipline, the Grand Old Party is in greater disarray than ever in my lifetime, and I’m now over 70. It’s leaders—if there are any—apparently think voters will forget the circular firing squad come next November. But it’s hard to believe they will.

So whoever wins the Democratic nomination will likely be our next president. The Dem will win if only because, in this digital “gotcha!” age, the GOP will be fighting itself. There will just be too many GOP-adverse viral videos floating around the Internet and in Dem campaign ads. Lots of them will come from the farcical GOP debates.

Yet winning the White House is not the problem. The problem is that a minority party has virtually taken over an utterly broken and bitterly divided government. The next president can’t do much more than make another unnecessary war unless these circumstances change.

At the moment, the GOP pretty much owns Congress and the Supreme Court. The Court will change only if and as its troglodytes retire or die in the saddle. So that leaves Congress as an objective.

Somehow, some way, the Dem who next wins the White House must have what they used to call “long coattails.” She or he has to bring Congress along in something of a landslide, at least enough to make a visible change in national proclivities. The Dems must forge a brand-new electoral coalition and make it long-lived.

That sort of thing has been done, but not often. FDR did it, but it took the impetus of the Great Depression. Although another massive, global recession will remain possible until we rein the big banks in, it’s not a consummation devoutly to be wished. Dems don’t want to destroy the economy in order to save it.

The only pol (besides maybe Teddy) to forge a new coalition without a massive depression or an impending war was Ronald Reagan. He somehow managed to pull a lot of Dems into his fold and keep them there. A lot of them are still there, under the name “Reagan Democrats.”

How did he do it? Mostly with charm, I think.

Ronald Reagan had an extraordinary personality. A wag once described FDR as having a second-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament. Reagan had a third-rate intellect but a temperament that could see and raise FDR’s. His economic policies, besides raw selfishness, were and are nonsense, but “supply side economics” and “trickle down” are still with us today. The nonsense stuck just because Reagan promoted it.

He was a big man with a smooth and beguiling, almost hypnotic, voice. He was invariably calm and good-natured. He had magnificent charm and a wonderful sense of humor. In the operating room after the attempt on his life, he doffed his oxygen mask and joked, “I hope you are all Republicans.” Many, many voters probably wished their fathers had been like him.

Today no candidate in either party has anything like that kind of charm. Perhaps the closest is John Kasich. But he was standing at the far left in the last debate—the place where The Hook next strikes. Anyway, he has a major disadvantage: he’s a Republican.

So if the Dems are going to assemble a new coalition by stripping voters away from the GOP, they’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: by policy or subconscious affiliation.

Policy is the hard way. When you think about it, the mood today seems absolutely extraordinary. The GOP—even its “Tea Party”—has millions of voters who work for a living and who are struggling or just getting by. They know the banks caused the Great Recession, and they hate the bailouts and the ever-growing concentration of power in finance. They hate being pushed around by big companies and rich people. They hate the fact that their kids can’t afford college. They hate to see the “American Dream” disappearing, at least for them. They hate working harder for less. They hate having jobs they can’t count on continuing. They think the country’s going to the dogs, and not slowly.

But they blame it all on Obama and the Dems. They don’t even think to blame the people who somehow keep getting richer and richer while their own lives slide down a slippery slope.

This may be the greatest mass con job in human history. But it’s real. It’s part distraction (so-called “social issues”), part prevarication (aka outright lies), and part the dark side of human nature. It’s hard to admit you saw or see things wrong, let alone blame your own sorry circumstances on yourself. So it’s hard for the average Joe or Mary to switch parties, let alone long-held views.

Whoever figures out how to untie this knot could build a new coalition, FDR-style. Like FDR, she or he might fix our national fate for decades to come.

But it’s hard, really hard, to overcome decades of successful distraction and propaganda. If it were easy, it would have been done already. Fox and the GOP “operatives” are among most skilled propagandists and demagogues in human history. They know their business well. It’s hard for a party addicted to truth, reality and workable policy to match them.

So no, policy is probably not the easy way to do it. Dems should try to get working folk to realize they’re on their side, but succeeding is not going to be easy or quick.

So what have the Dems got? They sure haven’t got Reagan’s charm. Hillary is still learning how to appear human, and Bernie, although seeming more human than Hillary, is too earnest and too much of a wonk. And the Dems don’t have anything like Fox and probably never will. They prefer reality.

So that leaves subconscious affiliation, the emotional stuff. This is Hillary’s strong suit.

To see what I mean, think about Barack Obama. He’s an African-American, part of a 12% minority. As the last eight years have taught us so well, at least twice that many voters hate him for it. They hate him so much that they confuse their racial hatred with alleged “policy differences” that make no sense. They rant and rave, for example, against improving their own health care.

Sure, there are a lot of other voters for whom Obama’s racial background is a plus. Maybe the number is as high as 30% of voters. But you have to adjust for intensity. Even those, like me, who feel Obama is incredibly skilled and has been given a bum rap ever since a microsecond after his inauguration, don’t (evidently) feel as strongly as the ones who hate him. At least we haven’t formed a crazy, left-wing counterpart to the Tea Party. And we don’t rant and vote against our own interests just to spite our opponents.

So if you take the 12% who subconsciously favor Obama, subtract the 24% who hate him, and add two-thirds (intensity adjusted) of the 30% of voters who like him just for being what he is, you get 12% - 24% + 20% = 8%. So Obama’s identity provides a positive subconscious affiliation bias of about 8%.

If this is the limit, his being elected president twice, with an unquestionable national popular majority each time, shows one of three things: (1) extraordinary circumstances, (2) supernaturally superior policies, or (3) supernatural political skill. Since Congress and voters don’t seem to think much of his policies, despite their unquestionable positive effects, the answer has to be a combination of (1) and (3): the Great Recession and its origins in GOP theology, plus the extraordinary skill of the President and his campaign team.

Now consider Hillary. Her subconscious affiliation quotient comes from her gender—a 51% majority of voters. Some men may never vote for a woman president; let’s say they amount to 20% of men, or 10% of all voters. Some men and women won’t vote for Hillary because of her marital difficulties and her association with socially liberal policies, such as abortion and gun control. Let’s say they amount to 15% of voters. Do the subtraction and you still get a 26% subconscious affiliation boost—over three times Obama’s. And that’s not even counting for the intensity of women, who have waited during almost a century of suffrage for a candidate of their own.

Then think about working women, who are more numerous than ever before. They don’t get equal pay. Single mothers have to raise their kids alone, as well as support them. Even skilled professional women have to cope with everything from subtle bias and locker-room jokes to sexual harassment and outright discrimination, every day. And they have to smile while coping.

You don’t think all this makes a difference, subconsciously or even consciously, when women go to the polls, and no man is looking over their shoulders?

I didn’t come by these views accidentally, far less through logic. I came by them through hard experience, watching the last eight years with increasing horror. I now believe that 20-30% of the opposition to our President (not votes, but intensity) has racist motivation, and around 70% of the extreme opposition does. Subconscious affiliation matters.

As a result, I feel a whole lot better about Hillary as a candidate. I still think Bernie is the better candidate, with a shaper mind, keener judgment, and a better grasp of policy and priorities. I’ll still vote for him in the primaries, if only to budge Hillary to the left and terrify the smuggies who think that anything they can dub “socialism” is doomed.

But I won’t be at all unhappy if Hillary wins the nomination. I will have the hope that, for the first time since FDR, the Dem nominee will be able to budge the needle of gridlock and forge a new coalition, drawing angry working women and some angry working men back into the Democratic Party, where they belong.

We have to move our broken country off the dime and start moving forward again. I don’t much care how we do it, as long as there’s no new war, civil or otherwise. And I do increasingly believe that—for reasons that shouldn’t exist but do—Hillary is the one best equipped to perform that difficult but absolutely necessary task. Nuances of intelligence, judgment and policy just won’t matter if we still have gridlock.

Footnote: As I’ve discussed at length in another essay, it was Reagan who introduced the “policy” of selfishness that has gripped this nation for over thirty years and brought it low. It was Reagan, not Dubya, who invented the mantra “It’s your money!”

The Dems’ Saturday-Night Debate

Wow! I repeat, wow.

Tonight’s debate was a stark contrast from the recent GOP debates. I had trouble deciding which candidate I would best like to see in the White House, rather than which candidate made me least nauseous. I was ecstatic to find that there are intelligent, caring life forms among our pols. I was particularly surprised to find that, at least among Dems, you have to be an adult to hold the world’s most important job.

Who “won”? The easiest answer is the Democratic party and our battered democracy. All three Dems showed how to disagree without being disagreeable. The also proved what a monstrous chasm of intelligence, workable policy, and empathy lies between each of them and every GOP candidate. In the process, they proved that the term “a civil debate” is not an oxymoron.

The two leading candidates each had good moments. One of Hillary’s came as she responded to accusations of taking Wall Street’s dirty campaign money. She noted that 60% of her contributions have come from women. Twitter rated the audience reaction as the most positive of any she received.

That audience reaction also validated my analysis above. There are two statistics that no other candidate on the stage could match—nor probably any other candidate in our nation’s history. Hillary’s “affinity group”—women—is not a minority. It’s a 51% majority of all voters. Her 60% contribution figure underlined that point.

No one likes to talk about it, least of all Hillary herself. But her gender makes her the only candidate on that stage with a significant chance of winning the general election by a landslide, even in a bitterly divided nation.

As a man, I don’t like to generalize about women, if only because I get bashed (rightly so!) for trying to do so. But my experience with the women I’ve loved and my reading of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus have convinced me that women don’t keep score the same way men do.

Some “political operatives” think that women, like men, will ding Hillary for her e-mails, her more-than-occasional self-aggrandizement, and her vote to make war in Iraq, which she now admits was a mistake. But I’m beginning to think that those operatives, like me, have no idea what women will do in the privacy of the voting booth, let alone after waiting a century to have the chance to vote for one of their own. There’s a good chance the operatives are in for a rude surprise, and we Dems are in for an extraordinarily pleasant one.

Yet the 60% Twitter moment, was not, in my view, the best part of Hillary’s performance. In a way that had not that much to do with substance, she somehow dominated the debate emotionally.

I can’t quite put my finger on how she did it. But I think it was a combination of flexibility (agreeing with others enthusiastically when they were right), humility (admitting her error on Iraq), and experience. When it came to crises of national security, which were a substantial subject of the debate, she had more experience than either of the two men on that stage, and it showed.

But instead of touting her experience in the abstract, as she had done (badly) in the 2008 campaign, she let the facts speak for themselves. That showed not just her her superior ability to be commander in chief, but her ability to learn and profit from her mistakes.

Hillary’s worst moment, in my view, was her refusal to endorse her two rivals’ views (which I share) that no one can rein in Wall Street without breaking up the big banks. Here Hillary resorted again to her dismal “trust me, I know better” approach, referring to her Website and insisting that she has a more comprehensive and better plan. Later she even went so far as to laud her own proposal as a “good plan.” The less she does of that, and the more she provides specific, credible answers, the more likely she will be our next president.

On substance and policy, Bernie still had the high ground. When asked how high he would raise top-bracket taxes to pay for his generous social programs, he said he wouldn’t raise them as high as they were under that “socialist” Dwight Eisenhower. (Ike had presided over 90%-plus top rates.) That remark marked Bernie’s Twitter-approval peak.

More important, Bernie had it right on the substance of policy. He touted, among other things, Medicare for all, tuition-free college, curbing Wall Street by breaking up the big banks and reinstating Glass-Steagall, giving workers medical and parental leave, and reducing our astronomical incarceration rate by getting the federal government out of the business of jailing marijuana users. In my view, every one of these policies is right and proper and would make an enormous improvement in our nation. Most are long overdue.

The problem is that any single one of these achievements, let alone all of them together, would be a high hurdle to leap. The President didn’t settle for “Obamacare” because single-payer was easy to get done. As early as May 2007, he recognized that single-payer was politically impossible, and that we’d all have to settle for something less.

So, with a little help from Martin O’Malley, Hillary was able to paint Bernie as a starry-eyed idealist. At the same time, she was able (by implication) to claim the mantle of the practical pol who could get at least part of Bernie’s ambitious agenda done. She gave the impression that Bernie is the party’s conscience and she the fixer and wheeler-dealer.

Overall, I would have to say that Hillary advanced her agenda well. She drove another block closer to the nomination and the presidency. (As for me, I’m still going to vote for Bernie in the primaries. The more who vote for him—even believing that Hillary will win—the more credible these sensible policies will become. As Bernie repeatedly pointed out, most of our developed-country allies, and even our rivals, have most or all of these policies in place right now. We are the outlier, and our people suffer for it.)

I don’t mean to slight Martin O’Malley. He also accomplished a vital thing for himself: for the first time, he showed himself as a credible and attractive candidate for the presidency.

His big Twitter moment came when he described Donald Trump as an “immigant bashing carnival barker.” That was a great line, but it wasn’t his greatest moment. That came in response to a question about dealing with crises.

O’Malley began with humility and ended with common sense. He honestly disclaimed, as a former mayor and governor, ever having resolved a crisis of national or international scope. Yet he noted how he had resolved numerous lesser municipal and state crises: by listening, being flexible, thinking, and knowing how to manage a team of experts.

Isn’t that exactly what you want in a president? Then and there, O’Malley answered for me one the most important questions anyone can ask about a candidate for our species’ top job: how does he or she think? O’Malley didn’t have time to say so, but the contrast with Dubya’s disastrous approaches to Iraq and Katrina was patent.

In other ways, too, O’Malley proved himself candidate worthy of the White House. Reminding us indirectly of his youth, he called for “new leadership” in his closing statement. His youth gives him time to run again when it’s his turn. For myself, I can say I could vote for him without a qualm. Maybe he’ll end up being vice-president.

So the night was a win for Hillary and an even clearer win for Democrats generally. It was also a win for the moderator, John Dickerson, who consistently asked important questions, followed up well, and nudged the rivals to obey the rules without being obsequious or obtrusive.

All in all, it was a great night for democracy and a hopeful one for our much-diminished nation. Not since the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960—and certainly not in the last decade—have I seen the like. It was a tasty morsel for a starving nation.

P.S.: A Morning-After Thought

The contrast between last night’s Democratic debate and the GOP mud-wrestling contests so far was stunning. It felt like emerging from one of Hollywood’s dystopian slums into Camelot.

Whatever Democratic strategist had the idea of limiting Dem debates in number and timing is not just making a possibly tragic mistake, but missing a huge opportunity. Sure, debates are hard on the candidates. But the notion (apparently held by some) that Hillary risks her lead by debating is utter nonsense.

Bernie and O’Malley are no slouches, but Hillary beat them fair and square. She’s good at debating, and she appears to be getting better. The practice will do her good.

But that’s not the point. After the primaries and party conventions, there will be a general election. Presumably, there is still a critical mass of citizens who have a modicum of intelligence and discretion and some small ability to think. If not, we are irretrievably lost as a nation. If so, debates like last night’s are the most powerful and compelling campaign strategy that any Democrat could imagine.

Dem debates show three things. First, unlike Republicans, who can’t seem to agree on the time of day, we Dems have a generally common and coherent set of policies. We differ on detail, not goals or direction. Second, those policies make sense, at least if you think about them and don’t react like Pavlov’s dogs conditioned by Fox. The more Dems explain their policies before a national audience, as they can do in debates, the more traction those policies will get. Third, the tone of Democratic debates, even with no thought of substance, reminds voters subliminally that adults are better leaders than children.

Hillary might have been elected president in 2008. But she made a critical strategic error. In putting all her eggs in the primary basket, she took her eye off the ball. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor!) The most egregious example was her “playing the race card” against Obama late in the game—a stratagem that infuriated white Dems like me and yet cut her no slack among GOP-leaning voters.

There are other ways, especially in foreign policy, in which Hillary’s obsessive 2008 focus on winning the nomination hurt us Dems and the nation. Neither we Dems nor Hillary can afford the same mistake now. The stakes are too high.

The quality of our debates, as compared to the GOP’s, is the best advertisement for our leadership money could buy. With Hillary in a commanding lead and looking more and more like the inevitable nominee, it’s long past time for her and her staff to start thinking about how to position her party and the nation after she wins the nomination. As every chess player knows, the easiest way to lose is to think only about the next move.

One last point. There’s a lot of fretting on the Internet about the shallowness of the Democratic “bench,” especially in state and local politics. Debates like last night’s can rejuvenate and expand our party by attracting thousands of talented young people into politics, especially young women.

We Dems need more debates like last night’s, not fewer. So does the nation.

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