Swing State Pres

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Seventh GOP Debate: Outfoxed

Ask Americans about when the great tradition of nationally televised presidential debates began, and many will be able to point to the famous Kennedy v. Nixon encounters of 1960… thereby creating the impression that these encounters have been a staple of every campaign since. This is most decidedly untrue. Lyndon Johnson, riding one of the great waves of presidential popularity in 1964, simply refused to share a stage with Barry Goldwater. Nixon himself – after being out-cooled by Kennedy in 1960 – ducked invitations to debate in 1968 and 1972. Only when Gerald Ford encountered Jimmy Carter in 1976 did the tradition take hold.

In the past, you see, ducking a debate was not simply the prerogative of the front-runner; it was accepted as the correct strategic move. Why give your trailing opponent a clear and very public shot to take you down? Why, you can practically hear Donald Trump saying, “that is sooooo stupid!!”

Something seems to be missing?
So Donald Trump made the calculated bet that if he stood at the center of the stage in Des Moines on Monday night, seven desperate politicians would launch 100% of their Cruz missiles, Carson drones, and Bush whacks directly at him in a frenzied, frantic, last-ditch effort to take him down before Monday. Because it is becoming increasingly clear that if he takes Iowa, he can easily run the table and lock up the nomination in a matter of weeks.

America, please stop underestimating this guy. Trump’s no-show may have been his shrewdest play yet.

Let’s break this down into two discreet components: that he did it, and how he did it. The “how” is actually the best part.

If he had stood up two weeks ago and said, “you know, I see no strategic advantage to attending the final Iowa debate,” he would have risked being breaded and dumped in oil; just one more Iowa corn dog or chicken fried steak tossed on the picnic table for other candidates to devour. Imagine the feeding frenzy of testosterone-supplemented second tier candidates questioning his manhood.

No, the art of this deal was to create a credible misdirect. Donald Trump made the issue the journalistic objectivity of Fox News, which – aside from being world’s biggest kettle ever to call a pot black – created one of the cleverest “heads, I win; tails, you lose” of all time. He told Fox News that they had to remove Megyn Kelly from the moderator’s table, or he would walk
  • If Fox caved in to this request, it would publicly validate that Trump is now far, far more powerful than Fox News.
  •  If Fox refused to capitulate, Trump would walk away from the debate… draining the viewership of the debate (this alone a great achievement for his campaign), and allowing him to claim that his rationale was based on a broader principle of journalistic fairness rather than simply ducking a debate in which he saw only downside.

In short, Trump won before the first question was asked.

But even he could not have imagined how perfectly the “One No Trump” debate would unfold.

The seven candidates on the stage on Monday night were thereby given the unbelievable opportunity to take two hours of completely uncontested shots at Donald Trump. They had the golden moment to say every single nasty thing they wanted to say to stop Trump from winning on Monday, with no risk of rejoinder.

And not one candidate on the stage saw the priceless gift they had been given.

For months, these guys had sucked up to Trump, terrified of taking him on face-to-face, mano-a-mano, because they had witnessed him raise Jeb Bush’s voice by a couple of octaves and they had watched him shoo Rand Paul as if he were a cocker spaniel.

So they all suddenly have the opportunity to launch full broadsides at Trump, knowing that he is not even there to respond and will have little chance to do so before the votes on Monday, and what do they all do?  They rip into each other, and barely mention Trump’s name.  

Donald Trump could not have scripted this debate better if it was the season finale of The Apprentice. Ted Cruz at the center podium became the PiƱata of the Prairie, taking incoming from all quarters. Trump, in standing down, let the other candidates do his dirty work of bloodying Cruz days before the caucusing.  And much as the other candidates tried, nobody took him down quite as hard as the newly energized Fox News.

Finally, six months into the debates, Fox News finally learned the trick that Jon Stewart used for seventeen years: find old video clips of candidates saying things that are graphic evidence of flip-flopping, shape-shifting, and blatant bending of alleged principle.  The clip crew at Fox showed a montage of a younger Ted Cruz sounding very much the compromiser, very much the man eager to pass the gang of eight immigration bill, and still every bit as smarmy as an appeaser as he is in his role as purist. Cruz, in the face of video evidence, struggled between defiance and tactical retreat, ultimately attempting to jargon his way out, opting for the venial sin of “compromiser” rather to the mortal sin of “flip-flopper.”

Cruz made another brazen debating error, at one point indignantly noting that the “last four questions have been, Rand, attack Ted on this; Chris, attack Ted on this…” The audience pounced on his self-pity as an audible gust of disgust blew through the arena.

Fox News piled on. Chris Wallace seemed to unleash the full fury of months of repressed resentment, barking at Cruz that he did not have the right to a reply after another candidate had spoken. “Sir,” he spat out contemptuously, “I know you like to argue about the rules, but we’re going to conduct the debate.” Smack down.

It was not a good night for Ted, who had so mastered the role of challenger that he flailed in his role as de facto leader. He chose a very bad night to have what was by far his worst debate.

But the good Cruz news was that no one else really seemed to definitively shine.

There will be those who give the evening to Marco Rubio, who did manage to consume an outsized amount of the oxygen in the room. Rubio has dumped the sunny disposition that once seemed to be central to his appeal, and has sought to recast himself as the candidate who will be the most extreme in defending the United States homeland from terrorism. Most troubling were the repeated occasions in which he ominously used the word “Guantanamo” as if to convey that he knew he couldn’t actually say “waterboarding” out loud.

Rubio was the other candidate that Fox News chose to star in a series of “video gotcha” clips. The Rubio video montage showcased his morphing role in the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, which he has allowed to become a dead weight to his candidacy – not necessarily because of the positions he espoused at the time so much as his utter terror of admitting that his position has changed. Until he figures out how to talk truthfully, sensibly, and clearly about immigration, every Republican debate is going to have its “Gang of Eight” segment as surely as each so far has a predictable “Break for Benghazi.”

Chris Christie may be prove to be (forgive me) the biggest loser come New Hampshire, but if he is indeed voted off the island, I will miss his presence in the debates. After watching Rubio and Cruz ineptly dance on the heads of immigration pins, Christie turned to the audience and asked if they, too, wished they had a “Washington to English Converter” to translate all the double-speak. Chris Christie then patronizingly explained to Rubio that it is actually o.k. to change your mind. It was a world-class diss.

The candidate who seemed most lost in Thursday’s debate was Jeb Bush. Ironically, Jeb has been the candidate who has tried the hardest to take down Donald Trump… yet given the wide open opportunity to rip Trump to shreds with virtual impunity, Bush squandered the evening with pointless policy parsing and lukewarm attacks on the other candidates. Dare I admit it, I have actually come to like Jeb Bush over the course of the campaign, and one reason is that you can really tell that he loathes the ugly business of ripping into his competitors. One learns at Andover that this sort of thing ought to be done discretely.

John Kasich showed spunk in Des Moines, though my hunch is that he very intentionally spent his evening talking over the Iowans and on to the televisions in the Granite State, where he, too, is locked in a battle for survival among the four establishment candidates. Kasich spoke eloquently about the ravaging of drug addiction, which was an issue in Iowa but a full-on scourge in New Hampshire.

Rand Paul and Ben Carson, who have both been rumored to be the recently discovered “ninth planet,” continued to orbit the debate space in ever more distant trajectories. Carson – who once led in Iowa and who knows that its Christian-values community makes it his best shot -- could well be space junk by Monday night.

Who won the debate?

First, I’d like to give an honorable mention to Fox News. Make no mistake: I generally loathe this network, and I believe that their pioneering work in the field of fact-free journalism has done more to contribute to the political polarization of our population than any hundred right wing or left wing politicians combined. But on Thursday night, Fox was on a mission. Clearly energized that their leaders did not back down to Trump, they were zealous to prove that they really are hard-edged, tough, and knowledgeable reporters. They did a good job.
 
But if you want to know who won last night, just ask your favorite bridge player.

Because any bridge player knows that the hardest bid to play is “No Trump.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Planned Parenthood Lobby Day: 500 Stories for Reproductive Rights

We take a brief break from campaign politics as Wendy talks about another side of the political process, our day in Albany lobbying our legislators.

**********

Yesterday Tom and I and dozens of volunteers from Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic joined 500 advocates for Lobby Day in Albany, our state capital.  The day began with coffee, as we'd all started out before sunrise, many coming from Long Island and NYC despite the two feet of snow freshly laid down by Winter Storm Jonas, others coming further distances, from Buffalo, Rochester, all over the state.  

Five hundred strong, we convened to rally and to support the Assemblymembers and Senators who put their votes behind legislation that promotes reproductive rights and family leave.  Particularly compelling was the State Senator who talked about reproductive rights not as a women's issue, but as a human issue.

After the rally, we broke into small groups to meet with the legislators from our own districts and it became clear that there are many ways to advance new legislation.  Some of us talked about the "right thing to do." Others talked about the economic advantages of the legislation.  After years of studying social issues, I find over and over that the right thing to do is usually also good economics.  Studies show that every dollar spent on sex education and contraception translates into a savings of $7.  Quite a return.  

But to me, as always, the most compelling way to talk about issues was with our stories.  As we met with our legislators or their aides, we introduced ourselves by talking about what had drawn us to Planned Parenthood.  And the stories, told by people we'd met just hours earlier, poured out.  One man talked about deciding to join us at the last minute because he knew he had to make a strong statement to his daughters.  One woman told us that her grandmother almost had died from a self-induced abortion.  One told us of an acquaintance who hemorrhaged after a back alley abortion.  And another told us about being pregnant at age 17 in the 70s; she said her parents would have put her on the street had they known she was pregnant, and she would have committed suicide.  But she went to Planned Parenthood, had a safe, legal abortion, and went to Albany as an advocate 40 years later. 

When it was my turn, I talked about going to a local Planned Parenthood for contraception when I was seventeen years old.  A lot of years have intervened and I've forgotten much of my day-to-day life from my teens.  But I continue to have a clear image of myself, young and nervous, sitting in a small office with a health care provider (she had shoulder length brown hair) who educated me patiently and kindly about the various contraceptive methods that were available to my boyfriend and me.  And when we'd talked it all out, my boyfriend and I made a decision about the method that we felt would work best for us.  The boyfriend is my husband now, and we have two grown daughters who were born when we were on our feet financially and emotionally, when we chose to become parents.

My own story pales in comparison to many of the stories I heard yesterday.  But in a way,  it's the most timeless story, because it's one that's still repeated many times each day, day in and day out, at Planned Parenthood health centers across the country.  The number of abortions in the US is steadily declining.  That's not because people of child-bearing age suddenly have decided to abstain.  It's because we have better sex education, better access to contraception,  better insurance coverage for that contraception, and quite simply, better contraception itself.  That's the kind of care we were asking our NY legislators to support.

Later, while we were sitting together between appointments with our legislators, chatting, bonding, having a good time, the woman whose grandmother had performed a self-abortion, her mind still back at what happened two generations ago, quietly said to me, "She did it with knitting needles."  Think about that.

Before we headed to the buses, some of us went into the State Capitol as the NYS Assembly voted on the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act.  There were a lot of no votes up on that leaderboard, but in the end, the bill passed in the Assembly, a good ending to a good day.

The cherry on top?   As we drove home, the bus was quiet, people reading, checking emails, some drifting off to sleep.  And then the quiet was interrupted with the triumphant announcement of the indictment of David Daleiden and his co-conspirators, producers of the fallacious and malicious videos we all read about this past summer.  Though the damage done by those illegal videos can never be undone, a cheer went up.  It was a good day indeed.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Eight Days To Iowa

Now that we are into the 2016 primary/caucus season, no more “monthly updates,”… BTRTN will be posting at a feverish pitch, matching or exceeding the pace of the primary/caucus schedule.

It is now eight days until Iowa and there have been a flurry of new polls.  You may have heard that both the Democratic and GOP races are “dead heats” but as of this minute, that is not quite true.  Bottom line:  Donald Trump has a five-point lead over Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton has a four-point lead over Bernie Sanders.  Lots can change in the last week as voters finalize their choices, and add on top of that the dilemma posed by polling for a caucus, which is even harder than polling for a primary.  So the final outcomes may not resemble the current polling status.

A QUICK PRIMARY PRIMER

Here is the primary/caucus schedule through Super Tuesday on March 1, what I would call “Phase I” of the season.  After Super Tuesday we should know whether any candidate in either party has delivered a knockout blow or, conversely, we are in for a long slog.  And we should also have a pretty good sense of whether Michael Bloomberg is going to enter the race as an Independent.  But more on that later.

Date
State
Party
Primary/Caucus
Primary Type
February 1
Iowa
Both
Caucus
Closed
February 9
New Hampshire
Both
Primary
Mixed
February 20
Nevada
Democratic
Caucus
Closed
February 20
South Carolina
Republican
Primary
Open
February 23
Nevada
Republican
Caucus
Closed
February 27
South Carolina
Democratic
Primary
Open
March 1
Alabama
Both
Primary
Open
March 1
Alaska
Republican
Caucus
Closed
March 1
American Samoa
Democratic
Caucus
Open
March 1
Arkansas
Both
Primary
Open
March 1
Colorado
Both
Caucus
Closed
March 1
Georgia
Both
Primary
Open
March 1
Massachusetts
Both
Primary
Mixed
March 1
Minnesota
Both
Caucus
Open
March 1
North Dakota
Republican
Caucus
Closed
March 1
Oklahoma
Both
Primary
Closed
March 1
Tennessee
Both
Primary
Open
March 1
Texas
Both
Primary
Open
March 1
Vermont
Both
Primary
Open
March 1
Virginia
Both
Primary
Open
March 1
Wyoming
Republican
Caucus
Closed

Let’s get to Iowa now.

THE GOP

Let’s review the stakes.  If Donald Trump wins Iowa, he has a superb chance of winning the GOP nomination, full stop.  He is leading in New Hampshire handily, 31% to 12%-13% for Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ted Cruz.  Trump has led in every single New Hampshire poll since mid-July -- that would be 42 straight polls.  Barring an unlikely and abrupt about-face, Trump is a sure thing in New Hampshire.

To give some perspective, no GOP candidate has EVER swept both Iowa and New Hampshire, apart from incumbents.  It’s never been done!  You could cede the nomination to Trump based on that alone, if he pulls it off.

Trump is also strong where the action moves next in “Phase 1”, largely to the South and the West.  In South Carolina, next up after New Hampshire, Trump is up 32% to 18% over Cruz in the one recent poll.  After that, Nevada – Trump was ahead in the last poll there (in December), 33% to 20% over Cruz.  That would take us to Super Tuesday on March 1, with its heavy southern bent (hence the nickname, “SEC Tuesday” after college football’s Southeastern Conference whose states are well-represented in primaries that day).  Trump appears to be strong in the polls there as well.  Wins in Iowa and New Hampshire would only accentuate Trump’s momentum and build his lead there.  It would pretty much be over.

What could stop him?  Realistically, two paths.  The first is for Cruz to come back and win in Iowa.  Let’s look at the numbers:

IOWA
Dec '15
Jan 1-12
Jan 13-21
Trump
27
27
31
Cruz
28
27
25
Rubio
12
12
12
Carson
11
9
8
Bush
5
4
5
Christie
2
4
3
Paul
3
4
3
Huckabee
2
2
3
Kasich
2
2
3
Fiorina
3
2
2
Santorum
1
1
1
Other/NA
4
3
2

Cruz is certainly a strong contender in Iowa.  The widening gap between Trump and Cruz over the last week could be ephemeral and, of course, I will trot out the caveats of polling for caucuses once again.  Cruz has a strong Iowa organization, he has money, and he knows the stakes.  

After months of playing nice, Trump and Cruz are trading heavy blows, but Trump, with his birther issue and his spirited defense of New York City, seems to be winning that battle.  Who would have ever thought that the soundtrack for his Iowa run would include “Born in the USA” (literally, he’s been pulling a Reagan and playing that song at his rallies to echo the Cruz birther issue) and “New York, New York” (figuratively).  Cruz thought he was playing his “Trump Card” when he assailed Trump for having “New York values,” but Trump proved to be a more than effective counterpuncher with a passionate defense of the city in the face of the 9/11 attacks.

If Cruz wins in Iowa, it opens up an ongoing mano-a-mano between him and Trump down the primary path, and also opens up room for the mainstream candidates. 

If Cruz does not beat Trump in Iowa, I can’t see Cruz overtaking him anywhere else.  So the second path?  That would be the mainstream wing of the GOP making its last stand.  And the man leading that charge could be John Kasich.  His numbers are on the rise in New Hampshire, where a “sub-race” is underway within the overall primary, among the mainstream candidates Kasich, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush.  Here’s a look at recent polling in New Hampshire.

NH
Dec '15
Jan 1-21
Trump
26
31
Rubio
13
13
Cruz
11
12
Kasich
8
12
Christie
10
8
Bush
7
8
Fiorina
4
4
Paul
4
4
Carson
6
3
Huckabee
1
1
Other/NA
10
4

In January thus far, Trump’s formidable lead has only expanded, and Cruz is in the mix, but what the GOP Establishment is pointing to is that 41% of the voters are for one of those four mainstream candidates..  And the one drawing the most recent attention is Kasich, who has made headway in January (up four points versus December) and is basically tied with Rubio, and ahead of Christie and Bush.

Whoever wins the “sub-race” will certainly immediately call for the other three mainstreamers to drop out, perhaps with the support of the Republican National Committee.  I’m not sure Rubio or Bush would drop out before Super Tuesday, but Christie might (or Kasich if he dropped back).  If a mainstream candidate could prevail in New Hampshire and ultimately consolidate that wing of the party, then we could have a prolonged fight on our hands as that one candidate duked it out with Trump and/or Cruz.

THE DEMOCRATS

Of course the Democrats have a two-person field (sorry, Martin O’Malley), Hillary Clinton versus wildly surprising Bernie Sanders.  Here is a summary of the most recent Iowa polls:

IOWA
Dec '15
Jan 1-21
Clinton
52
48
Sanders
36
42
O'Malley
6
5
Other/NA
6
5

There have been 11 polls in January, and Clinton has led in seven, and, as the chart shows, is on average up by four points.  The polls have been all over the map.  For instance, there have been five new polls in the last week, and the margins (Clinton versus Sanders) have been +29, +9, -8, +9 and -1.  While the race is certainly tightening up (Clinton had a 16-point lead in December), Hillary maintains a statistically significant lead. 

What does it mean if Hillary wins Iowa?  Sanders’ task becomes Herculean.  He should win New Hampshire, where he leads by ten points, but that win will be discounted by the fact that New Hampshire is his neighboring state.  And then it is off to Nevada (Clinton +23 in the last poll, in late December) and South Carolina (Clinton +22 in a poll last week), and then Super Tuesday where there has been little polling but few would argue that Clinton’s South and West strength likely mirrors that shown in Nevada and South Carolina.  So, if Hillary wins Iowa, stays close in New Hampshire, and then takes South Carolina, Nevada and Super Tuesday, it could be over.

And if Sanders wins Iowa?  He would surely win New Hampshire, thus following the path of Jimmy Carter in 1980 and John Kerry in 2004 in sweeping both of the initial two contests.  But that would hardly settle it.  Hillary’s strength in the South, particularly among African-Americans, will be very hard to turn, and I doubt Sanders can win there, much less knock her out with a boffo Super Tuesday.

But even if Sanders is solidly ahead after Super Tuesday, the plot thickens.

THE WILD CARD

The blogosphere was lighting up Saturday night as snowbound political junkies began tweeting and emailing the New York Times story that Michael Bloomberg was indeed exploring the possibility of an independent run at the Presidency.  Bloomberg had long said that he had no interest in running unless he had a realistic chance of winning, and with the Trump/Cruz and Sanders strength, such a path was suddenly at least possible.

Should Trump and/or Cruz, as well as Sanders, emerge as strong frontrunners after Super Tuesday, Bloomberg may very well conclude that that opening exists.  The middle of the electorate would suddenly be both huge (comprising moderate Republicans, pragmatic Democrats and, of course, Independents) and presumably wide open, dissatisfied with major party extremist frontrunners.  Bloomberg has the independent wealth to mount his own campaign, an attractive mix of social liberalism and economic conservatism, a business success story to rival Trump’s (and completely self-made, unlike Trump), and a strong three-term track record as Mayor of New York City.

Bloomberg must declare in early March if he wants to be on the ballot in all 50 states.  He will almost surely wait to see where the dust settles on Super Tuesday before making an announcement.  And if Hillary is weak and Trump/Cruz are strong, he will likely jump in.

I eagerly await the three-way polls to see from which party he draws his support.  Stay tuned!