Saturday, September 26, 2015

Boehner and Dayton: A Tale of Two Politicians and Parties

In addition to the Pope’s visit, two end-of-week stories made headlines.  One was the resignation of Speaker Boehner, the other the miserable roll out of the medical marijuana program in Minnesota.  Both stories deserve comment because they illuminate broader problems for the Republicans at the national level and the DFL in Minnesota.

“The Crazies Have Taken Over The Party.”
Speaker Boehner’s resignation really should have shocked no one.  His entire tenure as speaker has been tense.  Made speaker when the Tea Party arose and which  lead to the Republicans capturing majority control of the US House during the 2010 elections, Boehner has always been pulled in several directions.  One is being leader of the House of Representatives, seeking to broker deals with the Senate and President Obama.  This is the pragmatic and institutional aspect of his role as speaker.  But many in the GOP (as was true with Nancy Pelosi when she led the Democrats and the House as Speaker) view the speaker as both their party and ideological leader, expecting that person to push their agenda.
While all speakers face this pull as institutional, party, and ideological leaders, some are better able than others to bridge the three.  Boehner did his best, but seldom pleased his most conservative members.  On several occasions he negotiated deals to keep the government open or avert a debt crisis, but he also failed on occasion too.  For the ideological purists in his party, he too failed.  He failed on abortion, failed to cut taxes enough, failed to challenge Obama and the Democrats enough.  There were constant rumors and signs of ideological battles and tests of his leadership, but finally it became too much.  Boehner said that he was stepping down to protect the House and not let the constant leadership battles threaten the institution.
The issue that finally seemed to do it is the one now linking the defunding of Planned Parenthood to funding to keep the government open.  The purists are willing to shut the government down to defund PP and expected Boehner to be both their ideological and party leader to help them here.  But Boehner as part leader knew that past government shutdowns have hurt the Republicans in the past and would probably again do so this year, risking electoral problems in 2016.  Finally, as an institutionalist he knew shutting the government down was not good.  Thus, his tri-lemma–represent the ideologists who have taken control of the party, protect the GOP from self-destruction in the house, and protect the House and the government as an institution.
In the end, the ideologies have won.  They have won not simply in knocking off Boehner (a person they did not ever really trust), but they have taken control of the institution and of the party.  Peter King, Republican from NY, describes what just happened as “the crazies have taken over the party.”   Mainstream media says this move makes it less likely that there will be a government shutdown soon.  Maybe.  Or maybe a weakened Boehner or future speaker will be able to control the ideologies even less, perhaps increasing the chances of a shutdown or more confrontations as we getting closer to the 2016 elections.  Stay tuned.
But there is also something else the mainstream media is missing.  One has to view the resignation of Boehner in conjunction with the Republican presidential polls showing that the three outsides–Trump, Carson, and Fiorina–are leading over the institutionalists or more mainstream GOP.  Consider also polls showing a Republican base entrenched on issues over hostility to immigration  reform, proposals to address climate change, abortion, taxes, and just about everything else, and it  is easy to see why Trump, Carson, and Fiorina are leading.  It is looking to be the year that the Tea Party revolution started in 2009 has finally won.  The Republican party has been made over–if not by Tea Party followers, definitely by the ideologists.    The Party is being pulled ideologically further and further to the right at the congressional and presidential level, representing a demographics and ideology perhaps far from the ideological center of American politics.  Whether this means in the short or long term their demise is a matter of debate.  How Democrats respond will be interesting to see.

Dayton’s Dilemma
The roll out of medical marijuana is effectively a disaster on all fronts.  Yes the legislation was terrible and misconceived from the start.  Instead of just legalizing marijuana or allowing for a deregulated medical use, Minnesota chose to over-regulate its medical use.  Few people would be allowed to use to, but only in an expensive processed form that would not be covered by insurance.  Doctors would be expected to write prescriptions for its use even though they had no financial incentive to do so and risked their medical license to do so because marijuana is still illegal federally and doctors could potentially be sued or prosecuted for suggesting its use.  There was a costly process to select vendors to sell medical marijuana and they would have start up and operating costs  that far exceeded our friendly neighborhood dope dealer.  Bad policy design leads to bad implementation and that is what we are finding out now.
In the last week stories have emerged that the rollout of the medical marijuana is going poorly.  The prices are too high, too few people qualify, stories to buy the product are few, and the vendors are losing money.  There is talk now of qualifying more people for medical marijuana, perhaps giving the program financial solvency.  This will ultimately fail.  The basic policy design  is flawed and tinkering around the edges probably will not fix it.  In too many ways the policy was  captured by too many special interests who all wanted a piece of the pie, and by flawed assumptions about who wanted medical marijuana and why.
On one level one cannot fully blame the Dayton administration for the faulty policy design.  Dayton originally did not want medical marijuana.  But there is a troubling pattern here.   Consider perhaps the three most significant initiatives of the Dayton administration–the Vikings Stadium, MNSure, and now medical marijuana.  All three have had major policy design failures and all three have had terrible roll outs.  With the Vikings stadium MN has one of the worst stadium deals in the country.  MNSure’s rollout was so bad even Dayton was willing to put on the table this last session killing the Minnesota health care exchange and opting into the federal one.  Now medical marijuana and the concession it needs a major fix.  This is not a good implementation history for Dayton and the Democrats, and it is a certainty that such a pattern will be an issue in the 2016 state legislative elections.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The next battle for LGBT rights in Minnesota

Note:  This blog also appeared in Politics in Minnesota on September 21, 2015.

Kim Davis’s Kentucky grandstanding is not the last word when it comes to same-sex marriage.

While the issue of whether same-sex couples can marry is constitutionally over, looming on the horizon, including in Minnesota, are other battles regarding discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals including questions about employment, public accommodation, and housing discrimination. What will be fascinating to watch is how the Minnesota Human Rights Act could be deployed in this next stage of the fight over the legal protections for same-sex couples.

First, consider what the U.S. Supreme Court actually ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges. The court held that state laws that banned same-sex marriage either by refusing to perform them or recognize their validity when performed in another state violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process clause.
Writing for the court, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy indicated that marriage is a fundamental right that had long been held to be protected for opposite-sex couples. In his opinion he gave several reasons for why this right should also apply to same-sex couples, or at least not be denied to them. While the opinion suggested some basis in the Equal Protection Clause, the core was a due process argument because it was arbitrary and capricious to recognize opposite-sex but not same-sex marriages. At no point did the court declare that members of the LGBT community or opposite sex couples were “suspect” classes in the way that people of color were, or that laws targeting these individuals deserved some form of heightened legal scrutiny.

Although the Obergefell decision is a victory for same-sex marriage, it fell far short of being a decision that was a comprehensive civil rights victory. By not grounding the decision firmly in the Equal Protection Clause, it left open issues about discrimination and possible religious defenses.
Specifically, could a person invoke religious objections in refusing to employ someone who is a member of the LGBT community or is in a same-sex marriage or relationship? Could a business establishment refuse to serve such individuals? Could a landlord refuse to rent to such individuals? None of this was answered by Obergefell.

The Kim Davis matter was easy – she was a public official sworn to uphold the Constitution and her duty was to perform marriages. Refusal to do this was illegal and the federal judge and Kentucky were more than accommodating to her. But rooting out state discrimination is different from private discrimination, and this is the next battle.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act along with the Fair Housing Act of 1968 addressed many of these issues across the nation. The former makes it illegal for private parties to refuse to hire, promote, or serve individuals based on their race, color, religion, and sex, among other reasons. The Fair Housing Act bans the discrimination against the same group of people when it comes to leasing of apartments and mortgage financing, but it also extends the protection to family status. Not included in either act is discrimination against same-sex couples and members of the LGBT community.

Despite Obergefell, left open is the question of whether private Minnesota businesses or private landlords could refuse to hire, serve or lease or sell apartments, condos, or homes to same-sex couples, whether married or not. Enter the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The act (Minnesota Statutes 363A.02) makes it illegal in employment, housing and real property, public accommodations, public services, and education to discriminate because of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, disability, status with regard to public assistance, sexual orientation, and age.

The MHRA declares as public policy that the state should be free from discrimination because “it threatens the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of this state and menaces the institutions and foundations of democracy.” This act is potentially a powerful piece of legislation yet its legacy has been underwhelming at best, and its usefulness against sexual orientation discrimination effectively null. For reasons that remain perplexing it was not invoked to challenge any LGBT discrimination in Minnesota, or at least there are no cases of notable record when it comes to its use.

In addition, the Minnesota courts have not done a very good job using the act to combat marital status discrimination. For example, in State v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2 (Minn. 1990), the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the act did not protect an unmarried opposite-sex couple when private landlords  refused to rent to them based on their religious views.

While an administrative law judge ruled that the refusal to rent to them was discrimination based on marital status, the court indicated that the MHRA did not intend to protect unmarried couples from housing discrimination on the basis of marital status. Moreover, the court also pointed to the protection of religion (conscience) in the Minnesota Constitution (Article I, Section 16) as well as the anti-fornication law (for unmarried couples), which was still on the books at the time, as the basis for its decision.

In effect, landlords could invoke religious objections and a state law banning sex among unmarried individuals as a defense to why they did not have to rent to an unmarried opposite sex couple, even if the MHRA had intended to bar discrimination based on marital status (which it did not).
French is a strange decision, serving as a potential impediment when it comes to LGBT and same-sex discrimination issues looming. Yes, the state anti-fornication statute is gone, but how does one deal with the state constitutional protection for religious conscience, where the Minnesota Supreme Court has said that this clause gives more protection for religious liberty than the First Amendment, and the French claim that MHRA does not protect unmarried couples? Interesting questions abound.

Assume a landlord on religious grounds refuses to rent to a same-sex married couple. Will the Minnesota Supreme Court use the MHRA to force the landlord to rent to them by arguing it is discrimination based on marital status or sexual orientation? Or, will the court side with the landlord by arguing it is religious discrimination or a violation of the Minnesota Constitution?

Similar questions could be asked about employers who refuse to hire or serve individuals in same-sex marriages. Would the court say there is no indication that the Legislature meant to protect same-sex couples when it banned marital status discrimination in the MHRA? All of these are possible arguments and outcomes.

It is only a matter of time before these issues are litigated. They are the next step in the battle to end discrimination against members of the LGBT community. It will be interesting to see how the Minnesota courts handle these questions.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Second Republican Debate: Truth and Democracy Lost

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the states of facts and evidence.”
—John Adams, 1770

‘Facts are stupid things – stubborn things, should I say.”
—Ronald Reagan

“Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I’m saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science”
—John Huntsmann

"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."
—Mark Twain

By most accounts Carly Fiorina won the second presidential debate while Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee clearly lost.  Others had mixed performances at best.  But the real losers were truth and American democracy.  Across the board the Republican candidates lied, fabricated, or spewed out stereotypes in ways that reinforced the prejudices of the voters.
The distortions were on different levels.  All of them exaggerated their resumes.  Rubio again told the story of his grandfather fleeing Castro–even though he left well before he came to power. Trump describes himself as a self-made billionaire (even though he inherited his start in life from his multi-millionaire father) and denies his four bankruptcies.  Fiorina is in denial about her horrible business record at Lucent and HP, and Scott Walter and Chris Christie simply inflate what they have accomplished as governors of Wisconsin and New Jersey (and no Christie was not named a federal prosecutor on September 10, 2001).   Resume fraud should not be a surprise among politicians, such lying is unfortunately common in the general popular.
Moreover, there are lies or distortions that are not so much based on a contravening of facts as being groundless or highly suspect.  Bush saying his brother kept us safe–safe after the largest terrorist attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor?  And then there was the general tone of the debate–long on assertions but shy in terms of actual documentation about how dangerous the Iran nuclear deal is or what Obama did or did not do as president.
But there are deeper lies.  Lies about public policy, about factual states of affairs in the world which are just not true.  I have written about many of them in American Politics in the Age of Ignorance.  American politics is dominated by political myths and failed public policies: These are ideas or policies of which we have overwhelming evidence of their failure or falsehood but which nonetheless are constantly repeated and fail.  Perhaps the voters can be blamed for their ignorance, but it is deplorable that elected officials and policy makers drool out and constantly return to these myths, pandering to the prejudice and ignorance of, in this case, the Republican voter.
Consider a second level of lies.  Fiorina lied about the Planned Parenthood video.  First, the videos have been proven to be doctored and several state investigations have validated that Planned Parenthood is not selling baby parts.  She also lied about claiming that one fetus had a beating heart as it brain was ready to be harvested.  Rubio lied in his assertion that North Korea had a nuclear missile that it could launch to hit the US.  It could not even hit South Korea on a good day.  Cruz lied in many ways about the Iran nuclear agreement.  There are no sites off limits to inspectors.  Huckabee lied when he said Hilary Clinton is being investigated by the FBI for destroying government files.
But the deepest lies are policy based, those where the evidence and data is overwhelming.  The biggest lie again was the vaccination-autism connection.  The original study asserting this claim has been widely and repeatedly refuted yet Trump trotted it out again.  Even worse, Ben Carson–a medical doctor–failed to clearly challenge Trump on this.  Ditto goes to the other doctor Paul too for failing to challenge Trump.
Then there is immigration.  Trump throws out a statistic that says illegal immigration costs the US $200 billion per year.  There is no verification or support for that figure and it also fails to account for how much more money undocumented aliens put back into the economy.  As I point out in my book and as overwhelming studies show, immigrants have lower crime rates than the general  population and put more into the economy than they take out.    Rubio’s claim about 40% of those here illegally are because of overstaying visas is unproven, and contrary to what all the non-lawyers  said, the Fourteenth Amendment’s granting of citizenship to all who are born here is well-established  constitutional law and the US is not alone in granting birth-right citizenship.  And by the way, there is little evidence that such birthright citizenship is the incentive for those emigrating from Mexico to the US.
While in this debate no one outright denied global warming, when the topic came up non candidate was willing to acknowledge it was occurring, that it was a problem, or that they should do anything to address it, even just in case it was happening.
But one truth was revealed in the exchange between Trump and Bush over the former’s denial that her tried to get a casino in Florida.  Or consider Trump here and in his assertions about being too rich to be bought or previously asserting giving money to Clinton and making her feel obliged to attend his wedding, or listen to Christie’s rants on teacher unions. There is a consensus  that money and special interests rule America.  But instead of proposing to do something about it the Republican field simply accepts it as given.
The truth that emerged from the second debate is that truth and democracy lost.  We saw candidates simply lie about themselves or the state of the world.  We saw them accept as given that the democratic process is broken.  And we saw them repeat their lies to an American public on yet another media event that was less news than entertainment.  Real leadership is about telling the truth, not pandering to ignorance and prejudice.  It is looking reality in the eye and leading based on what the world is like and not on what we hope it would be.  On this score the 11 candidates in the main  GOP debate failed on Wednesday.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Counted in or Counted Out Before the Counting Begins: The Curious Case of Hilary Clinton and 2016 Presidential Race

Remember–Not one primary vote has been cast nor one caucus delegate stood up to show support for a candidate.  No primaries have been held and no caucuses have begun.  Yet despite the fact that the official presidential race has yet to begin, winners and losers are already being declared, often no more than based on polls, pundits, and the game of perception which is at the heart of American presidential politics.  More so than any other candidate, this is the fate of Hilary Clinton.  Yet we should be skeptical of what all this pre-primary noise tell us in terms of assessing the presidential candidates, including Clinton.
 One presidential candidate (Rick Perry) has already dropped out.  Others will no doubt do the same before the real start of the presidential race on February 1, when the Iowa caucuses take place.  Expect this week’s CNN  Republican presidential debate to winnow out the fortunes of a few more candidates.  It could be Pataki, Christie, Graham, Walker, Jindal, or someone else. But one or more of them will have another bad debate performance, their money will dry up, the media will declare them dead, and their campaigns will fade away.  But for others, such as Trump, Fiorina,  and Carson, who have never received a single political vote for them in their entire life, they seem to be riding tall, with poll numbers that almost seem ephemeral. The test for them will be delivery in Iowa and  New Hampshire, the ability to attract donors, volunteers, and voters who will actually turn out for them when they need to be counted.  Can they translate name recognition and personal brands into  a real campaign?  This is really the only thing that should matter.  For now, it is all about perception.  Look to see the Wednesday debate to be pugnacious, no one can afford to let Trump steal the show again.
 Perception in many ways is the fate of Hilary Clinton.  I know of no candidate subject to more speculation and expectations than her.  Some of it is self-inflicted.  Her resume as Senator and Secretary of State are impressive, although her real record of accomplishment is thin.  First in 08 and now in 16 she seems to be building an impressive political machine, raising money, securing endorsements, capturing super-delegates.  She also started months ago with the best name recognition among Democrats, high approvals from her Secretary of State days, and great poll numbers and a lead that towered over her rivals.  This year as in 2008 she has created an air of inevitability and invincibility.
 Yet as with 2008 her political campaign seems to be floundering.  Yes she is still in the lead in terms of endorsements, money, and many polls, but in the last two months much has changed.  Polls show Sanders beating her in New Hampshire, a new poll this week shows Sanders tied with her in Iowa among likely causes attendees.  Her enormous popularity from her Secretary of State days has lapsed and her negatives have gone up.  Head to head polls show a tight race with her and Republicans in the swing states or over all, and some polls show Biden (so far a non-candidate) and Sanders doing better than her in the presidential race.  In so many ways, Clinton looks better as a candidate when she in not one.
 Clinton’s problems are multiple.  She is the target of enormous sexism.  Republicans hate her, and she is the subject of many false claims.  Seriously, does anyone really think she ordered troops to effectively surrender in Benghazi?  Her private e-mail server while Secretary of State smacks of aloofness and privilege, but at the end of the day she was not selling secrets to the enemy.  She is neither a socialist (Sanders is) nor a closest one.  She is a mainstream Democrat, self-proclaimed.
 But Clinton has created her own problems.  She never appreciated the political baggage of the private e-mails.  She thinks that the proper response to criticism that she is not authentic is to send out a press release saying she will be more authentic.  She has build a campaign strong on her personality, but more importantly, one based on expectations.  Specifically, her greatest strength is her perception of her great strength–it is the impression she has created that she is inevitable and unbeatable that is the source of both her power and her ultimate weakness.
 If one runs as inevitable everyone wants to beat you. Everyone looks for dints in the armor, for signs of weaknesses.  This is where Clinton is again in 2016.    She ran as a bully in 2008 and lost and she seems to be doing that again.  People want to beat the bully, to take down the front runner, to beat the person everyone declares will win.
 Yet remember, as well as Sanders is doing and as badly as Clinton seems to be doing now,  no caucuses or primaries have taken place.  Polls are flawed, especially in predicting caucus and primary attendees.  They have margins of error and sampling problems.  Polls are merely snapshots in time that can change rapidly.  They fail to capture ground games or other intangibles that make for good candidates and campaigns.
 The point is that one should never declare a candidate a winner or a loser until the votes are counted.  This is true with Clinton.  She has both many assets and liabilities as a candidate and judging her now as in trouble or fine months before the first votes are cast is risky.  But if politics is often about perceptions, and you are a candidate like Clinton who has played politics your entire career based on it, be ready to be judged by these standards and not simply by actual votes.

Final Note: This week I had a wonderful time speaking to the South Metro Senior Caucus in Apple Valley.  Thank you for hosting me.  It was also great to meet so many wonderful people including Senator Carlson, Angie Craig, and Mary Lawrence.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Political Nooky and the Art of Word: Great Quotes by Politicians or their Partners Caught in Sex Scandals

“We were just exchanging documents.”
—Minnesota Representatives Tim Kelly and Tara Mack 

Minnesota Representatives Kelly and Mack just put themselves into the political nooky hall of fame with one of the greatest quotes denying their  alleged sexual activity.  Otherwise two non-descript pro-life family values type of Republican candidates, married to other individuals, the two were caught with the pants down–literally–by a police officer observing their tryst in the park.  While I still wonder how the police officer knew the two were semi-pantless, whether necking in the park is illegal, or if it should be considered probable cause to search, nonetheless the two deny their affair by explaining their presence at the park as one of simply “exchanging documents.”
No doubt one of the lamest excuses any of us have ever heard.  One would have thought  that seasoned politicians like them could have come up with a smarter retort or excuse.  Having sex in a car should not be  reason to exclude them for future office, offering such a dumb answer should as it questions their intelligence.
However, their quote made me think of other great denials involving political nooky. The sad part is that there are so many pathetic sex scandals in American history that reducing good quotes just down to a handful is a chore.  But here are my favorites.
“She's better than Gypsy Rose Lee.”  This was a quote by Congressman Wilbur Mills, in reference to a stripper Fanne Fox whom he was seeing.  What is great here is that there was no denial; instead simply a wonderful justification for why he chased her and watched her shows during the day.
"I can't type, I can't file, I can't even answer the phone."  Thus said Elizabeth Ray, secretary to
Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio.  The Washington Post reported that Ray had been on the payroll of a committee run by Hays for two years, serving as a secretary.  The reality as Ray admitted was that her real job was providing Congressman Hays sexual favors.

“We made love on the marble steps that overlook the monuments and the city below.” Rita Jenrette uttered this famous line in Playboy when discussing her husband Congressman John Jenrette.  John was under investigation for taking bribes during ABSCAM and upon his denial he wife then asked how he would explain all that money in the freezer.

 "Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored.”  This is what Senator Hart declared in response to allegations he was fooling around.  The media took him up on his dare, only to find a great picture of the senator with Donna Rice sitting on his lap by the good ship Monkey Business.
"It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the—if he—if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement."  President’s Bill Clinton’s famous denial about having sex with Monica Lewinsky. Equally famous are assertions that his denial of having sex with Lewinsky hinged on whether oral sex constituted sex.
“I was hiking the Appalachian Trail.”  South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford disappeared for several days, telling his staff and the public he was off taking a hike.  Instead he was visiting whom he described his “Argentine soul mate,” a woman with whom he was having an affair.
"Positioned them, I don't know. I don’t know at the time. I'm a fairly wide guy."  Often misquoted as “I have a wide stance,” this is what Senator Larry Craig said in his defense to charges that he sought to solicit sex in a men’s room at the Minneapolis Airport.
“The answer is I did not send that tweet. My system was hacked, I was pranked. It was a fairly common one. People make fun of my name all the time. When you're named Weiner, you kind of get that. I've asked a firm to take a look at this. They're an internet security operation. We want to make sure that it doesn't happen again.”  Congress Anthony Weiner was not so much caught with his pants down (at least all the way down) but instead of repeatedly sextexting (unwelcome) crotch shots of himself to women, some of whom were constituents.  He blamed his ill-fated name and computer hacking as the cause of these problems.
But denial is not always the case when it comes to political sex scandals.  Sometimes elected officials provide a breath of fresh air and honestly.
Representative Eric Massa:   "not only did I grope [a staffer], I tickled him until he couldn't breathe.”  If you are going to be accused go big or go home.
Then of course once Clinton did admit to an affair with Lewinsky and was asked why he did it, he offered as justification: "the worst possible reason, because I could."
Finally sometimes politicians are understated in their honesty.  When asked about the allegations that he hand an extramarital affair and that he and his middle-aged friends went skinny dipping with his daughter’s teenage female friends, Minnesota gubernatorial candidate  John Grunseth stated: “I always haven’t been a perfect person.  I think I ‘m a pretty decent guy.”
That just about says it all.  Congratulations Tim and Tara, you just entered political nooky immortality.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Why Republicans will Lose the 2016 Minnesota Presidential Race

This blog originally appeared in the August 27, 2015 edition of Politics in Minnesota.

How times have changed.  Barely a month ago Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s presidential campaign was on fire.  He was near the top of national polls for Republican contenders, doing well in New Hampshire, and leading in Iowa.  Then Trump happened and now Walker’s campaign is flickering, ready to flame out.  Even his faulted firewall in Iowa is gone.  So what to do?   If you are a Republican in Wisconsin running for president do what makes the most sense–go to Democratic Minnesota to rekindle your fire.  And so he did that recently, seeking to revive his presidential fortunes, hoping for some national media attention in Minnesota while Trump and the other
contenders dominate the Iowa State Fair.
            Whether making Minnesota his new firewall will revive his presidential hopes or demonstrate how desperate he is, only time will tell.  Yet his visit underscores a broader and more interesting question–Is Minnesota a swing state open to possible Republican pick up in the 2016 election?  The short answer is no.
            Minnesota is perhaps the most reliable Democratic presidential state since 1972.  Back then it went for Nixon over McGovern, and it has been reliably Democrat since then, even voting for Walter Mondale in the 1984 Ronald Reagan blowout where the Democrats only won this state and the District of Columbia.   Yet for years Republicans have hoped the Minnesota would flip presidentially.  They look to state races where Republican governors and US Senators have won.  A state with often an equal number of Republican and Democrat US House members, and a state legislature that has flipped party control several times since 1998.  Additionally, Minnesota is a great source of money for Republican fundraising.  Given all that, of course the state should be prime to go Republican.
            Such thinking prompted the location in 2008 of the Republican National Convention to be held in St Paul.  But the convention did no good.  In 2004, after John Kerry won Minnesota by 3.5% over George Bush in the former’s losing presidential campaign, in 2008 Barack Obama bested John McCain by 10.24%.  Holding the RNC in Minnesota actually led Republicans to do worse.  In addition, 2012 prompted Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann that their successes in Minnesota could launch a presidential campaign.  That worked well.  And even in 2012 Mitt Romney made Minnesota one of the few states where candidates campaigned during the general elections, again to no avail.  Minnesota does not look flipable, at least for the near future.
            Stacey Hunter Hecht of Bethel University and I will have out in October a new book Presidential Swing States: Why Ten Only Matter.  We examine a real simply question: Why is it that the presidential race is effectively over in 40 states and why is it that only ten swing states really are the site of serious competition in presidential races.  We seek to understand the phenomena of what it means to be a swing state, looking at patterns in presidential voting in elections since 1988.  When such an examination is done, there is no surprise that states such as Ohio and Florida are at the top of the list as strong swingers, with our neighbors Iowa and Wisconsin weaker swingers.  But why?  What makes a state a swinger and does Minnesota share any of those characteristics?
            State states have many factors that are idiosyncratic, such as Iowa’s caucuses, New Hampshire’s first primary–both create energized and highly mobilized and competitive political parties.  But more generally, swing states are those with states that have major party enrollments that are close, with a large and fluid set of independent swing voters.  Swing states also appear to have many diverse regions in the state which allow for the major parties to establish political bases, and these states have parties have been competitive in local and non-statewide races.
            So far all of this does describe Minnesota, yet what excludes Minnesota from the swing state category is ideology.  By that swing states are those where the political ideology of the median voter in the state is close to the ideology of the median voter nationally.  More importantly, swings are states where the presidential candidate of the Republican Party is    to the right of the median state voter, or the Democratic candidate too far to the left.  One also needs to look at how the ideology and candidates produced by the national parties compare to the ideology of the state parties. 
            What has happened since 1972 is that the Minnesota DFL enjoy a small but still significant lead in party registration in the state which benefit them during presidential cycles.  Second, the state is generally more liberal ideologically than the rest of the nation.  Three, the Republican presidential candidates have generally been further to the right than the median in Minnesota.  Put simply, the DFL has a bigger presidential base to mobilize and the national Republican Party nominates candidates further to the right that the average swing voter in Minnesota.  Together, such a strategy is a sure loser.

            Demographics and ideology might change Minnesota in the future, but at least for 2016 the prospects of a Republican flip are slim.  The GOP appears determined to nominate a candidate who will be far more conservative than the average Minnesotan. Yes perhaps the Democrats might pick a bad candidate and change the dynamics, but baring that and several other possibilities, even if Scott Walker is successful in making this state his new firewall to revive his campaign, a Republican saying they won over Minnesota is probably not going to get them far in winning over the party or in winning the general election.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Bush, Clinton, Trump, and Sanders: The Battle of Conventional v Unconventional Politics

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
—As You Like It, William Shakespeare

If the world is a stage, presidential campaigns are Broadway.  The 2016 election so far is pure theater, yet not one that is going according to script. Were that the case, the drama of Bush v Clinton, the sequel (sort of), would be the main plot.  Yet four months prior to the Iowa caucuses and 14 months out from the general election, the story is still being written, with Trump and to a lesser extent Sanders and Clinton’s overstated inevitability the stories being told and covered. The story that was supposed to be told was that of Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton.  Both were the establishment party candidates, assumed inevitable and unassailable by now.  In some ways they are still strong candidates by conventional wisdom.  Bush and his SuperPAC have raised the most money, has the best organization and he has secured more endorsements than any other Republican.  Clinton is in the same place as Bush, but she additionally still leads in all national and most state polls among Democrats in her quest for the party nomination.  She also has the experience of running president once, experience that should not be overlooked.  But Both Bush and Clinton have problems, the former more than the latter, and their problems are both self-inflicted and about a changing political landscape they neither seem to understand.
Bush’s problem is partly that the Republican brand has changed.  Yes the Bush name has been a major part of the Republican presidential brand since 1980 but the brand has worn thin.  People are tired of it.  Moreover, Bush has inherited a problem that his father had–the wimp factor.  If in 1980 his father looked helpless and limp in a New Hampshire debate against Reagan, Bush looks the same next to Trump.  Jeb simply looks weak and inarticulate.  Now some say he is just sitting back waiting for Trump to implode.  Maybe.  But that assumes implosion; it assumes that Trump does not actually represent what the Republican Party is now and that he has captured it.  Trump’s outspoken views on women, immigrants, and almost everyone else he offends speaks to anger and frustration white males–especially without a college degree–feel.  This appeal to white male anger and macho has been building in the party for years, and Bush just does seem to understand the degree to which the rhetoric has galloped beyond where he is.  He sort of wants to be the big kid in the room, the one sounding mature when it comes to all the positions that Trump espouses.  Much in the same way the GOP has never understood how the Tea Party took them over, they do not see how Trump is doing the same.
Trump’s politainer strength is acting like he is not a real politician, using his brand and image to stoke his campaign.  He does well in polls and gets way more media coverage than he should, in part because he sell soap and that is what the media needs to do.  He fulfills theirs needs and vice versa.  But Trump coverage is also a death watch, waiting for the inevitable train wreck and demise.  It might come.  But it might not.  Trump may be a new politician for the ages.  He may be redefining political categories, thus the confusion by the Huffington Post whether to cover him in the politics or entertainment section.  Trump scares the GOP not only because of his honestly about where the party is moving but by his capacity to exit the party as run as an independent.  Yet for all the talk of where Trump is now, the question is whether he has a ground game and will all the folks who support him come out on a cold February 1, night in Iowa to caucus for him?
Clinton also struggles with a party that is indebted to her and one which has left her behind.  She too is old news like Bush, and she is trying to make herself relevant to a new generation of Democrats.  Yet for all of her strengths, her core weaknesses of 2008 remain.  A campaigner with powerful blind spots, an inability to relate to average voters, and now an inability to put to rest lingering and new doubts regarding her e-mails and personal ethics.  Whether she has acted illegally is really only a small part of the issue–the bigger problem is character and judgement.  She has broad support but polls suggest not deep enthusiastic support, less so than eight years ago.  But Clinton fatigue and how the party had moved beyond her too is reflected in rise of Bernie Sanders and constant talk of Joe Biden entering the race.
Sanders is fascinating.  He should be nothing more than a gnat to Clinton but he has steadily moved up the in polls.  In fact he has gained more in the polls than Trump but the media opts not to get him as much coverage.  The Trump v Sanders coverage difference to a large extent is about the former being the candidate who represents the least amount of change or threat to the political system (Trump’s message is restorative–“Make America Great Again) versus a candidate who indicts the system and wants to really change and not reform it, as Obama did.  Trump is safe and not a threat to the corporate media and America, Sanders challenges both.  Sanders is slowly building a campaign and rising gradually in the polls, not flashing, this is often a sign of real strength.  What he too offers in terms of a ground game is yet to be seen, but he has strengths in Iowa and New Hampshire that should not be ignored.
So where does all this lead in terms of how politics is like a stage?   First, politics is great drama but more often than not does not follow the story that everyone thinks.  Second, never assume inevitable, never assume campaigns are supposed to follow a predefined script, what once worked may not in the future.   Great political campaigns are ones that do not simply follow a script but write their own, and perhaps part of what is going on this election cycle so far is the degree to which the  new rules are being written for 2016.  If that is the case, what Bush and Clinton are doing is following the rules, while Trump and Sanders are writing them.