Campaign Autopsy: Clinton’s 1,000 Cuts

A month after the most surreal, bizarre Presidential election in my lifetime, I find I have almost as many questions as answers.
Not about Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory, which seems clear, unless the Michigan recount and the Electors who actually cast their votes on December 19, decide otherwise.
Nor about Hillary Clinton’s defeat, which, in hindsight, I guess more of us should have seen coming.
Rather, my questions are about why:
Why did Trump win? What combination of the man, the moment, his message, his blatant manipulation of facts and brilliant self-marketing caused the upset?
Why did tens of millions of voters describe Trump as not qualified to be President and vote for him anyway?
Why did Clinton lose? What combination of the woman, the moment, her message and largely self-inflicted wounds caused the result?
Donald Trump’s victory is history-making and fascinating. To come from nowhere, politically, with no prior experience in elective office, little understanding of the issues or the world and a questionable personal reputation, especially with 52 per cent of the population, is nothing short of amazing.
Indisputably, Trump tapped into some deep-seated sentiments in the voting public, exploited them shamelessly and against all odds, pulled off the most remarkable electoral achievement in modern political history. He broke all the rules of American politics, and won. He lost the popular vote, but won the presidency.
Hillary Clinton’s loss is amazing as well.
Arguably the most qualified person to run for the presidency, with deep experience and an intimate knowledge of the issues confronting the nation, the support of her party and a vast campaign chest, she nonetheless lost. She played by the rules of American politics, and lost. She won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes, and lost.
It is not an easy answer. The question was put to 20-some veteran Democratic operatives, many of them White House alumni, at a private dinner Wednesday night in a plush, paneled dining room in Washington. It was a collective autopsy of a campaign they all expected to win. The mood was set at the outset by the host, who passed out “Emergency Canadian Residence Applications” as a gag.
Then, seated beneath a glowering portrait of a long-dead Civil War general, the guests were uniformly critical of the strategy and execution of the Clinton campaign. More in sadness than anger, they described a defeat inflicted by a thousand cuts.
In almost telegraphic shorthand, they ticked off the campaign’s failings: No message…took minorities and women for granted…essentially promised a third Obama term…assumed urban supporters would out-number rural opponents, as they had twice for Obama… failed to address economic concerns of white working class men…expected Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to be in the bag, and on and on.
Victory was always going to be tough, they said, given widespread Clinton fatigue…sclerosis of the Democratic Party…polarizing nature of the economic divide over the last 25 years…public disgust with “the establishment”…the challenge of a “change” election, etc.
Hillary herself came in for sharp criticism for mishandling her email controversy, the on-again FBI investigation, especially Director Comey’s bombshell 11 days before the vote, her sarcastic “basket of deplorables” and her remote style and reluctance to answer questions. She ran like a 20th-century candidate, it was said, in a 21st century election where all the old rules went out the window.
Then a single question stopped the conversation cold. Is it possible, one former senior official said ruefully, that running a woman candidate on the heels of the first black president may have been “a step too far” for the average American voter? “Not a pretty thought,” muttered one guest in the silence that followed.
As the dinner broke up, the guests consoled themselves with the thought that American politics have always been cyclical, that parties that seem devastated usually rise from the ashes, and that, as used to be said among enlisted men in the U.S. Army, nothing very good or very bad lasts very long.

Grace Under Pressure?

While sensible people are focused on the Annapolis Boat Show, the weather or even Sunday night football, tens of millions of us will tune in tonight to the second Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Second debates in a series of three are not generally all that consequential. But this one could really matter, especially given Trump’s vulgar taped comments on women and his sexual prowess.
Tonight’s encounter at Washington University in St. Louis will establish whether the Republican nominee can control himself and finally seem presidential, and whether the Democratic nominee can keep her cool under pressure and still make her points. A smile now and then wouldn’t hurt either of them.
The first debate at Hofstra University was the most fractious, chaotic and dystopian Presidential encounter in recent memory. In the aftermath, sports metaphors were overworked but apt. Hillary Clinton clearly scored a TKO, if not a knockout, and got a significant bump in the polls in the process. She nailed Trump on race and gender issues and demonstrated a grasp of foreign and security policy that left him flailing about.
Clinton deftly turned Trump’s graceless attack on her “stamina” around and used it to question his. Some of her better lines (“Trumped-up trickle-down”) sounded rehearsed and shopworn, but they made a point.
Trump was focused at first, scoring points on trade and the economy and repeatedly characterizing Clinton as part of the team responsible for current shortcomings at home and abroad. His implicit message: Hillary and the Democrats got you into this mess; I’m the change agent who can get you out.
But, as the debate went on — watch for this tonight — Trump lost his focus, repeated himself , was belligerently defensive about not paying taxes and his bankruptcies and wandered far afield, ascribing the hacking of the Democratic National Committee to an unidentified 400-pound man texting in his pajamas. How’s that again?
Lester Holt, the journeyman moderator, went missing for periods of time and let the candidates punch and counter-punch. Andy Borowitz, The New Yorker’s resident funnyman, even tweeted a missing-persons alert on Holt at one point. But Holt’s restraint also served to reveal the candidates’ competitive instincts.
Tonight, the moderators will be Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, no shrinking violets, who will likely be more assertive. But half the questions are to come from the audience in the town hall format. We’ll have to see how that affects the candidates.
The forecast for tonight’s debate is stormy. Both candidates know there is a lot at stake, and both have ammunition they didn’t use in the first exchange.
Trump can resurrect the “pay-for-play” allegations about the Clinton Foundation, and charge that foreign donors got special treatment from the former Secretary of State in exchange for their contributions. He has already promised to bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities, even though in the first debate with Chelsea Clinton in the first row he said “It’s inappropriate…not nice.” Apparently it is nice enough when you are behind in the polls in the key swing states.
Clinton has plenty of fodder to use against Trump if she chooses: his latest bragging about his way with women, the undisputed reports that he lost a breathtaking $916 million in one tax year and likely paid no federal income taxes for nearly two decades, and his continued refusal to release his current tax returns. There is the Trump University fraud, the Trump Foundation scam, his more outrageous campaign promises to wall off Mexico, bar Muslims and deport 12 million undocumented immigrants. The list goes on.
Entertainment suggestion: watch carefully tonight when Clinton gets under Trump’s skin, as she is likely to do; watch his reaction and what it does to his train of thought and debate strategy. Then imagine how he might respond to a similar challenge in the Oval Office.
Increasingly, this bizarre campaign is coming down to questions of temperament and emotional stability. Debates reveal those characteristics better than anything. By the end of 90 minutes tonight, we will have a deeper insight into the candidates’ personalities and their grace under pressure — or lack thereof.
Tune in. You can always record Sunday night football.

Random Thoughts(Updated)

Some random thoughts (questions, mostly) on a summer day:

THE TRUMP PARADOX: Is it possible that Donald Trump never expected and, in fact, does not even want to be President? Did he launch his campaign a year ago simply to build his brand? Has he already succeeded beyond his own private expectations? Is his Presidential run a huge con?
I have long suspected as much, and now, I’m told, sources close to Trump have confirmed it to The Washington Post in the course of the reporting they are doing for an instant book due to be published shortly. Trump would never acknowledge it, of course, but it could explain why he has spent so little on national advertising, spurned important Republican endorsements and continued, in speech after rambling speech, to go off the rails with evident disregard for the November outcome. It could also explain why he has not bothered to learn much about the issues the next President will confront.
If you are never going to make it to the oval office, why bother?

THE HILLARY PARADOX: What explains Hillary Clinton’s history of self-inflicted injuries? It goes back, way back, to the lost files from the Little Rock law office right through to her private e-mail servers. Over the years she has done herself more damage politically than all her opponents combined.
Her critics contend that it stems from a superior, above-the-law attitude that they say is shared by both Clintons. Her supporters insist that each case is an innocent mistake, nothing more. Who would knowingly do that to herself, they ask? Who indeed?

THE MEDIA PARADOX: Will the media finally grow up in the way they cover Donald Trump? For more than a year, the cable channels, especially, have given him a fortune in free media, with endless interviews and wall-to-wall coverage of his rallies that have returned record ratings and an advertising bonanza for their parent companies. So much for journalism-versus-the bottom line.
But in recent weeks, it seems, the broadcast networks and major newspapers have fact-checked his more outlandish allegations. His foreign policy speech was a notable example, where the evening news broadcasts challenged any number of his dubious assertions. Stay tuned as the campaign progresses.

THE BILL CLINTON PARADOX: how to handle a former President who is, at one time, the most gifted politician of our time, and a stumbler who can rattle his wife’s campaign with a stunt like his 20-minute airport schmooze with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The campaign may have to confine him to quarters. But he can also lift the entire campaign with a single speech. He is a tremendous asset, until he isn’t.

THE THIRD PARTY PARADOX: Will the Libertarian Party candidates, former governors Gary Johnson and William Weld, win a place on the stage during the Presidential debates in the fall? They need to reach 15 per cent in an average of national polls to qualify, and are not there yet. But will the broad dis-satisfaction with the two leading candidates open an avenue for them?

THE ANNAPOLIS PARADOX: as the self-appointed “Sailing Capital of America,” this city is supposedly full of hardy folk who face down the weather in all conditions. It seemed wimpy of the city to cancel the Fourth of July parade because of intermittent showers, leaving locals and tourists stranded on the parade route.

Divided We Stand

Partisanship, division and deadlock are nothing new in American politics.
But across the board, from the paralyzed 114th Congress, to the 4-4 Supreme Court to the deeply-divided American voter, gridlock is the new normal. In the decades that I have covered Washington politics, I have not seen the like of it.
Such is the stage for the Maryland primary in a couple of weeks. In most years, our primary comes too late to matter. Not this year. Maryland may not decide definitively either party’s 2016 Presidential choice, but it will be important, not the least in establishing the momentum the leading candidates will carry into their respective conventions and by likely determining who will succeed the retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski.
Congress is the gridlock poster-child this year. The current, acrimonious Congressional tone had its historic origins back in 1798, when a hot-tempered Connecticut Federalist, Roger Griswold, attacked his esteemed colleague from Vermont, Rep, Matthew Lyon, with a cane on the House floor. Lyon’s considered response was to snatch a hot fire tong from the roaring fire and fight back.
Today’s Congress uses different tools, but is no less fierce in its debates, and is far less in its record of accomplishment. If only President Truman, who campaigned against the “do-nothing” 80th Congress in 1948, could see the 114th version at work, if that is the word for it, he would see how little can get done in a two-year legislative session. Little meaningful legislation has been adopted and the President’s nominations for the federal bench languish.
The Supreme Court logjam is the most flagrant example of willful Congressional gridlock. The late Justice Antonin Scalia was not yet in his grave when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body would not deliberate, advise or consent to a successor until a new President takes office in 2017.
The immediate result: a 4-to-4 Supreme Court deadlock that gave a default victory to public employee unions opposed by Republican-backed interest groups. A sweet irony for Democrats in both timing and substance.
A second, less prominent case involving bank guarantees also tied 4-to-4, leaving the lower court decision in place. In a single week, the Roberts Court tied a 26-year-old record for tie votes in a single term. More ties can be expected, with nearly 50 cases still on the docket for the current term and no replacement for Justice Scalia in sight.
The American voter is divided as well, red and blue. A nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center reported that Republicans and Democrats are more divided on ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.
The voters have separated themselves into ideological silos on the right and left. The Pew study suggests that this division manifests itself in myriad ways, from how people vote to where they live, who they choose as friends and which cable television they watch to get their news.
The result: 92 per cent of Republicans identify themselves as right of the median Democrat, while 94 per cent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, according to Pew. The left hand is definitely not talking to the right these days.
This polarization is conspicuous in the Presidential primaries. It emerges in the angry fistfights at the Trump rallies and the bellicose statements from Senator Ted Cruz. Democrats are split as well, with some Bernie Sanders supporters announcing in advance that they will not rally behind Hillary Clinton if she wins the party nomination.
Some of the air has begun to leak out of the Trump bubble, but the fundamental split in the GOP remains. Hillary Clinton’s path to nomination narrowed after Wisconsin, spurring Bernie Sanders to greater efforts in New York, which is genuinely the Big Apple for both parties this year.
Marylanders, of course, are already split, with a Republican governor and a Democratic majority controlling both houses in the legislature. With the primary coming up on April 26, they will add their voices to the general election cacophony.

Mid-term Madness

Mid-term elections are the constitutionally-mandated pause that refreshes in our political system.

Voters get a chance in the middle of a President’s first or second term to either ratify the status-quo or change it, sometimes dramatically. The 1994 Mid-terms were a classic example of the second type, a seismic political event: Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years and Newt Gingrich gave us the famous Contract with America. It didn’t last: very little of the famous “Contract” was ever put in force, but it shook up the political establishment.

This year could be equally dramatic. With less than three weeks to go, look at what hangs in balance:
–Majority control of the Senate.
–The struggle for the heart of the Republican party, between the centrist establishment, which is more right than ever, and the Tea Party Right, which is more aggressive than ever.
–The fate of President Obama’s final two years in office and his prospects for appointing a new Attorney General and possibly, a Supreme Court Justice.
–Progress — or the lack of it — on major issues like immigration reform, health care implementation, corporate tax reform, just to name three.
–The agenda for a lame-duck session of Congress after the election and, of course, the mid-terms will set the stage for the Presidential election in 2016.

When you consider all that, it is no surprise that the PACs and Super PACs, the so-called “dark money,” have spent record amounts: more than a quarter-billion dollars so far, and still counting. That’s on the right and left combined. That does not count the amounts that the campaigns have raised and spent directly for their candidates.

Some commentators have compared this mid-term election to a Seinfeld episode, that is, about nothing. I don’t think people would be spending all that money if it was about nothing.

Look briefly at what is at stake: Republicans need to pick up six seats to gain a single-vote majority in the Senate. Focusing on the marquee races in key states, like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina, the Republicans have a better-than-even chance of picking up four or five. Six will be a stretch, but it is possible, maybe even likely at this point.

There is a broad, anti-Washington sentiment among the public today that endangers incumbents generally. Congress is down to single digits in the public opinion polls. Little has been accomplished on Capitol Hill and the public knows it.

If the Republicans control both houses, they are going to move to roll back corporate taxes, EPA regulations, defund Obamacare, etc. The President will get out his veto pen and the gridlock will continue.

On the other hand, gridlock is what we have now. We are a divided country these days, so we have divided government.

The House seems certain to stay Republican, very possibly with an increased GOP majority. Earlier in the election season, John Boehner appeared to be in trouble, but his job seems safe now.

The Tea Party has largely failed to dislodge the more centrist establishment candidates in primaries in Mississippi and other states. But in the process, they have moved the whole Republican Party to the right, so the middle isn’t the middle in the GOP anymore, it is to the right of center.

President Obama has already said he would like to pursue immigration reform and other priorities in his remaining two years in office. At this point, it looks as though he will have to fall back on executive orders and actions that don’t require Congressional approval even more than he has in the last two years.

On foreign policy, he may be pushed by a more conservative congress to harden his line against Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But he and Congress are probably closer together on these issues than on domestic topics.

Looking ahead to 2016, the outcome of the midterms will give us a temperature check on the mood of the country and could influence the choice of the Republican candidate. At the moment, Jeb Bush seems to be the choice of establishment republicans, but Marco Rubio represents a younger generation and Rand Paul is a wild card in the GOP picture.

Hillary Clinton seems to be the prohibitive favorite at this point for the Democratic nomination, assuming her health holds up. Imagine: another Bush-Clinton race. Seems odd in a country of 330 million, that we can’t come up with some other names.