Make or Break for the Sanders Campaign

Tuesday, the Midwestern delegate-rich heavy hitter states in the Democratic primary begin to vote – first Michigan, then Ohio and Illinois next week (and can’t fail to mention Florida coming up, as well). As a Bernie Sanders supporter, it’s a big deal. A lot is riding on his success in these states. Michigan especially kept Sanders competitive in 2016, and it could again this time.

I’ll admit the polls don’t look good, though they were spectacularly wrong in 2016 (in Michigan specifically, not just nationally). Centrists in the party have found their candidate in Joe Biden and are going all in.

(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map-USA-Midwest01.png)

For me, this is largely make or break for the Sanders campaign. The post-industrial areas of the country should be a source of strength for his campaign. If they’re not, then that speaks to the nature of the race this time around. It is possible for Sanders to justify staying in the race until the end of April, though, when Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have had a chance to vote.

Should Biden ultimately prove to be the nominee, I would strongly encourage Sanders to work hard to build bridges to centrist Democrats. He’s had tremendous success in shifting the conversation within the party. He should consolidate that.

At the same time, centrist Democrats have their own work to do. I worry they will make two big mistakes:

One, ignore or, even worse, dismiss the issues and energy Sanders has identified. The bad blood between the two factions of the party could lead centrists to believe too strongly in the electoral power of disaffected Republicans. They made this mistake in 2016. Republican-lite failed with Hillary Clinton, and I believe it’s likely to fail again. They should actively court the left, with tangible, credible offers.

Two, I worry centrists will dismiss the obvious weaknesses of Biden as a candidate, again, much like they seemed to with Hillary Clinton. I get that you have to believe in order to campaign hard. But someone better be working late to think through how his faltering performances in many public appearances could affect the campaign and his eventual presidency. Plus, you know Republicans aren’t going to drop questions around Hunter Biden any time soon.

Right Now, Trump Is Certain to Win Re-Election

It happened again today. I got asked whether I think Trump will win re-election this year. The question often comes from nervous and/or incredulous non-Americans who are desperately trying to understand what is going on in the World’s Greatest Democracy™. Since I have a ready answer, I figured I’d go on the public record with my prediction.

Yep. For sure. He’s getting four more years.

Here’s why.

Even though Trump overstates how well the economy is doing – and he’s largely the beneficiary of a continued expansion that has somehow managed to weather his trade wars – there’s no doubt that it’s also strong enough to give his campaign some lift. Absolutely, the economy can be better structured to benefit more people and not just the wealthy, but the Democrats messaging on that is muddled. More on that below. (Plus, absolutely no decent person is going to root for a collapsing economy just to win one election.) 

Trump has also delivered just enough on some of his campaign promises to hold his voting bloc together. The depressingly long list:

  • He got massive tax cuts passed. (Aggravating the federal deficit, of course. Remember when Republicans cared about that?)
  • He tried to kill the Affordable Care Act (only to be thwarted by John McCain).
  • Working with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he has helped to make the federal judiciary far more conservative for many years to come. (McConnell and Republican stymied Pres. Obama for years in this area, mostly famously with a Supreme Court seat, until they got the president they needed.)  
  • Using a legally suspect maneuver, he took funds from the military budget to begin building structures that he claims constitute a wall with Mexico.
  • He has continued to limit immigration and travel to the US in ways celebrated by conservative activists.
  • Perhaps most importantly, he has kept right-wing Christian evangelicals happy. Again, he delivered on two Supreme Court justices that might, eventually, overturn the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. He continues to speak their language unapologetically (though almost certainly hypocritically.) And he is delivering on some of their theologically-inspired foreign policy goals for Israel.
  • Also in foreign policy, he’s gotten “tough” in the Middle East, confronting Iran by walking away from the nuclear agreement negotiated by Obama and Europe and, of course, risking starting a war by assassinating Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani.
  • Also in the Middle East, let’s not forget the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (even if that might not matter too much).
  • He has confronted China, all the while speaking in ways that could have come from old-fashioned union Democrats by promising that plants will be saved (even if he hasn’t really delivered).
  • With the Democrats help(!), he even got a revision to the NAFTA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico passed (which was very controversial with unions at the time of its passage).

That’s just what I can think of off the top of my head without one single internet search. I’d probably find more that would ring his supporters’ bells.

Even without some of those accomplishments, his grip on his voting base seems absolutely secure. Despite multiple gaffes, offensive remarks, nutball tweets, wild staff turnover and recriminations from former employees, massive pain among farmers from the trade wars, outright lies, and scandals that led to impeachment, the grip of the personality cult of Trump is just as tight as ever. Hey, Mexico isn’t even paying for the wall. Doesn’t matter.

Oh, and lest we forget, the GOP still has that structural advantage in the Electoral College. Rural states, which lean GOP, have outsized importance, so much so that even when Democratic candidates win the popular vote, they can’t win the White House.

Which naturally leads me to Trump’s opponents – the Democrats. What to say? Frankly, the Democrats just don’t seem very good at politics. Despite winning the House in 2018, they’re still digging out from the losses of the Obama years, and getting the Senate back any time soon is a long shot. Clearly the Democrats need a new playbook, but they can’t agree on what that is. Personally, I think it’s by embracing more policies of the left, specifically repudiating the 40-year, bi-partisan program that has left most Americans in stagnant or declining economic conditions. Others argue that we need a solid return to the center, which will attract enough Democrats and disaffected Republicans to break the Trumpian spell. I’m going to leave this debate here for now. Plenty more to come.

In the end, I don’t think it looks good. As of now, I’m certain Trump is going to hold on to the White House.

Here’s to hoping that this analysis is as spectacularly bad as an Iowa Democratic caucus. 

Iowa 2020 – Safe to Ignore

As we approach the final tallies of the spectacularly inept Iowa caucuses, I think it’s fair to say that – despite all of the time, expense, and effort – it ultimately tells us very little.

The tie between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg shows that the party is still fairly balanced between its progressive and centrist factions.

New York Times, www.nytimes.com, 6 Feb 2020, 5:30 pm, Singapore time

This is true even if you add the results of the other leading candidates together. Looking at the final vote tallies, Sanders and Warren together got 46.8%. Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar together got 50.9%. (I don’t know how to classify Yang.) In the end, the party might coalesce around a more centrist candidate, but that’s by no means guaranteed, and it hints that any centrist candidate will have to reach out to the progressive wing. (Though I suspect their temptation is likely to be telling the progressive wing to suck it and fall in line.)

However, we still have the wildcard of Michael Bloomberg, which could further disrupt the race. Bloomberg is advertising his way (buying his way, US$300mm and counting) into the middle of the pack in recent polls, doing far better than other candidates who have been hustling and meeting voters for a year or more. But he chose to not compete in Iowa and isn’t competing in New Hampshire, so it’s hard to gauge his actual electoral support. After all, Biden has been leading those same national Democratic polls for a long time, but placed fourth. Which, maybe that’s the one clear and meaningful result. Tanking that bad is not a good look.

Medicare (Extra) for All

This is a couple weeks old, but still worth a look. Apparently the mainstream policy wonks of the Democratic party are embracing a version of single-payer – finally.

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 7.55.45 PM

Under the plan, dubbed Medicare Extra (because Bernie Sander’s Medicare-for-All shall not be named, it seems), Americans would have guaranteed health insurance, getting them needed medical care without the fear of bankruptcy. Oh, and it would be the US finally catching up with the rest of the developed world.

Waldman says the Republican party is to “blame” for the plan. By fighting the Affordable Care Act so much – which, except for the Medicaid expansion, was always a conservative/GOP plan, anyway – they forced the Democrats to embrace more radical health care reform.

For my part, I blame the Democrats for not seeing the policy and political logic of embracing a single-payer plan a long time ago. They could have at least embraced the public option when the ACA was being crafted, which would have tested the popularity of widespread Medicare coverage. Why did we have to waste so much energy and put so many people through health insurance insecurity to get to this point?

But of course, maybe that’s precisely what we had to do. Maybe it took that kind of pain to get Democratic politicians and the public to embrace the idea of universal coverage. It’s hard to say. Either way, it’s time to celebrate the release of this plan as a small moral victory.