The Third Presidential Debate

The big takeaway for the chattering classes seems to be Trump’s coy refusal to accept in advance the results of the coming election. Really this isn’t surprising but for some reason people never seem to take what he says at face value. He has said this before and it is entirely consistent with his general approach to life. Of course surrogates, like his campaign manager and his daughter, immediately came forward to disavow this unprecedented position. However as I write this, I am listening to Trump’s first post-debate rally. He just explained, “Of course I will accept the election results … if I am the winner!” The crowd roared its approval and broke into a familiar chant, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

500wiHowever, I found something else in the debate to be far more significant. An initial topic was the Supreme Court. Hillary said forthrightly that she viewed the Court’s primary responsibility to be “to stand on the side of the American people, not corporations.” I take this to mean that she wants Justices who see their job as looking out for the welfare of the average person. Truthfully, my jaw dropped. Does she really mean that?

I do understand where she is coming from. Many people believe that this Court, marginally dominated by conservatives, has rendered decisions that go against “the little people”. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a prime example. But to say that the Court must take the opposite tack is equally wrong. That simply is not the purpose or mandate of our highest court. It is not designed to be Big Mommy for us all. Rather it has a quite specific role in adjudicating the consistency of laws with our Constitution and in rendering judgments in certain special areas of the law. Of course it should try to do this fairly and, since the Justices have human frailty, they will not always succeed. But the Court having agendas is a mistake even if we applaud them.

Of course Presidents will nominate candidates for Court vacancies who are philosophically compatible with their own viewpoint. And no one can doubt that Justices bring biasing perspectives to their decisions. However this is a far cry from setting a specific agenda to be followed independent of the cases involved. This is one instance where literal interpretation of our Constitution is most compelling, even if you disagree with this as the proper approach in general. If the writers of this marvelous and enduring document had intended the primary role of the Court to be a bulwark against threats to the public welfare they would indubitably have said so. No one who has examined their other writings and statements could possibly believe that this was their unwritten intent.

It is the duty of Congress to serve this role. If it fails on occasion, having another of the coequal branches of government take up the slack is perhaps attractive if what it does meets with our approval. But we will inevitably regret it if that ever becomes the norm as it will destroy the true essence of our form of government.

Candidate Hillary and the Road Ahead

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 25:  Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a Democratic Party organizing event on July 25, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. On the first day of the Democratic National Convention, Clinton is campaigning in North Carolina.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I am not a great fan of Hillary Clinton, but I came away from the Democratic Convention proceedings this week with a bit more enthusiasm. It was not so much from what she said in her acceptance address, but rather from what others said about her. She really is an uninspiring politician, as she has ruefully admitted. Even after so many years of toiling in the political vineyards, she simply hasn’t mastered the differences between debate, persuasion and oratory. Some of this is purely technical, some the tonal limitations of the female voice, and some simply seems to be a bit of a tin ear. I wonder why she has evidently never taken expert instruction?

You might argue that this is superficial, that policies and their implementation are what matter. Of course they do, but there are three key attributes of a successful president that overlay those concrete factors to make them feasible and effective. These are the ability to persuade, to inspire and to lead. They are related but different and they are absolutely key to an effective Presidency.

Presidents are not dictators, notwithstanding the ill-informed oratory of Donald Trump. In fact the limitations on their power are even greater than is commonly believed. Harry Truman had the right insight when he reflected about what his successor, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, would discover. Truman mused, “He’ll sit there all day saying do this, do that, and nothing will happen. Poor Ike, it wont be a bit like the military. He’ll find it very frustrating.” I might add that poor Donald would likewise find that he can’t exercise his customary power as CEO or say to virtually anyone who matters, “You’re fired!

If you want to understand what it really takes to be a successful President, there is no better analysis than Richard Neustadt’s treatise “Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents.” it was written some time ago, but his insights remain true.

Of course it helps greatly if the President’s party controls Congress, although, given our sharp political divide, Senate control really means having a 60-vote super-majority. And this rarely happens. Also, even in this circumstance, the panjandrums of Congress have their own agendas and imperatives. They seldom just toe the line. If Hillary returns to her old residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she can expect to face a difficult and strong-minded Congress. Policies will be hostage to the administration’s powers of persuasion, both directly with Congress and in the bully pulpit at large. In this she will likely have to rely heavily upon key members of her team. I think Vice President Kaine will be a big help, as will her husband, and hopefully she will make better executive appointments than did President Obama, many of whom were disastrous interlocutors on the Hill. Unavoidably however, the onus will be on Hillary to carry the weight when needed. We can hope that she will consciously or otherwise sharpen her skills on the job.

I believe that one way to gain insight into the character and likely performance of someone is to hear a friend or associate speak of some small event involving them that really struck a bell. The big items, like policy and leadership, are fairly obvious and have whatever value you assign them based on your own principles and standards. One anecdote I heard was telling, but honestly I am ambivalent about its message. See what you think.

Michael Muzyk, a New York trucking executive, tells the story of one day in 2004 when he accompanied then-Senator Clinton on a mission to promote upstate farmers’ produce. At the state fairgrounds, Hillary got word that her husband had been hospitalized for emergency heart surgery. “I guess you had better go,” Muzyk said promptly, but Hillary surprisingly responded, “No. People have gathered to hear me speak and I mustn’t disappoint them.” We all now know more than we wish about the Clintons’ complicated marital relationship. But this likely was a dire circumstance affecting her life partner and the father of her only child. Was her response a sign of dedication and self-sacrifice, or perhaps was it a cold-hearted calculation of risk and reward?

This is probably not what you or I would have done in similar circumstances, but then we are not likely to serve as President of the United States, for whom events and decisions usually cannot wait upon personal needs and responsibilities. More than any other descriptor for this demanding position, the job comes first. Too much and too many depend upon it.

Nostalgia and Selective Memory

lead_960At the Republican convention, enterprising reporters asked a selection of delegates when exactly was America great before, i.e. what period were they yearning to reproduce? There were several decades mentioned. The Reagan and even the Bill Clinton eras got votes. But far and away, the post-WW2 period received the most votes, in particular the early years of the Eisenhower administration.

This particular nostalgia seems quite understandable to me. Those old enough to remember it were probably white, middle-class youngsters at the time. You might get a different answer from a black delegate – that is, if you could find one.

Still, it does seem a bit odd to yearn for the Cold War era, when children were being taught to “duck and cover” in an A-bomb attack, an era when crude and overt segregation reigned over the South, an era when Sen. McCarthy was trampling rights hither and yon, an era when dreaded polio struck thousands every summer. But then, selective memory isn’t confined just to early evidence of Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

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Hmm? No intrusive social media, “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners”, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, Saturday night at the drive-in with your honey, Norman Rockwell images, schools where the worst offense was chewing gum in class, humming factories filled with WW2 veterans building new lives and families … I am starting to get a bit enthused myself!

Can Hillary fight the odds?

Here’s a little hint that might save you some money in the future. Just because something usually happens, or even always has happened in the past, doesn’t mean that it will happen again. But that is where the smart money goes unless there is a good reason – a really, really good reason – to believe that conditions are different this time.

So, here’s a statistic to ponder. Since the 22nd Amendment limited a President to two terms, i.e. since Truman, there have been six elections where one party had held the office for two preceding terms and the incumbent was not on the ticket. This is written carefully to accommodate two special cases. First Roosevelt and Truman and then later Kennedy and Johnson were co-incumbents over two consecutive terms due to deaths in office. In only one of these six cases did the candidate of the same party as the retiring President succeed him. In fact, in only one instance was the election even close. That was the Bush/Gore cliffhanger in 2000. Of course many Democrats still believe that the Supreme Court effectively stole that election, so maybe we should put an asterisk on those 5:1 odds.

We now face a seventh example, with Hillary Clinton attempting to follow the two terms of Barack Obama. Just on this basis alone, those are pretty awful odds against Hillary, don’t you think? The American people just get tired of the same old, same old. They hope, against all experience to the contrary, that the other party might be better.

Even worse, in the one case where it did happen, the previous President and the successful candidate were very popular. They were Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. When Reagan left office his approval rating was 63% and his successor was usually in the mid 50’s. Today’s candidates would kill for those numbers. And certainly neither Obama nor Clinton come anywhere near close to this, although Obama’s ratings have been rising recently.

Trump and Clinton Conspiracy

The best thing that Hillary has going for her, given this history, is Donald Trump. And I suspect it just might be enough. Do you think those rumors that the Clintons are behind the rise of their old pal Donald might have some substance?

The Elevator Pitch

Many years ago, Sen. Ted Kennedy was running as a candidate to replace the incumbent President of his own party. Disasters and missteps had devastated the re-election prospects for Jimmy Carter, and Kennedy was the odds-on favorite to replace him. Then in one instant his candidacy shattered. He was being interviewed by CBS reporter Roger Mudd, who asked a softball question for which any candidate would surely have a ready answer, “Why do you want to be President?” Any smart politician must have a succinct and distinctive answer to this obvious query, often characterized as “the elevator pitch”. Kennedy stumbled and rambled on about this and that while the audience watched in wonder and dismay. It was over.

I thought about this because it seems to me that Hillary might do no better. Trump has an answer, fatuous as usual, “I’ll make America great again.” One might plausibly respond, “Please name a specific period when America was great before, and tell me how your policies will restore that greatness.” Based on his reactions to push-back before, Trump would no doubt reply, “Yo’ mama is fat!” Bernie also seems to have a ready answer, “I am the only Socialist running. Viva la Revolución!” But Hillary? What is her core message? “I am the last sane candidate standing.” Or perhaps, “Things are pretty good now, and I won’t make them any worse.

I have listened to many of her speeches and interviews with the press. It seems that she wants to do a little here and a little there to improve life for all of us, meanwhile being careful to avoid pitfalls and traps. If something is complicated, as most things in life are, I would imagine she would study it carefully and gather all stakeholder opinions before acting. This is no call to arms. It is “speak softly and organize a big committee.” I am not saying that caution is a character flaw, far from it, just that it doesn’t inspire.

Thinking that perhaps I just haven’t heard, or possibly understood, her elevator pitch, I surfed to her site for guidance from the mother lode. She has a list of “112 reasons (and counting) why Hillary Clinton should be the next President.” That is hardly succinct and direct. If you have many reasons for something, maybe you don’t really have any that are crucial and definitive. She presents the usual grab bag of progressive ideas but with few discernible plans.

For example, she proposes guaranteed paid family leave. Guaranteed by whom? Paid by whom? She wants all veterans to have access to timely and high quality health care. Does that mean she thinks Obama doesn’t want that, or that he does but has been incapable of managing it? What would she do differently? Several of her reasons amount to a promise to mount the ramparts and resist the attacks of those vile Republicans in Congress. I would expect no less of any Democrat running for President. But is she asserting that she of all others is best equipped to do this? Is there something in her senatorial experience that substantiates that claim? Or perhaps, does she have a secret team that would be more effective than Obama’s has been? The curious mind wonders.

Based on these data, I took a shot at trying to summarize the essence of her pitch but without success. So I am sympathetic for her inability to do so herself. It isn’t easy for anyone to explain why you are the essential person for any critical position, and all the more so for the world’s most important job. She just needs a few points beginning “Only I can …”, continuing with “… and here is why …”, concluding with “… and this is why you should care …”. If any of you can do this for her by all means let her know. I am sure she will be grateful, perhaps with a job in her administration?

Through a Glass Darkly

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The evidence is clear. Our two Presidential candidates this time are fundamentally flawed and this shows up in their favorability ratings. Trump is widely perceived as unqualified to be President, both temperamentally and in terms of relevant experience. Clinton is seen as untrustworthy and the likely perpetrator of shady dealings. The question for both of them is what can they do to change the narrative? Thinking about it, I don’t believe there is anything that would work. Both will try, and they are currently doing so, but it is probably fruitless.

If I am right, the best that either can do is to bear down on their opponent’s negative images, reinforce them, and make the case that voters should hold their noses and vote for the least worse candidate. Trump seems to do this automatically; it is a facet of his character. It doesn’t fit Hillary’s self-image so she is awkwardly trying to throw mud and see what sticks. At the moment her target is Trump’s tax returns, but other than suspicion she has nothing on which to base this. In any case, Trump’s history as the Teflon candidate in the primaries should give her pause to reflect. All of this bodes ill for a unedifying election season, one that no one should be proud of regardless of whom they favor.

For the rest of us, the question is which stink is fundamentally more odious? My personal belief is that Trump is more dangerous to our national well-being. His policies, insofar as they are evident, seem haphazard and not grounded in reality. Hillary probably would stay close to the Obama administration course, perhaps adjusted toward the fatuous ideas of Bernie Sanders’ lefties. With her, we would know what to expect, not great but probably not disastrous. Trump is a total wild card. Perhaps he is not the person who Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, SC) characterized as “…a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot [who] doesn’t represent my party.” But who knows, really?

What I fear is that many in the undecided column will choose Trump based on a somewhat plausible calculation. Untrustworthiness is a fundamental character trait. It represents a lifetime of experience and, short of lengthy psychotherapy, it can’t be changed. On the other hand, being unqualified could conceivably be fixed, with suitable expert help and a desire to change. I don’t see either of these two requirements being met by Trump, but others might take a more charitable view. With obvious exceptions, Trump supporters are not simply dullards, unaware of his shortcomings. Many of them are simply making a calculation which is very risky in my opinion, but they have somehow convinced themselves that it is worthwhile given the sorry state of our politics.

Clinton’s Tactical Failures

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In my opinion Hillary is a poor political tactician. Her other deficiencies as a candidate have been widely noted, but this aspect bears mention because it may reveal more basic problems that could bleed over into her performance as President. Some of the blame could be laid at the feet of her advisors, but that hardly deflects it as they were chosen by her. I have in mind two recent examples.

Trump’s refusal to reveal his tax returns could be a real vulnerability. However he has brushed aside requests for them by noting that nothing requires him to do it and — absurdly — that his taxes are now being audited. Opening up a candidate’s tax records has been a universal practice since the time of Nixon, but there is a reason beyond historical precedent to demand this of Presidential candidates. A President has wide latitude in proposing financial and tax laws and regulations. How can we be assured that none are specifically tailored for his profit? The content of his tax returns would reveal a lot that could assuage that concern. Any honest candidate should be willing to undergo this invasion of privacy to satisfy the valid concerns of his fellow citizens.

Hillary could and should rake Trump over the coals on this basis. But I suspect that she fears an irrelevant but damaging counter response. Trump could say, “I will open my books, but only if you reveal the 30,000 emails you unilaterally decided were personal and only if you release the transcripts of your Wall Street speeches that garnered millions for you.” If Hillary really has nothing to lose, she is missing a telling shot at Trump. Either this is a tactical shortfall or Hillary really does have hidden problems.

The second example relates to the zombie campaign of Bernie Sanders. His chance of winning the nomination is vanishingly small, and continuing his quixotic quest causes great damage to Hillary. It costs time and money better spent preparing for the fall contest and produces sound bites of criticism that Trump will exploit. I believe that Bernie could be induced to relent if Hillary were to promise him real power at the convention. Give him strong representation on key committees, like the rules and platform committees, and assure him a prime time speaking slot. What would be the harm? If he promises to fight hard to bring along his unruly supporters and sincerely backs Hillary against Trump, this would remove one major stumbling block to her candidacy. But in fact Hillary, through her surrogate DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has done exactly the opposite. As Bernie has noted with anger, he is being frozen out instead. I think this is a tactical mistake and one she will come to regret when she doesn’t “Feel the Bern” in the fall.