Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Swamps of South Carolina; the Slots of Nevada

The Third Hand A Historical Perspective

“I’d like to find a one-handed economist.”
- Harry Truman

vol. 2

The Swamps of South Carolina; the Slots of Nevada 

February 29, 2016

On this strange Leap Day that comes around every four years during presidential primary season, I look back on the strangest primary season I have ever witnessed and one of the strangest weeks I have ever spent in Washington.  I was here for the government shut-down in the fall of 2013.  That was certainly strange enough.  There was another shut-down during the Clinton-Gingrich years, which I witnessed from a distance.  I lived through, as a teen-ager, what many historians call America’s annus horribilus, 1968, when two great Americans were assassinated and the nation engaged in vitriolic debate about the Vietnam War.

This past week we onlookers beheld a party full of people who finally looked up from their drinks and canap├ęs to see that that boorish character who crashed the party was still there.  They had hoped that people would simply ignore him, he would tire of talking to himself and leave, but we now see that people have assembled chairs around him and appear to be really listening. 

What?  We thought this was the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan.  The conservative, respectable Republican Party.  These presidents inspired plenty of opposition in their day, surely, but they maintained their dignity, generally earned the respect of their opponents and respected them in turn.  The party certainly changed over the years and we cannot expect the Grand Old Party be the same as it was 100 or even fifty years ago.  And some fifty years ago it went through a similar fracas. 

T. H. White, in The Making of the President 1964, wrote about this last time the Republican Party tore itself apart.  As it became clear that Senator Barry Goldwater was on his way to being nominated, leading Republicans pleaded with former President Eisenhower to issue some sort of statement, an endorsement of Governor Rockefeller, perhaps, anything that might slow down the rush to Goldwater.  Ike, characteristically, would not act unless he saw a clear path to success.  That is how he acted throughout his career and it worked very well for him.  He was a very successful president, perhaps even a great one, because he chose his battles very carefully.  Thus T. H. White wrote about him and his party:

“Eisenhower, for Republicans, is like the Holy Ark that the ancient Israelites carried into battle against the Philistines.  Somewhere deep inside the mystery of Eisenhower lies that which most Republicans think their party is about.”

It is another measure of how our politics has changed that we must now substitute Reagan for Eisenhower as that Holy Ark; and even Reagan is quickly fading into history beyond the recall of living memory.  People under the age of forty today have at best just dim childhood memories of this last Republican president who maintained his popularity within the party and much of the electorate throughout his tenure in office. 

What is the Republican Party about in the late winter and early spring of 2016?  The question hangs in the balance.  A strange tilt-o-whirl, Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere pervades this primary season, as if a massive earthquake were going on – the walls are shaking, the furniture is moving - without end in sight. 

What worries me most is the fate of the Presidency itself.  A reality television star, given to boorish outbursts and dogged by allegations of impropriety and financial malfeasance, appears to be on track to win the Republican nomination.  The way things are heading, “American Idol” may well be the best name for the occupant of this office.  What would Isaiah or Jeremiah make of that? 

One would think that the Republican establishment should be able to find a suitable candidate to stop the stampede to Trump, but not only does there not appear to be such a candidate, there does not appear to be such an establishment either.  There are two former Republican Presidents, both named Bush, either of whom, in normal years, might be called upon to speak some words of wisdom and encouragement to party stalwarts.  Not this year.  

The Democrats, though divided, are in slightly better shape.  They like both of their presidential retirees and, generally, nominees.  On the culture front – everything having to do with sex, gender and diversity - they seem to be winning and if one were to bet money, one would bet on the White House remaining in the hands of the Democrats.

But not much else.  The House will almost certainly remain Republican.  The Republicans may well retain control of the Senate.  Senate Republican leaders appear to have no worries about a popular reaction against their refusal to even consider a nominee to the Supreme Court – or to consider closing Guantanamo either - indicating a confident feel for the pulse of their voters.. 

How can this be?

Is it that Trump is out and out saying the mean-spirited things that Republican leaders have merely been implying?  Are millions of Americans so fed up with political correctness that they just revel in someone who flouts these conventions?  Have the two parties drifted so far apart and the culture become so vulgarized that Donald Trump can appear to occupy the middle ground as some kind of common-sense everyman?  Is this what our gadget and entertainment-loving culture has created?

I stand by last week’s prediction that Donald Trump would lose a general election to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders by a wide margin.  Too few Democrats will vote for Trump and too many Republicans will not vote for him.  There is certainly time for another candidate to win the Republican nomination.  We still only have a few delegates allocated from four rather small, unrepresentative states, after all.  But no remaining candidate has the star personality power of the New York businessman. 

Will personality and an uncanny finger on the pulse of this strange new electorate be enough?  We may know as soon as tomorrow.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Snows of New Hampshire

I distinctly remember the run-up to the New Hampshire in 1964.  Senator Goldwater of Arizona had received a lot of attention during the previous year and people speculated about how well he would run against the popular President Kennedy.  Both men had arrived unexpectedly in the Senate in 1953 after winning elections against venerable incumbents.  The story was that they rather liked each other despite their differences and were thinking about a series of debates should Goldwater be the Republican nominee.

Then came the tragedy in November and all talk of politics ceased until after Christmas.

Finally, on January 3rd, as expected, Senator Goldwater of Arizona announced his candidacy.  With two months to go before the New Hampshire Primary, this was in plenty of time and not too soon after the traumatic assassination.  The president now was Johnson, an election impended in the fall and the nation had to prepare to vote for him or whoever the Republicans might choose.

Goldwater was expected to win the New Hampshire Primary.  He spent a lot of time there and had a good organization.  Nonetheless the crawlers across the bottom of the television on the evening of March 10 gave the early lead to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, a write-in candidate who had not announced his candidacy and who probably had no serious intention of running.  But remember that this was not that long after the era when candidates got the nomination without ever actually campaigning for it.  It was considered undignified to want the job too much.  Dwight Eisenhower simply announced in January of 1953 that he would accept the Republican nomination if drafted.  He did not even visit New Hampshire, but a shade over 50% of the Republican voters wrote in his name and he won the primary by about fifteen points over Senator Robert Taft of Ohio.

Things were different then.

I believe the network cut away from normal programming – my brother and I were watching “McHale’s Navy,” or something - for a couple of shots of voters talking to reporters as snowflakes fluttered down.  By the time the 10 o’clock news came on, it was apparent that Lodge, unaccountably, had won.  There was then another month before the next primary.  Nonetheless, Senator Goldwater’s campaign just gathered more steam.  His organization was still good and his people went about sewing up delegates.  Nelson Rockefeller mounted a valiant effort, but he was a very flawed candidate.  He was too eastern, too New York, and too divorced.  Goldwater was nominated on the first ballot at the Republican Convention in July.

Senator Goldwater has faded into the warm embrace of history by now and so we have forgotten how scary he seemed at the time and it was not just the child licking ice cream while the atomic bomb went off in the background (one of the first true television attack ads and it only ran once before being pulled) that made him so. 

T. H. White, in The Making of the President 1964, wrote about how difficult it was to cover the Arizona Senator.  Goldwater was a plain-spoken man, given to profanity and imprudent statements.  He appeared to endorse the use of tactical nuclear weapons, something that was quietly discussed in the halls of the Pentagon and various think-tanks, but nowhere else.  “Did he really say this?” reporters would ask one another.  Everyone would nod and out would go  another story that would help him to win the nomination but lose the general election in spectacular fashion. 

And so, here we are fifty-four years later, trying to understand what just happened in New Hampshire.  Donald Trump has won the New Hampshire Primary.  Being eastern, New York and twice divorced does not appear to be a problem for him.  Nonetheless, I predict that “TRUMP” “is how Republicans today spell “GOLDWATER.”  It may well also be that “BUSH” or “RUBIO” will turn out to be how they spell “ROCKEFELLER,” in which case the party is doomed to a defeat of epic proportions in November. 

Just do the math:  Donald Trump will get almost no votes from Black or Hispanic voters.  There goes 30% of the electorate before the campaign even starts.  It is highly doubtful that will attract a majority of women voters, of whatever race or income.  Many Republicans say they will not vote for him in the general election – a few more percentage points that he will desperately need to win.  How can he possibly win the general election in November? 

He has some amazing strengths as a campaigner.  He is good copy.  He is a natural performer.  He has plenty of money.  In some ways he reminds me of another New Yorker who defied the political establishment over a century ago to become president:  Teddy Roosevelt.  But Roosevelt was a  genuine war hero who had proven his manliness on the field of battle and was an experienced politician with many accomplishments.  He had a certain manic energy that came to focus in the White House and made his one of the most successful presidencies ever.  Donald Trump has done little besides make real estate deals. 

In his so far amazingly successful candidacy we see the triumph of a gifted marketer, brander and performer.  I do not think he will get the nomination or win the election if he does, but what we are staring at is a primary election process that is disquietingly like American Idol and its many imitators.  Neither the candidates nor the TV journalists questioning them look much more serious than the contestants and glitzbahs that appear on these tawdry entertainment contests.  If electronic polling ever replaces the act of going to a school, church or firehouse to cast a ballot, I tremble to think of what democracy will look like a few years hence.

Beginning in August of 2015, there have been fifteen debates, in a bewildering variety of formats, for, initially, seventeen Republican candidates.  The last was a verbal donnybrook that left veteran Republican advisers aghast.  At least five more are scheduled.  Can anyone imagine even the telegenic and charismatic John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan managing to maintain their dignity and gravitas were they alive to endure such a circus? 

Or Eisenhower.

On the other hand, American democracy is like a strong stomach acid; it can digest almost anything.  Revolutionary-sounding candidates generally do not win, then slowly moderate their views over the years.  Senator Goldwater recovered from his disastrous run for president to become a respected elder statesman.  William Jennings Bryan both inspired and frightened even more people when he ran for president in 1896, but he lost and lost decisively.  Two more runs did not improve his performance.  At the end of his career, however, his supporters could claim that he brought new voters to the polls and instilled faith in democracy during a gilded age of robber barons not unlike our own.  He then served as Secretary of State.

To find a revolutionary who ran for president and won, a truly dangerous-sounding and dangerous-looking man, we have to look all the way back to 1828 and Andrew Jackson.  He had been smacked by a British officer’s sword, led men in battle, killed men in duels and vowed to change the way things were done in Washington, primarily by destroying the Bank of the United States.  His inaugural party at the White House horrified genteel onlookers.  Nonetheless, after winning re-election (easily, I might add) he toured the country and received an honorary degree from Harvard.  Former President John Quincy Adams (who earned his Harvard degree) was horrified, again.  Yet the presidency of Jackson was ultimately a triumph because of his ability to hold the country together during the nullification crisis.  And so he is tucked into the sprawling fabric of American history as a hero – mostly.  Abraham Lincoln, of course, had a revolutionary presidency, but he did not seek it.  His heroic qualities came out as he rose to meet the secession crisis and ultimately mastered it.  The United States that we live in is his legacy. 

I’m trying to find some truly heroic qualities in Donald Trump.  Perhaps they are there.  Time will tell.