Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, who won a Vermont Senate seat running as a Socialist, is now trying to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. He has far exceeded initial expectations, continues to draw large crowds, and has a message about income inequality in this country that is clearly resonating with many voters.

Yet, he trails Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination in every category including, most significantly, number of pledged delegates. As the process winds towards its conclusion and the Convention in Philadelphia in late July, Sanders has increasingly made complaints about the Party’s nominating rules a staple of his campaign rhetoric.

Does Sanders have a legitimate case or is he just turning into a sore loser?
It’s worth starting with the fact that, until this campaign, Sanders was not a member of the Democratic Party. While he does caucus with the Party in the Senate, he has not been a participant in any of the others ways in which Democrats engage in the work of their party organization.

That reality really does undercut Sanders’ standing to complain. When he decided to run for president, he did so knowing that there was an existing set of rules. No one forced him to run as a Democrat.  Moreover, you didn’t hear those complaints early in the process. They have arisen only as it has become evident that Sanders has only a very slight chance to prevail against Clinton.

Sanders has generally railed against a system that he describes as rigged. His observations about income inequality and about the perverse impact of money on the political system ring true for a lot of Americans, including many who support Clinton. In fact, those are themes that Sanders has been espousing for all his time as an elected official, but now he has a national audience for his message. The salience of his positions helps explain his outsized popularity among younger voters.

However, when he applies his “rigged system” complaint to the Democratic nominating process, he is on much weaker ground. He has focused his ire on two aspects of that process, the inclusion of so-called Super Delegates as automatic participants at the Convention and the closed primary rule that exists in many states.

Both arguments have been made without regard to the history that led to those two rules and to the context in which they exist. Sanders doesn’t like the impact on his candidacy but he has not been able to make a cogent case for why those two provisions are fundamentally unfair.

Primaries became the principal way in which candidates competed for delegates after the 1968 Election in which Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without running in a single primary. His selection at the Chicago convention that year was engineered by the power of the Party’s political bosses. That fact plus his loss to Richard Nixon in the General Election led Democrats to begin a complex process to reform how their nominee would be picked.

Over time, two party commissions, one chaired by South Dakota Senator George McGovern and the other by Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, rewrote the rules. In addition to emphasizing the role of primaries in selecting delegates, Democrats gave more weight to gender and racial diversity in the composition of those who attended their convention.

The immediate result of this dramatic opening up of the process was the disastrous defeat of George McGovern in the 1972 election. McGovern, the choice of a very liberal convention, was too far out of the country’s political mainstream. It became clear that while political bosses completely dominating the process created a distorted outcome, their total absence had a different kind of negative result. Eventually, the effort to find a more balanced process led to the creation of Super Delegates, elected officials and others who have a stake in the political viability of the party’s candidate.

Is the current balance the correct one? That’s a reasonable point to debate, but not in the middle of a nominating process. Sanders knew, or should have known, what he was getting into and made plans accordingly.

Parties changes their rules all the time, usually in response to whatever happened in the prior election. Republicans, for example, front loaded their primary schedule after 2012 when it took a long time for Mitt Romney to wrap up the nomination. In a great illustration of the rule of unanticipated consequences, that accelerated schedule helped Donald Trump to run up a series of victories before he came under close scrutiny by either the press or his opponents.

In states that allow open primaries, where registered voters can choose which party primary to participate in, there is a real possibility that the outcome will be determined by individuals who are not members of the party. Crossover and independent voters have multiple objectives that often ignore what is best for the party in whose primary they are participating.

Primaries are not previews of the General Election. They are mechanisms for selecting delegates. If we are going to continue to have political parties as the main structures for organizing our elections, there is a much stronger case to be made for closed rather than open primaries.

And, as with Sanders’ other objections, the primary system was in place before he announced his candidacy. Unless you are incredibly naive, you realize that rules matter in politics and that you don’t get to change them when things are unlikely to go your way.

To some supporters, Sanders refusal to compromise and, indeed, his anger are appealing traits. In recent days and weeks, those characteristics have increasingly dominated his campaign. Neither portends success in governing, but that’s a different matter. While I fully agree that Sanders has every right to continue to campaign aggressively for the nomination, it’s beginning to look like he doesn’t care whether his efforts damage the ability of the party whose nomination he is seeking to win in November against Donald Trump.

That approach again reminds us that Bernie Sanders is not really a Democrat. For some voters, that’s part of his attraction. For others, it’s a clear demonstration that it’s time to close out the process and enable Hillary Clinton to devote her full attention and resources to preventing a Trump presidency with all its implications.

Off the Political Grid

 

Francisco FrancoDonald Trump

During a recent trip to Spain, I managed largely to ignore the political news that had been such an obsession before I left. To be sure, an occasional headline broke through or an email from a friend pointed out some particularly outrageous development. For the most part, however, I stopped reading newspapers, Politico news summaries and all the sage commentary.

Upon my return, I discovered that relatively little had changed. It turned out having immediate access to a breaking report or to the latest mudslinging was for the most part irrelevant. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

That conclusion is far from a statement that politics doesn’t matter or that we don’t need to make every effort to be well-informed about it. What it does mean, at least to me, is that we often get consumed with the details and miss the big picture. In an era where real-time communications seem so important — witness all the people you’ve seen walking along the sidewalk, head down, reading or writing on their smartphones — relatively little “breaking news” is actually crucial. News organizations that rush to get the story first often get it wrong.

My observations, at first glance, seem to conflict with the basic storyline that this is the year in which everything has changed.  We have the spectacle of two outsiders with no loyalty to the political parties whose nominations they are attempting to capture.  The two frontrunners have unprecedentedly high unfavorable ratings.   The political establishments of both parties are in disarray and increasingly ignored.   In addition, one candidate, with no experience in government, is appealing to the worst in human nature, blatantly disregarding the truth, and reminding many of the fascist dictators of the 20th Century.

None of these developments, however, happened overnight.  All of them can be traced to prior history.  One of the many ways in which the media has performed badly in this election is failing to examine the factors that have led to the political mess in which we find ourselves today.  Everything is about the next news cycle, the scoop, the latest incendiary attack.

What’s more, we still have ahead of us more than five months of what will likely turn out to be the ugliest presidential campaign in history.  Given the patterns of our recent politics, that shouldn’t come as a surprise either.

How do we come through this election with our democracy as well as our personal sanity intact ?  My hiatus in Spain suggests a couple of strategies.  First, it is really critical that we pay attention to the campaigns and what they tell us about the candidates.  That’s different from reacting, or overreacting, to every pronouncement, every accusation, every bit of spin. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump present vastly different backgrounds, policy positions, approaches to the office and appeals to voters.  It’s been a long time since the electorate was offered such a stark choice.

Secondly, if you believe the outcome of the election matters, then active involvement is essential.  The first thing my wife and I did after returning from our trip was to write checks to two campaigns that we think are important.  The biggest political mistake that some people of my generation made was to convince themselves in 1968, after a tumultuous Democratic nominating campaign, that there was no difference between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon.

This is the point at which my trip to Spain raised an important historical example.  After the Spanish Civil War in which the army under General Francisco Franco overthrew a democratically elected government, Franco ruled Spain as an absolute dictator for the next 36 years.  Critics frequently compare Trump to Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini, but I think the comparison to Franco is at least as troubling.

The Trump campaign is certainly not a military coup, but it has many of the same appeals that Franco offered to Spanish conservatives.  Moreover, while a Trump presidency would not last 36 years, it certainly could bring about fundamental changes in what we now think of as American democracy.

I don’t plan to go back off the political grid and I will do my best to keep political news in perspective.  If reasonable people stay engaged, don’t allow themselves to get distracted or discouraged by the pseudo-drama of the campaigns and remember that there is no such thing as a perfect, flawless candidate, there will not be a Trump presidency to worry about.  That bit of optimism, tempered by the necessity of working to make it happen, is the best that I can offer.

 

 

The Great Conservative Myth

Goldwater book

Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. Invariably, soon after each defeat, some members of the party would allege that the outcome would have been different if only they had nominated a “true conservative.” Given that Ted Cruz, who is the most conservative national candidate since at least Barry Goldwater, offered himself as the savior of the right-wing of the party and got thoroughly rejected for the nomination, that’s going to be a hard argument to make from now on.

As many observers have noted about the rise of the Tea Party as well as the dismal showing of establishment candidates this year, conservative Republicans in office have not delivered on the many promises they  made to their base supporters. That fact alone does not fully explain Cruz’s failure.

In reality this country is not nearly as ideologically conservative as the zealots would like to believe. To be sure, there are portions of the country that consistently vote for true conservatives. That characterization applies mostly to the south although you can find other examples. In addition, there is strong support for what is often described as the conservative position on a number of specific issues. You can find social issue conservatives, fiscal conservatives, foreign policy neocons, but all those groups do not add up to a national majority. In fact, these various factions don’t even agree on what issues matter most.

Whatever else you say about Donald Trump, you can’t really call him a true conservative. Interestingly, Cruz kept making that argument and it did him no good. Republican voters weren’t looking for a reincarnation of Barry Goldwater.  They opted for someone who appealed to their fears and  prejudices.

What implications the defeat of Ted Cruz and the rise of Donald Trump have for the Republican Party and its candidates in this year’s General Election remain to be seen. Will “true conservatives” sit out the election? Will vulnerable Senate and House candidates distance themselves from the man at the top of the ticket? Will Republicans follow the advise of columnist Kathleen Parker and reconcile themselves to “lose the election with dignity”?

The Cruz Crash

Why didn’t Ted Cruz succeed in answering the prayers of all those true conservatives? One answer is that he ran into an electoral phenomenon in Donald Trump. However, that’s too easy a response and fails to take into account Cruz’s own responsibility for his loss.

Cruz entered the race as a much hated senator. John Boehner’s characterization of him this week as “Lucifer in the flesh” may be a clever turn of phrase but is a view  apparently shared by many of Cruz’s colleagues in Congress. His failure to get support from other elected officials was a glaring problem for his campaign.

He also made a huge error in not taking on Trump earlier in the campaign. Cruz praised Trump in the early going and acted like they were friends. That stance allowed Trump to develop momentum and gain early victories while other candidates dropped out. By the time Cruz got around to attacking Trump, it was too late and lacked credibility. Was it a failure of strategy or of nerve?

As the nominating process moved along, Cruz begin to look desperate. His choice of Carly Florina as his “running mate” had to be one of the most embarrassing moments in modern electoral history. Rather than leading to a bump in the polls, the decision became  fodder for every late night host’s opening monologue. As an aside, you do have to wonder if Florina will include her very brief stint as a veep candidate on her revised resume.

One of the ironies of Cruz’s loss is that Trump adopted the same scorched earth tactics that Cruz has employed in the senate. When the shoe was on the other foot, the Texas Senator didn’t know how to respond.

By the time Cruz withdrew from the race, his sterling conservative credentials proved to be no match for a opponent with no serious credentials and few if any clear beliefs or policies.  There’s plenty of room in the American political system for conservative views but little support for extreme conservative ideology.

 

THE RULES OF POLITICS

 

VOTING BOOTH

Rules matter. They may or may not be fair, but they always have an impact. Moreover, understanding the rules can be an important political tool while not paying adequate attention to them can cause all sorts of problems.

There’s been a lot of talk recently–much of it complaining–about the rules governing the nominating processes in both the Democratic and Republican Parties. In quite different ways, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have argued that the system is rigged and the rules are unfair.

In Trump’s case, he has actually benefitted from a couple of rule changes that the Republican National Committee instituted after the 2012 election. It’s instructive to consider those changes because they are, as is so often the case, rules intended to correct what was perceived as a problem in the past.

DONALD TRUMP AND THE NOMINATING PROCESS
The RNC hoped to get a nominee selected relatively early and without the circus atmosphere that characterized the 2012 nominating process. In pursuit of that goal, the party reduced the number of authorized debates and front-loaded the primary schedule.

As a result, Trump won several primaries before he had been seriously scrutinized by the press and before his opponents challenged his candidacy.  The absence of challenges came from lack of political courage by the other candidates, but the calendar made the problem worse. What the RNC didn’t anticipate when it reduced the number of debates was how crowded the stage would be.

Trump’s complaints about the delegate selection process on the other hand reflect a lack of organization within his campaign. Those rules were knowable to all prior to the start of the nominating season. Trump’s inattention to those rules may not end up costing him the nomination, but it has certainly extended the drama of the race.

THE SANDERS CHALLENGE
Sanders, meanwhile, has argued that the existence of super delegates makes the nominating process unfair. Again, he knew about super delegates before he started his campaign, or should have, and more recently has shifted his stance and is actively trying to woo them.
The reason for their existence, whatever you think of it, has a rational basis as far as the Democratic Party is concerned.

The history here is a little longer. After the 1968 election, in which Hubert Humphrey won the nomination without entering a single primary, Democrats radically overhauled their process. New rules led to most delegates being selected in state primaries and to requirements about the diversity of those delegates. The new highly democratized rules led to the nomination of George McGovern in 1972 and his debacle in that year’s General Election.

Over time, the Party instituted buffers to regain a bit of influence in the nominating process. Political bosses did not come back, but super delegates–key party leaders in each state–became a significant part of the process. Super delegates enable the party establishment to tip the balance if there is no clear winner and reduce the chances of a candidate from way outside the mainstream getting the nomination.

In 2008, Barack Obama understood the nominating process much better than Hillary Clinton did and ended up winning a long, contested race by doing better in caucus states, picking up delegates where the rules were fluid, and, as his momentum grew, appealing successfully to super delegates. Hillary Clinton seems to have learned those lessons and has applied them successfully to her 2016 campaign.

RULES AND ELECTIONS
Is this a rigged system? It certainly is structured to make it difficult for an outsider, an insurgent, to win. Bernie Sanders is discovering that; although given that he never called himself a Democrat before this election cycle, he shouldn’t be surprised. Yet, Donald Trump, who in many respects is at least as much an outsider as Sanders, is poised to win the Republican nomination.

And, as much attention as the rules of the nominating process have received this year, there are arguably several other rules that are actually much more significant in terms of the legitimacy of the election. One involves the efforts of a number of states to disenfranchise some voters through voter ID laws. Don’t kid yourself; anyone arguing that there is widespread voter fraud has a partisan political agenda and is trying to use the rules to influence the outcome. There should be an overwhelming presumption that everyone is entitled to vote unless a clear and decisive case can be made about specific abuses.

The rules about money in elections, altered dramatically by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision, have had a significant distorting impact on the electoral process. Presidential candidates of all parties have figured out how to raise obscene amounts of money and, to some extent, balance each other out. The really perverse impact has been in state and local elections where dark money can really tilt the playing field.

Another misguided Supreme Court decision that changed the rules for the worse was its nullification of key sections of the Voting Rights Act. The results have already been evident in places like Arizona, where state officials reduced the number of polling places by two-thirds and left voters to stand in line for hours. Unfortunately, that’s not the only example.

Rules are not neutral.  The Supreme Court’s intervention in the General Election of 2000 may be the most disturbing example of all. A 5-4 majority of the Court overrode a popular majority for Al Gore as well as local election procedures in Florida.

In 2016, the ultimate outcome of the General Election is unlikely to be determined by unfair rules or manipulation of them. However, the debate about the rules may well be important in turning public attention to the many imperfections in our electoral system. There will undoubtedly be efforts by both parties after this year to make corrections, but those changes are also likely to have as many unintended as intended consequences.