The Contenders

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” “We’ll always have Paris. “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?”‘ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself – but being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

Everyone remembers all those great lines from the movies. A list of them could go on and on, a list of what we all imagine we’d love to say one day, even if that day never comes, or ever could come. It doesn’t matter. Hollywood is here to help you with your fantasies. That’s what we do out here, and it does make a lot of money for those who sell you a few moment’s escape from your dull and pointless life – except that we’ll sell you your worst nightmares too. That’s produced a second set of famous movie quotes, the words you just know you’ll have to say one day. There’s that classic line from On the Waterfront – “I coulda’ been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

Yep, Marlon Brando plays a guy with a bit of talent but not quite enough insight, who gets used and discarded by those who are a bit more focused and a lot less ethical, and just a bit smarter, than he is. He’s not so much blaming anyone as he’s upset by what he’s just figured out. A little bit of talent is something that doesn’t matter a whole lot. Yes, he could have been a contender – he should have been – but life is complicated. Someone always outsmarts you. You always knew you had a good chance at really being something, even if a meager something, or at least a contender. Nope. You’re a bum.

That’s everyone’s nightmare. Marlon Brando shows that nightmare to us raw, but everyone feels it – pasteurized perhaps. It’s sort of a little shadow in the back of the mind, but real enough. It’s something one buries. It’s not supposed to be true. It just can’t be true – but in the middle of the night you suspect it is quite true. For someone to win, or even be a contender, everyone else must lose. The odds were always against you. The odds are pretty much impossible.

There’s no cheery way to deal with this, unless you’re a Buddhist and just shrug and smile at the whole silly idea of worldly success. That’s not an option for most people in our hyper-competitive culture. Everyone tells themselves that they’re a contender, and tell their kids the same thing, but those impossible odds are as real as real can be. Ambition is useful, but so is realism – and nowhere does this show up more than in politics. That’s filled with those doing the Marlon Brando thing, but not as well, usually on Fox News – Herman Cain and Rick Santorum saying they could have been a contender, and Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich too, and maybe Rick Perry. Sure, they could have been contenders – but someone outsmarted them, or was a little more insightful, or a whole lot less ethical, or something. Maybe that’s so, and not fair, but these folks are bums now. Only Mitt Romney was the contender here, and he’s not president. There’s only room for one at the top.

It’s odd that people even go into politics, as the first step is to prove you could have been a contender last time around, and everyone should realize you are one now. There are no Buddhists in politics, just those trying to prove they’re not bums, not really.

That’s easier said than done, as there’s always someone smarter, and the last thing you want to do is prove it, which was Rand Paul’s most recent problem. He will be the Republican nominee the next time around – Chris Matthews says so:

“I believe the Republican base will do the same in 2016,” Matthews said. “They put up with George Bush the first, put up with Bob Dole, were deeply disappointed with the big-spending George W and last year, again, by Mitt Romney and are now going to come loaded for bear for the race for 2016. So I predict the hard right is gonna take over the Republican Party in 2016 and the nomination is going to Rand Paul.”

“You watch,” he said in closing. “This is what I do for a living.”

Mathews is a bit of a jerk, but jerks are often right, although Steve Benen points out Rand Paul’s recent problems:

Just over the last few days he started to lose his cool on NPR when asked about a neo-confederate he co-authored a book with; he was caught making ridiculous boasts about his record on minority rights; and he repeated a bizarre conspiracy theory about George Stephanopoulos that’s already been debunked.

Follow the links. Rand Paul had a bad week, but then he sat down for an extensive interview with BusinessWeek’s Josh Green, where he tried to get back in contention with stuff like this:

Green: A recent article in the New Republic said your budget would eviscerate the departments of Energy, State, Commerce, EPA, FDA, Education, and many others. Would Americans support that?

Paul: My budget is similar to the Penny Plan, which cuts 1 percent a year for five or six years and balances the budget. Many Americans who have suffered during a recession have had to cut their spending 1 percent, and they didn’t like doing it, but they were able to do it to get their family’s finances back in order. I see no reason why government can’t cut 1 percent of its spending.

America’s favorite wonk, Ezra Klein, is not impressed:

So that’s not actually an answer. Paul’s budget eliminates the Department of Commerce. It also eliminates the Department of Education. And the Department for Housing and Urban Development. And the Department of Energy. The State Department gets cut by more than 50 percent.

Meanwhile, it increases spending on defense by $126 billion.

Perhaps these are good ideas! But Paul doesn’t defend them. He obscures them. He tries to make his cuts sound small even though, in the areas Green asked about, they’re huge. If Paul has thought these policies through and has a persuasive argument for why the United States would be better off if the Department of Education was eliminated so the Department of Defense can be expanded, he should make his case. That he’s instead hiding the reality of his budget’s cuts is telling.

The stuff on the deficit is even worse:

“What I would say is extreme is a trillion-dollar deficit every year,” he tells Green when asked whether the public will accept such deep cuts.

But we’re not running trillion-dollar deficits every year – and nor are Paul’s political opponents claiming that we should. The Congressional Budget Office projects this year’s deficit will be $642 billion and 2015′s deficit will be only $378 billion – and though deficits will rise again as we close out the decade, they won’t reach a trillion dollars.

And that’s if we do nothing. President Obama’s budget is estimated to bring deficits down to $542 billion in 2023.

Klein is not impressed:

This isn’t just pedantry. The argument behind Ryan’s budget is that the cuts need to be so right now because the deficits are so mind-bogglingly large. You have to measure them in the trillions!

But the deficits Paul is estimating are vastly larger than the deficits we actually face. It’s almost like the deficits are just an excuse for policies Paul already supports, rather than the cause for policies Paul is only reluctantly embracing.

Ambition is useful, but there is reality out there and then there’s this part of the interview:

Who would your ideal Fed chairman be?

Hayek would be good, but he’s deceased. Friedman would probably be pretty good, too, and he’s not an Austrian, but he would be better than what we have. Yeah. Let’s just go with dead, because then you probably really wouldn’t have much of a functioning Federal Reserve.

You know the line from the movie, from the spooky little kid – “I see dead people.” It’s like that, but Jonathan Chait notes here that Friedman’s “central academic insight was support for very active monetary policy. He called it ‘Monetarism.’ Look it up!”

This didn’t go well, and Klein adds this:

Paul is supposed to be one of the GOP’s great hopes, and part of the argument for his candidacy is that his philosophy is purer and so the policies that flow from it are more sensible and less compromised. But in this interview, he seemed confused on the state of both fiscal policy and monetary policy and unwilling to make a forthright argument for his policies.

It’s hard to even be a contender these days, and Benen adds this:

My principal concern with Rand Paul is not his ideology. On plenty of subjective questions, he and I would recommend very different courses of action, which is what spirited political debate is all about.

Rather, what troubles me about the senator is that he doesn’t seem to have the foggiest idea what he’s talking about. Worse, it’s not like he’s ignorant of obscure policy details on issues he deems irrelevant – Paul is strikingly confused about the issues he claims to care about most.

Remember the character that Marlon Brando played wasn’t too bright either. This will not end well, and Jonathan Chait thinks he sees the problem here:

For Rand (and Ron) Paul, the dread specter of fiscal collapse and hyperinflation is more of a generalized fact of life than something that depends on particular “numbers.” The whole political rise of the Pauls since 2008 owes a great deal to the economic crisis and the resulting spike in the deficit, which drove large numbers of people to join the freak-out bunker where the Pauls have resided all along. Of course Rand Paul isn’t going to notice the apocalypse is receding – its imminent appearance is a fixed piece of his worldview.

Chait has been saying this all along:

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

So, Rand Paul was displaying attitude, not talking policy or referring to actual facts. That didn’t work well for the character Brando played, but maybe politics is different. Or maybe he will pop up on Fox News one days saying he coulda’ been a contender – in a tragic way of course. Life is so unfair, and Salon’s Joan Walsh sums up the problem:

Whether it helped him or not, Paul’s star turn with major national reporters this week is the clearest evidence yet that he’s planning a 2016 presidential run. What’s also clear is that he hasn’t decided whether he’s going to run as the far-right extremist that he is, or whether he’s going to try to tone down or simply hide his less popular stands. Since his appeal with the Tea Party base lies not only in his extremism but in his candor about it, the latter would seem a risky strategy. He’ll have plenty of competition to his right if he stumbles.

She then points out how Ted Cruz feels about squishes – and he’s far smarter and far less ethical than Rand Paul will ever be. Thugs on the New Jersey waterfront, Tea Party politics – it’s all the same thing.

That leaves the odd man out, the guy who’s actually from New Jersey, but, as Alex Pareene points out, one who is perhaps the oddest of actual contenders:

Chris Christie is probably running for president in 2016. He is probably one of the “favorites.” The donor class loves him so much they begged him to enter the race in 2012. He is cruising to an easy reelection in a very blue state with the support of a surprising number of Democratic donors. Despite the apparent cross-partisan appeal, he has also been a right-wing folk hero, primarily for his “viral” videos in which he yelled at government employees. Christie polls well in New Hampshire, and he leads nationally in some polls. There is just one small problem, though: He is already the candidate Republican voters hate the most.

That’s what Rasmussen’s latest poll says. Twenty-one percent of Republicans nationwide say they’d vote for Christie to be their nominee in 2016. But when asked who they least wanted to be the nominee, 31 percent of Republicans said Christie. Hillary Clinton has a similar problem among Democrats, but her yeses at least outweigh her negatives. How did this happen to Christie, exactly? The simple answer is that he’s too good at what he does, and what he does is hide his conservatism behind a mask of reasonableness.

He’s a sneaky bastard, and has been facing down some odd folks:

One (particularly vile) segment of the right hates him for one of Christie’s unambiguously admirable acts: standing up to virulent Islamophobia. Unfortunately, virulent Islamophobia is very, very popular on the right, tolerated at the highest levels and encouraged by even the most respectable media outlets of the conservative movement. Mitt Romney counted John Bolton, ally of raving anti-Muslim loons Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, as a foreign policy adviser. “Sharia law” hysteria has taken hold at Republican-run legislatures across the nation. These people are prepared to go to war to prevent Christie from being the nominee. They will (and have) essentially call him a terrorist sympathizer.

Daniel Pipes and Steve Emerson wrote of “Chris Christie’s Islam Problem” in the National Review. The odious Robert Spencer declared Christie “a foursquare tool of jihadists and Islamic supremacists.”

This is a problem, but not as big a problem as the obvious:

The right has not forgotten Chris Christie’s post-hurricane embrace of President Obama. The words “Benedict Arnold” have been thrown around. Conservative commentators of varying prominence explicitly blamed Christie for Obama’s reelection. That sort of talk largely came from the less “respectable” voices of the conservative movement, but the conservative base hates and distrusts anything “respectable.” Dick Morris may be a fool, but he’s a fool with a massive audience that does not know he’s a fool.

These folks are missing the real contender here, the real conservative:

The ironic thing about this conservative distrust is that Christie actually would be a very conservative president. He’s an antiabortion and anti-gay marriage staunch Catholic who believes in low taxes and no regulations and all the rest of the important, eternally unchanging policies on the checklist. Christie’s branding is designed to make him attractive to moderates in the Northeast – this is how the press fell in love with him, obviously – but it’s just that: branding. On the issues, he’s a man solidly of the right.

Christie could win the nomination, but it wouldn’t be easy, so he’s only sort of a contender:

All the money people do love him a lot. But if the divide between what the money people in the conservative movement want, and what the raging base wants, grows between now and 2016, Christie will find himself on the side with far fewer Republican primary voters.

He’s still their best bet, even if they hate him. He’s one of them. They just have a hard time seeing that, but then everyone is confused:

New Jersey governor Chris Christie is more popular among Liberals than among Conservatives, though many aren’t sure how different he is from his rival Republican, Rand Paul.

In the past two weeks disagreements over the future of the Republican Party broke out into open disagreement between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. The fissure highlights a split in the Republican Party between a growing Libertarian wing epitomized by Paul and more centrist leaders such as Christie.

The latest research from YouGov shows how different the perceptions are of Chris Christie and Rand Paul. Despite being a Republican politician, Chris Christie manages to be more popular among Liberals (42%) than among Conservatives (33%).

Even along party lines, Governor Christie is viewed favorably by 44% of Democrats and 48% of Republicans.

Views on Rand Paul are far more polarized, with Liberals (70%) overwhelmingly having a negative view of Senator Paul, while Conservatives (70%) overwhelmingly have a positive view of the prominent GOP senator.

Who is the contender and who is the bum? That depends on who you ask, but as in the movie, the advantage always goes to the thuggish boss from Jersey. That may be straining the metaphor too far, but that line remains famous. I coulda’ been a contender. Politicians say that all the time, with regret but often with a new and somewhat desperate hope, so expect to hear it a lot as the jockeying for 2016 intensifies. The line is tragic, by the way.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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