Big changes are coming soon. At this time next year we’ll have a new president – Inauguration Day is Friday, January 20, 2017 – Barack Obama will be gone. He’ll have to find something useful to do with his time, although, given the last eight difficult years – the Republicans screamed about everything he tried, even what was their idea in the first place – some downtime would be understandable. Sip some scotch. Stare at the sky. Hit a good restaurant. Catch a movie. Take long naps. When the phone rings, answer any questions the new president has – if that’s a Democrat. The Republican won’t call. Or start a foundation – that’s what Bill Clinton did. Or build houses for the poor – that’s what Jimmy Carter did. Or disappear – that’s what George W. Bush did. But what’s done is done – the Affordable Care Act and the deal with Iran that stopped their nuclear weapons program, normalized relations with Cuba, the end of the war in Iraq and all the rest – and none of that can really be undone. Give it a rest. Your replacement will handle things. That’s not your worry.
That’s our worry. At the moment, one week out from the Iowa caucuses, to be followed in a week or two by the New Hampshire primary, the replacements seem a sorry lot. They just don’t seem presidential, at least on the Republican side. The Bush campaign just released an online video ad – Barbara Bush says her son Jeb is a “hard worker” with a big heart – “Of all the people running, he seems to be the one who could solve the problems. I think he’ll be a great president.”
That seems innocuous enough, but Donald Trump had a tweet for that:
Just watched Jeb’s ad where he desperately needed mommy to help him. Jeb – mom can’t help you with ISIS, the Chinese or with Putin.
That was a taunt. Look, little Jeb is running home to mommy! This wasn’t exactly elevated political discourse about policy. It was grade-school playground nonsense, but then there was this:
During a Saturday rally in Iowa, Donald Trump said he wouldn’t lose any support in the presidential race from voters even if he shot someone.
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” Trump said, according to video from NBC News. “It’s, like, incredible.”
That’s an odd boast, but Trump explained it this way:
“I have the most loyal people,” he said after citing his wide lead in the polls.
He said that support for his Republican rivals is “soft.” Trump said that when people learned that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was born in Canada, he lost supporters.
Maybe he’ll shoot someone to prove that, but this was just another taunt. All the “politically correct” people would be outraged. They get all upset about guns and shooting people, but people shoot people all the time. He knew they’d be outraged, and he was sort of inviting his “loyal people” to laugh at them for being weeping wimps. After all, after the mass shooting near the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014 – a lot of dad college kids – Joe the Plumber said this – “Your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”
Donald Trump knows his loyal people. He can talk about casually shooting people. Rights are rights – but this comment was mostly meant to piss off the people he wanted to piss off. In 1966, John Lennon said this of the Beatles – “We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary.”
At the time, the hot mess that was the sixties, the God-people were outraged. The Beatles “loyal people” were not, and laughed at them. It’s the same sort of thing. The target-people will sputter in outrage and look foolish. Your people will laugh at them and love you all the more, and there’s a lot of this going around:
Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Sunday that rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’s comment about the winter storm showed “a real immaturity.”
The Blaze had reported that Rubio joked about the blizzard saying that the winter storm was good because it had prevented agencies from issuing new regulations.
Christie took the bait:
“Well, that’s a difference between a United States senator who has never been responsible for anything and a governor who is responsible for everything that goes on in your state. Fourteen people died across the country,” Christie said. “And that shows a real immaturity from Senator Rubio to be joking as families were freezing in the cold, losing power, and some of them losing their loved ones.”
Well, that only proves that prissy and politically correct Chris Christie can’t take a joke. He overreacted to an idle comment. He loses that one, although Rubio seems a pale imitation of Trump. In fact, the Des Moines Register editorial board announced on Saturday that it would endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary and Marco Rubio in the Republican primary, so one view in Iowa is this:
The presidency is not an entry-level position. Whoever is sworn into office next January must demonstrate not only a deep understanding of the issues facing America, but also possess the diplomatic skills that enable presidents to forge alliances to get things done.
By that measure, Democrats have one outstanding candidate deserving of their support: Hillary Clinton. No other candidate can match the depth or breadth of her knowledge and experience.
And of Rubio the Register wrote that it “values the executive experience, pragmatism and thoughtful policies of John Kasich, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush,” but admitted that Republican voters are not “interested in rewarding a long resume this year.”
On the Republican side, being presidential doesn’t seem to matter this year, which distress many Republicans, and everyone seems to have a theory about how you’d really beat Trump. No one has figured that out yet, but here’s Ross Douthat’s theory:
Think back to that misty time, two years gone, when one of Trump’s current rivals – Chris Christie, that’s the one – was seen as the presumptive Republican front-runner. What was the basis of Christie’s appeal? Simply this: He was a jerk, but he was your jerk. He was rude – but to people who deserved it. He was an SOB – the SOB the country needed.
Then think about why the “Bridgegate” scandal was devastating to his image… it devastated Christie because it flipped his brand. Instead of the jerk who looks out for the average guy, he became the jerk whose allies had stuck it to commuters. Instead of the tough guy fighting for you, he became the tough guy whose goons would mire their constituents in traffic for a pointless little feud.
Use that on Trump:
To attack him effectively, you have to go after the things that people like about him. You have to flip his brand.
That would go like this:
Tell people about all his cratered companies. Then find people who suffered from those fiascos – workers laid off following his bankruptcies, homeowners who bought through Trump Mortgage, people who ponied up for sham degrees from Trump University….
Find the people hurt by Trump’s attempts to exploit eminent domain: The widow whose boarding house he wanted to demolish to make room for a limo parking lot, the small businessmen whose livelihoods he wanted to redevelop out of existence.
It’s a theory, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog considers it a stupid theory:
Most of that is out there. It’s been out there since Trump rose to the top of the polls. His voters don’t care. His voters don’t care about anything he said or did before he seemed to become “their SOB.”
That’s because Douthat is mistaken about what brought Christie down in the eyes of national Republican voters. It wasn’t that he had come to be regarded as an SOB for the wrong side – that may have been what Jersey voters thought, but that wasn’t his problem with Republicans nationwide. Christie’s problem with Republican voters across the country was that he had stopped seeming like an SOB at all.
First he embraced President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Then, after Bridgegate, he was apologetic (or at least he apologized for what he was shocked, shocked, to learn his staffers had done). When you saw him on TV, he wasn’t yelling at a union teacher – instead, his political survival was being discussed by Rachel Maddow, or Joe ‘n’ Mika. He’d been brought low. He was no longer the guy who put his enemies on the defensive.
Then he compounded the problem by spending a year as the head of the Republican Governors Association. No longer was he the video bullyboy you saw on Fox News every couple of weeks. He was too busy roaming the country doing favors for influential Republicans, in the hope that they’d help him in the presidential race.
Trump seems to understand that:
Republican voters may not know about the ordinary Americans who’ve been victimized by Donald Trump, but they’ve seen him attack people – Megyn Kelly and Ted Cruz – people they like. It hasn’t bothered them. They’ve seen him attack John McCain on the one aspect of McCain’s career they still respect, his military service. It hasn’t upset them. In New Hampshire, Jeb Bush is running ads in which the father of a child with cerebral palsy expresses disgust at Trump’s attack on a disabled reporter. Trump voters don’t care.
Why? Because attacks like this reaffirm the impression that Trump is an SOB. As long as he seems to be primarily an SOB on the voters’ side, they don’t care if he’s an SOB toward anyone else.
That’s not very presidential, but the weekend brought another attack – Glenn Beck on Saturday formally endorsed Ted Cruz because Ted Cruz isn’t Donald Trump:
“The other guy has said he hasn’t done anything in his life that actually makes him feel like he should ask forgiveness from God,” he said of Trump. “The hubris of that is astonishing, as if for the last eight years we have watched a narcissist in the Oval Office and it has meant nothing to us.”
Beck said Trump owed America an apology for supporting the Wall Street bailout during the financial crisis.
“It’s up to him to ask God’s forgiveness, but I would like to suggest to you that the man owes America an apology, and he should ask conservatives for America for forgiveness for supporting billions of dollars of bailouts, for pulling for the nationalization of our banks,” he said.
And then the big surprise:
He said he even prefers Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” running in the Democratic presidential primary, to Trump.
“Honesty, faith and truth are basic requirements. And quite honestly, I have to tell you, this probably isn’t going to go over very well, that’s why I like Bernie Sanders,” he said. “Bernie Sanders is like, ‘Yep, I’m a socialist.'”
“I can actually sit at a table with a man who says, ‘Yes, I’m a socialist, and yes, I don’t like what we are doing, we should be more like Denmark,’ ” he added.
“What we really need in America is enough of these politicians who are telling us what we want to hear, hiding behind fancy language, and actually have a debate between a constitutionalist like Ted Cruz and a socialist like Bernie Sanders.”
Beck was on fire, but that only gives the Trumpeteers, as they’re called, one more fool to laugh at. That’s what winners do – they get your goat and you end up all red-faced, looking foolish, although Beck has sort of made a career of that. What Beck says really doesn’t matter.
These are Obama’s potential replacements? Paul Krugman, from his perch at the New York Times, is fed up with Trump and the rest, and considers the Democratic replacements:
There are still quite a few pundits determined to pretend that America’s two great parties are symmetric – equally unwilling to face reality, equally pushed into extreme positions by special interests and rabid partisans. It’s nonsense, of course. Planned Parenthood isn’t the same thing as the Koch brothers, nor is Bernie Sanders the moral equivalent of Ted Cruz. And there’s no Democratic counterpart whatsoever to Donald Trump.
Moreover, when self-proclaimed centrist pundits get concrete about the policies they want, they have to tie themselves in knots to avoid admitting that what they’re describing are basically the positions of a guy named Barack Obama.
Still, there are some currents in our political life that do run through both parties. And one of them is the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.
People will be foolish:
You see this on the right among hardline conservatives, who insist that only the cowardice of Republican leaders has prevented the rollback of every progressive program instituted in the past couple of generations. Actually, you also see a version of this tendency among genteel, country-club-type Republicans, who continue to imagine that they represent the party’s mainstream even as polls show that almost two-thirds of likely primary voters support Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz or Ben Carson.
Meanwhile, on the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions. In 2008 that contingent rallied behind Mr. Obama; now they’re backing Mr. Sanders, who has adopted such a purist stance that the other day he dismissed Planned Parenthood (which has endorsed Hillary Clinton) as part of the “establishment.”
That’s not how things work, and Obama’s eight years proves that:
That’s not to say that he’s a failure. On the contrary, he’s been an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since LBJ. Yet his achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.
So we have this:
Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama. (In fact, the health reform we got was basically her proposal, not his.)
But either way, the replacement should know what limits are there, given Obama’s seven years so far:
Maybe he could have done more at the margins. But the truth is that he was elected under the most favorable circumstances possible, a financial crisis that utterly discredited his predecessor – and still faced scorched-earth opposition from Day 1.
And the question Sanders supporters should ask is, when has their theory of change ever worked? Even FDR, who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.
Remember, too, that the institutions FDR created were add-ons, not replacements: Social Security didn’t replace private pensions, unlike the Sanders proposal to replace private health insurance with single-payer. Oh, and Social Security originally covered only half the work force, and as a result largely excluded African-Americans.
It might be wise to consider what the job is actually like:
The point is that while idealism is fine and essential – you have to dream of a better world – it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. That’s true even when, like FDR, you ride a political tidal wave into office. It’s even more true for a modern Democrat, who will be lucky if his or her party controls even one house of Congress at any point this decade.
Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.
That may be overstating things. Sanders said in a Vox interview how he would realize his goals:
The real way that change takes place – and that’s always been the case in this country – is when people on the bottom begin to stand up and say enough is enough. That’s true of the civil rights movement, it is true of the women’s movement. It’s true of the environmental movement, of the gay movement. Millions of people begin to stand up and say, ‘We need change. Current situations are intolerable.’ That is when change takes place…
The United States Congress is going to start listening to us and not to a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.
But then Sanders also said this:
The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.
Wait – Trump sort of says the same thing, but without any real policy proposals of course, but then there’s Marshall Ganz:
Abandoning the “transformational” model of his presidential campaign, Obama has tried to govern as a “transactional” leader. These terms were coined by political scientist James MacGregor Burns 30 years ago. “Transformational” leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. “Transactional” leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.
Nancy LeTourneau cites that and adds this:
When Sanders reminds us of things like the civil rights and women’s rights movements, it is helpful to remember that those battles were also long. For example, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott until passage of the Civil Rights Act, there were nine long years of struggle. It’s clearly not as simple as “elect me and you’re done.”
But I think it is also worth asking whether or not a president of the United States can actually lead a revolution.
Should Obama’s replacement lead a revolution? That might be in the job description, and LeTourneau adds this:
Sanders’ approach is to lead a revolution in which millions of Americans rise up to combat the influence of big money that he sees as the obstacle to change. For a lot of people, that is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s “hope and change” campaign in 2008. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is cast as the competent pragmatic incrementalist.
That may be the actual job, but John Cassidy says Bernie Sanders isn’t crazy:
Sanders’s proposal to break up the big banks invokes the old trust-busting tradition of progressivism, and it has the support of some, although not all, academics. His plan to make tuition free at state colleges mimics what California did for much of the early history of its public-education system, when it was the envy of the country, and he would finance it with a so-called “Tobin tax” on financial transactions, a measure that has widespread support among left-leaning economists. Sanders’ proposal to strengthen the Social Security system and expand benefits by raising the contribution cap on high-income earners is also eminently defensible. It barely needs saying that all of these polices are popular among progressives.
So Sanders isn’t crazy at all:
Sanders’ main goal is changing what it is considered possible. A more orthodox candidate might well indicate some flexibility at this point in his campaign, saying that his immediate priority as President would be raising the minimum wage, or providing free college tuition, or breaking up the banks, and relegating an ambitious health-care overhaul to the status of future goal. Sanders, however, didn’t get to where he is now by embracing political orthodoxy.
He might do as a replacement – changing what it is considered possible is possible. Getting anything done after that is another matter, but it would then be possible, perhaps – or perhaps not. Not that it matters. Bernie Sanders is not a likely replacement for Obama. Hillary Clinton is, or Donald Trump. Those seem to be the choices. Some of us will miss Barack Obama. Replacements are never quite as good as the real thing.