Monday, June 30, 2014

Money, Millennials, and Hillary Clinton

Judging by my Facebook feed, it would seem that the natural thing for me to write about today would be the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. But, as my (oh so many) faithful readers might recall, I gave my two cents on that case about seven months ago, so I think I’ll talk about something that I haven’t mentioned before. It actually surprises me quite a bit that I have managed to keep this blog going for eight months and not write anything about Hillary Clinton. She is, after all, the inevitable Democratic nominee for president in 2016. Well, as it so happens, that’s exactly what I want to write about this week—Hillary’s troubled relationship with inevitability.

I’m sure you all remember 2008, back when Hillary had her first turn at being the inevitable nominee for president. Her clunky, mismanaged campaign was outmaneuvered and outflanked by the efforts of an audacious senator named Barack Obama. To Hillary’s credit, being the inevitable nominee is actually a very difficult position to maintain—when you’re the undisputed king of the hill, you end up with a target on your back so large that anyone could take a shot at it. And the longer you have to maintain that precarious perch, the harder it becomes. And that is what makes Hillary’s path to the 2016 nomination even more difficult than it was in 2008. The media basically declared that the nomination was hers to lose the moment after Obama was inaugurated for his second term last year, leaving her with three years to somehow keep her favorite status before she can even think about actively campaigning.

I think people really underestimate how difficult that is going to be for her. She is, after all, inevitably tied to the past. The Clinton name carries with it the legacy of her husband’s presidency and the politics of the 1990s. Times change, and the political landscape today is very different from when she was in her prime. As the Democratic Party becomes ever more populist and progressive, her particular niche becomes more and more unclear. We’ve already seen the first few cracks in the wall—her recent comments about leaving the White House “dead broke” have opened the door for some early populist blowback. (Joe Biden, who I personally believe has been laying the grounds for a presidential run since he assumed the Vice Presidency in 2009, chose this time to mention that he doesn’t even have a savings account.) Clinton also had a very unhelpful interview with NPR in which she struggled mightily to explain her evolution on the gay marriage issue. One is reminded of her difficulty explaining her vote in favor of the Iraq War during her campaign six years ago.

Ben Domenech at The Federalist mentioned last week that Hillary’s biggest challenge may be keeping up with younger voters. A borderline Millennial himself, he nevertheless does levy the kind of grumpy complaints against the Millennials that are all the rage these days. We are, according to Domenech, a generation of “wayward slackers” who exhibit a “fickle but sincere flightiness” when it comes to our jobs and commitments. I suppose I can forgive yet another media commentator for making the mistake of forgetting that in the sordid economy in which today’s younger generation finds itself, swinging from job to job is often the only option. And I can certainly understand why a conservative writer would be frustrated with a group of voters who continually vote Democratic despite getting absolutely nothing in return.

But I digress. His regrettable miscalculations aside, Domenech has a point. Hillary, he says, is “an out of touch one percent candidate who hasn’t run for anything in eight years.” I think he is absolutely right in thinking that such a candidate is a bad match for today’s young people and, in turn, their liberal compatriots within the Democratic base. Anyone brazen enough to challenge Hillary for the nomination in 2016—be it liberal lion Biden or attack hound Martin O’Malley—will unquestionably run to her left and try to win over those same young voters. And under those circumstances, Hillary could lose. We’ve seen this movie before.  

So, if Hillary Clinton seriously wants the Democratic nomination in 2016 (and, for the record, I think she will ultimately decide that she doesn’t), she may want to heed Bill Maher’s advice and “just go away.” Because, as he says, “otherwise you’re going to blow this.” 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Eric Cantor Autopsy

It’s been over a month since I last posted something on this blog. There are two primary reasons for this. First of all, I packed up and moved to the West Coast three weeks ago for a summer acting gig. Secondly, I just didn’t see anything in the news that I felt like writing about. But fear not, my friends—something happened earlier this week that finally inspired me to break my silence (I know, you’re all so relieved).

What could this momentous event possibly be? Well, I’m sure you’ve already heard: Eric Cantor, the erstwhile House majority leader, lost his primary on Tuesday. I doubt you need me to tell you what a freakishly stunning event that was, since the media seem to have already done a pretty good job of driving that home. Suffice it to say that there is absolutely no precedent for a House majority leader losing his own party’s primary. That’s right—since the position was created in 1899, not a single one of them had been unseated until it happened to Rep. Cantor. And it goes without saying that the consequences of such a shocking upset are very far-reaching. After all, the number two Republican position in the House is suddenly up for grabs and the supposed Speaker-in-waiting is a lame duck.

But I’m not really interested in writing about all of the positioning and “jockeying” (be prepared to see that word all over the news for the next few weeks) that will inevitably take place now that Rep. Cantor intends to step down from his leadership post. I’d really much rather talk about what this unforeseen loss means for both parties in Washington—not just the GOP. (I also want to go on the record and say that I’ve never been a fan of Eric Cantor.)

In retrospect, I realize that there were signs of trouble for Cantor before Tuesday rolled around. I read an article in National Journal that came out the day before the primary which discussed how disproportionately expensive and negative Rep. Cantor’s primary campaign had become. I actually remember thinking to myself at the time that Cantor might be in bad shape. After all, if his campaign decided to spend nearly one million dollars in the last six weeks of the campaign, they clearly knew something that the rest of us didn’t. But of course, I quickly brushed that notion aside, realizing how incredibly unlikely it would be for a sitting majority leader to lose a primary to an underfunded competitor with no campaign experience.

Nevertheless, the next day revealed that a great deal of the 7th District’s conservative base shared my rather negative opinion of Rep. Cantor. He was resoundingly defeated—more than a 10-point spread—in what was undoubtedly a rebuke of Congressional leadership. So what exactly should the leaders in Washington take away from this unlooked-for loss? Well, it seems to me that in this “new normal” era of sluggish economic growth, high long-term unemployment, and sharp polarization in Washington, the populist sentiment embodied for a while by the Occupy movement has found a second home on the political right. To be fair, the Tea Party had strong roots in populism already, but its anti-establishment tendencies had not extended as far as the party leadership until now. Cantor’s defeat was, I think, a statement that right-wing populism is alive and well.

This is a significant message for both major parties in Washington. After all, populism—whether it be of the liberal or conservative variety—share a common “outsider” vs. “establishment” narrative. Both liberal Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Cantor’s opponent, Professor David Brat, rail against the prosperity of big banks as ordinary Americans struggle to find jobs. And the so-called establishment of government and business officials is not united by ideology so much as by cronyism. Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight does a great job explaining how some roll call votes in the House and Senate fall not along ideological lines, but rather along establishment vs. outsider lines. Bipartisan votes such as the debt ceiling compromise in 2011 or the fiscal cliff deal in 2013 pit the establishment wing of each party against their outsider colleagues. His use of the DW-nominate metric helps illustrate the relationship between politicians with establishment voting records and their success in Republican primary elections since 2010. Not surprisingly, establishment candidates don’t fare as well as their outsider counterparts.

In other words, Eric Cantor’s loss means that the establishment figures in each party need to be looking over their shoulders at the populist wings in their parties’ bases. People are fed up with the cozy relationship between business and career politicians, and in that kind of environment even the power of incumbency can’t always protect the big wigs in Washington. The people of Virginia’s 7th District took out one of those career politicians on Tuesday, and his colleagues are shocked and scared. Good. 

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do we do this to ourselves?