Spotted lily

Spotted lily

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Thoughts on the Pre-Iowa Debate

This past Thursday, the last Republican debate before the primary voting begins was held in Iowa, hosted by FOX News.  Thanks to Donald Trump’s announcement that he would not participate and would instead hold his own event in Iowa, there was probably as much attention paid to peripheral issues as to the debate itself.  I was looking forward to the prospect of a new and improved Trump-free debate, but I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if Mr. Trump had come barging down the aisle with a marching band 15 minutes into the proceedings to make everything fabulous and terrific again.  Thankfully, that didn’t happen, giving us more of an opportunity to hear what the other candidates had to say about various issues.

On a side note, I was disappointed to learn that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum had decided to attend Trump’s event after their earlier debate concluded.  Considering their levels of support in the polls, perhaps they just felt the need to take any available opportunity to appear before a crowd in the last days before the caucuses, but it is unfortunate that two long-time social conservative leaders chose to associate themselves with Donald Trump at this time. 

Overall, I thought that the moderators conducted an interesting and informative debate.  I realize that it wouldn’t be possible to cover everything in a couple of hours, but it seemed that, once again, there were many important topics that were either mentioned only briefly or not brought up at all.  Perhaps there would have been more time for discussion of things like entitlements, government spending priorities, judicial appointment philosophies, etc. if there were fewer questions related to the race itself, electabililty, criticism from opponents, and so on.  These subjects aren’t irrelevant, but they should probably take a back seat to the candidates’ views on actual policies and problems facing the nation.

Donald Trump has complained about his treatment by FOX, and Megyn Kelly in particular, since the first debate and cited this as a reason for staying away this time.  The FOX moderators have actually tended to spread their tough questions around among the candidates, but I don’t think the difficulty level was even close to equal for everyone.  Pressing Chris Christie, for instance, to name something that could be eliminated from the federal budget can’t compare to the pummeling inflicted on Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz by playing video montages of their past inconvenient immigration-related statements and leaving them to try to explain how those square with what they are saying now.  This was rather painful to watch and potentially harmful to the Senators.  In the interest of fairness, perhaps FOX should also have shown a representative collection of Donald Trump’s contradictory or distasteful statements -- there would certainly be plenty from which to choose.  Even though he wasn’t present and his supporters may not have been watching, he is still a candidate in the race and viewers would have gotten a more complete picture of the field.  It doesn’t seem right that, by sparing Trump from the challenges of video vault journalism, FOX News may well wind up rewarding him for criticizing them and skipping their debate, especially since avoiding potential pitfalls at the event may have been Trump’s real goal all along.

I’ll just say one more thing about the moderating of the debate.  Judging from the audience reaction, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t appreciate the rather biased-sounding wording when, in posing a question to Jeb Bush, Chris Wallace referred to Jeb’s brother “getting us into two wars.”  As for Governor Bush himself, his debate performances have been improving as the campaign has progressed, and this one was his best yet.  I don’t know how much the absence of his nemesis had to do with it, but Bush seemed pretty strong and confident, and perhaps this will earn him a second look from some voters.

Returning to Senators Rubio and Cruz, I don’t think that Thursday night went as well for either of them as they would have liked.  In addition to the difficult immigration segment discussed above, they also faced considerable criticism from each other and the other candidates.  Also, Cruz had an awkward squabble with Wallace over the rules, and his joke (alluding to Trump) about leaving the stage if asked any more mean questions didn’t seem to work very well.  Rubio and Cruz did make good points during the debate, too, and both are still strong candidates.  Hopefully, people will give more weight to those positive things than to the negative aspects of the evening.

By the end of Monday, we’ll have the first results of the 2016 primary season.  While I still have a day to do a little wishful thinking before reality takes over, I’m hoping that the people of Iowa will make good decisions and cast their votes for qualified, worthy candidates rather than for the “outsider” showman that’s been leading the polls for so long.  If someone other than Donald Trump is the victor in Iowa, perhaps the leads he’s had in other states can be overcome as well.  If Trump wins, though, I’m afraid he may well dominate the primaries and caucuses, and that would be a terrible outcome.  I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of finger crossing Monday night....

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Can the Craziness of the Republican Primary Race be Stopped?

I suppose that nothing in the world of politics should surprise me any more, but I continue to be amazed by this year’s presidential primary races.  It’s odd enough that, on the Democrat side, an Independent socialist is opening up leads in the early voting states while his opponent, the former First Lady and Secretary of State, is under investigation by the FBI.  To me, though, that’s nothing compared to the Republican contest, where the latest developments continue to defy all logic and have left me feeling more exasperated than ever.

Since Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential nominee known as a favorite of conservatives, was among those having meetings and discussions with Donald Trump last year, it wasn’t a shock when she announced her endorsement of him a few days ago, but I still think it’s unfortunate that someone with her reputation and potential influence would choose to take this public step to boost him over other more worthy candidates.  Also, although Donald Trump’s success to this point has been largely attributed to a view of him as an “outsider” campaigning against Washington and traditional politicians, this week there were multiple stories about current and former Republican officeholders expressing increasing acceptance of the idea of Trump as the GOP’s nominee and, specifically, a preference for Trump over Ted Cruz in that role.  This is both disappointing and absurd.

It would seem obvious that the Republican nominee should be, oh, I don’t know, an actual solid Republican and at least generally conservative.  Some likability would be nice to appeal to the general public, as well.  Yet, for this upcoming crucial presidential election, from an initial field of seventeen candidates, many with stellar records, the voters and the party seem ready to hand the nomination to the person with the least claim to this description.  (Based on the way this race is going, it would seem that, if Republicans were in a movie universe and had the opportunity to select a hero to save them from a dire crisis, Captain America, Luke Skywalker, Prince Charming, Spiderman, and many others would be ignored as we chose instead to swooningly make Gaston from Beauty and the Beast our champion.)  Over the years, Donald Trump’s affiliation has changed back and forth among the Democratic, Republican, and Reform Parties;  he has given a large portion of his donations to Democrats; and, on many, many issues he has taken liberal positions, only some of which he has very recently claimed to have reversed.  Besides this, rude and insulting rhetoric has been a notable characteristic of his campaign.  How any reasonable Republican or remotely conservative voter could even consider choosing Trump as their standard-bearer over the other candidates, I just don’t know.  Yes, you can find imperfections in any of them, although you have to look more closely in some cases than in others, but that’s no excuse for casting them all aside to embrace the option with the most deficiencies and, arguably, the least qualifications.  Wait -- could it possibly be the case that Trump’s flaws are so overwhelmingly glaring that they’ve completely blinded his supporters like a flood of “classy” neon lights?

In any case, I think that many categories of people have played roles in Trump’s enduring status as the frontrunner with a commanding national lead, and I can only hope that things will change for many of them before it’s completely too late.

Let’s begin with perhaps the most obvious group:  the members of the public who cheer Donald Trump at his big rallies and support him as their choice for president when responding to polls, undeterred by anything he may have said or done.  I know that I’m not “supposed to” criticize these folks, but why shouldn’t they be expected to make responsible decisions based on all of the readily available information?  I understand that there have been many reasons to be disappointed by the actions or lack of results of elected Republicans (although I also think some criticisms and expectations have been excessive), but that doesn’t justify rallying to someone lacking the qualifications, policy positions, record, or character to be a good president just because he has never held office, criticizes those who have, and isn’t afraid to say whatever he wants to, even if it might be offensive to some others.  

Now for the newcomers to the “Trump’s OK” party:  people who are part of the so-called “establishment” that Trump supporters so vehemently oppose.  With some large donors, strategists, members of Congress and other officials, former party leaders, etc. now making it clear that Donald Trump isn’t their last choice, it’s very interesting to see the reasons they are giving for this judgment, none of which, as you might imagine, I find at all convincing.

I have two comments on the Trump over Cruz aspect of this issue.  First, the discussion of this matchup seems to include an assumption that none of the other ten candidates still in the race have any chance, even though we still have had no actual voting.  Why get ahead of things in this way, and, if you think that Cruz would be a poor choice, why not try to persuade voters to support one of the other “mainstream Republicans” you think would be better without resigning yourself to accepting Trump?  Second, to whatever extent this preference relates to personal issues with Senator Cruz, I think that  everyone really just needs to put that aside for now and think about the importance of the ideas and policies that should define the Republican Party and it’s nominee rather than about cordial interactions with individuals.  They can all go to relationship counseling later, if necessary.  Besides, Donald Trump is spending his campaign hurling plenty of insults at the intelligence and competence of those in the government, so I don’t quite see why they wouldn’t hold this against him, as well.

Some have speculated that Trump would be more likely to win in a general election, but he’s fared poorly in related polls in the past.  This could change, since Hillary Clinton continues to face legal trouble and since Trump appears to have some magical ability to turn unfavorable views around even while behaving in an incredibly obnoxious fashion.  Plus, because I see Trump as really a Democrat in pseudo-Republican clothing, I suppose it isn’t that far-fetched to imagine some significant number of Democrats voting for him, but how would electing someone because he agrees with Democrats be a real victory for the Republican cause??  It’s also being suggested that others in the Republican Party (Congress, advisors, etc.) might be able to “coach” Trump, make deals with him, or persuade him to take up their policy proposals because he doesn’t have a particularly detailed platform of his own.  I think there is a chance this might to some extent be true.  Trump obviously is willing to change his tune on most things, even within a day or so, if he gets the idea it will benefit him to do so; he does brag all the time about his wonderful deal-making skills and intentions; and he could certainly use some assistance in the policy department.  However, considering Trump’s history, I think it is also very possible that any new shifts of opinion or policy that he would make after securing the nomination would be in the liberal direction and that he’d be at least as likely to work out arrangements with Democrats as with Republicans, especially if Democrat voters were to play a considerable part in his election.  Also, Trump has an oversized ego and, were he to become the nominee or even president, would have done so basically by getting popular support from the people when almost no one thought he could with a message essentially consisting of “making the country great again” through his fantastic leadership and ability to be a “winner,” in contrast to the “stupid” people running the country now.  He might well consider himself to have a big mandate from the public to do whatever he thinks fit, without the need to take advice from any conventional politicians.

So we have this contradictory situation:  so many people supposedly support Donald Trump because they see him as a political outsider who would be a strong, independent leader and totally disrupt a Washington “establishment” that they’ve come to despise; but, at the same time, many members of that very “establishment” see Trump as a moldable politician with whom they could work and get along.   Maybe both of these groups need to step back and reconsider their assessment of a man being perceived so differently by so many people.  It seems that a lot of observers are projecting whatever they want to believe onto Trump, rather than objectively looking at him, his record, and his statements, and that is no way to choose a presidential nominee.  I don’t think it’s really possible to know what such a wild card as Donald Trump would truly do as President of the United States, but I do know that I don’t want to find out, and I think it’s very unwise of some Republicans to suggest that taking such a risk is not such a bad option.

The mainstream media has, of course, contributed to Donald Trump’s success by providing so much coverage of him and his campaign and treating his statements and poll numbers as the focus of the race most of the time.  This isn’t particularly surprising, as they will do whatever gets them good ratings.  My problem since Trump entered the race has been with portions of the conservative media, particularly some columnists and hugely influential talk radio hosts.  In my opinion, it is shocking that they ever treated someone with his track record of un-conservative positions, some of which he has retained even now, as an even remotely acceptable option for the Republican nomination, especially since they’ve had no trouble branding others with much more conservative credentials as unworthy “moderates.”  I think that, if they had dismissed or been critical of Trump instead of defending him and providing complimentary treatment of at least some things about him, fewer members of their audiences would have gotten behind Trump’s campaign.  I’ve never been able to understand the reason for the way these members of the conservative media have treated Donald Trump.  They can’t possibly really think he’s the constitutional conservative candidate they’ve been calling for for years, can they??  They may well have appreciated what they saw as his challenges to political correctness and the way his supporters seemed drawn to his outsider status because they were upset with the way conventional politicians  have been handling things.  Did they perhaps seek to avoid alienating Trump fans in the hope that this desire for major change could be encouraged but channeled into support for someone they did see as a more ideal candidate, like Ted Cruz?  They have recently expressed their dissatisfaction because Trump has, predictably, now turned to attacking Cruz, and, whatever the reasons for their handling of Donald Trump’s candidacy, I wonder if those conservative media figures who’ve been giving him a positive reception have any regrets about it now.

One would think that Trump’s opponents, at least, would be doing all they could to dethrone him from his perch as the front-runner, but, most of them don’t seem to want to take him on, although they’re quite willing to criticize each other.  I have cut them a little slack on this for a while, because it may have been a reasonable decision from the standpoint of self-preservation.  After all, when other candidates like Rick Perry or Bobby Jindal tried to make an emphatic case against Donald Trump last year, things did not go well, and they had to drop out of the race very early in the campaign.  Most of the time, Jeb Bush seems to have been about the only one to offer serious opposition to Donald Trump, and I give him credit for that.  In the last couple of weeks, Ted Cruz has finally begun to point out Trump’s lack of conservatism and the problematic positions he has taken, but, since Cruz avoided making these criticisms for the last several months and even offered generic compliments to Trump, I’m not sure how effective his arguments will be now.  As for the others, although Trump has seemed to be almost completely immune to any criticisms, I think it is now past time for the remaining candidates to step up and make a serious effort to defeat Trump in the primaries and caucuses.  In my opinion, they should join Cruz in challenging Trump, but I’m afraid some of them may instead see the new Trump/Cruz conflict as an opportunity for Trump to help them by damaging or eliminating their main competitor for non-Trump support.  To me this is short-sighted, both because anyone wishing to win the nomination is going to need to actually beat Trump, not just everyone else, and also, more importantly, because the good of the country should take precedence over any of the individual candidates’ political ambitions and having a more serious, qualified, conservative nominee than Donald Trump is a first step toward securing a better future for our nation.

So far, though, with recent polls showing Trump may have regained the lead even in Iowa and maintained his dominance nationally, it would seem that the “inevitability” of a Donald Trump nomination is like a speeding locomotive gaining more and more momentum, and I’m not sure what, if anything, might be able to stop it.  (Where’s Superman when you need him?)  What’s especially troubling, though, is that it appears the will and desire to even try is dwindling away.  This week, National Review did publish a symposium consisting of many writers’ pieces giving their arguments “Against Trump,” but the magazine has received some criticism for the decision to issue this collection of articles, and there is no way to know what effect it may have.  I, for one, appreciate NR’s undertaking, and I hope that primary- and caucus-goers will give thoughtful consideration to all of the relevant facts and arguments about the candidates before actually casting their votes over the next few months.

Monday, January 18, 2016

South Carolina January Republican Debate

After what already seems like a long campaign, the first actual primary and caucus votes are now drawing near.  As a result, any new developments and events in the race at this point seem to take on added importance, so the high-profile debates from now on will likely get even more attention.  After watching last Thursday’s FOX Business Republican debate from South Carolina, I have a lot of thoughts related to the candidates and the contest for the nomination -- too many for one post, I think.  Therefore, I will try to limit this piece to some fairly specific comments and observations about the happenings of the evening.  My intention is to follow up soon with some more general thoughts and impressions about a couple of the candidates and the state of the primary race.

During the early part of the debate, most of the candidates were basically on the same page and getting along, as they focussed on disagreements with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats.  I appreciated that portion of the event, which reminded me of the first Republican debate last year.  I rather like being able to hear multiple capable conservatives discussing ideas and acting like they are all on the same overall team, and it makes me rather wish that there were some way to select a nominee that didn’t lead to these good candidates eventually attacking each other to try to secure a victory.  Unfortunately, there has been a lot of conflict and criticism among the candidates during this campaign, and this was reflected in some notable clashes in Thursday’s debate.  I’ll comment further on some of those, and I do continue to think it is problematic that Republican presidential primary contests tend to inflict damage on the images and reputations of the candidates.

As I’ve made quite clear since last summer, I think that Donald Trump is a completely unsuitable choice for the Republican presidential nomination.  I’ve kept hoping that something might change in the race or the treatment he’s received in conservative media that could dislodge him from his frontrunner status.  Very recently, some campaign hostility broke out between Trump and Ted Cruz, and I was anxious to see if Cruz might (finally) criticize Trump during this debate and if that might possibly have a negative effect on Trump’s poll numbers.   The end of the apparent Trump/Cruz non-aggression pact was largely precipitated by Trump raising questions about Cruz’ eligibility to serve as president, and this topic was raised near the beginning of the debate.  I thought that Senator Cruz handled the issue of his status as a “natural-born” citizen just fine, explaining that, when he was born in Canada, he was an American citizen because of his mother's American citizenship.  He pointed out that Trump had said a few months ago that his lawyers had looked at the issue and found no problem with Cruz’ eligibility, and he also suggested that Trump was only bringing up the question now because Cruz’ standings in the polls, particularly in Iowa, have improved.   Trump in the end basically acknowledged that this was the case, and I don’t think his contention that new opinions from well-known lawyers, such as liberal Lawrence Tribe of Bush vs. Gore fame, have now made him revisit the issue was very convincing.  Therefore, I would say that Cruz probably benefitted from this exchange during the debate, although I don’t see how it could be the case that it would have put the issue to rest, as some have suggested.  It seems that some people (notably, some of Donald Trump’s supporters) now do believe, or at least think it is possible, that Ted Cruz does not meet the Constitution’s qualifications to serve as President of the United States, and I don’t think their opinions will change just because Cruz assured everyone that he does.

Later in the evening, Senator Cruz did (at long last) attempt to point out that, although he’s saying (some) different things now, Donald Trump has a considerable history of expressing liberal views.  Cruz referred to an interview Trump gave some time ago in which Trump explained having these positions and opinions by saying that he was from New York and that those were “New York” values.  Proceeding from this basic equating of “New York values” with liberal values, Cruz suggested that those values are not in line with those of Republican voters.  Donald Trump responded, at a lower level of volume and brashness than usual, by recalling the way New Yorkers handled the horror and extreme challenges of the September 11 attacks and also said that he found Cruz’ remarks about New York to be offensive.  While I don’t think bringing up the devastating terrorist attacks really addressed the points Cruz was trying to make, I do think that Trump’s response would probably be effective to many viewers, especially those who weren’t aware that Cruz’ remark that “not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan” was actually a response to the line Trump has been using for some time to question Cruz' religion and claim that “not a lot of Evangelicals come out of Cuba.”  Unfortunately for him, in the end, this exchange did not turn out well for Senator Cruz.  (It has also apparently been turned into a big issue since the debate, which is one of the topics I would like to revisit later.) 

Donald Trump actually seemed to have toned things down during some other portions of the debate as well.  As a cynical anti-Trumper (if that is a word), I’m not sure to what extent that might have been a planned strategy and an acting performance, but it may well have made him come across as more reasonable and more plausible as a presidential candidate to some people.  Of course, there were also times when he bragged about his poll numbers, his great business success, and his confidence that he’ll win, and he did still give some incoherent answers, most notably about potential tariffs on goods from China.  Still, much as I hate to say it, I think there’s little doubt that this was Trump’s best debate performance by far.  (That does not, of course, mean that he’s any more qualified to be president than he was before.)

Ted Cruz’ conflicts on Thursday were not limited to those with Donald Trump, as he was also involved in heated exchanges with Senator Marco Rubio.  Rubio raised some substantive issues about Cruz’ tax proposals, such as its inclusion of what has been characterized by many people as a European-style “Value Added Tax.”  Cruz stated that his “business tax” is not actually a VAT and defended his plan.  This subject, along with intelligence gathering and others, is one where voters will need to examine the specifics of the candidates’ positions to determine which they agree with the most.  Later in the course of the debate, Senator Cruz criticized Senator Rubio’s involvement with the proposed comprehensive immigration reform bill from a few years ago, which since that time has been perceived as his greatest area of vulnerability in terms of disagreement with many Republican voters.  Rubio responded with a long list of instances and topics on which he said that Cruz had changed his positions, and he concluded by saying that this showed political calculation rather than consistent conservatism on Cruz’ part.  Cruz denied the truth of many of the accusations and once again pointed out that Rubio’s position on immigration remains one that is very unpopular among many on the Right.  Now, there are usually omissions, selective references to past records, and even somewhat stretched interpretations, along with genuine differences of opinion, when one politician criticizes another, and I believe that those factors played a part in the various conflicts in Thursday’s debate as well.  Yet, it seems to me that there is also some truth in the criticisms that, for example, Rubio and Cruz leveled at each other, but there are also plenty of reasons to defend the merits of each of these men as good candidates and solid conservatives.  I’m not sure what viewers with no particular attachment to either senator will make of their exchanges, but I wouldn’t expect the debate to change the views of those who already have formed positive or negative opinions about either or both of them.   Again, I think that it is unfortunate that Republican candidates and their supporters often wind up helping the other side (liberals/Democrats) by highlighting each others’ weaknesses.  Sigh...

Marco Rubio did not limit his criticisms on Thursday to Ted Cruz.  He also had plenty to say in opposition to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, gun control proposals, and our current interactions with Iran, among other things.  Some have said that Rubio was “angrier” than usual, perhaps in response to the polling success of candidates like Trump, who are mainly known for harsh rhetoric.  I’m not completely sure what to make of that assessment.  I do think that Rubio focussed more on disagreements with the way things are going than on the positive vision of the future that his campaign has touted at other times, but I’m not sure that this was entirely new at the most recent debate.  I seem to recall thinking that this has been the case in earlier events as well.  I believe that Senator Rubio’s statements about the problems he sees and the things he would intend to do differently are usually quite strong and eloquent, so they are often welcome and necessary, but I also think that he should take care not to omit the more optimistic aspects of his message that distinguish his candidacy from those of some others.

One other specific recipient of criticism from Marco Rubio during the debate was Chris Christie.  Rubio charged that there were several issues and instances where Christie had, to one degree or another, been on the same side as Obama, Clinton, et al.  Christie essentially flatly denied all of Rubio’s assertions.   While I would note that a couple of the things Rubio said might have been worded a little more carefully, and Governor Christie might well have been able to give somewhat mitigating explanations for some of them, it seems to me that the actual record does not support his outright denials at all.  Citing a previous complimentary comment from Rubio, Christie also suggested that Rubio was only attacking him now because he thought it would help him in the polls.  The New Jersey Governor then said that he wasn’t going to change his tune in a similar fashion before adding a few positive comments about Rubio.  This is all well and good, but it rather ignores the recent spate of negative things that Christie has been saying about Rubio on the campaign trail, including labeling him as weak and stating that he is not doing his job due to missed votes in the Senate.  As he has before, Christie seemed to do pretty well in the debate itself, portraying himself as someone who takes successful action rather than just talking about things and who will give straight talk to the people at home, even about tough issues.  I don’t know to what extent viewers will be swayed by his forensic skill, even if it perhaps relies more on creative license than honesty at times.

Ben Carson contributed some humor to the proceedings and made a few good points, remaining a likable man on the stage, but perhaps not seeming very likely to be the successful nominee.  To me, this was John Kasich’s best debate.  He seemed less angry and not completely at odds with everyone else this time.  I still don’t think he has much chance of doing well in this election, but I think it was easier to understand why he’s been a popular Republican Congressman and Governor in Ohio for many years, and he might have some worthwhile things to contribute to the conversation about various issues.

As for Jeb Bush, I think that he has continued to improve in his debate responses, but it does not seem that this type of event shows him at his best.  He did make some good points, among them identifying some of the problems with the positions Donald Trump has taken regarding Muslims entering the United States and tariffs on imports.  Interestingly, at times it almost seemed to me that Governor Bush sounded a little like a Republican party consultant rather than one of the candidates, hoping that Trump would reconsider some of his positions and cautioning people to take the negative charges being leveled among the candidates with a grain of salt, as they are just a common part of the primary process.  Perhaps, despite his continued hope to be the nominee himself, he’s also feeling (possibly way in the back of his mind) that it’s not particularly likely?  If so, I may be one of a small minority, but I continue to feel considerable sympathy for Governor Bush, as I think he was rather unfairly characterized and dismissed before the campaign even began.

(Well, so much for keeping this post to any sort of manageable length!)

In conclusion, I thought that the debate was pretty well run and contained some valuable material for the continuing evaluation of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, although there do seem to be many topics that never seem to get much discussion at any of these events.  Overall, I don’t know if anything that took place in South Carolina last Thursday will drastically change the state of the primary race, and that concerns me in itself, because maintenance of the status quo means that Donald J. Trump continues to be the national frontrunner as the election draws ever closer.  More specifically, I worry that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, perhaps the opponents with the best chances of presenting a challenge to Trump, may have been damaged, at least somewhat, by last Thursday’s verbal battles with each other, as well as with Trump and Christie, respectively.  Also, since Trump had been sailing along so successfully even with completely horrible debate performances and while being left alone by his chief rival, how high might his poll numbers go with a much improved presentation on the debate stage and after being able to withstand (and possibly even triumph over) new criticism from Senator Cruz, the champion debater and experienced litigator?  I shudder to think about it, but I am very afraid that a Trump nomination is becoming more likely all the time....

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Clinton vs Trump: Is there a Winning Side?

This may never happen here again, but I’m going to start out with a little bit of a defense of Hillary Clinton.  Of course I don’t agree with her liberal policies or her dishonesty about things like her e-mail server and what happened in Benghazi (hey, I said it was a little defense,) but I do think that some statements for which she’s been criticized during this campaign have been blown out of proportion.

For example, Mrs. Clinton recently said that she wouldn’t keep schools open that weren’t doing a better than average job.  Yes, you can say that, taken literally, this could mean that she’d have to close the lower-performing half of all schools after every assessment, which obviously would not be a practical way to handle education.  However, isn’t it possible to think instead that an evaluation system might assign letter grades to schools for their performance and that, since “C” has traditionally been defined as an indicator of average work, any mark of C+ or better would be considered “better than average?”  Would it really be that unreasonable to expect all schools to strive for such a grade and to hope that only small numbers would fail to reach it, and isn’t it very possible that Hillary Clinton was referring to something along these lines in her remarks?

Also, much was made of Hillary Clinton’s reference to Republicans as her “enemies” in one of the Democratic debates.  I must confess that I did not see what all the fuss was about.  The candidates were specifically asked about enemies in relation to their political careers, so I do not think it follows that only terrorists or regimes like Iran would be truly acceptable answers.  In addition, Mrs. Clinton is certainly far from the only person, on either side of the aisle, to view or treat those with whom they disagree politically in a hostile way, whether or not the term “enemy” is actually used.  (Just listen to all of the invective directed at the “Washington establishment/cartel/elite” these days.)  So, I find it a little odd that Hillary Clinton’s comment would be deemed outrageous during a campaign in which going out of one’s way to defy political correctness without worrying about offending people seems to be the ultimate virtue to many.  Besides, while some fellow politicians or party operatives may just be colleagues or opponents with whom you disagree or compete, some others are political enemies seeking to destroy your reputation, career, or initiatives in whatever ways they can.  Hillary Clinton very likely has first hand knowledge of this both as a target and an aggressor, and Republicans would be wise not to dismiss the notion of serious threats from political opponents.

There have been other instances as well, but these should suffice for now.  In general, I would advise others who are not fans of Hillary Clinton that, since she is so wrong about so many issues, there is no need to parse every little thing she says in such a way as to render it ridiculous or offensive.  After all, to find those qualities, we can just look to her stated positions on things such as the successes of Obamacare, absolute support for abortion on demand, and public funds for Planned Parenthood.

My take on the recent spat between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump probably does not fit with the common conservative/Republican view of the matter, either.  I don’t think that Trump should be defended, way less cheered, for tossing gratuitous insults at his opponents, especially when he does so in particularly crude fashion.  Since it shouldn’t be “OK” to treat others -- male or female -- this way, I personally don’t think it’s really necessary for Hillary or others to try to counter Trump on “sexist” grounds, especially since doing so may well just reinforce the notion that he’s fighting against “political correctness” and increase his support among his fans. I realize that Hillary Clinton may not be the most sympathetic target of Trump’s enthusiastically negative rhetoric or have the most standing to complain about it, considering her past involvement in efforts to discredit her own opponents and those of her husband, but that doesn’t mean we should condone everything said against her.  Yes, despite Bill Clinton’s shameful behavior, Hillary did defend her husband and make derogatory remarks about the women who were involved with him or who made serious accusations against him, and people can certainly criticize her for that.  However, if certain criticisms of Mrs. Clinton cross acceptable lines, I think it is fair and possible to point that out without excusing any wrongdoing on her part.

We’ll have to see how things develop, but I’m really not convinced that Donald Trump’s assertion that Hillary Clinton bringing up the issue of sexism makes Bill Clinton’s many scandals “fair game” is such a brilliantly victorious point for Trump.  For one thing, the public certainly didn’t seem to believe that Bill Clinton deserved political punishment as a candidate or a sitting President when the allegations of harassment and assault and the other tabloid-worthy stories were much more recent.  Will they really choose to take these things out on his wife now?  Might they even be annoyed by a return to “old news” and want to “move on” once again?  Also, Donald Trump doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to critically discuss Bill Clinton’s record toward and with women.  Clinton’s sleazy (and possibly criminal) behavior apparently didn’t bother Trump before, since he chose to compliment, support, and donate to the Clintons until fairly recently.  Plus, Donald Trump is far from a shining example of moral rectitude and marital fidelity himself, as demonstrated by his own messy history with wives, girlfriends, and less than tasteful comments about women.  Wouldn’t it seem potentially risky to deliberately bring this general subject to voters’ attention?  (I know, I know, presumably not for Trump, since basically everything helps him in the polls...)

Really, though, shouldn’t social conservatives, in particular, be averse to voting for someone like Trump?  I don’t know if those in that category willing to support him don’t care about personal character anymore, or if their assumption, which I hope isn’t true, is that everyone else in politics has similar skeletons in their pasts, too, even if we haven’t yet heard about them, or if there is some other explanation.  Whatever the reason, I find it unfortunate that we seem to keep lowering our expectations of (at least some of) those seeking the highest offices in the country, and Donald Trump’s support among those calling themselves conservatives continues to be puzzling and disappointing.

The prospect of  a general election campaign between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump is not a pleasant one.  There is plenty of ammunition for attacks and negative advertising against both of them, and, as a conservative, such a contest would give me no good choice to support.  Since the party nominations have not yet been decided, I can only hope that Republican voters will ultimately make a wiser choice and prevent this match-up from becoming a reality, but I must admit that I am not at all confident about it.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Can Conservatism Withstand Current Forces?

From the beginning, this year’s Republican primary campaign has been rather surprising and filled with intra-party conflict.  There seem to be multiple notions attempting to change the direction and attitude of the GOP in different  ways.  I hope that I’m just being overly pessimistic, but I am genuinely worried about the possible consequences the current battles may have for the party, conservatism, and the country (and, therefore, the world, actually.)  That’s overly dramatic, I’m sure, but I do believe that this situation is a very serious matter.

One trend stems from the idea that the Republican party has not acted in a conservative-enough fashion, even when elected after promising to do so, and that it has been making a big mistake in selecting candidates thought to be more moderate, particularly as its presidential nominees.  Therefore, strong efforts should be made to bring about different actions and results in the future.  This drive seems to me to have begun with good intentions and conservative goals but to have made some unproductive and unfair choices in pursuit of positive change.  What I've found troubling is the increasing tendency of some conservatives, notably some talk radio personalities and columnists, but also many members of the public, to keep redefining what the Republican party and conservatism should be and do in such ways that fewer and fewer people qualify for the labels.  There have indeed always been some Republicans who are quite liberal, especially on certain issues, and some who have tended to side with Democrats when voting in Congress or to criticize mainstream conservative positions in the media.  It is understandable for conservatives to express frustration with these politicians and to work to elect better alternatives.  Now, however, regardless of a person’s overall record and views, it seems that any small disagreement with the “true conservatives” is enough to warrant branding as a “RINO” and excommunication from the conservative movement, even for people whose conservatism would not have been questioned just a short time ago.  The most obvious example of this right now is probably Paul Ryan, and I may well discuss that gentleman some more another time, but at the moment I’d like to focus on the presidential race.

An important thing to note, of course, is that the above rule does not apply if your name is Donald Trump, in which case agreeing with conservatives (somewhat and only as of very recently) about just one or two issues is enough to make you acceptable as a presidential nominee.  Welcome to Wonderland!  The remarkable success of Mr. Trump’s campaign so far seems to illustrate the strength of another attitude currently exerting its influence on the Republican primary race.   Many people seem to feel that our current political parties and methods of operation are completely incapable of doing things the way they should be done and that our elected officials are incompetent, corrupt, and/or not working in the real interest of the people and the country.  As a result, drastic change is needed, starting with a completely new type of presidential candidate who comes from outside the system and is willing to say things others won’t.   I think there are multiple problems with this mindset.  It’s a pretty big risk to make someone with no experience or record in government President of the United States, and, if the experiment doesn’t go well, there could be far-reaching negative consequences.   Also, those advocating for wholesale change in government don’t really seem very concerned about the specifics of the transformation they might bring about by electing a particular candidate.  Attempts to point out areas in which a non-traditional candidate’s positions are not consistent or conservative are dismissed or criticized, and many of the problematic views and statements are even defended.  Supporters do not want to hear anything negative about ‘their guy,” who must be a good choice because people who don’t feel the current Republican party and it’s elected officials are their enemies are against him.  This doesn’t seem the most reasoned way to approach the hugely important decision of selecting a President, and people should not assume that something “new and different” is necessarily an improvement.

Since this summer, I’ve been disappointed by the treatment received by most of the candidates running for the Republican nomination this cycle.  The field, especially at the outset of the campaign season, contained a veritable “who’s who” of current and former conservative governors and legislators, along with a couple of actual “moderate” candidates like George Pataki.  But, instead of appreciating actually having multiple good conservative options from which to choose this time, a large segment of the Right opted instead to ignore, dismiss, or even attack most of these qualified candidates as unsuitably conservative, often while supporting or defending the candidate with the most liberal views and history (Mr. Trump.)

Before the campaign really even got underway, much of the energy of the change-seekers on the Right was devoted to criticism of Jeb Bush, the candidate perceived to be a potential front-runner and favored candidate of the so-called “establishment” of the Republican Party.  It is perfectly reasonable for Governor Bush’s views on things such as immigration to lead conservatives to prefer other candidates, but here again, labeling him as some barely right-of-center moderate doesn’t seem to fit with his actual overall record or policy proposals, and I don’t think that he deserves the animosity that has been directed towards him in relation to this primary race.  As Jeb Bush slipped down to single digits in the polls months ago, one would think that his detractors might have been satisfied and moved on, but he still seems to be the focus of disproportionate negative attention, especially in response to any critical comments or questions raised about Donald Trump.

For a long time, the polls showed all of the experienced, successful conservative politicians struggling to gain any significant level of support, and several of them, all accomplished governors, dropped out of the race at a very early stage while the popularity of  “outsider” candidates soared.  Finally, two Senators, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, had an increase in their polling numbers, and it seemed that perhaps they might be a couple of traditional candidates with a chance in the race.  Many of the “anti-establishment” figures in conservative media have always been most supportive of Cruz, but for a while, at least, Rubio still seemed able to get a respectful hearing and civil treatment, even though he also has an immigration position that is not in favor among most conservatives and Republicans.  More recently, though, I’ve heard his name spoken contemptuously on talk radio, and, no matter the totality of his record, he seems to have joined the ranks of those banished from the “conservative” fold, another casualty of the ever-shrinking circle drawn to include only “true” conservatives.  I’m not sure exactly what precipitated the harsh new attitude towards Senator Rubio, but it seems likely to be a result of the growing perception that he might be the still-viable candidate likely to be most appealing to the conventional or ”establishment” voters and leaders of the party, along with the more direct competition seen to be developing between Rubio and Cruz, the favorite candidate of many conservative opinion leaders.  In any case, I find it unfortunate.  I think that it would be far better for us to approach the upcoming primaries and caucuses by examining and comparing the views, proposals, and relative merits of multiple conservative candidates than by dismissing most of the participants in the contest as unacceptable sell-outs not even worthy of consideration.

What seems especially puzzling to me is the way that this movement to seek “true conservatives” has been coexisting with the wave of support for Donald Trump, who is clearly not in that category.  I understand that many of his supporters were not really involved in politics before, and many do not necessarily consider themselves very conservative.  While these people are still making what I’d consider a poor choice, for them there may be no contradiction in supporting Mr. Trump -- they may either agree with him or be interested only in having someone they see as a leader in charge, not in the details of specific issues.  However, for long-time conservative advocates, such as leading talk show hosts, to argue over and over again that what we need to move the country in the correct direction is to elect genuine constitutional conservatives, but then to also bend over backwards to defend the candidacy of someone like Donald Trump, whose first instincts on basically everything have been liberal and who doesn’t seem to have much concern for many Constitutional principles (including limits on executive power, private property rights, multiple aspects of freedom of speech, and many others,) is inexplicable to me.  How can the same people who find Ted Cruz to be basically the only acceptable candidate who’s actually worked in government also be OK with the idea of Donald Trump as nominee or even president, when the two are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in the Republican field?  The willingness to speak bluntly (at least sometimes, in Senator Cruz’ case) seems to be the main characteristic they might be thought to have in common, and I certainly hope that’s not being seen as a qualification overriding all other factors in choosing the Chief Executive.

I’m not a fan of either of the trends discussed here that are currently tugging conservatism in different directions.  I agree that more conservatism -- actually articulated and acted upon -- would benefit our country, but I don’t think the way to gain support from more of the public for conservatism in elections and policy discussions is to push away people who’ve already been on the team.   Far worse, however, would be to give up on these goals entirely by awarding the presidential nomination to someone who, no matter how certain defenders might try to spin things, is not at all conservative.  While we may not be achieving conservative victories now, if neither major party is even attempting to stand for conservative principles or policy proposals, our national politics and world view will likely lurch much farther left very quickly, and no good can be expected to come from that outcome.  I don’t know how the elections or the conflicts within conservatism and the Republican party will play out over the next year, but I certainly hope that people will make thoughtful choices that do not result in the destruction of conservatism as we know it.


Note:  Since this post, first published on December 27, became so lengthy, I thought it might be best to leave it at the top of the page a little longer and take a bit of a holiday break.  Happy New Year!