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“Are You Liberal Or Are You Conservative?”: I No Longer Have Any Idea What “Conservative” Means

About 20 years ago, when the syndicate that represents this column was preparing to pitch it to newspaper editors, I was called in for a meeting with the sales staff and somebody asked me this question:

“Are you liberal or are you conservative?”

I said, “Yes.”

I wasn’t trying to be a wiseguy. OK, maybe a little. But I was also trying to convey my impatience with our bipolar political discourse, with the idea that I was required to pick a team. I was trying to preserve for myself the right to think a thing through and come to my own conclusion regardless of ideological branding.

But at the same time, I knew what I was being asked. When they said, “Are you liberal or are you conservative?” those words had concrete meaning, embodied real political concepts.

But that is no longer the case — at least where the latter term is concerned.

Once upon a time, when a person identified as conservative, you knew the ideas he or she meant to convey — low taxes, small government, resistance to social change. But a word that once encoded a definite set of values and beliefs now seems utterly bereft of internal cohesion, less a name for an ideology than for a mood: surly, nasty and put-upon.

They don’t like the rest of us. Nor do they seem to like each other all that much, feuding with a bitterness and constancy that would make even the Hatfields and McCoys tell them to tone it down. Yes, ideology still gets lip service, but its importance has become secondary, if that.

How else to explain that people who once considered Christian faith their foundation stone have coalesced behind a candidate who can’t name a Bible verse? Or that people who once valued a grown-up, clear-eyed approach to foreign policy support candidates who want to “carpet bomb” the Middle East and pull out of NATO? Or that people who once decried “a culture of victimization” now whine all day about how they are victims of biased media, bullying gays and political correctness?

How to explain that people who once vowed to safeguard American moral decency from the nefarious irreverence of liberals — think President Bush chastising “The Simpsons” in the era of “family values” — now put forth candidates who tell penis jokes?

A few days ago New York Times, columnist David Brooks professed to be excited by this act of self-immolation — “This is a wonderful moment to be a conservative,” he gushed — because after this debacle, conservatives will be able to reinvent themselves, unencumbered by “existing mental categories and presuppositions.” Like when a comic book or movie franchise gets re-booted, I suppose. One had the sense of a man desperately painting lipstick on a pig.

The right is rotting from within, putrefying on its own grievance and rage. It seems bereft of core values and beliefs unless you count its determination to always oppose anything the left supports, up to and including motherhood and sunshine. That’s as close to principle as conservatives come these days.

Given the way they have spurned their party’s 2012 election “autopsy” report, which called for greater inclusion and a gentler tone, one wonders if these folks are capable of, or even interested in, the reinvention Brooks predicts. Conservatives do not need to be “liberal-lite” — no ideology has a monopoly on good ideas. On the other hand, when your base is the Ku Klux Klan, Ted Nugent and people sucker-punching strangers at rallies, it’s a sign that a little self-reflection is overdue.

“Are you liberal or are you conservative?”

I had a smart aleck answer 20 years ago. But it occurs to me that if they asked that now, I’d have to request clarification. My worldview hasn’t changed.

But I no longer have any idea what “conservative” means.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, March 3, 2016

April 4, 2016 Posted by | Conservatives, Ideology, Liberals | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Ideological Malleability”: Why Trump Could Be Tougher In General Election Than You Think

Donald Trump may not wind up as the Republican nominee for president, but at this point it’s far and away the most likely outcome of the primary race. Having won three of the four contests so far, he’s heading into Super Tuesday six days from now in a position to widen his lead beyond the point where his opponents could catch him.

Which raises an inevitable question: Is he really as terrible a general election candidate as so many people have assumed?

The most rational answer is that we have no idea. If Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio were the nominee, the general election would likely be fairly predictable, in that the debate would revolve around traditional partisan divisions on issues, and we know which states would be competitive and which wouldn’t. But just as Trump’s unique candidacy has defied all that we thought we knew about what matters in primary campaigns — the damage done by outrageous statements, the importance of ideological consistency, the key role played by party elites — so too could a Trump nomination produce an utterly unpredictable general election.

There are still good reasons to think that Trump would be be obliterated by the Democratic nominee. But there’s also a case to be made that Trump would so scramble the election calculus that he could win. Indeed, you might even argue that he has a better shot than a more traditional candidate. Let’s examine each way of looking at the general election.

The case against Trump’s chances begins with the fact that he’s tremendously unpopular. As much as he has thrilled a certain segment of the Republican electorate, everything he has done and said in the primary campaign — the xenophobia, the bigotry, the bombast — has served to alienate him from voters he would need to win the general election. Polls of all Americans, as opposed to just Republicans, show that around 30-35 percent of the public have a favorable impression of Trump, while around 55-60 percent have an unfavorable impression of him.

Furthermore, talking about building a wall with Mexico and rounding up 11 million undocumented immigrants might make the audiences at his rallies cheer, but it won’t play so well with the broader electorate. Everyone understands that the GOP must improve its showing among Latino voters, one of the fastest-growing parts of the electorate, if it’s ever to win back the White House. Trump wouldn’t just fail to improve those numbers, he’d make the bottom fall out: polls have shown (see here or here or here) that Trump is spectacularly unpopular with Latinos, just as you might expect, with approval ratings as low as 11 percent. Furthermore, his nomination would be a terrific mobilization tool to get Latino voters to the polls.

That’s true of other voting groups as well. If you’re not a white guy and Trump hasn’t insulted you yet, he probably will by the end of the primaries. Imagine that the Democratic nominee were Hillary Clinton. How wide will the gender gap be when the potential first woman president is running against a guy who shows such contempt for women and discards each of his wives as soon as she hits her 40s? (Note to Melania: the clock is ticking, so you might want to prepare yourself.)

There’s no doubt that Trump has tapped into something important within the Republican electorate, but that’s where it resides: that combination of anger at their party’s leaders and fear of a changing world sowed the seeds for Trump’s rise. But the general electorate is very different from the Republican electorate: among other things, it’s less white, less Christian, and younger. The positions Trump has taken as he’s appealed to Republicans — overturn Roe v. Wade, loosen gun laws, cut taxes for the wealthy, repeal the Affordable Care Act — are all unpopular with the public at large.

So that’s the case for a Trump defeat in the fall: he’s got the wrong positions on issues, he’s ticked off a lot of voters he’ll need, and he’s generally considered to be an obnoxious jerk.

The argument in favor of a Trump victory has two pieces to it, one about demographics and one about the kind of candidate he’d actually be in a general election. The demographic argument says that Trump has an appeal that other Republicans don’t have. We’ve seen again and again how party leaders (and his opponents) have attacked him for liberal positions he’s held in the past (like being pro-choice and saying nice things about single-payer health care), and even some heresies he’s offered in the present (like his bizarre assertion that George W. Bush was president on September 11, 2001 or his criticism of the Iraq War). Trump’s voters, it turned out, didn’t care. Ideological consistency isn’t important to them, because their affection for Trump is based on other things, like their contempt for Washington and the belief that he’s a “winner,” and if he were president he’d spread his winningness over the whole country, through some process that need not be explained.

Since these beliefs aren’t tied to conservative ideology, they could have appeal beyond Republicans. And even if Trump alienates women, his displays of chest-thumping dominance could appeal to lots and lots of white men, particularly those who are lower on the income and education scales (as Trump said after his Nevada win yesterday, “I love the poorly educated”). That could make Trump competitive in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan that have been in the Democratic column in the last two elections. Unlike other Republicans who have to work to convince voters that they aren’t just on the side of the rich, Trump, an actual rich person, has an economic appeal that has nothing to do with facts but is more about feeling. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may be leading Trump in general election trial heats, but not by much — just a few points.

It’s the second piece of the puzzle that may be less appreciated at this point. To put it simply, Donald Trump would be a completely different candidate in a general election than the one we see now. Conservatives are justified in being terrified by Trump’s ideological malleability. They look at him and see someone with no true beliefs and no commitments, who will quickly change positions if it suits him. He’s only presenting himself as a conservative Republican now — to the degree that he’s even doing that — because he’s running in a Republican primary.

When conservatives think that, they’re absolutely right. He will indeed transform himself once he has a different audience. We don’t have to wonder about that, because he has said so on more than one occasion. “Once you get to a certain level, it changes,” he told Greta Van Susteren a few weeks ago. “I will be changing very rapidly. I’m very capable of changing to anything I want to change to.”

On another occasion, he told voters in Iowa, “When I’m president, I’m a different person. I can do anything. I can be the most politically correct person that you’ve ever seen.” While ordinary politicians try to convince you of their consistency, Trump proudly says that he’ll turn himself into whatever the situation demands. And if it demands someone who has moderate positions, that’s what he’ll be.

Will the voters buy it? We have no way of knowing, because we haven’t seen that version of Trump yet. But we shouldn’t assume that the fact that most of them dislike the current version means they won’t like the next one.

At the moment, I haven’t decided which of these scenarios I think is more likely, Trump getting blown out and taking the Republican Party with him, or Trump forging a heretofore unseen coalition that carries him to the White House. I lean toward the first, but I can’t tell if that’s because the idea of this despicable buffoon being the most powerful human being on earth is so ghastly, and my judgment derives more from hope than anything else. The truth is that with Trump in a general election, we’d be in uncharted territory. Anything could happen.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, February 24, 2016

February 27, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, General Election 2016, Ideology | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Obama Rejects The Rejectionists”: Scalia’s Passing Starts A Court Fight For The Ages

In most presidential elections, Supreme Court nominations are a major issue for elites and a substantial concern for significant parts of the conservative movement. Other voters usually see the future makeup of the court as a side matter, or not essential to their decisions at all.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s death on Saturday will change this.

The issue of conservative judicial activism had already begun to take hold among liberals because of a series of fiercely ideological and precedent-shattering 5-to-4 decisions.

You read that right: After decades during which conservatives complained about “liberal judicial activism,” it is now conservatives who are unabashed in undermining progressive legislation enacted by the nation’s elected branches. Scalia will be remembered fondly on the right as the brilliant exponent of the theory of “originalism” that provided a rationale — or, in many cases, a rationalization — for decisions that usually fit conservative ideological preferences.

In 2010, Citizens United v. FEC rewrote decades of precedent on Congress’ power to regulate how campaigns are financed, facilitating a flood of money into elections from a small number of very wealthy Americans. Three years later, Shelby County v. Holder ripped the heart out of the federal government’s enforcement power in the Voting Rights Act. Last week, conservatives on the court halted the implementation of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, his central initiative on climate change.

This is merely a partial list. The court’s conservatives have also regularly undercut the power of unions and the ability of citizens to wage legal battles against corporations.

Such decisions already had the potential of broadening the range of progressive constituencies invested in making the court a major election issue, including political reformers, African Americans, environmentalists and organized labor.

But Scalia’s death means that Obama or his successor — if that successor is a Democrat — could overturn the current conservative majority on the court, which could lead it to revisit many of the most troubling decisions of recent years.

And Republicans did themselves no favors in the coming argument by moving in a hard political direction even before most of the tributes to Scalia had been published — and even before the president had actually picked someone: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proclaimed that no Obama nominee would be considered, period.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Republicans claimed precedent for ignoring court appointees from presidents on their way out the door. During Saturday night’s debate in South Carolina, Marco Rubio said that “it has been over 80 years since a lame-duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice.” Ted Cruz made a similar point.

Well. A Senate controlled by Democrats confirmed President Reagan’s nomination of Anthony Kennedy on a 97-0 vote in February 1988, which happened to be an election year. By what definition was Reagan not a lame duck when he put Kennedy forward on Nov. 11, 1987?

Obama rejected the rejectionists. He said Saturday he would name a new justice and that there would be “plenty of time . . . for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote.”

My hunch is that Obama will try to put the Republicans’ obstructionism in sharp relief by offering a nominee who has won support and praise from GOP senators in the past. Three potential candidates who fit these criteria and won immediate and widespread mention were Merrick Garland and Sri Srinivasan, both judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and Jane Kelly, a judge on the 8th Circuit. (I should note that Garland is a dear friend of long standing.)

Whatever choice Obama makes, he will try to make it as hard as possible for Republican senators — especially those struggling for reelection this year in blue or purple states — to claim that he had picked an ideologue. Obama could also argue he had deferred to the Republicans’ Senate majority by offering a candidate whom many of them had supported in the past.

An extended court fight would allow progressives, once and for all, to make clear it is their conservative foes now using judicial power most aggressively. The partisan outcome of this year’s election just became far more important. This fall, Americans will not just be picking a new chief executive. They will be setting the course of the court of last resort for a generation.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 14, 2016

February 15, 2016 Posted by | Antonin Scalia, Ideology, Judicial Activism, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Different Analyses Of What’s Wrong With America”: Here’s The Big Difference Between Bernie Sanders And Donald Trump

Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary represented about as emphatic a rejection as you could imagine of that imposing monolith we’ve been calling “the establishment.” Bernie Sanders certainly felt it. “The people of New Hampshire have sent a profound message to the political establishment, to the economic establishment, and by the way, to the media establishment,” he said. “The people want real change.” On the Republican side, you could almost hear the establishment whimpering sadly as the possibility of Donald Trump being their nominee became even more real.

But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Sanders’ and Trump’s success — whether temporary or not — represents two sides of the same coin, a single phenomenon manifesting itself simultaneously in both parties.

That isn’t to say there aren’t a few similarities between the messages the two men are sending. People joke about Sanders and Trump both being supporters of single-payer health care, even though Trump’s “support” consists of a couple of favorable comments years ago; the truth is that he doesn’t seem to know or care much about health care, just like most policy issues. But Trump has sounded some economic populist themes, particularly on trade, where he’s been as skeptical as Sanders of the free trade policies pursued by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. And Trump has no particular commitment to conservative ideology, so if he does become the nominee, don’t expect him to advocate for traditional Republican economic ideas.

That aside, Trump and Sanders have fundamentally different analyses of what’s wrong with America and its government, and what ought to be done about it.

Anger has been the signature emotion of this election on the Republican side. And while there’s no question that many Democratic voters have problems with what has happened during the Obama years, they’re not angry so much as they are disappointed. And that disappointment is really with governing itself — the difficult slog of legislation, the necessary compromises, the inevitable mix of victories and defeats. Hillary Clinton’s problem is that she doesn’t promise anything different; her point is not that she’ll remake American politics, but that through hard work and persistence she can squeeze out of that unpleasant process some better results.

It’s a pragmatic, realistic message, but not one to stir the heart. Particularly for idealistic younger voters, Sanders’ vision of not just different results but a transformed process was bound to be appealing. To those liberals whose attachment to the Democratic Party is less firm — which may also be true of younger voters — Sanders says that the problem isn’t the other side, it’s the whole system, and the “oligarchy” that controls it.

Trump too has a message that transcends partisanship. But where Sanders says the problem is that the system is corrupt because it’s controlled by the wealthy and corporations, Trump argues that the problem is stupidity. He doesn’t want to bring about some kind of transformation in the system. He wants to just ignore it, and produce unlimited winning through the sheer force of his will. For instance, they may both have problems with the trade agreements America has signed, but Sanders will tell you it’s because corporations exerted too much influence over the content of those agreements. Trump just says the agreements were negotiated by idiots, so we got taken to the cleaners by foreigners.

Here’s another important difference between the two: For all their misgivings about the Democratic establishment, Sanders’ supporters are idealistic, hopeful, and looking for dramatic change that is rooted in liberal ideology. They want more comprehensive government benefits in areas like health care and education, higher taxes on the wealthy, and greater restrictions on financial firms. In short, they want their party to be more ideologically pure.

Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, aren’t motivated by hope and idealism but by anger: anger at immigration, anger at Muslims, anger at foreigners, anger at a changing country that seems to be leaving them behind. They want a restoration of American greatness, the feeling of mastery over events and the world. They are far less interested in fulfilling a wish list of conservative policies — which is why they’re unfazed when other Republicans accuse Trump of not being a “real” conservative. He isn’t, and his supporters don’t really care.

There’s another difference: As dramatic as both victories in New Hampshire were, Trump and Sanders face very different prospects from this point forward. Trump is the overwhelming Republican frontrunner, standing far atop a chaotic race in which his opponents are dropping like flies. He may or may not become the nominee, but at the moment he’s got a much better shot than anyone else. Sanders, on the other hand, still trails Hillary Clinton in national polls and faces a daunting map. He’ll now have to go to states with large numbers of the minority voters among whom Clinton has been particularly strong.

We don’t yet know how deep the desire for “revolution” among Democrats really goes, and that question will probably determine the outcome of their primary race. The conservative rage that propelled Donald Trump to victory in New Hampshire, on the other hand, seems virtually inexhaustible.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Week, February 10, 2016

February 11, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ideology, New Hampshire Primaries | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Politicians Protecting Themselves”: Ideology And Polarization Are Trumping All Of The Old Rules Of Politics

If you need convincing that 2015 wasn’t just an “outlier” of a year in American politics, where all of the old rules seemed to fly out the window, please read Mark Schmitt’s fascinating piece in the New York Times earlier this week that examines the rapid decline of some of the bedrock principles of political behavior we all used to take for granted. You cannot, he concludes, blame any of this weirdness on Donald Trump; it’s preceded his rise for a good while.

He may be changing the rules of the presidential primary race, but in the halls of Congress and in governors’ mansions across the country, politicians have already acted in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. By testing and breaking the rules, they have been reshaping the practice of politics since long before Mr. Trump emerged.

Members of Congress, Schmitt observes, are showing unprecedented independence from their own constituents, and so, too, are state elected officials. In both cases they are beginning to refuse to “bring home the bacon” if they dislike the ideological provenance of the cook:

[S]everal members even announced in 2013 that they would not assist constituents with problems involving the Affordable Care Act. The idea of not just neglecting but actively refusing constituent services, for reasons of ideology, would be unimaginable to the constituent-focused members of Congress of both parties elected beginning in the 1970s.

Governors, too, rejected everything from infrastructure spending to federal funding for Medicaid expansion. Even when they saw their approval ratings drop into the 30s, they survived. In 2011, Rick Scott of Florida rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds for a commuter rail project and yet got reelected.

The widespread expectation that red states would accept the Medicaid expansion once the Supreme Court made it voluntary, as a deal too good to refuse, is an example of the old conventional wisdom.  In nearly half the states, ideology trumped helping constituents access available funds and services.

Schmitt believes that predictable partisan voting patterns and special-interest pressure have combined with ideology to all but kill the once-reigning assumption of American politics: the “median voter theorem,” which held that politicians of both parties would inevitably cater to the interests of swing voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum in the pursuit of a majority. It’s the basis of the still-common belief that in competitive contests candidates have to “shift to the center” to win general elections no matter how much time they spend “pandering to the base” in primaries. If, however, an ever-higher percentage of voters simply and reflexively pull the lever for the party with which they identify, then keeping them motivated enough to vote — perhaps by negative attacks on the hated partisan foe — becomes far more important than appealing to an ever-shrinking number of “swing voters.” Eventually, as Schmitt suggests, the whole idea of accountability to voters begins to fade, as pols try to figure out how to protect themselves via gerrymandering and oceans of special-interest money.

[B]y recasting politics as a winner-take-all conflict between wholly incompatible ideologies and identities — as most of the presidential candidates have done — they help to closely align party and ideology, so that those who identify as Republican will always vote Republican and vice versa. When politicians know more or less who will vote and how, they can ignore most voters — including their own loyalists.

Schmitt attributes a lot of these trends to the conquest of the GOP by conservative ideologues, but also notes that the declining competition for median voters has liberated Democrats — themselves less constrained by a conservative minority that barely exists anymore — to think bigger and bolder thoughts about the role of government than they have at any time since the Great Society era. So judging the new rules of politics as a good or a bad thing will most definitely depend on one’s own ideological perspective.

If Donald Trump didn’t cause the fading of the old political order, is he nonetheless benefiting from it? Quite probably so, in that he is the living symbol of spitting defiance to the belief of Republican elites that the median voter theorem required a less viscerally angry and culturally reactionary GOP. Indeed, political observers view Trump as strange and scary precisely because the old rules that would have consigned him to the dustbin of history don’t seem to be in operation anymore. We’d better all lower our resistance to the unexpected.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, January 6, 2015

January 7, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP Primaries, Ideology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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