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The Daily Strategist

February 12, 2016

Sanders and Other Democrats Need to Answer the "Big Government" Question



While I was watching the PBS Democratic presidential candidates' debate Thursday night, I noticed Bernie Sanders doing something a lot of Democrats do: changing the subject when asked the non-congenial question of how much government implementing his agenda would involve? I wrote up some analysis and advice on this at New York:

The very first question posed to Bernie Sanders in Thursday night's PBS debate in Milwaukee is one that's been asked in some form in every one of the Democratic debates. It was from Judy Woodruff:
Coming off the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, there are many voters who are taking a closer look at you, and your ideas, and they're asking how big a role do you foresee for the federal government? It's already spending 21 percent of the entire U.S. economy. How much larger would government be in the lives of Americans under a Sanders presidency?

Sanders "answered" by talking about the redistribution of income to the wealthy that's been under way for a long time, and the health-care entitlement as it exists in other countries, and then started through his whole policy agenda, until Woodruff interrupted:

But, my question is how big would government be? Would there be any limit on the size of the role of government?

Sanders began his answer with "Of course there will be a limit," but instead of saying what that might be he wandered back into his recitation of things that needed to be done. Finally Clinton decided to give him a hand:

Judy, I think that the best analysis that I've seen based on Senator Sanders's plans is that it would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40 percent ...

And before anyone could ask her where she got that cruise missile of a statistic, Clinton went off on a criticism of the Sanders health plan.

Now it's not entirely clear what "size of government" means without some context. Is it the size of the federal budget? The number of federal employees? The magnitude or intrusiveness of bureaucracy? The burden on taxpayers or businesses? Does it matter if "big government" is concentrated in Washington or power is shared with states and localities?

All these distinctions could be useful to Sanders in defending himself from charges of being an agent of Big Government, which a lot of voters (and not just conservatives) dislike more than Big Corporations or Wall Street. More progressive taxes aren't necessarily more difficult to administer than less progressive taxes. Breaking up big banks may not be more complicated than trying to regulate them, and once they are broken up, regulation could become easier. Medicare For All would utilize an existing and relatively efficient federal program. Higher infrastructure spending would utilize existing intergovernmental programs that give states and localities some discretion.

The closest Sanders has come to counter-punching on the cost or size-of-government implications of his agenda is his argument that higher taxes for single-payer health care would actually represent net savings for many (if not most) people because they'd no longer have to pay private health insurance premiums (his exact claims are in dispute, but the idea is entirely sound). He could easily extend this argument by pointing out how much people hate to deal with profit-driven health insurance bureaucrats who routinely deny claims and micromanage the choice of providers and prescription drugs. Banks have bureaucracies, too, as anyone who has applied for a loan can tell you, and it would be smart for a candidate like Sanders who doesn't exactly seem business-friendly to talk about the how the financial industry messes with businesses and investors as well as consumers.

You could almost imagine a Bernie-rific rap where the candidate lays out a vision of what life would be like for most people if his agenda were implemented, and then implicitly (or explicitly) asks if some abstract objection to Big Government is a good reason to reject it.

And beyond that, you would figure that given his foreign-policy views he could suggest some reductions in the size and cost of the very large part of Big Government represented by the Department of Defense.

So far, at least in the debates, he's not doing any of that. Perhaps he thinks being identified with Big Government is just an occupational hazard for every socialist.

But the questions won't stop. And Clinton's drive-by suggestions that a Sanders administration would represent a choice between policies that can't be enacted and a government that can't be sustained provide a small, bitter taste of what Republicans will shovel out should Sanders be nominated.

Actually, all Democrats--including Hillary Clinton--will be asked some version of the "Big Government" question by the media and by Republicans. Changing the subject is a bad Democratic habit that needs to stop. Silence isn't golden; the opposition will fill these gaps with their own version of what Democrats believe, and some voters will just assume the worst.


GOP Mess Won't Secure Democratic Victory in November



In his Mother Jones post, "The 2016 Election Is Likely to Be a Close One," Kevin Drum quotes from an L.A. Times article by Maria Bustillos, who writes in making her case for Sen. Sanders that, "the very clownishness of that madly tootling Republican vehicle, I believe, virtually ensures that whichever Democrat secures the nomination will win the general."

Drum warns, however, that this is a very dangerous assumption for progressives. "Democrats have held the White House for eight years and the economy is in okay but not great shape. Those are not great fundamentals for a Democratic victory."

Given the chaotic mess of the Republican campaign for their party's presidential nomination, it's understandable why many Democrats are expecting an easy victory in November. There is reason to hope for a Democratic landslide, but assuming it will happen is a big mistake. Further, adds Drum,

Now, it's also true that demographic shifts are making the electorate steadily more Democratic. And candidate quality matters: If Republicans nominate a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz, they'll be shooting themselves in the foot. Nonetheless, every bit of history and political science modeling suggests that this will at least be a close election--and possibly one that favors Republicans at the start.

You should vote for whomever appeals to you. But if you're operating under the delusion that Democrats can literally nominate anyone they want because nobody sane will vote for any of those crazy Republicans, you'd better think twice. This is a belief that betrays both a lazy liberal insularity about the nature of the electorate and an appalling amnesia about a political era that's brought us Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, Paul Ryan, and the entire tea party. This election is no runaway, folks.

A sobering assessment, and one which ought to cause supporters of both Clinton and Sanders to reject overconfidence about the general election. American voters are evenly divided on many issues, and numerous factors, including a national security crisis, a sudden economic downturn and voter suppression, to name a few possibilities, could tip the election to the right. (This video clip should be required viewing for overconfident Democrats).

A Democratic victory in November will certainly require an all-hands-on-deck commitment to electing the Democratic nominee, even if their first choice doesn't win the nomination.


Clinton-Sanders Milwaukee Debate: Civility with Zingers



In last night's Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders again provided an impressive example of civility and how to conduct an informative and uplifting discussion of their respective visions for America's future -- and their differences concerning the policies needed to get there.

Those who hoped for a blustering mud-wallow were probably disappointed, though you may see overheated headlines suggesting otherwise.That's not to say that either candidate was reluctant to call out the adversary with clever zingers. A couple of examples from Tal Kopan's CNN Politics post "Top 10 lines from the PBS NewsHour Democratic debate":

"Well I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy and we have yet to know who that is," Clinton said in response to Sanders slamming Kissinger.

"Let's not insult the intelligence of the American people. People aren't dumb. Why in God's name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it; they want to throw money around," Sanders said of Clinton and Obama taking money from big donors on Wall Street.

There were some wince-inducing moments, including Clinton gushing a little too much about her admiration of Obama. Ed Kilgore noted Sanders' "harping on old-hippie preoccupations," such as Nixon era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's role in Cambodia, and carrying on about FDR and Churchill.

My impression was that Clinton dominated the debate, though not by much. Her closing statement was significantly better, however. Both candidates provided an admirable example of thoughtful, informed and mature political discourse, which we have seen, is no longer to be taken for granted in America.

Overall, this was another confidence-inspiring presidential debate, which stands in dignified contrast to the Republican snarkfests. Trump has nastily insulted so many of his adversaries that it is hard to picture him picking any of them as his running mate, should he win the GOP nomination. But it's easy to see Clinton and Sanders running together on the same ticket. Both are doing so well that it may become hard to do otherwise.

Taking a step back and surveying the value of the Democratic debates so far, there is reason for Dems to be optimistic. These are great debates, and the pragmatist vs. idealist theme that has emerged can help to clarify Democratic Party priorities. Both candidates are also setting a solid example for Democratic candidates running down-ballot, and that's a good thing indeed.

Those who missed the debate can watch it right here.


February 11, 2016

Political Strategy Notes



NYT reporters and editors preview tonight's Democratic presidential candidate debate in Milwaukee. "Hillary Clinton's campaign just started airing a powerful ad in South Carolina highlighting her record of fighting for criminal justice reform and decrying "systemic racism." I'll be watching to see if -- and how -- Mrs. Clinton brings up race and gender issues as she seeks to restore a solid base after losing big to Mr. Sanders in New Hampshire," says Nick Corasaniti in one overview.

Josh Putnam's "A Glossary of National Convention Delegate Allocation" at Sabato's Crystal Ball provides a much-needed guide for us perplexed primary watchers.

The Feb. 20 Nevada caucuses aren't getting as much media play as did NH or the upcoming SC primaries (Feb 27). But "It really is the first test there is of how effective you are going to be in mobilizing the Democratic coalition in a general election," says Rebecca Lambe, senior strategist for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of NV. It's a smaller state than SC, but has more delegates than NH. NYT's Adam Nagourney reports that "This state is as racially diverse as Iowa and New Hampshire are not: About 20 percent of the Democratic electorate is Hispanic, and 13 percent African-American. Over 95 percent of Vermont, his home state, is white." The state is considered a Clinton stronghold, but the Sanders campaign, hoping to benefit from NV's same-day registration, is committing resources to make it a fight.

And here's why the NV polls are not much help in predicting the outcome.

SC is considered Clinton country, as well. But most of the media interest will likely be in the Republican race, where it could be Bush's last stand, or alternatively, his comeback moment. We'll see how much clout dropout Sen. Lindsey Graham has with his Bush endorsement, although Gov. Terry Branstad's squiring Christie around in Iowa didn't help him much. It's early yet, but 2016 doesn't seem like a great year for successful endorsements.

The 'Trump is the GOP's Frankenstein' theme has gotten a pretty thorough workout across media platforms during the last year. But Nicholas Kristof's latest column offers several well-stated insights about it, including "Republican leaders brought this on themselves. Over the decades they pried open a Pandora's box, a toxic politics of fear and resentment, sometimes brewed with a tinge of racial animus, and they could never satisfy the unrealistic expectations that they nurtured among supporters."

At The Fix Phillip Bump explains why "Democrats may have an enthusiasm problem in 2016," and notes "The Republicans had more voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire than did the Democrats." But Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution describes turnout for both parties as "healthy," presaging a high-turnout election in November.

E. J. Dionne, Jr. notes of Hillary Clinton's image problem: "...A woman who can be charming and engaging outside the context of politics has offered neither a crisp explanation for why she's running nor a persuasive answer to those who see her as untrustworthy. And her burden is formidable: She must readjust her candidacy without seeming to be contriving a new personality for new circumstances." The need for a "crisp explanation" makes sense. Candidates really need a compelling sentence or two, perhaps a soundbite, about their reason for running as opposed to a windy laundry list. Jack Olsen, a frequent TDS commenter, has a perceptive observation about this difference between Clinton and Sanders messaging thus far. As for the "untrustworthy" problem, a strategy to contradict the overstated 'soft on Wall St' critique might help.

At The Atlantic Ronald Brownstein addresses her challenge in his article "Can Hillary Clinton Convince Voters They're Not Settling? The former secretary of state will have to shift her strategy as she faces her surging Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders." Brownstone argues, "Clinton wants to present herself as a doer who can produce incremental progress, while her opponent offers unachievable dreams. The problem is that, as in the 2008 race, this positions her as the dour chaperone at the party, offering half-measures while glumly raining on the transcendent change her opponent promises...That's hardly an inspirational message--particularly for the younger voters who have flocked to Sanders in stunning proportions across Iowa and New Hampshire...Even after her New Hampshire collapse, Clinton still has significant advantages, particularly predominant support among minority voters. But if Sanders continues to drive the campaign argument, those defenses will face increasing strain."


February 10, 2016

Surprise NH Star John Kasich Has No Credible Path to the Nomination



Before you let anyone convince you that Ohio Gov. John Kasich's surprise second-place finish in New Hamsphire gives Republicans an electable new option, consider this evaluation I made of his prospects at New York this morning:

Kasich pursued the same basic strategy as his chief political adviser, longtime McCain hand John Weaver, laid out for 2012 candidate Jon Huntsman: In a crowded field of candidates trying to out-conservative each other, go for that wallflower at the dance, the moderate or "somewhat conservative" voter, where they are most in abundance. Among the early states, that would be New Hampshire.

And so Kasich poured all his resources (including an estimated $10 million or so in ads, mostly run by a super-pac) into the Granite State, and accentuated two features considered a handicap by most candidates: the longest history of elected service in the field (he was elected to the Ohio Senate when Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were small children), and such moderate positions as support for the Obamacare-provided Medicaid expansion and a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. The other candidates for the most part ignored Kasich and conceded him the RINO vote. Going down the stretch, his trajectory was similar to Huntsman's (the former Utah governor got 17 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, which was enough for a third-place finish well behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, but not enough to sustain a campaign going forward). But then Kasich got lucky. In a pre-primary debate, Chris Christie humiliated presumed Establishment champion Marco Rubio, and in the ensuing scrum, the Ohioan sneaked through untouched to narrowly finish second. With 16 percent, he actually did a bit worse than Huntsman, but context is everything.

If you look at the exit polls from New Hampshire, Kasich's narrow but sufficient (in this state, anyway) path to second place was pretty clear: He won 20 percent or more among self-identified moderates, those earning over $200,000, people who perceive themselves as "getting ahead financially," voters focused on the economy and jobs, and those who reject banning Muslim immigration and favor a path to legalization for the undocumented. It's very important to understand that voters like this are not in heavy supply in South Carolina or in the southern states that crowd the calendar on March 1. With both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio struggling to survive in what's left of the "Establishment Lane," Kasich can no longer expect a relatively benign treatment from other candidates. His willingness to defend a Medicaid expansion is the rankest heresy charge he will face, though there are already signs that his budget-cutting record will be savaged in the Palmetto State by Bush ally Lindsey Graham for threatening defense spending, a holy sacrament in that state sagging with military facilities. It's unclear how Kasich will respond other than by spending little time in South Carolina and hoping he can somehow remain viable until Michigan and his own Ohio vote on March 8 and March 15 (respectively). He has zero infrastructure in the intervening states, in any event, and it's unclear whether his New Hampshire showing will loosen many purse strings on his behalf.

Kasich could presumably zigzag strategically and stop trying to sound less conservative than his own record would indicate. But it seems like the issue that gets him personally excited is that perpetual snoozer, a balanced budget constitutional amendment. At a moment when conservatives appear to have again forgotten about fiscal probity in their zeal to cut taxes and deport immigrants and prosecute Middle Eastern wars, Kasich appears more than a bit out of touch.

All in all, Kasich's moment in the sun doesn't look likely to last very long. He could perhaps be lifted over the many obstacles to this nomination -- or at least kept in contention until those April and May primary states where self-identifed moderates again walk the earth in sizable numbers -- if Republican elites concluded he was their best bet to keep Donald Trump and Ted Cruz away from the nomination. But to paraphrase the late journalist Hunter Thompson, counting on John Kasich to stop Donald Trump is a bit like sending out a three-toed sloth to seize turf from a wolverine. Who would want to place a multi-million-dollar bet on that?

Probably no one. And so John Kasich will likely turn out to be the political equivalent of a one-hit wonder.


How the White Working Class Voted in NH



Looking at vote totals in NH, Sanders was the top vote-getter by far, racking up a tally of 138,716 votes with 92 percent of the returns in, compared to Trump's 2nd place finish of 92,417 votes. Clinton received 88,827, followed by Kasich's 41,813 votes.

Of the more than half of a million ballots cast and 92 percent of the ballots counted, all of the Republican candidates together received more than 30 thousand more votes than the two Democratic candidates together.

Trump did well with white working class voters, while Sanders did even better. As Patrick Healey notes in his NYT article, "New Hampshire Takeaways: Trust, Experience and Message Count":

In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Mrs. Clinton beat Mr. Obama in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other states partly because of solid support from working-class white voters. But Mr. Sanders prevailed with these voters in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Sixty-eight percent of white noncollege graduates supported him, as did 65 percent of people from families earning less than $50,000. On the Republican side, the same groups of voters broke strongly for Mr. Trump.

That would be 68 percent of white non college Democratic voters supporting Sanders. CNN Exit polling indicates Clinton received 30 percent of white Democratic voters with no college degree. Clearly, Sanders received more white working class votes than did any other candidate of either party.

Trump won with 41 percent of white Republican voters with no college degree, while Kasich received 12 percent of non college white Republican votes, as did Cruz. The rest of the GOP presidential candidates split the remaining 34 percent of the white working class Republican vote in NH.

Sen. Sanders clearly has traction with this often pivotal demographic group. It appears that he has struck a potent concern of white workers with his emphasis on reforms to rectify economic injustice and curb corporate political power. It will be interesting to see if his message resonates as the primary campaign heads south. It looks like the Clinton campaign needs stronger messaging to address these concerns.


February 9, 2016

For Dems, NH Primary Diminishes in Context



The latest NH polls (here and here, for example) indicate possible double-digit victory margins for Sanders and Trump, with all of the caveats that apply for small survey samples and NH voters' notorious proclivity for confounding pollsters.

For Republicans, the value of the late polls are also limited by the timing, which didn't reflect the full effects of media buzz about the Rubio meltdown, nor the Christie or Kasich media/poll boomlets.

Looking at the worst-case scenario for the Clinton campaign, even a blowout in NH won't diminish her prospects much in the longer run, since she still runs well in recent national polls. At most the NH results may serve as a flag for what may need to be tweaked in messaging, ground game, tone, policy and other strategic considerations. That's likely the most useful function of the early primaries for all candidates.

That said, there will be contributions bumps for NH primary winners, with amounts depending on the margin of victory. Also, even a few delegates can swing a party nomination in a close one-on-one race.

But The media will soon be focusing on the coming month of party primaries in megastates that have large numbers of delegates, and the NH results will fade into anecdotal obscurity. These primaries will include four of the twelve most populous states, Texas, Virginia and Georgia, all on March 1st, 'Super Tuesday' and Michigan on March 8. There will also be closed caucuses in interesting purple states, like Nevada (Feb. 20), and Colorado on March 1.

Here's the full primary calendar over the next month, with number of delegates, at-large delegates (in parenthesis) and type of primary/caucus for each state (More details here):

February 20, 2016
Nevada 35 (8) Closed caucus
February 27, 2016
South Carolina 53 (6) Open primary
March 1, 2016
Alabama 53 (7) Open primary; American Samoa 6 (4) Closed caucus; Arkansas 32 (5) Open primary; Colorado 66 (13) Closed caucus; March 1-8, 2016 Democrats Abroad 13 (4) Closed primary; Georgia 102 (14) Open primary; Massachusetts 91 (25) Semi-closed primary; Minnesota 77 (16) Open caucus; Oklahoma 38 (4) Semi-closed primary; Tennessee 67 (9) Open primary; Texas 222 (30) Open primary; Vermont 16 (8) Open primary; Virginia 95 (15) Open primary;
March 5, 2016
Louisiana 51 (7) Closed primary; Nebraska 25 (5) Closed caucus; Kansas 33 (4) Closed caucus
March 6, 2016
Maine 25 (5) Closed caucus
March 8, 2016
Mississippi 36 (5) Open primary; Michigan 130 (19) Open primary

Three or four days from now, after most of the post-primary analysis has been exhausted, the NH primary results will seem largely inconsequential -- especially compared to Super Tuesday.


February 8, 2016

Political Strategy Notes



The pundit consensus regarding the final Republican presidential candidate debate before the NH primary is that poll front-runners Trump and Cruz did OK, despite the booing of The Donald, which had the unsavory whiff of a GOP establishment set-up. As Ed Kilgore noted, "Trump's joke about the audience being heavily composed of Bush's famously numerous donors rang pretty true." Perhaps the Trump team's shoddy advance work made it possible for the Bush campaign to dominate the audience. Still, adds Kilgore, Trump "did well in no small part by failing to be the center of attention," and it's likely that the debate didn't entirely eradicate Trump's formidable lead in the late NH polls.

NYT's Alan Rappeport has a round-up of quick takes on the GOP candidate debate, including this nugget from Jessica Mackler, president of Democratic Super PAC American Bridge: "The Rubiobot got stuck on repeat, offering nothing but canned talking points, and still had no answer when challenged on his lack of accomplishments and failure to show up for work. He needed a big night tonight, but a system glitch had him short-circuiting." You can find scathing reviews of Rubio's performance pretty much everywhere. "Once Impervious, Marco Rubio Is Diminished by a Caustic Chris Christie," read the Sunday Times above-the-fold headline. At Rubio's expense, Christie showed he has the chops to go for the adversary's jugular, if not the adequate likability needed to be an effective running mate.

The Democratic debate, on the other hand, was more substantial than the GOP's demolition derby. From Michael Tomasky's Daily Beast Post on the final Democratic debate in NH "Finally, a Debate That Voters Deserve": "That was one of the best debates I've ever watched. The questions were (mostly) good and tough and not stupid, and Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow did a really good job of steering it without getting in the way. Both candidates were good. Very good. There were a few tough moments, a few tender moments. It was real. I don't know if it changed the dynamic in New Hampshire, but it did suggest one possible path for Hillary Clinton to narrow Bernie Sanders's huge lead so that we might see some drama next Tuesday after all."

Despite some heated exchanges in the Democratic debate, The Guardian's Richard Wolfe commended both candidates on their civility: "Bernie's best moment - once again - was his mensch-like refusal to attack Clinton on the email saga. In fact, he stated publicly that he rejects repeated media requests to do just that...The moderators tried to lure Clinton into a similar attack on Sanders, about the number of apparent ethical questions surrounding Sanders staffers. She politely declines the opportunity to jump in, before the debate breaks for yet another ad break...After a debate in which both candidates have taken their gloves off, this was easily their most dignified moment."

At PoliticusUSA RMuse shares a sobering thought on health care reform: "It is worth reminding Americans that if private insurance companies were not part of "Obamacare," like they are part of Medicare and Medicaid, there would be no healthcare reform whatsoever. In fact, what seems lost on the "EmoProg" movement is that even with private insurance company involvement in "Obamacare," Medicare, and Medicaid, Republicans have spent the past nearly six years doing everything in their considerable power to get rid of not only Obamacare, but Medicare as well. One is just baffled beyond comprehension why anyone in America would think for a second that any Republican will ever support raising trillions in taxes to fund a "Medicare for all" system; arguably a government socialized system when they want any healthcare system eviscerated."

At The Washington Post Mike Debonis reports that "Flint water crisis emerges as a key piece of Democrats' election-year message." Dems should also project the crisis as 'exhibit A' evidence for the urgent need for infrastructure upgrades in stark contrast to the Republicans policy of infrastructure neglect and abandonment.

NYT columnist Charles M. Blow probes the Clinton campaign's inadequate traction with younger voters and observes "Clinton is running an I-Have-Half-A-Dream campaign. That simply doesn't inspire young people brimming with the biggest of dreams. Clinton's message says: Aim lower, think smaller, move slower. It says, I have more modest ambitions, but they are more realistic."

Sen. Sanders open embrace of 'democratic socialism' may resonate positively with younger voters, though it is likely more of a liability with older voters. Catherine Rampell notes in her Washington Post column that "respondents younger than 30 were the only group that rated socialism more favorably than capitalism (43 percent vs. 32 percent, respectively)" in a recent Yougov poll conducted January 25-27, while a Gallup poll conducted June 2-7 last year found that "34 percent of respondents age 65 and older said they would be willing to vote for a socialist, compared with about twice that level among respondents younger than 30."

Every candidate should try to get a healthy share of young voters. But the significant lag in youth voter turnout even in presidential elections revealed in this chart from the U.S. Elections Project, may help explain why some candidates are more focused on older voters:
CPS age.png


February 5, 2016

Beware of Moments That Reinforce Media Narratives--Ask Howard Dean



As the Democratic presidential nominating contest gets tense after the photo-finish in Iowa, it brings back memories of past post-Iowa "moments" that turned out to be dramatic and consequential. I wrote about one of them--the so-called "Dean Scream" of 2004--at New York, with some warnings for the 2016 candidates:

One of the fruits of ESPN's acquisition of Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight is the capacity to produce films, and so the wonky "data journalism" site has produced for our post-Iowa enjoyment a brief video look back at the "Dean Scream" -- the iconic moment on the night of the Iowa caucuses when the soon-to-be-former Democratic presidential front-runner appeared to be losing it.

With footage featuring Dean himself, well-known figures from his 2004 campaign like Joe Trippi and Tricia Enright, and even John Kerry staffers like Stephanie Cutter and Mary Beth Cahill, the film doesn't break new ground, but it might be a revelation to those who weren't around or paying close attention to politics 12 years ago. In short, "the Scream" (a litany of states Dean promised to go into and win, followed by a fist-pumping "Ahhhhh" or "Yeeehaahhh!" depending on your interpretation of inarticulate noises) was largely an illusion created by TV mics that picked up Dean's voice but not the incredibly noisy crowd in the Val Air Ballroom in Des Moines. Rather than reflecting some unhinged aspect of the candidate's personality, his speech was actually a direct reflection of what he was told to say by his most important Iowa backer, then-senator Tom Harkin. And far from killing Dean's campaign, it simply placed an exclamation point on the disaster of a third-place Iowa finish for the man who had become a national front-runner not too many weeks earlier. Questionable campaign-resource allocations, momentarily positive news from Iraq, and some shrewd moves by Dean's opponents had a lot more to do with the demise of his candidacy that the debatable effect of a single speech.

But as Silver & Co. note in a chat about the film, what "the Scream" actually did was reinforce a powerful media narrative that was already emerging about Dean as an "angry man" leading an emotional but not terribly responsible antiwar movement. And so it was probably one of the earliest videos to go viral, inspiring countless comedy routines, music videos, and even weather reports ("And then the storm's going to hit South Dakota, and then Minnesota, and then Wisconsin! Yeeehaahhh!"). And eventually the narrative completely overwhelmed the facts, and people "remember" "the Scream" as having devastated a presidential candidacy.

The lesson of "the Scream" seems to be that strong media narratives about a candidacy don't need much fuel to burn brightly, and evocative moments that reinforce them can quickly become iconic and hard to shake. Silver guesses Donald Trump could be the victim of something similar if, like Dean, he continues to underperform expectations and confirm the original suspicion that he's not a viable candidate. But I dunno: Trump's already overcome so many supposedly fatal "moments" in debates and speeches that it's hard to imagine him being felled by such a blunt object as a video. Looking back at Dean's campaign, it's hard to avoid the similarities between his kiddie crusade and Bernie Sanders's; Bernie's youth brigades in Iowa could be the youngest brothers and sisters (or nieces and nephews) of the orange-hat hordes that flooded the state for Dean in 2004. Lucky for Sanders, his young supporters don't seem to have freaked out older Iowans quite the way Dean's did. And on caucus night, Sanders more or less gave his stock speech rather than a pep talk (it helps distinguish him from Dean that he was not conceding defeat).

But there's no question elements of the media and political opponents alike would love to depict Bernie as an aging, strident ideologue serving as a pied piper to uninhibited and "idealistic" youth. And he already has a tendency to speak loudly (I've been advised by one acquaintance that drawing attention to Sanders's volume as a speaker is an anti-Semitic dog whistle, but having grown up around some very loud southern Baptists, I just don't buy it). A "Scream" moment is always a possibility.

Howard Dean might warn his fellow Vermonter about his experience, but the irony is that Dean (and for that matter, the instigator of "the Scream," Tom Harkin) is supporting Clinton; in FiveThirtyEight's film he returns to Iowa for the first time since "the Scream" to thump the tubs for Hillary. So maybe Dean and Harkin can advise their candidate that she, too, should beware of images and utterances that reinforce negative media narratives. Someone on her team should be assigned a full-time job watching for and heading off "gotcha" moments that suggest she's dishonest.

Media narratives are always restlessly in search of validation, And nothing does that quite like video. Candidates beware,


Clinton-Sanders Contest Could Go Epic



Last night's debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders suggests that the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination could go the distance. No matter who wins the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, the readiness of both candidates for the long haul is striking. I would be surprised if either candidate put it away before the summer.

A couple of interesting observations from Alan Rapport's New York Times round up, "Who Won the Debate? Critics Are as Split as the Candidates":

"Powerful ending by Sanders. There's an undeniable decency to him that you don't often see at this level of American politics." -- Ezra Klein, founder of Vox.com

"Crucial distinction between Bernie and Hillary on Flint: She suggests solutions, he demands punishments." -- Charlotte Alter, writer for Time.

"Both made strong attacks, and both defended effectively. This was the most intense debate of the entire cycle, possibly foreshadowing an epic, long-running series of face-to-face contests alternating with primaries and caucuses well into the spring." --Mark Halperin, managing editor of Bloomberg Politics

Sanders scored on his emphasis on getting corporate money out of politics, regulating Wall Street and calling for fair trade policies to protect jobs. Clinton showed impressive acumen on foreign policy, was confident and eloquent on a range of issues and zinged Sanders for his five votes against the Brady bill.

Recent polling indicates that Sanders holds a strong lead in New Hampshire. But, as he noted during the debate, the early primary states don't contribute a lot of delegates to the number needed to clinch the nomination, though they could be pivotal in a close race.

The early primary wins do impact fund-raising in a favorable way. Phillip Bump observes at The Washington Post, that following the debate, "The fourth-most-Googled question about Bernie Sanders is how can I give him money...Getting a voter to try and figure out how to give is a dream come true for any campaign. Having it trend on Google? Insane."

The Politico Caucus, "a panel of top operatives and activists in the early nominating states," gave Sanders the edge in the debate. But 65 percent of them said that Sanders would "lose in a landslide "to the Republican nominee.

Who "won" the debate is certainly less important than winning the election next week. But rest assured that this contest will intensify in the months ahead, regardless. By affirming their mutual respect for each other in every debate and their willingness to support their Democratic adversary against any Republican, both candidates can serve the cause of party unity, even as they define their differences.






Editor's Corner

by Ed Kilgore



February 12: Sanders and Other Democrats Need to Answer the "Big Government" Question

While I was watching the PBS Democratic presidential candidates' debate Thursday night, I noticed Bernie Sanders doing something a lot of Democrats do: changing the subject when asked the non-congenial question of how much government implementing his agenda would involve? I wrote up some analysis and advice on this at New York:

The very first question posed to Bernie Sanders in Thursday night's PBS debate in Milwaukee is one that's been asked in some form in every one of the Democratic debates. It was from Judy Woodruff:
Coming off the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, there are many voters who are taking a closer look at you, and your ideas, and they're asking how big a role do you foresee for the federal government? It's already spending 21 percent of the entire U.S. economy. How much larger would government be in the lives of Americans under a Sanders presidency?

Sanders "answered" by talking about the redistribution of income to the wealthy that's been under way for a long time, and the health-care entitlement as it exists in other countries, and then started through his whole policy agenda, until Woodruff interrupted:

But, my question is how big would government be? Would there be any limit on the size of the role of government?

Sanders began his answer with "Of course there will be a limit," but instead of saying what that might be he wandered back into his recitation of things that needed to be done. Finally Clinton decided to give him a hand:

Judy, I think that the best analysis that I've seen based on Senator Sanders's plans is that it would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40 percent ...

And before anyone could ask her where she got that cruise missile of a statistic, Clinton went off on a criticism of the Sanders health plan.

Now it's not entirely clear what "size of government" means without some context. Is it the size of the federal budget? The number of federal employees? The magnitude or intrusiveness of bureaucracy? The burden on taxpayers or businesses? Does it matter if "big government" is concentrated in Washington or power is shared with states and localities?

All these distinctions could be useful to Sanders in defending himself from charges of being an agent of Big Government, which a lot of voters (and not just conservatives) dislike more than Big Corporations or Wall Street. More progressive taxes aren't necessarily more difficult to administer than less progressive taxes. Breaking up big banks may not be more complicated than trying to regulate them, and once they are broken up, regulation could become easier. Medicare For All would utilize an existing and relatively efficient federal program. Higher infrastructure spending would utilize existing intergovernmental programs that give states and localities some discretion.

The closest Sanders has come to counter-punching on the cost or size-of-government implications of his agenda is his argument that higher taxes for single-payer health care would actually represent net savings for many (if not most) people because they'd no longer have to pay private health insurance premiums (his exact claims are in dispute, but the idea is entirely sound). He could easily extend this argument by pointing out how much people hate to deal with profit-driven health insurance bureaucrats who routinely deny claims and micromanage the choice of providers and prescription drugs. Banks have bureaucracies, too, as anyone who has applied for a loan can tell you, and it would be smart for a candidate like Sanders who doesn't exactly seem business-friendly to talk about the how the financial industry messes with businesses and investors as well as consumers.

You could almost imagine a Bernie-rific rap where the candidate lays out a vision of what life would be like for most people if his agenda were implemented, and then implicitly (or explicitly) asks if some abstract objection to Big Government is a good reason to reject it.

And beyond that, you would figure that given his foreign-policy views he could suggest some reductions in the size and cost of the very large part of Big Government represented by the Department of Defense.

So far, at least in the debates, he's not doing any of that. Perhaps he thinks being identified with Big Government is just an occupational hazard for every socialist.

But the questions won't stop. And Clinton's drive-by suggestions that a Sanders administration would represent a choice between policies that can't be enacted and a government that can't be sustained provide a small, bitter taste of what Republicans will shovel out should Sanders be nominated.

Actually, all Democrats--including Hillary Clinton--will be asked some version of the "Big Government" question by the media and by Republicans. Changing the subject is a bad Democratic habit that needs to stop. Silence isn't golden; the opposition will fill these gaps with their own version of what Democrats believe, and some voters will just assume the worst.


February 10: Surprise NH Star John Kasich Has No Credible Path to the Nomination

Before you let anyone convince you that Ohio Gov. John Kasich's surprise second-place finish in New Hamsphire gives Republicans an electable new option, consider this evaluation I made of his prospects at New York this morning:

Kasich pursued the same basic strategy as his chief political adviser, longtime McCain hand John Weaver, laid out for 2012 candidate Jon Huntsman: In a crowded field of candidates trying to out-conservative each other, go for that wallflower at the dance, the moderate or "somewhat conservative" voter, where they are most in abundance. Among the early states, that would be New Hampshire.

And so Kasich poured all his resources (including an estimated $10 million or so in ads, mostly run by a super-pac) into the Granite State, and accentuated two features considered a handicap by most candidates: the longest history of elected service in the field (he was elected to the Ohio Senate when Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were small children), and such moderate positions as support for the Obamacare-provided Medicaid expansion and a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. The other candidates for the most part ignored Kasich and conceded him the RINO vote. Going down the stretch, his trajectory was similar to Huntsman's (the former Utah governor got 17 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, which was enough for a third-place finish well behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, but not enough to sustain a campaign going forward). But then Kasich got lucky. In a pre-primary debate, Chris Christie humiliated presumed Establishment champion Marco Rubio, and in the ensuing scrum, the Ohioan sneaked through untouched to narrowly finish second. With 16 percent, he actually did a bit worse than Huntsman, but context is everything.

If you look at the exit polls from New Hampshire, Kasich's narrow but sufficient (in this state, anyway) path to second place was pretty clear: He won 20 percent or more among self-identified moderates, those earning over $200,000, people who perceive themselves as "getting ahead financially," voters focused on the economy and jobs, and those who reject banning Muslim immigration and favor a path to legalization for the undocumented. It's very important to understand that voters like this are not in heavy supply in South Carolina or in the southern states that crowd the calendar on March 1. With both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio struggling to survive in what's left of the "Establishment Lane," Kasich can no longer expect a relatively benign treatment from other candidates. His willingness to defend a Medicaid expansion is the rankest heresy charge he will face, though there are already signs that his budget-cutting record will be savaged in the Palmetto State by Bush ally Lindsey Graham for threatening defense spending, a holy sacrament in that state sagging with military facilities. It's unclear how Kasich will respond other than by spending little time in South Carolina and hoping he can somehow remain viable until Michigan and his own Ohio vote on March 8 and March 15 (respectively). He has zero infrastructure in the intervening states, in any event, and it's unclear whether his New Hampshire showing will loosen many purse strings on his behalf.

Kasich could presumably zigzag strategically and stop trying to sound less conservative than his own record would indicate. But it seems like the issue that gets him personally excited is that perpetual snoozer, a balanced budget constitutional amendment. At a moment when conservatives appear to have again forgotten about fiscal probity in their zeal to cut taxes and deport immigrants and prosecute Middle Eastern wars, Kasich appears more than a bit out of touch.

All in all, Kasich's moment in the sun doesn't look likely to last very long. He could perhaps be lifted over the many obstacles to this nomination -- or at least kept in contention until those April and May primary states where self-identifed moderates again walk the earth in sizable numbers -- if Republican elites concluded he was their best bet to keep Donald Trump and Ted Cruz away from the nomination. But to paraphrase the late journalist Hunter Thompson, counting on John Kasich to stop Donald Trump is a bit like sending out a three-toed sloth to seize turf from a wolverine. Who would want to place a multi-million-dollar bet on that?

Probably no one. And so John Kasich will likely turn out to be the political equivalent of a one-hit wonder.


February 5: Beware of Moments That Reinforce Media Narratives--Ask Howard Dean

As the Democratic presidential nominating contest gets tense after the photo-finish in Iowa, it brings back memories of past post-Iowa "moments" that turned out to be dramatic and consequential. I wrote about one of them--the so-called "Dean Scream" of 2004--at New York, with some warnings for the 2016 candidates:

One of the fruits of ESPN's acquisition of Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight is the capacity to produce films, and so the wonky "data journalism" site has produced for our post-Iowa enjoyment a brief video look back at the "Dean Scream" -- the iconic moment on the night of the Iowa caucuses when the soon-to-be-former Democratic presidential front-runner appeared to be losing it.

With footage featuring Dean himself, well-known figures from his 2004 campaign like Joe Trippi and Tricia Enright, and even John Kerry staffers like Stephanie Cutter and Mary Beth Cahill, the film doesn't break new ground, but it might be a revelation to those who weren't around or paying close attention to politics 12 years ago. In short, "the Scream" (a litany of states Dean promised to go into and win, followed by a fist-pumping "Ahhhhh" or "Yeeehaahhh!" depending on your interpretation of inarticulate noises) was largely an illusion created by TV mics that picked up Dean's voice but not the incredibly noisy crowd in the Val Air Ballroom in Des Moines. Rather than reflecting some unhinged aspect of the candidate's personality, his speech was actually a direct reflection of what he was told to say by his most important Iowa backer, then-senator Tom Harkin. And far from killing Dean's campaign, it simply placed an exclamation point on the disaster of a third-place Iowa finish for the man who had become a national front-runner not too many weeks earlier. Questionable campaign-resource allocations, momentarily positive news from Iraq, and some shrewd moves by Dean's opponents had a lot more to do with the demise of his candidacy that the debatable effect of a single speech.

But as Silver & Co. note in a chat about the film, what "the Scream" actually did was reinforce a powerful media narrative that was already emerging about Dean as an "angry man" leading an emotional but not terribly responsible antiwar movement. And so it was probably one of the earliest videos to go viral, inspiring countless comedy routines, music videos, and even weather reports ("And then the storm's going to hit South Dakota, and then Minnesota, and then Wisconsin! Yeeehaahhh!"). And eventually the narrative completely overwhelmed the facts, and people "remember" "the Scream" as having devastated a presidential candidacy.

The lesson of "the Scream" seems to be that strong media narratives about a candidacy don't need much fuel to burn brightly, and evocative moments that reinforce them can quickly become iconic and hard to shake. Silver guesses Donald Trump could be the victim of something similar if, like Dean, he continues to underperform expectations and confirm the original suspicion that he's not a viable candidate. But I dunno: Trump's already overcome so many supposedly fatal "moments" in debates and speeches that it's hard to imagine him being felled by such a blunt object as a video. Looking back at Dean's campaign, it's hard to avoid the similarities between his kiddie crusade and Bernie Sanders's; Bernie's youth brigades in Iowa could be the youngest brothers and sisters (or nieces and nephews) of the orange-hat hordes that flooded the state for Dean in 2004. Lucky for Sanders, his young supporters don't seem to have freaked out older Iowans quite the way Dean's did. And on caucus night, Sanders more or less gave his stock speech rather than a pep talk (it helps distinguish him from Dean that he was not conceding defeat).

But there's no question elements of the media and political opponents alike would love to depict Bernie as an aging, strident ideologue serving as a pied piper to uninhibited and "idealistic" youth. And he already has a tendency to speak loudly (I've been advised by one acquaintance that drawing attention to Sanders's volume as a speaker is an anti-Semitic dog whistle, but having grown up around some very loud southern Baptists, I just don't buy it). A "Scream" moment is always a possibility.

Howard Dean might warn his fellow Vermonter about his experience, but the irony is that Dean (and for that matter, the instigator of "the Scream," Tom Harkin) is supporting Clinton; in FiveThirtyEight's film he returns to Iowa for the first time since "the Scream" to thump the tubs for Hillary. So maybe Dean and Harkin can advise their candidate that she, too, should beware of images and utterances that reinforce negative media narratives. Someone on her team should be assigned a full-time job watching for and heading off "gotcha" moments that suggest she's dishonest.

Media narratives are always restlessly in search of validation, And nothing does that quite like video. Candidates beware,


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