Byron York Assesses Politics (Whipple)

On October 18, members and guests of the Conservative Caucus of Delaware gathered in the Harry Savoy ballroom for our 20th Annual Banquet. Attendees enjoyed good company, good food, and a first rate talk by Byron York, a seasoned and talented observer of US politics.

Since 2009, Mr. York has been the chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner. His previous experience included nine years as a White House correspondent for the National Review, and four years as an investigative reporter for the American Spectator during the Clinton era. He has written extensively, including a 2005 book on “The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy,” and appeared on numerous television news shows.

The speaker began by observing that this was his first visit to Delaware since covering a portion of Christine O’Donnell’s senatorial bid in 2010. His subject today would be the national political scene, with primary focus on the Republican presidential candidates. A recap of his remarks follows.

Several months ago, the leading GOP candidates were said to be Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. Now things had changed considerably, with Walker out of the race and the apparent top tier being Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Rubio. So what was going on, and how were things likely to wind up?

Based on past elections, American voters generally vote their perceived pocketbook interests. And there is currently a lot of discontent about anemic economic growth and the eroding status of the middle class in this country. This adverse trend was exacerbated by the economic slump in 2008-2009, but it began much earlier.

Disillusioned by the failure of our political leaders to fix the economy and tend to other issues, voters are currently more focused on the attributes of candidates than on their political experience or policy proposals. This gives an advantage to Republican outsiders, such as Trump and Carson, or relative newcomers like Rubio. It also helps to explain Bernie Sanders’ strong showing on the Democratic side.

Trump has generated more excitement and larger rallies than any candidate since Obama in 2008. He has somehow managed to make his personal wealth an asset, while for Romney in 2012 it was perceived as a liability. And he is seen as an outsider who brashly says what he thinks and has been able to get away with it.

Carson is also an outsider, but of a different sort. A low-key person, the retired neurosurgeon breaks all the normal rules of political discourse by talking about the issues in a simple and straightforward manner. Most people like Carson, even if they don’t necessarily see him as the next president. And being Afro-American, he offers potential absolution for Republicans who have been called racists for not embracing America’s first black president.

Jeb Bush had hoped to knock out all the others by dint of raising an enormous political war chest, but he has made a lot of mistakes and they were compounded by his Bush “dynasty” problem. While it’s too early to count Bush out, his prospects have dimmed considerably.

Marco Rubio is an attractive and articulate candidate, and a relative newcomer on the national political scene. He excelled in the first two debates, but needs to do well in the early primaries and so far hasn’t put the necessary time and resources into the Iowa and New Hampshire races.

Ted Cruz has run a smart campaign, raising a lot of money and banking most of it. He has found ways to attract attention to himself, and will definitely be in the running.

Carly Fiorina is a hard worker and runs a very disciplined campaign. Her debate performances were excellent, and she got a big bump in the polls as a result. For no obvious reason, however, she now seems to be sliding backwards.

Chris Christie is still struggling from the Bridge-gate affair. Although not necessarily fair, suspicions that he knew what was going on have haunted him.

Political parties often think they have a communication problem when the truth is that they are out of touch and need to change in order to win. If the Republican field remains stuck in a Reagan tax cut mode, they could very well miss retaking the White House in 2016.

Trump says he can make America great again, which is a start, but so far he hasn’t provided much in the way of specifics. This may create an opportunity for other candidates as the primaries near and things get increasingly serious.

Bear in mind “the blue wall.” It’s shorthand for states that have gone Democratic in the last six presidential elections, starting with California and New York. These states will provide 242 out of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, so just about anyone the Democrats nominate will at least come close to winning.

For now, Hillary is the clear Democratic frontrunner. Her e-mail problems are serious, but based on what we know now it’s unlikely that she will be indicted. While President Obama has no great love for the Clintons, his real deal is to protect his own accomplishments from being wiped out by ensuring that a Democratic successor is elected.

Having spent some time following Bernie Sanders around, York characterizes him as “an amusing guy” who is not seriously running for president. If he was, why in the world would he have given Clinton a pass on the e-mail problem during the first Democratic debate?

In response to a question about whether Joe Biden would be running on the Democratic side, York said “I was hoping someone from Delaware could tell me that.” He added that whoever the Democrats nominates, presumably Clinton or Biden, will face a big question: “can I hold the Obama coalition together?”

In sum, Mr. York painted an insightful picture of where things stood in a fascinating – and very important – political campaign. Stay tuned to see how things turn out in November!
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