A fateful presidential election is brewing

In theory, the US system for picking presidents is rational. Candidates vie for the nominations of the major parties, and then the winners face off in a general election. In both stages, informed citizens cast their ballots based on their evaluation of the candidates’ qualifications and views on policy, ensuring the selection of national leaders who are capable and enjoy widespread support.

Hmm, sounds a bit like the president’s remarks in his State of the Union address about how the political system should function if the US is to flourish on a long-term basis. SOTU transcript, cbs.com,

Have “rational, constructive debates” – create “basic bonds of trust” between citizens” – don’t dismiss political opponents as “unpatriotic or trying to weaken America” – don’t “listen only to those who agree with us” – don’t allow “the most extreme voices [to] get all the attention – “change the system to reflect our better selves” – all this “will only happen when the American people demand it” – being cynical is easier, “but if we give up now then we forsake a better future – “we need every American to stay active in our public life and not just during election time.”

Real world politics are messier. Some of the twists and turns in the presidential race thus far could be fodder for a TV series like “King of Thrones” or “House of Cards,” and it’s far from clear that the most qualified candidate with the soundest policies will prevail in the end. With that concern in mind, here’s an update on some of the recent action.

A. Kemp forum (Columbia, SC, Jan. 9) – Republicans are split as to whether the GOP should bank on its opposition to current administration policies or offer a positive agenda. This pertains not only to what candidates say on the campaign trail, but also to legislative activity this year. [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and [House Speaker Paul] Ryan: Two different paths to November, Philip Klein, Washington Examiner, 1/11/16.

One path [McConnell’s] is for Republicans to hold targeted votes aimed at embarrassing Democrats and boosting GOP candidates in key races and in important swing states. The other [Ryan’s] is to present an alternative agenda that, even if Senate Democrats filibuster bills or Obama vetoes them, provides something for Republicans to run on and enact should they recapture the White House.

Paul Ryan is keen on positioning Republicans to not only declare the “War on Poverty” a stalemate (failure?) but also propose better ways to fight it, e.g., by improving education and job opportunities, expanding work requirements for welfare recipients, and delegating more power and responsibility to the states. Can Republicans take on poverty? Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner,

Before being elected Speaker of the House, Ryan had committed to join Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) in moderating a Jack Kemp Foundation event about alleviating poverty. GOP presidential candidates were invited to participate; most of them did so, with the notable exceptions of Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz.

This was a forum with breakout sessions, not a debate. The session was reportedly constructive, expressing agreement that Republicans should not “write off” lower income voters (as Mitt Romney was accused of doing in 2012). Fight for the soul of the Republican Party, Mona Charen, townhall.com,

Will large numbers of poor people abandon the Democrats and vote Republican? Hardly. But when Republicans address the problems of poverty, they demonstrate their connection to ordinary people.

Several candidates suggested enhanced tax credits for the indigent, a less obvious approach than direct welfare payments and one that could help to block sorely needed reform of the tax system. Happily, this idea did not go unchallenged. Republican candidates offer similar plans to end poverty, Emily Stephenson, reuters.com,

One moment of dispute centered on a tax credit for lower-income working people, which Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said they support expanding but retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson called a tax “manipulation.”

Although Trump and Cruz did not attend, they may also derive some benefit from the forum. The other Republican campaign; some in the GOP are looking for a new anti-poverty agenda, Wall Street Journal,

Perhaps [Trump and Cruz] think that as the front-runners in New Hampshire and Iowa they don’t need to worry about such wonky political issues as poverty and welfare reform. They’re riding the frustration wave. But if one of them does win the nomination, he will need a message and agenda that attract more than GOP primary voters. The nominee might even find he could use the ideas that the other candidates took the time to discuss in South Carolina.

B. State of the Union Address (House Chamber, US Congress, Jan. 12) - Although it took place in the same setting with the usual ceremonial trappings, this year’s SOTU had a different feel. President Obama’s hair was grayer than it had been in 2009, he was introduced by House Speaker Paul Ryan (versus John Boehner since 2011 and Nancy Pelosi before that), and everyone knew this would be his last appearance in this role.

The word was that the president would not waste time offering a “laundry list” of legislative proposals for the current year. His prime focus would be accomplishments over the past seven years and inspiring reflections on the path forward. No matter, viewership for this year’s speech was down again. Record low 1-in-10 Americans watched SOTU address, Anna Giaritelli, Washington Examiner,

The president’s litany of accomplishments seemed overly rosy, an effect achieved by (1) hyperbole (“no nation attacks us directly or our allies because they know that's the path to ruin,” tell that to the Ukrainians or US-backed Syrian rebels, or “anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction”); (2) omissions (the San Bernardino terrorist attack, seizure of ten US sailors by Iran, etc.); (3) distortions (“we delivered more care and benefits to our troops coming home and our veterans,” never mind scandalous failures of Veterans Affairs, and a boast of “cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters” that failed to mention the reduction was from a $1.4 trillion deficit in fiscal year 2009); (4) grandstanding (government wasn’t responsible for cutting US imports of foreign oil by “nearly 60 percent,” private oil firms deserved the credit).

Other observers had a similar reaction. A dispiriting final speech from an out of touch president, Washington Examiner,

To be clear, we share Obama's view that America is not in some kind of hopeless decline, not even now. But he cannot credibly make the case for this by acting as though his own administration's failures don't exist, and downplaying the very real threats facing the nation.

As for the path forward, the president laid out four general themes: (1) giving everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy; (2) making technology work for us, not against us; (3) keeping America safe and leading the world without becoming its policeman; and (4) making our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worse.

This part seemed like a Democratic manifesto for the upcoming elections, not an objective assessment. Compare the final SOTU address of President George W. Bush, which mentioned that 2008 was an election year but didn’t say anything very pointed about it. SOTU transcript, millercenter.org,

In this election year, let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them. Let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time. From expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we've made good progress. Yet we have unfinished business before us, and the American people expect us to get it done.

This year, it almost seemed as though the president was running for office again (notwithstanding the 22nd Amendment, which provides in pertinent part that “no person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice”).

He identified the time frame as not simply the coming year, but “the next five years, the next ten years and beyond.”

He responded to the criticisms of several unnamed GOP candidates, including “a thinly-veiled shot at [Donald] Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US.” Obama’s State of the Union a response to the rise of Trump, Philip Klein, Washington Examiner,

He advocated a slew of new social welfare programs, from “Pre-K for all” to strengthened retirement benefits, without explaining how they might be paid for.

He announced a “moon shot program” to cure cancer, already funded apparently, and said he would put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of it.

He mocked anyone who might be disinclined to fight manmade global warming, and then went on to argue (implausibly in our opinion) that the effort was sound from an economic standpoint even if the theory wound up being discredited somehow.

Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely because you'll be debating our military, most of America's business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it's a problem and intend to solve it.

His ideas about international challenges and US military strategy boiled down to a claim that his administration had struck the right balance between isolationism on one hand and the “mistakes” of Vietnam and Iraq on the other. Examples (neither of which represent real success stories): (1) “Partnering with local forces [in Syria] and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace;” (2) Building “a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. And as we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war.”

As for politics, the president expressed regret that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse.” He acknowledged no responsibility for this state of affairs, however, beyond his own lack of the persuasive skills of Abraham Lincoln or FDR. The antidote was for all citizens (especially the Democratic base no doubt) to turn out and vote, and the government should find ways to make it easy for them to do so. And more campaign finance reform was needed to minimize the role of money in polities.

The president did not suggest a Democratic candidate should be elected to succeed him, but this seemed implicit from his remarks. And for what it’s worth, Vice President Joe Biden was the only current Democratic politician mentioned by name in the speech.

A few minutes after the SOTU address ended, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley delivered the Republican response; it was broadcast from the governor’s mansion in Columbia, SC. Transcript, npr.org,

By most accounts, Governor Haley’s speech was a fine effort. She offered an alternative view of the state of the nation, and went on to paint in broad strokes how Republicans would fix things if they won the White House. In the process, she introduced herself as “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants who reminded my brothers, my sister and me every day how blessed we were to live in this country” and expressed firm opposition to illegal immigration.

The tone of Haley’s remarks was balanced and moderate. She not only stated that Republicans bore some of the responsibility for the country’s problems, but went on to say bombast and anger aren’t synonymous with leadership.

In many parts of society today, whether in popular culture, academia, the media, or politics, there's a tendency to falsely equate noise with results. Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.

This thrust appeared to be a veiled criticism of Donald Trump, and he reacted accordingly. In the ensuing back and forth, Haley admitted she had been thinking of Trump (“partially”) and also that her speech had been cleared in advance with GOP congressional leaders McConnell & Ryan. Trump: Nikki Haley is “weak” on immigration, not “very good” to be my veep, Sandy Fitzgerald, newsmax.com,

There was also a Tea Party response to the SOTU. Delivered by Wayne Allen Root (a Columbia University classmate and relentless critic of the president), this speech was considerably more combative than Haley’s, and while Root said conservatives should vote for a Republican candidate for president it needed to be the right one. Transcript, townhall.com,

Now it’s time for the Tea Party to match its Congressional and local level success, and take back the Presidency. But just electing any Republican is not the answer. If it was…I’d be giving the Republican response to the State of the Union. I’m representing the Tea Party and the people of America who keep voting Republican and feel like they are getting the shaft.

We’ve got to elect the right Republican who will actually cut spending, taxes, regulations and debt…kill Obamacare once and for all…and cut the size and scope of government. [Also on the to do list were maintaining a strong national defense and “declaring a national emergency to make paying down the debt the top priority of this nation.”]

C. GOP Presidential Candidates Debate (North Charleston, SC, 1/14/16) – A schism among Republicans between outsiders (Trump, Cruz, Carson, Fiorina) and establishment favorites (Bush, Christie, Kasich, and possibly Rubio) has been evident in the presidential race thus far, and it was certainly on display in the sixth debate hosted by Fox Business News – as will be related.

There was a lower tier session from 6-7 PM, featuring Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum. The moderators were Sandra Smith and Trish Regan.

A fourth candidate who had been demoted from the top tier based on low poll results, Rand Paul, was absent. Senator Paul will continue campaigning as an anti-Trump and anti-establishment candidate, but his influence is likely to be marginal. In NH, Rand Paul’s epic Trump takedown falls flat, Gabby Morrongiello, Washington Examiner,

Smith & Regan asked a wide range of questions about domestic and international issues, primarily of a substantive nature. Well done! In their animated responses, the candidates supported their fellow Republicans (on stage or otherwise) while slamming the president and/or Hillary Clinton as the presumed Democratic candidate. Generally considered the “winner” of the debate, Fiorina remains a potential VP candidate.

The main event kicked off at 9:00 PM and ran (with commercial breaks) for a little over two hours. In order, from viewer left to right, the candidates were:

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 12.23.35 PM

The moderators were Neil Cavuto & Maria Bartiromo, who had previously been praised for their handling of debate 4 (Nov. 10 in Milwaukee). As before, they took a low-key approach and let the candidates talk, arguably losing control of the proceedings as a result. 3 winners and 3 losers from Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, Dylan Matthews, vox.com, 1/15/16.

[They] allowed the seven contenders to self-enforce a rule stating that anyone mentioned in another person's statement, or in a comment by the moderators themselves, had a right to respond. *** Candidates were allowed to talk over each other for a chance to speak with limited intervention. Worse, they were allowed to just straight-up ignore the actual question being asked.

There was a lot at stake in this event, with the leading contenders for the GOP nomination on stage and the first voting (Iowa caucus) coming up on Feb. 1. Fireworks had been predicted, and if that’s what Americans wanted the candidates would not disappoint. Transcript, washingtonpost.com,

Three non-policy exchanges were subsequently identified as the high points of the evening. Ted Cruz was involved – not necessarily of his own volition - in all of them. The GOP debate’s three defining moments, James Antle, Washington Examiner,

#The first was the "birther" argument between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump has been coyly implying Cruz isn't a natural-born citizen [he was born in Canada, but his mother was a US citizen] and therefore isn't constitutionally eligible to be president, or at least that the issue will wind up stuck in court. Cruz was ready to hit back. [For the full blow-by-blow, see transcript, pages 10-15.]

There is no doubt that Cruz became a US citizen when he was born in Canada, as opposed to being naturalized later, but the reference to “natural born citizen” in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution is arguably subject to a more restrictive interpretation. In the debate, Trump cited Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Tribe to the effect that the issue had never been ruled on by the US Supreme Court and suggested that Cruz should seek a declaratory judgment to clear the matter up. Otherwise, Democrats might file a lawsuit if Cruz was nominated, making a shambles of the electoral process. (It has since been reported that just such a challenge has been filed in Texas by an 85-year-old attorney who is “probably” a supporter of Bernie Sanders and maintains that the issue can only be finally determined by the United States Supreme Court. Cruz’s citizenship status challenged in birther lawsuit, Bill Hoffman, newsmax.com,

Cruz dismissed the purported issue as without merit and said “the chances of any litigation proceeding and succeeding on this are zero.” He claimed that Trump had started talking about the issue because Cruz was doing well in the Iowa polls, and he dismissed Professor Tribe as “a left-wing judicial activist . . . who was Al Gore’s lawyer in Bush versus Gore . . . [and is] a major Hillary Clinton supporter.”

As a practical matter, it wasn’t necessary to be born in the United States to become president. No one ever doubted that John McCain was eligible for the presidency in 2008, even though he was born in Panama. Ditto George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father) back in the 1960s, who was born in Mexico. And if one wanted to credit extreme versions of the “birther theory,” Trump himself might be ineligible for the presidency as his mother was born in Scotland.

While the foregoing may be fascinating to legal buffs, it has little if anything to do with the challenges facing the nation or who would make the best president. The real issue was whether Cruz could go toe to toe with the formidable Mr. Trump and win (as he arguably did in this instance).

#The second big moment was when Cruz was asked to defend his assertion that Trump [“embodies New York values”]. The Texan obviously was tying Trump to a blue state. [Transcript, pages 27-29]

When Maria Bartiromo (a New Yorker) asked about the “New York values” line, which he had been using in Iowa appearances, Cruz could have said something to the effect that he had started using this line as retaliation for Trump’s questions about his citizenship status and had never meant for it to be taken seriously.

Instead, Cruz stated that there was indeed such a thing as New York values that weren’t shared by Americans in other states.

. . . there are many, many wonderful, wonderful working men and women in the state of New York. But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay-marriage, focus around money and the media.

Moreover, Trump had made the point himself in days gone by.

Not too many years ago, Donald did a long interview with Tim Russert. And in that interview, he explained his views on a whole host of issues that were very, very different from the views he's describing now. And his explanation -- he said, "look, I'm from New York, that's what we believe in New York. Those aren't Iowa values, but this is what we believe in New York." And so that was his explanation.

Trump unleashed a devastating response, first noting that many conservatives had come from New York including William Buckley, going on to talk about the wonderful people in New York, playing the 9/11 card, and ending on a note of righteous indignation.

And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.

For the moment, Cruz had been bested. Indeed, he clapped while the audience was applauding Trump’s evocation of the heroism of New Yorkers after the 9/11 attack. But the fight would continue. On the Sean Hannity radio show the next day, Cruz’s “apology” pointedly excluded liberal politicians. Ted Cruz apologizes for liberals, Ryan Lovelace, Washington Examiner,

I apologize to the millions of New Yorkers that have been abandoned by liberal politicians. I apologize to the working men and women of New York who were denied jobs . . . because Governor Cuomo bans fracking. I apologize to all the pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-2nd Amendment New Yorkers who Governor Cuomo brazenly told have no place in the state of New York because that's not who New Yorkers are. I apologize to the African-American kids that Mayor de Blasio tried to throw out of charter schools that were giving them a lifeline to the American dream. And . . . I especially apologize to the cops and firefighters and the heroes of 9/11 who had no choice but to stand and turn their backs on Mayor de Blasio because over and over again he sides with the looters and criminals instead of the brave men and women in blue.

Clearly, this war of words was far from over.

#The third defining argument of the Republican debate was between Cruz and Marco Rubio. Rubio received an uncharacteristically pointed question from Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo on his 2013 Gang of Eight immigration bill. "Why are you so interested in opening up borders to foreigners when American workers have a hard enough time finding work?" she asked. [Transcript pages 56-59]

This question was awkward for Senator Rubio, who was one of the “Gang of 8” that drafted and supported a comprehensive immigration “reform” bill in 2013 (passed by the Senate, died in the House). He later shifted to the more popular position that it’s necessary to “secure the border” before anything is done to regularize the status of immigrants who are in the country illegally. And his debate answer sought to buttress his current position by arguing that the rise of ISIS necessitated strict controls over new arrivals “to keep America safe.”

The entire system of legal immigration must now be reexamined for security first and foremost, with an eye on ISIS. Because they're recruiting people to enter this country as engineers, posing as doctors, posing as refugees. *** They've contacted the trafficking networks in the Western Hemisphere to get people in through the southern border. And they got a killer in San Bernardino in posing as a fiancé. This issue now has to be about stopping ISIS entering the United States, and when I'm president we will.

At this point, Cruz volunteered that “radical Islamic terrorism was not invented 24 months ago” and noted that he had “stood with Jeff Sessions and Steve King” to oppose the “Rubio-Schumer amnesty bill.”

Rubio responded with a devastating, clearly preplanned broadside, in effect accusing Cruz of being an opportunistic flip flopper on many issues, some related to immigration (issuance of green cards, admission of guest workers, legalization of undocumented workers already in the country, birthright citizenship) and others not (Trade Promotion Authority, crop insurance, ethanol, defense budgets, legal status of Edward Snowden).

“Gentlemen, gentlemen” said Neil Cavuto, but the words had already been spoken.

Cruz was permitted to respond, but only “very briefly.” He began by saying “at least half of the things Marco said are flat-out false,” and managed to make several specific points but the upshot was that Rubio had caught him off guard and gotten the better of the exchange.

There was some discussion of policy issues during the debate, such as an exchange between Cruz and Rubio about their respective tax plans, a lot of talk about the handling of Syrian refugees, and even acknowledgments of the fiscal problem (NJ Governor Chris Christie has offered some ideas for fixing entitlements, although we doubt they go far enough, and Ohio Governor John Kasich says he knows how to balance budgets because he has done it).

But personal sparring and posturing was clearly the focal point for the debate in a year when Republican voters are frustrated with the GOP establishment and in no mood to settle for whatever candidate is perceived to be the “next in line” or most congenial.

Almost everyone discounted the chances of billionaire Donald Trump at the start of the campaign, ourselves included, but he rose to the top in the polls and has stayed there. Perhaps he will wind up being the nominee, or perhaps someone (e.g., Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio) will slug it out with him and win. Unless the ballgame changes considerably from what has happened to date, however, the candidates’ stands on the issues are not likely to be the deciding factor – a sobering reminder of why Congress should not cede too much power to the executive branch.

* * * * *

For a bizarre combination of reasons, the presidential nomination of Hillary Clinton is looking far less inevitable than it did a couple of months ago. Accordingly, the Democratic presidential candidates debate (which as we go to press is scheduled for tomorrow night) may prove quite interesting.

And the rupture of the long-time armistice between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump was amply confirmed by the shots they took at each other over the weekend.

To be continued next week . . .

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