A fateful presidential election is brewing - part 2

See reader comments posted at the end.

In his final State of the Union address on January 12, the president claimed solid progress over the past seven years and recommended that current administration policies be continued or accelerated.

Republican presidential candidates spoke of a nation on the road to ruin when they met for a debate two nights later, but they differed sharply as to the necessary course changes. And in the prime time debate (as distinguished from a 6 PM debate for lower tier candidates), there was more bickering and posturing than serious discussion of the issues.

Then came the 4th Democratic presidential candidates debate on January 17, which will be covered herein (we ran out of time and space last week). Unlike the GOP debate, this one was primarily about the issues and there was a clear winner. Hillary Clinton remains the frontrunner, however, and it’s hard to see self-described Socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders as the nominee.

Looking ahead, two big questions are looming:

•Will the Republican Party nominate a billionaire businessman and showman with no government sector experience as its candidate for the top political job in the country, or will opponents succeed in puncturing Donald Trump’s aura of invincibility and beat him?

•Will Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for all of her e-mail communications while heading the State Department, plus an assortment of other vulnerabilities, cripple her candidacy, and, if so, will Senator Sanders be the Democratic candidate?

The answers will have an important bearing on what issues are raised during the general election and how they are addressed.

A. Democratic presidential candidates debate (Charleston, SC, 1/17/16) – Hillary Clinton was generally thought to have won the first Democratic debate on October 13, and three of the four candidates (the exception was former Senator and Virginia Governor Jim Webb, who would exit the Democratic race a few days later) expressed very similar views on the issues. When Vice President Joe Biden announced that he wouldn’t run, we concluded that Clinton had the nomination sewed up. Update on 2016 presidential race, 11/2/15.

Another Democratic debate is scheduled on November 14, and several more after that, but they figure to be a snooze. Unless the moderators go after Clinton (which would be surprising), there isn’t much left to talk about.

Senator Bernie Sanders was doing so well in the polls and raising so much campaign money (most of it smaller contributions), however, that it started to look as though he might have a chance after all. Clearly ahead in New Hampshire, it appeared that he might beat Clinton in Iowa as well. Subsequent primaries might prove more difficult for Sanders, who lacked support from black and Hispanic voters and didn’t have the organization or name recognition for a national campaign. Still, momentum counts in political campaigns and Clinton’s early lead in 2008 had evaporated after she lost in Iowa (albeit winning in New Hampshire).

Sanders’ message seemed to be catching on, as evidenced by bigger crowds than Donald Trump was drawing. Even people who disagreed with his ideas gave him credit for sincerity, and younger voters were particularly enthusiastic. Why Bernie Sanders doesn’t want your [hedge fund manager] vote, Joel Stein, bloomberg.com,

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign was sputtering. Problems included Clinton’s low honesty and favorability ratings in the polls, a movie called “13 Hours” that portrayed the Benghazi attack in a manner inconsistent with official explanations, new revelations about her e-mail problems, and evidence that the Democratic Party had moved further left than she and her strategists were counting on. Is lightning about to strike Hillary twice? Rod Martin, affluentinvestor.com,

Hillary is still Hillary, baggage and all, and Quinnipiac finds that the first word that comes to mind in an open-ended question when voters are asked about her is “liar.” The people who ripped away her dream eight years ago haven’t changed their minds; but a lot of people have joined them. Moreover, the Democrat Party is a lot further left than it was in 2008. Whatever socialist signals Obama sent, he ran as a capitalist (and as a supporter of gun rights and traditional marriage). Sanders is surging as a capital-S Socialist. That’s a very new and disconcerting thing.

Given all this, we decided to watch the 4th Democratic debate; it turned out to be more interesting than the first one. New York Times, Transcript,

There were three candidates on stage: former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (who is far down in the polls and doesn’t seem like a serious contender). The NBC moderators were Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell. Our impressions follow.

SANDERS had come across in the October debate as thrilled by the opportunity to advocate his ideas before a nationwide audience but aware that he had no real chance of winning the nomination. This time he spoke like a bona fide contender as evidenced by the call for a “political revolution” in his opening statement.

As we look out at our country today, what the American people understand is we have an economy that’s rigged, that ordinary Americans are working longer hours for lower wages, 47 million people living in poverty, and almost all of the new income and wealth going to the top one percent. And then, to make a bad situation worse, we have a corrupt campaign finance system where millionaires and billionaires are spending extraordinary amounts of money to buy elections. This campaign is about a political revolution to not only elect the president, but to transform this country.

As subsequently explained, the starting point for Sanders’ “political revolution” was to be campaign finance reform, which would restore the faith of ordinary Americans in the political system and prevent the wealthy from continuing to block needed policy changes.

We’ve got to get rid of Super PACs, we’ve got to get rid of Citizens’ United and what we’ve got to do is create a political revolution which revitalizes American democracy; which brings millions of young people and working people into the political process. To say loudly and clearly,” that the government of the United States of America belongs to all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.”

Hmm, sounds like the agenda of Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, which we reviewed and basically rejected several years ago. Doubling down on campaign finance “reform,”

In contrast to the earlier debate, Sanders didn’t completely refrain from personal attacks on his principal opponent. There was no mention of Clinton’s e-mail problems nor did he dwell on her husband’s personal behavior (even when Andrea Mitchell asked a question about Sanders’ response to a reporter’s question on this subject), but he did cite lucrative speaking fees that Clinton had received from Goldman Sachs as an example of how the wealthy and connected buy political influence.

The leader of Goldman Sachs is a billionaire who comes to Congress and tells us we should cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Secretary Clinton — and you’re not the only one, so I don’t mean to just point the finger at you, you’ve received over $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs in one year.

I find it very strange that a major financial institution that pays $5 billion in fines for breaking the law, not one of their executives is prosecuted, while kids who smoke marijuana get a jail sentence.

In terms of substance, Sanders advocated bold action. He wanted to declare that everyone has a right to healthcare and replace Obamacare (we generally call it GovCare) with a single payer system. Other ideas included breaking up big financial firms (Dodd-Frank legislation hasn’t ended the “too big to fail” mindset) and drastically raising taxes on the well to do and even the middle class (on the understanding that tax increases for middle class Americans would be more than offset by the elimination of their premium payments for private healthcare insurance).

These proposals weren’t discussed in any depth during the debate, but some specifics have been made public and the envisioned tax increases (about 2/3 to support single payer healthcare) are substantial. Here’s a list of Bernie Sander’s $19.6 trillion [over the next 10 years] in tax hikes, Philip Klein, Washington Examiner,

Wouldn’t Sanders’ tax increases, etc. tank the economy? Had this question been raised during the debate, his answer might have been that he was simply proposing to give the American people what they wanted. Just because people want something, however, that doesn't prove it would work nor that they are willing to pay for it (no free lunch, etc.).

Raising the minimum wage to $15 bucks an hour, the American people want it. Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, creating 13 million jobs, the American people want it. The pay equity for women, the American people want it. Demanding that the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes. The American people want it. *** The point is, we have to make Congress respond to the needs of the people, not big money.

CLINTON’s opening statement began with a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. (this being the eve of the national holiday in King’s honor) and then shifted to her own qualifications and experience for the presidency.

We have to get the economy working and incomes rising for everyone, including those who have been left out and left behind. We have to keep our communities and our country safe. We need a president who can do all aspects of the job. I understand that this is the hardest job in the world. I’m prepared and ready to take it on and I hope to earn your support to be the nominee of the Democratic Party and the next president of the United States.

One of Clinton’s best moments in the debate was a defense of her efforts as secretary of state to make nice with Russia, which made her sound like a shrewd diplomat who had gotten some important things done (not the kind of role one would envision Sanders playing on the world stage).

Q. Secretary Clinton, you famously handed Russia’s foreign minister a reset button in 2009. Since then, Russia has annexed Crimea, fomented a war in Ukraine, provided weapons that downed an airliner and launched operations . . . to support Assad in Syria. As president, would you hand Vladimir Putin a reset button?

A. Well, it would depend on what I got for it and I can tell you what we got in the first term, we got a new start treaty to reduce nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia. We got permission to resupply our troops in Afghanistan by traveling across Russia. We got Russia to sign on to our sanctions against Iran and other very important commitments. So look, in diplomacy, you are always trying to see how you can figure out the interest of the other to see if there isn’t some way you can advance your security and your values.

On the issues, Clinton repeatedly praised the efforts of the current administration while questioning the practicality of Sanders’ proposals. A good example is how she positioned herself as philosophically in favor of single payer healthcare, yet unconvinced that the time had come to abandon GovCare. Clinton was a savvy operator with a plan, in other words, while Sanders was a tyro throwing out scatter-shot ideas.

Q. Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders favors what he calls “Medicare for all.” Now, you said that what he is proposing would tear up Obamacare and replace it. Secretary Clinton, is it fair to say to say that Bernie Sanders wants to kill Obamacare?

A. I certainly respect Senator Sanders’ intentions, but when you’re talking about healthcare, the details really matter. *** he’s come out with a new healthcare plan. And again, we need to get into the details. But here’s what I believe, the Democratic Party and the United States worked since Harry Truman to get the Affordable Care Act passed. We finally have a path to universal healthcare. We have accomplished so much already. I do not to want see the Republicans repeal it, and I don’t to want see us start over again with a contentious debate. I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it.

Who won the debate? In a year when many Americans are disillusioned with established politicians and looking for change, it was probably Sanders. Clinton’s pitch seemed uninspiring and unduly deferential to the current administration, while Sanders presented his vision – whether it makes sense or not – with clarity and conviction. 3 winners [Sanders, the president, moderators] and 2 losers [Clinton, O’Malley] for Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Dylan Matthew, vox.com,

•What Sanders needed to do Sunday night was maintain that momentum, continue his appeal to liberal base voters, and blunt any attacks that Clinton might be tempted to unleash at him. He accomplished all of that, even if he didn't give a focused, dominant performance.

•It was only eight years ago that Hillary Clinton was repeatedly attacking Barack Obama as a dangerously inexperienced naïf who would be unable to get anything of consequence done as president. Now she presents herself as a defender of his sundry accomplishments, and attacks Sanders for being insufficiently supportive of the president.

•[Clinton] needed a debate in which she could show that Sanders was out of his depth, not someone you could plausibly see actually functioning as president. She didn't do that this time around. Instead, she had a debate where she tried to throw everything she could at him to see what stuck.

On top of not putting Sanders away in the debates or on the campaign trail, problems associated with the private server on which Clinton stored all of her official e-mails while serving as secretary of state are looking increasingly serious and many of her earlier explanations have been discredited. It’s hard to predict how the government’s investigation will come out, but Clinton could very well wind up facing criminal charges. Clinton’s emails: a criminal charge is justified, [former federal judge and Attorney General, now an adviser to Jeb Bush on national security issues] Michael Mukasey, Wall Street Journal,

. . . from her direction that classification rules be disregarded, to the presence on her personal email server of information at the highest level of classification, to her repeated falsehoods of a sort that juries are told every day may be treated as evidence of guilty knowledge—it is nearly impossible to draw any conclusion other than that she knew enough to support a conviction at the least for mishandling classified information.

If Clinton’s presidential bid falls through, would Sanders necessarily become the nominee? Columnist Charles Krauthammer for one predicts (Brett Baier show, Fox News, 1/22/16) that the Democratic Party would seek the entry of another candidate, probably Vice President Joe Biden, to take Clinton’s place. We agree.

B. GOP post-debate action – The hostilities between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz that surfaced in the January 14 debate have continued. Trump is currently leading Cruz by a narrow margin in the Iowa polls and enjoys a solid lead over several other candidates (who is no. 2 varies from poll to poll) in New Hampshire.

In addition to questioning whether Cruz is a natural born citizen and thus eligible to run for president, Trump has (a) made much of Cruz’s failure to report loans from Goldman Sachs and Citicorp on a Federal Election Commission disclosure form in 2012 (the loans were disclosed in other public documents and the failure to report them to the FEC has been explained as a paperwork error), (b) attacked Cruz as “a nasty guy” that no one likes when they get to know him, and (c) run an attack ad claiming that Cruz initially favored some form of comprehensive immigration reform and has shifted his position.

Cruz has fired back in several ways, e.g., by (a) publishing a video clip pointing out that Donald Trump supports (and has benefitted as a businessman from) eminent domain, and (b) characterizing Trump’s proposals for deporting illegal immigrants as misleading and politically motivated.

Other candidates have kept out of the Trump vs. Cruz fracas; thus, most of the political attack ads are being directed against Marco Rubio and Chris Christie (both of whom hope to benefit if Trump falters, but otherwise don’t have much of a chance). Rubio buried in attack ads while Cruz, Trump coast, David Drucker, Washington Examiner,

Last week, Sarah Palin and former Senator Bob Dole endorsed Trump, while Cruz drew support from Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Mark Levin. And then a prestigious conservative journal produced an anti-Trump (but not pro-Cruz) issue featuring a scathing editorial (see excerpts below) and pieces by 22 conservative authors. National Review stands athwart Trump, yells stop! Anna Giaritelli, Washington Examiner,

Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones. *** [He] has supported abortion, gun control, single-payer health care à la Canada, and punitive taxes on the wealthy. *** He pledges to build a wall along the southern border and to make Mexico pay for it. *** [He] pledges to deport the 11 million illegals here in the United States, a herculean administrative and logistical task beyond the capacity of the federal government. *** Trump knows approximately as much about national security as he does about the nuclear triad — which is to say, almost nothing. *** Trump has shown no interest in limiting government, in reforming entitlements, or in the Constitution. He floats the idea of massive new taxes on imported goods and threatens to retaliate against companies that do too much manufacturing overseas for his taste. His obsession is with “winning,” regardless of the means — a spirit that is anathema to the ordered liberty that conservatives hold dear and that depends for its preservation on limits on government power. *** Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.

The National Review critique was seemingly vindicated by two tweets from Trump less than an hour after it was pointed on line. The tweets were reputational slurs, plain and simple, with nary a word about the substance of what had been said. Trump fires back at conservative coalition opposing him, Anna Giaritelli, Washington Examiner,

•National Review is a failing publication that has lost it's way. It's circulation is way down w its influence being at an all time low. Sad! 10:56 PM - 21 Jan 2016

•The late, great, William F. Buckley would be ashamed of what had happened to his prize, the dying National Review!
10:57 PM - 21 Jan 2016

By the way, Trump recently reiterated his receptivity to single payer healthcare in a TV interview (managing to sound a bit like Bernie Sanders in the process). Donald Trump on Obamacare, Onan Coca, eaglerising.com,

Donald Trump: “Everybody’s got to be covered. This is an un-Republican thing for me to say because a lot of times they say, ‘No, no, the lower 25 percent that can’t afford private.’ But…”

Scott Pelley: “Universal Healthcare?”

Donald Trump: “I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”

Scott Pelley: “But who’s going to pay for it?”

Donald Trump: “The government’s gonna pay for it. But we’re going to save so much money on the other side!”

Seems to us that Cruz deserves more credit for standing up to Trump than he has received thus far, and also that Republicans who have refrained from attacking Trump on grounds that he’ll collapse of his own weight or that someone else will take care of him are fooling themselves. If Trump wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, he could quickly become the inevitable GOP candidate.

* * * * *

The 2016 presidential race offers the opportunity for a much-needed reappraisal of government policies and where this country is headed, and the premise of "independents" that the answer must surely fall somewhere between the positions of the two parties is quite unreliable. Why consensus style government won’t work, 6/8/15.

We previously drafted a list of key issues for the campaign, which isn’t necessarily complete or up to date but should serve as a useful starting point, SAFE plans ahead for 2016,

To have a meaningful political debate, at least one of the parties (most logically the GOP) must nominate a candidate who understands how this country has drifted off course and is committed to leading (not mandating) a course correction.

Americans should remember that elections are more than a popularity contest and start paying attention to what is going on, or we could find ourselves facing a truly dismal choice in November. What are elections for? Thomas Sowell, Townhall.com,

The next President of the United States will have monumental problems to untangle. The big question is not which party's candidate wins the election but whether either party will choose a candidate that is up to the job.


This is an amazing situation. I sometimes worry but at least we are not getting the same old warmed-over stew. – SAFE member (MD)

"Just because people want something,” you write, “that doesn't prove it would work nor that they are willing to pay for it." I would add that they don’t necessarily deserve it and may not even enjoy it. – SAFE director

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