Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Liberal Reacts to the Republican Presidential Circus

by Neil H. Buchanan

The pruning of the Republican field has begun.  Less than two weeks after former Texas governor Rick Perry took off his smart-guy glasses for good, current Wisconsin governor Scott Walker avoided the ignominy of moving to the kids' table at future Republican debates.  Polling well below one percent nationwide -- in a party full of voters who were thought to be his kind of people -- Walker gave up the ghost on Monday.

Speeches by losing politicians are almost always pathetic affairs.  There are a few notable exceptions, most memorably Al Gore's eloquent exit in 2000, but more typically we watch as self-delusion meets reality in a final death match.  Joe Lieberman's game effort to turn a fifth place finish in New Hampshire in 2004 into a "three-way split decision for third place" was especially detached from reality, but only as a matter of degree, rather than kind.  Walker was similarly unwilling to simply say, "Despite being a front-runner several months ago, I'm now flat-lining, and there is no point in going on."  Instead, he tried to take his last turn at the spin machine and came up with this:
"Today I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field.  With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately. I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same, so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner."
Even clinging to the notion of "suspending" a campaign is quietly sad, but I understand that this has become the standard approach.  What is bizarre, however, is Walker's stated conviction that he has been "called to lead" a parade out the door.  "Hey, come on, guys.  You're losers, too, so follow me as we make room for people who aren't as pathetic as we are.  See, Mom, I'm a leader!"

That is not to say that the field does not need to be winnowed down, of course.  The question is who Walker thinks the candidates are who "can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner," and what that positive message might be.  Other than everyone else being "not Trump," what might Walker -- the guy who managed to poison what had been a genuinely positive political culture in Wisconsin -- think the remaining candidates are going to say to America that is going to make them look good?

In July of this year, I wrote a post here on Dorf on Law, "Republicans Can Now Return to Their Other Unpopular Positions," in which I confronted a similar question.  The narrative then was that the Supreme Court had done the Republicans a favor by taking same-sex marriage off the political radar screen (ahem), allowing the party finally to stop shooting itself in the foot with all of those culture war issues that alienate younger and more moderate voters.  But what was the positive conservative message that the supposed fixation on SSM had obscured?  Opposition to the minimum wage?  Tax cuts for the rich?  Attacks on environmental laws?  Shutting down the government over a Republican-inspired health plan that is based on privately provided insurance and pharmaceuticals?  Starting a war with Iran rather than negotiating with them?

And now Scott Walker, called to lead a parade that Rick Perry had already started, says that he is out the door so that we can focus on the "limited number of candidates" with a positive, conservative message?  Well, I suppose that zero is a limited number.

Seriously, however, one of the most fascinating aspects of this ridiculously long slog that might not end until the convention next summer is in trying to decide whether a liberal like me has any rooting interest at all in the Republican race.  In January 2014, I discussed N.J. governor Chris Christie's implosion as a plausible candidate, and I was willing at least to take seriously the idea that Christie would -- through sheer dint of will, which in this context simply means being an even bigger jerk than the people who are even more conservative than he is -- somehow have been less of a disaster than his opponents would be.  (I eagerly anticipate Christie's concession speech.  I suspect that "operatic" will not begin to describe the event.)

Christie's supposed moderation relative to the rest of the field carries over to the others who are deemed to be acceptable to the so-called party elites.  (Who are these elites?  As far as I can tell, they are the people who care enough about winning elections to hope that the craziest candidates will not be nominated, but not so much that they actually are willing to find a candidate who truly is moderate in any meaningful way.)  At this point, that list apparently includes Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich.  It appears that no one quite knows what to think about Carly Fiorina, who managed to transform herself in the last debate from the person with a (badly failed) business resume to the person who is willing to lie most egregiously about Planned Parenthood.

The threshold question, of course, is whether any of this matters.  Would any president who ran on the Republican ticket (and who would try to be reelected by that party) act any differently than any other?  Certainly, it is hard to imagine a difference in terms of the under-the-radar issues that end up mattering quite a bit.  There have been plenty of times when the Obama Administration has used its appointment and executive powers in even the most pedestrian ways (that is, not by testing the limits of presidential power, such as the admirable attempt to limit deportations of some immigrants, but simply by doing the usual things that presidents do) that have made me quite happy.  Recent efforts to change overtime rules are a good example.

Simply knowing that the hiring and firing of federal prosecutors is not being run by a religious zealot with no relevant experience is comforting.  Yet it is difficult to imagine that any Republican president would bother to resist the pull of that kind of nonsense.  Even Donald Trump, whose recent brandishing of a Bible at a campaign event cannot hide his obvious irreligious core, would not care a bit if he presided over a White House in which all the details were being handled by fundamentalists.

Although there are remaining candidates who are extra crazy (Cruz, Huckabee, Carson, Santorum), it is difficult to take seriously the notion that the supposed moderates would be anything but awful.  When Walker was being taken seriously as a candidate, his calling card read: "Bashed labor, will do so again."  And he was viewed as somehow moderate!  Now that we know that Jeb! is not actually smarter than his brother, and is simply in it because his family has built an infrastructure within the party that will keep him in the running, it is even more obvious not only that he would never fight the under-the-radar people but that he would also never think of anything that was not absolutely within Republican orthodoxy.  He and Rubio have both learned that there is no upside to being willing to work in a reality-based world.

Which, weirdly, leads to Ohio governor John Kasich.  Kasich received some surprised reactions from liberals when he expanded Medicaid in his state (accepting funding that was authorized by the Affordable Care Act), and he even managed to sound like someone with a conscience while doing so.  But Kasich had a long career in the House as a lieutenant in the Gingrich Revolution in the 1990's, and he is hardly a reasonable guy.  In particular, he continues to be obsessed with passing a balanced-budget amendment, which is still among the worst ideas in Washington that somehow are taken seriously.

Kasich, in other words, is viewed as moderate because he has a crazy, unworkable and disastrous big policy idea that is not based on religion, whereas his opponents have no particularly obvious policy ideas other than to base their policies on extreme religious views.  Again, we have no reason to think that Kasich is interested in fighting his party on anything, so his supposedly moderate views suggest at best that he might not wake up in the morning having dreamed of doing the insane things that, say, Rand Paul would dearly love to do.

Where does this finally lead us?  Republicans are hoping that they can convince their straying, angry base that Trump is really a liberal.  He is not, but what Republican insiders appear to fear most is that Trump would not toe the party line.  Even his exceedingly awful ideas, most obviously his plan to build an impermeable border fence and then move eleven million or more people to the other side, are so preposterous that it is difficult to believe that he would maintain any interest in them after it became obvious that he cannot simply will things to happen.

Does this make Trump the least-bad candidate, from the standpoint of a liberal like me?  Absolutely not.  He could certainly do a lot of damage in the process of figuring out that his ideas are doomed to fail (and then denying that they had failed).  After all, even forced deportations of "only" one million people would be a disaster of historic proportions.  Moreover, Trump's poisonous rhetoric is already altering the political landscape in dangerous ways.  He is a truly dangerous loose cannon whose lack of conscience would only guarantee that his presidency would lurch from one terribly damaging failure to another.

I thus reluctantly conclude that there is no scenario in which any Republican presidential win in 2016 is anything short of a disaster.  There are extra-extreme worst cases, but even the supposedly reasonable possibilities present no opening for policies that a liberal like me would consider less than horrible.  Add in the likelihood that the next president will be able to fill multiple Supreme Court vacancies, and it is difficult to sleep at night.