09 December 2014

Accordion: What 2016 Predictions Reveal About Predictors

This post is an accordion.  Read just the top paragraph, or follow the footnotes for weird discussions.

Now that the 2014 midterm elections are completely finished1, pundits are turning with glee to the 2016 race for Republican presidential nominee.2  Perhaps more interesting than the discussion of who is recruiting more "bundlers"3 are the beliefs revealed by the predictions themselves.  There are a lot of assumptions inherent in how a prognosticator speaks of the GOP candidates4 - and the fact that there are literally dozens of potential nominees gives pundits plenty of room to wedge in their own ideas.  It's almost the opposite of 2012's tournament of the lightweights, as all the big names are coming out to play.  Do you think the Grand Old Party has swung unrealistically far to the right?  Then you might speak well of Jeb Bush's chances, though they're really pretty lousy.5  Do you consider yourself a "serious" pundit or a Republican "wonk?"  Then you might single out Paul Ryan, instead.6  And even more than that: if you started talking about all this nonsense and all of these candidates (Christie,7 Cruz,8 Jindal,9 Paul,10 Perry,11 Rubio,12 Santorum,13 Walker,14 Romney,15 and Carson,16) as far back as last year, then you're confessing something else: you're a serious masochist.

1.  Mary Landrieu (D-LA) just got crushed in her run-off election against Bill Cassidy, her GOP challenger.  Her departure from the Senate means that there is not a single Democratic senator or governor from the Deep South (Virginia and Florida do have Democratic senators, but a majority of their citizens are transplants from elsewhere).  Jonathan Chait at New York's Daily Intelligencer argues that this decline in southern Democrats is "overdue," saying that it reflects a regional difference that has existed since America's earliest days:
Barack Obama ran for presidency hoping to transcend old divisions, but his presidency has ironically lent renewed vigor to the most ancient division in American politics. The tea party, which presents itself as the heirs to the Founding Fathers, is actually an heir to one side of the American argument. One tradition bore intense suspicion of centralized government, venerated farmers and rural life, believed the Constitution forbade Congress from all but a handful of specifically enumerated fields of activity, felt comfortable with aggression and violence in both domestic life and foreign affairs, and defended existing social institutions against racial minorities and their allies. This political coalition has always had its strongest base in the Deep South. It is right-wing.
The other tradition advocated a stronger federal government (and deemed this expanded role Constitutional), considered public investment and education the best method of securing prosperity, was more averse to territorial conflict with neighbors, and was more solicitous of racial minorities. This coalition has always had its strongest base in New England. It is left-wing.
2.  The Democratic nomination is promising to be a coronation for Hillary Clinton.  We have passed the point where there can be any doubt that she intends to run; if she were to decide not to run now, then she would be rightfully accused of hobbling her party's nomination procedure with her own vanity.  Assuredly, she is going to run for President, and she is likely to win (barring the known unknown and unknown unknown in any major race).  Her likely rivals, right down to the serving Vice-President Biden, have not been gathering the materiel they'd need for a real race: money, bragging rights, and so on.  The major threats right now are people like Sen. Bernie Sanders (VA)... and he has already admitted his candidacy is designed to force Clinton further left.  Maryland's Gov. Martin O'Malley is widely discussed, but it seems clear that his bid is mostly designed to increase his national profile, not to win.

3.  A "bundler" is a professional political middleman who gathers together individual donations into a more significant sum.  There's a limit on how much any one individual can give to a campaign or party (although they can launder unlimited funds through Super-PACs), and so some communities and social circles concentrate their monies in the hands of one person, who "bundles" their donations together.  The idea is pretty simple... candidates pay more attention to the one person who writes them a $25,000 check than they do to any ten people who write them $2,500 checks.  Bundlers are the purest articulation of money in politics.

4.  Yes, you meta smartass, I know that I am doing this too.  But hey, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, right?

5.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush once headed up a fearsome state machine, but his brother's presidency and the years he's spent out of the public eye have left him with a personal brand that is - at best- extremely complicated.  He's fondly remembered by unapologetic Bush family fans and some powerful corporate interests, but he's also spent years supporting the Common Core standards and comprehensive immigration reform, two positions anathema to the party's base.  NOTE: It is a federal crime to use the word "anathema" in any other context than this during an election year.  Combine these flaws with a general reluctance to nominate a third Bush, and Jeb might have problems even his probable money advantage won't help fix.

6.  Rep. Paul Ryan (WI) was Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, using his disproportionate reputation as an "ideas man" to bolster the ticket.  His first budget plan, offered in 2008, never made it out of committee.  But careful work with colleagues and ceaseless speechmaking helped raise Ryan's profile and made his ideas popular.  Successive budgets not only made it to a vote, but became the de facto budget plan of the entire party.  Perhaps I should call it a "budget," though, since it is unable to pay for its large proposed tax cuts for the wealthy even with its draconian budget cuts.  For the rest, the "budget" relies on handwaving and on something called "dynamic scoring," in which the budgeter assumes that the economy will very conveniently boom into overdrive when cued by tax cuts.  Ryan's been working on poverty issues with his head down since the Romney-Ryan ticket lost, but he has already been seen to be sniffing the 2016 air.

7.  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a brash and brilliant political creature, and a really good example of the dangers of narrative.  He is often described as a bully, even by admirers, and that means that every small instance of harsh language has an instant framework for a lazy thinker.  Even though he might actually be fully capable of controlling himself on the national stage, like other politicians with nasty tempers (think Lyndon Johnson), his biggest challenge will be escaping his image.  The real danger lies in the big moves he's going to make to try to force people to re-evaluate him.  On the plus side, he'll raise absurd amounts of money with his Wall Street and RGA connections, and Bridgegate will help him a great deal in the primary; he should see if he can delay the investigation's conclusion six more months, to time it better with the race.

8.  Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) has achieved a fevered following among the base, even though he's only been in office for two years.  He has become (in)famous for his efforts in pushing for the government shutdown last year and for his frequent jeremiads about the threat Obamacare poses to our precious fluids.  Unfortunately, his party spent a lot of time attacking the current president over a lack of experience, and it doesn't seem as though Cruz's rhetoric can withstand much scrutiny.

9.  Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will be interesting to watch, but stands virtually no chance of success in the presidential bid he's been preparing.  He never made it to the real race in 2012... at the time, this was commonly blamed on his disastrous response to Obama's 2009 State of the Union, but the real reason was that he'd had to focus on a 2011 re-election as governor.  That would have been a hard move to make, and maybe Jindal was also smart enough to see the writing on the wall for 2012.  But it may also have been his only chance.  In the years since, he's run into problem after problem.  He was an advocate of Common Core, and his many soundbites on the issue open him up to easy attacks (and his claim that it was a "bait and switch" just makes him seem gullible to the base).  Even worse, he proposed to repeal Louisiana's income tax while hiking the sales tax - we can call it the Fuck the Poor Plan, perhaps - but lost a high-stakes confrontation with the state legislature.  It's hard to run based on a string of well-intentioned failures.

10.  Sen. Rand Paul (KY) is winning, but tenuously.  He has a large organization and a lot of money, and his unorthodox views force many people to re-evaluate him on his own merits.  Unfortunately, his own merits aren't all that great.  He's avoided scandal and endeared himself to many civil libertarians, but it's extremely difficult for someone who has worked to maintain an "outsider" brand to unite the GOP factions behind him.  He also has the unique distinction of being perhaps the most dangerous candidate from my perspective: he has little interest in my priorities (the environment and income inequality), while his esoteric policy interests pose a threat to a wide variety of important infrastructures in government that no one else cares about.

11.  Outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent the last year building relationships and explaining his terrible 2012 performance, and he'll have good connections and the free time to use them when he leaves office.  But leaving office means that he'll have fewer opportunities to make headlines, and it's hard to stand out in a field this crowded with big players.  He'll be a serious contender, but it's hard to believe that the whole of his problems last time around came from back pain and medication.

12.  Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) is a victim of his party.  By all rights, he should be sitting in the catbird seat.  Out of the gate in 2012, he led the charge for comprehensive immigration reform.  It was a lousy bill, but it responded to the demographic trap facing the GOP, as the party's scant minority appeal forced it to rely on scraping up every spare scrap of the white vote that it could manage.  But what should have been his shining moment and a turning point for the party abruptly reversed course, to the horror of the party elite, and the fever dream deepend instead.  Demagogues denounced the proposed bill, backed by hard-line fearmongers, and Rubio watched his numbers plummet.  He believed in the bill: he knew it was not only the right thing for the Republican Party and not just the right thing for the country: it was the plain Right Thing to Do.  But he didn't risk his career, and he was forced to denounce and campaign against his own bill.  He still hasn't stopped his backpedal.  Rubio had almost proverbial chance at greatness, where he could do the smart and right thing in the face of difficult odds and unreasoned hatred.  He backed down, and it was so unspeakably sad.

13.  Former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) has now put many years' distance between himself and Dan Savage, and he may have left that incident behind (hehe... "behind").  He was even able to put up a respectable showing in 2012, winning a few primaries during the few mayfly weeks during which he was the front-runner.  Unfortunately, the list of other onetime 2012 frontrunners includes Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain.  These were figures who were distinguished only by virtue of not being Mitt "The Inevitable" Romney.  Santorum, like the rest of this list, never managed to get any serious backing from other politicos or monied interests - he was sustained in large part by a single donor, Foster Freiss.  Theres no sign that his fortunes have gone anywhere but down in the years since.

14.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is so boring that I am not going to blurb him.  Blah blah he hates unions.  Google him.

15.  Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign introduced me to the term "nurdle," and for that I will be forever grateful.  But despite the rumors about how he would be solid candidate if he ran again, his strong polling right now is mostly a reflection of name recognition.  He's much more famous than a lot of other prospective candidates, and that's nothing to ignore... but could anyone really launch a third grueling national campaign after a movie was already made about your two previous humiliations?

16.  Dr. Ben Carson is a surgeon who has made some very good speeches, and who interviews very well.  He is wildly popular as a speaker, but he also seems to be smart enough to know better than to try to actually run for the nomination.  And who really needs the hassle, when you already have money and you're not someone actually interested in political power?  Better to bask in admiration from vast crowds, sell a few more books, send your ideas out into the masses, and wait for the humble requests from famous men.

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