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Reassembling the Three-Legged Stool

Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul is expected to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination today, and although this is far too early to be talking about the ’16 election it’s as good a time as any to ponder the state of the conservative coalition.
Anyone old enough to have lived through the glory days of President Ronald Reagan will recall how he somehow managed to construct a winning “three-legged stool” from the oft-warring factions of economic libertarians, social traditionalists, and national security hawks. With Paul currently being the most prominent standard-bearer of economic libertarianism, much of the national press coverage of his candidacy has gleefully concerned itself with how he might fare with the Republican primary voters from the other two legs of the stool, and whether anyone might be able to bring that coalition together again. So far the press seems doubtful about Paul’s chances, and we generally agree with that assessment, but we remain hopeful that someone can pull off the trick.
Social conservatives such as possible presidential contender Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and former governor of Arkansas, tend to regard libertarians as libertines. Already the press is anticipating Paul having trouble in South Carolina and other early southern primary states, despite Paul’s recent carefully calculated courtship of the crucial religious voters in those states, but the press isn’t much aware of how social conservatives are thinking these days. The religious right is now on the defensive, less concerned with banning abortion or preventing same-sex marriages than the increasingly real possibility of being forced to pay for abortifacients or bake cakes or pizza pies for homosexual wedding ceremonies, and they will find the libertarians invaluable allies in those fights. Besides, most of the religious right is quite comfortable with free market capitalism, unless they’re working in industries that require protectionism or some other government protection, and Paul, like his father, the obstetrician and libertarian hero and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, is anti-abortion, staking out a not uncommon libertarian position that the unborn are also due liberty.
Those rooting against the conservative coalition seem more hopeful that foreign policy will prove the dividing issue, but this seems doubtful. Only the most doctrinaire sorts of libertarians are strict isolationists such as Paul’s father, with most understanding that the national defense is crucial to the preservation to liberty, and even the younger Paul has lately been espousing a more robust foreign policy by advocating for increased military spending and signing on to that controversial letter opposing the proposed deal with Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program. It remains to be seen if Paul can persuade the defense hawks that his recent conversion is sincere, the past six years have so thoroughly discredited isolationism that the Republican party will almost certainly be united behind a more pragmatic philosophy.
Paul doesn’t strike us as the one who will ultimately reunite that conservative coalition, but not for the reasons that press cites. We expect the Republicans will not only be looking for Reagan’s three-legged conservatism but also experience and results, which a one-term Senator cannot claim, and even Paul’s impeccable anti-establishment credentials won’t help with the party’s anti-Washington mood. Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker has a record of withstanding the most brutal left-wing attacks in taking on the public and private sector unions to enact capitalist reforms, he’s managed to avoid giving offense to either the religious or secular populations of his state, his utter lack of foreign policy experience allows him to articulate whatever defense policies he chooses, and anyone with a similar resume should be able to re-build that three-legged stool. Whatever qualms any of the three parts of the stool might have about the others, they’ll likely find the Democratic alternative far worse.

— Bud Norman

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The Silly Season of Politics

There are still a couple of weeks left in 2014, according to that damnable calendar icon that taunts us with the relentless passage of time whenever we log on to our computer, but the presidential campaign of 2016 already seems well underway. An otherwise slow news day was full of speculation about the Republican contest on Tuesday, but none of it was quite so compelling as the Wichita State University Wheatshockers’ basketball squad home court win over an unranked but upset-minded University of Alabama Crimson Tide by a score of 53-52. Our beloved ‘Shockers went on a 13-1 run over the final five minutes to seal the narrow victory, and we don’t expect the Republican race to be quite so exciting as the pre-season hype would indicate.
All the talk on Tuesday was about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who announced that he was thinking about pursuing the nomination. Bush is also the son of former President George Herbert Walker Bush and the brother of President of George W. Bush, and the grandson of Sen. Prescott Bush, and an heir to God only knows how many previous generations of big deal Bushes, so running the country is pretty much his family business and his announcement that he was all but announcing his candidacy for president was not a surprise. More surprising was that so much of the press took serious the notion that Bush might actually win, and regarded his admittedly impeccable “establishment” credentials as a likely reason. These scribes are apparently too far removed from the Republicans’ fly-over country base to know that “establishment” is now as much a pejorative to its primary electorate than it ever was the hippies, and that the Bush name is now synonymous with a big-government style of conservatism that is widely considered unsuited to the nation’s needs or the party’s desires. Bush has already staked on stands on illegal immigration and the federalization of education that are anathema to Republican stalwarts, both of which remind the party’s activist base of everything they hated about his brother and father and grandfather and all those previous generations of big deal Bushes, and no amount of fund-raising is likely to negate those disadvantages.
The press gleefully noted that Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul was already issuing advertisements against Bush, a clear signal of his unsurprising intention to seek the nomination, but neither do we regard Paul as pre-season favorite for the nomination. He’s certainly not at all “establishment,” being heir only to the quixotic campaigns of his father, former quadrennial presidential candidate and Texas’ Rep. Ron Paul, but he’s staked out accommodating positions on foreign policy issues that will not play well at a time when Russia and China and Islamism are all ascendant. There was even some attention paid to to disparaging remarks made about Bush by Donald Trump, a real estate mogul and reality star ever eager for paid attention, although we expect that “The Donald’s” ambitions are primary to produce publicity for whatever eponymous project he is planning in the private sector.
This is the “silly season” in presidential politics, to borrow yet another sports metaphor from golf, and the day’s headlines will be long forgotten by the metaphorical playoff time. The real contest begins with an impressive slate of governors get done with their necessary state business, and a smaller and less impressive slate of Representatives and Senators show what they’re willing to do with their party’s majorities, and a robust debate about who’s the most solid conservative is underway. The contestant from the prestigious confederation won’t necessarily prevail, as the Shockers’ hard-fought win over the Southeastern Conference demonstrated, and anyone who can plausibly deny responsibility for what’s been going in the big leagues of Washington will have an underdog’s leg up.
We expect an exciting race for the Republican nomination, and maybe even one of those improbable come-from-behind victories that cause you to shake hands with the bartender when you’re watching at Merle’s Tavern, but it never goes according to what the press is saying.

— Bud Norman

What We Saw at the Kansas Caucus

The Grand Old Party had a grand old time in Kansas on Saturday, with the most fervent of the state’s Republicans gathering at 99 different locations for the quadrennial caucus. We roused ourselves out of bed and trudged over to the Century II Convention Center in downtown Wichita to take a look and cast a vote, and were mostly heartened by what we found.

With help from sunny skies and unseasonably warm temperatures the turnout was heavy enough that we were forced to find parking several blocks away from the event, which Wichitans usually regard as an outrage, but everyone we passed along the way seemed cheerful and gladly willing to make the noble sacrifice for the democratic process. Some idiot in one of those silly Guy Fawkes masks that the “Occupy” crowd favor was standing outside the building and holding a hand-lettered sign that asked the assembled Republicans “Are you rich or stupid?” Except for one fellow who growled that “You’re a product of the public school system” all of the caucus-goers we saw ignored the provocation and simply smiled and nodded as they walked by.

The crowd looked reasonably prosperous, for the most part, but one wouldn’t guess they were all rich. The attire was generally respectable but casual, except for the politicians and party officials in nondescript blue suits and some biker-looking types in Ron Paul t-shirts, and there wasn’t a top hat, monocle, or pair of spats in sight. Nor did the caucus-goers appear stupid, except perhaps for a few of them, and you’re going to have that in any large crowd. Not one of them looked quite so stupid as the idiot wearing the Guy Fawkes mask and waving his witless sign.

A small army of overly helpful volunteers registered us quickly despite the requirement of a photo identification card, a new law that has the Democrats here in high dudgeon but didn’t seem to annoy the Republicans at all, and we were soon settled into a back row seat to read an old P.G. Wodehouse novel while a few party officials blathered on about something or another. Soon the stage was turned over to the spokesmen for the various candidates still in the race, and we set the novel down to pay some attention. The speeches given at every caucus seem a superfluous tradition, since anyone who gets out of bed on a Saturday morning to vote has surely made his mind up already, but we do love a good oration.

A high school debate coach made the case for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, laying out the many strong arguments for his candidacy but not attempting to refute any of the arguments which have all but knocked him out of the race. A businessman spoke on behalf of Ron Paul, stressing the Texas congressman’s anti-abortion stance and friendliness to free market economics, but not mentioning the non-interventionist foreign policy, and while it made the candidate sound quite reasonable it didn’t do much to fire up the large contingent of voters bearing his signs and wearing his name on their t-shirts. Mitt Romney, the frontrunner nationally but a dark horse in the Kansas caucus, didn’t even bother to arrange a speaker, and instead a party official read a letter from the campaign. The reading was done with little enthusiasm, and one could sense that the caucus-goers in the state’s largest city felt slightly snubbed, but the reaction was determinedly polite, with ample applause and no booing.

The clear favorite of the crowd, judging from the large number of signs, t-shirts and other campaign regalia, was Rick Santorum, and speaking on his behalf was none other than his wife, Karen. Unaccustomed as we are to hearing a wife speak fondly of a husband, we thought the speech was surprisingly good. She spoke a bit about politics, stressing her husband’s staunch conservatism, but mostly talked about his personal qualities as a husband, father, and man of faith. The Santorum supporters, almost all of whom were accompanied by several children, were clearly moved, and when the speaker began to tear up so did many in the crowd.

We returned to Wodehouse while the overly helpful volunteers slowly led the crowd aisle by aisle to the ballot boxes. When our turn finally came we marked the ballot for Romney, affixed the yellow sticker they’d given us, and dropped our in the cardboard ballot box, satisfied that we’d done our part for the democratic process and hopeful that our guy would finish a respectable second or third. Nothing against Santorum, mind you, and we did like his wife, but we’re worried that he’d be too easily caricatured by the Democrats, and Romney has seemed the steadier candidate with the more impressive managerial acumen. In any event we’ll be voting Republican come the fall, and we suspect that so will everyone else at that caucus.

On the way out we stopped to chat with an old pal who was fretting that the Republican cause is already lost, and he was at least somewhat more hopeful after we noted that gas prices are rising, the economy is still weak, and all sorts of global crises are about to explode. Noting the large number of children accompanying the Santorum voters, a very fecund bunch, we also argued that demographic trends might favor the party over the long term.

While chatting we were interrupted by a fellow with a Ron Paul button who explained to us that presidents are actually chosen by the Council on Foreign Relations, and that it hasn’t yet made up its mind if it would re-install Obama. We asked why he had bothered to come to the caucus when the fix is in, rather than sleep in and watch basketball, and after a moment’s thought he admitted he didn’t know. When he started to explain how the Federal Reserve had been responsible for the Lincoln, McKinley, and Kennedy assassinations we excused ourselves and headed home for a nap.

Later that evening we learned that Santorum had won by a romp, but Romney had avoided any lasting embarrassment by finishing ahead of Gingrich and Paul. With a win in Wyoming and some of the territories, Romney actually finished the day with the most delegates. All in all, and factoring in the nice weather, it was a pretty good Saturday.

— Bud Norman

The Race Goes On

Mitt Romney had a pretty good “Super Tuesday,” all in all. He didn’t clinch the nomination with a convincing romp, but it was a good night. The former Massachusetts governor won six of the 10 states up for grabs, including one considered crucial to his campaign, while none of the losses were devastating and one of them was actually a boon.

The most important victory came in Ohio, which has 66 delegates and an intimidating reputation as a bellwether. Although Romney eked out a miniscule win against Rick Santorum, it’s still a good a win. The former senator from neighboring Pennsylvania has an manufacturing platform and homespun image perfectly suited for Ohio, and his loss there should be considered a damaging blow.

Romney’s victory in Virginia was made easier by the fact that only he and Texas Rep. Ron Paul were on the ballot, but it should be noted that his other opponents’ inability to deal with Virginia’s Byzantine ballot requirements speaks poorly of their managerial skills, so we also count that as a good win. An apparent Romney victory in the Alaska caucus should dash the hopes of Paul’s most quixotic supporters, who couldn’t even win the most libertarian state in the union. The victories in Massachusetts and Vermont don’t mean much, but they still go in the win column.

Tennessee was Santorum’s most impressive win and Romney’s most embarrassing loss, and will no doubt to lead to much pontificating about Romney’s difficulties in southern states, but otherwise the outcomes are not likely to affect the rest of the race. Santorum’s win in Oklahoma was predictable, given that the state is so blessedly conservative Barack Bema lost 15 counties on Tuesday in the Democratic primary, and his win in North Dakota yielded only a few delegates.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich reminded voters that he’s still in the race by winning Georgia, his home state, but that was also good for Romney. The Georgia win will keep Gingrich in the race, clinging desperately to a “southern strategy” that was largely discredited by his loss in Tennessee, continuing to split the stubborn anti-Romney vote with Santorum.

The race will go on for a while, much to the delight of Democrats everywhere, but perhaps less attention will be paid now that the outcome seems less in doubt.

— Bud Norman

State by State, by Stereotype

Several explanations have already been offered for Mitt Romney’s solid victory in Tuesday’s Florida presidential primary, and most of them are plausible.

One theory, held by distant runner-up Newt Gingrich, holds that Romney’s sizeable fund-raising advantage allowed him to flood the airwaves with negative advertising in a state too large for stump campaigning. Another theory, not held by Gingrich, is that the former House Speaker’s angry response to the media barrage revealed his flaws more clearly than the ads ever could.

Our favorite theory, though, is the one offered by internet journalist Stacy McCain, who ties Tuesday’s result to the crucial little old lady vote in Florida. He writes that “Your grandma loves Mitt Romney,” a phenomenon he attributes to the contrast between “the tall, lean, millionaire entrepreneur with dark hair and chiseled features” and “the pudgy intellectual.”

This hypothesis is based on a stereotype of Florida as a vast geezerdom, as well as an equally stereotyped view of elderly women, which makes it quite convincing. Most of the stereotypes about the various states are valid, after all, and Florida’s reputation as “God’s waiting room” is no exception.

If either or both of the first two theories are true, and they are by no means mutually exclusive, Romney should be able to achieve a similar outcome in any of the upcoming primaries and caucuses. If the McCain theory is more correct, however, handicapping the race requires looking at the upcoming schedule, which now takes the race to Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, then examining the candidates through the proper stereotype.

Nevada is full of Mormons and gamblers, so Romney should do well. The Mormons will be inclined to vote for a co-religionist, and the gamblers will be impressed by Romney’s success as a venture capitalist.

The people of Maine regard Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins as proper Republicans, a delusion that prairie people attribute to nine months of winter and a constant diet of sea food, so Romney should do well there, too.

Colorado is populated with bike-riding hippies drawn there by a misunderstanding of John Denver’s pop hit “Rocky Mountain High,” so look for Ron Paul to score an upset victory.

Minnesotans revere Garrison Keillor, so they have no prejudice against pudgy intellectuals, but they’re also notoriously nice, which means they will have no natural affinity for Gingrich. Rick Santorum’s squeaky-cleanness might serve him well, but expect another Romney win.

As Kansans we are obliged by state law to have nothing good to say about Missouri, but we will say that it is the most likely state for Gingrich to score another victory.

— Bud Norman

The Not-So-Friendly Skies

Three cheers for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Although we’re not of the jet set, being more from the old Chevro-let set, as George and Tammy used to sing, we have traveled by air often enough to appreciate Paul’s refusal on Monday to submit to a pat-down by the Transportation Security Administration.

A longtime critic of the TSA, Paul was en route from Nashville, Tenn., to an anti-abortion rally in Washington, D.C., when he set off one of those damnable airport scanners. As many a weary traveler has learned, TSA procedures require that any time the scanners are set off, even for the most obviously innocent reasons, which are always why the scanners are set off, the offending passenger must allow security officers to perform a search of his body that ranges from the merely annoying to the downright degrading. Paul refused, which led to him being briefly detained and missing his flight.

Although Paul caught a later flight without interference by scanner or agents, and his delay was brief and painless, we applaud even such minor sacrifices as a protest against an airline security system that does not allow for common sense. White House spokesman Jay Carney felt obliged to defend the TSA’s actions, saying “I think it is absolutely essential that we take necessary actions to ensure that air travel is safe,” but there is no reason why it was necessary to pat-down Paul.

Common sense would note that Paul is unlikely to commit a suicide bombing. He is a United States Senator, after all, and thus in a position to inflict far more damage on the country than he could ever hope to achieve with an explosive device on an airplane. He is also the son of Texas congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, which we concede might lead to a reasonable concern about nuttiness running in the family, but the Paul family nuttiness manifests itself as an indifference to terrorism rather than an enthusiasm for it. The TSA’s fetish for religious neutrality prevents it from taking into consideration that Paul is also a Presbyterian, but we are unbound by any rules against profiling and think it worth noting that Presbyterianism is a denomination not known for suicide bombing.

Terrorism remains a legitimate concern for the government to address, even after 11 years of lethal warfare have greatly weakened the most ambitious terror organizations, but it does not justify the harassment of elderly women, children, and the occasional member of congress.

— Bud Norman