How to Pick a President

We’re not running for president this time around, for reasons we’ve previously explained, so naturally we’ve taken an avid interest in those who are vying for the job. Choosing a favorite among the candidates is starting to take up a lot of our time, as there are so darned many of them, especially on the Republican side, but as usual the internet has provided a short-cut. A friend advised us of the existence of a web site called isidewith.com, and simply by filling out a brief questionnaire we we able to learn how closely each candidate’s stands on the issues of the day aligns with our own.
Right-wing extremists that we are, we were pleased but not at all surprised to see that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and current Florida Sen. Marco Rubio scored an admirable 95 percent rate of agreement with us, and that current Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is not far behind at 94 percent. We were somewhat surprised to find an acceptable 89 percent rate of agreement with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, given our very strong disagreements on foreign policy, and very surprised to find only an 87 percent rate of agreement with our tentative choice, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a similar rate of 86 percent for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who we have no use for, a solid 80 percent for Dr. Ben Carson, who we like a lot but can’t help noticing has never held elected office, and numbers in the ’60s and ’70s for the rest of the crowded field, with of course the all the Democrats coming in last place.
We can’t help noting that Ohio Gov. John Kasich is the Republican most likely to disagree with us, and thus be wrong on one of the major issues of the day, which is a shame given that his impressive electoral victories in the most important and predictive swing states suggests he might be among the most likely of the possible general election contenders. We also couldn’t help being slightly embarrassed to find that we’re in agreement with former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a full 30 percent of them, and even in agreement with self-proclaimed socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 18 times out of a hundred, but we were relieved to see we agree with former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley only 9 percent of them of the time, which we figure makes us right about 91 percent of time. All of these numbers deserve skeptical scrutiny, of course, and a few more clicks on the web-site offered some explanations.
The web site wisely allows a choice of how important a respondent considers each issues, and weighs accordingly, and it seems that Walker lost points because the web site has concluded it cannot definitively state the candidate’s position on the issue. We’re willing to take Walker at his lately tough-on-immigration word, though, and will give him the extra credit. The web site also concluded that it cannot definitively state the candidate’s position on raising taxes on the rich to reduce student debt, but given that Walker has been a steadfast tax-cutter and the bane of Wisconsin academia we’ll also give him even a few more extra points on that issue. He’s not in favor of decriminalizing drug use, but if Hillary or one of the other Democrats don’t win that won’t be such an important issue to us. The rest of the disagreements cited are of little to bother us.
That 30 percent rate of agreement with Clinton isn’t so bad on closer inspection, either. She gained points by claiming to be a staunch ally of Israel, although her support of the Iran deal and everything about her years as Secretary of State call that into doubt, and she also agrees with us about the use of drone strikes, although she’s sort of stuck with that and we’ve never agreed with her view they should be used to the exclusion of special forces raids that capture suspects for indefinite detainment and harsh interrogation. We agree with Clinton that Wall Street executives should not charged for their role in the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, but we doubt she agrees with us that her husband and his Housing and Urban Development Secretary and all those congressmen who conspired to force the Wall Street executives to make those subprime loans should face some sort of consequences. She’s against the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal with China, as are we, but in our case it’s because we don’t trust the president’s secret negotiations and in her case it’s because she’s against free trade.
Sanders also claims to be a friend of Israeli, which we doubt, and he shares our disdain for the Common Core curriculum, but we don’t like because of its America-bashing version of history and he doesn’t like the idea of educational standards, and we’re told he’s a staunch Second Amendment guy, but that it goes back to his student radical days when the Weather Underground and Black Panthers and other armed revolutionary groups made that a left-wing imperative, and otherwise our occasional agreements are forgivable.
There’s more to the matter than how often a voter agrees with a candidate, of course. One must also consider what the contenders have previously accomplished for the public good, and what hardened character and pleasing personality was required to get it done, and just how important those areas of disagreement might be, as well as which one is most likely to keep on of those Democrats from winning. Such calculations defy precise quantification, and require careful observation over a long and testing campaign, but already they’ve eliminated Donald Trump from consideration and severely handicapped Huckabee and call some of the mid-tier candidates into question, and we’re still tentatively favoring Walker. There’s lots yet to see, though, and even when it’s all been seem we’ll need some web site or another for the final calculations.

— Bud Norman

When a Win is a Win

Every now and then the car radio scans past one of the sports talk stations, usually in the middle of a caller heaping such scathing criticism on a team’s performance in a recent contest that the listener is surprised to learn he’s talking about the victor. The day-after news reports on the Michigan and Arizona primaries had a similar tone.

Mitt Romney won both halves of Tuesday’s double-header, one of them by a large margin, but listening to the nit-picking of many of the pundits one might have mistaken him for the ’72-’73 Philadelphia 76ers or the ’62 New York Mets.

The former Massachusetts governor’s 20 point victory in Arizona went largely unmentioned, presumably because there was little fault to be found in it, while all of the critical attention was focused on Michigan. Because Romney was born and reared in the state, and his father was once its governor, his three point victory there over former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was widely considered a woeful underperformance.

This analysis overstates Romney’s “favored son” advantage, we think. If Michiganders are anything like Kansans they’re no doubt inclined to feel a bit insulted that someone would desert their beloved state, especially for a place like Massachusetts, and George Romney was the governor a long, long time ago. It is worth noting that Romney lagged in the polls until his advertising stopped touting his past ties to Michigan and began emphasizing his solutions to the state’s present problems.

The critics also understate Santorum’s advantages in the state. Santorum belongs to that exceedingly rare species of Big Labor Republicans, and Michigan is a state so heavily unionized that even the Republicans are members. Despite the old media’s insistence that Santorum only talks Satan and birth control, Santorum’s campaign has long stressed an economic plan to bolster manufacturing, a subject dear to most of the workers in the state, and among the farmers who comprise the rest of the state’s workforce the talk of Satan and birth control apparently played well. The popular perception of Santorum as more blue collar and less blue blooded than Romney should have been enough for a victory in a state such as Michigan, grease-stained hands are de rigueur.

Given Romney’s home field disadvantage, the win seems at least good enough. Although he wound up splitting the delegates with Santorum due to the state’s proportional distribution rules, Romney at the very least staved off the denunciations that would have surely ensued had he actually lost the Michigan primary, and at best it strengthened his claim to most-electable status going into next week’s important “Super Tuesday” contests.

Those sports talk callers like to repeat the late football mogul Al Davis’ famous admonition to “just win, baby,” and it seems apt here.

— Bud Norman

Enter Santorum

Savvy political observers will downplay the long-term significance of Rick Santorum’s Tuesday night sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, where few delegates were at stake and the campaigning was light, but there’s no denying the short-term effect. Santorum has at least temporarily supplanted Newt Gingrich as the conservative alternative to putative front-runner Mitt Romney.

Despite a significant disadvantage to Romney in funding and organization, the former Pennsylvania senator might fare better in the challenger role than did his many successors, all of whom faded under the spotlight. He seems a likeable guy, unlike the scowling Gingrich, and in a regular blue collar background kind of way, unlike the blue-blooded Romney, and he’s not a foreign policy fruitcake, unlike Ron Paul. The more orthodox conservatives will point to his past support for earmark spending, No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug entitlement, and other Bush-era heresies, but his right-wing credentials are at least as righteous as Gingrich’s, more consistent than Romney’s, and don’t entail the foreign policy nuttiness of Paul.

Santorum’s conservatism on social issues is unquestioned, and although that has not been the main theme of his campaign it will certainly be the old-line media’s favorite storyline in the coming months. Santorum has the same position on gay marriage as Barack Obama, but he will be portrayed as a heartless gay-basher. Despite his clear and consistent declarations that he will not seek to ban contraceptives, his personal opposition to the practice will be offered as proof that he’s a modern day Anthony Comstock. Never mind that Santorum belongs to the same Catholic church as John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, it will be duly noted with undisguised disdain that unlike the others he actually believes in all that stuff.

For the most part American political discourse has been blissfully free of the social issues since the economic downturn that began in 2008, and Santorum probably prefers it stay that way, but the old cultural conflicts that have been kept on the back burner are starting to boil over into the news. The resent decision by the White House to force Catholic hospitals and schools and other religious institutions to provide insurance covering contraception and abortifacients is one example, a judge’s ruling to overturn California’s popular referendum against gay marriage is another, and Santorum’s past and present opposition to abortion will now be one more.

A renewed culture war will not only distract attention from the historically weak economic recovery, the looming debt crisis, and a rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, among other more pressing problems, but the left will also expect to find itself on the winning side. They might be in correct in that calculation, but the White House has been widely criticized by members of both parties for the insurance ruling, that was a popular referendum that the judge overturned, and Obama’s abortion policies are arguably further from the center than Santorum’s. Obama has lately been mentioning his own religious convictions, partly in an attempt to sell his domestic policies with the old social gospel pitch, and several of his most ardent admirers have assured he doesn’t really mean any of it, but the fact that he feels the need to resort to religious language suggests there’s still a sizeable audience for it.

A continued emphasis on economics would serve Santorum well in the primary race, and especially in a general election if he gets that far, that fact he unabashedly holds religious beliefs should not be an insurmountable problem. If it is, this country has bigger problems than Barack Obama.

— Bud Norman

The Bain of Politics

Mitt Romney’s rather easy victory in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary wasn’t unexpected, as he was once governor of a neighboring state and had been campaigning there for the past five years, but we were surprised by the strange line of attack his rivals attempted.

A solid background in business has been Romney’s main selling point to conservatives who are wary of such deviations from conservative orthodoxy, especially the Obamacare-like reforms Romney enacted as governor of Massachusetts, so his challengers attempted to use his successful years with the Bain Capital investment firm against him. The company made a great deal of money by buying failing businesses and making them profitable, a process that sometimes involved axing extraneous workers, and Romney’s challengers somehow found that offensive.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich started it off by accusing Romney of “bankrupting companies and laying off employees.” Rick Perry, Texas’ adroit but tongue-tied governor, piled on by comparing Bain Capital to “vultures.” Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who fought Romney to a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses, went so far as to take Romney’s comment that “I like being able to fire people” when choosing health care insurance plans and edited it down for an advertisement to “I like being able to fire people.”

Such tactics are to be expected from the Democrats, who are so constitutionally opposed to firing anyone for any reason that Nancy Pelosi remains their leader in the House of Representatives, but it seems a strange thing to do in a Republican primary, where most of the voters have a favorable opinion of capitalism and understand that it sometimes entails laying off workers. The argument might have even increased Romney’s appeal by reminding voters that he has experience taking over organizations awash in red ink and paring them down to an economically functioning size, which is exactly what the next president will need to do with the federal government, and it can’t help his rivals to be sounding like some bleeding-heart Occupy camper.

We expect to hear a lot more about Bain Capital and its ruthless ways if Romney wins the nomination, which looks all the more likely after Tuesday’s win, but we’re not convinced it will work much better with the general electorate. Romney will have ample opportunity to explain that if some workers hadn’t been laid off their companies would have gone out of business, leaving everyone out of work, and that Bain Capital’s efforts have resulted in a net increase in jobs. A large number of people are so resentful of anyone with the power to fire, and so fearful of being fired, that they will be susceptible to the anti-Bain arguments, but we expect that most Americans will be able to see the bigger picture, and that everyone likes being able to “fire” people by taking their business elsewhere.

Americans have been known to “fire” their presidents, after all.

— Bud Norman