Does Mitch McConnell Believe in Anything? And Will He Save the Nation? (Probably not)

For all the chaos of the Trump campaign, Paul Ryan’s role in the election seemed to move along a set pattern. Every few weeks, when Trump said something particularly egregious, Ryan would dutifully trudge to a nearby podium and deliver an acceptably stern rebuttal to whatever the careening GOP candidate had said. Then, as the controversy was washed away in the next news cycle, Ryan would retire his faux-outrage and pragmatically announce that Trump, despite occasional threats to life, liberty, and happiness, was more likely to sign Republican bills and thus maintained Ryan’s not-so-easily lost support. What is, after all, a Constitution or democratic norms when they are held before the glory of Ryan’s vision of a pre-tax adjustment to the Medicare quarterly interest rate? (Note: This is a made-up name for a tax cut for wealthy people.)

If one can give Ryan any credit, it’s for at least emerging here and there to make a temporary statement of disapproval. Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, passed through the election as the ghost of a rumored shadow. When the media procured a tape of Trump bragging about his apparent enthusiasm for sexual assault, McConnell boldly proclaimed “I don’t have any observations to make.” Having consigned such rhetoric to the history books, McConnell remained as scarce as possible for much of the race.

Before election night, McConnell’s non-observations and half-nod of support seemed likely to be forgotten, but then Trump claimed victory and made McConnell a curious central figure in the new political order. Obviously, as a Republican, McConnell will be plenty happy to send tax cuts and program-guttings to Trump for signatory approval. However, Trump has long cast himself as a strong leader and anti-establishment figure, and Steve Bannon, a longtime critic of traditional Republicans, has already emerged as a major power in the White House. Despite their shared party, McConnell, as a six-term Senate institutionalist, could easily find himself in opposition to the White House.

One complicating factor in assessing McConnell’s potential role in the coming political drama is that it’s not entirely certain what he actually believes in. As detailed in Alec MacGillis’ short but highly informative 2014 book on McConnell, The Cynic, the aspect of his career that McConnell seems proudest of is the many elections he’s won. The legislation he’s passed and supported along the way is a barely visible part of the story.

Also, although any contemporary observer would consider him a conservative Republican, he’s made something of an ideological journey over the years. In 1963, while still in college, he wrote a column urging the Republican Party to embrace civil rights legislation and later interned for a Senator who helped pass it. He named his cat Rocky in honor of Nelson Rockefeller, the moderate Republican governor of New York who had furiously opposed conservative icon Barry Goldwater at the 1964 GOP convention. After he became a county executive in the Louisville area in 1978, advocates  credited him for effectively blocking local challenges to Roe v. Wade and considered him to be pro-choice. And finally, he declined to support Ronald Reagan’s candidacy in 1976, and actually listed Reagan as his fourth choice in the 1980 election. It’s impossible to survey McConnell’s pre-Senate career and conclude that he was anything but a moderate to liberal Republican, but then Mitch went to Washington.

McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984 by a margin of only 5,000 votes, and undoubtedly owed the win to the coattails of Ronald Reagan, who won the state by 238,000. The new Senator learned the lesson of that race all too well, and since then he has drifted along ideologically as his state and his party moved to the right. He’s now a reliably pro-life Republican, hardly an active voice on civil rights, pays tribute to Reagan whenever humanly possible, and has even disavowed his ideologically moderate cat Rocky (His staff now says that Rocky, feline RINO that he was, was his ex-wife’s cat).

Perhaps it’s fruitless to attempt to attempt to draw any clear ideology out of McConnell’s finger-in-the-wind approach to politics. An ideologically flexible politician is no particular novelty and he’s obviously made a tremendously successful career out of it. However, if McConnell prizes winning elections and maintaining his status as majority leader above all else, those goals are potentially threatened by an erratic and unpopular president.

Generally the upcoming midterms would be a concern here, but the Republican Senate majority is protected by a highly favorable slate of elections in 2018, as they only need to defend eight seats while the Democrats are defending 25. If Trump is historically unpopular that may open a window for the Democrats, but for now the GOP majority seems to be safe. Even if that is the case, however, there could be fractures between the White House and McConnell over individual races. Bannon fired an initial shot across the bow recently when he allegedly suggested that McConnell’s days picking Senate candidates were over, and also hinted that the White House may support a primary challenger to Trump critic Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

The 2020 elections, distant though they may seem, could be the bigger threat to McConnell given the favorable map for Democrats and the fact that he himself is up for election. More than three years out it is futile to attempt any prophecy regarding the 2020 cycle (particularly since the country now seems to change dramatically between Tuesday to Thursday) but McConnell is surely aware that there may be a political cost to aligning too closely with a hugely polarizing president who entered office as the least-popular president-elect in history. Approval ratings can always change, but given the intensity of opposition to Trump, it will be difficult for him to become a broadly popular leader.

While these electoral risks are surely a concern for McConnell, they are more long-term than immediate. In the short-term, he has a Senate majority, a Supreme Court nominee on the docket, and a president willing to sign Republican bills, so for now it’s hard to see McConnell breaking with the administration in any significant way. He may well mimic Ryan’s strategy of feigning principle when necessary but generally embracing a philosophy of pragmatic partisanship. Behind the scenes, the consternation of Republican donors might be a growing and more immediate concern for McConnell, as he has long been a prolific and enthusiastic fundraiser for the party. The Koch brothers have repeatedly spoken out against Trump and there was talk of widespread discomfort with Trump when they held their annual donor summit in January. There were also reports that their donor network intends to raise up to $400 million for the 2018 elections, which will surely draw the attention of McConnell and congressional Republicans.

Ultimately, whatever the cause, the calculating, ideologically-mysterious McConnell may emerge as an important foil to the Trump administration, even if he is an uninspiring bulwark for those worried that American democracy itself may be in danger. McConnell will go far to work with the administration, but given the far-right, authoritarian leanings of Trump and those around him, McConnell could find himself in a situation where his power and perhaps the Senate itself is threatened. It is also possible that, at 75 years old, McConnell might be thinking about his legacy and more willing to stand up to aggressive moves by the Bannon and Trump administration. Despite his partisanship and uncertain convictions, McConnell has always revered the Senate. A more inspiring defender of the country’s democratic institutions could surely be imaged, but for now the country might have to hope that the dour Kentucky leader discovers his higher principles.

 

The Political Path to Impeachment

Calls for impeachment are no great novelty in U.S. politics, but serious discussion of the possibility is usually confined to the remote wings of whatever party is out of power. In the infant Trump presidency, however, there is already widespread speculation over the possibility as the administration has been immersed in chaos and scandal since the start and whispers about Trump’s mental stability have become increasingly public. The general line of thinking is that Trump won’t be impeached so long as Republicans control Congress and that is likely true. No president has been removed from office by impeachment – Johnson and Clinton were acquitted by the Senate and Nixon resigned before being impeached – and it is obviously unlikely that this will change in an era of one-party rule. There is, however, a path to impeachment – a narrow one to be sure, but one that cannot be entirely written off.

Trump Hearts Scandal

Although Trump and his allies are surely outraged that impeachment is even being discussed, the impetus behind all the fevered speculation and sudden interest in the 25th Amendment is the actions of Trump himself. His campaign was perpetually mired in scandal and controversy, and Trump has been unable or unwilling to assume a more presidential demeanor after assuming office.

Barely a month into his term the administration has already been roiled by blockbuster revelations that the campaign was in touch with Russian intelligence officials throughout the campaign and lied about it up until it made the papers. Trump has also left himself exposed to charges of corruption with a barely serious effort to resolve the conflicts of interest from his sprawling real estate business. When you consider the deluge of leaks about the administration, this administration seems to have positioned itself better than any in recent memory for a massive and debilitating scandal.

GOP Congressional Majorities Are Probably Safe…Probably.

If Trump does crack open the impeachment door through his own penchant for scandal and ineptitude, there may be political incentives for the GOP to go down that path. Although Trump isn’t as wildly unpopular as many would like to believe (at least with Republican voters), he is remarkably disliked for a new president, and his chaotic and polarizing administration isn’t winning over many converts. The GOP has built itself a firewall of gerrymandered districts to protect its majority in the House, but their stranglehold on the House isn’t unbreakable. The Republicans are also blessed with a highly favorable Senate map in 2018, but once again it isn’t impossible to imagine scenarios where their majority is imperiled by a scandal-prone and incompetent president. A long-shot threat to the Republican congressional majorities is unlikely to drive any serious impeachment proceedings, but if Trump sinks further into the muck of scandal the political risks will surely factor into their calculations.

The Dream of President Pence

Another potential incentive for the GOP is vice president Pence. It’s become almost a cliché for well-sourced articles to note that, behind several closed doors and under a blanket, Congressional Republicans express deep discomfort with the ill-prepared and erratic president. To say that they would be more comfortable with a President Pence would be a massive understatement. Pence served six terms in the House, served as chairman of the Republican conference for two years (a stepping stone position held in the past by Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney and John Boehner), and left Washington to become governor of a conservative Midwestern state. The House GOP bromance with Pence won’t inspire impeachment hearings of course, but having one of their own waiting in the wings is another potential incentive.

Remember the Autopsy!

Another political calculation that could serve as a factor in any unprecedented impeachment proceedings is the very real possibility that the Trump presidency is wrecking the GOP brand. Although the party won a smashing victory on November 8th, there are reasons to believe that it may be short lived. While Trump claimed the 46th largest electoral college share in U.S. history, the GOP still lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the last six elections. The House majority is protected by elaborately-designed districts (the GOP got 49% of the total national vote in House elections but secured 55% of the seats), but these districts will be redrawn after the 2020 census, and in the meantime court challenges to tangled-yarn-shaped districts have made progress in Wisconsin and North Carolina. In the Senate, Trump’s unpopularity may check Republican’s ability to capitalize on the favorable 2018 Senate map, and the party has 22 seats to defend in the 2020 elections. Needless to say, a lot can change between now and tomorrow, but the GOP is a party with some obvious long-term challenges and a firm anchor to its base.

Any possibility that the Republicans will take down Trump in the name of the future viability is belied by recent history. The GOP has shown itself to be even more enthusiastic than the Democratic Party about shooting itself in the foot as a testament to ideological purity. In 2010 the Republicans virtually gave away the Senate majority by nominating a slate of lackluster candidates, including the man who introduced the term “legitimate rape” to our political lexicon and another candidate who ran an ad to address rumors that she had dabbled in witchcraft.

After Obama was reelected in 2012, the party commissioned an “autopsy” of the race to examine how the GOP could broaden its appeal. Virtually every aspect of  that report (immigration reform, minority outreach, don’t elect as many rich people) has been wholly and completely repudiated by the Trump campaign and administration. One author of the report even left the party.

Politics, of course, turns on short-term considerations and most Republican officials will cheerfully appease Trump so long as he is in power. However, it doesn’t take a political whiz to scroll through the demographic breakdowns of Trump’s approval ratings to see that see that he is underwater with moderates, every minority group, and young voters. The party cannot sustain its viability solely with conservative white voters born before 1970. This is a long-term calculation with little relevance to many well-protected Republican officeholders, but party officials will certainly notice the trends.

Incompetence Transcends Partisanship. Sort of. Maybe.

One thing several million people have realized lately is that Donald Trump does not seem prepared to be president. His administration has been erratic, prone to unforced errors, and continually mired in distracting controversies (inauguration crowds, Nordstrom…). “Professionalism” is not a word many people would use to describe the Trump administration. Republicans have tacitly acknowledged this at times. The safe way for Republicans to criticize the disastrous roll out of Trump’s travel ban was to say that it was not properly rolled out, which is an understated way of saying that it was an incredible disaster. If Trump and his administration continue to fumble through way through every attempt at policy, this could seriously undercut an idea that was central to Trump’s popularity, which is that he is no-nonsense boss who can “get things done.” Tens of millions of voters may believe in Trump regardless of what he does, but there are plenty of others who won’t abide massive incompetence.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, it seems trite to speak to any conception of national purpose that is not firmly established in one partisan camp and well-fortified with grievance and outrage, but if Trump demonstrates his inability to serve as a partisan warrior, perhaps Republicans will find time to consider the well-being of the country.

 

Russia and the GOP: Friends with Benefits?

After the initial reports emerged that the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the intention of aiding Donald Trump, the dismissal from Team Trump was swift and predictable. The outage from Democrats, many of whom have long suspected Russian sympathies for The Donald, was equally predictable, but there were numerous Republicans who joined them in calling for an investigation. Longtime critics of Russia such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham quickly condemned the interference, and a handful of conservatives with an interest in free and fair elections also joined the fray.

The response from most Republicans, however, was meekness with a shrug, as many congressional conservatives raised doubts about the impact of the alleged hacking or the credibility and integrity of American intelligence agencies. Much of this is a simple political calculation – the mandate of the Republican president-elect will obviously not be strengthened by revelations that his election was aided by an authoritarian KGB-alum. However, there may a more long-term aspect to the political calculus here. After watching  the Russians meddle in presidential election that came down to razor-thin margins in a few states, some Republicans have to be asking: is it really a bad thing to have these guys on our side?

One of the most basic functions of any campaign, particularly in this hyper-partisan era, is gathering information on your opponent that can be used to portray them more negatively. Databases are mined, tax records are requested, business partners scrutinized, faded newspaper clippings see the light of day, and a lot of money is spent on the effort. While the impact of the resulting attack ads, one-liners, and talking points can be overstated, plenty of races on all levels have turned on information unearthed by such research.

As exhaustive and sophisticated as these efforts have become, most campaigns aren’t staging electronic Watergate operations intended to breach the internal communications of their rivals. Aside from the potential illegality of such actions, voters might not reward a campaign that peddles hacked information. Russia, however, can function as an outside information broker with hacking and electronic espionage operations that far surpass anything a campaign could bring to bear. It can also, as it did in this election, cover its tracks or at least maintain sufficient ambiguity over its role to conceal the source of the information until after election day. There is, of course, no shortage of online portals that can be used to anonymously dump enough information to affect the outcome of the race, and pinpointing the source of a hack can require a long and complicated investigative effort.

It might seem unlikely that the Republican Party will soften its position towards a historic adversary simply to garner an electronic electoral advantage. However, the power of sophisticated cyber-warfare and the ubiquity of electronic communications should be considered here. Every day, virtually every aide and every surrogate for a candidate communicates electronically, and each of those communications could potentially be accessed by a sufficiently skilled hacker and released for public consumption. Any off-color joke, insulting remark, poorly worded sentence, or half-baked policy idea by anyone in the vast universe of a presidential campaign is a potential liability.

The 2016 election, of course, more than demonstrated this. Most of the emails that were unveiled by the DNC hack, though gleefully exaggerated by the right and wildly misinterpreted by disillusioned liberal voters, were fairly innocuous. Bad ideas were proposed and unfriendly things were said about a senator from Vermont, but no crimes were uncovered. Nonetheless, the hacks may have cost Clinton the election, as the media proved itself willing and eager to dive down any rabbit hole unveiled by Wikileaks while simultaneously providing extensive negative commentary related to the investigation of Clinton’s email server.

Although it’s nice to think that Republicans would shy away from a Soviet-style leader such as Vladimir Putin, politicians from Sumerian times on have proven themselves willing and eager to alter their positions to appease people who can help them get elected. Plenty of politicians, left and right, have discovered their silence on an issue after a $50,000 check arrived at the P.O. box of their super PAC. While the extent of Russian meddling has yet to be established, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that, in an election decided by fractional percentage points in a few swing states, that the months-long theater of scandal authored by Russian hackers might have been decisive. We politely wish for a higher standard of virtue in our political leaders, but plenty of them would shrink from biting the hand that launched the phishing attack that exposed 60,000 potentially damning emails about their election opponent. It would be nice to assume that the veneration of our democratic traditions and the sanctity of elections untarnished by a murderous authoritarian would transcend partisanship, but plenty on the right have shown themselves unwilling to hurt themselves politically in the interest of defending such basic principles. After all, Russia just helped their party claim, against all odds, the biggest prize in politics. Will democratic principles really be an issue for them when that kind of power is at stake?

2008, Without the Hope and Valor?

The 2016 primaries were vulgar, dramatic, belligerent affairs that blared steadily across the scrolling bars of every news network and intruded endlessly on every news site and Facebook wall. Trump was Trump, Clinton couldn’t close out Sanders, and Cruz, amidst the Titanic-tilt of the GOP, briefly assumed the role of savior for a party that half-loathed him. For all the endless drama and arguments over delegate math and nicknames, there was a sense that this was just the precursor to the main act. If you think this is crazy, people said in bars, wait until the general election.

To be sure, the election is still blaring and dominating the media landscape as one would expect. And to be surer, there has been no shortage of controversy, dismay, and a passing moment to briefly redeem the country. But by and large, the drama of the primaries hasn’t quite been followed, with the exception of a few moments around the convention that merited the hype. After the primary there was endless debate about when Trump would pivot and yield to the obvious fact that he was no longer performing in front of the same older, overwhelmingly-white, strongly conservative audience. But Trump didn’t move. He dithered on establishing serious policy positions, resisted moderation and teleprompters, and saw no particular urgency to fundraise or hire staff. In short, he did little to actually establish a campaign. He did, however, bumble into an endless succession of controversies and found himself unable to distract from them with another evisceration of Jeb Bush. For now Trump looks to be a Hindenberg that never took off but is still counting down to the final implosion.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has run a competent, unspectacular campaign that has quietly hit its marks as Trump has angrily loped along. For a running mate, she made a smart but uninteresting pick with a well-regarded swing state senator. The ads her campaign has been running for months now often relied only on Trump’s own words rather than morning-in-America shots of Clinton attempting inspiration in fruited plains. As the campaign calendar brings us to the final turn, Clinton and her team have been quietly effective with full knowledge that they had little need to engage a candidate so intent on defeating himself.

The result of this, at least so far, has been a campaign that looks more like 2008 than 2012. In 2008 there was the ceaseless drama of Obama and Clinton’s titanic battle and the less-noticed but still impressive resuscitation of John McCain’s campaign from near-bankruptcy to victory. In the general election, however, there was little to encourage McCain and his team aside from an occasional outlier poll that showed them within “striking distance.” McCain’s election prospects were such that by late-August, his team swung for the fences in nominating an untested governor from Alaska who dazzled at the convention but has generally baffled and spoken in tongues ever since. The outcome of the election was largely a forgone conclusion as Obama  coasted to victory.

In 2012 the Republican primary had some moments of drama as Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all took turns at the lead, but Mitt Romney’s slow and steady march ultimately carried him to victory, with unfortunate nods to self-deportation and severe conservatism along the way.

With an interesting but typical primary campaign in the rearview mirror, the real drama in 2012 took place in the election. Romney was never a natural candidate, but with Paul Ryan on the ticket and a governorship on his resume, he could at least credibly carry the Republican banner. For all his own missteps and stilted campaigning, Romney got to the finish line with flurry of late polls that showed him ahead or even with Obama nationally and within actual striking distance in several swing states. Although the polling in general painted a less hopeful picture for Romeney and many prognosticators pointed out as much, too optimistic conservatives who were convinced that a 2010-style wave of enthusiasm was lurking beneath the surge, Romney had a shot at victory. In the end Obama won comfortably, but it had at least been a contest.

Trump seems to be going the route of John McCain, only he’s doing so without any of the grace, experience, or valor that occasionally shines through McCain’s curmudgeonly veneer. In some sense this isn’t surprising. Although many people projected that Trump’s ascendance through the primaries would continue in the general election, he has yet to demonstrate that he’s ready for this stage. His belligerence and ineptitude have not been  well-received nor hidden under the brightest glare in American politics.

It goes without saying that the election isn’t over before Labor Day, and Clinton’s political missteps and image problems makes any polling lead feel as if it’s built on sand. At the end of the day, however, Trump is not a politician, but a simple con artist in the midst of a desperate but impossible attempt to back up his cheap words and bluster. Unfortunately for him,  it’s hard to pull a con with the whole world watching.

The Trumpian Prophets

Now that Trump has completed his highly improbable path to the GOP nomination (barring a last second delegate coup), the nation’s bars, water coolers, and grills are being manned by people who say, with furrowed brow and grave tone, “I think Trump can win.” When pressed on what has led them to such an insight, they generally say something about how unpredictable the election cycle has been, how nothing seems to affect his poll numbers, or reference his brutal rhetorical slaughters of all GOP nominees who dared challenge him on the debate stage. Treating past as prologue, these sagacious prophets gaze ahead at the nation’s future under the leadership of President Donald J. Trump.

Now it should be said at the outset that of course Trump can win. He is a major party nominee and, regardless of what he does or says, he’ll attract tens of millions of votes from people who will vote out of party loyalty, genuine enthusiasm for Trump, or a hatred of Hillary Clinton. On top of that, with even a minimal effort to moderate his incendiary statements and outlandish policy proposals, he’ll have organizational support from the Republican Party and its donors, which could provide him with hundreds of millions of dollars to build up what is, at present, a barely existent campaign structure. Furthermore, there is the possibility, however unlikely that Hillary Clinton will be indicted for her email practices and give Trump a boost. So yes, Trump can win the election, but does he have a good chance to do so? At the present time: absolutely not.

As was the case with the last two Republican nominees, Trumps has entered the general election with a huge handicap in the electoral map. If  Hillary Clinton can simply win the state’s that are near-certain or likely Democratic states, she needs only one or two swing states to cross the 270 electoral vote threshold and win the election. Trump, on the other hand, starts the election with only 191 electoral votes in safe or likely Republican states (according to Crystal Ball), meaning he needs to win a number of highly competitive swing states to surpass the same threshold. Trump could win all 191 electoral votes in the GOP column plus Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina, and he would still narrowly lose. Clinton on the other hand would virtually lock up the election if she can win Florida. So yes, it is possible Trump can win, but it’s also unlikely.

People predicting a Trump victory are also underestimating the extent to which a national campaign infrastructure and political experience can help in the general election. In the GOP primaries, which were low-turnout affairs full of conservative voters who wanted to send an outsider with two middle fingers to Washington, Trump could make do with headline-grabbing antics and “politically incorrect” statements that obviously resonated with a large share of the GOP base. For the general election, however, the campaign needs to sustain a presence across the entire country for months at a time. Trump can’t swoop into Virginia, win 35% of the vote, claim victory, and leave.

Hillary Clinton, as a veteran of four presidential campaigns, is obviously well aware of this. She has a seasoned staff, a massive network of volunteers and donors, and ads already on the air in several key markets. Donald Trump seems remarkably unaware of the playing field he’s on, whittling away time in non-competitive states, planning a trip to Scotland to open a golf course, and making a lukewarm attempt to court donors. He already wasted an unexpected gift when the Republican nomination process concluded earlier than that of the Democrats, and now Trump seems to be only gradually realizing, after weeks of shooting himself in the foot, that he needs to begin making an effort if he has any interest in this election.

Trump’s effort to at least run a serious campaign may have taken a step forward when he cast aside campaign manager Corey Lewandowski this week, but he still has to overcome a built-in disadvantage in the electoral map, staggeringly high unfavorable ratings, and a bitterly divided party. Sure Trump can win, but his improbable victory in the primaries doesn’t mean that people can’t survey the evidence and see that he has a steep hill to climb and a narrow path to navigate. Election day is a ways away, but Trump is going to need a lot of help to get there with any shot at the presidency.

Trump’s Pivotal Flop

The General Election Pivot has become something of a tradition in contemporary American politics, as the nominated candidates pirouette from gymnasiums of party activists to coliseums of swing state voters. Some candidates make the transition seamlessly after uncontested or skillfully moderated primaries, while others careen out of partisan free-for-alls to try to explain away the promises they made to their bases.

Donald Trump’s segue into the general election has been harder to comprehend, in part because there has been no such pivot. The Donald has yet to accept or adjust to the fact that the general election is a bigger, more diverse playing field than the GOP primary and seems to think he can continue to settle scores, brush aside skeptics, and exacerbate controversies without consequence. Perhaps his abysmal poll numbers will jar him back to political reality but, with less than five months until election day, it may already be too late.

Although his candidacy was dismissed from beginning to end by the punditry, Trump’s politics were a perfect fit for the 2016 GOP primary. In a crowded field with a number of well-qualified but ideologically similar candidates, Trump had the name, temperament, and high-wattage personality to dominate the media landscape at the expense of his rivals. With this haphazard legion of competitors, Trump could afford to lose two-thirds of the voters in some states and still win the primary. In New Hampshire, where he scored his first primary victory, there were four other candidates who received at least 10 percent of the vote, and a litany of stragglers and also-rans lagged behind them. Trump needed only 35 percent of the vote to win the state, and a week later he took South Carolina in similar fashion with just 33 percent.

This environment incentivized Trump’s belligerence, as the networks provided endless coverage, his rallies attracted massive crowds, and the GOP debates became a sort of weekly political Super Bowl. Also, with the need to moderate his positions eliminated by the divided nature of his opposition, Trump could afford to stand out with his aggressive and often repugnant rhetoric. Faced with doubts about his candidacy that persisted long after he had built a substantial delegate lead, Trump may have learned the lesson too well that his belligerence was good politics.

As the Republican Party grudgingly accepted this orange-hued reality TV star as their nominee, it seemed likely that his advisers or the Republican National Committee would impress upon him that the general election was a new ballgame that required some degree of moderation. Trump, however, perhaps imaging himself smarter-by-half than the political insiders who had long doubted his candidacy, has decidedly gone in the opposite  direction, unleashing a salvo of controversial statements, insults, and policy proposals that have made the awfulness of his candidacy abundantly clear to the party and public alike. Five months is an eternity in politics, but even if he reforms tomorrow these past five weeks will weigh heavily on his candidacy.

What is obvious at this point is that Trump is simply unable or unwilling to understand that he is now facing the entire country as a candidate. His incendiary attacks on immigrants may have been accepted in overwhelmingly white, low-turnout primaries in crimson red Republican states, but in an increasingly diverse country these sentiments are increasingly met with the scorn they deserve. While it is astonishing to see a candidate on this stage with so little awareness of the electorate he’s facing, Trump, having just turned 70, is unlikely to remake himself in the public eye over the next few months. Facing the election as if he’s trying to win a tabloid war instead of the presidency, Trump seems to think he can fight the Democrats, half his own party, the media, and still navigate a path to victory. Facing off against a candidate backed by a comparatively unified Democratic Party, Trump is unlikely to insult his way to the White House.

Five Theories on Bernie’s End Game

In the aftermath of a chaotic Nevada state convention and rhetoric from Bernie Sanders that belies his near-zero chance at securing the nomination, it’s hard to tell what the end game is for the Sanders campaign. Here are a few theories from one of America’s least relevant political blogs on what he’s after.

The Rick Astley  / Wistful Bernie Theory

In virtually every Bernie Sanders stump speech, he’ll take his listeners back to “when we started this campaign” and recall the single-digit poll numbers and equally low expectations from which he launched his presidential bid. Although Sanders never led in pledged delegates after the Nevada caucus on February 20th and never consistently led Clinton in national polls, there were plenty of moments in the campaign when it looked like the perpetual underdog surely had the momentum and, in the eyes of his supporters if not the pundits, a legitimate chance at securing the nomination.

Even when Clinton seemed about to close the door, for months Sanders was able to pry it open with timely wins that cast doubt on whether the race was really over. After the ups and downs of that ride and months of defying expectations, it has to be hard for Sanders to admit that the door may have really closed, particularly since, at 74 years old, this is likely his first and last bid at the White House. On top of that, there are millions of Sanders supporters who emphatically want him to take the race all the way to the convention, and Bernie might have political incentives to do just that. Also, the cheering crowds and continuing enthusiasm for Bernie makes it clear, particularly from the vantage point of the podium, that he still has a receptive audience for his message.

The Bernie Sanders Is Pissed and Now a Source of Nihilistic Rage Theory

Another feature in virtually every Sanders stump speech is his denunciation of The Establishment and a riff on the allegedly crooked process that has obstructed his path to the nomination. This is politically valuable in the sense that, in spite of substantial deficits in the delegate count and popular vote for much of the race, Sanders has been able to keep alive the idea that he is the true tribune of the people. However, just because this message helps Sanders’ political narrative doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. Oftentimes Sanders sounds legitimately embittered and convinced that he has been denied a fair shot at the nomination. Is it possible that he’s angry enough to widen the split in the Democratic Party in the name of ornery New England spite?

The cold water on this theory is the simple fact that Sanders is an astute politician who’s unlikely to throw away his political capital for a kamikaze attack on the Democratic Party. Also, a casual jaunt through grainy clips of Sanders speeches from years past leaves one with the blindingly obvious impression that Sanders has been angry at The Establishment for years, so this isn’t a new concept for him. Finally, Sanders has regularly said that any Democratic nominee is far better than a Republican in the White House, so he’s unlikely to undercut that to settle a personal grudge.

The Power of the Healer Theory

Perhaps the most compelling theory is that Sanders benefits politically from maintaining something of a gulf between his supporters and the Democratic Party. Had Sanders read the writing on the wall after his crushing loss in New York and decided  to march gently into the good night, the Democratic Party would be more unified today, but such a move would sharply diminish Sanders’ clout. He would have a good speaking slot at the convention and might be holding unity rallies with Clinton, but his ability to push the party left and influence its platform would be fading by the day. By keeping his campaign alive into June, Sanders maintains his influence and heightens his ability to extract concessions from the party. Also, to borrow from the last two theories, this enables him to stay on the trail and, if he’s so inclined, air a few grievances.

If this is indeed Sanders’ strategy, it’s a dangerous one for the Democrats since each day of party disunity benefits Donald Trump. However, Sanders is undoubtedly aware of Trump’s astronomically high unfavorable ratings, decades of incendiary quotes, and problematic relationships with nearly every demographic group the Census Bureau acknowledges. With what looks like a winnable race for Clinton, Sanders might feel he can afford to push her and the Democratic Party to the left for a few more weeks.

The Valley of the Polls Theory

One has to believe that, behind closed doors, Bernie is aware that his chances of winning are virtually non-existent. However, one argument he’s been making for months is that, because of his better poll numbers against Trump, superdelegates should read the political tea leaves and award him the nomination. Since that would involve a complete repudiation of the popular vote, this is highly unlikely to happen, and Bernie’s tenuous relationship with the Democratic Party makes this hail-mary effort even more of a long shot. Still, a mass defection of superdelegates is the only chance Sanders has at this point, so by delaying party unity and denying Clinton a bump in the polls as the party coalesces around her, Bernie keeps his negligible chances of winning on life support.

The this-won’t-happen-BUT-OH-MY-GOD-WHAT-IF-IT-DOES Theory

If Trump has astronomically high unfavorables right now, Hillary Clinton’s negatives are at least adrift in the stratosphere. Clinton’s profile is likely more fixable than Trump’s since many of her negative storylines are old news that has been in the papers since the previous century, while Trump on the other hand is about to face a level of scrutiny that far surpasses what he encountered during the primary or during earlier flirtations with higher office. On top of that, the Democrats will soon dust off their opposition research file on Trump, which surely rivals War & Peace in both length and narrative complexity. However, if Sanders has truly ventured into the political wilderness he might read into the unfavorable ratings of  the two presumptive nominees and see a narrow path to the nomination on the third party track. The chances of this, while infinitesimal, are just enough to sustain a paragraph of wild speculation.

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Despite the bitter conclusion to this year’s Democratic primary and Sanders’ obstinate refusal to yield to the cold realities of delegate math, Sanders has repeatedly indicated that he will support the Democratic nominee. While it remains to be seen whether he will be an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton (as she was of Obama in 2008) or a lukewarm endorser (in the mold of Ted Kennedy in 1980), the  most likely outcome is that Sanders will endorse Hillary and muster a reasonable level of enthusiasm while seeking to capitalize on his newfound profile. Whether he does that in the Senate or attempts to sustain the movement he spearheaded in less traditional ways will be interesting to watch, but he is surely ready to serve as an antagonist to whoever is elected to the White House.

Bernie Sanders’ Southern Whitewash

The Sunday before the raucous Democratic  debate in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos to discuss the race and his conviction that he is the better general election candidate than Hillary Clinton. As he was channeling his inner Bob Dole to make the point that “Bernie Sanders is the stronger candidate,” Stephanopoulos interjected to point out that Clinton is getting more votes than him. Sanders paused briefly before brushing off the point by saying “Well, she’s getting more votes. A lot of that came from the South.”

On its surface, this seems like a curious retort. In a national primary, it doesn’t matter which region a candidates’ support comes from; all that matters is how many votes and delegates they win. Sanders, however, followed up on this line of thinking in the debate four days later, saying that the South is “the most conservative part of this great country”  before downplaying Clinton’s large margins there. While minimizing your opponent’s victories is no political novelty, there are two problems with this argument. The first is that it is completely misleading; the conservative voters Sanders is alluding to are not voting in a Democratic primary. The second is that he’s diminishing the vote of black Southerners, the most historically disenfranchised group of voters in the country.

Contrary to the talking points of Sanders and his surrogates, the voters who turn out in the southern primaries are not conservative representatives of the “Old South.” In the Mississippi primary, 71 percent of voters were black, and African-Americans also accounted for the majority of voters in the Alabama, Georgia ,and Louisiana contests. In every southern primary, the share of black voters participating is substantially higher than their overall share of the population, and in all these states Clinton won at least 80% of their vote.

Sanders is surely aware that these primaries are dominated by black voters, particularly since his campaign essentially ceded most of them to Clinton due to his poor poll numbers with that group. It’s unlikely of course that Sanders, who was a civil rights organizer, is attempting to sound the alarm about black voters. Instead, he’s trying to capitalize on more general cultural prejudices about the south. Given the crimson red conservatism of many southern states, voters naturally assume that their primaries would reflect that to some degree and Sanders is likely trying to evoke the image of Confederate-clad Southern conservatives marching to the polls in support of Clinton. Unsurprisingly, a quick a look at the exit polls shows that Sanders did far better with southern whites than he did with minority voters. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it belies his disingenuous insinuation that Clinton is winning the south because of its conservative bent. Perhaps Sanders should focus on broadening his coalition instead of diminishing voters who aren’t supporting him.

Flint: Then and Now

In Flint, Michigan, a city of 100,000 people that happens to be located in the richest country on Earth, residents turning on their taps for a glass of water may well get a glass of hazardous waste. The city recently announced, after a steady stream of complaints from residents, that the water being provided by the city and paid for by its residents was contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead. This latest calamity strikes another blow at a city that has long endured unemployment, pollution, public and private discrimination, and a host of other problems

Flint, of course, was not always a city awash in leaded water and red ink. Formerly a prosperous industrial town, the city has famously fallen on hard times as it has struggled with closing factories and a diminishing tax base. As part of its ongoing to efforts to right its financial status, the city decided to begin drawing water from the Flint River instead of purchasing it from Detroit. This move was projected to save the city $19 million over eight years. The rest of the story has been well reported – deteriorating infrastructure and a failure to properly treat the water led to thousands of children being poisoned by lead and may have also contributed to an outbreak of Legionnaires disease that killed ten people. This is Flint in 2016.

Were one to dive back into Flint’s history, however, a striking contrast could be drawn between past and present water problems. In the 1950s and 60s, as the mostly white suburbs of Flint boomed, the infrastructure of these areas was often ill equipped to handle the massive influx of new residents. The town of Flushing, a suburb roughly six miles outside the city, suffered a complete shutdown of its water system in 1954 as a growing population rapidly depleted its water sources. These problems were met with bond issues, revenue increases, and, importantly, federal assistance. As Andrew Highsmith writes in a recent book about the rise and fall of Flint, “[w]ithout fail, these projects drew financial and political support from the Federal Housing Administration and other government agencies.”

Although a lot has changed since the federal and state government were aggressively funding improvements in water systems, it’s striking and tragic to consider the gap between then and now. When suburbs were rapidly expanding in the 1950s, the government was eager to underwrite the growth of these communities. Today, with the city in dire financial straits and deficit hawks in Congress reluctant to provide funding for anything but the most basic federal services, the city is in the midst of a devastating and hugely expensive public health crisis – all to save $19 million.

The Fading Revolution

Since his New Hampshire victory, Bernie Sanders has slowly faded as a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton and regressed to the role of a beloved but unlikely candidate for the nomination. As Clinton has piled up endorsements from superdelegates and alternated between shaky and convincing victories, there has been no small amount of indignation from Sanders’ supporters over the various injustices and conspiracies that have detoured his path to the nomination. There have been many grievances aired on social media over a variety of issues, from the kerfuffle over coin flips in Iowa to the complaints about the “undemocratic” nature of the primary (see delegates, super) to the apparently serious suggestion that The Onion, having been bought by a company owned by a major Hillary supporter, was now a pro-Hillary outlet.

It’s not unusual for the supporters of a candidate to complain about the process or perceived wrongs committed against their steed. In this case, however, they ignore a fairly obvious point, which is that Sanders actually was in a position to challenge and even win the nomination. Although Hillary may have gotten some breaks along the way, more endorsements, and a friendly story in The Onion, none of that should take away from the fact that the nomination is slipping away from Sanders not because it’s being stolen, but because of the simplest possible reason: he isn’t winning enough votes.

Before and after his convincing New Hampshire win, Sanders had chances to win critical states and feed the innate media desire for a hotly contested primary. His 0.3 percent loss in Iowa, though insignificant in terms of delegates, denied him bragging rights for winning the first two states. After New Hampshire, Sanders had a winnable contest in Nevada, where the final Real Clear Politics polling average had Clinton up by 2.4 points, but Clinton more than doubled that margin before absolutely crushing Sanders a week later in South Carolina. By the time results came in on Super Tuesday, it was clear that Sanders, despite a few wins that night, had stalled on his narrow path to the nomination. Sanders has won three of the past four states since then, but Clinton won the biggest delegate prize of the group by taking Louisiana.

As the delegate math has gradually made Sanders’ nomination less likely, many liberal voters and writers have turned their ire on the system. The New York Daily News, Huffington Post, and other liberal outlets have carried stories on the “rigged” Democratic primary process, while a MoveOn petition decrying the role of superdelegates has collected nearly 200,000 signatures.

This narrative of woe ignores the fact Sanders isn’t winning the popular vote. In states that have voted or caucused so far, Clinton has won 4.2 million votes, compared to 2.7 million for Sanders (excluding Iowa, which doesn’t release raw vote totals for its caucus). This is hardly an insignificant margin. On top of that, despite winning 61.1% of votes cast, Clinton has actually only claimed 58.5% of the pledged delegates (which are delegates allocated based on vote/caucus totals). There’s no conspiracy behind this statistical quirk, but it certainly belies the notion that Sanders is being cheated when he’s losing the popular vote and receiving delegates at a slightly higher proportion than his opponent. Far from being an aggrieved underdog, Sanders is a formidable opponent who’s raised tremendous amounts  of money, run a great campaign, but simply isn’t beating Clinton at the ballot box.

As for the superdelegates who currently account for most of Clinton’s massive lead in delegates, it should be remembered that a primary election is a party function, not an election for public office, and it can be carried out however those in the party deem fit. In the past, the process was almost entirely dictated by party insiders and, after years of complaints, both parties have moved to comparatively democratic systems. However, in the Democratic process, party insiders still obviously maintain a certain a degree of influence. That said, if Sanders was winning state after state, it is unlikely that they would be able to deny him the nomination. Hillary Clinton tried to use superdelegates to eke past Obama in 2008 but failed due to his popularity at the voting booth. It should also be remembered that, for all the grumbling about the system, there are reasons to leave a role for party heavyweights. The Republican Party right now surely wishes it had a firewall of superdelegates capable of impeding Donald Trump’s belligerent march to the nomination (as FiveThirtyEight noted today).

The most critical impetus for Sanders deflating nomination is the fact that he hasn’t won over critical groups in the Democratic coalition, most notably African-American voters. While it may be frustrating to his supporters that the former Civil Rights activist is losing the black vote to a woman who many associate with mass incarceration, for whatever reason Sanders has simply been unable to gain much traction in states that aren’t overwhelmingly white. There’s no trickery behind the huge margins of victory in South Carolina and elsewhere. The Democratic electorate, for now at least, is simply saying to Sanders, “You don’t have the votes.” It’s a message he was going to hear one day or another, either during the election or from Paul Ryan on his first day in the White House.