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 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.

Why is Hillary Running?

It is a frequently preached political mantra that the first thing a candidate has to do is let everyone know why they are running. Bernie Sanders is running for president to reduce income inequality, and Donald Trump is running to cut deals that will “make America great again”. Ted Cruz is running to promote conservative (but not necessarily Republican) values, and Bobby Jindal is running with the desperate hope that someone will notice his feeble attempt at the presidency. But why is Hillary Clinton in the race? Though she has certainly answered this question many times, it’s still hard to settle on a single answer.

For now, the best answer seems to be that Clinton is running to be the champion of working America. Whether voicing her commitment to “make the economy work for everyday Americans” or for “nurses who work the night shift”, she used some variant of the word “work” or “worker” 35 times in her rollout speech. However, as with previous editions of Hillary Clinton, voters may have trouble relating to her identity as a working class defender.

Although Clinton’s record is fairly liberal as a whole, her most recent job was secretary of state, and she spent most of the 2008 campaign selling the idea that she was “tough and experienced.” The most famous moment of her Senate tenure, particularly for Democratic primary voters, was her vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution, and during her eight years there she was known more as a pragmatist than a champion of the working class.  It could be accurately pointed out that this abbreviated narrative of Clinton’s political career leaves out a range of impressive liberal accomplishments. However, as someone who’s been out of public office since 2013 and had limited influence on domestic affairs since her departure from the Senate years ago, the best known moments of her recent political career don’t lend themselves to this picture of her as a fighter for the middle-class.

On top of this, there’s the additional problem of “Clinton Inc.”, the expansive political and financial empire built by the country’s preeminent power couple. Clinton is a former secretary of state, senator, and first lady whose husband served five terms as a governor and two as president. She’s been a nationally known figure for over two decades and, since Bill left the White House, the couple has amassed a considerable fortune, much of it from speaking fees paid by major corporations. The amount of money Hillary Clinton has charged for single speeches (her highest fee was $335,000) is actually slightly more than Bernie Sanders’ entire net worth (estimated at $330,000). Impressive as her political and professional career has been, voters may not easily see a working class hero in a woman who has a personal net worth that exceeds $30 million and can earn the annual salary of 20 fast-food employees with an hour-long speech.

Related to the problems posed by Clinton Inc. is the difficulty in crafting a new identify for someone who has been in the public eye for decades. Millions of voters had their first impression of Hillary Clinton during the 1992 election, and it’s difficult to build a campaign message tailored to the present with someone who’s been a public figure for so long. Despite her tremendous early advantage in the 2008 race, her message of strength and competence was a poor fit in an election defined by Bush fatigue, economic upheaval, and a desire for change that Barack Obama clearly harnessed. However, her lengthy tenure in the spotlight prevented her from making an argument that she was a “change candidate.” Seven years later, with income inequality as a major issue, Clinton’s progressive/populist rhetoric may ring a bit hollow, particularly given her highly lucrative tour of the corporate speaking circuit. Unlike other candidates who are relatively unknown on the national stage, Clinton’s ability to reinvent herself is constrained by the past.

It hasn’t helped matters that Clinton has often played the part of the out-to-touch elitist with her campaign missteps, such as the widely-mocked assertion that her and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House, or her casual comment that she hasn’t driven a car in over 20 years. Although these are relatively minor gaffes in the grand scheme of a presidential campaign, they also send the signal to voters that she may have trouble relating to their concerns. After all, how does someone who’s been chauffeured everywhere since the mid-90s understand the dread of seeing the check engine light come on? Recall George H.W. Bush’s alleged struggles with a supermarket scanner and inability to say how much a gallon of milk cost. While scanners and milk prices may not have been leading issues in the 1992 election, Bush contributed to the perception of him as an out-of-touch patrician, and sharpened the contrast between him and his much younger and more affable opponent.

This isn’t to say that Clinton can’t craft a winning message or build a compelling campaign narrative in the months ahead. If she secures the nomination, she may emerge as the default working-class candidate if the tumultuous GOP primary yields a Republican candidate who follows in the footsteps of plutocratic forbears such as Mitt Romney. However, the endless and exhausting scandal over her email server, minor but persistent political missteps, and the rise of Sanders mean Clinton has to answer the question of why she’s running with something more compelling and authentic than poll-tested platitudes about “helping working families”. Why is Hillary Clinton running? She may know, but voters don’t.