Not-so-awesome people


The first Democratic primary debates are tonight, and in the midst of a very very crowded field it’s worth asking: beyond “anyone who will win,” who are the stronger candidates and why? I want to focus particularly on the second aspect of that question: why are we drawn to certain candidates? In that context, I’d argue that we – as in, the electorate, when determining what candidate to vote for – focus too much on personality and not nearly enough on executive/administrative skill.

In any election, people typically can choose between an incumbent and a number of challengers. When it comes to the Democratic candidates for 2020, we’re only looking at challengers. People often take the present state of the economy or their overall living situation when considering the incumbent – blaming or passing the President in office, rightly or wrongly, for their current standard of living. But with only challengers in the field, I’d say that people are drawn to specific candidates for some combination of personality and policy.

The appeal of personality

The first one, personality, is the most significant, even for many policy wonks who’d like to think they are immune to it. Under the bucket of personality, I’d put things like how relatable a candidate is, trust, scandals, etc. Consider Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton. There were some meaningful policy differences between the two of them in 2008 – especially when it comes to foreign policy – but people fell in love with Obama because of what his personality represented. Were Obama’s policies all that much different than a John Kerry, Joe Biden, or Lincoln Chaffee? Obama was not a once-in-a-generation political talent because he somehow whipped up a portfolio of mind-blowing policies that no one had ever thought of. In fact, there was notably a huge overlap between the economic advisors during the Bill Clinton administration and Obama’s. Nor did people fall in love with Obama because of his incredible experience. He had spent a little time as a state legislator in Illinois and a couple years in the Senate before he ran for President. He was criticized during his 2008 run for having had little more career experience than “community organizer” under his belt.

With the obvious caveat that Donald Trump and Barack Obama are complete opposites in almost every meaningful way, one could argue that much of Obama’s initial appeal/criticism came from the same root of human motives as those for Donald Trump. I think people fell in love with Obama because he represented the America they aspired to have: he was the hope candidate, a multiracial cosmopolitan law professor who would bring back technocratic thinking to the Presidency after George Bush and project tolerant liberal values abroad. But to his critics, he was an out-of-touch elitist who was “weak” and had never experienced the real world. As one of my friends put it, there were a lot of people who loved or hated Obama for the same reason: he was a cool black guy.

The disdain for Trump goes deep and for many reasons. But I find his supporters are much more drawn to what his personality represents to them than any of his actual policies. The flip flops of Republican voters on policy preferences during his Presidency are noted and remarkable. Farewell to support for free trade, cutting deficits, or any semblance of free markets and individual liberty. Hypocrisy of elected officials aside, I think what drew Republican voters to him was the idea that he – believe it or not – represented the kind of dude they want in the White House. The same reasons that his critics can’t stand his personality – toxic masculinity combined with a desire to reject all technocratic advice and unashamedly bulldoze through anything close to norms – are the reasons his supporters love him. Trump is an alpha male. He cheats on his wife with porn stars. He says racist things – or “politically incorrect” depending on your viewpoint – unapologetically. He likes big strong tough American things like steel, coal, and #business.

When I think about which of the Democratic candidates I am drawn to, I must admit I fall into a similar framework of seeking out a candidate’s “vibe” more than anything else. As Ezra Klein spelled out in a couple podcast episodes he did, Democrats love the idea of “the professor” or the “educated multicultural person.” They’re itching to have an academic back in the White House so that reality can be as close to the West Wing as possible (something Emily VanDerWerff has also described in a podcast episode). When I look at the 23 (24? 25?) candidates vying for the nomination, many of their policies blend together. Yes, there’s a substantial difference between a Joe Biden and a Bernie Sanders. But what about between a Corey Booker or a Kamala Harris?

The reality is that we judge the value of these candidacies by their personality, their “vibe.” Ezra also point out in his interview with Pete Buttigieg how Mayor Pete seemed to strike at the heart of the West Wing-minded people of the Democratic party. The guy learned Norwegian so he could read a book he liked, for heaven’s sake. Outside of Biden and Sanders (and potentially Warren), few candidates have enough name recognition to really have convinced the electorate of their meaningful differences. Because of this, Kamala Harris is “the Senator who badgered Kavanaugh but also used to be an overzealous attorney.” Amy Klobuchar is “the nice Senator from Minnesota who throws her binders at staffers.” So which vibe do people most relate to? Which person do you see as someone you’d love to have represent you and America abroad?

My gut reaction – after of course “whoever will beat Trump” – is towards Buttigieg. I can’t give you firm answers about questions regarding his policies, his young age, or that he’s never been elected to statewide of Federal office. He just seems to have that vibe that I like. He was a Rhodes Scholar, he’s a midwesterner, and he spontaneously played a Spoon song on piano. I recognize that even as someone who loves reading about policy nuances and claims to value “substance” entirely over “style,” I still make my choice in a crowded field towards the guy whose #vibe I like the most.

Now maybe personality at some point manifests itself into actual substance. Could Obama’s likability have been a strategic asset abroad? Is Trump’s unpredictability and toughness actually going to get countries to the negotiating table? It’s possible, but it still needs to be put into the context of everything else.

Where is the place for policy?

As a generalization, the parties’ constituents and representatives can be divided into their “moderate”/”establishment” sections and their “populist” wings. Trump is the rightwing populist, maybe a Mitt Romney is the establishment Republican, Biden is the establishment Democrat, and Bernie is the populist lefty. There are definitely differences in the policies of Biden versus Bernie. In fact, even between Warren and Sanders – both people I would consider as being a part of the left-populist group – there are big policy differences. I think many primary voters will keep these in mind, but only as far as it extends to how it feeds into the personality/vibe. Warren and Sanders both want to burn the place down and take out Wall Street. Biden and Harris want to tinker with the 2015 system rather than throw out the baby with the bath water. There are policy-lovers that will look at specific policies once the crowded field narrows, but I still think that for the vast majority of the general primary voting population, personality wins out.

In the current state of affairs, it’s worth pondering how much policy preferences will matter, and in what ways. Obamacare passed with 60 Democrats in the Senate and is still being challenged legally in the courts. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think the ACA changed the previous system all that much compared to current 2020 proposals and still it is constantly being challenged. With Mitch McConnell running the Senate, or at the very best Democrats having a majority that doesn’t reach 60 votes, not many if any of the Democratic dream legislation will have a chance at passing.

Proposing Medicare for All or a Green New Deal may not pass now, but maybe it will shift the Overton window? Republican voters have suggested openness to expanding the social safety net, contingent on its branding. Could it be that entering these proposals into the national discussion will in itself advance their likelihood of passing down the line? I don’t discount it totally, but there’s so much uncertainty with that line of thinking. And blowback effects seem just as likely for radical legislation that could actually be counter-productive.

There are aspects where Presidential policy differences do matter of course, outside of Congressional representation. The Executive branch has huge control over regulation, as we have seen with Trump. As the arbiter of enforcing laws, the President can effectively choose how hard they will uphold the laws that Congress has passed. Where does each candidate stand on financial, environmental, and commercial regulation? Furthermore, the President appears to be able to unilaterally dictate foreign policy under the status quo. The differences on foreign policy between the primary candidates should thus be taken much more seriously. But with economic issues at the forefront, the only buzz I’m getting from many Democrats about foreign policy is “not as aggressive as Trump, and don’t be friends with North Korean dictators.”

Executive/administrative skill

The aspect of a candidacy that I don’t think gets nearly enough attention is the administrative skill level. There was some appeal to Trump for his supposed business acumen, but people don’t seem to take into account enough the fact that the President is the head of an Executive branch that employs millions of people. In fact one of Trump’s biggest incompetencies is his ability to effectively administrate all of those who technically report to him. His incompetence seems to be a blessing disguise for many of his critics, as his most disastrous policies often hit roadblocks and aren’t enacted because he’s so bad at the chain of command. This is where someone like Hillary Clinton would have really been exceptional. Her experience would have given her an unprecedented ability to manage the bureaucratic machine that makes up the Executive Branch. I also think that Obama was caught flat-footed in his first term, though eventually found his way in his second term very effectively.

Being President is tough and the oft-spoken cliche is that everyone has no experience being President until they’re elected. But there are also people who are quicker to learn and are quicker to apply their executive experience to the role. Governors – maybe mayors? – or people who have had executive experience are thus undervalued to me. Or at least trying to find out what their executive skills would be. Can you see Bernie being able to manage millions of people? I can see him coming up with a cohesive political philosophy and inspiring lots of people, but I can’t see him pulling the strings to get things done. Elizabeth Warren? Much more so. It’s hard to tell (for non-incumbents) how people will perform in this regard before they actually become President. But not enough voters/commentators are even asking the question.

495 days

As I write this, there are 495 days until the 2020 Presidential general election. The Democratic nominee will be decided 6 or so months before then. I’m eager to see how the debates and ensuing campaigning change my view of which candidates to favor. As the field narrows, I think the differences in policy, demeanor, and executive capabilities will become more clear. Until then, I’ll admittedly be over-relying on the perceived personalities of the candidates to make my evaluations.

It’s hard to imagine a left-wing version of Trump. And for Trump’s detractors, it’s even more difficult to imagine lefties ever compromising their values the way conservatives have to support Trump. But maybe it’s not as farfetched as you think, and the case of Rod Blagojevich in Illinois proves it.

Trump has diverged from the Paul Ryan-rhetoric of the Republican party when it comes to inclusivity, trade, immigration, and entitlement reform. At some point, it’s worth considering what Republicans are even supporting when they support Trump if not just “my team is better than your team” tribalism. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans put up with all of Trump’s incompetence, corruption, and vulgarity for “Gorsuch and tax cuts.” So, at the end of the day, they’ll look past all of Trump’s imperfections because he gave them a conservative – specifically a pro-life – Supreme Court pick and a tax cut that was promoted as being a prudent supply-side boost.

Maybe there is a model for this type of left-wing forgiveness too. First elected in 2002, Rod Blagojevich was the Democratic Governor of Illinois until he was impeached in 2008. He won re-election in 2006 while publicly being under numerous Federal investigations and being exceptionally incompetent. He beat state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka by 11% with a 36% approval rating versus 56% disapproval rating (sound familiar?!). Through the re-election campaign and while he was later on trial for selling Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder, Illinois Democrats engaged in what they hopefully see now as embarrassing oversight of Blagojevich’s transgressions because he was able to deliver on some key progressive promises like death penalty reform and expanded healthcare for children.

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Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in prison

In retrospect, Blago was unbelievably corrupt, incompetent, and divorced from reality. One story from his deputy Governor claims that he would hide in the bathroom when confronted with tough budgetary decisions, like an 8-year old thinking they can avoid a math test by just pretending it doesn’t exist. Even after being caught on tape selling the vacant Senate seat, Blagojevich allegedly still had plans for an eventual Presidential run. The only parallel to total shamelessness and ignorance of reality I can think of is the man who sits inside the Oval Office now.

So how could Illinoisans still vote for him, even with so much obvious idiocy and corruption as of the 2006 re-election campaign? Well if Trump supporters’ motto is “Gorsuch and Tax Cuts,” the Blago equivalent could be “Child Healthcare and Gun Control.” Anecdotally, I remember talking to people defending Blagojevich because of his increase in child healthcare coverage and engaging in different forms of “Well, he might not be perfect but Topinka…” Yes, the same justification for Trump voters doing anything to not vote for Hillary. In a Presidential nominee, Democrats’ justification would likely be “Pro-choice nominee and single-payer.” Voting for a Blago that would give liberals those two things is an entirely plausible alternative to voting for a Lindsey Graham-type Republican candidate that would scrap Obamacare and nominate a pro-life SCOTUS judge.

It’s hard to imagine who exactly would embody a left-wing version of Trump. Seth Stevenson wrote a while back at Slate about how Sean Penn could be this figure. His piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll just summarize it by saying a left-wing personification of Trump and Democrats voting one in is not all that difficult to imagine.

Here’s a piece I wrote for a recent Cato intern op-ed writing contest:

“You are either with us or with the terrorists,” uttered President Bush in a Congressional address in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, offering the most infamous political false choice of the last decade.  Although this implied ultimatum was aimed at other nations, in the ensuing public discourse it turned into a rhetorical cudgel with which pro-war politicians and pundits beat anyone who dared question the neo-conservative conventional wisdom on national security policy.

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, an influential advisor to the Bush administration, was a particularly loud voice in the post-9/11 neoconservative noise machine, writing columns with titles like “Strike Sooner Than Later”.  It’s ironic, then, that Gingrich and other prominently hawkish conservatives recently seem to be doing all they can to further Osama Bin Laden’s war against the West.

Gingrich recently penned an essay explaining his opposition to the construction of a mosque a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City.  Gingrich writes, “There should be no mosque in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.  The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.”

Put aside for a moment the troubling fact that one of the leading voices of modern conservatism believes that the United States should forsake its proud tradition of religious tolerance and instead mimic Saudi Arabia, a nation that is notorious for its oppressive Islamic monarchy.  What is most alarming about the recent spate of conservative Muslim bashing is that it plays right into the narrative that Bin Laden and other Taliban leaders have constructed.

In a speech several months after 9/11, Bin Laden declared, “It has become clear that the West in general and America in particular have an unspeakable hatred for Islam.”  Just last June, Bin Laden updated his message for the Obama presidency by claiming, “Obama has walked like his predecessors in increasing hostility towards Muslims.”

It was ridiculous when President Bush tried to explain the motivation behind the 9/11 attacks as stemming from the fact that “they hate our freedom.”  People don’t blow themselves up in the name of opposing freedom.  To be driven to such extreme actions, someone must feel deeply threatened.  It is obvious, then, why Bin Laden is attempting to frame the conflict between radical Islamic terrorist groups and the democratic West as a religious war.  The best way to increase Taliban support among Muslims is to show not that the United States and its allies are modern and free, but rather that they stand against Islam itself.

A significant obstacle to Bin Laden’s narrative is the central role that religious tolerance plays in America’s heritage.  It is difficult to understand how the United States could be conceived of as hostile to Muslims as a people when the first line in the Bill of Rights says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Fortunately for Bin Laden, Gingrich, Sarah Palin, New York Congressman Peter King, the staff of the Weekly Standard, and others have been doing all they can to undermine this foundational American principle and provide the anti-Muslim fodder that Bin Laden needs to further his cause.  In a follow up to his original essay against the Ground Zero mosque, Gingrich wrote, “One of our biggest mistakes in the aftermath of 9/11 was naming our response to the attacks ‘the war on terror’ instead of accurately identifying radical Islamists (and the underlying ideology of radical Islamism) as the target of our campaign.”

This statement is not only repugnant to anyone who cares about the values upon which the United States was founded; it also threatens American national security in a direct and obvious way.  As Bin Laden tries to frame the conflict between backward terrorists and western democracy as a war of Islam versus anti-Muslim infidels, a significant faction of the American Right is actively helping him.  If the War on Terror really demands a choice between standing with America or with the terrorists, then Gingrich and his ideological allies need to think long and hard about which side they’re fighting for.

Occasionally, I become deluded enough to forget the side of some Republicans that is homophobic, racist, creationist, and generally backwards-thinking. I forget how repulsed I am by this behavior and occasionally consider myself a Republican. At least in theory, the Republican Party supports limited government, federalism, and economic liberty. But sometimes I need to be reminded why I should never call myself a Republican.

At CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) this year, Alexander McCobin, head of Students for Liberty and generally cool guy, said in the context of gay rights:

…students today recognize that freedom does not come in pieces.  Freedom is a single thing that applies to the social as well as the economic realms and should be defended at all times.

Subtle boos – by what I hope is becoming a quickly decreasing demographic in the conservative movement – were overshadowed by cheers and applause. Then Ryan Sorba, author of a book called The Born Gay Hoax said

I’d like to condemn CPAC for bringing GOPride [sic] to this event. Civil rights are grounded in natural rights. Natural rights are grounded in human nature. Human nature is a rational substance in relationship to the intelligible end of the reproductive act of reproduction. Do you understand that?

Thankfully, Sorba was met with loud jeering. It made me happy to see that the conservative movement was, at least in this one instance, full of fewer homophobic supporters than true liberty defenders. The world (and the Republican party, if they feel like winning some elections) needs more Alexander McCobin’s and fewer Ryan Sorba’s.

I also think that this instance represents an interesting demographic shift between generations. Ryan Sorba doesn’t look that old, so I wouldn’t say that he’s a completely different generation than mine (aka around college age). But as I’ve briefly blogged about before, gay rights seems to be an issue that young people in general are much more supportive of than their parents.

Watch McCobin’s speech and Sorba’s weak-sauce reply:

No, not really.

But in light of Obama’s recent troop increase, it doesn’t sound that implausible. Obama is sending 30,000 more troops to fight the war in Afghanistan. Forget what one thinks about the legitimacy of said war, just think instead what would have happened if Bush had done this. Everybody left of center would be up in arms (they were). Bush is hated by all of the world, Obama wins the Peace Prize. Such a fact proves, I think, how most people judge politicians not on their actual policy actions but merely on their personality and party platform.

Don’t believe me? Take this fact: Bush gave more aid in terms of money to Africa than any other President in American history. Throughout his two terms, did Republicans criticize him for all of this superfluous spending that was essentially international welfare? No. Did Democrats praise him for his efforts? No. Why? The only reason I can think of is that both sides already had made up their minds about Bush, no matter what he did. Republicans decided they’d trumpet him as a fiscal conservative – which he wasn’t – and Democrats would paint him as an unsympathetic prick.

I always find myself in an awkward position when I am defending Bush in any context. I really dislike(d) the guy’s policies. But the inconsistency of most of the population regarding his actions is laughable. Bush was more liberal than a lot of Democrats in terms of immigration, he increased federal spending on education an absurd amount, spent more on the arts than any other President, and except for tax cuts, wasn’t really a fiscal conservative. But most progressives, when asked for a synopsis of the man’s Presidency, will probably give a formulaic regurgitation showing a southern oil man who cares about nobody but the rich. Then you tell them about how he’s relatively liberal on immigration. Or how that social security privatization idea that sounds good them was pushed by, uh, him.

Bush should not get the Noble Peace Prize. Ever. But sometimes it’s important to judge Obama with the same critical lens that we viewed Bush through for 8 years.

Economies are complex systems, so actions that individuals, and especially governments, take often have unforeseen effects.  Here is Air America reporting on recent credit card reforms in Australia:

In 2003, after years of lobbying from merchants, the Australian central bank cut Visa and MasterCard’s interchange fees in half. Those lower fees cost the credit card giants about 1 billion Australian dollars.

But banks and credit card companies are famous for their ability to find new revenue streams, and soon they turned to consumers to make up the difference. Australian banks cut credit card perks and shrunk rewards programs, like frequent-flier miles. They ramped up interest charges and raised annual fees.

The new law passed Down Under also made it possible for merchants to impose surcharges on transactions made with a credit card and even though their interchange fees had been cut in half, many Australian companies began do to just that. In some cases, these new fees exceeded the old ones.

It would be great if the US Congress would study the Australian example as it considers passing additional reforms to supplement the CARD act from last spring.  I hope that we can at least avoid the brain dead economic free-lunchism  of an interest rate cap, which is unfortunately but unsurprisingly being pushed by my own state’s junior senator, Bernie Sanders, who has proudly been ignoring basic economics ever since the people of Burlington were foolish enough to elect him mayor in 1981.

  • Arianna Huffington: Is current high unemployment Obama’s Katrina?
  • Gary Becker on China’s decisions regarding its currency.
  • Youtube: The future of the Republican Party (hopefully not, for everyone’s sake).
  • Steve Chapman: Chicago politicians’ hypocrisy on guns.
  • David Rogers: War should be ‘Pay as You Fight’.
  • Paul Krugman: Stop worrying about the deficit.
  • Ian Ayres: California’s Tuition hikes might not be so bad after all.

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