Although the midterm election is almost upon us, many pundits have already begun to look towards the 2020 election. Correspondingly, something of a cottage industry has developed around earnest warnings that Donald Trump is in a good position to get reelected in 2020. These warnings are better understood as conservative talking points, or pundits enjoying sparking debate, rather than rigorous political analysis. While it is extremely unlikely that 2020 will be a Democratic landslide, the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be, will likely be in a much stronger position that these warnings indicate.
The scope and unprecedented nature of this development has raised challenges for both parties. It is clear now that President Obama should have risked accusations of playing politics and more aggressively drawn attention to Russia’s hacking in October when the intelligence agencies became more certain that Russia was, indeed, doing the hacking. The Republicans, with a few exceptions, have made the mistake of simply denying the findings of the intelligence agencies and of supporting Donald Trump, the beneficiary of this hacking, as he tries to distract and bully his way out of this scandal. For both parties, and all Americans, the question of what to do now is not an easy one to answer.
The truth is that the Democrats continued to reach out to white working class voters, and to offer policies aimed at helping them, long after these voters abandoned the Democratic Party. What the Democratic Party did not do, is walk away from their, admittedly sometimes inadequate, commitment to civil rights for people of color, women and LGBT voters. Those commitments, and the willingness of an increasingly emboldened Republican Party to exploit hatred and fear at every turn, are what has cost the Democrats white working class votes.
Pence and Kaine debating each other will, on substance, look no different than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, but also of Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan in 1984, but it seems pretty clear that by the time the 2020 election rolls around, this partisan dynamic will have changed. Trump’s campaign has demonstrated that the GOP can no longer assume working class whites will vote for their economic royalist policies, while the Democratic primary made it clear that younger Democrats are no longer content with the incrementalism with which the Clintons have defined the Democratic Party for more than a generation. It is not clear what the next iteration of the American political party system will look like. The GOP might look very different after a Trump defeat or victory. It is also possible, although much less likely, that an opening will be created for a new party, but it is very hard to imagine the system returning to what it has looked like for the last 30 years.
The desire to portray Donald Trump’s campaign as more of an outlier than it actually is partially grows out of a legitimate bewilderment on the part of the media and others both at Trump’s behavior and at how well he has been doing in this election. However, it is also misleading and understates not the degree of racial polarization in this election, but the degree of racial polarization that has characterized American political life, and partisan politics, for decades now. Trump is a racist who has placed intolerance and bigotry at the center of his campaign in a way that is unique in modern times, but he would not have been able to succeed in this endeavor if the Republican Party had been a more pluralist and diverse institution for the last few decades. Moreover, the similarities between this and previous elections, while perhaps not consistent with more interesting election year narratives, demonstrate the enduring strength of our two party system and how difficult it is, even for a candidate like Trump, to disrupt it.
The failure of most of the Democratic leadership to take equally bold positions and point out the racism in Ferguson and disappointing brings with it the same feeling of deja vu as the shooting of Michael Brown does. For at least the last two decades, the Democratic Party has been defined both by being party of African American and an extraordinary timidity when it comes to speaking out about racism. In this regard, the relative silence of both Obama and Clinton is not surprising and is unfortunately exactly what is expected. Our inability to recognize and discuss racism is one of the things that ensures the survival of that racism, and the likelihood that there will be more Michael Browns, more Fergusons and more politicians avoiding taking tough, and perhaps unpopular, positions.
As Obama's presidency winds down, one of the stranger stories to emerge has been the impeachment, or more accurately the Republicans threatening impeachment but not really meaning it, saga. Impeaching a president is difficult as it requires a vote by the House of Representatives followed by a trial and vote by the Senate. Two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been impeached. Neither were convicted by the senate. As long as the Democrats retain control of the senate, or have close to fifty votes there, it is almost certain that efforts to impeach Obama would lead to the same result.
The letter was an extraordinary brew of mean-spiritedness, cruelty, insensitivity, arrogance and egotism. The most quoted line from that letter, written by a man singularly incapable of empathy was "your dead kids don't trump my constitutional rights." That line is painful to read and probably makes many people angry with Joe the Plumber. The extraordinary chutzpah required to write something like that to a total stranger who has just lost a child and does not care about your opinion notwithstanding, the worst thing about that line is that it is essentially the official position of the US government.
Did the Obama administration make a grievous mistake in swapping prisoners for the release of US solider Bowe Bergdahl? Yes, no, maybe, I don't know, who really cares? All of these answers are, in one respect or another true. The Bergdahl controversy is almost a caricature of American political discourse in the Obama era with both sides taking strong and outspoken positions based simply on whether or not they like the President, fighting in the media over something that is not very important, and making sure that the public bickering obscures more significant government decisions and policies.
The news that a large ice shelf in Antarctica has begun to collapse may not be as important as Karl Rove's opinion of Hillary Clinton's glasses, or Timothy Geithner's descriptions of the early years of Barack Obama's presidency, but it should still not be ignored entirely. Although there are still some, including unfortunately powerful government officials like Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl), who do not recognize the import, or indeed reality, of global climate change, and the role of human activity in that, climate change can no longer be ignored.
The debate in the U.S. about how to respond to the Russian invasion has shows the complete self absorption of much of the American political establishment. Russia invaded Crimea primarily because of Russia's interest in Ukraine, domestic political issues in Russia, and as a reaction to recent political events in Ukraine. However, the response in Washington, particularly from the right, has suggested that Russia acted because of America's, and specifically President Obama's, weakness. This assertion was, of course, more about politics in the U.S., than anything happening in Ukraine, but it nonetheless demonstrated that for many what happened in Crimea had to be attributable to something that the U.S., and the Obama administration, did or did not do.
Russia's invasion Ukraine has set off paroxysms of frustration, anger and incredulity in the west, not least in Washington. Some policy makers and pundits are struggling with ways to constructively address the problems raised by Russian action, others struggle to ensure that somehow President Obama is blamed for these events, and many are trying to figure out the complexity, context and background of these events. Understanding the conflict in Crimea, and the best way forward for the US, requires holding several, conflicting, and often unappealing, ideas in one's head at the same time. These are four of the most important of these ideas.
In the last two months, income inequality has quietly fallen out of its brief prominent place in the public debate and discussion. It still mentioned by some economists and some progressive pundits, but something has changed. A few months ago the President of the United States was making speeches about income inequality; the new Mayor of New York placed that issue front and center in his inaugural address; and the Pope, of course, was drawing the most attention the issue by pointing out the contradictions between dramatic income inequality and the teachings of the Catholic Church. All that seems like a long time ago now.
The debate about legalizing marijuana is beginning in earnest. It is a debate about individual rights, criminal justice, medicine and economics. It is also a debate where a lot of money is at stake. There are people who stand to lose a lot if the prisons are not full and if new ones are not being built. Those who have profited from the prison-industrial complex will fight hard to ensure that marijuana remains illegal because they know that legalizing it is the first step towards a drug policy that is more rational and humane, although less profitable for them.
This is not just an observation about why Romney lost in 2012, but explains what has happened to a party where certainty and partisan inflexibility have not only become more important than governing or problem solving, but have been elevated as values that trump analytical rigor our sound strategic thinking. The Republican Party has become one where certainty and faith are among the most cherished values of both the leadership and the base. The same is true of the Democratic Party, but to a much smaller degree. President Obama's almost freakish commitment to the concept of consequence, for example, stands in stark contrast to his predecessor's incessant boasting about his certainty. The leap between being surprised on Election Night in 2012 and believing climate change is a hoax is not that big. In both cases, eschewing scientific approaches leads to fundamental misunderstandings of reality. In 2012 it helped cost Mitt Romney the presidency. In the policy arena the consequences for the anti-science approach could be much higher.
As the 2016 election approaches and the question of whether or not Hillary Clinton runs becomes an even bigger topic of discussion among the punditry, it is likely that we will also be told that having a clear nominee early in the process, rather than a hard fought, and potentially nasty, campaign for the nomination will be good for the party. This idea is intuitively appealing as contested primaries can make it hard to unite behind one candidate in the general election and can damage the eventual nominee. It is additionally something that we frequently hear from front-runners hoping to avoid a tough primary. This idea is intuitive and attractive, but it should be noted that it also completely false.
The American political system as it is currently constructed is wildly unprepared to focus in any meaningful way on income inequality. The fact that a few platitudes by a Democratic president qualified as a major statement on income inequality is evidence of this. The political system is defined by one party that is committed essentially to making the economically powerful richer and more powerful, and another that is too timid and too dominated by moneyed interests of their own to be able to take a strong position on income inequality. Democrats may be more willing to address issues like marginal tax rates or extending benefits to the unemployed, but these proposals, while generally positive, clearly do not seek to address the fundamental problem of income inequality.
The political climate following September 11th, when concern about terrorism briefly for some, and not so briefly for others, trumped democratic rights and even common sense, was not on its own enough to usher in a surveillance program on the scale of what the NSA has done. The new technologies over the last decade or so have also made this possible. Twenty years ago monitoring the phone habits of every American would have been an extremely burdensome task. Forty years ago, it would have been insurmountably difficult. Today, the technology exists to make this much easier. This means both that citizens and their representatives should be even more vigilant about protecting our rights and defending the constitution. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in recent years.
Many of these right wing attacks are offensive and extremely disrespectful to the memory of a truly great man, but they should not be so quickly dismissed as just the rantings of angry right wingers. These comments about Mandela are also echoes of what many said about him when he was alive, particularly before he became president of a free South Africa.
Obviously, it is good that the President saw fit to address this very serious issue, but it is, frankly, outrageous that it took him almost five years into his presidency to address an issue that has been a growing problem in the US for decades and that was brought unmistakably to the fore by events that occurred in the last months of the 2008 campaign. While it is interesting that Obama quoted the Pope in his speech, it is almost as if Obama waited for some kind of political cover from the Pope before publicly addressing the issue of income inequality; either that or the depth and impact of the problem had not occurred to him until the Pope tweeted about it.