Even presidential primaries have snow days, and I have had two in New Hampshire. About four inches of snow fell on the first day, and on the second the weather turned to sleet and freezing rain. I know that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” should keep this “courier from the swift completion of [his] appointed rounds”, but when the choice was driving on frozen roads to hear Tulsi Gabbard address the Fireside Inn in Lebanon, NH, I couldn’t summon the energy to bear witness to someone who herself might not be present.
Searching for the White Whale of Centrist Electability
Actually, for my first small steps in New Hampshire, the campaign came to me in the form of John Bessler, who is the husband of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (of 12.3% fame in the Iowa caucus). He showed up about a mile from where I was staying, to speak at what used to be called “a tea” of concerned voters.
Bessler arrived on time, despite the rain and snow. He was wearing a (slightly rumpled) blue suit, which is the exception on the trail in 2020. (Last evening in Durham, I bumped into Colorado Senator Michael Bennett, who was wearing sneakers and looked as though he was about to coach a gym class.)
A tall man with a receding hairline, Bessler shook hands with everyone in the living room. We were a circle of about fourteen people, and he stood near the dining room table (in a beautiful house, owned by an Amy for America volunteer) and spoke for close to an hour on behalf of his wife’s candidacy.
Bessler said that he and Amy had been married for twenty-six years, and that they had one daughter, who, as it turned out, was one of the reasons that Klobuchar got involved with state politics in Minnesota.
When their daughter was born, she was not able to swallow properly, and required a feeding tube to survive. After about a day in the hospital, Amy was booted out of the maternity ward while the baby remained behind for treatment.
At the time Amy was a lawyer in Minneapolis, representing such clients as MCI (an upstart phone company challenging the bigger players). Her anger at being separated from her sick daughter pushed her to lobby the state legislature to pass a law allowing women to remain at least forty hours in the hospital after delivering a baby.
Those were Amy’s first baby steps in politics, and she went on to be elected three times to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota and now to stand as a presidential candidate.
From her first dealings with the legislature, she had an inkling, as John said, of “what an advocate can do.” She’s a midwestern pragmatist who can work with moderates in both parties.
Although John phrased the contrast diplomatically, he wanted the gathering to understand that Amy “gets things done”, while senators Sanders and Warren are better at talking the talk.
Klobuchar’s first elective office in Minnesota was as a county attorney, from which in 2006 she stood for the U.S. Senate and won, by an average margin of nine votes in the precincts across Minnesota. Her re-elections in 2012 and 2018 were more comfortable; those she carried by margins of 35 and 20 points.
John made the point that in 2018 Amy won 31 counties that in the 2016 presidential election had flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, indicating that, as the nominee, she would be acceptable to moderates in both parties (unlike the bomb-throwing Sanders and Warren, although he didn’t say it like that).
The more I listened to Bessler lecture about “Amy Klobuchar’s Contract for American Renewal,” the more clearly she came into focus as a can-do midwestern senator, in the Progressive traditions of Senators Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Mondale.
Like Elizabeth Warren, Klobuchar has a fair number of plans, and Bessler went through her ideas to invest in American infrastructure, deal with climate change (she would increase gas mileage standards and renewable energy), dedicate resources to education and job training, and even squirrel away some resources to amortize some of the $23 trillion in national debt.
In all cases, John said, Amy was good (in their life together and in the Senate) at husbanding resources. In the Iowa caucuses, for example, she spent less money—only $3.9 million—than the other major candidates.
Bessler remarked that Klobuchar cares passionately about the enforcement of anti-trust legislation. It’s one of her committee assignments in the Senate, and trust busting (as it used to be called) is tied to her advocacy for level economic playing fields, fairness to consumers, and opposition to oligarchy.
He made the point that it was two Republicans, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, who first enforced anti-trust legislation (which was passed during the administration of Democrat Grover Cleveland but ignored by William McKinley, who was in the pocket of the bosses, notably business tycoon and fixer Mark Hanna).
The Only New Hampshire Issue is Electability
The question consistently posed to Amy’s husband was how, if she were the nominee, she would stand up to a lunatic such as Donald Trump, who campaigns as if he were Mussolini on his balcony.
What seemed to matter most to the people gathered (an older crowd with mid-day time on their hands) was beating Trump in the general election. In response, Bessler said that “Trump isn’t going to know how to deal with a strong-willed woman such as Amy.”
Over and over, he described her as task-oriented, detail-driven, and focused on the people’s business. He never entirely convinced me that Amy has Butch Cassidy’s wiliness, demonstrated in his knife fight with Harvey Logan, who challenged Butch for leadership of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. The movie script reads:
Butch Cassidy: [ as Harvey tenses to begin the fight] No, no, not yet. Not until me and Harvey get the rules straightened out.
Harvey Logan: Rules? In a knife fight? No rules.
[Butch throws dirt in Harvey’s eyes and kicks him in the groin, causing him to collapse on the ground]
Everyone at the tea party wants Trump to be the Harvey Logan of American politics.
If there was a downside during the Q and A, it came when Bessler answered a question about how Amy will deal with Putin and Russia. His answer, which drifted back to her Senate committee work on cross-border trade with Mexico and Canada, indicated that she doesn’t have much feel for or experience with foreign affairs.
A lack of experience in foreign affairs isn’t fatal for a presidential candidate (I doubt Trump could point to Iran on a globe), but it could lead to discomfort on the campaign trail if Amy is ever challenged, for example, about the Macedonian Question.
The Student Debt Crisis: How to buy an education and influence people
Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts and the close friend of Barack Obama, has gotten little respect during this Democratic political campaign.
Except maybe in an early round, he has been excluded from the televised debates, and only because CNN needed to have an even number of guests was he included in the Town Hall series of primetime, hour-long interviews, although Patrick was put in the 11:00 p.m. slot, never ideal.
To my knowledge he did not campaign in Iowa, instead deciding to husband his resources for New Hampshire, where he could hope to trade off his name recognition as the former governor of Massachusetts.
Another former Massachusetts governor, William Weld on the Republican side, who is challenging Donald Trump, made the same calculation but he turned up for a whistle-stop tour (okay, in a rental car) in Iowa.
I tracked down Deval Patrick at a public event held at the University of New Hampshire, which is located in Durham, not far inland from the coast. Patrick was speaking at a conference entitled College Costs & Debt in the 2020 Elections.
The host was the UNH Carsey School for Public Policy, and the topic, I am sure, was chosen with the idea of luring some presidential hopefuls to campus.
As it turned out, only the second-team candidates accepted the invitation to speak. Hence the attendees were Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Senator Michael Bennett, Weld, and Patrick. Gabbard bailed at the last minute, pleading the excuse of the weather (which remained a mixture of snow, rain, and ice).
William Weld’s Democrat-Republican Revival
Before Patrick, Weld spoke for about twenty minutes, and he summarized the crisis in higher education, saying that many students graduate with too much debt and too few job prospects.
I know that nominally he’s a fiscally conservative former governor, but on the stage at the UNH Carsey School he sounded like former presidential Democratic candidate George McGovern.
Weld said many college graduates had become “indentured students” to various student loan programs, and that the only way to get out from under the debt was to pay it off or die.
He cast the administrators of the federal government’s student loan programs in the guise of loan sharks, saying that if graduates missed payments on their debt, they were charged an assortment of fees and penalties, and that they were furthermore unable to benefit from a rate reduction because interest rates have trended lower.
Weld did not believe that graduates should have to begin servicing their loans until they were earning enough money on the job to be comfortable in making the monthly payments. He also advocated debt forgiveness for any graduates who serve adequate time in the military or in an equivalent public-service job.
Weld called it “the compounding problem,” when graduates are forced to work for years, often at uninspiring jobs, just to service their student loans. He also warned that with the development of artificial intelligence, many workers will lose their jobs (those for which they took on high debts).
Weld isn’t persuaded that everyone needs to attend a four-year college or university and, like others in the presidential campaign, spoke well of two-year community colleges and trade schools as often sufficient, and at much lower costs, for many high school graduates.
Weld was prompted to talk in a slightly discursive way about his own evolution from conservative Republican to someone who now believes that “government has a responsibility to look after its citizens…”, and with that mindset he didn’t like it that one aspect of public and private education has turned into a racket.
Weld himself went to Harvard where he studied classics. When I asked him about the books that inspired him, he mentioned Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, which is a go-to treatise of libertarian political thought.
By the time that Weld spoke to the conference it was well after 6:00 p.m., and if the room had ever been full (which I doubt), now it was largely empty. We were perhaps a group of twenty-five, sitting in a hall that could easily accommodate a thousand people. (Even my own undergraduate classes in Greek military history drew a larger crowd.)
It highlighted one of the sadnesses of the presidential primary system, which is that it is front-loaded to track polling data, gaffs, soundbites, short TV interviews with big-foot anchors, and miscellany (Bailey Warren, Elizabeth’s dog) while the good government ideas are relegated to the not-ready-for-prime-time players.
Deval Patrick’s Journey From the South Side of Chicago to Harvard
Deval Patrick, another former Massachusetts governor, followed Weld to the stage, and for an applause line evoked yet a third former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, who had just voted to convict Donald Trump on one of the impeachment clauses.
Patrick also gave a shoutout to Weld, who after speaking had taken a seat in the audience to hear what Patrick had to say. (Not many candidates run in the listening mode.)
I had never heard Patrick speak, and he was more soft-spoken than I expected. His position in the race, other than running on the Largely Unknown ticket, is that of a career Democrat on the left who nonetheless would like to work with moderate Republicans (that category may be down to Weld and Romney).
Patrick is also unusual in candidate circles as he has had two distinct careers, one as a civic rights attorney in the Clinton justice department and the other in private equity, in which he was a senior officer at Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Mitt Romney helped to found. (Patrick came later to the company.)
Not all hard-left Democrats appreciate Patrick’s work on Wall Street, but unlike Tom Steyer, who tends to gloss over his deal-making life, Patrick is clear in wanting to involve the so-called “private sector” in solutions to government problems.
Patrick is close to Sanders and Warren in advocating forgiveness of student debt and free tuition, but he would not make college completely free for those who can afford the tuition and fees.
He, too, spoke of getting the government loan shark off the backs of graduates, by dropping interest rates on borrowed money to zero and by making community colleges and trade schools free for students (and retooling workers) who need certain basic job skills to enter the economy.
He made the point that in-state tuition for the University of New Hampshire is $34,000 while out-of-state costs are $54,000, which puts the school beyond the reach of many middle-class students, even those with moderate savings.
Later that same evening, on CNN’s Town Hall, Patrick spoke more generally about his bi-partisan credentials, his record as a two-term governor, his experience in business, and the sense fairness that he would bring to the White House.
Asked about his personal history, he talked about growing up poor on the south side of Chicago, in a home with his mother and grandmother. When he was accepted at Harvard and told his grandmother of the achievement, she congratulated him and then asked, “Now where is that?” No one in his family had ever been to college.
At Harvard, which he liked for its diversity, size, and challenging intellectual life, he said that he often had the uneasy feeling that someone might one day tap him on the shoulder and say it had all be a mistake and that he needed to go back to his cold-water tenement on Chicago’s south side. That never happened, and later Patrick flourished at law school.
Of late, because of low poll numbers and fund raising, Patrick had not made any of the debates, so he was running on the margins of the campaign, a bit like Spinal Tap playing in neighborhood rec rooms.
My sense is that he is soldiering on, perhaps to position himself as a potential vice-presidential nominee, in the event the nominee wants a centrist African-American pro-business Democrat with strong ties to the civil rights movement.
It’s not a bad bet in 2020, with so many older white men running for president (Patrick is only 63). And the African-American competitors for such a slot (Kamala Harris and Cory Booker) have already withdrawn from the race.
Tulsi Gabbard Goes to War at the Elks Club
It took me a while to track down Representative Tulsi Gabbard. She had not been in Iowa when I was there (except on billboards floating above the Iowa cornfields, a bit like Oz), and she was hard to find in New Hampshire.
At most she was only appearing at one or two events each day, and then usually at some remote VFW hall in a place such as Laconia, New Hampshire, which is an additional hour long drive from the Boston suburbs around Nashua and Manchester.
Finally I found the Gabbard candidacy in Rochester, New Hampshire, at an Elks club which was kitted out with American flags and enough chairs to seat an audience of perhaps 125 people.
Gabbard is the exception in the race for the Democratic nomination in that her campaign is focused on foreign affairs, notably the issue of bringing home the troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and northern Syria.
Most of the other candidates only speak of foreign affairs in the context of the domestic budget (they want to cut military spending to devote resources to the opioid crisis or medicare for all).
Gabbard, however, speaks more openly and directly on behalf of the veterans (she is one of them) who were deployed to these savage wars of peace with no clear government objective behind them, and then largely ignored when they came home with post-stress traumatic disorders.
Gabbard is a major in the Hawaii national guard, and at times during her candidacy she has left the campaign trail for weekend or summer duty.
She speaks in the patient, direct, calming voice of a military briefing officer, although she didn’t have a relief map of the Middle East or one of those long pointers, and her principal message is that the United States needs to stop fighting “endless wars” in the Middle East.
But if anything has defined Gabbard’s candidacy in the 2020 Democratic race it is her ability to generate headlines that put her at odds with the mainstream Democratic leadership, which neither likes nor trust Tulsi.
Most recently Representative Gabbard voted “present” when the articles of impeachment against Donald Trump were brought before the full House of Representatives. She was the only Democrat not to vote for impeachment.
Other headline-generating events include her 2017 meeting with Syrian strongman and president, Bashar al-Assad, and her defamation lawsuit against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who suggested in a tweet (without actually naming Gabbard) that the Hawaii’s member of Congress might well be a Russian agent or run by its bots.
Gabbard met with Assad to make the point back home that the United States was fighting on the wrong side in Syria. To CNN she justified her meeting by saying: “Whatever you think about President Assad, the fact is that he is the President of Syria. In order for any peace agreement, in order for any possibility of a viable peace agreement to occur there has to be a conversation with him.”
At the Elks club she didn’t mention the meeting with Assad, but she did say several times that: “…as a veteran, I have been serving in the Army National Guard now for 16 years and continue to serve, served on two Middle East deployments. I have seen this cost of war firsthand, which is why I fight so hard for peace.”
Hillary Clinton’s view of Gabbard’s candidacy is that she’s part of an election hoax, on behalf of the Russian hacker state. Clinton said (clearly referring to Gabbard):
They’re also going to do third-party. I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians, they have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far, and that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not, because she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset, I mean totally. They know they can’t win without a third-party candidate.
Against this claim, Gabbard filed a libel and defamation suit against Clinton, although I doubt it’s more than a campaign spot, as I cannot imagine Gabbard has the appetite to sustain a civil case for five years against Clinton. For the moment, however, it’s probably cheaper than running 30-second adds on Manchester television (“and I support this lawsuit….”).
At the same time as Gabbard is speaking for disgruntled Iraq and Afghanistan vets (“I want to challenge the war majority coming out of Washington…”), she’s also given to inflated boasting, notably her claim that she has the “most experience of any candidate in the race on foreign affairs, except maybe Joe Biden.” Actually she only speaks well on the wars in the Middle East (although more with emotion than as someone who understands political intricacies).
Later in her talk, Tulsi expanded the reach of her stump speech, and talked generally, as all candidates do, about health care, the opioid crisis, the Supreme Court, mental health, teacher pay, etc. and on those issues she might well be singing from the candidate hymnal.
By this point I was done with Gabbard but I did stick around to ask her a question about the unresolved European crisis in the Balkans. (To me the next European war, if it comes, will happen in or around Kosovo.) I figured she was fair game for the question as “the most qualified candidate in foreign affairs…”
Gabbard wanted nothing to do with my Balkan wars question. I even wondered if she knew where Kosovo was. Her facial expression was one of alarm and horror at the question.
She cut me off and said an aide would send me an email, and as I wandered back to my car in the Elks parking lot, I thought that even Hillary would have given me ten minutes on Albanian separatism. After all, in Pristina there’s a dress shop with her name on it.
James Carville Spins The Electorate
The last candidate on my list was Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado, who has campaigned across New Hampshire, without much response, as if running for local office in Denver.
I heard him speak at the Palace Theater in Manchester—actually the event was in a storefront next to the theater—and the only reason the event was packed was because CNN’s James Carville introduced Bennet and spoke about him as the second coming of Bill Clinton.
Actually, when Clinton was the “Comeback Kid” in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, he finished second, behind Paul Tsongas. But it was less than a month after Gennifer Flowers had gone public with the details of their affair (“he eats pussy like a champ…”) and the Clintons had held their Super Bowl halftime marriage therapy session, which Carville himself had helped to orchestrate.
I presume that Michael Bennet, a two-term Colorado senator, is a less complex than Bill Clinton. Bennet’s wife was at the rally (she pleaded his case in the prelims… “If you will just give him a chance….”) as were their three daughters.
The reason for the capacity crowd in the storefront wasn’t to hear from Bennet or his wife (although both speak well) but from Carville, for whom politics is a blood sport.
I had only ever seen Carville on television, and then in snippets after some debate, so I wasn’t quite ready for his one-man stage act, that of a Ragin’ Cajun.
Carville had on an LSU jersey and a Marine Corps veteran’s cap, and the waist on his ratty blue jeans was too big and cinched in to hold them up, giving him the look of a roped steer. On his feet were designer sneakers, the kind a Kardashian would wear along Rodeo Drive.
On stage Carville plays up his swamp cat, southern accent and uses the kind of expressions that must fly around Bayou drinking holes just before closing time.
Carville imagined Mitch McConnell’s facial expression if Republicans lost control of the Senate (“like he’d crapped a pineapple…”) and put the boot into Bernie for not appealing to southern or western Democrats (“they’ll run away from Bernie Sanders like the devil running away from holy water…”).
According to Carville, only Bennet could win the election (he’s won twice in the purple state of Colorado) and save the republic from Trump (“we’re gonna change things…we’re gonna dream..”). And then Carville vanished from the stage, as though someone had switched off CNN.
Michael Bennet Runs Hard in the Shadows
It was hard for Bennet in person to live up to Carville’s hype. His main message was that he was the Democrat best able to defeat Donald Trump, as he had won several elections against Republican majorities in Colorado.
Earlier in his career, Bennet was superintendent of the Denver school system, and in many respects his political personality is that of a high school principal rallying the student body for the big game against Trump High. He speaks optimistically, and he believes that his students (in this case American voters) can always do better on their regent exams.
If Bennet has a cause about which he is passionate, it is to defeat Mitch McConnell and regain Democratic control of the Senate. More than once, I heard him say, “I can’t stand losing to Mitch McConnell”, and he believes that “no one should be as cynical or malevolent as Mitch McConnell.” He adds that Democrats need to be “as strategic” as the Senate majority leader.
Bennet’s problem as a candidate is that he’s running as a moderate in a body politic of extremes. He speaks well and seems to have a positive and pleasing personality, but in the polls I see in New Hampshire, Bennet hardly moves the dial.
Probably the best story he told at the rally was in response to a question about his mother, who escaped as a child from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.
When fighting engulfed Warsaw, she fled with her parents to a suburb, where they hid from the Germans and then the Russians.
After the war, her family went to Stockholm and then Mexico City, before coming to the United States. She had only a smattering of English when they arrived, but in the early 1960s she earned her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and married Michael’s father, who was an American diplomat and political aide within the Democratic hierarchy.
That Michael’s mother survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War II has no bearing on whether he would make a good president, but his telling of her ordeal suggested some understanding of European history, which otherwise is never mentioned on the campaign trail. Out here, it’s America First.
The Last Hurrah of Democratic Politics
On the last weekend before the vote, I crisscrossed much of New Hampshire and saw all of the remaining candidates running for the Democratic nomination.
Here are my notes of each candidate in the closing days of the campaign, in order of polling preference:
Bernie Sanders Plays the Role of Frontrunner:
Sanders is running as the confident frontrunner. His team in the field is young and what attracts most of his supporters are his stances on climate change and income inequality.
What people like about Sanders in New Hampshire is that he is familiar and speaks with passion. At a women’s rights forum, he drew applause for saying he would have a “litmus test” for judicial appointments and would not appoint anyone who did not support Roe v. Wade and abortion rights.
Sanders is vulnerable to a centrist challenge (Buttigieg in New Hampshire, Biden in South Carolina) because many voters, while believing in Bernie’s integrity, don’t think his medicare-for-all, free tuition numbers stand up.
Buttigieg, who has targeted Bernie as his chief rival for the primary win, asks repeatedly, “How are you going to pay for it?”
My feeling is that momentum will carry Bernie over the line in New Hampshire, ahead of Buttigieg and Klobuchar, although I do think that so-called “late undecided voters” will lean toward Pete, eve if they voted last time for Bernie.
I don’t think Bernie will win South Carolina, but will do well in Nevada, and he will be the frontrunner, perhaps against Michael Bloomberg, entering Super Tuesday.
If Bernie stumbles in New Hampshire and loses to Pete, all bets on his campaign will be off.
Pete Buttigieg Pitches God and Country:
The former mayor of South Bend wants to be all things to all men. He’s the outsider from Indiana challenging the covey of Washington insiders. He’s the antiwar Afghan war veteran (well, G.I. driver) who wants to “restore America’s standing in the world.”
He’s the liberal Democrat who talks about balancing the federal budget and paying down the deficit. He’s the McKinsey whizz kid who thinks it’s unfair that Amazon and Chevron don’t pay taxes. He’s the advocate of another Peace Corps who will turn up on Fox News. In short, he’s the Leonard Zelig of the Democratic primaries.
Pete is doing better in the polls because many of those casting votes in the primaries (New Hampshire is today) are asking themselves one question: Can this candidate beat Trump?
In Pete they see a centrist who can bring together the left and the right, the young and the restless, and at several crowded events it was clear to me that all sorts of voters were seeing in Pete things that they wanted to believe about a candidate.
I went to one of his last rallies in New Hampshire, and he spoke as if he had already won the Democratic nomination. About potential vice-presidential running mates, he said that senators Kamala Harris, Warren, and Klobuchar were all “people I admire,” and reached out to “future former Republicans,” something Sanders would never do.
In his speeches, Buttigieg lacks Bernie’s (or even Warren’s) fire and ice. He’s more of an itinerant faith healer than an old testament prophet (Bernie’s job description).
On subjects such as business, the military, and politics, Pete sounds like a graduate student sitting for his oral exams. I am sure he’s done the required reading and has carefully footnoted his thesis, but he’s not someone who can apply the practical experience of his life to his theories of government.
He has worked in business and done time in the military, but he has no critical insights into the modern corporation and its powers, and his observations about Afghanistan and Iraq sound like excerpts from a New York Times Op-ed piece. In most of his life endeavors, he was there, as they say in the army, to get “his ticket punched.”
He’s been lucky that the first two primaries have been in largely white and well-educated states; South Carolina will not be so forgiving.
Pete’s undoing in this election will be among African-American and young voters, who have a visceral dislike of the mayor (they see his home city as white privilege), but I can see him staying in the race for a while, as his vanilla messages (“I just want to say that I will not take away your social security benefits…”) have more reach than those of Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, and Deval Patrick, other centrists in the race.
Elizabeth Warren Will Have a Hard Time Changing Lanes:
If “Dandy” Dan Meredith, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and Monday Night Football color man, were covering the Warren campaign, he would be singing: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over…”
Warren, in the big game against the Bernie Raiders, is behind 27-7, and even though it’s the second quarter and Super Tuesday comes with a big half-time show, it’s still getting late early out there for Elizabeth.
Warren’s views are almost identical to those of Sanders, but voters think he speaks to them with conviction while Warren tends to lecture. He’s considered “passionate” while she’s dismissed as “strident”. (To many men she sounds like a divorce lawyer, coming for their BMW.)
Compared to Bernie, Warren has more executive experience, and she’s had fewer heart attacks. Plus she’s a little younger. But voters, at least in Iowa and New Hampshire, aren’t buying the pitch.
The word used most often among insiders in these primary is “lanes,” referring to a candidate’s chosen path through the electorate, in terms of the left, center, or right wings (here they become “lanes”).
Bernie’s lane is on the far left wing of the Democratic party, to the extent that he identifies with “democratic-socialism,” as if lining up with some European workers’ party.
In positioning her campaign, Warren chose to fight for Bernie’s lane on the far left, and she ceded the center to Klobuchar and Buttigieg.
Now that Sanders is winning his lane, there’s no place for Warren to go. If she shifts to the right, she will be branded a sellout for political expedience. And there’s no room to the left of Sanders, except perhaps with the Red Brigade or the Shining Path.
I listened to Warren at two get-out-the-vote rallies, and she hit all of her high notes: about how the economy “is working great if you’re a large corporation” and about how “working moms” are getting shafted in terms of their salaries and what it costs to pay a baby sitter.
She shares the pain of her questioners about the opioid crisis and crippling student debt. Or she talks about the “gun violence problem” or making Roe v. Wade “the law of the land.” Then she hangs around for pictures or offers up Bailey (her buffed up golden retriever) to play fetch in the selfie line.
It’s all well choreographed, a bit like an episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show (without all the celebrity chefs and more about “extremists controlling our courts…”). But the ratings aren’t there.
Amy Klobuchar Decides How to Spin Another Fourth Place:
Amy for America, the Klobuchar organization, has everything you might want in a presidential campaign.
It has endorsements from the New York Times and other politically prominent newspapers. It has a 59-year-old well-spoken female candidate who has worked successfully in the Senate with Republicans and Democrats. It has a centrist message that ought to sell well in the mall of political America. And it has a flavor of midwestern, soccer mom sensibility in a campaign that has far too many old white guys from the East or West Coasts.
What Amy for America doesn’t have is much momentum, although she did well in recent debates, and there were many enthusiasts waving her kelly green signs at her get-out-the-vote rallies in New Hampshire.
It’s a shame, as Klobuchar is one of the few candidates (of the eleven that I have listened to in the last two weeks) who does not seem to entirely believe her own press releases and who has even delivered a few jokes. I think her midwestern nasal tone and slightly frumpy appearance have given voters a reason to overlook her qualities, which are many.
In New Hampshire, a win for Klobuchar would be to do better than Warren and Biden, and to stay close to Buttigieg (in that lane). A fourth or fifth place finish, behind Warren and Biden, would kill her candidacy, as neither South Carolina nor Nevada holds much promise for Amy’s can-do promises.
Joe Biden Waits on Godot in South Carolina:
The former vice-president can say he never expected to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but if you’re leading in the national polls (although not the betting odds) and finish fourth in the first two primaries, I am not sure what’s left of your candidacy.
Losing badly in the first two primaries will kill fund raising for Super Tuesday, when Biden will have to face the flush campaigns of Bernie Sanders and, I presume, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Nor has Biden been particularly sharp in New Hampshire, after sleep-walking through Iowa. In the debates, he seemed to claim credit for every piece of social legislation that has passed since the Franklin Pierce administration. But not many in his audiences seem to connect Joe himself to the bills under review (health care, background checks for gun buyers, etc.).
It seems as if there are two Bidens running for president: the one of his imagination, and the one that the voters recall, whose main job during the Obama years was to fly to state funerals.
Nor do I think that the impeachment hearings did Biden any favors. I suspect more than a few voters think Trump used his office for political gain (just as they think about 24 impeachment counts could have been brought against the president and made to stick, without a stacked jury). At the same time they don’t quite believe Biden’s story that Hunter had qualities that would earn him $50,000 a month on most boards of directors.
I don’t see how Biden can lose in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then, by virtue of winning in South Carolina, get enough momentum to win the nomination on Super Tuesday.
He’s low on campaign funds, and Buttigieg and Klobuchar are crowding his lanes. Joe’s done, sooner than you think.
Tom Steyer Blows a Billion:
I guess a billion dollars means less than it used to, as Tom Steyer is going nowhere in the campaign, despite flooding the airways and highways with his paid political messages and billboards.
Steyer would love to be the People’s Bloomberg, and to corner the electoral market before Mike shows up with his own billions on Super Tuesday.
The problem with his campaign is that Tom sounds a bit like former third-party candidate and mogul, H. Ross Perot, a whiny speaker with a bunch of great ideas to get government working—on gun safety, climate control, health care, impeachment, free tuition, etc.
I am sure most Democrats support the ideas that Steyer articulates; they just don’t like them coming from him.
I assume that Bloomberg doesn’t get the same criticism because he was a three-term mayor of New York, while Steyer has never held or run for any political office.
Steyer does have street cred for organizing voter drives, especially among young people, and he has funded a grass-roots impeachment campaign against Donald Trump and devoted resources to fight climate change. But few are listening.
Andrew Yang Does His Best to Buy a Few Votes:
There’s probably less to Yang than appears at first impression, when his irreverent humor, tech savviness, and youthful appearance make him stand out in a field of seventy-year-old contenders who give the impression that they have yet to send an email.
I actually think Yang’s $1000-a-month giveaway to every citizen could be grounded in serious economics, but as he presents the idea—Robin Hood soaking the tech giants—it begins to sound glib, at least without the numbers needed to back up the idea.
Yang’s observations about the presence of technology in our lives, while on point at a seminar in Palo Alto, California, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, begin to sound extraneous in a political campaign, although personally I think he makes good points about Citizens United being one of the worst judicial judgments in recent years. (He would fund campaigns by giving everyone $100 in “democracy credits” that could then be given to a candidate of their choice.)
Yang might be among those who are running for president for reasons that have nothing to do with holding the political office. He might see it as a way to build “his personal brand,” possibly to position himself down the road as a CEO of a hedge fund or non-governmental organization. (Apparently, even failed candidates come away from the race with benefits and a few speaking gigs.)
For the moment, Yang’s new age, app-driven campaign has been more successful than some of the traditional ones, and I could see his campaign sticking around in the race longer than, say, Warren or Biden, if only because his message is carried farther on social media and at lower cost than those delivered in TV ads.
Michael Bloomberg’s Altered Primary State:
The $60-billion-dollar bionic man is not in New Hampshire. Nor was he in Iowa. But in both states, not to mention in Super Bowl ads, Bloomberg is the man who came to dinner. (It’s a Kaufman and Hart comedy from the 1940s, about a man who comes to a house for a dinner and never leaves, turning upside-down the lives of those in the house.)
Bloomberg is a bank account more than he’s a political idea. If he had only one billion and had never held office, I suppose he would be Tom Steyer, trying to buy a presidential lottery ticket. But with $60 billion and as someone who has run for office as both a Democrat and a Republican, Bloomberg is not just an uninvited house guest but, to many, a man for all seasons.
Bloomberg’s lane is down the center, which, if his expense budget were less, would relegate him to the worlds of Deval Patrick and Michael Bennett, both of whom can match Bloomberg for political experience but don’t have his resources.
Bloomberg’s strategy is to let the Democrats bloody themselves in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, and for the field to be winnowed from about nine to three or four.
Ideally Bloomberg would love a Democratic field that is down to Sanders, Buttigieg, Biden, and Yang, which, in his mind, he could divide and conquer, especially as only Sanders has the rank-and-file funding for a long-term national race.
In a race against Sanders, Bloomberg would make the point that he would have a better chance of defeating Trump than someone who is a self-proclaimed democratic-socialist.
This year, the Super Tuesday primaries are to be held on March 3 in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia, and at this point only Sanders (aside from Bloomberg) has the resources to mount a media campaign in all those states.
I think Bernie would beat Bloomberg in a head-to-head campaign (Bernie’s passion would play better than Mike’s millions), but what will it say about the Democratic party if the last candidates standing turn out to be three white guys (Sanders, Biden, and Bloomberg), all of whom are in their late seventies, napping toward glory. It will say the party’s over.
Trump and Pence Play Manchester, NH: Democracy’s End
For my last event in New Hampshire I decided to attend a Trump rally in Manchester, on the eve of the primary election. The event was taking place in the arena of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), not far from where I was staying, and a week after I had applied online, my press credential had come through for the Trump campaign.
I didn’t completely fancy spending another evening at one of Trump’s red-hat, red-meat rallies, but since I had seen him in Iowa, he had given his (shredded) state-of-the-union address and been acquitted on both impeachment charges in the Senate. After a week of Democratic events, maybe a Trump rally would shed light on the possible outcome of the general election?
The SNHU Arena is located in downtown Manchester, which is more of an inner-city suburb than a city. Blocks of small wooden frame houses surround downtown, which has the feel of a renovated mill city, although along the main street there are more bake shops and quirky cafés than law firms and corporate headquarters.
I parked my car several blocks from the SNHU arena and walked to the sound of the TV commentators. All around the arena, the local police and secret service had parked snow plows and garbage trucks to serve as makeshift road blocks, around which police and firemen, in security vests, were loitering as part of a thin yellow line to protect the president inside the hall.
When I reported to the press entrance, a secret service agent, wearing a flak jacket and gun, explained that I should have signed in by 4:30 p.m. (the speech started at 7:00 p.m.) and that the arena was now closed to the press. Just before I got to the gate, he had delivered the same news to another journalist, who was weeping at her exclusion.
For my part I heard the news as a reprieve and would have clicked my heels at being spared from another Trump rally, except that everyone around the gate was heavily armed.
Instead of taking my seat in the press gallery, I walked around to the front of the SNHU arena, where a large crowd had gathered around an outdoor jumbotron, as if for a World Cup match.
Mixed into the crowd where numerous card tables where Trump hats, bumper stickers, t-shirts, decals, and signs were on sale.
Along the barriers that lined the main street a crowd of Trump supporters was watching the giant TV screen, on which the president’s oldest son, Donald Jr., was warming up the crowd. He was dressed in a sports shirt and jacket. Otherwise, his tone was that of an attack dog lunging on his chain.
I had never actually heard Don Jr. speak in public, and what struck me was the contempt and hate in his voice. To be sure, he was introducing his father and delivering a speech to a partisan political crowd, but he did both with a scorn unusual even in the age of Trump’s bile.
Don Jr. ran down the Democrats, Bernie Sanders, Joe and Hunter Biden, and Elizabeth Warren (he didn’t call her Pocahantas, but analyzed her Native-American DNA claim, as if he were an external consultant for Ancestry.com). They were all socialists, terrorist enablers, and un-American, and if allowed in office would embrace open borders, late-term abortions, socialized medicine, and ruinous economic policies.
After Don Jr.’s hate speech, Mike Pence came on stage to deliver a litany of Trump sycophancy. One can imagine Trump himself, back in the green room, watching Pence’s delivery carefully, just to make sure that he repeated correctly all the words that Trump had chosen for him to say.
Pence repeated, almost word-for-word, what he said at the Trump rally in Iowa although here he added that the Senate had acquitted Trump of the impeachment charges “forever.” And Pence ended by saying, reverentially, of Trump that “the man is in the house.”
On the jumbotron I watched the first twenty minutes of “Trump: The Love Song,” that which he sings to himself at these rallies. It was a repeat performance of everything he said in Iowa, although on this occasion he updated his paeans to include new material about the impeachment, Nancy Pelosi (“a horrible woman”), and the state of the union (back from the insolvency of the Obama years).
When Trump began reading the speech from his teleprompters, I decided to leave. I had heard the canned messages of hate before, and Trump reading a prepared speech sounds like someone in a freshman-year language lab trying to read aloud a German text of Goethe.
Around me, whenever Trump mentioned someone on his enemies’ list, such as Mitt Romney or Nancy Pelosi, the crowd would break into chants of “Lock Her Up” or “U-S-A!” While they were chanting, Trump would smirk and preen, pleased with himself for having incited his followers to hate.
* * *
Will Trump or a Democrat win in November? After only three weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire, I cannot say, but based on the turnouts in both parties, at this point the Democrats look weak and divided, while Trump, mounted on his fascist hobby horse, has the look of a supreme leader, a man on horseback.
If the general election were held tomorrow, I could well imagine Trump winning, but that’s only because in a field of nine Democratic candidates it’s hard at this stage to take the measure of the opposition.
Nor can much be said about the eloquence of the various Democrats, many of whom, at least in the primaries, shout catch phrases more than they deliver speeches. It doesn’t help that eloquent candidates for the nomination—such as Deval Patrick and Michael Bennet—get excluded from the debates and shut out of any publicity.
I would like to believe that the republic is capable of overcoming Trump and his henchmen (Don Jr. among them), but if you spend time listening to the Democrats campaign and then hear the president on his gilded soap box, you do come away with the feeling that the United States has crossed a Rubicon, from which the round trip will not be easy.