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The Four Possible Debate Scenarios

Is it actually happening? Is this real life?

It’s finally fight night at Hofstra University! Lester Holt is the referee, but we, the hundred or so million people watching on television, are the judges. What type of verbal pugilism can we expect from tonight’s bout?

The way I see it, while the details cannot be predicted, the realistic broader scenarios for Tuesday morning narratives number four. Here they are, ranked from least to most likely:


4. Donald Trump surprises us with a substantive debate performance, catching Hillary Clinton totally off guard.

Trump being substantive on the level that we often get in these general election debates feels unlikely, especially considering he has supposedly put in minimal debate prep and has totally eschewed mock debates. Also unlikely is Hillary Clinton caught with her pantsuit down; she is reportedly preparing for multiple kinds of Trumps.

Still, while this development feels like the least likely viable scenario, we can’t rule out that Trump is playing the expectations game beautifully and far too many people are falling for it. If Trump surprises the audience with substance and his opponent flounders in response, Trump will take a sizable lead.

3. Trump embarrasses himself by showing little substance and an unpresidential temperament, while Clinton calmly picks him apart and shows that experience matters.

On the flip side, we have Clinton’s best case scenario, which I see as just a bit more likely. If the same Trump from the Republican Primary debates shows up thinking he can get away with circular answers, misdirection, and his Pantagruelian persona, Clinton will be in a great position to reassure swing voters that there is a grown up in this election and everything will be okay. She certainly has the knowledge and confidence to do so, though the bigger challenge is finding the tone in which to do it.

2. Trump remains calm but offers little of substance. Clinton tries to antagonize him and looks unbecoming in the process.

1. Trump remains calm but offers little of substance. Clinton offers plenty of substance, but is comparatively less successful in winning over swing voters.

There’s an old Russian proverb: “The marvel is not that the bear dances well, but that the bear dances at all.” Is Trump that dancing Russian bear? (Insert Putin joke here.) If he debates poorly on substance but at least shows up and acts the part of presidential candidate, will the American people marvel? I think yes.

That would be unfortunate for the Clinton Campaign. These two scenarios are almost totally in Trump’s control. As I explained with my last post, Trump has incredibly low expectations, and it won’t take much to meet them.

For all that the mainstream media has done to either help or hurt Trump, one result is clear: he has a reputation. The media has created a monster (the accuracy of this portrayal depends largely on one’s allegiances). Tonight, the millions of undecided viewers who have remained unengaged expect to see this monster that fits the headlines of the articles they don’t read and the promos for newscasts they don’t watch.

Of course, a Trump supporter thinks that he is not a monster but a bogeyman, an almost totally fabricated antagonist dreamed up in order to scare children into voting for the Democrat. If Trump does not behave badly, they will feel vindicated. Meanwhile, the undecided voters expecting to see the media’s version of Trump will be surprised that he isn’t as monstrous as advertised.

So if Trump can remain calm, if he can show presidential temperament, if he accidentally spits out a spasm of eloquence, he’ll win the night. I think Trump knows this, and he therefore won’t act the part that the media has, depending on your perspective, created or reported.

In essence, the very media which so many Trump supporters hold responsible for his undeserved reputation might ultimately be his saving grace — he can easily dispel the exaggerated villain it created. I expect him to capitalize.

Thus, these are the two most likely scenarios, and Clinton’s response will then determine which one of the two it is. Still, whether she tries to provoke him and fails or, more preferably for her, does her own thing reasonable well, the Tuesday morning story is that Trump beat expectations and Clinton, at best, met them. Her champions in the media will try to stress just how unsubstantive Trump was, but if they haven’t won her the election to this point, I’m not sure post-debate spin will be any different.


I started this post with boxing language, so it seems fitting to ring the final bell with some, too. I don’t think either corner scores a knockout tonight, although scenarios 3 and 4 would certainly send one of the combatants to the mat, a canvas from which they can still rise. Instead, we’ll almost certainly turn to the scorecards of we, the judges. How will we evaluate the two fighters? Will points be scored on facts, details, and prosecutorial finesse, or by tone, temperament, and one-liners?

We’re about to find out. Ding ding.

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It’s Getting Real: One WEEK Until a Debate

TOBY: These two men are going to be side by side on the stage, answering questions. That’s the ball game.
C.J.: If the whole thing is, he can’t tie his shoelaces and it turns out he can, then that is the ball game.
TOBY: And I believe he’ll have to do more than tie his shoelaces.
C.J.: Not much more.

-The West Wing, “Red Mass

You can be forgiven for tuning out the painful cacophony that is the 2016 election. It’s been grating, depressing, and now, like my son, it’s 20 months old.

But it’s time to start listening again. In just seven weeks, you can become a fundamental instrument of our democratic republic — a voter. Hopefully, you want to be an informed one. The upcoming debates should be a factor when deciding between the two candidates or, alternatively, writing off both by writing in someone else.

The first of these debates is a week from tonight. (Sadly, Gary Johnson has not been invited.) It fascinates me for several reasons, enumerated below in question form for your convenience.

1. Can Trump meet expectations? I opened with a West Wing quote that epitomizes our quadrennial tradition of playing the “expectations game.” When judging the success of a debate performance, it’s not about who debates better than their opponent, but who debates better than we expect.

I unleashed my frustration with this phenomena in my most-read post of 2016, March’s “No, Trump Did NOT Have a Good Debate.” I wrote it the day after the Miami Republican debate in which we heard, among other embarrassments, Trump say the following on Social Security:

“Well, first of all, I want you to understand that the Democrats, and I’ve watched them very intensely, even though it’s a very, very boring thing to watch, that the Democrats are doing nothing with Social Security. They’re leaving it the way it is. . . .

After the Democrats slam, he eventually got to his answer:

I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is; to make this country rich again; to bring back our jobs; to get rid of deficits; to get rid of waste, fraud and abuse, which is rampant in this country, rampant, totally rampant. And it’s my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is. Not increase the age and to leave it as is.”

You see this right?  Am I taking crazy pills?

This excerpt has the dual purpose of emphasizing how un-Republican the Republican nominee is while also demonstrating just how ridiculous it was that the next day people were generally praising his debate performance. Why was it praised, you ask? Because, unlike previous debates and fresh off a week where Trump and Marco Rubio sparred over the sizes of hands and other, more private anatomic features, Trump didn’t behave ridiculously. Not being ridiculous was the low bar he hurdled that night.

Is that the same standard we’ll hold him to next week? Trump, quite obviously, comes in with much lower expectations than the seasoned Clinton. No one expects him to know more than she does, and that puts him in a great position. He doesn’t have win on substance, just on style. And who knows — maybe he did enough debate prep to have some substance, too.

Still, it’s style we know he knows. After so many years as an entertainer, he knows how to sound and look. Even if he comes up empty in knowledge, he’s extremely effective in schmoozing. He knows when to smile, when to look stern, when to sound confident, and how to convey other mannerisms and tones that manipulate people into thinking he’s in control. If he has presidential tone and demeanor in the debate, undecided voters will be impressed and move to him. Huge Trump stakes here. We just don’t know what we’ll get.

2. What is Clinton’s strategy? Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a known quantity. As long as she doesn’t actualize Trump’s dreams and pass out from exhaustion or a debilitating illness, she’s going to show as a competent woman who knows her stuff, even if one disagrees with her positions. That’s never been in question.

What is in question is her strategy to take on her asymmetrical opponent. Will she ignore him if he gets silly or badly flubs on a question? Mock his lack of substantive knowledge? Stick to the issues? Get personal? Get personal only if he gets personal? Most broadly, will she take the fight to Trump or will she just respond to the moderator’s questions?

Another concern for the Clinton Campaign is clarity of message. Trump has a knack for being easily understood, because he speaks simply, rarely saying anything too complex or speaking in sentences groaning under the weight of their own details. Will Clinton, by comparison, sound too elitist and speak over the audience’s heads?

Let’s take another example from a Trump debate. This one is from the New Hampshire debate in the first week of February. (This is the debate where we were told, several times, to dispel with the fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. It turns out he knows exactly what he’s doing.) Ted Cruz was asked about his controversial comments regarding Trump’s temperament and replied: “I think that is an assessment the voters are going to make. And they are going to make it of each and everyone of us. They are going to assess who is level-headed, who has clear vision, who has judgment, who can confront our enemies, who can confront the threats we face in this country, and who can have the judgment when to engage and when not to engage — both are incredibly important for a commander-in-chief, knowing how to go after our enemies. . . . We need a president with the judgment and resolve to keep this country safe from radical Islamic terrorists.” Cruz used some high school vocabulary there — assessment, vision, judgment, confront, engage, resolve.

Trump demanded a response, and said: “That’s what’s going to happen with our enemies and the people we compete against. We’re going to win with Trump. We’re going to win. We don’t win anymore. Our country doesn’t win anymore. We’re going to win with Trump. And people back down with Trump. And that’s what I like and that’s what the country is going to like.”

(Hang on…. Stifling guffaws….) “We’re going to win.” “That’s what the country is going to like.” People respond to that. People believe him. (Maybe it’s because he says to?) Clinton needs to find a way to connect on that level while also not ceding the intellectual upper ground.

3. What role will the moderator play? Lester Holt apparently drew the short straw and will be the first presidential debate moderator to get skewered from all wings of media for being too favorable to the wrong candidate.

Handling Hillary Clinton will not be easy. She has a long history of deftly pretending she’s already answered a question satisfactorily in the past, even if that answer was insufficient then and she contradicts it now. Holt and the later moderators will need to have verbatim quotes at the ready — I love the technique of showing the quote or video evidence on the screen — and be prepared to press her on these evolutions and misremembrances.

Handling Trump is even harder. The man talks in more circles than a NASCAR driver with his pit crew. A moderator must press him with follow-ups and specifics to see if Trump truly understands an issue.

For that reason, Trump will probably find these debates much more challenging than the ones from the GOP Primary. So far, I pulled examples from primary debates, but a general election debate will be colossally different because, among other reasons, there’s only two people on stage.

It’s funny — Trump boasts that he beat 16 people in the Republican Primary, including in debates and in actual voting. But really, having 16 other people in the field was a huge help to him. Back when his unfavorables among Republicans were sky high, a smaller field would not have allowed his early 15 to 20 percent to be at the top of the polls. It was the large field that allowed his fanatical minority to look dominant compared to everyone else splitting mainstream Republicans 16 ways. When it came time for the debates, his lead put him at the center of the debate stage, a psychological and visual advantage. Plus, the fact that there ten people on stage each competing for time meant Trump did not have to dive too deeply into policy.

For these upcoming debates, however, he’ll have to talk for two minutes on a specific topic and then (hopefully) face tough follow-ups and rebuttals. Although his supporters, if he fails at this task, aren’t going anywhere, swing voters might see his candidacy as a conman routine and stay away.

One week until we get answers! Fifty days until we have an election.

It’s getting real.

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Trump’s Big, Bad Government

(Author’s note: During my well-received absence from the blogosphere, the 2016 election continued to behave like a kid with ADHD. We’ve absorbed a relentless barrage of stories from a frenetic media. Since my piece on Hillary Clinton’s disgraceful relationship with accessibility, culminating in my prediction that the race was about to tighten, the race has become even more dramatic, which I didn’t think was possible. It has, indeed, become razor tight; Donald Trump has nearly completed the comeback. Meanwhile, we quickly rushed through media cycles that included her head-shakingly stupid “basket of deplorables,” face-palmingly disjointed approach to her “pneumonia,” the media’s forehead-smashingly overdramatic pondering of whether Clinton might drop out of the race, and Trump’s knee-slappingly hilarious decision to go on Dr. Oz to tell us about his “health.” And that was just in the last week. Of all the things to talk about, though, I eschewed the circus and chose policy instead. If you don’t like it, CNN and Fox are waiting for you.)

Are you feeling bad for conservatives yet? I’m sympathetic to their plight. Imagine being a traditional Republican right now, and your main choices for president include:

  • A) Democrat Hillary Clinton, your most hated American politician;
  • B) Libertarian Gary Johnson, who has no chance to win and embarrassingly flubbed on a Syria question; and
  • C) Republican Donald Trump, who probably would have flubbed just as badly on that and many more policy questions, and has just stepped further left on the ideological spectrum than any Republican in modern political history.

His latest leftward jaunt came on Tuesday with a childcare proposal that includes six weeks paid leave for mothers and tax deductions for day care. If a Democrat proposed these ideas — oh, that’s right, they’ve been proposing it for a long time, as Charles Krauthammer reminds us — Republicans would call it the growth of the “nanny state.” But when the Republican nominee for president does it, a neutered party just looks up and silently unleashes a Captain Kirkesque “Truuuuuuump!”

Poor conservatives. Sure, Trump claims to be able to pay for this proposal by eliminating — let’s say it all together now — waste, fraud, and abuse, but slicing such fat from the budget could be savings that are passed on to the taxpayers instead of redirecting their money to pay for others’ childcare. At least, that was the logic of the party of small government.

Trump’s liberal ideas about government are nothing new, of course. We spent much of the Republican Primary watching some of his fellow Republicans attack him on his progressive positions, like his past liberal statements on health care, abortion, taxes, drugs, and supporting Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. Conservatives who chose to ignore the more distant past in favor of his positions during his actual presidential campaign are still faced with his liberal positions on trade, social security, affirmative action, LGBT rights, and more.

“But what of the Supreme Court?,” some Republicans might ask. “Surely he’ll nominate conservatives to it.” Not so fast, says conservative columnist George Will, in his insightful “The sinking fantasy that Trump will defend the Constitution.” Alongside jabs that disparage Trump’s embarrassing ignorance on the Constitution (Trump thinks judges sign bills and there are twelve articles to the Constitution), Will points out that on a couple of the most important, divisive Supreme Court decisions this century — Kelo vs. New London (regarding “eminent domain”) and Citizens United vs. the FEC (regarding “free speech”) — Trump sides with the liberal judges, not the Clarence Thomases and AntoninScalias of the here and hereafter. We can only assume that he would nominate judges who agree with him.

Poor conservatives indeed! There is no one to whom they can turn. The battle is already lost. The war, however, can still be won. If Trump wins the presidency, we might never have a conservative option again in our lifetime. The Republican Party would move left with its president, and four years from now our choices are moderate-to-liberal President Trump or the surely liberal Democratic nominee. (Any Republican Primary challenge or conservative third party bid would usher in the Democrat.) In essence, a vote for Trump is a vote for the liberalization of the GOP. It’s a vote for no major conservative party until a new one walks the blockaded road toward viability.

But a vote for Clinton, Johnson, or Ronald Reagan can be a vote to live to fight another day. Sacrifice the battle, but survive the war. Counterintuitively, a conservative should consider allowing Clinton the victory before destroying her in four years with a conservative nominee of a still conservative Republican Party. Just a thought. Admittedly, a conservative on the cusp of voting for Hillary Clinton might have a seizure in the booth… but that’s a small sacrifice for the good of the Republican Party.

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Trump/Pence: New at National Security

(“Quick Hit Fridays”: Where all posts are apparently about previous elections.)

Most experts would probably agree that the most important role for a president is head of state. In Article I, the framers of our Constitution created Congress to make the laws. Article III invested in the courts the authority to interpret those laws. Between the legislative and judicial branches, Article II gave us a single executive who is unrivaled as our chief diplomat, general, and face of the nation. As voters, we want to know that our presidential candidates can handle the complex responsibilities of ably administrating foreign policy and competently serving as commander-in-chief.

Despite Hillary Clinton’s spotty past, present, and, let’s face it, future, she is unquestionably experienced when it comes to foreign policy. She served as Secretary of State for four years, and before that she was an eight-year U.S. Senator on the Armed Services Committee. Her policies can be debated, but her superior experience cannot — a fact noted by Marco Rubio in a nationally televised Republican debate. Her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, also has time on the Senate Armed Services Committee in addition to the Foreign Relations Committee. It’s an experienced ticket.

Donald Trump, however, has no experience in this area. I would have advised him, since his most open path to victory was in a national security election, that he should pick someone with national security bona fides as his running mate. Instead, he chose to shore up his right flank with Mike Pence. The Indiana Governor did spend 12 years in the House of Representatives, half of it on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but that’s the extent of this ticket’s experience in national security.

Now, I know what Republicans are thinking: it’s about the “right kind of experience,” a frustratingly malleable assertion that allows partisans to criticize the inexperience of an opponent in one election but defend the inexperience of one’s own candidate in another. Republicans criticized Barack Obama for his inexperience in 2008, especially when contrasted to John McCain, but experience now seems devalued. Likewise, Democrats who now point to Clinton’s experience looked the other way on that subject eight years ago. I know — frustrating.

Here at PPFA, we think experience is an important characteristic for presidential job applicants, despite our collective frustration with politicians. One would not hire someone who has never worked in baseball to turn around a struggling franchise, a non-musician to play lead guitar in a band whose glory days are behind them, or a mere high school history teacher to write about presidential politics. (No, I’m not bitter. Why do you ask?) Even if one agrees with an amateur’s course of action, that does not make that amateur a better pick. Consider a heart operation: a surgeon wants to do Procedure A, while you and your accountant think you should do Procedure B. Which one would you rather cut open your chest — the seasoned surgeon or the agreeable accountant?

Interestingly, the failed Romney/Ryan ticket of four years ago was similarly green when it came to national security, but at least each of them had diverse experiences, like governing, time in the House, business, and, you know, reading books. These traits convinced me and others that they could at least work their way through issues of national importance.

For today’s post, I want to look at prior presidential tickets to see when was the last time we had a ticket this inexperienced in matters of national security. For each election, I’ll list the foreign policy experience for the top and bottom of each party’s ticket. (Exception: if a party has the sitting president, I consider that the ultimate experience. No VP listed.)

2012
Democrats: President Barack Obama, Founder of ISIS
Republicans: See above.

2008
Democrats
President: Barack Obama (almost totally without relevant experience)
Vice-President: Joe Biden (a six-term Senator, including chairing the Foreign Relations Committee)
Republicans
President: John McCain (fourth-term Senator, including chairing the Armed Services Committee)
Vice-President: Sarah Palin (Where do you think Putin’s planes fly  over on their way in from Russia?)

2004
Democrats
President: John Kerry (four-term U.S. senator, including chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee)
Vice-President: John Edwards (first term senator)
Republicans: President George W. Bush

2000
Democrats
President: Al Gore (sitting vice-president, formerly U.S. Senator who served on Homeland Security and Armed Services committees)
Vice-President: Joe Lieberman (two-term Senator, chaired Homeland Security Committee)
Republicans
President: George W. Bush (Governor)
Vice-President: Dick Cheney (former Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff)

1996
Democrats: President Bill Clinton
Republicans
President: Bob Dole (four-term Senator and the Senate Majority Leader)
Vice-President: Jack Kemp (Congressman, Quarterback and AFL MVP)

1992
Democrats
President: Bill Clinton (Governor)
Vice-President: Al Gore (two-term U.S. Senator who served on Homeland Security and Armed Services committees)
Republicans: President George H.W. Bush

1988
Democrats
President: Michael Dukakis (Governor)
Vice-President: Lloyd Bentsen (three-term U.S. Senator)
Republicans
President: George H.W. Bush (sitting vice-president, former director of the CIA and ambassador to the United Nations)
Vice-President: Dan Quayle (Senator, perpetual punchline)

1984
Democrats
President: Walter Mondale (former vice-president, two-term U.S. Senator, and Ambassador to Japan)
Vice-President: Geraldine Ferraro (House member)
Republicans: President Ronald Reagan

1980
Democrats: President Jimmy Carter
Republicans
President: Ronald Reagan (Governor; Second Coming)
Vice-President: George H.W. Bush (former director of the CIA; ambassador to the United Nations)

1976
Democrats
President: Jimmy Carter (Governor; peanut farmer)
Vice-President: Walter Mondale (two-term U.S. Senator; Ambassador to Japan)
Republicans: President Gerald Ford

This is when I got tired of listing each election, and I’m usually indefatigable with these sorts of things. Still, even in just these three decades, there had always been at least one person on the ticket with legitimate foreign policy experience. I continued to look back beyond 1976 to see where the string was broken. It was back in 1948, when governors Thomas Dewey of New York and Earl Warren of California challenged President Truman and Senator Alben Barkley. Chances are you haven’t heard of at least two of those people, and that’s because that election was nearly 70 years ago.

Of course, everyone weighs experience differently, and that evaluation is usually tied to what letter is next to the candidates’ names in the voting booth. Politics is fun.

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Clinton the Inaccessible*

Having a presidential politics website in 2016 borders on scatology. Many Americans blush at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the two major nominees, but I flew by embarrassment a while ago and am now more fascinated than anything else. A majority of our democratic republic has an unfavorable view of each of these candidates, and yet, democratically, they became the major party nominees and, democratically, one of them will be elected president in just over 70 days. I’m not sure if it’s hilariously paradoxical or paradoxically hilarious, but in either case it feels like we’re living an impossible joke.

The latest development comes from recent Clinton Foundation revelations. While this charitable foundation has done a great deal of good, recent concerns over its impropriety — directing its funds to friends of the Clintons; receiving donations from uncouth sources; granting special access to donors — has left Hillary Clinton with another controversial link to corruption. These controversies can be explained away by Clinton, who has now writhed and twisted herself so much on past positions, statements, and actions that she might qualify as a contortionist.

The individual charges against Clinton are exacerbated by the campaign’s ongoing refusal to give the media a press conference with the presidential favorite. The Washington Post frequently updates a running (and damning) clock of the days since she last stood in front of the gaggle for questions. It’s at 267 days and counting. Even if it’s smart strategy to not risk a gaffe while Trump relentlessly roars them, such an approach is unacceptable in a democracy where the fourth estate vets the candidate because we can’t do it on our own. The American people deserve to see her in less controlled environments than, as the Democratic talking point reminds us, the “over 300 interviews” she’s granted in one-on-one situations.

Say what you want about Trump — and I’ve said plenty — but he’s had the fortitude to stand in front of reporters time and time again. Furthermore, during the primary he fashioned himself a transparent reputation through hundreds of interviews across the networks (though he’s since receded to the safer confines of Fox News) and an all out assault on lobbyists and special interests (since tamed). In many ways, he brings to the table a lot of what you’d want in a Clinton foil. (Of course, in many more ways, he’s really bad at this.)

As such, Trump has ramped up attacks on the Clinton Foundation, which are particularly effective on the heels of the Democratic Primary. It wasn’t that long ago that Bernie Sanders framed Clinton as bought by Wall Street and beholden to interest groups. He wounded her deeply, and Trump is attempting to claw back into the race by ripping that wound wide open.

It’s a smart tactic, partly because it confirms our image of the Washington elite, and partly because she deserves it. When your primary and general election opponents focus on your shady, corrupt, behind-closed-doors dealings (she refuses to allow journalists to her fundraising pitches), Clinton’s decision to not square off against an increasingly frustrated media reinforces her dishonest and untrustworthy reputation (one that a Democratic Senate hopeful had an impossible time denying). Presidents give a lot of press conferences, and she’s applying for that exact job. However, she’s showing herself to be an almost totally inaccessible candidate…

… unless you donate to her campaign or foundation. That’s not transparent leadership. It’s politics as usual. And politics as usual is exactly what Trump is not.

Presidential Politics for America expects Clinton to weather this latest sketchy storm because A) She’s the co-founder of ISIS the slickest family in politics, and B) Donald Trump. The race, however, will tighten.

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Quick Hit Friday: The Rare “Third Term”

(“Quick Hit Fridays”: Where short posts about dumb topics remain unread.)

When it comes to the presidency, Americans have a curious relationship with change. On the one hand, there are built-in incumbency advantages for sitting presidents. By my count, presidents seeking re-election are 22-9, winning 11 of the last 13 times times and now three in a row. These numbers suggest an American electorate that prefers stability over disruption.

This tendency, however, does not extend to trust in the president’s party, despite this party’s likelihood of continuing much of the president’s policies. When the incumbent doesn’t stand for re-election, his successor as party nominee is what I call the “non-incumbent incumbent.” He — and now she — has searched for what’s often dubbed, sometimes inaccurately, a “third term.” But unlike actual presidents standing for another term, the non-incumbent incumbents fail more often than not — only 10 wins in 23 attempts.

Since Hillary Clinton, like last week’s trend, is again pushing back against historical patterns, let’s take a deeper look at the ten rare successes to see if she can learn from them.

Elections of 1808 and 1816
Incumbent Presidents: Thomas Jefferson (1808), James Madison (1816)
Incumbent Party: Democratic-Republican
Successors: James Madison (1808), James Monroe (1816)
Circumstances: Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were our third, fourth, and fifth presidents. All were Democratic-Republicans. All hailed from Virginia, the first American colony and the most populous American state. Each served as Secretary of State to a Virginian president. With George Washington and a host of cabinet officials, these men were part of the hallowed Virginia Dynasty, which controlled the executive branch for 32 of our Constitution’s first 36 years. (Second president, Massachusetts resident, and PPFA idol John Adams provided the only gap.) Madison became our first “third term” president; by Monroe’s re-election, it was up to six terms. (Only FDR and Truman, who gave us five straight terms from one party, have since come close.) This unusual circumstance offers us no insight into modern presidential politics.

Election of 1824
Incumbent President: James Monroe
Incumbent Party: Democratic-Republican
Successor: John Quincy Adams
Circumstances: By James Monroe’s presidency, the Democratic-Republicans were so nationally popular, and the American people so united behind them, that no other national party competed. In the Election of 1824, all four major candidates called themselves Democratic-Republicans. Cheap win here for the incumbent party.

Election of 1836
Incumbent President: Andrew Jackson
Incumbent Party: Democrat
Successor: Martin Van Buren
Circumstances: Seventh President Jackson followed the precedent set by Washington — and followed by Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe — by retiring after two terms. During his divisive presidency, the Democratic-Republicans split into pro-Jackson Democrats, which retained most of the party machinery, and anti-Jackson Whigs, a new party which cobbled together smaller factions united in their hatred of the President. Jackson’s Secretary of State turned VP, Martin Van Buren (the later inspiration for the fearsome Van Buren Boys), ran to succeed him and had Jackson’s endorsement. The Whigs, meanwhile, weren’t yet organized and their electoral votes split between four men. Van Buren won comfortably, though with barely 50 percent of the vote; non-incumbent incumbents were beginning to face a resistant electorate.

Election of 1856
Incumbent President: Franklin Pierce
Incumbent Party: Democrat
Successor: James Buchanan
Circumstances: Pierce is the only case where the sitting president was defeated at the party’s convention. Universally considered among our worst presidents, this ignominious distinction was well earned. Buchanan went on to win the general election with only 45.3 percent of the vote over the Republican and Know Nothing nominees, the high-water mark of his career considering seven states seceded by the end of it.

Election of 1876
Incumbent President: Ulysses S. Grant
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: Rutherford B. Hayes
Circumstances: Democrat Samuel Tilden actually won the popular vote in a disputed result that made Bush v. Gore look like a bipartisan rendition of Kumbaya. The Electoral College finished with its tightest margin ever, 185-184 in favor of Hayes, but only after 20 disputed electoral votes all went to him. Tilden and the Democrats (band name, called it) relented to Hayes only after the Republicans agreed to remove soldiers from the post-Civil War south, ending Reconstruction.

Election of 1880
Incumbent President: Rutherford B. Hayes
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: James Garfield
Circumstances: Hayes promised to be a one-term president, giving us an open contest four years after his controversial victory. However, reminiscent of 1876, when the results of the Electoral College were the closest in history, 1880 gave us the closest popular vote in presidential history, 48.27 to 48.25 percent. Results vary, but the two candidates were probably separated by less than 10,000 votes, and perhaps as few as 1,900. Garfield led this Republican defense of the White House, and he was rewarded with an assassin’s bullet three months after his inauguration.

Election of 1908
Incumbent President: Theodore Roosevelt
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: William Howard Taft
Circumstances: Hugely popular President Roosevelt championed Taft, his friend and Secretary of War, as his successor. That was enough for the American people, especially against two-(and then three-)time loser William Jennings Bryan. Taft won with only 51.57 percent of the vote, more than enough against Bryan’s 43 percent. (Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs peeled off 2.83 percent of the vote, the strongest showing for a Socialist until Barack Hussein Obama exactly one hundred years later.)

Election of 1928
Incumbent President: Calvin Coolidge
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: Herbert Hoover
Circumstances: A booming economy helped the Republicans hold the White House in a landslide with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. The history books vindicate the American people’s decision, as Hoover ushered in many minutes of economic stability all the way until his ninth month in office.

Election of 1988
Incumbent President: Ronald Reagan
Incumbent Party: Republican
Successor: George HW Bush
Circumstances: Vice-President Bush won big on the coattails of popular President Reagan. Still, summer polling had Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis ahead big. Bush ultimately became the fourth and so far final sitting vice-president to win the presidency — the first since Van Buren.

General Thoughts

1) The non-incumbent incumbent’s limited success is boosted by early American history. The first four efforts won by a candidate of the sitting party (1808, 1816, 1824, 1836) took place before one of them lost (1844, when James K. Polk’s Democrats swept into power against the Whig’s Henry Clay). Since the first four, they have only 6 victories in the last 19 attempts. Moreover, dating back almost 90 years, the non-incumbent incumbent has just one win in seven tries (Bush in ’88). Not good for Clinton!

2) Few of these elections give us normal circumstances to help us with 2016.

  • 1808 and 1816 were Virginian forefathers of the revolutionary generation batting away challengers like tennis balls.
  • 1824 was a one-party election.
  • 1836 and 1856 had one united party against multiple major challengers.
  • 1876 and 1880 were tight as tight can be.

It’s worth noting, of course, that every election has quirks that make them an event we can’t perfectly apply to future elections. The same goes for learning from this one. In 50 years, when a non-incumbent incumbent is running for office and Hillary Clinton is an example of someone who did it successfully, Future PPFA will say, “Yeah, but her opponent was Donald Trump.” Fair enough, FPPFA. Fair enough.

3) Nevertheless, that leaves us just three elections where the non-incumbent incumbent has won under normal circumstances (and even 1908 had nearly half of the voting public asking for someone other than the president’s party). Therefore, as I said at the top of this column, I can’t help but get the impression that Americans like change if the neither candidate is already president.

4) So what must Clinton do to fight against history? What did the elections of 1908, 1928, and 1988 have in common? Well, it might be out of her hands. The first and last had all time popular presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan; candidates Taft and Bush had the best possible surrogates in their quests to succeed them. In 1928, as noted, the economy economy was in flush, if vulnerable, economic times. Of course the people would stick with the party in charge.

In sum, the election could just end up being a referendum on the President. She needs to pray that Obama’s approval rating stays above water and the economy doesn’t take a turn for the worse. Otherwise Donald Trump is waiting as the “change” candidate, or, as he puts it: “what-the-hell-do-you-have-to-lose?” In American history, much to Hillary Clinton’s chagrin, the electorate more often than not says, “Good point.”

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The Biased Media

In the Election of 1796, the first presidential election without George Washington, the two most likely successors — Vice-President John Adams of the budding Federalist Party and former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republicans — found themselves skewered by segments of the press.

Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of his namesake, exemplified the charge against Adams with a pro-Jefferson newspaper, Philadelphia’s General Advertiser, later called the Aurora. He gave us our first “Elitist!” argument, charging that Adams “would deprive you of a voice in choosing your president and senate, and make both hereditary.” Bache asked his readers if they wanted, “this champion of kings, ranks, and titles to be your president.” As an example of Adams’s monarchical leanings, Bache warned that if Adams were elected, his son, John Quincy, would become president, too. (Lucky guess.)

The Federalists, however, were not to be outdone. They referred to Jefferson as an atheistic, anarchistic coward. An infamous Federalist description of the Jeffersonians described them as “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin.” The Gazette of the United States ran a letter that implicated Jefferson in an affair with one of his female slaves. (Another lucky guess?) Media bias in presidential politics was born.

It didn’t die. Four years later, in the rematch between Jefferson and President Adams, the Connecticut Courant warned of a Jefferson presidency in a way that makes you wonder if perhaps Donald Trump was a subscriber:

“Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

Republican newspapers aggressively countered. The Richmond Examiner labeled Adams a “repulsive pedant” who was, “in his private life, one of the most egregious fools upon the continent. . . . [He is] that strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness,” and a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Hermaphroditical character!

Newspapers regularly took sides in this “First Party System,” a product of the famous Hamilton-Jefferson feud in President Washington’s cabinet. Indeed, a biased media was the norm; partisan writings fueled the newspaper business. These media biases continued throughout American history:

  • In 1836, the New York American, which supported the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison, called Democratic candidate Martin Van Buren an “illiterate, sycophant, and politically corrupt” politician. (Foreshadowing this November, the corrupt politician won.)
  • In the rematch four years later, Harrison, in his second attempt at the presidency, became the first candidate to deliver a stump speech. The Democratic Globe did not take kindly to such unbecoming tactics, snorting, “What a prodigy of garrulous egotism!” The Daily Advertiser described him as the “bufoonery of 1840.” (Or perhaps THIS foreshadows 2016: the egotistical buffoon won.)
  • In 1880, Harper’s Weekly described Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock as “loose, aimless, unintelligent, absurd,” while the Nation opined “The General’s talk about [tariffs] is that of a man who knows nothing about it, and who apparently, until he began to talk had never thought about it.” (Sound familiar?)
  • In 1936, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for re-election against Alf Landon (I swear Alf Landon was his real name and he was a real person who was actually a real twentieth century major party nominee for president), dissenting papers accused the President of being flanked by a “Communist entourage.” Specifically, the Chicago Tribune ran a column called “Moscow Orders Reds in U.S. To Back Roosevelt” and it worried that a FDR win would lead to “Moscow in the White House.” The paper had a countdown until the election, warning readers how long they had to “save your country.” (Our country wasn’t saved.)
  • Looking at the 1948 election, Nathan B. Blumberg, in his book “One-Party Press?,” found that 65.2 percent of newspapers (which represented 78.5 percent of circulation) expressed an official editorial preference for Republican challenger Thomas Dewey while only 15.4 percent (which represented only 10 percent of circulation) expressed preference for Democratic President Truman.

Of course, the closer we get to today, these tidbits get less funny and interesting and more frustrating and personal. Still, for the whole of presidential politics, to have a media is to have a biased one.


Is 2016 over the line, though? It’s hard to top “rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced,” but we’d be hard-pressed to find an election in modern political history where the media has been more uniformly caustic toward a candidate than it is toward Donald Trump.

Now, there’s two dominant schools of thought regarding the media’s actions. One says that the media shouldn’t pick sides, and that it’s despicable that either the press has gone after Trump as much as it has, or that it’s gone after him more than it has Clinton. This school’s most notable professor is Trump himself.

It’s worth mentioning, here, that accusing the media of having a liberal bent is nothing new. In its entry on media bias, Wikipedia, which gets edited, checked, and rechecked by contributors of all ideologies, walks you through a sizable sampling of such charges, including examples and evidence, before listing a dozen high-profile authors who have taken deep dives into the subject to make their case.

Of course, if you scroll down from that section, you get to the “conservative bias” section, which lists examples of conservative media along with some explanations, counterarguments, and context for the ostensible liberal media bias, not the least of which is that blaming the liberal media is a conservative strategy. Trump is taking this strategy further. If he successfully invalidates the media, then it doesn’t matter what they say about him. He’d have free reign to say whatever he wanted without fear of admonition from a toothless fourth estate. In sum, his “biased media” campaign is extremely self-serving; even better, he gets to collapse it into a larger “rigged” accusation against the entire political system, which has coincidentally made a comeback in recent weeks. (He can’t lose Pennsylvania, a state carried by the Democrat for the last six elections, unless “cheating goes on”? Puh-lease.)

Now, the second school of thought says that Trump has earned nearly every bit of criticism thrown his way, and Hillary Clinton has actually received an appropriate amount of scrutiny. In other words, as The Atlantic writes, it’s his own fault that he continues to get most of the negative attention from the media, and if any presidential candidate behaved the way Trump has, the media would have had a field day just the same.

PPFA’s enrollment in this second school should not be surprising. If memory serves, I never said anything particularly harsh about Republican contenders Rubio, Cruz, Christie, and Kasich. In fact, I recall being mostly complimentary of them.

  • called Rubio the field’s “most qualified foreign policy candidate,” one who was so skilled and energetic that it was like he was “created in a laboratory” to defeat Clinton, the “fossilized also-ran of decades past.”
  • I dedicated this site’s most widely read column to Ted Cruz’s tremendous campaign.
  • I lauded Christie’s efforts to put people ahead of party during his tenure as a Republican governor in a dark blue state.
  • And I went to one of Kasich’s rallies before writing about how I admired him.

If one of them became the nominee, I’m confident this website could have done a relatively straight evaluation of his race against Clinton.

There were two GOP candidates, however, that I had trouble tolerating: Trump and Dr. Ben Carson. They both seemed out of their league. They had skills in their challenging fields, but they knew little of politics and less of policy. It was frustrating to see their rise in the polls against more experienced and knowledgeable candidates that could have given the Republican Party a genuine nominee, one that could not only accurately and fairly represent the nominating party, but also one that could have given the American people a more legitimate prosecution of Hillary Clinton. Their inexperience can be excused, but their ignorance could not. Consequently, throughout the primaries, I was harsh toward Carson and Donald J. Trump, thinking that once they were eliminated, I could hopefully manage some unbiased analysis of the general election.

But then one of them became the nominee. Now I’m here, unable to play it straight, admitting that while I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton, who will almost certainly not earn my vote, “I really, really want to see Donald Trump lose, more than I’ve ever wanted to see a candidate lose, and the bigger the blowout the more gratifying it would be.”


I think the media, which has unquestionably been harsh on Trump, arrived at a similar place, though it began at a different starting point. Early on, it was somewhat inadvertently Trump’s best friend. Just as he hacked disenfranchised Americans across the country and knew how they ticked, he hacked the media, too. He knew his cult of personality led to ratings, and ratings is the primary driver of content. The result was record amounts of free media — nearly $2 billion by Super Tuesday:

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and $4 billion by the end of the Republican Primary. Compare that to what Clinton was receiving as the leader in the Democratic race, and it was no contest between them until we entered into the general election last month:

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What’s more is that this coverage of Trump may not have been as harmful as you may have thought it was. The verbosely titled Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that in the primaries’ early stages, “major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers — a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls” and that “Trump’s coverage was positive in tone — he received far more ‘good press’ than ‘bad press.'”

With these conclusions in mind, I think there’s a good chance that the media feels guilty about facilitating Trump’s rise, which might explain some of their negative Trump coverage today. Florida Republican strategist Alex Patton agrees, offering that “What you’re seeing here is an overcorrection by the media in some cases. . . . I think the media realized they created Donald Trump. And when you look at the media bias starting to emerge and how Trump just dominated the media coverage in the primaries, some of this is the media going, ‘Oh damn, we’re responsible for this.'”

And if the fact that the media has been mostly useful for Trump doesn’t blow your mind enough, some argue that it hasn’t been as helpful to Clinton as Trump wants you to believe. Even setting aside biased, wordy, full-throated defenses of Clinton as more aggrieved than Trump at the hands of the media, there is still reason to think Clinton has had it rough. The Harvard Kennedy School found that in 2015, “Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate. In 11 of the 12 months, her ‘bad news’ outpaced her ‘good news,’ usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings in 2015.”

Source: Media Tenor, January 1-December 31, 2015.

The social media analytics company Crimson Hexagon corroborates that surprising conclusion:

This counterintuitive finding will become an increasingly common drum beat from liberals in their media bubble, though it will be a preposterous and quickly dismissed idea for conservatives in theirs.

Also relevant is that it’s not just the liberal media (and PPFA) that has been critical of his campaign. In addition to Republican political defections piling up, tried and true conservative media outlets and personalities have refused to climb on board the Trump Train, even with the possibility of Hillary Clinton, for whom they share no love, waiting as the 45th president.

Leon Wolf of the conservative RedState.com, for example, lambasted Trump earlier this month with his: “Drop The Media Bias Crutch, Put On Your Big Boy Pants, And Do Better.” On the one hand, Wolf acknowledges the liberal bent of the media, but with his other he slaps Trump across the face for thinking it’s the media’s fault he’s doing so poorly. Wolf think that the media has been critical of Clinton, but the reason it can’t focus on her more is that Trump can’t get out of his own way: “The media, including traditionally liberal outlets like CNN have aggressively and openly and repeatedly called Hillary Clinton a liar for her responses to the email scandal. Every time a new revelation comes up, the media dutifully covers it and rakes a Hillary operative over the coals. The reason they don’t stay on these stories is because Trump won’t let them. . . . It isn’t just the email scandal, just look at how aggressively one specific liberal outlet (the Washington Post) has covered a relatively small scandal (for the Clintons), the Clinton Foundation’s ties to a shady Haitian mine deal

“Look, Hillary Clinton did not get to be nearly as unpopular as Donald Trump just by wearing bad pantsuits. She is regarded as untrustworthy because the media has in fact reported many of the ways in which she has been repeatedly dishonest.”

And it goes well beyond RedState.com. The National Review is prominently anti-Trump. So is George Will. So is Glenn Beck. So is Bill Kristol. So is Mike Murphy. So is Joe Scarborough. So is everyone else an increasingly petulant Sean Hannity won’t forgive. These conservative critics are surely inoculated from RINO charges considering they’ve each been Republicans for decades longer than Trump has, including the years where Trump repeatedly praised the Clintons while these detractors denounced them. If people side with Trump over some of those names, they’re signing up for an entirely different set of principles than those of the modern Republican Party.

A Clinton Administration looms, but Republican voters nominated a candidate that many conservatives and Republicans can’t even pretend to like and say they’ll vote for. I think that goes to show you that the scrutiny toward Trump isn’t just liberal propaganda. It’s something quite deserved.

But hey, at least they don’t say he’s a hideous hermaphroditical character.