Surprising Shrinkage

The Republican field in the presidential sweepstakes is shrinking.  Yesterday Scott Walker made a surprisingly quick exit from the race, following Rick Perry’s departure a few days earlier.

Walker’s exit was apparently due to the modern political trifecta of failure:  lack of money, falling poll numbers, and perceived gaffes.  Walker got into the race with high hopes, as a successful governor in a purple state whose budget and tax cutting efforts were applauded by many conservatives.  He did well for a while, but never really seemed to get much traction, his numbers fell as new candidates entered the race, and although he was in both of the “top half” Republican candidate debates he didn’t make much of an impression.  He left the race with a call for Republicans to back a candidate with an optimistic approach to the issues.

It’s hard to imagine that politics could get more front-loaded than it has been over the past few election cycles, but it evidently has.  This year we’re seeing serious candidates drop out after only a few glitzy debates, months before any actual voter has a say in a caucus or primary.  It seems crazy — but it just reaffirms the power of TV, polls, and campaign contributions.

The departure of Walker and Perry may say something about the mood of the electorate as well as the new reality of the political process.  Both Perry and Walker were successful governors of significant states.  Right now, however, voters seem taken with the non-politicians, with Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Dr. Ben Carson leading the way.  If voters aren’t interested in electing someone with experience in governing, that’s not good news for John Kasich, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal — or Jeb Bush.

Did Walker panic, or simply make a wise decision to pull the plug on a campaign that turned out to be a dud . . . or does it mean something more?  In any case, if this trend keeps up we’ll soon be able to squeeze all of the remaining Republican candidates into one debate.

The Republican Hair Club For Men

Say what you will about the Republican candidates for President, but you have to concede one thing:  they are displaying a fantastically diverse set of hairstyles.  With 16 men ranging from 40s to nearly 70 in the field and not a chrome domer in the bunch, the GOP guys have beaten the odds.  In fact, it’s so statistically improbable that you have to wonder if it isn’t random chance and instead was the a plan of a shadowy, secret organization . . . .

Chairman TRUMP:  OK, I’m calling this meeting of the Republican Hair Club for Men to order.  Gentlemen, congratulations on a good first debate.  Governor Bush, do you have a report for us?

Gov. BUSH:  Yes, Mr. Chairman.  As you all know, our plan was to subconsciously appeal to the deep-seated hair fantasies and vanities of the American male by presenting candidates who cover the broadest possible range of different coiffures short of outright baldness  And I’m pleased to say it has worked beyond our wildest dreams.  Our studies show that not only did that first Fox debate achieve record ratings, but the vast majority of men who tuned in really were just checking out our different stylings.

Sen. CRUZ:  And I’m betting a number of those viewers saw the benefits of Brylcreem, didn’t they?  The success of Mad Men made American men recognize that “a little dab’ll do ya” is a darn good look.  In fact, you might even say it’s slick.  Get it?

Chairman TRUMP (sighing):  Senator — we get it, we just don’t want it.  I’m from the “wet head is dead” school myself.  And I know Governor Bush prefers his distracted professor look, Governor Walker has the “boyish front, bald spot in back” ‘do covered, Dr. Carson’s strongly representing the short hair contingent, Senator Rubio and Governor Huckabee are displaying the benefits of a razor cut at both ends of the age spectrum . . . .

Sen. PAUL (interrupting):  And don’t forget us Kentuckians who want a haircut that reminds everyone of Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap!

Chairman TRUMP:  Still having a bad day, eh?  Yes, Governor Kasich?

Gov. KASICH:  To add to Governor Bush’s report, I wanted to note that the polling data is showing that my little surge in New Hampshire is almost entirely attributable to my coiffure.  I was going for a rumpled, devil-may-care look, but in the North Country where they hibernate for most of the winter, it’s been interpreted as “bed head.”  It just shows the political value of an ambiguous, multi-purpose styling that covers a number of bases.

Sen. RUBIO:  That’s an excellent point, Governor.  And it reminds me:  the barbers, hair stylists, and product manufacturers that have been of our strongest supporters have identified a gaping hole in our coverage of the spectrum of men’s hairstyles.

Dr. CARSON:  It’s the mullet, isn’t it?

Sen. RUBIO:  Precisely.  How about it, Governor Christie?  As the representative of the Garden State, you’re the logical choice, aren’t you?  Of course, you’d have to get a tattoo and maybe a piercing, too.

Gov. CHRISTIE:  I think you’re confused there, Senator.  I could see it if you were asking me to adopt a greasy or spiky Jersey Shore-type cut, but a mullet really is more of an Appalachian look, so I’ll have to defer to Senator Paul to take his tousled ‘do to the obvious next level.

Gov. WALKER:  Speaking of the next level, Mr. Chairman, when are you going to share with us your secret about how you hold that extravagant mane of yours — whatever it is — in place?  Is it a gel or cream?  Is it some kind of top-secret spray?  Lacquer?

Chairman TRUMP:  Sorry, boys — but that information is more classified than the email found on Hillary Clinton’s private server.

Gov. HUCKABEE:  It’s about time that someone talked about the opposition!  I suggest that each of you stop this orgy of self-congratulation and think for a minute about the Democratic front-runner.  Let’s face it:  Secretary Clinton, alone, has covered more hairdos than our entire group.  She’s had short cuts, long looks, hair flipped up at the end, hair curled under — I’m sure if I did enough internet research I could find an ’80s big hair coiff and maybe even a beehive in her past, too.  It’s incredibly impressive.  She’s just one woman, yet she’s managed to span virtually the entire spectrum of women’s hairstyles!

Chairman TRUMP (suddenly somber):  He’s right, men — we’ve definitely got our work cut out for us.  This meeting is now adjourned.  Senator Cruz, could you clean off the back of your chair before you go?

Debate Download

God help me, but I watched the Republican debate tonight.  UJ — who for some mysterious reason lacks a functioning TV — decided he wanted to come over and watch the debate, and Kish and  I watched it with him.

My thoughts?  The Trump balloon popped tonight.  The forever-frowning Donald looked like a self-mocking SNL skit up there.  He’s a pompous blowhard who obviously doesn’t know much about the issues at a granular level, and it shows.  When he talks about how his businesses are taking “advantage of the federal laws” he’s not exactly speaking to the lives of normal Americans.  I think we’ve seen the scowling, high water mark of the populist uncandidate.

As for the rest of the field, I thought Ben Carson was a clear loser until the last few questions, when he recovered somewhat.  I was surprised by how well John Kasich fared.  I thought Chris Christie and Marco Rubio did well, and I have to believe that the evangelical element poses clear upper limits for Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz.  Jeb Bush seemed to flounder a bit, Scott Walker is Everyman, and Rand Paul looks likes he’s wears a wild animal pelt on his scalp.  Let’s see . . . have I forgotten anyone?

I’ll say this for the Republican debate tonight:  I’m not sure you’re getting much nuance and sophistication in answers that are limited to 1 minute — or in some cases 30 seconds — but it was fast-moving.  What does it mean?  I think nothing.

. . . And Reporters Should Act Like Reporters

One other point about the salutary role of the press in exposing Representative Todd Akin’s ignorant views about rape and women: the press can only fill that role if reporters actually act like reporters.

Unfortunately, the situation that produced Akin’s Waterloo — where one public figure sits down with one reporter to answer questions — happens all too rarely these days.  How often do political figures even appear on shows like Meet The Press?  Rather than a Senator, foreign leader, or some other actual public servant, the guest often is a campaign manager or other unelected individual who is there to voice the talking points of a particular candidate, campaign, or party.  Moreover, much of such shows is devoted to “roundtable discussions” where celebrity journalists who never have done much real reporting express their opinions about the “issues of the day.”  No doubt the producers of those Sunday morning shows think the arguments that ensue make for “better television” than the Meet The Press format of the ’60s, where a panel of three serious, gray-suited reporters respectfully fired questions at that week’s guest.

To illustrate the point, consider the first Meet The Press that aired after Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate.  The two “newsmaker” guests were Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Obama campaign guru David Axelrod, followed by a panel of journalists arguing about the impact of “Obamacare” and Ryan’s proposed budget on Medicare.  Does anyone really expect much in the way of “news” (or enlightenment, for that matter) from such a lineup?  Given the focus on Medicare, rather than featuring an ever-present hired gun like Axelrod or a tiresome panel of TV personalities, how about bringing in the chief actuary of the Medicare program, or one of the Medicare trustees, and have knowledgeable reporters who cover Medicare ask them some meaningful questions about the programs, its condition, and the expected impact of the competing proposals?

The important role of the press in our democracy means that the news media must actually be willing to play that role:  as the skeptical, neutral questioner interested in ferreting out the truth, rather than the point-of-view advocate for one position or another.  We can celebrate the role of the press in showing something important and disturbing about Congressman Akin, but we can also regret that the press — due to disinterest, or laziness, or a concern for ratings — doesn’t play that role as often as it should, or could.

What Of Walker’s Win In Wisconsin?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker became the first American governor to survive a recall election last night.  In a rematch of a 2010 contest, he gathered more than 53 percent of the vote and beat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett — by a margin slightly better than that Walker achieved in 2010.

As is often the case with such events, people want to draw sweeping inferences from this one event.  We’ll see many articles about what this means for the future of the public employee unions that brought about Walker’s recall election after he pushed through reforms of public employee collective bargaining rights, for Republican governors in other states, and for President Obama’s reelection prospects.  It’s a natural human tendency, I think, to want to see a broad pattern in isolated events — but often those perceived patterns don’t really exist.

Public employee unions aren’t going away.  They lost in their bid to unseat Walker in Wisconsin, but they defeated another public employee collective bargaining law in Ohio.  Where’s the pattern in that?  Members of public employee unions, like other members of private-sector unions, believe in collective bargaining rights.  One reason they objected so strongly to Walker’s reforms is that they believe the reforms improperly interfere with fairly gained, bargained-for rights and benefits, won after hard-fought negotiations in which union members may have given in on other issues.  In their eyes, the fact that taxpayers and people in the private sector might view those rights and benefits as overly rich is irrelevant, because they are stalwart believers in the collective bargaining process that achieved those rights.  Public employee unions in other states aren’t going to roll over just because the unions did not prevail in Wisconsin.  If they did, it would undercut the entire idea of public employee labor unions.

I also doubt that Walker’s win is going to charge Republican governors in other states with enthusiasm for taking on public employee unions and pushing sweeping reforms — at least, no more so than is absolutely necessary to achieve balanced budgets and govern responsibly.  Walker prevailed, but his actions precipitated a bruising political battle, sidetracked his term with a recall campaign and election, and ultimately resulted in more than $60 million in campaign spending, much of it by organizations outside of Wisconsin.  It’s therefore no surprise that Walker was playing the pipes of peace after yesterday’s result.  Although politicians love to talk about “fighting” for voters, one way or another, most of them are inveterate compromisers who aren’t looking to pick a knife fight, especially when they know they can’t count on advocacy groups supporting their efforts to the same extent that occurred in Wisconsin.

As for President Obama, he largely stayed out of the Wisconsin recall election fray and will be able to depict it as a one-shot, one-state result that doesn’t have broad national significance.  How do you glean national trends from an election rematch that produced pretty much the same result as the initial 2010 election between Walker and Barrett?  If there is a lesson there, it is that voters stuck with Walker, despite all of the controversy and protests, in a contest that involved extraordinary spending by both sides.  But how many of those Walker voters cast their ballots because they object, in principle, to recall elections under such circumstances?  How many were motivated by special concerns not found in the national electorate?  I’m just not convinced that the Wisconsin results in June are going to predict much with respect to national results in November.

The Wisconsin recall election is an interesting mid-year event that may be the start of a trend — or it may not.

Recalls, Rematches, And Redos

Next Tuesday, June 5, Wisconsin voters will go to the polls to vote in the “recall” election of Republican Governor Scott Walker.  Political junkies, in Wisconsin and nationally, will be watching the results carefully.

The recall election is the result of a petition drive that began after Walker pushed through reforms to address Wisconsin’s fiscal problems — reforms that public employee unions didn’t like, but that appear to be working and allowing the state and local governments to get their budgets under control.

The recall election is a rematch of the 2010 gubernatorial election between Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.  Huge amounts of money — much of it from out of state — is being spent on the election.  Interestingly, Barrett’s chief objection to Walker doesn’t seem to be the merits of the reforms that produced the recall election.  Instead, he has raised other, minor issues and seems most troubled because he thinks Walker has been “divisive.”  If a politician has been successful in dealing with seemingly intractable problems, however, he’s likely to have upset some people. Why should that disqualify him from finishing his term and standing for reelection at that point?

The Wisconsin election just shows why recall elections are a bad idea and should be reserved for rare circumstances — like criminal activity by the incumbent.  Recalls should not be had just because a segment of the population disagrees with the incumbent’s approach to issues.  Elections should have consequences, and when they do the losing side shouldn’t be able to force costly redos that just distract from the public business.

The polls are indicating that Walker will survive, and national Democrats are downplaying the notion that the Wisconsin election reflects the national mood come November.  I don’t think they need to worry about that.  Wisconsin has been mired in a bitter brew of its own making over the past few years, and I’m sure that many voters just want to bring an end to the constant fighting and let Walker finish his term.  I’d be cautious about drawing too many national inferences from the Wisconsin results.

Recall Wisconsin?

Remember Wisconsin?  It’s been knocked off the front pages by more pressing stories, but earlier this year Wisconsin dominated the national news when Governor Scott Walker sought to reform public employee collective bargaining laws, Democratic Senators fled the state, and protesters occupied the Wisconsin Statehouse for days.

Today Wisconsin is back in the news, writing another chapter in the saga of the public employee collective bargaining law.  Six Republican Senators face unusual mid-summer recall votes today.  If Democrats can win three of those seats, the Wisconsin Senate will flip to Democratic control.  Proponents and opponents of the collective bargaining law have poured millions of dollars — at least $28 million, according to estimates — into advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.  Polling data indicates that all six of the races are close, with turnout likely to tell the tale.  And who can predict how many voters will show up at the polls on a hot summer day?

In Ohio, there is special interest in Wisconsin because the Buckeye State followed Wisconsin’s lead in enacting a public employee collective bargaining law.  In Ohio, the fight will resume in November, when the electorate will vote on a public referendum on that law.  Wisconsin’s votes today could be an indicator of how the political tides are flowing.  I also wonder whether the recent national news about government spending, debt, and credit ratings will have any effect on voters.  Wisconsin Republicans have defended the collective bargaining law, in part, on the ground that it has meant savings for cash-strapped state and local government entities.  If recent events have made voters more concerned about government spending, that may work to the Republicans’ advantage.