The Business of Political Fancydancing

Steve Russell

Being allowed a space to state opinions and argue policy issues is a privilege that carries a downside for honest pundits. When we make a mistake, it’s very public. Usually, there’s a long hiatus between the mistake and the evidence, which is why some pundits weave an illusion that they never err and others write an annual column summing up their errors.

My own practice is to confess my errors as soon as I understand them. I made a doozy when I predicted that the 2016 U.S. presidential election would be more focused on real policy issues and less crazy than the circus in 2012. I also predicted that the Republicans would not repeat having a primary that resembled a clown car because, I said, they had lots of candidates who had actually held responsible positions.

Mea maxima culpa.

I accept that I was wrong but the crazy quotient continues to rise and I kept thinking that if I delayed my confession the tide of idiocy would subside enough to make my prediction look a little better. Like an investor who has shorted a stock that just keeps going up, I’ve decided it’s time to cut my loses. The 2016 elections are finding heights of nuttiness beyond my ken.

My best diagnosis is that the voters really do not apprehend political science as a science. They swallow the populist swill that all governing requires is “common sense” and anybody can do it. Some claim that government should “run like a business” and so business is the best preparation for the job.

History begs to differ. Two presidents had business in their background but had become politicians—Harry Truman, a failed haberdasher, and George H.W. Bush, a successful oilman. Both did well enough as president nobody would call them terrible.

Only three presidents could reasonably be described as “businessmen” at the time they took the highest elective office: Warren Harding (publisher), Herbert Hoover (investor), and George W. Bush (failed as oilman; some success owning a baseball team).

It would be difficult to find a ranked list of U.S. presidents that would not place all three businessmen in the bottom tier.

In this cycle, the Democrats had a fairly broad selection by political philosophy in Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders. The only non-politician, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, was squeezed off the debate stage and therefore out of the race with late manipulation of the rules to that end by the Democratic National Committee. Under Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the DNC kept a thumb on the scales for Hillary Clinton.

The Republicans, in addition to people with political experience within a much narrower ideological band than the Democrats, offered non-politicians Ben Carson, an accomplished neurosurgeon, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and the eventual winner, Donald J. Trump.

Donald Trump is founder and CEO of The Trump Organization, based on a real estate firm inherited from his father and later branching off into entertainment and consumer goods. His wide swath as a businessman has left a trail of strategic bankruptcies and litigation of failure to pay debts and other forms of fraud. His primary advantage was high name recognition from a reality TV show, The Apprentice, on which he popularized the catch phrase, “You’re fired!”

The next failure of a Trump project is expected to be the Trump Taj Mahal casino. Trump’s management blames the workers for the failure. Hedge fund manager Chris DeMuth, Jr., commented on the latest Trump crash on the investment blog, Seeking Alpha:

Following the shuttering of the casino, it will probably be demolished. It is unclear what the collateral damage will be to the surrounding economy. In summary, fall plans for Trump include:

1. Abject failure

2. Economic collapse

3. Blaming others in defeat

4. Smoking hole in the ground

What jumped out at me, because of my adventures in casting my fate and my family's to the blowing winds of electoral politics, was "blaming others in defeat."

His casino failure is his workers. His electoral failure is about to be blamed on the “rigged system.” A more honest complaint would blame it on the failure of a Republican attempt to rig the system.

The “Obama coalition” that handed the GOP its ass in 2008 and 2012 was composed of racial minorities—including Indians—and young people, all of whom (with the exception of Asians) have a history of low voter turnout.

In a report on the defeat at the hands of the Obama coalition, the Republican National Committee recommended that the party adopt policies more accommodating to the interests of racial minorities and young people. That would have been one rational response.

The Republicans in the trenches chose instead to pass laws in the many state houses they controlled to make voting more difficult for the people not voting to suit them. This became a viable alternative when the Supreme Court struck down the “preclearance” requirement in the Voting Rights Act. Preclearance required states with a history of racial discrimination to submit material changes in election laws to the Justice Department for review.

The result of doing away with preclearance was long lines on election day in states like Arizona and Texas and photo ID laws in just about every state the Republicans controlled. These laws were justified as an attack on an epidemic of “voter fraud” that could not be documented in any of the affected states.

Striking the preclearance requirement did not legalize voting laws that suppress minority votes without any benefit to balance the bad result. The lawsuits filed against those discriminatory laws are now coming to trial with predictable results.

Nobody could deny the existence of voter fraud, but voter fraud on the retail level—ineligible voters—has never stolen an election and is fairly easy to catch with garden-variety poll watchers and diligent election judges.

The voter frauds that have stolen elections in South Texas and Chicago and been alleged in many urban areas are at the wholesale level. Election judges are in on the fraud and it’s hard for poll watchers to see since it is paperwork being manipulated rather than people. Voter ID laws can’t touch the effective kind of fraud.

Based on my own elections, I have an opinion why Trump is losing, and it’s not voter fraud. It’s the legendary Trump ego.

I have experienced defeat and victory and I own them both.

One thing about running for office at any level is that you will never be short of advice. Plenty of people will be telling you whether to run, how to allocate resources, and how to spend your limited campaigning energy.

I understood early on that there is a lot of advice and much of it is contradictory.

I now understand that fact is an important preparation for actually wielding power, should the voters entrust you with some. An important part of the necessary skill set is knowing when to take advice and when to ignore it. (You never totally ignore it. You always thank people for advice given in good faith whether you intend to follow it or not.)

In 2008, neither Barack Obama nor John McCain had decided to run on economic issues and neither was qualified by experience or even by education to deal with economic issues on the scale presented by the Great Recession. Response to the emergency became, for both candidates, an exercise in seeking advice quickly and evaluating it properly.

McCain listened to supply siders like Phil Gramm, who co-authored the law that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act firewall between commercial and investment banking. A fire spreading to commercial banks from investment banks was the immediate problem in 2008.

Obama listened to demand siders like Larry Summers, who had mostly been reduced to shouting warnings from the back of the bus since the Reagan Revolution. However, even Reagan himself practiced some demand side practicality. Reagan and Bush 43 both used traditional tools when push came to shove even while refusing to back off the supply side rhetoric.

The U.S. economy would be in a lot better place today if Republican Primary voters had heeded Bush 41 in 1980 when he dubbed supply side "voodoo economics."

In 2008, neither Obama nor McCain had any chops for the crisis engulfing the job they were seeking. In McCain's defense, he might have been confused by a growing chorus blaming the crisis on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley law that repealed Glass-Steagall and/or the fact he had to publicly distance himself from Gramm, his chief economic guru, when Gramm called the people watching their retirement accounts disappear "a nation of whiners."

Obama passed the audition and McCain did not.

Trump? He does not do advice taking.

He knows more about making war than the generals, because he attended a military prep school.

He knows more about foreign policy than career diplomats and he claims, modestly, “my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”

He knows more about trade policy because he paid someone to write a book with his name on it called The Art of the Deal. Trump’s ghostwritten book is the second best book ever, behind The Bible. Especially Two Corinthians.

Should Trump be elected and demonstrate I am wrong about his ego getting in the way of governing, it will be the happiest confession of punditry error I’ve ever had to make. Right now, it looks unlikely he will get elected and even more unlikely he will keep his ego in check if he does.

All of this leads to the conclusion that the United States is really, really lucky that Donald Trump knows more about how to run political campaigns than those who do it for a living.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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Sammy7's picture
Humpty Trumpty sat on his wall, Humpty Trumpty had a great fall, all of his whores and all of his din, couldn’t get Trumpty out of the hole he was in.
turbojesus's picture
Your words fall thudding like the guano of the Great Owl. Dig through droppings for the skeletons of rats?