Boot the Mute

Cursor_and_Minnesota_gets_D-_grade_in_2015_State_Integrity_Investigation___Center_for_Public_IntegrityWhen Republicans took over the Minnesota House of Representatives, they got their chance to show Minnesotans their preferred style of governing.

Think of all of the things Republicans could have done to strut their stuff for voters. They could have enacted reforms to improve Minnesota laws regarding public access to information. They might have reformed Minnesota laws related to legislative accountability, ethics enforcement or state pension fund management. After all, the Center for Public Integrity gives Minnesota — a state that often can’t stop congratulating itself about how ethical it’s government is — an “F” grade in all of those areas.  DFLers didn’t improve governnance in those areas, so Republicans could have showed them up.

But instead, Republicans leaders have, I kid you not, installed a “master mute” button in the House chambers to shush debate that discomforts them.  MinnPost’s Briana Bierschbach  explains the scene when Minnesota’s first learned of the button’s existence:

On May 22 (2016), with less than an hour to go before a deadline to finish work for the 2016 legislative session, the bonding bill landed on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, standing at the rostrum in front of the chamber, quickly readied the nearly $1 billion package of construction projects for a final vote, but Democrats in the minority weren’t happy. Several members picked up their microphones and shouted in protest, saying there wasn’t enough time to read the entire bill, much less make any changes to the proposal.

Then an odd thing happened: For those watching the chaos on the House chamber’s livestream video feed, the shouting abruptly stopped. Then it started back up, until suddenly voices were cut off again, some midsentence. Daudt, who is shown in the House video standing at the rostrum, pushes something off to his right on the desk several times.

It turns out Daudt was utilizing a new feature installed in the Minnesota House chambers ahead of the 2016 session: A “master mute” button.

News_about__mnleg_on_TwitterThe reality of the mute button is pretty horrifying. Regulating debate should continue to be done with the traditional, predictable, and ever-civil Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, not the impulsive flick of a politicians’ index finger.  Mason’s doesn’t need a mute.

But as bad as the reality of the mute button is, the political optics is worse. Keep in mind the national context for this Minnesota action. At the national level, we have a Republican Congressman bellowing “you lie” in the middle of a President’s State of the Union Address. We have a Republican U.S. Senate Leader  censoring and scolding a Senator for daring to quote a civil rights leader’s assessment of a nominee tasked with enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws. We have a Republican President who cuts off anyone who questions him with a loud and dismissive “quiet,” “no you’re the puppet,” “you’re a nasty woman,” “go back to UniVision,” “wrong, “get em outta here,” and “knock the crap outta them.”

With that as Minnesota Republicans’ ignominious national backdrop, you would think they would be working extra hard to show that they are as civil and transparent as Minnesotans demand. But if you wanted to showcase a party’s insecurity, hubris, and disrespect for free speech, you could not come up with a more outrageous prop than a “master mute” button. It feels like something out of an over-the-top Saturday Night Live or Monte Python skit, not something a state party would do to prove that it isn’t as rude and authoritarian as it’s historically unpopular national leader.  Minnesota Republicans are absolutely tone-deaf on this issue.

The Minnesota House’s mute button is obscene and an attack on our free speech values. So legislators, let’s immediately vote to remove it, apologize to Minnesotans, snip the wires, patch the shameful podium scar, and move forward with blissfully raucous democratic debates about improving ordinary Minnesotans’ lives.

Republicans Extremely Unlikely To Impeach Trump

Cursor_and_trump_impeachment_-_Google_SearchThere’s a popular theory among the chattering classes that Trump will be impeached fairly soon.  It goes something like this: Republican members of Congress are getting very sick of Trump, because of his incompetence, conflicts-of-interest, Putin slavishness, and overall lunacy. Long-term, they worry that Trump will hurt their brand with the non-extreme swing voters they need to win elections.

So, the theory goes, congressional Republicans will eventually latch on to an impeachable offense, such as a blatant violation of a court order, which would spark a constitutional crisis. Congressional Republicans will then join with Democrats to impeach Trump, knowing all the while that doing so will empower one of their own, Vice President Mike Pence.

To congressional Republicans, Pence, a former member of Congress and Governor, is a comfortable old shoe.  He has extremely conservative positions on social issues that won’t sit well with American swing voters.  But he has at least been to charm school, and is competent, administratively speaking. So, the Ryans and McConnells of the world would be relieved to have Pence in the Oval Office instead of Trump.

Anyway, that’s the widely discussed theory.

Not Going To Happen

I find it very unlikely. Here’s why:

Yes, Trump is committing impeachable offenses.  Yes, most Republican congressional leaders worry about Trump, and much prefer Pence.  That part of the theory makes perfect sense.

But more than anything, congressional Republicans care about winning elections and holding onto their power. That is their lifeblood. To hold on to their seats and their majority, they need to a) survive Republican primary challenges in deep red gerrymandered congressional districts and b) have their hardcore Trump-loving base turn out to vote in general elections.

I believe it is highly likely that a significant slice of the Trump loyalists would stick with Trump, even after an impeachment, and maybe especially after an impeachment.  A significant proportion of the Trump voters will never stop being loyal to him.

After a historically bizarre and controversial campaign season, Trump is currently going through a disastrous transition and first couple of weeks in power.  He has criticism coming at him from all directions, including from prominent conservative leaders.   At the same time, Republicans no longer have the demonized Hillary Clinton to cast in their “lesser of two evils” narrative, which helped them win moderates in the Presidential election.

Despite all of that working against Trump, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey recently found that 95 percent of Trump voters still approve of the job Trump is doing, even though only a 47 percent minority of Americans approve, a historically low level for a President in his honeymoon period.  After all of that, 95 percent of Trump voters still approve of his performance.

Clearly, Trump voters are exceptionally loyal to him.  Still, as the Trump-generated outrages continue to pile up, and Trump fatigue sets in, some of that support will die off. Eventually, I could foresee as many as half of the Trump voters changing their mind about Trump.

But even if only half of Trump voters remain loyal to Trump after an impeachment proceeding, the remaining impeachment-inflamed Trump diehards – stoked by the unrepentant pro-Trump messaging machines like Breitbart, InfoWars, and many others — could wreak havoc on incumbent Republicans who supported impeachment. In general elections, a sizable number of post-impeachment Trump loyalists – enraged by the spurning of their hero — could stay home and cause otherwise safe congressional Republicans to lose in November 2018.

None of this is lost on congressional Republicans, who are hyper-sensitive to the Trump voters.  At the end of the day, most Republican Members of Congress seem to care much more about preserving their political power than they do about saving the republic from a crooked, unstable authoritarian. Because of that, and because Trump’s hard core loyalist voters will stick with him through just about anything, I just can’t see the current Republican majority ever agreeing to impeach Trump.

In other words, unless Trump steps down on his own, I think we’re almost certainly stuck with Trump for four years.

Trump Resistance Roadmap

For progressives aiming to win the hearts and minds of the 46% of American voters who supported Donald Trump in 2016, there is a  better and worse way to approach conversations and campaigns.
Trump roadmap chart Slide1

For messages about the Trump policy agenda, the villain needs to be Trump flip-flops, not Trump voters.  The focus needs to be on Trump not keeping his 2016 promises, not on Trump voters being stupid for being conned in 2016.

Trump voters need a face-saving way out of this, so avoiding polarizing “I told you so’s” is critically important.

Much of what I currently see on social media and progressive media is using the “Trump voters are dumb” approach to messaging.  We need to stop.  Believe me, I understand why people are going there.  It’s very cathartic to say “I told you so,” but you can feel it entrenching Trump voters more deeply and permanently into Team Trump.

The messaging nuance recommended in this chart won’t win every Trump voter, but it gives progressives a more hopeful shot at winning a modest subset of them, such as voters who were more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump.  If only a small slice of the 46% of 2016 Trump voters are angry at Trump congressional allies in 2018, the mid-term elections could deal a serious blow to the Trump agenda.  Winning in 2018 is worth taking a pass on cathartic “I told you so’s” over the next two years.

How Democrats Lost to the Worst GOP Presidential Candidate of Our Times

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about three million votes, a larger margin than Presidents Nixon and Kennedy had. She only lost the electoral college by roughly 100,000 votes (0.08 percent of the electorate) in three states. In a race that close, there is a long list of things that might have shifted the outcome of the presidential race.

I am sure that the Clinton campaign’s get out the vote (GOTV), data mining, advertising, debate zingers, primary election peace-making, voter suppression battling and many other things could have been better.  Who knows, those improvements might have swung that relatively small number of votes. But if I had to name the top three things that swung the election, I wouldn’t name any of those more tactical issues.  Instead, these are my nominees:

WORST POSSIBLE NOMINEE PROFILE FOR OUR ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT TIMES.  I admire Hillary Clinton on many levels, and think she has been treated very unfairly in this campaign and throughout her career.  But early on in the nomination cycle, it was extremely clear that general election voters were in a white hot anti-Washington establishment mood, and were looking for someone very different than a Hillary Clinton-type candidate.

Hillary Clinton was the ultimate Washington establishment candidate. Her resume, network, husband and demeanor absolutely screamed “Washington Insider.”   Democrats could have run a less establishmenty candidate that was more sane than Trump –Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, others — but they chose to run a candidate who had the worst possible profile for the times.

This created two huge problems 1) It caused Hillary to lose change-oriented voters who supported change-oriented Obama in the past and 2) It caused much of the Obama coalition to sit out the race, or effectively throw their vote away by supporting a third party candidate.

President-elect Trump won a somewhat smaller vote total than Republicans have been winning in their past two presidential losses.  Despite all of the post-election hype about the Trump political magic show, he didn’t perform that well, historically speaking.   The difference wasn’t that Trump created a tsunami of support, it was that the cautious establishment-oriented Democratic candidate was unable to generate sufficient excitement among the Obama coalitions of 2008 and 2012, particularly millennials and people of color.  This chart tells the story.

cursor_and_john_edgell

COMPLETE LACK OF ECONOMIC MESSAGE. In May, I made this argument:

The Clinton campaign needs to stick to a small number of lines of attack, even as the Trump vaudeville act continually tosses out new bait to lead the Clinton campaign down dozens of different messaging paths.  Trump is clearly incapable of message discipline, but Clinton can’t allow his lack of discipline to destroy hers.

Swing voters are disgusted by establishment figures like Hillary and Congress, because they see them as part of a corrupt Washington culture that has rigged the economy for the wealthy few to the exclusion of the non-wealthy many.  That is the central concern of many Trumpeters and Bern Feelers, and so that issue is the most important messaging ground for Clinton.

Therefore, Secretary Clinton should align a disciplined campaign messaging machine – ads, speech soundbites, policy announcements, surrogate messaging, etc. — around framing Mr. Trump as: Trump the self-serving economy rigger.

Why choose this framing over all of the other delicious options?  First, it was proven effective against a billionaire candidate in 2012.  There is message equity there.  Why reinvent the wheel?  Second, it goes to the core of what is bugging swing voters the most in 2016.

Needless to say, this never happened. The Clinton campaign reacted to pretty much everything that Trump did, and never stressed anything close to a bold agenda for addressing income inequality.  She also failed to offer much of a critique of a Trump economic agenda that would badly aggravate income inequality for Trump’s base of voters.

For reasons I’ll never understand, the economic populist message and agenda that an unlikely candidate like Bernie Sanders used to light up the political world earlier in the election cycle was almost entirely ignored by Team Clinton.  As a result, 59% of Americans are somewhat or very confident that the economy will improve under President-elect Trump.  Given the truth about the devastation that will be caused by Trump policies, shame on Clinton for allowing that level of public delusion to develop.

CANDIDATE WITH WAY TOO MUCH BAGGAGE. The “controversies” swirling around Secretary Clinton were less a product of corruption than they were a product of three decades of relentless witch-hunting by conservatives in the Congress and at Fox TV, and gutless false equivalency reporting from the mainstream media. The FBI Director’s shameless manipulation of the email investigation and the New York Times’ ridiculous inflation of the email issue was especially damaging to Clinton.

But as unfair and maddening as most of the Hillary criticism was, Democrats knew full well that it was coming.  They knew Clinton had three decades worth of earned and unearned skeletons in her family closet, but arrogantly chose her anyway.

If Democrats hope to win more Presidential elections, the days of always nominating the candidate with the longest political resume must end. In the current environment of non-stop congressional and media investigations, long political resumes now will always come with a long list of real and imagined “scandals.”   Those alleged controversies will, quite unfairly, make veteran insiders increasingly unelectable, because confused, under-informed voters will always tend to conclude “if there is corruption smoke, there must be fire,” as so many did with Clinton.

If Democrats had run a candidate who didn’t have known “scandals” looming, and who had a background, demeanor, agenda and message that gave voters confidence that they were willing and able to do something about an economy rigged in favor of the 1%, Democrats wouldn’t have needed to look for a stray 100,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. They could have won in an electoral college landslide over the worst Republican presidential candidate of our times.

When The Lie Referees Lie

False equivalence is a form of logical fallacy in which two arguments are made to appear as if they are equally valid, when in fact they aren’t. Here is a prime example of how false equivalence in newspapers inadvertently misleads.

The Star Tribune editorial page carried a guest commentary on October 31, 2016.  It was written by authors associated with the terrific nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning organization Politifact.  So far, so good.

But the Star Tribune headlined the piece: “Politifact:  The 10 whoppers of both leading presidential candidates.”  This piece then lists ten false statements for Hillary Clinton and ten for Donald Trump.  Ten and ten, presumably to appear “balanced.”

While Politifact’s 20 lies are all fair and well-documented cases, the overall impression given by the headline and commentary is that both candidates lie in equal measure.  As someone who has conducted lots of focus groups in my career, I can almost guarantee you that a focus group of undecided voters — the coin of the realm eight days before the election — would overwhelmingly report “both candidates lie at about the same rate” as their central take-away.

The problem is, that’s not true.  Politifact itself has found that the “both candidates lie in equal measure” assertion is a lie. A more complete look at Politifact’s full body of work finds that the two candidates are far from equivalent in their level of veracity.helpful_infographic_for_disputing_those_who_claim_that_donald__the_line_of__make_america_great_again___the_phrase__that_was_mine__trump_is_better_than_the_same_as_clinton_-_imgur

This chart is not updated through the present, so an updated chart is needed.   But the point is, either the Politifact authors or Star Tribune editors should have included a summary of the complete Politifact findings, to put the “ten whoppers” in proper context.  Doing so would give Star Tribune readers what they deserve, a more clear and complete picture of the truth.

False equivalence is itself a type of lie that is muddying our democratic discourse. So what are citizens to do we do when the Lie Referees also, inadvertently, lie? The Star Tribune and Politifact are two organizations that I value and support, but this is not their finest hour.

Difficult Time of Year for Decision Deficit Disorder (DDD) Sufferers

cursor_and_custom_ribbon__decision_deficit_disorderWashington, DC — Just as the holiday season can be difficult for those who have recently lost loved ones, election time is a horrific time for those suffering from a little discussed condition known as Decision Deficit Disorder (DDD).

During the election season, DDD sufferers get overwhelmed with anxiety and confusion as they are asked to take 18 months worth of campaign-generated information to make a final decision about which candidate they will support.

“DDD can be extremely, oh gosh I just don’t what the right word would be,” said Jonah Wildarsky, who suffers from DDD and is the Executive Director of the Decision Deficit Disorder Foundation.

As a defense mechanism, those with DDD frequently accuse all candidates of being equally poor, rather than deciding who is the better one, as other voters do.

“Clinton or Trump, Trump or Clinton, it’s just not fair to ask us to decide, because they’re just so identically bad,” screamed Wildarsky. “The pressure during the last month of the campaign is immense. I’ve personally had to suffer through 127 news interviews this year, because there are just so few DDD survivors left for reporters to interview.”

The Foundation works to create awareness of DDD. For instance, Wildarsky says the Foundation hopes some day to distribute ribbons, if a color choice can be finalized.

“Golly, I don’t know, is yellow or pink or some other color best,” asked Wildarsky. “The colors all  seem equally bad to me.  Why in the world can’t we have better colors?”

South Dakota: Imagine There’s No Parties

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… 

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

John Lennon

Cursor_and_amendment_v_south_dakota_-_Google_SearchWhen I heard about the constitutional amendment on the South Dakota ballot to make all
state elections nonpartisan, I thought of these lyrics.

Imagine there’s no parties?

Believe it or not, that’s sort of what South Dakota is debating this fall.   At first blush, it struck me as every bit as unlikely and impractical as what John Lennon sang.  But if Amendment V gets a plurality of votes from South Dakotans of all party affiliations this fall, every state office would become nonpartisan.

That means that in every election except for presidential contests there would no longer be separate primaries for the respective political parties, party labels would not be used on ballots, and citizens would no longer have their voting restricted due to their party affiliation, or lack of a party affiliation. Instead of party primaries, a single primary contest would be held, and the top two finishers, regardless of their party affiliations, would face off in the general election.

Cursor_and_nonpartisan_nebraska_-_Google_Search

“Imagine there’s no parties. It isn’t hard to do.”

Partisanship Pros

Except that it is hard for me. Very hard. While municipal and judicial elections currently don’t use party labels, I like having party labels on ballots. They give me helpful shorthand clues when I come across an unfamiliar name towards the end of the ballot.  For instance, if I want to avoid inadvertently casting my vote for someone who wants to underfund public services or weaken environmental protections, seeing that “D” next to a candidate name on the ballot reduces the chance that I will mistakenly vote for someone who doesn’t share my  values.

To be sure, party labels don’t tell you everything, but they give a pretty solid clue about a candidate’s likely positions. I support disclosure in government and governing, and requiring party labels has disclosure benefits.

If party labels weren’t on the ballot, I’d have to do more homework to avoid making voting blunders on the more obscure portions of the ballot.  On the other hand, with online resources that are now available, homework has never been easier.  By the way, this problem could be lessened if all state and local governments allowed citizens to use smart phones or other types of computers while voting. That’s an antiquated rule that needs to be changed.  I need to be able to use my spare brain in the voting booth.

Imagine A Nonpartisan System

Maybe the inconvenience and lack of disclosure associated with a nonpartisan election system would be worth it.  I am painfully aware of what extreme partisanship is doing to our politics. It’s making us mindlessly tribal. It’s causing legislators to substitute logic and analysis for blind loyalty to party leaders and their most powerful interest groups. It’s muting the voices of independent and moderate citizens who don’t identify with either of the major parties. It’s making compromise almost impossible.

Drey Samuelson, one of the founders of the South Dakota public interest group championing Amendment V, TakeItBack.org, feels strongly that the benefits of nonpartisan elections and offices greatly outweigh whatever disclosure-related benefits there might be associated with the status quo.

Imagine no closed door caucus scheming.  Samuelson says one of the most compelling reasons to keep party labels off the ballot is that it removes partisan control from the Legislature, as it has in Nebraska. Party caucuses don’t exist in the Nebraska Legislature, so policy isn’t made behind closed party caucus doors.

Party caucuses aren’t banned by Amendment V.  But Samuelson said that if the nonpartisan amendment passes in South Dakota this fall, there would be strong public pressure for South Dakota legislators to organize themselves in a nonpartisan way — without party caucus meetings and with party power-sharing — as Nebraska has done.

Imagine sharing power and accountability.  In Nebraska’s nonpartisan Legislature, legislators from both parties can and do become legislative committee chairs. Because they share power, they also share credit for legislative successes, and accountability for scandals. There is less time and energy wasted on blame games.

Imagine an equal voice for all.  TakeItBack.org also stresses that a nonpartisan system will give South Dakota’s 115,000 registered Independents an equal voice in the elections and government they fund, which they lack today.  This is particularly important in primary elections, where many of the most important decisions are made.

Imagine a popular Legislature.  A nonpartisan Legislature would also very likely be a more popular Legislature.

“People, by and large, don’t like the division, the bickering, the polarization, and the inefficiency of partisan government,” says Samuelson. “They find that nonpartisan government simply functions better.”

In fact, the nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature is nearly twice as popular as the partisan one to the north. A January 2016 PPP survey of South Dakotans found a 36% approval rating for the South Dakota Legislature, while a June 2015 Tarrance Group survey of Nebraskans found a 62% approval rating for the Nebraska Legislature.

A 62% approval rating should look pretty good to Minnesota legislators.  Minnesota DFL legislators have a 29% approval rating, and Republican legislators have an 18% approval rating (PPP, August 2015).

For my part, I’d be willing to give up partisan labels on the ballot if it would get us a less petty, Balkanized and recalcitrant Legislature.   If Nebraska is predictive of what Minnesota could become, the benefits of such a nonpartisan body would outweigh the costs.

Is South Dakota About To Lead An Anti-Gerrymandering Revolution?

I adore my home state of South Dakota, but I rarely find myself calling for my adopted state of Minnesota to copy South Dakota policies. On a whole range of issues from progressive state income taxes to a higher minimum wage to LGBT rights to dedicated conservation spending to teacher pay to Medicare coverage, I wish the Rushmore state’s policies would become more like Minnesota’s, not vice versa.

But if a majority of South Dakota voters embrace Amendment T at the polls this November, I may soon be feeling some serious SoDak envy.

gerrymander_-_Google_SearchOnce every ten years, all states redraw state and congressional legislative district lines, so that the new boundaries reflect population changes that have occurred in the prior decade. In both Minnesota and South Dakota, elected state legislators draw those district map lines, and the decision-making is dominated by leaders of the party or parties in power.

South Dakota’s pending Amendment T calls for a very different approach. If a majority of South Dakota voters support Amendment T this fall, redrawing of legislative district lines would be done by a multi-partisan commission made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents.  None of the nine commission members could be elected officials.

South_Dakota_Amendment_TThe basic rationale behind Amendment T is this: Elected officials have a direct stake in how those district boundaries are drawn, so giving them the power to draw the maps can easily lead to either the perception or reality of self-serving shenanigans.

As we all know, redistricting shenanigans are common. Guided by increasingly high tech tools and lowbrow ethics, elected officials regularly produce contorted district maps that draw snickers and gasps from citizens.   Often, the judicial branch needs to intervene in an attempt to restore partisan or racial fairness to the maps that the politicians’ produce.

Gerrymandering and Polarization

There are all kinds of problems created by the elected officials’ self-serving gerrymandering.  Legislators in control of the process draw lines to ensure that the gerrymanderer’s party has a majority in as many districts as possible. This leads to many “safe districts,” where one party dominates.  In safe districts, the primary election is effectively the only election that matters. General elections become meaningless, because the winner of the primary elections routinely cruises to an easy victory.

In this way, disproportionately partisan primary voters, who some times make up as little as 5 percent of the overall electorate, effectively become kingmakers who decide who serves in legislative bodies. Meanwhile, minority party and independent voters effectively have almost no say in the choice of lawmakers, even though they usually combine to make up more than 50% of the electorate.

In other words, gerrymandering has given America government of, for and by 5 percent of the people.

Because these primary election kingmakers tend to be from the far ends of the ideological spectrum, gerrymandering has contributed to the polarization of our politics. It has created an environment in which elected officials live in fear that they will be punished in primary elections if they dare to compromise with the other party. As a result, bipartisan compromise has become increasingly extinct in many legislative bodies.

Gerrymandering and Distrust

Beyond political polarization, perhaps the worst thing about politician-driven redistricting is that it makes citizens cynical about their democracy.  Whether you believe problems are real or merely perceived, the fact that elected officials are at the center of redistricting controversies creates deep citizen-leader distrust.  When citizens become convinced that elections are being rigged by elected officials so that the politicians can preserve their personal power, citizens lose faith and pride in their representative democracy. When we lose that, we lose our American heart and soul.

So Minnesota, let’s commit to creating — either via a new state law or by referring a constitutional amendment to voters –our own multi-partisan redistricting commission that removes elected officials from the process. Let’s govern more like South Dakota!

Did I really just say that?

Hillary, the ACA and the Art of the Possible

Cursor_and_hillary_clinton_-_Google_SearchThough I’m a solid Hillary Clinton supporter, I don’t particularly relish defending her at water coolers, dinner tables and social media venues.  When defending Hillary Clinton to those who hoped for more, I often feel like I do when defending the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to those who hoped for more.

To be clear, neither Hillary nor the ACA were my first choice. Elizabeth Warren and single payer were my first choices.

Neither Hillary nor the ACA are as bold as I’d prefer. They both promise modest incremental change, rather than the more revolutionary change that is needed.

Neither Hillary nor the ACA are, shall we say, untouched by special interests. The ACA is the product of accommodations made to private health insurers, physicians and the pharmaceutical industry, while Clinton is the product of accommodations made to corporations, unions and military leaders.

Also, neither Hillary nor the ACA are easy to understand. Hillary is a wonk’s wonk whose eye-glazing 20-point policy plans don’t exactly sing to lightly engaged voters.   Likewise, the ACA has given birth to 20,000 pages of the densest regulations you’ll ever find. (By the way, a primary reason the ACA is so complex is that conservatives and moderates insisted that it accommodate dozens of for-profit insurance companies instead of  using the more linear single payer model that has been proven effective and efficient by other industrialized nations. In this way, the need for much of the ACA complexity was created by conservatives, not liberals.)

At the same time, neither Hillary nor the ACA are anywhere near as bad as the caricatures created by their demagogic critics. Hillary is not a serial liar and murderer any more than the ACA led to “Death Panels” and force-fed birth control.

The bottom line is that both Hillary and the ACA, for all their respective flaws, are far superior to the alternatives. The steady, smart, savvy, and decent Clinton is much better than the erratic, ignorant, inept and vile Trump. The current ACA era, with a 9.2% uninsured rate (4.3% in Minnesota, where the ACA is more faithfully implemented than it is in many states) and all preexisting conditions covered is much better than the pre-ACA status quo, with an uninsured rate of 15.7% (9% in Minnesota) and millions denied health coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.

Hillary and the ACA both bring progress, but they are hardly the final word.  The fact that I am supporting the ACA in 2016 doesn’t mean I’m going to stop advocating for ACA improvements, a Medicare-for-All option and ultimately a single payer system. The fact that I am supporting Hillary in 2016 doesn’t mean I’m not going to push for more progressive, bold, compelling and independent leaders in the future.

But politics is the art of the possible.  Hillary and the ACA are what is possible at this point in the history of our imperfect democracy.   As such, I can champion both comfortably, if not entirely enthusiastically.

Progressives and Moderates Intrigued By Gary Johnson Should Look Deeper

Cursor_and_gary_johnson_funny_-_Google_SearchWhen I started seeing ads and social media chatter about former Republican Governor Gary Johnson running for President, I went to OnTheIssues.org to learn more.

I liked some of what I saw on foreign policy and law enforcement reform, but one line jumped out at me as particularly disturbing. It said Governor Johnson wants to:

“cut the federal budget by 43%.”

Just to be clear, a 43% cut in federal spending would constitute a major conservative revolution.  That would bring a much deeper reduction in government services than has been proposed in the past by ultra-conservative firebrands such as Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, or Michele Bachmann.

Still, I realize that a 43% cut has surface appeal.  After all, nobody feels a deep affinity for the abstract notion of “the federal government budget.” But budgets are collections of individual programs that deliver individual sets of services and benefits to Americans,  so we need to evaluate Johnson’s radical austerity plan on a program-by-program basis.

So, my fellow Americans, which federal services are you willing to cut by 43%, as Gary Johnson proposes.

Cut Infrastructure by 43%?  For instance, are the American people willing to cut infrastructure investments by 43%?  Do we want to slash investment in roads, bridges, transit, trains, airports, water and sewage systems, and the like?  A GBA Strategies survey finds that an overwhelming 71% of Americans want to spend $400 million more on infrastructure, not less.  Only 13% oppose such a massive federal government spending increase.

Cut Medicare by 43%?  Do the American people want to cut Medicare by 43%? After all, Medicare is a huge and growing part of the federal budget.  Americans not only don’t want to cut Medicare, more than three-fourths (77%) of Americans want to fund a new, massively expensive Medicare-for-All option.  Only 17% oppose such an expansion of government services and spending.

Cut Social Security by 43%?  Maybe Americans want to cut Social Security benefits by 43%?  While Social Security represents an enormous slice of the federal pie, the vast majority of Americans not only don’t want to cut Social Security benefits, a whopping 70% want to strengthen them.  Only 15% oppose expanding Social Security benefits.

Cut National Defense by 43%?  What about a 43% cut in national defense spending? Gallup finds that only 32% of Americans support national defense budget cuts.

Cut Other Programs by 43%?  Similarly, the GBA survey finds that an overwhelming majority of Americans want major government spending increases for green energy technology (70% support, 20% oppose), debt-free public higher education (71% support, 19% oppose), and subsidies for high quality child care  (53% support, 33% oppose) . There is no public appetite to cut any of those federal programs by 43%, as Governor Johnson proposes.

In other words,  only a thin slice of the most deeply ultra-conservative voters support Johnson’s fiscal austerity ideas.  Therefore, more moderate voters who are concerned about the nation’s poor, middle class, national security and global competitiveness need to learn about the implications of Johnson’s fiscal proposals before they jump on the Johnson bandwagon.

Hillary Needs A Singular Trump Critique, Not Dozens

One of the problems with running against a historically bizarre opponent like Donald Trump is that there are so many different juicy ways to run against him.  Most activists and pundits think of that as an opportunity, but it also poses a very real problem – focus.

Because Trump is such an outrageous cartoon character of a candidate, Secretary Clinton could be tempted to use her campaign platform and resources to frame up Mr. Trump in a myriad of different ways.  But that would be the biggest mistake she could make.

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Trump the bigot.  Trump the philanderer. Trump the misogynist. Trump the bully.  Trump the trigger happy. Trump the uncouth.  Trump the simpleton.  Trump the liar.  Trump the inciter.  Trump the right winger.  Trump the failure.  Trump the blunderer.  Trump the neo-facist.  Trump the war criminal.  Trump the con artist.  Trump the demagogue.  Trump the hypocrite.  Trump the rejected.  Trump the authoritarian.  Trump the unstable.  Trump the novice.  Trump the flip-flopper.  Trump the all-of-the-above.

It’s dizzying.  One of the worst possible strategies is the last one — to throw everything at Trump in roughly equal measure, which is de facto what is happening at the moment.  And that is what happens when you don’t have a disciplined communications strategy.

Singular Key Message Needed

The essence of communications strategy is sacrifice.  You have to walk past some tempting messages in order to have a focused strategy.  If you say everything you possibly could say about an opponent, you effectively are saying nothing.  All of those very valid Trump critiques piled one upon the other becomes a cacophony to voters.  Subsequently, eyes roll and ears shut.

The_Key_to_the_Key_cg-50_jpg__320×247_So communications strategists typically identify a small number of messages or themes that they strive to repeat and stress above all the others. They’re often called “key messages,” or “frames.”

The key message is the one idea that you need to stick in your target audience’s mind in order to achieve your goal, which in this case is persuading swing voters to reject Trump and get more comfortable with Clinton.

Therefore, the Clinton campaign needs to stick to a small number of lines of attack, even as the Trump vaudeville act continually tosses out new bait to lead the Clinton campaign down dozens of different messaging paths.  Trump is clearly incapable of message discipline, but Clinton can’t allow his lack of discipline to destrory hers.

Trump The Economy Rigger

So which crystallizing key message should Clinton stress?

Swing voters are disgusted by establishment figures like Hillary and Congress, because they see them as part of a corrupt Washington culture that has rigged the economy for the wealthy few to the exclusion of the non-wealthy many.  That is the central concern of many Trumpeters and Bern Feelers, and so that issue is the most important messaging ground for Clinton.

Therefore, Secretary Clinton should align a disciplined campaign messaging machine – ads, speech soundbites, policy announcements, surrogate messaging, etc. — around framing Mr. Trump as:

Trump the self-serving economy rigger.

As Clintonista James Carville might say, “it’s the economy rigging, stupid.”  That is, Trump the privileged billionaire selfishly seeking to win control the Washington levers of power in order further rig the economy to benefit himself and his privileged class at the expense of everyone else.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s precisely the strategy that Team Obama used to defeat billionaire Mitt Romney in 2012.

Why choose this framing over all of the other delicious options?  First, it was proven effective against a billionaire candidate in 2016.  There is message equity there.  Why reinvent the wheel?  Second, it goes to the core of what is bugging swing voters the most in 2016.

With this kind of framing, the Clinton-Warren or Clinton-Sherrod Brown team would focus like a laser on Trump’s tax giveaways to the rich. It would highlight his proposals to weaken Wall Street protections. It would stress Trump’s opposition to Clinton proposals to  increase the minimum wage hikes and taxes on the wealthy. It would hammer relentlessly on Trump’s refusal to reveal his taxes, and stress that he doesn’t want ordinary Americans to know that the billionaire pays a much smaller percentage of his taxes than they do. It would focus on his history of lobbying to create and perpetuate the wealth-protection measures to rig the economy in his favor, while harming the rest of us.

Executing that kind of messaging strategy would require the Clinton campaign to largely take a pass on the other juicy lines of attack against Trump, all of which will be magnified during daily news coverage, but are unhelpful diversions of public mind space compared to this framing.  It would require her to be saying things like this:

“You know, I care much less about today’s latest sideshow than the fact that Mr. Trump’s plan to cut taxes for the rich and oppose a minimum wage hike will further rig the economy for the ultra-wealthy. His outrageous giveaway to  his fellow billionaires is much more offensive to me than his latest round of crudeness.”

Focusing on “Trump the self-serving economy rigger” would make Clinton look a bit more like a change-agent, and less like a defender of the despised Washington status quo.  It also would help erode the silly notion of among some swing voters that Trump is somehow the champion of the common man.

This won’t come naturally for Secretary Clinton.  Her establishment instincts will continually tempt her to focus her critique of Trump through a Washington lens.  She’ll instinctively want to crow about the fact that she knows more about policy details, and that the smarty pants Washingtonian centrists, and even some conservatives, are embracing her and rejecting Trump. She’ll want to scold Trump about saying things that, well, refined Washingtonians simply do not say.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  When Clinton does that, many swing voters hear her as “Washington insider looking down her nose at Washington outsider,” and in the current political climate the instincts of many will be to side with the outsider. Hillary needs to fight her instincts and frame Trump as the ultimate nest-feathering insider masquerading as an outsider.  She doesn’t need to feel her inner Bubba and triangulate the center right, or jump on each of Trump’s outrage du jour.  As much as she may want to resist it, Hillary needs to feel the Bern.

 

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Note:  This post also was published as part of MinnPost’s weekly Blog Cabin feature.

Note:  Collage portrait by Conor Collins.

What Can Hillary Learn From Bernie?

Cursor_and_clinton_smug_-_Google_SearchAs a Sanders supporter, I concede there are many valid reasons to worry about him. But one of the biggest “go-to” criticisms used by Senator Hillary Clinton and her supporters strikes me as simplistic and overblown. More importantly, her focus on that issue makes me worry that she perhaps doesn’t truly understand what it takes to be an effective general election candidate and President.

Before I get to that, here are just a few of the more valid reasons for being concerned about supporting Sanders: 1) You don’t think enough moderate voters will ever be willing to pay higher taxes to allow him to be elected in a general election; 2) You worry whether a perpetually shouting septuagenarian white guy is the best option for leading an increasingly diverse electorate that values charisma (see McCain v. Obama); 3) You worry that the term “democratic socialist” Sanders uses to describe himself is too toxic to attract swing voters in November;  4) You worry that if we don’t elect a remarkably well credentialed female leader like Clinton, the shameful White House glass ceiling will remain intact for a very long time.

Those are valid concerns. While I also have a list of concerns about Clinton, I do admit that Sanders is not an entirely safe political bet.

But one thing I’m not particularly worried about is his policy aptitude.  Many Clinton supporters, and Secretary Clinton herself, have become obsessed with the notion that Sanders doesn’t have the necessary policy chops for the job.  That certainly was an oft-repeated Clinton theme on last night’s MSNBC’s “town hall” broadcast.

As evidence, Clinton and her supporters continually point to her more detailed policy plans, or editorial board interviews in which Clinton shows a deeper grasp of policy detail than Sanders. For instance, many Clinton supporters have been pumping social media channels full of articles like this from Vox’s Matthew Yglesias:

“Hillary Clinton does a better job than Bernie Sanders at explaining the details of his bank breakup plan.”

I’ll be the first to admit, Sanders should have a stronger answer to questions such as “how would you break-up the banks.” After all, that is a marquee issue of his campaign.

At the same time, let’s keep all of this in proper perspective. These interview performances are hardly evidence that Sanders is not intelligent enough to be President. They aren’t evidence that he will fail to surround himself with advisors who are experts on such details. They’re not evidence that breaking up the banks is a regulatory impossibility. Therefore, they are not particularly strong evidence that Clinton would be a better President.

Moreover, maybe, just maybe, communicating on a less wonky level to lightly engaged voters is a more effective way to connect with them.  After all, that approach has led to Sanders swiftly moving from being an obscure fringe candidate with almost no support to a serious contender for the nomination of a party he only recently joined.  That approach also has led to Sanders polling significantly more strongly than Clinton in general election match-ups against Republicans, according to Real Clear Politics current average of major surveys.  So maybe, there is something here Clinton can learn.

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If the American people were interviewing Sanders as a candidate to become the nation’s lead banking regulator, his failure to go deeper into the regulatory weeds would concern me. But we are interviewing Sanders to be hired as the nation’s Chief Executive, a position that operates at a much higher level.

Think of it this way: The Obama Administration’s White House and Treasury Department is thick with brilliant, learned staffers who know much more about banking regulations and foreign policy than President Obama. But that doesn’t make Obama a lightweight, and it doesn’t mean those staffers are more qualified than Obama to be President.

The most important qualifications for a President to have are the right values and vision, the backbone to stick to that their values and vision, the communications chops to persuade the American people, the ability to enact the related policy agenda, and the judgment to react wisely to developments that we can’t yet foresee. Those things are infinitely more important than the ability to score the highest marks in the editorial boards’ Wonk Olympics.

At this stage, I realize my guy Sanders is not going to be the nominee.  I can count.  As the great Mo Udall said, “the voters have spoken, the bastards.” Therefore, I am, gulp, hereby “ready for Hillary.”  Actually, given the alternatives, and given how much there is to admire about Clinton, this is not close to a difficult decision.

But Clinton needs to disabuse herself of the notion that the ability to spout policy details like a Spelling Bee champ is among the more important qualifications for President. Rather than smugly dismissing Sanders’ preference for addressing the American people on an inspirational and aspirational level, Clinton should have enough wisdom and humility to learn from Sanders’ approach.  Doing so would make her a better candidate and President.

Tim Pawlenty: “Health Care Policy All-Star?”

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is being featured as a “health policy all-star” by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. No, I’m not kidding.

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The University event is celebrating the accomplishments of a 2008 Healthcare Transformation Task Force that happened during the Pawlenty years.   Governor Pawlenty is the keynote speaker.  The invitation portrays the Pawlenty years as a time when there was less intense partisan disagreement. Again, not kidding.

Health care policy has generated intense partisan disagreement over the past 5 years. The acrimony has been a sharp departure from Minnesota’s long tradition of collaboration among Democrats and Republicans and across the business, non-profit, and public sectors.

I’m not all that familiar with the Task Force’s work, but I’m sure it made excellent health care policy contributions.  It’s very worthwhile to recognize and reflect on that work, and I applaud the University’s Humphrey School for doing that.  If you’re interested in health care policy, I’d encourage you to attend the event.

But perhaps the Humphrey School should also invite the community to reflect on some of the big picture differences between health care in Minnesota under the Pawlenty-era policies versus health care in the post-Pawlenty era.  Minnesotans should reflect on the dramatic health care improvements that have happened despite Governor Pawlenty, rather than because of him.

The Good Old Days

Ah 2008, those certainly were the good old days of Pawlenty era health care in Minnesota, back when the rate of health uninsurance was 9.0 percent. In contrast, in the post-Pawlenty era, the rate of uninsurance under Governor Dayton has declined to 4.9 percent, the lowest point in Minnesota history.

This happened largely due of the success of the ACA reforms that Governor Pawlenty persistently and bitterly opposed.  For example, in 2011 Governor Pawlenty revved up a Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) audience with this simplistic barn burner:

The individual mandate in ObamaCare is a page right out of the Jimmy Carter playbook. The left simply doesn’t understand. The individual mandate reflects completely backwards thinking. They, the bureaucrats, don’t tell us what to do. We, the people, tell the government what to do!

We’re blessed to live in the freest and most prosperous nation in the history of the world. Our freedom is the very air we breathe. We must repeal Obamacare!

Do you see how much less “intensely partisan” health care policy was five years ago under Governor Pawlenty?

hqdefault_jpg__480×360_Oh and then there was that super nonpartisan time when Governor Pawlenty, who was preparing to run against President Obama, enacted an executive order to ban Minnesota from accepting any Obamacare-related Medicaid funding to provide health care coverage for 35,000 of Minnesota’s most vulnerable citizens. As the Star Tribune reported at the time, even Pawlenty-friendly health industry groups reacted to the highly partisan and punitive Pawlenty ban with unified expression of strong disapproval.

In a rare and unusually sharp statement, heads of Minnesota’s most influential medical associations said Pawlenty’s step contradicts his earlier embrace of state health care legislation. “The governor’s decision just doesn’t make sense for Minnesotans,” the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, the Minnesota Hospital Association and the Minnesota Medical Association said in a joint statement late Tuesday.

The Post-Pawlenty Health Policy Era

When Governor Dayton took office, he promptly reversed this Pawlenty ban to ensure that 35,000 low-income Minnesotans could get health care coverage.  Governor Dayton took a lot of heat for that decision, but this move started the process of driving down the state’s uninsured rate, a trend that has continued throughout the Dayton era.

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In more ways than many citizens realize, Minnesota has benefited enormously from the ACA reforms that Pawlenty politicized and obstructed.  According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services:

  • 64,514 Minnesotans have gained Medicaid or CHIP coverage
  • 1,465,000 Minnesotans with private health insurance gained preventive service coverage with no cost-sharing
  • Over 2 million Minnesotans are free from worrying about lifetime limits on coverage
  • As many as 2,318,738 non-elderly Minnesotans have some type of pre-existing health condition, and no longer can have coverage denied because of that condition

Yes, those Pawlenty years, when the Governor was fighting to keep Minnesotans from enjoying all of these ACA benefits, certainly were the good old days of health care policy.  “Health care policy all-star” indeed!

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Note:  This post also was published as part of MinnPost’s weekly Blog Cabin feature.

Bernie Needs To Give Democrats One Final Parting Gift

Sanders_from_behindPresidential candidate Bernie Sanders has already given much to the Democratic Party. But even though his chances of being nominated remain slim, he still has a bit more he could give to his adopted party.

Largely because of Clinton’s dominance when it comes to establishment-oriented super delegates, we’re being told by elite analysts like FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver that Hillary will likely be nominated, even after a likely Sanders win in Wisconsin today and a possible win in Clinton’s home state of New York. Sanders’ exit from the stage couldn’t come soon enough for frustrated supporters of Hillary Clinton, who see Sanders as an annoying speed bump on her trip down Inevitability Lane.

Bernie’s Gifts To Democrats

But the fact is, Sanders’ questioning of Clinton has helped her improve as a candidate. Though still too cautious and programmed, Clinton is a better candidate now than she was before Sanders joined her on stage.

Beyond changing candidate Clinton for the better, Sanders has also changed the Democratic party for the better. This longtime political independent has reminded Democratic partisans that it’s okay to dream of progressive policies that go beyond the cautious incrementalism ushered in during the 1990s by the Clintons and their center-right Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

With every major western nation operating universal health care systems that are more fair, effective and efficient than today’s complex Rube Goldberg-style Affordable Care Act (ACA) machinery, Sanders reminded Democrats that it’s reasonable to both appreciate the progress being made under the ACA, while continuing to fight for the superior single payer models.

Sanders also reminded Democrats that a college degree is as vital today as a high school degree was at the time the American public education system was created, so we need to keep fighting to update our public education system by offering tuition-free public higher education.

Sanders reminded Democrats that even Republican presidents such as Bush, Reagan, Nixon and Eisenhower all required wealthy Americans to pay more to support their country than we do today, so it’s reasonable to ask more of the wealthy again to help rebuild the American dream for the lower- and middle-class.

Sanders reminded Democrats that the party that created a wide array of popular socialist programs that built the great American middle class — New Deal job programs, Social Security, the GI Bill, the Rural Electric Administration, Medicare —  doesn’t need to cower in fear every time conservatives label their proposals as “socialism.”

Finally, Sanders shined a light on the corrupting influence that big money has had on America’s corporatized Congress.

Democrats owe the Independent Senator a debt of gratitude.  The fact that many to most of Sanders’ proposals could not have passed in the short-term with a Republican-controlled Congress does not mean that progressives shouldn’t advocate for those policies, to improve their viability over the long-term.  It’s self-defeating to allow do-nothing congressional conservatives to limit how Democrats use the bullypulpit.

Bernie’s Parting Gift

But where does Sanders go from here? If delegate geeks like Nate Silver are correct that it’s impossible for Sanders to come from behind to win the nomination, should he just pull out of the race, as indignant Clinton supporters have been demanding?

Before Sanders leaves the stage, I’d ask one more favor of him:   Expose Trumponomics for what it is.   To limit the number of Sanders refugees who are tempted to support Trump over Clinton in November, Sanders should spend the next few weeks exposing the fraud Mr. Trump is attempting to perpetrate on Americans.

For instance, Sanders should explain that billionaire Trump may claim that his partial self-financing makes him independent from the uber-wealthy interests, but Trump’s tax plan exposes the truth. According to a Tax Policy Center (TPC) analysis, Trump’s tax plan would give an average tax cut of $1.3 million per year to the richest one-tenth of one percent.  Sanders should make sure his audience understands that billionaire Trump plans to further enrich his fellow billionaires.

Sanders should also explain how the businessman’s proposals will destroy the American economy, rather than make America “win so much will be sick of winning.” For instance, look at what Mr. Trump’s plan to lavish the mega-rich with tax breaks would do to the national debt:

“The Tax Policy Center estimates the proposal would reduce federal revenue by $9.5 trillion over its first decade and an additional $15.0 trillion over the subsequent 10 years, before accounting for added interest costs or considering macroeconomic feedback effects.”

Some have suggested that Sanders and Trump compete for the same type of voters, those most frustrated with the status quo. Therefore, before Sanders leaves the stage, he should conduct a seminar for “open to Trump” voters about the fraud Mr. Trump is attempting to perpetrate on them. Doing so could constitute Bernie’s greatest gift of all to the Democratic Party.

Note:  This post was also chosen to be featured by MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.

But Wait, There’s More! For No Additional Cost, We Also Are Including Tweets…

For those who enjoy tweeting and getting twitted at, I’m @jloveland.  Small sample of the available awesomeness:

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The Benghazi Question: Democrats At Their Best and Worst

When Univision reporter Jorge Ramos asked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a challenging question about the tragedy at the Benghazi embassy at last night’s debate, Democrats were at their worst, and best.

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Democrats were at their worst when they booed the question and questioner for several seconds.  They should be mature enough to know that a healthy democracy needs courageous reporters like Ramos asking candidates tough questions.  It’s their job to ask those questions, and it does us all a great service.

But Democrats were also at their best when Secretary Clinton didn’t attack the reporter, fuel dangerous anti-journalism attitudes or avoid the question.  While she clearly is tired of answering Benghazi questions, she gave a reasonably solid one-minute answer.  I would have liked her to shush the boos non-verbally, but she did pretty well overall.  It’s her job to answer those questions, and it does us all a great service.

How DFL Legislators With Only 29% Voter Approval Could Win in November

Minnesota_Legislature_-_Google_SearchDFL state legislators are an awfully unpopular bunch. According to an August 2015 Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey of registered Minnesota voters, only 29% have a favorable view of DFL state legislators, while 49% disapprove. Not many candidates with 29% approval ratings get reelected.

Still, DFL legislators may manage to do well in the November general election, due to at least five factors.

More DFLers voting. First, DFL turnout should be much higher in this presidential election year than it was in the 2014 midterm election. Historically, presidential year electorates tend to be more favorable to Democrats than mid-term year electorates. That historical trend is somewhat in question this year, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton proving to be particularly uninspiring to her base in the primary season and Republican front-runner Donald Trump proving to be particularly inspiring to his base. But traditionally presidential elections have high Democratic turnouts, and Trump-fearing Democrats – particularly women, communities of color and new immigrants – have a particularly compelling reason to vote in 2016.  That should give a big boost to Democratic state legislative candidates.

No catastrophes. Second, DFL legislators haven’t imploded. So far, there are no big DFL-centered scandals, like Phonegate or leadership sex scandals. There also is no particularly controversial issue, like a large tax increase on the masses. The construction of the Senate Office Building probably still has some demagogic appeal, but that doesn’t seem like a significant political albatross at this stage.

Happy days are here again. Third, it’s the economy, stupid. Fortunately for DFL legislators, Minnesota’s economy is quite strong. Seasonally adjusted unemployment is only 3.7%, while the national rate is 5.6%. Under Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota had a steady stream of budget shortfalls.  Under DFL Governor Mark Dayton, Minnesota has enjoyed budget surpluses the last several years, while 19 states still have had budget deficits despite a relatively strong national economy. Republicans promised Minnesota voters that DFL proposals to increase taxes for the wealthiest and the minimum wage for the poorest would surely decimate Minnesota’s economy. That simply did not happen, robbing conservatives of their most compelling criticism of Democrats – that they can’t manage the economy.

Bully pulpit in DFL hands. Fourth, DFLers control the Governor’s bully pulpit.   A relatively popular Governor Mark Dayton (47% approval) can use the bullhorn and large audiences that come with his position to make the case for DFL achievements and legislators. So can other popular prominent statewide elected DFLers, such as Senators Al Franken (48% approval) and Amy Klobuchar (55% approval).   Governor Dayton is certainly no Tim Pawlenty out on the stump, but he is in a strong position to help drive a strong unified message about DFL legislators’ accomplishments.

Republicans are even less popular. Finally, and most importantly, DFL legislators’ 29% approval rating looks pretty awful, until you put it alongside GOP legislators’18% approval rating. Then it looks nearly stellar.  To put that 18% approval rating in context, a disgraced President Richard Nixon had a 24% approval rating when he was forced to resign due to the Watergate scandal. With 63% of Minnesota voters disapproving of the job being done by Republican legislators, the slightly less disrespected DFL legislators would seem to have a shot at winning some elections this fall.

Note:  This post was also featured in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.

The More Relevant Poll Finding Pundits Are Ignoring

trump_angry_-_Google_SearchDonald Trump and Hillary Clinton are now pretty assured of winning their party’s nomination for president, both because they are far ahead and because it seems unlikely either will implode with their respective bases. They have both had fundamental vulnerabilities exposed, yet they both continue to have a sufficient amount of support to win their nominations.

As the campaigns shift to the general election, Team Clinton shouldn’t take Donald Trump lightly, says the boy who watched slack jawed as a sophomoric but entertaining professional wrestler with no real policy agenda became Governor of Minnesota.   The Trump-Ventura parallels are imperfect. For instance, the Minnesota electorate in 1998 was divided by three strong general election contenders, making the general election threshold unusually low for the middle finger voting block to attain.  Still, that experience has given me a healthy amount of respect for the electoral appeal of entertaining protest candidates.

But to put this in casino terms, in honor of the candidate who somehow finds ways to regularly bankrupt rigged casinos, I’d much rather have Hillary Clinton’s hand than Donald Trump’s hand. Here’s why:

As pundits continually remind us, Trump is indeed the runaway Republican front-runner. But this doesn’t mean he is broadly popular.  All this really means is that his antics have charmed about 40% of the one-third of Americans who participate in Republican primaries. That equates to about 14% of the general election electorate.  So, yes, he’s the front-runner for the nomination, and that’s a shocking thing.  But we have to keep in mind that eight months from now, he needs to win over a lot more people to win a general election.

The problem for Trump is, general election voters are a very different audience than the people currently voting for him. Most notably, they include large numbers of Independent voters. To win a two-candidate — don’t you even think about it, Michael Bloomberg — general election Trump has to win Independent voters.

What do Independent voters think of Trump’s nomination campaign performance.  As of December 2015 poll showed 47% of Independent voters would be embarrassed to have Mr. Trump as President.  Only 20% of Independents would be proud to say “President Trump.”  Even pilloried Hillary, one of the more systematically smeared political figures in modern political history, has a much lower 32% of Independents who say they’d be embarrassed to vote for her.
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This is a big problem for Trump, because the “would be embarrassed” question is a reasonable approximation of “would never vote for.”  Therefore, the finding shows that Trump’s pandering to his authoritarian-loving base has badly damaged his chances in a general election, perhaps irreparably so.

Now, if anyone is uniquely positioned to dig himself out of this hole, it may be Mr. Trump. First, he’s instinctively talented at reading audiences and adjusting to them on the fly. He’s like a veteran door-to-door salesman in that way.  Second, he’s no ideologue.  He’s perfectly comfortable changing positions to win over whichever audience happens to be in front of him at the moment, and skilled at deflecting “flip-flopper” criticisms. Therefore, as soon as the Republican nomination is in the bag, we can expect Trump to quickly be moderating his positions and tone, and that should help him partially rehabilitate himself with some Indies.

Still, it will be very difficult to erase the memories of Trump’s boorish behavior over the past several months.  Social media and massive ad buys will keep Trump’s Greatest Hits fresh in general election voters’ minds.  Moreover, over the next eight months Trump will still have his hard core Trumpeters coming to his rallies, which will continually tempt him to pander to them, both to win their adoration in that moment and to ensure that they don’t stay home in November.   So, Trump will moderate compared to his current self, but he probably will remain plenty embarrassing.

These same numbers also show how critically important it will be for Hillary Clinton to partner with Bernie Sanders to get Sanders’ 18-34 year old supporters to the polls in November.  After all, an astounding 73% of these younger voters would be embarrassed to have Trump as their President. This should be a solid voting block for Secretary Clinton in the general election, but they could easily stay home in large numbers if they can’t get more excited about her than they are now.

So as the nomination fights wind down, it’s time to stop obsessing about the nomination horse race numbers and delegate counts, and start focusing on the more general election-relevant data points in the survey research. When you dig a little bit deeper into the data, there still is a very high wall around the White House for the wall-obsessed Trump to scale.

Sanders Drawing Wrong Parallels To Explain Democratic Socialism

Cursor_and_Denmark_flag_-_Google_SearchWhen presidential candidate Bernie Sanders explains why Americans shouldn’t fear his “democratic socialism,” he usually points to Scandinavia.

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people. In Denmark, there is a very different understanding of what “freedom” means… they have gone a long way to ending the enormous anxieties that comes with economic insecurity. Instead of promoting a system which allows a few to have enormous wealth, they have developed a system which guarantees a strong minimal standard of living to all — including the children, the elderly and the disabled.”

His opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, who clearly understands American exceptionalism biases, quickly shuts down Sanders’ arguments with a smug shrug: “We are not Denmark.”

By continually citing countries other than America to explain democratic socialism to Americans, Senator Sanders is hurting his case. Instead of pointing to Norway, he should more consistently cite the New Deal.

First, let’s consider the definition of “democratic socialism” offered by Democratic Socialist’s of America:

“Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.”

Truth be told, the United States of America is no stranger to this kind of democratic socialism. It was brought to us during some of the most successful and popular presidencies of the past century. Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower enacted a whole series of popular measures that fit under this definition of democratic socialism.  At the time their ideas were proposed, they were criticized as infeasible, un-American and socialistic, just as Sanders’ ideas are today.

Therefore, Senator Sanders should be explaining his democratic socialism with American examples that a large majority of Americans already know and love. Sanders might say something like this:

You want to know what democratic socialism is? When the great Republican Teddy Roosevelt dissolved 44 corporations to protect the middle class, and when he protected ordinary Americans from the railroad companies and other big corporations, his critics said “you can’t pass that, because it’s socialism.”  But he passed them anyway, because the American people demanded it.

When the enormously popular Franklin Roosevelt used government funding to put Americans to work building community infrastructure, they said “you can’t pass that, because it’s socialism.” When FDR proposed a Social Security system of government-run pensions that lifted millions of American seniors out of poverty, conservatives said “you can’t pass that, because it’s socialism.”  But he passed those things anyway, because the people demanded it.

When Harry Truman enacted Medicare, people like Ronald Reagan called that socialism too.

And you know what? When Republican Dwight Eisenhower invested in an enormously expensive interstate highway system and had 90% income tax rates on the ultra-wealthy, they said it again: “You can’t pass that, because that’s socialism.”  But he passed those things anyway, because the American people demanded it.

And despite the dire predictions from critics, America’s economy prospered under these policies that were all predicted to be catastrophic for the economy.

So in 2016, when the defeatist “no you can’t” crowd tells Americans “you can’t pass bills to provide higher education and health care to all, because that’s socialism,” I get my inspiration and courage from Teddy, FDR, Give ‘em hell Harry and Ike.  Because of them, I know America can overcome the cynics’ name-calling and naysaying to do great things for the middle class now, just as we did then.”

Democratic socialism is already in America, and it is enormously popular. Surveys consistently show that Americans are vehemently opposed to cutting or eliminating democratic socialist programs such as Medicare, Social Security, and the minimum wage.

Americans not only have embraced democratic socialism in the past, they strongly support it for the future. A recent GBA Strategies poll shows that likely 2016 voters overwhelmingly support a whole range of Sanders’ ideas being dismissed as socialist ideas lacking sufficient political support:  Allowing governments to negotiate drug prices has 79% support. Medicare buy-in for all has 71% support. A $400 million infrastructure jobs program has 71% support. Debt-free college at all public universities has 71% support. Expanding Social Security benefits has 70% support. Taxing the rich at a 50% rate — the rate under conservative icon Ronald Reagan — has 59% support, and only 25% in opposition. Breaking up the big banks has 55% support, and only 23% in opposition.

This is hardly a portrait of a nation that opposes democratic socialism.  Overwhelming support for democratic socialism is already there, ready to fuel a 2016 presidential candidate.  But for two reasons, Senator Sanders needs to cite American parallels to explain his approach, not European.

First, citing examples of American policies will help build confidence that bold measures can be enacted over fierce opposition now, just as they were in the days of Teddy, FDR, Truman and Ike.  Second, citing American examples will paint Sanders’ democratic socialism label and his policy ideas red, white and blue, rather than just red.  It will show that such ideas have been embraced in the past by idolized Republicans and Democrats.  It subsequently will normalize democratic socialism.

Americans are in a very nationalistic, ethnocentric and nostalgic mood. So, rather than continually pointing to the Rikstag, Storting, and Folketing to explain democratic socialsm, Sanders needs to point to the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

Note:  This post was chosen for re-publication in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin feature.

Ten Questions You Won’t Hear Asked By Intimidated Political Reporters

With all of the horse race and insult-related content in the GOP presidential debates, there is a huge opportunity cost: A lot of substantive questions simply are going unasked.

Megyn_Kelly_bimboMaybe that’s because reporters are worried bullying candidates will give them the Megyn Kelly Treatment/Rebecca Quick Treatment. Maybe it’s because reporters don’t take the time to learn policy issues. Maybe it’s because reporters don’t respect voters’ intelligence enough to think that they will care about, or understand, policy issues

Whatever the reason, the most consequential questions simply aren’t being posed, and the result on the Republican side is the most vapid set of presidential debates of my lifetime. Here just a few of the questions that I would love to hear asked at the upcoming Republican debate:

  • PAYING FOR TAX CUTS FOR WEALTHY? Which Americans’ services are you going to cut or eliminate to pay for your proposed tax cuts, which go disproportionately to the wealthiest Americans?
  • PAYING FOR PENTAGON SPENDING SPREE? You claim President Obama has destroyed the military, despite the fact military spending is at historically high levels, and is 23% higher than under President Reagan.  But if you do want to further beef up the military, which specific Pentagon spending programs will you increase, how much will that cost and what service cuts and/or tax increases will you offer to pay for that large increase in spending?
  • BUSHONOMICS AGAIN? President George W. Bush’s tax cuts on the wealthy didn’t lead to economic growth and deficit reduction, yet your tax proposal is remarkably similar to the Bushonomics that didn’t turn out so well for Americans. Why do you think that approach will lead to a booming economy if it didn’t turn out that way under the last Republican president?
  • CAP-AND-TRADE. One solution for reducing greenhouse emissions is the cap-and-trade approach. The last three Republican Presidents, including conservative icon Ronald Reagan, embraced this market-based approach. But suddenly Republicans now oppose the cap-and-trade approach to protecting the environment. Has cap-and-trade changed since President Reagan, or has the oil industry’s control of Republican leaders gotten that much stronger?
  • ELIMINATE OIL COMPANY SUBSIDIES? Given that you oppose subsidizing alternative energy sources, and government spending in general, would you support eliminating the $4.8 Billion in subsidies the petroleum industry is given every year? If not, why give an unfair competitive advantage to dirty, non-renewable, and foreign sources of energy over cleaner, renewable, American-based sources?
  • MAKING BANKS SMALL ENOUGH TO FAIL? The largest banks in America are now actually even larger than they were in 2008, when leaders judged them to be too big to fail.  Will you break up the nation’s largest financial institutions so that they are no longer “too big to fail?” If not, aren’t you leaving American taxpayers wide open to another crippling bailout?
  • DETAILS ON DEPORTATION. Explain specifically how you would deport 11.2 million undocumented immigrants, an amount roughly equivalent to the population of the State of Ohio? For example, how would you pry 11 million people away from their lives and families, and get them onto trains or buses? Would you use the military, National Guard or police? How would you pay the estimated $400-600 Billion cost of deporting 11.2 million people?
  • VETERANS VOTING RECORD. You all talk a lot about needing to honor and help military veterans. But if you all love veterans so much, why do groups like the Disabled American Veterans of America (DAV) rate your voting records so low. For instance, the DAV says Senator Rubio and Senator Cruz supported veterans 0% of the time in their most recent rating of them, while Senator Sanders supported veterans 100% of the time and Senator Clinton supported them 80% of the time.   Don’t legislative actions speak louder than your words?
  • DEFICIT SPENDING FOR WARS? Your comments on foreign policy indicate that you are inclined to send American troops to another armed conflict in the Middle East. If you do, will you increase taxes to pay for those operations, or will you fund the conflict with deficit spending, as the last Republican President did? If you’d run up the deficit with trillions of dollars of war spending, how can you claim to be a fiscal conservative?
  • AFFORDABLE CARE ACT (ACA) ALTERNATIVE? What’s your specific plan for replacing the Affordable Care Act? No, really, it’s been six years since the ACA passed, so this time you are not going to get away with dodging the question. If you still can’t name an alternative you support, isn’t it fair to assume that the claimed “repeal-and-replace” rhetoric is actually just “repeal,” which would lead to 1) about 15 million Americans losing their coverage and 2) another 65 million losing their ACA protection from discrimination due to a pre-existing condition?

Oh, and here is one over-arching question I’d like them to add. “For every tax cut or spending increase you didn’t know the cost of today, will you pledge to the American people that you will disclose the estimated fiscal impact within the next month? If not, why won’t you shoot it straight to the voters.”

There are dozens of other questions that need to be asked by reporters, but this would be a very helpful start. Yes, such questioning will cause reporters to get booed, heckled and bullied by the candidates and their cheering sections. But frankly that happens even when they ask softball questions, so what exactly do they have to lose?