Since Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency, he has regularly attacked politicians as incompetent. Republican and Democratic politicians alike have been excoriated by Trump with Hillary Clinton receiving his toughest criticisms for her work as Secretary of State. When he becomes president, Trump argues, he will clean up the domestic and foreign policy messes because of his competent leadership.
Trump and his surrogates routinely tout the business successes of Donald Trump, including his competence at everything from operating a piece of heavy equipment on a job site to negotiating a deal. Convention speakers from the business world have consistently praised Trump’s competence in all business matters and make the claim that this will make Trump an effective president.
The convention itself, both in terms of planning and execution, should give voters pause about Trump’s premise that he is the most competent person to lead the country and that other leaders, particularly Hillary Clinton, lack both the character and competence to fix the country’s problems.
Last Saturday Governor Mike Pence was named as Donald Trump’s running mate. At the same time stories were circulating in the media that Trump had second thoughts about Pence as late as midnight the night before he was named as his running mate. This decision, long considered to be the first important decision made by the presumptive nominee should have been an easy one for Trump who has been proclaimed to be an excellent judge of talent in the business world and someone whose visibility was enhanced by his long-running reality show “The Apprentice” in which he chose a strong leader for the Trump Organization.
Once the convention began, the behaviors of Trump and those close to him again raise questions of his competence as a leader. On Monday, Melanie Trump’s speech which plagiarized Michelle Obama’s 2008 address and was written by Trump Organization employee Meredith McIver demonstrated the basic inattention to detail by Trump and his people that should signal problems should a Trump administration take office.
The invitation to Ted Cruz to speak at the Republican Convention without a promise of an official endorsement demonstrates Trump’s lack of understanding about politics, but also poor managerial competence. Cruz’s blatant snub of Trump was troubling itself, but considering that the Trump team had his speech text two hours prior to the address and neither Trump or his people intervened is inexcusable for an event that was supposed to project party unity.
There are other examples of incompetence in terms of executing the convention, such as the selection of poor speakers or a schedule that simply dragged and deflated delegates and guests alike. For a candidate who wants to shake up the political system, the 2016 Republican Convention seemed like a poor rendition of previous conventions.
At some point in the presidential campaign, voters, including Trump supporters, must address whether the rhetoric of Trump’s competence as a leader matches the reality of his inattention to detail, poor planning, poor management of employees, and other characteristics that people use to judge this quality.
It became apparent to me soon after I arrived at the Republican National Convention that many Republicans don’t really want Donald Trump to win the presidency of the United States. Instead, they want revenge, pure and simple.
As the recent Washington Post/ABC poll indicates, Donald Trump its considered less qualified by most voters (Washington Post/ABC Poll on Qualifications of Trump and Clinton) and other surveys have indicated that Trump’s approval rating, even among Republicans is under water.Yet, as the Post poll and others indicate, the Trump-Clinton race is very tight.
When I attend conventions, I spend more time watching the crowd in the arena than listening to the speeches. Rarely do the speeches deviate from the talking points and themes well established over the previous year. I want to see what gets convention attendees to get out of their seats. In 2016 Republicans the idea that activates Republicans is the revenge fantasy that Hillary Clinton will be imprisoned for past actions.
During the speeches, delegates and guests will often break out into chants of “Lock Her Up.” Sometimes these are prompted by speakers, while at other times, the crowd will do this even while the speakers are talking about something else, including Donald Trump.
Last night several speakers tried to extol Donald Trump’s virtues as a candidate and potential president. The Trump children–Tiffany and Donald, Jr.–told warm stories of the candidate as father and mentor. Chris Christie talked about his 14-year friendship with Trump and the general manager of Trump Winery spoke about Trump’s managerial advice. These speeches were politely received.
The delegates and guests responded with emotion primarily when Hillary Clinton’s name was invoked, especially when Chris Christie prosecuted Clinton for her behaviors as Secretary of State and Ben Carson discussed Clinton’s admiration for Saul Alinsky and his praise of Lucifer. It was during these speeches that the loudest and most sustained chants of “Lock Her Up” happened.
Even beyond the arena itself, it is clear that Republicans want to punish Hillary Clinton and, by extension, President Barack Obama, more than they really want to elect Donald Trump. Although there were plenty of Trump t-shirts and other campaign swag being sold and worn, the number of t-shirts and buttons proclaiming to want Clinton jailed or worse was running a close second. Plus, the loudest protestors were often ones who claimed to have additional evidence of Clinton’s treason.
One of my students asked me, in a serious tone, whether Republicans would intimate impeachment proceedings soon after Inauguration Day should Clinton be elected. My initial response was to rationally say why this would never happen. After being in Cleveland, however, my response was “I hope not.”
Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary garners a level of attention completely disproportionate to the paltry 23 delegates it will send to the nominating convention. But New Hampshire voters will answer some key questions that will ultimately determine how the Republican primary race shakes out.
New Hampshire is used to being an important state in the Republican nominating process, despite its small size and population unrepresentative of the country’s demographics. It has a strong record of its winners going on to take the nomination. There is little doubt that New Hampshire will help clarify the Republican nominating process again this year.
What remains to be seen is whether the Republican nominee will have a strong shot at winning the presidency in November. The Republican campaign has evolved into a bloody intra-squad scrimmage with the leading candidates trading cheap shots and jabs to gain headlines.
Although the GOP seems damaged, New Hampshire is an opportunity for Republicans to right their ship and produce a viable candidate for the general election. Three things we stand to learn on Tuesday will show whether the GOP stands a good chance to win the White House.
Where will independent voters cast their ballots? New Hampshire’s open primary process means the independent voters, historically 45 percent of the electorate, can vote in either party’s primary. A recent WBUR survey found that 48 percent of these undeclared voters lean Republican, while 39 percent lean Democratic. Many are as angry and frustrated as the party bases and both parties offer outsider candidates. However, businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz offer different leadership and a fundamentally smaller government, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side is about a more activist government with more programs.
Where New Hampshire’s undecideds vote will either signal that the middle wants a less activist government or that the middle wants more government. A large majority of undeclared voters in New Hampshire participating in the Republican primary may signal that voters are looking for a change in the country’s executive leadership.
Will the GOP candidates pivot their appeals to be more inclusive? The GOP candidates were so focused on Iowa’s evangelicals that they seemed out of touch to many important voters around the country. Even Trump stressed his faith and character rather than talking as much about restoring the country’s economy and international prestige.
Republican candidates have typically pivoted to try to address broader groups of voters once they leave the Iowa caucus. One of the keys to Ronald Reagan’s political comeback in the 1980 New Hampshire primary was developing a message that appealed broadly to groups he used to win the presidency: conservatives, evangelicals, defense hawks and moderate voters who would later be called Reagan Democrats. It showed he learned his lesson from four years earlier when he lost New Hampshire to Gerald Ford after positioning himself as a rock-ribbed conservative in contrast to Ford’s more moderate image.
Can Republicans regain the control over their message? Republicans have traditionally been considered the party of message discipline, but Trump’s presence in the nominating process and the saturation coverage by the media has all but displaced the basic Republican message of government accountability and international strength. Instead, the leading GOP candidates are defined by journalists and each other as hypocrites with reactionary policies who can’t get things done.
Although George W. Bush lost the 2000 New Hampshire primary to John McCain, it was a turning point in his path to the nomination and, ultimately, the presidency. After the loss, the Bush team felt as though the McCain campaign had defined Bush as part of the establishment and unable to reform government. Starting with the South Carolina primary campaign, the Bush team adopted the new theme “Reformer with Results” to highlight his effectiveness as as a reformer while serving as Texas governor.
The question for Republicans is whether they can control the chaos that they are bringing into New Hampshire and give voters a clear idea of how the nominee will govern with a Republican Congress.
Despite critics who argue that New Hampshire is too small or too homogeneous in its population to be in such an important position in the nominating process, candidates and their campaigns have learned important lessons that last far beyond the nominating process. In the next few days we will see if Republicans will stop their mud wrestling to learn from history.
Note: Published in US News and World Report, February 8, 2016
Making predictions for politics in 2016 feels like predicting the winning numbers for the lottery. Six months ago, I was one of the many analysts who predicted that Donald Trump was a flash-in-the pan candidate and would not last as the leader for the Republican presidential nomination. I failed to understand the lasting power of Trump’s celebrity status and how he channels the anger and frustration of many Americans.
The good news is that the political world is not just the Republican nominating process. Elections for Congress, governor, and state legislatures will be determined by more traditional forces such as fundraising, electoral district lines, and issues. The Supreme Court continues to operate as an institution made up of justices with very different views of the Constitution. International events remain shaped by long-standing economic, political, and religious differences.
It is with this belief in the stability of most national and international politics that I offer 16 predictions for the next year.
- The two presidential nominating fields could not be more different. The Republican Party, which traditional favors a candidate who has served his time in the political trenches, currently has a celebrity outsider who has held many positions favored by Democrats. Democrats, on the other hand, who have often turned to outsider candidates has the ultimate political insider leading in the polls. When things shake out in early summer, the Republicans will have a Rubio-Fiorina ticket, while the Democrats will have a Clinton-Kaine
- The US Senate will end up with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans after the fall elections. Republicans have more seats up in this election cycle and Democrats pick up key wins in Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire to put the Senate into a deadlocked position.
- The Democrats pick up five seats in the US House, far from the 30 needed to retake the House. This prediction assumes that Republicans choose Rubio or another experienced politician as its presidential candidate. The nomination of Donald Trump could lead to the Democrats picking up 4-6 more seats in the House.
- Of the 12 governor’s races this year, Democrats currently hold eight of them. Unfortunately for Democrats, there is likely to be bad news as they are likely to lose their hold of the governor’s mansion in West Virginia and may lose Missouri. That puts a lot of pressure on the North Carolina governor’s election. In the end, Republicans will have a net gain of two governorships.
- Speaking of North Carolina and its governor’s race, it will come down, unsurprisingly, between Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper. Although both have primary challengers, neither should have difficulty in winning their respective party nominations.
- The legal cases in the court systems over North Carolina’s redistricting will result in the primary and general elections going as planned with the current district maps. Although opponents of the Republican-drawn maps hold hope that the US Supreme Court will rule the NC districts invalid, using the Alabama ruling as precedent, the Court will not rule similarly on the NC maps.
- The legal case over the NC voter id law will also fail to overturn this provision of the 2013 law, since lawmakers passed a revision to the law making it easier for voters to cast their ballots.
- The US Supreme Court will uphold the idea of “one person, one vote” in Evenwel v. Abbott and not allowing districts to be drawn on the basis of eligible voters. This will allow the growing Latino population to continuing shaping congressional and legislative districts.
- The Supreme Court will rule a second time in Fisher v. the University of Texas. The Court will rule against the University of Texas and effectively end affirmative action.
- The major emphasis of US foreign policy will shift to the Iran-Saudi Arabia crisis. If these two regional powers get into a shooting war with one another, instead of a proxy war in Yemen and other places, this will undercut much of what the US is doing in Syria, including defeating ISIS. On the presidential campaign circuit, there will be a lot of talk about US failures with Iran, but little substantive discussion of how to manage the Iran-Saudi Arabia crisis.
- After a productive end to 2015 in terms of legislation, Congress reverts back to moving very few pieces of legislation through that will likely be signed by President Obama. The Federal Aviation Administration will be reauthorized by early March and a bailout for Puerto Rico may be the only major bills signed during the election year, with the Trans Pacific Pipeline and immigration reform being rescheduled for after the next presidential inauguration.
- Back to election predictions, Senator Richard Burr will win reelection only because the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other major donors will put their money in other races,
- Governor Pat McCrory will narrowly win reelection as the Democrats fail to produce the Obama coalition of voters from 2008 and 2016.
- Incumbent Council of State members Dan Forest, Steve Troxler, Wayne Goodwin, Elaine Marshall, Beth Wood, and June Atkinson win reelection. Challenger Charles Meeker beats incumbent Cherie Berry for Commissioner of Labor. Josh Stein wins the Attorney General race, while Dan Blue is elected State Treasurer.
- The $2 billion bond issue in North Carolina passes comfortably with bi-partisan support.
- Hillary Clinton wins the presidency because of the “blue wall” of electoral votes. She loses North Carolina 52-48%, but wins Florida, Ohio, and Virginia—all keys to her victory.
Despite all of the discussion about an angry electorate, the voter turnout will not be historically high. This election appears more like the 2004 election cycle, rather than 2008. In the end, neither Democrats nor Republicans will be completely excited about their presidential candidates and many voters will stay home.
The fallout from Wednesday night’s Republican debate hosted by CNBC was predictable. Now, the NBC family of networks may lose the ability to host future debates, while Republican candidates scored points with their base constituents by attacking the media.
But the real loser on Wednesday night was the American people. Unless we rethink the essence of political debates, we are going to end up less informed about substantive policy positions and more cynical about how we choose our nation’s leader.
Let’s be serious, these are not debates. Academic debate, like that established by the Oxford University Union and practiced by college and high school students around the country for decades, is designed to make the debaters smarter. Does anyone seriously think that the debate prep used by Democratic and Republican candidates for president has caused them to learn more about the issues facing the country?
Political campaign debates in this country started as an attempt to educate and persuade Americans about an issue dividing the country—slavery. The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates gave the candidates for the US Senate from Illinois extensive time to develop their arguments for and against this issue.
What have Americans learned from the 2015 debates so far? Donald Trump is rich. Hillary Clinton has changed her position on key issues. Marco Rubio is from modest circumstances. Bernie Sanders wants us to stop talking about email.
Worse yet, the skills needed to do well in contemporary debates have nothing to do with presidential leadership. Debates reward style over substance as debaters give snappy answers instead of reflective ones. The entire goal for contemporary debates is for an individual to tear down an opponent, instead of working on solutions with someone with different policy positions.
It is unlikely than any of the four titans on Mt. Rushmore would have made it through the primary process if they had to slog through today’s contemporary debates.
Before debates devolve even further, we need to make substantive changes:
1. Change the format of the debates—the current debate format of having as any as ten candidates on stage competing for the opportunity to talk for one minute about silly or substantive issues must be transformed. Let’s go back to the Lincoln-Douglas model of having two people with fundamentally different policy positions debate for an hour. Watching Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate Wall St. reforms for an hour or Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham debate military intervention against ISIS would be both good viewing and a test of how each person would think about issues and lead on them.
2. Get rid of all moderators—Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and CNBC’s John Harwood are not only a distraction, but unnecessary for true debate. Changing the format to a series of single-issue debates featuring two candidates at a time only requires a referee to make sure the candidates follow time limits and don’t get off subject. Someone like veteran NFL referee Ed Hochuli would be a great choice. Even Donald Trump would be intimidated by Hochuli’s stern admonitions.
3. Change how public opinion and networks influence campaigns—the Republican debates have demonstrated the limits of public opinion polls. Using a series of national polls 12-15 months before the 2016 election to select candidates to be in the main and undercard debates is absurd, especially when polling margins of error makes the determination of each lineup scientifically invalid. Public opinion polls can continue to play a role in political debates, but only in determining the topics for the single-issue substantive debates. Polls are pretty reliable and stable when they seek to determine which issues Americans find important.
Political debates can be an important part of the campaign process in this country and help voters make informed choices about candidate’s policy positions and leadership skills. Unfortunately, current debates may yield a president whose abilities and ideas are not what Americans thought they were getting.
According to a recent Public Policy Polling survey, North Carolinians agree on one thing—that the General Assembly is doing a poor job. With the budget over two months late and major disagreements between the Republican-led chambers on major issues such as sales tax distribution and teacher assistants, no one should be surprised that public approval is so low.
Too often critics point to ideological differences, even among the Republican leadership of the House and Senate, as the reason why the budget is late or that major reforms don’t take place. Although political differences exist and explain some of the problems the General Assembly experiences, there is a more fundamental problem in North Carolina. North Carolina can no longer operate with a part-time legislature because we are a growing state with increasingly complex policy issues.
The legislative dysfunction we are experiencing is not one rooted in the controlling political party, as Democrats had similar problems when they ran Jones Street. The real cause of legislative dysfunction is that we no longer live in the 19th Century when state government and the accompanying budget were significantly smaller. The issues faced by the General Assembly and the size of the budget necessitates a professional legislators who can spend sufficient time on governing to solve the problems facing the state.
Since 1980, for example, the General Assembly has passed a budget on or before the June 30 deadline only seven times, as compared to earlier budgets when needing an extension was exceedingly rare. When tens of billions of dollars are at stake and over 1600 bills in which House and Senate members take action, having longer sessions and delayed budgets is understandable.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) classifies eight states as having full-time legislatures, including states much larger than North Carolina, such as California, but also those significantly smaller, such as Wisconsin and Alaska. North Carolina is considered to have a hybrid legislature by the NCSL, a category in which legislators spend two-thirds of their time in activities related to their political office, but whose total compensation is not enough to allow them to live without another source of income.
Increasing the legislator’s annual salary to $80,000, the average of all full-time state legislators, would add approximately $10 million to the cost of operating the legislature. Citizens would undoubtedly balk at the additional expense, especially given the legislature’s low approval rating, but the good governance that would accrue if North Carolina adopted a full-time legislature would more than offset the costs.
The main argument for a full-time legislature is that House and Senate members need more time to fully deliberate public policy issues. Tax reform has been considered for over thirty years, but a complete modernization of the system has not occurred, in part because legislators lack the time to take on this complex system. Other issues, such as mental health reform, don’t get done because these policy issues are difficult to do in the midst of their regular legislative business and the desire to keep sessions short.
Likewise, many issues during this session seemed rushed and decided with little to no public input. Critics argued that these bills were voted into law without deliberation because leadership did not want input, but the fact remains that many bills need further scrutiny by legislators and the public and without a full-time legislature with more time devoted to committee meetings and public hearings, this will not happen.
Another reason for investing in a full-time legislature is to make it possible that a wider range of citizens serve in the House and Senate. The current legislative salary of just under $14,000 per year, plus monthly expenses while in session, makes it virtually impossible for most North Carolinians to consider running for these offices. Most teachers, service sector employees or those without a second income stream cannot serve in the legislature that is supposed to represent its citizens.
Governmental reform issues like employing a full-time legislature or nonpartisan redistricting rarely capture citizens’ attention. Without fundamental change in the way we conduct state politics, we will continue to see missed budget deadlines and be disappointed in the policy decisions our legislators make.
Donald Trump’s continued strength in public opinion polls despite controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants and John McCain, among others, confounds pundits. More significantly, his presence at the top of the nomination field heading into the first debate worries many in the Republican Party, as they consider the long-term implications of Trump’s brash campaign style.
Although it is too early to determine Trump’s fate or the ultimate impact of his candidacy on the party, there are many lessons the GOP can learn from the rise of Donald Trump.
Presidential elections are going to attract large and diverse fields. Traditionally, the Republican nomination process was an orderly affair with small fields and a nominee being the person who had “paid his dues” through previous runs for the White House. Beginning in 2012 this orderly process has been dismantled by two significant events. First, Barack Obama proved that little political experience was an advantage in winning the presidency. Likewise, the 2010 Citizens United ruling changed the funding of presidential campaigns. Many Republican candidates in 2012 and 2016 circumvented traditional sources of funding, like the party by having supportive independent expenditure groups, often funded primarily by a billionaire supporter.
Donald Trump’s entry and early success in the polls indicates that political experience is not necessary to gain the support of almost one-quarter of likely Republican primary voters. Also, although Trump has the ability to self-finance his campaign, he symbolizes the new breed of presidential candidate who doesn’t need party regulars for his campaign war chest.
Leadership within the Republican Party has declining influence. With the rise of Super PACs and billionaire donors, political parties have seen their influence over the nomination process decline. Party leadership can no longer dictate, through controlling financial resources and persuasion, the number and type of candidates seeking the nomination, or the strategy and tactics used by these candidates. When Donald Trump attacked John McCain, Rick Perry, and Lindsey Graham, many within the Republican establishment chastised Trump for violating Ronald Reagan’s mantra about “not speaking ill of any fellow Republican.” These attempts to change Trump’s behavior not only failed to soften his statements, but appeared to strengthen his standing among supporters.
A significant portion of the electorate continues to be angry. Donald Trump’s core message is that government and its leaders are dysfunctional and this taps into historically high levels of dissatisfaction in government, as measured by recent Gallup polls. Although Ted Cruz and other Republican candidates attack Washington, Trump’s status as a true outsider and his ability to attack politicians, even Republicans, as “idiots,” or make bold statements about how he would deal with China plays into the frustration many Americans feel about America’s inability to deal with domestic and foreign issues. People seemed unconcerned about Trump’s lack of detail on many issues or even his seeming inconsistencies on issues like immigration. They are more attracted to the perception of Trump as a strong person of accomplishment.
There is no longer a distinction between entertainment and politics. For the last 20 years, the distinction between entertainer and politician has all but disappeared. From the election of actors and comedians to prominent political positions to President Obama’s comfort level in noshing with Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart, we have entered an era in which politicians need to be as concerned about their Q-score as their approval ratings.
Donald Trump is a celebrity who is comfortable hosting The Apprentice, flying his private jet to the British Women’s Open golf tournament, and exchanging tweets with actors and athletes. He understands that ratings on his NBC show depended on his outrageous statements and hallmark line “You’re fired!” While many of the 2016 Republican candidates for president jockey for slots on Fox News or Meet the Press, Trump’s meteoric rise to the top of the Republican field is because he has always been an entertainer.
Donald Trump’s popularity among Republican primary voters may wane in the coming months or, conversely, he may solidify his role as a top Republican contender, but the GOP would be well served to acknowledge that the rules of the game have changed in significant ways.