For Part I of this Review, click here.
The Race for 2016
No account of 2015 would be complete without a thorough discussion of the presidential primaries that have amplified our national debate on every major issue. The struggle between America’s two parties was eclipsed by the struggles within them as a herd of candidates poured forth in the first half of the year, beginning the contest for the most powerful office in the world. At the end of the year, after eight Republican debates and five Democratic ones, campaigns are beginning to be suspended, the attack ads are setting in, and the competition is getting vicious in the lead up to the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. As we enter 2016, the Republican field offers a very different spectacle than one would have imagined in March– a fact largely creditable to one man who has divided a party and a nation before he has ever taken public office. Nonetheless, we maintain, as we have written many times before, that despite its struggles the vibrancy of debate in the Republican Party is a much healthier condition for the party in the long-term than the stagnant cult of personality that has developed on the American left.
The Anatomy of an Elephant
An old parable tells of three blind men who encounter an elephant on a dirt road. They had been told of elephants but knew nothing of their nature. The first blind man feels the elephant’s side, puts both hands upon it and pushes, unable to move the beast. “An elephant,” he declares, “is like a wall.” The second grasps for the elephant’s trunk and feels its weight in his hands. “An elephant,” this one states, “is like a rope.” The third, suspicious of both men’s appraisals, reaches out and takes hold of the elephant’s leg, feeling its roundness, rough texture, and solid stance. “An elephant,” he says, “is like a tree.” What exactly the great elephant, mascot of the Republican Party, is in 2016 is a matter for debate, and the answer cannot be derived by looking at any one candidate. A thorough sampling of the field of presidential candidates it offers us may be the best sampling we have of the many layers of the GOP.
Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul, made his first flirtations with presidential politics in the 2011 primaries, when it inexplicably became custom for various presidential hopefuls to meet with him over pizza to discuss their campaigns and policy views, presumably in hopes of gaining his financial backing and endorsement. Only in the early spring of 2015 did he return to the scene, making open flirtations with the idea of running himself. Though these insinuations were not taken seriously at first, Trump would soon make good on his suggestions and create chaos in a race that experts believed they had thoroughly mapped out.
One would expect any number of results from a prominent billionaire businessman transforming himself into a presidential candidate overnight. He would predictably bring with him the benefits of business acumen and the spirit of reform, but he might find himself limited by a lack of political knowledge and experience that other candidates with public sector knowledge had accumulated. One can easily imagine the likes of Warren Buffett or Carl Icahn making a run for office but hitting hurdles as they ventured into new areas that require knowledge of subjects outside of their expertise. Donald Trump, however, is no cookie-cutter billionaire, and he would be no cookie-cutter candidate.
Trump defined himself early in the race as a source of turmoil, willing to say all of the things that no other candidate could, would, or should in order to appeal to a bitterly emotionalist base who were drawn to his brash insults and vague pledges to “Make America Great Again.” His first foray into sensationalism came when Senator John McCain spoke out against Trump’s views, leading Trump to berate McCain for having been a prisoner of war in Vietnam, commenting, “I like the ones who don’t get caught.” Many low-income and middle-class conservatives who claim to respect America’s troops and to be concerned with military issues were seemingly unphased by these comments and he maintained their support as he defended his comments on national television.
The McCain incident, however, was just the first in a long campaign of insults, smears, beratements, and derogatory remarks that have defined Donald Trump’s campaign. He is more likely to brand an opponent or critic as a “loser” than to engage them in debate, more likely to release another candidate’s personal phone number to the public than to show anything resembling presidential composure. What’s more, for a party that claims to value decency and composure, much of its ranks continue to be drawn to him, and Trump has yet to lose the lead in national polls that he gained in late spring. Along the way, Trump has done everything that should offend Republican voters. He has been singled out for having donated to prominent Democratic campaigns–most notably those of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi– while earning support from Republicans who claim to despise them. He has insulted prominent right-leaning show hosts and made subtle insinuations that one debate moderator’s tough questions to him may have been driven by her menstrual cycle– all while women composed the majority of his support base early on. He insinuated that Hispanic immigrants were murderers and thieves and yet still garnered support from a percentage of the Hispanic population. When it was pointed out how much of his real estate business depended upon the use of eminent domain laws and lobbying city councils and congressmen, he still maintained the support of some Republicans who claim to oppose corruption and respect economic freedom. He retained the support of Republicans who claim to care about religious liberty while declaring his “openness” to making all Muslims register with the federal government. His supporters envision him as a master diplomat while he admits to gaining his foreign policy knowledge from “the shows.” And he retains the support of many conservatives who claim to respect the First Amendment, all while declaring his admiration for Vladimir Putin, known for disappearing and executing dissident journalists.
It is difficult to blame Donald Trump entirely, however, for the rise of Donald Trump. He seems, by all accounts, to be a man in desperate need of self-assurance who bristles at the suggestion, once made by Marco Rubio, that he is quietly very insecure. Having inherited much of his money and barely outperformed general index funds in the forty years since, Trump carves out the image of a spoiled heir, unequal to his money, who has something personal to prove to himself and the world. He seems to hope that by gaining the presidency he might finally feel adequate to the things he has. In that sense, it is a sad spectacle, but he allows and deserves no sympathy by having damaged our country in the process. Those who deserve the most blame are the people who support him. Donald Trump, more than anything, reveals the hypocrisy and moral inconsistency of too many self-proclaimed Republicans. He is the living embodiment of their contradictions and concrete-bound mentalities, and his candidacy is a shameful revelation of how willing many Republicans are to surrender their freedoms to a petulant, would-be dictator and his brand of American fascism. He combines the worst of both parties, and they love him for it. Tellingly, a survey in the final weeks of the year found that a surprising number of his supporters– primarily white, middle-aged men– are actually registered Democrats who have rebranded themselves as Republicans but are unlikely to vote in the Republican primaries. With Iowa just weeks away, those who value freedom and see the danger of Trump’s candidacy cling to such glimmers of light and hope that more will hesitate before supporting a man who shows such contempt for the Constitution and the American idea of freedom.
The only candidate to currently challenge Trump’s preeminence in the polls is Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz, a first-term senator and former Texas attorney general, came into office on the Tea Party wave of 2010. Since then, he has been a standout antagonist to Establishment policies and Washington business-as-usual. In the process, he has carved out an image of himself as a man alone, beset on all sides by GOP leadership and vested interests. From his (sometimes rightly) unpopular filibusters to the blows he has traded in the presidential primary race, Cruz seems to effectively deflect every attack on him as more evidence of Washington’s vendetta against him and of himself as a noble crusader. There is sure to be mixed merit to this portrayal, and we have written both favorably and critically of the senator in the past, but there is undoubtedly something unique to Cruz as a leader: he seems to continually succeed in attracting more support than experts say he should. He is the antithesis of the Romney/McCain centrist Republican that talking heads say the GOP needs to win. He does not concede his socially conservative positions (even when he sometimes should), and he more than any other candidate has pursued the repeal of ObamaCare when fellow Republicans said his efforts went too far. He has even drawn the ire of fellow social conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum who, it was discovered in the final days of the year, have apparently devoted their remaining resources to trying to help Marco Rubio beat Cruz in Iowa. Whether their enmity toward Cruz is based in a personal distaste, resentment for his taking their spotlight, or promises of cabinet posts in a Rubio White House, the revelation that they would devote their already indebted campaigns to trying to sink Cruz only adds to his reputation as a man assailed. In the wake of the failures of Romney and McCain, the idea of Cruz as a national candidate seems somewhat more plausible than their ill-fated runs, and whatever the polls may say about Trump’s popularity going into 2016, we see Cruz as the man to beat going forward. With $20 million in fundraising in the last quarter of 2015 and his proclamation that the GOP race would be over by March, we feel confident that the senator agrees.
The other major contender in the ongoing GOP primary is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio, a first-term senator who has made his mark in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as an outspoken voice against the Obama administration, is somewhat of an enigma in the field. Elected as a Tea Party candidate, he quickly endeared himself to Republican leadership in many ways and has not pursued the same oppositional stances as Cruz or Rand Paul. He presents himself as an advocate of limited government, but one cannot shake the feeling that he is in many respects a Bush-era Republican, trying to offer just enough concessions to Tea Party conservatives to convince them that he is one of them without giving away the store. He is one of the few major candidates who does not advocate a flat tax, he criticizes the effects of the minimum wage but wants to replace them with government “wage subsidies,” and appears to consider one of his economic policy goals to be ensuring that obsolete jobs are maintained to keep people employed offering goods and services that no one wants. As Reason Magazine wrote in July, “Rubio and other so-called ‘reform conservatives’ have embraced the welfare state. They think it merely needs a new set of technocrats to do the fine-tuning. It’s hard to believe he was once called the crown prince of the Tea Party movement.” Sadly, the senator is no better on his flagship issue, foreign policy, in which he continually advocates sending money and weapons to unaccountable groups in the most tumultuous parts of the Middle East, with nothing but a pinky-promise that they will not later militate against the US and turn those very weapons against our soldiers or those of our allies. In the end, Marco Rubio appears to be, as Paul wrote in Corinthians, “all things to all men”– a candidate who is passionately devoted to getting elected and pursuing an ambiguously Republican agenda, subject entirely to the moment and his audience. Whether that approach will garner him just enough support to win the primaries or whether his divided persona will continue to be overcome by more singular candidates like Cruz, we shall see in the months to come.
Rubio has a strong shot in New Hampshire, and the potential to win Florida makes him formidable in a general election. Skewing his chances in the Florida primary, however, is the fact that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush entered the presidential race in the spring after a long, not-so-quiet campaign of fundraising. Upon entry into the race, his rise to the top seemed all but a sure thing. Unfortunately for Bush, neither his unrivaled success in fundraising nor his name recognition have been enough to put him in the top three candidates in any current polls. He was clearly caught off-guard by the chaotic influence that Donald Trump has had on the field, and the public fascination with underdog candidates in this cycle is putting well-heeled candidates in positions that some of them have not faced since their early years in politics. To be sure, Jeb is not out of the running entirely, and he has a political machine behind him the likes of which few can match. Nonetheless, the difficulty for him of carving out an anti-Establishment image in a very anti-Establishment year has kept him from being seen as a top-tier candidate. Many Americans remain wary of a third Bush presidency, and he would almost have to be the polar opposite of his father and brother to succeed in making that image stick. Instead, he is relying upon a characterization of himself as a likeable, genuine personality, and in that he has succeeded. Where he has fallen short is in conveying the image of a president– poised, savvy, and ready for work. Unless he can manage a standout public performance between now and New Hampshire, Jeb Bush may be waiting four to eight years before he gets a shot at the presidency.
Other candidates’ experiences have shown the tribulations of presidential campaigning. Dr. Benjamin Carson, the famed neurosurgeon who distinguished himself for speaking out against President Obama’s policies at a National Prayer Breakfast, turned that notoriety into a formidable campaign in 2015. Carson, offering a unique and promising combination of views on economic and foreign policy, was for a time the only candidate to outpoll Trump in some surveys and seemed untouchable into November. Though the inability of his advisors to cut through a core of micromanaging communications and political staff led to his decline in the polls, Carson is still in the runnings in Iowa, and a reshuffling of staff in the last week of the year could mean a resurgence for the still well-funded campaign. Carly Fiorina likewise offers a case of strong policy positions limited by some difficulties in getting her message out to the general public. She rose to the main stage after an outstanding showing among lower-polling candidates in the first debate, but even with national notoriety and the quiet backing of the Koch brothers she seems to have found difficulty making news cycles and defining herself as a top-three candidate. And Rand Paul, who began the election cycle with such promise, strangely puttered out this year with mixed performances in debate and circulating reports that despite his strong ideological convictions, the Kentucky senator did not take well to the process of life on the trail. The result is an unfortunate picture of a unique vision stymied by an underwhelming campaign. We can only hope that this showing does not affect him in future campaigns and that, with time, he returns to the presidential debate stage with the bold and confident vision that he has shown so many times in the Senate.
Elsewhere in the large and tangled field of Republican hopefuls was a smattering of candidates who, by virtue of their results, can in some cases tell us as much about the character of the party as those who are succeeding. Surely, in some cases a candidate’s inauspicious showing is merely the result of ineffective fundraising or campaign management, redundancy in messaging with better established candidates, or simply a lack of personal charisma. There is surprisingly little to say even about some main-stage candidates who fit this bill. Ohio Governor John Kasich is simply an unexciting moderate in an immoderate election year. His greatest appeal with many voters lies in his presumed ability to carry the prized electoral votes of Ohio in a general election. Strategic importance, however, counts for little in the face of what is an unexciting candidacy for most voters, and his chances–what there were of them– appear dashed after Kasich rightly drew boos from a recent debate audience for supporting increased financial regulations and greater government involvement in the economy. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was similarly limited by his moderation, support for NSA surveillance state programs, and a generally angry, unlikeable demeanor. His candidacy may be best remembered for his repeated exchanges with Rand Paul, all of which ended in solid victories for Paul. Rounding out the field were a number of first- and second-stage also-ran’s with their own limitations: former New York Governor George Pataki, who lacked the charisma to overcome the many years that have passed since the last time he commanded the political spotlight; Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, both former Iowa strawpoll winners and social conservatives eclipsed by Ted Cruz who now seem to be out with a vengeance to ensure that he is not elected; Scott Walker, the famed Wisconsin governor who proved simply unexciting on a national scale but is likely to be heard from again in years to come; Lindsey Graham, whose unpopular interventionist foreign policy views give us perhaps the best estimate of where a John McCain candidacy would have wound up eight years later; and Bobby Jindal, who seemingly ran a straightforward campaign with good credentials but failed to distinguish his candidacy and project himself into the realm of top contenders.
Nonetheless, were it not for their low poll numbers, it is fair to guess that even many of the underperforming Republican candidates could easily hold their own against a tent-poled Democratic field that, at the beginning of 2016, is already narrowed around a scandal-ridden fait accompli and her token competition.
The Psychology of an Ass
If the Democratic primary field in 2015 were any less suspenseful, it would be a coronation. Anemic and uninspiring, the contest on the left took only until October to narrow to three candidates– two of them with even the slightest chance of succeeding. With the fundraising power and political machine behind Hillary Clinton, few dared to enter the field at the outset. Only former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Virginia Senator and Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb set out to try their hands for the nomination. Whether through indebtedness or loyalty, the Democratic Party and its organizing arm seem to have done everything in its power to pave Clinton’s way to the nomination, even as she became the first major presidential candidate to have an open criminal investigation against her while on the campaign trail. As darkly enjoyable as it is to see Democrats head toward a general election with such handicaps, as a matter of fairness and justice to party members, the DNC’s efforts to handpick the winner of its primary are appalling and would not be tolerated on the right. It proves, once again, the homogeneity of thinking on the left today and its intolerance for dissent. The Democratic Party under Barack Obama’s presidency has taken the view that the road to victory rests on unanimity and harsh punishment for those who venture astray, but seven years in and three lost congressional contests later, that approach continues to dig them deeper into an electoral hole. Going into 2016, it looks as if they will once again go all-in for a singular message and a reified candidate. Unfortunately for them, it looks as if no Republican candidate will be as handily beaten as Mitt Romney was in 2012, and this hamfisted approach may be Republicans best hope for the White House if they do not settle for a sensationalist candidate like Trump.
As for the Democratic nominee to come, all signs as of January 1, 2016, point to Hillary Clinton walking it to the finish line by March. Despite the continuing deluge of scandals that have wracked the former Secretary of State’s reputation in the last two years, a majority of Democratic voters seem to believe that no one is more fit to be their next president than a woman who has openly admitted to lying to the American people on numerous occasions and faces mounting evidence of having violated multiple federal laws. At year’s end, more than 1,200 emails from Clinton’s private server that she kept in violation of federal law had been deemed classified by an inspector general, and the State Department, continuing a pattern of obstruction, fell short of its court-ordered goal of releasing 43,000 pages of her emails. Though evidence to substantiate the connection has been inconclusive, Clinton’s improper conducting of business on a private server is believed by many to be linked to donations to the Clinton Foundation during her time as Secretary of State in a pay-to-play system in which Clinton is alleged to have doled out favors to foreign governments in exchange for money and professional benefits for family members. Clinton also admitted in testimony before the Senate that her statements to the American people in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attacks were deliberate falsehoods meant to deflect blame for the terrorist attacks onto a then-unknown filmmaker. As if that were not sufficient, other unfortunate developments for her included a backfired strategy of keeping the media at arm’s length for the early months of the campaign, orchestrating staged roundtables with voters who turned out to be staff members and close supporters of her campaign, and the release last year of a decades-old audio recording that shows Clinton laughing as she describes how she as a lawyer got a child molester acquitted by alleging that the twelve-year-old girl he abused was sexually promiscuous. This last scandal alone would be enough to sink any Republican candidate in any election year, but such is the nature of media love for Clinton (and for Democrats in general) that it was hardly taken up by any major news outlet and has remained a non-issue for her public reputation.
All of this is hardly to suggest that Clinton is the worst that the Democrats could do in the coming year. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, is the first avowedly socialist major presidential candidate in almost a century. He is emblematic of the Democratic Party’s continued drift to the left and its increasing openness to revealing its affinity for socialism. The days of Bill Clinton Democrats who feel the need to play the centrist are over, and in the primary race so far, Sanders has succeeded in pulling Clinton to the left. Though she shows early signs of racing back to the middle once she garners the nomination, Sanders’ influence over Clinton’s campaign shows where the central locus of the Democratic Party now lies. The Christian, pro-Israel center-leftists who held clout in decades past are being edged out by an angrier base that shows no hesitation towards involving the state in every aspect of Americans’ lives. What’s more: their intolerance for dissent suggests that their advance will be more complete than their antitheses on the right, and for all of the left’s triumphant self-satisfaction in seeing the divisiveness within the Republican Party, it is their own inability to conduct a healthy, intraparty debate that is dragging them down both intellectually and electorally.
It is a shame that this process has effectively edged out otherwise formidable Democratic candidates– not because we consider them to be ideal or even good, necessarily, but because they would be far less atrocious than the two current frontrunners that the party has offered the American people. Surely, not all lesser candidates are an improvement. Lincoln Chafee was caught admitting in a debate to having voted for bills without knowing what was in them, and his bizarre campaign to convert the United States to the metric system was as tone-deaf as it was absurd. And Harvard professor Larry Lessig decided to campaign entirely on the subject of campaign reform, pledging to change campaign laws if elected and then promptly resign, but decided too late to withdraw that pledge and try to be a legitimate candidate after all. Others, however, were more impressive. Martin O’Malley would, in any other election year, appear to be a viable candidate with the youth, energy, and potential to take the nomination. Were he to run again, he could likely make a stronger showing. Jim Webb is the best candidate that the Democratic Party has offered in 20 years, and they dispensed with him post-haste for his pro-military stances, overt patriotism, and the spirit of bipartisan cooperation that he embodied. For all its love of the state, the New Left has no room for patriotism of that kind nor admiration for military service. Their rejection of his candidacy is far more a statement on the moral and intellectual collapse of the Democratic Party than it is on Webb himself. Fortunately, the former senator currently appears to be in a holding-pattern, considering a third-party run that could sink the Democratic nominee-to-be when the time comes. We watch with interest to see what moves he will make.
To discern the political condition of our country from an analysis of its major candidates and the contest between them is to garner a picture of cautious optimism. The reserved sympathy for capitalist ideas that we discussed in Part I is surely reflected in the views of some of the Republican Party’s candidates. Never in the last fifty years has suspicion of government involvement in the economy, regulation, and central banking been more explicit on the lips of so many presidential candidates. Watching the debates this year, one would have seen Ted Cruz and Rand Paul competing over who had the strongest stance against the Federal Reserve, while moments later Ben Carson would condemn the excesses of an oversized government. A candidate was likely to draw boos by endorsing financial regulations, higher taxes, and warrantless surveillance programs, while unexpected applause lines followed condemnations of bureaucratic meddling by the Department of Commerce and other executive branch agencies.
Nonetheless, we remain unconvinced that most candidates have a thorough grounding in the moral arguments for economic freedom that are needed to counter the corrupt collectivism of socialists like Bernie Sanders. We have yet to see a candidate in this election cycle profess a belief in capitalism grounded in a secular conception of individual rights rather than religious arguments or pragmatic calculations. That remains disconcerting, as although Republicans will likely have the advantage going into the general election, they will need to prepare themselves for a swing to the center by, presumably, Clinton, and they will need those arguments to take the moral high ground from a candidate who should be soundly defeated if Republicans do not once again lose their way before election day.
It is easy to grow weary of the partisan and intraparty struggles that characterize an election year, but at the end of eight years of Barack Obama our nation will need new, better, more moral leadership to restore her, to undo the damage that this administration has wrought, to ward off an entitlement crisis looming on the horizon, and to secure America’s future in an increasingly volatile world with rising threats and looming uncertainties. It is to that global context that we turn in our third and final installment of the 2015 Review.