Blocking Obama Court Nominees, GOP Guarantees White House Victory for Dems

Whether or not the GOP Senate and House technically have the right to block any nominee President Obama sends them, this move–if they choose to stick with it–would almost certainly guarantee a Democrat wins the 2016 general election. Congratulations Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton–either of you will make a great Commander-in-Chief. Don’t forget to send Mitch McConnell a thank you note.

Think about it: Right now the Democratic Party has been split fairly evenly into two factions by a healthy, but contentious primary. But the primary will be over eventually, and the Democrats will have a nominee. No matter which candidate comes out as the party standard bearer, every single Democrat will be unified by a Congress that refuses to allow the current President to fill a seat on the Supreme Court.

Consider, for example, that President Obama nominates a woman to fill the seat and the Democrat nominee happens to be Hillary Clinton. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect rallying cry for Democrats to turn out the vote in every district in America than a bunch of corpulent, male Republicans who refuse to confirm a woman to the court simply because–simply because it’s their birthday party and they would rather hold their breath until they turn blue before letting anyone else look at the birthday cake, let alone have a piece.

The Democrats would raise tens of millions of dollars solely on ads decrying the GOP blocking a woman justice.

Women who have never voted for a Democrat before would vote for Hillary Clinton because Mitch McConnell and his team of white men in power would have made the morality play of injustice towards women in America startlingly powerful and disarmingly simple to understand.

But what if Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee?  The GOP blocking tactic would be equally as energizing for Sanders–who has attracted millions of followers and small donors by talking about special interests blocking the will of the people to advance their own selfish interests.

One could not dream of a better example of special interests blocking the will of the people than a small group of Republican men refusing to allow a President to carry out his Constitutional responsibility to fill a seat.

Moreover, one of the major themes to emerge for Democrats in the primary has been racial injustice–in particular: structural inequality experienced by African Americans in this country. Given that President Ronald Reagan nominated and confirmed Justice Kennedy in his final year, it would appear that carrying out this duty is acceptable to the GOP when the sitting  President is white, but not when he is black.

This point of racial inequality resonates with every single Democrat in every district across the country. Many voters would cross party lines to vote for the Democratic nominee when presented with such clear example of racist double standard.

But what about the Republican nominee? Wouldn’t holding up Obama’s nominee ultimately benefit Trump or Cruz who have rocketed to popularity by maligning President Obama?

Maybe at first this tactic would get some attention for the Republicans. Some attention, but not much. The problem is that the Congressional GOP leadership would have to carry out this tactic for a very, very long time. No matter how much the Republican base may be energized  at first, eventually the media narrative will turn to GOP obstructionism.

Going into the general election, voters will have already been listening for months and months to constant media reports of a GOP that simply refuses to allow the President to do what every president has the obligation to do. And that story will make the GOP even less popular than it already is.

Eventually, the GOP nominee will be forced to disagree with GOP Congressional leadership–because there is no reason why the President should not be allowed to have his nominee confirmed other than the fact that this President is Barack Obama.

GOP numbers will drop as the country grows annoyed with GOP do-nothing obstructionism.

It’s a gift from the GOP to Democrats who, ultimately, will get to appoint a new judge anyway when they win the general election.

Maybe Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan hate their jobs–because they will not have them anymore when the GOP pitchforks turn on them.

No cake for either of you.


How Candidates will Talk about Scalia

Supreme Court Justice Scalia has died suddenly–hard to exaggerate the importance of this turn of events for the Presidential election.  It is well worth pausing to consider how this might change the overall debate.

In the GOP primary, we can expect a contest to see who can praise Scalia the most, coupled with fantastical claims about how criminally unconstitutional the Obama administration has been.  No big surprises, here.

Given that the GOP has a debate starting very soon, it’s likely the candidates will spend a great deal of time praising Caesar in their opening statements. One can hear the statements even before they happen:

Trump: I knew Scalia very well, he wrote some of my favorite opinions, huge Scalia fan.

Cruz:  I will shut down the government to stop Obama’s nominee.

Rubio: Barack Obama is willfully violating the constitution.

Kasich: In my first 100 days I will appoint 100 Scalias to the Supreme Court.

Bush: I’ve been saying Scalia was great for years, nobody listened to me.

Carson: I will reappoint Anton Scalia to the Supreme Court.

Overall, Scalia’s death will provide a moment of unity for the GOP, but will probably benefit Cruz because his sanctimonious jingoism is best suited for postmortem encomium.

In the Democratic primary, the change in the debate will be more subtle.

Sanders will likely pivot from Scalia’s death to the question of Citizens United. He has already promised to appoint justices whose judicial philosophies make them likely to rule against the landmark money in politics ruling. It would be surprising if he did not return to those points.

Clinton already has a far reaching argument about the Supreme Court in her campaign, often citing it as a major reason to consider “electability” in the general election when thinking about one’s vote in the primary.

Another idea circulating amongst Clinton’s supporters in particular is a scenario whereby after she wins, she appoints President Obama to the Court.  I am not sure where or when this idea firs took shape–it’s hard to imagine it actually happening. But it suggests that Clinton supporters are thinking more about their candidate as the best suited to hold the Supreme Court.

It’s no wonder the supreme court has become one of the most emotionally resonant arguments from the Clinton camp and is often connected to talk of women’s rights. It would be surprising if Clinton did not invoke strongly in the next few days.

Overall, the Supreme Court is an issue that the Clinton camp invokes to create a sense of trepidation about Sanders, whereas Sanders invokes it to rally people to their broader theme of getting big money out of politics.


Are All Debates Flint Debates, Now?

By conventional yardsticks, it would seem that Clinton has the advantage going into the Milwaukee debate, tonight. She has a narrow lead in Wisconsin polls and a 30 point lead in another key midwestern state:  Michigan. She is the presumptive leader in national polls. She has more super delegates by a wide margin.

Still, I am not so sure Clinton really has the edge. Here’s why:

The symbolism of Flint is paramount. Even though the Flint debate is several weeks away, all Democratic Party debates will essentially be Flint debates.

The families of Flint have suffered immeasurably from the tragic and no doubt criminal behavior of their elected officials.  Changes to the water supply pushed through to save money resulted in widespread lead poisoning, including many children. Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s administration appears to have been unforgivably negligent at best, sadistically indifferent at worst.

In response to the water poisoning in Flint, the Clinton team contacted the local mayor, offered to help, and seems to have helped speed up the process of getting emergency resources to the city.  Sanders, by contrast, called for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder. Two different approaches to the same problem–both important.


The problem for Clinton is that she is not running a campaign where she is pushing a great deal of symbolic politics. In fact, she is doing the opposite. When pushed by the large vision of the Sanders campaign, her reaction has not been to advance her own large vision, but to assert the importance of not giving in to the impulse to tilt at windmills–to  aim for small, incremental steps while the dreamers and big talkers talk about a brighter future.

To distinguish herself from Sanders, Clinton has taken an almost anti-charisma, anti-promise, anti-big change agenda. Talking to supporters from both candidates casts a start light on this contrast. Sanders supporters insist on the possibility of broad sweeping change to the underlying conditions of government, the economy, race relations, and climate change. Clinton supporters insist that big change cannot happen because of Republican obstructionism and that anyone who thinks it can is childish.

Each campaign has fueled these narratives amongst their base, more or less. They embody the big difference in the campaigns: Sanders pushes hope through change; Clinton pushes confidence through continuity. Sanders advocates a break from the past; Clinton promises to not let the GOP take away the steps we’ve taken so far. Sanders calls for revolution; Clinton calls for patience.

We have a textbook contrast between change and continuity in the Democratic primary race, right now. To a certain extent, the same thing is happening in the GOP, although because of Trump and Cruz, that race appears to be a contest between dull and crazy.

It is in this environment where Sanders speaks to change and Clinton speaks to continuity that I believe Flint will be a difficult sell for Clinton.

Visceral suffering,  particularly where children are involved, can find deep empathy amongst those advocating patience–there is no question that both candidates are deeply committed to helping right the wrongs that happened Flint. But when families have watched their children suffer from lead poisoning from tap water, what they are seeking is leadership that calls for deep, sweeping, structural change.

And, in fact, these are the changes that must happen in Flint, in Michigan, and in the country.

The children of Flint are victims not only of bad policy and bad state management of public utilities, they are victims of cruel indifference to working class and poor people.

They are victims to government who believes the lives of families in towns with chronic high unemployment–these families lives have no value.

They are victims of party obstructionism.

They are victims of an economic system that seeks to reward and protect big finance before it seeks to protect and nurture vulnerable children.

They are victims of systemic racism that refuses to see the dignity of all people as a worthwhile national priority.

In all of these, I believe both Sanders and Clinton are on the right side of the issues, but the Sanders campaign is simply better at speaking with passion and authenticity about the need for change.

Clinton, for all her experience, has moved her campaign to a place where their message is now: big change is important, but we can’t do it, so be patient.

She will most likely be pushed in the Flint debate to explain why she does not believe in big change, given crises like the Flint water poisoning. And when presented with these questions, she will most likely respond that she believes in big change, but–but she knows it is not possible and that we need to be cautious about people who promise it.

Sanders by contrast, will most likely say that if we work together we can achieve great things and that the problem is politicians who do not believe in the transformative potential of the American people.

Flint will be a frustrating result for Clinton, in other words, because her campaign has decided to argue against big vision–has chosen to sell Clintoiian centrist pragmatism as the antidote to big promise pipe dreams. And that’s a hard sell for families who are suffering.

It’s a hard sell in general.

Continuity vs. Change: The Promise from Each Candidate

One of the big talking points coming out of the Clinton campaign in the past few weeks has been that Sanders is “promising free stuff.”  The logic is that whenever someone talks about universal healthcare or opening up public universities so there is no more tuition–the Clinton campaign wants to label those proposals as fanciful. We cannot just give away “free stuff,” the logic goes, because someone has to pay for it. The critique is often coupled to a judgement about people who believe in the “promise of free stuff” being less than adults–immature.  People who are mature vote for a candidate who does not “promise free stuff.”

I have encountered this talking point more and more since the Sanders New Hampshire win–and it is fairly unshakeable. But there’s a problem with it that the Clinton team would be wise to consider.

Here’s the problem:

If your campaign is not articulating a big promise–a big vision about what will be better about the future when your candice wins–then your campaign is about continuity, not change.

In other words, most campaign experts will agree that at the most basic level, campaigns boil down to a very basic distinction: change vs. continuity.

Whether or not the winning message in a given cycle is change or continuity often depends on whether or not the incumbent is running. We have no incumbent. There is no strong argument for keeping things the same. Hence, this is a change election.

Think about the promise of the campaigns that are doing well–the big vision that rises above any specific proposal on their websites.

Trump: Promises to turn America into a successful business where we don’t care what others think.

Cruz: Promises to turn America into a Christian nation and fight anyone who gets in the way.

Sanders: Promises an America without big money and structural racism preventing us from achieving our goals.

Now, in addition to these three candidates, Kasich, Clinton and Bush all seem to be promising, something slightly different.  Their promise seems a bit like this: Promises a well run government with the possibility of getting things done. They all have a great deal of experience, good resumes, histories of working on many issues both legislative and social.

Kasich and Bush are promising to overturn some of Obama’s key programs, but their vision is more or less to continue what they started in their home states–to continue in Washington, DC, what they see as their good work Ohio and Florida.

Clinton also has a continuity narrative: her big promise is to hold the line on Obama’s big legislative achievement and to continue in the White House, what she sees as her good work in the Department of State.

Continuity: Clinton, Kasich, and Bush

Change:  Sanders, Trump, and Cruz

Now, we can quibble about the details of policy proposals and we can argue whether or not one candidate is promising “free stuff” or not (Trump is literally promising a giant wall on the Mexican border that will be free–someone else will pay for it), but there is little question that this is a year where voter excitement really seems to be for a big change.  It’s a change year.

If that is the case, my sense is that Clinton is in the wrong column on this one.  Her campaign has the potential to be about change, but so far her emphasis has been on continuity.


Whether or not the campaign sees themselves this way or not is another question. But there’s no doubt that this is a change year.

The Big Question, Now That Sanders Won New Hampshire

After an outright win in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders is now the man of the hour. Turn to the person sitting next to you and ask them to pinch you–just to be sure you’re not dreaming. This has been the most extraordinary week in American politics that I can remember.  Do not underestimate the number of heads exploding in America, tonight. Ka. Boom.

The big question, now is fairly straight forward: Can his fire-in-the-belly stump speech about economic justice reach voters in states like South Carolina and Georgia? Can it bring home the laurel wreath?

To think through this question, everybody should watch the video speech Sanders presented to Georgia Democrats. Watch it a few times. This speech is really what it all boils down to for the Sanders campaign.

It’s interesting to think about why Sanders speech works.

First, the speech has a strong emotional arc.  As Sanders talks, he gets more and more passionate with each point. The impression he makes is not only that the fight for economic justice is urgent, but that he is deeply committed to that fight.

Second, the speech is a basic warning cast in moral terms. It is a warning about the dangers of the few taking all for themselves at the expense of the many. These few have taken over the system. And they are preventing the many from doing what is right, what is good, and what must be done right now–before it is too late.

Third, Sanders’ demeanor is authentic. Watching the Sanders speech to Georgia, one gets the impression that this is an unpolished stone–worn, but unpolished. The introductions seem rehearsed, but the speech seems to come in waves, echoing up from a deep place in his gut. There is no question Sanders truly believes what he is saying and that this is his passion.

Fourth, it is optimistic, but also angry. There is no question that Sanders comes across with a certain anger–a fury, almost.  In his words, the situation calls for it. But his point is to tell Georgians that the future is possible.  It is possible to make positive change, but only if the way of doing politics evolves immediately. He describes that evolution as “movement” politics, which he pitches in Wagnerian opposition to “establishment” politics.

Fifth, the success of the Sanders campaign up to this point has largely been a result of speech like this.  This speech, in other words, has not be altered for Georgia. The campaign is sticking with it.

Taken as a whole, the Sanders team is doing something quote remarkable for the Democratic Party in 2016.  For as long as I can remember, the Democratic Party has insisted that the way to do politics at a national level is to taylor the candidate and the campaign to fit into the many hats under a big tent. When in Georgia, change the message to something the Georgians want to hear. Sanders has not done that–yet. They are going to run a national campaign with one message, reaching out to everyone with the same clarion call for movement politics and an ingathering on the charge of economic justice.

Whether or not this is the right strategy will probably start to come into focus over the next week, as post New Hampshire poling hits the wire.

The Clinton team will take the opposite approach.  They will use the old Democratic strategy to come up with attacks that they feel fit for each particular context–there will be different negative messaging for each given market. This inevitable go-for-broke assault on Sanders will be crafted to hold specific districts. It’s an approach grounded in a way of seeing campaigns as chameleons.

And so, what we will all start to see in the next week is whether or not the Sanders approach, with its single message, emotional resonance, and authenticity is powerful enough to move deep into territory that’s been hobbled together for decades by PR firms and endless polling to find just the right tipping points.

Euphoria is no doubt sweeping through the Sanders operation, right now. The next seven days will show if that euphoria will be short lived.

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