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Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe – At Least in Minnesota

Walt Kelly - creator of Pogo
Walt Kelly – creator of Pogo

At long last, there was some good news on the American political scene tonight.  In the Republican primary here in my home state of Minnesota, someone other than Donald Trump won.  I was very afraid that Trump would carry the Republican vote here, given the lack of attention that we usually get from presidential campaigns.  And given how crazy things have been in this race, I was truly afraid that the folks that elected Jessie Ventura governor would roar back to the forefront.  But cooler heads and a savvy campaign operation gave Marco Rubio his first win, and one he desperately needed.  However, my elation was tempered by the fact that the Democrats went for Bernie Sanders.  Sanders campaigned hard here, and I believe he got a bit of a boost by the mild weather that may have led to increased turnout of college students in the smaller outstate communities.  But, then again, there is a large block of very liberal activists among the Minnesota Democratic voters these days.

An NBC exit poll on Super Tuesday confirmed the obvious – the Republican electorate is angry.  Most of the anger is aimed at President Obama, and that’s only reinforced by their anger at their party’s leadership.  They have soundly rejected all of the “establishment” candidates like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and even hardliner Lindsay Graham.  And their second choice is Ted Cruz, whose grasp on reality is only slightly less tenuous than Trump’s.  The die-hard conservative line has been that the reason Republicans have lost the majority of recent presidential elections is that their candidates weren’t conservative enough.  And this year they’re turning to a man who feeds that anger like giving Scotch eggs to protein addicts, even though his dedication to conservatism is open to question.

Yes, I’m scared of Donald Trump. Donald Trump should scare everyone.  For the first time in my life, there’s a candidate for President with a serious chance of winning the election who could truly do lasting damage to the country.  He has so very little understanding of the office that he simply wouldn’t be able to do the job.  Trump’s success relies solely on serving pablum to the disaffected throngs, and they eat it with a spoon.  They truly don’t care what he says, only how he says it.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Bernie Sanders is not to be dismissed quite yet.  He won four states on Super Tuesday, which means his campaign will almost certainly survive to the convention.  This will, in turn, force Hillary Clinton to keep trying to find issues that will placate the left wing of the party without jeopardizing her chances in the fall election.  The far left doesn’t care about moderation any more than the far right, and they’re just as willing to embrace a campaign that captures their anger about income inequality no matter how destructive the policies Sanders espouses might be.

The extremes on both sides are irresistable to those who believe in what I call the “Conspiratorial Theory of the Universe”.  There’s always a tale about unseen hands controlling the lives of the unaware masses – an often-unnamed “them” who are the root cause of all of the world’s ills.  This is the attitude that flourishes only when bluster is allowed to disguise ignorance.  It’s easy to subscribe to this theory because it is intellectually undemanding.  It is the philosophy of the guy at the end of the bar who whines about the rich and powerful feeding off “the little guy”, who’s always ready with a truckload of “little known facts” that never have any objective proof.  The fix is always in according to him, and there’s always some group to blame.  I generally prefer the Walt Kelly quote, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  It says more in nine words than all of the political campaigns of the last century.

Cantor Loses, Sun Rises in the East, and Other Non-Surprises

cantorRep. Eric Cantor’s upset loss in the Virginia Republican primary today has the media proclaiming a seismic shift in the world of conservative politics. This year was supposed to be the year when the Republican “establishment” exercised it’s clout and put down insurgencies from the Tea Party in order to prevent unelectable candidates from the far right from becoming their endorsee. And they’ve generally had a lot of success this year in defeating the wing-nuts. Cantor was the House Majority Leader with 5-10 times more money than Brat, and he’d been in office since 2001, so his campaign and the media certainly had reason to believe he could rely on TV ads, name recognition, and actual supporters to let him coast through the primary. Hence the “surprise” when this political neophyte beat him.

But Cantor’s loss is really just another instance of the same thing that happened to Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and a host of others – right up to Mitt Romney. The other guy had a better ground game. In this case, Dave Brat ran an endless stream of attacks against Cantor’s position on immigration reform which spoon-fed the hard core Tea Party members in the district. Given the abysmal voter participation rate in primary elections, it didn’t take many Tea Party followers to have a disproportionate impact and carry the day. Nor is it that surprising that Cantor’s campaign didn’t see this coming, since it’s hard to get accurate polls in this kind of race where the opinions of a relatively small group of energized voters who are disillusioned with the establishment wing doesn’t get fully factored into the field of likely voters.

At the end of the day, this election is just one more in a long string of election results that are the by-product of our hyper-gerrymandered congressional districts. While hardly the exclusive province of Republicans, the GOP’s dominance in state elections over the past 35 years has manifest itself in making their party particularly vulnerable to their extremist elements* because they’ve created so many districts that are purely Republican. When you add in their efforts to suppress voter participation and generally demonize politicians of all stripes, you end up with a very narrow electorate that is no longer representative of the citizens no matter how you slice and dice them. It’s long past the time when this issue needs to be addressed.

*(Democrat extremists are rarely organized enough to manage such coups. The Will Rogers quote comes to mind – “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat”. Simple wisdom abides.)

Wisconson Recall – A Chance for Common Sense to Prevail

Wisconsin voters have a chance today to strike a blow against extremism by voting to recall the six Republican state senators who voted with the Governor to strip the rights of public employee unions.  The recent debt ceiling crisis should be a lesson for all Americans that drawing lines in the sand is a recipe for disaster.  In any dispute, particularly over a political issue, when one side digs in its heels it only serves to alienate the other side and exacerbate the differences between the parties.  Long term success is only possible through reasonable compromise.  The Party of Lincoln should remember the words of that great president – “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

In the recent budget battle, when Governor Walker refused the unions’ reasonable offer of complete capitulation on wages and benefits in exchange for their retention of the right to strike, it was a perfect example of how our political process has become dysfunctional.  Similarly, when House Speaker John Boehner walked away from the so-called Grand Plan offered by President Obama which included modifications to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in exchange for tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.  Boehner wasn’t willing to make the smallest compromise in order to really address the fiscal problems faced by the Federal Government.

In the wake of the downgrade by Standards and Poors, we now have a chance to send a message to politicians across the country to make the grand bargains that can lead to real solutions that will not be subject to the whims of the latest election.  The Simpson-Bowles Commission’s report is an example that liberals and conservatives can forge agreements that both sides can live with.  It only takes the political courage to stop pandering to the vocal fringes of both parties and face the fact that the only way for America to emerge from our economic problems is through cooperation, and a willingness to concede that the other party also has the country’s best interests in mind.