We have entered a political lull between the period in which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton became their party’s presumptive nominees and the party conventions signifying the kickoff to the general election campaign. In a bid to drum up items of interest during this slow news period, the media will spend an inordinate amount of time speculating about who the two candidates will choose as their vice presidential running mates (along with a healthy dose of Clinton’s email woes) – an exercise that both candidates will be only to happy to encourage. These stories will contain the obligatory reference to John Nance Garner’s quip that the Vice Presidency is not “worth a bucket of warm piss”, and then will play the speculation game by pointing out the ways in which various potential candidates do or do not help the president win the general election. We’ll see references to which vice presidential candidate best “balances” the ticket – geographically, or with certain voting blocs (women, religious groups, etc.), or to compensate for a candidate’s perceived lack of expertise in certain areas.
All this begs the question: is there any evidence that the vice president pick even matters, in terms of influencing the general election? Generally speaking, the short answer is no – at least not in terms of the overall presidential vote. There is some evidence that a vice presidential candidate chosen from a swing state could be electorally consequential by boosting a presidential candidate’s support there. But the effect, if it exists, is likely quite modest. However, as I suggested to Deutsche Welle (DW) reporter Michael Knigge, as with many aspects of this election, prior research may be – I stress may be – less relevant this time around. This is particularly the case when it comes to Donald Trump’s vice presidential choice. The reason is that Trump, perhaps more than almost any major party nominee in modern history, lacks any governing experience at any political level. Beginning at least with the Carter-Mondale relationship presidents have increasingly integrated their vice president into their policy advising process. As a consequence, the vice presidential choice has been increasingly likely to turn on how well the presidential candidate believes his vice presidential nominee will help him or her govern, as opposed to boosting his electoral chances. Dick Cheney wasn’t selected by Bush because he could deliver Wyoming and its three Electoral College votes – he was chosen because he possessed the foreign policy experience George W. Bush lacked, as Bush makes clear in his memoirs. Similarly, Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was not made in order to bring Delaware into the Democratic column in 2008. Instead, Obama was hoping to capitalize on Biden’s years of experience in the Senate. And even candidates who are chosen in part for electoral reasons, as Al Gore was in 1992, often provide needed governing expertise as well. In his memoirs, Bill Clinton notes that he had weekly lunches with Gore throughout his presidency: “Al Gore helped me a lot in the early days….giving me a continuing crash course in how Washington works.”
Trump, in his public comments, seems to recognize that he needs to select someone with governing experience, preferably working in Congress. It seems, however, that as vice presidents have become an important part of the presidential staff, personal compatibility with the presidential candidate has become an increasingly important factor influencing the selection as well. In listing the qualities that ultimately led him to offer the position to Cheney, Bush said, “I wanted someone with whom I was comfortable, someone willing to serve as part of a team, someone with the Washington experience that I lacked… .”
At first glance, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is reportedly the front-runner to become Trump’s running mate, seems to provide the type of congressional experience that Trump will sorely need if he’s to get his legislative agenda through Congress. Even Gingrich’s harshest critics acknowledge that he is smart, and a savvy player of the Washington game. But Gingrich has also acquired a reputation for erratic behavior and a penchant for floating big think, but perhaps impractical ideas – see his proposal during the 2012 campaign for establishing a moon base by 2020. More importantly, perhaps, Gingrich seems to suffer from some of the same weaknesses Trump exhibits – a lack of self-discipline and a penchant for rhetorical excess that often attracts media attention for the wrong reasons. And his personal life – particular his marriages – isn’t likely to sit well with conservative voters who are already suspicious of Trump’s right-wing credentials and moral rectitude.
Electorally, it is not clear that Gingrich brings much to the ticket. It is true that Gingrich won his home state of Georgia easily four years earlier during the race for the Republican nomination, which might matter if Democrats try to turn that state blue – a long-shot proposition at this point. However, there are lots of more important swing states out there (see: Ohio) and politicians (see: John Kasich) who would make a better choice for electoral reasons alone. The problem, however, is that many of the Republicans who bring the most electorally, including Kasich, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, have expressed no interest in being Trump’s running mate. Gingrich, on the other hand, seems perfectly willing to climb aboard the Trump presidential train.
One important quality that Gingrich does possess, at least according to press reports, is that Trump likes and trusts him, something that is evident in Trump’s comments about Newt during their joint appearance at a rally yesterday in Cincinnati.
Who knows? A Trump-Gingrich presidential ticket might create the type of creative synergy not seen since….well, since ever. Or, the two might create a combustible mix of inflated egos and excessive rhetoric that will end up self-destructing on the campaign trail. Either way, it would be one hell of a ride.
It was the best of Reports. It was the worst of Reports. Yesterday the House Benghazi Committee finally revealed its long-awaited 800-page report detailing its findings regarding the 2012 attacks in Libya. The New York Times headlined its story this way: “House Benghazi Report Finds No New Evidence of Wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.” The online magazine The Hill saw it differently: “Benghazi panel faults Clinton.” Predictably, the pundits lined up in their respective partisan camps. Thus the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank concluded, “There’s still no smoking gun from Benghazi — just a lot more smoke.” At the New York Post, however, John Podhoretz cites the Report as further evidence of administration deception.
Both perspectives have some merit, I suppose. But, in my view, neither is particularly relevant. The real story here is what Benghazi reveals about decisionmaking at the highest levels of government, and how little influence a President and his immediate advisers have over critical events as they unfold, in no small part because they are often operating under a great deal of uncertainty. (Full disclosure – I’ve only read portions of the 800-page report.) A few examples from the Report help drive home the point. First, in an emergency two-hour meeting convened by the President as the attack unfolded, much of the discussion centered over the role played by an anti-Muslim video on YouTube in inciting the attack. But the Report concludes the video probably played no role in the Benghazi attack, something Clinton acknowledged in a conversation with the Egyptian government a day after the attack. The Report put it this way:
Second, despite orders from Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to mobilize a military response, military assets in the region never got their act in gear. Referencing an email sent by deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough the Report notes:
The one military response that did occur took place on the initiative of a local CIA operative.
Third, Susan Rice, the administration’s United Nations ambassador, made comments on several Sunday talk shows
the day after the attack that apparently had not been fully vetted by the intelligence or diplomatic services. Her erroneous claim that the attacks were spontaneous would cause huge problems for the administration in the months to come when they were shown to be incorrect.
Finally, the Left Hand often did not know what the Right Hand of government was doing. So, when it came to evacuating personnel, the Defense Department assumed State was overseeing the operation, but State was waiting to locate Ambassador Stevens first. Many officials, apparently, didn’t realize the CIA had its own facility in Benghazi. As the Report noted:
To me, these are less signs of administration deception than they are evidence of understandable confusion, and the need to take action under conditions of incomplete information. Was the administration concerned about the potential political fallout from the Benghazi attack? Of course they were – and justifiably so! By political I mean not just the presidential election that was currently underway – although that was likely a concern – but also the ramifications for the political dynamics in Libya and the Arab world more generally. It is the President’s job, along with his political advisers, to keep tabs on the political impact of events. To avoid thinking politically in the broad sense of the word would be a dereliction of duty.
My point here is not to exonerate Clinton, or the Obama administration more generally, for responsibility for what happened in Benghazi. But in my view the criticism is more properly directed at the earlier decision to intervene in Libya without fully anticipating how to deal with the subsequent power vacuum resulting from the overthrow of the Gadhafi government. Benghazi was a consequence of that choice.
To be clear, I haven’t finished wading through the full report. (I suspect portions of it will be required reading in my bureaucracy class.) But in my view its importance lies not in its potential impact on Clinton’s candidacy, even though that is how the media is covering its release. Instead, it is in revealing the inner workings of a presidential administration trying to respond to a critical event as it unfolds. This is what makes this document an interesting read, and why it is significant – even though it is unlikely to have any significant influence on the presidential campaign.
Often my students and readers get mildly irritated with me (or worse) when I persist in stating that this highly-publicized event (Orlando shooting, Brexit, fill-in-the-blank) is unlikely to have much impact on the presidential race, unless it occurs just before the actual vote. “How can this be?” you ask. “It’s all anyone is talking about!” The answer is that these events don’t usually change the underlying factors that drive people’s vote. Yes, they may provide a short-term impact on attitudes related to the event – say, a boost in support for a ban on assault weapons. But they don’t usually persuade a Republican-leaner to vote Democrat, or vice versa. This is partly because partisan attachment serves as a frame of reference that helps an individual make sense of the event in a way that tends to confirm one’s world view. We saw this in the immediate reaction to the Orlando shooting, where those with strong partisan predispositions immediately sought to explain the event in a way that was consistent with their political beliefs. Those partisan attachments condition how we respond to news reports by influencing which reports we believe.
I expect the same reaction to the Benghazi Report. Is Milbank right? Or Podhoretz? It depends on your partisan leanings! Trump supporters are sure to cite the Report as more evidence that Clinton’s actions led indirectly (or directly!) to the death of four Americans. Her supporters will reference that portion clearing Clinton of immediate culpability and say that after multiple investigations into the incident “enough is enough”. And after 48 hours or so the media will move on to the next breaking story.
The Benghazi Report. It’s a bombshell. Or not.
Donald Trump is losing the presidential race. I know, because the pundits are telling me so. According to them, Donald Trump has endured a very bad week – no, a very bad month! – one that has severely damaged his presidential candidacy. Beginning with his questionable attack on the ethnic heritage of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, through his tone-deaf response to the Orlando night-club tragedy, to the recent FEC report indicating Trump had raised virtually no money in the last fiscal quarter, and ending with the shakeup of his campaign staff, Trump managed to destroy whatever momentum he might have gained by locking up the Republican nomination. As a result, the pundits say, he has lost ground to Clinton in the presidential race, as measured in recent surveys showing Clinton expanding her lead. Some pundits are already proclaiming Trump be “an incredibly weak presumptive nominee, perhaps among the weakest ever” with some predicting he won’t break 40% in the popular vote. Not surprisingly, there are indications that Republicans are experiencing deep buyer’s remorse, and efforts to free delegates to vote their conscience at the Republican convention are picking up steam. No wonder Trump’s unfavorable rating has reached a record high of 70%!
Welcome to the media’s Silly Season. With both major parties’ nominations essentially clinched (pay no attention to those contested convention rumors) we are officially entering a protracted period in which pundits handicap the presidential contest in terms of each candidate’s ability to “win” a media cycle, which is typically the period associated with a dominant news story. To win, the media must judge a candidate to have gotten the better of their rival in terms of reacting to that news story, or creating a new one. They can do so by any number of means – a clever advertisement, a carefully prepared speech, an effective photo op or simply by avoiding the all-important “gaffe”. Often polls are used to “prove” the accuracy of the media’s collective judgment regarding who won. Under this horserace scenario, after clinching their respective nominations candidates start off essentially even, and whoever is better at winning these media cycles will eventually take home the ultimate prize come November: the presidency. And right now, thanks to Trump’s gaffes, Clinton is pulling ahead.
There’s only one problem with the framework: it’s almost certainly wrong. Presidential elections are not horseraces, in which the winning candidate’s trip to the finish line can only be charted on a step-by-step basis, with no clear way at the start to predict which one will get there first. In fact, decades of political science research shows that there is an underlying structural equilibrium to a presidential contest based on fundamental factors such as the state of the economy, whether the nation is at war, and how long the incumbent party has occupied the White House, and that much of what the media cites as critical in their daily coverage has almost no lasting impact on this dynamic.
This is not to say that campaigns don’t matter. They do. But not in the way that this on-going media narrative suggests. Instead, campaigns serve as a means by which each candidate makes those fundamental factors salient to voters, preferably in ways that advantage their candidacy at the expense of their opponent’s. Crucially, however, these campaigns cannot create their own reality via clever tactics – they must deal with the hand fate has dealt them. Assuming both candidates play their hands effectively in a strategic sense by choosing the proper frame, the outcome is not as open-ended as the pundits’ horserace perspective would have us believe.
Now it is possible that this year will be different – that Trump’s candidacy will be so gaffe-prone and disorganized that it will override the fundamentals in a way that hands Clinton the victory. Or perhaps he will choose the wrong campaign frame given the underlying fundamentals. This is what some analysts believe happened in 2000, when Democratic nominee Al Gore adopted a populist strategy rather than focusing on the rather favorable economic conditions he inherited from his predecessor. It may be, then, that the pundits are right – that Trump’s recent “gaffes” are evidence that he’s not up to snuff when it comes to running a national campaign. On the other hand, the same criticisms were leveled at him through the nominating race, and yet he somehow managed to vanquish 16 opponents.
No matter. The pundits have spoken. Trump’s poor choice of campaign tactics has left him dangerously behind in the race for the Presidency, and there’s the possibility he may never catch up……Wait! Great Britain, in a stunning demonstration of populist strength, has voted to leave the European Union! Given the obvious parallels between the Brexit movement and Trump’s candidacy, this is good news for Trump, and clear evidence that we’ve been underestimating his chances of winning! The race is on again!
(Note: as my academic leave comes to an end and I finish up a book project, I’ll be posting shorter pieces that, alas, may be a little lighter on the political science research side than I’d like. Please bear with me, but I do have a day job to keep.)
Since the start of this year’s most unusual presidential campaign, I have given dozens of election-themed talks to audiences ranging from senior citizens to high-school students. During the Q&A period after my lectures, a version of one question is almost always asked: “Is Trump Hitler?”
The first time this happened, during a talk I gave last fall, the question was posed by a former State Department Foreign Service officer who went on to suggest we were experiencing what the Weimer Republic went through before the rise of Nazi Germany. I don’t remember my response, but I do know the question caught me by surprise. As it became apparent that Trump was going to secure the Republican nomination, however, the question was asked more frequently, and not just by my audience members. National pundits got into the act as well. Andrew Sullivan warned that Trump, and his “neo-Fascist movement” was an “extinction-level event.” In his survey of Trump’s rise, Robert Kagan explained that, “This is how fascism comes to America.” Trump was, Peter Steinfels summarized, “the semi-fascist candidate.” Eventually, Trump’s wife Melania felt compelled to publicly rebut the accusation: “We know the truth. He’s not Hitler,” she insisted in an interview with Dujour magazine “He wants to help America. He wants to unite people. They think he doesn’t but he does.” It did little good. Responding to Melania, the New Yorker’s Adam Gropnik replied, “He’s not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was.”
Until he was. That’s the key element to this Trump-is-Hitler argument. Initially, as I began to anticipate this question after my lectures, I would try to point to the many ways that Trump is not Hitler – he hasn’t organized a putsch, or written about the need for living space, or expressed a desire to exterminate people, for instance. Nor is the United States much like post-World War I Germany, a country with little experience with parliamentary democracy. And there’s that cultural argument as well, if you believe that line of reasoning. (I’m skeptical.) Invariably, the comeback is, “Well, he isn’t Hitler yet! But wait until he takes power…..”
After a time, I realized that the questioners didn’t really want to hear my answer. They were already convinced Trump IS Hitler. Nothing I can say would dissuade them from that belief. And so now, when I am asked if I believe Trump is Hitler, my response is: “I don’t know. Is Bernie Sanders Mao?” That usually flummoxes them long enough for me to move on to the next question.
Now, I don’t actually believe Sanders is Mao. Not yet. But who knows what will happen if he somehow captures the Democratic nomination? If the choice is Sanders or Trump, it’s not inconceivable that come November a majority of voters will choose Sanders. And then what? Anyone who has been assaulted by Bernie Bros on social media understands that his supporters are willing to do most anything to further his cause. In this regard, the death threats and near-riot from Sanders’ supporters in Nevada may just be a preview of things to come!
If Mao…er…Sanders does take power, the first victim is likely to be the First Amendment. Already we are seeing free speech come under assault on our college campuses under the guise of furthering “diversity.” A generation of young students – most of them Bernie supporters – is embracing this type of mind control without a moment’s hesitation. First they took our Halloween costumes, and we did nothing. Next…..
Say goodbye to a free press as well. President Sanders is almost certain to push for a state-run media organization. After all, Sanders’ supporters routinely rail against the “corporate media”. Under the Sandersista regime, our children will grow up watching “Sanders Street.”
And it won’t stop there. Bernie will undoubtedly push for a sizable increase in the government-controlled social welfare state as well. But where will that expansion end? Remember, it’s a small step from government-run health care to government-run reeducation camps!
“Sure,” you say. “But Bernie’s only attacking the 1%. The remaining 99% have nothing to worry about!” Yes, but who is to say he will stop there? Pretty soon it will be the 5%, then 10%, and then…. . You can see how it ends. Within a few years we will all be toting our little Bernie books, getting Bernie haircuts and gesticulating wildly while we mansplain socialist doctrine to the masses.
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But by the time the tanks roll through Middlebury square, and I’m marched off with my fellow political scientists to work the marijuana fields, it’s too late.
Is Trump Hitler? I have a better question: Is Bernie Mao?!