Here in Vermont, It’s All Bernie, All the Time

Bernia mania has struck Vermont! Can the rest of the U.S.  be far behind?

Vermont’s latest presidential hopeful is slated to kick off his presidential campaign in 15  minutes, and we will be right there (virtually, not literally) with Bernie, live blogging the event.  The kickoff event is taking place at Waterfront Park in Burlington, complete with free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  The site has more than a little symbolism – it is public land he fought for while Burlington’s mayor.  We expect Bernie to take the podium shortly, but right now the crowd is being treated to a series of rally-the-base presentations in anticipation of Bernie’s entrance.

From the Green Mountains to the Redwood Forest to the White House: Is This Land Made for Bernie Sanders?

In the wake of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ announcement two days ago  that he will challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, I have been repeatedly asked the same question: “Why?”

To which I respond, “Why not?”

Yes, I understand that Bernie’s not going to win the Democratic nomination. Even his fellow Vermonters, who have supported Bernie in increasingly greater numbers through a succession of electoral contests dating back more than three decades, are expressing skepticism regarding his chances for national office.  Part of Bernie’s problem is that the very factors that make him so popular in Vermont – he won reelection to the U.S. Senate with more than 70% of the vote two years ago – may not help him as much nationally. We Vermonters are used to seeing Bernie, shoulders hunched, white hair askew, marching grim-faced through our town in the annual Memorial Day parade, or holding court in the local diner. He is our eccentric relative, the grumpy uncle who bends your ear every holiday picnic railing in his distinctive Brooklyn accent against the corporations and the 1%, oblivious to the mustard smeared on his rumpled shirt. “That’s our Uncle Bernie,” we say, smiling, before reaching for the potato salad. “It wouldn’t be a real holiday without him.”

But it’s not entirely clear that a nationwide audience will find his eccentricities so endearing. Running for the Democratic presidential nomination, with the intense media spotlight and a much more diverse group of primary voters, is not the same as greeting voters at the annual Addison County fair. Through the years Vermonters have adapted to – even come to love – Bernie’s curmudgeonly personality, but it is not entirely clear how well his rumpled but lovable Uncle Bernie schtick will play on the national stage. Nor does Vermont provide much in the way of a political base from which to launch a national campaign.

But his problems run deeper than his prickly personality and small-state base. For starters, Bernie’s trade-mark “democratic socialism” likely does not have a very big constituency within the Democratic party.  The last Vermonter to undertake a similarly long-shot quest for the Democratic nomination was the former Governor Howard Dean in 2004. He also sought to position himself as the progressive alternative to the establishment candidates (notwithstanding a rather moderate record as governor in Vermont). Despite an impressive early fundraising campaign and some initially positive media coverage, fueled by polls that for a time put him ahead of the Democratic field, Dean never attracted much more than 25% of the Democratic vote, and his candidacy was essentially dead after the Iowa caucus. (Contrary to myth, Dean’s celebrated “I have a scream” speech merely confirmed his political death – it did not cause it.) Bernie, with his soak-the-rich explicitly class-based pitch, is not likely to expand Dean’s coalition.

Sanders’ strategists undoubtedly hope that if he does well during the early caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, which typically attract more activist, ideologically-liberal delegates, as well as garnering some favorite-son support in neighboring New Hampshire, the media might anoint him as a viable alternative to Hillary. That, in turn, could enable him to bring in the money he will need to stay in the race for the long haul. It is true that the media loves a horse race, and is not averse to fabricating one if none exists. Still, if Hillary shows signs of faltering, it’s hard to believe the Democratic Party will allow a 73-year old former Socialist mayor of Burlington to be their standard bearer in 2016. Bernie will also be hard-pressed to match the Clinton money machine. Dean gained early attention in 2004 for his ability to bring in money online, and he ended up raising more than $50 million, much of it in small donations, in his presidential bid. Bernie is going to need at least that much just to remain competitive coming out of the February 9th New Hampshire primary. However, although he had a very successful first day of fundraising, it is not clear that relying only on small donors, as he claims he will do, is a viable strategy. He may also need a Sheldon Adelson-type sugardaddy if he hopes to compete past the February 27 South Carolina primary marking the end of the first month of the nominating campaign.

None of this paints a very optimistic picture for Bernie’s chances. So why run? I can think of several reasons. First, as former Governor James Douglas noted when I asked him about the psychology that might drive someone like Bernie to undertake such a quixotic endeavor, “Bernie is a man of strong convictions.” Running for president will give him a very visible platform for airing those convictions. Chief among them is his belief that the growing income inequality between the 1% and the 99% is both immoral and unsustainable. His strategy will be to paint Hillary as in hock to Wall Street and big money, and thus unable to truly fight for the middle class, whereas he has been fighting on their behalf for three decades. At the very least he hopes his candidacy will force Hillary to move the left on economic issues. (It is, of course, also possible that this strategy might instead strengthen Hillary’s appeal by making her appear more moderate.)

Of course, there are more self-interested reasons as well. Bernie already appears for an hour every week on progressive Thom Hartman’s call-in radio show,  and he has likely taken note of how former presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee have parlayed a failed nomination bid into a successful career as a well-paid talking head. Moreover, with more than two years to go before his next Senate election, it’s a low-risk time for Bernie to run for President. If he loses, he can always return to the Senate.

Finally, we shouldn’t discount the ego factor. Douglas likes to recount a story former Vermont Governor Dick Snelling told him regarding how easy it is to succumb to the blandishments of acquaintances urging you to run for higher office. “Twenty of your friends will tell you that you should be governor, that you can do that job as well as anyone else, and you begin to believe it. But these are your friends telling you this!” No doubt Bernie has his supporters who truly believe that he would make a great president, and have told him as much. And he may believe them. So why not run if he believes he could do the job?

More than the general election, presidential nominating contests are difficult to predict, especially this far out. Who really knows what will happen next year? Maybe there’s a smoking email waiting to be uncovered that will drive Hillary from the race! In any case, this isn’t the first time Bernie took a chance on making a fool of himself. In 1987, while serving as Burlington’s mayor, Bernie recorded an album of folk classics. Unfortunately, as Tom Lockwood – the musician who came up with the idea for Bernie to cut a record – recalled, “As talented of a guy as he is, he has absolutely not one musical bone in his body, and that became painfully obvious from the get-go… This is a guy who couldn’t even tap his foot to music coming over the radio. No sense of melody. No sense of rhythm — the rhythm part surprised me, because he has good rhythm when he’s delivering a speech in public.”

Harsh words! But you be the judge. We all know This Land was made for you and me – but was it made for Bernie too?  We are about to find out…in the meantime, sing it Bernie!


Why Mitt Will Run In 2016…Oh, Never Mind!

Earlier today, Mitt Romney announced, in a phone conversation with potential supporters, that he will not run for president in 2016, thus confirming what pundits had been predicting for some months now.  Or not.  (Update: According to Mitt’s statement, while he was confident based on conversations with party leaders, donors and other activists that he would win the party’s nomination, he seemed more uncertain regarding whether he could win the general election.)

To me, Mitt’s announcement was not nearly as entertaining as the media reaction to it. Since at least Romney’s visit to Iowa last October on behalf of Senate candidate Joni Ernst there has been growing speculation that Mitt was considering entering the presidential race for a third time. However, now that Mitt made his announcement some of those same experts are scrambling to tell us why it was obvious Mitt was not going to run. The most common explanation seems to be that he took the pulse of the party activists, sensed lukewarm support, and decided to pull out. This could very well be correct. If so, it is consistent with the argument that some of my political science colleagues have made regarding how parties decide more generally who to back during the so-called invisible primary. But I would be far more confident in this story if pundits and colleagues had been telling me before Mitt’s decision why the signs indicated he was going to drop out due to lack of support.

Instead, I saw a lot of twitter comments like this:

“The Daily Beast ✔ @thedailybeast
9:19 AM – 30 Jan 2015”

And this:

Mark HalperinVerified account ‏@MarkHalperin
“To be clear: I don’t know what @MittRomney will say this morning, but every talk I’ve had w/ Mitt World leads me to believe he will run”

And this was only the tip of the iceberg. Many print journalists were making similar arguments for why Mitt would run. My point is not to pick on those who incorrectly believed Mitt was poised to throw his hat in the ring.  To the contrary: If it was so obvious that Mitt was going to be culled from the field by party activists (and that he was being culled), why did so many smart people make the case for why he was running and, in some instances, why he should be running?  The reality is that it was pretty easy to believe Mitt would run, particularly if you wanted him in the race.  Early polls had him leading the Republican field and even beating Hillary in a one-to-one matchup.  (Never mind that polls are completely unreliable predictors at this stage of the race.) Recent events overseas, such as the rise of ISIS and Putin’s gamble in the Ukraine seemed to validate his foreign policy views.  Some argued that we would see the “authentic” Mitt this time around and that he was battle tested.  In explaining why Mitt would want to run, media pundits cited his purported dissatisfaction with the weak field of Republican candidates.

For all these reasons the group of “insiders” who some have fingered as putting the kabosh on a third try were previously, according to very recent media reports, actively working to persuade him to take the plunge. No wonder the estimable Gloria Borger could write in mid-January, “What a difference a few months makes. Now, multiple sources inside the Romney bubble tell me (and everyone else) that they ‘bet’ that he gets in the race.” In short, if the story of Mitt’s decision not to run is that he was culled by the party leaders, that culling didn’t seem very obvious to those who were reporting on the process. Instead, many very smart people seemed generally convinced until today that he was going to run. Indeed, many of them were making the case for why Mitt should run, arguing that he would be a formidable candidate in 2016.  Yes, to be fair, there were others who argued against a third run by Mitt.  However I have yet to see evidence of a groundswell of opposition among party activists against a third Romney run.  This is not to say it didn’t happen.  It is just that it is hard to detect in the media coverage leading up to today’s announcement, and it is why I don’t necessarily buy the post-hoc rationalization that Mitt dropped out due to a lack of party support.

Why didn’t Mitt run? At this point I don’t know. I suspect no one else except Mitt himself does either. But that’s not going to stop many pundits from saying, “I told you so.” Just remember that some of them are the same people who were previously convinced a third run by Mitt was in the cards.

UPDATE: 3 pm.   And so the media correction begins:  Romney didn’t decide – the party decided for him!  It would be a lot more convincing if they told us this before Romney’s decision.

Next up: why the media case for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the culprits in deflategate is so compelling – and why the same pundits will soon report how it was obvious it was all due to the weather.

In the meantime, let’s give the last word on Romney’s run to that well-known political pundit Emily Litella

Live Blogging the State of the Union

Hi all,

It’s been awhile, so I may be a bit rusty, but it’s time for another live blogging of the president’s State of the Union address.  As always, I’ll be watching this on CNN.   I hope you can join in using the comments sections.  Remember, part of the fun here is giving some history on the State of the Union, but it is also a chance to poke some holes in the media coverage as well.


Why Didn’t Mario Run? That Was Always The Question

To run, or not to run? That seems, even today, to be the question.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s death yesterday has sparked a wave of nostalgia, particularly among old-school liberals, regarding what might have been.  If only Cuomo had run for president in 1992! (Or 1988, for that matter.) Given his name recognition, outstanding rhetorical skills and stature as a big-state governor, he would have almost certainly secured the Democratic nomination and defeated the incumbent president George H. W. Bush. Instead, the “Hamlet-on-the-Hudson”, showing characteristic indecisiveness, dithered away the opportunity, thus allowing the much more moderate (and ethically challenged) Bill Clinton to win election in a three-way race with Bush and Ross Perot, thereby ushering in eight years of Republican-lite policies, eventually Republican congressional control and, not incidentally, an impeachment scandal.

It is easy to understand why Cuomo’s death evokes these feelings, and why old guard liberals in particular still grow wistful reminiscing about the prospect of a Cuomo presidency. As I was reminded today in listening to clips of Cuomo from his frequent appearances with Alan Chartock on the Albany-based public radio station WAMC, the Governor was an engaging, erudite (albeit often prickly) individual who never lost touch with his working class ethnic roots. Perhaps no speech brought out these qualities more effectively than did his much-praised “Tale of Two Cities” keynote address on behalf of Walter Mondale at the 1984 presidential convention, an excerpt of which you can see here.

So why didn’t Cuomo run? When, in December 1991, on the cusp of the filing deadline for the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Cuomo announced his decision not to seek the presidency, he cited his obligations as Governor of New York, noting in particular the need to negotiate a solution with statehouse Republicans to a burgeoning budget deficit. Disappointed supporters argued that this essentially allowed New York Republicans to hold Cuomo’s presidential ambitions hostage to their obstructionist budget tactics. Many felt there had to be a deeper reason to explain Cuomo’s decision – a skeleton in the closet perhaps, or an unwillingness to do the dirty work necessary to win election.

I’ve always felt there was a simpler, more prosaic explanation for Cuomo’s reluctance to run – one that usually proves decisive for most politicians contemplating a campaign for higher office: he didn’t think he could win. The plain fact is that despite his many strong qualities, Cuomo was a northeast, big government New Deal liberal governing – and contemplating a presidential run – in the age of Reagan. It was never very clear how well this brand of liberalism would play on the national stage at that time. For what it is worth, national polls did not find much public support for Democrats nominating a “liberal” as opposed to a more moderate presidential candidate. The two previous presidential elections saw a liberal Senator Walter Mondale and a liberal Governor (at least on social issues) Michael Dukakis beaten by Republicans Reagan and Bush, respectively. And in 1980, the “liberal lion” Ted Kennedy had failed to wrest the Democratic nomination from Jimmy Carter. To be sure, in late 1991 President Bush was far more vulnerable than he was three years earlier, to say nothing of Reagan in 1984. But at the time Cuomo made his decision not to run, polls still had Bush defeating him in a head-to-head matchup although Bush’s lead over his potential Democratic rivals was shrinking. Ultimately, however, it was Bill Clinton, a moderate member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who won the 1992 election while espousing a “third way” of politics predicated on rejecting the left-leaning policies embraced by Mondale and other Democratic liberals.  Cuomo, meanwhile, was defeated two years later in a bid for a 4th term by “no-name” Republican George Pataki.

Indeed, it was never certain that Cuomo, despite his superior name recognition, would even win the Democratic nomination. Although initial polls showed him winning about 30% of the vote compared to his Democratic rivals, that may have represented Cuomo’s ceiling, much as Howard Dean seemed unable to break the 25% level when he led the Democratic field in late 2003. Certainly Cuomo’s support was much less in the South where Clinton ran exceptionally well. Indeed, many pundits at that time suggested that the only Democrats who could win the presidency were moderate southern politicians. In his oral history, former Bush chief of staff John Sununu remembers meeting with Bush advisers early in 1991 to discuss the upcoming reelection campaign: “The last thing we did is everybody went around the table and said whom they thought was going to get the nomination on the Democratic side and everybody was saying Cuomo, and I said Clinton. And they said, Who is Clinton? And I said, If Cuomo runs in the primary against Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton will eat his lunch… That’s how out of touch they were with the real threat that was there.” Sandy Berger, who would later become Clinton’s national security adviser, recalled that Clinton, who never lacked for confidence, wanted Cuomo to run so that Clinton could position himself as the giant killer.

It is, of course, impossible to know with certainty what the outcome of a Clinton-Cuomo nomination fight would have been, but if one replays the sequence of primaries, particularly the southern-focused “Super Tuesday” contests, it seems apparent that Cuomo faced a very difficult path to victory. This won’t stop Cuomo backers from lamenting what might have been. To run, or not to run? With Mario, it seems, that remains the enduring question. Alas, it will forever remain unanswered.