Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Reshaping the Battle

Every course I teach, I start with a roughly twenty minute segment on "politics". I do that because I recall that I was half way through grad school for a Master's degree in political science when I realized that I didn't actually have a definition of what the word meant.

You can find a hundred definitions of politics in at least that many textbooks, but most folks simply assume that they know what the word means and that the person they are communicating with embraces the same definition. That's always a bad initial premise.

It turns out to be simple: Politics is process.

For my purposes, politics is the process by which societies do five essential things.

  1. Choose their leader
  2. Make their rules
  3. Set their priorities
  4. Allocate their limited resources
  5. Resolve their disputes
If you look at it globally, you can see that all societies have a process for those functions. If we examine it from the viewpoint of Madisonian democracy we can relate number 1and 2 to the executive branch; number 2, 3, and 4 to the legislative branch; and number 5 to the judiciary. The rule making is shared between executive and legislative and refereed by our judiciary. 

Ask the students how we in America choose our president and inevitably they will say we elect him. Which isn't constitutionally correct. Nothing in the US Constitution says a word about electing the executive. No mention of  any citizens voting in an election. That is when we can begin to speak of process. 

The process is playing out and we should  appreciate how long, tedious and convoluted it is by now. The candidates have been fund-raising, speechifying, posturing, strategizing and imaging themselves for more than a year now. The media have been hyping the horse-race and breathlessly describing each blow of the battle as the potential knock-out. 

Yesterday in Florida really finished it up, didn't it? That is what they wanted you to believe. But this morning we start to read the reality of what remains and suddenly the convolution of the process begins to sink in. 

The Republican convention will have about 2300 delegates from the states. To gain the nomination a candidate will have to gain a majority. That's 1144 or so. And after these four critical state races and tens of millions of dollars and endless hours of debates and analysis, we've decided about 80 of those! The majority came from the winner-take-all bundle of Florida. In the context of giant steps toward an assured nomination, we've gotten halfway across the front porch but haven't yet knocked on the door. 

Ron Paul is employing a caucus strategy. His loyal and largely less immature supporters are exactly what sways a caucus. Caucus states are easily controlled by small, organized and dedicated attendees. The catch is that less than a dozen states use a caucus and the states that do don't swing large numbers of delegates. Ron Paul conceivably will build a list of states which he has won, but really won't demonstrate a huge tally of votes at the convention. Will that give him a platform input for the party? My bet is maybe a perfunctory nod, but not much in the way of substantial planks. 

Gingrich has shown himself to be increasingly erratic, overly sensitive to criticism, and apparently quite hypocritical in terms of saying one thing and doing another. He is accused of being a Washington insider and he is proving it in the public eye by his willingness to dissemble on the clear intent of his actions. A third resurgence in popularity in the coming states is not impossible, but is increasingly unlikely. 

Romney has cash in hand, boots on the ground, and may be gradually sucking the air out of the campaign. He appears to be slowly picking up the less adamant of the "anybody but Mitt" voters. The media are gradually resurrecting the Mormon issue. It is irrelevant, but like race in American politics, non-mainstream religion can be a factor. Maybe we have outgrown it. Will Romney lose votes with his scorched earth mud-slinging super-PAC? That's the tender spot for many, including me. 

Santorum now is in a position to compete. He has shown a bit of aggressiveness, but not enough to damage his demeanor as a serious and presidential personality. He hasn't stumbled and it is a real scramble to dig up a smear that sticks to him. The real question for Rick is whether he can get adequate organization and sufficient funding to spread his message across the heavy first two weeks of March. Nothing really happens for the rest of February, but Super Tuesday in early March will probably be the break point. 

Open primaries, closed primaries, caucus states, proportional delegates and bloc voting, all demonstrate that politics is process. And the process we use to choose our leader is a very complex one. 


bongobear said...

'I'm not concerned about the very poor...'. How stupid can a politician be? This guy has no ability to connect with the average American. I fear Obama will stomp him.

FlyingBarrister said...

Pawlenty got out of the race way too early. He is probably kicking himself now, despite that he was having fundraising problems.

Robman said...

In a normal, garden-variety two-way presidential race, I just could not see Obama winning. Even against Romney, who reminds me of a cross between Daren Stevens of "Bewitched", and Thurston Howell the Third from "Gilligan's Island". I just can't see Romney without the theme music from "Bewitched" cueing in my head..and Daren screaming in exasperation, "Samantha! Samantha!!"

Any sitting president facing re-election has to run on their record. There is no avoiding this. Most voters look at this perfectly obvious, objective factor and will decide based on that.

Obama's record stinks. He's only got three things in his favor:

- OBL got nailed on his watch.

- The health care bill got passed, but most Americans didn't want this anyway, if it isn't gutted by the courts it won't take full effect until 2014. Thus, it is not a factor in the mind of Joe and Jane Voter while they are standing in the booth in November of 2012.

- The domestic car industry seems to have got back on it's feet. Obama might be able to make a propaganda case that he "saved" the auto industry.

The above is ALL he's got. Period.

Unemployment is higher than when he took office. It has eased a bit lately, but the CBO says it is going to go up again. On Obama's watch, we have experienced the highest sustained levels of unemployment since the Great Depression. This is not likely to improve much in the next ten months..even if there isn't a big crisis that will make things worse in a hurry (two very plausible crises on the horizon are a Eurozone crash and an Israeli strike on Iran).

Economic growth is anemic. Food prices are up. The housing market - the other major pillar of the American economy besides cars - stinks on ice.

Obama has chalked up the second highest amount of debt in absolute terms ever - Bush #43 still ranks #1 here - but in terms of amount of debt over time, Obama has run up more public debt in a shorter period than ANYONE.

Five trillion in stimulus, the first credit downgrade of the U.S. since Pearl Harbor...and practically nothing to show for it.

Add to this the most bumbling, disastrous, self-flagellating and self-defeating foreign policy EVER..the guy makes Carter look like a titan of resolve and strength by comparison.

All Romney has to do - or whoever winds up the GOP nominee - is run against Obama's record.

True, with the PARTIAL exceptions of FOX and the WSJ, plus Talk Radio, the rest of the national-level print and broadcast media is in Obama's pocket. That will keep Obama's poll numbers higher than they deserve to be, and make for a closer election than what ought to be the case. But people distrust the media more than ever, and this laone cannot save him. There was an old saying in the Cold War-era Soviet Union: "If you want more milk, take your pail to the radio." I think that's how most Americans feel about our Soviet-style media today.

BUT...This is not going to be an "ordinary" election.

I expect Ron Paul to run third party. He can't win, of course, and I don't think he'd even get the aprox. 20% that Perot got in '92; more like ten or fifteen percent at most. But that will be enough to tip the election in Obama's favor.

Unless Paul can be somehow prevented/dissuaded from running third party (fat chance of that, IMHO), or unless he can be discredited in a way that whittles down his support to an irrelevent number, he's going to get Obama re-elected.

The only silver lining I see in this very dismal picture is that there is still a decent chance that the GOP will take the Senate. If this happens, in turn, there is a chance that Obama will be impeached before his term is up. So, maybe we only have to put up with three more years, versus five more years, of The Worst President in U.S. History.

nzgarry said...

I think it good that you clarify 'politics' right at the start.
I guess you discuss the animating ideas behind the conservative and classic liberal philosophy as well, and of course... socialism.

It seems to me that most people go through life with at best only a hazy definition of the most important political issues that affect their lives. They vote the way their parents did or something.
That is the way here, and I suspect in the US as well.

Yes, US people have to do a lot of voting. Maybe it becomes a chore and a bore. In my view though, the US has the best political structure in the world.

Ed Skinner said...

I'm emailing #4 to the White House. Others later. Thanks.

How's about a post on Democracy vs Republic vs whatever it's called that we (supposedly) have?

Ed Rasimus said...

Ed Skinner: I can do that. Of course the republic that Franklin, et. al. gave us has long ago been democratized. Maybe later today or tomorrow.

Dweezil Dwarftosser said...


Your thumbnail sketch of citizens' hazy view for political issues was once highly accurate here - but that no longer is the case for many people. My immigrant father (who maintained his elevator operator job throughout the Great Depression and beyond), thought the sun rose because of Roosevelt's efforts, and those of the Democrats.
My much-older brother (born slightly before WW II) still believes those same fantasies.

The so-called 'alternative media' (talk radio and the internet) changed everything, beginning with the 'Baby-boomer' generation in the US.

While there still are plenty of lazy, over-schooled (yet under-educated) KIDS under 35 buying into the now-clearly Marxist bleatings of the democrats, I'm confident that they, too, will eventually gain enough wisdom of age to plow through the propaganda.

Dweezil Dwarftosser said...


What are you smoking? Obama's got nothing of his own to run on; all of the things with which you credit him are failures, with the possible exception of his authorization to kill Bin Laden (but admitted only after it had been proven successful).

Despite his Libertarian fantasies (concerning the military, foreign policy, and drugs), Ron Paul is a smart, good man; too smart to hand Obama a fighting chance by making a third-party run. Besides, his whole strategy is to go into the convention with enough delegates to have a voice in the Republican platform. (I actually like his fiscal ideas a lot.)

Robman said...


Read my post above carefully.

We agree about having the fact of knocking off OBL to crow about.

As to the other two:

Health care: He can say he did that. But as I point out, it will be irrelevant to voters, and adds up to zilch in real terms.

Car industry: Key words there are "propaganda case". I didn't say this can't be disputed. Of course it can. But the facts remain that he bailed out GM and Chrysler, they are both doing well right now, and this adds up to a dandy campaign ad. YOU may be able to dispute this with facts, but campaign ads are not necessarily about facts.

With those two points above, I am only mapping out what Obama's campaign can try to do besides going negative against their opponent (which will be 90% of their campaign). That's all.

As to Paul, from your lips to G-d's ears on the third party bit. I sure hope you are right, but I say watch what happens. Paul has said that he has "no intention" of running third party right now, but he has REFUSED to PLEDGE not to do so (by contrast, Perry made such a pledge). Paul also said recently that a third party run on his part would "not necessarily doom the Republican candidate"...already he is testing the waters.

As to Paul's fiscal/budget policies, on which he is often complimented by conservatives, even here there is room for concern.

Paul has been serving in Congress for 35 years. From that position, he has had plenty of time to talk a lot of important people - fellow legislators, cabinet officials, etc. - into supporting his ideas. Being in Congress, especially as long as he has, gives one a lot of exposure to influential people who can make things happen.

So, with all the time he has had to build an elite constituency around his programs...where are his friends? He's tried to get 600 bills through Congress related to his ideas...none of them have passed. If his ideas are so great, why have virtually NONE of his colleagues been persuaded to support them? Where are his endorsements from other members of Congress...the people who have worked alongside him for decades now? He has hardly any, so far as I am aware.

He wants to get rid of the Fed. Well, maybe we need to re-think the Fed in terms of organization and oversight. But get rid of it? It has been around for about a hundred years now, and happened to be there for the very best economic times this country has ever seen. Nobody was complaining about it then. Paul's ideas are simplistic, and even dangerous.

We are in the fix we are because over the last 35 years, we've seen:

- Western Europe and Japan recover from WW2 and compete with us, especially Japan.

- Poorer countries become developed enough that they could produce a lot of quality goods a lot cheaper than we could (e.g., Mexico, China).

- American firms ship a lot of manufacturing to these poorer, low-wage countries noted in #2 above.

- Automation replacing a lot of jobs. This is actually the biggest job killer of them all.

Thanks to the four factors above, Americans of modest educational/skill levels don't have the opportunity to obtain employment where they can add enough value so as to command high wages. This in turn has meant lower consumer demand, except that which can be maintained by credit cards and shaky loans. This also means a shrinking tax revenue base even as demands for government services/goodies (e.g, medicare/entitlements) keeps increasing. Add all that up...that's why we're broke.

This won't be easy to fix. Sound bite solutions like "getting rid of the Fed" are not the answer.

Paul was a crackpot four years ago and he's a crackpot today. He's eerily being given the kid gloves treatment from the very same media that backs as to build up his credibility for third party run, ensuring that their darling Obama remains in office.

Dweezil Dwarftosser said...


We've strayed considerably from the political content of this thread; and while I'd really enjoy debating your perceptions of the problems facing America, I'm afraid it is just a he said/he said argument.

I will say this, though (after being employed across 40 years in some facet of creating more automation - first in the USAF, and then in manufacturing industries): even automation cannot compete (except in quality) with armies of overseas 20-cent-per hour workers employed in manufacturing, 12 hrs/day, six days a week.

And since the ONLY industries that actually create wealth are mining and manufacturing - while ALL - repeat ALL - service industries merely transfer wealth between individuals, we're screwed.

Note: 'mining' includes energy extraction and agriculture.

foxone12 said...

Ras, love your take on politics. I'm passing this along because your explanation of the word "politics," as it applies to America, is clear. What puzzled me was your digression into and emphasis on the Republican side of the process. The Dumocrats do about the same. Also, you didn't mention a sitting President.

Wish my boys had had you as their poli-sci prof!