Monday, March 28, 2016

Should we have anticipated Trump?

When people ask me what I think about the presidential campaign and the rise of Donald Trump, I’ll admit I don’t have a lot of smart things to say. Throughout the primary process, I expected one of the moderate governors (Kasich, Bush or Christie) to emerge as the party favorite and take down Trump for kidnapping the party of Lincoln. While plenty of alternate scenarios could still play out, After more than 25 years in and around politics, I had never seen this kind of traction for such an anti-establishment candidate but was reminded last week that maybe I had. While we don’t lead the nation in many ways, voter dissatisfaction in Rhode Island may have foreshadowed the national trend. After all, we had Bob Healey long before Donald Trump ran for president.

Let me be clear: there will be no comparing Mr. Healey to Mr. Trump in this space. By all accounts Bob was a kind and generous man who was passionate about everything he was involved in from pro bono legal work and local business to making state government more effective for those it serves. As a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010 — even as he was campaigning to abolish said office — he was articulate, funny and obviously made a good case, garnering 40% of the vote. As a candidate for governor in 2014, he stunned most by grabbing 21% of the vote in the governor’s race, winning more than 69,000 votes. While some viewed him as a spoiler, for the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who voted for him he was the candidate who personified anything but “politics as usual” in Rhode Island. I met him when he spoke at my daughter’s student government assembly and he connected easily with the children and gave them a great talk about public service. The “Elect Healey Governor - Why not? You’ve done worse” yardstick is a cherished souvenir from his visit and its message remains sadly on point.

While I won’t argue that Bob Healey and Donald Trump have anything in common, I will say that both candidates have a message that appeals to people dissatisfied with their government. Bob’s common sense message and regular guy persona resonated with Rhode Islanders who were tired of Rhode Island-style leadership (“you’ve done worse”) while Trump supporters are the “mad as hell and not taking it anymore” group that has arisen from a fragmented Republican party. What’s interesting — and will continue to be hard to predict — is whether Trump will continue to engage people who have not previously voted, essentially creating a movement with “making America great again” the way Obama was able to bring in voters by saying “hope and change” was on the horizon. My crystal ball is pretty hazy but as I think of Bob Healey and his race for governor, I think I should have seen the Trump train coming down the tracks.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Look out below if Trump is on top

Don’t look now, but Donald Trump is leading the delegate count for the Republican presidential nomination. While there’s still a little time for someone else to win the nomination, time is ticking and Republicans around the country are nervous — not just about losing the White House in a winnable race (again) but about losing seats in the Senate, House and state capitals across the country. If he wins the nomination, Republican candidates up and down every ticket will have to make a very difficult and calculated decision — are they with him or not?  

Normally, aligning oneself with the chosen presidential candidate is a no brainer for most politicians and unite quickly once primary season has ended. In 1966 then-candidate Ronald Reagan said that the 11th commandment was “thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Fifty years later, many Republicans will still cite it when choosing to hold his/ her tongue. Trump presents a different challenge of course because he’s not been a particularly loyal Republican and he certainly does not live by Reagan’s words, calling his fellow candidates everything from “loser” to “wimp” and even something that can’t be printed here. He even said John McCain was “not a war hero.” Wow.

Of course Trump goes far beyond violating the 11th commandment and being “plain spoken” seems to be one of the things that voters are finding appealing about him, so the usual flubs (sexist remarks, racist comments, discussion of his body parts) don’t seem to have an impact on his popularity. Just think: a few years ago, Governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign came undone because he momentarily forgot the name of a government office he wanted to eliminate. How things are different for the Donald!

While the GOP faithful are breathing into a bag and reminding themselves that “there’s still time,” the truth is that the clock is running out. After March 15th, many GOP primaries turn into “winner take most” allowing Trump to quickly build his lead in delegates. If he goes into the convention and has secured enough delegates to win, it would take a lot of maneuvering — and behind the scenes chicanery — to deny him the nomination.

If you caught Mitt Romney’s speech last week blasting Trump (and detonating the 11th commandment), you’d surmise that traditional Republicans (i.e. not Trumpublicans) were concerned about the future of the party with Trump as the nominee. What Romney knows is that polls show Trump can’t win the White House but his nomination would split the party and cause devastating losses in down-ticket races. For Republicans running for everything from governor to dog catcher, a Trump nomination could be a killer. In all states, candidates will be peppered by the obvious questions about what Trump says and whether or not they agree. Voters who might see Trump support as a litmus test (either way) for local races could make their decisions based solely on where that candidate stands vis-à-vis Trump. In some states — where moderate Republicans rely on ticket-splitting Democrats to win — Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket could mean having to pick between the Republican base and the Democrats that provide a win margin. That’s called a no-win situation and could be the reality for Republicans if Trump comes out on top.