Thursday, July 24, 2014

I've Heard All The Chicago Jokes Already

Matt Schultz has death on his mind.

Not the death of his political career at a district convention, where he was the first serious candidate eliminated. No, the lame duck Secretary of State...

I like the way that rolls out. I'll say it again. The lame duck Secretary of State...

The lame duck Secretary of State is pursuing his voter fraud crusade beyond the grave.

In this week's episode of The Voting Dead Schultz, looking for one last shot of publicity, takes what's actually a positive step and gets his usual partisan spin on it. Original release:
The Iowa Secretary of State’s office provided county auditors information from the Social Security Death Index regarding possible deceased voters.

"It’s important that our voter lists are accurate and this routine check of information in the Social Security Death Index will help county auditors determine which voters are deceased and should no longer be on the voting rolls," Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz said.

An example letter sent to county auditors can be found here. Prior to removing any names from the voting rolls, county auditors will analyze the information to determine whether the deceased individuals are matches to voters currently registered to vote. A total of 1234 individuals were initially matched as currently being on Iowa’s voting lists and listed in the Social Security Death Index. County auditors also previously reviewed Social Security Death Index information to improve the voter lists in 2012. 
That last sentence reveals that this is a relatively routine thing. But it doesn't appear to have been accompanied by a press release in 2012. And it didn't produce fear mongering headlines like

Iowa county’s voter rolls filled with deceased residents

Worked like a charm. Routine election administration gets exaggerated into fuel for the base and motivation for the Republican "voter integrity" efforts we're sure to see this fall.

So, how do those of us who work on the official end of things kill off dead voters?

I've long been obsessed with getting dead people off the rolls, and it dates back to my early volunteer days. We had a brand new volunteer who started making calls, and on about call three she got the widow on the phone and asked for a guy who had just died. Tears on both ends of the line, the volunteer had to leave for the night... and never came back. So when I got a job a few years later working with elections, one of my goals was getting the rolls as clean as possible ESPECIALLY when death is the issue.

First thing to remember about anything to do with voter file administration: the most important thing is the MAIL. Prior to Motor Voter - passed in 1993, effective in 1995 - Iowa had a simple system. Four years without voting or re-registering and you're out. The Help America Vote (sic) Act of 2002 (HAVA) made some other changes but Motor Voter still plays the bigger role.

Since Motor Voter, everything is designed to make it HARDER to remove voters from the rolls. No one can be canceled just for not voting. All we can do is send reminder cards once every four years, process names from the postal National Change Of Address (NCOA) database, or accept notices from other election offices that someone has moved away.

And of course death. The Iowa Department of Public Health keeps data on deaths in the state. They used to send out lists but now there's a lookup. Those still have to get processed locally. There's some lag time so what we do is start every morning with the obituaries. Seems morbid, but it's very effective. Johnson County got good marks in Schultz's press release; we only have 15 voters that he thinks are dead.

So how do people get missed? Not everyone has a published obituary. And not everyone who lives here, dies here. Out of state deaths are especially tough to track.

The Social Security Administration keeps a short leash on its data. The Death Index is relatively public, but not easy to query en masse. If you're looking up your grandma, sure, and occasionally useful if you're looking up a specific voter who you've been told is dead (though in recent years, more records have driver's license numbers and very few have full SSNs). But harder to compare to a voter file.

HAVA has an underlying assumption that voter registration is handled at the state level, and requires all states to have a state level database. And Iowa does have that database. But Iowa law says voter registration is handled at the county level.

So what happens with big-level data dumps like the death index or cross-state matches is: the secretary of state gets it, then passes data on to counties for processing. Again, routine with no press release required.

Frankly, there are bigger list maintenance problems than dead people. Death is clear cut and relatively straightforward. We get official notice, we take them off. The bigger end of life problem is long-term cognitive decline.

In the pre-Motor Voter era, elderly dementia got addressed through the four years and out process. Now, as long as grandma keeps getting mail, she stays on the rolls, which often leads to frustrating conversations with care providers. By the time the adult children are asking how to get grandma off the rolls, she's beyond the point where she can sign her name to a simple form asking to be removed, and in Iowa power of attorney is specifically excluded from elections and voting issues.

And the other, bigger problem: what else can a lame duck, soon to be on the job market Schultz do to our election process in a year when the razor-close Ernst-Braley race could determine control of the whole Senate? All the more reason to pay attention to what looks to be the marquee downballot state race, Brad Anderson vs. Paul Pate...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Warren vs. Clinton: Multiple Perspectives

Why She Should:
If Warren joined the race, she would not win, but she would till the ground, putting grit and the smell of earth in the contest. She would energize the Democratic Party’s liberal base, which would then stir up other Democrats who seek to moderate or contain that group. Warren would challenge the Democratic Party on issues like corporate power, income inequality, and entitlements. She would be a long shot and she would have nothing to lose—which means she could keep talking about those ideas out loud.

If you are a Clinton Democrat—which based on that polling is a redundancy—it’s hard to see how a tough competitor who might weaken your candidate would be a welcome thing. But without a get-in-shape primary, would Clinton be ready for the close punches of the general election? Her book tour suggests she’s rusty. A Democratic coronation would start the general election attacks early, without the benefit of a clear GOP opponent she could counterattack.
Why She Shouldn't:
Warren 2016 is a fantasy. She has repeatedly given flat denials, including a pledge to serve out her six-year term, and most recently telling the Boston Globe “I am not running for president. Do you want to put an exclamation point at the end of that?” Even if Warren privately keeps the door open a crack in her mind, if she has a hard head she’ll leave the symbolic, quixotic primary challenge to the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Polling data and anecdotal reporting suggest Hillary Clinton’s base of support in the Democratic Party is broader and deeper than ever, with bitter opponents from 2008 turned into “Ready for Hillary” foot soldiers. Any 2016 drama will likely be over faster than you can say “Wesley Clark.”
Why It Doesn't Matter:
1. "Clinton is insanely popular among Democrats, now more than ever... That's higher than any conceivable Democratic challenger, and it doesn't even factor in the big advantage she has in resources and experience."

2. "Clinton doesn't have the kind of glaring vulnerability with Democrats she did last time around because of her vote in favor of the Iraq War."

3. "Clinton's strength in 2008 was always exaggerated by hubristic political consultants and the legions of journalistic lemmings who accepted their claims uncritically."
Who Else Might: Note that Martin O'Malley will be back in Iowa next week. He's headlining a fundraiser for Johnson County's own Kevin Kinney, state senate candidate in open Senate 39. Details: Saturday, July 26 at Rocky O'Brien's Pub, 720 Pacha Parkway in North Liberty. (O'Malley for Kinney at O'Brien's? Pat Murphy should get in on this.) Suggested donations start at $25.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Will District Get Dworshaked?

I have no favorite in the upcoming appointment for the open Iowa City school board seat.

But my trivia skills have been called upon to address one facet of this process. The rumor mill says that Karla Cook, a former board member elected to a short term in 2011 but defeated in 2013, has the inside track.
It's pointed, but it's interesting, and it took me a couple days to think through.

Five of the nine applicants lost in their most previous appearance on a ballot. Phil Hemingway and Jason Lewis also lost in 2013. Former board member Orville Townsend won one term in 1986 but lost narrowly in `89 (which may or may not be beyond the statute of limitations). And John Weihe, after several terms on the Coralville city council, tried and failed to move up to mayor in 2011.

Actually, make that six out of ten applicants losing their last election, counting both Herbert Hoover's application and his reeeealy big loss in 1932. Bonus points for whatever wag thought of that, but If I was picking a dead president for the school board, as a former Roosevelt parent I'd have to go with Teddy. He lost his last race too, in 1912, but can you really call this losing?

But Cook's case is notable because she was in the same office and defeated. Hemingway, on the other hand, can argue that he was "next out" in both 2011 and 2013. Fifth for four seats in `11, fourth for three seats in `13.

That's a tricky argument. If four seats had been available, it doesn't mean Hemingway WOULD have won. It would be an alternate voting universe with different behavior and maybe even different candidates. Hemingway was many people's first choice but more people's LAST choice.

I crunched numbers after last fall's election and noted especially heavy "under" voting - voters choosing only one or two candidates instead of the allowed three - in North Liberty and Coralville. The North Corridor group was backing incumbent Tuyet Dorau and newcomer Chris Lynch, the two candidates from Coralville, and added a tag line "IF you cast all three votes, cast your third vote for Sara Barron," an east sider acceptable to the west. IF was the key word, and a lot of those third ovals were blank. With four seats open, it's very possible Barron would have pulled votes from people who liked her but had prioritized Dorau and Lynch.

A similar question came up at the county in 2009 after supervisor Larry Meyers died. Larry had knocked off Mike Lehman in the 2006 primary, and Lehman was one of a dozen who applied for the vacancy. Mike's defeat was definitely an issue in that process. Meyers' supporters objected, and former auditor Tom Slockett had an iron clad rule of not considering anyone who had lost their most recent election for anything.

But there was also strong sentiment for considering Lehman, given his experience. The other two appointment committee members decided he deserved an interview and he got one vote for the appointment, but Janelle Rettig got the other two and later won the special election (Lehman didn't have any role in the petition for the election; that effort was Republican Party led).

Earlier this year, Oxford appointed a city election loser. Gary Wilkinson was in mid-council term when he was elected mayor to replace the irreplaceable Don Saxton last November. The council appointed Lorena Loomis, who had finished third in the race for two seats, to the last two years of Wilkinson's council term. That was completely non-controversial, unlike pretty much ANYTHING involving the ICCSD these days, and Loomis may even have been the only applicant. Those jobs often go begging.

And the other difference: Loomis was, like Lewis and Hemingway, a candidate who tried and fell short, not like Cook or Lehman, incumbents who had been tossed out. To get to exactly Liebig's scenario, "filling a vacancy with someone who was recently voted out of that very office," we have to journey to the Truman era and to Idaho.

Like every other Republican in the country, Senator Henry Dworshak was expecting a big GOP year in 1948 against Hapless Harry. Idaho's other senator, Democrat Glen Taylor, had joined Iowa's own Henry Wallace on a Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn-Famous Potatoes Progressive ticket which looked likely to split the Spud State's Democratic vote. And Dworshak had beaten his opponent, attorney general Bert Miller, a decade earlier in a House race.

The Wallace ticket fizzled, Give Em' Hell Harry sizzled, and took Idaho, and carried Bert Miller to a narrow win over Dworshak. The Idaho Republicans did, however, hold the governorship...

...which proved important just nine months later when Senator Miller dropped dead of a heart attack. The Republican governor promptly sent the defeated Dworshak back to the Senate.

Idaho voters didn't seem too upset, especially since the previous Senate vacancy a couple years earlier had been filled by a governor who appointed himself. (Always a bad move in the long run. You have to do it like West Virginia's Joe Manchin did: appoint a placeholder, then run yourself.) Dworshak won the 1950 special election and two more terms before he, too, died in office.

So Leibig proposes adding "Dworshak" to the political vocabulary and I'll let him claim credit. A narrow, specific, useful term limited to the exact scenario of appointing a former incumbent to the same office from which they were recently defeated. Sample usage: "Will the schoolboard do a Dworshak?" "They're thinking of Dworshaking the appointment." "Will Cook be Dworshaked back into office?" "The school board is a bunch of Dworshaking Dworshakers." Say that three times fast.

But no endorsement here. This is just an exercise in trivia, proposed grammar, and alleged humor. Like I say, as an ex-Roosevelt parent I still feel some bemused detachment from school board drama.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Dead Ramones

The Dead Ramones would be a great name for a punk rock tribute band. Irreverent and simultaneously paying tribute to two of the greatest.

Tommy Ramone is dead now, the last survivor of the original four members, the level head and steady beat of those first three timeless albums, Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket To Russia. The reunion is complete and rock and roll heaven just got a lot louder.

It's usually big brothers who pass musical tastes down to their younger siblings, but in my case I first heard of the Ramones from a friend of my youngest brother, an aspiring drummer who noted that I'd already discovered the Clash and Costello on my own and started quoting lyrics at me. The lines I most specifically remember: "beat on the brat with a baseball bat" and "sittin' here in Queens / eating refried beans."

I got the joke right away. These were smart guys, smart enough to be dumb.

Tom Erdelyi never really WANTED to be Tommy Ramone. He just wanted to produce and help write - he claimed the band's signature song "Blitzkrieg Bop" was mostly his. Joey was supposed to be the drummer and Dee Dee was supposed to be the singer. But that didn't work. The vision was in large part Tommy's, no one else could play the drums quite right, and the other three insisted.

I'm not sure when I got them all but I remember squeezing three whole albums onto a 90 minute cassette, 20 songs to a side, and getting Pleasant Dreams, the sixth album, when it was new at Christmas 1981. So by then I was hooked.

And by then Tommy was gone, moving from the drum kit to the producer's board because he hated touring, then kicked out of that role when Phil Spector took to an obsession with the band, replaced by Marky just before the band was captured on film in the brilliantly ridiculous "Rock and Roll High School," stupid enough to be worth staying up till 3 AM to see on cable. Other bands were considered, but it would have been nowhere as funny without the absurdity of the leather jacketed punks as teen idols, with blonde cutie PJ Soles crushing on gangly, snaggle-toothed Joey. Dee Dee was so high that they cut all his lines except one: "Hey, pizza! Let's dig in."

That one line could probably have been a whole song; they had lyrics almost as minimal.

Non-mainstream records, even on major labels, were sometimes hard to find out in the provinces and hard to buy back before infinite playlists, when each album was an investment in and commitment to that band. So being a Ramones fan was a real statement back then, long before the t-shirts became ubiquitous, worn by kids to young to have seen even the last shows in 1996 let alone the CBGB's heyday of 1975, and before "Hey! Ho! Let's Go!" was a stadium chant. For sports teams, rather than for the Ramones filling the stadium with fans and getting credit where it was due while they were still with us.

When I finally got my hands on the airwaves - which the Ramones desperately wanted - for a college radio show, I eagerly played the Tommy-produced album "Too Tough To Die" - the irony in that, with all of them gone relatively young - and the import single of "Bonzo Goes To Bitburg," knowing nothing of the political stress that song caused between lefty Joey and conservative Johnny, though some militarism was clear in a few lyrics and some artwork.

I also knew nothing of Joey's obsessive compulsive disorder, but in retrospect I see that my love of familiar repetition, of endlessly repeated memes, makes me a natural Ramones fan. The same BANG bang-a bang-a bang-a BANG bang-a bang-a bang-a riff in every song, the absurdist lyrics ("be nice to Mommy, don't talk to Commies, eat kosher salamis"?!?), the reduction of rock music to its absolute minimum struck a chord in me. Or struck one of three chords in me.

I go through kicks once in a while, where I returned to one particular beloved band for days and weeks at a time and don't want to play anything else, when nothing else sounds right. And as chance would have it, I was on a Ramones kick last week, so Tommy's death landing just when it did was a little more immediate than it might have been had I still been on, say my Harry Nilsson kick or my Church kick.

They weren't a family, of course, they were just four guys who adopted the same stage name as part of the act. And It's an odd coincidence, but none of the original four Ramones had any children, so the DNA is a dead end.

But the legacy of the music is an inheritance for all of us. THAT's immortality. Gabba gabba hey, guys.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday's Clip Show

So it's a clip show, but this is there first week I've written five days straight since about April, so enjoy.

Over the top remark of the week: Challenging the results and demanding a do-over, Mississippi loser Chris McDaniel calls his loss to Thad Cochran:
clearly the most unethical election in the history of this state…and might…and might…very well be the most illegal election in the history of this state.
Except for all those ones where they killed black people for trying to vote. And while that horrible chapter has closed, he tea party rage that Cochran won on black votes shows that southern conservatives, while they may have switched parties, have yet to learn much. Ed Kilgore:
The idea that becoming more conservative is going to lift the prospects of Republicans among African-Americans is a complete hallucination. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that conservatives want African-Americans to change before they are worthy of outreach. And in a place like Mississippi, that means the GOP will remain the White People’s Party perpetually fearing black encroachment on its White Primary by “corrupt” pols like Cochran who dare suggest that representing constituents is more important than maintaining pure conservative ideology.
And looking at the long range, Ronald Brownstein sees Democrats looking confident:
Hispanics and African-Americans (especially older ones) take less-liberal positions than upscale whites on gay rights and abortion. But the GOP has failed to exploit that opening because its commitment to the views of its older white base on other issues—such as immigration, health reform, and the social safety net—has alienated those minority communities.

The result is that amid public unease over Obama's economic and foreign policy record, cultural affinity has become the Democrats' most powerful electoral weapon.
But while Democrats may be confident, it's MORE than a little premature to list Pat Murphy as a "Member of Congress in Waiting." Might help if SOMEbody showed up:
At this point in the 2008 presidential cycle, John Edwards had visited Iowa nine times; Evan Bayh four times; Mark Warner, Tom Daschle, and John Kerry three times; Wes Clark twice; and Bill Richardson, Russ Feingold, and Mike Gravel once. This time around, the state with the first caucus in the nation has hosted precisely two visits from Democratic hopefuls—one each from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Vice President Joe Biden appeared at a 2013 event for Sen. Tom Harkin, as well.) And the dearth of top Democratic visitors could have a real impact on down-ballot Democrats.

The problem, of course, is Hillary Clinton, whose potential Democratic candidacy in 2016 has frozen the field...
Motivating the base is where it's at this year, and there really is no such thing as a "moderate" viewpoint, because a lot of "moderates" are just mathematical paradoxes: extremists outside a standard framework who average in the middle. And look, here's one of my pet theories polled and proved:
On marijuana, the single most popular positions was full legalization. On immigration, it was "the immediate roundup and deportation of all undocumented immigrants and an outright moratorium on all immigration until the border is proven secure." So are these positions really the moderate ones? Or is the moderate position discovered through some process of averaging out the poll results? Or is the moderate position just the one espoused by people in power — because, after all, that's where a lot of survey respondents are taking their cues from.

"When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want," Broockman says. "Within both parties there is this tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want — that's what we tend to call moderate — versus what the Tea Party and more liberal members want."
Skipped out on Democratic central committee last night, but sources tell me Bob Dvorsky, Kim Painter and David Johnson were on hand. The weekend's big Democratic event is a doorknocking kickoff with Monica Vernon at 10 AM Saturday at HQ, 623 S. Dubuque.

And since weekends rock, we need some classic rock. FiveThirtyEight has a whole crew of number crunchers helping Nate Silver now, and they've scientifically concluded that "classic rock" is precisely "Beatles through Nirvana" (but apparantly excluding all of the first wave Ramones-Pistols-Clash-Kennedys punks). Anecdotally - because I'm not JUST about the data - I'll narrow that to "Sgt. Pepper through Nirvana," because when if ever does one hear "A Hard Day's Night" or even a Revolver track?

And classic rock's greatest one hit wonder? Manfred Mann. 98 out of 100 spins were "Blinded by the Light." Obviously they've never been stranded in Iowa. That snow doesn't look all so bad in mid-July...

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bought And Paid For?

One of the minor mysteries of last month's local primary is a little closer to being solved, as also-ran supervisor candidate Diane Dunlap filed her post-election campaign finance report.

Dunlap got into the race on the last day to file and ran a low-profile campaign with no mailings or ads. She had only two donors on the May 19 report, and $290 worth of yard signs that she paid for out of pocket.

The new report shows two donations of $200 each from Jim Glasgow, a leader and major donor to several candidates over the years who have opposed development on Newport Road including the late Democrat Larry Meyers, Republican John Etheredge, and in the most recent primary Democrat Mike Carberry. One donation was on May 21, just after the deadline for the previous report. The other was on June 8, five days AFTER the June 3 primary where Dunlap finished a very distant fourth and last.

Glasgow and others on Newport Road had vowed to defeat incumbent Janelle Rettig after the Board voted 4-1, with a just sworn in Etheredge as the no, to rezone the Dooley property in March 2013. That didn't work out, as Rettig finished in a strong first place.

The Newport group backed Mike Carberry, who narrowly claimed the second Democratic nomination, over the third serious candidate, Lisa Green-Douglass. Indications that the group's second choice was Dunlap didn't show up until the last days before the election.

The report also shows that Dunlap reimbursed herself the $290 for yard signs on July 6, and filed the report the next day. It also shows $185 still in the bank. She's the only primary candidate to file so far; reports aren't due till July 19.

Significant donations to defeated candidates are not unheard of, but they're unusual, especially when the candidate finishes closer to the scattered write-in total than to the next candidate, in a race for two Democratic nominations:
Janelle Rettig 4523 (60%)
Mike Carberry 3459 (46%)
Lisa Green-Douglass 3333 (44%)
Diane Dunlap 1319 (17%)
Write in 76
Dunlap even finished last in Newport Township, where Carberry won yet Rettig finished a strong second.

$400 isn't a lot of money, and it wasn't a lot of votes either. But Dunlap's slim share was more than ten times Carberry's margin over Green-Douglass, so she definitely impacted the race.

Single issue Newport Road voters are likely to back Democrat Carberry and Republican Etheredge in the race for two seats this November, but based on Dunlap's primary totals, that's maybe 50 people.

And Etheredge, who won his seat in a low turnout special election, starts out several thousand votes behind just on straight tickets in heavily Democratic Johnson County. In Democratic wave year 2006, there were 6644 more straight Democratic tickets than Republican. 2010 was the counter-wave but Johnson County Democrats still had a 5559 straight ticket edge.

Republicans don't yet have a second candidate. Carberry, for his part, recently called for voters to support a straight Democratic ticket (so have I).

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Ernst Impeaches System, Herself

What does Joni Ernst really think about impeaching Barack Obama: what she said in January, when she supported it, or what she's saying now in hasty retreat?

I've got no way to get inside her brain to find out. But I can tell you what I think.

I think Joni Ernst is smart. Smart enough to know that, if she had said she was against impeachment in January, in response to a partisan question in front of a partisan crowd...

He is continually using executive order, he is making appointments without authority. So yes, absolutely he is overstepping his bounds. And I do think that, yes, he should face those repercussions. Now, whether that’s removal from office, whether that’s impeachment...
But as a U.S. senator, absolutely -- as a U.S. senator though, we have to push that issue, and we can’t be silent on things like that. And unfortunately we have a number of legislators right now that simply let these things happen. They are not speaking up against these actions. They're not speaking out against the president when he oversteps his bounds, when he makes those appointments, when he’s appointing czars, when he is producing executive orders in a threat to a Congress that won’t do as he wishes. 

So he has become a dictator. He is running amok. He is not following our Constitution, and unfortunately we have leaders who are not serving as leaders right now. They’re not stepping up, they’re not defending the Constitution, and they are not defending you and me.

...she would NOT have been the one who broke out of the five and a half candidate pack to clinch the Republican nomination outright in the primary.For whatever reason, and there's all sorts of psychoanalyzing of it, the GOP base demands nothing less than absolute rejection of and defiance toward Obama the administration and Obama the man.

She's also smart enough to know that rhetoric like that is unpalatable to the swing voters who'll decide this very polarized Senate race, the tiny handful of often ill-informed "independents" who say they want everyone to Just Get Along even though the parties and candidates believe polarized, opposite things.

This gaffe is an indictment of Ernst's character. But it's also an indictment of our political culture and structure.

It's a problem in both parties but it's far far more significant for Republicans, where demands for purity are so strong in the primary context that crazy is always a safe bet.

But it's not just our primary structure that's at fault. It's our general election structure and culture, our cycle of high turnout presidential elections and low turnout mid-terms, and the resulting see-saw results and divided government.

What GOP extremists really want isn't "impeachment." Even they can't honestly believe issue disagreement can be classified as High Crimes And Misdemeanors. What they really want, even if they can't articulate it, is for Barack Obama to go away. In the GOP playbook under both Obama and Clinton, "impeachment" has become a do-over, a parliamentary style no confidence vote.

In a parliamentary system you wouldn't have a 1994 or a 2010 result, with the Republicans taking over the House and Democrats staying on in a weakened presidency. You'd have a new prime minister.

More accurately, you wouldn't have a 1994 or a 2010 because you wouldn't have a low turnout off-year election in the first place. President, rather prime minister, would be at stake in EVERY general election, with a resulting boost in turnout.

And you wouldn't have a health care bill watered down to meet the objections of a handful of Blue Dogs, but now I'm tangenting WAY to far beyond the original point.

If Joni Ernst is smart enough to pander in a primary and pivot in a general election, she's also smart enough to know better than to think she can get away with having it both ways in the era of YouTube and trackers.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Who's Not Hillary? Or: Who's Bill Bradley?

More and more, the 2016 Democratic presidential race is looking like 2000 did. Only more so. There's a prohibitive front runner, only more so. There's some unease about that prohibitive front runner and about the lack of viable alternatives.

And back in 1999 there never really was a viable alternative to Al Gore. The party structure from Bill Clinton on down was locked in early, solidly, and not always fairly. It was really, really hard to be a Bill Bradley Democrat in 1999. It was a stark contrast to the state of the Republican race in 1987-88, when Ronald Reagan was scrupulously neutral between HW and Bob Dole until Bush had the nomination locked up.

Barack Obama's stance is somewhere in between.  In deference to Joe Biden, he's personally quiet. But the Obama political structure is moving into Hillary's orbit.  Once she gets in, Joe will get out, Obama will be all in, and the pressure will really be on the entire Democratic Party structure just like it was in 1999.

So that leaves an opening only for a long shot candidacy, a credible person on stand by just in case the front runner collapses. It's impossible to overstate just how big a deal it would be, and just how hard it would be, for a president's preferred choice to be rejected in a primary. It hasn't happened since William Jennings Bryan and the free silver populists took over the Democrats from Grover Cleveland and the gold bugs.

In 1998 or so, Paul Wellstone and Jesse Jackson flirted with, but rejected, running. The only one who got in against Gore was Bill Bradley. And that's what we'll get this time: someone in the Bill Bradley role.

So who will that be? To figure that out let's look at what characteristics he had, and who fits those characteristics today.

Not currently in office. (Or someone on their way out.) Bradley was three years out of office in 1999. The two names that get mentioned most often as the dream candidates of the lefties are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The biggest problem with that (other than the fact that Sanders, while a great progressive, is not an actual Democrat) is that they would have too much to lose.

A sitting senator or governor who challenged Hillary and lost would be in the permanent White House dog house, and their whole state with them.

No real ties to the administration, and no ambitions to join the new one. An outsider who owes Obama and Clinton no favors, who has no real bridges to burn because they were never built in the first place. Scratch the former cabinet members and the early endorsers from 2007. Likewise, scratch anyone who might be angling for a cabinet post (say, term-limited Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick).

Some sort of national profile. The kind of person who resonates with cable hosts for feistiness, or with op-ed writers for seriousness, because they'll never match the money and organization and establishment support that Clinton will bring.

An unorthodox persona. Bradley's combination of Rhodes Scholar wonkiness and NBA superstardom was one of a kind, but there's other kinds of one of a kind. The would-be Bradley needs something that defies conventional wisdom, that's going to attract people who don't want to sign on with a coronation, and bring in some independents. Because the core party activists will mostly be with the favorite.

Male. Which Bradley was but the point is: First Woman President was a huge deal in 2008 and will be even bigger having been deferred eight more years. And the Democratic Party's leading women are making it clear they're already on board with Clinton (including dream candidate Warren and the occasionally mentioned Amy Klobuchar). That makes things harder for our would be Bradley, as he will have to deftly shift the ground to something else.

So I dug through some lists of former governors and senators, eliminated the octogenerians, the scandal-ridden, and the likely loyalists.

The most likely Bill Bradleys of 2016, from least to most plausible:

7. Al Gore. Just for the sheer irony of it. He fits all the criteria I listed. And he's probably had time to play through the W.A.S.P. discography by now.

6. Dennis Kucinich. Because what else does he have to do? If he had the protest vote to himself, he might not do badly. He was pushing 30% in the late 2004 primaries after all John Kerry's other rivals dropped out. Though he wouldn't be taken seriously enough to get a debate (even as a sitting congressman in 2008 he wasn't invited to a lot of debates).

5. Martin O'Malley. I almost didn't include the term-limited Maryland Governor, as I think his positioning is a just in case thing for the unlikely scenario that Clinton doesn't run. But unlike Hillary he was just in Iowa and I have to give him points for that. If she does run, he's more likely to angle for an administration post. At age 51, he'll have another opportunity for the Big Job. And, locally, is Barbara Mikulski going to seek another Senate term in two years at age 80?

4. Evan Bayh. I pulled this one out of thin air but hear me out. He flirted with a run in 2006, emphasizing how he was winning in a red state. Then he walked away from the Senate at the last minute in 2010, handing the seat to the GOP. But here's the interesting tidbit: He's been sitting on $10 million in unused campaign funds ever since, and what's that for? Still young at 58. Was a Clinton supporter in 2008, but Bayh is a contrarian who may not stick to that loyalty. And for all the way Appalachia favored Clinton over Obama in 2008, I think they'd turn on Hillary just as fast in 2016. Still, a run to the right in a Democratic primary isn't a winning strategy.

3. Kent Conrad. Huh? Nobody expected a Bill Bradley comeback either. This wouldn't be a run fueled by ego or ambition. This low key deficit hawk would be a Paul Tsongas for the 21st century, and the Beltway chattering classes with their austerity fetish would play it up beyond all realism. Conrad walked away from his Senate seat in 1992 after failing to lower the deficit in his first term - only to land back in the Senate without missing a day when North Dakota's other senator died.

2. Howard Dean. Don't scream. He has no real ties to Team Obama or Team Hillary. Dean was neutraled out of the 2008 race as DNC chair, and felt (rightly) miffed that he was passed over for HHS secretary after his successful party leadership. He has remained a constant media presence during and since his term as party chair, and remains popular with the party base. Though some of those 10 year old email addresses from the Meetup list may be stale by now.

At 65 he's Not Too Old, He's also, recently, shown some sense of humor about You Know What. Said "at this point I'm supporting Hillary" a year ago, but has also refused to rule anything out. (Warren's denials have been more convincing.)

1. Russ Feingold. Lost his Senate seat? So what. Rick Santorum proved that a loss in a bad year can be played as martyrdom to The Cause, as an ideological bona fide. Ranks just below Sanders and Warren in the progressive pantheon, flirted with a 2008 run, and even though the campaign finance bill itself was less than it was cracked up to be, his name is linked with his bipartisan sponsor. So solidly identified as a progressive, yet seen as willing to work across the aisle.

So I'll be that one, and ONLY one, of these seven men gets in sometime in 2015. And whoever does? They'll have to run a REAL Iowa caucus campaign.