We might really elect a loon: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and a GOP gripped by wingnut fever

Democrats always believe the GOP will sober up and nominate someone sensible. There is zero guarantee this time

Published November 15, 2015 11:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Brendan McDermid/John Minchillo)
(AP/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Brendan McDermid/John Minchillo)

In a year we pick a president.  If it seems far off to you, you’re either very young or follow politics too closely, in which case the last year probably felt like five. We have known for a while that it’s the most vital election we’ll ever be privileged to vote in; our climate is more extreme, our democracy more broken, our middle class more desperate, our opposition more deranged than ever before. If things were any worse, they’d be past fixing. As the election nears, the race comes into focus. The first thing we notice is its fast winnowing field of candidates.

In our virtual democracy, more and more candidates lose elections before they’re even held. In 2004 just one Democratic presidential candidate dropped out before a vote was cast; eight made it to Iowa. This year three have already dropped out and a fourth has demurred, leaving just three standing. At 17 strong, the 2016 GOP field was the biggest ever in either party. By the time Iowa rolls around it may be the smallest of any GOP field in more than a generation save only for those years in which a Bush sought reelection. Only two candidates have bowed out thus far but four more are polling 0 percent and another five are below 4 percent.

We thought that with so many billionaires throwing so much money around their candidates could hang around forever. But as Rick Perry and Scott Walker found out, campaigns need money more than super PACs do and limits on donations to campaigns are among the few we still impose on money in politics. All may learn that putting a top adviser where you can’t talk to him without committing a felony is problematic, or that spending all your time fundraising distracts from other tasks, like figuring out if you have anything to say. And as Donald Trump often tells his foes, the very act of procuring makes you look like a procurer, or at least a puppet.

Of the three candidates whose rise shocked the world and the 15 whose fall may surprise no one, not one rose or fell due to money. (Scott Walker still has $40 million in a super PAC; Rick Perry has $17 million.) Nothing hinged on a TV ad or direct mail letter. The clear lesson: Money isn’t everything, not even in politics. When we finally learn it, progressives may no longer abide their own betrayal and even Democrats may see that Bernie Sanders’ small donor model works better than the "pay to play" politics of Hillary Clinton and the party establishment.

Democrats are alarmed by last week’s state and local elections. It isn’t just the big races lost in Kentucky and Virginia or the gay rights and marijuana referenda that went down in Houston and Ohio. It’s the turnout. Iowans will soon cast the first ballots of 2016. On Tuesday, turnout in Mason City was 7.2 percent. Houston hit a 12-year high, but it took just 20 percent of eligible voters to do it. For seven years turnout has fallen across America. If the trend continues unabated it will mean disaster for Democrats.

While historic, Barack Obama’s 2008 election was no watershed. Some 131.4 million voters went to the polls. At 57 percent, turnout was the highest in 40 years, but it’s been downhill ever since. In 2012 there were 6 million more eligible voters but 2 million fewer showed up. Turnout was 54 percent. In 2014, 81.6 million votes were cast, a stunning 50 million vote drop from 2008 in the lowest turnout since World War II. Since 2008 Republicans have picked up 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats and 12 governorships, one of the three biggest partisan growth spurts in American history.

A big factor is the work Republicans put into state and local organizing. They invest heavily in candidate recruitment, public outreach and, of course, voter suppression. The last stratagem is so vile most Republicans are in denial about it and the rest are rarely caught on tape. When Howard Dean chaired the DNC he stressed long-term party building like no chairperson before or since, providing trained staff and technical assistance to all 50 states. In 2006, the sulfurous Rahm Emanuel wanted all money shifted to a handful of House races and went after Dean in his usual way, which is to say, with a baseball bat. Dean got ousted, the program got scrapped and now only Republicans play the long game.

When it comes to suppressing turnout nothing beats good old fashioned alienation. The good news: It still presents in most voters as anger rather than hard-to-reach glacial despondency. Some say voters moved right but in fact many have moved left. Their anger is over economic decay and political corruption, and is empirical, not ideological. Democrats can’t accept that voters’ anger at government is fact-based. To win them back we must show them we know how to fix what’s broken, and that this time we really mean to do it.

Sanders’ turnout model has two elements: a clear agenda that speaks to the needs of the middle class and marginalized and a grass-roots movement to support it. He knows if you don’t make the case you can’t build the movement. Most Democrats don’t know it, which is why they still invest more in "message" than in policy and still try to get out their vote with top-down, corporate-style campaigns better suited to pacifying than to mobilizing their base.

Democrats seek solace in two notions. One is that Republicans will bail them out by nominating an insane person for president. The other is that demography will bail them out. The demography theory is a little weightier so let’s take it first. It holds that Democratic friendly groups such as Hispanics, African-Americans and the young are growing fast, that conservative ideology is odious to them, and that as a result Republican victories will soon be a near mathematical impossibility.

Veteran pollster Stanley Greenberg put the case well in a recent Guardian piece headlined "I’ve seen America’s future- and it’s not Republican":

The U.S. is now beyond the electoral tipping point, driven by a new progressive majority… racial minorities (black and Hispanic) plus single women, millennials… and secular voters…formed 51% of the electorate in 2012 and will reach a politically critical 63% next year.

It’s all true, but the statistical majority conjured up is far from a working coalition. By Greenberg’s math it hit about 57 percent in 2014. So where was it then? Do we know what’s on its collective mind now? Republicans are always looking for ways into allegedly entrepreneurial, socially conservative Hispanic hearts. Millennials who came of voting age post 2008 trend a bit more Republican. Lots of seculars are libertarians. Who knows where they’ll all end up?

Wave theories encourage bad political habits. One is niche marketing. Sooner or later, politicians who slice and dice voters into statistical abstractions give away the game. If you see me as a category, not a person, I’ll know it. If you say one thing to me and another to someone else, I’ll know that too. If your thinking is calculated and formulaic that’s how you’ll sound. Identity politics in any form is prone not to systemic change but to incrementalism. Progressive politics is rooted in our commonality or else it cannot build majorities for broad reform.

Another bad habit is magical thinking. It can induce a trance-like passivity, as seen in the popular Democratic pastime "waiting for the Republicans to implode." Sometimes they do; more often they don’t. Saying they are on the wrong side of history is condescending. Believing it is dumb. Whoever loses is on the wrong side of history. Absent a bolder plan and a broader movement to support it, Democrats may get there soon, and bring everyone else with them.

The theory that Republicans will bail out Democrats by nominating a crazy person for president exemplifies magical thinking. Every four years they make an early feint toward doing it, then pull back, outfox their base and pick someone more presentable. Maybe this year they’ll blow it; God knows they seem nuttier than ever. But their establishment’s moving heaven and earth to keep it from happening.

Fox News is as much a part of that establishment as the Republican National Committee. Like Reince Priebus and Karl Rove, Roger Ailes knows that nominating Ben Carson or Donald Trump could spell doom.  If a big enough field survives to Super Tuesday, under winner-take-all rules, a Carson or Trump needs just a quarter of the vote to knock off every establishment candidate. So last week Fox Business News dropped Chris Christie from the main stage and Lindsey Graham from the undercard. It’s the winnowing process I spoke of, the culling of weaker "moderates" from the herd.

I still think the party will find a way to stop it from happening but I admit it looks harder now than it did. For one, its favorite horses—Bush, Walker, Christie and now Rubio—keep coming up lame. For another, the base really is crazy. In the latest Fox poll, two-thirds of Republicans back Carson, Trump, Cruz or Huckabee, all of whom, as you know, are hate-spewing conspiracy mongers.  What makes the theory an example of magical thinking is that none of that may matter. That it is so is due to voter anger and fear: anger at government; fear over the economy and world affairs. The effect is to freeze politics in what is for Democrats a paradoxical and inopportune state.

In a 2015 Pew poll, 32 percent of voters identified as Democrats; 23 percent as Republicans. Democrats in Congress retain a 12 percent edge in job approval. Last month saw the Benghazi follies, John Boehner’s hasty exit, an unseemly scramble to draft a new speaker and a threatened government shutdown. So how’s the race for Congress shaping up? It’s a tie. With all those crazy Republicans running for president, you’d think a Democratic front-runner would top every general election poll. Not by a long shot. After her best month ever on a campaign trail Hillary trails everybody but Trump. Democrats say early polls are misleading. I say that’s just more magical thinking.

I still don’t see establishment media types grappling with the seeming mystery of how a 74-year-old socialist outperforms a centrist front-runner in those general election match-ups. Here’s a hint: the Democrats’ real opponents are anger, apathy and fear. With just three months till Iowa, Bernie Sanders is still the only candidate addressing anger, fear and apathy in a responsible, effective way. He says global finance capitalism and pay to play politics are killing us. Voters agree so strongly even Republicans cry "crony capitalism," but they’re just kidding. Clinton still doesn’t get it. Raising billions from big business and floating boatloads of new programs is a bad strategy. Voters look at government and see a car with a cracked engine block. Until it’s fixed they won’t let anybody drive it.

I don’t know who will win either party’s nomination, nor does anyone else. I do know that to alter the debates in a lasting way Bernie Sanders must win some early contests and that progressives must help him do it. It won’t be easy. The media and the Democratic Party will do all they can to lower progressive morale. This week a Times story on a new poll started out this way:

Despite a month of sharpened attacks Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has failed to significantly dent Hillary Rodham Clinton’s lead in the Democratic presidential race.

An alternative lead:

Despite Hillary Clinton’s strongest campaign month ever, Bernie Sanders shaved another 5% off her lead closing the gap to 19% at 52% to 33% with three months to go until Iowa. By comparison, in a 2007 Gallup poll taken three weeks before Iowa, Clinton led Barack Obama by 55% to 38%, or 17%.

The DNC is as bent as the RNC on stifling debate. Obama closed the gap to 17 percent after 16 televised debates. Sanders started out further behind but closed to 19 percent after one debate. Last Friday Rachel Maddow hosted a forum in Hillary friendly South Carolina.  Hillary did well in the hall but my hunch is Bernie did better with those watching TV. But a Friday night forum doesn’t draw a fraction of the audience of a weeknight debate. There are just two more debates this year; to keep viewership low, both on aSaturday night. DNC chair Debbie Schultz has done all she can to shut the process down. She may live to regret it.

Sanders must do two things. First, he must broaden his message on corruption. Voters hate seeing billionaires order politicians about, but it isn’t just billionaires who tick them off. It’s every pol who uses government as an ATM for himself and his pals. The government is laced with corruption. When Sanders addresses all of it his message will be complete. Second, he must build the most open, democratic campaign ever. He can’t just call it a movement. He has to make it one. Movements are owned by those who build them. Owners don’t care about polls because they’re in for the long haul.

It’s a year till the election. We don’t know who the nominees will be -- but we know the lay of the land and what we must do.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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