It’s not just isolationism

A new Politico poll shows an American public hesitant to jump into conflicts in Iraq and the Ukraine. The rise of non-interventionist Republicans over the past five years has echoed that shift in public opinion, but it has also shined the light on an argument among GOP thought leaders, usually positioned as interventionism vs. isolationism. (Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Rand Paul recently duked it out in this ring.)

That’s a false choice, based on what the Politico survey shows. Consider this interview:

Respondent Deborah Cantrell, a Georgia nurse who intends to vote for Democratic candidates this fall, said she supports pulling back from Iraq and Afghanistan and believes the situation in Ukraine is “very complicated.”

“I think any time ethnic nationalism goes on, it’s really bad,” said Cantrell, 58. “I hope we don’t get terribly involved right off the bat because I’m not sure we can do anything to make it better. I generally don’t think we can go in and have people behave properly just because we’re there.”

Cantrell’s assessment is more nuanced than a simple claim that, “It isn’t any of our business.” She’s concerned with ability; Intervention as a concept is almost a moot point because, in her view, wouldn’t solve the problem even if done successfully.

With recent conflicts shrouded in complex issues that stretch back decades if not centuries, Americans may feel U.S. involvement would be at best a superficial band-aid on a multi-generational flesh wound. Barring a direct attack on the United States, that will be the real hurdle for interventionists looking to win support in coming election cycles.

Brat vs. McDaniel

Tea Partiers should be watching Mississippi and Virginia very closely and watching the difference between two upstart candidates.

In Mississippi, conservative activists feel slighted by national Republican groups who supported Sen. Thad Cochran. Given the last-minute, over-the-top race baiting rhetoric that all but accused the Tea Party of resurrecting Jim Crow laws, you can see where McDaniel supporters are coming from. (Even if the NRSC or other Republicans didn’t green-light the strategy, the guilt-by-association isn’t a huge jump.)

And McDaniel walked right into it.

Even as an incumbent, Thad Cochran was not a great primary candidate.  A good opponent with a good campaign would have knocked him off without even needing a runoff. McDaniel could not jump over the low ankle hurdle of competence. How bad was he? He was a worse candidate than Cochran.

McDaniel’s sketchy connections with neo-Confederate groups were already in the public discourse. So when Cochran’s allies floated the idea of “expanding the electorate” to win the runoff, McDaniel’s response – deploying poll watchers to shoo away ineligibles – fed the narrative. Creating mental images of militant racist whites intimidating black voters was an easy bridge to cross in the minds of many voters.

The right response to Cochran saying he’s expanding the electorate should have been: “Bring it on, Broseph.” Well, maybe not the Broseph part, but you get the picture. He could have added: “I invite all Mississippians who are eligible to come to the polls. As we showed in the runoff, the more people who hear about our vision know that we stand for a brighter vision for all of Mississippi. I welcome the vote of anyone who agrees.” Or something like that.

That’s all he would have had to say. And yet, McDaniel kept talking about outsiders invading the primary- and he’s still talking, exploring ways to challenge the outcome. In defeat, McDaniel has talked more than the guy who pulled an actual upset, Dave Brat.

Brat has been pretty quiet since giving the political world a rare surprise by defeating Rep. Eric Cantor. Think about it: In a world of constant analysis and near-ubiquitous news coverage, no one saw Brat’s win coming. And he didn’t just squeak it out – he beat an incumbent in leadership by 10 points. (Disclosure: The firm I work for did work for Cantor’s campaign.) In the weeks since, outside of a statement criticizing the President’s immigration policies, Brat has been pretty tight-lipped in the national media.

Any so-called “Tea Party” candidate is going to wear a big old target on their back during this election cycle – just like they did in 2012. Democrats looking to cut their losses will surely look to take any candidate’s misstep and blow it up to build a national narrative. Brat hasn’t given them any ammunition; McDaniel practically loaded the guns for them. The candidate class of 2014 will need to speak carefully to avoid McDaniel’s fate.

Why Hillary Clinton Won’t Be President

Wow, Hillary Clinton really stepped in it with her comment about being “dead broke” after leaving the White House, didn’t she?

Factually, she’s probably right. Bill’s career was almost exclusively in public life — from his first term as Arkansas attorney general starting in 1977 to leaving the White House in January 2001, he spent 22 of 24 years holding a public office.  And it’s not like he was the scion of a political dynasty like the guy he replaced or the guy who replaced him. Factor in the legal fees from lawsuits that are the inevitable result of decades of chasing tail, and you can see that the Clintons wouldn’t have been flush with resources, even if the cattle futures market performed particularly well.  The questions came up because the Clinton’s hit the speaking circuit to help drum up the extra scratch – which has been incredibly lucrative in the post-White House years.

But what she said isn’t as important as how she said it:

“We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt,” Clinton told ABC News. “We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.”

There are a couple of triggers in there that won’t resonate well with people who don’t pay much attention to politics (i.e. voters who have better things to do).

Obviously, the use of the plural “houses” and “mortgages” comes off wrong. You’ll remember that after Bill was laid off of his job, Hillary found work as a Senator, which required lots of travel. Having two houses makes sense and isn’t uncommon for Senators, but Senators are only 100 of the several millions of votes needed to become President. (And many of them are in non-target states, to boot.)

What wasn’t plural in her comments was the education expenses. Many parents with multiple kids struggle to figure out how to pay a double dose of inflated college expenses. Those same parents probably assume that the political connections of eight years in the White House probably help move money better than a FAFSA.

The new book and marathon interviews are clearly a way for Clinton to soften her image in advance of the coming deluge from the vast right wing conspiracy. The problem is the tin ear turned to how people currently view her. She has been in the public spotlight since 1992, which means a long and public track record on which voters have based mature opinions. There’s also a celebrity factor: the public assumes that famous people (whether actors, athletes, politicians) are out-of-touch.  If they go broke, the assumption is that they must have spent their money foolishly.

The question was about making millions in speaking fees. Instead of talking about the need for the speeches, Clinton would have been better off talking about the chance to connect with people. “Yes, we did a lot of speaking, all over the country,” she might have said. “Living in the White House, you don’t get to talk to many people outside of government. After years of partisan bickering, that gave us a chance to get back out and see what people were thinking, what mattered to people.”  And then, if she really wanted to pour it on: “That was a really important time for us. If really refreshed our desire to keep fighting for the things we believe in.”

Schmaltzy? Maybe a little, but it stops the conversation about speaking fees. Clinton’s out-of-touch answer keeps the issue going. If she misfires this way repeatedly, she’ll cement the public view of a career politician who believes it’s her turn to be President.

As Mitt Romney can attest, when voters feel like they can’t identify with you, they won’t vote for you.

How important is Memorial Day REALLY?

It seems as if each year, some version of this Rasmussen poll is released. According to a survey, 39% of Americans see Memorial Day as “one of the most important” holidays we celebrate.

You have to wonder how honest those answers are. Wouldn’t most decent people, when asked, say it’s important to set aside a day each year to remember those who served and died? I bet the folks at Progress Now New Mexico would, even if they didn’t bother to release a simple statement to that effect. Ditto for the countless Americans who treated the just-passed long weekend as a summer kickoff, an opportunity for extra yard work, or a chance for a cookout with the good meats – not just hot dogs.

All of these are valid ways to spend the weekend, and your Memorial Day remembrance was a couple minutes of silent reflection rather than a day of fervent prayer for souls lost in battle, that’s okay. In fact, it’s kind of cool that we hold the concept of Memorial Day in higher esteem than our practice of it. (In the interest of staying off the high horse, I’ll gladly cop to being in the category of people who would say that Memorial Day is one of our most important national holidays, while having spent it driving through central Virginia wondering when the next Sheetz would appear on the side of Route 29.)

The point is that what people say about their behavior may represent their values, but their actions may not match.

For example, it’s a tricky thing for political pollsters to model who is going to be in the electorate in a given year – and while self-identification may be a factor, previous voting history is a bigger factor. You may tell a pollster you aren’t feeling it this year, but chances are that if you always find a way to the polls, you will again this time around.

Similarly, you may tell a pollster you intend to vote, but if you traditionally go the George Carlin route and just stay home, there’s a chance you’ll do it again. But if you say you plan to vote, but have a history of not voting, it may signify an intent to vote, or at least an understanding of the value of voting. Those people would probably be more open to get-out-the-vote messaging and campaign communication – the way a Memorial Day grillmaster might stop somewhere between medium and medium-well and think about how good we have it, and feel that brief pang of guilt for those that faced a much more intense heat than his propane-fueled crucible of shish-kabob.

Even when reality falls short of aspiration, the aspiration can be useful just the same.


Team Clinton falls for Karl Rove’s trap

Karl Rove owes no one anything. He’s not asking for votes.  He’s drawn enough ire that activists from either the left or right hating on him has become white noise. So who better than Rove to needle Hillary Clinton about her faculties?

The result? Shock and indignation from Team Hillary. Her husband, former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, even weighed in, vouching for his wife’s well-being.

Some thought the discussion promises to expose how Clinton avoided Benghazi testimony, but it may not have been quite so calculated.  After all, a potential candidate’s health is a legitimate question, especially for Clinton.  If she wins and assumes the Presidency in 2017, she would be just nine months younger than Ronald Reagan was on his first Inauguration Day.  She had her infamous spell back in December 2012. In the back of many voters’ minds, her age and competence could be an issue – perhaps not a deciding issue, but an influential one. (John McCain could probably share a thought or two on that.)

Whether or not there’s anything there, Clinton’s surrogates have spent a week on defense talking about her health. Voters who may have forgotten all about her December 2012 episode had their memories refreshed. And in their zeal to respond to anything coming from Rove’s mouth, the response has come off a little over the top.

Had Clinton and Company simply ignored Rove, the story might have been over. They kept it alive on their own.


Ice Cream Trucks Bring Racism to America

A story on NPR this week tells us that a song commonly used as the siren call for ice cream trucks combing through suburbia  was released in 1916 under the title, “N***** Love a Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha.”

Shock! Horror! And interesting to note, as the author of the piece does, that minstrel music was the original soundtrack for ice cream parlors. The tunes made the leap to ice cream trucks out of tradition.

Since it’s been a while since I traded CD’s with Donald Sterling, I didn’t recognize the song.  How did they find this vile ditty and put it in an ice cream truck?

For his creation, [Songwriter Harry] Browne simply used the well-known melody of the early 19th-century song “Turkey in the Straw,” which dates back to the even older and traditional British song “The (Old) Rose Tree.” The tune was brought to America’s colonies by Scots-Irish immigrants who settled along the Appalachian Trail and added lyrics that mirrored their new lifestyle.

Well, now wait a second.

Turkey in the Straw” is a pretty common tune. It’s programmed into many of the electronic toys my daughters have played with in infancy and toddlerhood – maybe not as ubiquitous as the ABC’s, but in the mix with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Good Humor and Fisher Price probably use the song for the same reason: since it’s in the public domain, there are no copyright fees.

But author Theodore Johnson brings up the interesting point that the tune gained popularity through minstrel songs. Does the song’s significance really go beyond interesting history?

There are probably thousands of songs lost to the ages, so why does “Turkey in the Straw” still get played today? Is it lingering racism? Or is it just a bouncy, free tune whose origins are largely forgotten?

I’ll go with the latter. Otherwise, we have some problems with Steamboat Willie.


CDN: Winning in 2014 vs. Losing in 2016

Democrats face an uphill battle this November. Both the messaging environment and the electoral map favor Republican gains. Republicans face a similarly challenging map in 2016, defending 24 Senate seats. My latest piece at Communities Digital News explores how, for each party, the results that come in on November 4 will not be the final verdict on their 2014 strategies.