Thursday, July 21, 2016

Why Trump's Vice Presidential Pick Is A Missed Opportunity - Hint: It's Not Just The Logo

The game of vice presidential candidate selection in American Politics is among the single most complex-yet-simple parts of the four yearly quasi-armed-madhouse they call their Presidential election cycle.

Simple, because in effect you're only picking one person who most likely won't actually have to do anything public except the occasional photo-op and feel-good journey if you win.

Unbearably complex because there are so many different considerations which have to go into that selection.

The traditional school of thought with regard to VP selections is that a Presidential candidate ought to go for someone who complements them by absolving their weaknesses somewhat in the eyes of the electorate. Urban(e) quasi-liberals go for more heart-land friendly folks with a more Conservative appeal (think FDR & Truman). Northerners go for Southerners (ala Kennedy and LBJ). Sane, rational people go for frothing at the mouth lunatics (remember John McCain & Sarah Palin?).

In all cases, the perceived shortcomings of one's Presidential standard-bearer are supposed to be abrogated by injecting into their side-car a figure who can energize the 'right' portion of a given electoral base whom the main candidate would otherwise have difficulty reaching.

At their best, such pairings represent a 'dynamic duo' - a confederation of individuals who are able to transmit and transport the same overarching message to diversely different groups and carry the day. Quality VP candidates also provide a strong degree of 'reassurance' about a ticket that not only will a respected voice for the marginalized group's concerns exist at the heart of the impending administration ... but that in the exceedingly unfortunate event of Presidential incompetence or incapacitation, there'll be someone competent to take over.

But unfortunately, such impressive combinations rarely wind up taking to the field. Whether due to the ineluctable combinations of interior party machinations or risk-aversion on the part of Candidates which leads to sloppy or inadequate options being pursued, the field of Presidential-Vice Presidential team-ups is littered with joint-ticket candidacies that were decidedly not all they could truly be.

Just take John McCain in 2008, for instance. We've already mentioned the absolutely disastrous decision to go for Sarah Palin; and it's not hard to see why somebody both backed into a corner (remember, '08 was the heyday of the 'Tea Party' movement) and over-eager to 'soften' a perceived 'reasonable' image to right wing-nut voters who've come to increasingly form the Republican Party's electoral base could have made such a catastrophic miscalculation.

Instead of complimenting McCain's strengths and covering his weaknesses in order to broaden his appeal ... Palin seriously, seriously narrowed it. Her many and manifold incompetencies caused his campaign to take on the air of the clown act of a circus; while the media narrative about McCain-Palin shifted from being about a doughty old war hero with a pragmatic appeal and a genuinely compassionate-conservative conscience ... into a dramatic disaster movie of waiting for whatever next gaffe was almost honour-bound to fall, unbidden, out of Palin's parlously pachyglossal mouth.

In the end, slightly redder Democrats and undecided Independents wound up fearing that the electoral millstone about McCain's neck which would transform from dead albatross to live cockatiel (or, if you prefer, cockatrice - she certainly left McCain's campaign team petrified) in the event of, as the saying went, a few missed beats of a 71 year old man's heart, was just too much of a risk. Even if McCain himself seemed disturbingly sane by Republican presidential candidate standards (particularly in light of what we've been subjected to over the past electoral carnival season), placing Palin within the context of the White House with him would surely undercut that hard-won rationality.

So McCain lost - and in no small part due to his VP pick.

But it didn't have to be that way.

McCain's initial pick for Vice President was, in fact, Senator Joe Lieberman - a Democrat (at the time, anyway) ... and, perhaps more surprisingly, Al Gore's own Vice Presidential candidate during the 2000 Presidential Election.

In hindsight, the strengths which Lieberman would have brought to McCain's campaign seem obvious. Tea Partiers and their ilk could probably have been induced not to stay home on polling-day by the vague and nefarious threat of "Obama"; while Lieberman himself would have emphasized by his mere presence on the ballot McCain's ability to reach across the aisle and work with people outside his own party in the interests of progress. More importantly, a Lieberman-pick would have emphasized McCain's decent values and provided an ever-stronger beacon for Democrat and Independent voters with Democrat (or, perhaps more specifically, Hillary) inclinations to head on over in his direction.

In other words, by choosing a VP candidate who enhanced and focused McCain's appeal rather than undercutting and undermining it in a bid to reach out to a completely different demographic at the original candidate's expense, McCain could have potentially done significantly better than he did.

But McCain's aides felt that a more 'balanced' ticket was necessary and so veto'd Lieberman in favour of someone more overtly Capital-C Conservative.

Now it might seem a little strange to be spending so much time talking about a sputteringly failed Presidential campaign from almost a decade ago - and stranger still to make a strong comparison between John McCain and Donald Trump. But if we leave aside their polar-opposite views on immigration, foreign policy, and whether or not being captured by the North Vietnamese renders one a "loser" ... it has recently become disarmingly apparent that campaign efforts to Make America Great Again in 2016 bear an almost disconcerting resemblance to put Country First (McCain's slogan - and an interesting echo of Trump's own "America First") in 2008.

Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the severely disappointing choice of Mike Pence to be Trump's running-mate - precisely because this bewildering selection replicates many of the shortcomings which Palin hamstrung McCain with during his own run.

About the only saving grace in this comparison is that Pence is a far sharper cookie than Palin. Although this is perhaps not saying much, as Sarah Palin's politico-intellectual persona bore all the comparative depth of the Windsor gene-pool.

So let's review the evidence. Why on earth would Donald Trump have compromised his own campaign messaging by picking Pence?

On the face of it, there are three possible reasons: first, that Pence's geographic background as a Midwesterner might play a strategic role in helping Trump to win badly needed votes in Rust Belt states. This, at least makes a modicum of sense.

Second, Pence is reasonably well-connected and liked within the Republican's own internal hive-mind of networks. If Trump wants to transform his campaign from "outsider hijacked my party" into a serious and concerted push from the great red elephant cascading across the political situation room, then he arguably needs exactly the kind of institutional buy-in which a figure like Pence can bring to the table. Considering Trump's own ground-campaign during the Primary season was virtually non-existent in many places (apparently because Trump hoped to use the Republican Party's own networks and infrastructure to campaign in the post-Primary run up to November), this could be a badly overlooked previous strategic weakness which desperately needed plugging.

The third angle is that Trump's ideological (or, if you prefer, ruthlessly pragmatic) push to the relative Left of the Republican Party on issues ranging from the TPPA through to transsexuals using the bathroom they believe best fits their gender, and on into advocating for a higher federal minimum wage than Clinton, was perceived as too much of a political risk to remain 'unadulterated'. For one thing, the Republican Party apparatus could have withheld campaign resources from somebody they considered a severely imperfect embodiment of 'their' values. For another, more overtly 'right-wing' Republican voters might have either stayed home on polling day - or instead gotten in behind a third party candidate such as Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson.

So from an 'orthodox' political and risk-management point of view, it's perhaps not hard to see why senior Republican aides pushed for a figure like Pence to be "balancing" the Trump ticket in exactly the same way Palin brought "balance" to the McCain one. For the most part, that's because these are exactly the same reasons informing the decision-making of both Campaigns.

But the risk is that this will lead to exactly the same result.

And that's because the danger is in both situations that adding too much "balance" adulterant to a campaign fundamentally dilutes its original - and insurgent - appeal with both middle and disenfranchised/ignored voters.

Consider the strengths of Trump's campaign going forward thus far.

He's been plainly and unapologetically Protectionist as part of his push to win over the Working Class. One of the biggest and best-known instances of this was his strong opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, on grounds that it would steal jobs from ordinary Americans and give far too much power to corporations.

Pence, by contrast, supports the TPPA - as do a certain vocal proportion of influential Republicans.

The whole pro-Free Trade thing was one of the key ways in which Republican Elites were felt to be out of touch with ordinary workers; and with the elevation of Pence to the pole position of Trump's proverbial right-hand man, it becomes ever more difficult to argue that the Trump campaign represents an independent creature unbeholden to the neoliberal agenda of those self-same elites. The authenticity and salience of the campaign's values in the eyes of those working class voters upon whom the success or failure of the campaign depends, in other words, is under threat.

Another area in which this is quite clearly demonstrable is Pence's own position on the War in Iraq.

Trump's made quite the campaign talking point out of what you might term to be an "isolationist" foreign policy. He's consciously eschewed talk of further large-scale American military deployments to the Middle East (indeed, it's a core part of his "America First" rhetoric to be able to argue that funding which would otherwise be going to 'nation-building' offshore ought instead be spent on building the American nation at home); and has regularly and routinely pilloried Clinton's foreign policy record as both Secretary of State and as a Senator.

The trouble with this is that even though Trump's own foreign policy is refreshingly anti-Neocon ... Pence's own historic stances decidedly aren't.

Watch this video to get a feel for why this is dangerous for the Trump campaign. In short, it becomes difficult to continue banging on about Hillary Clinton's vote in favour of the war in Iraq as a perpetual black mark against her when your own running mate did the exact same thing. Particularly when Trump's defense-line about this is basically that Pence made a mistake more than ten years ago which perhaps shouldn't be brought up today due to questionable relevancy.

Which wears a bit thin when the polemic-point in question is one of Trump's own main main attack-lines against Clinton in order to neutralize her own record of political and institutional experience.

This doesn't just cast the authenticity of some of the campaign's values into question. Watching Trump extend to his running-mate the rhetorical courtesies which in the same breath he so vituperatively denies to his opponent ... on exactly the same issue ... starts to put Trump's own personal credibility in a somewhat shady light.

But it's the third area of what Pence brings to (or takes away from) the campaign which may be more surprising. The social policy side of things.

Now, this might be a somewhat unpopular position, but I believe that one of the reasons Trump's campaign has been such a runaway success (especially and particularly when juxtaposed against his previous Primary Republican rivals), is because Trump decided to eschew the traditional G.o.P. posturing on things like gay issues or transsexual rights, to instead focus upon economics - and, in particular, economic prescriptions which would be rhetorically salable as directly benefiting the working class. This actually turned out to be exactly what many alienated-Republican voters who'd switched off the party in the wake of Teabilly Madness wanted to hear. More importantly, it would have provided a salient path into the center-voters any Presidential campaign so desperately needs in order to be assured of victory. They want bread, not communion-wafer-dipped anti-sexual-minority-posturing media circuses - as you can rarely eat (as opposed to dine out on) the latter.

Pence's appointment once again suggests that this particular stylistic affectation of the Trump campaign is subject to review and potential scrapping as we head into the chaos of the General Election. Again, presumably because identity-politik posturing plays a significant degree better with the withered, fractious Republican hard-base than it does with the workers and center voters whom Trump's been attempting to bring in. As proof of this, contrast Pence's previous record on gay rights as Governor and prior versus Trump's easy dismissal of the recent transsexual bathroom 'controversy' as being any form of issue - still much less a campaign one.

All in all, the picking of Pence represents a sort of a 'win' for the Republican Establishment against their insurgent and errant recently-crowned Champion. They have bridled, bent and broken the Trump Train to their collective will - and in the vain hopes that Trump either holds on to their base, or that they can exert some perceived greater measure of influence upon him should he find himself in the White House.

But in so doing, they have once again and once more rendered both harder and more delayed the long-prophecy'd and portended attempts at turning the Republican Party back from being the plaything of religious zealots or those with money into some semblance of a Working Man's Party - in symbolism and values if not necessarily in full aspiration.

A man like Ret. General Robert Flynn would have been an ideal Vice Presidential selection for Trump to make if the Republicans were serious about fueling that ambition and truly 'breaking out into the mainstream'. His previous statements on abortion and same-sex marriage seemed disturbingly sane for a man addressing the Republican National Convention; and his record of service at the highest levels of both the armed forces and the state intelligence apparatus would have given much needed heft and credibility to Trump's posturing on issues of state. Flynn's previous allegiances as a Democrat would also have further enhanced the Trump's campaign to 'reach across the aisle' to previously Democratic and Swing voters in much the same way that Lieberman's history as a Democrat would have availed John McCain in doing the same thing in '08.

But then as now, the Republican elites cannot bear to see a ticket which does not represent nor reflect them - and, it would appear, are quite readily prepared to sacrifice some modicum of electability for their man in order to ensure that they don't seem like strangers in their own party.

Pence will not be as catastrophic for Trump as Palin was for her running-mate; but all the same, I severely doubt whether history will judge the decision of behind-the-scenes influence-brokers to outsider men like Flynn in favour of value-concordant insider men such as Pence.

The Republican Party, it seems, does not want to be made great again just yet.

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