March Madness in the GOP Primary

About halfway through Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, young Alice found herself asking for directions from a large, grinning cat that instantly appeared and disappeared into thin air. The Cheshire Cat advised Alice that one direction led her to a Hatter, while another took her to the home of a March Hare. “Visit either you like,” the Cat offered, “they’re both mad.” Astonished at the place at which she has arrived, Alice inquired how that could be. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat, “We’re all mad here.”

Much like Wonderland, the Republican presidential primaries are a crazed venue no matter which way one turns, and tomorrow the Republican Party follows the road toward its own March Madness. When the Republican National Committee finalized its nominating rules and the various states finished arranging themselves on the 2016 calendar, many in the party believed that the month’s crowded primary schedule would resemble the NCAA college basketball tournament sharing that moniker. They sought fevered intensity leading to swift finality. But the March tournament is mad with excitement—sixty-three games in three long weekends where the unexpected is routine. The Republican primary, however, is far more like the March Hare’s mad tea party, where guests move one seat to the left every few minutes. There is constant motion but without purpose, and seemingly no end to the predictable madness until the sane withdraw. Now, the packed March primary schedule places new urgency on Republicans desperate to stop Donald Trump. Under the old system, there would still be plenty of time. In 2016, if Trump’s top challengers fail to reach certain vote thresholds over the next two weeks, no amount of candidate-winnowing or new lines of attack will be able to reverse Trump’s march to the GOP nomination. Continue reading


A Short List for Obama’s Supreme Court Shortlist

IMG_0844President Obama now faces a critically important choice as he decides whom to nominate to replace Justice Antonin Scalia. Despite the wishes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who proclaimed mere hours after Scalia’s death was reported that the “vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” Obama will certainly make a nomination and invest significant time and effort in pushing for his or her confirmation. No doubt, successfully placing a new justice on the Court will be a tall order. The Republicans hold a solid majority in the Senate and face enormous political pressure from their conservative constituents to preserve an appointment for a future Republican president. As Alec MacGillis recently described, McConnell “felt compelled to get out in front of the base’s ire over the Scalia replacement to avoid a later challenge to his leadership perch.” Now, in an open letter to McConnell, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have vowed to deny the new nominee so much as a hearing.

Nevertheless, Obama’s choice is consequential. To begin with, there remains a small chance his pick will actually assume a place on the nation’s highest court. But perhaps more importantly given the uphill battle to achieve that result, Obama’s nominee has the potential to secure significant political gain for the Democrats in this highly contentious election year. Republican intransigence is a given, but the unprecedented opposition to any nominee could significantly aid a Democratic presidential nominee this fall and enhance the chances of confirming a liberal nominee in the next administration. Thus, the politics of Obama’s choice dictate a nominee who is objectively unobjectionable and demographically aligned with the Democratic base with an eye to boosting turnout in November. To this end, it is highly likely the nominee will be a circuit court judge confirmed by an overwhelming vote, who holds sterling academic credentials and moderately liberal views, who is without any perceived controversial past, who is young (but not too young), and who is either a woman or a racial minority. Continue reading

A Matter of Attitude More Than Ideology

IMG_0838The death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13th removed an outsized personality and committed conservative from the Supreme Court. Regardless of one’s opinion about his judicial philosophy, there can be no doubt that Scalia had a tremendous presence on the Court, in writing as well as on the bench. Not surprisingly, much of the immediate commentary on Scalia’s passing focused on the past and the future. Discussing the former, many reflected on Scalia’s legal legacy and reminisced about his personal touch on their lives. Considering the latter, others (including certain members of the United States Senate) have rushed to assess the coming nomination fight for its political implications and potential for President Obama to reshape the Court. But let’s take a moment also to consider the present, a present where eight current justices must set aside their current quarrels and decide what kind of place their Court will now be. This question is important not only for the legal questions now pending—where the Court faces a potentially crippling series of 4 to 4 affirmances without precedential effect (or perhaps the prospect of a host of re-arguments)—but also for resolving the ongoing battle among the justices over the Court’s institutional temperament.

Make no mistake, prior to Scalia’s sudden death there was indeed a battle raging within the walls of One First Street, NE over how the Court presents itself to the public. In contrast to the usual coverage of the left versus right, five to four divisions plaguing the Court’s most controversial cases, this one has played out within the so-called conservative bloc. Chief Justice John Roberts and Scalia, so often aligned on issued opinions, have quite clearly diverged in the role and rhetoric of their court. It remains an open question whether Scalia’s legacy on attitude, more than ideology, will be a lasting one. Continue reading

Republicans Seeing Red

Donald Trump scored his first big win of the primary season with a resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary. Despite leading in the national polls by huge margins for the better part of six months, it was still unclear whether his supporters would actually turn out to vote. When Iowa delivered him a second place finish rather than the predicted first, its caucuses appeared to suggest that the Trump bubble would soon burst. Although New Hampshire netted him only ten delegates, its election nonetheless drove home the point that regardless of how this wild campaign turns out, Trump has indeed captured the imagination of a movement. And as the political order still grapples with what Trump’s unexpected rise means for the rest of the campaign, it is equally important to consider what his supporters’ underlying views mean for our politics. As written here last month, the first half of Trump’s success is a warning shot to the national party’s extreme anti-government policies.  But undoubtedly, the greatest part of his ascension has been fueled by nationalistic fervor. It’s written right there on his hat, after all — “Make America Great Again.” And in this respect, Trump is actually following a path to Republican resurgence initially paved by the party’s last highly successful national leader—Ronald Wilson Reagan—while fueling the same fear of decline and humiliation as his newfound favorite country. Continue reading

Goodbye to Christie, With A Hug and A Kiss

There will be plenty of time to unpack the results of the New Hampshire primary in the days that follow. Now that the campaign is past the frenzy of the first two gate-keeping, there is a little breathing room before voting resumes on February 20th. It would be a mistake, however, to move immediately to forecasting those contests without reflecting for a moment on the candidates we’ve lost. In particular, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, once the potential Republican savior in 2012 and the presidential frontrunner for much of 2013, suffered a fascinating demise. Christie withdrew from the race on Wednesday after finishing in sixth place in New Hampshire with only 7.4% of the vote, despite focusing his campaign almost exclusively on doing well there. Yet, after staking his candidacy on the wisdom of New Hampshire voters, those fiercely independent New Englanders did not return his affection. That’s politics, of course, and Christie’s is not the first campaign to have made a Granite State bet that did not pay off. But it is worth pausing to consider exactly why Christie failed to gain any traction in a state that seemed so tailor-made for his style. John McCain, after all, famously won New Hampshire’s primary twice on the wheels of his Straight Talk Express, and Christie, like McCain, holds a moderate, tough-talking brand and excellent retail campaigning skills. His failure to resonate suggests, then, that the “independent-minded” citizens of New Hampshire may hold a more negative view of Christie’s Garden State governance than many anticipated.  And just maybe that impression of the larger-than-life governor is based not on his persistent bluster or bullying, but rather his moment of bipartisan weakness. Continue reading

A Dreary Day in Charlotte


Charlotte, NC – A fog hangs over Charlotte. On Sunday in Santa Clara, the Carolina Panthers blew a football game the odds makers believed they would win by over five points. Their vaunted quarterback Cam Newton, who a day earlier had been named Most Valuable Player of the National Football League, was frustrated and stymied at every turn by a suffocating Denver defense. The result could not quite be called a stunner, but as the final seconds ticked away in Denver’s 24-10 win in Super Bowl 50, the unexpected taming of the Panthers certainly seemed to have knocked their supporters into silence. The next day, after my plane touched down in Charlotte, the shiny bank-strewn streets of the Queen City did not betray any sadness. And yet, the city seemed strangely silent. Continue reading

Not So Great Expectations

There is no rest for the weary. After nearly a year of the media’s mystical ascription to ephemeral and unreliable polling data, the 2016 presidential contest finally got some actual results this week. Yet the hard vote and delegate totals racked up in Iowa on Monday—with the Republicans bunched at the top with Ted Cruz at 27.6%, Donald Trump at 24.3%, and Marco Rubio at 23.1%, and Hillary Clinton narrowly edging Bernie Sanders 49.9% to 49.6% on the Democratic side—have already been re-filtered through the same murky prism as before. Instead of considering what the voters have actually told us, the media returned to speculating about what influence their own perceptions and coverage of the race will have moving forward. Their verdict: it’s more important for a candidate to exceed expectations than to deliver results. This conclusion brings the media back to the territory it knows and loves best: the close-minded world of inside sources, campaign turmoil, and donor angst. While this sorry state of affairs has been rightly pilloried by many as a perversion of the actual substance of democracy in order to further worship at the altar of process, the underlying point often goes unchallenged. As it turns out, the assumption that expectations are actually the key measuring stick for judging the early states is generally false; the media’s great expectations are not only regrettable but also forgettable. Continue reading