2016 Perspectives From the Festival of Politics

The annual Festival of Politics began tonight in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. And it is only fitting that the city that produced both David Hume and Adam Smith should host it.

The Festival of Politics is a tour de force in emerging political issues and the topics run the gamut -- from perspectives on the rise of China to the long term impact of Latino voters on American politics.

Tomorrow I'll be speaking on the 2016 elections and making five (5) basic points:

1. Deep Trends Over Big Personalities.
2. The Myth of Hillary Clinton's Inevitability
3. The Crowded GOP Primary Diminishes the Players
4. Donald Trump's Reality TV Moment
5. Questioning our Assumptions

Deep Trends:
Large demographic and cultural trends are driving American politics. We over-focus on the players and forget the stage they play on. The stage matters.

In terms of demography, Latinos are the story. The Baby Boomers are ageing and GenX is a too small generation. GenY, the Millennials, are a much more diverse generation. America is simultaneously becoming grayer and more ethnically diverse. Latinos are one of the keys to US electoral dominance in the future. And they are a core ingredient of America's success story in the 21st century -- keeping the nation demographically younger than most of its trading partners and rivals. If Republicans cannot win 40%+ percent of Latino votes, they are as dead as the Whig party. This is why Donald Trump and his unhelpful comments are an existential threat to the GOP. Longer term, the rise of Asian-American voters is worth watching. While Latino immigration to the US has stagnated recently, Asian American immigration (from China and India) is increasing.

The Republican party cannot be a majority party if it does not expand its voting base beyond white voters. This is not an opinion. It is a mathematical reality. In July, 2011 50.4% of American children under 1 year of age were non-white. America will be a majority-minority nation.

Culturally, America is generally becoming more libertarian. It is becoming more socially tolerant, but support for the market endures -- even after the Great Recession. America has three great power centers today -- the Hill, the Street and the Valley. The Street and the Valley are largely libertarian -- socially tolerant and economically pro-market. This trend is a direct challenge to a party arc welded to an evangelical base.

Hillary Clinton as the Modern Dole '96:

The Clinton campaign feels like the Dole '96 campaign -- the inevitable candidate that isn't, a campaign that persists on its own gravity, a candidate that cannot communicate well and does not send the pulse pounding. Flush with campaign cash, but weak on charisma, the campaign team knows they will need to muscle it through in order to win. Everyone sees this and this includes Joe Biden. There are many reasons why Biden should jump into the race and precious few why he shouldn't. Hillary Clinton is far from the inevitable nominee. Recent polling seems to confirm this.

The Crowded GOP Stage:
You've seen it. The clown car rolls into the circus tent. Clowns start coming out of the car. They keep coming. Just when you think there can't be any more clowns in the car, there are more clowns. With 17 declared candidates and counting, the Republican Presidential primary is looking increasingly like a clown car. This is unfortunate, because the GOP has a talented field. The format is not helpful.

A crowded stage of candidates all competing for their narrow slice of conservative voters diminishes the entire field. It does not elevate the players. On a large stage the incentives are perverse, driving candidates to more stridently appeal to their target voters or risk being drowned out in the shouting.

The four GOP candidates to watch are: Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush. Each can deliver a critical swing state. Each could come within striking distance in a general election environment. Each has advantages as the GOP standard bearer. We'll discuss these four at length at the festival.

Reality TV and Donald Trump:
Just last night I was asked by a local here in Edinburgh about Donald Trump. Trump is riding high at the moment for two basic reasons. First, he satisfies a deep need among conservatives to blow off steam at the end of the Obama years. This is not a new phenomenon. Straight talking, "give 'em hell" candidates have existed for a long time. Secondly, Trump gives the 24 hour news media an ongoing stream of material. He has fed the media beast during the lean summer months. He is the gift that keeps on giving. Could Donald Trump's candidacy have gained traction in a different era with a smaller field, with a handful of broadcast networks, before 24-7 news media and before the rise of reality TV? I don't think so. I suspect that we have reached "Peak Trump." His candidacy feels more like a reality TV show than an actual campaign.

Questioning Assumptions:

The conventional wisdom operates on many unspoken assumptions. We'll explore some of these assumptions tomorrow at the festival.

Assumption: Hillary Clinton can piece together the winning Obama coalition. Can she? If she can't, what does her winning coalition look like?

Assumption: 2016 will largely focus on domestic issues. Maybe. But, with proliferating international challenges, it is possible that foreign policy plays a much greater role.

Assumption: The economy is improving and will continue to improve. Maybe. But, it is clear that our economy has changed and is rewarding education and creativity at a much greater rate. Automation will accelerate this shift. It's not enough that the economic data improves. The middle class needs to feel it. America needs a 21st century strategy for prosperity.

Assumption: The big election is for President. Maybe. The states are increasingly experimental. The locus of real policy innovation and change may be state capitols.

Assumption: The bailouts are behind us. Maybe. What if a territory, state or municipality goes bankrupt? What are the politics of government bankruptcy?