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The Right Question About Government

SAN FRANCISCO — Many conservatives and most libertarians argue that every new law or regulation means that government is adding to the sum total of oppression and reducing the freedom of individuals.

This way of looking at things greatly simplifies the political debate. Domestic issues are boiled down to the question of whether someone is “pro-government” or “anti-government.”

Alas for the oversimplifiers, it’s an approach that misreads the nature of the choices that regulators, politicians and citizens regularly face. It ignores that the market system itself could not exist without the rules that government establishes, beginning with statutes protecting private property and also the various measures against the use of force and fraud in business and individual transactions.

More importantly, it overlooks the ways in which the steps government takes often empower citizens and expand their rights. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of work.

The run-up to Labor Day this year brought a spate of news stories and commentaries on the actions of the National Labor Relations Board and other government agencies to strengthen the rights of workers and enhance their bargaining power relative to employers.

Last week, Noam Scheiber offered an important account in The New York Times of how the Obama administration has been “pursuing an aggressive campaign to restore protections for workers that have been eroded by business activism, conservative governance and the evolution of the economy in recent decades.”

Among the milestones Scheiber cited was a recent Court of Appeals decision upholding an Obama-era rule providing minimum-wage and overtime protections to nearly 2 million home health care workers. They certainly felt empowered by government, not oppressed. So did the employees of contractors and franchises who were granted collective bargaining rights by the National Labor Relations Board.

Fast-food chains provide the obvious example of how loopholes related to new work arrangements and franchise agreements can let employers out of their traditional obligations. In the case of purveyors of hamburgers and chicken tenders, the parent companies set all sorts of detailed requirements for how these businesses should operate — and then turn around and claim that when it comes to workers’ rights, their franchises are utterly independent.

One of the most fascinating struggles, still ongoing, is over new regulations that the Labor Department is trying to establish to ensure that those who give investment advice to people with 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts base their judgments on the best interests of their clients. Along with defined-contribution retirement plans, they involve some $13 trillion in investments.

The Labor Department proposal would require investment advisers to abide by a “fiduciary” standard — meaning that the best-interest-of-the-client yardstick should be their sole criterion in offering counsel to clients. If this seems obvious, that’s not what the current law requires. As Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said in an interview, the standard now is only that an investment be suitable. “What the hell is ‘suitable’?” Perez asked, noting that he would hope for more than just “suitable” advice from his doctor.

The issue is whether some investment advisers might offer conflicted guidance influenced by “backdoor payments and hidden fees often buried in the fine print,” as the Labor Department put it in a document explaining why change is needed.

“I don’t believe that folks who provide advice wake up with malice in their hearts,” Perez said. But he added that it is only natural that advisers might lean toward investments from which they can also benefit. “Surprise, surprise, if you have four or five products that are suitable and one gives you a commission, guess where you will go?” The new rules, which are being heavily contested by parts of the financial industry, are an attempt to realign the incentives, Perez argued.

The investment-rule battle is a near-perfect example of how the government is plainly promoting free markets — what’s more market-oriented than building an investment portfolio? — but is also trying to make sure that the rules regulating the investments tilt toward the interests of the individual putting his or her money at risk.

As long as there are markets, government will have to establish rules determining how they operate. These necessarily affect the interests of market participants. Many of the choices are not between more or less government. They are about whether what government does provides greater benefit to workers or employers, management or unions, individual investors or investment firms.

“Which side are you on?” This question from the old union song is the right question to ask about government.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats via Flickr

Healing The Nation’s Wounds

SAN FRANCISCO — We have a choice to make.

We can look at both violence and racism as scourges that all of us must join together to fight. Or we can turn the issues of crime and policing into fodder for racial and political division.

In principle, it shouldn’t be hard to recognize two truths.

Too many young African-Americans have been killed in confrontations with police when lethal force should not have been used. We should mourn their deaths and demand justice. Black Lives Matter turned into a social movement because there is legitimate anger over the reality that — to be very personal about it — I do not have to worry about my son being shot by the police in the way an African-American parent does.

At the same time, too many of our police forces are killed while doing their jobs. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 1,466 men and women in law enforcement died in the line of duty over the last decade. We should mourn their deaths, appreciate the dangers they face, and honor their courage.

Now I’ll admit: It’s easy for me to type these words on a computer screen. Circumstances are more complicated for those on either side of confrontations over the obligations of our police forces. Things get said (or, often, shouted) that call forth a reaction from the other side. A few demonstrators can scream vile slogans that can be used to taint a whole movement. Rage escalates.

Moreover, there are substantive disagreements over what needs to be done. Those trying to stop unjust police killings want to establish new rules and practices that many rank-and-file officers resist, arguing that the various measures could prevent them from doing their jobs. This resistance, in turn, only heightens mistrust of the police among their critics.

But politicians and, yes, even political commentators have an obligation: to try to make things better, not worse. There is always a choice between the politics of resentment and the politics of remedy. Resentment is easier.

And so it was this week that the murder of Texas sheriff’s deputy Darren Goforth inspired Sen. Ted Cruz to say on Monday: “Whether it’s in Ferguson or Baltimore, the response of senior officials of the president, of the attorney general, is to vilify law enforcement. That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all.” For good measure, the next day, Cruz condemned President Obama’s “silence” on Goforth’s murder.

The problem? For starters, Obama was not silent. He called the slain officer’s widow on Monday and issued a statement saying he had told Kathleen Goforth “that Michelle and I would keep her and her family in our prayers. I also promised that I would continue to highlight the uncommon bravery that police officers show in our communities every single day. They put their lives on the line for our safety.” Obama has made statements of this sort over and over. Vilification this is not.

Over at Fox News, the campaign against Black Lives Matter has become fierce. Bill O’Reilly called the organization a “hate group” and declared: “I’m going to put them out of business.”

Let’s take five steps back. The movement for police reform was not the invention of some leftist claque. It was a response to real and genuinely tragic events. Silencing protesters won’t make anything better.

And some potential solutions don’t even make the political agenda. The easy availability of guns on American streets is a threat to police officers and to African-Americans in our most violent neighborhoods. Why are those who seek reasonable gun regulations regularly blocked by interests far more powerful than those who demonstrate in our streets?

On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy — who himself would be fatally shot exactly two months later — said this to the Cleveland City Club:

Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily — whether it is done in the name of the law or in defiance of the law, by one man or by a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence — whenever we tear at the fabric of our lives which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, whenever we do this, then the whole nation is degraded.

How much more pain must we endure before we recognize that these words are still true?

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Photo: Brandon Anderson via Flickr

Iran And The Case For Realism

WASHINGTON — Foreign policy debates rarely get away from being reflections of domestic political conflicts, but they are also usually based on unstated assumptions and unacknowledged theories.

That’s true of the struggle over the Iran nuclear agreement, even if raw politics is playing an exceptionally large role. There are many indications that Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-ME) might in other circumstances be willing to back the accord. But they have to calculate the very high costs of breaking with their colleagues on an issue that has become a test of party loyalty.

There is also the unfortunate way in which Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to frame Congress’ vote as a pro- or anti-Israel proposition. Many staunch supporters of Israel may have specific criticisms of the inspection regime, but they also believe that the restraints on Iran’s nuclear program are real. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) for example, has said that American negotiators “got an awful lot, particularly on the nuclear front.” And the “nuclear front,” after all, is the main point.

But the pressures on Cardin, who is still undecided, and several other Democrats to vote no anyway are enormous. A yes vote from Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, would be a true profiles-in-courage moment — and have a real influence on his wavering colleagues.

President Obama and his allies are right to say that the dangers of having the agreement blocked by Congress are much higher than the risks of trying to make it work. The notion that the United States could go back and renegotiate for something even tougher is laughable because this is not simply a U.S.-Iranian deal. It also involves allies who strongly back what’s on the table. Suggesting that the old sanctions on Iran could be restored is absurd for the same reason: Our partners would bridle if the United States disowned what it has agreed to already.

The administration’s core challenge to its critics is: “What is the alternative?” It is not a rhetorical question.

The counts at the moment suggest that Obama will win by getting at least enough votes to sustain a veto of legislation to scuttle the pact. He has a shot (Cardin’s decision could be key) of getting 41 senators to prevent a vote on an anti-deal measure altogether.

But once this episode is past us, the president, his congressional opponents and the regiment of presidential candidates owe the country a bigger discussion on how they see the United States’ role in the world. Obama in particular could profit from finally explaining what the elusive “Obama Doctrine” is and responding, at least indirectly, to criticisms of the sort that came his way Friday from Republican presidential hopefuls Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.

There are many (I’m among them) who see Obama primarily as a foreign policy realist. Especially after our adventures in Iraq, realism looks a whole lot better than it once did. I say this as someone who still thinks that the U.S. needs to stand up for democratic values and human rights, but also sees military overreach as a grave danger to our interests and long-term strength. The principal defense of Obama’s stewardship rests on the idea that, despite some miscues, his realism about what military power can and can’t achieve has recalibrated America’s approach, moving it in the right direction.

A useful place to start this discussion is “The Realist Persuasion,” Richard K. Betts’ article in the 30th anniversary issue of The National Interest, realism’s premier intellectual outpost. Betts, a Columbia University scholar, argues that realists “focus more on results than on motives and are more attuned to how often good motives can produce tragic results.” While idealistic liberals and conservatives alike are often eager to “support the righteous and fight the villainous,” realists insist that the actual choices we face are “often between greater and lesser evils.”

“At the risk of overgeneralizing,” he writes, “one can say that idealists worry most about courage, realists about constraints; idealists focus on the benefits of resisting evil with force, realists on the costs.” On the whole, “realists recommend humility rather than hubris.”

For those of us whose heads are increasingly realist but whose hearts are still idealist, realism seems cold and morally inadequate. Yet the realists’ moral trump card is to ask whether squandering lives, treasure and power on impractical undertakings has anything to do with morality. Critics of realism confront the same question that opponents of the Iran deal face: “What is the alternative?”

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (2nd R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (L) talk to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as the wait for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (not pictured) for a group picture at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Trump’s Video Game Mastery

WASHINGTON — This summer’s political madness was nicely captured by a confluence of events over the last few days: While global financial markets teetered, the campaign news was dominated by Donald Trump’s personal feuds with journalists.

Trump’s insults directed toward Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and his confrontation with Jorge Ramos, Univision’s anchor, were bound to get some attention, especially from journalists inclined to stand up for our colleagues. But the tale wasn’t primarily about journalism. It was just another episode in a TV series, a sign of how brilliantly Trump has succeeded in transforming a battle for the presidency into a reality show starring himself.

In the late 1980s, the journalist Martin Schram wrote a book about presidential politics in the television age called The Great American Video Game. The Trump obsession shows just how prophetic Schram’s title was. Television is about ratings; Trump delivers ratings; therefore, Trump, whose speeches are 90 percent about Trump — his feelings, experiences, feuds, grudges and, of course, genius — is on television nonstop.

The Trumpification of the news is also a reaction within the media to the initial reaction of so many in the ranks to Trump. The widespread view was that his personal insults, his nasty remarks about Mexicans (whom he now says he “loves”), and his conversion of the political speech into a form of self-involved stand-up would doom his chances.

This was wrong because (1) Trump’s celebrity, built on the idea that a smart dealmaker can get anything done that he wants, gives him a base among those who don’t care much about politics, and (2) parts of the Republican Party are so fed up with their leadership that the more “in your face” Trump is, the happier they are.

The most concise explanation for the Trump phenomenon came from Erick Erickson, editor of the popular right-wing blog RedState, in an interview earlier this month with The Atlantic’s Molly Ball. “The Republican Party created Donald Trump,” Erickson said, “because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.”

Republican leaders care primarily about a low-tax, pro-business agenda. But they have kept their most conservative supporters at a very high level of angry mobilization, exploiting anxieties about demographic and social change. They kept pledging they would really and truly repeal Obamacare, even when they knew they didn’t have the votes. Trump is the revenge of the party’s non-insiders who are tired of being used.

But there’s a major problem with all of the Trump coverage: It’s based on the assumption that he is leading a formidable mass movement when his following is nothing of the sort. The Trump partisans are, in fact, a very small minority of Americans. Do the math. The polls show that Trump is supported by about 25 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who, together, account for somewhere between 40 percent and 45 percent of the country.

So, generously, the Trump insurrection is built on the backing of all of about 11 percent of Americans.

The limits of Trumpism are further underscored in one of the best deep-dives into polling on Trump by Henry Olsen in National Review. Olsen notes that Trump’s “favorable-to-unfavorable ratio is the lowest of the major candidates.” And when asked if there is a candidate they would never vote for, Republicans are more likely to name Trump than any of his major foes. Trump’s favorability ratings are especially negative among moderates and only slightly less so among Republicans who call themselves somewhat (as opposed to very) conservative.

Trump has certainly gotten further, faster than any of his Republican opponents. But all the free television time he is getting cannot be justified by a claim that he is sitting atop some broad uprising akin to the Goldwater or Reagan rebellions. His visibility is the product of circular television logic: Celebrities bring audience share and the resulting attention they get further enhances their fame.

Trump’s unique contribution has been to achieve a complete fusion of the culture of celebrity to politics. It brings to mind the mystery writer David Handler’s great line about “the power of positive self-delusion.”

Television is a business like any other, but journalism in a democracy is supposed to be about more than that. Nowhere is the tension between financial and public imperatives more obvious than in the massive coverage of the Trump spectacular and the parsimonious attention given to anything serious any other candidate might say. But hey, how often does a serious speech about our economic troubles win ratings for anyone?

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

All Votes Matter

WASHINGTON — Many find politics frustrating because problems that seemed to be solved in one generation crop up again years or decades later. The good thing about democracy is that there are no permanent defeats. The hard part is that some victories have to be won over and over.

And so it is with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a monument to what can be achieved when grass-roots activism is harnessed to presidential and legislative leadership. Ending discrimination at the ballot box was a way of underwriting the achievements of the Civil Rights Act passed a year earlier by granting African-Americans new and real power to which they had always been constitutionally entitled.

“The results were almost unimaginable in 1965,” writes Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, his timely book published this month. “In subsequent decades, the number of black registered voters in the South increased from 31 percent to 73 percent; the number of black elected officials increased from fewer than 500 to 10,500 nationwide; the number of black members of Congress increased from five to 44.”

And, yes, an African-American was elected president of the United States in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. He was powered by the ballots of Americans of color who would not let anything turn them around from their polling places.

President Obama’s victory has been routinely cited by those who were already insisting that the Voting Rights Act was outdated. They turned out to have a powerful ally in Chief Justice John Roberts, whose record on the issue Berman analyzes closely. If the United States could elect a black president, wasn’t that a sign that there was no longer a need for a strong Voting Rights Act?

Berman quotes Ed Blum, a tireless activist in the effort to weaken the Voting Rights Act. Before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Blum referred to Birmingham, Alabama’s legendary commissioner of public safety as a figure of the past: “Bull Connor is dead. And so is every Jim Crow-era segregationist intent on keeping blacks from the polls.”

In fact, Obama’s election called forth a far more sophisticated approach to restricting voting. Republicans closely examined how Obama’s political organization had turned out large numbers of young African-Americans who had not voted before. Their participation was facilitated by early voting, and particularly Sunday voting.

So legislatures in many states where Republicans had full political control went to work to make it harder for African-Americans, Latinos, and young people to vote. Of course, that is not what they said they were doing. They invented a scarecrow, “voter fraud,” to justify voter ID laws. These laws disadvantage inner-city residents and favor suburbanites who get driver’s licenses as a matter of routine. They also used all kinds of excuses to roll back early voting.

“No matter how much evidence emerged to the contrary, the voter-fraud myth would never die,” Berman writes. Indeed. The fraud specter is so useful to those who want to restrict voting that the facts don’t trouble them. As a result, a non-problem is invoked to create a massive new problem of obstructing legitimate votes.

Earlier this month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Texas’ voter ID law “has a discriminatory effect” and amounted to a poll tax. But it also sent the case back to a lower-court judge asking her to meet a high standard of showing that the law was passed with an explicitly discriminatory intent. You can bet that the Texas voting case or another in North Carolina, or both, will make their way to a Supreme Court that has already gutted the Voting Rights Act once in a 2013 decision written by Roberts.

Will he do it again? And will voters in 2016 realize just how important a president’s power to name future Supreme Court justices is to the very right they will be exercising on Election Day?

It would have been lovely if Berman’s book could simply have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Instead, it is even more useful as a guide to what still needs to be done. He tells the story of the charismatic leader of the North Carolina NAACP, the Rev. William Barber II, who led the state’s innovative Moral Monday protests.

“What do we do when they try to take away voting rights?” Barber asked at a rally.

The crowd responded: “We fight, we fight, we fight.”

There is no alternative.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Light Brigading via Flickr

When Yeats Comes Knocking

WASHINGTON — W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” written in 1919, is my nominee for the most cited poem in political commentary. The line invoked most — “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” — is irresistible. It’s always tempting to assume that the side we oppose brings vast reservoirs of demonic energy to bear against our own sad and bedraggled allies.

The other oft-quoted verse comes four lines earlier, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” This sentiment comes back again and again, at times of stress when Establishments seem to be tottering and when moderate and conventional politicians find themselves outshouted and outmaneuvered.

We are definitely in for another “Second Coming” revival, and Donald Trump is the least of it. The center is under siege all over the democratic world.

Trumpism does have its uniquely American characteristics. Not many places would turn a loud-mouthed real estate tycoon first into a television celebrity and then into a (temporarily, at least) front-running presidential candidate. You can see Trump as a gift to us all from a raucous entrepreneurial culture that does not hold bad taste against someone as long as he is genuinely gifted at self-promotion.

But Trump is a symptom of a much wider problem in the Western democracies. In country after country, traditional, broadly based parties and their politicians face scorn. More voters than usual seem tired of carefully focus-grouped public statements, deftly cultivated public personas, and cautiously crafted political platforms that are designed to move just the right number of voters in precisely the right places to cast a half-hearted vote for a person or a party.

The word of the moment is “authenticity,” and that’s what electorates are said to crave. There’s certainly truth here, but the science of persuasion is advanced enough that authenticity can be manufactured as readily as anything else. In any event, I am not at all certain that an authentically calm, authentically moderate, authentically practical and authentically level-headed politician would have a prayer against the current tide. Voters instead seem in a mood to demand heavy doses of impatience, resentment and outrage, whether these emotions are authentic or not.

Reihan Salam, a conservative writer, is also struck by the similarities between Trumpism and a variety of rebellious movements to the left and right of the middle-ground parties in Europe. He noted recently in Slate that Italy, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, France, Spain, and Greece have all seen the rise of new parties that “manage to blend populism and nationalism into a potent anti-establishment brew.”

The decay of middle-ground politics is a problem for both the center-left and the center-right, but it may be a bigger problem for the moderate left whose task, as the late historian Tony Judt put it, has always been to provide “incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances.”

When voters are this disheartened, incremental improvements aren’t good enough. Especially when discontent congeals around issues of culture and nationalism rather than material need, the promises of social democrats and labor liberals can seem too humdrum and insufficiently inspiring.

Paradoxically, the moderate left depends on a successful and reasonably responsible capitalist system to make its social and economic programs work. When capitalists behave negligently or when inequalities get too severe, as is happening now, social democrats find themselves simultaneously outflanked on their left by more vociferous critics of the system and by nationalist or xenophobic parties on the right who offer a different kind of salvation rooted in identity.

But the center-right is hurting, too. If social democrats in Europe (and labor Democrats in the U.S.) are weakened by the decline of the unions, Christian Democrats are hit by the decline of the churches. Globalization weakens the ability of moderate governments of both varieties to deliver on their promises. Capital can flee easily to more congenial climes, undercutting a nation’s tax base and its regulatory efforts.

And widespread immigration can weaken social solidarity by complicating national identity and setting off new debates over what the word “us” means. The economic crash of 2008 aggravated the sense of distress in factory and mining towns far removed from the large cosmopolitan city centers.

Political Establishments worthy of the name and middle-ground politicians who care about more than power understand the dangers of a Yeats moment — to social harmony, to tolerance and, if things go really badly, to democracy and freedom. The next decade will test whether the political classes of the world’s democracies are up to the challenge.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump gives the keynote speech at the Republican Party Lincoln Day event in Birch Run, Michigan, August 11, 2015. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Jeb Bush’s Brotherly Wager

WASHINGTON — Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have a shared interest: Each wants to act as if the primaries are over and that the general-election campaign — between, each hopes, the two of them — is already underway.

Bush, who has been flat in the polls, has a particular need: to shift a Trump-saturated discussion of who is the most flamboyant personality toward a conversation about which Republicans might plausibly be president of the United States.

To that end, Bush offered a political science lesson in his major foreign policy speech on Tuesday: Republican voters have radically different views on the topic from those of Democrats and also give security issues a much higher priority. This is why Jeb Bush decided that broadly allying himself with his brother’s international approach will help him more than it will hurt him — at least during the primaries.

In a normal (meaning Trump-less) campaign, Bush’s address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California would have made more of a splash. The same is true of Clinton’s earlier speech outlining an ambitious proposal to deal with the debt loads faced by college students.

Not very long ago, candidates actually competed, at least some of the time, on ideas. Big think speeches of the sort Bush and Clinton gave (along with college-debt proposals by Clinton’s Democratic rivals, the ascendant Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley) would be at the center of the coverage. But Trump is so much more fun, and he’s not wrong to think he’s driving television ratings.

So let’s pretend Trump didn’t exist and notice the different places where Bush and Clinton want to take the campaign, Bush to foreign policy and Clinton to domestic concerns related to economic fairness.

The explanation? As my Brookings Institution colleague William Galston has pointed out, Republicans and Democrats disagree not only on issues but also on which of them really matter. He cited a Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll released in June. Here, in order of importance, are the problems Iowa Republicans listed when asked what they wanted their candidates “to spend a lot of time talking about”: the budget deficit, national defense, taxes, terrorism, job creation, immigration and trade. And here are Iowa Democrats’ top issues: energy, income inequality, infrastructure, job creation, immigration and college costs (tied for fifth), and climate change.

Note that two issues related to national security are on the GOP list and none is on the Democrats’ list. Only job creation and immigration made both.

So Bush’s attack on Clinton and President Obama for what he called their “blind haste” to get out of Iraq certainly played well with the GOP voters — even as Democrats were absolutely certain that Bush was making a grave error that will haunt him in a general election. “This speech is clear proof that his brother’s unrepentant neocon crowd are in full command of @JebBush foreign policy,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted during Bush’s address, adding: “Ugh.”

Jeb’s defense of the surge of American troops in Iraq that George W. Bush initiated as a “brilliant, heroic and costly” success likely helped with Republicans, too. The Bloomberg/Register poll found that 57 percent of Iowa Republicans thought it would be “mostly good” if Jeb had W. as an advisor, while only 33 percent thought it would be “mostly bad.”

Making the best of his brotherly loyalty is Jeb’s imperative, even as he struggles to find ways of putting distance between himself and the original choice to go to war in Iraq. “No leader or policymaker involved will claim to have gotten everything right in the region, Iraq especially,” he said. Ah, the power of understatement.

Yet in this year’s odd dynamic, Bush’s aggressiveness is also giving Clinton a hand, by linking her with Obama (yes, he’s very popular among Democrats) and with the decision to bring an end to the Iraq War (also popular in the party). His speech also allowed her to go on offense at a moment when media stories were focusing on her decision to turn over her world-famous email server to the FBI.

John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, no doubt enjoyed taking to Twitter on Wednesday morning to pounce on Bush: “Chutzpah: Jeb blaming Obama for W’s failure in Iraq. Must have forgotten it was Bush-Cheney who blew it there. Now he wants a do over? Plz..”

Plz indeed. Clinton relishes the fight Bush has initiated. And it’s a scuffle that Bush hopes will draw at least some eyes away from the spectacle that is Trump.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush is the first candidate on stage before the start of the Voters First Presidential Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire, August 3, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Obama Vs. The Cavaliers Of Unilateralism

WASHINGTON — If you wondered why President Obama gave such a passionate and, yes, partisan speech on behalf of the Iran nuclear deal Wednesday, all you had to do was tune in to the Republican presidential debate the next night.

Anyone who still thinks the president has any chance of turning the opposition party his way after watching the candidates (or listening to Republicans in Congress) no doubt also believes fervently in Santa Claus. In fact, the case for Santa — made so powerfully in Miracle on 34th Street — is more plausible.

The candidates gathered together by Fox News in Cleveland suggested that the hardest decision the next president will face is whether killing Obamacare or voiding the Iran deal ought to be the first order of business. All who spoke on foreign policy sought to paint the “Obama-Clinton” international strategy as “failed” and “dangerous.”

Obama does not need any private briefings on how Republicans are thinking. He realizes, as everyone else should, that there’s only one way to save the Iran accord. Republicans will have the votes to pass a measure disapproving it, and he needs to keep enough Democrats onside to sustain his veto.

He also knows that he is in an ongoing battle for public opinion over a very big issue. In broad terms, this is an argument over whether the foreign policy of George W. Bush, with its proclivity toward unilateral military action, or his own approach, which stresses alliances and diplomacy, is more likely to defend the United States’ long-term interest.

The president was not wrong when he said that “many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.” And in light of the language used by Cleveland’s Cavaliers of Unilateralism, it was useful that he reminded Americans of the run-up to the Iraq invasion, when “those calling for war labeled themselves strong and decisive, while dismissing those who disagreed as weak — even appeasers of a malevolent adversary.”

Lest we forget, in September 2002, shortly before the midterm elections, Bush dismissed Democrats who called for U.N. support before American military action in Iraq. “If I were running for office,” Bush said, “I’m not sure how I’d explain to the American people — say, ‘Vote for me, and, oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I’m going to wait for somebody else to act.'” Now that’s partisan.

In foreign policy, the past isn’t even past because we have not resolved the debate over how to use American power that opened after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the most recent Gallup survey this June, Americans were as split as ever on whether the war in Iraq itself was a mistake: 51 percent said it was, 46 percent said it wasn’t. Among Democrats, 68 percent said it was mistaken; only 31 percent of Republicans did. Independents split much like the country as a whole.

Those who counsel Obama to be more conciliatory toward Republicans in defending an agreement that could block Iranian nuclear ambitions for at least a decade (and probably more) are nostalgic for a time when many Republicans supported negotiated settlements, saw containment policies as preferable to the aggressive rollback of adversaries, and were committed to building international alliances.

Such Republicans still exist, but there are not many of them left in Congress. And we should have enough respect for the party’s presidential candidates to believe that they mean what they are saying when, for example, one of them (Scott Walker) insists that “Iran is not a place we should be doing business with,” while another (Jeb Bush) declares that “we need to stop the Iran agreement, for sure, because the Iranian mullahs have … blood on their hands.”

Obama is defending a long bipartisan tradition of negotiating even with adversaries we deeply and rightly mistrust, the prime example being the old Soviet Union. For now, the consensus across party lines in favor of such diplomacy is broken. Many of us would like to see it restored, but the evidence of Obama’s time in office is unambiguous: Friendly gestures won’t win over those determined to block his policies.

In the short run, Obama simply has to win enough votes for his Iran deal. For the long run, he has to persuade Americans that his measured approach to the world is the safest path for the country. Defending this view aggressively is no vice.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement about the nuclear deal reached between Iran and six major world powers with Vice President Joe Biden at his side during an early morning address to the nation from the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Harnik/Pool

What Bernie’s Moment Means

WASHINGTON — The exhaustive and exhausting analysis of the Fox News debate promises to produce days more of Trump-mania. It’s thus an excellent time to ponder the other big surprise of the 2016 campaign: the Democrats’ extended Weekend at Bernie’s.

No one is more amazed about the buoyancy of his presidential candidacy than Bernie Sanders himself, which only adds to its charm. The Vermont independent and proud democratic socialist got into the race mainly to remind the country what a progressive agenda actually looks like. You can’t keep calling President Obama a socialist once you’re confronted with the real thing.

Then magic struck: Sanders started surging in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that are demographically well set up for him and that also happen to hold next year’s first two contests. A poll this week from WMUR-TV in New Hampshire showed Sanders within 6 points of Hillary Clinton. The survey had a relatively small sample size and a rather large margin of error, but the trend it measured is consistent with other polls.

To paraphrase the late Robert Bork, the Sanders’ candidacy is a political analyst’s feast because it allows everyone to peddle his or her favorite preconceptions.

Conservatives point to his strength as proof positive of how left wing the Democrats have become. Clinton’s critics cite his rise as a product of her weaknesses. Progressives argue that Bernie taps into a deep frustration with inequality and the power of big money in politics while also reflecting the public’s interest in bold proposals to correct both. And those who go for big sociological theories link Sanders and Trump as avatars of a populist rebellion rooted in widespread impatience with the system and traditional politicians.

Let’s begin with a caveat: Bernie is for real, and his authentic authenticity is enchanting. But it’s not clear how big his candidacy will get. He is drawing large and boisterous crowds, but he is still not close to threatening Clinton in the national polls, partly because he hasn’t broken through among African-Americans and Latinos. They matter in the states that vote after Iowa and New Hampshire. This week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Clinton with a 59 percent to 25 percent lead over Sanders nationally. Clinton’s share was down 16 points from June while Sanders was up 10 points. But a 34-point lead is still a 34-point lead.

Is Sanders’ ascent about Clinton’s problems? The evidence is mixed. In the WMUR Poll, 73 percent of New Hampshire Democrats had a favorable view of Clinton; Sanders’ favorability was at 69 percent. A fair share of Bernie’s people like Hillary, too.

But when asked about specific personal qualities, the poll’s respondents presented Clinton with a to-do list. Clinton was far ahead of Sanders as a strong leader, as having the best chance of winning in November, and as having the right experience to be president. But Sanders led as the most likable and most progressive. And when asked who was the “least honest,” 31 percent picked Clinton; only 3 percent picked Sanders. Washington punditry exaggerates Clinton’s problems, but her campaign should not underestimate them.

The ideological claims are more complicated. It’s true that Democrats — and not only Democrats — are far more aggressive in their opposition to economic inequality than they were, say, in the 1990s. But that’s because the problems of inequality, blocked mobility, and wage stagnation are now more severe. And anybody who doubts that the superrich have gained even more power in the political system isn’t following the SuperPAC news. Sanders is marshalling these discontents.

On the other hand, Democrats haven’t changed nearly as much ideologically as conservatives claim. In 2008, according to numbers the Pew Research Center ran at my request, 34 percent of Democrats called themselves liberal, 37 percent called themselves moderate, and 24 percent called themselves conservative. In 2015, 41 percent were liberal, 35 percent were moderate, and 21 percent were conservative. Is there an uptick in Democratic liberalism? Yes. Has the party shifted sharply leftward? No.

As for alienation from the system, Trump and Sanders do speak to a disaffection that currently roils most of the world’s democracies. But their way of doing it is so radically different — Sanders resolutely programmatic, Trump all about feelings, affect, and showmanship — that they cannot easily be subsumed as part of the same phenomenon. Sanders’ candidacy will leave behind policy markers and arguments about the future. Trump’s legacy will be almost entirely about himself, which is probably fine with him.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Illustration: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Only Losers Out-Trump Trump

WASHINGTON — The Fox News debate this week ought to be an occasion for the Republican Party’s presidential candidates to put new and innovative ideas on display. At the center of the discussion should be last Friday’s report about the historically anemic wage growth during this year’s second quarter.

Here’s guessing that the previous paragraph called forth dismissive chuckles among many shrewd readers for its naivete. We all “know” that the only important thing about Thursday’s encounter — other than which 10 candidates get to participate — is how the rest of the Republican field will deal with Donald Trump, and how The Donald will deal with them.

Many would blame this on Trump, and also on the nature of journalism these days. Well, sure. Trump has a lot to answer for. And the media tend to analyze debates by focusing on gaffes, and on whether a given candidate “did what he (or she) had to do” in political terms. This conditions how the candidates behave.

I would further concede that the mere inclusion of Trump’s name here likely increased my online page views. The media incentives these days militate against searching discussions of the Earned-Income Tax Credit or methods of prompting investors to take a long-term perspective.

But before they take the stage, the Republican candidates who get to confront Trump should ask themselves why a showman who gleefully ignores all the political rules has outshined the rest of the field.

There are many reasons to criticize the far right and what it has done to the GOP, with the complicity of its so-called Establishment. But it’s both remarkably elitist and also an analytical mistake to write off Trump’s backers as “crazies” while ignoring the source of their frustrations. They tend to be less well-to-do Republicans who are fed up with the political system, dislike the codes, and conventions that dictate the way most politicians talk, and have lost confidence that politics and government can really do very much for them.

That Trump is quite brilliant at faking authenticity (except for his thoroughly genuine belief that he’s far better than his opponents whom he loves to brand as “losers”) should not be held against his supporters. It’s not hard to see why they get a kick out of the extent to which he is getting under the skin of his many critics.

If Trump’s rivals see their task as proving themselves to be as theatrically gifted as he is, he’ll clobber them. But there’s an unconventional alternative: lifting up politics by embracing the idea that voters, especially those being hammered by the economy, aren’t dunces and would like for their government and their politicians to take concrete steps to improve their situations. This is especially important in a new economy that simply doesn’t deliver to large parts of the middle class, let alone the poor.

As it is, there is a terribly stale quality to the pronouncements even of candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio who are bidding to be the “new ideas” guys. While both at least talk about the need to restore paths to upward mobility, their underlying proposals remain rooted in the thinking of the Reagan era. Unwrap their well-packaged agendas and what you have are the same old nostrums: that government can do little about what ails us and that the path to Nirvana is still paved with tax cuts and business deregulation.

But as the progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz noted to me in a conversation last week, it’s precisely the rules and policies of the last 35 to 40 years that have helped lead the middle class into its current economic impasse. I don’t expect many conservatives to embrace Stiglitz’s views. But it would surely be an improvement if these candidates recognized that they are running in 2015, not 1980.

Is there no Republican engaging in a real — as opposed to superficial — questioning of the party’s old assumptions? Is there not even a glimmer of acknowledgement that if stagnating wages are the problem, further tilting the system toward employers and financiers is unlikely to solve it?

Trump’s supporters have an intuition that something is deeply wrong in their party. Their explanations for its shortcomings may differ from my own, but they are correct that the party is not delivering what they have a right to expect. Most candidates will play along with the disaffection. Those who try instead to reverse the loss of faith by responding to it constructively will deserve to win the debate.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Donald Trump points as he stands outside his hotel. Action Images via Reuters / Russell Cheyne. Livepic.

The Price Boehner Pays

WASHINGTON — If you wonder why Congress is so feeble these days that it can’t even find a simple way to pass a transportation bill, look no further than Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who proffered a little resolution on Tuesday night to oust John Boehner from the speakership.

The move was quickly dismissed by Boehner loyalists as showboating by a second-term member, and Meadows himself said he might not even seek a vote on his own measure. His hope is to provoke a “family conversation” among Republicans. It’s a heck of a dysfunctional family. The GOP these days may have its advantages on the Lannisters of Game of Thrones fame, but it’s a very long way from the Brady Bunch.

Perhaps by crushing Meadows’ insurrection, which many of even the most rebellious right-wing Republicans thought was ill timed, Boehner will strengthen his hand. The more likely outcome is that this resolution to “vacate the chair” will once again remind Boehner of the nature of the party caucus over which he presides. I use “preside” rather than “lead” precisely because his difficulty in leading these folks is the heart of his problem.

The House GOP (and this applies more than it once did to Senate Republicans as well) includes a large and vocal minority always ready to go over a cliff and always ready to burn — fortunately, figuratively — heretical leaders and colleagues. More important, a significant group sympathizes with Boehner privately but is absolutely petrified that having his back when things get tough will conjure a challenge inside the party by conservative ultras whose supporters dominate its primary electorate in so many places.

This means that Republicans have to treat doing business with President Obama and the Democrats as something bordering on philosophical treason. Yes, on trade, where Obama’s position is relatively close to their own, they will help the president out. But it’s very hard to find many other issues of that sort. Politicians of nearly every kind used to agree that building roads, bridges, mass-transit projects, and airports was good for everybody. Now, even pouring concrete and laying track can be disrupted by weird ideological struggles.

The text of Meadows’ anti-Boehner resolution is revealing. He complains that the Speaker has “caused the power of Congress to atrophy, thereby making Congress subservient to the Executive and Judicial branches, diminishing the voice of the American people.” Actually, Congress has done a bang-up job of blocking Obama’s agenda since Republicans won control of the House in 2010. How, short of impeachment, is it supposed to do more to foil the man in the White House?

Meadows also hits Boehner for “intentionally” seeking voice votes (as opposed to roll calls) on “consequential and controversial legislation to be taken without notice and with few Members present.” He has a point. But since so many Republicans are often too timid to go on the record for the votes required to keep government moving — they don’t want to be punished by Meadows’ ideological friends — Boehner does what he has to do.

On the other hand, Meadows’ charge that Boehner is “bypassing the majority of the 435 Members of Congress and the people they represent” is absolutely true.

But the logic of this legitimate protest is that Boehner should allow many more votes on the floor in which a minority of Republicans could join with a majority of Democrats to pass legislation, thereby reflecting the actual will of the entire House. If Boehner had done this with immigration reform, it would now be a reality. Boehner didn’t do it precisely because he worried about what Republicans of Meadows’ stripe would do to him.

Meadows’ move bodes ill for the compromising that will be required this fall to avoid new crises on the debt ceiling and the budget. Republicans already faced difficulties on this front before the “vacate the chair” warning shot, as Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent noted on Wednesday.

And Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) another Boehner critic, reacted to the resolution by invoking the Lord Voldemort all Republicans fear. Jones expressed the hope that “the talk-show hosts who are so frustrated would pick up on this thing and beat the drum.” It’s enough to ruin a speaker’s summer.

Republicans are talking a good deal about the threat to their brand posed by Donald Trump’s unplugged, unrestrained appeal to the party’s untamed side. The bigger danger comes from a Republican Congress that is having a lot of trouble getting that governing thing down.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 17, 2014 (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)

Americans Polarized But Ambivalent

WASHINGTON — So accustomed are we to highlighting the polarized nature of our politics that we often forget how many Americans decline to be painted in bright reds or bright blues. Among us, there are pinks and turquoises and even purples. And these voters will matter a great deal to the elections in 2016 and beyond.

To understand a rather strange moment during which Donald Trump exercises a hypnotic control over the media (I’m as guilty as the next person), it’s important to keep two seemingly contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time.

On the one hand, polarization is real. It’s not an invention of the elites. The sharp partisan divide affects a majority of the country, and it’s especially powerful among Americans most likely to vote and to be active in politics.

On the other hand, a very large share of us (including some staunch Democrats and Republicans) hold nuanced views on many questions. There are a lot of “yes, but” and “both/and” voters out there.

Since elections are won by a combination of mobilizing committed partisans and persuading the now relatively small number of moveable voters, forgetting either of these realities can be politically fatal.

Taken together, three studies published last week brought home the subtleties of our collective attitudes.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 52 percent of Americans support the Supreme Court’s recent ruling legalizing same-sex marriage while 44 percent oppose it. There is no question that the long-term trend in opinion is dramatically in favor of marriage equality and of gay and lesbian rights.

But when asked how they felt about “the country’s overall direction on social issues these days,” a majority expressed discomfort: 42 percent were “strongly uncomfortable,” 21 percent were “somewhat uncomfortable,” 21 percent were “somewhat comfortable,” and 14 percent were “strongly comfortable.”

Peyton Craighill, the Post‘s polling director, provided me with additional detail. It’s clear that the “strongly uncomfortable” group is, compared to the country as a whole, disproportionately older, more conservative, and more Republican.

The group to watch: the “somewhat uncomfortable”s. They are significantly more likely to describe themselves as politically moderate and include a disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos. These Americans cannot be classified as hostile to changes on “social issues” — a term that, it should be said, is open to a variety of interpretations — but they do need reassurance. There are lessons here for both liberals (further social progress requires sensitivity to those whose feelings are torn) and conservatives (a hard-line insistence on rolling back social change will turn off large numbers of Americans).

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center released findings that should alarm Republicans. Its survey found that only 32 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the Republican Party — down 9 points since January — while 60 percent had an unfavorable view. For Democrats, the numbers were 48 percent favorable (up 2 points) and 47 percent unfavorable.

The 16-point favorability gap shows what the GOP is up against, and why Hillary Clinton has maintained a lead in the national polls — by 6 points over Jeb Bush in the latest Post/ABC News poll, for example.

And when Pew broke down these numbers at my request, the polarization in the electorate across so many demographic lines was sharp: Those with favorable opinions about of the Republicans were overwhelmingly white (72 percent) and tilted conservative (52 percent). Those favorable toward the Democrats were more racially and ethnically diverse (only 55 percent white) and less likely to be conservative (20 percent).

And a hint about the source of Trump’s surge: Among the 26 percent who see both parties unfavorably, conservatives outnumbered liberals by almost 3-to-1.

But the third study, a joint product of the Democratic Strategist website and Washington Monthly magazine, points to the work Democrats need to do with white working-class voters.

One key finding, from pollster Stan Greenberg: Such voters are “open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda” but “are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed.” This calls for not only “populist measures to reduce the control of big money and corruption” but also, as Mark Schmitt of the New America Foundation argued, “high-profile efforts to show that government can be innovative, accessible and responsive.”

This ambivalent feeling about government is the most important “yes, but” impulse in the American electorate, and the party that masters this blend of hope and skepticism will win the 2016 election.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Image: Cartogram showing results of the 2012 general election (via), shaded to indicate percentage of red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) votes by county, and scaled to reflect population size.

Trump Has The GOP Establishment’s Number

WASHINGTON — The problems that bother us most are the ones we bring on ourselves. This is why Republicans are so out of sorts with Donald Trump. The party created the rough beast it is now trying to slay.

When Trump gave out Lindsey Graham’s cellphone number on Tuesday at an event in the South Carolina senator’s home state, he did it to show he wasn’t backing down after his outlandish attacks on Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero. But he was also making clear to the Republicans assailing him that he really does have their number.

Graham had called Trump a “jackass” for dissing McCain’s sacrifice. The Donald wanted to document that Republicans now so horrified by his bombast once fell all over themselves to pander to him in quests for his help and seal of approval.

“Hey, didn’t this guy call me, like, four years ago?” he asked about Graham. According to the Republicans’ provocateur-in-chief, Graham wanted a “good reference” to Fox & Friends, a show on the network that conservatives revere, and then whether “he could come and see me for some campaign contribution.”

Trump claimed he still had the card on which he had scribbled down Graham’s cell number and read it out. It was Trump’s evidence that Graham had cozied up to him.

We can’t know exactly what was said in that friendly chat, but Trump’s story rings true because Republican politicians have been more than happy to seek his help and overlook every kooky and appalling thing he said — as long as the celebrity put his fame and dollars to work to elect Republicans other than himself.

Trump struck again on Wednesday, tweeting a picture with another of his Donald-come-lately critics, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, “in my office last cycle playing nice and begging for my support and money. Hypocrite!”

The bowing before Trump, you’ll recall, was happening when the man was the midwife of birtherism. Over and over, he questioned whether President Obama was eligible to be in office because he had allegedly not been born in the United States.

“Now, he doesn’t have his birth certificate or he’s not showing it,” Trump said in a typical comment on CNN in 2011. “So it’s a very strange situation. … The fact is, if he wasn’t born in this country, he shouldn’t be the president of the United States.” Even when Obama produced his certificate in late April of that year, Trump did not back off, because, he explained, “a lot of people do not think it was an authentic certificate.”

Graham, to his credit, took Trump to task for continuing his birther ways, though Graham did so gently (on Fox News, of course) by noting dutifully that “there’s a lot of things Mr. Trump can be proud of.”

That’s a long way from “jackass,” and other Republicans were even more eager just to hug Trump close. When he accepted Trump’s endorsement during the 2012 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney was giddy about how cool it was to be with the man who emblazons his name on gaudy hostelries.

“There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life,” Romney enthused when he got Trump’s backing at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. “This is one of them. Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight. I am so honored and pleased.”

And if you believe Trump is alone in seeing himself as one of our country’s great gifts to public policy, think again. Romney praised Trump for his “extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works and to create jobs” and for being “one of the few who has stood up to say China is cheating” on trade. For Republicans, Trump was a genius until he wasn’t.

NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Perry on Meet the Press last Sunday if Republicans are confronting a “reap-what-you-sow issue” with Trump. Perry’s reply was lame: “I’ll suggest to you we’re seeing the real Donald Trump now.”

Sorry, but the real Donald Trump has been in full view for a long time, and Perry’s new glasses can’t explain his newfound clarity. I don’t credit Trump with much. But he deserves an award for exposing the double standards of Republican politicians. They put their outrage in a blind trust as long as Trump was, in Perry’s words, “throwing invectives in this hyperbolic rhetoric out there” against Obama and the GOP’s other enemies.

Only now are they willing to say: “You’re fired.” No wonder Trump is laughing.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

The Kasich-Walker Debate

WASHINGTON — Republicans won’t win the presidency in 2016 without making inroads in the Midwest. Happily for the GOP, two Midwestern governors are running for their party’s nomination.

Both won re-election in 2014. The one from the state with more electoral votes won with 64 percent of the vote with wide appeal to Democrats and independents. The one from the smaller state got just 52 percent of the vote after a divisive campaign.

The former fought to have his state accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. He made his case on moral grounds, arguing that at heaven’s door, St. Peter is “probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”

The latter adamantly opposed expanding Medicaid under the ACA, and his speeches are compendiums of every right-wing bromide party activists demand. “We need a president who — on the first day in office — will call on Congress to pass a full repeal of Obamacare,” this hopeful declared when he announced his candidacy last week. “Next, we need to rein in the federal government’s out-of-control regulations that are like a wet blanket on the economy.” And on he went.

Now: Guess which one is seen as a top contender, and which is dismissed as the darkest of dark horses? Which one was running third behind only Jeb Bush and Donald Trump in the Real Clear Politics poll average as of last Friday, and which one was in 12th place with all of 1.5 percent?

You have no doubt figured out that I’m talking about John Kasich of Ohio, who announces his candidacy on Tuesday, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. It’s telling about the contemporary Republican Party: Kasich would probably be the better bet in the general election but barely registers in the surveys, while Walker has the better chance of winning the nomination.

It’s preposterous to see Kasich as anything but a conservative. He was a drill sergeant for Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in the 1990s. When Kasich was chairman of the House Budget Committee, 60 Minutes produced a segment about him titled “The Axman Cometh.” As governor, Kasich pushed big tax cuts that included repealing the estate tax. (The Republican obsession with protecting large fortunes is beyond me.) He also took on the unions with what was known as Senate Bill 5 to end collective bargaining for public employees.

And it’s on the labor question that the Kasich and Walker stories diverge, in large part because of the accident of state election laws. In Ohio, the unions could put Bill 5 directly to the voters, and they repealed it in 2011 by a 61-to-39 percent landslide. A chastened Kasich recalibrated.

Walker is best known for a very similar attack on public employee unions, but Wisconsin had no provision for a comparable referendum. The unions felt they had no choice but to organize a recall of Walker. Voters typically don’t take well to recalls that aren’t a reaction to outright skullduggery and corruption. Walker prevailed, and he’s been bragging about busting unions and surviving ever since. Conservatives love him for it.

Kasich, by contrast, reached out to his previous enemies. When he was endorsed by the Carpenters Union last year, Kasich said: “For too long, there’s been a disconnect between people like me and organized labor.” Walker is as likely to say something like this as he is to sing a rousing chorus of “Solidarity Forever.”

When Kasich talks about his time as governor, as he did to my Washington Post colleague Michael Gerson last year, the things he brags about include his work on autism, mental illness, and drug addiction. He notes — the Almighty again — that all his constituents “are made in the image of God.”

You can tell Kasich knows he will have to run a rebel’s campaign because he has hired rebellious Republican consultants, including John Weaver, John McCain’s campaign strategist who feuded famously with Karl Rove, and Fred Davis, who specializes in off-beat (and sometimes controversial) political commercials.

Kasich’s poll standing might well exclude him from one or more of the early debates. That would be a shame. Perhaps there should be a Midwest debate bracket. A Kasich-Walker confrontation would be especially enlightening.

“I have a little bit of a different message here,” Kasich said at a Republican Governors Association meeting last year. Indeed he does. It’s probably why he can’t win. It’s also why his party needs to listen.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Illustrations: DonkeyHotey

Obama: Reaganite On Iran

WASHINGTON — When President Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in November 1985, he whispered to the Soviet leader: “I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”

Reagan had a point. His inclination to negotiate with the Evil Empire left many of his conservative friends aghast. In an otherwise touchingly affectionate assessment of the 40th president’s tenure, my Washington Post colleague George Will said that Reagan had “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West … by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.”

Further right, the conservative activist Howard Phillips accused Reagan of being “a very weak man with a very strong wife and a strong staff” who had become “a useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda.” Wow!

Few metaphors are perfect; Iran is not the Soviet Union. But the Reagan legacy is worth pondering to understand why, barely hours after the nuclear deal with Iran was announced, so many of President Obama’s critics leapt to conclude that the accord, as House Speaker John Boehner said, would “only embolden Iran — the world’s largest sponsor of terror.” Many of the president’s supporters were just as fast off the mark in backing him.

No doubt the instant responses can be explained partly by partisanship and by whether the responder has faith in Obama. But these reactions also had much to do with attitudes toward the proper approach to an adversary.

Are negotiated deals ever to be trusted? Should the United States be influenced by its allies’ wishes? Are imperfect compromises ever acceptable? Is hope that a hostile regime might gradually transform itself always wishful thinking? Is avoiding war a legitimate goal, or is every negotiation a repetition of Munich and every promise of “peace in our time” shortsighted?

Those of us inclined to support what Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have achieved answer these questions with a combination of Reaganite practicality and Reaganite hopefulness — and may conservatives forgive someone who voted against Reagan twice for invoking him.

Of course negotiations can work. John F. Kennedy, no softie, got the balance right when he declared: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

It’s worth remembering that Reagan’s willingness to bargain with Gorbachev weakened the hard-liners in the Soviet Union, creating the opening for its collapse. And there are parallels between the two-step approaches that both Reagan and Obama took to a problematic foe. The Gipper was very tough at the outset of his presidency, and the Soviet Union realized it could not keep up with American defense spending. Gorbachev came to the table. Obama got our allies to impose much tougher sanctions, and Iran came to the table.

There is no way of knowing if this deal will lead to a dramatic transformation inside Iran, and there are some legitimate doubts that it will. But then, Reagan’s conservative skeptics were also insistent that the Soviet Union could never change, and surely never fall. They were wrong and Reagan’s bet paid off. Obama is now making a comparable wager.

Critics of this agreement fear that, at best, it will keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for “only” 10 years. The administration says the timeline is longer, but what if it’s 10 years? Walking away from the table wouldn’t buy us more time. On the contrary. Former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns noted in the Financial Times that, absent a deal, “the ayatollahs would have been just a month or two away from a weapon.”

If the administration had torpedoed these talks, our partners would have been hard pressed to maintain the current sanctions, let alone toughen them. The United States will now need to be vigilant in containing Iran. But, again, Reagan — like every president from 1945 forward — successfully contained the Soviet Union.

Three days after the Senate approved the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in May 1988 (Democrats sped it through even as some Republicans tried to drag out the process), Reagan was his classic optimistic self at Moscow University. “We may be allowed to hope,” he declared, “that the marvelous sound of a new openness will keep rising through, ringing through, leading to a new world of reconciliation, friendship and peace.”

Obama was a long way from being as ebullient about Iran at his news conference Wednesday. He was all about verify, not trust. But like Reagan, he’s willing to take a chance on the idea that reaching our goals through negotiation can be wiser than the alternatives.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev having their first meeting in the Oval Office at the White House, December 8, 1987. (Via Wikicommons)

Hillary Clinton’s Economic Bet

WASHINGTON — Will the 2016 presidential campaign continue to be held hostage to Trump-mania and stories about a rope separating Hillary Clinton and journalists at a New Hampshire parade?

You can be certain that Donald Trump will not allow himself to be ignored. But the coming week could mark the beginning of a genuinely substantive debate between Republicans and Democrats over how to define the nation’s economic problems and relieve its economic anxieties.

Clinton made her bid on Monday to shape the conversation with an economic speech in New York that will be followed over the next two months with rollouts of specific proposals in nearly a dozen policy areas. Her campaign knows that she has work to do on her personal image. But like her husband two decades ago, she is betting that the voters who will decide next year’s election are focused primarily on their household balance sheets.

The turn toward economics was accelerated, inadvertently, by Jeb Bush when he told the New Hampshire Union Leader that spurring the economy means, among other things, that “people need to work longer hours.”

Bush later explained that he was talking about part-time workers who wanted to work full time getting the chance to do so. But his comment nonetheless allowed Clinton to highlight how her economic approach differed from “trickle down” policies rooted in the past and endorsed by Bush and the other Republican candidates.

Bush and his GOP rivals preach tax cuts for the wealthy as a way to spark growth, and Bush has promised a hard-to-achieve 4 percent annual growth rate.

Clinton, by contrast, argued that wage stagnation is the country’s central economic problem and criticized an “arbitrary growth target untethered to people’s lives and livelihoods.” Working longer hours for stagnating wages is hardly attractive to most Americans, especially in households where both members of a couple are already working full time, and Clinton was thinking of them when she said of Bush: “Well, he must not have met very many American workers.”

She, too, emphatically pledged allegiance to growth, but of a particular kind. Her mantra was “strong growth, fair growth and long-term growth.” It would come courtesy of increased purchasing power among middle- and lower-income Americans.

Her package included new benefits for individuals (family leave, child care, more affordable access to college) and new incentives to encourage companies to think long term, not short term, while also improving rewards to their workers.

She strongly endorsed profit-sharing, and her advisors say that she will, over time, make proposals on executive compensation along the lines of a bill introduced by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. It would give CEOs less favorable tax treatment for their bonus packages unless they offered wage hikes to their workers matching increases in productivity and the cost of living.

Clinton’s ideas reflect a wide center-left consensus on behalf of bottom-up or, as many progressives call it, “middle-out” economics. They also underscore how the nomination challenge she faces from Sen. Bernie Sanders differs from the problem created for Republicans by Trump.

By pulling the political conversation to the left generally and toward specific benefits government could confer on Americans in particular, Sanders is creating new political space for Democrats and highlighting issues that most of them (including Clinton, if she wins the nomination) want at the heart of the campaign next fall.

Trump, on the other hand, is pulling Republicans far off message, and his offensive comments on Mexican immigrants threaten to aggravate the GOP’s large deficit among Latino voters.

It’s true that Clinton is broadly trying to re-create the electoral alignment that won President Obama majorities in two elections. But the Obama Coalition is often misunderstood as excluding working-class whites. In fact, winning a substantial share of their votes — 42 percent in Ohio, 45 percent in Wisconsin — was essential to his 2012 victory. The white working class may be out of the Democrats’ reach in most of the states of the Deep South (Obama won only 11 percent of its ballots in Alabama and 10 percent in Mississippi), but it is vital elsewhere.

Hillaryeconomics is a wager that voters across racial and ethnic lines, very much including members of the white working class, want a raise and better benefits. And it’s a sharp challenge to Republicans. To be competitive in 2016, the GOP needs to make a plausible counteroffer. It’s the bidding war an economy mired in inequality and stalled mobility needs — and it’s one Clinton thinks she can win.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Photo: Marc Nozell via Flickr

This post has been updated to reflect Clinton’s speech on Monday.