Inevitable Democrats, Struggling Republicans

by / Oct. 14, 2015 1am EST

Less than two miles from Buffalo, this fall’s probable winner of a big election is campaigning to raise taxes on the rich and to borrow billions for infrastructure, all the while condemning the race-baiting and fear-mongering tactics of the conservative opposition.

That’s the winning message across the Niagara River. On this side of the ditch, there’s a curious quiet about tax progressivity, redistribution, and inclusion, at least in this media market. Those issues do not describe Mark Poloncarz’s suburban strategy. The Democratic incumbent—whose Republican challenger, Ray Walter, is promising to strip tax revenue from cities and redistribute it to suburbs—is campaigning on his hopefulness, on his roots in the once-and-future steel/industrial complex, and on fiscal competence. It’s a standard-issue mainstream Democratic campaign, very different from the unapologetically socialist messaging of Democratic outsider Bernie Sanders, whose presentation is working just great for Justin Trudeau in the national election up north. 

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is running what has become a standard-issue Republican campaign, as if he’s an American rather than a Canadian small “c” conservative, and the result is that he’s on track to lose his Conservative Party majority next Monday. That’s because his version of Republican messaging—pro-Big Oil, anti-tax, and slyly anti-Muslim—is not delivering enough of what they call “old stock” Canadians, who are like the older, whiter voters of the Republican base here in the US. 

Locally, the echo of the fearful, code-language wedge politics of national Republicans has Walter, but in the milder, friendlier, Jack Kemp iteration. Gone is the explicit wedge of the Carl Paladino. Walter is reintroducing this media market to a fantasy that has sold well here since Kemp pushed his one-note message so fervently 40 years ago: that tax cuts will pave the pathway to prosperity, that tax breaks that will fix inner-city woes, and that tax relief that will lift all boats, solve all troubles, salve all wounds, knit all ravel’d sleeves of care. 

But of course, it is a wedge message. It’s more subtle than what the national Republicans are hammering their base with. Walter isn’t talking about guns, gender, reproduction, or religious headgear, just taxes. Taxes. Taxes is the code-word that, in every American suburb, means handouts to minorities.

Mainstream Democrats just don’t want to go there. They’d just rather not engage.

Tax fantasies

We will probably never again hear a strong redistributionist, tax-progressivity message from a local or statewide candidate in New York outside of New York City—but in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential candidate debate, we heard Sanders going all-in. 

Citizens for Tax Justice has done an analysis of the impact of each of the presidential candidates’ tax plans. The more Kemp-like, the better for the very richest, the worse for the effectiveness of government, the worse for addressing the national infrastructure crisis.

But no matter. It’s what Republicans must do to survive their own nomination process. Fringe rhetoric has become mainstream for them. The live question for Democrats is whether the mainstream candidate the one who has all the king’s horses and all the king’s men of campaign-contribution bundlers, organization, professional staff, and institutional connections—in this case, Hilary Clinton—can get past the insurgent American version of a Canadian Liberal without going too deeply into discussing taxes.

Here’s a bet: The mainstream Democrat will be able to wave at the issue, nod at it, acknowledge its existence, but will be able to focus on other questions. That’s because a majority of voters will tune out the inane, bizarre, sometimes extravagant but mostly tired tax pledges of Republicans, whether it’s Ray Walter’s Christmas for suburbia plan, or Ben “the Bible tells us to tithe” Carson’s 10 percent flat-tax plan, or Donald “tax cuts for all” Trump’s promise, or the thin yet preposterous plan from that mysterious surname-less son/brother candidate known only as Jeb!

The constituencies that will choose an American president in 2016, like the ones who will choose an Erie County Executive in 2015, have become accustomed to the unbelievability of the Republican economic program. What’s shaping up nationally, and shaping the debate locally, is that the extremes that are driving the mainstream Republicans are becoming increasingly anathema to Democrats and to whatever remains of that elusive species, the swing voter. The political difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats will survive the ideological and organizational challenge of the Left, and will knit together their coalition in time to win with a mainstream candidate, Clinton, in 2016. The Republicans, by contrast, are getting screwed by their Right.

The Carl Paladino effect

Bernie Sanders will do well in the early primary and caucus states. Clinton will ramp up the effort to turn out her enormous and solid base of black and female support, and should my old boss Vice President Joe Biden enter the race, he will serve mainly to reinforce the strength of conventional politics—the politics that gives us national leaders who have elite education credentials, are strongly networked among the military, intelligence, financial, cultural, educational, and foreign-policy elite, and who also have strong base constituencies that can’t be reached by the competition. The excitement Sanders has generated early on in the process will, one expects, fade once the Democratic “regulars” assert themselves for Clinton. But Clinton will be their eventual destination. Hillary Clinton’s campaign—doggedly, at times nastily—will continue to let the media know that Hillary Clinton is not to be denied. Her surrogates will do whatever it takes.

The Republicans, by contrast, are going to become a minority party without a good-enough, can’t-please-‘em-all consensus candidate, because they’re in purification mode. As a reading of Rick Perlstein’s books (see especially his latest, The Invisible Bridge) shows, today is a replay of Barry Goldwater in 1964, except worse than Barry Goldwater could have imagined. 

Just read Carl Paladino’s emails.

Thousands of people who live where this publication is distributed receive Carl Paladino’s emails. This is the Donald Trump/Ben Carson/Ted Cruz faction on display in your inbox. For these folks, Republicans as routinely anti-Obama as outgoing House Speaker John Boehner and even Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan are RINOs, Republicans in name only. This faction chooses violent rhetoric, ad hominem attacks, and angry confrontation at every media event. This is the movement that now constitutes almost 40 percent of the American electorate—but which alternately angers or scares but, withal, alienates the rest of us.

The movement’s cultural roots are Southern and Baptist and Confederate but it has found affinities among Northern Catholics and ex-Catholics, in the congregations of the big-box churches that only came into existence in Blue State suburbs as deindustrialization overtook the Rust Belt. It now takes the coding out of code-word politics, as Paladino routinely does, getting closer and closer to outright ethnic slander. 

Reading the imported and local messages alike is a jarring experience. All 20 million citizens of New York State appear in their mind’s eyes as Woody Allen appeared (so he imagined) at Annie Hall’s family table. Should Bernie Sanders win some primaries, the anti-Semitism will get more and more explicit: the Klan-talk will get mainstreamed, especially for “old stock” Americans, with only East Coast and West Coast elites playing the Justin Trudeau role of condemning the bad actors.

For a preview, look in your inbox. White elected officials didn’t have much to say about Carl Paladino’s language about black elected officials, or about Asian students. Bloggers, judgment-proof commentators, and professors did. But not candidates. The conclusion of strategists, especially pollsters, is simple: better just not to go there at all.

Global and local

A reasonably big national audience will have seen Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the three nameless Democratic munchkins discuss some policy issues. As Republican strategist Michael Caputo told WBEN-AM this week, and as the disgusted partisans of Sanders know too well, the structure of the Democratic debates is intended to favor Hillary Clinton. That is not an accident.

Meanwhile, just a slim sliver of the electorate will tune into the Wednesday night debate between incumbent Democrat Mark Poloncarz and Republican challenger Ray Walter, contestants for the office of Erie County Executive.

Reports from door-knockers are consistent: Poloncarz is heavily favored. There’s a widespread feeling that he has conducted his office without trouble, that Erie County government performed well during last year’s epochal Snowmageddon, and that extravagant promises of economic deliverance or of tax Christmas are not credible, while the Buffalo Billion and its ripple effects are.

If Democrats do as expected here in 2015 and nationally in 2016, next fall’s general-election debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will offer the mainstream Democrat an opportunity to be calm, to speak of what is and what reasonably can be, to promise incremental improvement and a steady hand, and to embrace the enthusiasms of the liberal-left base of the Democratic Party, as the institutional Republicans fret over their loss of relevance. If the US electorate is fortunate, some elements of Justin Trudeau’s message of tax progressivity, infrastructure investment, and civility will be incorporated into the mainstream campaign. To the endless irritation of Bernard Sanders supporters, it won’t be Sanders incorporating mainstream messaging. That’s just not how it works on this side of the ditch.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo State and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.