Rancor, Suspicion, and the Presidential Peter Principle

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“All politics is local”
Speaker of the U.S. House Thomas P. “Tip” O'Neill

Less than forty-eight hours after President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address and conceded “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” two Republican voices demonstrated the lament was just another one of the president’s laughable straw men. Astonishingly, the first voice was that of Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. Obama once dazzled the country with defiant, if platitudinous, declarations about red and blue states, but it was Trump who spoke soberly and concretely about the tangible demonstration of unity. Responding to Texas Senator Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz’s remark about “New York values,” Trump recalled the experience of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and how the sacrifice of New York’s finest demonstrated the city’s values, and by extension, the country’s. Cruz and the other Republican aspirants applauded, the audience cheered, commentators gave the round to Trump, and even Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton even tweeted her agreement; subsequent polls showed Trump retaking the lead in Iowa. If Trump is (rightly) more recognized as a polarizing figure than a unifying one, then why does his response resonate? 

Nominally, the retort resonates because, in the moment of crisis, such as the tragedy of September 11, Americans expect -- and accept -- an overwhelming response on the part of government.

More practically, the rejoinder resonates because it was the last time Americans could trust the government to respond the right way and act in in their interest. 

In the immediate aftermath, Americans stood united behind the President when he directed the nation’s armed forces against the perpetrators. 

Nevertheless, shortly thereafter and over a span of fourteen years, Americans’ recourse to mistrust has been validated.

After quickly ejecting Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, the government reverted to epic mismanagement and incompetence -- endless interventions1, squandered surpluses, entitlement expansion, illegal immigration amnesty proposals, bailouts for a corrupt financial system, a takeover of the healthcare industry, an abandonment of veterans, warrantless mass electronic surveillance, the rise of an Islamic extremist death cult, the shattering of American credibility abroad...

...and, thus, the ascent of a bombastic real estate developer celebrity tweeting denunciations of status quo and enthusiastically assuming the “mantle of anger.”

For all the praise heaped on the return of “adults” to power in 2001 or the elevation of the “smartest guy in the room” in 2009, decision-making, at the federal level, to put it harshly, has had a body count.

More dispassionately, decision-making at the presidential level has incontestably substantiated the Peter Principle -- that everyone rises until they reach their level of incompetence, that invariably, given enough time and enough promotion levels, every position will be occupied by someone who can’t do the job.

Should Trump be elected, he very well may corroborate this principle as well, but a silver lining emerges.

The “strongest Republican field in a generation” may have been blindsided by Trump, but it confirmed the Peter Principle has not yet become pervasive at the state level.

The 2016 candidate class garnered early enthusiasm because it included an unusually large number of incumbent Senators and Governors with diverse and successful track records who threw their hats into the ring:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ousted an incumbent governor, successfully took on the teachers union, and then won re-election by one of the largest margins in the state’s history. Texas Senator “Ted” Cruz helped lead the fight against the Affordable Care Act and other Obama Administration initiatives. Louisiana Governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal enacted ethics reform, oversaw natural disaster preparedness, and opposed Common Core education standards. Ohio Governor John Kasich lowered state income taxes, eliminated the state’s estate tax, and balanced the state’s budget. Kasich partly succeeded in taking on his state’s public sector unions; legislation he signed was later overturned in a referendum. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has been a stalwart libertarian voice in opposing interventionist foreign policies, loose monetary policy, and warrantless domestic surveillance. Texas Governor Rick Perry presided over a rare growing state economy after the 2008 recession. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been an articulate critic of Obama Administration foreign policy toward Russia and Iran. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker successfully took on his state’s public sector unions, survived a recall, and then won re-election.

Regarding the Senators, Rubio will leave the Senate because he is ineligible to run for president and re-election simultaneously but he has already made a positive impression on voters and retains a promising future. Cruz and Paul will return to the Senate where they will rejoin the Republican majority in continuing to challenge Obama Administration initiatives and recruit allies to help them overturn the status quo.

On the latter, the challenge includes overcoming opposition from within the majority to some of their positions, but they have estimable allies and have been accruing new ones, include Jeff Sessions (Alabama), an important voice on immigration; Thomas Cotton (Arkansas), a veteran and critic of Obama Administration foreign policy, Joni Ernst, a veteran and advocate of balanced budgets; Michael Lee (Utah), a reliable advocate of constitutional conservatism; Ben Sasse (Nebraska), a well regarded newcomer; and, Thomas Tillis (North Carolina), a surprise victor over an incumbent and former speaker of his state’s legislature.

As to the governors, Jindal and Perry have since left office but are relatively young and possess the experience and skills to serve their states in other capacities. (Especially Jindal, who assumed office on a reform agenda and was literally at the forefront of leading his state’s emergency response to the BP oil spill.)

The remainder are poised to return to their home states and pick up where they left off. Christie and Kasich must wait four years after leaving in 2017 and 2018, respectively, before they can run again and Walker can seek re-election without limit.

Notable gubernatorial peers include Bruce Rauner (Illinois), Matt Bevin (Kentucky), Larry Hogan (Maryland), Bryan Sandoval (Nevada), Susana Martinez (New Mexico), Mary Fallin (Oklahoma), Greg Abbott (Texas) and Nikki Haley (South Carolina). Each has embarked on initiatives to rationalize state tax structures, regulatory relief, public sector reform, and fiscal solvency. (On these last two matters, honorable mention goes to Gina Raimondo, the Democratic governor of Rhode Island.) Sam Brownback (Kansas) and Pat McCrory (North Carolina) deserve special attention given their ambitious conservative reform agendas have been enacted by their Republican state legislatures. 

Lastly, Christie, Cruz, Paul, Rubio, and Walker all earned election as recently as 2010, inaugurating what have become the largest congressional majorities since 1929 and an advantage in governorships and state legislatures since 1920. With a little luck, the states will be well-served by conservative state executives, congressional representation, and state legislators, through the remainder of the decade.

This last point is critical and should alleviate the trepidation with which some broach the outcome of the 2016 election. 

First, notwithstanding 1996 Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole’s fears, voters have not overturned congressional majorities in a presidential election since 2000 and, before that, in 1956; voters maintain, lessen, or expand majorities, they don’t eject them. 

Furthermore, only thirteen gubernatorial elections are occurring in 2016. Nine are Democratic and four are Republican; only one is leaning takeover (West Virginia, from Democratic to Republican) and two are tossups.

Second, as the axiom instructs, all politics are local.

The presidency is indeed the prize of modern American politics, but conservatives readily know it has metastasized beyond justification. Liberals (and some Republicans) have abandoned federalism, but many conservatives remain devoted to the Tenth Amendment. 

The strength of local Republican conservatism is evident not in the aforementioned officials, but in those who have evinced their concern about the party’s future.

For example, last November 2015, Issac J. Bailey, a South Carolina journalist and race relations consultant, announced that, despite being the “GOP’s Ideal Black Voter” he would be leaving the party in the wake of Trump’s rise.

Bailey ably articulated how Republicans are squandering the opportunity to reach out to him and fellow blacks by refusing to grapple with the issue of race in a way that resonates with black voters — “oftentimes even denying the existence of racial barriers at all.” Bailey knows the “Party of Lincoln” has long since passed, but the rise of Trump simply becomes a bridge too far.

Curiously though, he too affirmed his confidence in Republicans, namely those in his home state: “In South Carolina, where I live, I voted twice for Mark Sanford to become our governor and helped send Lindsey Graham to the U.S. Senate. In fact, I’ve pulled the lever for more Republicans than Democrats.”

Equally telling was his subsequent wish that the aforementioned South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley had run for president. 

Haley was the second Republican voice to articulate that unity; more pointedly, she reminded everyone unity is not only possible, but natural when a leader communes with his or her citizenry, not disdains them or their rights at every turn.

Indeed, Bailey’s enthusiasm stemmed from Haley’s response to Obama’s State of the Union:
“...she hit her stride and began looking every bit the part of someone ready for the political prime time, referencing the Charleston shooting... 

‘What happened after the tragedy is worth pausing to think about. Our state was struck with shock, pain and fear. But our people would not allow hate to win. We didn't have violence; we had vigils. We didn't have riots; we had hugs. We didn't turn against each other's race or religion. We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world."

Bailey, nevertheless, lamented Haley is from a safe Republican state and not an electoral game-changer -- “she’s in the odd position of being the ideal vice presidential candidate who should have run for president.”

Mr. Bailey, please consider the above.

Governor Haley would have been very competitive and her ascent would have been welcomed; she is a resounding refutation of the Peter Principle and remains an exemplar of the party and its underappreciated vitality at this hazy juncture in American politics.

1 The author erred in supporting the intervention in Iraq. The author turned against the intervention after the eruption of civil war in 2006.