A Look Ahead: "Event Risk" and the Remaining Presidential Candidates
"the beak would open
And inside there was darkness, the stars and the moon"
And inside there was darkness, the stars and the moon"
by Gaius Publius
Part 1 of my "Look Ahead" series — a look at the U.S. political landscape between now and the early first term of the next president — dealt with the the ground on which political events will necessarily play out, which means the role and character of today's independent voters who make up more than 40% of the electorate:
A Look Ahead: Neither Party Can Win Without Winning Independents
Part 2 dealt with the optics on the Democratic side as the Philadelphia convention begins:
A Look Ahead: Coming to the Philadelphia Crossroad
In particular, part 2 tried to sketch the shape of the problem facing the delegates and Party insiders as they confront the choices facing them, in particular, nominate Sanders or nominate Clinton. Out of that convention, which I've been calling a crossroad, both for the Party and the country, will come one of those candidates to face Donald Trump, in all likelihood the Republican nominee.
My intended third part, soon to come, sets up the election before that choice is made — in colloquial terms, it will try to sketch "who beats who" (I know, whom) in the fall electoral contest itself. My first thoughts on that, laid out here, for example, were relatively easy to describe:
Sanders beats Trump. Trump beats Clinton.
Now I'm not so sure, but not for the reason you think. In other words, I don't think Clinton has become stronger, or Trump or Sanders weaker in the general election. It's the presence of "black swans" that hover over the battlefield. Or, as much more professional writers than I tend to call it, "event risk," the risk each candidate faces of being caught by surprise by a game-changing event more or less out of their control.
So let me lay out here the "event risk" landscape for all three candidates. In the actual part 3 of the series, I'll try to factor these risks into the evaluation.
Event Risk and Donald Trump
Let's start with Trump. For all of these evaluations, I rely on the work of Yves Smith, who's done a really good job here of summing up the swans hovering over these candidates (emphasis mine everywhere). With Trump she finds two great risks, the nature of the man himself and Trump University:
Trump [himself]. Trump is his own biggest risk. So far, his gambler’s sense of what he can get away with has paid off, like attacking George Bush over 9/11, a criticism the Republican orthodoxy was convinced would sink him. But he’s also made gaffes that cost him in a serious way and had little upside, like his too-obvious menstrual cycle cheap shot at Megan Kelly and his failure to disavow white supremacist David Duke.I agree with these assessments, especially the first. The pro-Clinton media, especially broadcast and cable, will likely do to Trump what they've done through the entire primary to Bernie Sanders. While they will milk every entertainment minute and dollar out of covering him, as they have done, the weight of their commentary will be to marginalize and delegitimize him as presidential material.
Trump University. The trial is set for the summer and Trump will testify. It’s not going to reflect well on him, and it remains to be seen what if anything Trump can do in testimony or otherwise to limit the damage. But while the Clinton team will be sure to make use of this regardless, it’s likely to get less extended media play than Clinton’s e-mail transgressions.
Sanders has countered similar media (mis-)treatment by being an actual adult, by sticking to the issues. Clinton, at least this cycle, has never had to deal with this kind of media delegitimization outside of right-wing circles, and, in my opinion, likely won't. She was anointed early by all concerned, very early indeed, and remains so. (Ask yourself why there was no robust Democratic "field" of candidates. Answer: They were all driven out before they could declare.) Against Donald Trump, the media will be rougher with Clinton, but not enough to wipe off their prior blessings, at least as I see it.
Trump, on the other hand, will get the "Sanders media treatment" in spades. He will have to counter it by running a virtually gaffe-free campaign and by surrounding himself by consultants and surrogates who can blend their voices and temperaments with his in a way that normalizes him, yet doesn't neuter him.
If he does this, he could be a very dangerous opponent, for reasons I'll explain later. If he delegitimizes himself, however, if he marginalizes himself with ill-considered, off-the-cuff "out of her whatever" moments, he might as well place the crown on his opponent's head himself, whether Clinton or Sanders.
Can he do that? Can he keep his edgy cred, wield the blade, without knifing himself instead? This is the "event risk" with Donald Trump, and depending on who his opponent is, could make or break his campaign.
Event Risk and Hillary Clinton
Smith identifies four "event risks" with Hillary Clinton — the economy, the markets, the email controversy and her health. Smith:
Continued weakening of the economy. Despite all the cheerleading, first quarter GDP numbers were vastly weaker than expected in January, and the latest job figures were far enough below expectations as to put the Fed’s rate increase plan in question. The latest reading from Saudi Arabia is even more of a hawk on keeping oil prices low to (among other things) discipline US frackers. That means another leg down of oil prices is likely, and with that comes more losses of high-paying jobs, more bankruptcies, and more energy loan/junk bond distress. Clinton has firmly tethered her record to Obama’s, so she will be tarred if it decays going into the election.I will only add that I'm doing a deep dive myself into the email story, and will say without elaboration here, there is a there there. Whether it will be prosecuted or blow over is anyone's guess. In Zephyr Teachout's terms corruption is the use of "public power for private ends." How corrupt is the Department of Justice? In my view, very. After all, Bush thought of the Attorney General as the president's lawyer (not the nation's), and under Obama, no banker was even considered for indictment or trial, at least to all appearances. Was that justice speaking, or Obama, who raised more money from Wall Street in 2008 than even Clinton did?
Market turmoil. Most observers seem to forget that Sanders’ big rise in the polls occurred in the first two months of the year, when global markets and Wall Street nosedived. Clinton is strongly identified with Wall Street, and it going wobbly reminds voters that financiers wrecked the economy for fun and profit and no one was punished. Worse, the lack of real reform means they can do it all over again.
E-mail hairball. Hillary has the FBI investigation as well as private suits in play. The State Department having a “dog ate the files” moment with its former employee, Brian Pagaliano, who also set up her home server, may have a second shoe drop. Even though Clinton cheerily says that she is looking forward to putting this behind, her, the stonewalling with the Judicial Watch suits means the e-mail scandal will still be in the news well into the summer, and potentially into the fall.
Health. Hillary has had at least a mini-stoke and has been having fainting spells since at least 2009, when she broke an elbow. She also appears to have gained a lot of weight and one wonders if that is the result of stress or difficulty managing her medication.
Will Comey stand up to Obama, should he find evidence that justifies an indictment, the way he stood up to Bush in the famous Ashcroft hospital room scene? Before you answer, consider that Comey, as a "loyal bushie" and part of the Ashcroft Justice Dept., let pass any number of Bush atrocities before he found the one atrocity (still unnamed) even he couldn't stomach. Which means he can swallow a lot without giving himself, or anyone around him, gas.
So the jury's out on Comey and what he will do, even if the facts are against her. Still, there's a there there, and that "there" will come home sometime. This black swan, in other words, will land. When though, and with what result, is anyone's guess at this point.
Event Risk and Bernie Sanders
This section is the easiest of all to analyze and write. I see no foreseeable event risk for Bernie Sanders. He is what he is, with nothing one can see or suspect hovering over his head or the head of his campaign. His health is good to all appearances, his mind is sharp, his stamina is excellent, and he's able to stay remarkably on point and on the issues in debates, in interviews, in casual conversations. It's nearly impossible, in fact, for opponents in and out of the press to pull him off balance.
All sorts of unforeseen things could happen, of course, to any one of us. That next bus, for example, could jump the curb. But I can list nothing foreseeable for Sanders like the risks that hover around the other two candidates.
Do read the rest of Yves Smith's good piece. It has a nice introduction to the short segments I offered above, and she ends with her own conclusions.
For me, I'll leave it here. I still have some work to do before I risk offering my own assessment of the fall campaign. I will do that, but the presence of an unusual number of event risks — so-called "black swans" — is making me pause and consider them. More in a bit.