Gaming the U.S. Elections
John Mauldin's Outside the Box

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Introduction

This week in Outside the Box good friend George Friedman of Stratfor delves into that enigma that is Executive power and Presidential elections. George ventures to assess the current President in light of former Presidents, utilizing a methodical rubric of measure to analyze the capabilities of what in all perceptions is a lame duck President with respect to domestic influence and foreign perception. He also analyzed the presidential race. I found this a very interesting piece.

George's company Stratfor provides some insightful and comprehensive research on geopolitical events and global affairs. George continues to kindly provide my readers a discount to his normal subscription rates, obtained by clicking here.

I hope you find the article informative, providing a degree of inference into the current complex political landscape.

John Mauldin, Editor

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Gaming the U.S. Elections

By George Friedman

Domestic politics in most countries normally are of little interest geopolitically. On the whole this is true of the United States as well. Most political debates are more operatic than meaningful, most political actors are interchangeable and the distinctions between candidates rarely make a difference. The policies they advocate are so transformed by Congress and the Supreme Court -- the checks and balances the Founding Fathers liked so much, coupled with federalism -- that the president rarely decides anything.

That is not how the world perceives the role, however. In spite of evidence to the contrary, the president of the United States is perceived as the ultimate "decider," someone whose power determines the course of action of the world's strongest nation. Therefore, when presidents weaken, the behavior of foreign powers tends to shift, and when elections approach, their behavior shifts even more. The expectation of change on the burning issue of Iraq is based on the misperception that the American presidency is inherently powerful or that presidents shape the consensus rather than react to it.

The inability of Congress to make any decisive move on Iraq demonstrates that immobility isn't built only into the presidency. The two houses of Congress are designed to be gridlocked. Moreover, the congressional indecision reveals that behind all of the arias being sung, there is a basic consensus on Iraq: the United States should not have gone into Iraq and now that it is there, it should leave. There is more to it than that, though. The real consensus is that the United States should not simply leave, but rather do it in such a way that it retains the benefits of staying without actually having to be there. To sum up the contradiction, all of the players on the stage want to have their cake and eat it, too. We are only being a trifle ironic. When all is said and done, that is the policy the system has generated.

The United States has been in roughly this same position with the same policy since World War II. The first time was in 1952 in Korea, when the war was at a stalemate, the initial rationale for it forgotten and Harry Truman's popularity about the same as President George W. Bush's is now. The second time was in 1968, when any hope of success in the Vietnam War appeared to be slipping away and Lyndon Johnson's presidency collapsed.

In both cases, the new president followed the logic of the popular consensus, regardless of whether it made sense. In the Korean instance, the national position favored decisive action more than withdrawal -- as long as the war would end. In Vietnam the demand was for an end to the war, but without a defeat -- which was not going to happen.

During Korea, Dwight D. Eisenhower appeared a formidable enemy to the Chinese and his secret threat of using nuclear weapons seemed credible. The war ended in a negotiated stalemate. In the case of Vietnam, the public desire to get out of Vietnam without a defeat allowed Richard Nixon to be elected on a platform of having a secret plan to end the war. He then continued the war for four years, playing off the fundamental contradiction in the consensus. Adlai Stevenson, who ran against Eisenhower, might not have been nearly as effective in convincing the Chinese to close the deal on Korea, but we doubt that Hubert Humphrey would have differed much from Nixon -- or that Bobby Kennedy, once in power, would have matched his rhetoric with action.

Yet the fact is that the world does not see the limits of the presidency. In the case of Iraq, the perception of the various players in Iraq and in the region is that the president of the United States matters a great deal. Each of them is trying to determine whether he should deal with the current president or with his successor. They wonder who the next president will be and try to forecast the policies that will break the strange consensus that has been reached.

Therefore, we need to begin handicapping the presidency as we did in 2004, looking for patterns. In other words, policy implications aside, let's treat the election as we might a geopolitical problem, looking for predictive patterns. Let's begin with what we regard as the three rules of American presidential politics since 1960:

The first rule is that no Democrat from outside the old Confederacy has won the White House since John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were all from the Confederacy. Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry were from way outside the Confederacy. Al Gore was from the Confederacy but lost, proving that this is necessary, but not a sufficient basis for a Democratic win. The reason for this rule is simple. Until 1964, the American South was solidly democratic. In 1964 the Deep South flipped Republican and stayed there. If the South and mountain states go Republican, then the Democrats must do extraordinarily well in the rest of the country. They usually don't do extraordinarily well, so they need a candidate that can break into the South. Carter and Clinton did it, while Johnson did extraordinarily well outside the South.

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The second rule is that no Republican has won the White House since Eisenhower who wasn't from one of the two huge Sunbelt states: California or Texas (Eisenhower, though born in Texas, was raised in Kansas). Nixon and Reagan were from California. Both Bush presidents were from Texas. Gerald Ford was from Michigan, Robert Dole from Kansas. They both lost. Again the reason is obvious, particularly if the candidate is from California -- pick up the southern and mountain states, pull in Texas and watch the Democrats scramble. Midwestern Republicans lose and northeastern Republicans do not get nominated.

The third rule is that no sitting senator has won the presidency since Kennedy. The reason is, again, simple. Senators make speeches and vote, all of which are carefully recorded in the Congressional record. Governors live in archival obscurity and don't have to address most issues of burning importance to the nation. Johnson came the closest to being a sitting senator but he too had a gap of four years and an assassination before he ran. After him, Former Vice President Nixon, Gov. Carter, Gov. Reagan, Vice President Bush, Gov. Clinton and Gov. Bush all won the presidency. The path is strewn with fallen senators.

That being the case, the Democrats appear poised to commit electoral suicide again, with two northern senators (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) in the lead, and the one southern contender, John Edwards, well back in the race. The Republicans, however, are not able to play to their strength. There are no potential candidates in Texas or California to draw on. Texas right now just doesn't have players ready for the national scene. California does, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is constitutionally ineligible by birth. In a normal year, a charismatic Republican governor of California would run against a northern Democratic senator and mop the floor. It's not going to happen this time.

Instead, the Republicans appear to be choosing between a Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, and a former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. Unless Texan Ron Paul can pull off a miracle, the Republicans appear to be going with their suicide hand just like the Democrats. Even if Fred Thompson gets the nomination, he comes from Tennessee, and while he can hold the South, he will have to do some heavy lifting elsewhere.

Unless Obama and Clinton self-destruct and Edwards creeps in, or Paul does get a miracle, this election is shaping up as one that will break all the rules. Either a northern Democratic senator wins or a northeastern Republican (excluding Thompson for the moment) does. The entire dynamic of presidential politics is in flux. All bets are off as to the outcome and all bets are off as to the behavior of the new president, whose promises and obligations are completely unpredictable.

If one is to ask whether the Iranians look this carefully at U.S. politics and whether they are knowledgeable about the patterns, the answer is absolutely yes. We would say that the Iranians have far more insight into American politics than Americans have into Iranian politics. They have to. Iranians have been playing off the Americans since World War II, whatever their ideology. In due course the underlying weirdness of the pattern this year will begin intruding.

Here is what the Iranian's are seeing: First, they are seeing Bush become increasingly weak. He is still maintaining his ability to act in Iraq, but only barely. Second, they see a Congress that is cautiously bombastic -- making sweeping declarations, but backing off from voting on them. Third, they see a Republican Party splitting in Congress. Finally, they see a presidential election shaping up in unprecedented ways with inherently unexpected outcomes. More important, for example, a Giuliani-Clinton race would be so wildly unpredictable that it is unclear what would emerge on the other side. Any other pairing would be equally unpredictable.

This results in diplomatic paralysis across the board. As the complexity unfolds, no one -- not only in the Iraq arena -- is sure how to play the United States. They don't know how any successor to Bush will behave. They don't know how to game out who the successor to Bush is likely to be. They don't know how the election will play out. From Iraq and Iran to Russia and China, the United States is becoming the enigma and there won't be a hint of clarity for 18 months.

This gives Bush his strange strength. No president this low in the polls should be acting with the confidence he shows. Part of it could be psychological, but part of it has to do with the appreciation that, given the strange dynamics, he is not your normal lame duck. Everyone else is tied in knots in terms of policy and in terms of the election. Bush alone has room to maneuver, and the Iranians are likely calculating that it would probably be safer to deal with this president now rather than expect the unexpected in 2008.

Conclusion

Come what may, the current political cycle, with YouTube debates and such, is certainly a move away from our accustomed to Presidential elections.

Your finding Arnold's presidential prospects amusing analyst,


John F. Mauldin
johnmauldin@investorsinsight.com

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Posted 07-26-2007 1:10 PM by John Mauldin