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An Eye on the White House


April 07, 2017

Did Celebrity Endorsements Matter in the 2016 Election?

The stars aligned for Hillary Clinton.

In her second shot at the Oval Office, Clinton boasted an incredible roster of actors, artists, TV personalities, and sports stars. And her multi-million dollar campaign leveraged these connections in every possible way.

Clinton raffled off tickets to join Jay Z for dinner. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry performed at her rallies. Joss Whedon directed a pro-Democratic PSA starring Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. On election day, Beyonce urged followers to vote for Clinton in a video that drew over 2 million views before the polls closed.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, the bench was far from full. Nor was it empty – Donald Trump won over the likes of Charlie Sheen, Kid Rock, Tim Allen, Tom Brady, and Kirstie Allie. But it goes without saying that their combined celebrity clout doesn’t match that of even one of the above Clinton cohorts.

Celebrity endorsements are not new in American politics. But the 2016 presidential election saw more star power all the previous races combined – and that’s including President Obama’s inaugural run in 2008.

Hollywood came out for Clinton. Voters didn’t. So, what happened?

Celebrity endorsements have long played a role in the presidential race. President Warren Harding is often credited with earning the very first celebrity endorsement in American history back in 1920. When actor Al Jolson recorded a catchy campaign tune for Harding, it helped propel him to a safe 60% victory.

The phenomenon seemed to peak in 2008, when Barack Obama gained the blessings of numerous actors and artists, including George Clooney, will.i.am, Brad Pitt, and Samuel L. Jackson. His most important endorsement came from Oprah Winfrey. One study found that Oprah alone increased voter participation by over a million votes.

Why do celebrity endorsements work? Because people consider celebrities more credible and trustworthy than politicians. Less informed voters are more likely to vote for someone with a celebrity endorsement. And young people are more likely to seek out information and participate when celebrities Tweet and post about politics.

There are a number of reasons why it was less effective this time around.

To start, most of Clinton’s celebrities appealed to the voters aged 18 to 24, the demographic that is least likely to get out and vote. Except for 2008 and 1992 (Obama’s first run and the first Rock the Vote campaign respectively), youth participation has declined each year since 1964.

Diminishing returns are another factor. Celebrity endorsements are not novel. Oprah broke her career-long silence on presidential politics when she endorsed Obama in 2008. Her endorsement of Clinton in 2016 did not have the same impact.

Others have pointed to growing cynicism towards celebrities. People know that their interests differ from those of millionaire actors and actresses. There’s a growing perception that so-called “Hollywood Elites” don’t understand or care for the common voter. And people simply don’t trust celebrities like they used to, especially in an age when the Twitterverse waits to pounce on celebrities for any political misstep.

But the biggest factor of all is simply the fact of her opponent.

Star power was baked in to the Trump campaign from day one. Donald Trump seamlessly transferred his TV persona to his political campaign. People knew who he was, what he stood for, and what to expect from him. He cut out the middleman when it came to celebrity endorsements. People didn’t go to Trump rallies to check out Katy Perry – they went to see the man himself.

Trump didn’t need celebrities to get his name out there. He was a walking endorsement himself.

Celebrities can help put the spotlight on an otherwise obscure candidate. In a race between two ordinary politicians, celebrities can help one outshine the other. 2016 was not that kind of race. President Trump stood out inherently, and no number of celebrity endorsements, followers, or viral PSAs could level the playing field.

March 30, 2017

Attorney, Athlete, and Agriculturalist: The Presidential Line of Succession, Part 3

When the President of the United States takes an unforeseen absence, the presidential line of succession determines who steps in to fill his shoes. Typically, that honour goes to the Vice President. But if this successor should suffer a similar fate, another must swiftly takes his place – and so on.

Previous posts looked at the top three contenders, followed by the second round of successors. Today, we’ll hold to tradition and try on the seventh, eight, and ninth suits in this long presidential line.

#7 Jeff Sessions

No other name in Washington evokes a sense of overbearing southern-ness quite like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.

For a man among President Trump’s earliest supporters, the Office of Attorney general seems a fitting reward. During his 20-year tenure as an Alabama Senator, Sessions was a lawyer with his eyes on the federal bench. But his nomination was quashed by controversy.

Today, Sessions sits pretty as the country’s highest law enforcement official, giving his former critics what-for.

As president, Sessions would not be too different from the current leader. Jeff Sessions and Trump are alike on nearly every plank of presidential policy, from the environment (“Carbon pollution is CO2, and that’s really not a pollutant; that’s a plant food”) to immigration and most everything in between. The only sticking point between them is on infrastructure.

While Sessions loves the idea of a border wall, he’s loathe to pay for it. President Sessions would prefer a more modest solution – perhaps a ditch or a particularly nasty fence.

#8 Ryan Zinke

Ryan Zinke hates trees and loves freedom.

Zinke entered college on a football scholarship and became a star linebacker. He transferred that energy and physical prowess to the battlefield, where he served as a Navy SEAL for 23 years. Zinke was even on Seal Team Six before they were cool.

When he returned to his homeland, Ryan Zinke became the first Navy SEAL to serve in the Senate. He published his memoirs, American Commander, with the writer behind the best-selling American Sniper. And now he’s Secretary of the Interior.

In short, he’s a walking, talking, book-writing American dream. As red white and blue as a jug of apple moonshine.

But what kind of president would he be? A Republican one. Typical of his kind, Zinke supports the wars in the middle east, hates Obamacare, and fights environmental regulation at every turn. Which is probably why President Trump named him to the office in charge of federal land and natural resources, including America’s national parks.

#9 The Mysterious Mike Young

Darkness falls. The streets are quiet. The wind gently carries a torn newspaper across an empty parking lot. The scene is otherwise motionless.

Suddenly, a roar pierces the silence. Not an a cry from an animal, but one from a machine. A black van speeds down the street and turns sharply into the lot, with two of its wheels hanging in the air. It crashes back down to earth and halts. A man steps out from the driver side door.

Could it be Mike Young?

Well, maybe. For all we know, it is. It’s not like we have any clue who he is or what he looks like. It could very well be Mike Young. Is it? We may never find out.

According to legend, Mike Young is both a businessman and a botanist. He’s a Democrat. Rumours are that he is a high-ranking civil servant in the Agricultural Department. And since President Trump has failed to have his nominee for Agriculture Secretary confirmed, Mike Young is the standing Secretary.

What bizarre sequence of events could lead to such a man becoming president? It’s not even certain that anything could. Since we’ve never gotten this far down the presidential line of succession before, no one’s sure if a person who was not confirmed by the Senate could become president.

But it’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible anymore. Not when the Mysterious Mike Young is pulling the strings.

March 24, 2017

7 Biggest Changes Under Trump’s Obamacare Replacement

Obamacare replacement

For the past seven years, the Republican Party has promised voters it would repeal and replace Obamacare. This week, President Donald Trump has his sights set on fulfilling that promise.

The huge, big league American Health Care Act is the fabled Obamacare replacement. The bill is currently before the U.S. House of Representatives. If the House passes the bill, it will go next to the Senate. And only when it passes Senate scrutiny will the bill land on the President’s (presumably gold-plated) desk to be signed.

So what does Trump’s Obamacare replacement actually do? Is it as bad as the Democratic Party feared?

While the merits of the bill are obviously subject to debate (even many Republicans are against it), the American Health Care Act does not fully dismantle Obamacare and smash it up into tiny pieces. But it does bring sweeping changes to the current system.

Here’s a quick summary of the American Health Care Act as it stands today.

1.      Eliminates Penalties for the Uninsured

Obamacare levies a fine on people who do not have health coverage. It also impacted employers, requiring those with 50 more employees to offer health insurance to 95% of the workforce. These measures were designed to encourage people to purchase insurance.

The American Healthcare Act would end these requirements, instead levying a 30% surcharge on insurance premiums for new healthcare plans if the purchaser had no insurance for 63 days the previous year.

2.      Increases Age-Based Premium Caps

Under Obamacare, insurance providers cannot charge their oldest customers more than three times the premiums charged to their youngest customer. The Act plans to increase this cap to five times the youngest customer’s premium.

3.      Limits Federal Funding for Medicaid

The American Health Care Act would bring forth three major changes to the way the federal government awards states funding for Medicaid. All would likely result in fewer people enrolled in Medicaid and fewer federal funds in state pockets.

First, Trump’s Obamacare replacement would remove the option for states to expand Medicaid to individuals making up to 138% of the federal poverty line using federal funding.

Second, it would limit Medicaid reimbursements based on the number of patients enrolled and the average medical care costs per state.

The Act would also give states the option of requiring Medicaid recipients to pursue a job or job training in order to continue receiving Medicaid. This would not apply to people who are pregnant, on disability, or working as a caretaker for a family member.

4.      Ends Federal Funding of Planned Parenthood

The American Health Care Act would end all federal funding of Planned Parenthood for one year and prohibit federal subsidies for plans covering abortion.

5.      Establishes New State Grants

Perhaps surprising given the slew of funding cuts, the Obamacare replacement also introduces a $100 billion fund to help states stabilize their healthcare markets and insure low-income individuals.

6.      Repeal Taxes on Insurers, Pharmacies, and Others

What are the insurance companies getting out of the bill? A massive tax cut, for starters.

Obamacare levied taxes on health insurance providers, pharmacies, companies that produce medical devices, over-the-counter medications, and tanning salons. The new bill would sweep all those taxes away, to the tune of $200 billion in lost tax revenue.

7.      Cut Taxes for Individuals

Well, the bill sounds great for insurance companies, but what about the common man? Scratch that – what about his boss?

Fear not – the American Health Care Act also ends Obamacare taxes on payroll and investment income tax for wealthy individuals.

 

March 16, 2017

Money and Munitions: The Presidential Line of Succession, Part 2

presidential line of succession

The presidential line of succession dictates who ascends the high office in the event of a president’s premature passing. In our last post, we looked at the three successors at the top of the line:

  1. Vice President Mike Pence
  2. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan
  3. President of the Senate Orrin Hatch

Today, we’ll look at the next three contenders to the throne, including the first non-republican on the list.

Though they aren’t all red-blooded Republicans, this trio has something in common – see if you can guess what it is. Hint: their boss shares this trait as well.

4. Rex Tillerson

Like something out of a dystopian leftist’s nightmare, oil baron Rex Tillerson comes in as the fourth in line for the presidential office.

While Rex Tillerson is a newcomer to the world of presidential politics, he is no stranger to authority. The Texas oilman started his career at ExxonMobil in 1975 and climbed the ranks to CEO in 2006. Today, he sits at #24 on the Forbes list of most powerful people – and that’s before President Trump offered him the seat of Secretary of State.

Unlike his predecessors, the eminent John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, Rex Tillerson comes to the office with no public sector experience. But if recent history has shown anything, it’s that a dearth of political practice is no barrier to entry in the Oval Office.

5. Steven Mnuchin

Like the Secretary of State, Steve Mnuchin comes to the White House straight off Wall Street. A 27-year veteran of Goldman Sachs, Mnuchin now serves as the Trump administration’s Treasury Secretary.

His appointment was met a controversy so furious that it rivalled Tillerson’s. To start, Mnuchin is a multi-millionaire with a net worth of $500 million. His association with Goldman Sachs is poisonous among democrats and the centre-right alike. As if that weren’t enough, Mnuchin also served at the helm of the beleaguered bank IndyMac at the height of the financial crisis.

It should be noted, however, the Mr. Mnuchin’s appointment is far from the most contentious on our list – but that comes further down the line.

6. James Mattis

Remember when I said these three contenders have something in common? By now, you’re probably thinking wealth. And it’s true that the oilman, the banker, and the dealmaker himself share this trait.

But James Mattis is not a rich man. Nor is he a politician, which is about the only thing that makes him akin to President Trump.

Tillerson and Mnuchin are cut from the same gold-fringed cloth as the man who appointed them, but Mattis is a military man. Some call him Mad Dog – others see him as more of a Warrior Monk. The former marine lead the battle for Fallujah in Iraq and oversaw the war in Afghanistan.

That’s not all that sets Mad Dog apart from the two men ahead in line. Unlike Mnuchin and Tillerson, Mad Dog’s confirmation was almost entirely free from controversy. The Senate gladly confirmed him with a vote of 98 to 1.

For years, it was a given that the president of the United States would have at least some military experience. Even George Bush Junior spent some time in the National Guard. President Obama defied that narrative, and President Trump laid it to rest. For some, President Mattis would be a welcome return to form.

Next time, we’ll look at three more links in the presidential chain, including the first and only Democrat in line for the throne.

March 10, 2017

Down the Line: The United States Presidential Line of Succession, Part 1

Presidential line of succession

What happens if the president dies?

Most of us are somewhat familiar with the United States presidential line of succession. We know the Vice President becomes president if the incumbent dies, resigns, or is removed from office. After all, we’ve all seen it transpire in books, movies, and television shows. And many of us are old enough to have seen the tragedy unfold firsthand.

But what if the Vice President meets the same terrible fate?

The presidential throne cannot sit empty for long. The passing of the torch from POTUS to VP is only step one in the presidential line of succession – there are many more links on the chain, spanning all across the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Mike Pence

Of course, at the time of writing, the incumbent president is the grand negotiator himself, Donald J. Trump. Next in line is his vice president, the stark and silver Mike Pence. Staunchly conservative and faithfully Christian, Pence would bring a terrifying piety to the Oval Office not seen since the days of born-again Bush Jr.

Who comes next? Well, that’s when it gets interesting.

Paul Ryan

Following the presidential line of succession, the burden of the office passes to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Today, that person is Paul Ryan. This is fascinating, given that Ryan is no great fan of Trump or his administration.

Once a contender for the office of VP himself, Ryan is a popular face in his party. But his cold, reluctant acceptance of Trump has never approached anything resembling support. It’s hard to imagine how this Potential President would handle the reins of an administration he can hardly stand to look at.

Orrin Hatch

Next in line is Orrin Hatch, the President pro tempore of the Senate. His unlikely ascension would be a worthy capstone to his career as the longest-serving Republican Senator in history. Hatch would be the first Mormon to serve the office of President, earning a title that once seemed destined for Mitt Romney.

Next time, we’ll creep further down the presidential line of succession and look at the next two republicans (and one independent) who could one day stand at the head of the union.

March 03, 2017

The Rise (and Fall?) of Jeff Sessions

jeff sessions

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) makes opening remarks to a panel of Department of Homeland Security officials. (CBP Photo by Glenn Fawcett)

It was just over one year ago that Jeff Sessions first rose in defense of Donald Trump.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was among the President’s earliest and most stalwart allies. This was a surprisingly bold move for once-Senator, who was not known for being a gambling man. But the risk paid off in spades. Jeff Sessions now sits at the office of the highest law enforcement official in the country.

At 70-years-old, Jeff Sessions is deceptively mild.

He hails for a tiny town north of Mobile, Alabama, tucked away in the Southern hills. He is sweet-mannered and short-statured. He comes off as the proprietor of some wholesome establishment on a straight spot in the road, who gratefully chats up the visitors who stop by on the way to a better place.

How did this southern charm worm its way into the heart of the Trump administration? Despite their superficial differences, President Trump and Senator Sessions have much in common. Jeff Sessions is a debt hawk and military hawk, tough on crime and skeptical of the changing climate. His blood runs redder than his President’s, and has for far longer.

Sessions did not celebrate the anniversary of his pledge with much enthusiasm.

February brought a never-ending storm of controversies month for the fledgling administration, drowning out any potentially positive notes. President Trump typically thrives under heavy rain, but even the man himself is looking weathered these days.

Of course, the Attorney General did not waver in his support. He was glad to defend the wide-scale immigration ban that generated cries of racism and fascism from much of the American public. Jeff Sessions proudly wears the title of amnesty’s worst enemy, which he earned from his long history of fighting nearly every immigration bill that has come before the Senate since the 1990’s. The forces of assimilation, as he calls them, have a fearsome foe in Jefferson Sessions.

But the idea of march brought misfortune for the Attorney General. At first glance, there is nothing wrong with a senator sitting down to talk with the Russian ambassador. But denying that meeting under oath is a grave political sin.

Now, there is a mark on Jeff Sessions.

Whether the Southern gentleman can redeem himself is yet to be seen. Lying to the public is one thing – lying to the president is a whole other beast. We know what happens to loyal allies who are alleged to have betrayed to their President.

His long history with Trumpland should tilt the odds in his favor. But Jefferson Sessions is no gambler.