Wednesday, March 2, 2016

What The Election (So Far) Means for the Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on…………………"

Have a little energy today, so thought I would attempt this.

What The Election (So Far) Means for the Arts:
The short answer is probably that we don't absolutely know for sure.

Except for this:

Who is elected President is important to the nonprofit arts for two principal reasons:  First, the President prepares the annual budget for Congress to consider.  If there is money in that budget for the arts, humanities, museums, arts education and in various government agencies like housing, veterans affairs, etc. etc. for arts support, it is easier for us to succeed in getting that budget (in some form) through Congress.  If there is no money for any of those things in the budget, it is axiomatically much more difficult to get it put in by Congress - especially a Congress where arts support may be in the minority.  And second, if the President champions the value of art and culture to American society, that imprimatur goes a  long way in our ability to leverage that support in other ways.  So who wins is important.

We are now well into the Democrat and Republican primary process.  The rules governing each are slightly different and important to understand.

The Democrats work under a system of proportional allocation of delegates to their convention at which they will select their nominee for the Presidency.  So (hypothetically) if Clinton wins 60% of the vote in a state with 10 delegates, and Sanders wins 40% - she gets 6 delegates and he gets 4 delegates.   In addition to the delegates available from each state, the Democrats also have what are called "super delegates" -- elected officials (Congress, City Mayors, Governors, State office holders and party officials).  There are about 750 of these super delegates.  To win the Democratic nomination a candidate has to have 1250+ votes, so the super delegate votes are a very powerful bloc.  These super delegates are free to vote for any candidate at the convention, but most pledge to support a candidate prior to the Convention (though they are free to change their minds).

The Republicans changed their rules for delegate allocation in 2014.  Now, the contests held prior to March 15 are awarded proportionately just like the Democrats.  After that, most of the states are "winner take all" meaning that if any of the candidates win a primary (though in most states they have to get over a threshold of 50% of the vote) they get all the delegates from that state.  The Republicans don't have the super delegate category.

So what is likely to happen?

Given Clinton's victories on Super Tuesday, coupled with her already pledged super delegates, it will be difficult for Sanders to amass the delegate count needed to win the nomination.  Her impressive showing among all the communities of color make her hard to beat.  She has to be considered the presumptive nominee.  That doesn't mean that Sanders is likely to drop out.  He did better than expected on Super Tuesday winning four states (Vermont, Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota), and, as importantly, he has money in his coffers.  For him, this whole campaign has been as much about his message as actually winning.  Of course, nothing is for certain until the actual convention vote, and as Yogi Berra use to quip: "It ain't over til it's over", but it's hard to see Sanders prevailing.

On the Republican side, given Trump's Super Tuesday wins, he is clearly the one with momentum and the ongoing front runner status.   If he beats Rubio in his home state of Florida (he's far ahead), and Kasich in Ohio (again Trump is ahead) mid-month - it very likely IS all over, Cruz's wins in his state of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma, and Rubio's one victory in Minnesota notwithstanding.   Trump continues to confound the pundits and the so called experts who have utterly failed to understand the anger and frustration in both parties with the dysfunctional government in Washington.  He has been as outrageous as anyone could have possibly imagined and yet  he continues to win.  People are fed up.  They want an outsider.

On the Republican side there is all kinds of jockeying and maneuvering both publicly and behind the scenes.  There is a sizable portion of the party who fear Trump will not be able to beat Hillary, and that he will otherwise damage the party  - including the fear that his being the head of the ticket will negatively impact all those other Republicans running for election and re-election - many in contested races, and with minority populations.  Trump is seen as not a true conservative, and more importantly, as damaging the brand over time.  After his third win, Cruz continues to argue that he is the one to stop Trump, and so the rest of the candidates should drop out and everybody should coalesce behind him.  The problem is a lot of the party stalwarts just don't like him, and many fear he is too conservative to prevail in a general election.  And he didn't do nearly as well in the Super Tuesday southern states where the Evangelical and Conservative cards ought to have played better for him.  Instead, Trump came out the victor.  Rubio continues to make much the same argument, though without the support of multiple victories.  He continues to enjoy much of the support of those who initially thought Jeb Bush was the one to lead a more moderate conservative Republican base, but having won only Minnesota, and his meltdown in the debate last month, the big money has yet to rally to his support.  Kasich continues to argue that he is the one best positioned to beat a democrat, but his loss to Trump in Massachusetts yesterday belie his argument.   All of them continue to insist they will stay in the race until the bitter end - though that end is likely to come sooner than later for at least a couple of them.  And all of them in the race helps Trump.

The "Stop Trump" movement has arguably come too little, too late.  The momentum remains with him.  If he beats Rubio in Florida and Kasich in Ohio, the bandwagon effect may come into play, and we very well may then see, if not a stampede to endorse Trump, at least a long and steady stream of such endorsements (as the party leadership wants to be in line for plumb appointments in a Trump administration.  Christie was just the first - angling for the Attorney General appointment perhaps?)  Nowhere is self interest more prevalent than in party politics, and politicians are not averse to making deals with the devil if it helps them personally.  A President has enormous power including the patronage of appointments, and beltway insiders always want to be in the game.  The Republicans have been "out" for eight years.  Just because they may not like Trump, is hardly any reason for them not to get behind him and (hopefully) share in the spoils.  Ditto for business interests.

Now it is possible, thought improbable, (and it may well be a strategy of some of those who are desperate to stop Trump from getting the nomination) that no candidate would have the requisite delegate numbers on the first ballot to secure the nomination - and we would have a so-called "brokered convention".  And after the first ballot, virtually all the delegates are then free to vote for anyone they want on subsequent ballots.   Then you have back room deals being made (read the ultimate self-interest).  The problem with this strategy is that millions of those who voted for say Trump, were he to be then denied the nomination, might very well bolt the party insuring a Democratic victory - something the Republicans want to avoid at any cost.  It would be great theatre though.

So what does that mean for the arts?

Can Trump win?  Can Cruz, or Rubio or Kasich?  Can Hillary?

All the candidates have high negatives, all have baggage.  But there is no question that (despite the handwringing and dumbfounded consternation on the part of lots of people) yes, any one of them can win.   Remember, the American voters are an odd bunch.  We elected JFK, Nixon twice, Reagan, then Clinton, Bush and Obama.   If that isn't all over the map, then I don't know what would be.  And there is the tendency for us to vote the other party in after one party has occupied the White House for two terms.  Give the other guy a turn.  And people are pissed off - in general - at everything.  All the people.  Ok, most of the people anyway.

The warnings by Rubio, Cruz, Bush and the GOP stalwarts that Trump can't win, that he doesn't represent the Republican party, that he's a liability are nonsense in that if he wins the delegate count, he will be the party nominee, and the party will (with some exceptions perhaps) get behind him.  That doesn't mean he won't stumble - and elections are often decided on people stumbling.  But so far, every seeming stumble hasn't hurt him.   Testimony to the anger of his supporters I think.

Assuming Trump is the presumptive nominee:  Trump's victory numbers are still less than 50% (though approaching that milestone in a couple of states), and he has alienated huge blocs of voters  - even in his own party.  The same is true for the other Republican candidates. But that may not mean much, and the Democrats will be making a fatal mistake if they count on it as their firewall. And after the convention, Trump, and the rest, are likely to tone down their incendiary rhetoric and try to move to the middle.  That may work, it may be a flawed approach and alienate their bases.   Hillary will be a formidable opponent, not likely as easy to derail as Rubio, Cruz and the rest of the GOP candidates were for Trump, and the Clinton machine is far more experienced than were the Republican candidates, and they can dish it out with the best of them - including Trump.  But Trump will be formidable too.  The email "problem" will continue to dog Hillary.  But Trump may have some (as yet undisclosed) skeletons in his closet too.  Lots of money will be spent, but it's doubtful either side will have a huge financial advantage.  I don't know how Bernie might fare, but if he were to get the nomination, I suspect he would fare better than many think.  One advantage the Democrats have is that the party, including the candidates, should have no trouble getting behind whomever wins the nomination.  Will the Republicans put on a happy public face?

Victory for the Democrats will likely hinge on their ability to mobilize the African American, Latino/a and Asian communities to get out and vote - reminding them of Trump's (assuming he is the nominee) extreme positions on issues important to them.  And motivating the Millennials that Bernie excited will also be key.  It's the ground game that will be critical to the Democrats.  It's all about "organization".  Trump and the Republicans need the disaffection and anger to continue (and would be helped enormously by a souring economy, or perceived slights to America by Russia, China or others, or a terrorist incident on U.S. soil - god forbid).  This election is likely to be close.

The fact is that most people will have likely sided with one of the two well before the vote in November.  There will be a small group of "undecideds", who will decide the election, and in a small number of states.  In fact, the election will again likely be determined by the voters in half dozen or so states (Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Iowa and perhaps Wisconsin, New Mexico and Nevada).  Some of Obama's victorious states like Michigan might be in play this cycle.  Few of the Romney won states will be.  It's no accident that the Republican convention is in Cleveland Ohio, and the Democrat convention is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - two "in play" states.  Most of the rest of the states are pretty solidly blue or red.

Ok, ok so………What does that mean for us - in the nonprofit arts sector?

On the Democratic side, both Sanders and Clinton can be expected to be arts supportive.  They may or may not actually get it, but both can pretty reliably be expected to support the NEA, Arts Education and the general proposition that arts and culture are important to the country.  I wouldn't look for any game changing support, but at least they will defend the status quo.  The arts stand to be better off under a Democratic President than a Republican one in this election IMHO.

We don't know much about the positions on the Arts and Arts Education of the Republicans - especially Trump.  Optimists will believe that as a New Yorker of substantial means, he understands the arts somewhat.  (Cruz and Rubio, having positioned themselves as strict conservatives for whom policy dogma is paramount, (including tax cuts, budget cuts, and increased military spending) would not (in my opinion) likely be arts supportive.  Cruz in particular would seem the least arts friendly.  Both Cruz and Rubio scored at the bottom in the Arts Action Fund Congressional Report Card.)  And even Kasich and the theoretical moderates cannot be considered as arts supportive.  A victory by any of these candidates might very well bode ill for arts support in Washington come 2017 and it is not inconceivable to me that any one of them might zero out federal government funding support.  Then again, Trump, or any of them, may confound people and move towards the moderate center after the election.  Or not.

Trump is the wild card - we have no idea where he really stands.

And we need to know.  We need to get to his people -- now -- not in November or December. and find out if he has a position, and try to get him to go on the record as at least ok with the NEA and arts education.  We don't want him to embrace the conservative dogma that funding for the arts ought to be a private matter, or that we simply cannot afford to support the arts.  How do we get to him?  I don't know.  Through Christie, or Giuliani or someone else in his circle I suppose.  But get to him we must.  The sooner the better.

What would happen if there were a serious challenge to funding the NEA?  What if, as President, Trump (or Cruz or Rubio) echoed the hardliner position that the government ought not to be in the business of funding the arts?  And what if our usual economic and other arguments fell on deaf ears?

One ace in the hole that we have is that 40% of the Endowment funding, by law, goes to the states and regional organizations, and we could mount considerable local constituency pressure on the White House and on Congress to make sure they don't get rid of money coming into their districts.  That's a lot of work.  It would be far better for us if Trump's position was to hold the status quo.

The worst case scenario  (and herein lies the real danger) of a successful attack on the full funding of the Endowment  - while only a $150 +/- million drop - might send a very bad message to state legislatures and even city councils that already have factions that want to defund their state and municipal arts agencies - and embolden many to emulate the feds and get rid of local funding.  Could that snowball?  That would compound the problem in the short term by removing even more funding from the table, and worse would set a precedent that would take a long, long time to overturn.  It might herald the beginning of the end of public support for the arts, and that, in my opinion, would be a disaster of epic proportions.  It could certainly create a have / have not situation for public funding depending on the politics of where you live.

A GOP White House victory this time around may involve an uphill battle to secure NEA support, or the support of a Trump (or any GOP) Administration championing of arts and culture as a primary societal value.  Not for sure, of course, but conventional wisdom suggests a likely lean to the right might put the arts in the crosshairs of those that believe (at best) that the arts should be private sector funded.  Ironically, Trump might actually be a better gamble for the arts than either Cruz or Rubio.

This is, for a huge sector of the public, a protest election.  Both Trump's and Sanders' base are those who are fed up with the system and see no hope for its functioning.  Indeed, they want to turn it on its head.  In a sense Trump and Sanders are opposite sides of the same disaffection and anger coin, and that is appealing to a large segment of the voting public.  They are "movement" candidates, and the fact that both are short on setting forth how they would make good on their promises, is irrelevant to their supporters.  They each speak a "truth" as their supporters hear it, and that seems all that counts.  Things that might logically matter in an election have come to be irrelevant and meaningless.  People don't care about details, or specifics or even their own logically best interests.  They are making a statement.  Don't expect things to fall into place as they usually do in this cycle - even after the election is over.  This time things may really be different.

Anything can, and probably will, happen over the nest two or three months.  Fortunes can dramatically change and voters are fickle.  But if I had to make a guess at this point, i would think it likely that Trump  and Clinton will win their party nominations and face each other in the general election.   Clearly there is a lot at stake - including for us.

What is very likely is that Congress itself will change very little.  It's possible, though not probable, that the Dems could regain control of the Senate.  The House will stay Republican.  We will, in January 2017, very likely have a Congress not much different than the one we have now - and that means entrenched positions, incivility, dogma, and gridlock making compromise impossible.  Red states and Blue states have lines in the sand.  Despite all the usual homage to healing the country, uniting the people, and reaching across the aisle to work together, building bridges not walls -- none of that is likely to happen.  Sounds nice, but it's a pipe dream at this moment in time.  Arts funding - or defunding - will depend, I believe, on White House leadership.  Not a pretty picture I fear if the GOP wins.  And I think it better to consider a worst case scenario as opposed to merely hoping for a better outcome.

The arts need to unify as they have never done before.  They need to organize to insure both party's candidates (but particularly the Republican nominee) are convinced that support for the arts will help them, and is the right thing to do.  It will take a tremendous effort to rally those on our side to make a convincing case - particularly as political players.  And I fear the usual advocacy and telling of our stories may simply not work this time around.  This is, I think, potentially the most serious threat to public arts funding in perhaps 40 years.  And I shudder to think of a new era wherein public funding for the arts is on its way out.  What, I wonder, will the arts in America look like if public funding largely dries up over the next eight years and beyond?

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

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