Sunday, January 03, 2016

My 20 Favorite Album Cuts From Country CDs I Own

I got a new CD player (yeah, I know...I'm the last dinosaur) for Christmas to replace my old one which was routinely skipping, and as a result I've been revisiting a lot of my old CDs that have been accumulating since 1994 in the days since.  I'm always struck how some of my favorite songs were never released as singles, a phenomenon that's been occurring since the dawn of albums I'm sure but one that I thought worthy of recognition even amongst the relatively small selection of music I've accumulated over the years.  Obviously my list is not a representative sample of all never-released-as-singles country classics lingering out there, just a list based on my own limited collection.  I thought it would be fun to document them on my blog.

#20. "Two of the Lucky Ones"--Billy Dean
For several years in the late 90s and early 2000s my mom would forage through the discount CD bin at retail stores and buy some clearance CDs selling for less than $5.   Some of these were quite weak but there were some diamonds in the rough.  Billy Dean's 1993 "Fire in the Dark" CD was a mixed bag with a couple of good singles but little else worthy of Dean's more memorable songs over the years.  But this midtempo cut documenting a couple's years of staying together amidst all of their friends and families' marriages falling apart was nicely sung, had good lyrics, and a strong, addictive melodic hook.  It was right in Billy Dean's wheelhouse and unfortunate that he never released it as one of the singles.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOovjj20qsM

#19.  "I Was Here"--Lady Antebellum
There were plenty of mediocre ripoffs of Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" in the years following that song's smash success, but the best was this 2011 midtempo cut where the narrator vows to find her way and make a difference in whatever she does.  I first heard the song on a "20/20" segment profiling the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and took notice.  While the lyrics are relatively hum-ho, Lady Antebellum lead singer Hillary Scott's terrific vocals and the melodic arrangement are what make the song powerful and emotional.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koRUgTNJdLs

#18. "Joe and Rosalita"--Phil Vassar
There are few CDs in my collection as terrific from beginning to end as Phil Vassar's self-titled debut album from 2000, and Phil was rewarded with five top-15 hits on radio for the effort.  Phil's subsequent work never lived up to it but this debut effort was packed with 11 above-average songs that were all worth listening to to experience the album in full, complete with Phil's trademark keyboard licks bridging between two cuts on a few experiences.  Aside from the stellar singles, the best album cut was "Joe and Rosalita", an uptempo number documenting a young couple's burning passion from high school to young adulthood that often got them in a wee bit of trouble, all set to a rollicking beat of sizzling fiddle riffs and Phil's keyboards.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAV6c9e1uTQ

#17. "One Day You Will"--Martina McBride
Perhaps the single best voice to come out of country music in my lifetime is Martina McBride, and while she's best known for her power-vocal performances, it's nice when she slows things down and lets the beauty of her voice dazzle in its purest form, as she did in "One Day You Will", an understated cut from her 1997 "Evolution" album.  There were already six singles released from this album, and I believe they were all top-10s, but it's too bad they couldn't have held out for a seventh single to give this gem a wider audience.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TPw6yHiFKA

#16. "The Things You Said to Me"--The Mavericks
The Miami-based band the Mavericks defied categorization when they first came out but managed to find commercial success in the mid-90s without betraying their eclectic sound, and did so most impressively on their most successful album, 1994's "What a Crying Shame", a practical anthology of oldies country sounds and oldies rock sounds that managed to sound fresh and new with lead singer Raul Malo's incredible vocals and fantastic musicianship backing him up.  All of the songs on the CD were great, but the album cuts that always stands out is the 50s-style rocker "The Things You Said to Me" which channels the sound of an early Elvis with a beat so addictive I've heard random people humming it over the years.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYnFmnmk9Ko

#15.  "The Other Side of Midnight"--Sylvia
Few singers have come through Nashville with vocals as pure as early 80s hitmaker Sylvia, so it's a shame that her legacy is tainted as the auteur of the lowest-denominator country-pop of the urban cowboy era.  I frankly think even her clunkiest efforts on that front were a far sight better than the bro-country drivel saturating country radio 35 years later, but the dirty little secret is that much of her material was fantastic, particularly on her early albums.  But even by her fourth album--1984's "Surprise"--she cranked out some great cuts, the best of which being the ballad "Other Side of Midnight", a song where both the melody and Sylvia's vocals are so silky smooth they take me to a zen state whenever I listen to it....that rare feeling when all is right in the world for three minutes just because of great music.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvAU-5P6KA4  (not great audio)

#14. "A Kiss is Worth a Thousand Words"--BlackHawk
One of the best and most distinctive country groups of my lifetime is BlackHawk, forging a unique sound that embraced elements of country and southern rock in the mid-90s, and doing so with above-average songs at almost every turn.  But even a lyrically average song such as this one found its voice on BlackHawk's outstanding 1995 "Strong Enough" album, which cranked up the guitars and blew the roof off the place in a way I've rarely encountered on a country CD.  Something about the melding of Henry Paul's lead vocals with the harmonies of fellow band members Van Stephenson and Dave Robbins, along with a pitch-perfect country-rock melody makes this my favorite of the five album cuts never released as singles on one of the best commercially successful CDs to ever grace store shelves.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5dp0SxKHyE

#13. "Pink Bedroom"--Rosanne Cash
Never before in the history of commercial country music has a star artist come to a stylistic crossroads and successfully declared "Fuck it....I'm making a rock album and calling it country!" in the way that Rosanne Cash did with her audacious 1985 "Rhythm and Romance" album.  Artists like Ronnie Milsap and Eddie Rabbitt had dabbled in infusing country music with rock stylings in the early 80s but Rosanne Cash broke down all the walls and went full-on Pat Benatar with an album that would still defy belief if it was released today, 30 years after country music has embraced rock as a natural component of its sound.  Amazingly, country radio embraced it and the album produced four top-five hits.  The most fun track on the album was this John Hiatt-penned rocker about a teenage girl rebelling against the stuffed-shirt corporate world of her parents that she sees on her horizon, all set to a pitch-perfect Bo Diddley-meets-Joan Jett arrangement.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV5eV9fOIqg

#12. "Somebody Save Me"--Chalee Tennison
I picked up Chalee Tennison's massively underrated 2001 sophomore CD on eBay about a decade ago for the one single that was a semihit that I just had to have in my collection, but never could I have anticipated how first-rate the whole 12-song CD would be.  Tennison's vocals and lyrics exude authenticity in a way that very few commercial singer-songwriters can pull off.  You believe Tennison has lived every word of what she sings about, and while there are any number of great choices to select on the underappreciated album, the best is this polished slow-to-midtempo cut where the narrator is the "friend" always lending emotional support to others while quietly crying out for her own that just isn't coming.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5moUXNxxWUI

#11. "You Keep on Loving Me"--Sherrie Austin
For the life of me I can't figure out why drop-dead gorgeous Aussie-born Sherrie Austin was never the tour de force in country music that her vocals, stage presence, and song selection would indicate.  The unevenness of her 1999 sophomore CD was sort of explained it, but the lack of complete radio allegiance to her first-rate 1997 debut continues to mystify nearly 20 years later.  All but a couple of the songs from the album are fantastic and three of them were semi-hits on radio, but of all the memorable cuts that never got to be hits at all, Austin's self-penned "You Keep on Loving Me" which closes the album is the most impressive and indicative of the kind of sound that I think could have set Austin apart from the crowd had she explored it more deeply, with powerhouse vocals and a wildly dramatic midtempo arrangement that came to a blazing finale at the song's closing notes.  It was the kind of song that felt like it could go along with an emotionally charged movie finale.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZ4lfWXW6Go

#10. "Stronger than I Am"--Lee Ann Womack
One of the best CDs in my collection is Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" which dazzles from beginning to end with a mix of surprisingly dark songs of varying tempos and genre influences all set to Lee Ann's one of a kind vocals which we hear far too little of on radio today.  Most of the songs on the record feature something to love, but the most poignant is the stone cold country ballad "Stronger than I Am" featuring a single mother narrator impressed by toughness of her baby girl in the face of their adversity, in contrast to her own difficulty turning the page after being abandoned by the baby daddy.  The closing lyric wraps things up nicely...."she's just like her old man....stronger than I am".

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PurGinl_k8

#9. "Pick Up the Tempo"--The Thompson Brothers Band
One of the more unique country acts to emerge in the last 20 years was the Massachusetts-based roots college-aged rockers The Thompson Brothers Band, whose sound was an eclectic combination of Steve Earle, Neil Diamond, and Creedence Clearwater.  There was a ton of potential to their stripped-down country-rock sound but they needed a little more time to improve their songwriting skills before they were foisted on the shallow and skeptical minds of country radio.  They still managed one big hit video on CMT but other than that their tenure in the country music scene was limited to a single album released in 1997.  The best song from the album was the closing cut, a reimagining of Willie Nelson's "Pick Up the Tempo", where they really did pick up the tempo, joined by Steve Earle on vocals and cranking up the guitars to produce a performance worthy of the very best country-rock is capable of and all within the context of their no-frills, just-the-basics-ma'am musical production.

No Audio Clip

#8. "You'll Never Know"--Kim Richey
I had just sensed based on the two semihit singles released by Kim Richey from her 1995 debut album that it was likely to be my kind of CD so I took a gamble and put it on my Christmas list.  The gamble paid off as the CD represented a mature-in-sound-and-lyrics variation of country-pop I hadn't experience on country radio up to that point.  While the dim bulbs at radio never took to Kim, other Nashville artists noticed as four of the songs from her debut CD were picked up other artists, and released as singles.  The late Mindy McCready had a top-20 hit in 1998 with her competent version of Richey's best album cut from the CD, a lushly produced midtempo number about a woman doing her best to pretend she's over an ex-lover even though she's still dying inside.  Richey's version operates at a whole different level as McCready's, however, with haunting background vocals augmenting Kim's emotionally charged lead vocals, and a very elaborate and distinctive musical arrangement as a backdrop.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zV6xeH7hdWA

#7.  "Stay the Night"--George Ducas
Yet another underrated singer-songwriter from the mid-to-late 90s who was just a little behind the times when he kicked off his commercial career in Nashville, forwarding a progressive variation on traditional country music at the very moment when country radio was beginning to circle the wagons around the safe and familiar.  George nonetheless scored one outstanding top-10 hit from his solid debut CD, but it was his hitless 1997 sophomore CD where he busted wide open with an eclectic anthology of Tex-Mex toe-tappers, tear-in-my-beer country ballads, and guitar-charging uptempo rockers that put the mainstream country-rock acts of the era to shame.  His best effort was the jangly "Stay the Night", a song with an uptempo hook and closing guitar solo that combined with Ducas' vocals just seemed custom-built as an anthem for a campy werewolf or vampire plotline even though the lyrics only touched upon a monster show theme with a couple of metaphorical flourishes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTv9kJdul4c

#6. "The Real Me"--Rosanne Cash
No commercial country singer has released ballads that have the kind of lyrical rawness as Rosanne Cash.  These songs are usually dark and introspective where the narrator reaches an epiphany and becomes honest with herself about a broken relationship.  While nothing from this Rosanne Cash subgenre could compare to 1982's #1 hit "Blue Moon with a Heartache", the closest she ever came was this fantastic album cut from 1987's "King's Record Shop", her most successful commercial endeavor.  The lyrics were smart, deep, and cutting, with a fitting musical backdrop subtle enough to let Rosanne's vocals carry it.  I would have preferred if this song was released as the album's third single rather than the comparatively mediocre midtempo "If You Change Your Mind", and I suspect it would have been just as big of a hit on the charts.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bs0_EI5TCXs

#5.  "Dead of the Night"--Tammy Cochran
Tammy Cochran had a couple of undistinguished modest hits on her 2001 debut album, but it wasn't until the poignant--if epically depressing--class reunion ballad "Life Happened" from her 2002 sophomore album of the same name till I stood up and take notice.  As luck would have it, she performed at my county fair in 2003 and I was taken by the number of dark story songs she sang and then reported being on her latest album.  One song in particular really stood out, the incredibly dark midtempo "Dead of the Night" with one of the most haunting arrangements I've ever heard, which she reported writing after watching a Lifetime movie.  I was so impressed I bought the CD. The song features an abused nine-year-old girl who kills her father who "thought he hid that .45" just before "daddy crossed that line".  Yikes!  Nowadays, female country singers glam up the idea of murdering their cheating husbands/boyfriends, but Cochran's emotional lyrics made it clear the girl forced to pull the trigger would be scarred for life as a result.  No surprise this one was never released a single but I'm grateful I heard it in concert and was thus compelled to purchase the CD.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQueMvpAVg4

#4. "Someone's Out to Get Me"--Steve Holy
It was years after Steve Holy's 2000 debut album that my mom came home with it from the discount bin at ShopKo, having spent like $3 on it.  There was one single from it I really liked but I went in with very modest expectations given how lukewarm I was on the other three songs from the album that were released as singles.  What a pleasant surprise that the album cuts were exceptional, featuring Holy's modernized take on Roy Orbison and their contemporaries The Mavericks through the prism of modern commercial country.  Holy didn't have the vocal chops of Orbison or Raul Malo but his smooth tone was nonetheless well-suited for these kinds of songs.  But as much as I liked the entire album, standing out the most was the fiendishly clever tongue-in-cheek horror show anthem "Someone's Out to Get Me", which cheekily depicts the faux paranoia of a man expecting to be "attacked" by his significant other's libido, all set to a campily haunting midtempo arrangement that is pitch-perfect for the tone of the song.  Like George Ducas' "Stay the Night" listed above, this song would be great for the soundtrack of a lighthearted horror movie or TV show.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7qRUw5f1OQ

#3. "You're a Legend in Your Own Mind"--Sylvia
The 1982 sophomore effort by Sylvia was a masterpiece, a collection of country-pop classics with a couple of very traditional cuts thrown in just for balance.  The syrupy ballad "Sweet Yesterday" was the odd selection for first single, but it's too bad the uptempo "You're a Legend in Your Own Mind" wasn't released as one of the album's three singles as I suspect it would have given Sylvia additional career momentum after the smash pop crossover "Nobody".  "Legend" was a more fun and better produced  ripoff of Carly Simon's "Your So Vain", with super-slick production elements unlike anything heard in country music before.  Perhaps the slickness of the production is what kept nervous record company executives from releasing it as a single, but it stands out as one of the biggest sins of country music history because it was a song that desperately needed a more widespread platform.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pioI5oQBOU

#2. "A Thousand Memories"--Rhett Akins
If ever there was a country album that represented the perfect hybrid of 90s-era new country with a believable hard rock edge, it was the 1995 debut album from Rhett Akins, an album that blended the best of both genres and fused blaring rock guitars with enough fiddles and twang to effectively impress both audiences.  And while the album enjoyed some commercial success, it didn't enjoy nearly enough.  Rhett had the vocal chops to become a star but a credible case could be made that he wasn't quite ready for primetime to successfully interpret a good song vocally.  Nonetheless, his country boy vocal stylings nailed the heartfelt uptempo breakup title track, a song that was lyrically interesting but taken to an entirely different level with an out-of-this-world 90-second guitar riff at the end that still stands out 20 years later as one of the most sophisticated I've heard, giving the song an unforgettably raging energy level that would-be listeners really got screwed for never hearing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=un9c6euc9Pk

#1. "Halfway House"--Rosanne Cash
One album cut from Rosanne's groundbreaking 1985 "Rhythm and Romance" album has already made this countdown, but I saved the most earth-shattering for last, the electrified rocker "Halfway House" which is lyrically ambiguous but widely interpreted as an autobiographical double entendre from Rosanne's personal struggle with drug addiction in the months before she produced this album.  The song starts out with a vintage 80s synthesized keyboard surge that blends with rock guitars for the choruses, continually building momentum throughout the course of the song before all hell breaks loose at the end with a soaring arena rock backdrop unlike anything anybody before or after would imagine a country song would song like.  Any country music purist should stay miles away from this song but anybody who wants to discover what a country song on the extreme edge sounds like should check out this 30-year-old classic which I recall listening to as a young boy on my mom's cassette player in the early morning getting ready for school.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4aQPFM1shc

My purchases of modern CDs have become extremely rare in recent years as the availability of online music has so dramatically changed the business model.  And it's a shame because a lot of great songs recorded as album cuts are being heard by even fewer people than 20 years ago when music sales were more brisk.  Had I purchased CDs in the last 10 years as frequently as I did in the 10 years prior, this list might look quite a bit different.  The best I can do is seek out some album cuts from online here and there and see if I find any hidden treasures. 


Saturday, December 26, 2015

Hillary vs. Trump: The Cycle Where Coalitions Get Upended

The 2012 Presidential election cycle seemed custom-made from the beginning as a cycle in which the Democratic Party had a pretty powerful message to send to blue-collar America.  Jobs were slowly but surely rebounding from the depths of the Great Recession and Barack Obama's signature action in that recovery was to bail out General Motors and Chrysler, a decision that seemed risky at the time but paid immediate dividends in the form of rebounding jobs in the industrial Midwest, when the almost inevitable consequence of not bailing out Detroit would be a complete collapse of the entire auto manufacturing industry and the supply chain that fed it. 

Meanwhile, the opposition party's frontrunner for President and eventual nominee was a guy who spent his entire professional career shutting down factories and passing the savings on to the corporate boardroom. After getting into Presidential politics, Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt", opposing the auto bailout endorsed by the rookie Obama administration and vowing to do to General Motors and Chrysler--and its workers--what he had done to every other company he laid his fingerprints on.  And months after unofficially getting the nomination, Romney's choice for running mate was a man whose top priority in public life was to take away working people's Medicare.  How, I thought to myself in August 2012, could Obama possibly get so lucky as to be running against the Romney-Ryan ticket?

And just in case the message to working-class America hadn't been made abundantly clear by the GOP's nomination of the Romney-Ryan ticket, Romney made sure to give them one more reminder with his videotaped screed to a room full of rich Republican megadonors that he had no interest in representing "those people" who didn't earn enough money to fall into his tax bracket.  A half century earlier, a Republican ticket like this would have been laughed out of the room by dominant margins by working-class voters.  Instead, the Romney-Ryan ticket held the Democratic Party to a mere 39% of the white vote, and even that 39% number was propped up by upscale whites.  Working-class whites supported Obama with numbers closer to 33% nationally, a nearly 2-1 victory in favor of the guys who took away their jobs in the past, wanted to take away even more of their jobs if given half a chance, thinks they're parasites mooching off the government, and just for good measure, wants to take away their Medicare so that the richest 1% can get more tax cuts.  Even in the best-case scenario environment for Democrats, the tide was turning rapidly against them among working-class whites....but it's about to get much, much worse.

The reason it's gonna get worse is that heading into the 2016 cycle, the Republican frontrunner is running on a campaign of "making America great again, sticking it to China, and demanding immigrants get in the back of the line" while Democrats' campaign is centered around gun control, immigration liberalization, and Black Lives Matter.  If Donald Trump was less of a loose cannon and an asshole personally, his message would probably be enough to win him the 2016 election against likely Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.  But since Trump is loose cannon amateur, I suspect the same upscale whites who turned against John McCain in 2008 because his running mate was not ready for primetime will vote for Hillary in supersized margins.  But as long as Trump keeps running a campaign touching the themes his primary campaign is centered around, I think he not only maintains the GOP's 2-1 grip on working-class whites, but grows upon it, picking off potentially millions more two-time Obama voters in the Midwest who held on for the Democrats one last time in 2012 when the Democrats were still running as the party of the working guy while Republicans were running as the party of the management.

These divergent coalitions are likely to result in a sweeping Hillary win, at least in the popular vote as she'll undoubtedly dominate in LBJ vs. Goldwater-style numbers in the northeast and the West Coast, and probably do well enough among upscale conservative-leaning whites in the Midwest to hang on to the blue states of 2012 and offset likely losses among blue-collar whites in the same states.  It'll be a pyrrhic victory though because, just as with Goldwater's loss in 1964 that realigned what would become an ascendant future coalition, Trump's loss will win over millions of new converts to the GOP while positioning the party to get back most of the defectors who vote against him in two short years.  In other words, Trump's message is likely to flip working-class whites into a near monolithic bloc of Republican voters who won't flip back....whereas the Greenwich, Connecticut, and Wayzata, Minnesota, crowd that defects to the Democrats in 2016 will likely be on loan for one cycle only, flipping back to the Republicans in the 2018 midterms and staying there far more often than not to give them a dominant majority.

Now it's still too early to declare Trump the Republican nominee.  If GOP primary voters suddenly get their act together and nominate Rubio or even a generic Republican like Jeb!, Christie, or Kasich, they're likely to poach the majority of the voters Trump would be poised to pick up in 2016....white working class voters bristling about Democrats who can't stop talking about gun control, immigration, and Black Lives Matter.  If this were to come to pass, I suspect the Democratic share of the overall white vote would drop from 2012's 39% to something more like 35% in 2016.  If the GOP nominates Rubio, they'll get far more than the 27% of the Hispanic vote that Romney got.  And no matter who the Republicans nominate, I suspect that Obama not being on the ticket ensures both lower turnout among blacks and a Democratic share of the black vote that drops from 93-94% to 91-92%, a consequential amount given that the party is mortgaging its future on permanently overperforming among nonwhites and giving themselves virtually zero margin for error in doing so.

For all the talk by the Democrats about "demographics being destiny", their coalition has only delivered for one man in the last four election cycles, a man who will never be on the ballot again.  If the Republicans further strengthen their hold on whites because of a tone-deaf Democratic Party pushing the last remaining blue-collar whites off the ledge, the GOP's dominance in Congressional and legislative districts will be unbreakable for at least a generation, allowing Republicans to dominate an overwhelming majority of the legislation coming out of statehouses and Congresses that Democrats' best hope of stopping is occasionally squeezing out just enough a coalition to win a few Presidential elections.  At least in the near term though, the rate at which the Democrats are hemorrhaging working-class whites won't be enough for them to even pull that off.

And it's an open question whether the upscale whites that have trended Democrat in the last generation will continue to align with the party either.  I'm not sure how prolific the culture of white-shaming so prominent on college campuses today is in the real world, but if upscale whites are openly and endlessly excoriated in the national conversation for their "privilege" to the point of rendering their voices silenced, that will come with a backlash as well.  The events of recent years seem primed to trigger racial polarization throughout society that will inevitably reach out into our politics.  There's no tangible economic benefit for upscale whites to be aligned with the Democratic Party so if the party base starts villainizing them in public discourse, their reversion to the political party of their parents is likely to be an easier transition than working-class whites generation-long walk away from the Democrats has been.

The Republicans have problems of their own as the unhinged nature of their leading candidates and the primary voters who are supporting them indicate, but they are succeeding in continually moving the goalposts of American politics rightward.  Six months ago, Ted Cruz was considered an unimaginably radical Senator and an unmitigated disaster for the party in the unlikely situation he'd ever be their nominee.  But at the dawn of 2016, Cruz is now seen as the guy who the Republican  establishment will breathe a sigh of relief about if he's able to beat Trump.  Ultimately none of this matters though as long as Democrats choose to forfeit the voters who they successfully appealed to in 2012.  A lot of otherwise smart people seem to think Obama's impressive coalition in 2012 will be locked in place moving forward, with demographics only increasing their advantage.  Common sense says the historical patterns of partisan voting tides will hold and that coalitions within each party will keep evolving and realigning.  Common sense also says that betting the farm on consolidation of a nonwhite voter base with historically lethargic turnout and which is centrally located in a select number of urban areas that greatly dilutes its distributionary benefits is a good recipe for losing the overwhelming majority of elections.  And frankly the fact that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are even in the ballgame in this election contest speaks volumes about how rough of shape the Democrats are really in.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bernie's Biggest Liability

I have long been a fan of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator who is one of the few reliable and consistent voices speaking on behalf of rising inequality and the declining middle class.  And Sanders has been doing this long before it became a part of the national political narrative, in fact being more responsible than just about anyone else for catapulting the topic into the national conversation.  But I nonetheless see his 2016 Presidential candidacy as a double-edged sword for the Democratic Party.

On the upside, his presence on the campaign trail is imperative in keeping income inequality, the biggest societal dilemma of our time, at the forefront of the conversation when interest group politics could otherwise completely obscure the issue.  Enough ink is already being spilled about divisive and counterproductive (for Democrats' general election viability at least) issues such as gun control and illegal immigration, and if Sanders wasn't in the race, even more ink and debate conversation would be dedicated to these topics.  Sanders' presence in the race also puts the party's most likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, on notice to keep the inequality topic from slipping out of the conversation in the general election and to square her personal and political ties to Wall Street early on rather than being unprepared for it when it's an inevitable general election issue by the Republicans.

On the downside, above all else, Bernie's self-admitted ties to "socialism" would almost inevitably be a scarlet letter among a general electorate in a country that still associates socialism with the epic Cold War battle with the Soviets.  Obviously, Sanders doesn't have a stereotypically Presidential look or demeanor which would ordinarily be a drawback as well, even though I think at least at this stage of the campaign, his rumpled man-of-the-people shtick is working to his advantage and given the endless appetite for a fresh approach, it might work to his advantage as a general election nominee as well.  But his biggest fundamental problem is still the "S" word that's been next to his name throughout his three-decade career in elected office.  To be sure, there could at some point emerge a time and place where a self-proclaimed socialist could thrive in American politics, but it would take a crisis.... 

Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal revolution that began in 1933 would have been an inconceivable proposition in a right-leaning, market-driven society like America has always been even five years earlier, but desperation among the masses created an environment where FDR's quasi-socialist approach to governing found an audience.  Unfortunately, I suspect it would take a similar environment for the public to fully embrace what Sanders is peddling today.  Even though there's a national consensus that the middle class is crumbling and that income inequality is a growing problem, there is no sense of urgency to remedy it the way there was in 1932 and there's definitely no consensus on the source or solution to the problem.  The white working class demographic of voters most responsible for fueling FDR's New Deal coalition would today be more likely to point the finger at their own "welfare bum" neighbor as the driving force of the problem rather than the kind of structural breakdown in the distribution of economic rewards that Bernie Sanders is talking about.  It's just impossible to believe that the public is where it needs to be for Sanders' message to resonate with a majority of American voters, and as I said last week, without a serious presence of organized labor to echo the Sanders' campaign sentiment to tens of millions of voters the way it could have a generation ago when union affiliation was much higher, the message's reach is limited.

Taking the electoral analysis out of the equation, I'll also confess to drifting from Bernie's message in recent weeks on a policy front.  Much as his rhetoric is red meat for an old-school labor Democrat like myself, it hadn't really hit me how large he intends to grow the federal government's footprint until the first debate, confirming that he's not merely a "socialist in name only" in a way I hadn't appreciated having mainly listened to his stump speeches up to that point, but an actual "socialist".  I've grown a little wary of the virtues of the federal government as I've gotten older and would prefer to recreate an environment where union-fueled middle class wages in the private sector reduce the need for an enlarged safety net, rather than simply accepting that inequality will keep getting worse and that a growing role of government is the only antidote.  Much as Bernie talks about fixing inequality, it occurs to me that he's proposing doing so largely through substantially increased wealth transfers and often invokes "Denmark" as a model society.

Now in some sense I could get behind a societal push to become more like Denmark, but Bernie's biggest shortcoming is that he is not calling for the widespread sacrifice that "being more like Denmark" would entail.  To hear Sanders talk, most of his policy wish list could be achieved through higher taxes on the 1%.  While I'm all for that, Denmark didn't become Denmark by raising taxes only on the top 1%.  If Sanders' agenda was to be even remotely affordable, he'd have to reach deep into middle class pockets to finance it.  Again, I'm not fundamentally opposed to this.  I've long advocated higher income tax rates on the upper middle class and believe that if the new rates imposed on households earning more than $400,000 applied to households earning more than $100,000 a year, we'd have a budget surplus right now.  But Bernie is not making that case when he talks about America being more like Denmark.  It's understandable that he isn't because it would only further endanger his electability issues, but I think he owes it to the American people to explain to them that becoming a socialist society requires sacrifice above and beyond that of millionaires.

I hate to pick on Bernie Sanders of all people in a field of Presidential candidates where just about everybody else has more obvious flaws and is approaching the race with less sincere motives than he does.  Nonetheless, one has to critique the candidates they admire the same as they critique the candidates they do not, and a candidate like Bernie calling for revolutionary change in policy can't imply the revolution will be easy.  I'm still inclined to caucus for Bernie Sanders in February because I think he has by far the most important message to convey in modern American politics.  But just because I intend to caucus for him, does that necessarily mean I "hope" he becomes the Democratic nominee for President?  Hmmm....I'll have to get back to you in a few months for that one.  Much as I distrust Hillary Clinton, the stakes are pretty high for losing the next Presidential election, and I suspect Bernie Sanders would be more likely to do just that than Hillary.


Saturday, November 07, 2015

Unions: The Democrats' Lifeblood Past and Present

For those whose understanding of America's political battleground is centered around the red state/blue state turf wars of the Obama era, it may come as quite a shock to know that the heart and soul of the Democratic Party throughout the 20th century, and the last two-thirds of the 20th century in particular, came from culturally conservative West Virginia and east Kentucky.  These jurisdictions become more disconnected with each passing year from the profile that typifies the modern Democratic Party, but dozens of counties in both states that went 70+% for Mitt Romney in 2012 held strong for landslide Democratic losers like George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis not that long ago.   Many of them held on even through Al Gore and John Kerry as recently as 2004, although the tide was beginning to turn by then.

The cause of the region's dramatic transformation in the last decade isn't complicated--the Democratic Party turned against coal based on its contribution to global warming and accelerated the decline of the region's primary industry--but it's vital to acknowledge why this region was so overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party up to that point.  The easy answer:  unions.  At its peak, the coal industry employed hundreds of thousands of heavily unionized workers, and their participation in the union made them politically motivated, activated, and aligned with the left-leaning interests that the union and the Democratic Party were peddling.  As the decades passed, the coal mines became more automated, were forced to compete with cheaper overseas coal, and transitioned to (highly environmentally damaging) methods of coal extraction that greatly reduced the need for labor.   As a result, the coal industry that once employed hundreds of thousands in the heart of Appalachia was barely employing tens of thousands by the turn of the new millennium.  So even before the region began to identify the national Democratic Party with the "War on Coal", it's alignment with the Democratic Party was softening.  The aging cohort of retired miners most strongly affiliated with the unions and the Democratic Party were dying off while the young people who stuck around were less likely to be miners, less likely to be affiliated with the miners' union, and less likely to be persuaded by the economic arguments forwarded by the Democratic Party than their grandparents.  Just up the road in Appalachia in the hardscrabble steel mill towns of southwest Pennsylvania, a similar dynamic played out over a nearly identical time period, and can be similarly applied to hundreds of isolated communities dotting the Middle American landscape.

This background provides vital context for understanding the Democratic Party's future amidst the continued shrinkage of unions and the never-ending assault to exterminate them.  The conventional wisdom among political analysts is that demographics are on the Democrats' side to the point of ghettoizing Republicans to a sustained minority posture in national politics.  What this calculus has always misunderstood is voter engagement, and the "coalition of the ascendant" that got Obama elected twice in 2008 and 2012 also flamed out to two of history's most spectacular midterm election losses for the incumbent party in 2010 and 2014.  The degree of political engagement that unions helped initiate among its members is not being compensated for by the lethargic college students and non-union immigrant workers that helped elect Obama twice.  It's not a coincidence that one of the few endangered Democratic incumbents to survive one of these difficult midterm cycles was Senate Leader Harry Reid, who defied a flurry of polls showing him losing and pulled his 2010 Senate race out by a decisive five points.  What was Reid's secret?   Unions!  Nevada is one of the few states with ascendant ranks of union workers, and the SEIU rallied their troops with an impressive get out the vote machine.  If his Democratic colleagues in other states who got wiped out in 2010 and 2014 had unions working on their behalf--rather than crossing their fingers that college students and recent immigrants turn out in never-before-seen numbers every cycle--they might still be in the Senate today as Reid is.

Perhaps the best way of measuring the sustainability of the Democrats' union coalitions of old against its college students and immigrants coalition of today is places that have had both....meatpacking towns.  Up until the 1970s and 1980s, the meatpacking industry had one of the strongest unions in the country, and its workers were a reliable engine for Democratic votes cycle after cycle.  But a major union-busting initiative rocked the industry to its core and for the last quarter century, the industry has been largely nonunion and its workforce made up primarily by first-generation immigrants.  A quarter century after this transformation was completed and you'd still have a hard time finding a single meatpacking or food processing town in the entire country that is more Democratic in 2015 than it was in 1990.  Keep in mind that some of these cities were 90% white in 1990 but are majority minority in 2015, yet they're still less Democratic.   Perhaps another generation from now, when these majority minority towns are populated by the citizen children of the current immigrant workers, we'll finally see movement back towards the Democrats, but the exponential turnover rate of immigrant workers at meatpacking plants even makes that proposition iffy.

With all this context, it's especially terrifying to see what the Republicans have accomplished in the legislatures of battleground states across the country in the last several years, winning low turnout midterm elections promising they won't go after unions and then making union-busting their top priority once they win.  Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana were successful in imposing union-destroying right-to-work legislation in the last few years, Ohio tried it and failed (so far at least), while Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia are all poised to make the jump at the first opportunity.   And of the Governors and Legislatures who snuck through right-to-work legislation, all of them were rewarded with re-election, showing future Republican politicians that crucifying the opposition party's primary fund-raising and infrastructural engine is a consequence-free proposition.  Having seen this done at the state level so successfully, the Republican Party is patiently waiting to win the White House, be it in 2016 or 2020 or any cycle when the national tide inevitably turns their way, to ram through a national right-to-work law which would wipe out what's left of unions...and wipe out the Democratic Party's ability to compete in elections for a generation.

And yet here are the Democrats, whistling past graveyards every step of the way assuring themselves that it is THEY who have something resembling a permanent electoral advantage because of the rising tide of Hispanics and African-Americans.  I've long pontificated on my "Mississippi America" theory that whites will continue to get more Republican to compensate for rising numbers of minority, canceling out the advantage, but in the context of near-universal union busting perhaps even that theory is incomplete.  I submit that most nonwhite voters are "economy voters", aligning with the Democrats primarily because they're receptive to the Democrats' positions on jobs, the economy, and the safety net, and probably aren't all that moved by white liberals' obsession with free birth control, climate change, and gun control.   So if unions are finished off and their financial and infrastructural role in shaping the Democratic Party's message disappears, then what fills the vacuum?  If it isn't Richard Trumka behind the messaging of the Democratic Party, will its messaging be completely overtaken by Sandra Fluke, Tom Steyer, and Mike Bloomberg?  And most importantly, will working-class blacks and Hispanics, whom Democrats have mortgaged their party's future on permanent 80+% margins of victory from, be motivated to show up at the polls and support a Democratic Party that talks about climate change and gun control more than it talks about the economy?

White liberals' cocksure assertion of "demographics being destiny" doesn't hold up to any scrutiny, and is based entirely on two Presidential elections with a coalition that has only been dependable for one man, a man who will never be running for election again.  But its Republicans who are the playing the role of the sly tortoise in this race, quietly cutting the legs out from the Democrats' flimsy and unreliable would-be advantage while the Democrats nap thinking they've already won the race.  If there wasn't so much at stake, I would find some amusement at the extent the Republicans have the Democrats right where they want them.  But strong unions are imperative to any hope of middle-class preservation and equally as imperative to a political environment that isn't completely under the ownership of the financial industry.  If we lose unions, we lose not only an informed faction of the electorate motivated to activism to improve the country, but we lose any and all pushback against the bought-and-paid-for corporate agenda. 

One would think this would be easy for Democrats to understand....but they've got their head so high in the clouds regarding their inevitable continued support from the rising Hispanic population that they're not even trying to hear it.   Add the near destruction of unions to the current structural issues facing the Democrats, and it's clear that the Democratic Party's fortunes are worse today than any other time in the past century.  But I fear it won't be until the day the national right-to-work law gets signed by the next Republican President in his or her first 100 days in office that Democrats will begin to yearn for the comparative good old days of 1984 and 2004.  But I'm sure they'll still think "Hispanics will rally to save us in the next election...you just watch!"

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Previewing Election 2016 One Year In Advance

Four years ago this fall, Barack Obama hit some of his lowest approval marks ever, having been viewed as looking weak after the original debt ceiling fight with Republicans in Congress.  He was not in a good place for re-election a little over 12 months away.  But I looked at the incredibly weak GOP field and saw Mitt Romney as the only viable contender, and he seemed weak to me for all of the reasons that ultimately played out.  I'm not known for my election year optimism but one year out from the 2012 election, despite the troubling fundamentals, I nonetheless went on record predicting Barack Obama would be re-elected.  Will I be as lucky looking forward into 2016? 

It's harder to say, although after the events of the last 10 days it would seem that the Democratic field is set.  Barring major unforeseen scandals arising from Hillary Clinton's e-mails, she's the Democratic nominee.  I like Bernie Sanders and am glad he's around, but he's not a viable Presidential nominee.  The Republican field is wide open though, and I think everybody from skeptical Democrats to the GOP establishment is now starting to seriously consider the possibility that the Republican primary electorate will go with one of the two amateur hour radicals contending for the nomination.....Donald Trump or Ben Carson.  Against Hillary Clinton, it's 90+% assured that these guys would be crushed in a general election even with Hillary's sinking favorable.  Never say never because of the aforementioned e-mail controversy could produce a smoking gun or the economy could collapse and feed right into one of Trump or Carson's narratives, but short of that kind of dramatic game changer, Hillary would not only win the 2016 Presidential landslide, but win in the biggest popular vote landslide since 1984, win back the United States Senate and possibly even the U.S. House for the Democrats, and flip a couple dozen legislative chambers to the Democrats as well. 

Notice I said that Hillary would win the 2016 Presidential election in a "popular vote" landslide, probably in the 10-12 point range.  That doesn't mean the electoral map would be a sea of blue on the evening of November 8, 2016, even if Trump or Carson was to live up to the absolute worst of my expectations as nominees.  Trump or Carson would have to murder a nun at high noon in Central Park in front of several hundred witnesses to not win the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming in a Presidential election.  And if they did murder that nun, they'd still win most of those states against Hillary or basically any Democrat.  Reagan's 49-state re-election victory in 1984 simply cannot happen in today's polarized America no matter how terrible the losing party's nominee is.

So where would Democrats see the inroads needed for the kind of blowout victory I predicted in a hypothetical Hillary vs. Trump or Carson race?  First and foremost, they would run up the score to unprecedented levels in the already blue states of the northeast and the West coast.  I could see Hillary besting Trump or Carson in the 70+% range in New York and most of New England while winning 2-1 in Washington, Oregon, and California.  I'm less certain about the Midwest, particularly with Trump because his anti-immigration and protectionist posturing would find an audience among some white working class voters who went twice for Obama.  I suspect Hillary would do about as well as Obama did in 2008 in states like Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.  And Obama's 2008 victory in Indiana was such a fluke I might even expect Trump or Carson to prevail there.

As for "red states" that would flip to Hillary, there are few options.  Demographics and politics are changing in Alaska so it's possible Hillary could get 3 electoral votes there.  Arizona is a possibility although I'm sure Trump's anti-immigration positions would resonate with whites there every bit as much as they'd repel Hispanics, and perhaps be a wash overall.  Montana is a red state where I think hypothetical most Democratic nominees could beat Trump or Carson, but I have my doubts whether it would "Hillary country".  And demographics are changing quickly in Democrats' favor in Georgia, but given how popular Trump or Carson would be among rural whites, I still think the GOP would be favored there.  Texas is a Democratic pipe dream and the best Hillary could expect there would be to hold Trump or Carson to a single-digit margin of victory by squeezing out lopsided margins among the few Latinos who bother to vote there and picking off a few country club Republicans.

But such a Hillary blowout would be unlikely to portend a realignment or anything resembling the "permanent majority" both parties regularly fantasize about attaining based on a couple of positive trendlines.  Most of the gains that Hillary would make against Trump or Carson outside of the traditional GOP orbit would likely revert back to Republicans two years later.  And the demographic that would assuredly hold strongest for Trump or Carson compared to 2008 and 2012 would be the white working class, a demographic that compensates for its declining population by simply raising its margins of victory for Republicans every election cycle.  And should Hillary dominate in the 2016 Presidential election, the Democrats would be looking at an extremely defensive midterm cycle in 2018 where Democrats control 25 Senate seats and Republicans control only 8.  Democrats won a bunch of seats they shouldn't have in 2012 in a perfect storm and have rentals on several of them.  Even if the Dems win back the Senate in 2016, they will almost certainly lose it again in 2018 if Hillary Clinton is elected President in 2016, and a big GOP victory in 2018 would set the groundwork for Republicans to control the redistricting process again after the next census, locking their gains in place and creating an unwinnable Congressional and legislative map for Democrats once again just as they did in 2001 and 2011.  For all the talk of the Democrats and their "coalition of the ascendant", the Republicans currently dominate government beneath the Presidential level in a way neither party has done before since the Democrats in the mid-30s under FDR, and a Hillary blowout next year would not likely do anything to reverse Republicans' downballot momentum moving forward.

That's why I question the conventional wisdom that if Republicans nominate a nutjob who loses in a landslide, the base will be humbled and learn they can't do that again next time.  After all, two years after their landslide defeat in 2016, they're likely to have a landslide victory in the 2018 midterms when dozens of new anarchists are elected to Congress.  This will embolden the same GOP base that nominated Trump or Carson to nominate someone else from that ilk in 2020.  Rinse and repeat.

Now obviously I just got way ahead of myself based on the mere potential of a Trump or Carson nomination, which despite current polls is no sure thing by any stretch.  At this time in 2003 and 2007, neither John Kerry nor John McCain, respectively, seemed likely to win their party's nominations but the flavor of the month frontrunners for their parties nominations those years burned out before people started voting.  I long thought that Jeb! was the strongest establishment candidate whose warchest of campaign money could help him withstand early primary season turbulence better than most, but Jeb!s campaign seems to be in deep trouble right now and will need a major course correction at this point to be viable in the early primaries.  Absent Jeb!, Ohio Governor John Kasich would be a conceivably tough nominee but is also struggling to gain any traction among the radicalized GOP base.   Best positioned to seize the not-Trump-and-not-Carson vote now would seem to be Marco Rubio, who would probably put up the stiffest challenge to Hillary as the nominee.  Both Kasich and Rubio have vulnerabilities of their own, but given that this is a defensive cycle for Democrats and their nominee has high unfavorables that will likely elicit lower turnout among key Democratic demographics, I would give them both 50-50 odds against Hillary should either of them get the nomination.

As might be expected in a year without an incumbent, it's no real surprise that a year before the 2016 Presidential election it's harder to predict the most likely outcome than it was in 2012.  It's similar to where we stood at this point in 2003, where Democratic nomination frontrunners were Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, both of whom would likely have lost in landslides to incumbent George W. Bush, but Democrats shifted towards John Kerry at the last minute and suddenly put forward a nominee that kept things close in the 2004 general election.  Similarly, if Rubio or even Jeb! is able to wrestle away the GOP nomination from the current frontrunners, then we'll have a race on our hands this year.  What can be more easily predicted is that the nation's existing ideological stalemate and pattern of wave elections every two years is unlikely to end regardless of who wins in 2016.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Resurrection Of Hardee's And The Demise Of Happy Chef

Growing up in the Upper Midwest in the 1980s, two food franchises that were front and center in my childhood memories were Hardee's and Happy Chef.  Throughout the 80s, the franchises were ascendant, with new stores popping up in new towns and replacing closed restaurants in communities that already had Hardee's and Happy Chef franchises.  They were on top of the world and even though I enjoyed them both, I took them for granted given how prolific they were.  By the second half of the 1990s, both franchises began to fall on hard times that lasted the better part of a decade for Hardee's and followed Happy Chef to its extinction.  I'll track the rise and fall of both franchises in the paragraphs ahead and offer some personal anecdotes on my associations with both of them and my opinions on what went wrong.

I'll start with Happy Chef to get the one with the unhappy ending out of the way.  The franchise started in 1963 in Mankato, Minnesota, with a single casual dining 24-hour restaurant in the vein of Perkins and Denny's.  In the quarter century to come, the franchise boomed to 56 restaurants in the Upper Midwest. While it might seem odd to an outsider why such a restaurant would have such visceral appeal to a young child as I was in the 1980s, anybody who grew up in the area will know exactly why Happy Chef brings back such fond memories for me.......the statues!  Larger-than-life ceramic statues of a nicely dressed chef holding a giant wooden spoon over his head dotted the landscape off of freeway exits throughout the region, and millions of children probably have their own memories of tugging on dad's shoulder and requesting he pull off the road and stop for breakfast at the restaurant with the big chef statue.  And best of all, he spoke!  With the push of a button at the statue's base, the chef would read you the specials for the day and often relayed some quirky prerecorded anecdotes to boot.   Was the food as impressive as the presentation?  Definitely not.  I remember having some good omelets and pancakes over the years at Happy Chef but also remember some greasy, overpriced drivel coming out of that Happy Chef kitchen, particularly in the later years.

And ultimately, Happy Chef's mid-to-late 80s expansion was when it fell victim to hubris.  I surmise that the Happy Chef empire up to that point was built on the statue gimmick, but the new Happy Chefs going up all over the region were going up sans the statues.  It was blasphemous, and I know I'm not the only young diner who no longer had any use for a roadside Happy Chef restaurant if there wasn't a statue accompanying it.  Making matters worse, a lot of existing Happy Chefs started taking their chef statues down, citing maintenance hassles particularly with the audio recordings.  It was pure arrogance, and not coincidentally the franchise's decline began shortly thereafter with a slow drip of closures throughout the 1990s that accelerated in the 2000s.  Around 2008 there were only seven Happy Chefs left.  A few years later they were down to three.  And as of September 2015, there's one left....the original Happy Chef in Mankato, Minnesota.....and not coincidentally the only one that kept their giant chef statue up over the years.

Just last winter when going Christmas shopping in Mankato, I stopped by Happy Chef and got a couple of photos of the statue for my own files and to amuse coworkers who also have fond memories of the old Happy Chef statues.  Good thing I got the photos when I did because earlier this summer the brother of the original owner announced he's putting the restaurant up for sale.  By year's end, the restaurant will likely be under different ownership and the final statue will likely be removed, ideally to be put in some museum.  The blame for the extinction of Happy Chef is largely being directed towards "changing consumer tastes", but I'm calling bullshit.  Happy Chef had one of the best promotional gimmicks around in their heyday but made the decision to squander that competitive advantage at the peak of their popularity. Consumer tastes didn't change so much as the youngest customers who got families in the front door in the first place no longer had any compelling reason to visit Happy Chef.  By such hubris does an empire fall.

But not every story of decline lacks a redemptive follow-up chapter.  The fast food franchise Hardee's was about as low as a franchise could go a decade ago but is in the middle stages of an extremely impressive comeback in 2015.  I didn't even realize back in the 1980s that Hardee's was a regional chain centered in the Midwest and Southern states.  I just assumed it was right in there with other top-tier national fast food chains like McDonald's and Burger King.  I always liked the food a lot better than McDonald's and, much like with Happy Chef, was taken in by their promotional gimmicks, which frequently included free stuffed animals with the purchase of a combo meal or, most memorably, the 1983 Smurf' glass sets.  But my personal association with Hardee's grew stronger in the summer of 1990 when I accompanied my dad doing vinyl repair work at car lots throughout southwest Minnesota, and we discovered that Hardee's was often times the only fast food option in most of the smaller towns in the region.  An order of nine of their Chicken Tenders with barbecue sauce was all I needed to get through most afternoons on the road.  Even as an adult, my commutes to college and my weekend road trips have included dozens of visits to the Hardee's drive-thrus and the purchase of one of their always-delicious chicken sandwiches.

There was a definite Hardee's boom in the second half of the 80s with new restaurants popping up everywhere, but the boom stopped abruptly in the first half of the 90s and was followed by a precipitous decline that may have been very close to becoming fatal.  I first began to notice the closure of some Hardee's around 1997, along with rumors of wider problems within the franchise.  By 2001, the store closures really began to ramp up and just kept coming until around 2007 when the bleeding finally began to stop, with the state of Minnesota getting hit particularly hard.  At its peak, there were more than 150 Hardee's locations in Minnesota alone, but by 2008 they were down to 24.  Somehow, the Hardee's in the south side ghetto of my hometown of Albert Lea was one of the 24 to persevere even through the worst years.  Hardee's acknowledged its problems around 2000 and changed its marketing and its menu.  I remember a wide array of clever advertising from Hardee's going back to when I was a little kid but it became edgier in the new millennium.  Ultimately though, the food itself was what made the comeback stick....

Hardee's was never thought to have had very good burgers in its 80s heyday, and having a few over the years I can see where its critics are coming from, but since I primarily feasted on their chicken or roast beef I didn't really notice.  But they made a conscious effort to serve thicker patties of higher quality beef along with some additional menu upgrades.  Contrary to my dad's clueless assertion that "they're never gonna make a comeback by raising their prices", Hardee's appears to have done just that as they are definitely resurgent again and have been since around 2010.  They were down to one restaurant in the Des Moines area but now have four.  All of the Hardee's in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed more than a decade ago but now there are at least two new ones.  Smaller cities in Minnesota where Hardee's had previously closed--such as Fairmont and Austin--are now reopening Hardee's stores.  And I couldn't be happier about it as it's always been one of my favorite--and most storied--fast food options.  I'm not sure we're likely to see the return of the small-town Hardee's stores I remembered as a boy that were some of the first to close, which is unfortunate, but then again their comeback options seem rather limitless at this stage with as much turf as they've already reclaimed.

Next week I'll be driving home from Duluth on Minnesota State Highway 23 after a weekend on the North Shore of Lake Superior and I already know my lunch choice will be Hardee's.  And I'll have five options to boot as Highway 23 has Hardee's in Hinckley, Mora, Milaca, Cold Spring, and Granite Falls.....assuming they haven't reopened one in another town on the highway as well!


Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Donald Trump Phenomenon: An Accumulation of 50 Years Worth of Republican Party Cynicism

Like just about everybody else who follows politics, I would not have anticipated three months ago that Donald Trump would come to dominate the political discussion for the summer, surge way ahead in the polls amongst a very crowded field, and suck all the oxygen out of the room for most other candidates.  But that was primarily because I didn't know what kind of campaign he was gonna run.  Had I known three months ago what I know now, it wouldn't have been nearly as surprising.  Here we have one of the 100 richest men in America running a full-throated populist campaign railing against everything from illegal immigration to the Chinese eating our lunch in the global economy to America's political leaders being bought and paid for by, well, by guys like him.  And the fact that he talks about these issues with the trademark Trump swagger and brash self-confidence only makes him more appealing to the demographic he's going for....a demographic that the Republican Party co-opted more than two generations ago that has now come to represent a majority in their party while the establishment was napping.

Minnesota's Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty coined a term in 2005 that seemed on-point then and has only gotten more fitting in the decade since.....that Republicans are no longer "the party of the country club but are the party of Sam's Club".  In the 1950s, predicting voting patterns in America was pretty easy.  If you were a low-income worker in Texas or a poor farmer living in a shack with a dirt floor in Alabama, you were a Democrat.  And if you were a young professional on Long Island or a business manager in southern California, you were a Republican.  To a much greater degree than today, people voted their pocketbooks.  But then came the civil rights battle and other culture wars of the 1960s that dragged on into the 1970s and flipped America's voting coalitions on their head.  Richard Nixon and the Republican Party, with Reagan after him, successfully employed a "Southern strategy" that co-opted culturally conservative southern Democrats into the GOP tent.  By 1980, the new recruits along with the old-school money interests of the Republican Party combined to form a majority and conservatism was ascendant.

The quarter century that followed saw a shakeup amongst the "country club" crowd, however, as large chunks of their ranks drifted to the left on the same cultural issues that the GOP won over the "Sam's Cub" crowd with.  It would have been unthinkable in the 1970s that 30 years later, the steel mill towns of southwest Pennsylvania would be Republican while the upscale suburban donut encircling Philadelphia would be Democrat, but that's exactly what has happened in that very local example and across the country.  Cycle after cycle, the blue-collar whites that Republicans spent the 60s, 70s, and 80s co-opting into the Republican Party orbit based on a growing litany of cultural resentments became a larger and larger share of the party's base.  In 2012, every fourth-rate contender in the weakest Republican Presidential field in decades was given a serious hearing by the party's primary electorate--halfwits like Herman Cain and Rick Santorum and nutjobs like Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich all had their time in the sun--before primary voters finally realized they were unelectable and then held their nose and voted for establishment choice Mitt Romney only after all other options were exhausted.  That cycle foreshadowed the Trump surge we're seeing four years later, only Trump has far more media savvy and staying power than those clowns ever had, which is why he is dominating the field to the degree that he has.

It would seem as though 2016 is the year that the inmates have officially taken over the asylum in the Republican Party.  It seems hard for me to believe that a businessman like Trump agrees with his own overheated rhetoric on immigration and sticking it to China in the global economy, but he recognizes that that's where the center of gravity is now in the Republican Party.  For decades, the party has relied upon the foot soldiers in trailer parks and small impoverished towns throughout the South and the heartland for enough votes to win on election day, at which point the party graybeards would proceed with their real agenda of transferring wealth from that same peasantry to the top of the income pyramid, only stirring the pot of the culture war again before elections to make sure their soldiers will deliver for them yet again.  But with the combination of changing demographics in the country and the moneyed class discovering they can get the same special protections with Democrats without the cultural intolerance, the Republicans are finding that all they have left are angry white guys in the South and the heartland whose Republican identity is entirely defined by their cultural resentments.  And on the issues that matter most to establishment types like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, these voters really don't have a vested interest.

Enter Donald Trump, who is taking positions on bread and butter issues that likely have Ronald Reagan spinning in his grave, including a higher minimum wage, protectionist tariffs, high taxes on the rich, and single-payer health care.  To your average Republican base voter earning $25,000 a year in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who favors Republicans based on issues like guns, abortion, immigration, and sticking it to "welfare cheats", none of Trump's left-populist economic posturing is particularly troubling.  After all, most of these guys are from families a generation or two removed from being New Deal and JFK Democrats based on the same left-populist economic posturing coming out of Trump.  They're just not "conservatives" in the Reagan tradition no matter how much historical rewriting has been done to lionize Reagan and his policy positions.  Mike Huckabee had success in 2008 running on a softer version of this platform as did Rick Santorum in 2012, but these guys never had the salesmanship or media platform that Trump now has to consolidate this white working class base.

Like everybody else, I figured early on that Trump would fade rather quickly, but that certainly hasn't happened.  I'm about 50-50 on whether it will at this point.  I think even among the flag-waving populist crowd, they may take a step back as the primary vote approaches and ask themselves if they really believe this guy is capable of winning a general election.  And chances are, his shtick will be wearing thin by then.  Some believe Trump's not even really running and is merely on a high-stakes ego trip, and will pull out of the race before the voting starts assuring everybody he "could have and would have won".  All those scenarios are plausible, and collectively perhaps more plausible than him winning the nomination.  In a way, Trump's rise has been a very useful reminder to those in elite circles in both parties and the media of the magnitude of the cultural tribal lines that already exist in this country that are poised to get much worse as the population continues to diversify.  The idea of him getting anywhere near the White House is terrifying at any number of levels, but if Trump's candidacy is nothing more than an "art project" exposing the fault lines in American political and cultural life today while simultaneously getting a well-deserved jab in at the perils of our corrupt campaign finance system, then Donald Trump will go down as the best thing that happened to American politics in 2015.