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Howard Fineman   |   February 5, 2016   12:46 PM ET

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The next pivotal point in American politics is custom-built for protest candidates. That, as much as anything, explains why Sen. Bernie Sanders and scaremongering billionaire Donald Trump are leading in New Hampshire primary polls by wide margins.

At the same time, the biggest risk for Sanders and Trump is that the conventional wisdom says they will win. New Hampshire hates to ratify the conventional wisdom.

Nowhere else in America is as suspicious of any and all establishments, as dedicated to its own vast array of local officeholders, and as resistant to being told what to do or think by Washington, Wall Street or national media bloviators.

All of this is reflected in the shape of government here. New Hampshire has no state income or general sales tax; a weak governorship; a state legislative body with 400 members (fourth largest in the English-speaking world); over 200 cities and towns, many of long lineage; and some 7,000 elected officials in a state with only 1.3 million inhabitants.

"Almost every adult here either is or has been or will at some point be elected to something," former Gov. John Sununu told me Thursday night in Durham before a debate there. "They don't like being told what to do by anybody."

That over-caffeinated desire to participate -- and push aside the big boys -- finds perfect expression in the state's first-in-the-nation primary, which takes place next Tuesday. If there are races in both major political parties, as there are this year, more than 500,000 or so voters could turn out in New Hampshire. According to Sununu, the total could be an astounding (by U.S. standards) 70 percent of eligible voters.

"This isn't Iowa," said Sununu, "where you've got an intense process but one that relatively few people take part in. Here everybody is part of the primary. This is what we do."

They don't like being told what to do by anybody.
Former Gov. John Sununu about New Hampshire voters

New Hampshirites of both parties are wont to surprise the "experts" and often go for "outsider" candidates. And they decide late -- often in the last day or two.

The state's motto, "Live Free or Die," reads like the voters' rule book. It's easy for people to vote in either the Democratic or the Republican contest, and the largest proportion of voters -- this year about 44 percent -- are "undeclared," meaning they may decide at the last minute not only for whom they'll cast a ballot, but in which party.

Indeed, this huge, sloshing tub of unattached voters may be the core fact of the primary. They tend to swim at the last minute to the candidate who can say "f*** you" to entrenched power and maintain their "upset" brand.

Consider the latest Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll: It now shows former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at least narrowing the gap with Sanders, while Sen. Marco Rubio closes in on Trump. 

New Hampshire locals are so immersed in the primary -- and their influential roles -- that they often engage in "strategic" voting. Republican voters might cross over and vote in the Democratic primary for the candidate they think has the least likely chance of winning the White House, and vice versa.

Or voters might cast a ballot not for their true favorite but for the candidate in their own party with the best chance of stopping someone else they like even less.

That's the main hope right now for Rubio, who is looking to benefit from voters who want to defeat Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz, even if they don't necessarily want Rubio to win in the end either. 

"There will be a lot of strategic voting this time," Sununu predicts.

Among those who have benefited from New Hampshire's independence, either with a primary win or a last-minute surge to respectability, are Vietnam War foe Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Sen. Gary Hart in 1984, Gov. Bill Clinton ("The Comeback Kid") in 1992, hard-right anti-free-trader Pat Buchanan in 1996, and Sen. John McCain in 2000. That contrarianism helped Hillary Clinton fight off the trendy, Iowa-launched Barack Obama in 2008.

Clinton was also boosted eight years ago by New Hampshire's affection for her husband and the extensive time the two of them had spent in the state. Those factors were supposed to help her this year, too. But she didn't count on the heat-seeking missile from neighboring Vermont.

Sanders is leading in New Hampshire because of his single-minded and clearly sincere critique of big money in American politics. His outrage at Wall Street -- he almost quivers with it -- resonates in a small state of small businesses. There are few grandee families here, unlike in New England states to the south such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. (While some of the nation's fanciest prep schools are here, most of the students are not from New Hampshire.)

Meanwhile, it's very hard for Hillary to refute accusations that she in particular and the Clintons as an enterprise are beneficiaries of Wall Street money, even if it hasn't dictated their policies.

Trump strikes a chord for related reasons. Like Sanders, he doesn't have to take money from Wall Street donors -- not that they'd want to give him any. New Hampshire locals seem to like, or at least tolerate, a billionaire who isn't beholden to any other big shots.

And Trump disdains all politicians and calls Washington a sinkhole not only of corruption -- Sanders' mantra -- but of ineptitude. His most common word for them is "stupid." 

The paradox of New Hampshire is that since everybody is elected to something, nobody here has any respect for politicians either. An elected official is just your next-door neighbor who may have screwed you on a tax assessment.

Take that attitude and multiply it by a thousand with respect to the federal government. No state in the eastern or northern United States has less regard for Washington's efforts than New Hampshire.

"We think for ourselves here," Joe McQuaid, editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader, has told me more than once.

Of course that doesn't keep McQuaid from trying to tell other New Hampshirites what to think. He writes the conservative paper's editorials and long ago endorsed Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

It was a quixotic and un-strategic move. If he had wanted to maximize attention to the paper and, at least in theory, its impact on the primary, he would have waited until now to endorse a candidate.

But McQuaid is under no illusions that his word is gospel.

There is none in New Hampshire.

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe,racistmisogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

Howard Fineman   |   February 1, 2016    3:01 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- On an early summer day in 2014, I got a call from Mike Briggs, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ press secretary. Briggs had been a reporter in an earlier life, and I had known him for years: a sincere, quiet guy with a military haircut and an earnest, uncomplicated admiration for his boss.

He told me that Bernie wanted me to come in to talk about the state of politics and the Democratic Party, and his agenda of reform.

I had known Bernie for years, too, and had spent a lot of time in Vermont covering the presidential campaign of another rebel from the Green Mountain State, Howard Dean.

I’ve been on this beat for a long time, and I immediately thought I knew why Briggs was calling: Bernie was going to run.

A couple of days later I found myself in Bernie’s spartan Senate offices. Not for him the trophy cases, wall plaques or fancy artisanal artifacts of home-state art and culture.

It felt more like the offices of the chief of a public library, all books and bland walls.

But the bookishness belied the intensity of the small team in those offices: a young, bright and surprisingly spit-and-polish crew, of which Briggs was by far the oldest.

Sanders’ greeting to me would be called “curt” and “gruff” if it came from any other senator, but that's just the way Bernie is. No time for monkey business; no time for the Big Schmooze. No time for frivolity. Not a minute to waste.

He was 72 at the time, but then as now, he radiated a leathery nervous energy that made him seem impervious to the normal aging process. He seemed indestructible.

It was instantly clear in the interview not only that he was thinking of running, but that he had pretty much decided to do so.

“I think what we need is a new politics -- a different type of politics than Hillary [Clinton]’s," Sanders said at the time. "A politics that is much more grassroots-oriented, much more having to do with strong coalition-building and grassroots activism than I think Hillary has demonstrated over the years.”

I wrote in my subsequent piece that he should not be lightly dismissed. He was anyway, of course, at least when he first announced his candidacy. But he certainly isn’t now.

That 2014 story was one of the first, if not the first, to take Bernie seriously, Tad Devine, Sanders’ media adviser, told me Saturday in Des Moines.

“We noticed it,” he said.

Also on HuffPost:

Howard Fineman   |   January 29, 2016   11:07 PM ET

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Donald Trump Show rolled onto the campus of Drake University at the exact moment a bunch of “politicians” were debating each other on television Thursday night.

Since Trump doesn’t consider himself a politician -- even though he’s running for president -- he blew off the Republican debate and staged a celebration of his ability to raise money for charity.

To the strains of the Rolling Stones, he strode onto the stage. He wore a gleaming white grin and his famously aerodynamic orange hair, and pointed and waved like the TV star he is.

Trump was born in Queens, New York, not in a crossfire hurricane, and his daddy gave him a million bucks to start in business. But none of that mattered to the crowd inside and out. Nor does it seem to matter to Iowa Republicans, judging from HuffPost Pollster's aggregation of 92 polls that shows Trump with a widening lead heading into the final weekend before the caucuses. 

To the audience in the small theater and the hundreds of yards worth of folks lined up on the sidewalks outside, Trump was Jumpin’ Jack Flash -- a gas, gas, gas.

There were screams and even a squeal or two when he appeared.

Many, if not most, of the people who show up at Trump rallies are not closely aligned with the world of politics and its operation. They tend not to be union members, activists for seniors, or members of the church political outreach club.

They are average and politically unconnected people who feel that the government and big companies and foreign countries have screwed or forgotten them.

And they think the country -- which is all they’ve got by way of grandeur -- is falling apart and away from them in ways they cannot explain, but feel in their hearts and paychecks.

It’s a crowd in which the men, and some of the women, are far more likely to be wearing a football jersey than a Polo sweater.

They tend to be middle age, some with kids in tow. It's not the Hillary sedate senior crowd or the burning Bernie young people. Not so many are alumni of Iowa or Iowa State, but some are grads of high school and community college.

“Trump is the one who can bring the country back to what it used to be,” said Steve Fligg, a salesman from Des Moines, who was standing in a long line on the Drake campus.

“We used to be number one, but now we are losing that to China,” he said.

“Trump has the knowledge and the background to really run our country and bring it back because he’s got a lot of business experience.”

Jason Hall, a 41-year-old union man who is not a Trump fan, has a lot of friends who are.

“Trump is ‘tavern talk’ and they loved it,” Hall said. “They are people who get a lot of their information from TV ads and don’t know much about any of the issues. But they hear Trump and they like that he sounds like he is on a barstool.”

Inside the auditorium, the crowd cheered as Trump ticked off the names of rich friends he had commanded to give money to the cause of the night: military veterans.

He claimed to have raised $5 million in 24 hours of phone calls. It was like one of those TV “telethons” of old, except that it was The Donald doing all the dialing on his own.

Where all the money will go and how exactly it will be spent by the Trump Foundation -- which Trump uses to advertise his good works -- was left unspoken. But to the crowd in the theater, it was as though he had performed some kind of miracle -- with the implication that he could do the same for everyone in the room and everyone in the country.

He could be Midas for All, and he would scare away the Chinese and the undocumented immigrants and ISIS radical Islamists and inefficient Washington bureaucrats and … make America Great Again.

Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

Also on HuffPost:

Howard Fineman   |   January 28, 2016    2:31 PM ET

CLIVE, Iowa -- Ted Cruz is a U.S. senator from Texas, but by the end of his speech here Wednesday night, he sounded more like an evangelical preacher urgently gathering the flock.

Touted by his introducers as a "man of Christ," Cruz lowered his head in reverence to God and Iowa caucus-goers.

"I ask you to pray," he told the crowd of about 600 at a meeting hall in Clive, a Des Moines suburb. "I want you to lift this country up in your prayers to power this revival, to create this community in the body of Christ."

His campaign was based, Cruz said, on a passage from the Bible -- 2 Chronicles 7:14 of the Old Testament -- in which God promises to protect the Israelites if they accept him.

"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways," Cruz recited, "then I will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

The message: God will heal America -- but only if you vote for Ted Cruz next Monday.

There was urgency in Cruz's voice for a very good reason, and his name is Donald Trump.

Evangelical Christians, who usually represent about half of the voters in the Republican presidential caucus in Iowa, were supposed to be Cruz's springboard to the White House. The son of a well-known preacher, the 45-year-old Cruz has tailored his career to appeal to such voters. Intellectually brilliant and superbly educated, Cruz presents himself as a shrewd lawyer who can use sacred texts -- the Bible and the U.S. Constitution -- to force the courts and Congress to make America a conservative utopia.

But then along came Trump, with his nakedly racist, anti-Muslim and xenophobic appeals; his own secular version of the Apocalypse (immigration and the Islamic State); and his own version of the savior who can solve all problems -- himself.

Theologically, evangelicals are Protestants who say they have, and have chosen, a direct personal relationship with Christ; who believe the words of the Bible are literal and infallible; and who feel an individual duty to "spread the word" of God to others.

Speaking to evangelicals, Cruz is most comfortable pushing social issues (against abortion and same-sex marriage, in favor of public displays of faith) and antagonism to "big government." But Trump has made surprising inroads by raising fears about undocumented Mexicans here and terrorists everywhere, and by calling for an economic nationalism in which "big government" can be a weapon.

As a result, Trump -- who until recently was pro-choice on abortion and tolerant on matters such as gay marriage -- is actually leading Cruz among evangelicals nationwide. More to the immediate point, he is surprisingly competitive with Cruz among evangelicals in Iowa. Cruz was backed by 39 percent in a recent poll, but Trump garnered 27 percent.

After earlier efforts to avoid clashes, Cruz is now attacking Trump furiously on the campaign trail and in TV ads. The main points: Trump has flip-flopped on abortion and is a New Yorker who offers only a phony conservatism on "faith issues."

Cruz assembled a choir of anti-abortion leaders to make that case at the town hall meeting in Clive.

Julie Muselman, from the nearby town of Waukee, loved what she heard. She fears Trump as a false messiah and she praised Cruz.

"He is honest, truthful and smart," said Muselman, 62. "And I think he is also a committed Christian, which means he has taken Christ into his heart."

Muselman is an evangelical Christian who first got involved in Iowa presidential politics in 1976, when she voted in the Democratic caucus for Jimmy Carter, the first national candidate to appeal directly to evangelicals in biblical language. Now a Republican, she has voted for GOP candidates who ended up winning the caucuses: then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, then-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in 2012.  

Neither of those last two men went on to win the nomination, which is often the case with the GOP winner of the Iowa caucuses. But in the process of competing in Iowa, Republican candidates pull themselves -- and their party -- further to the right as they alter their stands to suit the state's religious voters.

Trump has been racing to the right at top speed. He has sought and won the endorsement of key religious conservatives such as Jerry Falwell Jr. -- who leads Liberty University, an influential evangelical institution founded by Falwell's father, himself a key supporter of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

I think he is also a committed Christian, which means he has taken Christ into his heart. Iowa resident Julie Muselman praising Ted Cruz

If Cruz doesn't draw a huge turnout among evangelicals, he and his aides concede, they are likely to lose the caucuses.

On Sunday, just one day before caucus-goers gather, pastors in evangelical churches across the state will be speaking on this question -- Trump vs. Cruz -- even if they don't necessarily mention the two by name.

Attacks and appeals based on faith (or lack thereof) have been common in U.S. politics almost since the beginning. The Republican Party of today is something new: a European-style religious party powered (and trapped) by the cultural traditionalism of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics. 

That gives Iowa outsized influence, because early in the primary season, Iowa Republicans put all the candidates on record as believers in the right-wing Gospel. And it makes the Iowa caucuses a test of the power of evangelicals. A Trump victory would be seen as a loss not just for Cruz.

But Cruz is going to need help -- and perhaps some divine intervention -- to win.

Howard Fineman   |   January 4, 2016    7:17 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- If you live in the early voting states of Iowa or New Hampshire, you can't turn on a TV without seeing a presidential campaign ad. You can't pick up a landline phone, if you have one, without hearing a campaign message. Same with your Facebook page and email account. Pretty soon, you won't be able to open your door without confronting a campaign volunteer.

America has just entered another extravagant, convoluted, exhausting presidential election year -- after an extravagant, convoluted, exhausting pre-election year. The circus won't end until November. No other country takes this long to pick a leader.

And this time around, American voters are as angry, gloomy, fearful and cynical as they've been in decades.

The United States recovered, more or less, from the disputed and almost crippling election of 2000, from the terrorist attacks of 2001 and from the Great Recession of 2008. But the back-to-back presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have neither healed institutions nor instilled long-lasting hope.

Today, with less than 30 days until the first votes are cast in Iowa, it feels like something was fractured that never healed. America's confidence in itself is gone, replaced by a Republican strut that bespeaks insecurity, not real strength, and a Democratic earnestness that can seem all too naive.

Voters in 2016 are more skeptical than ever of leaders in all realms, beset by a lack of growth in real wages, and vociferously divided on immigration, race, religion, policing, guns, terrorism, refugees and drugs.

The kind of anti-establishment sentiment heard around the world -- from the early days of the Arab Spring to the darker nationalist movements in Germany and France -- echoes loudly in the U.S. Voters are drawn to the energy and electricity of candidates who vow to smash the power of institutions from Wall Street to Washington, from university campuses to the media.

"Voters feel they have lost control of the world they knew, economically, culturally, socially," said Tad Devine, a top adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"So they are lashing out in one way or another. For Democrats, it tends to be lost manufacturing jobs, low wages, Wall Street and the banks. Among Republicans, it’s immigration, courts supporting gay marriage, and big government, by which they mostly mean higher federal taxes," Devine said.

This potent brew fuels "outsider" candidacies in both parties -- led, of course, by real estate mogul and entertainer Donald Trump.

Time and time again, Trump has confounded media experts and leaders in his party. They predicted that he would not run, that he would never get off the ground, that he would have no staying power. Now they say his supporters won't show up to vote for him at the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 or the New Hampshire primary the next week.

Maybe not, but for now he is the frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Only in America would a man who claims to be worth $10 billion also claim to be an "outsider." But the public is so disgusted with politics, politicians and Washington that a significant number of Republicans are willing to take him seriously.

Only in such fear-ridden, mean-spirited times would Trump's naked racism and raw religious prejudice dominate the mainstream of campaign discourse. He and his rhetoric have swept along the rest of the GOP field, which competes to see who can match Trump in outrage.

In that race within a race, the acidic Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is gaining ground by being the technocratic version of Trump. Cruz is a man with as many prejudices and resentments as Trump, but he is selling himself as a better demolition expert because he has spent three years in the U.S. Senate and was a stellar student at Harvard Law School. 

Supposedly more-establishment candidates, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, are inching upward in the polls by mimicking the style and antagonistic language of Trump and Cruz.

Floating above it all, for the moment, is Hillary Clinton -- still the conventional wisdom's pick to become the next president.

The former first lady/former senator/former secretary of state has organized intensively and tried to address the economic disquiet in her Democratic Party with solid policy proposals that move her cautiously into the anti-Wall Street camp. But the mood of the country is more dangerous to her chances than her supporters admit or outside analysts recognize.

This isn't a good time to be the embodiment of a political insider. But she is. Clinton and her husband have grown very wealthy over their decades in politics. They have become experts at currying the favor of rich donors, many of whom are now their personal friends.

Among frustrated voters, however, the passage of time works against Clinton. Between her and her husband, they've been in electoral politics since 1974 -- 1970 if you count Bill Clinton's stint as a campaign aide in a Connecticut race while he was a student at Yale Law School.

"She and Bill represent the past in every way," said Cruz adviser Rick Tyler. "They just aren't interesting anymore."

In the latest polls, she's actually running behind in match-ups against both Rubio and Cruz.

As for Clinton's lock on the Democratic nomination, it may not be as firm as most think. Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist from Vermont, raised almost as much money as she did in the last quarter of 2015, and he did it with a record number of small donations nationwide.

Sanders' angry populism doesn't attack "big government" -- he's for more of it. Instead, he goes after Wall Street, the big banks and the big global corporate employers.

And it's clicking.

"I'm not saying we are going to win," said Sanders adviser Devine. "But we are not going away."

Howard Fineman   |   December 8, 2015    9:42 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- France and the United States think of themselves as sibling founders of modern republican democracy -- and of a two-party system that shuts out extremism.

But that reassuring and generally accurate idea is being shredded this week by votes, polls and campaign rhetoric in these two offspring of the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Fears of refugees, immigrants and radical Islamic terrorists are forcing to the surface a virulent, xenophobic nationalism in the U.S. and France -- the antithesis of the inclusive, tolerant values that both countries cherish and have repeatedly fought to preserve.

It’s well-known that Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's reactionary National Front party, and Donald Trump, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in the U.S., are riding that wave of fear in their respective countries.

In the process, they are also demonstrating a more subtle truth: that major political parties may no longer be moderating influences, or really influences at all.

In most places, political parties are viewed not as vehicles for change but as methods of elite control in a corrupt system.

And social media now allows groups to form spontaneously, around one vivid personality or cause. The history of a given political party, its values and priorities and actions over the decades, matter less now than they once did.

Then there have been the moves in both countries by the parties themselves.

In France, Le Pen and her National Front were validated by mimicry, especially in the aftermath of the ISIS attack that left 130 dead in Paris.

Les Republicans, the center-right party led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, moved to the right in an effort to co-opt the Le Pen vote. Sarkozy denounced Le Pen, but also copied her tough proposals on crime, immigration and an end to the Schengen open border system.

In France's regional elections this week, Sarkozy got clobbered for his efforts.

President Francois Hollande, leader of the Socialists, assumed the roles of tough cop and war leader in the aftermath of Paris. He moved in the Le Pen direction too, pushing for extraordinary domestic surveillance powers and sending sortie after sortie against ISIS in the skies over Syria.

Hollande was likewise not rewarded, in large part because his new focus on foreign policy obscured the real threat to his power, in the form of rising, double-digit unemployment.

The first round of election results allowed Le Pen to declare that she was leading “without contest the first party of France.”

The same dynamic is visible in the U.S., but with a twist. The Democrats are validating Trump by running against him. The Republicans, meanwhile, have been validating Trump -- at least up until now -- by welcoming him with open arms.

From the time of his entry into the 2016 presidential race, Democrats have been deliberately raising Trump’s profile. Their theory is that the bigger he gets, the greater a burden he'll be to the Republican opposition.

On Tuesday, for example, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton used a major speech in New Hampshire to denounce “The Donald’s” recent proposal of a sweeping ban on all Muslims seeking to enter the U.S., even as tourists.

Republicans took the bait -- and are now hooked.

In May, when Trump announced what many considered to be a foolish, unserious candidacy, Republicans decided to embrace him. He was, after all, a high-profile businessman and TV star who could raise money for the party.

He had proved his nettlesome worth in 2012 by raising doubts about whether President Barack Obama was genuinely an American citizen and a Christian -- explosive taunts that “mainstream” Republicans dare not utter, but that played to their base voters.

Party leaders thought they were smart by demanding that Trump sign a “loyalty” oath stipulating that he would support the party nominee, whoever it eventually was.

But they were too smart by half. As part of that pledge, the other GOP candidates also had to promise to support Trump if he won.

Nobody thought it was possible at the time -- except Trump.

Having empowered him, they are now stuck with him. After Trump proposed his “shutdown” ban on all Muslim immigration -- an outrageous, manifestly hateful and possibly unconstitutional idea -- even former Vice President Dick Cheney denounced him.

So did the chairman of the Republican Party, GOP leaders in Congress and many (but not all) of the 2016 candidates.

But the Republicans have already made him the front-runner. And it's too late to do anything about it.

Howard Fineman   |   December 4, 2015    5:52 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- "Voters pick the guy with the sun in his face." That's how American pundit and talk show host Chris Matthews puts it.

It's a truism of politics in a democracy that inclusive optimism usually wins. But it's especially on point in the United States, a country that defines itself as the home of fresh starts and reinvention.

President Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984 by declaring that it was "Morning in America again." George H.W. Bush won four years later by vowing to create a "kinder, gentler" country. Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992 by saying, "I still believe in a place called Hope" -- which, conveniently, was the name of his childhood home in Arkansas.

And after the dark, divided years of George W. Bush's presidency, an obscure senator from Illinois won the presidency in 2008 with a campaign summarized by a now-iconic poster that had just one word: HOPE.

Well, that was then. It doesn't feel that way now. There is no sun now, and I don't know if and when it will reappear.

So far in the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, the mood in both major political parties and among the electorate as a whole is one of anger, division, wariness and resentment.

It is an article of faith -- literally, our secular American faith -- that our best days always lie ahead. It's what we have wanted our leaders to tell us and what we want to believe.

Yet Donald Trump -- himself a symbol of upward mobility and business success -- continues to lead the Republican field with a starkly apocalyptic message. "The American dream is dead," he declares at his rallies.

Trump, in fact, is the sum of all fears, summoning to his side every dark corner of American society: racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes at home; the specter of "evil" foreigners in China, Mexico and elsewhere aboard; the delusion that U.S. government leaders, starting with President Barack Obama, are secret agents with an agenda to destroy America.

Far from attacking him for these views and tactics, most of the other Republican candidates, most of the time, have tried to outdo him with the grim nature of their own message. After all, Trump is the clear leader in the latest CNN poll. GOP campaign consultants are even writing memos telling lower-level candidates how to mimic Trump. (If he doesn't get the Republican nomination, expect Trump to run as an independent candidate, despite his vague promise not to do so.)

Republican Jewish activists cheered Trump in Washington this week when he implied that Obama was a Muslim agent. Then they sat in stunned, uncomfortable silence as he caricatured them to their faces as a roomful of crafty, money-obsessed, rich Jews. (So what did they expect? That they could laugh along with him and he would exempt them from his inflammatory profiling?)

The Democratic Party's side of the conversation is hardly more upbeat. Front-runner Hillary Clinton isn't campaigning as the cheerful inheritor of Obama's successes, such as they are. Pressured from the left, she is fashioning herself as a tribune for the resentments of struggling middle-class voters. Meanwhile, her progressive foes denounce her as a lifelong tool of Wall Street and other elites.

As for U.S. voters, they think, by a 2-1 margin, that the country is on the "wrong track." Only 13 percent believe their children will be better off financially than they are.

Why has the sun disappeared from American presidential politics? Here's a summary of the reasons:

TERRORISM. Fear is rising in the land, and Obama's credibility as a voice of reassurance is at risk. He told Americans that the self-described Islamic State was contained in Syria and Iraq and that the U.S. homeland was safe. But then terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, and ISIS sympathizers killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.

The president also vowed not to get involved in another land war in the Middle East, yet he is sending special operations troops to help combat the Islamic State.

Republicans are more than willing to play to the growing fear. Democrats, led by Clinton, are caught between an anti-war wing that gave rise to Obama in the first place, and calls for more military and security-state reaction to ISIS.

ECONOMICS. This is the most obvious and familiar reason, though it has recently been overlooked as concerns about national security rise. As campaign guru James Carville once said, "It's the economy, stupid."

The real income of middle-class households in the U.S. has been stagnant for nearly 20 years, even as the richest have grown richer and the poor, as numerous as ever, rely on government programs. It's a recipe for resentment, which too often leads to racial backlash -- even though black and brown middle-class Americans have actually been hit harder than their white counterparts.

RACE. Electing Barack Obama to the White House didn't end the story of race in America. Instead, it opened a new chapter of anger and frustration.

Among African-Americans, that anger and frustration works on at least two levels. At elite universities and other institutions, black Americans are demanding change in a way they never had the power or opportunity to do before. On the streets, the fact that violence and police misconduct are still disproportionately aimed at black Americans has led to a vigorous new activism, called the Black Lives Matter movement.

Their reformist zeal and rhetoric, in turn, has stoked fear and resentment across white America, especially among those who have been long and loudly suspicious of the nation's first black president.

The two political parties are perhaps more demographically divergent than ever before -- a dangerous situation that often adds the flammable fuel of race to everyday arguments. A Trump rally, or almost any GOP presidential rally for that matter, is a nearly all-white affair, and the families there tend to be led by married (or remarried), church-going parents. The Democratic gatherings are starkly different: racially and ethnically more diverse, with fewer married and fewer parents.

MEDIA. Social media creates networks, but divides nations. Liked-minded voters find each other and live their political lives immersed in the partisan reality that "their" news outlets and social media circles create.

That division amplifies fear of the Other, of the mysterious Them whom a certain brand of American politician always has run against. Trump is only the latest, though one of the most potent, examples. His social media weapon of choice is Twitter -- a perfect place, it turns out, for his brand of campaigning by fear and accusation.

GRIDLOCK. Washington as a whole and Congress in particular are so gripped by partisan division that they can barely function. But rather than look for ways of fixing it, the two parties look for ways to exploit it -- and thus make the situation worse. American voters cheer for their own narrow causes, even while their anger and contempt rises for leaders and national institutions.

GUNS. America is awash in guns and gun violence. And yet as the blood flows, the political system seems incapable of imposing even the simplest limits on, say, semi-automatic "assault" rifles or full-bore background checks. Meanwhile, as Americans see more videos of gun violence, their response is to ... buy more guns. The ever-growing gun culture suffuses politics with an air of literal menace.

IMMIGRATION. Trump began his 2016 campaign by promising to be the man who built a wall to keep out Mexicans. But now he and most other Republican candidates conflate that cynical pandering to fear with an even starker and more sweeping call to brand, track and exclude Syrian war refugees and even Muslim Americans.

This kind of hysteria is not entirely new to U.S. politics. In the first half of the 19th century, Protestants rioted against what they saw as a culture-killing invasion of Catholics. Later in that century, especially in the South, white people used lynching and other gruesome tactics to intimidate black people after the Civil War freed them from official slavery. Jewish immigrants were persecuted, and even lynched, early in 20th century America.

HISTORY RHYMES. The late 1960s was the last time that U.S. politics were this divided and driven by the language of violence and fear. The 1968 election was a bitter affair that capped a decade of war, tumultuous social and cultural change, assassinations and riots. 

It was a three-way presidential race featuring a stern Republican who was a master of xenophobic politics (Richard Nixon); a weak Democrat backed by labor unions but not progressive youth (Hubert Humphrey); and a third-party racist renegade (George Wallace), running in the name of the little guy. Nixon won a grim victory based on a promise to "bring us together" through "law and order."

As the saying goes, history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Something about that gloomy campaign sounds familiar.

Howard Fineman   |   November 24, 2015    9:16 PM ET

MADRID -- Spain was ruled by a fascist dictator for 35 years until 1975. The last thing Spaniards want is another one -- here or elsewhere.

The media “celebrated” the 40th anniversary of Francisco Francos’ death on Friday, as editors of The Huffington Post’s 15 international editions arrived for meetings at the offices of El Pais.

The point of El Huffington Post’s excellent Franco package was clear: Kids, you don’t know who this guy is, but take it from us, never again.

So in Spain, and everywhere else in Europe where fascism once ruled -- which was pretty much everywhere -- there is curiosity and amusement, but also a tinge of angst about an egotistical, billionaire American real estate developer and television star by the name of Donald Trump.

Should he be taken seriously? Could he win the presidency? Is he buffoon or caudillo -- harmless clown or ruthless chieftain?

My answer, of course, is that he is both: an only-in-America combination of TV jambon and scary demagogue.

Interest in Trump here is not academic. Spaniards care about his anti-immigrant, racist, strongman rhetoric for a reason.  If he can rise in the U.S., with its supposedly durable democratic institutions, maybe someone like him can arise here.

The flood of refugees from Syria, and the ISIS attacks in Paris and threats elsewhere, have grave potential to create a new wave of hard-right governments -- not just within the borders of the European Union, as well as the U.S.

Those with a sense of history are worried they have seen this newsreel before.

The more apocalyptic analysts see and hear echoes of the 1930s, when Hitler arose from a witch’s brew of economic depression, Germany's resentful sense of humiliation after World War I, Soviet Communist militancy, anti-Semitism and weak, “progressive” European governments.

The more realistic yet still troubling concern is that the ideal of Europe -- a unified, confident group of nations acting as a humanitarian beacon for the world -- is in danger.

Germans and Greeks, already at odds over loans from the former to the latter, now are struggling with the issue of border controls, or lack of them, since Greece is one of the most porous entry points on the outer edge of the EU.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, lionized by admiring outsiders (in America) as a heroic champion of welcoming, decent values, is less popular here, and isn't trusted as much.There is a growing sense that the ideal of a borderless, one-country interior of the continent may not survive, as each nation faces pressure to re-impose old frontier controls.

Some worry that governments -- as embarrassed and perhaps shocked at they were by WikiLeaks revelations -- may follow France’s lead in seeking to impose vast new surveillance and investigative tools.

In France, that requires a change in the constitution. But there and elsewhere, constitutions don’t have the stone-tablet Mosaic sanctity and permanence that they do in the U.S. (We get around that problem with a ragingly political Supreme Court.)

Conservative and hard-right parties are emboldened, and may do better than expected -- perhaps starting next month in national elections to be held in Spain.

Merkel’s own poll numbers are more dismal than ever; and she is not just the chancellor of Germany but, in effect, the leader of Europe.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron is making a show of beefing up the military. Since his country does not have the money to build much -- he recently was reduced to essentially begging the Chinese to increase investment -- the Conservative PM’s real aim was to look Churchillian.

The aim in the UK is to join France, the U.S, Russia and others in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq from the air. The result will be death on the ground and more recruitment footage for Daesh.

So the overall mood is one of rising fear, xenophobia and talk of military action.

But there is as yet no panic and, as HuffPost editors saw it, no need for it.



Madrid, in its life and history, offers two reasons why. People want to live their lives. And they have shown that they can survive events far more dire that what we face now.

Europeans in general and Madrillenos in particular remain determined to enjoy the streets and cafes of their cities. And Madrid today is a lovely place to do it: a spacious well-tended city where a new generation of foodies is at work and where the clubs empty only at sunrise.  The national unemployment rate remains 20 percent, but the fear of total collapse of a few years ago is gone, and the main Spanish stocks are trading at 52-week highs.

Spain (and all Europe for that matter) has a history so full of strife that it prompts two conflicting emotions: a stoic, you-can’t-scare-me sense of history, and a salving,  cultural amnesia.

Beginning in the eighth century, Christianity and Islam fought here on an epic scale that makes the notion of a modern “clash of civilizations” seem tame, sophomoric or both. Everyone knows that history, but everyone participates in the act of forgetting it.

A manicured park between the royal palace and the opera is framed by rows of statues of kings. On one side are the early Christians; on the other are the later Christians. Nowhere to be seen are the invading, conquering Muslims who presided, after and before the others, for seven centuries.

Nor do they note that the Plaza del Sol in the center of town was once best known as the dramatic staging area for the Inquisition, which condemned Jews, Muslims and other “non-believers” to death or torture for their faith.

Nor is there much talk of Franco, whose murderous Nationalists won a civil war with the aid of the Nazis and ruled Spain -- and kept it from Europe’s mainstream -- for decades.

On Madrid streets Friday night, a parade formed to protest Franco’s memory. I spoke with demonstrators, who said that they worried the Spanish government would veer much farther to the right if it wins new power next month.

It wasn’t much of a crowd -- perhaps 300 -- and quickly was swallowed up in the throngs in the Plaza del Sol.

“We are protesting the new fascism here,” one of the marchers told me. “The big corporations and government are the same.”

I asked if he had heard of Donald Trump.  Yes, he said. “He’s the rich one with the hair who hates everybody.

“I hope he stays over there.”


Also on HuffPost:

Howard Fineman   |   November 19, 2015    6:27 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- A few hours after the Paris terror attacks, I wrote a piece for HuffPost with the headline, "We Are All Parisians, Again." It elicited a lot of comment.

A week later I'm back with another post-Paris piece. You can see the headline above: "We Are All Muslims Now."

The world's first reaction to the Paris shootings was horror, sorrow and defiance. In the days after, attention shifted to the military and police response. 

I'd like to suggest something else: understanding and connection. If there is to be peace on the planet, we all must try to understand what Islam means and what it doesn't, what it is and isn't, what is holy in its name and what is evil.

I don't mean that all people, of whatever faith, must become experts in one of the world's most practiced religions. And I'm certainly not the person to give instruction in any faith.

But ignorance allows fear to grow. In the absence of knowledge of the Quran's message of peace, acceptance, community and charity, fear fills the void in politics and elsewhere. If self-described Islamic State militants kill time and again in the name of Islam -- if they declare a "caliphate" in the ancient tradition -- it takes a sense of history and proportion to know that they're lying.

We can't abdicate the responsibility for this education to the politicians.

President Barack Obama, unfortunately, is not the perfect messenger for this project. Too many yahoos in the American electorate think that he is a "secret Muslim."

Advocacy groups based in Washington and elsewhere aren't necessarily the right vehicle, either. They can't be faulted for spending so much time cataloging the growing list of discrimination against and attacks on American Muslims. But the broader, more positive mission gets lost sometimes, as does the need and the patience to keep fiercely and repeatedly denouncing those perpetrating the violence.

A smart and gregarious politician such as Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota can do his part, but as energetic as he is, he is nearly alone in official Washington as part of the conversation.

In the absence of countervailing arguments, presidential candidates such as Jeb Bush and Donald Trump can plumb the depths of religious fright, suggesting, in Bush's case, that only Syrian refugees who are Christians should be admitted to the U.S.

Journalists at HuffPost and the rest of the media, of course, must do our part.

But ultimately it lies with all thinking people to look past their fears and learn about the Muslim community -- both at home and abroad. To recognize and join with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the blood-curdling actions of the extremist group also known as Daesh. And to tell their fellow Americans that the values we hold dear not only require but will reward the embrace of our common humanity.

I'll leave you with a story from long ago, when I was a young man just out of college traveling the world on a fellowship.

In Jerusalem I met a burly man in his 50s, with a square jaw, a knit cap on his head and a carpeted wooden frame on his back -- a contraption that made it easier to carry chests and other heavy items.

As late as the 1970s in Jerusalem, or so I was told, there were other men like him: Turkish "furniture movers," descendants of the Ottoman Empire that once ruled Palestine, who made a living transporting items from place to place in the narrow streets of the Old City.

It was a sunny spring day in 1971 when I met him. I was leaning against one of the old Ottoman walls of the city. I was alone and must have looked hungry.

He approached without saying a word. He reached into his pocket and brought out a small paper bag. Inside was a hard-boiled egg and a piece of newsprint folded over many times. Inside the latter was a small pile of salt.

He handed the small package to me. I nodded in thanks. He nodded and moved away.

Then he took a small carpet from his backpack, unfurled it on the grass, kneeled on it and prayed in the direction of Mecca.

I could think of the gunmen in Paris, or I could think of him. I now choose the latter.

Howard Fineman   |   November 18, 2015    2:06 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Post-Paris, fear and Donald Trump are back.

You can see it in new state primary polls: He's lapping the rest of the GOP presidential field in several of them. In the crucial New Hampshire contest, you can see it in the poll numbers and hear it in the political chatter.

Any doubt that Trump could take the Granite State in February is fading in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, locals say.

"I think Trump is going to win the Republican primary," predicated Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, a Democrat but one with Republican family roots and a keen sense of where the middle lies in New Hampshire.

In another telling sign, Gov. Maggie Hassan has become the only Democratic state chief executive to support a total "freeze" on the admission of Syrian refugees into the United States. Hassan, not coincidentally, is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate next year.

Fellow state Democrats were not publicly pleased with Hassan, to say the least, but privately said they understood the move.

"What she is doing is undemocratic and it isn't even factually valid," said a prominent local Democrat, who declined to be quoted. "The vetting process in place now [for refugees] is very strict."

"But I get what she is doing," this person said. "She is meeting the voters where they are, and where they are is very afraid."

How New Hampshire views the world matters to the world: The small New England state is a swing vote in U.S. presidential elections. Its first-in-the-nation primary often is key to deciding each party's ultimate nominee. And its Senate race, pitting Hassan against incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, could determine which party writes congressional legislation, no matter who wins the White House.

New Hampshirites say the Paris attacks have turned up the volume on what was already a loud message of disgust and impatience with the outside world: with immigrants of all kinds entering the U.S., with Chinese manufacturers flooding the U.S. with cheap exports, with Middle East terrorists.

The feeling is not confined to New Hampshire or the U.S. That pull-up-the-drawbridge view is reflected in Europe in the rising attention paid to anti-immigration leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France and the rising polls of the Alternative for Germany movement, no longer just an asterisk in Europe's richest country.

If there is a sound track in U.S. and European politics today, it could easily be the mournful old Nashville standard "Make the World Go Away."

Trump, more than any other American presidential contender this year, has staked his candidacy on playing the full medley of fears of the world. Now he's leading the way in conflating how to handle Syrian refugees with how to fight Islamic State militants.

Even GOP politicians who view themselves as fully engaged in the world are, in their own way, rank isolationists. Their impulse at this point is not only to destroy the extremist group that many call Daesh, but to somehow erase its militant message from the minds of millions.

Politics in New Hampshire is moving in the direction of fear and simplistic answers, said Joe McQuaid, publisher of the Union Leader, the state's largest newspaper and leading local news site.

"Paris is playing right into it, and Trump was there first," he said.

McQuaid is a conservative stalwart, but one who believes "we should elect someone with experience." He is no fan of Trump's. The aftermath of last week's terror "means I have to work harder to find someone who can beat him," said McQuaid.

But the people he is looking at are, for the most part, racing as fast as they can to match, if not outdo, Trump's rhetoric.

That includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is scheduled to stop by the Union Leader's headquarters in Manchester on Thursday. The supposedly thoughtful and rather establishment-oriented Bush said the other day that the U.S. government should continue to admit Syrian refugees, but only if they're "clearly" not terrorists. He suggested letting in orphans and Christians.

In an op-ed Wednesday morning in the Union-Leader, Hassan defended her call for a complete freeze until the U.S. government can "ensure robust refugee screening."

"This should be a temporary measure," she wrote. "The federal government can and must work in a timely fashion to conduct a thorough re-evaluation of every step in the screening process, including ensuring proper resources for departments responsible for carrying out these screenings."

In fact, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security vet refugees. There's a move in Congress now to add the FBI to that process.

Any such bill is sure to pass overwhelmingly -- and may be only the beginning.

Howard Fineman   |   November 5, 2015    7:32 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Here’s all you need to know about the not-funny nervous breakdown now going on in American politics.

In a respected new poll, the Democratic Party front-runner, a former secretary of state and senator, loses a test match -- overwhelmingly -- to a political novice who says that evolution is the devil’s work and that Joseph, of the Bible's Old Testament, built the pyramids in Egypt to store grain.

It’s true: A retired neurosurgeon, Republican Ben Carson, crushes Democrat Hillary Clinton by 50 percent to 40 percent in the poll. 

The news is that this news was not news in the U.S. It did not create a twinge of alarm or even amazement in political circles.  

Why? Well, it’s just one poll, and we're still a year away from Election Day. Yes, Carson is rising steadily, and in many polls has replaced real estate billionaire Donald Trump in the GOP’s top spot. But Carson could yet fade; Trump, after all, seems to be doing just that in some states.

But the real reason for the lack of blaring headlines is this: Americans have become used to an extreme level of gaudiness and even insanity in the 2016 campaign. 

They have grown so cynical and detached from politics -- the opposite of the earnest hope they had after the election of Barack Obama -- that weirdness rules the day.

For now, the 2016 election looks as much like a national unraveling as a stately transfer of authority by the world’s oldest democracy.

It's especially messy on the Republican side, where 15 candidates -- a record number -- are vying for the party nomination. The field’s size encourages attention-grabbing statements and behavior, as do “debates” with crowded stages, and the images, video and discourse of social media, which reward outrageousness.

The GOP contest is so crowded and chaotic that Karl Rove, the party’s shrewdest operative (he managed George W. Bush’s rise) said he thinks the race may not be decided until the convention in July in Cleveland, Ohio. The last time Republicans took that long to pick a candidate was in 1948.  

In the meantime, the American public is being entertained, excited or embarrassed by candidates who have, shall we say, vivid views and a loose allegiance to boring facts.

Trump shows both tendencies at once in a paragraph of his standard speech: His pledge to build a “great wall” with a “beautiful door” -- the former to keep out the 11 million undocumented people he is going to kick out of the country, the latter the gateway for some to return.

It’s the kind of fantastical image that is vivid, but not believable. His supporters don’t seem to mind.

Take Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. His father, a Cuban immigrant, is an evangelical preacher of the most fervent kind. His son has translated that into, among other things, a love of guns that is so extreme as to be practically sexual.

In a campaign video produced over the summer, Cruz -- a graduate of two of America’s most prestigious academic institutions, Princeton and Harvard -- does the following:

He wraps strips of bacon around the barrel of a rifle at a shooting range in Boone, Iowa, then wraps the bacon in aluminum foil, then fires the rifle quickly and repeatedly until the heat of the barrel fries the bacon, then he eats the bacon with a grin as he stares at the camera.

Leftish commentators jumped all over Cruz. But not for the over-the-top, bloodthirsty appeal to gun owners. Instead they ridiculed him for saying he had used a "machine gun" when it was obviously only a semi-automatic that required him to pull the trigger on each shot. Only in America would that be a left-wing critique. 

As for Carson, he continued to insist on his Joseph version of the pyramids, even though archaeologists and historians regard it as lunatic. No one bothers anymore to question him about his faith-based opposition to the science of evolution.

Carson is also building his profile as a fabulist, exposed as a liar by news media for claiming in his autobiography that he had been admitted to the U.S. military academy at West Point but turned it down to attend Yale. In fact he'd never applied to the academy, his campaign admitted Friday.

But the good thing about American politics -- and America itself -- is that one trend is soon enough replaced by another.

And there were signs at the end of this week that a sense of human-scale sobriety was about to enter the GOP race.

The Huffington Post happened upon New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the lesser lights in the race, giving a calm, heartfelt account at a town hall event of the death of a friend of his who had become addicted to painkillers.

Christie, a blustery figure who also has a sense of empathy for average folks, has worked hard as governor to increase funding for addiction programs and alternatives to incarceration -- the standard American answer to drug use.

The HuffPost video -- super-long by social media standards, at more than six minutes -- went astoundingly viral. And it prompted a new, serious discussion of America's rampant drug use, and what to do about it.

As it happens, the cities and towns of New Hampshire (where Christie spoke) are riddled with heroin and meth addiction, and a recent local poll showed it to be the top issue there.

Other GOP candidates immediately chimed in with their own stories of friends and loved ones who had suffered from addiction.

Christie struck a chord. Maybe it will be a wake-up call, yanking the campaign back into the real world -- and away from the pyramids.

Also on HuffPost:

Howard Fineman   |   November 3, 2015    5:03 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Republican officials here in the capital had dismissed Matt Bevin’s chances of winning the governor's race in Kentucky. They thought he was just too weird and wild, even in a state that has become deep red in presidential elections.

A Louisville businessman and tea party leader, Bevin (who was originally from New Hampshire) had had the reckless temerity to run -- and lose -- a race for the GOP Senate nomination last year against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the founder and leader of the modern Republican Party in the Bluegrass State.

But Bevin never stopped running. Earlier this year, he narrowly won a fluke, three-way race for the gubernatorial nomination. He was so anti-everything that, when asked whom he supported for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, he dismissed Kentucky’s other GOP senator, Rand Paul, and instead said that he preferred novice candidate Ben Carson.

Bevin was anti-Obamacare, anti-immigration, anti-tax, anti-media (constantly at war with the state's largest newspapers and television stations) and was barely on speaking terms with Paul, McConnell and just about everyone else.

Except the voters.

Sensing an opening in the late polls, GOP officials in Washington -- at McConnell’s urging -- began pouring last-minute money and resources into the state.

On Tuesday, in a low-turnout election, Bevin easily dispatched the Democrats’ shopworn best hope, Attorney General Jack Conway, who had lost a Senate race to Paul in 2010. Polls that showed the race neck-and-neck had been wildly wrong, with Bevin winning by a comfortable 8-point margin.

Democrats were flabbergasted -- but shouldn’t have been.

Conway was a weak and unpopular candidate (a Duke alum from Louisville); his campaign consisted of negative attacks on Bevin. Kentucky is culturally conservative and uneasy in the multicultural era of Barack Obama, and had gone for Paul in the tea party’s first insurgent wave in 2010. Bevin, who had no experience in elective office, fits the mood of the electorate today: utterly contemptuous of the powers that be in politics, and looking for leaders in new places.

Republicans will see Tuesday’s results, with good reason, as a harbinger of national success next year. There is history to support them. In 1967, a Republican named Louie Nunn won the governorship of Kentucky -- the first to do so after World War II. Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968, and always viewed Nunn’s win as the first sign of a GOP wave.

In 1998, Republican Ernie Fletcher won a House race in (then) normally Democratic Lexington. Two years later, George W. Bush made his way to the White House -- followed by Fletcher’s win in the governor’s race two years later.

Bevin, only the third GOP governor in Kentucky since 1947, may be a harbinger, too. But as a Carson fan, he's probably not a GOP mainstreamer in the mold of Nixon or Bush.

No one knows the history better than McConnell. Ever since he was student council president at the University of Louisville in 1964, he has dedicated himself to two goals: becoming the second Henry Clay (who was Senate leader) and establishing complete GOP control in what used to be a Democratic state.

He has now achieved both. No wonder that, at the age of 73, McConnell is shopping around his autobiography with the assistance of DC super-agent Bob Barnett.

McConnell and the GOP not only beat Conway, they also snuffed out (for now) the career of the up-and-coming, 40-year-old state auditor, whom Democrats were grooming to take on Rand Paul in the Senate race next year.

Auditor Adam Edelen, elegant and well-spoken and a darling of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and Aspen Institute, lost his race for re-election. GOP local and national organizations shrewdly targeted Edelen precisely because he was the Democrats’ consensus pick to take on Rand.

Now the job of taking on Paul may be left to Andrew Beshear, the son of the current Democratic governor, Steve Beshear. Andrew apparently narrowly won his race to succeed Conway as Kentucky’s attorney general.

The Senate contest will be tough: Paul is not wildly popular, but a presidential election year is likely to bring out a big GOP vote. The last Democrat to win in Kentucky was a Clinton, in 1996. But a lot has changed since Big Dog Bill was around, and Hillary Rodham Clinton will be a tougher sell.

So, Mitch stands astride the state.

But the party McConnell built in Kentucky -- and the one he ostensibly presides over in the U.S. Senate -- is not the machine-like conservative establishment that he envisioned when he started out as an aide to moderate GOP Sen. Marlow Cook decades ago.

McConnell, and other GOP “leaders,” have to deal with the likes of Paul and now Bevin -- tea partiers who want to tear up the pea patch, that is, government.

They can all agree on trying to get rid of Obamacare – another clear message from Kentucky.

But what about immigration, and taxes, and subsidies for big business, and the rest?

What kind of GOP has Mitch built? We are about to find out.

Also on HuffPost:

Howard Fineman   |   October 16, 2015    6:41 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- At least one thing has been decided: Joe Biden has retired the trophy for candidate indecision.

A weary Washington has been driven batty by the vice president's "I'm in, I'm out, I'm in again" agonizing about whether to enter the 2016 presidential contest. He has given us either the longest goodbye since Bogart in "Casablanca" or the longest hello since Castro in Havana.

People were bound to lose patience, even before the boffo performances by both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Tuesday night's debate, not to mention Martin O'Malley's debut as a BuzzFeed-certified hunk.

It's finally dawned on Biden World that they've run out of time. A statement is expected any minute, hour or day now.

Biden's former chief of staff and longtime Sancho Panza, ex-Sen. Ted Kaufman, sent Biden's friends and allies a letter to calm them as the dramatic moment approached. He assured the troops that, if the vice president indeed were to run, he would do so in the name of the middle class -- as well as in memory of his son Beau, who died of cancer in May.

But the decision slog has focused mostly on Joe Biden himself. No talk of an actual agenda. No hint of his assessment of the candidates already in the race. No talk of what the Democrats really need in order to secure a third-straight term in the White House. Instead, we've been shown a saga of grief and inspiration, with Biden offering soulful public updates on the condition of his political heart.

Why did he do it this way?

Biden is politically savvy and devises strategic and tactical plans at a rapid rate. But they can be contradictory and sometimes pile up like cars on an icy highway. He's both gifted and cursed by the ability to sense all options.

He has wanted to be president forever and has already run twice (in 1988 and 2008) with embarrassingly bad results. It's hard not to think third time's the charm, especially since he's been second in command since 2009 and since age might not be a factor given the other top Democratic contenders. (While Biden is 72, Clinton is 67 and Sanders is 74.)

First elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden sees himself following in Kennedy footsteps -- minus the big money, the Harvard connections and the grand presidential history of Massachusetts behind him.

Then there is Biden World, a vast array of former staffers and permanent friends who adore the man they used to work for. Their hearts ache for the pain he has suffered -- not just the loss of one son, but the deaths of his first wife and daughter in a car accident. They can't bear to tell him that it's over, if indeed it is. They want to accommodate his dreams. And they love being part of the political action, the thrill of being on the inside with a man of certifiable importance, and the cachet they will lose when his career ends.

Has the indecision hurt him?

Waiting this long certainly hasn't helped him, whatever he decides to do.

If he does run, attention will focus on the signs that he was preparing all along but waited to see the shape of the race. Reporters will seek out some Democratic operative who moved to Washington because she had been promised a job in the campaign policy shop, or examine the donors Biden called on the q.t., or lay out all the detailed groundwork of his innermost circle.

If he doesn't run, expect his inner circle to leak stories about how earnest and serious he was about entering the race. But there will be lots of reasons not to believe them. People will look back at all the things he did not do, such as call key members of Congress whose support was "gettable" by their own description.

Either way, Biden looks less and less like a father stalled by grief and more and more like a manipulative politician. So in that sense he has already lost, no matter what he decides.

In a "60 Minutes" interview last weekend, President Barack Obama praised Biden, calling him perhaps the best vice president ever. But Obama was careful not to recommend Biden as a presidential candidate. In fact, he rather drily observed that running for president is something almost everyone in national politics wants to do.

The implication was: Be kind to Joe, for he has an affliction he can't shake.

CORRECTION: Sanders' age was incorrect in a previous version. He is 74.

Howard Fineman   |   September 16, 2015    5:49 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Political junkies around the globe are worried that we crazy Americans are about to anoint a clownish, racist, authoritarian billionaire named Donald Trump to be president of the United States.

That's completely understandable.

Hasn't he rocketed to a lead in the polls? Aren't the American media obsessed with him and the ratings he produces? Haven't the experts who discounted him been wrong every step of the way? Isn't Big Money all that matters in the conduct of U.S. elections? Isn't he merely using cruder-than-usual words to express an agenda of exclusion and contempt for immigrants and foreigners that is powerful not only in the U.S., but across the entire planet?

Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

But none of that means Trump will actually be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017. Or ever.

To understand why, you need to look a little closer at the insanely (wonderfully?) long, complex and theatrical way in which we Americans elect our chief executive.

Here are the main points to remember:

A Month Is A Year, And A Year Is A Lifetime. Events move faster than ever, in part because attention spans are shorter than ever. Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination exactly three months ago. At the time he was a blip on the radar screen in national polls. What goes up that fast can plummet just as quickly.

No One Votes Until Feb. 1, 2016. It's four and a half months until Republican voters cast their first ballots, in the Iowa caucuses. Can Trump sustain the fizz and fight of his anti-everything candidacy? The longer the slog, the more like a regular candidate he will inevitably become.

Debates, Debates, Debates. The Republicans are scheduled to stage at least nine debates between now and late next spring before their nomination race will be decided. Can Trump unveil and defend policy proposals and plans for a real administration? He'll need to do so to fill the time. Bluster won't carry him all the way.

And Money, Money, Money. Trump claims that he is and will be "self-financing" his campaign. And why not, since he claims that he is worth $10 billion? But, even accepting his figures, it is not clear how "liquid" his wealth is and how much he really is willing to spend in an environment where a rival or two may be able to raise and spend $500 million. Does Trump really want to spend that much? More to the point, does his daughter?

The Details. Trump has put out one detailed policy proposal, on immigration. It's full of argumentative specifics about sending people back where they came from. Politically, it's his safest issue for gaining early Republican support. But now he's said that he'll soon unveil his tax proposals. His views there aren't entirely orthodox within the GOP, which may begin to slow his momentum. Other policy proposals could prove equally complex, politically.

The Establishment. It's true that the GOP "powers that be" are largely powers that were. But they see a chance to win back the White House -- to go along with their control of Congress and, nominally, the U.S. Supreme Court -- and they will fight to the death to keep that cross-Washington control from being ruined by the likes of Trump. It will take months for them to chose their candidate, but they will. And when they do, they will unload on The Donald.

Ground Game. Trump so far has focused on mass rallies. But if he is to win in Iowa and New Hampshire -- which are essential to his chances -- he's going to have to expose himself to the unpredictable give-and-take of one-on-one conversations. He can crush campaigns rivals with a nasty comment; he dares not do that to individual voters. That would violate the pope-like foot-washing rituals of American politics.

His Core Message. The spark that started the Trump fire was racial and ethnic fear. He gained a foothold in politics by questioning whether President Barack Obama was born in the U.S. He caused a sensation when he charged that many undocumented Mexican immigrants were drug dealers and rapists. Such comments gave him a base, but it is limited. Most Republicans really don't think they can win the White House with the Trump hate message.

Mistakes. No one, not even Donald Trump, gets through an entire campaign without putting a foot wrong. He will, and it will be magnified by his egotistical stance.

The GOP Convention. The Republicans won't officially settle on their presidential nominee until July 2016. This year the nominating convention will be held in Cleveland, which is the home base of another Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and isn't exactly a hotbed of radical political change. If Trump hasn't won the GOP race outright by then, he isn't going to be able to pull it together on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena.

The General Election. One of the oddities of American presidential elections is that they spend many more months deciding who wins the major party nominations than they spend deciding who wins the White House. The nominees chosen by the Republican and Democratic parties are usually saner and more moderate than the excesses they survived. That's a remnant of the still-powerful centrism, thankfully, that controls American politics. The general election doesn't roll around until November 2016. Should Trump somehow have managed to win the Republican nomination, he would still have to prove to millions of undecided middle-of-the-road voters that he was not someone from the fringes.

And if he gets that far, and manages to do that, he won't really be Donald Trump anymore.


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