Home » 2011 » September


The Game That Breaks Your Heart

The sport page headline in the Boston Herald this morning: “The Choke’s on Us.”

Herald columnist John Tomase captured the full agony of Boston fans in his third graph: “The Red Sox were euthanized by the Orioles last night when $142 million man Carl Crawford failed to catch a sinking liner in the ninth, allowing the O’s to walk off with a 4-3 victory.” Ouch.

The generally more staid Boston Globe wasn’t. The headline there: “Shameful Red Sox Made Unwanted History.” Recalling disasters of the past, the paper noted that the ghost of Bucky Dent is alive and well.

With the closer to home Mariners out of anything – except meaningless games – by the All Star break, I took some pleasure in anticipating the Sox in the post season. When I watched them drop two of three to the hapless M’s in mid-August, I should have known the jig was up. The meltdown in Beantown will go down in the record books as the greatest fall from baseball grace ever in September. For me it began at Safeco on Friday night in summer. These guys wore the season-long collar of doom; we just didn’t know it until last night.

Funny thing about sports – and politics – once the cloud of doom settles over a team (or candidate) there is virtually nothing – nothing – a manager can do to let the sunshine in. All through September, Red Sox skipper, Tony Francona, looked like a guy preparing to lose. He had the brave but worried look of Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1980 or George H.W. Bush in ’92. He seemed to know he was going to lose the whole campaign, but was hoping for an October (or late September) surprise. Not gonna happen.

Still, what an amazing night of baseball. Three key games all in progress simultaneously. The channel changer needs a new battery this morning. Mike Lopresti kept a timeline for USA Today. He recorded the end at 12:07 am Eastern when the Red Sox shuffled off to a “winter of discontent.”

The late, great Commissioner and historian of the great game, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a Red Sox fan, said it better than anyone: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

There will be playoffs now and a World Series. I’ll watch it all with the full knowledge that winter has arrived early.


Trying Times

Leadership? Not So Much

At pivotal moments in American history it has often been the case that the right leader somehow emerged from the chaos of the moment and the nation was able to pass through trying times and set course for a better future.

Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan lacked the vision and courage to head off the steady drift in the direction of sectional strife in the 1850’s and, while there is a good argument to be made that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the tipping point toward civil war, there is hardly any disputing that Lincoln brought to the presidency the powers of leadership that ultimately saved the country.

Likewise Franklin D. Roosevelt proved to be the right leader at the worse time in the 20th Century. FDR restored confidence and, I’m convinced, reformed American capitalism enough to save it. He was a leader made for his times.

There are a handful of other examples in our history. Andrew Jackson, with all his flaws, may qualify for a leadership award. More recently Ronald Reagan, invoked by every current GOP candidate for president as the leadership gold standard, had some of the FDR in him. He was a confidence builder when the nation needed a big dose. Washington stands, of course, in a special class of right leader at a trying time.

It’s hard to escape the reality that the nation is at another such crossroads and our politics and politicians hardly seem up to the task. The litany of problems is almost too big to fathom: stagnant economy, double-dip recession looming, crippling unemployment, increasing poverty and income gap, a national and international debt crisis, declining quality of public education, the need for entitlement reform, the European fiscal crisis, the uncertainty and unpredictability of the Arab Spring, climate change, terrorism, even the Red Sox have melted down.

The thinking man’s conservative, David Brooks, identified the heart of the problem in his New York Times column yesterday: “the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.”

The Democrats are all about tax increases on the most wealthy and increased spending to stimulate consumer demand. The Republicans can’t shake the gospel of tax cuts, controlling the deficit and whacking at regulation. What both sides miss is that we need to do all of that and more.

It may well be recorded at the supreme moment of missed opportunity in the Obama Administration was the president’s failure to grasp and champion the most important political and policy work to come out of Washington in a long, long time – the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles Commission. In the end, the discarding of the work of the former Wyoming Senator, Alan Simpson, and the Clinton-era White House Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, will be recorded as a failure of leadership. The bi-partisan commission called for doing it all – tax and entitlement reform, spending cuts, deficit reduction. The Commission prescribed exactly what every thinking American knows in their partisan heart must be done. Obama punted and Congressional Republicans did as well.

And meanwhile the country is hungry – desperate even – for real leadership. Many Republicans salivate over the prospect that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will turn his consistent “no” into an announcement that he’ll enter the GOP battle and it’s easy to see why. Christie delivered an inspirational speech last night at Republican hallowed ground, the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. His indictment of Washington leadership will surely resonate with Democrats and Republicans who long for leadership from someone.

“In Washington,” Christie said, “we have watched as we drift from conflict to conflict, with little or no resolution.

“We watch a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet to find the courage to lead.

“We watch a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign style politics at the Capitol’s door.  The result is a debt ceiling limitation debate that made our democracy appear as if we could no longer effectively govern ourselves.”

Christie specifically jabbed President Obama for failing to embrace the Simpson-Bowles work noting pointedly that it was “a report the president asked for himself.”

I’m not at all convinced Chris Christie is the Lincoln or FDR we need, but I am convinced that genuinely honest talk about the enormous problems facing the country, with an unstinting focus on big solutions to big problems rather than what David Brooks calls “proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand,” would be the beginning of the leadership the country needs and hungers for.

The electorate is deeply unsettled. The evidence floats about everywhere you look. A new CNN survey says only 15% of Americans have confidence in their government; an all-time low. The Coca-Cola chief says China is a better business bet than the USA. There is an unmistakable sense that American power and influence is in decline.

Is anyone up to the task? Can anyone see beyond the next election? I’m betting if someone could look that far ahead – see ahead to real leadership – it would be the best possible strategy to win.


J. Robb Brady

A Rare Breed

Loyal readers at this spot know that I occasionally rage against the dying of the light of local journalism. The days of independent, community-minded and engaged newspapers, television and radio stations does seem to me more and more imperiled, which makes the passing of J. Robb Brady, the long-time publisher and editorialist of the Idaho Falls Post Register, a singularly sad milestone.

Brady was a young 92 when he died Sunday in Idaho Falls. His wife Rose – they were married for 69 years – died earlier this year.

Robb Brady was, as the younger set might say, “old school.” His office looked like it could have been at home on the set of the old television show “Lou Grant.” Robb truly had printer’s ink in his veins and it was obvious he took great pride and satisfaction in running a family-owned newspaper.

Robb Brady was also a conservationist, occasionally at the expense of his objectivity, but had I the chance, as he did, to buy ink by the barrel, I would want to have the same kind of opinionated, passionate editorial page he presided over at the Post Register. I remember taking a client in some years back to “background” Robb and others at the paper on a new mining venture in Lemhi County. I warned the client that it would be a tough session full of pointed questions. Robb, as far as I know, never met a mine he liked and the editorial board meeting was tough and pointed, but never lacking in civility.

Brady simply wanted folks to justify their plans and most of all answer how they would take care of the Idaho environment he came to champion. The answers he got were seldom good enough, but his judgments were rarely nasty, rather more concerned and dubious. In other words, his was the newspapering mind of a skeptic, not a cynic.

He wasn’t a booster – OK, well maybe a little bit of a hometown booster of the Department of Energy. All politics is local after all. Not many mines in Bonneville County, Idaho, but thousands of jobs at the Idaho National Laboratory.

For example, in a 2006 editorial Brady lamented the power of oil and gas companies to dominate the Bush Administration’s public lands leasing policies and suggested that global warming had an answer – develop a newer, safer generation of nuclear reactors rather than exploit more dirty carbon-based energy. At least Brady, unlike too many who possess a strong conservation ethic, had a real alternative to more oil and gas exploration – invest in nuclear power.

The tributes to Robb Brady will flow in now from those who will remember his spirited, passionate editorials about the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, about his championing of protection for the magnificent Sawtooth Range and the River of No Return Wilderness. But some of the best and most important memories will come from the generations of ink-stained wretches he touched and trained.

Marty Trillhaase, now the editorial page editor of another family-owned newspaper in Lewiston, once worked with Brady in Idaho Falls, as did the Idaho Statesman’s Kevin Richert and Rocky Barker. Calling Brady kind, generous, opinionated and courageous, Trillhaase concluded his editorial today with the all-too-true observation: we’ll not see his like again.


It’s the Money

College Football…the Case for Reform

Taylor Branch is a serious historian, a man who has made his considerable reputation as perhaps the most important historian of the civil rights movement. Branch’s superb Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize and it is just about the best thing in print on the politics, history and turmoil that roiled the country as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pulled America forward, forcing us to confront our racist past and our unequal present.

Branch is an outstanding reporter and he has now turned his impressive investigative and analytical skills to the business of college football. His story – the cover piece in the current Atlantic – is an absolute must read for any fan, any skeptic, anyone who even occasionally wonders what big time college football has to do with big time higher education.

The Columbia Journalism Review said, “Taylor Branch’s cover story in the new Atlantic is a devastating indictment of the NCAA…a superb synthesis of the history of the NCAA, the hypocrisy of keeping athletes from getting paid while the commercialization of college sports (football and basketball, that is) runs amok, and why a reckoning may be in store.”

Frank Deford, who has long lamented the crass commercialism of college athletics, devoted his recent NPR commentary to Branch’s article that he called “the most important article ever written about college sports.”

I read Branch’s piece last week and came away with that once-in-a-while feeling that you have just read something really important, truly insightful and that you really learned a thing or two. His distillation of the history of the NCAA is simply fascinating. His insights into the business of big-time college football should be enough to make any big corporate sponsor blush. His characterizations of the scandals rippling through the game should make every college president in America queasy. But, since we’re really talking money and hypocrisy here, it will take something more than Ohio State firing a football coach or Boise State sacking an athletic director, to reform this system. It will happen, Taylor Branch forecasts, in a courtroom. He make a very compelling case.

Branch’s fundamental indictment of college football rests to two pillars: the NCAA is today, and long has been, a corrupt “cartel” determined to control as much of college athletics as it possibly can and that the so-called “student-athlete” is a fiction dreamed up by a long line of NCAA leaders who were determined to treat young athletes as indentured servants, while college coaches and the institutions themselves are enriched beyond the wildest dreams of most of the young men who labor for free.

As Branch says: “The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.”

He goes on to recount, in painful detail, stories where “student-athletes” have been seriously injured playing for respected colleges only to lose appeals that they be granted the basic protections of worker compensation laws.

“The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel,” Branch writes. “Efforts to reform it—most notably by the three Knight Commissions over the course of 20 years—have, while making changes around the edges, been largely fruitless. The time has come for a major overhaul. And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Swaddled in gauzy clichés, the NCAA presides over a vast, teetering glory.”

In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the young president of the University of Chicago, did what a college president would likely get tarred and feathered for today – he dropped football. Hutchins famously said, “To be successful, one must cheat. Everyone is cheating, and I refuse to cheat.”

Hutchins confronted the fundamental question: just what does ultra expensive college football, complete with lucrative sponsorship deals, high rolling boosters who play by high rolling rules and inevitable scandal have to do with education, scholarship and research. Hutchins answer was just as valid in 1939 as it is today – nothing.

Since reading Taylor Branch’s piece, I’ve read to other pieces of reporting on college football that strangely make his fundamental point in vastly different ways. The University of Chicago, Maynard Hutchins long in the grave, resurrected its football program thirty years after it was eliminated.

As the New York Times noted recently, “In 1969, football returned as a varsity sport, oddly enough during the Vietnam War era when many rebellious students were comparing blocking and tackling to bombing and strafing.

“Since then, the game has been thriving on its own measured terms in N.C.A.A. Division III, free of the highest level of competition. Winning is a preference and not an obsession. Players, though zealously recruited, are not given athletic scholarships. Championships are won but little noticed.

“Chicago presents its own kind of parable: going from all to none before settling on a path in between.

“We’re just a teaspoon in a larger sandbox,” said Dick Maloney, the team’s head coach since 1994. “There are places where football is more like a giant shovel, but I prefer it when everything is kept in perspective.”

In a front page piece, the Times also reported on the latest trends in college football uniforms, noting that the University of Maryland has done a deal with edgy gear manufacturer Under Armour to create a series of game jerseys, pants and helmets that the team will surprise fans with every week. Of course, four of the new jerseys are on sale by the college.

Just to connect the dots, as Branch does in his reporting, while the University of Maryland and dozens of other schools make a bundle on deals to sell college football jerseys and other team goodies, Ohio State University players are serving suspensions and have had four figure fines imposed for selling their own jerseys, rings and awards.

As Branch, Deford and others have pointed out, the NCAA never really goes hard after a big time football program. They’re simply afraid that real sanctions to clean up the college football cesspool might force the Ohio State’s and Miami’s to pick up their footballs and unite under a different banner. The NCAA can’t stand that thought. It needs the money. So, the NCAA spends about one percent of its budget on enforcement and typically only gets really snarly with some kid who may have trouble scrapping together the cash to get the oil changed in his car.

The University of Chicago’s Hutchins once joked that a student could get twelve letters in college without learning to write even one. Today the University that produced the first Heisman Trophy winner and then abandoned the Big Ten Conference is best known for its 85 Nobel laureates.

The entire system of college football – the organization, the big money, the ruse of the “student-athlete” – is eventually going to come tumbling down. There is truly a scandal here and like almost every scandal its ultimately about money and what the corruption of too much money and too little integrity can do to even the noblest of intentions.


Drawing the Lines

Here’s an Idea…Let Ben Do It

When Idaho’s “citizen” reapportionment panel deadlocked recently everyone in the state looked to the Big Man on the second floor of the state capitol building for guidance. And for good reason. Ben Ysursa has forgotten more about Idaho’s election process than most of us could ever hope to know. So here’s a novel idea that will never happen, but should – let Ben draw the lines. I apologize in advance to my friend, Ysursa, but stay with me.

Rather than Ysursa’s steady and experienced hand on the redistricting tiller, we’ll now have a new reapportionment panel in place next week – three partisan Democrats and a trio of partisan Republicans – trying and do what the first gang of six failed to do in 90 days of expensive trying. In theory the equally divided “citizens” committee seems like a sensible solution to the games legislators historically play when it comes time, as it does every ten years, to decide the shape of the state’s legislative and Congressional boundaries. The sensible idea goes south, however, because both parties bring their partisan agendas to the process and common sense is handed a spoiled ballot. To those who will be quick to say, “but the citizen panel worked last time,” I say it worked only because one member – to perhaps his eternal regret – voted with the other side. The partisan political powers to be seemed determined to not have that happen again.

I know, I know, drawing legislative and Congressional boundaries may be the single most partisan thing done in our politics. Careers are made or ended based on these geographic and population decisions. All the more reason to let a pro call the shots. Suppose for a minute that the Commissioner of Baseball decided that we need to tweak the rules of the great game. Would he assign the job to a group of amateur fans, three Red Sox partisans and three Yankee fanatics? Of course not. Even Bud Selig would be smart enough to call in a Joe Torre or Frank Robinson; an expert who knows and loves the game, but is wise enough not to play games with the rules.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call did a story last week detailing how difficult the reapportionment job is in a smaller states, like Idaho. The biggest states have finished the job, while Maine (and Idaho) seem hopeless caught in the political weeds. Idaho reapportioners wandered into the weeds when Republicans panel members pushed an agenda to create a legislature even more conservative than the current one and Democrats saw the process as offering a small sliver of opportunity to get the party back to relevance. Next stop: deadlock.

Of course, my solution – let Ben do it – will pass muster with no one, including most likely Ben. What sane person would want this job? But consider this: Ysursa has been in the Secretary of State’s office since just after statehood, or at least it seems so. Ben first toiled as long-time Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa’s chief deputy and he has held the top job himself since 2002. Ben has twice been overwhelmingly re-elected with bi-partisan support. You would be hard pressed to find a loyal Republican, as Ysursa proudly is, who is seen by partisans of every stripe as both a professional and completely fair minded. I can think of no person in either party who would approach the partisan job of reapportionment with more dispassion and with a long view as to what is in the best interest of Idaho. He could have the lines drawn by tomorrow afternoon and I’d bet a ticket to a Red Sox – Yankee playoff game that Ben’s plan would pass Constitutional muster if, as always seems likely, the ultimate plan goes before a judge.

Somethings are too important to be left to politicians and, with all due respect to the six people who tried to write a plan, some things are too important to be left to amateurs. The lines defining Idaho’s legislative and Congressional districts should be drawn based, number one, on common sense as defined by population, communities of interest, geography and history. If six truly independent people brought that notion to the Idaho process they could write the plan in a week. Partisan considerations make that impossible.

Think that letting Ben do this job is crazy? Maybe, but let’s see where we are in six weeks or so.



Ten Years On…

Amid the tenth anniversary reflections over the terror attacks on New York and Washington there is much to ponder, remember and regret, including our response and its effectiveness.

Bill Keller, just stepped down as the top editor at The New York Times, used the tenth anniversary to revisit his own cheerleading for the Iraq war. Keller concludes “I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.”

No such reflection or any second thoughts from former Vice President Dick Cheney who told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I think we made exactly the right decision (regarding the invasion of Iraq.)”

The weekend’s commemoration of September 11, 2001 was remarkably free of politics, but 9-11 and the war on terror, as Politico points out, continues to infuse our politics.

“Even as voters grow weary of the nation’s wartime footing,” Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman write at Politico, “Democrats and Republicans continue to seek out opportunities to wield the memory of 9/11 for electoral gain — whether that means using the Guantanamo Bay detention center as a wedge issue, courting the support of firefighters and police or attacking a proposed Islamic center near ground zero.”

So much was lost ten years ago and it is altogether fitting and proper that we regret and mourn that loss. We will do so for as long as people are alive who remember that day. But, we might do well to also reflect on the fleeting nature of the profound desire that existed in the days immediately after September 11 to come together as a country, share both grief and sacrifice and get our national response correctly calibrated. The Spirit of September 12, needless to say, did not last long.

Historian Julian Zelizer writes that our passion for partisanship couldn’t be overcome even by the tragedy of 9/11.

“Could the promise of September 12 ever be fulfilled,” Zelizer asks. “Certainly today there are enormous areas of consensus between the parties, such as over most counterterrorism policies, over the need for strong homeland security programs and even for strong military vigilance with countries such as North Korea and Pakistan.

“Nonetheless, the partisan forces that play out on the campaign trail are simply too great to overcome. If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s how deeply rooted partisanship is in our modern political culture. Even a tragedy of its magnitude could barely contain the forces that perpetually rip apart members of the two parties.

“Ten years ago, the parties came together. But they came together just for a brief spell. In the long span of history, it was as if the moment ended before either side could even blink.”

More serious than even the partisanship of our politics is the general failure of real reflection and analysis in the wake of that terrible day ten years back. A Dick Cheney can’t even hint that he has had a moment of pause considering all that has happened in a decade, including wars costing thousands of lives and perhaps $4 billion in treasure.

But reflect we must and not just on the horrible losses of a decade ago. Fareed Zakaria and others ask are we safer, was our response to 9/11 truly effective, have we improperly compromised our civil liberties and the American reputation for respecting the “rule of law,” has the re-ogranization of our intelligence system worked, and are we fated to wage an endless “war on terror?”

It is worth remembering, as Zakaria does, that “on the day before 9/11 the U.S. was at peace, had a large budget surplus, and oil was $28 a barrel. Today the U.S. is engaged in military operations across the globe, has a deficit of 1.5 trillion dollars and oil is $115 a barrel.”

A new Rasmussen survey says 66% of Americans think the country has “changed for the worst” since 9/11 and fewer than 50% think we’re winning our war on terror. To believe such surveys is to believe that the American people know that we haven’t gotten it right. As the past weekend illustrates, we remember well enough, but do we accumulate much knowledge along with the memory?

Bin Laden is dead and by most accounts his vastly diminished terror network is on the run, but it’s impossible to think – ten years on – that we are anywhere close to the end of the era that began on that spectacular September day a decade ago. Where do we go now? How will we know without more real reflection, without more effort at taking stock and admitting that maybe – just maybe – we have more learning to do?

A question for us – a question that really honors those who perished on 9/11 and in the wars that followed – is whether we will be smart enough to really assess the effectiveness of our response to the tragedy, and adjust as necessary, so that 20 or 50 years on the children of the victims of 9/11 will live in country that not only remembers their loss, but has learned from it as well.



When Its Lost Can it be Found Again?

I’ve had a good deal of fun over the last few weeks teaching a college-level political science course at Boise State University.

The course is built around the politics and policy of the New Deal period in the 1930’s and we focus a good deal on the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt (and others) as well as the lasting impact of those challenging and dramatic days on life here in the American West.

For a young adult in college today the 1930’s might as well be the 1730’s. It is ancient history, but considering the economic and political challenges we face today, I continue to be struck by the parallels between the political and policy discussion that took place in the 1930’s and the on-going debate we’re having in the country right now.

To prepare for a recent class, I went back and read and then listened to the very first Fireside Chat Franklin Roosevelt delivered in March of 1933. FDR, inaugurated eight days earlier, had closed the nation’s banks and gotten Congress to pass emergency banking legislation to facilitate the orderly re-opening of the nation’s financial institutions. He talked to the nation by radio on Sunday evening, March 12. The historic speech was a model of clarity, description and, most importantly, confidence building. If you have never read or heard the speech, it is worth your time. The brief talk stands the test of time as an example of the power and importance of effective political rhetoric.

Roosevelt patiently explained during his talk how banks work, why some banks had failed and why some Americans had made a run on banks to convert their deposits to currency or gold. He then explained what he had done and why and that Congress had supported his bold efforts to stabilize the banking system. He then explained how banks would begin to re-open.

Here is one of the more memorable sections of the speech:

“I hope you can see, my friends, from this essential recital of what your Government is doing that there is nothing complex, nothing radical in the process.

“We have had a bad banking situation. Some of our bankers had shown themselves either incompetent or dishonest in their handling of the people’s funds. They had used money entrusted to them in speculations and unwise loans. This was, of course, not true of the vast majority of our banks, but it was true in enough of them to shock the people of the United States, for a time, into a sense of insecurity and to put them into a frame of mind where they did not differentiate, but seemed to assume that the acts of a comparative few had tainted them all. And so it became the Government’s job to straighten out this situation and do it as quickly as possible. And that job is being performed.”

I thought of Roosevelt’s simple, elegant words as I listened to Barack Obama speak to Congress this week. In a fundamentally important way, Obama has the same challenge FDR faced during that banking crisis in 1933. He needs to begin to restore confidence – in himself, the government and in the country’s ability to move ahead.

It’s not at all clear he made much headway.

Obama did use his speech to educate, the approach FDR mastered. At one point, for example, he said in speaking of the reality of cutting spending:

“So here’s the truth.  Around two-thirds of our budget is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security.  Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20%.  What’s left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else. That’s 12 percent for all of our other national priorities like education and clean energy; medical research and transportation; food safety and keeping our air and water clean.”

A good approach, I think, but maybe too late to be effective. I kept feeling that the President should have given this speech two years ago, or at the beginning of the mostly senseless recent debate over the debt ceiling. The words Obama spoke seem more directed at the Congress than at the American public and that comes as most Republicans, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank points out, no longer take Obama seriously. As for the public, the polls say they are losing or have lost confidence.

Credibility, confidence and competence are the Big Three of politics. Once the notion settles with voters that a politician lacks one or more of the Big Three, it’s pretty close to impossible for that person to get back in command. Just ask Jimmy Carter or Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush during his last two years.

The brilliance of Franklin Roosevelt was contained in his ability to connect and explain and the abiding sense that he had confidence so the country could have confidence, too. He never lost the confidence of a sizable majority of the American people, so never had to try to regain it. Maybe that is the true measure of greatness in politics.


Oil and Water

Very Strange Bedfellows

I don’t normally pay a great deal of attention to the political opinions of Hollywood personalities. So I confess I missed the initial news reports that the actress Daryl Hannah, perhaps best known for playing the mermaid in Ron Howard’s movie Splash, was arrested a few days back for protesting the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

The lovely Ms. Hannah, talented too, for all I know, isn’t the real story here, however. The politics of jobs is at work. in this international pipeline.

The pipeline project is designed to carry oil recovered from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas and the pipeline, its purpose and route, has been increasingly in the news lately. The U.S. State Department recently released an environmental impact statement that said, in essence, the project could be completed without major environmental problems. Needless to say, not everyone, including Ms. Hannah, agrees.

Most major environmental groups have expressed disappointment that the Obama Administration seems on the verge of approving the pipeline. The President’s mostly natural allies in the environmental movement are also torqued that the administration recently and abruptly dropped new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules related to smog. These two events, separate and linked at the same time, really constitute Exhibit A that the political imperative to grow the economy and create jobs, particularly during a period of prolonged economic turmoil, eventually trump most every other consideration.

My old boss former Idaho Gov. and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, no slouch when it comes to possessing an environmental ethic, used to say: “First, you must making a living and then you must have a living that is worthwhile.” That is just another way of saying that without a job you don’t have much time or ability to enjoy the great outdoors, clean air and water. Needless to say not everyone in public life agrees about the political priority of jobs first. For some being “pure” on the environment is simply a higher calling that transcends all else, including finding some way to jump start a stumbling economy.

Put former Vice President Al Gore in this category. Gore recently, and perhaps entirely predictably,  came out in opposition to the Canada to the Gulf pipeline. The motivations of the Republican Governor of Nebraska Dave Heineman, who says he also opposes the pipeline because of its route through Nebraksa, appear more interesting. Republicans don’t normally oppose pipelines.

Daryl Hannah may look better getting arrested, but Republican Heineman and Democrat Gore as an anti-pipeline dance team may have a lot more impact on this increasingly complex and contentious environmental issue.

Development of Canada’s oil sands resource has long be contentious. Gore, never bashful about hyperpole, calls it the dirtest energy on the planet. Heineman says his opposition is based on the pipeline’s threat to the huge Ogallala aquifer that lies deep below Nebraska and several other states. The route through Nebraska’s special Sand Hills country, where my grandfather homesteaded more than a hundred years ago, is also problematic according to Gov. Heineman.

In Idaho and Montana recently the long public debate and substantial opposition to huge shipments of oilfield gear from the Port of Lewiston to the Canadian fields has been much less about the articulated reasons of shipment opponents – safety, disruption of traffic, etc – than about the mostly unspoken reasons, a strategic desire by environmental groups to prevent, or at least delay, further tar sands development.

As is most often the case, the debate over the pipeline from the Great North is waged with soundbites from all sides that simplify the discussion to the point of distortion.  There is plenty of substance here on all sides, but we never hear much that isn’t the rhetorical equivilent to Daryl Hannah getting arrested in front of the White House.

For example, how many Americans know that we already import more oil from Canada than any other country, in fact, nearly twice as much as we import from Saudi Arabia and four times as much as we ship in from Iraq. What happens without the pipeline? What happens with it? Good luck getting those answers.

The pipeline debate, the fight over the smog rules and the future of nuclear power, just to name three energy issues of the moment, are all symptoms of a failure of national political leadership to confront the fundamentals of how we use energy and where it comes from.

Many on the left of our politics can hardly fathom a serious debate about how we actually might alter the nation’s energy consumption and mix of resources because they know – heck everyone knows – that it can’t be done overnight or without real pain and dislocation. These folks are increasingly locked into a short-term, tactical mindset that creates a environmental emergency about this pipeline or that power plant. Vast expansion of wind energy production in the American West is now seeing the predictable pushback from many of these folks. Real debate and establishment of priorities goes begging with such short-term thinking.

At the same time, the hard right of our political flank pays a premium to someone like Texas Gov. Rick Perry who rejects the notion, now the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientic community, that climate charge is a real and urgent fact. Or, closer to home, the short-sighted bemoan the public subsidies “lavished” on public transportation, while completely ignoring that the American system of air service is built on truly vast public subsides for airports, facilities, personnel and equipment.

It’s increasingly hard to have a sensible discussion about public priorities in the United States because we can’t often agree on a common set of facts and assumptions. Is a pipeline from Canada to the Gulf an environmental disaster in the making or a critical piece of infrastructure that keeps the oil following from a nearby neighbor that we haven’t recently had a war with?

Is the delay of $90 billion in smog rules a cave in to the dirty air crowd or a prudent, temporary move that my help the economy get back on its feet?  Jobs versus the environment is a long-term reality of American political life – just not a very constructive debate.

I have this naive notion that the American public is really capable of grappling with the complexity and nuance of these kinds of issues. It’s just been so long since anyone talked to us about complexity and trade-offs that we are out of practice.

Maybe Daryl Hannah can explain.

The Choice

Strangely, the Gipper May Be Obama’s Re-election Model

I’d argue that ever modern American presidential election comes down to one fundamental question: do we change or do we continue?

In 2008, Barack Obama obviously was about “change.” At every opportunity he tied John McCain to the administration of George W. Bush. In the narrative logic of that campaign, McCain, the old, establishment guy, was continuity and Obama, the young, fresh face, was change.

As Obama looks to his increasingly complicated re-election, some of his top staffers are taking comfort in history. They best not take too much comfort.

TIME reports that Chief of Staff Bill Daley recently invited presidential historian Michael Beschloss to a quiet retreat with top White House staffers to talk about whether any president facing eight or nine percent unemployment and steadily declining approval numbers can be re-elected.

Beschloss reportedly cited two examplesFranklin Roosevelt’s first re-election in 1936, while the country was still mired in the Great Depression, and Ronald Reagan’s “it’s morning in America” triumph over Walter Mondale in 1984.

Clearly Obama must try to do what FDR and The Gipper successfully pulled off in tying the nation’s economic misery to the failed policies of the president who came before. It was fairly easy for Roosevelt to continue to make the dour Herbert Hoover his fall guy and Republicans in 1936 were badly divided over how to respond to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like Obama today, Roosevelt felt pressure from the left to respond ever more forcefully to the nation’s economic problems and he responded by shifting his rhetoric to attack big business and conservatives who had resisted his efforts to reform and recover.

Bashing “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking,” FDR famously said, “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

The hapless GOP candidate, Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon, a moderate Republican, carried but two states prompting Roosevelt campaign manager Jim Farley to quip, “So goes Maine, so goes Vermont.” FDR actually ran a good deal stronger in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana in 1936 than he had four years earlier. 

In 1984, Ronald Reagan sought re-election in the environment of a sputtering national economy and succeeded in making the election a referendum on the previous administration. Reagan and his team were masterful at conveying a sense that the country had turned a corner under his watch and the nation would be foolish to go back to the bad old days of Jimmy Carter. It didn’t hurt Reagan’s prospects that Democrats nominated Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, a daily reminder during the campaign of the regime Reagan has turned out of office in 1980. Mondale, like Landon an exemplary American and all together decent guy, turned out to have been a much better veep than a presidential candidate.

Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia and, in fact, held Reagan under 52% in only two other states. It was a classic presidential blowout.

So, perhaps the Obama team can take some comfort in the fact that FDR and Reagan turned the tables on the prevailing wisdom that holds that the economy generally trumps all when it comes to re-electing a president, but at least one other factor was at play in 1936 and 1984.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were tough, seasoned political fighters at the top of their games. They defined their enemies with passion and clarity; Roosevelt “welcoming” the hatred of his critic-enemies and Reagan carrying the fight to the Democrats.

Accepting the GOP nomination, Reagan said in 1984, “Our opponents began this campaign hoping that America has a poor memory. Well, let’s take them on a little stroll down memory lane. Let’s remind them of how a 4.8-percent inflation rate in 1976 became back-to-back years of double-digit inflation – the worst since World War II – punishing the poor and elderly, young couple striving to start their new lives, and working people struggling to make ends meet.”

The question is not whether Obama will attempt to make his re-election a referendum on whether the country goes back to the “failed” approach of the Bush years. He has no choice but to run that campaign. His unpopular health reform legislation, never adequately explained to the public and now it’s way too late to try, and the economic stimulus that may well have kept the economy from getting seriously worse, but still seen by many as a failure, are not a record to run on.

No, the question for the cerebral Obama is whether he can find the fight to define the coming election in terms that present a real choice about the country’s future versus its past. In stark terms, can he make it about the good guys versus the evil forces arrayed against him?

FDR in 1936 and Reagan in 1984 ran against the odds  and their enemies and, in both cases, they beat the odds by making the campaign about something bigger than themselves. We’ll soon enough see whether Obama is built of the same stuff.