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Where’s George?

The Delicate Dance of a Former President

For 20 of the last 31 years a Republican president has occupied the Oval Office. Two of those presidents – the first and second George Bush – served for a combined 12 years, yet in the current political environment they seem as distant from the partisan hubbub as, well, Republicans of an earlier day wished Herbert Hoover would have been in 1936. More on that in a moment.

George H.W. Bush – Bush 41 – has offered an “unofficial” endorsement, whatever that means, to Mitt Romney, but Bush 43 is virtually invisible in Republican politics or public life. While Romney and Newt Gingrich fight to inherit the mantle of Ronald Reagan, no candidate makes the trek to the Texas ranch to seek George W.’s advice or endorsement. It’s almost as though his presidency, at least for GOP candidates, has been erased from the blackboard of the current campaign. It will be interesting to see if Bush the Younger has any role at this summer’s GOP convention.

Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has refused to endorse a candidate in today’s Florida primary and that decision has been the subject of much tea leaf reading. By most accounts a few words from the third Bush would have been very helpful to any candidate, but beyond jabbing the candidates for their anti-immigration rhetoric, the next Bush in line has stayed above the fray.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes suggests that Jeb Bush may be playing his cards so close because he can foresee a role for himself as a compromise and unifying GOP candidate in the unlikely event the Republican nominating process becomes deadlocked. Or, Barnes says, Bush could be a unifying choice as vice president on a Romney or Gingrich ticket. I say don’t count on it.

With no Kennedy now in significant public office, the Bush family is the closest thing we have to a dynasty in American politics. Still the elder Bush, now 87, is clearly in declining health and George W. is so politically radioactive after two controversial terms that no current candidate wants to be close to him. Many Republicans long for a Jeb Bush candidacy, but he demurs. He recently provided a glimpse into his thinking when he told an interviewer that 2012, given his age and the state of the country, was probably his year, but for whatever reason he has taken a pass, which takes us back to W.

If many Democrats see Bush 43 as the modern day equivalent of the Great Depression scarred Herbert Hoover, he is certainly behaving much differently than the discredited Hoover did four years after his defeat at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt.

Perhaps the difference can be explained by the fact that Hoover still hungered for another term in the White House. George W. had his eight years. In any event, the two men – tremendously unpopular when they left the White House – played their post-presidential years very differently.

In February 1936, just as FDR’s re-election campaign was beginning to take shape, Hoover gave a Lincoln Day speech in Portland, Oregon. By many accounts the former president, who had lost in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932, saw himself as the best possible candidate for the Republicans in 1936. Hoover used the occasion of his Portland speech to rip into Roosevelt’s program and he sounded like a man eager for a rematch.

“The issue [facing the nation in 1936],” Hoover said, “is the attempt to fasten upon the American people some sort of a system of personal government for a government of laws; a system of centralization under a political bureaucracy; a system of debt; a system of inflation; a system which would stifle the freedom and liberty of men.  And it can be examined in the cold light of three years’ experience.”

Hoover was referring, of course, to the first three years of FDR’s term during which the Great Depression continued to create extremely high unemployment, a high rate of home and farm foreclosures and a general lack of confidence in the economy. At the same time, Roosevelt was assembling an unprecedented amount of personal power in the Executive Branch, or at least Republicans said he was.

In his Oregon speech 76 years ago, Hoover used some language that might have been ripped from today’s headlines. Critiquing FDR’s State of the Union speech, Hoover lambasted FDR’s references to “dishonest speculators” and “entrenched greed.” He said Roosevelt was issuing a call to “class war” and, of course, he criticized Roosevelt for deficit spending.

Despite his interest and availability, Hoover was never again considered a serious presidential contender after losing so badly in 1932. Tainted by the stock market crash of 1929 and what has widely be seen, then as now, as his less than effective response to the economic crisis of the early 1930’s, Hoover nevertheless continued to speak out on public issues. He was invited to the 1936 GOP convention and he gave the New Deal and FDR hell in a speech that featured language strikingly similar to what we hear from GOP candidates today.

Hoover lamented that the “New Deal is a definite attempt to replace the American system of freedom with some sort of European planned existence.” Sound familiar? Romney has repeated said that Barack Obama wants to create “a European style welfare state.”

“Billions have been spent to prime the economic pump,” Hoover said to the 1936 GOP convention.  “It did employ a horde of paid officials upon the pump handle.  We have seen the frantic attempts to find new taxes on the rich…Freedom to work for himself is changed into a slavery of work for the follies of government.”

Two things are worth noting about Hoover’s aggressive long ago critique of the man who beat him. The former president certainly didn’t help Republicans in 1936 and many Republicans simply wished the former president would have just pulled a George W. and disappeared.

Secondly there are really very few new attack lines in American politics. Republicans have long been accusing Democrats of “socialism” and Democrats have forever labeled the GOP the party of Wall Street.

In 1936, Roosevelt used tough language and a great deal of humor to carefully weave the Hoover legacy, if not the former president’s name, into his stump speeches. He was most effective with his mocking references to what the Republicans and their candidate Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon would do to his New Deal.

Obama has been regularly criticized for invoking Bush’s record and as of last fall he had stopped making references to “Bush’s failed economic policies” or “Bush style foreign policy.”

If history is any guide to what to expect in politics, and it often is with Hoover’s 1936 speeches being a good example, then expect the references to George W. to creep back into Democratic campaign rhetoric as we get closer to November. If Obama is as skillful as the Democratic president all Democrats love to invoke – Franklin Roosevelt – he’ll use a mixture of tough talk and dismissive humor to connect the eventual Republican nominee to the silent, but hardly forgotten George W. Bush.


A New Gilded Age

A System Awash in Money

If Mitt Romney wins the Florida primary Tuesday, as now seems likely, the media scrum following his every move will no doubt credit his win to his new-found aggressiveness in taking on Newt Gingrich, including his clearly superior debate performances during the week leading up to the vote. But that explanation will only be part of the story.

Additional credit for Romney’s rebound from what looked like near disaster in South Carolina must go to the faceless, if not altogether nameless, pro-Romney Super PAC – Restore Our Future. The Super PAC has lavished millions on the Sunshine State to help restore the future of Mitt’s campaign. Of course, Romney is not alone in enjoying the largess of a well-heeled Super PAC. Gingrich has come to depend for television exposure in the dispersed and expensive Florida market on the Super PAC that supports him – Winning Our Future. Other less well financed Supers are supporting Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and a Super PAC supporting Barack Obama is waiting patiently in the wings.

There are so many sleazy angles to the Super PAC story it is difficult to create a priority list of all the real and potential outrages. We are now into the second year of this new 21st Century reality of unlimited, corporate, and often secret money perverting what were our already money drunk campaigns.

Still in fact what seems like a new reality is really an old American tradition; a tradition of unlimited corporate money in campaigns that dates back more than 100 years to what came to be called the Gilded Age. So, remembering the old admonition that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, we have effectively arrived at a new Gilded Age in the year 2012. It’s not necessary to be a good government, goody two shoes to worry that the very nature of our democracy is changing in ways that are profound and deeply troubling in this new age.

As the American Enterprise Institutes’ Norm Ornstein wrote recently in The Hill, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case – that’s the now infamous ruling were the Court’s majority overturned a century of settled campaign finance law, allowed unlimited corporate and labor union money to flow to Super PAC’s and equated money with free speech – has put our politics more and more into the hands of the 21st Century captains of the new Gilded Age.

“By giving corporations free rein to meddle in politics without any accountability required, just like in the robber baron days, and by defining money as speech, the court dealt a body blow to American democracy,” Ornstein wrote. “Candidates no longer can focus simply on raising money for their campaigns against other candidates. Because corporations have almost unlimited sums they can put in with no notice, candidates have to raise protection money in advance just in case such a campaign is waged against them.”

The website OpenSecrets.org reports that the Romney aligned Super PAC has spent more than $17 million so far, most of it to attack Gingrich. Here’s where the perversion begins. Big money donors give unlimited amounts to the Super PAC’s, often attempting to conceal the real source of the cash, but nonetheless maintaining the ability to curry favor with the candidate supported by the big PAC. One has to be awfully naive to believe that a $1 million donation doesn’t buy more than a thank you note.

One example: Utah news organizations have reported that two Provo, Utah companies listed as $1 million contributors to Restore Our Future don’t really seem to be companies at all.

“Companies called Eli Publishing and F8 LLC contributed $1 million each to Restore Our Future,” Utah television station KSTU reported last August. “The companies share an address in downtown Provo and the super-PAC received the money from both on the same day.” The address listed for the companies, according to the TV report, was an accounting firm where employees said they had no knowledge of the businesses.

Other Romney Super PAC donors aren’t so obscure. John Paulson a New York hedge fund manager is in for $1 million. Forbes magazine lists Paulson as the 17th wealthiest guy in the world, worth $15.5 billion, which begs the question: why only a million bucks?

J.W. and Richard Marriott, the hotel guys, are into the Romney PAC for a half million each. Until a year ago, Romney served on the Marriott board. The CEO of New Balance athletic shoes is a half million dollar contributor, as is the managing partner at Romney’s old Bain Capital firm. That fellow’s wife shelled out her own $500,000.

Clearly the Romney-aligned Super PAC hasn’t had to look under many rocks to turn up millions. These dollars aren’t falling far from the tree, which is one reason all this Super PAC business has the real potential to be so sinister. The candidates all regularly proclaim that they have no connection to the Super PAC’s who are raising and spending so freely on their behalf. Federal law prohibits coordination between the campaigns and the PAC’s they say, but the line that separates the campaigns from the big corporate money certainly isn’t a very bright line.

USA Today reported over the weekend about the remarkable “coincidence” of the message in Romney’s speeches on the stump matching up with the anti-Gingrich television ads Restore Our Future is putting on the air. Of course, the two organizations don’t need to really coordinate since the PAC’s are run, in every case, by former close aides and associates of the candidates. But the no coordination mandate helps maintain the fiction that all this is happening at arm’s length and that there is no quid pro quo involved for the millionaire and billionaire contributors.

Gingrich’s Super PAC is, of course, mostly funded by an extraordinarily wealthy Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife Marion. Adelson says his support for Gingrich is easy to explain. He is a long-time friend of Newts and values the former Speaker’s vocal support for Israel, a cause near and dear to the Adelsons. But, of course, nothing is that simple in politics. Adelson’s international casino empire has vast interests in public policy and since early last year Adelson’s company has been under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is reportedly looking into violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

So, you might ask: what does the fact that all these very rich, very well connected, very politically interested corporate leaders have to do with a new Gilded Age? Isn’t this just the way politics has always worked? Maybe the only thing different is the amount of money involved.

Maybe the only thing different is the amount of money involved and the fact that thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United these vast amounts of corporate dollars can flow unregulated into the political process. We have gone back to the future, back to the first Gilded Age at the end of the 19th Century.

University of Texas historian H. W. Brands wrote his book Reckless Decade: America in the 1890’s in 1995. In an interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, Brands nailed the essence of why corporate money in politics has such a potentially corrosive effect.

“Any capitalist economy,” Brands said in the C-SPAN interview, ” is based on the notion of economic self-interest. And, you know, if you put it another way, you can — if you’re not being too complimentary, you can call it greed. And our economy runs as much on those lines as it did back then [the 1890’s] – maybe not quite as much. There’s a government safety net now to deal with those people who were falling out the bottom of the economy during the 1890s. But, certainly, I mean, the idea of profits, and I’m certainly not going to criticize profit. But, nonetheless, the idea of economic self-interest is definitely as much a motive.”

The question to ask of our democracy in this new Gilded Age is how any candidate, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how honest, can escape the human impact of a well-heeled friend donating a few million to help get him elected?

And granting that the casino owners, the hotel operators, the unions and the guy running the non-business businesses in Utah may truly value the particular approach and policies of a particular candidate, we also can’t deny that each has a self-interest. We all have a self-interest, but not all of us can buy so much free speech or so much access.

Justice Anthony Kennedy rather unbelievably wrote in his opinion in the Citizens case,  “[The Court majority] now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

You wonder if Mr. Justice Kennedy has been following the campaign so far.

At a time when growing concerns about income distribution in America collide with a mounting distrust of most of our national institutions, including corporations, the Congress and the Presidency, the Supreme Court has, by opening the flood gates to unlimited corporate money in our elections, given us even more cause to doubt the fairness and sustainability of our democratic system.

As H.W. Brands noted in his history of the first reckless decade in the 1890’s, the greed and corruption that seemed to seep into every facet of America life in the first Gilded Age became so serious that only two political alternatives seemed possible – revolution or reform. Thankfully, the country took the path of reform and Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson ushered in a Progressive Era in response to the Gilded Age.

One of T.R.’s Progressive Era reforms was to ban corporate money from political campaigns. That ban lasted for 100 years. That ban ended, and a new Gilded Age began, with a breathtakingly impactful Supreme Court decision two years ago.

As one of the beneficiaries of the excesses of the Gilded Age, Tammany political boss George Washington Plunkett, famously said, there is dishonest graft and honest graft. Plunkett went in for the honest variety. As he said, “I might sum up the whole thing by sayin: I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”


Mitt’s Errors

Good Campaigns – and Candidates – Avoid This Stuff

In tennis they call what Mitt Romney has been doing for the last couple of weeks “unforced errors.” In football, Romney has been committing turnovers in the red zone. His primary game has been the political equivalent of fumbling on the six yard line. In my long ago basketball playing days we called what Mittens has been doing – Mittens is what the ever nasty, but always with a smile Maureen Dowd has taken to calling Romney – “blowing the bunny.” That was pickup game short hand for missing the easy, uncontested layup – the bunny.

Romney made millions, as we now read in the papers every day, by the careful, calculating, some would say ruthless, takeover and remodeling of corporations. Corporations may not be people, but they are apparently more accommodating to Romney’s management style than the grueling primary quicksand that now threatens to sink him in Florida.

At the moment when the once secure frontrunner should have been stretching for a victory lap, Romney’s unforced errors – three of them seem particularly egregious – have given the twice dead Newt Gingrich a new lease on life. The Gingrich who stole South Carolina in Jon Stewart’s way of thinking must be close to exhausting his nine lives, but that is another story for another day.

Mitt’s three missed layups – his tax returns, Bain Capital and Romneycare – deserve the bunny label because any campaign operative worth his or her salt should have ground down these issues months – years? – ago and found a way to talk about them, or at least front end them, in a way that would not threaten to cripple his campaign. The unforced campaign errors that plague the Romney camp again prove that business experience rarely translates to political agility.

It is now widely reported that Romney is likely the wealthiest guy who has ever aspired to the Oval Office. It was a no brainer months ago that his tax returns and his personal and family wealth would be an issue in the campaign, particularly in light of the Occupy movement, the continuing fallout over big Wall Street pay days and the partisan debate over taxes on the most wealthy Americans. The campaign should have seen this coming like a Form 1040 in the mail.

The Romney campaign could have – and should have – quietly released his tax returns during the dog days of last August; packaged not as it played out as a purely defensive move on the candidate’s part, but as an “I’ve got nothing to hide” moment of transparency. The release could have been handed to an individual reporter who could have been given open access to the candidate’s financial and legal advisers. Such a move would have been the best chance to ensure a complete, fair story that might have been less about politics and more about economics and how the tax code really works.

Sure I’ve done well, Mitt could have said, and I want all Americans to have a chance to do well, too. And as for this capital gains tax rate that Obama keeps harping about – guess what? It works! I worked hard, made money and now I’m investing in other companies just like they tell you it works at the Harvard Business School.

Romney would have gotten plenty of questions about his taxes, but those questions would not have made news on the eve of the Florida primary and wouldn’t have given Newt Gingrich, he with his own bundle of secrets, an issue to bash him over the head with. And, while we’re assessing unforced errors, what smart campaign operator decided that once the Romney returns were going to be dumped that it should happen right in the middle of the run –up to Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech? Half a brain might have correctly concluded that the president’s speech would be all about the struggling middle class in contrast to the Thurston Howell III class? Obama speaks now for the middle class, Mitt for those with Swiss bank accounts.

Fumble number two involves Romney’s unbelievably clumsy handling of his Bain Capital story. His work as a private equity whiz is the absolute centerpiece of his personal narrative, which holds that his kind of business experience is just what the country needs right now. Yet, the campaign never fleshed out the narrative beyond the fact that Romney worked at Bain and created “thousands of jobs.” What did he learn about the country working there? Why do the lessons apply to politics and governing? What management style would he bring to the Executive Branch? Zilch on all that from Mittens.

Smartly answering those questions with appropriate verification, endorsement from people he worked with and from companies he turned around could have been a powerful narrative. His handling of his Bain story has become, rather than a strong positive, a combination of Gordon Gekko of Wall Street meets Mr. Potter of Bedford Falls. Suddenly Romney’s business career is a real liability.

One now completely obvious thing the Romney campaign could have done months ago and had ready in the can: its own 30 minute film version of Romney’s story at Bain. Instead the campaign now finds itself reduced to defending capitalism – or in Rick Perry’s one good line of the campaign “vulture capitalism” – in the abstract rather than extolling the details of a credible story of job creation and economic growth. Romney’s handling of his Bain history reminds me of how badly the 2004 Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, did in managing his Vietnam War record. The strongest piece of Kerry’s story was laid waste by the Swift Boat attacks and he never recovered.

Finally, Romney, as we are about to see in Florida, has kicked his health reform story out of bounds on fourth down and short.

Romneycare, the Massachusetts version of health insurance reform that Mitt championed as governor and now avoids like swine flu, may have been the most obvious issue his campaign needed to manage. He still hasn’t found a credible way to talk about the issue and a Gingrich supporting Super PAC is now on the air in Florida with the completely predictable attack that Romney has not yet found a way a deflect.

In every serious campaign a candidate will be dished a few unwelcoming surprises. Given the long slog we put these people through it’s a given there will be the quip that sounded funny in the head, but turns out to not be so funny played over and over on television. The “you’re likable enough, Hillary” moment “or the clinging to guns and God” line that offers a rare glimpse inside what a politician really thinks. These moments are bad enough and force campaigns into damage control.

It’s the unforced errors, the mistakes made due to lack of planning, lack of attention to detail or inability to really self reflect that often hurt the most. After all, they can often be avoided if a candidate and a campaign are really on the top of their game. Romney clearly isn’t. He best get better really fast.


All the Kings Men

Tapping Into the Rage

In Robert Penn Warren’s classic 1946 Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Kings Men, one of Gov. Willie Stark’s acolytes offers the burly, tough talking southern populist politician a little advice about how to deal with the voters.

“Just tell ’em you’re gonna soak the fat boys and forget the rest of the tax stuff…Willie, make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em mad, even mad at you. Stir them up and they’ll love it and come back for more, but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t try to improve their minds.”

If you haven’t read Warren’s timeless story of political corruption fueled by a politician who will stop at nothing to destroy his opponents and accumulate power, it may just be the perfect preview of the next phase of the Republican presidential nominating process.

The first film version of All the Kings Men won three Academy Awards in 1949 with the brilliant Broderick Crawford starring as the demagogue Willie Stark. (Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal.) At one point, when it looks like Willie’s political climb has hit the skids, he tells a crowd, “I’m in this race to stay and I’m out for blood.”

As the Lazarus of American politics, Newt Gingrich, rides out with a victory from the nasty, divisive South Carolina primary toward what will prove to be the nasty, divisive Florida primary – just the kind of environment in which Gingrich thrives – it’s worth reflecting on why Gingrich has suddenly become a viable contender for the GOP nomination. It’s really pretty obvious. He’s tapped into the same populist anger that Warren wrapped around his fictional southern politician in the 1940’s. Some things never go out of style.

In a nutshell, the former Speaker of the House has an ability, an ability that former front runner Mitt Romney will never have, to tap into the raw populist anger that comes naturally to a glib political calculator.

Gingrich modestly – or maybe not – said of his thrashing of Romney in South Carolina that he really wasn’t a great debater, but that he, alone presumably, “articulates the deepest held values” of the American people. The South Carolina crowd loved his attacks on the “elites” of New York, Washington and the liberal media. And, of course, it is the brilliance of Gingrich that he can turn aside questions about his own behavior – marriages, Tiffany lines of credit, big consulting contracts with Freddie Mac – by attacking the messenger. Gingrich never wavers in his conviction that his ideas are the biggest, his motives the purest, his attacks lines the fairest.

Barack Obama is the “food stamp president,” but such language implies no racial code in a state like South Carolina Gingrich says. The president, says Newt, has a “Kenyan world view,” whatever that is, but a Kenyan “world view” has to be something dangerous and unlike the rest of us. In the bright light of triumph in South Carolina, Gingrich was trying to channel Ronald Reagan and claim the mantle of the real conservative, but he mentioned the former president only once. He mentioned Saul Alinsky three times, as in the “radicalism of Saul Alinsky is at the heart of Obama.” Those Alinsky references must have sent a lot of folks to Google.

While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a guy many Republicans wish was in the race, calls Gingrich an “embarrassment” and the party establishment quake at the thought of the pudgy, disgraced former Speaker carrying the GOP banner, Newt sails on. His anger, contempt for his opponents and lust for the political jugular, his ability and willingness to “stir them up,” make the one-time Congressman from Georgia a worthy successor to a long American line of Willie Starks.

Willie Stark’s life and death is often compared to the real life political career of Louisiana Senator and Governor Huey P. Long, but Robert Penn Warren always insisted that Willie was a more universal character; a character that springs from deep within America culture, a character that found life in earlier days in Joe McCarthy, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace.

“They tried to ruin me,” Willie says in the movie, “because they did not like what I have done. Do you like what I have done? Remember, it is not I who have won, but you. Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice, and I shall live in your right and your will. And if any man tries to stop me from fulfilling that right and that will, I’ll break him. I’ll break him with my bare hands, for I have the strength of many.”

On to Florida and a test of the strength of the Gingrich approach to politics and a long week ahead for Mitt Romney.


Dumping the Veep

Pulling a Garner or a Hannibal Hamlin

John Nance Garner is mostly forgotten now days. If he’s remembered for anything it was for his alleged pity comment that the “vice presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.” There is some debate around whether he actually said that or whether spit was what he was really talking about.

In any event, Garner – Cactus Jack – was Speaker of the House, a two-term vice president, a serious presidential candidate in 1932 and one of the few incumbent vice presidents in American history to be dumped from the ticket. Garner didn’t think much of his boss Franklin Roosevelt running for an unprecedented third term in 1940 and would have run himself had FDR not run. That challenge to FDR’s leadership coupled with Garner’s generally conservative political outlook, was enough to convince the supremely confident Roosevelt to send Jack back to Uvalde, Texas in 1941.

I’m reminded of this little history lesson by virtue of the political story that won’t go away – should Barack Obama dump Joe Biden from the 2012 Democratic ticket and replace the somewhat gaffe prone Veep with, say, Hillary Clinton?

Dumping a running mate is rare, but FDR – one of the greatest presidents by most measure – actually did it twice. Abraham Lincoln did it too in 1864 when he dumped a down east Republican from Maine with the wonderful name of Hannibal Hamlin from the ticket and replaced him with a Tennessee “war” Democratic by name of Andrew Johnson. The rest is history as they say.

Roosevelt second dumping took place in 1944 when the man he had handpicked to be vice president four years earlier, Henry Wallace of Iowa, was demoted and a not very well regarded Missouri Senator name of Harry Truman replaced him. On such decisions history turns.

In each case, the incumbent president made the decision to change vice presidents in order to strengthen the ticket. FDR wanted to run with a known liberal in 1940 and by 1944 Wallace had become a liability to the Democratic ticket so the safe Truman was ushered in. In 1864, facing a serious challenge from a “peace” Democrat Gen. George McClellan, and with the Civil War not going all that well, Lincoln aimed to create a national unity ticket by inviting a loyal Democrat from a southern state to balance the ticket. Once could argue that in each case the reshuffling strengthened the ticket and the president who made what must be a tough call was re-elected.

(Gerald Ford dumped Nelson Rockefeller in 1976 and replaced him with Bob Dole, but the circumstances were much different than the FDR or Lincoln scenarios. Neither Republican was elected for starters.)

So, will – or should – Obama shuffle the ticket this year? New York Times columnist Bill Keller says he should since the move would do “more to guarantee Obama’s re-election than anything else the Democrats can do.”

Columnist Jonathan Alter wrote last October that “if it’s clear that Democrats need to do something dramatic to avoid losing the White House, the Switcheroo will happen” simply because everyone involved will bury their pride to keep the GOP from taking over all three branches of the federal government in the next election.

Most of the speculation about “the Switheroo” has Biden getting a better consolation prize, the State Department, than Garner, Wallace or Hamlin did. Garner left public life in 1941, Wallace took the less than glamorous job of Secretary of Commerce and later ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket, and Lincoln briefly considered, and didn’t follow through, on the notion of making Hamlin Secretary of the Treasury. Hamlin eventually returned to Washington for two terms in the U.S. Senate before retiring for good in 1880.

For her part Clinton – and her husband – seems to disavow any interest in making the big switch, even while folks like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich make the case for it.

So what will President Obama do? Hold tight with Biden? Make a big splash with a switch? Obama, apparently not much of a hands on manager who clearly doesn’t like drama, will want to practice the first rule of vice presidents – do no harm. If he thinks he can win with Biden he’ll stick with him.

If, on the other hand, come July Republican nominee Mitt Romney has the lead in the polls and momentum, Obama might go for the big gesture. He is a student of history and surely knows that dumping a vice president, if done with a certain calmness and style, actually helped the two presidents he most admires – FDR and Lincoln. Putting Hillary on the ticket would, of course, generate as much buzz as John McCain sparked when he plucked Sarah Palin out of Alaskan obscurity. But Obama won’t have to worry about Clinton answering Katie Couric’s question about what newspapers she reads.

Hillary just might be a game changer.


Colbert Explains It

Super PAC’s: Crazy + Funny = Absurd

Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert eased, sort of, into the South Carolina primary on his show last night, but not before first handing off his Colbert Super PACto his buddy and equal opportunity political funster Jon Stewart.

The exchange the two brilliant satirists had about Super PAC’s, how they can’t be coordinated with a candidate (har, har), but can be run by a business partner or even, as is the case with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, former staff members, is a better – and more damning – indictment of the absurd state of American political campaign finance than you’ll find on any “real” news broadcast.

Colbert signed off his show last night, following a balloon drop, by throwing a kiss to Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 that opened the flood gates for unregulated, mostly undisclosed spending in our political campaigns.

Laugh along with Colbert, but worry at the same time about the state of our politics where the loudest voice on television – defined by who can collect the most money and keep its source the greatest secret – is shaping our elections.



Following More Money

Are Corporations People, My Friend?

It is rare – very rare – that a state Supreme Court rises up on its hind legs and says to the United States Supreme Court we think you blew it.

Yet, that is pretty much what the seven member Montana Supreme Court said just before the New Year with a decision that seems sure to get the ultra-controversial Citizens United corporate campaign finance case back before John Roberts and Company very soon.

Citizens United is the case, you will recall, that President Obama denounced in his State of the Union speech. The U.S. Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision, decided 5-4, not only overturned a century of settled campaign finance law, but served to midwife the unprecedented level of unregulated and mostly undisclosed spendingof the so called Super PAC’s in the current Republican presidential primary process.

According to recent news reports, Newt Gingrich was on the blunt end of more than $4 million in such spending by a group with close ties to Mitt Romney that certainly contributed, if not caused, Gingrich’s dramatic shellacking in the Iowa caucuses. This political nuclear warfare has now moved on to South Carolinawhere Super PAC’s aligned with Gingrich, Rick Santorum and other candidates are going after Romney.

As Romney might say, “politics ain’t bean bags,” so what’s the problem here? The Montana Supreme Court tried to answer that question in its recent ruling involving similar, shadowy, state-level, secret groups intent on influencing election outcomes in a state that historically knows a thing or two about political corruption.

The Montana Court, in a 5-2 decision, upheld the constitutionality of the state’s 99 year old ban on corporate contributions in state races. In doing so, Chief Justice Mike McGrath delved deeply into the history of political corruption in Big Sky Country citing historical works by the great Montana historians K. Ross Toole and Mike Malone. The Judge referenced the notorious Montana “war of the cooper kings,” the extraordinary corporate influence that the Anaconda Mining Company once held over Montana, and the notorious case of William Andrews Clarkwho used his vast corporate wealth to bribe his way into the United States Senate. Here’s one section of McGrath’s opinion:

“W.A. Clark, who had amassed a fortune from the industrial operations in Butte, set his sights on the United States Senate. In 1899, in the wake of a large number of suddenly affluent members, the Montana Legislature elected Clark to the U.S. Senate. Clark admitted to spending $272,000 in the effort and the estimated expense was over $400,000. Complaints of Clark’s bribery of the Montana Legislature led to an investigation by the U.S. Senate in 1900. The Senate investigating committee concluded that Clark had won his seat through bribery and unseated him. The Senate committee ‘expressed horror at the amount of money which had been poured into politics in Montana elections…and expressed its concern with respect to the general aura of corruption in Montana.'”

Chief Justice McGrath then continued his fascinating history lesson, “In a demonstration of extraordinary boldness, Clark returned to Montana, caused the Governor to leave the state on a ruse and, with the assistance of the supportive Lt. Governor, won appointment to the very U.S. Senate seat that had just been denied him. When the Senate threatened to investigate and unseat Clark a second time, he resigned. Clark eventually won his Senate seat after spending enough on political campaigns to seat a Montana Legislature favorable to his candidacy.”

You have to wonder if John Roberts or Samuel Alito has ever read that little bit of American history. The Montana law upheld in the state court’s decision was passed in the wake of the Clark scandal and has been on the books for nearly a century, a detail with wicked similarity to the Teddy Roosevelt-era federal law banning corporate money that was overturned in Citizens United.

In his opinion in the Montana case, McGrath asks the obvious question that applies at both the state and federal levels. “The question then, is when in the last 99 years did Montana lose the power or interest sufficient to support the statute, if it ever did. If the statute has worked to preserve a degree of political and social autonomy is the State required to throw away its protections?”

The group that sought to skirt the Montana corporate ban wasn’t very subtle about its aims. “As you know,” the group called American Traditions Partnership said in its appeal for money, “Montana has very strict limits on contributions to candidates, but there is no limit to how much you can give to this program. No politician, no bureaucrat, and no radical environmentalist will ever know you helped make this program possible.”

American Traditions has said it will appeal the Montana decision.

Two Montana Supreme Court judges dissented and made the case, as indeed may be all too correct, that a state level court is bound to live with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, even as it tries to reason its way around why a state has a compelling interest in regulating its own elections with laws based on its own unique history.

But even in dissent, Montana Justice James C. Nelson expressed outrage at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision. “Corporations are not persons,” Nelson wrote. “Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people — human beings — to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.”

Incidentally, Nelson was born in Moscow, Idaho and graduated from the University of Idaho.

The faux talk show host Stephen Colbert has created his own Super PAC to poke serious fun at this supremely serious business. Even the name of Colbert’s PAC, – “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” PAC – is an effort to show how the uplifting sounding names of these entities usually hide real motives. They might better be called “The Committee to Assault Mitt Romney” or “The Barack Obama Walks on Water PAC.”

The whole point here – re-enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United – is secrecy and unlimited money.

Colbert’s PAC, to make a point with absurdity, recently put up television ads supporting the owner’s side in their dispute with the N.B.A. players association. As the New York Times reported in a fascinating magazine cover story on Colbert last Sunday:

“These [ads] were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too — an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. ‘What’s the difference between that and money laundering?'” Colbert delightedly told the Times.

“In the case of Colbert’s N.B.A. ads, the secret sugar daddy might, or might not, have been Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who has appeared on the show and whom the ads call a ‘hero.’ We’ll never know, and that of course is the point. Referring to the Supreme Court ruling that money is speech, and therefore corporations can contribute large sums to political campaigns, Colbert said, ‘Citizens United said that transparency would be the disinfectant, but (c)(4)’s are warm, wet, moist incubators. There is no disinfectant.'”

Exactly. Montana knows something about the need for political disinfectant. Stay tuned and, if you want to understand Citizens United in actual practice, read the reasoned, informed, context rich, real world opinions of the Montana justices on both sides of this fundamentally important issue.



Following the Money

With two wins in a row in the hip pocket of his blue jeans, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney heads to South Carolina today to try and wrap up the GOP contest. Gauging by the most recent information from the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), Romney already has won the Republican money race in the Pacific Northwest.

The Republican nominee-in-waiting far outpaces his GOP rivals when it comes to raising money in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Idaho is clearly Romney country. As of the end of September last year, Romney had raised more than $336,000 in Idaho with more than a third of that total coming from heavily Mormon eastern Idaho. Romney, who hails from a pioneer LDS family in Utah, has raised about $130,000 in the Idaho Falls and Pocatello media markets and nearly $60,000 more in south central Idaho’s Magic Valley.

[I’m not always sure what the FEC really does, but the Commission has created a spiffy website where you can track contributions by zip code and find the names of individual contributors. At the site, you can click on a map of any state, select the drop down menu for the candidate you want to check and see details of the candidate’s haul in that state.]

Romney is doing almost as well raising money in Idaho as he is in much more populous, but much more Democratic Washington State. Romney leads all the GOP candidates there with $346,000 raised through the end of September, even though the Washingtonians for Mitt Romney blog hasn’t been updated since 2007. Romney’s total in Oregon is $176,000, with a not terribly impressive $41,000 collected in Montana.

[The Romney website has a state-by-state list of endorsements – Gov. Butch Otter in Idaho and former Sen. Gordon Smith in Oregon, for example – but the Idaho section carries a strange reference to former Sen. Larry Craig, a 2008 endorser of Romney. The site says Craig “was caught in a sex scandal and forced to resign from office and the campaign.” That quote requires a  Rick Perry “oops” response. Craig, of course, initially said he would resign in the wake of his 2007 “scandal,” but then went on an served out his term in the Senate which ended in early 2009.]

Proof that the so called GOP establishment is lining up behind Romney can be found inside the FEC numbers. Former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood is in for Romney to the max – $2,500 – as is Idaho’s premier funder of conservative causes Frank VanderSloot of Idaho Falls.

Barack Obama remains, of course, the fundraiser-in-chief. The president has raised $1.4 million in Washington, nearly $390,000 in Oregon, nearly $98,000 in Montana and $49,000 in Idaho. That last number – $49,000 in Idaho – means Obama has raised more in the reddest of the red states than any of the rest of the GOP field, including Ron Paul. Paul’s total in Idaho is just north of $40,000. The Texas Congressman has raised $174,000 in Washington, $84,000 in Oregon and $32,000 in Montana.

The New York Times today reports that Romney pulled in $24 million more in the fourth quarter of 2011. He’ll likey need to spend a good deal of that in South Carolina where Super PAC’s supporters of his now on life support opponents will spend big to try and keep the GOP race going.

 The FEC site contains other nuggets of political trivia that reveal a good deal. One Paul contributor Harmut A. Leuschner of Hayden, Idaho, who is listed in the reports as a mechanic at Alpine Motors, had written 13 checks totally $425 to Paul’s campaign through September 2011. The largest check was for $100. That, my friends, is a committed supporter.


Assessing the Recess

Constitutional Crisis or Political Gamesmanship?

Republicans and many conservative legal authorities are outraged by President Obama’s recent recess appointments to install Richard Cordray at the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and fill three vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board. Congressional Republicans and their allies say Obama has acted unconstitutionally with the appointments since the Senate, which constitutionally has the power to advise and consent on presidential appoinments, has now suffered an Obama end run.

Conservative legal expert John Yoo, author of the legal analysis allowing President George W. Bush to employ “advanced interrogation methods,” and now a University of California law professor, speaks for most Republicans when he says, “Some think me a zealous advocate of executive power, and often I am when it comes to national security issues. But I think President Obama has exceeded his powers” by making the Cordray appointment. 

Congressional Democrats and the White House contend the president acted within his Constitutional powers since the Senate was “functionally” in recess and only meeting on the most perfunctory basis – sessions every three days that often last for less than a minute – and therefore unable to consider and pass judgment on his nominees. The issue seems certain to end up being decided by the third branch, the judiciary, in a legal battle that could take years.

Around such obscure details constitutional governments determine how the often sticky gears of governance turn. Both sides in this dispute have good talking points. The administration argues, in essence, that Congress is using a legal gimmick to limit the president’s power to fill vacancies or, put another way, impeding his ability to carry out his sworn duties to execute the laws passed by Congress. Congressional Republicans counter that it is a fundamental power of the Congress to determine when it is in session and when it is not in session. It’s a good constitutional law seminar subject, but the back story is also important.

The recess appointment process was analyzed in the Federalist Papers and is included in the Constitution in the section dealing with presidential power. Here is the language: “The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”

Presidents since George Washington have used the recess appointment power, sometimes controversially, such as when Bush 43 appointed the conservative firebrand and United Nation’s critic John Bolton to be the U.N Ambassador. Bush made 171 recess appointment and Ronald Reagan more than 240. Bill Clinton was no slouch during recess. He made 140 such appointments during his eight years in the White House.

So while Republican National Committee Chairman Rance Preibus can bluster that Obama’s recess appointments are proof of the president’s wanton disregard of the Constitution – “one more chapter in Barack Obama’s trampling of the Constitution” – the real issue a court will likely decide is whether the president has been hampered by Congress from carrying out his duties. Can Congress, in effect, prevent the executive branch from functioning by refusing to act on the appointment of key individuals?

No serious person, including a dyed-in-the-wool Constitutional originalist, would argue that the Founders – Alexander Hamiliton wrote the relevant Federalist Paper – envisioned a Senate that would perpetually stay in session by having one member show up ever three days, gavel the session to order, announce that there was no business and be off to lunch in under 60 seconds.

The Founders clearly established a process that contemplated that any president would have the right – indeed the responsibility – to appoint officers to carry out the work of the government. The balance of power would be ensured by giving the Senate the right – indeed the responsibility – to advise and consent to those appointments.

A key part of the breakdown of the basic workings of our government – proven in many ways, including the abysmal Congressional approval ratings – has been the exercise of raw partisan power in the Senate, and both parties are guilty of this, that prevents even consideration of an appointment when a minority object to the appointee, or in the case of Cordray, objects to the very existence of the agency that he has now been appointed to lead.

It is well documented that Richard Cordray, the former Attorney General of Ohio, is not the real issue with Senate Republicans. They oppose the very idea of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or at least many of the details about how the bureau will operate. Still, the agency was created by the passage of legislation that was legally signed into law by the president. The real issue then is the operation of a duly constituted agency of the federal government, not a recess appointment. Smell a whiff of politics in the air?

As Richard H. Thaler, a professor of economics and behavioral science at the University of Chicago, notes in a New York Times essay, the real problem here, and it does threaten if not immediately then eventually a genuine Constitutional crisis, is the inability of our political institutions to make a responsible bargain.

Professor Thaler reminds us that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said a few months back that his overriding objective running up to the 2012 election was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. A part of that strategy, it seems pretty clear, is to deny the president some of the key personnel he needs to run the government.

Senate Republicans have refused to consider confirmation, for example, of a Nobel Prize winning economist to serve on the Council of Economic Advisers. Donald Berwick, a nationally recognized expert on health care, particularly Medicare and Medicaid, did get a recess appointment from Obama to run the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, but recently left when it was clear that he would never get confirmed by the Senate.

Thaler says refusing to make use of such expertise is like saying “no” when Phil Jackson wants to coach your kid’s grade school basketball team.

And the professor has a question for McConnell and, for that matter, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada who first hatched the “gimmick” of keeping the Senate perpetually in session. Reid’s motive was partisan, too. He intended to thwart George W. Bush’s recess appointments.

“I have a question for Senator McConnell,” Thaler wrote. “If you achieve your goal and a Republican is elected president. what will happen then? Won’t Senate Democrats take it up a notch? If they don’t like the new president’s foreign policy, for example, they could refuse to confirm a secretary of defense, citing the Cordray case as a precedent, and leading to either more recess appointments or 24/7 sessions for the Senate.”

This is no way to run a government. Senate Democrats and Republicans are set on a path of what can only be called a political form of MAD – mutually assured destruction – the nuclear war fighting strategy that assumes no sane person will use the ultimate weapons because they face certain destruction from the other side.

But MADness is precisely what is going on here. Neither side trusts the other, both are willing to stretch and abuse the rules of the Senate (including the filibuster) in order to thwart the other side and, of course, practical government based upon trust and mutual respect breaks down and is replaced by overheated political rhetoric, more dysfunction and gridlock. Little wonder Congressional approval ratings are in the ditch.

Here is a strict reading of the U.S. Constitution: any president is entitled to select his nominees for important governmental posts and the Senate is entitled to “advise and consent” to those nominees. The Constitution is, in essence, the rulebook for running the government and the rulebook does not contemplate that either side will game the system. The Constitution must be implemented in an environment of trust and mutual respect and, if things are to work, one side is not entitled to use gimmicks to thwart the other.

When it comes to recess appointments, both sides are wrong. The responsible path is to give the president – any president – an up or down vote on his nominees unless, in those extremely rare cases, a president appoints a total loser to a government job. Only then will presidents do what they should do, which is to consult widely on important appointments before they are made. The point ought to be bipartisan support for an important nominee.

At the same time, the Senate should seriously re-examine its “advise and consent” role, which requires that individual senators – acting in the broad public interest, not merely partisan political interest – look deeply into the qualifications of nominees and give these folks who put themselves through a public and political ringer in order to serve their country a fair and honest hearing.



One Year On

A year ago this weekend Tucson, Arizona was at the center of the world. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a vibrant up-and-coming moderate Democrat, was shot during a saturday morning meet and greet with her constituents at a Safeway store a mile or so from where we retreat whenever we can from southern Idaho’s winter inversions. Six other people who were nearby the Congresswoman that day, including a nine year old girl and a respected federal judge, died. Many others were injured.

Those events just a year ago seem as though they happened last week, and at the same time, they seem – our attention span being what it is – like ancient history.

In Tucson, a genuinely civilized place an hour north of the Mexican border, seemingly everything might have changed and regretably perhaps very little has changed over the last year. Gifford’s remarkable recovery from her brain injury that awful January day seems to me a miracle. She’ll appear with her husband Mark Kelly at a candle light vigil memorial service on Sunday. She is still a Member of Congress, undecided on whether to seek another term in a swing district that both parties would love to have come November. A moving ceremony was held in the Catalina foothills this week to dedicate a monument to one of Giffords’ young staff members, Gabe Zimmerman, who did not survive the attack. A series of other activities are scheduled to mark the events of January 8, 2011.

The Tucson community seems, in many respects, committed to remembering, and finding a way forward from, what is widely called The Event. The University of Arizona, for example, has established The National Institute for Civil Discourse and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are the national co-chairs.

Still, as the Tucson Weekly notes, so much about the shooting remains either a mystery or unresolved a year later. The shooter, a deeply troubled young man, continues to be evaluated as he waits to stand trial. The passionate discussion in the aftermath of the shooting about the desperate need for better mental health services in Arizona and the nation seems to have passed quietly away. The determined calls for calmer and more civil political discourse, calls that seemed so sensible in the wake of January 8, have been overtaken by another political election cycle that is destined to dump millions of dollars– maybe more – into the dissimination of some of the nastiest, most anonymous political attacks in the history of the republic. Sensible ideas about keeping weapons from the potentially deadly hands of the mentally ill are unthinkable as subjects for debate in the presidential election campaign. The Congressional newspaper, The Hill, reports that security concerns in Congress have largely given way to a return to business as usual.

Life in America goes on and so does the peculiar kind of American death that visited Tucson a year ago.

Last month, according to FBI data, 1.5 million Americans acquired a hand gun. A female U.S. Park Service Ranger, the mother of two young daughers, was shot and killed days ago at a roadblock in Rainier National Park in Washington. The shooter was an Iraq war veteran. Last fall, a mentally troubled faculty member at the University of Idaho shot and killed one of his students. Six police officers were shot, one killed and two are still critical, during a drug raid in Utah in the last week.

Americans have embraced wars on drugs, illegal immigration, radical Muslim terrorists, even wars on cancer and heart diesease, but no war on gun violence. Washington Congressman Norm Dicks, a proponent of a sensible and extremely limited policy to ban guns from the national parks, says such a move, limited as it would be, is impossible given that the “NRA (the National Rifle Association) has a majority in the House and the Senate – that’s the reality of it.”

No tragedy, not Gabby Giffords’ wounding and six deaths in Tucson a year ago, not the senseless murder of a Park Service Ranger, not massacres at Virginia Tech University or Fort Hood, can cause the nation’s leaders to even pause and consider a better course for guns. The public policy response to American handgun violence is simply non-existent and the candle light vigils will continue, year after year.

The Arizona events are remembered this weekend with deep sorrow and with the peculiarly American response to such senseless violence – hope for a better future. Hope, regrettably, is not a strategy. A candle light vigil, as important and heartfelt as it will be, is not enough.

The Tucson dead, nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Greene, Judge John Roll, Dorothy “Dot” Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwin Stoddard and Gabe Zimmerman, along with all the other victims of our unique epidemic of gun violence, deserve to be remembered every day, but they deserve better from their leaders, as well.