Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Politics of the Oligarchs

Campaign FinanceimageFor most of the 20th Century, indeed for much of the history of our Republic, there was a consensus that money – particularly vast sums of money – had an inherently corrupting influence on American politics.

The intersection of money and politics, both at the fringes and at the center of our democracy, has often led to full-blown scandal. William Andrews Clark used his copper fortune to buy a U.S. Senate seat in Montana in 1899 by bribing state legislators. By today’s standards Clark’s “acquired” Senate seat was a real bargain. He reportedly spent only $300,000.

In the 1920′s money was at the core of the Teapot Dome scandal that sent a cabinet member to jail and forever defined Warren Harding’s administration as among the most corrupt in the nation’s history. In 1935 the nation’s electric industry, threatened by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire to break-up the great utility holding companies, mounted what was at the time the greatest (and costliest) lobbying campaign ever. The effort consisted of phoney “grassroots” lobbying of Congress financed by the then unheard of sum of $5 million. We know about this because a then little known Alabama Senator by the name of Hugo Black used a Congressional investigation to expose how the big money was gathered, laundered and spent to protect the utility monopoly.

Watergate, Abscam (the money and political scandal that serves as the basis for the Oscar-winning film American Hustle), Al Gore’s fundraising at a Buddhist temple, well, you get the point and we could go on-and-on.

With its latest ruling on political money, the United States Supreme Court (or more correctly five justices) further shredded the one-time consensus that too much money mixed up with politics is fundamentally bad for American democracy. The Court’s McCutcheon ruling now joins the historic case Citizens United, both written by Chief Justice John Roberts, in systematically eliminating constraints on money in politics. While Roberts’ McCutcheon ruling left in place individual limits on contributions to candidates and political action committees, one only has to read the opinion to see that those limits will eventually topple, too.

Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the Roberts’ majority in the McCutcheon case, but argued in a separate opinion that, amazingly, the Court hadn’t gone far enough. Thomas called the ruling “another missed opportunity,” and as Politico reported, said he would strike down all limits on campaign donations and that the state of the law will be unsatisfying incomplete until the court squares up to that issue. “Until we undertake that reexamination, we remain in a ‘halfway house’ of our own design,” Thomas declared. In other words, stay tuned.

The Sheldon Primary

Amid the general and persistent fog of American politics, the daily battle for the dominate soundbite, the buzz of the latest opinion poll, jobs report or health care enrollment number it is easy to miss what is happening right in plan sight. But, like the revelation Dorothy must have felt when she pulled back the curtain on the less-than-meets-the-eye Wizard of Oz, the direction of our politics – if you want to see it – was on display in stark relief a few days ago at the expensively tacky Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

It is a rich irony that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court knocked another brick out of the wall of campaign finance law just days after four of the likely Republican candidates for president next year were cooing and scraping in front of the $93 million dollar man – casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

In my distant memory there was a time when it was considered unseemly for a politician to audition, at least publicly, for the favor of a business mogul whose vested interests are so obvious. As Jonathan Alter points out in his New Yorker blog there is no secret as to what “the Sheldon primary” that recently featured the governors of New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio and the former governor of Florida was all about.

Adelson, who makes most of his money at a casino in Macau (which, if your geography is rusty is “a special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China) wants no expansion of Internet gaming that might threaten his gambling halls and he wants two federal investigations of his operations to go away. He’d also like to name the next Secretary of State and dictate U.S. policy toward Israel and the Mideast. Give the guy credit for candor.

“I’m against very wealthy ­people attempting to or influencing elections,” Adelson told Forbes in 2012. “But as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it.”

So here was Ohio Gov. John Kasich shamelessly and publicly sucking up to Adelson, the guy who single-handedly spent $93 million in 2012 attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, a generous gesture that kept Newt Gingrich in the GOP presidential race long weeks past his expired by date. As Kasich’s home state Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “Kasich, more so than any of his peers, drops all pretense” in his effort to kiss Adelson’s ring, or something. “He laces his 30-minute speech with direct appeals and shout-outs to the host with the most. Starting with the fifth or sixth, one national reporter loudly guffaws with each utterance of ‘Sheldon.’”

In John Roberts’ world rich guys like Adelson writing huge checks to politicians and the committees who support them is, in the words of Garrett Epps of The Atlantic merely “free speech” for rich guys. Millions in financial support from the deepest of the deep pockets is just “like volunteering to lick stamps at the campaign office; reclusive Nevada billionaires are just constituents, like the widow seeking her pension benefits; the desires of business executives are just beliefs, advanced in the way the Founding Fathers wanted—by writing big checks. Under this rationale, it is hard to see why direct-contribution limits should be allowed, and we may assume that cases soon to be brought will give the majority the chance to eviscerate those limits.”

Roberts’ reasoning equates Sheldon Adelson’s $93 million in political spending to my bumper sticker. It’s all a matter of free speech, says the Chief Justice, but obviously not at all about equal access to the political process or disproportionate influence over the lawmakers.

NBC’s Chuck Todd has documented how this “free speech” campaign has been going: “Political spending from outside groups – either created or bankrolled by American billionaires – has skyrocketed from $193 million in 2004 and $338 million in 2008,” Todd wrote recently, “to a whopping $1 billion in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. To put this $1 billion in outside spending in perspective, it’s almost TWICE what John Kerry and George W. Bush spent COMBINED in the 2004 presidential race ($655 million). And it’s THREE TIMES the amount John McCain spent in the 2008 election ($333 million). Another way to look at all of this money: Overall political spending on races (presidential plus congressional) has DOUBLED from $3 billion in 2000 to $6.2 billion in 2012. And in presidential races alone, the combined amount that George W. Bush and Al Gore spent in 2000 (about $250 million) QUADRUPLED to the combined amount Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent in 2012 ($1 billion-plus). And that doesn’t count the political-party spending.”

My bumper sticker is sounding less and less important as, in reality, we turn electoral politics, once dominated by candidates and parties, into a free spending game for Sheldon Adelson and other billionaire oligarchs who have the money and the vested interests to increasingly dominate our elections. As long as it’s doable, as Sheldon might say, why not.

Ironically it was Newt Gingrich, the guy who benefited from the Adelson financed attacks on Romney’s private equity past, who said during the last campaign, “You have to ask the question, ‘Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and walk off with the money?’” The answer, more and more, seems to be – yup.

“Watching events in Russia and Ukraine,” columnist Gail Collins writes, “you can’t help noticing all the stupendously rich oligarchs with their fingers in every political development. It’s a useful word, connoting both awesome power and a group you don’t really want to have around.

“In the former Soviet Union, the money elite generally get their power from the politicians. Here, it seems to be the other way around. But the next time casino zillionaire Sheldon Adelson invites the Republican presidential hopefuls to go to Las Vegas and bow before his throne, feel free to say they were just off honoring an oligarch. Apparently, the founding fathers would have wanted it that way.”

Truth be told the Founders wouldn’t recognize American politics today. They were tough, aggressive partisans to be sure, but they couldn’t have imagined a political process where a handful of extraordinarily well-to-do rich guys have been able to bend the system merely by spending lavish amounts of cash. In poll after poll, Americans express exasperation and cynicism about our politics. Millions don’t participate feeling that their vote – not to mention their voice  – doesn’t count. Younger Americans, in particular, see a rigged system built and maintained by the really wealthy to perpetuate themselves and their point of view.

If you think the American electorate is cynical now, just wait until all the campaign spending limits come off as the Roberts’ court take it upon itself to ensuring that more money from fewer people is the overriding and perhaps only decisive factor in our politics. Americans may not like Congress much these days, but one suspects they’ll like a bunch of well-heeled oligarchs calling all the shots even less.

The question then: will we change this trajectory and blunt the politics of the oligarchs or will we, as Gail Collins says, decide that “what this country really needs is more power to the plutocrats?”

Fighting to Innovate

2013-Tesla-Model-S-front-1Tesla, the electric car manufacturer, is attempting to revolutionize the American auto industry by building safe, attractive, energy efficient electric cars that are designed to meet a growing customer demand. But…there are some challenges.

Tesla, in challenging the long-established American way of selling new cars, is (big surprise) hitting decades-old speed bumps as it tries to invent a new approach for you – the consumer – to purchase a car. The Tesla story is a great case study in innovation, but also a story about how often American capitalism is arranged to thwart innovation and protect the status quo of well-entrenched interests who like the things just the way they are.

Henry Ford’s great contribution to American industry was, if not to invent at least to perfect, the assembly line. That process allowed one of his Model T automobiles (and after 1928 the Model A) to seamlessly travel a route along the factory floor as auto workers added piece after piece until finally a finish car eased off the line. It was an innovation that helped revolutionize the auto industry and made Detroit, for a couple of generations at least, the center of world manufacturing.

In ol’ Henry’s day Ford workers were paid $5 a day and it was said you could have any color Model T you wanted as it was black. The cars were affordable, relatively easy to repair and drive and Americans bought 15 million of them. When Ford decided to introduce the improved and more stylish Model A – you could buy the car in exotic colors including Arabian Sand – the big factories the company operated had to completely shut down for months while re-tooling took place. Ford’s dominance with the “T” had been challenged by General Motors and other manufactures who were innovating with more powerful engines and attractive features like electric starters and windshield wipers. Ford was into basic until he couldn’t sell basic. And while the Model A was a great car, Ford Motor Company never again truly dominated the industry Henry Ford had invented, in part, because the company took an innovation holiday that never really stopped until the advent of the trendsetting Mustang in 1964.

Ford and his rivals back in the early days of American motoring also faced tremendous challenges in getting their products to market. The system of automobile dealerships so common today began to develop in response to the need to distribute the product. Before long almost any town of size had a Ford dealer, a Chevy dealer and eventually perhaps a Packard, a DeSoto or a Chrysler dealer. The dealers became major players in the local and state economy. Some became household names because their faces were splashed on billboards or later television. And, in keeping with the American way, they became influential players in politics. In time the car dealers largely wrote the laws in most states that attractively (for them) limited competition by requiring, among other things, that you buy your new car directly from “Happy Town Ford,” an independent franchisee, rather than directly from a factory.

The trouble for Tesla is simply that the old dealership model, a feature of the American industry since the 1920′s, isn’t how Tesla sees its cars being sold in the 21st Century. I think of Tesla as the Apple of car dealers. Lots of customer service, a showroom more Mad Men than Joe’s Garage and a product that demands high touch and higher concept. Looking at a Tesla is like browsing an Apple store. Buying a new Toyota unfortunately feels more like a trip to K-Mart.

Three states – New Jersey, Texas and Arizona – have now made it clear to Tesla that the company can’t sell cars directly from its sleek, Apple-inspired stores.  Rather the company, under existing state laws, must conform to the old, old dealership model. Not surprisingly long-established automobile dealers, no doubt threatened by aggressive new competition and no doubt quietly encouraged by established manufacturers, have pushed state officials to make Tesla conform to a sales model and state laws that Henry Ford would have recognized.

“The dealer regulations are similar to those put in place to save the family farm and protect individual farmers,” Jack R. Nerad, the executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book told the New York Times. “But the landscape is vastly different now. Big dealerships don’t need the type of protection the single-brand store needed back in the day.”

The latest state to tell Tesla to take a hike is New Jersey, ironically where Gov. Chris Christie has lately experienced his share of auto-inflicted political wounds. After apparently first encouraging Tesla to do business in New Jersey, Christie now says the automaker needs to deal with the state legislature in order implement its business plan in the Garden State. He sounds like he’s suddenly never heard of lobbying the legislature to encourage a new business venture.

“Tesla was operating outside the law,” Christie recently said during a town hall meeting. “I have no problem with Tesla selling directly to customers, except it’s against the law in New Jersey.” That, indeed, is the problem. Maybe, just maybe, the law needs to change, but if you’ve been around state legislatures much you know the local car dealers have a lot of clout.

Ironically, Tesla is facing serious push back from two states – Arizona and Texas – that Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has said he wants to consider as sites for a $6 billion factory that might employ 6,500 workers who would manufacture the lithium ion batteries to power the cars he wants to sell. I hardly need point out that the places where Tesla has been most aggressively backed off are all states with free market loving Republican governors. So far tough guy governors like Christie in New Jersey and Rick Perry in Texas haven’t done much of anything to change a restraint of trade business model enshrined in state law. The next time you hear a politician rail against too much regulation you might think Tesla.

All of this makes corporate recruitment a good deal more difficult, too. Tucson, Arizona would like to host the Tesla factory – who wouldn’t – but why would Tesla open a state-of-the-art facility and spend a few billion in a state that won’t allow the company to sell its product the way it believes in most effective?

I long ago came to believe that in politics, and in most of life, the simplest explanation is most often correct. American automobile manufacturers, and that group would include firms like Toyota, Nissan and others that have effectively become U.S. manufacturers, are looking over their shoulders at Tesla and seeing a smart, sophisticated and aggressive competitor. Detroit, a name we don’t often associate with new thinking, has been late to the innovation party at least since the Edsel hit the street. The status quo they know is comfortable and predictable. You can almost hear them saying – why change? We wrote the law and we like it just fine thank you.

Tesla is a 21st Century car company that is also trying to revolutionize the energy world. First, however, the company needs to change public policy and alter a status quo that works to the advantage of a powerful, entrenched group of business owners who love to sell and service cars just like they did when my dad bought his Model A Ford.

Inventing a new kind of car might prove to be a lot easier than changing a few decades of law that protects the aging and arguably outmoded business model of all those guys down at the Auto Mall.

Heart and Soul

rs_560x415-140224091818-1024.roccos-chicago-pizzeria-arizona-legislators-022414The political and social fault lines in the modern Republican Party have been showing again for the last several days in Arizona. The Republican governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed a piece of legislation this week that was widely seen as opening a path of overt discrimination against gays. The veto came after days of increasingly negative attention focused on Arizona; attention that included corporate worries about the legislation’s impact on business and threats to cancel next year’s Super Bowl game in suburban Phoenix.

Brewer, an often erratic politician who once championed most causes of the far right of her party, took her time in doing it, but she ultimately saved the state’s Republicans from themselves. The hot button bill, pushed by conservative religious interests and passed by the Arizona legislature with only GOP votes, underscores once again the fractured nature and fundamentally minority bent of a Republican Party that vowed to renew itself after losing the White House again in 2012.

Gov. Brewer, who seems to be term-limited from running again in the fall, but still hasn’t said whether she would contest such an interpretation, underwent a full court press from the “establishment” wing of the GOP who called on her to ax the handiwork of Republican legislators. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Jeff Flake both urged a veto. Apple, American Airlines, the state Hispanic chamber of commerce and a pizza shop in Tuscon that vowed to protest by refusing to serve Arizona legislators swarmed the governor. In the end it might have been the National Football League, plagued with its own image problems, that helped the governor decide to do the right thing; the right thing politically, economically, morally and for football fans.

The Republican Party’s national dilemma with issues like Arizona’s gay bashing legislation – and similar legislation in several other states with strong GOP majorities  – is neatly summed up in a comment from Mark McKinnon, the ad guy who made TV spots from George W. Bush in both of his successful elections.

“In this country, the arc of human rights always bends forward, never backwards,” McKinnon, a co-founder of the centrist group No Labels told Politico recently. “So these kinds of incidents are always backward steps for the Republican Party because they remind voters they are stuck in the past.”

Voters are being reminded of that reality in lots of places. In Oregon, some of the state’s most conservative Republicans are blasting the fellow GOP organizers of the 50 year old Dorchester Conference; denouncing them as “liberals” intent on advancing a pro-gay, pro-abortion, anti-religion agenda.

“In light of the unveiled agenda to promote and celebrate liberal causes like abortion-on-demand, pet campaign projects like ‘republicanizing’ same-sex marriage and the attack on people of faith and their religious liberties many of us do not feel that our participation in this year’s Dorchester Conference is welcomed,” one of the offended right wingers told The Oregonian.

In Idaho a conservative former Republican governor, Phil Batt, went straight at his party and Gov. Butch Otter over the state legislature’s failure to even consider legislation to add fundamental human rights protections for the state’s gay, lesbian and transgender population. Batt, with his own gay grandson in mind, wrote in an op-ed: “I would like to have somebody explain to me who is going to be harmed by adding the words to our civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in housing and job opportunities for homosexuals. Oh, I forgot, that might hurt the feelings of the gay bashers.”

It seems like a life-time ago that national Republicans, reeling from the re-election of the President Obama, commissioned an assessment of what the party needed to do to re-group in order to effectively contest a national election again. Like many such high-level reports, this one generated about a day and a half of news coverage and went on the shelf never to be read again. The GOP report outlined the demographic challenges the party faces and why the divisive debate in Arizona that quickly went national is so very damaging to party’s long-term prospects. Here are a couple of relevant paragraphs from the GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Book that was produced just over a year ago.

“Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”

And this: “Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. States in which our presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic. We are losing in too many places.”

In the face of this incontrovertible evidence Republicans have rolled out legislation like SB 1062 in state after state further alienating not only gay and lesbian voters, but likely most younger and independent voters. The GOP refusal at the federal level to even go through the motions of working on immigration reform seems certain to drive more and more Hispanic voters – the fastest growing demographic in the nation – away from Republicans candidates. At some not-too-distant point the political math, even in John McCain’s Arizona, becomes impossible for the GOP.

It is true that in our political history the fortunes of political parties regularly ebb and flow. The Whigs worked themselves out of existence in the 1850′s unable to find a set of positions that might bridge regional and ideological barriers and sustain them a national party. Immediately before and for years after the Civil War Democrats became largely a regional party that failed to command a national majority and elect a president in the years from 1856 until 1884. Teddy Roosevelt split the GOP in 1912 helping elect only the second Democratic president since the Civil War and his distant cousin Franklin, with the help of a Great Depression, created an enduring Democratic coalition – farmers, big cities ethnics, organized labor and the South – that lasted for two generations until moral and political battles over civil rights finally ceded the South to Republicans, a hand-off that now leaves that region as the only dependable base of the Republican Party.

In almost every case in our history when a party stumbles, as national Republicans stumble now, a unifying figure has emerged – FDR for Democrats in 1932 or Ronald Reagan in 1980 for the GOP – to offer a message that smooths over the ideological fissures. In the meantime, and lacking a unifying messenger, national Republican battles played out over the most polarizing issues – witness Arizona – will hamstring the party from moving forward.

Conservative commentator Myra Adams recently detailed ten reasons why the GOP is floundering as a national party. Adams remembered that the much maligned Millard Fillmore – he was president from 1849 to 1853 – was the last Whig Party president and she speculated that George W. Bush might well be the last Republican president. Her reason number nine for the current state of the national GOP was most telling. The party, she wrote, “is growing increasingly white, old, Southern, and male, which alienates majorities of younger voters, Hispanics, African Americans, gays, teachers, young professionals, atheists, unmarried women, and even suburban married women.”

In the end, the issues for Republicans are more serious even than the demographics. The party failure to re-cast itself by looking forward with attitudes and issues that address an America in the 21st Century is, to say the least, a risky gambit. Yet, the kind of a makeover that is needed seems increasingly unlikely, at least in the near term, when the loudest voices speaking for Republicans are constantly playing to a narrower and narrower group of true believers, while denying – as the 87-years young Phil Batt suggests – that the cultural and political world is passing them by.

Increasingly outside forces and insurgents like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rather than sober-minded realists dominate the party’s message. The Koch brothers, aiming to keep beating the anti Obamacare drum, have hijacked the GOP message for the coming mid-term elections. Look for the totality of the GOP message this year to be about the evils of the health care law (and the “socialist” president) even as a new Kaiser Health poll shows Americans are increasingly comfortable with the much-debated law. Kaiser’s survey shows that fully 56% of those surveyed favor keeping the law as is or keeping it and making improvements. Only the GOP base is clamoring for something different and even those numbers are shrinking.

Another overly influential outside voice, the Heritage Foundation, was still trying to explain why the Arizona legislation was “good public policy” after Brewer’s veto. And the guy with the loudest (and meanest) GOP megaphone, Rush Limbaugh, always eager to double down on a lost cause, said Brewer was “bullied” into her veto position in order to “advance the gay agenda.” All that plays well tactically with the “increasingly white, old, Southern, and male” base of the GOP, but leaves much of the rest of the 21st Century United States very cold indeed.

Lacking the re-boot that many Republicans wisely advocated after the last national election the party, as Mark Mckinnon says, will continue to be stuck in the past. The really bad news for national Republicans is that elections are always about the future.

Understanding the Mind of Other Men

alexander-hamilton-og-BEAlexander Hamilton was the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and not, as Groupon recently promoted, one of those old, dead white guys we celebrate on President’s Day. Hamilton, who died in a duel with Aaron Burr, would probably rather be remembered as the chief author of a number of the Federalists Papers, the brilliant essays on the powers of government that continue to serve as footnotes to the Constitution and as PR “white papers” that helped sell the founding document to the nation.

In Federalist 78, Hamilton, writing as Publius, discussed several issues related to the judicial branch of the government that had been created under Constitution, including how judges would be appointed and why it was essential to their impartiality and independence that they be guaranteed “life tenure.”

Hamilton was an elegant writer, if somewhat prone to the run-on sentence. Here’s a key (long) sentence from his famous discourse on judges and the judiciary. “This independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from the effects of those ill humors, which the arts of designing men, or the influence of particular conjunctures, sometimes disseminate among the people themselves, and which, though they speedily give place to better information, and more deliberate reflection, have a tendency, in the meantime, to occasion dangerous innovations in the government, and serious oppressions of the minor party in the community.”

It would be understandable if you didn’t get all that in one reading, but Hamilton’s essential point was – I’ll put it in my words – that the judiciary ultimately stands as a guard against popular whims and government actions that run counter to the Constitution and individual liberties. The great Federalist admits – maybe hopes – that over time the people will be smart enough to figure out these “ill humors” and correct them, but in the short term, minus “more deliberate reflection” public men (and women) can and will make mistakes or, heaven forbid, stupid decisions.

The job of a judge – particularly a federal judge – is unique in our system and, as Alexander Hamilton and others argued, it must be unique in order for the delicate balance of competing interests among the three branches of government to work. Judges must have the opportunity to engage in “deliberate reflection” and the freedom to know that as long as they maintain certain ethical standard their jobs are not in jeopardy.

Not One of Us…

Idaho’s governor is a genial fellow. In the old days we might have referred to him, as in the old English phrase, as “a hail fellow well met.” I’ve heard Butch Otter quote Shakespeare and he’s been known to lace his speeches with references to the Founders, especially that champion of limited government Thomas Jefferson. Otter once courageously voted against his party and a Republican president when he argued that The Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, might well become a threat to civil liberties.

Ours is, as they say, a free country and sharply worded criticism from the lips of public officials is about as common as Groupon promotions, but the nature of Gov. Otter’s recent criticism of Idaho’s widely respected federal District Judge Lynn Winmill – Otter reported said the judge “isn’t one of us” – is just plain hard to figure. Otter went on to suggest that Winmill  “doesn’t share all of the enthusiasm for the marketplace and freedom that we do in Idaho.”

The governor may be able to quote Jefferson, but he may find it useful to re-read some Hamilton.


Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/otters-blast-at-judge-winmill-hes-not-one-of-us/#storylink=cpy

Goodness knows federal judges are not – nor should they be – immune from serious criticism. Franklin Roosevelt once famously said after the U.S. Supreme Court had wiped out much New Deal legislation that the court was stuck “in the horse and buggy” era of judicial analysis. Dwight Eisenhower privately lamented the Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down the decades of law that held that blacks and whites could gain the same quality of education in segregated schools that were “separate but equal.” Barack Obama dissed the current Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case that opened the floodgates for corporate and labor money to wash into our politics. Criticism of judges is cheap and it is a free country.

What is interesting about the Idaho governor’s criticism is not that he made it, but that he has yet to offer any specifics that might illuminate both his criticism and how he thinks about the role of judges. After all, Otter regularly appoints state court judges. Some enterprising reporter needs to follow-up.

Meanwhile, as the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey has noted, Winmill’s capabilities as a person deserving of life tenure was rather exhaustively vetted when he was nominated by President Bill Clinton 19 years ago. Then-Sen. Larry Craig took pains to explain to the Senate Judiciary Committee how diligent he and then-Sen. Dirk Kempthorne had been in assessing Winmill for a job on the federal bench. Craig said they had consulted widely with bipartisan members of the bar and retired judges and determined that Winmill “was extremely well qualified.” Needless to say, the two Republican senators didn’t rely for their analysis on the opinions of the Bannock County Democratic Central Committee, a group that also would have been high on Winmill.

When Kempthorne had his chance before the committee nearly two decades ago he quoted the Old Testament to the effect that “justice, and only justice” must be the pursuit of a judge and that Winmill “meets this test.”

Judge Winmill, who I have known since his early days in Bannock County politics, hardly needs any defense from me, but if you wonder, as I do, about the governor’s recent comments about the federal judge ask any lawyer you know for his or her take. I predict you’ll get an earful.

The Mind of a Judge

Years ago U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, considered by most historians of the court as one of the greatest justices in the nation’s history, was asked who among his Supreme Court colleagues he considered to be the greatest living American jurist. Cardozo said, “the greatest living American jurist isn’t on the Supreme Court.” The greatest judge, Cardozo maintained, and he may well have been correct, was the hugely respected U.S. Appeals Court Judge Learned Hand of New York. Hand, who died in 1961, served on the federal bench for 52 years and was still deciding cases when he died. He is still regarded as the best judge to never make it to the Supreme Court.

Until 1944 Judge Hand was largely unknown outside of legal circles. Then he made a speech at a huge ceremony where thousands of immigrants became U.S. citizens. The speech both captured public imagination and served to articulate Hand’s own mind as a judge. He titled the speech “The Spirit of Liberty.”

“What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith,” Hand said. “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”

I was reminded of Judge Hand’s short and remarkable speech a few years back when I was in the audience when Judge Winmill, a man remarkably well-read in history as well as the law, called upon a detailed discussion of the infamous Dreyfus Affair – the scandalous anti-Semitic trial of a French military officer in the 1890′s – to illustrate a talk about the American system of justice. I have also heard the judge talk about the lessons of the now widely acknowledge miscarriage of justice that lead to the unconstitutional internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and to the qualities required of a patriot.

I admit to bias about such things, but I like my life tenured judges to know about, think about and reflect on the kinds of ideas that judges like Learned Hand and Lynn Winmill did and do.

In Federalist 78 Alexander Hamilton made the case for life tenure for federal judges in order to insulate those judges from the pressures and partisanship of daily politics under our system. It’s not a perfect system, of course, politics and partisanship still leak in from time-to-time, but it is a system that has and still serves the nation pretty well. Hamilton recognized something else when he was writing in 1788 – that being a judge requires special skills not always widely available in society.

“Hence it is,” Hamilton said, “that there can be but few men in the society who will have sufficient skill in the laws to qualify them for the stations of judges. And making the proper deductions for the ordinary depravity of human nature, the number must be still smaller of those who unite the requisite integrity with the requisite knowledge.”

Integrity and knowledge then, when everything is said and done, is what we really must demand from a judge. Decisions and rulings, along with ill-defined criticism from politicians will come and go. Integrity and knowledge were the qualifications for the Founders and that should still be good enough for us.


Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/otters-blast-at-judge-winmill-hes-not-one-of-us/#storylink=cpy

If I Had a Hammer

media_5e1a5316516c4ed4913d398868313742_t607This picture – former Vice President Henry Wallace with folk singer Pete Seeger in 1948 – likely didn’t do Pete much good when he was summoned in 1952 to name names before the communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). To Seeger’s eternal credit he refused to play the silly game, was held in contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail.

The New York Post – as ridiculous as a newspaper in those days as it remains today – offered the headline: “Dangerous Minstrel Nabbed Here” in a story about Pete. Seeger had a particularly American attitude about a Congressional committee asking questions about his friends and associations. It was none of their business. Only a technicality kept him from prison.

Still for 17 years at what should have been the very height of his career Pete Seeger was on the entertainment industry’s blacklist, labeled a subversive and condemned as a mushy-headed pinko who couldn’t bring himself to admit the evils of Stalin. Much the same happened to Wallace, a brilliant, decent man and an awful politician who was too liberal for the times that ushered in Joe McCarthy and destroyed or badly damaged the careers of Pete Seeger and so many others.

Curious thing about the United States, as Adam Hochschild wrote recently in The New York Review of Books, “anticommunism has always been far louder and more potent than communism. Unlike sister parties in France, Italy, India, and elsewhere, the Communist Party here has never controlled a major city or region, or even elected a single member to the national legislature.”

When Henry Wallace ran for president the year he was photographed with Pete Seeger his Progressive Party, with American Communist support, captured an underwhelming 2.4 percent of the popular vote. Americans have never – even in the darkest days of The Great Depression – warmed to communism, yet the word and the association has always been awesomely powerful in our politics.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union made anticommunism passe, generations of American politicians, including presidents from Truman to Reagan, made fighting communism the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Careers were made and destroyed – Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas and their 1950 U.S. Senate race come immediately to mind – as a result of “The Red Scare.” Nixon and his henchmen dubbed Mrs. Douglas, a liberal California Congresswoman, “The Pink Lady” a label that had immediate and positive electoral impact for Nixon.  What she called him – “Tricky Dick” – was arguably the much more accurate and lasting label.

In the days before the National Rifle Association intimidated presidents and county commissioners and commanded fidelity from both political parties, one could hardly go wrong politically by being tough on communism. Being right on the Reds in the 1950′s and 1960′s was as politically safe as being in the pocket of the NRA is today.

Pete Seeger’s left-wing politics received mostly passing mention in many of the tributes that have followed his death on Monday at the ripe age of 94. Most of the stories, perhaps appropriately, have focused on the music he made and the influence Seeger had on singers from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. Still it seems impossible to divorce the man’s music from the man’s politics.

We’ve largely forgotten that prior to Pearl Harbor millions of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. Many thought another world war would inevitably lead, as the first one had, to diminished civil liberties and a more militarized society. Nothing good comes from war so the saying went. Pete Seeger was among the millions who believed that and sang about it.

When war finally came Seeger, like most Americans, fully embraced the need to fight Hitler and defeat Japan. In a 1942 song – Dear Mr. President – Seeger sang, as if to remind Franklin Roosevelt, about what Americans were fighting for:

This is the reason that I want to fight,
Not because everything’s perfect or everything’s right.
No. it’s just the opposite… I’m fighting because I want
A better America with better laws,
And better homes and jobs and schools,
And no more Jim Crow and no more rules,
Like you can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,
You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew
You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.

Pete Seeger’s banjo was inscribed with the words “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Seeger, the left-winger, spent his life preaching the gospel of non-violent social change through his music and he never gave up that wild-eyed dream. Even in the song where he signed on to fight Hitler he was dreaming of a more perfect union at home were civil rights were guaranteed for all. Pete Seeger, through all the blacklisting nonsense and the HUAC hearings, never let bitterness get the better of him. He kept singing about overcoming.

When Seeger did appear before HUAC in 1955 he steadfastly refused to play the political game of gotcha that Joe McCarthy and others had perfected. At one point he summed up his attitude telling the committee:

“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”

Committee Chairman Rep. Francis Walter, a conservative Pennsylvania Democrat, persisted:Why dont you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?”

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I dont want to hear about it.

More than the anticommunist witch hunters who tried to silence his banjo in the 1950′s, more than those who resisted civil rights in the 1960′s or defended American hubris in Vietnam, Pete Seeger’s long life was the essence of the real American story. He sang to prompt political and social action. Sang with a smile. Strummed his banjo with an honest, candid demand for a better, more tolerant America.

Americans were once optimistic enough – perhaps we will be again – to think that a better country is possible. Pete Seeger never gave up on that America; a country of better homes and jobs and schools. He was a folk music legend to be sure, but also the very best kind of American and, yes, his whole life – the life of a dangerous minstrel – was an incredible contribution.

 

I Am Not A Bully

Gov-ChristieIt’s too early to know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that the third paragraph of Gov. Chris Christie eventual obituary will include the words “I am not a bully.” Those five words, like Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” may well end up defining Christie’s life on the American political stage.

There is a truism in politics that the worst wounds are those that are self inflicted. The next most damaging wounds are those that are not quickly recognized as potentially deadly and are allowed to grow and fester. Both types of political wounds are present in Gov. Christie’s George Washington Bridge scandal.

The tough and combative Governor of New Jersey stood before cameras last week and apparently did himself enough good in explaining away any personal involvement in “Bridgegate” that the bleeding has been stopped. Christie, however, is not out of political intensive care for lots of reasons. The political payback scandal that shut down portions of the world’s busiest bridge linking New Jersey and New York is the worst kind political scandal simply because it is so readily understandable to voters. Everyone has been caught in a traffic jam. No one expects a politician, or his staff, to actually engineer a traffic jam. This is far from over.

Christie has fired his deputy chief of staff and another top political aide, but the governor did not act until those moves were forced upon him by the release of documents that implicated his staff members in the effort to payback a small town Jersey mayor who had declined to endorse Christie’s recent re-election. Two other Christie appointees to the Port Authority, the agency that runs the George Washington Bridge, resigned some ago, but the governor flush from a resounding re-election win repeatedly failed to act to deal with the damaging political fallout. The result: a self-inflicted wound and a supremely damaging delay in responding.

Two observations about both good politics and good management based upon what I know about how a governor’s office operates, or should operate:

1) Being hands on is not a crime for a politician. It may be more work, require more hours in the day and it may even force more decisions to be made at the top, but for voters it should be a given that an elected official, particularly a governor, attends to a million details. When you wall yourself off from the details you get burned. Even if you believe that Christie didn’t know about the chaos caused by the lane closures leading to the GW bridge the fact is that he should have known and certainly should not have been the last to know. According to press accounts Jersey commuters were complaining plenty about the traffic jams when they occurred last September.

The Fort Lee, New Jersey police chief told a columnist for the Bergen Record on September 12 that during “four days of gridlock we’ve been asking the Port Authority what problem they’ve been trying to fix, and so far we haven’t gotten any answers.” Governors exist to get answers to such questions. Christie, with several very senior appointees serving at his behest on the Port Authority Board, could have solved the bridge closure with a single phone call. It stretches credibility to think the tough guy, no nonsense and self-described hands on governor wasn’t curious enough to ask someone “just what the hell is going on?”

It would be like Butch Otter in Idaho not following up on a very public issue with the Fish and Game Commission or John Kitzhaber in Oregon sitting around while Nike leaves town. Governors are paid to stay on top of problems.

The best your can say for Christie – the best – is that he was so consumed with running up the score in his November re-election that he didn’t read the morning papers in September. If that’s the best case then the governor really is guilty of gubernatorial malpractice. That the boss didn’t know or that his underlinings thought it appropriate that he not be informed is simply mismanagement – mismanagement at the top.

2) The other observation so far from “Bridgegate” is that the best you can say for Christie’s inner circle – the best you can say – is that he fostered or allowed to be created a culture where a senior staff member, the fired deputy chief of staff, could take it upon her own to play such silly and damaging political games. The Christie culture smacks of arrogance and, frankly, a small-minded pettiness that would not exist unless the tone had been set from the top. In this failure, too, the buck stops with the governor.

Chris Christie – and Barack Obama for that matter with his detached management style – should take many lessons from such political and management failures, but one lesson that should be seared into any politician’s ambition is the fact that it is the rare elected official who gets in trouble for acting too quickly. Christie, allegedly at the top of his craft and on the way to serious contention for the GOP nomination for president, gets a D-minus for not seeing problems and moving quickly to correct those problems.That is the best you can say about his scandal.

If it turns out that more traffic cones start to drop, or that Christie had knowledge he’s not fessed up to, or that he actually ordered or allowed the petty political payback to take place then all bets are off. Let the subpoenas issue and the investigations begin.

If it turns out that Christie’s marathon news conference was just an effort at immediate damage control and his story doesn’t hold up in the details then the Nixon analogy will have come full circle. Another absolute rule of political scandal is that the cover-up is always more damaging than the original sin. In that case “I am not a bully” will morph into “I am not a crook.”