Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Most Important Election…

There is a wide-open field on the Republican side for the presidential nomination, with at least a half dozen serious contenders, while the lame duck Democrat in the White House, one of the most polarizing american-politicsfigures in modern American politics, struggles with foreign policy challenges which have emboldened his fierce critics in both parties and submerged his domestic agenda. The foreign policy challenges involve questions about the effectiveness of military aid in bloody conflicts that may, or may not, involve strategic American interests, as well as the proper response to brutal foreign dictators determined to expand their influence in central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The incumbent in the White House, elected with promises of “hope and change,” has lost his once large majorities in both houses of Congress and, while he remains a profoundly talented communicator and is still popular with many voters, others have grown tired of his aloof manner and the fact that he surrounds himself with a tiny corps of advisors who tend to shut off competing points of view. Even his wife can be a polarizing figure with some criticizing everything from her priorities to her wardrobe.

A fragile economic recovery continues to sputter along, while memories remain fresh of an economic collapse that rivals anything that has happened in three-quarters of a century. Half the country blames Wall Street, eastern bankers and the well-heeled for the economic troubles, while the other half laments excessive regulation, increasing debt and bloated federal government that is constantly expanding its role in American life. The country is deeply divided by race, class and religious differences.

The year is…2016? No…actually 1940.

The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime…Not Really…

Lincoln and McClellan

Lincoln and McClellan

The claim heard every four years that “this is the most important election in our lifetime (or in our history), it is, of course, nonsense. We don’t have “critical elections” every four years, but in fact have really only had a handful of truly “critical” elections in our history. In my view the two most important were 1864, when Abraham Lincoln defeated George McClellan thereby ensuring that the great Civil War would be fought to its ultimate end and achieve its ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-established political tradition and sought and won a third term. Roosevelt’s election, although it would have been hard to see clearly at the time, sealed the involvement of the United States in World War II and ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.

Those two elections (you could add 1860 to the list, as well) had serious consequences that still echo today, the 1940 election particularly since it does have many parallels with what voters will face when they make a choice about the White House in 2016.

Arguably the field for the Republican nomination hasn’t been so completely wide open since 1940. In that election, as today, the GOP was a divided party between its more establishment wing – represented by New Yorker Thomas Dewey – and an insurgent element represented by the party’s eventual nominee in 1940, Indiana-born, former Democrat Wendell Willkie, a true dark horse candidate. The party was also split into isolationist and internationalist camps, with Willkie the leader of the later and Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan leading the Midwestern, isolationist element.

As Many GOP Contenders as 2016…

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

Ten Republican candidates that year captured at least twenty-eight convention votes, with Dewey leading on the first ballot with 360 votes, still far below the number he would need to win the nomination. The Republican candidates, not unlike today, were a broad and opportunistic bunch ranging from names lost to history – the governor of South Dakota Harland Bushland, for example – to shades of the past like former President Herbert Hoover who amazingly thought he was a viable candidate eight years after losing in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932.

Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey

Dewey lost support on every subsequent ballot, while Willkie and Taft steadily picked up steam. As Charles Peters has written: “To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential,” not unlike the “establishment wing” of the GOP today, which is tentatively coalescing behind Jeb Bush.

Finally on the sixth ballot Willkie commanded the votes needed to win the nomination and face the man who was the real issue in 1940 – Roosevelt.

By the time the Democrats convened for their convention in Chicago on July 15, 1940 (the Republicans met in Philadelphia in June), few besides FDR knew his intentions with regard to the “no third term” tradition. I’m convinced Roosevelt had decided much earlier to seek another terms, but the master political strategist wanted it to appear that his party was “drafting” him rather than as if he was actively seeking the nomination again.

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Roosevelt dispatched his very politically astute wife, Eleanor, to Chicago to subtly, but unmistakably make the case for her husband. It worked and the Democratic Party rushed to embrace FDR – again. This whole story is wonderfully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World.

FDR of course, went on to win the pivotal election of 1940, a rare election in American political history that turned primarily on foreign policy issues. Remarkably, both candidates endorsed the creation of a peace time draft in the middle of the campaign and Roosevelt and Willkie differed only in the most nuanced ways over the big question of whether and how the United States would provide aid to Britain as it struggled to hold off a Nazi invasion and eventually return to the offense against Hitler.

The 1940 campaign, like most political campaigns, had its share of pettiness and overheated rhetoric. Roosevelt was denounced as a “warmonger” and a dictator who would do anything to prolong his willkie buttonhold over the country’s politics. Willkie, a wealthy utility executive who made much of his small-town Indiana upbringing, was derided as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” so dubbed by Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was an open secret that Willkie had a long-time romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, but Roosevelt and the Democrats dare not raise the issue for fear that the “marriage of convenience” between FDR and Eleanor, not to mention the president’s own indiscretions, might become an issue. This would not be a John Edwards or Gary Hart campaign.

The 1940 campaign did involve two talented and serious candidates who openly discussed the big issues of the day and once the voters had spoken, Roosevelt and Willkie put aside personal animosities and linked arms for the good of the country – and the world.

Barack Obama won’t be running for a third term next year. Republicans made certain that would never happen when they recaptured control of the Congress after World War II and adopted the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, but Democrats will be, in effect, seeking a third term with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the party banner.

Perhaps all – or almost all – politicians tend to look better in hindsight than they do when they are grubbing for votes, but it would be hard to argue that any of the contenders in either party today could hold their own on a stage with the major party nominees in that pivotal year of 1940.

The stakes were very high that year and Americans had their pick between two serious, quality candidates. Here’s hoping history repeats next year. Looking at the field I have my doubts.

Reader’s Note: 

There are at least three other recent fine books about the election of 1940 – Richard Moe’s Roosevelt’s Second Act, Susan Dunn’s 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler: The Election Amid the Storm and Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days. All are highly recommended as great political history.

 

Harry Reid’s Senate Legacy

Having lost the majority after the 2014 election, suffering a gruesome injury that nearly cost him sight in one eye, and facing gty_harry_reid_press_conference_glasses_jc_150224_16x9_992another bruising re-election campaign in Nevada, it’s not a huge surprise that 75-year old Senator Harry Reid, a fixture in Senate leadership for more than a decade, decided that he will hang it up when his term ends next year.

As a young man Reid was a decent boxer and throwing punches with wild abandon is an appropriate metaphor for Reid’s pugnacious tenure as a Senate leader. Reid has been an unapologetic boxerpartisan. He has made it his personal cause to expose the Koch brothers influence on American politics and Reid accused Mitt Romney, with no real evidence, of paying no taxes during the last presidential campaign. That attack line alone messed up a week of Romney’s campaign.

Reid is also something of a political contradiction. A practicing Mormon, Reid has been a huge champion of Nevada’s glittering gaming industry. His LDS faith certainly didn’t keep him from savaging fellow Mormon Romney in a fashion that made Barack Obama’s attack lines seem tame by comparison. Reid has also championed the mining industry inside a political party where digging things up is considered bad form. All politics is local, after all, and gambling and mining make Nevada go and as for Reid’s brand of politics – once a brawler, always a brawler.

Charisma challenged, not an eloquent speaker, never one to frequent the Sunday morning green rooms that are the natural habitat of Washington’s gasbags, Reid is in many ways a throwback, an often parochial senator from Nevada who will also leave a substantial mark on American political history. His fighting instincts, as well as the political times, made Reid one of the most partisan Senate leaders in a long, long time and he certainly deserves a big dose of responsibility for the toxic levels of American political discourse. Reid has both lamented and contributed to the new norm – the politics of obstruction.

Still, love him or hate him – and there are many in both camps – Reid will, I believe, figure prominently in Senate history both for his longevity in leadership and, love it or hate it, for at least five things that might not have happened without him.

The Power of Harry…

First, without Reid’s statewide political organization it is questionable that Obama would have carried Nevada in 2008 and 2012. Look at the Nevada map. It is mostly red, but Reid’s political influence rests heavy in the state’s population200px-Nevada_presidential_election_results_2012.svg centers – Las Vegas and Reno. These cities and their suburbs are where Reid has won his elections in Nevada and where Obama won, as well. In the currency of electoral politics, Harry Reid delivered Nevada for the Democratic presidential candidate – twice.

Without Reid serving as “master of the Senate” in 2009, it’s hard to believe Obama could have rounded up enough votes to pass the controversial $787 billion stimulus legislation – remember it took three Republican votes. Not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus bill, but somehow Reid crafted a degree of bi-partisanship to ensure that the legislation reached Obama’s desk.

Reid’s fingerprints are all over passage of the even more controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA). Without Harry Reid it’s unlikely that the sweeping health insurance reform legislation would have happened, since passage required that he hold every single Democratic vote in the Senate. The legislation may eventually be considered along side Social Security as a great legislative triumph or it may be shot down by the Supreme Court. Either way Harry Reid was a principle architect and that legislation alone likely cost him his job as majority leader.

Reid will also be remembered for finally taking the historic step to end the Senate filibuster, alg-reid-sotomayor-jpginvoking the “nuclear option,” regarding most presidential appointments, particularly including federal judges. As a result, Obama has very quietly reduced the backlog of vacancies on the federal bench, including filling empty seats on the influential federal circuit court for the District of Columbia. That court, considered second only to the Supreme Court in importance, has shifted under Obama from being dominated by the appointees of Republican presidents to one with a majority of judges selected by Democrats. Reid certainly also gets some of the credit for ensuring that two more women were confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Just Say No to Yucca Mountain…

MOUNTAIN YUCCA NUCLEAR WASTE FACILITY NEVADA DESERT WEST DUMP GOVERNMENT FUEL SPENT TUNNELFinally, when tallying Reid’s legacy it’s impossible not to note his singular role in putting sand in the gears of national nuclear waste policy. Reid has fiercely opposed the long-time federal government plan to develop a high-level nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain north of Las Vegas. His unrelenting opposition helped convince the Obama Administration to quit work on the project, leaving the nation without any plan to dispose of the vast amounts of nuclear waste that remain scattered around the country.

A Limited Number of Great Leaders…

I would argue that since the post was formally established in the 1920’s there have been very few truly great and effective Senate leaders. Any list of “masters of the Senate” must, of course, include Lyndon Johnson whose bigger-than-life style and mastery of the personal politics of the institution in the 1950’s have never been matched.

Montana’s Mike Mansfield, still the longest serving majority leader, would be on any list of greats and for reasons opposite those that put Johnson is on the list. Where Lyndon bullied, blustered and begged senators to his will, Mansfield was the quite behind the scenes conciliator. Johnson would assault his colleagues with the full on “Johnson treatment.” A flurry of words would lbj1accompany Lyndon’s hands tugging on the lapels of a suspect’s suit, while he leaned in and physically overpowered another of his victims. As the photo makes clear he even used “the treatment” on a young John Kennedy and a stunned Scoop Jackson.

Mansfield, in contrast, puffed on his pipe, listened and tried to work things out. More often than not he succeeded, so much so that upon his death one of the Senate’s most erasable partisans, Alaska’s Ted Stevens, told me that Democrat Mansfield was the best leader the Senate had ever seen.

Considering the often ugly and almost completely unproductive Senate we see today we can fondly remember Republican leaders like Bob Dole and Howard Baker, partisans with an ability to make a deal. In the 1930’s Franklin Roosevelt depended on Joe Robinson of Arkansas to get most of his New Deal through the Senate and Robinson, always a loyal Democrat also revered by his Republican colleagues, obliged. Oregon’s Charles McNary, never in the majority, was thoughtful, cool and respected by his Senate colleagues. In many ways McNary was a model senatorial leader, particularly one having to operate in the minority.

1101640710_400The “wizard of ooze,” Republican Everett Dirksen of Illinois, critical to passage of historic civil rights legislation in the 1960’s, and Democrat Robert Byrd, passionate in his love of the Senate as an institution, clearly rank in the top tier of Senate leaders. But beyond that short list the pickings are pretty thin, which is why the frequently controversial Harry Reid – love him or hate him – and his accomplishments – love them or hate them – will likely ensure that he finds a place of permanent importance in the history of successful leaders of the United States Senate.

Harry Reid has been a political fighter with all the charm of an ill-tempered bull dog. His partisanship clearly contributed to the current do-nothing U.S. Senate where he has been the perfect foil to the equally charmless and partisan Mitch McConnell. Reid could put his foot in it Joe Biden-style, once calling New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand “the hottest senator” and candidate Obama “light skinned.” When asked about regrets he might harbor in his fight with the Brothers Koch, Reid simply said: “Romney didn’t win did he?”

In the age of poll tested, bland candidates who measure every word and fret over every action, political junkies are going to miss the old boxer from Searchlight, Nevada. He took a few punches, landed a few himself, and never committed the unpardonable political sin of being dull. Fighters rarely are.

The Appearance of Influence

       “…this Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy. “ – Justice Anthony Kennedy in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 2010.

Generally speaking there are two types of political scandal: the sex scandal and the money scandal.

The first type of scandal, perhaps for obvious reasons, gets more attention from public and press. Think of Bill Clinton and the blue dress, Mark lewinsky-beretSanford hiking the Appalachian Trail all the way to his Argentine mistress, General David Petraeus going all in with his biographer (and sharing much more than pillow talk) and, of course, the continuing saga of former Senator Larry Craig’s wide stance in the Minneapolis airport. One could go on and on – Packwood, Weiner, Edwards – it is a long, long and bipartisan list.

The other type of scandal – the money scandal – is generally less memorable, but also more important. Political sex sells and fuels late night comedy. Political money merely corrupts. Like political sex scandals, political money scandals are a bipartisan problem and unlike what Justice Kennedy naively (or cynically) wrote in that Supreme Court decision, vastly expanded access to money and private influence in our politics has, and will continue to erode “faith in this democracy.”

Several recent cases still in the news make the point: Illinois Representative Aaron Schock, former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, would-be president Hillary Clinton and Senator Robert Menendez or, if you prefer, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey are in the top-of-mind scandal class. (It probably goes without saying that in any list of political scandals involving money, New Jersey is routinely entitled to two mentions.)

Schock is the junior Republican from Peoria who first came to national prominence when a Washington Post story reported on the elaborate SchockDownton Abbey-like redecorating of his Capitol Hill office, a real estate makeover that likely constituted an illegal gift. It didn’t take long for the deep red walls and Edwardian touches to gave way to more important insights into Schock’s extensive connections to his wealthy donors. As the Post reported recently, the Congressman’s Lord Grantham moment “prompted a flurry of stories about his use of private charter planes that he says are to get around his district, concert ticket purchases, trips overseas and other forms of travel.” Expensive tastes are hardly an indictable offense, but failing to report gifts from donors or using their airplanes improperly may well be and Schock has now announced his resignation, likely just before his indictment.

There have been so many twists and turns to the sad and bizarre Kitzhaber saga in Oregon that is has become difficult to keep track of all of them, but it seems clear that an underlying theme in the tangled web that drove the four-time elected governor from office was…wait for it…money.

Kitzhaber’s fiancée seems to have been obsessed by making money and oblivious to how her public role created conflicts, or worse, for the couple. In another case, as reported by Willamette Week, Kitzhaber courted one of his biggest campaign donors, a developer who had given candidate Kitzhaber more than $65,000 since 2010, by attending a “summit” organized by the donor, who incidentally regularly complained to the governor about state environmental regulators. As the paper noted following the “summit,” which Kitzhaber had flown to on the donor’s private plane, the then-governor “asked a fundraising consultant how much money [the big donor] had given his re-election campaign so he could hit up another summit attendee…for the same amount.”

The Hillary Clinton case is even more obtuse, but no less troubling, involving Clinton the Secretary of State, Clinton the world famous mover and shaker of the Clinton family foundation (which has received millions from corporate and foreign sources) and coming to a campaign trail near you soon, Clinton the presidential candidate. If you think the recent flap over Hillary’s emails (particularly the ones that have been destroyed) doesn’tReadyPoster involve the intersection of her official work at the State Department and her work, as well as her husband’s and daughter’s, with the high flying Clinton foundation, and now the need to raise a billion dollars or so to run for the White House, well I have some aluminum siding I’d like you to consider.

A CBS New investigation found that one donor to the Clinton Foundation, “Rilin Enterprises – pledged $2 million in 2013…The company is a privately-held Chinese construction and trade conglomerate and run by billionaire Wang Wenliang, who is also a delegate to the Chinese parliament…The firm owns a strategic port along the border with North Korea and was also one of the contractors that built the Chinese embassy in Washington. That contract is a direct tie to the Chinese government.” We haven’t heard the last of these kinds of stories and she hasn’t even announced.

Senator Menendez’s scandal seems to involve more garden-variety type corruption – doing big favors for a big donor. For months the Justice Department has been looking into the connection between the Soprano State senator and a wealthy South Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, who clearly loves Menendez. As Slate has noted, the doc and his family “gave $33,700 to Menendez’s 2012 re-election campaign, as well as $60,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while Menendez served as its chairman during the 2010 election cycle. But the biggest contribution by far was a series of three payments totaling $700,000 that Melgen’s business gave in 2012 to Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that in turn shoveled nearly $600,000 toward Menendez’s re-election that year. Melgen also paid for two free trips that Menendez took in 2010 to Melgen’s seaside mansion in the Dominican Republic,” a gift that Menendez did not initially disclose, but for which he later paid $58,500 to reimburse.

And what did the donor get beside the stimulating company of a United States Senator? “In recent years,” Slate reports, “Menendez repeatedly interceded on Melgen’s behalf in a dispute with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services over allegations that Melgen had overbilled Medicare for millions of dollars for injections he was performing on patients with macular degeneration. Menendez has also been pressing on Melgen’s behalf to help him see through a deal he has to sell port-screening equipment to the Dominican government.”

The latest Chris Christie greasiness in New Jersey rings of the kind of thing that the notorious Boss Tweed did across the Hudson more than a century ago – hand out tax breaks, contracts and other goodies to the politically well-connected and then sit back and reap the rewards. As the Associated Press reported this week, on Governor Christie’s watch, “New Jersey has authorized more than $2 billion in economic development tax breaks since 2014, often to corporations with notable political connections. One grant went to a developer who owes millions of dollars on an unpaid state loan.”

Christie’s administration lavished more than $600 million in tax breaks on Camden, New Jersey, (population 77,000) an amount four times the city’s annual budget. As AP notes, “As money has flowed to development in Camden, some trickled back into politics. Camden tax incentive recipients donated more than $150,000 to the Republican Governors Association during the time Christie ran it. But no donations are as notable as those from Pennsylvania developer Israel Roizman. Last February, the state awarded tax incentives worth $13.4 million to Broadway Associates 2010 LLC, a real estate development company he controls. The project in question: refurbishing 175 low-income housing units that deteriorated under two decades of Roizman’s ownership.”

It turns out Roizman – and here is proof that the acrid stench of corruption smells of bipartisanship – was a big “bundler” of campaign cash for Barack Obama, but also thoughtfully “donated $10,000 to the Christie-led [Republican] governors association in late 2013, a few months before receiving his tax breaks. Last year, he gave the group the same amount.” Meanwhile, the developer owes the New Jersey housing agency “$6.2 million in unpaid loans on another Camden housing project.”

There may be perfectly simple explanations for all these unrelated cases and it would not be correct to say the corrosive Citizens United decision alone ushered in a new era of corruption in our politics. The country’s convoluted campaign finance apparatus is so complex that it has spawned an entire industry of lawyers and consultants who make it their life’s work to navigate the system.

Still, to believe that cases like Schock, Kitzhaber, Clinton, Menendez, Christie and many others can be innocently explained away, one must accept Thomas Nastthe idea that really wealthy people give money to political candidates simply out of the goodness of their hearts or because of their passionate belief in the candidate or the cause. (Some do, of course, but their commitment could be demonstrated just as fervently by a check for a thousand dollars as it is by donating what for many Americans would be a sizeable bank account.) At the same time the innocent explanation of a situation involving money and politics that also has “the appearance of corruption” demands embracing the idea that candidates, particularly when they are recipients of really, really big checks and personal favors from donors, are totally immune to the concept of quid pro quo. There are many honest politicians, but we don’t make laws – nor did we once limit campaign contributions – because of the honest people.

Political corruption has existed since Caesar and human nature being what it is there will always be some fast buck artist angling for some favor from some powerful person. But with the adoption of the philosophy, sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court, that anything goes when it comes to money and politics we can expect Justice Kennedy to more-and-more be feasting on his words.

Unlimited, largely unregulated money in politics does give rise to both the appearance and the reality of corruption. The excesses will only grow worse over time in direct proportion to the electorate’s loss of faith in this democracy. Makes you long for a good political sex scandal.

 

A Bias for Action

His critics will probably say that once again Barack Obama has failed to exercise the kind of leadership that goes along with occupying the Oval Office. He’s waited too long, they’ll contend, to intervene on the West Coast port crisis and try to end the work slowdowns that have cargo backed up from San Diego to 101823174-451523212.530x298Seattle. The impact on the region’s economy is clear and the threat the U.S. economy is growing by the day.

Obama has now dispatched his Labor Secretary to engage the warring port operators and labor unions, but still seems reluctant to apply the full power he has under the still controversial law known since its passage in 1947 as Taft-Hartley.

Under the Taft-Hartley Act, as Roll Call has noted, “the president can get involved once a strike or lockout affects an entire industry, or a substantial part of it. At that point, the president must appoint a board of inquiry to report on the factual elements of the dispute. After that, the president can petition a federal court to prevent any strike or lockout the president has deemed a threat to national health or safety.”

Obama undoubtedly knows his history and as such knows that a president can win big or sometimes lose large when he puts the prestige of the presidency on the line in a labor dispute. Still, the American public has usually rewarded decisive presidential action when it can be clearly shown to be in the broad national interest.

Wielding a Big Stick…

Theodore Roosevelt rarely – make that never – seemed to hesitate to throw himself into a fight. Teddy-Roosevelt-the-Anthracite-Coal-Strike-the-Railroad-and-Civil-Rights-_picture_-2When a national coal strike edged into its fifth month in 1902 and threatened a very cold winter for millions of Americans, Roosevelt became the first president to personally intercede in a labor-management dispute. Using typically Rooseveltian tactics, T.R. summoned the strikers and the coal operators to meet and urged them to work out their differences in the national interest. The workers agreed, management balked, and Roosevelt acted. He threatened to seize Pennsylvania coal fields and use soldiers to dig the coal and then he appointed a hand-picked commission to suggest a way out of the impasse.

“Ultimately, the miners won a ten percent increase in pay with a concomitant reduction in the number of hours worked each day. The commission failed to recommend union recognition, however, or to address the problems of child labor and hazardous working conditions. Still, for the first time the federal government acted to settle, rather than break, a strike.” The decisive action by Roosevelt, coming not long after he had assumed the presidency and long before Taft-Hartley, helped cement his well-deserved reputation for action and leadership.

Although Harry Truman denounced the Taft-Hartley legislation in 1947 as “a slave labor law” – harrystrumanTruman vetoed the legislation only to see his veto overturned by a strong bi-partisan vote in both houses of Congress – the no-nonsense Missourian channeled T.R. in 1946 when he came close to nationalizing the nation’s railroads to end another crippling strike. Truman was incensed that two of the twenty national rail unions refused to accept a wage agreement that he had personally helped broker and he went on the radio to blast union leaders by name. His words prophetically anticipated the passage of Taft-Hartley the next year.

“I would regret deeply if the act of the two leaders of these unions,” Truman said, “should create such a wave of ill will and a desire for vengeance that there should result ill-advised restrictive legislation that would cause labor to lose those gains which it has rightfully made during the years.”

The year 1946 was a brutal year for Truman, the country and organized labor. A wave of strikes swept the country after the end of World War II and Republicans scored big wins in the mid-term elections allowing the GOP to recapture control of Congress for the first time since 1930. That historic election, coupled with the legislative cooperation that existed among conservative Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, led to major changes in the labor friendly Wagner Act, a cornerstone accomplishment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that passed in 1935.

The Taft of Taft-Hartley…

Taft-Hartley is the best remembered legislative accomplishment of the man once known as “Mr. TaftRepublican” – Robert Alonso Taft of Ohio. Taft was a fixture in national politics and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination from 1940 until 1952. Taft died of cancer in 1953 having never won the Republican presidential nomination that might have allowed him to fulfill a dream to follow his father – William Howard Taft – into the White House.

What is less well remembered is that Taft – unlike the labor-hating Fred Hartley, a New Jersey Congressman who chaired the House Education and Labor Committee – was a highly respected, hugely powerful senator; a man of principle and a politician willing to compromise in order to pass important legislation. Taft was at the zenith of his legislative power in 1947.

Taft’s best biographer James T. Patterson has pointed out that the Ohio senator had “relatively little interest” in a Time - Taftprovision advanced by Hartley that would require union leaders to swear anti-communist oaths in exchange for recognition by the National Labor Relations Board. Patterson says that Taft, while certainly aiming to trim the sails of organized labor, “insisted on the right of labor to strike and to bargain collectively with management.” Taft also opposed too much government scrutiny of internal union operations and true to his life-long convictions opposed “extensive government intervention in the economy.”

As West Coast Democrats and many Republicans now call for decisive presidential action to end the port crisis by invoking provisions of Taft-Hartley, it is interesting to note that the region’s members of Congress were all over the map in 1947 when it came time to consider Truman’s veto of Bob Taft’s famous legislation.

Oregon’s Wayne Morse, still a Republican in 1947, was one of only three Senate Republicans who voted to sustain Truman’s veto. Three liberals, the likes of whom don’t exist any longer, Warren Magnuson of Washington, Glen Taylor of Idaho and James Murray of Montana also voted to uphold Truman’s veto. Other Republicans in the Northwest delegation in 1947 – Zales Ecton of Montana, Henry Dworshak of Idaho, Harry Cain of Washington and Guy Cordon of Oregon – voted to override Truman and make Taft-Hartley law. Those were the days when Oregon and Washington had Republicans and Idaho had Democrats.

One could argue that organized labor in the United States has been in a long, steady decline since Taft-Hartley, which ironically makes it easier from a political standpoint for a president, even a Democrat, to intervene in a situation like that that now grips the West Coast ports.

The Gipper Strikes…

Obama might remember that it was a political no-brainer for Ronald Reagan to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981, even though the union had supported Reagan’s election. Reagan’s action in that 3384-20Acelebrated case allowed him to quote one of his favorite presidents, Calvin Coolidge, whose portrait Reagan had placed in the Oval Office. When air traffic controllers violated the law by striking Reagan quoted the laconic Vermonter: “There is no right to strike against the public safety of anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

Reagan biographer Richard Reeves says telephone calls and telegrams buried the White House and “supported the President’s stand by more than ten to one.” Many historians contend that Reagan’s harsh action further diminished labor’s clout, but there is little doubt his actions enjoyed broad public support and enhanced his popularity.

It appears the West Coast port situation has entered the phase where everyone involved is unable – or unwilling – to take a step back and try to find a solution. With everything from imported automobile parts to exported grain backing up there is no downside for a politician to act decisively and in the broad public interest. There is ample precedent for such action dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and ample reason to believe that a president, particularly one in the final two years of his term, would enjoy widespread public support for rolling up his sleeves and pounding the table for a settlement. A Democratic president, who surely will want to lean in the direction of organized labor, might also succeed, as a labor-friendly Roosevelt did in 1902, in crafting a solution that amounted to an historic win for workers.

In any case, in instances such as as the West Coast port issue, there is a strong bias in favor of presidential action, and sooner rather than later.

 

The Tragedy of John Kitzhaber

One Oregon legislator said it was like a Greek tragedy, but the dimensions of the decline and fall of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber are more Shakespearean than Hellenic.oregon-governor

The Kitzhaber downfall became so completely bizarre over the last month of so that it would seem unbelievably contrived where the real facts of this political soap opera reduced to a script for House of Cards. You sense that even Frank Underwood is shaking his head. In the end Oregon’s longest serving governor collapsed faster than, well, a house of cards. The drama in Salem over the last few weeks was equal parts Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.

Consider the basic facts. Kitzhaber, a fixture of Oregon politics for more than 35 years, was elected last November for the fourth time following a lackluster campaign against an inept opponent. The race is marked by audible sighs of “Kitzhaber fatigue” and the governor’s girlfriend/fiancée Cylvia Hayes ultimately became the campaign’s major issue. The real issues in the Kitzhaber saga have always been the violation of the bright line between public responsibility and private interest, between transparency and entitlement. In many states such combinations might have spelled a political end at the ballot box, but in one party states like Oregon (and Idaho) partisanship often trumps the basics of right and wrong. Yet in this case, as with the audience at an Elizabethan drama, everyone save the actors seemed long ago to understand how this play would end.

KitzAt a moment that should have marked the pinnacle of his political career Kitzhaber was hardly able to celebrate his unprecedented fourth election due to the cavalcade of news reports about Hayes’ dual and overlapping roles as “first lady” and private sector consultant. As the scrutiny mounted the stonewalling intensified.

In retrospect it is now easy to see that Kitzhaber’s remarkably rapid descent began back during his re-election campaign when he responded, annoyed and testily, to questions about whether Hayes was unethically and possibly illegally benefiting from her shadowy role as policy adviser to her boy friend the governor, while she also billed clients who seemed to all have an agenda with the state of Oregon. All that would have been bad enough without a further avalanche of detail about Hayes’ earlier life, including involvement with a pot farm and a marriage the governor said he’d not been aware of. With every drip-drip of detail the appearances became more damning and the defenses more ineffective.

“We did not violate the law,” Kitzhaber said during a memorable debate with his Republican opponent last October. “We’ve simply given a modern and professional woman an opportunity to continue her career. In 2014, it seems ludicrous that a woman should be expected to give up her career and life’s work just because she will soon be married to the governor.” True enough. Perhaps had the governor drawn brightly the line between his fiance’s public and private roles all this never would have happened. That he never did will become his sad legacy.

That October comment, coupled with no hint of acknowledgment that the governor-girl friend arrangement might have even the appearance of impropriety, was the sure signal of the lack of self awareness that seems to descend on nearly every politician, even the smart and skilled ones, who come to believe in their own righteousness. Shakespeare might have called it hubris.

Incidentally, Kitzhaber’s line about his “modern and professional” fiancée was essentially the same argument the Clinton’s used long ago to justify Hillary’s Rose Law Firm legal career and membership on the Walmart corporate board while Bubba sat in the governor’s office in Little Rock and while she was First Lady. The justification didn’t pass the smell test then either, proving once again that there are no new scandals in politics only the ones that repeat over and over. What is different in the two cases is that the Clinton’s benefited from a political life in Arkansas before email, which, as the former governor of Oregon now knows, were simpler times.

In the final days of this debacle, there rolled out the completely predictable cycle of political scandal: the newspaper editorials demanding resignation, the mad rush to lawyer up, the late-breaking revelations each carrying a unmistakable sense that the hole was getting deeper, the feints that resignation was imminent, the too-late effort to cover tracks, the inevitable abandonment of close allies and friends and the further retreat into the bunker. Like the cycles of the moon, the political scandal always ends the same way.

Still, in the evolution of any scandal there is always a moment – or even many – when an admission of error leavened with public humbleness can provide the opportunity for redemption and perhaps survival. Kitzhaber, a hard charging former emergency room doctor, could never get to a point of responsibility, admission and humility. We’ll never know whether he might have saved his own often impressive political career by simply admitting errors of judgment and asking Oregonian to allow him to make things right. The American capacity for forgiveness and redemption is remarkable, but one has to recognize the need to humbly make the ask. Part of the tragedy here is that Kitzhaber never tried and a bigger part is that he didn’t see the need.

There an old saying among airplane pilots – beware the hundred hour pilot – that applies to the Kitzhaber-Hayes saga. Pilots, it is said, who are still learning the ropes of piloting an aircraft tend to be extra careful with their actions and the condition of their plane. It’s the pilot who reaches a hundred hours of flight time who suddenly believes he’s Charles Lindbergh and has become immortal in the cockpit. The same thing can happen to a politician: Elected four times, obviously the smartest guy in any room, in his own mind his motives only pure, the newspaper and political critics unfair, the advisers timid or shunted aside.

When crisis descends, the truly smart ones reach out – widely. The smart ones have enough confidence to step back and ask what might I have done better and how might I make it right? The hardest and most essential part of dealing with a crisis is the ability to understand the critics and not dismiss their concerns as unknowing or unimportant. In this case it was not only hard but impossible.

Ironically, it is often the most seasoned politician – think of Larry Craig or Bob Packwood or Brock Adams, among many others – who behaves like the all-knowing, all-certain “experienced” hundred hour pilot who follows his “experience” – read arrogance – into the side of a mountain.

There will be many story lines in the days ahead in the Oregon political drama that only The Bard of Avon might have concocted. We certainly haven’t heard the last of John Kitzhaber and his First Lady with the likelihood of a long and contentious legal process just beginning and indictments a real possibility. It will be said that the former governor brought it upon himself. He fell victim and grew blind to the allure of a younger woman with more ambition than sense. Hubris, even arrogance, was at play. Entitlement can be fatal. The Oregon saga was all that.

There is always both sadness and glee when a public figure is brought low; sadness that humans, even elected ones, are all too human and glee, at least by some, in the fact that a once powerful politician was brought down in a strikingly public way. The real tragedy, of course, is that it didn’t have to happen. But that is always the case with political tragedy.

 

Criminalizing Stupidity

Warren-G-Harding-9328336-1-402Teddy Roosevelt’s only daughter, Alice, was one of the great characters of the nation’s capitol for most of the 20th Century. She knew everyone, married the Speaker of the House,  Nicholas Longworth, and had a long and passionate affair with Sen. William Borah of Idaho, who was likely the father of her only child. The outspoken Alice widely and freely shared her deliciously candid opinions about politics and people with anyone and everyone.

The embroidered pillow in her living room said: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Alice famously said of President Warren Harding, who she knew well and was perhaps our worst president, that he “was not a bad man. He was just a slob,” which reminds me of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

To paraphrase Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “Rick Perry may not be a bad man, but he really isn’t a very smart one.”

Perry, the long serving Republican Governor, has been indicted by a grand jury in Austin accused of abusing his power. Imagine that, a Texas governor doing such a thing, but I digress.

Sometime back Perry quite openly tried to force the resignation of a Democratic prosecutor in Austin who has jurisdiction over public corruption cases. The prosecutor made a fool of herself during a drunk driving incident and spent some days in jail. Perhaps seeing an opening to get rid of a pesky prosecutor who was apparently looking into some details of Perry’s 14 years in the governor’s office, the governor demanded that the prosecutor resign. She refused. Pretty standard political behavior, right? But wait a Texas minute and whoa there cowboy!

At this point in our tale, Perry failed to turn off the stupid. In public remarks the governor tied the resignation of the vodka-swilling Democratic prosecutor to the state appropriation for the political corruption unit she commanded. Viola! Intimidation. Retribution. Abuse of power. Stupid. And, of course, there was no resignation, but rather a grand jury.

Most governors, obviously Rick Perry included, can’t resist the “threat” of the veto. It is the ultimate power of the executive. The legislature can vote and vote and vote, but in the end only one vote – the governor’s – stands between a law and a piece of paper headed for the round file. Rick Perry’s real failure as the man-who-would-be-president was more his threat than his action. You’d think a guy who has been governor for all of this century would understand that the action of saying NO – decisive, final, surprising, perhaps even a little mysterious – has way more political impact that the threat of saying NO followed by the anticlimax of action.

Perry was playing hardball when hiding the ball would have been the politically smart and more effective tactic. Nothing inspires political fear in an opponent more than the belief that you might do something really surprising. It’s always a good idea to keep the other guy guessing and asking, “Will that crazy S of a B come out of right field and do something really bizarre?” That, my friends, is the exercise of political power. Don’t threaten. Act. And surprise.

Rick Perry showed up to be booked on the abuse of power charges wearing a swell blue necktie and a slightly off-kilter grin. He rick-perry-300must be calculating that being indicted for abuse of power actually helps him with the GOP-base in places like New Hampshire and Iowa and it will.

Republicans in Congress want to impeach President Obama for abusing his power, but when one of their guys is charged with abusing power – a felony in Texas – it actually helps his positioning for the 2016 nomination. Isn’t American politics great?

I suspect many Democrats would like to be gleeful about the Perry indictment, but most know, as nearly everyone from Human Events to the Washington Post also know, his actions really aren’t criminal. Stupid maybe, but not criminal. As the Post wrote in an editorial: “What everyone should recognize is that this particular kerfuffle fell within the bounds of partisan politics, which, as the saying goes, ain’t beanbag.” By criminalizing stupidity we just worsen the crowding crisis in our jails. Not smart.

Reuters photo

New York Governor Cuomo speaks during a cabinet meeting in AlbanyWhich brings us to Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York where political scandals are about as prevalent historically as coyotes in Texas. If Rick Perry’s stupid threat followed by a veto was politics as usual, then Cuomo’s decision to appoint a high profile commission to investigate New York political corruption and then stonewall the commission’s work at every turn is potentially a whole lot more. The aggressive U.S. Attorney in Manhattan is on the case.

The New York Times, which, by the way, editorially called the Perry indictment silly, recently documented the extent to which Gov. Cuomo and his minions have tried to thwart the ethics commission’s work. This actually has the smell, as does Gov. Chris Christie’s Bridgegate problem across the Hudson River in New Jersey, of a real and lasting scandal.

Cuomo may one day look back on the much ballyhooed and very high profile launch of his ethics commission, complete with promises of transparency and candor, as a moment of gubernatorial hurbis that makes Rick Perry’s Texas stupid look pretty small town along side a New York perp walk.

But back to Warren Harding. When Harding died in 1923 under what are still not completely explained circumstances he was bedeviled by charges of corruption in his administration. Eventually his Secretary of the Interior went to jail and his Attorney General was forced to resign. Shortly before his death Harding complained that in the business of politics it always seems that your friends cause you the greatest amount of grief. It was true in 1923 and true today.

If it turns out that Gov. Perry has a problem it will be because he was trying, with his now criminalized veto, to clean up after his friends in the Texas Cancer Prevention and Research Institute, a favorite Perry cause where grants and such seem to flow steadily to his friends. The zeal of Gov. Cuomo’s staff in micromanaging the New York ethics commission may come close, if not cross the line, to obstruction of justice or witnesses intimidation. The same can be said for Christie’s staff in New Jersey and Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, whose staff allegedly played fast and lose with the rules against mixing official business with political hijinks.

All these ethically challenged guys have huffed and puffed that all they have done is practice politics as a high art. Nothing criminal about that, they say. No usual suspects to round up in these parts. Still, politics isn’t just about high fast balls thrown at the other guys head. It shouldn’t always be just bluster and fuss wrapped in raw power. At its best politics is both style and substance; skill and sophistication. Be a little subtle while gently sticking in the knife. Bring down the hammer, but wrap it in velvet. Above all don’t channel Nixon and give them cause to call you a crook. And, while you’re at it, don’t get mentioned in the same blog post with Warren G. Harding.

The unpopular Barack Obama has some advice for Perry, Cuomo and the current gang of governors forcing us to mix politics and crime: don’t do stupid stuff. Or, as the always quotable Alice Roosevelt might have said, don’t be a slob.