Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Case for Jeannette

Poor old Alexander Hamilton. He’s about to lose his coveted spot on the $10 bill and be displaced by a woman. It’s way past time for that but still, he was Alexander Hamilton.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

The first Secretary of the Treasury, inventor of American governmental finance and a top aide to General Washington, Hamilton probably should have been president. But was also born out of wedlock, got mixed up in a very messy love affair during the height of his political career and then got killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. He could have been a great president, but like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Adali Stevenson – all remarkable men who might have been great presidents – Hamilton sadly never got there. Now apparently he’s toast on the ten spot.

I come not to bury old Hamilton, but rather to praise him, but also to make the case for the woman who should grace the nation’s currency as Hamilton rides off into assured oblivion as the Founding Father most likely to be forgotten. There are a number of woman worthy of gracing the folding green – Eleanor Roosevelt for sure and Harriet Tubman, Frances Perkins and Rosa Parks, just to name a few – and I would gladly slip a few $10 bills carrying the image of any number of remarkable American women into my money clip.

Rankin shortly after his first election to Congress in 1916.

Rankin shortly after her first election to Congress in 1916.

But my choice is a bit different, a woman from the West, a champion of hard working miners and loggers, a supporter of organized labor, a liberal Republican (when there were such things), an advocate of women and children, a politician without guile or spite, but full of passion and principle, the first woman elected to Congress – even before woman could vote in many places – and, perhaps above all, an unabashed and stunningly courageous advocate for peace. An elegant fashion plate, too, who was surely a commanding figure on the stump. Her broad-brimmed hats and carefully tailored clothing created a political fashion craze decades before Hillary’s pant suits.

I say let’s put the incredible Jeannette Rankin from Missoula, Montana on the currency.

Rankin was pacesetter, role model, remarkably accomplished woman and elected official and she would be a powerful reminder that peace, humility, decency and equality are American values that must not be quietly tucked away in history books, but held forth as what we – what Americans – really should be all about.

Elected to Congress the first time in 1916, Rankin is best remembered for her vote against U.S. participation in the First World War. Her vote was a courageous and controversial move, but one completely in keeping with her values and beliefs. Nearly a hundred years later that vote doesn’t look too bad. Rankin ran for the U.S. Senate in 1918, lost the Republican primary in Montana, and ran in the general election as a third-party candidate. After losing that election Rankin re-grouped and re-dedicated herself to the cause of peace. She worked tirelessly for that cause between the world wars, while continuing her advocacy for women and children.

Rankin campaign button.

Rankin campaign button.

In one of the great ironies of American political history, Rankin ran for Congress a second time in 1940 just as the United States started in earnest down the path to involvement in the Second World War. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Rankin was back in Congress and facing her own moral and political crisis – whether to vote for a declaration of war. Agonizing over the decision – her brother and political confidante told her a “no” vote would amount to political suicide – Rankin nonetheless refused to vote for war. She stunned the House of Representatives and many of her constituents when, her voice filled with emotion, she said “I cannot vote for war.”

15 Jan 1968, Washington, DC, USA --- A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

January 1968, Washington, DC — A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Rankin’s lone vote against war in 1941 effectively ended her political career if not her anti-war activism. Rankin retired from elective politics, but was still leading marches against war – this time in Southeast Asia – as a spry 90 year-old in the early 1970’s. She died in 1973.

I’ve read all the Rankin biographies (and the one on her very political and very wealthy brother, Wellington), tried to understand her place in Montana and American history, even looked through some of her correspondence carefully preserved at the wonderful Montana Historical Society in Helena, but strangely still don’t feel I know everything I want to know about this remarkable, passionate and principled woman. By most accounts she had that effect on most everyone she encountered.

Mike Mansfield, for example, who replaced Rankin in the House of Representatives in 1942 and went on to his own distinguished career in the Senate, profoundly admired the elegant, outspoken woman from Missoula. I talked with Mansfield about Montana politics shortly before his death and when the conversation turned to Jeannette, Mansfield in his candid and clipped way said simply, “She was remarkable.”

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin

My favorite comment about Rankin comes from an unlikely source. After her vote against war in 1941, the famous Kansas editor William Allen White, a strong advocate of American aid to the allies before Pearl Harbor and therefore on the other side of the great foreign policy debate at the time, wrote in his Emporia Gazette newspaper:

“Well – look at Jeannette Rankin. Probably a hundred men in Congress would like to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it.”

“The Gazette,” White continued, “disagrees with the wisdom on her position. But, Lord, it was a brave thing: and its bravery somehow discounts its folly. When in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based on moral inclination is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did but for the way she did it.”

I say put Jeannette Rankin on the $10 bill. She would be a fantastic reminder that personal and political courage make American heroes.

 

 

He’s Melting, He’s Melting…

“I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”

An old political friend once remarked, not altogether in jest, that the most “enjoyable” part of politics is watching a rival candidate meltdown. I confess to enjoying the secret and obviously perverse pleasure of seeing a candidate, typically one who has little if any business in the business of politics, crashing and burning.

Politics ain’t for amateurs. Pros survive, amateurs’ meltdown.trump

The wounds that typically begin the meltdown are almost always of the worst type, self-inflicted, and often born of that frequently fatal political disease – hubris. The meltdowns almost always happen to candidates who are momentarily riding high and the next minute are struggling, like a drowning swimmer, to keep their head above political water.

My favorite line in politics is the one that holds “you can go from hero to zero just like that.” On the biggest stage – running for president – politics is a high wire act without a net. If the fall doesn’t get you the bounce certainly will. Zero is the score you get when you meltdown.

We can enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching and enjoying the inevitable meltdown even when we know it is coming. The anticipation makes it all the more special. The big ego and big mouth getting gassed by the candidate’s own hot air. The fatal line is often a throw away, initially unrecognized by the person beginning to melt. But as you watch the early stage of the meltdown you instinctively know this is it. We’ve seen this all before – the words that a candidate would wish to haul back, but of course can’t.

Next comes the confrontation with the press and the almost certain denial that our meltdown candidate meant what they really said. But the videotape doesn’t lie. Next comes the chorus of denunciation and the demands for apology, often accompanied by the first suggestions that the meltdown is going to be so damaging as to end the candidacy and therefore why not just call it quits. The meltdown enters the slow, steady burn phase.

Phase three of the meltdown begins when what the candidate said to ignite the meltdown in the first place starts to become compared to the candidate’s own record. Criticize a U.S. Navy veteran held captive and tortured for five and a half years who is then awarded the Silver Star versus, say, a candidate with a bunch of draft deferments. The pile of excelsior is now in full flame.

At this point there are two possible strategies: back off and say sorry or double down. Since hubris dare not apologize, double down is the default position.

Donald Trump, our current meltee, is a fully formed disgusting person. He’s made a lucrative career out of saying outrageous and almost always ridiculous things. The vast majority of Americans know that already. Those Republican primary voters who have momentarily vaulted Trump to the top of the polls on the strength of his “truth-telling” now have a look at what recent Italian politics have been like under the sway of Trump’s Latin alter ego.

Berlusconi  -Italy's Trump

Berlusconi -Italy’s Trump

“Those Italians whose art we bow down before and whose food we fetishize have a Trump of their very own, a saucy, salty dish of Donald alla parmigiana,” wrote – rather brilliantly, I think – the New York Times Frank Bruni. “They repeatedly elected him, so that he could actually do what Trump is still merely auditioning to do: use his country as a gaudy throne and an adoring mirror as he ran it into the ground.

Trump is Berlusconi in waiting, with less cosmetic surgery. Berlusconi is Trump in senescence, with even higher alimony payments.”

Trump’s attacks on John McCain’s military record – “he’s not a hero” – may not be the fatal blow that finally melts down his silly, unserious and ultimately hateful and harmful campaign, but if not this, something else – and soon. Americans enjoy a sideshow, but, so far at least, we’ve not elected a Berlusconi president. The “Real Trump of CNN” won’t play in the White House Situation Room.

Guys like Trump burn hot from the oxygen of publicity, including the kind of attention that holds that you can say anything as long as the name is spelled correctly. But soon enough, one can hope, a fire that consumes all the available oxygen burns itself out. The biggest current clown in American politics will melt into a puddle of his own making. The wicked witch in Oz comes to mind. Just like in the movie it will be a great scene to watch.

 

A Malefactor of Great Wealth

We remember 2008 right? The great recession? The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Recall the photos of grim faced politicians and financial industry executives huddled in tense meetings trying to keep the U.S. and world economy from going over a fiscal cliff?

Henry Paulson

Henry Paulson

Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson dry heaving as he headed into a meeting that might or might not save the economy? Paulson actually got down on one knee in one meeting begging then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to explain the seriousness of the crisis to mostly clueless Washington politicians.

Remember?

The American attention span is…short. We tend to forget and often forgive and move on. That might be the American way or it might be just be our collective attention deficit disorder. We forget and then forget to connect the dots. Once in a while it’s worth remembering how close we came to economic Armageddon as well as those who took us there.

The Lehman Bankruptcy…

LehmanBrothersBankrupt-LGOn September 15, 2008 Lehman Brothers, a massive international investment bank, declared bankruptcy. The United States government had stepped in and prevented the demise of several other big and equally reckless firms – Bear Stearns and AIG among them – but Lehman was left to die an ignominious death. It was one of the largest corporate collapses in modern history. Billions were lost. The already fragile U.S. economy was badly shaken. Questions were then asked if not answered about how it had all happened. Legislation was proposed and some passed. Time moved on.

Two years ago and five years after the Lehman bankruptcy, The Guardian newspaper took stock of the Lehman fallout and concluded, in part: that the magnitude and scope of the crisis was still impacting the global economy. The paper also noted some of the additional fallout, including “the fact that only a handful of politicians and central bankers saw it coming; the rise and fall of global co-operation; the unprecedented policy response with its as yet unknown side-effects; the transformation of a private debt crisis into a sovereign debt crisis; the squeeze on living standards; and the shift in the global economy away from the developed west towards emerging markets.”

In other words the events of 2008, which may now seem like ancient history, remains strikingly relevant to the American and world economy.

The Gorilla of Wall Street…

A little over a month ago the man at the helm of Lehman before and during the great crash, Richard Fuld, made an extremely rare public appearance, his first speech to a Wall Street crowd in six years. The event was certainly noticed in the financial press, but most of the rest of us could be forgiven for missing the story. We have a presidential campaign to endure, after all, and it’s baseball season.

Richard Fuld, former Lehman CEO

Richard Fuld, former Lehman CEO

Dick Fuld, the one-time Lehman CEO, is described in one profile as a diminutive 5’8” bundle of brashness and energy, with a “famously voracious appetite.” Senior executives at Lehman “sometimes ordered him a mid-morning plate of ribs. The joke was that he never gained weight; his intensity burned off the calories.” Fuld – his nickname “The Gorilla” is a reference to his large, slanting, primate-like forehead – used his rare public appearance in New York recently to attempt, not surprisingly perhaps, to re-write his own and Lehman’s history.

Fuld also displayed no contrition or self-awareness. Lehman really wasn’t failing back in 2008, Fuld said, its demise was the result of the mistakes of others, including – should we see irony here – federal banking regulations and cut throat competitors who sold Lehman short. The Lehman culture, the former CEO contends, was nothing short of perfect. Mistakes were made, Fuld admitted, but not by him.

Not everyone – or perhaps no one – who heard the speech bought Fuld’s message. One former Lehman employee helpfully pointed out that lots of people lost lots of money even as the one-time CEO pocketed nearly a half billion dollars “in salary, bonuses and options between 2000 and 2007.”

Here’s Someone to Blame…

Time magazine named Fuld as one of the 25 people “to blame for the financial crisis” and summed up Lehman’s role in the near destruction of the U.S. economy by saying that the man who built that perfect Lehman “culture”:

“Steered Lehman deep into the business of subprime mortgages, bankrolling lenders across the country that were making convoluted loans to questionable borrowers. Lehman even made its own subprime loans. The firm took all those loans, whipped them into bonds and passed on to investors billions of dollars of what is now toxic debt. For all this wealth destruction, Fuld raked in nearly $500 million in compensation during his tenure as CEO…”

The flavor of the Lehman “culture” that Fuld raved about recently was captured in a lengthy piece in Vanity Fair back in 2010.

“The wives of Executive Committee members,” the magazine noted, “were expected to support the numerous philanthropic causes Lehman endorsed—for example, to make annual donations to the American Red Cross, Harlem Children’s Zone, the American Friends of London Business School, and various hospitals. Kathy Fuld collected modern art, and she particularly liked Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, and Jasper Johns. In 2002 she joined the board of the Museum of Modern Art and by 2007 was a vice-chairman. Not only were the wives of Lehman’s senior management expected to attend MoMA evenings and other charity events (along with their husbands), they “were told exactly how much they had to donate,” says one. (There is now a gallery at MoMA dedicated to Kathy and Richard S. Fuld Jr.)”

How About a Little House in Idaho…

Fuld's Bigwood estate in Sun Valley, Idaho

Fuld’s Bigwood estate in Sun Valley, Idaho

Meanwhile, Lehman’s subprime mortgage play and the firm’s strategy to pass along to investors all that toxic debt were no doubt hatched during the company’s annual summer retreat at Fuld’s opulent, eleven bedroom estate in Sun Valley, Idaho. The compound complete with a pool and gatehouse occupies more than 70 acres and thousands of feet of river frontage.

Back before his fall from the ranks of Wall Street’s elite, Fuld decreed that the annual Lehman’s Sun Valley retreat was a mandatory event for wives as well as the firm’s high rolling executives. One wife told Vanity Fair the event “was this weird combination of business and then competition between wives and their husbands. Hiking was mandatory for all.”

Another Lehman spouse recalled that the trip was “an absolute nightmare to pack for.” Evenings events “required pretty dresses, jewelry, and Manolo Blahnik shoes, while hiking gear was needed for the days, as well as ‘day clothes’ for the mornings spent antiquing—trips for which there was a hierarchy as to who got to ride in which car…The couples got to Sun Valley on the two planes owned by Lehman, together known as ‘Lehman Air.’ Francine “Fran” Kittredge, a managing director, arranged for each person or couple to be met at the airport by a driver with an S.U.V. The waiting line of dark-glassed S.U.V.’s was almost comical to behold, according to one attendee—like a scene from a movie depicting the motorcade waiting for a landing president.”

You might think that one of the 25 people responsible for the most serious financial crisis since Herbert Hoover was in the White House might, just might, suffer some of the adverse consequences of his actions. But in the United States few things succeed like excess, or put another way excess on the part of the crowd that brought us the Great Recession creates cash flow, at least for them. Dick Fuld and his wife reportedly have had to sell off parts of their art collection, which fetched $13.5 million. The couple’s 16-room Park Avenue apartment had to go, as well. It netted nearly $26 million.

A few days after Fuld blamed the “government, reckless borrowers, aggressive investors and poor regulation,” for Lehman’s demise, while of course assuming no blame for himself, his outrageously well-paid minions or the “Lehman culture,” he put that little Sun Valley fixer-upper on the auction block.

The company handling the auction told the Wall Street Journal that Fuld’s compound is expected to fetch $30 to $50 million. He’s reportedly selling because “he isn’t using” the place as often as he used to. We should consider that good news, I think, And don’t feel too sorry for the guy. He’s obviously not wasting any time worrying about what he did and his net worth is still in the neighborhood of $200 million.

A Malefactor of Great Wealth…

In a 2013 piece in Bloomberg Business Joshua Green wrote, “Although many of his peers also made disastrous decisions, no one on Wall Street has paid a steeper price in reputation and personal fortune. This owes partly to Fuld’s hubris, brutish manner, and aggressiveness…” Fuld figures in several dozen lawsuits relating to the Lehman downfall that are still pending and there are reports that the one-time Wall Street “gorilla” is still under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which if there is any justice means his next “house” might be easier to get into than out of.

Fuld has also become the subject of academic research mostly focused on how powerful CEO’s go off the rails. One study was entitled “When Does Narcissistic Leadership Become Problematic? Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers.” The author of that study, British academic Mark Stein, told Bloomberg Business that initially Fuld’s military demeanor and demanding ways were an asset to Lehman, but that his own ego and personality soon become more important than running the business carefully.

“When the credit crisis struck…Fuld’s narcissism became ruinous. ‘It was clear that Lehman was overleveraged,’ Stein says. ‘Many people inside and outside the firm understood that it had to be sold to survive.’ But Fuld’s identity was wrapped up in Lehman, and he wouldn’t countenance the affront to his dignity that a sale would have represented. ‘As long as I am alive, this firm will never be sold,’ he said in late 2007, the Wall Street Journal reported. ‘And if it is sold after I die, I will reach back from the grave and prevent it.’

More than a hundred years ago Theodore Roosevelt had a term for the crowd that thanks to their egos, greed and shamelessness came close to taking the American economy over the cliff. We still live with their avarice and recklessness, even as some attempt to re-write their role in the story. T.R. called them “malefactors of great wealth.”

Those malefactors are still around. Don’t forget it.

Send in the Clown…

Don’t you love farce? My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want, sorry, my dear
But where are the clowns, send in the clowns
Don’t bother, they’re here.  

               – Stephen Sondheim – Send in the Clowns

Send in the Clowns

Send in the Clowns

Has there ever been a bigger clown running for president than Donald Trump? Good question. I’ve been thinking about that and conclude…well maybe, but probably not.

Oh, there have always been vanity candidates running for president, silly candidates who join the contest because of ego, hunger for attention, self-promotion or just because they had little better to do. Herman Cain, the pizza king, was such a candidate in the 2012 Republican primary. Like all clown candidates, Cain’s ego and silliness, not to mention sexual harassment allegations eventually did him in even after he (briefly) leaped to the head of the GOP pack.

Harold Stassen

Harold Stassen

Harold Stassen, once a serious national political figure – he was elected governor of Minnesota at age 31 – became a punch line by becoming a perennial Republican candidate for president. Stassen ran, best as I can tell, nine different times. He never came close – his less than perfect toupee (another hair fixated candidate?) may have hindered his chances – and he is now mostly forgotten or remembered only as a laugh line. When Stassen died in 2001 one of his obituaries referred to him as “the Grand Old Party’s grand old loser.”

Ron Paul ran for president three times, but unlike a Trump or a Cain – Trumpacain? – Paul had actually been elected to something if you call a House seat from Texas something.

Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, out of office for 25 years, ran in the Democratic primaries in 2008 and generated a surge of interest before voters discovered the true size of his ego and the true shape of his frequently nutty positions. In one YouTube video during that campaign Gravel, looking like a genuinely perplexed 78-year old, was standing next to a small river or canal. He looked directly into the camera for more than a minute without saying a word then turned, picked up a large rock and tossed it into the water and then walked away from the camera for nearly two minutes more. The ripples from the rock meanwhile moved across the water. Deep. A serious statement or just nuts. You decide. Gravel then, sort of, left politics to get involved in the marijuana business, a move that many who know him did not found surprising.

Neither party has a lock on clown candidates, but lately it seems the Republicans – Michele Bachmann and Alan Keyes come to mind – have had more than their share. But, wait, for every Michele and Alan there is a Dennis (The Menace) Kucinich, the former Democratic Congressman and mayor of Cleveland. Kucinich’s most recent Facebook posting says he spoke at a “global burning man conference” in April. Sounds about right.

Ross Perot with one of his famous charts

Ross Perot with one of his famous charts

Ralph Nader, a bane to the Democrats as Trump will prove to be to the Republicans, ran several times most famously (infamously) in 2000 when he may have cost Al Gore the electoral votes of Florida and therefore the presidency. Nader ran as a candidate of the Green Party, a legitimate if marginal influence on American politics. Other more-or-less serious people have mounted recent third party efforts – John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in in 1992 and 1996 developed significant followings. Norman Thomas perennially ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket never coming close, but often helping enhance the political dialogue.

Enhancing the political dialogue is a good deal different than what Trump is doing as he campaigns in Republican primaries. I still think he drops out before he really has to revel more details about the web of financial deals and debt that undoubtedly define his business empire, but in the meantime Trump stirs things up and not in a helpful way for the more sane and sober Republican candidates.

Trump, to believe the polls, is the flavor of the week for Republicans. The Washington Post says he’s surging on the strength of his name ID and “message.” Meanwhile, NBC, Univision and Macy’s have dumped their associations with the blow-dried blow hard given his incendiary and racist rants against Mexicans. Some message. The Trump brand has suddenly become “you’re fired.”

Trump brand mattress. Get 'em while they last

Trump brand mattress. Get ’em while they last

Oh, yes, if you’re in the market for a deluxe Trump-branded Serta Perfect Sleeper better rush out right now to the mattress store. Serta is also changing the sheets, or turning the mattress, on The Donald. The Gawker website has a list of all the people and institutions cutting the clown lose. The list seems sure to grow.

One thing about a vanity candidate that amazes is that so few serious candidates point out the absurdity of people like Trump. Few of the “serious” GOP candidates have repudiated Trump’s bombast – do Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki really count –  or pointed out the obvious – he’s a joke. Only Barack Obama has really nailed Trump.

During the very inside-the-Beltway White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2011 and, while Trump was keeping himself in the news by repeatedly raising spurious and silly questions about Obama’s birth certificate, the president took him on, pointing out that the state of Hawaii had recently released his official birth certificate.

According to the official transcript of his remarks Obama said: “Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald.  (Laughter.)  And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter –- like, did we fake the moon landing?  (Laughter.)  What really happened in Roswell?  (Laughter.)  And where are Biggie and Tupac?  (Laughter and applause.)”

The best medicine for a clown, after all, is laughter.

Trump is part of the long tradition of silly people with big egos and bigger heads running for president. Trump would be a disaster in public office and I suspect the vast, vast majority of Americans know it. Trump is merely famous for being outrageous, which has allowed him to extend his 15 minutes of fame way beyond his “expire by” date. The good news, at least for cable TV, is that Trump gives the 24-hour news cycle something to fulminate over as we ease into the dog days of summer. Fox or CNN can easily fill up an empty hour with clips of Trump being a chump followed by allegedly serious people reacting seriously.

If silly, pseudo-news featuring a clown is good for ratings and even (somewhat) amusing in its absurdity there is also a downside. The bad news is that Trump’s silliness further drags down the already abysmally low level of political discourse in the country. This clown will never be president, but unfortunately like a Bachmann and Kucinich before him the Donald cheapens the process for someone who will become president.

 

Defining Moments…

Truly defining moments are rare in our politics. They come around perhaps once a decade or so, but when they do occur they often signal a massive change in public attitudes, even to the point of taking a contentious issue off the political table or redirecting the political trajectory of the country.

A defining moment...

A defining moment…

The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 signaling the beginning of the end of segregated public schools was such a defining moment even as many Americans continued to vigorously resist the direction set by the Court. Even opponents of the decision were hard pressed to deny that a political Rubicon had been crossed. “Separate but equal,” a legal standard in effect for more than half a century, would no longer pass Constitutional muster and the legal and moral authority of the Supreme Court was now behind that position.

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act a decade later would qualify as the same kind of defining moment.

More and more, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 is viewed as a defining moment in American politics. Conservative principles soared with Reagan’s election, Republicans captured the Senate and Reagan and subsequent conservative presidents were able to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Defining Changes in American Politics…

After each defining moment, our politics changed. Support or opposition to the Brown decision or how a politician voted on the Civil Rights Act would now become the measure of where a politician stood on civil rights. Those on the losing side – Barry Goldwater for instance, would forever carry the distinction of opposing civil rights.

ReaganReagan’s election ushered in a long period of reassessment of the size and scope of the federal government and helped shift the allegiance of many conservative white voters from the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt to a Republican Party defined by the Gipper. We still feel the political pull and tug of all these moments.

The deeply engrained features of our political system – checks and balances, separation of powers, federal-state relations and intense partisanship – limit the opportunity for truly defining moments. But last week’s landmark Supreme Court decisions effectively settling two of the most contentious issues in current American life – the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the future of same sex marriage – show that the Court, perhaps more than legislators or presidents, now creates our defining moments.

Crispness of decision and clarity of direction rarely happen in our politics, but when it does occur it presents an equally rare moment when politicians, if they choose, can re-calibrate and re-position. This is such a moment.

The smart GOP presidential candidates will gradually begin to adjust their positions and rhetoric on Obamacare and same sex marriage knowing that, as one GOP consultant said after the same sex marriage ruling, “Our nominee can’t have serrated edges. Like it or not, any effort to create moral or social order will be seen as rigid and judgmental… Grace and winsomeness are the ingredients for success in a world where cultural issues are at the fore.”

Sharpening the serrated edges…

But the shrill anti-gay marriage, cultural warrior rhetoric of a Mike Huckabee or a Ted Cruz may in the near term do more to define the Republican Party for voters, particularly younger voters, than any subtle shifting of position and language coming from a Jeb Bush or a Chris Christie.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Cruz, a former Supreme Court clerk and an Ivy League educated lawyer should know better, but he’s saying in the wake of the same sex marriage decision that the Court’s ruling is not binding on anyone not specifically involved in the case before the Court. It’s a ridiculous and incorrect argument made, one assumes, simply to seek favor with those most opposed to the landmark decision. The same can be said for the phony argument that legalizing same sex marriage constitutes an assault on religious freedom. It won’t fly because it isn’t true.

Cruz’s approach is simply sharpening those “serrated edges” that can only cut the next GOP candidate. Cruz, Huckabee and a few of the other GOP pretenders obviously are unwilling or incapable of moving on from a defining moment, which just postpones the moment when the Republican Party begins to appeal beyond its Tea Party base.

The Texas senator notwithstanding, one or more of the other candidates can re-define themselves – if they choose – by deciding to appeal to the majority of Americans who support what the Supreme Court said about marriage and health care rather than continuing to cater to those Republican primary voters who want to continue the fight over issues that have now been settled. The one who does opt to re-define will be taking a calculated political risk, but it will be the kind of risk that may serve to separate the risk taker from a crowded field that increasingly will be seen by many voters as living in the past, or worse living in an alternative universe.

You can bet that the more skillful candidates in the GOP field – Bush, Christie and soon Ohio Governor John Kasich among them – are trying out this strategy and its talking points in front of a mirror somewhere. If they are not testing the talking points they’re preparing to lose another election next year.

Idaho, a state whose politics I know best, is also at such a crossroads. The overwhelmingly Republican legislature and the very conservative governor have vehemently opposed same sex marriage (and spent thousand of dollars to defend what we now know was an indefensible position) and have also refused to amend the state’s human rights statute to provide basic anti-discrimination protection to gay, lesbian and transgender citizens. Now that the United States Supreme Court has settled the same sex marriage issue, in effect nullifying Idaho’s Constitutional prohibition, the issues are clearer than ever.

All that is left is bigotry…

Richard Posner, a conservative U.S. Court of Appeals judge appointed by Reagan whose also teaches at the University of Chicago law school, has written one of the most insightful critiques of the various dissents in the recent same sex marriage case. Stripping away all the political smoke about protecting religious freedom, Posner writes, reveals that the only grounds for opposing same sex marriage, and I would add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community, is simply “bigotry.” Posner, pulling no punches and refreshingly so for a judge, also called Chief Justice John Roberts’ same sex marriage dissent “heartless.”

Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams

Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams

“I say that gratuitous interference in other people’s lives is bigotry,” Judge Posner wrote in Slate. “The fact that it is often religiously motivated does not make it less so. The United States is not a theocracy, and religious disapproval of harmless practices is not a proper basis for prohibiting such practices, especially if the practices are highly valued by their practitioners. Gay couples and the children (mostly straight) that they adopt (or that one of them may have given birth to and the other adopts) derive substantial benefits, both economic and psychological, from marriage. Efforts to deny them those benefits by forbidding same-sex marriage confer no offsetting social benefits—in fact no offsetting benefits at all beyond gratifying feelings of hostility toward gays and lesbians, feelings that feed such assertions as that heterosexual marriage is ‘degraded’ by allowing same-sex couples to “annex” the word marriage to their cohabitation.”

What possible reason can there be for Idaho legislators or those in a number of other states to continue to resist basic human and civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender citizens of their states? The only grounds, as Judge Posner says, is nasty and enduring bigotry – not a winning political position.

The value for a politician in seizing the opportunities presented by a defining political moment can be clearly seen in the actions of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley regarding the future of the Confederate flag.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other  lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Washington Post profile of Haley proclaims that the governor made the move from “Tea Party star to a leader of the New South” when in the wake of the horrific murders of nine black Americans in a Charleston church she called for removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.

The Post may overstate Haley’s transformation just a bit, but when the governor is quoted as saying, “This flag didn’t cause those nine murders, but the murderer used this flag with him as hate to do it…And this isn’t an issue of mental illness, this is an issue of hate,” she is certainly leading public opinion – transforming herself and the flag issue – at a moment of stark clarity about what should happen with the central symbol of white supremacy and bigotry.

The difficult things to do…

The most difficult thing to do in politics is to say “no” to your friends. The second most difficult thing is to take a risk stepping away from a divisive issue that has moved on. As a candidate you can chose to point a new direction or you can stir the disaffected by continuing to turn over the nasty residue of anger and defeat.

All the evidence is in: Americans increasingly feel comfortable with same sex marriage, young people overwhelmingly so, and many Republicans – three hundred prominent Republicans appealed to the Court to legalize gay marriage – are saying that it’s just time to acknowledge that reality. Republicans have spent much of the last six years doing everything possible to dismantle or destroy Obamacare without proposing any real alternative, while the polls tell us more and more Americans support the law. Now the question becomes whether one of the GOP candidates can lead the party out of its dismal swamp by risking a break with its most reactionary members or whether for one more election Republicans will keep looking back, while the times, the politics and the country move on.

Imagine one of the Republican candidates simply saying something like this on the marriage issue: “You know I understand the feelings of many of my friends on this issue, but I have also heard and understood what the highest court in the land and most of my young friends have to say. They’re saying that a same sex couple’s marriage just isn’t a threat to me and my marriage nor is at any kind of threat to you and your marriage. The couple living next-door – gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Mormon, atheist – in no way prevents me from embracing my religious beliefs. To say that it does is playing on fear and intolerance that is not my idea of America. The American ideal is inclusion, acceptance and respect, not bigotry. Those are the values that I embrace and I hope all Americans do, as well.”

I’m not holding my breath expecting to hear such a speech, but I am hoping. A basic rule of politics after all, and this applies particularly to the Republican presidential field, is to quit digging when you find yourself in a hole.

Love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace…

David Brooks, a thinking person’s conservative, offered a variation on this “seize the moment” idea when he suggested in his New York Times column that it was time for social conservatives to recalibrate their strategy after the Supreme Court decisions.

‘I don’t expect social conservatives to change their positions on sex,” Brooks writes, “and of course fights about the definition of marriage are meant as efforts to reweave society. But the sexual revolution will not be undone anytime soon. The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.”

That is an important and principled thought. A serious and conservative political leader could do a lot of good for the country by embracing it.

 

History…

A great day for America with expansion of rights for same sex couples or a bleak day where the tyranny of five activist judges trump the political process creating a threat to democracy?

NBC photo

NBC photo

Take your pick: The profound political divides in the United States are to be found in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion granting Constitutional protection to those of the same sex who seek to marry and in the four dissenting opinions that blast that finding.

It’s dangerous to predict the historic importance of a single Supreme Court decision, but I’ll fearlessly hazard a guess that the decision on Obergefell v. Hodgesremember those names – will be remembered fifty or a hundred years from now along side Brown v. Board of Education, the historic decision that ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional.

One major difference in the two decisions separated by sixty-one years is that Brown was decided by a unanimous Court, while Obergefell was decided by a Court profoundly divided. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s judicial leadership helped create that earlier landmark civil rights decision in 1954. Chief Justice John Robert by contrast wrote the dissent in a decision decided 5-4.

The opinion and dissents will be picked over and analyzed for years, but at first blush I am struck by two things: the Court majority’s embrace of marriage as a fundamental right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (in the same way the Warren Court applied the Constitution to public schools) and the minority’s fierce condemnation of the Court’s overreaching by taking a divisive social and, to some, religious issue out of the hands of elected politicians.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy – the real Chief Justice at least on this issue – wrote in the Court’s decision: “The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter. An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act. The idea of the Constitution [here Kennedy quotes from an earlier Court decision] “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.”

Kennedy was truly eloquent elsewhere in his opinion in describing the institution of marriage, but the paragraph above is the heart of his argument – certain rights in our democracy and under our Constitution simply cannot be left to the “vicissitudes” of politics. Rights are rights, Kennedy says, the Constitution guarantees those rights no matter what a legislature in Idaho or an appeals court in Texas might say.

Roberts in his dissent seemed almost unable to restrain his contempt for Kennedy’s reasoning about fundamental rights. “Understand well what this dissent is about,” Roberts wrote. “It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.”

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts

Roberts and the Court’s other dissenters argued for leaving the decision to those Idaho legislators even at the risk of creating a vast and confusing landscape of law related to one of society’s most fundamental institutions.

[You might be excused for remembering that Roberts had no reservations about having “five lawyers” overrule the overwhelming majority of the United States Congress when the Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Emerson’s famous line comes to mind: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines…Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”]

Roberts may have accomplished one thing with his passionate dissent – his opinion upholding Obamacare is suddenly off the front page. The staunch conservatives who criticized him yesterday for siding with the president on health care can now view Roberts as rehabilitated with his dissent on same sex marriage.

Justice Antonin Scalia, of course, went even farther in his dissent. “When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868,” Scalia wrote in his dissent, “every State limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so. That resolves these cases.” In other words, in Scalia’s judicial view, nothing at all has changed since Andrew Johnson sat in the White House.

And there is more that I quote at some length because, well, because Justice Scalia is a man of words and often pungent, even nasty words.

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia

“The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic”, Scalia wrote. “It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; [as many of his dissents have been accused of containing] it is something else for the official opinion of the Court to do so. Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent. ‘The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.’ (Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

Whew.

Remember that it was just over a decade ago that Karl Rove engineering George W. Bush’s two elections, at least in part, by embracing a strategy of placing polarizing anti-same sex marriage issues on many state ballots and endorsing a Constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage. Since then opinion has moved so quickly on the issue that it was perhaps inevitable that the Court would follow that opinion and codify what a solid majority of Americans now embrace. Still that political evolution makes Justice Kennedy’s decision no less historic. As President Obama correctly noted after years of incremental change; change that most of the time seems so very slow to so very many, justice can come like “a thunderbolt.”

Another fearless prediction: When the history books record the importance of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the words “landmark” and “historic” will be attached. The decision will be remembered for expanding rights for a significant and deprived group of American citizens under their Constitution. Scalia’s dissent will be remembered, if at all, as an artifact of a different country and a different time and, of course, for its outrageous bombast.

Ask the nearest hippie.