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Neither a Ford Nor a Trump…

There is a very simple explanation for why people who have displayed some success in business rarely make it to the big time in politics. The skill sets for the two callings don’t match very well.

Not the C-Suite

Not the C-Suite

Many Republicans like to talk about how they will take real world business experience and apply it to government, but they rarely get the chance because running a campaign and governing require dramatically different talents than running a meeting of the board of directors and hitting quarterly financial targets.

Politics at some level is about opening up and acting like, if not actually being, a real person. Orders issued from the business C-suite about sales targets and monthly financials give way to nuance and persuasion of the public arena. Politics often involves ambiguous and even contradictory objectives. Business rarely involves either. A candidate is in the fish bowl with issues like character and personality constantly under review. A CEO answers quietly to a board and if the CEO desires he or she can avoid the press and the public at will. The mindset and the skillset for the two occupations are very different as President Mitt Romney can tell you.

Still the myth of the business leader turned president persists.

Henry Ford Industrialist, But Not Politician

Henry Ford Industrialist, But Not Politician

Briefly in 1924, a period of rapid economic expansion, the most famous business leader in the country seemed poised to capture the White House. Henry Ford, it was widely believed, could do for the federal government what he had done for Detroit. Calvin Coolidge, an accidental president, was in the White House due to the death of Warren Harding. The colorless Coolidge seemed little match for the man from Dearborn who had not exactly invented the assembly line but had been wildly successful in adapting it to modern manufacturing. The Model T Ford had helped revolutionize transportation and was affordable enough that owning a car was within nearly everyone’s reach.

Even the great humorist Will Rogers “nominated” Ford for president saying there was no reason not to put a Ford in the White House since they were everywhere else in the country.

The Ford for President boomlet blossomed quickly and collapsed just as fast when the automobile magnate proved to have no affinity for the “soft” talents of meeting real people and explaining where he stood on the issues. Like many people who are successful in business and get to the top either by their own ambition or by being chosen, Ford couldn’t imagine actually trying to convince people to vote for him. He never did really run, wanting to be appointed instead of elected.

Despite the obvious advantage of great name recognition Ford also had as historian Joseph Kip Kosek has written, serious liabilities. Like an earlier version of Donald Trump, Ford had a “weakness for conspiracy theories,” Kosek notes. “Before The Donald’s perplexing sympathy for the birthers was Ford’s perplexing suspicion of the Jews.  In his magazine, the auto magnate disseminated a variety of anti-Semitic writings, including the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Indeed, Ford was the only American praised by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf.  Being an anti-Semite did not necessarily disqualify one from high office during this period of resurgent nativism, but Ford’s enthusiasm along these lines would undoubtedly have been an embarrassment.”

Think of the truly great American presidents – Washington, a farmer and military leader; Lincoln, a lawyer; and Franklin Roosevelt, another lawyer with substantial family wealth – and you find almost no real “business” experience.

Truman and his business partner in Kansas City clothing store

Truman and his business partner Eddie Jacobson in their Kansas City clothing store

The same can be said for other “great” or “near great” presidents – Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, James Madison and Andrew Jackson. Harry Truman failed as a haberdasher. Ronald Reagan’s business experience consisted of serving as a paid spokesman for General Electric. John Kennedy, a critic might say, never worked a real day in his life.

In presidential elections since the Civil War only one major party candidate – Republican Wendell Willkie in 1940 – was nominated without prior political experience and on the basis of his business resume. Willkie lost.

Two modern presidents with business experience, Herbert Hoover, the mining engineer and George W. Bush, owner of a baseball team are ranked by many historians as among the worst American presidents. Both men had prior political experience as did Romney –  a business guy with a degree from the Harvard Business School who struggled mightily to connect with real people.

By contrast, as the New York Times’ Tim Egan pointed out back in 2012, “The biggest job creator of modern times, Bill Clinton, wouldn’t know a spreadsheet from a cooked derivative. His business experience was nil, but he had governing smarts, and his instincts were usually right. Under Clinton’s watch, the United States added 23 million new jobs — this after he raised “job-killing” taxes on the rich.”

Just about says it all...

Just about says it all…

Which brings us to Trump and a couple of predictions. Trump is clearly a clown, but also a brilliantly cynical self-promoter. He is the combed over personification of the old line that any PR is good PR as long as they spell your name right. The New York Daily News covered both bases with its front page on Trump’s bizarre announcement of candidacy, which the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said, “had the feel of a lonely bar patron’s monologue to the captive saloon keeper.”

Here’s the first prediction: Trump will suck a good deal of the media air out of the Republican pre-primary primary over the next few weeks. His crazy antics will generate laughs, puzzlement and lots of Facebook traffic. The comic relief will be briefly enjoyable, but won’t do the GOP prospects any good in the long run particularly if he shows up at one of the early debates. Trump may just reinforce the notion that the modern Republican Party isn’t the party of Reagan or Eisenhower, but rather the party of out-of-touch vanity candidates – think Herman Cain – who play to the worst and narrowest instincts of the Tea Party crowd.

IMG_2659Ultimately, The Donald will not really run. He’ll stay in the race long enough to stroke his enormous ego and pump the ratings of a future television show. A key requirement for a real presidential candidate is that they file a personal financial disclosure statement, something Trump will never do. He can wave around a sheet of paper claiming his net worth to be something close to $9 billion, which is highly doubtful, but Trump will never open up his secretive and shaky financial house of cards to real scrutiny. That would be the kind of attention Trump would avoid like a stiff breeze (that would muss his locks).

Americans rarely, in fact almost never, elect a person with genuine business experience to the highest public office. We like to think we have a personal connections with our presidents and usually select them based on their judgment, likability and life experiences. A little class doesn’t hurt either.

Using that rating system Crazy Donald Trump will be just the latest to prove the truism that perceived success in business is not a winning ticket to the White House; a reality TV show perhaps, but not the Oval Office.

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.

 

Inevitable

ThomasDeweyYou recognize, of course, the famous President Thomas E. Dewey.

It was 1948 when the then-Governor of New York, the handsome and fearless former prosecutor – Tom Dewey – defeated the hapless Harry Truman. Truman was so unpopular in ’48 that it was inevitable – inevitable – that Tom Dewey would beat him. It was a lead-pipe cinch. Really.

Truman, an accidental president, stumbled into the Oval Office in 1945 after the death of the beloved Franklin D. Roosevelt. By his own admission, Truman was ill-prepared for the awesome responsibilities of the White House. Truman only became vice president because a dying Roosevelt turned over the selection process to the Democratic bosses and they settled on poor ol’ Harry because, well, because he seemed like a safe, if not very inspired choice. President Dewey won re-election in 1952, as we all know.

If you are scrambling to find your pocket list of American Presidents you can stop looking. The Dewey presidency never happened. President Dewey proves my political lesson of the day: The only thing inevitable in politics is Election Day.

Just ask President Dewey.

Or you could ask the one-time Vice President Richard Nixon. His political career came to an ignominious end in 1962 when, having lost the presidency to John Kennedy in 1960, Nixon then lost the governorship of California. Barring a political miracle, Time magazine reported, Nixon’s political career was over. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” ol’ Dick Nixon told reporters in 1962 and that was the last we heard of him.

A second George H.W. Bush term seemed like a no-brainer in 1992. Bush had put together an international coalition that threw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and his approval ratings where in the stratosphere. You can look it up.

The list goes on: Idaho State Senator Jim Risch was washed up after losing both a re-election in 1988 and a GOP primary in 1994. Since the end of his political career he’s served as lieutenant governor, governor and currently as a U.S. Senator. The aforementioned Franklin Roosevelt was the vice presidential candidate on the losing Democratic ticket in 1920. Then he contracted polio and age 39. Everyone said his political career was done for. A man in a wheel chair could never be elected president. Abraham Lincoln was a one-term Congressman in the 1840’s, then lost a U.S. Senate race in 1858. After that the prairie lawyer who lacked a national profile was a goner politically speaking.

In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a commanding lead over every possible Republican contender for the White House in 2016. If the election were held today Hillary would trounce Jeb Bush 53-41. The inevitability of her securing the Democratic nomination is so obvious former adversaries in the Barack Obama camp and guys like Sen. Tim Kaine are endorsing her. No one wants to be the last person in on a deal that is inevitable. To read the well-informed opinions of, as Calvin Trillin has dubbed them, the Beltway Gasbags you would conclude that we might as well call of the election right now. Hillary has it in the bag.

Trouble is the election won’t be held today, but rather more than two and half years from now. If it is true that nothing is inevitable in politics other than Election Day, then it is also true that two weeks in politics can be a life-time. Two years is a life-time of life-times in politics.

Hillary Clinton may well be the next president of the United States. She may decide to run, win her party’s nomination in a walk and waltz through a general election campaign defeating Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and fifteen other opponents. Or maybe not.

The single biggest threat to Clinton’s “inevitability” is the idea that she is inevitable.

Thomas E. Dewey ran the kind of campaign in 1948 that politicians tend to run when they think it’s in the bag. Dewey defeats Truman the Chicago Tribune headline said. President Dewey, you remember him, learned the hard way that it’s never – ever – in the bag in politics.

 

Action This Day

The (Almost) Case for Unilateral Action

In September 1940, just in front of the election that would make Franklin Roosevelt the first and only third-term president, FDR engineered an audacious deal with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

In exchange for gifting 50 aging, World War I vintage U.S. destroyers to the besieged British, Churchill granted the American president 99 year leases on a number of military bases in the Western Hemisphere. The destroyers for bases deal was loudly condemned by FDR’s critics who called it a raw presidential power play. As critics correctly pointed out, Roosevelt acted on his own motion, going behind the back of Congress to cut his deal with Churchill. History has for the most part vindicated FDR’s power play and many historians think the U.S. actually got the better of the deal.

The 1940 action by Roosevelt may be one of the greatest examples of a president acting unilaterally, but our history is replete with similar examples of presidential action on a unilateral basis. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s gutsy unilateral moves as he was nearing the end of his term created millions of acres of forest preserves – today’s National Forests – and protected the Grand Canyon. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an act of presidential leadership that is almost universally praised today, but at the time the Great Emancipator cut Congress out of the loop and acted alone.

Now come criticism of Barack Obama’s unilateral action to order the end of deportations for certain young people who might otherwise be sent packing for being in the country illegally even as they have gone on to get an education, or work in order to become contributing members of our society. Critics charge the president acted for the most transparent political reasons or that he acted unconstitutionally or that he has now made legislative action on immigration more difficult. That last charge seems a particularly hard sell given the inability of Congress to act at all regarding immigration, but the real beef with Obama is that he acted alone.

Jimmy Carter used presidential action to protect the environmental crown jewels of Alaska, an action that ultimately forced Congress to get off the dime on that issue. Harry Truman informed Congress, but did not seek its approval regarding his 1948 decision to desegregate the U.S. military.

Of course all presidents overreach, but most do so by acting unilaterally in the foreign policy field, and that a place were unilateral action is often decidedly more problematic, at least in my view. It may turn out that Obama’s immigration action will be successfully challenged in a court of law or the court of public opinion, but don’t bet on it. I’m struck by how often in our history when a president has taken a big, bold step on an issue were Congress can’t or won’t act that the bold step has been vindicated by history.

The American people have always tended to reward action over inaction. Ronald Reagan’s unilateral decision to fire striking air traffic controllers near the beginning of his presidency in 1981 is a good example. Now celebrated, by conservatives at least, as a sterling example of a president acting decisively in the public interest, the decision was enormously contentious at the time it was made. Now its mostly seen as an effective use of unilateral action by a strong president.

The early polling seems to show that Obama’s recent “dream act-like” action on immigration is widely accepted by the American public. The lesson for the current occupant of the Oval Office, a politician who has displayed little skill in getting Congress to act on many issues, might be that a little unilateral action on important issues is not only good politics, but good government.

George W. Bush got this much right about the power of the presidency: the Chief Executive can be, when he wants to be, the decider on many things. The great Churchill frequently demanded “action this day” in his memos to subordinates. The great wartime leader knew that power not used isn’t worth much; but action properly applied is indeed real power.

 

 

Mitt’s Real Problem

It’s Not Etch-a-Sketch, But Something More Serious

Typically in politics the most painful wounds are self-inflicted. Candidates shoot themselves in the foot and hobble around for days trying to change the subject, while the political media, the opposition and YouTube repeat the gaffe over and over again.

Rick Santorum had his shoot the foot moment with ill-considered remarks on college and contraception. Newt Gingrich went into the high weeds with his colony on the moon moment. Barack Obama had his “cling to God and guns” diversion in 2008. GOP front runner – and I say again, almost certain nominee – Mitt Romney’s gaffes have been so numerous it can be difficult to keep them straight. He likes to fire people, the wife has two (2) Cadillacs, he isn’t a NASCAR fan, but knows rich guys who own racing teams, etc.

Romney has a strange – and I’m sure to him mind boggling – ability to step on his own good news. He won the Florida primary and then had the CEO moment that resulted in the “firing people” language. He buried Santorum in Illinois, got the coveted endorsement of Jeb Bush and then one of his top people suggested that for the coming general election campaign Romney would just hit the reset button, shake the Etch-a-Sketch and present himself as a more acceptable candidate to moderates and independents. Ouch.

All of this is embarrassing and does reinforce the by now well established notion that Romney is a shape shifting, out of touch Richie Rich.

But here’s a novel theory for the real problem Romney faces as he finally wraps the GOP nomination with a ribbon and it’s not Etch-a-Sketch. Romney lacks a compelling rationale for his candidacy against an incumbent president. Let me explain.

Back last summer when Romney announced his candidacy it looked to the world – at least the political world – that not being Barack Obama and having a business heavy resume would be more than adequate against an unpopular president burdened by a high unemployment rate. Now, nearing the end of a bruising primary campaign it has become much more obvious that Romney’s calculation last July is faulty. Romney needs a program, a plan for the country, neither of which he has provided in any detail so far. What Romney has offered – a resume and a I’m not the other guy message – is not enough to excite either the GOP base or appeal to the Etch-a-Sketch-prone moderates.

Some might consider it an old school notion, but a candidate for president or the school board simply needs more than a resume. A friend of mine put it well, when the Obama troops really start unraveling Romney’s resume this fall he’ll find he has no rationale for his candidacy.

You can almost hear Romney’s campaign brain trust arguing to the candidate that he needs to present himself as the anti-Obama, the experienced business guy facing off against the community organizer turned law professor. In fact, Romney used that approach in his most recent election night speech. But the trouble is that its all resume and no policy.

Romney does have stump speech talking points about cutting government and taxes and repealing the health insurance reform, but his speeches sound more like cable news talking points than a program. The presumptive GOP nominee is playing the political equivalent of former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith’s four corner offense. He’s trying to run out the clock by doing nothing flashy, risky or interesting. Romney is holding the ball when he should be launching a few from beyond the three-point line.

Whether he knows it or not, Mitt Romney, and the people giving him bad advice, have adopted the same basic strategy that the Republican candidate in 1948 adopted against Harry Truman. In that election, a northeastern (dare I say it – moderate) governor ran on his resume. Thomas E. Dewey, a rather stiff, formal, but very intelligent man, calculated that he would take no risk, propose no real policy or program and beat Truman by just not being Truman.

That strategy helps explain why you’ve never studied about or read a book on first term of that great Republican President Thomas E. Dewey.

As the candidate weathers the Etch-a-Sketch moment, there is a little good news for the U.S. economy. Etch-a-Sketch sales have soared. Amazon lists the red plastic game as its biggest “mover and shaker” selling for $13.44. Romney ought to visit the Etch-a-Sketch plant in Ohio, a swing state, and announce a new initiative to return American toy manufacturing to world prominence. Really. This guy needs some policy to go with his resume.