Archive for the ‘U.S. Senate’ Category

Texas Two-Step

ted_cruz2The junior senator from Texas would not appreciate the comparison, but freshman fire-brand Ted Cruz has risen higher and faster in the United States Senate than even the legendary Texan Lyndon Johnson. It took LBJ only two years in the Senate to win election as minority leader and then two years later he was the top Democrat in the country, standing astride the Senate as majority leader, cutting deals with Ike. Cruz is on a faster trajectory.

In the considered opinion of Tony Perkins, one of the leaders of the social conservative wing of the GOP, Sen. Cruz  “has become a de facto leader of the Republican Party. He is what people are looking for. Somebody who will stand up and say, ‘This is what I stand for, this is what I believe.’”

Texas native Bob Schieffer appeared astounded last Sunday about the rapid rise of Cruz and he asked Sen. John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas who Cruz has declined to endorse for re-election, about just how it is that the young man in a hurry has become the party’s chief strategist and spokesman.

“Let me just ask you this,” Schieffer said on Face the Nation. “You’ve been around for a while.  How is it that you wind up with a freshman senator, who’s been in office less than a year, becomes the architect of this thing that has the two sides so gridlocked that nobody seems to know a way out of it?  How did that happen?”

Choosing his words carefully and looking a little taken aback, the number two Republican in the Senate covered for his non-collegial colleague from Texas, “I think what Ted and so many others are addressing is the fear in this country that we are careening down a path that unless we stop and correct it, in terms of spending, in terms of government over reach, that our country will become something we don’t even recognize,” Cornyn said.

The operative word in Cornyn’s sentence is “fear” and in the long history of the United States Senate only two men in modern times rose as far and as fast as Ted Cruz has in 2013. Huey Long did it in the early 1930′s and Joe McCarthy did it in the early 1950′s. And make no mistake, Ted Cruz is of a piece with those great Senate demagogues of the past. His tactics and use of fear come right out of the same old playbook.

Writing in the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen made explicit the Cruz-McCarthy axis. Part of McCarthy’s eventual downfall was that he never made the early-50′s transition from print to television, but Cruz is a master of the soundbite media. It is telling that the images on Cruz’s official Senate website are nearly all from one of his countless appearances on cable talk shows or C-Span.

“Cruz has both a comely appearance and a mastery of his message,” Cohen wrote, “A viewing of [Cruz on Meet the Press recently], as well as a close reading of the transcript, reveals a man who speaks in whole sentences, actual paragraphs and who feels no obligation, moral or otherwise, to actually answer a question. The English language exited his mouth ready for publication. Cruz does not clear his throat. He does not repeat the question while he riffles through memorized talking points. At every turn, he made Harry Reid the heavy — if only the Democratic Senate leader could be reasonable! — while he, Cruz, and his allies were the very soul of moderation.”

Joe McCarthy’s bogie-man was, of course, nameless, faceless communists in the United States government. Ted Cruz’s villain also has an ominous name – Obamacare. “Just like the Communist menace of the past, the Affordable Care Act cannot be seen nor, given the Obama administration’s inept selling effort, even understood,” Cohen wrote. “Until just now, it didn’t even exist, although in Cruz’s telling it has already forced good people from their jobs and soon, no doubt, from their very homes as well.”

And just like Tail Gunner Joe waving about his made up lists of communists in the State Department, Ted Cruz confidently alleges, without the slightest evidence of course, that “Obamacare is the biggest job-killer in the country.”

Just like Huey Long, the silver-tongued demagogue from Winn Parish, Louisiana, the glib honors grad from Princeton has become by many accounts the most hated man in the Senate, a charge Cruz flicks away with a smile. “Look, what the Democrats are trying to do is make this a battle of personalities,” Cruz told Megan Kelly on Fox, “they have engaged in relentless, nasty personal attacks…I don’t intend to defend myself. I don’t intend to reciprocate.

A nasty personal attack is obviously only a nasty personal attack when it is aimed at the junior senator. When Cruz suggested very McCarthy-like, and with absolutely no evidence, that fellow Republican Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, former Senator and now Secretary of Defense, was hiding foreign sources of income during his confirmation hearings, the Texas senator was, in his view, merely engaging in honest, high-minded inquiry.

“We do not know, for example, if [Hagel] received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups,” Cruz said just before the Armed Service Committee voted on confirmation. “It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.” This time-tested political tactic – make your opponent deny an outrageous charge – is, in the hands of a glib communicator, the slick and oily stuff that made Long and McCarthy household names.

Like Cruz, Huey assailed the leadership of his own party, demanding in 1932 that Democrats needed more “radical” leadership. “Waltzing up and down the aisle, mopping his brow with a pink handkerchief, Long dramatically resigned from all Senate committees,” historian Cecil Weller has written, so as not to be obligated to his party’s Senate leadership. “We cannot sit here and tell the people that they can swap the devil for a witch,” Long said in condemning what he considered the timid leadership of his own party.

Some Republicans have started to push back against Cruz, but with the exception of Sen. John McCain few are doing so in public and the reason is that one word – fear. McCain has called Cruz a “wacko bird” and has condemned the defund Obamacare strategy as “not rational” and a “fool’s errand.” But Cruz’s defenders, like Brent Bozell, founder and president of the Media Research Center, ride immediately to his defense just as McCarthy’s acolytes once did.

Bozell blasted McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee for president, for being among the “whiners” and “faux conservatives” who have criticized Cruz for leading the fight that triggered the government shutdown. Meanwhile, the junior senator stands nearby soaking up the cheers and offering his telegenic smile.

Most Republicans were tragically slow to condemn McCarthy and his tactics in the 50′s and most Democrats flinched at confronting Long in the 30′s. Like Cruz, each of the earlier demagogues commanded a national following and were willing to threaten and browbeat any opponent. The fear factor worked, at least for a while. Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings, a conservative Democrat, was among the first to label McCarthy “a fraud and a hoax.” McCarthy quickly got even using a completely fabricated photo of Tydings allegedly talking with an American communist leader to help defeat the long-time senator. By the same token, Long’s grip on the south was so solid after 1932 that few people in positions of real power were willing to risk his wrath by calling him out.

Ted Cruz’s rise to the top of the Republican Party has been just as fast – he has after all used many of the same successful tactics – as Long and McCarthy, but the boy wonder from Texas may find that his trip down from the mountain top occurs just as fast. Once the Senate, and particularly those in their own parties, got a belly full of the antics of Huey and Joe their days of fear and effectiveness were numbered. The Tea Party faction of the GOP considers Cruz a hero today, but his fortunes also sink right along with his doomed strategy to shutdown the government, engage in glib accusations and hardly disguised character assault.

Ultimately it will be up to Republicans to embrace or reject the junior senator from Texas, because he is more about them than the country. As Republicans mull that stark choice; a choice that could do so much to shape the party’s future electoral success, it would be well to ponder the crystal clear words of a long ago senator from Maine – Margaret Chase Smith. On June 1, 1950, the prim and proper Sen. Smith took to the Senate floor to chastise her colleagues and call the GOP to its better angels.

“As a Republican, I say to my colleagues on this side of the aisle that the Republican Party faces a challenge today that is not unlike the challenge that it faced back in Lincoln’s day,” Smith said in one of the great speeches in Senate history. “The Republican Party so successfully met that challenge that it emerged from the Civil War as the champion of a united nation—in addition to being a party that unrelentingly fought loose spending and loose programs.

“Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of ‘know nothing, suspect everything’ attitudes. Today we have a Democratic administration that has developed a mania for loose spending and loose programs. History is repeating itself—and the Republican Party again has the opportunity to emerge as the champion of unity and prudence.

“The record of the present Democratic administration has provided us with sufficient campaign issues without the necessity of resorting to political smears. America is rapidly losing its position as leader of the world simply because the Democratic administration has pitifully failed to provide effective leadership.”

Margaret Chase Smith entitled her famous speech “National Suicide” and it was aimed primarily, of course, at McCarthy and his ilk, but also contained a very practical political warning that seems eerily appropriate today.

To merely displace a Democratic administration, Smith said, “with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this Nation. The Nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.

“I doubt if the Republican Party could—simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party win that way. While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people. Surely it would ultimately be suicide for the Republican Party and the two-party system that has protected our American liberties from the dictatorship of a one-party system.

“As members of the minority party, we do not have the primary authority to formulate the policy of our Government. But we do have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, of clarifying issues, of allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens.”

Quite a speech. I wonder if anyone is capable of giving such a speech in the United States Senate today?

 

Return to 1940

19410200_Senator_Robert_Taft_R-OH_Against_Lend_Lease-TAFTRobert Taft, the Ohio senator and son of a GOP president, was often called “Mr. Republican” in the 1940′s and 1950′s. He was continually on everyone’s list as a presidential candidate from the late 1930′s to the early 1950′s, but Taft never received the nomination in large part because he represented the Midwestern, isolationist wing of the GOP in the intra-party fight for supremacy that was eventually won in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower and the eastern establishment, internationalist wing of the party.

The modern Republican Party is edging toward the same kind of foreign policy split – the John McCain interventionists vs. the Rand Paul isolationists – that for a generation helped kill Taft’s chances, and his party’s chances, of capturing the White House. While much of the focus in the next ten days will be on the important question of whether President Obama can stitch together the necessary votes in the House and Senate – Democrats have their own non-interventionists to contend with – to authorize military action against Syria, the other political fight is over the foreign policy heart and soul of the GOP.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens here’s some of what those in the new Taft wing of the GOP are saying:

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

“I believe the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security and, therefore, I do not support military intervention. Before taking action, the president should first come present his plan to Congress outlining the approach, cost, objectives and timeline, and get authorization from Congress for his proposal.” Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).

“When the United States is not under attack, the American people, through our elected representatives, must decide whether we go to war.” Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)

Taft’s reputation for personal integrity and senatorial probity – he served as Majority Leader for a short time before his untimely death in 1953 – has guaranteed that he is remembered as one of the Congressional greats of the 20th Century. Still, as Stephen’s writes in the Journal, Taft has also suffered the same fate at the hand of history as almost all of the last century’s isolationists have. They are condemned for what Stephens calls their almost unfailingly bad judgment about foreign affairs. Taft opposed Franklin Roosevelt on Lend-Lease in 1941. He argued against the creation of NATO, which has become an enduring feature of the post-war doctrine of collective security. Taft, always the man of principle, even opposed the Nuremberg trials that sought to bring to the bar of justice the top Nazi leadership of World War II. He considered the legal proceedings, organized and managed by the victors in the war, illegal under existing international law.

In every major showdown in his three-time quest for the presidency, Taft lost to an internationalist oriented Republican: Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and Eisenhower in 1952. When given his chance in the White House, and with the help of one-time Taft ally Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Eisenhower re-shaped the modern Republican Party for the rest of the century as the party most devoted to national security and most trusted to push back against Soviet-era Communism. That image lasted, more or less, from Ike to the second Bush, whose historic miscalculations in Iraq have helped create the kind of party soul searching for the GOP that Democrats struggled with in the post-Vietnam era.

A vote on Syria in the Congress will be a clear cut test of strength for the neo-isolationists in the modern Republican Party, many of whom have close connections to the Tea Party faction. Still the leaders of the new Taft wing, like Kentucky Sen. Paul, have demonstrated they are not one issues wonders when it comes to foreign policy. Paul filibustered over drone policy, has spoken out against NSA intelligence gathering and frets over foreign aid. And the polls show these skeptics are in sync with the many Americans who are sick of open ended commitments in the Middle East and the kind of “trust us, we’ve got this figured out” foreign policy of the second Bush Administration. I suspect the appeal of the neo-isolationists extends as well to younger voters, many of whom have not known an America that wasn’t regularly sending brave young men and women to fight and die in wars that seem not only to lack an end, but also an understandable and clearly defined purpose.

Bob Taft – Mr. Republican – fought and lost many of these same battles more than half a century ago and since the victors usually write the history Taft stands condemns along with many others in his party for being on the wrong side of the history of the 20th Century.

The great debate in the Congress over the next few days is fundamentally important for many reasons, not least that it is required by the Constitution, but it may also define for a generation how the party that once embraced and then rejected isolation thinks about foreign policy. If Sen. Paul can be cast as a latter day Bob Taft on matters of foreign policy; a questioner of the value and scope of America’s role in the world, who will be this generation’s Wendell Willkie or Dwight Eisenhower?

Any GOP pretender for the White House will need to calculate these issues with great precision. Gov. Chris Christie, who has yet to declare this position but seems more likely to fit in the internationalist wing of the party, must have his world atlas open to the Middle East, but those maps are likely sitting right next to the latest polls showing the increasing isolation of the party’s base; the people who will determine who gets the next shot at presiding in the White House Situation Room. During today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Syrian action Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another 2016 contender, voted NO reinforcing the notion that a new generation of Republicans seem willing to bring to full flower an approach to foreign policy that died about the same time as Bob Taft.

What an irony that the robust, nation building, regime change foreign policy of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, the very definition of GOP orthodoxy in the post-September 11 world, has been so quickly consigned to the dust bin of Republican policy.

Who this time will be on the right – and wrong – side of history?

[Note that Idaho Sen. James Risch joined with Paul and Rubio in voting NO on the Syrian resolution in the Foreign Relations Committee.]

 

Primary Challenges Can Work

97589403Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi must be taking comfort from the reports that virtually all of his Senate GOP colleagues have publicly said they are backing him in what may prove to be the highest profile party primary in 2014. But even with all that institutional support history should tell Enzi that a challenge from a well-known opponent in a party primary is actually a pretty well-worn path to a Senate seat.

Politico reported over the weekend that many Senate Republicans are dismayed by the primary challenge that Liz Cheney, the very political daughter of the former Vice President, has mounted against Enzi. Typical was the comment of Utah’s Orrin Hatch who knows something about a primary challenge from the right. “I don’t know why in the world she’s doing this,” Hatch said of Liz Cheney. Hatch says Enzi is “honest and decent, hard-working; he’s got very important positions in the Senate. He’s highly respected. And these are all things that would cause anybody to say: ‘Why would anybody run against him?’”

The answer to Hatch’s question is simple: primary challenges, more often than you might think, work for the challenger. In the last two cycles incumbent Republicans lost in Indiana and Utah and a Democratic incumbent lost in Pennsylvania. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost her GOP primary and survived by the skin of her teeth by mounting a rare write-in campaign. Looking even farther back in Senate history in virtually every election cycle since the 1930′s an incumbent Senator has lost a renomination battle.

Consider these politicians who started their path to a Senate career by beating an incumbent in their own party: Howard Baker, Ernest Hollings, Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Bradley, Max Baucus, Sam Nunn, Jesse Helms and John Glenn. Just since the 1960′s all those household name Senators beat a incumbent in a party primary.

By all accounts Liz Cheney faces an uphill battle in Wyoming, a state she claims as home now after living on the east coast most of her life. Carpetbaggers generally are about as welcome in Wyoming as they were during post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South. Limited polling so far shows that Cheney has lots of ground to make up and, while she has announced a group of campaign advisers – all old Cheney family friends – GOP office holders in Wyoming are mostly backing Enzi. Nonetheless, with Senate history as a guide, Cheney’s challenge may not be all that farfetched.

Case in point – Idaho Senate races in the 1930′s and 1940′s. In 1932, Jame P. Pope, the then-Mayor of Boise and a progressive Democrat, was swept into the Senate as part of the Franklin Roosevelt-inspired landslide. Pope built a generally liberal record in the Senate during the New Deal era, but never developed deep ties to the grassroots of the Democratic Party in Idaho. (Yes, Idaho actually had a robust Democratic Party in the 1930′s.) Eastern Idaho Democratic Congressman D. Worth Clark, a member of the prominent Clark family that produced two Idaho governors and Bethine Church, the very political wife and partner of Sen. Frank Church, challenged Pope in the 1938 Democratic primary and won. Clark, considerably more conservative than Pope, went on to serve one term in the Senate, his career most remembered for his anti-FDR, non-interventionist foreign policy views and his leadership of an ill-considered Senate “investigation” of Hollywood’s use of movies to push the United States into support of Britain during the early days of World War II.

In 1944, Clark was challenged in the Democratic primary by a country music entertainer and perennial candidate Glen H. Taylor. Taylor, perhaps the most liberal politician to ever represent Idaho in Congress, won the primary and the general election and served a single term in the Senate. Taylor ran on the Progressive Party ticket for vice president in 1948 as Henry Wallace’s running mate, was attacked as a Communist sympathizer and eventually lost the Democratic nomination in 1950 to the man he had defeated six years earlier – D. Worth Clark. Clark in turn lost the general election that year and effectively ended his political career.

There are many other examples of incumbents – often very prominent incumbents – who lost primary challenges. J. William Fulbright in Arkansas, at the time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lost in 1974 to then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. Fulbright, by the way, launched his own Senate career in 1944 by beating an incumbent – Sen. Hattie Caraway. Montana’s Burton K. Wheeler, one of the most prominent politicians of his day, lost a Democratic primary in 1946. The heir to the Wisconsin political dynasty began by his father, Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., lost a Republican primary in 1946 to a guy named Joe McCarthy.

Primary challenges to Senate incumbents aren’t particularly rare and they are frequently successful, particularly when the challenger has, as Liz Cheney surely does, a well-known name or family connection, displays more star power than the incumbent and makes the case that new blood can be more effective than seniority.

In almost every case I’ve mentioned the party of the incumbent Senator was divided or torn by controversy at the time of the successful challenge. Both Wheeler in Montana and young Bob LaFollette in Wisconsin had gotten badly out of step with their party base, for example. This year in Wyoming Sen. Enzi seems less obviously out of step with his party base, but Enzi would be well advised to go to school on the playbook used by Utah’s Hatch to turn back a Tea Party-inspired challenge in 2012. Hatch started early with his tacking to the right, raised a bucket load of money and carefully avoided face-to-face encounters with his younger opponent. Enzi hasn’t started particularly early, isn’t known as a great fundraiser and, while coming across as a salt-of-the-earth type guy may look old and out of touch one-on-one with the media-savvy Cheney.

Still, the former vice president’s daughter needs a realistic rationale for her candidacy that appeals to the Wyoming Republican primary voter to go along along with the star power that she is trying to project. If she finds the right combination she may contribute to the long history of a Senate incumbent getting knocked off in their own party primary. This will be a fascinating race.

 

 

 

No Coincidence

120424_brian_schweitzer_605_apThe abrupt and very surprising announcement last Saturday that former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer would take a pass on seeking the open U.S. Senate seat in Big Sky Country seems proof once again of what ought to be the Number One rule in politics. It’s often said that the fundamental rule in politics is to “secure your base,” but Schweitzer’s decision, sending shock waves from Washington to Wibaux, reinforces the belief that the real Number One rule in politics is that there are never any coincidences.

Consider the timeline.

On July 10, 2013 Politico, the Bible of conventional political wisdom inside the Beltway, ran a tough piece on Schweitzer under the headline “Brian Schweitzer’s Challenge: Montana Democrats.” The story made a point of detailing the bombastic Schweitzer’s less than warm relationships with fellow Democrats, including retiring senior Sen. Max Baucus and recently re-elected Sen. Jon Tester.

“Interviews with nearly two dozen Montana Democrats paint a picture of Schweitzer as a polarizing politician,” Politico’s Manu Raju wrote. “His allies adore him, calling him an affable and popular figure incredibly loyal to his friends, who had enormous political successes as governor and would stop at nothing to achieve his objectives.

“His critics describe him as a hot-tempered, spiteful and go-it-alone politician — eager to boost his own image while holding little regard for helping the team, something few forget in a small state like Montana.”

The story quoted one unnamed Montana Democrat as saying Schweitzer “doesn’t do anything if it doesn’t benefit him…he’s an incredibly self-serving politician.”

Added another: “He’s the most vindictive politician I’ve ever been in contact with.”

Meanwhile, conservative bloggers were zeroing in on Schweitzer with one comparing his frequent flights of colorful rhetoric – he recently said he wasn’t “crazy enough” to be in the U.S. House or “senile” enough to be in the Senate – to the disastrous campaign of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin in 2012. Other Republicans suggested they had done the opposition research on the man with the bolo-tie and found, as one said, “a lot of rust under the hood.”

Then last Saturday morning Schweitzer, who went almost instantly from a sure-fire contender to hold the Baucus seat for Democrats to a non-candidate, told the Associated Press that he would stay in Montana. “I love Montana. I want to be here. There are all kinds of people that think I should be in the U.S. Senate,” Schweitzer told AP. “But I never wanted to be in the U.S. Senate. I kicked the tires. I walked to the edge and looked over.”

The surprise announcement came as Montana Democrats were gathering in convention. Schweitzer did no real follow up with the media. His advisers had nothing to say. The national media reported that the decision not to run was a blow – as it is – to national Democrats. Then Sunday, the day after Schweitzer’s surprise announcement, the Great Falls Tribune published a lengthy piece, a piece that had been hinted as in the political pipeline earlier in the week, that raised numerous questions about Schweitzer’s connections with shadowy “dark money” groups that are closely associated with some of the former governor’s aides and close political friends. The “dark money” connections are particularly sensitive in Montana, a state that has a long and proud tradition of limiting corporate money in politics and a state that unsuccessfully challenged the awful Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that took the chains off corporate money.

As a friend in Montana says Schweitzer is staying on Montana’s Georgetown Lake rather than head for Georgetown on the Potomac. But there is always more to the story.

Brian Schweitzer had a political gift, the gift of making yourself a unique “brand.” The bolo-tie, the dog at his heels, the finger wagging, blue jeans swagger. He was gifted, perhaps too much, with the quick one liner. He won many fights, but almost always by brawling and bluster and with elements of fear and favor. In politics always making yourself the “bride at every wedding” and the “corpse at every funeral,” as Alice Roosevelt famously said of her father Teddy, exacts a steep price. Brain Schweitzer may have found the truth of another rule of politics: your friends die and your enemies accumulate.

Schweitzer may genuinely want to stay on Georgetown Lake in beautiful Montana or, if you believe in no coincidence, he may have found that his personal political brand had finally reached its “sell by date” and would simply not survive another round of intense scrutiny. Politics is always about personality. People like you or they don’t. They respect you or not. Rarely do they dislike you and fear you and also hope that you succeed.

“It’s always all about Brian,” another Montana Democrat told Politico. “That I think is the root for every problem.” No coincidence.

 

Appointing Senators

senateSam Ervin, the white haired Constitutional law expert from North Carolina who presided over the most famous and consequential Senate investigation ever, may never have made it to Senate had he not first been appointed to the job. That’s Ervin in the photo surrounded by Watergate committee staff and Sen. Howard Baker in 1972.

Ervin, appointed in 1954, served 20 years in the Senate and is now remembered to history for his drawling, gentlemanly and expert handling of the investigation that exposed the corruption at the very top of the Nixon White House. Ervin is one of about 200 people appointed to the Senate by governors since we started the direct election of Senators in 1913. All but seven of the Senators by stroke of the pen have been men.

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie considers his enormously high profile appointment to fill the seat vacated by the death of long-time Sen. Frank Lautenberg, it’s worth pondering the unique gubernatorial power under our system to literally create a senator. There is nothing else quite like it in our politics.

In keeping with his flamboyant style, Christie made news by saying he’ll appoint a temporary replacement and then immediately call a special primary election in August and then a Senate election in October, just weeks before Christie himself faces the voters, in order to give New Jersey voters a say in who their senator will be. New Jersey will then vote again for a Senator in November 2014. If all this plotting seems a little too calculating even for Gov. Christie then welcome to the strange world of appointed senators.

The analysis of Christie’s strategy has been rich and for a political junkie intoxicating. The governor knows he needs to make an appointment, but by calling a quick election to either validate or reject his appointee Christie (perhaps) can distance himself from his own pick. By scheduling the election three weeks before his own re-election goes to the voters Christie can get the complicated Senate business out of the way in hopes it won’t impact issues or turnout in his campaign. Or…well, offer your own theory.

One thing seems certain in New Jersey. Christie is too smart and too politically savvy to appoint himself. That has been tried and never works. Montana Gov. John Erickson orchestrated such a self-appointment in the early 1930′s and he subsequently lost when voters correctly concluded the appointment smacked too much of a backroom deal. Same thing happened with Idaho Governor-turned-Senator Charles Gossett in the 1940′s. Gossett resigned as governor having cut a deal with his Lt. Gov. Arnold Williams to immediate appointment him to the Senate. Voters punished both at the next opportunity. In 1946 the Senate actually had two self-appointed Senators – Gossett and Nevada’s Edward P. Carville who cut the same deal with his second-in-command. Carville also lost a subsequent bid to retain his self-appointed Senate seat. History tells us there is not a high bar to Senate appointments, but one thing that doesn’t pass the voter’s smell test is an appointment that smacks of an inside deal. Note that Christie made a point in his public comments to say he wouldn’t be part of such a deal, but his appointment when it comes will be scrubbed up one side and down the other for hints of just such a deal.

Idaho is actually in the running for the most appointed Senators – six by my count – with one of that number, Sen. John Thomas, actually appointed twice, once in 1928 and again in 1940. Alaska’s Ted Stevens first came to the Senate by appointment, so did Maine’s George Mitchell (a future majority leader) and Minnesota’s Walter Mondale (a future vice president). Oregon’s great Sen. Charles McNary came to the Senate by appointment and stayed to become a respected Republican leader and vice presidential candidate in 1940. Washington’s three-term Gov. Dan Evans was later appointed to the Senate. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a great leader on foreign policy during the early Cold War years, was an appointed Senator, so too Mississippi’s James O. Eastland, a power on the Judiciary Committee and a six-term Senator after his appointment.

Virginia’s Carter Glass had a remarkable political career – Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury, appointed Senator who went on to serve 26 years in the Senate and become an authority on banking and finance. The Glass-Steagall Act, a hallmark of the early New Deal regulation of banking, bares his name.

Only a handful of women have come to the Senate by the appointment path and most have replaced their husbands. Rose McConnell Long filled out the remainder of husband Huey’s term in 1935 and 1936, but opted not to run herself. Arkansas’ Hattie Caraway was appointed to fill the term of her deceased husband and then became the first women elected in her own right to the Senate in 1932. She won another election in 1938 and then lost a Democratic primary in 1944 to J. William Fulbright who went on to become one of the giants of the Senate.

Gov. Christie has a lot to ponder as he considers creating a United States Senator with the stroke of a pen. Will he create a Thomas Taggart of Indiana or an Irving Drew of New Hampshire? Both were appointed Senators and, don’t be embarrassed, there is absolutely no reason you should have ever heard of either one. Taggart, a Democrat, served a little over seven months in 1916 and lost an election bid. Drew, a Republican, served barely two months in 1918 and didn’t bother to run on his own. For every Sam Ervin or Charles McNary there is an appointed Senator who is something less than a household name.

Maybe Christie create a Senator like Idaho’s Len Jordan, a former governor appointed to the Senate in 1962 who went on to twice win election in his own right and establish a solid legislative record.

If history is a guide, Christie will reward a loyal and safe member of his own party – former Gov. Tom Kean for example – and someone unable or unwilling to overshadow the governor. The person appointed must also fulfill the fundamental qualification for the office – do no harm to the person making the appointment. Did I mention that appointing a Senator is just about the most political thing any governor can do? It’s going to be rich political theater to watch and analyze the actions of the governor of New Jersey who both wants to be re-elected this fall and run for president in 2016. Let the appointing begin.

 

M.A.D. Men

You have to hand it to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – the guy knows how to go for the political throat. Mild mannered he is not. McConnell plays the political game like his home state Louisville Cardinals played basketball on their way to winning the NCAA national championship – full court pressure, sharp elbows, give no quarter and when the opponent is down dispatch them quickly so that there is no chance – none – that they’ll get back in the contest.

As he prepares for a Senate race in 2014 McConnell’s dismal approval numbers back home find him in familiar form – on the attack. First McConnell dispatched the one candidate, the actress Ashley Judd, who he probably should have dreamed about running against. For a few weeks earlier this year the national press, always a soft touch for a sweet talking celebrity, built up Kentucky-native Judd as though she were the second coming of Hillary Clinton. With perfect hindsight the political novice was never a serious threat to the toughest guy in the Senate, but McConnell and his operatives wasted not a minute labeling Judd a “Hollywood liberal” completely out of touch with Kentucky. Judd helped the labeling effort by acknowledging at one point in her non-campaign campaign that she and her husband “winter in Scotland. We’re smart like that.” Not surprisingly that line did not play all that well in Paducah, especially among the people who do winter there.

Still, before Ashley admitted the obvious and backed of from challenging McConnell – she’s smart like that – the Senator was plotting an offensive that would not merely leave the young woman battered and beaten in the bluegrass, but permanently disabled as a political pretender. McConnell and his advisers plotted defining Judd as “emotionally unbalanced” and, frankly, more than a little strange with off-beat ideas about religion and other subjects.

Standby. Cue the secret tape.

Mother Jones magazine, the same folks who turned up the infamous Mitt Romney 47% video, published a recording of McConnell and his campaign strategists plotting, as the Senate’s top Republican said, to play “whac-a-mole” with the young woman who might be his opponent.

“If I could interject,” McConnell says early in the leaked recording, “I assume most of you have played the game Whac-A-Mole? [Laughter.] This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out…”

When a tape of the “Whac-an-Ashley” session leaked, apparently at the hands of a Democratic Political Action Committee in Kentucky dedicated to doing to McConnell what he does to others, the Senator “maxed out” on the political rhetoric scale. As the Washington Post noted the Senator or his advisers invoked Nixon-style dirty tricks, the awful politics of the “political left” and even Hitler’s Gestapo. Whew. No mention of Castro? Or Hugo Chavez?

What McConnell (and many other politicians) and their opponents are doing with increasing frequency, and this would include the ham-handed “Progress Kentucky” group that apparently made and leaked the tape of the Senator’s “whac-a-mole” session, is a political update of the nuclear weapons strategy known as “mutually assured destruction.” The MAD theory holds that no sane person will use a nuclear weapon if they know with certainty that their enemy will react in kind. Both sides avoid the ultimate, well, whack because the stakes involved are just too dangerous.

McConnell’s strategy – again, not knew to him – is an update, a variation on MAD – nuke the other side before they even become a candidate. After all you don’t need to worry about the other sides missiles when the other side has no missiles.

No longer is it enough in our politics to defeat an opponent they must be “destroyed” or at a minimum “whacked.” Such a strategy is particularly effective when employed against a novice candidate, or candidate wannabee, like the young Ms. Judd. Before they know what has hit them they are effectively disqualified as a viable candidate. We can date the rise of modern “whac-a-mole” politics to the 1980 election when, for the first time on a national scale a new invention, the political action committee (PAC), made its appearance. Formed for the express purpose of attacking, wounding and ultimately destroying candidates these down-and-dirty operations both coarsened our politics and made the nuke ‘em strategy particularly popular with incumbents. The idea that campaigns before 1980 tended to be most local and statewide affairs seems positively quaint today.

If you wonder why the U.S. Senate has become a daily snake pit of hyper-partisanship where a lack of trust prevents serious work on the nation’s serious business, revisit those 1980 campaigns. Four-term incumbent Sen. Frank Church of Idaho was the prime target of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) that year and Church had been in NCPAC’s sights for months. NCPAC’s scummy director Terry Dolan boasted that “By 1980 there will be people voting against Church without remembering why.” He was right. Church lost re-election that year at the hands of a fundamentally dishonest campaign. The same kind of attacks took George McGovern, Birch Bayh, John Culver, Gaylord Nelson, nine Democrats in total, from the Senate in the same cycle. As the late Dave Broder wrote at the time the 1980 election “certainly had all the appearance of an era ending – and a new one beginning.”

Candidates learned from the ’80 election that political survival is best assured with a “first strike” of such overpowering force that the opponent is effectively destroyed. It is the rare candidate these days who find the character attacks – the whacking – so distasteful that they won’t go there, so McConnell is far from alone in embracing this new era. He may be the new era’s most skilled practitioner, however. In the Kentucky Senator’s case the nuke ‘em approach also has the benefit of making his campaign about small things rather than big things . Who wants to talk about Afghanistan or the budget when you can talk about Gestapo tactics and unbalanced potential opponents? So far McConnell has mostly succeeded in making this small story about the fact that his secret “whac-a-mole” meeting was secretly taped rather than about the substance of what was on the tape. In fairness to McConnell the Progress Kentucky PAC is clearly trying to pull on him what NCPAC pulled in 1980. They’re just not very good at it. Still, a pox on all the houses.

I know, I know, politics ain’t bean bag. Sharp elbows and unfair attacks are as old as the Republic. A young Lyndon Johnson once tried out on an aide a particularly scurrilous line of attack he was considering using against an opponent. The aide protested that the attack simply wasn’t true, but Johnson just smiled and said, “let him deny it.” Still, even LBJ eventually learned that there is more to politics that winning at all cost. Gleefully destroying opponents doesn’t do a lot for their reputation or yours.

Mitch McConnell is very good at the sharp elbows part of politics and, as he girds for a sixth term, clearly very good at winning elections. You shouldn’t put any smart money on the most unpopular man in the Senate losing next year. At the same time McConnell is proof of the truth contained in the old axiom that skills required for winning elections are not usually the skills needed to govern effectively. The history books will likely remember him for resisting every type of control on money in politics and for famously saying that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Disqualifying Ashley Judd won’t get you a chapter in Profiles in Courage and scorched earth politics – whether from a Mitch McConnell or the sleazy PAC out to get him – ultimately only feed the dysfunction of a Senate and a political system in need of real leaders rather than guys who spend their days plotting how to whack moles.