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A Celebration of Politics Working…

It would be easy – even inevitable – given the dysfunctional state of American politics to just say the heck with it – nothing works any longer and nothing much gets done. I’ve been in that funk and may well slip back soon enough, but today I take heart that politics can still work.

The Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho

The Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho

The United States Senate this week completed action on a piece of legislation to protect more than a quarter million acres of some of the most spectacular landscape on the North American continent as Wilderness – with a capital W. The action, eventually coming as the result of a unanimous consent request in the Senate, follows similar approval in the House of Representatives. President Obama’s signature will come next.

The Politics of Effort…

The legislation is largely the result of determined, persistent effort by Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, a legislator of the old school who actually serves in Congress in order to get things accomplished and not merely to build his resume and court the fringe elements of his own party. Simpson is not the type of lawmaker that many in his party might wish him to be – one of those nameless, faceless members who vote NO, do as little as possible, get re-elected every two years and blame Washington’s shortcomings on “bureaucrats” and “Democrats.”

Rep. Mike Simpson

Rep. Mike Simpson

For the better part of fifteen years Simpson has, often single-handedly, championed greater environmental protections for the high peaks, lush meadows and gin-clear lakes of the Boulder-White Clouds area in his sprawling Congressional district in eastern Idaho. Rather than churn headlines denouncing the environmental movement, Simpson invited them to the table along with ranchers, county commissioners and a host of other interests to find a way to resolve controversies in the Idaho back country that date back decades. None of the parties trusted the others, but Simpson made them reason together with the quiet hard work that is the essence of real politics.

Blessed with a fine staff and the instincts of a patient dealmaker, Simpson worked the problem, understood the perspectives of the various interests and pushed, cajoled, humored, debated, smiled, and worked and waited and never gave up. At any number of points along the way a lesser legislator might well have lost patience, gotten discouraged or just said the hell with it, but Simpson never did, even when blindsided by members of his own party who once unceremoniously knifed his legislation after publicly indicating their support.

I wasn’t alone in concluding that the political process in Washington and the “Hell No Caucus” in Mike Simpson’s own party would never permit passage of another wilderness bill in Idaho. Over time the discouraged and disgruntled placed what little of their faith remained with President Obama. Obama, who has only gotten grief from Idaho Republicans the last seven years and owes the state nothing except maybe a thank you to a handful of Democrats who give him a 2008 caucus victory over Hillary Clinton, hinted that he would use “executive action” to declare the Boulder-White Clouds a National Monument. That potential provided the grease needed to lubricate Simpson’s legislative handiwork and the stalemate was broken.

There is an old maxim that dictates that you can keep your opponents off balance and disadvantaged in politics by displaying just enough unpredictability – even recklessness – that they think you just might be crazy enough to do what they most fear. Idaho Republicans, who had mostly not lifted a finger to help Mike Simpson over the years, came to believe that Obama just might be crazy enough to stick his proclamation pen in their faces and create a monument twice the size of the wilderness Simpson’s proposed.

Make no mistake, whatever they might say now, the determined congressman would not have received the support he ultimately did from other Idaho Republicans had they not feared – really feared – action by the president that would have created an Idaho national monument. It also didn’t hurt that Simpson and conservation-minded Idahoans in both political parties demonstrated broad public support for action on the Boulder-White Clouds.

Victory has a thousand fathers…and mothers…

While it is tempting to gloat about the late comers to the grand cause of environmental protection finally having to cave, it is more important to remember that political victory always has a thousand fathers and mothers. This is a moment to celebrate. Mike Simpson deserves – really deserves – to savor what will be a big part of his political legacy. Idaho conservationists, particularly the Idaho Conservation League and its leadership, deserve to celebrate the role that Idaho’s oldest conservation organization played in creating what some of us thought we would never see again – a wilderness bill in Idaho.

Cece Andrus in the shadow of the White Clouds

Cece Andrus in the shadow of the White Clouds – Idaho PTV photo 

There must be praise for visionaries who came before, particularly including former Governor Cecil D. Andrus who campaigned against an open pit mine in the area in 1970 and later attempted to do what has now been done. The late Idaho Senators Frank Church and Jim McClure deserve a big acknowledgement. Both knew the value of protecting the area and never flagged in their determination to see it accomplished. Countless other Idaho hikers, hunters, fishermen and outdoor recreationists played their indispensable roles as well.

Best of all, unborn generations of Americans will now have a chance to experience one the most remarkable, pristine, and beautiful areas in the entire country, if not the world. American wilderness is landscape and habitat and majesty and solitude, but it is also a state of mind. Knowing we have conserved something so special and so valuable not just for ourselves, but also for the future is truly a priceless gift.

On this one occasion and after decades of work, the good that politics can do reigns supreme. A piece of heaven right here on earth has been saved and we are all the richer for it.

The Start of Something Big

cit7_SRX_EDWARD_LODGE_t620The United States Senate this week confirmed a new judge, Patricia Millett, to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That court is, after the Supreme Court, arguably the most important federal court in the nation. Millett’s confirmation had been stalled for weeks over a partisan dispute, not about her qualifications, but basically over whether a Democratic president would be allowed to make an important appointment to an important federal court.

That standoff helped precipitate the recent change in Senate rules that eliminates the filibuster as a tool of the minority to thwart a president’s federal court and executive branch nominees. When it finally happened the vote to confirm the new judge was mostly along partisan lines, two Republicans – Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins – did vote to confirm.

Regrettably, in my view, partisan politics – and both parties bear some guilt – has taken on a completely outsized role in the selection and confirmation of federal judges. And, remember in the case of new Judge Millett, hardly anyone questioned her strong qualifications for the job. She has been a partner at the white shoe D.C. law firm Akin Gump, she worked at the Justice Department in both Republican and Democratic administrations and argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court. She’s qualified, but partisanship was the stage manager in this case, and unfortunately, has been in many others in the recent past.

Until the 1920’s appointees to the Supreme Court didn’t even go before a Congressional committee for a confirmation hearing. When former Utah Sen. George Sutherland was nomination for a position on the Supreme Court in 1922 his nomination went to the Senate one morning and he was confirmed that afternoon. Admittedly that pace may have been too light on the “advise and consent” role of the Senate, but now days it’s not uncommon for a judicial nominee to hang in confirmation no-man’s (or no-woman’s) land for months. It has become an awful system that will over time further erode public confidence in an independent judiciary and it doesn’t have to be this way.

A small, long ago example from Idaho involving Federal District Judge Edward Lodge (that’s Judge Lodge in the photo) makes the case that judges – and sometimes great judges – are indeed “made” by politicians acting as politicians, but that politics – if practiced wisely – can also help ensure the right man – or woman – ends up in the right job.

Ed Lodge has been on the Federal District Court in Idaho since 1989. He was nominated by Republican George H.W. Bush and confirmed unanimously by the Senate. The Judge, widely respected, even revered by those who know him and practice before him, just passed 24 years on the federal bench and all told Lodge has been a judge in Idaho for half a century. But, it’s Ed Lodge’s time before he came to the attention of the first President Bush – we can thank Sen. Jim McClure for that – that really counts in this little story.

In 1965, Lodge was laboring in relative obscurity as a probate judge in Canyon County, Idaho – Idaho did away with probate judges during judicial reorganization years ago – when a vacancy came open in the state District Court bench in Canyon County. It dawned on a couple of young, northern Idaho legislators – Ed Williams from Lewiston and Cecil Andrus from Orofino, both Democrats, that they might be able to use the Canyon County vacancy to engage in a bit of political mischief at the expense of Republican Gov. Robert E. Smylie and also help create a new judge at the same time.

Smylie, a mover and shaker in national GOP politics, was out of the state for a few days as was his habit; a habit that helped get him in trouble with voters a year later, which meant the governor had left the tending of the state store to his Democratic Lt. Gov. William Drevlow, a old-style party warhorse who hailed from Craigmont. In Idaho, by virtue of the state constitution, when the governor is physically absent from the state the lieutenant governor assumes the governor’s full powers, including the power, if he chooses to use it, to make appointments. If you understand politics perhaps you see where this is going.

According to Andrus, his good friend Williams came up with the idea of trying to convince Lt. Governor Drevlow to act in Smylie’s absence and fill the Canyon County judicial vacancy. But who to appoint? The two north Idaho lawmakers consulted with Rep. Bill Brauner of Caldwell, also a Democrat, and a well-regarded local attorney. (Yes, Canyon County did once upon a time have Democrats in the Idaho Legislature.)

Andrus recalls that another prominent Canyon County attorney and Democrat, Dean Miller, was brought into the discussions and it was Miller who suggested strongly that able young Ed Lodge, who Miller knew personally and professionally, would be a superb candidate to fill the vacancy. All the players in this little tale, save for Andrus and Lodge, are no longer with us to confirm or deny, but Andrus claims none of them were really sure at the time of Lodge’s politics. Lodge was being touted by Democrats who knew him well, after all, and only later did the legislators learn that Republican blood ran in Lodge’s lawyerly veins. Even better they thought. When the stuff inevitably hits the fan the conspirators could fall back on the fact that a Republican-leaning judge had been appointed by a Democrat. What could be more bipartisan?

But the really key thing here is that the mischief makers were not looking simply to make mischief, although that was clearly a motivation, they also wanted to see a capable judge appointed. Politics was played, but the goal of putting a capable candidate on the bench was also achieved.

“We convinced Bill Drevlow, maybe with a little help from John Barleycorn,” Andrus said, “to make the appointment. He knew it would damage his relationship with Bob Smylie, but he really didn’t care. We knew Smylie would be livid, since he must have had his own candidate.” And, one suspects, that didn’t bother the legislators either.

Judge Lodge was appointed to the state court vacancy by Drevlow – the youngest district judge in Idaho at the time – where, by all accounts, he immediately began to acquit himself with real distinction winning awards as the state’s top trial judge and serving for years as the administrative judge of the district. After a short stint as the state’s federal bankruptcy judge President Bush came calling and Lodge went to the federal bench some twenty years after his Democratic benefactors plotted to get him appointed to the Idaho court.

Andrus remembers Smylie being peeved about the whole thing, but as the man who would go on to be elected governor of Idaho four times told me recently, “Smylie could never argue with the fact that the cream rises to the top. And time has proven that Ed Lodge is one of the two or three best federal judges Idaho has ever had.”

Any way you analyze it Ed Lodge has had a distinguished and impactful career. He presided over the Ruby Ridge case, Claude Dallas was in his courtroom, financial responsibilities under the Superfund law in the Silver Valley were hashed out under his watch, and the U.S. Department of Energy was held to account for cleaning up the Idaho nuclear waste legacy of the Cold War. Judge Lodge was honored last summer for his his service and for the longest judicial tenure in Idaho history. His is quite a legacy.

Is there a moral to this little story of political intrigue? It’s entirely possible that Ed Lodge, even without the bipartisan push he got from a bunch of mischief making young Democrats in 1965, would have amassed a distinguished legal career. He might well have made it to the state district court by another route and been ultimately appointed to the federal bench to preside over all those important cases. Who is to say?

Perhaps the only moral, as the old saying goes, is that politics does – or can – make strange bedfellows. And once in a while – not as often as it once did unfortunately – strange bedfellows conspire to help along the career of an able young man, who given the chance became a truly distinguished judge and helped write the history of Idaho for the last half century.

Next time you read a news report about some judicial decision that identifies the judge involved as an “appointee of George Bush” or as a “nominee of Bill Clinton,” think about Judge Lodge. There is more to most judges – and there should be – than the partisan label attached to the person who appointed them. And think about the new and highly qualified D.C. Circuit Court Judge Patricia Millett who came so close to being denied a chance to serve at all because of, well, just politics.

There will always be “politics” involved in the appointment of judges. It’s been that way since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fought over the shape of the federal judiciary, but too much emphasis on politics must inevitably lead to a too politicized judiciary, which only damages public confidence in the judges and our judicial system. Ed Lodge got his start on the merits. An able young man with supporters on both sides of the aisle then proved over the course of a distinguished career just what he was able to do.

I like to think that is what we call the American Way.


The Rhyme of Political History

ralph-crane-gov-robert-e-smylieThe last time an Idaho governor received a serious primary challenge he lost.

It was 1966 and three-term incumbent Republican Robert E. Smylie, pictured here dressed like he might have been trying out for The Sons of the Pioneers, seemed to be at the zenith of his political power – chairman of the National Governors Association, the senior governor in the nation and a serious player in national politics.

Time magazine took note of Smylie’s re-election announcement in April of 1966 by reporting, “In Idaho, Republican Governor Robert E. Smylie, 51, dean of the nation’s Governors and a 1968 vice-presidential hopeful, filed for a fourth four-year term, which if completed would make his the longest gubernatorial tenure in U.S. history (current record: 15 years, set by Maryland’s Albert C. Ritchie from 1920 through 1934). Smylie, who led the 1965 fight to dump Goldwaterite Dean Burch as G.O.P. national chairman, will campaign on his ‘New Day’ programs of increased state outlays for health, welfare and education financed by a 3% sales tax.”

Time confidently predicted Smylie was “assured” of winning the GOP nomination. He wasn’t. The future vice-presidential hopeful lost his party’s nomination to a little-known state senator from Bonner County named Don Samuelson. That election had dramatic consequences for Idaho’s political history.

“When the primary returns were tabulated,” University of Idaho political scientists Syd Duncombe and Boyd Martin wrote in a post-election analysis, “Samuelson carried all but seven of Idaho’s forty-four counties to defeat Smylie 52,891 to 33,753. One columnist [the Lewiston Morning Tribune’s Robert Myers] attributed Smylie’s defeat to his long term of office, his support of the sales tax, and opposition from Goldwater Republicans stemming from his role in the replacement of Dean Burch.”

Following Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential lost to Lyndon Johnson – NBC’s Chet Huntley called Goldwater supporters “classic Republicans, segregationists, Johnsonphobes, desperate conservatives, and radical nuts…the coalition of the discontent” – the moderate wing of the GOP, shoved aside by Goldwater’s hard right followers, set out to reclaim the national party and Bob Smylie helped lead the moderate charge.

One major target of Smylie and the GOP moderates was Tucson, Arizona lawyer Dean Burch, a friend of Goldwater’s who the candidate had installed as chairman of the national Republican party. Burch helped turn the party hard to the right, as Rick Perlstein documents in his fascinating book on Goldwater called Before the Storm. When Ku Klux Klan leaders in Georgia and Alabama, for example, endorsed Goldwater in 1964 Burch refused to disavow their support and said only “we’re not in the in business of discouraging voters.”

Smylie’s Moderate National Role

In January of 1965, after Goldwater’s landslide loss to Johnson, Smylie made national news when he said, as the Associated Press reported, “the time is past when Dean Burch can do anything to save his job as national chairman of the Republican party.” Conservative commentators took to identifying Smylie as a leader of the “Rockefeller wing” of the national party with one writing that the Idaho governor was utilizing “meat axe” tactics to push Burch out as national chairman. Eventually Burch, who went on to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a top aide to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, resigned the GOP chairmanship and was replaced by Ohio pol Ray Bliss, a choice acceptable to party moderates like Smylie.

In the mid-1960’s the national Republican party was badly divided, much as it is today, between an insurgent wing loyal to Goldwater’s brand of unflinching conservatism and a moderate wing where political operators, like Ray Bliss, preached the politics of expansion. Bliss, for example, once said his only concern as party chairman was winning elections.

The Goldwater partisans were, in many ways, an earlier version of today’s Tea Party adherents and in Idaho they effectively took over the state party. Bob Smylie found himself swept along in these roiling waters with a growing national profile as a moderate who at the same time had to appeal to an increasingly conservative Idaho GOP. It was a difficult, maybe impossible task, since Smylie stimulated bitter hostility from much of the party base, including a young woman named Gwen Barnett.

Idaho’s Republican national committeewoman, Barnett was the youngest member of the national committee and she made it her cause to defeat Smylie. As long-time Idaho political observer Marty Peterson wrote a while back, “Barnett had become a close ally of the Goldwater forces. Her friend Dean Burch, a former member of the Goldwater Senate staff, had been elected Republican national chairman. She was also close to such rising conservative stars as John Tower, who had become the first Republican elected to the senate from Texas since Reconstruction.” Barnett recruited Samuelson to run against Smylie, helped round up the money and saw to it that insurgent Idaho Republicans united behind the challenger. The resulting and stunning defeat of the moderate Smylie made 1966 one of the most significant years in Idaho political history.

Looking back on this near ancient political history it is now easy to see that Smylie, a governor who deserves to be well remembered for creating a state park system and establishing a balanced tax system, committed a cardinal political sin – he lost touch with his base. Undoubtedly this supremely self-confident man was overconfident.

Generally speaking there is little payoff in Idaho for being well regarded on the pages of Time or being chummy with the very liberal then-governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller. You can Google Robert E. Smylie today and find a photo of him at the Boise airport in 1959 welcoming his buddy Rockefeller to town and another picture of Smylie in 1961 at a national governors’ gathering wearing shorts, his shirt unbuttoned to the naval and at the helm of what appears to be a very large yacht. Not exactly typical Idaho political images today or in the 1960’s.

The Rhyme of Political History

Fast forward to 2013 and the news last weekend that a relatively unknown state senator, Russ Fulcher of Meridian, will challenge two-term incumbent Butch Otter for the Republican nomination for governor in 2014.

As Mark Twain is famously reported to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

It would be easy to overstate the parallels between 1966 and 2014, but you would also have to have political blinders in place not to recognize some of the striking similarities about the two races separated by nearly 50 years. The first would be Gov. Otter’s “long term of office” – four years in the state legislature, 14 years as Lt. Governor, six years in Congress and going on eight years as governor. It is often true in politics that as the years accumulate so do the enemies.

Another parallel: Otter’s opponent comes to the race from a perch in the state senate where by all accounts he has assembled a very conservative voting record not unlike Samuelson all those years ago. And like the man who beat Bob Smylie, Fulcher is making a straight forward play for support from the insurgent/populist wing of his party.

With Idaho Democrats still mostly an after thought in the state’s politics, the Idaho GOP has in effect become two or maybe more parties divided into various factions. There seems little doubt the anti-establishment, populist oriented Tea Party wing (and its many variations) has been on the rise since at least 2008 when insurgents pushed out a state party chairman who had the support of Otter and many of the party’s traditional movers and shakers. Many of those same insurgents, over the objections of Otter and other leaders of the party, then successfully battled to close the state’s GOP primary, in essence forcing party registration on Idaho, a move which seems certain to ensure that the most motivated and perhaps the most disenchanted Republican voters dominate next May’s primary election.

Ironically, the battle for the heart and soul of the Idaho GOP, tends to pit more traditional business-oriented, Chamber of Commerce Republicans against the same brand of populists who fueled Barry Goldwater’s rise in the early 1960’s. Generally speaking many of these voters are the most skeptical of government, dismissive of “elites” of any type and disdainful of long tenure in office. All of which makes you wonder if Gov. Otter’s forthcoming campaign event in Coeur d’Alene, featuring the great moderate hope of the national GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will serve to reinforce the image that the insurgents are fighting the establishment. Christie recently won a landslide re-election in New Jersey by appealing to Democrats and independents with the kind of campaign Ray Bliss would have loved, but that many in the Tea Party find off putting.

One final parallel. Don Samuelson had a compelling issue in 1966 against the incumbent. Smylie’s championing of the sales tax – first put in place in the 1930’s then repealed by voters before being resurrected in 1966 – was at the heart of the entire campaign that year. Ironically Idahoans endorsed the tax at the ballot box in November of 1966 even as Samuelson, who had voted against the measure in the legislature, was winning a four-way general election race with barely 41% of the vote. The pro-tax vote in 1966 was 61%. Samuelson simply sliced the electorate just finally enough to grab the votes of the anti-tax crowd, and that block and a few more votes were enough to give him a win.

[It’s worth noting that both Idaho parties originally nominated anti-sales tax candidates for governor in 1966 even as voters were warming to adopting the tax at the ballot box.]

Fulcher’s issue is, of course, Otter’s advocacy of development of a state-managed health care exchange, which he equates to Otter supporting “Obamacare.” Never mind that Otter sued the federal government and lost over the extremely controversial health insurance reform law before concluding that the state would be better off developing its own exchange rather than relying on the federal government.

Obamacare, not unlike rank and file GOP resentment of Smylie’s moderate leadership role in national politics and his support for establishing a sales tax in the 1960’s, could become a powerful cause for many GOP primary voters, and in politics a powerful cause that juices up the base can, as long-time Idaho analyst Randy Staplius recently observed, be even more important than the profile of the candidate.

The politics of Idaho just became a lot more interesting and, while it should be said emphatically that Butch Otter has many, many significant advantages as he goes for a third term as governor – a solid conservative record, a winning personality, a polished retail approach to politics, lots of money, and the advantages of incumbency – once in a while history does rhyme.

The Wonderful Unpredictability of Politics

Political scientists Duncombe and Martin presciently noted in their 1966 election analysis that, while Idaho Republicans had won big at the ballot box that year – electing Len Jordan to a full term in the U.S. Senate, winning both of the state’s congressional seats, picking up seats in the legislature and, of course, retaining the governorship – the party came out of the Smylie-Samuelson experience badly divided. Such “rifts would need to be healed” they pointed out if the party were to consolidate its gains in 1968 and beyond. What actually happened show that the riffs weren’t so well healed.

In 1968 Democrat Frank Church won re-election to the U.S. Senate and just two years later, in 1970, Democrat Cecil D. Andrus, who had cut his political teeth on primary and general election campaigns during the dramatically unpredictable year of 1966, won the governorship over Samuelson who proved to be a better giant killer than a governor.

Andrus has often said when folks joke about Samuelson’s ineptitude as governor, “Don’t say anything bad about Don Samuelson. If there hadn’t been a Don Samuelson there never would have been a Cecil Andrus.”

That 1970 election began 24 straight years of Democratic control of the Idaho governorship, a political phenomenon that seemed unimaginable four decades ago, but that happened in no small part because of the turmoil fostered by the primary defeat of an Idaho governor who seemed unbeatable until he wasn’t.


The Middle Doesn’t Hold

howard-deanLots of Democrats like Howard Dean the former Vermont governor because he can almost always be counted on to be a full-throated partisan. Cable news loves the one-time Democratic presidential candidate because he’s always ready to launch an attack the other side. Nothing subtle or nuanced about Dean. In his world the Democrats – make that the most liberal Democrats – are always right and the Republicans are a bunch of knuckle-dragging throwbacks to the 19th Century. He has nearly as little use for a Democrat who wanders off the party reservation.

Lots of Republicans, particularly the Tea Party wing of the party, love the Club for Growth and its mouthpiece former Rep. Chris Chocola because the Club and the former Congressman can always be counted on to attack any Republican who dares to veer, even ever so slightly, from the group’s unyielding anti-tax, anti-government agenda. The Club for Growth has established itself as the enforcer of GOP orthodoxy on taxes and the scope of government. As a Republican you cross this crowd with full knowledge that they know how to buy television attack ads and have money to burn.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: consider Exhibits A and B in the sad and troubling case of who murdered moderation in American politics. The loud and often unreasonable voices of guys like Dean and Chocola  increasingly dominate political discussion and they are largely getting away with the political murder of moderation because we’re letting them. If you enjoy dysfunction in Washington, D.C. keep rewarding the Deans and Chocolas. Their political oxygen depends on squeezing the last breath out of anyone who even looks like a moderate.

Dean, of course, has his own political action committee and says he’s “open,” despite the legendary “scream from Iowa” heard round the world in 2004, to another run for president in 2016. He’ll undoubtedly run as a divider and not a uniter. Dean made news in Oregon this week, which he no doubt wanted to do, for launching a Twitter attack on a prominent Democratic state senator who had the gall to buck her party on a couple of high profile votes during the recently adjourned Oregon legislative session. Sen. Betsy Johnson did vote with Oregon Democrats 90% of the time during the recent legislative session, but in Dean’s “no room for moderates” world the senator, because she crossed her party on a couple of issues, needs to be challenged and replaced.

Chocola was out this week with an equally bizarre attack on Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson. The Club for Growth announced it had endorsed a novice Republican from Idaho Falls, Bryan Smith, who is challenging the widely-respected eight-term chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that just happens to be vital to Idaho. Club for Growth calls Simpson “one of the biggest liberals in the Republican Party,” which is nonsense bordering on political malpractice as anyone who really knows the Congressman can attest. Simpson is, by any realistic measure, a very conservative Republican. He’s gone down the line with the NRA, opposed Obamacare and has battled the EPA over budgets and regulation, among other things. What he is not is a knuckle-dragger always in lock step with the far right.

Challenger Smith, who the Club apparently recruited for a Simpson primary challenge by trolling the Internet, was endorsed because he opposed Idaho Falls city property tax increases and criticized the Supreme Court on its health care ruling. Quite a record. Sign him up. The guy sounds like he’ll dependably put his rock on the “no” button if, against all logic and likelihood, he should happen to make it to Congress.

Simpson, probably because he spent his formative political years in the Idaho House of Representatives, including a successful stint as Speaker, while a politically skillful and successful Democrat held the governor’s office, has never automatically assumed every person across the aisle is an opponent worthy of being savaged from Twin Falls to Twitter. Simpson actually thinks a legislator’s job is to try and make the government work. He knows his district’s economy depends on the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and that contrary to Club for Growth-like thinking maybe, just maybe, he needs from-time-to-time to be able to work with an ideological opposite  in order to keep the Department of Energy budget working for the nation and his district. We used to call that politics and it still amounts to governing.

Simpson’s real concern to Club for Growth is that he has dared to speak what every sensible person in Washington and the nation knows to be the truth about the federal budget: To secure a long-term and stable fiscal situation for the country Republicans and Democrats must come together and address spending, entitlements and – brace yourself – future revenues. In other words, Simpson has said what Simpson-Bowles have said and what Warren Buffett has said, in fact what every responsible person in the country has said about the nation’s fiscal and budget policies. In short, Mike Simpson is a conservative Republican who understands that finding common ground on major issues isn’t treason, but rather statesmanship.

Howard Dean and his like on the political left and Chris Chocola and his ilk on the right play only one political note: a high pitched squeal that can best be heard by the most partisan folks in both political parties. Such silliness has been at the heart of the near death of moderation in our politics and in Idaho in the past it has given the state such stellar Members of Congress as former Rep. Bill Sali, once championed and elected thanks to the million dollar largess of Club for Growth. Sali’s inept and embarrassing single term in Congress was highlighted by his introduction of legislation repealing the law of gravity. It’s true. You can look it up.

Come election day here’s betting that Rep. Simpson in Idaho and State Sen. Johnson in Oregon will be returned to office. Their constituents like them and know them. Both of them seem willing to defend common sense, which thankfully some voters still appreciate. Others elsewhere who practice the once celebrated political art of moderation may not fare as well and what former Sen. Al Simpson of Wyoming calls “the 100% crowd” – those who insist on unbending fidelity to their way of thinking – will have won yet another battle against realistic government.

Once upon a time pragmatic voters in places like Oregon and Idaho rewarded stubbornly independent moderates like the late, great Republican governor and senator Mark O. Hatfield and the former Democratic governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus. Hatfield built a career around charting his own course for Oregon in the Senate, often tilting against Republican presidents, and Andrus often publicly disowned the excesses of national Democrats and delighted in doing so while his Idaho constituents sent him to the Statehouse four times over three decades. Today such political heresy would spur a social media attack followed by a primary challenge.

Our national history tells us clearly that political independence and moderation really should be cause for celebration, but the political ayathollahs of the American left and right are as determined to slay the last visages of moderation as are the political absolutists who rule in Teheran.

Americans are united in condemning one group of fundamentalist crazies. We ought also unite in condemning those who fuliminate to kill moderation closer to home.


Old Lessons

Where’s the Puppy?

Harry Truman famously said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” I’ll offer the Johnson Corollary to Truman’s great one liner: “in politics, it is almost always your friends who cause you trouble.”

Most every politician I have known has a very good idea from which direction the partisan opposition will attack. It’s the onslaught from friends that is harder to anticipate and even more difficult to combat.

From Idaho to Indiana today, the Republican Party is in full revolt against itself and the soldiers in this war of the friends – faintly moderate Republicans battling really, really conservative Republicans – are in full battle gear.

The most recent purge of the “moderates” claimed its latest victim yesterday when 36-year Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar lost by 20 points in a GOP primary. Lugar, 80-years old, and portrayed as a squishy bipartisan moderate, was retired by the same type of voter who will next week take the Idaho GOP in an ever more rightward direction.

Lugar’s loss, like every losing campaign, turned on many factors. First, he may well have succumbed to the fatal illness that eventually catches many politicians; the voters just got sick of him. But, it’s also undeniable that The Club for Growth and other very conservative groups targeted the one-time chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for being one of the few in the Senate, on either side, willing to cross the aisle and work a deal. Lugar had the partisan misfortune of working with the president on arms issues and actually voting for two Obama Supreme Court appointees. Not good when your friends think such behavior is the political equivalent of sitting down for dinner with the Taliban.

In a remarkable statement released last night, Lugar neatly summed up what he – and more and more Republicans – are facing right now.

 “Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country,” Lugar said. “And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years.”

Closer to home, some Idaho Republicans are spending freely in an effort to shift their party further right. The combination of the new “closed” GOP primary, well-funded PAC’s targeting slightly more moderate incumbents and old intraparty feuds guarantee that Republicans, who have been almost completely successful over the last two decades in Idaho, will be deeply divided after the May 15th primary among the mere conservatives and the ultras. The headline in The Idaho Statesman today said it all: “Idaho House Leaders Attempt Fratricide”

Reporter Dan Popkey details the efforts by senior Republican leaders to target their own in primaries, prompting the state’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Ben Ysura, to observe: “This is groundbreaking, the open split in the leadership and money being spent against one of their own.”

Of course, Republicans have no lock on this type of “kill your friends” behavior. To disastrous effect, Franklin Roosevelt tried to “purge” conservatives from the Democratic Party in 1938. FDR, a generally brilliant political analyst, misread the country and created divisions within his party that lasted a generation. And, of course, Ted Kennedy helped contribute to Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980 with an ill-considered primary challenge against an incumbent president. Lyndon Johnson’s blood feud with Bobby Kennedy – the two most prominent Democrats in the country hated each other – is well-documented in Robert Caro’s new biography of LBJ.

Perhaps the truly remarkable feature of many of these intraparty feuds – fratricide is a good word for it – is that they happen at precisely the moment when a party has the most to gain by throwing up the biggest possible tent.

In 1938, Roosevelt had huge majorities in both houses of Congress. After his failed purge, he never passed another significant piece of domestic legislation. In 1980, national Democrats faced an energized effort, new at the time at least on such a scale, to target a number of their incumbents with independent expenditure campaigns. At the very moment the party needed unity rather than warfare, it opted for warfare and lost – big. Can you say President Reagan?

National Republicans in 2012 have an historic opportunity during a time of economic distress to turn out a weak incumbent, consolidate their hold on the House and capture the Senate. Lugar’s demise in Indiana, at the least, make that last objective more difficult, since a centrist Democrat in Hoosierlandwill now likely have an easier time witha Tea Party type than he would have had with Lugar.

In Idaho, you have to wonder if all this intraparty battling among Republicans is causing them to flirt dangerously with mucking up their own decades-long success. History may have a lesson on point. In 1966, conservatives in the Idaho GOP purged three-term incumbent Republican Gov. Robert E. Smylie on grounds that he was too moderate and had grown too big for the britches of his blue suits. Smylie’s replacement as governor was very conservative and a favorite of the Goldwater wing of the GOP.

Four years later, a 39-year old lumberjack from Orofino, Cecil D. Andrus, beat the very conservative and not terribly capable Gov. Don Samuelson. That 1970 election set off a 24-year run where Democrats never moved out of the Idaho Governor’s Office.

As that ol’ lumberjack is fond of saying, “don’t say anything bad about ol’ Don Samuelson. If there hadn’t been a Don Samuelson there would never have been a Cecil Andrus.”

Purges can have some of the most unintended consequences.


Gender Chasm

Mad Men Attitudes and 21st Century Politics

By every measure it seems clear that Ann Romney has the smarts, style and personal qualities to be a very popular and successful First Lady. But as good a surrogate as she can be for husband Mitt, it will be her husband’s name and not hers on the November ballot, which simply means she can help his campaign not carry it.

Ann Romney’s notable attempts to “humanize” her husband and at the same time close the Romney and Republican Party gender chasm may help at the margins, but most likely not enough to erase one of the two really serious demographic challenges confronting the almost certain GOP nominee. The candidate and his party must engage in that heavy lifting.

Let’s start with the obvious: if you need a conscious strategy to “humanize” a real person, you have a real problem. Last week the Romney campaign rolled out an online video of the genuinely appealing Ann reminiscing about raising her five sons, as well as Mitt who she said was often the “sixth son.” The video was a not very well disguised effort to address some of the important political news of the week, President Obama’s lead over Romney in new a poll conducted in key swing states. That nearly double digit lead is now in place largely thanks to Romney’s collapsing support among women.

To borrow a popular culture reference, this situation is a little like running the completely buttoned down 1960’s ad executive Don Draper from television’s popular period piece Mad Men for president in 2012. Handsome, out of touch Don just wouldn’t make it as a 2012 candidate and, while Romney may not have Draper’s various addiction problems, he acts like a guy from the 60’s who will never open up and will certainly never get in touch with his feminine side. Romney seems most of the time like a man transported through time to a place far, far away. He’s a 1960’s man in a 21st Century campaign. You can’t humanize that.

In last week’s USA Today/Gallup Poll of swing states, President Obama led Romney 51-42 among registered voters, and remember this research was conducted in places like Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Iowa were our national elections are decided.

“The biggest change from previous polls,” USA Today reported, “came among women under 50. In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney’s support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30%. The president leads him 2-1 in this group.”

[Romney’s other potentially fatal demographic flaw is with Hispanic voters, but that’s a column for another day.]

From Rush Limbaugh to state legislatures, the Republican brand with women is tarnished, perhaps irrevocably in this election cycle. Frank Rich, writing in New York Magazine, dates the pivotal moment of the GOP collapse among women to what seemed at the time to be a completely off-the-wall question during a GOP debate early this year in New Hampshire. You may remember that George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked Romney if he shared his opponent Rick Santorum’s view that “states have the right to ban contraception.”

Romney ridiculed the question, the audience booed George and most of us chalked it up to Stephanopoulos getting too little sleep because of his early morning TV duties.

But, as Rich notes, Santorum’s birth control views just made him “an advance man for a rancorous national brawl about to ambush an unsuspecting America that thought women’s access to birth control had been resolved by the ­Supreme Court almost a half century ago.”

Meanwhile in state legislatures from Virginia to Idaho, anti-abortion themed legislation requiring women to undergo an ultrasound procedure as part of the visit to a physician prior to being able to access abortion services immediately became a potent symbol for what Democrats have begun to call “a war on women.” Whether its a war of not, the backlash over the ultrasound proposals was immediate and stunning in its intensity. After passing mandatory ultrasound legislation in the Idaho State Senate, legislative Republicans in the even more conservative Idaho House of Representatives heard from their constituents – their female Republican constituents – and suddenly discovered that the best place for the ultrasound legislation was in the bottom of a committee chairman’s desk drawer.

From personal experience I can attest to the fact that last time Idaho had a high-profile debate about abortion that carried with it national overtones – that was 1990 when then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus vetoed legislation that was not only harshly anti-female, but would have sent the state into years of litigation – the incumbent governor’s re-election was secured when he stood solidly against nationally-inspired legislation that was properly seen by women – and many men – as draconian. Conservative women flocked to Andrus, I’m convince not just because of his courageous veto, but because he displayed both toughness and compassion. In other words, the issue was a test of character. Andrus passed the test and voters – women included – could warmly relate to such attributes, which explains why Romney and the GOP are hurting with women.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, you may remember, lost her party’s nomination in 2010 to a Tea Party-backed opponent. She then mounted an nearly unprecedented write-in campaign in the general election that returned her to the Senate. Murkowski is what passes for a moderate in the national GOP these days and comments she made last week in her state place a stark frame around the problem Romney must fix if he hopes to win the White House in November.

“I think what you’re sensing is a fear, a concern that women feel threatened, that a long settled issue might not be settled,” Murkowski said on a radio talk show in Homer, Alaska last week. As the Homer News reported, “[Murkowski] cited things like conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about a female Georgetown University law student, which Murkowski called ‘offensive, horribly offensive.'”

“To have those kind of slurs against a woman … you had candidates who want to be our president not say, ‘That’s wrong. That’s offensive.’ They did not condemn the rhetoric,” Murkowski said.

The paper continued, “From her perspective as a Republican, Murkowski said she can’t understand why some in her party have raised reproductive rights as an issue.”

“It makes no sense to make this attack on women,” she said. “If you don’t feel this is an attack, you need to go home and talk to your wife and your daughters.”

So, while national unemployment numbers released last week should be confirming the GOP’s laser-like focus on the economy as the on issue that really threatens the White House incumbent, the campaign narrative for a solid week has been “war on women” and his party’s and Romney’s gender gap.

Here, I think, is the larger context for November: I tend to buy President Obama’s assertion last week that women simply don’t vote as some monolithic block that is up for grabs for a skillful candidate who appeals to the magic mix of “women’s issues.”

When it comes to politics, women are discerning voters – period. What the toxic issues mix has done to Romney and the GOP is to provide for many women – and men – a lens through which it’s possible to get a definitive glimpse of “the unzipped” Mitt, as wife Ann might say. Had Romney even a little finesse in handling these gender bending issues – think of his stumbling answer to whether Augusta National ought to allow women members or his tepid reaction to Limbaugh’s sexist bashing of an outspoken female law student – he could send all voters, particularly women, a message that he gets real life beyond his private equity experience and Ann’s two Cadillacs.

Still, rather that providing the cause of the gender chasm, the “women’s issues” mix really provides a footnote for reference on Romney’s real problem with discerning voters – they just aren’t into him. As conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote recently, “It is entirely possible that women simply aren’t that into Mitt. He’s just not their kind of guy. Health care, taxes, budgets, debt ceilings, capacity utilization, Chinese currency: so important. But at the end of the day — does he have “it”?

Parker goes on to say, “His wife says he does, but then she knows the unzipped Mitt. The question for American women is, do they really want to go there?”

In politics, of course, issues do matter, but discerning voters can sift the issues for what really matters; indications of character and connection. They may not want the candidates unzipped, but most voters do want to support candidates with whom they are comfortable, with whom they can – here’s that magic political word – connect.

Women are sending a pretty simple message: If there is no connection, there will be no Romney election.