Archive for January, 2011

The Moral Test

medicaidHard Cases

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life; the children, those who are in the twilight of life; the elderly, and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

The quote is most often attributed to the liberal icon Hubert Humphrey and dates to a time when there was a broad consensus in American life that government had a very precise role to play in trying to improve the plight of those fellow citizens “in the shadows of life.” The lingering Great Recession more than ever has called that role of government into question and, at the same time, made Hubert’s eloquent quote more relevant than ever.

A massive human hurt is unfolding in nearly every state as governors and state legislators contemplate unprecedented reductions in spending on various services paid for at the state level by Medicaid. In states like Idaho, all the easy stuff has been cut. Now the real pain begins, as illustrated by the estimated 1,000 Idahoans who showed up on Friday, some in wheelchairs, to show state legislators, more eloquently than words ever could, just what the American social safety net really means to real people.

With the 50 states collectively facing a budget gap estimated at $125 billion, the New York Times reports today that Medicaid is “ripe for the slashing” from New York to California, from Idaho to Texas. The times are tough – very tough – but I doubt that even tough-minded, fiscally conservative legislators can live with the implications of ending services for a guy in a wheelchair or an 8th grader with autism.

In Idaho, 20 lawmakers, the members of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), make most every spending decision for the rest of the 85 members of the legislature. It is an awesome power and responsibility. The committee has co-chairs, Sen. Dean Cameron and Rep. Maxine Bell, and no one has ever credibly accused these experienced lawmakers of being big spenders. They run a tidy ship and one has to be impressed with the diligence they and their committee have lavished on the hard choices the state faces with both Medicaid and education. Cameron and Bell deserve a lot of praise for showing the political courage to open up the committee to those thousand people who came calling on Friday. It had to have been a sobering experience for anyone paying attention.

Here’s a fearless prediction. Arguably the most conservative legislature in the nation won’t be able to make the $25 million in Medicaid cuts that Idaho’s governor has proposed. It will take a while yet for the reality to sink in, its still early in the legislative process, but Friday was an important day. Not only did the thousand show up, but the budget numbers that have been in dispute since the first day of the 2011 session just gained some clarity and not in a good way.

All this will eventually lead to a frantic search for some barely acceptable source of new revenue to help plug the budget holes. The legislature will come to embrace, in tried and true fashion, the method of patch and scratch tax policy making. Some how, some way, Idaho’s very conservative legislature will “find” some new revenue to avoid these awful choices.

It won’t be easy, and people elected never to raise taxes will anguish over the choices, but it will happen I think. Idaho’s lawmakers have come face-to-face with their fellow citizens who really do, through no fault of their own, live in the shadows. In the end, it will not really be much of a political test. No one is likely to lose an election by making a vote to preserve home care services for an elderly, wheelchair bound neighbor. It will be quite a moral test, however, for lawmakers who infrequently see so clearly the impact of their votes.

Now We Know – Maybe

finance-crisis-photo1Legislate Then Investigate

The commission investigating the causes of the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” has issued its report and – big surprise – the group split along partisan lines. Democrats issued a majority report, while Republicans offered their own take on who and what was to blame for the Great Recession; the recession that is technically over, but still seems to hang around like a relative who just doesn’t know when to leave once the Thanksgiving dinner is over.

One of the better bits of analysis of the huge report is from former Bush speechwriter David Frum.

Frum writes: “The report…argues that everything that people needed to know was there to be known. The crisis was not a ‘hurricane': It was more like a housefire in a home where people routinely smoked in bed.”

And there’s this: “Americans withdrew $2.0 trillion in home equity between 2000 and 2007. At a time of stagnating incomes for most Americans, the housing boom financed the appearance of economic progress – one reason government was so reluctant to act. Minus the housing bubble, I doubt very much that President Bush would have been re-elected in 2004.

If you really want to get into this analysis, here are some terrific charts that help to break up the hard facts into somewhat understandable chunks.

One of the striking conclusions you reach in reviewing this new report and in reading the mountain of writing that has been produced in books and articles is that many of the so called Titans of Wall Street had, at best, a weak grasp on the facts of the situation facing the economy, not to mention detailed knowledge of what was happening in their own institutions.

One juicy headline from the Commission’s work is the admission by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, an academic scholar of the Great Depression by the way, that 12 of the 13 major Wall Street financial firms were at the very brink of failure late in 2008.

Unfortunately the work of the Commission, tainted by the lack of political consensus, is likely to take us no where in particular. The hopes that a rational, coherent explanation of what cause the economic collapse would lead to a careful reassessment of whether more regulation is needed, whether the biggest of the big banks are too big, etc. just hasn’t happened.

In fact, unlike the justly celebrated Pecora Commission in the early 1930’s that lead to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the passage of banking regulation that, seems to me, served us pretty well for the rest of the century, Congress legislated before the Commission reported. Hope they got it right.

Here is some sobering news for the week just ending, the week that saw the Dow top 12,000 and in which it was reported that a Wall Street hedge fund manager personally made $5 billion in profits last year, “Our financial system is really not very different today in 2011 than it was in the run up to this crisis.”

That quote comes from one of the commission members, Byron Georgiou, who spent the last year trying to understand why we came so close to complete economic disaster; a disaster that has done so much short- and long-term damage to so many people.

Here’s hoping we aren’t setting ourselves up for an even more devastating Round Two.

Odds and Ends

catchersOf No Particular Importance…

Most major league baseball teams have pitchers and catchers report to spring training round about Feb. 14. It doesn’t mark the end of winter, but perhaps the beginning of the end and that is something.

Boston has had 50 inches of snow this winter. Do you think Red Sox fans are anxious for spring?

I’m still nursing the hurt over the Diamondbacks and Rockies abandoning Tucson in favor of another spring training outpost in the Phoenix suburbs. So much for old school. Baseball in the spring has been a fixture in Tucson since 1946. Not this year. The D-backs and Colorado will share a spanking new ballpark – Salt River Fields. I’m boycotting and plan on seeing the hapless Cubs in Mesa, the A’s in their venerable little band box in Phoenix and the World Champions in downtown Scottsdale.

Hope springs eternal in the spring. Everyone is in first place on opening day.

Kennedy Memories

My old friend Joel Connelly had a nice piece recently at the Seattle P-I’s online site on memories of John Kennedy in the Northwest. Joel, a great recorder of the region’s political lore, relates a wonderful story about JFK and legendary Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson.

The Times on the Times

I’ve long believed the single most difficult thing for “the media” to do is to report on itself. Most reporters and editors are generally loathe to criticize each other, unless its someone like Bill O’Reilly tweaking Keith Olbermann. That makes this story in the New York Times reporting on dissatisfaction in Los Angeles with the L.A. Times so interesting.

Here’s the money quote. The NYT’s media critic quotes a long-time LA Times reader as saying: “We need a paper that’s more, and this is less. I think it’s just not a world-class paper, no matter how you cut it. It used to be a world-class paper.”

Analysis and comment at the Columbia Journalism Review site further dissects the Times coverage of the Times. My take: I have long admired both papers and have had my gripes with each, but the LA Times is today a far cry from what it was when Otis Chandler was in charge.

Sargent Shriver

Lots of memorials, appropriately, to the first man JFK put in charge of the Peace Corps – Sargent Shriver. The wake for the very Catholic Shriver was a classic sad and hilarious recalling of his quite remarkable life.

The serious side of Shriver is well summarized in a nice piece by Richard Reeves and the funniest story was told in Adam Clymer’s tribute at the Daily Beast.

Clymer told a story he attributed to Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, a longtime friend of Shriver’s. “One afternoon [Shrum] and Shriver arrived at the Shriver home as Eunice was running a Special Olympics event. She had put out a wine punch for the athletes’ parents. Sarge sampled it and asked what wine was used. A servant said Eunice had told them to just take anything handy. They had opened a case of Chateau Lafite Rothschild ’48, a gift from Giscard d’Estaing, president of France when Shriver served as ambassador. Shrum reports that Shriver was momentarily nonplussed, but then smiled and said, ‘Then we’d better drink a lot of it.'”

I have no idea what a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild ’48 is worth, but a bottle of ’82 sold at a wine auction in 2009 for $3,300. The 1948 vintage is rated as a “moderate to good vintage.”

That was some wine punch.

Heir Apparent

littleThere’s a Trend Here…

Now that Idaho’s statewide elected officials have taken the oath of office for the next four years, we can safely start the speculation about four years from now.

You won’t find many “political observers” in Idaho who wouldn’t make book on the fact that the state’s current Lt. Gov. Brad Little is the prohibitive favorite to be the state’s next chief executive when current Gov. Butch Otter is ready to ride to the sunset.

While Gov. Otter is, appropriately, receiving most of the attention at the moment as the state struggles with another year of bleak revenue forecasts, shrinking budgets and many, many tough decisions, Little grabbed a bit of the political spotlight with a very well attended fundraising breakfast in Boise on January 7. That just happened to be the morning that he, Otter and the rest of the statewide electeds were sworn in for their new terms.

While it is dangerous to assume anything in politics, I’m betting that nearly everyone at the Lt. Governor’s breakfast earlier this month entertains the expectation that the affable Little is the odds-on heir apparent. After all, while taking nothing away from his obvious political talents and demonstrated appeal, Little seems to be part of the now established trend in Idaho of the “Light” Governor having the leg up on moving up.

Four of the last six Idaho governors, including Otter, have served as Lt. Governor before gaining the big job. This trend really began when John Evans succeeded Cecil Andrus in 1977 when Andrus went to Washington to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Before Evans got his chance to move into the big office in the west wing of the Statehouse, you have to go all the way back to Arnold Williams in the late 1940’s to find an Idaho Lt. Governor who become Governor.

Andrus returned to the governorship in 1986 and Phil Batt, who had been Lt. Governor under Evans, followed him. Jim Risch, now in the U.S. Senate, was appointed Lt. Governor and moved up when Dirk Kempthorne went to the Bush cabinet. Then it became Otter’s turn in 2006.

Kempthorne is the outlier in this group. He went from the U.S. Senate to the governorship, the first person in Idaho history to do that. Interestingly, only one Idahoan, three-term GOP Gov. Bob Smylie, moved up from the Attorney Generals’ office.

Prior to Evans moving up in the 1980’s, conventional wisdom held that the surest road to the governorship was through the state legislature. Andrus made that move, as did Don Samuelson before him. In fact, of the 19 men who have served as Idaho’s governor since 1920, 13 of them served in the legislature before becoming governor.

So, you want to be governor of Idaho – this sounds simpler than it is – do your time in the state legislature, as Little has done (the Senate is a generally a better stepping stone than the House) and then get yourself elected to the Number Two job. Nothing is ever pre-determined in politics – nothing – but that path is now pretty well-worn in Idaho.

Nullification

davisWe Fought a War Over This…

As Idaho and a half dozen other states prepare legislation to attempt to “nullify” the federal health care law, including apparently sanctions against anyone trying to implement the law, it may be worth remembering that 150 years ago this week the future President of the Confederacy stood on the floor of the United States Senate and spoke his farewells.

A good part of Sen. Jefferson Davis’ speech on Jan. 21, 1861 was devoted to the doctrine of nullification.

His home state of Mississippi was leaving the Union, Davis said, and, in his mind at least, it naturally followed that he had to leave the Senate of the United States.

Davis explained his theory of his duties as a citizen and made it clear that his allegiance to Ole Miss came before his country. “If I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation,” he said, “or without an existing necessity, I should still, under my theory of the Government, because of my allegiance to the State of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her action.” My state right or wrong, apparently.

Davis went on at some length to draw a distinction between what he and Mississippi were doing – leaving the Union – and the theory, widely advanced in the 1830’s by John C. Calhoun, of nullification.

“Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are, indeed, antagonistic principles,” Davis said. “Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligations, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other states of the Union for a decision; but, when the States themselves and when the people of the States have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.”

In his somewhat tortured assessment of nationhood, Davis explained what Calhoun was trying to do by advocating nullification, or as he described it a state “assuming to judge for itself.”

“It was because of [Calhoun's] deep-seated attachment to the Union – his determination to find some remedy for existing ills short of a severance of the ties which bound South Carolina to the other States – that Mr. Calhoun advocated the doctrine of nullification, which he proclaimed to be peaceful, to be within the limits of State power, not to disturb the Union, but only to be a means of bringing the agent before the tribunal of the States for their judgement.

“Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the states are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is a sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever.”

In other words, disunion in the mind of Jefferson Davis was a logical follow on to nullification for a sovereign state.

The trouble with Idaho’s approach to this fundamental Constitutional guestion is that it neglects a good slice of the last 150 years of American history; those years since Davis made his passionate defense of state’s rights. Our ancestors fought a bloody and protracted Civil War to resolve these very questions. As a result, the United States became a singular nation, as the great historian Shelby Foote loved to point out. Prior to Lee’s surrender to Grant in 1865, it was common to refer to the “United States are.” But our history and our courts have consistently held since that the “United States is.”

Still, every few years nullification comes roaring back. During the civil rights era, ten different southern states sought to nullify the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ultimately ruled in 1958 in Cooper v. Aaron that the Brown ruling, ending segregation, could “neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation.”

Idaho’s foremost Constitutional scholar, Dr. David Adler, recently told the Associated Press that nullification proponents are conveniently overlooking a lot of our history. “The premise of their position and the reasoning behind it are severely flawed and have no support in our Constitutional architecture,” Adler said.

In their zeal to overturn an act of Congress, the proponents of nullification cite, as Jefferson Davis did on the brink of the Civil War, the “high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited,” not to mention the wisdom of Jefferson and Madison. Funny, they rarely mention that old fire breather, Calhoun.

Through a terrible Civil War and on through the long and continuing struggle for civil rights, the United States gradually and imperfectly became one country of many states. Through elections and court cases, debate and discourse, we have arrived at a federal government that makes laws and attempts, not always ably, to apply them fairly to all the people. If folks don’t like those laws, they do have recourse – legal recourse. They can sue in the courts, as Idaho has done over the health care legislation, or they can have an election to change the Congress.

Neither available legal approach, historically or Constitutionally, sanctions nullification. Maybe that is so because wise leaders, at least since Jefferson Davis, have been able to see where such a doctrine logically can lead.

The great Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a concurring opinion in Aaron more than 50 years ago and captured the essence of what is at sake in preserving our federal system.

“Lincoln’s appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature’ failed to avert a fratricidal war,” Frankfurter wrote in 1958. “But the compassionate wisdom of Lincoln’s First and Second Inaugurals bequeathed to the Union, cemented with blood, a moral heritage which, when drawn upon in times of stress and strife, is sure to find specific ways and means to surmount difficulties that may appear to be insurmountable.”

Great Political Reads

political booksA Top Ten List

Legislatures are in session, the president is poised to deliver the State of the Union and we just marked the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inaugural. All politics all the time.

So…writing recently about Richard Ben Cramer’s political classic What It Takes got me thinking about some of my favorite political reads. Here, in no particular order, is a Top Ten List of Political Reads – or a Top Eleven counting Cramer’s tome, which has to be on any list of mine. Here goes.

1. Truman by David McCullough. Certainly among the greatest political biographies, McCullough won the Pulitzer for his great writing and research and this booked helped rehabilitate the reputation of the Man from Missouri.

2. They Also Ran by Irving Stone. This is the fascinating story of the men who ran for president and lost. In chapter length profiles, Stone groups these “losers” into categories like “Generals Die in the Army” and “Wall Street Lawyers.” This classic was published in 1943, so it ends with the story of that “loser” Wendell Willkie who, with the full benefit of hindsight, seems to have been a remarkable man. In fact, Stone makes a compelling case that many of those who ran for the White House and lost were every bit as able – and often better – than those who won.

3. Shooting Star by Tom Wicker. There are many, many good books about controversial Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, but if you read just one you will find none better than Wicker’s little volume. The great one-time New York Times writer establishes McCarthy in his times with all his well-documented excesses, but also offers a nuanced view – too nuanced for some critics – of McCarthy’s troubled personality. This is a critical book, but also fair and full of color sustained by the perspective of a political reporter who knows politics and politicians.

4. Huey Long by T. Harry Williams. Another biography, this one exhaustive, of another demagogue. Long was a brilliant Louisiana communicator/politician who rose from humble beginnings to command a virtual state dictatorship. Williams’ book is highly readable and, some would argue, more sympathetic to the Kingfish than it should be, but it is also a classic work of political history. By 1935, Long had become a national figure – his radio speeches were powerful, funny and frightening. He also became a threat from the left to Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election. Long’s life ended in September 1935 in a hail of gunfire in the hallway of the capitol building he had built in Baton Rouge, but the Long dynasty survived. The Long family produced another governor, a congressman and Huey’s senator son Russell who, like his papa, was one of the great political figures in the history of the United States Senate.

5. Advice and Consent by Allen Drury. Drury was a Congressional correspondent when he wrote his classic 1959 novel about a bitter Senate confirmation battle. The book has lasting appeal as a look inside the exclusive club, complete with deals, double crosses, sex, scandal and statesmanship.

6. Senator Mansfield by Don Oberdorfer. Montana’s Mike Mansfield was a great Senator and perhaps, with apologies to Lyndon Johnson, the most constructive Senate Majority Leader in history. In former Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer’s masterful biography, Mansfield emerges as a great thinker and a profoundly decent man; the model of a modern senator.

7. The 103rd Ballot by Robert K. Murray. It is hard to believe these days, with our national political conventions little more than carefully choreographed TV commercials, that years ago the conventions were great political theatre where presidential candidacies were both born and buried. In 1924, Democrats took an unbelievable 103 ballots to nominate a compromise candidate John W. Davis who, not surprisingly, took the horribly divided party to disastrous defeat. That convention – one observer noted that Democrats had taken a week to commit political suicide – is detailed in Murray’s colorful history, complete with the KKK, prohibition, religion and, did I mention, large doses of bare knuckle politics.

8. Five Days in Philadelphia by Charles Peters. There have been, I think, two absolutely pivotal presidential elections in American history: 1864 when Lincoln was re-elected and thereby able to prosecute the Civil War to its ultimate end and 1940 when Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term and a chance to lead the country away from isolationism. Peters’ great little book centers on the GOP nominating process in 1940 and the convention in Philadelphia that nominated Wendell Willkie. Willkie was the last true “dark horse” to win a presidential nomination.

9. Mick – The Real Michael Collins by Peter Hart. I’m both fascinated and repelled by the complex and frequently awful history of modern Irish politics. Any effort to understand the complex tale of modern Ireland must include the story of the great Irish Republican leader Michael Collins. Collins was both general and politician, but mostly brilliant political strategist and manager. He was also clever, ambitious, brave and brutal. He lost his life during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Collins had a pivotal role in the negotiations with the British – the British delegation included Winston Churchill – that resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty helped secure Irish independence, but was so unpopular with some that it also precipitated the civl war. As a practical, pragmatic peacemaker, Collins defended the treaty and knew that in doing so he might well have written his death warrant. Nearly 90 years after his death, Collins’ grave in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery is still every day festooned with fresh flowers.

10. Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro. Caro’s monumental, multi-volume biography of LBJ is notable for the vast reach of his research, but also for his unrelenting (and at times unfair) critique of Johnson’s remarkable career. Still, the third volume on Johnson’s years as Senate Majority Leader, is as good a portrait of the Senate as any every crafted. The publication of the final volume of Caro’s nearly life-long work on Johnson will be a major milestone, but who knows when he’ll be finished with it. Caro took 12 years to write Master of the Senate. It is a huge book and hugely important.

There you have it – a Top Ten list for a political junkie.