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Politics 101

Lessons from the Streets

For a while during his second comeback of the GOP primary season Newt Gingrich was spending more time talking about Saul Alinsky than his opponents.

“The centerpiece of this campaign,” Gingrich said at one point, “is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” Such disconnected talk from the stump, like Rick Santorum’s Satan references or Mitt Romney singing, must leave a lot of voters scratching their heads and saying, “what’s he talking (or singing) about?” It’s a good question and let me offer part of the answer. Hint: it has nothing to do with exceptionalism or radicalism, but rather good, basic, traditional Politics 101.

As Romney stumbles out of Michigan with the win he had to have and reclaims for the fifth or sixth time the front runner label, the Republican field rolls on to Super Tuesday and what will undoubtedly be more twists and turns in this fascinating election. I’m left with two thoughts on the last day of February: there is a lot of time left between now and election day in November and, when it comes to campaigns, there is never enough time.

That second reality may prove to be the biggest challenge that Romney – and, yes, I still think he will be the Republican nominee – will face in a knockdown drag out race against Barack Obama. And that’s were the radical Mr. Alinsky comes to play. [Here’s a good primer on Alinsky.]

In a fascinating piece in The National Journal reporter Major Garrett provides a glimpse inside what Obama’s campaign has been doing while Romney has been talking about his wife’s Cadillacs and Santorum was calling the president a snob for suggesting that everyone should have a chance to go to college.

Garrett notes that Obama’s lead in battleground Michigan is now 18 points over Romney with all the talk of auto bailouts and contraception working to the president’s advantage. But Garrett’s real political insight in contained in this description of what the Obama campaign is doing on the ground in states that will be pivotal in the fall.

“While Republicans have been competing in Arizona and Michigan, the Obama campaign has been stepping up its voter-identification and mobilization efforts,” Garrett writes. “The reelection campaign already has eight offices in Michigan—in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Warren, Pontiac, Ann Arbor, Flint, Lansing, and Kalamazoo. In Arizona, three offices are open in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Tucson. Another will open soon in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale and will focus on Hispanic outreach.

“The campaign is also aggressively organizing voter-registration drives and social events to contact new voters. From now until March 31, the reelection has 73 such events scheduled in Detroit, 22 in Grand Rapids, and 59 in Ann Arbor. The same kind of grassroots activity is planned in Arizona. From now until April 22, the campaign will conduct 69 organizing events in and around Phoenix. The Tucson area will have 40 events between now and March 29, and Flagstaff will host 16 between now and March 20.”

You can take it to the bank – or the polling place – that such organizational work is being done, often under the radar, in person, on Facebook and Twitter, in every state where the president has a prayer of winning in November. That is what you call “community organizing,” emblematic of the tactics that Alinsky wrote the book on during his neighborhood organizing days in Chicago.

As historian Thomas J. Sugrue wrote recently in Salon, “Gingrich versus Alinsky is not a battle over ideas; it’s about power, who should have it and who should not. That’s why 40 years after his death, the Chicago radical remains on the right’s enemies list.”

Come the fall, and remember it is a long time until the election, here’s betting the presidential contest will be very tight with Mitt Romney, despite all is troubles, a very serious threat to Obama’s re-election. Nonetheless, among Romney’s major worries must be the cold reality of Politics 101. While he battles for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and struggles to secure the GOP base, the president’s campaign is “organizing, organizing, organizing.”

As Alinsky’s organizing Rule 8 says: “Keep the pressure on…the major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”

Barack Obama isn’t the dangerous radical Newt Gingrich paints him to be, but he – and his campaign – are smart enough to have gone to school on that which works. They learned from George W. Bush’s masterfully organized campaign in 2004 and using the new technology now available they adapted those lessons to 2008. The pressure is on in 2012 and they’re doing it again.


Primary Colors

Defeating the Incumbent…in Your Own Party

Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas– that’s him in the photo when he was at the height of his influence – still holds the record as the longest serving Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He created the Fulbright Scholars program, was himself a Rhodes Scholar, at a young age the president of the University of Arkansas and in the 1960’s an early opponent of the Vietnam War. None of that seemed to matter much when he lost re-election in his own party’s primary in 1974. When Bill Fulbright died in 1995, The New York Times called him a “giant” of the Senate, but he’d once been rejected by his own kind.

Burton K. Wheeler of Montana was arguably the most powerful politician that state has ever produced. Elected four times from 1922 until 1946, he was one of the Senate’s great mavericks, battling presidents of both parties and forging a bi-partisan political movement in Montana. He lost re-election in 1946 in his own party’s primary.

In 1946, Sen. Robert M. La Follette, Jr. of Wisconsin seemed like a sure thing for re-election. He’d been in the Senate since 1925 having replaced his famous father who was regarded by many as one of the Senate’s greats and hated by some for being a dangerous radical. Young Bob lost his re-election by just a shade over 5,000 votes to a young, mostly unknown Republican by the name of Joe McCarthy.

An incumbent United States Senator losing in his own party primary is rare in our history – very rare – but that may be about to change as more and more Republicans face challenges from the far right of the GOP.

I wrote yesterday of the struggle Sen. Richard Lugar is facing in Indiana. Sen. Orrin Hatch is in trouble in Utah where his former colleague Bob Bennett was taken out two years ago. For a while it appeared Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of the least conservative GOP Senators, would also have a tussle with a Tea Party-inspired opponent this year, but that challenge seems to have faded. Still, Maine may be the exception that proves the rule.

[BREAKING NEWS: Late today, Sen. Snowe announced she will not run for re-election in Maine.]

Of the historic and contemporary examples I’ve cited, only Wheeler’s post-war experience in Montana, is an outlier. In every other case, the incumbent senator faced a challenge from the right. Wheeler’s demise was orchestrated from the left, primarily because he fell out of favor with some elements of organized labor in Montana. Generally speaking – and of course there are exceptions like Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut – imposing party discipline in the form of a primary challenge is a tactic employed by conservatives against someone who isn’t perceived as being conservative enough.

With the GOP more and more a branch of the Tea Party, look for more primary challenges to Republican incumbents and color the vast majority of them bright red.


Eating Their Own

The Decline and Fall of the Moderate

Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana certainly ranks as one of the most significant politicians to ever hail from Hoosierland. He’s the ranking member and former chairman of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been elected six times to the Senate. Lugar is as close as the Senate has to a respected senior statesman on the issue of how we control weapons of mass destruction. Democrats respect and often follow him on those issues. Under normal circumstances, Luger ought to have a lock on re-election. He doesn’t.

In a Politico profile of Lugar and his re-election, reporter Jonathan Allen says the 36-year Senate veteran is catching it from the left and right for being out of touch with Indiana. Lugar’s very conservative GOP primary opponent, for example, has been hitting him for not owning a home in Indiana and for having the independence to vote for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.

Allen writes, “this race is an epilogue to a 2010 election in which anti-establishment Republicans knocked off sitting senators and party favorites, and in several cases gave Democrats a shot to win seats that had seemed out of reach.”

If Lugar survives the Republican primary in Indiana he may have a serious Democratic opponent, but Lugar is likely to hold the seat. If he’s knocked off, as relative moderates like Mike Castle in Delaware and Robert Bennett in Utah were two years ago, Democrats may have a rare chance to pick up a seat where Republicans dominate. The reason is pretty simple: Republicans – nationally and closer to home – are culling the GOP herd of anyone who even appears to be a moderate.

In Idaho, two of the few remaining “moderate” Republicans in the Idaho House – Leon Smith and Tom Trail – aren’t running for re-election this year. Both have watched the party move steadily to the far right with more moderate Republicans pushed to the sidelines. In Idaho the moderate Republican in elective office has become almost as rare as a Democrat…or a native sockeye salmon.

More than the home he doesn’t own in Indiana or his long tenure in the Senate, Dick Lugar is trying to survive in a national Republican Party that is redefining itself out of the mainstream of American political life, which is why it’s worth watching how Texas Congressman Ron Paul is playing the game during the presidential primary season.

Ron Paul doesn’t have a prayer of winning the GOP presidential nomination, but he does stand a good chance of helping define what it will mean going forward to be a conservative and a Republican. It certainly doesn’t mean being in the middle on anything.

The National Journal recently did its analysis of Senate voting records and concluded – again – that the most conservative Democrat in the Senate has a voting record that is more liberal than the most liberal Republican. This ideological divide has happened only three times in the last 30 years, but has now happened twice in the last two years.

National Journal declared that, “Ideological mavericks are an extinct breed. The otherwise iconoclastic Tom Coburn of Oklahoma had the most conservative voting record in the Senate (Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York were tied for the most liberal), and the old fighter jock himself, John McCain of Arizona, voted more to the right than two-thirds of his GOP colleagues.”

The House of Representatives is every bit as ideologically divided as the Senate, but it wasn’t always so.

The National Journal piece notes that not that long ago, conservative southern Democrats joined with Republicans to influence national policy across the board. And there is this great quote from former Rep. John Byrnes of Wisconsin, a Republican on the Democratically controlled Ways and Means Committee in the 1960’s. 

“It was a pleasant operation. You weren’t constantly fighting on philosophical or other grounds and issues,” Byrnes said in an oral history. “You were trying to look for ways where we could compromise differences and move along [legislation].… It was part of the thing that made life worthwhile and interesting. You knew that you did leave some kind of an imprint, because any idea that finally developed into a consensus, you knew that you were part of that process.”

But, back to Ron Paul. He wants, as South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint also recently called for, a final showdown between conservative Republicans and Paul’s brand of libertarian Republicans with the winner defining the modern Republican Party. If Paul ends the primary season controlling enough delegates, and he just might, he can force votes at the GOP convention over his ideas for reforming (or eliminating) the Federal Reserve, a more isolationist foreign policy or putting the country on the gold standard. Paul’s aim, and why he won’t bolt and run on a third party line in November, is to remake the GOP into his vision of what a conservative party looks like.

Meanwhile, at the grassroots in Indiana, Dick Lugar is getting killed. A straw poll over the weekend found him getting eight votes out of 69 in a contest with his Republican challenger.

The GOP moderate really is disappearing with this heart and soul fight between the traditional Chamber of Commerce Republicans and the conservatives who find Mitt Romney too squishy on many issues. Will Democrats, also not averse to eating their own, be smart enough to capitalize? There is, after all, a lot of room for the party from just right of center to where Sen. Bernie Sanders sits.

Tomorrow…some reflections on Senators who survived the kind of challenge Lugar is getting and some who didn’t.


What We Need

In a Presidential Candidate

Mark Twain is not remembered as a partisan political person, but more as an equal opportunity abuser of politicians of all stripes.

“It could probably be shown by facts and figures,” Twain wrote, “that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

Twain set equal opportunity aside in 1880 when he openly and enthusiastically supported James A. Garfield, a Republican, for the presidency in what turned out to be one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Garfield, a Civil War hero and general from Ohio, beat Winfield Scott Hancock, a Civil War hero and general from Pennsylvania.

Ohio and Pennsylvania were swing states in 1880, as they are today. Garfield won both states and the popular vote by about 10,000 votes. One must believe Mark Twain’s support helped put him over the top.

While seriously supporting Garfield, Twain also humorously wrote a short and very funny essay in 1879 about his own candidacy for the White House.

The first line of the essay was straight forward: “I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President.” Twain went on: “What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before.”

No word on whether he had Newt Gingrich’s second wife in mind when he wrote those words.

Twain was arguing, in his funny way, what has become conventional wisdom about a candidate with, well, a history. The rule has become: Put out the bad news yourself before the other side can smear you with it.

So, Twain, tongue firmly in cheek, blew the whistle on himself admitting that he had “treed a rheumatic grandfather” for his snoring; that he ran away from combat at Gettysburg not because he didn’t want the Union saved during the Civil War, but he just wanted someone else to save it; and that he was “no friend of the poor man.”

“These are the worst parts of my record,” Twain said, and, of course, warts and all he recommended himself “as a safe man” for the presidency.

Mark Twain knew something that too many politicians today don’t know – humor is the great humanizer. Used wisely it is powerful stuff. Used badly it’s like unstable dynamite and it blows up. The smart candidate knows the difference.

Lincoln had a great sense of humor, as did Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. John Kennedy could tell a funny story, often at his own expense, which is the best kind of humor. Mark Twain was telling us in 1879 – we need more funny politicians.

Mark Twain also said in his presidential candidate essay: “The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?”

It’s not always true that the funniest candidate wins, but more times that not he – or she – will win. Mark Twain should have run. He would have been a riot.

Humor is a mirror into a person’s sense of self. If you can make a joke, tell a story on yourself, be aware of how you are seen by others, it can be a great asset. Come the fall,when the major party candidates are finally set, the guy who best gets this political truism will have a major advantage. A candidate need not be Mark Twain, but a little of his sense of humor is worth a lot of votes.


Off Message

Birth Control, Religious Freedom…What Happened to the Economy?

Memo to CNN: in future debates don’t put candidates for president of the United States at little desks that look like they belong in a really slick third grade classroom.

Last night’s 20th GOP debate – yes, it’s only 20 times, seems like 200 – convinces me of something I thought I would never say or believe: there is such a thing as too much debating. The current campaign season should remind us that presidential candidate debates should be like eating french fries – once in a while and not too many. The candidate’s body language seemed to indicate that they are just plain fed up with the new-to-this-cycle’s debate-a-week schedule. And why not. Debates are hard, draining and require preparation. In their heart of hearts these candidates – any candidate – hate these debates even as they know they need to do them.

While we’re at it Newt looks like he hasn’t been passing on the fries.

I’m guessing today that all the campaigns – and the smart folks in the GOP who must be increasingly concerned about the fall campaign – are happy the debates are over, at least for a while. Last night’s contest found the contenders almost completely off message when it comes to the fall campaign.

What smart guy suggested to any of the GOP contenders that with a fragile economic recovery limping along – Barack Obama’s single biggest re-election liability – that they should turn on a dime and start talking about birth control, Planned Parenthood and whether Obama is going to launch a war on the Catholic Church if he’s re-elected? In the last debate last night there was more talk about birth control pills and Syria than about unemployment rates. That is a definition of off message.

This line of debate is the political equivalent of taking the drapes down for cleaning on the Titanic as the ship sinks and passengers scramble into the life boats. In other words, it is almost completely disconnected from the reality that most American voters live every day. Maybe the social issues play with the most conservative GOP base, but the task in the fall is to broaden the party’s appeal, not narrow it.

For me the highlight of the debate was the Romney-Santorum exchange over the former Pennsylvania senator’s 2004 endorsement of then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. Specter hasn’t gotten this much air time since Anita Hill and the Coke can. You could almost hear voters saying, “who are they talking about?”

But, the biggest mistake Romney and Santorum are making is squabbling among themselves over issues that Barack Obama has already won on, like the Michigan auto industry bailout. As the Christian Science Monitor points out today: “The Obama campaign is hitting the GOP field – and Romney in particular – with an advertisement arguing that ‘when a million American jobs were on the line, every Republican candidate turned their back’ before flashing Romney’s now-infamously headlined op-ed Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

At a time when General Motors is reporting extraordinary new profits, the GOP field is debating the details of the long-distance bailout. Obama’s new Michigan TV spot neatly wraps the whole thing around their necks.

Memo to field: quit digging when you find yourself in a hole and enough with the debates already. Go shake some hands.


They Also Ran

These Guys Never Made it to President’s Day

If you recognize the fellow in the photo as the 1924 Democratic candidate for President of the United States you are a trivia master. That smiling, prosperous looking fellow was John W. Davis and he lost the presidency in 1924 to Calvin Coolidge.

It somehow seems appropriate – the day after President’s Day – to remember the also ran’s who also ran, guys like John W. Davis. Who knows whether Davis would have been a good president? He certainly had the resume. Davis was born and grew up in West Virginia where he practiced law, served in the state legislature, got elected to Congress, became Solicitor General and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. So far, he seems over qualified.

When Democrats nearly destroyed the party in 1924 with a convention battle over the Klan and booze – the wet, anti-Klan crowd wanted New York Gov. Al Smith, the dry, pro-Klan faction favored the former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo – Davis emerged on the 103rd ballot as the compromise nominee.

[Could a man named McAdoo have ever won the presidency? Well, a guy named Obama did.]

When that 1924 convention entered its 16th day without a nominee, Will Rogers joked that New York had invited the Democrats to visit the city for their convention not to live there permanently. When Davis finally had the nomination, it wasn’t worth much. He lost everything but the solid south and Silent Cal polled 54% in an election that also featured a Progressive Party ticket lead by Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin.

Davis gets his own chapter in one of my all-time favorite political books, which is appropriated called They Also Ran. Irving Stone wrote the profiles of the men who ran and lost in 1943. The book covers the losers from the beginning of the Republic until 1940 and it’s a great read with Stone often suggesting that the guys who lost – Davis, Winfield Scott Hancock, etc. – might have been a good deal better than the guys who won.

The book also bunches the also ran’s into parallel lives with the military men grouped together, the newspaper men considered together, etc. It is a very effective technique and a unique perspective on those who ran and lost.

It’s fun to think about the presidents we might have had – Henry Clay, for instance – or we should have had – Horace Greeley rather than a second Grant term. David Frum played the game yesterday by focusing on three important elections.

While the also ran’s failed to make it to the White House a number of them still influenced history. Davis, for example, became one of the most famous lawyers of his day. No less an authority than Justice Hugo Black considered him one of the two or three greatest advocates of the 20th Century. By the end of his legal career, Davis had made 139 oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, including representing the state of South Carolina in one of the most important cases in court history – Brown v. Board of Education.

In that case, just as in his moment of presidential fame in 1924, John W. Davis lost. But, fair is fair, losers deserve to be remembered, too, and who knows what might have been.