Archive for September, 2012

The Defining Event

The author and historian Shelby Foote, his narrative history of the Civil War  - all 1.5 million words of it – remains one of the masterpieces of American letters, once told the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns: “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

The crossroads of American history? Indeed.

Do we really need to understand the Civil War to understand the current debates over the role of the Supreme Court or whether the president has the authority to legally detain a person thought to present a threat to the nation? The short answer is a resounding – yes. Issues of race, the roles and responsibilities of the states in relation to the federal government, whether a state can “nullify” a federal act, our very notions of freedom and equality all have roots in the Civil War. Later this month The Andrus Center at Boise State University will welcome a distinguished group of American scholars and historians to a conference to commemorate the 150th anniversary of our defining event. We’re calling it “Why the Civil War Still Matters.”

One of those historians is Dr. Joan Waugh who teaches history at UCLA and has authored a fascinating and important book about one of the central characters of the Civil War; a dated and dusty figure who most of us only vaguely know – U.S. Grant. Waugh sat out with her book – U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth – to understand the importance of Grant, the general and the president, to his times. I hope most high school students know that Grant was the fighting general who Abraham Lincoln ultimately turned to to win the Civil War and perhaps we have some hazy notion that he eventually became a mediocre president whose administration was dogged by scandal.

But in his time, Grant was much, much more; a figure considered by his fellow Americans as worthy of mention in the same breath as Washington and Lincoln.

“From April 9, 1865,” Waugh writes, “Grant emerged as the top military victor, but importantly as a magnanimous warrior of mythic status to whom the people of the re-United States turned for leadership time and again in the years after Lincoln’s assassination.” Think for a moment of the importance of Grant the military victor who brought defeat to the rebel southern states and then helps advance the long cause of reunification by virtue of him magnanimous attitude toward the very people who had tried to kill him and the country.

As difficult as our national challenges of race, equality and sectional division remain today, it is not at all difficult to imagine that without Grant, the magnanimous warrior, our national reconciliation may never have happened. This is the kind of story that Shelby Foote knew defined American character down to the present day. Today politicians from across the political spectrum toss around illusions to the Constitution like so many focus group tested sound bites, but the Civil War was all about the Constitution and the enduring meaning of the words to create “a more perfect Union.” For that reason and so many more our generation must confront again and again this national history and its meaning today.

More information on The Andrus Center conference on the Civil War – Why the Civil War Still Matters – can be found at The Center’s website: www.andruscenter.org.

 The conference will take place on October 25, 2012 and is open to the public. It promises to be a day of enlightenment, entertain and relevance.

 

 

Seven Rules of Politics

Forty days out in what has seemed like a presidential election campaign that might never end, things are about to get really interesting. The TV ads are flying – at least in Ohio – the debates loom, the charges fly and the pundits spout. But what does it all mean?

Today no analysis – historic or otherwise – just seven rules collected over 35 years of reporting on politics, working on two statewide campaigns and trying to understand the great ebb and flow of American politics. Rules to live by, if you will, in assessing the home stretch of the 2012 campaign.

1) All politics is local. That was the famous mantra of the late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill and it is as true as the math in the Electoral College. After all the months and all the money the presidential race comes down to no more than nine states where the smartest candidates will run for the next few weeks like they’re trying to win a county commission race. You better remember the name of the mayor of Muscatine and who runs that diner in New Hampshire you visited for 11 minutes four years ago. The locals are watching, because it is all local.

2) Beware the candidate who is first to say “the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.” That candidate is surely running behind. Polls come and polls go but, as the savvy Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame stresses, the trends go on and on. Day after day, week after week of trends mean something in polling and a steady trend is a predictor of that only poll that counts on Election Day.

The “only poll that counts” corollary is the old “our internal polls tell a different story” talking point. Of course, no campaign releases internal polling so this old chestnut gets dusted off ever election cycle. This line of analysis has been pursued by Presidents Goldwater, Mondale, Kerry, Dukakis, Dole and McCain, among others.

3) When a candidate says, as Barack Obama did at the Democratic Convention, “this election is not about me” you can take it to the bank that the election is about him. Elections always come down to a choice between two people. It’s always about the candidates, and even more about the candidate if he has a cause, and it is always about the incumbent.

4) When a candidate or campaign says, “we will have adequate resources to compete” you can be assured they won’t. If you have enough money in politics, you keep quiet and spend it – wisely if you can. If you don’t have the cash you talk about being able to compete, which is shorthand to the donors that they need to write another check because the opponent is killing you in the money race.

5) The candidate who is forced to talk about the inner workings of his/her campaign is almost always losing. If precious earned media time is being given over to batting down stories about this highly paid consultant not getting along with that highly paid consultant it is almost always a bad sign. The term “re-tool” in the same sentence with campaign is never good.

Good and successful campaigns are like the great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith’s old four corner offense – everyone has a role, they play their role, they stay out of each other’s way and at the right moment someone scores an easy layup. In successful campaigns the coach doesn’t have to explain anything other than were the victory party will be held.

6) Debates can re-set the race. Well, not really. In only a tiny number of occasions in modern political history have debates had a re-set quality. More often debates reinforce, in a fresh and direct way, what voters already know or sense to be true. Ronald Reagan’s famous line to Jimmy Carter – “there you go again” – delivered with a tilt of the head and a smile helped cement the impression that the aging actor could more than hold his own with the former nuclear engineer.

John Kennedy’s youthful vigor contrasted sharply with Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and JFK used the debates in 1960, as Reagan did in 1980, to show that he could stand on the same stage and speak intelligently with a more experienced opponent. But these were more moments of assurance than game changers.

Lloyd Bentsen had perhaps the most famous debate line ever – “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” – which he delivered to an over matched, deer in the headlights looking Dan Quayle in 1988. Quayle is little remembered for anything today, but he was elected vice president with the first Bush even after showing poorly in his debate.

One time a debate did matter – again reinforcing a pre-existing impression – was when President Gerald Ford made the debate boo-boo of all time by saying then-Communist Poland wasn’t under Soviet domination. If not a complete game changer, Ford’s comment in 1976 was reinforcement for many voters that the nice guy Ford was just a bit of a klutz.

7) You can’t beat something with nothing. Or the Cecil Andrus corollary to that statement: You can’t win a horse race with a dog.

In politics, as with most things, plans are better than platitudes. Details are better than dodges. A well constructed 10-point plan to accomplish thus-in-such is almost always better than vague statements that sound like they could have been cribbed from a Hallmark greeting card. Even given the often shallow, craven state of our political discourse, most voters want to vote “for” something. You gotta give them some substance.

 

The Defining Moment

It has always fascinated, even confounded me that hundreds of thousands of young men from farms and factories, Irishmen and Germans, rich and poor put on the Northern blue and fought a devastating Civil War for four years for the idea – the concept – of “Union.”

Of course the great and terrible American Civil War – across the country we are commemorating its 150th anniversary – eventually became a war to end slavery, but it certainly didn’t begin that way. The war that it is now believed claimed the lives of 750,000 Americans, North and South, was, as University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher has argued, a war to preserve the very idea that a still new nation could survive – in one piece.

Gallagher’s latest book on the war – he’s written seven himself and co-authored or edited twice again as many – is called The Union War. Gallagher makes the case that as vital – and morally correct – as ending slavery was, preserving the idea of the still young nation was pretty important, too and that idea of Union is worth considering anew.

Gallagher quotes Abraham Lincoln early in the war as saying: “For my own part, I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

I’m delighted that Professor Gallagher and half a dozen other distinguished historians of the Civil War will be in Boise on October 25th for what proves to be an interesting, provocative and enlightening conference on the war organized by The Andrus Center at Boise State University.

Gallagher will keynote the conference with a talk entitled: “The Civil War at the Sesquicentennial: How Well Do Americans Understand Their Great National Crisis?”

Gallagher’s recent book has sparked some controversy because he has sifted the evidence in search of the real motivation for the fighting on both sides and re-interpreted much of what we have long taken for granted about the war. Such is the nature of the great conflict. It has been said that we have never stopped fighting – or debating – the war.

For example, slavery ended with the war, but racism hasn’t ended. We have the first black president in the White House, but his presidency has been haunted by age-old demands for greater “state’s rights” on many things and our country is now as politically divided as at any time since, well, the Civil War. Arguments persist about displaying the “Stars and Bars,” the Confederate battle flag, over southern state capitols and there is plenty of room to debate Lincoln’s arguably unconstitutional crack down on the partisan press and suspension of habeas corpus.

I would argue that the Civil War is the defining event in our national story. It was fought from 1861 to 1865, but in some respects the personalities, the impact, the controversy, the relevance are with us still. I’ll offer more thoughts on the great American trial this week and hope loyal readers might consider devoting a day in October to thinking anew about the Civil War at a conference we’re calling – Why The Civil War Still Matters.

 

Break Out the Hand Sanitizer

In the middle of what might have been the worst two weeks in modern presidential campaign history, one of the nameless, faceless GOP smart guys who never want to be quoted by name – the Democrats have them too – said of Mitt Romney: “We’re running against Jimmy Carter, but we nominated Tom Dewey.”

Thomas E. Dewey, of course, lost to the supremely unpopular Harry Truman in 1948 and is now remembered as perhaps the worst major party presidential candidate in modern times. With the full acknowledgement that six long weeks remain before election day and any number of things could still turn the election in Romney’s direction, it does seem clear that the businessman-turned-presidential candidate is an updated version of a bad candidate, a Tom Dewey.

If Dewey was famously described as “the little man on the wedding cake” then Romney is, as a friend said, “the guy who shakes your hand and immediately reaches for the sanitizer.” The Republican convention failed to “humanize” Romney, because, well, he really is a buttoned-up, man of privilege who doesn’t have much in common with the vast majority of people who will nevertheless vote for him simply because he is not Barack Obama.

That is the central reality of Romney’s campaign. The candidate made the strategic decision long ago that he could win the White House not by selling himself, but by being the only alternative to an incumbent with a crappy economy who pushed unpopular health insurance reform legislation. By adopting this strategy Romney violated a central rule of politics: You can’t beat something with nothing.

For weeks now there have been calls for Romney to get specific, offer some details and paint a picture of what a Romney presidency would be like. He still has time, but the real question is whether he is capable.

In his famous losing race with Truman, Dewey took the same approach. Speak in platitudes, promise better times, but never get to the heart of the matter. Richard Rovere, of New Yorker, said of Dewey’s campaign rallies, “he comes out like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind.” Sounds familiar.

The usually wise and always elegant Peggy Noonan - she wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan – says Romney needs an “intervention” to shake up his campaign. She suggests that a GOP wise man, say James Baker, ride to the rescue and save Romney’s campaign from the candidate.

“The Romney campaign has to get turned around,” Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal.  ”This week I called it incompetent, but only because I was being polite. I really meant ‘rolling calamity.’”

Here’s another context for the 47% Romney recently dissed. Not being Barack Obama will get him 47% and Romney really could have gotten those votes by stopping all campaigning and decamping to his home on Lake Winnipesaukee for the duration. Now the CEO-cum-candidate has a few days and three debates to reset his campaign one more time and get three or four percent more. What might he do?

He could do the Peggy Noonan inspired James Baker intervention, which might help bring some message and scheduling discipline to the Romney campaign. The guys who just got the bonuses won’t like it, but handing over the campaign to a GOP wise guy might bring order to the “rolling calamity.” But an intervention is not likely to happen with the blessing of a CEO who is only playing a candidate on television and who just paid $200,000 in bonuses to guys who helped him get behind in every state he needs to win.

Romney could stop doing one event a day and quit fundraising in Utah and Texas while he should be in Iowa and Ohio. Romney could start running like he is a candidate for sheriff – embrace the spontaneous, hold town hall meetings, mix it up with his 47%, pull a few 18 hours days and, heaven forbid, sit down for interviews with the media.

Romney could also get specific on how his economic approach might actually work. Does he have one big idea? Maybe he could talk about something of substance.

The one sure thing the GOP candidate has going for him is the reality that the political media will not let this thing end prematurely. As Morning Joe Scarborough said today: ”The news media [are] not going to allow Mitt Romney to lie on the mat between [now] and November. You’re going to see a swing back. … If Mitt Romney can take one punch after another from his own fist … and this thing ties back up, you’re gonna have a lot of clenched people in the Obama campaign. Because they’re going to go: ‘God, this guy keeps blowing himself up, and we can’t get rid of him.’ …. He still has the opportunity to pull this out.”

Truer words were never spoken, but it still remains that the most difficult thing in politics is to halt a slide by trying to get a candidate to be something they have never been. Mitt Romney is a CEO. He makes plans, raises money, hires people and sticks to his plan. Successful political candidates improvise, they adapt, they work diligently at getting better and they wade into crowds and create those moments that voters use to measure character and judgement. Romney’s hand sanitizer approach to his campaign is like a well-rehearsed, if boring symphony. Politics is free-form jazz, frequently messy, but interesting.

Remember Reagan’s famous “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green” moment during the 1980 New Hampshire GOP primary; a moment Reagan came to believe launched him to the White House? Can you imagine Mitt Romney in such a setting, saying such a thing, connecting in such a way? Hard to envision.

In the aftermath of Tom Dewey’s loss to Truman in 1948, the Louisville Courier-Journal said in an editorial: “No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”

Mitt Romney’s future lies just ahead. The national media will let him get back in the ring, but he’ll need to do something out of character to really reset his campaign. He’ll have to become a passably decent candidate and that is simply not in his style.

 

 

The Water’s Edge

Arthur Vandenberg was a Republican U.S. Senator from Michigan from 1928 – 1951 and a man who believed passionately in a bipartisan foreign policy. Vandenberg might have been president. He tried for the nomination a couple of times, but his real niche was foreign policy and under his cautious and conservative hand the country came to a policy that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg’s approach to foreign policy evolved over time, which is another way of saying he changed his mind. He went from a staunch isolationist in the 1930′s to helping Harry Truman get Congressional approval for the Marshall Plan and NATO in the 1940′s. Yes, you read that right – a Republican senator helping a Democratic president on something really important. Once upon a time that kind of thing really did happen.

Here’s a guess that the political news for the next several days will be all about the Middle East, the tragic deaths of American diplomatic personnel in Libya and the deepening tensions around Iran. In other words, the presidential campaign just went off message in a major way and in a manner that neither campaign can hope to control. The only thing the candidates, and particularly challenger Mitt Romney, can do is talk about the issues.

Romney has spent most of today cleaning up after a statement he issued too quickly and without all the facts as the awful events in Libya were spinning out of control late yesterday.  His midnight statement condemning the Obama Administration is being widely regarded as an amazing piece of amateur hour time for someone who hopes to be Commander-in-Chief.

Ronald Reagan’s gifted speechwriter Peggy Noonan said Romney wasn’t doing himself any favors with his hair trigger attack.

“I was thinking as he spoke,” Noonan told Politico, “I think I belong to the old school of thinking that in times of great drama and heightened crisis, and in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think discretion is the better way to go. When you step forward in the midst of a political environment and start giving statements on something dramatic and violent that has happened, you’re always leaving yourself open to accusations that you are trying to exploit things politically.” Exactly.

Romney’s campaign will now be compared to John McCain’s four years when the Arizona Senator – remember the suspension of his campaign during the banking crisis – as a man who displays questionable judgment in the heat of the moment.

The hawkish editorial page of the Washington Post, which has often been critical of Obama,  has it about right:

“As for Mr. Romney, he would do well to consider the example of Republican former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who issued a statement Wednesday lamenting ‘the tragic loss of life at our consulate,’ praising [Ambassador Chris] Stevens as ‘a wonderful officer and a terrific diplomat’ and offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ to ‘all the loved ones of the fallen.’ That was the appropriate response.”

As the Senate Historian has written about a Republican from a different age:  ”When [Sen. Arthur] Vandenberg spoke, the Senate Chamber filled with senators and reporters, eager to hear what he had to say. His words swayed votes and won national and international respect for his nonpartisan, consensus-building, statesmanlike approach to foreign policy.”

The Senate voted in 2004 to place Vandenberg’s portrait in the lovely Senate Reception Room, a place reserved for the images of the greatest of the greats who once served the country.

Give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really does believe Barack Obama is mishandling our foreign policy and is profoundly troubled by the President’s leadership. Fair enough. But with diplomats dead in a troubled land and the Arab Street holding the potential for even more turmoil, smart policy and smart politics would have been to simply say: “America has one president at a time and there will be time enough to sort out the politics.”

Simple rule of politics: When a campaign is transparently seen as trying to score political points – it doesn’t.

 

 

Themes That Repeat

When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936 the American economy was in very tough shape. Unemployment was over 16%, farm prices were awful and American big business, staggered to its knees by the Wall Street crash of 1929, was recovering, but still limping badly.

Yet, amid the dismal economic news, Roosevelt had succeeded in his first term in passing tough new banking regulations, massive public works projects like Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State were employing thousands and Congress had endorsed something called Social Security. FDR ran for re-election 76 years ago with a decidedly mixed record. He could tout major legislative accomplishments, but lots of Americans were hurting badly. Given the awful state of the economy and voter penchant for throwing out the incumbent when the economy stinks, the conventional political wisdom would hold that Roosevelt should have lost re-election. Obviously he didn’t.

Roosevelt scored one of the greatest political triumphs in U.S. history in 1936 when he crushed the Republican ticket by winning more than 500 electoral votes and failing to carry only two states. FDR’s campaign manager quipped, “So goes Maine, so goes Vermont” – the only states the Landon-Knox ticket carried. The president’s historic landslide also pulled dozens of congressional candidates along and the House and Senate were overwhelmingly Democratic.

If the broad outlines of the United States in ’36 exhibit a more than passing resemblance to the country this year then I believe you’re identifying some of the “themes” in American politics that have an endlessly fascinating way of repeating themselves. This is a subject I’ll be exploring this week during a public talk at Boise’s Main Public Library. The Wednesday, September 12th event is free and open to all. I hope you might consider coming out for a dose of politics and history. My talk is entitled: FDR and Obama: The Difficulty of Winning a Second Term.

But, back to themes. Social Security, broadly debated and badly mishandled in 1936 by FDR’s Republican opponent, Kansas Gov. Alfred E. Landon, is clearly a recurring theme in our politics. Social Security’s sister programs, Medicare and Medicaid, keep coming round again and again and are once more in the middle of the current presidential campaign. The GOP political talking point that a left-of-center Democrat – like Roosevelt or Barack Obama this year – is pushing the country to socialism is an argument as old as the New Deal. FDR’s critics went even farther with one saying the 1936 election was a contest between “Washington and Moscow.”

The evil excesses of big business or the heavy hand of regulation thwarting business is a steady theme in our politics, as is the role of the U.S. Supreme Court. The nastiness of race and religion are also recurring themes and each played a role in 1936 and each does today.

Roosevelt used the power of his anti-big business argument, his personal likability and his amazing communication skills to win re-election in 1936. Faced with many of the same issues and armed with many similar skills, will Obama be able to pull off what Roosevelt accomplished in remarkably similar conditions three quarters of a century ago? I hope you’ll join me Wednesday for a lively discussion of how the themes of our political history run smack into the current campaign.