Archive for October, 2012

The Right Call?

Months ago when they became convinced that Mitt Romney would be the eventual Republican presidential candidate, Barack Obama’s campaign brain trust made a critical strategic decision. They decide to attempt to define Romney as an ultra-rich, ultra-out-of-touch corporate raider, the kind of guy who just isn’t like most Americans.

The Obama campaign and its Super PAC allies spent all summer, as the favorite catch phrase of politics now holds, advancing that “narrative.” We learned about Romney’s dealings at Bain Capital, his California house with elevators for his cars – a couple of Cadillacs – and his off-shore bank accounts. For weeks it seemed like Romney was playing right into the “narrative.” The pundits talked endlessly of the need to “humanize” the corporate CEO and Romney steadfastly refused to release any more than two years of his very well-to-do income tax returns.

The other “narrative” the Obama campaign could have chosen and didn’t was Romney the shameless “flip-flopper” – the guy who was for abortion rights before his was against them, the governor who did Mittcare before there was Obamacare, the guy who said setting a deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was a mistake before it wasn’t. We’ll know in a week whether the Obama strategic decision months ago was a wise one. Here’s a bet that it wasn’t.

The Denver debate where “moderate Mitt” emerged and grabbed the campaign momentum may well go down in presidential campaign history as the greatest single debate game changer ever. Romney skillfully, if some think shamelessly, remade himself before the very eyes of millions of American voters. He was no long the candidate who labeled 47% of Americans as unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives, but he became the smooth and comfortable former CEO with a five-point plan to remake the economy. Obama’s stumbling and inexplicable debate performance in Denver helped Romney re-set his campaign, but even cynic political professionals have to hand it to the former governor – he seems to have pulled it off his slide to the middle. He etch-a-sketched his campaign without even appearing to shake the red plastic frame.

The major reason, I think, Romney so completely re-set his image was that long ago strategic decision of the Obama campaign to paint him as Richie Rich, the evil corporate chieftain rather than as a John Kerry-style flip flopper. You may remember the crippling commercial the George W. Bush campaign ran against Kerry in 2004. With Kerry wearing loud, baggy swim trunks and changing direction while wind surfing, the closing line of that commercial was a masterpiece: “John Kerry – whichever way the wind blows.”

The Bush campaign in 2004 was smart enough and strategic enough to do what I’ll call the “Full Rove” on Kerry. They took the brightest page of Kerry’s resume – his Vietnam War service – and turned it into a liability. Kerry went from being a Silver Star winner with genuine foreign policy credentials to a long-haired anti-war protester who may not have been a hero after all.

The second half of the Full Rove was to label Kerry a serial waffler. This year, by contrast, the Obama campaign completed only half of the Romney “narrative,’ which has given the GOP candidate lots of room to shift and shape his positions to suit the slice of the electorate he is attempting to appeal to.

Say what you will about Romney’s potential as a president – and we may well get to find out how well that works out – there has seldom if ever been a major national politician who has so skillfully shifted his positions. By choosing not to go after the difference between Romney’s four years as governor of Massachusetts as his six years as a GOP candidate for president, the Obama team made it possible for Romney to bob and weave on the issues as skillfully as anyone ever has in such a high profile campaign.

Before this election – just ask John Kerry – the accusation that a candidate was an unprincipled flip flopper was often political kryptonite. Romney rarely has had to defend himself, because of the Obama strategic decision, against what was once consider indefensible in politics – shifting a position out of pure political expediency.

The other thing, I think, that the Obama troops got wrong was believing that the rich guy narrative was enough in and of itself to sink Romney. Obama, playing defense much of the fall, has not succeeded, and hasn’t really tried, to connect Romney’s corporate raider resume to the economic mess the country has endured for more than four years. In other words, the “narrative” lacks a clear and compelling bridge to what many Americans feel about this election – it’s all about the economy. As a result the economic debate has largely been all about Obama’s record and not about Romney’s barely defined approach to solving the problems in the economy and, not surprisingly, the polls show Romney winning on that issue.

Americans, it should be noted, also don’t automatically dislike a rich guy. Even the increasingly goofy Donald Trump gets a pass on that score. Most folks don’t dislike The Donald because he seems to be rich. They dislike him because he’s a publicity seeking blowhard.

Romney the rich guy with the five-point plan may well sneak in the Oval Office. Mitt the Shifter basically got a free pass. Obama’s strategic decision not to combine the out-of-touch rich guy attack with the serial flip flopper attack never gave the president the chance to say –  “Oh, come on now governor…there you go again.”

Endlessly changing positions is ultimate about more than merely flipping and flopping, its about character and in politics character matters more than the size of your bank account.

 

The Big Mo

Mixing sports and political analogies can be dangerous, but there is so little left to be said about the presidential campaigns – here goes.

The San Francisco Giants (happily for we Giants fans) clearly have what George H.W. Bush once called “The Big Mo.” The dejected St. Louis Cardinals had their National League rivals on the ropes (sorry, a boxing reference) in the league playoffs until a sneaky left hander, apparently in the twilight of his pitching career, reversed the Francisians’ slide and created the kind of momentum that is hard to explain in sports (and politics), but undeniably can be just as important and as a timely as a three-run homer.

A debate in Denver in early October changed the arc of momentum in the presidential campaign and Barack Obama is learning how terribly difficult it can be to get an opponent’s Big Mo turned off and turned around. By all reasonable accounts the presidential election campaign is just where most of us thought it would end up when we first measured an Obama-Romney match-up months and months ago. The race is down to six or seven states – lucky them – and will likely turn on the ground game of the two campaigns in a handful of counties in Ohio, Iowa and Virginia. Without doubt, however, The Big Mo has and will help the challenger.

One of the toughest things in politics – and sports – is to finish a long campaign on the up swing; to be growing your strength as you hit the tape. Designing and executing the “end game” of a long season, especially when the contestants are so closely matched, is tricky business. In fact, the end game of many close contests often has less to do with planning than with luck; luck being the residue of hard work and preparation. A key moment – Mitt the Moderate returning in the Denver debate or Barry Zito finding his old magic in Game Five – can, however, tip the scale and change the trajectory of the long season.

You can’t exactly create The Big Mo, but you can capitalize on it when it happens. The first George Bush is the classic example of thinking that The Big Mo, in and of itself, is enough to power a team to victory. After Bush won the Iowa caucuses in 1980 he said, ‘”Now they will be after me, howling and yowling at my heels. What we will have is momentum. We will look forward to Big Mo being on our side, as they say in athletics.”

Bush eventually lost the Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980, in part, because Reagan had a message and Bush had a resume. Bush also peaked too early. Claiming The Big Mo coming out of the very first campaign contest is a good deal different than claiming momentum in the last weeks of a torturously long campaign. Bush, in essence couldn’t capitalize on the momemtum he awarded himself and lost the very next contest, in New Hampshire, to Reagan.

Now the Detroit Tigers and the Obama campaign will frantically scramble to alter the momentum. Here’s betting that doing so will take an event – a lead-off homer in Game One for the Tigers or a bounce from the foreign policy debate for Obama, for example – to alter momentum. You can’t artifically create The Big Mo in sports or politics, you can take advantage of it when it magically, wonderfully and mysterious appears. Just ask the Cardinals.

 

McGovern

I’ve had the fortune – mostly good and a little bad at times – to have lived all my adult life in two states where Democrats have become endangered species – South Dakota and Idaho.

The news this week that former South Dakota U.S. Senator George McGovern is in the last days of his 90 years is a reminder once again that even given our nasty, polarized, hyper-partisan politics one man can have an impact. The fact that McGovern, an unabashed liberal, made his impact for so many years in South Dakota, a state almost as conservative as Idaho, is remarkable. No less remarkable than the long runs of Idaho Democrats Frank Church and Cecil Andrus.

McGovern has known ever since 1972 that the first line of his obituary would reference his historic presidential loss to the future unindicted co-conspirator Richard Nixon. An historian by training and temperament, McGovern could take comfort in the verdict of history that, while describing his national campaign in ’72 as quixotic and chaotic, would also come to judge him more right than wrong on Vietnam, Watergate and a host of other vital issues. And, of course, the contrast with Nixon, given the perfect lens of hindsight, couldn’t be greater.

My memories of McGovern start with the personal. He spoke at my high school graduation in 1971. No one remembers a high school graduation speech, but I certainly remember the speaker. When McGovern ran for re-election in South Dakota in 1974 – ironically against a Vietnam Medal of Honor winner and POW Leo Thorsness – I was a college-kid-aspiring journalist who filed his one and only NPR piece on Thorsness’ announcement of candidacy.

Years later I heard McGovern, a part-time Montana resident, deliver a moving memorial speech for the great Sen. Mike Mansfield. More recently I happened to be in Washington, D.C. at a time when McGovern was back on Capitol Hill to talk about his then-latest book a biography of Abraham Lincoln. McGovern took to the Lincoln project – one of the slim and wonderful volumes in the American President Series – with a level of personal understanding of what it must have taken for Lincoln to strive for the presidency, win it against great odds, withstand immense criticism and then die in the cause of Union and justice. A signed copy of the little book, which I highly recommend, is a treasured part of my collection.

George McGovern is the kind of political figure that truly intrigues me; a man running against the odds, who writes his own books, speak with passion and candor about hard issues and ultimately has always been comfortable in his own skin. He is far and way a different man from the “loser” image that some have used to define him for 40 years.

Three aspects of McGovern’s life where little know beyond the borders of South Dakota. First, as a young college history teacher he decided that no one else would take on the task of building a competitive Democratic Party in South Dakota in the 1950’s – so he did. Traveling the state, meeting one-on-one with thousands of people, McGovern organized, planned and plotted. In the process he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the state from the timberland of the Black Hills to the dry land farming country east of the Missouri River. As my friend Mark Trahant writes McGovern won his first senate race, by a whooping 597 votes, because he appealed to South Dakota’s Native American population, a segment of the state’s population that most politicians had marginalized and ignored prior to 1962. George McGovern was a builder.

Historian Stephen Ambrose’s book The Wild Blue told the story of McGovern’s 35 combat missions as a B-24 pilot over Europe. The young McGovern, piloting the Dakota Queen, survived tough and extraordinarily dangerous duty and he memories of war dogged him all his days. His service won him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ironically – or cynically – McGovern, the legit war hero, was branded by Nixon during that 1972 race as soft on national defense and defeatist about Vietnam. To his personal credit and to his political detriment, McGovern never traded on his remarkable military record. Imagine that. Unlike a lot of national security hawks who never experienced war up close, McGovern did and conducted himself accordingly.

The third little know fact about McGovern is his life-long devotion to the cause of world hunger. From his earliest days McGovern never grew tired of talking about, nor grew cynical about, the need for the world’s wealthy countries to put aside differences and provide the most basic need – food – to millions of people around the world. McGovern traced his concerns about hunger back to his military days in war ravaged and hungry Italy. He told moving stories about young kids begging in broken English for a candy bar from the American GI’s. It marked him.

By the way, McGovern teamed with another World War II hero, Republican Sen. Bob Dole, to write most of the nation’s food security legislation – WIC, school lunches and food stamps, included. Talk about an historic bipartisan effort.

George McGovern – historian, politician, failing presidential candidate, hunger advocate – will be treated better by the history books than he has been by his contemporaries. If you believe, as Tom Brokaw has dubbed McGovern’s contemporaries, that the World War II generation was America’s greatest, then the gentleman – the gentle man – from Avon, South Dakota was a genuine example of personal greatness. Dare I say it – the U.S. Senate could use a few like him.

 

 

 

Being Defined by History

Sixty-seven years ago this morning The Guardian newspaper in London used this opening sentence to report an astounding story: “Pierre Laval was shot to-day at 12.32 after a vain attempt to poison himself had delayed his execution.”

The man who had twice been Prime Minister of France, an international statesman, a friend of Herbert Hoover and TIME’s Man of the Year in 1931 had been executed by a firing squad in a Paris prison, convicted of treason for collaborating with Nazi Germany.

Laval, a shrewd and capable politician, had to be revived to face the firing squad. He had attempted suicide by taking cyanide in his prison cell. Once well enough to face death, Laval tied on his trademark white necktie and wrapped a scarf of the French tricolor around his throat. He refuse a blindfold and yelled Vive la France as he died.

The trial and guilt of Pierre Laval is still a controversial subject in France, which in many ways has never completely come to terms with the country’s collapse in 1940 followed by four years of occupation and, for many French, collaboration with the Nazis. The still unresolved French history during World War II still finds troubling connections to the present where serious levels of anti-Semitism remain an ugly fixture of French life. The story of Laval is mixed up in all of it.

Charles de Gaulle personally refused to order a new trial for Laval, even amid mountains of evidence that he 62 year old lawyer had been badly treated by a sham proceeding. The once very successful trial lawyer thought given a chance to really defend himself he could have talked his way out of the firing squad.

Laval came to power in wartime France at the side of the World War I hero of the Battle of Verdun Marshall Philippe Petain. By 1940, Petain was in his 80’s and, while an immensely popular figure, was quickly eclipsed by the energetic Laval. Petain, too, was tried and convicted of treason, but his death sentence was commuted to life in prison, a decision that left many to conclude that Laval had been made the symbol of all that France and the French had done – or not done – to accommodate Nazi Germany.

The great de Gaulle did much to rehabilitate the French psyche by inventing the attractive, but largely mythological notion that French partisans had liberated Paris following the Allied landings at Normandy in 1944. It’s true that many French men and women took to the streets to battle their German occupiers as the Nazi’s prepared to leave Paris, but it’s also true that many quietly adapted to life under the occupation and, as a recent and excellent book by Alan Riding points out, the cultural and social life of Paris went on pretty much as if nothing had changed, while Nazis officers got the best tables at the best cafes.

Reviewing Riding’s book – And the Show Went On – Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the New York Times:  “Though Charles de Gaulle insisted on the execution of Pierre Laval…he said he did not want vengeance on those who were merely ‘misled.’ And yet de Gaulle bears indirect blame. He above all people purveyed the healing notion that the French had been united in their resistance except for a few traitors and weaklings. This helped make possible the creation of a new democracy, but it was preposterous all the same.”

Picasso lived and worked, quite comfortably, in Paris during the occupation, as did Maurice Chevalier and Gertrude Stein, who devoted time during the occupation to translating Petain’s speeches with the hope that they might be published in the United States. They never were.

Pierre Laval went to his death protesting that he had done all he could to make life as tolerable as possible under the Nazis and he may still be the most hated man in French history.

Picasso, who exercised excellent timing in joining the French Communist Party just as the Germans were being thrown out of France, is widely remembered for his great anti-war painting Guernica and has a state sponsored museum in Paris that honors his work. Stein, who the great Kathy Bates played in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, is mostly remembered today not as a publicist for Petain, but as an intriguing experimental writer and Ernest Hemingway’s muse.

History can be a strange thing. How one is treated by history can be even stranger. Winston Churchill had it right. He once said he wasn’t much worried about how he would be treated by history since he planned to write the history himself.

 

If Obama Loses…

The final days of the agonizing long 2012 presidential campaign feature an incumbent president who can’t – or won’t – bring himself to employ the basic political necessity of every successful politician; an ability to sell yourself and your program and a shameless challenger who displays, more than anyone in recent American history, the audacity of re-invention. A Romney aide telegraphed months ago the “etch-a-sketch” re-make strategy that came to full effect in the first presidential debate.

 The astute political analyst Charlie Cook nailed the essence of Mitt Romney months ago when he said the GOP nominee is “unencumbered by principle.” But, Romney knows a smile, confidence and a certain swagger cover up a lot of missing principles.

 Obama, by contrast, appears more and more unencumbered by basic political skills like debating your opponent and talking sensibly about your priorities. Obama critics will say he has no program, but that’s unfair. For good or ill, he has signed historic legislation, but he just lacks the Bill Clinton-like skill to relate the art of governing to the drama of campaigning.

 If Obama joins William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush as modern presidents who failed to win a second term, the cause will involve six political failings or, in some cases, failures to address important issues that mark the president’s four years. Taken together they present a damning indictment of a guy who, at a basic level, doesn’t get – or like – politics.

 1)     Obama reminds me of many, let’s call them progressive, politicians who harbor the belief that the righteousness of our policies obviates the need to explain those policies on a clear, concise form that American voters understand. Obama has never been able – or willing – to reduce the essence of his historic health insurance legislation to a bumper sticker. Is the legislation about all Americans banding together to make certain that all of us have access to affordable care? Is it about regulating insurance companies? Is it about insuring that no one is denied insurance due to some pre-existing condition? Obama ceded the messaging about the singular accomplishment of his term to his opponents because he couldn’t make an effective argument for a policy that presidents going back to Teddy Roosevelt have called for. It is an astonishing failure at a basic level of political communications.

 2)     Obama also made a fundamental mistaking in granting way too much control over his legislative agenda to Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats. The White House had the upper hand, including a Congressional majority, in the first two years of Obama’s presidency. Obama should have used public and private persuasion on Congress, but he never stooped to get his hands dirty in the inside game of Washington politics. For the most part the president was absent from the big strategy and message for the first two years and Pelosi set about proving she is a great politician for San Francisco, who doesn’t get Peoria. One wonders if Obama has read Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson or Woodrow Wilson’ disastrous approach to Congress in the post-World War I period. He should.

 3)     The president made a fundamental and gravely serious political mistake in not focusing like a laser on the economy in the wake of the 2008 election. Granted he did push a stimulus – and then failed to follow up and sell its benefits – but he also pivoted almost immediately from an economic focus to a health care focus. Health care should have waited. Obama neither got or attempted to get any credit for keeping the U.S. economy from going off a cliff in early 2009 and he continues to pay for that lack of political awareness. A modestly skilled political operative would have avoided such a mistake. The economy always comes first, just ask Hoover.

 4)     Amid much fanfare, Obama appointed a blue ribbon commission to recommend solutions to the nation’s fiscal and budget challenges and then walked away from the sensible recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission. It was a major blunder on both substantive and political grounds. Congress would very likely not have embraced the essence of Bowles-Simpson, as indeed Pelosi and Co. refused to do, but had Obama embraced the Commission’s recommendations and held Erskine Bowles and Al Simpson close they would have given the president bipartisan political and policy cover during the entire campaign season. Should Obama have then won the election, he could have claimed a clear mandate to do something serious about the deficit, taxes and entitlements – a truly historic second-term agenda. As it turns out Obama’s fiscal and deficit approach is as vacuous as Romney’s. Failing to embrace his own Commission’s recommendation was a huge unforced political error.

 5)     Obama has never been clear about what caused the country’s near economic disaster in 2008. He has never spelled out why the country came so close to a second Great Depression and never really held anyone accountable. Faced with a similar set of circumstances in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt identified the villains as greedy bankers and Wall Street speculators. He went after them with regulation and rhetoric. Obama, again ceding the lead to Congress, let Barney Frank become the face of financial reform and regulation. Obama should have seized the moment to define a new vision for the American economy – as FDR did – and called out the hedge fund managers and engineers of credit default swaps. He should have defined his presidency by taking on the big banks and calling, as ironically Sanford Weill one of the biggest proponents of modern U.S. mega-banking has, for the breakup of the big banks. It would have been an historic and defining moment. The politically cautious Obama missed it.

 6)     All five of these political and policy failures converge now to create the single biggest Obama political problem – he has no convincing story to tell about his years in office and little to say about what a second term could look like. Skillful politicians are always thinking about how they talk about what they are trying to accomplish, who is hindering their efforts, who is to blame and what the future looks like. Obama lacks that political gene.

 If, as Maureen Dowd has written recently, Obama hates to sell himself or thinks that aspect of political leadership is beneath him he may well join Taft, Hoover and the others as “failed” modern presidents. After all, history does not treat one-termers very well and we do tend to reward the greatness of American presidents who display an ability to grow into the challenges the office presents. One wonders if Barack Obama, a man of obvious and substantial intellectual and rhetorical skills, can be self aware enough to know that being righteous in politics is never enough. His time is short.

 

The Benefits of…Lunch

Over the last decade American workers have increased their productivity by something like 16%. Most of us aren’t getting paid any more for all that increased output, but we can take pride in the fact that we show up early, stay late and skip lunch to get the work done.

Americans, by most accounts, consider themselves the hardest working people in the world. Well, maybe. But, at what cost and at what benefit?

On Thursday in Casteillina in Chianti, a delightful little place in the rocky Tuscan hills, a restaurant favored by the locals was packed at one o’clock in the afternoon. Many shops, even those catering to the always-in-a-hurry American tourists, closed for a couple of hours for the midday meal. (The tagliatelle in wild boar sauce was superb, by the way.) I doubt whether the local Chamber of Commerce measures productivity in Chianti, unless it’s a measure of grape production. And the grape harvest was underway with what appeared to be great precision, but with a certain sense of pace and an appreciation of just what could be done in a day, given the necessity of stopping for lunch.

Lunch in Chianti is a little like a slow, old fashioned family holiday dinner in the United States, but without the football game on the television in the other room. You can sit down for lunch at your leisure, but the cook will tell you when you eat. Mom never served the Thanksgiving turkey, after all, until SHE was ready. In Italy, lunch is a little glass of wine, a bit of bread, some conversation, a laugh and always some waiting. The soup or salad arrives and time stops. The spinning world slows down. Lunch is both a ritual and a restorative. Take your time, the Italians seem to say, life is too precious to rush. You have work to do, you say, or places to go and people to see – relax. All things in time. Have a little more wine. La dolce vita.

There is no ritual associated with the American lunch. Hit the food court near your office. Grab a sandwich and snarf it down at your desk, while checking the email and reading the Twitter feed. Relax? No way. Have a casual conversation with a co-worker? Hardly. Eat and run. Work, work, work. Life is too short to relax over lunch. You have 113 emails to get through before that meeting at one o’clock.

Many Americans traveling in Europe seem exasperated that they have to catch the waiter’s attention and ask for the bill at the end of the meal. We expect the dirty dishes to be removed immediately upon the last bite of food clearing the plate. In Italy the meal is all about the lingering. The espresso arrives. The waiter disappears. You talk and think and relax. A charming waiter gently corrected an American visitor who requested a cappuccino after lunch. Not a good idea, the waiter said. It will not help your digestion. Espresso is better. Indeed. So, too, is taking time to enjoy the espresso.

It is also better to have a little more time to consider that maybe – just maybe – the pace of modern life is just too hectic and demanding; unhealthy, in fact. Maybe we can slow down just a bit. Have a little more ritual in our lives. Relax while waiting for the waiter to return. Notice the charming family at the next table. Enjoy the setting of the ritual. Linger over the espresso.

Maybe we can take time to just – live. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll live longer and grow old enjoying the fact that few things in life should interfere with lunch.