Archive for November, 2012

Lessons from Lincoln

First the obvious: Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln is a modern masterpiece and just maybe the best film about politics ever made.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again establishes himself as film’s finest living actor. Before Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, every film version of the life and accomplishments of our greatest president was a caricature, a cartoon. Now we have a living, breathing, dirty-story telling Lincoln who is both an extraordinary democrat – small “d” – and a tough-as-nails political leader. The Academy should phone it in – this is the best acting you can hope to see this year and an inspiring, even great, movie.

One reason Lincoln will have such impact – it’s already cleaning up at the box office – is because our current politics seem so small, petty and mean spirited, often for the sake of just being mean. We yearn for leaders with guts and eloquence, men and women willing to put country before career. Lincoln spent every day of his presidency dealing with a horrible, bloody civil war that threatened the very existence of a nation barely four score years old; a nation torn apart by slaves and slavery.

As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural – perhaps the most profound speech every spoken in the English language – “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” In such light the petty squabbles over the so called fiscal cliff seem truly petty and stupidly partisan.

The single best moment in Lincoln – it’s a movie of many great moments – is when the president is explaining to his Cabinet why he must push Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that will finally and forever outlaw slavery. Lincoln has already freed slaves in those states in rebellion against the United States – the Emancipation Proclamation - but with a lawyer’s precision he explains why, if he is to follow the law and the Constitution, he can’t leave it at that. He must amend the Constitution to make it clear to the courts, to the American public, the world and the future that slavery is dead, forever. Later in the film the president explains to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens who is seeking a negotiated end to the killing that the rebellious states have lost – slavery will be no more – and the genius of Lincoln, the political genius, is fully evidence.

An old friend Barrett Rainey wrote recently that Lincoln should be required viewing for every high school student and not once, but twice. Once in the freshman year and again right before graduation. Barrett is right. History for many young people has become dry as dust, but Lincoln puts warm blood in the lessons, a particularly important achievement given the historical amnesia that fogs the perspective of too many Americans.

A CNN poll in 2011, for example, found that a quarter of those surveyed had more sympathy with the Confederate states than with the Union. The number rose to 40% among southerners. You can still gin up a spirited argument with the question; “What was the cause of the war?” Hint: it wasn’t state’s rights, or trade or the tariff. The cause of the great national calamity was slavery and the glaring contradiction between the language in our founding documents regarding slavery and the powerful notion that “all men being created equal.”

The Spielberg movie may for a whole new generation bury the idea that 800,000 Americans died for the cause of “states rights.”

Americans badly need remedial history education. For, as the New York Times reports, thousands of Americans of Texas origin have been petitioning the White House to let Texas succeed from the Union. Sorry, Texas, we settled that question at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865 and the movie deals intelligently with the fact that Lincoln refused to concede that any state could secede. The Constitution doesn’t contemplate such a move and the idea of Union can’t tolerate such a notion. Such talk, frankly, in the 21st Century is ridiculous.

The Lincoln movie is so valuable for many reasons, not least that it places the dreadful and defining event of American history in the context of what was really at stake when young American boys marched off to slaughter at Shiloh, Gettysburg, Franklin and Cold Harbor. Lincoln was fighting that awful war to win an idea – that a government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln - ironically the greatest portrayal of the greatest American president comes from a half Brit/half Irishman – shouts down the silly Texans of the 21st Century who dream of going their separate way. It doesn’t work that way. We settled that question a long time ago. We bled the nation – black and white – to establish for once and always that the United States of America is one. We have great debates, we vote, we win some and we lose some, but the United States goes on. Lincoln knew that it would. We should know it, too.

 Go see the movie and take the kids.

 

A Lesson, A Plan

It has been difficult the last few days to separate the lessons of Campaign 2012 from the recriminations. Among national Republicans the blame game, predictably and understandably, is in full flower.

In the first blush of political defeat the tendency of many partisans – this is true on the right and on the left – is to take the wrong lessons from rejection by the voters. Making sense of what happened is never as simple as some make it out to be and no national party that has existed since the 1850′s is ever as far down as some now claim.

To paraphrase David Axelrod, one of the architects of Barack Obama’s stunning second term victory, in politics you’re never as smart as you seem when things are going well or as stupid as you appear when things are going badly. But all campaigns do have lessons – if you look deeply enough. At the moment I’m interested in whether the long down-and-out Idaho Democrats take any clues from what happened in their party as well as in the GOP last week.

A few modest suggestions for Idaho Democrats:

1) The party should pick out three or four of its best young minds (this would include some elected last week like Representatives-elect Mat Erpelding and Holli High Woodings in Boise), buy them an airplane ticket to Chicago and let them debrief with the technology and GOTV people who helped power Barack Obama to a second term. Once he wakes up from a week of sleep Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who grew up in Boise and has relatives in the state, could put that meeting together in a heartbeat. In short, Idaho Democrats must start to turn over thinking about the future to the party’s next generation of leaders and give them some room to understand and apply the new skills of the digital age to the old game of politics. While they’re at it, Idaho Democrats should seek counsel from the other Idahoan highly placed in the Obama world – Bruce Reed. Among other things, Reed, who is Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff, helped write Bill Clinton’s devastatingly effective convention indictment of Mitt Romney.

2) The party must adopt a new approach that can, over time, broaden its appeal. This new approach should focus like a laser on the demographics that have propelled the first African-American president to two broad-based electoral victories. The future for Idaho Democrats is contained in a few well chosen words: moderates, women, Hispanics and younger voters. As NBC’s Chuck Todd said of the Obama campaign’s targeting and GOTV efforts, they took a novel approach they read the census.

Three quick facts from the 2010 Idaho census: Hispanic citizens (who voted nationally for Obama by more than 70%) now make up 11.5% of the state’s population and Idahoans under 18 years of age (who voted for the president by 60%) comprise 27% of the state’s population. Idahoans 65 and over (a population group that nationally went heavily for Romney) now makes up less than 13% of the Idaho population.

All of which is not to say that turning Idaho Democrats into a truly competitive party will be easy or quick, but those numbers point to the beginning of a long march approach.

3) Education must again become the bread and butter issue of Idaho Democrats. If the recent Idaho election proved anything it is that Idahoans, across the political spectrum, want their students, teachers and schools treated carefully, intelligently and not politically. There is an opening here for new ideas, inclusion and electoral appeal. If future Democratic candidates can’t make an issue of year-after-year real reductions in financial support for education at every level, coupled with education “reform” that Idahoans overwhelmingly rejected, they won’t deserve to be taken seriously as a political party. A simple question should drive the Democratic message – how can Idaho have a 21st Century economy and the jobs that support such an economy without investing more and more wisely in higher education, skills training and better public schools?

4) As I have written here before, Idaho Democrats – at least at the statewide level – need a new organizing principle that focuses on the great unifying issue – education. Trying to build a statewide party around a handful of dependable liberal strongholds – the north end of Boise and Blaine and Latah Counties – will continue to be a losing strategy. A better path is to build from the ground up in Idaho communities – Moscow, Boise, Pocatello, Coeur d’Alene, Lewiston, Nampa and Twin Falls – were education is a significant hometown industry. Democrats should strive to “own” the issues of the local community college and the university. Folks who love the University of Idaho or Boise State, for example, bleed for their schools on the athletic field, for sure, but increasingly they also care the academic classroom. Idaho Democrats should master these many and varied relationships – and, yes, it will take time – and organize, organize, organize with students, alumni, staff and faculty.

Politics is often a game of getting voters to give a candidate or a party a second look and to re-think assumptions. A single minded focus on education, an issue Idahoans have displayed all over again that they care deeply about, is a solid foundation on which to build a political future. This is particularly true now that the GOP has given Idaho D’s a big opening with the failure at the ballot box of controversial education reforms.

5) Finally, Idaho Democrats would do well to remember one of the tactics employed so successfully years ago by the recently departed George McGovern. In the 1950′s the South Dakota Democratic Party hardly existed. McGovern quit his teaching job and became the executive director of a party in name only, but he had ambition. He relentlessly traveled the state, building relationships, identifying supporters, building lists and building a party from the ground up. It’s no accident that McGovern entitled his autobiography Grassroots. What McGovern did in South Dakota in the 1950′s laid the groundwork to get him to the U.S. Senate in the 1960′s and built a long-term sustainable Democratic Party in a very conservative state. One person can make a big, big difference.

Some of my Idaho Democratic friends will take issue with my characterization of the Idaho party as barely alive, but the first rule of climbing back into contention is to see clearly the situation you face and then settle on a strategy, a real plan, that once again can make Idaho more than a one party state. The recent national victories offer some clues of what might be done.

 

Takeaways

Five initial takeaways from the voting yesterday:

1) In Idaho the controversial effort by top GOP leaders to “reform” education received an old fashioned whipping – an historic whipping – at the polls.

Not since 1982 when then-Democratic state Rep. Ken Robison, almost by himself, pushed a ballot measure to cut property taxes for homeowners has an  initiative or referendum broadly backed by Idaho “progressives” been successful. The progressive side in the education reform debate simply crushed the so-called Luna Laws. The “no” side prevailed in 37 of Idaho’s 44 counties and two of the measures went down in every county.

As my friend and a great number cruncher Andy Brunelle points out, since that successful 1982 effort the progressive/liberal-backed ballot failures in Idaho “include removing sales tax on food (1984), repealing right-to-work (1986), the nuclear waste initiative and the anti-bear baiting initiative (1996), and the sales tax increase for schools (2006).  The ancient history for progressive interests in Idaho included the Sunshine Law on election and lobbyist disclosure (1974), stopping large-scale dredge mining in major rivers (1954), and establishing a nonpolitical or more professional Idaho Department of Fish and Game (1938).”

Backers of the Luna Laws will undoubtedly blame the demise of Propositions One, Two and Three on out-of-state money from the hated “teacher’s union,” but an equally plausible explanation may be that education, broadly defined, is still the one big issue that can unite Idahoans across the political spectrum. Clearly Idahoans didn’t like the vision of education that the political establishment served up two years ago and they have sent the authors back to the drawing board.

If Idaho teachers are smart they will now push their own serious reform agenda. Yesterday’s election, rejecting a top-down approach to improving education, may just indicate that Idahoans are ready for a serious discussion of education improvements that includes, and perhaps is led, by teachers.

2) Demographics matter in politics. Nationally Republican bet the farm on a belief that Barack Obama could not re-assemble the coalition that elected the first African-American president in 2008. With all of his problems as an incumbent with a bad economy, Obama’s campaign doubled down on its coalition of minority, women and younger voters. In the grey dawn of defeat for the national GOP the party would be well advised to recall the efforts of its last successful national leader – the out-of-sight, out-of-mind George W. Bush – and begin, as a first order of business, to address its problems with Hispanic voters. A national party that concedes minorities, women and young people isn’t likely to be very successful as the nation’s demographics continue to steadily move in a way that helps Democrats.

3) Demographics are also the way back to relevance for Idaho Democrats, but without the kind of thoughtful, community-based strategy that Obama’s campaign manager – Jim Messina the guy with Idaho ties - devised for the re-elected president Idaho Democrats will continue to flounder at the margins of the state’s politics.

4) Idaho’s two senior members of Congress, Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson, are now poised to be real players in the coming fiscal and budget debate in Washington. Crapo has supported the idea of a “grand compromise” on the order of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations and Simpson, an always sensible, decent guy, said last night that Obama and the GOP must come together. He’s right and he and Crapo can be leaders in getting it done. I suspect they will find that such leadership will be good for the country and for their own political standing at home and in D.C.

5) Idaho is now balanced on its own cliff, but this cliff involves health insurance rather than fiscal issues. After rejecting industry and business calls to get going on a state-based health insurance exchange and hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court and then that a President Romney would dump Obamacare, Idaho opponents of an insurance exchange now face the very real possibility of the worst possible outcome – a federally created exchange that would be imposed on the state.

Elections are endlessly fascinating and this one will be hashed over for years. A truly historic day and lots to contemplate.