The Water’s Edge…

“…the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades. – Letter from 47 Republican senators to Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Can’t We Just Agree on This…

Amid the persistent partisan rancor dominating Washington, D.C. you might think that the one issue that would lend itself to a modicum of bipartisanship would be an effort to prevent Iran from developing the ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

In the hands of a regime that since 1979 has proclaimed the United States as its great enemy, a nuclear weapon would represent an existential Iran-map-regionthreat not only to the U.S, but also to the continually troubled Middle East. Indeed, Iranian nuclear capability is a threat to the entire world.

In response to this very real threat, the Obama Administration has attempted to do what former President George H.W. Bush did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 – build an international coalition to confront the threat. In dealing with the Iranian nuclear menace the United States has joined forces with France, Great Britain, Germany, China and Russia, but the U.S. has clearly taken the lead in the talks.

While Republican critics of Obama’s foreign policy often criticize the president for “leading from behind,” in the case of Iran the U.S. is clearly out front pushing hard for a diplomatic agreement. That fact alone, given GOP criticism of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, might argue for Republican cooperation and encouragement that could foster true bipartisanship. In fact, and in a different political world, the circumstances of the coalition led by the U.S. to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon seems like the epitome of a foreign policy issue where Republicans and Democrats might actually cheer each other on in expectation of an outcome that would be good for the country, the Middle East and the world.

Politics is always about fighting over the details, but stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons seems like a fundamental strategic goal that every American could embrace. But not these days. Just when it seems that American politics can’t make me any more discouraged about theCotton future of the country, Arkansas sends Tom Cotton to the United States Senate. Cotton is the architect of the now infamous letter to the Iranian ayatollahs that has both undercut Obama’s international diplomacy, while revealing the depths of blind partisanship in Washington.

Senate Republicans are so dismissive of Obama’s presidency that they are willing to risk blowing up the nuclear talks with Iran and happy to completely jettison any hint of bipartisanship in foreign policy. Ironically the GOP experts also set themselves up to take the blame if the Iranian talks do come apart. At the same time, Republicans offer no alternative to the approach Obama has taken (well, John McCain once joked about his desire to “bomb, bomb Iran,” as if that were a real option).

The GOP’s approach also centers on dismantling a long tradition of bipartisanship regarding Israel and giving encouragement to the current Israeli prime minister – who happens to be fighting for his political life – to take his own unilateral action against Iran. That is a prescription for World War III, but that seems to pale in the face of the Republican compulsion to de-legitimize Obama and show the world just how small and petty our politics have become.

When Country Came Before Party…

The U.S. Senate is a place of great history and great tradition. Some of that history is worth remembering in the wake of the truly unprecedented “open letter” 47 Republican senators directed this week to the leadership of Iran. That letter, of course, has now become controversial and may well mark a new low point in failure of responsibility and leadership by the senators who signed it.

In January 1945, with the end of the Second World War in sight, Franklin Roosevelt was about to set off for an historic meeting at Yalta with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill. The critical subject at that conference was the formation of a post-war organization that might have a chance to prevent another world conflict. Then as now, many senators in both parties distrusted Roosevelt believing him too secretive in his dealings vandenbergwith other world leaders and too dismissive of Congress. An influential Republican Senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, had long been a skeptic of FDR’s approach to foreign policy, but the rapidly evolving world order – a powerful Soviet state, a diminished British Empire, a hugely powerful United States – caused the once-isolationism minded Vandenberg to reassess his thinking. (Something, need I note, that few politicians dare do these days.)

The result of that re-thinking was one of the greatest speeches in the history of the Senate. Famously declaring that, “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Vandenberg re-defined, literally in a single speech, the shape of American foreign policy in the post-war world. Pledging support to the Democratic president, the Republican Vandenberg said: “We cannot drift to victory…We must have maximum united effort on all fronts…and we must deserve, we must deserve the continued united effort of our own people…politics must stop at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg, who desired the presidency as much in his day as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul do now, nevertheless worked closely with Harry Truman to flesh out the creation of the United Nations and implement the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from the ravages of war. It was a remarkable example of bipartisan leadership from a man who, had he wanted to do so, might have created political havoc both domestically and internationally.

Vandenberg was reportedly surprised by the impact of his “water’s edge” speech, modestly saying: “I felt that things were drifting. . . Somebody had to say something, and I felt it could be more effectively said by a member of the opposition.”

Imagine a Republican senator saying such a thing today.

Arthur Vandenberg, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, knew that an American president must have the ability to deal directly and decisively with foreign leaders. The president – any president – is also entitled to a to be free of the constant undertow of partisan politics on the home front, particularly when the stakes are so very high. Vandenberg also knew that the United States Senate has a particular ability to shape the national debate about foreign policy thanks to the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate “advise and consent” on treaties and the appointment of ambassadors.

Imagine for a moment the Senate behaving differently than it does. Imagine for a moment a Senate populated by senators like Arthur Vandenberg. In such a Senate Republican leaders might go to the White House regularly for private and candid talks with the president where they might well express profound concerns about a potential agreement with Iran. They might even make speeches on the Senate floor about what kind of agreement they expect. The Foreign Relations Committee might conduct detailed, bipartisan hearings on the challenges and opportunities contained in an agreement. The Committee might invite former secretaries of state or national security advisors from both parties to testify. (By the way, at least two former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft, a Republican, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat, support the diplomatic effort underway.)

MansfieldMike_DirksenEverett4271964The once impressive Foreign Relations Committee, haunted by the ghosts of great senators like J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield, Frank Church and Howard Baker who once served there, might hear presentations from and ask questions of academics and foreign policy experts from the United States and our foreign partners. They might actually undertake a bipartisan effort to understand the nature and timing of a threat from Iran.

Instead, driven by the hyper-partisan needs and far right wing tilt of the coming presidential campaign, Republicans are making the question of “who can be tougher on Iran” their foreign policy litmus test. The inability to embrace even a hint of bipartisanship seems rooted in the stunning belief that Obama (not to mention former Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry) would literally sell out the country – and Israel – in a potential deal with Iran.

The debate over the now infamous Republican letter to Iran will no doubt continue and time will tell whether it provides Iran an out to abandon any agreement, but at least one aspect of the letter – how it came to be and who created it – deserves consideration in the context of the history of the United States Senate.

Since When Does a Rookie Get to Call This Play...

The letter was the brainchild of the Senate’s youngest member, a senator who ranks 93rd in seniority, a senator who took office less than three months ago. Freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is frequently described as a strong advocate for greater defense spending and a darling of the party’s farthest right wing.

In a different Senate operating under adult supervision the young Gentleman from Arkansas would have been told to file his letter in a recycle bin, but in the Senate we have the Cotton letter was signed by a number of Republican senators with substantial seniority that should have known better, senators like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Arizona’s McCain. After noting that McCain now says the letter “wasn’t exactly the best way to do that,” the New York Times editorialized that the Cotton missive “was an attempt to scare the Iranians from making a deal that would limit their nuclear program for at least a decade by issuing a warning that the next president could simply reverse any agreement. It was a blatant, dangerous effort to undercut the president on a grave national security issue by communicating directly with a foreign government.”

Arthur-Vandenberg---resizedAfter researching the history, the Senate historian says there is no precedent for such a letter. And Alan Hendrikson, who teaches at the prestigious Fletcher School of International Relations, agrees that the Cotton letter “undercuts” the whole idea of American foreign policy. “Neither the Senate nor the House has sought to interfere with actual conduct of negotiations by writing an open letter to the leadership of a country with which the U.S. is negotiating,” Henrikson told McClatchy News.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank joked that perhaps Cotton, who denied that his epistle was one-of-a-kind, would undercover “an open letter from American legislators written to King George III in 1783 warning him that the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams might be undone with the stroke of a quill.” But, of course, no such letter was ever written, just as Cotton’s should not have been.

Give credit to Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who did not sign the letter and may yet help his party lead rather than posture. Against all evidence about what the United States Senate has become, perhaps Corker can channel Arthur Vandenberg, a staunch Republican and a frequent critic of Democratic presidents, who could still put his country above his party.

 

A Baseball Purist Faces Facts…

Winter is officially over. Baseballs are being tossed around in the Sonoran desert. I know because I sat in the sun this week and took in a spring training games in the cactus-leagueCactus League. The adoring fans were in their seats – we San Francisco Giants fans tend to be a well behaved group – the brats were pretty good, the beer reasonably cold, the pitchers predictably rusty and the guys wearing uniforms with numbers like 79 and 93 looked a little stunned. Perhaps it was all the sun after a long, cold winter.

Or it might have been the one big surprise of spring training: the clock in the outfield.

One of the many things I love about baseball, at least until this year, is that there has been no clock. Theoretically a baseball game could last forever. What bliss. There is a shot clock in basketball. Periods are timed in hockey, football and (sort of) soccer, but baseball just unfolds slowly and at its own considered pace. However, it apparently unfolds more slowly than some in the Commissioner’s office think it should. So now we have a clock in the outfield specifying how long pitchers have to get ready between innings and how long the warm-up period lasts when a manager brings out the hook and a new thrower jogs in from the bullpen.

Pace of Play BaseballAnd the new rules designed to speed up the venerable game do not just involve pitchers. Hitters, some of whom treat each at bat as an orgy of unnecessary movement, are now expected to keep at least one foot in the batters box between pitches. No more, the theory goes, the endless and mindless stepping away from the plate, knocking the bat on the cleats, adjusting the batting gloves fourteen times, pulling up the sloppy pants, taking eleven practice swings and praying that you’ve guessed correctly that the next pitch is a fastball.

I predict pitchers will adapt better than hitters, but the throwers best get ready since a clock timing pitches is looming. The Arizona Fall League experimented with that concept last year and the average length of games dropped to 2:51. Double and Triple A will continue the experiment this summer. The big leagues can’t be far behind. Pitchers will protest the effort to make them work faster, but they should take it up with men and women on an auto assembly line. Greater production is the American way, even if it is not the way of a $20 million a year baseball pitcher.

The crack down is sure to come, as well, for hitters. Mike Hargrove, who during his pg2_g_hargrove_350
twelve year career played for the Indians, Rangers and Padres, was so slow making his way to the batter’s box with endless adjustments of his equipment and tugs to his uniform that he was dubbed “ the human rain delay.” Hargrove reportedly contended his routine – he did it between every single pitch – only took 19 seconds, but under the new rules ol’ Mike would likely be fined. Indians’ manager Tony Francona joked recently that were Hargrove playing today he would “be playing for free,” with all his salary consumed by fines generated by all his fluttering and flapping around home plate.

Major league baseball has finally decided that the game of the endless summer needs to unfold a little faster. Last year the average game took 3:08 and more than once – many more than once – I’ve sat until the last out of a game that took three and a half or four hours. Particularly if the beer is cold and the restroom a long walk those games do seem like endless summer.

I’m a baseball purist. I still don’t like the designated hitter, enclosed stadiums and too many night games. I like the players to wear their pants correctly, put a slight curve in the bill of the cap and wear the headgear straight on their heads. And like show girls, I like a ballplayer to show a little sock. Aluminum bats at the college level are about as welcome as a Clinton-Bush presidential match-up next year. I like guys who don’t wear batting gloves and do wear sleeves. Fake grass is just that – fake. I like pitchers who work quickly and batters who get in the box, stay there and take their cuts. I like fans that keep score and stay in their seats. I’m old school about baseball and proud to be.

But even a purist has to admit the typical game takes too darn long to play. Look at some old game summaries from the 1930’s and 1940’s and you will see games that took an hour and three-quarters to play. The average length of game in 1950 was 2:21; hardly time enough to get a second beer. A doubleheader (a thing of the past, sadly) in the old days could often be played as quickly as a single game today. I’m reluctant to embrace any change in the great game, but I hope the clock in the outfield cuts a few minutes off a game and that the hitters adjust their batting gloves before they get to the plate.

We may well continue the tradition that there is “no crying in baseball,” but we can’t say any longer there is no clock. We’ll see how it works. As a purist that hopes to see the game return to the old, quicker model – and if I could be Commissioner of Baseballty-cobb for a while – I would forget the clock and demand players again wear those big, heavy wool flannel uniforms and dress in stuffy locker rooms without air conditioning. Ban Gatorade from the dugout. Play mostly day games, particularly in July and August. With the arrival of August’s really hot weather in places like Washington, Detroit and Atlanta the speed of play would surely increase. Players would decide, as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb surely did in their day, that the only relief was a cold shower and a colder beer.

A more realistic purist might say it would be better if the players, managers and umpires just had a little talk and decided among themselves to speed up the game rather than introduce a clock to a game that has never had one, but every fan knows that is about as likely as the next 30 game winner or the Cubs winning the World Series.

There is so much to see at a baseball game, even when there isn’t much going on, but now we add the clock and one more old and dear tradition fades away. What next? Dodger fans arriving early and staying late? Yankee fans suddenly turning humble? A pennant in our nation’s capital? The Cubs in contention in September? Even on the clock a purist can dream, can’t he?

 

John Roberts: History is Calling

The U.S. Supreme Court this week confronts partisan politics and history in a way that will profoundly impact the court as an institution and largely determine the fate of the controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA) – Obamacare.

Supreme CourtIn the curious way that American political history has of not exactly repeating itself, but of regularly returning to the same themes, it is fascinating to consider how the Supreme Court handled a similarly contentious issue 78 years ago. The issue then was different – state minimum wage laws in 1937 versus health insurance today – but the impact on the court as an institution and on American politics is still instructive. Some of the parallels are striking.

If Chief Justice John Roberts hasn’t done so he might want to read up on the back story in the case of West Coast Hotels Co. v. Parrish. The leadership exercised by one of his illustrious predecessors, Charles Evans Hughes, just might be useful for Roberts this week, since how the Chief handles the Obamacare case – King v. Burwell – may determine not only his own legacy but also the court’s standing among American voters.

The Supreme Court became the most controversial issue in American politics in 1937. Re-elected in a landslide in 1936, early the next year Franklin Roosevelt took dead aim at the Supreme Court that had dismantled key fdr.gi.topparts of his New Deal economic recovery program. In one of the most audacious proposals ever suggested by an American president, Roosevelt sent legislation to Congress – a Congress overwhelmingly populated with his fellow Democrats – that would have added six new justices to the Supreme Court. In one sweeping legislative action Roosevelt proposed to both liberalize the Court and at the same time neuter a co-equal branch of the federal government.

Through the long, hot and politically disagreeable spring and summer of 1937, Democrats fought with each, with their president and with Republicans over whether to give FDR what he dearly wanted – a very conservative Supreme Court remade overnight into a liberal supporter of his program. The American Bar Association, the nation’s major newspapers, organized labor and farm groups chose up sides and by the time the fight finally ended Roosevelt had suffered the biggest political defeat of his presidency. The Democratic Party that should have been at the zenith of its power was ripped apart and Roosevelt would never again command a working majority in Congress for his domestic agenda, but the Supreme Court as an institution remained unchanged.

The West Coast Hotels case was part of the reason. The Parrish in the case was Elsie Parrish, a elsiechambermaid at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington, a hotel owned by the West Coast Hotels Company. Elsie, joined by her husband, filed suit contending that she received sub-minimum wage compensation for the work she performed and she sought to recover the difference between what she was paid and the minimum wage established under Washington state law.

The question presented to the court when the case was heard late in 1936 was whether Washington’s state minimum wage law “violated the liberty of contract as construed under the Fifth Amendment as applied by the Fourteenth Amendment.” In 1923, in a similar case, the Supreme Court had overturned a District of Columbia minimum wage statute on grounds that it violated the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. Early in 1936, the Court struck down a New York minimum wage law in a case that was almost exactly on point with the issues in the West Coast Hotels litigation. The New York decision was widely seen as a blow to New Deal-era reforms – FDR was incensed by the Court’s ruling  – and the case seemed to offer further proof that the Supreme Court was hostile to nearly any type of regulation of business.

When the Washington State case came before the Court in December 1936 it wouldn’t have taken a clairvoyant to predict the outcome. But in the interval between the two nearly identical 1936 cases, something changed. What changed had been entirely political. Roosevelt was overwhelmingly re-elected by American voters who were clearly showing their support for his policies. In simple political language the conservative majority on the Supreme Court suddenly found itself dramatically at odds with widespread public sentiment.

A Switch in Time…

When the West Coast Hotels case came before the court in December 1936 – remember this was after FDR’s big re-election win – Chief Justice Hughes, who had been in the minority in the New York case,245px-Owen_J._Roberts_cph.3b11988 prevailed upon Associate Justice Owen Roberts – no relation to the current Chief, but like him a Republican appointee to the Court – to change his mind and wipe out the precedent that the Court had re-affirmed just ten months earlier. With the Chief Justice writing the majority opinion, the court upheld the Washington state law – the vote was 5-4 – and Elsie Parrish, the Wenatchee chambermaid, found that the state minimum wage law really did apply to her.

Next comes one of the best examples I know of how timing impacts politics. While the West Coast Hotels case was heard just before Christmas 1936, and Justice Roberts indicated in a conference with fellow justices two days later that he would change his mind, the decision in the case wasn’t made public until the following March, weeks after Roosevelt proposed his sweeping and controversial plan to reshape the Supreme Court.

To the public and press it looked like the Court was knuckling under to political pressure from a hugely popular president, when in fact the Court, under Hughes’ skillful leadership, had already made up its mind to directly reverse its earlier precedent in minimum wage cases. Still it was widely said that Robert’s switch helped save the Supreme Court with one wag saying, “a switch in time saved nine.” The great historian William Leuchtenburg called it the “greatest constitutional somersault in history.”

ihughec001p1In reality, Hughes was a shrewd student of politics and had correctly read the election returns as a strong indication that public opinion was moving in the direction of a more activist role for the government in regulating the economy and American business. Hughes, very much a Republican and conservative, even admitted that the Court could no longer serve as “a fortress” against public opinion. In order to head-off the kind of sweeping political change that Roosevelt and others had in mind for the Court, Hughes knew his beloved Court had to change and lobbying Justice Roberts gave him his fifth vote. Hughes put his considerable muscle as a great Chief Justice behind his belief that the Court had to change in order to sustain its integrity and independence. Subsequent decisions by the Court in 1937 to uphold the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act further helped doom Roosevelt’s court packing plan and at the same time helped maintain public confidence that the Court was able to respond to national problems during the greatest economic crisis the country has ever faced.

King v. Burwell…

The case at question before the Supreme Court this week – King v. Burwell – turns on just four words buried deep in the controversial 955 page legislation passed by Congress in 2010. The challenge to the ACA centers not on questions of constitutionality or the application of Congressional or Executive authority, but whether every qualified American is entitled to an insurance subsidy whether they enrolled for health insurance through a state or a federal insurance exchange seems certain to thrust the court into the middle of the most contentious political issue in recent history.

In taking this case the court has decided it must rule on what Congress meant when it wrote those four words – “established by the state” – into the law.

As David Cole wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “The challengers’ statutory argument is deceptively simple. A subclause of the tax code setting forth a formula for calculating federal income tax credits provides that the amount of the credit depends on the number of months the taxpayer has been enrolled in a health insurance plan purchased on an insurance exchange ‘established by the State.’ Since an exchange established by the federal HHS is not an exchange ‘established by the State,’ they maintain, the law precludes subsidies for all residents of the thirty-four states that have exchanges created by HHS. The government counters that exchanges ‘established by the State’ is a legal term of art, and when read in conjunction with other parts of the ACA, it encompasses both exchanges that states themselves established, as well as exchanges that the states chose to have HHS create for them in their respective states.”

As a practical matter the health insurance exchanges in 34 states operate on the platform established by the federal government. If the court decides those exchanges are not subject to the subsidies – boom. Consider it the nuclear option. An estimated 7.5 million people in those 34 states will lose their subsidies, not be able to afford insurance and the great Obamacare experiment will tip over like Humpty Dumpty falling off that famous wall.

The committed opponents of the health insurance law will, of course, celebrate the death of the act they have tried to destroy once before in front of the Roberts’ court and more than 50 times on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Should those challenging the law prevail it will be seen correctly as a huge victory for conservatives who hate Obamacare and a crushing defeat for President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment. The impacts on the Supreme Court could be even more earth shaking.

RobertsRoberts is the man in the hot seat, just as Charles Evans Hughes was in 1937 and we already know he did some personal legal jujitsu to accommodate his own very conservative views to the political will behind the ACA when he cast the deciding vote to uphold the Act when it first came before his Court. In fact, there is one school of thought that Roberts has already found a way to uphold Obamacare from the latest challenge by invoking a very conservative legal principle – standing. It may well be that the plaintiffs in the King case don’t have the legal standing to even bring the case. We’ll see.

Hughes’ task in the New Deal-era was to save the Court from the kind of political interference Franklin Roosevelt had in mind. Roberts’ task today is to keep the Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, from using an extraordinarily narrow issue to kick the increasingly popular health care law in the ditch. Such a ruling would certainly please the legion of Obamacare haters, but at the cost of denying health insurance to several million Americans who now have coverage.

Conservatives who hope the Court will kick things in the ditch decry what they call “executive lawmaking” that “poses a severe threat to the separation-of-powers principles enumerated in the Constitution.” And they contend the president “has acted on the belief that legislative gridlock allows him to transcend his constitutional limits. A ruling that upholds this behavior would set a dangerous precedent for the nascent health-care law, which will be implemented for years to come by administrations with different views. More troubling, such a precedent could license virtually any executive action that modifies, amends or suspends any duly enacted law.”

But in the King case the dangerous behavior – you might read judicial activism – would be for a Supreme Court to impose its own notion of how an IRS rule ought to be applied; replacing its judgement for that of the branch of government changed with actually carrying out the terms of the law.

Long-time Supreme Court watcher and New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse argues that nothing less than “the honor of the Supreme Court” is at stake in the King v. Burwell decision. “To reject the government’s defense of the law,” Greenhouse wrote recently, “the justices would have to suspend their own settled approach to statutory interpretation as well as their often-stated view of how Congress should act toward the states.”

At pivotal moments in American history various Chief Justices have guided the Supreme Court through some very hard cases. Hughes did it in the 1930’s. Earl Warren did it in the 1950’s with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that separate but equal simply could not be Constitutional. Warren Berger did it in the 1970’s when he lead a unanimous Court that required Richard Nixon to turn over his White House tape recordings. In each case the integrity of the Court, as well as its ability to transcend, while at the same time respond to politics, was at stake. It’s also worth noting that in these historic cases a Republican chief justice appointed by a Republican president moved the Court in a new and important direction, while also keeping the Court out of the intense crossfire of partisan politics.

The same issues are at stake this week. Ironically, in reading the old West Coast Hotels decision, I noticed that one of the attorneys of record was named – John Roberts. For the Chief Justice history really is calling.

 

Teaching Old Dogma New Tricks

Start with the obvious – all politicians pander to one degree or another. It is an occupational hazard of the political art that admittedly some do more adroitly than others. Still staking out a position in order to maximize political support or to appeal to a particular slice of the electorate is as old as Lincoln.

As he maneuvered for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, Lincoln attempted deftly tab30460.jpgo manage the only issue that really mattered in that election – what to do about slavery and particularly whether slavery would be allowed to expand into new western territories. Ultimately elected with just 40 percent of the vote, Lincoln made his political appeal to the anti-slavery crowd, but also carefully attempted to reassure worried southerners and state’s rights advocates that he believed in working in the political process to settle big national disputes.

Lincoln’s political management of the slavery issue was both principled and pragmatic, which is what good politicians do. Lincoln had to appeal to northern Republicans, but at the same time attempt not to alienate another vast segment of the population. The stakes were beyond high. One might argue that Lincoln, one of the most skillful politicians to ever occupy the White House, was unsuccessful, but the fault sits with those who refused to believe Lincoln’s election was legitimate and his motives principled. Even before Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861 seven southern states had voted to secede from the Union and a bloody civil war became inevitable even as Lincoln tried to head it off.

So much of Lincoln’s approach to the political arts – principles fused with pragmatism – still rings true 150 years after his death. It also rings true that the great man would not recognize the modern party that sponsors dinners in his name this time of year, but seems to act less and less in his spirit.

From unrestricted money to endless campaigns there is much to dislike about modern American politics, but perhaps there are few things more unsavory, and less like Lincoln, then the increasing tendency of candidates to embrace positions that they must know are unsustainable over the long run, but they embrace them nonetheless in the interest of short-term appeal to a narrow, ideological band of political activist. A variation on this theme is to simply refuse to answer questions about issue that if answered “incorrectly” might cause a flutter among the politically active in a suburb of West Des Moines, Iowa or in downtown Columbia, South Carolina.

This is the very definition of pander and it has almost nothing to do with principle.

As the Republican “shadow primary” continues to unfold and with the media focus constantly shifting walkerto lavish attention of the GOP “flavor-of-the week” the current not-ready-for-prime-time contender has become Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker’s Tea Party flavor has taken him to the top of the latest polls in Iowa of Republican contenders largely on the strength of adopting – or refusing to specify – positions that he can’t sustain all the way to the White House, but might position him solidly with the element in his party that Teddy Roosevelt once called “the lunatic fringe.”

In the space of a few recent days Walker refused to say whether he believed in evolution, said “I don’t know whether Obama is a Christian,” and declined to offer a comment on Rudy Giuliani’s silly assertion that the President of the United States doesn’t love his country. For good measure and during the same period Walker doubled down on his opposition to abortion and engendered controversy in Wisconsin by trying to change (and dumb down) the mission statement of the state’s widely respected higher education system, while also proposing drastic cuts in that system.

Walker’s motives for failing to answer basic questions are as subtle as Vince Lombardi’s famous Green Bay Packer Sweep – he’s powering farther and farther to the right in the Republican contest for 2016 believing apparently that politics has suddenly become a game of subtraction rather than addition.

What Walker might have said to such basic questions seems so obvious. On the president’s religion, for example, he might have said: “It’s my understanding that the president has said many times that he is a Christian. I accept that since I am, too.” Or he might have said, as Jeb Bush essentially did, with regard to Obama’s patriotism: “I don’t presume to question the president’s loyalty or love of country, but I do disagree with him on policy.”

Maybe Walker really believes Barack Obama isn’t a Christian or is fundamentally disloyal to his country, but I’m guessing he is really playing – not very skillfully as it turns out – the Republican dog whistle game designed to reassure the party “base” that a presidential candidate is in on the far right joke. If you’re jockeying for Republican primary voters you can’t be too sure about science and it is impossible to be too critical of Obama.

For his part Walker blamed the media for all the attention he received for his evasions, which were really just code signaling that Walker “gets” the GOP primary voter. The media is guilty, Walker said, of playing “gotcha games.” Then Walker immediately began raising money on the basis that he had adopted an adversary relationship with the well-known “liberal” media.

“To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press,” Walker said. “The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”

Welcome to the world of the Republican presidential primary or, more correctly, the mad sprint to the far, far right where “strategy” and “message” mean you refuse to disassociate yourself from the ridiculous ranting of a one-time big city mayor and then blame the press for asking. As for “gotcha” questions stay tuned governor you ain’t heard nothing yet. Many good reporters know that the very best question is often a simple question that forces the politician to reveal – or hide – core beliefs.

How else to explain Walker not answering a question served up by a British interviewer who asked if the Wisconsin Tea Party darling believed in evolution. There is an appropriate answer for that question and it would be – yes, but Walker said he would “punt” instead. Offering up the correct answer based upon science, after all, might signify that Walker isn’t being appropriately sensitive to the apparently increasing number of self-identified Republicans who say they don’t believe in evolution.

As the New Yorker’s John Cassidy says: “In a more just world, Walker’s indecent and craven antics would disqualify him from playing any further role in the Presidential race. But in the current political environment, his tactics, far from hurting him, may well bolster a candidacy that is already thriving.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul drove into this message RandPaulHuh2cul-de-sac recently when they tried to finesse, again for the benefit of the far, far right of their party, the question of whether parents ought to get their children immunized. The overwhelming scientific and medical evidence is that yes you should get your kids immunized. Vaccination for school children also happens to be the law in all 50 states and 83 percent of Americans according to a recent Pew survey believe vaccines are safe. But apparently the nine percent who don’t agree about the safety of immunizations (seven percent say they don’t know) all vote Republican in the Iowa caucus.

Both parties have their litmus test issues, but the Republican test is fraught with more political peril. When immunization, evolution and the patriotism of the man in the White House become questions GOP candidates need to bob and weave around you have a sense that a vast swath of the American electorate is already quietly shaking their heads and asking is this the best we can do?

As the usually astute political observer Charlie Cook pointed out recently, “Given that, since 2009, the organizing principle for most Republican campaigns for the White House, the House, and the Senate has been to oppose Obama, Obamacare, and most other administration policies, Republicans need to think about what they are going to stand for as the end of the president’s time in office nears, and after he’s gone.”

Cook suggests, and I agree, the defining issue of the 2016 campaign will be “real incomes” and the fact that “accounting for inflation, the median income for American households peaked in 1999, at $56,895, and has been going down since. The average American family has been losing ground for a decade and a half.” Try punting on that one.

The real peril for Republicans as they maneuver to replace Obama, and Scott Walker really is just the flavor-of-the-week, is whether they pander so much to the fringe of their party that they can’t generate credibility with the rest of the country on issues that, as Walker might say, “come close to what you are talking about,” including real incomes of middle class Americans.

The terribly witty Dorothy Parker long ago reportedly quipped – appropriately it would seem in Governor Walker’s case – “that you can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.” It’s a sad testament to the state of politics that no one, with the possible exception of Jeb Bush, is even tentatively challenging the old dogma that has come to define the modern GOP and led them to defeat in the last two presidential elections. Sadly Republican presidential candidates again seem to be locked into a long, twilight struggle to narrowly define themselves by the dogma they are convinced they must embrace in order to appeal to the party’s primary voters.

It was just that kind of thinking, after all, that got a socialist, Kenya-born Muslim, who is disloyal to America and probably believes in evolution elected President of the United States in the first place.

 

A Bias for Action

His critics will probably say that once again Barack Obama has failed to exercise the kind of leadership that goes along with occupying the Oval Office. He’s waited too long, they’ll contend, to intervene on the West Coast port crisis and try to end the work slowdowns that have cargo backed up from San Diego to 101823174-451523212.530x298Seattle. The impact on the region’s economy is clear and the threat the U.S. economy is growing by the day.

Obama has now dispatched his Labor Secretary to engage the warring port operators and labor unions, but still seems reluctant to apply the full power he has under the still controversial law known since its passage in 1947 as Taft-Hartley.

Under the Taft-Hartley Act, as Roll Call has noted, “the president can get involved once a strike or lockout affects an entire industry, or a substantial part of it. At that point, the president must appoint a board of inquiry to report on the factual elements of the dispute. After that, the president can petition a federal court to prevent any strike or lockout the president has deemed a threat to national health or safety.”

Obama undoubtedly knows his history and as such knows that a president can win big or sometimes lose large when he puts the prestige of the presidency on the line in a labor dispute. Still, the American public has usually rewarded decisive presidential action when it can be clearly shown to be in the broad national interest.

Wielding a Big Stick…

Theodore Roosevelt rarely – make that never – seemed to hesitate to throw himself into a fight. Teddy-Roosevelt-the-Anthracite-Coal-Strike-the-Railroad-and-Civil-Rights-_picture_-2When a national coal strike edged into its fifth month in 1902 and threatened a very cold winter for millions of Americans, Roosevelt became the first president to personally intercede in a labor-management dispute. Using typically Rooseveltian tactics, T.R. summoned the strikers and the coal operators to meet and urged them to work out their differences in the national interest. The workers agreed, management balked, and Roosevelt acted. He threatened to seize Pennsylvania coal fields and use soldiers to dig the coal and then he appointed a hand-picked commission to suggest a way out of the impasse.

“Ultimately, the miners won a ten percent increase in pay with a concomitant reduction in the number of hours worked each day. The commission failed to recommend union recognition, however, or to address the problems of child labor and hazardous working conditions. Still, for the first time the federal government acted to settle, rather than break, a strike.” The decisive action by Roosevelt, coming not long after he had assumed the presidency and long before Taft-Hartley, helped cement his well-deserved reputation for action and leadership.

Although Harry Truman denounced the Taft-Hartley legislation in 1947 as “a slave labor law” – harrystrumanTruman vetoed the legislation only to see his veto overturned by a strong bi-partisan vote in both houses of Congress – the no-nonsense Missourian channeled T.R. in 1946 when he came close to nationalizing the nation’s railroads to end another crippling strike. Truman was incensed that two of the twenty national rail unions refused to accept a wage agreement that he had personally helped broker and he went on the radio to blast union leaders by name. His words prophetically anticipated the passage of Taft-Hartley the next year.

“I would regret deeply if the act of the two leaders of these unions,” Truman said, “should create such a wave of ill will and a desire for vengeance that there should result ill-advised restrictive legislation that would cause labor to lose those gains which it has rightfully made during the years.”

The year 1946 was a brutal year for Truman, the country and organized labor. A wave of strikes swept the country after the end of World War II and Republicans scored big wins in the mid-term elections allowing the GOP to recapture control of Congress for the first time since 1930. That historic election, coupled with the legislative cooperation that existed among conservative Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, led to major changes in the labor friendly Wagner Act, a cornerstone accomplishment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that passed in 1935.

The Taft of Taft-Hartley…

Taft-Hartley is the best remembered legislative accomplishment of the man once known as “Mr. TaftRepublican” – Robert Alonso Taft of Ohio. Taft was a fixture in national politics and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination from 1940 until 1952. Taft died of cancer in 1953 having never won the Republican presidential nomination that might have allowed him to fulfill a dream to follow his father – William Howard Taft – into the White House.

What is less well remembered is that Taft – unlike the labor-hating Fred Hartley, a New Jersey Congressman who chaired the House Education and Labor Committee – was a highly respected, hugely powerful senator; a man of principle and a politician willing to compromise in order to pass important legislation. Taft was at the zenith of his legislative power in 1947.

Taft’s best biographer James T. Patterson has pointed out that the Ohio senator had “relatively little interest” in a Time - Taftprovision advanced by Hartley that would require union leaders to swear anti-communist oaths in exchange for recognition by the National Labor Relations Board. Patterson says that Taft, while certainly aiming to trim the sails of organized labor, “insisted on the right of labor to strike and to bargain collectively with management.” Taft also opposed too much government scrutiny of internal union operations and true to his life-long convictions opposed “extensive government intervention in the economy.”

As West Coast Democrats and many Republicans now call for decisive presidential action to end the port crisis by invoking provisions of Taft-Hartley, it is interesting to note that the region’s members of Congress were all over the map in 1947 when it came time to consider Truman’s veto of Bob Taft’s famous legislation.

Oregon’s Wayne Morse, still a Republican in 1947, was one of only three Senate Republicans who voted to sustain Truman’s veto. Three liberals, the likes of whom don’t exist any longer, Warren Magnuson of Washington, Glen Taylor of Idaho and James Murray of Montana also voted to uphold Truman’s veto. Other Republicans in the Northwest delegation in 1947 – Zales Ecton of Montana, Henry Dworshak of Idaho, Harry Cain of Washington and Guy Cordon of Oregon – voted to override Truman and make Taft-Hartley law. Those were the days when Oregon and Washington had Republicans and Idaho had Democrats.

One could argue that organized labor in the United States has been in a long, steady decline since Taft-Hartley, which ironically makes it easier from a political standpoint for a president, even a Democrat, to intervene in a situation like that that now grips the West Coast ports.

The Gipper Strikes…

Obama might remember that it was a political no-brainer for Ronald Reagan to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981, even though the union had supported Reagan’s election. Reagan’s action in that 3384-20Acelebrated case allowed him to quote one of his favorite presidents, Calvin Coolidge, whose portrait Reagan had placed in the Oval Office. When air traffic controllers violated the law by striking Reagan quoted the laconic Vermonter: “There is no right to strike against the public safety of anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

Reagan biographer Richard Reeves says telephone calls and telegrams buried the White House and “supported the President’s stand by more than ten to one.” Many historians contend that Reagan’s harsh action further diminished labor’s clout, but there is little doubt his actions enjoyed broad public support and enhanced his popularity.

It appears the West Coast port situation has entered the phase where everyone involved is unable – or unwilling – to take a step back and try to find a solution. With everything from imported automobile parts to exported grain backing up there is no downside for a politician to act decisively and in the broad public interest. There is ample precedent for such action dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and ample reason to believe that a president, particularly one in the final two years of his term, would enjoy widespread public support for rolling up his sleeves and pounding the table for a settlement. A Democratic president, who surely will want to lean in the direction of organized labor, might also succeed, as a labor-friendly Roosevelt did in 1902, in crafting a solution that amounted to an historic win for workers.

In any case, in instances such as as the West Coast port issue, there is a strong bias in favor of presidential action, and sooner rather than later.

 

The Tragedy of John Kitzhaber

One Oregon legislator said it was like a Greek tragedy, but the dimensions of the decline and fall of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber are more Shakespearean than Hellenic.oregon-governor

The Kitzhaber downfall became so completely bizarre over the last month of so that it would seem unbelievably contrived where the real facts of this political soap opera reduced to a script for House of Cards. You sense that even Frank Underwood is shaking his head. In the end Oregon’s longest serving governor collapsed faster than, well, a house of cards. The drama in Salem over the last few weeks was equal parts Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.

Consider the basic facts. Kitzhaber, a fixture of Oregon politics for more than 35 years, was elected last November for the fourth time following a lackluster campaign against an inept opponent. The race is marked by audible sighs of “Kitzhaber fatigue” and the governor’s girlfriend/fiancée Cylvia Hayes ultimately became the campaign’s major issue. The real issues in the Kitzhaber saga have always been the violation of the bright line between public responsibility and private interest, between transparency and entitlement. In many states such combinations might have spelled a political end at the ballot box, but in one party states like Oregon (and Idaho) partisanship often trumps the basics of right and wrong. Yet in this case, as with the audience at an Elizabethan drama, everyone save the actors seemed long ago to understand how this play would end.

KitzAt a moment that should have marked the pinnacle of his political career Kitzhaber was hardly able to celebrate his unprecedented fourth election due to the cavalcade of news reports about Hayes’ dual and overlapping roles as “first lady” and private sector consultant. As the scrutiny mounted the stonewalling intensified.

In retrospect it is now easy to see that Kitzhaber’s remarkably rapid descent began back during his re-election campaign when he responded, annoyed and testily, to questions about whether Hayes was unethically and possibly illegally benefiting from her shadowy role as policy adviser to her boy friend the governor, while she also billed clients who seemed to all have an agenda with the state of Oregon. All that would have been bad enough without a further avalanche of detail about Hayes’ earlier life, including involvement with a pot farm and a marriage the governor said he’d not been aware of. With every drip-drip of detail the appearances became more damning and the defenses more ineffective.

“We did not violate the law,” Kitzhaber said during a memorable debate with his Republican opponent last October. “We’ve simply given a modern and professional woman an opportunity to continue her career. In 2014, it seems ludicrous that a woman should be expected to give up her career and life’s work just because she will soon be married to the governor.” True enough. Perhaps had the governor drawn brightly the line between his fiance’s public and private roles all this never would have happened. That he never did will become his sad legacy.

That October comment, coupled with no hint of acknowledgment that the governor-girl friend arrangement might have even the appearance of impropriety, was the sure signal of the lack of self awareness that seems to descend on nearly every politician, even the smart and skilled ones, who come to believe in their own righteousness. Shakespeare might have called it hubris.

Incidentally, Kitzhaber’s line about his “modern and professional” fiancée was essentially the same argument the Clinton’s used long ago to justify Hillary’s Rose Law Firm legal career and membership on the Walmart corporate board while Bubba sat in the governor’s office in Little Rock and while she was First Lady. The justification didn’t pass the smell test then either, proving once again that there are no new scandals in politics only the ones that repeat over and over. What is different in the two cases is that the Clinton’s benefited from a political life in Arkansas before email, which, as the former governor of Oregon now knows, were simpler times.

In the final days of this debacle, there rolled out the completely predictable cycle of political scandal: the newspaper editorials demanding resignation, the mad rush to lawyer up, the late-breaking revelations each carrying a unmistakable sense that the hole was getting deeper, the feints that resignation was imminent, the too-late effort to cover tracks, the inevitable abandonment of close allies and friends and the further retreat into the bunker. Like the cycles of the moon, the political scandal always ends the same way.

Still, in the evolution of any scandal there is always a moment – or even many – when an admission of error leavened with public humbleness can provide the opportunity for redemption and perhaps survival. Kitzhaber, a hard charging former emergency room doctor, could never get to a point of responsibility, admission and humility. We’ll never know whether he might have saved his own often impressive political career by simply admitting errors of judgment and asking Oregonian to allow him to make things right. The American capacity for forgiveness and redemption is remarkable, but one has to recognize the need to humbly make the ask. Part of the tragedy here is that Kitzhaber never tried and a bigger part is that he didn’t see the need.

There an old saying among airplane pilots – beware the hundred hour pilot – that applies to the Kitzhaber-Hayes saga. Pilots, it is said, who are still learning the ropes of piloting an aircraft tend to be extra careful with their actions and the condition of their plane. It’s the pilot who reaches a hundred hours of flight time who suddenly believes he’s Charles Lindbergh and has become immortal in the cockpit. The same thing can happen to a politician: Elected four times, obviously the smartest guy in any room, in his own mind his motives only pure, the newspaper and political critics unfair, the advisers timid or shunted aside.

When crisis descends, the truly smart ones reach out – widely. The smart ones have enough confidence to step back and ask what might I have done better and how might I make it right? The hardest and most essential part of dealing with a crisis is the ability to understand the critics and not dismiss their concerns as unknowing or unimportant. In this case it was not only hard but impossible.

Ironically, it is often the most seasoned politician – think of Larry Craig or Bob Packwood or Brock Adams, among many others – who behaves like the all-knowing, all-certain “experienced” hundred hour pilot who follows his “experience” – read arrogance – into the side of a mountain.

There will be many story lines in the days ahead in the Oregon political drama that only The Bard of Avon might have concocted. We certainly haven’t heard the last of John Kitzhaber and his First Lady with the likelihood of a long and contentious legal process just beginning and indictments a real possibility. It will be said that the former governor brought it upon himself. He fell victim and grew blind to the allure of a younger woman with more ambition than sense. Hubris, even arrogance, was at play. Entitlement can be fatal. The Oregon saga was all that.

There is always both sadness and glee when a public figure is brought low; sadness that humans, even elected ones, are all too human and glee, at least by some, in the fact that a once powerful politician was brought down in a strikingly public way. The real tragedy, of course, is that it didn’t have to happen. But that is always the case with political tragedy.