Winning and Losing
In the cold, grey aftermath of the drubbing Democrats received on Tuesday, President Obama is too reserved, too buttoned down and too cool to use, at least in public, the language of a long ago unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the California Legislature. But, he must be thinking what Dick Tuck once said.
Tuck was a political operative and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” who bedeviled Richard Nixon and once opened his own State Senate race with a speech in a cemetery. Dead people needed a voice in politics, too, he said.
After a Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, Tuck paid an elderly women to approach Nixon and say: “Don’t worry, son. He beat you last night, but you’ll win next time.” Good stuff, but not as good as his classic quote.
After his State Senate loss in 1966, Tuck said at his concession, “the people have spoken…the bastards.” Obama must feel something similar, but his now well-established detachment – is that part of his problem – keeps him from expressing such sentiments and showing any genuine emotion.
As we total up the winners and losers from the Democratic debacle this week, the now profoundly challenged Obama heads the “L” column. As much as he has been tested by a controversial preacher, Hillary Clinton, a Great Recession and two wars, his political challenges are just beginning. Adversity can make or break a politician. This is Obama’s political test.
The best – and most successful politicians – have an knack for self reflection; an ability to check and recalibrate long held assumptions. Obama has a tendency to describe all circumstances he faces in terms of a policy choice, but what he faces is fundamentally a leadership challenge. We will see soon enough if he is up to the challenge.
Here is one suggestion. Before too much time passes, Obama should get Speaker-to-be John Boehner on the golf course. Seriously. Boehner loves the game – Golf Digest lists him as the 36th best golfer in Washington – and Obama loves to play, as well. It’s more difficult to talk past some guy you’ve played 18 with, even if he gives you strokes and then beats you. Seriously.
Closer to home a big winner this week is the once and future Governor of Oregon John Kitzhaber. With a deep red tide running nationally, Kitzhaber grabbed a narrow win, the first third term in Oregon history and a chance to make a mark on Oregon’s feeble economy. As noted here in the past, comebacks are hard – particularly for former governors, but Kitzhaber joins former and future Governors Jerry Brown in California and Terry Branstad in Iowa as some of the comeback kids in this cycle.
There are many, many Republican winners this week – Boehner, Haley Barbour, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Idaho’s Mike Simpson (new Appropriations and EPA oversight clout), Oregon’s Greg Walden (Boehner’s transition leader) and on and on, but in raw political terms there is no bigger winner among the many Democratic losers than Harry Reid.
Considering the dynamics of Reid’s race and the fact that he is loathed by many of his constituents, the fact that he survived against a Tea Party rival, even one as fundamentally flawed as a candidate as Sharron Angle, is remarkable. Steve Friess writes at The Daily Beast that Reid won the old fashioned way by running a dogged, determined campaign that left no detail unattended.
“By the time he strolled onto the stage on Tuesday arm-in-arm with wife Landra wearing a Cheshire Cat grin,” Friess writes, “all of Reid’s best-laid plans had gone perfectly and he had not only won but done so convincingly.”
But, back to that jokester Dick “The Voters Have Spoken” Tuck. Maybe we could use some of his mostly harmless good humor in our current polarized political culture.
Time magazine noted back in 1973 that Tuck briefly attached himself to then-Sen. George McGovern’s presidential campaign against Nixon, but as it turned out with limited success.
“McGovern did not seem to appreciate a good joke much more than Nixon,” Time reported. “When [Nixon] and some fat cats were about to pay a visit to [Nixon’s Treasury Secretary] John Connally’s ranch, Tuck proposed sending a Brink’s armored car to the scene followed by a Mexican laundry truck. But the McGovernites vetoed the suggestion.”
In place of the ultra-nasty political air wars we’ve all endured, we could use a few more clever, not mean, political pranks like Tuck’s. Humor in politics is a good thing.
Here’s wishing – for both winners and losers on Tuesday – that they find a way to add a little humor to the necessary post-election self reflection and that a healthy dose of modesty now replace the bombast and hyperbole. And, of course, no talking during the back swing.
A bitter election and the serious problems confronting the country now demand the best of all of this week’s survivors.
Winning and Losing
Idaho GOP More Firmly in Control
If yesterday’s election in Idaho had been a Little League baseball game, it would have been called on account of the ten run rule.
Republicans gained four seats in the state House of Representatives, held all the Constitutional offices and recaptured the Congressional seat held for the last two years by Democrat Walt Minnick.
As elections go, this one was a tidal wave.
The huge Republican majorities in the Idaho Legislature will soon enough face big challenges, including more budget cutting – potentially including education and social services – but the GOP and Gov. Butch Otter can bask, for a while at least, in the sure knowledge that voters were in no mood to punish them for historic cuts in school spending or for presiding over a still struggling economy. Quite the contrary, Idaho Republicans seem more dominate than ever against a dispirited, disorganized opposition.
Otter’s victory was nothing short of astounding. He won just over 59% of the vote against four opponents and held Democrat Keith Allred to the worst showing for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since 1998. Allred’s eastern Idaho and Magic Valley strategy was a bust. The governor polled nearly exactly the same number of votes in Bonneville County (Idaho Falls) as he did in 2006, but Allred didn’t come close to matching the vote Democrat Jerry Brady managed in the same area four years earlier.
With his LDS faith becoming a focus of attention in October, Allred carried not a single county in heavily Mormon eastern Idaho. He only came close in Bannock County (Pocatello) where Brady beat Otter four years ago. When all was said and done, Allred won only two counties – dependably Democratic Blaine (Sun Valley) and Latah (Moscow) by a narrow margins.
In the Raul Labrador – Minnick race, there will be, I suspect, a good deal of analysis of Minnick’s hard hitting television attacks on the Republican, but the backlash factor – and there was a backlash – can’t entirely account for Labrador’s comfortable ten point win. Minnick, always an uncomfortable Democrat in a very conservative district, won by the wave in 2008 and lost by it, as well. In a year when the GOP was headed to a nearly 60 seat pickup in the U.S. House of Representatives, it was – in perfect hindsight – nearly impossible that one of those seats was not going to be in the First District of Idaho.
Take nothing away from Congressman-elect Labrador. Out spent 5 to 1, he pulled two “upsets” this year – a primary and a general election win, neither of which he was expected to accomplish.
There was nothing anti-incumbent about this election. It was anti-Democrat. Idaho is painted deep RED today and it is likely to stay that way for a long, long time.
The Giants Win
Like most baseball fans, I gained my appreciation of the game from my dad. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately what with a big election coming down and the Giants in the World Series. We would have visited – we didn’t talk, we visited – about both, but mostly we would have visited about the baseball.
He would have remembered Bill Terry and Carl Hubbell and given a nod to that catch Mays made in ’54 at the old Polo Grounds the last time the Giants won the whole thing. But, mostly I can hear him marvel at the pitching and the story he loved to tell about the great feat of the great Hubbell.
“You know,” he would have said, “Carl Hubbell once struck out five future Hall of Famers in a row in the All Star Game. Imagine that. Striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin one after the other. Amazing.”
He would have picked the Giants to beat the Rangers because “good pitching beats good hitting in a short series every time.” Once again, the old man had it right. He would have marveled at Timmy, but would have disapproved of his hairstyle.
I’ve liked the Giants as long as I’ve liked baseball, so the World Series win over the equally worthy Texas Rangers will be a great memory for a long time. I particularly like this team because it is so clearly a team. So many baseball teams, even great ones, seem like a mere collection of individuals wearing the same uniform.
Baseball, at its best, is still a team game where the power hitting first baseman can lay down a bunt and where the role playing shortstop wins the MVP, or where the rookie catcher can praise the freaky pitcher, but then acknowledge the importance of bringing in the equally freaky closer to end the last game of a magical season.
So, as Detroit Tiger fan Art Hill once suggested in his book I Don’t Care If I Ever Come Back, the season has ended just like that and we can become consumed again with politics, the economy, war and elections. Baseball’s well-lighted place that keeps the demons away until dawn has vanished, but thankfully not completely.
“Our character and our culture are reflected in this grand game,” in the words of the late, great Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. “It would be foolish to think that all our national experience is reflected in any single institution, even our loftiest, but it would not be wrong to claim for baseball a capacity to cherish individuality and inspire cohesion in a way that is a hallmark of our loftiest institutions. Nor would it be misguided to think that, however vestigial the remnants of our best hopes, we can still find, if we wish to, a moment called a game when those hopes have life, when each of us, those who are in and those out, has a chance to gather, in a green place around home.”
April will come and none too soon.
Theodore Sorensen, 1928 – 2010
Before his health began to decline, Ted Sorensen wrote one of the great political memoirs of our time. He simply called it Counselor. Sorensen’s joked that his obituaries would say that “Theodore Sorenson, John Kennedy’s speechwriter…” had died, both misspelling his name and misstating his role as perhaps Kennedy’s most important aide.
Sorensen, who died over the weekend at age 82, was among the last of the Kennedy men and so much more than a speechwriter, although he was among the very best to ever practice the craft.
Kennedy referred to the Nebraska-born Sorensen, who joined JFK’s senate staff and later presidential campaign at age 27, as his “intellectual blood bank.” Historian Douglas Brinkley said Sorensen was the Kennedy Administration’s “indispensable man.”
Sorensen became the young president’s closest aide, second only to Robert Kennedy in enjoying – and understanding – Kennedy’s aspirations and secrets.
Anyone who appreciates the still real power of effective political speech must admire the words that Sorensen shaped and crafted in collaboration with Kennedy, perhaps one of the three or four most eloquent American presidents. For his part, Sorensen thought the letter to authored to the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, that helped defuse the Cuban missile crisis was his greatest work. Sorensen always claimed his collaboration with Kennedy – that is the right word for a speechwriter – was the product of deep trust and understanding developed over long hours spent together and, of course, a shared political philosophy.
At the very end of his very personal, very revealing memoir, Ted Sorensen wrote, “I’m still an optimist. I still believe that extraordinary leaders can be found and elected, that future dangers can be confronted and resolved, that people are essentially good and ultimately right in their judgments. I still believe that a world of law is waiting to emerge, enshrining peace and freedom throughout the world. I still believe that the mildest most obscure Americans can be rescued from oblivion by good luck, sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes.
“I believe it,” Sorensen wrote, “because I lived it.”
Two Democratic Presidents, Two Approaches to a Pivotal Mid-term
In 1934 the unemployment rate in the United States was 21.7%, just two percent lower than it had been when Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House two years earlier. The Great Depression had its claws deep into the American economy, Roosevelt’s big business and conservative opponents were on the march and the president’s Congressional allies were bracing for the mid-term elections.
Yet, amid persistent charges in 1934 that FDR was taking the country toward socialism, fascism or dictatorship and trampling on the Constitution at every turn, Democrats won a stunning victory in that year’s mid-term elections increasing their numbers in both the House and the Senate. The Senate gains were particularly impressive with Democratic numbers going from 59 to 69 seats.
Historical parallels only go so far, admittedly, but there are some striking similarities between 1934 and 2010. But it is clear now that one thing is very different. The election outcome next Tuesday will be a near historic spanking of the party in power with Democrats almost certain to lose control of the House of Representatives and find their numbers sharply reduced in the Senate. Heading into the final weekend of the campaign, it is not impossible that the GOP will take the Senate, as well.
So, the obvious question: Why was Franklin Roosevelt able to pull off his 1934 political miracle – only the second time in history a party in power in the White House increased its numbers during a mid-term – with an economy still deeply in the ditch, and why will Barack Obama spend next Wednesday trying to explain what went wrong, while welcoming new House Speaker John Boehner to the White House?
I’ll offer a simple theory to a complex question – Obama, unlike FDR, has let his opponents define him and his policies and thereby he managed to lose control of the narrative arc of his presidency. It has been said that one can go from hero to zero just like that in politics and Obama has.
There will be plenty of “what ifs” and “what might have beens” after next week, but in the simple language of communication – and this applies to a school board election or a mid-term – if you are constantly playing defense, as Obama and Democrats have been, you almost always lose.
Folks on the right who will be celebrating next week will be quick to point out that the election signals a repudiation of Obama and Democratic policies and, to some degree, they’ll be correct, but there is a deeper issue for the president and Democrats. They haven’t mounted anything approaching an effective defense of what they have done and are trying to do. You can trace this failure – the wisdom of the policies notwithstanding – back to the summer of 2009 when Congressional town hall meetings were overrun by opponents of the health care legislation and, looking back, Obama and his supporters couldn’t begin to explain how the massive bill really helps most Americans. Instead they played defense, ceding the political narrative to the media’s fascination with the Tea Party, and, I would argue, have never developed a consistent message. They also went for months acting as though passing legislation in the hothouse environment of Washington, D.C. was a substitute for a coherent explanation of what they were trying to accomplish.
Contrast this failure, the months rolling by with no focused message and a fatally late start to engage, with FDR’s robust defense, packaged in terms of American ideals, that he began to mount early in 1934:
“A few timid people,” FDR said then, “who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it Fascism, sometimes Communism, sometimes Regimentation, sometimes Socialism. But in doing so, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and practical.
“I believe in practical explanations and practical policies. …that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment…of old and tested American ideals.”
Obama has been frantically on the stump the last few weeks, but Roosevelt was out on the hustings as early as August of 1934. In one speech he rejected the arguments of the Liberty League – an earlier day Tea Party – that contended that the New Deal was harming big business. “Sound economic improvement comes from the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof,” Roosevelt said.
In contrast to Barack Obama’s early start in his sprint for the White House and his determined, disciplined campaign, his PR skills have come up wanting over the last many months. He engaged his detractors too late and then ineffectively and only after he had lost any chance to stay on the offensive.
FDR’s great biographer, James MacGregor Burns, wrote of Roosevelt’s performance in 1934: “At a time when Americans wanted a man of action in the White House, he provided action or at least the appearance of action. At a time when they wanted confidence, he talked bravely, reassuringly about the future, whatever the mistakes, we were Looking Forward we were On Our Way, the title of two books he put out in 1933 and 1934. At a time when Americans wanted good cheer, he filled the White House with laughter.”
Burns said Roosevelt’s secret in 1934 was his “hold on the people,” a grasp that Obama had fleetingly, but has lost and will now struggle to retrieve.
During FDR’s pivotal second year in office, Burns has written, FDR “maintained his popularity through timely action, unfailing cheerfulness in public and private, and a masterly grasp of public opinion.”
In short, while the Great Depression still roared and two in five Americans were out of work, Roosevelt inspired confidence. “Businessmen, labor chiefs, bankers, newspaper editors, farm leaders left the White House cheered, impressed, relieved,” in Burns’ words.
Roosevelt succeeded in 1934 by giving a broad cross section of the American public a sure sense that he was one of them, looking out for them and fundamentally a champion of their cause. Such a feeling of public connection with the president helped overcome both FDR’s many detractors and the horrible economic circumstances – circumstance, like Obama, that he inherited – during the 1934 mid-term elections.
As much as this mid-term will be cast as a referendum on Barack Obama’s policies, it is also a sure sign that he has lost the confidence, the trust if you will, of a significant number of Americans. Once lost, those are qualities hard for any leader to re-establish and that helps explain why 2010 is going to be so very different than 1934.
Commercials You Might Remember
Unlike the famous – or infamous – Daisy ad from the 1964 Lyndon Johnson – Barry Goldwater campaign, most political commercials today are cut from a predictable pattern. In the typical ad the opponent is rotten, the other guy is a genius. It is the rare commercial that breaks the mold and breaks through.
Political junkies know the story of the famous ad man Tony Schwartz who filmed the adorable little girl pulling the petals off a daisy with her innocent image ultimately fading into a nuclear blast and a mushroom cloud. The ad aired only once during a CBS Monday night movie in September 1964, but is generally credited with helping ensure Johnson’s landslide victory. The ad is famous enough that it was mentioned in the first paragraph of Schwartz’s obit when he died in 2008.
In my searching around, I’ve found nothing on par with the Daisy ad, but have identified a handful of ads worth remembering this year; mostly positive and one just a great example of raw, effective political propaganda.
The campaign of California’s comeback gubernatorial candidate, Jerry Brown, has actually produced two of the better ads of the season. This side-by-side mash up of soundbites from unpopular current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current GOP contender Meg Whitman is not only well done, but very effective. But, it is Brown’s closing ad reminding Californians what he had done as governor that likely seals the deal.
Republican Marco Rubio appears to be coasting to a Senate victory in Florida. His closing ad asking for the vote is one of the best I have ever seen. It’s long – two minutes – but the length allows him, in a very compelling way, to tell a story – his story. In the best tradition of some of the great Reagan ads, it is inspiring, aspirational and positive. Keep an eye on this guy.
Tom Barrett is the Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin and the current mayor of Milwaukee. The polls indicate he is not likely to win, but his campaign gets points for a skillful and compelling spot featuring his wife as she talks about her husband getting attacked while trying to help a grandmother ward off an assault. The whole thing could have been awkward, even tacky, but it isn’t and like the Rubio spot tells the viewer a good deal about the candidate.
My final spot of note – the Chinese Professor ad – has already become an Internet sensation. Writing in The Atlantic, James Fallows says this spot will be the one we remember in 10 years. Could be. It has all the elements – a story, Chinese students in 2030 considering the demise of the United States economy; just enough truth to get you thinking and until the very end there is no hint that this is about policy and politics.
As Fallows says, as truth the ad is really good propaganda since the spot “has the Chinese (professor) saying that America collapsed because, in the midst of a recession, it relied on (a) government stimulus spending, (b) big changes in its health care systems, and (c) public intervention in major industries — all of which of course, have been crucial parts of China’s (successful) anti-recession policy.” Still, it wouldn’t be good propaganda were it not effective.
You know the Chinese Professor ad is effective because it has already spawned a parody that turns the original message on its head.
So few of the thousands of political ads are good enough to be memorable, its worth pausing to celebrate the handful that are. It is also worth noting that the really good ads, like this small collection, tell a compelling story and avoid talking down to the viewer. There is an element in each ad that says, in a way, we trust you to vote intelligently. A nice thought.