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Politics 101

political booksThinking About Our Fractured Politics

Jim Leach, the current chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a former 15-term Republican Congressman from Iowa, has the perfect formulation for why the middle has disappeared in American politics, while the most out there elements in both parties continue on the rise.

Leach was in Boise last week as part of his national crusade to stress civility in our public dialogue and in our partisan politics.

In between his stint as a Congressman – Leach joked that his constituents invited him to leave – and his tenure at the NEH, he taught at Princeton. While there he developed what he calls two minute courses on American history and politics. One mini-course he entitled Politics 101.

Politics 101 begins with the recognition that the American electorate is roughly divided into thirds – one-third Republican, one-third Democratic, one-third independent. Then, realize that in primary elections, like the one recently in Idaho, only about 25% of registered voters participate in selecting a party’s nominees. This 25% is generally made up of the most ardent party faithful; the true believers who also tend to be the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats. Furthermore, in some states with party registration, independents play no role in selecting the partisan contenders, effectively giving these self-defined “middle of the roaders” no role in defining who carries the partisan banners.

So, by Jim Leach’s formulation, as we slice the electorate ever more finely in party primaries, we get down to about one-sixth of the total population making the big and basic decision about who goes on to a general election. In Idaho, winning a GOP primary is, in most places, the election and its often decided by a tiny fraction – the most partisan fraction – of the electorate. The recent Democratic primary in Idaho featured the smallest percentage of participation in many years.

Under this basic political arithmetic, no wonder most Republicans are tacking to the right and Democrats to the left. If they look and act like moderates – moderates like Jim Leach during his years in Congress – they get, in the vernacular of modern politics, “primaried.” And, just like that, the middle of American politics has ceased to exist.

A Republican like Bob Bennett in Utah or a Democrat like Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas plays Russian roulette if they dare to work across the aisle. One of the great charges against Bennett, a three-term senator, was that he worked with Ted Kennedy and dared to supported the bi-partisan Wall Street bailout that, by the way, occurred on the watch of a GOP president.

Leach quoted – perhaps not altogether in context, but the words do ring – the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” where the “best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Our fractured politics stand to get worse, I fear, because self preservation in the human and political animal is such a powerful force. It takes a remarkable man or woman to try to appeal beyond the fringes of either party. The center is a dangerous place now in politics, but it has always been where real things get done.

Politics 101 today equals friction and faction. The middle not only hasn’t held, it has disappeared.


Leaking Oil and Credibility – Part II

obamaThe President as Crisis Manager

As a result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Barack Obama has learned – let’s hope he’s learned – some lessons about leadership in a crisis.

Some of the criticism leveled at the President, such as the BP mess being “Obama’s Katrina,” seem a little off base and the media driven storyline about Obama needing to show a little temper was mostly just a made for cable controversy. Still the facts are that with the oil company clearly not acting quickly enough and ultimately not having a real plan to contain the damage from the big blow out, residents of the Gulf region and the county looked to Obama to lead. His record is, in my view, at best spotty.

Many Americans embraced the Sarah Palin “drill, baby, drill” notion during the last campaign, but at the same time those same folks are no fans of Big Oil. In a new USA Today poll, 71% of those surveyed say Obama should get tougher with BP. His speech from the Oval Office tonight seems likely to take a harder line, but that’s only part of the lesson from this crisis and its comes late in the crisis management game.

Most executives learn – sooner or later – that the most difficult thing to uncover in a crisis is quality information upon which to act. It became pretty clear pretty fast that the information deficit in the Gulf would be a major problem. While BP tried one Rube Goldberg fix after another, the President and his people came late to the realization that BP was making it up as they went. In short, there was little reliable information about the best strategy to contain the growing spill and all the ideas seemed to be coming from the less than credible company that caused the crisis in the first place. Everyone involved also seemed to lack good intelligence on what the moving oil slick would likely mean to the Gulf coast.

Obama needed better information earlier and faster. Lesson number one.

Most executives also learn – eventually – that you can’t delegate responsibility when you’re the top guy. For days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was the administration’s face on the scene. Nothing against Salazar, but we all know where the buck stops. The President and his advisers should have realized that this was his crisis to manage, and manage aggressively almost from day one.

So, lesson number two. Obama should have taken charge much sooner and more forcefully. I think, and again hindsight is easy, that he should have insisted on face-to-face meetings with BP leadership in the Gulf and in DC. Realizing that the government doesn’t possess the expertise to plug a blown out oil well a mile deep in the ocean, he should have raided major oil companies, universities, the national labs, private industry and foreign sources for the best available talent to manage the containment. I think the most profound criticism to level at the President is his failure to take the containment job away from BP early on. If he can fire the CEO of GM, he certainly has the moral authority to take over in this case. He should have.

Who is to say whether better solutions would have been forthcoming, but such a move would have clearly signalled that he was in charge and not relying on the company to address its own obvious failures.

Another lesson: when all is said and done this disaster will largely be about who pays and how much. Apparently the President is now insisting on a BP escrow account to be available to finance the clean up, pay claims, etc. Better late than never, but still very late. Money won’t fix all that will need to be fixed in the Gulf, but money will certainly do until something better comes along. Obama could have displayed real toughness by both taking control of the containment effort and forcing BP to put real money on the table a lot earlier.

Finally, I expect the President has learned another valuable, but painful lesson from this long ordeal: its hard to mobilize the government to effectively deal with a crisis that is both big and unpredictable. Katrina not withstanding, we generally have pretty effective national response to natural disasters – flood, hurricanes and the like – we struggle when the crisis is outside the usual box. Hard as it is to believe, federal agencies – state agencies for that matter – are rarely or routinely called upon to work together and coordinate an overall approach to a problem. They tend to be isolated, siloed organizations where even top managers, in say, the Transportation Department don’t know their counterparts over at Interior. It is a problem endemic to any large organization, but it can be particularly acute in government.

As John Kennedy famously said when the right hand of his government didn’t know what the left hand was doing – “there is always some dumb SOB who doesn’t get the word.”

That’s why any President – or Governor or CEO – needs to be able to reach down in the bureaucracy and crack heads in the interest of action. Action in government, where most folks practice survival skills full time and are horribly risk averse, even during a crisis, requires aggressive, demanding leadership.

A final lesson from history. When the great (and flawed) Winston Churchill took over as British Prime Minister in the dark days of 1940, he insisted, against almost unanimous advice, on reserving to himself the portfolio as Defense Minister as well as Prime Minister. Critics said it was too much for any one man, particularly one pushing 70 years of age. Winston was told he needed to delegate the day-to-day running of the war and focus instead on the big picture strategy.

But Churchill, who knew a few things about human nature and leadership, understood that he would get the credit or blame for every military success or failure regardless of whether some other figure had the official title. Churchill insisted on being in the middle of every decision, pushing, prodding, selecting personnel and reading reports and issuing demanding memos. He craved the responsibility and, while he certainly didn’t get every call correct, he inspired great confidence and dogged determination just when both were needed the most.

In a crisis – the Battle of Britain or a oil spill in the Gulf – the top guy is the responsible party. Might as well make the most of it, a lesson President Obama now seems to be embracing, finally.

Leaking Oil and Credibility

oil+spillLessons to Learn

I’ve been asked a dozen times since the BP oil spill developed in the Gulf of Mexico what I would have advised the company’s executives as they face what may prove to be – or already is – a truly catastrophic environmental disaster. Alas, BP hasn’t called, but of course I have some ideas about what they might have done differently.

The general consensus has now developed that BP has irreversibly lost the PR battle, with some now comparing the lackluster response to Exxon’s handling of the Alaska spill years ago, and has yet to win the battle to stop the oil flow.

Could it have been different? Hard to tell, but maybe.

Rule number one of a real crisis, I think, is simply that it is almost impossible for any entity – corporate, governmental, etc. – to move fast enough. The first hours in responding to a disaster, particularly such a public disaster, almost always establish the public perception of how well the crisis is being handled. The first hours and days of the Gulf spill now seem like a blur. What was happening, who was in charge, was this really bad, could it be quickly contained? Instinctively, I think, most people watched the television pictures of the burning oil rig and concluded that this would be a real mess. Meanwhile, BP and the government seemed slow out of the blocks.

So, BP – and the government – failed the first test of crisis. They couldn’t or wouldn’t move fast enough. In the early hours of a major crisis, action is always better than talk.

What might BP have done differently? I have five suggestions for what could have been done and one guess about why none of it happened.

First, how might it have changed public perception had BP’s CEO, the much-beleaguered Tony Hayward, immediately gone on television – from the Gulf – and announced that he was asking the state of Louisiana to establish an account, that the state would control, in which BP would immediately deposit – pick the number – $250 million as a down payment on the clean up? Real cash, not a promise to pay all “legitmate claims” might have made a powerful statement that the big oil company was really serious.

Additionally, BP might have announced that it was immediately suspending al offshore drilling every where in the world while it conducted, with the help of outside experts, its own assessment of safety and emergency response.

Hayward could also have humbly asked for an immediate meeting – in the Gulf – with President Obama, the Secretary of the Interior, the top Coast Guard officials, the heads of Exxon-Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and the governors of the Gulf states. The purpose of the meeting: establish an immediate crisis response team, seek the best possible industry help to determine the best way to stop the leak and contain the oil and, most importantly, get all the responsible folks in the same room and on the same page.

It might have also helped BP’s credibility from the first moment had Hayward admitted what almost all the rest of us suspected – the company did not know the extent of the leak, did not fully understand the cause, didn’t have a sure fire solution to contain the oil and fully expected the worst with regard to the environmental consequences. It is remarkable what a humble admission of “we don’t know and we need help” will do to retain credibility and, frankly, buy time to get organized and really figure out what to do.

Hayward should also have become the sole face of the company’s response. He should have camped out in the Gulf, constantly meeting with local officials, business people, environmentalists and fishermen, and working the media. He should have aggressively engaged the President and his administration rather than appear to be a reluctant participant in the whole process by suggesting he wanted “his life back.”

Here is a bet as to why BP seemed to do nothing in the first days except to say it took responsibility while seeming to downplay what was really happening. I’m betting the company’s lawyers took charge of the response and the overriding objective became to contain the financial and legal liability for BP and its shareholders. I can almost hear a smart, articulate attorney telling the CEO that he must do nothing that would eventually be used to shape the inevitable legal cases that will drive BP’s liability.

Don’t get me wrong, the lawyers must be in the room when a crisis is unfolding, but in a career of helping manage various kinds of crisis – nothing admittedly this big – I have concluded that the “right thing to do” is almost immediately in conflict with what constitutes the best legal strategy for the entity responsible for the crisis. It’s hard for any CEO – even the most well intentioned – to ignore the legal advice he will receive, but doing the right thing – and fast – is almost always the better long-term option than to craft a response that is driven largely by legal considerations.

Now, as the President heads back to the Gulf today, the New York Times reports that he will demand a BP escrow account, summon the company’s executives to the White House and generally ramp up the public pressure on the company. Some might argue it’s a little late.

It is easy to second guess while looking in the rear view mirror, but I think, had BP acted faster and more decisively by putting real money on the table and seeking help and buy in from the industry and government, it could have taken charge of the unfolding narrative in the first hours and saved itself some major and long-lasting PR heartburn.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on lessons for the President in the government’s response to the spill.

The World’s Game

world+cupSoccer: It Speaks the World’s Language

Someone once said that the secret to world peace was to adopt a universal language; one common language that would eliminate misunderstanding and foster shared purpose. As I’ve watched the run up to the 2010 World Cup, I’ve thought we may really be getting closer to the one world language – the language of the world’s game – soccer.

Loyal readers in this space know that baseball is my game, but when the World Cup rolls around who cannot be a soccer fan. I can still remember my two young sons darting around a soccer pitch on very cold Saturday mornings in the fall while I huddle on the sideline trying to keep warm with a cup of hot coffee. While urging them on, I stood there shivering and wondering just what the rules of this foreign game were all about. My soccer knowledge hasn’t progressed all that far in the intervening years, but I have come to appreciate the skill and athleticism of the great players and, of course, the social phenomenon of soccer is fascinating.

This World Cup, to read the experts, is all about the rise of African soccer and ESPN has a great piece on what soccer means to Africa. I know what it means in England, Ireland and South America.

I spent a day earlier this year touring Montevideo, Uruguay – now there is a soccer mad country – and quickly learned of that country’s real religion. Most Uruguayans are Roman Catholic, but soccer is the true national religion and probably has more true believers. After all the World Cup originated there. The same situation prevails in Argentina, a country bedeviled with a long history of political and economic instability, but a nation in the first rank when it comes to futbol.

So, I’ll check the baseball box scores on a daily basis as I always do, but I’ll make a point to catch some of the World Cup action over the next few days. Brazil and maybe Spain are considered favorites, but I’ll be pulling for the other South Americans – Argentina and Uruguay.

By the way, and with acknowledgement that its almost impossible to miss the World Cup hype and coverage, one of the classiest marketing efforts associated with the big event has been the campaign of the luxury brand Louis Vuitton.

The Vuitton campaign, including a really cool website, features the great Brazilian soccer star Pele, the Frenchman Zinedane Zidane and the Argentine Diego Maradona. Some marketing genius, and I mean that as a compliment, came up with the idea of having the three aging soccer stars play a Foosball game and respond to a long series of soccer questions. Great marketing and good soccer lore.

Baseball is still an American game. Soccer belongs to the world. The next month should be fascinating.

Should Judges Think?

souterMr. Justice Souter

We are soon to witness the latest chapter in the by now completely predictable theatre that passes for a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for a new justice for the Supreme Court of the United States.

In a remarkable speech recently at the Harvard commencement, retired Justice David Souter provided the most thoughtful guidebook for how we ought to consider the business of judging that I have seen in a long time. All the participants in the coming production – Elena Kagen, the nominee, the Senators who will pass judgement on her qualifications, and the media who will cover the drama – should take a few minutes and read Souter’s speech.

This was not your typical “wear sunscreen” commencement speech and may well have left the Harvard crowd thinking that they had to endure the final boring lecture. But, in truth, Souter offered up a classy essay on how judges can – if they can – think about their jobs and the Constitution. One analyst called it a speech for the books that rivals some of the legal thinking of the great Oliver Wendell Holmes.

After noting the obvious that the Constitution contains many general statements about values that are by necessity somewhat vague, Souter said: “the explicit terms of the Constitution, in other words, can create a conflict of approve values, and the explicit terms of the Constitution do not resolve that conflict when it arises.”

The former New Hampshire attorney general then said, “a choice may have to be made not because language is vague but because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, to have it both ways…”

Souter was, in his kindly, scholarly way, slipping a knife into the “original intent” notion of how the Constitution must be read and applied.

Long-time Supreme Court watcher, Linda Greenhouse wrote on the Times on-line that Souter carefully did not mention Justice Antonin Scalia during his Harvard talk, but that he must surely have had the outspoken Scalia in mind when he said the modern world requires a flexible Constitution that assesses the words in the document but also considers the contemporary facts of society.

If Senators Pat Leahy or Orrin Hatch want to do the country a favor when they have judge-to-be Kagen in their confirmation sights soon, they would do well to ask her if she’s read Souter’s speech and, more importantly, what she makes of his legal thinking.

Even better, here’s hoping the Senators read the speech. It would be good preparation for judging a judge. Questions based on Souter’s speech would be a decided improvement above and beyond the usual fare served up during the typical confirmation theatre. I won’t be holding my breath, but I have a notion that Souter has said some important things with real lasting value to this incredibly important debate.

Now…For Something Completely Different

Andrus CenterCivility in Public Life – Now There’s an Idea

Jim Leach, the former Republican Congressman from Iowa and now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, will be in Boise a week from today as part of his national civility tour.

I’m happy, through the Andrus Center for Public Policy, to be involved in hosting a lunch and speech from the chairman on June 11th. A small number of tickets remain for Leach’s speech entitled “Civility in a Fractured Society.” If you’re interested visit the Andrus Center’s website.

During a recent speech on the civility subject in Salt Lake City, as the Tribune reported, Leach “recalled an episode from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War , in which even the cultured state of Athens murdered, enslaved and colonized the people of the island Melos for refusing to help fight Sparta.”

The former 30-year congressman said: “The lesson is that even great nations sometimes lose their way,” he said. “We’re going to have to think about whether or not we remain one country that moves together, but can also accommodate a wide variety of views.”

The lesson – U.S. challenges at home and around the world require real understanding, civility and a sense of history; not to mention tolerance.

Jim Leach is an interesting, thoughtful guy who has spent a good part of his life in politics and knows the value of engaging our adversaries armed not only with strength, but with understanding, debating our political opponents with decency and practicing the arts of democracy with civility.

By the way, Boise State University President Bob Kustra will be interviewing Jim Leach on his Boise State Public Radio show – 91.5 FM – today at 5:30 pm and Sunday at 11:00 am. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey has also interviewed the chairman, so look for his piece soon.