The Brits Know How to Have an Election

downingYou Want Change…

Put me down as an Anglophile. London is a great city. Winston Churchill was, and I know I’ll get an argument, the indispensable man of the 20th Century. Theater, music, literature, quirky humor, lukewarm beer, whiskey from Scotland – I really like the mother country.

The British have their challenges, needless to say, but the recent election there is a reminder of how much Great Britain has to teach us about conducting a spirited and quick national election, making a decisive change in leadership – again quickly – and doing it all with a fair amount of style and class.

Gordon Brown, the just ousted prime minister, will never be confused for Churchill, but it was hard not to admire the way he left Downing Street yesterday in route to hand his resignation to the Queen. Stiff upper lip and all that.

At the same time, David Cameron, the 43-year-old leader of the Conservatives immediately became the youngest prime minister in 200 years. You win an election in Great Britain and poof – you move in at No. 10. You wonder if they had time to change the sheets.

You must also admire the speed and decisiveness with which Cameron and Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg closed a deal to forge the first genuine coalition government in Britain since World War II. Clegg will be the deputy prime minister and several of his Lib Dem colleagues will get spots in the Cabinet, Britain gets a fresh start with two attractive younger leaders and it all happened in a matter of days.

As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum noted, the British system worked beautiful and now the Tories confront the nation’s economic troubles in full partnership with the left of center Liberal Democrats. Each party has a stake in working on the details and fixing the economy. It may not work in the end, but some how all the players seem to have been trying to find the best path for the country once the voters had spoken, and not very decisively at that.

I’ve had a running debate with my much better half for years over the relative merits of the British and American systems. As our politics have become ever more polarized – can you imagine Barack Obama and John McCain negotiating a power-sharing arrangement – and voters feeling like Washington is less and less accountable, I find the parliamentary system to have more and more appeal. Key members of the ruling party in Britain actually run departments of government. They must propose and defend their own budgets and plans. They must stand weekly for questions from the opposition.

Its not any fun to lose an election in Britain, I know, but its not often an occasion for prolonged transitions and public agonizing. Tradition demands a certain pace and, after all, the Queen is waiting.

What would our system be like, in a variation on the Brits’ approach, if the president drew his cabinet from the leading members of his party in the Congress? Hillary Clinton could still be in the Senate and Secretary of State. Ken Salazar could run Interior and still be the Senator from Colorado. How about Barney Frank running the Treasury Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission? OK, maybe not. But, you get the point. Separation of powers problems aside, with a hybrid American-British system we’d have more accountability and if the president lost a key vote in Congress – bam – national election. It wouldn’t hurt us to shorten up our transition, either. In the modern age, from election day to January 20th is an eternity. The British do it better.

I know, as my better half says, what are you thinking, or smoking? Still the British, with all their problems and challenges, have something to teach us about four-week long campaigns, the ability to quickly and effectively form coalition governments and a chance to provide real change and accountability for those running the government.

After all, it’s not like we have the perfect system. We could learn some things. Might do us good.

But She Isn’t a Judge

kaganMany Great Ones Weren’t, Either

The early line of attack against Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan seems to be focusing on her lack of “judicial experience.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others, voiced that concern after President Obama announced her appointment Monday.

While Texas Sen. John Cornyn was lamenting Kagan’s lack of judicial chops, someone was remembering that he thought George W. Bush’s nominee Harriett Miers lack of the same was just fine.

Lots of water to go under this confirmation bridge, but the “lacking judicial experience” line, from an historical perspective, doesn’t hold water. The history of the nation’s high court is a story of many celebrated justices who donned the black robe for the first time only after they joined the Committee of Nine.

Consider these names, just in the 20th Century:

Chief Justices Harlan Fiske Stone, a law school dean, like Kagan, and then Attorney General before going to the court. Or, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Justice Department lawyer, before becoming a Justice. Hugo Black a U.S. Senator. William O. Douglas, a senior federal official with no judicial experience. Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, Lewis Powell and Earl Warren, all without prior judicial experience and all who became celebrated justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In fact, every president from FDR to Nixon appointed at least one justice without prior experience on the bench.

Given the extreme partisanship that surrounds all judicial nominees, Kagan will have to run the confirmation gauntlet and answer questions about everything she has ever said, written or done. Fair enough. It is a life-time appointment, but not being a judge – as American history shows – certainly shouldn’t be a prime factor in the confirmation test. Until fairly recently it hasn’t been much of a consideration at all.

By the way, for students of the Supreme Court, the SCOTUSblog may be the best source around for really good information on the nominee, what she has said and done and what others are saying about her.

Back to the Future

glassIs it Time to Bring Back Glass-Steagall?

Carter Glass (left) developed an impressive resume during his nearly 50 years in public life – Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury under Woodrow Wilson, architect of the Federal Reserve System and U.S. Senator. If he’s remembered at all more than 60 years after his death it for the financial services regulation he authored – the Glass-Steagall Act – and pushed through the Senate in 1933.

A key provision of Glass-Steagall regulated for the first time the speculative activities of banks and mandated the eventual separation of commercial banking from investment banking. Bankers would have to chose under Glass’ legislation to accept deposits and make loans – commercial banking – or invest and trade in securities and other instruments – investment banking. There is general agreement that the legislation stablized banking in the 1930’s and provided a solid platform on which to build a strong and sustainable system for the rest of the 20th Century.

Wall Street was never satisfied, however, and after years of lobbying to end the separation and “reform” and modernize banking for the 21st Century, Congress repealed provisions of Glass-Steagall in 1999. President Bill Clinton signed the legislation.

The final Senate vote was a lopsided 90-8. Still, there were some voices back in 1999 expressing concern about doing away with the Depression-era legislation. When you go back and read the comments of North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, one of the no votes, you almost feel he had a crystal ball allowing a look into the future.

”I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010.

”I wasn’t around during the 1930’s or the debate over Glass-Steagall,” Dorgan went on, “but I was here in the early 1980’s when it was decided to allow the expansion of savings and loans. We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and of soundness.”

The late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota called Glass-Steagall a “stabilizer” during the Great Depression “designed to keep a similar tragedy from recurring.”

The fears were discounted by the proponents who, after all, had the votes. Then-Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska said: ”The concerns that we will have a meltdown like 1929 are dramatically overblown.”

Now, in the wake of the greatest financial crisis since 1929, a host of people think the repeal was a bad idea and even some who originally supported it, like Arizona’s John McCain, are supporting a return of Glass-Steagall. Even an ex-Merrill Lynch executive said he regretted supporting repeal.

The great financial meltdown of 2008 had roots deep in the fertile soil of a wild and unsustainable real estate market, unregulated and unintelligible exotic investment tools and regulators at the federal level who were too often asleep at the switch. Someday we may know the full story that is still unfolding thanks primarily to good reporting and post-disaster analysis.

One could make the argument, and more and more are making it, that the great collapse really began when Washington wiped from the books a Depression-era law written by the long forgotten senator from Virginia – Carter Glass.

Tough Primaries

specterPennsylvania: A Foretaste of What’s to Come in Idaho

One of the most interesting – and toughest – primary elections in the country is nearing an end in Pennsylvania. Party-switcher Arlen Specter, supported by the White House and most heavyweight D’s, is trying to hold off Rep. Joe Sestak and preserve a chance to win his sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

Sestak has put up one of the most effective ads I’ve seen in a while reminding Democratic primary votes in Pennsylvania that Specter was a Republican until two years ago. Sestak, a retired three-star Navy Admiral, has now taken a tiny lead in the race. While Snarlin’ Arlen tries to hold on against charges that he is a conniving opportunist, Sestak is fighting off demands that he release his Navy records against a backdrop that includes the allegation that he was relieved of his command forcing his retirement.

The race shows how tough a primary election can become when candidate are scrapping over the base voters in a party.

The Republican primary races in Idaho’s First District has taken on a similar tone as Vaughn Ward, a Marine Corps reserve major and the favorite of many establishment Republicans, tries to hold off the challenge of very conservative state legislator Raul Labrador. The race could turn in the final days and makes the Tuesday head-on-head debate on Idaho Public Television really important.

Both candidates have roots in the southern part of the huge district making populous Canyon County the battleground and both candidates are clearly trying to out appeal the other with the Tea Party crowd.

Last week, Labrador gained the endorsement and help of long-time conservative activist Dennis Mansfield who claims the momentum in the race is moving Labrador’s direction. Labrador also picked up endorsements in Canyon County. Again, like the Pennsylvania race, the GOP primary battle in the First District reflects the fault lines in the increasingly conservative Republican Party.

Expect some tough shots in the final days. These guys, like Specter and Sestak back east, are battling for the heart and soul of their party and it’s winner take all.

The winner in Idaho goes against first term Democrat Walt Minnick who has had the luxury of not facing a primary challenge allowing him to build his ample war chest for the fall.

Political Purity

political booksPassing the Litmus Test

With apologies to Reed Smoot – the Smoot of the Smoot-Hawley tariff – a once powerful U.S. Senator from Utah, by the weekend an even more powerful U.S. Senator from Utah may join Smoot in the history books.

If the tea leaves are correct, three-term Senator Bob Bennett is close to being history. He’s having trouble passing the litmus test.

The popular Republican governor of Florida is no longer a Republican. The leading candidate for governor in Rhode Island is an independent. Idaho’s lone Democratic office holder is too conservative for some of the puny band that call themselves Idaho Democrats.

What’s going on here? Think of it as the further polarization of American politics. The far right dominates the GOP, the far left the Democratic Party and the broad middle ground is increasingly becoming no candidate land.

What do Republicans like Bennett, Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida and former Senator Lincoln Chafee have in common? Each is apparently too liberal for the GOP in their states. Calling Bennett a liberal is a little like calling Babe Ruth a good singles hitter. The label doesn’t fit the man, yet Bennett may well not survive this weekend’s Republican convention in Utah where the party insiders pick the candidates.

Polls indicate Bennett’s standing is OK with most Utahans, but not the very conservative majority that will attend the convention this weekend. The Salt Lake Tribune recently quoted a delegate, Kristina Talbott, as saying: “We need some new blood. Most of it is anger toward Washington and the Republican Party … because people think our party has been letting us down lately. And a lot of people think Bob Bennett is back there and he’s not stepping up to the plate like he should be.”

Crist has abandoned the Republican Party in Florida and will seek the senate seat there as an independent. Chafee is taking the same path in Rhode Island.

Litmus tests go down the ballot, too. In Idaho’s most populous county, the Republican Central Committee recently took the unprecedented step of endorsing candidates in a contested primary for, of all things, two county commission seats. The challengers to two incumbents were not deemed Republican enough even though current Boise City Council member Vern Bisterfeldt and former GOP commissioner Roger Simmons have been elected in the past as Republicans. Simmons even served in an appointed position in Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s administration. Bisterfeldt and Simmons sin, apparently, was that they have had the independence a time or two to actually support Democrats, thereby failing the litmus test. Oh, and they haven’t shown up for Central Committee meetings.

Some of this reminds me of the storm kicked off in 1986 when my old boss, Cecil Andrus, rolled out a list of “Republicans for Andrus,” including the then-GOP Senator from Washington State Dan Evans.

Andrus’ GOP supporters also included, among others, Harry Magnuson of Wallace, often referred to by the press as a “mining magnate,” wood products operator Dick Bennett of Princeton and former GOP legislator and gubernatorial candidate Larry Jackson of Boise. Some may remember Jackson from his 14-year Major League baseball pitching career with the Cardinals, Cubs and Phillies. He had an impressive career in politics, too, including serving as Chairman of the Idaho House Appropriations Committee and seeking the governorship in 1978.

Andrus won that election only because he was able to appeal to moderate Republicans and independents who, I still believe, appreciated the fact that he, too, was an independent spirit often at odds with his national party. Former Sen. Steve Symms walked into my office in the Statehouse in 1991 and remarked upon seeing the framed newspaper ad of the Republicans for Cecil hanging on the wall, that the “ad elected him governor.”

Republicans certainly smarted from the fact that some of their own had abandoned the party’s candidate in 1986 and the GOP-controlled State Senate subsequently refused to confirm Jackson to the state tax commission or several other of the GOP turncoats to other state boards or commissions.

There is an old saying in politics: Don’t get mad, get even. But, in this case the “getting even” only served to cement the Andrus reputation as a Democrat who could attract Republican support. The Republicans who publicly supported him were denied some jobs, but that hardly hurt the governor who continued to enjoy a lot of Republican support.

In any event, it’s clear that both parties are finding it harder and harder to put up with anything other than political orthodoxy as defined by the extremes on the Republican right and the Democratic left. The broad middle is up for grabs, but few dare venture there – its a political minefield these days.

And we wonder why there is so little bipartisanship.

The Great Ernie

harwellHarwell – A Voice of the Boys of Summer

It was a cold, wet night at Safeco Field in Seattle on Tuesday and the Mariners played like they would rather have been sitting by a fire sipping a toddy. Their shortstop made three errors, their clean up hitter proved again he is an expensive mistake and, like I said, the raw wind off Elliott Bay was cold.

It was cold for another reason. Ernie Harwell’s mellifluous, calming baseball voice has been silenced. What little bit of warmth I felt on Tuesday at Safeco was the moment of silence baseball fans observed before the first pitch in memory of the 42 summers Ernie called Detroit Tigers games. Harwell died on Tuesday after a battle with cancer. He was a very young 92.

Harwell once said of baseball, “I love the game because it’s so simple, yet it can be so complex. There’s a lot of layers to it, but they aren’t hard to peel back.”

I’ve been a Tiger fan since 1968 when the boys from the Motor City beat the great Bob Gibson to become one of the few teams to recover from being down 3-1 in the World Series. Harwell said his greatest thrill in those 42 seasons behind the mike was Jim Northrup’s two-run triple in Game Seven of that series. That’s a good memory, but even better is sense of place that Harwell could create in even the most routine baseball game, sort of like Tuesday’s game in Seattle.

“On radio,” says Jon Miller, my choice for the best of the new breed of broadcasters,”we could tell a story about a player’s house in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the listener goes to that house. On television, you tell that story and you don’t go anywhere, because you see things that don’t match the story–the third base coach flashing signs, the pitcher getting ready. On TV, I caption what’s being shown. On the radio, it’s my story. As Ernie Harwell says, on TV, you get the movie version. The game on the radio is the novel.”

The New York Times obit for Ernie is a gem and reminded me that the guy could write, too. His Hall of Fame induction speech in 1981 is classic Harwell.

“Baseball is Tradition in flannel knickerbockers,” Harwell once wrote. “And Chagrin in being picked off base. It is Dignity in the blue serge of an umpire running the game by rule of thumb. It is Humor, holding its sides when an errant puppy eludes two groundskeepers and the fastest outfielder. And Pathos, dragging itself off the field after being knocked from the box.”

I only saw Harwell once in the flesh. It was the last season of old Tiger Stadium. When I showed up at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull to see a game on that piece of hallowed baseball ground there he was. Seated just outside the stadium, signing autographs and copies of his book and talking baseball with the fans – his fans. You couldn’t talk to Ernie Harwell, or listen to him, and not smile and think of the complexity of life and baseball and how marvelous he could make a simple game on a summer afternoon.

Good call, Ernie.