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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.

A Really Bad Idea

clarkTea Partiers Want to Do Away With Direct Election of Senators? Come on…

The fellow to the left should be the poster boy for why repealing the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a really, really nutty idea.

William Andrews Clark was one of the original robber barons of the American West, a Montana Copper King, a genuine scoundrel and a United States Senator thanks to the money he spent buying a few state legislators and his ticket into the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Now – brace yourselves – the Tea Party movement is advocating, you can’t make this stuff up, doing away with direct election of U.S. Senators. Even more off the wall, the two top candidates for the GOP nomination for Congress in Idaho’s First Congressional district have endorsed the idea as has Idaho’s governor. These folks must be drinking something stronger than tea.

William Edgar Borah, one of the greatest United States Senators, lead the charge in the early 1900’s to amend the Constitution to take away from state legislators the power to elect United States Senators. Borah was a progressive – that would be a dirty word for many Tea Partiers – who believed that the power to make Senators ought to reside with the people, not a tiny group of elected officials (legislators) subject to the influence and money of special interests, raw politics, deal making and close door decision making. He fought for the amendment for years before it was finally passed.

Now, apparently harboring the misguided notion that letting legislators elect U.S. Senators would somehow strengthen states rights, the Tea Party movement is all over repealing Borah’s historic handiwork.

Borah’s biographer Marian McKenna writes this about the Idahoan’s effort to put the American people in charge of deciding who serves in the U.S. Senate.

“The feeble and corrupt, he wrote,will always be found in personal government, but in a true democracy neither incompetence nor dishonesty will long remain unexposed. ‘What judgment is so swift, so sure and so remorseless as the judgment of the American people?'” Indeed.

The founders wrote the state legislature election process into the Constitution because they wanted to ensure one house of the national legislature would be dominated by an elite. The House of Representatives would be for the common people, the Senate for the new American nobility. The provision stayed in the Constitution for so long, in part, because southerners worried that African-Americans would influence the popular vote for members of the Senate.

Borah disliked the lack of direct election for the same reason William Andrews Clark loved the idea. Borah knew he could stand a chance getting elected if the people were passing judgment, if a bunch of small-time pols in the legislature did the selecting they would often be subject to deals, pressure and money. Clark used all three to seal – or steal – his election in Montana at the turn of the 20th Century.

Do candidates like those in Idaho who have endorsed this idea really think we ought to disenfranchise the people and let a simple majority of the 105 members of the Idaho Legislature elect our U.S. Senators? If they do, they haven’t read any history. They need to.

Can you imagine the wheeling and dealing in the state legislature around a U.S. Senate seat? I’ll vote for your guy if you support the appropriation for my community college? You want your bill to see the light of day, better support my guy for the Senate?

The state legislature – any state legislature – is capable of more than enough mischief, thank you, without trusting them to elect our U.S. Senators. I really hope the otherwise serious people who are supporting this idea are merely guilty of pandering to the movement of the moment. If they are serious, the tea they’re drinking has fermented.

Collaborate or Litigate

Life in the WestAndrus Conference Considers A Better Way

If you want a sense of how often public policy in the American West regarding land use or the environment is made in a courtroom, just Google the name of any one of the last half dozen Secretaries of the Interior.

You’ll get lots of hits: Alaska v. Babbitt or Defenders of Wildlife v. Kempthorne or Andrus v. Shell Oil Company. Much of the litigation results from a legitimate need to sort out claims to competing rights. My right to use the land or drill for oil versus some other right to protect a species or complete a process.

But a good deal of the litigation over what we might broadly call “the environment” comes about because legitimate competing interests can’t find a basic level of trust in the other side to try and sit down and hash out a compromise that leaves the lawyers advising rather than suing. That may be changing a little as so called “collaborative processes” produce significant win-win situations in various places in the West.

Last Saturday’s Andrus Center conference in Boise highlighted two successful and very different collaborations in Idaho.

One – the Owyhee Initiative – resulted in legislation that both protects some of the most spectacular river canyon country in the U.S. and helps preserve a rural way of life in the rugged ranching country of southwestern Idaho. Fred Grant, a property rights lawyer who worked for eight years on the collaboration, told the conference his willingness to come to the table with the once-hated enviros had cost him friends, but the payoff had been worth all the heartburn and hard work.

The second collaboration has been underway in eastern Idaho in the Henry’s Fork drainage where irrigators, environmentalists and federal agencies meet regularly to work through water and habitat issues. They’re not looking for legislation, but rather a constructive forum to work on problems. With the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council they seem to have found the forum.

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker covered the conference that also featured Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and BLM Director Bob Abbey. Rocky’s piece today offers more insight into how the collaborative process is working in the Henry’s Fork basin.

Over the next few weeks the Andrus Center – I serve as the Center’s volunteer president – will distill the innovative thinking from the conference, produce a “white paper” and engage a working group in an attempt to create more forward progress focused on collaboration rather than litigation. Look for more follow up.

Collaboration that solves problems and builds trust has to gain more traction in an American West where fundamental values – open space, wildlife habitat, clean air and water, working landscapes that support ranching and resource utilization – are in danger in a changing economy and a changing climate.

To some, as former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus likes to say, the word “compromise” is an unclean concept. But, if you believe as I do, that personal relationships built on trust are what ultimately make the world go round, then finding a way to collaborate and not litigate really is the path to a better future in the often contentious American West.

The Great Twain

TwainClothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society. – Mark Twain

Of all the incredibly funny things he said, that is my single favorite Mark Twain quote. I smile every time I see it.

April has been Mark Twain month. I’ve seen articles about his death 100 years ago this month. His love of baseball. He was an investor in the Hartford Dark Blues, a team that folded after one season. The local newspaper said his investment in the shaky enterprise had firmly established his reputation as a humorist. Ouch.

There are an embarrassment of new books about Twain. Stories about the fabulous house, now a museum, he built in Hartford. Controversy over naming a cove on Lake Tahoe after him. And always the quotes.

“I am only human,” he said, “although I regret it.”

No less a writer than Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”

One of the best new books is Mark Twain: Man in White by Michael Shelden. Shelden tells the story of Twain’s last years as a celebrity and how he came to wear the snow white suits we now identify as part of his “brand.” I have been reading the book and completely enjoying the story of a man of immense talent, big ego, huge humor and breathtaking originality. Shelden makes the case that Twain managed his own image as carefully as his prose.

My friends at the Idaho Humanities Council are devoting their summer institute for Idaho teachers to Why Mark Twain Still Matters. Watch for more information on public events during the week-long event in July.

Before Mark Twain there never was anything like him and there hasn’t been since. He may have been the ultimate American original. Go read him again and read about him. You’ll be better for it and, as Mom would say, “it will be good for you,” but most of all it will be great fun.

Much of what Mark Twain said more than a hundred years ago still seems relevant, like this which wasn’t said, but might have been, about Washington, D.C. and Goldman Sachs.

“The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”

Oh, yes, Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” when talking about the economic excesses of the late 1800’s. The guy has been dead for a century, but he’s as fresh as this morning’s headlines.

Immigration Politics

immigrationA Short-term Bounce, Bad Long-term Politics

No matter your feelings regarding the merits of a single state – Arizona – taking action on immigration, there can be no doubt that what the state legislature and governor have done in the land of the Grand Canyon has set off another raging national debate. Boycotts are threatened. Lawsuits are planned.

Makes you wonder, as Linda Greenhouse wrote, what the ol’ libertarian Barry Goldwater would have thought about a bill that requires police to ask a person they only suspect of immigration violations for their papers.

The Arizona law has also, I suspect, firmly cemented the partisanship of immigration politics to the long-term detriment of the GOP.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the controversial legislation, had hardly gotten her pen back in her pocket before some of the more strategic thinkers in the Republican Party – Jeb Bush a Floridian and Karl Rove a Texan – declared Arizona’s sweeping immigration legislation a big political mistake. The GOP’s U.S. Senate hope in Florida almost immediately put distant between the Arizona action and his candidacy. With a name like Marco Rubio that may not really be a big surprise, but it does signal a Republican problem.

Here’s why these Republican luminaries are worried. The demographics of America continue to change – and rapidly. According to the Pew Center’s profile of the nation’s Hispanic population, Hispanics now comprise at least 10% of the population in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Utah. In Nevada, Hispanics make up 26% of the population. In Arizona, the number is 30% and in California its 37%. No wonder Meg Whitman, the California GOP gubernatorial candidate, immediately said there are better ways to address the issue than the Arizona approach.

The median age of the Hispanic population in Idaho is 22 and other states are slightly above or below that number. The median age of native born Hispanics in Idaho is 15. Ninety percent of young Hispanics in Arizona are U.S. citizens. Do the political math. The Hispanic population is growing. These are young families and in a decade or so they will be voting in much larger numbers than today.

The immigration legislation in Arizona may crystallize what is potentially a very tight race between Brewer and state Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat. Depending upon the poll and the day, the lead in race is in constant flux. The debate in the great Southwest could also sharpen the partisan divide nationally as Democrats generally oppose the Arizona effort. By contrast, the GOP is all over the map.

For a long time the conventional political wisdom about this issue has held that the only real risk for a candidate was being too soft on immigration and that may hold for a while, but it is hard to argue with the numbers and the trends. If Democrats want a comeback strategy in a place like ruby red Idaho, they best start with understanding the demographics and aspirations of the growing Hispanic population. These Americans – and a generation of new voters – are up for grabs and Republicans, in Arizona at least, have sent a message – they’re not interested.

Democrats best get out the clip boards and start walking the neighborhood. Arizona just handed them an opportunity to organize, organize and organize. They don’t need to be in favor of anything except fairness and equal opportunity, old American values that will appeal to the fastest growing group of Americans.

The courts will eventually decide whether Arizona’s law is, as Rove suggested, fraught with Constitutional problems. The court of Hispanic public opinion may already be set to render a verdict that is fraught with real long-term political problems for Republicans.