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Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”


The Winner Is…

How far we have come, or perhaps fallen.

The Republican romp across the electoral map yesterday may or may not prove to be a defining moment in the “re-branding” of the national GOP in advance of the 2016 presidential election to which all eyes now turn, but it most assuredly marks the first national election where the candidates – Republican and Democratic – lost control of their campaigns to the growing forces of dark money, secretly spent.

Barack ObamaThe 2014 mid-terms will be dissected by pundits to assess the real message of the dispiriting campaigns. Surely the president’s vast unpopularity is a big part of the story, so too the fact that Republican Senate candidates generally won in states where Mitt Romney ran well two years ago. Barack Obama long ago lost control of his presidency thanks to inattention, missteps, lack of political skill, or just a remarkable inability to turn clumsy GOP roadblocks into hurdles that he could clear. It’s also obvious that America was not quite ready yet for “post-racial” politics after Obama’s stunning election in 2008. In fact, part of Obama’s legacy may turn out to be that he finally helped complete Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of making all the states of the old Confederacy the most dependable part of the Republican base.

Still the real and lasting import of 2014 is hidden right in plan sight on our televisions – the attack ads, the depressing repetition of half-truth and distortion that is the uncontested central feature of our politics. Of course, all the distressing multi-billion dollar sleaze is financed by more money than ever before from fewer and fewer sources about whose motives we can only make educated and cynical guesses.

Back to the Future…

I’m betting not one American in million has heard of William Scott Vare of Pennsylvania, but the pudgy machine politician of the WilliamVareearly 20th Century makes as good an object lesson as any over which to scratch our heads and wonder again what’s happening as a result of the pernicious influence of money – really vast amounts of money – in our politics.

Before Franklin Roosevelt’s revolution reordered the nation’s political map in the 1930’s, Pennsylvania was a dependably Republican state dominated by old style machine politics. The GOP machine chose the candidates, lined up the money, managed the voting and sent its favorites to Harrisburg and Washington. In 1926 it was William Vare’s turn to reach the big time. Vare had spent most of his life moving through the chairs of Pennsylvania politics – Philadelphia city jobs, recorder of deeds, state legislature, then Congress. He was the Republican candidate for the Senate in 1926 when the odor of corruption hanging around him finally wafted into the U.S. Senate.

1101330227_400In a wonderful little essay on the Vare case, the Senate historian says that Mississippi Democratic Senator Pat Harrison took to the Senate floor in 1926 to denounce the influence of vast money involved in the primary election won by Vare in Pennsylvania. “Harrison pointed to reports that a staggering $2 to $5 million had been poured into the campaign and reminded his colleagues that in an earlier election a far smaller amount expended by Michigan’s Truman Newberry had been labeled excessive.” Imagine that. In 1926 the U.S. Senate actually debated whether too much money in a Senate race was a bad thing.

Not only that but after a series of Senate investigations stretching over more than three years, William Scott Vare was denied his seat in the Senate when a strong bi-partisan majority – 66 to 15 – determined that Vare’s vast expenditures from dubious sources were “harmful to the dignity and honor of the Senate.” These were the days before there was much of any type of campaign finance disclosure, but the Senate did determine, big surprise, that most of the money spent in Pennsylvania came from a handful of extremely wealthy individuals, including the Bill Gates of his day Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Imagine that. The Senate actually once policed its own membership when presented with proof that one member had simply spent too much money to secure his election.

A Cancer on Democracy…

One gets the sense that American’s instinctively know that vast, unregulated amounts of money, secretly contributed and used almost exclusively to pummel one candidate or the other is the main ingredient in our politics of cynicism, dysfunction and hyper-partisanship. The numbers back up what instinct suggests:

The recent election involved the expenditure of more than $4 billion, much of it untraceable as to source. The North Carolina Senate race became the nation’s most expensive with $65 million spent. In Arizona, which had an open gubernatorial seat, the outside, “dark” money swamped what the two principle candidates were able to raise and spend. One Arizona reporter said trying to unravel the Andrew-Melonstrands of money resembled “a Russian nesting doll” where every disclosure leads to another mystery.

As if we didn’t already know that a handful of modern day oligarchs – the Andrew Mellon’s of the 21st Century – have come to dominate American politics, the Brookings Institution has produced a helpful guide to the guilty – the U.S. Billionaires Political Power Index. The Index is led by the Koch Brothers, Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, Sheldon Adelson and on and on. The Koch boys spent $240 million this go round, Bloomberg about $50 million, Steyer about $55 million. Look at the list, see who these folks are supporting and draw your own conclusions about who is shaping American politics and policy.

Republicans had a big day Tuesday and Democrats took a real whipping, but the real winner was money. It may take a few more election cycles for public disgust at all this excess to finally begin to register, but it will happen. Just as William Vare perverted American democracy with vast amounts of money in the 1920’s and Richard Nixon used his secret stashes of campaign cash to try to keep the Watergate burglars from talking in the 1970’s, too much money in politics eventually leads to scandal. It will happen again, perhaps already has happened and we just don’t know yet.

In the post-Watergate period of American politics there were two schools of thought about political money. One view held that the amounts and sources of money should be heavily regulated to prevent politicians from being too beholden to any one source of campaign cash. The other view held that the amounts of money weren’t a problem as long as there was real transparency about where the money came from and how it was spent. Now post-Citizens United the U.S. Supreme Court has left us with neither approach – no limits and no disclosure – and Mitch McConnell can celebrate both his rise to majority leader and the triumph of the kind of unregulated political money that he has long championed.

Rather than limits and sunlight controlling political money the American democracy increasingly resembles Putin’s Russia or a Central American banana republic where a few really, really rich people lavish their money on candidates and causes.

Some will argue that American democracy is so resilient that it can withstand the corrupting nature of too much money from too few people, and one hopes against all evidence of how human nature works that such might be the case. What the system cannot survive, however, is a growing belief among the voters that their individual role in the process is being systematically replaced by the ability of a few billionaires to write massive checks to advance their own narrow, special and personal interests. That is not democracy, but we are about to see what it does to democracy.


An Election About…

One of the tightest gubernatorial races in the country is unfolding in Wisconsin where I’ve spent the last several days. The yard signs are as thick as the autumn leaves and, while the outcome of the National League Championship Series was most appealing – my favorites won – the inane television commercials from incumbent Gov. Scott Walker and his challenger Mary Burke made me long to26446948.sf get back to Joe Buck’s inane play-by-play.

The race here has come down to whether Walker’s policies favor the “wealthy” or whether Burke is just another liberal Democrat. I’d say “yes” and “probably,” although neither label says much about what the candidates would do about Wisconsin’s crumbling highway infrastructure or rapidly rising college tuition. The race has also featured ethics complaints, an old email about Burke, and charges of plagiarism, which has become the new communism in American politics. But, hey, it’s a dead heat!

Meanwhile, in wacky Florida, a little fan – not that kind of fan – starred in the most recent gubernatorial debate. I’m old enough to remember Ronald Reagan grabbing a microphone in New Hampshire and saying something about how he bought the darn thing. I wanted XXX cbs4fanphotoCharlie Crist to tell Gov. Rick Scott the same. “Gov. Scott, I bought this fan…” At least we know how Crist stays so crisp in hot, muggy Florida. I’m left to wonder if carrying a little portable fan with you everywhere you go is a sign of intelligence or, well, something else. Right now put me down as leaning toward the fan.

Back in the great Northwest, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has a gender gap problem. In the reverse of most candidates, Kitzhaber needs a gap. He needs to put some space between himself and his fiance who has been serving as Oregon’s First Lady, while also being the Wife-in-Waiting and a private consultant on the side with, ahem, particular access to the top levels of state government. Here come the conflict of interest allegations that, even if Kitzhaber wins a fourth term, will play out for many months. It’s complicated, but so is Oregon. Kitzhaber’s opponent is a hard right state legislator who normally wouldn’t be caught dead in Portland’s chic and lefty Pearl District – and won’t get many votes there – and is therefore unlikely to beat the beat up governor, but stranger things have happened. For the most part other issues important to Oregon are now floating down the Columbia. Roll on…

In Idaho, a hard right governor is in trouble with his own party for a variety of reasons, including new revelations that his staff negotiated the fine points of a controversial settlement with the state’s former private prison operator who has been a major contributor to the governor’s campaigns. On at least two recent occasions the governor has said he knew nothing, nothing about the deal his top staffers helped create.

Governors, of course, arechrischristie_ap_img expected to know everything until they don’t know anything. Paging John Kitzhaber! Is Chris Christie in the house? Andrew Cuomo…paging Andrew Cuomo! Governor, any insight into neutering your own state ethics commission?

Let’s call it the silence of the lames.

A remarkable feature of the Idaho election this year is that several dominate party Republicans candidates – I’m not even counting Gov. Butch Otter – are remarkable for the simple fact that they are so clearly inappropriate for the jobs they seek. The GOP candidate for state school superintendent hasn’t voted in 15 of the last 17 elections and before she (surprisingly) won her party’s nomination no one outside of her school district had ever heard of her. She now says she wants to give back for missing all those chances to participate in the democratic process. You can’t make this stuff up.

The Republican candidate for Secretary of State was so disliked by many in his own party that he was voted out of office as Speaker of the state House of Representatives, in part for his inept handling of various ethics issues involving his friends. He’ll be a credible referee of fair elections, right? The incumbent GOP candidate for state treasurer is so unknown to voters that jokes have been made about putting his photo on milk cartons. The real question in his race, however, centers on handling of various state investment accounts. The answer apparently is that he hasn’t exactly been Warren Buffett when it comes to managing state money. You’d likely fire your broker for less, but hey its only a few million in public money. He’s only the state treasurer, after all. Whomever he is.

And where are the “responsible” voices in the state’s ruling political class about such obviously flawed candidates? Is that the wind I hear?

In early November, if history is a guide, somewhere south of 40 percent of American voters will troop to the polls and elect a new, probably more Republican House of Representatives and turn the U.S. Senate over to the Republicans, as well. The lame duck in the White House will be even lamer and the divided government that does nothing – and that American voters say they hate – will have a a two-year mandate to do more of the same.

As Tim Egan noted recently, we hate the Congress – or you might substitute the state legislature or your county commissioner – so let’s have a heaping helping of more of the same. “How else to explain,” Egan writes, “the confit of conventional wisdom showing that voters are poised to give Republicans control of the Senate, and increase their hold on the House, even though a majority of Americans oppose nearly everything the G.O.P. stands for?

“The message is: We hate you for your inaction, your partisanship, your nut-job conspiracy theories; now do more of the same. Democracy — nobody ever said it made sense. Of course, November’s election will be a protest vote against the man who isn’t on the ballot, a way to make a lame duck president even lamer in his final two years.”

Mid-term elections, even more than those elections when we select a president, have become about nothing. If anything, in the age of Super PAC’s, when a handful of the nation’s oligarchs essentially create their own version of political parties, the campaigns have become more vacuous, more irrelevant to the nation’s real problems, and more likely to turn off a sizable majority of American voters.

As the New York Times reports: “In 2010, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court effectively blew apart the McCain-Feingold restrictions on outside groups and their use of corporate and labor money in elections. That same year, a related ruling from a lower court made it easier for wealthy individuals to finance those groups to the bottom of their bank accounts if they so chose. What followed has been the most unbridled spending in elections since before Watergate. In 2000, outside groups spent $52 million on campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By 2012, that number had increased to $1 billion.”

Elections are more and more about less and less, unless you talk money and then it’s the sky is the limit. A few enormously wealthy – not just rich, but oh-my-gosh really, really loaded – people are defining the nation’s political agenda, mostly for their own purpose and benefit, and issues like a better educated work force, a shrinking middle class, and the age old bugaboo of race and class are left to, well, they are just left.

I’m not one who finds a way to blame Barack Obama for everything from Ebola to the missing whack job in North Korea, but on one important count the President is responsible for at least some of the political malaise that Americans in the 21st Century have Theodore_Roosevelt_laughing3-e1316002011942-390x300started to accept as our fate. The recent Ken Burns’ documentary on PBS on the remarkable Roosevelts reminds us that the presidency, in good times and bad, is a bully pulpit where a leader – paging Teddy Roosevelt! – can help establish a national tone, a sense of urgency and, yes, a collective sense of responsibility for our shared fate.

Our national tone is now largely defined by Koch brother’s money or the latest flavor of the day from the political left. The nation turns it’s lonely eyes to Fox News or Jon Stewart. Charlie Crist’s fan aimed at his, er, pant legs becomes a defining moment. We want a leader to speak honestly and candidly about real things. We get the will-she or won’t-she from Hillary.

What might politics in 2014 be like if Butch Otter in Idaho or John Kitzhaber in Oregon or a Boehner or a Barack just said: “You know, I screwed up here. I didn’t handle it well. We really need to get on with the people’s pressing concerns.” I suspect we’ll never know.

If politics just becomes about winning an election by pandering to the lowest common fear and loathing in the electorate we get elections like the mid-terms of 2014. It’s the Seinfeld Show reduced to politics – a show about nothing.


Politics is Motion

5112796991_002_ltBefore there was a Karl Rove or a James Carville there was John Sears. A Republican political consultant closely identified with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Sears plays a central role in a fascinating new book – The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan – by the great chronicler of the modern conservative movement Rick Perlstein.

Sears “brilliantly stewarded Ronald Reagan’s run from near impossibility to a dead heat” with President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries, Perlstein writes. Reagan ultimately fell just short of grabbing the GOP nomination from the unelected Ford. It was the closest presidential contest since 1948. Had just a couple of things broken Reagan’s way he might well have won and, who knows, made it to the Oval Office four years earlier than he finally did.

Sears was a major force in that campaign. Reporters loved him for his candor and insight. Rivals, Republicans included, frequently snipped at him because he often was the smartest guy in the room and wasn’t shy about showing it.

Reagan once joked to journalist Theodore White that, “There was a feeling that I was just kind of a spokesman for John Sears.” Sears got canned during Reagan’s 1980 campaign when he clashed with the candidate’s California brain trust, but since he was a real pro he simply said it was Reagan’s right to get rid of him. Sears later worked as an analyst for NBC News.

Since Labor Day is now history and the kids are back in school, we can turn our gaze to elections that are now just two months away. Heading into the home stretch for Campaign 2014 there are some smart words from John Sears that are worth pondering for all candidates who want to win in November.

Sears’ trademark saying, Perlstein writes, was “politics is motion.” In other words, “When your campaign sets the terms of the political debate, you are winning. When your opponent has to catch up with one of your moves, he is losing.” Politics is motion. Let’s apply this notion to the race for governor in Idaho.

Electing an Idaho Governor

If you measure the common metrics of politics – the strength of the economy, support for education, party unity among them – the incumbent governor of Idaho, C.L. “Butch” Otter, ought to be in a world of hurt in 2014. Otter, a fixture of Idaho politics since the 1970’s, has been in the middle of a nasty intraparty feud that produced a virtually unknown challenger who gave him a run for his money in the May primary. mediaThe challenger ended up beating the two-term incumbent in some of Idaho’s largest counties, including Otter’s home base of Canyon County. Those party wounds are likely scabbing over as the election nears, but some deeply disenchanted Tea Party-type Republicans still say they would like to “punish” the governor for, among other things, embracing a state-based health care exchange. Many who have know him for years find it amazing that Butch can be attacked as being too liberal, but such is the state of Republican politics these days.

At the same time a brace of less-than-good news about education funding, a failed education reform initiative, Idaho personal income declines, and a botched prison privatization effort should further put Otter on the defensive. When it comes to funding schools and measuring personal income, it used to be said that “Idaho is the Mississippi of the West.” That can now be amended to “Idaho is Mississippi.” None of this should help the incumbent, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting much either.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) recently endorsed Otter for keeping Idaho taxes and spending low, which is also the flip side of Idaho’s Mississippi-like commitment to educational funding. To date the political discussion of school funding and the economy in Idaho has largely avoided the fact that while state spending on education has been shrinking in recent years due to a stingy state legislature and the governor, property taxpayers are paying more-and-more to keep the lights on at the school house. The need to pass supplemental levies at the local level, which is now virtually routine in many districts often means that the poorest school districts in Idaho just get poorer. The recent failure of a levy in Lapwai means kids in that district will get PE classes online. Nearly 40 Idaho school districts now operate only four days a week.

Another recent study, as reported by the Associated Press, indicates that “Idaho residents have among the lowest personal incomes in the nation but spend a higher percentage of their money on food, housing and other essentials compared with most others, according to data…by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.” Another report on the changing demographics of education in Idaho offered this sobering prediction over the next five years: “The state is expected to see net growth in lower income households and net declines in households with incomes above $50,000.” Ouch.

The governor once made funding highway needs the center point of his legislative agenda, but even with an overwhelming GOP majority in the legislature couldn’t bend his own party to advance his priority. Highway funding has virtually disappeared as a political issue. And the governor has to deal with at least one other issue – the political fatigue factor that often attaches to a politician seeking a third consecutive term. A third consecutive gubernatorial term has happened twice before in Idaho, but long ago – first in the early 1930’s and then again in the early 1960’s.

Somewhere in that mix of issues and impressions, amid the studies on incomes and educational support, and complicated by the GOP internal turmoil, there might be a coherent message for a challenger, something like Idaho is off on the wrong track and Otter has had his chance. But if politics is motion, as John Sears would say, the motion at this post-Labor Day moment still seems very much with the incumbent.

His liabilities notwithstanding, including a third-party challenger coming from the far, far right who could take five of more percentage points in the general election presumably at Otter’s expense, the Idaho governor’s race seems to be unfolding just the way Butch Otter and his supporters might have hoped it would. The old tried-and-true Republican playbook, the corners tattered and worn, is opening up as it always has, and as it so very predictably would, against Democratic candidate A.J. Balukoff.

The state’s big business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (IACI), which actually supported development of a state-based health insurance exchange, as did Gov. Otter, is on television attacking Balukoff for being a Obamacare loving “liberal,” a word as bad in red states today as Communist was in the 1950’s. Balukoff says he voted for Mitt Romney last time, but no matter. IACI also takes the Democrat to task for supporting tax increases. Those taxes, of course, are the regular levies that Boise School District patrons regularly pass in an effort to keep their schools among the best the country. Balukoff supported those efforts as a long-time member of the school board, but no matter.

The Farm Bureau, which of course doesn’t endorse candidates, has weighed in saying the Democrat doesn’t understand rural Idaho. Soon Balukoff will be giving away Idaho’s water and going door-to-door picking up guns. It may be an old and tattered political playbook that is being dusted off one more time, but it has worked time and again in Idaho and given a tepid challenge there is little reason to change a winning formula.

Politics is Motion

Meanwhile, the Otter campaign is on the air with a entirely positive commercial touting an improving Idaho economy and a governor that stands up to the feds. It almost reminds me of a Cecil Andrus spot in 1990, including the line that “Idaho is a great place to live, work and raise a family.” It’s morning in Idaho. Otter can take the high road when he has others more than willing to take the low.

Balukoff’s task in this race – any Democrat’s task – is to say something coherent and meaningful about the shortcomings of Otter’s eight years as governor – and there is plenty of raw material – and then present a picture of what a better future might involve. He doesn’t need to be nasty, but he does need to be pointed and specific. When your campaign sets the terms of the political debate, you’re winning. Politics is motion and time is short for a challenger to define the Idaho race in a way that just might make it competitive. Balukoff’s campaign so far seems very much like the campaigns that have come up short for Democrats for the last 20 years – too timid and ironically too conservative.

History tells us that generals always want to fight the last war. Politicians want to run the last campaign. You can often do that as an incumbent, but you don’t beat an incumbent, particularly an incumbent Republican in a state like Idaho, by doing what hasn’t worked before. To make it a race the challenger needs to make it a real choice for voters. You start framing the choice by establishing what the race is about – and its not a health care exchange and Barack Obama – and by taking a few risks.

Right now the Idaho race is about a Republican incumbent without much to brag about against a Democrat from Boise who is being defined as “a liberal.” It is not difficult to predict how that script plays out in November.


Political Lessons

0The lasting image – unfortunately – from the recent Idaho primary election will be the two guys, the biker and the curmudgeon,  who hijacked the one and only debate among the Republican candidates for governor.

As my friend Marty Peterson has pointed out fringe candidates Harley Brown and Walt Bayes secured their 15 minutes of fame during the bizarre debate, including cameos on The Today Show and Colbert, and the world had a good laugh at Idaho’s expense. The real lesson from the silly spectacle should be, as Marty sensibly suggests, a better procedure to qualify candidates for the Idaho ballot. We’ll see if a future legislature can get itself to sensible on that issue, but in the meantime there are, I think, three other big lessons from the recent election marked by a paltry turnout of less than 25 percent.

The Most Conservative Candidate Wins…

Lesson one, and this has often historically been the case in Idaho, in a multi-candidate GOP primary the most conservative candidate has a very great chance to prevail. One-on-one Congressman Mike Simpson wiped out his more right wing challenger and Gov. Butch Otter much more narrowly prevailed over his one legitimate, and more conservative, opponent. The same dynamic prevailed in two person races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, but in the Secretary of State primary the candidate positioned to the far right in a four-person race, former House Speaker Lawrence Denney, won with less than 40 percent of the primary vote.

The GOP race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction is an outlier with a self-professed “non-political” candidate apparently winning mostly because she hardly campaigned and has a sort of Basque sounding last name.

The further lesson here is for Idaho Republicans and their continuing stranglehold on the state’s politics. As a new generation of politically ambitious Republicans jockey for position you might expect even more of these multi-candidate GOP primaries with the smart money placed on the candidate who can position the farthest to the right. At the same time, just ask Gov. Otter, there is a danger over the long run in the party producing general election candidates who give a centrist Democrat a shot at victory.

Butch Otter well remembers his first run for governor in 1978 when he competed in a six candidate field that produced a GOP nominee, then-House Speaker Allan Larsen of Blackfoot, who simply could not win statewide against Democratic Gov. John Evans. Larsen won that long-ago primary with only 28.7 percent of the vote. Otter finished third with 26 percent. Don’t believe the old saw that primaries make for stronger candidates. The lesson in Idaho has more often been that such contests tend to produce weak Republican general election candidates.

Otter must be thanking his lucky stars that he didn’t have another “respectable” opponent in the recent primary. Imagine the outcome if a Twin Falls or Idaho Falls Republican, perhaps an incumbent legislator, had run for governor and eaten into Otter’s barely 51 percent majority?

Democrats Get A Chance When the GOP Misfires…

Lesson two follows from lesson one. The near total history of Democratic success in Idaho, dating back to at least Frank Church’s first election in 1956, has its foundation in Republican mistakes. Church got his chance when Republican Sen. Herman Welker proved to be an embarrassment by virtue of some of his antics and his close relationship with the controversial senator from Wisconsin Joe McCarthy. Church presented a fresh, young face, took the fight to the incumbent and won. He stayed in the U.S. Senate for 24 years.

Cecil Andrus, my old boss, got his chance in 1970 when Republican Gov. Don Samuelson proved he wasn’t up to the job after a lackluster term. Andrus parlayed that chance into four terms spread over three decades. As noted John Evans won two terms by first defeating a weak Republican candidate in 1978. Richard Stallings won a Congressional seat in 1984 by defeating, oh so narrowly, a Republican, George Hansen, who was a convicted felon and had been censured by Congress. More recently Walt Minnick grabbed his one term in the House against an inept and embarrassing Republican Bill Sali how proved he wasn’t up to the job.

To me the lesson is clear: Democrats in Idaho often only get a chance to shine because the state’s Republicans put forward a weak, flawed or otherwise damaged candidate. The Idaho GOP would appear to have at least three less-than-secure candidates in November – a third term seeking governor badly in need of uniting his splintered party, a secretary of state candidate who couldn’t hold his own leadership position in the state legislature and has been dogged by other controversy, and a candidate for school superintendent who no one seems to know. No predictions, but rather the observation that historically Idaho Democrats need Republicans to misfire if they are to have a chance to win an election. We’ll see if any of the current Democrats are positioned to take advantage of that history lesson.

Democrats Need a New Strategy…

Twenty or more years ago an Idaho Democrat had no chance to win statewide without a very strong showing – or better yet an outright win – in northern Idaho’s Kootenai County. The Coeur d’Alene area routinely sent conservation and education minded Democrats like Art Manley and Mary Lou Reed to the state legislature. No more. Kootenai County is now a hard right enclave where it seems impossible that a Democrat could make a credible effort. Cece Andrus won Kootenai County in every one of his elections from 1970 to 1990 and could count on Coeur d’Alene as part of a solid Democratic base. No more. The same can be said for Sandpoint and even the old Democratic stronghold of Shoshone County.

The old mantra that a Democrat could win just 14 of the state’s 44 counties and still be elected statewide just isn’t true any longer. Threading the political needle for a Democrat is, if not impossible, now a hugely demanding strategic challenge. The question for Idaho Democrats remains how, even as history suggests they might have a few rare opportunities this year, they maximize the votes of women, young people and Hispanics. At the same time they need a smart strategy to attract the increasingly smaller share of the conservative electorate – so called “moderate Republicans” – who may be thinking that the state has gone too far in whacking education spending and lacks a long-term economic development strategy?

If a Democrat wins a statewide race in Idaho anytime soon it will be because they have taken advantage of Republican misfires that produce vulnerable general election candidates and also found a new, 21st Century way to woo new voters who might listen to a fresh message aimed at the center of a right-of-center state. It won’t be easy, but in some respects the GOP has set the table thanks to some of the choices made in the recent primary.


Playing the Hand

Patient-ProtectionI’m not sure, but this photo may be the last time Democrats smiled about the Affordable Care Act or, if you prefer, Obamacare. President Obama put his signature on his signature legislative accomplishment on March 23, 2010 and, until the last few weeks, from a political standpoint the news has been pretty awful.

First the admissions: Democrats – thank Nancy Pelosi as well as the president for this – completely lost control of any coherent message about the law. Republicans did a masterful job of characterizing the ACA as government run amok. Obama, so the story goes, has Socialized health care in America and shredded the Constitution in the process. Sarah Palin chimed in with her nonsense talk about “death panels.” Democrats failed to respond or failed to respond effectively. Obama fumbled, screwed up, mislead, fabricated (chose your word) the business about liking and keeping your health plan. The roll-out was a first-class mess and we all know about the stupid website. Fundamentally the law, thanks to log rolling in Congress with the drug companies, the device manufactures, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, is a massively complicated pile of legalize. It was almost as though the president and his supporters were saying, “We could tell you how it will work and how you will benefit, but you’d have to get sick first…”

More importantly from a political point of view the supporters of the law, chiefly including the Commander-in-Chief, never adopted a coherent, consistent, engaging message that might have allowed them to talk to the American people about an issue that has been on the agenda of every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt. The debate became about process, ideology and partisanship and not about a better more secure future.

In politics, as in corn flakes, you can’t sell an idea without a believable message. The failure to offer a coherent, believable story about the law is nothing short of political malpractice. Critics will say, of course, that the law is such a mess that it can’t be defended or marketed, but I don’t buy that. Even George W. Bush, initially at least, sold the invasion of Iraq. Creating a system for millions of Americans to have health insurance and a more secure life is surely an easier sell than a war.

Still, four years later the law is the law, upheld by the Supreme Court (or at least by five justices), a survivor of a hundred different efforts by Republicans to repeal it or, better yet from their perspective, use it as a blunt instrument to pummel Democrats in another mid-term election. Apparently – crank up the irony meter – Americans now hate the law so much they have signed up in numbers that have even surprised the law’s biggest supporters. The polls tell us the law is a huge loser – although repeal is even more unpopular – and yet the GOP has placed nearly all of its mid-term eggs in the “we hate Obamacare” basket. All of the party’s 2016 hopefuls have bought into the notion that Obama’s law is the worst things since, well, maybe since Social Security, yet they offer nothing in the way of a better alternative.

In one of his pithy and incisive essays Garry Wills points out that supporters of the law will likely never turn the opponents around. Obama, Wills writes, “made the mistake of thinking that facts matter when a cult is involved. Obamacare is now, for many, haloed with hate, to be fought against with all one’s life. Retaining certitude about its essential evil is a matter of self-respect, honor for one’s allies in the cause, and loathing for one’s opponents. It is a religious commitment.”

Wills reminds us that Social Security was once almost as hated as the ACA, but somehow nearly 80 years on it still stands. “Repealing Obamacare will eventually go the way of repealing the New Deal,” Wills opines. “But the opposition will never fade entirely away—and it may well be strong enough in this year’s elections to determine the outcome. It is something people are willing to sacrifice for and feel noble about. Creeds are not built up out of facts. They are what make people reject all evidence that guns are more the cause of crime than the cure for it. The best preservative for unreason is to make a religion of it.”

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal with an almost daily discourse on the “failures of the law” or any given George Will column easily serve as the Bible for this new religion. Will’s most recent column excoriating the law and the president concludes with this sweeping indictment of all things Obama: “progressivism is…a top-down, continent-wide tissue of taxes, mandates and other coercions. Is the debate about it over? Not quite.” Reads like a sermon to me.

But let’s talk politics. If Garry Wills is right (and George Will is his proof point) and it follows that Republican voters who have made a religion out of hating Obamacare are the most likely to turn out and vote in the November Congressional elections, what are Democrats to do?

They have two basic choices: Continue to flounder around and try to pretend they can whistle their way past the political graveyard without defending Obama’s law or they can embrace the obvious and begin – finally – to vigorously defend the law and its impact. One of this year’s imperiled Democrats, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, has adopted Option Two.

“It’s a solid law that needs improvement,” Landrieu told the Washington Post. “My opponent [Republican Bill Cassidy] offers nothing but repeal, repeal, and repeal. And even with all the law’s setbacks, we’re seeing benefits for thousands of people in Louisiana.”

Landrieu continued, “I think the benefits that people have received are worth fighting for.” She citing an end to discrimination against preexisting conditions and extended coverage for young adults on parents’ plans. ”I think Bill Cassidy is going to be at a distinct disadvantage. He has insurance, but he’s also denying it to the 242,000 people” who would qualify if Louisiana expanded Medicaid as it can opt do under the Affordable Care Act.

Her opponent, Landrieu says, “also wants to take coverage away from tens of thousands who have gotten it for the first time.”

There is an old adage in politics that holds “being for something is better than being against something.” Democrats don’t have a choice. They can try to campaign this year by being for a law that admittedly is very controversial and almost universally misunderstood, but that is also of obvious advantage to millions of Americans or they sink again into the defensive crouch they have largely adopted since that smiling day back in March 2010.

Republicans are agin’ it. We know that for certain. Yet, voters must be just as confused about where Republicans stand on issues – providing health care for millions of uninsured, expanding Medicaid, keeping young folks on their parents insurance plans longer and providing coverage for preexisting conditions – as they are confused about what is and isn’t part of the controversial law. This is ground, as Sen. Landrieu suggests, for a real election year debate.

Democrats may not win a religious fight this year over Obamacare, but they won’t even have a chance unless they start throwing a few punches rather than trying to absorb those the other side will continue throwing. Defending a law that more than eight million Americans have embraced and that holds out the hope for a much improved quality of life for millions more seems like something worth fighting for because it really is better to be for something than against everything.

Many Republicans of the generation that created Social Security never came to fully embrace the program, but time, events and public opinion overtook them. Franklin Roosevelt, the father of modern American politics, loved to taunt his opponents by asking them what they would do differently and whether they had an alternative. Those are still good questions.

Heart and Soul

rs_560x415-140224091818-1024.roccos-chicago-pizzeria-arizona-legislators-022414The political and social fault lines in the modern Republican Party have been showing again for the last several days in Arizona. The Republican governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed a piece of legislation this week that was widely seen as opening a path of overt discrimination against gays. The veto came after days of increasingly negative attention focused on Arizona; attention that included corporate worries about the legislation’s impact on business and threats to cancel next year’s Super Bowl game in suburban Phoenix.

Brewer, an often erratic politician who once championed most causes of the far right of her party, took her time in doing it, but she ultimately saved the state’s Republicans from themselves. The hot button bill, pushed by conservative religious interests and passed by the Arizona legislature with only GOP votes, underscores once again the fractured nature and fundamentally minority bent of a Republican Party that vowed to renew itself after losing the White House again in 2012.

Gov. Brewer, who seems to be term-limited from running again in the fall, but still hasn’t said whether she would contest such an interpretation, underwent a full court press from the “establishment” wing of the GOP who called on her to ax the handiwork of Republican legislators. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Jeff Flake both urged a veto. Apple, American Airlines, the state Hispanic chamber of commerce and a pizza shop in Tuscon that vowed to protest by refusing to serve Arizona legislators swarmed the governor. In the end it might have been the National Football League, plagued with its own image problems, that helped the governor decide to do the right thing; the right thing politically, economically, morally and for football fans.

The Republican Party’s national dilemma with issues like Arizona’s gay bashing legislation – and similar legislation in several other states with strong GOP majorities  – is neatly summed up in a comment from Mark McKinnon, the ad guy who made TV spots from George W. Bush in both of his successful elections.

“In this country, the arc of human rights always bends forward, never backwards,” McKinnon, a co-founder of the centrist group No Labels told Politico recently. “So these kinds of incidents are always backward steps for the Republican Party because they remind voters they are stuck in the past.”

Voters are being reminded of that reality in lots of places. In Oregon, some of the state’s most conservative Republicans are blasting the fellow GOP organizers of the 50 year old Dorchester Conference; denouncing them as “liberals” intent on advancing a pro-gay, pro-abortion, anti-religion agenda.

“In light of the unveiled agenda to promote and celebrate liberal causes like abortion-on-demand, pet campaign projects like ‘republicanizing’ same-sex marriage and the attack on people of faith and their religious liberties many of us do not feel that our participation in this year’s Dorchester Conference is welcomed,” one of the offended right wingers told The Oregonian.

In Idaho a conservative former Republican governor, Phil Batt, went straight at his party and Gov. Butch Otter over the state legislature’s failure to even consider legislation to add fundamental human rights protections for the state’s gay, lesbian and transgender population. Batt, with his own gay grandson in mind, wrote in an op-ed: “I would like to have somebody explain to me who is going to be harmed by adding the words to our civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in housing and job opportunities for homosexuals. Oh, I forgot, that might hurt the feelings of the gay bashers.”

It seems like a life-time ago that national Republicans, reeling from the re-election of the President Obama, commissioned an assessment of what the party needed to do to re-group in order to effectively contest a national election again. Like many such high-level reports, this one generated about a day and a half of news coverage and went on the shelf never to be read again. The GOP report outlined the demographic challenges the party faces and why the divisive debate in Arizona that quickly went national is so very damaging to party’s long-term prospects. Here are a couple of relevant paragraphs from the GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Book that was produced just over a year ago.

“Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”

And this: “Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. States in which our presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic. We are losing in too many places.”

In the face of this incontrovertible evidence Republicans have rolled out legislation like SB 1062 in state after state further alienating not only gay and lesbian voters, but likely most younger and independent voters. The GOP refusal at the federal level to even go through the motions of working on immigration reform seems certain to drive more and more Hispanic voters – the fastest growing demographic in the nation – away from Republicans candidates. At some not-too-distant point the political math, even in John McCain’s Arizona, becomes impossible for the GOP.

It is true that in our political history the fortunes of political parties regularly ebb and flow. The Whigs worked themselves out of existence in the 1850’s unable to find a set of positions that might bridge regional and ideological barriers and sustain them a national party. Immediately before and for years after the Civil War Democrats became largely a regional party that failed to command a national majority and elect a president in the years from 1856 until 1884. Teddy Roosevelt split the GOP in 1912 helping elect only the second Democratic president since the Civil War and his distant cousin Franklin, with the help of a Great Depression, created an enduring Democratic coalition – farmers, big cities ethnics, organized labor and the South – that lasted for two generations until moral and political battles over civil rights finally ceded the South to Republicans, a hand-off that now leaves that region as the only dependable base of the Republican Party.

In almost every case in our history when a party stumbles, as national Republicans stumble now, a unifying figure has emerged – FDR for Democrats in 1932 or Ronald Reagan in 1980 for the GOP – to offer a message that smooths over the ideological fissures. In the meantime, and lacking a unifying messenger, national Republican battles played out over the most polarizing issues – witness Arizona – will hamstring the party from moving forward.

Conservative commentator Myra Adams recently detailed ten reasons why the GOP is floundering as a national party. Adams remembered that the much maligned Millard Fillmore – he was president from 1849 to 1853 – was the last Whig Party president and she speculated that George W. Bush might well be the last Republican president. Her reason number nine for the current state of the national GOP was most telling. The party, she wrote, “is growing increasingly white, old, Southern, and male, which alienates majorities of younger voters, Hispanics, African Americans, gays, teachers, young professionals, atheists, unmarried women, and even suburban married women.”

In the end, the issues for Republicans are more serious even than the demographics. The party failure to re-cast itself by looking forward with attitudes and issues that address an America in the 21st Century is, to say the least, a risky gambit. Yet, the kind of a makeover that is needed seems increasingly unlikely, at least in the near term, when the loudest voices speaking for Republicans are constantly playing to a narrower and narrower group of true believers, while denying – as the 87-years young Phil Batt suggests – that the cultural and political world is passing them by.

Increasingly outside forces and insurgents like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rather than sober-minded realists dominate the party’s message. The Koch brothers, aiming to keep beating the anti Obamacare drum, have hijacked the GOP message for the coming mid-term elections. Look for the totality of the GOP message this year to be about the evils of the health care law (and the “socialist” president) even as a new Kaiser Health poll shows Americans are increasingly comfortable with the much-debated law. Kaiser’s survey shows that fully 56% of those surveyed favor keeping the law as is or keeping it and making improvements. Only the GOP base is clamoring for something different and even those numbers are shrinking.

Another overly influential outside voice, the Heritage Foundation, was still trying to explain why the Arizona legislation was “good public policy” after Brewer’s veto. And the guy with the loudest (and meanest) GOP megaphone, Rush Limbaugh, always eager to double down on a lost cause, said Brewer was “bullied” into her veto position in order to “advance the gay agenda.” All that plays well tactically with the “increasingly white, old, Southern, and male” base of the GOP, but leaves much of the rest of the 21st Century United States very cold indeed.

Lacking the re-boot that many Republicans wisely advocated after the last national election the party, as Mark Mckinnon says, will continue to be stuck in the past. The really bad news for national Republicans is that elections are always about the future.

Death of a Consensus

inlFor at least the last 50 years there has existed a bipartisan consensus in Idaho regarding the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The consensus held that Idaho political leaders from both parties – Jim McClure and Frank Church, Richard Stallings and Larry Craig – would do what it took to protect the federal investment and jobs at the sprawling site in the Arco desert west of Idaho Falls.

The consensus did not mean that the “site,” as locals call it, would ever be free from controversy. Then-Gov. John V. Evans, a Democrat, pressured the Department of Energy in the 1980’s to end the practice of injecting less-than-pristine process water into a well that eventually made its way into the vast Snake Plain Aquifer. DOE finally ended the practice and I still have a hefty paperweight on my desk that marked the public capping of that controversial well.

Former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, another Democrat, fought the DOE to a standstill in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s over its various waste handling processes and eventually won federal court guarantees about how Idaho’s share of the environmental legacy of the Cold War would be cleaned up and moved to move appropriate disposal sites. Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican, continued those efforts, which remain on-going to this day.

Yet even when controversy erupted over environmental issues the bipartisan consensus held. When it came time to present a united front in support of federal funding for research or environmental restoration at INL pragmatism always seemed to trump ideology. Andrus and McClure, a Democrat and a Republican, linked arms to support new initiatives at the site when both were in office. Stallings became a champion of INL funding during his time in Congress. Craig inherited McClure’s role as the Senate champion of DOE funding for Idaho.

It may be an overstatement to suggest that the long-time INL consensus has come to end with the current division in the Idaho delegation over support for the budget bill that recently passed Congress, but it seems pretty clear that political pragmatism no longer automatically trumps ideology when it comes to supporting INL funding.

Second District Congressman Mike Simpson, a long-time champion of the site, now chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water. It’s no secret that Simpson took over that important spot – he had chaired the subcommittee on Interior and related agencies – in order to have even more direct influence over INL funding. Just before the recent and bipartisan $1.1 trillion spending bill passed the House and then the Senate, Simpson was saying that he’d been able to reverse Obama Administration cuts in DOE spending in Idaho.

“In fact,” Simpson said in a news release on January 14, “I have increased funding for INL’s nuclear research programs, ensured full funding for the Lab’s vital security force, and boosted funding by more than $20 million for the ongoing nuclear cleanup activities in Eastern Idaho. This bill not only stabilizes funding at INL after a couple of years of uncertainty, it sends a strong message that INL’s work as the DOE’s lead nuclear energy laboratory is critical to our nation’s energy security.”

It’s worth underscoring that part of the money Simpson helped secure – beyond what the administration had proposed – funds the on-going clean-up at INL; a critical effort that both Republican and Democratic governors in Idaho have supported.

That is the kind of budget work that would have once almost guaranteed a release from the entire Idaho delegation claiming credit for protecting jobs and investment in Idaho and getting the better of a hostile Democratic administration. Instead Simpson was blasted by his Republican primary challenger Bryan Smith for being the “left flank of the Idaho congressional delegation.” Smith pointed out that the three other members of the Idaho delegation – Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Congressman Raul Labrador – all opposed final passage of the budget legislation. Just for the record the budget legislation, a product of a spending framework hashed out by Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Paul Ryan, passed the Senate 72-26 and the House by an overwhelming margin of 359-67.

Crapo and Risch issued a joint statement explaining their NO votes. The statement stressed the big national debt and the need to bring it under control and made no mention that the NO votes also had the effect of rejected Simpson’s budget work on the Idaho National Laboratory.

There are lots of ways to look at this set of facts. A NO vote on a big budget bill, even one that had strong bipartisan support, forecloses another government shutdown and was certain to pass, is a politically safe vote in Idaho these days. It is often easier in politics to explain a NO vote than to justify a YES vote, particularly given the increasingly conservative nature of the Idaho GOP. If you want to apply a particularly cynical analysis to the facts you might conclude that the three NO voters in the Idaho delegation simply calculated that they would let Simpson take the heat for passing a trillion dollar budget knowing full well that the DOE spending that he had helped secure for Idaho would be included.

But there may be a larger and more important lesson.

As I’ve written before, Mike Simpson, by any measure, is a very conservative guy. Yet his pragmatic heavy lifting in his House committee to enhance the DOE budget to the benefit of thousands in Idaho – a position that once would have demanded a rousing show of support from interests as diverse as the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – has, in the political environment of 2014, opened him to a charge of being a big spending liberal.

Simpson is no liberal. What he really is – and I mean this as a high compliment – is a throwback to those days when passing a budget that provided stability to a major Idaho institution was cause for celebration. Simpson is a legislator in the same way Jim McClure, Larry Craig and Richard Stallings once were. Each of them considered it re-election must that they campaign on the basis of how strongly they supported the INL. Pragmatism in those days trumped ideology. It may not any longer.

We’ll see in the weeks ahead whether a serious, pragmatic legislator looking out for the interests of his district and state and determined to actually help pass a budget that funds the government can withstand a challenge that calls into question the very essence of what it means to be a legislator. Those interests that have long supported the Idaho National Laboratory better hope that pragmatism wins.

Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budgetvote#storylink=cpy
Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote#storylink=c

The Rhyme of Political History

ralph-crane-gov-robert-e-smylieThe last time an Idaho governor received a serious primary challenge he lost.

It was 1966 and three-term incumbent Republican Robert E. Smylie, pictured here dressed like he might have been trying out for The Sons of the Pioneers, seemed to be at the zenith of his political power – chairman of the National Governors Association, the senior governor in the nation and a serious player in national politics.

Time magazine took note of Smylie’s re-election announcement in April of 1966 by reporting, “In Idaho, Republican Governor Robert E. Smylie, 51, dean of the nation’s Governors and a 1968 vice-presidential hopeful, filed for a fourth four-year term, which if completed would make his the longest gubernatorial tenure in U.S. history (current record: 15 years, set by Maryland’s Albert C. Ritchie from 1920 through 1934). Smylie, who led the 1965 fight to dump Goldwaterite Dean Burch as G.O.P. national chairman, will campaign on his ‘New Day’ programs of increased state outlays for health, welfare and education financed by a 3% sales tax.”

Time confidently predicted Smylie was “assured” of winning the GOP nomination. He wasn’t. The future vice-presidential hopeful lost his party’s nomination to a little-known state senator from Bonner County named Don Samuelson. That election had dramatic consequences for Idaho’s political history.

“When the primary returns were tabulated,” University of Idaho political scientists Syd Duncombe and Boyd Martin wrote in a post-election analysis, “Samuelson carried all but seven of Idaho’s forty-four counties to defeat Smylie 52,891 to 33,753. One columnist [the Lewiston Morning Tribune’s Robert Myers] attributed Smylie’s defeat to his long term of office, his support of the sales tax, and opposition from Goldwater Republicans stemming from his role in the replacement of Dean Burch.”

Following Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential lost to Lyndon Johnson – NBC’s Chet Huntley called Goldwater supporters “classic Republicans, segregationists, Johnsonphobes, desperate conservatives, and radical nuts…the coalition of the discontent” – the moderate wing of the GOP, shoved aside by Goldwater’s hard right followers, set out to reclaim the national party and Bob Smylie helped lead the moderate charge.

One major target of Smylie and the GOP moderates was Tucson, Arizona lawyer Dean Burch, a friend of Goldwater’s who the candidate had installed as chairman of the national Republican party. Burch helped turn the party hard to the right, as Rick Perlstein documents in his fascinating book on Goldwater called Before the Storm. When Ku Klux Klan leaders in Georgia and Alabama, for example, endorsed Goldwater in 1964 Burch refused to disavow their support and said only “we’re not in the in business of discouraging voters.”

Smylie’s Moderate National Role

In January of 1965, after Goldwater’s landslide loss to Johnson, Smylie made national news when he said, as the Associated Press reported, “the time is past when Dean Burch can do anything to save his job as national chairman of the Republican party.” Conservative commentators took to identifying Smylie as a leader of the “Rockefeller wing” of the national party with one writing that the Idaho governor was utilizing “meat axe” tactics to push Burch out as national chairman. Eventually Burch, who went on to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a top aide to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, resigned the GOP chairmanship and was replaced by Ohio pol Ray Bliss, a choice acceptable to party moderates like Smylie.

In the mid-1960’s the national Republican party was badly divided, much as it is today, between an insurgent wing loyal to Goldwater’s brand of unflinching conservatism and a moderate wing where political operators, like Ray Bliss, preached the politics of expansion. Bliss, for example, once said his only concern as party chairman was winning elections.

The Goldwater partisans were, in many ways, an earlier version of today’s Tea Party adherents and in Idaho they effectively took over the state party. Bob Smylie found himself swept along in these roiling waters with a growing national profile as a moderate who at the same time had to appeal to an increasingly conservative Idaho GOP. It was a difficult, maybe impossible task, since Smylie stimulated bitter hostility from much of the party base, including a young woman named Gwen Barnett.

Idaho’s Republican national committeewoman, Barnett was the youngest member of the national committee and she made it her cause to defeat Smylie. As long-time Idaho political observer Marty Peterson wrote a while back, “Barnett had become a close ally of the Goldwater forces. Her friend Dean Burch, a former member of the Goldwater Senate staff, had been elected Republican national chairman. She was also close to such rising conservative stars as John Tower, who had become the first Republican elected to the senate from Texas since Reconstruction.” Barnett recruited Samuelson to run against Smylie, helped round up the money and saw to it that insurgent Idaho Republicans united behind the challenger. The resulting and stunning defeat of the moderate Smylie made 1966 one of the most significant years in Idaho political history.

Looking back on this near ancient political history it is now easy to see that Smylie, a governor who deserves to be well remembered for creating a state park system and establishing a balanced tax system, committed a cardinal political sin – he lost touch with his base. Undoubtedly this supremely self-confident man was overconfident.

Generally speaking there is little payoff in Idaho for being well regarded on the pages of Time or being chummy with the very liberal then-governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller. You can Google Robert E. Smylie today and find a photo of him at the Boise airport in 1959 welcoming his buddy Rockefeller to town and another picture of Smylie in 1961 at a national governors’ gathering wearing shorts, his shirt unbuttoned to the naval and at the helm of what appears to be a very large yacht. Not exactly typical Idaho political images today or in the 1960’s.

The Rhyme of Political History

Fast forward to 2013 and the news last weekend that a relatively unknown state senator, Russ Fulcher of Meridian, will challenge two-term incumbent Butch Otter for the Republican nomination for governor in 2014.

As Mark Twain is famously reported to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

It would be easy to overstate the parallels between 1966 and 2014, but you would also have to have political blinders in place not to recognize some of the striking similarities about the two races separated by nearly 50 years. The first would be Gov. Otter’s “long term of office” – four years in the state legislature, 14 years as Lt. Governor, six years in Congress and going on eight years as governor. It is often true in politics that as the years accumulate so do the enemies.

Another parallel: Otter’s opponent comes to the race from a perch in the state senate where by all accounts he has assembled a very conservative voting record not unlike Samuelson all those years ago. And like the man who beat Bob Smylie, Fulcher is making a straight forward play for support from the insurgent/populist wing of his party.

With Idaho Democrats still mostly an after thought in the state’s politics, the Idaho GOP has in effect become two or maybe more parties divided into various factions. There seems little doubt the anti-establishment, populist oriented Tea Party wing (and its many variations) has been on the rise since at least 2008 when insurgents pushed out a state party chairman who had the support of Otter and many of the party’s traditional movers and shakers. Many of those same insurgents, over the objections of Otter and other leaders of the party, then successfully battled to close the state’s GOP primary, in essence forcing party registration on Idaho, a move which seems certain to ensure that the most motivated and perhaps the most disenchanted Republican voters dominate next May’s primary election.

Ironically, the battle for the heart and soul of the Idaho GOP, tends to pit more traditional business-oriented, Chamber of Commerce Republicans against the same brand of populists who fueled Barry Goldwater’s rise in the early 1960’s. Generally speaking many of these voters are the most skeptical of government, dismissive of “elites” of any type and disdainful of long tenure in office. All of which makes you wonder if Gov. Otter’s forthcoming campaign event in Coeur d’Alene, featuring the great moderate hope of the national GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will serve to reinforce the image that the insurgents are fighting the establishment. Christie recently won a landslide re-election in New Jersey by appealing to Democrats and independents with the kind of campaign Ray Bliss would have loved, but that many in the Tea Party find off putting.

One final parallel. Don Samuelson had a compelling issue in 1966 against the incumbent. Smylie’s championing of the sales tax – first put in place in the 1930’s then repealed by voters before being resurrected in 1966 – was at the heart of the entire campaign that year. Ironically Idahoans endorsed the tax at the ballot box in November of 1966 even as Samuelson, who had voted against the measure in the legislature, was winning a four-way general election race with barely 41% of the vote. The pro-tax vote in 1966 was 61%. Samuelson simply sliced the electorate just finally enough to grab the votes of the anti-tax crowd, and that block and a few more votes were enough to give him a win.

[It’s worth noting that both Idaho parties originally nominated anti-sales tax candidates for governor in 1966 even as voters were warming to adopting the tax at the ballot box.]

Fulcher’s issue is, of course, Otter’s advocacy of development of a state-managed health care exchange, which he equates to Otter supporting “Obamacare.” Never mind that Otter sued the federal government and lost over the extremely controversial health insurance reform law before concluding that the state would be better off developing its own exchange rather than relying on the federal government.

Obamacare, not unlike rank and file GOP resentment of Smylie’s moderate leadership role in national politics and his support for establishing a sales tax in the 1960’s, could become a powerful cause for many GOP primary voters, and in politics a powerful cause that juices up the base can, as long-time Idaho analyst Randy Staplius recently observed, be even more important than the profile of the candidate.

The politics of Idaho just became a lot more interesting and, while it should be said emphatically that Butch Otter has many, many significant advantages as he goes for a third term as governor – a solid conservative record, a winning personality, a polished retail approach to politics, lots of money, and the advantages of incumbency – once in a while history does rhyme.

The Wonderful Unpredictability of Politics

Political scientists Duncombe and Martin presciently noted in their 1966 election analysis that, while Idaho Republicans had won big at the ballot box that year – electing Len Jordan to a full term in the U.S. Senate, winning both of the state’s congressional seats, picking up seats in the legislature and, of course, retaining the governorship – the party came out of the Smylie-Samuelson experience badly divided. Such “rifts would need to be healed” they pointed out if the party were to consolidate its gains in 1968 and beyond. What actually happened show that the riffs weren’t so well healed.

In 1968 Democrat Frank Church won re-election to the U.S. Senate and just two years later, in 1970, Democrat Cecil D. Andrus, who had cut his political teeth on primary and general election campaigns during the dramatically unpredictable year of 1966, won the governorship over Samuelson who proved to be a better giant killer than a governor.

Andrus has often said when folks joke about Samuelson’s ineptitude as governor, “Don’t say anything bad about Don Samuelson. If there hadn’t been a Don Samuelson there never would have been a Cecil Andrus.”

That 1970 election began 24 straight years of Democratic control of the Idaho governorship, a political phenomenon that seemed unimaginable four decades ago, but that happened in no small part because of the turmoil fostered by the primary defeat of an Idaho governor who seemed unbeatable until he wasn’t.


It’s Inevitable

1384466743000-AP-Gay-Marriage-HawaiiHawaii recently became the 15th state to legalize same sex marriage when Gov. Neil Abercrombie – that’s him on the left of the photo – signed legislation passed rather handily by the state legislature. On Thursday a state court judge in Hawaii upheld the new statute against an 11th hour effort to prevent it from going into effect. It is expected that the first same sex marriages in the nation’s 50th state will take place on December 2nd.

The remarkable political turn of fortune for the same sex marriage issue has been stunning, particularly when you consider that as recently as 2004 national Republicans advanced a policy agency that placed opposition to gay marriage at the center of many statewide races. Analysts differ on whether the issue helped propel George W. Bush to a close re-election victory that year, but it is not debatable that bans on gay marriage passed, and passed easily, in 11 states in 2004. It is also undeniable that less than 10 years ago Christian conservatives believed that state-level battles over same sex marriage where big time political winners. Tony Perkins, the head of the conservative Family Research Council, claimed after the 2004 election that gay marriage was “the hood ornament of the family values wagon” that delivered electoral success for Republicans.

How quickly all this has changed.

Just before the vote in Hawaii the Illinois legislature voted to move the state from recognizing same sex unions to fully legalizing gay marriage. By one count fully 35% of Americans now live in a state where gay marriage is legal. As the New York Times recently noted, “last fall, voters approved marriage measures in Maryland, Maine and Washington, and lawmakers in Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota passed laws this year. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey withdrew his efforts to block same-sex marriage, and weddings began in that state last month.”

Survey Says…

The movement in public opinion on the gay marriage issue has been nothing short of stunning. One recent poll – the Marquette Law School survey in Wisconsin – shows that even in an arguably swing state with a socially conservative Republican governor (and a lesbian U.S. Senator) the public tide has turned in support of same sex marriage. “Support for same-sex marriage has increased over the past 12 months in Wisconsin,” the Marquette survey reported “with 53 percent now supporting same-sex marriage, 24 percent favoring civil unions and 19 percent saying there should be no legal recognition for same-sex unions. This question was asked of 400 respondents and has a margin of error of +/-5.0 percentage points. In October 2012, 44 percent said they favored same-sex marriage, with 28 percent favoring civil unions and 23 percent opposed to any legal recognition.”

The respected Pew Research Center survey in June noted that the movement on same sex marriage “over the past decade is among the largest changes in opinion on any policy issue over this time period.”

Among the highlights in the Pew survey:

  • For the first time a majority of those surveyed – 51% – indicated support for same sex marriage.
  • These numbers seem to be driven by a simple but powerful fact. Nearly everyone in the country – 87% in the Pew survey – now acknowledge a gay or lesbian acquaintance or family member. Ten years ago only 61% said the same.
  • Support for same sex marriage is literally off the charts among young Americans. Now 66% of so called “millennials” – Americans born after 1981 – support same sex marriage. Ten years ago the support level in this group was ten percent less.

Even more striking is the view held by both supporters and opponents that gay marriage is simply inevitable. “The rising sense of inevitability is most notable among some of the groups that tend to be the least supportive of gay marriage itself,” according to a Pew survey in May. “The share of Republicans who see gay marriage as inevitable rose from 47% to 73% over the past nine years. The same pattern holds along religious lines: the share of white evangelical Protestants who see gay marriage as inevitable rose from 49% to 70%.”

A New Political Language…

Further evidence of the political shift underway is the type of rhetoric now employed by opponents of gay marriage. Gone is the mantra of pushing back against a sinister sounding “homosexual agenda” in favor of a “states’ rights” approach. “I support marriage between one man and one woman,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said recently “but I also think it’s a question for the states. Some states have made decisions one way on gay marriage; some states have made decisions the other way. And that’s the great thing about our Constitution, is different states can make decisions depending on the values of their citizens.”

Telling in terms of the national political map and how the issue might play in future national elections is the fact that the only region of the country where opposition to same sex marriage is now greater than support is in the deep south, an area some analysts contend is the only and shrinking base of the national GOP.

The states’ rights strategy driving opposition to same sex marriage, and effectively sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court, will likely remain the focus of coming political battles. Oregon, for example, is gearing up for a ballot measure in 2014, which many believe will pass.

Still the patchwork quilt of differing marriage laws seems sure to spawn a whole new level of controversy. Idaho, which has a Constitutional prohibition, is now facing a federal law suit challenging the same sex marriage ban approved by voters in 2006. The Idaho prohibition has also precipitated a dispute over how the state will treat same sex income tax filers who may be legally married in one state, but are unable in Idaho to share in the tax benefits that other married couples enjoy. These issues can only become more complicated as inevitably more states legalize same sex unions.

Conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin recently seemed to suggest the handwriting of gay marriage inevitability is writ large on the political wall. Rubin quoted from a GOP strategy memo in a recent column to underscore the delicate nature of the issue for many opponents. “One poll-tested sound bite being suggested to candidates references the Golden Rule — to ‘treat others as we’d like to be treated, including gay, lesbian and transgender Americans.” The line, according to a memo from a GOP polling firm hired to guide the campaign, wins support from 89 percent of Republican voters.” Rubin added, and I agree, that it is heartening to know that the Golden Rule still polls well.

But here is the real political point for the future of the gay marriage issue in national politics. “In 2016,” Rubin writes, “we therefore can imagine that all GOP presidential candidates will have a similar position: They may be personally against gay marriage, but they will respect the decisions of states, although favor the definition be changed by popular as opposed to judicial action. There may be variation on that theme. It is one driven not necessarily by donors or pro-marriage advocates, but by political and cultural reality.” In other words the country really has changed dramatically and the change will only continue.

Perhaps the only real question left is to ponder which state(s) will hold out the longest against the trend of support for gay marriage that has been steadily moving in one direction for a decade.