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Fear Itself…

     Obama’s response to the attacks also raises a more political question: Why hasn’t a man known for his rhetorical gifts done more to address the fear the attacks instill in ordinary Americans? – Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post


It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, in a harsh world of partisanship and amidst the instant Twitter feed, to answer emotion and fear with facts. Barack Obama, never particularly good at the soft arts of politics, including the basic political skill of clearly and patiently explaining his policies, learned that lesson anew this week.

Senator Cliche

Senator Ted Cruz, (R) Cliche

It must gall Obama, a smart and careful man, even if his legion of opponents and distractors never admit it, to have to confront a smart, calculating and cynical man like Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz taunted Obama in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the mad rush to denounce Syrian refuges to debate him on the issues and “insult me to my face.”

One almost wishes Obama would simply say: “Ted, you’re just not that important. We are talking about bigger things than your ego or campaign.” But that type of putdown is just not the Obama way and you cannot belittle unless you first explain. Obama’s presidency-long inability – or unwillingness – to effectively and consistently confront his critics and explain himself is among his major shortcomings as a leader.

Obama has an off putting tendency when challenged to either adopt the persona of a law school lecturer and make a legal case, or simply embrace, as he did this week, a dismissive tone with his critics. Perhaps an effective strategy when the issues are trivial, but not when the stakes are as high as they are in our post-Paris moment. Obama often seems to float above the circus, aloof and detached and when he does engage, as he did recently on the refugee issue, his dismissive, lecturing tone is counterproductive.

Even with Republicans offering little but recycled talking points – the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank correctly says Republican plans to deal with the so called Islamic State involves “killing them with clichés.” – the Paris attack and the resulting climate of fear call for more from a president who can, if he puts his mind to it, be a supremely effective communicator.

The World Needs…

“The world needs American leadership,” said Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the new House Speaker. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California opined that “we want our homeland to be secure,” while Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana spoke of the need to “go and root out and take on ISIS.” Clichés for sure, but language that speaks to the need to offer leadership, reassurance and perspective.

The latest outrage from the continuing frontrunner Donald Trump, a call for closing mosques and creating a national database of Muslims, once would have been a disqualifying comment in national politics, but Trump will probably ride it higher in the polls. Such are the days of our lives and such is the ability of a demagogue to stir up fear and hatred.

For his part Cruz says “we are at war with ISIS,” but short of calling for greater use of American air power he offers precious little beyond what the Obama Administration is currently doing. Cruz and the others hoping to draft in the wake of Trump’s openly racist appeal to Americans who disdain immigrants (and now refugees) have succeeded, at least temporarily, in shifting the national debate from defeating a radical ideology to closing the borders to the victims of that ideology.

It is craven, cynical and fundamentally un-American, but in the hands of a modern day Joseph McCarthy like Cruz or a political P.T. Barnum like Trump it sells with the voters both need to crawl to the top of the GOP heap. It also resonates with many Americans who are just frightened and confused and seek candid reassurance and common sense. Lindsay Graham, the one true hawk in the Republican field, is so far behind he can speak the truth about the pandering of those higher in the polls.

Senator Lindsey Graham

Senator Lindsey Graham

“Are you willing to do what it takes to destroy ISIL?” Graham said recently referring to Cruz and others who are long on cliché, but short on ideas. “Are you willing to commit American ground forces in support of a regional army to destroy the caliphate? If you’re not, then you’re not ready to be the Commander-in-Chief, in my view, and you’re really no different than Obama.”

This is the crux of the real debate the Congress and the nation needs. What do we do to destroy these violent remnants from the 13th Century? I’m waiting for a Congressional committee to actually have a hearing and call some real experts to testify about real options. That’s old fashioned, I know, but used to be what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did.

Ground troops? Will the American public accept that? What will greater air strikes accomplish? If Syria’s Assad is deposed, which is American policy, who and what replaces him? We thought Iraq was tidied up when Saddam toppled and that didn’t work out so well. Would Syria be different and why? Do we risk a joint effort with Putin to fight ISIS and to what end? If we arm some additional group or groups in Syria are we just doubling down on the less-than-successful Iraq policy that saw us leave millions of dollars worth of military hardware behind in the desert, hardware that in some cases the radicals now use? Are there other options? Let’s hear them.

Explain the Policy….Please 

Obama’s Syrian policy and approach to ISIS have been called “feckless” and his recent comment that the movement was “contained” may well rank with George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” as the silliest thing either man said during his tenure. It is also true that the President fumbled for too long while Syria burned and the refugee crisis has occurred during his watch and will be part of his legacy. Still, unlike his fire-breathing detractors on the right, I am willing to concede that Obama has a real policy for the region, a policy largely informed by what has not worked in the recent past. What has been missing is his patient, repeated articulation of that policy.

By failing to fully take the American people into his confidence and carefully explain the stakes and the real options, Obama contributes to what is truly feckless – the domestic debate about ISIS and Syrian refugees, how to ensure U.S. and European security, and the proper and effective U.S. military and diplomatic response to the mess in the Middle East.

It is a moment that demands calm, reasoned, candid national leadership that only a president can provide. We are waiting.

A Lesson From History…

Churchill: "If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Churchill: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

I am reminded of what leadership in a moment of crisis sounds like re-reading Winston Churchill’s remarkable speech in the wake of the abject British defeat at Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. It was one of the worst moments of World War II and had events or political rhetoric turned even a bit differently we might be living in a very different world.

Thousands upon thousands of British troops had remarkably been evacuated from the French port of Dunkirk following the collapse of the French Army west of Paris. The British troops hauled back across the English Channel escaped with their lives, but not much else. A vast amount of precious material and equipment was left behind in the interest of saving the British Army so that it might fight again. Everyone knew at the time, especially Churchill, that Dunkirk was a military disaster that ironically is now often remembered as a spectacular success.

Churchill, newly the prime minister, had to explain the disaster to the House of Commons where criticism of the government was building amid calls for an investigation of the debacle in France. The moment demanded explanation, painful candor and hope. He confronted the situation directly and brilliantly:

“We have to think of the future and not of the past,” Churchill said. “This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments – and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too – during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.

“Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

There are too many in it…let each man search his speeches…we shall find we have lost the future. One yearns for such talk at moments of national confusion, trial and fear.

…None Whatever for Panic and Despair…

At the end of his Dunkirk speech, Churchill uttered his famous “finest hour” phrase that is the most remembered part of the speech, but a line he spoke earlier seems particularly appropriate for the current moment.

“Therefore, in casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.”

Cheers broke out in the House of Commons.

The rhetoric from the current campaign trail regarding the Middle East is nothing if not panic and despair. It is not a time for a lecture on the law or peevish scolding, but it is time for something more from Barack Obama. He might start by repackaging Franklin Roosevelt because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. A weary and wary nation longing for strength and hope needs to hear that from the top.

Hero to Zero…

“Scott Walker is still a disgrace, just no longer national.”

                                      – AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

– – – – –

The old political axiom applies and, yes I know I’ve used it before, but in this case it is so very appropriate.

You can go from hero to zero just like that…and Scott Walker, the one-time next president of the United States, just did.

Scott succumbs

Scott succumbs

Has there ever been a bigger political dive off the high board and into the shallow end of the pool than that of the seriously under prepared governor of Wisconsin? We all remember presidents like Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman, but Walker seems in a different class.

Walker has re-defined political flame out. If the Packers folded like this Wisconsin would demand a review of the videotape. In Walker’s case the cheeseheads just have to have him back in Madison full-time, which seems penalty enough.

The guy is an ultra-conservative in notoriously independent Wisconsin. He survived epic statewide battles over union busting, teacher bashing and even a recall. Walker kicked at one of the great state university systems in America by diminishing the “Wisconsin Idea” that education is about more than just landing a job out of college, but also has something to do with being an engaged and informed citizen and improving lives. The not-ready-for-prime-time governor actually and secretly tried to re-write the mission statement of the university system to eliminate the lofty, aspirational language that speaks to his state’s aspirations and when called on the move tried to pass it off as “a drafting error.”

Sleazy suddenly became slimy and the errors were all his.

Still Walker confidentially rode a Harley and acted like he knew that Green Bay has a football team. He seemed to be every hard right Republican’s dream – a Midwestern swing state governor who might have appeal to Catholics, middle class white voters and the Tea Party. But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. The lightweight drowned in a substance-free pool of his own making. The best day of his campaign was his announcement; then it was all down hill.

The good news: More time for road trips

The good news: More time for road trips

Walker flip-flopped on same sex marriage, the 14th Amendment and abortion. He pandered on immigration and suggested that a wall between the United States and Canada might be a fine idea. He didn’t know ISIS from Appleton. Walker kissed up to Donald Trump and when that didn’t work he left the race saying that while sitting in church he was “called to lead by helping to clear the field so that a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field.”

Just for the record that wasn’t God calling, but a message a good deal more secular. Walker went from leading the pack to zilch in the polls. Hello…can you hear me now?

Walker was almost immediately discovered to be an empty suit, an ultra-programmed one-time Milwaukee County Executive who somehow became the chief executive of one of the nation’s great states. It was as though Walker had been miraculously cast as a Broadway leading man when he hadn’t proven that he could perform in summer stock or even community theater.

If Walker were from Texas rather than Wisconsin we’d be saying he was “all hat and no cattle.” More likely he was all curd and no cheese. His carefully scripted talking points sounded impressive on a small stage and seemed without substance when he tried to take his simplistic show national. Walker rode that Harley right onto an early exit ramp. His presidential campaign lasted two months. Not a record, but still below average.

America is a great country. Anyone can grow up to be president. Lincoln from a log cabin with a dirt floor. Wilson from a PhD and Princeton. Reagan and Nixon and Carter and Obama. Imperfect humans all, but not a lightweight among them. Walker, the labor killer of Madison, turned out to be lighter than air as a presidential hopeful, a candidate who couldn’t direct his own bloated campaign, let alone the country. In the slightly more than two months he spent padding around Iowa and New Hampshire, as the Washington Post reported, Walker’s “presidential bid had amassed a debt of roughly $700,000.” Quite the storyline for a college dropout who slashed the budget of a world-class higher education system and went after pensions in the interest of managing public spending.

Scott Walker is proof of another old adage. In politics you can fool some of the people all the time. Before it tanked Walker’s campaign raked in more than $5 million from the foolishly profligate Ricketts family, the owners of baseball’s Chicago Cubs. It was reported that Joe Ricketts, the family patriarch and TD Ameritrade founder, “settled on Walker after private meetings over the past year at his New York apartment and his ranch in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole valley. They bonded over their Midwestern backgrounds and conservative views on spending.”

The spending, it turned out, was all Walker’s. Walker was so sure of his political future, so certain of himself that he spent his donor’s money like there was no tomorrow. Turns out there was no tomorrow. Joe Ricketts might have better spent the $5 million he gave to Walker on a left handed pitcher who might have helped his historically pathetic baseball team in the post season. But then again that might be a case of good money after bad.

Walker unaware that he is posing with a fake check from the Koch brothers

Walker unaware that he is posing with a fake check from the Koch brothers

Walker also attracted the cash and attention of the really big money Koch brothers proving that being really rich isn’t always proof of being really smart, particularly when it comes to politics. “When the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination,” David Koch told a fat cat crowd in Manhattan last April, the billionaire brothers would really open their checkbooks. Makes you want to play cards – or Monopoly – with those guys.

Scott Walker now fades away to an asterisk in the American political story, a less than mediocre middle size state governor who parlayed a slash and burn style and the hot rhetoric of division into a belief that ideology and self-assurance can cover for a lack of real accomplishment and real substance.

We’ve all seen the type that Walker represents – the brash city councilman or too sure of himself state legislator who looks in the mirror while shaving and sees a man of destiny. The real image starring back, however, is just a reflection of old-fashioned ambition and the hubris that comes with believing your own press releases.

National pundits are suggesting that Walker’s tumble is all the work of another candidate who always oversells his accomplishments, but Walker’s crash is more about Walker than it is about Trump. Trump is a flashy neon sign, more sizzle than seriousness. Walker tried to present himself as the serious candidate of the angry right and set out to out flank The Donald, but he ultimately – and quickly – lacked the depth, validity and appeal to pull it off.

In the end many GOP voters seem to favor a flamboyant private sector non-entity rather than just merely an elected one.

The Loudest Voice…

“Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That’s what prepping for this debate is like.”

It is hard to find a parallel in American political history when one news organization – perhaps I should put that word “news” in quotes – has played such an outsized role in determining who gets covered and ultimately who gets nominated by one of the major political parties.

Roger Ailes, the Big Boss at Fox News

Roger Ailes, the Big Boss at Fox News

For good or bad much of the Republican presidential primary process is now largely in the hands of Fox News boss Roger Ailes, a profoundly partisan fellow who displays a deft touch for marketing the outlandish and who has built a brand and banked a bundle by zealously appealing to the shrinking band of very conservative older white voters who will decide who wins the Republican nomination in 2016. Ailes will ultimately determine which of the GOP candidates crowd on to the debate stage in Ohio on Thursday just as he will decree who watches from the wings.

There have been occasions in American political history when one media big foot or another have wielded disproportionate sway over a nomination or a candidate, but there has never been anything like Fox News.

William Loeb made his Manchester, N.H. paper both feared and hated

William Loeb made his Manchester, N.H. paper both feared and hated

Crusty old William Loeb ran his hard right Manchester Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire like the tyrant he was and often shaped the outcome of his states first in the nation primary. Loeb used his front-page editorials to call Democrats ”left-wing kooks,” John Kennedy ”the No. 1 liar in the United States,” Nelson A. Rockefeller a ”wife-swapper” and Dwight Eisenhower a ”stinking hypocrite.” Loeb wasn’t above publicizing a phony letter designed to diminish Maine Senator Edmund Muskie’s 1972 candidacy. The letter was later shown to be part of a “dirty trick” effort promulgated by Richard Nixon’s campaign, which not incidentally employed Roger Ailes to help Nixon win in 1968. Loeb, a bully with barrels of ink, even attacked Muskie’s wife. It was one of the great smears in American political history and it worked.

In earlier decades press barons like McCormick and Hearst controlled their home state delegations and fancied themselves kingmakers, but none had the national reach of Fox and the personal sway of Roger Ailes.

Fox and Republicans Captives of Each Other…

Fox has become the Republican brand and vice versa, which seems to delight the most passionate and most conservative voters, but also means the network and those favored with its air time are mostly preaching to the Tea Party choir – 30 or so percent of the American electorate that thinks the last great president was Barry Goldwater. As if to underscore the tangled lines among Republicans and Fox News, Governor John Kasich over the weekend “walked back,” as they say, which is to disavow the pithy tweet from his strategist that begins this piece. John Weaver’s comment was funny, aimed it would seem at both Donald Trump and Fox and had the added benefit of being true. You won’t be surprised to know that Kasich did his walking back during an interview on Fox.

Meanwhile, a fascinating new report from the Shorenstein Center for the Media, Politics and Public Policy explains in vivid detail how conservative media in general and Fox in particular, “shapes the agenda of the [Republican] party, pushing it to the far right – at the expense of its ability to govern and pick presidential nominees.”

Geoffrey Kabaservice

Geoffrey Kabaservice

Fox fans will instantly dismiss the informed critique as the work of eastern elites – the Shorenstein Center is at Harvard, after all – but it’s difficult to dismiss comments like this from academic Geoffrey Kabaservice: “These people,” Kabaservice says in speaking of right wing media in all its forms, “practically speaking, are preventing the Republican Party from governing, which means they’re really preventing it from becoming a presidential party as well.

[Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. He is a Republican.]

The Shorenstein report was authored by one of the better “old media” political reporters Jackie Calmes, a New York Times national correspondent, who did a stint as a fellow at the Center.

No Incentive to Bother With Reality…

Here’s one quick take from her report where she quotes a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, “who has worked in the top ranks of congressional and presidential politics, but, like some others, asked to remain unidentified lest he provoke the far-right messengers against his current boss: ‘It’s so easy these days to go out there and become an Internet celebrity by saying some things, and who cares if it’s true or makes any sense. It’s a new frontier: How far to the right can you get? And there’s no incentive to ever really bother with reality.’ Or to compromise: ‘There’s no money, ratings or clicks in everyone going along to get along.’”

sean_hannity_024In other words, the Fox approach, exemplified by the self righteous bomb-thrower Sean Hannity, as well as dozens of others on right wing talk radio and in the blogosphere, is to crank up the outrage meter, pour ideological gasoline on any smoldering fire – immigration, Benghazi, Obamacare, shutdown the government, Iranian nuclear deals, etc. – and stand back and watch the flames scorch anyone left of Ted Cruz who might offer a sane, moderate, middle ground approach. The influence of right wing media on hard right and more moderate Republicans has served to substitute indignation and anger for anything like a real political agenda. Real policy that involves anything other than saying “NO” in a very loud voice is as foreign to Fox and friends as are real facts.

Calmes asked one Capitol Hill Republican if he could offer examples of legislative outcomes affected by conservative media. His response: “Sure. All of ‘em…the loudest voices drown out the sensible ones and there’s no real space to have serious discussions.”

Export-Import Bank: the Latest Litmus Test…

Take, for example, the current controversy involving re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank, a little known government agency that provides loan guarantees for foreign purchases of American goods. Tea Party-types – read Fox News viewers – see the program as a prime example of “crony capitalism” even though as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera points out the bank “generated enough in fees and interest to turn over $675 million to the Treasury. Why would anyone in their right mind want to put such a useful agency out of business?”

Why indeed, but you need look no farther than the right wing media to see the issue is perfect for the politics of outrage that are the staples of Fox, Rush Limbaugh and a hundred others who have made it difficult – if not impossible – for a Republican Congress to actually make sensible decisions, embrace the occasional compromise and, well, govern.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gestures as the key speaker at the annual Reagan Republican Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, October 25, 2013. (David Peterson/MCT via Getty Images)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gestures as the key speaker at the annual Reagan Republican Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, October 25, 2013. (David Peterson/MCT via Getty Images)

“This is a battle,” Ted Cruz proclaims, as he attempts to elevate his presidential candidacy with a constant stream of attention getting hyperbole. “Do you stand for the rich and powerful who corrupt Washington,” the senator asks, “and use this institution against the American taxpayer, or do you stand with the taxpayer?”

Don’t debate the facts, the hell with nuance, Cruz knows “there’s no incentive to ever really bother with reality.”

In the Import-Export Bank issue Cruz is, by the way, standing with the no taxes, ever Club for Growth, the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Tea Party Patriots, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action for America. All are fervent practitioners of the politics of outrage and a governing strategy based on “NO.” The “corrupt Washington” Cruz attacks includes such obviously rotten Americans as Boeing, GE, the United States Chamber of Commerce and a small business guy by name of Michael Hess in little Malad, Idaho.

Hess wrote recently in the Idaho Statesman that the demise of the Export-Import Bank will damage his and other Idaho small businesses. “We’ve been mining, processing and distributing pumice in Idaho for almost 60 years,” Hess wrote. “And with the bank’s insurance, we’ve been expanding our business abroad. Our products are now distributed in 23 countries across six continents. Since 2009 alone, the bank has helped Hess Pumice generate more than $16 million in sales. That new revenue enabled us to hire more employees and further support the local economy.”

And Hess correctly nails the ideologues in his own Congressional delegation, elected officials more and more afraid or unwilling to stand up to the outrage caucus, which more and more takes its marching orders from conservative media. “Despite the bank’s obvious benefits,” Hess pointed out, “some critics want to keep it shut down. Senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, along with Representative Raul Labrador, are in this camp, contending that Ex-Im represents an unnecessary government intrusion into the private sector.”

It is worthy noting that Idaho’s other federal office holder, Congressman Mike Simpson, has not be part of the effort to stop the Ex-Im Bank. Simpson, the one Idaho Republicans to actually face a Tea Party-inspired opponent, who he beat handily, has often stood up against the most far out elements in his own party and attempted to be a legislator who governs. For that Simpson deserves bi-partisan praise.

Right wing media, particularly Fox, have created a political environment on the far right that disdains the type of reality that small businessman Michael Hess represents. Otherwise sensible people like Mike Crapo, who must know better, embrace the extremist line afraid to buck the hard, hard right and not surprisingly the wheels of government crank to a halt.

The Loudest Voice in the Room…

Reviewing Gabriel Sherman’s book on Fox and Boss Ailes last year in the New York Review – the book is appropriately entitled The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country – Steve Coll connected the dots this way: “Fox owes its degree of profitability in part to its most passionate, even extremist, audience segment. To win national elections, the Grand Old Party, on the other hand, must win over moderate, racially diverse, and independent voters. By their very diversity and middling views, swing voters are not easy to target on television. The sort of news-talk programming most likely to attract a broad and moderate audience—hard news, weather news, crime news, sports, and perhaps a smattering of left–right debate formats—is essentially the CNN formula, which Fox has already rejected triumphantly.”

When you tune into Thursday’s debate – how can you not tune in – in order to monitor the vitriol from Trump and Cruz and Walker and the rest, Roger Ailes, the majordomo of the outrage wing of the Republican Party, will be nowhere to be seen. But he’ll be there determining who plays and under what rules. He’ll be calling the shots, pouring the gasoline and fanning the fire. Like a good ventriloquist, Ailes no longer needs to move his lips in order to get the words to leave the mouth of an outraged Republican.

“Even inside Fox,” as New York Magazine reported last week, “some are awed that a presidential race is being influenced by a television channel. ‘Crazy stuff,’ another personality told reporter Gabriel Sherman, ‘you have a TV executive deciding who is in — and out — of a debate!’”

Who is the Dummy Here?

Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy

Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy

Crazy stuff? Of course it’s crazy, but it’s also the reality Republicans have bought into by handing policy development and candidate vetting to Roger Ailes and a handful of other outraged voices who make a living trying to blow things up. Jackie Calmes’ Shorenstein report quotes another exasperated Republican as saying of the right wing media, “they don’t give a damn about governing.”

Edgar Bergen, the brilliant and elegant ventriloquist of my youth, had his Charlie McCarthy, a wisecracking dummy sitting on his knee. We all knew Charlie was just a wooden prop given life and opinions by the man with the hand in his back, but it was still an entertaining act. Roger Ailes now has his Republican Party in pretty much the same position. I leave it to you to complete the analogy as to who plays the dummy.

The Most Important Election…

There is a wide-open field on the Republican side for the presidential nomination, with at least a half dozen serious contenders, while the lame duck Democrat in the White House, one of the most polarizing american-politicsfigures in modern American politics, struggles with foreign policy challenges which have emboldened his fierce critics in both parties and submerged his domestic agenda. The foreign policy challenges involve questions about the effectiveness of military aid in bloody conflicts that may, or may not, involve strategic American interests, as well as the proper response to brutal foreign dictators determined to expand their influence in central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The incumbent in the White House, elected with promises of “hope and change,” has lost his once large majorities in both houses of Congress and, while he remains a profoundly talented communicator and is still popular with many voters, others have grown tired of his aloof manner and the fact that he surrounds himself with a tiny corps of advisors who tend to shut off competing points of view. Even his wife can be a polarizing figure with some criticizing everything from her priorities to her wardrobe.

A fragile economic recovery continues to sputter along, while memories remain fresh of an economic collapse that rivals anything that has happened in three-quarters of a century. Half the country blames Wall Street, eastern bankers and the well-heeled for the economic troubles, while the other half laments excessive regulation, increasing debt and bloated federal government that is constantly expanding its role in American life. The country is deeply divided by race, class and religious differences.

The year is…2016? No…actually 1940.

The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime…Not Really…

Lincoln and McClellan

Lincoln and McClellan

The claim heard every four years that “this is the most important election in our lifetime (or in our history), it is, of course, nonsense. We don’t have “critical elections” every four years, but in fact have really only had a handful of truly “critical” elections in our history. In my view the two most important were 1864, when Abraham Lincoln defeated George McClellan thereby ensuring that the great Civil War would be fought to its ultimate end and achieve its ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-established political tradition and sought and won a third term. Roosevelt’s election, although it would have been hard to see clearly at the time, sealed the involvement of the United States in World War II and ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.

Those two elections (you could add 1860 to the list, as well) had serious consequences that still echo today, the 1940 election particularly since it does have many parallels with what voters will face when they make a choice about the White House in 2016.

Arguably the field for the Republican nomination hasn’t been so completely wide open since 1940. In that election, as today, the GOP was a divided party between its more establishment wing – represented by New Yorker Thomas Dewey – and an insurgent element represented by the party’s eventual nominee in 1940, Indiana-born, former Democrat Wendell Willkie, a true dark horse candidate. The party was also split into isolationist and internationalist camps, with Willkie the leader of the later and Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan leading the Midwestern, isolationist element.

As Many GOP Contenders as 2016…

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

Ten Republican candidates that year captured at least twenty-eight convention votes, with Dewey leading on the first ballot with 360 votes, still far below the number he would need to win the nomination. The Republican candidates, not unlike today, were a broad and opportunistic bunch ranging from names lost to history – the governor of South Dakota Harland Bushland, for example – to shades of the past like former President Herbert Hoover who amazingly thought he was a viable candidate eight years after losing in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932.

Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey

Dewey lost support on every subsequent ballot, while Willkie and Taft steadily picked up steam. As Charles Peters has written: “To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential,” not unlike the “establishment wing” of the GOP today, which is tentatively coalescing behind Jeb Bush.

Finally on the sixth ballot Willkie commanded the votes needed to win the nomination and face the man who was the real issue in 1940 – Roosevelt.

By the time the Democrats convened for their convention in Chicago on July 15, 1940 (the Republicans met in Philadelphia in June), few besides FDR knew his intentions with regard to the “no third term” tradition. I’m convinced Roosevelt had decided much earlier to seek another terms, but the master political strategist wanted it to appear that his party was “drafting” him rather than as if he was actively seeking the nomination again.

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Roosevelt dispatched his very politically astute wife, Eleanor, to Chicago to subtly, but unmistakably make the case for her husband. It worked and the Democratic Party rushed to embrace FDR – again. This whole story is wonderfully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World.

FDR of course, went on to win the pivotal election of 1940, a rare election in American political history that turned primarily on foreign policy issues. Remarkably, both candidates endorsed the creation of a peace time draft in the middle of the campaign and Roosevelt and Willkie differed only in the most nuanced ways over the big question of whether and how the United States would provide aid to Britain as it struggled to hold off a Nazi invasion and eventually return to the offense against Hitler.

The 1940 campaign, like most political campaigns, had its share of pettiness and overheated rhetoric. Roosevelt was denounced as a “warmonger” and a dictator who would do anything to prolong his willkie buttonhold over the country’s politics. Willkie, a wealthy utility executive who made much of his small-town Indiana upbringing, was derided as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” so dubbed by Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was an open secret that Willkie had a long-time romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, but Roosevelt and the Democrats dare not raise the issue for fear that the “marriage of convenience” between FDR and Eleanor, not to mention the president’s own indiscretions, might become an issue. This would not be a John Edwards or Gary Hart campaign.

The 1940 campaign did involve two talented and serious candidates who openly discussed the big issues of the day and once the voters had spoken, Roosevelt and Willkie put aside personal animosities and linked arms for the good of the country – and the world.

Barack Obama won’t be running for a third term next year. Republicans made certain that would never happen when they recaptured control of the Congress after World War II and adopted the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, but Democrats will be, in effect, seeking a third term with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the party banner.

Perhaps all – or almost all – politicians tend to look better in hindsight than they do when they are grubbing for votes, but it would be hard to argue that any of the contenders in either party today could hold their own on a stage with the major party nominees in that pivotal year of 1940.

The stakes were very high that year and Americans had their pick between two serious, quality candidates. Here’s hoping history repeats next year. Looking at the field I have my doubts.

Reader’s Note: 

There are at least three other recent fine books about the election of 1940 – Richard Moe’s Roosevelt’s Second Act, Susan Dunn’s 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler: The Election Amid the Storm and Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days. All are highly recommended as great political history.


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.

It’s the Demographics, Stupid

The modern Republican Party has a major problem with Hispanic voters and watching the party struggle to address that problem increasingly reminds me of the great Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a -dope” strategy during his bruising fight in Zaire in 1974. In this case Barack Obama is playing Ali and the GOP is cast as George Foreman, the guy who punched himself out of contention, swinging wildly while Ali crouched against the ropes and survived.

On the very day the GOP issued a highly critical 100-page report on its performance during the 2012 election and what it might do to get back on track, Republican Senators, including Chuck Grassley of Iowa and David Vitter of Louisiana, indicated that they will oppose Obama’s pick to be Secretary of Labor. That pick, of course, is Thomas Perez currently the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and a man with a classic personal resume that includes being the son of Dominican immigrants and a Harvard Law PhD.

Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions must not have gotten the memo about Republicans wanting to reach out to Hispanic voters after the party’s dismal showing in the last election with that rapidly growing demographic group. Sessions termed the Perez nomination “unfortunate and needlessly divisive.” Ali couldn’t have done a better job of setting up the rope-a-dope. As Republicans prepare to throw wasted punches at the highest ranking Hispanic Cabinet appointee, Obama pivots to his talking points about inclusion, living the American dream and finding a place in the vast ocean of American politics for everyone – especially the demographic group that will increasingly decide elections in the 21st Century.

Here is just one telling statistic about the GOP Hispanic problem as compiled by The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza: in the 2012 election just one in ten Republican voters were non-white. That is a remarkable number. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that is white has steadily fallen from nearly 90% in 1980 to just over 70% now. Little wonder that the GOP has lost four of the last five national elections as its base – older white voters – decreases as a percentage of the overall voting population. These numbers also help explain why some in the GOP seem so hung up on making it more difficult, particularly for non-whites, to vote and why the party’s national base has dwindled to a few very conservative western states and the south of the old Confederacy.

Take a look around the west to gauge the GOP’s challenge with the changing demographics of the electorate. Arizona’s population is now 30% Hispanic, Idaho’s Hispanic population is more than 11%, while Oregon’s is 12% and all are growing rapidly. Oregon’s Hispanic population, for example, has grown by 64% since 2000. Similar numbers exist in Colorado, Nevada and Texas. California’s demographics likely mean the state is out of play for the GOP for the foreseeable future.

The left cross that follows the right jab on these demographic numbers signals even more long-term worry for the national GOP. While Mitt Romney, the champion of “self deportation,” gathered in 27% of the Hispanic vote last year – the lowest percentage in modern times for a Republican – the party has actually been losing Hispanic voters for years. Seventy percentage of Hispanics now firmly associated with the Democratic Party, a number that has shown an almost unbroken upward trend for more that the last decade.

The heart of the problem for the GOP is, of course, immigration policy. “If Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” the GOP’s new post-election report states. “In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”

But in true rope-a-dope fashion one of the party’s best connections to Hispanic voters former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while trying to navigate the choppy waters to his right and left, recently sent wildly conflicting messages about his own position on whether real reform includes a “path to citizenship” for people who have come to the U.S. illegally. The party’s two highest ranking Hispanic elected officials – Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – are so beholden to the Tea Party wing of the GOP that they can’t get on the same page regarding immigration policy.

In the final analysis, however, the rope-a-dope comparison really doesn’t work for one basic reason. In his famous 1974 Rumble in the Jungle Muhammad Ali absorbed tremendous punishment from George Foreman before Foreman finally wore himself out and lost the fight. When it comes to cementing the Democratic hold on Hispanic voters Barack Obama really isn’t taking any punches, or perhaps more correctly the GOP isn’t landing any. Obama can set back and watch as old, white GOP Senators like Jeff Sessions and Chuck Grassley wear themselves out over the appointment of an Hispanic to run the U.S. Department of Labor. Such opposition sends a powerful message that the old, white party just isn’t interested in the new, emerging majority. In the end Obama wins even if he loses on a Cabinet appointment as it becomes more and more obvious where the fastest growing demographic group in nation feels most at home.

History will record that 31 Republican Senators – Sessions and Grassley included – voted against the confirmation Justice Sonya Sotomayor, the first Hispanic appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The vast majority of those Republican “no” votes came from the South and West; from places like Texas, Arizona, Idaho and Nevada were before long that kind of vote will become a litmus test of whether you have put out the welcome mat or slammed the door shut. Here’s a guess that failing to cast an historic vote in 2009 to put the first Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court won’t look so good in the history books.

In 1967 when Lyndon Johnson nominated the great civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall to become the first African-American on the high court only 11 Senators voted against his confirmation. Ten of those Senators were white southern Democrats who made the raw political calculation that they couldn’t risk the home state political backlash that would follow a  vote to put a black man on the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Democrats fundamentally changed as a national party as a result of Johnson and civil rights in the 1960’s and, as Johnson correctly forecast, that change cost Democrats the South. But it also helped guarantee that African-American voters would remain solidly in the Democratic camp in every subsequent national election.

The question for current Republicans is whether they are willing to make such a fundamental shift; a shift that will rile the Tea Party and the aging, white base of the GOP?  It is worth noting that the lone Republican vote against Thurgood Marshall in 1967 was Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a fellow who would find himself right at home in the current very conservative, very white Republican Party. Enough said.


Stewart Udall

One of the Great Conservation Secretaries

When the history is written of conservation politics in the 20th Century, I’m sure four Secretaries of the Interior will figure prominently. Stewart Udall, who died last Saturday, will certainly be on the list.

As the New York Times noted, Udall’s record of engineering new National Parks is undeniable. He had a major hand in creating the North Cascades in Washington, the spectacular Canyonlands in Utah and the National Seashore on Cape Cod during the eight years he served under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The Wilderness Act was passed on his watch.

The Udall family statement, issued by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, noted that his father was the last surviving member of President Kennedy’s original Cabinet.

I’ve always loved the story of how Udall engineered naming RFK Stadium in Washington. Udall figured out how to outfox Lyndon Johnson. Few people can claim that distinction. Jeff Shesol tells the story in his fine book – Mutual Contempt – which deals with the complicated and toxic relationship between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy.

Shesol told C-Span’s Brian Lamb on Booknotes that naming the stadium after the assassinated former Attorney General did not originate with Udall, but the Secretary quickly embraced the notion when it was suggested to him by Kennedy partisans. LBJ actually hoped that the relatively new stadium, called DC Stadium prior to 1969, might be renamed to honor him.

As Shesol said:

“Because the stadium was built on national park land – the Anacostia Park…the secretary of the interior, with a quick dash of his pen, could rename the stadium without having to ask the president’s permission. And so they conspired to do this and they also conspired to do it on the very last day of the Johnson presidency so that the president could not countermand the order. So Udall went ahead and did this and Johnson was, of course, outraged, but there was nothing he could do. It had already been announced and leaked to the press.”

The Los Angeles Times obit noted that Udall, who was 90 at the time of his death, had just a few years ago “trekked with a grandson 7,000 feet up Bright Angel Trail, from the floor of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. He refused a National Park Service offer of a mule. His family ‘wouldn’t have liked it if I hadn’t made it,’ he noted, ‘but what a way to go.’ Upon completing his ascent, he headed straight into the bar at the Tovar Lodge and ordered a martini.”

Stewart Udall will be remembered as one of the greats. I’d nominate three others to join him as the Interior greats of the 20th Century:

New Deal-era Secretary Harold Ickes created the modern Interior Department and defined the job that he served in longer than anyone. Ickes was a fascinating character and a major political figure in the first half of the last century.

I’m biased, but I think my old boss, Cecil Andrus, who pulled off the greatest conservation accomplishment of all time with the Alaska Lands legislation and engineered 11th hour protections of several rivers in California on the last day of the Carter Administration, is certainly in the same company with Ickes and Udall.

And my list would include Bruce Babbitt, an often unpopular secretary in the West, who nevertheless brought a conservation ethic back to Interior after the less than distinguished conservation tenure of the Reagan and first Bush Administrations.

Ickes, Andrus, Babbitt and Udall. I’d like to have dinner and a martini and talk a little conservation politics with those four guys.