2016 Election, American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, FDR, GOP, Obama, Politics, Supreme Court, World Cup

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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.