Baucus, Dallek, Mansfield, U.S. Senate

Leader of the Pack

“I want to be able to go out at the top of my game…I don’t want to be a 42-year-old trying to become a designated hitter.” – Baseball fan Harry Reid on his decision to retire from the Senate.

It is often said that being president of the United States is the “toughest job in the world.” If that is true then being the Senate Majority Leader is certainly the second toughest job in Washington, D.C.

Harry ReidHarry Reid did the job longer than most and during a time – he shares the blame, of course – that marked one of the most partisan periods in the history of the Senate. Now in the minority, Reid announced last week that he will hang it up when his term ends next year.

Reid’s expected successor as Democratic leader, hand-picked it seems by the former boxer from Searchlight, Nevada, is New York Senator Charles Schumer who, one could expect, will extend the sharply partisan tone once his desk is directly across the aisle from Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

A Rare Big State Leader…

Schumer, should he be successful in replacing Reid next year, will be the first Senate leader in either party (majority or minority leader) to hail from New York. In fact, it is a historical Schumer-Reidcuriosity that the leaders of both parties in the Senate most often come from smaller states; states like Harry Reid’s Nevada.

The role of “Senate leader” is relatively new, at least in the long history of the United States Senate. The first formally designated “leader” was elected by the then-minority caucus of Democrats is 1919. The “Majority leader” title at that time was only informally conveyed on Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, who also chaired the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. The GOP majority made “the leader” an official designation in 1923 and since that time politicians from smaller states have for the most part occupied the top jobs in the Senate.

Of the biggest states, only Illinois has had two senators, Republican Everett Dirksen and Democrat Scott Lucas, in leadership. Meanwhile, Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee and Kansas have each had two senators in top jobs, while South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Indiana, Oregon, Arizona and Mississippi each have had senators in leadership.

There are but a handful of exceptions to the small state leadership rule, most notably Texas (Lyndon Johnson), California (William Knowland), Pennsylvania (Hugh Scott) and, very briefly, Ohio (Robert Taft). Schumer will be another exception. Interestingly, with the exception of LBJ (who held a leadership position for eight years) and Scott (minority leader for six year) none of the big state leaders have held the job for long.

The longest serving leader remains Montana’s Mike Mansfield who served for sixteen years, all Mansfield_Dirksenas majority leader. By the time Reid is done, at least in terms of longevity, he’ll be in the company of Arkansas’ Joseph T. Robinson (fourteen years) and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd and Kentucky’s Alben Barkley (twelve years).

It is also interesting that Democratic leaders tend to last longer than Republican leaders. Reid’s tenure in leadership will put him in the top five of longest serving Senate leaders, all Democrats. Republicans Bob Dole of Kansas and Charles McNary of Oregon are the longest serving GOP Senate leaders, each having served eleven years.

So, why do smaller states tend to produce more Senate leaders? Could the Senate as an institution have a bias against senators from larger states? Could it be that serving as a senator from a large population state is more demanding than doing the same job in a smaller state therefore leaving more time for other duties like herding Senate cats as a leader?

My own theory – unburdened by any real evidence – is that small state senators just might be better at the skills of “retail” politics; the meeting and greeting, remembering names and faces, the attention to details that Mansfield, Johnson, Dole and Howard Baker put to such good use. Perhaps small state senators also regularly meet more voters, hold more town hall meetings, deal with more small town mayors and eat more tough chicken at Rotary Club meetings. Senators from larger states tend to operate on a more “wholesale” basis, often communicating with constituents largely through the media. Perhaps they just aren’t as good at the “soft” people skills that make for good leaders.

Mike’s Approach…

The legendary Mansfield’s approach to his job as a U.S. senator might support my thesis. Mansfield, a bit of a loner all his life, would routinely show up in various Montana cities, Mansfieldsmoking his pipe, sitting alone in a coffee shop or hotel lobby just waiting to be engaged by a voter and “accepting conversation from whoever happened by.” Mansfield’s biographer Don Oberdorfer has written that the then-Senate Majority Leader’s “favorite haunt in the university town of Missoula was the Oxford Bar and Grill, where gambling took place in the basement, reachable through a meat locker.”

Mansfield became legendary in the Senate for his ability to listen, understand competing points of view and treat everyone with patience and respect. Did he hone those skills sitting at the bar of the Oxford in Missoula?

In the rarified, clubby environment of the U.S. Senate, people skills – modesty, ability to listen, empathy, and fairness – still matter, even in this age of poisonous partisanship. I suspect it also helps to know how to find the card game going on in the basement.

 Tomorrow: Love him or hate him, Harry Reid leaves a substantial legacy.

 

2016 Election, American Presidents, Baucus, Dallek, Foreign Policy, John Kennedy, Mansfield, Obama, U.S. Senate, World Cup

The Water’s Edge…

“…the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades. – Letter from 47 Republican senators to Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Can’t We Just Agree on This…

Amid the persistent partisan rancor dominating Washington, D.C. you might think that the one issue that would lend itself to a modicum of bipartisanship would be an effort to prevent Iran from developing the ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

In the hands of a regime that since 1979 has proclaimed the United States as its great enemy, a nuclear weapon would represent an existential Iran-map-regionthreat not only to the U.S, but also to the continually troubled Middle East. Indeed, Iranian nuclear capability is a threat to the entire world.

In response to this very real threat, the Obama Administration has attempted to do what former President George H.W. Bush did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 – build an international coalition to confront the threat. In dealing with the Iranian nuclear menace the United States has joined forces with France, Great Britain, Germany, China and Russia, but the U.S. has clearly taken the lead in the talks.

While Republican critics of Obama’s foreign policy often criticize the president for “leading from behind,” in the case of Iran the U.S. is clearly out front pushing hard for a diplomatic agreement. That fact alone, given GOP criticism of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, might argue for Republican cooperation and encouragement that could foster true bipartisanship. In fact, and in a different political world, the circumstances of the coalition led by the U.S. to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon seems like the epitome of a foreign policy issue where Republicans and Democrats might actually cheer each other on in expectation of an outcome that would be good for the country, the Middle East and the world.

Politics is always about fighting over the details, but stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons seems like a fundamental strategic goal that every American could embrace. But not these days. Just when it seems that American politics can’t make me any more discouraged about theCotton future of the country, Arkansas sends Tom Cotton to the United States Senate. Cotton is the architect of the now infamous letter to the Iranian ayatollahs that has both undercut Obama’s international diplomacy, while revealing the depths of blind partisanship in Washington.

Senate Republicans are so dismissive of Obama’s presidency that they are willing to risk blowing up the nuclear talks with Iran and happy to completely jettison any hint of bipartisanship in foreign policy. Ironically the GOP experts also set themselves up to take the blame if the Iranian talks do come apart. At the same time, Republicans offer no alternative to the approach Obama has taken (well, John McCain once joked about his desire to “bomb, bomb Iran,” as if that were a real option).

The GOP’s approach also centers on dismantling a long tradition of bipartisanship regarding Israel and giving encouragement to the current Israeli prime minister – who happens to be fighting for his political life – to take his own unilateral action against Iran. That is a prescription for World War III, but that seems to pale in the face of the Republican compulsion to de-legitimize Obama and show the world just how small and petty our politics have become.

When Country Came Before Party…

The U.S. Senate is a place of great history and great tradition. Some of that history is worth remembering in the wake of the truly unprecedented “open letter” 47 Republican senators directed this week to the leadership of Iran. That letter, of course, has now become controversial and may well mark a new low point in failure of responsibility and leadership by the senators who signed it.

In January 1945, with the end of the Second World War in sight, Franklin Roosevelt was about to set off for an historic meeting at Yalta with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill. The critical subject at that conference was the formation of a post-war organization that might have a chance to prevent another world conflict. Then as now, many senators in both parties distrusted Roosevelt believing him too secretive in his dealings vandenbergwith other world leaders and too dismissive of Congress. An influential Republican Senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, had long been a skeptic of FDR’s approach to foreign policy, but the rapidly evolving world order – a powerful Soviet state, a diminished British Empire, a hugely powerful United States – caused the once-isolationism minded Vandenberg to reassess his thinking. (Something, need I note, that few politicians dare do these days.)

The result of that re-thinking was one of the greatest speeches in the history of the Senate. Famously declaring that, “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Vandenberg re-defined, literally in a single speech, the shape of American foreign policy in the post-war world. Pledging support to the Democratic president, the Republican Vandenberg said: “We cannot drift to victory…We must have maximum united effort on all fronts…and we must deserve, we must deserve the continued united effort of our own people…politics must stop at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg, who desired the presidency as much in his day as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul do now, nevertheless worked closely with Harry Truman to flesh out the creation of the United Nations and implement the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from the ravages of war. It was a remarkable example of bipartisan leadership from a man who, had he wanted to do so, might have created political havoc both domestically and internationally.

Vandenberg was reportedly surprised by the impact of his “water’s edge” speech, modestly saying: “I felt that things were drifting. . . Somebody had to say something, and I felt it could be more effectively said by a member of the opposition.”

Imagine a Republican senator saying such a thing today.

Arthur Vandenberg, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, knew that an American president must have the ability to deal directly and decisively with foreign leaders. The president – any president – is also entitled to a to be free of the constant undertow of partisan politics on the home front, particularly when the stakes are so very high. Vandenberg also knew that the United States Senate has a particular ability to shape the national debate about foreign policy thanks to the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate “advise and consent” on treaties and the appointment of ambassadors.

Imagine for a moment the Senate behaving differently than it does. Imagine for a moment a Senate populated by senators like Arthur Vandenberg. In such a Senate Republican leaders might go to the White House regularly for private and candid talks with the president where they might well express profound concerns about a potential agreement with Iran. They might even make speeches on the Senate floor about what kind of agreement they expect. The Foreign Relations Committee might conduct detailed, bipartisan hearings on the challenges and opportunities contained in an agreement. The Committee might invite former secretaries of state or national security advisors from both parties to testify. (By the way, at least two former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft, a Republican, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat, support the diplomatic effort underway.)

MansfieldMike_DirksenEverett4271964The once impressive Foreign Relations Committee, haunted by the ghosts of great senators like J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield, Frank Church and Howard Baker who once served there, might hear presentations from and ask questions of academics and foreign policy experts from the United States and our foreign partners. They might actually undertake a bipartisan effort to understand the nature and timing of a threat from Iran.

Instead, driven by the hyper-partisan needs and far right wing tilt of the coming presidential campaign, Republicans are making the question of “who can be tougher on Iran” their foreign policy litmus test. The inability to embrace even a hint of bipartisanship seems rooted in the stunning belief that Obama (not to mention former Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry) would literally sell out the country – and Israel – in a potential deal with Iran.

The debate over the now infamous Republican letter to Iran will no doubt continue and time will tell whether it provides Iran an out to abandon any agreement, but at least one aspect of the letter – how it came to be and who created it – deserves consideration in the context of the history of the United States Senate.

Since When Does a Rookie Get to Call This Play...

The letter was the brainchild of the Senate’s youngest member, a senator who ranks 93rd in seniority, a senator who took office less than three months ago. Freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is frequently described as a strong advocate for greater defense spending and a darling of the party’s farthest right wing.

In a different Senate operating under adult supervision the young Gentleman from Arkansas would have been told to file his letter in a recycle bin, but in the Senate we have the Cotton letter was signed by a number of Republican senators with substantial seniority that should have known better, senators like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Arizona’s McCain. After noting that McCain now says the letter “wasn’t exactly the best way to do that,” the New York Times editorialized that the Cotton missive “was an attempt to scare the Iranians from making a deal that would limit their nuclear program for at least a decade by issuing a warning that the next president could simply reverse any agreement. It was a blatant, dangerous effort to undercut the president on a grave national security issue by communicating directly with a foreign government.”

Arthur-Vandenberg---resizedAfter researching the history, the Senate historian says there is no precedent for such a letter. And Alan Hendrikson, who teaches at the prestigious Fletcher School of International Relations, agrees that the Cotton letter “undercuts” the whole idea of American foreign policy. “Neither the Senate nor the House has sought to interfere with actual conduct of negotiations by writing an open letter to the leadership of a country with which the U.S. is negotiating,” Henrikson told McClatchy News.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank joked that perhaps Cotton, who denied that his epistle was one-of-a-kind, would undercover “an open letter from American legislators written to King George III in 1783 warning him that the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams might be undone with the stroke of a quill.” But, of course, no such letter was ever written, just as Cotton’s should not have been.

Give credit to Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who did not sign the letter and may yet help his party lead rather than posture. Against all evidence about what the United States Senate has become, perhaps Corker can channel Arthur Vandenberg, a staunch Republican and a frequent critic of Democratic presidents, who could still put his country above his party.

 

Bush, Church, Civil Rights, Crisis Communication, Dallek, Hatfield, Johnson, Mansfield, Religion, Television

Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

Baseball, Christie, Mansfield, Politics, Wall Street

I Am Not A Bully

Gov-ChristieIt’s too early to know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that the third paragraph of Gov. Chris Christie eventual obituary will include the words “I am not a bully.” Those five words, like Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” may well end up defining Christie’s life on the American political stage.

There is a truism in politics that the worst wounds are those that are self inflicted. The next most damaging wounds are those that are not quickly recognized as potentially deadly and are allowed to grow and fester. Both types of political wounds are present in Gov. Christie’s George Washington Bridge scandal.

The tough and combative Governor of New Jersey stood before cameras last week and apparently did himself enough good in explaining away any personal involvement in “Bridgegate” that the bleeding has been stopped. Christie, however, is not out of political intensive care for lots of reasons. The political payback scandal that shut down portions of the world’s busiest bridge linking New Jersey and New York is the worst kind political scandal simply because it is so readily understandable to voters. Everyone has been caught in a traffic jam. No one expects a politician, or his staff, to actually engineer a traffic jam. This is far from over.

Christie has fired his deputy chief of staff and another top political aide, but the governor did not act until those moves were forced upon him by the release of documents that implicated his staff members in the effort to payback a small town Jersey mayor who had declined to endorse Christie’s recent re-election. Two other Christie appointees to the Port Authority, the agency that runs the George Washington Bridge, resigned some ago, but the governor flush from a resounding re-election win repeatedly failed to act to deal with the damaging political fallout. The result: a self-inflicted wound and a supremely damaging delay in responding.

Two observations about both good politics and good management based upon what I know about how a governor’s office operates, or should operate:

1) Being hands on is not a crime for a politician. It may be more work, require more hours in the day and it may even force more decisions to be made at the top, but for voters it should be a given that an elected official, particularly a governor, attends to a million details. When you wall yourself off from the details you get burned. Even if you believe that Christie didn’t know about the chaos caused by the lane closures leading to the GW bridge the fact is that he should have known and certainly should not have been the last to know. According to press accounts Jersey commuters were complaining plenty about the traffic jams when they occurred last September.

The Fort Lee, New Jersey police chief told a columnist for the Bergen Record on September 12 that during “four days of gridlock we’ve been asking the Port Authority what problem they’ve been trying to fix, and so far we haven’t gotten any answers.” Governors exist to get answers to such questions. Christie, with several very senior appointees serving at his behest on the Port Authority Board, could have solved the bridge closure with a single phone call. It stretches credibility to think the tough guy, no nonsense and self-described hands on governor wasn’t curious enough to ask someone “just what the hell is going on?”

It would be like Butch Otter in Idaho not following up on a very public issue with the Fish and Game Commission or John Kitzhaber in Oregon sitting around while Nike leaves town. Governors are paid to stay on top of problems.

The best your can say for Christie – the best – is that he was so consumed with running up the score in his November re-election that he didn’t read the morning papers in September. If that’s the best case then the governor really is guilty of gubernatorial malpractice. That the boss didn’t know or that his underlinings thought it appropriate that he not be informed is simply mismanagement – mismanagement at the top.

2) The other observation so far from “Bridgegate” is that the best you can say for Christie’s inner circle – the best you can say – is that he fostered or allowed to be created a culture where a senior staff member, the fired deputy chief of staff, could take it upon her own to play such silly and damaging political games. The Christie culture smacks of arrogance and, frankly, a small-minded pettiness that would not exist unless the tone had been set from the top. In this failure, too, the buck stops with the governor.

Chris Christie – and Barack Obama for that matter with his detached management style – should take many lessons from such political and management failures, but one lesson that should be seared into any politician’s ambition is the fact that it is the rare elected official who gets in trouble for acting too quickly. Christie, allegedly at the top of his craft and on the way to serious contention for the GOP nomination for president, gets a D-minus for not seeing problems and moving quickly to correct those problems.That is the best you can say about his scandal.

If it turns out that more traffic cones start to drop, or that Christie had knowledge he’s not fessed up to, or that he actually ordered or allowed the petty political payback to take place then all bets are off. Let the subpoenas issue and the investigations begin.

If it turns out that Christie’s marathon news conference was just an effort at immediate damage control and his story doesn’t hold up in the details then the Nixon analogy will have come full circle. Another absolute rule of political scandal is that the cover-up is always more damaging than the original sin. In that case “I am not a bully” will morph into “I am not a crook.”

 

Baseball, Dallek, Foley, House of Representatives, Mansfield, Politics, Stimpson, Udall

The Speaker of the Whole House

1382122553000-AP-Obit-Tom-Foley-001Thomas P. Foley of Spokane, Washington was the first and still the only Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from west of Texas. He was also the last real “Speaker of the House” as opposed to every speaker since who has really been the Speaker of the Majority Party.

Tom Foley’s death this week at 84 reminds us that the leader of the House of Representatives was once a courtly, civil, decent guy who, as Politico noted, was “a man too gentle for modern Washington.” Stories about Tom Foley more often contain words like compromise and civility rather than adversary and attack.

We can mark the serious decline in the quality of public life to Foley’s defeat in the 1994 Republican sweep that brought Newt Gingrich and his swelled head and bitter partisanship to the center of Washington and American politics. The Gingrich-inspired style – hyper-partisanship, win at any cost, destroy your opponent – is now the norm and those of us who remember Foley can only wonder what might have been had the inconsequential George Nettercutt not defeated Foley in the Fifth District of Washington at a pivotal moment in recent American political history. Nettercutt’s entire legacy in five terms in Congress – he campaigned on serving only three, but changed his mind – is that he defeated Tom Foley. The Gentleman from Spokane will be and is better remembered.

Foley’s defeat was a function of tough votes he made on the budget and taxes, the North American Free Trade Agreement and, after a mass shooting at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base, a ban on assault weapons. It also didn’t help, as Adam Clymer recalled, that Gingrich authorized a smear campaign that scurrilously suggested the married Foley was homosexual.

As Clymer wrote in the New York Times obit of the former Speaker, just days before the 1994 election the Republican National Committee (RNC) and a Gingrich aide “put out a memo labeled ‘Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet,’ equating his voting record with that of Barney Frank, the gay representative from Massachusetts, and the Gingrich aide urged reporters to investigate Mr. Foley’s sexuality. Mr. Foley denied he was gay.

“President George Bush said he was ‘disgusted at the memo,’ but he also said he believed the R.N.C. chairman, Lee Atwater, who had been Mr. Bush’s presidential campaign strategist, when Mr. Atwater said he did not know where the memo had originated. Because of Mr. Atwater’s own reputation for attack-dog politics, the president’s belief was not widely shared.”

Foley’s career touched and influenced national agricultural policy, foreign relations, regional energy issues and tax and budget policy. While Congressional conservatives rail against an out of control federal budget today it is worth remembering that Tom Foley rounded up the votes in the House in 1993 – against unanimous GOP opposition – that made Bill Clinton’s budget and tax policies law. How soon we have forgotten that the Clinton-era yielded a balanced budget, a surplus and a decade of economic growth before George W. Bush’s tax cuts and endless wars left the federal budget in a shambles.

The great Montana Senator and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield wrote the foreward to the book – Honor in the House – that Foley and one of his long-time aides Jeff Biggs wrote in 1999. “Tom and I came from Irish immigrant stock,” Mansfield wrote, “which probably meant we were destined to be Democrats. But the legacy also meant we had to see more than one side in any argument. I could feel right at home with former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s comment that Tom Foley could always see ‘three sides in any argument.'”

“He never put politics ahead of country. Never, never, never,” said Tom O’Donnell, a former Democratic leadership aide during Foley’s time. “We would never have seen what we’ve seen in the past few weeks” with Foley in the House.

Asked following his defeat in 1994 what advice he would give the incoming Speaker, Foley responded in typical Foley style – civil, thoughtful and correct. “When one becomes Speaker of the House, you are Speaker of the whole House and not just one party. You have responsibility to be fair and impartial to all members, to enforce the rules without regard to party, and to uphold the traditions and honor of the institution.” Unfortunately no Speaker since has behaved that way.

We should mourn the passing of a good and decent man, a power in the life of the Northwest for many years, and a man who wore the title politician without sullying the word. But at Tom Foley’s passing let us also hope for more of his kind in public life. They cannot come on the stage too soon.

 

Baucus, Mansfield, U.S. Senate

Texas Two-Step

ted_cruz2The junior senator from Texas would not appreciate the comparison, but freshman fire-brand Ted Cruz has risen higher and faster in the United States Senate than even the legendary Texan Lyndon Johnson. It took LBJ only two years in the Senate to win election as minority leader and then two years later he was the top Democrat in the country, standing astride the Senate as majority leader, cutting deals with Ike. Cruz is on a faster trajectory.

In the considered opinion of Tony Perkins, one of the leaders of the social conservative wing of the GOP, Sen. Cruz  “has become a de facto leader of the Republican Party. He is what people are looking for. Somebody who will stand up and say, ‘This is what I stand for, this is what I believe.'”

Texas native Bob Schieffer appeared astounded last Sunday about the rapid rise of Cruz and he asked Sen. John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas who Cruz has declined to endorse for re-election, about just how it is that the young man in a hurry has become the party’s chief strategist and spokesman.

“Let me just ask you this,” Schieffer said on Face the Nation. “You’ve been around for a while.  How is it that you wind up with a freshman senator, who’s been in office less than a year, becomes the architect of this thing that has the two sides so gridlocked that nobody seems to know a way out of it?  How did that happen?”

Choosing his words carefully and looking a little taken aback, the number two Republican in the Senate covered for his non-collegial colleague from Texas, “I think what Ted and so many others are addressing is the fear in this country that we are careening down a path that unless we stop and correct it, in terms of spending, in terms of government over reach, that our country will become something we don’t even recognize,” Cornyn said.

The operative word in Cornyn’s sentence is “fear” and in the long history of the United States Senate only two men in modern times rose as far and as fast as Ted Cruz has in 2013. Huey Long did it in the early 1930’s and Joe McCarthy did it in the early 1950’s. And make no mistake, Ted Cruz is of a piece with those great Senate demagogues of the past. His tactics and use of fear come right out of the same old playbook.

Writing in the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen made explicit the Cruz-McCarthy axis. Part of McCarthy’s eventual downfall was that he never made the early-50’s transition from print to television, but Cruz is a master of the soundbite media. It is telling that the images on Cruz’s official Senate website are nearly all from one of his countless appearances on cable talk shows or C-Span.

“Cruz has both a comely appearance and a mastery of his message,” Cohen wrote, “A viewing of [Cruz on Meet the Press recently], as well as a close reading of the transcript, reveals a man who speaks in whole sentences, actual paragraphs and who feels no obligation, moral or otherwise, to actually answer a question. The English language exited his mouth ready for publication. Cruz does not clear his throat. He does not repeat the question while he riffles through memorized talking points. At every turn, he made Harry Reid the heavy — if only the Democratic Senate leader could be reasonable! — while he, Cruz, and his allies were the very soul of moderation.”

Joe McCarthy’s bogie-man was, of course, nameless, faceless communists in the United States government. Ted Cruz’s villain also has an ominous name – Obamacare. “Just like the Communist menace of the past, the Affordable Care Act cannot be seen nor, given the Obama administration’s inept selling effort, even understood,” Cohen wrote. “Until just now, it didn’t even exist, although in Cruz’s telling it has already forced good people from their jobs and soon, no doubt, from their very homes as well.”

And just like Tail Gunner Joe waving about his made up lists of communists in the State Department, Ted Cruz confidently alleges, without the slightest evidence of course, that “Obamacare is the biggest job-killer in the country.”

Just like Huey Long, the silver-tongued demagogue from Winn Parish, Louisiana, the glib honors grad from Princeton has become by many accounts the most hated man in the Senate, a charge Cruz flicks away with a smile. “Look, what the Democrats are trying to do is make this a battle of personalities,” Cruz told Megan Kelly on Fox, “they have engaged in relentless, nasty personal attacks…I don’t intend to defend myself. I don’t intend to reciprocate.

A nasty personal attack is obviously only a nasty personal attack when it is aimed at the junior senator. When Cruz suggested very McCarthy-like, and with absolutely no evidence, that fellow Republican Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, former Senator and now Secretary of Defense, was hiding foreign sources of income during his confirmation hearings, the Texas senator was, in his view, merely engaging in honest, high-minded inquiry.

“We do not know, for example, if [Hagel] received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups,” Cruz said just before the Armed Service Committee voted on confirmation. “It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.” This time-tested political tactic – make your opponent deny an outrageous charge – is, in the hands of a glib communicator, the slick and oily stuff that made Long and McCarthy household names.

Like Cruz, Huey assailed the leadership of his own party, demanding in 1932 that Democrats needed more “radical” leadership. “Waltzing up and down the aisle, mopping his brow with a pink handkerchief, Long dramatically resigned from all Senate committees,” historian Cecil Weller has written, so as not to be obligated to his party’s Senate leadership. “We cannot sit here and tell the people that they can swap the devil for a witch,” Long said in condemning what he considered the timid leadership of his own party.

Some Republicans have started to push back against Cruz, but with the exception of Sen. John McCain few are doing so in public and the reason is that one word – fear. McCain has called Cruz a “wacko bird” and has condemned the defund Obamacare strategy as “not rational” and a “fool’s errand.” But Cruz’s defenders, like Brent Bozell, founder and president of the Media Research Center, ride immediately to his defense just as McCarthy’s acolytes once did.

Bozell blasted McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee for president, for being among the “whiners” and “faux conservatives” who have criticized Cruz for leading the fight that triggered the government shutdown. Meanwhile, the junior senator stands nearby soaking up the cheers and offering his telegenic smile.

Most Republicans were tragically slow to condemn McCarthy and his tactics in the 50’s and most Democrats flinched at confronting Long in the 30’s. Like Cruz, each of the earlier demagogues commanded a national following and were willing to threaten and browbeat any opponent. The fear factor worked, at least for a while. Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings, a conservative Democrat, was among the first to label McCarthy “a fraud and a hoax.” McCarthy quickly got even using a completely fabricated photo of Tydings allegedly talking with an American communist leader to help defeat the long-time senator. By the same token, Long’s grip on the south was so solid after 1932 that few people in positions of real power were willing to risk his wrath by calling him out.

Ted Cruz’s rise to the top of the Republican Party has been just as fast – he has after all used many of the same successful tactics – as Long and McCarthy, but the boy wonder from Texas may find that his trip down from the mountain top occurs just as fast. Once the Senate, and particularly those in their own parties, got a belly full of the antics of Huey and Joe their days of fear and effectiveness were numbered. The Tea Party faction of the GOP considers Cruz a hero today, but his fortunes also sink right along with his doomed strategy to shutdown the government, engage in glib accusations and hardly disguised character assault.

Ultimately it will be up to Republicans to embrace or reject the junior senator from Texas, because he is more about them than the country. As Republicans mull that stark choice; a choice that could do so much to shape the party’s future electoral success, it would be well to ponder the crystal clear words of a long ago senator from Maine – Margaret Chase Smith. On June 1, 1950, the prim and proper Sen. Smith took to the Senate floor to chastise her colleagues and call the GOP to its better angels.

“As a Republican, I say to my colleagues on this side of the aisle that the Republican Party faces a challenge today that is not unlike the challenge that it faced back in Lincoln’s day,” Smith said in one of the great speeches in Senate history. “The Republican Party so successfully met that challenge that it emerged from the Civil War as the champion of a united nation—in addition to being a party that unrelentingly fought loose spending and loose programs.

“Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of ‘know nothing, suspect everything’ attitudes. Today we have a Democratic administration that has developed a mania for loose spending and loose programs. History is repeating itself—and the Republican Party again has the opportunity to emerge as the champion of unity and prudence.

“The record of the present Democratic administration has provided us with sufficient campaign issues without the necessity of resorting to political smears. America is rapidly losing its position as leader of the world simply because the Democratic administration has pitifully failed to provide effective leadership.”

Margaret Chase Smith entitled her famous speech “National Suicide” and it was aimed primarily, of course, at McCarthy and his ilk, but also contained a very practical political warning that seems eerily appropriate today.

To merely displace a Democratic administration, Smith said, “with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this Nation. The Nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.

“I doubt if the Republican Party could—simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party win that way. While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people. Surely it would ultimately be suicide for the Republican Party and the two-party system that has protected our American liberties from the dictatorship of a one-party system.

“As members of the minority party, we do not have the primary authority to formulate the policy of our Government. But we do have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, of clarifying issues, of allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens.”

Quite a speech. I wonder if anyone is capable of giving such a speech in the United States Senate today?

 

Mansfield, Uncategorized

All Politics

Stranger Than Fiction

Turns out Donald Trump’s checkered past is almost as interesting as his current foray into Republican presidential politics.

Trump has given a lot more money in political contributions to Democrats than Republicans, made a big contribution to Rahm Emmanuel’s Chicago mayoral campaign and volunteered to the Obama White House that he was just the guy to run the clean-up in the Gulf of Mexcio after the BP oil spill. Trump continues his daily media tour and, like moths to a flame, the cable shows and the mainstream media can’t get enough of it. Reminds me of the car wreck that you know you should avoid, but you can’t help yourself.

Meanwhile, Nate Silver, the number crunching polling guru at the New York Times, has an interesting analysis of polling on the “birther” question even as the White House produces the long-sought document.

Sounds as though the Queen of England, and perhaps the future King, subscribe to the old political maxim “don’t get mad, get even.” The last two British prime ministers – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – aren’t on the invite list for the event of the decade in Britain – the Royal Wedding. 

The Telegaph calls it a “snub of historic proportions.” Apparently, Her Majesty never developed a liking for the last two Labour PM’s and harbors a distaste for Blair’s wife. She never curtsied. And William has never forgiven Blair for his grandstanding at the time of his mother’s death. Get even time – royally.

My other favorite political story of the day is the continuing post mortum on Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision not to enter the GOP presidential field. Granting Barbour’s immense network of contacts, his fundraising ability, his political experience, etc., I could never see him winning either the nomination or the presidency.

Still, his fling with the idea has cast a light on what it takes to run. Barbour called it a “ten year commitment” to the exclusion of virtually all else. One needs a lot of passion, ego and ambition to embark on that journey.

Barbour now has time on his hands, Trump’s birther issue is gone in a flash – maybe they can fill in for Blair and Brown on Friday. Just a thought.

 

                                                           

Baseball, Mansfield, Politics

Trumped

A “Businessman” for President

The last time one of the two major parties nominated a real businessman for president was more than 70 years ago. It was 1940, the world was on the verge of another war and the Great Depression still lingered. The GOP turned to Wall Street for a candidate who lost in an Electoral College landslide. No business candidate, who hasn’t been elected to something, has won a major party nomination since.

If Donald Trump is really serious about winning the GOP nomination next year, he’ll need to overcome a lot of history. Business people don’t get nominated for president.

Politico reports today that Trump is serious. He’s been interviewing campaign staff and media consultants. (He needs a media consultant? This guy is living proof that the most dangerous place in America is the area between Donald Trump and a television camera.)

Even as Karl Rove, the last GOP operative to actually win a tough national election, disses Trump, the polls show that his wacky attention on the so called “birther” issue has gotten him attention if not serious credibility.

Trump also has to overcome, well, the sense that he’s just playing all this for the PR involved. And there are the jokes. On the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me that aired last weekend, one of the panelists made a crack about Trump’s famous hair style suggesting it was some kind of animal. David Letterman said, “The White House is saying Donald Trump has ‘zero percent chance’ of being elected. Isn’t that a little high?”

In politics, the old saying goes, it’s OK if they’re laughing with you, not so good if they’re laughing at you.

But back to Trump’s one potential strength as a serious candidate – his business credentials. If he really starts to gain traction we’ll hear a good deal more about whether he has really been a success, but let’s grant that he can make a plausible case for his leadership and business acumen. Does it help him? I’d argue no.

In 1940, Republicans were desperate to find a credible candidate to stop Franklin Roosevelt’s quest for an unprecedented third term in the White House. The leading GOP candidates in 1940 were two venerable U.S. Senators, Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Taft, and the 37-year old New York District Attorney, Thomas E. Dewey. None of these capable men really excited the party, which surprisingly turned instead to a Wall Street energy executive named Wendell Willkie.

Willkie was a first-time candidate having never run for anything. In his delightful book about Willkie’s dark horse nomination and campaign – Five Days in Philadelphia – Charles Peters quotes one of Willkie’s friends as saying: “He was a big, shambling, rumpled, overweight, carelessly dressed man, and he radiated a stunning combination of intellect and homely warmth.” In other words, not Donald Trump.

What Willkie lacked in political experience he made up for in personality and a personal style that was genuine. Up from humble beginnings in Indiana, Willkie became a lawyer and by 1940 had risen through the ranks to become the top guy at Commonwealth and Southern, one of the nation’s major utility holding companies. Democrats derisively dismissed Willkie’s personal story by characterizing him as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street.”

Willkie ran a more than credible campaign against Roosevelt, but with war underway in Europe the country was not ready to turn the White House over to an inexperienced utility executive, even a charming one. Willkie’s respected running mate was the great Oregon Sen. Charles McNary, but even McNary couldn’t help the ticket carry Oregon.

Considering the times, and even granting Willkie’s attractiveness, it’s hard to believe that in 1940 – or 2012 – that voters would elect a energy company CEO to run the country. Perhaps about as likely as electing a real estate developer turned reality television show host.

Trump’s best option would seem to be a third-party bid, ala Ross Perot. Perot parlayed his quirky straight talk into nearly 19% of the popular vote in 1992. Arguably, he made Bill Clinton president. Trump could also be a spoiler, but not a contender.

Generally speaking successful business people over estimate the value voters place on business success and they undervalue the soft skills – personality, humor, a genuine liking for people – that are essential to a successful candidate. Politics isn’t business and the skills for success in one field don’t always translate to the other.

Donald Trump can command a lot of attention, as he is currently doing, but he can’t, I suspect, stand the intense scrutiny he will get if he really becomes a candidate. The hair and wife jokes will continue and when next year rolls around, Republicans will do as they have since 1944. They’ll nominate a candidate with public sector skills and experience.

Wendell Willkie was the last serious “business candidate” to run for president. Donald Trump isn’t Wendell Willkie.

The real danger for Republicans may be that the Trump sideshow, currently fascinating the media, drains oxygen from the real GOP candidates who are trying to get organized. On the other hand, the candidates who could win the nomination may benefit from the contrast to Trump. None of them is a much divorced, windy, publicity addicted, weird haired, Manhattan real estate developer given to wearing pink neckties. No one has ever had that profile and been elected either.

 

Baseball, Mansfield, McClure, Politics

Wolves

Is There a Lesson Here?

For the first time ever the United States Congress is acting to legislatively remove a species from the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That action, contained in the big budget bill negotiated last week by the president and congressional leaders, has bipartisan support. Idaho’s Mike Simpson, a Republican, joined with Montana’s Jon Tester, a Democrat, to attach the wolf delisting provision to the budget bill.

The entire debate about wolves, dating all the way back to then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s speeches during the Clinton Administration, may be an object lesson in what happens when common sense packs up and leaves the room.

This has been about the most polarized policy/political issue in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as we’ve seen in a long, long time. Few involved haven’t been tainted by the emotions, legal and political posturing and insistence on an “I win therefore you must lose” approach. What has been missing is one word – balance. Or maybe two words – common sense.

Ironically perhaps one of the more sensible voices in the overheated wolf debate has been that of now-retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf expert Carter Niemeier, an unapologetic wolf advocate, who has written a book about his experiences dealing with what he has called the polarizers at both ends of the debate.

Niemeier takes the sensible approach that wolves are here to stay, but they also need to be managed.

“A hunting season will take some of the pressure off wolves,” he told the Missoulian recently. “Sportsmen will be able to do what they think they can do about controlling numbers. The uniqueness will eventually wear off.”

“How many wolf pelts does anyone need to hang on their wall?” he asked.

Niemeier adds, “There are so many wolves now that poaching would never harm them. They are here to stay.”

Idaho Statesman environmental reporter Rocky Barker neatly summed up how national environmental groups mishandled, misread and ultimately misfired in their handling of the wolf issue.

“If you came up with a scenario to undercut the machinations of national environmental groups you couldn’t have done better than the real events. First, they won a lawsuit that they could not defend politically. Then they tried to get a do-over with a settlement that handed power to the very states they had been saying could not be trusted to manage wolves,” Barker wrote this week.

“Needless to say many of the people who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to these groups because they love wolves are unhappy and some feel betrayed.”

With the Simpson-Tester rider sure to pass in the “must pass” budget bill, environmental leaders were left to complain that the legislative delisting undermines the scientific integrity of the ESA. But wolves have always been more about politics than science and the wolf advocates got beat playing both politics and public relations. In the end, if this mess opens the door to more congressional meddling with endangered species, the no compromise wolf advocates may have themselves to blame.

With Sen. Tester facing an extremely tough re-election next year and Rep. Simpson, as he frequently does, playing the common sense card at the very time Idaho legislators were passing a bill declaring a wolf emergency, it’s not surprising that these two wily politicians did what legislators do. They fixed a political and policy problem. Both had substantial motivation, especially Tester. His likely opponent in next year’s Montana senate race is Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg who has championed legislation to delist wolves everywhere in the lower 48.

Reasonable voices that might have long ago settled all this with compromise and common sense, as Carter Niemeier suggests, left this debate a long, long time ago. Not surprisingly the courts proved to be a singularly inappropriate place to hash out what had become a red hot, emotional and political issue.

I find myself hopelessly in the middle when it comes to wolves. I like the idea that wolves roam the Idaho backcountry as they once did. I also think their numbers should have been rigorously controlled at the state level much earlier. I also think no one really calculated whether the food supply a growing population would need could be readily available. As a result, I think the too large populations have caused significant damage to livestock and wildlife populations. I think ranchers need to be compensated for loses and hunters deserve thriving elk populations. I don’t think wolves, properly managed, present much threat to people.

As I said, I’m a squishy moderate. I see all the arguments.

It’s probably hopeless naive of me, but I wish a few folks early on could have found a sensible way to reintroduce, manage the populations, stay out of court, defuse the polarization and move on.

One way or another, I guess we now have.

A footnote:

While the legislative delisting of wolves is a first, it’s not the first, nor will it be the last, congressional intervention on ESA issues. In 1979, Congress acted to exempt the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee from provisions of the ESA. Much of the debate involved the cost-benefit of Tellico versus the survival of a tiny fish, the snail darter. For a time, the fish became a useful tool to stop the questionable dam and promoted amendments to the ESA, including the creation of a seven-member Cabinet level committee, dubbed the God Squad, with authority to exempt a federal agency from provisions of the Act.

Then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus chaired the first God Squad to assess whether the dam should be exempt from ESA requirements. The committee was unanimous in denying the exemption on economic rather than environmental grounds. Andrus said at the time, “I hate to see the snail darter get the credit for stopping a project that was ill-conceived and uneconomic in the first place.”

But, with snail darters and wolves, Congress had the last word when legislation was approved not to delist the snail darter, but to exempt Tellico from the Act.

Ironically, then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker invoked wolves in his floor debate arguing for the exemption.

“Now seriously Mr. President,” Baker said, “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else.

“We who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”

Some debates just never end.

American Presidents, Baseball, Mansfield, Mark Twain, Obama, Politics

Trust

Coin of the Realm in Politics

Potentially one of the side benefits to come from the budget deal struck late Friday was the development of a modicum of trust among House Speaker Boehner, Senate Leader Reid and President Obama.

It is a testament to the generally awful state of partisanship in Washington these days that Obama and Boehner, according to several accounts, spent more personal time together over the last week than they have in all the time Obama has been in the White House. Something is wrong with that picture.

Trust, built upon a genuine personal relationship, is simply critical to getting anything done in politics. Without it you can’t make a deal, shake hands and know that the pact is secure.

Boehner told a television interviewer over the weekend that he and Obama now “understand each other better.”

“Throughout these meetings over the last four or five weeks we’ve been straight up with each other, and honest with each other,” the Ohio Republican said. “Certainly haven’t always agreed, but it was a good process.”

A Boehner aide said, probably sending shudders down the spine of Tea Partiers, that the GOP leader and the president “believe the other operates in good faith. I think they are friendly, but not quite good friends at this point. Maybe some day.”

It’s easy to dismiss the personal relationship factor in high stakes politics, but our history is full of examples were the personal touch, backed not by agreement always, but always reinforced with trust, has made progress possible.

The great Montana Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield insisted that Senate GOP leader Everett Dirksen get the lion’s share of the attention when the Senate debated civil rights legislation in the 1960’s. Even though Mansfield outranked him, the important meetings were held in Dirksen’s office and Mike gave way to Ev when it came time to talk to the press.

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill couldn’t have been different politically, but they developed personal rapport and that led to trust. Obama and Boehner would do well to study that model.

By all accounts, Obama and Boehner love their golf. As the cherry blossoms come out in Washington pointing to the end of a gloomy winter, Obama ought to call up the Speaker, pick him up at the Capitol and find a place where the two of them – maybe with one key aide apiece – can play eighteen and finish with a couple of beers.

Progress is politics is made of such small, but meaningful gestures. Now is the time to build more trust. The next budget deal will be much more difficult.