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A Lesson, A Plan

It has been difficult the last few days to separate the lessons of Campaign 2012 from the recriminations. Among national Republicans the blame game, predictably and understandably, is in full flower.

In the first blush of political defeat the tendency of many partisans – this is true on the right and on the left – is to take the wrong lessons from rejection by the voters. Making sense of what happened is never as simple as some make it out to be and no national party that has existed since the 1850’s is ever as far down as some now claim.

To paraphrase David Axelrod, one of the architects of Barack Obama’s stunning second term victory, in politics you’re never as smart as you seem when things are going well or as stupid as you appear when things are going badly. But all campaigns do have lessons – if you look deeply enough. At the moment I’m interested in whether the long down-and-out Idaho Democrats take any clues from what happened in their party as well as in the GOP last week.

A few modest suggestions for Idaho Democrats:

1) The party should pick out three or four of its best young minds (this would include some elected last week like Representatives-elect Mat Erpelding and Holli High Woodings in Boise), buy them an airplane ticket to Chicago and let them debrief with the technology and GOTV people who helped power Barack Obama to a second term. Once he wakes up from a week of sleep Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who grew up in Boise and has relatives in the state, could put that meeting together in a heartbeat. In short, Idaho Democrats must start to turn over thinking about the future to the party’s next generation of leaders and give them some room to understand and apply the new skills of the digital age to the old game of politics. While they’re at it, Idaho Democrats should seek counsel from the other Idahoan highly placed in the Obama world – Bruce Reed. Among other things, Reed, who is Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff, helped write Bill Clinton’s devastatingly effective convention indictment of Mitt Romney.

2) The party must adopt a new approach that can, over time, broaden its appeal. This new approach should focus like a laser on the demographics that have propelled the first African-American president to two broad-based electoral victories. The future for Idaho Democrats is contained in a few well chosen words: moderates, women, Hispanics and younger voters. As NBC’s Chuck Todd said of the Obama campaign’s targeting and GOTV efforts, they took a novel approach they read the census.

Three quick facts from the 2010 Idaho census: Hispanic citizens (who voted nationally for Obama by more than 70%) now make up 11.5% of the state’s population and Idahoans under 18 years of age (who voted for the president by 60%) comprise 27% of the state’s population. Idahoans 65 and over (a population group that nationally went heavily for Romney) now makes up less than 13% of the Idaho population.

All of which is not to say that turning Idaho Democrats into a truly competitive party will be easy or quick, but those numbers point to the beginning of a long march approach.

3) Education must again become the bread and butter issue of Idaho Democrats. If the recent Idaho election proved anything it is that Idahoans, across the political spectrum, want their students, teachers and schools treated carefully, intelligently and not politically. There is an opening here for new ideas, inclusion and electoral appeal. If future Democratic candidates can’t make an issue of year-after-year real reductions in financial support for education at every level, coupled with education “reform” that Idahoans overwhelmingly rejected, they won’t deserve to be taken seriously as a political party. A simple question should drive the Democratic message – how can Idaho have a 21st Century economy and the jobs that support such an economy without investing more and more wisely in higher education, skills training and better public schools?

4) As I have written here before, Idaho Democrats – at least at the statewide level – need a new organizing principle that focuses on the great unifying issue – education. Trying to build a statewide party around a handful of dependable liberal strongholds – the north end of Boise and Blaine and Latah Counties – will continue to be a losing strategy. A better path is to build from the ground up in Idaho communities – Moscow, Boise, Pocatello, Coeur d’Alene, Lewiston, Nampa and Twin Falls – were education is a significant hometown industry. Democrats should strive to “own” the issues of the local community college and the university. Folks who love the University of Idaho or Boise State, for example, bleed for their schools on the athletic field, for sure, but increasingly they also care the academic classroom. Idaho Democrats should master these many and varied relationships – and, yes, it will take time – and organize, organize, organize with students, alumni, staff and faculty.

Politics is often a game of getting voters to give a candidate or a party a second look and to re-think assumptions. A single minded focus on education, an issue Idahoans have displayed all over again that they care deeply about, is a solid foundation on which to build a political future. This is particularly true now that the GOP has given Idaho D’s a big opening with the failure at the ballot box of controversial education reforms.

5) Finally, Idaho Democrats would do well to remember one of the tactics employed so successfully years ago by the recently departed George McGovern. In the 1950’s the South Dakota Democratic Party hardly existed. McGovern quit his teaching job and became the executive director of a party in name only, but he had ambition. He relentlessly traveled the state, building relationships, identifying supporters, building lists and building a party from the ground up. It’s no accident that McGovern entitled his autobiography Grassroots. What McGovern did in South Dakota in the 1950’s laid the groundwork to get him to the U.S. Senate in the 1960’s and built a long-term sustainable Democratic Party in a very conservative state. One person can make a big, big difference.

Some of my Idaho Democratic friends will take issue with my characterization of the Idaho party as barely alive, but the first rule of climbing back into contention is to see clearly the situation you face and then settle on a strategy, a real plan, that once again can make Idaho more than a one party state. The recent national victories offer some clues of what might be done.



Five initial takeaways from the voting yesterday:

1) In Idaho the controversial effort by top GOP leaders to “reform” education received an old fashioned whipping – an historic whipping – at the polls.

Not since 1982 when then-Democratic state Rep. Ken Robison, almost by himself, pushed a ballot measure to cut property taxes for homeowners has an  initiative or referendum broadly backed by Idaho “progressives” been successful. The progressive side in the education reform debate simply crushed the so-called Luna Laws. The “no” side prevailed in 37 of Idaho’s 44 counties and two of the measures went down in every county.

As my friend and a great number cruncher Andy Brunelle points out, since that successful 1982 effort the progressive/liberal-backed ballot failures in Idaho “include removing sales tax on food (1984), repealing right-to-work (1986), the nuclear waste initiative and the anti-bear baiting initiative (1996), and the sales tax increase for schools (2006).  The ancient history for progressive interests in Idaho included the Sunshine Law on election and lobbyist disclosure (1974), stopping large-scale dredge mining in major rivers (1954), and establishing a nonpolitical or more professional Idaho Department of Fish and Game (1938).”

Backers of the Luna Laws will undoubtedly blame the demise of Propositions One, Two and Three on out-of-state money from the hated “teacher’s union,” but an equally plausible explanation may be that education, broadly defined, is still the one big issue that can unite Idahoans across the political spectrum. Clearly Idahoans didn’t like the vision of education that the political establishment served up two years ago and they have sent the authors back to the drawing board.

If Idaho teachers are smart they will now push their own serious reform agenda. Yesterday’s election, rejecting a top-down approach to improving education, may just indicate that Idahoans are ready for a serious discussion of education improvements that includes, and perhaps is led, by teachers.

2) Demographics matter in politics. Nationally Republican bet the farm on a belief that Barack Obama could not re-assemble the coalition that elected the first African-American president in 2008. With all of his problems as an incumbent with a bad economy, Obama’s campaign doubled down on its coalition of minority, women and younger voters. In the grey dawn of defeat for the national GOP the party would be well advised to recall the efforts of its last successful national leader – the out-of-sight, out-of-mind George W. Bush – and begin, as a first order of business, to address its problems with Hispanic voters. A national party that concedes minorities, women and young people isn’t likely to be very successful as the nation’s demographics continue to steadily move in a way that helps Democrats.

3) Demographics are also the way back to relevance for Idaho Democrats, but without the kind of thoughtful, community-based strategy that Obama’s campaign manager – Jim Messina the guy with Idaho ties – devised for the re-elected president Idaho Democrats will continue to flounder at the margins of the state’s politics.

4) Idaho’s two senior members of Congress, Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson, are now poised to be real players in the coming fiscal and budget debate in Washington. Crapo has supported the idea of a “grand compromise” on the order of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations and Simpson, an always sensible, decent guy, said last night that Obama and the GOP must come together. He’s right and he and Crapo can be leaders in getting it done. I suspect they will find that such leadership will be good for the country and for their own political standing at home and in D.C.

5) Idaho is now balanced on its own cliff, but this cliff involves health insurance rather than fiscal issues. After rejecting industry and business calls to get going on a state-based health insurance exchange and hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court and then that a President Romney would dump Obamacare, Idaho opponents of an insurance exchange now face the very real possibility of the worst possible outcome – a federally created exchange that would be imposed on the state.

Elections are endlessly fascinating and this one will be hashed over for years. A truly historic day and lots to contemplate.

The Right Call?

Months ago when they became convinced that Mitt Romney would be the eventual Republican presidential candidate, Barack Obama’s campaign brain trust made a critical strategic decision. They decide to attempt to define Romney as an ultra-rich, ultra-out-of-touch corporate raider, the kind of guy who just isn’t like most Americans.

The Obama campaign and its Super PAC allies spent all summer, as the favorite catch phrase of politics now holds, advancing that “narrative.” We learned about Romney’s dealings at Bain Capital, his California house with elevators for his cars – a couple of Cadillacs – and his off-shore bank accounts. For weeks it seemed like Romney was playing right into the “narrative.” The pundits talked endlessly of the need to “humanize” the corporate CEO and Romney steadfastly refused to release any more than two years of his very well-to-do income tax returns.

The other “narrative” the Obama campaign could have chosen and didn’t was Romney the shameless “flip-flopper” – the guy who was for abortion rights before his was against them, the governor who did Mittcare before there was Obamacare, the guy who said setting a deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was a mistake before it wasn’t. We’ll know in a week whether the Obama strategic decision months ago was a wise one. Here’s a bet that it wasn’t.

The Denver debate where “moderate Mitt” emerged and grabbed the campaign momentum may well go down in presidential campaign history as the greatest single debate game changer ever. Romney skillfully, if some think shamelessly, remade himself before the very eyes of millions of American voters. He was no long the candidate who labeled 47% of Americans as unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives, but he became the smooth and comfortable former CEO with a five-point plan to remake the economy. Obama’s stumbling and inexplicable debate performance in Denver helped Romney re-set his campaign, but even cynic political professionals have to hand it to the former governor – he seems to have pulled it off his slide to the middle. He etch-a-sketched his campaign without even appearing to shake the red plastic frame.

The major reason, I think, Romney so completely re-set his image was that long ago strategic decision of the Obama campaign to paint him as Richie Rich, the evil corporate chieftain rather than as a John Kerry-style flip flopper. You may remember the crippling commercial the George W. Bush campaign ran against Kerry in 2004. With Kerry wearing loud, baggy swim trunks and changing direction while wind surfing, the closing line of that commercial was a masterpiece: “John Kerry – whichever way the wind blows.”

The Bush campaign in 2004 was smart enough and strategic enough to do what I’ll call the “Full Rove” on Kerry. They took the brightest page of Kerry’s resume – his Vietnam War service – and turned it into a liability. Kerry went from being a Silver Star winner with genuine foreign policy credentials to a long-haired anti-war protester who may not have been a hero after all.

The second half of the Full Rove was to label Kerry a serial waffler. This year, by contrast, the Obama campaign completed only half of the Romney “narrative,’ which has given the GOP candidate lots of room to shift and shape his positions to suit the slice of the electorate he is attempting to appeal to.

Say what you will about Romney’s potential as a president – and we may well get to find out how well that works out – there has seldom if ever been a major national politician who has so skillfully shifted his positions. By choosing not to go after the difference between Romney’s four years as governor of Massachusetts as his six years as a GOP candidate for president, the Obama team made it possible for Romney to bob and weave on the issues as skillfully as anyone ever has in such a high profile campaign.

Before this election – just ask John Kerry – the accusation that a candidate was an unprincipled flip flopper was often political kryptonite. Romney rarely has had to defend himself, because of the Obama strategic decision, against what was once consider indefensible in politics – shifting a position out of pure political expediency.

The other thing, I think, that the Obama troops got wrong was believing that the rich guy narrative was enough in and of itself to sink Romney. Obama, playing defense much of the fall, has not succeeded, and hasn’t really tried, to connect Romney’s corporate raider resume to the economic mess the country has endured for more than four years. In other words, the “narrative” lacks a clear and compelling bridge to what many Americans feel about this election – it’s all about the economy. As a result the economic debate has largely been all about Obama’s record and not about Romney’s barely defined approach to solving the problems in the economy and, not surprisingly, the polls show Romney winning on that issue.

Americans, it should be noted, also don’t automatically dislike a rich guy. Even the increasingly goofy Donald Trump gets a pass on that score. Most folks don’t dislike The Donald because he seems to be rich. They dislike him because he’s a publicity seeking blowhard.

Romney the rich guy with the five-point plan may well sneak in the Oval Office. Mitt the Shifter basically got a free pass. Obama’s strategic decision not to combine the out-of-touch rich guy attack with the serial flip flopper attack never gave the president the chance to say –  “Oh, come on now governor…there you go again.”

Endlessly changing positions is ultimate about more than merely flipping and flopping, its about character and in politics character matters more than the size of your bank account.


The Big Mo

Mixing sports and political analogies can be dangerous, but there is so little left to be said about the presidential campaigns – here goes.

The San Francisco Giants (happily for we Giants fans) clearly have what George H.W. Bush once called “The Big Mo.” The dejected St. Louis Cardinals had their National League rivals on the ropes (sorry, a boxing reference) in the league playoffs until a sneaky left hander, apparently in the twilight of his pitching career, reversed the Francisians’ slide and created the kind of momentum that is hard to explain in sports (and politics), but undeniably can be just as important and as a timely as a three-run homer.

A debate in Denver in early October changed the arc of momentum in the presidential campaign and Barack Obama is learning how terribly difficult it can be to get an opponent’s Big Mo turned off and turned around. By all reasonable accounts the presidential election campaign is just where most of us thought it would end up when we first measured an Obama-Romney match-up months and months ago. The race is down to six or seven states – lucky them – and will likely turn on the ground game of the two campaigns in a handful of counties in Ohio, Iowa and Virginia. Without doubt, however, The Big Mo has and will help the challenger.

One of the toughest things in politics – and sports – is to finish a long campaign on the up swing; to be growing your strength as you hit the tape. Designing and executing the “end game” of a long season, especially when the contestants are so closely matched, is tricky business. In fact, the end game of many close contests often has less to do with planning than with luck; luck being the residue of hard work and preparation. A key moment – Mitt the Moderate returning in the Denver debate or Barry Zito finding his old magic in Game Five – can, however, tip the scale and change the trajectory of the long season.

You can’t exactly create The Big Mo, but you can capitalize on it when it happens. The first George Bush is the classic example of thinking that The Big Mo, in and of itself, is enough to power a team to victory. After Bush won the Iowa caucuses in 1980 he said, ‘”Now they will be after me, howling and yowling at my heels. What we will have is momentum. We will look forward to Big Mo being on our side, as they say in athletics.”

Bush eventually lost the Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980, in part, because Reagan had a message and Bush had a resume. Bush also peaked too early. Claiming The Big Mo coming out of the very first campaign contest is a good deal different than claiming momentum in the last weeks of a torturously long campaign. Bush, in essence couldn’t capitalize on the momemtum he awarded himself and lost the very next contest, in New Hampshire, to Reagan.

Now the Detroit Tigers and the Obama campaign will frantically scramble to alter the momentum. Here’s betting that doing so will take an event – a lead-off homer in Game One for the Tigers or a bounce from the foreign policy debate for Obama, for example – to alter momentum. You can’t artifically create The Big Mo in sports or politics, you can take advantage of it when it magically, wonderfully and mysterious appears. Just ask the Cardinals.


If Obama Loses…

The final days of the agonizing long 2012 presidential campaign feature an incumbent president who can’t – or won’t – bring himself to employ the basic political necessity of every successful politician; an ability to sell yourself and your program and a shameless challenger who displays, more than anyone in recent American history, the audacity of re-invention. A Romney aide telegraphed months ago the “etch-a-sketch” re-make strategy that came to full effect in the first presidential debate.

 The astute political analyst Charlie Cook nailed the essence of Mitt Romney months ago when he said the GOP nominee is “unencumbered by principle.” But, Romney knows a smile, confidence and a certain swagger cover up a lot of missing principles.

 Obama, by contrast, appears more and more unencumbered by basic political skills like debating your opponent and talking sensibly about your priorities. Obama critics will say he has no program, but that’s unfair. For good or ill, he has signed historic legislation, but he just lacks the Bill Clinton-like skill to relate the art of governing to the drama of campaigning.

 If Obama joins William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush as modern presidents who failed to win a second term, the cause will involve six political failings or, in some cases, failures to address important issues that mark the president’s four years. Taken together they present a damning indictment of a guy who, at a basic level, doesn’t get – or like – politics.

 1)     Obama reminds me of many, let’s call them progressive, politicians who harbor the belief that the righteousness of our policies obviates the need to explain those policies on a clear, concise form that American voters understand. Obama has never been able – or willing – to reduce the essence of his historic health insurance legislation to a bumper sticker. Is the legislation about all Americans banding together to make certain that all of us have access to affordable care? Is it about regulating insurance companies? Is it about insuring that no one is denied insurance due to some pre-existing condition? Obama ceded the messaging about the singular accomplishment of his term to his opponents because he couldn’t make an effective argument for a policy that presidents going back to Teddy Roosevelt have called for. It is an astonishing failure at a basic level of political communications.

 2)     Obama also made a fundamental mistaking in granting way too much control over his legislative agenda to Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats. The White House had the upper hand, including a Congressional majority, in the first two years of Obama’s presidency. Obama should have used public and private persuasion on Congress, but he never stooped to get his hands dirty in the inside game of Washington politics. For the most part the president was absent from the big strategy and message for the first two years and Pelosi set about proving she is a great politician for San Francisco, who doesn’t get Peoria. One wonders if Obama has read Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson or Woodrow Wilson’ disastrous approach to Congress in the post-World War I period. He should.

 3)     The president made a fundamental and gravely serious political mistake in not focusing like a laser on the economy in the wake of the 2008 election. Granted he did push a stimulus – and then failed to follow up and sell its benefits – but he also pivoted almost immediately from an economic focus to a health care focus. Health care should have waited. Obama neither got or attempted to get any credit for keeping the U.S. economy from going off a cliff in early 2009 and he continues to pay for that lack of political awareness. A modestly skilled political operative would have avoided such a mistake. The economy always comes first, just ask Hoover.

 4)     Amid much fanfare, Obama appointed a blue ribbon commission to recommend solutions to the nation’s fiscal and budget challenges and then walked away from the sensible recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission. It was a major blunder on both substantive and political grounds. Congress would very likely not have embraced the essence of Bowles-Simpson, as indeed Pelosi and Co. refused to do, but had Obama embraced the Commission’s recommendations and held Erskine Bowles and Al Simpson close they would have given the president bipartisan political and policy cover during the entire campaign season. Should Obama have then won the election, he could have claimed a clear mandate to do something serious about the deficit, taxes and entitlements – a truly historic second-term agenda. As it turns out Obama’s fiscal and deficit approach is as vacuous as Romney’s. Failing to embrace his own Commission’s recommendation was a huge unforced political error.

 5)     Obama has never been clear about what caused the country’s near economic disaster in 2008. He has never spelled out why the country came so close to a second Great Depression and never really held anyone accountable. Faced with a similar set of circumstances in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt identified the villains as greedy bankers and Wall Street speculators. He went after them with regulation and rhetoric. Obama, again ceding the lead to Congress, let Barney Frank become the face of financial reform and regulation. Obama should have seized the moment to define a new vision for the American economy – as FDR did – and called out the hedge fund managers and engineers of credit default swaps. He should have defined his presidency by taking on the big banks and calling, as ironically Sanford Weill one of the biggest proponents of modern U.S. mega-banking has, for the breakup of the big banks. It would have been an historic and defining moment. The politically cautious Obama missed it.

 6)     All five of these political and policy failures converge now to create the single biggest Obama political problem – he has no convincing story to tell about his years in office and little to say about what a second term could look like. Skillful politicians are always thinking about how they talk about what they are trying to accomplish, who is hindering their efforts, who is to blame and what the future looks like. Obama lacks that political gene.

 If, as Maureen Dowd has written recently, Obama hates to sell himself or thinks that aspect of political leadership is beneath him he may well join Taft, Hoover and the others as “failed” modern presidents. After all, history does not treat one-termers very well and we do tend to reward the greatness of American presidents who display an ability to grow into the challenges the office presents. One wonders if Barack Obama, a man of obvious and substantial intellectual and rhetorical skills, can be self aware enough to know that being righteous in politics is never enough. His time is short.



It’s fashion week in Paris. The skinny models are parading around with stern expressions and too high heels. What, they can’t smile while wearing the latest weird creation? Maybe their feet hurt.

More importantly, every week is fashion week in Siena; a city that is to style what Boston is to baseball meltdowns. The old city, sitting atop a Tuscan hill and, considering its age, a remarkably well preserved place, was once a rival to better known and more visited Florence. But for my Euros, Siena is the classier place. Walking back to the car after a day spent wandering Siena’s cobbled streets (wide paths in many places) we overtook an elegantly dressed, elderly Italian woman who seemed to be heading home from her shopping. She was dressed for the opera – tailored blue suit, stylish blouse and handsome and very correct Italian shoes. Just what most Americans wear to do the weekly marketing at Winco.

Rome’s bureaucrats were on strike – or perhaps just taking a long lunch – last week to protest government austerity measures, the central bankers struggle still with the debt of many European countries and unemployment in the 17-nation EU countries is over 11% – yet, the cafes are jammed, the hotels are booked and life goes on, while sophisticated Italians walk home from the market.

One story line his opponents have advanced against Barack Obama this election year has been the ominous threat that the United States, in a second Obama term, will slip farther in the direction of “the European socialist model.” Even if I believed, and I don’t, that Barack Obama harbors some real or determined socialist agenda, the American drift toward socialism on the European model just isn’t going to happen. Americans are fundamentally resistant to change and the elements of the European model we would have to embrace are so foreign – pardon the pun – that it just can’t happen here.

Two examples make the point. Virtually every automobile on Italy’s highways is a high gas mileage, high performance vehicle. You can drive the Renaults or the Opels for days while passing every petrol station you see. When you need to refill the tank the gas is, of course, much most costly in Europe than in the U.S., but you can go so much farther on a tank, or in most places you can walk or ride efficient public transport. Americans have been fighting over fuel efficiency in our automobiles ever since Mitt Romney’s dad made the American Motors Rambler, a fuel efficient alternative to Detroit’s gas guzzlers. The cars in Europe are smaller, lighter and extraordinarily fuel efficient. Obviously a socialist model we reject.

Or consider public transportation. The intercity train from Rome to Florence, as comfortable as any living room (except for the noisy and overly opinionated Canadian up the aisle), zoomed through the Tuscan countryside and deposited us, one hour and 27 minutes later, in the heart of city where automobiles are more trouble than they are worth. We couldn’t have driven or flown as fast, as comfortably or as cheaply. One can go almost anywhere in Europe on a train, often in great comfort and at high speed. Back home, we continue to debate the disinvestment in such infrastructure with governors in Wisconsin and Florida actually putting an end to spending on just the type of high speed rail Europeans take for granted.  Public investment in transportation – other than the car and the airplane – have taken on the stench of socialism in the U.S. American addiction to the automobile will never allow us to embrace the public option and, besides, the private sector should undertake such investment just as it did when Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. OK, not a good example.

Europeans, as a rule, are skinnier, eat better, live longer, have better health care outcomes, lower poverty and infant mortality rates and – I have to say it – dress better than Americans. Further proof for radio talk show hosts, no doubt, that the European socialist model threatens the very existence of America’s manifest destiny to lead the world with half of our citizens overweight, many lacking health care coverage and more living in poverty than a decade ago.

Europe with all its troubles is neither a socialist mecca or a government-centric basket case. The United States with all its troubles is still the world’s economic engine – an engine that could be even more powerful if we could see our way clear to pick and chose from among the best of the rest of the world. Call it socialism lite.

Republicans Living Abroad ran an ad in the International Herald Tribune this week urging their countrymen and women living in Europe to vote for president. The message was simple and so American – “No Apologizes for American Exceptionalism – VOTE.” The United States is a truly blessed place, divinely inspired some suggest, but true exceptionalism might also mean that we take a break from telling ourselves how great we are and focus on what the rest of the world is doing that we might learn from.

The elegant Italian woman we saw heading home from shopping would, I suspect like most Italians, be very reserved, but also very generous to any American visitor. More and more Italians speak English very well and most tolerate a a level of American self assurance that we would find off putting in them if they were visiting our side of the world. I also doubt whether my elegant Italian woman has ever spent a minute, even while passing by the Burger King, reflecting on either American or Italian exceptionalism. The next time I head for Winco, I will remember her blue suit and elegant shoes and reflect on what she – exceptional as she is – might teach us about living well.



Seven Rules of Politics

Forty days out in what has seemed like a presidential election campaign that might never end, things are about to get really interesting. The TV ads are flying – at least in Ohio – the debates loom, the charges fly and the pundits spout. But what does it all mean?

Today no analysis – historic or otherwise – just seven rules collected over 35 years of reporting on politics, working on two statewide campaigns and trying to understand the great ebb and flow of American politics. Rules to live by, if you will, in assessing the home stretch of the 2012 campaign.

1) All politics is local. That was the famous mantra of the late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill and it is as true as the math in the Electoral College. After all the months and all the money the presidential race comes down to no more than nine states where the smartest candidates will run for the next few weeks like they’re trying to win a county commission race. You better remember the name of the mayor of Muscatine and who runs that diner in New Hampshire you visited for 11 minutes four years ago. The locals are watching, because it is all local.

2) Beware the candidate who is first to say “the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.” That candidate is surely running behind. Polls come and polls go but, as the savvy Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame stresses, the trends go on and on. Day after day, week after week of trends mean something in polling and a steady trend is a predictor of that only poll that counts on Election Day.

The “only poll that counts” corollary is the old “our internal polls tell a different story” talking point. Of course, no campaign releases internal polling so this old chestnut gets dusted off ever election cycle. This line of analysis has been pursued by Presidents Goldwater, Mondale, Kerry, Dukakis, Dole and McCain, among others.

3) When a candidate says, as Barack Obama did at the Democratic Convention, “this election is not about me” you can take it to the bank that the election is about him. Elections always come down to a choice between two people. It’s always about the candidates, and even more about the candidate if he has a cause, and it is always about the incumbent.

4) When a candidate or campaign says, “we will have adequate resources to compete” you can be assured they won’t. If you have enough money in politics, you keep quiet and spend it – wisely if you can. If you don’t have the cash you talk about being able to compete, which is shorthand to the donors that they need to write another check because the opponent is killing you in the money race.

5) The candidate who is forced to talk about the inner workings of his/her campaign is almost always losing. If precious earned media time is being given over to batting down stories about this highly paid consultant not getting along with that highly paid consultant it is almost always a bad sign. The term “re-tool” in the same sentence with campaign is never good.

Good and successful campaigns are like the great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith’s old four corner offense – everyone has a role, they play their role, they stay out of each other’s way and at the right moment someone scores an easy layup. In successful campaigns the coach doesn’t have to explain anything other than were the victory party will be held.

6) Debates can re-set the race. Well, not really. In only a tiny number of occasions in modern political history have debates had a re-set quality. More often debates reinforce, in a fresh and direct way, what voters already know or sense to be true. Ronald Reagan’s famous line to Jimmy Carter – “there you go again” – delivered with a tilt of the head and a smile helped cement the impression that the aging actor could more than hold his own with the former nuclear engineer.

John Kennedy’s youthful vigor contrasted sharply with Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and JFK used the debates in 1960, as Reagan did in 1980, to show that he could stand on the same stage and speak intelligently with a more experienced opponent. But these were more moments of assurance than game changers.

Lloyd Bentsen had perhaps the most famous debate line ever – “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” – which he delivered to an over matched, deer in the headlights looking Dan Quayle in 1988. Quayle is little remembered for anything today, but he was elected vice president with the first Bush even after showing poorly in his debate.

One time a debate did matter – again reinforcing a pre-existing impression – was when President Gerald Ford made the debate boo-boo of all time by saying then-Communist Poland wasn’t under Soviet domination. If not a complete game changer, Ford’s comment in 1976 was reinforcement for many voters that the nice guy Ford was just a bit of a klutz.

7) You can’t beat something with nothing. Or the Cecil Andrus corollary to that statement: You can’t win a horse race with a dog.

In politics, as with most things, plans are better than platitudes. Details are better than dodges. A well constructed 10-point plan to accomplish thus-in-such is almost always better than vague statements that sound like they could have been cribbed from a Hallmark greeting card. Even given the often shallow, craven state of our political discourse, most voters want to vote “for” something. You gotta give them some substance.


Break Out the Hand Sanitizer

In the middle of what might have been the worst two weeks in modern presidential campaign history, one of the nameless, faceless GOP smart guys who never want to be quoted by name – the Democrats have them too – said of Mitt Romney: “We’re running against Jimmy Carter, but we nominated Tom Dewey.”

Thomas E. Dewey, of course, lost to the supremely unpopular Harry Truman in 1948 and is now remembered as perhaps the worst major party presidential candidate in modern times. With the full acknowledgement that six long weeks remain before election day and any number of things could still turn the election in Romney’s direction, it does seem clear that the businessman-turned-presidential candidate is an updated version of a bad candidate, a Tom Dewey.

If Dewey was famously described as “the little man on the wedding cake” then Romney is, as a friend said, “the guy who shakes your hand and immediately reaches for the sanitizer.” The Republican convention failed to “humanize” Romney, because, well, he really is a buttoned-up, man of privilege who doesn’t have much in common with the vast majority of people who will nevertheless vote for him simply because he is not Barack Obama.

That is the central reality of Romney’s campaign. The candidate made the strategic decision long ago that he could win the White House not by selling himself, but by being the only alternative to an incumbent with a crappy economy who pushed unpopular health insurance reform legislation. By adopting this strategy Romney violated a central rule of politics: You can’t beat something with nothing.

For weeks now there have been calls for Romney to get specific, offer some details and paint a picture of what a Romney presidency would be like. He still has time, but the real question is whether he is capable.

In his famous losing race with Truman, Dewey took the same approach. Speak in platitudes, promise better times, but never get to the heart of the matter. Richard Rovere, of New Yorker, said of Dewey’s campaign rallies, “he comes out like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind.” Sounds familiar.

The usually wise and always elegant Peggy Noonan – she wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan – says Romney needs an “intervention” to shake up his campaign. She suggests that a GOP wise man, say James Baker, ride to the rescue and save Romney’s campaign from the candidate.

“The Romney campaign has to get turned around,” Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal.  “This week I called it incompetent, but only because I was being polite. I really meant ‘rolling calamity.'”

Here’s another context for the 47% Romney recently dissed. Not being Barack Obama will get him 47% and Romney really could have gotten those votes by stopping all campaigning and decamping to his home on Lake Winnipesaukee for the duration. Now the CEO-cum-candidate has a few days and three debates to reset his campaign one more time and get three or four percent more. What might he do?

He could do the Peggy Noonan inspired James Baker intervention, which might help bring some message and scheduling discipline to the Romney campaign. The guys who just got the bonuses won’t like it, but handing over the campaign to a GOP wise guy might bring order to the “rolling calamity.” But an intervention is not likely to happen with the blessing of a CEO who is only playing a candidate on television and who just paid $200,000 in bonuses to guys who helped him get behind in every state he needs to win.

Romney could stop doing one event a day and quit fundraising in Utah and Texas while he should be in Iowa and Ohio. Romney could start running like he is a candidate for sheriff – embrace the spontaneous, hold town hall meetings, mix it up with his 47%, pull a few 18 hours days and, heaven forbid, sit down for interviews with the media.

Romney could also get specific on how his economic approach might actually work. Does he have one big idea? Maybe he could talk about something of substance.

The one sure thing the GOP candidate has going for him is the reality that the political media will not let this thing end prematurely. As Morning Joe Scarborough said today: “The news media [are] not going to allow Mitt Romney to lie on the mat between [now] and November. You’re going to see a swing back. … If Mitt Romney can take one punch after another from his own fist … and this thing ties back up, you’re gonna have a lot of clenched people in the Obama campaign. Because they’re going to go: ‘God, this guy keeps blowing himself up, and we can’t get rid of him.’ …. He still has the opportunity to pull this out.”

Truer words were never spoken, but it still remains that the most difficult thing in politics is to halt a slide by trying to get a candidate to be something they have never been. Mitt Romney is a CEO. He makes plans, raises money, hires people and sticks to his plan. Successful political candidates improvise, they adapt, they work diligently at getting better and they wade into crowds and create those moments that voters use to measure character and judgement. Romney’s hand sanitizer approach to his campaign is like a well-rehearsed, if boring symphony. Politics is free-form jazz, frequently messy, but interesting.

Remember Reagan’s famous “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green” moment during the 1980 New Hampshire GOP primary; a moment Reagan came to believe launched him to the White House? Can you imagine Mitt Romney in such a setting, saying such a thing, connecting in such a way? Hard to envision.

In the aftermath of Tom Dewey’s loss to Truman in 1948, the Louisville Courier-Journal said in an editorial: “No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”

Mitt Romney’s future lies just ahead. The national media will let him get back in the ring, but he’ll need to do something out of character to really reset his campaign. He’ll have to become a passably decent candidate and that is simply not in his style.



The Water’s Edge

Arthur Vandenberg was a Republican U.S. Senator from Michigan from 1928 – 1951 and a man who believed passionately in a bipartisan foreign policy. Vandenberg might have been president. He tried for the nomination a couple of times, but his real niche was foreign policy and under his cautious and conservative hand the country came to a policy that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg’s approach to foreign policy evolved over time, which is another way of saying he changed his mind. He went from a staunch isolationist in the 1930’s to helping Harry Truman get Congressional approval for the Marshall Plan and NATO in the 1940’s. Yes, you read that right – a Republican senator helping a Democratic president on something really important. Once upon a time that kind of thing really did happen.

Here’s a guess that the political news for the next several days will be all about the Middle East, the tragic deaths of American diplomatic personnel in Libya and the deepening tensions around Iran. In other words, the presidential campaign just went off message in a major way and in a manner that neither campaign can hope to control. The only thing the candidates, and particularly challenger Mitt Romney, can do is talk about the issues.

Romney has spent most of today cleaning up after a statement he issued too quickly and without all the facts as the awful events in Libya were spinning out of control late yesterday.  His midnight statement condemning the Obama Administration is being widely regarded as an amazing piece of amateur hour time for someone who hopes to be Commander-in-Chief.

Ronald Reagan’s gifted speechwriter Peggy Noonan said Romney wasn’t doing himself any favors with his hair trigger attack.

“I was thinking as he spoke,” Noonan told Politico, “I think I belong to the old school of thinking that in times of great drama and heightened crisis, and in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think discretion is the better way to go. When you step forward in the midst of a political environment and start giving statements on something dramatic and violent that has happened, you’re always leaving yourself open to accusations that you are trying to exploit things politically.” Exactly.

Romney’s campaign will now be compared to John McCain’s four years when the Arizona Senator – remember the suspension of his campaign during the banking crisis – as a man who displays questionable judgment in the heat of the moment.

The hawkish editorial page of the Washington Post, which has often been critical of Obama,  has it about right:

“As for Mr. Romney, he would do well to consider the example of Republican former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who issued a statement Wednesday lamenting ‘the tragic loss of life at our consulate,’ praising [Ambassador Chris] Stevens as ‘a wonderful officer and a terrific diplomat’ and offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ to ‘all the loved ones of the fallen.’ That was the appropriate response.”

As the Senate Historian has written about a Republican from a different age:  “When [Sen. Arthur] Vandenberg spoke, the Senate Chamber filled with senators and reporters, eager to hear what he had to say. His words swayed votes and won national and international respect for his nonpartisan, consensus-building, statesmanlike approach to foreign policy.”

The Senate voted in 2004 to place Vandenberg’s portrait in the lovely Senate Reception Room, a place reserved for the images of the greatest of the greats who once served the country.

Give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really does believe Barack Obama is mishandling our foreign policy and is profoundly troubled by the President’s leadership. Fair enough. But with diplomats dead in a troubled land and the Arab Street holding the potential for even more turmoil, smart policy and smart politics would have been to simply say: “America has one president at a time and there will be time enough to sort out the politics.”

Simple rule of politics: When a campaign is transparently seen as trying to score political points – it doesn’t.



Themes That Repeat

When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936 the American economy was in very tough shape. Unemployment was over 16%, farm prices were awful and American big business, staggered to its knees by the Wall Street crash of 1929, was recovering, but still limping badly.

Yet, amid the dismal economic news, Roosevelt had succeeded in his first term in passing tough new banking regulations, massive public works projects like Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State were employing thousands and Congress had endorsed something called Social Security. FDR ran for re-election 76 years ago with a decidedly mixed record. He could tout major legislative accomplishments, but lots of Americans were hurting badly. Given the awful state of the economy and voter penchant for throwing out the incumbent when the economy stinks, the conventional political wisdom would hold that Roosevelt should have lost re-election. Obviously he didn’t.

Roosevelt scored one of the greatest political triumphs in U.S. history in 1936 when he crushed the Republican ticket by winning more than 500 electoral votes and failing to carry only two states. FDR’s campaign manager quipped, “So goes Maine, so goes Vermont” – the only states the Landon-Knox ticket carried. The president’s historic landslide also pulled dozens of congressional candidates along and the House and Senate were overwhelmingly Democratic.

If the broad outlines of the United States in ’36 exhibit a more than passing resemblance to the country this year then I believe you’re identifying some of the “themes” in American politics that have an endlessly fascinating way of repeating themselves. This is a subject I’ll be exploring this week during a public talk at Boise’s Main Public Library. The Wednesday, September 12th event is free and open to all. I hope you might consider coming out for a dose of politics and history. My talk is entitled: FDR and Obama: The Difficulty of Winning a Second Term.

But, back to themes. Social Security, broadly debated and badly mishandled in 1936 by FDR’s Republican opponent, Kansas Gov. Alfred E. Landon, is clearly a recurring theme in our politics. Social Security’s sister programs, Medicare and Medicaid, keep coming round again and again and are once more in the middle of the current presidential campaign. The GOP political talking point that a left-of-center Democrat – like Roosevelt or Barack Obama this year – is pushing the country to socialism is an argument as old as the New Deal. FDR’s critics went even farther with one saying the 1936 election was a contest between “Washington and Moscow.”

The evil excesses of big business or the heavy hand of regulation thwarting business is a steady theme in our politics, as is the role of the U.S. Supreme Court. The nastiness of race and religion are also recurring themes and each played a role in 1936 and each does today.

Roosevelt used the power of his anti-big business argument, his personal likability and his amazing communication skills to win re-election in 1936. Faced with many of the same issues and armed with many similar skills, will Obama be able to pull off what Roosevelt accomplished in remarkably similar conditions three quarters of a century ago? I hope you’ll join me Wednesday for a lively discussion of how the themes of our political history run smack into the current campaign.