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If I Had a Hammer

media_5e1a5316516c4ed4913d398868313742_t607This picture – former Vice President Henry Wallace with folk singer Pete Seeger in 1948 – likely didn’t do Pete much good when he was summoned in 1952 to name names before the communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). To Seeger’s eternal credit he refused to play the silly game, was held in contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail.

The New York Post – as ridiculous as a newspaper in those days as it remains today – offered the headline: “Dangerous Minstrel Nabbed Here” in a story about Pete. Seeger had a particularly American attitude about a Congressional committee asking questions about his friends and associations. It was none of their business. Only a technicality kept him from prison.

Still for 17 years at what should have been the very height of his career Pete Seeger was on the entertainment industry’s blacklist, labeled a subversive and condemned as a mushy-headed pinko who couldn’t bring himself to admit the evils of Stalin. Much the same happened to Wallace, a brilliant, decent man and an awful politician who was too liberal for the times that ushered in Joe McCarthy and destroyed or badly damaged the careers of Pete Seeger and so many others.

Curious thing about the United States, as Adam Hochschild wrote recently in The New York Review of Books, “anticommunism has always been far louder and more potent than communism. Unlike sister parties in France, Italy, India, and elsewhere, the Communist Party here has never controlled a major city or region, or even elected a single member to the national legislature.”

When Henry Wallace ran for president the year he was photographed with Pete Seeger his Progressive Party, with American Communist support, captured an underwhelming 2.4 percent of the popular vote. Americans have never – even in the darkest days of The Great Depression – warmed to communism, yet the word and the association has always been awesomely powerful in our politics.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union made anticommunism passe, generations of American politicians, including presidents from Truman to Reagan, made fighting communism the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Careers were made and destroyed – Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas and their 1950 U.S. Senate race come immediately to mind – as a result of “The Red Scare.” Nixon and his henchmen dubbed Mrs. Douglas, a liberal California Congresswoman, “The Pink Lady” a label that had immediate and positive electoral impact for Nixon.  What she called him – “Tricky Dick” – was arguably the much more accurate and lasting label.

In the days before the National Rifle Association intimidated presidents and county commissioners and commanded fidelity from both political parties, one could hardly go wrong politically by being tough on communism. Being right on the Reds in the 1950’s and 1960’s was as politically safe as being in the pocket of the NRA is today.

Pete Seeger’s left-wing politics received mostly passing mention in many of the tributes that have followed his death on Monday at the ripe age of 94. Most of the stories, perhaps appropriately, have focused on the music he made and the influence Seeger had on singers from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. Still it seems impossible to divorce the man’s music from the man’s politics.

We’ve largely forgotten that prior to Pearl Harbor millions of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. Many thought another world war would inevitably lead, as the first one had, to diminished civil liberties and a more militarized society. Nothing good comes from war so the saying went. Pete Seeger was among the millions who believed that and sang about it.

When war finally came Seeger, like most Americans, fully embraced the need to fight Hitler and defeat Japan. In a 1942 song – Dear Mr. President – Seeger sang, as if to remind Franklin Roosevelt, about what Americans were fighting for:

This is the reason that I want to fight,
Not because everything’s perfect or everything’s right.
No. it’s just the opposite… I’m fighting because I want
A better America with better laws,
And better homes and jobs and schools,
And no more Jim Crow and no more rules,
Like you can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,
You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew
You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.

Pete Seeger’s banjo was inscribed with the words “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Seeger, the left-winger, spent his life preaching the gospel of non-violent social change through his music and he never gave up that wild-eyed dream. Even in the song where he signed on to fight Hitler he was dreaming of a more perfect union at home were civil rights were guaranteed for all. Pete Seeger, through all the blacklisting nonsense and the HUAC hearings, never let bitterness get the better of him. He kept singing about overcoming.

When Seeger did appear before HUAC in 1955 he steadfastly refused to play the political game of gotcha that Joe McCarthy and others had perfected. At one point he summed up his attitude telling the committee:

“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”

Committee Chairman Rep. Francis Walter, a conservative Pennsylvania Democrat, persisted:Why dont you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?”

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I dont want to hear about it.

More than the anticommunist witch hunters who tried to silence his banjo in the 1950’s, more than those who resisted civil rights in the 1960’s or defended American hubris in Vietnam, Pete Seeger’s long life was the essence of the real American story. He sang to prompt political and social action. Sang with a smile. Strummed his banjo with an honest, candid demand for a better, more tolerant America.

Americans were once optimistic enough – perhaps we will be again – to think that a better country is possible. Pete Seeger never gave up on that America; a country of better homes and jobs and schools. He was a folk music legend to be sure, but also the very best kind of American and, yes, his whole life – the life of a dangerous minstrel – was an incredible contribution.


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.


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 Death of Facts

The Los Angeles Times noted it in a headline today – “Rick Santorum repeats inaccurate welfare attack on Obama.” Santorum repeated the charge – Obama is eliminating the work requirement of welfare reform – that fact checkers have repeatedly characterized as so far from the truth that it qualifies as “pants on fire” untrue.

FOX News contributor Juan Williams, hardly an apologist for national Democrats, noted in a opinion column in The Hill today that the flat out misrepresentation of the president’s “you didn’t build that” line dominated the first night of the Republican convention in Tampa. “For weeks,” Williams writes, “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have hammered President Obama for saying, ‘You didn’t build that.” And Obama did say those precise words during a speech on July 13 in Virginia arguing that people earning more than $250,000 should pay more taxes, but the attacks are completely out of context. Williams repeats the entire quote.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

This isn’t just distortion, Williams argues, but old fashioned dirty politics, but at the heart of such tactics is a stunning disregard for facts, real truths.

Republicans hardly have a lock on this kind of sleazy use of a few words out of context or, in the case of the welfare attack, just making things up. Democrats, like Sen. Harry Reid, make wild allegations, too. Reid received widespread criticism for saying he had a source that confirmed that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney didn’t pay any taxes for a decade. Wild, unproven, even unprovable, the Reid charge fits, like so many attacks, in the dirty politics category of “let ’em deny it.”

All this adds up to the death of facts and the wake for the dearly departed is observed every day in print, on the airwaves and everywhere politics gets “reported” these days.

The current campaign often seems to be a “fact free zone” where dealing with the substance of real issues gets lost in the fog of a word or two taken out of context. Little wonder that most decent, striving Americans have trouble separating the facts from the chaff. Little wonder, as well, that such small minded campaigns based on half-truths or whole lies leave even the eventual winner so downsized that they have trouble discussing, let alone leading and governing, with real facts.

Politics has always been about defining the other guy before he defines you, but the pace and intensity of today’s campaigns mean that the entire purpose of a campaign now is to catch a whiff of defining language in the opponent’s speech and hammer it with a sledge. Facts are dead.

In fact, earlier this year Rex Huppke, a Chicago Tribune reporter, formally declared the death of facts and wrote the obituary. “To the shock of most sentient beings,” Huppke wrote, “Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists.

“Facts held on for several days after that assault — brought on without a scrap of evidence or reason — before expiring peacefully at its home in a high school physics book. Facts was 2,372.” Funny. Painfully funny.

Huppke dated Facts to ancient Greece where the idea originated that there are “universal principles that everybody agrees on.” Facts grew through the years where science and empirical observation underscored what is true. Things became tough, however, as Facts struggled to “persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship.”

Opinion, its been noted, became the new fact, supplemented with footnotes by misrepresentation and distortion. Case in point: a new “documentary,” written and narrated by conservative scholar Dinesh D’Souza, that alleges that Barack Obama’s real agenda in the White House is to atone for the sins of colonialism – colonialism?  This secret Obama agenda is allegedly influenced by the president’s long-dead father. But, it’s all just opinion disguised as truth.

As the Associated Press noted, “The assertion that Obama’s presidency is an expression of his father’s political beliefs, which D’Souza first made in 2010 in his book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” is almost entirely subjective and a logical stretch at best.” D’Sousa’s film grossed more than $6 million last weekend. So much for the box office appeal of facts. So much for “scholarship.”

D’Sousa’s film, of course, has as much to do with a real documentary as Michael Moore’s leftwing films. Facts don’t matter. It is  opinion, confidently expressed, that rules.

The death of facts is everywhere. Climate change: pick your “facts” to support whatever you want to believe. Obama a socialist: pick your facts and, by the way, don’t bother to actually investigate what socialism is or tries to be. From Lance Armstrong to much of the swish and spin from the left on MSNBC, from El Rushbo to the Syrian president, facts don’t matter.

“American society has lost confidence that there’s a single alternative,” Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University and author of “A History of the Modern Fact” told the Tribune’s Huppke for his Facts obit. “Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there’s no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It’s just kind of a bizarre world in which one person’s opinion counts as much as anybody else’s.”

Yup. As Huppke noted,”Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion.” It is my considered opinion that we should mourn his demise.



Nary a Word

Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson has one message in his post-Senate life as a truth teller about the nation’s fiscal health. Simpson is preaching the gospel of budget and tax reform to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately the candidates for President of the United States, the men who will have to deal with the great unspoken issue of this election, the looming fiscal crisis, cannot seem to summon the political courage to level with the voters and talk as candidly as Al Simpson does about the stark choices facing the next president and the next Congress.

We’re left with Al Simpson and thank God we have him.

Simpson, as funny as he is pithy, complained in 2011 interview about the younger generation. “Grandchildren now don’t write a thank you for the Christmas presents,” he said. “They are walking on their pants with their cap on backward, listening to the Enema Man and Snoopy, Snoopy Poop Dog.” Funny stuff, but even more importantly, Simpson is speaking truth about the fiscal mess in America and the lack of political will to take it on.

“You can’t cut spending your way out of this hole,” Simpson, who was appointed as co-chair of President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010, said. “You can’t grow your way out of this hole, and you can’t tax your way out of this hole. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, we tell these people. This is madness.”

The famously outspoken Simpson knows what needs to be done to get the nation’s fiscal house in order – everything. Raise taxes and reform the tax code, address entitlements, including Medicare and Social Security, cut defense spending and much else in the federal budget. The debt, fiscal, tax and budget problems are so profound and the medicine to fix the problems so Castor oil-like that only old fashioned political compromise – bipartisan compromise – can make it go down with the American public. Democrats will have to come to the party ready to get serious about Medicare and their pet programs. Republicans have to put on the shelf their time-tested mantra of tax cuts as the solution for every economic problem and address a defense budget bloated by two wars and the world-wide deployment of Americans on a scale that rivals the one-time British Empire. Everyone has to give – and soon.

As I have written in this space in the past, President Obama had his statesmanship moment on fiscal and budget policy some time back and he chose to punt. The politics of embracing the recommendations laid out by Simpson and his fiscal commission co-chair Erskine Bowles must have seemed too risky. Obama’s decision was both shortsighted and ultimately politically inept. Had he embraced the recommendations and spent the last few months campaigning on that basis he would have both a forward-looking message about the economy and, should he win re-election, a real mandate to do something with the debt and taxes. Instead we are left with a virtually insignificant fight between Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the  wealthiest Americans and Mitt Romney’s plan to further cut taxes in the face of mounting budget deficits. Romney says he would also cut federal spending, but beyond virtually insignificant cuts to tiny, ideologically-driven items like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, he won’t get specific. (By the way, the combined budgets of CPB and the endowments would hardly cover a few hours of interest on the national debt.) Romney’s lack of specifics shows, as does the president’s fiscal posture, both a lack of policy seriousness and political courage.

Here is what’s at stake post-November. Because of the failure earlier this year by Congress, which deserves most of the blame, and the president to reach any kind of an accommodation on spending cuts and revenue increases automatic budget cuts will go into effect at the end of the year and Bush-era tax cuts, already extended by Obama, will expire. The country will be over the fiscal cliff you’ve been hearing about. The nation’s credit rating will be further downgraded and the economy will head back toward recession. I’m betting most Americans, be they Tea Partiers or far left progressives, don’t understand the extent of the mess that the next president will face. How could they when the two men contending to lead the country say nary a word about the problem.

So, to be clear, the year end problem will be, and this is no exaggeration, a fiscal crisis on par with the economic melt down in 2008. Fasten your seat belts.

It all could have been avoided – and still could – had a few key political players been more concerned about the future their kids will inherit than the outcome of the next election. Instead of a real debate about the nation’s fiscal future, Romney has relied on demonstrably false claims about Obama destroying the work requirement for Americans on public assistance. Rather than build understanding among confused Americans and create a mandate to govern in his second term, Obama has run a campaign of small ideas and puny aspirations. Neither man seems to have the courage of any convictions about what really has to be done, which brings us back to Al Simpson.

It would be easy to say that the lanky Cody, Wyoming lawyer, out of public office after three terms in the Senate, is a man liberated by not needing to worry about saying unpopular, but true things. But that’s not Simpson. He’s always been willing to shake things up with his candor, which made him the perfect man to join former Clinton Administration Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles as a co-chair of the National Fiscal Commission popularly called Simpson-Bowles. Still, it has taken real political courage for both men – and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, who served on the Commission – to call for real sacrifice and real bipartisan agreement about reform. (GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan also served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission and, unlike Crapo, did not back the proposals the Commission developed. Still, Simpson said recently that Ryan knows his stuff and was a serious player on the Commission.)

No serious person in Washington, D.C. would tell you that the nation faces anything but huge and painful choices post-election, but the candidates essentially are ignoring the biggest issue of the year because they have made the political calculation that talking seriously about it is a political loser.

On September 18 in Boise, Al Simpson will receive a new award for political leadership created by The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. The award has been created to recognize genuine accomplishment and a commitment to bipartisanship. Simpson deserves that kind of recognition. It’s a shame the two men running for president can’t summon up the same courage and commitment. One of them will have to find some political guts in mid-November. The fiscal cliff the current crowd in Washington created is looming.


On Everyone’s List

I have never met Mitt Romney – or Barack Obama for that matter – but you sure wouldn’t know that by looking in my mail box.

Yesterday I received, I’ve lost count honestly, what must be my 13th or 14th piece of mail from Mitt. On the same day I got a letter with Barack’s smiling face peeking through the envelope window assuring me that I could be a member in good standing of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

So far, by my count, Romney is winning the battle of my mail box based on the sheer volume of friendly, but still ominous mail he sends me. And I’m pleased to report we are becoming better and better friends as the bar fight currently passing for a presidential campaign soldiers on to November.

When he first started writing me back during the Republican primaries I was “Dear Mr. Johnson.” Many pieces of mail later Mitt now feels he knows me well enough that he speaks to me using the more casual, and frankly more appropriate, “Dear Marc.” This is Idaho, after all, we don’t much stand on ceremony or titles in these parts.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the DNC, actually wrote yesterday on behalf of Barack Obama. She obviously doesn’t know me from a bale of hay. To her I’m just “Dear Fellow Democrat.”

Mitt, for his part, assumes I’m a Republican. Twice he has sent me full-color autographed photos. In his latest letter he refers to me – this would be news to my GOP friends – as “one of our Party’s most prominent members.” He would also be honored if I’d become a “major contributor” and suggests that the maximum personal contribution of $5,000 from me would help “elect a fiscal conservative” with real world experience.

As well as Mr. Romney knows me he must have forgotten that I’m one of those small business people he worries about all the time. Five big ones is a lot of scratch in the small business world and, just for the record, like Mitt, I have no plans to release my tax returns and I am concerned about the fiscal cliff later this year.

I also wonder, based on his many letters to me, if Romney has been so busy that he missed the recent stories about the sorry state of the U.S. Postal Service, which is near to default on pension payments and bleeding red ink. The self addressed envelope Romney included for me to mail back my five grand is stamped with some of that red ink. PLEASE RUSH it screams. Obviously, the occasionally out-of-touch Republican candidate doesn’t know that for RUSH shipments these days most folks now rely on the private sector. Think FedEx, Mitt.

The Democrats, of course, want the big bucks, too. Debbie included a card with her “Dear Fellow Democrat” letter suggesting I cough up at least $25, but there is also a place to write in “other.” Presumably she would not send back a Romneyese-sized check if I were so inclined. She thoughtfully included a “business replay mail” envelope – no postage necessary.

I’ve had mail a couple of times from Michelle Obama. She wanted me to wish her husband a happy 51st birthday with a check enclosed. I offered my best wishes silently and inexpensively. No mail from Ann Romney, however. Perhaps she knows I’m not a big fan of dressage.

I often wonder about the fundraising strategy behind all this direct mail. By one count earlier this year Romney had spent $1.2 million on “direct mail consulting” just to win the GOP nomination. So, I must believe direct mail works for the candidates, even though the marketing pitch on both side is far from compelling. Romney’s pitch essentially boils down to “I’m not Obama” and for the Democrats it’s often the old, tried and true line that 2012 will turn “out to be possibly the most important election year in history.”

As a political junkie, and I like to think a person of substance, I get a little cynical when all my new pen pal Mitt can say about his White House run is that he wants to restore “our country to greatness.” Big job, I think, and I wonder how – with details, please – he’ll get that job done.

As for Obama and the Democrats, they breathlessly appeal to my unspoken desire to “prevent a disaster” should Mr. Send-Me-Five-Grand win in November. And, while we’re at it, has there ever been an election that was “not the most important in history?”

After all this traffic through my mail box, I’m left to conclude three things:

One, I’m on everyone’s list. Having spent most of my adult life in and around politics and campaigns, everyone has my name and address. I may not know them, but they sure think they know me and my checkbook.

Two, the campaign direct mail in 2012 is just as vacuous and lacking in substance as the larger campaigns have been. That’s a shame. When I write a letter, an increasingly rare occurrence I admit, I try to transmit some news, be upbeat or even try to be funny. Campaign fund raising letters are mostly devoid of substance and full of gloom and doom. As for humor, well Mitt and Barack will never be mistaken for a real letter writer, a Mark Twain or a Teddy Roosevelt for example.

Finally, going back to the postal service – established by a world class letter writer and pretty good politician by the name of Benjamin Franklin – I have to wonder about this fiscal Armageddon we’ve been hearing so much about. Just what gives with this crisis that threatens to force the closure of dozens or even hundreds of small post offices and end Saturday mail delivery?

If Mitt has spent $1.2 million on “consulting” on mail through March of this year – and Obama and the Democrats must be close to that number – both campaigns must have spent a few million bucks on postage. Judging by my own mail box the Post Office ought to be rolling in the dough.

I’ve gotta check the mail…



Unfair? Sure…And Politics Always Is

Early in his political career Lyndon Johnson is famously said to have wanted to make an outrageous charge – allegedly involving sex and an animal – against a political opponent. His staff pushed back arguing that the allegation was untrue, but Johnson was unmoved. Of course the charge was untrue, Johnson said, he just wanted his opponent to have to deny it.

I thought of the old LBJ story while watching the charge made last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Over the weekend Reid was pummeled – properly so if you believe politics is always a gentlemen’s game played according to Marquis of Queensberry rules – for saying he’d been told that there were many years when Romney paid no income taxes.

The Romney camp and the candidate himself immediately and vehemently denied the allegation with the GOP chairman going so far as to call Reid “a dirty liar.”

But, whether you believe Reid is guilty of gutter politics or the old amateur boxer is playing a politic game of what The Great Muhammad Ali once called “rope a dope,” the fact is that the Romney camp still finds itself in the awkward position of being able to decisively disprove Reid’s allegation only by releasing many more years of Romney’s tax returns, something the candidate continues to refuse to do.

Two things about the Romney tax returns and Reid allegations are, I think, noteworthy.

First, the Majority Leader’s gut punching anti-Romney attack was launched by a guy who survived one of the nastiest political campaigns in the country two years ago. With horrible approval numbers, Reid methodically fought his way back from comatose to win re-election in Nevada against a Tea Party darling. It wasn’t pretty, but was a win.

As an old Nevada Republican friend of mine, Greg Ferraro, told the Las Vegas Sun: “Harry Reid always seems to find a way to win. He never wins big and he never wins pretty, and the rumors of his demise are always greatly exaggerated. He always finds a way.”

Reid is of the generation of national Democrats who watched two of their recent presidential candidates – Michael Dukakis and John Kerry – run lackluster campaigns against opponents who identified them as squishy liberals, weak on crime and national defense. A lot of these Democrats, Harry Reid included, went to school on those and other similar campaigns and concluded that throwing a political punch is almost always better than taking one. Harry Reid is a puncher, even if some of the blows arguably land below the belt.

The second noteworthy issue relates to Romney’s tax returns, and here too Democrats have learned something from past campaigns. In and of itself Romney’s refusal to expose more about his personal finances is probably not anywhere close to a decisive factor in the current presidential race. It is, however, a window into the one real strength Romney brings to his campaign – his business experience.

With steady and persistent effort, rather like water dripping on a rock, the Obama campaign has chipped away at Romney’s one great strength, planting questions and raising doubt. Did Romney create jobs at Bain Capital or ship jobs overseas? Did he make his money the old fashioned way or by taking advantage of companies loaded up with debt and then shipping his own profits into off shore tax havens? Does Romney’s executive experience equip him to serve as a champion of the middle class in a tough economy or would his tax returns show a guy in such fundamentally foreign economic territory that he would never relate to Joe Six Pack?

Romney partisans, many pundits and even some Democrats find this “let him deny it” brand of politics unattractive, but the fact is the jabbing at Romney has kept him off his game now for going on two weeks.

In the boxing ring Ali would jab and move, jab and move and occasionally let his opponent, rope a dope style, tire himself out while The Champ bounced along the ropes. Then with a punched out opponent flaying away, Ali would launch a flurry of blows that really stung.

The overall approach may be unfair to Romney and I would argue that major elections should be about bigger things, but the fact is that right now Romney is tiring himself politically by responding to the jabs that continue to erode the story line that he hopes to ride to the White House.

And here we are in the political dog days of August where you have to believe the real fight hasn’t even begun. Make him deny it may not be fair, but little in politics is and this whole episode proves one thing for certain. If Mitt Romney could release his tax returns and explain them he would. He can’t and therefore won’t.

He’s left to deny without being able to prove. Lyndon would have loved it.



Romney in London

Today Mitt Romney got a nasty taste of what political life is like under a foreign media microscope. He must be wondering why he didn’t stay home.

By the measure of world-wide Twitter trending (#Romneyshambles), not to mention the Brit papers, Romney’s visit to London has gone over there about as well as the Norman conquest.

By one account Romney insulted all of England by wondering if the Brits are ready for prime time when it comes to hosting the Olympics; couldn’t seem to remember the name of the Ed Miliband the leader of Labour Party; disclosed (simply not done apparently) that he had met with the head of MI6, the super secret British intelligence service that prides itself on having almost no public profile, and misused some common English words that have considerably different meaning in the mother country.

Oh, yes, a Romney aide also told a London paper that the GOP candidate’s   “Anglo-Saxon heritage” made him a more dependable ally than President Obama. That discounts, of course, that Great Britain has been our most dependable ally since, oh, 1941. It must have also reminded some people of Obama’s “Kenyan roots” and undoubtedly reminded the British that Kenya was once theirs. The whole British Empire thing, don’t you know. In fairness to Romney he walked back the comment, but the fun was just beginning.

One tweet from Britain said it was clear Romney was “the American Borat.” Another said Romney had “retroactively cancelled” his European trip.

State the obvious: everyone can have a tough day. Obama will have his share between now and November. Still, when you are attempting to portray yourself as a person with a command presence, able to hold your own with world leaders, and you end up being publicly dissed by the Mayor of London, you’ve laid a large egg.

Perhaps the front pages of tomorrow’s London (and U.S.) papers will help put a stake into the nutty idea that a few days of visits to Europe or Israel by an aspiring American president – Obama did the same thing in 2008 – is in any way a demonstration of any kind of foreign policy knowledge or preparation. Romney would have done better to stay home and read about England.

His shambled visit may or may not signal something about Romney’s readiness for prime time. It certainly signals that there is no substitute for good judgment about one’s own limits. Safer, cheaper and more effective photo opportunities are available at American factories. The Romney photo op at 10 Downing Street just cost the GOP nominee a couple more days of completely negative press and plays to type that the guy is out of touch.

Of course, in the whole scheme of things, its just a lot of distraction and noise, but I can’t wait to see Jon Stewart’s take.


Obama Reflects on Term – Sort Of

If Barack Obama holds off a determined and extraordinarily well-financed challenge from Mitt Romney and wins a second term in November it will be in spite of his accomplishments and first term record, not because of them.

With 112 days to go until the election, Obama is on the attack and not above the fray. From a political strategy standpoint he may have no other option if he hopes to win.

Romney is correct in his basic assessment of the Obama strategy: the president and his team need to rip Romney, not run on the first term record. Obama has presided over a dismal economy – much of which he inherited – yet it’s clear that after three-plus years he owns the unemployment rate and the uncertainty felt in the country. The president had the guts and decisiveness to get bin Laden, but Syria or Pakistan or Afghanistan could blow sky high any minute. He passed historic health  insurance reform, but outsourced any positive message about that accomplishment to people like Nancy Pelosi, who took a polarizing issue and made it worse. To say that Obama’s term has been a mixed bag is to be generous.

Obama was asked last week about his term and, because he’s more self- reflective than the buttoned up Romney, he offered some analysis to CBS’s Charlie Rose.

“When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well, the mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right,” Obama said. “And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”

Romney immediately pounced saying, “being president is not about telling stories,” but in fact that is a sizable part of the job. Creating a sense of shared national ambition and fostering an understanding that Americans are all in this together is a presidential job. Franklin Roosevelt knew that. So did Abraham Lincoln.

Still, Obama did not address the other equally important part of the job that he has not gotten right since 2008 and that is the role of what I’ll call “politician in chief.”

Obama, a gifted orator, has not been able, perhaps for reasons of personality, to grasp the levers that would permit him to use the inherent power of the presidency to build political relationships and accumulate political chits. In short, he’s no Lyndon Johnson, FDR or Ronald Reagan in understanding that a president can use the power and prestige of the world’s most powerful position to bend partisanship.

In politics, as in most every walk of life, things often get done not for reasons of, as Obama said, “getting the policy right,” but because two people or a group of people come to trust and value each other. You can’t trust someone when you have no personal relationship with them.

One of the great powers of the presidency, by most accounts largely unused by Obama, is the power to, well, schmooze. This president is not a retail politician. He cultivates a cool and detached persona. Small talk and small kindnesses, a call to the White House for lunch or coffee, a golf outing or a weekend at Camp David, are not part of Obama’s DNA.

Of course, Obama has had to navigate an incredibly nasty and overtly partisan Washington, D.C. environment during his time in the White House, but his response to that environment – and his self-awareness about not telling a compelling story is part of the response – has almost entirely been an outside game. Washington is an inside town.

If Obama were as good at small ball, personal politics – the late night phone calls, the ride on Air Force One, the cozy dinner in the family quarters – as he is on the stump, he might have had a real chance to put a dent in the messy climate in the nation’s capitol.

Obama made a strategic error, in my view, in spending his vast political capital right after the 2008 election on months of wrangling over the health care legislation. It’s easy to see now – and should have been seen then – that his focus needed to be on the economy, but he also failed in mounting any charm offensive with anyone on the other side of the political divide.

It took Obama more than half his term to invite the golf loving House Speaker John Boehner to the first tee. The two most important men in Washington played 18 holes and then strapped the political guns back on and started shooting. Boehner is a partisan, of course, and largely captive to the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives, but Obama, another partisan, never really tried to make the Speaker a friendly partisan. Did Boehner try? No, but then again it’s not his job to cultivate the president. Politics just doesn’t work that way and Washington certainly doesn’t work that way.

Really successful politicians demonstrate an ability to grow in office. They learn new tricks. Obama isn’t a natural schmoozer and so far hasn’t seen the virtue in even trying to woo his adversaries, but for a more successful second term he will needs to learn how to use the personal power of his office. Politics is not all about policy by any means. The soft skills of personal connections are the grease that can make the political gears turn.

Obama partisans will say, but how can you schmooze people who really, really dislike you? Good question and no one ever wins over every hide-bound partisan street fighter, but there is virtue and a PR reward in even trying and failing. Americans may hate partisan gridlock, but they hate even more when kindness and decency is met by nastiness. At the very least, a president can win the PR battle.

Mitt Romney doesn’t appear to have a Schmoozer-in-Chief gene, either, which unfortunately means the next president is probably going to be unable to use some of the real power that automatically goes with the job. You don’t have to be a nice guy or a smiling pushover to be president, but you do have to use all the elements of power – big and little – to show the other side, and the American people, that you are working to ease the nastiness.




Romney Campaign Crisis Management

There is an old truism in politics that holds “when you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

By that standard, given the Romney camp’s stumbling efforts over the last week to get together a plausible story on when the candidate really left his private equity firm, it’s been a loser of a few days for the GOP nominee.

But, as potentially important as that not very effective crisis management has been, the candidate’s greatest vulnerability is still contained in the documents we’re never likely to see – Mitt Romney’s tax returns. Two things are at play in the tax return decision and each provides real insight into both the candidate’s character and decision making and how he might perform should he get to the Oval Office.

Romney’s fundamental qualification for the presidency, by his own reckoning, is his extensive business experience at the private equity firm Bain Capital. He made a lot of money for himself and his investors at Bain and, according to his supporters, practiced modern capitalism just the way Adam Smith intended. He also, it seems clear, did many things to limit his tax liability. There is no harm in that, unless you decide to run for the job of leader of the free world and it becomes common knowledge that off-shore accounts in the Cayman Islands and banking relationships in Switzerland were part of your personal investment strategy.

According to accounts from those who know him well, Romney operates like the CEO he once was. He undertakes analysis, looks at the numbers and then he decides. Here’s a bet that candidate Romney, back when he was planning to seek the GOP nomination, came to the irrevocable decision that his tax returns would not – never, no way, nada – be released. Romney’s decision on his tax returns turned on the fact, I’m betting again, that he simply couldn’t explain, or more likely didn’t want to explain, what the returns contain. After all, it’s the rare CEO who considers his income or tax liability to be anyone’s business but his own.

Normally, early in a presidential campaign, the political guys on the campaign team survey all the candidate’s weak spots and develop a strategy to deal with each. The conventional political wisdom, under the first rule of crisis management, would have had Romney quietly dump all his returns back to his Massachusetts governorship days well in advance of the hand-to-hand combat stage of the campaign. Bill Clinton perfected the “document dump,” a massive release of information, often on a Friday before a holiday weekend, that got the whole mess out at once with surrogates teed up to explain what all the information meant.

Again, I’m guessing, but I’d bet that Romney’s campaign never had a serious discussion about releasing his tax returns. Rather CEO-like Romney just told his advisers what he had decided. End of discussion. Now, months later, the no-release-of-tax-returns issue is coming back to haunt the campaign big time.

Here’s Romney “explaining” that decision to Fox News over the weekend: “The Obama people keep on wanting more and more and more – more things to pick through, more things for their opposition research to try to make a mountain out of, and to distort, and to be dishonest about. … [I]f we want to talk about transparency, the real issue is: Why has this president used his presidential power, and executive privilege, to keep the information about the Fast and Furious program from being explained to the American people?”

Trouble is Romney’s explanation and his efforts to change the subject aren’t even washing with his supporters.

“He should release the tax returns tomorrow. It’s crazy,” GOP analyst William Kristol said on Sunday. “You gotta release six, eight, 10 years of back tax returns. Take the hit for a day or two.”

But, of course, Romney won’t – or can’t – take the hit for a day or two, because the returns will be both complicated and voluminous. Releasing them will provide a vast amount of detailed information about Romney’s business and investment decisions. Simply put, he decided months ago he couldn’t – and wouldn’t – go there.

Now, consider the two things the candidate’s decision tells us about Romney the candidate and the prospective Commander-in-Chief. The first is about managing risk and the second about understanding expectations.

It was completely predictable that a candidate reportedly worth $250 million would have to deal with serious questions about his finances and investments on the road to the White House. Romney’s strategy, to the extent there is one, has been to deny that his tax returns, investments and Bain Capital decisions are anyone’s business. But that stance ignores the reality of modern politics. There is no cone of silence around such things, particularly when you are likely the most well-to-do guy seeking the Oval Office in modern times and doing so by making the argument that your business career better prepares you for the job that the other guy.

But Romney failed to fully appreciate that proper handling of his tax returns is simply a matter of managing political risk and, as a result, the candidate hasn’t managed his own risk very adroitly.

The second issue is about expectations. After profound and lingering questions about Bill Clinton’s finances – remember Whitewater the failed Arkansas land deal – there is an expectation among the political class in America, as well as the political media, that a candidate for president is an open book on issues relating to personal finance.

Fifty years ago Lyndon Johnson might have been able to get away with dodging questions about the vast wealth he accumulated from radio stations and other investments, but those days are long over. The modern expectation is, as it should be, that a candidate for high public office is transparent about personal finances.

How a person handles their investments and tax liability is, after all, a window into bigger questions about character and judgement and Mitt Romney has the blinds drawn tight.

The fact that he and his advisers have so mishandled the “risk” associated with the tax return issue and so misread the expectations about transparency must be shaking many of his friends and supporters.

Romney adviser Ed Gillespie, a GOP smart guy of the first order, over the weekend was trying to manage the fallout from Romney’s retirement date at Bain Capital when he suggested that Romney had “retired retroactively” from his CEO job back in 1999. That terminology, once the snickers die down, may ensure Gillespie a permanent place in the Political Spin Hall of Fame.

But here’s another bet: What Ed Gillespie and the rest of Romney’s political team would really like to retroactively revisit is the tax return question, but the boss won’t – or can’t – go there. So, the explaining goes on another day.

Tomorrow, what Barack Obama’s admissions about the failures of his first term say about his character and judgment.