Baseball, Politics

The Best Ad Ever for Ag Commissioner

DaleNever Heard of Dale Peterson…Now You Have

Big ol’ Dale has become, thanks to the Internet, the most famous man ever to run for State Agriculture Commissioner.

If you’re a political junkie, or just a student of popular culture, you must check out Peterson’s web-based commercial. The spot hasn’t ever run on TV, but it’s gone viral on YouTube (an increasingly vital portal for political ads), received thousands of hits, generated national press coverage and spawned a parody. Since this is a family website, you’ll have to go find the parody yourself. It won’t be hard.

In the spot, Peterson, a Republican, rides a horse, wears a white Stetson, hoists a rifle and looks directly into the camera and bellows – “listen up!” It’s raw, populist red meat for red necks and its, perhaps unintentionally, very funny. Yet, the guy really looks like he should be the Ag Commissioner in Alabama.

A number of observers, including this one, say the ad is the best so far in this political cycle.

Peterson’s ad is, like most memorable political spots, different, funny and sharply pointed. It reminds me of some of the ads Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and New Mexico Gov, Bill Richardson have run in their campaigns.

Dan Testa, writing for the Flathead Beacon, makes the Schweitzer connection and offers his check list for a Peterson-type ad: “…this one covers all the bases: Horses? Check. Western wear? Check. Ranch or farm setting? Check. White-hot faux populist anger? Check. Firearms? You should know better than to ask.”

The best political ads, I think, give the viewer 30 seconds (or 60 in Peterson’s case) of real insight into the candidate. In 1990, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus’ best – and most remembered spot – featured him spontaneously reaching in his pocket to pull out his wallet in order to show a potential voter the fish he had caught with his granddaughter. When the prospective voter asked the angling governor, “where did you catch those?” Andrus responded: “No tellem creek…” and everyone had a good laugh.

The spot was truly captured as it happened, unscripted and unrehearsed. In a few seconds it showed Andrus to be a proud grandfather, a successful fisherman and a fast man with a quip. In other words, it provided that 30 second look into what the guy is all about.

I don’t know if Dale Peterson will win the GOP nomination for Ag Commissioner in Alabama, but I do know most people who see his commercial will remember it – and him. That’s the point.

Baseball, Politics

Oregon’s Governors Race Set Today

DudleyKitzhaberA Kitzhaber Comeback…or a GOP Fast Break?

While most of the national attention today will be focused on Specter and Sestak in Pennsylvania, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and whether a straight up Tea Party candidate can get a Senate nomination in Kentucky, one of the more intriguing races could be forming in Oregon.

John Kitzhaber, a two-term former Governor, seems sure to win Oregon’s Democratic primary today, while Republican newcomer and former NBA player Chris Dudley – all 7 feet 1 inch of him – could win the GOP nod. It is a race worth watching. Both men held leads in some of the recent public polling.

I’ve written here in the past about the difficulty of pulling off a political comeback, which may be Kitzhaber’s biggest challenge in a blue state that he once called “ungovernable.” The last Oregon comeback attempt – Tom McCall’s in 1978 – fell flat. At the same time, first-time candidates who try to launch political careers from the top – above the rim in Dudley’s case? – often stumble.

MSNBC has a good take on the race this morning, noting that in a recent robo-call poll Dudley came out ahead of the two other GOP contenders at just “shy of his career 46% free throw shooting percentage.”

No word on Kitzhaber’s career shooting percentage.

Baseball, Politics

Shedding a Political Past

mccainspecterThat Reminds Me of a Story…

I think the wonderful line is attributable to former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson. At least I’ll give him credit. It sounds like something he would have said.

When asked if there is any cure for the “disease of politics,” the crusty old GOP moderate replied: “Yup, embalming fluid.”

I have been thinking about that line in connection with the U.S. Senate primary races underway in Arizona, where John McCain is doing everything he can to get rid of any hint that he was once the Senate’s biggest maverick, and in Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter is running away from his 40-plus years as a Republican.

There is much to lament these days in our politics, but it is downright sad to see guys like McCain and Specter abandon character right along with the policies they have embraced for years. I know, it’s all about political survival in this toxic environment, but they still have to look themselves in the mirror every morning when they lather up. You wonder how they do it.

McCain has embraced the controversial Arizona immigration law like the born again Tea Party activist that he has become. This despite his courageous bi-partisan efforts – with Ted Kennedy – to force action on an immigration strategy that might have actually helped address the problem. McCain’s new TV spot features him walking along the Arizona-Mexico border talking tough with a sheriff about finishing “the dang fence,” a policy he once dismissed as ineffective.

Specter is running TV spots featuring President Obama saying nice things about him after he cravenly switched parties in order, as he put it at the time, to have a chance of being re-elected to a sixth term. A few months ago Specter, then a Republican, voted against the confirmation of Elena Kagan to be solicitor general of the United States. Now that he’s a Democrat, he thinks Kagan looks a whole lot better as a Supreme Court nominee.

These guys, both admirable in past lives because of their cranky independence, have succumbed to the political disease to such a degree that they appear ready to do and say almost anything to hang on to high public office. Make way the embalming fluid.

And while it may be true, in Emerson’s famous phrase, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” We’ll see soon enough if voters agree.

The real point of the famous essay – Self-Reliance – that Emerson’s “foolish consistency” line is plucked from is contained at the very end.

“A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

Principle is taking a beating in these two races.

Baseball, Governors, Great Britain, Politics

Second Acts

brownBeen There, Done That

You have to wonder why Jerry Brown would want the job. California, among the biggest economies in the world, is flat broke; $20 billion – with a B – in debt. The state has spent the last few years dismantling a world-class higher education system and the politics in Sacramento are nearly as toxic as Washington, D.C. Still, Brown is one of five former governors – Maryland’s Bob Ehrlich is the latest – who are seeking to get their old jobs back.

The Oregonian’s political reporter Jeff Mapes had a piece yesterday on the phenomenon – he was nice enough to call and visit about my experience – of just what it is about the governorship that appeals to people who have been there, done that.

The king of the northwest comeback, Cecil Andrus, has always said being governor is the best political job in the world. Andrus is the only Idahoan to be elected four times and in three decades – the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.

If one wants to work hard, push an agenda, be totally accountable, and available to the press and the public 24/7, then being governor is the best job around. But like most high quality jobs, being the chief of a state also involves serious heavy lifting and major responsibility. A United States senator is always one of a committee. He can hide behind a staff and only faces the voters every six years. A Congressman is part of a circus with 434 other, er, performers. Unless you reach a serious leadership position, the job is often conducted in relative anonymity. Not so a governor.

The job is about power when all is said and done. You can appoint people. In Idaho a governor appoints county commissioners when a vacancy occurs, they also appoint judges, department heads and hundreds of members of boards and commissions. In good times and bad, they run the budget and call out the National Guard. CQ’s Bob Berenson points out that governors elected this year will have a lot to say about reapportionment. And as for Governor Moonbeam; Jerry Brown sounds genuine when he says California’s mess is his opportunity.

What he doesn’t say is how difficult any second act can be. Comebacks are harder than they look. The successful Andrus second go round, for example, followed an extremely close election. In Oregon, John Kitzhaber’s comeback has drawn primary foes and memories of his comments when he went out the door the first time. Brown’s sometimes quirky previous tenure is sure to be sliced and diced on TV and everywhere else in California before November.

Still, given all the complication inherent in a comeback, it must seem worth it to those willing to put themselves through the process knowing full well what is really involved.

It has been said – the quote is attributed to Jay Leno – “that politics is just show business for ugly people.” Using that analogy then, there is always the possibility of another big role, even for the star who seems to have faded into the twilight. At least five “formers” are getting ready for another close up.

American Presidents, Baseball, Obama, Politics

Measuring the Health Care Fallout

health careA Win is Better Than a Loss

Anyone who says they know with any degree of certainty the short and/or long-term political impacts of the health care/insurance reform legislation is guessing or, depending upon your politics, thinking wishfully about the party they favor. There is no sure fire way to predict the impact. Lots of people are riled up for sure, but many also consider passage of the bill the great accomplishment since Social Security. The truth is no one knows the political impacts yet and with seven months to go until November, lots of things can shape the mid-term.

Having said that, I’ll venture two predictions and the first is easy because it is already happening.

After any big, prolonged political brawl, and this was one of the biggest and longest in many years, its fascinating to watch the conventional wisdom – the CW – shift. After the special Senate election for Ted Kennedy’s old seat was won by an anti-Obamacare candidate, Scott Brown, the wisdom from the Beltway wise guys was simple: the whole blood mess was toast, Obamacare was dead, DOA, nada, ain’t gonna happen.

CW held that the very best the president could do was cut his loses, trim his sails, buck up and take a beating. Apparently even Rahm Emanuel was counseling a strategic retreat. But wait. Hear that? That would be the sound of the CW creaking around and changing direction.

Polls taken since Sunday’s dramatic vote in the House are already showing a swing in favor of the controversial legislation. Stay tuned for even more of a bounce despite the attorneys general in a Baker’s Dozen (or more) states, including Idaho and Washington, promising legal action. Meanwhile, the retribution begins with the former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, suggesting what was once described as Obama’s Waterloo is becoming the GOP equivalent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

Fearless prediction number two: the unemployment rate on Labor Day, coupled with a sense of whether the nation’s economy is finally recovering, will have more to do with the outcome of the mid-term elections than the last year and a half of turmoil over health care/insurance reform. Congressional Republicans have bet the Congress on making the 2010 elections about health care. It might have been a better bet – we’ll see – to put all the chips on the economy. Every poll in every state says one thing – folks are worried more about the economy than anything.

There are, I think, some almost universal political truisms at play as the dust still swirls around the Washington action on health care/insurance reform. Democrats want you to believe it was a once in 50 year historic vote. Maybe. Republicans want the story to be, as GOP House leader John Boehner said, “Armageddon.” Probably not. More than the verdict of history or the demise of the country, this is politics and certain rules will apply.

Johnson’s Rules: Winning is Better than Losing

I’ve long been a fan of the Hollywood writer and director Preston Sturges. He won the Academy Award in 1941 for the screen play for a very funny political movie – The Great McGinty – and went on to make a string of classic, screwball comedies including The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels.

Sturges once came up with his 11 rules for box office success, including such gems as: “a pretty girl is better than an ugly one, a bedroom is better than a living room, a chase is better than a chat, a kitten is better than a dog, a baby is better than a kitten, a kiss is better than a baby, and a pratfall is better than anything.”

With apologies to the great filmmaker, but in the “spirit” of his rules – some things in politics are always better than some other things in politics – I offer my rules as something to think about as the next political chapter rolls out.

1) A win is better than a loss. Obama and Democrats have won. Politics tends to reward winners. Losers tend be regarded as, well, losers. Maybe the intensity around the current issue trumps that truism, but I doubt it. Bill Clinton went limping into the 1994 mid-terms reeling from a health care defeat and dogged by ethics allegations. He looked like a loser and was. Different story line now. A win replenishes political capital and support. A loss is a loss.

2) Hope is better than fear. In virtually every presidential election, at least back to Richard Nixon in 1968, the candidate who expressed the greater sense of optimism won. Think about Reagan and Carter, Reagan and Mondale, Bush and Dukakis, Clinton and Dole, Bush II and Kerry. Americans like the upbeat guy, the positive guy with the smile. Americans bought Obama’s optimism in 2008, I’m betting a majority still do and recent polling bears this out. The GOP message on health care was about the destruction of the country, creeping socialism, fear and dread. Now turn the media attention to the president selling the positive attributes of what he’s created and I’d bet a donut (hole) his optimism looks better to most Americans than John Boehner’s Armageddon. New York Times columnist Charles Blow sliced and diced the poll numbers recently and concluded that while the president’s approval numbers have certainly come down over the last few months, people still think he is inspiring – 61 percent – and that he makes them feel hopeful – 54 percent. Optimism trumps fear. It also doesn’t hurt Obama that the press loves a comeback narrative; exactly what he’s running with right now.

3) Being for something is better than being against something. Democrats, say what you will about the merits of the bill they just passed, were trying to do something, Republicans were trying to stop something. Being for something and winning – Bush’s tax cuts or Clinton’s welfare reform, for example – almost always beats playing defense, especially when you are defending an indefensible status quo.
4) A specific is better than a slogan. Republicans have always been better at the message game than Democrats, but now Obama and Democrats have specifics to talk about, Republicans don’t. Expect a lot of talk about the “donut hole,” about the end of denying coverage for “pre-existing conditions” and greater “regulation of insurance companies.” Details are good, if they can be understood. Those talking points, repeated over and over, can be understood, particularly since they now represent a done deal.

5) And, an improving economy is best of all. I began this analysis with a prediction that the state of the economy will have more to do with the fall elections than the nasty spectacle in Washington over the last 13 months. By November, if there is a genuine sense that the economy is improving – not a sure thing by any means – if American troops are continuing to come home from Iraq and maintaining in Afghanistan, and if the president is able to convincingly display a sense of optimism and confidence about the future of the country, then the mid-term could be more typical from an historic standpoint. Charlie Cook, the best guesser of which way the Congress will swing, now predicts Democratic loses in the House, for example, but not a GOP takeover. Expect R’s to win 25 to 30 House seats.

Seven months to election day. Much can happen, and probably will. Those are my predictions and I’m stickin’ with them – for now.

Baseball, Politics

Wise Guys

simpsonDebt and Taxes, Cuts and Clowns

Al Simpson, the former Republican Senator from Cody, Wyoming, is one of an increasingly rare breed in American public life. He actually thinks that once in a while our political system must try and mobilize in order to address a real problem; a real problem like the out of control deficit.

Talk to almost any thinking person in Washington, Republican or Democrat, and they will privately say what most folks in the country instinctively know. We’re broke. The deficit is a huge and growing danger. The Chinese hold our debt. Spending, particularly on entitlements, is out of control. In Al Simpson speak, the country is “going to the bow-wows.”

There are only two options and they must work together. Spending must be cut and taxes must be raised. Yet for the political right raising taxes is the third rail of American politics; a touch brings certain political death. Resisting spending cuts is every bit as much liberal orthodoxy. Still, every serious person in politics, business and the media knows both ends need to come to the middle, yet the political gridlock of Washington allows no one to move and few have the courage to talk seriously about the problems.

The old line about what constitutes a political gaffe comes to mind: in Washington, a gaffe occurs when a politician speaks the truth.

Enter Al Simpson. The tall, bald guy has a grand sense of humor. He speaks his mind. He cracks wise. He pokes big egos. He’s not afraid to commit a gaffe. The hard right hates him.

“He’s old and grumpy, and he doesn’t like the Reagan Republican Party,” according to Grover Norquist one of the influential leaders of the no taxes, never, no how crowd.

[Norquist, by the way, has a selective memory about the Reagan record. Reagan both cut and raised taxes during his two terms. Al Simpson would remember that bit of trivia, but clearly that story line doesn’t fit with the conventional wisdom of the right or left and that is part of the problem.]

Simpson was profiled in the New York Times last week because – what was he thinking – he agreed to co-chair the bipartisan commission appointed by President Obama to recommend actions to reduce the federal deficit. Simpson is already sharpening up his tongue, saying he knows he’ll catch hell from “Rush babe” and others who “babble into the vapors” while whistling past the deficit grave yard.

The political left won’t get serious either, vowing to defend to the death sacred cow spending programs. If you need any more proof of the dysfunction in Washington, I would note that Democrats and Republicans couldn’t even agree on forming the deficit commission. Obama launched it with an executive order after Senate Republicans balked. At the same time, so called “progressives,” including people who ought to know better, initially refused to sign up. Some, meanwhile, have come around.

The Concord Coalition is a sober and respected advocate for doing what needs to be done to get the deficit under control. As the Coalition, chaired by former Senators Warren Rudman and Bob Kerrey, a Republican and a Democrat, points out, both parties have made this mess.

“Consider what has happened over the last decade,” the Coalition says on its website. “In January 2001, Congress had a very nice ‘problem’ on its hands: what to do with a projected 10-year budget surplus of $5.6 trillion. At that time, the projected surplus for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009 was a mind-boggling $710 billion.”

What really happened in the last decade, of course, created the mess: big tax cuts, big spending increases, two wars fought on credit, a great recession and bam – fiscal chaos.

Again, the Concord Coalition: “In 2009, for example, Congress spent $826 billion more on programs than had been projected in 2001. Taxes were cut by $363 billion. Additional debt service stemming from these legislated changes cost $225 billion. That comes to a negative impact of $1.4 trillion. In other words, the $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009 can be entirely attributed to the $1.4 trillion of legislation enacted by Congress since January 2001.”

Republicans controlled the Congress for part of that time, Democrats part of the time. A Republican was in the White House, a Democrat is there now. Everybody is responsible, but will anyone do anything?

The witty and wise Christopher Buckley doesn’t think so. He notes that the recommendations of Blue Ribbon Commissions collect dust on shelves all over Washington. The last big commission – The Iraq Study Group – recommended an exit from Iraq and, as Buckley says, “What happened? The surge.”

That said, I’m pulling for Simpson and his Democratic co-chair, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. For certain, Simpson will need his sense of humor to sustain him as he picks his way through this thankless thicket. Al once said, “In your country club, your church and business, about 15 percent of the people are screwballs, light weights and boobs and you would not want those people unrepresented in Congress.”

If Simpson’s percentage figure is right, here’s hoping he can appeal to enough of the remaining 85 percent to get serious about this huge national crisis. If not, bring on the bow-wows.

American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, FDR, Obama, Politics

A Passion For Anonymity

FDRWhen the Staff Becomes the Story

What we now think of as the modern White House staff dates back to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before FDR – Woodrow Wilson, for example – presidents had a White House staff that basically included a secretary to handle correspondence and scheduling and maybe a typist or stenographer. Roosevelt changed all that just as he changed almost everything about the modern presidency and the operation of the White House.

When fear was expressed that FDR was engaging in executive empire building by expanding the White House bureaucracy, he famously responded that his assistants would be characterized by a “passion for anonymity.” What happened to that idea?

I’d be the first to concede that the demands of the 21st Century White House, at least in some respects, pale in comparison to those of FDR’s day. FDR didn’t have to deal with the 24 hour news cycle and most everything moved more slowly. Still, Roosevelt battled a depression and won a war with a handful of personal staffers who for the most part didn’t become household names or the subject of long profiles in the New York Times. There wasn’t a Rahm Emanuel or Karl Rove in the group.

I got to thinking about this while reading what was, at least for political junkies, the admittedly fascinating piece on Emanuel in last week’s Times Magazine. If the piece was intended to restore a certain calm to the No Drama Obama operation and tamp down the storyline that the president’s Chief of Staff is – take your pick – tired, discouraged, out of sorts or sync with his boss, too visible, too overbearing, a lightening rod, etc., it doesn’t seem to have worked.

Emanuel has been the subject of a Letterman Top 10 List, countless stories and even a sole-subject blog Rahmblr. The Rahmblr will be profiled, along with his brother, on “60 Minutes” on Sunday. Can you say overexposed?

I’m admittedly from the old school. FDR had it right. In my old school view, political aides, generally speaking, best serve the boss when they aren’t always part of the story. While there is something to be said for a political aide taking the arrows for the boss when the going gets tough, there is not much to be said for political staffers becoming the story.

After a campaign in 2008 where turmoil among Hillary Clinton’s staff and John McCain’s advisers seemed to define the out-of-control nature of both their campaigns, I had a naive notion that an Obama White House might not succumb to the usual inside the beltway fixation on who is doing what to whom among the president’s closest advisers. Naive indeed.

Political operations are unique beasts organizationally and culturally. There is nothing quite like them. Nonetheless, in at least one way, a political operation, be it the white hot White House or some backwater congressional office, are like corporate boardrooms or big league baseball locker rooms. When the antics of the CEO’s underlings or the third baseman’s relationship with the shortstop start to get more attention than the substance of the business or the score of the game, then the boss or the manager usually has a big problem.

Considering the qualities and intelligence of the people involved, it is amazing to me that Clinton and McCain didn’t immediately put a stop to the dysfunction in their staffs during the last campaign. Their failure to do so speaks volumes about their own management and leadership abilities. Stay tuned to see if Obama tolerates more of what seems to be the building drama in his organization.

I think I know what FDR might have done. He had a few trusted advisers – Louis Howe, Steve Early and Harry Hopkins, for instance – but he never let any one adviser totally dominate the administration or his thinking. He kept his own counsel, often not sharing his thinking while keeping his own staff guessing and agile, and he made sure that he, and he alone, made the big decisions.

A little more anonymity, and frankly modesty, from people who haven’t been elected to anything would be a good thing.

My old boss, Cece Andrus, the only fellow elected governor of Idaho four times and someone, as even his detractors admit, who knew how to work the levers and make decisions, used to remind his Statehouse staffers – me included – that “there are lots of names on doors around here, but only one name on the ballot.” In other words, I’m the boss and you work for me. Keep your head and your profile down and tend to business.

Words to govern by.

Baseball, Politics

Knowing When to Quit

richardsonOur Culture of Non-Resignation

Elliot Richardson was the Attorney General of the United States when he resigned in 1973 rather than carry out an order he couldn’t agree with. Richardson, who looked (that’s him to the left) every inch a pillar of the GOP, eastern political establishment, was ordered by Richard Nixon to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. Richardson refused to carry out the presidential order and resigned – on principle. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused and he also resigned – on principle. The third ranking official at the Justice Department, Robert Bork, eventually fired Archibald Cox in a famous episode that came to be known as “the Saturday Night Massacre.”

The resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus were seismic in their impact, in part, because the principled act of resignation is so rare in our political culture. I wonder why?

In countries with a parliamentary system – Britain and Canada, for example – it is not uncommon, indeed it is expected, that when a politician loses a major policy debate, faces a loss of confidence, reaches a breaking point on policy, or is engulfed in scandal, they resign. Scandals in the British House of Commons involving members expenses have contributed to the substantial political troubles of the ruling Labour Party. If Labour loses the upcoming elections in Britain, some might consider that punishment enough for the string of ethical transgressions. Still, a number of British ministers and even the Speaker of the Commons have resigned related to the scandal. It is part of the political culture in a parliamentary democracy.

In fact, the propensity of British politicians to resign over scandal caused the Independent a while back to question whether resignations had become too common. Needless to say, that is not a problem here.

With the notable exceptions – thank goodness – of the truly weird Rep. Eric Massa and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the rule in American politics seems to be to hang on against all odds and the culture of not knowing when to quit is a bipartisan phenomenon.

South Carolina’s embattled GOP Gov. Mark Sanford has been twisting in the winds of scandal for months now, while the state’s political structure heaved under the on-going discussion of whether Sanford ought to be impeached. Sanford appears to be the last to realize that his “hike on the Appalachian Trail” – really a visit to his girl friend Buenos Aires – long ago rendered him ineffective and unable to do his job. The principled path would have been to accept that reality, resign, move on and work on rehabilitation. In such circumstances a decision to exit signals a strength of character; not a show of weakness. Still, it happens so rarely.

Democratic politicians in New York, most notably the Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charles Rangel, are caught up in scandals. Quitting doesn’t seem to be an option for either man. The former governor of Illinois embarrassed himself and his state for weeks before being impeached and apparently never considered stepping down.

United States Senators routinely hang on in the face of scandal. Ted Stevens and Larry Craig come to mind. Even as Sen. David Vitter leads in the polls in Louisiana, a “porn star” is threatening to trivialize that state’s senate race by entering the contest and keeping Vitter’s admission of “serious sins” front and center in the current campaign. Just yesterday, a Las Vegas television station broke the news of a slew of subpoenas issued in a Justice Department ethics investigation involving Sen. John Ensign.

The rarity of a high profile political resignation due to scandal makes Bob Packwood’s exit from the Senate in 1995 and the departure of Harrison Williams in 1982 really stand out. Both resigned before the Senate could vote, almost certainly, to expel them. It wasn’t all that obvious at the time, but Packwood’s resignation proved to be the first step toward his rehabilitation. Williams spent three years in prison.

In 1915, then-Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s actions following the sinking by a German submarine of the passenger ship Lusitania. Bryan’s actions, principled in that he had been the foremost voice in the Wilson Administration in favor of U.S. neutrality in World War I, allowed him to credibly and aggressively speak out, which he did, as the president moved to support British and French war efforts.

Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, resigned in 1980 over his opposition to the rescue mission designed to free the U.S. hostages held in Iran. Vance voiced his opposition to the effort on the grounds that it would likely fail, which it did and disastrously so, and then – after the fact – he resigned. It was an act of courage and principle.

One wonders what the impact would have been in the darkest days of American involvement in Vietnam had a high official of the Johnson Administration – we know a number were quietly voicing skepticism over the course of the war – had resigned on the principle that they could no longer serve in a government with which they so profoundly disagreed. We now know that Robert McNamera harbored grave doubts about the country’s Vietnam policy, but unfortunately, another principle – political loyalty or maybe it was a lack of courage – kept him quiet. The one-time whiz kid spent his last years trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain himself.

Bryan and Vance, Richardson and Ruckelshaus. Their resignations were based on policy and principle and each is remembered today for an act of ethical courage. History has treated each well, but still such resignations are as rare as bipartisanship in Washington. Resigning in the midst of scandal remains just as rare in our politics

Who knows, a little more responsibility in the form of a quick resignation and exit from the political stage just might help rebuild voter confidence. That’s something the country could use about now. Quitting and leaving can truly display that there is something more important in public life than clinging to a job as long as possible, no matter the personal, political or policy cost.

In some cases the well-timed resignation also can preserve the chance for a comeback. It’s hard to envision a comeback for Eric Massa, but Spitzer is certainly trying and don’t bet against it.

Americans are usually a pretty forgiving bunch. Stay tuned for the second act in the Tiger Woods saga as proof of that American attribute. It is human nature to give the wayward a second chance, but only if responsibility is taken, the offender gets off the front page and out of the way and works hard to re-establish credibility.

More politicians, for purposes of principle and rehabilitation, should try it. Americans would come to expect and appreciate such acts of public acknowledgment, as the British have for years, and, who knows, there might be more honor and character in our politics. But, like the return of bipartisanship, I’ll not hold my breath.

Baseball, Politics

School for Scandal

RangelNot Resting, Just Dead…

Will Rogers famously said he belonged to no organized political party. He was a Democrat. The cowboy philosopher would find himself right at home in the national party these days.

Disorganization, disunity and doom hangs around the party, with its Congressional fortunes neatly summarized by a snoozing Rep. Charlie Rangel catching a few winks outside the Caribbean villa on which he failed to pay taxes.

Do you think this photo might show up in a few GOP ads this year?

The Times chronicles today the litany of scandals dogging Democrats and further souring the anti-ruling party sentiment in the country. Here is a key graph from the piece:

“The mix of power and the temptations of corruption can be a compelling political narrative at any time. But with voters appearing to be in an angry mood and many already inclined to view all things Washington with mistrust, the risks for Democrats could be that much greater this year.”

Another piece with the same conclusion at The Daily Beast. Here is the key sentence:

To understand why the Rangel scandals are so dangerous for Democrats, you need to understand something about midterm landslides: They’re usually composed of three parts. First, the other party’s activists are highly motivated. Second, your own activists are highly unmotivated. Third, independents want to burn Washington to the ground.”

The reality for Democrats this cycle is simple: the party in power suffers from scandal. Republicans paid the same price when they last controlled the Congress. Remember Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham? Writing at Slate, Christopher Beam quotes the always reliable Larry Sabato:

“I’ve always called elections the opportunity to throw the bums out and throw a new set of bums in. Partisans never believe that. They think their side is golden and the opposition is a bunch of second cousins to Beelzebub.”

Democrats are riding for a major fall in the fall and, it seems to me, there is little they can do about it because, as Will Rogers also, said:

“The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that’s out always looks the best.”

Right now, Democrats look both bad and like losers.

American Presidents, Baseball, Obama, Politics

An Election That Matters

Scott BrownWhy Scott Brown Won…

Great piece in the Boston Globe today on why Massachusetts’ voters made the decisions they made recently; putting a Republican, Scott Brown, in the Senate for the first time since 1972. The analysis, based on Election Day polling by respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart, is worth reading in the context of the president’s State of the Union tonight. That speech, in many ways, will be read as a response to the Senate contest in the Bay State.

Here is one telling paragraph: “Still the economy, stupid. The economy, not health care, drove the vote. Among those who felt the economy was doing well, (Who are those people?) [Martha] Coakley won 52-to-43 percent. For those who said the economy was not good or poor, Brown won 56-to-39 percent.”

Those findings confirm the oldest rule in politics: when the economy is sick, politicians – particularly those seen as most in charge – get the flu.

Many Democrats would like to be able to respond to the current political turmoil by saying “we inherited all this,” but that referendum was held a year ago November. George W. Bush is a fading memory and voters are telling national Democrats one unmistakable message: “it’s the economy stupid and you guys have been in charge.”

We’ll see fairly soon, I suspect, whether anyone is really listening and, if they are, whether they can articulate a program that starts to make more sense to the worried American voter. My sense is there is political danger for anyone right now who comes across as looking less than completely serious about the economic challenge.

Links here will take you deeper into some of Hart’s polling or an interesting new survey from National Public Radio.