2012 Election, American Presidents, Andrus, FDR, Minnick, Obama, Pete Seeger, Romney

Stumbles

Obama: Not Doing Fine

Skillful politicians, it is often said, make their own luck. They have – or develop – the instincts to act, speak or hold their tongue at the right moment. The best of the best use language and symbols to connect over and over again with their constituents, or at least with most of them.

Politics is many things: policy, determination, intelligence and timing, including being able to read the other side and know how and when to push back from the clinch and land an effective counter punch. Politics is handling adversity, taking a punch and bouncing back. Politics is also performance and performance is the ability to convey a story, a story that connects both intellectually and emotionally.

Last week was the week when, I suspect, Barack Obama went from a presumptive favorite to be re-elected in November to, at best, an even bet. To say that the Obama campaign has a bad week is to say the Queen had a nice little party recently. It remains to be seen whether it was the defining week of this campaign that seems to last forever.

Obama’s no good, horrible, very bad week began with jobless numbers that showed a modest increase in unemployment and ended with the president, looking more petulant that presidential, making one of the worst rhetorical stumbles he’s made since the 2008 campaign. In between those two black Fridays came news that Republicans substantially outperformed Democrats in fundraising in the most recent reporting period.

If a gaffe in politics is defined as a politician speaking the truth, then Mitt Romney’s “I like firing people” and Obama’s “the private sector is doing fine” probably are gaffes. I’m guessing both men meant exactly what they said. Romney’s private equity experience, by its very nature, involved a lot of layoffs and Obama, in real danger of losing re-election due to a struggling economy, must be chaffing when he sees that corporate profits are screaming along and the wealthiest among us truly are “doing fine.”

The Romney camp is no doubt rejoicing that Obama’s well-oiled political machine seems to be seizing up. The president’s mighty oratorical skills don’t seem to have quite the magic they once did and unforced errors, the bane of soccer players and politicians, seem to descend on the Obama campaign like a host of locusts.

Strip away all the obvious political problems the president is dealing with; the persistently sluggish economy, congressional Republicans who refuse to deal with dramatically serious issues like the coming fiscal cliff of auto pilot budget cuts and tax increases and a euro crisis that seems to worsen by the day. All of those problems, serious as they are, might be minimized, particularly in a race against a lackluster campaigner like Romney, if Obama could begin to tell a coherent story about his first term and what a second term might look like. So far he hasn’t and as a result a stumble like the private sector is doing “just fine” sucks the air out of his efforts.

The two presidential campaigns that most resemble 2012 were Franklin Roosevelt’s race in 1936 during the Great Depression – unemployment was more than 16% on Election Day – and Jimmy Carter’s contest with Ronald Reagan in 1980. Carter’s campaign stumbled under the weight of the Arab oil boycott, high inflation and the kidnapping of U.S. hostages by Iranian militants.

Roosevelt won despite his economic challenges. Carter didn’t. The reason, I think, was Roosevelt’s ability (and Carter’s inability) to weave a coherent story about what the country had been through and what could happen in the future. Roosevelt also understood the importance in politics of selecting your enemy. In 1936, FDR defined his real opponents as the conservative, big business leaders of the country who resisted his New Deal reforms. He called them “economic royalists.”

If you wonder whether history has a tendency to repeat itself, read the words Roosevelt used when he accepted his party’s nomination for a second term in 1936.

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt said. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”

Talk about class warfare. Roosevelt defined his opponents as opponents of freedom and the Constitution and as “over-privileged.” Obama, on the other hand, has been unable to shake the accusation that he is attempting to fundamentally alter the American system. Roosevelt was fundamentally reshaping that system and he made the effort the centerpiece of his campaign for re-election.

Near the end of his acceptance speech in 1936, Roosevelt uttered some of the most riveting words you could hope to hear from the podium of a political convention.

“Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes,” he said, “but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.

“Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

Roosevelt went on to win 46 of the then-48 states, even as millions of Americans remained out of work. He won, in small part, because of a lackluster opponent – Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon – but more so because he summoned a hurting nation to join him in realizing a bright, new day. The current incumbent in the White House has dealt with many of the same issues Roosevelt confronted in the 1930’s. If he is to be re-elected he’ll need to tap into the mysterious cycle of human events and call forth for Americans a new meeting with destiny.

In short, Obama needs to tell a compelling, aspirational story about the future and why the country will be better off with him in charge. If he can’t – he’s looking more like Carter than FDR. Re-elections are always a referendum on the incumbent – what he’s done and what he says he will do. That was certainly the case in 1936 and 1980.

If the president continues to run his 2012 re-election campaign based on getting the better of Romney with an ever changing soundbite of the day, rather than explaining from where he has brought the country and where he plans to take it, he’ll lose in November.

 

Andrus, Baseball, Christie, Economy, FDR, Pete Seeger, Politics, Romney

House of Morgan

Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Manage

A little over one hundred years ago J. Pierpont Morgan ran much of the world’s business from an elegant office at 23 Wall Street in New York. The investment and commercial banking operations that J.P. oversaw financed railroads, mining, energy, steel and insurance companies. Morgan was big, so big that when the U.S. economy was on the verge of tanking in 1907, Morgan put a wad of money on the table and saved the day.

In the days before “too big to fail” became part of the national dialogue, the House of Morgan literally was too big and too powerful to fail. Morgan was the banker to the robber barons of the Gilded Age and as such earned the scorn of many a progressive politician. By the early 1930’s, with the old man, J.Pierpont dead since 1913, the House of Morgan finally got its comeuppance. The Glass-Steagall Act, also known as The Banking Act of 1933, passed the Congress, was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the big banks, particularly The House of Morgan, had to separate investment and commercial banking. Glass-Steagall was a clear cut response to The Great Depression and the widespread belief that reckless speculation by some bankers had played a contributing role in the international economic crisis that began in 1929.

It’s worth noting that the Glass in Glass-Steagall was Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia one of the old-style southern conservative Democrats who dominated Congress during much of the New Deal period. Glass, a newspaper editor by profession, served in the U.S. House of Representatives, helped write the Federal Reserve Act and then served as Treasury Secretary under Woodrow Wilson. Franklin Roosevelt wanted the tough, no nonsense, very conservative Sen. Glass to come back to the Treasury in 1933, but Glass preferred to stay in the Senate and devote his attention to improving banking regulation and modernizing the Fed. In short, Carter Glass was an expert legislator in these areas who applied decades of experience to sorting out how the federal government – and this guy was no big government liberal – ought to regulate banking.

American banking was governed by Glass-Steagall until 1999 when the Clinton Administration led the charge to eliminate the last visage of the New Deal-era regulation that separated traditional banking activity – loans, credit cards, deposits – from the substantially more speculative and riskier investment banking that centers on underwriting securities. Then-Treasury Sec. Lawrence Summers called the elimination of the 1930’s law an “update” of old rules, which would create a banking system for the 21st Century. Just how is that “update” working out so far you’d be smart to ask.

Enter Jamie Dimon the man who now presides over the 21st Century firm that J.P. Morgan invented in the 19th Century. Dimon, whose bank lost at least $2 billion recently by speculating in what are not incorrectly called financial “bets,” will testify before the Senate Banking Committee on June 7th to provide, as chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said, “a better understanding of this massive trading loss so we can take the implications into account as we continue to conduct our robust oversight over the full implementation of Wall Street reform.”

Sounds like Congress is finally set to get to the bottom of all this risk taking by Wall Street banks, but wait, don’t bet the house payment just yet.

So far Dimon’s explanation for the big losses his firm suffered has been what we might call the “we were stupid” defense. This from the guy universally regarded as the smartest operator on The Street. Dimon has called the trading – bets more precisely – on extraordinarily complex corporate-bond derivatives – hope Sen. Johnson knows what those are – a “terrible, egregious mistake” and he’s humbly admitted JPMorgan Chase has “egg on our face.”

Dimon is displaying excellent crisis management skills by admitting the obvious, his bank screwed up, but he is also the guy who has repeatedly condemned the Wall Street reforms contained in the Dodd-Frank legislation. That legislation, passed in the wake of the most recent economic collapse, stopped well short of re-imposing the kind of controls that once existed with Glass-Steagall, but Dodd-Frank nevertheless earns the widespread scorn of most Wall Streeters as well as conservative politicians beginning with Mitt Romney. Romney has condemned the JPMorgan risk taking, but also says he’ll work to repeal Dodd-Frank.

Here’s a guess – call it a policy bet – the Dimon appearance before the Senate committee will involve a great many speeches both chastising big bankers and federal regulators, but nothing much will change. Dimon will gracefully sidestep any real responsibility for the betting errors, in part, because everyone knows that even the smartest guy on Wall Street can’t possibly keep track of all the esoteric trading his minions are engaged in across the globe. Many commentators will again bemoan the reckless greed that drives the kind of speculation JPMorgan and its competitors engage in but, when all is said and done, legislators will not be able to tighten the regulatory screws on the excesses of Dimon’s firm and other banking houses, because they too have placed a bet. The Congress – both parties – are gambling that continuing to woo the campaign financial largess of Wall Street, while not engaging in real regulatory reform won’t continue to imperil the American economy. I hope they win the bet, but I wouldn’t put money on it.

Two things to know from the messy details of this new Gilded Age: vast amounts of money is being made by what can only be called the wildest, most uncontrolled speculation since J.P. Morgan reigned on Wall Street and, through all the months of anguish and pain that followed the financial meltdown in 2008, not a single Wall Street player has had to face the legal, let alone the moral, consequences of the kind of reckless behavior that Jamie Dimon says put egg on his face.

The New York Times reports that the fellow who made a bundle while JPMorgan was losing a bundle is Boaz Weinstein, an aggressive hedge fund manager – he made $90 million last year – who was smart enough and gutsy enough to understand that JPMorgan’s “egregious mistake” was another gambler’s opportunity. The Times says of Weinstein: “In the hedge fund game, a business in which ruthlessness is prized and money is the ultimate measure, Mr. Weinstein is what is known as a “monster” — an aggressive trader with a preternatural appetite for risk and a take-no-prisoners style. He is a chess master, as well as a high-roller on the velvet-topped tables of Las Vegas. He has been banned from the Bellagio for counting cards.”

If you believe modern capitalism is a zero-sum game where someone wins and someone loses, little of value is produced, few jobs are created, and vast amounts of money are at stake for a handful of gamblers, then the capitalism of Dimon-Weinstein is just what the regulator ordered. If, on the other hand, if you believe in what I’ll call old fashion capitalism where money is borrowed and invested in real enterprises that employ people and make things, then you might think that Washington, D.C., with its unwillingness to confront Wall Street gambling, is continuing to whistle past the next economic meltdown graveyard.

How else to explain that no one – not a person – has suffered even mild public rebuke, let alone jail time, for the series of decisions in housing and finance that brought much of the American middle class to its knees in 2008 and since. Not only has no one been held accountable, fundamentally – as the JPMorgan bets confirm – nothing has changed with the big banks. In fact, as David Rohde explained recently in The Atlantic, “The country’s biggest banks are getting bigger.”

“Five U.S. banks – JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs – held $8.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2011,” writes Rohde, “equal to 56 percent of the country’s economy, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Five years earlier, before the financial crisis, the biggest banks’ holdings amounted to 43 percent of U.S. output. Today, they are roughly twice as large as they were a decade ago relative to the economy.”

Using World Bank numbers, JPMorgan Chase’s market capitalization is greater than the GDP of 130 of the world’s countries, including New Zealand, Iraq and Vietnam. Given such size and scope, it’s little wonder the big banks behave like sovereign nations.

So, the biggest get bigger and ensure their position as “too big to fail” and even alleged smart guys like Jamie Dimon admit that banks too big to fail are, by definition, too big to manage. The big winners in this modern capitalism are guys like Boaz Weinstein who is a good enough gambler to get himself banned from Las Vegas, a place that really knows how to manage risk, but is, as the Times article says, “practically a featured attraction on Wall Street. [Weinstein] attends galas and charity events, and is sought out to speak at big events. Pictures of him clasping a drink at last night’s party appear with regularity on business Web sites.”

By comparison old J.P. seems like a genuine piker.

 

2012 Election, American Presidents, Minnick, Obama, Pete Seeger, Romney

Handling Adversity

A One Day Story That Wasn’t

Google “Mitt Romney” today and the first thing that appears is “Mitt Romney bullying,” which says a lot about a lot of things. It may just be that a lot of folks think a story about the GOP presidential candidate’s prep school years is an interesting story, or perhaps a silly story about the silly pranks of 17-year olds, or maybe a telling story about the candidate’s privileged upbringing, or just a mild distraction from debate about the economy and war and peace, or maybe it signifies something else entirely.

The story that broke yesterday in the Washington Post may yet prove to be a passing blip on the presidential political radar screen, but it may also be the first of a prolonged series of tests of Romney and his campaign concerning just how well they handle a little adversity. What interests me today is how the Romney camp has responded, as well as the candidate’s first instincts when presented with an inconvenient story.

Romney’s first response, in a radio interview, was to issue a blanket apology for youthful indiscretions and a specific response that he couldn’t remember the incident – an alleged Romney-led pack of high school guys who set up a frightened, long-haired, supposedly gay kid and then cut his hair – that was the basis of the Post story.

I don’t know about you, but I remember too much of my school years, particularly the embarrassing stuff. I remember back to the sixth grade when the tough kid in class pushed me down and sat on my chest as I was trying to walk home from school. I had my glasses in a case in my hip pocket and they were broken when I hit the deck. You tend to remember stuff like that, even 40 or more years later. So, the “I don’t recall” answer Romney initially offered and then repeated just doesn’t have the ring of reality about it.

So what, you might well say. Who cares about prep school antics? If we were all held to account for dumb things we did in high school we would all have some explaining to do, particularly to our parents. And in the end the bullying story may be just such an event, but it will not be the last bit of personal adversity Romney faces as he endures six months of vetting before the November voting. This is why Romney’s tin ear response, time and again, to adversity is a problem for his campaign.

Each one of these episodes – bullying, corporations are people, I like firing people, the wife’s two Cadillacs – paint an unflattering picture of a guy who is being defined before our eyes and he, so far at least, lacks the basic political skills to slip away from the characterizations.

It is striking in a way that Mitt Romney has been running for president for six years straight, served as a governor of a major state, and still offers such an incomplete picture of himself. Romney told an interviewer recently that one hard lesson he has learned from his years in politics is that you must define yourself before others do the job for you. If he learned that lesson, he seems to have forgotten it again.

The bullying story is interesting less for what it says about Romney’s youth, than for what it says about how he handles his present circumstances. Had Romney said, as Time’s Joe Klein wrote today, “I did a really stupid and terrible thing” 50 years ago and I’m sorry and wish I could take it back, he’d be back to talking about the economy today. Instead, lacking the instincts of a genuinely accomplished pro, he flubbed his lines and has invited a vast amount of follow up analysis and scrutiny.

Good campaigns – winning campaigns – handle adversity. Barack Obama did in 2008 with his outrageously outspoken preacher. John Kerry didn’t with his swiftboat critics in 2004. George W. Bush did with his Vietnam record and Al Gore didn’t with his fundraising at a Buddhist temple.

Romney got through a long primary campaign against a remarkably weak field by, as Newt Gingrich said, “carpet bombing” his opponents with expensive television advertising and by appearing to be the one guy who might have a chance to win the White House. It’s a new day. Obama may not be the strongest candidate, but he’s no Rick Santorum either. Romney’s adversity is just beginning. If he can’t handle quickly and deftly a story about his 17-year old life what will he do about something really important?

 

Afghanistan, American Presidents, Churchill, Foreign Policy, Iraq, John Kennedy, O'Connor, Obama, Pete Seeger, Romney

Obama the Warrior

No More Soft on National Security

One of the great strategies in politics is to take your opponent’s greatest strength and turn that advantage  into a liability. It’s not easy to do, but when it’s done well it can be brutally effective.

The “swiftboating” of Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for president, is perhaps the best example in recent memory of how effective attacking the strength of an opponent can be. 

In Kerry’s case, a legitimate war hero – the guy was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam – became, thanks to attacks on that military record, a questionable patriot, a liar and, in some minds, a fraud. “Swiftboating” has now entered the political lexicon as a verb meaning – to smear effectively.

You may remember that when Kerry accepted the presidential nomination in 2004 he stepped to the podium and saluted, military style. That was the beginning of the end. While it was obvious to most independent observers that Kerry didn’t deserve the swiftboat attacks and was obviously caught off guard by charges that turned the truth on its head, it’s also true that he  and his campaign did a horrible job responding. Still, the well-bankrolled truth turning – an early glimpse of what we’ll see this fall from Super PAC’s – worked remarkably well and George W. Bush, the guy who actually had avoided Vietnam service, got re-elected.

[I’ll offer the not terribly original prediction that the “swiftboating” of John Kerry will be studied years from now by political analysts as a classic example of a big smear that was improperly handled by the candidate-victim.]

The 2004 attacks on Kerry also worked, in part, because they seemed to confirm a narrative, dating back to George McGovern in 1972, that Democrats just aren’t as truthworthy when it comes to the nation’s security as Republicans. Ironically, McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot who opposed the Vietnam War, also did not – or chose not – to make a virtue of his distinguished military record. Not until Stephen Ambrose’s 2001 book – The Wild Blue – that featured McGovern’s story did many Americans know that the South Dakota senator and presidential candidate was a genuine, if deeply conflicted, hero of the Greatest Generation.

Now comes Barack Obama and the anniversary of the Navy Seal mission to – use the President’s term – “take out” Osama bin Laden. As TIME’s Jon Meacham has written, Republicans are “shocked, shocked” that the Obama team is taking credit, politicizing if you will, the bringing to justice of the world’s foremost terrorist.

“Here, however, is the issue,” Meacham writes. “Since at least 1968, Democrats have traditionally been more circumspect than their Republican foes in presidential politics. The lesson of the Clinton years and of Obama’s win of both the nomination and the general election in 2008 is that Democrats need to be as tough as JFK was (tough was a favorite Kennedy term). Is the bin Laden ad fair to Romney? No, not really. But politics is not for the faint of heart.”

Here’s my take: Obama has so far been successful in taking away from Republicans one of the historically sharpest arrows in their quiver. Try as they might, Republicans and their presidential candidate can’t pull a Kerry or McGovern on Obama. The GOP and some commentators charge that Obama has overplayed the bin Laden events of a year ago and maybe so, but here’s the issue in that regard: any day Mitt Romney is talking about foreign policy, and he’s been talking about it for days, is a bad day for his campaign.

Obama owns these issues in a way that no Democrat has favorably owned a set of foreign policy issues since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. Count on Obama to make the case as the campaign goes forward that he inherited two wars, shut one down in the face of critics who said he was wrong to do so, and then gave the order to take out the guy who made the other war, Afghanistan, necessary.

Frankly, Republicans and Romney, in particular, are committing political malpractice by attempting to compete with the president on these issues. Rather than going to a New York City firehouse yesterday to remember 9-11, Romney should have gone to a military hospital and quietly met with a few soldiers after issuing a statement congratulating the Navy Seals for getting bin Laden. He looks weak and guilty of “me, too” when he says he’d have given the order to go after the Al Quada leader, particularly since he suggested during the last campaign that he wouldn’t.

Romney’s campaign will succeed or fail on the basis of whether he presents a coherent economic message backed by a strategy for growing jobs and economic security for Americans. The Obama campaign has rope-a-doped their opponent into punching below his weight on foreign policy, certainly not the issues Romney wants to run on, and every day that happens, Romney loses.

 As for the charge that Obama is overplaying the bin Laden success, give that great political analyst Jon Stewart the last word. After all, George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed Mission Accomplished in Iraq, or as Stewart said, “he spiked the ball before the game began.” Stewart’s point: Bush, like Obama, would have ridden the issue of being the good guy who got the bad guy as far as possible. In a very basic sense, Obama is again capitalizing on statements from Romney’s past that today look less than, well, astute.

Obama may be overplaying the events of a year ago, but as the baseball great Dizzy Dean once said, “it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”

 

2012 Election, Minnick, Pete Seeger, Romney

Rolling the Vice

Who Will Mitt Pick?

There is an old truism in politics that holds that one can go from hero to zero just like that – meaning quick, very quick. The reverse is also true. Struggling front runner becomes nominee literally overnight  and our incredibly short political attention span moves on to the next decision.

Three weeks ago the pundits were wondering if Mitt Romney could beat Rick Santorum on Santorum’s  home turf in Pennsylvania. Today they’re suggesting he select, take your pick, Condi Rice, Rob Portman, Marco Rubio or half a dozen others, as the perfect running mate. For the GOP candidate the focus has shifted and now American voters, to the extent they are paying attention, can assess Romney’s real ability as a CEO. Can he pick the right person for his Number Two? History would tell us there are no perfect running mates, but Romney’s pick, whomever it turns out to be, will be sliced and diced to the last soundbite for hints of whether he has done what few would be presidents have ever done – pick the absolutely right person.

In 1964, in part to counter his ultra-conservative, southwestern cowboy, bomb throwing (or dropping) image, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater selected a little-know northeastern, GOP establishment Congressman named William E. Miller to run with him as vice president. We know how that turned out. Miller is now best remembered as the star of an American Express commercial that asked “do you know who I am?” Most people didn’t. Give yourself extra credit if you know the answer to the political Jeopardy question – Who was Bill Miller?

The conventional wisdom holds that the second spot on the ticket is all about  “balance” – regional, ethnic, religious or ideological – and while such reasoning has factored into vice picks historically, the more common consideration is more personal and practical and often turns a mirror on the candidate rather than focusing a spotlight on the running mate.

The balance arguement put Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1960. John Kennedy absolutely had to carry Texas and Lyndon delivered. Franklin Roosevelt put Texas Congressman John Nance Garner on the ticket in 1932 less for regional balance than to remove Garner as a rival in the Democratic nominating process. Garner swung his convention delegates to FDR in exchange for a spot on the ticket. In 1948 Harry Truman picked Alben Barkley, another trivia question who actually was vice president, mostly because he felt comfortable with the older Barkley who was the Senate majority leader.

The desire not to be in any way overshadowed probably led George H.W. Bush to make one of the truly curious selections in modern times in 1988 when little-know Dan Quayle, a very junior, deer-in-the-headlights senator from Indiana, joined the GOP ticket. The same could be said of Richard Nixon’s pick of Spiro Agnew in 1968, although Nixon knew the former Maryland governor was capable of  carrying out the attack dog role that typically falls to the second fiddle.

Did Joe Biden help Barack Obama win in 2008? Or did Dick Cheney deliver for George W. Bush in 2000? Each may have helped the presidential candidate assume a veneer of foreign policy experience, but for the most part neither pick did any harm to the candidate’s electoral prospects, which in the end is the most reasonable criteria for the second pick.

John McCain may have had no choice but to roll the vice and pick Sarah Palin in 2008, a decision that looks in retrospect as reckless now as was unconventional at the time. Palin, I would argue, did do harm, because her choice by the supposedly mature, sensible McCain reflected badly on his judgment. I’m guessing Romney, the buttoned-down, data-driven former CEO won’t make that mistake. He’ll go safe and sober and hope to do no harm.

 Ohio Sen. Rob Portman would be safe and sober and Romney needs to win Ohio. If Romney is going to run his campaign based upon the twin pillars of his corporate experience and his allegation that the incumbent just isn’t up to the job, then he best use the vice presidential selection process as if he were picking a vice president at Bain Capital. Flash and dash isn’t what he needs, competence is. Romney needs a veep who helps build the CEO-brand, since that is the rationale he has adopted for his campaign.

In rare ocassions in American political history a vice president has helped win an election. More often the best they do is to accomplish the minimum, they do no harm. And – remember William E. Miller –  in the best case the vice presidential candidate doesn’t become the answer to a trivia question.

 

2012 Election, American Presidents, Andrus, Boise, Minnick, Obama, Pete Seeger, Romney

Gender Chasm

Mad Men Attitudes and 21st Century Politics

By every measure it seems clear that Ann Romney has the smarts, style and personal qualities to be a very popular and successful First Lady. But as good a surrogate as she can be for husband Mitt, it will be her husband’s name and not hers on the November ballot, which simply means she can help his campaign not carry it.

Ann Romney’s notable attempts to “humanize” her husband and at the same time close the Romney and Republican Party gender chasm may help at the margins, but most likely not enough to erase one of the two really serious demographic challenges confronting the almost certain GOP nominee. The candidate and his party must engage in that heavy lifting.

Let’s start with the obvious: if you need a conscious strategy to “humanize” a real person, you have a real problem. Last week the Romney campaign rolled out an online video of the genuinely appealing Ann reminiscing about raising her five sons, as well as Mitt who she said was often the “sixth son.” The video was a not very well disguised effort to address some of the important political news of the week, President Obama’s lead over Romney in new a poll conducted in key swing states. That nearly double digit lead is now in place largely thanks to Romney’s collapsing support among women.

To borrow a popular culture reference, this situation is a little like running the completely buttoned down 1960’s ad executive Don Draper from television’s popular period piece Mad Men for president in 2012. Handsome, out of touch Don just wouldn’t make it as a 2012 candidate and, while Romney may not have Draper’s various addiction problems, he acts like a guy from the 60’s who will never open up and will certainly never get in touch with his feminine side. Romney seems most of the time like a man transported through time to a place far, far away. He’s a 1960’s man in a 21st Century campaign. You can’t humanize that.

In last week’s USA Today/Gallup Poll of swing states, President Obama led Romney 51-42 among registered voters, and remember this research was conducted in places like Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Iowa were our national elections are decided.

“The biggest change from previous polls,” USA Today reported, “came among women under 50. In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney’s support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30%. The president leads him 2-1 in this group.”

[Romney’s other potentially fatal demographic flaw is with Hispanic voters, but that’s a column for another day.]

From Rush Limbaugh to state legislatures, the Republican brand with women is tarnished, perhaps irrevocably in this election cycle. Frank Rich, writing in New York Magazine, dates the pivotal moment of the GOP collapse among women to what seemed at the time to be a completely off-the-wall question during a GOP debate early this year in New Hampshire. You may remember that George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked Romney if he shared his opponent Rick Santorum’s view that “states have the right to ban contraception.”

Romney ridiculed the question, the audience booed George and most of us chalked it up to Stephanopoulos getting too little sleep because of his early morning TV duties.

But, as Rich notes, Santorum’s birth control views just made him “an advance man for a rancorous national brawl about to ambush an unsuspecting America that thought women’s access to birth control had been resolved by the ­Supreme Court almost a half century ago.”

Meanwhile in state legislatures from Virginia to Idaho, anti-abortion themed legislation requiring women to undergo an ultrasound procedure as part of the visit to a physician prior to being able to access abortion services immediately became a potent symbol for what Democrats have begun to call “a war on women.” Whether its a war of not, the backlash over the ultrasound proposals was immediate and stunning in its intensity. After passing mandatory ultrasound legislation in the Idaho State Senate, legislative Republicans in the even more conservative Idaho House of Representatives heard from their constituents – their female Republican constituents – and suddenly discovered that the best place for the ultrasound legislation was in the bottom of a committee chairman’s desk drawer.

From personal experience I can attest to the fact that last time Idaho had a high-profile debate about abortion that carried with it national overtones – that was 1990 when then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus vetoed legislation that was not only harshly anti-female, but would have sent the state into years of litigation – the incumbent governor’s re-election was secured when he stood solidly against nationally-inspired legislation that was properly seen by women – and many men – as draconian. Conservative women flocked to Andrus, I’m convince not just because of his courageous veto, but because he displayed both toughness and compassion. In other words, the issue was a test of character. Andrus passed the test and voters – women included – could warmly relate to such attributes, which explains why Romney and the GOP are hurting with women.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, you may remember, lost her party’s nomination in 2010 to a Tea Party-backed opponent. She then mounted an nearly unprecedented write-in campaign in the general election that returned her to the Senate. Murkowski is what passes for a moderate in the national GOP these days and comments she made last week in her state place a stark frame around the problem Romney must fix if he hopes to win the White House in November.

“I think what you’re sensing is a fear, a concern that women feel threatened, that a long settled issue might not be settled,” Murkowski said on a radio talk show in Homer, Alaska last week. As the Homer News reported, “[Murkowski] cited things like conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about a female Georgetown University law student, which Murkowski called ‘offensive, horribly offensive.'”

“To have those kind of slurs against a woman … you had candidates who want to be our president not say, ‘That’s wrong. That’s offensive.’ They did not condemn the rhetoric,” Murkowski said.

The paper continued, “From her perspective as a Republican, Murkowski said she can’t understand why some in her party have raised reproductive rights as an issue.”

“It makes no sense to make this attack on women,” she said. “If you don’t feel this is an attack, you need to go home and talk to your wife and your daughters.”

So, while national unemployment numbers released last week should be confirming the GOP’s laser-like focus on the economy as the on issue that really threatens the White House incumbent, the campaign narrative for a solid week has been “war on women” and his party’s and Romney’s gender gap.

Here, I think, is the larger context for November: I tend to buy President Obama’s assertion last week that women simply don’t vote as some monolithic block that is up for grabs for a skillful candidate who appeals to the magic mix of “women’s issues.”

When it comes to politics, women are discerning voters – period. What the toxic issues mix has done to Romney and the GOP is to provide for many women – and men – a lens through which it’s possible to get a definitive glimpse of “the unzipped” Mitt, as wife Ann might say. Had Romney even a little finesse in handling these gender bending issues – think of his stumbling answer to whether Augusta National ought to allow women members or his tepid reaction to Limbaugh’s sexist bashing of an outspoken female law student – he could send all voters, particularly women, a message that he gets real life beyond his private equity experience and Ann’s two Cadillacs.

Still, rather that providing the cause of the gender chasm, the “women’s issues” mix really provides a footnote for reference on Romney’s real problem with discerning voters – they just aren’t into him. As conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote recently, “It is entirely possible that women simply aren’t that into Mitt. He’s just not their kind of guy. Health care, taxes, budgets, debt ceilings, capacity utilization, Chinese currency: so important. But at the end of the day — does he have “it”?

Parker goes on to say, “His wife says he does, but then she knows the unzipped Mitt. The question for American women is, do they really want to go there?”

In politics, of course, issues do matter, but discerning voters can sift the issues for what really matters; indications of character and connection. They may not want the candidates unzipped, but most voters do want to support candidates with whom they are comfortable, with whom they can – here’s that magic political word – connect.

Women are sending a pretty simple message: If there is no connection, there will be no Romney election.  

 

Golf, Romney, Rural America, Updike

The Master

Spring, Golf and Poetry

They are playing golf at Augusta today and that is occasion enough to connect the ancient game with the season of the azaleas and a writer who both loved golf and wrote about it – if didn’t always play it – with the grace of a poet.

The late, great John Updike is best remembered for his novels, but golfers who love the language, as well as the game, remember him for his singular ability to write exceedingly well about golf, while capturing the feel of the individual confronting the game.

Asked to write about golf as a hobby Updike said it wasn’t. “Hobbies take place in the cellar and smell of airplane glue. Nor is golf, though some men turn it into such, meant to be a profession or a pleasure. Indeed, few sights are more odious on the golf course than a sauntering, beered-up foursome obviously having a good time. Some golfers, we are told, enjoy the landscape; but properly the landscape shrivels and compresses into the grim, surrealistically vivid patch of grass directly under the golfer’s eyes as he morosely walks toward where he thinks his ball might be.”

Everyone who has played golf knows that feeling.

Updike wrote like a Masters champion, but like most of us played like a duffer; an 18 handicap duffer who could put into words what it means – against all odds and despite any real ability – when you finally strike the perfect shot.

“Once in a while,” Updike wrote in 1973 in a piece for The New York Times, “a 7-iron rips off the clubface with that pleasant tearing sound, as if pulling a zipper in space, and falls toward the hole like a raindrop down a well; or a drive draws sweetly with the bend of the fairway and disappears, still rolling, far beyond the applauding sprinkler, these things happen in spite of me, and not because of me, and in that sense I am free, on the golf course, as nowhere else.”

Michael Bamberger, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, wrote a sweet little piece in 2009 about playing a round of golf with Updike. The great writer had written Bamberger a fan letter – he liked a book Bamberger had done – and suggested a game. What a thrill.

So, golfers everywhere will wonder this week if Tiger is really back? Will a European – or an Argentine, or Irishman – capture a loud green jacket this Sunday? While Bobby Jones’ ghost stalks the fairways in Georgia, John Updike’s ghost reminds us of the eternal grace of the simplest, yet most difficult game.

“There was clearly great charm and worth in a sport so quaintly perverse in its basic instructions,” Updike once wrote. “Hit down to make the ball rise. Swing easy to make it go far. Finish high to make it go straight.”

If only we could do it as well as he wrote about it.

  

2012 Election, American Presidents, Minnick, Obama, Pete Seeger, Reapportionment, Romney, Truman

Mitt’s Real Problem

It’s Not Etch-a-Sketch, But Something More Serious

Typically in politics the most painful wounds are self-inflicted. Candidates shoot themselves in the foot and hobble around for days trying to change the subject, while the political media, the opposition and YouTube repeat the gaffe over and over again.

Rick Santorum had his shoot the foot moment with ill-considered remarks on college and contraception. Newt Gingrich went into the high weeds with his colony on the moon moment. Barack Obama had his “cling to God and guns” diversion in 2008. GOP front runner – and I say again, almost certain nominee – Mitt Romney’s gaffes have been so numerous it can be difficult to keep them straight. He likes to fire people, the wife has two (2) Cadillacs, he isn’t a NASCAR fan, but knows rich guys who own racing teams, etc.

Romney has a strange – and I’m sure to him mind boggling – ability to step on his own good news. He won the Florida primary and then had the CEO moment that resulted in the “firing people” language. He buried Santorum in Illinois, got the coveted endorsement of Jeb Bush and then one of his top people suggested that for the coming general election campaign Romney would just hit the reset button, shake the Etch-a-Sketch and present himself as a more acceptable candidate to moderates and independents. Ouch.

All of this is embarrassing and does reinforce the by now well established notion that Romney is a shape shifting, out of touch Richie Rich.

But here’s a novel theory for the real problem Romney faces as he finally wraps the GOP nomination with a ribbon and it’s not Etch-a-Sketch. Romney lacks a compelling rationale for his candidacy against an incumbent president. Let me explain.

Back last summer when Romney announced his candidacy it looked to the world – at least the political world – that not being Barack Obama and having a business heavy resume would be more than adequate against an unpopular president burdened by a high unemployment rate. Now, nearing the end of a bruising primary campaign it has become much more obvious that Romney’s calculation last July is faulty. Romney needs a program, a plan for the country, neither of which he has provided in any detail so far. What Romney has offered – a resume and a I’m not the other guy message – is not enough to excite either the GOP base or appeal to the Etch-a-Sketch-prone moderates.

Some might consider it an old school notion, but a candidate for president or the school board simply needs more than a resume. A friend of mine put it well, when the Obama troops really start unraveling Romney’s resume this fall he’ll find he has no rationale for his candidacy.

You can almost hear Romney’s campaign brain trust arguing to the candidate that he needs to present himself as the anti-Obama, the experienced business guy facing off against the community organizer turned law professor. In fact, Romney used that approach in his most recent election night speech. But the trouble is that its all resume and no policy.

Romney does have stump speech talking points about cutting government and taxes and repealing the health insurance reform, but his speeches sound more like cable news talking points than a program. The presumptive GOP nominee is playing the political equivalent of former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith’s four corner offense. He’s trying to run out the clock by doing nothing flashy, risky or interesting. Romney is holding the ball when he should be launching a few from beyond the three-point line.

Whether he knows it or not, Mitt Romney, and the people giving him bad advice, have adopted the same basic strategy that the Republican candidate in 1948 adopted against Harry Truman. In that election, a northeastern (dare I say it – moderate) governor ran on his resume. Thomas E. Dewey, a rather stiff, formal, but very intelligent man, calculated that he would take no risk, propose no real policy or program and beat Truman by just not being Truman.

That strategy helps explain why you’ve never studied about or read a book on first term of that great Republican President Thomas E. Dewey.

As the candidate weathers the Etch-a-Sketch moment, there is a little good news for the U.S. economy. Etch-a-Sketch sales have soared. Amazon lists the red plastic game as its biggest “mover and shaker” selling for $13.44. Romney ought to visit the Etch-a-Sketch plant in Ohio, a swing state, and announce a new initiative to return American toy manufacturing to world prominence. Really. This guy needs some policy to go with his resume.

 

2012 Election, Foreign Policy, John Kennedy, Minnick, Pete Seeger, Romney

The Water’s Edge

Foreign Policy As Politics

First: Can Ron Paul, as I naively asked yesterday, win Idaho? Answer: Nope, not even close.

If Paul couldn’t win in Alaska, North Dakota or Idaho yesterday, he can’t win anywhere, but I still suspect he’ll stay around to the bitter end and try to be a force at the GOP convention, but no spoiler role for Dr. Paul.

Now…the topic of the day.

Somewhat lost yesterday amid Mitt Romney’s re-establishing himself as the bona fide GOP front runner was the president’s sharp retort to Romney and other Republicans who can’t seem to wait to get the country into another war.

Obama told them, in essence, bring it on. You don’t like the way I’m handling the prospect that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, be specific about what you would do. If that means launching a pre-emptive strike against Iranian facilities, say it in so many words.

The trouble for Romney and the rest is simply that, despite their protestations, there is little fundamental difference between what they would do and what Obama is doing. The historic import of this fact doesn’t relate just to the president’s re-election this fall, although it does relate, but what is also involved is the removal of the issue – Democrats being softies on foreign policy and defense – that has been hung round Democratic necks at least since George McGovern. Try as they might to tag Obama with the softie label, it won’t stick to the guy who went and got Bin Laden.

Frankly, from the standpoint of good politics and good policy Romney would have been better positioned to run against Obama in the fall had he used his speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to stand with the administration on Iran. Had he quoted the once-great GOP Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who famously said that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Romney would have looked for the first time like a statesman, something few will credit him with resembling so far during his damaging run for the nomination.

Romney might also have said something like: “If I’m in the White House next year, Israel will find that it has never had a better friend – you can count on it. At the same time I will not stand aside and let an issue as important to both Israel and the United States as preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons become embroiled in U.S. domestic politics.”

In essence he could have obliquely, but firmly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to stick his nose into a U.S. presidential election. Had Romney played the moment to position himself as a serious student of the issues, as someone Americans can envision as Commander-in-Chief, he might have elevated himself above the petty and partisan. He can’t seem to make that pivot, however, and instead falls back on repeating the completely unsupportable opinion that he’ll keep Iran from having a nuke and Obama won’t.

Romney and the other GOP contenders also can’t reconcile their criticism of Obama with what is obviously the U.S. military’s caution about how to play the Iran situation. As the best writer around on national defense issues, Tom Ricks, notes in his Foreign Policy blog Romney clearly hasn’t thought deeply or clearly about the Middle East, but falls back on old lines of attack. Lines of attack, I’d note, that Obama will wrap around his neck come fall.

The GOP attack on Obama is all red meat, all Pavlovian response. As Obama said yesterday, “this [dealing with Iran] is not a game,” and he might have added not everything is partisan or can be played for partisan advantage.

The great Sen. Vandenberg, from Romney’s home state, could play politics with the best of them, but he also knew when to put politics aside. He had some nuance, an ability to finesse an issue, something the presumptive GOP nominee just doesn’t have.

 

2012 Election, Economy, Minnick, Otter, Paul, Pete Seeger, Political Correctness, Romney

Ron Paul

Can He Win Idaho?

Watching the GOP field I have come to believe that only Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas, is truly comfortable in his own skin. He’s the only candidate in the race who hasn’t had to walk back his comments on one position or the other. The guy knows what he believes and says the same. But can he win something? Today may be his day.

Paul was in Sandpoint, Idaho yesterday rallying a crowd reported to be 1,300. It was one of three events he held in the state yesterday. Paul has an appearance planned today at the Nampa Civic Center. Writing in Politico today James Hohmann noted that Paul drew his big crowd in a community with only 7,365 residents.

The Coeur d’Alene Press had this about the Sandpoint rally yesterday: “The famously libertarian candidate…saw a wide variety of attendees to the rally. Some, like Bonner County Commissioner Cornel Rasor, were longtime members of the established Idaho Republican Party. Others, like Tea Party activist Pam Stout, were fiscal conservatives seeking a frugal candidate. Still others were politically unaffiliated or young individuals attracted to Paul’s message of small government and minimal federal interference.”

The conventional wisdom holds that Paul must win somewhere – and fast – or risk running out of steam as the primary campaign grinds on. He would seem to have a far shot in three states with a GOP caucus today – North Dakota, Alaska and Idaho. The Idaho GOP establishment is aligned with Mitt Romney and the state’s sizeable Mormon population is almost certain to give him an advantage, but – a big but – the insurgent wing of the Idaho GOP, the group that has come to dominate a good deal of the party’s business, is entirely capable of sending Romney and his Idaho supporters a big message. We’ll see if they do. It may be worth noting that while Paul was drawing 1,300 up the road in Sandpoint, Gov. Butch Otter, a Romney surrogate, was speaking to a crowd of 100 in Coeur d’Alene.

Paul won 24% of the GOP vote in the Idaho primary in 2008 and won a straw poll of 400 party activists earlier this year. His rallies have smartly targeted the conservative Idaho panhandle, the University of Idaho campus in Moscow, Idaho Falls and the typically very conservative Canyon County in Idaho’s southwestern corner. Canyon County will likely produce the largest GOP caucus turnout tonight.

The national media has turned virtually all of its attention on the big swing state of Ohio where Romney and Rick Santorum appear to be running neck and neck. If Ron Paul were to pull off a win tonight in Idaho, North Dakota or Alaska, they’ll have to pivot on a dime and try to figure out why. Paul may not win – it will be tough – but if he does once more the GOP contest will be scrambled.

It was just four short years ago that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama filled the Boise State University pavilion and then completely out organized Hillary Clinton to win the Idaho Democratic caucus. Paul’s campaign understands what Obama’s did then – it’s the delegates, stupid. History just might be ready to repeat.