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

Politics 101

Lessons from the Streets

For a while during his second comeback of the GOP primary season Newt Gingrich was spending more time talking about Saul Alinsky than his opponents.

“The centerpiece of this campaign,” Gingrich said at one point, “is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” Such disconnected talk from the stump, like Rick Santorum’s Satan references or Mitt Romney singing, must leave a lot of voters scratching their heads and saying, “what’s he talking (or singing) about?” It’s a good question and let me offer part of the answer. Hint: it has nothing to do with exceptionalism or radicalism, but rather good, basic, traditional Politics 101.

As Romney stumbles out of Michigan with the win he had to have and reclaims for the fifth or sixth time the front runner label, the Republican field rolls on to Super Tuesday and what will undoubtedly be more twists and turns in this fascinating election. I’m left with two thoughts on the last day of February: there is a lot of time left between now and election day in November and, when it comes to campaigns, there is never enough time.

That second reality may prove to be the biggest challenge that Romney – and, yes, I still think he will be the Republican nominee – will face in a knockdown drag out race against Barack Obama. And that’s were the radical Mr. Alinsky comes to play. [Here’s a good primer on Alinsky.]

In a fascinating piece in The National Journal reporter Major Garrett provides a glimpse inside what Obama’s campaign has been doing while Romney has been talking about his wife’s Cadillacs and Santorum was calling the president a snob for suggesting that everyone should have a chance to go to college.

Garrett notes that Obama’s lead in battleground Michigan is now 18 points over Romney with all the talk of auto bailouts and contraception working to the president’s advantage. But Garrett’s real political insight in contained in this description of what the Obama campaign is doing on the ground in states that will be pivotal in the fall.

“While Republicans have been competing in Arizona and Michigan, the Obama campaign has been stepping up its voter-identification and mobilization efforts,” Garrett writes. “The reelection campaign already has eight offices in Michigan—in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Warren, Pontiac, Ann Arbor, Flint, Lansing, and Kalamazoo. In Arizona, three offices are open in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Tucson. Another will open soon in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale and will focus on Hispanic outreach.

“The campaign is also aggressively organizing voter-registration drives and social events to contact new voters. From now until March 31, the reelection has 73 such events scheduled in Detroit, 22 in Grand Rapids, and 59 in Ann Arbor. The same kind of grassroots activity is planned in Arizona. From now until April 22, the campaign will conduct 69 organizing events in and around Phoenix. The Tucson area will have 40 events between now and March 29, and Flagstaff will host 16 between now and March 20.”

You can take it to the bank – or the polling place – that such organizational work is being done, often under the radar, in person, on Facebook and Twitter, in every state where the president has a prayer of winning in November. That is what you call “community organizing,” emblematic of the tactics that Alinsky wrote the book on during his neighborhood organizing days in Chicago.

As historian Thomas J. Sugrue wrote recently in Salon, “Gingrich versus Alinsky is not a battle over ideas; it’s about power, who should have it and who should not. That’s why 40 years after his death, the Chicago radical remains on the right’s enemies list.”

Come the fall, and remember it is a long time until the election, here’s betting the presidential contest will be very tight with Mitt Romney, despite all is troubles, a very serious threat to Obama’s re-election. Nonetheless, among Romney’s major worries must be the cold reality of Politics 101. While he battles for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and struggles to secure the GOP base, the president’s campaign is “organizing, organizing, organizing.”

As Alinsky’s organizing Rule 8 says: “Keep the pressure on…the major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”

Barack Obama isn’t the dangerous radical Newt Gingrich paints him to be, but he – and his campaign – are smart enough to have gone to school on that which works. They learned from George W. Bush’s masterfully organized campaign in 2004 and using the new technology now available they adapted those lessons to 2008. The pressure is on in 2012 and they’re doing it again.

 

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

Off Message

Birth Control, Religious Freedom…What Happened to the Economy?

Memo to CNN: in future debates don’t put candidates for president of the United States at little desks that look like they belong in a really slick third grade classroom.

Last night’s 20th GOP debate – yes, it’s only 20 times, seems like 200 – convinces me of something I thought I would never say or believe: there is such a thing as too much debating. The current campaign season should remind us that presidential candidate debates should be like eating french fries – once in a while and not too many. The candidate’s body language seemed to indicate that they are just plain fed up with the new-to-this-cycle’s debate-a-week schedule. And why not. Debates are hard, draining and require preparation. In their heart of hearts these candidates – any candidate – hate these debates even as they know they need to do them.

While we’re at it Newt looks like he hasn’t been passing on the fries.

I’m guessing today that all the campaigns – and the smart folks in the GOP who must be increasingly concerned about the fall campaign – are happy the debates are over, at least for a while. Last night’s contest found the contenders almost completely off message when it comes to the fall campaign.

What smart guy suggested to any of the GOP contenders that with a fragile economic recovery limping along – Barack Obama’s single biggest re-election liability – that they should turn on a dime and start talking about birth control, Planned Parenthood and whether Obama is going to launch a war on the Catholic Church if he’s re-elected? In the last debate last night there was more talk about birth control pills and Syria than about unemployment rates. That is a definition of off message.

This line of debate is the political equivalent of taking the drapes down for cleaning on the Titanic as the ship sinks and passengers scramble into the life boats. In other words, it is almost completely disconnected from the reality that most American voters live every day. Maybe the social issues play with the most conservative GOP base, but the task in the fall is to broaden the party’s appeal, not narrow it.

For me the highlight of the debate was the Romney-Santorum exchange over the former Pennsylvania senator’s 2004 endorsement of then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. Specter hasn’t gotten this much air time since Anita Hill and the Coke can. You could almost hear voters saying, “who are they talking about?”

But, the biggest mistake Romney and Santorum are making is squabbling among themselves over issues that Barack Obama has already won on, like the Michigan auto industry bailout. As the Christian Science Monitor points out today: “The Obama campaign is hitting the GOP field – and Romney in particular – with an advertisement arguing that ‘when a million American jobs were on the line, every Republican candidate turned their back’ before flashing Romney’s now-infamously headlined op-ed Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

At a time when General Motors is reporting extraordinary new profits, the GOP field is debating the details of the long-distance bailout. Obama’s new Michigan TV spot neatly wraps the whole thing around their necks.

Memo to field: quit digging when you find yourself in a hole and enough with the debates already. Go shake some hands.

 

2012 Election, American Presidents, Andrus Center, Baseball, Minnick, Obama, Pete Seeger, Politics, Romney

Monday Reads

All the News That’s Fit to Recommend

Should you desire to get caught up on your political reading, here are several “must reads” to start the week:

Walter Shapiro has a tough take down of Mitt Romney in The New Republic. Shapiro makes the case that there hasn’t been a major party likely nominee since Mike Dukakis (another Bay State governor) who has been so unable to excite the electorate. Here’s a line from the piece: “A new marketing campaign or a clever slogan cannot save a dog food that the dogs don’t like. So too is it with the Romney campaign. At this point, his only hope is to prevail by using about the oldest argument in politics: ‘The other guys are worse.'”

Old rule of politics: when you’re an operative – stay out of the news, which means off the front page of The New York Times. The old grey lady profiles Barack Obama’s alter ego David Plouffe in a not all together positive way.

Plouffe refused to be interviewed for the piece, a no win position, and it’s clear he’s not a favorite of the press herd. Reporter Mark Leibovich pointed out twice that Plouffe refers to the White House press as “jackals.”

Here’s a sample: “Mr. [David] Axelrod [a former business partner of Plouffe and another Obama operative], who compares his yin-yang with Mr. Plouffe to that of Oscar and Felix in the Odd Couple, is the expansive slob to Mr. Plouffe’s fastidious detail man. At a going-away party for Mr. Axelrod last year that was attended by numerous White House officials (including the president) and Axelrod pals (including the jackals), Mr. Plouffe looked as if he would rather be cleaning a litter box. He slipped out early.”

I’ve always thought it must have been both hell and irresistable trying to work in Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Harry McPherson, a gifted writer and thinker, and like Johnson a Texan, did it for most of LBJ’s presidency. By all accounts he regularly told the boss the unvarnished truth. Terence Smith at The Atlantic website has a warm tribute to McPherson who died recently at age 83.

Lloyd Grove at The Daily Beast has a preview of the two-part American Experience bio of Bill Clinton that starts tonight on PBS. Grove says: “More than a decade after leaving the White House, Bill Clintonhas yet to release his grip on our collective imagination.  The country bumpkin who makes it big in the big city, only to stumble over his own appetites and ambitions—be he Youngblood Hawke, Lonesome Rhodes, or (an utterly sinister specimen) Flem Snopes—has long been a central theme of American mythology, at once inspiring and tragic.”

Now that’s good stuff. Part one airs tonight at 8:00 pm Mountain on PBS.

And, pitchers and catchers are in camp. The great young catcher of my beloved Giants – Buster Posey – was taking throws yesterday. It’s reported he’s been told by the front office not to block the plate. Yea, right.

The weather in Idaho is grey and cold this morning, but somewhere the sun shines and grown men play the boy’s game again. Maybe winter is close to being over. I hope.

 

 

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

The Missing Mitt

The Name, The Man, The Message

There are few enduring truths in politics. Money usually wins would be one truism. Optimism beats gloom would be another.

The truism that once and future GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney keeps finding wrapped around his campaign axle is the old line about voters first needing to know the candidate’s name, then understand the man, and finally warm to the message. Romney keeps tripping over the man.

After running for president in 2008 and literally never stopping for breath in the three years since, Romney still seems a mystery. As hard as he works at it, Romney leaves the steady impression that he’s keeping his real self as buttoned down as the oxford cloth shirts he now wears at every campaign event.

Two new books about Romney try to pull back the curtain. Michael Tomasky reviews both in the current New York Review of Books. Here is one telling passage from his piece.

“Even R.B. Scott, a longtime magazine and newspaper journalist who is a fellow Mormon and former occasional Romney adviser who tried to enlist Romney’s cooperation in his book, Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, cannot escape (and to his credit does not shy away from) pursuing certain dark corners of Romney’s character and identifying his weaker points:

“His inability to empathize with common folk had long been his hoary hoodoo. His father had warned him about it. As a Mormon stake [roughly, a diocese] president, he was kind if often impatient and patronizing with members who didn’t measure up or were beneath him in rank and in intellectual and spiritual prowess. And on and on it went.”

And, remember, that analysis is coming from a friend.

In another passage, Scott quotes Romney’s father, George, the one-time governor of Michigan and a Nixon Administration cabinet secretary as telling his son: “Forget your handlers. Connect with the people. Speak from your heart.”

I watched Romney’s speech last night when it was becoming clear that he had lost two contests – Minnesota and Missouri – and might well lose a third in Colorado to Rick Santorum. Romney delivered a well-prepared, even clever, take down of Barack Obama that compared the president’s oratory following the Democratic convention in 2008 with the subsequent record.

In a way, Romney’s speech was devastating in its detail, but still it seemed flat. What was missing was the man Romney. What is he going to do? What in his approach and preparation helps establish that he can conquer the country’s epic problems? Just who is this guy and can we trust him? He can certainly deliver the take down line, just ask Newt Gingrich, but he can’t seem to muster the lift up line.

Of course, Romney’s entire run is predicated on him as the outsider, the business executive whose lack of Washington experience is just what the country needs. He is also counting on the fact, as base Republican voters know and appreciate, that he is not Barack Obama. Still, we know what he isn’t. but what is he?

Americans have little history of rewarding a resume such as Romney’s, particularly when the voters struggle to connect with the candidate as a person. What they have rewarded, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and yes, Obama, too, is an authentic personality. Granted, Obama is cool and distant, but still not nearly the mystery that Romney presents.

Ronald Reagan was most assuredly the outsider that Romney wants to be, but the force of his personality, his warmth and humor – not to mention his ideas – provided the smooth elixir of connection with the votes. Romney just doesn’t have it, or at least hasn’t shown it yet. In fact, rather than projecting Reagan’s sunny optimism and good natured manner, Romney tried to wrest away the Gipper’s mantle by criticizing Gingrich for only once being mentioned in Reagan’s diary. It was a debating point in search of a human response.

The other current book on Romney – The Real Romney – by two Boston Globe reporters describes him as “A wall. A shell. A mask.”

Writing in New York magazine, the admittedly very liberal Frank Rich, no fan of Romney, quotes a fellow he describes as “a captain of American finance,” and a former Bain & Company colleague, as saying of Romney: “Mitt was a nice guy, a smart businessman, and an excellent team player…Still, whenever the rest of us would go out at the end of the day, we’d always find ourselves having the same conversation: None of us had any idea who this guy was.”

Romney has, of course, compounded his “who is he” problems with his many sided approach to many issues and his confounding comments about liking to fire people and not worrying about the poor. It may well be that the Romney cake on these issues – Times columnist Frank Bruni calls it Romney’s “pink slip of the tongue” problem – has been baked and that is as much as we’ll see for the rest of the year, but I hope not.

If this guy is smart, as everyone says he is, and has a warm and decent side, as many suggest, the country would benefit from seeing it. Both the Franks – Rich and Bruni – suggest that the real Romney is buried out of sight in his deeply held Latter Day Saints faith, which, ironically, is one place the campaign and the candidate clearly don’t want to go.

Once we know about Bain and Romneycare, Rich asks what is left to know? He answers his own question:

 “Mainly, [Romney’s] unspecified service to his church and his perfect marriage. That reduces him to the stature of the Republican presidential candidate he most resembles, Thomas Dewey—in both his smug and wooden campaign style and in the overrating of his prospects by the political culture. Even the famously dismissive description of Dewey popularized by the Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth—as “the little man on the wedding cake”—seems to fit Mitt.”

In 1948, Tom Dewey, a moderate northeastern Republican governor at war with the right wing of his own party, seemed the perfect candidate against an enormously unpopular Harry Truman. Dewey was a smart, polished and disciplined. He was the inevitable nominee with a record of accomplishment. Ultimately, against the blunt and human Truman, he become a vacuous and terrible candidate; reduced to the little man on the wedding cake.

In that famous election in 1948 Dewey took inevitable and buttoned down and turned it into mechanical, boring and loser.

Mitt Romney. We know the name. It’s the man we are struggling to figure out.

2012 Election, 2016 Election, Al Gore, American Presidents, Campaign Finance, Gingrich, Minnick, Obama, Pete Seeger, Poetry, Politics, Romney, Supreme Court, Theodore Roosevelt

A New Gilded Age

A System Awash in Money

If Mitt Romney wins the Florida primary Tuesday, as now seems likely, the media scrum following his every move will no doubt credit his win to his new-found aggressiveness in taking on Newt Gingrich, including his clearly superior debate performances during the week leading up to the vote. But that explanation will only be part of the story.

Additional credit for Romney’s rebound from what looked like near disaster in South Carolina must go to the faceless, if not altogether nameless, pro-Romney Super PAC – Restore Our Future. The Super PAC has lavished millions on the Sunshine State to help restore the future of Mitt’s campaign. Of course, Romney is not alone in enjoying the largess of a well-heeled Super PAC. Gingrich has come to depend for television exposure in the dispersed and expensive Florida market on the Super PAC that supports him – Winning Our Future. Other less well financed Supers are supporting Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and a Super PAC supporting Barack Obama is waiting patiently in the wings.

There are so many sleazy angles to the Super PAC story it is difficult to create a priority list of all the real and potential outrages. We are now into the second year of this new 21st Century reality of unlimited, corporate, and often secret money perverting what were our already money drunk campaigns.

Still in fact what seems like a new reality is really an old American tradition; a tradition of unlimited corporate money in campaigns that dates back more than 100 years to what came to be called the Gilded Age. So, remembering the old admonition that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, we have effectively arrived at a new Gilded Age in the year 2012. It’s not necessary to be a good government, goody two shoes to worry that the very nature of our democracy is changing in ways that are profound and deeply troubling in this new age.

As the American Enterprise Institutes’ Norm Ornstein wrote recently in The Hill, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case – that’s the now infamous ruling were the Court’s majority overturned a century of settled campaign finance law, allowed unlimited corporate and labor union money to flow to Super PAC’s and equated money with free speech – has put our politics more and more into the hands of the 21st Century captains of the new Gilded Age.

“By giving corporations free rein to meddle in politics without any accountability required, just like in the robber baron days, and by defining money as speech, the court dealt a body blow to American democracy,” Ornstein wrote. “Candidates no longer can focus simply on raising money for their campaigns against other candidates. Because corporations have almost unlimited sums they can put in with no notice, candidates have to raise protection money in advance just in case such a campaign is waged against them.”

The website OpenSecrets.org reports that the Romney aligned Super PAC has spent more than $17 million so far, most of it to attack Gingrich. Here’s where the perversion begins. Big money donors give unlimited amounts to the Super PAC’s, often attempting to conceal the real source of the cash, but nonetheless maintaining the ability to curry favor with the candidate supported by the big PAC. One has to be awfully naive to believe that a $1 million donation doesn’t buy more than a thank you note.

One example: Utah news organizations have reported that two Provo, Utah companies listed as $1 million contributors to Restore Our Future don’t really seem to be companies at all.

“Companies called Eli Publishing and F8 LLC contributed $1 million each to Restore Our Future,” Utah television station KSTU reported last August. “The companies share an address in downtown Provo and the super-PAC received the money from both on the same day.” The address listed for the companies, according to the TV report, was an accounting firm where employees said they had no knowledge of the businesses.

Other Romney Super PAC donors aren’t so obscure. John Paulson a New York hedge fund manager is in for $1 million. Forbes magazine lists Paulson as the 17th wealthiest guy in the world, worth $15.5 billion, which begs the question: why only a million bucks?

J.W. and Richard Marriott, the hotel guys, are into the Romney PAC for a half million each. Until a year ago, Romney served on the Marriott board. The CEO of New Balance athletic shoes is a half million dollar contributor, as is the managing partner at Romney’s old Bain Capital firm. That fellow’s wife shelled out her own $500,000.

Clearly the Romney-aligned Super PAC hasn’t had to look under many rocks to turn up millions. These dollars aren’t falling far from the tree, which is one reason all this Super PAC business has the real potential to be so sinister. The candidates all regularly proclaim that they have no connection to the Super PAC’s who are raising and spending so freely on their behalf. Federal law prohibits coordination between the campaigns and the PAC’s they say, but the line that separates the campaigns from the big corporate money certainly isn’t a very bright line.

USA Today reported over the weekend about the remarkable “coincidence” of the message in Romney’s speeches on the stump matching up with the anti-Gingrich television ads Restore Our Future is putting on the air. Of course, the two organizations don’t need to really coordinate since the PAC’s are run, in every case, by former close aides and associates of the candidates. But the no coordination mandate helps maintain the fiction that all this is happening at arm’s length and that there is no quid pro quo involved for the millionaire and billionaire contributors.

Gingrich’s Super PAC is, of course, mostly funded by an extraordinarily wealthy Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife Marion. Adelson says his support for Gingrich is easy to explain. He is a long-time friend of Newts and values the former Speaker’s vocal support for Israel, a cause near and dear to the Adelsons. But, of course, nothing is that simple in politics. Adelson’s international casino empire has vast interests in public policy and since early last year Adelson’s company has been under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is reportedly looking into violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

So, you might ask: what does the fact that all these very rich, very well connected, very politically interested corporate leaders have to do with a new Gilded Age? Isn’t this just the way politics has always worked? Maybe the only thing different is the amount of money involved.

Maybe the only thing different is the amount of money involved and the fact that thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United these vast amounts of corporate dollars can flow unregulated into the political process. We have gone back to the future, back to the first Gilded Age at the end of the 19th Century.

University of Texas historian H. W. Brands wrote his book Reckless Decade: America in the 1890’s in 1995. In an interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, Brands nailed the essence of why corporate money in politics has such a potentially corrosive effect.

“Any capitalist economy,” Brands said in the C-SPAN interview, ” is based on the notion of economic self-interest. And, you know, if you put it another way, you can — if you’re not being too complimentary, you can call it greed. And our economy runs as much on those lines as it did back then [the 1890’s] – maybe not quite as much. There’s a government safety net now to deal with those people who were falling out the bottom of the economy during the 1890s. But, certainly, I mean, the idea of profits, and I’m certainly not going to criticize profit. But, nonetheless, the idea of economic self-interest is definitely as much a motive.”

The question to ask of our democracy in this new Gilded Age is how any candidate, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how honest, can escape the human impact of a well-heeled friend donating a few million to help get him elected?

And granting that the casino owners, the hotel operators, the unions and the guy running the non-business businesses in Utah may truly value the particular approach and policies of a particular candidate, we also can’t deny that each has a self-interest. We all have a self-interest, but not all of us can buy so much free speech or so much access.

Justice Anthony Kennedy rather unbelievably wrote in his opinion in the Citizens case,  “[The Court majority] now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

You wonder if Mr. Justice Kennedy has been following the campaign so far.

At a time when growing concerns about income distribution in America collide with a mounting distrust of most of our national institutions, including corporations, the Congress and the Presidency, the Supreme Court has, by opening the flood gates to unlimited corporate money in our elections, given us even more cause to doubt the fairness and sustainability of our democratic system.

As H.W. Brands noted in his history of the first reckless decade in the 1890’s, the greed and corruption that seemed to seep into every facet of America life in the first Gilded Age became so serious that only two political alternatives seemed possible – revolution or reform. Thankfully, the country took the path of reform and Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson ushered in a Progressive Era in response to the Gilded Age.

One of T.R.’s Progressive Era reforms was to ban corporate money from political campaigns. That ban lasted for 100 years. That ban ended, and a new Gilded Age began, with a breathtakingly impactful Supreme Court decision two years ago.

As one of the beneficiaries of the excesses of the Gilded Age, Tammany political boss George Washington Plunkett, famously said, there is dishonest graft and honest graft. Plunkett went in for the honest variety. As he said, “I might sum up the whole thing by sayin: I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

 

2012 Election, Baseball, Gingrich, Minnick, Pete Seeger, Politics, Romney

Mitt’s Errors

Good Campaigns – and Candidates – Avoid This Stuff

In tennis they call what Mitt Romney has been doing for the last couple of weeks “unforced errors.” In football, Romney has been committing turnovers in the red zone. His primary game has been the political equivalent of fumbling on the six yard line. In my long ago basketball playing days we called what Mittens has been doing – Mittens is what the ever nasty, but always with a smile Maureen Dowd has taken to calling Romney – “blowing the bunny.” That was pickup game short hand for missing the easy, uncontested layup – the bunny.

Romney made millions, as we now read in the papers every day, by the careful, calculating, some would say ruthless, takeover and remodeling of corporations. Corporations may not be people, but they are apparently more accommodating to Romney’s management style than the grueling primary quicksand that now threatens to sink him in Florida.

At the moment when the once secure frontrunner should have been stretching for a victory lap, Romney’s unforced errors – three of them seem particularly egregious – have given the twice dead Newt Gingrich a new lease on life. The Gingrich who stole South Carolina in Jon Stewart’s way of thinking must be close to exhausting his nine lives, but that is another story for another day.

Mitt’s three missed layups – his tax returns, Bain Capital and Romneycare – deserve the bunny label because any campaign operative worth his or her salt should have ground down these issues months – years? – ago and found a way to talk about them, or at least front end them, in a way that would not threaten to cripple his campaign. The unforced campaign errors that plague the Romney camp again prove that business experience rarely translates to political agility.

It is now widely reported that Romney is likely the wealthiest guy who has ever aspired to the Oval Office. It was a no brainer months ago that his tax returns and his personal and family wealth would be an issue in the campaign, particularly in light of the Occupy movement, the continuing fallout over big Wall Street pay days and the partisan debate over taxes on the most wealthy Americans. The campaign should have seen this coming like a Form 1040 in the mail.

The Romney campaign could have – and should have – quietly released his tax returns during the dog days of last August; packaged not as it played out as a purely defensive move on the candidate’s part, but as an “I’ve got nothing to hide” moment of transparency. The release could have been handed to an individual reporter who could have been given open access to the candidate’s financial and legal advisers. Such a move would have been the best chance to ensure a complete, fair story that might have been less about politics and more about economics and how the tax code really works.

Sure I’ve done well, Mitt could have said, and I want all Americans to have a chance to do well, too. And as for this capital gains tax rate that Obama keeps harping about – guess what? It works! I worked hard, made money and now I’m investing in other companies just like they tell you it works at the Harvard Business School.

Romney would have gotten plenty of questions about his taxes, but those questions would not have made news on the eve of the Florida primary and wouldn’t have given Newt Gingrich, he with his own bundle of secrets, an issue to bash him over the head with. And, while we’re assessing unforced errors, what smart campaign operator decided that once the Romney returns were going to be dumped that it should happen right in the middle of the run –up to Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech? Half a brain might have correctly concluded that the president’s speech would be all about the struggling middle class in contrast to the Thurston Howell III class? Obama speaks now for the middle class, Mitt for those with Swiss bank accounts.

Fumble number two involves Romney’s unbelievably clumsy handling of his Bain Capital story. His work as a private equity whiz is the absolute centerpiece of his personal narrative, which holds that his kind of business experience is just what the country needs right now. Yet, the campaign never fleshed out the narrative beyond the fact that Romney worked at Bain and created “thousands of jobs.” What did he learn about the country working there? Why do the lessons apply to politics and governing? What management style would he bring to the Executive Branch? Zilch on all that from Mittens.

Smartly answering those questions with appropriate verification, endorsement from people he worked with and from companies he turned around could have been a powerful narrative. His handling of his Bain story has become, rather than a strong positive, a combination of Gordon Gekko of Wall Street meets Mr. Potter of Bedford Falls. Suddenly Romney’s business career is a real liability.

One now completely obvious thing the Romney campaign could have done months ago and had ready in the can: its own 30 minute film version of Romney’s story at Bain. Instead the campaign now finds itself reduced to defending capitalism – or in Rick Perry’s one good line of the campaign “vulture capitalism” – in the abstract rather than extolling the details of a credible story of job creation and economic growth. Romney’s handling of his Bain history reminds me of how badly the 2004 Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, did in managing his Vietnam War record. The strongest piece of Kerry’s story was laid waste by the Swift Boat attacks and he never recovered.

Finally, Romney, as we are about to see in Florida, has kicked his health reform story out of bounds on fourth down and short.

Romneycare, the Massachusetts version of health insurance reform that Mitt championed as governor and now avoids like swine flu, may have been the most obvious issue his campaign needed to manage. He still hasn’t found a credible way to talk about the issue and a Gingrich supporting Super PAC is now on the air in Florida with the completely predictable attack that Romney has not yet found a way a deflect.

In every serious campaign a candidate will be dished a few unwelcoming surprises. Given the long slog we put these people through it’s a given there will be the quip that sounded funny in the head, but turns out to not be so funny played over and over on television. The “you’re likable enough, Hillary” moment “or the clinging to guns and God” line that offers a rare glimpse inside what a politician really thinks. These moments are bad enough and force campaigns into damage control.

It’s the unforced errors, the mistakes made due to lack of planning, lack of attention to detail or inability to really self reflect that often hurt the most. After all, they can often be avoided if a candidate and a campaign are really on the top of their game. Romney clearly isn’t. He best get better really fast.

 

2012 Election, Andrus, Baseball, Biden, Election of 1944, FDR, Lincoln, Minnick, Paul, Pete Seeger, Politics, Romney

Dumping the Veep

Pulling a Garner or a Hannibal Hamlin

John Nance Garner is mostly forgotten now days. If he’s remembered for anything it was for his alleged pity comment that the “vice presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.” There is some debate around whether he actually said that or whether spit was what he was really talking about.

In any event, Garner – Cactus Jack – was Speaker of the House, a two-term vice president, a serious presidential candidate in 1932 and one of the few incumbent vice presidents in American history to be dumped from the ticket. Garner didn’t think much of his boss Franklin Roosevelt running for an unprecedented third term in 1940 and would have run himself had FDR not run. That challenge to FDR’s leadership coupled with Garner’s generally conservative political outlook, was enough to convince the supremely confident Roosevelt to send Jack back to Uvalde, Texas in 1941.

I’m reminded of this little history lesson by virtue of the political story that won’t go away – should Barack Obama dump Joe Biden from the 2012 Democratic ticket and replace the somewhat gaffe prone Veep with, say, Hillary Clinton?

Dumping a running mate is rare, but FDR – one of the greatest presidents by most measure – actually did it twice. Abraham Lincoln did it too in 1864 when he dumped a down east Republican from Maine with the wonderful name of Hannibal Hamlin from the ticket and replaced him with a Tennessee “war” Democratic by name of Andrew Johnson. The rest is history as they say.

Roosevelt second dumping took place in 1944 when the man he had handpicked to be vice president four years earlier, Henry Wallace of Iowa, was demoted and a not very well regarded Missouri Senator name of Harry Truman replaced him. On such decisions history turns.

In each case, the incumbent president made the decision to change vice presidents in order to strengthen the ticket. FDR wanted to run with a known liberal in 1940 and by 1944 Wallace had become a liability to the Democratic ticket so the safe Truman was ushered in. In 1864, facing a serious challenge from a “peace” Democrat Gen. George McClellan, and with the Civil War not going all that well, Lincoln aimed to create a national unity ticket by inviting a loyal Democrat from a southern state to balance the ticket. Once could argue that in each case the reshuffling strengthened the ticket and the president who made what must be a tough call was re-elected.

(Gerald Ford dumped Nelson Rockefeller in 1976 and replaced him with Bob Dole, but the circumstances were much different than the FDR or Lincoln scenarios. Neither Republican was elected for starters.)

So, will – or should – Obama shuffle the ticket this year? New York Times columnist Bill Keller says he should since the move would do “more to guarantee Obama’s re-election than anything else the Democrats can do.”

Columnist Jonathan Alter wrote last October that “if it’s clear that Democrats need to do something dramatic to avoid losing the White House, the Switcheroo will happen” simply because everyone involved will bury their pride to keep the GOP from taking over all three branches of the federal government in the next election.

Most of the speculation about “the Switheroo” has Biden getting a better consolation prize, the State Department, than Garner, Wallace or Hamlin did. Garner left public life in 1941, Wallace took the less than glamorous job of Secretary of Commerce and later ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket, and Lincoln briefly considered, and didn’t follow through, on the notion of making Hamlin Secretary of the Treasury. Hamlin eventually returned to Washington for two terms in the U.S. Senate before retiring for good in 1880.

For her part Clinton – and her husband – seems to disavow any interest in making the big switch, even while folks like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich make the case for it.

So what will President Obama do? Hold tight with Biden? Make a big splash with a switch? Obama, apparently not much of a hands on manager who clearly doesn’t like drama, will want to practice the first rule of vice presidents – do no harm. If he thinks he can win with Biden he’ll stick with him.

If, on the other hand, come July Republican nominee Mitt Romney has the lead in the polls and momentum, Obama might go for the big gesture. He is a student of history and surely knows that dumping a vice president, if done with a certain calmness and style, actually helped the two presidents he most admires – FDR and Lincoln. Putting Hillary on the ticket would, of course, generate as much buzz as John McCain sparked when he plucked Sarah Palin out of Alaskan obscurity. But Obama won’t have to worry about Clinton answering Katie Couric’s question about what newspapers she reads.

Hillary just might be a game changer.

 

2012 Election, American Presidents, Baseball, Campaign Finance, Clinton, Minnick, Montana, Obama, Pete Seeger, Poetry, Politics, Romney

Following More Money

Are Corporations People, My Friend?

It is rare – very rare – that a state Supreme Court rises up on its hind legs and says to the United States Supreme Court we think you blew it.

Yet, that is pretty much what the seven member Montana Supreme Court said just before the New Year with a decision that seems sure to get the ultra-controversial Citizens United corporate campaign finance case back before John Roberts and Company very soon.

Citizens United is the case, you will recall, that President Obama denounced in his State of the Union speech. The U.S. Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision, decided 5-4, not only overturned a century of settled campaign finance law, but served to midwife the unprecedented level of unregulated and mostly undisclosed spendingof the so called Super PAC’s in the current Republican presidential primary process.

According to recent news reports, Newt Gingrich was on the blunt end of more than $4 million in such spending by a group with close ties to Mitt Romney that certainly contributed, if not caused, Gingrich’s dramatic shellacking in the Iowa caucuses. This political nuclear warfare has now moved on to South Carolinawhere Super PAC’s aligned with Gingrich, Rick Santorum and other candidates are going after Romney.

As Romney might say, “politics ain’t bean bags,” so what’s the problem here? The Montana Supreme Court tried to answer that question in its recent ruling involving similar, shadowy, state-level, secret groups intent on influencing election outcomes in a state that historically knows a thing or two about political corruption.

The Montana Court, in a 5-2 decision, upheld the constitutionality of the state’s 99 year old ban on corporate contributions in state races. In doing so, Chief Justice Mike McGrath delved deeply into the history of political corruption in Big Sky Country citing historical works by the great Montana historians K. Ross Toole and Mike Malone. The Judge referenced the notorious Montana “war of the cooper kings,” the extraordinary corporate influence that the Anaconda Mining Company once held over Montana, and the notorious case of William Andrews Clarkwho used his vast corporate wealth to bribe his way into the United States Senate. Here’s one section of McGrath’s opinion:

“W.A. Clark, who had amassed a fortune from the industrial operations in Butte, set his sights on the United States Senate. In 1899, in the wake of a large number of suddenly affluent members, the Montana Legislature elected Clark to the U.S. Senate. Clark admitted to spending $272,000 in the effort and the estimated expense was over $400,000. Complaints of Clark’s bribery of the Montana Legislature led to an investigation by the U.S. Senate in 1900. The Senate investigating committee concluded that Clark had won his seat through bribery and unseated him. The Senate committee ‘expressed horror at the amount of money which had been poured into politics in Montana elections…and expressed its concern with respect to the general aura of corruption in Montana.'”

Chief Justice McGrath then continued his fascinating history lesson, “In a demonstration of extraordinary boldness, Clark returned to Montana, caused the Governor to leave the state on a ruse and, with the assistance of the supportive Lt. Governor, won appointment to the very U.S. Senate seat that had just been denied him. When the Senate threatened to investigate and unseat Clark a second time, he resigned. Clark eventually won his Senate seat after spending enough on political campaigns to seat a Montana Legislature favorable to his candidacy.”

You have to wonder if John Roberts or Samuel Alito has ever read that little bit of American history. The Montana law upheld in the state court’s decision was passed in the wake of the Clark scandal and has been on the books for nearly a century, a detail with wicked similarity to the Teddy Roosevelt-era federal law banning corporate money that was overturned in Citizens United.

In his opinion in the Montana case, McGrath asks the obvious question that applies at both the state and federal levels. “The question then, is when in the last 99 years did Montana lose the power or interest sufficient to support the statute, if it ever did. If the statute has worked to preserve a degree of political and social autonomy is the State required to throw away its protections?”

The group that sought to skirt the Montana corporate ban wasn’t very subtle about its aims. “As you know,” the group called American Traditions Partnership said in its appeal for money, “Montana has very strict limits on contributions to candidates, but there is no limit to how much you can give to this program. No politician, no bureaucrat, and no radical environmentalist will ever know you helped make this program possible.”

American Traditions has said it will appeal the Montana decision.

Two Montana Supreme Court judges dissented and made the case, as indeed may be all too correct, that a state level court is bound to live with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, even as it tries to reason its way around why a state has a compelling interest in regulating its own elections with laws based on its own unique history.

But even in dissent, Montana Justice James C. Nelson expressed outrage at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision. “Corporations are not persons,” Nelson wrote. “Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people — human beings — to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.”

Incidentally, Nelson was born in Moscow, Idaho and graduated from the University of Idaho.

The faux talk show host Stephen Colbert has created his own Super PAC to poke serious fun at this supremely serious business. Even the name of Colbert’s PAC, – “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” PAC – is an effort to show how the uplifting sounding names of these entities usually hide real motives. They might better be called “The Committee to Assault Mitt Romney” or “The Barack Obama Walks on Water PAC.”

The whole point here – re-enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United – is secrecy and unlimited money.

Colbert’s PAC, to make a point with absurdity, recently put up television ads supporting the owner’s side in their dispute with the N.B.A. players association. As the New York Times reported in a fascinating magazine cover story on Colbert last Sunday:

“These [ads] were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too — an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. ‘What’s the difference between that and money laundering?'” Colbert delightedly told the Times.

“In the case of Colbert’s N.B.A. ads, the secret sugar daddy might, or might not, have been Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who has appeared on the show and whom the ads call a ‘hero.’ We’ll never know, and that of course is the point. Referring to the Supreme Court ruling that money is speech, and therefore corporations can contribute large sums to political campaigns, Colbert said, ‘Citizens United said that transparency would be the disinfectant, but (c)(4)’s are warm, wet, moist incubators. There is no disinfectant.'”

Exactly. Montana knows something about the need for political disinfectant. Stay tuned and, if you want to understand Citizens United in actual practice, read the reasoned, informed, context rich, real world opinions of the Montana justices on both sides of this fundamentally important issue.

 

2012 Election, American Presidents, Campaign Finance, Minnick, Obama, Paul, Pete Seeger, Poetry, Political Correctness, Romney

$$$$$

Following the Money

With two wins in a row in the hip pocket of his blue jeans, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney heads to South Carolina today to try and wrap up the GOP contest. Gauging by the most recent information from the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), Romney already has won the Republican money race in the Pacific Northwest.

The Republican nominee-in-waiting far outpaces his GOP rivals when it comes to raising money in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Idaho is clearly Romney country. As of the end of September last year, Romney had raised more than $336,000 in Idaho with more than a third of that total coming from heavily Mormon eastern Idaho. Romney, who hails from a pioneer LDS family in Utah, has raised about $130,000 in the Idaho Falls and Pocatello media markets and nearly $60,000 more in south central Idaho’s Magic Valley.

[I’m not always sure what the FEC really does, but the Commission has created a spiffy website where you can track contributions by zip code and find the names of individual contributors. At the site, you can click on a map of any state, select the drop down menu for the candidate you want to check and see details of the candidate’s haul in that state.]

Romney is doing almost as well raising money in Idaho as he is in much more populous, but much more Democratic Washington State. Romney leads all the GOP candidates there with $346,000 raised through the end of September, even though the Washingtonians for Mitt Romney blog hasn’t been updated since 2007. Romney’s total in Oregon is $176,000, with a not terribly impressive $41,000 collected in Montana.

[The Romney website has a state-by-state list of endorsements – Gov. Butch Otter in Idaho and former Sen. Gordon Smith in Oregon, for example – but the Idaho section carries a strange reference to former Sen. Larry Craig, a 2008 endorser of Romney. The site says Craig “was caught in a sex scandal and forced to resign from office and the campaign.” That quote requires a  Rick Perry “oops” response. Craig, of course, initially said he would resign in the wake of his 2007 “scandal,” but then went on an served out his term in the Senate which ended in early 2009.]

Proof that the so called GOP establishment is lining up behind Romney can be found inside the FEC numbers. Former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood is in for Romney to the max – $2,500 – as is Idaho’s premier funder of conservative causes Frank VanderSloot of Idaho Falls.

Barack Obama remains, of course, the fundraiser-in-chief. The president has raised $1.4 million in Washington, nearly $390,000 in Oregon, nearly $98,000 in Montana and $49,000 in Idaho. That last number – $49,000 in Idaho – means Obama has raised more in the reddest of the red states than any of the rest of the GOP field, including Ron Paul. Paul’s total in Idaho is just north of $40,000. The Texas Congressman has raised $174,000 in Washington, $84,000 in Oregon and $32,000 in Montana.

The New York Times today reports that Romney pulled in $24 million more in the fourth quarter of 2011. He’ll likey need to spend a good deal of that in South Carolina where Super PAC’s supporters of his now on life support opponents will spend big to try and keep the GOP race going.

 The FEC site contains other nuggets of political trivia that reveal a good deal. One Paul contributor Harmut A. Leuschner of Hayden, Idaho, who is listed in the reports as a mechanic at Alpine Motors, had written 13 checks totally $425 to Paul’s campaign through September 2011. The largest check was for $100. That, my friends, is a committed supporter.

 

2012 Election, Baseball, Minnick, Pete Seeger, Politics, Romney

Like Father…

 Mitt’s Brainwashed Moment

It is not much talked about in the current Republican Party primary frenzy, but Mitt Romney’s father, George, the one-time Governor of Michigan, was once a serious candidate for president of the United States. One short television interview – the senior Romney’s “brainwashing” moment – killed his campaign really before it even had a chance to get started. Son Mitt may have become a chip off the old block with his own brainwashed moment, his offer to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 in last night’s GOP debate in Iowa.

The two comments by the Romneys, father and son, made 44 years apart, can prove to be the kind of defining moments in political campaigns from which there is no recovery. Mitt Romney’s comment apparently went off the charts on Twitter and was viral on YouTube. The chattering classes this morning on the Sunday shows – the Sabbath Gasbags in Calvin Trillin’s wonderful phrase – couldn’t get enough of pointing out how an offhand offer to bet $10,000 was further proof of how the multi-millionaire candidate is out of touch with most Americans. Romney rival Jon Huntsman launched a new website – $1oK Bet – featuring, among other things, much of the negative press about the debate bet and an old photo of Romney from his consulting days with dollar bills floating around him.

Most of us have said, “I’ll bet you $10,” or “what do you say we have a little wager on that,” but to propose a $10,000 bet just seemed what it was – tone deaf, outsized and memorable.

George Romney’s defining moment came during an interview with Detroit’s WKVD TV on August 31, 1967. Romney, re-elected easily as governor in 1966, was in the exploratory phase of his presidential campaign when he sat down with interviewer Lou Gordon. Romney, not unlike allegations of flip flopping aimed at his son, was asked about what appeared to be his change of position on United States involvement in Vietnam. The elder Romney’s inept answer that he had “been brainwashed” by American generals and diplomatic staff during a 1965 trip to Vietnam, but had shaken off that alleged indoctrination to come to his 1967 view that the war had been a mistake that the U.S. should have avoided, became a major story.

TIME magazine immediately called him the “brainwashed Republican.” Romney went on to launch his presidential campaign in November of 1967, but the brainwashing comment stuck. You know a few words have defined your life when they make it into your obituary, as “brainwashed” did in George Romney’s when he died in 1995. Romney never recovered from the remark, which seen today was clearly made in such an offhand manner as to be almost missed and, indeed, the interviewer never followed up.  Romney’s candidacy came to an end after the New Hampshire primary in 1968 when he was crushed by Richard Nixon. We’ll see soon enough of son Mitt’s $10,000 bet gaffe sticks as powerfully.

For the senior Romney the brainwashing remark illustrated what many came to regard as a fact – the guy just wasn’t ready for prime time. The great journalist Theodore White remembered Romney as an honest and decent guy just “not cut out to be president of the United States.” A fellow Republican governor, Jim Rhodes of Ohio, was less kind. He said, “Watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck make love to a football.”

The worst kind of political gaffe usually isn’t mangling a fact or even changing a position. Rather what really hurts – and really sticks – are words that seem to reinforce an opinion that is already starting to settle. The conventional wisdom on Mitt Romney is that he’s cold, above it all, a serial position changer, prickly and rich. Spontaneously betting a rival $10,000 when challenged on changing a position is just the kind of inept and telling moment that sunk his old man’s presidential campaign.

The younger Romney is going to have a few tough days as he tries to fashion an effective comeback to his ackward debate comment; the kind of effective comeback that his father was never able to pull off.