2012 Election, Baseball, Minnick, Politics

So Old It’s New Again

Forget Michelle Obama’s speech and dress. Never mind about The Big Dog’s nominating appearance. Ditto Paul Ryan’s thoroughly fact-checked speech and Chris Christie’s “it’s all about me” keynote. Let’s talk some more about Clint and his chair.

Dirty Harry probably didn’t know it, but his empty chair routine dates back at least to 1924 when a young, very upstart and very liberal United States Senator from Montana pioneered the use of the empty chair in a quixotic third party effort to unseat an  incumbent president. Calvin Coolidge won that election and the Montana Senator, Burton K. Wheeler, went on to serve 24 often courageous and even more often controversial years in the Senate.

B.K. Wheeler may have been the original practitioner of the debate with the empty chair. Wheeler, a rookie senator, bolted the Democratic Party in 1924 to run with Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette on the Progressive Party ticket. Bob La Follette, “Fighting Bob” to his friends, was the kind of Teddy Roosevelt Republican who doesn’t exist anymore. He left the Republican Party in 1924 out of disgust with Coolidge’s conservative politics. La Follette’s politics – openly hostile to big business and banks, an isolationist on foreign policy, pro-labor union – are about as far from his contemporary fellow Cheesehead Paul Ryan as it is possible to imagine.

When La Follette and Wheeler teamed up in 1924 they were the ultimate fusion of old-style Midwest progressivism (LaFollette) and newer Western liberalism (Wheeler) that rejected monopoly, the House of Morgan and U.S. Marines deployed in Central America. La Follette made his third-party presidential run as his last hurrah – he died in 1925 – and his age and health prevented him from engaging in anything like the kind of campaigns we have today. He made a few speeches and left the heavy lifting to Wheeler, who relished the battle but grew frustrated that Coolidge, a well-known man of few words, refused to engage in the political back-and-forth. In his frustration, Wheeler started featuring an empty chair on the stage as a symbol of Silent Cal’s, well, silence. It was effective, by most accounts, apparently much more so than Eastwood’s rambling monologue last week in Tampa.

Peter Foster in the Financial Times wrote that Wheeler would ask a question on, say, prohibition and turn to the chair and wait for a response. “There, my friends, is the usual silence that emanates from the White House,” he would say and  the crowd (at least as Wheeler remembered it years later) “roared in appreciation.”

The great Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, still the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, told me shortly before his death that one of his first experiences with politics was seeing Wheeler on a stage in a big hall in Butte, Montana with his chair. Mansfield was working in the copper mines in Butte and, because he was curious, went to see Wheeler speak in both men’s adopted home town. Mansfield, later in his life not much of a fan of Wheeler’s, but a man with a prodigious memory, thought the gimmick was pretty successful.

La Follette and Wheeler carried only one state in 1924 – Wisconsin – but despite ballot access problems came close in most western states and actually ran ahead of the Democratic ticket in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The Democratic candidate in 1924 was John Davis, a respected Wall Street lawyer and former Congressman from West Virginia. One reason Wheeler bolted his party was his belief that Democrats had sold out to Wall Street by nominating Davis. When the party goes to Wall Street for a candidate, Wheeler said, they go without me.

Eastwood, it turns out, wasn’t the first to do the empty chair routine and, as the reviews continue, not the best, either.


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

The Death of Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



2012 Election, American Presidents, Federal Budget, Immigration, Minnick, Obama, Pete Seeger, Romney

Nary a Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2012 Election, Minnick

A Very Big Tent

Embattled Missouri Congressman Todd Akin and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have both made lots of news over the last couple of days. Akin for his words suggesting that there is something called “legitimate” rape and Rice for the new green jacket she will soon wear as one of first two women admitted to Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, home of the most prestigious tournament in golf.

The two events and individuals would seem to have very little in common unless you consider that the very conservative Congressman and the not-so-conservative first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of State represent the far extremes of the modern Republican Party.

While national Republicans have been working furiously to get Akin to quit the Missouri Senate race where, until last weekend, any Republican was considered the prohibitive favorite over Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, Rice has been quietly taking bows – or is it practice swings – for having broken another barrier.

As of this writing Akin says he’s in the Missouri race to stay and in the process re-opening the line of attack the national GOP fears perhaps even more than Medicare – the GENDER GAP.

As Akin’s views on violence against women get aired over and over during the next few days this story will give legs to a real debate about the Republican platform plank on abortion, which has long been dictated by the most anti-abortion faction in the party. Akin’s position, if I understand it, that essentially here are no appropriate exemptions permitting abortion, including rape, incest and the life of the mother, will be measured against what the GOP ticket will say about its likely, and as we speak, evolving position. This is dangerous territory for a party and a ticket with an already 15% gender chasm.

Invoking the rule that there are no coincidences in politics, it should be noted that three weeks ago, as Mitt Romney vetted and decided on a vice presidential running mate, the story surfaced – fanned by the always helpful Matt Drudge – that Condi Rice was very much in the running, in fact the front runner, for the second spot on the ticket. Even Sarah Palin found a Rice vice presidency appealing. Of course, Rice never was in the running because her pro choice position on abortion would have sparked the greatest turmoil on the GOP convention floor since Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford contemplated a “co-presidency” in 1980.

Again, no coincidence, Rice was subsequently named one of the GOP convention speakers just days before the old boys as Augusta National decided to publicly say it was time to measure her for a green jacket.

Some sports writers – most of them never as cynical as political reporters – couldn’t help but comment on the curious timing of the Augusta National announcement about the membership for Rice and South Carolina banker Darla Moore. Why now, they asked? Was the announcement timed to head off more feminist protests well in advance of next year’s Masters? Or was something else at play among the magnolias?

After a decade of saying not only NO, but heck NO, the mysterious process of accepting new members at Augusta found the golf club’s chairman choosing a Monday morning – a time sure to guarantee maximum news coverage – and in the same news cycle with Todd Akin to make his historic announcement.

Give the old boys some credit for good timing. In one fell swoop they allowed Condi Rice to  be the first at yet something else and gave national prominence to Darla Moore, a self proclaimed political independent and very savvy business executive – Martha Stewart, someone who would know, has called her “a cutthroat killer” – who has feuded openly with South Carolina governor and Tea Party darling Nikki Haley.

A growing and successful national party would try and find a way to appeal to women like those who now have keys to Augusta. The appeal, it’s pretty clear, will not be on a road traveled by the Todd Akins of the party.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay wrote of the decision to finally allow two women into the most sacred shrine of golf in the United States: “They did the right thing, even if it took so long, Earth is rolling its eyes. Golf is slow and weird. But progress is progress.”

If the hide bound southern aristocrats who run the course that Bobby Jones built can change there surely must be hope for our politics. Here’s a bet that by this time next week – in advance of the GOP convention – Todd Akin will be but a footnote in Missouri political history. He will find it impossible, thanks to his ignorant views about women, to survive even in a party when many share his fundamental views about abortion.

It won’t be pretty, but progress is progress.

One guy missing from Tampa next week will be the last GOP president – George W. Bush. Say what you will about “W”, he found a way over eight years to keep the dysfunctional Republican family – the Akins and the Rices – under the same roof. Mitt Romney may not be so lucky, or so skillful.


2012 Election, Andrus, FDR, John Kennedy, Johnson, Minnick, Religion, September 11, Vice Presidents

The Veep

As the analysis continues around Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate a little history may inform how, generally speaking, unimportant the Number Two’s are to the eventual success of a national ticket.

For sure Ryan brings youth, partisan excitement, strong conservative credentials and a certain policy wonk attractiveness to the GOP ticket, not to mention the potential to put dependably blue Wisconsin into play in November. Still, to believe that a relatively unknown member of the House of Representatives really could help the ticket requires a major break with what history tells us about the running mate.

Only twice in the 20th Century – 1932 and 1960 – did running mates really make an electoral difference. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt needed to give the second spot on the Democratic ticket to House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas in order to secure his party’s nomination. In those long ago days, Democratic convention rules required a two-third vote of the delegates to bestow the party’s blessing on any candidate. FDR flirted with trying to change the controversial rule that had forced the Democrats to a marathon 103 ballots in 1924, but even the popular Governor of New York had to ultimately admit that he would have to find some way to command a super majority in order to secure the nomination.

Garner, a tough-talking, bourbon-drinking, cigar-smoking southerner, was a favorite of the party’s more conservative wing and had the backing of, among others, newspaper magnate and would-be kingmaker William Randolph Hearst. Garner also controlled a large block of convention votes from his own state, as well as from California. Facing a convention deadlock, FDR and Garner did what politicians used to do – they made a deal. Garner knew that he couldn’t get the nomination for himself, but could potentially deny it to Roosevelt. A dark horse alternative could have happened at the Democratic convention in 1932 and think for a moment how that would have changed history.

Cactus Jack, a the Speaker was called, threw his block of votes behind the more liberal FDR in exchange for the vice presidential nomination. The Boston-Austin axis was created and the powerful ticket – a New York patrician and a Texas populist – coasted to victory over the humbled Herbert Hoover. A vice presidential decision made a big difference in 1932.

Another unlikely pairing, a northeastern patrician and a wily pol from the Texas Hill Country, came together to win the 1960 election. John F. Kennedy was afraid he might lose Texas to Republican Richard Nixon, since Dwight Eisenhower had carried the state in the two previous elections, so he overruled his brother and campaign manager, Bobby Kennedy, and gave the Number Two spot to the Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Arguably, Johnson not only helped the Democratic ticket carry his home state, but also helped ensure narrow Kennedy margins in a number of other southern states. Another vice presidential candidate made a big difference in 1960.

But, that’s it.

It’s difficult to find many other examples in our history – maybe 1864 when Lincoln created a national unity ticket with Democrat Andrew Johnson – where the second place on the ticket helped contribute to victory. More often vice presidential candidates have created problems rather than victories. Think of Sarah Palin four years ago or Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who was dumped from the Democratic ticket in 1972. And, more often than not I would argue, a vice presidential decision is made for personal rather than strategic reasons. It is, after all, the rarest of rare chances when one politician can completely remake another.

Harry Truman picked the older Alben Barkley, the Senate Democratic leader in 1948, because Barkley was loyal, Truman liked him and it seemed to be Barkley’s turn. There is evidence to support the contention that Nixon selected the virtually unknown Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew in 1968 because Agnew was sure not to upstage the presidential candidate. When FDR abandoned Garner in 1940 – the eight-year vice president publicly disagreed with Roosevelt’s quest for a third term – Roosevelt insisted on the wonkish, not particularly popular Henry Wallace as his running mate. (Henry Wallace is the answer to a great political trivia question: Who went from being Secretary of Agriculture to the Vice Presidency?) If anything, Wallace hurt the Democratic ticket in 1940 and FDR in turn dumped the Iowan from the 1944 ticket in favor of Truman. The GOP candidate in 1940, Wendell Willkie, gave the Number Two spot to Sen. Charles L. McNary of Oregon, primarily because McNary was well-liked in Washington and had the political experience that the businessman Willkie lacked.

So, Paul Ryan may – or may not – turn out to be an inspired choice as Mitt Romney’s running mate, but if he actually helps the ticket to victory in November he’ll be running in the face of much political history. A safer political bet would be that a relative unknown Congressman from a Midwest state with a long paper trail of controversial votes and policy positions will prove to be a drag on the ticket. There is little precedent to support the idea that a vice presidential candidate is the “game changer” that the pundits have been discussing since last weekend.


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

On Everyone’s List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve gotta check the mail…



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

Unfair? Sure…And Politics Always Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



2012 Election, Britain, Minnick, New York, Pete Seeger, Romney

Romney in London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Obama Reflects on Term – Sort Of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



2012 Election, Minnick, Pete Seeger, Romney


Romney Campaign Crisis Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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