2012 Election, Minnick

Who Wrote That

Politicians Run From Their Words

Imagine this scene: It’s May 14, 1940 and Winston Churchill has just walked off the floor of the House of Commons and is surrounded by a gaggle of jousting British journalists.

“Mr. Prime Minister, the opposition has been extremely critical of your speech yesterday in which you said: ‘We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.’ Did you really mean to make such a pessimistic assessment and is your policy merely ‘victory…victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be?’ Do you really stand by those words, Mr. Prime Minister?”

In an alternative reality – maybe – we can imagine the great British Lion disavowing his famoous words and saying, as presidential candidate Ron Paul did recently about some writings that appeared in newsletters under his name, “I never read [or said] that stuff.”

The Paul excuse, lame and unbelievable at the same time, has been used to cover racist and anti-Semitic rants that the Texas Congressman now says were never his views and must have been the shoddy work of someone else that just happened to have access to his newsletters and could publish under his name without his approval.

As the old line goes, “I was born at night, but not last night.”

Churchill, even had he wanted to, couldn’t disavow his words because he wrote them himself, but in the Internet age a candidate like Paul or Newt Gingrich can merely try to duck a past statement with, “Hey, that must have been written by some staffer and obviously it doesn’t represent my views.” Don’t buy it.

Gingrich latest explaining is his praise for Mitt Romney’s health care plans. Back in 2006, Newt said in one of his newsletters, “We agree entirely with Governor Romney and Massachusetts legislators that our goal should be 100% insurance coverage for all Americans. Individuals without coverage often do not receive quality medical attention on par with those who do have insurance. We also believe strongly that personal responsibility is vital to creating a 21st Century Intelligent Health System. Individuals who can afford to purchase health insurance and simply choose not to place an unnecessary burden on a system that is on the verge of collapse; these free-riders undermine the entire health system by placing the onus of responsibility on taxpayers.”

Gingrich’s spokesman said, drum roll please, “the Newt Notes essay wasn’t written by Mr. Gingrich himself.”

Here is a practical lesson in Politics 101. In every political office and campaign I’ve ever worked in, been close to or observed from afar, the candidate – or on a rare occasion an extremely trusted staffer – signs off on everything that is written down and committed to a speech draft. There is no margin of error on such statements, particularly since they now find an instant home on the Internet and can easily come back to haunt. That’s how it works.

Of course most politicians don’t write their own press releases and speeches, although they once did, but rather they have their people handle that time consuming labor. Still no candidate worth his or her salt would trust an unnamed, unsupervised staffer to issue statements in his or her name without first granting a sign-off. That simple fact of political and campaign life makes the Paul and Gingrich “I didn’t write it” defense indefensible.

The Republican primary season has been a rolling exercise in disavowing past stands. Nothing wrong in my book with a principled evolution of political positions. No less a politician than Abraham Lincoln went from a position of tolerating slavery in the interest of preserving the Union, and figuring that the practice would eventually wither and die, to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Like Churchill, Lincoln didn’t try to disavow previous statements since he had written them and he had the integrity to explain the evolution.

It’s OK to change positions in politics, but not OK to disavow statements made in publications that you actually control. It’s not really a question of authorship. It is a question of character.

“I never read that stuff” just doesn’t fly. It doesn’t even flap its wings.

An honest answer when confronted with a past statement that is, in the immortal words of Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, “no longer operative,” would be along the lines uttered by the legendary Earl Long, the one-time Governor of Louisiana. Confronted by an aide with the fact that a campaign promise made to his supporters would not be fulfilled, Uncle Earl honestly told the aide to tell those supporters the truth.

“Tell ’em I lied,” he said.



2012 Election, Baseball, Minnick, Politics

Dark Horse

Could It Happen Again?

The well-quoted Larry Sabato, the political guru at the University of Virginia, has begun talking openly about the possibility that the Republican presidential primary field may not be as complete as many have thought. Sabato suggests that the post-Super Tuesday calendar, when 59% of all the GOP’s convention delegates will be selected, makes it possible – if not likely – that a “dark horse” can still enter the race late and scramble the nomination math, maybe even winning a “brokered” convention.

If so, it would be the first time since 1940 that a late arriving potential president came out of left – or maybe right – field to capture a major party nomination for the White House. That guy, Wendell Willkie, was barely on the political radar screen early in 1940 and came from far back in the field to win the GOP nomination on the sixth ballot at the party’s Philadelphia convention.

In a Gallup Poll in May of 1940, Willkie hardly registered as a serious contender. A former Democrat, who had supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Willkie was an afterthought in a field led by New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey and United States Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. In that Gallup Poll Dewey enjoyed the support of 67% of those polled. Less than two months later, with France having fallen to Hitler’s army and war seeming more and more likely, Willkie was the GOP candidate charged with the task of depriving Roosevelt of an unprecedented third term. In part, Willkie won the nomination because he refused to be pigeon holed into the GOP’s traditional isolationist foreign policy, the position that Dewey, Taft and Vandenberg espoused, and because he was, more or less, a fresh face who was seen as someone able to take the fight to Roosevelt.

At that Philadelphia convention in late June 1940 – the fascinating political story is beautifully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia– Willkie trailed on the first ballot, but systematically gathered strength as the delegates kept on voting. Republicans convinced themselves that the Indiana-born, utility executive – FDR’s acerbic Interior Secretary Harold Ickes called Willkie “the barefoot boy from Wall Street” – was the party’s strongest possible candidate.

By October of 1940 Roosevelt’s advisers had become very concerned that the articulate Willkie, who was at the same time both charmingly rumpled and ruggedly handsome, had closed the gap and just might prevent a third FDR term. The threat of Willkie’s growing strength as election day approached prompted Roosevelt to make his famous pledge that American boys would not be sent into a foreign war. FDR, benefiting from the “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream” message, won the election with just under 55% of the vote. Willkie carried only 10 states his home state of Indiana included, as well as Michigan and the big farm states of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Is another Republican dark horse possible next? Sure, but not likely. The testing that occurs as part of the primary slog has become the established way to narrow the field and select the last man – or woman – standing. Still, the up-one-day, down-the-next quality of the Republican campaign so far leaves a door open, narrowly, to a late arriving contender. 

As one of Sabato’s columnists said recently, “Should Mitt Romney stumble badly in the January events in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, another establishment Republican could enter the race in early February and still compete directly in states with at least 1,200 of the 2,282 or so GOP delegates. Many of them will be up for grabs after April 1 when statewide winner-take-all is possible.

“Similarly, should non-Romney alternatives led by Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry fall flat in the January contests, there would be time for the conservative wing of the party to find a new champion to carry its banner through the bulk of the primary season.”

So, who might it be should it come to be? Not likely a Willkie-like business person who had never sought political office before. We know Donald Trump and The Donald is no Wendell Willkie. It would have to be someone with broad appeal to both the conservative and more establishment wings of the GOP and someone, like Willkie, who had appeal to moderates and independents, with a real chance – better than the established field – to beat the incumbent. Is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels listening? The last dark horse was also a Hoosier.


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.


2012 Election, Minnick


James G. Blaine to Newt Gingrich

I admit that I wrote off Newt Gingrich months ago. I thought the Tiffany line of credit, the lack of attention to actually doing the hard work of building a political organization, the incredibly inflated ego and the baggage would doom the former Speaker.

Pundit Mark Shields summed up Newt’s baggage problem last week when he said Gingrich “has more skeltons than the Harvard Medical School lab.”

But, what do I know? Gingrich, seemingly against all odds, leads the pack heading into the first real test – and I don’t mean the Donald Trump debate – the Iowa caucus followed immediately by the New Hampshire primary.

It got me wondering if there has ever been a candidacy – or a candidate – even remotely like Newt Gingrich? Consider a few telling details.

Even has he assumes frontrunner status, Gingrich is obviously on the outs with many, many Republicans. From George Will to Meghan McCain, the “establishment” GOP loathes the guy. George Will paraphrases an old GOP icon, John Foster Dulles, in describing Newt:  He’s a bull who carries around his own china shop.

Or this telling detail: Mitt Romney, the once presumed man to beat, has accumulated endorsements from 55 current members of Congress. Gingrich has seven current members signed on his team. The people who know this guy best like him the least.

Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, Peggy Noonan calls Gingrich a “human hand grenade” and “a trouble magnet.” Gingrich, she says, is “a starter of fights that need not be fought. He is the first modern potential president about whom there is too much information.”

So, back to the question: are there any historical parallels? Is Newt a complete one-off? Interesting, I think not.

From the mid-1860’s until the 1890’s, there was a colorful, somewhat Gingirch-like character that repeatedly entered and exited American political life. Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State and ultimately presidential candidate James G. Blaine of Maine. Never heard of him? The guy was Speaker of the House and lost the presidency in 1884 to a deeply flawed Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland.

Blaine’s candidacy – actually there were several candidacies – divided the Republican Party. The Mainer had been an enthusiastic founder of the GOP and a Lincoln man, but when he finally won the nomination in 1884, he couldn’t rally Republican support and that fact allowed Cleveland to become the lone Democrat able to ne elected president between 1856 and 1912.

Like Gingrich, “Slippery Jim” Blaine was a gifted communicator and, also like Newt, scandal seemed to follow him like a shadow. Accused of corruption related to the western expansion of the railroads, Blaine’s opponents – Republicans included – took to calling him “the Contential liar from the state of Maine.”

Defending Blaine, a supporter said, in language that might remind us of Gingrich’s stormy Congressional tenure, “James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the maligners of his honor.”

Still, Blaine lost the election of 1884 – one of the closest in American history – because he lost New York state by just over 1,000 votes. The loss is generally attributed to Blaine sitting idly by while a fire and brimstone Protestant minister lashed the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” – references to, well, drink, Catholic support and the still bitter wounds over the Civil War. Failure to repudiate that infamous remark probably cost Blaine enough votes in then-Republican New York state to lose him the election.

Historical parallels are never perfect, but they can be instructive. In that long ago election of 1884, Blaine was a deeply flawed candidate with some nonetheless attractive attributes. He’d work his way up the system, he was a fighter and a good talker, but hardly a choice his party or the country could easily embrace. Dogged by scandal, he lost to a Democratic candidate who had been accused of, among other things, fathering a child out of wedlock. Politics were rough in those days, as well.

If Gingrich does manage to capture the Republican nomination next year it will constitute one of the most remarkable and audacious political turn arounds in American history. It may also prove, as Jim Blaine’s candidacy did in 1884, that winning a nomination, while pulling around a wagon full of baggage and in the face of so much opposition from your own party, is merely a prelude to ultimate defeat, even when you are facing a very weak opponent.

Next time, some lessons from the last truly “dark horse” candidate nominated by the Republicans. Is it still too late for a Wendell Willkie?


2012 Election, Minnick

The Way It Works

The Press Plays Its Role

Herman Cain is rising in the polls faster than a double crust pepperoni in a hot oven. Add some extra cheese. This guy has the Big Mo. The not always reliable, but always worth a headline Zogby Poll puts him at the head of the GOP pack at 45%. Newsweek has him on the cover this week. What is going on here? Herman Cain?

The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, talk show host, author and inspirational speaker is having his 15 minutes of presidential fame. All of a sudden Cain is Able, as one headline says. But hold the phone. What is really happening is part of the never ending cycle of an American presidential campaign. The press builds up a candidate and then takes him (or her) back to earth. You heard it here first: Herman Cain will not be the Republican candidate for president.

Cain is just the latest of the GOP wannabees to get the big build-up followed by the rapid slump. Remember Michelle Bachmann? You know your campaign is on life support when you use your lifeline call to get The Donald on the line as she did yesterday in a telephone town hall meeting. Rick Perry went from swaggering Texas governor to immediate front runner to “can he recover” in six weeks. The only question for Cain is how fast the fall?

The GOP candidates debate again tonight in Las Vegas and, I suspect, the storyline from the face-off in Sin City will be that Cain was roughed up and Mitt Romney, the guy who is still most likely to win the GOP nomination, escaped another debate without a scratch.

There is an inevitable rhythm to the coverage of a presidential nominating process. Most everyone – not Ron Paul, however – gets a test run as the candidate on the rise and then the questions begin. Does the guy’s tax plan stand real review? Does he know anything about foreign policy? Is neoconservative in his vocabulary? In Cain’s case it’s hard to believe his much repeated “9-9-9” tax plan can vault him to the nomination when the arbiter of GOP tax acceptability, Grover Norquist, pronounces it “very dangerous.”

Bachmann had her moment and then her comments got the best of her. Perry had his moment and then the jokes began: “this dog is too dumb to hunt” and “Perry’s problem is he suffers from Mad Cowboy Disease.” The Herman Cain moment is upon us. Enjoy it while it lasts. This guy has the staying power of a extra large on a Saturday night in a frat house.

Mitt Romney is the guy who just keeps hanging around and for good reason. He has at least least three things going for him that Cain, Bachmann, Perry, Huntsman and the rest do not. Romney has actually run and won in a tough political environment. Republicans don’t normally find Massachusetts friendly territory. Romney won a statewide race there. He’s done this presidential thing before. Yes, he lost to John McCain in 2008, but he’s been through the primary meat grinder and the rest of the field has not. Finally, his flexible positions on several issues notwithstanding – respected political analyst Charlie Cook says Romney is “unencumbered by principles” – Romney has obviously thought seriously about the big issues. He may be flexible, but he is not dumb.

So, enjoy the pizza man’s moment. It’ll be fleeting. Romney is the man the White House has come to fear and when all the smoke clears about the time Super Tuesday rolls around in March, I’ll bet an extra meat and cheese takeaway, that Mitt is the Man.

There is an inevitability to Romney, too, just as there is the inevitable rise and fall of the rest of the field. Charlie Cook notes that in every presidential election since 1944, Republicans have turned to the candidate who “is next in line.” The Tea Party doesn’t like him, he’s stiff and there are those flip-flops, but Romney is next in line. Soon enough it will dawn on the Republican primary voter that he also has the best chance to take back the White House for the GOP.


2012 Election, Christie, Economy, Minnick

Lost Generation

The Fall of the American Dream

While Herman Cain talks about his “9-9-9” plan to restore the economy and Mitt Romney touts a 59 point plan to do the same, while President Obama’s most recent plan can’t even command enough respect to get a vote in the Senate, the glass half empty crowd wonders if we’ll capable of solving any problem – economic or political.

Case in point: new research from the Washington Post and Bloomberg News paints the American mindset in gloomy colors. As Chris Cilliza notes in the Post, Forty four percent of the folks surveyed “said that it wouldn’t make much difference for their family’s financial situation if President Obama won a second term or if a Republican was elected. Among independents, nearly six in ten (58 percent) said no matter what happens in the 2012 there would likely be little change in their own financial situation.”

Put another way, many, many Americans say we’re doomed to endless political deadlock and prolonged economic stagnation. Welcome to America in the 21st Century.

In a sober piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt offered the assessment that the current economic – and I would add political – turmoil may be even worse than it seems. In Leonhardt’s view, even during the Great Depression, Americans were inventing, innovating, building things. Not so much now.

“Even before the financial crisis began, the American economy was not healthy,” Leonhardt wrote. “Job growth was so weak during the economic expansion from 2001 to 2007 that employment failed to keep pace with the growing population, and the share of working adults declined. For the average person with a job, income growth barely exceeded inflation.”

Flat wages, not enough jobs, rapidly growing income disparity, a troubled education system, aging infrastructure, debt and default – the litany of American decline, but does it have to be?

Ask those folks in the Post and Bloomberg poll what the problems are and they know – no one has the answer, its all politics. As Cizilla wrote: “The wild swings in the electorate are directly attributable to a belief that neither party really knows what it’s doing and so once one side is given a chance for two years and nothing changes, voters — especially independents — are more than willing to give the other side a try. And then when that side produces few results, the cycle repeats itself.”

We are slipping into a year of political campaigning that, based upon what we’ve seen so far, is likely to produce a mostly irrelevant and depressing debate about the country’s real problems and what the real solutions might be.

A little over a year from now someone will be elected. Someone always is. But the current level of debate – and the almost total inability of our politics to engage on what is really important – brought to mind a piece I read years ago in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for a column she wrote in 2001 entitled “The Campaign Speech You’ll Never Hear.”

Here’s a key sentence, Rabinowitz quoting a politician who, sadly, doesn’t exist on the presidential campaign trail today.

“I would say they’ve lowered the bar a lot for the highest office in the land, and I’m terrified to think how much, when I let myself think about it at all. My opponent and I — this is the best America can do? One of us is going to stand up and be sworn in as the new president of the United States? I suppose others in my shoes have had the same feeling, so maybe it’ll all work out.”

Maybe. The glass seems half empty.


2012 Election, American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, Biden, Britain, Christie, Economy, FDR, Lincoln, Minnick, Obama, Politics, Reagan

Trying Times

Leadership? Not So Much

At pivotal moments in American history it has often been the case that the right leader somehow emerged from the chaos of the moment and the nation was able to pass through trying times and set course for a better future.

Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan lacked the vision and courage to head off the steady drift in the direction of sectional strife in the 1850’s and, while there is a good argument to be made that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the tipping point toward civil war, there is hardly any disputing that Lincoln brought to the presidency the powers of leadership that ultimately saved the country.

Likewise Franklin D. Roosevelt proved to be the right leader at the worse time in the 20th Century. FDR restored confidence and, I’m convinced, reformed American capitalism enough to save it. He was a leader made for his times.

There are a handful of other examples in our history. Andrew Jackson, with all his flaws, may qualify for a leadership award. More recently Ronald Reagan, invoked by every current GOP candidate for president as the leadership gold standard, had some of the FDR in him. He was a confidence builder when the nation needed a big dose. Washington stands, of course, in a special class of right leader at a trying time.

It’s hard to escape the reality that the nation is at another such crossroads and our politics and politicians hardly seem up to the task. The litany of problems is almost too big to fathom: stagnant economy, double-dip recession looming, crippling unemployment, increasing poverty and income gap, a national and international debt crisis, declining quality of public education, the need for entitlement reform, the European fiscal crisis, the uncertainty and unpredictability of the Arab Spring, climate change, terrorism, even the Red Sox have melted down.

The thinking man’s conservative, David Brooks, identified the heart of the problem in his New York Times column yesterday: “the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.”

The Democrats are all about tax increases on the most wealthy and increased spending to stimulate consumer demand. The Republicans can’t shake the gospel of tax cuts, controlling the deficit and whacking at regulation. What both sides miss is that we need to do all of that and more.

It may well be recorded at the supreme moment of missed opportunity in the Obama Administration was the president’s failure to grasp and champion the most important political and policy work to come out of Washington in a long, long time – the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles Commission. In the end, the discarding of the work of the former Wyoming Senator, Alan Simpson, and the Clinton-era White House Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, will be recorded as a failure of leadership. The bi-partisan commission called for doing it all – tax and entitlement reform, spending cuts, deficit reduction. The Commission prescribed exactly what every thinking American knows in their partisan heart must be done. Obama punted and Congressional Republicans did as well.

And meanwhile the country is hungry – desperate even – for real leadership. Many Republicans salivate over the prospect that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will turn his consistent “no” into an announcement that he’ll enter the GOP battle and it’s easy to see why. Christie delivered an inspirational speech last night at Republican hallowed ground, the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. His indictment of Washington leadership will surely resonate with Democrats and Republicans who long for leadership from someone.

“In Washington,” Christie said, “we have watched as we drift from conflict to conflict, with little or no resolution.

“We watch a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet to find the courage to lead.

“We watch a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign style politics at the Capitol’s door.  The result is a debt ceiling limitation debate that made our democracy appear as if we could no longer effectively govern ourselves.”

Christie specifically jabbed President Obama for failing to embrace the Simpson-Bowles work noting pointedly that it was “a report the president asked for himself.”

I’m not at all convinced Chris Christie is the Lincoln or FDR we need, but I am convinced that genuinely honest talk about the enormous problems facing the country, with an unstinting focus on big solutions to big problems rather than what David Brooks calls “proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand,” would be the beginning of the leadership the country needs and hungers for.

The electorate is deeply unsettled. The evidence floats about everywhere you look. A new CNN survey says only 15% of Americans have confidence in their government; an all-time low. The Coca-Cola chief says China is a better business bet than the USA. There is an unmistakable sense that American power and influence is in decline.

Is anyone up to the task? Can anyone see beyond the next election? I’m betting if someone could look that far ahead – see ahead to real leadership – it would be the best possible strategy to win.


2012 Election, American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, Britain, FDR, Minnick, Obama, Politics, Reagan

The Choice

Strangely, the Gipper May Be Obama’s Re-election Model

I’d argue that ever modern American presidential election comes down to one fundamental question: do we change or do we continue?

In 2008, Barack Obama obviously was about “change.” At every opportunity he tied John McCain to the administration of George W. Bush. In the narrative logic of that campaign, McCain, the old, establishment guy, was continuity and Obama, the young, fresh face, was change.

As Obama looks to his increasingly complicated re-election, some of his top staffers are taking comfort in history. They best not take too much comfort.

TIME reports that Chief of Staff Bill Daley recently invited presidential historian Michael Beschloss to a quiet retreat with top White House staffers to talk about whether any president facing eight or nine percent unemployment and steadily declining approval numbers can be re-elected.

Beschloss reportedly cited two examplesFranklin Roosevelt’s first re-election in 1936, while the country was still mired in the Great Depression, and Ronald Reagan’s “it’s morning in America” triumph over Walter Mondale in 1984.

Clearly Obama must try to do what FDR and The Gipper successfully pulled off in tying the nation’s economic misery to the failed policies of the president who came before. It was fairly easy for Roosevelt to continue to make the dour Herbert Hoover his fall guy and Republicans in 1936 were badly divided over how to respond to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like Obama today, Roosevelt felt pressure from the left to respond ever more forcefully to the nation’s economic problems and he responded by shifting his rhetoric to attack big business and conservatives who had resisted his efforts to reform and recover.

Bashing “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking,” FDR famously said, “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

The hapless GOP candidate, Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon, a moderate Republican, carried but two states prompting Roosevelt campaign manager Jim Farley to quip, “So goes Maine, so goes Vermont.” FDR actually ran a good deal stronger in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana in 1936 than he had four years earlier. 

In 1984, Ronald Reagan sought re-election in the environment of a sputtering national economy and succeeded in making the election a referendum on the previous administration. Reagan and his team were masterful at conveying a sense that the country had turned a corner under his watch and the nation would be foolish to go back to the bad old days of Jimmy Carter. It didn’t hurt Reagan’s prospects that Democrats nominated Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, a daily reminder during the campaign of the regime Reagan has turned out of office in 1980. Mondale, like Landon an exemplary American and all together decent guy, turned out to have been a much better veep than a presidential candidate.

Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia and, in fact, held Reagan under 52% in only two other states. It was a classic presidential blowout.

So, perhaps the Obama team can take some comfort in the fact that FDR and Reagan turned the tables on the prevailing wisdom that holds that the economy generally trumps all when it comes to re-electing a president, but at least one other factor was at play in 1936 and 1984.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were tough, seasoned political fighters at the top of their games. They defined their enemies with passion and clarity; Roosevelt “welcoming” the hatred of his critic-enemies and Reagan carrying the fight to the Democrats.

Accepting the GOP nomination, Reagan said in 1984, “Our opponents began this campaign hoping that America has a poor memory. Well, let’s take them on a little stroll down memory lane. Let’s remind them of how a 4.8-percent inflation rate in 1976 became back-to-back years of double-digit inflation – the worst since World War II – punishing the poor and elderly, young couple striving to start their new lives, and working people struggling to make ends meet.”

The question is not whether Obama will attempt to make his re-election a referendum on whether the country goes back to the “failed” approach of the Bush years. He has no choice but to run that campaign. His unpopular health reform legislation, never adequately explained to the public and now it’s way too late to try, and the economic stimulus that may well have kept the economy from getting seriously worse, but still seen by many as a failure, are not a record to run on.

No, the question for the cerebral Obama is whether he can find the fight to define the coming election in terms that present a real choice about the country’s future versus its past. In stark terms, can he make it about the good guys versus the evil forces arrayed against him?

FDR in 1936 and Reagan in 1984 ran against the odds  and their enemies and, in both cases, they beat the odds by making the campaign about something bigger than themselves. We’ll soon enough see whether Obama is built of the same stuff.


2012 Election, Baseball, Minnick, Politics


Let the Ordeal Begin

Britain has plenty of problems, as the recent and shocking riots in London, Manchester and elsewhere painfully illustrate. In the wake of the unsettling unrest, Prime Minister David Cameron calls on Britons to fight back against further decline in standards and conduct. We watch with some horror, but also fascination. It is, after all, the Mother Country.

Yet, with all the obvious problems of class and race and decline, the Brits have it all over us when it comes to selecting a national leader. Cameron has never had to face an Iowa Straw Poll.

What does it say about a 235 year old democracy that we begin the selection process for one party’s leaders at a state fair in Iowa, where the candidates pay for a choice spot to erect giant tents, some with air conditioned, in order to entice “voters” with BBQ and loud music and utterly simple-minded sloganeering? Welcome to the start of the 2012 American presidential election.

If you were to assemble the top 500 officials in the national Republican Party – senators, members of Congress, governors, top mayors and former office holders – Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who won the Iowa straw poll last weekend, wouldn’t be in the top 15 candidates for President of the United States. The seasoned pros in the party know that nominating Bachmann would be a political disaster, yet the Tea Party darling is now considered one of three top contenders for the prize and all thanks to the 4,823 votes she recorded at the Iowa State Fair. That total put her a whopping 152 votes ahead of Texas libertarian Congressman Ron Paul, another person who couldn’t possibly be selected for high public office by a political jury of his peers.

Our process doesn’t necessarily produce the best leaders, but it certainly produces the world’s longest campaigns.

About the best that can be said for our system of selecting presidential candidates is that the winners have survived the ordeal; survived the lengthiest, most demeaning and often nearly devoid of substance process ever devised by the political mind of man, or woman.

That Michelle Bachmann could actually be considered a potentially serious contender for the presidency based upon a record of no accomplishment in the House of Representatives, a stellar ability to craft a simplistic one-liner and a position on the debt ceiling that puts her at odds with every serious economist in the world, not to mention every serious person in her party, is all one needs to know about our candidate selection process. Come to think of it, that description – minus the debt ceiling nonsense – could well have explained the current occupant of the White House at this stage of the political game in 2007.

So, while David Cameron in Great Britain and most leaders in the rest of the world were vetted and selected for political party leadership by a process of careful evaluation by their peers, we run our leaders through a series of increasingly choreographed “debates,” straw polls, caucuses and primaries that reward the person with the greatest physical stamina and the greatest ability to avoid the self-inflicted gaffe.

With Rick Perry, the Texas governor now in the GOP hunt – with perhaps more to come – don’t be surprised if the process of selecting a Republican standard bearer grinds on well into next spring. Consider this scenario: Bachmann, minus a meltdown, wins the Iowa caucus early in 2012. Mitt Romney wins the first primary in New Hampshire and Perry, at home below the Mason-Dixon Line and with the Christian right in South Carolina. wins in that always nasty early contest.

Should that happen, and it’s not inconceivable, the GOP will have three front runners and a contest with all the substance and decorum of a World Wrestling Federation grudge match. Tell me this is a good way to select a potential president.



2012 Election, Andrus, Baseball, FDR, Military History, Minnick, Politics

The GOP Field

The Weakest Field Since 1940?

John Weaver, an experienced GOP political operative and former top advisor to John McCain, says his party’s presidential field is “the weakest Republican field since Wendell Willkie won the nomination on the sixth ballot in 1940.”

Weaver is an student of political history and he may be right about the strength of the GOP field, but he is also advising former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, so a skeptic might accuse him of diminishing the entire field to make his “outsider” – an outsider not unlike Willkie – look more electable.

Willkie, a progressive – today he’d be an unnominatable Republican moderate – was an Elwood, Indiana native, a lawyer and a Wall Street utility executive. (Well, one out of three ain’t bad when you are trying to deny Franklin Roosevelt an unprecedented third term.) Willkie was the ultimate dark horse in 1940; not much of a candidate – he had once been a registered Democrat – but he was an impressive man. He had the misfortune of running in a year when the only real issues were the war in Europe and FDR’s try for a third term.

One keen observer of the 1940 election, Democratic National Chairman Edward J. Flynn, told Willkie’s biographer, Steve Neal, that “one of the main reasons for Willkie’s defeat was the lack of support given him by regular Republican organizations. The organizations certainly did not want him to be nominated…unquestionably they left the convention with no kindly spirit toward their candidate.”

Flynn, an old political pro, said Willkie made a classic mistake in 1940 – he ignored or rejected his base. “He took every opportunity the could,” Flynn said, “to insult directly or indirectly the politicians of the Republican party. That course of action never wins an election, and it can certainly help to lose one.”

Willkie was caught between an old-line Republican party in 1940 that wanted desperately to repundiate Roosevelt’s New Deal, but also had to deal with public anxiety about the worsening world situation. France collapsed under the Nazi onslaught during the summer of this long ago election year. Britain turned to Winston Churchill to try and avoid the same fate. The country adopted, with Willkie’s full support, the first peace time draft in its history even as Americans were torn between FDR’s policy of creeping intervention in the European war and a burning desire to simply stay out of another world war.

With opinion polls showing Willkie closing on Roosevelt, FDR uttered a few words on the last weekend of the campaign in Boston that would haunt the rest of his career: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again; your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” It was a coldly calculated statement on Roosevelt’s part designed to reassure skittish voters worried about war and it worked.

FDR won 55% of the vote and an Electoral College landslide of 449 to Willkie’s 82. Willkie won his home state of Indiana and just nine other mostly Midwest and western states.

As losing presidential candidates go, Wendell Willkie has been treated pretty well by history. Although he made sharply partisan attacks on Roosevelt during the campaign he was not a red meat candidate. He even later admitted that some of his attacks were launched against the incumbent because politics demanded such things and he enthusiastically embraced FDR’s foreign policy after the election.

The current restiveness among many Republicans about the strength of the GOP field may – big qualifier – may provide an opportunity for a completely fresh face in 2012, the kind of fresh face that Willkie presented in 1940. That said, the timing and nature of modern campaigns makes it seem nearly impossible that a candidate who has gotten organized and out of the gate within the next couple of months could possibly win enough early primaries to capture the nomination. Willkie won the nomination at the 1940 convention when delegates just couldn’t warm to the more conventional GOP canddiates, including Robert A. Taft, Thomas E. Dewey and Arthur Vandenberg.

Amazingly Willkie only switched his formal party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in January of 1940 and he still got the nomination. Not likely such a thing could happen today and a brokered convention any more is virtually out of the question.

Hardly a dark horse, but certainly a fresh face compared to Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich and company, former Gov. Huntsman has now made his own conversion. He quit working for the Obama Administration more than a year before the nominating convention. In the weakest field in 70 years, is he the fresh face of 2012?