Baseball, Mansfield, Politics

Trumped

A “Businessman” for President

The last time one of the two major parties nominated a real businessman for president was more than 70 years ago. It was 1940, the world was on the verge of another war and the Great Depression still lingered. The GOP turned to Wall Street for a candidate who lost in an Electoral College landslide. No business candidate, who hasn’t been elected to something, has won a major party nomination since.

If Donald Trump is really serious about winning the GOP nomination next year, he’ll need to overcome a lot of history. Business people don’t get nominated for president.

Politico reports today that Trump is serious. He’s been interviewing campaign staff and media consultants. (He needs a media consultant? This guy is living proof that the most dangerous place in America is the area between Donald Trump and a television camera.)

Even as Karl Rove, the last GOP operative to actually win a tough national election, disses Trump, the polls show that his wacky attention on the so called “birther” issue has gotten him attention if not serious credibility.

Trump also has to overcome, well, the sense that he’s just playing all this for the PR involved. And there are the jokes. On the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me that aired last weekend, one of the panelists made a crack about Trump’s famous hair style suggesting it was some kind of animal. David Letterman said, “The White House is saying Donald Trump has ‘zero percent chance’ of being elected. Isn’t that a little high?”

In politics, the old saying goes, it’s OK if they’re laughing with you, not so good if they’re laughing at you.

But back to Trump’s one potential strength as a serious candidate – his business credentials. If he really starts to gain traction we’ll hear a good deal more about whether he has really been a success, but let’s grant that he can make a plausible case for his leadership and business acumen. Does it help him? I’d argue no.

In 1940, Republicans were desperate to find a credible candidate to stop Franklin Roosevelt’s quest for an unprecedented third term in the White House. The leading GOP candidates in 1940 were two venerable U.S. Senators, Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Taft, and the 37-year old New York District Attorney, Thomas E. Dewey. None of these capable men really excited the party, which surprisingly turned instead to a Wall Street energy executive named Wendell Willkie.

Willkie was a first-time candidate having never run for anything. In his delightful book about Willkie’s dark horse nomination and campaign – Five Days in Philadelphia – Charles Peters quotes one of Willkie’s friends as saying: “He was a big, shambling, rumpled, overweight, carelessly dressed man, and he radiated a stunning combination of intellect and homely warmth.” In other words, not Donald Trump.

What Willkie lacked in political experience he made up for in personality and a personal style that was genuine. Up from humble beginnings in Indiana, Willkie became a lawyer and by 1940 had risen through the ranks to become the top guy at Commonwealth and Southern, one of the nation’s major utility holding companies. Democrats derisively dismissed Willkie’s personal story by characterizing him as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street.”

Willkie ran a more than credible campaign against Roosevelt, but with war underway in Europe the country was not ready to turn the White House over to an inexperienced utility executive, even a charming one. Willkie’s respected running mate was the great Oregon Sen. Charles McNary, but even McNary couldn’t help the ticket carry Oregon.

Considering the times, and even granting Willkie’s attractiveness, it’s hard to believe that in 1940 – or 2012 – that voters would elect a energy company CEO to run the country. Perhaps about as likely as electing a real estate developer turned reality television show host.

Trump’s best option would seem to be a third-party bid, ala Ross Perot. Perot parlayed his quirky straight talk into nearly 19% of the popular vote in 1992. Arguably, he made Bill Clinton president. Trump could also be a spoiler, but not a contender.

Generally speaking successful business people over estimate the value voters place on business success and they undervalue the soft skills – personality, humor, a genuine liking for people – that are essential to a successful candidate. Politics isn’t business and the skills for success in one field don’t always translate to the other.

Donald Trump can command a lot of attention, as he is currently doing, but he can’t, I suspect, stand the intense scrutiny he will get if he really becomes a candidate. The hair and wife jokes will continue and when next year rolls around, Republicans will do as they have since 1944. They’ll nominate a candidate with public sector skills and experience.

Wendell Willkie was the last serious “business candidate” to run for president. Donald Trump isn’t Wendell Willkie.

The real danger for Republicans may be that the Trump sideshow, currently fascinating the media, drains oxygen from the real GOP candidates who are trying to get organized. On the other hand, the candidates who could win the nomination may benefit from the contrast to Trump. None of them is a much divorced, windy, publicity addicted, weird haired, Manhattan real estate developer given to wearing pink neckties. No one has ever had that profile and been elected either.

 

Baseball, Mansfield, McClure, Politics

Wolves

Is There a Lesson Here?

For the first time ever the United States Congress is acting to legislatively remove a species from the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That action, contained in the big budget bill negotiated last week by the president and congressional leaders, has bipartisan support. Idaho’s Mike Simpson, a Republican, joined with Montana’s Jon Tester, a Democrat, to attach the wolf delisting provision to the budget bill.

The entire debate about wolves, dating all the way back to then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s speeches during the Clinton Administration, may be an object lesson in what happens when common sense packs up and leaves the room.

This has been about the most polarized policy/political issue in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as we’ve seen in a long, long time. Few involved haven’t been tainted by the emotions, legal and political posturing and insistence on an “I win therefore you must lose” approach. What has been missing is one word – balance. Or maybe two words – common sense.

Ironically perhaps one of the more sensible voices in the overheated wolf debate has been that of now-retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf expert Carter Niemeier, an unapologetic wolf advocate, who has written a book about his experiences dealing with what he has called the polarizers at both ends of the debate.

Niemeier takes the sensible approach that wolves are here to stay, but they also need to be managed.

“A hunting season will take some of the pressure off wolves,” he told the Missoulian recently. “Sportsmen will be able to do what they think they can do about controlling numbers. The uniqueness will eventually wear off.”

“How many wolf pelts does anyone need to hang on their wall?” he asked.

Niemeier adds, “There are so many wolves now that poaching would never harm them. They are here to stay.”

Idaho Statesman environmental reporter Rocky Barker neatly summed up how national environmental groups mishandled, misread and ultimately misfired in their handling of the wolf issue.

“If you came up with a scenario to undercut the machinations of national environmental groups you couldn’t have done better than the real events. First, they won a lawsuit that they could not defend politically. Then they tried to get a do-over with a settlement that handed power to the very states they had been saying could not be trusted to manage wolves,” Barker wrote this week.

“Needless to say many of the people who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to these groups because they love wolves are unhappy and some feel betrayed.”

With the Simpson-Tester rider sure to pass in the “must pass” budget bill, environmental leaders were left to complain that the legislative delisting undermines the scientific integrity of the ESA. But wolves have always been more about politics than science and the wolf advocates got beat playing both politics and public relations. In the end, if this mess opens the door to more congressional meddling with endangered species, the no compromise wolf advocates may have themselves to blame.

With Sen. Tester facing an extremely tough re-election next year and Rep. Simpson, as he frequently does, playing the common sense card at the very time Idaho legislators were passing a bill declaring a wolf emergency, it’s not surprising that these two wily politicians did what legislators do. They fixed a political and policy problem. Both had substantial motivation, especially Tester. His likely opponent in next year’s Montana senate race is Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg who has championed legislation to delist wolves everywhere in the lower 48.

Reasonable voices that might have long ago settled all this with compromise and common sense, as Carter Niemeier suggests, left this debate a long, long time ago. Not surprisingly the courts proved to be a singularly inappropriate place to hash out what had become a red hot, emotional and political issue.

I find myself hopelessly in the middle when it comes to wolves. I like the idea that wolves roam the Idaho backcountry as they once did. I also think their numbers should have been rigorously controlled at the state level much earlier. I also think no one really calculated whether the food supply a growing population would need could be readily available. As a result, I think the too large populations have caused significant damage to livestock and wildlife populations. I think ranchers need to be compensated for loses and hunters deserve thriving elk populations. I don’t think wolves, properly managed, present much threat to people.

As I said, I’m a squishy moderate. I see all the arguments.

It’s probably hopeless naive of me, but I wish a few folks early on could have found a sensible way to reintroduce, manage the populations, stay out of court, defuse the polarization and move on.

One way or another, I guess we now have.

A footnote:

While the legislative delisting of wolves is a first, it’s not the first, nor will it be the last, congressional intervention on ESA issues. In 1979, Congress acted to exempt the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee from provisions of the ESA. Much of the debate involved the cost-benefit of Tellico versus the survival of a tiny fish, the snail darter. For a time, the fish became a useful tool to stop the questionable dam and promoted amendments to the ESA, including the creation of a seven-member Cabinet level committee, dubbed the God Squad, with authority to exempt a federal agency from provisions of the Act.

Then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus chaired the first God Squad to assess whether the dam should be exempt from ESA requirements. The committee was unanimous in denying the exemption on economic rather than environmental grounds. Andrus said at the time, “I hate to see the snail darter get the credit for stopping a project that was ill-conceived and uneconomic in the first place.”

But, with snail darters and wolves, Congress had the last word when legislation was approved not to delist the snail darter, but to exempt Tellico from the Act.

Ironically, then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker invoked wolves in his floor debate arguing for the exemption.

“Now seriously Mr. President,” Baker said, “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else.

“We who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”

Some debates just never end.

American Presidents, Baseball, Mansfield, Mark Twain, Obama, Politics

Trust

Coin of the Realm in Politics

Potentially one of the side benefits to come from the budget deal struck late Friday was the development of a modicum of trust among House Speaker Boehner, Senate Leader Reid and President Obama.

It is a testament to the generally awful state of partisanship in Washington these days that Obama and Boehner, according to several accounts, spent more personal time together over the last week than they have in all the time Obama has been in the White House. Something is wrong with that picture.

Trust, built upon a genuine personal relationship, is simply critical to getting anything done in politics. Without it you can’t make a deal, shake hands and know that the pact is secure.

Boehner told a television interviewer over the weekend that he and Obama now “understand each other better.”

“Throughout these meetings over the last four or five weeks we’ve been straight up with each other, and honest with each other,” the Ohio Republican said. “Certainly haven’t always agreed, but it was a good process.”

A Boehner aide said, probably sending shudders down the spine of Tea Partiers, that the GOP leader and the president “believe the other operates in good faith. I think they are friendly, but not quite good friends at this point. Maybe some day.”

It’s easy to dismiss the personal relationship factor in high stakes politics, but our history is full of examples were the personal touch, backed not by agreement always, but always reinforced with trust, has made progress possible.

The great Montana Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield insisted that Senate GOP leader Everett Dirksen get the lion’s share of the attention when the Senate debated civil rights legislation in the 1960’s. Even though Mansfield outranked him, the important meetings were held in Dirksen’s office and Mike gave way to Ev when it came time to talk to the press.

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill couldn’t have been different politically, but they developed personal rapport and that led to trust. Obama and Boehner would do well to study that model.

By all accounts, Obama and Boehner love their golf. As the cherry blossoms come out in Washington pointing to the end of a gloomy winter, Obama ought to call up the Speaker, pick him up at the Capitol and find a place where the two of them – maybe with one key aide apiece – can play eighteen and finish with a couple of beers.

Progress is politics is made of such small, but meaningful gestures. Now is the time to build more trust. The next budget deal will be much more difficult.

Baucus, Clinton, Dallek, Haiti, Mansfield, Montana, U.S. Senate

What is it about Montana

MurrayGiants in the Senate

Fewer than a million souls live in Montana, the state that sprawls out under the Big Sky. Yet, during the 20th Century, Montana produced well more than its share of powerful, influential United States Senators.

The handsome and very liberal Jim Murray, a wealthy son of Butte, Montana, is one of a group of Democratic senators who wielded real power and have had lasting influence, while representing geographically massive, but population small Montana.

Murray’s pioneering role in pushing for universal health care coverage was recalled recently in a fine piece by Montana journalist Charles Johnson. Johnson notes that Murray occupied, from 1934 to 1961, the seat now held by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a champion of the health care legislation recently passed.

“Jim Murray was a trailblazer as part of a trio of lawmakers who worked hard but ultimately failed to pass national health insurance bills under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman,” Johnson wrote.

As proof that little really ever changes in American politics, Murray’s work more than 50 years ago with Sen. Robert Wagner of New York and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the father of the current Dingell in the House, was attacked as “socialized medicine” that was certain to usher in the ruination the country.

Johnson recalls that Sen. Robert Taft, the Ohio Republican now regarded as one of the all-time giants of the Senate, once interrupted Murray at a hearing to denounce the health legislation as “the most socialist measure that this Congress has ever had before it.”

Murray, never a great orator, shouted back at Taft: “You have so much gall and so much nerve. … If you don’t shut up, I’ll have … you thrown out.”

The charge of aiding and abetting socialism was perhaps an even more powerful accusation in the 1950’s than it is when hurled at President Obama today. Murray’s brand of progressive liberalism always brought with it a charge that he was a dangerous lefty. In his long Senate career he never had an easy election.

Charles Johnson notes the irony in the fact that while Murray’s most passionate opponents in the 1940’s and 1950’s came from the ranks of the American Medical Association, the AMA’s current president endorsed the recent legislation, noting that it “represents an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”

Now, it is Baucus’ turn to have his role in the passage of the health care legislation fiercely debated in Montana. Perhaps as as indication of the intensity of the furor, Baucus, who was re-elected just last year, has gone up on television in Montana today seeking to explain why the legislation that he had a major hand in creating and, that dates back to his Senate predecessor, is good for Montana.

Each of Montana’s most influential U.S. Senators were controversial in their day. In my read of the state political history, Murray and Baucus properly join Sen. Tom Walsh, the investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal; Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the man who lead the fight to turn back Franklin Roosevelt’s assault on the Supreme Court in 1937, and Sen. Mike Mansfield, the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, as Montanans who have made a lasting mark on the Senate and on the nation’s business.

Few states can claim a larger collection of truly influential – or controversial – U.S. Senators. Big names, indeed, from the Big Sky State.

2014 Election, Afghanistan, American Presidents, Borah, Bush, Church, Churchill, Crisis Communication, Cuba, Dallek, Hatfield, Mansfield, Morse, Obama

Obama’s War

afghanistanWar is the unfolding of miscalculations – Barbara Tuchman

I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, “Don’t try to do too much.”

I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I’ve watched President Obama ensure that America’s longest war – our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan – will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision – for good or bad – that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much.

A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president’s critics from the right – George Will – suggests, we won’t like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying.

An Idaho Perspective on Limits

Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country’s foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920’s. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970’s.

The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week.

Borah’s influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church’s time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power.

It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president’s course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country’s military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all.

In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn’t our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much.

Other Northwesterners of the past – the Senate’s greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon’s pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield – counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time.

None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations.

Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world’s most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We’ll find out. The British and Russians found out before us.

As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August – the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War – wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy.

Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can “nation build,” where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned.

Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all.

One of the great “what ifs” of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam.

Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We’ll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests.

Kennedy once said this: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again – I hope I’m wrong – confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America’s military – motivated, trained and determined as it is – can do everything.

As I said, I hope I’m wrong.