American Presidents, Baseball, Huntsman, NEH, Obama, Politics


The Man the White House Must Fear

Nothing, ever – nothing – is certain in politics. A candidate or officeholder can literally go from hero to zero in the length of time it takes to send a tweet or jackknife a trailer behind the SUV you have apparently just stolen. There are no sure things. Nothing is ever pre-determined in politics. The game must be played, the votes cast and counted. Hero to zero avoided.

So, with the acknowledgement that Barack Obama shouldn’t, and by most accounts isn’t, taking a second term for granted next year, the president must have taken some cold comfort from the fact that, until yesterday, the likely GOP field confronting him was not comprised of political world or incumbent beaters.

The guy that I’m betting the White House fears the most formally got into the race yesterday. Jon Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China, is all that the rest of the field isn’t – moderate, interesting, possessed of humor and good looks and projecting something like charisma. Every four years, the GOP looks for a candidate that reminds us of Ronald Reagan. Huntsman comes pretty close. He even chose Reagan’s 1980 backdrop, the Statue of Liberty, to launch his campaign.

The question, of course, is whether the “moderate” Huntsman is too middle-of-the-road to compete effectively for the generally very conservative voters in Republican primaries in places like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. That bell has yet to ring. Stay tuned.

However here’s why, I think, Obama should fear Jon Huntsman and why conservative GOP primary voters ought to give the guy a hard first, second and third look.

1) Huntsman can credibly make the case that he is a pro-business, fiscal conservative. As governor of Utah he has a jobs record to tout. Under his watch Utah did smart and responsible things with public investments and still maintained an attractive climate for business. The economy and jobs will, after all, be what the 2012 election is all about.

2) Huntsman’s more-moderate-than-most positions on many social issues – he said yesterday he would “respect” New York’s gay marriage law – will diminish him in the eyes of many GOP voters, but not among many independents and genuine moderates in both parties. He’s walking a fine line here, but if he can walk it he may be able to appeal across the ideological divide on social issues. Reagan did the same for his two terms.

3) Huntsman’s personality, his smile, charm and rugged good looks might just help make him a contender. While the other Mormon in the race, Mitt Romney, looks like the little figure of a groom on the top of an old fashioned wedding cake, Huntsman moves, talks and acts like he might actually have a personality. (Romney’s too earnest by half style has already been laughed at on Saturday Night Live.) I will always maintain that a great percentage of voters size up the candidates not on the basis of their policy positions, but on the gut-level reaction to what they see in the individual. Do they seem genuine? Are they optimistic? Are they likeable? On that basis alone, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale never had a chance against Reagan and John McCain was a born loser against Obama. Don’t discount the “I like the looks of this guy” as a real factor.

4) Huntsman does not appear to start the campaign with a potentially fatal flaw. That may be damning the guy with faint praise, but he doesn’t start with Romney’s health care baggage around his neck or Gingrich’s staff defections or Ron Paul’s nuttiness or Michelle Bachman’s shrillness or Tim Pawlenty’s lack of charisma and message. In short, much like Obama in 2008, Huntsman is a blank canvas onto which interested voters can sketch their perfect candidate. Even conceding Huntsman lack of name recognition, no one else in the GOP field starts with the advantage of not being almost completely defined before the race even begins.

I could be back here in six months writing about the presidential campaign flame out of the former governor of Utah and, if so, I’ll eat the crow. But, I’m betting if Barack Obama didn’t sleep well last night it wasn’t the Afghan draw down he was tossing and turning over, it was Jon Huntsman as his opponent a year from now.


Arizona, Baseball, NEH, Politics

Civilization Requires Civility

LeachA Great Speech…

When I noted a few weeks back that President Obama had made a good and interesting selection – former GOP Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa – to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), I did not expect such speedy confirmation of what a good appointment it was. Happily, it sounds like Leach will indeed be a great Chairman of the NEH.

At the National Humanities Conference last week in Omaha, Leach offered a stirring defense of the importance of humanities education and made the case for using the lessons of the humanities to quide us in a better direction with our politics and policy. His speech is well worth reading for any student of American history and politics.

A Leach talk in September about bridging cultures – he was talking about the western world and the Muslim world – was also excellent.

If you have ever wondered whether we need to teach humanities in the public schools – along with math and science – or whether there is a price to pay for a lack of civility in our public discourse, read Leach’s Omaha speech. A couple of excerpts:

On applying the humanities to public policy

“The United States is currently intertwined in two civil wars, both more than a third of the way around the world, each with a unique set of problems. One is in the wake of a terrorist attack on our shores plotted from a mountainous Afghani redoubt. The other was precipitated against a country that was not involved in the plot against America but was thought to be on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction, a thesis since debunked.

“In making assumptions about the wisdom and manner of intervening in the affairs of other countries, would it have been helpful for policy-makers to have reviewed the history of the French colonial experience in Algeria, the British and Russian experience in Afghanistan, the French and U.S. experience in Vietnam?

“Would it have been helpful to study comparative religions and observe the historical implications of the Crusades and their relevance to peoples in the Middle East today? And what meaning might be found in our own colonial history—the asymmetric tactics, for instance, of Francis Marion, the South Carolina patriot known as the Swamp Fox, who attacked the best trained army in the world at night and then vanished into impenetrable swamps during the day?”

And this on the often nasty tone of our public discourse:

“In a political system characterized by historic antipathy to extremes, the decibel level of partisan voices is rising. Rancorous, socially divisive ideological assertions are being made with such frequency that few are thinking through the meaning or consequences of the words being used. Public officials are being labeled ‘fascist’ and ‘communist.’ One Member of Congress has even suggested that colleagues be investigated for ‘un-American activities.’

“Most bizarrely, some in public life have toyed with hints of history-blind radicalism—the notion of ‘secession.’

“Even the most cursory study of history would reveal the gravity and implications of such polarizing language. We fought a war across two oceans to defeat fascism and spent billions and sacrificed thousands to hold communism at bay. And a century and a half ago, over 600,000 Americans were killed in a bloody civil war over the question of secession. That war, we thought, settled two issues: that slavery was incompatible with humanist, democratic values and that these United States are indivisible, inseparable from each other. We are a union, after and above all.”

A Plea for Civility

Chairman Leach indicated he will focus attention on the critical importance of civility and how the humanities can give us a respect – and yes, understanding – for perspectives different from our own.

Jim Leach knows of what he speaks. In some quarters – one blogger calls him “a pro-Obama turncoat” – he has suffered vilification for breaking ranks with the GOP. In our superheated political kitchen, one man’s turncoat is another’s statesman. And, Leach offers the perfect cooling sentiment.

“Bridging cultural divides and developing a sense for a common humanity are moral and social imperatives. Together, we in the humanities are obligated to help advance an ethic of thoughtfulness rather than conformity of thought, decency of expression rather than coarseness in public manners.

“Civilization requires civility.” Amen.

Argentina, Arizona, NEA, NEH

New Leaders at NEH and NEA

LeachLeach Confirmed to Head NEH, Landesman Will Run NEA

The Senate recently confirmed the new leadership at the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts and they are interesting and unconventional choices.

Former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach (above), a Republican who endorsed Barack Obama, is the former head of the House Banking Committee and a committed fan of the humanities. Leach helped organize the humanities caucus in the House and will be a politically savvy choice to run the NEH.

Rocco Landesman is a big-time Broadway producer and will head the NEA. Mel Brook’s The Producers is among his credits.

The two endowments, dating back to the administration of Lyndon Johnson, serve an incredibly important national role. The Idaho Humanities Council is the state-based affiliate of the NEH. The Idaho Commission on the Arts has a similar relationship to the NEA.

Among many wonderful benefits, the two national endowments provide grant funding for local arts programs, library reading programs, small museums and teacher institutes.

The endowments have survived an immense amount of political scrutiny since Newt Gingrich tried to eliminate federal funding back in the mid-1990’s. The extremely modest budgets for the two principle national cultural organizations that reach into every corner of the United States are still below where they were when Newt swung his meat ax nearly 15 years ago.

Leach and Landesman appear to have the prestige and smarts to keep rebuilding the endowments. America culture, art, history, literature, and our pleasure will all benefit.