Baucus, Congress, Eisenhower, Foreign Policy, Idaho Statehouse, John Kennedy, Middle East, Otter, Paul, Political Correctness, Thatcher, Truman, U.S. Senate, World War II

Return to 1940

19410200_Senator_Robert_Taft_R-OH_Against_Lend_Lease-TAFTRobert Taft, the Ohio senator and son of a GOP president, was often called “Mr. Republican” in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He was continually on everyone’s list as a presidential candidate from the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s, but Taft never received the nomination in large part because he represented the Midwestern, isolationist wing of the GOP in the intra-party fight for supremacy that was eventually won in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower and the eastern establishment, internationalist wing of the party.

The modern Republican Party is edging toward the same kind of foreign policy split – the John McCain interventionists vs. the Rand Paul isolationists – that for a generation helped kill Taft’s chances, and his party’s chances, of capturing the White House. While much of the focus in the next ten days will be on the important question of whether President Obama can stitch together the necessary votes in the House and Senate – Democrats have their own non-interventionists to contend with – to authorize military action against Syria, the other political fight is over the foreign policy heart and soul of the GOP.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens here’s some of what those in the new Taft wing of the GOP are saying:

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

“I believe the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security and, therefore, I do not support military intervention. Before taking action, the president should first come present his plan to Congress outlining the approach, cost, objectives and timeline, and get authorization from Congress for his proposal.” Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).

“When the United States is not under attack, the American people, through our elected representatives, must decide whether we go to war.” Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)

Taft’s reputation for personal integrity and senatorial probity – he served as Majority Leader for a short time before his untimely death in 1953 – has guaranteed that he is remembered as one of the Congressional greats of the 20th Century. Still, as Stephen’s writes in the Journal, Taft has also suffered the same fate at the hand of history as almost all of the last century’s isolationists have. They are condemned for what Stephens calls their almost unfailingly bad judgment about foreign affairs. Taft opposed Franklin Roosevelt on Lend-Lease in 1941. He argued against the creation of NATO, which has become an enduring feature of the post-war doctrine of collective security. Taft, always the man of principle, even opposed the Nuremberg trials that sought to bring to the bar of justice the top Nazi leadership of World War II. He considered the legal proceedings, organized and managed by the victors in the war, illegal under existing international law.

In every major showdown in his three-time quest for the presidency, Taft lost to an internationalist oriented Republican: Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and Eisenhower in 1952. When given his chance in the White House, and with the help of one-time Taft ally Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Eisenhower re-shaped the modern Republican Party for the rest of the century as the party most devoted to national security and most trusted to push back against Soviet-era Communism. That image lasted, more or less, from Ike to the second Bush, whose historic miscalculations in Iraq have helped create the kind of party soul searching for the GOP that Democrats struggled with in the post-Vietnam era.

A vote on Syria in the Congress will be a clear cut test of strength for the neo-isolationists in the modern Republican Party, many of whom have close connections to the Tea Party faction. Still the leaders of the new Taft wing, like Kentucky Sen. Paul, have demonstrated they are not one issues wonders when it comes to foreign policy. Paul filibustered over drone policy, has spoken out against NSA intelligence gathering and frets over foreign aid. And the polls show these skeptics are in sync with the many Americans who are sick of open ended commitments in the Middle East and the kind of “trust us, we’ve got this figured out” foreign policy of the second Bush Administration. I suspect the appeal of the neo-isolationists extends as well to younger voters, many of whom have not known an America that wasn’t regularly sending brave young men and women to fight and die in wars that seem not only to lack an end, but also an understandable and clearly defined purpose.

Bob Taft – Mr. Republican – fought and lost many of these same battles more than half a century ago and since the victors usually write the history Taft stands condemns along with many others in his party for being on the wrong side of the history of the 20th Century.

The great debate in the Congress over the next few days is fundamentally important for many reasons, not least that it is required by the Constitution, but it may also define for a generation how the party that once embraced and then rejected isolation thinks about foreign policy. If Sen. Paul can be cast as a latter day Bob Taft on matters of foreign policy; a questioner of the value and scope of America’s role in the world, who will be this generation’s Wendell Willkie or Dwight Eisenhower?

Any GOP pretender for the White House will need to calculate these issues with great precision. Gov. Chris Christie, who has yet to declare this position but seems more likely to fit in the internationalist wing of the party, must have his world atlas open to the Middle East, but those maps are likely sitting right next to the latest polls showing the increasing isolation of the party’s base; the people who will determine who gets the next shot at presiding in the White House Situation Room. During today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Syrian action Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another 2016 contender, voted NO reinforcing the notion that a new generation of Republicans seem willing to bring to full flower an approach to foreign policy that died about the same time as Bob Taft.

What an irony that the robust, nation building, regime change foreign policy of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, the very definition of GOP orthodoxy in the post-September 11 world, has been so quickly consigned to the dust bin of Republican policy.

Who this time will be on the right – and wrong – side of history?

[Note that Idaho Sen. James Risch joined with Paul and Rubio in voting NO on the Syrian resolution in the Foreign Relations Committee.]

 

2014 Election, Baucus, Tamarack, U.S. Senate

Primary Challenges Can Work

97589403Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi must be taking comfort from the reports that virtually all of his Senate GOP colleagues have publicly said they are backing him in what may prove to be the highest profile party primary in 2014. But even with all that institutional support history should tell Enzi that a challenge from a well-known opponent in a party primary is actually a pretty well-worn path to a Senate seat.

Politico reported over the weekend that many Senate Republicans are dismayed by the primary challenge that Liz Cheney, the very political daughter of the former Vice President, has mounted against Enzi. Typical was the comment of Utah’s Orrin Hatch who knows something about a primary challenge from the right. “I don’t know why in the world she’s doing this,” Hatch said of Liz Cheney. Hatch says Enzi is “honest and decent, hard-working; he’s got very important positions in the Senate. He’s highly respected. And these are all things that would cause anybody to say: ‘Why would anybody run against him?’”

The answer to Hatch’s question is simple: primary challenges, more often than you might think, work for the challenger. In the last two cycles incumbent Republicans lost in Indiana and Utah and a Democratic incumbent lost in Pennsylvania. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost her GOP primary and survived by the skin of her teeth by mounting a rare write-in campaign. Looking even farther back in Senate history in virtually every election cycle since the 1930’s an incumbent Senator has lost a renomination battle.

Consider these politicians who started their path to a Senate career by beating an incumbent in their own party: Howard Baker, Ernest Hollings, Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Bradley, Max Baucus, Sam Nunn, Jesse Helms and John Glenn. Just since the 1960’s all those household name Senators beat a incumbent in a party primary.

By all accounts Liz Cheney faces an uphill battle in Wyoming, a state she claims as home now after living on the east coast most of her life. Carpetbaggers generally are about as welcome in Wyoming as they were during post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South. Limited polling so far shows that Cheney has lots of ground to make up and, while she has announced a group of campaign advisers – all old Cheney family friends – GOP office holders in Wyoming are mostly backing Enzi. Nonetheless, with Senate history as a guide, Cheney’s challenge may not be all that farfetched.

Case in point – Idaho Senate races in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In 1932, Jame P. Pope, the then-Mayor of Boise and a progressive Democrat, was swept into the Senate as part of the Franklin Roosevelt-inspired landslide. Pope built a generally liberal record in the Senate during the New Deal era, but never developed deep ties to the grassroots of the Democratic Party in Idaho. (Yes, Idaho actually had a robust Democratic Party in the 1930’s.) Eastern Idaho Democratic Congressman D. Worth Clark, a member of the prominent Clark family that produced two Idaho governors and Bethine Church, the very political wife and partner of Sen. Frank Church, challenged Pope in the 1938 Democratic primary and won. Clark, considerably more conservative than Pope, went on to serve one term in the Senate, his career most remembered for his anti-FDR, non-interventionist foreign policy views and his leadership of an ill-considered Senate “investigation” of Hollywood’s use of movies to push the United States into support of Britain during the early days of World War II.

In 1944, Clark was challenged in the Democratic primary by a country music entertainer and perennial candidate Glen H. Taylor. Taylor, perhaps the most liberal politician to ever represent Idaho in Congress, won the primary and the general election and served a single term in the Senate. Taylor ran on the Progressive Party ticket for vice president in 1948 as Henry Wallace’s running mate, was attacked as a Communist sympathizer and eventually lost the Democratic nomination in 1950 to the man he had defeated six years earlier – D. Worth Clark. Clark in turn lost the general election that year and effectively ended his political career.

There are many other examples of incumbents – often very prominent incumbents – who lost primary challenges. J. William Fulbright in Arkansas, at the time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lost in 1974 to then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. Fulbright, by the way, launched his own Senate career in 1944 by beating an incumbent – Sen. Hattie Caraway. Montana’s Burton K. Wheeler, one of the most prominent politicians of his day, lost a Democratic primary in 1946. The heir to the Wisconsin political dynasty began by his father, Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., lost a Republican primary in 1946 to a guy named Joe McCarthy.

Primary challenges to Senate incumbents aren’t particularly rare and they are frequently successful, particularly when the challenger has, as Liz Cheney surely does, a well-known name or family connection, displays more star power than the incumbent and makes the case that new blood can be more effective than seniority.

In almost every case I’ve mentioned the party of the incumbent Senator was divided or torn by controversy at the time of the successful challenge. Both Wheeler in Montana and young Bob LaFollette in Wisconsin had gotten badly out of step with their party base, for example. This year in Wyoming Sen. Enzi seems less obviously out of step with his party base, but Enzi would be well advised to go to school on the playbook used by Utah’s Hatch to turn back a Tea Party-inspired challenge in 2012. Hatch started early with his tacking to the right, raised a bucket load of money and carefully avoided face-to-face encounters with his younger opponent. Enzi hasn’t started particularly early, isn’t known as a great fundraiser and, while coming across as a salt-of-the-earth type guy may look old and out of touch one-on-one with the media-savvy Cheney.

Still, the former vice president’s daughter needs a realistic rationale for her candidacy that appeals to the Wyoming Republican primary voter to go along along with the star power that she is trying to project. If she finds the right combination she may contribute to the long history of a Senate incumbent getting knocked off in their own party primary. This will be a fascinating race.

 

 

 

2014 Election, Baucus, Clinton, Film, Montana, Schweitzer, Tamarack, U.S. Senate

No Coincidence

120424_brian_schweitzer_605_apThe abrupt and very surprising announcement last Saturday that former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer would take a pass on seeking the open U.S. Senate seat in Big Sky Country seems proof once again of what ought to be the Number One rule in politics. It’s often said that the fundamental rule in politics is to “secure your base,” but Schweitzer’s decision, sending shock waves from Washington to Wibaux, reinforces the belief that the real Number One rule in politics is that there are never any coincidences.

Consider the timeline.

On July 10, 2013 Politico, the Bible of conventional political wisdom inside the Beltway, ran a tough piece on Schweitzer under the headline “Brian Schweitzer’s Challenge: Montana Democrats.” The story made a point of detailing the bombastic Schweitzer’s less than warm relationships with fellow Democrats, including retiring senior Sen. Max Baucus and recently re-elected Sen. Jon Tester.

“Interviews with nearly two dozen Montana Democrats paint a picture of Schweitzer as a polarizing politician,” Politico’s Manu Raju wrote. “His allies adore him, calling him an affable and popular figure incredibly loyal to his friends, who had enormous political successes as governor and would stop at nothing to achieve his objectives.

“His critics describe him as a hot-tempered, spiteful and go-it-alone politician — eager to boost his own image while holding little regard for helping the team, something few forget in a small state like Montana.”

The story quoted one unnamed Montana Democrat as saying Schweitzer “doesn’t do anything if it doesn’t benefit him…he’s an incredibly self-serving politician.”

Added another: “He’s the most vindictive politician I’ve ever been in contact with.”

Meanwhile, conservative bloggers were zeroing in on Schweitzer with one comparing his frequent flights of colorful rhetoric – he recently said he wasn’t “crazy enough” to be in the U.S. House or “senile” enough to be in the Senate – to the disastrous campaign of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin in 2012. Other Republicans suggested they had done the opposition research on the man with the bolo-tie and found, as one said, “a lot of rust under the hood.”

Then last Saturday morning Schweitzer, who went almost instantly from a sure-fire contender to hold the Baucus seat for Democrats to a non-candidate, told the Associated Press that he would stay in Montana. “I love Montana. I want to be here. There are all kinds of people that think I should be in the U.S. Senate,” Schweitzer told AP. “But I never wanted to be in the U.S. Senate. I kicked the tires. I walked to the edge and looked over.”

The surprise announcement came as Montana Democrats were gathering in convention. Schweitzer did no real follow up with the media. His advisers had nothing to say. The national media reported that the decision not to run was a blow – as it is – to national Democrats. Then Sunday, the day after Schweitzer’s surprise announcement, the Great Falls Tribune published a lengthy piece, a piece that had been hinted as in the political pipeline earlier in the week, that raised numerous questions about Schweitzer’s connections with shadowy “dark money” groups that are closely associated with some of the former governor’s aides and close political friends. The “dark money” connections are particularly sensitive in Montana, a state that has a long and proud tradition of limiting corporate money in politics and a state that unsuccessfully challenged the awful Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that took the chains off corporate money.

As a friend in Montana says Schweitzer is staying on Montana’s Georgetown Lake rather than head for Georgetown on the Potomac. But there is always more to the story.

Brian Schweitzer had a political gift, the gift of making yourself a unique “brand.” The bolo-tie, the dog at his heels, the finger wagging, blue jeans swagger. He was gifted, perhaps too much, with the quick one liner. He won many fights, but almost always by brawling and bluster and with elements of fear and favor. In politics always making yourself the “bride at every wedding” and the “corpse at every funeral,” as Alice Roosevelt famously said of her father Teddy, exacts a steep price. Brain Schweitzer may have found the truth of another rule of politics: your friends die and your enemies accumulate.

Schweitzer may genuinely want to stay on Georgetown Lake in beautiful Montana or, if you believe in no coincidence, he may have found that his personal political brand had finally reached its “sell by date” and would simply not survive another round of intense scrutiny. Politics is always about personality. People like you or they don’t. They respect you or not. Rarely do they dislike you and fear you and also hope that you succeed.

“It’s always all about Brian,” another Montana Democrat told Politico. “That I think is the root for every problem.” No coincidence.

 

Baseball, Baucus, Cenarrusa, Clinton, Idaho, Montana, Nobel Prizes, Oregon, Politics, U.S. Senate

Appointing Senators

senateSam Ervin, the white haired Constitutional law expert from North Carolina who presided over the most famous and consequential Senate investigation ever, may never have made it to Senate had he not first been appointed to the job. That’s Ervin in the photo surrounded by Watergate committee staff and Sen. Howard Baker in 1972.

Ervin, appointed in 1954, served 20 years in the Senate and is now remembered to history for his drawling, gentlemanly and expert handling of the investigation that exposed the corruption at the very top of the Nixon White House. Ervin is one of about 200 people appointed to the Senate by governors since we started the direct election of Senators in 1913. All but seven of the Senators by stroke of the pen have been men.

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie considers his enormously high profile appointment to fill the seat vacated by the death of long-time Sen. Frank Lautenberg, it’s worth pondering the unique gubernatorial power under our system to literally create a senator. There is nothing else quite like it in our politics.

In keeping with his flamboyant style, Christie made news by saying he’ll appoint a temporary replacement and then immediately call a special primary election in August and then a Senate election in October, just weeks before Christie himself faces the voters, in order to give New Jersey voters a say in who their senator will be. New Jersey will then vote again for a Senator in November 2014. If all this plotting seems a little too calculating even for Gov. Christie then welcome to the strange world of appointed senators.

The analysis of Christie’s strategy has been rich and for a political junkie intoxicating. The governor knows he needs to make an appointment, but by calling a quick election to either validate or reject his appointee Christie (perhaps) can distance himself from his own pick. By scheduling the election three weeks before his own re-election goes to the voters Christie can get the complicated Senate business out of the way in hopes it won’t impact issues or turnout in his campaign. Or…well, offer your own theory.

One thing seems certain in New Jersey. Christie is too smart and too politically savvy to appoint himself. That has been tried and never works. Montana Gov. John Erickson orchestrated such a self-appointment in the early 1930’s and he subsequently lost when voters correctly concluded the appointment smacked too much of a backroom deal. Same thing happened with Idaho Governor-turned-Senator Charles Gossett in the 1940’s. Gossett resigned as governor having cut a deal with his Lt. Gov. Arnold Williams to immediate appointment him to the Senate. Voters punished both at the next opportunity. In 1946 the Senate actually had two self-appointed Senators – Gossett and Nevada’s Edward P. Carville who cut the same deal with his second-in-command. Carville also lost a subsequent bid to retain his self-appointed Senate seat. History tells us there is not a high bar to Senate appointments, but one thing that doesn’t pass the voter’s smell test is an appointment that smacks of an inside deal. Note that Christie made a point in his public comments to say he wouldn’t be part of such a deal, but his appointment when it comes will be scrubbed up one side and down the other for hints of just such a deal.

Idaho is actually in the running for the most appointed Senators – six by my count – with one of that number, Sen. John Thomas, actually appointed twice, once in 1928 and again in 1940. Alaska’s Ted Stevens first came to the Senate by appointment, so did Maine’s George Mitchell (a future majority leader) and Minnesota’s Walter Mondale (a future vice president). Oregon’s great Sen. Charles McNary came to the Senate by appointment and stayed to become a respected Republican leader and vice presidential candidate in 1940. Washington’s three-term Gov. Dan Evans was later appointed to the Senate. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a great leader on foreign policy during the early Cold War years, was an appointed Senator, so too Mississippi’s James O. Eastland, a power on the Judiciary Committee and a six-term Senator after his appointment.

Virginia’s Carter Glass had a remarkable political career – Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury, appointed Senator who went on to serve 26 years in the Senate and become an authority on banking and finance. The Glass-Steagall Act, a hallmark of the early New Deal regulation of banking, bares his name.

Only a handful of women have come to the Senate by the appointment path and most have replaced their husbands. Rose McConnell Long filled out the remainder of husband Huey’s term in 1935 and 1936, but opted not to run herself. Arkansas’ Hattie Caraway was appointed to fill the term of her deceased husband and then became the first women elected in her own right to the Senate in 1932. She won another election in 1938 and then lost a Democratic primary in 1944 to J. William Fulbright who went on to become one of the giants of the Senate.

Gov. Christie has a lot to ponder as he considers creating a United States Senator with the stroke of a pen. Will he create a Thomas Taggart of Indiana or an Irving Drew of New Hampshire? Both were appointed Senators and, don’t be embarrassed, there is absolutely no reason you should have ever heard of either one. Taggart, a Democrat, served a little over seven months in 1916 and lost an election bid. Drew, a Republican, served barely two months in 1918 and didn’t bother to run on his own. For every Sam Ervin or Charles McNary there is an appointed Senator who is something less than a household name.

Maybe Christie create a Senator like Idaho’s Len Jordan, a former governor appointed to the Senate in 1962 who went on to twice win election in his own right and establish a solid legislative record.

If history is a guide, Christie will reward a loyal and safe member of his own party – former Gov. Tom Kean for example – and someone unable or unwilling to overshadow the governor. The person appointed must also fulfill the fundamental qualification for the office – do no harm to the person making the appointment. Did I mention that appointing a Senator is just about the most political thing any governor can do? It’s going to be rich political theater to watch and analyze the actions of the governor of New Jersey who both wants to be re-elected this fall and run for president in 2016. Let the appointing begin.

 

2014 Election, Baseball, Baucus, Politics, Tamarack, U.S. Senate

M.A.D. Men

You have to hand it to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – the guy knows how to go for the political throat. Mild mannered he is not. McConnell plays the political game like his home state Louisville Cardinals played basketball on their way to winning the NCAA national championship – full court pressure, sharp elbows, give no quarter and when the opponent is down dispatch them quickly so that there is no chance – none – that they’ll get back in the contest.

As he prepares for a Senate race in 2014 McConnell’s dismal approval numbers back home find him in familiar form – on the attack. First McConnell dispatched the one candidate, the actress Ashley Judd, who he probably should have dreamed about running against. For a few weeks earlier this year the national press, always a soft touch for a sweet talking celebrity, built up Kentucky-native Judd as though she were the second coming of Hillary Clinton. With perfect hindsight the political novice was never a serious threat to the toughest guy in the Senate, but McConnell and his operatives wasted not a minute labeling Judd a “Hollywood liberal” completely out of touch with Kentucky. Judd helped the labeling effort by acknowledging at one point in her non-campaign campaign that she and her husband “winter in Scotland. We’re smart like that.” Not surprisingly that line did not play all that well in Paducah, especially among the people who do winter there.

Still, before Ashley admitted the obvious and backed of from challenging McConnell – she’s smart like that – the Senator was plotting an offensive that would not merely leave the young woman battered and beaten in the bluegrass, but permanently disabled as a political pretender. McConnell and his advisers plotted defining Judd as “emotionally unbalanced” and, frankly, more than a little strange with off-beat ideas about religion and other subjects.

Standby. Cue the secret tape.

Mother Jones magazine, the same folks who turned up the infamous Mitt Romney 47% video, published a recording of McConnell and his campaign strategists plotting, as the Senate’s top Republican said, to play “whac-a-mole” with the young woman who might be his opponent.

“If I could interject,” McConnell says early in the leaked recording, “I assume most of you have played the game Whac-A-Mole? [Laughter.] This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out…”

When a tape of the “Whac-an-Ashley” session leaked, apparently at the hands of a Democratic Political Action Committee in Kentucky dedicated to doing to McConnell what he does to others, the Senator “maxed out” on the political rhetoric scale. As the Washington Post noted the Senator or his advisers invoked Nixon-style dirty tricks, the awful politics of the “political left” and even Hitler’s Gestapo. Whew. No mention of Castro? Or Hugo Chavez?

What McConnell (and many other politicians) and their opponents are doing with increasing frequency, and this would include the ham-handed “Progress Kentucky” group that apparently made and leaked the tape of the Senator’s “whac-a-mole” session, is a political update of the nuclear weapons strategy known as “mutually assured destruction.” The MAD theory holds that no sane person will use a nuclear weapon if they know with certainty that their enemy will react in kind. Both sides avoid the ultimate, well, whack because the stakes involved are just too dangerous.

McConnell’s strategy – again, not knew to him – is an update, a variation on MAD – nuke the other side before they even become a candidate. After all you don’t need to worry about the other sides missiles when the other side has no missiles.

No longer is it enough in our politics to defeat an opponent they must be “destroyed” or at a minimum “whacked.” Such a strategy is particularly effective when employed against a novice candidate, or candidate wannabee, like the young Ms. Judd. Before they know what has hit them they are effectively disqualified as a viable candidate. We can date the rise of modern “whac-a-mole” politics to the 1980 election when, for the first time on a national scale a new invention, the political action committee (PAC), made its appearance. Formed for the express purpose of attacking, wounding and ultimately destroying candidates these down-and-dirty operations both coarsened our politics and made the nuke ’em strategy particularly popular with incumbents. The idea that campaigns before 1980 tended to be most local and statewide affairs seems positively quaint today.

If you wonder why the U.S. Senate has become a daily snake pit of hyper-partisanship where a lack of trust prevents serious work on the nation’s serious business, revisit those 1980 campaigns. Four-term incumbent Sen. Frank Church of Idaho was the prime target of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) that year and Church had been in NCPAC’s sights for months. NCPAC’s scummy director Terry Dolan boasted that “By 1980 there will be people voting against Church without remembering why.” He was right. Church lost re-election that year at the hands of a fundamentally dishonest campaign. The same kind of attacks took George McGovern, Birch Bayh, John Culver, Gaylord Nelson, nine Democrats in total, from the Senate in the same cycle. As the late Dave Broder wrote at the time the 1980 election “certainly had all the appearance of an era ending – and a new one beginning.”

Candidates learned from the ’80 election that political survival is best assured with a “first strike” of such overpowering force that the opponent is effectively destroyed. It is the rare candidate these days who find the character attacks – the whacking – so distasteful that they won’t go there, so McConnell is far from alone in embracing this new era. He may be the new era’s most skilled practitioner, however. In the Kentucky Senator’s case the nuke ’em approach also has the benefit of making his campaign about small things rather than big things . Who wants to talk about Afghanistan or the budget when you can talk about Gestapo tactics and unbalanced potential opponents? So far McConnell has mostly succeeded in making this small story about the fact that his secret “whac-a-mole” meeting was secretly taped rather than about the substance of what was on the tape. In fairness to McConnell the Progress Kentucky PAC is clearly trying to pull on him what NCPAC pulled in 1980. They’re just not very good at it. Still, a pox on all the houses.

I know, I know, politics ain’t bean bag. Sharp elbows and unfair attacks are as old as the Republic. A young Lyndon Johnson once tried out on an aide a particularly scurrilous line of attack he was considering using against an opponent. The aide protested that the attack simply wasn’t true, but Johnson just smiled and said, “let him deny it.” Still, even LBJ eventually learned that there is more to politics that winning at all cost. Gleefully destroying opponents doesn’t do a lot for their reputation or yours.

Mitch McConnell is very good at the sharp elbows part of politics and, as he girds for a sixth term, clearly very good at winning elections. You shouldn’t put any smart money on the most unpopular man in the Senate losing next year. At the same time McConnell is proof of the truth contained in the old axiom that skills required for winning elections are not usually the skills needed to govern effectively. The history books will likely remember him for resisting every type of control on money in politics and for famously saying that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Disqualifying Ashley Judd won’t get you a chapter in Profiles in Courage and scorched earth politics – whether from a Mitch McConnell or the sleazy PAC out to get him – ultimately only feed the dysfunction of a Senate and a political system in need of real leaders rather than guys who spend their days plotting how to whack moles.

 

Baucus, U.S. Senate, Uncategorized

The Last Great Senate

When then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker was at the zenith of his political power and influence in Washington it was said that if his Senate colleagues were charged with secretly selecting a president they would have chosen Baker. He was that respected on both sides of the political aisle.

Baker was a moderate Republican when the GOP had such a thing and his influence on the Senate and American politics from the 1960’s to the 1990’s was significant. He was both minority and majority leader, could have been on the Supreme Court had he wanted the appointment and after the Senate served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and later as ambassador to Japan.

A fine recent book on the Senate during Baker’s hay day makes the case that the senator from Tennessee was one of the century’s great legislators and led “the Republicans at a time when, for some members of his caucus, compromise was beginning to be a dirty word.”

The book , The Last Great Senate, is Ira Shapiro’s first-hand history of the Senate in the 1970’s before the pivotal election of 1980 – the election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of many Senate liberals – ushered in a new era in American and senatorial politics. Shapiro, a staffer to several Senate Democrats in this period, nonetheless makes Baker one of the heroes of his book by recalling his essential role in the Watergate hearings, as well as Baker’s support for the Panama Canal treaties and his generous and non-partisan backing of Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis.

Shapiro makes a compelling case that the rapid increase in partisanship in the Senate after 1980 – the year Senate lions like Idaho’s Frank Church, Washington’s Warren Magnuson and South Dakota’s George McGovern lost – continues to this day.

There are many reasons why “the world’s greatest delibrative body” has become a place where compromise rarely exists and where partisan showmanship reigns nearly every day. Shapiro sums it up this way: “It is more difficult to be a senator today than it was in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The increasingly vitriolic political culture, fueled by a twenty-four-hour news cycle, the endless pressure to raise money, the proliferation of lobbyists and demanding organized interests are all well known, and they take a toll. But all those factors make it more essential that our country has a Senate of men and women who bring wisdom, judgment, experience, and independence to their work, along with an understanding that the Senate must be able to take collective action in the national interest.”

Pick out a roster of the Senate in the 1970’s and read the names – Republicans like Dole of Kansas, Hatfield of Oregon, Goldwater of Arizona and McClure of Idaho and Democrats like Jackson of Washington, Mansfield of Montana, Bayh of Indiana and Hart of Michigan – and recall that the United States Senate used to work.

As the Washington Post noted in its favorable review of Shapiro’s book, “Senators are politicians with the most monumental political ambitions, and they operate in a political environment that reflects how much the country has changed — in some ways, not for the better. The fault is not in the Senate but in the country itself.”

Indeed. James Madison’s view of the Senate as described in Federalist 62 would be a body defined by “senatorial trust” requiring a “great extent of information and stability of character.” I suspect most members of the Senate today chafe at the characterization that they live in a world of political dysfunction, but perhaps they do precisely because voters seem barely willing to tolerate the need for Senators, from both parties, to embrace “senatorial trust” and work together, really work together, to address, and occasionally solve, big national problems.

 

Afghanistan, Baucus, Churchill, Clinton, Foreign Policy, John Kennedy, Montana, Otter, U.S. Senate, World War II

War and Congress

Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.

The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.

Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.

Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.

At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.

We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended?  And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?

Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.

Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990’s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.

After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.

George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.

Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.

 

Baucus, Federal Budget, Immigration, U.S. Senate

What’s Wrong

Unless you hail from the great state of Mississippi there is a good chance you’ve never heard of Sen. Byron Patton Harrison. That’s him nearby in a 1940 photo. The current dysfunction in Washington, D.C. is cause enough to remember senators like Harrison. Unfortunately now days, like the dodo bird, senators like Pat Harrison are mostly extinct.

Harrison – everyone called him Pat – wouldn’t recognize the U.S. Senate today and I’m guessing he’d be appalled by the current leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.

In the late 1930’s, Pat Harrison, who served in the U.S. House and Senate from 1919 to 1941, was arguably the most influential member of the U.S. Senate. Harrison was both Senate President Pro Tem and Chairman of the powerful tax writing Finance Committee. As Harrison’s biographer Martha H. Swain has written, by 1939 the wily Mississippian was at the height of his powers.

“That year [1939] Washington newspapers voted him the ‘most influential’ senator,” Swain said. “Turner Catledge, the Mississippi-born managing editor of the New York Times, had described the Mississippian as the best ‘horse-trader’ for his way of cajoling colleagues to pass his Finance Committee legislation. His influence, Catledge said, stemmed from the fact that Harrison never ‘welched’ on a promise: ‘If Harrison told you something you could take it to the bank.’”

Harrison was a loyal Democrat and pushed Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security legislation through his committee and the Senate in 1935, but at the same time  refused to rubber stamp FDR’s “soak-the-rich” tax legislation. Unlike today’s Senators, Harrison believed he could be both a loyal Democrat and his own man. That view got his at cross purposes with Roosevelt who, unwisely it turned out, opposed Harrison’s effort to become Senate majority leader in 1937. Even though Harrison lost that contest by one vote, ironically, and this was a testament to his reputation for candor and independence, he became even more highly regarded in the Senate after his defeat.

Even Roosevelt eventually came to acknowledge that Harrison was the go-to guy in the Senate. Because his word was good, and without regard to their early disagreements, FDR entrusted to Harrison the delicate job of easing controversial Lend Lease legislation through the Senate in 1941.

Not quite 60 years old, Harrison died later in 1941 of colon cancer. His death brought an bipartisan outpouring of sadness and regard. Roosevelt said of the Senate power broker that he was “keen of intellect, sound in principle, shrewd in judgment [with] rare gifts of kindly wit, humor, and irony.”

A newspaper editor back in Mississippi said Harrison was “square, approachable, and intensely human.”

Over the past weekend talks to avoid the so called “fiscal cliff” broke down – again – in the Senate and Vice President Joe Biden stepped in to attempt to salvage some kind of deal with GOP leader McConnell. Biden was needed, in part its reported, because Democratic leader Reid and his Republican opposite number don’t trust each other. Put another way, Reid and McConnell are so busy jockeying to win partisan debating points that they have no time to be national lawmakers.

Lots of things are wrong with the way the D.C dysfunction has brought the country, still reeling from an economic collapse, to the edge of another disaster, but I’ll mention just two: trust and process.

No good deal – and all politics is about making a deal – ever gets done when leaks and dueling soundbites constantly trickle out from both sides. The fact that both sides in this manufactured crisis are “negotiating” on Twitter and cable news is all the evidence we need that they don’t fundamentally possess the basic ingredient needed to do a deal – trust. When is the last time you heard someone say about a current Senate leader, as they did in the 1930’s about the mostly forgotten Pat Harrison, he never “welched” on a deal?

Reid and McConnell are so focused on the tactical daily soundbite and gaining the tiniest sliver of advantage over the other that they can’t be, to borrow a phrase, “square, approachable and intensely human.”

A second issue with this “fiscal cliff” is one of process. The legislative process is supposed to involve committee work, hearings, drafting of proposals, amendments and debate. Pat Harrison did not pass Social Security in 1935 by getting together with a couple of other senators and presenting a bill on the floor as a take it, or leave it proposition. He did what legislators are supposed to do – legislate, work with his committee, try this and try that and produce a bill that is then voted upon.

If a fiscal cliff deal gets done it will end up being a cobbled together mess born in secret and presented as a done deal to the House and Senate. Most of the people in Congress who should be involved – the chairs of the Finance and House Ways and Means Committees, for example – will have been about as close to the action and you and me.

For weekend amusement I didn’t watch the endless talking heads on the fiscal cliff, but rather tuned into the NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” where a panel of smart and funny people crack wise about news and popular culture. The celebrity guest this past weekend was the current British ambassador to the United States Sir Peter Westmacott, a career foreign service officer with a wicked sense of humor.

At once point Sir Peter was asked a question about the differences in the British and American political “cultures.” It was the kind of question that most political people would have answered with a vague generality. Instead, Her Majesty’s ambassador said it seems to him that the U.S. system was designed [in colonial times] to – his word – avoid “tyranny” that might be imported from across the oceans and, as a result, the the U.S. set up a system “designed not to work.”

The quip from the witty Brit got a big laugh from the audience, a knowing laugh, the kind of laugh that says, “yup, he’s right…”

The Congress that will die along with the old year will go down in history as one of the most unproductive in recent history. First, the members of Congress and the president created the pending crisis of automatic tax increases and spending cuts because months ago they couldn’t agree on a a real legislative fix, the kind of fix that would have required the hard, bipartisan work of legislating. Then, knowing exactly what would happen if they behaved as they have, Congress diddled right up until the absolute last minute – and likely beyond – to come up with what will undoubtedly be a half-baked, non-solution.

Much kicking of cans down the road will follow.

The Senate of Pat Harrison’s day would have been embarrassed by such political amateurism, such willing abandonment of the basic responsibilities of governance. While the country shakes its collective head at its hyper-partisan, broken system and, while even the British ambassador feels compelled to joke about the yokels in the former colonies, the nation’s ruling class fiddles and fusses. They should be embarrassed, but most don’t seem to be. After all, you have to be aware that something is wrong in order to be embarrassed enough to try and fix it.

 

Baucus, Food, Garfield, McGovern, Otter, State Budgets, U.S. Senate, World War II

McGovern

I’ve had the fortune – mostly good and a little bad at times – to have lived all my adult life in two states where Democrats have become endangered species – South Dakota and Idaho.

The news this week that former South Dakota U.S. Senator George McGovern is in the last days of his 90 years is a reminder once again that even given our nasty, polarized, hyper-partisan politics one man can have an impact. The fact that McGovern, an unabashed liberal, made his impact for so many years in South Dakota, a state almost as conservative as Idaho, is remarkable. No less remarkable than the long runs of Idaho Democrats Frank Church and Cecil Andrus.

McGovern has known ever since 1972 that the first line of his obituary would reference his historic presidential loss to the future unindicted co-conspirator Richard Nixon. An historian by training and temperament, McGovern could take comfort in the verdict of history that, while describing his national campaign in ’72 as quixotic and chaotic, would also come to judge him more right than wrong on Vietnam, Watergate and a host of other vital issues. And, of course, the contrast with Nixon, given the perfect lens of hindsight, couldn’t be greater.

My memories of McGovern start with the personal. He spoke at my high school graduation in 1971. No one remembers a high school graduation speech, but I certainly remember the speaker. When McGovern ran for re-election in South Dakota in 1974 – ironically against a Vietnam Medal of Honor winner and POW Leo Thorsness – I was a college-kid-aspiring journalist who filed his one and only NPR piece on Thorsness’ announcement of candidacy.

Years later I heard McGovern, a part-time Montana resident, deliver a moving memorial speech for the great Sen. Mike Mansfield. More recently I happened to be in Washington, D.C. at a time when McGovern was back on Capitol Hill to talk about his then-latest book a biography of Abraham Lincoln. McGovern took to the Lincoln project – one of the slim and wonderful volumes in the American President Series – with a level of personal understanding of what it must have taken for Lincoln to strive for the presidency, win it against great odds, withstand immense criticism and then die in the cause of Union and justice. A signed copy of the little book, which I highly recommend, is a treasured part of my collection.

George McGovern is the kind of political figure that truly intrigues me; a man running against the odds, who writes his own books, speak with passion and candor about hard issues and ultimately has always been comfortable in his own skin. He is far and way a different man from the “loser” image that some have used to define him for 40 years.

Three aspects of McGovern’s life where little know beyond the borders of South Dakota. First, as a young college history teacher he decided that no one else would take on the task of building a competitive Democratic Party in South Dakota in the 1950’s – so he did. Traveling the state, meeting one-on-one with thousands of people, McGovern organized, planned and plotted. In the process he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the state from the timberland of the Black Hills to the dry land farming country east of the Missouri River. As my friend Mark Trahant writes McGovern won his first senate race, by a whooping 597 votes, because he appealed to South Dakota’s Native American population, a segment of the state’s population that most politicians had marginalized and ignored prior to 1962. George McGovern was a builder.

Historian Stephen Ambrose’s book The Wild Blue told the story of McGovern’s 35 combat missions as a B-24 pilot over Europe. The young McGovern, piloting the Dakota Queen, survived tough and extraordinarily dangerous duty and he memories of war dogged him all his days. His service won him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ironically – or cynically – McGovern, the legit war hero, was branded by Nixon during that 1972 race as soft on national defense and defeatist about Vietnam. To his personal credit and to his political detriment, McGovern never traded on his remarkable military record. Imagine that. Unlike a lot of national security hawks who never experienced war up close, McGovern did and conducted himself accordingly.

The third little know fact about McGovern is his life-long devotion to the cause of world hunger. From his earliest days McGovern never grew tired of talking about, nor grew cynical about, the need for the world’s wealthy countries to put aside differences and provide the most basic need – food – to millions of people around the world. McGovern traced his concerns about hunger back to his military days in war ravaged and hungry Italy. He told moving stories about young kids begging in broken English for a candy bar from the American GI’s. It marked him.

By the way, McGovern teamed with another World War II hero, Republican Sen. Bob Dole, to write most of the nation’s food security legislation – WIC, school lunches and food stamps, included. Talk about an historic bipartisan effort.

George McGovern – historian, politician, failing presidential candidate, hunger advocate – will be treated better by the history books than he has been by his contemporaries. If you believe, as Tom Brokaw has dubbed McGovern’s contemporaries, that the World War II generation was America’s greatest, then the gentleman – the gentle man – from Avon, South Dakota was a genuine example of personal greatness. Dare I say it – the U.S. Senate could use a few like him.

 

 

 

Air Travel, Baucus, Books, U.S. Senate

Once it Worked

The Last Great Senate

Given today’s persistent gridlock in Congress, it’s easy to forget that the United States Senate was once a place where bipartisan lawmaking actually occurred on a fairly regular basis and not that long ago.

A fine new book – The Last Great Senate by Ira Shapiro – remembers a Senate full of great and gifted legislators, including Washington State’s Scoop Jackson, pictured nearby. Shapiro, a former trade official in the Clinton Administration and Senate staffer, makes a compelling case that the U.S. Senate in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a great place. A roll call of the great ones of that period, Scoop included, reads like a roster of some of the institutions very best.

Mansfield from Montana, Baker from Tennessee, Church from Idaho and Hatfield from Oregon. And there were more, Javits of New York, Rudman of New Hampshire, Byrd of West Virginia, Cooper of Kentucky and Case of New Jersey. Most are lost to memory now, but the Senate they occupied was a far different place than today’s where party leaders seem only to traffic in partisan sound bites and elbow each other for each day’s tactical political advantage.

Writing last week in the Seattle Times, Shapiro remembered the great Scoop as a fully formed, well informed and well intentioned Senator.

“Jackson was also a master legislator,” Shapiro wrote, “able to reach principled compromises to further the national interest. During the late 1970s, as energy dependence became a central concern for America, Jackson was the chairman of the newly formed Senate Energy Committee. Jackson loathed President Jimmy Carter (the feeling was mutual), who had defeated him for the Democratic nomination in 1976. Jackson doubted Carter’s readiness to be president and also disagreed with the thrust of his energy proposals, believing them to be too generous to the oil and gas industries.

“Yet, despite all these factors, and even while leading the fight against Carter’s effort to negotiate the SALT II arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union, Jackson worked tirelessly for three long years to produce a national energy policy. He respected the presidency, if not the president, and saw the need to forge compromises between consumer and producer interests, and the various regions of our country.”

Talk privately to any thinking member of Congress and they will tell you that the country faces serious challenges that aren’t difficult to identify. We must gain control of fiscal policy and the tax code is a mess and must be reformed for reasons of both fairness and increased revenue. We face serious competitive issues that are only met by world-class trade, education and infrastructure investment. Immigration policy must be re-structured and – brace yourselves – even gun violence in America must be addressed.

The problems are readily apparent, what is failing is our institutions, beginning with the federal legislature and particularly the United States Senate. Gone is the sense that a six-year Senate term gives 100 elite Americans a license to operate just a little above the partisan hustle. For the better part of three decades, as Shapiro’s must read book makes clear, many of the nation’s most pressing problems have gone begging, while the Senate has fallen into a frozen, partisan swamp of inaction.

It would be comforting to think that the institution can reform itself from within and regain some of its historic luster, but in today’s Twitter-infused partisanship that is probably asking too much. The fault, dear friends is not in the Senate, really, but in ourselves. We settle for gridlock rather than demand a Senate of Scoop Jacksons.