Saturday, November 28, 2009

It’s Not too Early to Think About the….. 2012 Vice President?

There are many aspects of the U.S. presidential campaigns which could be importantly improved. In the last cycle of 2008, I joined with former Speaker Newt Gingrich and others in an appeal to reform the presidential debates. Although none of our reforms were accepted in the 2008 format, the debate moderator often intervened to produce more back-and-forth discussion by the candidates, something we had especially called for. I hope that, at this very early point in the planning for the 2012 debates, the producers and the candidates will consider formalizing this and other changes in the debate format.

There is another issue which I would like to raise this early in the process. It is the issue of the timing of the naming of the vice presidential candidate. In the 2012 race, of course, the Democratic side already has its vice presidential nominee, the current Vice President Joe Biden. So my suggestions would apply this time only to the Republicans, but I mean them to apply to both parties when there is not an incumbent vice president running for re-election.

The problem, as I see it, is that the nominees of each party wait until a few days before their respective conventions before announcing their vice presidential choice. More often than not in recent years, this has produced problems for both parties.

Until the television, and now internet, age, of course, this procedure seemed to work relatively well. Presidential nominees generally chose safe and often obscure candidates for reasons of geographical, ideological and other political reasons, but the vice presidential office itself seemed less important than it does today, and vice presidents traditionally suffered silently in the shadow of the president who selected them. After World War II, and the death of four-term President Roosevelt, however, the public and the media took increasing interest in the office. President Harry Truman had become vice president when Roosevelt made a last-minute change in 1944, replacing incumbent Vice President Henry Wallace. Two months after the 1945 inauguration, Roosevelt died and the “unknown” Truman was the leader of the nation and the free world. History indicates that was a fortuitous result (especially in light of Wallace’s radical and unstable views), but subsequent choices were often problematic, either in the presidential campaign itself or later.

Truman’s choice of Alben Barkley was relatively harmless, but there was little indication that he was really prepared to assume the presidency. Dwight Eisenhower’s choice of Richard Nixon faced a scandal soon after his name was announced, but he survived it with his famous “Checkers” speech. Although Nixon later was elected president, and accomplished some important things in foreign policy, he finally had to resign his office because of Watergate. Nixon’s own vice president, Spiro Agnew, had taken bribes as an official in Maryland, but this did not come out until years later, and he, too, had to resign. 1964 GOP nominee Barry Goldwater chose Congressman William Miller for his veep, but he was unknown and little help to the GOP campaign against President Lyndon Johnson and his popular veep choice of Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, Democrat George McGovern’s vice presidential choice, Thomas Eagleton, was revealed to have had mental treatment soon after being named, and finally had to resign only days before the Democratic convention. In 1976, both nominees chose already nationally-known running mates, Bob Dole and Walter Mondale without any problems. In 1980, Ronald Reagan did the same with George H. W. Bush, but in 1984, Mondale now his party’s presidential nominee selected Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman candidate, but there were problems with her husband’s finances, and this affected the Democratic ticket adversely. In 1988, George H.W. Bush, now his party’s presidential nominee, picked an unknown Indiana senator Dan Quayle, and was immediately criticized for the choice. Although Quayle’s treatment by the media was often unfair, and he did not excel in his campaign appearances, the ticket won. But in 1992, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton chose well-known Al Gore to be his running mate and defeated Bush-Quayle. In 1996, former GOP veep nominee Bob Dole became a presidential nominee, and picked the familiar figure of Jack Kemp as his running mate. In 2000, George W. Bush selected experienced but relatively unknown former Congressman Dick Cheney for veep, and Democratic nominee selected Joe Lieberman. Since the final result was the closest in history, and the most controversial, it could be argued that, among other factors, the vice presidential choices determined the outcome (although it must be noted that Gore-Lieberman won the popular vote by more than half a million votes).

Walter Mondale had assumed a significant new role as vice president in 1980, and this continued with both Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney. Vice presidential nominees (and vice presidents) frequently become presidential nominees. Today, the candidates for vice president are rightfully examined almost as closely as the presidential candidates.

In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry chose his senate colleague and major opponent, John Edwards to be his running mate. As with Spiro Agnew, an existing scandal involving Edwards did not become known during the campaign, nor during the 2008 election when Edwards ran again for president, but the scandal did come out later and has destroyed his political career. Sarah Palin was John McCain’s choice in 2008, and like Dan Quayle was often treated unfairly by the press. She was named at the last-minute, and most of her problems in the campaign arose from her inexperience on the national stage.

My point is that naming a vice presidential choice a week or two, or a few days, before a presidential convention carries unnecessary risk. Interestingly, it was Ronald Reagan in 1976, fighting a close contest with President Gerald Ford, who came up with a better approach. He did it for short-term political reasons. Trailing Ford early in the primaries, Reagan chose Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker to be on his ticket long before the traditional time, and during the primary season. Although he ultimately lost to Ford, the strategy helped Reagan.

In short, I am suggesting that the presidential candidates for both parties name their vice presidential choices early in the campaign. This gives the public and the media plenty of time for vetting the candidate, and avoids last-minute political problems that have often plagued presidential campaigns. It has the added benefit of enabling the presidential and vice presidential nominees to get to know one another, and to find the best way the vice presidential nominee can help in the final part of the campaign against the opposing party. A third benefit is that it gives the vice presidential nominee valuable national campaign experience.There is little downside to this new procedure, even as the old way, with Google-type searches and a myriad of blogs, is increasingly fraught with the political danger.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Unexpected Hero of Our Time: Juan Carlos

A few days ago, Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain attended a conference of leaders of Spanish speaking countries in Chile. Among those also attending was that democratically-elected gangster Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela (but soon to be dictator). Mr. Chavez loves to make long anti-American leftist harangues, and when his turn came to speak, he decided to go after former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a long-time ally of the U.S. who, when in office, supported President Bush in Iraq. Mr. Zapatero, a socialist, defeated Mr. Aznar (and the two remain bitter opponents), but he found himself defending his rival to Mr. Chavez as "a man who was elected by the Spanish people." Mr. Chavez does not care about this principle (he said he will sidestep the Venezuelan constitution to stay in office beyond the allotted two terms), and kept interrupting Mr. Zapatero (a fellow socialist) in a most boorish fashion.

Finally, a man seated next to Mr. Zapatero, leaned over and in a loud vice said to Mr. Chavez, as if they were two men in a working class tapas bar in the Madrid rastro (flea market), "Why don't you shut up?" ("Por que no te callas?")

The man, of course, was the Spanish head of state, King Juan Carlos, and not one known for crude talk. Nevertheless, his riposte has now become a cheer throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and in not a few other places as well.

Forty years ago, I attended the University of Madrid It was during the closing years of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco who had triumphed in the bloody Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, and had ruled Spain with an iron hand for 30 years. Although Franco was to remain in power until he died in 1975, he had been planning his succession. Realizing that Europe and the world was changing, he needed a respectable head of state who would permit his falangist right wing ideology to continue after his death. The previous king of Spain had been overthrown in a revolution by the brief Spanish republic (1931-39), and was living in exile. His son, Don Juan, was the crown prince and heir to the throne. The problem for Mr. Franco, however, was that Don Juan was a liberal figure (as royalty goes) and a long-time critic of the Franco regime.

The Spanish dictator came up with a way out. Don Juan's son, Juan Carlos, was then only a child, and Franco offered to allow Juan Carlos to return to Spain by himself and receive his education under Franco's tutelage. This was finally agreed to, and Juan Carlos returned to Spain, eventually enrolling at the University of Madrid sometime before I did. I never met the young prince, but on occasion I would see a line of black cars pull up on campus, and when I inquired who that was, I was told it was Juan Carlos. I met a young officer on Franco's general staff at that time, and he said they were calling Juan Carlos "Juan el Breve" ("Juan the Brief") in private military circles, suggesting that his reign as king would be very short after Franco's death. But it did not work out that way. After Franco died, the law decreed that Juan Carlos would become head of state. The civilian government was fairly liberal, and finally the falangist right wing staged a coup in 1981. They took over the parliament building, holding the deputies hostage, and waited for the army to fall in behind their revolution. It did not happen. The reason was that King Juan Carlos, his queen and family, remained in the royal palace in Madrid, and refused to recognize the coup. He then telephoned the various commanders of the Spanish army, and demanded that they support him and Spanish democracy. Reported plots to kidnap and even assassinate the king were everywhere, so that Juan Carlos's action was extraordinarily courageous, not only politically but physically as well. The king won the confrontation, and the second Spanish democratic government was saved. Overnight, Juan Carlos became a huge hero throughout Spain.

Twenty-five years later, Juan Carlos remains personally popular, but secular and liberal Spain has produced calls to end the monarchy. The king's son, the Prince of Asturias, does not enjoy his father's popularity (Is this reminiscent of contemporary Great Britain and its royal family?), and the Spanish media is filled with small royal scandals all the time, including the latest, the divorce of the eldest princess.

After the king's retort to Mr. Chavez, some Spanish commentators suggested it was not dignified for the king to speak in this way, as if he was making it into a street fight. Numerous British left-wing media and other continental commentators actually took Chavez's side. (This should be no surprise, considering the venomous hatred of the U.S. in European media circles,) There has been very limited coverage of this story in American mainstream media.

But almost everywhere else, the king's rebuke has become a new rallying cry. In Venzuela, the opposition to Mr. Chavez has adopted "Por que no te callas?" as its slogan. A reggae ballad has already been composed, and along with videos of the incident, is available world wide on You Tube and its equivalents.

The irony of all of this is that Juan Carlos is the descendant of generations of Spanish Bourbon kings whose most distinguished achievements other than brutal and rapacious conquest, include being portrayed by the sublime Spanish masterGoya (portraits of Spanish royalty by Velazquez were of another royal dynasty, the Hapsburgos, that preceded the Bourbons) and in being the protagonists in 19th century Italian operas. Most of the Spanish kings oversaw the savage colonization of South and Central America which suppressed advanced Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations (including, it should be noted, the forbears of Mr. Chavez) and produced eventually the politically unstable regimes that are so common in South and Central America today.

I don't know if Juan Carlos's controversial rebuke to Mr. Chavez will, in itself, save the Spanish monarchy, but one more time, this under-rated member of one of the world's few surviving monarchies has defied expectations and shown himself to be a cut above many of those who have been elected to high office.

Can you imagine Neville Chamberlain telling Adolf Hitler to shut up in Munich?


-This article was originally published in Real Clear Politics on November 17th, 2009.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Indian Summer, 2009

Where I live, in the north midwest, we have been enjoying an extended period of so-called Indian Summer, a late-autumn interval that occurs most (but not all) years just before winter arrives with its full force of cold and snow. In these parts, winters are frequently bitter, and the weather forecasters are predicting a very bitter one this year.

A really vintage Indian Summer, and I would rate this year's as one of those, is like a vintage wine. It's more complex, richer and deeper than most Indian Summers, and it is meant to savor, to indulge the self in, to participate with the landscape which harbors it for a brief time. We have Indian Summers where I grew up, along Lake Erie, beautiful and warm, but not so much premonitions of the reversal of climate that is to come.

Most of my readers know me as a journalist who writes about American politics and international affairs. A smaller number know I am also a literary writer who has created a body of work in poetry and short fiction, as well as a few efforts in theater. The path I took to write as a journalist was one of economic survival, but I did not abandon the poems and short stories. Nevertheless, my second education in the "real" world of elections, business, and campaigns often trumped my education as an artist.

We have all observed a remarkable interval in our country, and in the world, in the past 20 years, as we left the so-called Cold War behind us, and proceeded without a road map to the next circumstances on our little planet. My journalist self has dominated my consciousness and my daily attention, as the fascinating details of new relationships, new wars, new political personalities, and life's mysterious way of always surprising us with unplanned events have overtaken us.

I notice lately, however, that my literary self is stirring, and I believe this is no accident. Some persons think of themselves, and appear to others, as pessimists. Others say they are, and appear to others, as optimists. To paraphrase a line from Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice," I see see the pessimism, but optimism is also "nice, and would suffice." My journalist self writes about an orderly world combating disorder. My literary self responds to those moments in time when disorder seems out of control. It is less logical and more intuitive.

This is a long way of saying that disorder and human vulnerability is growing all around us. We have been inundated with such constant new information, mechanical technologies, changed velocities of virtually all the tools our species uses every day, and provocations of our senses, that we seem to be losing some of the natural and necessary processes that keep life in some kind of balance.

Does this mean revolutions and social upheaval? Does it mean more or less totalitarian regimes and ideologies? Does it mean new forms of violence and repression? To be honest, I don't know what it means. But the reordering of the conditions of the world means that it is not going to be business as usual in the years and decades ahead.

Readers who would rather read about my analyses of the 2010 elections and the 2012 presidential contest, and I suspect that is most of my readers, need not worry that I will now send out on The Prairie Editor and my website a plethora of unfathomable and portentous diatribes and prophecies. I will return to the here-and-now of our curious political life soon enough.

But I thought I might mention, as I savor the Indian Summer of 2009, my intuitions of something bigger and perhaps more ominous also waiting for us ahead.