Friday, February 15, 2019

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Twenty-Four Years Ago.....

Twenty-four years ago, I was the part-time executive director of a
non-profit, non-partisan foundation that had two main functions --- first,
holding periodic national conferences on timely public policy issues,
and second, hosting and escorting foreign public figures in the U.S.,
primarily those who were part of the United States Information Agency
(USIA), and later U.S. State Department, international visitor program.
I had co-founded the foundation in 1989 with my friend, the late Julius
Smith, a prominent attorney and local public figure.

Our first project was a  national symposium on low-income housing in
1990 with the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack
Kemp as the main speaker. I had gotten to know him in my full-time
job as a journalist who covered national and presidential politics, and
he graciously agreed to come to Minneapolis for our event. We also
invited prominent local and national Democrats, as well as non-partisan
low income housing activists and developers. The symposium was
about a then somewhat controversial subject, and running it was quite a
learning experience. We did not get much media notice outside
Minnesota.

For the next five years, the foundation’s primary activities were with
international visitors. Over the years, we hosted locally or escorted
around the U.S. more than 500 foreign elected officers, public officials,
businesspersons, journalists and cultural figures from almost 100
nations.  It was an eye-opening experience, but a story for another time.

Early in 1995, I felt it was time for another symposium. As an opinion
journalist and reporter about national politics, I had formed some views
about the importance of the so-called “political center” in
American public life.  I sensed that a national symposium discussing
“Locating the new political center in America” might be useful and
timely. Once again, using contacts I had made as a journalist, I invited
some prominent centrist U.S. figures to participate, including members
of President Bill Clinton’s administration, leaders of major centrist
organizations, including the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a
centrist think tank from where Mr. Clinton had emerged earlier,
prominent Republicans including then Speaker of the U.S. House
Newt Gingrich, and well-known independent and third party figures.

Although my roster of invited speakers was perhaps initially ambitious,
some surprise events propelled the symposium into unexpected
national prominence as its mid-December date approached.

First, it was the third year of President Clinton’ first term, and it was a
problematic time for his administration. A year before, Newt Gingrich
had engineered an historic realigning mid-term election, and
Republicans took control of the U.S. house for the first time in four
decades. Gingrich’s policy initiatives (many of them centrist) had put
Clinton on the defensive, and there was talk of some challenging the
president’s upcoming 1996 renomination or running as a third party
candidate.

Perhaps the most prominent of these potential revolts came from a
group known as the “Secret Seven” that included prominent centrist
Democrats former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, New Jersey
Senator Bill Bradley, former Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado,
former Congressman Tim Penny of Minnesota, and former Senator
(and 1984 presidential candidate) Gary Hart, as well as former 1980
independent presidential candidate John Anderson and independent
Maine Governor Angus King.  Former Republican Connecticut
Governor Lowell Weicker was later listed in the group (causing it to
have a new media name, “the Gang of Eight”). Each of them were
self-described centrists unhappy with the leadership of both parties.
It was also rumored that Bradley and Weicker might run for president
in 1996.

When I asked Tim Penny to participate in the symposium, he quickly
realized that the event could be an ideal way to formally launch the
“Secret Seven” plan to push the major parties toward the political
center. I agreed to let members of his group headline the symposium
dinner, The luncheon keynote speaker was to be Speaker Gingrich
who I had gotten to know years before when he was a relatively
unknown congressman.

Although only three of the Secret Seven spoke at our symposium in
Minneapolis, it was major national news. Suddenly, our efforts to gain
a bit of publicity for the symposium exploded into front-page headlines
across the nation and in nightly network news stories. Some of our
invited guests who had been reluctant to commit to coming to frigid
Minnesota in December now virtually begged me to participate.

The second unexpected event, older readers will recall, was that our
symposium date ended up in the middle of a contentious government
shutdown pitting President Clinton against Speaker Gingrich. As the
the event approached, my staff and my friends all advised me we were
going to lose Gingrich as our keynoter. When I contacted him with
foreboding, I was pleased to learn that he fully expected to appear,
provided we could arrange for his live televised remarks by satellite
from a studio in Washington, DC to our event.  We scrambled to do
so, and some of generous  sponsors came up with the extra funds to
make it happen. Needless to say, Speaker Gingrich’s live remarks at
our symposium drew a standing-room-only crowd and national media.

Steve Scully of C-SPAN had grown up in Erie, PA, as had Tom Ridge
(then governor of Pennsylvania and a speaker at several of our
symposia), and as I did. I don’t think Steve and his colleagues needed
much persuading to televise our event. Usually, C-SPAN broadcasts a
program such as ours only once, but because of the government
shutdown, they lacked timely material --- so sessions of our
symposium were broadcast repeatedly for several weeks. 

(I realized C-SPAN’s impact when I made my next visit to Washington,
DC a few months later, and I was actually stopped in the streets several
times by persons who had seen me speak at the symposium!)

Al From and Will Marshall, the leaders of the DLC came and spoke, as
did Elaine Kamarck representing the president and Vice President Al
Gore. My friend Mike McCurry, the presidential press secretary (whom
I had met in 1988 when he was press secretary to Bruce Babbitt, then
running for president), graciously arranged for representatives of
President Clinton, including former Governor George Sinner of North
Dakota, to hold a press conference responding for the White House to
Speaker Gingrich’s remarks at the symposium.. Ross Perot’s 1992
campaign manager Orson Swindle participated as did Michael Lewan,
former chief of staff for Senator Joe Lieberman (later Democratic vice
presidential nominee), policy guru Grover Norquist, former President
George H.W. Bush senior staffer Jim Pinkerton, Ross Perot’s pollster
Gordon Black, several other DLC staffers, and many national and local
figures. Over the next decade, we held a number of successful national
conferences, but thanks to our outstanding 1995 participants, an
excellent symposium staff, and a huge attendee turnout, this one was a
high point of the foundation’s symposium history.

National pundits, including David Broder, Michael Barone, Tony Snow,
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, weighed in, as did most of the nation’s
major newspapers, Also Time Magazine (which had  broken the initial
“Secret Seven” story), U.S. News & World Report, The Weekly Standard
and so many others, I stopped counting. The TV networks --- ABC, CBS,
NBC, PBS, CNN, UPN, CONUS --- showed up in force,, as did many
national and local radio programs. Participant and presidential scholar
David Kozak wrote a long piece about the symposium in Presidential 
Studies Quarterly. Virtually overnight we had become a big national story.

Why have I imposed on the reader with this little account of a
now-forgotten symposium that occurred twenty-four years ago?

We have just endured a government shutdown that matched a
controversial first-term president and a powerful speaker of the house.
Elements of both major parties are alleged too extreme, and after a
period of passivity, the political center and its issues appear to be
reasserting themselves. In 2019, many specific issues are different from
those in 1995, but many broader issues of taxes, spending, accountability,
transparency, and bureaucracy remain in the forefront.

After 1995, Bill Clinton moved decidedly to the center, and soon
compromised with and adopted several of Newt  Gingrich’s policies.
Budgets were balanced. There is no “Secret Seven” today, but there
are major figures in both parties, and independents, who speak out to
refute extreme views,  unsustainable policies, political correctness, and
just plain bad ideas.

In 1995, virtually the entire national media embraced the news story of
a potential political revolt from the center, and did it mostly fairly..
In 2019, a similar story is being treated by many (but, to be fair, not all)
in the media as almost a threat to national security

The political center is like the earth’s magnetic pole --- it keeps moving
according to forces in the core of public opinion --- just as the magnetic
pole is moved by forces from the earth's core.

Where is the U.S. political center today?

The answer might tell us more about 2020 than any poll numbers.

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Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Flipping A Coin With More Than Two Sides

The media appetite for measuring the prospects of individual
candidates for president has probably not ever been greater,
especially with so many nominally serious candidates in the
field for the 2020 Democratic nomination.       

At the same time, the attempts at ranking and measuring the voter
support for these candidates have probably not ever been so fraught
with obstacles and uncertainty.

The first obstacle was already apparent as the 2016 votes were tallied,
and its historic upset not anticipated in the interpretation of the polls,
even those published on the eve of election day. As has been pointed
out in their defense, many national polls were relatively accurate in
measuring the final overall popular vote (carried by Hillary Clinton).
But the presidential election is constitutionally an electoral college
contest state-by-state, and the nation-wide polls did not predict the
actual result.

Polling today has many problems beyond just pundit interpretation,
including locating voters willing to be polled, finding them available,
determining if they are likely to vote, and accumulating a sample size
that will result in an accurate measurement. Finally, at this very early
stage, polls reflect name recognition and little more. Only some of the
many expected to run have formally announced their candidacies, there
have been none of the all-important debates, and for now at least, the
first presidential caucuses and primaries are a year away.

Depending on a decision by the New Hampshire secretary of state, the
first-in-the-nation primary could be moved up a month or more, and if
it is, presenting extraordinary technical difficulties for the Iowa
caucuses which are supposed to precede New Hampshire.  To make
matters even more complicated this cycle, the largest-in-the-nation
primary, California, has been moved from June to just after New
Hampshire. There is a reasonable possibility that individual campaigns
might downgrade Iowa and New Hampshire, and concentrate their
early efforts in the much larger state and its much bigger number of
delegates. A decision by New Hampshire won’t be made before
September (7 months from now). The earliest debates in Iowa are
tentatively set for August.

In recent presidential election cycles, eventual nominees showed their
strength only after debates and primaries/caucuses began, and that
occurred with usually far fewer serious contenders than apparently
will compete for the Democratic nomination this cycle.

To further complicate assessing the whole field, the first big surprise
was the emergence of a serious possible independent presidential
candidate, Starbucks CEO and billionaire Howard Schultz. The leftward
march of so many Democratic Party hopefuls has not stopped, but party
strategists were reminded that their party still has many centrist liberal
voters.

About a dozen major Democratic candidates are now officially in, but at
least another dozen or more are likely to announce their candidacies,
including the man who leads in all early polls, former Vice President Joe
Biden.

A characteristic of many (but not all) recent cycles, especially for
Democrats, has been the emergence of previously less well-known
candidates.  Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Gary Hart in 1984, Howard Dean
in 2004 and Bernie Sanders in  2016 each made waves, yet fell short. On
the other hand, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama won nomination and
election. It is interesting to note that, although the favorites won the
Democratic nomination in 1968 (Hubert Humphrey), in 1984 (Walter
 Mondale), in 2004 (John Kerry), and in 2016 (Hillary Clinton), they each
lost in November.

The most well-known Democratic presidential candidates in this cycle
are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg
--- all senior in age. The same is true for Hillary Clinton who has not
ruled out another run. But there are at least 20 younger and less
well-known probable candidates. How can such a large field be usefully
polled or otherwise ranked at this time?

The answer is: It almost certainly can’t be.

Months from now, at least one or two candidates, perhaps a few more,
will emerge. Until then, polls are mostly meaningless (if not misleading),
and predictions are like flipping a coin with more than two sides.

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Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Caselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 8, 2019

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Media Daggers

Many punditry and other media daggers are already slashing away not
only at Howard Schultz, the independent billionaire centrist likely to
run for president, and at Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City
mayor who is also a centrist and a billionaire (but running as a Democrat)
--- their rhetorical daggers are aimed at any centrist, liberal leaning or
conservative leaning candidate, as an obstacle to the self-styled crusades
either to defeat Donald Trump’s re-election next year or to keep him in
office.

The decibels are louder on the left in this matter for  the simple reason
that the net loss of the large and critical number of centrist, moderate
and independent voters would likely hurt a Democratic nominee who
embraces the party’s currently fashionable radical agenda more than it
would hurt the president at the ballot box in November, 2020.

The anti-centrist campaign makes the usual arguments, including the
assertion that the current national political environment is so polarized
to the left and right; that centrists, moderates and independents don’t
know what they want because they have no ideology; and of course that
centrist are too few to elect one of their own. Each of these assertions
contains some validity, that is, a certain intense left-right polarity does
exist today, centrists are not usually ideologues, and this group of voters,
while large, probably cannot prevail with a candidate of their own on a
third party ballot in a general presidential election.

But, as with so much media bias these days, the anti-centrist arguments
distort reality and ignore critical facts.

Centrists, independents or moderates (some of these voters fall into two
or more of these categories) often avoid ideology because it frequently
results in stalemate of public policy. Ideological orthodoxy often
precludes political compromise. The way the national U.S. political
system works, compromise is a vital component of transforming policy
ideas into working solutions.

As for the argument that centrists, independents and moderates are too
few to elect one of their own, its presumption depends on the fact that
no independent has ever won a presidential election (Teddy Roosevelt
came the closest, finishing second in 1912). But Ross Perot did briefly
lead both his major party opponents in the polls in 1992 (and got almost
20% of the popular vote. determining the winner). Until 1960, no
Catholic had ever been elected president;  until 2008, no Afro-American
had won; and until 2016, no woman had been nominated by a major
party. And speaking of breaking precedents, until 2016, no one like
Donald Trump had ever won the presidency.

The sudden emergence of centrist political figures in this cycle, however,
is more than just about  a centrist candidate winning. It is perhaps more
about the fact that one major party has seemingly been moving too far
off center. To be fair, it could also be argued, as both Mr. Schultz and Mr.
Bloomberg do, that the other political party is led by too controversial a
figure.

In any event, the political canter in the U.S. appears to be reasserting its
veto over political party extreme movements.

Senators Joe Manchin, an atypical and moderate Democrat, and Susan
Collins, an atypical and moderate Republican, are examples of centrist
forces in the U.S. senate, and there are numerous similar examples in the
U.S. house. Several centrist state governors of both major parties also
defy ideological and parochial stereotyping.

There are occasions when centrist figures occupy the White House, such
as during the Eisenhower and the Clinton administrations. And inevitably,
voters reject candidates they perceive as too off-center as they did in
1964 and 1972.

So let the media daggers slash where they may. I suggest that, like stage
weapons in theater plays, they try to create an effect, but are only made
of harmless rubber. The drama of the 2020 presidential cycle, so far only
a comedy, is only in Act One.

Let’s see how this show plays out.

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Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Minnesota Special Election Upset

A blue wave hit Minnesota in 2018 when all the statewide races were
won handily by Democrats (called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party
or DFL in this state). State Republicans had hoped for better results in
2018, following Donald Trump’s surprise performance in 2016 when he
almost carried the state. But the DFL organizational, fundraising and
GOTV superiority carried the day as the liberal party won back control
of the state house, won all the constitutional offices, two U.S. senate
seats, and picked up two previously GOP congressional seats. The only
good news for the conservatives was their pick-up of two previously
DFL congressional seats and an expected win in a state senate special
election for a seat they previously had held. (The rest of the state senate
senate seats were not up in 2018.) The GOP now held a tenuous one-seat
majority in the state senate.

When new DFL Governor Tim Walz subsequently chose a DFL state
senator to join his cabinet, most observers expected the resulting special
election on February 5 to be won by a DFLer, especially since the
son and grandson of the incumbents who had held the seat for decades
immediately announced his candidacy.

The northern half of the district included part of the city of Duluth,
and had elected a DFL state representative. The southern half was rural
and had a GOP state representative. Donald Trump has carried the
district in 2016, and although there was no state senate race in this
district in 2018, when the two house race totals were combined, the DFL
had won by only 33 votes.

The GOP promptly endorsed and nominated the local GOP state
representative for the senate seat. A popular local figure, an electrician
and a member of a local trade labor union, he even obtained the rare
support of a few local labor unions for a GOP candidate. Yet he had to
overcome not only the well-liked family name of his opponent, but the
traditional advantage of superior DFL and big labor union GOTV
efforts. This formidable GOTV apparatus had, in fact, enabled the DFL
to head off a serious intraparty primary challenge only weeks before
the special election.

With so much at stake for the new DFL administration’s legislative
program (the GOP had only a one-seat seat majority), the DFL poured
considerable resources and effort into the campaign.

Hoping the DFL nominee’s youth and lack of experience, and the fact
that he did not live in the district prior to the election, would keep the
race competitive, and knowing that President Trump had carried the
district by almost 10 points in 2016, enabled the state senate campaign
effort, under Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and his chief
campaign strategist Mike Campbell, to try for an upset, realizing that
their tenuous one-seat majority would become a much more
comfortable three-seat majority if they won.

Unknown and unpredictable factors were possible lack of support by
the DFL faction which had supported a woman challenger who
narrowly lost the party primary, and the notorious Minnesota winter
weather which is often at its snowiest and coldest in early February.
A factor favoring the DFLer was the fact that the DFL part of the
district traditionally outvoted the GOP part by about 10%. A factor
favoring the GOP was the presence on the ballot of a Legalize
Marijuana Party candidate who might likely draw votes from the DFL.

As it turned out, it was a relatively cold day, with little snow, and the
third party candidate received 2% of the vote. But apparently the DFL
political dynasty in the district could not hold for a third generation.
The GOP candidate, Jason Rarick, won by almost 1000 votes, 52% to
46%. No doubt his legislative experience and labor union ties helped,
as did the lack of experience and carpetbagging of his opponent, but
it was also a major political upset for the DFL which had only months
before swept almost every race, demoralizing the state Republican
Party and its supporters.

GOP strategist Campbell said after the results were in, “It was a
realignment of voters in outstate Minnesota. The DFL had won the
district for decades, and we were the underdogs, but we won back
a lot of working people in the distract.”

Mr. Gazelka, now the de facto leader of his party in the state, and
Senator-elect Rarick have provided local conservatives with
something to cheer about, but whether it will soon revive the state
GOP party, still reeling from 2018, is unclear as 2020 and new
elections loom.

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Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Why Schultz Disrupts The Democrats in 2020

The news of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s quite possible
presidential candidacy signals to the recently-energized radical
wing of the Democratic Party that their hitherto unchecked,
media-encouraged turn to the left, as advocated by Bernie
Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Maxine Waters,
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cory Booker and others ---at first
heralded in 2016, seconded in the 2018 mid-terms, and now
promulgated by many Democratic presidential aspirants ---
will no longer go unchallenged on the liberal side of U.S. politics.

Former Democrat Schultz’s challenge is particularly serious
because he can put himself separately on the November, 2020
ballot in all states, and give centrist Democrats and many
independents a choice between a controversial Democratic
nominee and Donald Trump. 

Radical Democrats are likely correct in assuming that a Schultz
independent candidacy, or another one with his resources, could
doom their chances to defeat President Trump next year.

Another maverick billionaire is running for president, in 2020.
Michael Bloomberg is running, as of now, for the Democratic
nomination. LikeSchultz, Bloomberg is a centrist. As such, he is
competing against the ideological tide in his newly-adopted party.
In New Hampshire a few days ago, Bloomberg spoke in sharp
contrast and critically to his radical rivals, emphasizing his issues
 of climate change and gun control, and dismissing the currently
fashionable radical issues of higher taxes, Medicare for All, and
other entitlement programs he considers unsustainable.

With so many Democratic rivals to his left, Bloomberg’s strategy
seems to be to win the mainstream and moderate Democratic
primary voters while his opponents split the party voters on the
left. But if former Vice President Joe Biden enters the race, he
might also take many centrist party voters from Bloomberg.

As the political season advances, Mr. Bloomberg might wish he
had chosen the independent route as Mr. Schulz has done.
Although both men are very successful businessmen, Bloomberg
was an outstanding mayor of New York City, and has proven
himself as an effective political executive in problematic
circumstances. But he faces a daunting challenge as a rare
centrist/moderate in political party careening to the left.

Meanwhile, Howard Schultz has indicated that he has already
carefully prepared for an independent campaign, and seems to
judge the negative response to him by Democratic leaders as a
reinforcement to his 2020 campaign strategy. He clearly poses a
potential dilemma for the more radical wing of the Democratic
Party, but it is very early in the cycle, and how the primary/caucus
component of the presidential election plays out remains to be
seen and heard.

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Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.