Monday, January 31, 2011

Obama Endorses Gingrich!

One part of President Obama’s State of the Union address was to put forward his new slogan for 2012, “Winning The Future.” As many have already noted, this phrase was made popular as the title of Newt Gingrich’s 2005 best-selling book. Since Mr. Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, was forced in part to withdraw from the 1988 presidential race because he allegedly lifted (without attribution) a similar phrase from a then popular British politician (in fact, he did not, but the Michael Dukakis campaign made it appear that he did), we can only assume that this is a potentially serious matter.

In fact, President Obama clearly took the phrase from Mr. Gingrich, and gave no attribution. Even presidents don’t have the right to plagiarize, so I can only assume that Mr. Obama is in fact signaling he will endorse Newt Gingrich for president (in which case, there would be no plagiarism). On the other hand, Mr Gingrich understandably may not want to be endorsed by Mr. Obama (in which case there might be a legitimate (albeit token) complaint by him of literary theft). Legally, book titles and most short phrases that are used without attribution cannot be considered a tort (or liable for legal action). I’m sure Mr. Obama’s attorney general is relieved this is not something he would have to deal with.

Nontheless, we are going to take the positive side of this situation, and assume that President Obama was really signaling his approval of Mr. Gingrich. We will await his formal endorsement of the former speaker some time later in the year.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Only Illusions And Rhetoric

I was skeptical of President Obama’s “new centrism” before the State of the Union speech because all the signs were there that the centrism Mr. Obama had in mind was really made of illusions and rhetoric. Now the speech has been made, and I must report that my skepticism was well-placed. Of course, the president’s public cheerleaders are raving about the speech. My old friends at the Democratic Leadership Council, once a genuine centrist force at least in its own party, were using such words as “masterpiece,” asserting it would confound the conservatives, and trap the Republicans into political paralysis. Don’t bet on it.

I think the Democratic leadership are frozen in a time warp, the kind that believes this is the 1990s, and that the economic/political situation is the same as existed in that time. This is a misapprehension of great dimension, almost breathtaking to believe, but it does explain how far away from general public opinion they are and continue to be.

One of the many myths that arose in the past decade, among both parties, but especially among liberals, is that the key to persuading public opinion was to be found in the manipulation of language, of image, and of always taking an offensive position in public policy. With a gifted communicator such as Bill Clinton, these notions took hold, and seemed reinforced when he was replaced by a weak communicator, George W. Bush. So much ballyhoo surrounded the election of Barack Obama in 2008, including excessive if not wrongheaded evaluations of his
communication skills, that it was assumed within the Democratic establishment that he could talk his way out of anything. It seems clear that Mr. Obama took his own propaganda seriously.

After the momentous defeat of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid leadership in the 2010 elections, a curious atmosphere seemed to develop around the White House. “We will put the Republican on the defensive; we will outflank them rhetorically; we will talk our way out of this” seemed to be the unspoken mantra. If there is any doubt about this, I simply direct the reader to Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address (not a brilliant oration, incidentally, but a declamation of banalities).

To see it as a “masterpiece” of strategy is the same as suggesting the Hindenberg could have been repaired and flown again.

I am disappointed to see the Democratic Leadership Council, once a fountain of serious centrist ideas and public policies, decline to the state of fawning cheerleader to a president who has betrayed, or failed to understand, the ideas and initiatives this group promoted in the past.

Attention now will turn to Mr. Boehner and his compatriots to fashion a strategy that will both illustrate Republican and conservative alternative public policy strategies, and persuade the majority of voters that these alternatives are clearly superior to the now exhausted and overspent liberal course of domestic policy. It will not be as easy as it seems. The new GOP majority includes Republican oldtimers, new conservatives, and even newer “Tea Party” enthusiasts. There is the possibility of internal conflicts, especially among newcomers who do not have to fashion effective working majorities. In the journey to the Republican nomination for president in 2012, there is also the potential obstacle of harmful grandstanding, as individuals who see themselves as political stars eschew the important common effort.

Let me state the priority. First, a workable alternative program for domestic economic policy that attracts voters, especially conservative and centrist voters, AND the determination to enact it. Second, a candidate for president who understands these issues, respects the priority, and then has the skill to inspire voters to join up and join in.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What Lies Immediately Ahead?

President Obama will now go through the ritual of the State of The Union address (SOTU) to Congress. Only since FDR has the president delivered this message, required by the U.S. constitution, routinely to both assembled houses in person. Today, this custom has become primarily a media event to enhance the incumbent president’s public standing. Unlike the most recent occasion by President Obama, the Republicans now control the U.S. house, and have cloture power over the U.S. senate.

Administration strategists came up with the ploy to have Democrats and Republicans sit together this year, and some will do it. The purpose of this ploy was to reduce the negative image of the president not being applauded by large numbers in attendance (traditionally, each party sits in one section). Nice try. Some GOP members have agreed, but many others have not.

So far, Mr. Obama has attempted to achieve the gloss of bipartisanship on the cheap, including this ploy, but the GOP troops, especially the new recruits, are restless and eager to make their mark, fulfilling their campaign promises.

At some point in the near future, but after the SOTU address, the two sides will clash. This is inevitable because there are two very different policy principles in play, and neither side has truly yet tested the will of the other side. So far, it has all been manipulative rhetoric.

Each side has cards to play. The Republicans clearly won the 2010 election, and it was clearly a reaction to the Obama-Pelosi-Reid legislative agenda. But the Democrats still have a small majority in the U.S. senate, and the president holds veto power. (Overriding an Obama veto seems very unlikely at this point.)

So for the short term, there needs to be some kind of arrangement between the two sides, or when the debt ceiling issue comes up, there will a major conflict. Unlike 1994-95, this may not lead to a victory for the Democratic president. That is because the political/journalistic environment has changed so much. But both sides may decide to postpone their greatest conflicts to later. Ultimately, these issues will be decided in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.

Lacking much real leverage, the Democratic leadership has resorted so far to gamesmanship and gimmickry. There is no evidence that they intend to truly make “compromises.” They understandably will test the will of the Republican to force concessions, and it is that defining moment which lies immediately ahead.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Who Governs Until 2013?

My most recent op ed on these pages suggested that some Democrats’ notion that Republicans, having won the 2010 election, now must “govern” was a bad idea and doomed to fail. But, at the same time, I argued that the Republicans, now having momentum and history on their side, should not surrender the initiative nor squander their opportunity.

This may seem to be a contradiction. My friend Tony Blankley argues persuasively that Republicans SHOULD govern from the House of Representatives (which they now control). Mr. Blankley was Newt Gingrich’s press secretary during Mr Gingrich’s speakership, and lived through the travails of the government shutdown in 1995. He points out that the communications environment has dramatically changed since then when liberal bias overwhelmingy dominated TV and print, and conservative radio talk show hosts were not so powerful as they are now.

No greater demonstration of Mr. Blankley’s point could be made than the recent dust-up over civility following the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona. Without a scintilla of evidence or justification, many liberal media persons tried to use the tragedy as an attack on conservatism, conservative leaders, and the conservative grass roots. Unlike 1995, or any other time in the recent past, there was a powerful and effective response from the New Media forces, many of which are conservative. Within hours, it was obvious that the ruse would not work, and all polls indicate that the public did not buy the rants and hysteria from the left. The bottom line is that it was a clear net loss for the provocateurs and apologists from the left, their media outlets and their overall credibility. It took, of all persons, Barack Obama to rescue them from further damage.

The GOP-controlled house of representatives has now voted to repeal Obamacare. My point was to state the obvious, i.e., even if conservatives could force a vote in the U.S. senate, and then win a majority (with moderate Democratic crossovers), they could not get past President Obama’s inevitable veto. On the other hand, there are many ways to skin this political leopard, including de-funding (when possible) the various provisions of Obamacare, rendering it mostly inoperable until, with a Republican president, it can be fully repealed.

I think Mr. Blankley means this when he says the GOP should govern, as well as that conservatives should stand their ground if the administration decides to have a showdown over the deficit limit. This is NOT what Democrats mean when they say Republicans now have to govern. It’s a political sucker punch. What they want is for Republicans to take the responsibility for the fiscal morass that has grown since January, 2009. No one denies that the recession and economic breakdown occurred first under President George W. Bush, nor that his policies did not contribute to this crisis, nor that his treasury secretary initiated the bailouts which have now become all too big and routine. And while President Bush did cut taxes, he did not cut spending, and thus violated the basic rules of supply side economics. It was President Obama, his administration and the Democratic Congress of 2009-2011, however, which took bad policy, bad timing and bad ideas, and compounded them until our deficits have become astronomical nightmares. The chronic high unemployment, lack of a bounce-back in several economic sectors, and the lack of long-term confidence in the economy by both investors and executives is now the Democrats’ responsibility. It was the fundamentally unsound Obamacare legislation which hangs like a lead weight around the neck of U.S. economic prospects.

The new Republican majority in the house, and the several new GOP senators, received, in 2010, a stern direction from the majority of voters to repair these worsening and disturbing economic circumstances. There is also a very obvious and similar message for moderate liberal Democrats. The Republic cannot wait until January 20, 2013 to begin those repairs. That is what Mr. Blankley and other conservative commentators mean when they say that Republicans must somehow “govern” without the White House and control of the U.S. senate. Conservatives will have to enlist centrists of both parties to succeed.

It will be an acrobatic act to do so, but there is too much at stake not to do so.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Some Early Intuitions About 2012

I’m not making any predictions at this early date for the Republican contest for the 2012 presidential nomination, nor for the final contest itself, but I have some intuitions about these events, and I’ll share a few of them with you.

In spite of heavy precedents, I suspect that the GOP nominee may not be any of the current frontrunners, including Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee and Mrs. Palin. All three of them have high name recognition, organizations in place, and good early poll numbers, but only Mrs. Palin is strongly associated with the powerful new issues and conservative groups that have emerged in the Republican party, and continue to be energized. Mrs. Palin, however, is the least likely (at this moment) to run for president, having alienated many outside her own base.

Let me state here that the recent internal revolt in the conservative party is now nearly complete. The so-called “moderate” GOP wing which emerged in the 1960’s is almost totally local, limited to the Northeast, West Coast, a few parts of the Midwest and fewer parts of the South. In these places a few liberal Republicans hold on, thanks to local voters who continue to disdain Democrats, but who want a more socially progressive program, and some continued forms of the welfare state. Prominent U.S. senators in this group include Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and Richard Lugar of Indiana. Departing by retirement or defeat in 2008 were Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania (who formally changed his party affiliation in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to win re-election), Kit Bond of Missouri and George Voinovich of Ohio. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska barely survived 2010 after being challenged from the right.

The old image of the Republican Party as the party of big businesses and the plutocrats who run them has been replaced with the reality that the GOP is now a blue collar and small business party. Look at the donor lists. The millionaires and billionaires, the establishment social groups and religions are now mostly liberal and support the Democrats.

Both parties have over the past two decades become more rigid on opposite sides of the social issues of abortion, marriage, gays in the military, immigration and education. Conservative or “Blue Dog” Democrats, once relatively plentiful across the nation, have themselves become a rare breed, with fewer and fewer holding office in the Congress. In the past 48 hours, two such Democrats, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Joe Lieberman (technically now an Independent, but he votes to organize with the Democrats) have announced very early they will not run in 2012. In 2010, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas was defeated for re-election; Evan Bayh retired rather than run. In 2012, the two Senators Nelson (one from Florida, the other from Nebraska), both moderates, face likely defeat.

The marginalization of moderates in both parties has intensified since Barack Obama has become president with control of both houses of Congress. The voters themselves overall remain in the political center, but with the passage of Obamacare and the proposal of more radical legislation, and importantly, with the continued economic downturn and accompanying high unemployment, voters increasingly could not find effective representation for their views through their own elected officials, and thus the election of 2010 took such a dramatic turn. (The explanation that the party in power traditionally loses seats in a mid-term election fails to make the case for the severe turnover in 2010.) Ironically but
understandably, moderates or “Blue Dog” Democrats took it on the political chin this year, having failed to stem the radical administration/congressional leadership agenda.

They were replaced with conservative Republicans who, if anything, have a clear mandate to begin to repeal Obamacare, and to thwart the Obama/Pelosi/Reid agenda. With a GOP-controlled U.S. house, and a cloture-proof U.S. senate, President Obama and his colleague now have to find new strategies to pass or advance their liberal program. By calling for “bipartisanship,” “compromise,” calmer rhetoric, and empty gimmicks such as both Democrats and Republicans sitting together at the state of the Union address, Democrats are attempting to find some leverage, but conservatives would be self-defeating to fall for these “appearances.” Similarly, many Democrats are suggesting that the Republicans now “must govern” after their 2010 victories. This is absurd on its face inasmuch as the liberals continue to hold the White House and control the U.S. senate. But Republicans need to now present an alternative national vision.

With control of the U.S. house, Speaker John Boehner and his GOP colleagues need to now fulfill their campaign pledges to the voters who gave them their majority.

The implications for the presidential race, I suggest, are equally critical. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have excellent credentials, good track records, and in the case of Mr Huckabee, no little charm and communication skills. But neither of them were really part of the conservative insurrection of 2010, and Mr. Romney has the additional disadvantage of being known, when he was governor of Massachusetts. as the originator of a statewide healthcare reform which has some resemblances to Obamacare. In fact, there are signficant differences between Romneycare and Obamacare, and it is unfair to Mr. Romney to suggest otherwise, and yet he has not forcefully made the case about this for himself. Eminently qualified to be president, Mr. Romney also was the also-ran in 2008, and suffers from an image of being part of the GOP past. Mr. Huckabee, now with his own national TV show, and also a major candidate in 2008, suffers from his associations with the social conservative movement at a time when the real momentum is with the economic conservative movement.

I am not saying that Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee, and Mrs. Palin cannot be nominated, but for reasons cited and others, I don’t think they will likely emerge from the primary/caucus system ahead. Certainly, virtually all Republicans know who they are, and that may be a critical part of their electoral problem.

I am, however, taking a new look at the other candidates who, with the exception of Newt Gingrich, are generally unknown to conservative voters. Gingrich himself, it has been argued, is too well-known by Republicans to be nominated, and that may be true, but someone like Mr. Gingrich, with his extraordinary domination of most conservative issues, can easily be underestimated because of his so-called “baggage” in a presidential election year which this far out, seems quite possibly to see more economic and foreign policy crises.

Mr. Mitch Daniels and Mr. Tim Pawlenty, unknown to national voters, but with very solid records as recent governors behind them, might be able to take up the mantle of the voters’ needs and concerns next year. American voters have shown some partiality in recent decades to successful governors.

The whole field presents a complicated picture in January, 2011. Unlike 2007, no GOP hopeful is rushing into the contest. House Republicans could flub their opportunity, and take the wind out of the GOP momentum. The economy could recover, and unemployment could fall noticeably. Mr. Obama could finally have some foreign policy successes. So much could happen, and without knowing what it will be, much in fact will happen. Iowa, which usually is not as important as New Hampshire, could jump start one candidate. South Carolina could once again be a turning point. Prospects in such key states as Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin could make traditional electoral strategies moribund.

Precedents are important and useful, but a presidential election such as this one upcoming in 2012 could defy the old precedents, and produce some new ones.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Is President Obama Really Recovering?

Almost nothing in politics goes in a straight line up or down. President Obama’s recent political fortunes have tended, over a year, to be heading gradually down in a fairly straight line, culminating with the November mid-term elections which his party decisively lost, much of the reason for this being Mr. Obama’s performance in office during the first two years of his term.

The election resulted in a dramatic loss of the Democratic Party’s control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and siginificant losses in the U.S. Senate where the Republican party, still in the minority, can now block, using the senate’s 60-vote rule for cloture, almost any major legislation from the Obama White House.

Following the election, Mr. Obama was seemingly slow to acknowledge the setback to his party (and thus, to him), but finally an acknowledgment came, and with it a compromise to continue the so-called “Bush tax cuts” accompanied by a temporary extension of unemployment benefits. Many on the right and the left subsequently proclaimed that the president was now shifting to the political center, and that he had recovered his political standing. This assertion has been supported by some recent polls showing that his poll numbers are making a slow rise after long falling into the low 40’s (and even a few in the high 30’s).

At the same time, President Obama has made notable changes in his personal entourage, including a new chief of staff and press secretary, as well as among his economic advisors. None of these changes, so far, have been particularly controversial; in fact, most (such as the appointment of Bill Daley as chief of staff) have further reinforced the notion that the Obama administration is re-tilting to the center.

Simultaneously, a strong Republican and conservative majority has taken over the U.S. house of representatives, with an impressive new leadership of John Boehner as speaker and Eric Cantor as majority leader. Behind them is a huge freshman class of new members of Congress who are flush from election victories across the nation that clearly signaled the voters’ desire for change from the Obama legislative agenda and priorities. In the U.S. senate, Republicans made significant gains, and now have a comfortable cushion to field the minimum of 41 votes to block the Democratic majority on virtually any issue. Furthermore, surviving Democatic house and senate incumbents who must face the voters in less than two years have already seen what would likely happen if they followed the Democratic leadership and the president in voting for legislation that is too radical and unpopular. At least six Democratic senators and several more members of the house who are considered “moderate” or “centrist” have already signaled they may vote with the GOP on several critical bills. Clearly, the momentum has shifted to the Republican side of the aisle.

To top it all off, one of the most reliably perceptive conservative commentators, Dr. Charles Krauthammer, has asserted that Barack Obama is “back.”

So it would seem that the argument that President Obama is now adopting Clintonian centrism, and is back on track for his re-election is iron-clad.

As a constant admirer of Dr. Krauthammer and other conservatives now suggesting a pivotal reversal, at least in public perception, has taken place for President Obama, I want to raise a note of caution. (No less than the prescient Tony Blankley has preceded me in suggesting that Dr. Krauthammer has possibly gone too far, and has questioned that some profound change change in the political soul of Barack Obama has occurred.)

I think all the juries remain out on the next course of U.S. politics, especially as we head into the next presidential election. My observations of Barack Obama, before and after he assumed the presidency, tell me that no critical change has yet taken place, and that what we are seeing now is a rearrangement of appearances, all designed to enhance his re-election, but at the lowest possible cost. Yes, he is more skillful than former speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose ludicrous performance in the ceremonial handing over the gavel to Mr. Boehner, indicated the compulsive and self-delusional attitude of the old Democratic leadership in its stubborn extremity. These are politicians who believe their own self-congratulatory press releases.

Mr. Obama may yet transform himself and his agenda to the political center, and he may yet recover some of his public and strategic momentum. The economy may recover as a result (ironically) of conservative policies, and events in the world may yet turn in the favor of the U.S., but that is a lot of maybes. It was inevitable, I suggest, that following the election and his compromise with the Republicans on taxes, Mr. Obama’s numbers in polls would rise in the short term. What I am also suggesting, however, is that his fundamental attitudes, and that of the Democratic leadership around him, are not yet changed. The country has changed, and said so (the 2010 election), but President Obama has so far been preoccupied with appearances, still hoping (I suspect) to finish the radical agenda he and his colleagues began to enact in the previous Congress.

This is now a challenge to the new house, and even to the new senate which still has a Democratic majority. With President Obama holding the veto card, can they communicate successfully to voters an alternative agenda and alternative priorities over the next two years? If not, and if the substance of the conservative argument is not borne out, then Obamian “appearances” might be enough to thwart the present conservative momentum.

Frankly, I think 2011-12 is going to be much more fascinating, much more politically instructive, and much more important than 2007-08. There will be many zig-zags between now and November, 2012. There are, I repeat, few straight lines in American politics.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Silly Hat Throw Season

The Silly Hat Throw Season is now in full swing. Presidential flagpoles face metal fatigue from so many names going up and down them. Everyone’s political vanity is loosed in this season, and a media now constructed to avoid serious political discussion for as long as possible is more than willing to play along.

There are about 10-12 reasonably serious potential Republican candidates for president in 2012. Not all of them will run. As I pointed out in a recent column, the larger number will narrow to 4-5 soon enough, and by the time the primaries and caucuses have begun, there will only be 2-3 hopefuls left in the field. At that point, there may be a close and bitter fight for the nomination itself, or there may not, because one strong candidate emerges more quickly than predicted.

But for now, there are dozens of individuals, most of them reasonably well-known (although not necessarily in politics) who desperately seek publicity and notoriety at any price.

Trust me, Donald Trump is not going to be the next U.S. president. Neither is Michele Bachmann. Nor Rick Santorum. Not Ron Paul. Not Fred Karger. Not Buddy Roemer. Not Gary Johnson. Not Herman Cain. Not John Thune. Not even Rudy Giuliani.

Mr. Giuliani was a serious candidate in 2008. In fact, at one point he was the nominal frontrunner. However, he ran an incredibly poor campaign, and proved to be an inept campaigner personally. Should Fred Thompson attempt to run in 2012, I suspect he will be similarly regarded. There are no indications that either of them understands they were their own worst opponent.

Comebacks are possible. Richard Nixon is the most famous example in the past. This year, Newt Gingrich could be another.

There will also be in Iowa and New Hampshire a slew of totally obscure candidates who put themselves on the ballot. It’s a free country. But no one has to give them an inch of mention. (A few who say or do outlandish things will get some media attention.) Good for them. Some persons live only for a little publicity.

It also takes a strong ego to be a serious candidate for president. And an even stronger one, perhaps, to serve as president. This year, unlike the last cycle, the serious candidates are not rushing in to announce their intentions. The current political environment, the national economic environment, the international environment is so uncertain, so ambiguous, so provisional, that wise men and women are taking their time. I think, their public statements notwithstanding, most of the serious candidates have already made their decisions. In their own good time, they will tell us their intentions.

Meanwhile, we are left to entertain ourselves with the self-puffery, pretensions, and antics of pseudo-candidates who will promenade through nightly news programs, op eds and, of course, the blogs to seek out attention. It’s the silly hat throw season.