Monday, February 28, 2011

Let’s Ask Some New Questions In The Race For President

In 2008, the nation’s voters, especially after the mortgage banking crisis, turned away from the Republicans, their presidential nominee John McCain, and what were then felt to be the shortcomings of outgoing President George W. Bush.

It was a classic election in which voters were voting more against something than for something. There was also a notable factor in the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, because he was the first black nominee for president, and many Democrats, independents, and even Republicans, found the possibility of electing a black man as president of the United States to be attractive. (I might add that this was a legitimate factor; John Kennedy was the first Catholic president; Geraldine Ferraro the first woman vice presidential nominee, Joe Lieberman the first Jewish vice presidential nominee. Each of their nominations marked a maturing of the American voter who a century before had only considered white male Protestants for the nation’s highest office.)

But while this was abstractly an advance and maturing of the electorate, it did not necessarily represent the nation’s best interests to put in the White House a person of virtually no public administrative experience, minimal legislative experience, little international background, and no visible broad base of expertise to handle the undeniably toughest executive position in the free world.

At that time, I warned in print that the nation was about to put an amateur in its top job during a time of acute economic and international crises. I was far from alone in this warning. Mr. Obama’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, belatedly recognizing her “inevitable’ nomination was threatened by Mr. Obama’s political challenge, made focus on his experience as she tried to recover. Mrs. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton (and clearly the most experienced Democratic politician in the country) explicitly warned that Mr. Obama was likely ill-prepared to occupy the Oval Office.

But Mr. Obama prevailed, and both Clintons, as the pragmatists they are, joined up into his effort to govern.

More than two years after his residency began, it is embarrassingly clear that Mr. Obama was VERY ill-prepared to be president. The economic crisis we still face, with its chronic unemployment is excruciatingly difficult to resolve. The international crises, some already in place when Mr. Obama took office, have only grown more numerous and more troublesome.

In the off-year election just held, Mr. Obama and his party took exceptional defeats in all areas. They lost control of the U.S. house, barely maintained control of the U.S. senate (but now lack the majority they previously had which enabled them to pass their agenda of legislation), lost many state governorships and state legislatures.

But none of this means that Mr. Obama will inevitably lose his re-election in 2012. Having been given a scholarship for on-the-job training for his job, Mr. Obama is no longer as inexperienced as he once was. He will have now the opportunity to demonstrate that he has learned something, and if he does so (especially if the economy improves dramatically and unemployment falls significantly), he might win a second term.

Either way, 2012 will be primarily an assessment of the nation’s voters of Mr. Obama’s performance, and the performance of his party.

The Republican nominee, whoever he or she will be, must defer to this reality, even as their campaign must present persuasive alternatives to and credible criticisms of the Obama term in the White House.

There is a lot of discussion now in various circles of the Republican Party about who they will nominate, even as the first major candidate has not yet formally announced. Most of this discussion has been about personalities, and circumstances which are not necessarily germane to whether a candidate will be a good and effective president or not. Thus, “Mr. Tim Pawlenty is too unknown. Mr. Mitch Daniels is too short and unexciting. Mr. Mitt Romney is a Mormon. Mr. Newt Gingrich was divorced. Mrs. Sarah Palin speaks with a funny accent and manner. Mr. Mike Huckabee is too religious.” I will assert here that none of these conditions tell us anything of value about whether a candidate will be a good president.

I know. I know. “Voters often make up their minds based on these matters,” we are always told by “sage” political observers. Perhaps, and perhaps they will in 2012, but I suggest that if they do, Republicans will significantly harm their opportunity to retake the White House. Even if they do win, they will not have necessarily found the right person to undertake the transformation of the economy and foreign policy they wish to happen.

So what are the questions we want to ask of the contenders for the GOP nomination? My list would include a combination of questions about experience and demonstration of problem-solving capability. Yes, I would also, if I were a Republican voter, want to know if the contender held truly conservative views about the economy, and how they perceived the threat to our country by political, military and economic forces from around the world.

That is why a number of genuinely credible politicians who have indicated their interest in running for president are not genuinely credible, or not yet credible, to hold the nation’s highest office. That is why, although I am an admirer of Mrs. Palin, and I do NOT put down her media success, her intelligence, nor her political base, the Tea Party, an authentic grass roots movement, I do not feel she is ready yet to be president in 2012.

The GOP does have the good fortune this year to have a number of “qualified” (in distinction from “credible”) candidates who can in varying degrees positively answer the important questions voters should ask.

These include Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee. The latter four have been governors. Mr. Romney has successful private sector experience. Mr. Gingrich has extraordinary background as a military historian and strategist, and is expert on virtually all problematic economic issues. Mr. Daniels and Mr. Gingrich also understand the culture of Washington, DC (and thus how to get a program through legislation). Mr. Pawlenty has successfully faced down a hostile legislature. Mr. Romney has a history of remarkable problem-solving, as does Mr. Daniels. Mr. Gingrich is a genuine political visionary.

I also know that voters must like the person they vote for. Mr. Huckabee seems to be the most likable personality, but any of the others could, in the course of the campaign, win the hearts of Republican and independent voters.

There is no perfect candidate this year. There, rarely, if ever is. The voters, however, have the their choice in 2012 in their own hands. If they insist on allowing the religious faith of a candidate, his or her stand on one specific social issue, past marital circumstances, or personal characteristics beyond their control, to determine their vote, and thus deny themselves and the country the best person to be president, they will only have themselves to blame.

This is not a statement of political idealism. It’s a statement of hard, cold political realism. That’s how much is at stake in this perilous time when almost anything can happen in the world.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Four Horseman Who Keep Us From The Apocalypse

Although it is always possible to overstate, and, yes, understate our economic problems, a simple understanding of mathematics makes clear that we have run out of time to postpone action on the various nodes of our long-term economic problems.

The person at the door is no mere salesman or charity fundraiser. This time it’s the Economic Piper himself, insisting on being paid.

Fortunately, some political leaders have emerged from the individual states who are so far prepared to see that the United States of America is going to pay its bills. It should come as no surprised that these leaders have not arisen from the current federal legislatures, the house and the senate, to show us the way out of a fiscal collapse.

These four men riding grass roots horses are governors from the states, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and John Kasich of Ohio are the four lead horsemen, but there is a small cavalry behind them, including several new governors elected in the 2010 election, and a few holdovers now reinvigorated to do the job they realize they must do. Only Christie was elected before 2010, and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who also sounded the economic alarm in his two terms, has retired to run for president.

While the first sounds of this movement in the states came from Christie in New Jersey, the insurrection itself has arisen in Wisconsin as Governor Walker followed through on his campaign promises to begin to resolve the state’s fiscal woes, woes that incidentally affect most of the 50 states. Mr. Walker and the Republican- controlled legislature have decided to transform the state’s relationship with most of its unionized public employees, asserting that the wages and benefits of these workers are simply not sustainable. As I said at the outset, basic mathematics makes his assertion unassailable. Understandably, organized labor realizes that Governor Walker’s solutions would mean the ultimate end of the public employee unions because he has included in his remedies the removal of public employee union collective bargaining.

Massive and angry demonstrations from union leaders and members have resulted, and in Wisconsin have also resulted in the entire Democratic state senate, who are nothing more than paid agents of the unions, fleeing the state to Illinois to prevent a final vote on the enabling legislation. This ludicrous spectacle, an open defiance of the basic American principle that elections mean something, and that majorities rule, has further turned public opinion against unions. Filled with pitiable self-righteousness, union leaders have overspent a hundred years of good will among voters at large. Polls indicate that the general public opposes the union position by two to one. Unions from across the nation have been drawn into the cause celebre. While there are a few who want to restrict all unions, it is clear that the collective bargaining rights of industrial and service workers are not being serious challenged. Nor should they be.

This is only the beginning of a series of actions which governors, legislatures, and yes, the U.S. Congress must take on the whole range of public spending, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, education, social welfare and taxation.

The cliches always cited before we arrived at this point, by both Democrats and Republicans, were that fixing our economic problems was not going to be easy, painless and without hard choices. Now we are here, and the cliches are no longer mere rhetoric, but are unavoidable realities with no time to spare.

We have the most advanced and fairest economic system in the world. We are the envy of the rest of the world because of it. But we have allowed our system to be partially corrupted, compromised and unbalanced. We rested on our laurels, and indulged ourselves on feel-good actions that have undermined the fundamentals of a free democratic society.

The protests in Wisconsin are only the beginning of reactions that various interest groups will display to resist true change and common sense solutions to our problems. We are a free society, and their protests must be allowed to be voiced, but unless they are backed by a majority of the governed, the voters, they cannot be allowed to obstruct the repair of our economic system.

Much responsibility thus rests on the shoulders of these four governors, and the cavalry of their colleagues riding to join them from coast to coast. Nor is the solution restricted to one political party. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown of California, the state with perhaps the worst fiscal problems of all, is showing signs of understanding what governors and states must do now. Other Democratic governors are beginning to signal they are willing to be leaders in resolving the economic problems, and not avoiding them and not compounding them. While there are many who would wish to make this crisis only a partisan issue, it is simply not a partisan issue. Everyone has a stake in a successful resolution of our problems.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Centrist For A Nanosecond

I gave fair warning to my readers that Barack Obama had no intention of really going to the political center to get himself, his party and the country through the next two years. In fact, Mr. Obama occupied the center for only about a nanosecond, long enough for him pause slightly as he glanced down to his teleprompter.

Nice try, Mr. President, but that won’t do the trick. Your opposition is unusually determined, at least so far, to bring some conservative principles to the solutions of our very troubled economic circumstances. Your problem is that you just don’t believe in any but left liberal principles, and your whole life so far has been to get your way.

Not this time. Not necessarily because your opponents are so strong, or always right, but because we’re in real trouble, and this does not just clear up because you raise a few taxes, bail out a few more industries, hire some more government workers to oversee the additional legislation you pass.That’s not the way it works in an economic crisis like this.

The problem is not only dollars and cents, deficits, taxes and jobs. The problem is systemic. We have created, Republicans and Democrats alike, a whole system that no longer can work. We must reform the whole system. I am not suggesting a return to the past which did have abuses, inequalities, inefficiencies and a lack of self-correcting mechanisms that would modify the system to keep up with changing ties. There are new realities. New technologies. We can no longer operate certain industries. We can and must operate new industries and services. The nature of the work force has changed dramatically in the past 75 years. Child labor is illegal, laws rightfully protect workers and other citizens from dangers in the workplace, many more women are in that workplace and hold top executive jobs. Workers are living longer, and are able to work longer, thanks to extraordinary advances in health care. Education is more available, Demographics, transportation, virtually every aspect of the U.S. economy has changed.

We are now living, however, with what amounts to feudal systems and rules in our public education that is hopelessly mired in outdated principles, administrations, curricula, political correctness, inefficiency and inevitably, mediocrity.

The political center, whether Democratic or Republican, wants to change all of this, and as rapidly as possible. Those who want to keep and prolong these old systems are the reactionaries of today. They can call themselves leftists, rightists or whatever ideology, but they are not about true change.

Good teachers are as important as ever before. They are the backbone of a good public education system. We need effective public service workers in all areas of government service. The present system of unionized public service workers not only does not promote quality work, it is not economically sustainable. Mr. President, your job is to get behind the reform of the whole governmental system, the one that is not working. You promised change. Then support change and help advance it. When you defend the old, unworkable ways, you are doing the very opposite of what you promised you would do.

Being a genuine centrist is hard work. A centrist is not halfway in the middle, arguing for compromises that only prolong the failures of the past. Most Americans are in the political center because the U.S. is the ultimate practical and creative democratic capitalist nation. The center is the true public interest.

A nanosecond of rhetoric will not do the job. We are seeing governors and legislatures across America trying to do the real job at hand. It’s time to take sides. It’s time to get things done.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Cairo Comes To Madison, Wisconsin?

I am beginning to think that the Democratic members of the Wisconsin legislature are suffering from the mass delusion that they are somehow like Hosni Mubarak, and that supporters of the public employee unions have the mass delusion that they are the same as Egyptian protesters in Cairo.

Following the November, 2010 state elections in Wisconsin in which Republican candidates ran on specific platforms of reforming state government and its relationship with public employee workers, the GOP scored sweeping victories, replacing a Democratic governor, a Democratic senator, three Democratic congressmen, and winning large majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

So when, as might be expected, the new governor and the legislature began to initiate and pass legislation that would reform the unpopular cozy relationships between the public employees unions, their members in Wisconsin, and Democrat-controlled state government, the unions called for massive demonstrations (which is of course their right). But the Democratic minority in the state senate, trying to block a vote (Republicans lead 24-19 in that body), fled the state en masse and holed up in a motel in Rockford, Illinois, across the state line. This temporarily blocks a vote on reform legislation since one Democrat must be present for a quorum. (I think these state senators think they are really in Sharm El Shiek on the Sinai peninsula, the luxurious oasis where Mr. Mubarak fled to and spent most of his time while his government was collapsing recently, and where he is now.)

Eventually, these Democratic state senators will have to return to Wisconsin where the law requires them to show up for work. Assuming that the new governor, Scott Walker, doesn’t have a total collapse of political principle and will, the bill will pass. The bottom line is that the public employee unions which overwhelmingly supported the Democrats in 2010, and the Democratic state senators, lost control of the legislature because the majority of voters in Wisconsin rejected their point of view.

The protests, of course, are legitimate, but the unions and their minions should not think that a big crowd in ultra-liberal Madison (one of the most left-oriented cities in the nation) should intimidate legislators from other parts of Wisconsin (where voters clearly indicated they wanted reform).

The point is that protesters in Egypt were expressing their frustration with a government that they had no voice in electing. In Wisconsin, as in all other states of the United States, voters choose their elected officials, and in each election express themselves about major public policies. In 2008, voters chose to replace the Republicans in power with a new Democratic president. In 2010, voters chose to express their dissatisfaction with Democratic president’s policies.

Most disappointing is the attitude of the entire Democratic caucus of the Wisconsin state senate. They can speak against the new legislation, and can vote against it. Unlike Hosni Mubarak, they do not have the right to go absent without leave from their elected posts. Public employee reform is coming to Wisconsin (and the rest of the U.S.) It is not only inevitable, but voters have, across the nation, sent the message they want this reform to happen. The Democratic state senators in Wisconsin have every right to hold a different point of view, but they do not have the right to behave as if they were dictators in Egypt and thwart the voters will. I hope their opponents in 2012 will remind the voters in their districts how badly they have behaved.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Condition For Winning The Presidency You’re Not Supposed To Talk About

Now that the contest for the 2012 Republican nomination for president is more or less underway, and we know almost all the possible candidates, what chance does the eventual GOP choice from this roster have against the Democratic incumbent?

I have been repeatedly stating that when the full roster is known, and it is likely to be a large number initially, the race will nonetheless quickly narrow to a few candidates after the initial primaries.

The GOP roster for this cycle is not only large, it has a number of potential candidates who could mount a truly serious challenge to President Barack Obama, including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels, and Tim Pawlenty.. It also has well-known potential candidates who possibly could be nominated, but would be less likely to win in November, including Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Haley Barbour. It further has less well-known potential candidates who are unlikely to make it to the finish line in Tampa next year, including John Thune, Rick Santourum, Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson and Herman Cain. There are, as well, vanity candidates who are well-known, but have no chance such as Donald Trump.

I think it would be presumptuous to make a prediction from this roster at this time, although when I was younger, I did so anyway. (I did make some successful early predictions in those days, including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and I was among the first to predict the national emergence of Gary Hart (in 1982) and Joe Biden (in 1985!) But I also made some predictions that were downright political lemons, and eventually I withdrew from the presidential prediction business.

This year I want to discuss a condition no one usually talks about in the presidential contest. This is because it is ultimately mysterious, unmeasurable, and can’t be polled. I am talking about luck.

Yes, most of the men (and in the future, the women) who win the Oval Office have, or will have, “what it takes” to be president, including communication skills, experience, intelligence and charm, but a great many American politicians have had these qualities, and did not win the presidency.

In more modern times, I am thinking of Harold Stassen (not nominated), Thomas Dewey (nominated twice), Robet Taft (not nominated), Adlai Stevenson (nominated twice), Hubert Humphrey (nominated), Averill Harriman (not nominated), George Romney (not nominated), Bob Dole (nominated), Mario Cuomo (not nominated), Jack Kemp (not nominated), Bruce Babbitt (not nominated), John McCain (nominated) and Hillary Clinton (not nominated). This is only my list, and a partial one. The reader my well have his or her own that differs from mine.

Regardless of who is on or not on the list, however, there is at least one element the aforementioned have in common. They were not “lucky.” I am not at all suggesting that was the only reason they did not make it to the White House, but I am suggesting that any of them could have been president, and possibly in other, luckier, circumstances might have made it.

Now what do I mean by luck?

It’s an elusive quality, and in presidential politics, it can involve how a candidate looks (Dewey), running against a popular incumbent (Stevenson, Harriman, Dole), what a candidate says (George Romney and Robert Taft), potential opponents who decide not to run (Cuomo), running against an unexpectedly strong opponent (Humphrey, Babbitt, Hillary Clinton). It can also involve that all-important element in politics — timing. Another week, many political scientists say, and Hubert Humphrey] would have overtaken Nixon in 1968. When the mortgage banking bubble broke late in the 2008 campaign, McCain was some points ahead of Obama. If Hubert Humphrey had been healthy in 1976, he might well have defeated Jimmy Carter for his party’s nomination. And so forth.

This subject calls for much more detail and more examples, but I wanted to raise it because the Republican list of potential nominees is large, many on the list are clearly capable of being president, but only one will win the nomination and have the chance to win the White House prize.

We could list characteristics, resumes of political and business positions held, issues each candidate favors and opposes, communication skills, geographical origins and the like, but which Republican candidate also has luck on his or her side?

Events soon to come will answer that question. I am not being mystical. It is an element always present in a presidential election cycle.. It is by no means usually the biggest element. After all, it was that way-off Broadway playwright who long ago said, “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

More likely, the next GOP nominee will be someone who, by great craft and perseverance, will prevail in September and take their case to the voters in November. There is an old saying that luck is not all just chance, but also what a person makes of themselves.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Too Late For Another Presidential Contender?

U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has resigned, presumably to enter the Republican contest for the 2012 presidential nomination. There is much which is appealing about former Utah Governor Huntsman, a very talented Republican appointed by President Obama to one of the most important U.S. diplomatic posts in the world.

He was an ideal choice for Beijing because he served several years as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, and is fluent in both Mandarin and Taiwanese.. He was an outstanding and popular Utah governor, and is considered a GOP moderate on some issues (although he is anti-abortion and favors gun rights).

I have been saying we are almost past the point when a new serious GOP candidate might successfully enter the field. But since no major Republican has announced their candidacy yet, it is obviously not too late. The GOP field is quite large already. There are more than a dozen “serious” candidates, although as I have been pointing out, credentials, an impressive appearance and name recognition does not necessarily make a finalist.

So far, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels seem most likely to make the “finals” IF they run. But nothing is written in stone yet. Mr. Huntsman, ironically, might split the Mormon vote with Mr. Romney, and Mormons are a serious factor in several western states. But his greatest obstacle would be the perception he is a “moderate.” I suspect that Ambassador Huntsman is rather conservative by most national standards, yet that may be not enough in a political year when ardent conservatism seems most prized by GOP voters nationwide (and not a few independent voters).

I am reminded of the case of former Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania who, from 1996 through 2008 was a very serious candidate for vice president (by Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain), and was considered to have the necessary gravitas to be a serious presidential candidate as well — except for one matter, he was a Catholic who was moderately pro-choice on abortion. This made him unacceptable to his own party. A six-term congressman from Erie, PA, Ridge also represented a working class district, and was not considered conservative enough by many of his colleagues. This did not prevent him from distinguishing himself as the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security (his threat level color code notwithstanding), and now only half a decade later, his performance in that office looks rather good in comparison with some of his successors. No matter, Tom Ridge passed on a “sure thing” U.S. senate race in Pennsylvania in 2010, and is now pursuing the rest of his life, more or less out of politics. Mr. Huntsman may find the Tom Ridge example instructive.

We are now entering the more combative period of the early presidential contest. Potential candidates are roving Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina which have the earliest primaries/caucuses, and where any successful candidate must find some traction. Already The Wall Street Journal has taken former Speaker Newt Gingrich to task for supporting ethanol in Iowa. While I happen to agree with The Journal’s general view on ethanol, it is also obvious that its editors have not visited Iowa (or Minnesota or Indiana or Illinois) recently. I certainly hope The Journal does not now come out against presidential candidates who kiss babies.

Mr. Huckabee is saying he won’t make his decision about running until late this year. This may be a serious tactical mistake. Mrs. Palin is the most charismatic person in her party, but her overall popularity has declined as a result of her appeal to her base. She is formidable, but perhaps not as a presidential candidate in 2012. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is an almost equally provocative national figure now, and also not to be dismissed out of hand, but not likely to appeal beyond a narrow band of the electorate if she runs.

Lest I be accused of favoritism to my (former) home state governor, I would be remiss in not observing that his unannounced presidential candidacy is going rather well in its early stages. But former Governor Tim Pawlenty must do well in neighboring Iowa to advance to the finals. John McCain skipped Iowa last time, and won the nomination, but 2012 frontrunner Mitt Romney’s alleged temptation also to skip the first caucus state this time might not be a good idea. Mr. Gingrich need not win Iowa or New Hampshire, but he must do better than expected in both, and then win South Carolina. His task is to demonstrate unexpected strength from the moment he announces, and then show that his so-called “baggage” was a political myth. Mr. Daniels is showing some surprising strength already in polls in a few states, but he must overcome an image of being a “reluctant” candidate. He and Mr. Pawlenty are the “sleepers” in this contest.

If more American voters were fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Mr. Huntsman might pull “an Obama” in 2012. But if it turns out that he is also fluent in Spanish, then all bets are off.