Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Enter Michele Bachmann

As a national journalist and columnist who happens to live in Minnesota, and long-time commentator about presidential politics (my first campaign covered was in 1972), I am frequently asked by DC-based colleagues what I think of the Minnesota “Twins.” These are not questions about the baseball team; they are about the remarkable fact that two of the five or six major Republican candidates for president in 2012 are from the Gopher State.

As it happens, I have known Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann for many years and observed their careers evolve from simple beginnings.. In Pawlenty’s case, I first met him in 1990 when he was working for a state gubernatorial campaign. He was then in his late 20s, but it was clear he was a “comer.” Soon after that, he was elected to the state house of representatives where he eventually rose to be majority leader. When he indicated that he would run for U.S. senate (against incumbent Paul Wellstone) in 2001-02, it seemed he could be a serious opponent, although not likely to defeat the well–known incumbent. Then-St. Paul Mayor Norman Coleman announced he would run again for governor (he had been the GOP nominee for that post in 1998, but had come in second behind Jesse Ventura).

Apparently then-Vice President Dick Cheney felt that Coleman would be a stronger opponent to Wellstone, so he called Pawlenty and “asked” him to switch to the governor’s race so that Coleman could run for senator. That phone call may have changed more American history than it did Minnesota history. As it turned out, Coleman defeated Walter Mondale, a last-minute substitute for Wellstone who had tragically died in an airplane accident only a few days before election day. Pawlenty won a close contest for the GOP nomination and went on to win the governor’s race by a plurality when the Independence Party (IP), as it had in 1998, drained votes from the Democratic (in this state, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party or DFL) nominee. In 2006, Pawlenty again narrowly won a plurality re-election when the IP again nominated a credible candidate.

Like Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann first drew public attention as a very conservative member of the state legislature (she was a state senator). A former tax attorney, mother of five (and foster mother of additional 23 children), Bachmann was always a conservative lightning rod in her eastern suburban Twin Cities district. The local media, typically liberal, found her early to be a favorite target, with a focus on her frequent verbal flubs (while, of course, ignoring the flubs of liberal legislators). In 2006, she decided to run for Congress, and won.

When each of them first came to my attention, I would not have even suggested that either of them might become serious presidential candidates. But Pawlenty had certain skills, specifically the ability to explain complex political issues in a way that ordinary voters could understand. Bachmann, on the other hand, seemed more interested in gaining public attention around provocative social issues, and this enabled her critics and most in the media to portray her as “light.” Nontheless, her base in the 6th congressional district remained quite loyal, and when she made a major blunder on national TV in 2008 just before the election, she still managed to survive. In 2010, the DFL opponent raised more than $4 million to defeat he, but didn’t really come close. Mrs. Bachmann seemed secure in her district, and likely to remain there.

After the 2008 election, Mrs. Bachmann formed a friendship with Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee. In 2010, Bachmann brought in Mrs. Palin for a fundraiser in Minneapolis, and, with both of them on the stage at the same time, I saw for the first time clearly that Mrs. Bachmann could match Mrs. Palin for charisma and excitement among conservative voters.

Speaking honestly, even then I did not see Michele Bachmann as a national figure, and when she indicated she might run for president in early 2011, I ranked her as a third tier candidate. She also then seemed to focus only on sensational social conservative issues, and sounded a bit shrill in her speeches. Her rise now to be a first tier contender happened almost suddenly as it became likely Mrs. Palin would not run in 2012, and conservative icons such as Mike Huckabee also would not run.

The question is then: Is there something different about the “new” Michele Bachmann? I’m certain she and her long-time supporters would argue she is the same as she was before, but I would suggest that, as sometimes happens when a political figure thrusts themself, or is thrust, on the national electoral stage, Michele Bachmann is showing off a new or expanded image of herself. Her speeches recently have lost most of the earlier shrillness, and particularly in her new video about the Middle East and in her kick-off announcement in her home town of Waterloo, Iowa, her words seem less sensational and more inspirational. There is also now no question she has a national base, although it remains to be seen if that base will turn out in the primary and caucus voting.

A recent minor flub about John Wayne’s home town received its usual mega-attention in the Old Media, but now this attention seems petty, especially since the Old Media totally ignores similar or worse flubs by President Obama and Vice President Biden, who makes them routinely. (On the other hand, Mrs. Bachmann might be well-served from now on to have her own fact-checker for her speeches.)

So when my media friends in DC asked me what I thought of the Bachmann candidacy, I answered that she was now a serious contender, but that the degree of her impact will be revealed ahead. Former Governor Pawlenty still has by far the larger, and more professional, campaign in Iowa, and in spite of his media-ballyhooed blunder in the New Hampshire TV debate, has personal and political resources that could easily put him again as Mr. Romney’s major challenger. Yet Mrs. Bachmann is the one attracting early more formidable poll numbers, campaign cash raised, and excitement in her home state. Mr. Pawlenty must somehow overcome this by the time of the Iowa Caucuses in January because if Mrs. Bachmann significantly outpolls him there, his campaign could be real trouble.

Liberal Democrats love to hate Mrs. Bachmann, and to single her out as a “right wing nut.” The Old Media is obsessed with making fun of her, and incessantly tries to marginalize her, but something is up with her candidacy right now, and her opponents ridicule and underestimate her at their peril.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Right Now Is The Time

We are now at, or are very close to, the critical moments in the various showdowns between governors and legislatures, and President Obama and the Republican house of representatives over taxes and spending.

Republicans so far are holding firm, but some of them are understandably nervous about the depth of public support for their conservative agenda. The majority of voters did speak, however, in the national elections of 2010 when Republican conservatives ran on the promise of imposing no new taxes, and dramatically cutting and transforming what and how the federal government spends. Similarly, in many states, conservative Republican candidates for governor and for state legislative seats ran (and won) on promises they would enact reform legislation. Republicans do remember 1994-95 when the GOP-controlled U.S. house brought the government to shut down when Democratic President Clinton refused to go along with their program. In that confrontation, voters seemed to blame the Republicans more than Mr. Clinton, and their momentum from the upset takeover of the House in 1994 was seemingly halted. Of course, President Clinton then co-opted much of the GOP program (and the economy subsequently boomed).

But the economic downturn in the 1990s was much shorter and milder (and more traditional) than the one which has overtaken the U.S. since 2007-08. Today, the nation is suffering chronic and prolonged high levels of unemployment, and the inability of an economic recovery to take hold. The bust of the housing bubble has been renewed in spite of extraordinary low interest rates, and entrepreneurs remain reluctant, facing more taxes and regulations, to create new businesses. Overall, there is a persistent lack of economic confidence and optimism. Commodity prices are soaring, bailouts seem to have exhausted their presumed effectiveness and capacity. At the same time, major U.S. entitlement and welfare programs face disastrous deficits, public and private pension funds have run out of money, and the “No Child Left Behind” and other federal educational system programs/mandates are clearly failing.

I contend that the public and the voters are in a completely different place than they were in 1994-95, or even in 2000-02. Democrats routinely turned back Republican attempts to reform Social Security and other federal entitlements through predictable scare tactics aimed at the poor and the elderly. Today, there is widespread acceptance across party and generational lines that something must be done to fix social security, entitlements and educational programs. In 2010, Republicans told voters they would do something about these problems, and contrary to skeptics who thought they might not try to deliver on those promises after the election, GOP leaders and legislators have begun to deliver on those promises. On the other hand, it is a very difficult task. First of all, Republicans do not control the White House and the U.S. senate. Second, in many states they do not control the governorship, or one or both houses of the state legislatures. Even where they do, as in Wisconsin, the established recipients of public largesse such as the public employees and their unions are desperately fighting back, throwing up everything they can (including the kitchen sink) to thwart reform.

Most states have constitutional requirements to balance their budgets, and the imbalance between state revenues and expenditures is now so acute across the nation, that many states are facing shutdowns. Similarly, the federal deficit has become so enormous that Republicans are saying they will no longer vote to increase the national debt ceiling, thus forcing a government shutdown similar to the one which occurred in 1995.

These confrontations have been brewing for several months as conservatives have gone forward with their plans for federal and state economic and educational reform. And now in the next 30-90 days, opposing forces and parties must either arrive at agreements or various levels of government will begin to shut down.

The price of conservative leaders and legislators (and presidential candidates) turning back from their promised reforms and transformations of government now will be massive (and deserved) defeat in 2012 and beyond. Yes, true change is by definition new territory, and no one knows with certainty how voters will react to each and every proposal, but the voters have spoken, and the need is as clear as it has ever been in decades.

There is no need to look over incessant political shoulders to make the changes and reforms happen. They should continue to enact them, and finish the job by winning the 2012 elections. They should take the care to explain effectively what they are doing (this is VERY important), but they should do it. Right now is the time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What The First Debate Told Us

The first GOP presidential debate held in New Hampshire is only the first of many such events that will take place between now and the end of the primary/caucus season next year. Results from a first debate can hardly be expected to be dispositive about the race, and none of the candidates behaved in a manner that will disqualify them from going on.

Nevertheless, the debate signaled that the Republican contest is going to be hard fought, and that the field, as it stands now, has been undervalued generally by the media. At least two more “serious” candidates are likely to enter the race very soon, and the next debate could be noticeably larger.

A number of opinions have already been expressed by pundits, political operatives, and campaign staff figures about who “won” and who “lost.” I urge the reader to be cautious about making judgments based on these various opinions, including any that I might express here.

I do think some candidates enhanced their standing in the public with their performance in the debate, and others did not. The consensus of “conventional wisdom” was that Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain were in this positive category. Consensus seems to suggest that Tim Pawlenty missed an opportunity to enhance his, and that Ron Paul and Rick Santorum did little to improve their image. This conventional assessment may or may not be entirely correct, but the general impression is that the whole field had an initial positive evening.

This occurred in spite of the very flawed format created by CNN for the debate, and I hope that the individual campaigns and candidates will resist the gimmickry and moderator interference of this format imposed by sponsors and producers of future debates.

Almost certainly, the next debates will include the eventual full field. Former Governor Jon Huntsman of Utah and current Texas Governor Rick Perry are likely to be not only serious candidates, but should be strong new voices in future debates if one or both of them enter the race. The first debate saw the candidates turn their main criticism to President Obama, his administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress. As the calendar approaches actual voting, most of these candidates will be sorely tempted to attack each other as well.

Mr. Huntsman, advertised in advance as the most moderate figure in the field, may introduce some conflict in future debates, but for now, the whole field seems in general agreement on most issues. Only Mr. Paul has clear record of believing in very different perspectives on major issues, and as happened in the last cycle, he is expected to receive very limited if somewhat noisy support from his small neo-libertarian base. On foreign policy, in particular, Mr. Paul is outside the general conservative agreement on foreign policy. Mr. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, is familiar with the issues, but other than his resume, there was no indication from the first debate of why he is running for president.

Mr. Gingrich has been widely dismissed in the media, and among political insiders, following his recent gaffes and the quitting from his national campaign by some of his top staff. His strong performance at the first debate, however, indicates he is not going to fade away any time soon.

The promotion of Mrs. Bachmann’s performance in the debate included much of it coming from the Old Media and liberal Democrats whose sincerity and wisdom on the subject is seriously in doubt. Mr. Obama’s supporters would rejoice if Mrs. Bachmann were the GOP nominee. I also think the criticism of Mr. Pawlenty’ performance is, at the least, premature. He has shown himself in the past to be a quick study, and could shine in future debates.

Finally, Mr. Romney’s standing was clearly improved in New Hampshire. He did not make any mistakes, while he sounded as if he were more and more in command. He has political weaknesses, and does not yet, have the conservative GOP base behind him, but if future debates go generally as this first one did, his “frontrunner” status
will become more difficult to overcome.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Showdowns Coming In States And In Congress

This will probably be remembered as the year of the showdowns in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. It was bound to happen sometime, and now that time has come.

In those states where the governor is of one party and the legislature is controlled by the other party, or split; and in Washington, DC where the president is a liberal Democrat and the House of Representatives is controlled by conservative Republicans, the confrontation is epic and historic.

The Democrats, the liberal party, want to preserve as much as possible many New Deal entitlements and programs, and to raise taxes as much as they can to pay for them. The Republicans, the conservative party, want to scale back or eliminate as many of the entitlements and liberal programs as they can. They have told voters, at both the state and national level, that they will not raise taxes. More than any time in the recent past, the two parties are canyons apart on the issues, and unlikely to arrive at the usual kind of compromises in the usual way.

The Republicans received some mandate in the 2010 national and state elections when their candidates won massive victories on these issues. But now that individual Republican governors and legislatures are following through on their promises, there are second thoughts by some voters as they see entitlements and programs disappear. In most states, balanced budgets are constitutionally required. In Minnesota, the governor is a liberal Democrat (there called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party or DFL) and both houses of the legislature are decisively in Republican control. The conflict between the two sides over revenue and expenditures was not resolved in regular session of the legislature, and in the interim, the two sides have not moved much closer to a resolution. On July 1, lacking an agreement to balance the state budget, the state government will close down. Massive layoffs of state employees, and severe cutbacks of state services and facilities (such as state parks) will take place. Each side perceives that the public will side with it at this point, and an argument can be made to support each of their views. Normally, the DFL would have the advantage, since voters traditionally do not like to be inconvenienced. But will this year be different?

This is the mystery about this state’s showdown and all the others. Has the public at large realized the time has come to change the fiscal road governments in most states, and at the federal level, have been traveling? Social Security used to be the third rail of U.S. politics. Conservatives would suggest reforms, and liberals would batter them at the polls by scaring voters that their entitlements would be taken away. Finally, that is no longer true, and there seems to be widespread acceptance of extending the age at which Social Security benefits begin and other basic reforms. But Medicare/Medicaid now appears to be a new third rail, and proposed conservative reforms are not a slam dunk as a recent special election in New York state may indicate.

We live in a time of extended economic recession, marked by chronic unemployment, depressed prices in real estate, very low interest rates, and a general lack of confidence in economic prospects by both consumers and entrepreneurs.

As I see it, the voters’ choice is only about the timing and circumstances of a general change of direction of national and state economic policy. They can vote for Republicans in 2012 (and for centrist Democrats who agree that change must happen) and expect a somewhat orderly transition. Or they can return liberal Democrats to power in 2012, and passively wait for profound economic axes to fall. Either way, the entitlements will be eliminated or be reduced. The difference will be the level of hardship and suffering, since orderly transition will likely be much less brutal and sudden than a transition brought on by stock market collapse, industry failures, general economic chaos, and sudden government paralysis.

We do live in a representative democracy, and voters do have choices. They demonstrated this in 2010. In 2012, they will have to make choices again. The issues are the same, but the stakes are greater. While democracy is clearly the best for of government in the world, no one said it would only be a summer picnic.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

If Obama Chose Not To Run Again, Who Would Be The Democratic Nominee?

Several times in recent months, I have suggested that a political scenario could occur, a la Lyndon Johnson in 1968, whereby President Obama would choose not to run for a second term in 2012. I agree that such a scenario does not seem likely at the moment, but the economy is so fragile and, according to many respected economists, in such bad shape that in relatively short time the president’s support could, for all intents and purposes, evaporate. Although the international environment remains fragile as well, and Mr. Obama has had few real successes in this arena, I do not think foreign policy alone could motivate such a withdrawal. But what if the stock market took another nosedive, more banks failed, more U.S. industries faltered and most importantly, what little public confidence remained in the domestic economy turned to implacable pessimism? More bailouts are not an option. There is simply no money left for artificial techniques to keep investments and investors afloat. It would be an economic shipwreck in uncharted waters.

I want to stress that, at this moment, such a scenario seems remote. While the economy, and economic indicators are not good, in fact many are disturbing, this outcome would be so unprecedented that none of us, Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, those pro-Obama or anti-Obama wish it to happen. Everyone would suffer greatly if the economy took a dramatic downturn at this moment. Everyone.

That does not mean, however, that it cannot happen. The unfunded debt in the U.S. is alone a scary statistic, Most unnerving of all, most of the solutions to our economic problems put forward by Mr. Obama and his allies in Congress actually make our problems worse.

So if I may be permitted to speculate on a Lyndon Johnson-styled “retirement” by President Obama, I will ask the question: What then?

In 1968, President Johnson’s political decision was precipitated by the growing success of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar challenge to his renomination. Eventually, Senator Robert Kennedy sought the nomination. After Mr. Kennedy was assassinated, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race and eventually won the nomination, only to be defeated by Richard Nixon in the November election. Only when Mr. Humphrey broke with President Johnson on Vietnam, however, did he begin to rise in the polls. His comeback fell short, although many observers say that if he had another week, he would have won.

The first name that comes to mind as a replacement for Mr Obama would be Vice President Joe Biden, but Mr. Biden does not have the wide support that Mr. Humphrey had (after his distinguished career), nor could Mr. Biden credibly denounce the Obama economic policies, having been so much part of them.

The second name that comes to mind is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2008, Mrs. Clinton was the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, Although very much part of the Obama foreign policy, she would not be closely associated with the president’s economic policy, and might be more credible if she denounced it.

Now we step outside the obvious Democratic names. In reality, if conditions became so bad that Mr. Obama had to withdraw, I think it would be more likely for the Democrats to name someone not part of the administration.

The first name that occurs to me is Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. He has been a governor as well as senator, and a successful businessman. A centrist Democrat, he would return the party to the Bill Clinton mode of governance. Mr. Warner was seriously mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2008, and clearly seems to have the gravitas for the Oval Office. A fresh face, and not associated with Mr. Obama, he could be a serious Democratic nominee in 2012 if Mr. Obama withdrew.

There are other figures in the Democratic Party who might be seriously considered in these circumstances. Although he has only been governor of New York for a short time, Mr. Cuomo has emerged as a centrist figure. He was a prominent attorney general of New York, and a cabinet office in the Clinton administration. His father Mario Cuomo was one of the iconic figures in the Democratic party in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and was himself prominently mentioned for president in 1988 and 1992.

After Mr. Cuomo, the list of possibilities lacks widespread recognition and experience. Some figures from the recent past, including Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Bob Kerry of Nebraska, could be considered, but would be unlikely nominees.

In terms of stature, temperament and experience, the Democrats, in the wake of an unexpected Obama withdrawal, would seem likely to turn to Mr. Warner. I’m sure he would deny any interest now, and I’m equally sure that most Democrats are not even considering the possibility, but I continue to think that the deterioration of the economy makes my speculation here worth filing in he back of the reader’s mind and consciousness.

We live in a time, and circumstances, when almost anything can happen.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Republican Activists With A Bias Against Themselves?

After a series of recent announcements by possible Republican candidates for president that they would not run next year, a mood of disappointment in the conservative grass roots has emerged that has taken the form that the major candidates who said they would run were simply “not acceptable” to many in the grass roots.

The implication for the GOP is that a certain number of its base would stay home in 2012, as some of them did in 2008 when John McCain was the party nominee. That was a factor in the outcome of that election (just as was the huge turnout of black voters across the nation for candidate Obama). The net result was that Mr. Obama was elected president. His administration and his policies are now an anathema to these same grass roots voters who seem to be still looking for an “ideal” candidate.

I want to assert right here that neither party very often, if ever, presents the “ideal”candidate to the electorate in a national presidential election. Yes, this kind of candidate does emerge in races for governor, senator and congressperson because states and districts are more homogeneous than the nation as a whole. Mr. McCain was not a perfect candidate, and I did not agree with him on certain issues, but is there any doubt that the political and economic landscape would be dramatically different if he had been elected, and that many (but not all) of our crises would be closer to resolution?

I also want to assert that either Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or Tim Pawlenty have what it takes to be good conservative presidents. Obviously, they are different from each other, and each has their strengths and weaknesses, but any of them would be an enormous improvement, as I see it, on the president we have now. Furthermore, one of these three men is likely (but of course not certain) to be the next Republican nominee. Yes, there are others already in the race, and a few big names may yet enter at the last minute, but barring the unforeseen, one of these aforementioned three will be the winner at the Tampa convention.

If I am correct (and I may not be of course), then many party activists, operatives radio talk show hosts,and funders will have to take a hard look at what they will do after the national party convention next September. Historically, this dilemma has faced each political party in the recent past. Democrats were grievously split in 1968 by the Vietnam War and following assassinations of two of its icons. The incumbent Democratic president was forced to retire, and a grass roots liberal candidate Eugene McCarthy emerged as the grass roots favorite. But it was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who won the nomination after a bitter convention, as was probably inevitable given the nationwide make-up of the Democratic electorate. McCarthy spitefully refused to endorse Humphrey until the last week (and then only half- heartedly), and many Democrats stayed home. The result was the election of Richard Nixon, a brilliant but flawed man who eventually brought on Watergate and the despoiling of the office of president. In 1976, President Gerald Ford, the first person in effect “appointed” to the presidency (following the Nixon resignation) was clearly a decent man, but he pardoned Nixon and this caused many who might have voted for him to stay home. The result was the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter whose presidency was marked by economic failure (and whose post presidential years have been an embarrassment). I am not suggesting that Gerald Ford was or would have been a great president, but history suggests that he would have been much better than the holier-than-thou busybody Carter.

The United States has a population which now exceeds 300 million. Now more than ever, it is a nation of many ethnicities, races and religions. It is also the quintessential middle class nation, the first and still the most vital democratic republic in the world. In spite of temporary economic problems, it is still the largest economy in the world. To be elected president of the United States, a man or woman must win a substantial vote in the nation’s political center, much of which owes no allegiance to either major political party. In some ways, Barack Obama is the most radical figure in the 20th century to win the presidency, but it took dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and a huge mortgage banking meltdown to enable him to win. At the time of his election, furthermore, he was not generally perceived to be the radical president he has become.

I am suggesting that Republicans of all kinds should be grateful that their nominee is likely to be Romney, Pawlenty or Gingrich. Each of them is authentically conservative, but also has appeal to the political center. The Democrats this time, and unlike in 1992 and 1996, have a nominee (and now incumbent) who increasingly appeals less and less to the political center.

It is several months until the primary/caucus season, and more than a year until the GOP convention in Tampa, so no one can say with certainty that unexpected events and candidates might not yet emerge. History suggests, however, that Republican voters, including more conservative grass roots voters, will be asked to vote a year from this November for someone who does not perfectly fit their political wish lists, but who will be a clear choice nevertheless.

Their decision may determine not only when national prosperity will return, but whether this democratic republic will be able to face and resolve the fearsome challenges which lie ahead.