Romney tries to be the next Reagan, even in defeat.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Feb. 11 2008 3:39 PM

When Mitt Met Ralph

Romney tries to be the next Reagan, even in defeat.

80_thehasbeen
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Being under enormous pressure to stay trim only makes the task harder. Sooner or later, almost every celebrity who became famous for losing weight comes to regret it. Kirstie Alley, Elvis Presley, and Anna Nicole Smith are all proof that the worst diet plan in the world is to have everyone watching.

But there's an even better reason not to want a president whose greatest fear is getting fat: George W. Bush. Presidential historians have found no correlation between body mass and greatness. But recent history suggests a direct correlation between how much time presidents spend worrying about keeping fit and how much time they have left to solve the nation's problems. Bush is legendary for his exercise routines. He used to run regularly with Condi Rice, obviously a failed foreign-policy training regimen for both of them. He brings along a mountain bike wherever he goes, and once plowed down a bobby in Scotland.

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The clear conclusion: Bush works out, but his policies don't. After seven years, he's in a lot better shape than the country.

Since the American fitness craze took off a few decades ago, the track record for other fat-fleeing presidents is not much better. Bush's father stayed trim by obsessively playing speed golf for four years. That kept him a thin man with an even thinner record. Jimmy Carter's presidency all but ended in 1979 when he became a symbol of American impotence as he collapsed while jogging.

By contrast, it's pretty clear that the two most successful presidents of the past 30 years, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, didn't wake up every morning wondering what they weren't going to eat that day. Clinton played golf, in no particular hurry; Reagan chopped wood. For both of them, exercise was more a chance to slow down and get away from the pressures of the office, not add to them.

In the role of underdog, Huck has so far seemed relaxed enough to keep things in perspective. Even though he lost 110 pounds—nearly the size of an entire Dennis Kucinich—Huckabee hasn't suddenly decided his personal savior is Jared, not Jesus.

Gain or lose, Huckabee's conservative policy agenda will be more than enough to sink any candidate. But we can't be too careful. In choosing presidents, we should be wary of what haunts them, because elections are often a choice between the lesser of two demons.

Already the warning signs are flashing. Huck's first ad stars Chuck Norris, who looks like he's auditioning to be President Huckabee's personal trainer. We'll all be rooting for Huckabee to stay in shape and inspire others to follow suit. But every now and then, cutaway shots from the campaign trail show a side view that makes a voter worry that a little of the Old Huck might be primed for a comeback. ... 6:14 P.M. (link)

Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007

Outta There: As any conservative will tell you, people vote with their feet. Just ask Larry Craig. But that's bad news for a Republican Party whose leaders are looking at the GOP's future and deciding to walk away.

The sudden, simultaneous departure of both former Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott has been treated as a coincidence, not a trend. But congressional resignations tend to be an even more accurate forecast than Intrade. If you're checking the parties' vital signs, consider this: The GOP lost the two longest-serving congressional leaders in Republican history—in the same week.

Hastert served as speaker for eight years. The Republican whose record he broke, Joseph Cannon, has a House office building named after him (as does Nicholas Longworth, a Republican speaker for six years). While Hastert signaled his departure in the last Congress—in part to keep the caucus from sacking him as speaker—he left more quickly than expected.

Lott was in an even bigger rush, and his exit may be more revealing. Since the two parties officially began naming Senate floor leaders back in the 1920s, Lott's nearly six years as majority leader were the longest of any Republican. If not for his suicidal remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party, Lott might have passed lions like LBJ, Robert Byrd, George Mitchell, and Alben Barkley to become the second-longest serving majority leader in history, behind Mike Mansfield.

Lott, 66, and Hastert, 65, are at the age when anyone in a normal line of work might retire. But by Washington standards, they're practically middle-aged, still young enough to run for president, stand many more times for re-election, or serve a couple decades on the Supreme Court.

Hastert was already planning to leave before he helped hand Democrats back the House. But Lott had five years left in his Senate term, and last year made a stunning comeback by a single vote to become minority whip, the No. 2 Republican leader.

So, why the rush? While Timothy Noah suggests scandal, it looks to me more like another example of Kinsley's Law that the real scandal is what's legal.

Lott has been around long enough to know to get out when the going is good. And for retiring members of Congress these days, time is money. In the decade since Lott took over the Senate and Hastert began his ascent up the leadership ladder, the lobbying business in Washington has exploded, and so have the ranks of former Cabinet officials, members of Congress, and staff willing to cash in on it. The Center for Public Integrity estimates that nearly half the members who've left since 1998 have become lobbyists, and the number of former congressmen and agency heads turned lobbyists has doubled in the past decade.

As Jeff Birnbaum and Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post report today, if Lott becomes a lobbyist, he will become the first senator in history to leave midway through his term to lobby. Lott, Hastert, and others on the Hill have an extra incentive to get out now. In January, a new revolving-door provision takes effect that will double the waiting period between leaving Congress and lobbying from one year to two. Resigning now frees them to start buttonholing their former colleagues by next Thanksgiving.

Most observers have long pooh-poohed the so-called cooling-off period, because while they're waiting to lobby their old colleagues, former members can still be paid handsomely to attract clients and offer their inside expertise. Former Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles, who left in 2004 to start his own lobbying firm, told the Hill that the two-year ban "wouldn't make much of a difference" to blue-chip former members. Lott himself concedes that he has talked to other members turned lobbyists, who told him "what you do anyways is called 'consulting,' not direct lobbying."

But Lott's hasty departure (and a flurry of Hill staff resignations that are predicted by year end) suggests that the cooling-off period has a far greater impact on congressional behavior than members and former members admit. The Hill analyzed the lobbying activities of a dozen ex-senators and found that the average billings of the accounts they worked on jumped from $1 million in their first year—when they couldn't lobby directly—to $1.8 million in their second year, when the ban no longer applied. Former Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan told the paper that the two-year ban might not affect a retiring member's marketability, but would affect his or her compensation.

If Congress were serious about closing the revolving door, it would enact a much longer cooling-off period—five years or more—for former members of Congress, senior administration officials, and senior staff. Many would still go onto become lobbyists, but it would no longer be the default profession and de facto college and retirement plan.

As Jeanne Cummings of Politico points out, Lott's resignation is a case study in the current state of political career planning. Not only is Lott leaving to lobby, but the heir apparent to his Senate seat—Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering—may pass up the chance because he had already announced his own plans to step down and explore the private sector. Lott's replacement is up to Haley Barbour, who made what by today's standards is the comparatively noble sacrifice of giving up a lucrative lobbying practice to become governor of Mississippi.

Staff take the fall for everything in Washington, but ironically, the lobbying gold rush is one place where staff are a big part of the problem. In recent years, many congressional leaders have watched with envy as staffers young enough to be their children have quadrupled their salaries by heading to K Street. In a Washington Post retrospective on Lott, a widely respected former aide reminisced that when Lott and Nickles negotiated with wealthy Clintonites Bob Rubin and Erskine Bowles, they felt like "two Republicans who didn't have two nickels to rub together." Yet to some degree, members now have a twinge of that same feeling when they're lobbied by former staff. Presumably, when Lott becomes a lobbyist (like Nickles, and the Lott aide who told the story), coin will no longer be a problem.

Many members go into lobbying by default, as the most lucrative if not most interesting option available. But Trent Lott was born for the job and oddly enough, might enjoy it even if it didn't pay so well. Like his old friend, former Senate colleague, and potential business partner John Breaux, he's a consummate deal maker. And as he proved in his narrow comeback victory in the race for whip, he's the best vote counter in his party.

Throughout the four decades since he came to Washington, Trent Lott has been a symbol of what has become of it. In his fascinating new book The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America, Ron Brownstein singles out Lott—who was raised a Democrat but became (along with Thad Cochran) the first Republican congressman re-elected from Mississippi since Reconstruction—as a harbinger of what he calls "the great sorting out" that led conservative Southern Democrats to the GOP and moderate Northern Republicans to become Democrats.

Once in Congress, Lott led another trend, as part of a generation of young Turks who cut their conservative teeth in the House and brought the same ideological edge to the once-genteel and bipartisan Senate. Now, assuming he becomes a successful lobbyist, Lott will epitomize Washington's latest transformation into a city where at least one of the streets is paved in gold.

In the long run, it would be in both parties' best interests to stop the gold rush. But Republicans in particular should have an urgent motive to close the revolving door. If they have too many more weeks like this past one, Larry Craig might be the last one left to turn out the lights. ... 12:28 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007

From the Rafters: The Republican campaign to try to make Bush the next Truman fell flat again today, as the White House's handpicked entry "Truman & Sixty" finished dead last in the annual Thanksgiving turkey naming contest. The electorate's message to Bush was clear: We know the difference between a president and a turkey, and you're no Harry Truman.

Against the weakest field of names in memory, "Truman & Sixty" came in a distant sixth, with a mere 6%. No former president had ever finished in single digits before. The 5th-place entry, "Gobbler & Rafter," received twice as many votes, even though exit polls would have been hard-pressed to find many voters who know that "rafter" is the name for a flock of turkeys.

The winning entry, "May & Flower," finished with 24%, edging out "Wish & Bone" at 23% and "Wing & Prayer" at 20%. No doubt buoyed by last-minute votes from Slate readers, "Jake & Tom" beat expectations by surging to 15% -- surpassing past buddy pairings like "Lewis & Clark," "Washington & Lincoln," and "Adams & Jefferson."

Despite the pounding "Truman & Sixty" took at the polls, Bush tried to force the analogy again at the Rose Garden ceremony Tuesday morning. He paraphrased Truman in his opening joke, telling the pardoned turkeys, "You cannot take the heat -- and you're definitely going to stay out of the kitchen."

While that line barely produced a twitter, May & Flower stole the show a few moments later. Upstaging the president at his own event, the turkeys interrupted Bush's speech three times. For years, White House stenographers have allowed themselves just two parenthetical insertions into the official transcripts of presidential speeches: "(Applause.)" and "(Laughter.)". May & Flower weren't doing either. So in what may be a first, that section of Tuesday's official White House transcript reads, "(Turkeys gobbling.)"

After heckling the president during his speech, May was remarkably deferential in the photo op. While most turkeys spread their feathers and preen for the cameras, May immediately sat down. Viewers were left to wonder: Who is that strange duck, and what's he doing in the White House? ... 2:49 P.M. (link)

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