The next president doesn't have to solve everything at once.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 7 2008 5:01 PM

What Won't You Do for Us Lately?

The next president doesn't have to solve everything at once.

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Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008

The Going Gets Tough: In the first two debates, the presidential candidates and their running mates were asked a host of questions on what they will do about America's most pressing problems, from the financial crisis and the recession to Iraq and Afghanistan. But so far, the toughest question of all has been one the candidates would rather not answer: what they won't do for us—and what, because of the economic crisis, they might not be able to get done as quickly as they would have liked.

Two weeks ago in Mississippi, Jim Lehrer asked Barack Obama and John McCain, "What are you going to have to give up ... as a result of having to pay for the financial rescue plan?" Obama readily admitted that "there's no doubt that we're not going to be able to do everything," then cleverly used the rest of his answer to list key priorities he won't abandon. McCain repeated a proposal he made in April for a freeze on domestic discretionary spending.

Last Thursday in St. Louis, Mo., Gwen Ifill tried again, asking both vice-presidential candidates, "What promises have you and your campaigns made to the American people that you're not going to be able to keep?" Joe Biden said he and Obama would slow down their commitment to double foreign aid and would end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, then reaffirmed the campaign's agenda on energy, health care, and education. Sarah Palin said she ought to be able to honor all the promises she has made since she has only been on the ticket for five weeks.

It's easy to see why candidates wouldn't want to answer a loaded question like which promises they won't keep. And understandably, the campaigns are no more eager to look at the damage the past month has done to next year's federal budget than Americans are to see what the market has done to their 401(k)s.

Yet in many ways, it might be in the candidates' interest (not to mention the country's) to say a bit more about what they won't do. Voters won't mind, because for them, reality is already on the ballot. And the next four years will be a lot easier for the new president if he spends the next four weeks letting the country know just how hard that job will be.

As the front-runner for the toughest job on earth, Obama stands to gain the most from elaborating upon his point in the last debate that "we're not going to be able to do everything." The more Obama emphasizes that government can't do everything, the harder it will be for Republicans to scare voters into believing the cost of government will go up. Along those lines, Obama recently gave a smart, little-reported speech on his plans to cut spending through government reform.

Ironically, the credit crisis and the recession are bound to make the electorate need government more and like it less. That's why the politics of the rescue plan took us on a trillion-dollar rollercoaster ride last week. Voters know that in a crisis, sometimes government must step in—but with their own cupboards so bare, Americans are even less inclined than ever to pay more for it.

For Obama and McCain, the challenge is to make sense of that dichotomy. The Bush administration has been a case study in big government run badly, and the electorate feels doubly burned as a result. Consider a remarkable finding in today's NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, which has Obama up by six points nationally. Voters were asked whether they would prefer a president who'll "provide changes from the current Bush administration policies and create a government with more active oversight to protect consumers in areas such as housing and financial transactions" or a president who'll "provide changes from the current policies in Congress and deal with waste and fraud in the system to protect taxpayers from government inefficiency and pork-barrel spending." Voters deserve both, but forced to choose, they picked the pork-fighting president over the active-oversight president by a whopping 58 percent to 38 percent.

Since the next president's most difficult challenge will be holding onto the trust and patience of a beleaguered electorate, it wouldn't hurt to get a head start. Even before the credit crisis, the next president stood to inherit more problems from George Bush than he could hope to solve all at once. Now the next administration's burden will include a global financial crisis beyond what any one president, party, or country alone can address.

In the darkening economic climate, some of our pre-existing challenges will take on greater urgency—for example, cutting middle-class taxes to keep consumers and homeowners afloat, tackling health care costs before they drag the auto industry under, turning energy efficiency into a prime job-creation sector, and dealing with the nation's long-term balance sheet. On some other fronts, the rate of progress may depend on how long it takes the economy and markets to rebound, and how well Hank Paulsen's rescue fund pays off.

Acknowledging limits won't crush people's expectations—Americans have no illusions about how tough the next few years will be. They'll welcome a president who understands just how tough things are and levels with them about how to deal with it.

The next president doesn't need a broad mandate to solve everything. He needs a clear, focused, patient mandate to put us back on our feet so we can go on to do greater things. Our current president hasn't done much for us lately. We're ready for one who'll tell us what he won't do, and we can count on to come through on the rest. ... 5:03 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008

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Someone's Better Off: With a deep recession looming and the government going bust, the widespread consensus is that the financial crisis strikes a bitter blow to the presidential candidates' grand policy ambitions. As Ted Widmer asked in the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post, "Why on Earth would anyone want to be president right now?" The next president will have to spend so much cleaning up the mess, he might be tempted to let Treasury foreclose on the White House.

Is the next president worse off than he was eight days ago? In many respects, yes. No president can do well if ordinary citizens are doing badly. A number of national problems that were getting too little attention before Black Monday will now sink even deeper in the beleaguered next president's stack.

Yet in the long run, our next leader may look back on the current meltdown as the biggest break of his presidency. While the next president's job just got a bit more perilous, it also became a great deal more important. And if President Obama or President McCain is able to rise to the occasion, this crisis could increase the odds that his time in office will be a success.

Here are three reasons why, down the road, our 44th president might see the earth-shattering economic news of the past week as not all bad:

1. It takes a crisis to change the tone in Washington. Throughout their campaigns, Barack Obama and John McCain both have promised to put partisan politics aside and set a new tone in Washington. The financial crisis seems to have beaten them to the punch. Oddly enough, the two campaigns spent much of the past week jabbing at each other—while Republicans and Democrats back in Washington sounded more notes of bipartisan harmony than we've heard since 9/11.

That's not a coincidence. In normal times, the two biggest deficits in Washington are urgency and seriousness of purpose. In a crisis, those are no longer in short supply. JFK once said the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. But until the rain starts, it's also much easier for the political world not to notice any leak. On many public policy issues in recent years—health care, Social Security, climate change—the two sides have struggled even to reach agreement on whether crisis was looming. Not this time. You know it's a crisis when conservatives start the bidding at $700 billion.

Because of their inherent uncertainty, crises tend to force parties to hedge their bets, tamp down ideological certitude, and be pragmatic. "There are no atheists in foxholes and no ideologues in financial crises," says Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. The good feeling doesn't last forever: A president who wants to revive partisan rancor can do so in a hurry, as Bush demonstrated in the nasty 2002 midterm elections. On the other hand, a president who wants to keep the spirit of cooperation alive can do so till the crisis goes away—a window that might last awhile.

2. The next president will be too broke to fail. Like Wall Street titans, presidents tend to think more clearly when times are tight than when they have money to burn. When George W. Bush inherited a huge surplus, he squandered it in his first six months. When Bill Clinton took office, by contrast, all he inherited was a huge stack of IOUs. That forced him to make a few tough, painful decisions early in his presidency—which produced a far bigger economic payoff for the country over the long haul.

All politicians dream of a world in which they don't have to make choices. But for a president, having to make choices can be a blessing, not a curse. Bush would have done better fighting one war at a time, not two. LBJ ran into trouble because he thought he could afford both guns and butter. Most successful presidents concentrate on getting one thing done before moving onto the next item on their to-do list. With no illusions of plenty, the next president will be forced to focus his priorities and invest his political capital well.

3. Caution is not an option.  Consider this: Henry Paulson has proposed a more sweeping domestic agenda in the last eight days than George W. Bush proposed in the last eight years. The next president could get a whole term to govern like Paulson.

Exhausting as it sounds, that too could prove to be a blessing in disguise. For the past two years, Obama has worked hard to make the political world safe for change. McCain, caught between a failed brand and a reluctant base, is looking for ways to make change his friend. The economic crisis will give the winner an opportunity and obligation as president to be a bolder agent of change than they or their parties imagined.

For example, the current conventional wisdom assumes that big-ticket items like health care and distant challenges like Social Security must be put on hold until the economy recovers. But the more big new debts we take on in the short term, the more important it will become to shore up our financial stability over the long haul. For that matter, if we do nothing about health care costs, the auto industry could be next in line at the Treasury window.

From tax reform to energy to modernizing government, our economic woes will compel the next president toward what FDR called "bold, persistent experimentation." In the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt chose that course for a reason: When challenges we've never tackled before start appearing at rates we've never seen, bold experiments are our only hope of catching up. We have to try new things, and keep trying until we get it right.

Shortly after the 1992 election, the Clinton economic team met at Blair House to tell the president-elect that he was about to inherit a far bigger budget deficit than anticipated. He should have been crestfallen, but surrounded by portraits of FDR and other predecessors, he couldn't help feeling inspired by the challenge. Let's hope, for his own sake, the next president feels the same way. ...  4:25 A.M. (link)

Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008

Ice Time: When Joe Lieberman became the first Jewish vice-presidential nominee, Clyde Haberman of the New York Times summed up the American Jewish reaction as one of initial pride, followed immediately by the question, "Is it good for the Jews?" When Mitt Romney launched his presidential bid, he ran into similar worries from many fellow members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, who wondered if it would be good for the Mormons.

So perhaps it's only natural that since Sarah Palin emerged as the most famous hockey mom in history, the reaction around the rink has been, is it good for hockey?

Other sports have made their peace with politics. For a century, major league baseball has asked presidents to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day. Both parties have elected retired football players to Congress, the Super Bowl is a major political event, and George W. Bush risked his life to watch an NFL playoff game. Barack Obama played basketball with troops; he and McCain both hyped their NCAA tournament picks.

Yet aside from Team USA's gold-medal upset in the 1980 Olympics, the worlds of American politics and hockey have tried their best not to collide. A few politicians may tout the sport in hockey-mad states like Alaska, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, and John Kerry nearly brought his skates all the way to the White House. But in general, the two arenas have kept their distance, each viewing the other as too rough, cold, and foreign.

Now comes Sarah Palin, who threatens to turn hockey into the biggest celebrity spectator sport in the world. Suddenly, "hip check" and Zamboni have entered the political lexicon. Last week, the New York Times examined the "hockey way of life," suggesting that in Alaska, the game is at best a way to keep young people off the streets and at worst the reason Bristol Palin got pregnant. This week, hockey moms went viral with a Swift Boat parody, "Hockey Moms for Truth."

As a fading hockey player and below-average hockey dad, I have one reaction to the overnight surge of media attention to our once obscure game: Thanks, but no thanks! If we wanted to become a political football, we would have signed up for a different sport.

At first, the rush of Palin publicity seemed like a boon for the game. Before she introduced herself as "just your average hockey mom," "average" wasn't the first word most often associated with hockey parents. In popular culture, the more common adjectives were "violent" and "homicidal." USA Hockey, the governing body for the sport, frets enough about the stereotype to run chill-out ads like these.

What's more, ice hockey suffers from the same problem as the Republican Party: not much of a female fan base. The scoreboard company Jumbotron makes the astonishing claim that only 22% of NHL fans are women. By comparison, women make up nearly twice as big a share (43%) of Major League Baseball fans, 41% of NBA fans, 40% of NASCAR fans, and 37% of NFL fans. (Hope is on the way: Ice hockey is one of the fastest growing women's sports.)

But after a few weeks under the media spotlight, the hockey world is starting to remember why we preferred our rinks dimly lit in the first place. Stu Hackel, a hockey blogger for the New York Times, wrote a long post recently on how much he resents the game being dragged into politics and used as a pawn. Several readers agreed -- and chided him for dragging politics into a hockey blog.

Over at OnFrozenBlog, pucksandbooks tried to look on the bright side: "If you love hockey, how can you not like how hockey is being celebrated (associated with perseverance and toughness) in the rhetoric of 2008's political debates?" For readers, however, pride was tempered by grave concern about what the association with politics might do to hockey's reputation.

In my experience, we hockey parents are already a little grumpy from ice times that are too late or too early. For many, the sudden attention just brings up the sore subject of how little respect the sport gets in the U.S. "You know hockey is never going to be better than the fourth major sport," one OnFrozenBlog reader lamented, recalling how ESPN's SportsCenter used to make fans suffer through golf highlights before getting around to the NHL.

Then again, at least we don't live in Canada, where politicians are always trying to put lipstick on a puck. The current leader, Stephen Harper, is a self-styled "hockey-dad-turned-Prime-Minister." A Canadian hockey pol gets to have it both ways – screaming at the refs now and then shows you're a regular bloke, while sitting behind your kid on the bench softens your image.

Yet even in Canada, the hockey schtick doesn't play well in all quarters. With national elections a month away, the Toronto Globe and Mail ran two articles last week after an "exclusive interview" with Harper. One piece discussed the Prime Minister's views on NHL expansion, noting that he has written an unpublished history of hockey. The other article took a different tack: "During a campaign stop at a winery in St-Eustache, Que., Mr. Harper, who many have called a Philistine, also spoke at length about his life-long passion for music and the piano." With great panache, Harper recounted writing poetry, suffering as a pianist from "nervous" hands, and overcoming one of the most unusual childhood hard-luck stories in political history: "For the first half year I was in lessons, we didn't have a piano and I would actually practice for my lessons on a cardboard keyboard."

If politicians start saying the difference between a hockey dad and a pit bull is a cardboard keyboard, hockey parents might decide we liked our old reputation better. ... 1:38 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008

NASCAR on Ice:Every election, pollsters and pundits introduce another voter group whose views are certain to decide the outcome: soccer moms, NASCAR dads, security moms, office park dads, and (three times in the past week) Wal- Mart moms. These categories, while sometimes useful, share an important methodological flaw: On Election Day, when undecided voters finally make up their minds, exit pollsters don't ask them where they work or where they shop, what sports they watch or what games their children play. Exit polls eschew these trendy questions in favor of boring demographic perennials like age, race, gender, education, and income level.

Precisely because exit poll questions don't change much from one cycle to the next, however, they provide an interesting portrait of how the electorate evolves—or doesn't. Some segments of the electorate are fiercely loyal to one party; others lean toward one party but more dramatically in some years than others.

According to exit polls, the most volatile swing voter group over the last 20 years hasn't been hockey moms like Sarah Palin, commuter dads like Joe Biden, or soccer parents like Barack and Michelle Obama. Over the last two decades, the swing voters most prone to moving away from Republicans in elections Democrats won and toward Republicans in elections Republicans won have been white men with a degree from high school but not college. In other words, forget Sarah Palin: In recent elections, the biggest swingers looked more like her husband, Todd.

Democrats don't need to win a majority among white men without bachelors' degrees, but it's crucial to cut our losses. In 2000 and 2004, Democrats lost that group by about 30 percent. In the 2006 midterms, Democrats cut our losses in half. In 1992, with some help from Ross Perot, we managed to eke out a slim plurality. Because this voting bloc still makes up nearly one-fifth of the electorate, losing them by 30 points instead of 15 means a shift the size of George W. Bush's margin over John Kerry. The only group with a swing that comes close is white women with the same educational profile, who turn out in greater numbers but are less likely to switch sides.

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results, especially in a path-breaking year like this one. The Obama campaign has invested heavily in registering and turning out new voters, while the McCain campaign carries the albatross of an old, unpopular GOP brand. In an economy this troubled, and after an administration this bad, all kinds of voters who went Republican in the past should be up for grabs. Then again, that might be yet another reason men with no college degree should be among the most up-for-grabs of all.

So far, Todd Palin has attracted as much attention for his looks and his nickname as for his politics. No one knows whether he joined the Alaskan Independence Party because he wanted a vote on statehood, was a Perot supporter fed up with the two parties, or just liked this one's quirky platform: "The AIP supports fishing!" Sarah Palin called her husband "a story all by himself"—fisherman, oil worker, snowmobiler, part Eskimo, and perhaps the first person ever to be cheered by a Republican Convention for belonging to the United Steelworkers Union.

The current vice-presidential spouse, Lynne Cheney, grew up in a small Western town, got a Ph.D., and used it to write racy novels. Todd's passion is the 2,000-mile, NASCAR-on-ice Tesoro Iron Dog. Last year, he told the AP that his principal cause as First Dude of Alaska was expanding training for noncollege workers: "For those of us who learn by touching and tearing stuff apart and for those who don't have the financial background to go to college, just being a product of that on-the-job training is really important."

Noncollege men aren't going to vote Republican just because they identify with Todd Palin—and in any case, he's hardly the stereotypical working-class swing voter. He's now a registered Republican, married to a passionately conservative one. Before he left his job as a production operator for BP, he was earning between $100,000 and $120,000 a year—about three times the Census Bureau average for men who haven't finished college. In contrast to the Lower 48, Alaska remains a land of opportunity where it is still possible to succeed beyond one's wildest dreams through what the AP called "a lifetime of manual labor." Many of my high-school classmates in Idaho headed north for the same reason.

The trouble with the GOP argument is that so far, their only plan to boost the incomes of non-college-graduates is the one Todd Palin came up with on his own 20 years ago: work in Alaska!

So in the rush to court more familiar voters, Democrats shouldn't concede Dude Dads to the Republicans. Democrats may not have a First Dude on the ticket, but we have a good plan to help the forgotten middle class do better again. The next president needs to help the United States build the job-rich industries of the future, such as new energy-efficient technologies, and give Americans what Rep. Rahm Emanuel calls "a new deal for the new economy": health care they can afford, a 401(k) pension they can keep, a tax cut they've earned, and the chance to get more training and send their kids to college.

In this campaign, Americans have heard more than enough about the Bridge to Nowhere. What millions of voters want out of this election is a bridge to somewhere. A bridge to the 21st century would be a good place to start. ... 5:19 p.m. (link)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The New Frontier: Flush from a pitch-perfect convention week and a crescendo of can-you-top-this speeches by Bidens, Clintons, and Obamas, Democrats in Denver had no trouble bounding out of bed Friday morning. After running up the score at Invesco Field on Thursday night, our biggest worry was getting penalized for excessive celebration. Then, just when the party thought its luck couldn't get any better, John McCain's choice of an obscure rookie governor sent Democrats popping champagne corks all over again. Giddy partisans rushed to the phones and microphones to trash Palin as "Geraldine Quayle."

I wasn't so quick to jump for joy. For one thing, I would have rather spent the fall poking fun at Mitt Romney, and got my hopes up when his stock soared to 80% in the political futures market shortly before the Palin announcement. Alas, passing up Romney deprives us of the perfect slogan: "Four More Houses!" While we weren't able to elect the first presidential android, his supporters and I can take heart that thanks to his campaign, there are now 4.7 million cracks in that plastic ceiling.

For me, the choice of Sarah Palin cuts a little too close to home. She was born a few miles from where I grew up, went to junior college in my hometown, and has now eclipsed Deep Throat and Larry Craig as the most famous graduate in University of Idaho history. It's as if the McCain campaign were micro-targeting my wife's demographic: exercise-crazed hockey moms from Idaho who married their high school sweethearts. The Obama campaign can rest assured – universes don't get much smaller than that.

As governor, Sarah Palin helped stop the Bridge to Nowhere. Now she's the Candidate from Nowhere. That's a steep climb for any candidate, even one who shoots moose and runs marathons. Before every VP selection, the only people willing to talk about the choice don't know anything. With Palin, that was still pretty much the case even after her announcement. Republican congressman Mike Simpson doesn't know her, but told the Idaho Statesman, "She's got Idaho roots, and an Idaho woman is tough."

If national security experience is the measure of a potential Commander-in-Chief, Palin has an extraordinarily high burden to prove. To paraphrase the words Lloyd Bentsen used to destroy the last surprise vice-presidential choice, she's no Joe Biden.

But for a host of reasons, Democrats needn't rush to run down Sarah Palin. Obama seemed to come to that conclusion Friday afternoon, striking the right tone after Democrats had gone after her with a few early hip checks. Both Obama and Biden called Palin to wish her good luck, but not too much. Hillary Clinton echoed that Palin's "historic nomination" would nevertheless take the country in the wrong direction.

Why hold back? First, as Obama himself demonstrated in winning the Democratic nomination, 2008 is a tough year to handicap the relative virtues of being a fresh face and having experience. The natural reflex is to brand Palin as too great a risk. But McCain is practically begging our side to throw him into that briar patch. Convinced he can't win as a candidate of the status quo, he wants everyone to know he's willing to take a risk.

Second, anyone going after Palin for the important experience she lacks had better be careful not to dismiss the value of the experiences she does have. Raising a large family and running a small state may not be sufficient qualifications to assume the Presidency. But we're not going to get far by minimizing those jobs, either. Here again, the McCain campaign may be hoping that Democrats – or the press – will come down too hard on Palin, and spark a backlash that turns her into a working mom's hero.

Third, and most important, voters don't need our help to figure this out. In the end, they'll be the best and toughest judge of whether or not Sarah Palin is ready. Back in 1988, the Dukakis campaign actually ran an ad against Dan Quayle. It didn't work, and wasn't necessary. In any case, Quayle had only himself to blame for falling flat on the national stage. By straining so hard to compare himself to JFK on the campaign trail, he practically wrote Bentsen's famous line for him.

In fact, Quayle never recovered from his debut at the '88 convention, when voters witnessed his deer-in-the-headlights moment. Over the next few days and in the vice-presidential debate, Palin's reputation will be shaped in much the same way – by whether she can take the heat, or looks like a moose hunter in the headlights. … 1:38 A.M. (link)

Friday, August 22, 2008

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