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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Read more about Wall Street's ongoing crisis.

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

Spoiler Alert: When the McCain campaign floated the idea of a pro-choice running mate, social conservatives reacted with the same outrage they've been rehearsing for 40 years: Some threatened to bolt at the convention; others said they'd rather lose the election than expand the Republican tent. "If he picks a pro-choice running mate, it's not going to be pretty," Rush Limbaugh warned.

But the most explosive threat comes from former right-hand-of-God Ralph Reed, in his new novel, Dark Horse, a "political thriller" that imagines this very scenario. Spoiler alert! Just hours after forcing his party to swallow a pro-choice VP, the Republican presidential nominee in Reed's pot-boiler is brutally murdered by radical Islamic terrorists at the GOP Convention. Reed's implicit threat to Republican candidates: The Christian right has so much power, they can even get someone else's God to strike you down.

Reed doesn't just kill off the character who named a pro-choice running mate—he has the running mate go on to destroy the Republican Party. For the Republicans (and the reader), the plot goes from bad to worse. With the pro-choice figure—an African-American war hero named David Petty—now at the top of the Republican ticket, evangelical leaders throw their support behind Calif. Gov. Bob Long, who just lost the Democratic nomination at a brokered convention and decided to run as an independent after going through a religious conversion in the chapel of the hospital where his daughter nearly lost her baby. Petty offends evangelicals, while Long—obviously a quick study—wows them with the depth of his knowledge of the Bible.

Petty's candidacy implodes when a YouTube clip shows him telling Iowans that his support for the GOP abortion plank is only symbolic. Days before the election, voters also learn that as defense secretary, Petty convinced a no-bid contractor to hire a lobbyist who moonlights as his mistress and madam of an exclusive Washington brothel.

Reed's clear warning: If you put a pro-choice Republican on the ticket, don't be surprised when he turns out to be a lying, cheating, no-bid-earmarking john.

By contrast, Reed's evangelicals love Long, who woos them with parables and waffles on abortion. "I've heard through the grapevine that he's become a Christian," says televangelist Andy Stanton, a composite of Limbaugh and Pat Robertson. "He may be someone we can do business with." With Stanton's enthusiastic blessing, Long sweeps the South and beats Petty 2-to-1 among evangelicals.

All three candidates come up short of 270 electoral votes, so the election goes to the House of Representatives. Even though Republicans control the House, Petty loses when Republican members of the evangelical caucus support Long instead. The message to McCain: Social conservatives will gladly support a maverick, as long as he says what they want to hear on their issues.

Of course, John McCain doesn't need to curl up with a Ralph Reed roman à clef to know that social conservatives won't budge on abortion. The more interesting question is why my evil twin decided to write the Great Republican Novel in the first place. True to his own life story, the book suffers from too much plot and not enough character. But it's not nearly as bad as I'd hoped, and it's chock-full of accidental revelations:

  • Ralph expects the Republicans to lose the White House in 2008 but win it back in 2012 and 2016. By the time the book takes place, Democrats haven't carried a single Southern state in five straight elections (2000 through 2016), and a Republican president who is retiring after two terms reminisces fondly about how "I did what I had to do" to win the 2012 election. Alas, his "botched effort to overthrow the Iranian government" inspires the terrorist attack on the 2020 GOP convention.
  • Much as social conservatives and neocons can't stand liberals and the media, most of all they hate each other. Reed's hapless Republican nominee insists that "this election is about terrorism, not social issues" and doesn't hide his contempt for social conservative leaders and "their self-importance, single-issue litmus tests, and insufferable sense of entitlement." Meanwhile, social conservatives view themselves as "abused spouses" trapped in a "self-destructive codependence" with "the spineless wonders" who run the Republican Party. Reed says the Reagan formula can't save the GOP anymore: "A pro-business party with the religious right grafted in like a wild olive plant, it no longer appeals to the center of the country."
  • Money-grubbing consultants are obsessed with alcohol, drugs, and sex. Long's adman is arrested for snorting cocaine, and his top strategist nearly costs his candidate the election by shacking up with a spy from a rival campaign.
  • Novel-writing operatives, by contrast, are obsessed only with sex. Reed tries his best to turn social conservative politics into steamy beach reading. In Dark Horse, the operative always gets the girl, and she is invariably "bronzed," with swaying hips and tight designer clothes. One femme fatale is "a brunette lollipop" who captures her prey with lines like, "I thought I was dessert."
  • Apparently, Reed does not have much experience courting the women's vote. Long's wife is an alcoholic who's upset that he found God. The Democratic VP candidate is a lightweight who can't remember her party's position on Iran. Two campaign operatives refuse to discuss their grand jury testimony but stop to answer press questions about the designer outfits they're wearing.
  • Reed enjoyed running the Christian Coalition more than humping corporate accounts for Jack Abramoff. He writes himself into the book as a minor character named Ross Lombardy, "a veritable computer hard drive of political trivia" and "strategist-cum-organizer with a killer instinct who could quote 200 Bible verses from memory" and "had an uncanny ability to cite the precise vote percentages in every key U.S. House and Senate race in the previous three election cycles." The Abramoff character, G.G. Hoterman, is a corrupt, ruthless multimillionaire lobbyist who crushes anyone who gets in his way. "Politics has a way of criminalizing the normative," Hoterman complains.
  • Reed writes knowingly of the "time-honored Washington tradition" of "expressing false regret at the misfortune of someone caught in a scandal, when the truth was everyone enjoyed it." With a twinge of bitterness, he adds that "Washington scandals burn like funeral pyres, and only go out after the angry mob has tossed someone to the flames to pacify the gods.

That pyre suggests Ralph's next move. It's time to gin up the social conservative movement to forget about McCain's running mate and wake up to the GOP-bashing, sex-peddling novelist in their midst. Nothing could do more for slumping sales than an urgent edict from the religious right: Burn this book! ... 3:58 P.M. (link) 

Monday, August 11, 2008

It's Your Money: Over the next two weeks, the Obama and McCain campaigns will spend an impressive $11 million to advertise during the Olympics. Obama's first ad, "Hands," outlines his plan for a green economy. McCain's attacks Obama on taxes. Both ads reflect the campaigns' respective game plans, although Obama's fits in much better with the upbeat not-the-triumph-but-the-struggle spirit of the games that surround it.

If I had a few million to help NBC fill the time between tape delays, I might go after a topic that is on most American viewers' minds during these games and that seems destined to weigh heavily on the next president: China.

When the 2008 campaign started a few lifetimes ago, this election appeared to be all about China—or, at least, about the long-term competitive challenge that the emerging economic superpowers of China and India pose to the American way of life. But a host of urgent short-term economic problems have pushed our long-term economic challenges aside. For the moment, falling housing prices, rising gas prices, and soaring credit-card debts have made us more concerned about the threat the American way of life poses to the American way of life.

But if our next president ever gets done cleaning up after our current one, he'll confront China's growing shadow on issue after issue. While the United States can make an enormous difference by finally doing its part on climate change, the Chinese have already passed us as the largest producer of greenhouse gases, and our ability and willingness to make progress will depend in part on theirs. Meanwhile, China's rising demand for oil to fuel its relentless economic growth will continue to cost us at the pump.

When the next president decides what to do about education reform in the United States, China should be on his mind. The Chinese education system churns out 5 million college graduates a year, while we still paper over our high-school dropout rate and look away as half a million of the young people we send to college every year never finish.

Perhaps most urgently, the next president will have to admit what George W. Bush would not—that if we don't put our fiscal house in order, China will foreclose on it. As Obama has pointed out, "It's very hard to tell your banker that he's wrong." This year's federal budget deficit will be a record $500 billion, not counting wars and economic bailouts. One of history's headlines on this administration will be, "Bush Owes to China."

The rise of China is the story of this Olympics and threatensto be the story of the next presidency. So it's only fitting to give viewers a sense of what's at stake.

My dream ad would show the robot Wall-E methodically stacking pressed blocks of discarded dollar bills to form giant structures, which turn out to be the Bird's Nest stadium, the Water Cube aquatic center, and the CCTV tower. The script would go something like this:

"Sponsor" (60 seconds)

Voiceover: "Ever wonder what Washington has done with your tax dollars? This Olympics is your chance to find out. For the last 8 years, the Bush administration has been paying China billions of dollars in interest on the trillions it borrowed for tax breaks, pork, and special privileges you never got. That money helped create thousands of businesses and millions of jobs—in China. So as you enjoy the games, keep an eye on your tax dollars at work. The way our economy's going, it's tough to pay your bills. But take heart: You already paid China's."

Tagline: "America's Taxpayers. Proud Sponsors of the Beijing Olympics."

What's an Olympics without a little national pride?  And with any luck, NBC might refuse to run it. … 10:30 A.M. (link)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Trader Mitt: As if John McCain didn't have enough reason to keep quoting JFK's line that life isn't fair, consider this: According to the political futures markets, Mitt Romney now has a better chance of being McCain's running mate than McCain has of winning.

Since the primaries, Romney has steadily gained ground in the VP sweepstakes through hard work and a disciplined message: He'll help on the economy, he grew up in the swing state of Michigan, and he makes his current home in the right wing of the Republican Party. He seems at ease with the unattractive chores of being the vice-presidential nominee: raising money, playing the attack dog, telling the base what it wants to hear.

On paper, Romney's VP bid looks as picture perfect as his presidential campaign once did. Yet even as Mitt watchers revel in the current boomlet, we can't help wondering whether this Romneymania will last.

With that in mind, Romneystas everywhere need to start making new and urgent arguments on his behalf:

  • The French Are Coming!: Romney was widely mocked last fall when he warned that France posed a clear and present danger to the American way of life. But after watching French President Nicolas Sarkozy embrace Barack Obama in Paris last week, conservatives may finally warm to Mitt's "First, Not France" slogan after all. Romney has impeccable credentials as a Francophobe; Sarkozy would never dream of saying of him, "If he is chosen, then France will be delighted." In a few short hours in Paris, Obama claimed the president as a convert. Romney spent two whole years in France and converted no one whatsoever.
  • Leave 'Em Laughing as You Go: One of McCain's heroes, Mo Udall, loved to tell the story of primary voters who heard him say, "I'm Mo Udall and I'm running for president," and responded, "We were just laughing about that this morning." Poor Mo wouldn't know what to make of this campaign. Two months into the general election, nobody's laughing about anything. No one much wants to joke about Obama or McCain. If Romney were the VP, pundits across the spectrum would exult that at last they had someone fun to mess with. He's a good sport and a happy square, with a track record of supplying ample new material.
  • WALL-E's World: Mitt Romney's Web site is a shadow of its former self—no Five Brothers blog, no ad contests, no animatronic Mitt messages for your voicemail. Yet like WALL-E's stash of charming knickknacks, the few surviving objects on Planet Romney carry greater meaning. For example, a striking photo highlights a strength few politicians reveal: Unlike McCain, Mitt Romney was born to read a teleprompter. In the official campaign photo of him rehearsing his concession speech, Mitt is barely visible. All the focus is on the words in big type to be loaded on the prompter.

McCain doesn't much like giving speeches and treats teleprompters accordingly. But you can see how a campaign that has struggled to follow a script might be tempted by the first completely programmable running mate.  In 2000, McCain often joked that he was Luke Skywalker. This time, Romney could be his C3PO. ... 12:47 p.m. (link)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Make My Day: What a difference a month makes. At its June meeting, the D.C. City Council debated Mayor Adrian Fenty's emergency legislation to ban sparklers. After the Supreme Court struck down the city's gun ban, the Council spent last week's July meeting debating emergency legislation to let residents own handguns. Here in the District, we couldn't shoot off firecrackers over the Fourth because they're too dangerous, but we can now keep a loaded pistol by our bedside, ready to shoot down prowlers in self-defense.

Like most D.C. residents, I have no plans to stockpile guns in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. But if the city wants to take away my sparklers, they'll have to pry them from my cold, dead, slightly charred hands.

When I was growing up, the rights to keep and bear firearms and fireworks went hand in hand. My grandmother used a revolver to shoot garter snakes in her garden. Well into her eighties, however, her greatest pleasure in life was to spend the Fourth setting off massive strings of firecrackers, 200 at a time. When she came to visit, she'd step off the airplane with a suitcase full of firecrackers purchased on an Indian reservation. As soon as we got home, she'd light the fuse with her cigarette, then squeal with delight as serial explosions made the gravel in our driveway dance.

In recent years, firearm regulation and firework regulation have gone their separate ways. The National Rifle Association has successfully opposed most gun laws, even ones aimed primarily at criminals. Armed with Justice Scalia's maddeningly unhelpful ruling on the D.C. ban, the NRA already has begun to target the rest.

By contrast, although fireworks aren't nearly as deadly as guns, the government treats them like what they are – a widely popular, sometimes dangerous American tradition. The federal government long ago banned once-commonplace explosives like cherry bombs. Most states – even the libertarian bastion of Idaho – have banned or restricted the use of firecrackers. According to the website AmericanPyro, five states, including Iowa and Illinois, permit only sparklers and snakes. Five others, including New York and Massachusetts, allow no consumer fireworks whatsoever. In general, states insist that fireworks must be "safe and sane" – a balance that has been all but impossible to strike with firearms.

Thanks to the enduring power of pyromania, sales haven't suffered. Since 1976, fireworks consumption has increased ten-fold, while fireworks-related injuries have dropped. Fireworks manufacturers can take heart in knowing that this year's survivors are next year's customers.

Because there is no Second Amendment right to keep and bear sparklers, fireworks law is a straightforward balancing test – between the individual right to burn a hole in the back porch and the mutual responsibility not to burn entire communities to the ground, the personal freedom to pyromaniacal self-expression and the personal responsibility not to harm oneself and others. These days, the fireworks industry has more to fear from climate change than from the authorities. This summer, the threat of wildfires led Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask Californians to boycott fireworks. Drought forced John McCain to forego fireworks at his annual Independence Day barbecue in Arizona.

The trouble with the Supreme Court ruling in the Heller case is not that it interprets the Second Amendment as an individual right. The Second Amendment is the constitutional equivalent of the grammatical paradox Eats Shoots & Leaves, but whatever the Founders meant by its muddy wording and punctuation, most Americans now take it for granted. The real problem with the Court's decision is that the balancing test for gun rights and responsibilities is even less clear than before. Scalia's opinion devotes 30 pages to a grammatical history of the Second Amendment and a single sentence to how the courts should apply it to most other gun laws already on the books.

Alongside such vast imprecision, the Court went out of its way to strike down the requirement for trigger locks – an extraordinarily modest attempt to balance freedom and safety. Trigger locks can help prevent gun accidents and keep guns out of the hands of children. Far from impeding self-defense, new trigger locks can be unlocked with a fingerprint or a special ring on the gun owner's finger. That means today's gun owner can arm himself to shoot an intruder in an instant – compared to the 30 seconds or more it took to load a pistol or musket in the 18th Century.

Over the long term, it's not clear how much of a boon the Heller decision will be for gun rights advocates. In winning the case, the gun lobby lost its most potent argument – the threat that at any moment, the government will knock on the door and take your guns away. With that bogeyman out of the way, the case for common-sense gun safety measures is stronger than ever. Perhaps now the gun debate will revolve around more practical and less incendiary issues, like what can be done to reduce illegal gun trafficking and trace guns used in crimes.

If it's any small consolation, the real winners in Heller may turn out to be the sparkler lobby. If cities have trouble banning handguns, they will be hard-pressed to take away sparklers. Of course, as with guns, the threat to sparklers may well have been exaggerated. The D.C. Council rejected Mayor Fenty's sparkler ban by a vote of 11-2, as members nostalgically recalled playing with them in their youth. Councilman and former mayor Marion Barry voted no "with a bang." As Barry knows, there are worse things in life to light than a sparkler. ... 9:51 A.M. (link)

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Fight of Her Life:Ten years ago, at a White House farewell for a favorite staff member, Hillary Clinton described the two kinds of people in the world: born optimists like her husband who see the glass as half-full, and born realists like herself who can see the glass is half-empty.

As she ends her campaign and throws her support behind Barack Obama's remarkable quest, Hillary could be forgiven for seeing her glass as, quite literally, half-empty. The two candidates traded primary after primary down the stretch, two titans matching each other vote for vote. In the closest race in the modern era, she and Obama split the Democratic wishbone nearly right down the middle, but she's not the one who got her wish.

Yet for Hillary and the 18 million of us who supported her, there is no shame in one historic campaign coming up just short against another. History is a great deal wiser than Chris Matthews, and will be kinder, too. The 2008 contest has been one for the ages, and the annals will show that Hillary Clinton has gained far more than she lost.

The Obama-Clinton match will go down as the longest, closest, most exciting, most exhausting ever. Obama ran an inspired campaign and seized the moment. Clinton came close, and by putting up a tough fight now, helped fortify him for the fight ahead.

Our campaign made plenty of mistakes, none of which has gone unreported. But Hillary is right not to dwell on "woulda, coulda, shoulda." From New Hampshire to South Dakota, the race she ran earned its own place in the history books.

While the way we elect presidents leaves a lot to be desired, it has one redeeming virtue, as the greatest means ever invented to test what those who seek the job are made of. In our lifetimes, we'll be hard-pressed to find a candidate made of tougher stuff than Hillary Clinton. Most candidates leave a race diminished by it. Hillary is like tempered steel: the more intense the heat, the tougher she gets.

And has any candidate had to face fiercer, more sustained heat? As a frontrunner, she expected a tough ride, and as Hillary Clinton, she was accustomed to it. But if she was used to the scrutiny, she could not have anticipated – and did not deserve – the transparent hostility behind it. In much the same way the right wing came unglued when her husband refused to die in the '90s, the media lost its bearings when she defied and survived them. Slate at least held off on its noxious Hillary Deathwatch until March; most of the press corps began a breathless Clinton Deathwatch last Thanksgiving. The question that turned her campaign around in New Hampshire – "How do you do it?" – brought Hillary to tears out of sheer gratitude that someone out there had noticed.

For a few searing days in New Hampshire, we watched her stare into the abyss. Any other candidate forced to read her own obituary so often would have come to believe it. But as she went on to demonstrate throughout this campaign, Hillary had faith that there is life after political death, and the wherewithal to prove it.

In New Hampshire, she discarded the frontrunner mantle and found her voice. For a race that was largely won or lost in Iowa, the discovery came a few days too late. But the grit Clinton showed with her back to the wall all those months will make her a force with a following for years to come.

The chief hurdle for Clinton's presidential bid wasn't whether she could do the job; Democrats never doubted she would make a good president. Ironically, the biggest question she faced for much of the race is one she answered clearly by the time she left it: whether America was ready for a woman president. No one asks that question any longer. For all the sexism she encountered as the first woman with a serious shot at the White House, voters themselves made clear they were ready. The longer the race went on, the more formidable she looked in the general election. In this week's CBS News poll, she was beating John McCain by nine points, even as she was losing the Democratic nomination.

Last year, the press and other campaigns insisted that Clinton was too polarizing and that half the country was united against her. Now, a woman who was supposed to be one of the most polarizing figures in America leaves the race with handsome leads over McCain in places like North Carolina, a state her husband never carried.

When her campaign started, aides often described Hillary as the least known, least understood famous person in America. During this campaign, it became clear that in certain quarters she's the most deliberately misunderstood person as well. The recent RFK flap was yet another attempt to suggest that her every miscue was part of some diabolical master plan.

Yet while talking heads imagined the evils of Hillary Clinton, voters finally came to know and understand her. They saw someone who knew what they were going through, who would stick with them, fight for them, and get back up when she got knocked down. The phony, consultant-driven shadow boxing of the last few years has dulled Democrats to the party's historic mission – to defend the values and stand up for the interests of ordinary people who are doing all they can just to get ahead. For those voters, Hillary Clinton was the champion they've been looking for, a fighter they can count on, win or lose, not to let them down.

That's a fight she'll never quit. Like the woman in New Hampshire, we still wonder how Hillary does it, but this time, the tears are on us. As we wish her well, our hopes are high, our hearts are full – and if our glass is empty, it was worth every drop. ... 11:58 P.M. (link)

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Adventures of Bobble-Foot: For enough money, any McClellan or Stephanopoulos in Washington will write a kiss-and-tell book these days. But the memoir Larry Craig just announced he's writing could launch a whole new genre: don't-kiss, don't-tell.

Craig revealed his plans on Boise television during Tuesday's coverage of the Senate primary to choose his potential successors. For the senator, if not his viewers, it was a poignant moment, one last point of no return in a three-decade-long political career.

With a touch of empathy, the local reporter told Craig, "You're looking forward now to a much different life for yourself." Alas, the life Craig described isn't much different from any other retiring pol's, nor does he sound like he's looking forward to it. He hinted that he is entertaining a number of lobbying offers. Because of ethics rules, he explains, "There are some one-way conversations going on, 'cause I've said I can't talk, but I certainly can listen." Perhaps they can figure out some kind of code.

These are heady times for the Idaho senator. Last Sunday, on National Tap Dance Day, the first-place St. Paul Saints, a minor league baseball team, drew their biggest crowd of the year with a special promotion in Craig's honor: a bobble-foot doll commemorating the bathroom stall at Minneapolis-St.Paul airport. The team website reported, "Saints Have Toe-Tapping Good Time, Win 9-3."

The bobble-foot promotion gave Craig a way to test his market value even beyond the lobbying and book worlds. Scores of Craig bobble-feet are now available on eBay, selling for upwards of $75 apiece. You'd better hurry: Like successful appeals of uncoerced confessions, supplies are limited.

The upcoming memoir may be the last we ever hear from the man, so it's worth asking: What kind of book will Larry Craig write? Consider the possibilities:

  • The Broken Branch: Left to his own devices (never a good idea), Craig seems likely to write an insiders' version of the woe-is-gridlock lament popularized most recently by political scientists Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann. "The thing that's important for someone with my experience to talk about is the state of politics in Washington," Craig said Tuesday. "It's created what I call a extremely dysfunctional, hyperpartisan Senate. We're getting little to nothing done." Craig cites immigration and energy policy. As his agent and editor will surely tell him, this sober approach is not the way for Craig to put his best foot forward. No one wants to read the case for decisive action written by a man who claimed his innocence after pleading guilty and remained in office after promising to quit. Then again, Craig might not be a household word if he had listened to the advice of Ornstein and Mann, who urged members to bring their families to live with them in Washington.
  • The Packwood Diaries: With slight modifications, Craig has modeled his entire Senate career after his friend, former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood. Craig sobbed on the Senate floor the day Packwood resigned. Packwood dug in his heels and remained in office for three years after his sex scandal became public. Craig has done the same, and is only leaving because his term is up. Considering how much Packwood served as his role model, it's possible that Craig tried to emulate another part of the Oregonian's legacy: the Packwood diaries. Packwood kept a meticulous journal of all his exploits, with an eye to history and none on the lookout for satire or federal prosecution. We can only hope Craig has done the same.
  • What Happened: Every publisher is looking for the next Scott McClellan, who told lies for a living but was scared straight after his escape. Craig could play this role with gusto. The pitch: It wasn't his idea to stand up in front of the press time after time and insist he wasn't gay. Karl Rove made him do it, in a deliberate cover-up to protect the Republican brand – and he'll never forgive Rove for it.
  • If I Did It: O.J. Simpson never got to keep a dime of his controversial book, If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer. Craig, on the other hand, could hypothesize all the way to the bank. Senators love to write loosely autobiographical fiction. Gary Hart and Bill Cohen wrote The Double Man about a politician who wanted to be president. Barbara Boxer wrote A Time to Runabout a woman who becomes a liberal senator from California. Craig could write a great book about an imaginary conservative senator who happens to be gay. His hypothetical musings would wow the critics and sell like crazy. Besides, what does Craig have to lose? Hinting he did it would be no more an admission of guilt than the misdemeanor plea he was just kidding us about last June. ... 8:48 P.M. (link)

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.

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