Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The End of an Era

Bye, Bye Baseball... It's going to be a sad day at the ballpark today in Tucson, Arizona. Since 1947, a major league team has conducted spring training at wonderful old Hi Corbett Stadium not far from downtown. Today's Colorado Rockies - Arizona Diamondback spring training game will be the last at the old ballpark - probably forever. Spring training in Tucson has fallen victim to the increasingly pernicious economics of the great game. The owners of the Rockies and D-backs could no longer resist the lure of the big city - Phoenix - and will move spring training next year to a brand spanking new $100 million field of dreams south of Scottsdale. The teams are following in the wake of the Chicago White Sox who left Tucson two years ago. All 15 Cactus League teams are now concentrated in the sprawling Valley of the Sun, in part because that's where the money is for the new, modern ballparks and because the juvenile millionaires who play the game just couldn't tolerate the 90 minute bus ride from Tucson to Phoenix. In fact, most of the big egos rarely make the trip south. Now they can quit their whining and battle the freeway traffic in Maricopa County. But, I digress. I first came to spring training at Hi Corbett in 1992 and immediately fell in love with the place. It's always been like watching a major league game in a minor league park. You sit in the sun, close to the field and inevitably strike up a conversation with folks from Denver, or Montana or Tucson. The crowds at spring training games tend to be different than regular season baseball crowds. Most spring training fans really know the game. They follow their teams and know the players. When I first came south in '92, the Cleveland Indians were in residence and had been since 1947 when the legendary Bill Veeck, then the Indian's owner, concluded that his new star, Larry Doby, the first African-American player in the American League, would find Arizona more welcoming than Florida. Veeck, the great promoter who once sent a midget up to bat in a regular season game, enjoyed a friendship with a Tucson political and business leader - Hi Corbett - and they made the deal to make Tucson a major league city. The Rockies have made Hi Corbett their spring training home since their first season in '93. Now that its all coming to an end - 63 years of spring training in Tucson - the locals feel like they've been hit by a pitch. Spring training means millions of dollars of lost economic activity for local hotels, restaurants and merchants. Pima County built the fine Tuscon Electric Park in 1996 for the D-backs and ChiSox - it was state of the art then - and the county is now left holding a $22 million bag as ticket revenue leaves with the teams, while the bond payments remain. Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen says there is blame to go around for the loss of baseball in Tucson, including the obvious fact that the city didn't wake up to the loss of spring training until it was too late. Hansen wrote today: "It's more realistic to say that baseball changed and we didn't. No one in City Hall had the vision, or moxie, as Hi Corbett did in 1955, to establish a "Keep Cleveland in Tucson Project" thereby giving Tucson its only link to the big-leagues until Lute Olson came along. "The last person who could have saved spring training in Tucson was Jerry Colangelo, the czar of Phoenix sports, who was forced out of office in 2004. Once the Diamondbacks dumped Colangelo, Tucson lost its most powerful advocate. "The business people who run the White Sox, Rockies and Diamondbacks have no allegiance to anything but the bottom line. Colangelo, who worked on credit, was an idealistic, old-school baseball guy who liked the idea of training in a remote location, thereby whetting the appetite of his hometown fans for the regular season. That's the way it had been done for 100 years." Meanwhile, up north, the man who allegedly leads Major League Baseball is sticking his nose into the next major spring training controversy. Mesa wants to keep the Cubs, who are the spring's biggest draw, while a bunch of high rollers in Florida seek to lure them there with offers of a new, free stadium. Like I said, pernicious economics of baseball. At least Bud Selig has ruled out a tax on all the other Cactus League teams in order to help Mesa build yet another new park in the Phoenix area. I'll feel like I have lost something when I walk out of Hi Corbett for the last time today. The place reeks of spring training history. More than 70 of the 292 members of the baseball Hall of Fame laced up their cleats here. Joe DiMaggio played his last spring training game at Hi Corbett. Mickey Mantle played his first there. Mays was here and the Williams boys - Billy, Dick and Ted. Satchell Paige threw from that mound and Juan Marichal made his high leg kick at Hi Corbett. Duke and Casey, McCovey and Catfish all played in the sun in Tucson. The great Veeck once said "the most beautiful thing in the world is a ballpark filled with people." No more of that in Tucson. Today, a little baseball history - the greatest thing about the great game - dies in the desert. I hate it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wait Until Next Year

A 21st Century State...a 20th Century Tax Structure The Idaho Legislature stumbled to adjournment on Monday after reducing state spending by 19% over the last two sessions. Now, you might ask, what next? At some point - in the not too distant future, one hopes - the economy starts to grow at a stronger clip and the revenue streams at the state level start to produce the dollars needed to rebuild an education system and sustain other basic services. Education gets a lot of attention, as it should. For two years running state support has been reduced in real dollars. That has never happened before. At the same time, a number of other agencies - like the Departments of Environmental Quality and Water Resources - that consume a small slice of the budget, have been close to crippled. Despite election year rhetoric about holding the line, the budget outlook this year and next is nothing less than bleak. The line hasn't really been held, it has been moved backward. Even as the session was dominated by the scramble to patch and scratch a budget together, some legislators were seriously floating the notion that taxes, particularly the income tax, should be cut. Others, like the state senate's budget leader Dean Cameron were more realistically suggesting that the 2011 session will need to find a way a raise revenue. Cameron told the Statesman's Dan Popkey that next year could "be even more difficult." "Our budget is full of places where we have robbed from one fund or another to keep programs or services going," Cameron said. "Now, we're at the end of it." Here is the reality: even when you account for the many tweaks that have been made to the Idaho tax system over the years - sales and income tax rates have increased over time, for example - the essential structure has gone unchanged since the historic decision in 1965 to create an Idaho sales tax. What has changed is a steady deterioration, made worse by the awful economy, of revenue to support critical services like public and higher education. Public school support, to a substantial degree, has shifted from the more stable property tax to the more volatile sales tax. Meanwhile, sales tax exemptions have grown like noxious weeds with each exemption eating away at the state's general fund and, by definition, diminishing the state's ability to support education. Somewhere on a shelf in the spiffy, remodeled Statehouse is a box full of studies analyzing how the state's tax structure has become the sick man of Idaho. Every serious look at Idaho's "three legged stool" of sales, income and property taxes has concluded that the basic structure is badly dated. Those past studies have accumulated dust and not influenced policy and the just adjourned legislature - after two years of slashing spending by 19% - couldn't even bring itself to study the system one more time. That famous 1965 legislative session designed a tax structure for its time. Idaho had a resource dependent economy in those days. The timber industry was in full flower and the Coeur d'Alene mining district was producing vast amounts of silver and creating family wage jobs. Agricultural production was the dependable staple of the Idaho economy. Forty-five years ago, Hewlett-Packard wasn't in Boise, Micron either. The service economy hardly existed. Idaho's corporate community, including mainstays like Albertson's and Morrison-Knudsen, created stability and jobs. Now much of that is gone or at least diminished. Many things about the Idaho economy are vastly different today, yet the tax structure remains pretty much the same. No less an authority, and advocate for Idaho business, than former Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry President Steve Ahrens outlined what needs to be done at a Boise City Club event during the first days of the legislative session back in January. Was anyone listening? A question for the next Idaho Legislature is how much more cutting can the state really stand? At some point, a 21st Century economy will require new investment and new thinking about a 21st Century education system. Good jobs require better schools and a trained workforce. The millions in revenue lost to Internet sales (at a detriment to hometown businesses) or left untaxed due to exemptions may not represent comfortable rocks to look under, but the alternative, if Idaho wants to grow a 21st Century economy, is unsustainable. At the federal level, a few smart people know that spending restraint and tax increases are the only way to get the ballooning federal deficit under control. At the state level, lawmakers have done the cutting. It will take real political courage - and a view to the long term - to confront the need for new revenue. The 2011 Idaho Legislature will need a Pete Cenarrusa, a Perry Swisher, a Cecil Andrus and a Phil Batt. Those guys, and others lost to history, made the tough decisions in 1965 that put in place a tax system that served the state well for a generation and ushered in the modern Idaho. What next?

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Delicate Balance

It's Not As Easy As They Made It Look In the old TV series, Perry Mason always wrapped up the case in the last few minutes of the show, tied a ribbon on the verdict and went out for a cocktail, or whatever, with Della Street. If only it were that easy in real life. The American system of justice is often complicated, confusing, contentious and cumbersome. It is also central to our form of government. On April 15th in Boise, the Andrus Center for Public Policy - I proudly serve as the volunteer president of the Center - will host with the Idaho Press Club a half day seminar that will dig into some of the complications of the justice system, particularly as they relate to the media. The seminar - we're calling it "A Delicate Balance" - is also supported by the University of Idaho College of Law and the Idaho State Bar. Members of the bar can earn two continuing legal education (CLE) credits for attending. The seminar at the Boise Centre is open to the public - there is a $10 registration fee - and will be, I believe, both interesting and entertaining to anyone who cares about how our justice system works and how its workings are reported by the media. Register on line at the Andrus Center website and look over the seminar agenda. Idaho's Chief Federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill will keynote the seminar and be joined in a panel with, among others, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, the Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey, Todd Dvorak of the Associated Press, Betsy Russell of the Spokesman Review nd prominent Idaho attorney Walt Bithell. University of Idaho Law School Dean Don Burnett will participate in the panel and offer remarks. Some years back, the Andrus Center adopted as a part of several of its policy conferences a "Socratic dialogue" method of engaging participants in a discussion of difficult, contemporary issues. We'll take that approach again on April 15th. I'll present a hypothetical scenario to the panel and they'll work through some of the issues that often occur when the Constitution's guarantee of a fair trial comes in conflict with the First Amendment protections of a free press. It will be fun and provocative. Participants in the Andrus Center/Press Club seminar are also invited to attend the College of Law's Bellwood Lecture reception also at the Boise Centre. The reception will begun upon completion of the seminar. Hope you'll attend. I'm guessing that even Perry Mason could benefit.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Weekend Potpourri

Scanning the Papers: Diverse, Unconnected, But Interesting... The big news in southern Arizona on Friday was the reunion of John McCain and Sarah Palin in Tucson. The cartoon is the work of David Fitzsimmons at the Arizona Daily Star. Friday's rally at the Pima County Fairgrounds was the first time since last November that the 2008 GOP running mates shared the same platform. Unlike that election night tableau at the Biltmore in Phoenix, where McCain graciously conceded to the new president-elect and Palin reportedly seethed because she wasn't allowed to say a word, yesterday Palin was the big attraction and she did plenty of talking. The Star's coverage of the rally noted that one McCain constituent "stood out front holding a sign that said he wouldn't forgive McCain for attempting to control his guns, speech, energy, health care and vitamins." That quote pretty well sums up the Senator's problems in Arizona as he faces what is shaping up to be his potentially toughest ever re-elect. Gone, forever it seems, is the old McCain - unpredictable, working across the aisle, making common cause with Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold. A very conservative former GOP Congressman is running against him now and McCain is running right, sort of like he's late for the Tea Party. Utah Republican Bob Bennett has similar problems. More Health Care... One remarkable thing about the Internet is that no past statement of a politician is long safe from discovery. Writing at the Daily Beast Matthew Dallek, the son of the presidential biographer Robert Dallek, pieces together the origins of what, before this year, was Republican thinking on health care. Dallek makes the case that many of the ideas now the law of the land started with guys named Nixon and Dole, and the Associated Press, among others, tweak Mitt Romney for now being against what he once supported. History is a wonderful thing. Perhaps this is all just evidence of the truth in Emerson's famous quote: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." With all respect to Emerson, in politics a lack of consistency is usually called a flip-flop and those are to be avoided like the plague, as Romney will continue to discover. And...Now For Something Completely Different... Most papers anymore give little attention to baseball. Some barely find room for the box scores and offer the shortest possible game summaries. For a baseball fan, the joy of sipping a morning coffee and consuming the detailed baseball summaries from the day before is mostly a thing of the past. Like everything else, the fan of baseball detail, finds it online. Check out a great baseball blog - Joe Posnanski - who wrote recently about the great Ichiro. I like a baseball writer with a name like Posnanski. Sounds right. Good Works... When the Irish writer John Banville won the Booker Prize a few years back he was asked what he planned to do with the cash prize. His response, not to mention his writing, has endeared him to me ever since. Banville simply said he'd spend the cash on "good works and strong drink." His new book is The Infinities and it is being much commented upon. The New York Times noted Banville's connections to Joyce, while others have noted that his writing, always elegant and stylish, has become more playful over time. Whatever it is, it is good stuff.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Sorry State of Idaho Democrats

Last One Out Turn Off the Lights I have started to believe that Idaho Democrats have been down for so long that they might be suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome. That's the psychological phenomenon named after a small group of hostages in Sweden in 1973 who, despite being held against their will, came to closely identify with their captors. OK, I'm being a little facetious. Still as one who believes that a genuine two-party system just might serve Idaho better in the long run, it's difficult when looking at the shape of the 2010 contests not to think that Idaho Democrats are destined to be down for a long, long time. Like the Stockholm captives, they have gotten so very used to the GOP calling all the shots it has become difficult for Democrats to envision an alternative reality. The Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey noted, as of the election filing deadline a week ago, that Idaho Democrats have already conceded two of every five legislative seats statewide. There is no serious candidate on the Democratic side for the U.S. Senate, the 2nd Congressional District, Lt. Governor or Secretary of State. No Democrat filed at all for Attorney General, Controller or Treasurer. Furthermore, the D's lost some of their best legislators, people who might actually be able to run for something else some day, when Senators Kate Kelly and Clint Stennett and Rep. James Ruchti all opted not to seek another term. Surveying those puny pickings leaves the battered Democrats with only a trio of seemingly serious hopefuls at the top of the ticket. All the marbles are on races for Governor (Keith Allred), the 1st District Congressional seat (incumbent Walt Minnick) and Superintendent of Public Instruction (Dr. Stan Olson). Even in Idaho's largest city, where Democrats have made inroads and held them over the last 10 years, no Democrat filed for the Ada County Commission. By contrast, and by my quick count, Republicans filed against all but three incumbent Democratic state legislators and the GOP will have contested primaries involving more than 20 of their incumbents. It's not hard to see which party enjoys the enthusiasm advantage headed toward November. Democrats better hope for many, many nasty GOP primaries but, in politics like football, basing your strategy on a hope that the other side will fumble is not a very smart path to end zone.

Randy Stapilus has a pretty good round-up of the filings at Ridenbaugh Press.

So, what do Democrats need to do in Idaho that they haven't been doing? Where to start. Here are three steps that might begin to form a strategy. First, Idaho Democrats need a full-time party chairman. That chairman should then go to school on Phil Batt's playbook when he brought Idaho Republicans back from a series of defeats that culminated in Democrats reaching their high water mark of modern political success in 1990. After that election, ancient history now, Democrats held three statewide offices, both congressional seats and managed an even split in the state senate. Republicans were stunned and turned to Batt to devise their comeback. He downplayed ideology, traveled the state, held countless meetings, preached the gospel of organization and cooperation, recruited candidates and, not incidentally, positioned himself to run for governor and win in 1994.

Batt did most of this work out of his own pocket, which would be ideal for Democrats who are always strapped for money. No matter. Reality dictates that resources must be found - or donated - or the Democratic status quo will continue. The work Batt did for the GOP was hard, time consuming, under the radar organization and planning. It is the type of work that Idaho Democrats have never been very good at doing.

It's darn hard to begin a comeback without a leader and Idaho Democrats haven't really had a "face and a name" since Cece Andrus left the stage in 1995. A full-time chairman would provide a focus and a face. Second, Idaho Democrats must embrace a youth and minority strategy. At the national level, thoughtful GOP strategists realize that unless Republicans find a way to consistently appeal to younger people, Hispanics and African-Americans they will be the minority party forever. No less a big political thinker than Karl Rove knew that the GOP had to make a stronger appeal to Hispanics and he crafted an approach for his boss that did just that in 2004. The one sure demographic that will grow in Idaho over the next decade are folks of Hispanic heritage and new, first time voters. Democrats better get after them. Third, Democrats need to stand for something that has broad appeal. And they have to systematically sell to Idahoans a version that is different - and better - than not just being a Republican. They also need to shun litmus tests. Any appeal must take into account the fundamentally conservative nature of most Idahoans.

The message is about jobs, schools and a place to recreate on the weekend. As governor, Andrus was a champion of all that, but especially education. So was John Evans. Both spoke with conviction about creating a "quality of life" in Idaho that combined jobs, good schools and a conservation ethic built around hunting and fishing. The GOP-dominated legislature has just approved significant cuts in education, at every level, for the second year in a row. I know, we're in a recession and every state seems to be cutting education, but some day - I hope - the economy will improve. Meantime, what do Democrats really stand for? How do they articulate what a better education system looks like and what it will do for kids, the economy and more and better jobs? Where is the personality? Where is the brand? Without a vision - and a much more compelling message - the party perishes. Re-building ain't easy even with Republicans offering up some tempting targets and struggling with their own Tea Party problems. A Democratic resurrection in any of our lifetimes will require the small handful of real leaders in the state party to admit the obvious. What they have been doing clearly isn't working. A little public soul searching wouldn't hurt. Maybe the party need to convene a very public discussion about priorities and shortcomings. They need to take some risks and they might start by airing out the corpse. The first step on any road back is to have a plan - a real plan - that realistically puts one foot in front of another on the long slog back. As they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results. For Idaho Democrats, the 2010 election looks a lot like 2008, 2006, 2004, 2002...and the captives don't seem very restless.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Measuring the Health Care Fallout

A Win is Better Than a Loss Anyone who says they know with any degree of certainty the short and/or long-term political impacts of the health care/insurance reform legislation is guessing or, depending upon your politics, thinking wishfully about the party they favor. There is no sure fire way to predict the impact. Lots of people are riled up for sure, but many also consider passage of the bill the great accomplishment since Social Security. The truth is no one knows the political impacts yet and with seven months to go until November, lots of things can shape the mid-term. Having said that, I'll venture two predictions and the first is easy because it is already happening. After any big, prolonged political brawl, and this was one of the biggest and longest in many years, its fascinating to watch the conventional wisdom - the CW - shift. After the special Senate election for Ted Kennedy's old seat was won by an anti-Obamacare candidate, Scott Brown, the wisdom from the Beltway wise guys was simple: the whole blood mess was toast, Obamacare was dead, DOA, nada, ain't gonna happen. CW held that the very best the president could do was cut his loses, trim his sails, buck up and take a beating. Apparently even Rahm Emanuel was counseling a strategic retreat. But wait. Hear that? That would be the sound of the CW creaking around and changing direction. Polls taken since Sunday's dramatic vote in the House are already showing a swing in favor of the controversial legislation. Stay tuned for even more of a bounce despite the attorneys general in a Baker's Dozen (or more) states, including Idaho and Washington, promising legal action. Meanwhile, the retribution begins with the former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, suggesting what was once described as Obama's Waterloo is becoming the GOP equivalent of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Fearless prediction number two: the unemployment rate on Labor Day, coupled with a sense of whether the nation's economy is finally recovering, will have more to do with the outcome of the mid-term elections than the last year and a half of turmoil over health care/insurance reform. Congressional Republicans have bet the Congress on making the 2010 elections about health care. It might have been a better bet - we'll see - to put all the chips on the economy. Every poll in every state says one thing - folks are worried more about the economy than anything. There are, I think, some almost universal political truisms at play as the dust still swirls around the Washington action on health care/insurance reform. Democrats want you to believe it was a once in 50 year historic vote. Maybe. Republicans want the story to be, as GOP House leader John Boehner said, "Armageddon." Probably not. More than the verdict of history or the demise of the country, this is politics and certain rules will apply. Johnson's Rules: Winning is Better than Losing I've long been a fan of the Hollywood writer and director Preston Sturges. He won the Academy Award in 1941 for the screen play for a very funny political movie - The Great McGinty - and went on to make a string of classic, screwball comedies including The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan's Travels. Sturges once came up with his 11 rules for box office success, including such gems as: "a pretty girl is better than an ugly one, a bedroom is better than a living room, a chase is better than a chat, a kitten is better than a dog, a baby is better than a kitten, a kiss is better than a baby, and a pratfall is better than anything." With apologies to the great filmmaker, but in the "spirit" of his rules - some things in politics are always better than some other things in politics - I offer my rules as something to think about as the next political chapter rolls out. 1) A win is better than a loss. Obama and Democrats have won. Politics tends to reward winners. Losers tend be regarded as, well, losers. Maybe the intensity around the current issue trumps that truism, but I doubt it. Bill Clinton went limping into the 1994 mid-terms reeling from a health care defeat and dogged by ethics allegations. He looked like a loser and was. Different story line now. A win replenishes political capital and support. A loss is a loss. 2) Hope is better than fear. In virtually every presidential election, at least back to Richard Nixon in 1968, the candidate who expressed the greater sense of optimism won. Think about Reagan and Carter, Reagan and Mondale, Bush and Dukakis, Clinton and Dole, Bush II and Kerry. Americans like the upbeat guy, the positive guy with the smile. Americans bought Obama's optimism in 2008, I'm betting a majority still do and recent polling bears this out. The GOP message on health care was about the destruction of the country, creeping socialism, fear and dread. Now turn the media attention to the president selling the positive attributes of what he's created and I'd bet a donut (hole) his optimism looks better to most Americans than John Boehner's Armageddon. New York Times columnist Charles Blow sliced and diced the poll numbers recently and concluded that while the president's approval numbers have certainly come down over the last few months, people still think he is inspiring - 61 percent - and that he makes them feel hopeful - 54 percent. Optimism trumps fear. It also doesn't hurt Obama that the press loves a comeback narrative; exactly what he's running with right now. 3) Being for something is better than being against something. Democrats, say what you will about the merits of the bill they just passed, were trying to do something, Republicans were trying to stop something. Being for something and winning - Bush's tax cuts or Clinton's welfare reform, for example - almost always beats playing defense, especially when you are defending an indefensible status quo. 4) A specific is better than a slogan. Republicans have always been better at the message game than Democrats, but now Obama and Democrats have specifics to talk about, Republicans don't. Expect a lot of talk about the "donut hole," about the end of denying coverage for "pre-existing conditions" and greater "regulation of insurance companies." Details are good, if they can be understood. Those talking points, repeated over and over, can be understood, particularly since they now represent a done deal. 5) And, an improving economy is best of all. I began this analysis with a prediction that the state of the economy will have more to do with the fall elections than the nasty spectacle in Washington over the last 13 months. By November, if there is a genuine sense that the economy is improving - not a sure thing by any means - if American troops are continuing to come home from Iraq and maintaining in Afghanistan, and if the president is able to convincingly display a sense of optimism and confidence about the future of the country, then the mid-term could be more typical from an historic standpoint. Charlie Cook, the best guesser of which way the Congress will swing, now predicts Democratic loses in the House, for example, but not a GOP takeover. Expect R's to win 25 to 30 House seats. Seven months to election day. Much can happen, and probably will. Those are my predictions and I'm stickin' with them - for now.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wise Guys

Debt and Taxes, Cuts and Clowns Al Simpson, the former Republican Senator from Cody, Wyoming, is one of an increasingly rare breed in American public life. He actually thinks that once in a while our political system must try and mobilize in order to address a real problem; a real problem like the out of control deficit. Talk to almost any thinking person in Washington, Republican or Democrat, and they will privately say what most folks in the country instinctively know. We're broke. The deficit is a huge and growing danger. The Chinese hold our debt. Spending, particularly on entitlements, is out of control. In Al Simpson speak, the country is "going to the bow-wows." There are only two options and they must work together. Spending must be cut and taxes must be raised. Yet for the political right raising taxes is the third rail of American politics; a touch brings certain political death. Resisting spending cuts is every bit as much liberal orthodoxy. Still, every serious person in politics, business and the media knows both ends need to come to the middle, yet the political gridlock of Washington allows no one to move and few have the courage to talk seriously about the problems. The old line about what constitutes a political gaffe comes to mind: in Washington, a gaffe occurs when a politician speaks the truth. Enter Al Simpson. The tall, bald guy has a grand sense of humor. He speaks his mind. He cracks wise. He pokes big egos. He's not afraid to commit a gaffe. The hard right hates him. "He's old and grumpy, and he doesn't like the Reagan Republican Party," according to Grover Norquist one of the influential leaders of the no taxes, never, no how crowd. [Norquist, by the way, has a selective memory about the Reagan record. Reagan both cut and raised taxes during his two terms. Al Simpson would remember that bit of trivia, but clearly that story line doesn't fit with the conventional wisdom of the right or left and that is part of the problem.] Simpson was profiled in the New York Times last week because - what was he thinking - he agreed to co-chair the bipartisan commission appointed by President Obama to recommend actions to reduce the federal deficit. Simpson is already sharpening up his tongue, saying he knows he'll catch hell from "Rush babe" and others who "babble into the vapors" while whistling past the deficit grave yard. The political left won't get serious either, vowing to defend to the death sacred cow spending programs. If you need any more proof of the dysfunction in Washington, I would note that Democrats and Republicans couldn't even agree on forming the deficit commission. Obama launched it with an executive order after Senate Republicans balked. At the same time, so called "progressives," including people who ought to know better, initially refused to sign up. Some, meanwhile, have come around. The Concord Coalition is a sober and respected advocate for doing what needs to be done to get the deficit under control. As the Coalition, chaired by former Senators Warren Rudman and Bob Kerrey, a Republican and a Democrat, points out, both parties have made this mess. "Consider what has happened over the last decade," the Coalition says on its website. "In January 2001, Congress had a very nice 'problem' on its hands: what to do with a projected 10-year budget surplus of $5.6 trillion. At that time, the projected surplus for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009 was a mind-boggling $710 billion." What really happened in the last decade, of course, created the mess: big tax cuts, big spending increases, two wars fought on credit, a great recession and bam - fiscal chaos. Again, the Concord Coalition: "In 2009, for example, Congress spent $826 billion more on programs than had been projected in 2001. Taxes were cut by $363 billion. Additional debt service stemming from these legislated changes cost $225 billion. That comes to a negative impact of $1.4 trillion. In other words, the $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009 can be entirely attributed to the $1.4 trillion of legislation enacted by Congress since January 2001." Republicans controlled the Congress for part of that time, Democrats part of the time. A Republican was in the White House, a Democrat is there now. Everybody is responsible, but will anyone do anything?

The witty and wise Christopher Buckley doesn't think so. He notes that the recommendations of Blue Ribbon Commissions collect dust on shelves all over Washington. The last big commission - The Iraq Study Group - recommended an exit from Iraq and, as Buckley says, "What happened? The surge."

That said, I'm pulling for Simpson and his Democratic co-chair, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. For certain, Simpson will need his sense of humor to sustain him as he picks his way through this thankless thicket. Al once said, "In your country club, your church and business, about 15 percent of the people are screwballs, light weights and boobs and you would not want those people unrepresented in Congress." If Simpson's percentage figure is right, here's hoping he can appeal to enough of the remaining 85 percent to get serious about this huge national crisis. If not, bring on the bow-wows.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Stewart Udall

One of the Great Conservation Secretaries When the history is written of conservation politics in the 20th Century, I'm sure four Secretaries of the Interior will figure prominently. Stewart Udall, who died last Saturday, will certainly be on the list. As the New York Times noted, Udall's record of engineering new National Parks is undeniable. He had a major hand in creating the North Cascades in Washington, the spectacular Canyonlands in Utah and the National Seashore on Cape Cod during the eight years he served under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The Wilderness Act was passed on his watch. The Udall family statement, issued by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, noted that his father was the last surviving member of President Kennedy's original Cabinet. I've always loved the story of how Udall engineered naming RFK Stadium in Washington. Udall figured out how to outfox Lyndon Johnson. Few people can claim that distinction. Jeff Shesol tells the story in his fine book - Mutual Contempt - which deals with the complicated and toxic relationship between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy. Shesol told C-Span's Brian Lamb on Booknotes that naming the stadium after the assassinated former Attorney General did not originate with Udall, but the Secretary quickly embraced the notion when it was suggested to him by Kennedy partisans. LBJ actually hoped that the relatively new stadium, called DC Stadium prior to 1969, might be renamed to honor him. As Shesol said: "Because the stadium was built on national park land - the Anacostia Park...the secretary of the interior, with a quick dash of his pen, could rename the stadium without having to ask the president's permission. And so they conspired to do this and they also conspired to do it on the very last day of the Johnson presidency so that the president could not countermand the order. So Udall went ahead and did this and Johnson was, of course, outraged, but there was nothing he could do. It had already been announced and leaked to the press." The Los Angeles Times obit noted that Udall, who was 90 at the time of his death, had just a few years ago "trekked with a grandson 7,000 feet up Bright Angel Trail, from the floor of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. He refused a National Park Service offer of a mule. His family 'wouldn't have liked it if I hadn't made it,' he noted, 'but what a way to go.' Upon completing his ascent, he headed straight into the bar at the Tovar Lodge and ordered a martini." Stewart Udall will be remembered as one of the greats. I'd nominate three others to join him as the Interior greats of the 20th Century: New Deal-era Secretary Harold Ickes created the modern Interior Department and defined the job that he served in longer than anyone. Ickes was a fascinating character and a major political figure in the first half of the last century. I'm biased, but I think my old boss, Cecil Andrus, who pulled off the greatest conservation accomplishment of all time with the Alaska Lands legislation and engineered 11th hour protections of several rivers in California on the last day of the Carter Administration, is certainly in the same company with Ickes and Udall. And my list would include Bruce Babbitt, an often unpopular secretary in the West, who nevertheless brought a conservation ethic back to Interior after the less than distinguished conservation tenure of the Reagan and first Bush Administrations. Ickes, Andrus, Babbitt and Udall. I'd like to have dinner and a martini and talk a little conservation politics with those four guys.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Six Degrees of Separation

The Day I Met Stalin's Interpreter My old friend and former business partner Chris Carlson has a belief about meeting a total stranger. Chris contends that if you talk long enough and ask enough questions about the stranger's friends, family, job and geography you'll discover some person you both know. I've seen him do it and I'm a believer. It is a small world. It has been said that we are all connected to everyone else by no more than "six degrees of separation" and often it's really only one or two degrees of separation. This then is the story of my, dare I say it, one degree of separation with Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and most of the other leading figures of World War II. As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been enjoying a fine new book about the historic and controversial Big Three conference of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in 1945. The man who served as an interpreter for Stalin and Russian Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov - the Molotov Cocktail was named after him - was quoted in the book. I met and interviewed the interpreter for Stalin and Molotov in Moscow in 1984. As I look back on that encounter, it feels like my own first hand brush with the history and personalities that shaped the 20th Century. Valentin Berezhkov - that's his photo at the top of this post - had quite a life and I'm confident my interview wasn't on his Top Ten list of big events. In addition to providing translation services for Stalin at the wartime conferences with Roosevelt and Churchill, Berezhkov was present when Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop - that's the Ribbentrop who was executed after the Nuremberg war crimes trials - signed the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact in Berlin in 1941. That infamous deal divided Poland between the Russians and the Germans and cleared the way for Hitler to invade Poland and begin World War II. Later, when Hitler invaded Russia, Berezkhov burned papers at the Russian embassy in Berlin before the SS broke in and kept him captive until he could be exchanged for German diplomats who had been trapped in Moscow when war broke out. Later in his life, Berezhkov was a writer and diplomat. He served in Washington and was often a spokesman for the Kremlin on a whole range of political, diplomatic and historical issues. He left Russia in 1991 and re-settled in California where he taught at Occidental College. Berezhkov died in 1998. In 1984, I had the remarkable opportunity to make a reporting trip to the Soviet Union. My Idaho Public Television colleague at the time, Peter Morrill, now the general manager of Idaho PTV, and I accompanied a group of Idahoans on a "people to people" exchange. We spent more than two weeks in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Minsk and Vilnius in Lithuania. The film Peter shot and the interviews we conducted were shaped into two documentaries. During the course of that remarkable trip - quite the adventure for an aspiring young reporter from Idaho - we spent an hour in the Russian capitol with Valentin Berezhkov. I still have his business card. I confess to not understanding much about Berezhkov's importance or personal story at the time of that interview. We had asked to speak with someone who could talk about the Russian experience during "The Great Patriotic War." Our Soviet-era handlers offered him up and he spoke with authority and vividly about the horrible suffering of Russian civilians during the war. He treated us with genuine respect and kindness and seemed to take the rookies from Idaho seriously. I remember wondering just how much of what he told us was pure Soviet propaganda, carefully scripted for the rubes from the West. When I read the new book on Yalta, and saw the reference to his role in the history of World War II, it all came together. This guy was an eyewitness to some of the greatest history of the 20th Century. He participated in some of the pivotal events that shaped the modern world. I wish now that I had been smart enough to ask him more and better questions. In Berezhkov's memoir, published in 1994, he recalled shaking hands with Hitler at the Fuehrer's office in Berlin in 1940. ''His palm was cold and damp,'' he wrote in the book, ''giving me an unpleasant sensation, as if I were touching a reptile.'' As the Independent noted in his obituary, during his translating career, Berezhkov, "to his continuing wonderment, met the entire Soviet leadership - and other world leaders as well, including Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee." In his memoir - At Stalin's Side - Berezhkov writes with critical insight about how his own life spanned the century from the Bolshevik Revolution to "the disappearance of the great empire in which I lived all my life." He acknowledges the great tragedies and the awesome failures of communism, but also remembers the sense of hope that existed before what he calls the ultimately "doomed" experiment of communism came crashing down. Late in his remarkable life, he wished for a democratic future for Russia and that his own grandson will enjoy a better life. I am glad I met and talked, even for a few minutes, to an eyewitness to the history that fascinates me; the history that I can only read about. I'm also glad to know that Hitler handshake was unpleasant. After all, I shook the hand that shook that hand. Small world, indeed.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Passion For Anonymity

When the Staff Becomes the Story What we now think of as the modern White House staff dates back to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before FDR - Woodrow Wilson, for example - presidents had a White House staff that basically included a secretary to handle correspondence and scheduling and maybe a typist or stenographer. Roosevelt changed all that just as he changed almost everything about the modern presidency and the operation of the White House. When fear was expressed that FDR was engaging in executive empire building by expanding the White House bureaucracy, he famously responded that his assistants would be characterized by a "passion for anonymity." What happened to that idea? I'd be the first to concede that the demands of the 21st Century White House, at least in some respects, pale in comparison to those of FDR's day. FDR didn't have to deal with the 24 hour news cycle and most everything moved more slowly. Still, Roosevelt battled a depression and won a war with a handful of personal staffers who for the most part didn't become household names or the subject of long profiles in the New York Times. There wasn't a Rahm Emanuel or Karl Rove in the group. I got to thinking about this while reading what was, at least for political junkies, the admittedly fascinating piece on Emanuel in last week's Times Magazine. If the piece was intended to restore a certain calm to the No Drama Obama operation and tamp down the storyline that the president's Chief of Staff is - take your pick - tired, discouraged, out of sorts or sync with his boss, too visible, too overbearing, a lightening rod, etc., it doesn't seem to have worked. Emanuel has been the subject of a Letterman Top 10 List, countless stories and even a sole-subject blog Rahmblr. The Rahmblr will be profiled, along with his brother, on "60 Minutes" on Sunday. Can you say overexposed? I'm admittedly from the old school. FDR had it right. In my old school view, political aides, generally speaking, best serve the boss when they aren't always part of the story. While there is something to be said for a political aide taking the arrows for the boss when the going gets tough, there is not much to be said for political staffers becoming the story. After a campaign in 2008 where turmoil among Hillary Clinton's staff and John McCain's advisers seemed to define the out-of-control nature of both their campaigns, I had a naive notion that an Obama White House might not succumb to the usual inside the beltway fixation on who is doing what to whom among the president's closest advisers. Naive indeed. Political operations are unique beasts organizationally and culturally. There is nothing quite like them. Nonetheless, in at least one way, a political operation, be it the white hot White House or some backwater congressional office, are like corporate boardrooms or big league baseball locker rooms. When the antics of the CEO's underlings or the third baseman's relationship with the shortstop start to get more attention than the substance of the business or the score of the game, then the boss or the manager usually has a big problem. Considering the qualities and intelligence of the people involved, it is amazing to me that Clinton and McCain didn't immediately put a stop to the dysfunction in their staffs during the last campaign. Their failure to do so speaks volumes about their own management and leadership abilities. Stay tuned to see if Obama tolerates more of what seems to be the building drama in his organization. I think I know what FDR might have done. He had a few trusted advisers - Louis Howe, Steve Early and Harry Hopkins, for instance - but he never let any one adviser totally dominate the administration or his thinking. He kept his own counsel, often not sharing his thinking while keeping his own staff guessing and agile, and he made sure that he, and he alone, made the big decisions. A little more anonymity, and frankly modesty, from people who haven't been elected to anything would be a good thing. My old boss, Cece Andrus, the only fellow elected governor of Idaho four times and someone, as even his detractors admit, who knew how to work the levers and make decisions, used to remind his Statehouse staffers - me included - that "there are lots of names on doors around here, but only one name on the ballot." In other words, I'm the boss and you work for me. Keep your head and your profile down and tend to business. Words to govern by.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Knowing When to Quit

Our Culture of Non-Resignation Elliot Richardson was the Attorney General of the United States when he resigned in 1973 rather than carry out an order he couldn't agree with. Richardson, who looked (that's him to the left) every inch a pillar of the GOP, eastern political establishment, was ordered by Richard Nixon to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. Richardson refused to carry out the presidential order and resigned - on principle. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused and he also resigned - on principle. The third ranking official at the Justice Department, Robert Bork, eventually fired Archibald Cox in a famous episode that came to be known as "the Saturday Night Massacre." The resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus were seismic in their impact, in part, because the principled act of resignation is so rare in our political culture. I wonder why? In countries with a parliamentary system - Britain and Canada, for example - it is not uncommon, indeed it is expected, that when a politician loses a major policy debate, faces a loss of confidence, reaches a breaking point on policy, or is engulfed in scandal, they resign. Scandals in the British House of Commons involving members expenses have contributed to the substantial political troubles of the ruling Labour Party. If Labour loses the upcoming elections in Britain, some might consider that punishment enough for the string of ethical transgressions. Still, a number of British ministers and even the Speaker of the Commons have resigned related to the scandal. It is part of the political culture in a parliamentary democracy. In fact, the propensity of British politicians to resign over scandal caused the Independent a while back to question whether resignations had become too common. Needless to say, that is not a problem here. With the notable exceptions - thank goodness - of the truly weird Rep. Eric Massa and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the rule in American politics seems to be to hang on against all odds and the culture of not knowing when to quit is a bipartisan phenomenon. South Carolina's embattled GOP Gov. Mark Sanford has been twisting in the winds of scandal for months now, while the state's political structure heaved under the on-going discussion of whether Sanford ought to be impeached. Sanford appears to be the last to realize that his "hike on the Appalachian Trail" - really a visit to his girl friend Buenos Aires - long ago rendered him ineffective and unable to do his job. The principled path would have been to accept that reality, resign, move on and work on rehabilitation. In such circumstances a decision to exit signals a strength of character; not a show of weakness. Still, it happens so rarely. Democratic politicians in New York, most notably the Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charles Rangel, are caught up in scandals. Quitting doesn't seem to be an option for either man. The former governor of Illinois embarrassed himself and his state for weeks before being impeached and apparently never considered stepping down. United States Senators routinely hang on in the face of scandal. Ted Stevens and Larry Craig come to mind. Even as Sen. David Vitter leads in the polls in Louisiana, a "porn star" is threatening to trivialize that state's senate race by entering the contest and keeping Vitter's admission of "serious sins" front and center in the current campaign. Just yesterday, a Las Vegas television station broke the news of a slew of subpoenas issued in a Justice Department ethics investigation involving Sen. John Ensign. The rarity of a high profile political resignation due to scandal makes Bob Packwood's exit from the Senate in 1995 and the departure of Harrison Williams in 1982 really stand out. Both resigned before the Senate could vote, almost certainly, to expel them. It wasn't all that obvious at the time, but Packwood's resignation proved to be the first step toward his rehabilitation. Williams spent three years in prison. In 1915, then-Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned to protest President Woodrow Wilson's actions following the sinking by a German submarine of the passenger ship Lusitania. Bryan's actions, principled in that he had been the foremost voice in the Wilson Administration in favor of U.S. neutrality in World War I, allowed him to credibly and aggressively speak out, which he did, as the president moved to support British and French war efforts. Jimmy Carter's Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, resigned in 1980 over his opposition to the rescue mission designed to free the U.S. hostages held in Iran. Vance voiced his opposition to the effort on the grounds that it would likely fail, which it did and disastrously so, and then - after the fact - he resigned. It was an act of courage and principle. One wonders what the impact would have been in the darkest days of American involvement in Vietnam had a high official of the Johnson Administration - we know a number were quietly voicing skepticism over the course of the war - had resigned on the principle that they could no longer serve in a government with which they so profoundly disagreed. We now know that Robert McNamera harbored grave doubts about the country's Vietnam policy, but unfortunately, another principle - political loyalty or maybe it was a lack of courage - kept him quiet. The one-time whiz kid spent his last years trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain himself. Bryan and Vance, Richardson and Ruckelshaus. Their resignations were based on policy and principle and each is remembered today for an act of ethical courage. History has treated each well, but still such resignations are as rare as bipartisanship in Washington. Resigning in the midst of scandal remains just as rare in our politics Who knows, a little more responsibility in the form of a quick resignation and exit from the political stage just might help rebuild voter confidence. That's something the country could use about now. Quitting and leaving can truly display that there is something more important in public life than clinging to a job as long as possible, no matter the personal, political or policy cost. In some cases the well-timed resignation also can preserve the chance for a comeback. It's hard to envision a comeback for Eric Massa, but Spitzer is certainly trying and don't bet against it. Americans are usually a pretty forgiving bunch. Stay tuned for the second act in the Tiger Woods saga as proof of that American attribute. It is human nature to give the wayward a second chance, but only if responsibility is taken, the offender gets off the front page and out of the way and works hard to re-establish credibility. More politicians, for purposes of principle and rehabilitation, should try it. Americans would come to expect and appreciate such acts of public acknowledgment, as the British have for years, and, who knows, there might be more honor and character in our politics. But, like the return of bipartisanship, I'll not hold my breath.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hard Times in Ireland

Rotten Economy, Sex Scandals...At Least There's Yeats and Whiskey St. Patrick's Day has always been a bigger production in places like Boston, Chicago and Butte than in Dublin, Cork and Dingle. Good thing. There isn't a lot to celebrate this St. Patty's Day on the ol' sod. The Celtic Tiger has become the sick kitten of the EU. Unemployment has soared, bankruptcy has flourished and real estate has tanked. No potato blight yet, thank goodness.

Additionally, the Irish Catholic Church is reeling from yet another clergy sex abuse scandal. The Irish Times called this week for the resignation of the Cardinal who, it is said, should have reported the 20-plus year old incidents to the authorities, well, 20 years ago. Predictably, Cardinal Sean Brady said he would not resign unless asked to do so by the Pope. Meanwhile, the Pope is expected any day to speak out on the Irish scandal, while he fends off questions about the growing sex abuse scandal that occurred during his time in Germany. Did you follow that?

Meanwhile, in the midst of a crisis over the Euro and the continuing fallout over the collapse of the Irish real estate bubble, an Irish writer, Ann Marie Hourihane, makes the case that ol' St. Pat himself has fallen on hard times.

The old boy, she writes, "invested heavily in property during the boom, buying houses and apartments not only in Ireland but also in Wales, Brittany and even Scotland...(and) recently St. Patrick has had trouble sleeping. The crozier is in hock. It is an ignominious position for a saint who has worked so hard for, and been worked so hard by, his country.

"It’s not that St Patrick objects to us being poor – again. He loved us most during the centuries in which we were destitute, badly fed and flirting with cannibalism. As far as any patron saint who takes the long view is concerned, things have just about returned to normal."

There you have it.

Even Guinness - remember, "It's Good For You" - is facing new competition in, of all places, Britain where a cross between lager and bitter - black lager - grows in popularity. Talk about a scandal.

Nonetheless, amid the gloom, I'll celebrate all things Irish today with a dram of Jameson (or Powers or Red Breast) and think particularly of the great Irish writers - Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and one recent worthy, John Banfield. Thank God for the Irish writers.

I'll also remember, apropos to the times perhaps, this great line from the great Yeats: "Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy."

Well said and so very Irish. On March 17th, we can all, at the very least, wish to be Irish. Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Better Late...

U.S. Attorneys Nominated for Idaho, Eastern Washington If you need any proof that the confirmation process for high officials of the United States government works about as well as Toyota's braking system, consider the long delayed, but finally announced appointments of U.S. Attorneys in Idaho and eastern Washington. Barack Obama took office more than 13 months ago and as of last week, according to the website Main Justice, he has nominated just over half of the 93 U.S. Attorneys in the country. The Senate has approved just 34 of the nominees. What is strange about this pace is that no one seems to think its strange. The good news is that both the nominees recently announced, Wendy Olson in Idaho and Mike Ormsby in eastern Washington, are highly respected attorneys and quality people who should be quickly confirmed by the world's greatest - and slowest - deliberative body, the United States Senate. The Main Justice site has good profiles of both Olson and Ormsby, including the interesting tidbits that Olson once interned in the Los Angeles Times sports department and that Ormsby is part owner of the Yakima Bears baseball team in the Northwest League. Olson is the consensus choice of the entire Idaho delegation, which put out a joint statement expressing approval. The fact that a consensus choice of a long-time and highly respected career prosecutor, whose appointment has been the best kept secret in Idaho's legal circles for months, could take so long speaks volumes about the time consuming, onerous vetting process that now slows down even the most obvious presidential appointment.

In Ormsby's case, his nomination, also speculated upon for months, was slowed by questions about his role in a controversial downtown Spokane development and by what the Seattle PI correctly called "partisan gridlock" in the capitol. Now that the Justice Department and the FBI have combed over the story, he should receive - and deserves - quick bipartisan approval in the Senate.

[Full disclosure: I've known Mike Ormsby for a long time and know him to be both a quality individual and a fine attorney. That a fellow of his experience and ability is willing to undergo the months-long vetting process, with all the uncertainty and turmoil it must create for his existing practice, is a testament to his commitment to both professionalism and public service. He'll do a superb job.]

Federal prosecutors play extremely important roles in our justice system. They should be people of great experience, sound judgment and outstanding character. The advice and consent of the Senate is properly the place to double check on those qualifications.

By the same token, when an election takes place, a new president - regardless of party - must be able to make timely and considered judgments about the people he wants in important positions. We will soon have new, high quality U.S. Attorneys in place in our neck of the woods, but it certainly hasn't been a hasty process.

A better approach for these important jobs might be to do what Bill Clinton did following his election and request the resignation of every U.S. Attorney. Then during the long vetting and confirmation process a career prosecutor would be in charge of every office. The opportunity for political mischief is actually reduced under this scenario. The Obama method has left in place for months and months a gaggle of the previous administration's political appointees, with many likely going through the motions of being a United States Attorney.

Maybe the best that can be said is that the deeply flawed confirmation process in Washington, involving everything from assistant secretaries of this and that to Supreme Court judges, is so onerous and so time consuming that few people with real flaws can possibly survive running the gauntlet. Maybe that's the point. But, does it have to take so long?

Too bad we can't apply the same level of scrutiny to the Eric Massa's of the Congress. That kind of vetting would be worth the wait.