Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Invisible Massachusetts Governor

Politico Arena Topic: Is Mitt Romney Avoiding Massachusetts?

The Romney campaign seems intent on emphasizing Mitt Romney’s time as a venture capitalist with Bain rather than his time as chief executive of a large Northeastern state (of course, no else is supposed to talk about Romney’s time with Bain). His reticence to highlight his years as Massachusetts governor is indicative of the Romney campaign’s fear of alienating the Republican base who loathe the more moderate actions and policies of Governor Romney. The Romney campaign is reluctant to reminding social and religious conservatives that he was once a supporter of abortion rights and creator of Romneycare upon which the Affordable Care Act is in part based.

So…if Romney is left to campaign without touting his record as governor, he must campaign as the candidate from Bain. The question is: will his record as a venture capitalist capture the hearts and minds of independent voters? The answer is probably not, especially when independent voters, who are largely not paying attention right now, realize that the purpose of a venture capitalist is to make money—lots of it—for investors, and not to create jobs, a top priority for most Americans in 2012. And when these same voters come to realize that Romney’s job creation consists primarily of the stablemen who care for his horses, the domestic help caring for his several homes, and the workers installing elevators for his numerous automobiles, they may switch their allegiance to his opponent faster than you can transfer money into a Cayman Islands bank account.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Winning the Veepstakes: Exploring the Criteria of Running Mate Selection

Below is an essay I published in the Summer/Fall 2008 edition of Northeast Ohio Municipal Leader Magazine. Although almost four years old, it is still very relevant today.

Winning the Veepstakes: Exploring the Criteria of Running Mate Selection

“Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the White House?”

--Ohio Senator Mark Hanna imploring his Republican colleagues not to place New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt on the ticket as President William McKinley’s running mate in 1900.
The Importance of the Running Mate Choice

The selection of a running mate is perhaps the biggest decision a presidential candidate will make during their candidacy. Though most pundits are obsessed with the decision from a purely horse-race driven perspective, it is a decision that could have monumental consequences given the fact that eight of the 42 individuals who have served in that office died—four by assassination and four due to natural causes. Add in the fact that one president, Richard Nixon, resigned before his second term was complete, and the historical track record shows that slightly over one in five U.S. presidents did not complete the term they were elected to. This doesn’t even reflect those presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower that were incapacitated during their term.

Such statistics would not be cause for alarm if party nominees chose their running mates based on qualification alone. However, they don’t and rarely have. Instead, the intricacies of the Electoral College and two party system dictate that strategic candidates consider other factors beyond mere qualification. Beyond that, many running mates have been picked with little care or vetting. This is the case even in the modern presidency leading to some deficient running mates, and worse yet, vice presidents.

For example, in 1968 and again in 1972, Richard Nixon tapped Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. A moderate from a Democratic-leaning border state, Agnew had a meteoric rise to the vice presidency having made the jump from Baltimore County Executive to Governor in 1966. His turbulent tenure as vice president ended abruptly when he resigned in October 1973 as part of a plea agreement to avoid federal prison time for money laundering and tax evasion during his time as governor.

In 1972, South Dakota Senator George McGovern picked first-term Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton, someone who shared his opposition to the Vietnam War, as his running mate. Even a shoddy background check would have quickly revealed what the newspapers uncovered almost immediately—that Eagleton had undergone electroconvulsive therapy in the early 1960s for mental illness. Eagleton’s stay on the Democratic ticket was short—he was replaced after 18 days by Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law to President John Kennedy and first-director of the Peace Corps.

In 1988 and with little consultation, Vice President George H.W. Bush shocked the political world by picking Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate. Never known as an intellectual-heavyweight, the fresh-faced conservative was just two years into his second term when he was tapped by Bush. Many political observers expressed shock that someone with so little political experience would be picked to be one heartbeat away from the presidency, despite the fact that Quayle protested he had as much Congressional experience as John Kennedy when he ran for president. Quayle’s tenure as vice president was a rocky one and provided ample fodder for late night comics. When images of President George H.W. Bush momentarily collapsing from intestinal flu at a 1992 state dinner in Japan aired in the United States, most Americans realized that an unqualified vice president, even one who can’t spell potato, wasn’t a laughing matter.

Criteria Considered

Many factors come into play other than sheer competence when a running mate is chosen. This has always been the case throughout American history—from Elbridge Gerry to Joe Lieberman. It may be even truer in the modern era.

Perhaps the most obvious factor that a presidential campaign considers is geography. The electoral math dictates that running mates should be able to carry (or at least make competitive) an important swing state for the ticket or at least solidify a region in the party’s base. Nearly all modern running mates have fulfilled this criterion and many pre-modern running mates have as well.

Senator John Kennedy’s selection of Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader, was based on the calculus that Kennedy needed to carry Texas. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, carried LBJ’s home state—barely—just 46,000 votes separated Kennedy and Nixon, the Republican nominee. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan’s selection of primary rival George H.W. Bush in 1980 was based in part on geography. As the son of a U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Bush moved his family to West Texas following World War II to enter the booming oil business. Bush helped broaden Reagan’s appeal beyond the West to the Northeast, South, and beyond. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s selection of fellow Southerner Al Gore was an unconventional yet successful attempt to break the GOP’s lock on the South. The Senator helped Clinton win a number of border states including Gore’s home state of Tennessee, the first time a Democrat had won there since 1976. Most recently in 2000, Al Gore’s selection of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was an attempt to carry the battleground state of Florida. Lieberman, who is Jewish, appealed to the many transplanted Jews from the Northeast residing in the Sunshine State.

In order to make the ticket more palatable to a broad spectrum of the country, another important running mate criterion is that of ideological counterbalancing. If a presidential candidate is a staunch liberal or conservative, a moderate is often chosen to counterbalance their “extremeness.” Conversely, if the party nominee is perceived as a moderate, a running mate who better represents the party’s base might be in order.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter, the conservative former governor of Georgia, chose liberal Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale as a way to appeal to progressive Midwestern and Northeastern Democrats. Reagan’s selection of moderate George H.W. Bush helped Reagan broaden his appeal beyond Goldwater Republicans. Bush’s ill-fated choice of Dan Quayle was a nod to the conservative base which never trusted the elder Bush. Finally, Gore’s selection of Lieberman, a conservative Democrat willing to criticize President Clinton’s conduct during the Monica Lewinski scandal, appealed to mainstream voters uneasy about Clinton’s transgressions and Gore’s environmental activism.

Though geography and ideology are important factors, a prospective candidate’s resume is also important, despite examples in American history where the resume has been discounted. As a former member of Congress, Ambassador to China and the United Nations, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, George H.W. Bush was very qualified to be president in his own right. The eight year apprenticeship he served as Reagan’s Vice President only strengthened his strong resume. Many other running mates in the modern era from Kansas Senator Bob Dole (Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976) to Joe Lieberman had enough experience in national public office that they could have indeed assumed the duties of president should that have been necessary.

Occasionally, for various reasons, the presidential candidate will need to choose someone that not only meets some or all of the criteria previously discussed, but also is viewed by the American public as having presidential credentials beyond reproach—in other words, an individual who is viewed as a viable presidential candidate in their own right, even if they have chosen not to run themselves. Such an individual is said to possess gravitas—a murky concept connoting a mythical combination of wisdom, experience, and intelligence that would allow the individual to flourish in the presidential role if called upon.

Many pundits spoke of General Colin Powell in this manner, particularly as Republicans increasingly called upon George Bush to dump Dan Quayle from the ticket in 1992 as his campaign fortunes sagged. In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis’ running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, was similarly viewed in this light. This perhaps explains why one Democratic elector chose to cast his vote for the Texas Senator instead of Dukakis. Finally, what else can explain Texas Governor George W. Bush’s selection of fellow Texan Richard Cheney in 2000? The selection of Cheney had nothing to do with geography since both men were from Texas (though Cheney later registered to vote in his native state of Wyoming). Nor did ideology factor in since both Bush and Cheney had genuine conservative credentials. Rather, the selection of Cheney was an attempt to calm the fears of those who thought Bush’s qualifications, both in terms of previous political experience and intelligence, did not rise to the presidential level. As a former chief of staff to President Ford, a member of the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1989, and as Secretary of Defense for President George H.W. Bush, Cheney had a resume fit for a president and the respect of most of the political establishment. Despite his controversial tenure as vice president, no one can dispute that he had, and has, gravitas.

The 2008 Veepstakes

As of this writing, neither party nominee in the 2008 election has yet chosen a running mate. However, given the obvious challenges of a post-9/11 world and sinking economy, and given some glaring shortcomings of each party’s nominee, this year’s selection of vice presidential running mates is of crucial importance, not only to the horse race aspects of the campaign but the public policy aspects of governing.

Arizona Senator John McCain will have to contend with the fact that at age 72, he would be the oldest U.S. president ever elected to a first term. Ronald Reagan, elected at 69 and sworn-in at 70, was previously the most aged president. Reagan suffered memory lapses throughout his presidency and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease five years after he left office which will serve as a stark reminder that presidential illness and disability are always a possibility, particular for a septuagenarian president. Beyond the challenge of advanced age, McCain is also distrusted by the conservative base of his own Republican Party. This distrust is the result of his embracing the maverick role in the U.S. Congress for decades and earning a reputation for bucking his own party, even when politically inexpedient to do so.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the presumed nominee for the Democratic Party, has the opposite problem. At age 47 and just three years removed from being a state senator in Springfield, it is relatively easy to portray Obama as too inexperienced for the job. Also, with one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate, opponents can paint Obama as out of touch with mainstream America.

The challenge for both candidates will be to select individuals that simultaneously boost their chances of winning the election but are also viewed as presidential in their own right. As career legislators, both men lack executive experience so helpful in the White House, thus a running mate with executive experience is logical and perhaps essential. McCain, often viewed as a moderate will likely want to bolster his credentials among the GOP base, perhaps by selecting a conservative Southern governor. Obama will need to increase his allure among moderate and independent voters, particularly since McCain has a built-in advantage there. Perhaps a moderate governor from a battleground state would help Obama broaden his appeal.

Given the fact that a number of presidents have not survived their term, and several have been unable to perform their duties at some point during their presidency, a running mate should be chosen based on qualification first. In a post-9/11 world, the office of vice president is too important to select an individual solely based on electoral or political expediency.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bain and the Political Street Fight

Politico Arena Topic: Should Democrats Stop Bain Capital Attacks?

“They apparently looted the companies, left people unemployed and walked off with millions of dollars. Look, I’m for capitalism, I’m for people who go in to save a company... if somebody comes in takes all the money out of your company, and then leaves you bankrupt while they go off with millions, that’s not traditional capitalism.” Those were not the words of President Barack Obama but rather Newt Gingrich, one of Mitt Romney’s chief rivals for the GOP nomination, just four months ago. Bain was a major target during the Republican Primary season. So what has changed? Absolutely nothing except that some Democrats are getting squeamish about attacking Romney’s one supposed advantage in the election—his business experience—for fear of angering Wall Street and Corporate America. Here’s a news flash Democrats: they already don’t like you nor trust you, just check the campaign finance records.

The Obama campaign is exactly right to take on Romney’s business credentials by delving into the world of Bain Capital and private equity. After all, Romney touts his business acumen at every campaign stop. And the Obama campaign appears to be on the correct side of public opinion on the issue of wealth in general. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released today, 56% of Americans agreed that “unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy” was a “bigger problem in this country” compared to 34% who felt “over-regulation of the free market” was a more important problem.

Finally, the notion that it is somehow unfair to examine a candidate’s past record is laughable. After all, a campaign should be about the issues and record/experience that each candidate brings to the table. In 2008 (as will be the case in 2012), the Republican Party and McCain campaign had little hesitation inspecting every vote Barack Obama cast and every public utterance he made as a U.S. Senator or Illinois legislator. Obama’s life as a community organizer and even as a student also came under great public examination. Even Sarah Palin, who took so much issue recently with scrutiny of Bain, did not hesitate as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate to accuse Obama of “palling around with terrorists” and other attacks perceived as way out of bounds and simply not true. If the Obama campaign were to give-in to the criticism and relax its investigation of Romney’s record as a venture capitalist, it would be unilaterally disarming.

It is common practice for campaigns to cry foul and argue that attacks by the other side are unfair. The Obama campaign will certainly do the same. However, a presidential campaign is not a high-minded game of chess played over wine and finger-food but rather a street fight fought in a dark alley with sharp implements for the most important office in the land. And just about anything, from Swiss bank accounts to birth certificates, is fair game.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ohio Presidential Connection

Below is an essay I published in the Winter 2008 edition of Northeast Ohio Municipal Leader Magazine. Although it is four years old, it is still very relevant today.

The Ohio Presidential Connection

“There’s nothing like an early morning rally in the great state of Ohio. I can’t think of a better place to kick off the last day of this campaign.”

--President George W. Bush, November 1, 2004, in Wilmington, Ohio.

Ohio has always played an important role in the presidential election system since achieving statehood in 1803. Because of its size and diversity, both in terms of geography and population, Ohio has been, and will continue to be, a microcosm of the rest of the country. In recent elections, Ohio has been a key electoral battlefield—a must win state for those seeking the presidential office. It’s possible to win the presidency without winning Ohio’s electoral votes; it’s just not likely. Since 1964, no individual seeking the presidency has won the office without winning the Buckeye State and only twice since 1896 has that happened. In fact, no Republican has ever become president without winning Ohio. It is also no accident that eight presidents can trace part of their lineage to Ohio.

The Buckeye Eight

Ohio has a long rich history of playing a vital role in American presidential elections. This is most keenly embodied in the number of presidents and presidential contenders who have had connections to the Buckeye State, earning Ohio the moniker, “mother of presidents.” In 1836, William Henry Harrison became the first Ohioan to win electoral votes in a presidential election and in 1840 was elected as the nation’s first Whig president. Though born in Virginia, Harrison had served in the Ohio State Legislature as well as represented Ohio in both the U.S. House and Senate. Harrison also became the first president to die in office, expiring after only 30 days from pneumonia, likely the result of giving the longest inauguration speech in history without a hat or overcoat during inclement weather.

Union Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1822. He was elected president in 1868, and reelected four years later, beginning a succession of Gilded Age Republican presidents with Ohio ties. Fremont’s Rutherford B. Hayes and Mentor’s James A. Garfield followed in 1876 and 1880 respectively. Hayes, winner of perhaps the most controversial election in American history, became president despite losing the popular vote to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York. A corrupt Electoral Commission reversed the contested electoral votes of three Southern states (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina), thus handing the election to Hayes with an electoral vote margin of one. Hayes pledged to serve only one term—a term most notable for his ending Reconstruction of the South and ushering in a new era of discrimination that would last well into the latter part of the Twentieth Century. James Garfield, only 49 years old, became the second American president felled by an assassin’s bullet when he was shot by a frustrated office-seeker just shy of four months after his inauguration. Garfield’s murder cut short a promising presidency—the former president of Hiram College, Union General, and U.S. Representative was perhaps the most prepared and most intelligent of all the individuals elected in the Gilded Age. After a four-year respite, North Bend-born Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of William Henry Harrison, defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland in an exceedingly close election. Harrison lost the popular vote by 90,000 votes but won the electoral vote. In 1892, Cleveland exacted his revenge on Harrison by defeating him in a rematch, becoming the first and only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.

In 1896, William McKinley of Canton became the sixth president with Ohio connections, and four years later became only the second Ohioan to win a second term. McKinley continued the streak of bad-luck for Ohio presidents becoming the third U.S. president to be assassinated, this time by an anarchist in Buffalo at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. Eight years later, Cincinnati’s William Howard Taft succeeded the iconic Theodore Roosevelt only to have his predecessor challenge him in 1912, thus ensuring his defeat. Warren G. Harding of Marion was elected eight years later and during his term appointed his Republican predecessor, Taft, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Ohioans couldn’t lose in 1920—Ohio Governor James M. Cox was the Democratic nominee who lost to Harding that year. Harding became another Ohio president who failed to survive his entire elected term, serving just over two years before his death from an embolism while in San Francisco.

Not all of the eight presidents with Ohio connections were the best and the brightest. In fact, some such as the intellectually-challenged Harding were much less than that. However, they all had one thing in common—a lineage traced to electoral vote-rich, yet often up-for-grabs Ohio. In the pre-modern era of brokered conventions and backroom deals, sacrifices were made regarding the qualifications of individuals—instead, strategic considerations based on geography ruled the day.

Though U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft, the son of the 27th president and another in the long line of Ohio Tafts, nearly wrested the GOP nomination away from General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Ohio’s grip on the White House ended with Harding’s death. A large reason for this is that as the era of the post-1968 primary system was ushered in by both major parties, Ohio’s power during the nomination stage decreased dramatically. This is due to the fact that Ohio’s primary usually occurs later on the calendar when the results are all but official, at least in the recent era of rampant frontloading. Thus in the primary season, Ohio is largely ignored by the campaigns in favor of states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina that are much less representative of the nation as a whole, but are important simply because they are at the head of the line.

This situation is particularly exacerbated in 2008 as the Iowa Caucus will occur January 3, and a scant five days later the New Hampshire primary will take place, both contests occurring far earlier than at any point in history. Ohio lawmakers have not given into temptation and followed the great rush by other states to move Ohio’s primary date to the beginning of the calendar. Because of this, Ohio’s March 4 primary will hold little interest as both party nominees will have likely been chosen long before. However, both campaigns will have all but taken up residence in the Buckeye State as the general election phase will have begun, and few states will equal the attention Ohio will garner.

The Presidential Connection and 2008: An Ohioan as VP?

The 2008 election has brought rampant speculation as to whether or not Ohio’s popular Governor, Ted Strickland, will be chosen as a runningmate by the eventual Democratic nominee. Strickland’s endorsement in November 2007 of Senator Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party favorite, has fanned the flames of speculation. The choice of Strickland as a runningmate makes all kinds of tactical sense. The Lucasville-born Strickland is exceedingly popular with the Ohio electorate with approval ratings consistently hovering between 60% and 70% in his first year. As a moderate Democrat and Methodist minister whose base is Southern Ohio, Strickland appeals more to crucial border and Southern states than any potential Democratic nominee. Strickland has cross-over appeal as evidenced by the support of large numbers of Republicans and independents in his 2006 gubernatorial election, as well as in his easy reelection victories as a U.S. Representative from the 6th Congressional district in Southeast, Ohio. Strickland’s support of Second Amendment rights and his good working relationship with the NRA, who endorsed him in 2006, further increases his across-the-aisle appeal.

And let’s not forget Ohio’s electoral vote bonanza of 20—a total sure to bring victory to any Democrat able to capture it. And this more than anything means Strickland is at or near the top of any short list of potential runningmates. Strickland may well turn down a future offer for the VP slot and has publicly and repeatedly stated that he is “not interested.” However, that won’t quell the speculation. No serious Democratic Party nominee could fail to consider the popular Ohio Governor as a vice presidential runningmate.

Perhaps no election demonstrates the importance of Ohio in the electoral milieu as does 2004. No state was visited more by the major candidates in the nine months leading up to the election. An immense amount of money was spent by both campaigns in Ohio as well as their surrogates. Ohio voters were repeatedly inundated with political advertising, including the infamous Swift Boat ads, throughout 2004. The 2008 election will be no different. In a state carried by President George W. Bush by only 119,000 votes, a mere 2% of the popular vote total, Strickland’s name as part of the Democratic ticket could be just the elixir to make Ohio a blue state for the first time since 1996.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Obama, the Newsweek Cover, and a Changing America

Politico Arena Topic: Does the Newsweek Cover announcing Obama as "The First Gay President" help or hurt Obama's reelection chances?

Well you can bet the Newsweek cover declaring Barack Obama to be the first gay president will make its way into more than one anti-Obama ad. However, I believe it will be a net positive for the Obama campaign going forward. Social and religious conservatives who are appalled by the President’s support for same-sex marriage were never going to vote for him anyway—even if he were the last eligible candidate on the planet. And the drop off in support for Obama among some independents will likely be offset by increased support among other independents and an energized base that, for the first time since 2009, sees glimpses of the hope and change candidate they voted for in 2008.

The fact is that a majority of Americans now view same sex relationships as socially acceptable (54% according to a recent Gallup poll compared to 55% who found it unacceptable just 10 years earlier). And 50% of Americans now think same-sex marriage should be legal. The GOP is out of step with America on this issue and will be increasingly at odds as the trends are moving toward even greater acceptance. The real key for Obama is that young people (18-34) are overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex marriage with 2/3 supporting it according to Gallup. This is absolutely an issue that could energize younger folks to get out and vote for Obama which will help him compete in many of the battleground states in 2012.

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