Sunday, March 7, 2010

A note to reader(s)

As the month-long gap between my last post and this one suggests, I haven't been adding much new content since I started at Salon. Most of what I have to say (at least about politics) I can say there, so there's not much point in writing here.

Nonetheless, I'm going to keep this site going, since I do occasionally have non-political thoughts. Plus, I'll continue updating the links on the right-hand side.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Paterson's week from hell

It's been four nights since my last post, and Richard Ravitch still isn't governor! Anyway, I have a new column up at Salon (where I'm now the news editor) on Paterson's self-inflicted plight. You can read it here.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Governor Ravitch?

Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider is suggesting that the New York Times will drop its (supposed) David Paterson bombshell tomorrow -- and that the governor's resignation will follow shortly thereafter.

Obviously, this is highly speculative. As I noted on Friday, this isn't the first time I've heard chatter about a looming NYT story that will destroy a political career. It may well be that the Times does run a Paterson story tomorrow, but that it fails to even remotely match the build-up. It may also be that there's no story. And even if an explosive story does run tomorrow (or in the near future), who knows if Paterson really will quit?

But let's put all of those variables aside for a moment. If Weisenthal is right and Paterson does step down, the new governor of New York will be Richard Ravitch -- who, you may recall, was appointed lieutenant governor by Paterson last summer. (The appointment, which bypassed legislative confirmation, was challenged in court and ultimately upheld by the state's highest court on a 4-3 vote.) In effect, then, New York's governor will have been chosen by one man. At least Gerald Ford had to be confirmed by Congress!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Have we been down this road before?

It may be that the New York Times is about the stick the final, fatal knife in David Paterson. That's been the rampant rumor today, at least. I have no idea whether there's anything to this. Several different versions of what the Times is supposedly set to report have been relayed to me -- along with cries of B.S. from others. I have two reactions:

1) It doesn't really matter. Paterson is a political goner and has been for about a year now. He's the Jane Swift of New York -- a spectacularly unpopular accidental governor who continues to insist he'll seek a full term even with his party's 800-pound gorilla just standing there, waiting for the right moment to pounce. An explosive scandal now would only hasten the inevitable Paterson surrender to Andrew Cuomo.

2) I'm reminded of the case of Bob Menendez in 2004 and 2005. For months back then, similar rumors swirled in New Jersey political circles. The Times, those in the know insisted, was sitting on a devastating expose that would ruin the then-congressman's pursuit of a U.S. Senate seat. (Menendez at the time was maneuvering to win an appointment to the Senate; Jon Corzine was running for governor, and would get to pick his own successor if elected.) The supposed details of the report varied, but most everyone agreed: Menendez would be toxic once it hit.

Finally, in July '05, the story ran. You can read it here. There were no stunning revelations. No smoking gun. Insiders could read between the lines and see what the Times was getting at, but to casual readers, the story wasn't a very big deal. It had no legs, and a few months later, Corzine (after winning the gubernatorial election) picked Menendez to fill his Senate seat. So much for being a career-killer.

Now, maybe the Times had originally planned to run a more damning story about Menendez and the juicy stuff just couldn't get past legal. And maybe they've been able to substantiate rumors about Paterson. Time will tell. But for now, I wouldn't be surprised if the Times runs a Paterson story in the next few days and it utterly fails to match the build-up.

Not that it really matters in the long-run, of course.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

You've got to be kidding

A press release from the Draft Larry Kudlow Committee just popped into my inbox. The group wants the CNBC commentator to challenge Chuck Schumer in New York this fall. This is funny enough. But what caught my eye was this:

The Draft Larry Kudlow Committee, a group working to recruit the CNBC commentator to run against liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), announced today that Wall Street financier John Lakian will serve as the group's finance chairman.

"I am honored to lead fundraising efforts for the Draft Larry Kudlow Committee," said Mr. Lakian, a longtime friend of Mr. Kudlow. "The momentum of this movement is remarkable and I am hopeful and confident Larry will run."

"Our nation needs Larry's common sense approach to economic prosperity now more than ever," Mr. Lakian said. "But this will be a tough race. We must begin stockpiling campaign funds now so if Larry decides to run this spring we can compete financially with Chuck Schumer."

John Lakian?!

Consider yourself forgiven if his name doesn't ring a bell. The press release identifies him as "current board chairman of the Fort Hill Group, Inc., an investment banking and venture capital firm based in New York City. He is also CEO of Living Independently Group, a company that develops monitoring system to assist in the care of senior citizens." This is probably true. Although with Lakian, you never know. Let me explain.

In 1982, Lakian was a 39-year-old millionaire hot shot who'd been bitten by the political bug. So he decided to run for governor of Massachusetts. He was a Republican, but it wasn't a wild idea: the state's Democratic Party was at war, with Michael Dukakis (who'd been governor from 1974 to 1978) challenging Ed King (who'd defeated Dukakis in '78) in a bloodly primary re-match. So maybe there was room for a credible Republican.

The GOP establishment initially loved Lakian. He could run as a political outsider and finance his own campaign. At the spring '82 state GOP convention, he beat out Andy Card (then an ambitious state representative) and John Sears (a Boston city councilman) for the official party endorsement. He was well-positioned to win the September primary. And then....well, as the Boston Globe put it a few years later:
After winning the endorsement of the Republican state convention in 1982, Lakian's gubernatorial campaign ran aground when the Globe disclosed that he had falsely claimed to have attended graduate school at Harvard; had said in campaign literature that his father died of war-related injuries when in fact he was killed in an automobile accident; and that he had embellished his own military record, even though he had been cited for valorous action as an Army lieutenant in Vietnam. Lakian eventually came in a poor second in the GOP race in 1982.

It got worse, though. Lakian sued the Globe for libel. The case went to trial in 1985. Lakian took the stand and melted down under cross-examination. The jury ruled that the "gist of the article" had been true and that Lakian had not been defamed.

But that wasn't the end of it. Nine years later, with Ted Kennedy facing the worst poll numbers of his career, Lakian re-emerged and declared himself a candidate for the Senate. This time, the GOP establishment was horrified. They wanted nothing to do with Lakian, and anyway, they already had a millionaire businessman candidate: Mitt Romney, then an obscure venture capitalist. Somehow, Lakian cobbled together the 15 percent delegate support at the state GOP convention needed to make the primary ballot (he actually got 17 percent to Romney's 68).

He picked up right where he'd left off in '82. From the Globe in July 1994:

Republican GOP Senate candidate John Lakian, whose once-rising political career crashed 12 years ago because of false resume claims, yesterday found himself forced to retract a statement he recently made about his military background.

At a news conference on July 14, Lakian told reporters that during his military career he took part in Army intelligence operations that targeted and spied on Vietnam War protests.

Yesterday, Lakian, who won two Bronze Stars as a combat soldier in Vietnam, acknowledged that he never did participate in the Army's domestic spying scheme while stationed at its counterintelligence school at Fort Holibird in Maryland in 1968.

It wasn't much of a race. Lakian hurled big money into television ads and wrapped himself around a flat tax proposal (the same strategy Steve Forbes would use in the GOp presidential race two years later). But no one was listening. Romney mostly ignored him. The biggest headline of the race might have been Lakian's memorable Freudian slip, in which he referred to Romney as "Mr. Mormon." In the September '94 primary, Romney won by an 83 to 17 percent tally.

After that, Lakian dropped off the political map. And now, 16 years later, he wants to make Larry Kudlow a senator.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The cat's out of the bag

Now that the word is out, I might as well mention it here: I've signed on as the news editor at Salon. I'll be starting next week and am really looking forward to working with what is a very talented team of writers and editors.

Monday, February 1, 2010

When does Charlie Crist drop out?

Rasmussen now has Marco Rubio running 12 points ahead of Charlie Crist, 49 to 37 percent. Last week, Quinnipiac showed Rubio leading by three. The primary isn't until August 24, but really, there's not much reason to think Crist will turn this around.

This feels like a slightly sped up version of the Dave Heineman-Tom Osborne 2006 GOP primary in Nebraska, when Heineman began as an unknown accidental governor running 70 points behind the beloved former coach of the Cornhuskers. But Heineman (to his credit as a politician) had a base-friendly style and message. Osborne (to his credit as a man) didn't. It took Heineman a little longer to catch Osborne, but his rise had the same feeling of inevitability as Rubio's does now.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wishful analysis, Fred Barnes-style

See if you can spot where Fred Barnes' attempt to draw a parallel between the Obama and Clinton presidencies lurches into wishful analysis territory:

Since the Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts on January 19 and the collapse of Obama’s domestic agenda, the parallels between Obama now and Clinton in 1994 have come into sharp focus....

To save his presidency after his stiff rebuff in the midterm elections, Clinton lurched to the political center. He adopted a strategy of “triangulation” that involved painful compromises with Republicans, who had captured the House and Senate. It worked. Clinton glided to reelection in 1996, defeating Republican Bob Dole by 7 points.

Though it’s rarely acknowledged, Clinton’s most significant successes in the White House were all in conjunction with Republicans: the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, welfare reform in 1996, and balanced budget legislation in 1997 that included a cut in the capital gains tax rate from 28 percent to 20 percent that spurred the financial boom and budget surplus of his second term.

Barnes' comparison is, not surprisingly, very misleading. Sure, there's an obvious parallel between Obama's 2010 political struggles and Clinton's in 1994. But Barnes can't simply point that out, because -- as he notes -- Clinton ended up rebounding and winning a re-election landslide in 1996. (Quibble: Barnes slightly understates the margin of Clinton's '96 win over Dole; it was actually 8.5 points, not 7.) And no self-respecting Weekly Standard writer is about to forecast such a happy ending to Obama's first term. So Barnes' challenge is tell us why Obama is much more screwed than Clinton was 16 years ago. Which is where he goes off the rails.

His argument, as you can see, is that Clinton turned his presidency around by essentially governing as a Republican. There is some truth here: I can certainly remember how frustrated many progressives were when Clinton signed welfare reform, or when he ran ads on Christian radio stations bragging about his decision to sign the Defense of Marriage Act.

But Barnes conveniently leaves out the single most significant moment for Clinton's post-'94 turnaround: his fall '95 confrontation with the Republican Congress over its budget priorities, which resulted in a shut-down of the federal government that November. To most voters, the incident starkly illustratrated the differences between the president and his Republican opponents. Clinton came off as a tough, decisive and principled protector of the social safety net. The Republicans looked like fanatical ideologues. After the shut-down, Clinton's re-election was virtually assured; Bob Dole never got close to him in the polls.

More galling, though, is Barnes' claim that "Clinton's most significant successes in the White House were all in conjunction with Republicans." Again, there's something to this (although any post-'94 achievment had to come through cooperation with Republicans -- since they ran Congress); and again, Barnes conveniently ignores the elephant in the room: Clinton's 1993 budget, which was passed without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate.

That budget, which raised income tax rates on the highest-earning Americans, was instrumental in arresting the runaway deficits of the Reagan era, restoring the confidence of Wall Street, and laying the foundation for the economic prosperity that marked most of Clinton's reign. Without it, Clinton would never have been able to hand off a budget surplus to George W. Bush in 2001. (And I don't need to remind you what Bush and the GOP Congress did with that surplus.)

I don't have the time to go pull quotes now, but if you're looking for a laugh, go back and read through the news coverage of Clinton's budget from the summer of 1993. One Republican after another cast it as a threat to life as we know it -- a guaranteed jobs killer that would strangle growth and investment and plunge the country back into a recession. It passed the House on a 218-216 vote and only got through the Senate with Al Gore's tie-breaking vote. Zero Republicans voted for it. (Sort of like the stimulus last year, and health care now.)

Just like all of the Republicans who voted against Clinton's budget, Barnes seems to have forgotten all about it.

On Obama and the 2012 primaries

Question: How can you tell if a story is all hype and no substance? Answer: If it's on Drudge.

And that's really about all you need to know about the "chatter" about Hillary Clinton challenging President Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries, which Matt Drudge dutifully played up latelast week. It's just not going to happen. Obama, almost certainly, will win his party's backing again without serious opposition.

Yeah, I know: No modern first-year president has seen his popularity drop as far and as fast as Obama's, and the Democrats just lost a Senate seat in Ted Kennedy's backyard, and the fall landscape looks bleak, and this isn't what people voted for, and blah blah blah.

This is the moment of Obama's presidency when it's particularly valuable to step back and take the long view. Because if you can pry yourself from the panicky narrative of the present, you'll realize -- as I've written over and over -- that Obama's second-year swoon was inevitable from the moment he was elected.

And inevitably, idle chatter about primary challenges goes hand-in-hand with second-year swoons. The Hillary murmurs are merely the loudest in a series of baseless murmurs. At the start of January, Politico floated the notion of a Howard Dean challenge to Obama from the left. Then came suggestions that Evan Bayh might go at him from the right. The New York Times even had fun putting Dennis Kucinich's name out there. Who's next on the list? John Edwards?

We've been down this same road with past presidents.

When Bill Clinton's presidency seemed to be going down the drain in 1994, we heard all about Jesse Jackson's impending challenge from the left. Or maybe Jerry Brown would run instead of Jackson. And either Paul Tsongas or Bob Kerrey would run to Clinton's right (on economic issues only), arguing that he hadn't done enough to trim entitlement spending and cut the deficit. And then there was Bob Casey, the pro-life Pennsylvania governor, itching to settle the score from the 1992 convention (when Clinton denied Casey a speaking slot).

Ronald Reagan got the same treatment in 1982, the second year of his presidency. As double-digit unemployment undermined his once-staggering popularity (sound familiar?), rumors of primary challenges began springing up. The yet-to-be-disgraced Bob Packwood was -- supposedly-- ready to go after Reagan from the left, while Jack Kemp, Jesse Helms and William Armstrong were all talked up as potential challengers from the right. (Yes, just like some progressives now call Obama a sell-out, some on the right affixed the same label to Reagan during his presidency.)

You know how the Reagan and Clinton stories played out: economic resurgences in Year Three and uncontested re-nominations (and landslide re-elections) in Year Four.

Sure, presidents aren't immune to primary challenges. Just ask George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. But there were extenuating circumstances in both cases. Bush splintered the GOP with his 1990 tax hike (creating an opening for Pat Buchanan), while Carter presided over a Democratic Party that was still in the throes of an identity crisis -- Carter's "new" Southern Democrats against the old-guard New Deal/Great Society/organized labor establishment. In other words, there was plenty of room for Ted Kennedy in 1980.

Obama's grip on his own party is far stronger than Carter's ever was. And while there's plenty of discontent on the left, he hasn't (yet) done anything to split the party the way Bush fractured his own. Which means that the Hillary/Bayh/Dean/Kucinich/Your Next-Door Neighbor primary chatter is mainly the product of Obama's second year political woes. Which, as Reagan and Clinton both showed, are likely to be fleeting -- no matter how serious they now seem.

When I try to remind people today that there was once talk of Reagan being challenged in the 1984 primaries, they are generally skeptical. It just doesn't seem right. Here's guessing that a few decades from now, reminiscences about the time when Evan Bayh was seen as a plausible primary challenger to Obama will be greeted with similar bafflement.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Obama 1, Pence 0

President Obama's Q&A session with House Republicans has been well-covered elsewhere. Obama clearly got the better of his interlocutors and provided a vivid reminder of why, for all his political woes now, I still believe he'll be a good bet to win a second term in 2012. Like Reagan three decades ago, Obama is just a much more compelling communicator (and has a much more likable manner) than his opponents. (And unlike Reagan, his arguments actually tend to be logical.) If the economy comes back before '12, the Obama we saw in Baltimore today will have no trouble winning back whatever support he loses in the first two years of his presidency.

Actually, 2012 provided the backdrop for my favorite moment today. It came at the very beginning of the session, when Indiana's Mike Pence, who as chairman of the House GOP Conference organized the event, asked the opening question. Except it wasn't really a question. It was an audition for '12. Pence wants to run for president, and this was his chance to show his fellow Republicans -- and anyone else watching on television -- that he's ready to go toe-to-toe with the president.

So he adopted a super-somber tone and launched into an endless monologue that sounded suspiciously like an opening statement at a debate. He probably stayed up all Thursday night writing it. By the middle of it, Pence wasn't even looking at Obama (the man of whom he was supposedly asking a question) and instead turned to face his fellow Republicans in the audience. He likely expected to be greeted with applause when he wrapped up, but he got silence -- which Obama promptly cut with deadpan humor. "Well, there was a lot packed into that question there, Mike," he said. Which got some real laughs from the room full of Republicans. Then Obama did something Pence never once did: he smiled.

Anyway, you can watch the entire thing here.