Blagojevich Scandal the First Test of Post-Partisanship Washington

The election of Senator Barack Obama to be President of the United States could herald a new era of post-partisanship. President-elect Obama has made it clear he intends to listen to all sides, especially those who disagree with him. He seems to understand the reality that to last, reforms must be accepted by a broad range of the political spectrum. Otherwise, the next time the pendulum swings, those changes will be swept away.

The first test of this post-partisan era arrived this morning when federal authorities arrested Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for selling appointment to the seat President-elect Obama has vacated. As United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald put it, “The Senate seat … seemed to be on the verge of being auctioned off.”

Let’s be clear, based on what was caught on tape, Governor (and hopefully soon to be ex-Governor) Blagojevich is the most disreputable sort of politician. He sullied his office and shamed himself and his family. He appears to be an egotistical crook with no shame, judgement or ethics.

Let’s also be clear, based on what we know today, President-elect Obama and his team had no involvement in the Governor’s chicanery. In fact, the Associated Press reports that Governor Blagojevich was caught on tape complaining that “Obama’s people are ‘not going to give me anything except appreciation.”

Despite this reality, the far right wing will seek to tie the president-elect to this scandal. After all, they are both Democrats from Chicago, knew and no doubt endorsed one another, and have ties to the convicted Illinois fundraiser Tony Rezko. So there’s plenty of material for fantasists to use in spinning their conspiracies. That means the zeolots over at GOPUSA and their ilk will have a field day. Who cares?

The real question is whether more mainstream Republicans will rush to judgement. It’s their behavior that will mark the maturity of the GOP. If they respond responsibly it’s a sign they’re willing to give the new president a fair chance — a demonstration of post-partisanship. If they initiate a campaign of innuendo, marked by the accusation of the day, aimed at tainting the incoming administration, it would mark a continuation of the poisonous partisanship that has brought the approval ratings of the Bush Administration and Congress to the cellar they currently occupy.

The appointment scandal is a tragedy. It is also the first test of how the Obama Administration and conservatives in general, Republicans in particular, will conduct themselves. There are unfortunate hints Republicans won’t be able to resist sliding back into old habits. The Republican National Committee, shortly after President-elect Obama statedthat he had “no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening,” issued a statement citing the “President-elect’s history of supporting and advising Governor Blagojevich” and calling on him to “fully address the issue.” The implication: President-elect Obama is involved in some way with the Springfield scandal. And Representative Eric Cantor, the Republican House whip said, “The serious nature of the crimes listed by federal prosecutors raises questions about the interaction with Gov. Blagojevich, President-electObama and other high ranking officials who will be working for the future president.”

I don’t mean to suggest that Democrats and Republicans should hold hands and sing kubaya. The conflict between Democrats and Republicans is real and passions run deep and strong. However, the political reality is that much of the country, and arguably the part of the country that decides national elections, is tired of the old attack dog politics of Washington. The ongoing investigation will bring to light any involvement by Obama’s transition team in Governor Blagojevich’s activities, whether for good or ill. Republicans should focus on helping to fix the nation’s problems and, while keeping an eye on the investigation, let it make it’s own news.

America would would benefit from a post-partisan era, in which party matters, but country matters more. The Republican Party would benefit from such a tact, too. As the recent campaign showed, name calling and fear mongering don’t win elections. Let’s assume the initial reaction by the RNC and Rep. Cantor were simply a natural reflex they can now control. Let’s hope they don’t succumb to the old temptation of cheap shots, but instead embrace a more mature approach to politics and governing.

The truth will come out with or without old politics. But they won’t solve America’s challenges.

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The Republican Dilemma: Follow Palin or Emanuel

The finger pointing within the Republican party has begun. Which is good news. The first stage is denial, but there’s no denying the repudiation the GOP has received in the past two years. They not only lost their majority in Congress, the Democrats gained impressive majorities. They not only lost the White House, they lost it big, losing states that hadn’t gone blue in decades. So that they’ve already reached the blame stage is probably a healthy step. The fun will begin when the Republicans start taking action to recover from their drubbing.

There are a host of directions the GOP can move in, but they generally fall into two categories: they can focus on their base, keeping them in line by focusing on wedge issues (e.g,. gay marriage or prayer in school). Or they can seek to expand their party to include those who may feel unwelcome in the Republican’s ever shrinking tent.

The former approach was honed by Karl Rove, but  exemplified by Governor Sarah Palin. Mr. Rove twice helped elect George W. Bush president by scaring the beejeebies out of voters. This approach is exemplified by demonizing your opponent, scaring your supporters, and diminishing civil discourse. Governor Palin took this approach when she divided the country into  “real America” versus, presumably, “unreal America.” She claimed Senator Barack Obama didn’t see America the way “you and I” do. She accused him of palling around with terrorists and claimed he was a socialist (which can be defined as someone who espouses socialistic ideas). She claimed to be doing God’s will, which, by implication means Democrats and independents who supported Senator Obama weren’t.

A leading advocate of the politics of inclusion, on the other hand, is incoming White House Chief of Staff and current Congressman Rahm Emanuel. In 2006, as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee he was relentless in recruiting candidates who could win in Republican held seats. He used no ideological litmus test, which angered many in his own party. But Congressman Emanuel recruited to win power, not debating points. Win power he did, wresting away from Republicans control of the House for the first time in 12 years even as President Bush was winning reelection.

This is not to say that ideology doesn’t matter. It matters very much. But ideology without pragmatism is a dorm argument. Once the grieving stops, Republicans will need to think seriously about the direction they intend to take. They can follow Governor Palin down the path leading to a party of ever fewer true believers. Or they can take Rep. Emanuel’s path and recruit leaders who share in the core principles of the GOP but would never be considered “pure” by the fierce core.

The Palin approach chooses to see the world as they wish it to be. The Emanuel perspective sees the world as it is. These are the views Republicans need to choose between and, for their sake, before the 2010 elections.

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Why Obama Can Stay Positive

Senator Hillary Clinton and her key advisers seem convinced that the questions they raised about Senator Barack Obama’s ability to manage the economy and the nation’s defense worked. They point to exit polls showing Senator Clinton winning among voters who decided just prior to the Texas and Ohio primaries as proof. And the data bears this theory out.

According to the MSNBC exit polls, in Texas Senator Clinton won the support of 67 percent and in Ohio 63 percent of those deciding on a candidate in the three days leading up to the election day. Granted, the Obama campaign did nearly as much damage to itself as the Clinton commandos did. The meeting between his economic adviser and the Canadian consulate was boneheaded and the timing of the leak about it was devastating.

Senator Clinton seems to relish going negative. Her campaign was supposed to have wrapped up the nomination back in early February. She sometimes seems insulted that she still needs to campaign for what, in her and her supporters minds, is rightfully hers. So she’ll keep the attacks coming. If she’s smart, she’ll leave the toughest hits to her surrogates while she focuses on showing her more human and caring side. Whether she is capable of remaining above the fray is yet to be seen.

Senator Obama, meanwhile, has a tough choice to make. Any candidate has plenty of negatives to choose among in a campaign against Senator Clinton. She’s made the successes of her husband’s administration a part of her candidacy. That makes his problems her problems, too. Questions about that administration’s last minute pardons, the contributions to the Bill Clinton presidential library and the like become fair game.

Senator Obama’s staff has begun raising those issues with the press. According to Boston Globe, some of his supporters even cast these attacks as a public service to the Democratic party. “These are important questions. The people deserve to know. And we deserve, as Democrats, to know before a nominee is selected, because we don’t want things to explode in a general election against John McCain,” the Globe quotes former-Senator Bill Bradley as saying.  

Senator Obama needs to demonstrate he can play hardball politics, but he has to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine his status as the champion of a new kind of politics. It won’t be an easy balance to achieve or maintain.  If he errs toward being too soft, he risks being viewed as lacking the strength to be president; if he goes too far in the other direction he risks undermining not only his own credibility, but a core principle of his campaign.

The good news is that Senator Obama doesn’t need to go negative. The questions about Senator Clinton are out there. Now, every time she attacks Senator Obama, some reporter is likely to bring up one of her problems as well. Meanwhile, the calendar could work to Senator Obama’s favor.

 First, he’s likely to do well in the contests leading up to Pennsylvania primary on April 22nd. Those victories will recapture some of the momentum he lost in Ohio and Texas. Second, if the Clinton campaign goes too negative — something they’re prone to do — the public will get turned off. In the meantime, Senator Obama’s campaign can use their response to her attacks as an opportunity to counterpunch. This allows his campaign to attack Senator Clinton without being the aggressor.

Finally, Senator Obama can use the six weeks remaining before the Pennsylvania primary to present his substantive credentials while remaining above the fray of “old school” politics. He should schedule at least two major policy speeches before April 22nd. One should focus on foreign policy; the other on the economy. They should be bull speeches presented to dull audiences. They should be substantive, detailed and. well, boring. Their goal is to add gravitas to his candidacy and his persona. After all, establishing himself as a capable leader is the best defense against the attacks the Clinton campaign will be throwing his way.

Senator Obama has an opportunity to use the next six weeks to show what turning the page on the Clinton/Bush era of negative politics would look like. And that is a winning message.

The Magical Art of Politics

One of the keys to a successful magic trick is not letting the audience know when the trick actually occurs. It’s called misdirection. When the audience thinks the magician is simply cutting cards or straightening cups, that’s when the “magic” often occurs. The banter, the smiles, the music, it’s all there to keep the audience distracted from what’s really going on.

When attention is brought to bear on a single act — the tapping of a wand, the tugging on a silk scarf — that’s when the audience thinks the slight-of-hand is at play. But in reality, all the magician is likely doing is, well, tapping a wand or tugging on a scarf.

Magic and politics have a lot in common. The principles say one thing and do another. The simplest of accomplishments are touted as earthshaking. However, at the end of the day, finding the Ace of Spades inside a lemon is pretty spiffy, but it’s not turning the economy around. And neither will a few hundred dollars in rebate checks.

And the best in the fields of magic and politics are masters of misdirection. 

Consider: Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been telling the audience — the media, pundits and public — to focus on Ohio and Texas. That’s where she’ll prove she’s the inevitable nominee, break the momentum of Senator Barack Obama and, if not quite able to overtake him in the delegate count, positioning herself to pull that rabbit out of her hat on April 22nd in Pennsylvania. Everything between Super Tuesday and March 4th is just so much hoopla to be ignored — focus on Ohio and Texas.

Yet at the same time, Senator Clinton is spending significant time and money in Wisconsin hoping for a bit of magic this Tuesday. Her campaign is spinning expectations so low that merely being on the ballot would count as a victory. That’s called banter. In the mean time, she’s cutting cards, palming quarters, and priming the gaff to keep the state close and, if miracles come true, actually win. Polls show the race close, albeit with Senator Obama in the lead. But a five point lead, which, give or take, is where things stand, can evaporate overnight. Just ask Senator Obama’s New Hampshire staff.

Even if she doesn’t win Wisconsin, keeping the race close helps the Clinton campaign in two ways. First, the campaign is all about delegates. Since they’re divvied up proportionally, an effort in Wisconsin should get her a good share of them. Second, it mitigates against a blowout that the Obama campaign could use to close the gap in Ohio and Texas. Keeping it close, on the other hand, allows her campaign to claim we’ve witnessed Senator Obama’s high water mark.

So the misdirection is a no lose situation for her. As long as she can keep everyone talking about Ohio and Texas on March 4th, she has only upside in Wisconsin on February 19th. That’s the magical art of politics.

Super Delegates and Presidential Coattails

Super delegates. Previously just window dressing — a way to assure that the party’s leadership showed up at the Democratic convention — this time they matter. They could determine who will be the next president of the United States. Yes, Senator John McCain standing in the way, but both the remaining Democratic candidates have a better than even chance of defeating him. And with the possibility that neither Senator Barack Obama nor Senator Hillary Clinton will show up in Denver with enough delegates to seize the nomination, the votes of the remaining uncommitted super delegates matters a lot.

The super delegates are members of Congress along with past and present Democratic party leaders.  There’s a lot of theories as to what has and will drive them to one candidate or the other. Personal loyalty. Who they consider the most electable in November. Who their constituents supported in the primaries. Who “won” the primaries.

What hasn’t been mentioned much, but should be a significant factor, is which potential nominee will help Democrats down ticket: in elections for United States Senator and Representative; for Governor and State Legislator. There’s a lot at stake in what happens around the country in these races. And the super delegates should be, and many no doubt are, very aware of them.

Consider: more than a dozen of the House seats Democrats won in 2006 were traditionally Republican seats in which the incumbent had ethics problems. Those seats are vulnerable in 2008. Super delegates are going to want a presidential candidate who can help the party hold them.

Or consider the importance of state elections. The governors and legislators elected in 2008 are likely to still be in office when redistricting comes around in a few years. Super delegates are going to want to make sure Democrats are drawing the lines in as many states as possible.

Does the presidential candidate really influence these down ticket races? Absolutely. For example:

In 1972, Cathy O’Neill was seeking to become the first woman elected to California’s State Senate. The incumbent was a long time GOP legislator, the Vice Chair of the Senate Rules Committee. Conservative Democrats in the south of the district outnumbered the more liberal partisans in the north. Republicans in the district were more moderate than in other parts of the state. Ms. O’Neill had a real chance of winning. The Democratic presidential nominee that year was George McGovern. On his way to a historic defeat nationally, he drove many conservative and moderate Democrats to vote Republican. Ms. O’Neill lost by less than one percent — about 1,000 votes. (Full disclosure: I was Ms. O’Neill’s press secretary in that campaign).

Jump forward eight years. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan is facing off against the incumbent President, Jimmy Carter. Governor Reagan wins so many Eastern and Midwest states that President Carter concedes the election before the polls close in California. Hundreds of voters leave their polling places without casting ballots. San Fernando Congressman Jim Corman loses his seat, again, by less than 1,000 votes. Steve Afriat loses a nearby Assembly race by 600 votes.

Presidential coattails are real. And when a race is close, they can make the difference. And in every election there are close races.

Which means super delegates need to apply the “picture” test: will it help a local candidate to appear on the front page of their district’s newspapers alongside the Democratic presidential nominee?

If that nominee is Senator Obama, the answer is, in virtually every part of the country, a resounding “yes.” His appeal to independents and swing Republicans is well established and is his ability to inspire voters. He casts an aura virtually every Democratic candidate in the country would to appear.

If Senator Clinton is in the picture, however, there’s a lot more candidates who would answer is “no.” Senator Clinton, fairly or not, is a polarizing figure in American politics. While her presence would greatly benefit some candidates, it would cost others votes. Significantly, the districts in which her presence helps are more likely to vote Democratic anyway. It’s in the swing seats where her presence could be a detriment.

Super delegates need to think about which candidate can win in November. They also need to take a serious look at the coattails each offers the party. When they do, I think the majority will move to Senator Obama.