Thursday, August 28, 2008

A statesman for Obama

When I met Jim Leach for the first time, protesters were shouting down a speech he gave at the Iowa City Public Library under a hand-painted banner that read, "Killer Leach."

It was during the heady days of Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution in 1995 and the mild-mannered, moderate congressman was an unlikely foot soldier. But it was the first time in his 19-year career that the GOP was running the show and he dutifully towed the party line. He truly believed Republicans could clean up Washington.

So when I caught Leach's speech at the Democratic National Convention Monday endorsing Barack Obama, I let out a little gasp.

My former congressman chuckled that as a veteran of five Republican National Conventions, he'd never expected to be at a DNC, either.

"When I was asked to speak, it startled me at first and I had to think about it for a moment," Leach said during a phone interview Wednesday. "But I made a commitment and I decided to go all out."

That commitment is to Republicans for Obama, also led by Sen. Lincoln Chafee. Both were swept out of office during the 2006 Democratic tsunami, but they interestingly haven't bought the idea that maverick John McCain will restore their party. Leach believes a record number of Goldwater Republicans and independents will cross over.

Most Obama backers on tee-vee look to be 18 if they're a day and gush about their personal connection to him. But there was no come-to-Jesus moment with Leach, who admits he doesn't know Obama well.

Dispassionate Princeton professor he is, he neatly laid out a historical and geopolitical case for the Democrat better than anyone I've seen, masterfully weaving in the ideals of Jefferson, Lincoln and Reagan with Obama's.

"The change Barack Obama is advocating is far more than a break with today's politics," Leach said in his speech. "It is a clarion call for renewal rooted in time-tested American values that tap Republican, as well as Democratic traditions."

Leach swats away the idea that the freshman Illinois senator is less ready to be commander-in-chief than McCain, whom he deeply respects.

"There's no doubt that John McCain has served in Congress longer than Barack Obama," says the man who was in Washington longer than both combined. "But it's important to look at judgment over experience and I am impressed by Barack's judgment."

Though he voted for the Gulf War, Leach was one of the few Republicans who didn't back the Iraq war, which he calls "a disaster." He's also troubled by the growing gulf between rich and poor and the middle class that's been left behind. What won him over to Obama was his non-ideological approach to issues and strong cast of bipartisan advisers, which he pointedly says is a break with the Bush administration.

But the most powerful part of his eight-minute monologue Monday was a devastating, and obviously tortured, indictment of the Republican Party he still calls home:

"The party that once emphasized individual rights has gravitated in recent years toward regulating values. The party of military responsibility has taken us to war with a country that did not attack us. The party that formerly led the world in arms control has moved to undercut treaties crucial to the defense of the earth. The party that prides itself on conservation has abdicated its responsibilities in the face of global warming.

"And the party historically anchored in fiscal restraint has nearly doubled the national debt, squandering our precious resources in an undisciplined and unprecedented effort to finance a war with tax cuts."

Unfortunately, the Iowan's measured and thoughtful soliloquy was drowned out by cable's talking heads and skipped by the networks, although once-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman's GOP coming-out party next week will likely net great fanfare. Pundits are praying he puts on the same kind of loopy show that Dixiecrat Zell Miller did at the 2004 RNC that spooked small children and family pets.

But the reality is that Lieberman, though an eloquent and impassioned McCainiac, is swimming against a tide where Republicans are fleeing the party in droves. And the country is moving past the middle and gently leftward. Leach thinks it didn't have to be that way.

"If we had stayed true to our core principles, we could still be in control of Congress," he told me.

Leach, who considers Dwight D. Eisenhower to be the greatest GOP president of the 20th century, could have pushed back against the tide in '06 and probably hung on to his seat. But he nixed an anti-gay mailing and inflamed the religious right, who then worked against him. They're the same folks who call him a turncoat today.

Leach can still rattle off details about that Iowa City event 13 years ago, down to the obnoxious sign. Though the liberal college town is known for its sometimes raucous protests, he clearly didn't relish being the target. He wanted to dialogue with the demonstrators; they wanted to shriek slogans stolen from the '60s.

He deserved better then and he deserves more respect now. But being a statesman is often a thankless job.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Conduct unbecoming in McCainworld

During the last days before the Michigan primary, I stood next to Shane Farlin as he tentatively shuffled up the rope line at a John McCain rally in Battle Creek.

The U.S. Army specialist had lost his right eye in Iraq; his artificial iris was a glimmering American flag. I watched McCain's brown eyes lock on the 22-year-old's, seeming wholly unaware of the hordes waving signs and cameras all around him.

The former POW thanked Farlin for his service twice and listened to his problems with Veterans Affairs for several minutes. He gave him a top aide's cell phone number. I felt my breath catch at the intense exchange, where so much was left unsaid.

Farlin was clearly awestruck afterward, pledging to vote for McCain "without a doubt." I couldn't help but feel the same, especially after covering the focus-grouped affairs of Mr. Plastic, Mitt Romney, and the televangelist-smooth tent revivals of Mike Huckabee.

That was McCain at his best - refreshingly dignified and empathetic. He proved himself the embodiment of service to this country, a notion that has become disturbingly quaint in modern times.

Lately, however, we've been seeing McCain at his worst. When it comes to Barack Obama, he's petulant and personal, seemingly unable to come to grips that he's battling a cool wunderkind 25 years his junior who only recently set foot in the Senate. The same frustration is evident in hiss ever-loyal, bickering staff, starting with his surrogate son and speech writer, Mark Salter.

In a flash of that trademark candor, Johnny Mac would probably volunteer that his raccoon-eyed, unemployed blogger daughter, Meghan, meets the commander-in-chief test better than his rival.

That bitterness, which infected Hillary Clinton (and we all know how well that turned out) won't help him any with voters. Once a candidate seems to lose his mirth and perspective (Al Gore), it's a turn-off, often a fatal one.

Because as much as Americans claim to vote on the issues, personality often trumps all.

There's the non-stop drumbeat questioning Obama's patriotism (and the defensive, disingenuous denials) that's become the stomach-churning hallmark of McCain's campaign for the last few months. The goal is to make this election a referendum on Obama, not President Bush, because the Republicans can read the polls.

The attack machine is sharpest with surrogates like Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent who seems gripped by a somewhat understandable cathartic need to stick it to the party that all but abandoned him in 2006.

This race is "between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put his country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate that has not," Joltin' Joe declared recently.

Sheesh. Hard to remember Lieberman actually encouraged that ungrateful, unqualified kid to run.

Obama rightly fired back in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention this week:

"But one of the things that we have to change in this country is the idea that people can't disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism. I have never suggested that Senator McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest. Now, it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same."

But McCain wasn't about to back down, sniffing that Obama was getting "a little testy on this issue. ... Let me be clear: I am not questioning his patriotism; I am questioning his judgment." Then the Republican launched into his deceitful spiel that Obama doesn't want to win the war in Iraq.

The assault ratchets up in the blogosphere and right-wing media, of course, where reasoned intellectuals like Michael Savage gently raise if Obama is a terrorist. Oh, and he's black, if you haven't noticed. You know, like gang-bangers and Kwame Kilpatrick. Just sayin'.

McCain has done precious little to denounce any of this, shrugging, "You gotta have a sense of humor" about the latest smear book on Obama by white supremacist sympathizer Jerome Corsi. In July, McCain shelled out $19 million in mostly negative ads (only $7 million less than he raised) and he is indeed closing the gap in polling.

But at what price? Has he resigned himself to run a campaign that falls far short of the honor and statesmanship he professes just to win? Sorry, John, that ain't putting your country first. I'd say that's conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.

The erudite David Brooks paints McCain as a victim of circumstance, having little choice amid the media hoopla around the Chosen One. My dear Republican friends tell me Obama's a thin-skinned lightweight who's not up to the job. In other words, the ends justify the means.

That's all well and good, only they didn't feel that way in South Carolina in 2000 when Bush ran a vicious whisper campaign about McCain's black baby (his adopted Bangladeshi daughter) that effectively knocked him out.

Now John McCain proudly says he'd rather lose a campaign than lose a war. It's time to prove it by running a race befitting of his character.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

So much for the safe choice

Let's pause for a minute amidst the scatty cacophony to John Edwards' affair with his flighty "videographer," who no reasonable person would pay to film paint dry.

There's an irony here that's been completely overlooked - and I don't mean the obvious one that the multimillionaire thought he could get away with schtupping the help and still become the Leader of the Free World in an age of 24/7 media.

No, it's the fact that the down-home son of a millworker with his lazy Carolinian drawl (and lily-white skin) was supposed to be the safe bet for the Democrats. Jaded liberals squawked that America would never go for the ballsy chick or the black dude, so you'll vote for Edwards and you'll like it.

That's the best we can hope for. America's just not ready and all that.

Of course, folks in Iowa didn't listen to the conventional wisdom and the rest is history. But even after Barack Obama secured the nomination, a pundit here or there would sourly mumble that he was floundering because of that black thing, needling that John Edwards would be blowing John McCain out of the water.

Which amounts to a nice theory for political science students to contemplate in between Jager bombs at the bar. Those of us in the real world rejected the Plastic One because we didn't know who he was (even after being a few thousand votes in Ohio away from the vice presidency in '04) and didn't trust him.

After observing and interviewing Edwards at political events since 2003, I can say that he was heavy on sheen and light on substance. He said all the right things, repeating Democratic talking points in his artful, aw-shucks way. The father of three was great at kissing babies.

But there was no way His Contrivance seemed ready to take that 3 a.m. phone call. (Although I would vote for him to play the president on tee-vee. His coif is killer).

So maybe that's why few of us were shocked at his revelations that yes, he actually did dally with Rielle Hunter, who still sports '80s Madonna hair as a nod to her days as a coked-out New York clubhopper.

John Edwards lie? Stop the presses.

In a truly classy move, the pretty boy heaved his party girl-cum-paramour under the bus ("I didn't love her") and stressed that he timed his infidelity between his wife's bouts with cancer, something the brilliant Maureen Dowd skewered as being "oncologically correct."

To think that Elizabeth Edwards (who Rielle sniffed "didn't give off good energy") will have to spend her last years shuddering from this humiliation is just vile. Monsieur Edwards claims he told his family, which presumably includes his eldest daughter, Cate, a Harvard law student. Maybe his other two kids, 8 and 10, can find out as a Christmas present later after Mommy's passed away.

Edwards, who nailed himself in an ABC interview as a narcissist, has cringingly insisted there's nothing more for anyone to say as "I've stripped myself bare." Well, there are questions of the paternity of Hunter's daughter and if this was the first time the senator strayed.

But that's just a measure on the hypocrisy scale. It's the political implications that I'm interested in.

Just think for a moment if he were the nominee. This would be game-over for the Dems. You can argue that McCain dumping his disfigured wife for an Anheuser heiress 18 years his junior would become an issue. Perhaps. But that was almost 30 years ago and all we see now is silver-maned Cindy, doting mother of seven.

We can have a robust debate whether extramarital affairs should have any place in political discourse. I vote no, but I'm a journalistic curmudgeon, in spite of my Gen X birthday and the fact that I'm paid to blog. But Edwards' tryst is out there (and how). Given the appalling scenario with his wife's metastatic cancer, I don't really feel like doing him any favors by ignoring the political fallout.

The reality is that this kind of salacious scandal is ruinous for politicians, especially when it reinforces the very doubts people had about the candidate in the first place. Edwards knows this, having watched Bill Clinton implode (and castigating him for it).

Which is another crisis likely averted by not picking Hillary as the nominee, besides the fact that she could unite the right in a way McCain never will. Who knows when Bill's next bimbo eruption would strike, not to mention his less sexy, but far more troubling dealings in Dubai. That's the real reason Clinton's not on Obama's veep short list, not bad blood after a bruising primary.

When it comes to arrogant politicians' penchant for extracurricular activities, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And so a skinny black guy with big ears, a funny name (and the magazine-cover perfect family) is not only the voters' choice, but has turned out to be the Dems' safest bet for presidency.

Who would have thunk it.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Vote for Schauer, I guess

What’s always impressed me about Mark Schauer is how good he looks on paper and the blind loyalty he inspires.

He’s been an elected official for more than a dozen years, serving in leadership roles for most of that time. Armed with a master’s degree in public administration from Western Michigan University, the Senate Minority Leader can articulate his vision for the state fairly well.

But it’s Schauer’s past life heading one of the admirable Community Action Agencies - whose innovative anti-poverty programs keep many cities afloat - that offers the most promise.

When I interviewed the affable Democrat extensively last June, I was hoping to finally peel away his cloying exclamations (“Hiiii, Susan! So glad a reporter from my hometown paper can be here!”) and get back to that guy who just wanted to make Battle Creek a better place.

Unfortunately, there’s not much there there. Despite his fervent insistence, he hasn’t been an integral player in any of the major budget and tax negotiations.

He can talk about the issues but stumbles when he actually has to relate to other human beings, which is why he’s openly despised by many in his caucus. It’s his way or the highway. Especially when you’re in the minority, that’s a one-way ticket to irrelevance.

Schauer struggled to discuss Doris Kearns Goodwin’s glorious Lincoln bio, “Team of Rivals,” attempting to draw comparisons to modern-day Michigan that never quite worked.

Mark couldn’t name a policy position differing from Jennifer Granholm (“We have a special relationship,” he boasts, quite often). Of course, whenever they’re together, Gov. Photo-op always seems to look through him, a silent reminder that he’s not really part of her Wayne County in-crowd.

The one bright spot was when Schauer talked early childhood education, something he’s clearly passionate about and has researched extensively.

Then came his flat denial that he was never, ever gonna run for the 7th District Congressional seat. Not even if U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg voided on the Battle Creek City Hall steps (which metaphorically, he has).

About a month later, Schauer changed his tune, gravely informing me that he was the only man up for the job. Even asking the obvious query (“How long was this plan cooking?”) brought howls from St. Mark and his minions. How dareth you question the motives of the only man who can bring down the evil that is Walberg?

Methinks the senator doth protest too much.

Mark didn’t want to talk issues; it was all strategy - how superior he was to the other Dems he’d recruited to run. The fact that he’d stab his longtime friend former state Sen. Jim Berryman in the back was both distasteful and disheartening. A stand-up guy if I’ve ever met one, Berryman handled his knifing with aplomb and never badmouthed Schauer once.

The newly declared frontrunner promptly proceeded to lock himself in a room to raise money for four or five hours a day, which began to take its toll on his once-mostly brown hairline.

Fundraising is another slippery area for Schauer, who’s being investigated for his connection to $440,000 in allegedly illegal contributions to the Senate Democratic Fund in 2006 during his quixotic quest to take back the upper chamber. Mark denies this (his staffers call it a “witch-hunt”) but I guarantee that if this was on the up and up, Republicans would have done it years ago.

You’d think this might raise an eyebrow with Democrats, who would want the strongest candidate, as well as one with a solid moral compass. But some are starry-eyed college kids terrified of Walberg’s reactionary politics who idealize Schauer as their savior.

Others from the loony left blogosphere pen junior-high paeans to him (“Mark! Mark! He’s our man!”) that he no doubt sniggers at while gladly cashing their ActBlue checks. Of course, folks who cheer Tony Snow’s death and spit on John McCain’s years of torture have no problem with Schauer’s scruples, as they lack any themselves.

But when Democrats fail to demand accountability and high standards from their leaders, instead gleefully and conveniently eviscerating the GOP for all of society’s ills, you get Michigan Democratic Party head Mark Brewer. He’s free to launch a stealth “constitutional reform” petition drive, which is just a blatant power grab for the party.

And you get opportunists like Mark Schauer.

But vote for him anyway. Not because he’ll make a difference on climate change, trade agreements or health care reform. The Dems will be in control whether he wins or loses and he’ll have no power whatsoever.

The one thing Schauer has going for him is he does give a damn about the district. Not as much as he does about his own ego, but certainly more than Walberg, whose very marrow has been purchased by far-right lobbyists.

If there’s a wave of plant closures, Mark won’t tell folks in foreclosure the free market works. He’ll at least know who to call for help.

I'd like to think that old CAA director is lurking somewhere in Schauer’s soul. To be honest, I think he’d do more for Michigan and himself if he’d go back there.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Courage needed, not campaign slogans

If Ray Snell is elected to a Jackson-area House seat this fall, he'll slash state spending that's "out of control."

So will Fort Gratiot's Steve Kearns in the 83rd District, Monroe's JeanMarie Dahm in the 56th and plenty of others, according to various media reports.

I don't doubt the Republicans' sincerity and admirable commitment to conservative principles. But they probably won't whip out the cleaver next year - unless there's a gun to their heads.

It's not because Democrats are likely to keep control of the lower chamber, perhaps even snatching a couple more seats. The GOP, after all, reigned over both bodies for eight straight years (and still runs the Senate) and could never stomach severe cuts.

"In my former life, I would often say to my caucus, 'We've gone from tax-and-spend Democrats to tax-cut-and-spend Republicans,'" recalls former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema. "You've got to reconcile the two."

That's definitely helped create the fiscal mess we're in. Without an immediate crisis this year with only $400 million to cut (chump change compared to a $1.8 billion deficit last year) few people have paid much mind to the process. But just wait till next year when that baby balloons back to $1 billion.

I'm sure legislative hopefuls wouldn't bat an eye. There are a million places to whack (which all look great in campaign literature). Just root out all the Bridges to Nowhere, toss folks off welfare and shave the number of state employees, right?

Not quite. Once you take a closer gander at the budget, you realize that egregious pork-barrel spending is much more of a Washington phenomenon.

When I recently asked state Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Cutlerville, what are the three most glaring examples of fat in the budget, he paused for a bit before answering.

Jansen is no mealy-mouthed liberal, by the way; Michigan Information & Research Service rated him the most conservative senator last year. When legislators finally came up with a Michigan Business Tax surcharge last fall so they could dump the reviled service tax, Jansen just shook his head.

"This isn't where I expected us to be. I never thought I'd be voting for a tax increase, believe me," he said.

As far as budget bloat goes, Jansen first ticked off reducing the size of government. I'm with him on that; Michigan could combine a few state departments. Our state still functions like it's a relic from the 1960s and needs to be smaller, more efficient and more accountable.

However, there's only so much money to be saved there. And cuts need to be smart. For years, Michigan axed Department of Human Services caseworkers. Then we got sued by a children's rights advocacy group for failing to adequately protect kiddies and we're out $200 million we can't spare.

Much of the $9 billion general fund is eaten up by Jansen's second choice - Corrections. At a budget-busting $2 billion and growing, it's about the only department that's been spared in recent years thanks to law-and-order conservatives. But the Mitten State's 50,000-plus prisoners cost about $30,000 each every year to incarcerate, which can't be sustained.

Republicans and Democrats alike know cuts are in the offing next year. Look forward to finger-pointing and shouting matches in which Patrick Selepak's name will be raised 137,000 times before they do the inevitable in another all-night session.

Jansen struggled with a third place to trim, finally settling on efficiencies in education. Once again, I'm on board, but that's a tricky one. The $13 billion School Aid budget is the other pile of money the state has to play with (the rest of the $20 billion or so is tied to federal funds, which is why cutting welfare won't do much).

That means dealing with bureaucracies in 553 school districts, which spend money that should get into the classroom on employee health care and retirement and rising fuel costs. But if we cut per pupil funding, guess who will suffer? We do need a massive educational restructuring, as proposed by former state schools Superintendent Tom Watkins before Gov. Jennifer Granholm canned him for speaking truth to power.

Those kinds of changes are painful by definition. Are we ready as a state? And will it still be enough money to put us permanently in the black?

As luck would have it, our state's wretched economy and budget woes could be that metaphorical pistol staring officials in the face. Jim Hettinger, the smartest economic development guy in Michigan, thinks our state won't hit rock bottom for another three years.

And despite over $1 billion in tax hikes last year, they were the wrong kind. No, not because all taxes are evil by definition. But because the politically acceptable plan was economically deficient - it didn't solve the structural problem by reconciling tax revenue to Michigan's changing economy.

And voila! Another shortfall.

If we want to save Michigan from the brink of disaster, the time to start is now.

So best of luck to all wannabe lawmakers. Here's hoping that you have as much courage when you get to Lansing as you do campaign slogans.