Obama doesn’t have to go to Nancy Reagan’s funeral, but I wish he would

Vice Presidents are supposed to be U.S. Government’s designated funeral attendee. There’s no reason President Obama should feel obligated spend his time there. The demands that he drop everything to pay respects to Nancy Reagan, and before that Justice Antonin Scalia, are shrill and senseless. They delegitimize the numerous valid criticisms of the President.

With all that said, don’t you wish he had gone?

After winning the 2008 campaign with soaring rhetoric of ushering in a new era of cooperation in Washington, Obama promptly reminded Congressional Republicans, “I won” when they expressed concern over his policies. His reelection was far from a rousing national endorsement; his campaign’s groundbreaking GOTV efforts squeezed every ounce of support from an electorate with mixed feelings.

This is the current President, but it could just as easily have been our former President. The left despised George W. Bush just as the right despises Obama, and W similarly squeaked through a close reelection relying on base voters. The man who claimed he was “a uniter, not a divider” saw a more fractured Washington in his rear view mirror when he left office than the one he had found eight years prior.

It adds up to 16 years of acidic national politics, and the choices for 2016 don’t appear likely to end the cycle.

With his days in the White House slipping into history, a warm gesture by the President to the other side would offer some glimpse of the idealistic young Senator we got to know in 2008 – and, perhaps, bandage some of the wounds. Scalia was beloved by thinking conservatives; Reagan was the First Lady to the man who, as more time passes, may prove to be the last pinnacle of post-World War II Republican Party success. Showing up at these funerals would have symbolized more than condolences; it would clearly tell the other side, “Hey, nothing personal and no hard feelings.” President Obama probably didn’t understand the significance of these two figures to his opponents across the aisle; otherwise he might have rethought his schedule.

(From a calculating, partisan perspective, it would also give the digital cheerleaders and opinion leaders within his base some motivation. “Look how magnanimous our Dear Leader is,” they could crow on Twitter.)

With eight years of sins on his record and almost two decades of political acrimony as a backdrop, surely these overtures would be rejected by some and ignored by still more. That doesn’t make them any less right. Eight years later, it would be nice for the President to go the extra mile and stand up for real change – especially because he doesn’t have to.

Crummy Little Podcast Episode 7: Patricia Simpson

In college, I had a friend named Asif. Everyone knew him. So many people knew him that “Hey, do you know Asif?” became a conversation starter. In fact, five years after I got to D.C., playing softball with the local UMass Alumni group, I still ran into people who knew Asif.

Patti Simpson, this week’s guest on the Crummy Little Podcast, is the Asif of the conservative and Republican-leaning circles.

(Asif was and is a big Democrat, so if he sees this he’ll probably be upset. Whatever, he lives in Texas. If he comes after me… well, it will be good to see him, it’s been a while.)

Why Bankrupting America’s New Web Series Actually Works

This week, Bankrupting America launched “The Government,” a new web series this week parodying both government spending and The Office.  Unlike many attempts at politically themed humor, it actually works.

There are some over-the-top spots – the introduction of the (probably?) fictional Department of Every Bureaucratic Transaction comes to mind – but nothing that detracts from the main joke.  What makes the video click is its natural dialogue, solid acting, identifiable characters, and subtle jokes (such as the employees walking around in the background holding golden coffee mugs with oven mitts).

In other words, structurally, it entertains for the same reasons The Office did, which means it’s a great approach to this type of communication.  If future episodes hit these same beats (and patch up some of the rough spots), Bankrupting America will have a pretty powerful messaging device on its hands.

Gallup-ping away from the right?

Gallup charts a declining percentage of Americans self-identifying as conservative, which suggests bad things ahead for the GOP.  Just 41% of Americans consider themselves economic conservatives, and 33% identify as social conservatives.  Both of those figures are down from 2010 numbers, and the results seem to give weight to comments like those of Olympia Snowe about the Republican Party’s narrow appeal.

While this is a speed bump for the GOP, it really measures failure of the conservative movement.  The constellation of groups churning out candidates and activists has not done a good enough job preparing them to appeal to non-conservatives.  The most effective leaders are those who can talk to the middle from the edge – it’s what makes President Obama such a great politician.  Going a step further: There’s no such thing as “too conservative to win” (or “too liberal to win”) a general election.  There’s such a thing as “too crazy to win,” and there’s definitely such a thing as “too stupid to win.”

If fewer people self-identify as “conservative,” then Republican politicians will have to stop using it as a buzzword.  That’s a smart thing to do, anyway.  Then it’s up to the conservative movement to articulate policy positions in a way that sounds reasonable to non-conservatives.

It would be more illuminating to see the specifics.  For instance, Gallup says that Americans remain suspect of government; the IRS suffering a predictable and precipitous dip.  Those are both “economic conservative” positions, but that doesn’t mean the respondents would self-identify as such.  And that could fuel exactly the type of issue-specific messaging that conservatives and Republicans can use to expand their influence – even if they don’t expand their brand.


CPAC is bigger than ever – and largely irrelevant

Picture it: Arlington, Va., 2002.   It’s my first CPAC, and it’s pretty much the same as most of the CPAC’s before it, based on what I could gather.  There’s a slate of speakers and panel discussions, but I spend most of my time in exhibit hall, working the table for my then-employer, the Leadership Institute.  Most of the attendees are college students, and a fair amount from my territory in the Northeast, so I see plenty of people I know and do business with.  My colleagues at LI, who generally work with non-college students, grouse that CPAC is a waste of their time.

On Friday, I crashed CPAC.  There were slates of speakers and panels, but also breakout sessions, receptions in hotel suites for people pushing products, and a lot more adults in massive conference center which housed the conference.  (I know college students are technically adults, but you know what I mean.)  The speeches, once the fodder for CSPAN’s early morning programming, are now covered live and the political press has been paying astute attention.

The conference which was once a trade association for the conservative movement has grown into… well, pretty much the same thing with more people and more media coverage.

It’s become more notorious in recent years for who isn’t there than for who is, and liberal blogger-activists show up with their pocket cameras trying to be the next Twitter star.  Republican consultants – including both establishment Republican consultants and the Republican consultants who bash establishment Republican consultants – lurk in the wings trying to drum up business.  (That was my role on Friday.)  Rarely is anything of substance said.

This may sound like a criticism of CPAC, but it sure isn’t.  Political activists of any stripe care about something that very few other people really care about.  That’s why online communities like Facebook and Twitter were so readily adopted by politicos.  There’s a real value in seeing and meeting people face-to-face who are mostly like minded and exchanging ideas.  There’s a value in hearing rah-rah speeches about your cause that reaffirm your commitment, especially since most not-political folks will probably think you ought to be committed.

There weren’t major policy discussions.  There was a fair amount of introspection on campaign tactics, but nothing groundbreaking that hasn’t been said before.  Some people in the audiences or walking around exhibit hall probably said stupid or silly things, but the people up on stage kept it pretty vanilla.  It’s a great and fun networking opportunity if you are in center-right politics, but precious little more than that.

Let’s not bill CPAC as a ComiCon for the conservative movement, which is what most media outlets seem to want.  The attention paid to the event doesn’t merit its importance.  Those who make their food money covering politics ought to know that.

Not just what it says, but where

Michael Turk had a great post on the center-right’s tech/data gap yesterday – but the best part was where he wrote it, in the American Spectator.

Spoiler alert: Turk warned that investing in new technology is not enough, that Republicans need smart people thinking about human behavior and voting patterns as well.  Good call: It’s not enough to figure out how people are interacting with a campaign, since most people in their right mind run away from political communication.  There’s an academic component in figuring out how to reach these people and keep them from running.  (Unless you use glue traps, of course, but there’s some questionable legality there.)

Ok, the right needs thinkers.  Where do they come from?  Political parties are good for resources, but not always innovation.  Remember that while much of the Obama infrastructure has been bequeathed unto the Democrat National Committee, it was the Obama campaign that built all the new toys.  Plus, if the eggheads don’t show immediate dividends, Republican candidates will wonder why the national party money that could be helping them win air wars is being spent to pay Lewis Skolnick.

The best spot for a bunch of data nerds is somewhere in the non-profit universe – whether it’s with an educational foundation like Heritage, an activist group like Americans for Prosperity or FreedomWorks, or a super PAC like American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS/Conservative Victory/Crossroads: The Next Generation.  With no donation limits, these groups can make a much better case to the big-ticket donors they’ll need to get the ball rolling.  Since the checks can be bigger, it’ll take fewer of them.

Conservative movement non-profits could be better positioned to start the process.  That makes The American Spectator a pretty good place to raise the issue.

Kids make bad spokespeople

Somehow, some way, the political universe will have to come to grips with the mind-melting revelation that Jonathan Krohn is no longer a conservative wunderkind.  With a slow news week n Your Nation’s Capital, this non-story has been getting more digital ink than it’s worth.

Yes, I recognize the irony in that statement, but hear me out.  I’m not kvetching because it’s getting too much attention.

The national conservative leaders invited this story years ago, when they treated Krohn like the second coming of Bill Buckley, a thirteen-year-old in the temple of CPAC, arguing as equals with the elders of the movement.  By propping him up they created a sideshow, rather than provoking thought with a speech on fiscal policy or government regulation.

Then again, those speeches don’t make it onto YouTube – and when they do, no one watches.  So out comes Krohn, the Boy Wonder of the Right, to be a fun and kitschy carnival attraction.  But like any thinking adolescent, Krohn had (and likely still has) a long way to go on his own philosophical journey.

If you are looking to develop a movement leader, he or she would probably be better off listening at CPAC rather than talking.  Krohn himself realizes the exercise was a sham:

I mean, come on, I was between 13 and 14 when I was regurgitating these talking points! What does a kid who has never paid a tax bring to the table in a conversation about the burden of taxes? What does a healthy child know about people who can’t afford healthcare because of preexisting conditions? No matter how intelligent a person might be, certain political issues require life experience; they’re much more complicated than the black and white frames imposed by partisan America.

More than likely, there are folks on the left salivating over the opportunity to use him as a prop just the same as the right did years ago.  Whether the left or the right hand is grinding the organ, they both want the monkey to dance.

That’s not really fair to the monkey, though.  By using a teen as a figurehead, a political movement may score short-term points, but it sure doesn’t help the kid at all – and it isn’t the most dependable basket to drop your eggs in, either.

Applauding the extreme

A thoughtful E.J. Dionne editorial this weekend lauds Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Obviously, that’s nothing new – outside of Klansmen and contrarians,  there aren’t a lot of people writing anti-MLK op eds.  What’s striking about Dionne’s piece is that it points out King’s radicalism:

This focus on calling out injustice — pointedly, heatedly, sometimes angrily — is what the people of King’s time, friend and foe alike, heard. It made many moderates (and so-called moderates) decidedly uncomfortable.

Anyone tempted to sanitize King into a go-along sort of guy should read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from April 1963. It’s a sharp rebuke to a group of white ministers who criticized him as an outsider causing trouble and wanted him to back off his militancy…  And recall King’s response to being accused of extremism. Though “initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist,” he wrote, “as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.” Jesus, he said, was called “an extremist for love,” and Amos “an extremist for justice.” The issue was: “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

For a shorter version of that last quote, thumb over to Barry Goldwater‘s page in Bartlett’s: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

In fact, Dionne’s characterization of King invites comparison to the coverage of the movement for smaller government.  (To his credit, Dionne has shown he recognizes this parallel to a degree; he’s one of the few left-leaning columnists able to discern the tea party from Republican politics.)

It deserves mentioning that there are plenty of differences: Tea party rallies aren’t being broken up with fire hoses, rubber (or real) bullets, tear gas, or the releasing of any hounds.  King and his allies risked life and limb to make a stand for their big idea.

But they did have that big idea, and believed in it so much that compromise was unacceptable.  People were either equal, or they weren’t; they were either allowed to attend the same schools and drink from the same water fountains, or they weren’t.

With that in mind, let’s look at our policy landscape here in 2011.  There’s a snowballing debt thanks to a governing culture that allows government to spend lavishly to help build a society and direct an economy.  The debt puts at risk the stability of our currency and by extension things like houses and other long-term investments.  More important, the services financed by that debt are generally sub-par and fail to accomplish intended goals.

Either that governing culture changes – reigning in spending, allowing people to make their own decisions about health care and retirement, and eliminating waste – or it doesn’t.

The casualties of this movement include moderate and Washington-centric politicians – such as Mike Castle and Bob Bennett in 2010.  It makes “moderates and so-called moderates” (to borrow Dionne’s term) like Sen. Orrin Hatch uncomfortable.

But if you believe strongly that the government was biting off more than it could chew to deliver failing policies, and that the promises of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and other public assistance programs are a bad check which will be sent back marked “insufficient funds,” you should be fighting.  And supposed allies who favor a “wait-and-see” approach while continuing to conduct the business of government the same way it has been conducted for 80 years aren’t really allies.

That isn’t “extremism,” it’s political advocacy – and as observers from King to Dionne have understood, it’s how policy making works.

Ron Paul is not suffering from media bias

A strong and close second-place finish at the Ames Straw poll for Ron Paul ignited almost no media coverage whatsoever – until some folks realized that Paul wasn’t getting any media coverage, which then became the story.  It’s one thing for Paul supporters to air their grievances about being ignored, but in a rare moment of astute political insight, even the Daily Show called out the media’s Paul-sized blind spot.

Charles Krauthammer had a valid answer: Paul will not be President.  He will not be as successful when the straw polls give way to caucuses, and he will do worse yet when the decisions come from the ballot box.  For a media covering horse race politics, giving serious ink to Ron Paul is like giving ink to Mr. Ed – he’s interesting, but he ain’t beating Secretariat, or any other horse.  On the other hand, while Tim Carney admits that Paul is a bad candidate, he points out that the Congressman has been consistently proven correct in his assessment of domestic and foreign policy over several years.  Stewart quips that Paul planted the small government seeds that germinated into today’s grassroots tea party movement.

Carney and Stewart are correct.  The real issue is a political press that doesn’t understand politics beyond the tally of votes in the second week in November.  The small government ethos that inspired the tea party to take out incumbents in 2010 has been brewing since late in the first term of George W. Bush, when the Republican party was entrenched in the legislative and executive but without a clear governing vision.  Paul was an early banner carrier for that philosophy, and in many way is the heart and soul of the current Republican party.  As he chugs along with single-digit polling numbers, other candidates have been and will be elected with Paul’s ideas.

Many political mini-movements see their standard-bearers run into electoral machine gun fire early on.  Remember that in 2004, Howard Dean crystallized the Democratic left but failed to win a single primary or caucus (except for his home state of Vermont, and that came after he had dropped out of the race).  By 2006, Democrat activists were dumping off Joe Lieberman in a primary and in 2008 they put a charismatic leader in the White House – bit it was Dean in 2004 who lit the fire.  There are winning candidates, and there are important candidates; the two are not always the same.