Endangered Species

U.S. Rep. John Barrow, from GA’s 12th congressional district, is a vanishing breed: the lone remaining white Democratic congressman from the deep south, according to Politico.

He has walked a tightrope for several years now – still a Democrat, but a conservative one on many issues, with an independent streak. It worked for him in 2010 when he was last reelected. But that was before redistricting. He now sits in a district tailor-made to elect a Republican.

Can he survive again? If so, he should probably go on the CBS reality program “Survivor.” Or at least write books and hold seminars on winning elections when you are not supposed to.

Barrow has voted with Republicans on some key business and tax bills since he has been in the House. This year he was even endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who is advertising on his behalf. He also voted against President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, one of the few Democrats to do so, earning the wrath of many in his own party.

Barrow’s latest gambit is his refusal to attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. So he has laid down the gauntlet: he is against the President’s signature piece of legislation and he will not attend his re-coronation party in September.

I don’t know if Rep. Barrow’s independent, tough guy, go-it-alone strategy will work. But you have to give him credit for trying.

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Talk About Being On The Wrong Side Of History…

I’m sorry to say that my home state of Georgia ranks near the bottom of the country when it comes to ethics laws. But it ranks near the top in lobbyist influence.

A report by the Center for Public Integrity ranked Georgia dead last in the country on a set of 330 “corruption risk indicators” including open records law, campaign finance rules, and auditing and budgeting procedures. Georgia received an overall grade of 49 out of 100, an F, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

So, as one can imagine, most Georgians find it pretty galling that the state legislature not only refuses to pass a simple limit on lobbyist gifts to legislators of $100, but many of them, including its officers, openly mock it and call it some kind of “liberal” plot. They take this position in spite of the fact that virtually every state in the country, including Georgia’s southern neighbors – all of them governed by Republicans – has similar or even more stringent limits on lobbyist spending.

The ringleader in this crass act of civic malfeasance is the speaker of the Georgia House, David Ralston. He has made it clear to every member of the Republican leadership in the House that they are not to go near this proposal.

There are two salient facts here:

One is that Mr. Ralston’s predecessor was ruined and run out of town due to an affair with a lobbyist that led to a crisis of confidence in the legislature itself and in its leadership. There were promises of greater openness and better codes of ethics. The day Mr. Ralston took the oath as House Speaker in January 2010 he swore to “restore Georgians’ confidence in their elected officials” and said “renewal is born from adversity.” Okay.

Second, less than a year later Mr. Ralston accepted a $17,000 lobbyist-funded trip to Germany for him, his family, and his staff to study high-speed rail. It represented the largest single expenditure by a lobbyist on a legislator in six years. The lobbyist was not from Georgia and was not a registered lobbyist in Georgia. Ouch.

And since then he and his fellow House leaders have laughably argued that Georgia has some of the toughest ethics laws in the country, and that passing a limit on lobbyist gifts would actually make Georgia less ethical.

But Georgians are in no laughing mood. In the upcoming statewide primary, both the Republicans and the Democrats will feature a ballot item asking voters if they favor such a limit on lobbyist spending. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say voters will favor it. Polls show Georgians, by a convincing majority, want and expect such reasonable limits for their public servants.

Maybe it is arrogance that leads politicians to so openly defy the public will. Maybe it is a misreading of public interest and public sentiment. Or it could be a belief, however misguided, that legislators really do deserve special treatment. More than one legislator has said something to the effect of “well the voters keep reelecting me, so it must not be that big a deal.” Sigh.

I challenge any Georgia legislator, in any part of the state, to make that their official slogan during their reelection campaign.

But members of the Georgia state senate are starting to come around. A number of key senators have signed a pledge to support the bill to cap lobbyist gifts. This may be due, at least in part, to an ethics investigation into the senate’s third highest-ranking member and chair of the powerful Rules Committee.

So there’s hope. After all, every Georgian’s real fear should be that the state of Alabama has stronger ethics laws than the Peach State.

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It All Comes Down to Virginia

Mitt Romney will win North Carolina. In my analysis, NC is no longer a swing state. It is also increasingly likely that Romney will carry Florida and Ohio. Missouri and Indiana are also good bets, and Romney will be very competitive in Colorado and Iowa.

But the crucial state is the Old Dominion. The truth is, Romney could carry most of the “swing states” including FL, OH, NC, IA, MO, and CO, but still lose the election if Obama holds onto Virginia. That scenario breaks down to 271 electoral votes for Obama and 267 for Romney. It could be that close.

In 2008 candidate Obama broke through the southern Republican electoral stronghold by taking VA and NC, which really breaks the back of a Republican candidate. NC is out of reach for him this time, but not so in VA.

Culturally, Virginia is really two states, northern VA and southern VA. And of course, Northern VA is dominated by the metro Washington, D.C. area, home of federal government employees and federal contractors. It is also much more racially diverse than the rest of the state. And it’s population has grown over the last decade, relative to middle and southern VA.

Thus, candidate Romney has his work cut out for him. Virginia is not out of reach for him, just difficult. But things could get easier for Romney with more bad economic news this summer and fall and/or more missteps by the President. That’s the cold, hard reality facing the Obama reelection effort. If the economy worsens between now and November, it could all slip away no matter how good a campaign he runs or how much he attacks Romney.

In that scenario, Romney could carry VA and possibly Nevada, which would result in an electoral college total of 286 for Romney and 252 for Obama. Throw in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota (not likely, but possible in a down economy) and it looks like 322 to 216 for Romney.

But if the economy holds steady, and if Obama stays on message this fall and does well against Romney in the debates, he could win on the order of 280 electoral votes to 258 for Romney.

If you have friends or relatives in Virginia, you might want to call them, no matter which side of the fence you’re on.

Kasim Reed: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Watching Kasim Reed on Sunday’s Meet The Press had to lift the spirits of President Obama’s reelection team, at least a little. Reed played the role of partisan attack dog infinitely better than his friend, Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker did on the same program last week. Booker, now infamously, questioned the President’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s leadership of Bain Capitol. But when his turn came Sunday, Kasim Reed squared his shoulders and lacerated Mitt Romney the way a campaign surrogate is supposed to. And he relished the moment, in fact barely waiting for NBC’s David Gregory to get the question out of his mouth. Of course, what he said was mostly rhetorical blather, but then again so were many of the comments of his Republican adversaries.

Kasim Reed is an interesting fellow. He’s hard not to like, and it’s hard not to admire his toughness and focus, if not his candor. When he was in the Georgia legislature, he was seen as smart and effective, even by Republicans. At the time, one GOP operative said “Kasim is a stand-up guy, you can always work with him.” In his short time as Mayor of Atlanta he has come to be seen as an emerging national figure, at least by two not insignificant institutions: the White House, which sees him as a defender and fundraiser; and NBC News, which keeps inviting him to sit in on Meet The Press.

He definitely has some things going for him, and is undeniably someone politicos should keep an eye on. But there are some chinks to his armor. One is his embrace and defense of a city procurement system that habitually rewards campaign contributors and entrenched business interests with city contracts. The city is girding itself for yet another round of lawsuits, this time in conjunction with the recent contract awards for concessions at Hartsfield/Jackson Atlanta Airport, “the busiest airport in the world.”

In what may or may not be a coincidence, many of the names behind airport concessions contracts and campaign contributions to Reed and other city officials, are also large contributors to President Obama’s reelection campaign. Needless to say, people are watching.

The Atlanta Airport has a 30-year plus history of sweetheart deals and so called “pay-to-play” contracting. Kasim Reed didn’t create that environment of course, but he is now knee-deep in it, with an opportunity to do something about it. But unlike his Newark, NJ counterpart Cory Booker, who instituted pay-to-play reform in his city, Reed hasn’t even tried to reform city procurement. He sees no need. And to hear him tell it, he sees no problems.

That’s a pretty big blind spot for an emerging national political player.

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The President’s Spring Offensive

The race is on to define Mitt Romney. President Obama’s vulnerabilities as an incumbent this year foreshadow a nasty, mudslinging campaign this fall, from both candidates. The president, his advisers no doubt believe, must define Romney now before independents come to think of him as a preferable alternative. And the Romney team, facing a personally well-liked incumbent in the White House, will have to tear down his tenure in office.

The Obama campaign [not to mention assorted super pacs] will have all the money it needs, so early advertising in swing states is already upon us. Last week’s Washington Post article neatly sums up the approach the Obama team is taking with regard to interpreting who Mitt Romney is: “He’s a bully. He was a bully in high school, he was a bully at Bain Capital, and he’s a bully now. He’s wrong for America.”

They will spend millions of dollars driving home that message. It might work. But here are the risks: The Romney campaign will likely have an answer, or their version of the truth, for every anti-Bain spot that runs. Many voters will find it old news that was already debated in the GOP primaries. But worst of all, independent voters in swing states this summer and fall could decide that “hey, you know what? In this economy, someone like Romney is what we need – someone tough, who knows how to make the country turn a profit, and who won’t apologize for it.”

Actually, the President has been on the campaign offensive for weeks now. One could look at his trip to Afghanistan as a Nixonesque bid to claim the title of world leader and peacemaker. The gay marriage issue is being used, and will be used, to compare and contrast the “moral compass” of the two candidates. And the Bain Capital ads will be ubiquitous throughout the rest of the year. In fact, much of the fall campaign will likely be a contest to define the meaning of Romney’s accomplishments at Bain – much like the 1992 campaign was at least partly a debate about the economy and culture of the 1980s.

The polls are close. We’re in store for a good old-fashioned, head banging, months-long scrum. Who will bring a knife to the gunfight?

Obama: Don’t Call Me An Incumbent

Can President Obama survive the anti-incumbent wave that has taken out several European governments over the last year, led to the defeat of French President Sarkozy, punished German Chancellor Merkel’s party in regional elections, and most recently the loss of the U.S. Senate’s most credible voice on foreign policy Richard Lugar?

Economic anxiety is generally bad for incumbents, and the Obama team is working hard to make the case that a Romney presidency would make things worse. And certainly the American economy isn’t suffering to the degree it is in Europe. But the political/economic situation the President faces is more akin to that of Bush 41 in 1992 ( a weak recovery that voters barely noticed) than that of Bill Clinton in 1996 (robust growth led by the dot.com boom).

But Barack Obama might find some solace in the reelection of British conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1992 – he faced an uphill fight in an ugly economy amid fights over European economic integration. Major survived where Bush 41 couldn’t; largely because his general election opponents were not credible. Of course, that changed several years later with the emergence of Tony Blair and the “New” Labor Party.

There is no ideological consistency to the anti-incumbent zeitgeist this year, unlike say the Reagan-Thatcher era or the Bill Clinton-Tony Blair pairing. In 2012 French voters turned left, while Spanish voters turned right, while Greek voters are just confused. Voters in America are simply angry and scared, which isn’t good for any incumbent anywhere.

Obama Doing His Best Nixon

Richard Nixon isn’t exactly a president to admire or emulate. But Nixon’s choreographed trips to China and Russia during the reelection campaign of 1972 are the stuff of political campaign legend. They showcased him as a world leader and reinforced his campaign strategy.

President Obama’s campaign advisers have read the history books, they’ve seen the old footage of Nixon touring the Great Wall of China. And they’re good students. The President’s trip to Afghanistan was pure political theater. It was choreographed, it was calculated. It may be a master political stroke, and if he is reelected, it will be called such. But let’s call it what it is, campaign politics. The war, or whatever one calls that struggle, in Afghanistan is not over. Al Qaeda is not vanquished, in fact recent analysis indicates it is morphing into splinter groups and new leaders are emerging.

The President deserves credit for taking out Bin Laden, no doubt about it. He should take a victory lap, any president would. But to suggest, as he does, that a Republican president would not have done the same is pure fantasy, and it cheapens his accomplishment.

Let’s be honest, both parties are hypocrites. Democrats will cheer Obama, Republicans will criticize. When Bush was in office, it was usually the reverse. However, the better presidents in our country’s history, Democrats and Republicans, were able to rise above partisanship and plan for the long term.

Future Newt

A topic of a lot of conversation today is Newt Gingrich’s future. Yes, he waited too late to drop out of the presidential race – way after he was a relevant candidate with a shot at winning. But he always marches to his own tune, even if that tune is scratchy and off-key, which it sometime is.

I for one marveled at his belief that he could actually win the GOP nomination – someone with his baggage, his history of imperial overreach, and sometimes cloudy judgment. You have to hand it to him though, he doesn’t think small, he things big. But that’s often the problem. A moon colony Mr. Speaker?

So now that he has finally acknowledged reality (a rare event), what does the future hold for him? We’ll find out how serious he is about helping Mitt Romney defeat President Obama. If he is committed to actually helping, Mr. Gingrich could be of significant help in reaching out to conservatives in in key swing states on behalf of Romney. The GOP base will have to show up in large numbers on Nov. 6 if Romney has a shot at winning. He could also help GOP congressional candidates in some key races and help the party raise money. Many will question Newt’s commitment though. He’s not known for going out of his way to help others. But if it smooths his own road back to redemption, it certainly makes sense for him to be very visible this summer and fall. A major prime time speech at the convention in Tampa is not out of the question. It will have to be on the Romney campaign’s terms, however.

If Newt does play a role in helping Romney win in November – still an iffy proposition – then he could be a potent force in Washington again. If Romney falters, or if Newt recedes into the shadows this fall, then it could be much harder for him.

He could always go back to TV. His days at Fox are over of course, but it seems the welcome mat is out for him at CNN. He will no doubt hit the lecture circuit and write books.

I have a hard time seeing him playing a formal role in a Romney Administration. He doesn’t play well with others. He would be the loosest of loose cannons. He would make a terrible vice president and a terrible Cabinet member. But he could be very useful as an elder statesman/philosopher king. I could see him, for example, heading up a Romney White House panel on taxes, or health care, or something similar.

We’ll see. Newt wants to be relevant. He needs to be needed. He’s always been able to be part of the national conversation, and I’m betting that doesn’t change.

Why Romney Shouldn’t Pick Rubio

We’re already deep into the silly season of a presidential election year called “the veepstakes.” It’s a parlor game all the politicos and journalists play that aims to guess at who a presidential nominee, in this case Mitt Romney, will pick as his running mate.

Contrary to all the attention it receives, the selection of a running mate usually isn’t a game changer. Even bad choices aren’t necessarily fatal to a candidate, witness Bush 41’s 1988 victory even after choosing the historically inept Dan Quayle. For all the ballyhoo Sara Palin got in 2008, both positive and negative, the truth is John McCain was going to lose anyway. The VP candidate usually doesn’t bring the ticket a great number of votes that it would not otherwise have received anyway. Almost no one votes for a president because of who the VP is going to be.

So the prime directive is usually “do no harm.” Nominees are tempted to choose a running mate to win a swing state they need in the electoral college. Hence, the pressure on Mitt Romney to select Marco Rubio of Florida. On paper, Rubio does bring some advantages to a Romney candidacy. He’s young, articulate, Latino, and a tea party favorite. He could shore up some of Romney’s weaknesses, particularly among some Latino voters and conservative Republicans. And, he should be able to help Romney carry Florida.

But he brings some negatives as well. Is he really ready to be president on day one? His back story of his family’s flight from Cuba has also come under scrutiny. Would he really improve Romney’s appeal to Latino voters in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada – other crucial swing states? And his charisma could also be a problem. No candidate for president wants to be overshadowed by his VP.

If Romney makes his VP call based on winning a swing state, and that’s still a big if, there’s a better option: Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. Yes, Portman’s a safe choice. He’s dull. But he’s very popular in Ohio and would likely deliver that state to Romney. Republicans don’t win the White House without carrying Ohio. Portman is also more seasoned than Rubio and can more credibly pass the “president on day one” test.

So is carrying Ohio more important than carrying Florida? No, Romney will need them both if he is to win. But Romney can carry Florida without naming Rubio the VP. President Obama won 51 percent of the vote in Florida in 2008; this year will undoubtedly be tougher for him. And Romney has some strength in the Sunshine State, ask Newt Gingrich.
Ohio will be tougher for Romney. McCain only won 46 percent of the vote there in 2008. It’s a rust belt state with stronger union support and is always a tough slog for the Republican nominee, whoever it is. So with Portman, Romney could win a two-fer.

But Romney has other options as well. Naming a VP just to win a swing state is a gamble. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican budget czar and tea party darling, is also on the shortlist, and reportedly has very good chemistry with Mitt Romney. But just how close does Romney want to embrace the Ryan budget plan?

Chris Christie? Too bombastic and emotional. VA governor Bob McDonnell? The abortion issue in Virginia may have put it out of reach for him.

There’s always Dick Cheney. He has a new heart.

Obama Channels Bill Clinton (even the Gingrich attacks)

To get reelected, Barack Obama is following the Bill Clinton 1996 script. Clinton’s task was easier, enjoying an economic bubble led by the dot.com boom, and facing a decidedly underwhelming opponent in Senator Bob Dole. But one of the features of the ’96 Clinton effort that we will hear a lot this year, is how radical and dangerous those Republicans are.

Clinton routinely warned the nation in 1996 about the GOP’s “risky tax schemes” and “anti-Medicare” proposals that would “explode the deficit” and “rob seniors” of America’s promise. One can hear those echoes in Obama’s remarks about the budget and about Congressman Paul Ryan’s approach to deficit reduction – an approach embraced by Mitt Romney and most other Republicans.

One of the hallmarks of the Clinton years was to try and seize the political center and cast his Republican opponents as radicals – a task made easier by the missteps of Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, and other GOP leaders. His clashes with congressional Republicans, particularly Gingrich, over Medicare were classic political theater.

Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. But he’s trying. He cleverly hit Romney and Ryan over the head with Newt Gingrich’s remarks from last year that Ryan’s budget plan was “right wing social engineering.” Expect to hear that from now until November, because it works for him and, yes, Newt Gingrich actually said that. (Just one example of why Gingrich is a disaster-in-waiting for the national Republican Party)

Obama is no moderate, but he knows that to get reelected he must woo independents and cast Romney and company as too far to the political right. That will be his theme, and Mitt Romney should be prepared to counter it.