Who for State?

Through the back door, speculation about who will follow Hillary at State has begun in earnest.
First was John Kerry, the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, in many ways, a person ideally qualified for the post by experience, temperament, and proximity to the president. He is also globally well-known after his presidential run in 2004. For several reasons his name so far has been shunted aside, in part because of the risk that the just defeated Scott Brown, who showed strength in trying to hold the Kennedy seat, might just grab the vacancy. Then, Kerry’s name surfaced again for Defense, which is strange because the same problem exists whether it is State or any other cabinet post. Perhaps Obama prefers him as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee?

Next up: Susan Rice, current Ambassador to the United Nations. Rice, however, may have deflated her own trial balloon when she went on the Sunday talk shows to carry the “official” administration line on the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya. Whether or not she was purposely sacrificed to blunt problems of who knew what, when in this simmering dispute for blame purposes, the performance was an embarrassment all around and she has been beaten up pretty hard by McCain and others. The president, as he should have, aggressively came to her defense and in a manner both extraordinary and highly paternal, basically said if and when Rice became his choice for State, he would not be deterred by the loud voices. Things have calmed since, despite a recent “mea culpa” appearance on the talk shows that was roundly scorned by Republicans eager to draw blue blood after the red hemorrhage of the election, and she is looking more likely at the moment. In the meanwhile, one can hear murmurs of discontent about Rice’s age, experience, gravitas and temperament. Still, she is surely a serious candidate.

So who else? Some wish Dick Holbrook was still around. Others scratch their heads trying to come up with qualified names without falling back on the age old habit of identifying a grey/white-haired lawyer, professor, banker man. The list does not go on and on and is pretty sparse at the moment.

So why not try the purloined letter approach?

The right person is there not only under the president’s nose but virtually in the same house. That man is extremely well known and respected around the globe, outstandingly qualified and experienced in foreign affairs and has been dying for the job and probably would have swapped places with Hilary in a heartbeat, if given a chance earlier in the year. The only “problem” is that person is the vice president.

Why is that a problem? No vice president in history has served simultaneously as a cabinet officer (despite what all agree is a wealth of free time for the incumbent in the position). As far as I have been able to determine, however, there is no clear and obvious constitutional, legal or even practical reason why it can’t be done, and the best argument against it — simply that it’s never been done before — is as flimsy as Republican assertions that the administration, and not the House-imposed cuts in consulate security, is to blame for the tragedy in Benghazi. Among other smaller side benefits, such a “twofer” would save the Executive Branch quite a bit of money by combining the two jobs together. One salary, not two; one airplane, not two; probably some fewer in staff overall. A great example for the president to set!

Biden would make a superb Secretary of State. He deserves the opportunity. He would do a great job and take quite a burden off the president, except for the few occasions when the president might have to clean up some small verbal miscue.

Why not give the idea a chance to bounce around a bit? At least it might take the president off his Rice hot seat and give him an opportunity to find a better alternative, if the stodgy greybeards shoot down the idea.

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Horseback vs. Internet

An odd bit of early American history is how the size of a county was determined in the United States in the late 1700s. It was measured by how far an ordinary man could ride his horse out and back home in the same day. That made good sense then because, for an executive to manage his county’s affairs and be a family man, that was the only way. This, otherwise irrelevant but intriguing fact, dramatizes how different our society has become in handling the information that drives and informs our lives.

Remember that at the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the basic structure of our governance process was laid down in a context very different from today’s world. The fundamental idea was a three-part system: the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. That was the easy part. Then there were the all-important legislative arrangements, where citizens could rub shoulders with their elected representatives.

Having just broken away from a despot King of England, the American public desperately wanted a truly representative government. A two-house system was finally agreed on. One was to be a small body of more senior citizens to serve for long terms to give stability and a longer perspective. The other was to be a larger body, each of whose members would represent only about half a million constituents and thus would feel quickly and closely the voices and pulse of their districts.

The Senate was given six-year terms with one third of the senators to be selected every two years. (Note not elected. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that all Senators were elected by popular vote in their states. Previously they were selected by their state legislatures and governors.)

From the beginning of the nation the whole House of Representatives was the only body at the national level that stood for general reelection by all the citizens of each congressional district every two years. The intended result was to quickly reflect the broadest electorate sentiment into the national political process.

Then an unexpected thing crept into the system early in the 19th century. There was a shrewd politician from Massachusetts named Gerry — hence came the word gerrymandering — who dreamt up the idea of fiddling with the boundaries of congressional districts to favor political aims and interests, a practice that became very popular. Over time the process has evolved to the point that today about 80 percent of the 435 House seats have ‘designer’ districts, which favor one party or the other, generally in about a 60/40 ratio.

As it does take two to tango, both parties have played that game vigorously, with tacit reciprocal agreements to protect their beloved status quo. The result is that it takes a rare and virtual political earthquake — sudden or slow — for the House to shift between which party has control in sync with public sentiment.

All of this brings us to today. This fall’s election reelected the Democratic president strongly; the Senate Democrats increased their majority by three seats (despite the fact that fewer Republican seats were in play); yet, the House remained strongly in the hands of the Republican Party.

That fact suggests that the Senate, despite its longer terms, has become the body most reflective, at the moment at least, of changing public sentiment. And, here is the surprising fact: Across the whole country for the House of Representatives more votes were cast for Democratic candidates than Republican. In a reasonably ‘districted’ and truly representative democracy, ex-Mr. Gerry’s devious genius, that was not supposed to be the way it works.

The result is that at a time when we already have a badly stalled and congealed political process, the people’s will in the House of Representatives has been largely thwarted and might seriously interfere with solving today’s very pressing fiscal problems.

There have been several efforts in recent years to correct this problem. So far they have mostly foundered in the quicksand of historical precedent and political bickering among the parties in the state legislatures, which hold the power to draw district boundaries. Despite that resistance a few states have created bipartisan, non-political commissions that have the final say on their boundaries, and some small steps have been taken in the right direction. That suggests a way ahead, but presently does not show much life.

The significance of the failure in this last election to properly reflect the people’s will in the House of Representatives hopefully will bring more attention to the important need to attend to the basic political problems of districting, as well as the Siamese-twin problem of campaign finance reform.

Those two crucial issues must get moved up on our national agenda in the next four years and it would be best if they are dealt with together.

Election Day Dawned Clear and Bright

Thank goodness it is over. It sure looked close, but with hindsight it really never was as close as it seemed.

It was a colossal waste of money. When will the public wake up to the pointlessness and waste in campaign finance? Just saying no to all contribution requests could help a lot. For example, one small population state, Montana, saw $50 million spent, which budged no needles. Good for TV stations, but no one else.

There were surely several ugly under themes in the election: party politics trumping national interest; real but covert racism; repetition of fabricated “facts” creating wicked distortions; constant painting over personal portraits; media convergence on apparent trend changes making them appear more real than they were.

The most damaging aspect of the aftermath is the absence of any clear-cut mandate rising from such a murky debate about the real and serious problems facing the nation.

While the president can take the result as a decisive choice by the country to stay the course with his policies and plans, it is less clear that he can carry the day with a Republican House determined to prevent him from implementing his plans, particularly with respect to the fiscal cliff.

That said, the first order of business should be to quickly and visibly resurface Messrs. Simpson and Bowles and present to the Congress their now completed plan, which is 1,000 pages of legislative drafts, and demand that it be passed by December first.

The moderate Republicans who were strong-armed a year ago by the Tea Partiers to block a grand bargain then should be ripe now to give up the now defeated party mantra of “do not allow him any victory and that will drive him from office.”

If the president can now strong-arm the Congress to pass a close version of the original Simpson-Bowles plan, the election will have been a success and the headwinds we have been facing should swing to become tailwinds, making the next four years fair sailing.

Perhaps a New, Different Obama?

It is rare that a leopard changes spots. It is also rare that a re-elected President of the United States emerges in a second term with a new and different persona. This may be a moment for an exception to the rule.

Obama emerged in 2004 as a young, untested, relatively inexperienced Senator from Illinois. He had tried and failed in an initial run for a Congressional seat. Then when he took on the challenge of a Senate seat, he got lucky. Both of his two main contenders blew up and were eliminated. He coasted into his sudden seniority in the political system at a young age with little experience.

He was and is smart, cool, ambitious and capable of sensible self evaluation. When his speech in Boston at Kerry’s convention in 2004 propelled him into national stardom well ahead of his expectations, he began to see that there might be an opportunity for the Presidency in 2008. He hit the jackpot in offering the right antidote in the aftermath of the W Bush years of failure: he sold hope.

He got lucky when Hillary could not get out of her own way. He got even luckier when McCain, a true fighter pilot hero, got the nomination and he got even luckier when McCain picked Sarah Palin as his VP running mate.

Perhaps you are getting my drift. When Obama was elected in 2008, despite his reputation for being aloof and even arrogant, he may (probably did) have heard some inner voices say, “Wow, how did this community organizer from Chicago get so lucky? Is this a dream? Can this be real?”

If he did hear some such voices, most likely his intelligent, rational reaction would likely have been to do just what he did. He was accommodating (many say to a fault). He was cautious, with exceptions like health care. He rarely, if ever, attempted strong arm political tactics in the tradition of Lyndon Johnson and FDR.

He hoped to be a post-partisan and post-racial President, but those two goals were probably his most serious miscalculation. Neither really is a Presidential program. Rather, they might be an historian’s observation after the fact of his Presidency.

So what does all that big windup have to do with today’s new second-term Obama?

He probably has forgotten those early days of doubt and tentativeness. He took office in a moment of turmoil and panic. He made mistakes along the way as all Presidents inevitably do. His insecurities were masked in aloofness, seeming indifference and allowing others. such as the leaders of Congress. to take the lead in crafting details of many of his policy proposals.

But, boy, did he learn a lot (or at least we all hope he did), dealing with a wallowing economy, unwinding two wars and a population that had invested a lot of hope in him.

On this November 7th as he headed back to the White House he must have heard those little voices again. “Yes, I guess I am still lucky. But this time it had little to do with luck. They had good cause to question conditions today. I did make the case that things were getting better and this was not the moment to change course. A nice majority of folks saw through all the rhetoric and saw the progress we have made. So I am not a lucky accident this time. This time I have had a lifetime of experience in four years. This time all eyes everywhere were fully open and they picked a now grey-haired, old community organizer to be President again because they trusted me. Now I have every reason to trust myself and go full out to deliver everything! And, it helps not to have to think about another election. Better get rolling fast!”

The scenario imagined in this piece obviously is by no means provable. Yet it is easily supported by plain, old fashioned good sense.

Whether he can now escape his bubble enough to hear vital feedback from a wide range of people (as he did during the 2008 campaign) remains to be seen. Whether he can lift enough beers and slap enough backs to make new friends in Congress is also unclear.

His personal habits may be too ingrained to accommodate changes. Despite that, he did wake up enough to hear his critical advisors after his somnolent first debate. That is grounds for hope!

And, perhaps it also does not hurt to suggest this scenario, because, even if he did not actually hear those voices, hearing about such voices now might just offer some useful inspiration.