Sunday, March 29, 2009

Federal Government or Corporate Human Resource Director?

Earlier today, it was announced that General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner is out after a 31-year career. This of course comes in the midst of the severe difficulties that the Big Three (or at least GM and Chrysler) continue to experience. Removing the head of the company during a time where plans for long-term restructuring and sustainability of a company are being finalized seems to me to be a fairly reasonable step to take.

What I do have great concerns about, however, is the fact that Wagoner didn't step down at the behest of shareholders, customers, or even the heads of automotive industry-related labor unions. He stepped down - read "was removed" - when the President demanded his head on a silver platter. Has the day really arrived where the Administration can now dictate the personnel decisions made by a business or privately-owned entity?

The more Congress and the Administration throw money at problems, the more conditions they are attaching to that aid - and the more strings they are attaching to these puppets that they can pull at a later time. No one wants to use the word nationalization, and in recent weeks the amount of bailout money given to certain institutions - primarily banks - has fallen just short of the percentage needed to give the government controlling interest. However, I think that nationalization has arrived when the White House can pick up the phone and say, "You're out!"

I would like to think that the President's team called and simply asked Wagoner to resign, and he graciously and - for the good of GM and its future survival - accepted. But in this day and age where government gets itself into these situations more and more deeply, I'm not so sure...

Friday, March 13, 2009

What to Make of the RNC

A friend of mine engaged me in a brief conversation today on what I thought about the situation at the Republican National Committee, specifically the problems being encountered (seemingly daily) by new chairman Michael Steele. I appreciated the question and tried to give a thorough but succinct answer that adequately covered my thoughts.

Unfortunately, succinct isn't necessarily a word found in my vocabulary, and I don't think that I really outlined what I think about the disaster I see taking place at the RNC. Despite the contention of some that we need to give Steele more time to settle in to his new role, I can't say that his first month on the job has really instilled much confidence within me as to his ability to do the job.

I have never met him, but he seems like a nice enough guy (and friends of mine who know him confirm that belief). Steele did what I think (looking on as a Virginian) a very good job as lieutenant governor of Maryland, and he was certainly a formidable candidate for Senate a few years ago (losing that race by just a few points). Even in recent months as a commentator for the Fox News Channel, I think he's done a pretty good job and has brought an interesting new voice to the table.

However, that's where my approval ends. The first four weeks or so of his tenure at the RNC have been nothing one one mis-step after another, and I think that it really reflects on his focus and upon whether he has the tools (read "patience" and "tactical thinking") needed for the job. Let me address a few points here, which have already been covered quite heavily by the media.

1. Rush Limbaugh. Why is this argument even happening? Yes, it's provided a good way of taking the Democrats' eyes off of the ball a bit as far as policy goes, but it's making Republicans and conservatives look even worse. People have been quick to say that they certainly don't think that Rush is the leader of the party, and even Rush himself said as much. So why is the debate continuing, and why are there still questions about Rush's role in the GOP?

I have to admit that I listened to Rush on occasion in the early 1990s, and again later in the decade when my job had me on the road a bit and I used talk radio as a way of passing the time. He's passionate about his beliefs and about his arguments, but after a while I was turned off by his bombastic approach to everything. He always struck me as never being able to find the ability to look for middle ground with folks, which - while a good sign that he believes in what he is saying and sticks to those core values - shows at least to me that he's more concerned about keeping the argument going than finding a way to end the argument.

If Steele is forced out of his job - and the rumblings about that course of action by the members of the RNC executive board get louder almoste very day - the first idea that people will latch on to is that it was because of Rush. Now, if it's because of the fact that Steele took valuable time away from reorganizing the party to engage in this debate, then I will agree that it was because of Rush. But if people raise the issue once again that it was because Rush is the leader of the party, then I will continue to disagree.

Rush Limbaugh is a radio host and commentator, just like Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham and many other Republicans and conservatives on the airwaves today. He has a message that resonates with a lot of people, and he gets them engaged in a lot of positive ways (contacting their elected representatives, supporting certain candidates for federal office, etc.). But that's where it ends; he is an entertainer. If he or anyone else wants to see himself in the position of being a party leader, then he should get out from behind the microphone and hit the campaign trail. I'm not saying I believe you have to be an elected official to be a leader of the GOP - there is a lot of tremendous grassroots leadership in the states by folks who don't hold elective office - but put your words into action and do some real, on-the-ground work. Three hours a day as a radio entertainer and a 90-minute speech to CPAC do not a party leader make - despite the best arguments and fondest dreams of many to the contrary.

2. Visibility. When you are a news commentator offering your opinions on issues of the day, then a lot of visibiltiy is great. But when you are trying to rebuild a party that has spiraled downward in the last two election cycles, then you need to focus on the party.

I think Steele has been horribly overexposed on the media since his election as chairman, and I'm wondering if he misses being on television and radio more than he thought he would. Yes, you can argue that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is on television and radio quite a bit as well in his role as the new chairman of the Democrat National Committee, but his party doesn't need rebuilding (at least at the grassroots and state level) - they've trounced Republicans in the last two congressional elections, the 2008 presidential election, and in several recent gubernatorial races. Kaine can afford to be on the airwaves; I don't think Steele can. When it's one month in and you don't have a staff in place (a lesson being learned in the Administration as well with the ongoing staffing problems at the Department of the Treasury), then you've got work to do, and it shouldn't include three or four circuits of the news outlets each week.

3. Coherence. Steele's comments about abortion in the latest issue of GQ, aside from completing infuriating the base of the party, show a lack of coherence. It was a stumbling, directionless answer that seemed to be guided more by the interviewer than by Steele coming in prepared to give solid answers to what he should have known (and should always be prepared for, by the way) would be some tough questions. If you can't answer basic questions about your own beliefs in a clear way, how can you be expected to articulate the views of your party?

So, my friend asked, who do I think we need at the top of the RNC? That's a difficult question; I don't think there's one person I could point to and say "him" or "her." What the party needs is someone who can offer new and exciting ideas, who has a sharp political mind and can think strategically, and someone who is polished in front of the camera. I don't know if that one person exists (and if he or she does, I don't know where they are), but I think that the skills needed by the future head of the party can be seen in some folks (and the type of skills they need can actually be seen in folks from both sides of the aisle). For instance:

Newt Gingrich - His difficulties as Speaker of the House and the problems in his personal life over the years aside, Gingrich has one of the great policy minds of the last fifty years. You only need to read his books on energy independence, health care reform, and those that are a compilation of ideas on addressing the most pressing problems in the country today to see that he is offering something new and something which, given the opportunity, may just work.

Karl Rove and James Carville - Yes, you are reading this combination correctly; Rove and Carville. Aside from the ongoing controversies with the Bush Administration to which Rove has been linked, and aside from the fact that I'm on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Carville, these two are some of the most brilliant political tacticians in recent memory. They are both great at taking a broad message and honing it a basic point that appeals to average folks, and their strategic skills are remarkable.

Paul Ryan and Mike Huckabee - I had a chance to see him (Republican Congressman from Wisconsin) at work in person several times before leaving my previous life at the Capitol Hill end of Washington, and he continues to impress with his grasp of a wide range of policy issues (including the budget, for which he has a particular affinity). What makes Ryan remarkable is that he not only knows the finer points of policy and legislation, but has an effortless delivery when it comes to taking the message to the people You only need look at his recent appearance on "Fox News Sunday" to see what I mean. And Governor Huckabee (who I've met on two occasions) is someone from whom you detect a genuineness in his beliefs and concern, who is great at articulating both his views and the views of a large number of conservatives, and doesn't ever seem to be struggling to find the right words; they just come naturally. If you're looking for two great communicators in the party today, these two are hard to beat.

Is there one person out there who rolls all three parts of what I think are needed to make a complete party leader? Who knows; there may be a as-yet undiscovered talent out there. But if that person is there - and they are willing to take on the challenge - then the door may be opened to them sooner. I would like to think that Steele will pick himself up and turn things around, all of which would make much of this post moot.

But being the head of the RNC makes you the head of an organization, not the head of a party - and what Republicans and conservatives really, truly want att his point is someone they can all point to as a leader.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama Uses Lincoln as a Model - But Does He Know What Lincoln Was Modeling?

Throughout much of last year's presidential campaign and into the early part of his Administration, President Obama often invoked the name of Abraham Lincoln as a model for the course of his presidency. However, I can't help but wonder whether he looked at the words of Lincoln when preparing the massive, overpriced, unfundable stimulus package recently signed into law.

If not, allow me to do so for him. In 1832, not long after becoming a candidate for a seat in the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln wrote a letter to the residents of Sangamo County in which he discussed certain transportation needs for the area. In this letter, candidate Lincoln wrote (and the italics are mine):

"That the poorest and most thinly populated countries would be greatly benefitted by the opening of good roads, and in the clearing of navigable streams within their limits, is what no person will deny. But yet it is folly to undertake works of this or any other kind, without first knowing that we are able to finish them - as half finished work generally proves to be labor lost. There cannot justly be any objection to having rail roads and canals, any more than to other good things, provided they cost nothing. The only objection is to paying for them; and the objection to paying arises from the want of ability to pay."

Later in the letter, he continued:

"...however desirable an object the construction of a rail road through our country may be; however high our imaginations may be heated at thoughts of it - there is always a heart appalling shock accompanying the account of its cost, which forces us to shrink from our pleasing anticipations."

So here we are, 173 years ago, and one of the men Obama has held up as the model of his presidency is stating that you shouldn't undertake any project for which you cannot pay. Buying now and paying later, or running up a deficit, were not things Lincoln was endorsing; he was endorsing that you pay for the things you can afford, and if there is a project that exceeds your finances you don't pay for it.

So looking at the stimulus bill and the tremendous number of "shovel ready" projects that the fifty states have provided, and taking into account that we cannot in fact pay for any of them (although our children and grandchildren will be expected to shoulder the burden), can we in fact say that Obama is really using Lincoln as a model? And if he is, how much does he really know about what Lincoln thought?

(By the way, this letter is part of magnficent collection of the writings of Lincoln published by The Library of America. It makes for some fascinating reading!)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

You Want $600,000 for What?

I love Twitter.

I love it because it's quick, it's easy, it allows me to keep up with some of my friends more quickly than I could otherwise, and it allows me to track the breaking news posted by several national television stations and newspapers.

Twitter also allows me to follow the goings-on of several politicians to find out what they're up to on a daily basis. Obviously, I would prefer that they pay attention to what's going on in the committee hearings and floor debates that they are so kindly tweeting about, but having worked for Congress for nearly ten years and being a political junkie, I appreciate being kept in the loop (or in my case, in the beltway).

One of the things I've loved about the past few days is that one of the folks I'm following, Senator John McCain, has been doing a daily top ten list of some of the more egregious examples of earmarks in the FY 2010 omnibus bill being debated this week in the Senate (he calls it his top ten list of porkiest projects). Yes, I will argue that there are some legitimate things in the bill that will prove important to a lot of people (chiefly, the funding to keep the government up and running). But folks, come on - really? Have you looked at this list? Some of the items McCain has pointed out (the numbers are his; the comments are mine) include:
  • $632,000 for the Hungry Horse Project. Those are some mighty pricey oats.
  • $59,000 for Dismal Swamp and Dismal Swamp Canal in Virginia. What could you possibly want to do to a swamp?
  • $95,000 for the state of New Mexico to find a dental school location. Really? Do you really have to pay someone $95,000 to say, "That looks like a good spot?"
  • $150,000 for lobster research. What's to research? They're delicious!
  • $950,000 for a Convention Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As much tourist traffic as Myrtle Beach draws, can't they afford to pay for their own convention center just with the revenue from the hotels and restaurants and other tourist spots?
  • $118,750 for a building to house an aircraft display in Rantoul, Illinois. Isn't this called a hangar? Don't airports have hangars? Couldn't an area airport host the display?
  • $380,000 for a recreation and fairground area in Kotzebue, Alaska. Okay, I just had to look this up, since I had never heard of the place - the total population is 3,237. And it's in Alaska; isn't the entire state a recreation area?
  • $190,000 to build a Living Science Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. The living science of what, Mardi Gras?
And in a bill that is hundreds and hundreds of pages, there are a lot more of these provisions tucked in (in fact, there are 8,992 more). It's ridiculous that we're paying for all of this -- and our kids will pay for this, and their kids will pay for this.

Change, transparency, reform; I seem to recall hearing these three words quite a bit from both sides of the aisle. I haven't really seen much change or reform to this point, and despite the assertions of many to the contrary, I don't expect to see many changes in the future.

And as far as transparency? All I can say is, "Thank you, Twitter!"

Focusing on a Different Roosevelt

David Ignatius had a very interesting column in today's edition of the Washington Post, in which he wrote that in light of the present financial crisis (particularly with AIG) President Obama should perhaps shift his focus from Franklin Roosevelt to Theodore Roosevelt. Ignatius thinks that TR's trust-busting mentality would be more appropriate for dealing with the financial crisis in the American banking system. Well worth a read.

The Right Roosevelt?
By David Ignatius
Thursday, March 5, 2009; A19

There has been a lot of speculation about whether Barack Obama can be another Roosevelt, but I wonder if we're talking about the right Roosevelt. In fixing the financial crisis, Obama could use a little less of FDR's affection for economic giantism and a little more of TR's zeal for trust-busting.

This week's $30 billion supplementary bailout for insurance behemoth AIG is a case in point. Keeping this insolvent monster on life support doesn't make sense. The company should have been dismantled when the crisis first hit last year, when the healthy parts could have been sold for a decent price. Treasury says that after this latest bailout, AIG should shrink and remake itself in smaller pieces. Better late than never, I guess.

Link to full story:

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

And They're Off!

A political blog. Without question, this is really a new thing for me.

Don't get me wrong; I've been blogging for several years and have really enjoyed it. While politics would occasionally creep in on my other site, by and large it was devoted to issues about faith and family.

In recent months, however, as I've gotten more concerned (or frustrated or angry; take your pick on how to fill in the blank) with the political situation in this country, I've found that I've been devoting more of my posts to the issue of politics. I'm a conservative, yes, but I can't say that I'm any more thrilled with the GOP right now than I am the Democrats. With a large part of my job currently consisting of monitoring the activities of the Administration and Congress, I read a lot, listen to a lot, and think even more. What I needed for the thinking and analysis was a place to put down my thoughts, share intriguing columns and political writing, and post things from the news that draw my attention (or frustration or anger; another blank to fill in).

As such, I started this blog to provide yet another place for lively - and polite - political debate. Don't let the fact that I'm a conservative turn you off; I will gladly listen to all points of view and try to debate anyone who is willing - and use all of those exchanges to solidify my own position, which can only be strengthened when I know all the arguments.

I am particularly drawn to the William F. Buckley quote in the masthead for this blog, and its references to the majority and minority. However, from my point of view I have seen a great reversal in recent years - the majority is now the government, and the American people have gradually become the minority. This blog is my small attempt to stare down the majority.