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When Idaho Democrats win

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This year’s race for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction will test one of my long held theories about the state’s politics. It will be news to some voters, but Democrats have occasionally won elections in Idaho, but generally only when Republicans screw up and put forward a candidate broadly seen as unfit or ill prepared. When that happens a competent Democrat can win and often stay in office for a while.

Frank Church won the first of his four terms in the Senate in 1956 because he faced a flawed GOP incumbent, Herman Welker, who had distinguished himself as Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate. Welker was likely also suffering from a brain tumor, which may have contributed to an erratic personality that offended many voters, including Republicans. Unacceptable GOP candidate equals Democratic win.

Cecil Andrus used to joke that had there not been a Don Samuelson, another bumbling GOP incumbent, he would never have won the first of his four terms as governor. Democrat John Evans beat the hapless Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Larsen in 1978 only after Larsen, an awful candidate, told live-and-let-live Idahoans that he thought it was possible to legislate morality. That’s why you don’t remember Governor Larsen. Richard Stallings was elected to Congress because the GOP incumbent George Hansen was a serial crook. One judge, obviously giving Big George the benefit of the doubt, said Hansen’s failure to comply with campaign finance law was not necessarily “evil” but “stupid, surely.” Hansen later served time for defrauding a bank.

Which brings us to Cindy Wilson, the earnest, experienced, energetic and personable Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction. Wilson, based on her resume and grasp of issues, should, even in red Idaho, be a serious candidate. She’s taught for 33 years in schools in Orofino, Pierce, Shelley, Boise and Meridian. She’s won awards for her classroom success and Governor Butch Otter appointed her to the state board of corrections, giving Wilson a view of how educational failure contributes to exploding prison populations. That Wilson has a chance to win, however, says as much about the underwhelming incumbent as it does about the challenger.

Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra is, as one astute observer told me, really “an accidental candidate.” Ybarra, a total political unknown with a shallow resume, came from nowhere to win the GOP nomination four years ago. That was enough for a Republican “fresh face” to win a general election. Since then Ybarra’s often erratic performance has raised persistent questions about her competence and even her interest in the job.

For a politician who is supposed to be an advocate for Idaho’s 300,000 public school students, Ybarra frequently seems to have forgotten to do her homework. Ybarra has been late with her campaign finance reports and has never fully explained why she had to amend disclosure reports going back to 2017 to justify why she paid herself back for a loan to her campaign that she had never disclosed as a loan in the first place.

Ybarra has stressed support for rural schools, but her policy proposals have been thin to the point of non-existence. Gubernatorial candidate Brad Little, by contrast, recently put some specific meat on the bones of how rural districts might actually combine certain services. It is the kind of thing a chief school officer might do rather than a candidate for governor.

Ybarra has touted a school safety initiative – KISS, Keep Idaho Students Safe – but did nothing to coordinate her very expensive proposal with the office state lawmakers specifically established to deal with that issue. As Idaho Education News reported recently the head of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security was dumbfounded to learn that Ybarra had gone off on her own, ignoring the expertise in his office. “We didn’t even know she was looking at doing any kind of safety initiative until she announced it to the general public,” said school safety program manager Brian Armes.

Challenger Wilson might have simplified her entire campaign by adopting an easily understood slogan: “I’ll show up for work.” Ybarra has frequently missed state board of education meetings, including a meeting this summer that conflicted with her professed need to pack for a vacation. Lately she has been stiffing joint appearances with Wilson, including in the last few days an Idaho Falls City Club event and an educational forum at Boise State University.

Ybarra ducked the Idaho Falls appearance in favor of a fundraiser at a pub in Eagle owned by a former colleague who lost his educational credentials after being accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. “He was punished for that, and he’s still a friend of mine,” Ybarra told reporter Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News. “We’re not around kids right now, we’re at a fundraiser.” That statement will be remembered as the definition of tone deaf, or perhaps worse.

The last time Idaho had a bumbler in the state superintendent’s office voters overwhelmingly rejected his “education reforms” at the ballot box. And before that an incompetent Republican state superintendent lost re-election to Democrat Marilyn Howard, who went on to serve two terms, carrying on a tradition of professional, competent management of the office that dates back to Jerry Evans and Roy Truby in the 1970s and 1980s.

Having the big R behind your name is often all it takes to win in Idaho, but if voters are paying attention and really want competence in a job critical to kids and parents and the economy, the incumbent state superintendent will be looking for a new job in January.

This is not over

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Most Americans today won’t recognize his name. When he resigned in disgrace from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 he mostly disappeared from public life, remembered now only as a footnote in the evolving story of increasing partisan hostility over membership on the highest court in the land.

It wouldn’t be correct to say that the politicization of the court began with Abe Fortas – judicial nominations are and have always been inherently political – but what happened to Fortas does provide a cautionary tale for today’s Senate as it struggles with the tortured process of assessing Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for a lifetime appointment.

Fortas, like Brett Kavanaugh, was not merely a creature of the political process but a deeply partisan political player who, like Kavanaugh owed his appointment to a flawed process engineered by a flawed president.

Fortas was, like Kavanaugh, a Yale Law grad, and was one of the bright young lawyers who populated the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1940s Fortas helped found a high-powered D.C. law firm – today’s Arnold and Porter – where he represented deep pocket corporate clients and maintained his extensive and lucrative political connections.

When his friend Lyndon Johnson needed legal help to make certain his contested 87-vote victory in a 1948 Texas Senate race would hold up under scrutiny he called Fortas. After Johnson won a landslide election as president in 1964, like most presidents he wanted to put his mark on the Supreme Court. Johnson being Johnson, he literally forced Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg off the court in order to appoint his pal Fortas. He was confirmed and that decision seemed, briefly, to cement a liberal lean to the Supreme Court for a long time to come.

But, in a variation of the old line that you can make God laugh by telling him your plans, Johnson – and Fortas – overreached. Badly. When, near the end of Johnson’s presidency in 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement, LBJ was certain he could replace Warren as chief justice by ramming a Fortas nomination through a Senate controlled by Democrats. Shades of the current controversy – Johnson insisted on speedy Senate action. Don’t ask a lot of questions, he said, just confirm him - quickly.

Conservative southern Democrats and Senate Republicans refused to go along with the hurry up process, particularly after it was disclosed that Fortas had been the beneficiary of a sweetheart deal that paid him a tidy sum to teach at American University, a deal not financed by the college, but by former clients at his old law firm. It was also revealed that the justice had been a regular advisor to Johnson, counseling the president on PR strategy regarding the war in Vietnam, attending cabinet meetings and even drafting a state of the union speech for LBJ. Fortas, with the surety of a Brett Kavanaugh, dissembled about his involvement and ultimately a Senate filibuster killed his appointment as chief justice.

But even as Fortas stayed on the court, the drip, drip of scandal would not stop. And finally when another sweetheart consulting gig involving a shady friend was unearthed Fortas’s time was up. He resigned from the court in disgrace in the spring of 1969. He died in 1982.

So play this out 50 years later with another highly partisan court appointment. Kavanaugh has left not only a vast and still undisclosed paper trail of his activities and views of the George W. Bush White House, but now has had two appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee where, to be charitable, he has been at best guilty of less than subtle obfuscation.

The president of the United States has outsourced judicial vetting to the most extreme partisans in the community of GOP special interests who want to complete the full politicization of the court. He has, like LBJ in 1965, looked beyond talent and temperament to put a politician on the bench.

No matter what happens with the Kavanaugh nomination – let’s assume he is narrowly confirmed amid continuing controversy about his past and his truthfulness – the scrutiny, just like with Abe Fortas, will not suddenly disappear.

There is a better than even chance that Democrats will win control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the fall and a feisty New Yorker by the name of Jerrold Nadler will become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Last weekend Nadler seemed to be reaching back in time when he said: "We cannot have a justice on the Supreme Court for the next several decades who will be deciding questions of liberty and life and death and all kinds of things for the entire American people who has been credibly accused of sexual assaults, who has been credibly accused of various other ... wrong things, including perjury. This has gotta be thoroughly investigated. I hope the Senate will do so. If he is on the Supreme Court and the Senate hasn't investigated, then the House will have to." 

Based upon what the Supreme Court should be – independent, free of obvious partisan taint, above politics to the extent that is possible – it’s easy to see that Lyndon Johnson made a historic mistake in 1965 appointing an unabashed partisan to the court. Johnson knew what he was doing. He wanted his guy in there. History shows us how that turned out. Donald Trump also wants his guy on the court, a judge who has wondered out loud if constraints on presidential power are appropriate and, credible questions of past conduct aside, believes he is being put upon only as “revenge on the behalf of the Clintons.” The lesson is clear: controversial, highly partisan nominees are bad for the court and bad for the country.

In his biography of Abe Fortas, historian Bruce Allen Murphy notes that a portrait of Fortas that once hung in a prominent place in the Yale law school has now disappeared from the New Haven campus. Does a similar fate await a new justice? We’re going to find out.
 

What we learn from history

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Just when it seems that our politics can’t possibly produce yet one more head spinning moment we get one.

An amazing thing happened this week. The world laughed at the American president. While he was making a speech. At the United Nations.

Oh, I know, Trump fans will discount the importance of a spontaneous outburst of chuckling from the world’s diplomats. European elites, they will scoff. A reaction coming from African nations that are, well, it rhymes with lit holes.

While it’s tempting to toss off yet another Trump moment as just the latest Trump moment the reaction to the president of the United States boasting about his greatness at the U.N. is really a symptom of a larger, more serious problem for the United States and the world. At the same time the United States has retreated from a position of international leadership we continue to suffer a difficult to correct deterioration of democratic practice at home. Unfortunately we are not alone.

As Edward Luce, a writer for the Financial Times, notes in his brilliant little book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, “Since the turn of the millennium, and particularly over the last decade, no fewer than twenty-five democracies have failed around the world, three of them in Europe (Russia, Turkey and Hungary.)” Luce is, of course, using the term “liberal” in the classic sense: liberal democracies encourage people to vote in free elections, they welcome dissent, they value a free press, they respect differences and find ways to compromise in the cause of an unruly, yet broadly universal understanding of progress.

Yet, the prevailing momentum in the world is not toward greater equality either political or economic. By one recent estimate, a third of the world’s people now live in democracies in decline. All the energy from the British exit from the European Union to new U.S. trade wars is in the direction of isolation, retrenchment and conflict. We see the telltale signs of this new world order playing out in real time. For 70 years the NATO alliance has provided security for Europe, Canada and the United States, yet the current administration, apparently ignorant of that history, picks fights those allies and plays nice with a Russian dictator. Rather than thoughtful engagement with China – Ed Luce calls the emergence of China as world power “the most dramatic event in economic history” – we apply time dishonored methods of tariffs and taxation that will soon enough hurt Idaho potato growers, Montana wheat farmers and Iowa soybean growers. China, meanwhile, consolidates its influence across the Pacific basin, while we tax ourselves thinking we will bring them to heel.

Americans are badly, one hopes not fatally, distracted at the moment. The constant political turmoil, the blind partisanship, the disregard for fundamental political and personal decency is part of a pattern across the globe. As the European scholar Anne Applebaum put it recently, “Polarization is normal. More to the point … skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.”

Ask yourself a question: How much of what you hear and read about politics today do you really trust? Authoritarians like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey have mastered manipulation on public opinion, they control the sources of information if they can, intimidate those they can’t and dominate and denigrate the rest. Democracy does not thrive in spaces where leaders label as “fake” or a “hoax” that with which they disagree. But demagogues do get ahead in societies where distracted citizens come to believe that nothing is real, that there are versions of the truth. More and more political leaders, even a candidate for governor in Idaho, seem comfortable with their own versions of Trump’s “fake news” mantra.

It used to be that political leaders, real political leaders, practiced the old political game of addition. How do I add to my support? How do I bring people together? How do we solve problems even if my side can’t prevail completely? How do we strengthen the often-fragile norms that define acceptable behavior? How do we strengthen the rule of law rather that assault it? Those were the days. Now it is all about juicing the base or perhaps even worse, depressing the vote.

The retreat of western liberalism is happening at precisely the moment the United States is fighting to lead the retreat. At a moment that demands American leadership, fresh thinking about old problems and a commitment to pluralistic societies, we are hunkered down building walls and denying climate change. And the world is laughing at words like, "my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country." 

Ironically, Donald Trump’s moment at the United Nations this week is, like so much of the man’s story, a fulfillment of his own expectations. Trump “has always been obsessed that people are laughing at the president, says Thomas Wright, a European expert at the Brookings Institution. “From the mid-’80s, he’s said: ‘The world is laughing at us. They think we’re fools.’ It’s never been true, but he’s said it about every president. It’s the first time I’m aware of that people actually laughed at a president.”

The laughter is on us, as is the future. It is nowhere ordained that American democracy will forever flourish and carry on. In fact the opposite is true. Modern world history is the story of one democracy after another – Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s and Poland, Brazil and India today – facing internal turmoil, political polarization, decline or worse. We are not immune.

Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher put it succinctly, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

(Marc C. Johnson was press secretary and chief of staff to Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. His biography of Montana New Deal-era Sen. Burton K. Wheeler will be published early next year by the University of Oklahoma Press. He lives in Manzanita, OR)
 

Come for cuts, stay for hypocrisy

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Few issues so clearly define the extent of the Trump takeover of the Republican Party as the GOP’s wholesale abandonment of concern about deficits and debt. Once the principle talking point of nearly every Republican “fiscal responsibility” is now as quaint as a president who isn’t an unindicted co-conspirator.

The most recent assessment of the federal budget deficit by the independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as the Washington Post notes, drew a collective shrug on Capitol Hill. Consider the CBO’s language about the issue.

“The federal budget deficit was $895 billion for the first 11 months of fiscal year 2018 … $222 billion more than the shortfall recorded during the same period last year. Revenues were 1 percent higher than in the same period in fiscal year 2017, but outlays rose by about 7 percent.”

CBO confirmed what everyone from eastern Washington to the White House knows that the deficit increase “was almost entirely due to the new Republican tax law and Congress' routine decision to increase spending.”

And, oh, the deficit is on pace to top a cool trillion dollars by the end of the current fiscal year. The total debt is north of $21 trillion. So much for fiscal responsibility or the abandonment thereof.

It’s difficult to find a better example of where GOP legislators have gone from deficit hawks to missing in action than Idaho. Senator Mike Crapo still has a debt counter feature on his official website, but you need to go way back to the Obama Administration to find an even remotely recent hint that he is as hawkish on debt as he once was. In January of 2016, after blasting Obama for pursing “more unrestrained spending,” Crapo lamented that we “continue to ignore our debt and simply try to spend our way into prosperity with borrowed money."

That was then, this is now and with a Republican in the White House Crapo has clammed up. You can search high and low on his website, in public statements and interviews and not find a word of criticism for “Trump’s exploding deficit” or the “growing national fiscal crisis.”

Senator Jim Risch never takes on the Trump Administration, of course, but a year ago he condemned a “pattern of reckless, uncontrolled spending [that] threatens the future of our country and ensures our children and grandchildren have a bleak financial future. Congress must cut spending and recognize that we do not have a no-limit credit card to fund everything everyone wants.”

That is simply a hollow, cynical and hypocritical assessment. Republicans control both houses of Congress and the executive branch. They largely determine spending priorities and they alone passed the further enrich-the-rich Trump tax cut that has, but I repeat myself, exploded the deficit. Crapo and Risch were, of course, enthusiastic supporters of the tax cuts – each claiming the tax cuts would pay for themselves; they don’t – and in order to maintain deniability in the shell game that passes for fiscal policy in Washington, D.C. each routinely votes against spending bills. Such an approach is the political equivalent of eating your chocolate cake, while ignoring the peas. The deficit hawks have flown the coop.

Democrats certainly don’t have clean hands on spending issues, but to his credit Obama did convene a bi-partisan effort to address the steadily worsening problem. Crapo served on that commission – the Simpson-Bowles Commission – and actually endorsed a reasonable approach of spending cuts and tax increases. On his website he says “working with both Republicans and Democrats, the Commission examined all aspects of our nation’s budget and tax code and proposed recommendations to Congress and to then-President Obama for consideration.” Crapo neglects to note that then-Republican Speaker John Boehner bailed on a deal with Obama when he couldn’t deliver GOP votes in the House.

Today Simpson-Bowles seems like ancient history and given the GOP hegemony in Washington, and the reluctance of people like Crapo and Risch to take on their own party on taxes, any deficit-debt progress seems like a pipe dream. The reality is that the GOP has, at least since Dwight Eisenhower, valued tax cutting more than it has valued a balanced approach to fiscal policy. In fact, the Trump-era GOP has essentially declared “deficits be damned,” with House Republicans wanting to cut taxes even more before the current Congress ends.

Perhaps, given the political climate of our day, only people no longer in Congress can speak truth about taxes and spending and debt. “History will show you there’s no country in history that’s been strong and free and bankrupt,” John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a co-founder of the Blue Dog Coalition who retired in 2010, recently told the Washington Post. Or as Utah senate candidate Mitt Romney recently reminded his fellow Republicans, “We called for an amendment to balance the budget. Just a few years ago, the Tea Party movement brought new energy to the issue. But now that Republicans are in charge in Washington, we appear to have become silent about deficits and debt.”

Don’t forget to remind your grand kids who bequeathed such a mess.

Marc C. Johnson was press secretary and chief of staff to Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. His biography of Montana New Deal-era Sen. Burton K. Wheeler will be published early next year by the University of Oklahoma Press. He lives in Manzanita, OR.
 

All politics is local

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Please welcome Marc C. Johnson, a fine participant, observer and commenter on politics generally and Idaho politics specifically. He was press secretary and chief of staff to Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. His biography of Montana New Deal-era Sen. Burton K. Wheeler will be published early next year by the University of Oklahoma Press.

There are few universal rules in politics, but one rule certainly holds that no challenger wins a contest without making the incumbent the issue. Challengers who don’t take the fight to incumbents lose. Paulette Jordan, the Democratic nominee for Idaho governor, isn’t precisely running against an incumbent in Republican Brad Little, three-term governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s lieutenant governor, but Little has all the trappings and the potential downside of incumbency.

Little is an “establishment” Republican who vanquished two conservative foes in a divisive GOP primary. He’s been around Idaho politics for years – his father was a long-serving state senator – and he is, in effect, running for Otter’s fourth term, accountable for all the bad and ensured of only modest credit for the good. Yet, seven weeks in front of the November election Jordan, the insurgent challenger, has yet to lay a glove on the incumbent. She certainly isn’t making it clear, as she must if she hopes to win (or even come close), that the election is a referendum on 12 years of the Otter-Little administration. A skillful candidate would by now have exploited some of the many missteps of the last dozen years, but beyond supporting Medicaid expansion and offering pabulum about a more humane government, Jordan hasn’t offered specifics about much of anything.

Jordan, a novice statewide candidate, is also violating Tip O’Neill’s old truism that “all politics is local,” by largely ignoring the traditional means of politicking in Idaho. Jordan has received heaps of attention from CNN and national publications have devoted ink to her resume as potentially the first woman and first Native American governor in Idaho. Yet she regularly avoids engaging with Idaho reporters and was largely missing on the summer fair and rodeo circuit. One long-time weekly newspaper editor told me recently he hasn’t seen the Democratic candidate and doesn’t expect to. He’s given up on ever getting a phone call returned. It’s a common refrain.

Jordan should have taken a page from the surging campaign of Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke who is challenging Texas Senator Ted Cruz and seems to have made that race a virtual toss up. O’Rourke, running as the underdog in a Trumpishly red state, has crisscrossed Texas repeatedly holding town hall meetings with anyone who will show up. During a recent gathering in San Marcos, according to the Texas Tribune, “O’Rourke answered questions about what he thinks about impeaching Trump, how to address the wealth gap between African-Americans and whites and whether he supports Betsy DeVos’ efforts to bring guns to campuses (‘No,’ he said).”

In contrast, Jordan recently swapped time in Idaho for an appearance on a Saturday night CNN show where she avoided discussing any specific issue. Idaho voters, she said, were “ready for true compassion and governance again.” Jordan told CNN host Van Jones that her upbringing stressed love of country, love of the land, love of all humanity, but that such attitudes hadn’t been “reflected in Idaho for the last three decades.” That is a vacuous and dubious claim at best. Going back thirty years, for example, would take us to the third term of the last Democrat to win the governorship, Cecil D. Andrus, a man who championed good schools, fought the feds over nuclear waste storage, presided over a strong economy, advocated for human and civil rights and certainly loved the land. Andrus knew that any successful Democrat has to run with a real and specific agenda.

Jordan does seem to be attempting to expand the electorate, trying to appeal to disaffected Idahoans and younger voters. O’Rourke has much the same strategy in Texas, but he adds the critical ingredients of substance and presence. In other words he shows up and is willing to confront issues, even difficult ones, head on.

I have long argued that Idaho Democrats must find a new approach to running statewide campaigns, including strategies to expand the electorate. They need to focus on younger voters who much research shows aren’t particularly wedded to either political party. They need to play to their one true strength, years of commitment to improving educational opportunities. And they must relentlessly and enthusiastically engage voters. A brief hit on CNN is no substitute for a town hall meeting in Payette, a picnic in Orofino or knocking on doors in Soda Springs.

Jordan has apparently mastered one part of a new Democratic strategy. The University of Virginia Center for Politics and Ipsos, the polling outfit, has created an online 2018 Political Atlas for every major race in the country. The Atlas measures, among other things, a candidate’s social media presence and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram Jordan looks like a winner. One analysis gives her seven times as many Twitter followers as Little and six times as many followers on Facebook. Nevertheless respected political scientist Larry Sabato who helped invent these new measures calls the governor’s race “safe Republican.” That call is based on his detailed analysis of polling, Idaho’s electoral history, the quality of the candidates and other first hand intelligence.

A good social media presence is clearly an element of a challenges strategy, but it’s hardly enough by itself. The vast majority of Jordan’s social media followers appear to be fans from outside Idaho and therefore unable to vote for her in November. Perhaps that’s what you get when you base an Idaho campaign on profiles in The Atlantic or interviews on CNN.