The Big O meets the GOP

So I watched the president’s appearance before the GOP House caucus.

It came, of course, two days after Mr. Obama delivered his State of the Union address. Drafting an SOU is generally a team effort. I have been on one of those teams (1988), penning the best received, per the pulse polling, section of that speech. My take on this one? A net negative for the president. The internal contradiction (for example, calling for a spending freeze to control the deficit and a new stimulus bill), the petty partisanship (he’s still blaming Bush), and the bad manners (his hit on the Supreme Court) were turn offs for the disillusioned independents he needs to reach.

The visit to the GOP caucus was a different matter. Both sides came out winners, I thought, in part because both engaged issues seriously and courteously. It was exactly the kind of respectful exchange that independent voters have been demanding.

The Republicans made the absolutely true point that the White House has been unwilling to engage with them for a year now, with GOP critiques and alternative proposals belittled or ignored at every turn. The “Party of No” hit has been particularly galling to the GOP members, who have advanced a full suite of alternatives on health reform. GOP members made clear that, from their point of view, the White House’s idea of bipartisanship has been that Republicans should accept every detail of Administration proposals without an edit. Negotiation and compromise have not been in anyone’s vocabulary on the Democratic side.

The president seemed to be sticking by that “my way-or-the-highway” stance in the substance of his remarks. His “you-are-spouting-talking-points” jab sounded as though he was spouting a talking point himself, which he was. But his defense of the substance of his positions — particularly on the spending run-ups he inherited — was, I thought, compelling in places. And his remark that Republicans were happy criticize earmarks even as they sought them for their own districts was totally fair. Most of all, just being there, engaging seriously and promising to keep it up (as in any case he has to do in the wake of the Massachusetts voting), will count in his favor among independents, at least that’s my guess.

So both sides won. The Congressional Democratic leadership may be another matter.

This past week I attended a small dinner that included prominent figures on both sides of the health care debate, among them one of the very most senior Democratic insiders. As the arguments got hot, the Democrat advocated trying for passage through reconciliation or wholesale House adoption of the Senate plan. Either ploy would take the threat of a Senate filibuster out of the game. He didn’t seem to grasp that the cost of the White House and Democratic Congressional leadership’s brushoff of the GOP throughout 2009 is that they probably cannot muster a majority for either approach on the floor of the House today. Democratic backbenchers understand the news from Massachusetts, even if the Senate majority leader and the House speaker don’t.

SOU and “I”

Mr. Obama’s first State of the Union Address: good speech — and not so good.

On one hand, the President can be extremely appealing. Numerous times in the evening, I found myself liking him — particularly when he seemed to break from text and, with a smile, remind both parties of their common duty to the naiton.

But other places I found myself saying “wrong”, “tin ear”, “off note”. The hit on the Supreme Court was one such place. It was too much, a violation of decorum. Even more (for me at least) came when I started to count the “I”‘s. A TV commentator said the text had 93. Presidents routinely use the first person plural — “we” this, “we” that, striking a note of common purpose with Congress and the American people — but rarely the first person singular and, in SOUs, never even close to as frequently here. The impression left was of a president not as concerned about common purpose as about personal purpose.

Carrying On Without ED

One commenter — “Pedro” — suggested that Ed write under a pseudonym. I’m for it. I tried to persuade him to stay on as a contributor. I thought, well, some say WHWG is a kind of think tank as well as a communications and policy consulting firm — so why not create a WHWG Fellows position, with Ed as the first fellow. He could take the new job and keep sharing his wit and thoughts with all of us, too. Sounded good to me. But Ed felt his duty to his new employer wouldn’t allow it. Maybe we can lure him back to Podium Pundits once he’s settled in. I hope his employer will say yes. In the meantime, he remains a friend. All of us and WHWG and WWW, too, I am sure, wish him well in his new post.

Last Call

EB2During the holidays Clark called me and said, “Ed, you’re lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground.” And I said, “What?!?” And he said, “Oh, nevermind, it’s just something I’ve been working on with a client. It probably won’t go anywhere.

“The real reason I’m calling is this….” He went on to say that Jay Leno wanted to become a Podium Pundits contributor. Seemed odd at the time – after all, Jay isn’t known for his political views – but I figured we’d incorporate him into the scheme.

Then Clark explained that because of some bandwidth issues, we could only accommodate Jay if another contributor dropped off. As the low person on the totem pole, and a George W. Bush appointee, I would have to go….

No, wait, sorry. I’m having my “get paid $30 million for not working” fantasy again.

In truth, I do have to keep working, but I’m going to be doing it somewhere else and that means I won’t be contributing to Podium Pundits anymore.

And I’m leaving at a really interesting time. One year into the era of Obama (and the age of Podium Pundits), it remains to be seen how the president can leverage his considerable communications skills to advance his policy agenda, a task that will only grow more difficult with the crucial 41st Republican vote in the Senate.

As for the Republicans, will 2010 see the emergence of a new spokesperson for the party? Read More »

We Had a Bad Candidate, Redux

Hey kids, see if you can pick the correct line in tomorrow’s talking points for White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Will it be” “Last night’s election was a fluke”?  Or? “It was indicative of nothing more than a single vote on a single night.” Or?  “It was a snapshot.” Or? “We had a bad candidate.” Or?  “Don’t read anything more into this than you should.”  Or?  “It was all the old Cosmo pictures that made the difference.” Or? “This means nothing.”

My personal choice is “We had a bad candidate.”

Trust Us, We Know What We're Doing

Trust Us, We Know What We're Doing.

The Eternal Sunshine of the Speaker’s Mind

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this Friday about the earthquake in Haiti:

“From my own experience with earthquakes, being from San Francisco, I think that this can be an opportunity for a real boom economy in Haiti…. It can leapfrog all over its past challenges – economically, politically, and demographically in terms of the rich and poor and the rest there and have a new – just a new fresh start. And with all of the concern and compassion and enthusiasm to help the people of Haiti, nobody is better suited than President Clinton to channel that energy.”

You may remember that San Francisco, at the time a collection of hovels on the unpleasant side of poverty, used the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to rededicate itself to economic and political development. Soon, under the channeling leadership of President Clinton, came the rise of the Internet, the development of the iPod, and the world domination of Google.

HaitiIf a city like San Francisco circa 1989 could pull itself up by the bootstraps and launch into the 21st century, Haitians should see a blanket of opportunity unfolding before them.

Harry Qua Harry

57600603As any PR flak knows, the best way to knock your client’s bad news off the front pages is for worse news to catch reporters’ attention. Less scrupulous hucksters will fabricate rumors and stories to help move the media. But sometimes events just fall into place.

So it’s been for Harry Reid. When news broke over the weekend that in 2008 he’d described Barack Obama as a “light-skinned” African American with “no Negro dialect,” it looked like it might be a rough week for Harry. Republicans debated whether to force Reid out of his party leadership position, a la Trent Lott, or let him stew in his own juices and allow his opponents in this year’s Nevada Senate race to keep basting him with the comments.

But now it’s Thursday and the story seems so … three days ago. It’s been supplanted by an almost unimaginable trifecta of more interesting and/or weightier news.

Mark McGwire’s steroid admission, the ongoing Leno-Conan saga at NBC, and, most recently, the devastating earthquake in Haiti have captured the public’s attention and sucked up all the journalistic oxygen. That these three events occurred in separate spheres of public life – sports, entertainment, and world affairs – means that every person who’s not a total political junkie has switched off the Reid fiasco.

But this was bound to happen. Aside from the Democrats’ typically brazen willingness to accept in their own that which they forbid in others, and the media’s complicity in this double-standard (can anyone imagine a Republican keeping his job after using the word “Negro”?), Reid had one major thing going for him: Stupid comments are already written into his storyline. Read More »

Hooray for Google!

When faced with intellectual theft or subversion by the regime in Beijing, many Fortune 500 have spines of Jello. This is bad enough when a company quietly allows its hard-earned competitive products to be lifted.  It is immoral when companies cooperate with Chinese authorities by helping them crack down on democratic dissidents.

One company has found its spine.  Don’t-Be-Evil Google has publicly announced that the Chinese hacked into their corporate site looking to track dissidents.  The company is threatening to pull out of China.  It is putting ideals before profits, and good behavior before shareholder returns.

All of the major technology companies have had to walk a thin line between the world’s biggest market and doing right.  Google made the right call this time.  The Big G deserves a slap on the back.  Let’s hope this is a trend. google-1

Michael Steele

Washington is getting a case of the vapors over Michael Steele’s new book, Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda.  The Republican establishment heaped coals over Steele’s head in a front-page Washington Post imagesarticle for getting the GOP off message in the face of what should be a historic midterm rebuke of the governing party.

I have not yet read Steele’s book, but I have read excerpts and heard the RNC chairman defend himself tenaciously on Sunday morning television.  Steele writes and defends provocative statements like: “The disparity between our rhetoric and our action grew until our credibility snapped.  It wasn’t the fault of our ideals.  It was the failure of our leaders to live up to them.”

This kind of language–far from upsetting rank-and-file GOPers–is precisely what the party faithful hunger to hear, and precisely what will ensure that they go to the polls in November.  Republicans want their leaders to acknowledge that “we got off track”–on spending, on the mismanagement of two wars, on big government–and that “we get it.”

Steele is right to vigorously make this case.  This is not a football game.  Republican voters want to know that cheering for their team will actually mean something.

Newsflash: Presidents Work on Vacation

O VacaIf there’s one storyline about President Bush I’ve never had any patience for, it’s the idea that he was on an endless holiday during his time in office. Reporters loved to bandy about the number of days the president spent at his ranch in Crawford or at Camp David. The “vacations” fed the notion that the president was fundamentally unserious, a slacker who stumbled into history and wasn’t up to his job.

What made the stories particularly galling is that they were propagated by reporters, a breed of people who are allergic to their own offices. Journalists, apparently, are able to work effectively from any bar, coffee shop, or hotel lobby in the world, but the president of the United States can’t possibly get anything done unless he’s in the Oval Office.

The times have changed, and so has the storyline, now that President Obama is in office. I nearly choked when I read AP reporter Phillip Elliott’s dispatch about the president’s return from Hawaii, the theme of which is that this poor president just doesn’t get time to relax. Those gosh-darned world events keep invading his private time.

Even though it was called a vacation, the trip to Obama’s childhood home was hardly the holiday most Americans seek. Between golf outings, he phoned his homeland security secretary and counterterrorism adviser for regular updates. Rather than restaurant recommendations, the president was handed thrice-daily updates from the White House Situation Room. And an attack that killed seven U.S. intelligence officers put him on the phone with the CIA director before heading to the island’s North Shore for a party with high school friends….

So even though Obama wore casual slacks on New Year’s Day when he took his daughters to see a 3-D version of the film “Avatar,” that BlackBerry on his belt wasn’t for fashion. For a wartime president who dodged dealing with a terrorist attack on Christmas, it’s just one reminder he’s never completely distanced from his job as commander in chief.

Exactly right. But I wonder why reporters were slow to acknowledge that reality over the past eight years.

Redefining Moments

As Ed’s piece (immediately below) on Nigel Lawson reflects, December saw the transformation of climate change discussion. By month’s end, dismissing so-called “deniers” was out. Honoring skepticism was in.

Why? Two events, of course: the outcome (more aptly non-outcome) of the Copenhagen summit and the release of the University of East Anglia emails.

Despite President Obama’s strenuous efforts in opposition, China and a number of developing nations made clear that they were not about to sacrifice the economic progress they had achieved since the world turned from statism towards markets two decades ago. There would be no installation of growth-choking global statism under the guise of addressing what they saw as a non-crisis climate crisis. The release of the East Anglia emails, of course, strengthened their position, calling into doubt virtually all the scientific literature supporting the crisis theory. In the span of thirty days, the long dismissed questioners of the “climate change consensus” found themselves center stage, new stars of this show.

The communications lesson here is about redefining moments. You are making your case and no one is listening. You feel that there is no way to break through. Still you keep at it. Then something happens and all of a sudden the world views you and your issue differently. At such moments, those who have persisted through the wilderness years (as Winston Churchill termed his time making unheeded warnings about the coming of a true global crisis) find opinion moving rapidly in their direction. People will say that your new success is thank to great timing. You will know that it is as much thanks to great persistence.

Seasoned Pundits Offer Political, Cooking Wisdom

Nigella 3‘Tis the season for family, and what better way to celebrate family than to bear witness to the diverse expertise of one prominent British house?

So today we have former UK Chancellor Nigel Lawson on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Lord Lawson (indeed!) writes on the folly of Copenhagen – and carbon-control initiatives in general – noting, “The reason we use carbon-based energy is not the political power of the oil lobby or the coal industry. It is because it is far and away the cheapest source of energy at the present time and is likely to remain so, not forever, but for the foreseeable future.”

Reducing carbon usage will, therefore, be expensive and the world can’t agree on who should foot the bill. Lawson conceptualizes the challenge nicely, saying it is one “of burden-sharing, and in particular how much of the economic cost of decarbonization should be borne by the developed world, which accounts for the bulk of past emissions, and how much by the faster-growing developing world, which will account for the bulk of future emissions.”

Instead of going through the annual ritual of meeting in a world capital to wring hands over carbon caps, the lord prescribes a “Plan B,” namely, adapting to the consequences of warming, should they come. “Addressing these problems directly is many times more cost-effective than anything discussed at Copenhagen. And adaptation does not require a global agreement, although we may well need to help the very poorest countries (not China) to adapt.”

As most conservatives are, he’s a fan of increased R&D for energy innovation, too.

But Lord Lawson isn’t the only taste-maker in his clan. In an interview at, Nigella Lawson – daughter of Nigel, former journalist, and the woman who brought sexy back to TV cooking – offers her own prescription, this one for an awesome holiday season filled with food. Read More »

Time for a White Knight on Health Care?

Health care reform has turned into a fratricidal war among Democrats. Liberals vs. moderates; Reid vs. Lieberman; Ben Nelson vs. the world. Meantime, poll numbers for the president, Congressional Democrats, and the reform effort are falling through the floor. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows more Americans would rather do nothing than pass the Reid bill – not a good situation for a majority making a case for the urgency of reform.

This all points to a degree of success for Republican opposition to health care (and stimulus, and cap and trade). But the success is limited. While GOP poll numbers have ticked up slightly, the public isn’t overly enamored of Congressional Republicans either. And that’s probably because voters aren’t sure what Republicans want – other than whatever Democrats don’t want.

It may be time for Republicans to move their opposition strategy to the next phase, and health care offers a good opportunity. Conditions are ripe for a Republican white knight bill that pulls together the Republican caucus and 20-25 Democrats who agree on a few principles. With so much of the debate around the margins of reform – and particularly around a government-run health plan – the consensus middle ground has been ignored.

I see a consensus bill containing five provisions: Read More »

Whole Foods Republicans

At last, we have been recognized.

For years, my wife and I have driven Volvos.  We go to a liberal church, vacation in liberal places, once lived in San Francisco, and watch Showtime’s Californication. And yes, we shop at Whole Foods.

Something about our consumer profile prompts liberal activist groups and Democratic precinct captains to come knocking on our doors around election time.  Brother, are they wasting their time.  We vote Republican.  And we vote not for liberal Republicans, but for tough-minded conservative Republicans like Virginia’s Bob McDonnell.

Don't forget the herbal tea on the way out.

Don't forget the herbal tea on the way out.

You could call me a rock-ribbed Republican, if only I could still find my ribs.

Now, at long last, our species has been identified and classified by the Hoover Institution’s Michael J. Petrilli in The Wall Street Journal.

To win our votes, he writes:

“The first step is to stop denigrating intelligence and education.  President George W. Bush’s bantering about being a ‘C’student may have enamored ‘the man in the street,’ but it surely discouraged more than a few ‘A’ students from feeling like part of the team.

“The same is true for Mrs. Palin’s inability to name a single newspaper she reads.  If the GOP doesn’t want to be branded the ‘Party of Stupid,’ it could stand to nominate more people who can speak eloquently on complicated policy matters.”

And who like line-caught Scottish salmon with a nice Zin.

Obama Soars in Oslo

Obama smile 2President Obama’s Nobel speech is winning praise from all quarters, and rightfully so. The speech was magnificent, beautiful in places and driven by a message challenging international diplomats and intellectuals to unite their ideals with a recognition of the world as it is.

The president also, in the midst of controversy over why he received the Nobel Prize and concern that he would again offer apologies for US leadership in world affairs, delivered a robust – yet not arrogant – endorsement of American power as a catalyst of peace and human advancement.

Capturing what was essentially the theme of the speech, President Obama said, “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.”

He issued a call to embrace reality: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth:  We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

And he likely shocked a few of the assembled guests with this bracing shot of authority: “I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.” He also provided a chaser to smooth the rough edges: “Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.”

In one of the most memorable sections of the speech, the president made a full-throated defense of military power – even American military power – as a sometimes-necessary counterweight to greater evils in the world:

I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. Read More »