Not Just An Also-Ran

Senator John McCain died yesterday, at age 81, after a long battle with brain cancer.  He was an American hero for his fierce resistance to his North Vietnamese captors after he became a prisoner during the Vietnam War, and after he was released from captivity he forged a long and equally independent record in Congress.  He was a proponent of campaign finance reform, a steadfast supporter of veterans, and a strong advocate for the military.  McCain was one of those members of Congress who was willing to buck party leadership and reach across the aisle if he felt it was the right thing to do — a reputation that was confirmed when he voted against a repeal of Obamacare — and if I didn’t always agree with his positions, I always felt that he was largely motivated by a sincere belief in what would be best for the country.

john-mccainIt’s an impressive legacy — but for many people, McCain will be remembered primarily as the man who was beaten by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

McCain’s death got me to thinking about the people who have run for President on a major party ticket in a general election and lost, and how many of them are still living.  Two of the oldest members of that group, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, actually won the presidency before losing their bids for re-election.  The other living members of the club of people who were unsuccessful in their run for the presidency include Mike Dukakis, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton.  All of them have had successful careers in politics and have made different contributions to the country — and all of them will be remembered, at least in part, for the time they lost.

America is a tough place for a politician.  The higher they rise, the higher the stakes, and when a person raises the money and makes the speeches and personal appearances and survives the primary system and becomes the nominee of a major political party, the stakes are the highest of all.  We routinely honor the winners — at least, most of them, if only for a short period of time — and second-guess and chastise the losers, dissecting their campaigns and pointing out every flaw and flub.

John McCain shows how unfair that perception is.  Sure, he never became POTUS, but that fact doesn’t detract from who he was or what he accomplished.  He was a lot more than an also-ran.

Graham Scram

Lindsay Graham has announced that he is suspending his campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016.

It’s kind of a sad thing, when you think about it.  Graham has been a Senator for years, and he was somebody who seemed to have a nose for getting his face in the press.  He was featured regularly on the morning news shows and Sunday morning shows, and he tried to stake out a niche in the crowded Republican field as the guy who was tough on terrorism and hawkish on foreign policy but also willing to be bipartisan at times.

lindsey-graham2Unfortunately for Graham, his pitch just didn’t work.  He never made it to the stage with the big boy frontrunners in the Republican debates — although some observers said he won some of those undercard debates that almost nobody watched — and he never really registered as more than a blip in the polls.  Now his campaign is on the scrap heap, along with those of Rick Perry and Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal.

You could poke fun at Lindsay Graham, I suppose, and question his ego, and wonder why he ever thought he could possibly be elected President in the first place.  But sometimes politicians have an itch that they just need to scratch.  Graham obviously thought that his particular combination of message and personality and positions might strike a chord with the country as a whole.  He was wrong.

So let’s not make too much fun of Senator Graham.  Somebody’s got to want to be President, or our system wouldn’t work.  He took a stab at it, at least, and he fell short.  Now somebody else will be the nominee.

A few more departures of candidates, and we’ll be able to fit all of the Republican candidates on one stage, just in time for the first caucuses and primaries that are scheduled for the first months of 2016.

Batten down the hatches, folks — the campaign is about to start in earnest.

Postal Banking?

One of the great things about competitive presidential campaigns — as opposed to simple coronations of the front-runner — is that different ideas about how to solve the nation’s problems can be raised, and discussed, by the different candidates.  Sometimes the ideas are good; sometimes they are bad.

Although most of the attention this year has been focused on the scrum of Republican candidates vying for attention, on the Democratic side socialist Bernie Sanders is holding up his end of the bargain, too.  One of his more interesting proposals is to allow the U.S. Postal Service to provide limited banking services.

The rationale for the proposal is that, in many poor neighborhoods, banking services are in chronically short supply.  Sanders says that traditional banks don’t want poor people as customers, which means people must resort to “payday” lenders or check-cashing outfits that charge much higher interest rates and higher fees than traditional banks would charge their standard customers.  Why not allow the Postal Service to offer savings and checking accounts, check-cashing services, personal loans, and other modest banking options?  It turns out that, in many countries, postal services already offer such services, and for a time postal-savings options were available to new immigrants to the United States, too.  And, Sanders notes, the U.S. Postal Services has offices just about everywhere.

I applaud Sanders for focusing on the plight of the poor in America and for shining a light on a problem that many people don’t even perceive.  If you live in a suburb where bank branch offices are found at just about every intersection, and those banks are pathetically eager to sign you up for every conceivable banking service, you can’t imagine there is a banking shortage.  But if you are poor, and you live in a neighborhood where the traditional banks are absent, imagine how it affects your ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  Even if you’ve got a job, you’ve got no checking account into which your paycheck funds can be electronically deposited by your employer.  You cash your paycheck with an outfit that takes a chunk of your hard-earned wages and you carry around cash, hoping you can make it stretch until the next payday.  You’ve got no credit rating to fall back on, and if you run short on funds your only option is a lender whose interest rates will make it difficult to ever fully repay the loan — and suddenly you’re trapped in a web of debt with few options.

It’s an issue that deserves attention, to be sure, but the idea of allowing the U.S. Postal Service to offer banking services gives me the willies.  The Postal Service is supposed to be the expert on delivering the mail, but it can’t even make that important function a going concern.  It’s getting creamed by the competition and running up billion-dollar shortfalls.  It’s also highly politicized, with Congress interfering with sensible cost-cutting measures like closing tiny post office outlets.  I don’t care how things work in other countries:  in the United States, there is nothing in the performance of the U.S. Postal Service that suggests that we should trust it to perform banking services, no matter how modest.

And here’s another key consideration:  the whole idea of the U.S. Postal Service banking proposal, as outlined in the Atlantic article linked above, is that the banking services “would remain affordable because of economies of scale and because of the existing postal infrastructure in the U.S. Plus, in the absence of shareholders, they would not be driven to seek profits and could sell services at cost.”  And therein lies the rub, eh?  The U.S. Postal Service already has “economies of scale” and an “existing postal infrastructure and still runs billion-dollar deficits doing what they are supposed to do well.  Now we’re going to have post offices that have no banking experience offer banking services “at cost” — whatever that means — and make loans and handle people’s money?

Gee, what could go wrong with that?

The lack of banking services in poor neighborhoods is a problem, but having the broke, and broken, U.S. Postal Service assume the responsibility of providing banking services in those neighborhood isn’t a solution — it’s just a way to make the Postal Service’s financial problems and constant deficits even worse.  I give Mr. Sanders credit for highlighting a problem, but I put his postal banking proposal into the “bad ideas” category.

The High Cost Of Constant Fundraising

We’ve heard a lot recently about President Obama’s fundraising.  One journalist reports that, so far, the President has attended 160 reelection fundraisers — twice as many as President Bush had at the same time in his 2004 re-election bid.

I’m not a Polyanna about fundraising.  Modern presidential campaigns are crushingly expensive.  A President seeking reelection needs to raise lots of money, and no one is going to be a more effective at it than the President himself.  The inevitable consequence is that the President will spend a lot of time at fundraisers, hobnobbing with high-rollers and collecting their checks.

There’s an unseemliness to the emphasis on cash, cash, cash and the President’s involvement in raising it, but we’re beyond the point of worrying about unseemliness in modern politics.  Instead, I’ve been thinking about the impact of constant fundraising on the President’s ability to perform other important parts of his job — such as working with Congress and trying to build the kinds of coalitions needed to pass legislation.

The focus on fundraising interferes with the President’s relations with Congress in at least two ways.  First, there are only so many waking hours in the day.  Every hour spent on the rubber-chicken circuit is one that could have been spent strategizing with congressional allies, schmoozing opponents, or seeking points of potential compromise on important legislation.  What’s more likely to break the stalemate in Congress — another glitzy fundraiser in Hollywood, or a weekend retreat to Camp David with House and Senate leaders, or wavering Members of Congress who might be persuaded to vote for a presidential initiative?  Politics is personal, and if a President doesn’t regularly offer the personal touch, he is bound to be less effective in his relations with Congress.

Second, the President gives a speech at every fundraiser.  What does he typically talk about, to fire up his supporters and spur them to write bigger checks?  Why, it’s the “do-nothing” Congress that won’t act on his agenda.  So the fundraising grind exacts a dual toll — the President not only is taken away from Washington and the opportunity to spur the legislative process, but he also bashes Congress and thereby reduces his chances of achieving consensus in the future.

President Obama wants to win re-election, and he and his advisers know that he needs money to achieve that goal.  I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.  Still, I can’t help but think that it would be better for the country — and for President Obama, too — if he spent less time at black tie galas and more time with Senators and Representatives, slapping backs and twisting arms.

Popeye For President!

Tired of the mewling irritation of national politics?  I sure am!

Return with me to a simpler time.  A time when politicians campaigned in top hats.  A time when votes could be had for the price of a few cigars or the completion of a few chores for Olive Oyl.  A time when a candidate battling over votes could slug his opponent on the jaw and punch him through the engine block of a tractor.

I wish a few of our modern presidential candidates, whether from the Spinach Party or the Blutocratic Party, would use their pipes to suck down and chew on a bit more spinach.

The Real Lesson In Perry’s Departure

Yesterday Texas Governor Rick Perry ended his race for the Republican nomination for President.  His brief campaign started with a bang and ended with a whimper — his departure wasn’t even the top news story on a day that featured stories about open marriages and another debate — but it’s worth some reflection.

When Perry came into the race a few months ago he was viewed as a formidable contender.  Why not?  He is the popular, long-standing governor of one of our largest states.  Moreover, Texas’ economic and job-creation performance has been a bright spot during the recent economic doldrums.  Perry seemed like a candidate who could present a sharp contrast with President Obama on the job and economic issues that are the primary concerns of most Americans.

Alas for Governor Perry, he just wasn’t ready for a presidential campaign.  His stumbling performances in debates caused his poll numbers to shrivel to insignificance and led his potential supporters to look elsewhere.  He seemed unsteady, and never could gain traction.  The spotlight quickly moved on to others, and by the end of his campaign, Perry had become almost an irrelevant figure.

Perry’s rise and fall shows that running for President is different in kind, and not just in degree, from other political races.  The intensity of media scrutiny and criticism, the crucial role of capable staffing and planning, the paramount need to respond quickly and forcefully to missteps or changed circumstances — all of these distinguish a presidential campaign from, say, a governor’s race in your home state.

The story of Rick Perry is one that every potential candidate for President should consider before they make the decision to run.  Seeking the presidency is brutal.  Are they truly ready, where he wasn’t?