Sunday, January 30, 2011

Don’t Let Mubarak In! Obama’s Carter moment and what he can learn from the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis

When the inevitable occurs–Hosni Mubarak of Egypt steps down or is forced to leave–the United States and Obama should not give him asylum in this country. This would be repeating the same mistake that President Carter made with the Shah of Iran in 1979. A decision to eventually led to the taking of 52 American hostages.

Watching the events in Egypt unfold in the last few days reminds me so much of Iran in 1979 and 1980. The parallels seem so scary and similar.

1979 and the Shah of Iran
The Shah of Iran was an American ally who ran a secularist, brutal regime that was in many ways propped up by the United States. He was considered an important military and regional ally of this county and he received significant financial and military assistance from this country. However, he became increasingly despised by his people and there was a growing Islamic movement–remotely directed and inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini in exile from France.

As the pressures internally mounted against the Shah, he initially sought to crack down on the protests and suppress the Islamic movement. But when the movement began to swell and his crackdown became more severe, the United States was caught in a dilemma. Should it support the Shah and his regime in his crackdown or encourage a transition in power to something the United States could not predict? Moreover, the United States could not tolerate the repression the Shah was using to stay in power, and President Jimmy Carter, committed to an agenda and foreign policy of protecting human rights, encouraged the Shah to show restraint when dealing the demonstrators. He did, and some argue that the easing of oppression and the light response he took toward the demonstrators paved the way for his eventual ouster. From there, stuck with what to do to get the Shah out, Carter permitted him entrance into the United States for medical treatment and exile until it became clear that his residence in this country was a political liability and he was invited to exit.

Yet, in allowing the Shah to enter the United States, it made the country look like it was his puppeteer. In part the decision to let the Shah enter the US precipitated the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran and the taking of the hostages.

I remember the Iranian hostage crisis well. I was a senior in college, applying to graduate school in political science, and watched how it was the final event that perhaps doomed the Carter presidency and helped elect Reagan. Carter’s missteps, the image of a failed presidency, all were contributing forces that led to his downfall.

2010 and Mubarak of Egypt
Mubarak reminds me so much of the Shah. He took over after the assassination of Sadat and has run a brutal secular regime. He has stayed in power via rigged elections and by suppression of an opposition that includes the Islamic Brotherhood. He is an ally of the United States, receiving significant financial and military aid from the United States, in part because of a reward for negotiating peace with Israel. I think Egypt is the second largest recipient of foreign and military aid from the US (behind Israel as number one), but don’t quote me on the exact ranking. It is significant, but perhaps not number two.

The US supports Egypt in large part because of the peace deal with Israel. We need Egypt as an ally to protect Israel. It is still one of the only Middle East Arab states that recognizes the latter’s right to exist. In short, we have had a strategic interest in supporting his regime even though from Reagan to Obama it was widely recognized he was unpopular.

Now, the forces of change are ready to topple Mubarak. There is an able opposition leader in El Baradei. He is secular but there are clear news reports that the Muslim brotherhood and the religious parties are willing to support him as a leader–at least as a transitional one. The demonstrations are growing and the demands for his ouster are growing internally. It is not clear if Mubarak has control or support of the military, and today on CBS news I saw American F-1 fighter planes that we sold to Egypt buzzing the protesters as a way to intimidate them.

Also on CBS today I saw Secretary of State Clinton call for Mubarak to ease up and not crack down on the protesters, and later call for him to facilitate a democratic transition. Obama and Clinton have not yet publicly called for Mubarak to step down, but it is close. The call on Mubarak not to crack down and perhaps make other reforms is reminiscent of Carter telling the Shah not to crack down and to respond to the demands of demonstrators.

Now, I am no Middle East expert, but all of this is beginning to smell more like 1980 all over again. Obama is trapped like Carter was. Strategic interests such as support for Israel, call for us to keep Mubarak in. There is as well as fear of instability, fear of what will happen next, and perhaps the fear of another Islamic fundamentalist regime hostile to the US. But the brutal regime and a commitment to democracy, a desire to expand influence in the Middle East, and a need to recognize the inevitable are forcing Obama to want to call for his ouster and step down. Vacillating on what to do is precisely where Carter was in 1979, and that is where Obama is now.

The choices are not great, but they clearly need to expend to calling for Mubarak to step down. But what then? What if anything can the US do to facilitate democracy and maintain Egypt as an ally? El Baradei has made it clear he does not see the US as a friend and having our F-1 fly over Cairo does not reinforce a favorable view of this country. We have supported a bad dictator for too many years and it is just not clear what influence the US has going forward.

Obama's Carter Moment
But one thing is clear as Obama makes choices: Don’t let Mubarak in the US. Do nor grant him asylum. Avoid giving any sign that the US continues to support him lest we give the opposition reason to hate us even more. I hope at this point Obama is reaching out to the opposition, but in doing so will the US send other signals to other regimes that democratic reform is needed? The Middle East–first with Tunisia, Egypt, and perhaps Yemen, suggest change is in the air.

Obama is facing a Carter moment in foreign policy that could dramatically impact his presidency. How he responds not only affects American foreign policy and influence across the world, but also perhaps his prospects in 2012.


In 1980, as a student I read Barrington Moore Jr.’s Reflection of the Causes of Human Misery and on Certain Proposals to Eliminate Them and Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt. Both were brilliant books that argued, among other things, that the failure to allow for social and democratic change was one of the chief causes of human misery and injustice in the world and that too often the US was viewed as the agent that stifled change. This was true in Iran in 1979-80–rightly or wrongly–and the same may be true today in Egypt. What has the United States learned since 1979? This is a good question to ponder.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Obama, Bachmann, and the End of the GOP

Is the Republican party ready to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Several events this week suggest that may be the case.

Obama and the State of the Union
The State of the Union speech is a misnomer. One would think a state of the union speech really to be one that discusses, well, the state of the union. Instead, the speeches have become a state of the presidency with Obama this week continuing the fine tradition of using the speech to discuss his presidency and what he wants to do. In this case, the speech was effectively the launching of his 2012 presidential campaign as he tried out his new narrative.

Think about how far Obama has moved since Election Day last year. The GOP were giddy with their victories, viewing them as a referendum on Obama. His approvals were in the mid 40s, the Dems lost the swings in the elections, and it looked for certain that 2011 would begin the end for Obama. But Obama responded. He struck a tax deal with the GOP and they then gave in on everything else. He gave a great Tucson speech, he changed his economic team, brought in more pro Wall Street toadies, and now suddenly he is over 50% in approval ratings again. The state of the presidency speech that he gave the other day was part of the rehabilitation and relaunching of his presidency and so far he is doing well in preparing for 2012.

The speech was flat. He trotted out no new ideas. I described it as JFK meets Ronald Reagan. It was Sputnik meets morning in America. (Although I wonder how many of his supporters know what Sputnik was or what the Sputnik moment metaphor or analogy meant). Obama told a good story about the future and he crafted a nice narrative that hit all the themes he resonated in 2008. He said nothing new but did it in a language that seemed to appeal to many.

Never mind that Obama did not address two critical issues–the continued depressed housing market and foreclosures, and the continued high unemployment rate. Both were ignored. Moreover, what also eluded him was the economic consequence of his tax deal with the GOP–a hemorrhaging budget deficit that will grow to $2 trillion in a few years.

A Divided GOP?
But Obama was lucky. The GOP have so far played it badly in taking over the House. They have voted to repeal the health care reform and they make noise about the deficit, but they have no constructive ideas about how to replace the former and deal with the latter. They remain stuck as the party of "no." It remains a narrative of opposition, but not one of construction. The narrative of change they used in 2010 to gain power has not become a narrative of governance.

Additionally, Obama’s real luck is that the GOP is divided. Wisconsin Representative Ryan gave the official response–it was even more flat than Obama’s. But no one is talking about Ryan–it was Bachmann’s response that captured all the headlines. Yes others will discuss her challenges when it comes to facts about American history or her Tammy Faye Baker makeup, but the real issue is how yet again she upstaged her own party to trumpet herself. If I were the GOP I would be so angry with her, yet they are also dependent on her and her Tea Party followers for support. It is a dysfunctional relationship ready to get worse. How?

Bachmann’s Third Party Bid for President?

If Bachmann runs for president, think about two possibilities. One is she runs as a GOP and does well in garnering support in Iowa. In an early caucus state with a crowded field, victory goes to those who can best organize and bring people out on caucus night. Clinton learned that the hard way in '08 as Obama the community organizer did well. It does not take more than 25% or so to win Iowa. Tea Party activists will come out in 2012 for her and Bachmann could do well.

But what if Bachmann decides to bolt the GOP and run as a third party Tea party candidate? This is not a nutty idea. Given her relationship with the party, her “in it for herself approach,” and the ideological gulf, it could happen. If it does, the GOP is split and Obama is definitely the winner. Remember 1912? Forget Palin as going rogue, it is Bachmann.

But does Bachmann really plan to run for president? One thought is that this is a way to raise a profile and prepare to challenge Franken 2014. Another thought is a run for president, even if it fails, raises her value as a commentator on Fox or more likely CNN. Why CNN? They need her more than Fox to capture conservatives to watch.

Overall, a Bachmann campaign will overshadow the GOP, reinforce Obama’s centrist image, and insure he wins again.

A Pawlenty Deathwatch

AP reports Pawlenty’s PAC is almost broke. This means either he is winding it down as he prepares to create a presidential exploratory committee (as Pawlenty might spin it) or that his lack of money demonstrates a lack of support for him as the “other Minnesota Republican running for president.” Pawlenty will not be part of that crowded Iowa GOP field, at least not at the top of the crowd.

Minnesota's 2012 Presidential Hopefuls in the Spotlight
Click here to see the KARE11 Sunrise segment about Pawlenty and Bachmann's presidential pursuits.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Three Myths: Election Fraud, Big Foot, and the Loch Ness Monster.

Yet again voter photo ID is rearing its head in Minnesota, and still there is no good reason to have it. On January 13, HF0089 was introduced by a host of Republican authors in the Minnesota House of Representatives. The bill would require the presentation of a voter picture identification before receiving a ballot. The bill is popular with the GOP and with voters in general, but it is probably destined for a Dayton veto if sent to his desk.

Voter ID is one of the stupid public policies that I often rail about. Its apparent need is grounded in political myth. The myth is that there are significant numbers of illegal voters or voters–including felons, immigrants, and other undesireables–who are affecting the outcome of elections. Were they prevented from voting, and only real Americans could vote, then perhaps Democrats would not win close races, Franken and Dayton would not be in office, and Coleman and Emmer would be senator and governor. Thus, the reason why Franken and Dayton won in close races is simple–voter fraud or election official incompetence.

I am not going to devote an entire article to yet again discussing the myth of voter fraud. I have done previous blogs on it and have written a couple of articles questioning evidence for its existence. But a few simply points are appropriate. Let me do that I terms of a Q & A.

Q: Voter ID at the polls is needed to prevent fraud.
A: No one will argue that there is no fraud in the election process. No system is 100% perfect. Mistakes are made but mistakes are not the same thing as fraud. In general, the studies on voter fraud indicate that it is minuscule and that there is no evidence that it is widespread enough to have altered the outcome of an election in Minnesota or perhaps anywhere else. When one actually examines the incidence of alleged fraud–felons voting when they should not–the total potential fraud is often .00000N of all votes cast. The reality is that the amount of alleged fraud is far less than the winning margins by Franken and Coleman.

Q: But has not the Minnesota Majority done studies to show fraud exists?
A: Sure they have done studies but they are not worth the paper they are printed on. Methodologically they are sloppy and they make all kinds of claims about double voting, etc. However once investigated by country attorneys and others the numbers and their claims evaporate. I remember a few instances where they claimed a person at one address had double voted. It turned out that a father and son with the same name lived at the same address. It is this type of sloppiness that they engage in when the do their studies.

Q: Ok but voter fraud is hard to detect. Just because only a few cases of fraud are revealed shows how hard it is to detect. Election fraud is like littering (according to Judge Posner) or speeding. More cars speed than receive tickets. Actual tickets issued are only a small fraction of total fraud.
A: the analogy to vehicular speeding is inapt. Speeding in a car is a continuous 24/7 activity that can occur anytime and anywhere. (The same is true about littering) There is no single detection point or place where people can speed and therefore with the almost infinite amount of cars driving along almost infinite roads, it is virtually impossible to detect all instances of speeding. Thus, the few speed traps that are set up obviously only detect and capture a small spectrum of all speeding.

However, voting or voter fraud is a discrete activity. It can only occur at a specific point in time or place and in order to commit fraud one has to commit it by going through specific point–a voting booth. Thus, all instances of fraud must go through and exit a single detection point. To be successful, in person fraud requires either a false registration, false signature, and tricking an election judge. The point is that to commit voter fraud one has to get past multiple detection points or check points. One can speed without every crossing a detection point (speed trap).

The point here is that the analogy of voter fraud to speeding or littering is inapt. One can speed or litter almost anytime or anyplace. This is what detection hard. The few instances detected and prosecuted are perhaps only a small sample of a larger pattern of speeding and littering that may exist. In addition, beyond detection and prosecution, other evidence, such as police using radar guns to detect speeders but not issue a ticket, or anecdotal statements from drivers that they speed, may corroborate inferences that it is more prevalent than prosecution may suggest. With littering, proof can be found along roadsides and fields across America–the fact that there are cans, papers, and other refuse there points either to the contests of garbage cans being knocked over or intentional littering.

One can only vote in person in a finite number of places and within a finite time. To vote, especially in person, there are several steps and checkpoints in place. There is in 42 states voter registration before election day. This is one check. For all 50 states, in-person voting requires someone to show up, give a name to an election judge and generally sign a log with which there is a signature match. There may be other requirements too. What this means is that one has to go to a specific place to commit fraud and cross past numerous detection or check points before one can actually submit a fraudulent ballot. One does not simply have to speed past a law enforcement officer to violate a motor vehicle law.

Thus, the analogy to speeding or littering is inapt. Lacking more proof that fraud exists, we cannot infer that it is more widespread than it is. Instead, we might be able to easily infer and argue that the few cases that occur demonstrate how well our election system works and how we are able to detect and root it out.

Q: But if we had photo ID we could prevent fraud?
A: If little fraud already exists, then how can we deter what does not exist? Moreover, there is a powerful circular logic to supporters of photo ID. They argue that the ID is need to detect fraud. But in jurisdictions where the ID has been adopted no increase or report of fraud has been documented. Supporters then make a second claim–photo ID deters fraud. You cannot simultaneously argue that the use of an ID will make detection easier and at the same time claim it will deter fraud. Such a pair of arguments are empirically untestable. Thus supporters must rely on faith and not evidence to support their views.

Q: But what is the big deal about the ID? One needs an ID for just about anything in society, including cashing a check or renting a car.
A: Cashing checks and renting cars are not constitutionally protected rights. Voting is a constitutionally protected right. It needs to be examined not in terms of what is a normal societal or commercial practice but in terms of a constitutional right. Society may require a merchant to go door-to-door to sell products but the First Amendment correctly states that groups such as the Mormons and the Jehovah Witnesses do not need a permit to go door-to-door to proselytize.

Q: Photo ID is supported by large majorities of the population. That is reason enough to enact it–majority rule.
A: Yes, we do live in a country based on majority rule, but our Constitution and Bill of Rights say that it is majority rule tempered by minority rights. There are many things that majorities may want to do. They may not like the religion of some sect, the speech of some critic, or the color of someone's skin. But these are not reasons to allow a majority to have its way.

Justice Jackson in West Virginia v. Barnette said it best: “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to . . . freedom of worship . . . and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

Q: But voter ID is needed to restore faith in the election process. Belief in voter fraud is deterring voting.
A: There is no evidence for this. Some statistical analysis has been done and found no evidence that a belief in voter fraud is depressing the public from voting.

Q: So if there is no real good reason for pushing voter ID, why does the GOP keep advocating it?
A: It is a great wedge issue. It divides the electorate. In addition, it provides comfort and explanation to why they lose close elections, especially in Minnesota. It is also a cynical way to engage their political base and fund raise. The reality is that there is no real good reason for photo ID, but it sounds politically good and it offers a narrative that appeals to many.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Don't bet on it: The Foolish MN DFL Strategy for 2012

One of my favorite political cartoons shows a pollster calling a woman, asking: “If the race were held today...” Before he can finish the sentence she replies: “I would be very grateful.”

The sentiment of this woman captures how many of us feel about politics and campaigns. We just cannot wait for them to end. Unfortunately, with the endless campaign cycle it seems elections never end. No sooner had the 2010 elections ended the 2012 election cycle began. Michele Bachmann, even before being sworn in for new term in Congress a couple of weeks ago, already floated a presidential bid. Rumors persist who will run for president, polls are being done on the Minnesota Senate race, and other calculations are being undertaken regarding what will happen in 2012. For Democrats, especially in Minnesota, the hope is that 2012 will be a kinder year for them than 2010 when they lost control of the state legislature for the first time in a couple of generations. All this may be barking at the moon.

I say this because the other day I was talking to one of my friends who lives in Minneapolis. He recounted a conversation with two DFL legislators there recently. When they were asked what it was like to be in the minority, they both responded that they will be back in power as the majority after the 2012 elections. By that, they are counting on the coattails of Obama and Klobuchar and overreach by the GOP to turn a miserable 2010 Republican year into a good 2012 Democrat year. Don’t bet on it.

This is a naive strategy. It is effectively one that says when the voters regain their sanity they will again vote for Democrats. This is a purely defensive and passive strategy. It depends on the steps and missteps of others in order to get elected. This is the fundamental problem with the Democrats for the last 40 years. In 1972 McGovern’s slogan was “Come home America.” Notice how well it worked. In 1984 Mondale’s was “America needs a change.” It did not work. The failure of both candidates was in part the inability of Democrats to offer a compelling narrative to counteract that of the Republicans. Democrats cannot always count on disgust with the GOP and missteps by the latter to get elected. They need to offer a narrative, to provide a set of policies that serve as an alternative. They need to stand for something.

Additionally, Democrats need to fight back if they want to win. The Republicans know how to do that. The Democrats don’t. After 2008 the GOP developed a plan, a message, recruited well, and they took advantage of the Democrats screwing up or failing to define themselves and the GOP. Right now I see little sign that the state DFL is doing any of that.

Maybe the GOP will falter nationally and statewide. Maybe they will overreach. Maybe Obama and Klobuchar will do well and get reelected. But do you want to trust your fate in variables beyond your control? That is what the state DFL and the legislators seem to banking on as a strategy.

Yes, the opposition making mistakes creates an opportunity. But you need to do more than that to win and then to govern effectively. Begin now defining the narrative and themes for what the party stands for. Do focus groups, recruit candidates, and develop a game plan now regarding how you plan to take back the legislature and govern.

There is no guarantee of Obama and Klobuchar wins and coattails. Don’t bet on it for an electoral plan for 2012.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pawlenty, Palin, Podcasts, and Presidential Politics

There is a great old line from the television show Hee Haw that went: “If it were not for bad luck I’d have no luck at all.” This describes the last two weeks Tim Pawlenty has had.

Last week just as he was ready to start his book tour (aka presidential campaign) Michele Bachmann declares her interest in running for the presidency. Pawlenty becomes the other Minnesotan running for president and he is displaced in the news cycle by her.

Now this week he is eclipsed by the events in Tucson. Yes, he did a National Press Club appearance but in reality, who will remember. He was the third, fourth, or perhaps the fifth story of the week, well behind the events and collateral damage and stories that unfolded around him. Moreover, when he did get a chance to talk, the questions were about his views on Tucson, not on his narrative and agenda. In short, Pawlenty had little time to message, tell his narrative, and make his case for being a presidential candidate.

However, even without these two events, his chances were slim. Consistently I have stated that he has little chance of being a serious candidate for the presidency. I also said that two years ago when I said he had no prayer as McCain’s VP. Why? Simply, Pawlenty has no buzz and no originality. Pawlenty is a “me too’ candidate. Others talk about tax cuts, social conservatism, or what have you, and Pawlenty does the same. Palin does a book, Pawlenty does a book. Romney touts his skills as a pro-business governor, Pawlenty touts his skills as a pro-business governor. Pawlenty is always behind others, never able to find a message or theme that lets him stand out from others. Instead, he seems to a candidate in search of a message, a voice, an appeal. He stands below undecideds among GOPers.

Pawlenty’s time is running out. Think of this. The Iowa caucuses are in February, 2012–barely 13 months away. If Pawlenty is to be a viable presidential candidate he needs to be a serious candidate by the fall, 2011. This means that by the beginning of the summer he needs to catch fire. That is barely six months. His book tour is a fizzle. He is no longer governor and cannot milk that for media time. He is competing against others for money and attention. It will probably be weeks before Tucson and other major news items fade before he has a window to get attention. But it will be under the shadow of “Will she or won’t she” for both Bachmann and Palin.

Pawlenty also faces one final problem. He cannot criticize other GOP without burning bridges. With that, the events of Tucson have changed the political dialogue–everyone but Palin understands this. Pawlenty cannot go on the attack without risking backlash.

No, in the end, Pawlenty has had bad luck, but that only ices the dismal chances he has in running for president. He exited the state with it in worse debt that when he arrived. Maybe he did not raise taxes directly, but at what cost? A state in debt, a K-12 system recently ranked by Education Weekly as mediocre, and a crumbling infrastructure. Pawlenty has no real accomplishment to stand on.

Palin may be correct that blaming her for Tucson is wrong. But it does not matter that she did not pull the trigger herself. No one really believes her crosshairs over Giffords and others were not gun scopes. Her Facebook speech denouncing critics with invective and inflammatory language only reinforced impressions that she has the subtlety of a machine gun. She demonstrated not one iota of reflection that her style of rhetoric was inappropriate, at least this week, and that a vast spectrum of moderate and swing voters do think the caustic dialogue in America created the atmosphere for Tucson. It does not matter whether this is true–this is what the people think. Palin may have endeared herself to her hardcore supporters, but to the voters she needs to woo if she runs in 2012, she failed to reach them and reinforced the image of her as unqualified to be president.

Boehner and Obama
Unlike Palin, both John Boehner and Barack Obama understood the political climate of the day and responded without looking political. Boehner rallied Congress together for a few days and delayed the GOP until next week. Obama gave a masterful speech that caught the sign of the times and the feelings of a nation. He exploited a memorial service in ways that did not look political, contrasting to the Wellstone service back in 2002 that hurt the MN DFL that year, leading to the election of Senator Norm Coleman and Governor Pawlenty. A new rhetoric, at least for now, is what is politically smart. Obama won the respect of many, but especially moderates this week, helping him in his rehabilitation.

How long will the new political environment last? Free speech cannot be held hostage to nuts with guns, but maybe disagreement can stick to heated debate of policy and issues and not personalty. We need not personally attack others to win a battle. Sticks, stones, and names do hurt.

Podcasting about Corporations and American Politics
Last Saturday, I spoke to the Stonearch Discussion Group in Minneapolis about Citizens United and corporate influence in American politics. Here is a podcast of my talk.

The Impact of Citizens United
On Thursday, January 20, from 7 PM – 8:30 PM at Hamline University, East Hall, Room 4, I will be one of several speakers discussing the impact of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v FEC one year after it was decided.

Please join the Hamline University School of Business, Common Cause Minnesota, the League of Women Voters, and Minnesota for a discussion on the impact of the Citizens United decision and ways that we can attempt to mitigate its impact on our democracy.

Speakers include:
Professor David Schultz (Me)
Rep. Ryan Winkler, the chief author of the disclosure legislation that passed in 2010
Mike Dean, Executive Director of Common Cause Minnesota
Allie Moen, League of Women Voters

There will be plenty of free parking and good conservation.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Education of Michele Bachmann

President Michele Bachmann. Those words send an emotional shock up the spine. For Tea Party members and supporters they represent their greatest hope, finally someone who will right the country and defend the Constitution. For liberals and perhaps many Republicans, their greatest fear, an ignorant bomb thrower, cradling the craziest of ideas about economics, politics, and the law.

But what is certain, almost no one does not know who Michele Bachmann is and none are neutral over her. She elicits in all a visceral reaction few others can, rivaling the responses to Obama and Palin.

But what makes Bachmann run? How do we explain her meteoric rise in less than a decade and her lighting rod status? As someone who has watched Bachmann from the start of her career, and with one of my former students (in a campaigns and election class) Andy Parrish as her campaign manager and aide, I look at her from a unique perspective. What drives Bachmann is her ego. The single most brilliant skill Bachmann possesses has been her ability to ride a rhetorical wave of conservativism as a vehicle to fuel her personal ambition. For those who support her, the reality is that their darling is long on rhetoric and short on results and she should be a real disappointment to all of them. For liberals, she has become a distraction, diverting precious resources and time away from real policy. Bachmann thus is a product of both liberals and conservatives, both of whom find her useful to their causes, and she knows it and has used both to drive her career.

The Rise of Michelle Bachmann
When news broke the other day that Bachmann was contemplating a presidential run reporters asked me if I was surprised. I said no. In fact, for the last six months or more I repeatedly stated in talks to groups that 2010 would be Bachmann’s last run for Congress. But, at that time I contended she would challenge Amy Klobuchar for the Senate in 2012. I argued that because redistricting and the potential loss of a Minnesota House seat would put her out of a job (especially if the Democrats won both the governorship and the legislature). More importantly, I argued raw ambition and ego would drive her to abandon the House for the Senate.

Raw ambition and conservative rhetoric have been the hallmark of her record of her entire career, along with a legislative record devoid of accomplishment.

Bachmann first bursts on to the Minnesota political scene in 2000, knocking off moderate GOPer Gary Laidig in a primary. She went on to victory in the Senate that year and in 2002. During her brief years in the Senate as a minority member she accomplished little, but made huge headlines about gays, abortion, and taxes. It was here she learned an important lesson–state the outrageous, keep your name in the news, promote yourself. Even in the State Senate she had already become the poster child for both the new GOP and the Democrats wanting to run against her and use her for fund-raising.

She then runs for the House of Representatives in 2006, beating a weak Patty Wetterling in a district ideally suited to Bachmann. It was districted plus 6 for the GOP, encompassing perhaps the most conservative in the state. The seat was open when Mark Kennedy abandoned it to run for the Senate against Amy Klobuchar, both seeking to fill the seat vacated by Senator Mark Dayton. The Sixth District House seat, way more conservative than the rest of Minnesota, is a poor springboard to run for statewide office. Kennedy found that out. His conservative rhetoric that played so well in the 6th doomed him statewide as it proved impossible for him to reinvent himself as a moderate.

Bachmann then again won in '08 against another equally bland and ineffective candidate in El Tinklenberg, a former MNDOT commissioner who was uninspiring as a candidate. Bachmann won big in a Democrat year, honing a image of strength and resolve against Obama and the coming order.

Then in 2010, she won in a GOP anti-Obama year against former state senator Tarryl Clark in a race of epic dollar proportions. It became the most expensive House race in US history with Bachmann alone raising nearly $20 million. She won by 12 points in a race Democrats never had a chance to win. In fact, back in September I blogged about how Democrats were wasting their money. They were diverting too many resources to an unwinnable race and should have shifted money elsewhere.

Yet Democrats could not resist. For every day FOX news featured Bachmann, Keith Olbermann did the same on MSNBC. Why such lavish attention from both networks for a two term congresswoman? Ratings! Conservatives loved to see her and liberals loathed her. Bachmann was a media icon and profit center, and she know it.

Bachmann for President
So Bachmann wins a third term in Congress. She is the head of a Tea Party caucus in a GOP-led Congress. She is on the verge of real political power. So why bolt and run for president? Simply, ego and the demand to deliver on rhetoric explain the choice. Along with dwindling options otherwise.

Imagine Bachmann in the House now that the GOP controls it. Bachmann now has to translate rhetoric into legislative skill and deliver. This is something she has never done. She served in the minority both in the Minnesota Senate and in the House of Representatives. She never had to deliver on promises, she never had to move legislation, and she did not. Her skill was not constituent service or getting things done–it has been advancing herself.

Now the GOP are in charge and responsible. For Bachmann this is a challenge. She hast to deliver on all her rhetoric. What better way to avoid it than to run for a different office. Why not the Senate? No way. Polls suggest that a 2012 bid against Klobuchar was a far cry compared to the weak opponents of the past. Klobuchar has the highest approval rating of any politician in MN, leading Bachmann by 17 points in the polls. Bachmann sees these numbers and knows the 6th district is a lousy platform for a Senate bid. Instead, go in a different direction–ride the Tea Party wave and take on a potentially weakened Obama in 2012.

Bachmann the Politainer
In seeking to explain the phenomena of Jesse Ventura who went from wrestler and B movie actor to the governorship in 1998, a graduate student and I coined the term politainer. A politainer was an entertainer who understood how to use multi media venues and marketing as a catapult into a political career. Politainers were a creature of a new phenomena in America–politainment or the collapse of politics into entertainment. Once elected a politainer–a politician and entertainer–continued to manipulate the convergence of politics and entertainment to further a political career.

Ventura was a politainer, as was Schwarzenegger. Both used their entertainment personas to launch political careers and once elected, continued to manipulate the politianment environment to further their ends. We still live in the land of politainment, it has changed. The world of the Internet, social networking sites, and Twitter create even more extraordinary multi-media venues than ever before. Obama understood that and exploited them all in 2008. But, he did it differently from Ventura. If Ventura sought to exploit his entertainment persona and brand for political purposes, Obama sought to take his political brand and persona–honed with his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech–and transform himself into an entertainment marketing concept. He did it successfully in '08. His talks became rock concert events, and among the young especially, he used the new and social media to market himself.

Then came Palin. She has taken what Obama did to a new level. Her post-VP run is marked by a multi-media transformation into a politianment brand. She is Sara Palin, Inc., and Sarah Palin©.

Now we have Bachmann. She bears significant resemblance to both her parents, Obama and Palin. All three have had rapidly rising careers marked by strong political rhetoric, enthusiastic fans, and a mastery of the new world of politainment. But what distinguishes Bachmann from Obama and Palin is her ability to connect to the anger of some voters who see a world slipping way to the socialism of Obamacare, gay marriage, and the UN. It is the linkage of Bachmann to a politainment world and what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics that makes her unique. She draws on the classic dark side of American resentment, fear of others, anti-intellectualism, and paranoia, combining them with a profit-driven politainment world that needs people like her to promote for ratings. She speaks for the features and prejudices of many, and serves the purposes of FOX, MSNBC, and other media outlets. She is a creature of their making and she uses them for her own purposes.

But What is Bachmann’s Endgame?
I guess I got it wrong in the sense that I underestimated the depth of her ego. Whether she believes what she says is unimportant, all of that has been secondary to Bachmann’s first goal–herself. In a career otherwise devoid of real accomplishment, what Bachmann has mastered is the ability to understand the new politics of the 21st century–one that has take politics and entertainment and merged them together into a hyperactive, sound bite, rhetoric driven multi-media 24/7 world. She is not the first to discover this world, but she has perfected it.

There is a great closing scene in the 1992 film The Candidate featuring Robert Redford. Redford plays a paper thin vapid plastic Hollywood candidate who wins a Senate race. The film closes with him looking into the camera, exclaiming: “What do we do now?”

In many ways this is Bachmann. No, I do not mean that Bachmann is vapid. She has been brilliant in understanding how to manipulate the media and others for her goals. All political candidates do that to some degree. But, Bachmann instead has done all of that without a real legislative record and without having to be in a position where she has to be responsible for her rhetoric. Her endgame is not policy and politics.

I envision talk of a presidential bid to be used as a springboard for her next position–perhaps as hosting another FOX or CNN show of her own and giving speeches for outrageous fees. Both jobs suit her well. She can continue to be the rhetorical bomb thrower without having to deliver on anything of substance. She gets to be Michelle Bachmann and not have to work with others. Her decision to float rumors of a presidential bid on the day a new GOP Congress took over and the other Minnesotan, Tim Pawlenty, began his presidential bid show that she is not in it for the party but herself.

Bachmann in power will disappoint her Tea Party followers. Get out while the popularity is high and the cash value keen. Get out before they turn against you and realize that you have done nothing for them except disappoint.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The costs of privatization: It may not save the state money

Note: This blog appeared on on January 6, 2011

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican Legislature face a $6.2 billion deficit and a legal mandate to produce a balanced budget. They differ on how to address this task. One thing is certain: Some will argue that a solution is the privatization of state functions or services. For those who think privatization yields immediate savings, that is not necessarily correct. Privatization also forces critical tradeoffs in equity, service delivery to the poor, and perhaps in public safety, quality and accountability.

Privatization has multiple meanings. One definition is the selling off of state-owned enterprises that can make money as private businesses. This is what privatization generally has meant outside the United States, especially in former communist countries, where government enterprises such as utilities are sold to investors. Minnesota does not have these types of enterprises to sell.

Perhaps Minnesota could sell its prisons to be run privately, or maybe some transportation functions. Selling off prisons means a loss of control over them and the possibility of worker strikes. Privatizing snow plowing might save some money, but coordinating a massive fleet of private vendors to plow the roads is a costly logistical issue.

Second, privatization means contracting with private or nonprofit vendors to provide goods or services. Already Minnesota contracts out several billion dollars with vendors to provide many health and other services. There is little evidence here and in the research on privatization that this type of contracting saves money. Often the reason to do this type of contracting is to give more flexibility in service delivery, or to use vendors who have technical expertise the state lacks. But this flexibility and expertise is often costly.

Transaction costs
Also, contracting out often incurs significant transaction costs. Shifting state functions to third parties means expenses in phasing out and reorganizing the government and doing the bidding process to find vendors. When contracts are let, monitoring and compliance costs are incurred. Taxpayers should not foot the bill for contracts if there is no oversight to ensure that money is being spent properly.

These costs are often ignored when privatizing. A 2007 Legislative Auditor report noted that in 2005 more than $4.7 billion was contracted out to nonprofits for health services. It found little accountability and oversight for the money. It echoed a 1992 report that found little oversight given to technical contracts awarded by the state. Thus, taxpayers often do not know if they are getting quality services for their money.

There is also the assumption that letting contracts saves money because of vendor competition. Yet, the legislative auditor and others have found that competitive bidding environments rarely exist. Often only one vendor is available, because of technical skill or capacity, or because the contract needs to be for such a time period that it all but renders competition nil. Private monopolies replace public ones, but with less accountability.

Finally, with contracting out there is the potential for government actually to expand and not contract its reach. With government contracts comes increased supervision and control over private and non-profit entities. Those ideologically opposed to big government who see contracting out as a solution may find in fact Big Brother's reach gets even larger.

The shedding or unloading of state functions
Third, privatization means the shedding or unloading of state functions. This means that there are some functions the government will no longer perform or fund. Private vendors and citizens are on their own to decide how to distribute and receive these services. This type of privatization asks a normative question regarding what we want government to do.

Load shedding implicates tough choices with clear losers. Government workers lose jobs, as is true with other types of privatization. But as with any type of privatization, research suggests that load shedding means many people, especially the poor, will not receive some services. Equity is lost; the more affluent make do, the poor do without.

Approximately 76 percent of the budget goes to education and health and human services. Throw in public safety and local government aid and that totals more than 90 percent of the budget. No matter which privatization option is considered, the question becomes what do we not want the state to do that we feel the private sector can and will provide in a way that will not hurt the poor, affect quality of services, and which can save the taxpayers money?

Privatization forces tradeoffs. It may make sense in some situations, but thinking cost savings is the only issue is naive. Instead, a host of issues, including quality, equity, control and fairness must also be addressed.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Producing Jobs and Helping the Minnesota Economy

Jobs, jobs, jobs. This is the mantra of Governor Dayton and the Republican majority as the new legislative session begins. Both want to jump start the economy, make Minnesota more competitive, and produce new jobs now.

Short term, there is not much they can do, however there is a lot wrong that they can do and which should be avoided. In making policy and spending money on economic development, emphasis should be placed on what research shows that works, not on theory or what some hope will happen.

First, the state can do little immediately to increase employment unless it wants to do direct hiring. Short of that, tax incentives and cuts will have minimal impact encouraging new private employment. Research shows taxes are a secondary factor affecting business investment and hiring decisions. They come behind product demand, workforce quality, access to markets and suppliers, and transportation costs. Taxes are not unimportant; they provide marginal incentives to hire, but only if there is a demand for a product or service and other factors affecting production make sense.

Second, a bonding bill as presently proposed by Dayton will have mixed results for immediate job production. It will generate short-term construction jobs, but the real need is targeting those with little education, people of color, and the many white collar jobs lost in the recession. A bonding bill will have a multiplier affect on the economy, but it may not help many of those outside of construction. Also, looking to building a new Vikings stadium as a jobs program is foolish. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates public subsidies for sports are inefficient when compared to other investments in the economy.

Third, significant weakness in the Minnesota economy is tied to problems with the national economy and the collapse of the residential real estate markets. Minnesota can do little about either, thereby making it again difficult to revive the economy and employment quickly.

Short term, there are a couple of things the state can do. One might be an accelerated depreciation for business capital investments in new equipment. Second, any tax cuts should be targeted for job creation. This would be giving tax cuts to employers who hire now and retain workers for a certain period of time. Third, increase and accelerate the Minnesota Working Family Tax credit to give more money to low and moderate income workers. Fourth, restructure the bonding bill to place a more balanced emphasis on job production and retention beyond construction.

While short term that little can be done to help produce jobs, the state can make things worse. It faces a $6.2 billion budget deficit. Simply cutting state spending and services makes things worse. Cuts mean people lose their jobs, such as teachers or health care workers, and that hurts the economy. Cutting back state services at the same time more people are vulnerable and needing help also seems cruel. The state has to balance its budget, but in a way that is economically smarter than slash and burn and does not do long term damage.

Longer term, the state may be able to do more to help the economy. Simplifying the business permitting process as the Republicans propose is a good idea. Minnesota’s competitive advantage historically has been its educated workforce. Investments in education, including early childhood, workforce development, and training, should be enhanced. Infrastructure development including wireless capacity in greater Minnesota is needed. These factors will do more for the long term economic competitiveness of the state than simply cutting taxes and spending.

The reality is that the state’s ability to revive the economy is constrained both by the budget deficit and broader economic forces affecting Minnesota. No one quick and easy fix exists. Choices need to be made in light of what economically makes sense based on realities and evidence, and not on hope and ideology.