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Notes on the State of Politics

This week, the Crystal Ball publishes another installment in our intermittent series of observations on the politics of the day. Jefferson aficionados will find the title familiar, as they know he penned just one book in his lifetime, Notes on the State of Virginia. As a salute to the man from Monticello, we bring you a few more modern tidbits.

Doug Wilder: Obama needs a staff shake-up

(Read Doug Wilder’s opinion piece in Politico here)

For those of us who have known Doug Wilder for many decades—I first met him forty years ago when he had just become a state senator—this isn’t a surprise at all. As he has proven dozens of times, he speaks his mind. He’s the closest thing to a pure independent I have ever met in politics. As he approaches 80, he feels even freer to strike out on his own path.

Some will dismiss this new statement by pointing to Wilder’s in-effect endorsement of GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) in the 2009 campaign. He’s helped Republicans before, directly and indirectly. But Wilder is a good judge of the public mood in a critical swing state, and he’s made a major difference at election time for other Democrats, including Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb, and yes, Gov. Tim Kaine. Mainly, Wilder has been a friend and ally of Kaine’s, so Wilder’s call for Kaine’s resignation cannot fairly be categorized as an act of revenge.

You can argue forever about whether changing personnel in the White House or the Democratic Party will make any real difference. Maybe the bad economy explains most of what has happened to Obama’s agenda, and a sustained recovery alone will cure the White House’s current ills. But there’s no denying that the Obama White House has lost almost all forward momentum and that the electorate has been delivering unmistakable messages to the president about his direction. Wilder is arguing for a shake-up, and unambiguously so. Privately, quietly, prominent Democrats with more to lose—people won’t speak out on the record—are wondering about the same thing.

The Tea Party and the Ghost of Ross Perot

Sarah Palin wasn’t the only presidential presence at the Tea Party convention. The ghost of Ross Perot was hovering above the Nashville hotel.

If the Tea Party is smart, it will learn from the implosions that cratered the Perot movement from 1992 to 1996. The only thing holding this very diverse cast of Tea characters together is an emphasis on the fiscal—spending, taxes, and debt. As with Perot, these concerns resonate with a substantial portion of the population, especially Independents. The Tea Party needs to borrow (or buy at a discount) some of Perot’s color-coded pie charts, and keep its followers focused there.

Just below the surface, the same problems faced by the Perotistas lurk for Tea Partiers. Did you listen to the conference attendees in Nashville? They are a mix of Libertarians and conservative Christians. In other words, social issues—if they rise to the forefront—will create deep fissures because there is sharp internal conflict.

Second, some of the leaders suffer from the egotism that dogs all political movements. Clashes are inevitable in the struggle for control, nationally and locally, with a consequent loss of momentum.

Finally, while some Tea Party people have political experience, most don’t. Naïveté in the ranks proved troublesome for the Perot movement, and it will for the Tea Party, too. Anger is not a governing philosophy. Constructive proposals will attract broader support.

Obama’s Bipartisan Health Care Summit

At this point, how could it hurt? The window has probably closed on “big” health care reform—and there will be books written about how Democrats let that slip away with all the advantages they had in 2009. But some incremental steps on items that have some bipartisan support (such as insurance reform) may be possible. It could be structured as a win-win for both parties. President Obama could salvage something for one of his top priorities, while Republicans could take credit for slaying the dragon while demonstrating they are not simply the “Party of No.”

Now let’s get real. It’s unlikely that Democrats, especially in the House, are in any mood to compromise more than they already have on health care. Speaker Pelosi found great resistance to the idea that the House should simply pass the Senate bill intact, and hope for revisions later on, via a reconciliation package or the regular legislative order. And Republicans have achieved significant polling and electoral success with blanket opposition to Obama’s agenda; compromise and passage of a bill would probably give the president a big boost while causing dissension in the fiercely anti-Obama Republican ranks.

Good government and good politics do not go hand in hand—at least not very often these days.

Illinois: It’s Been a Long Sharp Decline Since Lincoln

For two centuries Virginia dined out on its reputation as the Commonwealth of Founders. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, James Madison, and James Monroe were a useful historical shroud for the lesser politicians who ran the state and nation after the late 1700s and early 1800s. Similarly, Illinois has depended on its designation as the “Land of Lincoln” (and now Obama) to cover a sad trail of lesser lights that became as well known for their indictments as their service.

The recent primaries to choose party candidates for the offices held by disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and the embarrassing U.S. Sen. Roland Burris (D) were less than Lincolnesque. While no Stephen Douglas or Abraham Lincoln—or even Adlai Stevenson or Everett Dirksen—the Senate nominees, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk, at least managed to emerge with their careers intact.

The primary contests for state offices were something else again. Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who succeeded Blagojevich when he was hustled out of office late last January, blew a big lead and barely defeated state Comptroller Dan Hynes (D) by 8,087 votes out of 912,695. Quinn’s weak performance created an opening for the GOP, but Republicans managed to toss away at least the short-term advantage with a near-tie in their gubernatorial primary. State Sen. Bill Brady, a downstate conservative, leads State Sen. Kirk Dillard, an upstate moderate, by the paper-thin margin of 420 votes out of 765,534 cast—a mere 20.29% to 20.24%.

But the state’s real humiliation came with the nomination by the Democrats of Scott Lee Cohen for lieutenant governor. The press had not considered Cohen, a wealthy pawnbroker, to be the likely winner or even one of the frontrunners. Thus, he escaped close scrutiny from many news organizations—and won an upset victory with 26% to his nearest rival’s 22% in a race in which all six candidates captured more than 10% of the vote each. (There is something to be said for a run-off primary when no candidate secures at least 40% of the vote.)

Then Cohen’s personal troubles came to the fore. His ex-girlfriend, a convicted prostitute, accused him of holding a knife to her throat during a 2005 dispute while they were living together. Cohen was arrested for that escapade, although charges were later dropped when his ex-girlfriend failed to show up in court. That same year, his former wife lobbed a series of explosive allegations during their divorce proceedings, and she reiterated them in an interview after Cohen’s foibles came to light following his primary victory.

The last thing Illinois needed was another national scandal story, yet that is what the state reaped from what the voters had sown. To Cohen’s credit—after intense pressure from most big-name Democrats and editorial pages—the nominee for number two agreed to drop his bid on Super Bowl Sunday, February 7. Had he not done so, Cohen could have brought down the entire Democratic ticket. The damage to an already soiled reputation for Illinois politics will take much longer to repair.