Sunday, June 28, 2015

FORWARD to Veeptopus

So the book is here VEEPTOPUS: VICE PRESIDENTS WITH OCTOPUSES ON THEIR HEADS, and it is spectacular! It is also SOLD OUT!

You can still get a Jon Crow original print of a vice president with an octopus on his (and perhaps one day soon, her) head. And you should.

I gave my dad a Spiro Agnew for Father's Day and can't wait to put up my print of my namesake (Aaron Burr - who may have inadverdantly inspired me to get into this business) on my wall.

Maybe Aaron Burr isn't for you? How about Elbridge Gerry (he didn't do much as VP, but he gave us the term gerry-mander.)
 Maybe VPs with cephalopods aren't your thing? How about Taft with a badger?

I have long been a supporter of the entire Veeptopus enterprise. So much so that I contributed a forward to the book. I've written (ok co-authored) three books. So I'm an author. But Forwards are written by august persona, leaders. The opportunity to lend gravitas to this worthy project was an opportunity I could not miss.

So, here is how I introduced this important (and beautiful) volume:
By placing octopi on the heads of vice presidents and creating Veeptopus, Jonathan Crow has a done a great service to American democracy.

The renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington once observed, “Comedy depends on incongruity” and that American humor is born of the incongruity between American ideals and American reality. Prominent but powerless, the veep embodies incongruity.

The annals of the vice presidency include many formerly prominent politicians, reduced to historical footnotes by their office.

Perhaps the archetypal denizen of the nation’s second highest office was the fictional Alexander Throttlebottom of the 1931 George S. Kaufman musical Of Thee I Sing. Throttlebottom could only get into the White House by joining the White House tour. The tour guide fails to recognize him and is surprised at how much Throttlebottom knows about the vice president. Throttlebottom explains that the vice president is nice enough, but no one wants to get to know him. “What’s wrong with him?” the tour guide asks. Throttlebottom replies, “There’s nothing wrong with him. Just vice-president.”

In recent years, the office has changed. In fact, after the Cheney vice presidency scholars and pundits worried about unchecked vice presidential power. An exaggeration perhaps, nonetheless, having spent the better part of a decade studying them I can state that the individuals only a heartbeat away from the presidency are Throttlebottoms no more.

So be grateful for Veeptopus in which Jonathan Crow restores some of the incongruity inherent in the vice presidency, providing a much needed antidote to the growing seriousness about our nation’s second highest office.

Aaron Mannes, PhD
A blog about the vice presidency

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Regular Joe: Politicians are People

Over the past week we have been reminded, quite sharply, that there is a caricature of Vice President Biden and there is an actual human being. A long-time Senator and now Vice President, Biden has been greatly blessed. But he has also suffered enormously. In 1972, days after being elected to the Senate his wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident. Now, he has lost his son Beau, who died of brain cancer at age 46. (We'll leave aside the far, far smaller disappointment of not reaching the White House on his own.)

This is something no one, ever, should have to experience.

Biden is loquacious and perhaps at times his tongue moved faster than his thoughts (your humble blogger also suffers from this malady.) Because he is less disciplined than most other politicians he has acquired a reputation. As always, The Onion leads the way, depicting Biden as a sort of metal-head/Easy Rider/good-timing guy. But even in more serious papers, he is seen as our national mad uncle.

I've always thought this was overplayed. First, just the strange lens through which we view our politicians in general. Allow me to quote the poli-sci classic Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway on the 2000 election:
Al Gore… who had developed this annoying, condescending manner of speech that made him sound, when he spoke to us, as though he were addressing a herd of unusually stupid sheep…. George W. Bush… who often sounded as though he had the brain of a sheep…. Here’s the thing: I have actually spent time in social settings with both Al Gore and George W. Bush. I’m not saying I got to know them well, but I will say that Gore seemed more natural in person and Bush seemed smarter. They were nothing like the two over programmed androids I saw debating each other on TV, both of them desperately trying to get all their memorized sound bites in.
I've also discussed this in direct reference to Biden, writing in the much mourned Politico Arena:
Considering the amount politicians are required to speak, it is astounding that there aren't far more verbal missteps by politicians. 
True, Biden appears more prone to these gaffes then others, but this is relative. In his 2008 debate with Palin, Biden handled himself masterfully - demonstrating that he was a seasoned, experienced figure - without appearing to bully Palin.
It is a guarantee that every candidate on both tickets will make verbal miscues. Sometimes these mistakes end up shaping a public image as in the unfortunate cases of Sen. Dole in 1976 or Quayle in 1988. Because Biden has a reputation for them, in a sense he is insulated from their fallout. 
Personally, I've always thought Biden's loquacious honesty worked for him - the apparent lack of artifice being the greatest artifice of all.

No one can listen to his heartfelt and honest remarks (drawn from his own deep well of feeling) about loss to TAPS The Military Survivor Network and not be touched. It is a stark reminder that, whatever one thinks of Joe Biden, there is a real person there who loves, hurts, and feels like the rest of us. Dare we consider that all of our politicians - who we primarily see as caricatures of one sort or another (robotic Hillary, dumb Rick Perry etc.) are real people. They - like the rest of us - do the best they can with whatever talents they've been given to wrestle with whatever shadows plague them.

Many say profoundly obnoxious things. In some cases they believe them, in others they mispoke. I know I have mispoken many times and said hurtful things. I have believed and articulated things that, in retrospect, are ludicrious. Most of us have.

Some of our politicians are deeply cynical people who are little more than animated ambition. (I believe these are fewer than popular opinion would have it, but such people exist. Maybe I'm an idealist - but I find almost everyone I meet has a certain spark of passion, a personality.) But if these ambitious automatons exisit, they are worthy of pity - for no matter how far or high they rise politics does not in the end feed the soul. Being in the grip of whatever compulsions drive them cancels any joy in their achievements.


Friday, April 24, 2015

The Clinton Foundation & the Institutionalized ex-Presidency?

Newspaper front-pages have featured the doings of the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former President and a current candidate for President. The reports (see here and here) raise important questions about whether foreign entities were purchasing access and influence by giving donations to the foundation and paying huge speaking fees to President Clinton. In at least one case, the donors had interests which the Secretary of State (that is now presidential candidate Hillary Clinton) had oversight.

The first question is whether or not there is a scandal here? I don't really know. This kind of thing is tough to prove and frankly murky. Having gone through the 1990s as a Clinton-hater, I've come around. I am relatively forgiving of complex rich guy stuff. Really rich people are often involved in complex ambiguous stuff - unless they are pretty directly killing and hurting people I am pretty forgiving. Further, I DO NOT believe that the Clintons would blithely toss away U.S. national security. I do think the Clintons could be a bit smarter and maybe less avaricious about their cashing in on the presidency which brings up...

The second question is whether or not there is going to be political fall-out. For that, see my thoughts on Hillary's email imbroglio and multiply. Here's a key excerpt:

...having spent much of the 1990s fighting with special prosecutors over her documents - fueling suspicions that she was hiding something - she goes ahead and recreates that scenario by building her own private email system with which to do the State Department’s business - refueling those suspicions....
This email issue (and we are talking about the Clintons, so who knows what other strange stuff will come up) just reminds me people of silliness of the 1990s. One can easily imagine these uninformed yet critical voters, thinking, “Ugh, these people again? Aren’t we done with their craziness yet? Why are they rebooting that franchise?"
But the third question is the one I really want to talk about, which is the institutionalization of the ex-presidency. Clinton, as a young president has already been out of office for 15 years and could easily be on the national scene for another 15 or more (he's not quite 70 and shows no signs of slowing down.) He can raise a LOT of money in that time (he already has.) Besides his wife, his daughter is now involved. So we could have a foundation with a billion dollar endowment and deep political connections. In effect a family influence business that will never go away. This is new.

One component of studying the vice presidency was the institutional changes to the office. First, the VP needed to acquire the institutional tools (staff and access) to effectively advise the president. But, probably under Gore, this expanded to not merely the vice president as a key advisor but the Office of the the Vice President and player in the broader policy process.

I'm seeing the same sort of the with the ex-presidency. The the terrific fun book The Presidents Club, we see how former and current occupants of the Oval Office work together. Hoover and Truman became friends and Hoover took on some critical tasks (such as food relief after World War II or running the Hoover Commission on reforming government) to help out Truman. Certainly, ex-presidents never wanted for opportunities to share their views with the public or those in power. Nixon was particularly adept at clawing his way back into the public eye.

In the federally mandated Presidential Libraries, ex-Presidents have acquired a modest institutional base. The Kennedy Library has been particularly notable in keeping the memory of Camelot alive. A few presidents have established institutes to carry on their worldview, most notably the Hoover Institute at Stanford and the Carter Center in Atlanta.

But Clinton has built a far greater institutional base and, in placing his daughter at the head, has established a fiefdom. Will George W. Bush (the same age as Clinton) or Barak Obama (who will in his mid-50s when he leaves office) follow suit? They may not have the fund-raising prower of Clinton - but they won't be slouches.

These institutions will be able to fund research, award scholarships, pursue policy initiatives and a host of other things that will both burnish the reputations of their founders and pursue the founders' agendas far into the future.

And of course, with the institutionalized ex-presidency, can an institutionalized ex-vice presidency be far behind? The high-profile post-VP roles of Gore and Cheney suggest not...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Can Obama Break the 2nd Term Scandal Curse?

From Eisenhower on, every two-term president has had a White House scandal in the 2nd term. Not a policy failure, but a weird personnel/legal issue boil up out of the White House itself.

Eisenhower's chief of staff, Sherman Adams resigned in 1958 after it was discovered that he had taken gifts from and made calls to the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission about Boston textile manufacturer Bernard Goldfine.

Nixon of course had Watergate. Reagan had Iran-Contra. Clinton had the Lewinsky imbroglio and George W. Bush had the Scooter Libby crisis. All of these scandals involved White House personnel acting badly in ways that touched on the president himself while in office.

White House scandals, like, Tolstoy's unhappy families, are unique. The Eisenhower scandal was about money, while Nixon was about power. Clinton's scandal was more "ahem" personal - the oldest foible in the book. Reagan's scandal was about conducting an alternate foreign policy. The Bush 43 contretemps (it seems to me at least) had a whiff of revenge - the sense that someone should pay somehow for getting the U.S. into the Iraq War. It is tough to see a common pattern. Sometimes staffers went a bit too far interpreting the president's instructions (that's a charitable understanding of Watergate and Iran-Contra.) In other cases, specific individuals just, well, got up to stuff they shouldn't have.

So no pattern suggests itself with these scandals. No generalizations present themselves, just that after about six years something is going to come up/go wrong.

So far, Obama has not had such a scandal and the clock is ticking. Of course breaking this pattern, just as Reagan broke the 20 year curse (every president elected in an 0 year had died in office starting with William Henry Harrison in 1841 and extending to JFK in 1963) would be a great thing.

I know partisans on the other side will insist that Obama has escaped scandal due to media bias or no one looking hard enough. But, while the Obama White House is undoubtedly up to stuff (politics is a rough business after all) when a real White House scandal comes stuff really will stick.

Of course, maybe something will boil up. But Obama has had pretty strong chiefs of staff in Rahm Emmanuel and Denis McDonough. While Obama has been criticized for surrounding himself with loyalists and cosseting himself in a tight inner circle - one advantage of this is discipline. Unfortunately there is little suggest that this discipline has resulted in good policy.

Another lesson worth noting.

Monday, March 16, 2015

VP Imagery

So I'm trying to update the site, move things around and (within my limited capabilities) make it pretty. The new image at the top is the VP's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Building next door to the White House. The picture is from the George W. Bush White House, when the office was being renovated (seems appropriate for this blog.)

When done up, the office is gorgeous, as this pic from Washingtonian Magazine shows.

But, as readers of this blog surely know, this beautiful office is rarely used because the VP spends his time in the West Wing - where the action is!

Speaking of great VP images, I have recently come upon Veeptopus, drawn by the intrepid Jonathan Crow. I could tell you about it, but a picture says a thousand words. So here:

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Presentation Slides - The Whole Equation: The Vice President as Advisor

Back in November I gave a presentation based on my dissertation at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland (where I earned my PhD.)

My dissertation (see the slides here) looked at how and why the vice presidency has become influential. Ultimately, the answer is that the U.S. has elected outsider presidents who had little experience with Washington DC or international affairs. These outsiders (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43, and now Obama) all found the advice of their insider vice presidents useful.

As happens so often at the end of a writing project, rather than reaching a conclusion one is left with a question - the question one really wants to write about. That's where I am. What is this advice, this magical insider knowledge that the insider vice president can provide to the outsider president.

This presentation is my first stab at that question.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hillary & Hubris: A Tragedy in Email

HRC's iconic Twitter Image
In Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia Clytemnestra (with her lover Aegisthus) plots to murder her husband Agamemnon when he returns home from the Trojan War. When the Great King returns homes he finds a red carpet spread before him. But only the gods are permitted to walk on crimson. Yet, the Great King, returning from a historic victory, could not allow his feet to touch mundane earth, that would be a dishonor. Agamemnon frets about this, fearing the gods will strike him down for his affront. Clytemnestra goads her husband into walking on the crimson tapestries. And the thing about Agamemnon - his hubris, his fatal flaw - is that granted a choice between surrendering honor or claiming too much, he will always choose the excess of honor. (This is the conflict that sparks the Illiad!) Of course, Clytemnestra was plotting to entangle him in this carpet and murder him.

This incident echoes down to the present day. All of us have our fatal flaws. In the Odyssey Homer gave that sage counsel of steering towards the less evil. But knowing what is our particular tendency to greater evil is tough to discern. We steer because of a lifetime of habit, of character.

I thought this applied to Dick Cheney and his penchant for secrecy. There are of course virtues to secrecy. It is not always wrong to be secretive, especially in matters of national security. But there are also times when secrecy is exactly the wrong choice. In the wake of the terrible hunting accident, when the vice president shot his friend, Cheney’s instinct was not to discuss it with the public. But there was no way in which this could have failed to be a national story. Cheney’s reticence only fueled the fire. And it contributed, was perhaps the nail in the coffin, to his once outsized role in the administration.

Now we see, with the Hillary imbroglio that she too shares this particular hubris. In a profound way it undermines her ambitions. Her primary virtue as a candidate is experience. She has been there and done that. Yet, having spent much of the 1990s fighting with special prosecutors over her documents - fueling suspicions that she was hiding something - she goes ahead and recreates that scenario by building her own private email system with which to do the State Department’s business - refueling those suspicions.

A confession: in the late 1990s I was a Clinton-hater. I was running with a neo-con crowd and as a junior member of the conspiracy thought Iraq was a good idea. I’ve learned things since, but I can’t feel all that guilty since my policy influence was exactly nil (I can feel humbled perhaps, but not guilty). 

But, back to the Clintons.

My research on the vice presidency, in which I studied politicians and their doings, left me with a fair amount of respect for them and the tough, tough decisions they have to make. Also, the Clinton administration had its achievements. One could argue he was a great Republican president, giving us NAFTA, welfare reform, and a balanced budget. He got a good hand as president, but he also played it well.

So Hillary has been running for president since 2000, arguably earlier. She has a lot of assets as a candidate. I take experience in presidential candidates seriously and she has it in spades. We like to talk about people having good instincts on policy, but instincts only take you so far. The Presidency is a job like no other in the world. Hanging around the White House and being close to the President counts as experience. The Executive Office of the President is an extensive bureaucracy in its own right, with thousands of employees and agencies. Just figuring out where the White House stands on an issue - before getting to the inter-agency process - is a big deal. The various constituencies within the White House on an issue can easily fill a conference room. Figuring out how to make this institution, which really is the president’s steering mechanism for the ship of state, work for you is not a small problem. Presidents (including Bill Clinton) have wrestled with this problem in their early years. Hillary spent eight years in the White House watching the president closely. She’ll have a pretty good idea of how to get things done.

Presidents who want to accomplish anything significant have to work with congress. The gap between state legislatures and Capitol Hill is significant. The game is the same, but the arena gets bigger and the other players are much better. Consider, Congress has 535 members. State legislatures usually have less than 200. Assume a president or a governor has formidable powers of persuasion and, on any given issue, can usually persuade about a dozen recalcitrant members to shift their votes. In Congress that represents 2.5% of the total. In a typical state legislature (say my home state of Maryland) that would represent almost 7% of the total. A governor has a lot more options. In the past few decades we’ve been electing governors to the presidency and most have struggled with congressional relations.

Hillary spent eight years in the Senate and was, by most accounts, respected and well-liked in the Senate. She will not be flummoxed by the institutional calendar and prerogatives.

Finally, her time as Secretary of State was invaluable experience. Outsiders vastly underestimate the importance of understanding the mechanisms of foreign policy. It is fine to argue the U.S. should pursue a strategy of aligning with state X or pressuring state Y. The actually ways in which these things are done are more mysterious. There is no “pressure adversary” button on the desk in the West Wing.

Hillary, in a way no candidate since, George H.W. Bush, brings experience to the table. We wanted “no-drama” Obama but, for various reasons, didn’t exactly get that (not all of these reasons were his fault of course.) But Hillary, well, when she get up to the plate she’ll know how to hit a big-league fastball.

So all of that being said, Hillary’s email “issue” fundamentally raises questions about whether she’s learned anything!

Let’s be charitable.  At her big press conference, her answer was that simply she wanted to carry one device for all her emails (this response has it’s own problems - namely a certain level of arrogance). Let’s assume that Hillary is not conspiring to keep information from the public and that she honestly thought conducting official business over a jury-rigged personal network based on a server in her house was the least bad solution to these problems. 

Anyway, the federal archiving regulations were ambiguous in 2009 when she took office. State’s IT is pretty rickety and believed to be insecure. So, this made sense at the time. (Could she have changed in 2011 when the White House issued a new policy - well, yeah - but let’s say it wasn’t her top priority.)

Let’s not question motivations. I DON’T think there is anything to Benghazi as a scandal. They may have bobbled the ball, but it was a tough play. The Clinton Foundation is up to stuff, undoubtedly, but I sort of assume that they have some shady donors. Lots of prestigious universities and foundations take money from checkered sources seeking to burnish their reputation.

But the fact that she chose this solution shows very poor judgment in two critical areas.

First, Hillary’s email problem is a counter-intelligence nightmare. My buddy BJ Tucker, a brilliant guy all-round but with real expertise on CI, wrote to me:
CI personnel, if they are involved, would look to have the email servers undergo a forensic examination to look for intrusions, anomalies, etc. I suspect that would find a few because the State Department itself came under several cyber attacks – some of which are ongoing. Data was exfiltrated from State and its possible that an email floating in the archive would have her personal address on it. Once a foreign intelligence service, or a freelance hacker, had that they could use the email headers to track it down. I’m betting that how Guccifer found this email address in the first place. If a few reporters can figure this out, then we have to suspect the likelihood that a nation state did as well. This leads into the content of the emails. In the classified world we have a problem with aggregation. Aggregation occurs when someone marries seemingly disparate unclassified information into one document and inadvertently creating something that is classified. Happens quite frequently, but its become more of a problem in the cyber age. It’s possible that some of the emails contained sensitive information, and someone with access to the archive could start putting things together. Hopefully anything that has been pilfered – if anything was – is now outdated. Another thing to consider is that State has access to several different classified systems with email capabilities for program compartmentalization. Again, it’s not uncommon for users to get confused and share classified information on the wrong system, or worse put it on an unclassified system. This is something else that would be looked at. 
So first, it was just bad security. Did no one tell her this?

But the bigger issue is how someone with her savvy and experience could make such a mistake.

Hillary spent the better part of a decade going back and forth with independent prosecutors over documents and tangling with “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” So knowing that there is this vast conspiracy on the hunt for her mis-doings she developed a email system practically designed to make them apoplectic with outrage and suspicion.

Well, haters gonna hate. Maybe Hillary, knowing how many were salivating to impugn her, was actually baiting them. This would rally her supporters closer and - by focusing on this on the campaign trial - save her from actually having to talk about issues. Understand, once you start talking policy some people will be happy, but some will not. If you can be ambiguous about your policy and let people see in you what they want, you are in a great position on the campaign trail.

If it’s a wonderful strategy. But I’m not sure it will work. The whole point of an experienced president, a steady hand on the wheel, is to not have endless pointless mini-crises, that devour the President's energy and get in the way of actual work. Richard Neustadt called them “piglets” as opposed to the massive policy failure of the Bay of Pigs. If Hillary, with her vast experience and time in office can’t avoid “stepping in it” on this relatively minor issue, do we really want four years of this?

Roughly 47% of the electorate will go for Hillary no matter what and 47% to the other candidate. The election will come down to a relatively small number of people in key swing states. They are not wise Solons, recognizing their critical role as the ultimate decides of our great democracy. They are the least informed voters (welcome to democracy.) They will vote based on general impressions and this email issue reinforces the most negative impressions of Hillary. This email issue (and we are talking about the Clintons, so who knows what other strange stuff will come up) just reminds me people of silliness of the 1990s. One can easily imagine these uninformed yet critical voters, thinking, “Ugh, these people again? Aren’t we done with their craziness yet? Why are they rebooting that franchise?"