Friday, May 25, 2012

On the VP in Politico & Portman's Complaint

Politico keeps asking VP questions, and like a moth to a flame, I can't resist answering. Here is my answer to the question of whether or not Biden is a PR disaster
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.
Chasing Biden this way may be a distraction when the Republicans should be making their case on the issues that will decide this election.
I've written on this before, but considering how much politicians have to speak and the extent to which they are observed it is incredible that there aren't many more gaffes. For that matter, several of Biden's mis-steps in the video in the link above are pretty minor things that could happen to anyone!
Besides, VPs are almost always used in the campaign to rally the base, which often appreciates the mis-steps, remember the Republican base loved Spiro Agnew (even though Nixon couldn't stand him.)
Portman's Complaint

As long as we are talking Veep, the Washington Post has a big article on VP potential of Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. Based on resume, Portman is a great fit for Romney as governing partner. He has been a White House staffer, congressman, US Trade Representative, OMB chief, and now Senator. Romney will need someone who knows DC and Portman fits the bill. The article made him sound even better, noting that Portman played the opponent when Cheney and Bush prepped for their debates. He did a good job, studying hard and helping the candidates anticipate the other guy's tactics. Presidents don't necessarily need another strategist or policy advisor, they need someone who has a strong sense of exactly what they are dealing with and can help them deal with it. As mentioned above, a minor mistake can become media fodder for weeks and a real distraction. Another politician can help see things that a staffer or policy wonk might not.
The problem with Portman is that he is considered boring. This gets into how we grossly caricature our politicians (as discussed above). Politicians must be charming and likable to be effective at all. The ones who are described as boring might still be the most impressive people most of us would ever meet. Remember, the worst hitter in the major leagues was a star of his high school team and would lead a typical company softball team to victory after victory.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In Politico on Romney's Possible Running Mates

The Politico Arena today asked: Who should Romney tap for understudy?

Although I had many other things to do today, I couldn't resist responding. However, I suggest a few names, but only as meeting certain general qualifications - not as an endorsement or bet on the VP sweepstakes. Frankly, I don't know what choice would maximize Romney's electoral chances. Instead I talk about the characteristics Romney might seek in a VP as partner. Despite his background as scion of a prominent family, and his high recognition having spent the past six years campaigning nationally, Romney is a Washington DC outsider. Outsider Presidents (who have dominated since 1976) have often had trouble navigating the complex shoals of DC politics. State governorships are certainly challenging jobs - but they are not the Presidency. (Senators have their own problems in the White House.) Romney needs someone who can help him on that front. My answer follows:
There are two sides to the equation of vice presidential selection. The first of course is who can help the nominee win the election. The second question is who will be most helpful at governing I have little to add to the first point (not that this has ever stopped me before), but some knowledge of the second question (I am writing a PhD thesis on the Evolving National Security Role of the Vice Presidency.)

Years ago, at a computer science conference, I attended a lecture on entrepreneurship and one of the key points was that in choosing a partner, the entrepreneur should select someone that they won't mind being in trouble with for the next 5-10 years. The same advice goes for selecting the vice president. Unlike cabinet officers and White House staffers, vice presidents can't be fired. They can be ignored, but that is inefficient. The vice presidency is an excellent opportunity to bring a skilled high-level advisor into the White House.

The primary visible role of the vice president is as a messenger. This is not meant as a denigration of the vice presidency. Communicating the administration's position in public and in private to domestic and international audiences and constituencies is very important and will be a tremendous asset to the President. During the Iran hostage crisis, Vice President Mondale took on campaign tasks. Vice President Bush delivered a crucial message on human rights to El Salvador's leaders and on the Reagan administration's nuclear strategy to European publics and leaders. Vice President Gore played a critical role ensuring the passage of NAFTA by destroying Perot in a public debate and helped reassure Russia's leadership through the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission.

But this is only the public role, and presumably any experienced politician should be able to fulfill this role capably.

Since the Carter administration, vice presidents have had an office in the West Wing, along with regular access to White House meetings, and the president. The vice president is thus well-positioned to be a leading advisor. While presidents have no shortage of advisors, these advisors are rarely experienced elected officials of national standing in their own right. Such an official is unlikely to take a White House staff position and when they take a cabinet position they become mired in the interests of their department. As Charles Dawes - a marginalized vice president - once observed, "Cabinet secretaries are vice presidents in charge of spending, and as such are the natural enemies of the president."

As a fellow senior elected official and decision-maker the vice president is position to provide a unique perspective to the President. With that in mind, the question becomes what kinds of skills and perspectives does Romney believe will best augment his own strengths and weaknesses?

Romney, has touted the importance of executive experience. But one area where Romney's own resume is lacking is Washington experience. Although inside-the-beltway has become a pejorative term, Washington is a unique environment that will prove challenging to a newcomer (even a president.) Jimmy Carter famously chose Walter Mondale precisely for his Washington experience. There is little to praise about the Carter presidency, but that administration's president-vice president relationship did establish a useful model. Carter, an engineer by training, sought the ideal solutions to problems without regard to the politics of the issue. Mondale attempted to act as the President's political radar and inject that perspective into the decision-making process.

Romney may look at the pool of individuals who have both executive, Washington, and electoral experience. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but a few possibilities include former Senator and current Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, former OMB chief and current governor Mitch Daniels, and former OMB chief and current Sen. Rob Portman. Bobby Jindal, a governor and a former congressman also fits that description. One interesting caveat on that point is the age gap. In recent years, younger vice presidents have not been central advisors to older presidents. Nixon, while valued by Eisenhower was not a key advisor and Quayle was not a member of Bush Senior's inner circle of advisors (although he was generally believed to be a member of the outer circle of the top eight advisors.)

HBO's Veep is Completely Inaccurate

As an expert on the vice presidency I feel obligated to present my thoughts on the new HBO series Veep which premieres tomorrow night. Quite frankly, the show is profoundly inaccurate and misleading.
As a matter of full disclosure, I should note that I have not seen it yet – although I am thinking of breaking down and subscribing to HBO just so I can watch it (also, I really love the star – Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I am a Seinfeld dork of the first order). And anyway, for a pundit offering an opinion without the slightest familiarity with the subject is not a problem.
By all accounts, the show is about a neurotic vice president who constantly gaffes, desperately seeks power and attention, and is utterly peripheral to the president. Fair enough (and I don’t doubt the show is a terrific character study and entertainment), but not realistic (at least not since Mondale.)
When Carter selected Mondale as his running mate, he asked Mondale what he would need to be an effective partner in governance. Mondale gave a list, including complete access to White House meetings and paper trail, regular private meetings with the President, and an office in the White House. Carter gave him all of these things. Vice Presidents since have also possessed these perquisites. They are not mandated, a President certainly can take them away. – but doing so would effectively make the President look kind of stupid. After all, in picking the VP the President effectively says that they would vote for this person to be President. To then never talk to the VP, keep them out of the White House etc. would raise questions about the initial decision. In short, it would be political prudent to keep the VP close and at least keep the appearance of their engagement rather then exiling them.

Further, Presidents have actually chosen their running mates fairly well. From Mondale on the VPs have been individuals of substantial capability and distinction (three Senators, and two former cabinet officers.) I don’t have the energy to get into it here – but while Quayle is generally regarded as the weakest of the batch he was not that bad. He performed poorly on TV, but he had been in the Senate for 8 years, winning a tough race to get the seat, and was well regarded by other Senators. Also, he was not a close advisor to Bush but he was not frozen out of the process. He kept all of Mondale’s perks.
The image of the inconsequential bumbling VP, limited to ceremonial tasks, ignored by all harks back to Throttlebottom. Interestingly, on the show’s mock VP website it says that Vice President Selina Meyer had been the Senator from Maryland (sidenote that Julia Louis Dreyfuss’ Elaine character was also from Maryland). In fact the only Maryland VP was Spiro Agnew who was very much the VP in that mold (Nixon despised him but found, found him politically useful, and had staffers sit on top of him to keep him in bounds.) But since then, VPs have been solid pros that have worked hard to serve their Presidents and generally done so successfully. It is tough to believe that an experienced Senator would prove so inept on the national stage (also, VPs have a sizable staff which should be capable of managing things pretty well.)
Palin Exception
But what if we had had a VP Palin, who became a real problem for the President? In a sense that is what the show is about?
Again, I don’t have the energy to get into it here – but Palin was in over her head and based on her relationship with the McCain campaign she would have become a political problem for the administration. At the same time, in fairness, she had undeniable talent. She had real achievements as governor of Alaska and even get elected to the position isn’t exactly chopped liver (what have you been elected to lately?)
But kicking her out of the West Wing and formally boxing her out of policy would have led to some nasty leaks and exacted a high political cost. McCain would have had to be creative figuring ways to muzzle her without it coming out in public – too much. But I think that would have been a much darker show the HBO’s creation.
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In Politico's Arena on the Romney Machine

Politico’s Arena asked:
Mitt Romney has won the Illinois primary by a considerable margin, the Associated Press projects. Does this win make the path to the Republican nomination any clearer? And does it provide a more obvious signal for either Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich to exit the race?

I answered
The delegate math has long been in Romney's favor and the Illinois victory shrinks the possibilities for the other candidates from very difficult to nearly impossible.
Santorum has an interesting challenge. He has proved an able campaigner, if a polarizing figure. The Republican party traditionally nominates the runner-up from the previous contest (the next guy in line). Does Santorum seek to to set himself up for 2016 (Gingrich will be 73 then, making a serious run unlikely)? If so, Santorum needs to show his strengths as a campaigner, but not to hang on so long that he damages GOP prospects in the fall.
A few follow-up points – Santorum is only in his mid-fifties. He can wait till 2016, playing the game Romney played by lining up party elders and building his credentials where he is weak and burnishing his image. His problem is if Romney wins, then he must wait at least eight years (maybe longer if Romney chooses an able vice president and natural successor.) While anything is possible – as Santorum’s performance in the Republican primaries and emergence as a major candidate demonstrates – it is tough to see how ex-Senator Santorum can remain in the public eye for almost a decade.

This raises another interesting question that is close to my heart – could Santorum be the VP? (It is never to early to start speculating.) Santorum would provide Romney ideological balance, but not geographic balance (although Pennsylvania is an important swing state.) Santorum also had DC experience. Although Romney is running as a technocrat, he has not actually held a DC office. Technocrat types do not have terrific records as President (Carter and Hoover come to mind – although Customs House director Chester Allen Arthur proved to be surprisingly capable.) Romney, with his MBA background would want a capable VP to advise him on the ways of Washington. However, Santorum is not exactly a grand old man of the Senate like Biden, so Romney might seek a deeper resume.

Of course the most important factor is could Santorum help Romney win the election? This is an open question. Santorum has proved to be a compelling campaigner who speaks eloquently on a number of issues. Santorum would also shore up the base. But on the other side of the ledger, the base despises Obama and would go for Romney regardless. And Santorum turns off lots of moderate voters. Romney will have to do a very hard careful calculation of costs and benefits. This kind of analysis is an area where Romney excels.

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Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission Case Study & Retrospective

My case study on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (here are the slides for a quick overview) has finally been published in full by the Project for National Security Reform. It is in the second volume of PNSR case studies, which contains a number of other interesting case studies besides mine on topics as various as Eisenhower era policy-making in the Middle East, managing the Asian financial crisis, and the failed attempt to assassinate Ayatollah Fadlallah. In particular, I recommend Chapter 9 on U.S. Interagency Efforts to Combat International Terrorism through Foreign Capacity Building Program by my old CTBlog colleague Michael Kraft and Celina Realuyo. Capacity building is very expensive, hard to do, and takes a long time – but when it works it really does leave a nation with stronger institutions that will serve it will in areas far beyond counter-terror. Regardless, the price is right, this 1000+ volume can be downloaded for free.

Lessons Learned in Retrospect
I’ve learned a few things since I wrote on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. Not more details about how policies were made and implemented, but bigger picture issues.

Humility in Evaluating Decision-makers
First and foremost I went into this project prepared to excoriate Gore and Clinton for blowing it with Russia. If only they had adequately championed economic and political freedom we could have seen a Russia transformed. Having researched the issue, I know see that they played the hand that they were dealt about as well as could have been expected. There were many policies that had to be balanced and they made tough calls in balancing them. For example, the administration as unwilling to take Russia to the mat over its dealings with Iran because for all of his flaws Yeltsin really was seen as a least bad option and there were a number of other security issues on which Russia was cooperative.

This understanding has informed my research since and is shaping my attitude towards studying policy-making. Leaders usually have pretty good reasons for what they have done and are constrained by circumstances external and prior to their own efforts. In my research I am agnostic about the policy itself, and instead am focused on how it came to be.

The American Transformation Chimera
My initial criticism was off base. The idea of transforming Russia into a free market liberal ally was in fact the very ambition of Clinton and Gore. Clinton called Russia the “California of international politics.” There is something very American about this ambition – the following administration took a stab at it (at much greater expense) in Iraq. My favorite novelist Robertson Davies has observed that the United States is the most extraverted power in the world and (while he grants it has many virtues) suffers from the extraverted desire to re-shape the world to its liking. In short, culture matters. The Russia transformation experiment was far, far cheaper then the Iraq endeavor but in retrospect it looked awfully unlikely to succeed.

Unfortunately (as an extraverted American maybe) I cannot quite give up the transformation ideal. Re-shaping the world in the American image is not appropriate. But simply ignoring truly vicious regimes such as that of Iraq or what has prevailed in Russia for most of the 20th century does not seem moral. Davies is a Canadian (he argues that Canada and Russia are two terribly introverted powers), but the truth is that for all of Canada’s complaints about US influence – in fact the United States has not significantly sought to re-shape Canada.

Let’s step back – I am arguing IR with a dead Canadian novelist, that’s a bit ridiculous except that I love his writing so much. The point here is that wholesale re-shaping other nations either with a scalpel (as in Russia in the 1990s) or with a hammer (as in Iraq in the past decade) does not appear to be possible.

But there is an objective measure of good governance that needs to be observed. Unfortunately, finding ways to move nations (like my current obsession – Pakistan) along those lines remains a tremendous challenge. More modest and subtle tools are needed.

Financial Angles
Finally, when I wrote this case study I was essentially ignorant of international economics. I have since taken a class on the topic so my ignorance has only been ameliorated by the distinct knowledge of just how ignorant I am (the first step to wisdom?) But the physics of money mattered a great deal to Russia in the 1990s (actually it matters a lot all the time) and shaped the other issues.

As I wrote, many Russians saw the United States allied with corrupt oligarchs as part of a plan to keep Russia weak and impoverished. Some of this reflects on the paranoid mindset of many Russians. American observers viewed it as another deal with the devil to buy short-term stability. BUT – while there certainly was corruption in Russia in the 1990s – there was also a tough economic reality. Russia did not have a functional banking system, so anyone who had access to assets with any value had every incentive to get their money out of Russia. This was not good for the ruble. Unfortunately, it may have been pretty good for the US economy. Russia’s economy dollarizing kept demand for the dollar high and as a consequence, US interest rates could remain low. At the same time, Russia’s economic free-fall kept their energy demands low so that there was more to export on the international market – cheap energy prices are great for the US economy. I truly doubt that Clinton, Gore et al had a devious plan here (and the US economy probably would have prospered in the 1990s regardless because of many other factors). But for a weak paranoid Russia, one can see how this interpretation took hold.

Again, no conspiracy is suspected, but it is possible Gore did not play a consistently helpful role on economic policy. In 1993 Gore criticized the economic reforms for hurting the Russian people. This was echoed a few days later by the State Department’s Russia point-person Strobe Talbot who said the Russians needed “less shock and more therapy…” Treasury felt undermined by this comment. Of course, in fairness, Russia banking sector might have been beyond reform. But this incident may have effectively placed political concerns above economic ones on Russia policy.

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