My Blog: The Road to College

August 21, 2014

[this blog is a little different as it is a reflection on taking my son to college]

The son you knew, who you once carried easily in your arms, head tucked into your chest, afraid and unsure of the world, now packs his car and heads out the door. You tell yourself he is only going to college for a small dose of life, a bit of reality on training wheels, but you know this is a defining moment.

If not for him, then for you.

We are defined in our children, in the space they occupy in our lives. When they are gone, we are left uncertain and unsure of who we are and what we will become.

You are reminded of a similar scene nearly thirty years ago when you were driving the getaway car – a dull green 1972 Oldsmobile 98 – and you left your mother crying in the driveway. She didn’t cry often – almost always opting for optimism over anger, sadness, or fear – but on that day she broke down and sobbed. Undeterred, you started the car and drove on, taking your mother’s glass half full optimism and father’s quiet but keen eye along with you.

This is a small truth worth remembering: Wherever your children go, a small piece of you goes with them, whether they want it there or not.

But the emotions of letting go are not only about sadness and loss. There is excitement and hope this step will be transformative and full of joy, that the fun of college will be mixed with discovery and meaning. That your son will have most (but definitely not all) of the experiences you had.

As you watch him go, the tear and the smile find an uneasy balance. Sadness and laughter in this life are intractably intertwined and inseparable. He is uncertain as well, but you both know he must start the car and drive on. There is an open road in front of him, and if he is lucky – as lucky as you have been – each new destination will be better than the last. And the road ahead of him only get open with possibility with each passing mile.

The Declining Power of the Political Press

August 10, 2014

[I am transitioning this blog to my new Polling Station blog but at least for the short-term will cross-post some content. Please update to keep following]. 

Interesting story in the Columbia Journalism Review noting the increased influence of PR professionals in Washington and the declining influence of the press. This is an ongoing theme, reflected also in complaints that the Obama Administration has limited access even beyond the Bush Administration.

In the contemporary media environment, elected officials have a range of tools to communicate directly to voters making reporters (traditional or online) less important to their communication and political strategies. Who needs a reporter when you can send your message directly to supporters and followers?  This is true regardless of whether the “news” is online or in print or on television. Even when government officials do interact with journalists, they have more leverage to set the rules for the exchange, tightly controlling content.

The late Tim Cook, a former colleague, wrote about the “negotiation of newsworthiness” in his seminal and still very relevant workGoverning with News.  While journalists wrote the stories, government officials controlled their access to reporters making the process of creating the news a two-sided negotiation in which each side had some leverage. In this exchange, digital media. which many thought would democratize politics, can become a tool of the powerful. With institutional resources and immediate access to followers, tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter provide an avenue to communicate directly to constituents. They can be used to counter news stories reported in the mainstream media in real time or to simply limit media access to the candidate or public official. The key for public officials, political parties and candidates  is to make sure they have developed strong enough social networks allowing this direct line to their supporters.

It is hard to see how political reporters regain their footing in this environment. One line of thought suggest reporters be harder-nosed, refusing to cede to the demands of limited access. According to this line of thought, the politician needs the journalist more than the journalists needs the politician. Here the news marketplace may serve as a competitive disadvantage by empowering competitors to gain inside access on important news stories. (Of course, that access comes at a cost to their independence). Tougher reporting also likely assures less access as politicians increasingly decide their strategic interests are better served by going around rather than through journalists.

More to the point, political parties, candidates, and interest groups will continue to devote resources to developing the information and communication infrastructure necessary to communicate independently of an independent and objective press.  This reality portends poorly for the future of independent and objective news and is yet another indicator that our sources of political news and information will likely become ever more partisan and politicized.

Playing the Odds on Bobby Jindal and the Presidency

May 23, 2014

This week, Clancy Dubos is offering his assessment on why Bobby Jindal will never, ever be president. His analysis is smart and informed and generally on the money, but – at least so far – it is missing the most obvious point. It is unlikely that any single individual will ever be president.

First, betting against Bobby Jindal is the equivalent of taking the field in any major sporting event, so it is the safe and smart bet. Want to bet on the next year’s college football season? I’ll bet LSU doesn’t win the national championship. And, I’ll gladly take the field against the New Orleans Saints in the NFL.  This is also the equivalent of betting before the season even begins. 

Second, play this game: Fill in the blank with the following names: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, or Scott Walker and write an essay on why any of these contenders can never, ever be president. It is pretty easy to detail their flaws. All of these candidates currently have better odds than Bobby Jindal. 

Third, fill in the blank with the former presidents before they ran for president and outline the reasons they shouldn’t have been able to win. Barack Obama should have never beaten Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination, and there were substantial doubts about whether he could overcome voters’ racial prejudice. George W. Bush should have never been able to beat incumbent Vice President Al Gore during a period of strong economic growth. And, Bill Clinton was a little known governor of a small southern state with skeleton full of closets. It is easy to argue that none of them should have won. With Clinton and Obama, it is easy to argue – based on the odds – that they should have never run. 

None of this is to suggest Bobby Jindal will ever win the presidency. I’ll gladly take the field on that bet against Jindal, but it is worth remembering the single most important characteristic successful candidates possess is the delusional belief that they should be president. Bobby Jindal has this in abundance.   

Why Vance McAllister is No David Vitter

April 11, 2014

The cheap and easy question goes something like this, “Why should Vance McAllister resign if David Vitter didn’t?”  The follow-up: “Where were the calls for David Vitter to step aside?”

The answer is just as easy and just as straightforward: Because Vance McAllister is not David Vitter. McAllister is a newly elected member of congress, elected in a special election, and facing reelection this fall. David Vitter had the good fortune to not to have to face voters right away and to have an established base of political support. He was subsequently able to mute any intra-party calls for his resignation.  Calls for resignation from the other side don’t matter a great deal in such scenarios. We expect Democrats to call for a Republican resignation (and vice versa), what really hurts is when your own party calls for your resignation. As an aside, for those complaining about hypocrisy, keep in mind that hypocrisy is a two-way street. [And yes Virginia, there is a double standard in politics].  

Several other factors work against McAllister. First, there was no video in the Vitter scandal (thank god), there was no angry friend speaking out on CNN, and there was no intrigue about how the information got released and why. This is an intriguing story, a curious mystery layered with betrayal and sexual infidelity. I personally continue to think one of the most fascinating story lines is how the video found its way on the pages of the Ouachita Citizen.  The intrigue works against McAllister as it likely extends the story line. How much coverage is devoted to the story is a critical variable in determining whether a politician can survive. The only way to effectively end the story line is to resign.

Second, David Vitter was masterful in shutting down press coverage of his scandal. He apologized, swore he would never speak about it again, and lived up to his promise.  Whatever one thinks of David Vitter, they should at least be willing to acknowledge that Vitter should teach a class in scandal management.  It continues to amaze and confound his Democratic opponents who can’t come to terms with the fact that David Vitter was (and is) a special case.

Third, we can also make a comparison to Bill Clinton. While Republicans called for Clinton’s resignation, most (but not all) Democrats circled the wagon. The same with David Vitter: Very few Republicans called for his resignation. The challenge McAllister faces is that his own party is turning against him and calling for his resignation. You can survive members of the other party coming after you, particularly if your fellow partisans rally the troops. It is much harder to defend your castle from the inside.  Given that McAllister defeated an establishment candidate and his noted streak of political independence, he lacks the political support of a more established party-line candidate.  It is impossible to say whether her would have been treated differently had he been the Governor Jindal’s endorsed candidate and/or had he not bucked the Republican Party on Medicaid expansion, but it is hard to imagine that this has played no role in the strategic calculation to pressure McAllister to resign. Remember party decisions on whether to push for resignation are not based on abstract principles but on strategic political calculations. 

As of this writing, there are signs that McAllister is resisting the calls to step down. As an aside, keep in mind that public calls for someone’s resignation tend to happen when the private conversations have already failed.  The fact the Governor Jindal, Speaker Boehner and others are calling for his resignation publicly suggests (I have not inside information) that the private calls have gone unheeded. Going public raises the stakes and increases the pressure on McAllister but it also raises the stakes for the Republican Party.  Running against McAllister will only elevate and prolong the scandal and the disarray. And, there is always the chance that he will turn party opposition into a strength and win yet again. After all, should he not take himself out of the running, it is the voters who will decide whether his actions were an embarrassment.  

The Things You Never Let Go: Life’s Lessons Learned at the Lake House

March 14, 2014

[Another non-political post. Hope you enjoy!]

When you drive away for the last time, you leave a part of your life behind. The part that camped in the woods at the top of the hill, that swam and fished In the lake’s green waters below, that floated for hours in its gentle waves.

This is a place that taught life’s lessons. Like how not to be afraid of the pitch black night or the summer storms with trees swaying and lightning cracking against a darkening sky. Or how to put the skis back on for one more try at gliding on top of the water: My dad the patient driver circling back after each fall; my mom treading water to help slip the skis back on my feet, imploring me to keep the skis up and my arms straight. “Let the boat pull you up.” You fall hardest when you fight the forces trying to guide you forward.

This was a place that grew with us, from an open camp with tents and an outhouse filled with snakes to a trailer, a cabin, and finally a home. My home. No matter where else I have gone or lived, this is the place that most comforted me, where I felt most relaxed and most at ease.

It became my kids favorite place too, better than the beach or Disneyland. We slept long hours and played all day, deep in the woods and far away from the things that keep you up at night or that worry you during the day. Here, there was only sun and water.

After a lifetime, we are letting go. Letting it go. Because it is time. Because we need to. Because we have to. There is more to the story that I will leave untold. For now, this is enough: I am sad but without regret. Thankful for the moments it gave, for the moments we shared.

Some people live their entire lives without a place that feels like home, that roots them in a landscape of forest, water, and trees. They grow without roots, like a vine climbing a wall without intent or purpose. We are lucky, our roots grew deep enough here that our branches were able to spread and grow.

On this our last visit, we are caught in a late winter storm. When we try to leave, we are unable to make it out of the driveway, tires spinning, the car unable to climb those last few feet of icy hill. Is this place holding on to us, asking us not to go? I imagine my grandfather at the end of the driveway, slicked back hair, dark glasses, khaki pants, plaid shirt and Florsheim shoes, standing arms crossed and foreboding. He bought the land and built the cabin. His life was (is) part of the foundation that still stands. “I built this for you. You can’t leave.”

Or is it a reminder of why we need to go? To stay too long is to become trapped, to be unable to leave when the time comes. Life pushes us forward in paths we never expect to go. Perhaps it is best experienced with an open mind and a packed suitcase, not holding on to the past, not clinging to the places we have been or the people we have known. We can always take them with us.

Maybe we only make it on top of the water when we keep our skis up and our arms straight and let the boat do the work. And maybe it is best when we follow along in the wake of a future we cannot know but must embrace.

When we pull on to Settles Road that last time, we leave part of our lives behind, but we take so much more with us. I am sad to leave my past but ready to meet my future, deeply thankful to the grandparents and parents who gave this place and these memories to me.

Grading Governor Jindal’s State of the State

March 10, 2014

Let me start with a clarification: I grade political speeches on the basis of the who the elected official is, what they have accomplished, and how they are strategically positioned for the future. Now in his seventh year, Governor Jindal’s influence is waning and we have likely seen the end of “major” legislative accomplishments. Instead, this is a time for defining one’s legacy and not leaving that definition to political opponents, journalists or others who may be less favorable.

This is especially true for Governor Jindal whose tenure has coincided with a relatively strong economic performance compared to national and regional averages but low approval rating. His challenge in this speech and in defining his legacy is to connect Louisiana’s economic outcomes with his policy choices.

On these grounds, the speech worked relatively well. Governor Jindal began by thanking the legislature for its support on ethics reform, tax cuts, and education reform. This allowed Governor Jindal to appear gracious while simultaneously claiming credit for a number of policy initiatives. He then moved into the numbers which fairly portray the Louisiana economy as doing relatively well over the past several years, and followed by personalizing the numbers with eight individual stories. Here is one fact worth keep in mind about effective political communication: Narratives resonate far more effectively than numbers.  Combining narratives and numbers helps to personalize what the statistics mean. While he might have overdone it a bit (do you really need eight stories one right after another?), this was good effort at personalizing his economic record and connecting past success to his current agenda: workforce training and tort reform.

Now the speech will unquestionably be criticized for what it didn’t do. He didn’t address a number of issues that will be important to the legislative session, including (but not limited to) the implementation of common core.  His Democratic detractors will point out the fault lines in the Louisiana economy (and there are plenty) and will take issue with his description of a more prosperous  “new Louisiana.”  Indeed, one might take a number of policy exceptions to the Jindal record and agenda, but as far as speeches go this was not a bad one, well delivered, and on message.


Governor Jindal and the CPAC Straw Poll

March 9, 2014

Given Governor Bobby Jindal’s efforts to garner national attention, his recent showing in the CPAC straw poll offered his political opponents and detractors a hearty bit of laughter. Just don’t laugh too hard, the poll means very little other than that Governor Jindal is mostly an unknown at the national level. Early primary polling – either in the form of straw polls or scientific polling – mostly reflects name recognition and says little more about who might eventually secure the nomination. To the extent that CPAC success is a predictor of the nomination, it is because better recognized candidates also do better in presidential primaries and caucuses and fundraising. 

If Governor Jindal is to emerge from the second tier of Republican presidential possibilities, he needs more time on the national stage. He can’t get there unless he stands out from the crowd which provides his incentive for his over-the-top criticisms of President Obama. This approach may  prove unsuccessful but Jindal is a long-shot for 2016 no matter what approach he takes. His goal is to stay in the mix and hope lightning strikes. If lightning doesn’t strike, he can hope to be in the VP conversation and remain viable for 2020 and beyond.