Our Non-Essential Federal Government

We enter yet another week of the “partial” government shutdown.

Over the weekend we saw veterans bull rushing the WWII Memorial, tearing down the barricades, and re-positioning them in front of the White House lawn. “Good on ya!” I’d toss out to those veterans.

We heard news that states and private entities are stepping up to keep America’s finest assets, our national parks, open to the public. Thank you, on behalf of all of us that love the national parks.

And we continued to hear more bickering from leaders in Washington.  Ugh.

The developments over the past few weeks have led me to ask, “What exactly does the federal government do, anyway?”

The push to keep the national parks open is a clear sign that state and local leaders know a dysfunctional federal government will cost them millions in tourism dollars.  So they’ve pushed forward without a hint of politics and undertaken the federal government’s work.

Last night it began flooding in central Texas. I’m sure if needed, Gov. Perry will call out his state’s national guard troops. He and the Texas Legislature won’t wait for the federal government. If another massive wildfire hits the West, or a late errant hurricane hits the southern coastal states, chief executives and emergency agencies won’t wait for the federal government either.

City, county and state executives don’t get to “shut down” their governments because they can’t get along. They have to work together to do the job that people have elected them to do. Because they know that if they don’t do their job, voters will show them the door at the next election.

Elected officials in Washington have shown us in recent months that the interaction between the House, Senate and White House is dysfunctional, and that’s being diplomatic.

Unfortunately, the longer this cliff hangs over our head, the more “non-essential” leaders in Congress will appear to voters.

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The Complex Dance of Foreign Affairs

It’s been many years since I sat in Professor Jim McCormick’s political science classes at Iowa State. It’s been years since I’ve sat in Professor Burns Weston’s classes on international law at the University of Iowa.

But I haven’t forgotten their observations about foreign affairs. The performance of US foreign affairs is a complex dance between the President and Congress. The Constitution divides authority, and for good reason. Our Founders wanted the will of the people to be weighed (Congress), but also wanted a strong leader for times of international crisis (President).

This week gave me a reminder of how complex that dance can be, and how sometimes either party to this routine can make errant steps.

First, there’s a wealth of observations this week about President Obama’s handling of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. A couple of my favorites are here and here. At first the President wanted to go it alone, then resorted to briefing and requesting congressional authorization for a use of force, and now is hoping for an international diplomatic solution. Whatever the outcome will be in the coming days and weeks, he’s run the gamut on this one. Time will tell if it’s been a good decision making process or a poor one. I will just posit that this process has been noticed by other world leaders, and they will act differently toward the US in the future.

On to my congressional observations. This week we saw Congressmen King (R-IA) and Gohmert (R-TX) accompany Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) to Egypt. My first thought was that I had missed the last 10 months, and that Michelle Bachmann had indeed been elected President. I searched in vain for an objective link to a story about the visit. I will just post the YouTube link here, and you can watch for yourself.

In case you don’t watch it, the Cliff Notes version is this: Congresswoman Bachmann thanks the military junta leaders for overthrowing an elected government and for cracking down on the “evil common enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

I think their appearance was probably not the best dance step I’ve seen from these Members of Congress. If you’ve been following the news lately, the military government of Egypt hasn’t exactly been the shining star of democracy, openness, or tact. Clearing demonstrators out with live bullets and killing several hundred, suicide bombings and political retributions may not be the things these Members want to stand up and support.

But they aren’t the first Members of Congress to go wading in deep international waters, and they likely won’t be the last. As soon as I saw the media and left wing backlash to their appearance, I remembered this great instance in congressional foreign policy making:

Kerry Harkin Ortega

Yes, that’s current Secretary of State John Kerry, then a US Senator, alongside Iowa’s own Tom Harkin, meeting with Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua in 1985. This trip, as has been reported on widely, was proxy foreign affairs being waged with a foreign leader waging a proxy war with the US. Ortega is the once and current leader of Nicaragua. He was closely aligned with Russia, Venezuela, and now Iran. Ortega has maintained a pretty healthy anti-American stance over the years. His record on human rights, property rights, and personal property have been abysmal, to say the least. I’m not sure either Senator Harkin or Secretary of State Kerry wants to stand up in defense of that, either.

My personal opinion, for what it matters? I like strong, clear minded Executives leading our foreign affairs. When he, and someday she, makes a misstep on foreign affairs, the American people will hopefully hold him/her accountable.

I also respect circumspect Members of Congress who follow international affairs closely and work in concert with the Executive to advance our national security. And when they make mistakes and overstep their boundaries, I also hope the voters in their districts hold them accountable.

Yes, I know I’ll be disappointed. As with the debacle of Benghazi, I have been and will be disappointed in accountability.

But a guy has to hold on to some shred of idealism, right?

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Television is still the King

A lot has been written about how  digital media has numbered the days of more “traditional” news outlets, such as newspapers and television. A report out today from Gallup would tend to indicate, as Mark Twain would say, the demise of television has been greatly exaggerated.

Gallup reports today that television still dominates as American’s first choice for news. Fully 55% of Americans get their news about current events from television, followed by 21% from the internet. While digital news has swamped newspapers (only 9% indicate newspapers as their primary source), it has not displaced television.

I’m old enough to remember the news about crazy men like Ted Turner, who had a vision of 24/7 information delivery via cable channels. At that time, Americans got their news primarily from newspapers and the three large networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. The reaction Turner received varied between “give it a year” and projections of his imminent bankruptcy. Within a few years, that scorn had changed to clarion calls that the Big Three broadcast channels were staring at extinction. Neither extreme proved to be true.

What happened was the delivery channels were split, with news consumers getting more options. The pie, in other words, was merely split into smaller pieces. The same is now happening with the advent of digital media and the internet.

Yes, an increasing number of people are looking to digital for news. Yet television still dominates the market. Newspapers have taken a distinct hit in their market share, but I believe they’ve hit bottom and with aggressive moves into the digital space will find their balance. The pie has merely been cut into smaller slices yet again.

For our clients, it’s important to be everywhere: television, radio, print and internet. When we need to drive the news, we do it in a coordinated fashion. This not only ensures we hit our audiences, but gives us repetition in news cycles. There is no “silver bullet”…you have to be everywhere your audience is looking.

Television is a unique medium. It combines important moving visuals with delivery by news people you (hopefully) trust. If you don’t trust that host, there are hundreds of other options. It allows a vast amount of programming and entertainment options due to its 24/7 nature and bandwidth. And among other news outlets, it is uniquely situated to augment itself in the digital space.

Whether television remains at the top of the news business is yet to be seen. My money says it will.

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A Tea Party with the Wizard of Oz

In the classic film The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s diminutive dog Toto pulls back the curtain in the Emerald City to reveal the Wizard is nothing but a grand illusion. The Wizard uses smoke, mirrors and high tech equipment to appear larger than life, all knowing and omnipresent.

Some members of the Tea Party, and the final few members of the media who haven’t completely abdicated their media credentials, must feel like Toto this week with the disclosure of the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS. Indeed this has been a bad week for the Administration, with the Benghazi attack and AP phone tapping issues coming to the fore. But nothing resonates as quickly or as viscerally with the American public as revelations that the IRS is crawling up the pant legs of Americans like a horde of fire ants.

We know from Watergate lore that President Nixon used the IRS to target groups on the left. What we may not remember is that Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and even Bill Clinton also used the IRS to target groups they deemed in opposition to their agenda. Remember the “vast right wing conspiracy?” There seems to be a pretty consistent theme that has developed over the last 70 or so years: an expanding federal government uses its investigative and tax powers to quash dissent.

A lot of my liberal friends chide me for the “divisive” and “uncooperative” nature of the Tea Party and its “horrible” influence on the country’s politics. They have been oddly silent this week. I’m wondering how they’d feel if the horde of IRS fire ants were crawling up the pant leg of their favorite charity, non-governmental agency or liberal public policy organization.

The revelations of this week will also have a direct impact on one (potentially the only) signature piece of legislation the President has ever passed, the Affordable Health Care Act. To “enforce” the new law, the IRS is slated to add almost 2,000 new employees. There are almost 50 “major” changes to the IRS Code to implement the new law. The IRS Inspector General calls those changes “the largest set of tax law changes the IRS has had to implement in more than 20 years.”

What could be more troubling? The IRS is establishing a sophisticated databases to “monitor compliance” with the AHCA. Working in concert with federal departments (Social Security, Justice, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services) and state governments, the IRS is establishing the “Federal Data Services Hub” to verify identity, residency, employment, income, criminal history and enrollment in entitlement programs.

Please, someone go fetch Toto. I’ll put the water on. Looks like we’ll need more tea.

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The High Price of Low Rent Coaches

I doubt if anyone today at Auburn is saying, “But hey, at least they won the championship!”

Former Iowa State University and Auburn head football coach Gene Chizik is facing grade-changing accusations. Former New York Times and Sports Illustrated reporter Selena Roberts said Chizik changed the grades of as many as nine Auburn players leading up to the 2011 BCS National Championship. Chizik was fired from Auburn last season. The report on Roopstigo.com details many allegations of NCAA violations during Chizik’s tenure at Auburn. It would seem the bromance between Auburn and Chizk has long since passed.

This week also saw the firing of Rutgers University’s men’s basketball coach. Words don’t do justice to how terrible former Coach Mike Rice was to his players. The video says it all. All I can say is that he ought to count his blessings that his large, physical players never banded together and took him out behind the locker room. In my opinion they would have been more than justified in doing so.

In a bizarre twist of fate, Rutgers apparently now owes Rice over $100,000 for lasting the entire season. This bonus is on top of his $622,500 annual salary.

I’ve been blessed with four children who are all physically talented and enjoy sports. Soccer, track, cross country, softball, baseball, football and swimming have been mainstays in our house for as long as I can remember. Like most parents we’ve given up logging the miles or hours we pile up in support of our student athletes.

Through all of their sports we’ve seen the power of individual dedication that each athlete brings to the competition. We’ve also seen the incredible positive influences good coaches can have on an athlete’s performance and love for the sport.

This week serves as a reminder of how disastrous bad coaches can be. To be sure, Auburn and Rutgers universities are embarrassed by the disgraceful behavior of these coaches, as they should be.

But think for just a moment about the ruined lives and dreams of the athletes these low rent coaches have left in their wake.

For them, I feel truly sorry. They deserved so much better.

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The Steve King I Know…

I noted with interest an online article from today’s Des Moines Register regarding Congressman Steve King and his impending decision regarding a race for the US Senate.

Much of my political career has been to help position candidates so that in the hustle and bustle of a campaign, voters can get to know the real essence of who they are as people. Behind the sound bites, behind the policy pronouncements…who are these people? Are they candidates that reflect well on us and whom we can trust to make sometimes momentous decisions on our behalf?

Today’s article on Congressman King by my friend Bill Petroski does just that. Bill is a great writer, experienced and quick on the draw. He can get to the nerve center of an issue quickly and he did so in this article.

Congressman King shows that he is weighing this seriously. He’s a man who built his construction business with the strength of his hands, the sweat of his brow and sheer will. He uses a construction analogy to show exactly how methodically he’s going about his assessment. Regardless of his ultimate decision, his methodology speaks very well of his character and his decision making.

The public perception of candidates often varies greatly with their private side. I’ve seen this over and over and it’s the fundamental challenge presented to communication and media assistants.

There is a wide gap between how Congressman King is portrayed by many partisans and members of the media, and the man I’ve gotten to know.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Congressman King in the Iowa Senate and on his congressional campaigns. He’s a man of deep convictions, big ideas and an unbridled source of pride in all things Iowa. He is a son of Iowa, a man who knows all good things come from the land and the people of Iowa.

I’ve also had even more fun with Congressman King in other settings, like his annual pheasant hunt. There is perhaps no better place to get to know a man than standing shoulder to shoulder in a hunting stand for several hours. Far from the trappings of office and with your boots planted firmly in Iowa’s abundant soil, you can measure each other pretty quickly. I held my own in those stands, but I will always take a back seat to Congressman King’s quick eye and more accurate aim.

Congressman King will make his decision in due time, after weighing all the facts presented to him. No matter what he decides, he’ll be putting his constituents, his issues and his state first. He’s been a great Congressman, he would be an outstanding US Senator and I’ll be following his decision closely.

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Microsoft: Macro Negative

You may have seen the recent “attack ads” against Google’s popular Gmail application. The ads, paid for by Microsoft, smack of the take-no-prisoners negative campaign advertisements we have come to expect in our presidential and congressional campaigns.

But not very often do we see such negative ads in corporate advertising campaigns.

Mark Penn, one of the political wunderkinds behind President Bill Clinton, has been hired as a full time campaign adviser to Microsoft. He is tasked with bringing his advertising and messaging prowess to the ongoing technology market-share battle between Microsoft and Google.

One observer of the tech industry pegged it well when he reacted to the news of Microsoft’s campaign:

Negative campaigns like the “Scroogled” ads can work well, as every seasoned politician will likely tell you, but the potential backlash makes them a risky proposition. Microsoft’s marketing team clearly believes that the benefits outweigh the risks, but even though the campaign got plenty of media pickup, I doubt that it will get people to switch. Instead, it makes Microsoft look petty, desperate and overly aggressive.

 I know from personal experience that negative campaigning works…to drive up your opponent’s negatives. But unless you’re also following that negative messaging with some positive messaging, as to why you’re better, it’s ultimately money thrown into the wind. And complicating that conundrum is that if your messaging doesn’t fit into what consumers (voters) think of the product, the reality you’re trying to peddle won’t be matched by their reality.

To wit: Mitt Romney and the Republican SuperPACs spent hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars telling Americans why President Obama was not worthy of a second term. But the reality they were peddling didn’t match how people actually viewed the President. In short, they were barking up the wrong tree, and probably in the wrong forest to boot.

I predict the same result will befall Microsoft and its negative campaign against Google. Microsoft’s products are somewhat newer than the primitive tools used by early Neanderthals. But not much. Google’s products are fresh, always evolving, fun, and integrated. And more importantly, their products are widely accepted and loved.

So, good luck with the Scroogled campaign, Mark. I might remind you that you got President Clinton to 43% on the ballot in 1992, and 49.2% in 1996.

And by the way, I’ve got a good list of potential names for the response campaign against Microsoft. But this is a family blog, so I’ll keep it clean.

Badda Bing, badda boom.

Full disclosure, PolicyWorks is proud to have Google as a client.

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