Sunday, January 29, 2012

The GOP Tries To Kill Frankenstein

The collective Republican establishment take down of Newt Gingrich in the wake of Newt's win in South Carolina is without precedent in the modern GOP.  The reality of the 2012 nominating process is curious though.  The man for whom everyone from Matt Drudge to Charles Krauthammer are now carrying water underperformed his vote tally from Iowa in 2008, won an expected victory in New Hampshire (a neighboring state to his adopted home of Massachusetts and a place he invested enormous resources) and got creamed in South Carolina.  All of this against a weaker stable of candidates than he ran against in 2008 who have a small percentage of the financial resources Romney has at his disposal.  Inexplicably (and laughably), they now want to proclaim Florida as a make or break for the nomination even though no candidate has accumulated more than 5% of the delegates needed to win it.  

So what gives?  My own theory is that having created the Frankenstein monster of blind hatred and rage toward government generally and President Obama specifically, the political chickens are trying to come home to roost and the establishment, having stoked the flames of Tea Party hatred, are desperately trying to control the monster before it rages out of control and does something the "adults" in the party think they will do if left to their own devices - nominate Newton Leroy Gingrich for President.  In the balance, instead of building Romney up and allowing him to move toward the center, the attack machine the establishment has unleashed is bringing Romney down by essentially saying that his political apostasies notwithstanding, Gingrich cannot win and therefore must be destroyed.  Quite a thank you for a guy who swept Republicans back to power in the House in 1994.  

Romney's faults would not be nearly as damning were he not stretching to prove his conservative bona fides.  Indeed, should Romney eventually claim the nomination, the idea that Gingrich and others have made him a better candidate will be proven wrong.  While commentators are lamenting the number of debates the Republicans have had, they also pass along the conventional wisdom that the debates have made Romney a better candidate.  The reality is that in the first 10 or so debates that the Republicans held, Romney took little incoming fire, his opponents were more focused on each other than him.  Once debate fire started wheeling toward him, Romney was uncertain and shaky, making odd gaffes like the "$10,000 bet" and his now famous 184 word answer about when (or if) he would release his tax forms.  While it is true that Romney performed well in the 2 debates between South Carolina and Florida, much of that "performance" was pounding on Gingrich with canned talking points about immigration and financial investments.  Even so, when challenged by Rick Santorum on "Romneycare," most agreed Romney looked weak and he also looked oily and fake when feigning ignorance about a Spanish-language ad he claimed he could not remember being made by his campaign.  Against a polished and articulate opponent like President Obama, Romney will not have the luxury of his gaffes being downplayed or his misstatements failing to be slammed. 

There is no question that if a more acceptable (to the establishment, anyway) conservative alternative existed, Romney's weaknesses would likely not be so easily ignored. In fact, the hand wringing that still exists about trying to find an authentic conservative alternative to Romney even at this late date speaks poorly of Romney's ability to marshal those forces if he does win the nomination.  More damning, Romney will also be handicapped by the policy positions he has taken in an effort to pander to the right wing of the base that will never trust him.  While the "Ryan Plan" may be an article of faith among the true believers in the Republican party, try spinning the privatization of Medicare to the 80% of Americans who like and support it.  By toggling to a staunchly pro-life position (even coming out in support of Mississippi's "personhood" amendment) , Romney may have curried favor with the Santorum crowd, but try telling a socially moderate electorate in the suburbs that you think the protection of life begins at conception.  

Romney's ability to tear down what was essentially a minor league level of political talent will do him no favors once a general election starts.  While Gingrich is mercurial and not well-managed, rest assured that the Obama team knows how to exploit weakness in its opponents, will turn around ads and media that take advantage of Romney gaffes and will have a concerted, well funded and ruthless focus on taking the less savory parts of Romney's biography and turn them against him.  Moreover, by leaning so far right on some positions, if Romney toggles back toward the center, he'll merely be reinforcing the belief among conservatives that he vacillates and is politically expedient, which may depress turnout.  In the political calculus that die hard Republicans make, they may prefer to hold off to 2016 while working to keep a majority in Congress that will continue to box Obama in, instead of accepting that Romney would carry the Republican banner through 2020.  

For Romney, the inconvenient truth of his work at Bain, where he trumpets the creation of companies like The Sports Authority, Staples and Dominos, may work well in Republican primaries, but these are companies that feed off of a less educated, non-unionized employment base where lower skills (and wages) are accepted.  Whether coincidentally or not, states with the lowest educational levels tend to vote Republican (at the national level) and also are typically the most virulently anti-union. That's not to criticize companies like The Sports Authority, but it is to say that when President Obama hits hard on manufacturing and high technology as keys to our future, Romney defending service jobs with less financial stability, union protection or meaningful career advancement is a far cry from the "middle class" jobs of a generation ago that were manufacturing based, unionized and afforded people the types of opportunities for home ownership, a college education for their children and a stable retirement that we all think are part of the American Dream.

When grasping for analogies to this year's race, I took a look at the 1996 GOP race and saw a lot of similarities but without the compelling conservative alternative.  Mitt Romney is Bob Dole, but unlike Romney, Dole had no compelling challenger who could be looked at as President.  While Pat Buchanan and his pitchfork brigade won New Hampshire, Buchanan, who had never held elective office, was not viewed seriously by most of the electorate and therefore, did not get attacked like Newt is this year. Steve Forbes was a better funded and just as unpolished candidate as Herman Cain (complete with his own version of "9-9-9" the flat tax), Bob Dornan was Michelle Bachmann before Michelle Bachmann, Phil Gramm was a well funded Texan with no message a la Rick Perry and several 1996 candidates (Lugar, Specter, Wilson) could be Tim Pawlenty.  

While both the 1996 and 2012 primaries occurred in the wake of "wave" elections that returned Republicans to Congressional power, a key difference exists between the former and the latter.  In 1996, mobilizing disaffected, virulently anti-government Republicans did not happen largely because that segment of the party was fringe and small.  Today, it is vibrant and mainstream, with a vessel (the amorphous "tea party") through which it speaks.  The pitchfork brigade that rallied to Buchanan in 1996 was a small band of voters who were easily washed away by the Establishment.  Today, the tea party has a far stronger presence in the Republican party.  While some of that energy has been co-opted, true conservatives, when given a choice between a guy like Gingrich, who at least has the credential of leading the GOP from the wilderness and into power in 1996 and Romney, who voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Massachusetts Democratic primary, campaigned in 1994 as a pro-choice, pro-gay rights social moderate and whose politics are as malleable as his hair is rigid, will pick Gingrich over Romney every time.  

In many ways, today's tea party resembles nothing more than a modern version of the "southern strategy" created by Nixon that channeled the cultural resentment of blue collar whites by railing against the media, the counter-culture and peaceniks and was perfected by Ronald Reagan.  Of course, Nixon called for universal health care in 1974 and Reagan passed some of the biggest tax increases in modern history, but those ideas are relegated to the dustbin of conservative history.  Today, Gingrich's "dog whistle" of calling Obama the "food stamp President" and zeroing in on issues like White House "czars" and "Saul Alinsky" tactics speak to the blind hatred of hard core conservatives, all of which was ginned up and supported when it was trained against Democrats in 2009 and 2010.  Of course, were he ever elected, it is unlikely Gingrich would implement many tea party concepts, but he embraces them nonetheless. Conversely, Romney understands that this type of vituperation is untenable in a general election where more than 50% of voters turn out, not the less than 40% for mid-term elections, and they include far more socially moderate voters who are turned off by mindless ideology.

That some so-called "Tea Party" politicians have endorsed Romney says much less about the "tea party" movement than the political expediency of politicians - which is to say that that particular trait is not unique to either party.  What the grass roots of the "tea party" is quickly learning is that those they elected to office are not as doctrinaire as they hoped and not as committed to the change as they paid lip service to to get elected ($100 billion cut in the federal budget? Never mind.  Repealing Obamacare.  Not going to happen.).  As the split between "country club" Republicans and "tea party" Republicans becomes more obvious, the cleaving between the Herman Cains and Sarah Palins of the Republican party and the John McCains and Bob Doles is becoming clearer.  Ironically, the more establishment sentiment gels around Romney, the more resentment the tea party types will feel.  Perhaps it is just desserts for a party that looked the other way at cries of "terrorist" in 2008, held rallies where the President was portrayed as Hitler and an African witch doctor, gave a wink and a nod to the "birther" movement and who called the President a liar during a nationally-televised speech to a joint session of Congress.  

That establishment Republicans are essentially trying to dismantle the monster of their own creation is both humorous and ironic.  When the channeling of tea party rage was directed at incumbent Democrats, the establishment of the Republican party, along with its media echo chamber (FOX News) was more than happy to hop aboard.  When the monster turned on Republicans in South Carolina, all of the sudden everyone decided that it was time to protect the institutional wing of the party and go nuclear on Newt Gingrich.  With all of the effort they are making to drag Romney across the finish line, do not be surprised when they experience buyer's remorse come November. Conversely, while it is equally possible Gingrich would lose, there is no question that the base of the party wants to support someone who will draw sharp contrasts with the President.  Romney may lose gracefully like Dole or McCain, but Gingrich could be either Reagan or Goldwater.  The risk/reward is much higher with Gingrich, but the dispassion felt towards Romney suggests he will have great difficulty inspiring large Republican turnout while suffering from losing moderates who will be turned off to the politics he has embraced to secure the nomination. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

What I've Learned

Esquire runs a feature called "What I've Learned," where they provide the first word or two of a sentence and then allow the subject to fill in the rest.  My version of this feature:

What I’ve Learned: Scary Lawyer Guy.  Early 40s, divorced, attorney and aspiring raconteur:

Masturbation is still enjoyable, but like all other bodily functions, becomes messier as you get older.  In fact, everything about life gets shittier the older you get – not only do you creak and make weird noises, but you can’t stay up as late, eat certain foods or expect to sleep through the night without waking up at least once to take a piss.  I’d rather have 60 relatively well functioning years and drop dead than tack on another 20 where I end up crapping in a diaper and gumming my food.

A warm robe is essential during the winter.

The thing about marriage is you cannot appreciate its depth and complexity when you get into it.  You wake up 5 years later and it is like you and your spouse have merged into one super-being that consolidated your personalities, attitudes and thoughts into one organism. 

People tell us who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be what we want them to be.  This is one of my favorite lines from Mad Men because it captures an essential truth.  The tension in our interpersonal relationships comes from our willingness to give people a second chance while knowing it may not work.  We need to believe people are capable of changing even though experience tells us otherwise.  The bromide that “second marriages reflect the triumph of hope over experience” is pithy, but false.  The divorce rate for second marriages is higher than it is for first marriages, and third marriage divorce rates are higher than second marriage divorce rates.  Not only do people not change, it does not seem like they learn either.

Social media is not something I immediately embraced.  I missed MySpace entirely and made an affirmative decision not to use Facebook; however, I fucking love Twitter.  It’s a combination real time news gathering website/millions of people collectively experiencing events living room/snark vortex that is both endlessly educational and amusing.  I did not fully appreciate Twitter until the night the President announced Bin Laden had been killed.  My Twitter feed was “blowing up” for about an hour before the President spoke, first, with very vague (and slightly frightening) tweets about a “major announcement” that morphed into the leaking of the story online (even before the news channels, all of whom had gone wall-to-wall with coverage but held off on disclosing the information).  That’s when the light bulb went off for me.  What began as a place to tell people you just ate a shitty hamburger morphed into a place where you found out we put a bullet in Bin Laden’s head.

In writing good ideas are just as important as good editing. 

It’s only money was one of my dad’s favorite expressions.  I never gave it much thought when I was younger, but now I think it is complete bullshit.  Money does not guarantee you happiness, but your options and world are far more limited without it. 

It's not a bad thing to admit you are wrong.  In fact, the opposite is also true.  If you cannot admit when you are wrong, you are not going to be successful in life.

When I meet someone, I can size up whether I am going to like them within 10 seconds.  After that, it's either "thick as thieves" or "have a nice day."  Always has been, always will.

Elvis is endlessly fascinating to me.  He was an icon in a time before the Internet, before TMZ, before pop culture became ubiquitous.  He was worshipped but was incredibly insecure.  He was an addict but was obsessed with the youth counter-culture.  You read about that meeting with Nixon and find out he was basically stoned out of his gourd and showed up at the White House unannounced and wonder what that would have looked like in 2012.  His downfall was incredibly sad because even with all the adulation, he was a very lonely person and he died on the toilet.  What could possibly be worse than that? 

American Idol and the whole reality genre, has a reasonable half life of two seasons.  After that, it's just the same shit over and over.
I really don't have many close friends.  In life, I've found that a few meaningful friends were far more valuable than a roomful of acquaintances.  Some people need people around them, I've never been one of those people.  My own company has always been a-ok with me.

I am a lawyer and proud of it.  I've never taken a job for the paycheck except when I absolutely needed to and thankfully, that's only happened twice in the last 15 years.  Otherwise, I've been blessed to do work I love and to help make a difference in other people's lives.  There's nothing more rewarding than that.

Having kids is an enormous investment of time, energy and commitment.  If more people knew what "having kids" meant, I think fewer people would have them.  I never had them because I was always worried I would fuck up raising them and they would end up being all screwed up.  It depresses me to see how many bad parents there are in the world.

If you go to a suburban maxi-mall at about 10:30 on any weekday, you'll see a lot of those parents.

When they were giving out brains, dad only got half a serving.  On the other hand, when they were giving out "never say die" stick-to-itiveness, he got a double helping.

I don't know much about women and the older I get, the less I know.

Andy Warhol should have lived to see reality TV just so he could say "I told you so." 

I have no filter around people I trust and no desire to share around people I don't know or like. 

When I hear the first licks to any song on Appetite For Destruction I am immediately transported to my freshman year of college.  That album was the soundtrack to my first year away from home and I still love it.  One of the five greatest rock albums of all-time. 
You can't control what people think of you.  You can only do (and act) in the way you think best.  The older I get, the less I care about what people think about me.  *That* is one of the nice things about getting old.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The State of the Union Obama Should Deliver

Vice President Biden, Speaker Boehner, Members of Congress, My Fellow Americans:

I come before you tonight to report on the State of our Union and to tell you that our country is getting back on the right track after surviving the most devastating economic blow we have experienced in three generations.  The state of our union is improving because of the resiliency of the American people, the ingenuity of our small businesses and entrepreneurs, the effectiveness and bravery of our soldiers and the unshakeable belief in American exceptionalism that is shown in ways both great and small each and every day throughout our country and in the many ways we support efforts around the globe.

When I first stood before you three years ago, our nation faced a dark time.  Our economy was shrinking at an annual rate of 9%, nearly three quarters of a million jobs were being lost each month and a grave risk of a second Great Depression stared us in the face.  Between late 2008 and early 2009, our country lost nearly 4 million jobs – a number that would be staggering had it occurred over six years, much less six months.  Wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden remained at large. 

But even in a time that appeared so bleak, the power and strength of our ideas and our people were determined not to give up.  We used that time to clear away the excesses of a past era and usher in the policies that are beginning to bear meaningful fruit.  An auto industry that appeared on the brink of extinction has come back to life because of the willingness of labor unions and management to share in the sacrifice that was needed to put their financial house in order.  Our car companies are leaner, more competitive and producing more fuel efficient vehicles than at any other time in our country’s history.  In the meantime, we also worked with the entire auto industry to improve fuel efficiency standards that will reduce emissions and improve our environment in the years ahead. 

But our job creation has been more broad-based than that.  Over the past two years, as hiring first stabilized and then expanded, we have seen sustained manufacturing growth for the first time since the 1990s, a continued need for health care providers, nurses and other practitioners and even a modest rebound in construction.  As part of the American Jobs Act, I have called on Congress to continue investing in critical infrastructure programs that will rebuild and refurbish bridges, roads, schools and other public works projects that will not only put more people back to work, but are desperately needed in communities across the country. 

I am also proud to say that we have made significant new investments in alternative energy, which is now one of the fastest growing industries in our country, with dozens of new companies innovating and researching ways to leverage renewable sources have that has catapulted the United States into a competitive position globally.  Under my Administration, we approved the largest wind farm in North America, quadrupled the amount of clean energy utilized on public land and are now a world leader in clean energy investment.  These critical investments will not only pay off in the long run, as our dependence on foreign oil is reduced, but it will provide competitive wages for jobs that cannot be outsourced in the future. 

As it has been throughout those times in our nation’s history when prosperity was most broadly shared, my focus has been on creating an environment where middle and working class families can succeed.  This is why we have cut taxes for these families, expanded access to health coverage for young adults who are now able to stay on their parents plans until age 26, streamlined the student loan process and made college education more affordable, and launched a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau whose only job is to make sure that corporations play by the rules and do not try to take advantage of people when it comes to lending money to them.  By putting a floor beneath wage earners who suffered so deeply between 2007 and 2009, we are beginning to see the makings of a true economic rebound in our country. 

While these steps are a start, we must also acknowledge that too many Americans are still finding it difficult to secure a good job.  We have taken steps to provide tax credits for hiring veterans, and I have called for tax incentives that encourage insourcing jobs and employment and no longer rewarding companies who take their profits and workforce outside our borders.  Similarly, I am again calling on Congress to reject generous loopholes and tax exemptions for corporate jet owners, multinational oil corporations and other benefits that widen the gulf between rich and poor.  I am heartened by forward thinking ideas like the State of Georgia’s plan that connects unemployment with apprenticeships and part-time to full-time employment and I am open to hearing ideas from both sides of the aisle about other ways government can partner with business to keep the engine of job creation moving forward, but I reject, categorically, the idea that we should not be investing in our infrastructure, in modern transportation upgrades like high speed rail or allowing other nations to leapfrog ahead of us in the technologies of tomorrow.  We can continue strengthening job growth right here at home if Congress is willing to put country before party and make the investments in our nation that are so desperately needed.  We cannot wait. 

We must also do more to address the ongoing housing and foreclosure problem.  Tonight, I am announcing several steps to address this issue:  First, in order for the maximum number of home owners to take advantage of historically low interest rates, I am calling for a cap of $1,000 on all fees charged by governmental entities connected with the refinancing of mortgages by homeowners who are current on their payments and have been so for the past 6 months.  Further, I am asking the head of our Commodities Futures Trading Commission, Gary Gensler, to take on a further role in working directly with our nation’s largest lenders to create a program that encourages those lenders and servicers of mortgage debt to work with homeowners who are delinquent to refinance those loans in ways that include writing down principal, allowing for foreclosure and simultaneous rental back to the homeowner or other means to maintain home ownership where appropriate.  Third, I will propose so-called “cram down” legislation that will modify our bankruptcy laws and grant bankruptcy judges the authority to write down principal where such action is deemed in the best interest of the home owner. 

Simply because we are in an election season does not mean we should shirk our responsibilities to the American people.  I am again calling on Congress to immediately extend the payroll tax cut through the end of this year.  Unlike far larger tax cuts that were passed in prior years, ours is fully paid for with offsets and will help 160 million Americans.  In the meantime, I am again extending my hand to Congress to work with me on a long-term, balanced approach to our budget and debt issues that does not take important protections away from the elderly, the poor and children and asks of those who have been fortunate enough to have financial security to contribute their fair share.  Ours should not be a country that believes those who reap dividends and capital gains or utilize off shore tax shelters should benefit when police officers, teachers and firemen are taxed at higher rates.  Further, we cannot remove the very safeguards that have protected our senior citizens from the ravages of poverty and the vagaries of the health insurance system simply because we feel the strain of temporary fiscal pain.  No generation, no President and no Congress should support eliminating Medicare, a program that ensures basic health protection and coverage when we are old and is overwhelmingly supported by the American people, or Social Security, which has done more to rid our nation of poverty among our senior citizens than any other law in our nation’s history. 

This should not be a controversial decision.  In the 1980s, President Reagan worked with a Democratic Congress to raise taxes and make changes to Social Security that were done to improve our fiscal situation and ensure Social Security’s stability for decades to come.  In 1990, President George H.W. Bush also compromised with Democratic leaders to raise some taxes and also to put Congress on a “pay as you go” diet to rein in spending.  When President Clinton modestly raised taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans while making sensible investments in research and development, education, law enforcement and small business, our economy created more than 22 million new jobs.  Some may have forgotten, but when President Clinton left office, our national debt was on pace to be paid off – in full – by 2014.  The Social Security Trust Fund’s surplus ran into the trillions and our budget surplus topped $234 billion.  But when pay go rules were done away with, and tax cuts that primarily benefited the rich were passed, our economy suffered and more importantly, the people least able to bear the damage of recession were impacted.  These policies, along with an unfunded prescription drug plan and a decade of war have left our finances in peril. 

Make no mistake, everyone sitting in this chamber understands that we as a nation cannot continue to make the promises we all agree must be made – to our seniors, to our military and to the middle class that is the backbone of our country – without asking more of those who have the most.  To those who say that compromise is a dirty word, I say that our nation’s history proves you wrong and our nation’s future depends on our ability to find common ground.  We can no more continue to govern by crisis – debt ceiling, annual budget and tax cut extension - than we can govern under the reckless fiscal policies that got us into this mess in the first place.  We need to work together to solve our problems and put partisanship aside.  It was good enough for Reagan and Bush, surely it is good enough for Boehner and McConnell.

Even as we move to secure our nation’s long-term fiscal stability, we cannot short change the investments that must be made to ensure our nation’s long-term competitiveness.  That is why, under the leadership of Secretary Arne Duncan we have incentivized states that are willing to think creatively about ways to improve education.  Our Race to the Top program has attracted new ideas and proposals from dozens of states eager to experiment and think differently about public school education.  We are also providing grants to non-profits and other organizations willing to model Promise Community programs that are based on the wildly successful Harlem Children’s Zone program led by Geoffrey Canada in New York City.  Education does not need to be an either/or prospect of public schools on the one hand and private and charter schools on the other.  What we are showing is that our educational system is broad enough, and competitive enough to house both.  Charter schools are no more a panacea to what ails education than public schools are to blame.  There is good in both and there are also places in both where improvement is needed. 

This is also true of our own halls of government here in Washington, D.C. It is my firm belief that sensible, but not burdensome regulation is necessary and that is why I have advocated for powers like those now held by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and others that were passed as part of our financial reform work in the past Congress.  While some quickly forget that lax regulation and oversight helped cause the financial mess we found ourselves in a few years ago, I would not be upholding the oath of my office were I to ignore this fact and turn a blind eye to the need for financial, environmental and other oversight that ensures our clean air, water, the safety of our food supply and protection against financial predation.  While these protections are no doubt important, I do not advocate regulation for its own sake.  To date, I have approved fewer regulations than my predecessor and my staff and the agencies and cabinet offices carefully vet proposed regulations before allowing them to move forward.  Where we think regulation needs additional input, reconsideration or thought, we are not afraid to say so. 

Similarly, I recently asked Congress to provide authority for me to follow through on a pledge I made last year – to look across the executive branch and determine where greater efficiency and streamlining of government can take place.  A few weeks ago, I proposed the merging of several agencies and offices in an effort to reduce overlap and improve performance.  As we have asked federal workers to accept wage freezes and trimmed overall employment, I would ask Congressional offices to do the same – to look at places where they can be more efficient, spend fewer tax payer dollars and lead by example when it comes to providing our citizens a government that lives within its means.

Our work is of course not limited to the borders of our nation.  The brave men and women who are fighting for us abroad deserve our thanks and praise.  Because of their hard work, we have accomplished enormous things.  Our commitment in Iraq has been brought to an end and the future of that country placed securely in the hands of those who the Iraqi people have chosen to lead them.  Our aggressive pursuit of Al-Qaeda resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden and our intelligence gathering has led to the capture and killing of many other senior level Al Qaeda leaders. As we secure and hold territory in Afghanistan, we are also training Afghani forces to take over when we begin our withdrawal in 2014.  My Administration remains open to working with the Afghani government in negotiating an end to that war under terms well known to Taliban leaders – an acceptance of Afghanistan’s Constitution, a full renunciation of violence and terrorism and a willingness to work within the political process that has now been established.  Ultimately, America cannot dictate Afghanistan’s future, only the Afghani people can, but what we will not do is leave that country as it was before we got there – a terrorist safe haven used to launch attacks on American citizens. 

In other parts of the Middle East, my Administration will continue to work with those forces that are committed to peaceful democratic processes and encourage all governments to respect the rights of its citizens.  At the same time, we will not turn a blind eye to the work being done in Iran, where we are working under the leadership of Secretary Clinton to ensure that sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime remain firm, constricting and compel their government to understand the world does not support its drive for nuclear weaponry.  As we did in marshaling support and a broad based alliance to topple Khadafi’s dictatorship in Libya, we will continue working with allies in the Middle East and at the United Nations to smother Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear bomb. 

Our work will not be done tomorrow, next week, next month, or even during any of our terms of office.  But what we have done in the past three years, and more importantly, what we can do together in the next year, is solidify a foundation upon which the American Dream can be reborn, where our communities are again thriving, our employment base expanding and our faith and belief in the decency, goodness and fairness that is at the core of our country is renewed.  In the last decade, our country suffered through deep trauma, a terrorist attack, war and near economic Depression, but America is coming back because that is what we do.  I hope you will join me in working for all Americans so we can help ensure a better tomorrow.

Thank you and God Bless the United States of America.

Monday, January 16, 2012

2012 Will Be Just Like ....

For the next 10 months, political pundits will twist themselves into knots trying to find an historical analogy for the 2012 election.  Let me save them (and you) some time and go through the usual suspects:

2012 will be just like …. 2004

Why?  A politically polarizing President faces a challenger not beloved by his party but selected because of an amorphous determination of "electability."  In 2004, President Bush ran defending his decision to go into Iraq.  In 2012, President Obama will run defending his decisions on the economy and health care.  In both elections, the country held firm, but divergent views, on the success/failure of those policies.  In both cases, the party out of power nominated (I'm assuming Romney will be the nominee) a person they thought would powerfully rebut the President's weakness (Kerry, a decorated war hero; Romney, a successful businessman), but had (and will have) that purported strength turned against them (Kerry - "swift boated"; Romney - "vulture" capitalist).

Why Not?  Bush did not even win the popular vote in 2000 and thus, was campaigning on a limited field that was likely to result in another close election.  Obama won 53% of the vote in 2008 and cleared 365 electoral votes.  Even if he does not win some states (i.e., Indiana, North Carolina), he's likely to remain competitive in most of the states he won (or almost won, like Arizona and Missouri).  The visceral experience of a nation at war was unique in modern American politics and was used to political advantage by Bush and the Republicans.  Even had Bush made an important course correction on the war, it would not have changed overnight.  Conversely, in 2012, the economy could dramatically improve or tank between now and November, essentially mooting Romney's entire reason for running for President and likely leading to another big Democratic victory (see, 1996) or drowning out any argument in the President's favor (see, 1980).

2012 will be just like …. 1992

Why?  A weak economy sinks the Presidency of a man the country has a positive view of personally, but whose policies they do not agree with.  

Why Not?  Mitt Romney is not Bill Clinton. The only pain Mr. Romney feels is when the landscaping company he hired to tend his massive yard had the temerity to hire illegal aliens, something Mr. Romney told them not to be because, after all, he was running for President.  1992 also marked the end of three consecutive terms in the White House for the Republicans and their policies were ripe for attack by Clinton as having only benefitted the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.  Lastly, absent the entrance of Mike Bloomberg into the race, no credible, "moderate" third-party candidate is likely to siphon off almost 20% of the vote (though most exit polling suggested Perot voters viewed Clinton as a second choice, indicating, if anything, that Clinton's win would have been larger had Perot not been in the race). 

2012 will be just like …. 1980

Why?  The American economy is weak and millions are out of work.  A President elected to flush the system is instead overwhelmed by it, appearing weak and in over his head.  Carter campaigned on honesty and decency in government but was hobbled by chilly relations with Congress, minor scandals, and a stubborn economy that idled while inflation and interest rates went through the roof.  In 2012, a tepid recovery is doing little to stop the steady flow of reporting (and campaigning) about the economic suffering in our country.  The President is portrayed as an amiable novice who is simply not up to the task of getting our economy on the right track.  

Why Not?  Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan.  Even if Romney wins, the chances a conservative tide of Congressional candidates rides in on his coattails is quite small unless the economy craters this year, in which case, there's actually an ok chance that will happen.  Also, unlike 1980 (black swan events notwithstanding), there is no Iran hostage crisis, no 20% interest rates and inflation is largely in check. 

2012 will be just like …. 1948

Why?  A politically wounded but charismatic President will base his re-election on campaigning against a "do nothing" Congress that has blocked his initiatives at every turn.  In the meantime, the opposition nominates a patrician who is bland and acceptable, but does not inspire great enthusiasm among the base. 

Why Not?  First, there's unlikely to be a third-party candidate (or a fourth-party candidate, both of which happened in 1948) to draw votes away from one or the other candidates.  Second, the lack of widespread polling in 1948 failed to detect Truman's late surge.  That will not be the case in 2012.  The primacy of the economy as an issue in 2012 is also in contrast to 1948, where the questions were related to the Cold War and China more so than the economy.  Otherwise, it is actually quite likely that at least part of the President's strategy will be modeled on Truman's re-election campaign.

2012 will be just like …. 1936

Why?  A President elected in the teeth of an economic catastrophe argues for four more years to see his policies through to their conclusion and warns against turning the government back over to the people who created the problem in the first place.  

Why Not?  As a basic matter of results, it is almost impossible to create a scenario that would result in Obama's winning 60% of the popular vote and more than 500 electoral votes.  Also, the depth of the Great Depression was far more severe than the so-called Great Recession and the electorate, at least at the state level, swung strongly toward the Republicans in 2010.  Unlike the mid-1930s, when the foundation of what we now regard as the social safety net was being created, now, there is a growing minority of politicians and Americans who think that safety net is too generous and should be trimmed back.  

2012 will be just like …. 1916

Why? Major party candidates, both of whom are generally pragmatic and moderate, will battle it out in a politically polarized environment where each will attempt to turn subtle differences into major distinctions.  

Why Not?  Entering (or not entering) World War I is not the same as whether more tax cuts or infrastructure investment will grow our economy.  The politics of today are such that even moderate pragmatists will drop millions of dollars into convincing the other guy is the incarnation of Satan. 

2012 will be just like …. 1864
Why?  Actually, this is just a shameless plug for a prior post where I suggested that a couple of major game changers (in 1864, it was Sherman's march to the sea and Grant's steady, anaconda-like choking of Lee) could turn what initially looked like a hopeless cause for the incumbent into a cake walk.  Check it out:

Gun to my head, I'd predict that 2012 has the best chance of looking like either 2004 or 1996 because I think that the economy will show slow, but not dramatic improvement, allowing the President to argue (1) that his policies helped stave off economic ruin; (2) that the economy is improving (in 2011 alone, nearly 2 million new private sector jobs.  Add another 2 million or so new jobs in 2012 and you've got a decent argument); and (3) that he inherited a mess brought on by the policies that Governor Romney is espousing (not to mention being advised by many Bush Administration officials who helped create the mess).  If the economy picks up steam, there's little policy ground for Republicans to occupy, as was the case in 1996, when President Clinton waltzed to re-election.  

On the other hand, if the economy does not pick up steam, stalls or goes back into recession, the obvious analogy will be 1980, not based on the personalities (at least not of Romney as a latter-day Reagan) but on the politics and the policy - that an inexperienced incumbent was unable to improve the economy.  Writing in early 2012, and channeling Nate Silver, I would put the chances of Obama squeezing out a modest-healthy electoral victory of between 270-325 electoral votes at 50%, of Romney winning a similar victory at 25%, a major Obama electoral victory of more than 325 electoral votes at about 15% and a Romney win of that size at 10%.  Ultimately, a slow but steadily improving economy combined with Obama's massive money advantage will, in my view, carry the day.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Black Swans & Known Unknowns - The Race for President, 2012

The 2012 campaign is going to be a long one.  While the year ahead will no doubt have some twists and turns along the way, these five issues will go a long way toward telling us who will occupy the White House on January 20, 2013.  

The Economy. Simply put, an improving economy with positive monthly job numbers and an unemployment rate on the decline makes President Obama's re-election all but assured.  Conversely, a slowing economy with choppy job numbers and continued uncertainty would make it far less likely he will get another four years.  The wild card here is Congress.  Congressional Republicans took it on the chin during the payroll tax cut debate and now, with 200,000 jobs added in December and the unemployment rate gradually declining, they will need to make a difficult calculation about whether it makes sense to compromise with the President or risk being portrayed as trying to suffocate the nascent recovery. 

The President is not without other tools in his political tool box either.  He can continue to push for the American Jobs Act, make another attempt at a "grand bargain" targeted at long-term deficit reduction and promote tax reform that is crafted in a way that ensures wealthy Americans pay more.  Moreover, and as he has already done with the recess appointment of Richard Cordray, he can begin to push back against Wall Street excess.  Romney's economic message will be largely reactive.  Attacks on things like the stimulus bill and "Obamacare" are largely baked into the cake at this point - few minds are going to be changed about the efficacy or folly of these large pieces of legislation. The overriding power of the monthly unemployment figures and, to a lesser extent, the gyrations of the stock market, predicate whether Romney will be able to make a case about the President's management of the economy.   
A Third Party Candidate.  New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is in his final term in office, has a net worth north of $1 billion and access to a part line ("Americans Elect") that is likely to be on the ballot in all 50 states.  He has many of Mitt Romney's attributes - wealth, success in business, a non-Democrat leading a heavily Democratic electorate - along with more progressive views on social issues.  How Bloomberg would hold up under the spotlight of a national campaign and whether the American people would be willing to vote into office a man without a party is of course unknowable, but Bloomberg's wealth, hybrid political posture (fiscally conservative, socially liberal), and willingness to go head-to-head across the country would make the election the most volatile since Teddy Roosevelt assumed leadership of the Bull Moose Party 100 years ago.

A more realistic scenario would be if Ron Paul decided to run as a Libertarian candidate.  Paul has polled well in the first two Republican contests, particularly in New Hampshire, where he more than tripled his tally from 2008.  He's nearing 80, has already decided to not run for re-election to the House and may think this is his last chance to impact public policy.  If Paul polls at 15% as a third-party candidate he also gets a very valuable invitation to the Presidential debates, where an audience of nearly 100 million would be available to him.  While some pundits have suggested that Paul will not run third-party to avoid any blowback against his son Rand, who may seek the Republican nomination in the future, I don't find this argument persuasive.  If Romney wins in 2012, the next opportunity for Rand Paul to run for President will be 2020, several lifetimes in politics.  Conversely, if Romney loses, the 2016 race is going to attract any and every politician in elected office and I doubt primary voters will hold it against Rand Paul that his dad decided to run as a Libertarian.  Lastly, it is entirely possible that the strain of conservative thought that the Pauls represent may be a spent force in four (or eight) years.  The iron is hot, I Dr. Paul will strike  it if he thinks he can get into the debate with Romney and Obama.  

The Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is set to inject itself directly into the 2012 election by issuing rulings in the next six months on three hot button issues: immigration, redistricting and, of course, health care reform.  That these cases will be decided is a given, the question is how these cases will be decided and what the political fallout will be. Rulings that permit states to more aggressively engage in law enforcement activity to identify and arrest illegal immigrants will likely inflame Hispanic activists and could hurt Republicans (Romney has already come out against the DREAM Act).  As for redistricting, whether the Court rejects a neutrally drafted map for the Texas delegation may impact control of the House of Representatives.  Lastly, health care looms as the 800-pound gorilla and is likely to be the last opinion issued of the term.  If the Court upholds the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, the national dialogue around health care will dramatically change.  Not only will it eliminate the uncertainty of its implementation, but upholding the law, by definition, would require the acquiescence of at least one of the conservative justices on the court, diluting arguments about judicial activism. If the Court strikes down either the individual mandate specifically, or, in striking that down, strikes the entire law, one of the most powerful rallying points for Republican activists will be eliminated. 

That these rulings will impact the Presidential race is without question, but a more tantalizing (if morbid) possibility exists that one (or more) vacancies may occur smack dab in the middle of the general election.  I say this not because I am rooting for the death, incapacity or retirement of any of the justices, regardless of how vehemently I disagree with some of their legal views, but rather, am looking at the situation realistically - there are 4 Supreme Court justices in their 70s - Justice Ginsberg (78), Justice Scalia (75), Justice Kennedy (75) and Justice Breyer (73).  Justice Ginsberg has had several serious illnesses and Justice Breyer, having been nominated to the bench by a Democrat, may want to give President Obama an opportunity to appoint his successor and not run the risk of stepping down during a Romney Administration (Justice O'Connor famously lamented at a 2000 Election Night party that, when it appeared Vice President Gore was going to win, she would have to stay on the bench for four more years).  Perhaps Justice Kennedy, if he, casts the deciding vote upholding the Affordable Care Act, might decide to bow out at the end of the Court's term.  

A retirement at the end of the current court session in June would obviously play differently than an unexpected vacancy in October.  Nevertheless, and particularly if one of the justices from the conservative wing is no longer on the bench, a Supreme Court vacancy in 2012 would make any confirmation not just "must-see" TV but an opportunity to see whether Republicans do the unthinkable and filibuster a Supreme Court nominee to stop President Obama from filling a seat in hopes he loses in November. Consider that LBJ's attempted elevation of Abe Fortas to the Chief Justice's slot in 1968 ran aground on ethics concerns and ultimately, the chair was vacant until Richard Nixon was elected.  Had LBJ gotten a Chief Justice through while he was still President, no Burger Court would have happened, and, depending on how long that man or woman served, perhaps no Rehnquist Court either. This is a black swan that could potentially dominate the news cycle like few others.  
The Middle East.  The "Middle East" is admittedly a broad term that encompasses everything from what will happen in Egypt to whether or not Iran goes nuclear and how we close out the Afghanistan war.  Whether this area remains relatively stable or completely blows up could dramatically impact our politics.  Just this week, a place that was probably unknown to most Americans (the Straits of Hormuz) suddenly made the front page because Iran threatened to close access to it and thereby, squeezing our oil supplies.  A huge spike in gas prices could suffocate our economy and drive us toward another recession.  On the other hand, implementing additional United Nations sanctions might get Iran to the table to negotiate an end to their nuclear ambitions (which would be a huge coup for Obama).  

Other hot spots include Egypt, where the intangible of elections and whether the Army will legitimately give up power hang in the balance.  How Syria is resolved could play a huge role not just with Iran but also have smaller repercussions in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.  Speaking of Israel, how (or if) it interacts with the Palestinians, the new leaders in Egypt and what it does about Iran's nuclear ambitions will all factor into the stability of the region.  If our government's attempts to bring the Taliban to the peace table proceed and an agreement to end that war progresses, that would be a further feather in the President's cap.  On the other hand, if the Taliban rejects peace talks and continues to inflict damage on our troops, the war will continue to be front and center in our foreign policy.  Finally, Pakistan looms in the background, with an actual nuclear arsenal and a populace that is becoming ever more anti-American.  If even one of these tinder boxes suddenly explodes, the ramifications on our presidential politics will be enormous. 

Unknown Unknowns.  In 1980, the Reagan campaign was worried about a so-called "October Surprise" - that the Carter Administration would negotiate the release of the hostages in Iran - and torpedo Reagan's chances for victory.  It never happened and Reagan won.  Since then, other election year events came out of nowhere and impacted the election.  In 1992, members of the Bush State Department leaked information about Bill Clinton's passport and travel to the Soviet Union while Clinton was at Oxford.  In 2000, Elian Gonzalez washed up on the shores of Florida and dominated the headlines for weeks on end (one can only speculate on whether the nighttime raid by FBI agents that resulted in little Elian being returned to Cuba impacted Gore in Florida), in 2004, Osama Bin Laden released audio tapes in the week leading up to the election and of course, in 2008, the financial industry melted down 8 weeks before Americans went to the ballot booth.  None of those incidents was foreseen or could have been predicated, yet they happened anyway and each impacted the final outcome of the election.  

In 2012, any number of "unknown unknowns" could affect the presidential race.  What if Chief Justice Roberts, who has had health problems in the past, were to die in office (or become incapacitated?).  What if North Korea opens itself up to the rest of the world?  What if Obama flips Biden and Clinton in his cabinet?  What if the economy spikes and grows at 5-6%? Or home prices suddenly rebound?  What if a peace treaty is signed with the Taliban?  What if we have another terrorist attack on the U.S.?  The weird thing about our world today is that it feels like not just one, but several "unknown unknown" might happen.  These unpredictable events may overshadow and overwhelm the ordinary political discourse and make other "predictable" events seem minor in comparison.  

In 2008, McCain had overtaken Obama in the days leading up to the financial crisis but when it hit, Obama's sober, grounded response was in stark comparison to McCain's hysterics (suspending his campaign, threatening not to show up to a debate, calling for a meeting at the White House with President Bush and then saying little during it, etc.).  For all intents and purposes, that week or so sealed McCain's fate and handed Obama the presidency.  While we have no way of knowing what will happen, Obama's position as incumbent will, in most cases, work to his benefit if for no other reason than the natural inclination to depoliticize crises and rally around the President.  

So buckle up, folks.  It's going to be a bumpy (and long) ride.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mr. Brady Fights Back

President Obama’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray as Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as three members of the National Labor Relations Board got me thinking about a classic Brady Bunch episode.  In A Fistful of Reasons  (Season 2, Episode 8), Cindy is teased by a bully named Buddy Hinton because of her lisp[1].  When older brother Peter tries to mediate, Buddy gives him a black eye.  When Mr. Brady counsels Peter to attempt “calm, cool reasoning” with Buddy, it does not work and Mr. Brady’s attempt to get Buddy’s dad to get Buddy to stop is similarly unsuccessful.  So dismissive is the Hinton clan that Peter is finally told he needs to fight back, which he does, knocking one of Buddy’s teeth loose and subjecting him to the ridicule and scorn of his classmates[2].

I have often thought that President Obama has been leading with a mini Mike Brady on his shoulder, constantly whispering “calm, cool reasoning” into his ear on everything from health care to financial reform, from the debt ceiling debate to the federal budget.  For all of Mr. Obama’s attempts at conciliation, he’s gotten beat up a little worse each time he attempts to avoid a fight.   Part of it probably had something to do with the President’s 2008 campaign, and his desire to lower the partisan rancor once he was elected.  Another part may simply be his natural inclination toward compromise (not necessarily a bad thing, mind you) and a desire to find a middle ground solution that respects disparate views and differing opinions.  Whatever the reasons, it seems clear that the President is done turning the other cheek. 

Bullies only respond when you punch back, and the President is punching back.  For nearly three years, Republicans in Congress have done everything in their power to stop the President from implementing his policies.  The record is replete with examples from meaningless procedural votes to stall legislation to holding up confirmations of senior executive branch officials for months on end only to have those holds removed and the nominees approved by overwhelming majorities.  As I discussed in a prior post, President Obama and the Congress of Doom, important pieces of legislation that keep the government running and our ability to borrow to pay (past) bills, are now subject to “hostage taking” tactics that imperil the government’s ability to function and are only resolved when substantial concessions Republicans would not otherwise be able to achieve through the normal legislative process, are granted.

Perhaps the final straw for the President was the filibustering of the Public Printer (GAO) or the denial of an up or down vote on Caitlin Halligan’s appointment to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the shenanigans and non-sense that Republicans have thrown out there is no longer being humored by the President.  Firm pushback will be needed for the legislative battles to come, as 2012 will see the expiration of all the so-called “Bush Tax Cuts,” the 2013 federal budget and the potential sequestration cuts that target the Department of Defense and other agencies.  On a more granular level, the President needs to force Senate Republicans to honor the “Gang of 14” compromise and no longer filibuster judicial nominees and, if necessary, Senator Reid needs to move for changes to the cloture process to stop these stalling tactics. 

For the mainstream media, this sudden dust-up is just another narrative that they insert into the “conflictinator” framed as a Presidential “declaration of war” on Congress or a sign that the President is ready to “do battle.”  Of course, this media narrative has both the advantage of sensationalism and the disadvantage of being factually incorrect[3].  Republican use of the threat of the filibuster has been invoked in more instances than at any other time in the modern history of the Senate.  The blocking of Mr. Cordray, as some, to their credit have noted, had nothing to do with his qualifications, but rather, after-the-fact changes Senate Republicans wanted to the law creating the CFPB itself – a rationale never before used in the history of that august institution to block a nominee from serving.  That this level of intransigence is somehow transformed into the common meme of “Washington dysfunction” does the body politic great harm because it suggests that both sides are at fault, when in fact, the President’s judicious use of the recess appointment (now 32 times, compared to more than 170 under George W. Bush and 243 under Ronald Reagan) speaks to the caution and deference he has attempted to employ in dealing with the Senate. 

Of course, asking the mainstream media, which has largely morphed from a news gathering and reporting entity into a stenographic pool for political talking points, to accurately report this information is probably asking too much.  When stories are written about a lagging job market, rarely do you hear that stimulative measures like infrastructure funding are being bottled up in Congress or that private sector growth is not what is dragging down the recovery, but rather, that the historic number of public sector job losses[4] are helping to keep our unemployment numbers high.  Other stories having to do with the regulatory light hand the Obama Administration has used[5] are either limited to coverage in the liberal blogosphere or ignored entirely when politicians appear on cable news talk shows railing against the overly burdened private sector.  To suggest that there are provable right or wrong answers to questions would crater the current political atmosphere that feeds entirely on conflict and a “he said/she said” discourse that refuses to acknowledge the accuracy or falsehood of one side’s claims.

As for the President, I encourage him to continue fighting back against the entrenched opposition on Capitol Hill.  Polls consistently show not only the popularity of policies the President is advancing[6] but also an understanding that Congressional Republicans are largely at fault for Washington gridlock.  Instead of timidly negotiating, the President needs to stay on the offensive.  Politicians have a strong survival instinct, and Republicans on the ballot this year understand that lockstep opposition to politically popular ideas is a losing proposition.  Small fissures are already being seen.  For example, Senator Scott Brown chastised his own party for blocking Cordray’s nomination, and, with regard to the payroll tax cut, a number of House and Senate Republicans in difficult re-election races came out in support of the compromise before Speaker Boehner finally capitulated.  Ultimately, if the President turns the heat up on job creation, infrastructure spending and tax policy that benefits the middle class, Republicans in tight races will do the political calculus and understand they do not want to be vulnerable to charges that they are impeding nascent economic growth or raising taxes on middle class families but protecting the wealthy. 

So fire away, Mr. President.  Calm, cool reasoning has not worked, no one will begrudge you taking a big old swing at the loyal opposition.

[1]   Viewers may recall Buddy’s signature line “Baby talk … Baby Talk .. It’s a wonder you can walk.”
[2]   Although Peter, to his credit, tells the students to knock it off.
[3]   Sadly, the latter does not seem to matter much to journalists these days.
[4]   Nearing 1 million in the last two years.
[5]   Obama has approved fewer regulations than President George W. Bush had at the same point in his presidency and the cost of regulations is half of what they were at their peak, under President George H.W. Bush.
[6]   To take just one example, a December 2010 CBS News poll indicated that 60% of all Americans, and 43% of Republican primary voters, supported raising taxes on millionaires.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

12 Essential Mad Men Episodes (and 4 More For True Fans)

With the fifth season premiere of Mad Men in sight, if you need to catch up on past seasons, or are new to the show (but don't have time to watch all 52 episodes), here are my suggestions for three "must see" episodes from each of the first four seasons and a few "honorable mentions" if you want to drill a little deeper:

Season One

Babylon (Episode Six)
Why it's important:  Peggy's nascent copywriting skills emerge as she coins the iconic term "basket of kisses" after she and a group of secretaries complete a sampling of Belle Jolie lipstick colors.  Roger and Joan's affair is revealed.  We witness the first flashback to Dick Whitman's childhood and experience the birth of his younger brother Adam. Betty recalls her first kiss, with a Jewish boy she describes as "gloomy." The first cracks in Don's relationship with Midge emerge as he discovers she is also involved with a beatnik in the Village. 

The Hobo Code (Episode Eight)
Why it's important:  The distillation of Don's hardscrabble upbringing is explained - he's a "whore child" whose father is a "dishonest man."  Meanwhile, his step-mother is a god-fearing Christian who barely acknowledges him.  Pete and Peggy continue their affair and Peggy's copy for Belle Jolie is approved by the client, resulting in her being invited into Don's office for a celebratory drink. Sal acknowledges his homosexuality to one of the Belle Jolie directors, but declines his invitation to the man's hotel room. Don realizes that Midge loves another man but signs over a $2500 bonus check to her as he leaves. This episode also has a classic "Draperism" - "There is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent" and a famous line from his stepmother (in describing life): "it's fat in the middle, open on both ends and hard all the way through." No wonder the poor kid changed his identity.

Nixon v. Kennedy (Episode Twelve)
Why it's important:  Pete attempts to blackmail Don into making him head of accounts by threatening to tell Bert Cooper about Don's desertion from the Korean War.  Don displays what will become a pattern throughout the show and decides to flee, asking Rachel Mencken to leave with him to Los Angeles.  She demurs, and Don refuses to give into Pete's request.  Pete divulges Don's secret to Bert Cooper, who shows no interest in it and gives Don permission to fire Pete (which he does not do).  A flashback shows us the incident that resulted in Dick Whitman switching dog tags with a deceased Don Draper and assuming his identity.

Honorable Mention - The Wheel (Episode Thirteen)
Why it's important:  Contains perhaps the single most famous scene in the history of the show, the "Kodak Carousal" pitch.  If you want to skip the rest of this episode, just go on YouTube and watch that three minute scene, it's classic.  Otherwise, Peggy is both promoted to junior copywriter and gives birth to Pete's child (which also explained her noticeable weight gain during the season).  Don finds out that Adam committed suicide after Don snubbed him and, in the season's final scenes, the writers juxtapose Don's imagined life where the family spends Thanksgiving together, with his actual life, where he blew off Betty and her family and returns to an empty home.

Season Two

The Gold Violin (Episode Seven)
Why it's important: Jimmy Barrett tells Betty that Don and Bobbi have been having an affair. A flashback introduces Anna Draper and we learn that Don was once a used car salesman.  After purchasing a new Cadillac, Betty vomits in it on the way home from the party celebrating Jimmy's new TV show. Sal's wife feels unloved and unwanted by Sal when Ken Cosgrove visits for dinner. Roger intervenes in a personnel dispute when Joan fires Jane after discovering she snuck into Bert's office after hours.  This episode is a pivot point in the Draper marriage - from here on out, Betty will never again fully trust him and the disintegration of their marriage picks up substantial speed.  It also lays the foundation for Roger's eventual marriage to Jane. 

The Mountain King (Episode Twelve)
Why it's important:  Having escaped New York and left Pete at a convention in California, Don visits Anna and vents his frustration at ruining his marriage, expressing regret for the first time over his actions.  Don's self-awareness is bracing, he describes his attempts to claw his way into his own life and fear that he is alone in the world.  His visit to Anna is also interspersed with flashbacks to their relationship at the time Don met Betty. Meanwhile, Sterling Cooper agrees to be acquired by Putnam, Powell & Lowe, allowing Duck Phillips to angle himself into what he thinks will be operational control over Sterling Cooper.  Most disturbingly, Joan is sexually assaulted by her fiancĂ© Greg in Don's office after hours. 

Meditations in an Emergency (Episode Thirteen)
Why it's important:  Don comes back and although he doesn't admit his infidelity, apologizes to Betty for being "disrespectful" toward her. Betty learns she is pregnant (the result of a one off liaison with Don while they visited her ill father) and, after engaging in some revenge sex with a guy she picks up at a bar, allows Don to come home. At the meeting to discuss the new direction of Sterling Cooper as a part of PPL, Duck tries to assert his authority, but is cut off at the knees when Don threatens to quit. This episode also has what is probably the second most famous scene in show history - an intimate and powerful scene between Peggy and Pete that takes place against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis and risk of nuclear war where Peggy tells Pete that he got her pregnant and that she gave the baby up for adoption.  A haunting image of Pete, alone in the office with a rifle in his hands, is followed by an equally difficult scene of Don and Betty at the Draper family table, awkwardly coming to grips with the fact that they are again going to be parents. 

Honorable Mention - The New Girl (Episode Five)
Why it's important:  Don and Bobbi get into a bad car accident and Peggy comes to their rescue.  Peggy's willingness to house Bobbi while she recovers and keep Don's secret is a key building block in their deepening bond.  Bobbi also imparts some words of wisdom to Peggy about how to succeed as a woman in the business world.  The character of Jane Siegel is introduced as a replacement for Joan as Don's secretary. 

Season Three

My Old Kentucky Home (Episode Three)
Why it's important:  Betty meets Henry Francis at a "Derby Day" party thrown by Roger and Jane Sterling. Don meets Conrad Hilton at the same party and they bond over their similarly trying upbringings and distaste for "old money" types who throw lavish parties for themselves.  This episode also underscores the deepening stratification in the office, where Pete, Ken and Harry are now closer to upper management, while Peggy, Kinsey and Smitty are working over the weekend to prepare copy.  At the office, they get high with one of Kinsey's college buddies. 

Seven Twenty-Three (Episode Seven)
Why it's important:  It does what great Mad Men episodes do - it explores the inner conflict and turmoil characters experience.  Here, the story is told almost entirely in flashback, beginning at the end result of what unfolds during the rest of the episode. Peggy is wooed by Duck Phillips to join him at Gray.  She declines, but ends up sleeping with him and feels guilty about it afterward.  Betty continues her flirtation with Henry, and purchases a "fainting couch" that she places in the middle of her family room, masturbating on it while thinking of Henry. Hilton won't sign with Sterling Cooper unless Don has a contract, which he initially refuses to sign.  During a drunken late night drive, he picks up a couple who drug and rob him.  He signs the contract after Bert, leveraging his knowledge of Don's secret past, reminds him that signing really means nothing because after all, "who's really signing" the contract? 

Shut the Door. Have a Seat. (Episode Thirteen)
Why it's important:  This episode is all about death and renewal.  The death of Sterling Cooper as we had come to know it over the first three seasons of Mad Men, as Don, Roger, Bert and Lane conspire to flee and start their own agency ahead of the impending merger with McCann.  The completion of Don's backstory, as we witness, along with young Dick Whitman, Archibald Whitman's death from a horse's kick to the head as he prepares to sell his wheat at market for next to nothing in an attempt to save his farm.  We see renewal in the recruitment of Pete and Peggy to the new agency, Joan's return to handle logistics and office management, and in the episode's closing shot, where Don, having ok'd Betty's temporary move to Reno to secure a divorce (with Henry and Baby Gene in tow) looks out to the open hotel room at The Pierre, where the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency is busy at work. 

Honorable Mention - The Gypsy and the Hobo (Episode Eleven)
Why it's important:  Simply put, it's the worst day of Don Draper's life.  It's the day when he is confronted by his wife not about his infidelity, but about his manufactured past. The long scene between Betty and Don is as devastating and gut wrenching as you would expect, but once he's caught, Don does not try to hide his past and explains it with a poignancy that will be explained in Season Four, when he tells Anna that once Betty knew who he really was, she wanted nothing to do with him.  

Season Four

I wrote a full season recap for Season Four:
(, but suggest these episodes if you're interested:

The Rejected (Episode Four)
Why it's important:  Pregnant with meaning and subtext, the writers reward long-time viewers with a great storyline around Trudy's pregnancy and the unspoken past affair between Pete and Peggy.  More broadly, it explores the theme of youth in the 1960s and Peggy's place in it, being hit on by a gay woman and kissing a man she meets at a house party.  Pete flexes his account management muscles by pressuring Trudy's father to agree to give SCDP more of Vick's Chemical Company's advertising business.  Don's secretary Allison is brought to tears during a focus group convened by Dr. Miller when elliptically referring to Don and quits. The end of this episode contains an amazing tracking shot as Peggy and her crew of young friends are entering the elevator outside the office and she catches Pete's eye as he stands with the older executives from Vick's Chemical.  Their glance is knowing and poignant, a mutual recognition that something that passed between them will never be again. 

The Suitcase (Episode Seven)
Why it's important:  One of the five best episodes of the entire series and one of the three most important, The Suitcase takes place on Peggy's 26th birthday, which, instead of celebrating at dinner with her boyfriend and family, she spends alternately fighting with, tending for and sharing personal information with Don, who won't let her leave work because he cannot stand to be alone to call California and hear what he already knows is true - his rock, his ballast, the "only person who ever understood" him has died - Anna Draper. The episode's denouement occurs in the wee hours of the morning, when Don sees the ghost of Anna Draper in his office, she nods approvingly at the passing of his oversight to Peggy Olsen and heads to the great beyond.  

The Beautiful Girls (Episode Nine)
Why it's important:  Strong social commentary on the plight of women in the mid-1960 and a harbinger of the struggles ahead.  Sally runs away from home and lands in Don's office, Dr. Faye shows she cannot be a mother figure (but Megan does - to great effect later in the season), Peggy finds a socialist rabble rouser to be pushy and aggressive, but also naive and paternalistic, and Joan ends up getting impregnated by Roger after a heat of the moment liaison that follows their being mugged on the streets of New York City. Oh, and the silent shot of Joan, Peggy and Dr. Faye in the elevator at the end of the episode, each lost in their own disappointment, is priceless.

Honorable Mention - Tomorrowland (Episode Thirteen)  
Why it's important:  It tees up Season 5.  Don uses Anna's engagement ring to ask Megan to marry him.  Betty whines about wanting a new life and Henry basically tells her to "grow up." Peggy lands a new account just when SCDP is on the ropes and gets lost in the undertow of Don's engagement (Joan is not impressed).