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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Let the Recriminations Begin

Winning and Losing

In the cold, grey aftermath of the drubbing Democrats received on Tuesday, President Obama is too reserved, too buttoned down and too cool to use, at least in public, the language of a long ago unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the California Legislature. But, he must be thinking what Dick Tuck once said.

Tuck was a political operative and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” who bedeviled Richard Nixon and once opened his own State Senate race with a speech in a cemetery. Dead people needed a voice in politics, too, he said.

After a Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, Tuck paid an elderly women to approach Nixon and say: “Don’t worry, son. He beat you last night, but you’ll win next time.” Good stuff, but not as good as his classic quote.

After his State Senate loss in 1966, Tuck said at his concession, “the people have spoken…the bastards.” Obama must feel something similar, but his now well-established detachment – is that part of his problem – keeps him from expressing such sentiments and showing any genuine emotion.

As we total up the winners and losers from the Democratic debacle this week, the now profoundly challenged Obama heads the “L” column. As much as he has been tested by a controversial preacher, Hillary Clinton, a Great Recession and two wars, his political challenges are just beginning. Adversity can make or break a politician. This is Obama’s political test.

The best – and most successful politicians – have an knack for self reflection; an ability to check and recalibrate long held assumptions. Obama has a tendency to describe all circumstances he faces in terms of a policy choice, but what he faces is fundamentally a leadership challenge. We will see soon enough if he is up to the challenge.

Here is one suggestion. Before too much time passes, Obama should get Speaker-to-be John Boehner on the golf course. Seriously. Boehner loves the game – Golf Digest lists him as the 36th best golfer in Washington – and Obama loves to play, as well. It’s more difficult to talk past some guy you’ve played 18 with, even if he gives you strokes and then beats you. Seriously.

Closer to home a big winner this week is the once and future Governor of Oregon John Kitzhaber. With a deep red tide running nationally, Kitzhaber grabbed a narrow win, the first third term in Oregon history and a chance to make a mark on Oregon’s feeble economy. As noted here in the past, comebacks are hard – particularly for former governors, but Kitzhaber joins former and future Governors Jerry Brown in California and Terry Branstad in Iowa as some of the comeback kids in this cycle.

There are many, many Republican winners this week – Boehner, Haley Barbour, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Idaho’s Mike Simpson (new Appropriations and EPA oversight clout), Oregon’s Greg Walden (Boehner’s transition leader) and on and on, but in raw political terms there is no bigger winner among the many Democratic losers than Harry Reid.

Considering the dynamics of Reid’s race and the fact that he is loathed by many of his constituents, the fact that he survived against a Tea Party rival, even one as fundamentally flawed as a candidate as Sharron Angle, is remarkable. Steve Friess writes at The Daily Beast that Reid won the old fashioned way by running a dogged, determined campaign that left no detail unattended.

“By the time he strolled onto the stage on Tuesday arm-in-arm with wife Landra wearing a Cheshire Cat grin,” Friess writes, “all of Reid’s best-laid plans had gone perfectly and he had not only won but done so convincingly.”

But, back to that jokester Dick “The Voters Have Spoken” Tuck. Maybe we could use some of his mostly harmless good humor in our current polarized political culture.

Time magazine noted back in 1973 that Tuck briefly attached himself to then-Sen. George McGovern’s presidential campaign against Nixon, but as it turned out with limited success.

“McGovern did not seem to appreciate a good joke much more than Nixon,” Time reported. “When [Nixon] and some fat cats were about to pay a visit to [Nixon’s Treasury Secretary] John Connally’s ranch, Tuck proposed sending a Brink’s armored car to the scene followed by a Mexican laundry truck. But the McGovernites vetoed the suggestion.”

In place of the ultra-nasty political air wars we’ve all endured, we could use a few more clever, not mean, political pranks like Tuck’s. Humor in politics is a good thing.

Here’s wishing – for both winners and losers on Tuesday – that they find a way to add a little humor to the necessary post-election self reflection and that a healthy dose of modesty now replace the bombast and hyperbole. And, of course, no talking during the back swing.

A bitter election and the serious problems confronting the country now demand the best of all of this week’s survivors.

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