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State of the State Advice: Try for Understated

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If something seems funny about Jerry Brown’s first State of the State Address tonight (well, his first SOS this time around), you’re not imagining things.

Traditionally, a California governor gives the big speech within the first two weeks of January. The roll-out goes something like this: Stage of the State on Monday or Tuesday, big bad budget announcement on Thursday, q&a at the Sacramento Press on Friday, then four-and-a-half weeks of tedium until the budget’s “May Revise” (translation: adjusting the January forecast for the reality of April revenues).

So why would Brown break with standard operating procedure, and opt instead to give an address closer to Groundhog Day than national hangover-and-college-bowl day?

My guess:

1) Practical Politics. Assuming Brown gives a lengthier oration than his 17-minute inaugural address back on Jan. 3, then it’s safe to say he’ll get into more than the sad state of California’s fiscal affairs. Twenty-seven days ago, this would have been a problem as it would have risked overshadowing priorities number one, two and three for the new Brown administration: convincing enough legislative Democrats and Republicans to get on board with a package of spending cuts and tax cuts, then getting said package on the ballot by mid-March, for a June special election. Sure, Brown will start with the budget tonight. But part of the fun is figuring where he goes after that. For nearly four weeks, it’s been all budget mess, all the time. The governor’s made his point. Now it’s safe to broaden the conversation.

2) Practical Mechanics. Having written a few of these speeches myself (for Pete Wilson, back in the late ’90’s), I can assure you that Brown would have had yet another problem had he tried this back on, oh say, Jan. 9 or so. In drafting the SOS, you look for input from the governor’s appointees out in Agencyland. Moreover, you need those appointees to fact-check what assertions you choose. In case you haven’t noticed, this governor hasn’t been in a rush to fill those vacancies. Imagine the fun of this:“So today I’m calling on my Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing to . . . Huh? What’s that? I don’t have a BT&H secretary.  Hey, skip that thought.” It was amusing when the governor lost his way in his inaugural. We called it quirky. Less amusing if it happens again. He’d look downright disorganized.

3) Practical Magic. We expect our leaders to show vision.  Done majestically, like Ronald Reagan, and we fall in love. Done skillfully, like Barack Obama, and we’re willing to give a first-term senator with scant achievement the benefit of the doubt. Jerry Brown is unusual in this regard: he breezed through last year’s gubernatorial race and his early days office with little emphasis on the future. Californians chose not so much a chief executive last fall as a CFO — someone to make sense of California’s finances. With tonight’s address, Brown now gets a promotion: to CEO. Tell us where you see California five years from now, sir, not five months.

A couple of other thoughts, from the ex-speechwriter’s peanut gallery:

1) It wouldn’t kill Brown to say a few words about the unrest in Egypt. Simply because it’s a reminder that people are willing to risk their lives for freedom. A lot of words have been devoted on this blog and others to the running-down of the state of democracy in California. I’d like to see the governor remind us that our system, though flawed, is precious nonetheless.

2) McKinley Elementary. If you haven’t been following the saga of this struggling school in Compton, I suggest you read up on it. Parents at school have attempted to use California’s “Parent Trigger” law to rescue their kids from the clutches from a chronically failing public-ed system. Compton Unified, in return, has done its best (or worst) to keep McKinley from being converted into a charter school. Noticeably absent in this debate: the new governor (and Kamala Harris and Barack Obama). If Jerry Brown wants to prove that he’s a common-sense education reformer, here’s a good place to start.

Rhetorically, less can be more

3) Brevity. For goodness sake, brevity. President Obama’s State of the Union speech was a sprawling, attention-challenging 62 minutes in length — it look Lincoln less than three minutes to deliver his Gettysburg Address. It started as a theme (“Win the Future” . . . yes, “WTF” for those of you who like to speak in Internet code). It turned into a back-and-forth on all things focus-grouped. The president reached out to his base, he reached out to spending skeptics. He hugged teachers. He saluted the military. He sent a shout-out to gay donors (“don’t ask, don’t tell”) . . . he quickly pivoted and called for expanding ROTC on college campuses. And so it went. A State of the Union, yes — if you define “union” as swing voters in Ohio and Florida. Gov. Brown’s inaugural address was, for all practical matters, the budget part of tonight’s speech. He can devote less time to it tonight, if he likes, and more to that elusive vision.

Then again, I thought Obama could have delivered a different speech last week — devoted entirely, as Brown did in sticking to the budget, not to the state of the union but to the state of Washington’s finances (the President facing a mid-February face-off on the budget, and a debt-ceiling pas de deux beginning in March). Once he settled the debt ceiling, the president could have marched back to the Hill for that “WTF” agenda.

There’s no need for 62 minutes of consternation, triangulation and self-adulation in Sacramento tonight. Jerry Brown should strive for quality, not quantity.

A State of the State that’s . . . tastefully understated.

Written by Bill Whalen

January 31, 2011 at 8:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

SOTU: Bottoms Up!!

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San Francisco-based comedian Will Durst has a most humorous column about President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union Address. He sees it las less a speech and more a drinking game — as such, a sad commentary not on the state of the union, but the state of political stagecraft.

Example:

“Whenever the president defends Obamacare, everybody drinks 2 shots of beer. If he mentions Congress voting to repeal it, drink a whole beer and throws hot dogs at the television. The first person to hit Nancy Pelosi in the head is exempt from having to drink 2 shots of bourbon.

If the president relates a touching heartfelt story of a supporter who was denied a decent education, Rags gets to kick everybody else once. Twice, if the subject of the anecdote is in the audience. 3 times, if he/she is sitting next to a two-star general.”

So who’s to blame for this serious moment in democracy to be taken all the less seriously?

You can pin some of it on Woodrow Wilson, who made it a practice, starting back in 1913, to venture up to Capitol Hill and deliver the message in person. Before that, most presidents literally mailed it in to Congress — all the president’s legally required to do is inform Congress “from time to time”. He can deliver his speech, post a letter, send an email, or spray-paint his thoughts on the side of the U.S. Capitol. It’s the president’s call.

Or you can blame FDR, who coined the phrase “State of the Union” back in 1934. Before that, the big speech was “The President’s Annual Message to Congress”. Try bracketing and overselling that to the White House press corps.

Harry Truman was the first president to take the SOTU to television. Let’s toss him under the bus — along with LBJ, who was the first president to deliver the address in prime time.

Even Ronald Reagan is partly to blame, for theatrics.

His 1982 address featured high praise for Lenny Skutnik, one of the heroes of the Air Florida crash and rescue operation in the Potomac River. Since then, the “hero” has become a familiar (and, imo, a far-too-predictable) prop in the speech. Tonight’s no different, as Daniel Hernandez, the lifesaving intern to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, will be seated next to the First Lady.

So here’s what you’re probably getting tonight: (1) The lessons of Tucson tell us that we must be more civil in our discourse, beginning here in Washington (2) the people have spoken, they want responsible choices and fiscal discipline; (3) the economy is starting to grow, therefore we must invest in ways that further our global competitiveness; (4) none of us came to Washington to engage in trench warfare. 

And what if a curmudgeon like me were in charge of this process?

That’s easy. I’ll boil down this bad boy to under a minute.

“This speech is about jobs: not yours, mine. A big shout-out to my peeps in Ohio and Florida.”

“I get it. You want to me to cool it with all the spending.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m going to quit spending — my new chief of staff assures me you have to spend money to make money.”

“I’m willing to work with the other party. But I’m not gonna be pushed around.”

“We’re going to get some things done this year. And we’re going to have our differences. That’s democracy.”

“But on one thing we can all agree: the Bears will never get to the Super Bowl with Jay Cutler at quarterback.” 

Written by Bill Whalen

January 25, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Can We Get a Third Opinion?

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Headline from Sunday morning’s Sacramento Bee:

Analyst: Whitman, not blue state, to blame for her loss

Headline from Sunday morning’s San Francisco Chronicle:
 
GOP brand pronounced dead in deep-blue California
 
So which was it? Doomed candidate? Doomed party?
 
Here are the links to the Chron and Bee stories, so you can decide for yourself . . .

Written by Bill Whalen

January 23, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Conrad Calls It Quits

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No 2012 run for North Dakota's Kent Conrad

The Democrats’ chances of retaining control of the U.S. Senate in 2013 and beyond just took a hit with Kent Conrad’s announcement that he won’t seek another term next year.

Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, hails from a flyover state that ran deeply red last fall (the state’s lone, at-large congressman, nine-term Democrat Earl Pomeroy, was on the wrong end of a landslide). So maybe he saw the writing on the wall.

Keep in mind: Conrad’s former colleague, Democrat Byron Dorgan, called it quits (surprising the Beltway punditocracy) before the 2010 election.

Looking at the big board, the numbers don’t bode well for Senate Democrats in 2012. President Obama’s party has to defend 21 seats — many in right-leaning states, or states hit hard by the recession.

By contrast, the GOP has to defend only 10 incumbent seats in 2012, only three of which are seen as vulnerable (Scott Brown in Massachusetts, John Ensign in Nevada, and Olympia Snowe in Maine). 

Democratic incumbents who figure early as political endangered species include Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, Florida’s Bill Nelson (especially if former Gov. Jeb Bush challenged him), Montana’s Jon Tester and Virginia’s Jim Webb.

With a current Senate balance of 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and 2 independents who caucus with the Dems), the GOP needs a net gain of 4 in 2012 for a working  majority of 51 seats.

In 2010, Republicans picked up six seats. Six Democratic incumbents retired in that cycle. Republicans picked up three of those seats (North Dakota, Illinois and Indiana), while the Democrats held on to the other three (Connecticut, Delaware, West Virginia). 

If you want to take a closer look at the 2012 Senate cycle, here’s the Cook Political Report’s early outlook.

And if handicapping’s your game, here’s Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Written by Bill Whalen

January 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Sons of Anarchy

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Try this for two peas in a gubernatorial pod: Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo.

Jerry Brown (l), Andrew Cuomo

Both men are sons of former governors.

Both took office this month as newly elected governors, after having served as state attorney generals.

Both are trying to fix budgetary train wrecks in America’s most populous deep-blue states: California and New York.

Both are trying to change the budget power structure in their respective states — in the process, having to cope with stubborn, change-resistant (though fellow Democratic) legislatures.

Brown’s problems we’ve previously discussed.

But Cuomo? What stands out is the New York governor’s stylistic approach — one that differs from Brown’s early steps in California.

To wit:

Faced with a $10 billion hole in the state budget, Cuomo has given lawmakers until April to come up with a fiscal solution. Otherwise, he’s threatening to shut down the government lock, stock and barrel.

Rather than stay put in Albany and hammer out a deal (ala Brown trying to get 2/3 of the Legislature to go along with his tax-and-cut scheme by March, to qualify for a June special election), Cuomo instead hit the road, crisscrossing the Empire State in hopes of controlling the political dialogue.

Last week, for example, Cuomo took show to Jamestown, in the far reaches of Western New York. It’s a town best known as the birthplace of Lucille Ball, and where Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 Maniacs first hooked up.

Something else worth knowing about Jamestown: it’s a five-and-a-half drive from the State Capitol. It’s a quicker drive, west, from Jamestown to the Indiana State line than it is east to Albany.

For Brown to do the same in California (and so far he hasn’t taken his budget show on the road), he’d have to travel from Sacramento to, say, somewhere deep in the middle of nowhere of Death Valley National Park.

“Death Valley” an apt metaphor, it would seem, or California and New York’s economies.  

Here’s one other key difference between Brown and Cuomo: union love.

While Brown’s budget didn’t spare public employees from the cutting board, he did go light on K-12 education. Obviously, he doesn’t want to lay waste to public schools — not if he’s going to sell voters on his plan. And to sell the plan: he’ll need lots of cash from the California Teachers Association to pay for air time in that June special election.

Meanwhile, back east: the New York Post reports that Cuomo is preparing to do battle with his state’s public-employees union, asking donors to pony up dough for an ad blitz to sell his cuts to the good people of the Empire State.

How this ends is anyone’s guess. Cuomo’s predecessor, David Paterson, also tried to government shutdown card — and spent the summer of 2010 playing a game of chicken with Albany lawmakers.

Meanwhile, voters seem to like Cuomo’s approach. A Siena College poll released yesterday gives the new guv a 70% approval. Then again, the man who preceded Cuomo’s predecessor, Elliott Spitzer was riding high at 75% in the polls . . . before it was revealed that he was moonlighting as “Client Number Nine”.

And you thought California governors were colorful . . .

Written by Bill Whalen

January 18, 2011 at 8:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Meet the New Boss

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Getting ready to watch Jerry Brown take the oath of office — a third time, and a second first term — as California’s 39th governor (he was the Golden State’s 34th governor from 1975-83).

Also trying to find it on television.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the broadcasting gods deemed the changing of the guard in Sacramento no more important than “Family Feud” (local Fox), “The Young and the Restless” (local CBS), “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (local ABC) and some gawdawful tripe called “The Gossip Queens” (local NBC). Welcome to gubernatorial life post-Arnold, Mr. Brown, where getting on the air will be, shall we say problematic.

Whoops, here’s the ceremony — on C-SPAN2. Think the rest of the nation cares more about California than California itself?

OK, on with the show — and some observations as Brown makes history as a two-time governor.

1) First up: California’s new First Lady, Anne Gust Brown. Very gracious, very low-key. The anti-Maria to Jerry’s anti-Arnold. As quick as she’s on the stage, she’s off it — after introducing her hubby. Will be interesting to see what, if any, high-profile role she plays in this administration?

2) Jerry takes the oath — as Jerry, not Edmund G, Jr. He jokes about taking the office without mental reservation. Nice touch — he’s gonna need that sense of humor in the weeks ahead. Big swig of water and it’s big-speech time . . .

3) California is “the great exception”. Talks about government lacking the trust of the people, cynicism filling the void.

4) Three minutes into it and we’ve landed on the budget. Precious little about California rising to challenges, state of optimists, etc. Says we have to work together as Californians first, partisans second.

5) Lays out his campaign message: speak the truth, no new taxes unless publicly voted for, return as much as possible closer to the people. Reminds me of Arnold’s first inaugural and the promises of job creation, getting fiscal house in order, restoring public’s faith in government.

6) This is sounding an awful lot like a State of the State, not an inaugural . . .

7) “At this stage in my life, I didn’t come here to embrace delay and denial”. Good line. now, how to keep say it without antagonizing the Legislature?

8) Recounting how his family came to California, the difficult journey west, singles out 99-year-old aunt after reading from her ancestor’s diary.

9) “The people of California have not lost their pioneering spirit or the capacity to meet new challenges.” Cites Silicon Valley, farmers, Hollywood, teachers, nurses, firefighter, public servants (cha-ching!) . . .

10) Need to find devotion to California — loyalty beyond our narrow perspectives.

11) “California here I come, right back from where I started from.” And that’s it. Not even 15 minutes.

My takeaways:

1) Jerry Brown is a paradox. So is the state he now re-governs. We’ve never been as rich or as poor, at the same as intellectually inventive yet, at times, socially and politically regressive. We’ve never been so crowded, yet so divided along cultural and economic lines. Wish Jerry had explained where he fits into all of this, the changed California he now inherits.

2) His is a life of public service — four decades and counting. Brown should have basked in it — remaining humble, yet addressing the great honor of leading this state, why his family chose to get into this line of work. He did mention past governors . . . wish he’d talked more about what he’s learned along the way.

3) You wanted the anti-Arnold, you got it. Clearly, there was no expensive speechwriter crafting the words. The address didn’t flow, seemed to purposely avoid hitting high notes. He rehashed campaign lingo (“At this point in my life”). And I’m guessing Jerry didn’t spend much time rehearsing it. He ad-libbed the introduction of his aunt, lost his place in his speech. The presentation wasn’t as staged as a Schwarzenegger production — it also wasn’t as . . . well, dignified. A little too manic for my taste, given the pomp of the occasion.

4) What will Brown say in his State of the State that he didn’t today? The way I see it, he has three big speeches this year: 1) inaugural address; 2) State of the State; 3) tv speech (if he so chooses) laying out rationale for special election and public-approved tax increases. Seems to me that #1 stepped on #2.

 5) In the end, all that counts is whether the new governor connected with the people — more so than grade scores from wordsmiths, pundits and propeller heads. I’m guessing the public will find Jerry Brown’s quirks (the jokes, getting rhetorically derailed, the odd energy shifts mid-delivery) charming . . . for now, in that Day One of the new administration is about change and anticipation, not results.

Now that we say goodbye to our second actor-governor, it’s gonna be fun to see how far — and for how long — this new act will play in California.

Written by Bill Whalen

January 3, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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