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One Drought Ends, Another Continues

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Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown (l): down . . . and out?

On the same day that California Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to California’s drought, the state’s political press corps was fast writing the early obituary for the governor’s efforts to rig a special election to let voters sign off on state budget cuts and tax extensions.

Talk about an interesting turn of events: the state’s water shortage ends; its leadership shortage continues.

Here’s how I see it.

In 2008, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide water drought. If only the political drought were that short. I take the latter shortfall – the failure of leadership in the Governor’s Office — back a decade ago to the second half of Gray Davis’ first term, when he began to take on water from the combined weight of a burst tech bubble, persnickety legislative Democrats, and rolling blackouts. Unable to tread such turbulent waters, Davis was recalled in October 2003.

Enter Arnold, who promised to part the waves and magically deliver needed reforms to Sacramento. Unfortunately, the Governator couldn’t walk on water. Crushed in a special election in 2005, Schwarzenegger ditched the reform boom that he carried into office.

And now, Jerry Brown. His selling point last November: as a former two-term governor, he knew how to navigate the same waters that Arnold and Gray couldn’t. But, if indeed the governor’s tax-and-cut strategy is dead (in the water), then it took not even 100 days for the latest governor’s aspirations to find . . . a watery grave.

I spent a good part of Wednesday talking to reporters about the obligatory “why” and “what next”.

The former, I think, is pretty obvious. Everyone’s to blame to this one, as George Skelton correctly notes.  Legislative Republicans with newfound leverage over-reached (seriously, guys, moving the state primary to March and funding state fairs?).

Legislative Democrats also take a hit: the same folks who think it’s every Californians’ inalienable right to vote for higher taxes don’t think pension reform and budget caps deserve the same sunshine.

Brown also deserves a visit to the woodshed. The whole concept of a special election is because he didn’t have the guts, in last year’s election, to call for higher taxes and leave it as that; instead he adopted for special-election/modified-limited hangout.

And there’s California’s dysfunctional political system — one that produces few pragmatic centrists. Then again, that system is driven by voters who don’t much pay attention to Sacramento — and rarely punish the ruling class for failing to do its job.

Where California goes from here isn’t so clear. There’s still the option of muscling the governor’s scheme through the Legislature on a simple majority (i.e., party line) vote. But that may not pass legal muster.

Brown could call for a November election. But, by that time, the same proposed tax “extensions” would instead be tax “increases”. Sounds minor, but it makes for a tougher sell.

I’m interested in Brown, the man, at this point. I want to see how he handles the blame game: does he single-out the GOP for being so stubborn, or does he chalk up the failure of Plan A to those aforementioned problems with Sacramento?

Moreover, as a candidate who ran on the concept that he had the experience, the patience and the lack of national aspirations to stick to the job of making California government once again work (translation: I can do better than Arnold ever did or Meg Whitman ever would), what does the impasse say about Brown’s credibility as a difference-maker under the Capitol Dome?

It took voters the better part of two years to realize that neither Barack Obama nor Arnold Schwarzenegger could live up to their hype. While Jerry Brown didn’t enter office with such eager anticipation, it’s sad to see the bloom off the rose after less than 100 days on the job.

Unless Brown recovers gracefully from this setback and reconnects with the electorate as a leader who’s above the misery-in-motion that is Sacramento, he risks becoming a very early, very lame duck.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 31, 2011 at 3:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Choose a Budget Date, Any Date

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I’m hunkered down here at Stanford, waiting for Judgment Day. That’s Thursday, March 10: California Gov. Jerry’s Brown’s gotta-have-it-by date for getting legislative agreement on a cut-and-tax deal, in time for a June 7 special election.

This isn’t to be confused with Bush the Elder unleashing Desert Storm hours after his announced deadline. There is no hard deadline in Sacramento — only a lot of hard-headed pols. Unless I’m mistaken (and that’s been known to happen), March 10 will come and go without a deal. And, perhaps, March 15. And March 20. Maybe even March 25. Won’t all we political know-it-alls look like fools if April 1 arrives without  a deal in place.

Here’s the problem: the perfect deadline for getting this done already’s come and gone. And that was March 8. Lent. When the pious make a sacrifice for 40-some days. For Democrats: giving way on spending cuts. For Republicans: swallowing hard on taxes.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities ahead for the intrepid lawmakers in Sacramento. So I’d like to help out by offering some historical benchmarks.

March 12 — Franklin D. Roosevelt delivers his first “Fireside Chat”, in 1933. FDR has control of the airwaves and a rapt audience. These are two problems facing the new governor, with the gubernatorial bully pulp downsized to a post-Arnold reality.

March 14 — Albert Einstein’s 132nd birthday. Safe to say the word “genius” has never been applied for Sacramento politics, with the possible of “genius for avoidance”, “genius for failure”. Einstein’s father was an engineer and salesman – pretty much Jerry Brown’s job description these days (in addition to diplomat, arbitrtor and abnormal psychologist).

March 15 — The Ides of March. I’ll spare you the history/Shakespeare lecture. Is Brown’s face to be on the receiving end of angry unions, on his way to the Forum? Or will he be the one to turn on his erst-while friends. (btw, how unfortunate for Caesar that he didn’t live in Madison, Wisconsin, where some senators don’t bother to show up for work.)

March 17 – St Patrick’s Day. Can’t think of a better way to finish that day’s abdication of duty (the governor’s plan doesn’t solve California’s many problems, just kicks the can down the road) than by going out that same night and getting fall-down drunk.

March 19 — The 8th anniversary of U.S. invasion of Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Jerry’s gonna need some serious “shock and awe” to a wary/weary California electorate to buy into any scheme that has a Sacramento dateline.

March 21 — The 140th anniversary of Sir Henry Morton Stanley embarking on his mission to find Dr. Livingstone. California’s been stuck in a cycle of boom and bust economies for about as long. Or so it seems.

March 22 — The 246th anniversary of the Stamp Act’s approval by the British Parliament. Oops, better not let the Tea Party get a hold of this one. This one act didn’t trigger a revolution — it was a series of taxations without representation that led to the colonies breaking away. Is California headed for multi-year taxation cycle, or is the current debate in Sacramento a one-shot deal?

March 24 — The 22nd anniversary of Exxon Valdez running aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Need I say more . . . ?

March 26 — The 32nd anniversary of Israel and Egypt signing a peace treaty. Assuming we make it though a June special election, is there any chance of peace and coöperation in Sacramento, between Democrats and Republicans, for the rest of 2011? 

March 28 — 32nd anniversary of the near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island.  Maybe we save this one for if/when the on-again, off-again negotiations end once and for all, and the meltdown metaphors begin.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 10, 2011 at 12:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Thus Spake MoDowd

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Maureen Dowd

Californians, rest assured: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has visited the Golden State, sat down with Gov. Jerry Brown, hobnobbed with a few swells in La-La Land, and has declared the guv’s budgetary cut-and-tax scheme the responsible thing to do.

A word of caution before you read her column. If you read her stuff, you’ll recognize some of it as typical Dowd-iness: she has to include herself in the conversation, has to tell you what she’s eating, has to drop at least one pop culture reference, and has to include at least one celebrity sighting.

That much, I can tolerate.

Nor am I not the first to notice this trend.

What’s irksome is her conclusion that California is doing the responsible thing, as opposed to other states (Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, etc.) where new or relatively newly elected governors are in very public, very messy — and, arguably very necessary — showdowns with vested interests.

Here are, imo, the errors in Ms. Dowd’s thinking:

1) The California approach is not commendable — not in the sense that, at its core, its gutless. Rather than carry out their responsibilities as elected officials and settle matters under the Capitol dome, the California approach is to have lawmakers ask voters for political cover in the form of a special election. To use a tired cliché from the last election, that’s not “manning-up”.

2) Rather than address our more immediate concerns (California’s boom-or-bust economy, a crushing pension burden, the conundrum that is public education), anything passed in June is but a band-aid — Sacramento’s way of buying time until a recovery occurs a few years ahead. Granted, pension reform might be part of the bipartisan equation for getting the plan on the ballot, but the smart money says it comes nothing close to what the nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission has suggested. That all but guarantees a bigger ballot fight down the right.

3) California’s in its current bind — we gotta get a deal together as soon as March 10, no later by month’s end, in order to stage a special election on June 7 – because Jerry Brown put us in this box. He didn’t want to pull a Phil Angelides (or a Walter Mondale) and make himself the candidate of higher taxes, so he found a clever way to sidestep the liability: promise he’d only raise taxes . . . with the public’s consent. The governor is a clever man. But he complicated things this year by opting for a less-complicated candidacy last fall. Shame on him for trying it; shame on us for not smoking him out.

CA's new emblem?

4) Let’s suppose Brown scores two big wins in the next three months — he gets a bipartisan plan through the Legislature with enough Republican commitment to give it a whiff of bipartisan scent, and then gets voters’ sign-off. What comes next? There remains an A-Z of needed reforms in the Golden State. Where are the governor, Democratic legislators, loyal-opposition Republicans and California’s powerhouse special interests? The answer: all are stuck in neutral; none seems to have an Rx for ails California — other than to blame the other side and bemoan a dysfunctional political system. Call it what it is: a keen grasp of the obvious. In this respect, California is not a national role model. If anything, we’re fiddling while other states at least attempt to put out their fires.

Such is the problem, with the passive approach to managing a state. Too much fiddling . . . while the band plays on.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 6, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Which JB Would You Rather Be?

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They work in different capitals, hail from different parties, grew up in different time zones, have taken distinctly different paths to power, and each scored big in the last election.

Begging the question: who would you rather be right now? California Gov. Jerry Brown or House Speaker John Boehner?

The two, it seems, have more in common than you might think. To wit:

House Speaker John Boehner

Mandate: Boehner and the Republicans took over the House largely on the message of fiscal discipline. For Brown, it’s all about political discipline — at his stage in life, an adult attitude toward governing the Golden State.

Budget: Boehner can brush off irrelevant House Democrats, but has to convince hard-core conservatives (for political reasons — the mechanics of getting a budget all the way through Congress) of fewer spending cuts than they’d like; Brown can brush off all the select few irrelevant legislative Republicans he needs to pass his spending-tax deal, but has to convince hard-core liberals (for political purposes — the mechanics of getting the deal on the special-election ballot) of more spending cuts than they’d like.

Upward Mobility: The House is a graveyard as far as national aspirations concerned (the Senate being no bargain either, until Barack Obama came along) — not that Boehner seems interested in anything other than Speaker; term limits and length of tooth have Brown pretty much boxed in.

California Gov. Jerry Brown

For Who the Polls Toll: Public Policy Polling, which does weekly opinion surveys for the liberal Daily Kos, would have you believe that Boehner’s honeymoon is (surprise!) already over; the Public Policy Institute of California reports a growing number of his constituents unsure of Brown’s job performance

Personal Vice: Boehner smokes; Brown swipes food off others’ plates.

The People Factor: Boehner’s odds of making the cover of America’s favorite pop-culture read? Slim, unless he suffers a personal crisis. Brown’s chances of showing up on People’s cover? Excellent — if you dial the way-back machine to June 1976.

The Lousier Valentine’s Day? Boehner, try to pitch woo to a skeptical Tea Party. Brown, trying make nice with a cynical GOP caucus.

East Coast trumps West Coast? I’ll take Washington’s cultural advantages (museums, monuments, performing arts) over Sacramento’s any day of the week. Both have unbearable summit heat, with the difference being East Coast thunder storms break up the humid monotony.

West Coast trumps East Coast? Tahoe, Napa, San Francisco all within easy driving distance of Sacramento. The only thing you can ski down Washington is a mountain of debt. When I first moved to California’s capital in 1994, it amused me how the locals played up their town by offering backhanded compliments: “You’ll love Sacramento, because it’s close to . . .”

Final tally: I give the edge to Boehner. Unless he’s Pelosi Redux, he should be running the House for at least years (Brown may leave office after one four-year term). Boehner  Co. can still borrow money from the Chinese (maybe Brown will get lucky and China makes a generous offer for now-available state properties). Boehner still has Nancy Pelosi as a convenient foil (Brown must wish Meg Whitman was still on the air). Keeping House Republicans in line is, in theory at least, an easier proposition than pulling the reins on California’s legislative Democrats.

Next up: which MM would you rather be — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or Marshall Mathers III?

Written by Bill Whalen

February 15, 2011 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Should O Go to Cairo?

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Should Obama be as silent as the Sphinx?

President Obama’s first big foray into the Arab world as leader of the Free World was a much-noticed, much-discussed, much-loved, much-reviled speech in Cairo.

Titled “A New Beginning”, the President’s remarks were meant to signal to the Arab street that a new administration meant a new approach to the Middle East. Fans called it visionary. Critics called it apologist.

Here’s a passage:

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity.  And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.  Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

The speech was an immediate hit with Muslims in some parts of the troubled region. No so much, a year later.

Here’s Rush Limbaugh’s reaction.

So here’s my question. You can expect some obvious foreign travel for the President between now and the summer of 2012, when he has to stay at home and kick his reelection effort in high gear. Iraq and Afghanistan would not be a surprise. What about a visit to Israel, along the lines of what then-candidate Obama did in the summer of 2008, to reassure Jewish-American voters

If so, and the President swings by Israel, then what about another stop in the neighborhood: should Obama head back to Cairo University and give a sequel to “A New Beginning” . . . “A New New Beginning”?

Written by Bill Whalen

February 11, 2011 at 9:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

See CPAC Run . . .

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Glenn Beck, 2010 CPAC keynoter

You know the presidential campaign is underway when  . . . the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC for short, is drawing the kind of attention afford debates a months before the Iowa caucuses.

Why the press interest in a gathering so far ahead of the primary schedule? You can argue that it’s the CPAC straw pollof 15 men and women with more than a passing interest in unseating President Obama. Perhaps. But the results will be about as meaningless as most any survey at this point in the game (keep in mind: Texas Rep. Ron Paul was last year’s winner).

A better answer would be that it’s good political theater — and, being held in the nation’s capital, subway ride for political reporters socked in by winter weather, or hamstrung by bosses too cheap to pay for airfare. and if you don’t think it’s theatric, then I suggest you check the conference masthead: images of Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. 

Unfortunately, this is also CPAC’s liability. Officeholders and would-be statesmen and world leaders become too theatrical, with the rhetoric getting out of hand. For my taste, there’s too much Obama-bashing, and too litle unconventional thinking. It’s a pet peeve of mine, as someone who’s dabbled in political speechwriting. You’re in front of a conservative audience, you’re trying to brandish your conservative credentials, so . . . you resort to the big book of conservative clichés.

I call this the “macro” school of political rhetoric — as in, you press F1-F12 on your computer and up pops a worn adage. For CPAC speakers looking to create presidential buzz, it goes something like this:

F1 — “rescue America from a President who, in unchecked, would lead us on a dangerous path of European-style socialism and ruin”

F2 — “keep the President out of my doctor’s office . . . and the First Lady out of my kitchen”

F3 – “you live within your means, the federal government should be no different”

F4 — “borrowing money from China so we can afford to buy their cheap products”

F5 – “the 3 a.m. phone call came from Cairo, and this President didn’t answer it”

F6 — “proud to live in an America where Nancy Pelosi has to fly commercial”

F7 —  “on this, President Reagan’s centennial, let us honor his legacy by renewing his call for . . .”

F8 — “a recession is when your neighbor loses his job, a depression is when you lose your job, and a recovery is when Barack Obama loses his job” (recycled from the 1980 Reagan campaign)

F9 –  “taking economic advice from Barack Obama and Joe Biden is like taking career advice from Keith Olbermann”

F10 — “no more Madoff stimulus packages, no more Ponzi economic schemes” 

F11 — “the leader of the Free World should stand up for the principles that made America great, instead of running around the world and apologizing”

F12 – “I’d come to CPAC even if it were held in Alaska — which is more than I can say about other people” (with Sarah Palin not attending the function, you can expect some cheap shots in her direction — and apparently it’s already begin, for former Sen. Rick Santorum reportedly taking an early swipe at the former Alaska governor, and Palin returning fire)

So what’s missing from that list? Simply this: stepping into Ronald Reagan’s shoes.

If a 2012 hopeful wants to update Reaganism for this decade — the triad of lower taxes, a muscular foreign policy, and skepticism of government outcomes – now’s the time to do. If he or she has an alternative vision to Reagan’s, then let it fly. The country’s looking for leadership, it’s also looking for leadership. Not another presidential cycle of twisting and contorting and pandering.

And one last note about Palin. I don’t think she’s attending CPAC . . . simply because she doesn’t have to. She already has conservative bona fides, a national network of acticists, and a media (for better or worse) following her every move. Speaking at this conference makes her but one more caribou in the herd, just as I’d be surprised if she showed up at the May 2 presidential debate at the Reagan Library. Unlike other hopefuls who need to make an early and loud splash, Palin can wait before entering the primary fray.

And not going to CPAC? Just more of the waiting game.

Written by Bill Whalen

February 10, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Moderate to Severe Problem

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Bill Clinton used the centrist DLC as a means to an end: winning the White House

This week’s revelation that the Democratic Leadership Council is shutting down is a good example of how politics operates in circles. The DLC was established in the aftermath of Walter Mondale’s 49-state loss at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984, the purpose being to steer the national party on a more centrist course (translation more competitive in the South and the Sunbelt).

Nearly three decades later, two Democrats did indeed find their way to the White House. One, Bill Clinton, did it by using the DLC to his full advantage. Clinton chaired the group in the period leading up to his presidential run. That gave the Arkansas governor ready access to a national network of activists and donors. It also made Clinton the beneficiary of a very public feud between the DLC and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who described the mostly white and white-collar band of moderates as the “Democratic Leisure Class.” And he tapped into the DLC intellectual capital: welfare reform, free trade, a strong military.

As for Barack Obama, he didn’t go the Clinton route (“a different kind of Democrat”). But he did buy into the DLC vision of competing in states earlier Democratic nominees had ceded, or bitterly lost, to the GOP. Obama scored a breakthrough — and threatened to realign the presidential electoral map — by carrying Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Nevada and New Mexico. Obama turned 8 “red” states “blue” in 2008.

But as last November’s election showed, those “new blue” states aren’t necessarily true blue. Florida, Ohio, Nevada and New Mexico each elected a Republican governor. As for Virginia, it’s likely to surrender a Democratic Senate seat in 2012, with Jim Webb’s announcement that he won’t seek a second term.

Here’s my take on Webb’s departure. Democrats will try to spin it that he was a bull in a china shop – too active, too aggressive for a deliberate body like the U.S. Senate. Here’s another way to explain it: Webb was swept into office on the coattails of slow progress in Iraq and frustration with Republican control of the federal government. That Republican grip is now gone, and so too is Iraq as a wedge issue. That leaves Webb in an awkward spot: he has fewer centrist Democrats to work with after “blue dog” Democrats took it on the chin last November; he has to hug the middle to right-of-center to stay viable in the Old Dominion. So maybe it’s better to quit while still ahead . . .

Moderate Democrats will argue that the DLC’s efforts were not in vain.  Both Clinton and now Obama learned the hard way that their party needs a balanced approach to governing. And they’ll cite the hiring of the group’s leader, Bruce Reed, as Vice President Biden’s chief of staff as evidence of some moderate influence in the White House.

But here’s the problem with the argument — it’s like a stock farm bragging about a great groomsman, while masking the hard truth that it has precious few horses in the stable.

Back in the 1980′s, the DLC didn’t lack for presidential wannabes: Clinton, Al Gore, former Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (like Webb, also retiring from the Senate next year). Today, the centrist congressional Democrat is an endangered species. And perhaps a rarer bird if two of them — Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Montana Sen. Jon Tester — fail in their relection bids next year.

Years ago, back when I was a journalist working in the nation’s capital, I asked Elaine Kamarck, a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute (a spinoff DLC think tank), why the DLC existed. Her response: “[T]he DLC originated as a place for Southern and Western Democrats to hide from the image of the national party. Now, there’s a whole of people who are not Southern or Western who need to hide from that image because the image hasn’t gotten much better.”

Remember that quote come November 2016, when a Democratic Party lacking a centrist core may be looking at th the same image problem that dogged it 30 years before.

Written by Bill Whalen

February 10, 2011 at 9:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

California Republican Makes It to the White House

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No, the headline isn’t a mistake. Hell hasn’t frozen over. It’s still 2011. You haven’t been asleep for the past 20 years.

And that California Republican in the White House? It’s House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, third-ranking Republican in the chamber, who had a private lunch earlier today with President Obama, Vice President Biden, House Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (l). Hail to the . . . Whip?

Coming as the lunch did, just three days after Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, McCarthy’s visit (and later press conference after his tete a tete with the prez) got me to thinking: how soon (or long) before a Californian occupies the Oval Office?

Better yet, if you had to gamble on the next man or woman from the Golden State to get the big job, who’d be your choice?

In previous decades, this was far less complicated . . . 

1971: It’s three year’s since Reagan’s brief and unsuccessful presidential bid. He’s in the beginning of his second term as governor; he can run in 1976. Which he did. And again in 1980, getting the job on the third try.

1981: See above. Moot point.  Job belongs to a Californian.

1991: It’s Pete Wilson’s first year as governor, the economy is in a shambles. But if he can survive the recession and earn a second term, then 1996 beckons. Which is how it played out.

2001: It’s Gray Davis’ third year as governor, dot.com’s are closing left and right now that the tech bubble has burst, but if Gray Davis can convincingly win a second term, the Democratic nomination is wide open in 2004. But along came the recall and a guy named Arnold.

2011: Anyone’s guess.

And here’s my guess. I can’t believe about the type the following name, but if there’s such a thing as a Californian with an inside track to the White House, it’s . . . Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

My reasoning:

1) California is a Democratic state in terms of amassing political power and stature. But the current most élite Democratic officeholders aren’t presidential material — that’s Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi. So look down the ladder — to people looking to be a future governor or senator.

2) Look for a Democrat who’s both young with political upside. The two most likely figures: Newsom (turned 41 last November) and State Attorney General Kamala Harris (turned 47 ten days after Newsom birthday). Each occupies a springboard office (Gray Davis went from “lite guv” to governor; Jerry Brown moved up from AG to governor). Of those two, I think Newsom is the better campaigner — and will probably do a more effective of using his office to lay the groundwork for a stab at higher office.

3) Why the premium on youth? Presidents aren’t created overnight. Reagan needed 16 years from “The Speech” in the fall of 1964 to his big win on Election Night 1980. Richard Nixon needed 22 years, starting with his first election to Congress in 1946.

4) If he’s elected governor or goes to Washington and builds a record (or, like Wilson, goes to Washington, returns to Sacramento, then runs for president), it gives Newsom time to distance himself from his native San Francisco — and time for his signature issue, same-sex marriage, to become more acceptable nationwide.

Sure, a Republican could get to the White House from California, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Take Kevin McCarthy’s case. If he ran for President as an incumbent congressman, he probably first needs to leapfrog Cantor and Boehner. There’s no telling how long that would take. Even then, he’d be flying in the face of history, with James A. Garfield the last sitting House member to win a presidential election (Garfield, btw, holding the rate distinction of being a House member, a Senator-elect and president-elect all at the same time). As for coming back to California and seeking a high-profile statewide office, the odds are formidable (not to mention a mess logistically, trying to juggle an East Coast day-job and a West Coast campaign).

What about the money-bag scenario? What’s stopping an unaligned plutocrat from crashing one of the two political parties, ala Godfather’s pizza chief Herman Cain, or mounting an independent run for the White House?

For openers, in regard to the third-party scenario, it’d require both parties to come up with terrible nominees, thus putting the swing vote up for grabs. Second, parting with one’s money for the sake of elected office maybe isn’t as worthwhile or rewarding a pursuit as it seemed only a few months ago.

So where does this leave California? In a position to feel . . . well, kinda left out. Massachusetts has produced two big players on the White House circuit in the last decade (John Kerry and Mitt Romney). Arkansas has Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee (and Hillary too, some purists would argue). Tennessee has Al Gore, Lamar Alexander and Fred Thompson. Even Ohio has Dennis Kucinich.

And California? Nothing. For now. Or the forseeable future.

Written by Bill Whalen

February 9, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Brown Out — In Under 15 Minutes

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So I watched Governor Brown’s State of the State Address.  Then, I watched it again . . . and again . . . and again. And the hour still wasn’t over.

Jerry Brown delivering the 2011 State of the State -- his eighth as California's governor

For those who bet the over-under, Brown took care of business in a little under 14-1/2 minutes. Toss out the opening platitudes and it was more like 13 minutes. That’s not a surprise if we recall our California history. Back in the ’70′s and ’80′s, it wasn’t unusual for Brown to deliver a SOS in 10 minutes or less. Last year, Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered his final SOS in 27 minutes.

My thoughts: 

1) This governor has a lot of friends in labor. They spent heavily to get him elected. You’d think one of his union buddies could arrange for a TelePrompter to “accidentally” fall off a truck in front of the State Capitol, to spare viewers from the distraction of California’s chief executive looking down at his text, which is what happened Monday. Maybe the gubernatorial TelePrompter was a victim of Jerry’s budget cuts. Or maybe Arnold hijacked it backed to Brentwood. The bottom line: Brown needs moments like to connect with voters. That requires making eye contact with the camera. At least two-thirds of this speech had Brown looking down at his words, and not at the camera. A terrible visual.

2) Or maybe Jerry got back to the office late Monday afternoon after yoga and a power-nap, all-of-a-sudden realized he had a big speech and jotted down a few thoughts on a legal pad before dashing off to the legislative chambers. Only kidding. Still, it’s jarring in the age of cutting-edge technology and calculated telegenics to see a governor looking so poorly styled.

3) “The vision thing”. Brown raced through his vision of California beyond the budget mess, like he was reciting a prayer from back in his Jesuit seminary days. I’m privileged to have an office at the heart of the Stanford campus. That means I’m surrounded by smart students. The way Brown raced through the “vision” portion – passing mentions of water, the environment, agriculture, transportation, Bill Gates & Steve Jobs, better K-12 and higher-ed, California as a restored dream etc. — one wonders how much of this he’s thought through. A lot of Stanford freshman could have come up with this riff. If the governor wants to continue writing his own speeches, he should at least ask some former gubernatorial speechwriters (Gary Delsohn and Phil Troustine come to mind) for their feedback. He needs to be challenged, to lift the rhetoric.

4) Moment of Freudian honesty. After connecting the unfolding in drama in the Middle East to his call for a June special-election vote on spending cut and higher taxes (“When democratic ideals and calls for the right to vote are stirring the imaginations of young people in Egypt and Tunisia and other parts of the world, we in California can’t say now is the time to block a vote of the people”), Brown told Republicans they could applaud if they like, even stand up and yell “block that punt”. “Punt” isn’t the word I’d choose when Plan A is lawmakers passing the buck (pun intended) to the electorate. Mubarak may abdicate. Sacramento is, in many respects, abdicating its responsibility to make hard choices by hiding behind voters’ skirts.

5) What this State of the State or re-stating Official Sacramento’s reaction to Brown inaugural address and budget proposal, both done earlier this month? The governor reiterated the Democratic objection to spending cuts and the Republican opposition to tax increases, big cities’ unhappiness with cuts in redevelopment spending, and special interests rearing their backs. All insider baseball, if you ask me. Boooring.

6) Think I heard four of five rounds of applause, not including the introduction. They all sounded thin, which tells you only Democrats were doing the clapping. Correction: Republicans did applaud when Brown indicated he was open to pension reform and cutting regulation. But read his lips. He specified “unreasonable” regulations. Clearly, this was Brown signalling where he’s willing to deal with Republicans for their budget votes. Time for GOP lawmakers to decide if they want to engage.

7) The speech ended with Brown assuring lawmakers that once the budget is settled, “the rest will be easy . . . easier.”  Why wouldn’t it be, when what happens beyond June is vague and undefined.

8) Final analysis: Brown is a clever politician he needs the Legislature on board in the next months, so better to make it a speech about Sacramento. What’s he not is a naturally gifted rhetorician — his own words just don’t flow. There’s a school of thought that the humble approach — self-written speeches, herky-jerky delivery, blunt words — will resonate with voters hungry for authenticity, and thus willing to buy into the special-election gambit. Still would it kill this governor to consider a little production value?

Written by Bill Whalen

February 1, 2011 at 2:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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

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