Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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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