Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Whitman, Poizner, the Chicken and the Egg

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It was a slow news day here in Northern California — rain, rain, and even more rain — until Team Whitman dropped this bomb on Team Poizner: Can’t Trust Steve.

I’ll spare you the details of the attack site and its accompanying tv ads, the purpose of which is to undermine Steve Poizner’s GOP credentials.

(Full disclosure: I advised Poizner during his 2004 Assembly run and consider him to be a friend; there are people on the Whitman campaign I like and respect, so no favoritism here.)

How'd this primary get so ugly?

And I’ll spare you from the chicken-or-the-egg discussion about whose negative tactics started this back-and-forth: Poizner or Meg Whitman.

Neither is a purist here.

The more salient question: which candidate is willing to move back to the high road and halt this destructive cycle before the Republicans produce what California Democrats want: a tarnished nominee?

(Sadly, the GOP U.S. Senate primary also has turned ugly in recent days, with charges of anti-Semitism masking the rounds.)

Because she leads in the polls and possesses the deeper campaign war chest than Poizner — and because she hasn’t exactly been a media-friendly candidate — watch for the press corps to lean on Whitman.

And watch for a not-so-nice word to enter the primary vernacular when to comes to describing the former eBay chair: ruthless. It already did today, in the Los Angeles Times.

For Whitman, this is potentially a problem. Plenty of wealthy individuals have preceded her to public office — in California alone, Reps. Jane Harmon and Darrell Issa come to mind. As do Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

But here’s the trick: especially in Schwarzenegger’s case, they won after learning how to channel their wealth into a conversation about civic-mindedness and the nobility of public service, instead of what the press would rather talk about: privilege, spit balls and political jockeying.

And that’s what today’s announcement did. It had the press talking not substance but tactics: was it the best use of Meg’s mega-bucks, what it hoped to achieved, and whether Whitman was trying to bully Poizner out of the race.

And that’s an image the Whitman campaign doesn’t want: a political newcomer who seems . . . well, political

One thing for certain: with only 100 days left in the primary (as of this weekend), could a cease-fire last that long, assuming both sides are willing to lay down their weapons?


Written by Bill Whalen

February 26, 2010 at 11:14 pm

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Should Sacramento Try a Budget Summit?

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Have been watching the Washington health care summit . . . 

Let’s just say that Olympic curling never seemed so attractive — faster-paced, less arcane, and it’s chillier inside the Blair House than outside at the curling sheet. 

1) The feeling of disgust, distrust and disrespect in the room was palpable — witness the President’s uncomfortable body language, and neither side’s ability to finish a thought without being interrupted. 

2) Will the White House or any attending member of Congress feel different about Obamacare by day’s end? Of course not. Either the President’s plan heads for a reconciliation showdown on Capitol Hill, or the White House tries to save face with an alternate plan. 

Even Norma Desmond would agree: the Blair House summit wasn't ready for its close-up

In short, Washington wasn’t ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. 

Having said that, there’s a lesson in this for California. 

The Blair House summit may not change any votes, or much alter public opinion, but it did get the public’s attention. 

And, in that respect, California’s political leaders should consider doing the same with regard to the state budget. 

I’m thinking: have Governor Schwarzenegger convene a summit with key Democrats and Republicans in the State Legislature.

Discuss what budget are on the table. Make or rebut the case for tax cuts, tax hikes, spending priorities, economic revitalization and a steadier revenue stream. 

Only, don’t limit the fun-fest to Sacramento. 

Take the show on the road to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County, the Inland Empire and the Central Valley.

It could be held in serious forums like Town Hall Los Angeles or the Commonwealth club of San Francisco. Or, in civic centers and university auditoriums — that should ramp up the drama. 

For one, it would do a world of good for lawmakers to break out of the Capitol, and hear real concerns from real Californians. 

Second, it would get at a not-so-discussed problem with California: not just our ill-advised leaders, but our ill-informed populace. 

Last month, the Public Policy Institute of California released a survey — the 39th in its “Californians and Their Government” series.

The findings were depressing, to put it mildly. Quoting from the report: 

“On the issue of long-term reform of the budget process, most (72%) Californians believe that they—not their leaders—should make reform decisions at the ballot box.” 

“Only 28% correctly identify personal income tax as the area representing most of the revenue. Thirty percent name the sales tax as the biggest source of revenue when it is actually a distant No. 2.” 
“Asked to name the area that represents the most spending, only 16% of residents correctly identify K–12 education. Half (49%) say the most money goes to prisons and corrections, although this category is actually in fourth place, behind schools, health and human services, and higher education.” 

California is not a ship of fools — just a ship whose passengers need a good fiscal talking-to. 


Written by Bill Whalen

February 25, 2010 at 9:25 pm

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Will Jerry Return to Namibia?

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A reporter called the other day ago asking for my thoughts on Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign.

Not sure if I offered much beyond a keen grasp of the obvious:

— I assume Jerry packages himself as a high-falutin’ populist, just as he did in his “We the People” days (question: who’s had more versions — Jerry Brown or Windows Internet Explorer?). This won’t be the Zen governor or no-nonsense mayor. It’ll be the trust-busting, big-bank-loathing Attorney General.

— He’ll run against the political status quo and Sacramento’s failings, but not in a way that offends the Democrats who run the Legislature, or the unions and deep-pocketed special interests that are running interference with Meg Whitman.

— He’ll trash Whitman (assuming she’s the Republicans’ choice) as a candidate of wealth and privilege, although Brown hails from California political royalty — and would probably be serving rice and chapatis in some dingy ashram if he had a different surname.

— He’ll offer himself as a candidate of vision and daring, just as he did when he first offered himself as a 36-year-old gubernatorial hopeful . . . 36 years ago.

But there’s one thing I forgot to bring up. And that’s the outside chance of arrogance getting the better of Brown, as it did in a previous campaign.

In a word: Namibia.

The year was 1982 and Jerry Brown was running for the U.S. Senate. His opponent was Pete Wilson — at the time, the mayor of San Diego.

After eight tumultuous years as governor, Brown entered the race in trouble. At first, he trailed Wilson, a relative unknown, by 14 points. But during the summer, the Brown campaign undertook a $2.5 million media campaign featuring a pair of hands using a pair of scissors to cut up a Social Security card. Translation: vote Republican and say goodbye to your golden years.

The ads worked. By September, Brown had gone from 14 points down in June to 6 points up, with the Wilson campaign scrambling for money and a way to turn the tide, in the midst of the Reagan Recession, in what was turning out to be a good campaign year for Democrats.

But then, Brown’s arrogance got the better of him.

Wilson and his brain trust guessed — correctly, it turned out — that Brown, as a two-term governor and two-time presidential candidate, would pull some stunt to lord over his (presumably) less-worldly, less-informed and less-enlightened opponent (the irony being that Brown went to Berkeley as an undergrad, then Yale Law; Wilson did the opposite: Yale undergrad, then Boalt for law school).

It wouldn’t be something trivial, the GOP reckoned, but certainly something not on the radar screen of a city mayor.

Team Wilson figured that Brown’s attack would come in the form of a question posed by Brown to Wilson — something to do with Asia and Africa. So they readied a list of 12 likely topics — 6 each from Asia and Africa. Wilson’s press secretary, the late Otto Bos, thought it might be Namibia, which at the time was in a struggle to establish a democratic way of life.

Sure enough, as the debate unfolded and the time came for the candidates to go after each other, Brown’s first question to Wilson was: “How would you respond to the situation that exists in Namibia?”

Wilson answered right away, without hesitation and with command of facts. Brown was stunned. The debate went silent for a moment, until a woman in the back of the audience yelled: “Hurray, Pete!” Game over.

Hours after the debate, Boss handed out yellow-and-back t-shirts to the press corps. On the front: a map of the African nation in question. Beneath the map, the words: “Where the hell is Namibia?”

As for Brown, he lost the election and went into the political wilderness.

Remember this story if Brown does draw Whitman as his opponent and they ready for debate later this fall.

As a former governor with 40 years of political experience under his belt, he’ll be tempted to do something to make Whitman look like a lightweight. No doubt, his inner circle will be reinforcing that perception to the candidate (here’s an example of Al Gore falling into this trap).

But in a year when politicians are on notice — not just for how they vote, but how they act — any attempt to intellectually browbeat an opponent carries with it risk.  The stunt could easily backfire, even if it succeeds in catching Whitman flat-footed in her lack of awareness of some Golden State triviality (“Ms. Whitman, which do you prefer — Ballard Mountain or Negrohead Mountain”?).  

And whereas California voters, in 1982, decided they simply didn’t like Jerry Brown anymore, in this climate all it could take is the same condescending approach — a repeat visit to Namibia, if you will — to reach the same conclusion.

Written by Bill Whalen

February 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm

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The Tax(Cut) Man — and Woman — Cometh

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Lo and behold, an actual policy discussion may be emerging in California’s GOP gubernatorial primary: tax cuts.

On Tuesday, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner’s campaign released a web video claiming his opponent, Meg Whitman, doesn’t want to lower taxes. It comes the same day that Poizner, who for months now has toiled away in the relative anonymity of the GOP grassroots and rubber-chicken circuit, told reporters that he’ll soon launch a tv ad campaign introducing himself to a broader California audience (Whitman’s already two tv ads ahead of her rival). 

Steve Poizner

Poizner had no other choice tp up the ante as (a) he has to find ways to undermine Whitman’s standing with primary voters and (b) he has to limit the damage from Whitman’s earning a coveted endorsement from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association’s political action committee. Team Whitman quickly turned that nod (“the only candidate . . . Howard Jarvis himself would trust to protect Proposition 13”) into a radio spot.

At this point Poizner would welcome a debate over tax cuts — pretty much any policy debate, for that matter — to show off his detailed plan to jumpstart California’s economy . . . and change the dynamics of a primary in which Whitman’s style has trumped Poizner’s substance.

The Poizner plan:

a 10% reduction in all personal income tax rates

a 10% reduction in the state sales tax rate

a 10% reduction in the corporation tax rate

a 50% reduction in the capital gains tax rate

As for Whitman’s tax-cutting agenda, here’s what she’s suggested so far:

Enact permanent marginal tax rate reductions for the middle class

Cut taxes for job-creating businesses of every size

Implement targeted tax relief to strengthen manufacturing and create and retain high-paying jobs in California

Lower the capital gains tax

Expand research and development tax credits

Exempt purchases of manufacturing equipment from state sales tax

Establish tax incentives and credits to train and hire displaced workers

How nice it would be if the two rivals sat down and debate the merits of their respective plans — say, at next month’s Republican convention in Santa Clara.

BTW, Whitman is getting her advice from a campaign Economic Task Force that includes Hoover Senior Fellows Michael Boskin, John Cogan and John Taylor (they also advised California Govs. Schwarzenegger and Wilson).

As to what they’re thinking vis-a-vis California, tax cuts and economic revitalization, I recommend this Hoover Digest piece co-authored by Boskin and Cogan.

Written by Bill Whalen

February 24, 2010 at 5:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

California, New Jersey and Uncivil Unions

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Here’s a quick tale of two states, on different coasts, with a lot more in common than “Real Wives” reality shows.

In one corner: the Garden State of New Jersey. A $1.6 billion budget hole, and a newly elected governor’s who’s vowed to cut spending, including $475 million in state aid to schools.

In the other corner: the Golden State of California. A $20 billion budget hole and a Republican gubernatorial candidate who’s talking about trimming spending and bureaucracy.

Two states, two big budget messes — with unions doing their best to thwart the needed reform. 

As for New Jersey, it’s Gov. Chris Christie vs. the  New Jersey Education Association, plus other state and municipal employee labor unions.

Last year, the unions gave four times more to Democrats than Republicans.

Over the past six years, the ratio is closer to 5-1 in favor of Democrat who control the state legislature.

The unions didn’t support Christie in last November, now they’re making their opposition very personal. That includes this radio spot, paid by the NJEA, which began running last week:

“When it comes to New Jersey politicians, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Governor Christie promised a new direction, but after a few weeks he’s back to the old Trenton ways of doing business . . .”

Now let’s look at California, where Republican Meg Whitman has drawn the unions’ wrath.

In her case, it’s a fight with a group called Level the Playing Field 2010, a front group for labor unions and liberal activists that promises to spend as much as $40 million to drag Whitman, the former eBay chair, through the mud.

They too have put out a radio attack ad:


“Billionaire Meg Whitman thinks she can outwit the people of California. She’s threatening to spend $150 million to crown herself governor. But Meg Whitman won’t debate her opponents, and she refuses to release her tax returns. What’s Meg Whitman trying to hide with her $150 million campaign? Why won’t Meg Whitman explain the $12 million a year she claimed in cash and bonuses when she was in charge of eBay?  Twelve million dollars while laying off hundreds of workers, including 70 employees right here in California. Maybe she’s afraid she’ll have to explain why she billed shareholders millions for her personal use of the corporate jet. It’s time for Meg Whitman to level with Californians.”

Notice what the two radio ads have in common?

Answer: Both are light on substance, and heavy on character smears.

In New Jersey, the unions would have you believe that Christie,who made his name as a U.S. Attorney, is little more than a political hack. In California, the goal is portray Whitman as a calculating and cold-hearted plutocrat.

Will they work? Guess it beats having to defend ballooning public pensions and underperforming schools.  

And makes it very hard to argue against paycheck protection, to make it harder for unions to confuse the debate and waste the public’s  time with this kind of frivolity.

Written by Bill Whalen

February 22, 2010 at 7:06 pm

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Arnold’s Oval Office Moment

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President Obama’s schedule for Monday, Feb. 22:

9:15 a.m.   POTUS/VPOTUS receive presidential daily briefing

10:05 a.m. POTUS delivers remarks at National Governors Association mtg.

12:40 p.m.  POTUS meets with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

1:15 p.m.  POTUS meets with senior advisors

Wait a second, let’s back up to that 12:40 meeting with Schwarzenegger.

Actually it’s a make-up for a meeting that didn’t go down in January, when Obama cancelled on Schwarzenegger at the last moment.  Arnold wanted the face time to press his case for an extra $7 billion in federal aid to help the Golden State to dig out of its present $20 billion budget shortfall.

So, seeing as California hasn’t stumbled across $20 billion in lost money in the past few weeks, let’s assume money is the topic of discussion. Let’s also assume that Schwarzenegger will be on his best behavior.

He certainly was on the Sunday talk show circuit, going out of his way to take a jab at his fellow Republicans — the kind of jab the White House likes to hear, especially after a weekend of conservative brickbats and insults at the CPAC conference.

“Anyone who says (the stimulus) hasn’t created a job, they should talk to the 150,000 people who have gotten jobs in California,” Schwarzenegger said on ABC’s This Week.

“I find it interesting that you have a lot of the Republicans running around and pushing back on the stimulus money and saying this doesn’t create any new jobs, and then they go out and they do the photo ops, and they are posing with the big check.”

It’s not the first time that Schwarzenegger has defended Obama during a D.C. visit. Eleven months ago, while in town on a hunt for infrastructure money, Arnold let the President off the hook after that unfortunate quip on Jay Leno’s show about bowling and the Special Olympics

Hopefully, for the Governator’s sake, Obama doesn’t use the one-on-one to critique last month’s State of the State speech, especially this passage:

“Now, as you know, while I enthusiastically supported health care reform, it is not reform to push more costs onto states that are already struggling while other states are getting sweetheart deals. Health care reform, which started as noble and needed legislation, has become a trough of bribes, deals and loopholes. Yet you’ve heard of the bridge to nowhere. Well, this is health care to nowhere.

California’s congressional delegation should either vote against this bill that is a disaster for California or get in there and fight for the same sweetheart deal that Senator Nelson of Nebraska got for the Cornhusker State. (Applause) Because that senator got for the Cornhusker State the corn and we got the husk.” (Laughter)

No hard feelings, Mr. President. We’d like to see the Governator come home with a real cash in hand — not a promise that the check’s in the mail.

Written by Bill Whalen

February 22, 2010 at 6:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Congressional Races: Forecasting the Coming Wave

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A favorite political language exercise these days is describing the wave seemingly destined to crash ashore this November. Is it anti-Obama, anti-Democratic, anti-incumbent, or anti-Washington?

Or maybe all the above?

The much seems certain. If the forecasters at Congressional Quarterly are reading their charts correctly, it’s House Democrats who’ll be the first to be swept out to see.

Here’s CQ’s assessment:

— 42 of the 49 House races deemed “most competitive” now belong to Democrats;

— of the 18 races rated as “toss-ups” (i.e., no clear favorite), just one belongs to a Republican (Illinois Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, who’s now running for Barack Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat);

 —  7 seats have shifted from “likely” to “lean” Democratic (translation: no longer safe);

— 4 seats were added to the “safe Republican” list, the significance being that are all held by incumbents who received 53% or less in the last election.

The current makeup of the House is 255 Democrats, 178 Republicans and 2 vacancies in Democratic-held districts.

btw, if you’re curious about where California and its 53 seats (34 Dems, 19 Reeps) fits into the scheme of the “wave” election:

— 0 seats are toss-ups;

— 1 leans Democratic and 1 leans Republican (respectively, Reps. Jerry McNerney and Dan Lungren);

— 1 is likely Democratic (Loretta Sanchez in CD47);

— 2 are likely Republican (Ken Calvert in CD44 and Mary Bono Mack in CD45)

In others words, unless things change between now and November , just one-tenth of the delegation will be sweating it out on Election Night in the political fallout shelter we call California.

Written by Bill Whalen

February 20, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized