Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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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,’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

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.


“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