Bill Whalen

Bill Whalen

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Hoover. An expert on California politics, U.S. politics, and political campaigns, he writes frequently for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Diego Union Tribune. From 1994 to 1999, he was chief speechwriter and director of public relations for then-governor of California Pete Wilson. From 1985 to 1991, he was a political correspondent for Insight Magazine in Washington, D.C., where he was honored for his profiles and analyses of candidates, campaigns, Congress, and the White House.

 

For all the talk about the historic nature of the 2012 election – the first time a second Democratic president was re-elected within a 16-year span from the previous Democratic incumbent – the year was more a case of history repeating itself.

Here’s why.

Barack Obama earned a second term based in large part on his ability to paint his Republican opponent into a negative corner – specifically, $30 million of attack ads in Ohio during the summer portraying Mitt Romney as a job-outsourcer and clandestine overseas banker (here’s an example).

It was a time-honored tactic. Eight years prior, in 2004, then-President George W. Bush likewise got the jump on John Kerry, portraying his Democratic rival as an opportunistic flip-flopper who legislated as he windsurfed – the senator’s views shifting with the breeze (“which ever way the wind blows”).

And how did Bush settle on this strategy? Perhaps by watching Bill Clinton construct an argument for his reelection in 1996 based on the deconstruction of Bob Dole (here’s one such ad) – “Mediscare” becoming an addition to the political lexicon.

It’s one of the two historical quirks Obama, Bush and Clinton share – different presidencies, similar re-election styles. The other being that they’re the first three presidents to consecutively serve two terms since the Jefferson, Madison and Monroe presidencies of 1801-1825.

Will the 2014 midterm election be uniquely historic? Or will it follow a familiar pattern? You can decide by figuring which of these models best applies to this year’s environment.

That would include:

The Backlash. The obvious of the choices in that three of the last five midterms (2010, 2006 and 1994) played out the same: the incumbent’s party paying a heavy congressional price for a policy course that backfired against the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill (we’re leaving out the 1998 midterm – more on that in a moment). In 1994, the source of anger was Hillarycare (plus assorted Clintonian stumbling and bumbling). In 2006, it was an unpopular war in Iraq. In 2010: Obamacare and Democratic overreach. Is 2014 the second straight time that Obamacare comes back to haunt Democrats, or does another factor emerge by November?

Such as . . .

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The big news out of Washington last week: the swift resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – a lickety-split split from the Obama Administration in that the news was dropped late on Thursday, followed the next day by a goodbye ceremony at the White House, at which time her replacement was introduced.

Sebelius’ departure is the classic Washington whodunit. Did she leave on her own accord, as do many a cabinet secretary in a second presidential term? Or, now that Obamacare can claim its 7 million signees, was the head of HHS a pre-Easter sacrificial lamb for those who’ve been calling for her head?

(Appropriate for the manager of the Obama Administration’s troubled healthcare law, even her farewell remarks had a noticeable glitch)

Here’s yet another way to look at life after Sebelius: it’s the question of justice – spelled with both a lower- and upper-case “j”.

As for lower-case justice, the argument here is the resignation is months overdue. Sebelius could have/should have stepped down sometime around last Halloween, right after Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander called for her to resign, seconding 32 House Republicans calling for the same. Alexander’s not exactly a bomb-thrower. Instead, he offered a very reasonable rationale: as HHS Secretary, it was Sebelius’ responsibility to oversee the rollout of the new federal health insurance website – a techno-blunder that Sebelius would later try to brush off as “miserably frustrating”.

But Washington being Washington – no culture of shame, no one walking the gangplank unless the ship’s already sinking – Sebelius didn’t step down. At least, not for another five-plus half months.

Not exactly justice denied, but certainly justice delayed.

As for upper-case justice, that would be Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose future isn’t a whodunit. It’s a “when’s-she-gonna-do-it?”.

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As chance would have it, I attended a mixer on Wednesday night to listen to Dan Schnur, a candidate for California Secretary of State.

Dan’s a former colleague – we both worked for Gov. Pete Wilson back in the 1990’s. Since then, he’s worked as a p.r. strategist, press secretary for John McCain’s first presidential campaign (the 2000 version – the one reporters romanticized), and he chaired California’s Fair Political Practices Commission – the state’s watchdog agency – during the final months of the Schwarzenegger Administration.

But his biggest selling point as a first-time candidate is his professorial career at USC and Cal-Berkeley – guiding fledgling political junkies into jobs in Sacramento, Washington and the campaign circuit. Combined with his FPPC tenure, it enables Schnur to deliver a good-government riff about the evils of political money, while trying to encourage young voters to engage in a process that tests their faith.

One other thing about Schnur’s candidacy: he’s running as an nonaffiliated candidate, wagering that he can draw enough support from both nonaligned voters – the fastest-growing segment of California’s electorate – and disaffected Democrats and Republicans to finish in the top-two in California’s June primary.

The latest Field Poll on the SoS race, released earlier this morning, was a cold splash of water for those who might have assumed the open primary would open the door to nonaffiliated candidates.

The results: Republican Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute at the School of Public Policy, leads with 30% of likely voters, followed by Democratic State Sen. Alex Padilla at 17% (nearly half of which came after Field asked voters to choose a candidate other than disgraced State Sen. Leland Yee, who quit the race amidst a sensational scandal). As for Schnur, he sits at 4%, a point behind the Green Party candidate.

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Every four years, before America chooses a new president, the two major parties study the map, weigh their options (financial, political, symbolic) and then choose where to hold their national conventions.

Some years, the choices seem simple. Take the Democrats’ options for 2016. Having twice dabbled in swing states – Colorado in 2008 and North Carolina in 2012 – after two previous stays in safe blue havens (Massachusetts and California), Democrats might prefer something more biographically appropriate, assuming Hillary Clinton is the nominee. That pretty much narrows the list to Chicago and her native Illinois, or New York City and her adopted Empire State (both cities, of course, where Bill Clinton also accepted his party’s nomination, making for the consummate Clinton love-in).

As for Republicans and 2016, choosing a convention site seems as complicated a task as settling on a nominee – the options are multiple and it’s a question of what direction the GOP would like to head.

Last week, the Republican National Committee’s Site Selection Committee announced six cities in the running for the party’s 2016 national convention: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City and Las Vegas. Two other cities that had expressed an interest – Phoenix and Columbus (Ohio) – didn’t make the cut.

The next phase in the process: selection committee members will travel to the cities to hear their pitches and then deliver their recommendations to the RNC, followed by another rounds of cut, and after that a final decision by the national committee this fall.

So what to make of the six cities still in play?

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Before Ray Donovan, the fictional Hollywood fix-it man seen on Showtime, there was Raymond J. Donovan, the Reagan-era Labor secretary.

It’s been nearly 30 years since Donovan held that cabinet post. While he’s mostly forgotten, one thing he said endures. It came after Donovan had stood trial for larceny and fraud charges in connection with a New York subway-contracting scheme – in all, a two-and-a-half year legal ordeal. Given his New Jersey labor roots and the fact that the Mafia allegedly was complicit, the press presumed Donovan’s guilt.

Only, he was acquitted.

After which, Donovan uttered these words: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

Which brings us to another son of New Jersey looking to restore his luster: Gov. Chris Christie.

Buried under an onslaught of bad press over a state government scandal involving the shutdown of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge (aka, “Bridgegate”), Christie last week tried to turn the corner on his troubles – and turn the tables on a press corps that’s all but written his political obituary.

First, Christie released the findings of an internal review (here’s the report, in its entirety) conducted by attorneys of the governor’s choosing – five of them, former federal prosecutors.

Second, Christie mounted a media mini-offensive – “mini” in the sense that it’s hard to get on cable these days unless you have an opinion about Putin’s motives, Obamacare’s efficacy, or the fate of the Malaysian jetliner.

Third, a day after he released the review, Christie held his first press conference in nearly 11 weeks. And he sat down with ABC’s Diane Sawyer and Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.

Click to read more.

 

The big news out of Northern California today (aside from some long-overdue rain): State Sen. Leland Yee detained and arrested by the feds amidst a sweeping series of raids by FBI and gang task force agents.

Yee’s a Democrat from San Francisco, a longtime fixture in Sacramento, and a political pioneer: the first Chinese-America elected to the State Senate and, before that, the number-two Democrat in the State Assembly. At present, he’s a candidate for California’s Secretary of State – that candidacy now, obviously in deep trouble, if not finished.

Sadly, it’s the latest installment in a real-life version of House of Cards occurring under California’s State Capitol Dome.

Last week, Senate Democrats voted down a Republican resolution to expel state Sen. Roderick Wright – a Democrat convicted of eight felony counts of voter fraud and perjury.

And there’s State Sen. Ronald Calderon, a Democrat indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly accepting almost $100,000 in bribes and other assorted mischief (free food, free golf).

Both senators are on a leave of absence – though they’re still receiving their taxpayer salaries.

Here are three quick takeaways from Yee’s transition from running for higher office to riding in the back of a squad car.

Absolute Power Corrupts. The last time Republicans controlled California’s State Senate? That would be 1956 – the same year Eisenhower was re-elected, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Elvis cut his first gold album, and a full decade before some fellow named Reagan took on Jerry Brown’s father for governor of California. Nearly 60 years later, Democrats entered 2014 with a crushing 28-11 supermajority – with it, the ability to pass any piece of legislation it so desired (run-of-the-mill statutes, tax increases, constitutional amendment) without the need for GOP input and votes. That supermajority is no more, thanks to the three senators’ legal troubles (State Senate supermajorities are based on two-thirds of 40 seats; a minimum of 27 seats is needed). It’s reminiscent of what befell congressional Democrats in 1994, when the party seemed a little too arrogant and a lot too corrupt (remember the House banking scandal?) after four decades of majority control. The need to take advantage of supermajority led Senate Democrats down a bad political path earlier this month when they opened a hornet’s nest over affirmative action and college admissions. Yee’s apparent association with a gangster named “Shrimp Boy” suggests not only a politician who lost his bearings but perhaps adds to the perception of an institution unfamiliar with the concepts of honorable conduct and voter backlash.

A New “E” for GOP? California elections tend to revolve around a set of issue all beginning with the same first letter – economy, education, and environment. In 2014, will Republicans find a way to add a fourth “e” – “ethics” – to that list? For a party-out-of-power that’s struggling to find common ground with swing voters, the Democratic scandals could be a godsend – fraud, bribery, perjury and fraternizing with mobsters hardly being wedge issues. The simplest way for California Republicans to package this: by plagiarizing verbatim from 1994’s Contract With AmericaTo restore accountability to Congress the State Legislature. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace. To make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves.”A trickier matter: how legislative Republicans play the ethics reform package recently introduced by their Democratic counterparts.

Impact on the SoS Race. Before his run-in with the law, Yee was one of a handful of candidates – Republican, Democratic, independent – angling for a top-two finish in the June open primary for Secretary of State (among other responsibilities, the SoS is California’s chief election officer). Assuming that effort’s now cratered, who benefits from Yee’s fall? Obviously, some disenchanted Democrats will migrate to the frontrunner, State Sen. Alex Padilla. But keep an eye on Dan Schnur, a USC academic and nonpartisan. On the day before Lee’s legal troubles, the Schnur campaign issued this press release touting the candidate’s “anti-corruption agenda”. Before that, he called on Lee to vote to expel Roderick Wright from the State Senate. Historically, third-parties candidates in California are at a disadvantage: no grassroots infrastructure; the struggle to build a donor network. But the latest scandal adds gives Schnur’s candidacy a rationalization and potentially a tailwind – in a year when strange winds are blowing through California’s State Capitol.

 

Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen

 

It’s fitting that Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and generous donor to Republican causes (reportedly as much as $150 million in 2012), is hosting a dinner next week in Las Vegas for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush, after all, may or may not seek the presidency in 2016 – he says he’ll decide later this year. And the GOP field in which he’d take part? It’s a crapshoot, with no clear odds-on-favorite. Well, that and the fact that the betting lines keep moving – at a pace only a casino owner (and people fishing for something to write two years in advance) could love.

At the moment, it’s Bush’s odds on the uptick. Larry Sabato, the esteemed University of Virginia political scientist and crystal ball gazer, has the son-of-41/brother-of-43 at the front of the pack. Others see him as a Republican variation of Hillary Clinton – famous surname, potentially formidable, though unlike Hillary unable to clear the primary field.

Maybe most notable of all for Jeb Bush’s long-term prospects: he’s doing better in the all-important Barbara Bush primary – his mother softening her opposition to the thought of a third Bush male seeking America’s top political prize.

Here are four reasons to explain/justify the Bush buzz.

1)  Republican Speed Dating. To the adage “Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love” when choosing a presidential nominee, 2016 offers little in the way of order for the GOP. There is no frontrunner – no one candidate with a financial or structural advantage to muscle his or her way to victory (this worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain (to a lesser extent) in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012). Instead, the field is an exercise in speed dating – a presidential hopeful having their moment at the front of the line, then it’s on to the next prospective mate. Such was the case for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, following his re-election last November, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul earlier this year. Now, it’s Bush’s turn to be the media’s speed-date – until they find a new darling.

Click to read more.

 

On Feb. 27, 1968, soon after his visit to Vietnam to report on the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite took to the nation’s airwaves to share his personal views on the conflict. “To say that we are mired in stalemate,” America’s foremost anchorman said, “seems the only realistic if unsatisfactory conclusion.”

And with that, the Johnson Administration lost Cronkite – and not long after that, the court of public opinion.

Just as, with this column, the Obama Administration may have lost Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist.

Not that Ms. Dowd’s sometimes-acid pen is any match for Mr. Cronkite’s microphone, but she has picked up on a bad vibe: Democrats are in a state of panic as the midterm election approaches, and the Democratic president has done little to instill confidence in the party’s faithful. “With the health care sign-up period coming to an end this month,” Dowd writes, “Democrats in Congress are looking over at the White House and realizing that the president is not only incapable of saving them, but he looks like a big anchor tied around their necks.”

Ouch.

Not that his fellow partisans will go on the record trashing their party’s leader, but there is evidence of a rift wider than the two miles separating the Democratic White House and the Democratic-controlled United States Senate. As evidence: the nomination fight over Dr. Vivek Murthy, the President’s choice to serve as U.S. surgeon general. Republicans have steadfastly opposed, due in no small part to the National Rifle Association’s assertion that the good doctor is a bad anti-gun activist. The problem for Mr. Obama: as many as 10 Democrats seem ready to vote against the White House’s pick. When added to the earlier rejection of Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division – seven Democrats going against the President’s wishes on that occasion – it would seem that lame duck is on the menu in the “world’s most deliberative body”.

There are at least two other factors that may be contributing to why President is fighting two cold wars – Putin abroad, Senate Democrats at home.

Click to read more.

A Jolly Good Night In Florida

 

As if the week weren’t strange enough politics-wise, what with President Obama going from leader of the Free World to straight man for a hipster comic in hopes of selling his health plan to Gen Y, we’ve now discovered the key to tipping the balance in battleground Florida.

Unleash Bob Barker.

It was Barker, the 80-year-old former host of The Price Is Right, the long-running game show and staple of daytime television, who cut this ad urging voters in Florida’s 13th Congressional District special election to vote for his pal, Republican David Jolly, the narrow winner in Tuesday night’s vote.

Not that Alex Sink, the Democrat in the race and slight favorite going into election day, didn’t tap into her own tv star of yesterday. Her choice: Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, of Sha-Na-Na fame, who recorded a robo-call for the candidate attacking Jolly over wanting to lay waste to the senior safety net.

The net result: elderly game show host trumped elderly greaser, with Jolly winning by enough to avoid a recount (like that could ever happen in Florida).

Some thoughts as to this election’s significance:

1)  Don’t Buy All the Hype. Jolly ran on repealing Obamacare; Sink said she’s amend it, not end it. Republicans will tout this as proof that the President and his plan are albatrosses even in a district that Mr. Obama twice carried (52% in 2008; 50% in 2012). Then again, it wasn’t a regularly scheduled election – and that usually means a lower Democratic turnout. And it’s a swing district, with the two parties evenly dividing voter registration (37% Republican, 35% Democratic, 24% independent). As for Florida’s 13th CD being a preview of coming attractions: it’s true that a House special election in California in June 2006 was a precursor of troubles for the GOP that fall. Then again, in 2010 the Democrats won a springtime special election in Pennsylvania, only to lose 63 seats that fall – the biggest shift in over 70 years.

Click to read more.