Government Reform: Is a Change in the Weather Coming?

Reforming government is a lot like the weather. “Everyone talks about the weather,” Mark Twain is credited with saying, “but no one does anything about it.” The same with making government more efficient and responsible. The difference is there’s a group out there trying to do something about it and they may have the political and financial heft to actually make a difference.

California Forward is a bi-partisan group of activist moderates with as firm a grounding in real world politics as they have ambitions for reforming California’s politics. Oh yes, they have the cash to make a difference, too. The five foundations — the California Endowment, The Evelyn and Walter Hass Jr. Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation — kicked in $16 million to support the group through three years of work  — and have apparently promised more if the reforms it generates in that time promise meaningful results.

Among those leading California Forward is Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and a former Democratic congressman from California who is the organization’s co-chair. The other co-chair is Thomas McKernan, the chief executive of the Automobile Club of Southern California and a major Republican fundraiser. They and others on the California Leadership Council, which includes former members of Congress and the legislature as well as partisan activists and former member of the California Supreme Court, believe California’s current way of governing is dysfunctional.

Case study #1: the state’s budget process. Which means it’s no surprise their first project, as described in a press release launching the effort, is to develop “new budget-making tools that could lead to better long-term fiscal management, improved results in the quality and efficiency of programs, and greater understanding and accountability regarding public expenditures.” OK, like most groups of their kind they speak in a lofty gibberish accepted among policy wonks. But to put it simply: they want to fix California’s broken budget process that has helped generate the state’s stupefying deficits.

As the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters and the Los Angeles Time’s George Skelton have both noted, other groups at other times have tried to reform California’s government. The proof of their failure is on display in Sacramento, today. They also point out, however, that the money behind the group and the stature of its leadership make this effort unique.

You can’t change the weather through legislation or initiatives. But you can change how government operates through those tools. But getting anything done in the state, whether through the ballot box or the Capitol, requires smarts, money and a commitment for the long haul. California Forward appears to have what it takes. At the very least, they’ll be an interesting group to watch. And who knows? After fixing California’s government maybe they can tackle something simple, like global warming.

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The Rocky Democratic Primary

The Democratic presidential campaign is now looking like a Rocky film. Any Rocky film. Both participants are bloodied. Both have hit the canvas more than once. Both have landed powerful blows and both have taken them. The partisans of each are in a frenzy. But only one of them is Rocky. The question is: who?

Senator Barack Obama remains the frontrunner. He has more delegates and has received more votes than his opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton. And while the uproar over his minister’s outrageous statements knocked him down, his speech in Philadelphia seems to have brought him back to his feet, at least among Democrats nationally according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. The poll shows Senators Clinton and Obama tied nationally among Democrats. The poll also shows that the long running boxing match known as the Democratic primaries is hurting the standing of both candidates among voters.

Yet while Senator Obama has the strongest claim to crumpled crown, it is Senator Clinton who is likely to earn the right to a Rocky-like sprint up those stairs in Philadelphia. She maintains a double digit lead in all the recent surveys for the April 22nd primary in Pennsylvania. Her campaign will tout this as proof that: 1) her comeback is complete; 2) only she can win in November; and 3) Senator Obama’s troubles have doomed his campaign.

The reailty is different, however. She is unlikely to make much headway against Senator Obama’s lead among delegates (CNN has Senator Obama with 1,622 delegates to Senator Clinton’s 1,485). Nor is she likely to overtake him in the popular vote (where he holds a 700,000+ vote lead, not counting the Florida and Michigan primaries — although even counting those tainted elections Senator Obama still out-polls Senator Clinton by approximately 100,000 votes).  

Of course, in political reality trumps real world reality every time. So if Senator Clinton’s team can sell the media — and if the media can sell the super delegates — that a win in Pennsylvania leaves only Senator Clinton standing in the ring, the actual delegate count won’t really matter.

However, her victory dance may be short. The next major round, two weeks later, are the primaries in North Carolina and Indiana. Senator Obama should win in North Carolina, where polls show him with a double digit lead. And while there are few polls for Indiana, those tend to show the Hoosier state it going to Senator Obama. If he lands this combination blow, the Obama campaign will proclaim they are proof that: 1) he has been and remains the true chamption; 2) only he can win in November; and 2) Senator Clinton’s campaign is doomed.

Yet, Senator Clinton is likely to pick herself up and continue the contest through Oregon and West Virginia and on to through Kentucky to Puerto Rico. The gladiators will continue to pound away at each other. Both candidates will hit the canvas again only to unsteadily rise to their feet. Come the Democratic convention this August in Denver they could both be punch drunk, battered and bruised, but still in the ring.

In the end, only one of them will get the nomination. Only one will be Rocky. Whoever it is, is going to need some bed rest, aspirin, and bandaids before the general election. And a raw steak for the black eyes couldn’t hurt.

Clinton and Obama Doing GOP Job

Enough already. The Democratic primary is in danger of turning into a focus group for the GOP. Haven’t these guys heard of mutually assured destruction? It’s as if Senator Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have entered into a pact to make the Democratic nomination as worthless as possible.

Instead of focusing on public policy issues the campaigns now seem to be nothing more than a series of attacks while friends of the candidates lob rhetorical grenades onto the playing field every so often. The only winner in this kind of fights is Senator John McCain.

The Friends of Hillary and Friends of Barack problems are enough to disrupt any candidate’s momentum. If they can’t find a way to keep their supporters in check neither will have any campaign staff left. The seemingly weekly resignations and apologies are getting old.

Of course, each has a non-staffer to rein in as well. Senator Clinton has her husband and Senator Obama his minister. These are (relatively) free agents who, while lacking formal roles in the campaigns, are an integral part of each candidate’s persona. They can’t be disciplined in the normal fashion, pushed aside nor ignored. They exist and have to be dealt with, but doing so is a huge waste of valuable time, resources and credibility.

As if the contribution of Senators Clinton and Obama’s friends weren’t enough to gladden the heart of Republican operatives everywhere, there’s the focus of the current debate. Is Senator Obama ready to answer the phone at 3:00 am? Did Hillary really act co-president during the Bill Clinton Administration? Is Senator Obama no more than an outstanding speaker? Is Senator Clinton merely the last gasp of the old guard?

These are the kinds of questions the GOP will be raising. Thanks to the Clinton and Obama campaigns, they have the benefit of seeing the impact of the attacks without spending a dime on market research. It’s a gift that, unfortunately, keeps on giving.

Everyone says there’s not much difference in the policy positions of the Democratic candidates so all they can talk about is personality and experience. Nonsense. There’s a host of issues that have yet to be explored. Has either candidate given a speech on reforming the tax system? On what they’d do to promote business growth and jobs? On how they’d address the country’s fraying infrastructure? On their view of the separation of church and state?

There’s just less than a months worth of news cycles between now and the Pennsylvania primary on April 22nd. And then there will be another six weeks until the primaries are finally over. The Clinton and Obama campaigns seem committed to filling these news cycles with attacks on one another. That’s mutually assured destruction. And there’s a reason the acronym for that strategy is MAD.

So here’s an idea: the candidates should sit down and work out a policy discussion policy. Every three-or-four days they should commit to a speech on the same topic, taking turns on who goes first. They should commit to only talking about their own positions, not their opponents, in the speech. In the days following the day or two after the second speech they can compare and contrast their positions, but then it’s on to the next topic.

Under no circumstances should they use the speeches to denigrate their opponent. Instead they should be striving to use these presentations as a way to explain their world view and their policy perspectives.

These wouldn’t be debates. We’ve had 20 of those and they’ve lost their meaning. The candidates get a few minutes to answer questions from reporters who often seem more interested in showing how clever they are rather than enlightening the electorate. A series of policy statements side-steps the media’s self-aggrandizement and forces the press to report on the substance of the candidates’ positions.

If Senators Clinton and Obama need an honest broker to help them work out the details on this policy playoff system, they can call in Howard Dean. Maybe he’s busy working on the nominating convention and it’s just not visible to the general public. Or maybe he’s not doing much more than he appears to be doing — which is very little if anything. As Chair of the Democratic National Committee it’s his job to make sure the party wins in November. Floating above the fray while the candidates hack away at one another is a dereliction of duty. He needs to step in or step aside. 

Could something like this ever happen? Probably not. The media would prefer to keep the focus on the horse race aspect of the campaigns. Reporting on policy positions is much tougher — you actually have to know something about the issue to ask intelligent questions or to analyze the candidate statements.

And campaign staff much more prefer lobbing grenades than thinking through policies. It’s much easier for them to come up with a nasty sound bite than a 45 minute dissertation on farm subsidies.

If something is going to happen to stop Senators Clinton and Obama from destroying one another, it’s going to be because they and/or Governor Dean decide that MAD is stupid. Except for the GOP. They’ve got to be loving the turn the Democratic primary has taken. And that alone should be enough for the Democrats to make a change.

Is Reverand Wright Barack Obama’s Swift Boat?

Senator John Kerry is a war hero. He has the medals to prove it and the testimony and support of the men who served with him. For a liberal Senator from Massachusetts running for president in 2004, these military bona fides were critical to his image, stature and credibility.

Then along came the television ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The ads were devastating. Extremely simple and effectively produced, they were a direct attack on Senator Kerry’s war record, his honesty and fitness to serve. Ironically, the credibility of the ads themselves have been a source of much debate. The general consensus is they were at best misleading and at worse defamatory. Yet they were inarguably effective. According to Wikipedia, when the ads first appeared 24 percent of swing voters believed there was some truth to the charges against Senator Kerry.

The Swift Boat ads were just one of the reasons Senator Kerry narrowly lost the 2004 race against President George W. Bush, but they were no doubt a factor. And the ads became a verb. Swiftboating an opponent is now a part of America’s political lexicon.

Unlike the Swift Boat Veterans who sought to destroy the Kerry campaign, Reverend Jeremiah Wright meant no harm to Senator Barack Obama. Yet his rise to prominence in the campaign may have the same impact. Senator Obama’s standing among Democrats and, most significantly, among independents, took a heavy blow when videos of Reverand Wright’s sermons hit the Internet. For example, Senator John McCain now leads Senator Obama by seven points overall — and even more among independents — since the controversy, according to polls conducted by Rasmussen Reports. And these polls were conducted after Senator Obama’s eloquent speech addressing the issue.

The Pastor Wright controversy will have little impact on passionate partisans. Strong supporters of Senator Obama remain strong supporters. Those who weren’t going to vote for him before are perhaps more passionate in their opposition, but he didn’t have their votes to begin with. The same could be said of Senator Kerry’s supporters — and opponents — in light of the Swift Boat ads. The damage to Senator Kerry, and now to Senator Obama, is among swing voters.

Few thinking Americans seriously believe Senator Obama shares the anger at and condemnation of America expressed by Reverend Wright. In fact, Senator Obama has explicitly repudiated those statements. But his minister’s statements have raised questions about the Senator, questions that go to the core of Senator Obama’s public persona. Can he really bring people together? Does he really represent a break with the divisive politics of the past? Is he a really a candidate that transcends his race and speaks to and for all Americans?

Reverend Wright’s words undermine his parishioner’s greatest strength and it attacks it among the portion of the electorate he needs most — swing voters. Not surprisingly, according to Rasmussen Reports, Senator Obama’s approval rating has dropped below 50 percent for the first time. Reverend Wright has done what Senator Obama’s opponents could not do: they have made Senator Obama “just another politician” in the eyes of many voters.

Can Senator Obama recover from this fall from grace? Probably. In my view he is a different kind of politicians, representative of a new generation of leadership that has the best chance of bringing the country together again.

Besides, something like this was bound to happen eventually. Senator Obama has created tremendous expectations, but he is, after all, only human. At some point his human failings would take center stage. Senator Obama is capable of countering the blistering attacks coming his way, but it won’t be easy. He not only needs to convince voters to trust him again, but more importantly in a purely crass political context, he needs to convince super delegates he is convincing voters to trust him again. Those party leaders are looking for the Democratic nominee who can win in November. If the conventional wisdom settles on a belief that Senator Obama has taken irreparable damage, those super delegates won’t hesitate to turn to Senator Hillary Clinton.

The timing works in Senator Obama’s favor. With a month to go before the Pennsylvania primary Senator Obama has enough time to turn things around, to prove he can deal with the controversy. But if he’s unable to overcome the swiftboating from his own minister, well, it’s probably better for Democrats to know that now than than in the fall.

Supreme Court Deals Blow to Party Power — Maybe

Imagine what a California legislature would look like if the general election actually mattered. Would there be less deadlock? Would the extremes of each party rule or would power accrue to the center? Given the dysfunction in Sacramento today, it’s an interesting potential tomorrow. And thanks to the United States Supreme Court, it could actually happen.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court voted to uphold Washington State’s “Top Two” primary structure. This system allows voters to vote for any candidate on the primary ballot, regardless of the party affiliation of the voter or the candidate. The two candidates with the most votes compete in the general election — even if they’re both members of the same party. The seattlepi web site has a thorough history of how Washington came to adopt this approach.

California’s currently has what’s called a “closed primary.” Voters cast ballots based on their party affiliation. Those candidates finishing first in their primary advance to the general election. Because of legitimate communities of interest and a substantial dose of political gerrymandering, the primary results usually decides the eventual winner. Districts are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican.

With primaries being the center of the political universe, partisans gain the upper hand. Candidates don’t need to appeal to the broader electorate, but they desperately need to court their parties’ core constituents. This tends to result in Democrats being more liberal and Republicans more conservative than might otherwise be the case. Moderates in Sacramento are few and far between.

The result is a state government that at best works poorly and at worst doesn’t work at all. As Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters points out, “The state’s ongoing budget crisis and lack of progress on issues such as water and education reform attest to the dysfunction – and to the disgust and alienation that Californians increasingly express toward politics.”

Partisan politics wouldn’t go away if California were to take this route. The Washington State approach, which is a “blanket primary” with “Top Two” result, still allows the parties to recommend candidates to the voters. It just prevents them from controlling what candidates are on the November ballot.

This doesn’t mean liberals and conservatives would never be elected, but it does mean more moderates would make it to Sacramento. Because in many districts, the Republican who could best appeal to independents and Democrats and the Democrat who could best appeal to independents and Republicans would have the best odds of winning the general election. This shift, along with, as Mr. Walters notes, “thoughtful reform of redistricting, and perhaps term limits, could restore some of the Legislature’s legitimacy and relevance.”

The Top Two system might be a boon for statewide offices, as well, for the same reasons it would benefit the legislature. Instead of politicans jockeying for partisan advantage, we might have state officials focused on solving problems.  And that requires compromise, something a more moderate environment in Sacramento would facilitate.

The Legislature, however, is unlikely to change the current election system. Lawmakers won under the current rules and have little motivation to reform a game they’ve mastered. Change would require a ballot initiative. Fortunately, it’s likely the Supreme Court decision has sparked ideas among moderates in both parties. After all, championing an issue like this would be very appealing to centrist candidates. It would increase their chances of getting through to the general election, appeal to independents and crossover voters, and would certainly increase a sponsor’s visibility.

So here’s an interesting scenario: Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (a Republican) and former Controller Steve Westly (a Democrat) both want to be elected Governor in 2010. Both are moderates, which puts them at a disadvantage under today’s system, but would be a strength under a blanket primary system. Better still, both made fortunes in the Silicon Valley and have proven their willingness to invest large amounts in campaigns. Imagine the impact of them coming together to qualify and pass a Top Two ballot initiative. Who knows, California might not get a functional legislature and the chance to choose between Commissioner Poizner and Controller Westley for governor.

It could happen.

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Senator Obama and the Race Issue

There’s never a good time for race to become the dominate news story surrounding Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency. But it would have been far better for the Democratic front runner if the topic had come to a boil several weeks ago. That’s because there’s a long lull between now and the Pennsylvania primary on April 22nd, and there’s a lot of political reporters with little to fill up the hours and pages between now and then. Thanks to his personal pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, however, race is driving the news cycle and Senator Obama had no choice but to confront it head on.

As might be expected, Senator Obama’s speech in Philadelphia, was eloquent and moving. It was, perhaps, the most direct discussion of race by a major presidential candidate in decades. He addressed virtually every racial issue to be raised in this campaign. From Geraldine Ferraro’s remarks that seemed to imply the Obama candidacy is “somehow an exercise in affirmative action.” And he repudiated several comments by Reverend Wright.

There will be many comparisons to Senator Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race to then Senator John Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 on religion. And it will stand up well to the comparison.

What’s unfortunate about all this is that the last thing Senator Obama needs is to be perceived as the Black candidate for president. He has spent too much time developing the deserved image of the candidate for change and hope. Yet the danger is that the narrative of his campaign is rapidly becoming that of his race and not his ideas. This will distract from his gaining ground on Senator Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania. He needs those voters focused on his ideals and his ideas, not the color of his skin. In those states where he’s been successful in that goal he’s done well. If the focus is on his race, however, he is in danger of having the election serve as a referendum on something other than his fitness for office.

Hopefully, people will listen to the speech. Hopefully, they’ll learn from it. And hopefully, political reporters and pundits will find more to talk about — perhaps even dealing with legitimate issues. Race will continue to be a part of this campaign for so long as an African American is a part of the election. But it would be nice if it wasn’t the primary topic of conversation and was, instead, just something noted, appreciated and then moved beyond.

Candidate Credibility

A politician’s credibility is like money in a bank account. There’s deposits and withdrawals. If the balance dips below zero the politician better hope there’s not an election coming up, because it’s tough to win with a deficit. Surprisingly, a surplus of credibility can be dangerous, too. It seems to build up expectations that, when unmet, causes a run on the politician’s account.

Take New York Governor Elliot Spitzer. He earned tremendous credibility with the public going after bad guys on Wall Street and in corporate suites. He ran for governor and won with 69 percent of the vote. Then his dalliance with call girls came to light. Because it went to the core of his image as a crime fighting good guy, it drained his credibility account faster than, say, having a relationship with a White House intern hurt President Bill Clinton’s account. The Governor resigned within days of the revelation, his credibility account depleted.

Candidates have an especially hard time maintaining credibility. The public expect politicians running for office to over promise, to pander, and to hurl around questionable charges against their opponents. And the candidates seldom disappoint. It’s the rare politicians who can rise above those low expectations. Senator Barack Obama did and so had Senator John McCain.

That’s why the news that an adviser to Senator Obama, University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, had told the Canadian consulate in Chicago that Senator Obama’s complaints about NAFTA was mostly “politics” did so much damage. It raised questions about what had been a competitive advantage: his honesty and integrity. Could it be that Senator Obama was no different than other candidates? The run on his credibility account was substantial and, given the timing, he didn’t have enough time to staunch the outflow, let alone build up the account again. The result: he fared worse in both Texas and Ohio than expected. Instead of wrapping up the nomination on March 4th it’s onto Pennsylvania.

Senator John McCain bases his political brand on credibility — which is why he’s likely to be in big trouble once the Democrats stop fighting one another and focus on him. He’s been spending his credibility freely and the pantry is nearly bare. His pandering to the religious right and his embracing of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts after first opposing them are just two examples of his overspending. Soon the “Straight Talk Express” will be less a mode of transportation than a punchline. He’s proven himself just another politician, willing to sell his soul to win office. That makes him just one of the pols. In itself, that wouldn’t be so bad, but it means he may have more trouble rising above the voter dissatisfaction with the GOP. There’s time for him to rebuilt the account while the Democrats distract voters, but it doesn’t appear he intends to do so.

Senator Hillary Clinton’s credibility has never been high among voters. Thanks to her husband’s administration and her own actions during that time, she has a reputation as being a fairly typical politician — at least where trustworthiness is concerned. This is one of the fissures in her edifice of inevitability that Senator Obama was able to exploit.

During the campaign, she actually has done a good job of building up her credibility. Senator Clinton’s performance in the debates have demonstrated her command of the issues and she’s allowed glimpses into the passion and commitment that underlies her political ambitions.

Yet there’s the little things that seem to be depleting her account. Consider her comments on whether the Michigan and Florida delegations should be seated at the Democratic National Convention. She started off saying it was important to seat these delegations to make sure their states were represented. This was a stretch. They were being punished for violating Democratic Party rules their representatives had previously agreed to, after all. But it passed the straight face test. You could argue that making sure two states sure to be important battlegrounds in November feel a part of the process was a greater good than enforcing party rules without laughing out loud.

But now she’s gone further, claiming the Democratic primary votes in Florida and Michigan were “fair.” This, of course, is ridiculous. What’s fair about an election in which only Senator Clinton and a minor candidate were on the ballot as in Michigan? And what’s fair about an election in which the candidates don’t campaign as was the case in Florida? Those weren’t fair elections. Argue that the rules should be changed for the greater good. Argue that enforcing rules shouldn’t matter. But to argue that the elections were fair is incredulous.

And thus Senator Clinton withdraws from her credibility account for a no good reason. It’s not like any reasonable person could agree with her. Nor does any rationale person believe she’d make the same arguments if she hadn’t come in first in those rule-breaking primaries. She risks not just depleting her credibility, but looking foolish.

Besides, a candidate’s credibility is too rare, fragile and important a thing for a candidate to waste.