Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Here Comes Obama

Flash! Confirmed today that President Obama will pay his first post-election visit to San Francisco next month. He'll headline two fundraisers on Thursday, October 15th, both at the St. Francis Hotel. There will be your usual cocktail reception, followed by a bigger-ticket full-on dinner. The money will be split between the Democratic National Committee and Obama's own campaign apparatus, now known as Organizing for America (the successor to Obama for America).

It's possible Mr. Obama's first presidential visit here will actually happen a few days before that, because organizers of the Presidents Cup golf tournament at Harding Park still hope he'll be here for the awards ceremony on Sunday, October 11. Former Presidents Clinton and Bush the First are supposed to be here for that. It seems unlikely that President Obama would come to San Francisco on the 11th, leave for four days and then come back, but maybe that can fit into his presidential schedule somehow.

Also interesting to note that he hasn't been here yet. By this point in his presidency, Bill Clinton had already paid about four thousand visits to the Bay Area. He came to California dozens of times as president, because Clinton knew all too well that Democrats can't win the presidency without carrying California, and that the Golden State's deep pockets are the best place to find enough loose change to build a campaign war chest. Perhaps Obama is taking us for granted? I would expect him to step up the frequency of his California visits as we get closer to 2012.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

It was a stunning moment in the middle of last night's presidential address to Congress. As Barack Obama ran through the litany of untruths told by opponents of his plan to reform the nation's health care system (death panels, government-paid abortions, free medicine for illegal immigrants), Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted out "you lie!"

President Obama seemed stunned, not sure how to react. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's eyes shot daggers Wilson's way. Vice President Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama shook their heads in disapproval. Democrats drowned Wilson in a chorus of boos. It sounded like a backbencher being shouted down during Question Time in Parliament. His fellow Republicans gave Wilson scolding looks, and the conservative from Columbia, SC seemed to sense immediately that he had done something wrong.

Wilson apologized later, admitting his outburst was "inappropriate and regrettable." It was also unprecedented. Never in anyone's memory had a member of Congress heckled the president during an address to a joint session. George W. Bush uttered all sorts of things that we now know to have been completely false, and not once did a liberal Democrat stand up and call him a liar, to his face, during a nationally televised speech. Can you imagine the Republican outrage if one had? The drumbeats for resignation, impeachment, maybe even public hanging for treason would have been deafening.

You can't access Wilson's House website right now - it's crashed from excessive traffic. His Twitter feed has been overwhelmed. His Democratic opponent in next year's election has reaped $100,000 in donations overnight from outraged voters. Conservative bloggers have already launched a campaign to respond in kind, seeking donations to re-elect this "great American hero."

So, was the president lying? Or was Wilson?

For the most part, the facts are with the president on this one. Some fairly quick research and interviews after the speech last night clarified what's true, and what isn't.

First off, on the issue of health care for illegal immigrants: The 1018-page House bill specifically outlaws spending federal money to provide health care for them. It couldn't be more explicit. So when the president told Congress "the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally," he was telling the truth, and not, as Congressman Wilson asserted, lying.

But - and there's often a but when you're dealing with federal legislation - there is nothing in the bill that would keep illegals from buying their own health insurance, and as Republican Congressman Dan Lungren of Sacramento told me last night, House Democrats killed a GOP-sponsored amendment that would require people to show proof of citizenship to obtain government health benefits. In other words, the reform plan excludes illegal immigrants from health care coverage, but it lacks an enforcement provision to make sure they don't get it anyway. That's a sore point for the GOP, and the source of Wilson's anger.

On other points of contention, President Obama stretched the truth a bit, mostly through sins of omission.

For example, he's changed his tune slightly on whether we'll be able to keep the insurance coverage we have now, if we want to. For months, he has guaranteed that those who like their current plans can keep them. Last night, his wording was different: "Nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have."

That's true - it won't. But there's nothing to stop your employer from dumping its insurance plan, sending you out into the private market, or to a new insurance exchange, and possibly to a government-run option, if that idea survives the Congressional meat-grinder. There could be incentives in the legislation that make it more economical for companies to stop insuring their employees. The Congressional Budget Office projects that about three million workers will suffer that fate under the plan, as now written.

And what about the president's assertion that he "will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits either now or in the future. Period" ? The president's first attempt at that line was interrupted by applause, so he said it twice. Both times, it wasn't 100% accurate. Well, he hasn't signed anything yet, so maybe he really means it. But it rang hollow, coming from a president who's already shown his willingness to increase the deficit at an exponential rate that would make even the Deficit King, George W. Bush, blush.

In fact, the CBO said the House bill would add more than $200 million to the deficit. But Pelosi and company dismissed that unbiased opinion, saying their bill would actually cut the red ink by $25 million. How did they reach that conclusion? They simply exempted about a quarter of a billion dollars that the bill spends on Medicare reimbursements for doctors. Even though Congress recently enacted "pay-as-you-go" legislation, requiring that all new programs be paid for, the Congressional negotiators made an exception for the reimbursements, and decided they don't have to be counted towards the total cost of the package.

Isn't that convenient? I think I'll subtract our mortgage payment from my expenses this month so that my bank statement can be printed in black ink for once.

On the hot-button issues, though, the president was telling the truth. There are no death panels in the health care bill. There is nothing in there allowing federal funding of abortions. The Hyde Amendment remains firmly in effect, and this bill does not repeal it. That won't stop his Republican opponents from saying otherwise as they try to derail reform.

The last ten minutes or so of this speech were as eloquent as any policy address you will ever hear. This wasn't an Inaugural Address; it was a nuts-and-bolts policy speech. Yet from the moment he brought up the late Ted Kennedy, Obama's rhetoric soared as movingly as ever. Singling out three iconic Republican Senators who'd worked with Kennedy on health-care issues was a particularly effective device. If you haven't read the text of Kennedy's deathbed letter to Obama about health care reform, click here. It will bring tears to your eyes.

It was a British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who famously declared that "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics" (although Mark Twain is the one who gave Disraeli's line wider circulation). We've heard more than our fair share of all three during the health care debate, and we're likely to hear many more. Last night's breach of Congressional etiquette would have felt familiar to Disraeli, but for Americans, it was much too reminiscent of last month's occasionally raucous public health care forums. Here's hoping that Congressman Wilson's outburst shocks the country back into a sober, civil discussion of a critically important issue. Sadly, as Disraeli might say, that's not bloody likely.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Lieutenant Governator?

Just spent a long, late evening covering the special election in the 10th Congressional District, which sprawls across a gerrymandered swath of the East and North Bay Area. Our Lt. Governor, John Garamendi, won the Democratic nomination and Republican businessman-attorney David Harmer won the GOP nod. They'll face off in November, along with three minor-party candidates.

It's a safe seat for the Democrats, who enjoy a 47-29 registration advantage over Republicans in the district, which voted 2-1 for Barack Obama last November. And that sets up an interesting scenario for political junkies to ponder: Who will replace Garamendi as Arnold Schwarzenegger's second-in-command?

The LG is almost certain to win in November. Harmer is an attractive, sincere, thoughtful, articulate man - but he has almost no chance to snatch the seat from any Democrat, let alone someone as well-known and well-versed as Garamendi. Yes, Garamendi can be wooden on the stump - in fact, sometimes he's downright stump-like - wears his political ambitions on his sleeve (he's run for Governor HOW many times?), and flits to the nearest TV camera like a moth strapped to a light-seeking missile. But he really does know the issues better than anyone else, has tremendous experience on a wide range of public policy questions, and is a comfortable fit for the increasingly progressive district.

So it's safe to assume Mr. Garamendi goes to Washington this fall - giving Governor Schwarzenegger the opportunity to appoint his replacement. Under California law, there will be no special election to choose Garamendi's successor. Governors and Lt. Governors are elected separately in California, which is why we have a Republican in the big fancy office and a Democrat in the smaller one down the hall. But if the #2 job becomes vacant, #1 gets to fill it. Both the State Assembly and State Senate have to confirm the governor's choice, with only a simple majority required.

So whom does Arnold pick to serve the remainder of Garamendi's term, which runs through January 2011?

We have to assume he will nominate a Republican. Schwarzenegger remains one, although some in his party would say it's in name only. Under normal circumstances, legislative Democrats might be willing to confirm any reasonable choice (read: not a fire-breathing right-winger). But the circumstances aren't exactly normal, for a few reasons.

First off, we have a major statewide election next year. Might Schwarzenegger give one of the three Republicans running to succeed him a huge boost by elevating him (or her) to the Lieutenant Governorship? How about Tom Campbell, the governor's former finance director, not to mention ex-Congressman, State Senator, Stanford law professor and Cal business school dean? What about Meg Whitman, the ex-eBay CEO and frontrunning Republican gubernatorial candidate? Not likely for Whitman, although Campbell's an intriguing choice. Problem is, he may not be conservative enough to win the Republican primary, but he's moderate enough to win a general election, so Democrats probably won't want to give him any help.

What about one of the people who's already running for the number two job? Schwarzenegger could give a huge lift to Merced State Senator Jeff Denham, the leading Republican contender for lieutenant governor in 2010, who has a huge lead in money raised over the only other Republican candidate, his Senate colleague Sam Aanestad. State Senator Dean Florez heads the Democratic field, but there's no reason Schwarzenegger would pick him. But confirming Denham would damage their party's chances of beating him next year, so Democrats would probably nix that nominee.

Perhaps Schwarzenegger will find a caretaker, even a Democratic one, who would be palatable to the Democratic majority. Former Senate president pro tem Don Perata? He's running for Mayor of Oakland and recovering from prostate cancer, so he might be preoccupied. How about Willie Brown? He and the Governator had a cozy lunch last week in San Francisco, with Arnold tweeting out photos of the two and Willie gushing about their good time in his newspaper column. It would be a nice career-capper for the former San Francisco Mayor and longtime Assembly Speaker. But can you imagine the Republican outrage if Schwarzenegger actually put Willie Brown a heartbeat away from the governor's office?

The thing is though, while the vice presidency is famously not worth a bucket of warm spit, the Lieutenant Governor of California actually has some real power. He gets to chair all sorts of commissions and sit on various boards, including the Regents. One of those is the State Lands Commission, a three-member panel that consists of the LG, the State Controller and the Finance Director. Earlier this year, the commission voted 2-1 to block the Schwarzenegger-supported plan to allow new oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast. Garamendi was the deciding vote. So if the governor replaces him with a Republican, one presumably beholden to some degree to Schwarzenegger, that vote could be reversed, and just like that, whether the legislature likes it or not, say hello to oil rigs along Tranquillon Ridge.

You can bet that will come up when the Democratic leadership goes into the governor's office tomorrow to discuss which nominees might be acceptable.

And then there's Abel Maldonado. You remember him - he's the middle-of-the-road Republican from Santa Maria, who represents another ridiculously-drawn district in the State Senate, reaching all the way up to the southern tip of the Bay Area, who broke party ranks last winter and voted with the Democrats to raise taxes to balance the budget. He desperately wants to run for statewide office. His Republican colleagues consider him a traitor, and he's not their ideological soulmate. Democrats can't wait for him to leave the Senate, because they've been salivating over his district, which they consider ripe for turning. Snatching Maldonado's seat would give them a 26-14 edge in the Senate, just one short of that elusive two-thirds majority they need to raise taxes and pass budgets.

So. Let the wheels turn. May the Machiavellian machinations begin. Increase your majority in the Senate - or risk offshore oil drilling? These are some of the weights the Democrats will have to balance as they consider whom, and whether, to confirm. Schwarzenegger may find himself handcuffed by the legislative leaders, who aren't going to want to give anyone with real ambitions a big leg up. They will almost certainly urge him to name a placeholder - maybe someone like former Controller Steve Westly, although Westly still may have future designs on running for governor again himself someday.

I'm not placing any bets, and I'm not taking any either. And I've gone on way too long, so let's call it a night! By the way, I do have lots I'd like to blog about on the health care debate, and I know I haven't been a very active blogger lately, but remember, I micro-blog on Twitter all day, so you can always follow my tweets at twitter.com/sovernnation.