The Oracle Speaks

In the wake of Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he was quitting the race for governor, I argued that California, Democrats, and Jerry Brown would be better off with a contested primary. This morning, our friends at Calbuzz took issue with that argument. Labeling me the “Oracle of Cruickshank” they argued that Dems would be “nuts” to want a contested primary:

Now while Calbuzz has no horse in the race, on either side, and though we’d dearly love a Dem horse race to write about, we do have a penetrating analytical question to ask those Democrats who want a competitive primary: “Are you out of your friggin’ minds?”

You have the ideal situation right now, tactically and strategically, and you want to screw it up? What are you – Democrats?

By “ideal situation” they mean an uncontested primary that enables Brown to hoard his resources until the summer, when he can concentrate his fire on the Republican nominee. According to our friends at Calbuzz, we progressives are crazy to look such a gift horse in the mouth.

Except, as I’ll argue below, it’s not such a gift horse at all. The Calbuzz article, while interesting, doesn’t actually address the core elements of my argument for a contested primary, while offering as its evidence only one out of many gubernatorial races. Now that I’ve had my morning hit of ethylene, I can give you my oracular wisdom.

First, the Calbuzz case against a contested primary:

Consider Exhibit A – 1990 – when U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson was begged by California Republicans to come back and run for governor because they were convinced there was nobody at home who could beat then S.F. Mayor Dianne Feinstein or Attorney General John Van de Kamp.

Wilson stepped into the breach, with no need to run a primary campaign. “It allowed us to position Pete for general election – pro-choice, anti-offshore drilling – two incredibly important symbols of moderation, AND we were able to hold our resources and our fire for DiFi in June, with an entire campaign planned from June to November,” recalled Don Sipple, Wilson’s media strategist.

“If you will recall, it was an off year with GOP controlling White House and we had to buck headwinds at the end,” Sipple remembered. “All of the advantages cited above came into play in order for Pete to squeak out a close win in a tough campaign.”

1990 is one possible example of how this election could go. 1998 is another. Gray Davis survived a contested primary against not one but two wealthy opponents (Jane Harman and Al Checchi) and went on to defeat a Republican, Dan Lungren, who had won an essentially uncontested primary. And of course, as I argued in my original post, the Obama-Clinton primary of 2008, which was fought very intensely here in California, wound up playing a key role in motivating and organizing the Democratic base in CA to work to elect Obama in the general election. Obama was a far stronger candidate because of that contested primary.

One of my core arguments, in fact, was that the conditions of the 2010 campaign made a strong case for a contested primary. 2010 isn’t 1990, it’s not 1998, and it’s not 2008. It is an electoral landscape that ought to be assessed on its own merits – merits I believe show the value of a contested primary. Here’s what I had to say about 2010:

As we’re seeing in Virgina and New Jersey gubernatorial races, the deciding factor is whether the Obama voters of 2008 will turn out to elect Democrats in state gubernatorial races. The answer to that question is clear: where the candidate espouses openly progressive positions, as Jon Corzine has begun to do in New Jersey, he has some success in motivating the Obama voters to return to the polls and elect a Democratic governor. Whereas Creigh Deeds couldn’t distance himself from Obama quickly enough and took anti-progressive positions, and now faces a resounding defeat at the hands of a wingnut….

This centrist positioning is the same playbook Brown ran as mayor of Oakland, where he frequently battled progressives. In short, Brown is unlikely to offer the kind of progressive language and policies that are required to drive a favorable turnout in November 2010 to get himself elected.

That argument was at the center of my case for a contested primary – that Brown has to motivate a significant chunk of the 2008 Obama electorate turn out for him in November 2010, and that the only way to ensure it happens is for him to espouse some progressive policies that offer a way out of the current crisis. Given Brown’s long history of triangulation politics – his “canoe theory” – and his embrace of anti-tax politics, it seems that the only way to push Brown to offer the kind of vision he needs to win the general election is to have a primary challenger who can make Brown compete for the progressive electorate.

Calbuzz seems to try and dismiss this argument, if indirectly:

It’s a no-brainer, really: Why would Brown want to be pulled to the left on gay marriage, driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants,  taxes, or whatever? Why would he want to have to kiss ass for the CCPOA, CTA or any other labor union that would extract promises in exchange for money and volunteers?

While those unions will probably turn out for Brown in the fall anyway, it’s not at all clear that “the left” will do so. Brown very much needs to “kiss ass” to progressives if they’re going to be motivated to care about his election. This is the lesson of Virginia and New Jersey, where moderate Democrats generally took progressives for granted and gave them little reason to organize to overcome the right-wing hordes.

As the LA Times/USC poll indicated, voter disillusionment and apathy is likely to be a significant feature of politics in 2010. The candidate that can best overcome that sense of despair is the candidate who will be our next governor.

Again, as we saw in VA and NJ, that candidate could well be a Republican. Flush with money and with a motivated base, Whitman and/or Poizner would give Brown a serious challenge anyway, but particularly if Brown fails to energize his base. Tom Campbell presents the problem in a different way, someone whose policy positions aren’t likely to significantly differ from Brown’s and who could therefore win the independent voters Brown believes are essential to victory, once again assuming Brown can’t motivate progressive turnout.

Judging by the Calbuzz article, it’s not clear if Brown understands this:

Having run statewide in California for secretary of state, governor, senator, attorney general and president, it’s not as if Brown is a newcomer in the political process. “Even more important,” Willie Brown told us, “He is not a newcomer to the thought process of government.”

But progressives like the Oracle of Cruickshank aren’t convinced. “A contested Democratic gubernatorial primary is essential to not only a strong Democratic campaign in the fall of 2010, but more importantly, to rebuilding the shattered ruins of a once-golden state,” Cruickshank wrote.

To which Jerry Brown replied the other day: “Do you know how many primaries I’ve been through?”

And yet my point is that it doesn’t matter how many primaries he’s been through. All that matters is whether he knows what’s needed to win the 2010 general election. Instead of showing he has some plan to woo progressive voters and generate the kind of momentum and grassroots activity he’ll need to win a turnout election, Brown seems content to rest on his past experiences and assume he can run the same game plan to victory.

Perhaps Brown is right. But it’s not a chance Californians, Democrats, or progressives ought to take. This oracle predicts the only way to push Brown to embrace the progressive policies he’ll need to win is through a contested primary.

9 thoughts on “The Oracle Speaks”

  1. of 1998 did have the effect of rallying the party around its eventual nominee, but the contested Dem primary of 2006 had the opposite effect, creating resentments that greatly hampered the nominee in the general.  So in essence, pushing for a contested primary in 2010 is gambling that it won’t turn bitter.  How is that guaranteed?

    Also, Dan Lungren was an intrinsically weaker candidate as the GOP nominee in 1998, compared to Wilson in 1990, partly because Lungren was more isolated as a right-winger, while Wilson was perceived as more moderate, and had the time to sell that image because he lacked a disruptive primary.  If Feinstein had run against Lungren, and Davis against Wilson, there may well have been opposite results in those elections — which suggests it is not the presence or absence of a contested primary which made the difference in either case.

  2. There is no way to prove this, but I think that Obama was a stronger candidate going into the general election because of his tough primary against Clinton.  Of course, it is ridiculous to imagine that Clinton would bow out at the first sign of an Obama surge, but if that had happened, I don’t think the campaign would have developed the kinds of methods that were so effective in the general.

  3. The “progressive enthusiasm” concern is a perceptive point.  

    Automatic Mandate-Maker: Similarly, addressing progressive issues in the primary also creates the vehicle for a “public education”/leadership process, bringing attention, debate and legitimacy to progressive objectives in a way that moves them mainstream. So that, when the Dem wins, these issues are part of the ‘vetted’ campaign platform that becomes the new governor’s Mandate.

    Don’t Let GOP Have All the PR:  Another point is that the hubbub of the primary brings free attention and coverage to the Dems . . . why sit it out and let all the excitement devolve upon the GOP dummies, giving them facetime, personalities and (gag) gravitas, in the public’s eye?

  4. Who yah got in mind. You can’t run ‘nobody’. Frankly this perspective reminds me of the ‘reason’s we ‘had to vote’ for Obama. That is, he’s black so obviously he’s a progressive, he’s against the wars in the ‘stans and The SandBox so obviously he’s a progressive…

    And gee, did that no work out ever so well for progressives.

    Yah absolutely must have a real person of some substance we might consider as a candidate. Otherwise…

    …yer jes bloviating ’cause you doan like Jerry.

  5. 1998 was ideal, if only because the two billionaires beat the hell out of each other, and Davis was 4th in a group of 3 (remember that open primary nonsense?) and no one picked on him because he was seen as a non threat. Once Jane and Al had beaten each other to Death, it was easy for Davis to push through.

    And look how great that turned out.

    2006 was an embarassment. Super low turnout for two candidates who had not a lot to say, and ended up losing to a has been actor. That turned out great too.

    If someone doesn’t enter this race who really wants the job and is willing to fight for it, this “oh noes we haz no primary” shit is just blog fodder. Time for someone to step up and run a real campaign, or it’s time to start building the GOTV infrastructure to keep those goddamned state-wreckers out of the Governor’s office.

  6. A good bit of this thread is consumed with discussions of whether a contested primary would end up more like Obama/Clinton in 2008 or Angelides/Westly in 2006.

    I would like to suggest that whether you come out of a primary like Phil Angelides or Barack Obama depends on what kind of candidate you are.

    Obama’s campaign was all about a vision for America. As a candidate, he sold himself on what he would do as President and what America would look like if he had the chance to shape it. Clinton’s campaign, at least until she got desperate toward the end, was much the same.

    The Angelides and Westly campaigns didn’t really have a vision. Their selling points were, “I’m not as bad as the other guy”. Angelides never voiced a specific notion of how California would be different if he was elected, either in the primary or the general. Westly surely would have been little different in this respect had he won the primary.

    Because Obama was a candidate with a vision, any time spent fighting during the primary was time spent promoting that vision. That meant that any primary campaigning did double duty as general campaigning. Every dollar, every minute Obama spent pushing himself and his positive case to the voters helped make a positive case that also helped him against John McCain.

    Because Angelides and Westly didn’t have much in the way of vision, didn’t really have a positive sales pitch, the primaries were spent tearing each other down. Every dollar Angelides spent convincing the public they didn’t want Steve Westly as governor was wasted insofar as it convinced the public they didn’t want Arnold Schwarzenegger as govenror. Every dollar Westly spent convincing the public they didn’t want Phil Angelides as governor did that much more to make Schwarzenegger look attractive.

    You might as well just say that Obama ran a positive campaign in the primary whereas Angelides ran a negative one. But I think this is oversimplifying. The point I’m trying to make is that Obama had the luxury of running a positive campaign because he was a transformative candidate with transformative ideas. Angelides and Westly on the other hand had to fall back on negative campaigning and bickering over minor policy points because that was really all they had to work with.

    So one question here is, what kind of candidate is Jerry Brown going to be? Is he going to run by saying, there is something fundamentally wrong with California and you should elect me so I can do these things necessary to change them? Or is he going to run by saying, I’ve got experience, I’m a Democrat, I’m good enough and you don’t want to vote for the other person anyway? If he’s going to be the first, a primary will actually help him; if he’s going to be the second, a primary is more likely to hurt.

    Though if he’s going to be the second kind of candidate– is that even really what we want to see at this point? In particular, is it enough to defeat Meg Whitman?

  7. Look, would we want choices in a Democratic primary for California Governor? Yes!

    Does that mean we should do everything in our power to push another candidate into the race for the sake of a primary? No!

    After reading Robert’s post he points out the VA and NJ examples, yet if i recall Creigh Deeds had a very robust primary well his opponent did not.  And we see that the Republican won.

    Did Creigh not work to get Dems to support his candidacy and spent precious primary dollars to get the nomination (thus citing the example of Obama’s tough primary)

    Phil Angelides did expouse a very progressive agenda, he laid out a plan on healthcare, education and the environment and told voters in an honest way how he was going to pay for it – he lost.  

    After his tough primary he was broke, and thats when Arnold begin to air his commercials painting Angelides as something “backwards” for CA.  Less we forget the first set of ads put out by Team Arnie was of Phil Angelides walking backwards.

    The fact is, all of us can cite examples of where primaries were helpful and elections where primaries were not.

    I mean i think we can all agree that a primary system would never have produced Arnold. (rightfully or wrongfully)

    And from everything i’ve read about Jerry Brown it appears he has Joe Trippi, Steve Glazer and Michael Trujillo helping out the campaign in some capacity.

    Trippi is noteworthy for his role in Dean’s presidential campaign, Glazer for his longtime history with the Brown family and Michael Trujillo for his role in the Clinton and Villaraigosa campaigns.

    I think all three of those fellas along with other yet-to-be named aides that Brown will hire at some point — point towards a team that knows how to win CA, in a progressive atmosphere while still making republicans cry.

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