I. McCain-ism Explained (Sort of. Provisionally.)
John McCain had his Sister Souljah Moment on Monday. Just as Bill Clinton traveled to a meeting of the Rainbow Coalition in 1992 to denounce African-American racism, so McCain traveled to Pat Robertsons hometown to excoriate Robertson and Jerry Falwell as agents of bigotry.
In a sense, McCains journey was a good deal more politically risky than Clintons. Clinton knew that he was still the candidate with the clearest claim on the black vote, Sister Souljah or no. McCain has no such assurance: He now faces a nomination contest in which the Christian Right will redouble its efforts to defeat him, and likely sit on its hands next November should he win the nomination. (According to exit polls, McCain lost the religious right to George W. in Tuesdays Virginia primary by an 8-1 margin.) He has, in one grand gesture, both pushed the Republicans to repudiate the fruitcake bigots in their midst and driven a political wedge straight into the partys heart. McCain has now drawn a line between the GOPs Protestant fundamentalists on one side and its more-establishment Protestants, its Catholic traditionalists and its Jewish neo-conservatives on the other. For the nation, his repudiation of the Christian Right -- in the name of Republicanism -- was an overdue instance of moral recentering. For the Democrats, however, it was also a moment of strategic opportunity: GOP presidential candidate attacks GOP activist base.
McCain is the occasion for a good deal of Democratic glee these days. And of all the emotions that John McCain touches in both the Democratic and the decent heart, the most powerful, I suspect, is schadenfreude -- the German word meaning pleasure at anothers pain. It is impossible to watch Robert Novak, cringing on CNN at each successive McCain victory, or to read of the anguish of all those GOP fat-cats who bought heavy and early into W., or to imagine Trent Lotts bowels in the aftermath of another McCain upset, and not be filled with innocent merriment. If you love a politician for the enemies hes made, John McCain has to be a major crush.
The Democrats dalliance with McCain, of course, is just a spring swoon. If McCain should actually upset Republican primogeniture and wrest the nomination from W., its Al Gores bowels that will be growling. From the Democrats perspective, the best possible McCain outcome would be for him to dog W. straight to the Republicans Philadelphia Convention -- and there, stage a bitter but losing credentials fight for the California delegation, assuming Bush holds onto the Republican vote here next Tuesday while McCain wins the beauty pageant.
The McCain phenomenon, as many have noted, seems as much about psychodynamics as conventional politics, though politics at the presidential level is often largely about psychodynamics. What exactly the McCain psychodynamics are -- other than electorally compelling -- remain fairly fuzzy, but Ill venture one thought: John McCain is the first political figure I can recall who manages to personify both rebellion and authority. He campaigns against the political establishment and for a renewal of national values; hes the jerk-off flyboy redeemed by suffering; hes Spencer Tracy with a streak of James Dean -- a father figure in touch with his inner son.
None of this is to say that he genuinely is what he comes across as, or, even if he were, that hed make a good president. It is to say that Al Gore had better hope he ends up running against Boy George.
II. West Wing (Woebegone) Wannabe
During the late 30s, a sportswriter asked Bill Terry, the player-manager of the perennial powerhouse New York Giants, to assess the chances of the lowly Dodgers -- then about two-thirds of the way through a 21-year stretch in which they didnt once win the pennant. Brooklyn? asked Terry. Are they still in the league?
Now, by all the evidence, there is a presidential election going on right now, but Bill Bradleys viability, and visibility, are about as dim as Brooklyns in the 30s. His name is still on the ballot, alongside Al Gores and Donald Trumps. For much of the past week, hes been campaigning in Washington state, which had a non-binding preferential primary among Democrats on Tuesday, alongside a very real Republican contest. But in Washington, too, Bradley ended up on Tuesday well behind Gore.
Bradley has really spent the month of February in a media black hole. It was John McCain, not Bradley, who upset his partys front-runner in New Hampshire on February 1, and its been John McCain whos dominated the headlines ever since. Partly, thats the result of the election calendar: February has been one loopy roller-coaster ride of Republican primaries, in South Carolina, Michigan, Virginia and Washington, while the Democrats have had no real (that is, delegate-apportioning) contests at all. Partly, thats the result of the medias pack instinct, their incapacity to cover more than one big story at a time. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold simultaneously two conflicting ideas and not succumb to paralysis. And while no one in decades has accused the media of even remotely resembling a mind, first-rate or otherwise, this February has demonstrated yet again that the media cannot hold two ideas that are distinct, let alone conflicting.
Ultimately, however, the Bradley black-out is Bradleys fault. Having chosen to go all out in the Iowa caucuses (where Al Gores institutional support always made the Veep the favorite), which he then lost by a wide margin, Bradley had to recoup by winning New Hampshire. More broadly, he had to become a better campaigner -- learning to defend his proposals on their considerable merits, rather than first sloughing off Gores attacks altogether, and then accusing Gore of lying rather than simply demonstrating his deceptions.
Its not as if Bradley didnt have a case to make. Indeed, not that youd know it from Bradleys campaign, but nowhere do the differences between Bradleys and Gores proposals loom larger, and more to Bradleys advantage, than here in Los Angeles. For all that Gore has attacked Bradleys health plan as risky, Gores proposal is the one thats been a proven failure here in L.A. Gore proposes to build on the Childrens Health Insurance Program, which in California is called Healthy Families. Problem is, Healthy Families is something of a flop at reaching children in L.A.s poverty-wage working class: Statewide, fewer than 30 percent of eligible children are enrolled, and the figure is far lower in Los Angeles. Bradleys proposal -- much maligned by Gore -- would, by virtue of its universality, enroll a far higher percentage of L.A.-area kids than the Veeps. Just last week, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, whose constituents are largely the immigrant poor, held hearings on how to boost health coverage in districts like his own -- and lo and behold, the Bradley Plan, suitably renamed, was trotted out as the solution. (Cedillo, like virtually every Democratic legislator in state, endorsed Gore nearly a year ago.)
Commendably, Bradleys plan was crafted last year to cover precisely the people -- some tens of millions of them -- who fall through the cracks of our current health system, and whom Gores plan doesnt really try to catch. More of those folks live in L.A. than anywhere else, and absent the enactment of something very like the Bradley plan, the bankruptcy of the county health system, narrowly forestalled in 1995, is only a matter of time.
Not that youd know any of this by listening to Bill Bradley. The former senator seemed surprised that Gore would go after his proposal in much the manner that the healthcare industry went after the Clinton plan in 94. His defense of his own plan, and his attacks on Gores, have been few and off-point. Hes been marginally more adept at defending his position since New Hampshire than he was before, but since New Hampshire is too late. When Bradley was still in the game, he hadnt yet mastered his playbook.
In his stump speech, Bradley consistently argues that the current period of prosperity is precisely the time to undertake such long-overdue and necessary projects as providing universal health insurance. In some talks, he makes the point with Rabbi Hillels third question: If not now, when? I feel somewhat responsible for the Hillel line, since I suggested it to Bradley, during an interview last summer, as a phrase that encapsulated a good deal of his message. But Im now compelled to wonder if the proper question for the Bradley candidacy isnt Hillels third, but his first: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Bill Bradley has gone through this campaign without a clear sense of how to be for himself. Come Tuesday, I suspect, there wont be a lot of voters wholl be for him, either.
Or as Bill Terry, his fellow New York jock, might have put it: Bradley? Is he still in the league?
III. Westside Worthy
The hardest thing to do in Los Angeles is simply to see the city whole. The distances in L.A. arent just geographical. Bell Gardens may be 30 miles from Bel Air, but when it comes to income and ethnicity and language and experience, its on another planet.
In recent years, a body of social scholarship has appeared that lets us see this brave new city rising around us. The seminal document was a survey conducted a couple years back by something called the Assembly Select Committee on the California Middle Class, which noted in grim, quantitative detail that the Los Angeles middle class is all but an endangered species. Charting the out-migration of aerospace workers and the in-migration of the immigrant poor, the study showed that in 1996, fully 40 percent of L.A. county residents lived in households with an annual income of less than $20,000, and two-thirds in households with an annual income under $40,000. Even worse, the number of county residents in middle-class households, with incomes between $40,000 and $100,000, actually declined in the first half of the decade.
The Assembly Select Committee on the California Middle Class was the creation of the assemblyman from the Westsides 42nd district, Wally Knox. From the vantage point of his district, Knoxs report was a latter-day statistical equivalent of How the Other Half Lives, since the incomes Knox was documenting certainly werent the incomes on the Westside. But then, Knoxs concerns have always centered on working-class lives. When I first met him, 23 years ago, he was a young labor lawyer whod just gone to work for the states new Public Employees Labor Relations Board. Not long thereafter, he went into private practice, representing for the next 15 years an array of L.A.-area workers trying to form unions, or keep their employers from busting them. Last year, his fifth in the state Assembly, Knox authored and pushed to enactment the bill restoring overtime pay for workers who put in more than eight hours a day -- reversing a Pete Wilson diktat that had stood for half a decade.
What Knox brings to Sacramento is a level of analysis and advocacy, not easily matched, for rebuilding a California middle class. Of course, hes a proponent of better schools, higher minimum wages and securing worker rights, but so are most urban Democrats. Knoxs distinctive contribution is to argue that we should offer tax breaks to companies for training their workers and increasing their skills, just as we currently offer them tax breaks for investing in new machinery and equipment. In a word, we should reward investment in labor as we do investment in capital. Knox deserves a chance to wage this battle from the floor of the state Senate -- to which hes seeking election next Tuesday.
A caveat is in order here, big-time: Wally Knox and I have been friends for a couple of decades now. And I certainly admire Sheila Kuehl, who, like Wally, has been a terrific legislator, and who, like Wally, is termed out of the Assembly this year, and who, like Wally, is running for the state Senate seat from which Tom Hayden is term-limited, too. I havent touched here on either Wally or Sheilas best-known achievements, which are both many and significant. However, from my perspective (which, I readily admit, is that of a friend as well that of a columnist), the case for Knox comes down to this: On our single most important challenge -- how to keep California from splitting irrevocably into two economies, separate and unequal -- Wally Knox is the most clear-sighted public official we have. The presidential candidates are in L.A. this week. Look for Meyersons reports on our Web site, www.laweekly.com.
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