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Primary Considerations

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 Robertson’s hometown to excoriate Robertson and Jerry Falwell as agents of bigotry.

In a sense, McCain‘s journey was a good deal more politically risky than Clinton’s. 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 Tuesday‘s 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 party’s heart. McCain has now drawn a line between the GOP‘s 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 another’s 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 Lott‘s bowels in the aftermath of another McCain upset, and not be filled with innocent merriment. If you love a politician for the enemies he’s 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., it’s Al Gore‘s 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 I’ll 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; he‘s the jerk-off flyboy redeemed by suffering; he’s 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 he‘d 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 didn‘t 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 Bradley’s viability, and visibility, are about as dim as Brooklyn‘s in the ’30s. His name is still on the ballot, alongside Al Gore‘s and Donald Trump’s. For much of the past week, he‘s 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 party’s front-runner in New Hampshire on February 1, and it‘s been John McCain who’s dominated the headlines ever since. Partly, that‘s 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, that’s the result of the media‘s 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 Bradley’s fault. Having chosen to go all out in the Iowa caucuses (where Al Gore‘s 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 Gore’s attacks altogether, and then accusing Gore of lying rather than simply demonstrating his deceptions.

It‘s not as if Bradley didn’t have a case to make. Indeed, not that you‘d know it from Bradley’s campaign, but nowhere do the differences between Bradley‘s and Gore’s proposals loom larger, and more to Bradley‘s advantage, than here in Los Angeles. For all that Gore has attacked Bradley’s health plan as risky, Gore‘s proposal is the one that’s been a proven failure here in L.A. Gore proposes to build on the Children‘s 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. Bradley‘s proposal -- much maligned by Gore -- would, by virtue of its universality, enroll a far higher percentage of L.A.-area kids than the Veep’s. 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, Bradley‘s 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 Gore’s plan doesn‘t 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 you’d 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 Gore’s, have been few and off-point. He‘s 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 hadn’t 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 Hillel‘s 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 I’m now compelled to wonder if the proper question for the Bradley candidacy isn‘t Hillel’s 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 won‘t be a lot of voters who’ll 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. aren‘t just geographical. Bell Gardens may be 30 miles from Bel Air, but when it comes to income and ethnicity and language and experience, it’s 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 Westside‘s 42nd district, Wally Knox. From the vantage point of his district, Knox’s report was a latter-day statistical equivalent of How the Other Half Lives, since the incomes Knox was documenting certainly weren‘t the incomes on the Westside. But then, Knox’s concerns have always centered on working-class lives. When I first met him, 23 years ago, he was a young labor lawyer who‘d just gone to work for the state’s 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, he‘s a proponent of better schools, higher minimum wages and securing worker rights, but so are most urban Democrats. Knox’s 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 he‘s 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 haven’t touched here on either Wally or Sheila‘s 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 Meyerson’s reports on our Web site, www.laweekly.com.


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