Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Catching Mitt

Once upon a time...maybe a dozen years ago...I was waiting for the elevator at One Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the 40-story skyscraper where our radio station used to be, before we moved into Gray Rock, the local CBS complex. The elevator doors opened, and out swept a tall, handsome man of impeccable bearing, flanked by a coterie of solicitous sycophants.
"Who's that?" I asked the lobby guard, as the man and his entourage bustled by.
"Why, that's Mr. Bain," he beamed.
"No," corrected a second guard, "that's Mr. ROMNEY."
It was, in fact, Willard Mitt Romney, the CEO of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that occupied two or three floors of offices below our studios. He was the son of former Michigan Governor George Romney (who'd been president of American Motors), and a very rich man.

The other day, I saw Mitt Romney in person for the first time since then. He came to Silicon Valley for the first public Bay Area appearance of his presidential campaign. He's been here quite a few times to raise campaign funds - something he's quite good at - but this was his initial contact with Northern California voters.

Romney spoke at a Santa Clara restaurant, holding one of his "Ask Mitt Anything" town hall meetings. It was free, and anyone could come, and a capacity crowd did. They were mostly, but not all, Republicans, and many were undecided, curious, eager to learn more about the former Massachusetts governor.

Romney has aged well. He is 60 years old, still tall and handsome, upright and trim. He's grayed at the temples, but hey, haven't we all? (Okay, I guess I haven't, but if more of my hair hadn't abandoned my head, it might be gray by now). He's still impeccably tailored and carries himself with the assurance of a man of privilege, someone who knows who he is and feels good about it. He's comfortable with people, smooth-talking, a pleasant chatter. He looks you in the eye, finds a way to relate, smiles easily, remembers your name. It's no wonder he's made a quarter of a billion dollars, and become a successful politician -- which is why I think he's being underestimated by many of the pundits, who can't look beyond his religion, and why I think he'll do a lot better in the Republican primaries than many people expect.

I've had Mitt Romney in the top spot in my GOP Power Rankings since I started posting them in June. Some are incredulous at that, pointing to his low showing in the national polls, and dismissing Romney's chances because he's a Mormon. But the man is a fundraising machine, can (and will) supplement those donations with his own fortune, has done extraordinarily well in the early debates, and has built an impressive ground operation in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. He's been on television and radio for months now in the Midwest, where his name recognition is much higher than it is nationally, and the voters who have met him at bakeries, restaurants and these "town hall" meetings, like him.

Let's face it, Mitt has "it." "It" is, for better or worse, the main determinant of success in an American presidential election. Got it? You've got a chance. Don't? Forget it, you're Al Gore. Or John Kerry. Or Bob Dole. Or Michael Dukakis, Fritz Mondale or the first George Bush or Jimmy Carter when they were running for re-election (psst: "it" can wear off).

Unfortunately, most American voters base their Election Day decision on likability, not self-interest. Polls in 2000 showed a majority disagreed with George W. Bush's positions and beliefs, yet enough voted for him anyway to put him in position to "win" that election, simply because they felt more comfortable with him than with Al Gore. Americans want a leader who projects confidence and quiet strength, not intellectual arrogance, and certainly not tentativeness. For many, many years, the taller candidate has always won...although Bush broke that streak, by defeating the taller Kerry (Gore is taller than Bush too, but he got more popular votes, remember?). Most voters will never meet their president, let alone have a beer with him or her, so it's certainly silly to vote for someone you like in the abstract but whose policies will tangibly worsen your life -- but most don't ever bother to study those policies, so the beer buddy test has to suffice.

There's no doubt that getting the measure of a man, or woman, can tell you a lot about his or her character, and my votes in the past have certainly been influenced by my interactions with the candidates. John Edwards has a very firm handshake; Barack Obama is extremely bright and exudes charisma; Fred Thompson seems twitchy. Rudy Giuliani seems almost mean sometimes; John McCain is funny and has a quick, self-deprecating wit; Hillary Clinton comes across as incredibly smart, well-studied and self-assured. But I would still never vote for someone with whom I disagreed consistently on the issues, no matter how much I liked them. I am in a very fortunate position of uncommon access to these people, so it is my job to communicate what I can to those who aren't, to help them make a more educated decision. That's why you can hear every word Mitt Romney uttered in Santa Clara, under the Featured Audio section of his SovNat page (click on Mitt's button under Meet the Candidates) and also on the home page Featured Audio. He talked a lot about education, immigration, technology, the economy - mostly bread-and-butter, pocketbook issues that hit home with the Silicon Valley crowd. He uses words like "mosey on down" and "folks" and talks a lot about America, the future, greatness - always upbeat, optimistic, and folksy. I think he's going to wear very well on the voters, and I would not be that surprised to see him pop out of the early primaries and surge past Giuliani, Thompson and McCain.

We did catch him off guard a couple of times, though. Romney changes his positions the way other candidates change suits. How many of you have completely altered your thinking on fundamental social issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control over the last five or ten years? Romney has. The woman who introduced him in Santa Clara enthused about how great it would be to finally have a real businessman in the White House, someone from the private sector with an MBA, sentiments Romney echoed, apparently forgetting that that also describes George W. Bush. When I asked Romney about that, he said he wasn't talking about Bush, or any of his rivals - and then proceeded to say that none of his rivals could match his Wall Street cred. We also asked him about the Blackwater scandal in Iraq, since the company's vice chairman, Cofer Black, is Romney's top campaign advisor on national security. It was the only time I saw uncertainty in his eyes. He seemed unprepared for the question, and stammered through a non-answer, about awaiting the results of the investigation into the "troubling" allegations.

Romney's nomination would be good news for Hillary Clinton, because evangelical Christians don't trust him, and conservative Republicans wouldn't be motivated to turn out for him in November. Clinton, or whomever the Democrats nominate, should prefer Romney to Fred Thompson, who might prove a more formidable general election opponent. But stand Thompson next to Romney on a stage at an Iowa county fair or a New Hampshire candidates' forum, and see who makes more voters smile and nod.

"Mit" means "with" in German. I think more and more Republicans are going to be mit Mitt, as we get closer to those first primaries. If not...with that square jaw and smooth baritone, he'd make an outstanding TV anchor. Maybe he'll swing by CBS for another visit.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fat Man and Little Boy

No, that's not the bipartisan Dream Ticket of Mike Huckabee and Dennis Kucinich (besides, Huckabee's not fat anymore; he lost, like, a hundred pounds). It's one of the many movies in which former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson has starred. Now, like so many actors-turned-statesmen before him - well, two anyway, who made a real impact (that would be Ronnie and Arnold) - Thompson wants to move from the soundstage to the world stage. To commemorate his entry into the presidential race, we present the following updated synopses of some of Thompson's, um, best-known films:

IN THE LINE OF FIRE: What Thompson found himself in, barely a week into the race. First he said Osama bin Laden no longer matters; then he wanted him caught and killed, but "under the rule of law." Then he demurred on the Terri Schiavo case, saying he didn't remember the details, before saying later that Congress shouldn't have gotten involved; then, he was surprised to learn while visiting Florida that there's oil in the Everglades and controversy over drilling there (never mind that this was an issue while Thompson was in the Senate). A rough start for Fred. He may need to study his lines a little more. Cue the music - it's time for "Law and Order: Trial By Fire."

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER: What the Republican nominee will be engaged in a year from now: trying to turn some of those blue states into red ones. You can be sure the cable networks will use this one in a logo if Thompson wins the GOP nomination.

NECESSARY ROUGHNESS: What Rudy Giuliani claims as he lays into Hillary Clinton in his new attack ads. Rudy's sinking his fangs into his fellow New Yawker for dissing General Petraeus during last week's Senate hearing, trying to somehow link her to the Move On ad that bashed the general in the New York Times. Hillary's trying to stay above the fray, deflecting questions about the ad and her snarkiness with platitudes about how much she respects the general's service, if not his conclusions. They're just getting started, folks: it will be bump and run all the way to next November.

DAYS OF THUNDER: What we're guaranteed a year from now, when the Democrats and Republicans hold their conventions within a few days of each other, and as close to 9/11 as they can get. Expect a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

CLASS ACTION: What John Edwards will file against Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and friends if they don't stop calling him the "Breck Girl." He will sue on behalf of pretty boys with long hair everywhere. God, I wish I were still part of that class...

CURLY SUE: What Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and friends will call John Edwards next.

CAPE FEAR: Where the Democrats will hold their 2008 convention, unless they clone some stem cells and grow a spine for the party before next summer.

BED OF LIES: I don't remember this movie, but Fred was in it, so I couldn't resist. But this one is too easy, so we'll move on to...

BARBARIANS AT THE GATE: The immigration plank in the Republican platform.

BABY'S DAY OUT: A freshman Senator finds himself in over his head as he runs for president with a big bag of charisma and a teeny little one of actual policies. Starring Barack Obama as himself.

SEX AND THE CITY: Hmm, are the Republicans really still going to hold their convention in Minneapolis? Can they all fit into that stall at the airport? Even while Katie Couric and Larry King anchor from there? Fifty cents says Larry Craig won't get to deliver the keynote (and yes, Fred Thompson did a guest shot on Sex and the City once).

BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE: What each candidate instructs his handlers to do before he or she takes a deep breath and enters the presidential free-for-all.

LAST BEST CHANCE: What each candidate tells us he or she is, for Democracy and the Future of our Homeland. This one goes with...

BORN YESTERDAY: ...which is what they must think we all were, since everyone is running as the candidate of change, which is what every candidate has been promising since John Adams.

And finally...

NO WAY OUT: What the American people have, as we endure the longest, earliest and most expensive primary season ever... followed by the longest and most expensive general election campaign ever...followed by another disappointing president who is roundly criticized by carping pundits who all do stories about how there's no such thing as a presidential honeymoon anymore...followed by intensifying speculation about who will run in which point we will start all over again.

Boy, this blog is way too cynical. Have I been on the campaign trail too long? Okay, then, we'll give it a happy ending, with:

KEEP THE CHANGE: What we all hope we will finally get to do, when Our Next President fixes the economy, cuts taxes, balances the budget, solves the mortgage crisis, brings Peace In Our Time, Joy to the World, the arts back to our schools and flowers to the streets of Baghdad.

See you next week...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Barack Obama came back to San Francisco last Friday. You can hear my report on his visit, and the whole 33-minute speech he gave at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, on Obama's page under Meet The Candidates (just click the Obama button, then click on what you want to hear under Featured Audio, in the righthand column). But here are some random observations:

He may be slipping in the polls, but Obama is still a rock star. A crush of Obamamaniacs, mostly women, crammed against the barricades in front of the stage after his speech, screaming as if they were at a Beatles concert, circa 1964. Grown men and women stood on tiptoe, reaching out their hands, hoping he would touch or shake them. Cell phone cameras clicked and flashed. Autograph pads were thrust across the barrier. If I'd had the foresight to set up a Sharpie stand, I'd be a rich man now. Senator Obama chatted and signed cheerfully, smiling, making small talk, moving quickly down the line, his Secret Service brigade nervous and watchful. I was in this same hall five months ago with Bill Clinton, when my band played before his speech on health care. Clinton drew a bigger crowd, and he relished the flesh-pressing more than Obama. Clinton seems to draw his very life force from contact with other human beings, especially adoring ones he can lecture. Obama was relaxed and comfortable, but he didn't linger and suck every last second out of each encounter the way Clinton does.

Obama also drew an eclectic mix of admirers, including literati and even a hoop star. I ran into a veritable Algonquin circle of Bay Area writers, each wearing a "Women for Obama" button, though most were men. I dubbed them the "Authors for Obama," which seemed acceptable to them. Berkeley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and "Wonder Boys," among others) was there, with his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman (Waldman went to Harvard Law School with Obama). So was Daniel Handler, who writes for kids under the name Lemony Snicket ("An Unfortunate Series of Events"). They were palling around with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and a couple other members of the local intelligentsia. And holding up a wall nearby was Golden State Warriors point guard Baron Davis. Obama joked that he would be rooting for the Warriors this fall - as long as they lose to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals (long-suffering Warrior fans would certainly settle for that!).

There were Catholic high school kids in plaid skirts, aging Oakland activists in dreadlocks, eager college students in Obama t-shirts and jeans. There was also a dynamo from Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Hains, who's the Dean of Freshmen, who led the crowd in Obama chants and was the firiest speaker of the day. The campaign should hire this woman as a crowd-warmer, because she whipped them into a frenzy, with humor and passion, before Barack took the stage.

Lemony Snicket is not politically active, and told me he was essentially dragged there by Waldman and Chabon. He was noncommittal about Obama, but was intrigued enough to come, and impressed by what he heard. Chabon, on the other hand, is a True Believer. He said no candidate has ever inspired this kind of passion in him; finally, after 44 years, he is moved the way young people in the 60s were by Robert F. Kennedy. Chabon spoke eloquently about Obama, and told me that the Senator's books were the clincher for him. He's extremely impressed by Obama's writing, which is high praise coming from someone as creative and imaginative as Chabon. (I will post the audio of my interviews with Chabon and Handler/Snicket, so you can hear those later this week in the Featured Audio section on Obama's page).

As for the Senator himself, he's got a new stump speech, and he delivers it as well as the previous one. The last one focused on change, a fresh perspective, new ideas. The new one talks more about his experience, responding directly to what the campaign recognizes is Obama's biggest weakness - some voters just aren't comfortable with someone so young, and with such a short government resume. The Hillary Clinton campaign has been hitting Obama hard on his lack of experience in Washington, using words like "naivete" as often as possible. The Edwards camp focuses on "change." Bill Richardson is now describing himself as the perfect combination of experience AND change. So Obama's shoring up his experience plank, by emphasizing his social justice work in Chicago before he went into elective politics.

Of course, none of this is new. Bill Clinton was a "change agent" (I always pictured him with one of those little metal changemaking machines on his belt when he said that). Gary Hart had "New Ideas," FDR the "New Deal." I can't even count how many candidates have promised "Peace and Prosperity." Every four years, we are promised new and different, hope and change, often from an outsider who, once he gets inside, will return American democracy to its Jeffersonian ideal. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer who'd never even BEEN to Washington. George W. Bush was the "compassionate conservative" who would unite Washington the way he did Austin. Hmmm...why is it that the qualities that get someone elected are not always the same ones that make someone good at actually running the country?

Obama's new message actually IS "Hope and Change," with a dollop of "experience that matters" thrown in there. (But of course Mike Huckabee is actually FROM Hope...the same tiny Arkansas town that gave us Bill Clinton, so he's one-up on everybody. Is there a town called Change somewhere?) Obama is smooth on the stump, easy on the eyes, and is starting to develop a nice little tinge of Martin Luther King Jr. in his cadence and timbre. So he definitely still has hope...and judging from the San Francisco crowd, he's got a lot of passionate fans...but he's still got a long way to climb to knock Hillary off the top of the mountain.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Super-Cali-Tex-Illistic Tuesday

Florida announced today that its 2012 Democratic Primary will be held next Thursday, just to make absolutely SURE no other state beats it to the punch.

Okay, maybe not, but you get the idea. In an effort to boost their clout with the candidates, various states are playing an embarrassing, confusing game of primary leapfrog, that is alienating voters, angering the national party leadership, and creating awkward situations for those presidential contenders. Four states - Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina - are supposed to kick things off in January, but Wyoming just jumped its Republican caucus ahead of the pack, Florida is moving up and scofflaw Michigan plans to vote January 15. The national parties are responding by threatening to punish the renegade states and withhold delegates, and now most of the Democratic candidates have agreed to boycott the unauthorized early voting states, by not campaigning in them...which defeats the purpose of moving up in the first place.

Meanwhile, so many states (23, the last time I counted), have crammed their primaries or caucuses onto the first Tuesday in February that the quaint moniker "Super Tuesday" will no longer do. Some news agencies are adopting "SuperDuper Tuesday" instead, but even that doesn't do it justice. So I've decided to go with SuperCaliTexIllistic Tuesday, which at least gets three of the bigger states (California, Texas, Illinois) into the name. I wish Florida would join the Feb. 5 party, because SuperCaliFlorIllistic sounds better, but what's a wordsmith to do? I'm writing a song about it too, which includes the full phrase: SuperCaliTexIllistic YorkiZonadocious...but you'll have to wait to hear that on KCBS (and, subsequently, on this site).

I've never been a fan of these early primaries. I understand the intention, and it's true that the candidates have been campaigning in California far more than usual, which makes my professional life more interesting. But in the long run, is it better for the voters, and for the process? In the old days, when we Californians voted in June (and occasionally in March), the candidates only came here to raise money, and by the time the nation's largest primary rolled along, it was essentially a meaningless afterthought in an already-decided race.

But look at the unintended consequences of this ridiculous exercise. Instead of beginning their campaigns in mid or late 2007, most of the contenders started running a year ago. Instead of holding their first debates in October or November 2007, when voters are starting to pay attention, they've been "debating" since last spring ("Let's see a show of hands: who believes in torture?"). The pressure to raise obscene amounts of money, to pay for all those extra months of staff, office space, polling, etc., is enormous. This will be, by far, the most expensive presidential campaign in American history, as well as the longest.

And what will we get for our money? The nominees will likely be determined by my birthday (which happens to also be the birthday of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln), which means we will have a TEN-MONTH general election campaign. Yes, instead of a fall race that lasts from the summer conventions until November - typically three or four months - the general will drag on for almost a full year. That's guaranteed to produce voter burnout, not turnout. We will see ten months of overpoliticized, superficial, image-conscious rhetoric...not ten months of thoughtful discussion of the issues. Call me cynical, but even a spoonful of sugary sweet biographical campaign ads won't make this medicine go down. I will love being out on the campaign trail, and look forward to bringing you all the deep insight I can muster, but the Perpetual Campaign is not in the best interests of the voters. It's another symptom of the sickness that has made campaigning more important than governing...placed party politics above doing the people's business...and turned off so many voters from even caring what their representatives do in their name.

Okay, this has turned into a rant. Sorry. Cue Julie Andrews....
Super-Cali-Tex-Illistic YorkiZonadocious, moving up these primaries is getting quite atrocious....