** BY POPULAR DEMAND … TURKMENISTAN! Yesterday, several readers pointed out their opinion that the real crisis in post-Soviet Central Asia may be Turmenistan, rather than Kyrgyzstan. The president of Turkmenistan, an ex-Soviet bureaucrat named Saparmurat Niyazov who, after backing the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev as head of the Turkmen Communist Party, took power after the fall of the Soviet Union 15 years ago and declared himself president for life as “the Turkmenbashi” (father of all Turkmen), died yesterday of a heart attack, setting off a power struggle with international implications.
Well, NWN is not the CIA. The interest in Kyrgyzstan, a lovely and fascinating country in its own right, is because of a ripple effect to presidential politics in the US. Kyrgyzstan has a major US air base important to operations in Afghanistan, a central part of the Terror War. Turkmenistan doesn’t have a US base. Never did. The country is actually one that could inspire Borat’s antic musings about his fictional version of Kazakhstan, except the crazy stuff really is real with Turkmenistan. The Turkmenbashi renamed the month of January after himself. He outlawed the ballet and opera. He imposed a morality test as a qualification for getting a driver’s license. And so on. This is not a put on.
The importance of Turkmenistan is geography and energy, primarily energy, and geopolitics. Turkmenistan is one of the world’s leading sources of natural gas. The death of Niyazov has set off a major internal power struggle, as well as a struggle for influence, if not outright control, between Russia and Iran. Russia’s Gazprom energy monopoly has had the franchise on natural gas, selling it for big profits to Europe. Russia probably has the edge in competition there with Iran. The Russians know the players, who are mostly ex-Soviet operators, not counting the democracy movement backed by the West, which doesn’t seem to amount to much. If it comes to it, Russian military forces are probably more capable of intervention than Iranian. The fact that Russia and Iran are in competition is interesting for another reason, in that Iran has used Russia to front for its interests at times in the UN Security Council and Russia has been used as a back channel to Iran by the US. The multifarious relationship now has a major new source of strain.
** ARNOLD’S NEW PRESS SECRETARY. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has just hired a new gubernatorial press secretary. Aaron McLear worked in President George W. Bush‘s 2004 re-election campaign as press secretary in the pivotal state of Ohio. New to California, he also worked for Ohio Governor Robert Taft on legislative issues and was Northeastern regional press secretary for the Republican National Committee. I’m told he’ll start next month.
November’s violent protests in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, seen in this local video, are part of a crisis imperiling the last major US Central Asian base, outside Bishkek at Kyrgyzstan’s only airport.
** KYRGYZSTAN CRISIS HITS U.S. AFGHAN PLANS. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, America looked to intervene in Afghanistan, home base of Al Qaeda, and destroy their headquarters and topple the regime of their close ally, the Taliban. But we had virtually nothing going there. So we turned to three countries which had more than a little going there, Russia and Iran and Pakistan. The latter nation because its increasingly Islamist intelligence service had nurtured and serviced the Taliban fundamentalist movement there. Iran because it had tremendous ties to opposition forces there. And Russia, because it is has been the biggest great power player in Central Asia for countless generations, and because it had great ties to opposition forces such as the Northern Alliance.
Pakistan backed off its backing for the Taliban. Iran provided entree to opposition forces. As did Russia. But Russia did something more, in addition to providing up-to-date mapping, intel, and some infrastructure such as helicopters to transport our intelligence/special ops folks in-country. It agreed to allow the establishment of US bases in its sphere-of-influence states in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Until late 1991, Kyrgyzstan was the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic.
Russia did this with no little misgivings. The Russians know — from the hard experience of losing the Cold War and finding their resultant country much less better off, and certainly far less powerful, than it seemed in the days of the Soviet empire — that when Americans intervene in a region, we come heavy and we come long. So allowing American military bases in the territory of the former USSR was not a decision taken lightly. Yet Russia also knows that things play out over time. And that Americans are distractable. And so, over time, the American bases have fallen away in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia which are so close and strategic for the ongoing effort in Afghanistan.
Last year, the US lost its base in Uzbekistan. This year, the last remaining major American base in post-Soviet Central Asia, the Manas air base outside Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is in trouble, as has previously been reported on NWN.
The parliament of Kyrgyzstan, meeting in the capital city of Bishkek (known during the Soviet Union days as Frunze after the Bolshevik leader), voted to review the post-Soviet Central Asian country’s status of forces agreement with the U.S. military in the wake of the December 6th fatal shooting of fuel truck driver Alexander Ivanov. He was reportedly shot to death by a U.S. Air Force security policeman while going through a base checkpoint. Ivanov is said to have threatened the air policeman with a homemade knife. There have been previous incidents involving U.S. troops. The U.S. has an important air base in Kyrgyzstan supporting operations in Afghanistan, one of several bases in the region set up in the wake of 9/11. And, yes, Borat fans, Kyrgyzstan is next to Kazakhstan.
Then the president of Kyrgyzstan said that U.S. personnel are to be stripped of their immunity and dealt with under Kyrgyz law. Manas Air Base, named for a Kyrgyz hero of the distant past, is the last major U.S. base in post-Soviet Central Asia, and is key to U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The U.S., with the agreement of the Russian government, established several major bases in former Soviet Central Asian republics in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But they have since fallen away, with the other major remaining base, in Uzbekistan, being evicted last year. The U.S. base is actually part of the international airport complex outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, which is one of the most remote international airports in the world. While the city is laid out in classic Soviet imperial style, a grid pattern with broad avenues and prominent squares, it is not at all a European city, despite the prevalence of the Russian language.
Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous, landlocked nation of some five million people bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China. It became part of Imperial Russia 130 years ago and continued in Soviet Russia after Bishkek-born Mikhail Frunze — a close associate of Lenin — pacified it and kept it loyal during the Communist revolutionary period. Although he is, as you might suppose, a less than wildly popular figure among his post-Soviet Kyrgyz brethen, Frunze — a top Soviet commander and military theorist of the Russian Revolution and Civil War who died during Stalin-ordered surgery — had his home town named after him during the Soviet era and continues to have major monuments in the renamed capital city of Bishkek continuing in his honor.
Kyrgyzstan is the last of the five post-Soviet Central Asian republics to have Russian as an official language. An eighth of the population is ethnic Russian. 75% of the population is Muslim, mostly Sunni though not especially devout. 20% is Russian Orthodox.
Although it is much closer to Kabul and Tehran than Moscow, some 2000 miles away as the crow flies, on the infrequent occasions when flights occur, by land a three-day train trip, Kyrgyzstan has longstanding ties to Russia, as the official language suggests.
One of the top secondary school science and math academies for outstanding Soviet teenagers was established in Bishkek, then Frunze, and continues today. A Soviet flight school for aspiring Arab fighter pilots was established at the Bishkek airport, now site of the American Manas air base.
Its most recent deposed president, Askar Akayev, an eminent scientist who helped establish that Soviet science and math academy in his academic days, went into exile in Russia two years ago as a professor at a Moscow university after serving more than a decade as the nation’s president, a remarkably stable period.
The long retreat of the Red Army from Afghanistan ran through Kyrgyzstan, leaving a mark that made the country hospitable to the idea of US forces in-country. Which was fortunate, because air operations important to the US mission in Afghanistan are run out of Kyrgyzstan, specifically from its airport outside the capital city of Bishkek, one of the most remote international airports in the world.
But town and gown relations have soured, as the killing of the truck driver and the reaction to that killing should more than suggest. The US had already been forced to dramatically increase its payments to the country to keep the base there.
Money, however, may no longer be enough. Kyrgyzstan’s political system is becoming increasingly chaotic. The violent protests of November, one of them seen in the video above, forced the imposition of a new constitution which leaves the central government even more paralyzed. The Kyrgyz Cabinet just resigned in the last day, hoping to force new parliamentary elections. But that probably won’t happen. The current president is widely viewed as corrupt. Four members of parliament have been murdered since 2005, more because of organized crime than of politics or religion. It is a situation prone to manipulation, something which our friends in Russia, who are not happy with long-term American involvement on their close periphery, may well exploit if they are not already doing so. And since the country is heavily Islamic, though not especially religious, that is yet another tinderbox for US interests.
The world seems much more manageable from Washington, doesn’t it?
** SCHWARZENEGGER UNVEILS PRISON REFORM PLAN. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, joined by Democratic Senator Gloria Romero and Republican Senator George Runner, unveiled an $11 billion plan for the prisons. It would build tens of thousands of beds for state prison and county jail inmates, and provide for health care facilties demanded by an overseeing federal court. It would also establish a commission to review sentencing procedures. While some of the money would come from the state’s budget and matching local funds, the lion’s share, some $8.7 billion, would come from lease revenue bonds, which do not require a popular vote for authorization.
** VILLARAIGOSA LA SCHOOLS PLAN STRUCK DOWN. A superior court judge in Los Angeles today struck down Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa‘s partial takeover of the troubled LA schools district, saying the plan, adopted by in legislation by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, gives the mayor unprecedented power, violating the state constitution by taking authority away from the school board. Villaraigosa will appeal.
** NUNEZ HEALTH PLAN. As the posturing on California health care continues, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez has put forth a rather sketchy proposal which would provide a “fair share” health care plan covering all Californians. It would require all but the tiniest (two employees or less, $100,000 payroll or less) and newest (three years or less) to pay into a health care program. It also might set up a state purchasing cooperative for the self-employed. No cost or savings numbers are attached to the proposals. God bless them, every one.
Senator John McCain is one of the great characters of American politics, as well as a frontrunner for President of the United States. Back in the day, he was one of the hardest partying officers in the U.S. Navy, constantly raising Cain. Prior to his heroic service and captivity in the Vietnam War. Now the insurgent of 2000 is morphing into the GOP establishment pick of 2008, recruiting Bush stalwarts to raise not Cain but McCain, this time to the White House.
It’s one of the ironies of recent American history that the man who nearly derailed George W. Bush’s 2000 drive to the presidency, his bete noire after McCain’s big win in the New Hampshire primary, is looking more like the man to carry on the W legacy than the deathly opponent of yesteryear. It is John McCain, the unquestioned patriot free to be, as he frequently is, the sardonic puncturer of illusions, who is the most high-profile American politician not in the White House still pushing for victory in Iraq. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, his prospective opponent in the Republican primaries who actually runs somewhat better in some polls, has a similar stance on Iraq. But it is McCain, not Giuliani, who is out there in the arena on a constant basis.
It’s ironic in its way, because McCain is a champion of anti-global warming legislation, has a long history of backing political reform, and thinks the Terror War has been mishandled in any number of ways. These are all areas in which the maverick of 2000 continues to confound the Bush core of national Republican presidential politics. And yet. And yet, McCain is recruiting the lion’s share of top Bush political operatives, leaving Giuliani and outgoing Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney left at the relative docks. And he is one of the few American politicians still pushing for some form of victory in the latest phase of the war in Iraq. (We won the war, in conventional terms, and are losing the peace, in all terms.)
McCain is getting, for the most part, la creme de la creme of California-oriented Republicans. While Giuliani and Romney try to gear up for long-distance, sustaining, serious runs at the White House, McCain is already there.
The Arizona senator and Vietnam War Silver Star-winner has landed the whale of whales among California political financiers, Orange County real estate billionaire Donald Bren, of Irvine Company fame. Bren has been one of Governor Schwarzenegger’s most important backers, and employs a cadre of operatives.
And McCain has landed Schwarzenegger’s highly regarded campaign manager Steve Schmidt, who has just come on board as a senior advisor. Schmidt, who is now based in California, having just bought a house outside Sacramento, will work on message development and strategy for McCain, counted as one of the frontrunners for the White House in 2008.
Prior to heading West to play a leading role in helping resurrect the newfound political career of the ex-Terminator, a venture which ended in a dramatic reversal of fortune and 17-point landslide victory in the midst of an otherwise Democratic year nationally, Schmidt was a leading figure in Bushland. As part of Karl Rove’s strategy group, he ran rapid response in the Bush re-election campaign and, as counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, performed a variety of tasks, including overseeing the communications operations of successful U.S. Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, as well as going to Baghdad to help bring communications operations there up to some semblance of speed.
Schmidt will continue to be a key member of Team Arnold as political advisor to Schwarzenegger. He’s also a partner in the Mercury Public Affairs firm.
Playing a familiar role with McCain’s campaign will be Schmidt’s longtime associate, Matt David. David was deputy communications director in the Schwarzenegger campaign, the man in charge of a highly sophisticated rapid response operation. NWN will present an in-depth look at the Schwarzenegger war room operation, in action with video, after the first of the year.
David worked in rapid response under Schmidt in the Bush campaign, and on the White House staff before coming West to learn all about Schwarzenegger’s opponents. I thought he was going to be Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial press secretary. But the campaign bug has bitten him, so he consulted on the establishment of a new gubernatorial “news room” — as distinguished from a war room — before preparing to join the McCain campaign. It will be part of the more aggressive Schwarzenegger press operation I’ve written about before, one designed to create and drive a narrative about Schwarzenegger and detect and deal with potential media problems.
Like Schmidt, David will continue to be involved on Team Arnold, though his role with McCain will tend to be all-consuming, playing the same deputy communications director role as in the Schwarzenegger campaign. He will be in Washington, while Schmidt will be based in California.
As you see, Hillary Clinton leads all the Republicans. But Obama trails John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, leading only outgoing Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. On the Democratic side, Clinton leads Obama by nearly 20 points. The other Democratic candidates and potential candidates, like John Edwards and Al Gore? Who? Newsweek didn’t poll on them. It’s not hard to construct a scenario in which either man could be the Democratic presidential nominee. But they don’t fit the pop politics storyline.
If Obama is really the super-phenomenon the big media says he is, why doesn’t he lead all the Republicans? None of them are exactly Ronald Reagan, to put it mildly. I mention Reagan because a past phenomenon, who did not become president, Gary Hart, actually did lead Ronald Reagan when he became a media phenom. It helps to keep things in perspective.
Could it be that Newsweek didn’t include the presidential matchups because the numbers aren’t that sensational for Obama and are better for Clinton? That would tend to undercut the storyline. Or the “media narrative,” to use the blogospheric phrase borrowed from Baudrillard and faithfully used by lefties and righties alike.
** SCHMIDT JOINS JOHN MCCAIN. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, has joined Senator John McCain’s unannounced presidential campaign as a senior advisor. Schmidt, who is now based in California, will work on message development and strategy for McCain, counted as one of the frontrunner for the White House in 2008. He’s one of a number of Bushies joining the president’s one-time bete noire. Prior to heading West to play a leading role in helping resurrect the newfound political career of the ex-Terminator, a venture which ended in a dramatic reversal of fortune and 17-point landslide victory in the midst of an otherwise Democratic year nationally, Schmidt was a leading figure in the political world of President George W. Bush. As part of Karl Rove‘s strategy group, he ran rapid response in the Bush re-election campaign and, as counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, performed a variety of tasks, including overseeing the communications operations of successful U.S. Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, as well as going to Baghdad to help bring communications operations there up to some semblance of speed. Schmidt will continue to be a key member of Team Arnold as an advisor to Schwarzenegger.
** ARNOLD’S “SHARED RESPONSIBILITY” ON HEALTH CARE. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger just concluded a mid-morning press availability on health care, following a mostly private roundtable discussion with consumers, medical professional and small business owners. It’s clear that the former action superstar is looking toward a comprehensive approach and is pushing two buzzwords, as Jerry Brown used to call them, with regard to the issue. They are “hidden tax” and “shared responsibility.”
The “hidden tax” is what a New America Foundation report issued at the beginning of the week says Californians pay due to hospitals having to treat medically uninsured people who can’t afford the freight. California has 6.5 million people, the highest in the country, who went without health insurance for all or part of this year. The report says that amounts to $1200 a year for a family of four, $400 to $500 a year for an individual. And what is “shared responsibility?” Well, it’s what the governor means when he says, as he did this morning, that everyone, including “the uninsured and business owners,” will have to participate in the solution of providing health care. And everyone, he says, will participate in the benefit.
What is the program? Schwarzenegger won’t get into specifics now, deferring those, he says, until shortly before his State of the State address on January 8th. But new taxes are off the table for his proposal. The doctrine of “shared responsibility,” however, could imply an employer mandate to participate in the providing of health care. Schwarzenegger has not said this. He opposed one version of an employer mandate, SB 2 by his friend, former state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, both in his 2003 campaign and in a subsequent 2004 referendum. When he opposed it in 2003, he said that the goal of helping people was good, but he had to oppose it because the economy was then weak.
As for whether he and Maria Shriver will buy a penthouse condo in a new building about to open in the state capital of Sacramento, the former Mr. Universe said: “I am very happy in my little hotel room.” Schwarzenegger lives in a suite at the Hyatt Regency at Capitol Park.
** BUSH EMBRACES DEMOCRATIC POSITION ON MILITARY BUILD-UP. In his news conference just now, President George W. Bush said he has not yet decided whether to “surge” more forces into Iraq to try to bring more stability. The current commander, who is retiring, thinks it will create more chaos. Bush did say that he wants to increase the size of the military, notably the Army and Marine Corps. This is a big reversal of position for Bush. In the 2004 presidential race, Democratic nominee John Kerry called for an expansion of forces to meet the increased challenge of the Terror War and consequent wear-and-tear on troops. But Bush opposed it, saying the new doctrines of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld superceded more conventional thinking.
As fate often has it, theory was outmatched by reality.
** STEVE WESTLY’S MOVES BEFORE HIS NEXT MOVE. Outgoing California state Controller Steve Westly, the ex-eBay honcho who ran a near-miss campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, is making some moves at the end of his term before making his move to the next phase of his career.
After pushing successfully to reinstitute the Ready Returns program, in which simpler tax returns are filled out using a state program if the taxpayer wishes, a program that had been killed by heavy lobbying from Intuit, the tax software maker, Westly has moved against “alcopops,” a key source of teenage drinking, and in favor of investing in emerging markets. Alcopops are flavored drinks like Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Silver, made with and marketed as distilled spirits, but taxed like beer. Westly got the tax board to move to change that.
On the powerful CalPERS (California Public Employee Retirement System) board, Westly finally got fellow board members to go along with investing in companies in emerging markets like China, Brazil, and Russia, so long as the companies meet social and environmental standards, as many do. “If you look at the indexes,” says Westly, “we’ve been losing $300 million a year for retirees by not investing in such companies.” CalPERS, influenced by organized labor, had previously declined to invest in such markets.
Of course, prior to that, the Republican presidential frontrunner, Senator John McCain, co-sponsored greenhouse gas emissions legislation with independent Senator Joe Lieberman.
** ARNOLD ON DEATH PENALTY AND HEALTH CARE. While things are not slow in presidential politics, they are slow in California politics. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger yesterday moved in predictable ways on two fronts, the death penalty and health care.
On the death penalty, he took on the challenge of coming up with ways in the next 30 days to revise the state’s execution procedures to meet the concerns of a federal judge that they presently constitute cruel and unusual punishment by possibly making murderers feel some pain in the course of being killed by the state’s current method of lethal injection. This shouldn’t be too difficult, though lawyers for death penalty opponents may attempt to make it harder than it is. The judge identified some fairly clearcut concerns and ways to address them. Such as better training and record-keeping for personnel involved in capital punishment. Change the state’s current three-part “cocktail” of execution — barbiturate as sedating painkiller rendering the inmate unconscious, drug to paralyze, drug to stop the heart — to one drug, a very powerful barbiturate that sedates and kills. The judge has already said that no physician need be involved, a blow to death penalty opponents who had hoped that the Hippocratic Oath would prove an obstacle to the death penalty.
On health care, Schwarzenegger journeyed to an LA hospital in his familiar role of checking things out, then discussed the “hidden tax” on Californians due to hospital care of uninsured residents. The New America Foundation, fortuitously as it happens, has a new report placing this toll at about $1200 per family per year. The governor did not say what his plan will entail. He did say that he won’t propose a tax increase, though he also said he would not necessarily reject out of hand measures coming from the Legislature that do. He is talking about something called “shared responsibility,” which might imply that institutions such as businesses have a responsibility to participate in the health care system on behalf of their employees. Schwarzeneggere has previously opposed employer mandates. However, his initial take on them, in 2003, was that they were a bad idea because the economy was not yet strong.
Schwarzenegger also wants to bring down health care costs. That won’t be easy for a governor to do. It will be interesting to see what sort of proposal he puts together. He’s gotten a lot of mileage politically out of holding a health care summit last year, which arrived at no conclusions, and holding many events expressing his concern. He was helped in this by the ineptitude and political weakness of his Democratic opponents, who tended to push utopian proposals with no substance to them or to negate themselves with conflcting tactics. He’s also helped by virtue of the fact that most people without health insurance don’t vote.
The health care issue is going to be a long and winding road next year, with much that will turn out to be irrelevant. It’s interesting to note that covering uninsured children, something which could very well be made into a consensus issue even for voters who aren’t worried about health care themselves, would cost a few hundred million dollars a year.
America’s favorite new fanatic is running afoul of an alliance between resurgent reform forces and pragmatic conservatives. His spiritual mentor has been trounced in the election for the powerful clerics body, the national Assembly of Experts, by former President Rafsanjani, a man who did much business with the U.S. before being defeated for the presidency by Ahmadinejad last year. Rafsanjani made a great show of voting together with former reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Rafsanjani is now poised to become the leader of the Assembly of Experts, which selects and oversees Iran’s head of state, the reportedly ailing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
** HANRETTY AND COLMES. California’s own Karen Hanretty is filling in for that closet moderate (haha) Sean Hannity tonight as a host of Fox’s Hannity and Colmes. The show, or so I’m told, airs at 6 PM and repeats at 11. Hanretty, a familiar figure to NWN readers, was communications director of the California Republican Party and press secretary for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s 2003 campaign before becoming something of a critic from his right. Reality, of course, is usually more complicated than it appears on TV.
What a difference a year makes. One year ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed to be grasping at straws, manically repositioning himself back to the center and beyond in the wake of his disastrously lurching debacle dubbed the “Year of Reform.”
This triumphant moment for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, signing the landmark global warming bill on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, seemed barely conceivable one year ago.
His pre-Christmas 2005 ceremony with former Governor Gray Davis, unveiling the recalled governor’s official portrait in the state Capitol, seemed more than faintly surrealistic as he lauded Davis as a great man. Recall? What recall? With his highly controversial new Democratic chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, Davis’s former cabinet secretary, nowhere to be seen, it seemed in that pre-holiday 2005 period as though the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future were on the verge of colliding in Schwarzworld.
Let’s return to that halcyon moment a year ago, when it was clear that Schwarzenegger was at a fundamental crossroads in his life. Frankly, it was looking none too promising, and not simply because he had just been hospitalized. Here was the scene last December, one year ago …
MORE THAN A WEEK AFTER ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER shocked the political world and enraged much of his own Republican Party by naming former Gray Davis official Susan Kennedy his chief of staff, his scene remains decidedly unsettled. Its disequilibrium was symbolically evident yesterday when the governor, fresh from a several-hour hospital stint for an irregular heartbeat, shared the spotlight with his former bitter rival, the recalled governor. The event was a packed gathering in the ornate state Capitol rotunda to unveil Davis’ portrait.
Schwarzenegger needs a new Cabinet secretary, the gubernatorial aide who coordinates agency and department heads and handles sensitive policy matters, as current occupant Terry Tamminen, an environmentalist disliked by Republicans, shifts to a senior adviser slot. He also needs a communications director to replace the departing Rob Stutzman, a right-wing warrior who oversaw relations with the political consultants on Arnold’s defeated initiatives and losing campaigns against legislative Democrats.
Kennedy, who did herself no favors by telling the Wall Street Journal she had no particular economic views when she was a leader in Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, kept a very low profile in the rotunda, in contrast to fellow former Davis aide Dan Zingale, Maria Shriver’s new chief of staff, who, sitting in the middle of the second row, made himself impossible to miss. I looked for Kennedy but, like most I talked to, I never saw her. She did not attend the later Davis reception with hundreds of her former Democratic colleagues. Needless to say, she was never caught in a camera frame with Schwarzenegger and Davis.
Oddly, considering Republican fury over the appointment, the Davis portrait unveiling was Schwarzenegger’s only public event of the day. And the schedule was set up that way before he spent a few hours at the UC Davis Medical Center suffering from a rapid heartbeat, attributed to a combination of the flu and his 1997 heart valve surgery. Davis met with Schwarzenegger for a half-hour before the portrait ceremony. With the right wing continuing to rampage over Kennedy’s appointment, the Governor’s Office released TV footage of Arnold working with his new chief of staff, accentuating his new gray hue.
Republicans took offense when Schwarzenegger seemed to say he picked Kennedy because there were no qualified Republicans for the post. But it is probably true that she was the best qualified of the actual candidates in play.
Former state Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte and former Pete Wilson chief of staff Bob White, who also managed Arnold’s campaign in the 2003 recall election, would both make strong chiefs of staff. But neither was deemed available given their lucrative lobbying/consulting careers. Each of the real potential candidates lacked Kennedy’s managerial experience or had a political problem. For example, Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, an ex–Assembly speaker, would have deepened Arnold’s image crisis with Latinos with his involvement in a 1988 voter intimidation incident which drew the wrath of the U.S. Justice Department.
Waiting in line to go through security, I found Kathleen Brown patiently standing behind me. The former state treasurer and daughter and sister of former governors, now an investment banker with Goldman Sachs, was a rising national Democratic star in the early ’90s. She was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994, losing to incumbent Republican Pete Wilson. It is difficult to defeat an incumbent governor. Had she waited to run in 1998, after Wilson’s term ended, she probably would have won, as Davis, her ’94 running mate and ex–chief of staff to her brother Jerry, would have been unlikely to oppose her and the Republicans had poor prospects. It may well be that the recall would never have happened.
Brown enjoys investment banking and has repeatedly said she doesn’t look back at “what if”s. During the Davis portrait event, she sat with Senate President Don Perata; perhaps they shared their enthusiasm for infrastructure bonds, which Perata proposed at a $10 billion level before Arnold shocked Republicans by upping the ante to $50 billion. (The working number is now said to be half that.)
Former Davis chief of staff Lynn Schenk emceed, winning the no-class award of the day with cracks about the Davis administration continuing in the Arnold administration with Kennedy and Zingale. Schwarzenegger has done Schenk’s ex-boss a big favor by not taking the easy route of blaming him for the state’s ongoing woes. Arnold smiled dutifully but a clearly unamused Maria Shriver shot laser beams into Schenk’s back with her eyes.
Arnold, looking just a little worse for wear as he stood for 45 minutes onstage, opened with a staff-promised explanation of his medical condition, consisting of two jokes: He has to exhibit an irregular heartbeat at times to show Republicans do have a heart, and he was just too excited on the eve of seeing what Gray’s portrait looks like. Ba-dump.
Then he launched into an encomium to Davis which had me flashing back to his famous announcement on The Tonight Show in which he delivered a litany of California’s ills, laying them all at the feet of “this man, Gray Davis.”
Now, however, Davis is a “wonderful” guy, “a true public servant” who has done “an incredible job” in “all the offices” he has held, “always fighting for the underdog, for the poor and for children.”
He recounted how helpful Davis was in the transition period after the recall, giving “great advice.” Indeed, “Every time I need advice I can call him for great advice,” he said of the former governor.
You don’t have to think Gray Davis is a terrible guy to find this terribly surrealistic. Even if Schwarzenegger were not already in a firestorm of Davis-related controversy with his own party.
“Davis, for his part, noting that since he is “a little to the left” and Arnold “a little to the right” they have much in common, declared he is “very excited” about Arnold’s big infrastructure bond, which is still being worked out.
Also still being worked out is the shape of Schwarzenegger’s executive staff and campaign organization.
Communications director Rob Stutzman, who seemed to the press to be more attuned to tossing brickbats than charting a real-world course for a moderate in the Governor’s Office he will soon depart, is now said to be out of Arnold’s campaign as well. When I asked him to comment, he replied, “Depends who told you.”
When I reported last year that Dick Riordan was out as education secretary, Stutzman called it a “rumor.” A day later, the story changed. Riordan had “secretly resigned” a month earlier. I’m not sure that tactic is taught in PR school.
But who replaces the masterminds of Arnold’s predictable massive November defeat is still up in the air. Strategist Mike Murphy is still on board but has been invisible the last few weeks. Schwarzenegger has no shortage of consultants already on board or in his circle. Indeed, he has the biggest political operation of any California governor in history. He needs to determine who can do what and make sure they do it.
Murphy did very well in the recall as a frequent soloist in an ensemble, much less well calling the shots in the special election. (At a chamber of commerce retreat, he blamed the defeat on business not wasting more of its money on the campaign.)
Republicans like to run re-election campaigns through the Governor’s Office. In other words, to have the governor campaign by governing rather than, say, running around to an endless string of prefab “town halls.”
Susan Kennedy has that experience, though of course in working against Republicans and not with them. In addition to the still unfilled communications director job, the Cabinet secretary slot — unfilled, say Republicans, including some around Arnold, because Republicans don’t want to work with her — is key to re-election. It would be foolish to pick another Democrat. Republican policy analyst Ann Sheehan, Consumer Services Agency chief and ex-legislator Fred Aguiar, and Office of Planning & Research head Sean Walsh, a veteran political operative, have all been in play, with rumors swirling about who might take the job if picked. With his extensive campaign experience with Wilson and Schwarzenegger, Walsh is the logical choice — with the complication that he’s run into legal hurdles with aggressive defense of Arnold against groping charges.
But then, haven’t we learned by now that nothing is really that simple in Schwarzworld? Just one more example of the shades of gray swirling around the governor, not just on Gray Davis Day in the Capitol but most every day these days.
Now we know how the story turned out. Far differently than it seemed it might in that pre-holiday period one year ago. So far.
** IRANIAN ELECTIONS MAY CLIP AHMADINEJAD’S WINGS. A significantly heavier turnout than the vote which brought our favorite new fanatic, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to power last year may end up, as expected, clipping the wings of the anti-Western provocateur. Our favorite new fanatic, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, didn’t do too well.
Iranians went to the polls on Friday to vote for local officials and for the national Assembly of Experts, the body of clerics that selects and oversees the Islamic republic’s actual head of state, currently Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is reportedly ailing. But the former Tehran Mayor Ahmadinejad saw his followers lose their grip on the Tehran City Council. Worse still, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was defeated in another bid for the presidency by Ahmadinejad, is besting the new president’s chief religious backer, Ayatollah Taghi Mesba Yahdi, by what one source says is a two-to-one margin in polling for the Assembly of Experts. Both men will make the list, but the faction of Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative who has done business with America and was filmed voting with reformist former President Mohammed Khatami, may have the upper hand.
They take a long time to count votes in Iran, and there is no exit poll available. Final results may well come on Monday, although later today is a possibility.
INCIDENTALLY, I HAVE MORE ON THE SITUATION WITH THE KEY U.S. AIR BASE IN KYRGYZSTAN, last major U.S. base in a Central Asian former Soviet republic, one that is key to operations in increasingly crisis-ridden Afghanistan (where the Taliban, despite what some American conservatives claim, are anything but gone), but I’ll hold off on that till tomorrow. While the believers and the critics have been screaming about Iraq, Afghanistan has been sliding all year.
There’s generally little political news of note going on over the holidays, so an Edwards announcement then won’t have much competition. And New Orleans, nearly destroyed by last year’s Hurrican Katrina, could be a powerful setting for his Tale of Two Americas themes. A supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Edwards turned sharply against the Iraq policy even before its clear collapse, unlike Clinton, who is merely critical.
Edwards runs far behind Clinton and Obama in media attention, and trails both in the national polls, though not Obama by much. But he is charismatic, smart, a very fine speaker, and experienced. There is no experience in politics like running for president, as first-timers always learn. And Edwards is strong on the Democratic nomination calendar. He has been leading in Iowa, the first in the nation contest he nearly won in 2004. He should have real strength in Nevada, the second-in-the-nation contest, due to his demonstrated campaign skills and the presence there of the powerful hotel and restaurant workers union. Next comes New Hampshire, which appears to be up for grabs. Then the contest moves to the fourth state in the process, South Carolina, which is where Edwards was born.
Edwards has been criss-crossing the country all year campaigning, as well as making foreign trips to shore up his international credentials. But he hasn’t been raising money, which has been somewhat surprising to observers. In fact, he has a debt from his 2004 campaign of several hundred thousand dollars. But that’s not unusual; there are campaigns that still owe me money.
** BYE BYE BAYH. Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, a DLC Democrat and former governor who is the son of legendary liberal Senator Birch Bayh, has dropped out of the running for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He had already hired campaign staff in Iowa, which he’s visited a dozen times in the past year, and talked up his candidacy on national shows, though he had not formally announced. He visited New Hampshire last weekend, while Barack Obama was there, and no one really noticed. Bayh didn’t make much of an impression in the polls, excited little activist support, and was not regarded as a leading contender by political insiders, finishing a distant fifth in that National Journal poll I reported on several days ago. A longtime backer of the Iraq policy, he reversed field a year ago. The centrist space in the race was already largely occupied by Hillary Clinton, and to a certain extent, Obama.
Bayh becomes the second centrist Democrat to drop out of the presidential race; the first being former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, the rather incongruous darling of some netroots elements. Meanwhile, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the former Cleveland mayor, has entered the race as an anti-war candidate. This is the same role he tried to play in 2004, when he made little impact. Perhaps he’ll have better luck this time. Or perhaps not, most presidential candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties are likely to take one form or another of an out-of-Iraq stance.
The outgoing state treasurer says he will eschew the development business which brought him wealth and his fundraising base and become a venture capitalist with a focus on “smart growth.” Which itself is a form of development, and is sometimes criticized, as with new projects in Los Angeles, as a front for continued megasprawl development. Angelides has taken office space between the Capitol and Sacramento River — choosing “the river view,” as he puts it, rather than the Capitol view — but has not yet hired anyone for his new, as yet unnamed, business venture.
** CALI DEATH PENALTY HALT. A federal judge, citing many irregularities such as prison personnel not properly checking drug levels and so forth, is halting the imposition of California’s death penalty. For a time, at least. While decrying the current method — which involves administering a barbiturate to sedate and render the convicted murderer unconscious and free of pain, a second drug to paralyze, and a third drug to induce cardiac arrest — as constituting cruel and unusual punishment because it can lead to pain, the judge outlined a path forward. First, he rejected death penalty opponents’ claims that a physician must be on scene to oversee the execution. Second, he strongly suggested that a one-step procedure, i.e., the administering of a very powerful barbiturate to sedate, render unconscious, and then render dead, would satisfy his concerns.
** Track global and national energy prices via Bloomberg. Crude oil prices settled yesterday around $63 per barrel after OPEC’s expected December 14th announcement of a February 1st production cut.
And, yes, Borat fans, Kyrgyzstan is next to Kazakhstan.
** ARNOLD BIPARTISAN INAUGURAL CO-CHAIRS ANNOUNCED. A host of leading figures from both parties have agreed to serve as co-chairs of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s second Inaugural on January 5th. They include some of the most prominent Democrats in California, including U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, incoming U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Governor Gray Davis, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata.
Other Schwarzenegger Inaugural co-chairs include former First Lady Nancy Reagan, former U. S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former Governor Pete Wilson, former Governor George Deukmejian, state Senator Republican Leader Dick Ackerman, Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines, Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, California State Association of Counties president Frank Bigelow, Congressman David Dreier, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.
** CHEMICAL INDUSTRY RANKS POWER PLAYERS. The leading publications consortium for the global chemical industry picked its top 40 power players around the world. In addition to industry leaders, they include three American politicians for their influence on public policy, President George W. Bush, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former Vice President Al Gore. Bush comes in at number 9, for his opposition to moves against global warming and for his stance in the Middle East, which is viewed as keeping oil prices high. Schwarzenegger and Gore come in behind him, for their moves against global warming and advocacy of renewable energy. Schwarzenegger at number 22 for the strategic role of California, and his high profile around the world generally. Gore at number 27 for his high profile advocacy, and his award-winning documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth.
** BLAIR BEGINS MIDEAST TRIP. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is beginning that trip to the Middle East announced after his meeting last week with President George W. Bush, in the wake of the Iraq Study Group report. In advance of this, British diplomats have been talking with counterparts in Syria, Iran, and other countries in the region. First up, Blair seeks the help of the Turkish prime minister in promoting a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
** IRAN VOTES TODAY. Polls were supposed to have closed earlier today in the Iranian elections, but many polling places are reportedly being kept open to accommodate voters still waiting in line. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in a low turnout election in which many members of the country’s reform movement did not participate. He’s not on the ballot today, but his standing is likely to be affected indirectly, as voters select local officials and members of the national Assembly of Experts, a powerful body of clerics who select and oversee Iran’s head of state, the Supreme Leader in the Islamic republic. That man, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is reported to be ailing. Two powerful religious figures and their factions are vying against one another in the vote for the Assembly of Experts. One is Ahmadinejad’s spiritual benefactor, the other a rival. The rival may have the upper hand this time around. There are, apparently, no public polls in Iran.