Several things are vexing me in this political season:
Our feckless mayoral campaign. Now we know why it would have been best had a well-known, experienced local figure (such as former and present City Council members Peter Steinbrueck or Nick Licata) decided to challenge outgoing Mayor Greg Nickels in the primary election. Michael McGinn and Joe Mallahan are engaged in a discouraging race to the bottom.
McGinn, until now, has run mainly on a "stop the tunnel" platform, generating support among Seattle voters who do not like the notion of a deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. State, county, and local governments previously had agreed on the tunnel option to replace a viaduct which has been an eight-year public safety hazard.
McGinn's success on this issue predictably has aroused and frightened supporters of other big public-works projects, including Sound Transit light rail and the Mercer Project, designed by Mayor Nickels to benefit Vulcan Inc.'s South Lake Union commercial real estate development McGinn's apparent olive branch to this community was his announced support Wednesday for extension of Sound Transit light rail to Ballard, Interbay, Queen Anne, Belltown, downtown, West Seattle, and perhaps Fremont.
Whoa! The present light rail plan, narrowly passed in 2008, calls for $23 billion, and probably more, in tax increases for a three-county light rail system — the largest local-level tax increase in U.S. history. McGinn's proposed extensions would cost many times more than the deep-bore tunnel he now criticizes for its costs. This is a hyper-cynical proposal on behalf of a system which would be far more costly, and carry fewer passengers, than a simple expansion of bus service to the Seattle neighborhoods involved.
Mallahan,for his part, still has a slight lead in polls and has drawn a number of establishment endorsements. But, given his financial advantages over McGinn, Mallahan by now should have a crushing lead in the race. He has performed indifferently at joint forums, proved tone-deaf to questions raised at district Democratic meetings, and still appears less than knowledgeable about salient city issues. His campaign also has become notorious for unreturned phone calls — even those placed from mobile phones (and Mallahan is a T-Mobile executive). Mallahan worked for a time in a congressional office, organized for President Obama, and is a marketing executive. He shows little sign that these experiences have rubbed off on him.
It's perplexing. McGinn appears slippery and calculating, Mallahan out of his environment. Small wonder that "undecideds" are so numerous.
Racism raised as an issue. Some politicos and media figures have raised racism as the motivating factor in the heckling of President Obama during his speech to the Congress last week and, for that matter, in recent criticisms of his health-care proposals. Too many good men and women have shed too much blood and effort, over too many years, to fight real racism to have a phony "racism" issue raised over what clearly was a foolish, emotional outcry of "liar" by Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina in response to Obama's remarks. The congressman has apologized. He has been chastised by his House colleagues. Subsequent charges of "racism" by former President Jimmy Carter, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and several TV commentators and Democratic elected officials have lacked any substantive foundation.
Moreover, these charges are hurting rather than helping Obama. Upcoming polling is likely to show that most Americans see this as a cynical political tactic more identified with race hustlers such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson than with serious people of any race or ethnicity. It is far worse in degree than former President Bill Clinton's misstep in the 2008 South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, when he attempted to introduce race as an issue. Conservative media and commentators are having a field day milking public reaction to the phony racism charges. Let's get back to the real issues and away from this nasty distraction.
The cynical, sad Constantine campaign. I looked forward to a county executive candidacy by either Ross Hunter or Fred Jarrett, Eastside legislators with reformist, can-do credentials that would have made either one a credible change agent in the November elections. There was insufficient political space for both candidacies, however, and veteran county council member Dow Constantine emerged as the finalist against former TV anchorwoman Susan Hutchison.
Constantine made hay in the primary by draping himself with a Democratic label and pasting a Republican label on Hutchison. He was at it again Wednesday in a public debate between the two. This is a non-partisan office. Hutchison has made clear frequently that she is genuinely independent, has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, and has been endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans. She clearly wants the job out of a genuine desire for public service.
It is time for Constantine to join on the issues. He has found it convenient to pursue the Hutchison-must-be-a-Republican theme. This is an effort to make Hutchison the issue, rather than his own multi-year association with policies that have put King County government in its deep financial hole. Polls show Hutchison and Constantine quite close in the race. But Constantine is hurting himself and losing votes with continuing low-politics tactics. If Hutchison's supposed partisan leanings are Constantine's major issue, he deserves to lose.
Health care confusion. Beleaguered Montana Sen. Max Baucus finally unveiled Wednesday a bill that will be the basis for Senate Finance Commitee consideration next week. It notably omits the so-called "public option" — a government entity to compete with private health insurers — which Obama already had in effect tossed overboard in his speech to the Congress last week. That omission did not satisfy Republican Senators who had been working with him to develop a bipartisan bill. Nor did it please his fellow Democrats. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Ron Wyden immediately made strongly derogatory public statements about Baucus' bill. Sen. Maria Cantwell, strangely, reacted by calling Wednesday for inclusion of a public option, after it clearly had become past tense. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Thursday morning expressed disagreement with several parts of the Baucus bill.
Three House committee bills must be melded into one before a House vote on a final consolidated bill. Much of October is likely to be consumed with Finance Committee and then full Senate debate, and votes on amendments, before any legislation reaches a final vote. The Senate bill will be different than the House bill. The real and important differences between Democrats and Republicans — and, more importantly, between moderate and liberal Democrats, who combine into strong majorities in both House and Senate — deserve a serious airing. The legislation was framed hastily, sub-contracted by Obama to Democratic congressional committee chairs, and without any attempt at bipartisanship except by Baucus. Here is a good analysis of the costs of the Baucus and other bills.
I felt sympathy for Baucus Wednesday when he stood alone at a podium to discuss legislation which he had fought to produce over many day-and-night weeks. No Democrats or Republicans stood with him. The White House made bland approving noises. His bill is, truth be told, the only one presently under consideration that has a chance of final passage. This is a time for some stand-up leadership all around.
Tread Wars. President Obama unaccountably has launched a trade war with China, slapping restrictions on Chinese tire exports to the United States at the request of U.S. unions at American tire plants. China, predictably, is restricting an equal volume of U.S. exports (including auto products) to China.
There are many aspects to this. Some of the tire plants in China, doing the exporting, are U.S. owned. The manufacturing now is likely to shift to non-U.S.-owned plants in low-cost countries. There also is the practical matter that China is financing our record deficits and buying U.S. assets, including some "toxic assets" left over from the derivatives crash. If China stopped doing so, our financial system could tank. In other words, China's leverage is much greater than our own.
The closest parallel to the tread war is the infamous Chicken War undertaken in the mid-1960s, when President Johnson raised tariffs against several European Union (then Common Market) products because Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright and Rep. Wilbur Mills, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, complained that Germany was not importing enough Arkansas chicken products. Fulbright, known as an internationalist, went so far as to threaten U.S. withdrawal from NATO if Germany did not buy his state's poultry products. Europe, predictably, retaliated by banning an equal volume of U.S. exports. Both sides quickly backed off without a squawk.
The international climate now is far more protectionist than it was in the free-trading 1960s. Once set in motion, the present U.S.-China conflict will be harder for both sides to abandon than the U.S.-EU conflict was 40-plus years ago. This was a dumb, pointless move which Obama's financial and economic team should have headed off.