Political Observers at SMC Forum Say "Don't Write Off Obama"

Analysts Dissect Midterm Elections

Even though President Obama characterized the GOP's triumph in the 2010 midterm elections as a "shellacking," veteran political journalists who weighed in at a forum Thursday at Saint Mary's College disagreed with the view that the Republican landslide was a referendum on the president or a death knell for his political future.

"Don't write off Barack Obama yet," said KTVU political editor Randy Shandobil. The election was not so much a rejection of Obama, he said, as a message from the electorate that "he paid too much attention to other issues and not enough to the economy and jobs."

But Steve Woolpert, dean of the School of Liberal Arts, said it was surprising that Obama didn't seem to get that message until after the election, which saw the biggest GOP midterm victory since 1946. The president "played right into the Republican strategy," he said, by failing to work with the GOP on divisive issues like tax cuts and health care reform.

Shandobil and Woolpert were joined by Carla Marinucci, political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, KCBS reporter Bob Butler and moderator Father Michael Russo of the Communication Department in a wide-ranging discussion of issues that shaped the national and statewide races, including the future of the Tea Party movement and the reasons for Jerry Brown's last-minute drubbing of Meg Whitman in the California governor's race.

Woolpert saw the vote as a referendum on the times rather than the president. "If the economy improves," he said, "we may find a very different set of dynamics in the next election."

Many political commentators have characterized the midterm election results as a signal that people feel Washington is moving too fast toward the change promised by Obama during his campaign, but Butler disagreed. "We got change," he said, "but not fast enough."

Shandobil, too, argued that dashed hopes were more to blame for the huge swing toward the GOP than fear of big government. "Americans don't feel the positive results" of the Obama administration's policy changes yet, he said. "People are still out of work right now."

What's Next for the GOP?

Although Tea Party activists tapped into widespread dissatisfaction and set off a tidal wave of Republican victories that returned solid control of the House to the GOP, the panelists said the future of the movement is anything but certain.

Shandobil noted that other "maverick" political movements, like Ross Perot's Reform Party in 1996, have often been co-opted or shunned by the political establishment, especially the party to which they're most closely allied.

"If the economy improves," he added, "I think the Tea Party will cool down."

And Butler pointed out that the GOP and the Tea Party movement are locked in an uncomfortable embrace right now--one that may not be sustainable. "The Tea Party itself has trouble with the Republican Party, and vice versa," he said. "There's going to be a fight there."

Still, Marinucci argued that the Republican Party will have to come up with better candidates if it is going to oust Obama, as new House speaker John Boehner of Ohio has vowed to do. "Who do the Republicans have?" she asked. "Right now, the top candidates are Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. None could challenge him."

Palin may not see it that way, though.

"She's setting herself up to run for president," Butler said unequivocally. "There's no doubt she energized the grassroots." But he added, "I don't think there's any way the Republican Party is going to let her run for president."

Woolpert agreed that she will be a burr in the saddle of the Republican party, but he pointed out that after stumping for dozens of GOP candidates, "she's got some people who owe her favors now." And he reminded the audience that unlikely candidates have won high office in the past, saying, "I remember when people scoffed at Reagan as a viable candidate."

State Bucks the Trend

If California needed any more evidence of how different it is from the rest of the nation, the 2010 midterm elections provided plenty of proof. On election night, TV network commentators stood in front of maps that showed a nation covered in huge swaths of red where GOP candidates had triumphed and isolated dabs of blue where Democrats had held on. But the West Coast was a different story.

"The huge red tsunami stopped at the California border," said Marinucci. "It's not just a blue state, it's a deep blue state, a navy blue state." When all but the few undecided races were tallied, Democrats had swept the governor's and U.S. Senate races and most statewide offices, including lieutenant governor and secretary of state.

All the panelists agreed that the debates in California, including the senatorial face-off at Saint Mary's between Republican challenger Carly Fiorina and Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, were decisive. Shandobil, who moderated the SMC debate, pointed out that coming into that event "Boxer and Fiorina were essentially tied; a week or two after, Fiorina had fallen behind." And Marinucci recalled that the gubernatorial debate in the Central Valley was "a total meltdown disaster" for Whitman in her race for the governor's office.

In the end, the debates favored the candidates who could move beyond their political ads and think on their feet. "That's what happens when you have a focused hour devoted to issues," Shandobil said.

Environment Played a Central Role

One surprisingly pivotal issue in the California races was the environment, Marinucci noted. While Republican candidates across the nation were energized by Tea Party activism, Democrats flocked to the polls in California to stamp out Proposition 23, the measure backed by big Texas oil companies that would have suspended the state's landmark greenhouse gas legislation.

Another deciding factor was the immigrant vote, she added. Both Boxer and Brown argued for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, while Whitman and Fiorina took harder lines on illegal immigration. The final nail in the coffin for Whitman, of course, was her seemingly callous treatment of Nicky Diaz, an undocumented immigrant who worked for her for years, which thwarted her costly attempt to court the Latino vote.

Butler said the "trickle-down effect" from the governor's race undoubtedly hurt other Republican candidates, particularly Fiorina, another free-spending former CEO who suffered from comparisons with Whitman. In the end, when it came to issues many Californians cared about, like the environment, gun control and immigration, Shandobil said, it turned out that Boxer "was more in tune with the mainstream than Carly Fiorina."

Fortune Backfired on Whitman

The economy took center stage in the governor's race. Whitman's attempt to portray herself as the right person to lift California out of its economic doldrums was skewered by her record of eliminating or outsourcing hundreds of jobs when she was CEO of eBay.

Ironically, her fortune and her over-the-top spending also contributed to her downfall, the panelists said. With 12 percent of Californians out of work, spending more than $140 million to win the governor's race clearly struck many in the electorate as unseemly.

"California has lots of voters who are very educated, and they see through things like buying an election," Butler said.

But all three analysts said the biggest factor in Whitman's defeat was that she was too scripted.

"Meg Whitman was the most robotic candidate I've ever covered," Shandobil said. During the debates, he added, "she was pulling sound bites from an internal hard drive. At some point, people want to hear from the real person."

Teresa Castle
College Communications

Photo by Thomas Vo

The event was organized by Saint Mary's College Office of College Communications and the League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley. It was videotaped by GaelVision and will be broadcast later this month on Comcast local access channels.