Analysis: Feinstein holds all the cards

Legal News Line Feb. 9, 2009, 2:55pm

Dianne Feinstein (D)

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - For months now, like a tense game of Texas Hold 'Em, a crowded field of gamblers have sought to win enough chips for a run to replace termed-out California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010.

Over the last month, all the cards appeared to be shuffling into place. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein enjoyed the highest of profiles during the inauguration of President Barack Obama, having recently been named to chair the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee. After eight years of struggle with the Bush Administration, Feinstein basked in the newfound party power in Washington.

A happy Feinstein safely ensconced in the nation's capitol means an open door for joyous Democrats up and down the statewide party ticket. Though the senator has flirted with returning to California to run for governor in 2010, most believe her senate appointment will keep her in D.C.

Without Feinstein in the governor's race, California Attorney General Jerry Brown becomes the early favorite. But unlike Feinstein, who is believed to have enough power to virtually clear the field of most Democratic contenders, any number of people are lined up ready to challenge Brown, including mayors, former governor candidates and other statewide office holders.

Also, once Brown formerly announces his plan to run for governor as he is widely expected to do, several up-and-comers are poised to launch bids of their own to replace him as attorney general. Once those two slates are settled, other races like treasurer, lieutenant governor and insurance commissioners will quickly fall in line.

Though the actual election is still a year and a half away, launching statewide campaigns in the Golden State takes large organizations, fueled by enormous piles of cash that simply has to come from national Democrats. California is not just another state when it comes to politics.

But, it took only one answer to one question during an eight minute interview on a TV talk show to reshuffle the entire deck - or perhaps more accurately turn it into a game of 52-card pickup.

On Tuesday, Feinstein told MSNBC host Chris Mathews that she had not yet made up her mind about whether she would leave her senate post to run for governor. While the statement is in line with earlier statements made last year when Feinstein admitted a fascination with the challenges of governing her home state, the remarks are especially insightful coming now, after Feinstein was widely believed to be putting thoughts of being governor behind her.

The question is just how serious is she.

Those that know Feinstein would have to believe she's serious. The 75-year-old senator who saw her career rise from a relatively unspectacular San Francisco supervisor to a successful mayor to one of the most powerful members of the U.S. senate, knows well the cards she holds in her hand.

In an interview last year about running for governor, she said directly she'd have no problem launching a campaign, if and when she decided to do so.

"I have run statewide four times now. I have a base. It's up and down the state," she said.

All of which has to have the rest of the Democratic field highly concerned. If Feinstein jumped into the race now, political analysts believe most everyone else would have no choice but to steer clear. Only Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who has said he's running no matter who the opposition is, and perhaps Attorney General Brown would remain.

Brown might even choose not to oppose his longtime political ally, knowing she is the one Democrat whose name recognition and favorability out-shadows his own. And if Brown opted to return to the safe confines of his Department of Justice office, others eying the attorney general's post would likewise drop out, thus shredding the best laid plans of mice and political candidates.

In one fell swoop the entire lineup of Democratic candidates could fall into line, the prospect of which has to make the Democratic base thrilled with the ability to turn its powerhouse lineup fully against the Republican Party.

But why is she waiting, making life very uncertain for fellow Democrats up and down the ticket?

The answer to that only Feinstein knows. But allows for speculation.

In recent months, Feinstein has had a ringside seat at the country's biggest economic upheaval in her lifetime. Whatever strides made by President Obama will be part of her resume as a leading senator. What missteps are made, she can readily learn from.

While political victory is most often cobbled together with an odd mix of any number of hot button issues, in bad economic times nothing trumps the economy, as we learned so well in 1992. "It's the economy, stupid," is more true today than ever.

The economy may well be the achilles heel for the current slate of Democratic contenders. While Brown offers a vast political resume, he will always be known as the liberal standard bearer of key issues like environment, energy efficiency and most recently, defender of same-sex marriages.

That's a wining combination most years, especially in the highly liberal Democratic primary, but as Feinstein has seen, this isn't most years.

The general election will be about the economy, and nothing else. Not public transportation nor public schools, not emissions nor energy. Not same-sex or no-sex or any sex.

It's still the economy, stupid.

Dianne Feinstein is not stupid. Not only does she get how critical the economy will be in 2010, but she understands that winning the election is not enough. In a state crippled by partisan politics, that has seen its cash run dry and its credit rating dropped to the very worst among the 50 states, the next governor must win with such a strong victory that the state Legislature has no choice but to fall in line.

"I think whoever runs for the post of governor had better do so with a plan so that, if elected, that plan becomes their mandate to carry out," Feinstein told Mathews in her interview.

It is hard to see how any of the current crop of Democratic contenders could pull off such a mandate-earning victory in 2010. It is also not hard to see how potential GOP candidates like former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman and Silicon Valley billionaire Steve Poizner represent a serious threat to Democrats determined to win back the governor's mansion.

A moderate, successful business executive running from outside the political establishment could play very well against the Democratic politicos now jockeying for the nomination. It could also gain energy from the uproar of dissatisfaction with everything and everyone even close to Sacramento these days, as furloughs cut state worker pay and the controller threatens to issue IOUs instead of payment.

We haven't begun to see the tumult yet, nor the tidal wave of voter discontent it could cause.

Only Feinstein, herself a moderate, pro-business politician could expect to have a distinct advantage over the Republican nominee on the economy. Only Feinstein could ride in like the Calvary, fresh from economic victories in Washington with a plan to return the luster to the Golden State.

Should her Republican opponent end up being Whitman, only Feinstein can also appeal to a large voting block of women who are ready for feminine charm in the governor's mansion.

All this leads to a simple conclusion: The more it looks like Feinstein won't run, the more it makes sense that she will. She sincerely sounds like a person who would love to cap an incredible political career with the grandest of challenges, a triumphant return to her home state with a mandate for economic change that once and for all shores up the broken economic system.

Knowing she doesn't have to jump in early to clear a crowded Democratic field that she can probably beat anyway, Feinstein can choose to bide her time, keep her opponents guessing and enjoy some final victories in Washington with her Democratic president that will only bolster her economic credentials.

Then, when she decides she's ready, long after most of the races are set and the economic shifts have begun to settle, she can play her hand.

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