News & Views from 465 California Street

Beware, Rush Limbaugh

Clint Reilly

A recent Boston Globe article examining Hillary Clinton’s newfound success among GOP loyalists made a strong case for the “Limbaugh Effect,” tactical voting by Republicans who believe that Clinton’s nomination will benefit the GOP in November.

These “tactical voters” might want to reconsider their tactics.

I’m reminded of two instances in which similar political maneuvering brought about wildly unintended consequences. In the first case, an attempt to bring down an urban mayor helped catapult her toward a successful career in the U.S. Senate. In the second, voters seeking campaign finance limits released a flood of special interest money into the system.

In 1983, then San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein was preparing for her November reelection when she was blindsided by a recall effort. Her support of a San Francisco hand gun ban had drawn the ire of pro-gun zealots. I ran her anti-recall campaign.

San Francisco politics manufactures grievances like Hershey stamps out chocolate bars. So, when a fringe group by the name of the “White Panther Party” circulated a recall petition to protest Feinstein’s gun law, other disaffected activists jumped on the bandwagon. Inspired by kitchen sink disagreements with Feinstein on a number of disparate issues, enough signatures were gathered to mandate an April vote.

Initially, Feinstein was furious. She was concerned that the recall would besmirch her legacy. I was convinced that she would easily defeat the recall. But as her campaign manager, I had another concern: Would a small minority of disenchanted activists turn out to vote in an April special election while the overwhelming majority of satisfied citizens stayed home? Any margin of victory less than 60 percent in April would lure a challenger into the race against a weakened Feinstein in November.

This analysis led us to create the first vote-by-mail campaign in California’s political history. We hired a team of organizers led by one of California’s best: Fred Ross Jr. His father, Fred Ross Sr. – who discovered and trained Cesar Chavez – was an advisor. Larry Tramutola, now the East Bay’s foremost political consultant, was another member of the group.

A massive volunteer army took shape as ironing board brigades descended on shopping centers and meeting places across the city. By the time they finished, they had enlisted more than 55,000 voters to vote by mail. On April 26, 1983, the recall was defeated by a crushing 83-percent margin.

The overwhelming victory gave Feinstein an aura of invincibility and she emerged from the recall stronger than ever. She was reelected that November unchallenged and would later ride her popularity to the U.S. Senate, much to her enemies’ chagrin.

The theory of unintended consequences also extends to well-meaning voters.

In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 208, assuming that the law’s strict campaign spending limits would diminish the influence of special interest groups and corporations. But while the law later languished in the courts, a suspect “reform” initiative sped through the Legislature and landed on the 2000 ballot: Proposition 34.

Reform-hungry voters failed to see the gaping holes in Prop 34 and passed it by 20 percent. In doing so, they managed to gravely exacerbate the problem.

Since the law’s inception, independent expenditures – the proxy campaigns waged largely by corporate and special interests – have exploded by 2,500 percent. In the last election cycle alone, more than $25 million poured into legislative races across the state. The groups that voters had hoped to curb now wield greater power than ever.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that meddling with the democratic system can have unsavory results for the meddlers. Rush Limbaugh and his talk radio compatriots should take note. Hillary Clinton may well make them look foolish in November.

Comments (5)

  • Hillary and Barack are sniping each other apart personally since they don’t disagree much on the issues. There is really little ammo each could use to attack the other strictly on the issues.

    John McCain is enjoying all of this. Hillary and Barack are like brother bear and sister bear going at it. Let’s just hope they kiss and make-up before Denver and bury their grievances.

    Bill Richardson and James Carville need to air out their dirty dry cleaning in private. The Democratic party needs to show unity and solidarity, or else John “Dubya” McCain is going to keep us in Iraq for another 100 years.

    Hillary and Barack need to take a step back. They need to realize that sometimes when you win (personally), you lose. You lose because you lose your party. Your party of values.

    The Democratic Party should not adopt tactics of Karl Rove and use them on their own kind. As Bush Sr. quipped often, “It wouldn’t be prudent”.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | March 25th, 2008 at 9:25 am

  • Republicans should be mindful of the Law of Un-Intended Consequences !

    Governor Gray Davis might have served out his second term to January 2007 instead of being successfully recalled in 2003 had he not influenced the Republicans’ choice of a gubernatorial candidate. Davis earned the bitter ire of California Republicans by manipulating the results of the ’02 Republican primary. Fearing primary candidate LA Mayor Dick Riordan as a stronger opponent in the general election, he backed negative TV ads highlighting Riordan’s pro-choice stance during the primary campaign. As a result, conservative Republicans flocked to challenger Bill Simon. Simon handily won the Republican primary and Davis got the opponent he thought would be weaker in the general election. But Simon surprised everyone with a surprisingly close election night result, November 2002.

    Incensed that the Democratic Governor had hijacked their primary, Republicans began gathering recall petitions as soon as Davis was sworn in, January 2003. By September ’03, Davis had been recalled opening the door for Arnold Schwarzenegger to become Governor.

    Rush Limbaugh and his listeners have short memories and should know better.

    Posted by: Jim Herlihy | March 25th, 2008 at 12:23 pm

  • I feel we are approaching the time that Hillary Clinton seriously needs to consider bowing out of the nomination process; in the interests of the party and in the interests of the nation. Bill Richardson’s endorsement was a major tipping point. The writing is on the wall; Barack Obama has the nomination. The country now needs to focus on the Obama – MacCain debate and nomination.

    Posted by: Bob Lever | March 25th, 2008 at 1:01 pm

  • Another unintended consequence is it is looking like Obama will be a far easier candidate for McCain to beat than Hillary, thanks to the venomous pastor who gave BO street cred when he was in local and state politics but is now a millstone around his swan-like neck.

    Posted by: Jerry Carroll | March 25th, 2008 at 7:02 pm

  • In the interests of the party, country and the world the most qualified candidate (Hillary) should fight and win.

    Posted by: Uma | March 25th, 2008 at 10:42 pm

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