News & Views from 465 California Street

Death of a Politician

Clint Reilly

This November, California’s junior senator, Barbara Boxer, will face a stiff challenge from one of several formidable GOP candidates: Harvard pedigreed moderate Tom Campbell, wealthy former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, or Tea Party darling Chuck DeVore.

After three terms in Washington, Boxer must climb down from the senatorial throne and beg for votes in an angry state where unemployment has reached 12.5 percent and spiraling budget deficits have resulted in cutbacks to parks, transit, libraries, police and fire departments.

Eighteen years in the Senate might seem to entitle Boxer to an easy re-election. But easy elections in tough times are for dictators.

Full disclosure: I am a Barbara Boxer contributor and I hope she wins. Early in her career, I helped her get elected to Congress.

A subsequent campaign – which I did not manage – proclaimed “Boxer is a Fighter.” This year, she’ll have to be more than a fighter if she wants to hold on to her championship belt.

I’m sure the pugnacious Senator was watching apprehensively last Tuesday night when the working class voters of Pennsylvania dealt a lethal blow to the political career of her six-term Senate colleague, Arlen Specter.

Old, tired and defeated, Specter’s sepulchral countenance during his televised concession speech fit the occasion perfectly. All that remained was for his eyes to be closed and the body slid neatly into the coffin.

He had just been beaten in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary by Admiral Joe Sestak, a congressman who had boldly defied the White House to take Specter on.

Arthur Miller gave us Death of a Salesman. Here was “Death of a Politician.”

Specter survived two recent bouts with cancer and 30 grueling years in the Senate. But in 2010, his number came up.

Arlen didn’t give up without a fight. With conservative firebrand Pat Toomey looming in the Republican primary, Specter saw the writing on the wall and bailed on his party of 40 years.

A newly minted Democrat, he successfully blackmailed Democratic Party Pooh-Bahs – anxious for a 60th Democratic vote in the Senate – for the support of President Obama and Pennsylvania’s powerful governor Ed Rendell.

Poor Arlen. He picked a moment in history when incumbency and executive imprimaturs were the kiss of death.

For those who love the game like Specter, the macabre metaphors are painfully appropriate after losing an office held for three decades. Consider that Specter first ran for Philadelphia district attorney in 1965 – 45 years ago. He served two terms as DA and lost a race for Mayor of Philadelphia in between.

He was also defeated for U.S. Senate and for Governor of Pennsylvania before riding Ronald Reagan’s coattails to victory in the 1980 landslide. Pennsylvanians dragged Specter through the coals before they finally relented and elevated him to the U.S. Senate.

But for elected officials, the hangman’s noose is never far away. They know voters will not hesitate to drop them from the gallows when things go bad in their own lives.

In most successful careers, an executive can expect accolades at a retirement dinner and a golden parachute. Not politicians. Senators face only a final humiliating hazing.

“Thanks for the memories Senator Specter! Don’t let the door whack your fanny on the way out!”
Hardly a fitting thank you for 30 years of 24/7 blood, sweat and tears.

Instead of extolling speeches, a defeated Senator can look forward to weeks of embarrassing post mortems from Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer and Bill O’Reilly.

Maybe Barbara Boxer will never face Specter’s fate. At this writing she holds a narrow lead over her challengers. But political winds shift quickly.

Even if she comes up short, I doubt we’ll see the same soul-crushing grief in her eyes as she makes her concession. Like Al Gore and Newt Gingrich, Boxer would likely enjoy a fulfilling second career as an ambassador or a celebrity ex-politician.

There she would be liberated from the wrath of vengeful voters.

Comments (4)

  • After 45 years of scarfing from the public trough as a career politician, it’s time for Citizen Specter to return to private life. Our nation’s founders never intended for people to be fed by the public for their entire working lives, but rather, to serve a couple of terms and then return to the career they had before entering public life. Politicians are like diapers, they should be changed regularly and for the same reason. Specter, was kind of an honest poll, he was like Jesse Unruh, once the virtual boss of California politics from his Assembly Speaker position, (who) said (it) was essential to political success when dealing with contributors and lobbyists: “You have to be able to take their money, drink their booze, screw their women and then go out and vote against them the next day,”

    Tragically, as proved by Al Gore, when they leave, they have friends who stayed behind, altogether too willing to pass on a favor, such as laws like Cap & Tax that just might enhance one’s investments in Carbon trading.

    Posted by: couldbe me | May 25th, 2010 at 12:13 pm

  • Good column Clint. I believe (and hope) she is on her way out. She only rode in initially on Diane’s coattails in the Year of the Woman. I don’t think she could have made it otherwise.

    As an aside, my niece (20 something Jennifer Driscoll) is a scheduler for Carly who seems to have forged ahead of the Repubs. in recent polls. I have to be rooting for her. It’s a family thing.

    Posted by: Michael Farrah, Sr. | May 25th, 2010 at 12:19 pm

  • I love all your columns. …….We need big time change in CA……. now.! Out with the BOXER………..Give us some Campbells soup

    Posted by: Tom Hlavenka | May 25th, 2010 at 1:10 pm

  • For those not wanting to see Boxer succeed…be careful what you wish for. Carly Fiorina is an empty suit.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | May 26th, 2010 at 11:30 am

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