If you’re like me, you’re eating up the news from the national political scene as if it were the biggest, juiciest brain pie you’ve ever had. I love watching the presidential campaign proceed.

What we’re watching is the equivalent of two teams of chess grandmasters squaring off. The maneuvering; the back and forth; the messaging — a good part of it has been genius. The rest has been very competent. But what can it tell us about San Diego politicians?

Well, let’s look at what’s happened so far nationally. Whatever you think about the politics of the Democrats, you have to admit they could not have hoped that the convention would go any better than that. What an unbelievable show. For all the worries about the logistics of Barack Obama’s speech in the stadium, it seemed to come off magnificently.

But then we wake up today and what do we see? McCain all over the news.

McCain is pretty clearly behind in this game. He’s like a football team going into the fourth quarter down by a touchdown. He’s got plenty of time to turn things around, but he’s behind. He can just keep playing, steady and safely and hope for a mistake from the other team. If he had chosen this route, he would have picked Gov. Tim Pawlenty from Minnesota or former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts to run as his choice for vice president. Both would have been safe choices, poised to help McCain take advantage of a slip-up on Obama’s side.

But then he changes the game and goes for something big bringing aboard Gov. Sarah Palin from Alaska. Whatever you think of it, you know it’s bold and impressive to take a risk like that. It has the potential to attract people to McCain’s campaign who might not have come aboard. The risk and surprise also brings hours and hours of analysis and attention that wouldn’t have come to such an extent. But the risk is just that: a risk. It has a downside and could prove costly in the way, say, Pawlenty wouldn’t have.

So what’s my point? My point is we’re being set up to watch an historic, titanic, exulting political joust. The best minds in American politics are facing off. This hasn’t happened in my experience watching this. It hasn’t happened in the experience even of what I’ve studied.

Go back to 1972 (I’m a Nixon-studying freak this days). George McGovern’s campaign was lame compared to the Richard Nixon machine, however illegal and repugnant we learned it was.

In 1976, because of the excesses of the Nixon machine, Gerald Ford’s operation was rendered lame. The Democrats had the wind at their back when Jimmy Carter led them to a major victory.

In 1980, Carter’s effort was lame compared to the passion and organization of the Reagan revolution.

In 1984, Mondale’s campaign was lame and no match for the incumbent.

In 1988, Dukakis was lame and overmatched — unable to deflect criticism or cast his opponent in the way he might have liked.

In 1992, the sitting president, George H.W. Bush couldn’t avoid an attack from the right and the left — lame.

1996 — Dole: way lame. This is when I started to gain consciousness. Even I knew he had no shot.

2000 — A good matchup but the Democrats just went through the whole exercise thinking that people would just recognize how much smarter they were than the other team. Even during the Florida recount debacle, they just assumed that they could take rational positions and everyone would realize they were right. They didn’t fight, maneuver and strive for the win. That’s lame.

2004 — Kerry. Taking on an incumbent means you’re going into it lame. He gave it a good shot.

Now. I think we’re set for an epic and interesting battle.

So, how does this apply to city of San Diego politics? One thing that’s clear about this place is that it’s always easy to recognize the lame campaigns — the ones that are weak and unable or unwilling to make the moves necessary to win.

Look back at the June Primary election:

  • Mayor: Incumbent Jerry Sanders ran a smart, efficient campaign and blew out the lame organization Steve Francis spent so much to build. Francis did make bold moves but they were oddly calculated and ultimately ineffective locally. His strategy came from some kind of text book unfamiliar with San Diego nuances. This was not a battle of titanic political minds. It was, essentially, a blow out.
  • City Attorney: No contest. Incumbent Mike Aguirre didn’t even run a campaign. That instantly means his campaign was lame. His main opponent, Jan Goldsmith, ran an excellent campaign that was much more shrewd than Councilmen Brian Maienschein or Scott Peters put together. Now, the question is, will Aguirre have the money and support to match it for the final?
  • City Council District 1: Good campaigning from all three candidates. No lame. This will be one to watch. It’s no Obama/McCain, but there are shrewd people on both Sherri Lightner’s team and Phil Thalheimer’s. And they both have access to resources.
  • City Council District 3: Same thing here. This is even a better local battle similar to what I’m talking about with Obama/McCain. Stephen Whitburn and Todd Gloria are both eloquent, principled and very shrewd. They are engaged in an epic battle in the community setting in the race for endorsements, resources and sheer enthusiasm. It’s a dynamic race that has already displayed some great decision making and maneuvering. But look at the news this week: Whitburn and Gloria shared a joint endorsement from the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council in the primary, and now the union of unions has decided to fully back Gloria and snub Whitburn. On the other hand, Whitburn deftly secured the endorsement of the Democratic Party (and the money that came with it in the primary). It’s a fascinating battle.
  • City Council District 5: This doesn’t even deserve a paragraph: Carl DeMaio’s organization, campaign and strategy was astonishing and uncontestable. His opponent was propped up by people who wanted to talk bad about DeMaio. It was lame and it wasn’t even pretending not to be.
  • City Council District 7: Marti Emerald’s team once touted a poll that showed her trouncing her opponent, April Boling. Boling came out ahead in the primary. Emerald fired her consultant. I think by her own measurement, Emerald’s campaign was totally lame.

What’s the common thread in the races? If there was a lame campaign, it was coming from the left side of the political spectrum.

What this city needs is some more game. One of the most telling parts of this David Washburn profile from months ago about the local Democratic Party are the quotes of explanation from party leaders excusing themselves and explaining their lack of long-term building. They, for instance, explain the lack of a Democrat running for mayor as natural and to be expected, even in a Democratic-leaning town, because, hey, what were they going to do? Run against an incumbent?

This is important, and let’s bring it back to McCain/Obama. Local Democrats may have dozens of articulate reasons why not running a competitive and well-funded Democrat for mayor was a natural evolution of their “growth” as a local party.

But the minds behind this amazing struggle between Obama and McCain didn’t just show up for the game. The candidates and the people working with them fought and lost tough campaigns. This fighting and losing taught them what to do and they have learned over time. If it wanted to take over the local political scene, the local Democratic Party should be running young ambitious politicians for all seats not just the ones they think they can win, but all the races so that they can build the experience and expertise to win in the future.

The party, though, doesn’t do this. It doesn’t learn. The Republicans did. And that’s why there will be one lame campaign and one well-run campaign defining San Diego elections for the time being.


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