Sunday, Nov. 9, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Question on the Street
Five political consultants gathered four months ago at the Three Angry Wives pub in Summerlin to spend nearly two hours discussing one election.
Nearly everything those five forecast to the Las Vegas Sun came to pass on Election Day, which is a remarkable batting average.
So the Sun went back to that team last week and back to Three Angry Wives. We asked not only for an assessment of the election but also for answers to questions on the minds of the record-breaking number of Nevadans who voted: What does it mean? Where do we go from here?
The session was held the day after the election, so those of you who watch and listen online, pardon the Alka-Seltzer fizz.
Mike Sloan, gaming consultant and Democratic fund raiser.
Billy Vassiliadis, owner of the public affairs and advertising firm R&R Partners, campaign manager for former Democratic Gov. Bob Miller, adviser to the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.
Steve Wark, Republican consultant, former chairman of the Republican Party and former Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn’s field director.
Dan Hart, Democratic consultant and campaign manager for former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones.
Josh Griffin, Republican lobbyist and former member of the Nevada Assembly. (Replaced Peter Ernaut, who was at the earlier Conversation but could not attend last week.)
Sun reporter J. Patrick Coolican guided the discussion. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Griffin (Republican): The Obama campaign did an outstanding job: his organization, his fundraising, his message, his energy. He transformed America last night.
I was impressed, regardless of partisan feelings, I was impressed.
I think this country is turning blue, not because I think it was turning blue anyway, but I think Obama was a candidate who can transform people. I didn’t think about it until last night when you saw him at Grant Park giving his speech.
I think this is going to change America for a long time.
Wark (Republican): I was impressed with the mechanics of the campaign. The last time we got together we talked about a field organization. Hats off to Harry Reid for working it from the top down, for putting resources into this state and creating party discipline.
It’s something that the Republicans used to do. They haven’t done it in the last few years because nobody at the top has decided it’s worth doing.
Whether it was Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as the nominee, they could take their organization and lay it on top of what the state Democratic Party tried very, very hard to do. The mechanics of it across Nevada were tremendous.
As far as changing the picture, I won’t be near as effusive as saying it was transformative.
I was amazed for the last year at the Obama campaign’s ability to willingly suspend the healthy skepticism that people often have about politics. That’s something rare, to get people to do what they wouldn’t ordinarily do.
Now the question is: Can you protract that over two elections cycles?
You would have to be a believer after last night, but a really tough mid-term election for Congress is coming in two years and if the Democrats succeed at that time, then they’ve created a political dynasty.
Vassiliadis (Democrat): For Democrats to walk away last night with a message that we’ve been affirmed and validated would be a huge mistake. The message last night was that the American public has had it.
Barack Obama succeeded because he feels that himself and he felt it early on. He stayed true to it despite all the well wishers and the older party folks who told him to get more toward the center, more whatever.
To Obama, “change” is not a theme, not a slogan, not a campaign, not a campaign ad. People are done. They are done. They were done before the economic crash.
Everybody talks as if McCain might have won if it hadn’t been for the economic crash. I think it’s B.S. People got done a long time ago.
They don’t understand why it takes 60 votes to approve something in the Senate.
They don’t understand why it takes three years to pass a bill.
They don’t understand why they can’t communicate with their congressman or senator. I mean there used to be a premium on congressmen and senators who contacted and communicated with their constituents, and I think it’s gone out the window.
They’re done with the notion of big money floating down the halls of Congress.
Barack said, “I’m there with you.”
I just saw Congressman John Boehner’s (House Republican leader) message that said: We’re going to continue what we’re doing. And I say thank God because it will help build that dynasty Steve’s talking about with idiots like that.
People are done with the complacency of George Bush, the disconnection with the people.
One of the things we did in the campaign because we had a bunch of young, really smart kids was to connect with the American people through the Internet and mobile technology. We didn’t just send them messages. We received messages, we received information, we brought them into the campaign.
Obama’s campaign gave frustrated people a way to express themselves, it gave them a place to get involved, participate in changing things.
Hillary talked about experience. That was a huge mistake. John McCain talked about experience. They just missed it. They missed that people didn’t give a damn about their experience. They didn’t give a damn about the last 20 years, they wanted to talk about the next 20 years.
Sloan (Democrat): I was going to say I’m cynical about what Billy had to say, but the last time I was here I was cynical about Nevadans buying into Obama.
Harry Reid had the good sense to see that this caucus was going to be a major way out. Those of us who sat around and were cynical about raising 20,000, 30,000, 100,000 voters.
Billy said the motivational people showed up in Nevada, and I guess I’m older and more cynical than most. On the other hand I hope it isn’t as he described, because these people will be very shortly disappointed because there’s going to be no sudden change. We’re not going to change the way the American government operates. The Senate is still going to be the Senate and it’s still going to take 60 votes.
People here did react differently than I anticipated. They saw something magical. I hope that can be translated into policy changes they’re going to be happy with.
Hart (Democrat): The Obama campaign did things differently in a presidential campaign, where you’re parachuted in from some other state, go visit with the movers and shakers and give the appropriate genuflection. They didn’t do that.
They built an organization around the state party that the state party could augment. But the Obama organization could stand on its own. To do that and to have the discipline that they had was just remarkable.
I worry, though, that this whole transformative event some people talk about raises expectations so high that it’s going to be hard not to disappoint people.
Vassiliadis: The expectations are high, but what Barack’s going to do is bring people in and give them ownership of this process. He’s not going to do what politicians have done for years, say “I’m going to fix this, I’m going to pass this law, I’m going to spread the wealth.”
If you listened to him last night, he gave them ownership.
Let’s say this president makes energy conservation, energy expansion a major initiative, and I wonder how Boehner (Republican House leader) or Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat) are going to react when they get 100,000 e-mails a day. A lot differently.
Our support, our database is going to stay active the next four years. They’re going to be given a piece of this agenda the next four years.
Sloan: Some of these special interests are going to collide whether it comes to oil, conservation, jobs, free trade. What I think was really underestimated is how willing labor is to throw their shoulder into this, too.
Wark: You’re also running against human nature. I don’t know whether the Obama message of transcending the system can really survive given human nature or a culture that calls for instant gratification, positive strokes.
It goes back to what Dan said: How much can this new crop of political minds take before they throw up their hands and say, “You know what? It isn’t worth it. We’ve got to get back to something more important.”
Griffin: I’m going to sound like a starry-eyed Obama supporter and up until a couple of days ago I was a skeptic. But from watching him over the last year, every time a standard was set higher for him, he achieved it.
As I was voting, I thought of P.J. O’Rourke, great writer, who had an interesting observation 20 years ago about the Republican Party. He said it is the party that thinks that government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.
The Republican Party, my party, has come to that level where we’re complaining about how big it is, but nobody is making it any smaller.
Obama is not from that side and he really set high expectations. But if he governs like he campaigned, in this new transformational way, those expectations might be met.
Wark: I cut my teeth in the early ’80s. Besides Reagan, the guy who energized me was Congressman Jack Kemp. He was a big public policy guy and he talked about ideas. The Republican Party has gotten away from positing ideas.
Kemp convinced me that I could go to the West Side and persuade African-Americans to support Ronald Reagan. I did, because somebody in office inspired me.
Sarah Palin is inspirational for very average, working class Americans because that’s what she is. She didn’t try to equivocate, she didn’t try to hide behind something that she wasn’t, and that’s where she connected.
I think Sarah Palin has a role in the future, connecting with normal people.
The big problem with Democrats is how do you not become the elite that you’re fighting against? It’s been so long since they’ve been a high-powered party in office. How do you not become the establishment?
If you keep energizing the people on the ground, the youth, then it inoculates against that.
Griffin: I wouldn’t totally write off Sarah Palin. We didn’t know her three months ago. She was thrust onto the national scene.
The party needs articulate leaders, but it needs people with ideas. The Republican Party has become on the national stage a party of complainers. We need to recapture policy creativity at a national level.
Looking forward to 2010
Hart: You’ve got the governor and you’ve got Senator Reid. I would imagine Senator Reid is starting to campaign today and I think he has to.
Midterm elections (between presidential elections) are very bad for the party in power, although that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen this time.
This goes back to the expectations. We have a short window to meet some of the expectations.
And the governor’s race — what are the economics of our community going to be, what’s going to happen at the Legislature?
There are all kinds of fascinating permutations of what could happen. There is going to be a lot of political activity over the next couple of years.
Sloan: What happens to the Democrats two years from now is in large part what happens in Washington as a result of the enthusiasm and transformational effect that people are forecasting for Obama.
If he has a great two years, Sen. Reid is going to have a great election. If Obama’s program flounders, it’s going to be tougher for Harry, but he’s had a lot of difficult races in the state in the past and he wins.
Vassiliadis: Reid has been building his operation since 2002. He was reelected in 2004. In 2006, Democrats went from having zero state constitutional officers to having four elected. Now the 2008, we have the presidential outcome.
That structure is staying in place and Harry Reid is still running the ship.
Mike is right. Harry will be a key player in presenting and passing the president’s agenda. If it’s a good and strong agenda, a popular agenda, Harry will do great.
I don’t agree if it’s a bad agenda, Harry will do badly, because if it doesn’t pass, it will have been blocked again by the typical Washington establishment.
Wark: Reid’s work is always cut out for him because he’s had to become the water-carrier, standard-bearer for the Senate. It makes him easier to run against in that sense, but he’s a ruthless politician.
Whoever runs against him does benefit from being able to run a national campaign. You shouldn’t have trouble raising $10 million to $20 million across the country running against Reid. Whether or not you can survive midnight attacks, that’s up to stamina, perseverance. It’s probably going to take a sitting elected official.
Sloan: If Wall Street gets better, Obama is going to be on the upswing. Harry may be the beneficiary of that as well.
Wark: Two years might be too quick. Anybody who runs in four years is OK, but I think the next two years are going to be absolutely brutal. There’s a lot of things that can get hung around your neck during a campaign if it doesn’t improve.
On the 2009 Nevada Legislature
Griffin: Obviously, the Democratic advantage in voter registration became alarming if you’re a Republican. So last night, I wasn’t totally surprised. I thought Sen. Joe Heck (Republican) would pull it out. I didn’t think Sen. Bob Beers (Republican) would be able to. (Both lost, giving Democrats control of the state Senate.)
The new majority leader, Sen. Steven Horsford (Democrat), worked his butt off for this. You’re going to see a new kind of energy that Steven will bring.
Wark: If this was 2004 and the Democrats took control of the Senate, you would have an agenda a mile long.
Today, they are confined by the economy, the budget. There is little to be done except make hard decisions.
This is the time for somebody to shine. If this was four years ago, a blind monkey could come up with a couple different ways to fix it.
Vassiliadis: It’ll be a bloodbath, a horror show. Josh is right. This problem is overwhelming. They’ve got to completely revisit how we run government. They have to dig this up and start over again.
You can’t have the expectations Nevadans have about what government should be doing, and expect taxes not to go up. You can’t give teachers pay raises without accountability. You can’t have government officials not being held accountable for their spending and their tax policies.
One things state government has to do is reestablish credibility with the public.
You just can’t cut a hell of a lot more. You might as well shut the damn place down.
There has got to be a will and a willingness to reinvent Nevada. If they don’t do that, there isn’t a solution.
Sloan: Not in a 120-day legislative session. It’s not going to be done.
Every time I’ve sat through one of these stupid Tax Commission meetings, or committees, you spend the first 60 days when people think they are going to invent a new system of taxation in which money comes in and nobody pays. They want the Tooth Fairy.
What Billy described needs to be done. It’s not going to be done.
They may appoint a commission to study it.
Vassiliadis: If it’s not done, there’s going to be transformative change of this governor, of this Legislature, of the state.
If they don’t take this on seriously and instead try to patch and Band-Aid their way through, without fundamental change, and if they bow to whether it’s the teachers union or the gaming industry or the Chamber of Commerce or all the judicial power bases, there’s going to be hell to pay when the voters go to the polls again in 2010.
Sloan: I think what I take away from last night is it as an extraordinarily inspirational evening. I saw Kennedy’s speech at his inaugural and it had the same kind of inspiration but not necessarily the result, so I have that skepticism of the ability to deliver.
But I believe, with Billy, that the changing technology may have empowered this campaign to transform that energy into governance. That would be exciting.
You watch that experience in Grant Park and if you didn’t have a tear in your eye and you weren’t thrilled to be an American to have crossed that barrier that we crossed last night, then you probably don’t belong.
Hart: We’re all students of history trying to put it in a historical perspective. I’m not sure there is a historical reference to what happened last night. So to predict what’s going to happen is probably not the best way to go about this thing.
It’s going to be a very exciting time, very interesting time. It’s going to be challenging and full of opportunities.
Wark: My skepticism comes from the question of whether this can be repeated. When does the flame die out? Is it 100 years from now? Is it a 1,000-year reign? Is it one election cycle? Is it personality or is it a generational, cultural shift that will go on for 20, 30 years?
Sun reporter Mary Manning contributed to this story.