Dan Morain

Let’s politic like it’s 1991

Attorney General Kamala Harris has not taken many policy stances in her Senate campaign to succeed Barbara Boxer for one of California’s U.S. Senate seats.
Attorney General Kamala Harris has not taken many policy stances in her Senate campaign to succeed Barbara Boxer for one of California’s U.S. Senate seats. Associated Press file

I don’t look back 24 years with much sense of longing, even though my waist was not nearly as thick and I didn’t need glasses to see this page.

A miserable drought had taken hold in California, and the economy was ravaged by recession. But I do remember one aspect of 1991 fondly: politics.

In 1991, Barbara Boxer was running for a U.S. Senate seat that had been occupied by Alan Cranston for four terms. Dianne Feinstein was seeking the other seat against a decent Republican named John Seymour, back when Republicans mattered in California.

Among Democrats, Gray Davis was running for a seat, as was the lieutenant governor, Leo McCarthy, and an influential congressman, Mel Levine. Bob Matsui, who represented Sacramento in Congress, considered it. There was even a Gavin – actor and Ronald Reagan crony Republican John Gavin. Who could forget him in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”?

Jerry Brown, looking for a gig, was toying with another Senate run, prompting The San Francisco Chronicle to note: “Not since Francisco Franco has anyone lingered as long as Jerry Brown.” Brown has been in office longer than the Spanish dictator has been in the grave.

What’s striking is not the number of heavyweights who ran but the positions they took. On everything. Boxer, in particular, couldn’t hold her tongue. She had gained notoriety by opposing the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“Where are the voices? Where’s the spine? Where’s the anger?” she was quoted as saying in one story from the day. “This isn’t about some theory. This is about women’s lives. This is about life and death.”

In a speech to California Democrats, Boxer denounced “symbols of excess,” including Donald Trump. Some things don’t change, like Trump’s hair.

In 1991, Boxer denounced President George H.W. Bush’s Desert Storm, the first war against Iraq:

“It’s about blood on our kids! Have you ever seen a body shot apart, up close? Far away, it looks still and peaceful. Up close, you see suffering and pain,” she said, as quoted by the L.A. Times. “There will be a huge price if we choose this route. The price is body bags, babies killed.”

Boxer, who is retiring, never was one to hide her views. Then there is Attorney General Kamala Harris, the one declared candidate for Boxer’s seat. Harris has been issuing press releases announcing endorsements, but only last week gave her first interviews about her candidacy. The result: not quite 2,000 mushy words divided among three newspapers, plus a radio interview or two.

From The Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle, we learned she thinks marijuana legalization is inevitable but, as she told The Chron, “we really do have to work out the details.” Fluff.

From the Times, we learned Harris supports President Barack Obama’s approach to Islamic State terrorists – “at this point.” But she “sidestepped” a question about whether she would attend a planned speech to a joint session of Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next month, if she were in the Senate.

“I can’t speculate about that at this point,” she was quoted as saying, though evidently she emphasized the importance of the United States’ relationship with Israel. Not much there there.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Los Angeles Democrat who is contemplating a run for the Senate, was in Sacramento last week to give a 30-minute speech to several hundred health care experts about the Affordable Care Act and his view of immigration reform. It was detailed stuff.

He had invited me to meet him at the downtown Sheraton, where, in the course of a few minutes, he told me what he thought about the authorization of the use of military force against the Islamic State that Obama is seeking from Congress, and about arming Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed forces.

“I’m not where John McCain is,” Becerra said, “not where those who say we should be supplying Ukrainians with hard-core military weaponry. Once it’s with them, it can be used for any number of things.

“Europeans need to step to the plate. And if the Europeans are hesitant about giving heavy weaponry to the Ukrainians, shouldn’t we be concerned? They’re a lot closer than we are.”

What if Russia were to mess with, say, Estonia, or any other NATO member? “We have got a treaty that says, ‘One for all, all for one.’ We made that commitment, period. Unless it is only a piece of paper, I think America should abide by its commitments.”

As for Obama’s request for authorization to use force against the terrorists, Becerra is skeptical and would vote against it:

“If the task for our military is clearly defined, is limited in scope, and it’s based on the evidence before us of who has done us harm, I’m prepared to support the president. To the degree that it’s open-ended … I would not be for it.”

“We shouldn’t have open-ended campaigns; 1 or 2 percent of Americans are fighting these wars for us. Clearly, the commitment isn’t there on the part of the American public. Some want to rush into these things too quickly.”

And he added: “I want to read what Kamala says about those things.”

So should Californians. The U.S. Senate is no backwater office. Who represents California in that club of 100 matters. There is time between now and Election Day 2016 to get past the pabulum Harris dished this past week. But she ought to clue voters in on her views of war, peace, Supreme Court justices and much more.

Times were rocky in 1991, and I wouldn’t want to return there. But I do remember fondly the attention given to the races for U.S. Senate, and how candidates felt obliged to take stands.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.