Even though it's been more than three decades since Washington State swore in a Republican governor, that hasn't stopped Democratic insiders from privately shitting bricks over Attorney General Rob McKenna's impending 2012 gubernatorial run... and not just because he might win. It's what he might do with the office that has some Dems running scared.
After 30-plus years in the wilderness, GOPers are almost giddy over McKenna's prospects, if not with the man himself. "If he gets to the general election, he's an excellent candidate," one Republican operative confided on condition of anonymity. "Attorney general is the politically easiest job in the world. He's been doing press conferences with McGruff the Crime Dog for the past seven years."
McKenna's likely Democratic opponent, Jay Inslee, is "about as beatable a candidate as the Ds could nominate," this Republican says. "He has a long congressional voting record with plenty for all Washingtonians to dislike, and I don't really understand what case he'll make as an effective manager or accomplisher of great things."
Not exactly a measured critique—it under- estimates Inslee's passion, charisma, and force of character—but you can't argue with the fundamentals.
It is in this context that one can reasonably imagine a scenario unfolding that should be shockingly familiar. Swept into office on the crest of a recession-induced Big Red Wave, a newly elected Republican governor, backed by freshly minted legislative majorities, sets out to achieve with a stroke of a pen what just a few months before seemed an impossible right-wing fantasy: the total dismantling of the state's powerful public employees' unions through stripping them of their right to bargain collectively.
On the campaign trail, McKenna will rail against state workers—their cost-of-living increases, skyrocketing health care costs, and "fat" pensions—but of course, that's how all Republican candidates talk these days, so neither pundits nor plebs will take much notice. Sure, voters expect a Republican to be less union-friendly than his Democratic opponent, but after several straight Democrat- authored, all-cuts budgets filled with layoffs and furloughs and sundry wage and benefit concessions, even loyal union members will probably wonder, Could this guy really be much worse?
As the current debacle in Wisconsin—a conservative governor running roughshod over an otherwise Democratic, pro-union state—clearly demonstrates, the answer is a loud and resounding "YES!" Things could get much worse.
But wait, you say. Rob McKenna's not that kind of Republican. He's not a teabagger, you insist. He's a different kind of Republican... a moderate Republican... the kind of Republican who kinda shares our values, only maybe not quite enough to spend actual taxpayer money on them. He's the good kind of Republican, the reasonable, centrist, nonscary kind, the kind who brings an assortment of fresh doughnuts to the morning meeting, even though he doesn't even eat doughnuts, because the rest of us like them, and he's tolerant that way. You know, just like he personally opposes abortion but would never, ever do anything to restrict a woman's right to choose. Ever.
McKenna, we've been told, is a "Dan Evans Republican," what back East we used to call a "Rockefeller Republican." You know, like Slade Gorton before the other Washington sucked the life-spirit from his embittered, withered husk. McKenna's the good-government/policy-wonk/reformist type of Republican, like old-timers say former Seattle City Council member Bruce Chapman once was, way back before he founded the "intelligent design"–spewing Discovery Institute and metamorphosed into a mutant, right-wing, Christianist nutcase intent on undermining what's left of our nation's science education.
In other words, Rob McKenna is allegedly one of those mythical mainstream Republicans. And we know this because trusted media sources like the Seattle Times repeatedly tell us it's true. Newspapers around the state will give their endorsements to McKenna because they believe it.
Unfortunately, as comforting as this myth might be, experience tells us that mainstream Republicans are as extinct today as those dinosaurs Chapman's designer- God whimsically placed into the fossil record as part of His inscrutable plan to confuse paleontologists. And even if mainstream Republicans as a species aren't extinct, McKenna's fossil record clearly tells us that he's never been any such thing.
"The grassroots movement reflected in the Tea Party is exactly what this country is about," McKenna declared to the Snohomish County Republican Women's Club this past October, in a speech most notable for its Tea Party toadyism. Even when trotting out clichéd conservative economic talking points, McKenna can't help but play to the teabaggers, saying the need to place "fewer regulations, fewer burdens upon our employers," for example, is "what the Tea Party's about. It's an economic movement, a fiscal movement. We get that. The lefties don't get that."
And who, pray tell, did McKenna's speech define as "the lefties"? Karl Marx? No. Seattle's Saddam-loving, hippie, peacenik congressman Jim McDermott? Uh-uh. Dirty liberal bloggers like me? Believe it or not, my name didn't even come up once.
No, according to McKenna, the leftiest of lefties, the man who epitomizes the far extreme left wing of the Democratic Party, is none other than... President Barack Obama.
We have a man who, as president, is far to the left of center, farther to the left of center, I should say, than any American president we have ever seen. Farther to the left than FDR.
Really? If President Obama is that far left of center, where the hell does McKenna place our nation's ideological axis... Alabama, circa 1960? Perhaps it's all a matter of perspective. After all, this is the same speech in which McKenna described conservative columnist David Brooks as a "liberal." Uh-huh.
But McKenna moderately continued...
FDR, by the way, among other little known facts, was strongly opposed to the unionization of public employees. He understood why you don't need the unionization of public employees. And why it would be dangerous for it to happen.
It's the public employees' unions, McKenna explains, ironically using liberal icon FDR for cover, that are driving our state "bankrupt." That's no surprise, given McKenna's long pedigree of labor-busting politics, dating back to his anti-union antics on the King County Council.
As a councilman, on five separate occasions, McKenna refused to approve collective bargaining agreements between the county and public workers, opposing contracts with animal control officers, social workers, and others. He led efforts to prevent the county from doing business with union shops, bizarrely disparaging as "racist and sexist" an ordinance requiring the county to hire union apprentices. In 1998, McKenna even voted against a motion that urged an employer to (gasp) "bargain with its employees in good faith" and innocuously supported the "fair treatment of workers." And while McKenna likes to talk the talk on government spending, as chair of the council's budget committee in 2001, he proposed swiping money from a fund set aside to pay scheduled raises to unionized workers while actually increasing spending.
As attorney general, McKenna has continued his efforts to undermine unions, and in a very prominent manner. Backed by state and national anti-union groups like the ironically named Evergreen Freedom Foundation and National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, McKenna's first appearance before the US Supreme Court was an appeal of a state supreme court ruling that had granted teachers' unions the right to use members' dues for political purposes. After the Bush-packed conservative court overturned the state ruling, McKenna hailed the decision as an "extremely important" precursor that "clears the way" for new legislation to enact further restrictions of union political spending.
And if his anti-union sympathies weren't obvious enough, in 2010, acting as the keynote speaker at an Association of Washington Business luncheon, McKenna presented its better workplace award to Cairncross & Hempelmann, a law firm that advises managers on how to see the "warning signs of union organizing efforts" and "put policies in place to limit unionization efforts on your properties." Because nothing makes a workplace "better" like busting unions.
This is a politician who is no friend of labor, who has used his office to work against the interests of workers and their right to organize, who has accused state workers of bankrupting the state, and who has even labeled the very institution of the public employees' union as "dangerous." But nothing is more indicative of McKenna's far-right, anti-union, pro-teabagger philosophy than his aggressive leadership in attempting to kill organized labor's decades-old, number-one policy agenda: Obama's health care reform act and the benefits it would bring to millions of Washington citizens and businesses.
Indeed, far from being just one tagalong attorney general out of many, McKenna proudly touts himself as one of the primary instigators behind a multistate lawsuit against the health care reform legislation—a lawsuit that has so far resulted in one Florida judge tossing out as unconstitutional the entire reform package.
In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, McKenna claimed that "two of us got together, and others joined us," clearly placing himself at the lawsuit's genesis. And in December of 2009, three months before the final bill was even passed, McKenna told the Olympian that he "look[ed] forward" to working with other attorneys general in challenging the constitutionality of the act's provisions. This was a lawsuit that had been planned for months, long before the bill's provisions were finalized or the legal issues they might raise were fully known. When McKenna and other attorneys general circulated a letter questioning the constitutionality of the unfinished bill, even the Seattle Times editorial board had to recognize that "the signatories are all Republicans and speak with political motive."
More than the naked, teabagger-pandering politics of it all, what should be most disturbing to voters about McKenna's involvement in the health care lawsuit is the way he's consistently misrepresented its intended goal, by repeatedly implying that most of the health care reforms could survive, even if his lawsuit succeeds. From the official Q&A on his office's website:
Attorney General McKenna believes challenging the two unconstitutional provisions will ultimately not prevent Congress from implementing other features of the health care reform legislation if they see fit... Attorney General McKenna continues to believe that individual mandate and the Medicaid expansion provisions may be deemed unconstitutional without overturning the entire health care reform act.
Recognizing that much of the health care reform package is popular with voters, and would greatly benefit Washington State, Mc-Kenna repeats this line again and again. At a June 4, 2010, conference with the conservative Washington Policy Center, McKenna insisted that "we can only challenge those provisions that we think are constitutionally defective," but "it is inconceivable that one lawsuit could bring down the entire measure." And in a March 24, 2010, interview on TVW, McKenna claimed that he actually likes many of the provisions, bluntly telling NPR's Austin Jenkins:
You can't overturn a 2,400-page law with a trillion dollars in spending and 80 new federal agencies with one lawsuit, nor do we attempt to... The governor and the legislative leaders are making it sound like this lawsuit challenges the provision in the bill regarding preexisting conditions for health insurance; it does not. That it challenges the provisions that 26-year-olds can stay on their parents' health insurance; it does not. It does not address these many, many provisions that they keep citing... The provisions we've been talking about regarding 26-year-olds and preexisting conditions, they are all going to take effect this year. They are not the subject of the lawsuit; they're not affected by it at all.
Huh. That seems pretty clear. So... um... how does McKenna explain the request for summary judgment filed in his very own lawsuit?
Plaintiffs have established that the Act's Individual Mandate and Medicaid provisions are unconstitutional. Because each of these portions is essential to the [Affordable Care Act (ACA)] as a whole, neither can be severed. It follows, as a matter of law, that the unconstitutionality of either renders the entire Act unconstitutional. Accordingly, Plaintiffs ask, as requested in Counts One and Four of the Amended Complaint, that the Court declare the entire ACA unconstitutional and enjoin its enforcement.
In the court of public opinion, McKenna has repeatedly argued that he's only challenging two unconstitutional provisions of the health care act, that the more popular components of the health care act are "not affected" at all by his lawsuit. Yet in a court of law—you know, the court that really matters—McKenna argues that these two provisions cannot be severed from the act as a whole and thus asks the judge to toss out the entire package. Yes, even the provisions regarding 26-year-olds and preexisting conditions.
How lawyerly of him. No, how totally fucking dishonest.
This is a politician who will clearly say anything to win election, but voters of all stripes should have no illusions about what McKenna will try to do once elected. He will work against the interests of working Washingtonians and for the interests of his big-business corporate patrons. And just like his Wisconsin counterpart, if elected governor and given the opportunity, he would crush organized labor in a New York minute... while patiently explaining to reporters in his trademark dry, dispassionate, pseudogeeky manner that he was doing anything but.
What really makes Democrats so nervous is that while no Republican can get his ass kicked in populous, heavily Democratic King County and still manage to win statewide, thanks to his unearned reputation as "a different kind of Republican," McKenna has a history of far outperforming the rest of the GOP ticket around these parts.
In 2008, John McCain drew less than 30 percent of the King County vote and Dino Rossi pulled in barely 35 percent, but McKenna actually won the county with an impressive 54 percent of the vote, far more than any other Republican on the ballot. Even in 2004, when he lost the county to local favorite Deborah Senn in their race for the open attorney general seat, McKenna still managed to garner nearly 46 percent in King County, more than enough to help lead him to a comfortable victory statewide.
So why would McKenna risk the moderate, "different kind of Republican" image he's so carefully crafted, arguably the foundation of his electoral strength, to pander to his party's teabagger fringe? Because as much as his boring, centrist facade might help him in the general, he still has to get through the primary, and the Tea Party has a track record of knocking off establishment GOPers.
"While there were and still are die-hard Dino Rossi people, and die-hard Slade Gorton people, and die-hard enthusiasts for the GOP congresspeople, there are no die-hard Rob McKenna people, for various good reasons," my Republican insider friend says. "Nobody is going to fall on a sword for Rob. I still think it's possible he could lose the primary under the right conditions." Those right conditions: a Tea Party attack from the right squeezing McKenna between them and a truly centrist Republican on his left (or even a conservative Democrat like state auditor Brian Sonntag).
The trick for McKenna is how to maintain that delicate balance between convincing Republicans that he is who he says he is, while reassuring soft Dems and Independents that he's still who he's long said he was, a high-wire act made all the more difficult in the face of a stiff wind blowing in from the right.
Fortunately for McKenna, our local media has his back. McKenna the moderate is a media creation, a figment of the collective imagination of a punditocracy in love with his sweet, sexy, reporter-shield-law-promoting, public-records-access-defending ass while being emotionally invested in the notion that the Democrats' three-decades-plus domination of the governor's mansion is somehow bad for democracy.
That's why—despite the fact that McKenna opposes abortion, opposes marriage equality, opposes the right of public employees to organize, opposes health care reform, and has consistently allied himself with traditional right-wing "think tanks," organizations, corporations, and assholes (how's your latest initiative going, Tim?) on issues ranging from regulation to education to tax limitation to light rail (a project he unsuccessfully dedicated his council career to blocking)—our media continues to spin McKenna into one of those moderate-centrist-enviro-different-kind-of-Republicans Joel Connelly swears he once had drinks with while hiking in the back of Bill Clinton's limo. Or something.
Which is why two years from now, the idea of a Governor McKenna transforming Olympia into Madison on the Sound isn't all that far-fetched. And when the revenue forecast once again comes in "lower than expected," presenting lawmakers with yet another multibillion-dollar budget gap, and the draconian cuts McKenna proposes in response this time include the fundamental right of public employees to bargain collectively—when 80,000 angry union members and their supporters then descend upon the Capitol, and the schools shut down due to mass sick-ins, as union leaders ponder the consequences of planning Washington's first general strike since 1919—when all that happens, Mc- Kenna will calmly put on his glasses, step before the cameras, and cite FDR in defense of his union-bashing agenda. And the next day, the editorial boards will applaud him for his bipartisanship, remarking on how lucky we are to have a governor who is such a moderate, centrist, different kind of Republican.
This article has been updated since its original publication.