Filson: Raised the Floor and Lowered the Ceiling
As both Babaloo and VPO have noted, Steve Filson spoke at the San Ramon Democratic Club this past Thursday. Since they have both have posted about the event, I want to go back in fill in some of the blank spaces and perform more of an analysis than engage in a play-by-play description. If you have not read their posts, it’s probably best to read them before you proceed.
My overall reaction to Filson after the event was, as I noted in the title, that he raised the floor but lowered the ceiling of what I expect from him.
As I mentioned briefly in an earlier post, I had a chance to speak to Steve Filson. When we met he almost immediately deduced who I was and my relation to this blog, which both surprised me and didn’t surprise me.
I had known that this blog had been visited by someone located at the University of Michigan Medical School and that this person was directed here by a Google search for the keywords “Steve Filson” and “congress.” Since I knew Steve Filson had a son at the medical school there, and since common sense dictates that anyone at the medical school in Michigan googling “Steve Filson” (but not say “Pombo”) this early in the campaign was somehow connected to his son, I assumed that the Filson campaign was either aware of everything happening on this blog, or would soon become aware of it.
But at the same time, I was caught a little bit unprepared for how quickly Filson laid his cards on the table. I’m not sure if he was trying to play a game of gotcha, if he was just trying to be open and transparent, or if he wanted to seem like he was on top of things. Maybe it was a little bit of all three. But since I blog under my own name, I have accepted the fact that people may know who I am and what I’ve said.
In any event, I asked him what he thought of my blog and he gave me a pretty honest answer. He made two things very clear in his answer. First he made clear that he was “irked” by the meme going around, and given credence on this blog, that he had been anointed. Second, he spent a bit of time asserting that he was a genuine Democrat, and expressing his belief that it’s unfair to hold against him the fact that he used to be a Republican.
With regard to the second point, I agree with him to an extent. It’s not fair to simply write Filson off because he had been a Republican almost twenty years ago. On the other hand, Filson made clear in his speech that his transition from Republican to Democrat was more about party self-identification than changing ideology. He mentioned how the union-busting of Republicans in the 80’s convinced him that they weren’t his “friends.” Furthermore, in his speech Filson’s apologetics (remember, he was speaking to a Democratic Club) ran along the line of “I have always been a Democrat but just didn’t know it.”
But this cuts both ways for him too. If his ideology hasn’t shifted, then when he says that he is a “moderate-centrist Democrat” (which he said in his speech), we ought to understand that on some issues he may even be a bit Right of Center, or at least Right of the most Democrats. So when people discount him for being a former Republican, it may be more a comment about his ideology than a comment about his party credentials. This is especially true since Filson has strongly aligned himself with Ellen Tauscher who is, to put it mildly, not beloved by Progressives.
That said, I want to now return to the first point he made (i.e. that he was bothered by the use of “anointed” to describe him) because the conversation the followed raised some very interesting points.
After Filson said that he was irked by the meme that he has been anointed, I suggested to him that he could have avoided this characterization if he had introduced himself to the district before traveling to Washington to meet with the movers and shakers in the DCCC. After all, I know people important Democratic Party grassroots players in area who found out about his candidacy from the newspaper before they even knew who Filson was.
His response to this comment was one of the most interesting things he said all night. He told me that everything happened so fast that he hardly knew what was happening. But then he said about the positive reaction to him in Washington—and this is the bit that has provided me with endless food for thought—“It wasn’t me, it was what I brought.”
Two things about this. a) I think he was speaking about the same type of thing (albeit from a different perspective) that led VPO and Babaloo to label Filson “generic.” What he brings, in terms of a political resume, is very standard for politicians. He was an Eagle Scout, he was in the Navy, he has deep roots where he lives, he’s married and has some children, he has some involvement with a union, etc. But b) this just reinforces the notion that he has been anointed by people from outside of the district. After all, the starting point of his candidacy was Washington, D.C. The people in Washington liked him because of what he brought. But what does he bring that is specific to the district, as opposed to somewhat formulaic?
I could see Filson running for City Council on his resume. But he has a rather thin resume to be running for Congress if what he’s running on is his resume. Although the same is arguably true about McNerney, he is not really running on his resume.
Sure McNerney’s experience in wind energy allows him o speak pretty credibly about clean energy, which dovetails with the environmental concerns that prompt so many to hate Pombo. But my conversations with McNerney supporters all turn to the fact that McNerney stood up to Pombo when standing up to Pombo was tough and unpopular. That is, McNerney supporters view his first run against Pombo as a demonstration of McNerney’s character (they view it in terms of moral courage and toughness), rather than as an achievement to go on his political resume.
So when Steve Filson admits that his backers in Washington chose him based on what he brings to the table, when that does not include any demonstrated ability to win campaigns or any type of popularity (let alone popular support) within his district, you really have to question what criteria the people in Washington use. He brings to the table his connections with Ellen Tauscher and a small segment of the Democratic Party establishment in his local area. He brings to the table the ability to raise a fair amount of money. But most of what he brings to the table is the formulaic set of characteristics that certainly do not harm him, but really do little to seal the deal for people. I hope there is something deeper that I’m missing. Filson would probably say that I’m missing his deep connection to the Central Valley. He made much ado about this in his speech. But despite the fact that he lived in the Central Valley for four years in the 70’s, and despite the fact that he’s cleaned out a swamp cooler, I just don’t see a connection strong enough to really make a difference.
To some degree, I don’t give him the benefit of the doubt here because of something related, something that is more an impression than anything else. Listening to Steve Filson, especially how he responded to questions, really made me see him as a upper-middle class to rich individual. I mean, Filson is an airline pilot and his wife is a lawyer. Although I’m sure he has his financial issues like most people, he and his wife are probably in the top 10% of the country in terms of their collective income. But more to the point, it’s not just that Steve Filson is well to do (it’s not a sin to have money after all), it’s that he comes across as obviously well-off.
When asked about pensions, Filson responded by discussing how he will be forced to retire at 60, but will not be considered fully retired until he’s 65, which will apparently cut his pension by quite a bit. Maybe it was just me, but I couldn’t understand why he was talking about himself when 90,000 residents in the district receive Social Security, and when many of them need their Social Security check just to get by. He mentioned an attack on the middle class, noting that college graduates were earning less money than ever before. Fair enough. But what about all of the people who are priced out of college, or who attended public schools so underfunded that they never were prepared to go to college? When asked about the recent Bankruptcy Bill, Filson said he was opposed to it because it was bad for small business owners. What about the rest of us? Filson spoke a great deal nominally about the “middle class,” but much of what he said sounded to me like it was really about upwardly mobile suburbanites. True, there are a lot of these people in the middle class, but they alone do not constitute the middle class.
Looking back on what I’ve written, I realize that it’s very hard to articulate what I’m really getting at. It’s not just that I thought Filson answered the questions unartfully in my estimation, it’s that he did not seem to have any special authenticity when he spoke about these subjects. It reminded me a little bit of how my mom speaks about hip-hop—you know something like “Yo yo yo boom boom boom fresh yo” along with a silly dance. (I’m not sure if that image helps anyone else, but I’m too partial to it to erase it). In any event, I just didn’t buy it. On some level, it just didn’t sit right. This in spite of the earnestness with which he spoke.
I know this post has gotten really long, so I just want to look at one final thing before ending. I have mentioned in various places that Ellen Tauscher is (or maybe was at this point, I’m not sure) the Vice Chair of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). A lot of Democrats view the DLC as particularly pernicious to the Democratic Party for a number of reasons. Steve Filson is not, and ought not to be, held responsible for the activities of Ellen Tauscher. But meeting with him in San Ramon and watching him speak really brought home his relationship to the DLC. Specifically, there were two aspects of what he said that were particularly DLC-esque for me.
First, in describing his position on the debacle in Iraq, Filson said the he would demand metrics and measurements of success but not a timetable to withdraw. This, in broad strokes, is my understanding of the position of Wesley Clark. But Filson also took the further step of saying that demanding a timetable to withdraw would be “irresponsible.”
In my view, by calling a position taken by many Democrats “irresponsible” he sinned against the Democratic Party. The Republicans call a timetable “irresponsible.” George Bush calls it “irresponsible.” But this is hogwash. As a Democrat you are allowed to disagree in substance from other Democrats. But you are not allowed, in my book, to take a Republican talking point and turn it on your fellow Democrats. The DLC does this all the time, which is why so many Democrats view them as something of a fifth column within the party. Disagreement is fine, but don’t make your candle appear brighter by snuffing the flame of other Democrats. Find some other way to talk about the disagreement. Period.
Second, Filson spent a great deal of time in his speech and in his conversation with me talking about how he’s been involved in Democratic campaigns for the last nine years. I think that’s wonderful. What I think is less wonderful is that he speaks as if one’s connection to the Democratic Party is determined by one’s closeness to the elected Democratic officials. In fact, he specifically told me that the “stakeholder groups” (my phrase which he adopted in response to a question) of the Democratic Party in the area were the elected officials.
The problem I have with that is that the elected officials are elected to represent The People. We do not elect barons as Democrats or as citizens. And there is therefore something fundamentally wrong when someone does not conceptualize elected officials as representatives of The People and instead conceptualizes elected officials as important in and of themselves. I understand that elected officials have power, and it would be foolish to deny this. But I take exception to the idea that the people at the top of the hierarchy matter to the exclusion of the people at the bottom.
And so when Steve Filson spoke about the splinters he had in his fingers from lawn signs from the various campaigns he had been associated with, it came across to me a little like he was extolling his loyalty and usefulness as an apparatchik to some reified Democratic Party institution. I want to vote for someone who champions the ideas, principles, and values that undergird and give vibrancy to the Democratic Party, not for someone who has simply proven his loyalty to a bunch of officials.
I know that Steve Filson recognizes the values of the Democratic Party. Moreover, I do not doubt that he is a good person intent on doing what he thinks is right in the world. But despite all of his talk about fairness, he seemed to have systematically devalued the moral and ideological underpinnings of the Democratic Party in favor of the institutionality of the Democratic Party. Here too I see echoes of the DLC.
And this devaluation of Democratic values came up in the question and answer session. I asked Filson why he thinks anyone should vote for him instead of McNerney or potentially Margee Ensign. His first response was “electibality.” He said, “We will lose if we go to San Joaquin County and wave the anti-war flag.” But then he allowed that he might not be “your choice of a champion of Democratic values” or “the Democrat you like,” but that, when considered tactically, he was a better choice.
Maybe someone would lose if they went to San Joaquin County waving the anti-war flag. But Filson will definitely lose if he does not stand for anything more substantive than his slogan “Defending the American family and fighting for fairness.” And if he doesn’t stand for anything more, he deserves to lose.
At the end of the evening, Filson very graciously said that he appreciates this blog because I’m beginning a conversation that otherwise wouldn’t happen and because I force him to be sharp. Although it may seem especially self-serving, I agree completely with him about this. But meeting him and listening to him both dispelled some of my concerns and validated others. You, dear reader, will have to decide the degree to which you share my concerns. But the concerns that remain for me are substantial. Miles to go before we sleep I suppose.