04.06.10

Can This Blogger Unseat Barbara Boxer?

Mickey Kaus’ last political race was for student body president, he’s friends with Ann Coulter—and his opponent in the California Democratic primary is behaving as though he doesn’t exist. So why is he talking about winning?

Senator Barbara Boxer of California, running this year for a fourth term, is facing two opponents on the ballot in the June 8 Democratic primary. One is self-styled movie producer Brian Quintana, best known—at least to tabloid readers—for his wrongful-termination suit against Hollywood denizen Jon Peters, alleging that Peters repeatedly groped and sexually harassed him.

The other is Slate.com blogger Mickey Kaus.

“I wake up every morning and say, ‘ Why am I doing this again?’ And then I remember,” Kaus told me over the weekend. “I’d carved out a stress-free life for myself—and this is not that.”

Kaus no longer talks about losing to Boxer. “I’ve changed my mind,” he told me. “Now I want to beat her!”

Some of Kaus’ friends, who can’t help but be familiar with his near-obsessive aversion to germs of any kind, wonder how or if he’ll survive such campaign commonplaces as shaking hands and kissing babies. “This is California. We don’t have germs out here,” he quipped.

The 58-year-old Kaus—whose last political race was for student body president of Beverly Hills High School (he won, and I think I might have voted for him)—launched his Senate campaign in March to offer California primary voters what he calls a “common sense Democrat” alternative to what he calls Boxer’s liberal interest-group orthodoxy.

Thus Kaus is preaching the evils of comprehensive immigration reform that grants amnesty to illegal workers without securing the borders, and he is inveighing against the allegedly destructive influence of public employees’ and teachers’ unions.

“I am a lifelong Democrat. But on those issues, and others, what has become the party’s dogma—what you have to say and think if you want to run for office as an anointed Democrat—no longer passes the test of common sense,” Kaus writes on his campaign Web site. “Common sense tells you that when you can’t fire bad teachers because their union won’t allow it, you’ll get bad schools. Common sense tells you that when you keep flooding the labor market with new unskilled workers, wages will deteriorate.”

It’s not an appeal calculated to win over key Democratic constituencies such as Latinos and big labor.

“But it’s the truth,” Kaus told me. “I’m running to speak unpleasant truths to the Democratic Party and to talk about the elephant in the room that they don’t want to talk about. I don’t expect them to embrace me with unanimous instant applause, but I do think there’s a huge chunk of Democrats out there who agree with me. I just have to find those people and let them know that I’m here and that they can register their views by voting for me—and then I will do surprisingly well.”

Assuming they’d care, California’s Democratic Party stalwarts would probably not be amused by his friendship with Ann Coulter. “Lots of Democrats are friends with Ann Coulter,” he insisted. “She is smart and friendly and you can argue with her—she will actually listen to your argument and respond… I’ve learned a lot about how her side thinks by arguing with her. I like to argue and have it out.”

Coulter, for her part, told me in an email: “I think it makes perfect sense what he is doing,” though she added: “He is a Democrat, so I won’t be endorsing him… Of course, if Kausian Democrats swept the party, I think Republicans would have a much tougher time, so of course, I’m hoping he loses and we can keep running against utterly unprincipled Democrats like Barbara Boxer. So please don’t write about him!”

Over the weekend, Kaus was crowing about receiving the first $25 contribution on his Web site. He needs plenty more, and he is taking an unpaid leave from Slate for as long as his crusade persists.

“Mickey’s campaign is a perfect example of what California politics has become,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “In a smaller state, he’d be exactly the type of anti-establishment, thoughtful candidate running in the face of party orthodoxy and maybe picking up a decent amount of support. But in California, the mainstream media won’t cover him unless he either runs TV ads or sets himself on fire in front of the Santa Monica Pier.”

Still, Kaus’ decades of relationships in the mainstream media—to say nothing of his pioneering Internet presence as the man behind the influential blog Kausfiles.com and BloggingHeads.tv—give him a leg up over the average political novice. So far his campaign has received full-page treatment in The New York Times Magazine and favorable mentions in the Sacramento Bee, LA Weekly, RealClearPolitics.com, and other outlets.

“I’ve gotten more attention than I deserve and less than I need,” Kaus told me. “Gawker has started an oppo research project to find dirt on me, but they haven’t delivered the goods yet. Candidates tend to have to hire somebody to find out the dirt on themselves. If Gawker would do it for me, that would be great. It would save me a lot of money.”

In another testament to the legitimacy of his candidacy, Kaus is scheduled to meet this Friday with the Los Angeles Times editorial board, which will be handing out endorsements before the balloting.

“I’m terrified—because I have a feeling they’re going to grill me on water policy and what do I think of the revalued yuan,” Kaus said. “Apparently you have to have a position on everything. I have dreams about Nick Goldberg [a Kaus pal who happens to be the paper’s editorial page editor] telling me that the time for my exam is up, when I haven’t finished yet.”

A Harvard-trained lawyer who rejected a legal career in favor of journalism—he toiled for The Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and Newsweek before starting his blog in 1999—Kaus has serious policy chops as a neoliberal thinker. His 1995 book, The End of Equality, is still regarded as a persuasive treatise on transforming American society, fractured by class divisions and greed, through such government programs as national service and moving poor people from welfare to work. In 1996, Kaus plotted behind the scenes with Republican and Democratic supporters of the welfare-reform legislation that President Clinton eventually signed into law. He had briefly ventured into presidential politics in 1984, when he wrote speeches for South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings, an also ran in the Democratic nomination race.

“At some point you think you should stop writing about why things should change and start actually changing it,” Kaus said by way of explaining his decision to run. “As an opinion journalist you are not that far removed from that anyway. Certainly the proudest moments of my life were working on welfare reform. I saw myself as an advocate and agitator and behind-the-scenes lobbyist on some very minor aspects of it. But I did my best.”

The 69-year-old Boxer, who like many incumbents this election cycle is suffering from anemic public-approval ratings, is behaving as though Kaus doesn’t exist. In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, Boxer’s campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, studiously ignored the subject of this story: “We’re confident that when Democrats go to the polls in June, they will renominate Barbara Boxer and give her a strong base heading into November.”

Likewise, the California Democratic Party—whose chairman, former Rep. John Burton, was once Boxer’s boss back when she was a congressional staffer in Washington—has declared Kaus not “viable” and denied him speaking time at this month’s state party convention.

In an email to Kaus, the state party’s executive director, Shawnda Westly, threw his published quips back in Kaus’ face. “All four statewide officers agreed on the question of your campaign’s viability—based in part on statements that you had to the press on that very topic,” Westly wrote, citing quotes in the Times (“I do not expect to win, and that is the difference between [Al] Franken and me”) and LA Weekly (“‘I’m not going to win, don’t worry about it,’ he told one guest, who was reluctant to sign [his filing petition]”).

After receiving Westly’s breezy declaration of nonviability, Kaus no longer talks about losing to Boxer. “I’ve changed my mind,” he told me. “Now I want to beat her!”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.