Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher has several ways of telling the story of how she embarked upon her adventures in political life. All of them begin with the same dire predicament.
In 1995, a band of Democratic Party insiders went looking for someone to knock the blocks out from under Republican Bill Baker in California’s 10th Congressional District, which covers eastern Alameda County and most of Contra Costa County; it encompasses the stretch of bedroom communities from Orinda to Walnut Creek, from Antioch to Danville. After redistricting in 1992, the mostly affluent, mostly suburban district had been carved out of three Democratic ones and shaped into the only district in the Bay Area where the Republicans had a slight edge in party registration.
The blustery Baker had been the first to inhabit the newly drawn seat in the US House of Representatives, and although his conservatism seemed to fit his constituents’ economic leanings, his outspokenness against gun control and abortion rights had raised eyebrows and gorges. Baker was an unabashed Friend of Newt who supported school vouchers and had urged the government to scuttle the federal Department of Education. He had voted to cut school lunch programs and against the Brady Bill. The Democrats were appalled, but also scared. It was ten days before the filing date for the 1996 election and they were minus a candidate; the person they’d intended to support had dropped out of the running at the last minute. They started making phone calls.
Tauscher, a successful Tassajara Valley businesswoman, was not at home. In fact, she was visiting New York with her daughter Katherine, where the two of them were taking in the Christmas show at Rockefeller Center. Tauscher’s political experience at that time was limited to backstage roles: she had cochaired the 1980 Democratic National Convention host committee in New York City, and held top leadership roles in Dianne Feinstein’s 1992 and 1994 Senate campaigns, and Delaine Eastin’s 1994 campaign for superintendent of California schools. When Tauscher returned to her hotel after the show that night, she had a barrage of messages. The calls were from Feinstein, a handful of Bay Area House members, and Judi Kanter, director of the San Francisco office of Emily’s List, which raises funds to support female, pro-choice candidates. The messages said the party needed a candidate. They begged: Run, Ellen, run.
The various versions of the story diverge over what happened next. The more sedate and introspective conclusion goes as follows: Tauscher had previously been asked to run in 1994 and turned the offer down; this time, she remembers, her response was still, “No no no no no no. Not me.” However, after talking the matter over with her then-husband, business owner William Tauscher, she changed her mind. “For a long time people like us who had been very blessed–to be the first in our families to go to college, to have business success, financial success, and healthy families–we had eschewed going into public office. We relegated it to other people, and then we became cynical and complained about their performance and what they did,” she says, laughing gently. “If we didn’t put up, we had to shut up. My former husband said he believed that I would be a very effective person in this job and that frankly, if [people like us] didn’t start running, we deserved people like Bill Baker.”
The shorter and somewhat punchier retelling of why she decided to run goes like this: “I stopped taking my medication on time.”
In the five years since her arrival in Washington, DC, Tauscher has gone from behind-the-scenes supporter to a player who is increasingly in the spotlight. “Independent, effective moderates rock,” she says when asked the secret of her success. You would find many in her party who agree with her. Tauscher is often showcased as a model for New Democrats, the moniker given to the Clintonesque moderates who have tried to expand the party’s support by reaching toward the political center; Clinton himself even called her his “philosophical soul mate.” Her combination of socially progressive and fiscally conservative policy positions is credited with her being able to wrest control of a district where only 41 percent of the voters are registered Democrats away from the Republicans not once, but three times. (Tauscher handily beat back Republican challengers in 1998 and 2000, despite heavy campaigning by the Republican Party’s national machine, which came roaring back to reclaim its own.)
Moreover, it’s a formula that some think is increasingly applicable to other parts of the country. Bipartisanship may be the buzzword of the new century, but in truth, both halves of the old two-party system are still scrapping for dominance the way they always have. In such an evenly divided Congress, control of the House and Senate hangs tenuously on the reshuffling of a few seats; it’s a time in Congress when some members are openly waiting for their more elderly colleagues to die, or, in more gentlemanly fashion, trying to woo defectors into their camp. Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords sent shockwaves through the political establishment at the end of last month when he bolted the Republican Party, thereby rolling back their control of the Senate, but Democrats hoping to retake Congress can hardly expect more lucky breaks of this magnitude. The real fight to break the deadlock still lies in winning over voters, despite the fact that voter loyalty to the majority parties is steadily declining. Beltway wisdom says the Democrats and Republicans have already seized all the “safe” districts; the margin of victory is now dependent on the voting behavior of the few suburban swing districts–like California’s 10th–that are still up for grabs.
Tauscher’s win was a major coup for the Dems; in most analysts’ opinions, the 10th district–formerly a political question mark–can be considered a safe Democratic district as long as Tauscher is still at the helm. She is pro-choice, pro-trade, pro-business, pro-environment, and pro-tax relief (within reason); she brags that she can bring both labor and management to the table. If that sounds like her modus operandi is to endorse everything, she will forcefully remind you that Americans are tired of a Democratic Party that always says “no,” that people want a government that can provide compromises and alternatives. As the Democratic Party moves toward the center it moves toward her, and Tauscher has what the party wants: Wall Street business cred, an insider’s perspective on big-ticket issues like technology, national defense, and the economy, and a rapidly growing district that encompasses two national laboratories, wealthy suburbs, and a slice of Silicon Valley.
Tauscher has already begun accruing a slate of party honors, and is one of the highest ranking women within Democratic Party leadership. She sits on two of the House’s most high-profile committees: armed services and transportation. Earlier this year, she was named vice chair of the Democratic Leadership Council–often considered the intellectual nerve center of the party–which nurtured the careers of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Joseph Lieberman. She’s made it perfectly clear that she’s at home in the middle. She’s a member of the House Centrist Coalition, composed of five Democrats and five Republicans. In 1998, she was appointed cochair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC); they seem to have quickly realized her acumen for dealmaking and in 1999 put her in charge of their Business Forum. She’s a member of the politically moderate Blue Dog Coalition and counts herself among the seventy New Democrats in the Congress. Although she has never broached the matter herself, somehow Tauscher seems to make the short list every time someone dreams up what the Democrats’ 2004 presidential or vice presidential ticket might look like–or barring that, the one in 2008. It’s hard to tell if she finds the attention flattering or embarrassing. When told for probably the zillionth time that she’s considered a “rising star” in the party, she makes a wry face and says, “What does that mean?”
In a word, it means she’s got electability, and after the disappointments of 2000, the Democrats need to win elections. Maybe they have something to learn from her, and maybe by watching Tauscher, the rest of us can learn something about where the party is headed next.
Ellen Tauscher is a striking presence: tall, vibrant, with a thick, layered blond haircut and a megawatt smile. She is not the sort of politician who brashly works a room, glad-handing everyone in sight; perhaps it was her years in business that taught her to wait until people come to her, which they inevitably do. Her leadership persona seems to infuse even her most casual actions; on one publicity stop, when a series of bashful young girls were called to the podium to present her with gifts, Tauscher gave them an impromptu lesson in handshake technique. “People think when you shake their hands it’s about your hands, but it’s really about your eyes–what you’re really doing is you’re touching them with your eyes,” she told them.
Tauscher was born in Newark, New Jersey, but she talks like she comes from a state with wide open spaces. In Tauscher’s vernacular, people are never upset, they have their “knickers in a twist” or their “panties in a bunch.” People are never in precarious situations, they are “wrapped around the ax.” People frequently have “dollar bills stuck in their teeth” (which seems to either indicate flashiness or a resolve not to be parted with one’s money). She has a ready supply of crowd-pleasing one-liners, which she deploys with great verve and to considerable effect. For example, on Vice President Dick Cheney’s ill health: “George Bush is only a heartbeat away from the presidency.” On our state’s power woes: “You cannot black out the California economy without browning out the nation’s economy.” On her early success in business: “I was like a monkey with a machine gun. I couldn’t make mistakes.” She has a low, well-modulated voice that contrasts with the tough talk; the effect is like an iron fist in a velvet glove. She is a scene-stealer.
On a hundred-degree May afternoon in Antioch, in a part of the city that seems devoid of operating businesses, people, and air (more or less in that order), Tauscher was stealing the scene at a town hall meeting. The gathering took place inside a standard ’70s-issue community recreation center, all exposed ductwork and red-and-yellow Formica. About fifty voters from all over the district had come to hear various elected officials report on the most recent affairs of state. California Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla was there, slouching back in his chair and wearing an orange, flowered Hawaiian shirt and a wristful of meditation beads (it was a Saturday). State Senator Tom Torlakson–lithe, silvery haired, and all in black–was bounding around the room greeting people by name and slapping them on the back, stopping short only to peer intently into a stroller. “Hello there, you rascal,” he said brightly to the infant inside. The baby blinked. Antioch Mayor Donald Freitas and a representative from Contra Costa County Supervisor Federal Glover’s office were there as well. But somehow, the show was mostly Tauscher’s.
Once the various officials had been corralled behind a table, the Congresswoman began her presentation by whipping the mike out of its holder and pacing the floor talk-show style. “It’s good to be here with my fellow electeds: Larry, Curly, Moe,” she said, eyeballing the rest of the panel. Pause. “Tom,” she added, looking at Torlakson. The state senator grinned back. She gave her constituents a brief update on the big DC events of the last few months (of the presidential inauguration, she reported, “It was a very bad hair day.”). Then she quickly moved on to the things she really wanted to talk about, beginning with an attack on the Bush budget plan. It was a week before the Senate would pass the President’s $1.35 trillion tax-cut proposal, and Tauscher had plenty of concerns to share with her constituents about where the country’s money is being spent.
Tauscher’s stance on national finance is a good example of her centrism at work: she’s voted for tax cuts before, she pointed out, and will vote for them again. She just doesn’t like this tax cut, primarily because she feels it has no brakes on it: “I believe that if we have surpluses, and we have balanced the budget and are living within our means and paying down the debt, we should return money to American taxpayers.” But in this case, she believes those conditions have not been met, and the Bush plan seems unlikely to leave much money in the nation’s coffers for long-term investments like Social Security, Medicare, education, childcare, and third-world debt relief. “A President’s budget is a reflection of his values, and I’m concerned that the President has put the cart in front of the horse,” she said, pacing with her microphone. “He is planning the family vacation before he has decided to pay the rent, the mortgage, the kids’ college tuition, to save some money for a rainy day fund. He has proposed a tax cut that I believe is unfair and fiscally irresponsible.” Her appeal, often, is to her voters’ common sense, particularly when it comes to how the government handles their money. She worries that they are setting spending priorities without paying attention to how much is in the bank. “That’s wrong,” she charged. “You don’t do that at your kitchen table, you don’t do that in your boardroom.” The crowd listened attentively.
Many have pointed out that for middle-income families, the President’s plan really isn’t much of a tax break at all. It’s a warning that has been sounded by practically all the Democrats in Congress, perhaps most picturesquely by Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt when they staged a publicity stunt showing what millionaires could buy with their $46,000 tax cut (a Lexus) and what working-class families could buy with their $227 (a muffler). Tauscher argues that if overly optimistic cuts eventually lead to deficits and interest-rate hikes, they will have served no purpose at all. “We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, because if we increase interest rates and you get a tax cut of $1,500, I promise you, you’re not going to go buy a refrigerator,” she told her Antioch audience. “You’re going to spend more money on mortgage interest rates and car-payment and credit-card interest rates. So the tax cut is basically just moving the money around and you’re never going to see it.”
This brings Tauscher to her idea of a tax “trigger”–or an agreement to slow the phase-in of the President’s tax cuts should the country’s economic surplus dry up–which has perhaps gained her the most media attention since she sent Baker packing. The trigger would be pulled if three economic conditions were not met: a balanced budget, the reduction of the national debt, or if the tax cuts started creating a deficit that ate into Social Security or Medicare funds. Earlier this spring, she started floating her idea with help of the House Centrist Coalition; eventually, it became HR 1836. Despite getting some positive attention in the Senate and a nod from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the bill sank like a stone in the House, where opponents either misunderstood it as a move to squelch tax cuts altogether, or thought it was just too complicated.
Nevertheless, she maintains that a ten-year cut with no built-in emergency mechanism is a dangerous proposition. “The President’s plan is entirely dependent on a series of projections made by the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office, which are made by very dedicated, hardworking people who are wrong all the time,” she says. “Last year they were off by a trillion dollars. So if you do have a slowing economy, an energy crisis that hurts the sustainability of the economy, investments that you have deferred that you are going to have to pay attention to, and a potential crisis in Social Security and Medicare, and you’re [basing] everything on these projections for income that have been wrong, I think you are dooming yourself to failure.”
Democrats spend a lot of time reminding the current administration that it’s in a position to begin returning dollars to Americans thanks only to the careful fiscal stewardship of the Clinton administration. They worry that the Republicans’ rush to cut taxes could result in a repeat of mistakes made during the Reagan years. Says Tauscher of her trigger idea, “It’s just a common-sense kind of proposal that says we’re not going to go back to the 1980s when we had dramatic tax cuts that created huge deficits that it took us until 1998 to crawl out of.” She takes a deep breath. “We’ve seen that movie. We starred in that movie. We’re not doing that again.”
Ellen Tauscher was born Ellen O’Kane in 1951; she calls herself a “genetic Democrat” from a working-class Irish-Catholic family. Her grandparents worked as a janitor and a cleaning lady; her father ran a grocery store, and her mother worked in a library. She was the eldest sibling in a family that included, as she puts it, “two younger sisters and my brother, the Baby Jesus.” She was raised in Hudson County, New Jersey which, as she points out, is where they film The Sopranos.
“So I was always born for a career of knocking knees and getting rid of people I didn’t like,” she says matter-of-factly. The first in her family to attend college, she got a degree in early childhood education from Seton Hall University and then promptly found that during the “baby bust” years, there were no education jobs open to a recent graduate. In order to raise money to put her younger siblings through school, Tauscher went to work trading municipal bonds at Bache Securities, now known as Prudential. After about eighteen months in the business, her bosses asked her if she was ready for a rather historic promotion: they wanted to give her a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. It was 1977, and at the time there were 1,366 seats on the NYSE, all of them filled by men. Bache wanted to be the first one to put a woman on the trading floor. Asking Tauscher to be the first was in some ways a crude ploy for media attention –they were trying to beat their competitor Merrill Lynch to it–but Tauscher knew an opportunity when she saw it. At age 25, she became the first woman from a major firm to have a seat on Wall Street; it was her first big dose of limelight.
While she quickly got used to having her photo snapped all the time, not all the attention was so pleasant. “Most of my colleagues kept asking me how I got there,” she says. “The first fifteen or twenty times I told them I took the Lexington Avenue subway, but I realized that what they were really asking me was who my father was. I finally had to break the very cold, painful news to them that I was a woman who actually got there on her own.”
Tauscher worked on Wall Street for fourteen years. In 1989, she married William Tauscher, the multimillionaire CEO of Vanstar Corporation (formerly known as ComputerLand Corp.) and moved from the East Coast to Pleasanton, California, where she was, by all accounts, lonely, bored, disappointed by the total absence of pizza delivery, and befuddled by the rural mail system. William Tauscher had two older children by a previous marriage; in 1991 Tauscher gave birth to her daughter Katherine, who was born needing operations on both her lungs and hip. Partly because she put so much effort into seeking care for Katherine, in 1992 Tauscher founded the ChildCare Registry, a company that performed background checks on childcare workers, and authored The Child Care Sourcebook. Together, she and her husband also founded the Tauscher Foundation, which donated money to purchase computer equipment for elementary schools.
In 1994, busy with being a new mom and a new business owner, Tauscher passed on an invitation to run for Congress. It was Judi Kanter of fund-raising group Emily’s List (the name stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast–that is, it makes the dough rise) who takes credit for pushing Tauscher into the ring in 1996. “A lightbulb went on and I thought, ‘My God, there is no more perfect person for the county than Ellen,'” she remembers. On that December night, with just days to go until the registration deadline, she made the pitch. Tauscher’s reaction? “She laughed,” says Kanter. “She just laughed. She couldn’t stop laughing.” By the time Tauscher had made up her mind to go ahead with the race, the campaign season was upon her. She had to run like heck, and has been running ever since.
The first race was the hardest. Baker ran a tough campaign, and the odds were not in Tauscher’s favor. After all, Kanter points out, Baker had incumbency on his side. What Tauscher had was opinions on childcare, education, and family planning that meshed well with the rapidly suburbanizing district’s changing demographics. “The only way you knock an incumbent out is when you truly have an opponent who is the right opponent, the right profile, and it was as clear as can be that she was,” says Kanter.
The race quickly got ugly. Tauscher spent $1.6 million of her own money on the campaign, and Baker accused her of being a rich carpetbagger. Her funding came from out-of-state interests, he said, while his own war chest was raised from donors within the district. He ran an aggressive TV and radio ad campaign accusing her of trying to buy a seat in Congress; one radio spot had an actor saying, “I hear that they’re selling royal titles in Europe.”
Despite having a disadvantage in both name recognition and political experience, Tauscher made good use of the issues like the environment, gun control, and abortion rights, which separated Baker from his more moderate constituents. It was a presidential election year as well, and much hay was being made by the right wing of the Republican Party over abortion; this allowed Tauscher to link Baker’s views to the conservative stance of the party’s national platform. Tauscher’s campaign portrayed Baker as too far to the right and out of sync with the district, particularly with women; in addition to what she calls the “anyone but Baker” vote, she tapped into groups that traditionally support the Democrats, like the California Labor Federation, which turned out to walk precincts for her. She hit just the right notes, says state Democratic Party consultant Bob Mulholland, and her timing was right for the changing district. “The whole Bay Area has gone from Republican leaning twenty years ago to Democratic leaning,” he says. “In the suburbs, you find the voter who is pro-choice, pro-environment, and their party has deserted them. … Really, Baker was a symbol of a decaying party. There’s only one Republican left in the Bay Area and that’s [state Assemblywoman] Lynne Leach; the others down to south of San Jose are gone.” The final vote was a squeaker; she beat Baker by just one percentage point, or 4,000 votes. Nevertheless, Tauscher’s win was hailed as a huge victory–from now on, the power of incumbency would be on her side.
The 1998 campaign was rough, but for different reasons. In 1996 she had had to fight against her obscurity; this time, she had to deal with a Republican Party that was up in arms over a district that it felt had been stolen while its back was turned. At first it looked like she would have to take on a celebrity opponent–former 49ers tight end Brent Jones was originally named as a contender, but he ultimately decided against running. Instead, her opponent turned out to be Charles Ball, a defense analyst from Lawrence Livermore National Labs.
The Republican Party pulled out the stops, paying $400,000 for pre-election week TV and radio ads and trotting out party luminati like Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Marilyn Quayle, Steve Forbes, and Lamar Alexander to stump for Ball. There were even allegations of dirty tricks–the day before the election, many voters received mail from an organization claiming to be the “East Bay Democratic Committee” telling them to vote against Tauscher because she had voted in favor of an impeachment inquiry against Bill Clinton. (In truth, although Tauscher had been one of 31 Democrats who crossed party lines by voting for an inquiry into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she had also been one of three representatives to sign a letter to the House Judiciary Committee asking for an opportunity to consider an alternative form of “public rebuke,” rather than impeachment.) The Democratic Party and neighboring 7th District Representative George Miller, whose name appeared on the flier without his permission, promptly sued the Ball campaign team. In the end, Tauscher won again, this time by a nearly ten-point margin.
In 2000, she faced off against a more seasoned campaigner, the county’s former Republican Party chairman Claude Hutchison, who had challenged Ron Dellums for his congressional seat in 1982. Hutchison was pro-choice and more moderate than his predecessors, which cut into Tauscher’s constituent base. Nevertheless, he and Tauscher found some things to disagree about–they diverged on hot-button issues like late-term abortions and privatizing Social Security. And this time, it looked like a change in her personal life might knock her off balance. Tauscher used to explain to skeptics that she understood Republicans because she was married to one, but in 1999, Tauscher announced she was filing for a divorce. For monetary reasons alone, it was destined to be a headline-making split. At the time of their divorce, the Tauschers were worth more than $17 million, including a four-story townhouse in Washington, DC worth $1.7 million. The proceedings were so complicated that lawyers said the paperwork would fill a room. Nevertheless, her supporters refused to be thrown off by the media attention devoted to the couple’s alimony negotiations. Tauscher beat Hutchison with 52.7 percent of the vote–a good showing, if not a landslide.
A politician with a two-year seat has to think about election fund-raising almost constantly, and Tauscher was definitely thinking about it on a warm April night when she arrived at the posh Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto. She was there as the keynote speaker at a dinner reception hosted by the Democratic Forum of the Silicon Valley, a club in which members–mostly execs who hail from the likes of Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Oracle–pay a $500 annual membership and then must donate an additional $1,000 a year to a candidate the group supports. The audience also included a minor hero from last year’s ballot recount standoff: the man from the General Services Agency who was charged with the task of telling George W. Bush that he couldn’t move into the transition office until he was officially declared the president-elect. He was heartily applauded. In general, the forum supports pro-business Democrats who display a familiarity with “new economy” issues and technology. As one member put it in introducing Tauscher, “A party cannot merely talk about the distribution of wealth –we must talk about the creation of wealth, as well.”
These are Tauscher’s kind of people. “You can’t have a seat on the New York Stock Exchange when you’re 25 and you can’t have had financial success of your own and have done well in the rest of your life and not believe that it’s very important to maintain strong democratic values and at the same time be pragmatic enough to know how to get things done,” she told them. She touted her list of endorsers, a group that spans the political spectrum and includes the Sierra Club, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the US Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a new Democratic Party, for a new generation, a new century, and a new economy,” she said. “I have a perfect trade record, so why do I have the AFL-CIO endorsing me and the central labor councils from Contra Costa County and Alameda County supporting me? They’re supposed to really be picketing me and burning me in effigy! [It’s] because they’re building buildings day in and day out with 104 percent employment for the high-tech companies in my district. They can read a balance sheet. They understand that 54 percent of PeopleSoft’s revenues come from the rest of the world. They understand that Safeway imports from all over the world. They understand that the reason that their job exists is because of trade.”
Global trade is a touchy issue for the political left; not many Democrats could pull off the sort of balancing act Tauscher proposes. It’s tricky to be the one in the middle. While the party has something to gain from picking up support from independent voters and disenfranchised Republican moderates, New Democrats also risk alienating the party’s more liberal members as well as the groups that have historically supported them–women, ethnic minorities, and labor. New Democrats have often been criticized for supporting positions on global trade that favor big business; the Rev. Jesse Jackson has referred to the DLC as “Democrats for the Leisure Class.”
But if the Democrats’ success in 2002 hinges on picking up and keeping support in the swing districts, Tauscher thinks paying attention to the moderates should be the party’s priority. In her view, politicians on the political extremes have the safest ride; it’s those at the center who are subject to the double-whammy–attacks from the Republican right, and attacks from the left of their own party. “Traditional Democrats to the left of us, they are from safe Democratic districts, they’re not where the tension is, and they’re not on the target list,” she says. “[We’re] the ones who are taking all the tough votes, the ones who are standing up for fast-track, especially, for Y2K reform and patent reform and bankruptcy reform and tax cuts and budgets–all the things we know we have to do. We have to figure out how to grow those people, not sacrifice them on the altar of old politics every time we feel like we can.”
The tension between the two wings of the party is exacerbated by the loss of Bill Clinton, a unifying force whom Tauscher calls the party’s “megaphone”; he not only had personal charisma but also the ability to call a Rose Garden press conference at will to highlight issues around which the Democrats could band together. “Without having that on TV every day, we are in the dark. We are in the dark as we speak,” she says. “Tom Daschle or John Breaux or John Edwards or Evan Bayh–all boys, by the way–go on TV every Sunday, they go on Meet the Press or Face the Nation, they go on with Cokie Roberts or Wolf Blitzer, they’re on for seven hours and it’s like kissing your sister. It’s nice, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Tauscher thinks that as long as Congress is split as evenly as it is, Democrats need to be more willing to think about compromising. Here’s a case in point: “Sixty-five Democrats voted to eliminate the marriage tax. My attitude was, we all should have voted for it,” she says. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was the first step. We are for eliminating the marriage penalty. It’s an accounting glitch, for God’s sake. There’s nothing ideological about that! We should have all been for that. The President put in a $500 increase in childcare tax credits. Hello? That’s our issue! But you know what? One hundred and sixty Democrats voted against it because it wasn’t our idea and it wasn’t what we had put forward. We’ve got to be smarter than that, for God’s sake!”
That goes for the other side of the fence, too, where Tauscher must appeal to the more conservative members of her own East Bay constituency. It can’t get more old-fashioned than the Camp Parks military installation in Dublin, where Tauscher headed one blisteringly hot late-spring morning to preside at a breakfast in honor of the district’s recent high school graduates who are about to ship out for West Point and the Air Force Academy. The breakfast was held in what appeared to be a bar or recreation room appointed in the understated good taste one associates with military life–an all-country-music jukebox, a video game called Lethal Enforcers II, many beer advertisements, fliers on the wall warning customers about the potency of certain hot wings, and table decorations that featured replicas of the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. An inflatable bottle of O’Doul’s hung from the ceiling, and someone had thoughtfully draped white tablecloths over a few of the more prominent Bud posters on the wall behind the podium.
Tauscher was hard at work here, trying to find her place in the middle. She began by charming her audience with a little story about her father’s Navy days. Then she sprang a surprise, announcing that she is ready to oppose the President on what is likely to be one of his most controversial proposals–building a new national missile defense system. You can imagine the startled reactions from some of the parents of cadets when Tauscher announced that she plans to push for more funding for nuclear non-proliferation efforts instead. Tauscher, remember, is a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, represents two national nuclear labs (Sandia and Lawrence Livermore), and routinely gets low grades from peace activists who hand out scores on politicians every so often, but here she sticks.
She is willing to support the R&D stages of a limited, deployable system, but believes that the nation cannot afford the proposed $60 billion Star Wars system that may end up, as she portrays its predecessor, lying in a garage somewhere. “The truth of the matter is we know we can’t build a national missile defense that will stop a thousand weapons, so we have to do all the work we can to make sure that a thousand weapons are never made,” she says. “It’s frankly more likely that we would be threatened by a bio or chemical weapon in a suitcase than we would from a missile being fired.”
Instead, she believes the US should be concentrating on trying to prevent nuclear weaponry–or instructions on how to build it–from leaving the former Soviet states, and part of doing this means that the Bush administration has to ease back on the aggressive stance it has taken in international affairs. “We can’t be breaking glass with our friends and allies in Europe who believe that we are going to do the worst we that we could do as a superpower–act arrogantly and unilaterally and treat people as if we don’t care about them now because we’re king of the hill. Unfortunately, the rhetoric this administration used during the campaign and over the last couple of months is creating a growing sense among our friends–forget our adversaries–that we are arrogant and selfish.”
The cadets and their parents seemed to take her criticisms in stride; most of the young men indicated that, currently, their biggest concern about the US military involves exactly how soon they will get to start flying planes. The parents’ post-breakfast questions centered around practical matters, like should their sons study Chinese or Russian at the academy? (Tauscher voted for Chinese.) In the end, it seemed Tauscher had done a neat job of setting up her constituents for the next big issue likely to come down the pike. She’d made it clear that she can support the military without supporting the President’s plans for it, or in fact agreeing with him at all about what kind of foreign threat the country is likely to face in the future. Now all she has to do is deliver.
Still, it has to be stressful, the back and forth of trying to appease everybody while pleasing only a centrist few. Sometimes Tauscher seems a little tired of having to defend every move she makes that’s not in alignment with the rest of the party. “It is important to understand that if Democrats stand up for things that are a little new, a little out of the box, that we’re not bad Democrats,” she says. “What is there about being new that’s wrong?
Ellen Tauscher spends a lot of her time denying that she will run for President. When asked point-blank, she says things like, “Oh, no no no no no no.” (Careful observers will remember that this is almost exactly what she recalls herself saying when asked to consider a Congressional run.) Nevertheless, the wind is up. At the Antioch town hall meeting, Mayor Donald Freitas had gently teased, “When we talk about elections, Ellen Tauscher’s name always comes up as a potential vice president or the president and I can hardly wait to pick up the phone in a couple of years and talk with President Tauscher.” Tauscher modestly looked away. When children inquire about her future plans, she says that she doesn’t want to be the President because it would take her away from her friends and family in California. When asked by party donors, she shoots back, “I’m taking my medication on time now.” Perhaps more tellingly, she adds, “I am also a student of statistics and you cannot run from the House.”
The Senate, then? From time to time, speculation arises that Tauscher might replace her friend and mentor Dianne Feinstein should the senator retire. As usual, Tauscher seems to be politely hedging. “It could eventually be good in the Senate,” Tauscher told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year, “but I’ve got no plans. I like what I’m doing.” In either case, Feinstein’s current term extends until 2006 and fellow US Senator Barbara Boxer’s seat is not up until 2004; neither of them have indicated whether they plan to move on.
However, next year eight statewide offices will open up, and party operatives like Mulholland say that Tauscher’s name does get tossed around, along with those of fellow representatives Jane Harman (D-Rancho Palos Verdes), also a multimillionaire who spent her own money to run against Gray Davis in the ’98 gubernatorial primary, and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) who, like Tauscher in her first election, narrowly beat an entrenched, far-right Republican in a mostly conservative district. Sanchez’ opponent, Bob Dornan, was so outraged at his defeat that he accused her of voter fraud and demanded that the results be invalidated. (The resulting investigation took over a year and involved such staggering lawyers’ fees that eventually Sanchez prevailed upon four of her fellow congresswomen, including Tauscher, to demand that the House hurry up the process. The five of them linked arms and descended upon Newt Gingrich’s office; a photo taken of the event was captioned “Another March on Washington.”)
“There is no end to where Ellen could go. She has enormous potential,” says Kanter of Emily’s List. Agrees Mulholland, “This is a state that is becoming more and more Democratic all the time. It’s a moderate Democratic party, given that Gray Davis is the governor and he’s a moderate. People like Tauscher working with the DLC reminds a lot of the Democrats that we win by reaching out to the center.”
Even outside of the state, the congresswoman is getting noticed. Pundit and McLaughlin Group panelist Eleanor Clift and her husband, journalist Terry Brazaitis, published a book last year titled Madam President: Shattering the Last Glass Ceiling. In it, Tauscher gets seven pages worth of kudos for her achievements in a chapter titled “A New Kind of Democrat.” The book, which profiles many of the highest-ranking women in American politics, doesn’t go so far as to name a future job title for Tauscher, but it does cite her business-to-politics career path as a model for other women, and the “How-to for Women” chapter could have been written with Tauscher in mind. (A few of the authors’ suggestions for those seeking the presidency: “Highlight executive experience.” “Come from the right state.” “Exude high wattage.” “Look good.”) When the authors interviewed her, Tauscher obliquely said, “If the timing is right and the opportunity presents itself, I will be ready.”
For now, the only plan on which Tauscher will allow herself to be nailed down is that in 2002 she will run for her House seat a fourth time, and that she has legislation she’s still pushing, namely, her State Infrastructure Banks for Schools Act, which would provide money for school repairs and construction, a bill allowing military servicepeople to transfer a portion of their GI Bill benefits to their spouses or children, and, of course, adding a trigger provision to the President’s tax bill. The difficulty of her next race may depend on how the 10th District fares after redistricting is completed this year–if the new boundaries include some of North Richmond, it should be easier for the Democrats to maintain their hold.
Although Baker occasionally pops up in the press for a bit of saber-rattling, an opponent for ’02 has yet to materialize. There will certainly be one. “The Republicans are still in charge and I’m a big target for them,” Tauscher says. “They try to spend about a million and a half dollars against me every two years. We’re not sure yet who is going to win the short-straw contest and get to run against me and lose in 2002, but we kind of know what he looks like. He’s a Republican male of a certain age,” she says (and here she gets a little glint in her eye), “and we’ll dispatch him like we did the other three.”
One of the chief arguments against seeking the political center is that the center keeps moving to the right. Until Jeffords made his party enrollment switch and took the Senate majority away from the Republicans, Americans have been treated to the sight of a Congress that, while making a great deal of noise about centrism and bipartisanship, was being used to force through legislation that bore very little evidence of inter-party cooperation. Tauscher is in the difficult position of seeking to build bridges with members of a Republican Party whose leading man she finds too extreme. No doubt, she is anxiously awaiting next year’s elections. Midterm elections are typically a litmus test for the sitting President’s party–if voters find that their politicians have become too conservative, or at least are giving lip service to party leaders who are, it can lead to the kind of disgruntlement Tauscher so effectively channeled in her own 1996 race for the 10th district. It could be the perfect time for New Democrats to start picking up swing voters.
“The President’s shelf-life will be determined by the ’02 elections–has he achieved a mandate, has he been successful in putting his message across? The big question for me is, has he changed the tone in Washington? It was a major selling point to swing voters in the 2000 election,” she says. “It’s one thing to be launching a presidential campaign from the governorship of Texas and act like Austin is on another planet and that those heinous, horrible people in Washington are people he’s never met. Now they’re his cabinet appointees, they are the majority leader of the Senate and the majority leader and speaker of the House from his own party. It’s very difficult to act as if you don’t know these people and you don’t have any control over them, and that you, by the way, aren’t the leader of your party and you aren’t the leader of the free world. Believe me, we’ll be asking people if they think he has changed the tone.”
And what, exactly, is the tone like in Washington? Tauscher makes a face. “They’ve been busy little beavers, unwriting, undoing, and blasting apart legislation,” she says. “He’s tinkering with Social Security, he’s tinkering with Medicare, he’s tinkering with hard-fought fiscal discipline, with the balanced-budget agreement and paying down the debt. His promises to the military are hollow, he’s now put under review enormous parts of the government, everything from nuclear nonproliferation programs to the entire defense budget, but at the same time [he’s] submitting budget requests that reduce the funds for these areas, all to pay for a tax cut that he hasn’t been able to sell to the American people. It’s pretty clear to me that not only hasn’t he changed the tone, but the campaign promises he made to his special interests take precedent over the illusions of campaign promises he made to the American people and that he’s jeopardizing the sustainability of the economy and the livability of our communities.”
She winds up for one of her best lines: “My fear is that the President misspoke, as he is often accused of doing,” she says. “It looks like he’s not a compassionate conservative, he’s a passionate conservative. That is a biiiiiiiig difference from what he sold us. And if it’s in fact true, I think that the American people will reject what they can reject in ’02, and that will be the leadership of his party in the House and the Senate. If that’s true, then we have a real runway for the 2004 election.”
Here are the most important things you need to know about Ellen Tauscher, as asked by the students at Sunol Glen Elementary School, when the congresswoman stopped by on a sunny April morning to stump for her school-repairs bill.
Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?
A: I just liked working.
Q: Have you been to all the states?
A: I haven’t been to Wyoming, but I’ve probably been to about 35 countries around the world.
Q: Does your job include a lot of math?
A: Can I tell you a secret? I hated math, until I had a teacher in third grade who sat me down and said ‘Ellen, you can learn this.’ For about four or five weeks, she stayed with me after school every day because I couldn’t get the multiplication tables and sat with me and sat with me and finally one day, like a lightbulb going off, I got it.
Q: How did you like Bill Clinton?
A: He was a good President.
Q: Is George Bush nice?
A: Yes. I don’t know George Bush very well, but I think he is a good man, very patriotic, and working hard for the country. I know Bill Clinton better personally, but it’s not my job to like the President, it’s my job to work with the President.
Q: Did you vote for George Bush?
A: No, neither time.
Q: Do you want to be the President?
A: Do you want me to be the President?
Q: I’m just asking.
A: I’m just asking, too.