Rep. Adam Schiff was in the right place but at the wrong time to run for the office he coveted: U.S. Senate.
The Burbank congressman had significantly elevated his positive public profile as the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee that is looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Schiff was becoming a household name, at least among politics followers in California.
But Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein decided at age 84 that she was good for a fifth full term. And Schiff endorsed her without hesitation. He wasn’t about to challenge her.
“She’s done a remarkable job and been a great colleague,” Schiff says. “I think having the continuation of her leadership in the Senate is valuable to the state and country.”
Would he have run for her seat this year if she had retired? “I was inclined to,” Schiff told me.
Right place, wrong time.
OK, what about the presidency in 2020?
Just pondering out loud.
There isn’t a clear favorite for the Democratic nomination when President Trump is up for reelection. There isn’t even much of a muddled field.
Former Vice President Joe Biden gets talked about, but mostly as the Democrat who could have beaten Trump if only he’d been the nominee instead of Hillary Clinton. But Biden didn’t run. He’s now 75 and in 2020 the party may be looking for someone fresher.
Schiff, 57, is one of few modern politicians with an ability to grab attention without polarizing people. He’s a portrait of steadiness and calm, wearing a very slight smile. No populist fire and brimstone. Rather, controlled articulation that smacks of common sense. He’s soft-spoken, but can use his words like a stiletto.
The country could be in the mood for an emotional rest in 2020.
Schiff is a nine-term congressman and, before that, a state senator. He also was an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. He’s known as a fiscal moderate and social liberal.
These days, Schiff is a national TV regular, expounding on the Russia investigation in a pleasant way.
Has he even thought of running for president?
“I certainly have not been thinking about it and am not running,” Schiff told me, casting cold water on the idea. “But I have to say, I’m surprised about how many people have been asking me about it.
“I do think one of the Trump effects has been that everyone in the country quite rightly feels they could do a better job than that guy.”
I called Schiff’s longtime political consultant, Parke Skelton (no relation).
“President is kind of a stretch for a member of the House,” the strategist said candidly. “Who was the last House member to win the presidency? Abraham Lincoln?”
Actually, 19 House members have become president. But the consultant’s thinking is correct. Most of those House members became senators, vice presidents or governors before rising to the Oval Office.
The last president to be elected directly from the House was James Garfield in 1880. But Garfield had first been elected to the Senate, although he hadn’t taken office. Lincoln was a one-term House member who ran for the Senate and lost, then was elected president in 1860.
Schiff also would have to surrender his House seat if he ran for higher office. And right now he’s a national figure enjoying the good life politically.
The congressman spoke to two sold-out Northern California events Tuesday — a Sacramento Press Club luncheon and an appearance at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.
In Sacramento, Schiff advised Democrats to offer voters “a positive reason” to elect them, not just pound on Trump. He rejects all the jabber about impeaching the president, saying Democrats should wait to see what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III finds out in his Russia investigation.
At the same time, he expressed frustration with Republicans who control the House Intelligence Committee, asserting that their “fundamental flaw” is viewing the president as “their client.”
“The American people are our client,” he said.
Later in an interview, Schiff criticized Trump for not imposing economic sanctions on the Russians after they messed with American elections.
“What really gets Russian attention is making their economy pay a price because that risks people taking to the streets,” he said.
The Russians “wanted to sow discord in the United States and set Americans against Americans,” Schiff said, but they also tried to help Trump.
“They definitely despised the Clintons and, I think, worried about Hillary because she was going to stand up to them. She was going to speak out about democracy in Russia and [President Vladimir] Putin, being an old KGB hand, thinks that all revolutions are products of the CIA. He probably feared that with Clinton as president the CIA would be fomenting counterrevolutions.”
“What strikes me,” Schiff continued, “is that the same year the Russians decided to throw caution to the winds and get involved in our political process, the Republican nominee happened to be Donald Trump. Because had it been John McCain or Mitt Romney, I’m convinced they both would have had the strength of character to say, ‘We don’t want your help. Butt the hell out.’”
In his obsessive tweets, Trump calls Schiff “little,” a “leaker,” a “liar” and “sleazy.” A race between the two could be fascinating.
Much more likely is a future Schiff Senate race at the right time.