The ‘Govinator'

Report from California

Assessing the long-term implications for American politics of California’s recall election is not without risk. Conventional wisdom got trashed about every other day during the campaign. It was unlike any election we’ve seen in more than half a century. The only comparisons that come to mind are the colorful campaigns of Huey and Earl Long for governor of Louisiana-or the campaign of Upton Sinclair to be governor of California, which provoked a similar media frenzy seventy years ago. Of course, no one would confuse Sinclair, a socialist, with capitalist Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nor would they confuse the high journalistic standards of today’s Los Angeles Times with the editorial biases of the paper in the 1930s, when it was a mouthpiece for the conservative views of its owners, the Chandler family. Despite the dangers of political prognostication, let me venture a few early observations on what this election means for the other forty-nine states, where politics is often more prosaic.

First, the Schwarzenegger victory may deepen and widen the chasm between social conservatives and moderates within the Republican Party. Schwarzenegger was elected with the votes of as many independents and Democrats as conservatives. He literally did not need the social conservatives, most of whom had their own candidate in State Senator Tom McClintock, a straight-talking, unvarnished Reagan Republican. Of course, Schwarzenegger is a fiscal conservative, and while we don’t know much about anything else he believes, he is a disciple of his fellow Austrian, Friedrich von Hayek, who argued that markets are the guarantor of liberty.

Because Schwarzenegger will want to be reelected, his most likely path will be an accommodation with the Democrats who control the legislature, few of whom had any real affection for Governor Gray Davis. If Schwarzenegger governs from the center, as other moderate Republican governors have done successfully, he will further weaken the control that social conservatives have in the Republican Party in California. Moderate Republicans in other states may look for opportunities to challenge their party’s leadership as well. To be sure, social conservatives will not go without a fight, but they may eventually choose to leave the party, as Pat Buchanan did-to no effect.

Second, the leadership of the Democratic Party forgot the party’s reason for existence. At the outset of the recall effort, the leadership of the Democratic Party, including the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the state’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, closed ranks behind Gray Davis and virtually demanded that no other prominent Democrat allow his or her name to be put on the ballot as alternatives in the event the recall initiative won. Feinstein went so far as to insist that she would not mark the second half of the ballot, only voting no on the recall. Of course this strategy did not work. The weakest of the Democrats broke rank. Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, a decent enough journeyman, but a prime example of the Peter Principle, announced he would run, and promptly sank his chances of winning by taking so much special-interest money from Native American tribes that he shocked even the jaded sensibilities of Californians accustomed to campaign-finance abuses. Few Democrats running statewide have finished as poorly in the polls on Election Day.

It wasn’t just a failed strategy; it was an abdication of responsibility. Any political party must be about something greater than the fortunes of an individual candidate or a particular constituency. Although the party had a right and even a duty to defend Gray Davis from a recall, it had an even higher obligation to be certain that voters could choose the best-qualified person available as a replacement in the event the recall succeeded. Perhaps Schwarzenegger would have been elected no matter who his opponent was. But early polling suggested the contrary; Dianne Feinstein likely would have beaten him. Now the Democrats go into a presidential election without the governorships of the four largest states in the union: New York, Florida, Texas, and California. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t matter doesn’t understand patronage.

Third, the private lives of politicians in California are about as important as they are, say, in France. Further, it seems likely that this indifference to sexual scandal, so evident during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, is growing. Despite a media firestorm over Clinton’s admitted sexual dalliance and a media firestorm over Schwarzenegger’s admitted groping tendencies, in the end the effect on each man’s popularity was negligible.

In both cases the offenses were serious and suggested strongly a persistent lack of respect for women, even a kind of personality disorder. The important point, however, is that a majority of Americans now reject any simplistic equation between sexual morality and fitness for office. Performance trumps indiscretion.

Fourth, direct democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The reason why California is all but ungovernable these days is that a series of ill-conceived referendums and ballot initiatives have hemmed in legislators and policy makers so much that they have little flexibility to respond to crises. Passing a state budget in the legislature requires a two-thirds vote, leading to a kind of tyranny of the minority. Proposition 13 and other tax-limitation measures not only crippled California’s infrastructure, but led to a reliance on highly regressive alternative taxes, like auto-license fees (the tripling of the car tax was the final nail in Governor Davis’s political coffin, just as it was largely responsible for Clinton’s only political defeat for reelection as governor of Arkansas in 1980).

Still, it isn’t at all clear that recall elections are a failure. More people voted in this election than in the last gubernatorial election, which Davis barely survived. It wasn’t just a lack of charisma, as some apologists would have it. His failure to act to sign long-term contracts for energy supplies gave market power to unscrupulous suppliers with damaging results for the state’s economy. His relentless fundraising from special interests bred a cynicism and disgust with politics that was deeply corrosive. His calculated decisions on issues of parole and capital punishment reflected at least a remarkable insensitivity. In the end he had few friends and even fewer defenders. It is instructive that the same electorate that decisively repudiated him also rejected by the same margins two conservative ballot initiatives that would have further undermined good government in California.

The greatest impact of California’s recent excitement, however, may yet be felt by President George W. Bush. Bush ran for the presidency holding himself out as a “compassionate conservative” in domestic policy and a sensible moderate in foreign policy. Yet he has governed with as little regard for the opinions of any constituency beyond his own conservative base as any president in my lifetime. Moreover, the greatest obstacle to Davis’s chances of surviving the recall was the economy. He received the blame, even though his role in this recession was a minor one. Bush is far more blameworthy, and the mood of the electorate will likely be far angrier in November 2004 than it is now. end

Published in the 2003-10-24 issue: 

Thomas Higgins writes from San Francisco.

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