In California, a third way

May 25, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

WHEN Bill Clinton took office as president, congressional Democrats resisted Mr. Clinton's efforts to steer them in the centrist direction he promised in his 1992 campaign. Mr. Clinton was too deferential, and he compounded his problems by his own miscalculations on issues such as health care. The resulting chaos undermined the president's first two years -- and precipitated the GOP landslide of 1994.

California Gov. Gray Davis is too polite -- or politic -- to say he's worried that his Democratic allies could drag him into the same ditch. But he is clearly focused on the challenge of imposing executive leadership, and a centrist direction, on a party that had been denied the governorship for 16 years before he took office.

So far, Mr. Davis says, he's "pleasantly surprised" at the state legislature's willingness "to give me the benefit of the doubt" on his proposals, particularly the education reform package passed earlier this year. But he also recognizes that it requires "an act of will" to keep his administration from being slowly tugged to the left when all the institutional pressures in the party flow that way: "I don't want to mislead you: It's not easy to govern from the center."

A test case

Mr. Davis' determination to "govern from the center" has made his governorship an intriguing test case for Democrats nationwide. Democrats hold just 17 governorships, and Mr. Davis is the only Democratic governor in the nine largest states. For New Democrats eager to prove that Mr. Clinton's centrist approach can bring meaningful change and build a lasting coalition at the state level, Mr. Davis has become the most important game on the board.

"When the Republicans have not only New York state but New York City and Florida and Texas, California really becomes a tremendously important proving ground for the new politics for Democrats," said Will Marshall, executive director of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.

Mr. Davis is not necessarily the first state politician one might have predicted for this role. During his long ascent, he was marked more by his persistence than his creativity.

But he ran a disciplined, resolutely centrist campaign through the primaries and general election last year. And in office, he "has not deviated one centimeter from the political 50-yard line," said GOP consultant Dan Schnur.

In that process, Mr. Davis is unambiguously identifying with Mr. Clinton's new synthesis. Without defending Mr. Clinton's personal behavior, Mr. Davis said: "I wouldn't be sitting here today without President Clinton. If people weren't persuaded that a Democrat could be tough on crime, supportive of economic growth and a protector of the environment, I wouldn't have had the chance."

Setting an agenda

In his own agenda, Mr. Davis echoes many of the new themes that Mr. Clinton has made popular at the national level. On education, Mr. Davis so far has emphasized accountability -- new tests for students, new rankings for schools, new reviews for teachers -- over new spending.

During his four-year term, he said, "more money will be spent on education." But he quickly added: "At least as important . . . is a different attitude. . . . I want to change the culture of education from excuses for poor performance to higher expectations and higher performance."

On social policy, Mr. Davis identifies with the movement gaining momentum in both political parties to increase the role of neighborhood groups, including church-based charities, in delivering various social services.

On spending, Mr. Davis is seeking a Clintonesque balance: He's championing overall restraint while defending an activist role for government in targeted areas. He's displayed the first instinct in his frugal proposals for the $4.3 billion surplus discovered in the latest state budget estimates. He shows the second when he says that over time he would like to expand the state program that provides health insurance for the uninsured children of working families to the adults in those same families.

Watching his step

Meanwhile, though, Mr. Davis has focused on the unglamorous work of increasing enrollment in the existing health care program for children. That reflects his step-by-step approach to politics -- an instinct that should help him avoid some of the pratfalls Mr. Clinton took early on.

But, like any virtue, Mr. Davis' discipline can become a vice if taken too far. Republicans are already trying to portray him as a split-the-difference triangulator who doesn't offend because he doesn't inspire. Some liberals, grousing about Mr. Davis' budget and his refusal to abandon the legal defense of Proposition 187, privately echo the charge.

To blunt those criticisms, Mr. Davis doesn't have to move left or right. But he does have to be bold. For a politician who has promised reform, caution is the greatest risk.

Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the Los Angeles Times.

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