Unintended consequences shaped California vote

October 09, 2003|By Frank Gruber

SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Maybe it was all the candidates who had never run for anything before, but the vote for governor of a state of 35 million people felt like a local election.

Eventual winner Arnold Schwarzenegger and candidate Arianna Huffington both live in Brentwood, which is adjacent to Santa Monica, and it was as if the Brentwood PTA had said, "Let's run two members for school board." But somehow there was a mix-up and they were on the ballot for governor.

As became apparent in the one debate in which Mr. Schwarzenegger participated, both he and Ms. Huffington, two immigrants, had assimilated American culture so well that they had internalized the personalities of two high school archetypes - the "jock" and the "brain" - who in this case were locked in a bitter struggle for class president.

No one who has attended high school should be surprised that it was after that debate that Mr. Schwarzenegger made his move in the polls.

Gov. Gray Davis did not manage to get better than 47.3 percent of the vote in 2002 in this overwhelmingly Democratic state. That 47.3 percent enabled the recall. Starting with less than a majority, it was unlikely Mr. Davis could add votes in the recall process, and he didn't. In 2002, his 47.3 percent equaled 3.53 million votes. In 2003, he had virtually the same number of "no on recall" votes - 3.54 million, equaling 44.8 percent.

Mr. Schwarzenegger won with only 48.5 percent of the vote.

Early on, it looked as if the Democrats had stumbled into a good strategy when only one prominent party member, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, ran to succeed Mr. Davis. If Mr. Davis had transcended his pique and had united with Mr. Bustamante on a joint campaign emphasizing their achievements, they might have been able to persuade voters that the sky was not falling.

But so much for brains. Mr. Davis has nothing if he doesn't have his pique, and it was the Republican voters who swallowed their ideologies and united behind Mr. Schwarzenegger.

One lesson learned is that no one has revoked the rule of unintended consequences.

Begin with Mr. Davis. Common wisdom is that the way for Democrats to win in the era of the independent voter is with moderates such as Mr. Davis. But the governor turned off the left wing of the party with his corporate associations. The result was his dismal 47.3 percent showing.

Imagine if instead of being "responsible" during the California energy crisis, instead of doing everything he could to keep the electricity flowing, Mr. Davis had acted like an outraged populist, refused to pay extortionate prices for power and let the lights go out?

In other words, what if he had acted like the Terminator? Given what we know about Enron, he'd be a hero.

But consider Darrell Issa, the conservative Republican congressman who bankrolled the recall expecting he'd become governor. Tearfully, he bowed out in deference to Mr. Schwarzenegger - the one redeeming moment of the recall for Democrats.

Instead of Mr. Issa, Californians have elected a celebrity governor who is in favor of abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, who says education is his No. 1 priority and who has lots of Democratic in-laws. And who also wants to govern and, presumably, be re-elected in 2006 even though he received less than 50 percent of the vote.

California is still a Democratic state. The large Democratic majorities in the legislature also need to show they can govern - to show even that they are relevant.

For their part, the right-wing masses of the Republican Party, for them to be relevant, need to show that moderates who aren't celebrities are also welcome in the party.

To succeed, either Mr. Schwarzenegger will need to push a few right-wing Republicans to the center or he will need to entice a large number of Democrats over the center line.

Hasta la vista.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column for The Lookout, a Santa Monica, Calif., news Web site.

Clarence Page will return next week.

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