California Republicans are having a bad day. It is tempting to tell them what John Belushi said in Animal House: “My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.”
But in politics as in war, every victory foreshadows a future defeat, and every defeat contains the seeds of a future victory. As the military theorist S. L. A. Marshall wrote: “Tension is the normal state of mind and body in combat. When the tension suddenly relaxes through the winning of a first objective, troops are apt to be pervaded by a sense of extreme well-being and there is apt to ensue laxness in all its forms and with all its dangers.”
The danger for California Democrats is that they will over-interpret the defeat of Governor Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures as a mandate for a liberal agenda. They may now make more attempts at such proposals as driver licenses for illegal aliens. If they go that route, they will hit a wall of public resistance.
An October poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Governor Schwarzenegger with a 33-percent approval rating. But the Democratic legislature had only 24-percent approval. Though gerrymandering has insulated individual members from electoral defeat, legislative leaders cannot draw on a reservoir of public support.
In defeat, the governor has an opportunity. In his remarks to supporters on election night, he struck a conciliatory tone toward his opponents. If the statehouse Democrats respond in kind, we might see progress on some major policy issues in the months ahead. If they slap away his outstretched hand, he could still get credit for trying, and the focus of blame could shift to the other side.
The upcoming gubernatorial election will present a different kind of battle. Voters have been judging the governor against the high hopes of his early months. In 2005, it was Schwarzenegger versus Schwarzenegger. In 2006, it will be Schwarzenegger against a Democratic opponent. As we have seen in his movies, he is pretty good at dispatching flesh-and-blood foes.
The two major Democrats in the race are State Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly, who are not juggernauts. In 2002, both won with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Warren Beatty has been getting a great deal of attention of late, but it is not clear that he is in the same class as other California celebrity candidates. While he has been an important figure in Democratic fundraising since 1972, he has much less experience as a public spokesman. Ronald Reagan had spent years on the GE lecture circuit. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an old hand at talk shows, and had sponsored a successful ballot initiative. Beatty, on the other hand, has always been much more selective about his public appearances. That has been a smart strategy for maintaining his Hollywood aura, but it has not given him much exposure to the challenges he would face as a candidate.
If it’s Ishtar v. The Last Action Hero, bet on the latter.
–John J. Pitney Jr. is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, Calif.