Politics & Policy

Ninth Recants

New big decision: the debate.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the renegade Ninth Circuit postponed the California recall election. As predicted, the court acted on its own to overturn the panel. Today it reaffirmed the Oct. 7 election. Monday’s hearing was notable for at least three reasons: ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum misspoke (or did he?) in citing this as “the strongest case that has been in this circus…I mean circuit.” Collaborator Larry Tribe again demonstrated why he should not be on the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, Alex Kozinski, the Reagan-appointed libertarian jurist, demonstrated why he should.

The confusion from last week’s initial court ruling postponing the election had three effects. It temporarily slowed (a) the huge flow of absentee ballots and (b) the momentum of recall opponents. But (c) it also permanently reinforced volatility, which helps Gray Davis.

Meanwhile, another court yesterday clarified the incompetence of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. The ambivalent FPPC had allowed Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to flaunt the state’s campaign-finance laws. Faced with a $21,200 limit per contributor, Bustamante did things the old-fashioned way. Weeks ago, he raised $4 million from Indian casinos, deposited the money in a prior campaign-committee account, from which he laundered it into his current committee. When controversy arose, he said he would spend the money on opposing Proposition 54, Ward Connerly’s measure to prohibit the state from collecting race data, instead of his own campaign.

Of course, Bustamante’s anti-Prop 54 spots featured (surprise) Cruz. The ads merge soundtrack applause when Bustamante says, supposedly to an audience, that “Proposition 54 will stop health officials from collecting information they need on heart disease and diabetes.” That applause seems a curiously incompetent non-sequitur.

The court wants Cruz to return the money. But he claims that he has already spent all of it. He risks contempt of court if he does not retrieve dollars for ads not yet broadcast. It’s unclear how much the ads helped Bustamante, but they did hurt Prop. 54.

The Schwarzenegger ads also have been marginal. For example, in a radio spot, Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, is effective and pleasant. But soon, Schwarzenegger is heard, half-shouting. “You pay toxics when you half a kawffee.” But Arnold’s campaign finally has a real-people TV spot. It provides reasons for recalling Davis, although it never explains the rationale for the recall. Perhaps Schwarzenegger’s campaign computed: Millions of dollars of Arnold spots featuring Arnold were losing him votes.

Meanwhile, McClintock suddenly has a television-ad campaign. It’s adequate but does not include McClintock’s strongest plank: that he would void the Davis energy contracts by charging fraudulent negotiation. McClintock’s TV spots represent an independent-expenditure effort, probably at least $1.5 million weekly, funded by Indian casino money.

Indian givers are the target of Schwarzenegger’s latest TV spot. He suggests that Indians do not pay their fair share of taxes. Now we know why Arnold refused to sign that no-tax pledge!

On Wednesday, the five candidates meet in what Arnold has called the “Super Bowl of debates.” The Super Bowl comment needlessly raised expectations for him. The Green party’s Pete Camejo will be academic and judgmental. Independent Arianna Huffington may switch targets from Cruz to Arnold because…well, he’s there. But will her attack be sporadic and fleeting, or surgical and lasting?

Here’s the handicap: Bustamante, already in free-fall from the illegal immigrant driver’s license legislation signed by Davis, will now be on the defensive about his money laundering. He will go after Schwarzenegger. But the more Bustamante attacks, the more Republican voters will back Schwarzenegger. That is, unless Schwarzenegger can’t handle himself.

Which brings us to McClintock.

The debate will be McClintock’s last chance to prevent final mutiny. His recent attack on Pete Wilson makes him look like a spoiler. Numerous California Republican state chairmen have already endorsed Schwarzenegger. Yet, no polling data is too current: We don’t know if the last five days of Indian-funded spots are helping McClintock.

McClintock can only hope that Schwarzenegger will fumble in a big way; but will he? It all depends on the Q&A. The debate will have big ratings; it will be the last debate, so Schwarzenegger will have no chance for a comeback. Arnold, bear in mind, had hoped McClintock would be gone by now.

If the debate turns harsh, its winner could be (the uninvited) Gray Davis.

Arnold Steinberg is a California-based political strategist.


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