LOS ANGELES–”The election was actually simple,” political analyst Tony Quinn wrote me. “People did not like Gov. Davis.”
He is right, and he is wrong.
Sean Walsh of Governor-Elect Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign last night noted a preordained outcome, that Gray Davis was, at the outset, toast. Consider that the recall was always ahead; indeed, it peaked when Arnold announced. Back then, a recall election would have netted 63 percent “Yes,” more than yesterday’s 54 percent. From the outset, many of us misunderstood this recall and thought it would intrude on a risk-averse electorate. It now appears the burden of proof was not, as is customary, on its proponents. Instead, Davis was presumed guilty of malfeasance until proven innocent. And with his perceived pay-for-play government, he was anything but virginal.
Moreover, last November, Davis won with only a plurality–worse, yet, in a record-low turnout. His (“No” on recall) percentage last night wasn’t really that much different. But the recall’s voter turnout was much higher than Nov. 2 (but hardly a record, as erroneously reported by some). Ominously for Davis, many of his voters last year held their noses. The brief Davis concession last night was human. It was his first emotional connection with voters. I never knew he had relatives. Why does it take losing to improve personalities?
I met Gray Davis a quarter century ago, when he worked for Jerry Brown. As chief of staff for the peripatetic Gov. Moonbeam, Gray was the detail guy, the implementer who gave order to Brown’s chaos. Never did I imagine him as a candidate, much less governor. But was his predecessor for eight years all that different? Republican Pete Wilson is intelligent and conscientious. But, like Davis, he could be both a policy wonk and micromanager. Before Wilson, there were eight years of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. A decent and honorable public servant, the unpretentious Duke served first as a state assemblyman, state senator, attorney general. Against Davis, Wilson, Deukmejian, Tom McClintock was exciting.
The fact is, McClintock, sans Arnold, was plausible. Oh, sure, Tom’s very conservative, although his precise problem is not ideology, but rigidity. Still, voters wanted an anti-Davis–anyone. McClintock’s views on social issues, at least this time, would not have been a deal breaker. Voters were consumed with the fiscal matrix. Also, consider Bill Simon. He was not defeated last year because he was, say, pro-life. Rather, his wounds were self-inflicted, as in Photogate, when Simon’s own campaign made a fool of him, with the bogus Davis photo. Moreover, so-called moderate Republicans barely helped Simon last year. In contrast, conservative Republicans–elected officials, grassroots organizations, talk-show hosts–set Arnold up for victory. Without conservatives, Arnold would have lost, bringing the recall down with him. Don’t forget this, and don’t let him forget this.
When Arnold entered this race, it was his to lose. With his high profile, he and the recall became inextricably linked. His entry was high-stakes, because it would assure a high turnout. Normally, high turnouts help the Dems. Arnold had to hit a homerun. On the other hand, an Arnold collapse, especially coming late, would not have salvaged McClintock. That’s because (a) as Arnold went, so would have gone the recall, and (b) McClintock himself telegraphed this message: I don’t have the hunger for the job. But Arnold did, and his passion inspired converts. Fantasy and reality merged as Arnold became the man on the white horse. Reporters pursued Arnold photo-ops, but not Arnold. There were thousands of column inches on AdWatch and campaign donors. But Arnold’s campaign shrewdly gauged the mediocrity of the press. It gave Arnold a pass on the mistakes and contradictions of his campaign.
This also was an election about cars. Gray Davis said, give illegal aliens driver’s licenses, which Cruz Bustamante favored. Gray and Cruz badly miscalculated: That maneuver was marginal for the Latino base, but enraged opponents. And triple for everyone the annual car tax, which Cruz Bustamante said he would repeal. That seemed out of character for pro-tax Cruz. In sum, Cruz was hardly an escape hatch for Dems unhappy with Davis. Career change for Cruz: Become a voiceover announcer. In the meantime, Arnold, meet your lieutenant governor.
Finally, the soap opera. For Bill Clinton, we called them “bimbo eruptions.” Clinton supporters said, “It’s the economy stupid.” For Arnold, we had Gropergate. Arnold supporters said, “It’s the budget deficit.” The Los Angeles Times stories came too late to hurt, and may have helped, Arnold. How strange, then, for Arnold partisans to insist, simultaneously, on two mutually exclusive positions. First, the newspaper planned its last-minute hit for maximum damage. Second, such late attacks have little credibility and would backfire. “They” needed to take down Arnold weeks earlier. (Postscript Q&A: How can the Times now rigorously cover Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger without arousing suspicion?)
On TV, CNN reports from Austria that a young Arnold predicted he would be a world champion body-builder and a movie star. That he would marry a beautiful woman and achieve great wealth. Finally, claims CNN, Arnold said he would be the most powerful man in the world. For now, how about worker’s comp reform?
–Arnold Steinberg is a California-based political strategist.