Clarifying Issues in California
By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, June 8, 2006; Page A23
LOS ANGELES -- Lord, but California is election-weary. America's mega-state
endured the dreariest of gubernatorial contests in 2002, followed by the most
surprising of gubernatorial recalls in 2003, the drama of the presidential race
in 2004 and, just last November, the who-asked-for-it special election in which
business and labor spent nearly a quarter-billion dollars fighting over Gov.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's wildly unpopular ballot initiatives. No wonder
something like 70 percent of California's registered voters elected not to vote
in Tuesday's primary, which was essentially a sliming contest between the two
leading Democratic candidates for governor.
If the states are laboratories of democracy, as Louis Brandeis called them, then
Californians have become guinea pigs in a vast failed experiment. Hold a major
election every year -- complete with a torrent of attack ads and mailings and
recorded phone messages from a startling array of personages attesting to the
virtues of your state assembly candidate -- and eventually nobody will vote.
The relation between permanent campaigns and voter participation, it turns out,
Still, a few hardy souls, steeled in their civic duty, stumbled to the polls
here on Tuesday and made the right selection. California Democrats chose state
Treasurer Phil Angelides to go up against Schwarzenegger in November's
gubernatorial contest. For some time the conventional wisdom has been that the
liberal Angelides would have a harder time beating Arnold than the centrist
state controller, Steve Westly -- the man Angelides defeated on Tuesday. But
Westly, despite the estimated $37 million of his own money that he put into the
race, never really established a distinct identity with state voters. His
achievements as controller were imperceptible, and polling showed that voters
imputed to him all manner of conflicting positions. California may be the land
of malleable identities, but Westly's lightness of being finally proved too
insubstantial even for Californians.
Angelides, by contrast, is a figure of hard-core beliefs and rough edges. The
Democratic nominee is an unabashed liberal. As treasurer, he responded to the
state's Enron-engendered energy crisis by proposing to establish a public power
company. The centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign has been his call to
raise taxes on the wealthiest Californians -- the only way, he argues, to boost
the state's chronically low level of per-pupil education spending.
If Angelides were facing off against a conventional right-wing California
Republican, his brand of liberalism would very likely prevail in this solidly
blue state. But Schwarzenegger is no conventional Republican, and since his
disastrous initiative campaigns last fall, he has scurried to the center in
every way possible. The Governator restocked his office with environmental
activists and a Democratic chief of staff. He joined with the Democrats in the
legislature to place on November's ballot several massive bond measures to
rebuild California's transportation and education systems. He now campaigns as
the neo-Pat Brown, master rebuilder of the Golden State.
The polling makes clear that Californians like the thought of the new roads and
schools, but it also turns up the same distemper and desire for change that
afflicts voters nationally. Schwarzenegger's approval rating has improved since
last year, but it still hovers under 50 percent, and the state's powerful labor
movement husbanded its resources in the primary -- unions helped Angelides, but
not all that much -- to better bash Arnold in the general. The state is in for
yet another megabucks battle this November, in which a serious liberal will
give a serious centrist a serious challenge.
In the other nationally watched contest out here, Republican Brian Bilbray eked
out a 4 percentage-point victory over Democrat Francine Busby in a special
election to succeed Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Jail) in a solidly Republican
district abutting San Diego. Each national party can take some solace in the
outcome -- the Republicans that Bilbray, hammering on the immigration issue in
this close-to-the-border district, didn't actually lose; the Democrats that
Busby, hammering on the incompetence and corruption of the administration and
the Republican Congress, came so close.
The themes of the coming election have emerged with crystalline clarity.
Democrats decry the debacles -- the war, the price of gas, the sleaze --
devised by the president and Congress. The best distillation of the Republican
campaign may be the radio ad for a North Carolina congressional challenger,
alleging that his Democratic opponent, Rep. Brad Miller, "sponsored a bill to
let American homosexuals bring their foreign homosexual lovers to this country
on a marriage visa. If Miller had his way, America would be nothing but one big
fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals."
Republicans run against one big fiesta; Democrats run against one big disasta.
Fiesta, I think, lacks the punch of disasta; but that's just my hunch: I'm not
saying it hasta.
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