Clashing tectonic plates

It isn’t all about Gray and Arnold—there could be a massive power shift next week if pragmatism wins over ideology

Illustration By B.Z.

The only things that can be safely predicted at this point in the frantic final days of the race to recall Governor Gray Davis are that panic reigns supreme inside the camps that are losing, fur will now fly with gobs of blood and flesh attached, and the losers won’t just be the three men voters reject as governor.

I’ll explain this further with the caveat that after press time, things still may change dramatically. That’s the nature of struggles for power in the final hours of such campaigns. And California has not seen a battle for power like this since Republican neophyte Ronald Reagan wrested the governorship from longtime Democratic Governor Pat Brown.

We in the media have focused on the daily horse race. But a far larger struggle is afoot.

The California Democratic Party has been able to easily quash, for most of a decade, every effort by moderate Republicans to take back the California Republican Party from a loud, ultra-conservative wing that represents only about one-third of California’s Republican voters.

The far right has trapped the Republican Party in a murder-suicide soap opera, forcing the party to put forth right-wing Republican candidates for statewide office even though they can’t win elections in moderate California. The far right, much better organized and more willing to fight dirty than Republican moderates, has crippled its own party.

The Democratic Party of California is not yet mired in such a public battle with its extreme left wing and has benefited enormously. The party has risen to its greatest power in more than 20 years, winning every statewide office and majorities in both houses of the state Legislature last November.

The last thing Democrats want now is a moderate Republican governor who could tame the ultra-conservative tail that has been wagging the dog in California’s Republican Party. If Arnold Schwarzenegger wins, he will appoint a number of social moderates to positions of power and pursue moderate policies even as he pursues fiscal conservatism.

Moderate Republican voters—who fled their party to become independents, “decline to states”—and Democrats could come back to the fold, resulting in a revival of the Republican Party in California and a challenge to the Democrats.

So, no, this ain’t just about Arnold and Gray.

These clashing tectonic political plates are the reason why former President Bill Clinton urged Davis nearly two years ago to declaw moderate Republican Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles.

As Riordan began campaigning for the 2002 Republican primary for governor, Clinton, though a purported friend of Riordan’s, advised Davis to spend millions trashing Riordan in an unprecedented Democratic campaign expenditure during a California Republican primary. It worked, and Riordan lost miserably to conservative Bill Simon.

Now, four men are locked in a second fascinating struggle: Davis, Schwarzenegger, Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante and state Senator Tom McClintock.

Gearing up for the final days, Davis presented his usual cool public persona at a tough town-hall meeting in Burbank. There, some residents questioned his broken campaign promise to end the workers’ compensation crisis, while another suggested that California businesses would pass billions of dollars in new costs on to consumers if Davis signed Senate Bill 2, a law that forces most businesses to cover their employees’ health care.

Davis has begun to sound panicky for the first time in this race. Responding to the California State University, Sacramento, debate on September 24, at which Davis was even criticized—in roundabout comments—by Bustamante, Davis demanded a one-on-one debate with Schwarzenegger. How things have changed for Davis, who refused to face the other candidates in debates. At a rally of Democratic women near Davis’ West Hollywood home on September 26, Davis said Schwarzenegger’s criticisms of the state “are not fair to 35 million Californians, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Davis’ demand for a debate is a telling move. The first person to demand unscheduled debates is usually the one whose private polls show he is in trouble.

Chris Lehane, the negative-campaign master advising Davis and the AFL-CIO on how to defeat the recall, also seemed a bit panicky as he tried to spin journalists in Sacramento following the September 24 debate. He ridiculously claimed that Schwarzenegger’s putdowns of Arianna Huffington after Huffington’s attacks upon him were “fatal” errors.

Lehane is good—I’ll give him that. Two major news outlets, Reuters and the Los Angeles Times, repeated Lehane’s absurd views without identifying Lehane as a top anti-recall adviser. (The correct view of the debate: Huffington’s strategy of targeting Schwarzenegger backfired when Schwarzenegger decided to have fun with it.)

Davis’ problems are his persistently high unpopularity rating and voters’ widespread agreement with Schwarzenegger that California is headed in the wrong direction. The most recent major poll available at press time, a CNN-USA Today poll conducted by Gallup, showed support for the recall with a huge 63-percent lead, and Schwarzenegger winning the governorship with 40 percent.

Bustamante is fighting an entirely different set of problems. At a time when Bustamante expected to be gathering up the state’s sizable Democratic base, the CNN-USA Today poll had him at 25 percent. Earlier polls placed him in the 30s.

Bustamante is fighting a series of negative headlines over his entanglements with American Indian gambling money. I suspect the bad press hurt him with moderate voters who see gambling as getting out of hand in California.

On September 22, a judge found that Bustamante’s use of millions of dollars from big unions and rich American Indian tribes was illegal and ordered him to return the dough. Bustamante’s campaign chief, Richie Ross (see “Cruz controlled,” SN&R Cover, page 20) publicly claimed that all the money had been “spent.” But several journalists discovered that Bustamante launched an $841,000 TV campaign that very day using the illegal money.

When reporters learned that the money was refundable if the ads were pulled from TV, Bustamante began ducking interviews. He looked positively ill during the debate at CSUS and then abruptly vanished afterward—rather than face dozens of reporters waiting to ask about American Indian gaming money at a long-scheduled question-and-answer session.

Bad timing for Bustamante. Private polls by the California Teachers Association show voter disapproval has skyrocketed in recent days about taking gambling money from increasingly rich and politically manipulative American Indian tribes.

Meanwhile, longtime legislator McClintock clearly is enjoying the first real political attention he’s ever had. But his prediction to me in mid-September never materialized: that his 18 percent showing, in a widely questioned Los Angeles Times Poll, was a precursor to his rocketing past Schwarzenegger.

Instead, McClintock’s stranded in third place, and the media has become obsessed with asking McClintock—even several times at the same press conference—why he isn’t dropping out of the race to avoid splitting the Republican vote.

With a small smile, McClintock recently pleaded with journalists: “Please, please help me, using all the substantial journalistic talent and creativity available to you, to formulate a sentence that once and for all will convince each of you that I am absolutely not dropping out of this race.”

Some Republican consultants, such as Alan Hoffenblum, now theorize that McClintock’s presence might be a plus for Schwarzenegger. McClintock, the thinking goes, will bring serious conservatives to the polls, where, Hoffenblum says, after making a proper show that they are loyal to McClintock, “many will privately mark their vote for Schwarzenegger.”

But I think McClintock’s real service to voters is his photographic memory of every major Davis fiscal screw-up, from the long-term contracts Davis signed during the energy crisis to Davis’ ill-advised tripling of the car tax.

Schwarzenegger has hammered on many of these themes, as well, and was so buoyed after the Sacramento debate that he hung around with journalists longer than usual and delved further into policy issues.

One reporter, hoping for a “gotcha!” moment, asked Schwarzenegger to explain the Colorado River water deal and how he would fix it.

The entire room got quiet at that. We journalists knew what was up. That’s like asking a neophyte lawyer to identify as many members of the California Supreme Court as possible.

Schwarzenegger responded: “We’re getting 15 percent of the water now, and we have to look ahead to see that we don’t waste it. … We have to dramatically build up our conservation programs. … I would support another dam but only if it can be done without damaging the environment; it would have to be a plan worked out with approval of the environmentalists.”

But boning up on issues won’t clinch the election. A Los Angeles Times Poll due out this week may not agree that Schwarzenegger has 40 percent of the electorate behind him, and Davis is almost certain to go on the attack, perhaps even utilizing information from Schwarzenegger’s past. Why? Because negative campaigns work.

Maybe the dirt won’t be that dirty. Or maybe voters just won’t care. The Republican Party in California may be undergoing a transformative moment in which it decides to put aside ideology and social concerns and go pragmatic.

After what Davis did to Riordan, the Democratic Party had every reason to believe it would enjoy years of control in Sacramento without a moderate-Republican takeover to worry about. Now, the Democrats have to find a way, with just a few days left, to hang on to their brass ring.