Guilt by association

Will Phil Angelides’ campaign strategy make him California’s Bill Clinton or its Howard Dean?

Phil Angelides took time away from his full-time gig as state treasurer to talk Republicanism.

Phil Angelides took time away from his full-time gig as state treasurer to talk Republicanism.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It was Monday, June 13, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, inside his office complex speaking into a camera—his image satellite-fed to television news stations throughout the state—was announcing a special election that will bring his self-styled “year for reform” to a November climax. Outside, a podium and PA system were set up on the western steps of the Capitol, and state Treasurer Phil Angelides, in full campaign mode, prepared to offer an immediate and oppositional reaction.

“The governor’s announcement marks a sad day for this state,” said Angelides, briefly, before launching into this: “Governor Schwarzenegger has decided to wage an all-out political battle to bring the Bush agenda here to California.”

It was strong language that drew audible responses from gatherers and clearly was meant to paint a picture of Schwarzenegger as a George W. Bush minion aiming to spread Texan deep-redness to this “bluest of blue states,” as Angelides repeatedly calls it.

Angelides continued, several times repeating the words “Bush-Schwarzenegger agenda” and landing on this: “I predict that this special election will be Governor Schwarzenegger’s Iraq.”

The brief speech marked a ramping up of Angelides’ campaign rhetoric. True, the 52-year-old lifelong Sacramentan had been consistent in his criticism of Schwarzenegger ever since the Hollywood star won the governor’s office in the 2003 recall election, but the fiery phrases Angelides used that day to link the increasingly unpopular Schwarzenegger to President Bush—always unpopular in this state—illustrated more clearly one of Angelides’ chief campaign tactics.

The question now is whether it will be a winning strategy. Or, could Angelides take the anti-Arnold tack so far that it backfires and he becomes California’s Howard Dean?

“Phil Angelides or Steve Westly or any other Democratic candidate would be foolish not to try to link the governor and President Bush,” said Tim Hodson, director of California State University, Sacramento’s Center for California Studies and a former state Senate staffer.

“You’d almost have to question someone’s political savvy if they didn’t try to do it.”

Republican observers, however, predict that Angelides may energize enough of a base of liberal voters to get through primary season but will fail to gather enough moderates to make him a substantial enough opponent to go head to head with Schwarzenegger in the general election. (Schwarzenegger has not publicly said whether he will run for another term.)

Angelides sat down with SN&R last week at his Midtown Sacramento campaign headquarters to discuss his anti-Arnold strategy and the similarities he sees between the governor and the president.

“Schwarzenegger’s part of this new age of Republicans, like Bush, who do not believe fundamentally in public investments that build a strong community,” Angelides said. “What draws Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Bush together is they share the same view of what makes a strong society. Their view is somehow that if you just shower more on those who have the most—if you give more wealth and privilege to the wealthiest—somehow it trickles down to everybody else.”

Angelides went down a list: Bush wants to privatize Social Security, and Schwarzenegger would privatize public servants’ pensions; both men, he says, borrow money to balance budgets but then say the government must live within its means; and Bush has “No Child Left Behind” while Schwarzenegger has “Putting Kids First,” though both programs shortchange schools, he said.

The governor’s press office declined to respond to the politically charged, campaign-season comments, deferring to the California Republican Party. There, spokeswoman Karen Hanretty said the comparison doesn’t stick.

“I don’t think any voter in California looks at Arnold Schwarzenegger and thinks of President Bush,” she said.

Angelides said that the similarities he saw between the two men really stood out to him when Schwarzenegger spoke at last year’s Republican National Convention and later campaigned for Bush in Ohio. But he downplays the notion that linking the two men is a campaign strategy, a rhetorical road he chose to go down.

“It wasn’t so much deciding on a road as just calling ’em as I saw ’em, calling it like it was,” Angelides explained. “I think the worst thing you can do when you’re entering a major contest like this, for governor, is to try to tailor your views to what the polls say at the moment.”

Matt Rexroad doesn’t buy that. “Phil Angelides is a political opportunist if there ever was one,” said Rexroad, a Republican political consultant and keen observer of the state’s legislative races.

Some observers have likened Angelides’ aggressive anti-Schwarzenegger responses to those of Bill Clinton during his winning presidential campaign against the then-very-popular George H.W. Bush.

Brian Brokaw, spokesman for Angelides’ campaign, doesn’t dispute that there may be similarities between the two campaigns, noting that Angelides was the chair of the California Democratic Party in 1992 and worked to help Clinton win this state’s electoral votes.

But others, including Rexroad, say Angelides’ campaign looks more like the failed presidential bid of Howard Dean. Both men, he said, came out strong and energized the far-left party faithful. But like Dean, Rexroad predicts, Angelides will fizzle out and fail in the Democratic primary by neglecting to include moderates.

“He’s not the guy who can win the general election,” Rexroad said.

Hanretty agreed, saying that Angelides’ campaign words resemble Dean’s.

“His overly partisan nature is going to hurt him in the same way it has hurt Howard Dean,” she said.

Brokaw countered that Angelides’ supporters cover a broad spectrum of the state’s Democrats, including Silicon Valley business leaders and more conservative so-called blue-dog Democrats.

What makes Angelides unique among Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls is that he has criticized the governor since day one. In contrast, Attorney General Bill Lockyer—who once strongly contemplated a gubernatorial bid—announced to the world that he had voted for Schwarzenegger. State Controller Steve Westly (he has entered the race) initially embraced Schwarzenegger’s sky-high popularity by trying to work with him. All the while, Angelides was playing the role of the anti-Schwarzenegger. Indeed, the very morning after the recall election, he called a press conference simply to reiterate those things Schwarzenegger had promised during the campaign.

“It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that what he said during the recall were not promises he could, or intended to, keep,” Angelides said.

Despite the consistent anti-Arnold message, it was not until recent months that Angelides’ strong guilt-by-association language escalated. But it’s a classic campaign tactic.

An example: During his successful bid for an Assembly seat last year, Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, attacked Bush and then linked his opponent, Steve Poizner, to Bush. Another: When Bob Dole made a run for the presidency, Democrats attempted to link his name to the unpopular then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Republicans have used the tactic as well, often trying to associate Democratic candidates to former Assemblyman and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a polarizing character in California politics.

“But you know what? It never really worked,” Rexroad said.

We also see the opposite, when candidates try to align themselves with popular members of their own party. Democrats hope to have their picture snapped while standing next to a Clinton or Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein. When Schwarzenegger was riding a larger popularity wave, Republican legislators throughout the state hoped he would visit their districts and campaign on their behalves.

“If the president is popular, everyone would be trying to get the popularity to rub off on them,” Hobson said.

Ruskin is an example again. During the election cycle, he played up a photograph of himself shaking hands with Senator John Kerry.

For now, Angelides continues putting Bush and Schwarzenegger side by side.

“They do read from the same menu,” he said. “They read the same books. They order off the same menu.”

Angelides reacted to the recently signed state budget this way: “The low road, the Bush-Schwarzenegger low road, of more and more favors and privilege for the wealthy, less regulation and taxation on multinational corporations, stripping down public investments, will lead us nowhere.”

The question, for Angelides, is whether that guilt-by-association rhetoric will lead him through June’s primary, when voters determine whether he can make the long haul to the general election. Or will it be applied to him? Will voters see him as a Clinton-like candidate or as California’s Howard Dean?