Political shift … and shiftiness

The move to moderation

This past decade has seen a movement of California voters to the Democratic middle. Here’s what that will mean on Election Day.

This is the closest national election in 40 years. But few people seem to care much.

The televised presidential and vice-presidential debates have been among the lowest-rated in history. Low turnouts are expected nationally and statewide. An MTV poll indicates that the 18- to 24-year-old voters of 2000 may be the most politically disconnected in history. There are reasons so many are disconnected from the process, and why some are disappointed by an absence of change. Nevertheless, California politics have changed a lot in just 10 years. But the changes haven’t made the results all that difficult to forecast.

It’s not that there aren’t major differences between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, for there are, on a panoply of issues from abortion to education to the environment, tax policy, you name it. It’s not that the major parties aren’t working hard; they are smashing all records for campaign spending, and their candidates are tirelessly criss-crossing the country and making fairly frequent visits here. It’s not that there aren’t famous alternatives to Gore and Bush, with legendary consumer advocate Ralph Nader fronting for the Greens and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan carrying the tattered banner of the Reform Party.

And in California, we have a race for the U.S. Senate, four major statewide ballot initiative fights, campaigns all around the state for Congress and the state Legislature, and scores of local elections.

So what’s the problem?

Maybe the candidates are boring, maybe we’ve become cynical, maybe these are the best of times and we don’t really care, maybe cable TV and the Internet and the inescapable entertainment culture and the remote and the mouse have all turned us into a state and a nation of spectators.

Maybe this isn’t that kind of article. There’s disconnect, which the preceding reasons get at, and then there’s disappointment.

Certainly some, especially those intrigued by, if not actually supporting, Ralph Nader are disappointed in the presidential campaign. It’s true that it doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of transformation, especially for a place like Northern California, which has always prided itself on being an incubator of change.

But disappointment is usually relative. And the truth is that the choices that seem relatively unengaging this year come from a frame of reference that is very different than that of just 10 years ago. Let’s look at that change, before going into what’s going to happen and why in our “boring” elections.

Just a decade ago, California was a Republican state. A Democratic presidential candidate hadn’t carried California since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater, a man who talked about nuking China.

Gov. George Deukmejian was finishing up his eight years in office, a time that he used to reinstate the death penalty, make the state’s farm lands safe for pesticides, screw the farm workers union and not much else.

He was about to pass the baton to Pete Wilson. Now, Wilson was a guy who, after a brief false dawn of talking about protecting the environment and helping poor people with early childhood programs, reverted to type. He pushed divisive ballot initiatives to throw poor people off welfare and kick illegal immigrant children out of school, all the while supporting the dirty little secret of the California economy: namely its reliance on cheap illegal-immigrant labor.

Now California is a moderate Democratic state. Bill Clinton carried California in 1992 and 1996, and Al Gore is on his way to carrying it this year. Dull but relentless Gray Davis won the governorship in a 1998 landslide, and Republicans seem resigned to running the justly anonymous Bill Jones in 2002. California is no one’s idea of a people’s republic, but the frame has shifted pretty dramatically. Race-baiting and union busting are out, more spending on social programs, especially education, is in; environmentalists, while not ecstatic, are in a far better mood than they were in 1990.

It may not be sexy, but it is a big change. A moderate Democratic California is a different place than the Republican California. But it is not a transformed place. We still get stuck on the freeways. We’re still transfixed by money and gripped by infotainment. The planet is still warming. Our politicians are smashing all fund-raising records, openly raking in megabucks in denominations that seemed impossible a decade ago. Once a $10,000 contributor was important. Now, in the immortal phrasing of Garry South, Gov. Davis’ chief strategist, he or she is “a piker."More than a few liberals and progressives held out hopes for the transformative qualities of Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy and the creaky vehicle he’s chosen for this election, the Green Party. And unlike in 1996, when he barely seemed to stir beyond his office in Washington, Nader has run a very active campaign. He draws much larger crowds than Gore or Bush. He’s raised $5 million. He delivers long (too long, actually), intelligent, impassioned speeches about what’s wrong with America. He will end up having campaigned in all 50 states. But it’s not enough. Despite his fame and widely acknowledged record of fighting the good fight, Nader is struggling to get a mere 5 percent of the national vote, enough to qualify the Greens for some of the federal funding that Democrats and Republicans get. Nader’s dour manner and legendarily long-winded speeches overshadow his brilliance and don’t provide much appeal outside the precincts of the left and the studiedly disaffected. The most immediate practical effect of his candidacy may be to throw the election to Bush, something that works for those on the left who think things have to get worse before they get better. But that is probably not a big selling point for most folks.

Unlike in Europe, third and fourth parties have never flourished in America because we have no system of proportional representation to allow them a beachhead of power from which they can grow. They’re more like sand castles; they have their moment, and then they wash away with succeeding tides. As with the Reform Party, which flourished with Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign, when he won nearly 20 percent of the vote, and then receded to 8 percent for Perot in 1996, finally turning into the ridiculous gong show of 2000.

Sometimes ideas remain, but only if there are skilled people to take them up and sustain them.

Nader’s relentless emphasis on what’s wrong with America—and his reluctance to paint a detailed picture of the America that could be—hasn’t caught on, but he could easily cost Gore a half-dozen states, and with them, the White House.

In California, though, Democratic prospects have appeared solid. On several occasions, Bush began to challenge for the lead here, but the success of Gore’s semi-populist makeover at the Democratic National Convention seemed to have put an end to that. Bush went through a period of doing everything wrong. Democrats and their media cheerleaders crowed that only Gore had the race figured out. Until the debates, when Bush showed that he at least belonged on the same stage with the seasoned veep and questions about Gore’s integrity re-emerged, reminding us of what most have not liked about the Clinton years. Now Bush and the Republican National Committee are spending $1.5 million a week on television advertising in California, most of it in the Los Angeles media market.

Gore still leads in California, but his support is down significantly, to the point that ranking Democratic strategists such as Davis campaign manager South, Gore’s chief California strategist in the primaries, and pollster Paul Maslin, who is also a top Davis adviser, openly call for the spending of national advertising money in a state the Democrats have taken for granted, a state without which Gore can’t win the presidency.

Yet it remains hard to see Gore losing here. Unlike in other states, Gore’s margin for error in California may be large enough to make Nader’s support level irrelevant to the outcome. But the impact of Bush’s California comeback, and the heavy spending that is helping fuel it, may be to boost the chances of several endangered Republican congressional candidates. And without more of a Gore push in California, Democrats from the governor on down fear that turnout could suffer, making other races and ballot initiatives more difficult to win.

Strong as Gore’s chances remain in California, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s are stronger still. While it’s not impossible to see Gore losing California, it is impossible to see Feinstein losing to her Republican challenger, Silicon Valley Congressman Tom Campbell. Feinstein, renowned in political circles for playing the Democrat-as-autocrat, has run an imperial campaign, barely deigning to acknowledge that she is up for re-election by the voters.

Unfortunately, she can afford to do so. The Republican has neither the financing nor the baseline support in his own party to enable him to move within striking distance of California’s senior senator.

But Campbell is playing an important role in exposing the failure of the war on drugs. And he may be prescient in warning that the prosecution of this domestic drug war is dragging us into a real war in Colombia. There the United States is just beginning to pursue a risky program of military assistance in a complex war against guerrillas who benefit from the drug trade, providing the Colombian government with helicopter gunships and Special Forces advisers in the field.Democrats are also poised in California to pick up at least half the seats needed nationally to win back the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as to pad the Democratic majorities in the California Legislature.Democrats need to pick up six seats to regain control of the U.S. House. Three could come in California. State Assemblyman Mike Honda will probably win Tom Campbell’s Silicon Valley seat. Before Bush’s big advertising push in the Los Angeles area, Democratic state Sen. Adam Schiff was poised to beat former House impeachment manager Jim Rogan for the Glendale-centered seat in L.A. And former Congresswoman and 1998 gubernatorial candidate Jane Harman seemed likely to defeat Republican Steve Kuykendall for a seat in Los Angeles’ South Bay. Their chances have diminished, but both Schiff and Harman had more cash on hand than their Republican incumbent opponents entering the final weeks of the campaign.

That area is also the site of another possible Democratic pick-up, as challenger Gerrie Schipske battles Republican incumbent Steve Horn, former president of Cal State Long Beach. Further south, in San Diego, challenger Susan Davis is in a hard-fought contest with Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray.

California voters will also decide the fate of four major initiatives: one that would maintain the status quo of the political process, one that would devastate the public schools, another that would make it easier to continue the moderate Democratic reforms on education, and a fourth, more transformational initiative that would liberalize drug laws and cut back on the state’s massive prison expansion.

Unless the profound disarray of reform forces in California is somehow righted very late in this campaign, voters will approve Proposition 34, a so-called campaign finance reform measure backed by state Sen. President pro tem John Burton, Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and Gov. Gray Davis that is actually designed to forestall fundamental reforms. Prop. 34 is a phony, designed to continue politics as usual, and, with a few adjustments, it would do just that. (See “A Plausible Conspiracy,” page 17) Burton and Hertzberg blocked real reformers from appearing in the statewide ballot statement as the opponents of Prop. 34, which alone might have sounded its death knell. Despite their manipulations, this initiative could still be defeated.

Its support is estimated at less than 50 percent in private polls, even though it sounds like reform and has not had any real campaign against it. And the governor, who raised the money to defeat a real, though flawed, campaign finance reform initiative by Republican Ron Unz on the March primary ballot, will reportedly focus his efforts elsewhere this time.

The only sure thing the proponents have going, at this writing, is that every for-profit slate-mail promoter in the state has agreed to place a “Yes on 34” message on all of their mailings. What are slate mailings, you might ask? They’re basically lists of endorsed candidates and positions on ballot measures mailed out under the guise of political groups such as “The Democratic Voter Guide” and “Republicans for Change.” In reality, the groups are fake, letterhead fronts for promoters who use politics to make a megabuck. Why aren’t these public-spirited citizens charging the Prop. 34 campaign for their advertising? You could think of it as a pro-bono effort, and let a tear come gently to your eye. Or just see it as businessmen banding together.

There’s another school voucher initiative on the ballot, Proposition 38, which would give at least $4,000 per child, regardless of need. This is the most heavily funded initiative campaign, thanks to the wealth of Libertarian Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper. It will lose, and it won’t be close. At least for now, most voters are willing to give public-education reform efforts a chance to take hold.

Having incurred the wrath of education reformers for his seeming inattention when a March initiative to eliminate the two-thirds local vote requirement for new school bonds failed narrowly, Gov. Davis is back with a redesigned initiative to get the job done. This time, instead of lowering the threshold to a simple majority, the initiative lowers it to 55 percent. This measure should pass, though not by much.

The biggest element of mystery on the major ballot proposition front surrounds the only potentially transformational measure on the ballot, Proposition 36, a drug policy reform initiative that would shift the sanction for the first two offenses of simple possession from incarceration to treatment. Studies show that treatment is a much more cost-effective way of dealing with the problem. This initiative is supported by most leading liberals and virtually all the African-American leadership, which once supported the war on drugs but is now turning sharply against it as its disproportionate impact on their community is felt. The financial backing is mostly provided by global investor George Soros and his allies, who have also promoted medicinal-marijuana initiatives here and in other states. Prop. 36 is opposed by Gov. Davis, Sen. Feinstein, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer and, not coincidentally, the prison guards union, which spent $2 million to help elect Davis and now plays a huge role in California Democratic politics and wants to continue the state’s massive prison expansion. Which also expands its ranks and makes it more powerful.

Polls indicate widespread support for this initiative. Research also indicates that most voters haven’t thought much about it. Many observers had expected a hard-fought, very well-heeled campaign against it. But if it’s happening, it’s coming together very late. Davis seems to have decided not to put up much of a fight on this one, either, focusing on the two education initiatives.

The best thing opponents of Prop. 36 have going for them is actor Martin Sheen, a prominent liberal who stars as the president on the hit TV show The West Wing. Sheen, who has been arrested at least 100 times over the years protesting on behalf of peace and environmental causes and who is a longtime backer of liberals such as Tom Hayden, is also a recovering alcoholic and the father of notorious party-boy actor Charlie Sheen. He would prefer that Prop. 36 allow judges the option of sending first- or second- time possession offenders to jail as a “shock treatment.” But pollster Maslin, who parts company with the governor on this issue, points out that that would leave drug policy right where it is now.

Sheen has shot an anti-Prop. 36 TV spot that could make a difference in the campaign. But unless the prison guards or some other well-heeled interests step up in the last few weeks, it won’t make much difference.

The mostly low-key nature of the national and state campaigns is matched by Sacramento’s mayoral race. The race to succeed the late Joe Serna, the dynamic and often headstrong mayor who died last November, has been going on all year, but has mostly failed to ignite passions in the capital city, perhaps because both rivals in this non-partisan election are Democrats. The lone major Republican challenger, former Sacramento County Sheriff-turned-City Councilman Robbie Waters, didn’t make it out of the March primary and into the November run-off election.

Rob Kerth and Heather Fargo, who both serve on the City Council, held their first televised debate last week and left observers scrambling to find big differences between the two. Kerth is an engineer who was a Republican until three years ago. Fargo comes from more of an activist background, working with neighborhood and environmental groups critical of development. Yet both favor the continuing growth of the region.

Kerth’s erstwhile Republicanism hasn’t stopped major local Democrats from endorsing him, or labor unions and developers from flooding his campaign coffers. Yet Fargo has the support of the county Democratic Central Committee and some prominent developer support of her own. The choice between the two is a close call, and the contest between the two looks close and may turn as much on how voters feel about the two as on any policy differences.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Close elections, limited voter enthusiasm. Despite the real differences between Gore and Bush, a reigning moderate Democratic orthodoxy in the state and city, and, with Ralph Nader reduced to a spoiler, there are few real opportunities for political transformation.

There don’t seem to be any compelling political eggs in California’s incubator.

And you might as well get used to it.