Sounding more like an astrophysicist than a political commentator, CNN’s usually stolid Jeff Greenfield summed up the events of election night after Arnold Schwarzenegger was declared California’s new governor. “We’ve left the gravitational pull of the Earth,” he said.
Since then, pundits, politicos and regular people have been trying to fathom exactly what happened and what it portends for the state. One thing is crystal clear: California voters wanted change. They were frustrated mightily and demanded a shift in direction. But what made things come out this way?
• Gray Davis got caught in politics’ perfect storm, between the energy crisis, a failing economy, and a concurrent and massive budget deficit. But not even a perfect storm serves as a worthy excuse in the public arena of governance. Davis raised campaign-donation groveling to new heights but failed to guide his people out of the tempest; he flopped as a leader.
• California voters have a history of erupting in massive waves of dissatisfaction every 10 to 15 years. In 1978, voters stormed to the polls to pass Proposition 13, a property-tax-lowering measure that many believe ultimately helped cripple the state’s economy. In 1992, voters overwhelmingly passed term limits, and many believe it lessened the ability for legislators on different sides of the aisle to work cooperatively and so ultimately strengthened the power of special interests. Finally, last week, voters recalled a governor. It remains to be seen how Schwarzenegger—swept in on a mandate for change—can actually accomplish his blue-sky vows of improving public education, rolling back the vehicle-license-fee hike and balancing a $12 billion shortfall … all without raising taxes. An argument can be made that each of these California eruptions—however genuinely felt on the part of the voters—actually created outcomes that wound up making our state’s problems even worse.
• Californians love to be entertained and, for many of them, watching this campaign unfold was better than Entertainment Tonight. Schwarzenegger’s election night party in Los Angeles was just a glimpse of the full-throttle Hollywood flash, with the news camera alternately finding actor Rob Lowe, Tonight Show host Jay Leno, Schwarzenegger’s wife and NBC News correspondent Maria Shriver, and Shriver’s accompanying crew of photogenic family members, a.k.a. the Kennedys. In their best Fight Fire With Fire mode Wednesday morning, many Democrats couldn’t help but talk about drafting liberal activist and West Wing actor Martin Sheen (a.k.a. President Bartlet) to run against the Terminator in 2006. And so it goes.
When you sum it all up, CNN’s Greenfield was correct. California has left the gravitational pull of the earth. And the way things are going, we’re probably going to float around weightless for awhile before figuring out we’d be better off solving our state’s mighty problems without the recall and putting our feet back on solid ground.