Gray Matter

LOS ANGELES -- In the end it came down to touching. No, not Governor Arnold's three decades of alleged sexual harassment; that seemed of little moment to California voters. The touching problem in this election was all Gray Davis'.

"You've got to touch people, relate to them, tell them what you care about," one Democratic politico told me at Davis' sparsely attended election eve rally in Los Angeles. "Gray's never been able to do that."

Davis, in fact, has long been just about the unhappiest warrior on the American political battlefield. The normal business of politics -- negotiating with legislators, enunciating his principles, building support for his programs -- repelled him.

The only part of the politician's trade that put him at ease was fundraising; he could always put the touch on people. In a sense, his is the tragedy of the staffer, the detail guy, whose ambition pushed him onto center stage, where he was exquisitely uneasy and inept.

Only in the closing days of his campaign could Davis finally bring himself to take credit for legislation he had signed: the restrictions on greenhouse gases, the restoration of the eight-hour-day standard for overtime pay, the limits on financial institutions sharing customers' credit reports and, just last Sunday, the extension of health insurance to 1 million working Californians.

"He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted," John L. Lewis, the legendary labor leader and accomplished horn-tooter, once noted. Failing to identify himself even with legislation that most Californians welcomed -- much of it foisted upon him by Democratic legislators more activist than he -- Davis became, in the public's mind, the personification of the state's corrupted, money-driven political culture.

Until the recall, Davis had overcome this handicap by spotlighting his opponents' shortcomings. But in a recall election, the spotlight stayed unswervingly on him.

And no one shined it more pitilessly than the populist right -- the talk radio hosts, the local Limbaughs. They seized on the bill legalizing driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants and on the tripling of car taxes. Of course, if Republicans in the legislature had been willing to raise taxes on the rich, such regressive measures as the car tax and the tuition increases at public colleges and universities would have been unnecessary. But you were likelier to pick up a working knowledge of quantum mechanics on talk radio than you were to learn of the GOP's role in the state's fiscal crisis. Instead, you learned that the state's business climate was the worst in the nation, which it's not, that taxes were the highest in the land, which they're not, and that the state has a $38 billion deficit, which it doesn't.

Just about the only clear progression apparent in the exit polling on Tuesday's election was how support for the recall correlated with the level of voters' education. High school grads backed the recall at a rate of 61 percent; voters with some college at a rate of 59 percent; college graduates at a rate of 57 percent; and voters with postgraduate study at a rate of 45 percent. What this may refract is the differing levels of access to sources of information and misinformation about California politics. It may help explain why unions, which have had an impressive record of steering their members into the Democratic column over the past decade, were able to persuade just 55 percent of their members to oppose the recall.

But the great depressants of Democratic voting in this election were the Democratic candidates. It's instructive that no wing of the Democratic Party has ever claimed Davis as its own, so faint was his identification with any political principle. Cruz Bustamante entered the campaign as a relative unknown to California voters and managed to drive his own negatives to stratospheric levels in a few short weeks. His concession speech -- a paean to the casino-operating Indian tribes that funded his campaign -- was the single most tone-deaf performance in American politics since Trent Lott sang "Dixie."

At all events, Republicans voted in the recall like there was no tomorrow and Democrats voted like there was no election. Just 39 percent of the voters on Tuesday were Democrats, while 38 percent were Republicans. Contrast that to the gubernatorial election of 1998, when Democrats constituted 42 percent of state voters and Republicans 37 percent, or the presidential contest of 2000, when Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 44 percent to 34 percent.

The attention now will all be on Arnold Schwarzenegger, but this election was all about Gray Davis. The new guy, after all, was not a wildly popular figure on Election Day: In the exit polling, 50 percent of voters volunteered a favorable opinion of Schwarzenegger, 45 percent an unfavorable one.

It was Davis, not Schwarzenegger, who brought Davis down. Shunning political positions, he came to stand for the entire political system. That was more baggage than any pol could bear.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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