Not Quite the Big One

So, is it a wrap for progressive California?

According to many political observers, largely but not entirely on the right, the recall of Democrat Gray Davis and the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger mark a tectonic shift in California's political makeup. Over the past decade, as Latinos have voted in greater numbers and independents have trended Democratic, California has become just about the most reliably Democratic state in the nation. Since Davis became governor, at the prodding of a liberal-dominated legislature, he's signed landmark legislation establishing the state as a progressive beacon in a reactionary time.

California, for instance, became the first state to enable workers to take a paid family or medical leave. It forbade financial institutions from sharing data on their customers without their customers' approval. It placed far stricter restrictions on auto emissions than the federal government has, and it mandated that utilities produce 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by the middle of the next decade. And on the Sunday before the recall vote, Davis signed into law a bill requiring employers of more than 50 workers to provide health insurance (for which they'd get special tax breaks) to their employees by 2006 or 2007.

Is that what Californians were rejecting when they turned against Gray Davis? Did Cruz Bustamante acquit himself so appallingly (he got 32 percent of the vote in a state that's 45 percent Democratic) because he was seen as just another tax-and-spend liberal?

Hardly. Davis was rejected not because he was perceived as a woolly-headed leftist but as a consummate opportunist who'd come to stand for all that was rotten about the state's big-money politics. Bustamante, all but unknown to state voters when he declared his candidacy, quickly defined himself as a walking, talking conflict of interest by hitting up tribal casinos (which are constantly negotiating with the state for new concessions) for millions of dollars. Before anyone could even attack him, Cruz had doubled his own negatives in the polling.

And Schwarzenegger? California's new governor ran a deliberately fuzzy left-right campaign that affirmed as many progressive principles as it denied. He made it clear that he would continue Davis' financial commitment to education. He criticized Davis for failing to expand the state's health coverage for poor children fast enough. He put forth an environmental program that environmentalists conceded was comparable to what the Democrats had proposed. And he was, as no statewide Republican had been in years, in favor of both abortion rights and gun control.

Schwarzenegger did attack Davis from the right, of course. He vowed to overturn the increase in auto-registration fees that the budget shortfall had triggered. He promised to repeal (by sponsoring an initiative, if need be) legislation granting drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. He complained incessantly that California was losing jobs, and that this was due to the anti-business climate that Davis and the Democratic legislature had created.

The appeal of this message was apparent well before the voting. On the Friday immediately prior, Schwarzenegger's cross-state bus tour chugged into a park in Arcadia, one of the last remaining Republican enclaves in Los Angeles County, to a rally of about 3,000 screaming followers -- at 8:30 on a weekday morning.

As he did throughout his campaign, Schwarzenegger cheerfully decried the car tax, the state's $38 billion deficit, the state's high energy costs, the staggering rate of taxation. Most of this was nonsense, of course. The budget deficit had been closed. California's rate of taxation ranked 19th among all the states. Energy costs had risen, but they were nowhere so high as the level they would have reached if Davis had simply let consumers pay what Enron had been demanding, which is what deregulation advocates called for during the crisis. And the car tax had indeed been increased, as had college and university tuitions, but only because the Republicans in the legislature had refused to raise taxes on the wealthiest Californians to close the deficit.

Schwarzenegger correlated the allegedly anti-business climate of California to job loss: 300,000 jobs had fled the state, he bemoaned, manufacturing jobs in particular. If this attack sounded perilously similar to the one that Democrats are making against one George W. Bush, well, Schwarzenegger's strategists were certainly aware of that. It was one reason why no one attending a Schwarzenegger rally ever so much as heard Bush's name spoken. Indeed, according to an election-night survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, it was discontent over the state of the economy, even more than Davis' personal unpopularity, that fueled the recall. The No. 1 desire of state voters, Luntz found, was "bringing back jobs that left the state and creating new job opportunities." (There's precious little in Luntz's poll that should lead Republicans to think that Bush has even a prayer to carry California next year.)

Luntz's figures make clear why Davis was at such a disadvantage: California's governor never figured out how to run on his economic record, or on any economic platform at all. The measures he'd taken to improve the state's economy -- chiefly, investing more in schools and improving health care -- proved difficult to highlight in a way that carried as much impact as the GOP's attacks on the car tax. Moreover, in a time of cutbacks, he couldn't plausibly offer an economic program of his own -- expanding university research facilities, say, or putting more money into K-12 schools. Hence, voters viewed the car tax as a levy, pure and simple, and not as a way to fund a needed public program.

Davis' agenda was inherently defensive. And he himself was so icy an individual that even the staunchest Democrats had trouble warming to his defense. His rallies, even in the campaign's closing days, were attended dutifully by union officers, elected officials and their staffers. But all the passion, and almost all the regular Californians, were to be found at the Schwarzenegger events.

Under these constraints, the ability of the state's union movement to produce union and Latino votes for the woeful duo of Davis and Bustamante was limited. Union members and Latinos each opposed the recall by roughly 55 percent to 45 percent margins, while the recall was passing with precisely the opposite numbers, 55 percent "yes" to 45 percent "no." By the standards of recent elections, these are anything but resoundingly Democratic totals, but then this election amounted to a perfect storm for the Democrats.

Indeed, Republicans voted their quick and their dead in the recall, while the Democrats had trouble turning out their living. In the networks' exit polls, Democrats constituted just 39 percent of the electorate and Republicans 38 percent. By contrast, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 42 percent to 37 percent in the 1998 gubernatorial contest and by a full 10 points -- 44 percent to 34 percent -- in the 2000 presidential vote.

Now Schwarzenegger comes to power, and all the choices he was able to elide while campaigning loom before him. The post-steroidal governor has already signaled that he wants to govern as a social moderate and fiscal conservative. His transition team was a cloud of bipartisan atmospherics; it had no function, but it did include such staunch Democrats as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Called in to do the cutting for Schwarzenegger's first budget, however, was Donna Arduin, Jeb Bush's finance director in Florida, whose reputation is that of a hard-right enemy of all social welfare.

It remains to be seen if Schwarzenegger has the courage of Arduin's convictions. It's possible that -- his campaign rhetoric to the contrary -- the state's economy has recovered to the point that the deficit he confronts will be a manageable one. If not, he may go along with those GOP legislative leaders who favor floating bond issues to paper over the deficit, though he then opens himself to attack that he's visiting the deficit on the next generation, much as Bush is doing at the federal level.

In the legislature, the flow of new bills favoring workers over employers will either stop or meet the governor's veto. Whether Schwarzenegger thinks that he can reverse by initiative the recent bills mandating employer-paid health insurance and family leave, or restoring overtime pay for the eight-hour-day, is another question. The law granting drivers licenses to the undocumented looks sure to be repealed at the polls, but universal economic programs are far more difficult to assail, polling exceptionally well among Latinos of all classes and ideologies. In fact, Schwarzenegger has already suggested that he may just leave family leave in place.

The new governor may have considerable success going after some of the Democrats' less popular constituencies -- trial lawyers and the undocumented, for instance. Going after universal programs is another matter altogether. Progressives may not be able to expand their achievements during Schwarzenegger's tenure, but they should be able to defend the programs they've already enacted.

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