The Morning After

Thursday, January 14, 2010

As the opening bell rings on a new political season, it’s time to ask a favorite recurring question: is California a bellwether for the coming elections or a nation-state once again destined to sit on the fence while the rest of America renders a verdict on the political ruling class?

California is indeed relevant, but not in the way you might think. Take, for example, the struggle over the control of Congress. California does have a vulnerable Democratic U.S. senator in the form of three-term incumbent Barbara Boxer, but Republicans in search of Senate “pickups” will find less expensive races in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. As for the lower chamber, arguably as few as three of the state’s fifty-three seats in the House of Representatives are in actual danger of changing partisan hands. Whereas Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces an angry electorate in Nevada, no way will liberal San Franciscans kick House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the curb.

So what makes California relevant? It’s a word familiar to the state’s Austrian-born governor: zeitgeist. Six years after the Schwarzenegger ascension, the Golden State’s hopes for the “politics of hope” have cooled, and its disillusionment with its fresh-faced outsider may signal trouble for the president as well.

In October 2003, nearly a year before Barack Obama surfaced in the national spotlight as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, California began its own experiment in Obama-style politics: the recall-driven election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as California’s thirty-eighth governor. Like Obama, Arnold ran as a candidate of hope, with his campaign foreshadowing the same dynamics and themes that propelled Obama to the White House: charisma, optimism, and promises to end partisan bickering, rein in out-of-control spending, and return sense and sensibility to government policy making.

Today, the verdict on Schwarzenegger is one of disappointment. Instead of slowing down spending, California has racked up record budget deficits under Arnold’s watch. The same special interests the broom-waving celebrity candidate promised to sweep out of Sacramento still rule the roost. Meanwhile, California’s dysfunctional political system seems wholly incapable of making big fixes, be they in health care, prison reform, or water delivery. The net result is that public satisfaction is at a historic low in California, with only one-fourth of the electorate approving of the governor’s performance and a mere one-seventh (13 percent) approving of the legislature’s.

HOPE ON THE ROPES

California’s disenchantment is ahead of the national curve. Perhaps such a mood will cost Obama his job in 2012. For Schwarzenegger, it’s not a concern: term limits bar him from seeking a third term this November. Still, it raises the question: in choosing a successor to Arnold, will Californians also turn their back on Obama-style politics? Can a new face with little or no government experience follow Arnold’s act, or will Californians seek a more conventional career politician to be governor?

In October 2003, nearly a year before Barack Obama surfaced in the national spotlight, California began its own experiment in Obama-style politics.

It just so happens that California’s slate of gubernatorial hopefuls offers such a choice.

On the Democratic side is Attorney General Jerry Brown, a diehard party animal with a long political glide path to statewide office. Brown, who served as California’s governor from 1975 to 1983, will turn 72 one month after the June primary. Brown’s candidacy isn’t the most dramatic Rip van Winkle moment in American politics—West Virginia’s Cecil Underwood, elected governor of his state in 1956, was elected again at age 74—but even in a state of environmental enthusiasts, the concept of a former governor trying to regain his job after a twenty-eight-year hiatus stretches the meaning of “recycling.”

Nevertheless, it’s Brown’s race to lose. For one, barring a surprise entry by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Brown goes into the primary with formidable leads in fund-raising and name recognition. Second, Democrats enjoy a 12 percent advantage in voter registration over the GOP. Third, his current position as California’s attorney general is a public relations dream.

One other factor working to the Democrats’ advantage is that California Republicans will have to figure how to position themselves in relation to an incumbent governor who isn’t that terribly Republican.

Among GOP hopefuls, this is especially a challenge for Margaret “Meg” Whitman, the former eBay chair and now a gubernatorial candidate. As with Brown, the primary is Whitman’s to lose. She has more personal wealth at her disposal than state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (like Whitman, a Silicon Valley millionaire), and she’s a novelty: the California GOP has never nominated a woman for governor or U.S. senator or elected a woman to a statewide office since Treasurer Ivy Baker Priest ran on Ronald Reagan’s coattails in 1966. But Whitman will have to wrestle with the Arnold factor.

AN OUTSIDER’S CHANCE?

In the 2003 recall election, by not entering the race until the last possible moment, Schwarzenegger was a candidate for all of two months. He didn’t have to figure out how to compete in a Republican primary heavy with conservative voters. The incumbent governor, Democrat Gray Davis, was both feckless and the ideal foil for a movie strongman.

In the California of 2010, Whitman will have to spend the first five months of the year calculating how to get conservative Republicans to vote for her in the party’s primary—as usual, a briar patch full of such contentious issues as right to life, same-sex marriage, and education reform. Once again, the incumbent governor acts as a convenient foil. Whitman has openly disagreed with the Schwarzenegger administration on landmark climate change legislation, one of several “postpartisan” moves by the governor that have left conservatives in California feeling abandoned and betrayed. She has also promised to cut spending and reduce the government workforce to help balance the state’s budget.

Public satisfaction is at a historic low, with only one-fourth of the electorate approving of the governor’s performance and a mere one-seventh approving of the legislature’s.

But how far can Whitman afford to push back against the Schwarzen-bama model? Sure, she can chide Arnold for being a massive disappointment to all who wanted change in Sacramento. Yet her message in 2010 will be little different from his in 2003: “I’ve never held political office, but based on what I’ve accomplished in my life and my leadership skills, you can trust me to fix state government.”

A cynic might call it a case of once burned, twice shy; there’s no way California voters, in a postrecall funk and embittered by a deep recession, will ever choose another outsider as governor. Then again, California is a land of contradictions. Its image, oversimplified, is that of a land of progressivism, idealism, and zaniness. But the reality is a deep-blue electorate with some conservative highlights. A majority of Californians continue to support a legislative supermajority requirement to pass state budgets and a two-thirds threshold for tax increases; thirty years after the passage of Proposition 13, which set a limit on property taxes, more Californians than not oppose changes to it.

Will California—once burned, twice shy—ever choose another neophyte as governor?

Call it a state of confusion. But in 2010, an opportunity exists for another Republican outsider to state her case and—if she’s both skilled and lucky—to earn her chance to relocate to Sacramento and take yet another shot at ending California’s state of disrepair.