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Gray skies from now on
Dreary California Governor an early bet for presidential nomination
 
Matt Welch
National Post
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LOS ANGELES - He is a public official so despised, his own supporters call him "distinctly loathsome." He is a human being so colourless and stiff, people he describes as "great friends" (or "buen amigos") say they barely know him. He ran a campaign so dreary that turnout reached an all-time low, while third-party candidates made historic gains. He was a Democrat incumbent so weak that after outspending his inexperienced Republican challenger, Bill Simon, by two to one, in a state where Democrats enjoy an advantage of 1.4 million registered voters, he won by only 330,000 votes.

Yet California Governor Gray Davis emerged from Tuesday's elections as arguably the most successful major Democratic politician in the United States and an early front-runner for his party's 2004 presidential nomination. The Republicans, who no longer have a clue how to win elections in the state that brought the world Ronald Reagan, should be trembling in their loafers.

Nationwide, the story of the 2002 elections was a surprising last-minute Republican tide that lifted nearly every contested boat. But not Bill Simon's. Because of the national GOP wave, and early returns that showed Simon neck-and-neck with Davis after one-third of the votes were counted, Wednesday's newspapers declared the race "surprisingly close." But it wasn't.

Simon ended up losing, 42.4% to Davis's 47.4%, an improvement over the last pre-election poll by only a single percentage point. While Republicans in Washington, D.C., were assuming control of both the White House and Capitol Hill for the first time since 1952, Democrats in California were poised to sweep all state-wide offices for the first time since 1882. (One race is still too close to call, but the Democrat led at press time.)

As a top state Republican told me on Wednesday, "You have an incredibly popular President, and you have probably the most unpopular Governor in the history of the country, and we still couldn't beat him."

The California GOP has been an absolute basket case since 1998, when Davis ended the Republicans' 16-year reign at the statehouse. His predecessor, Pete Wilson, single-handedly created the party's most pressing and confounding national dilemma: how to wean the booming Latino population away from the Democratic bosom.

Wilson, whose first term (1990-94) coincided with a sharp recession, murderous riots, deadly natural catastrophes, unprecedented "white flight" and the largest foreign-immigration influx in a century, responded to his woes by running for re-election against illegal immigrants. His main campaign ad showed a grainy image of Mexicans dashing across the border while a narrator intoned, "They keep coming." He spearheaded a ballot initiative, Proposition 187, to kick undocumented children out of public schools and deny their parents emergency health care.

The strategy did wonders in the short term -- Wilson and Proposition 187 each won by more than a million votes in 1994 -- but it has haunted Republicans ever since. Though the initiative would eventually be struck down as unconstitutional, Latinos responded by applying for citizenship and registering as Democrats in record numbers. Over the course of Wilson's second term, Latinos increased their share of the state electorate from 8% to 14%, while professional-class whites, who lean strongly to the right, fled the state by the hundreds of thousands.

GOP strategists, faced with hostility from the fastest-growing sector of the national population (Latinos jumped to 12.5% from 9% between 1990 and 2000), have been trying to undo the damage ever since.

Since the mid-1990s, the most influential "anti-Wilson" in the Republican Party has been none other than George W. Bush. As governor of the state with the longest Mexican border, Bush came out against Proposition 187, fought a movement to declare English the state's official language and emphasized immigrants' aspirations over their claims on the public purse.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush visited the Golden State more than a dozen times, conducting interviews on Spanish-language broadcasts, promising spectacular reductions in waiting times at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and spending upwards of US$15-million trying to steal a state Al Gore was too confident to campaign in.

On election day, Bush's efforts were rewarded with a butchering. Gore stomped Dubya, 53.4% to 41.7%, and every contested Congressional seat went Democrat, not Republican. The diversion of campaign resources away from such states as Florida nearly cost Bush the White House.

So after the California Republican election debacles of 1998 and 2000, 2002 seemed up for grabs, along with the party's approach to immigration and social issues.

Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, remained convinced that social-policy "moderation" was the key to winning such left-leaning states as California, so they helped draft former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who is openly pro-choice and has a history of working well with Latinos. The conservative grassroots wing of the state GOP countered with businessman Bill Simon, the family-values son of William E. Simon, treasury secretary in the Nixon administration.

Depending on your position, it was the pragmatists versus the purists, or the sell-outs versus the suicidal. As one self-described "Taliban conservative" put it to me at Simon's election-night party, "Latinos are going to be automatic Democrats anyway, so I don't know why we bother.... We need 10 years in the wilderness so we can rebuild around our core values."

Gray Davis, a notoriously ruthless campaigner who spent much of his first term raising unholy sums of money (often from people with pending state business on his desk), saw Riordan as his biggest threat and spent $10-million before the Republican primary to portray the septuagenarian former mayor as a bumbling hypocrite on such social-conservative issues as abortion.

Simon supporters took the bait, labelling Riordan a "RINO": Republican in Name Only, not fit to hoist the party banner. After running a disorganized campaign that insulted the party base, Riordan got stomped, 30% to 49%. The two wings of the party never really kissed and made up, hobbling the drive to unseat a reviled Governor with 60% disapproval ratings.

Gray Davis has presided over two Californian catastrophes: the dot-com collapse and a deregulation-fuelled electricity crisis that has caused blackouts and cost the state tens of billions of dollars. The two events combined to obliterate state finances, which were in a surplus when Davis took over. In 2002, California's budget deficit was a crushing US$23.6-billion, or one-quarter of its revenue. "A deficit which," The Economist wrote, "if it were being run by a country, would send the currency crashing and usher in the International Monetary Fund."

Yet, as much as anything else, his icy personal style and relentless campaign fundraising have turned off Californians. In a series of spectacularly lukewarm newspaper endorsements, Davis was described, variously, as a "calculating cash register" who has "demeaned the office of governor many times over" with his "cashbox politics."

So why did anyone endorse or vote for the guy? Because millions of people agreed with the Democratic assessment that Simon was out of step with Californians on social issues, and because Davis cut his stumbling opponent to ribbons during the campaign, portraying him as a corrupt and incompetent capitalist too busy losing fraud lawsuits to do things such as vote.

Simon never managed to charm disgruntled Democrats or the state's sizeable bloc of independents, and instead kept getting snagged in pointless campaign missteps and conservative-pleasing sops that turned off the undecideds.

In the end, Republicans came out in only slightly higher numbers than expected, and 18% of them voted for someone else. Rumours of a write-in campaign for Riordan (or Arnold Schwarzenegger) persisted until election day, with several polls showing the former mayor would have been competitive. Within hours of the election, recriminations on both sides of the GOP civil war were at a fever pitch.

"I think the Republican Party has become irrelevant in California," one GOP moderate told me. "[Liberal] Republicans acted as if they didn't even want to win in California," barked The American Prowler, a conservative Web site.

With the national election proving to be such a wipeout for the Democrats, that leaves Gray Davis standing as one of the only success stories in the country. He has always had presidential ambitions -- in the campaign's lone one-hour debate, he spluttered evasively when asked if he would rule out a 2004 run -- and several of his potential competitors -- such as Richard Gephardt, House Democrat leader for four terms --spent the latter half of this week resigning in disgrace.

Davis presides over the country's largest economy, has prime access to the Democratic fundraising honey pots of Hollywood and the Silicon Valley, and is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who adores the death penalty. He has spent much of the past two years governing and campaigning against George W. Bush, whether it be trying to blame the President for the electricity fiasco, expanding stem-cell research in California or passing automobile emissions standards much tougher than Washington or Detroit could ever conceive.

Davis's feared political attack-dog, Garry South, was already setting his sights on bigger and better things within hours of the election. "I don't think the national Democrats had a real message in this campaign," he told Thursday's Los Angeles Times.

The message Davis is sending to the national Democrats carries an unsettling resonance. After all, there is some precedent for a despised Californian politician surviving the political wars to emerge as an unlikely candidate for president. But not everyone has fond memories of Richard Nixon.

Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com

© Copyright 2002 National Post


 
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