The Blog

California Democrats Regroup

After the big loss on Tuesday, California Democrats have to decide if they want to work with Arnold, or try to duke it out with the Terminator.

9:00 AM, Oct 9, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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HERE'S AN UNLIKELY recall winner: George Schwartzman. The San Diego businessman ran as an independent on Tuesday's ballot, wanting to ban cookies and soda pop from public school vending machines (child obesity is, ahem, a growing concern in California). What makes Schwartzman notable? He finished ninth in the race to replace Gray Davis--undoubtedly because the first six letters of his last name coincide with that of the governor-elect's. Let us give thanks that Tom Arnold and Arnold Ziffel sat this one out.

On the day after recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger's mandate grew clearer. In a 161-candidate field (135 names on the ballot, plus 26 write-ins), he collected more votes than either the "no"-on-recall effort or Davis's winning plurality in November 2002. Arnold carried 50 of 58 counties, 36 of them by a majority vote. The only region where the running man ran afoul? You guessed it, the Bay Area, where Arnold pulled down an anemic 33 percent.

So, naturally, California Democrats have figured out the scope of their setback and plan to honor the public's will and help Schwarzenegger get on with the business, right? Well, that all depends on who's doing the talking for the suddenly rudderless party. Arnold, it seems, did more than pancake his opposition. He's managed to divide the Democrats into at least four groups of very unhappy campers.

First, there's the "get over it" crowd. They fought recall as a continuum of the Florida recount and Texas and Colorado redistricting. For some reason, they think that Tuesday's vote, with its enormous turnout and unprecedented media attention, is a stain on democracy. The headmistress of this school: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who called Davis's ouster "a sad night for our state and a sad night for our country. It shouldn't be that public officials have to watch their backs every moment for fear of recall. We have a system where we elect people, the public holds them accountable in subsequent elections, and now we have a cavalier notion that a recall without just cause is okay." Add to this group Terry McAuliffe, the national Democratic party chairman and the Navy chaplain of American politics (if he lends his support to your campaign, you're dead).

The second class of Democrats: the "spitballers." They're the juvenile wing of the party; they could use a time-out, a reality check, and maybe some anger management. The star students: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who thinks recall's outcome should be challenged because, he alleges, minority voters were disenfranchised when polling places were consolidated (a wild accusation even the Democratic state chairman won't dignify); and Bob Mulholland, the state party's executive director, who wasted no time Tuesday night in threatening a re-recall: "The people will give [Arnold] 100 days. If he doesn't fix all of California's problems, he'll find that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."

Class three: the "high road" Democrats who say they want to work with Arnold. That includes state controller Steve Westly, who phoned Schwarzenegger on Wednesday to offer his congratulations (Westly's one of several state constitutional officers who might challenge Arnold in 2006--that's another sandbox fight on the horizon). Also: Assembly speaker Herb Wesson, who conceded on election night that Californians are tired of gridlock. "They want us to act--without partisan rancor--on the issues that matter most," Wesson told reporters. Or so he says until the legislature reconvenes. Team Arnold would love to add state Senate president John Burton to this list, but he's a complicated topic. Schwarzenegger said yesterday, during his press conference in Los Angeles, that he had a good phone call with the senator. Burton, who was in Sacramento, told reporters that the conversation lasted all of one minute--and, by the way, he won't stand for any cuts in social programs and by the way, he thinks Arnold has no legal grounds for single-handedly abolishing the car tax increase.

There's a fourth category of post-recall California Democrats, and this one may be the best barometer of whether the party can get over Tuesday night's catastrophe: they're the "climbers." Thanks to term limits, they're the new class that will rise to power during Arnold's first term. For now, they think that going after Schwarzenegger enhances their reputation. This includes San Francisco assemblyman Mark Leno, who says he'll introduce an "Arnold's Law" bill to increase the penalty for sexual battery in the workplace. Ditto state senator Sheila Kuehl. In addition to inheriting Tom Hayden's old seat, she's the first avowed lesbian elected to the California legislature. (She also played Zelda on TV's "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." Before Tuesday's election, that qualified her as the biggest-name entertainer under the Capitol dome.)

Kuehl wants to be the Democratic leader after Burton's forced retirement next November. She's already auditioning for the job, by dumping on the Terminator. Here's an exchange she had with California Insider blogger Dan Weintraub on election night:

Weintraub: How are you feeling?

Kuehl: I am really sad. I'm more angry than anything. And I haven't even started thinking about what the Senate will need to do in order to save the state.

Weintraub: Save the state from what?

Kuehl: From ignorance. This guy has no idea how to run a state. One of two things will happen. He'll have his own ideas and no way to carry them out. I mean he has already proposed three things that the governor cannot do. He wants to roll back the car tax on his own by fiat, which he can't do. He wants to tax the Indians, which he can't do. He doesn't know anything about running the state. So either he will propose a lot of stuff he can't do and we'll have to govern, or he'll be pretty well manipulated by people who have an agenda, very much the way I think the president of the United States has been handled by people who are really telling him how to do these things. In which case we may have to counteract things that are worse than things he proposed on his own. His handlers will probably be more conservative than he is, or in the Republican party line. Convince him he'll bring businesses back to the state by cutting more benefits to workers, by unraveling anti-discrimination statutes which they call job killers.

Weintraub: Will he be received civilly by the Democrats in the legislature?

Kuehl: He will be received civilly. We have received everyone civilly. I don't know if everybody is going to go to the State of the State [speech]. Because frankly I don't think there is going to be a lot of content that anyone's interested in. What's this guy got to say to us about the state of the state? Nothing.

Sweet, isn't it? Then again, this is the dilemma California Democrats now face--much like how they dealt with Reagan in 1981when he first arrived in Washington. Back then, entrenched congressional Democrats couldn't decide if the 40th president was, in Clark Clifford's words, an "amiable dunce" who could be rolled on policy matters, or a political force that commanded both respect and a wide berth. What the Democrats learned (the hard way) was most any duel with the personable Reagan, outside the beltway, was a losing proposition. Voters saw him as an agent of reform and progress, and the Democrats as obstructionists.

In the coming weeks, California Democrats will decide if Arnold demands respect and cooperation, or if the Schwarzenegger honeymoon ended the moment he gave his victory speech. They should think twice before concluding that Arnold's an inviting target. Schwarzenegger won big on Tuesday night because he wasn't Gray Davis--and because he stood for a political sea change. Should they ignore that, and play the villain opposite the new leading man, the Democrats in Sacramento could be the ones lost at sea.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.