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Is California Golden for Bush?

The Democratic spin is that recall was bad for Bush, but a look at the numbers suggests otherwise.

7:50 AM, Oct 10, 2003 • By FRED BARNES
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WHEN POLITICAL OPERATIVES TALK, they have three options. They can tell the truth. They can spin, which means twisting the truth. Or they can indulge in absolutely laughable spin they don't believe for even a nanosecond but put out anyway. The claim by Democrats that the recall of Gray Davis spells trouble for President Bush in 2004 falls into this third category.

Democrats argue the recall signals incumbents are vulnerable, especially the man responsible for the state of the economy, the president. But the exit poll in the recall election found California voters easily distinguished between Davis and Bush. The survey found that only 27 percent of Californians approved of Davis's handling of his job as governor, while 72 percent disapproved. Bush did much better: 49 percent approved of his performance as president and 48 percent disapproved.

Bush's numbers are actually good news for 2004. His standing in California is only a tad worse that his national poll numbers. And since he's probably at the bottom of the third year slump that besets nearly every president, chances are his popularity with California voters will improve between now and the November 2004 election. So, at worst, Bush will be competitive in California, which he wasn't in 2000 when Al Gore won the state by 12 points without campaigning there at all. Now Democrats will have to pay attention to California in 2004, instead of taking the state for granted.

Of course there are other reasons why the fall of Davis and rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger bodes well for Bush and Republicans. Democrats say voter anger is aimed at politicians in general, not just Davis. But the anger at Bush is limited to Democrats and liberals. And in California, it wasn't only Republicans who voted to boot Davis, but a majority of independents and a quarter of Democrats.

Worse for Democrats, the two Republican candidates for governor, Schwarzenegger and state senator Tom McClintock, got about 60 percent of the total vote. How in the world could that be an ominous sign for Bush? And there's more. Schwarzenegger not only outpolled Davis, though they ran on separate ballot questions. He got more votes than Davis did when he was re-elected in 2002.

One complaint voters had about Davis was his tax hikes, most recently a tripling of the car tax. But Bush is a tax cutter. Democrats insist he has slashed taxes too much. Fine, but it makes no sense that voters revolting against tax increases will now turn to rebelling against tax cuts.

Finally, there's the war in Iraq. Bush won the military campaign and is struggling to establish a secure Iraq with a viable democratic government. His Iraq policy has strong critics, but at least he won the war. True, it's a bit of a stretch to say Davis went to war with energy producers. But let's compare that to Bush's war nonetheless. Davis lost the energy war, sticking Californians with the task of paying for long-term energy deals in which the cost of energy is far higher than the current price.

One final thing. It's true both Davis and Bush confront large budget deficits. Bush, however, has credible excuses for his--the economic downturn that began before his inauguration, September 11, the stock market tumble, and the corporate governance scandal. Davis's only excuse is that he spent too much as the economy sagged. Small wonder, then, that voters put heavy blame on Davis, but don't do the same with Bush.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.