The Magazine

The Out-of-Touch Party

What the California recall tells us about the Democrats.

Oct 20, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 06 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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GOVERNOR ARNOLD is bad news for the Democrats. Republicans now hold the statehouses in the four largest states. But the really bad news is that the Democrats running for the honor of contesting George W. Bush in the 2004 showdown are being picked by a primary audience that is so out of sync with the national mainstream that the two of them barely converge. Think of the California recall as a trial run for the national election: Track the primary themes as they played out in the recall, and the picture you see is a field in denial, a party at war with reality.

Nothing works up a Democratic primary crowd so much as tirades against Bush. The trouble is that all the charges of fool, fraud, fake, and miserable failure reflect the fever swamps of the liberal psyche much more than the facts on the ground. Bush has hardly succeeded in everything, but he rallied the country after a terrible blow, launched two successful wars, locked up a large chunk of the terrorist network, and kept the country safe from attack for two years. The economy took a big hit but has since shown resilience. This isn't total success, but it hardly qualifies as failure, and most people know it, among them the voters in California, who were asked to turn their thumbs down on the recall to send a message to Bush.

The most aggressive Bush-baiter was Arianna Huffington, who attacked Arnold as being a clone of the president. She expressed this view at great length at their single encounter. After this debate Schwarzenegger soared, while Huffington's share in the polls fell from 2 percent to 0.4, at which point she dropped out and went to work for Gray Davis. And this in one of the most liberal states in the country, which Bush lost to Al Gore by 11 points.

Another pet theme on the Democratic primary circuit is the alleged and dire far-right-wing plot to subvert democracy. This was said to begin with Bill Clinton's impeachment (an attempt at a "coup" that would have made Al Gore president), then went on through the Florida recount (which Gore "won" and was somehow deprived of), through the redistricting ruckus in Texas, and reached its supposed apex in the recall election.

The trouble of course is that the recall was legal and that it followed the course prescribed in the California constitution. Many Democrats supported the recall, and some also backed the Republican candidates. Likewise, the levels of rage at the impeachment and recount, though deep, were never too wide. Deep feelings on both of these issues were confined to narrow tranches of partisans at the two ends of the spectrum, while the middle remained unengaged. The impeachment itself, and the acquittal that followed, were met by the public with few signs of emotion, and the consensus that seems to have emerged in the aftermath is that impeachment followed by acquittal is really what Clinton deserved.

In the Florida recount, people understood the election to have been a tie, knew it was within the margin of error, and knew a clean win was not possible. But they also seemed ready to accept as the winner whoever emerged under the laws in place at the time. Republicans played rough, and pushed every advantage, but so did Democrats. Few outside the far left were enraged by the Supreme Court's decision, which most saw as the only way out.

The first sign that the warning of possible putsches might not be a winner happened of course in the 2002 midterm elections, widely seen as a test of whether the results of the recount were understood to be legitimate. Al Gore traveled from one coast to the other invoking the outrage of Florida. Democrats' poll numbers fell when he did so. In Florida itself, scene of the crime, Democrats planned to wreak terrible vengeance. Millions were spent in an effort to take down the president's brother, who won in a landslide. What didn't work in Florida in 2002 didn't work in California in 2003, either. What a surprise.

For two months, the California recall battle and the primary fight among Democrats have been running alongside one another on parallel tracks. In the primary world, made up of activists, talk of plots and fury at Bush are the tickets to cheers, and to prominence. In the real world, made up of a general audience, they turn into millstones, or worse. Bush may still lose--there are too many variables--but not on these grounds or these issues.

"Arnold will lose," wrote Michael Tomasky on August 13 in the American Prospect, a magazine that has felled vast tracts of forests to further the proposition that the worst man in all of human history is George W. Bush. The reason was the sharp division in the political culture. "A series of corrosively divisive events have made Americans choose sides," he explained. "The Clinton impeachment, the 2000 election, and the debate over the Iraq war have been the main events."