Arnold's victory was swift and severe. I spent part of last night doing election analysis for a local San Francisco TV affiliate. That station's network was ready to call the race at 5:00 p.m. West coast time, three hours before the polls closed. A friend doing analysis at a Los Angeles station says that network's poobahs were in a "three-point stance" all afternoon long, poised to call the race the first second they could (8:01 p.m. PST, which they all did).
Then again, Californians had fair warning that a big shift was on the way.
Early Tuesday morning, hours before the political aftershock, San Diego experienced a mild earthquake, just as the tectonic plates shifted in Northern California over the weekend. For Governor Gray Davis, it was if fate kept sending a message. The governor voted Tuesday morning at a makeshift poll in a West Hollywood realty office. A few hours later, voters told him it was time to relocate. After he voted, Davis was even forced to wait to talk to the press because the media's molt box had died. Someone--or something--wanted the Democratic governor silenced. (The final insult: As the networks called the election, Cinemax was airing "True Lies.")
The coming days will bring plenty of talk about a political earthquake--and an avalanche of numbers and statistics. Recall will be likened to 1978's Proposition 13. The Arnold for President movement won't be far behind. There's plenty of delicious irony to be savored. (My favorite: The California Democratic party pays for 2 million recorded phone messages by Al Gore; the next day, the courts decide that "do not call" is back on. A close second: A group of grinning Shrivers and Kennedys cheering on a winning Republican.) We'll read between the lines, and even the music notes--candidate Arnold stumped to the tune of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It"; governor-elect Schwarzenegger prefers Van Halen's more staid "Right Now."
BUT ON THE MORNING AFTER RECALL, as we begin to sift through the rubble that was once the Davis administration and the Democratic stranglehold on Sacramento, one lesson is certain: California's ruling class took it in the shorts last night. Arnold terminated the political elites and their condescending style of campaigning.
In the recall, experience faced off against the experimental--and voters went with the mystery man. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a household name and face, but the fact is he's never governed a day in his life. Still, Californians overwhelmingly went with the novice over a pair of far more ripened Democrats--Davis, who's spent nearly 30 years in the upper echelon of state government; and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, a career civil and public servant. (In another blow to the establishment, voters overwhelmingly struck down Proposition 53, an infrastructure budget grab cooked up by a bunch of Sacramento insiders.)
Those same voters rejected what an elitist message and tactics. Davis's first mistake in recall was not taking the movement seriously. Earlier this summer, he called the growing movement "an insult to democracy." After that, the governor and a never-ending conga line of big-name Democratic surrogates insulted the electorate's intelligence by suggesting that the 1.6 million Californians who signed recall petitions were nothing more than dupes in a Republican power grab spanning coast to coast. That was followed by Davis and Bustamante, treating loyalist Democrats like sheep that could be led in whatever direction they chose. Pandering to the Hispanic vote, Davis signed a law handing drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. Pandering to women, Davis and Bustamante tried to make them believe that a Republican governor would deny their abortion rights.
And what fruit did that pandering bear? Exit polls show that the scare tactics didn't shift the women's vote: 53 percent voted for recall, 45 percent opposed it. Early Fox News exit surveys gave Arnold 42 percent of the women's vote, to 37 percent for Bustamante. As for Hispanics, early estimates have 53 percent voting against recall, but 47 percent supporting it. Nor did Bustamante get the overwhelming backing he'd assumed, exit polls gave him 52 percent of the Hispanic vote, with Arnold getting 30 percent. As for that drivers' license bill, 7 out of 10 voters exiting the polls said they don't want it on the books. The only Democratic group that "stayed home" for Democrats was African Americans--according to the exit polls, only 29 percent voted for recall.
HISTORY IS SOMETIMES CRUEL. Last year, Gray Davis did whatever it took to avoid becoming the next Cuthbert Olson--Olson, in 1942, being the last California governor to fail to earn a second term. Paranoid that he'd suffer the same disgrace, Davis took the extraordinary step of spending $10 million during the Republican primary to ensure the defeat of former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan. He then spent the majority of his $70 million campaign budget deconstructing Bill Simon. In the process, Davis wasn't honest about the budget deficit, glossed over his slowness to act in the energy crisis, seemed more interested in fundraising than governing, and came across as an icy and aloof robo-pol. That election drew a record-low turnout, making it easier to collect the 897,000 signatures needed to trigger this recall.
Ironically, while that mentality got Davis a second term, it also paved the way for his becoming this century's first Lynn Frazier. Frazier was the last American governor to be recalled, 82 years ago, in North Dakota (like Davis, he got the boot during his fifth year in office). Frazier wasn't a bundle of laughs. A devout Methodist, he didn't smoke or drink, and refused to hold an inaugural ball because he disliked dancing. But he also lived in tumultuous times. North Dakota's farm crisis had cratered and the state auditor suggested Frazier should be deported to Russia, "where the anarchists belong."
Davis, likewise, wasn't a beloved governor--in itself, not a sin, but a fatal flaw when coupled with a lack of respect from the public and the press. And while California's economy isn't on the verge of collapse, the choice was clear to voters. During the course of recall, their governor first blithely dismissed the grassroots movement, only to reverse course and campaign as a born-again populist. Meanwhile, the electorate was reminded of how lowly the establishment regards them. In recall's closing weeks, three liberal judges tried to postpone the vote. In recall's closing days, the state's largest newspaper tried to take down the Republican front-runner by assailing his character. Meanwhile, lawmakers idly stood by while Davis tripled the car tax and wrecked families' budgets.
Recall ends up as Arnold's big political payday. And payback for millions of fed-up Californians.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.