CONVENTIONAL WISDOM puts California's 55 electoral votes out of the reach of President Bush in 2004. Bush-Cheney didn't just get beat in the Golden State in 2000, they got hammered. Al Gore pulled 5,861,203 votes to George Bush's 4,567,429--a 53 percent to 42 percent drubbing.
And it wasn't even that close. Ralph Nader picked up 418,707 votes, nearly 4 percent of the total. These won't be Bush votes in '04.
But the Bush-led GOP wasn't supposed to pick up House seats this past November, much less regain the Senate. The president has a habit of surprising the insiders, and a Democratic waltz in 2004 is not yet a foregone conclusion.
Already there are promising signs for Bush. Gray Davis has many nicknames, none of them complimentary: Governor Clouseau; Governor Lowbeam; the unGovernor. His 5-point win over first-time candidate Bill Simon last fall was hardly inspiring, and now looks pathetic in light of his $78 million to $36 million advantage in campaign spending. He concealed from voters a state deficit that the most optimistic estimate puts at $28 billion, and the state's credit rating was downgraded again this week.
Democrats hold every statewide office in California, and large majorities in both houses of the state legislature. California is truly their laboratory, and they are proving themselves the Raelians of politics. Every law passed since 1998--every policy choice made, every dollar spent, every business that fled--has a Democratic brand on it. The accumulation of horrors is becoming so vast that even the Los Angeles Times may soon be obliged to notice.
And add to the mix another obstacle in the form of the head of the ticket on the west coast: Barbara Boxer. The Democratic senator is the best thing Bush has going for him in his effort to win California.
When the National Journal rated Sen. Boxer the most liberal member of the United States Senate last week, it was a mild surprise. But Boxer's rating of 93.2 easily beat Patrick Leahy's 90.5, Ted Kennedy's 88.8, and Hillary Clinton's 86.7. Boxer's top-of-the-lefty-chart performance contrasts even more starkly with Dianne Feinstein's 72.2 and Tom Daschle's 69.
If there were intelligence, grace, or good humor behind this hard left record, Boxer might be a more formidable candidate, but she lacks any of the qualities that can soften a fanatic's edge. Just last week she managed to condescend to both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage with half-baked lectures on how President Bush's "axis of evil" speech might have sparked the North Korean abandonment of the 1994 Framework Agreement. Armitage tried gently to instruct Boxer that North Korea had begun cheating on the agreement before Bush came to office, but she would have nothing of it. When Powell appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, Boxer played the same tune and added her description of the administration's policy towards North Korea as one of "designed neglect." Powell swatted her away with another reminder of the timing involved and a terse lecture on the nature of the regime that was starving its own people by the millions. Boxer appeared unfazed. Her intellect is not of the sort that recoils even from televised embarrassment.
California is a center-left state, and a fickle state, but it is not a stupid state. Boxer won with a dirty-tricks campaign in 1992, and got help from the anti-anti-Clinton bounce in 1998. Her votes on national defense are, to put it mildly, out of step with the times. Her repeated references to "my people" are as irritating to her friends as they are maddening to her foes. Boxer has little appeal to the black and Latino machines of Los Angeles, and no hard-core followers outside of her San Francisco roots. The state's GOP is a complete mess, of course, but Boxer is the one candidate guaranteed to bind up every wound and dissolve every old grudge.
There is no front-runner from among a half dozen potential GOP standard bearers, and there has been no attempt (yet) to clear the field for a Bush favorite. But the GOP race will arrange itself in fairly quick order, and an early primary will allow whoever gets the nomination plenty of time to reorganize a campaign against the Senate's looniest liberal. With enough money, Boxer's record presents a target that cannot be missed, and every score will help Bush pile up votes as well.
A pathetic and despised governor. A collapsing economy run exclusively by Democrats. An extremist senator with an ambivalent base and a tissue-soft record on national security and defense, and an opposition party that can agree on nothing except its disdain for her. That's an interesting mix.
It has been 27 months since George W. Bush got shellacked in California. That's ancient history in Hollywood.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.