Jewish World Review August 5, 2003 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5763
The California Virus
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | For Republicans, the problem posed by the California recall is how to knock out Governor Gray Davis while he's already down. For Democrats, the challenge is simply to win a significant electoral victory of some kind for the first time in a long time. But to win, Democrats will have to mount a campaign of pure rhetoric and vitriol, for Governor Davis has given them nothing positive on which to run. Given California's population and influence, such a campaign could publicize the current Democratic image, the angry anti-Republicans, beyond political junkies to the nation at large, and set the stage for a united, hard-charging Democratic run off the cliff in 2004.
Governor Davis has achieved almost nothing with which his partisans (supporters would be too strong a word) can recommend him. He has instead delivered a spectacular example of how not to govern. May ended with the first power alert since last summer, a fresh reminder for voters of Davis' greatest debacle. California's new budget includes a $4 billion car tax that punishes not only consumers but also automakers, which support nearly half a million jobs in the state. Despite the fact that runaway spending helped spark the recall, Davis signed a budget with more expenditures than last year's. And a history of what looks like influence peddling only intensifies the aura of corruption and mismanagement.
It is the dearth of options that makes a Democratic coalescence likely.
The only way for Davis to win the recall the only way left for him to even campaign is to cast Republicans as the Bad Guys, the election thieves, the ones who are even slimier than he is. The heavy hitters like the idea; Democratic National Committee chairman Terrance McAuliffe has already started up. According to the Los Angeles Times, he told a recent Davis rally in San Francisco, "Once again, the Republicans are trying to steal an election from the Democrats. Al Gore won the state of Florida, and Gray Davis won as governor in the state of California." Davis perfected the fight-by-smear in defeating Bill Simon, and such a performance relies on the only lines that have had even a little traction for Democrats since the 2000 elections. The promise of heavy Clinton campaigning means the fight will be on the national stage.
The idea of bashing Republicans as a national theme sounds good to the grassroots, too. An August 1 essay in Salon, Poseur in Chief, is making the rounds in Democratic blogs and emails, and lifting the hearts of liberals everywhere with the argument that a personal campaign portraying President Bush as a "phony" whatever that means could be a unifying strategy, or at least an emotionally satisfying one. Success, the authors write, will be measured when "Bush is a phony" is heard "in the checkout queues, the gas pumps, the classrooms, the malls, the churches and living rooms…."
While Democrats don't have to campaign this way, they seem to have little interest in anything else. None of their presidential candidates has offered any specific alternative to Bush's Iraq policy. The economic plans of nearly every candidate boil down to rolling back the Bush tax cuts and moving the country toward socialized healthcare.
Even the excitable authors of the Salon essay concede that name-calling is just about the only strategy left, since "[t]he Democrats' greatest danger is to run an issues-based campaign…" and that "a contest based on issues will only get harder…."
Even if a Democrat joins the recall ballot, a positive, issue-driven campaign is unlikely. No one imagines Davis suddenly abandoning what even Democratic state attorney general Bill Lockyer called a "trashy" and "puke" campaign. And nothing stirs the Democratic base just now like the soothing, constant flow of anger. When Davis comes out swinging, it will be against the recall itself, framed as "another" Republican scheme to subvert the voters' will.
If Democrats can make Davis look like a victim of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" not a tall order in such a Democratic state they may win the battle but lose the war. By rallying Democrats around any of a number of politically suicidal ideas, the party may be fixed in the public mind as devoid of ideas and just plain mean. Then, when the bulk of the nation turns its attention to the race for the presidency next summer, a new generation will coronate its own George McGovern, and deliver its own 1972.
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