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Jewish World Review August 5, 2003 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5763

Michael Long

Mike Long
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The California Virus | 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.

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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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JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


07/24/03: A Few Thoughts on the News
07/10/03: How To Win By Losing: It's much smarter to let this one go
06/20/03: Dems turn a sensible question into pure politics
03/19/03: Another thing for Bill Clinton to Zip Up: his time, it's his mouth
02/25/03: The Cradle of Civilization, Again
01/31/03: Silencing opponents because you can
01/28/03: You can't always eat what you want ... But you still can, for a while 01/10/03: What They Believe For The Moment
12/06/02: Federal Spending: Look At It This Way … And weep
11/15/02: On the radio: What really happens behind the scenes at talk shows
11/08/02: Coming Soon: 1972
10/31/02: The Election Goes Republican: Election 2002 finds Democrats alienating nearly everyone
10/22/02: What if we never catch the terrorist-sniper?
10/04/02: A Few Thoughts On The News
09/27/02: Goodbye To All That: The terrible, wide war that must be fought
09/20/02: The Florida Lesson: We need better voters, not better machines
09/13/02: A few thoughts on the news
09/06/02: Give Them What They Want
08/13/02: The Dangerous Lull on Iraq ... And how today's delay proves why 9/11 had to happen
07/26/02: Where's Honest Debate on Judge Owen?: NOW members should demand better of President Kim Gandy
07/19/02: A Secret No One Can Keep: Why Osama bin Laden is still alive
07/09/02: Don't forget why Bush was elected
06/28/02: The bravest pop culture icon in the war on terror
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06/06/02: Stay Awake, Grads, I'm Almost Done Talking: Life, and How to Live It
05/31/02: See This Movie: "The Sum of All Fears" is a wake-up call
05/24/02: Richard Simmons for President? What really motivates the fat-taxers
05/13/02: The Carnival at the FAIR: "Unbiased" acquires a new definition
04/22/02: Bottled And Sold: Economic Confidence Under a Screw-top
04/12/02: McGovern's Respectful Dissent
04/02/02: The Right to Do Wrong: The Creator, A Clockwork Orange, and war
03/26/02: The Big Story No One Talks About: Why isn't Washington serious about airport security?
03/18/02: Worlds Away: A snapshot of anti-Semitism in the Moslem world
03/08/02: The safest place in the world --- for now
03/05/02: Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others
02/22/02: And Then What?: Fear and Loathing Around the Corner
02/15/02: Al Gore and the real root cause of terrorism
02/08/02: A few thoughts on the news
02/01/02: Ready, Aim, Cloud The Issue: An irresponsible report on "terrorism" from the Brady Center
01/28/02: Discretion and Art, Part 2
01/16/02: Discretion and Art
01/08/02: Desperate Dems
12/18/01: Politics and Holidays
12/07/01: A war bigger than we know: Changing the future, slowly and surely
11/28/01: A Mid-Winter Night's Dream: A play in one fun act
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11/13/01: Guess who Clinton's apologizing for now: I'll bet you guessed right
11/02/01: Rules for Wartime: Rule Number One: Remember what's true
10/26/01: The Moral Case For Torture: Dirty hands don't always mean dirty souls
10/19/01: Questions for the Anti-War Crowd, Part II: What if someone took them seriously?
10/16/01: Questions for the anti-war crowd: If they question you, ask these back
10/12/01: The Jason Problem: Sometimes they only look dead
10/08/01: A little hindsight: A letter for readers in the future
09/28/01: Calling Bono: A plea to the pop culture elite to speak out
09/20/01: Encouragement from the Heartland, by mail
09/13/01: Bleeding time
09/07/01: The trailer-park taste of the public radio catalog
09/04/01: BRAVE NEW FREUD: Internet-based psychiatry may mean relief for those who have shunned treatment
08/17/01: First Amendment: Chickens home to roost
07/27/01: Dispatch From The Front: The Gun Control War
07/20/01: Summer song
07/03/01: It's a Wonderful Recount

© 2001, Michael Long