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Analysis: Voters in a state of change

An invasion of armies can be resisted, the saying goes, but not an idea whose time has come.

For millions of Californians who stomped to the polls Tuesday, the idea was change. And nothing — not political inexperience, not vague answers to issues, not a spate of sexual misconduct allegations — seemed to matter.

The smashing victory of Arnold Schwarzenegger, just 62 days after his campaign debut, and the ouster of Gov. Gray Davis, a 30-year political lifer, was a starkly personal repudiation of the icy incumbent, as direct and bracing as a slap to the face.

But it was also much more. It was a slap at the status quo, at Sacramento, at business as usual, at the political and media establishments of California.

"For the people to win, politics as usual must lose," an exultant Schwarzenegger said in claining victory last night in Century City.

Throughout the recall race, Davis and his supporters used fear as a weapon, brandishing their warnings like a stick. They spoke of democracy unraveling, of the uncertainty and the danger of handing the nation's most populous state to an untested newcomer — an actor no less. On election day, the voters of California snatched away that stick and snapped it in half.

"What they wanted to change was the way things are done," said Don Sipple, the impresario of the Republican's campaign advertising. "Arnold Schwarzenegger is the epitome of the agenda of change."

Remarkably, the Democratic incumbent managed to get himself fired in a state that remains solidly Democratic, in both political registration and cultural values. Indeed, a good number of voters in both parties agreed with his stance on a good many issues.

But most of those issues, such as abortion, gay rights and gun control, failed to influence voters the way they did when Davis won his first term in 1998, or again when he ran for reelection last year. Tough economic times saw to that. Davis, with his relentless fund-raising, became the epitome of what so many people hate about politicians.

He had the nerve to seek a $1-million campaign contribution in the governor's office, hitting up an education lobbyist while raising money to seek a second term. But at the same time, Davis also suffered a strange lack of self-confidence. He decided against running for reelection on a positive agenda, aides say, because he was convinced people would not believe him when he touted his accomplishments.

The result was "a negative atmosphere through all of 2002," said David Binder, a San Francisco-based Democratic pollster. The attacks worked against two weak Republican opponents, Richard Riordan and Bill Simon Jr., but sowed the bitterness Davis reaped in the recall vote.

Even then, with his political life on the line, "It was only in the last couple of weeks that [Davis] began pointing out positive acts — environmentally cutting-edge legislation, raising the minimum wage — that most people would have applauded, swing voters as well as the Democratic base," Binder said.

By that point, ravaged by accusations that he had mismanaged the state, Davis had lost just about all of his credibility.

But Davis' biggest problem may have been his standoffish personality, which many Californians simply didn't like.

"You have the same trends that are facing probably 48 governors in the country that blew a hole in the budget and caused other economic problems," said Roy Behr, a Democratic strategist who sat out the recall election. "Because Gray had no personal capital to work with, he had no cushion to fall back on."

Democrats would be foolhardy, though, to pin the blame on Davis alone; the results Tuesday appeared nothing less than an attack on the entire, Democrat-dominated Sacramento political establishment.

And Republicans would be wise to pay heed as well, said Dan Schnur, a GOP strategist whose candidate, independent Peter V. Ueberroth, dropped out halfway through the recall race.

"If the leaders of both parties assume that this was all about Gray Davis and that business as usual on their part is just fine, they're going to end up in the voters' crosshairs themselves in very short order," Schnur said.

"The recall was about the budget, and the car tax, and the energy crisis and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants," he went on, as if reading from Davis' political autopsy report. "But most of all it's about voters who want someone to listen to them."

Schnur said the message — more a primal scream — is: "Stop this partisanship, stop this gamesmanship and listen to us."

But what the voters seem to want and what is achievable may not square. Low taxes and a high level of public services are ideals, not necessarily a sustainable way to run the state.

But Schwarzenegger promised both in his blue-sky campaign, vowing to improve public education while cutting taxes, starting with the hugely unpopular vehicle license fee. Rolling back the recent boost in the "car tax," which he promised his first day in office, would add $4 billion to an existing $8-billion shortfall.

There were few other specifics, however, meaning Schwarzenegger laid little of the political groundwork he may need when he takes office. Indeed, at one point in the campaign, he belittled the need for specifics.

"Everyone is talking about the details," he said. "Details, details, details. Sacramento is filled with warehouses of details. But the thing they are lacking is leadership. The thing that Sacramento is lacking is backbone."

His muscular pronouncements resonated with voters and may have helped him avoid tough choices on the campaign trail. But they hardly make for much of a mandate now that he prepares to take office and all the burdens — and expectations — become his responsibility.

Perhaps most critically, Schwarzenegger never said during the campaign how he planned to fill the state's looming budget gap, suggesting he could solve the state's problems through sheer force of personality. Strategists in both parties believe he will ultimately have to raise taxes, the way fellow Republicans Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson did as governor, after saying the state they inherited was in much worse shape than they ever imagined.

That could drive a wedge in Schwarzenegger's Republican Party base, the way serious spending cuts would likely engender outrage among the Democrats, who still control both houses of the Legislature.

After such a bitter, polarizing contest, the Schwarzenegger honeymoon is likely to be brief. Privately, some within his campaign admit that governing will be a lot harder than winning the governorship, even with all the bumps at the end.

At the least, after years of futility and frustration, Republicans can take heart in the party's rapid change of fortunes.

In romping to victory, Schwarzenegger did a remarkable job rallying disparate parts of the famously fractious California GOP. As someone who supports legalized abortion, gun control, gay rights and who lived a Hollywood lifestyle that, by his own admission, was rowdier than most, Schwarzenegger is hardly a Republican from Central Casting. The fact so many conservatives flocked to his side — even with their political soul mate, state Sen. Tom McClintock, in the race — is a testament to how desperately the party wanted to win.

Others were also willing to give Schwarzenegger a pass, on substantive matters like the budget as well as the sexual misconduct allegations that arose in the final days of the contest. Alternating between contrition and condemnation of the Los Angeles Times for printing the charges, Schwarzenegger promised an explanation — along with his budget blueprint — after the vote.

Polls conducted by his campaign, as well as others, showed the recall race tightening over the weekend.

In the end, however, a profound desire for change seemed to override any concerns. The charges cast a brief shadow over the man who once reigned as the film industry's most bankable star. But as Schnur put it, "They made up their minds about Gray Davis a long time ago."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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