- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The recall of California Gov. Gray Davis was seismic — even in earthquake-prone California. That’s because the voters, not just Republicans, but many independents and at least a third of Democrats, wanted reform. It was not exactly clear precisely what they wanted, but two years ago they were in a “throw the rascals out” mood.

Enter Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. His first mistake was to believe his election was only a personal triumph, rather than a repudiation of Mr. Davis. Worse, he underestimated voter revulsion at the way Mr. Davis raised money. Mr. Davis was seen as a shakedown artist who sold out to the highest bidder. Yet, Mr. Schwarzenegger wasted no time in raising money from the usual suspects. One reason was that Mr. Schwarzenegger’s fundraisers-on-commission had their own motivation. So did his campaign team, whose members disagreed on nearly everything except the need for a permanent campaign. (Even now, after his humiliating defeat, he is off to China on a trip whose origins and funding will call into question his stature.)

Mr. Schwarzenegger pushed for the special election because he finally thought it was time for confrontation. If Democratic legislators would not agree to reforms, he would go to the people. The problem is that voters do not readily acquiesce to the burden of proof for a special election. At no time did a majority of voters enthuse about it.

After Mr. Davis was ousted, Democrats in Sacramento feared Mr. Schwarzenegger, an intelligent man who is an intuitively gifted communicator. But he soon showed he was no strategist. After all, his quick victory as the governor of the nation’s most powerful state provided him with a rare window of opportunity. Voters felt the state had spent beyond its means. They trusted this political newcomer. But what did he do? He worked with Democrats to persuade voters to pass a $15 billion borrowing scheme, without any significant fiscal reform. This was the “bipartisan” Mr. Schwarzenegger. (Will he now become bipartisan again?)

Although Mr. Schwarzenegger raised education spending, he violated an impractical agreement with the teachers union that set the stage for a destructive attack on his credibility. He made many other mistakes. For example, he properly realized the need to address the spiraling cost of public pensions. But he proposed an initiative so clumsy that it also eliminated benefits for widows and orphans of cops and firefighters killed on the job. He looked incompetent. People assumed his other propositions were also flawed.

Early on, then, he clearly was in no shape to be chief salesman. Another mistake was to join his propositions with Proposition 75, the so-called “paycheck protection” initiative for union member approval of union money for campaigns. This measure was a near-certain winner, until Gov. Schwarzenegger endorsed it. It lost 52-to-48. Another casualty was Proposition 73, parental notification for abortion.

For many voters, Mr. Schwarzenegger was seen as a control freak who wanted to short-circuit the legislative process with ballot initiatives and with redrawing district lines. His “kick butt” comment to government nurses was replayed in a devastating television spot. Throughout this process, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s courtiers engaged cognitive dissonance with him, and with his supporters.

But on election night Mr. Schwarzenegger was impressive and gracious, and he can yet win re-election. He is an intelligent man who must realize that he never should have pursued this special election. Nothing will change the fact that Proposition 76, the state-spending and school-funding-limits measure for which the special election was intended, could not win. And his advisers dismissed early public surveys that indicated the futility of a special election. They argued their polls “explained” the measure.

Mr. Schwarzenegger gave nearly $8 million (presumably not from community property) for a campaign doomed from the start. Is he just a positive thinker, or has he lifted so many weights he’s delusional? Or (more likely) was he the victim of bad advice? With his net worth, he probably didn’t have to cash in his IRA. But, you can bet he’s asking some hard questions.

As is the tradition in California, major Republican donors were fed polls that were spun. Typically, a bogus voter-turnout model is created to encourage optimism. Now that it’s over, Mr. Schwarzenegger’s spinners will look at results nationally and say it was a bad year for Republicans. But the California Republican Party and the Schwarzenegger team showed great competence in generating absentee-ballot applications and “chasing” them. That vote-by-mail effort effectively tweaked voter turnout in Mr. Schwarzenegger’s favor. That’s why Tuesday’s numbers were a best case.

It’s true that unions outspent Mr. Schwarzenegger on television, but that hardly mattered. Given the massive media buys, voters largely ignored the ubiquitous ads from both sides. Still, the governor’s fundraisers urged donors to fund even more repetition, but the ads had little effect.

Although published polls showed no progress, the campaign’s”internals”always seemed, we were told, to show movement. Conservative Web sites and right-wing radio were treated to leaked numbers that contrasted with the “biased” liberal polls. But how could you explain why the liberal Los Angeles Times would have an anti-Arnold agenda for its poll? After all, the newspaper endorsed three of his four ballot propositions.

But, how then could Tuesday’s blowout loss be explained? Alibis include that wonderful stand-by voter turnout, but the Republicans did extraordinarily well in voting by mail. Otherwise, the results would have been even worse. And, remember, voter turnout was the very same explanation for why a special election was desirable, and why the “internal tracking” was accurate, compared to the media polls that supposedly failed to interview the people who would vote. People like June and Ward Cleaver.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.

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