On the first morning of the state Democratic convention in April, a room full of delegates brought together by the California Labor Federation got a tasty extra with their standard hotel ballroom breakfast. State Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides stood before them, and after a heroic introduction from US Representative Nancy Pelosi, he proceeded to dish out industrial-sized portions of just the sort of fare for which hungry and disappointed Democratic activists from coast to coast have been longing. Here was a fighting, unrepentant Dem. “If we do this right, if we stand up for working men and women, if we stand up for the Democratic principles of fairness that built this country,” said the tall, wonkish-looking 52-year-old candidate, his voice rising, his right hand churning the air with every syllable, “if we campaign with passion and principle, then come November of this year we are going to drive Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the Statehouse!”
After the thunderclaps of applause, Angelides–who has been campaigning as an unabashed liberal–moved on to the rhetorical dessert. “After thirty years of assault from the right,” he told the labor delegates, “we’re going to go back on the offensive and we’re going to have a government on the side of hardworking men and women, and California is going to be a model.”
When Angelides addressed the entire convention floor later in the day, greeted by a fluttering sea of blue-and-gold Angelides for Governor placards, he struck the same passionate, populist note. And after his opponent, State Controller Steve Westly, made his own pitch promising to unseat “the wrong man with the wrong plan” currently occupying the governor’s chair, the delegates handed the official party endorsement to Angelides. And by an impressive 68-27 percent margin. That blowout vote was a certain indicator that Angelides’s progressive posture, his repeated denunciations of “wobbly-kneed Democrats” and his thinly veiled references to his opponent as being “Arnold-lite” had lit a fire among the party delegates.
But now, on the eve of California’s June 6 primary, neither candidate’s campaign has succeeded in mobilizing or inspiring much of the Democratic grassroots. And though Governor Schwarzenegger was handed a crushing defeat last fall when his slate of reform propositions was voted down [see Cooper, “Is the Terminator in Free-Fall?” October 31, 2005], and though the favorability ratings of the President he campaigned for have dipped near the freezing point, most political observers in this biggest and bluest of blue states still figure that Arnold’s the favorite for re-election in the fall.
Indeed, the current predicament of California Democrats raises serious questions on a national scale as the midterm elections draw nearer and as the presidential run for 2008 comes into focus. The California governor’s race tests the competing strategies of Democrats running to the left and to the center; it spotlights the uncomfortable truth that the plummeting popularity of one party doesn’t automatically translate into support for the other; and it highlights what is often the strange hollowness of modern American political campaigning.