Los Angeles

The people of California have spoken. And by shouting out the two words “Governor Schwarzenegger” they have set off one more political earthquake, whose vibrations are sure to be felt from Sacramento to Washington, DC. Turning out in much higher numbers than for last fall’s general election, and often after waiting for more than ninety minutes to cast their ballots, a double-digit majority voted to yank Gray Davis from the Statehouse and replace him with the Austrian-born Terminator.

For two decades, the dour Davis built a successful political career by making himself a bit less unpalatable than the other guy–until now. The energy crisis, a black hole budget deficit, a tripling of the car tax, education cuts, 30-40 percent tuition hikes and a money-for-influence ethic that showcased political backscratching rather than leadership drove Davis’s popularity ratings down into the Yeltsin-like mid-20s.

Too many liberal and progressive activists misjudged the recall revolt and wound up on the wrong side of a populist tsunami. Instead of validating the raw voter anger and deep dissatisfaction that fueled the anti-Davis backlash, they discounted the recall as an illegitimate GOP “power grab.” That theory was soundly rebuked by the sheer numbers. Schwarzenegger received more votes than those cast against the recall, and by the time all the ballots are counted he’ll get more votes than Davis did in his narrow re-election last November.

Nor did a strategic chunk of the traditional Democratic base buy their leaders’ warnings that the recall was Florida redux. Democrats make up 44 percent of the state’s registered voters but accounted for only 38 percent of Tuesday’s votes. One in four Democrats voted to sack Davis. And ignoring a $10 million pro-Davis push by the state labor leadership, half of union households voted to oust the governor, as did nearly half of Latino voters and almost 30 percent of blacks. Forty-two percent of the gay and lesbian vote favored recall, as did 24 percent of self-described liberals. Headlines about Schwarzenegger’s alleged groping didn’t deter 43 percent of women from voting for him, compared with 36 percent for the listless Democrat Cruz Bustamante (no doubt, Democratic apologies for Bill Clinton’s sex scandals paved the way for a collective Big Shrug over Arnold’s sins).

But mostly, Democrats have to ask themselves how it’s possible that the Republican Schwarzenegger–who took in $10 million in corporate contributions–was able to claim the populist mantle of slayer of special interests. Why, on the closing weekend of the campaign, did 10,000 Schwarzenegger supporters, rather than a legion of reformers and progressives, surround the lobbyist-infested state capitol? There are 78 million answers–one for each dollar in contributions raised by Davis in his last campaign. Therein lies a cautionary tale for Democrats and progressives–the price of wedding themselves to the poster boy of big-money politics, Gray Davis, was too high. With all his obvious flaws and hypocrisies, Arnold Schwarzenegger just looked better, and cleaner.

Republicans might also take a few lessons from the triumph of the Terminator. Schwarzenegger’s socially moderate, pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-education positions allowed him a much broader appeal than the previous two, failed, ultraconservative GOP gubernatorial candidates. The rise of Arnold could potentially drag the Neanderthal wing of the California Republican Party closer to the state’s majority sensibilities. Nor should the Bushies develop too many illusions about Arnold’s significance: Bush’s prospects of winning Democrat-heavy California next year, even with Arnold in the governor’s mansion, remain slim to none.

Further, California’s voter revolt has implications way beyond the person of Gray Davis. The more astute Republican analysts have already acknowledged its decidedly anti-incumbent tinge. Said Allan Hoffenblum, a moderate GOP strategist, “If Californians had the constitutional right to recall all 120 members of the state legislature they probably would have done that too.”