“Change is the order of the day,” Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown declared after California voters recalled Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brown is right. Conservative commentators were spinning like crazy to make the election of the socially liberal Schwarzenegger–by voters who also rejected the affirmative action-baiting Proposition 54–a win for their brand of Republicanism. But this was no traditional Democrat-versus-Republican fight. Most California voters told exit pollsters they think Schwarzenegger did not fully address the issues, but they figured he was an outsider and a moderate and they were mad enough about the economy to roll the dice on a self-proclaimed reformer.
Most Californians thought they were engaging in the classic political act of throwing the bums out. Gray Davis was a limp bureaucrat who secured the governorship of the nation’s most populous state by grabbing special-interest money and running campaigns so crudely negative that even Democrats balked. He governed accordingly, sacrificing principle and the public interest in favor of pay-to-play politics and self-serving pragmatism. It is a measure of California’s discomfort with the abuse of the recall option that millions of voters who opposed Davis voted to keep him as governor. But Davis was always a poor vehicle for progressive aspirations and susceptible to defeat by a political newcomer who promised something akin to reform.
Schwarzenegger’s election was not the product of direct democracy, driven by grassroots organizing and a real program for reform. It turned on the faux populism of celebrity. It was frothy, shallow, media-driven and featured politics as entertainment. Schwarzenegger played the role of reformer well enough to tap into “this longing for real change,” said Arianna Huffington, who saw through his act, as will most Californians. Schwarzenegger’s campaign was slathered with special-interest contributions. His ties to the energy corporations–including a meeting with Enron’s Ken Lay–should inspire skepticism about whether politics-as-usual lost on October 7 or just got a new face.
No wonder the Bush White House is still trying to figure out the revolution in the West. Before, California was a bankrupt state run by a Democrat. Now, it’s going to be a bankrupt state run by a Republican. Schwarzenegger is about to learn that it is mathematically impossible to balance the budget while keeping his promises to hold the line on taxes and maintain education funding. And the charges of sexual misconduct that surfaced at the end of the campaign–rather than at the beginning, when they might have undermined his appeal to the Republican base and independents–could yet exact a toll. So there are no guarantees that Schwarzenegger will be more help to Bush in 2004 than the Republican governors of New York, Massachusetts and Illinois were in 2000, when Bush lost those states.
What the Bush team should really fear, however, is that more than 80 percent of voters polled Tuesday said the state’s economy was in a bad way. Economic unrest is not confined to California. Don’t doubt that anger with inept, special-interest-drenched politicians who run up huge deficits could go national. Indeed, if voters get in the habit of throwing the bums out, they might just toss out the Bum in Chief.