It's getting ugly in California

George Will

9/4/2003 12:00:00 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, trying to assuage conservatives' anxieties about his credentials as one of them, displayed a rare refinement of effrontery when he said, ``You know, I don't believe in spending.'' Just 10 months ago, in his first fling at making social policy by direct democracy, he crusaded successfully for an initiative requiring the expenditure every year of $550 million on before- and after-school programs when the noneducaton budget grows by a certain amount. Schwarzenegger so distrusts what he considers the profligate spenders in the Legislature, his measure bypasses the Legislature, automatically transferring the money from general revenues.

Having intimated that he would finance his own campaign -- he would not be beholden to ``special interests'' because ``I don't need to take money from anyone -- I have plenty of money myself'' -- he quickly solicited $3.1 million from contributors, for starters. He says he is running as an agent of ``change,'' and especially wants to change the regulations that he says are causing the flight of businesses from California. Reversing that flight is pretty much the sum and substance of his answer to California's problems. But asked about two important regulations, the state's minimum wage ($6.75 per hour; $5.15 next door in Nevada) and family leave law, Schwarzenegger says he would not change them.

What does he think about racial preferences? And the pending Proposition 54, which would combat the racial spoils system by preventing the state government from gathering most racial data? Although such issues have roiled California's political waters for years, Schwarzenegger says, ``We haven't gotten into those two issues.''

Well, then, what about vouchers to give parents of poor children the sort of school choice that Mr. and Mrs. Schwarzenegger have exercised in sending their four children to private schools? Schwarzenegger opposes vouchers. That puts him to the left of California's Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who at least supports a voucher program for the District of Columbia.

We shall learn on Oct. 7, recall election day, the effects of Schwarzenegger's attempts at courting conservatives. But it is clear that Schwarzenegger, although from Austria, has an attribute that Matthew Arnold ascribed to -- the 19th century did not know that stereotypes are naughty -- Celtic people: a ``passionate, turbulent, indomitable reaction against the despotism of fact.''

To be fair, that reaction, which is crippling to governance but indispensable to campaigning, governs the campaign of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. He is running to replace Gov. Gray Davis if voters do what Bustamante solemnly insists he does not want them to do -- recall Davis.

Bustamante is telling Californians to brace themselves for ``tough love.'' By that he means he will solve their problems by making taxation of the rich even heavier--in 2000, almost 38 percent of California income taxation was paid by one-third of 1 percent of taxpayers. And by piling more taxes on those businesses that have not yet fled the state. And, oh yes, there will be cheaper gasoline prices when Gov. Bustamante, displaying insouciant disregard for the U.S. Constitution -- it makes the regulation of interstate commerce a federal prerogative -- imposes state regulation on the petroleum industry.

Can the tone of the recall campaign get worse? Just wait. Ken Khachigian, a veteran Republican strategist, warns that Schwarzenegger should brace himself for what has become the Democrats' trademark tactic. In football it is penalized as a ``late hit,'' but in politics it is often rewarded with success.

George W. Bush received such a hit in the final weekend of the 2000 campaign -- the revelation of his drunk driving arrest 24 years earlier. That probably contributed to an unusual development: Late-deciding voters, who usually break against the incumbent party, broke for Vice President Gore in 2000.

California Republicans have experienced late hits three times in the last 11 years. In 1992, Bruce Herschensohn narrowly lost a Senate race against Barbara Boxer when it was revealed on the Friday before the election that he and his girlfriend and another couple had visited a strip club. In 1994, Michael Huffington narrowly lost a Senate race against Feinstein when, a few days before the election, it was revealed that he had hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. In 1998, Darrell Issa -- he is now a congressmen; his $1.6 million funding of the recall petition drive produced this recall election -- lost a Senate primary when it was revealed that he had embellished his military record.

A late hit by the Davis campaign against Schwarzenegger cannot come so late that there is no time for another such hit, one against Davis' other problem, Bustamante. This could get even uglier.