A Democratic debacle

Robert Novak

10/9/2003 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide victory in the California recall, an election treated as a ludicrous aberration by the bipartisan political establishment, could exert overriding political significance nationally.

California instantly is in question as a solid electoral anchor of Democratic presidential strength. Without California, chances of defeating George W. Bush next year are nil. Short of that transforming development, the tawdry performance by Democrats in the brief recall campaign creates anxiety among thoughtful party loyalists outside California who looked askance at tactics used in the country's most populous state.

For weeks, California Democrats have been confiding to me that the recall of Gov. Gray Davis was inevitable and the election of the popular actor was probable. Yet, Davis's inner circle and the state party leadership could think only of personal attacks on Schwarzenegger to avoid a Democratic debacle.

The decisive element of the recall election was the breaking of a vicious cycle that seemed to doom the California Republican Party to perpetual defeat. The model was the 2002 GOP primary for governor, where the party's conservative base rejected two candidates who could have defeated an unpopular Davis and nominated one who could not.

California never has been solidly conservative, and its electorate is less conservative than ever. Even Ronald Reagan as governor signed a bill to legalize abortion and was open-minded on homosexual rights. The decline of Caucasian voters into minority status and the continuing influx of Latinos created Democratic pretensions of inviolability and sent Republicans into a slough of despair.

The recall mechanism resolved the Republican dilemma by effectively nominating a candidate without a primary election. Schwarzenegger, who as a young body builder wore a Milton Friedman "Free to Choose" T-shirt during workouts, came across to voters as an economic libertarian conservative who is pro-choice and pro-gay rights. That model spells big trouble for Democrats.

One prominent Democrat with extensive experience in California campaigns is worried on two counts. First is the potential creation of a moderate California Republican Party. Second is the vicious effort to destroy Schwarzenegger personally.

Those eleventh hour attacks cannot be laid at the door of the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times as Democratic leaders now seek to do. As soon as petitions for the recall were distributed, Democratic operatives were whispering to me about bundles of dirty linen in Arnold's closest. Everybody knew what Bob Mulholland, the poison-tongued state Democratic Party spokesman, was talking about when he predicted that Schwarzenegger would be facing "real bullets" in the campaign.

Apart from mourning the loss of the governor's office, Democrats have to consider the angry, bitter and ultimately failed campaign. Predictably, Davis in the last week was calling for criminal prosecution of Schwarzenegger based on mainly anonymous accusations of sexual misbehavior on which the one-year statute of limitations had expired. The bitter posturing of State Democratic Chairman Art Torres was sickening to many loyal Democrats.

Leading up to Tuesday's balloting, the California Democrats looked like an over-confident majority. Ending up with the feckless Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as the only alternative to Davis and Schwarzenegger was an illustration of politics by the absent-minded. Sacramento lobbyist Ritchie Ross, running Bustamante's campaign, sunk his candidate's chances when millions were accepted from Indian tribal gambling interests.

During a California reporting trip in June, I became convinced that Davis would not survive the recall. After a second visit last month, I felt Schwarzenegger would win even with conservative State Sen. Tom McClintock making it a three-way race. Pro-Arnold emotion shown at the state Republican convention Sept. 12-13 indicated that the party faithful wanted a victory more than ideological purity. For once in California, the Republicans were the pragmatists.

All this happened with the political establishment -- including the Bush White House -- as an uneasy bystander. The instruments of direct citizen participation that were devised early in the 20th century by such progressives as California's Hiram Johnson always have been hated by the professional politicians. The passage of Proposition 13 property tax reduction in the state in 1978 and the recall of Gray Davis worked just as Johnson envisioned. The benefits that may be bestowed on the Republican Party constitute a major side effect.