Doug Gamble- Contributor
Gamble is a former writer for President Ronald Reagan and
in Carmel. [go to Gamble index]
At least so far, state party at a loss in trying to counter a cunning governor
[Doug Gamble] 1/21/04
life can be brutal. It's a life of peril and pitfalls where
even years of success can't prevent a plunge from the
penthouse to the basement. At least that's what I was told
in Los Angeles the other day by my taxi driver, Gray Davis.
That may be a joke, but it reflects how much things have changed
over the past year for the California Democratic Party. Last
January, it was in chest-thumping mode after sweeping all statewide
offices in the 2002 elections and seemingly relegating the bumbling,
demoralized Republicans to the wilderness for years to come.
The Democrats still hold every statewide office but one and
remain in control of the Legislature, but now they are the ones
who seem to be lost in the jungle without a machete, thanks to
Arnold Schwarzenegger's sea-change win in the recall election.
To rub salt in the wound, the onetime laughing-stock California
GOP came out on top in fund raising last year, attracting $6
million more than a Democratic Party that holds a large advantage
of how much things have changed can be seen in the only name
speaker the contentious Democratic convention
in San Jose attracted from out of state this past weekend - presidential
candidate Dennis Kucinich, the congressman from "Star Trek," reflecting
the extreme left wing of the party. Some other speakers represented
a rearview mirror on yesterday, including the humiliated ex-governor
Davis, and outgoing Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and Senate President
John Burton, who are both being whistled to the sidelines this
fall by term limits.
The convention was the first opportunity since last October's
voter revolt for the Democrats to consider, as the song says,
what condition their condition is in. A realistic assessment
would indicate they're in deep trouble if they think business
as usual, such as trying to demonize their opponent, will win
back the governor's office in 2006 - and if they don't come up
with some way to counter the Schwarzenegger magic.
Democrats will first have to figure out who they are, in the
type of soul-searching that previously embroiled state Republicans
in a tug of war between moderates and conservatives that was
put to rest, at least temporarily, by Schwarzenegger's victory.
The Democrats are currently split between factions led by state
Controller Steve Westly and Treasurer Phil Angelides, with Westly
backing most of Schwarzenegger's fiscal initiatives, including
a role co-chairing the campaign in favor of the controversial
$15 billion bond measure, and Angelides attacking the governor's
economic policies at every opportunity.
The longer the Democrats are seen as not having a clear, unified
message - and the Schwarzenegger camp was shrewd in co-opting
Westly - the more difficult it will be for them to mount an effective
But their biggest obstacle is Schwarzenegger himself, who is
unlike any opponent California Democrats have had to face, including
Ronald Reagan. While he dominated the Sacramento political stage
with his charisma and communications skills, Reagan proved more
conventional in his tactics than the unpredictable Schwarzenegger.
If Reagan was the citizen politician, Schwarzenegger is the unpolitician.
From the moment he shocked even his own advisers by telling
Jay Leno's audience that he was in the governor's race after
signaling he wouldn't be, Schwarzenegger has utilized tactics
aimed at keeping his opponents off-balance. If he believes the
Democrats are devising a strategy based on him zigging, he'll
zag, and vice versa. Beyond his star power, he has an intuition
and cunning that defies the normal rhythms of political logic,
which is probably why his bond measure will pass in March despite
currently trailing in the polls.
The weekend convention showed that California Democrats know
the way to San Jose. Yet unanswered is whether they know the
way to solve the Schwarzenegger puzzle.
2004 Doug Gamble