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Jewish World Review August 11, 2003 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5763

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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California's action hero |
Arnold Schwarzenegger's entry into the governor's race, announced on the Tonight Show, makes it likely that he will be elected governor of California in the two-step recall election October 7. Voters will first decide whether to recall Democratic incumbent Gray Davis; recent polls show 60 percent voting for recall. Then voters will choose among candidates who have put their names on the ballot; the one with a plurality wins. Schwarzenegger is far better positioned than any other candidate to win. He has celebrity and political experience, having campaigned for his ballot proposition for after-school programs in 2002.

And he has perfect political pitch, as he showed in talking with Jay Leno and to reporters afterward. He has the advice of the consultants who helped Pete Wilson win two gubernatorial races in the 1990s by carefully sticking to message in the brief sound bites and ads that are the only windows through which candidates can appeal to voters.

Gray Davis may try to survive by negative campaigning. He has always won by raising huge amounts of money and by either getting serious competitors not to run or disqualifying them by negative ads. But voters are likely to ignore the dirt Davis's aides have threatened to throw. Davis now has negatives that voters know about--the $38 billion budget deficit, high electricity costs resulting from the electricity crisis, the 30 percent pay increase for prison guards whose union has given Davis's campaigns $2.6 million. Schwarzenegger knows how to make his point. "California has been run now by special interests," he told reporters. "I will go to Sacramento and clean house. I will change that. As you know, I don't need to take any money from anybody. I have plenty of money myself. I will make decisions for the people."

This is written before the August 9 filing deadline, and Democrats still might try to get Sen. Dianne Feinstein to change her mind and run. But no one else seems a threat to Schwarzenegger. As a Republican who supports abortion and gay rights, he might have trouble in a Republican primary. But conservative Republican votes seem likely to be split between 2002 nominee Bill Simon and state legislator Tom McClintock. Peter Ueberroth did a great job organizing the 1984 Olympics, but he's not a household name today. Davis's strategy of getting other Democrats not to file has failed, as Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi have announced they'll run; newly leftish columnist Arianna Huffington is running too.

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What would a Schwarzenegger victory mean nationally?

It would reshape the Republicans' image. Republicans have become a minority in California because of their conservative stands on cultural issues and because they have turned off Latinos. Schwarzenegger, who would be eligible to run again in 2006 and 2010, gives them a different image. And Schwarzenegger is an immigrant. "What gave me the opportunities, what made me be able to be here today, is the open arms of Americans," he told reporters. "And that's what I what everyone to be able to do." Schwarzenegger won't be able to deliver California's 55 electoral votes to George W. Bush; no California governor has a machine that can do that. But he can create an environment in which Bush could seriously contest the state.

It would show the weakness of "third way" Democrats. For most of his time as governor, Gray Davis took moderate stands, vetoing many bills passed by the liberal Democratic legislature. This enabled him to win by a landslide in 1998 and to be re-elected in 2002 despite the electricity mess. But third-way governance left him without loyal political allies and without a strong base in public support. Third-way politics is like a chemical compound that is strong when it holds together but that is unstable and can rapidly decompose.

It would not mean that voters nationally are itching to throw the bums out. California voters are unhappy with Sacramento politicians, but voters nationally give rather good ratings to George W. Bush and incumbents in Congress. There is not the kind of unrest that enabled Ross Perot to lead in polls in spring 1992. Schwarzenegger may be a political earthquake in California in 2003 but not a forerunner of what will happen in America in 2004.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone