Wacky California Republicans

August 25, 2003

Trevor Matich


Oh, those wacky California Republicans!  They have surpassed Madonna as our reigning masters of self-reinvention.  Whereas Madonna transformed herself from virginal boy-toy to outright hussy to author of children's books, our lovable California Republicans have transformed themselves from Reaganesque powerhouses to window dressing to the Gang Who Can't Shoot Straight.

California is in a fiscal funk.  It has a budget deficit of $40 billion, its people endure one of the highest state tax burdens in the country, and its businesses are saddled with some of the most intrusive environmental and labor regulations of any state.

Rightly or wrongly, Californians have blamed Governor Gray Davis for the abysmal state of State affairs.  Many believe that he deceived them, hiding the true nature of the budget crisis until after his 2002 re-election.

In order to bring the deficit under control, programs will be cut and taxes will be raised.  With every budget cut and every new tax, those affected will loudly blame Governor Davis, and by extension, state Democrats.

For the Republicans, it's hard to imagine a more perfect scenario:  Three years of slow torture and voter blame for the Democrats, and then an election in which the GOP is poised to win the governor's office and make major gains in the legislature.  Vindication is nigh; victory looms.  

Not so fast.  Enter Republican State Congressman Darrell Issa.

It is Issa's dream to become governor.  In the current backlash against Davis, he saw an opportunity to realize his personal ambition.  So he financed the recall petition effort with $1.6 million of his own money.  

As it happens, Issa will not become governor; he dropped out of the race when Arnold Schwarzenegger entered and dominated the polls.  But it does appear that he has succeeded in the unintended consequence of torpedoing his own party.

In this recall election, the three most likely outcomes are all negative for Republicans.   How about we do what Darrell Issa apparently didn't do, and take a look at each of those possible outcomes.

Possibility one:  The recall fails, and Davis remains governor.

This would be spun as vindication not only of Democrat policies (which voters had previously blamed for most of the budget problems), but also of Gray Davis himself.  He would be portrayed as the victorious defender of the California Constitution, defeating a right-wing attempt to undo the re-election of a brilliant and handsome governor.  

Hardship caused to specific constituencies from austere measures to lower the deficit would then be seen as validated by the voters and therefore not Davis' fault.

Possibility two:  The recall succeeds, and current Democratic Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante becomes governor.

This will be spun as voter rejection of Republican policies, vindication of Democrat policies, and just a matter of personalities when it comes to which victorious Democrat sits in the executive's chair.

Possibility three:  The recall succeeds, and a Republican candidate becomes governor.  

This still leaves a Democrat super-majority in the legislature that would have a massive interest in the failure of the new Republican governor.  They would obstruct policies that would make the new executive look good to voters -- as would likely be the case if the roles were reversed.

In addition, the new executive would be charged with reducing the $40 billion deficit.  With every budget cut, the Democrats would surround themselves with those affected for photo-ops illustrating the indifference of the heartless Republican Governor.  With every new fee and tax, the Democrats would paint Republicans as the party of tax increases.

The Republicans ought to have remembered this has been recent political strategy.  In the mid-1990s, President Clinton submitted budgets that were consistently around $200 billion in the red.  The Republican Congress would make cuts necessary to bring the numbers into balance.  Clinton would then blame Republicans for the effects of the spending cuts, while taking credit for the fact that the final budget was balanced. 

Leaving Gray Davis in Sacramento through the 2006 election exposes him and his party to voter backlash, and to three more years of shrill attacks by talk radio and other media that have uncharacteristically turned against them.  A Republican "victory" in the election exposes themselves to blame for the pain of remedies for the state's problems.  

So what do Issa's troops do?  They rescue their rivals from a difficult situation.  Whether or not the recall succeeds, whether or not a Republican becomes governor in its wake, Issa's ambition may well have saved state Democrats at all levels from the likely ravages of voter backlash.

Brilliant strategy.  Just brilliant.  Darrell, next time keep your candle under a bushel, would ya?

We haven't seen such an example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory since Mike Tyson bit the ear off of Evander Holyfield.

Darrell Issa wept when he announced that he was dropping out of the governor's race in the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger's entry; his dream was over.  He should have wept not for himself, but for the harm to which he has exposed his party.




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