Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Davis Descending III: War On The Phantoms

In prior posts, the Man Without Qualities has pointed out that the current recall effort against California Governor Davis creates particular difficulties for him because he, more than most politicians, has always depended on the tactic of demonizing his opponent, where a recall election is not naturally framed as the run against an opponent. As one astute reader put it: Davis's opponent will run under only the name of "Anybody But Davis."

What's a threatened Governor to do?

Well, he must attempt to demonize almost everybody who wants him out of office! What else can he do? As the Los Angeles Times puts it:

With the drive to oust him scrambling the state's political landscape, Gov. Gray Davis is mounting a campaign to shift voters' focus from himself to the Republicans who want to kick him out of office. In a CNN interview on Monday, Davis denounced the recall campaign as "partisan mischief by the right wing."

The Times also reports that Mr. Davis and his aides are well aware of the unusual problems posed by the recall effort:

Davis aides concede privately that he could have a tough time surviving a recall if it is framed as a referendum on the unpopular governor. So, before the recall has even qualified for the ballot, the campaign is shaping up as a struggle between supporters and opponents to define it for voters. Recall sponsors want the battle to be a referendum on the governor; Davis wants it to be a referendum on them — by his telling, Republicans whose conservative politics are too far out of step with mainstream California to prevail in a regular election.

It may work. Mr. Davis' strong card is the broad reluctance to turn an elected official out before he has had a chance to do the full job to which he was elected. Simply put: voters elected Mr. Davis to serve a full term, and they know they did. The recall supporters have to overcome that - but it looks like they have done so, at least for the moment.

But for Mr. Davis to tilt so broadly at his opponents is not likely to have the same effect as demonizing a particular individual - the Davis specialty. Demonizing an individual opponent requires only convincing the voters than the particular opponent is worse than the incumbent. But demonizing an entire recall movement means convincing voters that a widely-held dissatisfaction with the incumbent is unfounded. Yes, Mr. Davis can try to isolate those such as Mr. Issa who have been particularly active in funding the movement, but all that will do is convince people not to vote for Mr. Issa as an alternative. What Mr. Davis must do amounts to convincing voters that he is better than he seems. Mr. Davis has never been good sending such a positive message about himself - that's why he has relied on demonizing his opponent. Moreover, voters have not formed their negative views of Mr. Davis on the basis of anything said or done by Mr. Issa or any other recall proponent. Those views have been formed by the voters individually on the basis of ordinary news reports over a period of years.

Yes, Dianne Feinstein survived a recall vote when she was mayor of San Francisco. But the parallel is flawed:

In that campaign, Feinstein questioned the use of the recall process to challenge an official who was not accused of corruption or incompetence. A fringe group, the White Panthers, had launched the recall drive in anger over her approval of a ban on handguns. Feinstein won more than 80% of the vote.

Here, Mr. Davis' basic problem is that he is widely seen as incompetent - that's a major reason for the recall's success to date. He is also widely seen as rather dishonest - which will make turning public sentiment around even harder for him. Moreover, it's absurd to think that the roots of California's dissatisfaction with Mr. Davis are as shallow as San Francisco's resistance to a ban on handguns.

And the recall effort poses another huge problem for California Democrats and Mr. Davis: If no senior Democrat runs as an alternative, then Mr. Davis' recall automatically makes for a Republican governor. But if any senior Democrat runs as an alternative, then Mr. Davis will have a much harder time demonizing the movement against him, which he probably must do to survive. One might write of this choice what Woody Allen did: "One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

UPDATE: Recall calculations are plenty complicated for Republicans, too, as noted in this Los Angeles Times article, which ends with the following pungent thought:

Some GOP strategists believe White House national security advisor Condoleezza Rice may want to run for governor in 2006. A run by Rice, an African American, would greatly advance Bush's goal of presenting a more diverse face for the GOP. But a Rice candidacy would likely be precluded if another Republican wins the governorship in a recall election.

Arnie or Condi? Arnie or Condi? Arnie or Condi? ....

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