Man Without Qualities

Friday, July 11, 2003

Davis Descending XII: Demons At The Gate And The Automatic Campaign

According to a new survey by Old Spice Sacramento was ranked only the 72nd sweatiest city in America even with all the perspiring that Gov. Gray Davis and his advisers must be doing over the recall campaign.

We read of perspiratory, ill-conceived schemes such as Davis advisors researching grounds for legal action and saying they might challenge the signature-gathering process in court. Perhaps recall-bankroller-and-likely-candidate Darrell Issa has disguised himself as a Davis advisor just for the purpose of infiltrating the group and promoting that scheme, since one doesn't have to be an "expert" to figure out that If Gov. Gray Davis decided to mount a court challenge ... the best outcome probably would only delay his day of reckoning with California voters and could end up antagonizing them. For the Governor, that should not be a tough cost-benefit calculation. As the saying goes: do the math.

That should leave Davis mounting some kind of "campaign." Yes, where 51% of people polled favor his recall, demonizing every single person who dares to raise his or her head to argue that Governor Davis shouldn't govern anymore is going to take a lot of sweaty, gritty work! No wonder we read that Strategists for Gray Davis conceded Tuesday that a recall election was likely and moved into full campaign mode.

"Full campaign mode?"

That's an interesting thought that warrants a reality check and a bit of history. In reality, the mood of California voters and the future of Governor Davis are now being almost completely determined by the $38 Billion state budget deficit and the state government's failure to fix it. State legislators know that - which is why state Senate Republicans on Thursday presented a package that proposed to close the state's shortfall by using a combination of borrowing and spending cuts and pointedly rejecting tax hikes - where Democrats and the Governor are demanding significant tax increases. Mr. Davis can "campaign" as much as he wants, but "campaigning" is not going to fix the budget or the state's finances -although it might convince some voters that the Governor is too busy "campaigning" - that is, attempting to demonize and antagonize the very legislators whose cooperation he needs to actually do his job. All the maneuvering over the budget on both sides is an "automatic campaign" with the Governor's recall as its focus - the Governor's own nominal full "campaign" will just be marginalia to the automatic one. (One also has to wonder at the effectiveness of a "campaign" if the best spokesman the "campaign" can come up with for leaders of California's business and labor establishment [who] denounced the proposed recall of Gov. Gray Davis as a threat to the state's economy is a geriatric lawyer - Warren Christopher - whose last significant political role was a disastrous turn as Al Gore's unsuccessful attorney in the Florida presidential fiasco (Gore eventually booted him in favor of the overrated David Boise to preside over the final fiasco), which followed Mr. Christopher's earlier disastrous turn Secretary of State under President Clinton and his even more disastrous advance of his protoge Zoe Baird for Clinton Attorney General.)

Even so, any "campaign" will have to be directed at convincing voters that it is legislative Republicans who are to blame for the failure to fix the current budget mess. There is a lot of distracting prattle in the media about who is to "blame" for the deficit, but that is not central to determining how it should be fixed now.

There are at least two major reasons why the Governor is at a big disadvantage in any "campaign" to demonize his legislative Republican tormentors. Most importantly, while a campaign to demonize legislative Republicans will probably drive their approval ratings down, the legislature is not up for election this year or in March 2004. This is not California's first budget deadlock - and history reveals a fairly clear record as to how the electorate will respond to the mess. Governor Wilson and the Democratic-controlled legislature had their own deadlocks - and the approval ratings of both the Governor and the legislators fell precipitously during and immediately after the fighting. But then, within months of the passage of a budget, the effect of those fights had dissipated. If past is prologue, a really big, continuing fight over the budget - complete with whatever "campaign" the Governor mounts - will drive the approval ratings of both the Governor and the legislature to all-time lows.

But only the Governor has to face a recall election before those all-times lows dissipate. If Governor Davis can bring in a budget - any budget - soon enough, he will probably survive the recall. That's why the Republicans won't pass a budget that the Democrats will accept.

Further, no Republican in the legislature is elected by a state-wide vote. So state-wide approval ratings don't in themselves mean much to an individual legislator - but the Governor will live and die by those ratings. Worse for Mr. Davis, Republicans - who now constitute just a little more than one-third of the legislature - have been driven back to their safe districts. That means there are very few "swing" legislative districts in which the Governor can "campaign" to demonize an individual Republican legislator in an attempt to pry him or her loose from Republican discipline. And, as noted above, a demonized Republican legislator will have many months to recover.

It will be even harder for a "campaign" to budge the budget or any fence-sitting Republicans because state Republican legislative leaders have made it clear that any Republican who breaks ranks in the budget show-down will face opposition from the Republican Party in 2004. For most Republican legislator considering breaking ranks, that should not be a tough cost-benefit calculation. As the saying goes: do the math.

All of which makes that Old Spice ranking of Sacramento even more peculiar.

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