Democratic Joy at Schwarzenegger’s Fall is Premature

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Stinging

was the adjective favored by New York Times headline writers to
describe, in separate articles, the

rebuke

and

defeat

suffered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the polls Tuesday.
“Stinging” was the adjective favored by New York Times headline writers to describe, in separate articles, the “rebuke” and “defeat” suffered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the polls Tuesday.

If we’d used butterfly ballots, I’d be reaching for an analogy between the voters and Mohammed Ali. I think I just did.

The press, and Democrats, seemed just a bit too giddy over the results. According to their post-election wisdom, the combative Schwarzenegger led with his chin, his agenda defeated by hubris and poor political judgment. That’s not wrong, but it’s only part of the story.

The cascade of no votes was as much a repudiation of Sacramento as it was of Schwarzenegger personally. If voters had truly meant only to rebuke Schwarzenegger, they might have deep-sixed his four agenda initiatives but passed one of the other propositions.

Take Proposition 73, not one of Schwarzenegger’s reform initiatives. A month ago his approval rating had gone as low as it was going to go. Yet at the time support for this initiative, which would have required parental notification of a minor’s abortion, enjoyed a healthy lead in the polls.

Support for Prop. 73 tanked not only because a majority decided it was dangerous for vulnerable girls. It was swamped by the same frustration with government that defeated the other seven.

After state elections every year for four years running, voters were tired of being asked to weigh in on every damn thing. In one interview after another, they expressed fatigue with dysfunctional government. “Isn’t this what we elect representatives for?” they asked. So they declared a pox on both houses. Siding with cops, teachers and firefighters in the process only made the choice easier.

In that sense, the election was as much a vote for republicanism, for representative Democracy, as it was a vote against a Republican. At the same time, if the message was “we’re fed up with Arnold,” it wasn’t “we trust Democrats.” If a reform agenda had been put forward by the Legislature instead of the governor, the result would likely have been the same.

Tired of being treated like parents asked to settle yet another fight, voters rejected both the Mommy party and the Daddy party.

Each side has acknowledged this, rushing to be seen as the one most willing to roll up its sleeves and get back to doing the people’s business.

But with the 2006 election now unofficially underway, that attitude won’t last. The “I’ll be back” governor will be hobbled by the ball and chain of a Republican Party increasingly viewed as corrupt and incompetent.

Despite all the Republicans’ trouble, Democratic satisfaction with these election results is premature, because there was a message for them as well. It begins with the realization that in most places, the political status quo prevailed.

Democrats won competitive governor races in New Jersey and Virginia, but they were offices the party already occupied. President Bush may have taken a lump in Virginia for not being able to deliver a win for his party in a red state, but incumbency would have made a Democratic loss as much of a negative as winning was a positive.

Until Democrats actually take something significant away from the Republicans – they couldn’t win the mayoral race in the most Democratic city in the country, New York – they’ll remain a party with something to prove.

How do they do that? Put aside party next-in-liners and nurture candidates of character, like Iraq war vet Paul Hackett of Ohio, or Barack Obama of Illinois. Then, have the courage to look plainly at what is wrong and demand that it be put right. To name but three:

That the Iraqi people fight their own battles, so our boys and girls can come home.

That Americans get the same kind of health care members of Congress get.

That the nation’s headlong rush to environmental degradation and the exploitation of public lands be halted.

Democrats need to “speak now against the day,” as William Faulkner did 50 years ago this week when he confronted Jim Crow head-on at a meeting of the Southern Historical Society in Memphis.

Gov. Schwarzenegger wasn’t afraid to push an agenda, even if he went about it all wrong. Democrats have to have the guts to push their own.

John Yewell is the city editor of the Hollister Free Lance. Reach him at [email protected]

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