The Washington Times

One big question on the minds of politically attuned Californians these days is what people in Washington make of the recall venture here – the process itself, the ugliness of the campaign, the landslide election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I tell them that the view from the east is mired in condescension. Which is too bad, because Californians have taught us some useful political lessons.

For some of what follows, I am indebted to my Hoover Institution colleague Bill Whalen, a Sacramento politics veteran who offered the most insightful running commentary on the recall at the Weekly Standard’s Web site. Of course, I accept full responsibility for all interpretations on offer.

First of all, whatever the deficiencies of the provisions governing California’s recall process, they were redeemed by the result. The process invited, but did not deliver, a politically poisonous outcome. For example, suppose Gov. Gray Davis had been recalled by the barest of majorities instead of the 55 to 45 percent thumping he took. And suppose voters, selecting from more than a hundred candidates on the replacement question, had fractured so badly that the plurality winner had no more than 25 percent or so of the votes, instead of the nearly 49 percent Mr. Schwarzenegger won.

That outcome would have been dreadful, for two reasons. First, it seems likely that Democratic partisans would have been remorseless in continuing to attack the legitimacy of the process and the result. Would they have taken again to the courts on some innovative equal protection claim?

Republicans, meanwhile, would have found themselves mired in defending the outcome on the basis that the rules are the rules, which is true but somehow unpleasant. Second, it’s hard to imagine that anyone becoming governor in those circumstances would be effective in dealing with the problems that led voters to take this drastic step in the first place. A bare-plurality governor would have been politically crippled from the start.

Mr. Schwarzenegger won more votes than Mr. Davis did in the last general election. What he has is a mandate – but not for his policy proposals, which were thin. Rather, he has a mandate for his personal effort to solve the state’s huge budget problem and more broadly, its crisis in livability. He will be judged on whether he delivers the act of will voters elected him to undertake on their behalf.

California voters also delivered a delayed but nevertheless essential lesson in political accountability. Gray Davis blew his state’s electricity crisis as badly and irresponsibly as one possibly could. He had a serious but solvable problem on his hands. He did nothing but make its effects worse. He would risk no political capital by letting consumer rates go up, he fiddled as blackouts criss-crossed the state, his major political effort was to fix the blame elsewhere, and in the end, supposedly to guarantee future supplies, he locked California rate-payers into long-term contracts at record-high prices. Billions of dollars gone, a casualty of political cowardice and cynicism.

Would he get away with it? If so, that could only have the effect of encouraging other elected officials to abandon the public trust for the sake of short-term political gain, a recipe for policy disaster. At first, he did. Thanks in part to his own intervention in the Republican primary process – a successful campaign to discredit the politician Mr. Davis feared most – the GOP managed to nominate in 2002 seemingly the only Republican in California who couldn’t beat the incumbent governor [though it was close]. With this decisive recall, Mr. Davis at last faces the music: He is out because, in policy terms, he was a terrible, terrible governor.

Third lesson, and a big one it is for the GOP nationally: Republicans now have a big tent. Though you would never know it from listening to Democrats, the sway that social conservatives have on the party has been in decline for years, a decline abetted by clever political choices by George W. Bush. The goal seems to be to build a party in which social conservatives are comfortable – but not dominant on issues that would turn away moderates. That means finding ways of keeping social conservatives engaged and relatively happy short of acceding on the issues about which they feel strongest.

Recent GOP coalition-building has taken the form of disparate groups with different priorities agreeing to support one another on top priorities. This is a different model, one reminiscent of the old FDR Democratic coalition, which managed to include elements as diverse as Southern segregationists and northern blacks. It does not leave coalition issue-management to members, but relies on a central broker to balance interests. This shift bears careful watching.

Fourth, sex. Democrats accuse Republicans of hypocrisy for denouncing Bill Clinton but giving Arnold a pass. Republicans just as readily attack Democrats for giving Mr. Clinton a pass but pouncing on Arnold. The lesson voters are likely to draw from this is that sex scandals are partisan affairs. So we will probably have more of them as politicians’ fear of opprobrium gives way to the belief that, with a little help from their friends, they can probably talk themselves out of whatever trouble they get in.