Reality Politics and Other Lost Causes

Only 44 days until the California recall election is over. I can hardly wait.

I happen not to live in the state of California. And I have to say that Californians, bless them, all 39 million or however many are now crammed into the once-Golden State, have become nearly as obnoxious as New Yorkers in their assumption that the rest of our country automatically cares about their local affairs.

And so it is that the alternately gleeful or alarmed coverage of California's gubernatorial recall vote is getting kind of tedious. I don't care that 38 million of those 39 million residents will appear on the ballot. I don't care that at least two-thirds of them are celebrities, former celebrities, porn stars, or other misshapen branches of the human family tree.

But I do care, very much, that progressives who sneer at this recall and at the insta-candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger are missing the very important point. Like it or not, California -- unlike New York -- has a solid record as a cultural trendsetter for the nation. And the world, for that matter. Lessons from this campaign will be relevant very soon in every state in the country. In many places -- including the White House -- they already apply. We ignore them at our peril.

First of all, as for the legitimacy of the recall vote itself: Lawdy, I wish every state did this, especially every time the governor and state legislature, regardless of party, slash social programs and load up on new prisons and corporate welfare. This, along with a stunningly inept and typically corrupt approach to the energy-gouging scandal of a few winters ago, has been California Gov. Gray Davis' defining record, and it's why so many people across California's political spectrum despise him. Reactionary Republicans may have organized the recall petitions, but Californians of every stripe signed them, as citizens would in any number of cash-strapped states if given the chance.

As Marc Cooper has noted in L.A. Weekly, the recall is nothing more nor less than a vote of confidence, and Davis has none. Progressives should trust democracy more than this. You can't get much more democratic than throwing the bum out.

More important, however, is who the replacement for the surely doomed Davis might be. At the moment, only two names consistenly dominate polls: Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and Schwarzenegger.

Everyone from career pols to pundits and reporters (especially at the L.A. Times) to progressives have treated Schwarzenegger's campaign -- not to mention his seeming popularity -- with incredulity. And dismay. And disdain. The former world champion weightlifter turned movie star turned one-man industry is, they suggest, a fluke. He's getting poll numbers because of name recognition, or the novelty of his fame intersecting with an electoral campaign. He has no political experience, no experience, really, running or legislating anything beyond his own fame. His campaign will fade when his 15 minutes cycles through, and when he is exposed for the fish out of water that he is.

Nonsense. Schwarzenegger is just as capable of running the state of California as a tired political hack like Bustamante. And voters, contrary to popular pundit wisdom, are smart enough to know it.

I fell into political writing and journalism after a variety of other jobs and careers, and when I began one of the first political myths I was disabused of was the notion that the elected officials running our cities, counties, states, and country were all smart people. Some are, but some are not; it's the normal human range, really, between brilliant policy wonks and walking brain stems. The last two White House occupants show the range clearly enough. Intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be.

In modern politics, having good ideas for solving difficult public policy questions is a nice attribute to have, but it's certainly not a necessary one. In fact, sometimes it gets in the way. Much more essential are raw ambition, the ability to schmooze and ask for money, and the ability to look and sound personable and competent in from of an audience and a camera.

That's how we elect our public officials now, and Schwarzenegger is as qualified as anyone on these scores. Sure, what candidates actually do matters, but there's no record of that unless they've already been in office. And by then, the advantages of incumbency are so powerful (due mostly to low public interest and the legalized bribery now central to our campaign funding process) that they can only be overcome if the incumbent is stunningly inept.

Like Davis. Which is why he won a tepid election last year, but can't stop the recall this year. His record has become so bad it has angered nearly all his constituents and has overwhelmed the cynical bribery that kept his political star afloat. The recall is likely to draw far more voters than last year's general election that re-elected Davis, for the simple reason that this time it's not more alienating politics as usual.

And this is why Schwarzenegger is for real. Progressives have had a dismal time getting themselves elected and their policies enacted in recent years. The country has instead drifted ever-rightward. It's no coincidence that during this time, while progs and liberals have insisted on talking about what's wrong and how to fix it, the most successful and visible political careers -- from Reagan to Dubya -- have been thick with image and style, and very, very light on the often nonsensical specifics.

For many Americans, both Reagan and now Dubya have been great presidents. This is, in large part, not because of their policies -- which have support, but not in the numbers popularity polls would suggest. It's been a matter of style, the perception that these are decent guys doing a good job.

The fact that Dubya and the fanatics around him are stunningly corrupt, routinely lie, and have hijacked the country hasn't damaged their popularity or power much until recently, when the overreaching and dissembling on Iraq have become too obvious to ignore. But for 30 months, Bush prospered while blithely lying away, and few have cared. Perception has been everything.

Whether such a political environment is healthy is beside the point. Anyone hoping to unseat Bush, or overcome Schwarzenegger in California, had better have some sizzle, some pop, some style. In the last 25 years, Clinton is the only Democrat who has managed the trick nationally. He's also the only Democrat to reach the White House in that time.

Candidates like Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore, or now Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman, or even Kucinich, miss the lesson of the trendsetters in California. The 2004 presidential hopefuls shouldn't aim to replace Bush so much as to recall him, as we would recall a defective product. (Or one we didn't order in the first place.) They'd also do well to treat their campaigns not as a test of ideas, but as a launch of a competing product.

It's not how a democracy should run. But it's what we've got.

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