In Search of a Democratic Future

While it is tempting to dismiss Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory as testament to California's bizarre recall system and our unending fascination with celebrity, doing so misses the larger message of this election for the Democratic Party.

A closer look suggests that California is not the Democratic stronghold that many think and that the Democrats' electoral success in recent years has masked deep weakness within the Party.

Recent elections and the California Democratic Party's voter registration advantage have led many, Democratic Party leaders especially, to conclude that California is and will continue to be a solidly Democratic state. But the Democrats' voter registration advantage is not nearly what it seems when turnout and party loyalty are factored in. Democratic success in the last three elections has been more a function of Republican weakness than Democratic strength.

Former Attorney General Dan Lundgren, who lost to Davis in 1998, and President Bush, who lost the state to Al Gore in 2000, were well to the right of the California electorate on social issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights. The strong economy during those elections allowed Democrats to run and win on social issues instead of bread-and-butter economic issues. In 2002, faced with political neophyte and social conservative Bill Simon, but also with a less robust economic climate, Gray Davis barely won reelection and failed to garner a majority vote.

Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger; a socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican married to a Kennedy. Schwarzenegger might have defeated Davis in 1998 and almost certainly would have defeated him in 2002. Schwarzenegger combines the moderate politics of Pete Wilson (excepting Wilson's rightward lurch on immigration in 1994) with the celebrity and charisma of Ronald Reagan. In both temperament and politics, Schwarzenegger is similar to the long line of Republican governors who have governed California for most of the last 100 years.

Faced with a credible candidate and a bad economy, Democrats lost the recall because they failed to articulate -- while governing and while campaigning -- their central political belief that government is a social good, that investments in schools, infrastructure, health care, and social services are worth making, and that everyone should pay their fair share.

From the perspective of public opinion, the Democratic economic agenda is in fact quite popular with voters. The problem is that, for at least the last decade, Democrats have effectively abandoned a coherent or consistent articulation of that agenda while Republicans have continued to hammer away at the voting public with a disciplined message about the perils of "big government." As a result, when California elections turn on the core issues of government, taxes and spending, as in 1990, 1994 and 2003, Democrats have lost.

To their peril, most high-profile Democrats continue to tout Clinton-era policies such as middle-class tax cuts and reinventing government. These initiatives, while on occasion effective tactically, end up reinforcing the core Republican message that government is corrupt and ineffectual, that taxes are immoral, and that private enterprise -- not collective endeavor and shared investment -- is responsible for our quality of life.

Now, in defeat, Democrats have the chance to put forward new and compelling ideas about the role of government and how it can better our lives. Some Democrats are beginning to talk about a major state investment in clean energy jobs to make California the hydrogen and solar capital of the world through a "New Apollo Project." Others are discussing the idea of a universal K-14 education in California, to prepare our workforce for the 21st century and a "Smart Highways" infrastructure bond to fund a statewide network of Express Lanes to increase carpooling and mass transit services.

Democratic leaders should explore these big ideas and others in the coming months to better define their governing vision, because without a compelling and distinguishing vision of their own, Democrats will continue to find themselves on the wrong end of "throw the bums out" upheavals like those that cost the Democrats control of Congress in 1994 and 2002, and the Governor's office this year.

Ted Nordhaus is a democratic pollster and strategist at Evans/McDonough Company, an opinion research firm based in Oakland and Seattle.

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