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Recall lessons for the president

It would be nice to think that Election Day here will bring peace to the politics of California, and to the country. It would be nice, but wrong. Don’t expect an end partisan rancor and voter anger and alienation, here or elsewhere. Howard Fineman tells you why.
/ Source: Special to

It would be nice to think that Election Day here will bring peace to the politics of California, and to the country. It would be nice, but wrong. Don’t expect an end to partisan rancor, voter anger and alienation, here or elsewhere. This state’s political warfare will resume the moment the results are in. And the same forces that are shaking Sacramento could materialize on the doorstep of the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

THERE ARE A lot of reasons. Starting with the candidates, here are some:

Few expect Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to pull off a stunning upset, though in this race anything is possible. Assuming he doesn’t, neither “winner” will be much of one for long. Davis is universally loathed, even by the people who will vote not to recall him. As for Arnold Schwarzenegger, his “Grope-a-Dope” strategy (as my colleague Chris Matthews calls it) — the modern version of what they used to call in the Nixon days a “modified limited hangout” — will cause him nothing but problems.

Swamped by allegations of sexual misconduct, his fateful answer was to promise a full accounting after Election Day. Should he win, that means his first task won’t be to put together his administration but to spell out of the rest of his story. I assumed that he was winging it when he told Tom Brokaw on NBC that he would do that. Turns out, this was a deliberate and considered response. His team, its leaders say, simply did not have the time and resources to go into the details during the campaign. He’ll have to do so in Sacramento. This at the same time he will have to put together a new administration with none of the usual “transition” time.


California’s economy is a mess, and the state’s budget is, on an annual basis, at least $10 billion in the red. No matter who takes charge in Sacramento, the same gridlock will remain: The Republicans in the legislature are dead-set against raising taxes; the Democrats, who control the place, won’t vote for any. If Arnold wins, I am told, the Democrats will gladly accept Schwarzenegger’s likely offer to enter into sweeping negotiations. Why? Because they hope to lure Gov. Terminator into agreeing to a tax hike — thus busting up the highly fragile GOP coalition that got him elected.

RECALLS FOREVER Once having started down the recall road, this state can’t turn back. If Arnold wins, the Democratic recall campaign against him will begin immediately. Choose your excuse. If he fails to give the full accounting he promised of his sexual conduct, that could be one reason. If he fails to craft a budget deal, or he advocates massive cuts in social programs (which he would have to do if there is no tax increase) would be another. “The rules of politics and government here have changed, probably forever,” Democratic strategist Bill Carrick told me. “This is the way it’s going to be.”’

CALIFORNIA GOP DIVISION Again, should Arnold win, one of his toughest tasks will be to make peace with is own party. Social conservatives, in California and elsewhere, were disgusted by the litany of stories about Schwarzenegger’s personal behavior. If he moves his lips on taxes, they will be his mortal enemy.

DEMOCRATIC SECOND-GUESSING The anger of Democrats at Davis is real — so real that he would get no grace period with them should he somehow survive. They are furious with him for having underestimated voter dismay at the state of the local economy; at the severity of the energy crisis; at the potency of the recall movement. And if Arnold wins, the bloodletting will be ugly. “If we lose, there will be three reasons,” one prominent Democratic contributor told me here. “Davis, Davis and Davis.” Beyond that, and even before the votes were cast, Democrats were expressing their anger at Davis and his allies (notably Sen. Diane Feinstein and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown). In their view, they should have engineered another, stronger, Democratic alternative on the ballot to Davis and Bustamante. Their view (and it may be wishful thinking) is that someone like Feinstein could have saved the day.

NATIONAL REPUBLICAN DIVISION The big parlor game here before Election Day was arguing about whether George Bush’s GOP would welcome a victorious Arnold into the heart of the party. The quick-response answer is yes: The Republicans haven’t controlled (if that’s the word) the governorship of the largest state since 1998. But depending on what Arnold has to say — in detail — about his past, the Bible Belt conservatives who form the heart of the modern GOP might balk at embracing the Terminator at the New York convention.


A Schwarzenegger win would seem to be a blessing to the GOP, and to Bush. If nothing else, it would spread the Democratic defense in the Electoral College, forcing them next year to spend time and money defending a state — California — that they have come to take for granted in recent presidential elections.

But in an odd but important way, an Arnold victory could be an ominous message for President Bush. There is a straight line of voter protest running from Ross Perot through John McCain and on to the Internet-based campaigns of Wesley Clark and even Howard Dean. To some extent, all were or are powered by a sense of voter alienation from the centers of authority in government politics — whether those center are in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. The bigger and more remote the government, the more ignored and misunderstood the voters feel.

Davis was under assault because he seemed oblivious to the concerns of Californians. Given his poll ratings on the economy and, now Iraq, Bush runs the increasing risk of being viewed by the American people as just another deaf politico. Until recently, the president’s greatest asset was the sense that he was a decent guy, with good values, who wanted to do the right thing. But the questions that have been raised about the rationale for going to war in Iraq have had a corrosive effect on the sense of trust he evoked in most voters.

I know Bush (and Davis). Bush is no Davis. He is as personable as Davis is colorless. But the same rule applies: If voters think you aren’t listening to them, they have a way of getting your attention at the next available election.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst. He will join MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on “Hardball” to cover Tuesday’s election from California.