When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s November 2005 special election initiatives were soundly defeated, many thought this boded well for Democrats seeking to defeat him in 2006. But Schwarzenegger’s electoral debacle now appears to have boosted his prospects for re-election. The reason? The labor unions and core Democratic constituencies that kicked Arnold’s behind last November are no longer afraid of him, so that the sense of urgency about defeating him that is so critical to recruiting volunteers and boosting voter turnout has not emerged. This lack of fear is based less on the Governor’s post-election move to the center and more by the feeling that the Terminator has lost his vaunted powers and no longer threatens progressive interests. It appears that the California Nurses Association and other groups might have been too successful last November in exposing Arnold’s weakness.
The most striking fact about California’s governor’s race is how little Democrats fear Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election. Since the Governor’s special election debacle, the man who could strike fear into Democrat legislators by vowing to go over their heads to “The People” is no longer seen as a major threat to progressive interests. While progressive constituencies would obviously do better under Phil Angelides, surprisingly few Democrats are identifying the race as part of a do or die battle.
Polling results confirm this. The chief reason Angelides trails is his lack of unified support among Democrats, including union members and those who identify as environmentalists. If Angelides can get Democrats back in his camp at levels that were achieved by John Kerry or Barbara Boxer in California’s 2004 election, he has a good chance to win.
While the media has focused on Schwarzenegger’s post-election surrender to his former enemies’ agendas—what they call his shift to the center—the main reason for Democrats lack of fire is that Arnold has shown he lacks majority support for his Republican agenda. Since Schwarzenegger cannot credibly threaten to enact conservative laws through the initiative process, he faces a choice between doing nothing and working out deals on the Democrats terms.
As a former action hero, doing nothing is not an option. That leaves Arnold working with Democrats to fulfill their agenda, whether this be raising the minimum wage or enhancing environmental standards.
Angelides’ is thus faced with a scenario unimaginable only one year ago: he must convince his base that to mobilize against Arnold. Angelides must argue that Arnold’s election year move to the center cannot be trusted, and that he is merely reloading his political capital before launching his post-election sequel, “Arnold Strikes Back.”
Since Schwarzenegger has used his position as Governor to veto gay marriage and to prevent progress on housing, labor, health care, and consumer reforms, Angelides certainly has the facts to make the case that defeating Arnold is essential. For example, no pro-tenant legislation will pass under Schwarzenegger, and this is the type of issue Angelides can highlight to energize his base. The nurses certainly do not believe that the Governor’s union-bashing is behind him, but other unions may feel differently.
For example, last week Schwarzenegger held a health care summit meeting that included some top labor officials, including SEIU President Andrew Stern. The California Nurses Association picketed the event, and media coverage noted that labor, which was totally unified against Arnold last November, is no longer on the same page.
Angelides’ support for gay marriage will prove galvanizing for those focused on that issue, but it is unlikely that most of the electorate views Schwarzenegger as hostile to gay rights. The Governor’s people are likely to argue that his opposition to an initiative banning gay marriage contributed to the failure of Christian groups to even qualify such a measure for the state ballot.
The November 2005 special election was a watershed for California politics, but not for the reasons understood at the time. Then, it appeared that Schwarzenegger’s landslide defeats signaled his unseating in 2006. Today, that election should be seen as the final nail in the coffin for conservative Republican politics in the state.
We learned last November that even in a low-turnout election, there is no longer a potentially winning conservative political base in California. If Arnold Schwarzenegger could not mobilize that base, nobody in the future can.
This means that some Democrats may not feel like rolling the dice with Angelides when they can soft-pedal their support for him while maintaining good relations with Schwarzenegger.
Contrary to what polls have recently reported, Arnold’s chances for re-election remain no better than 50%, as the flood of anti-Bush voters in November are not going to easily vote to keep Bush’s ally in the Governor’s office. But Arnold’s 50-50 chance of victory has stalled some from waging a full-scale war against him, and these forces know that if Angelides wins, he’s support progressive policies regardless of whether a constituency worked feverishly on his behalf.
So Angelides’ problem with mobilizing his base is not due to Steve Westly’s negative ads, or to Arnold’s move to the center, but rather to the lack of fear toward Arnold’s re-election. Nobody could have predicted that the Terminator would gain from his own weakness, but that is the problem that Phil Angelides must quickly overcome.
Ironically, Angelides may have been handed just the gift he needed to boost anti-Arnold sentiment by the Governor’s media appearance yesterday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. While the San Francisco Chronicle argued that Blair’s appearance was an “election year coup” for the Governor, the fact is that the man many in Britain call the Butcher of Baghdad is hardly a popular figure in our state.
Californians opposed the Iraq war by a 2-1 margin, and Schwarzenegger’s identification with an architect and continuing apologist for this war will not bring him votes. In addition, there are far more Irish-American voters in California than Brits, and they certainly do not like Tony Blair.
If Angelides wants to motivate his base, he should create a commercial showing Arnold’s support for Bush at the 2004 convention and his current boosting of Blair. In the background there would be photos of Americans who died in Iraq, coupled with footage of the death, misery and destruction that Arnold’s good friends George and Tony have brought to that country.
Now that will get Democratic voters in a fighting mood for November.
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