Now that voters in California have had their say and chosen to replace their Democratic governor with a Republican one, Democrats around the country need to sit down and do some hard thinking about what they want to be when they grow up.
Many Democrats will view the recall of Gray Davis and his replacement by Arnold Schwarzenegger as just the latest outrage by a Republican Party intent on seizing power wherever it can by any means possible, legitimate or not. For these Democrats, the recall of California’s elected governor is of a piece with the hounding and impeachment of Bill Clinton and the handing of the presidency to George W. Bush by the Supreme Court in 2000. Those in a particularly ornery mood will toss in the current effort by Texas Republicans to force a questionable midterm redrawing of their state’s congressional map. And some are still grousing about Rutherford B. Hayes.
Yes, anger is in fashion among Democrats these days. But there’s no evidence that it wins elections. Voters don’t hate Republicans. If anything, voters hate politicians. Even more, they hate what has come to be known as “politics as usual” — the bitterly divisive partisanship that increasingly ties government in knots at every level.
For Democrats, getting past politics-as-usual might start with the acknowledgement that Schwarzenegger won a legally-conducted election by an impressive margin, under rules that have been in place for nearly a century. Next, they might find their way to recognizing that as far as is known, the results of this week’s California recall election constitute the most impressive victory in more than a decade for the Republican Party’s embattled moderate wing. If Schwarzenegger can use his stewardship of the nation’s most populous state to become a credible figure on the national stage, he could become a rallying point for Republican moderates. The political center would have new strength, and Democrats would have someone to work with from time to time.
How likely is that? Schwarzenegger’s critics note that he is little more than a bodybuilder-turned-actor with no political experience. His defenders, on the other hand, point out that he is a member of the Kennedy family, a considerable asset on the political stage.
It bears remembering, too, that the two most celebrated gubernatorial upsets in recent years, in California and Minnesota, involved wisecracking musclemen. American voters want their leaders to exude confidence, not angst.
Democrats need to get past their anger, understandable though it may be, and get back to the business of wooing the American voter. The last thing they should be doing right now is reminding the voters how often they’ve let the Republicans outmaneuver them, outwit them and wrestle them to the ground during the last few years.