How the Lessons of California Can Help Democrats and Defeat Bush
A couple of interesting pieces today in the hometown Sacramento Bee got my attention and forced me to think about the Gray Davis flameout last week not only in terms of what it may mean for the California Democratic Party, but what it also should say to national Democrats.
The Sacramento Bee’s Deputy Editorial Page editor Mark Paul believes that California voters weren’t only angry with Gray Davis, they were also angry with other “pay to play” Democratic officeholders in the state. Paul believes that the state’s legislative Democrats have evolved over the last decade or so as captives of special interests, just as much as the GOP legislators are, and as a result, see their job as acting for various special interests, unwilling to say no to their supporters for the sake of the public good. In essence, state Democrats became small vision, small-minded water carriers for their checkwriters, setting themselves up for a shellacking from a reform-sounding outsider, whom they all-too-easily dismiss.
Democrats are fooling themselves, though, if they believe Davis alone was the target of the frustration and anger that boiled up in the recall. When 9 million people speak at once, it's a chancy business to pull out a single message from the babble of the many different voices. But it's safe to say that, for many California voters, there was no distinction between Davis and the interest-group, cash-box politics that has dominated the Legislature in recent years.
Even Democrats who lay heavy blame on Davis see a larger problem for Democrats. "I'm not surprised," Sen. Deborah Ortiz of Sacramento said the day after the vote. "We could feel this coming even before \[Davis' 2002\] reelection. There was this thing hanging over California that was getting away from us as Democrats .... I saw it in my 1998 race."
If legislative Democrats saw the threat, they didn't act like it. The headline bills coming out of the Legislature -- drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, a timid reform of workers compensation, legal rights for domestic partners -- look more intent on serving narrow constituencies than the larger public good. The big exception, the mandate that employers provide health insurance, was flawed by attacking the problem of the uninsured through an approach that will harm job creation.
A legislative party that doesn't look out for the broad public invites a reaction from the statewide electorate -- think Proposition 13, term limits and now recall.
At least some Democrats seem to get it.
"The recall was a political earthquake," said Assemblywoman Lois Wolk of Davis. "The people were telling us to stop bickering. They want us to get on with solving problems. They want us to get on with fixing California's concerns.... "If you do good policy, you will be rewarded. And sometimes doing good policy means saying no to your friends," she said, referring to her party's embrace of its contributors. "You simply have to say no."
For Democrats, proving that they have heard the voice of recall voters will require them to move, as State Treasurer Phil Angelides put it last week, from the "politics of the narrow interest" to the "politics of the broad interest." Angelides rightly finds Schwarzenegger's formula of sweeping out "special interests" too simple. Labor unions can be labeled special interests, and so can business groups like the National Federation of Independent Business. Yet labor represents the needs of millions of people and NFIB represents thousands of small businesses. It's appropriate, Angelides said, for them to be part of the discussion.
"But what's disappeared from the screen is the broad public interest .... None of those organizations is ever going to speak for the broad interest," he said.
Angelides is one of the smartest state officeholders in the country, and a true student of the Democratic Party that you and I remember, before the DLC told us to act like Republicans and go for campaign contributions from corporate interests.
Angelides knows it is necessary for Democrats to return to their roots and act again like what I call Public Interest Democrats, officeholders who will guide their actions by asking and getting answers to one simple question when making a decision: what is the greater social good to be derived from this action? If a broad public interest can be demonstrated from the action taken, support it. If not, go against it.
The Bee’s political columnist Daniel Weintraub also penned a great Davis postmortem today in which he says voters turned on Davis because after some initial successes on his signature issue of education, Davis refused to govern and jump on problems early, ostensibly for fear of taking hits for doing so. This is plausible and borne out by the record.
I think there is a lesson in the Schwarzenegger victory not only for state Democrats, but also for national Democrats as well. Frankly, as much as I can fault Gray Davis for spending more time raising campaign contributions than nipping problems in the bud, I can also fault the Legislative Democrats who continued to push special interest legislation in the midst of a burgeoning budget deficit and declining job market. At a time when both the Governor and the Legislature needed to be more attuned to job-killing state mandates, there frankly is no excuse for the just-passed employer-required health insurance legislation, coming on top of sharply increasing workers’ compensation premiums, health insurance premiums, and other workplace requirements. The Democratic leadership in the Legislature has acted the last five years like the state was their personal laboratory for how society should work, without considering the effect these actions will have on employers, the recessionary economy, and the political ramifications of these actions. These actions, coupled with a detached, problem-averse, campaign contributions-hoarding governor set the scene for a faux-reformer to do what Arnie did.
How would this situation had been different if either Davis or the Democrats in the Legislature had really focused on broad public interest issues and approaches, and actual problem-solving, instead of taking an opportunity to push through what they could get away with while they could? It’s not like Arnie himself can claim the mantle of the people’s champion, when his campaign was actually bankrolled by the usual suspects contrary to his early claims that he wouldn’t be using outsiders’ money. But unfortunately, the Democrats cannot make an issue of this because they too are captives to their own special interests and cannot claim they are the party of the broad public interest.
The lessons are obvious for national Democrats heading into an election next year against a president who is singularly the largest captive to special interests we have ever seen. One doesn’t need to be a political genius to see how effective a Democratic candidate can be who builds his whole attack against Bush on the basis of three or four broad public interest issues and how Bush has sacrificed the public interests for chosen special interests. There is an ironic lesson that national Democrats can take from California: what Arnie did to Gray Davis can be done by a national Democrat against George W. Bush. A Democrat can run a reform campaign against Bush, based on ideas of openness, integrity, fiscal discipline, and bipartisan problem-solving. Each one of those campaign themes is a dagger at Bush’s weaknesses and each one can be lethal in the hands of the right candidate.