On a night when Democrats were seizing control of Congress and assuming command of statehouses, California re-elected a Republican governor in a landslide that exceeded all expectations.
But although the Golden State would once again appear to be running against a national political tide, its voters were actually in step with a trend that reverberated around the nation: Consensus was key, extremism was out. Candidates who moved to the center won independent swing voters. For many Democratic candidates, that meant a stunning debut. For Arnold Schwarzenegger, that transformed into an intriguing sequel.
The national Democratic comeback in many ways reflected Schwarzenegger’s own as they moved to recapture the political agenda from opponents most people thought unbeatable a year ago. In the governor’s case that opponent was himself, when he enraged union leaders, Democratic leaders and ultimately voters as he combatively pursued a “reform” agenda in a special election that cost taxpayers $54 million.
Yet much like Democratic Party leaders who molded a national agenda for change based on the unpopularity of the president and his war policy in Iraq, the governor recast himself as a conciliatory leader willing to work within the system, extending olive branches to his foes and reaching out to voters anxious to get the state on track.
Schwarzenegger’s return to favor began when he managed to put his tough-guy image aside and actually apologized for his mistake — something that President Bush and many of his more rigid GOP colleagues failed to do. The chastened governor then switched course, hiring a new, more moderate-leaning campaign team and bringing in a Democrat to be his chief of staff. Their discipline and Schwarzenegger’s ongoing cooperation with state lawmakers proved to be a winning ticket.
By agreeing to work with Democratic legislators to help pass a $37 billion infrastructure bond that was easily approved this week, Schwarzenegger not only found a bipartisan issue to focus his campaign, but a ready audience for a number of other initiatives favorable to left-leaning California: minimum wage raises, expanded school funding and a landmark global warming bill.
In his pursuit of a second term, Schwarzenegger was helped immensely that he faced a hapless rival in Phil Angelides, who not only failed to connect with voters, he didn’t even take such fundamental steps as introducing himself to them until the final weeks of the campaign.
By the time his warm and fuzzy ads appeared showing Angelides as a ‘60s activist with green underpinnings, the Democratic hopeful had already been defined by the Schwarzenegger campaign as a textbook tax-and-spend liberal. The fact that Angelides did want to raise taxes, but couldn’t quite say why, after barely surviving a punishing primary gave the governor’s camp all the momentum it needed.
It never hurts when you happen to be one of the most popular celebrities on the planet, and all the free advertising and air time Schwarzenegger received left Angelides grumbling and frustrated — a message that seemed to creep into his campaign speeches.
Angelides got the support of the most liberal blocin his party, but his lack of a clear and focused message failed to attract the independent and moderate voters who are key to statewide election. He tried — and failed — to connect the Republican governor to Bush and the Iraq war, a strategy that didn’t work against an upgraded version of Schwarzenegger that showed strength and a commitment to unity.
If it was a devastating defeat for Democrats here, it’s one that had long been expected. Governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis laid the foundation for the principles of moving to the center in general elections — a formula seemingly lost on the Angelides camp. But this year it also fell that way in the national elections, where those Republicans seen as too far right or too blindly loyal to the president’s war doctrine generally paid a steep price.
The same socially moderate voters who voted for Schwarzenegger in California also broke for Democrats in congressional races.
But the real lesson in the campaign, both here and throughout the country, is that those candidates who failed to change course — or who discovered too late that they needed to do so — found themselves on the losing end of one of the more remarkable elections in recent history, one that could carry over to the 2008 presidential race.
History reminds us that in politics, the narrow path is the one less traveled, just as hubris is a poor shield to carry into battle.