By Richard S. Dunham President Bush has plenty to smile about today, looking at the results of the California recall vote. Then again, he must be very worried.
True, Golden State voters not only prematurely ejected Democratic Governor Gray Davis but also gave action-movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger a clear mandate to clean up the state's fiscal mess. Republicans are exhilarated that Davis, one of the most relentlessly negative of all American politicians, has been terminated by the electorate. National Democratic leaders are almost catatonic about the unfairness of it all and over what they see as the power of a vast right-wing conspiracy to overturn election results they don't like.
BEYOND THE EUPHORIA. Score one for the GOP. However, Bush's political operatives shouldn't get too excited just yet. "The cheering has to be muted at the White House," says John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "After all, the headline was: Chief executive ousted because of big deficit."
Here's why the national message is far more mixed than euphoric Republican strategists might have you believe:
Yes, Schwarzenegger's triumph proved that Republicans can still win elections in California, the nation's largest state, which has voted emphatically for Democrats in the last three Presidential elections. But Californians elected a Republican who is socially liberal, a supporter of gay rights, gun control, and abortion rights. President Bush is none of these.
Yes, Californians voted out a candidate who they thought was captive to special interests that showered him with millions of dollars in contributions in return for favorable treatment. But Bush has now broken all fund-raising records, and Democrats are trying to make a 2004 campaign issue out of allegations that Administration officials funnel lucrative contracts to cronies and contributors.
Yes, Californians voted out an incumbent who failed to make the tough decisions to balance the budget. The pro-recall supporters included 47% of Hispanics and 46% of union members, according to an ABC News exit poll analysis. But another incumbent who has failed to make the tough decisions to balance the budget will be on the Presidential ballot next year.
PLENTY TO CHOOSE FROM. The California recall demonstrates that many voters are really mad at incumbents and aren't afraid to fire them. President Bush's approval ratings have plummeted in California -- more rapidly than they have nationally. That can't be good news for the White House.
Discouraged California voters showed they have no compunction about turning to a political neophyte to turn things around. Recent national surveys show that Americans, too, believe the country is on the wrong track. And if voters want a neophyte, they have plenty of Democrats to choose from. Then again, if they want a handsome leading man with star appeal like Schwarzenegger, they can go for Wesley Clark, direct from central casting.
Schwarzenegger proved how widespread the potential is for a Big Tent Republican who reaches out to minorities and other traditional Democratic constituencies. He led Democrat Cruz Bustamante by 15 percentage points among independents and by 17 points among moderates, according to ABC exit polls. These swing voters had no use for Davis, a partisan brawler who refused to work with a legislative minority in Sacramento. That's a message that Bush and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) ignore at their own peril.
MISREAD MOOD. The message isn't all mixed. Davis' drubbing once again proved that, on the national stage, Democrats often run awful campaigns. (Remember Michael Dukakis in 1988?). Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe spent precious party cash and personal prestige to defend what turned out to be an indefensible incumbent. McAuliffe & Co. profoundly misread the voters' mood.
This Republican victory now puts Democrats on the defensive in the Golden State, forcing the party to spend possibly tens of millions of dollars next year in a state they've been able to count as a lock recently on Presidential campaigns. But it also could lead Republicans to waste tens of millions of dollars in a hopeless cause while siphoning vital resources away from more winnable swing states like Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
Say this about California, however. The Davis recall clearly reinforces its position as a national political bellwether. It has been that way for a century, from the rise of the progressives (who created the recall process) to the rise of Ronald Reagan, from the tax-cutting Proposition 13 to the state's ban on affirmative action.
Now, with the first-ever recall of a big-state governor, California once again has set a national trend. Bush has to wonder just which way the Santa Ana winds are blowing. Dunham is White House correspondent for BusinessWeek