When conventional Democrats get together to strategize, the conclusion is ever thus: The center must lead. By this thinking, gauging what the greatest number of Americans already believe, then convincing them that you've always thought exactly the same thing, is the only way to win. Just look at Clinton.
Republicans, led by their conservative wing, do things differently. They honor the example of history—which reliably demonstrates that lasting political success only rarely originates in the center. It more often occurs when ideas once considered extreme get successfully marketed as safely centrist. They deem risky notions worth the chance, because such ideas can secure the biggest victory of all: changing the terms of the political debate. Then conservatives can control the playing field, with all the attendant home-field advantages.
That's the lesson of Arnold Schwarzenegger's entrance into the special election for California governor on October 7.
The movement to yank incumbent Gray Davis, and to choose a successor if he's recalled, was born and bred on California's right-wing fringe. Its roots go back all the way to the 1960s, when anti-tax activists began their mad, Ahab-like quest to mobilize the state's instruments of "direct democracy" and make it all but impossible for politicians to carry out the kind of collective, deliberative decision making about sharing society's burdens that makes actual democracy healthy. They first succeeded in 1978, when conservatives got enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot to decimate property taxes. Proposition 13 passed, and municipalities suddenly found themselves with a quarter less money to run their schools, fire trucks, sewers, and parks.
Prop 13 was authored by Paul Gann, who went on to form a "grassroots" organization, People's Advocate, that made a specialty of exploiting California's initiative process for conservative ends. The man who runs PA now, Ted Costa, is the author of the Gray Davis recall. When Costa announced the attempt, less than 100 days after Davis won re-election by a significant margin, the experts greeted the idea the same way they had Proposition 13 in 1978—it was crazy. The loudest included the more centrist Republicans, who immediately turned their backs on the caper as a political distraction. Soon the "sane" Republicans were able to enjoy what appeared to be a vindication when the recall attempt sputtered into spring, hobbled by a severe lack of funds. For it was, after all, a crazy idea.
The recall was rescued by a rather unconventional man. Darrell Issa, the once obscure congressman from California now notorious for his youthful career as an alleged car thief, infused millions of dollars into the recall drive (earned, naturally enough, in the car alarm business) to get the 897,158 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. A genuine right-winger—among California Republicans the litmus test is continued support for draconian immigration restrictions, even after the issue turned them into a minority party in the 1990s—Issa felt he had a chance of becoming governor himself in Gray Davis's stead. This is because, thanks to the unusual rules of recall elections, a winner could emerge even if he attracted a very small percentage of the votes.
This was good news for Davis. The better he could convince voters that the recall attempt was what it actually was—a creation of the right-wing fringe—the better the chance he had of surviving. Candidates like Issa made that look easy.
Enter The Arnold.
You might have seen Darrell Issa on television the other day. He was the guy weeping uncontrollably as he announced he was getting out of the race, the day after Schwarzenegger announced that he was getting in. Gray Davis was not shown crying on TV. But he might have been crying behind closed doors. According to the ideological rules of the game that centrist Democrats helped put in place, Arnold, who expresses tolerant views on abortion and homosexuality even though he all but promised in his opening press conference to turn state government over to the state's business interests, gets to be indelibly enshrined as a "moderate." That renders obvious fringe-dwellers like Issa unelectable. And it makes the prospect of replacing the moderate Davis infinitely more attractive to rank-and-file California voters.
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America's proud centrists—not least those in the pundit class—will pronounce themselves pleased that the madness in California will likely settle down to some safe, respectable outcome: the replacement of one centrist by another. And—who knows—perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger will indeed prove to possess, alongside the qualities we already know (such as his propensity for ogling women's breasts), the stuff of political respectability.
It doesn't matter. When Californians go to the polls to choose whether to replace their governor on October 7, the Ahabs will have won. They have, in fact, won already. They have successfully marketed a fringe idea as a respectable one. The fact that Schwarzenegger has knocked the candidates to his right out of contention doesn't vitiate the fact. It confirms it. Because the original idea—that it's kosher to kick out a newly elected governor before he's finished out his first year just because you don't like his politics—remains as radical as ever. For in California, the national Republican Party, the one led by President Bush and steered by Karl Rove—and whose goals are not moderate at all—is achieving one of its most cherished political aims: a political foothold in the nation's largest state, a state Bush needs to secure himself re-election, where Democrats have maintained a stubborn control for almost a decade.
The White House has kept hands off the circus in California up to now, when it seemed the province of crackpots. It doesn't matter: What they didn't do was shut the fringe down—as centrist Democrats are always so desperate to shut Democratic fringes down, to keep them from taking any ideological risks at all. The Republican command center simply let the game take its course. The right-wing extremists set up the pitch. A "centrist" was able to step in to hit it out of the park. Presto: the political playing field in California has shifted.
George Bush will probably have the home-field advantage here in 2004. And it never would have happened if the freaks hadn't taken the original risk. If the center had led, the Republicans would have been waiting to try to replace Gray Davis until 2006.