Commentary: As California Goes, So Goes The Nation?

The recall reveals voter anger far beyond state lines

Gray Davis was the only politician who lost his job on Oct. 7 in the cannibalistic spectacle that was the California recall election. But other officials are nervously sifting the results. Mindful that the Golden State is a trendsetter, pols wonder if the ouster of a governor just nine months into his second term is an isolated event -- or something more: a sweeping revolt against incumbents nationwide.

Davis' defeat to a celebrity outsider shows that Californians are fed up with gyrating energy prices, perpetual budget crises, deteriorating schools, and in-fighting in Sacramento. But the intensity of the groundswell should send fear though the political class from coast to coast. It was the same kind of grassroots outrage that sparked the Proposition 13 property-tax revolt in 1978 and gave rise to the political cult of personality known as Reaganism at roughly the same time. "California has a history of angry, populist voters," says Andy Hernandez, a political scientist at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "They had an outlet for that anger in the recall."

But the implications of Davis' defeat resonate far beyond the state's borders. California isn't the only state where politicians elevate partisan bloodletting above compromise, where special interests and big money dominate the legislative process, and where the kitchen-table concerns of average citizens get brushed aside. "There is a great deal of voter anger and cynicism," says Democratic media consultant Jim Duffy. "Most politicians these days are seen as role models for garbage collectors and thieves."

And at a time when incumbency rates for members of Congress top 95%, governors have borne the brunt of the wrath. In 2002, half of the statehouses changed hands. "Governors are in a very difficult spot," says American University political scientist James A. Thurber. "The buck stops with them."

But are the woes of governors, who are saddled by balanced-budget requirements and are often on the firing line during hard times, indicative of a broader rebellion against elected officials and special-interest politics? So far, no -- but that could change. The last time a broad anti-incumbent wave swept the country was 1994, when the GOP took control of Congress for the first time in four decades. In the post-September 11 era, voters seemed to flock to candidates with government experience. But the jobless economic recovery -- and the harsh partisan headbanging in state capitals -- has them looking outside the system again for leaders. "Anti-incumbent sentiment is brewing," says Claremont McKenna College political scientist John J. Pitney Jr. "The challenge for politicians is to harness the anger."

That's exactly what Arnold Schwarzenegger did in a campaign that stressed bipartisanship and appeals for political reform -- without dwelling on the messy details of governing. And Schwarzenegger has company out on the national campaign trail. It's no coincidence that two leading candidates in the 2004 Democratic Presidential race are self-styled outsiders who assert that Washington has failed the leadership test. Retired General Wesley K. Clark is making appeals to independents and Republicans, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean styles himself as a populist warrior who will seize the levers of power from entrenched interests. "People are concerned about whether the government works for them or not," says Thurber. It's at times like this that "outsiders are attractive."

Many Establishment pols will scoff at the notion that figures as different as Schwarzenegger, Dean, and Clark have anything in common. Liberals are spinning the California earthquake as a personal rejection, and conservatives are equally insistent that it was a condemnation of tax-and-spend doctrine. There is a grain of truth in both claims, but in reality, Establishment types never see the Big Wave coming. The message of California is that politicians need to clean up their acts as well as their balance sheets -- unless they, too, want to risk termination.

By Richard S. Dunham and Lee Walczak

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