LOS ANGELES – The big winner in yesterday's California primary was incumbent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold got the "Inside liberal." He got the candidate who runs weakest against him in the polls.
It could have been much, much worse.
He has come a long way since last year, when his initiatives were losing in a special election, and people were counting him out in Sacramento. This year was supposed to be a golden opportunity for the Democrats to win the State House. Think again.
The Terminator is no longer the Comeback Kid. He's the Favorite.
The California nomination battle between Phil Angelides and Steve Westley became, as I'm sorry to say I predicted, a nasty television war of words. Angelides was clearly vulnerable, as evidenced by Westley's lead two weeks out, but Westley couldn't hold onto it. Angelides played his hand better, and ultimately came back.
In mudfights, prowess matters. Angelides is better at slinging this than Westley on his best day. Both of the Democrats ended up covered with mud, voters were turned off to the whole thing, but slightly more of those who voted voted for Angelides, which is what winning is about.
On paper, Steve Westley was a perfect candidate: a progressive Democrat, self-made millionaire, one of the e-Bay geniuses turned to public service. A diverse family, even (how many times did we see that on television, until no one cared one whit …)
But he didn't turn out to be the perfect candidate in real life. Businessmen often think politics is easier than it is. Westley made it look as hard as it really is. He simply never connected, and it turns out that it still matters.
Westley's campaign existed almost exclusively on television. It didn't just have an air of made for television about it; that is all it was, and it screamed it. Tactically correct and strategically souless, Westley failed even though Angelides scored behind him in every poll against Schwarzenegger. TV ads do not provide soul for campaigns, and without soul, there is an eerie emptiness.
To the out-of-town press, Angelides-Westley was another of the Left-Center fights that seem to provide this year's popular duopoly for viewing horse races. Except that the real Angelides and Westley could in fact find very little to fight about. So, fighting being the point, and not the other way around, they fought about not much.
The two candidates were more different atmospherically than substantively; it was in terms of weather, not words, that Angelides was furthest left, and that is why the Schwarzenegger team couldn't help but be hoping for him. He campaigned with unions. He railed against the rich. Us against them. Old fashioned populism.
Who votes in primaries? Liberals. Conservatives. Activists at both extremes. How many times do we get to say that between now and 2008? How ever many it takes. In the meantime, the beneficiaries will always be moderates of the other party…
It would have been difficult for Arnold to cast Westley, as he no doubt will Phil, as a return to the old days of bitter partisanship. But that will be an easy role in which to cast Angelides, who is second to no one in the harshness of his anti-Arnold, partisan Democrat, old-fashioned populist rhetoric.
You might think red meat rhetoric would fly in this bluest of blue states, but when it comes to picking a governor, grey is the preferred color, and Republican grey is the generally preferred hue; with the exception of the brief Gray Davis interlude, this state has known long periods of moderate Republican rule, even as the legislature remains firmly in the hands of safely gerrymandered liberal Democrats.
Arnold begins his reelection campaign today, claiming the state is in sound shape again fiscally, booming economically; that the governor is working productively with the legislature, that the budget this year has already been completed, and a bond measure agreed to...
The state is Democratic enough that a Republican must win one to 1.5 million Democratic votes to win; that means the best Arnold can hope for is a close election. He could do worse than have to run it against Phil.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.
Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the Fox News Channel.