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Seismic Politics

This vote registered on the Richter scale.

By 10.9.03

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California tends to embrace change on a seismic scale. For years, one style of politics is the only way of doing things, and then voters decide to shake things up a bit. Tarnished Staters get sick of something (e.g., riots, high property taxes, unchecked illegal immigration, affirmative action), and send a system shock to the state's political movers and, er, shakers.

The recall election was at least an 8.5. Forty-three of 58 counties voted to send Gray Davis packing, and many of those counties that voted to keep the governor did so with clothespin firmly fastened. Recall was only narrowly defeated in Los Angeles, and the rest of the no vote hugged the central and northern coastline (Davis' strongest support, unsurprisingly, came from San Francisco). The voters were determined, Network-like, to tell Sacramento that they were mad as hell, and not… oh, but let's not start with the clichés.

That Schwarzenegger and McClintock together managed to get more than 60 percent of the vote should be heartening, really, except the only serious Democrat in the race, other than Davis, was Cruz Bustamante -- a man Reason editor Matt Welch described as a "completely unremarkable toad looking man who has a lot of stupid ideas." He promised to raise taxes if elected, refused to distance himself from the Chicano activism of his student days, and carried only a bare majority of the Latino vote.

I don't mean to belittle Herr Schwarzenegger's accomplishment, however. His climb to power, starting with the Riordan fake-out on Jay Leno and continuing relentlessly during numerous missteps and bimbo aftershocks, was one of the most inspiring examples of Machiavellian politicking I've ever witnessed.

What's more, it seems to me that's what voters loved about the governor-elect: He really is an S.O.B. whose unrestrained ambition has made him a very rich, very famous man. As I watched him swat away reporters' questions like they were flies, it occurred to me that (a) he really does think he's better than us, and (b) people might think, hey, that's the kind of man who can get things done.

And -- who knows? -- he might. Right now, Arnold's politics remain up in the air. His campaign has issued a smattering of policy proposals, but on the campaign trail, he relied mostly on anti-Davisisms and boilerplate platitudes. From the start of the campaign through election night, he ran a thoroughly vacuous campaign -- and I use that as a description, not an insult. Schwarzenegger's genius was to recognize that an electoral earthquake was about to occur, and to position himself accordingly.

Now comes the fun part: governing. The soon to be installed executive has two years to put the state back in order -- cut spending; reverse the naked handouts of the outgoing administration; take on some powerful constituencies, including popular ones -- before he faces the next election. Arnold has a mandate, granted, but those tend to be fast burning fuses. The legislature, though currently stunned, is not likely to be cooperative, which could lead to one of those make-or-break confrontations rather quickly. Will he play the part of Clinton, or Newt? Also, if readers thought the California media was out to get him before the election, just wait.

Finally, there is the issue of this column's repeated -- and, it turns out, wrong -- prediction that the Democrats would win. As one reader wrote, "You've got a lot to answer for!" The accusation, as I understand it, is that I got carried away in the anti-Arnold fervor of this fine publication and allowed it to cloud my political judgment. More likely, my analysis tried to be too clever, and ignored the real anger of Californians. In other words, I failed to feel their pain.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.