Messageless moderates fared poorly on Tuesday night, including Republican ones. In California, Republicans were thrown a lazy curveball over the center of the plate and barely even bothered to swing.
A state reeling from crises due to one-party rule stayed in the hands of that one party because California Republicans have basically nothing to say. What little passion they possess is expended on figuring out what not to say.
Lest anyone in the state’s liberal media monopoly call them “extremist,” they mute the Republican message, reducing their differences with the Democrats to insignificant particulars too boring to register with ordinary Californians, much less inspire them to vote Republican.
Running scared is a formula for political oblivion. Self-hating, hesitant, we-will-manage-things-a-little-better-than-the-Dems Republicanism clearly doesn’t inspire Californians. Unless the status quo is boldly challenged, most California voters will just assume it isn’t bad enough to change.
Gray Davis was able to turn a race about his competence and character into a race about Bill Simon’s for reasons both obvious and not so obvious. The media’s retailed the obvious ones — Simon’s stumbles, his company’s lawsuits, his tax returns, etc. But what they haven’t mentioned is that Simon ran a nonideological campaign, thereby leaving Davis with no issues except personal ones.
Davis had planned to attack Simon as a candidate too conservative for the state. But it became clear early in the race that Simon wasn’t really running on conservative issues. With that avenue cut off to him, Davis shifted to character assassination, which turned out to be a far more fruitful venue for smears.
Simon could have won a debate about ideas, even one that Davis would have inevitably turned demagogic. But Simon had little chance of winning a character-assassination contest with Davis given the governor’s unlimited advertising budget. Being called conservative, after all, is not nearly as damaging as being called corrupt, especially when your opponent can run hundreds of radio and television ads a day uncontested.
What made matters worse was that Simon seemed to take as many blows from fellow Republicans as from Gray Davis. Republicans acted as if they didn’t even want to win in California. Liberal Republicans, still sour over Richard Riordan’s tanking in the primary, treated the contest as a Gray Davis blowout when it wasn’t one. That the race ended as closely as it did is no thanks to them.
Though liberal Republicans usually lecture conservative Republicans on being team players, their primary role in the campaign seemed to consist of serving as anti-Simon sources for the media’s endless stream of Simon-can’t-win stories. The media was certain Simon’s campaign would prove hopeless and made sure of that with its coverage, aided in part by Republicans eager to predict doom. Simon, as a rookie candidate, needed propping up not potshots from them, and, for all his missteps, he showed more commitment than these critics.
Liberal California Republicans will invent comforting fictions to explain Tuesday’s Democratic sweep. Fiction number one is that Riordan would have run a successful campaign. Anybody who thinks this didn’t see him campaign in the primary. His astute campaigning skills then included insulting the GOP icon George Deukemejian and describing his party’s base as “extremist.” But no matter: for liberal Republicans the solution to liberal Republican defeats is always more liberalism.
What they don’t appear to see is that Simon took too much of their advice, and consequently had no compelling vision to offer Californians.
The most successful Republican in a statewide race on Tuesday was not a liberal Republican, but state senator Tom McClintock, an unapologetic Reaganite Republican who barely lost to Steve Westly in the controller’s race.
California Republicans find themselves in the same position as Democrats outside of California: they either renew their fundamental principles or face further oblivion. The only good news for California Republicans is that a backlash will undoubtedly accompany four more years of one-party governance. Californians’ mood for dramatic change is going to intensify as the state’s debts and taxes rise.
A huge political void will exist. But Republicans will have learned nothing from Tuesday’s results if they rely on more me-too Republicanism to try and fill it.
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