People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) blasted Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox for the Sacramento launch of his statewide bus tour, which featured a fuzzy and cute companion: a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear named Tag. “Wild animals must be left alone and not confined to a pen and wheeled out for events,” PETA complained. The animal-rights group’s criticism was the least of Cox’s worries.
I’m no expert on bears, but Tag looked perfectly happy begging for treats from the modest crowd and meandering around a makeshift pen. The bigger problem involved messaging. Cox unveiled a $5 million ad buy comparing the “pretty boy” governor, Gavin Newsom, with the “beast.” Cox depicted himself as a tough, beastly guy who will take on California’s myriad problems. I detail them nearly every week here at The American Spectator.
Instead of bringing attention to these substantive policy issues, the publicity stunt mainly became a source of widespread derision. It looks like Tag’s handlers did a far better job managing the real beast than Cox’s handlers are doing managing his latest campaign. Mascots aren’t supposed to overshadow the candidate or his message.
The bus tour was just beginning, but it might eventually be seen as the death knell of an earnest recall campaign borne of frustration with stay-at-home orders, an out-of-touch governor, and the Democratic-controlled state’s refusal to take seriously California’s crumbling infrastructure, lousy schools, high taxes, and stifling regulatory climate. The latest polls show Newsom with 59-percent approval ratings as the recall heads to the ballot, unfathomable as that seems.
The Sacramento Bee’s Gil Duran is no friend of Republicans, but his summary of the “Beauty and the Beast” press stunt is nevertheless accurate: “A state party that once produced American presidents is now merely a platform for egomaniacal stunts by wealthy oddballs and aging porn stars.” It’s now “little more than a political host for opportunistic infections” as “Democrats hold every statewide office and legislative supermajorities.”
One need only peruse Twitter to read endlessly hilarious hot takes on Cox’s stunt — and not just from Democrats and Republican bashers. Jon Fleischman, the former executive director of the state GOP and publisher of the influential GOP-oriented Flashreport, tweeted that “Cox is smart and conservative. But the bear stunt doesn’t position him as a serious candidate for serious times.”
Cox was displeased when I referred to him as someone “who may be on track to become the Harold Stassen of California politics.” Stassen became governor of Minnesota in 1939 at age 31 and was a serious candidate for the GOP nomination in 1948. He couldn’t resist electoral politics even though he wasn’t very good at it. Stassen ran seven more unlikely presidential campaigns — plus failed runs for governor (of two states), mayor, senator, and congressman.
“I sometimes wish people would ask not how many times I’ve run a political campaign, but how many times I’ve been right on the issues,” Stassen once said, according to his obituary in the New York Times. Well, being right on the issues is a good thing — but if you’re going to continually run losing political campaigns, you have to expect that to become your legacy. The comparison seems apt.
In 2018, Politico described the “Cox paradox”: “A cerebral, quixotic, 63-year-old Illinois snowbird with a personal fortune and a political résumé that includes three losing bids in that state, as well as an abortive presidential bid in the 2008 race, is running a campaign that not even other Republicans are eager to support.” He did a decent job in the top-two primary, edging out former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to run against Newsom in the general election.
Then he got clobbered by nearly 24 points — something that’s even worse than it appears given that Newsom barely attacked him. Cox seems heartened that he received 4.74 million votes, which is more votes than any other GOP candidate has mustered (except for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 general-election victory). Yet it doesn’t matter how many votes a candidate receives if the other candidate receives nearly three million more.
The other high-profile candidate is Caitlyn Jenner, the transgendered former Olympian and reality TV star. Her political platform is unclear, but she calls herself a “compassionate disrupter” who will — blah, blah, blah — take on career politicians and restore the California Dream. Kevin Faulconer, the moderate former San Diego mayor, plus a variety of flotsam-and-jetsam, have shown interest in running. We’ll see who emerges, but let’s not set our hopes too high.
The 2003 recall had 135 mostly ne’er-do-well and oddball candidates, but at least Arnold Schwarzenegger — despite his many flaws — emerged as a leader with a solid message of governmental reform. His eventual administrations were lackluster, but the GOP did indeed have a compelling top of the ticket — and Gov. Gray Davis had dismal approval ratings amid rolling electrical blackouts, a soaring deficit, and a hike in vehicle-license fees.
There’s a strong case against Newsom, but the electorate is much different now. The governor remains surprisingly popular as the state reopens and Democrats are trying to turn this into a partisan battle. By the time the recall takes place, it will leave only around a year before a regular election begins. Those California Republicans who think the recall is a ticket to their resurgence are living in dreamland.
If Cox’s unbearable kickoff is any indication of the fortunes of the California GOP, then perhaps the state is too far gone to expect a serious, reform-minded Republican to ever again capture the public’s imagination — even though the state’s initiative votes suggest that voters aren’t as progressive as some people think. Tag seemed charming, but it’s sad watching the recall devolve into a circus.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.
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