The California mulligan

This Real Clear Politics commentary on the California governor’s race reports on polling data that shows Gov. Davis to be “toast” and suggests that the race is “Arnie’s to lose.” RCP takes understandable delight in the consternation among certain left-leaning pundits over this state of affairs. And it beautifully captures the unlikeable essence of Arianna Huffington.
I must say, though, that the California mulligan has me a bit puzzled. I won’t shed any tears over the ignominious demise of Gray Davis. But millions of voters elected him governor less than a year ago. A few months later, he was on his way to being recalled. Maybe it’s because I haven’t followed California politics closely enough, but I don’t understand what happened during this short period that warrants his recall. As far as I can tell, Davis is guilty of being an unlikeable, hard-ball politician who presided over an economic downturn and claimed when running for re-election that the state was in better shape than it actually was. This neither distinguishes him from most elected officials nor strikes me as sufficient cause to “un-elect” him. But if Californians don’t want to have the governor they deserve, and there’s a way to get rid of him, so be it.
But what about the next governor that Californians will deserve? The process we are about to witness is surely a terrible way to decide who will deal with the state’s enormous problems. Although I hate to admit it, Margaret Carlson and Lawrence O’Donnell are not wrong to be concerned about the prospect of electing a celebrity with no political experience after a circus-like 60-day campaign. (In my view, it is not desirable to elect anyone under these circumstances, but particularly dangerous when the front-running is a political novice like Arnold). Some may point out that Ronald Reagan was also an actor who had never held public office when Californians elected him governor. However, Reagan had a decade or more of experience speaking out on the issues of the day. No one anyone doubted where Reagan stood. Arnold, by contrast, seems like a political tabula rasa, and 60 days won’t be enough to fill in many of the blanks. The RCP commentary warns of a “scorched earth campaign” coming Arnold’s way. I have no doubt that such a campaign will be launched. It will probably involve some ugly personal attacks. But the overall level of scrutiny — personal and political — is unlikely to approach what he would experience in an ordinary election year, with both a primary and a one-on-one race against a well-funded Democrat.
I suspect, that this is why Arnold confounded the experts and decided to jump in now. He will never again have the opportunity to be elected to high office under circumstances this conducive to avoiding intense substantive scrutiny.


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