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Desperately Seeking Solutions, Not a Revolt, In the Golden State

The day after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) extraordinary victory in California’s gubernatorial recall election, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee claimed to The Washington Times that Schwarzenegger won because he “ran on Democratic issues as a pro-choice and gay rights candidate.” [IMGCAP(1)]

A parade of other Democrats have tried to cast the loss in national terms, portraying what is clearly a crushing defeat as an angry, anti-incumbent voter revolt that threatens to sweep President Bush from office. Nobody topped House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, for chutzpah when she said that “the message in California is a message to President Bush: Stop [your] reckless economic policies.”

Still other Democrats took the totally opposite tack, trotting out the old “all politics is local” canard to discourage any negative national implications. They claimed it was all about Gov. Gray Davis with little or no impact for Democrats. We haven’t seen this kind of denial since “Baghdad Bob” told us no American troops were in the city over the sounds of the 3rd Infantry’s guns.

Here’s the truth. This is a huge and historic victory for Schwarzenegger and Republicans. And here’s why: First, Schwarzenegger campaigned enthusiastically on four traditional Republican issues: cutting taxes (the car tax), creating jobs by building a better environment for business (workers’ compensation reform), reducing regulation, and returning California to the land of opportunity it once was. If this is the new Democratic issue agenda, somebody better tell Terry McAuliffe and the Democratic presidential field.

Second, this was no anti-Bush movement any more than it was solely about Davis. The depth of the Republican victory on Tuesday — not only in the recall vote but in the size of the margin over Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) — shoots down that argument.

Between Schwarzenegger and the other major Republican candidate, state Sen. Tom McClintock, Republicans won 61 percent of the governor’s ballot vote. But even more telling and more disturbing for Democrats was the decision by significant numbers of the traditional Democratic base to desert the party on both the recall vote and the candidate ballot. Together, the two Republicans won 51 percent of union voters, 40 percent of Hispanic voters, 23 percent of African-American voters and a whopping 62 percent of moderates.

Moreover, the comparison between Davis and Bush, espoused by Democratic operatives charged with defending the indefensible, evaporates with a quick contrast in their job approvals — Bush in the low 50s and Davis in the mid 20s.

So, what does the Schwarzenegger victory really tell us? It tells us that something always beats nothing, solutions top partisan attacks, and vision prevails over empty negative campaigns. Plain and simple, Schwarzenegger won this decisive election because he ran a positive campaign that offered voters solutions to the problems they face.

Nine months before the 2000 election, I wrote in Policy Review, “[W]hile many Americans may label themselves moderate, survey research suggests that a better description of them might be as non-ideological, results-oriented solution-seekers — a new outcome-based segment of the electorate. The election in 2000 will be decided by the expanding group of voters looking for results-based proposals from candidates, not by political rhetoric about taking the country ‘right’ or ‘left.’” Exit polls in the 2002 Congressional elections showed that 49 percent of voters didn’t align themselves with either a liberal or conservative philosophy.

What was true in 2000 about what people want from their elected officials has become, post-Sept. 11, 2001, an even greater factor in voter behavior.

Pelosi was half right. California voters did send a message, but not the blindly partisan one she suggests. They said two things: “Stop fighting and do something.”

Schwarzenegger’s upbeat optimism and solution-based vision for California connected with voters and, I suspect for many, reminded them of another actor turned politician who promised a new direction and a change from politics as usual.

Moreover, Schwarzenegger’s positive tone was a marked contrast from the personal smear tactics of Davis and the California Democratic Party.

Fairness is important to most Americans, and the personal attacks and anonymous charges in the last few days of the campaign blew up in the Democrats’ collective faces.

So, what is the lesson Members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats — should take away from this election? This was not an anti-incumbent election. It was not an anti-Bush election. What voters wanted before party or ideology was a governor who could get the job done and solve their problems.

In this post-9/11 environment, people clearly want solutions and not shrill partisan attacks, positive ideas and not character assassination. This poses a challenging environment for incumbents of both parties.

With an energy bill, appropriations bills, a Medicare prescription drug bill, a jobs bill and Iraq funding still awaiting final action, Congress should take the lessons of the California recall to heart and put legislative progress over partisanship. Those seen as unwilling to do the job may soon find themselves, like Gray Davis, updating their résumés.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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