Big lesson of California recall: Voters angry enough to take action

Posted: Thursday, October 09, 2003

WASHINGTON If a political rookie from Hollywood can oust a two-term governor, perhaps no incumbent is safe. The recall in California, where voter discontent made political history, gives hope to challengers everywhere.

Even as Democratic and Republican strategists cautioned against assigning broad national implications to Gov. Gray Davis' demise, they said the recall campaign has reinvigorated a decade-old strain of disenchantment that incumbents must face or fall to.

''There is a piece of this that is germane only to Davis a big piece. That said, this is also a flashing yellow light to incumbents all across the country: Welcome to the politics of a jobless economy,'' said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., former aide to President Clinton and a supporter of Wesley Clark's Democratic presidential campaign.

Clinton benefited in 1992 from Ross Perot's anti-establishment campaign, which undercut then-President Bush's re-election bid. A roaring economy under Clinton's watch tempered voter unrest, though the sentiments rose again to buoy wrestler-turned-Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and 2000 GOP presidential candidate John McCain.

Clark is a retired Army general who, like Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, has no experience in elective office and little substance behind his domestic policies. Clark hopes to play a role mastered by California's Hollywood-honed new governor the political outsider.

Rival Howard Dean must take a different tack because he is no political neophyte; the Democratic presidential front-runner has a 20-year political career, including five terms as Vermont's governor. His anti-war, anti-establishment message appeals to voters tired of the Washington hierarchy, including Democratic leaders and President Bush.

Dean would like to think there is a national backlash against incumbents, but he wonders.

''It's a day after the vote. We don't really know the answer to that question,'' the candidate said in a telephone interview between campaign stops Wednesday. ''I do know we've lost 3 million jobs, and people don't know what do about Iraq, and the president doesn't know how to get us out.''

Even some Democratic strategists said Dean and his rivals can't read California's results as a mandate.

''This has no implication for George Bush or the Democrats,'' said Democratic pollster Doug Schoen, whose firm represents presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman. ''It was people voting against Davis. Not much more.''

Strategists said the recall did:

Exacerbate partisan divisions, with Democratic activists linking it to the contested presidential election in 2000. ''The Republicans are the party of Bonnie and Clyde they go from state to state stealing elections,'' said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked on Al Gore's campaign.

Complicated Bush's re-election bid. White House officials worry that Schwarzenegger will founder as he wrestles with California's budget deficit, the state's conservative GOP and a Democratic legislature. It might have been easier to run against the wildly unpopular Davis, they say.

Now the president's fortunes are linked to a new governor who enters the statehouse with a 45 percent unfavorable rating and accusations of sexual misconduct hanging over his head.

Point out why recalls are hard to organize in states not called California. ''After that circus, any state that already has a recall is less likely to use it and those thinking of having one will think twice,'' said Thomas Baldino, political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

The next measure of voter angst will be a smattering of elections next month. But incumbents don't appear to be under any unusual stress in Mississippi, New Jersey and other places staging November contests.

''The dynamics here were unique to this governorship and this particular recall effort,'' said Republican Party chair Ed Gillespie.

''I'm not sure you can extrapolate anything that happened in California to what might happen nationwide.''

Democrats and Republicans took one lesson from Davis' demise a bad economy hurts an incumbent who doesn't deal with it.

''What we're going to see is incumbent governors Republicans and Democrats being much more cautious and worried about inflaming public opinion,'' said pollster Schoen.

''It could bite Bush, too.''

Ron Fournier has covered the White House and national politics for The Associated Press since 1993.

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