By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I. Conventional Wisdom Error No. 1 - The Lungren Lock The talk in political circles these days is all about how the affable and passionate Dan Lungren will dispatch the painfully cautious Gray Davis - a candidate whose emotional constipation rivals Bartleby the Scrivener's - in the gubernatorial runoff this fall. The problem with this analysis is that it misses a defining aspect of the '98 campaign: that Republicans have run out of things to be passionate about.
For just as Republicans at the level of presidential politics have still not recovered from the end of the Cold War and their subsequent inability to label the Democrats as soft on communists, Republicans at the state level enter the '98 homestretch no longer able to play the crime and immigrant cards that have sustained them through the '90s. Attorney General Lungren may claim credit for the steep drop in crime, but in fact the drop has been so steep that crime just doesn't pack its customary punch at the polls. In primary-election exit polls, only 28 percent of California voters said it was their number-one issue, while 43 percent cited education. And Davis, having planned his run for governor for more than two decades now, is hardly a candidate to be caught on the soft side of any crime-and-punishment issue, be it three strikes, the death penalty, or more funding for cops.
If Davis affords Lungren little opening to run a wedge issue on crime, changes in California's demographics and economics have also made it all but impossible for Lungren to run against immigrants. In 1994, when California voters enacted Proposition 187, just 6 percent of the primary electorate was Latino. In last week's primary, 12 percent of the electorate was Latino - a bloc too large for Republicans to offend with impunity. Moreover, California's bouts of immigrant bashing have historically coincided with economic downturns and the concomitant need to find a scapegoat for hard times. 1994 was such a year; 1998, by contrast, looks to be a year of high employment and low xenophobia.
In sum, Dan Lungren enters the gubernatorial runoff without a wedge to call his own - in a state where Republicans characteristically owe their victories to their proficiency at wedge politics, at pushing those buttons that drive middle-class white Democrats into Republican candidates' arms. But Gray Davis has had 25 years to think this thing out, to know just how far he can go to forestall white flight and still not offend the party's nonwhite and liberal core constituencies. He led the opposition on the U.C. Board of Regents to dropping affirmative action, for instance, but he doesn't support rerunning Proposition 209, an idea his Democratic gubernatorial rivals embraced. He's an ardent supporter of gay rights and a pragmatic foe of gay marriage. Davis personifies decency right up to the point where it might become risky.
It's a measure of Lungren's desperation that the closest he can come to linking Davis to the kind of cultural liberalism that Republicans have grown accustomed to running against is to cite Davis' service as Jerry Brown's chief of staff back in the '70s. The problem for Lungren here is not merely the manifest differences between Davis and Brown. (Davis favored the death penalty, served in Vietnam, slept on a bed, etc., etc.) It's also that any candidate relying on the long-term memory of the California electorate should be prepared to finish no higher than second.
Indeed, the candidate with positions on the wrong side of the electorate in the coming runoff isn't Davis; it's Lungren. As Davis likes to intone, it's the A.G. who's been anti-choice, reluctant to ban assault weapons and slow to file against the tobacco industry. But Davis' greatest opportunity comes on the number-one issue, education, where the only remedy Lungren offers for the schools is a voucher program - a market-driven "solution" devised by the same think-tank wizards who argued there was nothing wrong with medicine that for-profit HMOs couldn't fix. If Davis can manage to counterpose a plausible program for improving the public schools - one that combines, say, real standards for teacher performance with real increases in teacher pay - the statehouse should be his. Not that a dearth of emotions is an asset in Oprah Age politics; but it beats coming before the voters with no issues at all.
II. Conventional Wisdom Error No. 2 - Those Centrist Latinos For over a decade now, the conventional wisdom among political analysts has been that Latinos, whenever they would finally burst upon the political stage, wouldn't be bursting stage left. Latinos weren't as liberal as blacks, the pundits said, pointing to a number of polls indicating widespread Latino opposition to welfare and support for police. If anything, the pundits have grown even more insistent on Latino centrism since last week's election, noting that of the four statewide Latino candidates going into November runoffs, two are Democrats and two Republicans, and that three Latino Republicans are likely to be elected to the Assembly (along with 15 or so Latino Democrats) this fall.
Up to a point, the analysts' argument is incontestable: There will be more Latino Republican officeholders than black ones; and on a number of critical issues, Latinos are more conservative than blacks.
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