A Democrat Despite Himself 

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002

It is instructive that no wing of the Democratic Party claims Governor Gray Davis as its own. Though he is a fiscal conservative and attempts to govern from the center, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council -- a group that hails every remotely friendly sewer commissioner as a path-breaking New Democrat -- gives Davis a wide berth. Though Davis delivers for unions when he feels compelled to, I know no labor leaders or union activists who really think of Davis as a union Democrat. Left to his own devices, Davis doesn‘t really fall anywhere on the political spectrum. He is elsewhere.

That’s because Davis really isn‘t interested in the ends of politics nearly as much as the means. As governor, he has to take positions, sign or veto bills and, ultimately, affect the lives of 35 million people. But he does not live for this -- either to shift the state in a particular direction or to tinker with legislative details or manage an immense bureaucracy. He is consumed, as no other pol in my experience has been consumed, by the mechanics of getting in power and staying in power.

All pols must consume something of themselves in that quest, and some of them have been infinitely more adept at it than Gray. As Robert Caro has shown us, Lyndon Johnson amassed power with a brilliance that Davis can only dream of. But Johnson also knew you amassed power to spend it, and that spending it could get you more power if you spent it wisely. And Johnson enjoyed the spending -- using his clout to enact the great civil-rights bills, for instance -- as much as the getting.

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Davis enjoys none of that. He’s not a governor for legislative give-and-take, for grand compromises going back and forth between the players. All he wants to do is amass power -- less abstractly, to fund-raise. That is what animates him, that and the management of his own election campaigns. For Davis, the means have become the end. Politics is about raising money and spending it well. It‘s not at all clear that he actually likes those chores, but it’s very clear that he derives no joy from all the other aspects of politics, which are usually what bring people into politics in the first place. He is the Unhappy Warrior, and it shows.

This makes policy choices a particularly fearful undertaking for Gray, since he cares little for the outcome save as it affects his ability to raise more money or maintain popular support. He dithered endlessly during the energy crisis because he had to choose; he ran the risk of offending major contributors such as utility and energy companies. Indeed, in almost every political choice our governor makes, you can all but see the dollars-and-cents calculations whirring in his head, as in a Scrooge MacDuck dialogue balloon. Davis, for instance, is much more likely to sign a bill backed by a union (that is, an entity that can write him a check) than one that will benefit the unorganized working class (which writes no checks whatever). Not until the major unions made it their priority to raise workers‘ comp payments, for instance, was Davis at all interested.

For Davis, moreover, all policy choices entail a risk that he will alienate some potential supporters. The larger consequences of these decisions may not really matter all that much. Endeavoring in recent days to assure Latino crowds that he will next year sign some version of legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses, he said he looked forward to the day when ”we‘ll get this behind us.“ A remarkably self-absorbed way to look at major civil rights legislation, that.

Gray is a pay-to-play governor, which, given our system of campaign finance, is all perfectly legal. And since he is little else but that, Californians have come to dislike him rather intensely. Both ethically and characterologically, he is a miserable human being -- unhappy in his work, and depressing those who hope for something better in a governor than a calculating cash register.

And yet, Gray Davis has presided over the ongoing transformation of California into just about the most equitable and humane state in the nation. Taken together, the bills he has signed into law, particularly in this year’s session, have begun to make California a progressive island on the land. The only U.S. state big enough to be a real nation unto itself (boasting the world‘s sixth largest economy) is developing policies and standards of its own that run counter to, and even threaten, those of George W. Bush’s Washington.

At a time when the national government is busily attacking the environment, the security of working people, and the regulations designed to keep corporations from completely ruling the world, California is moving in a different direction. In the past year, California has become the first state to provide paid family leave for workers -- long a staple in Europe, but never before enacted in the U.S. It has provided binding arbitration for farm workers, who had been unable to get contracts out of roughly two out of every three employers with whom workers had authorized them to bargain. It has enacted fuel-efficiency standards far stricter than those of the federal government, with a market in cars so large Detroit has to comply. It has required its utilities to provide 20 percent of the state‘s energy from renewable sources by the middle of the next decade -- a profound shift in the ways Americans collect and consume energy. It has provided its own funding for stem-cell research, even as the fundamentalist forces in D.C. have blocked any serious chance for pursuing the scientific and medical advances that derive from such research. It has enabled Californians to sue gun manufacturers for gunshot injuries and death, while Washington has cowered beneath the NRA’s shadow of a gunman.

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