The Dollar Dems

If he accomplishes nothing else during his megabucks run for governor, Al Checchi has already set the standard for party-giving. Delegates to last weekend’s state Democratic Convention at the Bonaventure Hotel were plainly stunned by Checchi’s Saturday-night reception. They dutifully cruised through the desultory soirees of Checchi’s rivals, Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis and Representative Jane Harman, which featured the usual Democratic fare of cheese cubelets and cauliflower in greenish dip. Then they descended into Checchi’s bash, which had converted a hotel ballroom into a glammed-up club, complete with flashing lights and live music from no less than Los Lobos. The only thing missing from the reception was Checchi himself, who spoke for about three minutes and then vanished into the darkness.

The guests were just as much in the dark as their host. They stood in clusters — those who weren’t there just for Los Lobos — and talked about Checchi. Had anybody seen him? Spoken with him? How had he made his money? Leveraged buyouts in the ’80s, was that it? And suddenly the party seemed very familiar. The attractive, elusive, big-spending host with the mysterious past; the curious throngs of guests — this could have been one of Jay Gatsby’s parties. Checchi, after all, had burst into California politics right at the top, with no public record to judge him by. And he was, like Gatsby, the most accomplished arriviste anyone had encountered in years. His speech to the delegates the next morning was designed precisely to allay the delegates’ doubts — beginning with its very title, "Why I’m a Democrat." And not just any Democrat, but a Pat Brown Democrat. In the quarter-century following World War II, Checchi told the press conference following his speech, California led the nation in per capita spending on public works. To the extent that one can be a Keynesian without advocating deficits, or even higher taxes, then Checchi is a Keynesian, convinced that the key to growth is public investment in schools, roads, high tech and the like, and convinced that we can fund that public investment with tax revenues that come from growth. Though Davis has the inside track on most union endorsements, Checchi has already been endorsed by the carpenters union, who haven’t seen a big-project guy like this in decades. Checchi is plainly the beneficiary of some of the best speechwriting and speech coaching that money can buy. He has mastered the staccato hand-chopping of John Kennedy to underscore his points; he knows how to slowly raise his decibel level as he approaches a crescendo. But the delegates sat quietly throughout his speech, neither shaken nor stirred by anything he said. The problem is that while Checchi endeavors to evoke memories of JFK, he rather effortlessly evokes memories of old Joe Kennedy, too. Like Kennedy père, he has amassed a great fortune that he now is pumping into the political process to bend it to his will. Unlike the Kennedys, however, he has established no generational buffer for his ambitions; he is Joe and Jack rolled into one, the enabler and the beneficiary, the maker of deals and the seeker of votes. Checchi gives the Democrats nowhere to hide; they know they’re being bought. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats like some ambiguity in these matters. It’s fine if money talks, but with Checchi, it screams. The delegates found him appealing as a candidate and appalling as a phenomenon, and they sat quietly, conflicted, as he spoke. With Jane Harman, of course, the Demo- crats have no such problem, since she made her money the old-fashioned way: She married it. And by weekend’s end, she had emerged as the prudent shopper to Checchi’s binge buyer. At Sunday’s round of press conferences, Checchi said he’d already spent $18 million of his own money on the campaign — and this during the period in which people aren’t yet paying attention. Late entrant Harman had spent more than $4 million and had already passed Checchi in the latest Field Poll. But if Checchi harks back to the Pat Brown tradition of big projects for a big state, Harman comes off more as the South Bay version of Calvin Coolidge. A deficit hawk throughout her five years in Congress, she declined at the convention to support state education Superintendent Delaine Eastin’s proposal to commit an additional $6 billion to public schools. Checchi embraced the proposal, saying the state’s economic growth could cover that with no tax increase. Harman, more skeptical, would only commit to an additional $2 billion in education spending. Harman is no political newcomer, but she’s surely new to politics at this level. Her speech was more tentative and unfocused than either Checchi’s or Davis’, and the delegates viewed her almost as warily as they did Checchi. But the buzz was plainly Jane’s. The sole female candidate running against two male candidates in a female-dominated primary electorate, an accomplished pol able to win and hold what looked to be a Republican seat in the House, socially liberal, fiscally conservative and rich enough to stay on TV straight through Election Day, Harman was widely thought to be the strongest candidate against Republican Dan Lungren come November. Still, she had recently been quoted in the L.A.Times describing herself as "the best Republican in the Democratic Party," and that sort of thing, like Checchi’s money, was a bit too blatant for your typical delegate. Like Checchi’s, her speech left the conventioners pensive and quiet. Both candidates offer the prospect of an end to 16 years of Republican rule in Sacramento, but neither promises the kind of Dem-ocratic government for which true-believing Democrats have been waiting lo these many years. Gray Davis, by contrast, owned the room. The delegates cheered when he came to the podium and cheered throughout his speech. No matter that Davis has long been viewed as one of the coolest calculators in the party, his ambitions almost painfully on display at every turn. He was, as Checchi and Harman were not, at home. He did not have to tell the delegates why he was a Democrat. To the contrary, Davis delivered a more traditional Democratic address, covering his bases to the right. (He ran through the obligatory list of police unions that endorsed him.) Indeed, much of Davis’ speech was an attempt to read his opponents out of the party. Checchi, he charged, still declined to identify himself as a Democrat in his TV ads and, he revealed, had given $1,000 to both Bob Dole and Steve Forbes during the ’96 campaign. (In his press conference, Checchi explained this away as a matter of social obligations to fund-raising friends, and dismissed the two grand, fairly plausibly, as chump change.) Harman, said Davis, was indeed a Republican in Democrat’s clothing, siding with the Gingrichites against the Clinton administration on at least one key budgetary vote. What we’re seeing here is a new level of market segmentation in California politics, forced upon us by the changeover this June to an open primary. Republicans and independents will be able to vote for a Democratic candidate in this year’s primary, a situation much to the liking of Checchi and Harman, who both have the money and the politics to reach beyond the normal Democratic electors. Davis has neither, a deficiency that only works for him if he can convince every single loyalist that a vote for anyone else is a betrayal of Democratic principle. Davis can certainly claim to have been a faithful standard-bearer for the Demo-cratic cause. On the UC Board of Regents, he led the opposition to Pete Wilson’s war on affirmative action, and successfully engineered the board’s support for domestic-partner benefits. His convention speech eloquently extolled the value of California’s diversity in an increasingly global economy. Indeed, Davis is one of those pols whose political gears can be heard clicking inside his head as he acknowledges each of the groups within the Democratic coalition. At one point, he quoted the line inscribed on a state office building: "Give me men to match my mountains"; only he corrected "men" to "people" lest anyone be offended. Davis may be willing to incur the wrath of the Alliteration Lobby, but he’s yet to challenge any Democratic group more powerful than that. If there’s a model for Davis’ campaign, it seems to be Walter Mondale’s presidential bid of 1984. Mondale was the candidate of the Democratic establishment that year, fighting off the insurgent campaign of New Democrat Gary Hart. Like Davis, he seemed to know every leader of every constituency he could ever wish to court. But Mondale was also an old-style liberal, the last in a line of Minnesota social democrats, who still inspired a deep loyalty among thousands of Democratic activists. That kind of loyalty is almost nowhere to be found within the atrophied political culture of the ’90s, and most especially within the confused and tired ranks of Democratic liberals. If there’s someone out there who can still tap into that loyalty, it is not Gray Davis. His problem is not just that he lacks Harman’s and Checchi’s money; it is also that he lacks the passion — and the ability to instill passion in others — with which he could at least partially overcome the dollar deficit. Davis is nobody’s idea of a wild fling: At his press conference, he declined to join Checchi and Harman in saying he’d sign a bill legalizing gay marriage or sponsor an initiative to repeal Proposition 209. He is a cautious pol for a cautious time — in most instances, smart politics, but in this instance, with the money against him and with the devotion of Democrats still untapped, a politics that may only help to do him in. By weekend’s end, in fact, it was clear that even hardcore delegates had made their peace with all of these candidates. All three, after all, are running as moderates. There are no left-of-moderate governors — for that matter, hardly any left-of-moderate mayors — abroad in the land. The Dem-ocrats’ expectations have been lowered; beating Dan Lungren is all they ask. They feel uneasy about the current crop of candidates. They also feel resigned to them. The question remains as to whether political reporting, as we’ve come to understand it, is the best way to cover this race. With pretty much all American governors reading off the same page these days, funding schools and scrapping welfare, maybe the real news here is the economic impact of the campaigns. Al Checchi, for instance, will be injecting $40 million to $50 million into the state economy by primary day if he maintains his current rate of spending, with Harman in hot pursuit. Checchi will probably kick in $100 million or more if he goes all the way to November. Lamentably, almost all this money goes to local television stations, whose chief impact on the California economy is actually to lower the IQ of viewers throughout the state. Hence, the additional $6 billion that Checchi has pledged to school districts probably has to be increased to $8 billion or $9 billion to offset the aggregate decline in intelligence and social capital that results from so sizable a shift of resources to the commercial electronic media. By this calculus, California will have to become considerably more stupid if Checchi is to be elected — though Dan Lungren promises a far stupider state at far less cost. Maybe the real case for Gray Davis is that he can’t spend enough money to do us any harm.