The polls are never wrong. No matter that millions of new and presumably Democratic voters had been registered during the past year, no matter that Bush had lost the 2000 popular tally by half a million votes. All the polls except one had George W. Bush winning, and even that survey vacillated. The polls are always right.
This was one of several depressing thoughts going through my mind on election night at the Beverly Hilton, scene of a “Join Arnold” victory party sponsored by Schwarzenegger’s California Recovery Team. As in his Santa Monica restaurant, Schwarzenegger’s image was everywhere, from the loop of PowerPoint slides that filled the Grand Ballroom’s screen to the front of my media credential.
For some reason the event was billed as a nonpartisan “victory party” for the state propositions favored by the governor, even though it was obviously a GOP rally — cheers went up whenever Fox News placed a check mark next to Bush’s picture, and a few boos greeted news of the stem-cell-research-funding proposition’s victory, even though the governor favored it.
I’d arrived at 6 p.m. and walked into the ballroom with an elderly party volunteer from West Hollywood named Irene. Irene spoke with a New York accent and told me how she was facing eviction from the apartment in which she’d lived the past 24 years — a victim of the state’s Ellis Act, which allows landlords to raze rental properties and construct higher-rent buildings. She was a sweet soul who suddenly humanized her party for me. It wasn’t long, however, before Irene caught the attention of the event’s young, snub-nosed operators, whose eyes narrowed at the sight of the rumpled senior. Irene had thought the event was open to all Republicans, but the Bush youth members quickly explained otherwise and showed her the door — “security concerns,” they told me.
The night was long and bitterly cold inside the ballroom, which seemed air-conditioned to polar levels. The press was continually scrutinized by ushers and separated by steel barricades from the 200 or so guests, who included Wal-Mart corporate-affairs vice president Bob McAdam and Los Angeles D.A. Steve Cooley. As I stood in the frigid media pit, my thoughts turned to how the Democrats had blundered, but when Fox announced Kentucky Republican Senator Jim Bunning had retained his seat, I realized nothing that John Kerry could or should have done mattered. The 72-year-old Bunning’s increasingly bizarre — and offensive — campaign behavior, after all, had shown him to be a man approaching the upper reaches of dementia. His victory similarly explained why, during the first presidential debate, Bush came off as a gibbering he-chimp yet tonight swept the heartland and all the former slave states. These are the leaders America wants today, and there are plenty more where they came from.
“This is about taking back our state,” Department of Consumer Affairs director Charlene Zettel told me when it was announced that Indian-gaming Proposition 70 was losing. “Taking back our state” has become a mantra for conservatives, but taking it back from whom — the Indians? At one point I asked the event’s MC, Jim Bentley, if he’d been surprised by the scattered boos he received when he announced that stem-cell Prop. 71 was passing.
“I was,” he said. “That’s kind of an interesting issue. Stem cell’s important to the conservative right. My wife has MS and could be helped by it, but she’s a Christian and voted no. I voted for it.” Bentley, a TV actor who has known Schwarzenegger a long time, said, “He’s Reagan with an accent. He’ll be our president someday.”
Around 10:45 p.m., Bentley led the room in a “Four more years!” chant, then had the evening’s honored guests assemble on the ballroom’s stage. There they had to clap to canned funk for an embarrassingly long time in preparation for the appearance of the governor, who was said to be holding out for final word about the presidential tally. I’d been told by a Recovery Team organizer that 500 guests were expected this night, but not even half that were here, and they were getting restless and drunk. Finally, after half an hour, Schwarzenegger and his scary wife appeared.
“We’ve created some action to turn things around to make this the Golden State again,” the governor said. He congratulated both Democrats and Republicans who won state offices that night, along with “the great contributors of this campaign.” Fifteen minutes later, at the very end of the speech, he got around to tentatively congratulating Bush and then said, “Now let’s pahdy! Pah-dy!” But the Republicans had had enough of partying and emptied the room within a few minutes.
There will be much soul-searching in the months to come for Democrats, and it will be interesting to see if any of them realize they have ceased to be a political party and have simply become a projection of focus-group surveys. There will also be the usual blather about healing wounds and moving on, but such false consolation will ring especially hollow this time around. The wounds of 2004 should be kept open, and the memory of defeat sharp as broken glass. A new war has begun.