The conventional wisdom couldn’t be clearer. Centrist squares off against liberal. Megacelebrity dukes it out with nerd. Unprimaried incumbent goes up against challenger staggering from a brawl in which he was both slimed against and sliming. Ten times out of 10, the unprimaried centrist megacelebrity wins.

Except, I’m not so sure. Yeah, yeah — Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t have scripted a better Democratic primary. Phil Angelides enters the general election as damaged goods, the victor of a contest that inspired no one, except to refrain from voting. (The late absentees aren’t in yet, but it looks as though roughly 70 percent of registered voters elected not to vote.) Angelides ran against a guy who never really established his identity (despite spending about $37 million of his own money to do so), yet he only won by four points.

But beneath the slime, he showed some spine. He picked the most hard-edged liberal theme imaginable, contending that nothing but higher taxes would really lift the quality of our schools, and when money flowing into the state coffers enabled Arnold to restore some of his education cuts, Angelides didn’t back off. In fact, he deepened his critique: So we can get to 43rd in per-pupil spending, he said. But we have to break this right-wing idiocy about not taxing the rich if we’re ever going to make serious gains. What’s wrong, he said, is the fundamental laissez-faire ethos of the age. In the midst of a hypercompetitive global economy the likes of which no one has ever seen, it’s time, it’s mandatory, that we invest in ourselves. That’s the thesis of the Angelides campaign. It should have been the thesis of Steve Westly’s campaign, what with his new-economy bona fides, but Westly championed investment-lite by running as the anti-tax Democrat. He squandered his shot at having an identity. Angelides was the hardcore-liberal-with-the-theory-of-growth-through-equity who ran the shit-slinging campaign. Westly was just the guy-with-good-hair who ran the shit-slinging campaign. And came up, accordingly, four points short.

Given the narrowness of his margin and the smallness of the electorate, though, Angelides won a surprisingly solid victory. He carried every part of the state except the San Joaquin Valley and the rural north. He won in San Diego and Orange counties, San Bernardino and Riverside. The only truly populous county that Westly carried was his home base of Santa Clara.

Blame for the low turnout can’t be laid entirely at the feet of the two Democratic candidates for governor. Californians haven’t had a year without a major statewide election, after all, since 2001. They’ve been through the dispiriting Davis re-election campaign of 2002, the out-of-nowhere recall of 2003, the Swift Boat presidential follies of 2004, the deeply unsought Arnold specials of 2005 ±— of just last November, in fact. After all that, who was ready for yet another election, with its torrent of ads on the air and in the mail and over the phones? The problem with socialism, Oscar Wilde once noted, was that it took too many evenings ±— a life filled with politics will burn you out. The problem with California is too many elections. Not to mention an election like the one we’ve just been through.

Labor, for instance, did precious little for Angelides — but given the diminished turnout, it ended up doing just enough. By past standards, the efforts of the L.A. County Federation of Labor were modest — some predictive-dialing phone banks and get-out-the-vote ground campaigns in just four districts (three assembly and one state Senate where labor had a critical mass of members and a candidate about whom it really cared). The efforts surely aided Angelides, who carried L.A. County by seven points, but the Fed’s more targeted efforts fizzled badly: Three of its four candidates lost decisively, with only Kevin de León, also aided by the largesse of his boyhood friend Fabian Núñez, emerging victorious.

There were extenuating circumstances. The unions went into hock to defeat Arnold’s initiatives last year and were saving their money for the battle royal against Arnold this fall. The Angelides-Westly contest didn’t compel anyone to write a new verse to “Which Side Are You On?” Even so, Tuesday’s showing may be the Fed’s poorest since Miguel Contreras began reinventing the political operation there a decade ago. Labor will have to do a lot better in November, and labor knows it.

But November may be a very different game, and there are two huge factors beyond Arnold’s control that work against him. The first is the registration and mobilization of new immigrant, chiefly Latino, voters, an effort that the unions are already funding and coordinating. “Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” read the signs at the megarallies in downtown L.A., and those demonstrators will in all likelihood be voting Democratic, voting Angelides. The second is the Democrats’ rage at Bush and the Republican Congress, and many Republicans’ demoralization. There is little Arnold can do about all these, save to distance himself as much as possible from the his own political party.

And he’s distancing as fast as he can. The guy who once called Ronald Reagan his hero is now modeling himself on the liberal Democrat whom Reagan unseated in 1966 — Pat Brown. Arnold 3 (first centrist, then conservative, now centrist again) has surrounded himself with some talented quasi-Democrats and is promoting the biggest transportation and education projects since Jerry’s dad built the modern California.

But as the senior Brown’s biographer, Ethan Rarick, makes clear in California Rising, his stellar account of Pat’s stellar governorship, the key to Brown’s success was his determination to pay for the state’s growth by raising the very same upper-bracket income and business taxes that Angelides wants to raise. In a sense, the battle for the governorship has become the battle for the mantle of Pat Brown. In this context, it’s Angelides who’s the real McBrown. But in a broader sense, this Brownian contest signals the end of the Howard Jarvis era in California politics, and the rebirth of commitment to Californians’ common destiny.

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