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An Unfriendly Discussion of Friends

June 08, 1986|WILLIAM KAHRL | William Kahrl writes on California issues from Sacramento

Because political consultants have the mentality of lemmings, once one of them gets a strong notion fixed in mind the others follow right along. Campaign ads tend to sound the same because they are the same. As a result, each election seems to establish a single theme, endlessly repeated with slight variations by everyone running for office--high, low, left, right or sideways.

In 1984, for example, all the politicians were campaigning against politics. There wasn't a pitch for a candidate or ballot proposition that failed to promise salvation from "the politicians."

This year's primary election, in contrast, was all about friends. Republicans fell all over one another trying to demonstrate who was the oldest, longest or truest friend of Ronald Reagan.

Rose Bird was nobody's friend but everyone wanted to prove the other guys nurtured some secret affection toward the chief justice. And then there were those ubiquitous armies of toxic waste polluters, forever hatching nefarious plots with their allies in the opposition camp.

Nobody last week, of course, had a chance to vote on Reagan, Bird and the toxic wastes industry, even though all three dominated debate in the primaries. But if this same theme carries over into the months ahead, the most important person in the November election won't be on the ballot either: The selection of nominees offers the Republicans an almost irresistible opportunity to turn the fall balloting into a referendum on a Democrat, Edmund G. Brown Jr.

As the former governor's most controversial remaining appointee, Rose Bird has become the principal lightning rod for all of the anti-Brown hostility that still roils through the body politic. Gov. George Deukmejian had a wonderful time running against Brown's record in 1982, even though Brown wasn't running against him. And the Duke seems to be revving up to do the same thing all over again this year.

To offer proof of his administrative skills, Deukmejian has been dwelling endlessly upon how he cleaned up the fiscal mess he inherited four years ago from Brown. The governor has also been going out of his way to remind the voters that Tom Bradley is relying on the same cadre of advisers that helped to put Brown in office in the first place.

Mike Curb, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, is likewise working to redeem his sullied public image by blaming any mistake he may have made in public office on the fact that he had to serve with Brown. And though the Democrats' selection for controller, Gray Davis, has been running as though the only friends he's ever had are three feet tall and formerly lost, his opponent in November, William Campbell, is certain to remind voters of Davis' past as Brown's chief aide.

For their part, the Democrats might well choose to counter the GOP slate by exploiting the so-called sleaze factor. Bradley has already sounded this theme in his efforts to ascribe Deukmejian's poor record on toxic waste control to active corruption rather than simple simple-mindedness. Curb has faced questions of the same kind throughout his career in politics. And the list of special interest bills that Campbell has carried during his years in the Legislature would make a soldier of Tammany Hall blush.

But there are limits to how far guilt by association can go in politics. In the last desperate weeks of his failing campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1970, Jesse Unruh started focusing on some of the more unsavory aspects of Reagan's strongest supporters. But as much as they might abhor the ethics and attitudes of Reagan's cronies, the voters decided they liked Himself just fine. And Reagan was the guy they were voting for, after all, not his friends.

Bradley, more than Deukmejian or any of the other political hopefuls this year, seems to be running the greatest risk of faltering against this simple fact of electoral life. Depending on which polls you care to read, Bradley's attacks on Deukmejian have succeeded either in reversing his decline in popularity or, at least, in slowing the speed with which Deukmejian has been widening the gap. But in the process, Bradley has become almost a forgotten man in his own campaign. Whatever the putative benefits may be of a campaign that focuses on everything that's wrong with Deukmejian, there has to come a point at which the mayor's managers begin to remind voters of what's right about Bradley.

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