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Deukmejian Discovers Savvy

August 10, 1986|WILLIAM KAHRL | William Kahrl is a frequent contributor from Sacramento.

One of the problems with representative government is that it makes getting elected the primary qualification for leadership. The consequence for California in recent years has been a gaggle of governors who are better at running for office than running the office itself.

Jerry Brown, for example, tried being governor for his first two years in the post, didn't like it, and spent the next six years running for anything else that was handy. Similarly, Ronald Reagan has never exhibited much enthusiasm for the details of administration but has kept a firm grip on the public's affection, in part because he never seems to stop campaigning, often against the same government he heads.

George Deukmejian, in contrast, really enjoys being governor and has always made light of his talents on the stump. It's easy to serve up that kind of humble pie, of course, when you're way ahead in the polls. But in this election season at least, I find that I like Deukmejian the candidate a lot more than Deukmejian the governor.

I'm not talking about the difference between image and reality. On an issue such as toxic-waste control, after all, who wouldn't prefer the Deukmejian we see in television commercials to the Deukmejian we've come to know as governor? Deukmejian the candidate has a terrific record of expanding the state's control program for toxics. Deukmejian the governor inherited a bad situation and made it so much worse that the federal government for a time wouldn't let his cronies near the program and instead sent in the FBI to investigatetheir mismanagement. The guy on TV wants to crackdown on polluters. The one who's governor thinks they ought to be running the show.

Every politician, however, sheds his record like a warmup suit when it is time to run. The differences I have in mind have more to do with savvy--the way Deukmejian has conducted himself in this election, his relationship to the flow of current events.

The Deukmejian we've seen in office, for example, has been slow to respond to emerging issues. The few initiatives that he has actually launched have been ill-conceived and invariably have fallen apart as he tried to rush them into place before anyone could examine them carefully. But what a contrast there is between the mess that Deukmejian as governor made of his toxic-waste reorganization, water planning and reapportionment, and the fine touch that Deukmejian the candidate displayed in persuading the regents of the University of California to reverse their position on investment in South Africa.

Rather than issuing a broad policy statement denouncing apartheid and leaving it at that, as most American politicians have done, Deukmejian targeted a specific area where he has some influence and where a change of policy would have significant impact. He announced his proposal just far enough in advance of the regents' meeting so that the other members couldn't complain that they'd been blind-sided. And yet there wasn't time for a countermovement to take shape. In calling for divestment over four years, moreover, Deukmejian may have been too moderate for the regent critics, but he silenced any complaint from within the board that precipitous action might endanger the university's finances.

Over the past four years we've seen Deukmejian sulk and snap when things don't go his way. But mainly we've seen him embarrassed by his subordinates. When Tom Bradley began calling Deukmejian corrupt earlier this year, I suspect the charge fell flat because it was so hard to imagine that his appointees could organize lunch let alone a serious raid on the public treasury.

But in this year's election, the governor's people have been uncharacteristically ept. Whenever the Bradley campaign denounces maladministration of a particular agency or department, the Deukmejian staff usually has been able to produce an immediate retort that is often punchier than anything the mayor had to say. As a result, Deukmejian has been getting a free ride on many of the news stories that Bradley's press releases produce.

Timing, finesse and wit are no substitute, of course, for real substance. And it is a measure of the weakness of Deukmejian's opposition that he hasn't once had to say anything about what he'd actually do if he were reelected.

I do not, however, share the dour view that the absence of substantive debate in this year's campaign proves that television, image-mongering, and all the other attributes of modern campaigning have undercut the electoral process by interfering with our ability to know the candidates clearly.

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