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After all the Negativity, Will the Victors Be Able to Govern California?

November 06, 1994|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

As the campaign that truth forgot spins to a close, it's becoming clear that the slash-and-trash politics of 1994 will make it extraordinarily difficult for the victors to govern California.

Throughout this election season, the mood of Californians has been sour. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that two-thirds of voters surveyed think the state is on the wrong track. Only 27% said it is headed in the right direction.

Voter antagonism toward government and the politicians who run it was high even before the flood of negative campaign ads hit. A national poll taken by Times Mirror Corp. earlier this fall, and a more recent Orange County survey conducted by UC Irvine researcher Mark Baldassare, depict an electorate that is rootless, self-absorbed, hostile toward the poor and social-welfare programs. And the campaign has only heightened that surly mood.

This has been the most poll-driven election campaign in memory. Anger, fear and divisiveness are its currency--and Californians are buying. And governance could be a victim.

Governing--shaping public policy--requires consensus. Reaching consensus, inevitably the product of compromise, requires that elected leaders and constituents have confidence in each other, trust each other. The rhetoric of this campaign has hardly inspired such trust.

In her ads and on the hustings, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown has repeatedly branded Gov. Pete Wilson a liar. In turn, Wilson has impugned Brown's consistency and integrity. It's not surprising that voters, already disdainful of government by "sleazy politicians," don't like either candidate much.

Still, despite the truly mean tone of the gubernatorial campaign, some discussion of policy has slipped past the strident and negative ads. The U.S. Senate campaign is another matter. It has seldom moved beyond character assassination.

Too bad. California voters have been denied the opportunity to participate in a clear-cut referendum on the direction they want government to take. A real choice between two quite different philosophies of governance has been buried under layers of mean-spirited charge and countercharge.

As a result, voters find themselves faced with a Hobson's choice. Do they vote for an incumbent whom Mike Huffington tarred as "a senator who serves special interests--and her own"? Or for a challenger whom Sen. Dianne Feinstein labeled as "secretive, threatening and greedy . . . the Texas oil millionaire Californians just can't trust"?

If Californians return Feinstein to Washington, might they view every one of her future votes skeptically--as just another "special interest" payoff? If Huffington replaces her, might he find himself a pariah in the Capitol, his motives and actions continually questioned by constituents and colleagues? In either case, California is the loser.

The fallout from the debate over Proposition 187 underscores the risks to governance inherent in crafting political support from anger, fear and distrust. Arguing against the initiative, which would deny most government services to illegal immigrants, hospital official David Langness told a Times reporter, "The overlay of civil disobedience, general confusion, lawsuits and uncertainty about how to apply the law will result in great chaos." Whether or not an exaggeration, such charged rhetoric serves to show how the anti-immigrant measure has further torn California's tattered social fabric.

Race has been injected into a critical policy problem. Inevitably, that will make a solution to illegal immigration more difficult to achieve, regardless of the vote. Whether 187-supporter Wilson or 187-opponent Brown is the next governor, the state's chief executive will have to lead a California incapable of debating serious policy alternatives.

So wide is the divisive net cast by the "Save Our State" initiative that the judiciary is almost certain to find its own reputation, already under a cloud, on the line if the measure passes. Opponents of 187 are primed to challenge the proposition's legality in court, and whatever the ruling, a lot of people's suspicions, mostly negative, about the system's ability to deliver justice will be confirmed. And voters who viewed Proposition 187 as a means to grab control of the policy process away from unresponsive politicians may find their will thwarted and their anger unassuaged.

The barrage of negative campaigning has meant something else this election year. When Californians vote on candidates to fill lower, state constitutional offices, they are, in effect, creating the leadership bench for the major parties. Because candidates in down-ballot races are usually inadequately funded and are virtually ignored by the media, voters seldom know much about them--beyond ballot title and party affiliation. This year, voters not only face uninformed choices--they have been pitched false choices.

If you catch the last-minute ads being aired by some candidates in down-ballot races, you could assume that the lieutenant governor, schools chief, secretary of state and insurance commissioner all have major crime-fighting responsibilities. If Californians cared enough to learn exactly what these hucksters do--and cannot do--after they take office, they would likely become even more contemptuous of politicians' promises.

Up and down the ballot, the real issues in Tuesday's election have been swept away by political mudslides. And it is representative government, and California's future, that may wind up being buried underneath the debris.*

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