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THE CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / A VOTERS' HANDBOOK: DECISION
'98 | ESSAY

Revival of the Road Kill

November 01, 1998|ROBERT A. JONES

Last spring, a few of us sat watching the gubernatorial debate on the telly. There stood Jane Harman, Gray Davis and Al Checchi--remember Al Checchi?--along one side of the stage. At the other side stood Dan Lungren.

Checchi seemed to be practicing his confused look. Harman whined about macho politics. Davis told stories about his soldier days in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Lungren smiled benignly on the scene. He talked about his love of California and his devotion to the ethos of Ronald Reagan. His style was loose and often funny. He even admitted that some of his beliefs, such as his opposition to abortion, placed him outside the majority. But, he said, he would not violate his own principles simply to win votes.

Toward the end, as the camera panned over the Democrats, one of my friends leaned toward the screen and pointed to each of them.

"Road kill, road kill, road kill," he said.

There was no dissent from the rest of us. Lungren appeared to have the right waltz steps, he had the legacy of Ronald Reagan, he even had humor. I made a bet with someone--at 3 to 1, no less!--that whoever won the Democratic primary would lose to Lungren in November by 6 points or more.

Well, it ain't over till it's over, but it looks like I'm gonna lose that bet. The latest polls, taken in late October, show Lungren falling behind in virtually every voter category except hard-core conservatives. His campaign has been swamped by indifference, and he now trails Davis among likely voters by margins ranging from 9% to 11%.

Those are substantial margins but they pale beside another number. The Los Angeles Times Poll shows Davis winning the support of 45% of moderate Republicans versus 44% for Lungren. Statistically that's a tie, but you get the idea. Lungren appears to have failed to ignite support among his own party's middle, and the middle is where statewide elections are won or lost in California.

You could argue that Lungren has become the Kathleen Brown of the Republican Party: a great-expectations candidate who, for reasons of personality, never connected with his own natural constituencies. Maybe, but I would argue that something more is afoot here.

Allow me to cite further evidence. First, Barbara Boxer also appears to be winning in her race for a second term as U.S. senator. If any California candidate started out the year as a political DOA, it was Boxer. Too shrill, too feminist, she was the candidate who reminded men of their scary girlfriends from the 1970s, and political wisdom said they would desert her in droves.

But according to the most recent Field poll, she now leads the challenger, Matt Fong, by a margin of 51% to 42%. Only a month ago, she trailed Fong, 44% to 48%. If Boxer wins, it will represent one of the more startling political resurrections in recent history.

And finally this: In the midst of this much-predicted downturn year for the Democrats, with their president in danger of being impeached, the party is now expected to expand its majorities in both the California Assembly and Senate and collect the lion's share of other statewide offices.

"Never would I have predicted this a year ago," said Richard Katz, the former Democratic assemblyman who lost his race for the state Senate last spring and now watches from the sidelines. "Never would I have bet on Gray Davis. It just didn't seem to be in the cards."

It's not as if California is following a nationwide trend. In fact, it's an anomaly. In other regions of the country, no equivalent Democratic momentum has been detected. From state to state, candidates appear to be fighting their way toward a rough status quo and Republicans still expect to add a few seats in both houses of Congress.

So what's going on here? You could argue that the Democratic tide represents nothing more than a backlash against the scandal-obsessed Republicans. But I don't believe it. I think, rather, that California is signaling a more interesting development.

Namely, the Reagan-inspired Republican agenda seems to be losing traction after a run of many years. This state, which incubated many elements of the Republican agenda, now may be suggesting a weariness with the party and its themes.

After all, what are those themes? Military preparedness against the Communist threat. Crackdowns on crime. Downsizing of the welfare state. Vigilance against government intrusion.

With the exception of government intrusion, these issues largely have been put to rest. Crime has fallen dramatically. Much of the welfare system has been jettisoned. The Commies, beaten and broke, only threaten each other.

As for government intrusion, which party has now come to represent a fervor for poking into the lives of citizens on matters of morality and personal behavior? That's right. In a sense, the Republicans have become their own nightmare.

Earlier this week, in a report from California, the Wall Street Journal noted that the traditional "wedge issues" employed by Republican candidates no longer seem to be working here. Ever since the murderous image of Willie Horton proved successful a decade ago, Republicans have pounded on the issues of race, immigration and crime that set one group of voters against another.

But this year, the Journal wrote, "Something remarkable is happening here . . . the galvanizing power of the Republican wedges has diminished sharply."

In other words, the party is losing traction, its wheels are slipping in mud. Even after two terms of a Democratic president. Even with the wind of a Democratic scandal at its back.

And the wheels slipped first here, in California.

Who would have guessed.

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