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Lungren's Folly Was the Private Persona as Public Personality

Election: His preachy style allowed Davis to claim the center with bland grayness.

November 04, 1998|ARNOLD STEINBERG | Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist whose clients have included Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood

In a debate during the open primary, Dan Lungren was asked to pledge, if he became governor, not to run for higher office in two years. Lungren refused to commit to serve four full years.

Why? Hubris. This same arrogance would shape how he approached his campaign. It became his public personality, often making it difficult for him to communicate with the electorate.

A decent man, Lungren insisted on making character an issue, and the Lungren "character" television spot became his defining moment. The ad was irrelevant (Gray Davis had served in Vietnam) and seemed to exploit the Clinton scandal. This spot hurt Lungren because he was not listening to the voters, but lecturing, even preaching.

Lungren should be admired for his strong religious beliefs, but why, in his candidate statement in the official primary ballot pamphlet mailed to voters, did he speak of his Catholic faith? Apparently, Lungren and his strategists naively believed that Latinos and other Catholics would flock to Lungren based on his religion and social issues. Lungren also misinterpreted polls showing that people respect a candidate whose pro-life views are based on religious conviction. His deep feeling about abortion should have commanded respect but, defensive, he was implausible as a man of moral conviction.

Lungren seemed to make everything a moral issue. For example, after voters passed Proposition 215 to legalize medical use of marijuana, Lungren aggressively prosecuted groups distributing marijuana for cancer patients. Out of touch with the will of the people, he seemed to be looking backward. Lungren should have pursued the education issue for the past few years. He talked about vouchers when he should have spoken more broadly about school choice, which he needed to explain as a way to help improve public schools.

Lungren was right, even if self-serving, to speak for himself in his own television spots, because people want a candidate who can connect with them on camera. But Lungren said the wrong things in the wrong way. He often looked ill at ease. Of course, without a theme, the ads did not matter. Devoid of strategy, the campaign was adrift in tactical ineptness, with the candidate raising old issues (Rose Bird) and using jargon (tort reform). Lungren pursued capital punishment, although Davis favored it, and three strikes, although Davis supported a different version.

Unlike Lungren, Davis was focused and disciplined to occupy the political center. In the primary, while Al Checchi and Jane Harman pandered to Democrats at their state convention, the cautious Davis said he would make Proposition 209 work and that California was not ready for gay marriage. In the general election, his television spots showed him picking up a telephone and shuffling papers, while a voice-over announcer carried the message. Davis was never held accountable for his arrogance in not personally addressing issues in his spots until the final weekend, when the election outcome was certain.

It would be a mistake to blame Lungren's defeat on his ideas, which never were given a fair hearing. Regardless of what people tell pollsters about a single issue deciding their vote, they simply support the candidate they like most, then rationalize their decision. Indeed, in Lungren's final spot, an agitated female voice argued that Davis was "too mean-spirited" to be governor. But Davis came across as neither mean nor spirited, just bland. Ironically, the colorless Davis allowed even greater prominence for Lungren's unflattering self-portrait.

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