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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT/ WILLIAM BRADLEY

Reagan-Based Miscalculation Doomed GOP

Davis takes office with a Legislature near its Democratic heyday.

November 05, 1998|WILLIAM BRADLEY | William Bradley, an advisor in several Democratic presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, writes on politics and other topics. E-mail: bill@ brad.com

California often has been treated to consequential races for its seats in the U.S. Senate. Alan Cranston vs. Max Rafferty in 1968, Jerry Brown vs. Pete Wilson in 1982, Cranston vs. Ed Zschau in 1986.

This year promised another such. After all, Republicans have been chomping at the bit to run against the Senate's most liberal member, Barbara Boxer, having cried foul at the fluky "Year of the Woman" victory she won in 1992. But the big race turned out to be a piffle and a leading symptom of California's Republican rot at the top, with the lackluster Republican nominee, state Treasurer Matt Fong, serving as a Boxer punching bag. Their two uneventful debates went essentially untelevised.

With only a perfunctory nod to her six years in the Senate or thoughts about the future, Boxer launched a devastating big money barrage of negative and intermittently accurate TV ads. The inert Fong, who had taken the lead by doing nothing, did surprisingly little until the very end, two weeks after he'd fallen behind.

Perhaps the fade began with Dianne Feinstein's 1994 tussle with Michael Huffington, in which the outcome turned not on any great policy question but on who seemed most hypocritical in employing illegal immigrant household staff. That void became even more evident with this Senate race. The highly touted candidate of the Republican establishment, moderate San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, dropped out of the race without ever making an impact. That left the field to Vista car alarm mogul Darrell Issa and Fong. After spending more than $10 million and taking a narrow lead in the primary race, Issa self-destructed, leaving Fong as the nominee.

After six years in the Senate, Boxer remains best known for what she did during her 10-year tenure in the House. Her one indelible act came when she led a group of congresswomen charging up the steps of the Senate to demand that Anita Hill be heard in the confirmation hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas. In the Senate, she fought hard against another Republican charged with sexual misconduct, Oregon's Bob Packwood, and helped force his resignation.

Boxer is the same politician now as she was in 1976, when she knocked on my parents' door running for the Marin County Board of Supervisors. Essentially a liberal cheerleader and Clinton apologist, she knows what she knows and feels passionately about it. While intellectually limiting, it's a strength running against a phlegmatic conservative like Fong. A Wilson type could have beaten her, but there are no Wilson types, only Wilson.

And even Wilson is no longer a Wilson type, his clever blend of fiscal conservatism, moderate environmentalism and social liberalism having at last run aground on the shoals of too many initiatives targeting nonwhites and lower-income folks. Which left Republicans falling back on their default position, Reaganism; witness Fong's non sequitur call for a massive military buildup to deal with terrorism. "Peace through strength," declared Fong in an election eve echo of the Gipper.

In their very expensive embrace of Dan Lungren, Republicans were victims of their Reagan enchantment. Lungren spoke the political epitaph for himself and perhaps for California Republicans till deep into the next decade when he declared 20 months ago: "Californians are even more conservative than they think." He thought that all he needed to do was talk about crime and intone the magic incantation, "Jerry Brown, Rose Bird" and Gray Davis would shrivel up and blow away. Now Davis, the former Brown chief of staff, is planning an administration with Democratic strength near its Brown era heyday.

And Republicans are left to contemplate a dismal future with such standard-bearers as their master of anonymity, Secretary of State Bill Jones, and the insurance lobby's own blow-dried pet, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

Lungren and Fong made it easy for Davis Democrats to cast the election as a choice between taking the state backward on a host of social, environmental and education issues or moving it forward into a vaguely defined future. Now, without compelling leaders or a relevant ideology, Republicans are forced to hope for the worst--for Democrats to fail to reform public education, for example--if they are to have any hope of returning to power in the foreseeable future.

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