SACRAMENTO — When George W. Bush finally walks into the Oval Office as president, he should celebrate by ordering a free round for the country. A free round of voting machines. Premium touch-screens. On the White House.
Ouch! A big tab. Maybe $3 billion or more--$300 million for California alone, $100 million for L.A. County. But it's nothing the new president couldn't handle with ease, given the projected $268-billion federal budget surplus.
Consider it an investment in democracy. Also a personal signal of good will to voters of every political stripe. Plus an acknowledgment that the present ballot counting system is an insult to America--especially in brother Jeb's Florida.
Riverside County Registrar Mischelle Townsend can brief the Bushes on touch-screen voting. Last month, Riverside became the nation's first county to use the high-tech devices in every polling place. They were fast and fail-safe.
"It's the best decision I've made for Riverside in my 25 years [there]," Townsend says. "The equipment performed great."
Bush also should call California Secretary of State Bill Jones and learn about uniform--constitutional--chad standards. It's the same in every California county: Hanging-chads only, dangling from one or two corners. No dimpled chads. No confusion about what gets counted and what doesn't.
Until the nation can rid itself of flawed punch-card voting, California's chad rules should be adopted--at least in Jeb's muddled state.
So Bush becomes the first Republican since James A. Garfield in 1880 to capture the White House without carrying California.
He achieved that because Al Gore is the first presidential candidate since George McGovern in 1972 to be rejected by his home state (Tennessee and South Dakota, respectively). Only two candidates have won the presidency without home state backing: Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey in 1916 and James K. Polk of Tennessee in 1844.
Bush lost here by 12 points. But California Republicans see his presidency as a life raft that can save them from drowning.
"He's a lifeline and oxygen tank," says GOP state vice chairman Shawn Steel, a Palos Verdes attorney. "I think we'll see a new party in California, transformed in his image--an image of compassionate, sensible Republicans who can best handle government."
Anything's possible. But a lot of touch-up work is needed on that image.
One illustration: GOP pollster Steve Kinney asked California voters during the fall campaign what they thought of the Bush and Gore plans for prescription drugs and Social Security. Voters favored the Bush plans--until those plans were identified with the candidates and their parties. Then the voters favored Gore's plans.
"I don't think it was about Bush or Gore," Kinney says. "It was more about the labels Republican and Democrat."
Only one Republican holds statewide office in California: Bill Jones. Bush's victory makes it more probable Jones will run for governor in 2002 against incumbent Gray Davis. A president can help raise money and party morale.
"There was no chance for Republicans to come back in California without Bush in the White House," says GOP analyst Tony Quinn. "Republicans need a fund-raising base more than anything. They also need somebody to be in control. If you don't have a president who's a practical politician, then you have all these right-wing ideologues.
"Before Clinton, the Democratic party was flopping around. Clinton brought them to the center."
Gov. Davis is a Clinton centrist who very likely will be in position to challenge Bush in 2004. That assumes Davis wins reelection in 2002--which virtually everyone does--and Gore doesn't convince the party he deserves a second chance. Not likely.
Davis always has brushed off such conjecture. He doesn't want to think for a second about running for president in midterm. But media and party speculation--and human temptation-- ultimately will force him to consider it seriously.
Meanwhile, beginning Jan. 20, the governor and other powerful California Democrats no longer will be able to count on their phone calls being returned from the White House. They definitely can't count on favors.
"I will call in any event," says U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "When I was [San Francisco] mayor, his father was president. He was quite wonderful about returning calls and being helpful. I would hope the apple didn't drop too far from the tree.
"He needs to work with us. If he wants two terms, California becomes very important."
Bush could start by making it easier to vote. Free screens all around. A toast: "No more Floridas."