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Lesson From Down Under: Moribund State GOP Has a Chance

February 18, 2001|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Sometimes there are local lessons to be gleaned from world politics. California politicians, currently under pressure for their handling of the state's energy crisis, might want to take note of an election stunner last week in Western Australia. In the biggest political shift in that state's history, the conservative coalition government was ousted from power. The turnover was surprising because the state's overall economy is strong and the government held a large majority.

"Voters opt for revenge," roared the newspaper the Australian. "Labor won by default in revolt against incumbency." The Western Australia backlash was stoked by opposition to the new national Goods and Services Tax, worries over petrol price hikes, impatience with "dithering" state leadership and a misallocation of federal highway funds. Election day, wrote Mike Steketee, the Australian's national affairs editor, brought "voters wreaking vengeance on whoever is in government--who just happened to be the coalition."

As Californians' ire over power problems intensifies and rumblings of a "ratepayer revolt" grow louder, Gov. Gray Davis and his fellow Democrats, who control state government, could find themselves facing a Western Australia-like predicament.

There are some differences. So far, polls indicate that Californians are not as critical of Davis and the Legislature for the energy mess as they are of "greedy" utilities and energy companies.

In Western Australia, an aggressive campaign waged by the One Nation Party, an anti-elitist, anti-immigrant minor party, and a complex ballot system of preferential voting for several political parties, figured heavily in the government's defeat.

In California, Democrats dominate the two-party system. Voters usually don't turn to minor parties to rebuke wayward incumbents. Instead, they channel their political anger into the initiative process. That's exactly what is happening now, with ballot propositions already being touted that would revamp the state's electricity delivery system and cap energy prices.

Voters' use of initiatives to impose change doesn't always mean incumbents can escape punishment. In 1978, voter outrage over government inaction in the face of skyrocketing property taxes led to passage of the landmark Proposition 13. Anti-tax fervor then spilled over into legislative elections, helping to defeat six Democratic incumbents and to bring several new Republicans, known as "Prop. 13 babies," into the Assembly.

If the state's energy problems aren't under control by next year's election, angry Californians could stream to the polls to support voter initiatives and stay to punish the politicians they blame for messing things up in the first place.

Responding to the threat the energy crisis may pose to their party, state Democrats have taken solace in the axiom: "You can't beat somebody with nobody"--particularly "somebody" with Davis' huge campaign war chest. Yet, news that wealthy Republican William E. Simon Jr., son of the late Treasury secretary, is assembling a campaign team could put pressure on Davis' bank account.

It's always better to run with money than without it, but Davis understands that cash alone won't guarantee victory. In the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary, he defeated two opponents who outspent him roughly 6 to 1.

Yes, the GOP bench is notoriously anemic. The party's only statewide office holder, Secretary of State Bill Jones, is little known and underfunded. The political operation of President George W. Bush has yet to focus on Republicans' troubles in the Golden State; when it does, Bush is unlikely to entrust his interests to Jones, who switched support from him to Arizona Sen. John McCain and back again in last year's presidential primaries.

With California Republicans set to convene in Sacramento next week, concern over a lack of GOP heavyweights to challenge a suddenly vulnerable Davis has renewed speculation about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Could the movie star step into the governor's race and resuscitate the state GOP, just as that other actor--Ronald Reagan--did in 1966? Not likely. Reagan's appeal did not rest on his celebrity; he was a less commanding Hollywood figure at the time he defeated incumbent Gov. Pat Brown than Arnold is today. Reagan won because he had an ideological core and voters liked his wholesome, anti-politician image.

When a Reagan candidacy was first floated, one Hollywood mogul reportedly responded, "No! No! Jimmy Stewart for governor. Ronald Reagan for best friend!"

Schwarzenegger's violent screen persona could prove a real problem for him. "The Terminator" is etched in the psyche of many voters; it would be difficult to repackage the actor as a "compassionate conservative."

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