California has an appetite for France's high fashion and haute cuisine. But its politics too? Mais oui.
Unless there's a plot twist, our governor's race could repeat this month's presidential vote in France. There, the lackluster choices were an unpopular, scandal-plagued head of state and a conservative upstart demonized as being out of touch with mainstream voters. Sound familiar? April in Paris could be little different from November in L.A.
Not that we have the same flawed personalities here. Gov. Gray Davis has his dubious ties to donors, but he's not in the same league as French President Jacques Chirac, accused of taking kickbacks as mayor of Paris and mocked on French television as "Super Liar," a puppet figure with a briefcase stuffed with stolen bank notes. Neither is Republican challenger Bill Simon Jr. in the same universe as Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of France's ultraright National Front. Simon is mild-mannered and speaks inclusively; Le Pen is a xenophobe who called the Nazi Holocaust "a detail of history."
What we do share with the French isn't leaders, it's leading indicators. Like Chirac, Davis is not a popular leader. If he's smart--and he is--he will notice that Chirac captured 82% of the French vote by convincing folks that Le Pen was un homme horrible.
What's stopping Davis from spending tens of millions of dollars in attack ads this fall to do the same: tarring Simon as an extremist too repugnant for Californians' tastes?
Which raises this question: What is Simon doing to prevent what seems so inevitable? We know he's not standing by idly. The candidate is working the back roads of the Republican circuit. He shows up in the middle of negative stories about the Davis administration like a pop-up ad on an Internet site. But is that progress? Do Californians who didn't vote for him in March know more about Bill Simon--his persona, his policies and his passions--than they did before he pulled off the upset in the Republican primary?
France's presidential election lasted two weeks. Simon has the luxury of 24 more weeks to avoid the wrong side of a landslide. But first he has to develop a comfort zone with centrist Californians and convince them he is not a far-right enfant terrible. That comfort zone is the key to unseating the incumbent. It's foolish for Republicans to assume that the Davis administration's incompetence alone will vault Simon into office.
Last Friday's appearance by the two candidates at the California Society of Newspaper Editors showed why. Simon criticized Davis for bringing a "pay to play" mentality to state government. Davis said his opponent was the "kettle calling the pot black" in that a Simon family firm had been fined and censured for making contributions in exchange for political favors. And so it will go until November: point, counterpoint and an ugly draw that succeeds only in turning off voters.
Simon faces a unique opportunity in the weeks and months ahead. Davis is vulnerable, a rarity for incumbent California governors. As a political novice, Simon can honestly market himself as a breath of fresh air in Sacramento. Therein lies this election's paradox: so much time until November, but so little time remaining for Simon to start raising his profile and offering himself in a positive light before he finds himself trapped on the defensive.
And what happens if Simon doesn't establish his own persona and lets Davis get away with the campaign equivalent of identity theft? The concession speech will go something like this: "Lies have been told about us, lies have been told about me, and I have been made into a figure of caricature."
Those were Le Pen's words on the night he lost. Deja vu, indeed.
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, worked on Richard Riordan's gubernatorial exploratory committee in 2001.