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California | Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

A Winning Strategy in a Fractured State: Unite and Conquer

October 12, 2003|Steve Lopez

Every breathing person in New York has a shrink, but no entire state is laid on a couch and examined as often as California.

What in the world are we up to now? the rest of the country always wants to know. We sneeze, and they wonder if it's contagious.

Now we've really done it.

We fired Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with an action hero who doesn't know a parcel tax from a pig in a poke, and we're already being treated to jokes like this one: Arnold's first health care proposal? Free breast exams.

So what exactly are we Californians -- crazy, or prescient?

Both, I think. But either way you see it, it's good for the soul to live in a state that is loathed, ridiculed and envied. A state that matters.

As for the election of Conan the Republican, I'm going to try to break down the meaning both good and bad, but only with the proviso that half the fun of living in California is knowing only a fool would try to understand it.

With fire-and-ice extremes in geography and politics, California is a breeding ground for contempt. Liberals hate conservatives and vice versa. The North hates the South. The Dodgers hate the Giants. Natives hate new arrivals.

There is no such thing as true happiness because the rich and beautiful are on diets and drugs, and everyone else is miserable about not being rich and beautiful.

That's right. California breeds high expectations and then crushes them. Through history and myth, it tells you there are no limits, and then it leaves you stranded in a cracker box tract house between a 7-Eleven and a freeway interchange.

And then Arnold Schwarzenegger walked off one stage and onto another, promising that even if you can't live in an $11.9-million Brentwood manse and drive a Bradley armored vehicle, like he does, you sure as heck deserve better than that dump by the 7-Eleven.

He went straight in for the kill, appealing to our highest hopes and worst instincts, using sound bites and movie lines to promise something for nothing. We can have low taxes and robust services, and we can each do better than we're doing now without sacrifice.

And what if the economy doesn't pick up and Arnold's "plan" doesn't work out?

The Golden State will do what it always does.

Blame immigrants.

But as promised, here now is a rosier take on what California has in store:

Sure, Arnold wouldn't have gotten 10% of the media coverage he got, or half the votes, if he wasn't a rich celebrity. But that celebrity, along with his middle-of-the-road politics, gives him a chance to accomplish something none of the other candidates could have.

It's already happening, in fact.

I'm not yet sure that Arnold is leading a political revolution, but he's definitely the inspiration for a cultural revolution.

Conservatives eagerly abandoned sacred covenants and joined moderates -- and even some liberals, for God's sake -- in voting for a serial groper who smoked dope, skipped elections and was a poster boy for Hollywood's gun violence and mayhem.

Who would've thunk it?

Arnold is breaking down the walls that divide us.

If you've ever had to send bickering siblings to separate rooms of the house, you understand exactly what society's biggest nuisance is of late.

We're politically polarized beyond caricature, undermining any useful problem-solving, and great hordes of people need to be locked in their rooms.

But as far as anyone can tell so far, Arnold appears to be somewhere in the middle -- a fiscal conservative and social moderate. If so, that would put him more in touch with California than Gray Davis, who pumped helium into the state budget, or any of the knuckle-draggers the GOP keeps sending into the game.

And given the way the state Legislature behaves, with raving lunatics on both fringes, it might be altogether fitting to watch lawmakers get their knuckles rapped by the star of "Kindergarten Cop."

Or, as Arnold says, he's going to appeal directly to us, so we keep these naughty kids after school.

No wonder the whole country is watching. We're about to turn state government into a parent-teacher conference.

Good luck to Arnold. More importantly, good luck to us.

Whether you're riding the Arnold wave or thinking about leaving the state, you have to admit that was an amazing moment in history Tuesday night, when Arnold's victory throne was carried onto the stage by the Kennedy family.

For me, it was a reminder of something that was clear from the beginning:

Arnold, who went all the way to the top in body building and then movies, was never really running for the lowly job of governor.

He's been running for president, and California -- clinically confused, pathologically reckless and forever dreaming -- just gave him his first endorsement.


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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