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California Vote Is a Red Flag for Kerry

March 05, 2004|Robert E. Grady

In the wake of his 65%-to-20% drubbing of fellow Democrat John Edwards in California on Tuesday, the presumption is that John F. Kerry will easily win here in November. But before Kerry counts the Golden State as being in his back pocket, he might want to look at some of the other balloting results.

The state Democratic establishment, which backed and advises Kerry, also put its full weight behind Proposition 56, which would have reduced the vote required for the Legislature to pass the budget and taxes from two-thirds to 55%. The TV spots for it cleverly labeled the measure an initiative to force the Legislature to come up with a budget on time or forgo pay, and to reduce the stalemate in Sacramento by lowering the threshold to "pass a budget" to 55%. "Fiscal Accountability, Legislative Responsibility," heralded the tag line. The heavy campaign, which swamped the opponents' ads, was paid for not only by supposed nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters but also by the usual Democratic-machine suspects, the labor unions.

The voters were not fooled. Proposition 56 was crushed 65% to 35%. It lost by well over a million votes. The message is clear, both for Kerry and George W. Bush: California voters -- like voters nationwide -- are overwhelmingly against tax increases.

If Kerry thinks this is a fluke, he might consider the results of California's recall election last year. One of the major reasons voters booted then-Gov. Gray Davis was that he increased spending by a whopping 50% in five years and raised taxes. Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock captured 49% and 13% of the vote, respectively. Memo to Kerry strategists: Republicans got 62% of the vote in this "heavily Democratic" state.

Schwarzenegger's magic is still working, as the two initiatives he put his credibility on the line to support -- Proposition 57, which refinanced the state debt, and Proposition 58, which mandated a balanced budget in each fiscal year going forward -- passed with 63% and 71%, respectively. So Proposition 56 didn't just founder because California voters weren't in the mood for ballot measures.

The lesson here provides a clear guide to victory for Bush and a clear warning for Kerry. Given the choice between people who will reduce their taxes, as Bush has with two tax cuts, and candidates who will raise them, as the senator from Massachusetts proposes to do, voters will opt for the cutters every time.

Bush might also do well to make sure that various other issues aren't successfully used by his opponent as a diversion from the fundamental issue in every election: Who will confiscate the people's money and who will let them spend, invest and manage it for themselves?

In his victory in California in 1988 (the last time a GOP candidate won this wealth of electoral votes), the president's father ran to the right on taxes, crime and defense but offered quite progressive plans to protect the environment, address child care and serve people with disabilities. Similarly, Schwarzenegger made sure his fiscal conservatism ruled the day by taking environmental protection and reproductive choice off the table with his progressive positions.

The agenda, and the opportunity, for Bush is clear. California is a state that pays high taxes to Washington for little in return, depends on free trade and is dependent on economic growth. His tax-cutting and open-trading policies are responsive to the needs and wants of the state -- so he should stress them, along with his successful bipartisan initiatives to provide a Medicare drug benefit and improve education through national certification. He should also point out the contrast: Kerry's explicit promise to raise taxes and his newfound confusion on trade.

If the choice is growth and opportunity versus warmed-over Walter Mondale, Bush can win. So before Kerry counts his chickens, he might want to take a look at the results on Proposition 56, and count the votes.

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Robert E. Grady, a venture capitalist in San Francisco, served in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign and on the transition team and worked in President George H.W. Bush's California campaign in 1988.

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