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Curing the Summertime Blah-Blahs

One of the many wonderful things about vacationing at Lake Tahoe for three weeks was that I avoided California television and the political ads. I wasn’t pestered by the nya-nyaing gubernatorial candidates:

“You broke your promise.” “You’re lying.”

“I’m more against rape than you are.” “No you’re not, I’m . . .”

Not that rape isn’t an important issue--rapists should be locked away in a dark place for a very long time--but listening to the candidates, you sometimes think rape is the only problem facing California. That, parole violations and illegal immigration. And the solution to everything is the death penalty or ridding the state of Pete Wilson.

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It all gets jumbled into one whiny blah.

At Tahoe, nobody seemed a bit interested in Gov. Wilson or Treasurer Brown. This was vacation time. And the talk was about Mackinaw bites, glassy water, buoy space and hot slots at the casinos. Change the locale and subjects--beach fog, scenic trails, park campsites, swim tournaments--and I suspect the same was true all over California. The candidates were being tuned out.

There is evidence of this in a Field poll. It shows that, despite all their campaigning, each candidate actually lost voter support between mid-May and mid-July. Brown dropped by six points and Wilson by three, leaving her ahead by five. Undecided rose by nine. (44%-39%-17%.)

So in one sense, their negative campaigning was successful: Each bloodied the other. But they didn’t score points for themselves.

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With Wilson already the most unpopular California governor of modern times, according to polls, one wonders just how weak Brown thinks an opponent has to be before she can beat him.

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The Democratic nominee any day now will change her strategy and begin running “positive” TV ads, according to insiders. The spots will talk about family things--good jobs, good schools, affordable colleges and homes--and the middle class not getting its fair share. She’ll speak of her vision for California’s future.

It’s about time, say critics. “She’s not saying why people should vote for her,” laments one Democratic pro in the Capitol. “She ought to ignore Pete Wilson. . . . She’s been monotonous and boring.”

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Brown’s summer strategy so far has been to remind voters why they don’t like Wilson. On his watch, she notes, California has lost half a million jobs, taxes have been raised a record amount, school programs have been cut, college fees increased and the state has fallen deeply into debt.

“We found that many people had forgotten why they dislike him,” says Steve Glazer, a Brown adviser. “They’d say, ‘I just don’t.’ ”

But Wilson skillfully has lured Brown into fighting primarily on his turf: crime. He’d jab her and she’d feel obliged to counterpunch in a brawl she couldn’t win. Perhaps no Democratic woman could, particularly one opposed to capital punishment. “I love it,” says a Wilson strategist. “My horse owns that issue.”

Both sides, of course, are guilty of shameless distortion. And the issues they emphasize--too often their positions, as well--are cynically plucked from polls and tested with focus groups.

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Neither candidate is talking seriously about how they’d handle such critical problems as education (this should be Brown’s strong suit), water, the environment or transportation. You don’t hear much about restructuring government and the tax system. Nobody’s really saying how they’d pay for all those promised new prisons. But Wilson incredibly has suggested a tax cut.

“People are crying in frustration for the debate to be elevated,” says GOP activist Steven A. Merksamer, former Gov. George Deukmejian’s chief of staff. “If it’s not, the public’s going to be further turned off and the problems aren’t going to be solved. . . . What has more direct impact on most people’s lives ultimately--water or the death penalty?”

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Such talk is considered naive by political consultants. Pundits may clamor for a discussion of ideas, they say, but voters respond mainly to attack politics. Maybe they’re right. Perhaps it was the weather that kept 65% of registered voters home in June, resulting in the lowest turnout for a state election in 78 years. But I have a hunch many people just were uninspired by the candidates.

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One campaign reform we need is a mandatory summer vacation for all candidates. Call a truce. That would reduce the need for campaign money and pare special-interest influence. Candidates could relax, clear their heads and think about what they’d really do in office.

Voters would get a respite from the babble. They should tell candidates, “Take a hike. Don’t come back until after Labor Day.”


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