Left-Wing Mutineers Did In Davis

Josh Benson is a reporter at the New Republic.

With Arnold Schwarzenegger set to take office Monday, Republicans have been congratulating themselves for engineering the first recall of an American governor in 82 years. But it wasn't disaffected conservatives who tossed Gray Davis from office. It was liberals.

The real story of the recall lies in the collapse of support for Davis among the state's three pillars of Democratic politics -- legislators, liberal interest groups, and left-leaning voters -- who were so miffed by Davis' dogged centrism that they stood by while the right tore him to pieces. On election day, a quarter of self-identified liberals voted to oust their governor. And while Davis' machine-cold personality, mishandling of major crises and lack of a vision all contributed to his eventual fall, in the end, it was liberals who sealed his fate. This was a Democratic fragging.

And it may not be the last. In California as elsewhere, liberals and centrists are fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party. The GOP has taken control of the governorship as a result of this infighting, but also because the California electorate is too politically volatile to ever support untrammeled liberalism. That's a good thing. Centrism isn't simply an electoral strategy or a sellout to the right, but a viable set of ideas for how government can realize progressive ideals. If Democrats can't accept this, the state will almost certainly drift into the hands of the Republicans.

The roots of liberal dissatisfaction with Davis go back to his first months in the governor's office. After 16 years of Republican rule, many liberal legislators expected Davis to deliver on long-languishing Democratic programs. But the budget Davis proposed in 1999 was a model of fiscal discipline -- a $1-billion reserve, more money for education, even a modest cut to the car tax -- and it infuriated liberals. "No budget will be rammed down our throats," John Burton, the Democratic president pro tem of the state Senate, declared. A spokesman for one state employees union said, "It looks like we're going to have to squeeze blood out of a turnip."

Davis eventually reached a compromise with legislative leaders, but media reports focused on his rift with Democrats. Far from receiving praise for his fiscal moderation, Davis instead came across as a governor afraid of big choices and big ideas. One newspaper columnist derided the governor for exhibiting the classic male "fear of commitment" by favoring early in his tenure one-time expenditures over costly annual programs.

That pattern continued in subsequent years as surpluses gave way to deficits: Democratic legislators insisted on new spending or tax hikes, Republicans refused to compromise on anything, and Davis got caught in the middle. As the fiscal challenges grew increasingly complex, Davis' failure to win support from his own party helped torpedo his public standing.

The trend culminated this year when Davis proposed in January to close a $36-billion budget gap with some $21 billion in spending cuts and $5 billion in painful midyear reductions. Newspaper editorialists lauded the governor for "ducking the problem no more," but Democrats blasted the plan. Jerry Brown, the Democratic mayor of Oakland, even blamed Davis -- his former chief of staff -- for civil unrest in Oakland, saying a police department plagued by money worries had been unable to send out enough officers: "Stores were burned because of a fear of inadequate money." Still, Davis trudged on, even siding with Republicans to oppose an increase in the car tax until midyear cuts were made, further alienating Democrats.

"I think the governor has forgotten that Democrats are in charge of this Legislature," one Democratic Assembly member snapped. Another added, "A lot of us helped the governor get elected, and now some of us are wondering if we did the right thing." Eventually, Davis caved to Democratic pressure and raised the car tax -- a move that probably cost him his job. But no amount of compromise would ease the ill will with legislative Democrats -- or the perception that Davis had shirked his liberal duties.

"A lot of my colleagues view [the budget] as going too far," said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a moderate Democrat from Pittsburg. Many Democrats "took advantage of the situation by trying to jam him up," he said. Indeed, on a number of other issues, Davis got caught between popular liberal demands and fiscal reality. Burton in particular seemed to relish sending Davis no-win legislation that backed him into a corner. For three years running, for instance, Davis resisted massive union pressure to sign Burton's bills expanding workers' compensation benefits. Davis' quickness with the veto pen even set a state record in 2000 for the highest percentage of bills vetoed in a year -- 25.

"Gray tried to be a centrist Democrat, a business-oriented Democrat," said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley. "And he held back a lot of liberal legislation." That obstinacy to the progressive agenda infuriated liberal interest groups. Despite tacking left on key issues (such as signing the nation's first bill to regulate greenhouse gas emissions), Davis was always regarded as a closet conservative. As early as 2000, prominent progressive activists complained publicly about the "Republican" they'd helped elect.

By 2002, some liberal interest groups appeared to be openly working against the governor. In May of that year, California Teachers Assn. President Wayne Johnson announced that Davis had tried to shake him down for a $1-million contribution, strengthening the Republican charge that Davis was a "coin-operated governor." In October, the Legislature's Latino Caucus made waves by refusing to endorse the governor's bid for reelection, despite Davis' approval only days earlier of the biggest expansion of farm-worker rights in a generation.

Once the recall campaign commenced, these same groups showed little interest in saving the governor, despite Davis' sudden pandering to the liberal base. Many moved quickly to endorse the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and contributions to Davis dried up. "No one was a better friend to labor," Canciamilla said, "but because he didn't move fast enough or move when they wanted, a lot of groups became lukewarm when it came to the recall." The prison guards union, one of the biggest donors to Davis in 2002, gave him not a dime to fight the recall. "It was an absolutely stunning phenomenon," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant. "His natural allies turned on him."

And, in the end, liberal voters deserted Davis as well. The governor's support among traditionally Democratic subgroups eroded, with some 45% of Latinos and 48% of union households voting to recall Davis. Far-left voters particularly despised the governor. While 21% of those who supported Davis in 2002 voted for the recall, 30% of Green Party voters from 2002 did. "The reason the recall passed is a big chunk of the Democratic base abandoned Gray Davis," said Sragow.

Though there was always ideological tension between Davis and his party, liberal suspicion of the governor runs deeper. "People viewed the moderation as being more situational than a political philosophy," Canciamilla said. In the end, Davis may have been too self-serving to be able to sell centrism to the Democratic base the way Bill Clinton could. "He just didn't have the personal characteristics to pull it off," said Cain.

As the head of the California Democrats, it was Davis' responsibility to unite the party, to articulate a vision, to lead by example and not by polls -- charges he repeatedly failed. Davis' ceaseless fund-raising, which too often appeared to be linked to his policy choices, also did little to quell the idea that he had no true political philosophy. The result was a governor who often appeared to stand for the worst kind of political moderation -- a type of inverted centrism where he pandered to the left on certain issues but, day in and day out, fought even commonsensical reforms, such as when he repeatedly blocked efforts to strengthen consumer privacy.

But for all the failures of Davis' brand of political moderation, the divide between liberals and centrists in the Democratic Party is real and growing. As the Schwarzenegger era begins, Democrats must find a way to stop this ideological splintering. But some Democrats still don't seem to get it. Just days after the recall, Davis vetoed a bill by John Vasconcellos, a liberal state senator from the Bay Area, that would have eased access to hypodermic needles but was opposed by law enforcement. What did Vasconcellos have to say about his fallen governor in response? "People will die, and the people who die can thank Gray Davis."

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