Voters’ Frustration May Drift Bush’s Way

Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich."

California’s recall of Gov. Gray Davis and his replacement by Arnold Schwarzenegger are the political equivalent of a Rorschach blot: Observers will interpret them to fit their moods and predilections.

One interpretation is that Tropical Depression Gray was blown away by Hurricane Arnold in another display of exotic politics for which the nation’s most populous state has become famous. Yet, there’s a national message lurking among the seemingly unique California circumstances.

To be sure, the collapse of the high-tech bubble hurt California’s economy more than those of most other states. Yes, it is easier to recall a state official in the Golden State than it is in the other states that have recall statutes. And, obviously, movie actors enjoy credibility in a state where Ronald Reagan performed credibly as governor.

There’s not much precedent, though, for blaming a governor for a lackluster state economy and huge budget deficit when the other party is in the White House. By definition, national recessions don’t gestate locally. As for budget problems, they can be made worse by local policies, but their antecedents are in the national economy.

President Bush, for example, has allowed the federal budget deficit to grow more, comparatively speaking, than Davis did his state’s deficit. About 12% of the nation’s population lives in California, and the state’s contribution to the U.S. gross domestic product exceeds even that percentage. But California’s former shortfall of $38 billion amounted to only 7.5% of next year’s expected $500-billion federal deficit.


This doesn’t mean Davis should run for president on a platform of comparative fiscal success. But it does suggest he has been somewhat unfairly scapegoated for the fiscal consequences of U.S. economic weakness over the last three years.

The response of Bush supporters -- that Washington has an expensive war on terrorism to fight -- has some truth to it. Even so, the biggest share of the projected deficit increase has come from huge tax cuts favoring the top 1% of income earners, not from spending on homeland security.

Another way of putting this is that Washington, in contrast with state governors, has been able to get away with economic mischief by invoking 9/11, blaming Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, letting the deficit run up and trying to keep the electorate preoccupied with foreign foes.

This may be changing, however, and here is where the parallels between California and the nation may start to get more interesting. As the United States flops around in Iraq, Bush’s overall job ratings have tumbled below the 50% mark; in economic policy alone, they have dropped into the high 30s. Bush is presiding over another jobless recovery of the sort that hobbled his father’s reelection bid.

Americans can’t recall a president, of course. But if they could, it would be fascinating to see the numbers on a Bush recall. In August, fully 38% of Americans told New York Times/CBS Poll interviewers that they did not regard Bush as a legitimately elected president. This month, only 43% to 45% said they would vote for him against an unnamed Democratic opponent, although he was a little stronger when challengers were named. If there were a national recall mechanism, my guess is that petitioners could gather 10 million qualifying signatures in two weeks, and that Bush would have to take it seriously.

In short, what happened in California partly overlaps a gathering national malaise, and the two may yet develop an even greater resemblance. It’s useful to look at four or five rapidly gestating national frustrations.

In economic terms, two major public worries stand out: popular anxiety about jobs fed by steadily eroding U.S. manufacturing employment, and the rising cost of health care and prescription drugs coupled with the declining number of Americans who have insurance coverage. Looming in the background, especially among those older than 55, is a growing concern about pensions and retirement prospects, fueled by the multiple trillions of dollars that vanished in the stock market collapse.

Globally, the future of terrorism remains an issue, especially since both Bin Laden and Hussein are still at large. Polls taken since the U.S. invasion of Iraq show that people overseas have lost respect for American leadership, Bush’s in particular. The collapse of respect for the United States found among Muslims virtually everywhere, as evidenced in May-June international surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, doubtless helps to explain why suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism are on the rise since the Great Bungle in Baghdad was launched.

Nor is the U.S. embarrassment purely military and diplomatic. The dollar has been slumping in global currency markets, as it has a long history of doing when a U.S. president or his administration is experiencing a crisis of confidence. A dollar collapse -- still only a long-shot possibility -- would soon be felt in the stock market and in the real economy.

Two years ago, 9/11 justifiably struck Americans as so great a problem and threat that it took their minds off, or at least subordinated, other problems and concerns. This has become a complication now that the other difficulties, economic and foreign, have not been dealt with any more successfully than Bin Laden and Hussein.

Until this summer, the average voter heard a lot more spin than serious discussion. However, the promise that has made American democracy work is that voters, far from being fools, are a lot keener in their basic antennae than politicians believe.

If Californians were frustrated enough to single out Davis, odds are that something nationally important is beginning to stir. That the Golden State’s political system has yielded up an action-movie hero as Davis’ replacement is likely to keep the disillusionment growing. Instead of a man on a white horse, Californians have turned to a bodybuilder on a black motorcycle.

In Washington, neither party can be happy. A year from now, Schwarzenegger could be as much a liability for the Republicans in the 2004 election year as Davis was for the Democrats this year. Democratic senators, representatives and presidential wannabes, in turn, cannot be thrilled with how their California indictment of the Republican administration has been so soulless as to be trumped by the star of such movies as “Conan the Barbarian” and “Terminator 3.”

Bush could have a more subtle predicament. If Schwarzenegger can’t develop a good “outsider” posture in blaming entrenched California Democrats for the probable 2004 stalemate in Sacramento, he could become the patsy -- walking proof that it’s not safe to elect an inexperienced, blustering chief executive who likes to play Texas Ranger, top gun or terminator.