In November 2003, California voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. White voters backed the recall by a large margin, but Jewish voters swam against the tide, with 69 percent voting against the recall. On the second part of the ballot, where voters chose a replacement candidate, Schwarzenegger collected a surprising 31 percent of Jewish voters.
I suggested then in these pages that Schwarzenegger might eventually do well with Jews: “Jewish voters aren’t likely to abandon the Democratic Party anytime soon, but will likely give Arnold Schwarzenegger a chance to prove that he can govern in a bipartisan, moderate manner…. If Schwarzenegger truly seeks to solve the state’s problems without being a tool of right-wing forces, and with an open-minded, progressive approach, he may find a surprising number of friends among California’s Democratic-leaning Jewish voters.”
Chance given, chance blown.
Political historians will surely marvel at the precipitous political decline of California’s celebrity governor, especially because Schwarzenegger should have been a lock with Jewish voters. He came into office as a moderate Republican with lots of Democratic friends (he’s even married to a Democrat), with pro-choice views on abortion and as an advocate of “reform,” a concept dear to many Jewish voters. Schwarzenegger invited comparisons to Gov. George Pataki of New York, a Republican moderate who is finishing his third term in a very blue state. Over time, Schwarzenegger even seemed likely to attract support from elements of organized labor.
In the beginning, Schwarzenegger was a whirlwind, reaching out across party lines to Democratic leaders and listening to a broad range of advisers who included Democrats. He split his opposition by making budget deals with the teachers and with other key interest groups. He looked like a problem-solver, not an ideologue. For Democrats enraged and alienated by the narrow-cast politics of the Bush administration, he seemed to offer a different way.
Then, under no external pressure to do so, Schwarzenegger morphed into an AM talk radio Republican. As the governor’s deal with the teachers unraveled, he had to choose between outraging Republicans by raising taxes or reneging on the original deal. His choice revealed him to be less like Earl Warren, and more like Pete Wilson. No longer surrounded by Democrats (something that had annoyed the Bush White House), he now listened to Wilson’s advisers. He blasted teachers and nurses as obstacles to change. After a transparently showy attempt to consult with Democrats, he hewed to the Bush-Rove line that all problems could be solved if Democrats and unions were excluded from the table.
Then, to add a little spice for the AM radio crowd, the governor began to talk about “closing the borders” and praised the Minutemen group carrying guns to block illegal immigrants. (Jewish voters, remember, were the one group of voters other than Latinos to oppose Wilson’s Proposition 187 campaign in 1994.) And Schwarzenegger kept up the juvenile rhetoric and media stunts that had long since worn out their welcomes.
Finally, and catastrophically, the governor called a special election for November, watched his poorly designed initiatives drop one at a time, and now finds himself fighting a battle he never should have picked.
He dropped dozens of points in the polls, completely losing Democrats and most independents. Like Bush, he now has to depend on a highly ideological Republican base. Unlike Bush, these really aren’t his people, but they are all he’s got. They certainly don’t look like Jewish voters.
Since there are a lot of Jewish teachers, it’s hard to imagine how demonizing the teachers’ unions will help with Jewish voters. Taking money without disclosure from muscle magazines that depend on unexamined, and possibly hazardous, dietary supplements while raising colossal amounts of special-interest money hardly comport with a “reform” image.
How to reverse the decline?
Jews will definitely vote for the right moderate Republican candidate in statewide elections. But for a Republican to win over Jews requires accommodating their Democratic loyalty and leanings at least halfway. The Wilson Republican camp says Schwarzenegger just needs to push harder in the same direction; the opposition, in their view, will fold like a house of cards. Others suggest that the governor ought to return to what he once seemed, a bipartisan, imposing, socially moderate problem-solver free of special-interest control. While the second option is obviously more sensible, it may not be easy to backtrack.
Schwarzenegger is playing a much weaker hand than when he swept into office. At the time, conservatives suspected that he was a potentially troublesome moderate, and on whose popularity their own party’s prospects depended. Democrats were impressed by his popularity and charm, and could perceive a real threat to their conventional thinking and political dominance. Riding high, Schwarzenegger might have challenged the orthodoxies of both parties and in Clintonian fashion, could have “triangulated” them. Now that he has put himself in the partisan box, he has raised expectations on the right and a fighting spirit on the left.
To break out now, Schwarzenegger might have to rise more strongly to challenge the Bush Republicans. He has already done so on global warming and stem cell research. Schwarzenegger will have to reach out to Democrats and make them part of the solution to the state’s problems, an attitude which, if sincere rather than a setup, would send a positive signal to Jewish voters. And then he has to get to work on the state’s problems, every day, without distractions and gimmicks. In the parlance of today’s partisan politics, this blue state will probably be amenable to a purple governor, but not to a red one.
Jewish voters are serious and attentive students of politics and government. They are a tough audience. If Schwarzenegger can win their favor, he will be on the way toward rehabilitating a crippled governorship.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.