The national ripples of a recall
Schwarzenegger's victory is a boon for the GOP - but it could mark an anti-incumbent tide.
WASHINGTON — As political earthquakes go, the California recall may prove a unique occurrence, a dramatic collision of forces - from a dire budget situation to a disliked incumbent to a charismatic celebrity challenger - that is unlikely to be replicated anywhere else.
But as the opening shot in the 2004 election, it is already sending tremors through the political landscape, in ways that may give both national parties cause for hope and apprehension.
On a basic level, the smashing victory of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger may be good news for President Bush. Republicans now control the governorships of major Democratic strongholds from New York to Massachusetts to California, providing them with organizational bases that could help turn out GOP votes in 2004, and possibly force Democrats to spend precious resources defending their turf. In California, exit polls from the recall revealed potentially worrisome trends for Democrats, as Schwarzenegger siphoned notable levels of support from key Democratic blocs, including women, union members, and Hispanics.
Yet analysts also warn that the wave of voter frustration that toppled Gov. Gray Davis was not so much partisan as anti-incumbent - a trend that is mirrored in low approval ratings of many other governors across the country, and which could ultimately threaten Mr. Bush as well.
"The angry voter is back," says independent pollster John Zogby. "Angry voters were on sabbatical for almost a decade. Now they want results, they want a fix."
Several Democratic presidential hopefuls have already begun casting the recall as a direct warning to Bush - an argument that is likely to be repeated as candidates gather for Thursday night's Arizona debate. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has been running as an antiestablishment candidate, issued a statement blaming the recall and other problems of incumbent governors on the president's "ruinous" economic policies. "This recall was about the frustration so many people are feeling about the way things are going," he said, predicting, "next November, that anger might be directed at a different incumbent ... in the White House."
But Dr. Dean also sent an e-mail message to supporters in California on the eve of the recall election, urging them to vote against it and arguing that a win by Schwarzenegger would make it harder for the Democratic presidential nominee to win in the state in 2004.
Although most Democrats believe it's unlikely California will be seriously contested in 2004 - arguing that the Democrats who voted against Davis in the recall are far less likely to defect in a presidential election - even a hint of competition could have a dramatic impact on the race. The California media market is so expensive that the Democratic nominee could easily run up against spending limits if forced to compete, and might have to run national ads instead, affecting the campaign's tone and the party's ability to target states.
Analysts agree Schwarz-enegger's usefulness to Bush in 2004 will depend a great deal on how he fares as governor in coming months.
Certainly, the former action hero is likely to become an instant star in the Republican Party, and a key figure on the national fundraising circuit. Indeed, Bush may begin reaping the benefits of Schwarzenegger's starpower as early as next week, when he heads to the Golden State for two fundraisers.
And as the most famous Republican in the nation, aside from Bush, Schwarzenegger may play a role in shaping his party's image, pushing it to the center. The new governor, who cast himself during the campaign as a fiscal conservative but a social moderate, supporting abortion rights and gay rights, may draw new voters and more moderates into the GOP's tent.
In the run up to the recall, the California GOP registered a sizable number of new voters, a trend some credit to Schwarzenegger's broader appeal.
"He's going to be the new face of the party," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate group. "He has done a lot to bring the Republican Party into the 21st century."
At the same time, the accusations of boorish behavior toward women may haunt Schwarz-enegger's tenure as governor and create fissures in the Republican Party, by driving away some conservatives on moral grounds.
And observers from both parties warn that Schwarzenegger's star could quickly dim as he begins grappling with the state's daunting budget problems.
"All the problems Gray Davis couldn't solve are now in Arnold's lap," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "He's going to be forced to do some very unpalatable things," such as raising taxes or cutting programs. Although his victory was seen as resounding, Mr. Mellman points out that he was elected with less than a majority, which could give him a fairly thin cushion of support in what may be difficult months ahead.
Ultimately, while the recall may provide a snapshot of voter anger, that sentiment could easily change both in California and across the nation over the course of the next year. Indeed, analysts note, had California not had a recall mechanism, Davis would have had three more years in office, in which to try to improve his standing - and might have ultimately survived.
"The reality is, when times are bad people are upset with chief executives," says Mellman. "The other reality is, things change."