October 9, 2003
What was that all about?
Those on the left will say the recall election we just survived was a sneaky Republican power grab. Those on the right will say it was a citizen revolt against a sleazy and ineffectual governor.
Those in the middle will say, "Are we done yet?"
It's not clear, this early on, who wins and who loses in this process. If Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeds in balancing the state budget while improving California's business climate, educational system and environment -- just as he promised -- then we all win.
If Schwarzenegger finds himself mired in a spite-filled Sacramento and unwilling to face down some of his own party in making the tough economic decisions, then he loses -- and we lose.
Going into this recall, I felt a sense of general unease that many centrist Jews shared.
Some Jews might have looked askance at an Austrian native seeking to grab power in a rushed election at a time of social upheaval -- hmm, where have we seen that before? -- but I wasn't one of them. Those who opposed Arnold politically tried to use his Austrian roots against him, taking his Hitler comments out of context to pander to certain ethnic groups and plastering the Westside with "Achtung Baby" posters. It all came off as desperate, cheap and xenophobic. Arnold indeed needed to come clean in his own words on his friendship with former Nazi Kurt Waldheim, not as a sign that he was no Nazi himself, but as an indication that he was someone who could acknowledge poor judgment and move on. (He finally did express regret, to Jewish Journal Associate Editor Adam Wills.)
My recall dread had nothing to do with Arnold's past, and everything to do with California's present. There may be a Jewish genetic predisposition against chaos, because so often, throughout history, Jews have either been the victims in a chaotic society, or been blamed for creating it in the first place. What Jews spark to, said the Israeli writer Amos Oz in a different context, is "fervid moderation" (see Stuart Schoffman's story, p. 20). Jews thrive in an open, tolerant and stable political culture, and the recall seemed to be the harbinger of California-as-banana-republic.
The recall itself was a product of the political extremes.
"I choke with disgust over the behavior of this legislature and the governor -- especially over the last 76 days -- but I can't see a happy end to this exercise," urban planner David Abel wrote in an e-mail to a recall proponent. "[Commentator] Jill Stewart and talk radio are angry; SEIU and CTA are angry; much of the voting public is angry ... but how are the folks you hold a brief for -- the middle class -- going to be better off as a result of the vote count tonight? Sending a message from California that the rules can be broken at the whim of a millionaire ... doesn't seem to move us toward a meaningful resolution of our challenges."
Republicans, it seems, will buck the status quo to get power, but rarely innovate once they're in power. Democrats are conservative, even reactionary, in their methods of acquiring power (hence the fancy moral outrage over the recall, the Florida recount, etc.), but more willing to exercise it to change the status quo.
Pundits who read a permanent Jewish migration toward the Republican Party into the recall results are off the mark here. How sad if a knee-jerk Democratic bloc were to become a knee-jerk Republican one. Davis failed voters and faced the music. The revolt was not against a party or an ideology, but against poor leadership -- and that's a bipartisan plague.
Where does Arnold stand in all this? Those who know him say he is no ideologue.
"He's a genuine centrist," a government official who has known Arnold for years told me. "He genuinely likes people. He has stayed loyal to friends he has known since childhood, and that's a source of strength to him. He's a very rooted and decent person. He's not centrist [just] because that's how you can win elections. In that respect, he reminds me more of Bill Clinton."
That's it. That's why Schwarzenegger received 20 percent or more of the Democratic vote, and why even voters like me, who opposed the recall for the sturm und drang it portended, are open to seeing where this administration takes us. A Republican who makes a point of appearing on election night in front of a row of Democratic Shrivers, a Republican who dares not come across as holier-than-thou when it comes to issues of sex and drugs, a Republican who has the mandate and the money to break with the ideologues in his own party when need be -- that Republican might just be the kind of fervid moderate we need.