Dean Plus Schwarzenegger Equals Nothing

Posted October 3, 2003 at 2:41pm

Californians, in a fit of anger and dissatisfaction with their governor, seem willing to kick Gray Davis (D) out of office. Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, looking for “a Democrat from the Democrat wing of their party,” have become smitten with anti-establishment former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

[IMGCAP(1)]Is there a connection here, as one unidentified veteran GOP operative told Washington Post icon David Broder recently? Is something big going on, such as an anti-establishment mood?

No, I don’t think so.

Voter anger with Davis isn’t a recent development. He wasn’t wildly popular last year when he was re-elected, and he won a second term only because voters grudgingly preferred him over Republican Bill Simon, whom Davis successfully portrayed as extreme on social issues.

One problem with treating Davis’ difficulties as an indication of a national mood change is that it ignores the challenges governors have been facing for the past couple of years.

Half of the states that elected governors in 2002 threw out the party of the incumbent governor, and more than a handful of sitting governors — including Republicans Judy Martz (Mont.) and John Rowland (Conn.) and Democrats Bob Holden (Mo.), Bob Wise (W.Va.) and Jim McGreevey (N.J.) — currently have what can only be described as terrible job approval ratings.

My point: This discontent is nothing new. Whether because of personal scandal or weak state economies, sitting governors have had a rough time recently. Rather than connecting the California recall to national Democratic politics or next year’s elections, it makes more sense to see it simply as part of the 2001-02 environment.

If the discontent that Davis faces is similar to the discontent other governors have faced, does it reflect that voters were (and are) “fed up with the political establishment,” which is what the GOP operative asserted? Again the evidence says no. At the same time that governors were being defeated in 2002, President Bush’s job rating was above 65 percent and voters were re-electing virtually every incumbent Member of Congress who was seeking re-election.

Three House incumbents were defeated by challengers because of redistricting last cycle, while only one was ousted when redistricting was not involved. Only two elected Senators were defeated, an Arkansas Republican who was crippled by personal problems and a Democrat who was buried in a partisan wave in Georgia.

The public’s schizophrenic reaction — punishing state executives but giving federal officeholders a pass — hardly qualifies as evidence of fundamental discontent with politics or politicians, a problem that officeholders and our political institutions felt in the mid-1990s.

But let’s not forget about Dean. Doesn’t his success indicate that his attacks on Bush and on his own party’s establishment have resonated with voters? And, if so, don’t Dean’s success and Davis’ problems, when taken together, suggest something big is going on?

“Yes” to the first question, and “no” to the second.

Dean’s success demonstrates that Democrats are angry — very angry. They remain frustrated by Bush’s victory over Al Gore, their party’s inability to make gains in the midterms and Democratic legislators’ support for the war in Iraq.

Grassroots Democratic support for Dean (and his outsider/anti-establishment message) certainly signals that the former governor’s message and style are selling.

But while those Democratic activists may not be embracing Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.) or Joe Lieberman (Conn.), or Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), the activists aren’t really angry at politics or disillusioned with the nation’s political institutions the way some were during the past decade or the Vietnam era.

Democrats simply don’t like the president or the GOP-controlled Congress, and their “discontent” reflects the deep partisan division in this country — not true dissatisfaction with the political system.

There is an abundance of polling that shows that the economy and the war in Iraq have turned some voters against the president, but there is little or no indication that voters are turning against sitting Members of Congress.

Republican and Democratic consultants have picked up no wave of anti-incumbent sentiment at the House or Senate level, and only one sitting Senator is currently in a “toss-up” race, appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Of course, voters might well become deeply dissatisfied with the political establishment if the economy fails to rebound, the job market remains flat, or Congress deadlocks on the energy bill, prescription drug coverage and Medicare reform. But even then, the likely result, as I’ve noted over the years, is a partisan wave, not an anti-politics, anti- incumbent movement.

A plurality (and in some polls a majority) of Americans now say that the country is headed “on the wrong track,” and the fall in the president’s job ratings, the unemployment rate and daily casualties in Iraq ought to worry Republicans of every stripe. But what we are seeing in California is not at all new, and it has little to do with Dean’s surge.