Wanted: Political leader for demoralizing position. Must be willing to labor in shadow of popular governor and devise ways to put best face on defeat in 2006. Masochistic tendencies a plus. Apply to California Democratic Party.
One of the reasons Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been able to steamroll from one victory to another during his six months in office is because there is no one among state Democrats who comes even close to being his counterpart. It is a vacuum that threatens to make the party increasingly irrelevant, despite its hold on every statewide office except the governor’s.
The Democrats’ most forceful, and blustery, voice these days is that of Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, but the longtime legislator will leave office at the end of this year because of term limits. His effectiveness has been diluted not only by his lame-duck status but also by his admission that he too has fallen prey to Schwarzenegger’s charm offensive.
The person considered by many to be the de facto leader of California Democrats is the state’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, but she is preoccupied with issues in Washington and seldom focuses on state party issues or Sacramento policy, at least not in public. Although it’s not known if Feinstein plans to seek reelection in 2006, it would be most state Democrats’ dream come true, not to mention political writers and pundits, if she would decide to return to California and run for governor that same year.
Barring a decision by Schwarzenegger not to run again or some unforeseen calamity that would cause his popularity to plunge, there appears to be no one save Feinstein who would have any chance against one of the most famous people in the world. A match-up between the two would be a battle of the titans, pitting the seemingly unstoppable Schwarzenegger against a highly respected, savvy, somewhat moderate lawmaker who has twice won more popular votes than any other senator in U.S. history.
Some consider San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi worthy of being called Democratic leader in the state, but like Feinstein she is hampered by geographical distance and her responsibilities as party leader in the House.
Where the Democrats miss a single, commanding voice is during the current budget process, following revisions by Schwarzenegger that essentially avoided tough decisions and pushed action on the deficit into the future. And while they control both the Assembly and the Senate, their power is diminished by Schwarzenegger’s ability to dominate the media spotlight and rally voters to put pressure on legislators who resist his wishes.
If debate on the budget propels any Democrat’s voice to the forefront it should be that of state Treasurer Phil Angelides, referred to by some as the “Un-Schwarzenegger.” Opposing March’s Schwarzenegger-backed Proposition 57, a $15 billion bond issue to refinance state debt, Angelides called the governor’s agenda antithetical to Democratic values.
But the treasurer has uttered barely a peep lately, strange for someone apparently eyeing a run for the governor’s office in two years. If I didn’t know better I’d think he was among the Democrats who have emerged anesthetized from Schwarzenegger’s cigar tent.
Two other Democrats vying for party leadership, and likely Angelides opponents in the 2006 Democratic primaries, are Controller Steve Westly and Attorney General Bill Lockyer. But Lockyer has been lying low after admitting he voted for Schwarzenegger, referring to the governor’s alleged sexual harassment as “frat boy” behavior and calling women at the party’s state convention “cranky.” Westly, who aligned himself with Schwarzenegger in pro-Prop. 57 television ads and appearances, may find such coziness will come back to haunt him in two years.
While Californian Republicans rode waves of cash at Monday night’s multimillion-dollar L.A. fund-raising bash, state Democrats are starting to resemble the Titanic. And they’re heading toward the iceberg without a captain.