For all their differences, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Democratic challenger, Treasurer Phil Angelides, have at least one thing in common. Each man continues to struggle with his positioning in the political marketplace.
Schwarzenegger has famously shifted left since his disastrous “Year of Reform” special election debacle last year. Is the super-rich former action superstar back where he was when he entered politics, prior to embarking on a foolhardy path in 2005? Or is he, as many Democrats and a few Republicans argue, simply being an opportunist who will say or do anything to regain his popularity?
Angelides, a rich developer and longtime machine Democrat who ran as the insider choice of the Democratic establishment, had to move left to fend off a nearly fatal challenge in the primary from Controller Steve Westly, the ex-eBay honcho. Now he is out of position for where he needs to be to take on a moderate Republican incumbent. But because of problems with his campaign persona, he is having to continue to move left — as with his appearance at a Bay Area anti-Walmart rally today — to rally the core Democratic vote even as he attempts to move to the center with tax cutting proposals for the middle class to balance his still vague program of tax hikes for business and the rich.
Neither candidate would be grappling with these issues had things gone differently over the past year and a half.
For his part, Schwarzenegger unaccountably went off track last year with his special election initiatives agenda. The issues selected and, in particular, the manner in which they were pursued, were at variance with his “brand” in politics. Which was surprising, because Schwarzenegger has been as assiduous a promoter and protector of his brand as any star on the planet, even going so far as to sue a Midwestern car dealer who used his iconography without permission.
Schwarzenegger was elected as an optimistic, if at times hard-edged, centrist and reformer, eschewing partisan ping-pong in favor of finding solutions that work. While the reform part went by the wayside relatively quickly, with the governor emerging as a champion fundraiser from corporate interests, the rest of his positioning held up well during his first year in office, yielding record high popularity ratings among voters.
But in 2005, he campaigned as a harsh partisan, pushing seemingly arcane initiatives that were easily cast as a Republican power grab. Though they could have been sold from the center, Schwarzenegger and his then team of political advisors seemingly inexplicably chose to sell them from the right.
Now reviving his brand, Schwarzenegger — who has never really explained the 2005 debacle — has made himself prone to charges of opportunism and flip-flopping.
And for his part, Angelides would be in much better shape had two things not occurred. First, if this were still 2005, his reflexive persona as the “anti-Arnold” would be much more relevant. But the calendar changed and Schwarzenegger has proved unwilling to leave the “kick me” sticker on his keister. Second, Angelides would have been better off had Steve Westly not run.
That was Angelides’ plan, to clear the primary field by locking up the endorsements of the party’ reigning interest groups and establishment politicians. He succeeded spectacularly in gaining those endorsements. But, while it turned out that those associations, for Democratic voters, may have proved the difference in his narrow primary victory, there was an entire campaign to run against an opponent that Angelides and most of the Democratic establishment had grievously underrated as a competitor.
Had Westly won the nomination, of course, with his more consistent center/left positioning, appealingly telegenic persona, and high tech fortune, this would be a very different and closer race. But that’s another story.
So both party nominees soldier on, Schwarzenegger continuing to act as though last year never happened while endeavoring every day to convince voters that it, and not this year, is the aberration in his political career. And Angelides fighting to invigorate his party’s core voters while at the same time reaching out to the independent voters who will decide the election. It’s a campaign of cognitive dissonance.