IN CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR PRIMARY, CRITICAL ERRORS ON THE LEFT
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, May 22, 2006 -- The California primary election is rapidly approaching, competing television ads are getting red hot, and the Democratic contenders are doing their best to reelect their supposed antagonist, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It's not just the mutual slicing and dicing that will ultimately help Arnold, but that candidates Steve Westly and Phil Angelides also seem to have missed a message that California voters sent when they voted to recall Gray Davis.
More about that message later, but first a little about the latest round of bashing between Angelides and Westly. It's just too delicious to pass up. Anyone wanting to view the source material directly can see the tv ads by accessing the candidates' web sites (Westly2006.com, and Angelides.com)
Here's how the latest fight got going. After a televised live debate which we discussed here recently, Westly started running tv spots accusing Angelides of wanting to raise taxes by $10 billion dollars. The message was familiar - almost tailor-made made for a conventional Republican attack ad against a "tax-and-spend liberal." Coming from a Democrat, though, it's a little surprising.
The ad pulls out the old victimization theme, warning "working families" that they can't afford Phil's plans to tax them into ruination. It features the usual grainy, unflattering pictures of the opponent, and otherwise sounds like something the other party would run.
Angelides returned the favor by featuring a strangely-made ad which in effect accuses Westly of being a hypocrite and liar. It features footage of Westly promising not to run negative ads first.
In this, Angelides has a point. Considering that all of Angelides' previous tv spots were fairly tame towards Westly (if not towards Schwarzenegger), the Angelides campaign certainly has an ax to grind. Westly can't run ads accusing his opponent of promising to raise taxes, particularly when the inflated figure of $10 billion is used, and then expect to get away with pretending it isn't an attack. The allegation might be true, it might be exaggerated, but whatever it is, it's definitely an attack.
So the Angelides campaign responded; it got some footage of Westly at the recent Democratic Party state convention showing Westly promising not to go negative first. The Angelides campaign obviously didn't have a lot of material to work with, so they dusted off that weary old technique of replaying Westly's spoken words over and over, even to the point of overlapping them. This "echo" technique really should have been retired long ago, but for the editing crew working on deadline, apparently it was the technique of last resort. Mix in a few visual overlays of a newspaper headline attacking Westly and presto, the Angelides counterattack.
L.A. Weekly writer Bill Bradley compared the look of the ad to the "cinema verite" style first developed by Russian Dziga Vertov in the 1920s (in Russian it was called kino pravda) and later popularized by the French, but Bradley was not impressed. He remarked in a later piece that he could have done a better editing job in 15 minutes on a laptop.
This humble media critic doesn't know Bradley, but believes that he could have. For one thing, the Angelides campaign didn't even get the color balance equalized from one shot to the next, an amateurish mistake. The ad that has been filling my tv screen looks like something that was cut together in haste out of scrap footage and then left in a barrel to decay for a few decades.
As of this writing, that clumsy ad has been run again and again in the huge Los Angeles media market. Westly responded to it by claiming (if I may be allowed to paraphrase here), "He started it!"
This argument is actually pretty lame. It comes down to the fact that in their live debate, Angelides made unkind remarks about Westly's rhetorical style - Angelides compared Westly's remarks to something that Rush Limbaugh or other conservatives might have said. In effect, Westly argues, Angelides went low first by using this language during their televised debate.
That's mighty thin ice. Comments made in a debate are not the same as multimillion dollar television buys. The point, an obvious one conveniently ignored by Westly's side, is that remarks made during a face-to-face debate are subject to immediate reply and refutation. Attack ads do not offer that possibility, creating a situation in which the opponent has no effective recourse except to run his own multimillion-dollar television response.
The whole argument about Angelides' remarks is unconvincing, but Westly seems to have seized on this pretext as the excuse to lash out with what has now become a barrage of attacks. The latest explains to tv viewers that Angelides has collected thousands of dollars in donations from oil companies during his time in elective office. That ad, running for only a couple of days as as we write, has the look of a carefully crafted piece that obviously was researched and planned long in advance.
So the two Democratic candidates are spending the last three weeks before the election doing everything they can to cut each other to ribbons, while the Schwarzenegger campaign laughs all the way to November.
As you can probably tell, much of the Democratic Party primary fight has centered on intraparty strategic issues: Did the one or the other offer to keep the campaign clean? Did the one or the other refuse to play along? Did the one or the other break a pledge, or was the pledge never made?
Why would any of us care?
And that is the main point to consider: Why should the viewers care who threw the first cream pie or the first punch or, in this case, ran the first negative tv ad? It is a subject that will be of interest only to Democratic insiders and ultra-loyalists. To these people, and these people only, it matters. For the rest, the vast majority of two or three million Democrats who will be voting in the June primary, the debate is largely irrelevant.
As for the candidates and their advisers, I wonder: What could they be thinking?
Here's my conjecture: By running these attacks, the candidates are revealing, however unintentionally, that they are both products of the suffocating group-think of the Democratic club system. These guys have been traveling around the state appearing in front of auditoriums full of activist Democratic Party insiders, places where party loyalty is a valued commodity. But of the millions of registered Democratic voters, only a minuscule fraction fit that description.
The vast majority are more likely to respond positively to attack ads than to view them as some kind of disloyalty.
At the minimum, Westly's ads serve to create negatives for Angelides. In a race in which voters aren't that familiar with either candidate, piling negatives on your opponent may be the most effective route to victory in the primary.
Of course, there is a downside, because as soon as one guy goes negative the other has to respond, and the net result is to negative for both. This behavior will surely rebound against the Democratic primary winner in November.
At this point, for the record, it appears that Westly has taken a calculated risk by being the first to go negative, based on Angelides' known propensity to get personal against opponents when he is behind in the polls.
Now, let's change the topic and consider a message California voters made very clear a couple of years ago. I will preface it with an anecdote: Walking out of a restaurant one evening, my companions and I noticed a long line of people waiting patiently in line to enter the dance studio across the street. We wondered, "Is this the annual dance recital?" Then we realized that these people were waiting in line to vote. They were waiting in line to remove Gov. Gray Davis from office and put Arnold Schwarzenegger in.
It was a remarkable turnout for a quiet residential neighborhood in the pro-labor, liberal bastion of San Pedro. What set them off? Here is my conjecture, based on numerous conversations I had then and since.
As governor, Gray Davis had allowed himself to become identified as the pawn of special interests, and one of the least popular interests, as far as the public was concerned, was the effort to make driver's licenses available to illegal aliens.
Most of the California electorate coexists peacefully with all sorts of people, immigrant and native, legal and illegal, but the majority seemed to have drawn the line at the driver's license issue. It shouldn't have been such a surprise; after all, these same voters passed Proposition 187 a few years earlier, turning off the spigot on health benefits - or so they thought - the law went undefended when it landed in court.
Whether you agree or not, that vote represents a political reality and one not as hard-edged as it sounds. If another amnesty bill becomes law, these same California voters would happily embrace another round of new citizens, just as they did last time. But absent that amnesty, voters here strongly object to licensing undocumented drivers.
Gov. Davis seemed to miss that point at the time, although he did add a controversial caluse to the law requiring that undocumented drivers undergo a criminal background check that is not required of others. His mistake might have been to hold a ceremonial signing for the bill just days before his recall election. The signing was carried on tv and live on talk radio (complete with derogatory remarks by the hosts), and it inspired long lines of people to show up at the polls in little San Pedro - all over the state.
That leads us back to the live televised debate a couple of weeks ago. It went unnoticed in the press, but when asked whether they would sign a bill authorizing driver's licenses for illegal aliens, both candidates said yes. This can't have escaped Schwarzenegger's campaign research team. We can expect to see that clip replayed a lot come October.
What could these veteran candidates been thinking? My guess is that they have both been spending too much time with party loyalists, and not enough in Bakersfield and Fresno.
The intraparty group-think specifies their driver's license position, in spite of its unpopularity with the wider electorate. Both candidates walked right off the same plank that Gray Davis did, both blissfully unaware of the mistake.