When the going gets tough

With just days until Election Day, the hardy folks in the Phil Angelides campaign, from the candidate on down, are greeting every morning searching for the unexpected break that will produce unanticipated victory on November 7. Hope, it has been said, springs eternal in the political breast.
Later in the day, as blood-sugar levels lower and the odds of a lightening strike seem depressingly low, minds will wander and the inevitable question will surface yet again: How did it get this bad?
The truth is, sometimes victory is just not in the cards. The halls of power are filled with elected officials who lost an election or two or three before winning office. Candidates get better. Campaigns get better. But, more often than not, a change in political fortune reflects the shifting preferences of the electorate over time.
That phenomenon can also change winners into losers. Gray Davis was just the right guy for California voters when he beat Jane Harman, Al Checchi and Dan Lungren in 1998. He was the right guy again when he beat Bill Simon in 2002. But, having changed his views and personality not a whit, he was judged to be very much the wrong guy in 2003.
So what lengthened the odds Phil Angelides faced at the start of the race this June?
First, as has been well reported, the incumbent governor saw the light and returned to the fold of the collaborative. Remember the history: Immediately following the recall, most Democrats were furious with Arnold Schwarzenegger for having stolen the office of governor from Gray Davis. But by the end of his first year in office, the Arnold Schwarzenegger who asserted that Democrats and Republicans needed to work together to save the state, was the beneficiary of a 55-40 favorable rating among Democrats.
Then, for reasons we may never know, he proceeded to personally attack the most respected professions in America–namely teachers, nurses, firefighters and law enforcement–and one of the least respected professions with whom he nonetheless had to work: legislators. By the time the special election was over, Arnold Schwarzenegger was on political life support, with right-track/wrong-track and approval ratings that could have proved terminal.
But, flexible figure that he is, he turned right around and is once again preaching cooperation.
This yielded two immediate benefits. For one thing, ever since 9/11 voters have been highly intolerant of a political house divided. They are petrified of dangerous global developments, over which all of us have little control, and abhor domestic political conflict. They essentially demand that our elected officials figure out a way to work together and not lose site of bigger, external threats.
Further, by fostering cooperation with Democrats, notably Democratic legislators, he took much of the wind out of Phil Angelides’ sails. While conspiracy theorists prefer to believe that a number of Democrats sat on their hands for much of this cycle because they want to see Antonio Villaraigosa win in 2010, the simpler, accurate explanation is that because the incumbent Republican was serving up a fair amount of the Democratic agenda, a lot of Democratic officeholders and contributors didn’t feel the need to commit every available resource to take out him out.
Second, if California, and for that matter American, voters continue to look for strong, protective leaders in the wake of 9/11, it’s advantage Arnold. After all, Schwarzenegger isn’t just famous. Woody Allen is famous. But it’s unlikely that Woody Allen would have been elected the governor of California at any time in the recent past. Schwarzenegger is famous for being tough. If this is a time when voters prefer super smart and articulate, it would be advantage Phil. But that doesn’t seem to be where the voters are this year.
Third, Angelides emerged from the contested Democratic primary largely undefined. Pressing rank and file voters over the summer to divulge what they knew about Phil, it became horrifyingly clear that most of them knew exactly three things: He wants to raise taxes, he polluted Lake Tahoe and he has three daughters who like him. The stuff of which California governors are made? Not in most years.
So, as the end of the runway looms closer and closer, Angelides and his staff and consultants will do exactly what they should do, which is everything possible to win. They will do that because they want to win and because they have an obligation to every other Democrat running for office in California to maximize party turnout. They will do that because competition is what the American political process is all about. And they will do that because every once in a while, the underdog does, in fact, pull off a stunning victory.

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