Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Election Campaign in California

I wish I could think of a catchier title for this little essay, but no short title comes to mind for my assorted thoughts about the preferences of the voting public for celebrities with personalities rather than persons with rather plain and colorless personalities but who might actually do a good job of governing. I'm thinking, of course, of the two men now campaigning for the job of governing California for the next four years: Phil Angelides and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to recent public opinion polls, Arnold has a lead of ten points or more over Phil. If the polls are accurate, Phil has an almost impossible job ahead of him if he is to win the election in November. A year, or even six months ago, it appeared that almost any Democrat would beat Republican Schwarzenegger if the election were held then. Schwarzenegger's rise in popular standing is like that of the previous Republican Governor, Pete Wilson. In 1994 Mr. Wilson was running for reelection against Kathleen Brown, the daughter and sister of former Governors. Brown was comfortably ahead in the polls. However, by Election Day, Wilson was ahead and won another four years in office.

The analogy between Wilson and Schwarzenegger is imperfect. Wilson turned defeat into victory by endorsing a rabid but popular anti-immigrant proposition (Proposition 187). Schwarzenegger has simply apologized to the public for past mistakes and used his charming personality to revive his popularity. Charm works like a charm.

I think there's a lesson here for students of history and government. The job of governing well is not flashy, not spectacular. In fact, it's quite dull. On a local level, good government means filling potholes in the streets, trimming trees, picking up trash regularly, a responsive police department, a responsive fire department, Aldermen, Councilmen, and Supervisors who are approachable and have time to talk to constituents, and the like. There's no exciting news in good government. In fact, there's no news at all if the government is perfect.

The voting public perversely prefers a colorful candidate who may not know jack s**t about running a city or a state to a dull but competent candidate who knows all about it. The colorful or "different" candidate will win. A wrestler was elected Governor of Minnesota. A body-builder and B-grade actor was elected Governor of California. These are two recent examples. Historians can cite many others. The public likes to be entertained and will choose a good entertainer over a good administrator.
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