A Hero and Some Villians from the California Recall

The California recall of Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger may prove to have significant political import. These events may mark the resurgence of a moribund California Republican Party after former Governor Peter Wilson led it to long-term minority status. Alternatively, they may mark only a temporary success for Schwarzenegger and prove that celebrity can prop the prospects of an individual, but it is not sufficient to buttress the structure of a political party. Part of the outcome will depend upon whether improved national economic performance in the next 18 months alleviates California’s particularly acute budget shortfalls. In the short term, we can find some heroes and villains.

Hero Nominee: Susan Estrich. No one can claim that Susan Estrich is not a political partisan. Certainly, as the national head of Governor Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign, she would not assert that claim. Estrich is now a self-described Liberal commentator on Fox News. Moreover, Estrich is a rape victim and this experience has motivated her to lobby for laws protecting rape victims and workplace protections of women. She has specialized in sex discrimination law for years. Estrich had every professional and political motivation to use for political advantage charges against Schwarzenegger for fondling and perhaps assaulting women. Instead, Estrich took the intellectually honest stance of agnosticism with respect to the charges until the evidence was better vetted and anger at the political exploitation of the issue by an obviously partisan Los Angeles Times.

If Schwarzenegger was indeed guilty of being a sexual predator and had perhaps even crossed the line to illegality, such information is a legitimate topic for news coverage. Estrich agrees, but believed that given that the Los Angeles Times had been working on the story for seven weeks, last minute revelations smacked of a political hack job. True or false, Schwarzenegger had no real chance to respond late in the campaign. Estrich explained:

“What this story [the L.A. Times expose] accomplishes is less an attack on Schwarzenegger than a smear on the press. It reaffirms everything that is wrong with the political process. Anonymous chargers from years ago made in the closing days of a campaign undermine fair politics.”

It is theoretically possible that the timing of the charges leveled in the L.A. Times, falling just days before the election, was a coincidence of the investigative process. But given the paper’s editorial stance and the tenor of coverage, that possibility strains credulity.

As it happened, the stench of unfairness wafting up from the L.A. Times articles repulsed those for whom the issue of womanizing might have been dispositive. The L. A. Times was too ham-handed and its last minute revelations backfired. Attack politics lost.

Hypocrite Nominee: California feminist groups. The same feminist groups who overlooked charges of groping and even rape against former president Bill Clinton by women who were willing to be identified, suddenly became indignant about the mostly anonymous charges of sexual harassment against Schwarzenegger. The California chapter of the National Organization of Women fumed against Schwarzenegger, “Your behavior was not playful, it was illegal, it was sexual harassment.”

When questioned about the difference between the behaviors of Clinton and Schwarzenegger, Patricia Foulkkrod of Codepink explained,

“The difference was that Clinton was so brilliant. If Arnold was a brilliant pol and had this thing about inappropriate behavior, we’d figure a way of getting around it. I think it’s to our detriment to go on too much about groping. But it’s our way in. This is really about the GOP trying to take California in 2004 and our trying to stop it.”

In other words, Schwarzenegger’s crime was his party affiliation. It is all about party and not about ideology. If Schwarzenegger had been a Democrat, any poor women who were groped or assaulted could be sacrificed in the higher interests of the sisterhood. Schwarzenegger’s pro-choice position, though he is against partial birth abortion and for parental notification, was not sufficient protection against verbal harangues by NOW and other feminists groups.

It is possible that had the campaign lasted longer, Republicans who had complained how Clinton’s behavior, setting aside for a moment his alleged crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice, might have defended Schwarzenegger out of political expediency. We don’t know. The campaign was too short. The charges were not fully vetted. Indeed, Schwarzenegger’s background might have prevented him from obtaining the Republican nomination had there been a primary. In addition, many of the more Conservative Republicans voted for Tom McClintok not for Schwarzenegger. Hence, the California feminist groups can put the trophy of hypocrisy on their mantel. It will likely be displayed there for at least a few election cycles.

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