Angelides’ strategy failed basics of ‘Campaigns 101’

Two years after Hubert Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon in 1968, the late liberal icon and Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith pumped out a book, “Who Needs the Democrats — and What It Takes to Be Needed.” In this volume — curiously slim at 86 pages, given its grandiose title — the author laid out some odd prescriptions to “save” the party.

Galbraith denounced the Democrats’ “bid for… the middle.” “Democrats must reject out of hand the notion that Americans are overtaxed,” he implored. Acknowledging such “solutions look unpleasantly radical,” Galbraith also urged Democrats to spurn balanced budgets, advocate wage and price controls, push for a guaranteed annual income for all Americans and nationalize certain industries.

Unpleasantly radical, indeed. But in the next presidential election, George McGovern actually embraced some of these far-out notions — remember, he was going to give every American, including the Rockefellers, a thousand bucks a year — and brought on himself and his party a disastrous 49-state loss from which it has never fully recovered.

I bring up this political history because California Democrats now must do some real soul-searching themselves after gubernatorial nominee Phil Angelides’ crushing 17-percentage point defeat Tuesday at the hands of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — an especially galling loss in the face of a strong national Democratic tide.

Yes, the wonkish, self-described nerd was running against a famous movie star with charisma, charm and a genius for drawing media coverage. Yes, he was running against an incumbent governor in a state where the last time a sitting governor lost an election for a second term was in 1942. Yes, Arnold is a multimillionaire who could pump millions into his own campaign, unlike the well off but not-as-rich Angelides. Yes, yes, yes, we can come up with a dozen reasons why Angelides was a victim of circumstances beyond his control.

But unlike some Democrats who are busily churning out even more excuses, I don’t think winning races is rocket science — or even necessarily political science. It’s more Campaigns 101: understanding exactly where and how elections are won. Even in this putative blue state, with only 8 percent more Democrats than Republicans and nonaligned voters holding the balance of power, top-of-the-ticket contests are always a fight for the broad political center. There are more self-described moderate voters than liberals in the electorate. Even 40 percent of registered Democrats define themselves as moderates.

While a chastened Schwarzenegger was dealt a brutal object lesson on this count after his near-disastrous sharp right turn in 2005, Angelides never seemed to demonstrate even a rudimentary grasp on the composition of the electorate or how to move non-Democratic voters. As Arnold slid quickly and successfully back to the center, Angelides remained mired in partisan orthodoxy Galbraith might have been proud of, acting as if the primary had never ended.

In that hard-fought face-off, Angelides was the consummate liberal Democratic insider, running unabashedly on a multibillion-dollar tax increase, playing up his support from nearly every powerful Democratic interest group and accusing his opponent, state Controller Steve Westly, of being a faux Democrat. In the third debate, he likened the 25-year Democratic activist to Richard Nixon, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Rush Limbaugh and outrageously suggested Westly was running in the wrong party.

Angelides also referred to Westly as Benedict Arnold for joining Schwarzenegger — and every other top Democrat but Angelides — in supporting passage of the deficit bond in March 2004. He regularly called Westly “Arnold’s twin,” and even ran an ad with a picture of the controller and Arnold hugging. This was enough to eke out a narrow 4.5-percentage point victory in a closed Democratic primary, but what message did all of that send to non-ideological swing voters who are crucial to winning elections in California?

One of the imperatives in campaigns is telegraphing early signals to voters who are not your own party stalwarts that you’re OK. It’s what I call “throwing an anchor over the other side of the ship.” In the 2000 presidential campaign, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush focused heavily on education — not because he ever could win that issue over a Democrat, but to send a cue to moderate voters that the swaggering, socially conservative, hang-’em-high governor of a Southern state was at least acceptable as a potential president because he supposedly cared about school kids.

Likewise, in Gray Davis’s 1998 race for governor, we continually referred to his Bronze Medal-winning service in Vietnam, his support for the death penalty and three strikes, and his fiscally conservative record as state controller. We knew the Republicans would try to tie him to — gasp! — Gov. Jerry Brown, for whom Davis had served as chief of staff, and even to President Bill Clinton, who was by then in the throes of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But when voters in focus groups were reminded Davis was a death penalty-supporting, decorated, former U.S. Army captain who served in ‘Nam, they generally shrugged off these guilt-by-association attacks.

From the very beginning, however, Angelides inexplicably did next to nothing to inoculate himself against the inevitable ravaging he was about to undergo in the general election as a classic tax-and-spend liberal, a captive of the Democratic interest groups — and a caustic, hyper-partisan former chair of the state Democratic Party to boot.

He did finally endorse Proposition 83, the child-predator initiative, but a full seven weeks after the primary — and only after getting beat over the head about his silence by county sheriffs and district attorneys all over California — then never said another word about it. He announced with great fanfare a modest tax cut for the middle class but then quickly dropped it as a campaign theme and moved on to other, more esoteric things like the Iraq war and Schwarzenegger’s ethnic comments on an audio tape made in his office.

In fact, nearly every move Angelides made reinforced the daily attacks against him by the other side. One two-day period in October illustrates how off-target and tone-deaf the Angelides campaign was. A major newspaper poll published Oct. 1, showed the Democrat trailing the governor by 17 percentage points. Even more shocking, the survey had only 3 percent of Republicans supporting Angelides, and just 31 percent of independents. Generally, successful Democratic candidates capture at least 10 to 15 percent of Republicans and 45 to 55 percent of independents in California.

But the very next day, Angelides’ schedule consisted not of events appealing to the broad mainstream of middle-class voters, but sparsely attended anti-war rallies in two of the most liberal areas of California with two of the most leftish members of Congress — one in Berkeley with U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, the only member of the House to vote against going into Afghanistan after 9/11, and another with controversial firebrand Rep. Maxine Waters in South Central Los Angeles.

If he was going to make opposition to Iraq the issue du jour of his campaign — a dubious proposition at best in a campaign for governor — why wouldn’t Angelides at least be out stumping with Democrats like four-star Gen. Wesley Clark, former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam war hero, or even retired Sen. Sam Nunn, a hawkish expert on national defense? Instead, he continued to make campaign stops with national Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean, Sen. John Kerry and other partisan polarizers. Yet, astonishingly, Angelides was noticeably AWOL from a major Bill Clinton rally in Los Angeles — “previously scheduled events,” his staff explained.

In the end, Angelides was so stoked by antipathy toward Bush and Schwarzenegger that he couldn’t see it was he, rather than Arnold, who most emulated Bush by playing only to his party base, thereby alienating moderate, potential cross-over voters and turning off centrist independents. And in the irony of all ironies, this strategy — if, in fact, it was one — failed to capture even an overwhelming share of Democrats for the doomed Democratic nominee.

As always in politics — and with apologies to both Galbraith and James Carville — it’s the middle, stupid.