Mark Steyn

Man of the people

Mark Steyn says that Arnold Schwarzenegger is not part of the trivial, self-promoting, self-obsessive political club

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New Hampshire

I haven't really followed California gubernatorial elections since 1859, when Milton S. Latham ran as a pro-slavery Democrat. He was a grandson of my town's first postmaster, and in this corner of New Hampshire we take a proprietorial interest in his adventures as he pressed west. Californians, as far as I can tell, take zero interest in him, perhaps because he proved to be their shortest-serving governor. Though he was thought to favour making California a slave state, in his inaugural address he was more circumspect about his plans: 'Entering upon the duties of Chief Magistrate of our young State, it is expected of me, in accordance with precedent, to briefly indicate the line of policy by which I will be governed,' he began. 'It would be a better custom, upon the termination of an official career, for an officer to point his constituency to his several completed acts, rather than, in the assumption of office, to promise what may not be consummated.'

Latham knew whereof he spoke. He'd only run for governor because he wanted the Senate seat recently vacated by David Broderick after he'd been killed in a duel with California's chief justice. Though duelling was illegal in the state, Judge Terry had demanded satisfaction after Senator Broderick called him a 'miserable wretch'. When the senator's pistol discharged prematurely, the chief justice coolly shot him through the chest. Latham preferred the job of senator to governor. So, having taken office, he immediately had the legislature appoint him to the Senate and promptly left town. He remains the only governor to keep a journal for every day of his entire term, mainly because his administration lasted just five days. Chief Justice Terry was, in turn, fatally shot by the bodyguard of US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field, after he'd assaulted the federal judge in the restaurant of Lathrop railroad station in San Joaquin County.

Ah, happy days. A century and a half later, California politics would seem to be just as corrupt and full of loathing as in Latham's time but a good deal less efficient, lacking either the blessings of five-day terms or the swift cleansing mechanism of a good duel. In the current governor's race, the only candidate contemplating a violent end for his enemies is porn magnate and Democrat Larry Flynt, who inaugurated his campaign by holding a National Prayer Day beseeching the Almighty to strike down Fox News's primetime star: 'Dear God, we ask you to afflict Bill O'Reilly with a brain aneurysm that will lead to his slow and painful death. Lord, make those blood vessels bulge out of his head and explode. Make him writhe on the floor,' continued Flynt, warming to his theme. 'Make him lose control of his own bowels....'

Meanwhile, the only Golden State political figure threatening to shoot anyone is the Democratic party spokesman Bob Mulholland, who told ABC News, 'Schwarzenegger is going to find out that, unlike a Hollywood movie set, the bullets coming at him in this campaign are going to be real bullets.'

Really? Mulholland is one of the meanest operatives in a mean political system, but surely even he's only hinting at metaphorical bullets – smears about broads, drugs, whatever's to hand.

Sounds rather old hat to me. In fact, I would say he's got it exactly backwards. Your average election is at least as full of phoney-baloney shoot-'em-ups as a Hollywood movie. This time round, Bob Mulholland's going to find out that the manufactured outrage of fake controversies isn't going to cut it, not when there's real outrage coming straight at him and his man, Gray Davis.

That's what the political class seems to resent. Pre-Arnie, it was easy to dismiss this extraordinary recall vote as a 'circus', particularly when the candidates making all the noise were pornographers like Flynt; porno actresses like Mary Carey, star of Double D Dolls 2; elderly sexpot exhibitionists like Angelyne the billboard queen; elderly non-sexpot exhibitionists like Arianna Huffington.... There were, at one point, more than 300 Californians who claimed to be running for governor, and they can't all have been porn stars and washed-up sitcom actors. But the disdain of the establishment never varied, and the entrance of Arnie only reinforced it. In the Los Angeles Times, Republican speechwriter Doug Gamble sniffed that 'making his announcement on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show rather than a legitimate news venue was an insult to everyone who takes politics and California's problems seriously, indicating a candidacy more about self-promotion than public service'.

Oh, phooey. The assumption that announcing your candidacy on some unwatched cable-news show indicates 'seriousness' is part of what's brought California politics to its present decayed condition. Obviously, most members of the ruling class would prefer it if politics remained a private conversation between themselves – legislators, consultants and pundits all yakking away on Channel 137. But sometimes the professionals screw things up so badly they catch the attention of the general audience. Governor Davis has taken politics 'seriously' all his life – it's all he's known, it's all he does – and look where it's got California. By announcing his candidacy on a comedy show, Arnold was signalling that he's not part of the trivial, self-promoting, self-obsessed political club. It was the right place to be.

Time's Margaret Carlson went further. She didn't like Arnie's crack that this was his most difficult decision since he got a bikini wax in 1978. 'The bikini wax line, I thought, was beneath any...' she floundered, so lost for words that she was unable to say what Arnold's bikini wax was beneath (his bikini, presumably). 'I thought we'd reached a new low in our politics,' she told CNN.

Oh, come on. If that's a new low in our politics, you need to get out more. True, it's not the funniest line in the world. It's not as funny as Margaret's a couple of years back, when she unintentionally summed up the feminist view of the 42nd presidency: 'We all have a little Clinton in us.' Hope springs eternal, dear.

I don't think most Californians were offended by Arnie's little jest. If you're facing, for example, a 300 per cent increase in vehicle registration fees, you may well feel that living on the Left Coast is presently very much like Arnold's wax: it's painful as hell and you don't have much left by the time they're through with you. But, even if you don't care for it, this is no time for political reporters to be holding their noses like dowager duchesses aghast at the vulgarity of the masses. What's happened is that for once a major election has slipped its moorings. It's beyond the management of the parties.

There are, first of all, no primaries. I love the way America allows you not only to choose a party but also to choose which candidate represents that party: it's a far more responsive system than those Continental proportional representation deals where you just get some nonentity from a central office list foisted on you. But in this vote it's a completely open slate: instead of a handful of candidates distilled from the biases of their party primaries, there are more than 100 who've qualified for the ballot. Republicans will compete against Democrats, Independents, porn stars and fellow Republicans. Turnout, which will be decisive, will be in the hands of candidates not the party machines.

And with more than a hundred candidates the usual game will be hard to play. Gray Davis is a brilliant if repulsive campaigner who's always squeaked through by making the other guy the issue. This time he's the issue, and nothing can change that. But, even if you figure out who the other guy is – Arnie? Fellow Republican Bill Simon? – who's to say demonising him with a big attack ad campaign will be nefit you? In a two-man race, destroying the other guy works for you by default. In a hundred-man race, destroying one big-name Republican might just make some other big-name Republican the beneficiary, and solidify what would otherwise have been a split vote. Also, it's a two-part question: first, you vote yes or no on whether to recall Davis; then, you vote for the guy you want to replace him. In a normal election, if people hate Governor Tweedledee, they express it by voting for challenger Tweedledum. But this time the hatred of Tweedledee has been hived off and contained in Part A. By the time we get to Part B, Tweedledum is going to have to have some reasons of his own to attract people all the way down to the 97th name on the ballot. In a traditional campaign, you ramp up your opponent's negatives: it's easier than improving your positives. But you can't drive up the negatives of 100 rivals, or even ten. Given that the winning candidate may need only 25