California on Super Tuesday

Commentary by Pete du Pont

The media spin coming out of "Super Tuesday" was, of course, the performance of the presidential candidates. More interesting, though, were the fortunes of the many propositions that littered California's ballot.

California has a long history of controversial propositions that eventually dominate the national debate. And while gay marriages gained the most national attention among this year's slate, several others have a greater chance of impacting the national debate.

Californians not only had an opportunity to vote for John McCain, who made campaign finance reform his campaign's centerpiece, but they also had the chance to vote on the issue itself. Proposition 25 called for banning corporate contributions, establishing campaign spending limits, and beginning the process to publicly finance state campaigns - an idea both Democratic candidates also want nationally.

The verdict? Not only did McCain come in third in the "beauty contest," but Proposition 25 went down in flames as well. Despite the pundits' claims that George W. Bush needs to advocate campaign finance reform to win this fall, and signs that Al Gore will now champion the issue, California suggests it may not be the decisive issue they hoped for.

California voters also rejected Proposition 26, a measure to lower the two-thirds vote requirement for school bond issues to a simple majority. While supporters of the change spent more than $23 million to flood the California airwaves suggesting the change was needed to get smaller class sizes, the measure didn't actually guarantee it. All it did was make it easier to pass school bonds. Since bonds are repaid by property taxes, voters saw the change as making it easier to raise taxes.

The close vote suggests that the promise of school improvement plays well. But it was clearly trumped by the electorate's continued dislike of taxes and its resistance to anything that would make it easier for politicians to raise them.

Another issue that might have an effect on the general election campaign was addressed in Propositions 30 and 31. Both measures mirrored new state laws backed by trial lawyers to give injured automobile accident victims the right to sue the at-fault driver's insurance company when it failed to offer a high enough settlement. But Californians decided that out-of-control lawsuits were having a real impact on their pocket book, and feared Propositions 30 and 31 would end up costing them up to 15 percent more for their car insurance. What does that mean for the presidential election? It's good news for Bush, who is trumpeting tort reform as part of his "reformer with results" legacy. It's bad news for Gore, as his connection to trial lawyers and his call for more lawsuits might become a liability for his campaign.

Finally, Proposition 21 called for one of the most significant changes to the state's juvenile justice system since its creation, and garnered some of the most emotional campaigning. The measure called for prosecutors, rather than juvenile court judges, to decide whether youths aged 14 to 17 are tried as adults for serious crimes.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson, who sponsored the victorious measure, said it will "retake California neighborhoods, schools, and businesses from vicious street gangs." Opponents lamented that California would be spending billions to send teens to prison instead of spending that money on prevention. California voters, fed up with a chronic gang problem, decided that punishment is prevention. California's famously liberal judges had been sending juvenile offenders the wrong message that there wasn't a severe penalty for their criminal behavior. With this change, voters hope that local gangs will get the same message adult offenders are getting - adult crime rates are dropping in conjunction with a rise in expected punishment.

What does all this mean? One possibility is that the "conventional wisdom" - that Bush, who in the talking heads' opinion got shoved too far to the right, is going to have trouble this fall - is flat wrong. If California is any measure; the so-called mainstream is getting more conservative every day.



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The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.

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