Why Phil Angelides Lost

By Garry South

November 8, 2006

San Francisco Chronicle

Autopsies are never pleasant or pretty. But sometimes they’re necessary to find out just how someone met their demise — and post-mortems are equally appropriate for failed political candidates.

Take Phil Angelides. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger demolished the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in yesterday’s election, despite a national trend that put more Democrats in office. Even a cursory dissection of his campaign reveals Angelides violated some of the most basic do’s and don’ts of politics — mainly the don’ts.

Don’t assume voters know a single thing about you

It is axiomatic that voters really don’t care what a candidate says if they don’t know who he is. If Angelides’ campaign had been a personal ad, it likely would have attracted zero responses. He didn’t tell voters enough about himself to spark even passing interest, let alone passionate infatuation. In fact, he bizarrely spent more time talking about George W. Bush and Richard Nixon than he did about his own qualifications.

During the entire campaign, Angelides inexplicably never aired a single biographical ad that properly introduced him and his background to the voters. He is the grandson of non-English-speaking immigrants, and the son of an immigrant mother. His middle-class father saved to provide Angelides a prep-school education and an Ivy League degree. He did some innovative things in his eight years as state treasurer. But none of that was ever communicated to voters.

Angelides ended the campaign as he began it — as some ill-defined, not-very-likable guy with an unusual name running against the Terminator, only one of the best-known people on the planet. He was, predictably, terminated.

Don’t think voters hate your opponent as much as you do

In the 1996 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole rampaged around the country bellowing about President Bill Clinton, “Where’s the outrage?! Where’s the outrage?!” But, I’m sure to his consternation, Dole discovered the outrage existed mainly in his own mind. Clinton went on to demolish Dole in the general election.

Likewise, Harvard-educated wonk Angelides pretty obviously disdains Schwarzenegger, a Santa Monica College alum he views as a rich, unprincipled dilettante who parachuted into the governor’s office in the special circumstances of the recall in 2003. Nearly every reference to the governor by the preternaturally snarky Angelides just dripped with ridicule, sarcasm and overstatement.

When Schwarzenegger vetoed same-sex marriage legislation in 2005, for example, Angelides put out a statement comparing him to Southern segregationists George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. His belabored attempts during the campaign to paint the governor as a Bush clone also were evidence of Angelides’ own skewed view of Schwarzenegger.

But even if Angelides had raised more money, his guilt-by-association gambit against the generally moderate Schwarzenegger would have failed (he’s married to John F. Kennedy’s niece, for God’s sake). Californians feel they’ve known Schwarzenegger for much of the last three decades, and Angelides’ over-the-top charges just didn’t find their mark against this familiar face.

Similarly, you could spend millions of dollars telling people stop signs are green, but it won’t work because they can plainly see with their own eyes that they’re red.

Don’t fight the last war

From the very beginning of his campaign, Angelides was beating his chest and calling himself the “anti-Arnold,” proudly proclaiming that he had opposed the governor from the beginning “even when he was popular.” The tagline on his very first ad of the primary was “He stood up to Arnold, he’ll stand up for you.”

But the terrain had shifted dramatically since last year when Schwarzenegger got himself in Dutch with the voters over his ill-advised and unpopular special election with its union-bashing measures. Voters punished the governor severely, turning down all of his initiatives — after which he quickly apologized and returned this year with public huzzahs this year as a bipartisan problem-solver working hand-in-glove with the Democratic Legislature.

In Angelides’ own mind, he obviously had mythologized this supposed titanic battle between himself and the seven-time Mr. Olympia — and then just wouldn’t let go of it, even when it was clear the shtick wasn’t working (bringing to mind that old saying, “When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”).

To the degree voters were turned off by Schwarzenegger’s disastrous detour to hyper partisanship in ’05, why would they have responded positively to Angelides’ boastful hyper partisanship from the other side of the aisle in 2006?

Angelides was caught up in a political time warp and an inflated self-view, both of his own making — and they contributed to his ultimate unmaking.

Don’t make a tax increase the centerpiece of your candidacy

In a year when the governor lucked out with one-time, $7.5 billion revenue windfall and bipartisan passage of the first on-time budget since 2000, Angelides wedged himself into the silly position of quibbling about whether his tax-increase proposals added up to $10 billion, or “only” $5 billion. That’s akin to arguing over whether it’s better to be bitten in half by a shark or only swallowed whole.

Was Angelides on Pluto when Walter Mondale’s come-out roll in his ill-fated 1984 presidential campaign was promising everyone he would raise their taxes? Even in this usually very blue Golden State, one doesn’t launch a campaign for governor by making a tax increase the focal point.

Over the years, Angelides has had an undeniable penchant for advocating raising almost every tax in sight, including the income tax, the sales tax, the property tax, the corporate tax, the tax on alcoholic beverages, the tax on diesel fuel and the tax on farm machinery, among others.

Apparently, he figured voters would consider his call for tax increases a red badge of courage. Instead, his unpalatable proposals just branded him from the very start of the campaign with an indelible scarlet letter “T.”

Don’t run your own campaign

Like the lawyer who represents himself, the candidate who manages his own campaign has a fool for a client. Especially at the level of governor, truly smart candidates hire talented, experienced advisers and pay heed to their counsel.

But not the supposedly brilliant Angelides. One of the worst-kept secrets about the two-term treasurer, who first stood for office as a 19-year-old college student, is that he always runs his own campaigns, down to every tactical decision and the last tedious detail. In the last couple of weeks before the election, major daily newspapers were filled with head-shaking stories from current and former Angelides campaign workers about the ludicrous extent of his micromanagement.

In one tale, aides recounted that when they were choosing a shredder for the office, Angelides — while traveling on the East Coast — insisted that they express mail him samples of minced paper to make sure they were sufficiently pulverized. In another, his staff outed their candidate for demanding that a certain color of paper be used for briefing papers, and personally deciding how wide the margins should be and whether they be stapled or clipped.

Running for governor of California is a massive, high-stakes undertaking with myriad moving parts. If you want to be chief executive of the largest state in America and the fifth-largest economy in the world, act like a candidate for governor and leave the minutia to others. Angelides behaved more like the manager of an Office Depot, with the inevitable result.

How did the Angelides’ campaign meet its ignominious end? Let me count the ways: No compelling message. No credible messenger. No cogent case made on his own behalf. No consistent or convincing attack strategy against his opponent. No coherent policy agenda or vision for the state. No capability of raising the money necessary to be competitive.

But other than all that, I bet at least the campaign shredders were top of the line, and the briefing papers were printed on just the right color paper and immaculately stapled. Or, maybe paper clipped.