California conservatives know that the unexpectedly convincing victory of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the October 7 recall race cannot possibly result in any serious changes in the governance of this increasingly nutty state, yet most people I talk to are quietly pleased at the turn of events.  This is not naiveté but the result of reduced expectations.

Schwarzenegger is an unknown commodity, politically speaking.  Occasionally, he makes a valid point, such as when he talks about the state’s warped business climate, calls for a reduction in the recently tripled car tax, or demands the repeal of a law that grants driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Most of the time, however, he sounds like a standard-issue liberal Republican.  He shares a faith in government programs with most Democrats, but he does not want to drive out of state the businesses and entrepreneurs who pay the taxes that fund the programs.  His solution to illegal immigration is basically to legalize those who are here illegally.  Unlike former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who failed in his 2002 primary bid to take on Gov. Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger was smart enough not to attack conservatives directly.

The Republican Party apparatus fell in line behind Schwarz-enegger, arguing that the real conservative in the race, State Sen. Tom McClintock, didn’t have the money or broad-based appeal to win.  Besides, Republican elites in California long ago abandoned serious conservatism.  They view principled men like McClintock as a threat.  They run in horror at the mention of “social issues,” an unrelated grab bag of matters ranging from abortion to gun control.

The embrace of Schwarzenegger was a reflection of how difficult it has become for any Republican to win statewide office, as a combination of trendy liberals and new immigrants has given Democrats virtually ironclad control of the state.  The only way to break the lock, GOP officials believed, was with a well-known celebrity, no matter how shaky his conservative credentials.

GOP grassroots activists, although they know they have been sold out once again, have pretty much accepted the situation.  At the most recent Republican state convention, held two weekends before the recall vote, there was little of the usual animus between business-oriented moderates and socially conservative activists.

The reason is simple: Things have gotten so bad, politically and economically, that most observers had been bracing for yet another exodus of the white middle class.  In the late 1990’s, 800,000 more Americans left California than moved here.  Yet the population kept growing as Third World immigrants, mainly from Latin America, flooded across the border.  California is hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, as those companies that do not flee to China or Indonesia head for Utah or Nevada, where state officials reward rather than punish job creation.

With Democrats controlling every statewide constitutional office and holding just short of a two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature, the state’s middle class had begun to feel like those poor Vietnamese watching the fall of Saigon.

California does not have your garden-variety legislature.   These days, bills that used to get laughed at soar out of committee.  In recent weeks, Governor Davis signed bills that give men the right to dress like women at work, force most employers to provide healthcare to employees, allow employees to sue their employers for virtually any reason and collect damages, and allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.  He did, however, veto a bill that would have granted illegal immigrants free tuition at community colleges.

Meanwhile, the state is $38 billion in the red, and, rather than looking for cuts, legislators have been busy spending even more money.  Democrats backed a union measure that would eliminate the main protection remaining for taxpayers—a requirement of a two-thirds majority to pass budgets and raise taxes.  Without it, a simple majority of legislators could raise taxes every time they overspend by $40 billion or so.

During the Davis years, police and fire unions gained what is called a “3 percent at 50” retirement plan that allows them to retire at 90 percent of their already bloated pay, which essentially increased their retirement benefits by 50 percent.  Indian gaming interests demanded a right to veto development within five miles of any self-declared sacred site.  That was finally too much for the legislature, which failed to pass the bill.

As McClintock often pointed out on the campaign trail, if people believe their future is better in the Nevada desert than along the lush California coast, you know things are getting bad in California.  At neighborhood parties, people always talk about where they are planning to move.

Liberals in the media depicted frustration with the state’s fiscal and political direction as carping by right wingers.  However, there are not enough right wingers left in California to recall a governor.  Even 25 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Latinos favored the recall.  One Democratic activist I know supported the recall, arguing that there was a need for some check on the power of liberals in Sacramento.

There were lots of reasons to desire change.  Democrats decided on a “support Davis” strategy, keeping all viable Democrats off of the replacement ticket.  Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a dim-witted political lightweight from Fresno who had no chance of winning a Democratic primary, jumped in anyway.  His appeal did not expand much beyond the far-left Democratic base, however.

With his refusal to distinguish between legal immigrants and illegal ones and his ardent defense of his past membership in a Latino racist group, Bustamante frightened the center into Schwarzenegger’s bulging arms.  He also pushed conservatives, who feared Bustamante far more than they did Davis, into supporting Schwarzenegger.

Though most conservatives preferred McClintock, in the end, they deserted him.  McClintock’s numbers fell during the last few days before the election, which was, in part, a result of the Los Angeles Times’ last-minute revelations about Schwarzenegger’s alleged groping of 16 women.  More than a few conservatives voted for Schwarzenegger purely as a protest against the Times.

This was a genuine revolt, despite continued attempts to portray it as an event sponsored by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, the San Diego County Republican who bankrolled the signature-gathering.  Two conservative organizations already were collecting signatures at a decent pace before Issa jumped in.  The recall might have taken place in March rather than October, but it moved forward because of genuine disgust with the status quo.

That is good news.  It shows that, in California, middle-class residents still understand the power they have in the initiative, referendum, and recall processes, adopted in the Progressive era by Republican Gov. Hiram Johnson.  The recall was not quite a replay of Proposition 13, which permanently changed state government by limiting property-tax increases.  The recall, however, did shake things up in Sacramento.

Despite Schwarzenegger’s hiring of aides to former moderate GOP governor Pete Wilson, I doubt that he will suddenly backtrack and raise taxes.  Even Wilson now regrets his tax increases.  The new governor will not try to reform the system in Sacramento, however, and he has pledged not to cut education funding, which consumes 40 percent of the state’s budget.

Schwarzenegger also has pushed for government mandates for hydrogen cars and other weird environmental stuff, and he criticized University of California Regent Ward Connerly’s initiative that would have outlawed state-government collection of most racial and ethnic data.

Schwarzenegger’s first foray into politics in 2002, promoting an after-school spending program tied to increases in state revenue, demonstrates his big-government priorities.  Of course, Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 49 is the ideal liberal program: It promises a lot but has not yet spent a dime, since revenues have not increased enough to trigger the plan.

On the night of the recall, the Orange County Republican Party celebration was muted.  Few conservatives expect Schwarzenegger to do anything great.  Yet there was a palpable sense of relief.  I feel the same way.  Imagine how the Democrats would be crowing had the recall failed or Bustamante won.

Just having a veto pen in the governor’s office is a sea change.  Leading Democrats are already toning down their rhetoric in the face of new realities.  Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a leftist Democrat from the Bay Area, admitted during a post-recall forum that he had voted for Schwarzenegger.  Steve Westly, a liberal dot-com baby who eked out a victory for controller over the underfunded McClintock in 2002, declared that he would support a state spending cap.  All of a sudden, everyone is talking about fiscal responsibility.  This talk is cheap, but it is better than the previous discussions.

An initiative repealing the bill granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants is moving forward without vocal opposition, not so much because of Schwarzenegger as of fear of a riled electorate.  Some Democratic politicians are openly fearful that Schwarzenegger will go to their districts and appeal directly to the voters.

The election also proved that, even in California, politicians have to make some appeals to the so-called political center.  On August 19, Davis delivered a widely televised speech that promised to be an apology for his mishandling of the budget and electricity situations.  It was supposed to be his attempt to reconnect with the state’s voters.  At the time, his approval rating hovered around 22 percent.

Instead of apologizing, however, Davis told viewers that the recall was part of an “ongoing national effort to steal elections Republicans cannot win.”  The many moderates who had favored the recall effort but who might have been convinced to support Davis again were offended.

Every time Davis got into trouble, he lurched left.  In the early days, he had played up his centrist image, imagining future glory as a Democratic presidential candidate.  The business community lavished cash on his campaign, understanding that he was the only check on the legislature.  When Davis abandoned the center, the public abandoned him.

Bustamante did even worse.  In addition to standing behind MEChA, despite its racist slogan (“For the race everything, for those outside the race nothing”), he pushed for eight billion dollars in new taxes.  His poll numbers never rose above the low 30’s.  Even in left-leaning California, one can only go so far.  That is not saying much, but for those of us who live here, it is better than selling the house and moving to Nevada.  It also explains why Schwarzenegger won by such a large margin, and why conservatives will not complain too much when the new governor betrays them.