Anxious in Orange County

I went to the heart of Reagan country to see how George Bush is faring politically. I found it's still a GOP stronghold, but even Bush loyalists are worried about Iraq.

Published October 15, 2003 6:36PM (EDT)

Ever since the 2000 election, pundits have talked about this politically divided nation in terms of "red states" -- the ones that went for George W. Bush -- and liberal "blue states," those that favored Al Gore. On most political maps, California is colored blue -- dark blue. But a county by county picture of the U.S. shows more complexity. Blue counties seem to have a remarkable affinity for water. You can, for instance, follow the Mississippi River as a tendril of blue between some of the reddest states in the union. All of the Great Lakes states except Ohio went for Gore. The coastlines, notably California's, also stand out. But Orange County, Calif., remains an anomaly, a red county along a predominantly blue shore.

Orange County was once shorthand for "conservative stronghold," especially back when Ronald Reagan (full disclosure: my father) carried it overwhelmingly -- he won 68 percent of the vote in his 1980 presidential run and 74 percent in 1984. But there's been some change since then. Rep. Loretta Sanchez shocked the nation in 1996 when she narrowly beat "B-1 Bob," Rep. Robert Dornan, the perfect symbol of the county's pro-military, anti-liberal politics. And Bush's margin of victory in 2000 was narrower than Reagan's -- he won only 55 percent of the vote. An influx of Latinos and Asians has altered the traditionally white enclave, and even its Republicans aren't divisive firebrands like Dornan, or the retired Rep. William Dannemeyer, who was infamous for reading into the Congressional Record graphic descriptions of gay sex.

But the GOP still rules the "O.C.," as Fox named it in its sudsy hit series. I visited Orange County just before the recall election to take its temperature, to see how a slumping Bush administration was playing in one of its strongholds. Had anything over the intervening three years since the election -- the body count in Iraq; the failure to find WMD; Bush's inability to nab Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein or the anthrax mailer (remember that killer?); the burgeoning budget deficit thanks to tax cuts targeted at the rich; environmental chicanery -- managed to shake their faith in the man? I found the county still solidly Republican and pro-Bush. Yet at the margins, movement is discernible. Worries about the war in Iraq seem to be the one place where Bush is vulnerable, even among true believers.

Getting people to focus on George Bush, of course, in the midst of the California recall election felt like scalping World Series tickets at the Super Bowl. But Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory makes a telling point about O.C's political evolution. Schwarzenegger, who is after all married to Maria Shriver of the Kennedy clan, is hardly tailor-made for the far right. He's pro-choice. He made his name posing in micro-briefs in front of a lot of gay male fans. He emerges from that bastion of left-leaning sin and depravity, Hollywood. Yet he polled over 60 percent in O.C., stomping the bejesus out of right-winger Tom McClintock. That wouldn't have happened back in the Reagan era. So O.C., a perennial conservative redoubt, may ever so slowly be shifting -- not left exactly, but toward an as yet vaguely defined center.

"George W.'s stock has gone up in Orange County," insists Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, whose congressional district overlaps some of the county's oceanfront communities. Kathy Tavoularis, executive director of the Orange County Republican Party, agrees. "The people here just love Bush," she tells me. "They remember the image of him on the Lincoln. They're just so grateful he's president and not Clinton."

Yet nationally these are tough times for Bush, who lost the popular election in 2000 by more than half a million votes. And his negatives are beginning to stack up as 2004 approaches. A recent New York Times/CBS poll shows a majority of Americans disapproving of Bush's handling of the economy and foreign affairs. According to a Zogby poll, only 40 percent of the general public thinks he deserves another trip to the Oval Office. He's losing, though narrowly, in hypothetical matchups with Democratic presidential candidates Wesley Clark and John Kerry. Ominously, only 54 percent of us now believe Bush was legitimately elected in the first place.

Democratic pols smell blood. Their candidates are finally becoming emboldened. It stands to reason that if Bush wants to win the next election fair and square, he can't afford to be hemorrhaging supporters. Tepid enthusiasm won't cut it. He needs not only the rabid, Clinton-hating "base" but the center-right and "swing" voters -- the kind who can breathe with their mouths shut -- to be fired up and ready to brave sleet, snow and liberal scorn to get to the polls. It's unlikely Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will once again pull a rabbit out from under his robes. Bush needs to hold tight to strongholds like Orange County to get reelected.

O.C. is home to nearly 3 million people, many of whom arrived with the development booms of the '70s, '80s and '90s. "A lot of working-class and middle-class folks," says Rohrabacher. He elects to omit a healthy portion of upper-middle-class citizens, many of whom work in the aerospace or high-tech industries, which are the economic backbone of the county. Unlike the rapidly growing immigrant population of Latinos and Asians -- now a million plus -- who cluster north and inland in what Tavoularis refers to as "the armpit of Orange County," they tend to live in the "South County" and along the coast in places like Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest and Irvine.

These communities are dominated by metastasizing housing developments that sweep over the dry, rolling hillsides like some overdesigned lichen, their advance punctuated here and there by mini-malls and the occasional shopping center. Broad arterial roads wind through canyons along former creek beds. There are sidewalks, but one seldom sees pedestrians. Neighborhoods, though segregated by the value of their homes, are nearly indistinguishable, as are the houses themselves, which often seem like appendages attached to massive garages. Strict "covenants, conditions and restrictions" (CCRs) ensure that no one chooses an inappropriate trim color, lets a backyard shade-tree get too tall or, God forbid, elects to work on her car's engine in the driveway. Neighbors tend to enforce these rules on their own, quickly phoning relevant committees to report violations.

While it would be going too far to say that the inhabitants all look alike, a certain sameness in appearance seems to be the norm. Men in casual mode tend to dress like professional golfers, women in watered-down L.A. chic, the kids in whatever faux hip-hop baggies the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch are pushing. Gardeners and housekeepers aside, most people are white. African-Americans draw notice if not suspicion. Attitudes in general seem carefully conformist. For a visitor from someplace like Seattle, accustomed to encountering unusual or transgressive people around any corner, it's all a bit unsettling, even stultifying. Welcome to George Bush's America.

"I have no doubt about Mr. Bush," says Ann Hagerty of the Capistrano Valley Republican Women, Federated. She cites his "sincerity, honesty and forthrightness." This notion of Bush as a straight shooter is typical here in O.C., as is distrust of anyone critical of his policies and an undisguised contempt for his political rivals. Ann had begun our conversation by citing the "biased coverage" of the L.A. Times and went on to say that the Democratic candidates -- "these 10 people" (she was speaking before Florida Sen. Bob Graham dropped out of the race) -- couldn't "measure up to [Bush's] bootstraps."

Benta Collura, a 50-ish lawyer sitting with her husband in the slightly surreal environment of Fashion Island, an upscale megamall, would agree. "An open-minded liberal is an oxymoron," she offers. Much of the criticism of Bush, she says, is "hateful." The word "leftist" is tossed around, conjuring a picture of a Trotsky-bearded rabble hoisting red banners.

This prickly defensiveness is intriguing. Many O.C. Republicans apparently still subscribe to the belief that there is a "liberal media" conspiracy targeting their man -- though to liberals it seems as if the mainstream press couldn't bend over any further to give Bush a free pass. And though their party now controls the executive branch, both houses of Congress and, yes, the Supreme Court (not to mention Fox News), they still act the part of beleaguered underdogs. James Cassidy, an attorney and one of the few Democrats I encounter (he actually lives in D.C. but keeps a home in O.C.), says he "gets asked some pretty odd questions [by Republicans] at parties" out here. Like, "Why are people in Washington, D.C., taking us to hell in a handbasket?" Why indeed? Maybe they should ask Dick Cheney. You get the feeling that only the total annihilation of non-right-wing thought in America and the world will allow these folks to sleep comfortably. For all their chin-up defiance and air of moral certainty, though, they strike me as people who are seriously spooked.

I've often wondered whether there is some characterological trait that distinguishes the truly right-wing (as opposed to merely Republican) from the generally liberal. The cliché is that conservatives cling to stasis and certainty while liberals are more comfortable in the flux and flow of modern life. Like most clichés, this one may contain a nugget of truth. It could go a long way toward explaining why idiot ranters like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage thrive in the far-right medium of talk radio, where many listeners tune in solely to hear their darkest, most paranoid preconceptions confirmed. Liberals -- at least the ones I know -- tend to begin any discussion by acknowledging the other side's point of view. How much simpler the absolutist perspective: Liberals are traitors; black NFL quarterbacks are undeserving; gay people with AIDS had it coming; and everything bad is the fault of those pinko sodomites, the Clintons.

David, a young salesman I find reading a newspaper on the boardwalk at Laguna Beach and who'd prefer I not use his last name because "my friends already think I live at the beach," may be a case in point. He believes Bush is "doing better than anyone could" given the circumstances, but that "no matter what he does [liberals] will think he's doing a bad job." I find myself thinking, Well no, David. If Mr. Bush were suddenly to embrace the idea of conservation as a rational response to our energy woes, if he uncharacteristically admitted that his alms-for-the-rich economic policy was flawed, and stopped lying about why we went adventuring in Iraq, I'd be happy, as a liberal, to give him credit. But I don't say it. I'm here to listen.

What has these folks nervous and defensive, I believe, is simple, ever-encroaching reality. Much as they'd prefer to ignore them, the facts at hand no longer support their worldview. The one item nearly everyone admitted gave them pause was the lack of a clearly enunciated strategy for withdrawal from Iraq. Americans will happily tolerate a quickie war -- particularly one that results in overwhelming victory. But prolonged occupation of foreign territory, expensive in blood and treasure, rankles the national psyche. Bush's lies -- and the misrepresentations of his handlers and minions -- have become big angry chickens looking to roost. The $87 billion first installment on our rental of Mesopotamia is hard to ignore, the near-daily tally of dead American kids grimly unsettling. And the $500 billion-plus deficit is an affront fiscal conservatives must strain to dismiss.

Phil Pageau, 62, a vice president at a local marketing firm and a solid Bush supporter, sums up the feelings of many folks I talked to: "The situation in Iraq needs a clearly defined end point," he says. "We need to get out of Iraq as fast as we can." While maintaining that the Bush administration is "doing what I expect them to do," he admits, "I hate it when I pick up the paper and see kids getting killed over there. If there is an endgame," he continues, "the administration isn't sharing it with us."

His co-worker Steve Atkinson, 47, an account executive, agrees. "My concern is, there's no exit plan. I don't know how we'll get out of Iraq. What's the program? I wish Bush would do a better job explaining that."

"I'm a wave-the-flag type guy," says Tom Joyce, 52, the president of TCC Laser Eye Surgery. "But not a social conservative," he adds quickly. This is a caveat I would hear fairly often. People in O.C. were eager to stress their patriotism, particularly in light of 9/11. Yet they were equally anxious to establish their credentials as nontroglodytes. They have no problem with Darwin. Gay folks don't need to be rounded up and incarcerated in the desert. Dana Rohrabacher, by anyone's reckoning a pretty conservative guy, made the same point. O.C. Republicans, he told me, are "a combination of surfers, young Asian and Hispanic entrepreneurs, people who go to church but aren't uptight." O.C., while still home to some "kooky right-wingers," he says, is no longer the fiefdom of hard cases like Bob Dornan and Bill Dannemeyer. Off the record, people in the local party hierarchy told me that the real political battle in O.C. was between moderates and the dregs of the hard right. My impression on the ground was that O.C. Republicans fell into two broad categories: those who had drunk deeply from the Kool-Aid and simply refused to entertain any notion at odds with their preconceptions; and, on the other hand, critical thinkers who, whatever their specific political bent, were inclined to observe events as they unfolded and ask relevant questions.

The aforementioned Tom Joyce appears to be the latter sort. He voted for Bush in 2000 and, as we began our conversation, there was nothing to indicate he wasn't eager to do so again in '04. He pronounces himself "fully comfortable with the [Bush] package." "Bush seems like a stand-up guy" who "appears to be a strong proponent of family values," Tom tells me. "He's been consistent in setting a moral high ground."

Tom goes on to talk about what a "great country" we live in, his "strong sense of nationalism," and how, in light of the terrorist threat, we have to "defend our country and all that stuff." So far, this is entirely typical of what I've been hearing ever since arriving in O.C. But then -- carefully, because my role isn't meant to be that of advocate -- I begin pushing a little harder. I suggest to Tom: Bush sold the nation (or some of it anyway) on the need for war in Iraq by citing firm evidence of massive stocks of chemical and biological weapons, at one point even invoking the specter of unmanned Iraqi drone planes spraying botulinum toxins over American cities. Saddam, we were told, was on the verge of unleashing nuclear conflagration. Iraq posed an imminent threat to America and the world. Apparently, hundreds of Americans -- not to mention thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children -- needed to sacrifice their lives to forestall such catastrophe. So how does the now transparent falsity of these assertions square with Tom's impression of Bush as a "stand-up guy"?

"That's a tough question," he admits, and his eyes begin moving about the room as if searching for a convincing rationale lurking behind the potted plants.

Others I spoke with assured me (or themselves) that the weapons would surely be found. One woman told me, "I consider Saddam's sons weapons of mass destruction." Bush himself had insisted months ago that WMD had already been located; they turned out to be a couple of trailers containing equipment used to inflate weather balloons. Tom, to his credit, refuses to resort to such baloney. After a long pause, he quietly says, "The underlying tenets for our incursion in Iraq have proved to be untrue. You have to ask yourself, 'What's going on here?' Do I have trust? I don't know. Is it a good thing the Iraqi regime was deposed?" he asks rhetorically. "Yes. But the rationale is becoming increasingly tenuous."

Now we're getting somewhere. To put Tom more at ease, I set down my pad and pen. "OK, official interview over," I tell him. "Let's just have a conversation." For nearly an hour, we discuss the role of money in politics and its relevance to Bush's "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" initiatives. We agree on the importance of being honest with citizens whose children are being asked to fight and die, and we delve into the possible reasons -- real reasons -- why our military was sent to Iraq. I ask him to consider the possibility that the massive tax cuts that have jacked up our deficit to mammoth proportions are less a demonstration of fiscal ineptness than part of a deliberate plan to bankrupt entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare (a thesis advanced by economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, among others). By the end of our talk, Tom has the look of a man who will very carefully weigh his options in '04. "You've given me a lot to think about," he says. "And that's a good thing."

Good for Tom; potential trouble for George W. Bush and Co.

O.C. "is changing, but not as fast as I'd like," says Rep. Loretta Sanchez. "Out of six representatives from Orange County, I'm the only woman, the only Democrat, the only Hispanic. The others are five white men." She is somewhat taken aback to hear that her district has been described as an "armpit" but recovers quickly. "Latino communities are no different than others," she tells me. "There are a lot of libertarians, a lot of undecideds and liberals." She feels many people in her district are "upset about Bush, upset about the war."

I had driven inland to Santa Ana -- Sanchez territory - the day after my conversation with Tom Joyce, expecting to find open animosity toward George W. One afternoon spent walking the streets of the old downtown area with its bodegas, bridal boutiques and Tabernaculo Cristiano, talking mostly with busy shopkeepers, is hardly enough to draw firm conclusions. But the impression I got was that, politically speaking, this area was more similar to the rest of O.C. than Sanchez would like. Raoul Yanez, purveyor of cowboy boots and hand-tooled leather belts, seemed to speak for most. While admitting that "business has gotten worse" and that Bush may have "screwed up the economics," he will nevertheless "stick with him." Bush, he feels, "did the right thing" going into Iraq. "He has the balls to defend the country." But Sanchez, who struck me as remarkably sanguine about the divergent opinions in her district, had said something else. The folks she represented who back Bush were "good people," she maintained. "They just don't have the right information."

This brought my mind back to Tom Joyce and the potential Tom Joyces scattered throughout the "red states." Truth has a certain weight to it. As time passes, its impression deepens. Some people will remain impervious; many will not. And truth is not on George W. Bush's side. For all the people who may "remember the image of him on the Lincoln" as that of a triumphant warrior-king, others will see his strutting arrogance as an insult to the brave men and women aboard that ship who had actually put themselves in harm's way.

As the months have passed since 9/11 and particularly since our ill-advised, dishonestly promoted venture in Iraq, more and more people, not all of them liberals, have become disenchanted with the direction in which the Bush administration is taking our country. Tom Joyce and Republicans like him, thoughtful and concerned enough to seek out the "right information," may not vote Democratic in '04. But they may find themselves unable, in good conscience, to cast a vote for Bush. And that is a scenario to give Karl Rove nightmares.

By Ron Reagan

Television host Ron Reagan lives in Seattle.

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