Sacramento, California

The delegates attending the recent state Democratic convention, a liberal bunch that otherwise hasn't much to be excited about, were positively giddy. With the election of Gray Davis, California became one of only two states to have a Democratic governor, two Democratic U.S. senators, and Democratic control of the state legislature. But Gov. Davis, rather than play to the crowd with a rousing dose of left-wing agit-prop, doused it with cold water: "Our fellow citizens are sick and tired of extremism in the defense of ideology. They want us to stand up for principle and practicality. This is what it means to be a Democrat at the dawn of the 21st century." As for the crowd, Bill Buckner would have gotten a warmer reception from a roomful of diehard Red Sox fans.

The speech was part and parcel of Davis's remarkable effort to strip California Democrats of doctrinaire liberalism. Here's what Davis has done during his first three months as governor: He's approved the execution of a Thai immigrant found guilty of a double murder, blocked a costly Bay Bridge restoration project coveted by Willie Brown and Jerry Brown (mayors of San Francisco and Oakland, respectively), proposed education reforms opposed by the heavily Democratic teachers' lobby, agreed to phase out a clean-air gasoline additive favored by environmentalists, refused to support trial lawyers' attempt to lift the cap on medical malpractice awards, and signaled his opposition to taxes on Internet commerce.

He's also come up with a university admissions plan that keeps Proposition 209 intact. And in what is surely the ultimate heresy for many California Demo-crats, Davis opposes gay marriage and is unlikely to oppose a statewide initiative on the ballot next March that would bar same-sex unions. Dan Walters, a venerable columnist at the Sacramento Bee, says Davis "intends to stick religiously to the political middle, cultivate middle-class suburban voters, and do nothing that would allow Republicans to pin a liberal label and a political target on his back."

These moves don't come as a total surprise. After running as a non-ideological candidate in the Democratic primary, Davis made a great effort to appear moderate for the general election. Not only did he speak the language of centrism, he offset his more liberal positions -- e.g., abortion on demand -- with support for center-right ideas. He endorsed the reduction in car taxes advocated by then-governor Pete Wilson. On crime, he supported the three-strikes idea and famously said, "Singapore is a good starting point in terms of law and order." And if that wasn't enough, he said he'd support a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.

Davis demolished his Republican opponent, Dan Lungren, by 20 points. Had he wanted to, the new governor could have immediately turned left. Liberals are in firm control of the legislature. The state's deficit is expected to disappear, and its coffers are flush with revenue. No strong Republican is looming as an opponent for 2002. A left-wing agenda would even be in keeping with the one constant of Davis's 25-year career: his instinct to blend in (thus the joke about "Gray" being the perfect name for him).

So why hasn't he scrapped his pledge to "govern neither from the left nor the right, but from the center"? Davis has learned a number of political lessons from studying the Clinton administration and from working as chief of staff for former California governor Jerry Brown. One is that trying to do too much too quickly can have grave consequences, particularly if your proposals expand government (ClintonCare) or strike at cultural values (opening the military to gays). Another lesson, learned the hard way from Brown, is the importance of discipline. Brown's extracurriculars, including a run for president, gave Davis great power while serving as his top aide, but they also undermined Brown's legislative agenda. Says Phil Eisenberg, a Davis adviser and a former assemblyman: "Gray learned the lesson of what he didn't want to be by watching Jerry try to do everything as governor."

This led Davis to centrism; it also made him exceedingly risk-averse, as a recent education debate illustrated. In his highly disciplined campaign, Davis promised that, if elected, education would be his "first, second, and third" priorities. A January poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed nearly 90 percent of those surveyed want to increase education spending. So Davis called a special legislative session and came up with a four-part plan.

The proposals included peer review for teachers, enhanced reading instruction, a school-rating system, and a standardized test required for high school graduation. The package initially alienated the education lobby -- a badge of honor for Davis -- but it lacked any sweeping reforms. Overhauling teacher tenure, for example, was never discussed.

The modesty of the effort didn't stop union-friendly Democrats in the legislature from watering down many of the reforms -- the test required for graduation isn't even administered at the 12th-grade level. But Davis didn't put up much of a fight. His goals were to get the legislature to move quickly and ensure their amendments didn't make the reforms look excessively liberal. When both goals were met -- all four bills were approved by late March -- Davis declared victory. He promptly held signing ceremonies in Los Angles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Sacramento, California's four biggest media markets.

This last gesture left political insiders chuckling. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out last year, Davis "has a homing pigeon's instinct for a TV camera, and an unshakable reputation as one of Sacramento's biggest publicity hounds." Indeed, the quest for publicity led him to the only other issue for which he gained any fame: milk cartons.

In 1985, as a junior assemblyman, Davis proposed placing the pictures of missing children on milk cartons, paper bags, and billboards throughout California. It was a brilliant political move -- Who could oppose it? -- and it had the advantage of providing Davis with priceless publicity for free. (Actually, his name was initially left off the billboards, but Davis lobbied the outdoor advertising company to have it included.) He was frequently cited in news accounts of children being reunited with their parents, and his subsequent election to the statewide office of controller in 1986 was widely attributed to the milk-carton campaign.

As governor, Davis will seek out similar issues to keep his favorability ratings high (58 percent in a mid-March Field poll), but his biggest challenge will be pursuing a centrist path without inviting resistance from liberal Democrats in the legislature. They're already threatening trouble if Davis doesn't drop the state's appeal of the ruling that overturned Proposition 187, which denies services to illegal immigrants. Moreover, they are planning measures that would reward trial lawyers, teachers, and gays.

Yet these liberals are politically sophisticated, and no one expects them to cause as much trouble for Davis as conservatives caused for Pete Wilson. They're so happy that California's 16-year streak of Republican governors has ended, they're willing to cut Davis some slack. Sheila Kuehl, a liberal assemblywoman representing Santa Monica, told me that after dealing with Wilson, she's "just happy to be able to walk down to the horseshoe [the executive offices of the governor] and get in." This conciliatory spirit isn't going to last forever; Davis should make the most of it while he can.

Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.