Beyond the grim specter of the most populous state in the union experiencing political and fiscal meltdown, what’s most frightening about the gubernatorial recall effort now underway in California is the sense that in the Golden State we may be witnessing, as we so often do, our future. California, which gave us the movies, theme parks, the 1960s youth rebellion and the 1970s taxpayers’ revolt, is now showing us the way to chaos.
In a narrow sense, the campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis is a peculiarly Left Coast phenomenon. Most states do not remotely resemble California in its enthusiasm for government by popular referendum. As for recalling a governor, even California hasn’t jumped over that cliff before. The recall law has been on the state’s books since 1911, but while it’s been used to unseat a handful of local legislators, no one has ever managed to gather enough signatures for a recall of a statewide official. The anti-Davis campaign is a first. No other governor anywhere has faced this sort of challenge.
The question, then, is: Why now? And why Davis? Seen up close, he’s an unlikely candidate for such a dubious honor. Though the media, fueled by the million-dollar “Dump Davis” campaign, has been filled in recent weeks with extravagant descriptions of his deviousness, the governor in reality is remarkable mainly for being unremarkable. From the start of his political career and right through his reelection campaign last fall, media accounts generally focused on his colorlessness, oddly symbolized by his name, Gray.
As most of America knows by now, Davis is accused by his foes mainly of failing to level with voters last fall about the state’s looming budget deficit, which now stands at $38 billion. The standard, presumably, is that politicians must disclose every bit of pain they intend to inflict on voters before they ask for their votes. If that’s the test, it’s hard to think of a sitting politician who could meet it.
But budgets aren’t the real issue. Seen in its broader context, the California recall effort is just the latest in a series of efforts by the radical wing of the Republican Party to remake American democracy — seize control is more like it — by making a mockery of its rules. From the impeachment of Bill Clinton to the debacle of the 2000 presidential election to the circus of the Texas redistricting effort this spring to the current California recall, Republicans seem to have decided that the rules of electoral democracy are mere technicalities — to be honored, stretched, circumvented or trampled as need be. The only point seems to be power.
It remains true that most Republicans don’t share the contempt for democracy demonstrated by the radicals of the right. There is still an honorable tradition of good-government conservatism within the GOP. But they’re a cowed, silent lot these days. The radicals are running the roost in the GOP, and they’re leading us all over a cliff.