Talk about being up a creek without a paddle. That's where California Democrats find themselves today, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein's announcement that no way, no how, will she put her name on the ballot as a possible replacement for Gov. Gray Davis.
Feinstein's decision is understandable. She deplores the recall process and wants nothing to do with it. She enjoys a powerful position as senior senator from California. She'd rather shape U.S. foreign policy than tackle California's $38-billion debt. Who wouldn't? But her withdrawal from consideration is still a body blow to Democrats who want to beat the recall.
Think about it. The Feinstein scenario would have been perfect, giving Californians the best of both worlds. They could reject what's no more than a blatant Republican attempt to hijack the state by first voting no on recalling Davis, but then they'd have an insurance policy. Just in case the recall succeeded, they'd also have the option of voting for the strongest, most qualified person to become the next governor. No doubt, Feinstein would have won, hands down.
With Feinstein out of the race, there's only one way to go: Some other big-name Democrat must step up to the plate. All the more so, now that Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger has joined the fray. This strategy, of course, runs counter to the official Democratic Party line. Party leaders argue that the recall is anti-democratic. They are 100% correct. But the simple fact is, on the bottom of the ballot you can't beat somebody with nobody. We California Democrats need somebody. And the good news is, there are a lot of somebodies out there.
The best alternative would be for some senior Democrat to step forward, get on the recall ballot and agree to serve only for the remainder of Davis' term, leaving the field open for the next legitimate election in 2006. Among such elder statesmen, former U.S. Rep. Leon Panetta heads the list. As Bill Clinton's budget director, he turned a $250-billion deficit into a $300-billion surplus (since squandered by George W. Bush). If anybody could make a $38-billion shortfall vanish, Panetta's got the best chance.
And don't forget former Gov. Jerry Brown. Sure, his heart's set on running for attorney general in 2006. But he has huge statewide name recognition. He's a proven vote-getter. He knows how to work with the Legislature. And nobody disputes he's done a good job as mayor of Oakland.
But Democrats don't have to bring someone out of retirement. Sacramento offers a full bench of talented, ambitious elected officials. Available governors-in-waiting include: Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante; Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer; state Treasurer Phil Angelides; state Controller Steve Westley and state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi. Add Senate leader John Burton and Assembly leader Herb Wesson. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley is off the list only because of his direct role in overseeing the recall election.
True, out of loyalty to Davis each one of these officeholders already promised not to jump in. But that was before the recall qualified. Now that it's on the ballot, the issue before us is a lot bigger than Davis. It's the future leadership and direction of the state.
Among California Democrats, there is no lack of talent to succeed Davis. There is only a lack of courage.