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Commentary | ON THE RECALL Peter H. King

Forget 'New' Politics, the Same Old Rules Apply

This is the first in a series of columns by King that will run twice weekly through the recall election.

August 20, 2003|Peter H. King

Political reformers have long pined for that day when the citizenry rises up against the tyrant known as Politics as Usual, driving campaign handlers, lobbyists, money people and career politicians from the temple of public business.

In California today there are optimists afoot who see in the manic recall movement the outlines of just such a transformational moment. The People, they say, finally are engaged. The People are taking back politics. Finally, there will be a campaign offering more than the same old suits, swapping the same old slogans and fibs.

In this interpretation of the recall, Gov. Gray Davis deserves banishment not because of any one thing he has or has not done but because of what he represents: the prototypical money-grubbing political lifer. He walks the plank as a metaphor, a scapegoat -- not that this affords him much comfort or protection.

Populist dreaming aside, it seems appropriate to point out another, more plausible take on the recall. Politics are not being reinvented in California this summer. Rather, the so-called art of the possible is merely being hoisted one more step up the cynicism ladder. Forget about transforming moments; the only real breakthrough this recall represents is a tactical one.

Listen closely and it's almost possible to hear the state's legion of political operatives slapping their foreheads in unison: Why oh why didn't we think of this before? We could have recalled Moonbeam, moan the Jerry Brown detractors. We could have recalled Pee Wee, weep the Pete Wilson haters. Maybe we wouldn't have taken them out, but we certainly could have roughed them up, tied down their money, shortened their leashes.

For a quarter of a century it has been canon in California politics that anybody with $1 million or so to invest can put anything before the voters in the form of an initiative. The recall simply has taken this truth and applied it to another of Hiram Johnson's hallowed experiments in direct democracy.

After all, the petitions to put the recall on the ballot were not circulated by populists with pitchforks. They were passed around in the traditional fashion of initiative politics: by mercenaries, migrant pieceworkers paid by the signature.

The petition drive was stalled until U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa stepped forward with a pile of cash. Until two weeks ago, the wealthy San Diego County Republican would look in the mirror and see the next governor of California staring back -- not a bad return on his million-plus investment. Then came that morning when Issa looked in the mirror and there was ... Arnold Schwarzenegger!

The recall in general has attracted two kinds of opportunists. There are the candidates out for a lark, the strippers and practical jokers and minor celebrities not celebrated enough even for a spot on "Hollywood Squares." In the other category are the short-cut artists, the more credible candidates who saw opportunity in the truncated time frame of the recall process. This is a race that by necessity begins on the homestretch. It is a format that appeals to impatient politicians looking to leapfrog ahead of their experience, and also to nonpoliticians who would prefer coronation to election.

Now, there is no denying that interest in the race is sky-high. Some polls are finding as many nine out of 10 eligible voters intend to turn out. Let's check back on that figure Oct. 8 -- after seven long weeks of "I'll be back" and "Hasta la vista, baby."

The buzz for now seems less like a political awakening and more like the constant chatter one heard during the first run of "Survivor." Who are you for? Stacy or Dirk? Arianna or Cruz? Should we vote Gray off the island or not?

It's also true that the recall might not unfold exactly like a regular election -- so many fast-moving parts -- but it is politics and in the end many of the usual rules will apply. From here on out, the candidates who receive the most attention will be those with the most money to spend -- either of their own or raised through the usual political transactions of promises and winks.

Moreover, there's been little to suggest the debate will bring much in the way of breakthrough thinking. For example, 49 days from the election, all we've heard in the way of policy from Arnold is that he is "for the children" because -- hold on to your hats -- "they are our future." Oh yes, and Arianna has made it clear that she detests lobbyists, except the former tobacco lobbyist who is running her campaign.

In the end, sadly, the recall campaign promises to be just one more contest of resumes and slogans, framed and conducted by a familiar and largely interchangeable cast of professional handlers, pollsters and speechwriters for whom the recall represents, as much as anything else, an unanticipated payday.

Viva la revolucion, baby.

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