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Davis Recall: Be Careful What You Wish For

The effort could stain state politics with the bitterness that afflicts Washington.

June 04, 2003|Bill Whalen | Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Hoover Institution.

At first, the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis looked ineffectual; now a special election seems inevitable. The team that helped Davis win reelection has assembled to do battle, and California political insiders are saying a vote to decide the governor's fate is a done deal.

This raises two questions: Why recall Davis at this critical juncture in state history? And won't dumping him in this manner just lower the level of discourse of state politics?

Davis is a failed governor, both in substance and style. Under his watch, California's economy has bled jobs while the state budget hemorrhages red ink. Solving those problems requires the kind of visionary reform never seen in this administration.

Davis doesn't seem to be interested in winning over his detractors. His initial response to the recall initiative was to trash the recallers as right-wing conspirators and then go plead his case before newspaper editorial boards in sessions that were long on self-pity and short on contrition. At least Marie Antoinette had one good sound bite before the peasants revolted.

Still, is Davis' incompetence alone cause for removal? Fortunately, we don't need to consult a team of lawyers to figure what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors" -- the threshold for presidential impeachment. What the California state Constitution tells us is this: "All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their protection, security and benefit, and they have the right to alter or reform it when the public good may require."

Moreover, the man responsible for this, Hiram Johnson, the progressive governor who fought for recall and the initiative process 90 years ago, was deliberately vague when he came up with the idea of throwing the bums out.

In his inaugural address of 1911, Johnson told the state Legislature: "While I do not by any means believe the initiative, the referendum, and the recall are the panacea for all our political ills

Translated from Edwardian: Whatever floats your boat.

If the recall drive does result in a special election, then voters will decide if incompetence is sufficient grounds for an extraordinary democratic gesture. On the same ballot that asks voters whether they want to recall Davis will be candidates who want the job.

Republicans need to weigh the potential consequences of their action. For openers, what's to prevent more than one Republican from jumping onto the recall ballot, turning the election into a wintertime pileup on the I-5 and blowing the GOP's best shot at reclaiming the governor's office?

The anti-Davis recall is a partisan effort, but would it be a GOP success if Davis' replacement was another Democrat? Further grist for the mill: What if Davis survives the recall? Then Republicans will have committed the cardinal sin of giving a condemned man new life. Just ask Dianne Feinstein if this matters: As mayor of San Francisco, she survived a recall and went on to win reelection by a landslide.

Of course, those are political calculations. But what about a bigger variable: the quality of discourse in California politics?

If Davis is recalled and replaced with a Republican governor, will Democrats target GOP lawmakers and engage in a tit-for-tat retaliation? Will Republicans then feel forced to respond in kind? Could a successful recall also be the kickoff of an era of even pettier and more destructive partisan bickering -- not unlike the endless fight over judicial nominations that dates back to the mid-1980s and the partisan battle over Robert Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans paid back Democrats during the Clinton years. Democrats have since returned the favor to George W. Bush.

One way to avoid this would be to have a high-minded election, should the recall effort qualify. That would mean holding as many public debates among the candidates as possible in the weeks leading up to the election. Voters should demand nothing less than a concrete plan from each candidate about how he or she would mend the budget shortfall and stimulate the state's economy. If the recall drive makes its Sept. 2 deadline, it will be because 900,000 registered voters decided they'd had enough of the status quo in Sacramento or, to be cynical, found a clever way to take a mulligan on last November's results.

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