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Left-Wing Mutineers Did In Davis

The recall's subtext is the widening chasm between centrist and left-wing Democrats.

November 16, 2003|Josh Benson | Josh Benson is a reporter at the New Republic.

WASHINGTON — With Arnold Schwarzenegger set to take office Monday, Republicans have been congratulating themselves for engineering the first recall of an American governor in 82 years. But it wasn't disaffected conservatives who tossed Gray Davis from office. It was liberals.

The real story of the recall lies in the collapse of support for Davis among the state's three pillars of Democratic politics -- legislators, liberal interest groups, and left-leaning voters -- who were so miffed by Davis' dogged centrism that they stood by while the right tore him to pieces. On election day, a quarter of self-identified liberals voted to oust their governor. And while Davis' machine-cold personality, mishandling of major crises and lack of a vision all contributed to his eventual fall, in the end, it was liberals who sealed his fate. This was a Democratic fragging.

And it may not be the last. In California as elsewhere, liberals and centrists are fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party. The GOP has taken control of the governorship as a result of this infighting, but also because the California electorate is too politically volatile to ever support untrammeled liberalism. That's a good thing. Centrism isn't simply an electoral strategy or a sellout to the right, but a viable set of ideas for how government can realize progressive ideals. If Democrats can't accept this, the state will almost certainly drift into the hands of the Republicans.

The roots of liberal dissatisfaction with Davis go back to his first months in the governor's office. After 16 years of Republican rule, many liberal legislators expected Davis to deliver on long-languishing Democratic programs. But the budget Davis proposed in 1999 was a model of fiscal discipline -- a $1-billion reserve, more money for education, even a modest cut to the car tax -- and it infuriated liberals. "No budget will be rammed down our throats," John Burton, the Democratic president pro tem of the state Senate, declared. A spokesman for one state employees union said, "It looks like we're going to have to squeeze blood out of a turnip."

Davis eventually reached a compromise with legislative leaders, but media reports focused on his rift with Democrats. Far from receiving praise for his fiscal moderation, Davis instead came across as a governor afraid of big choices and big ideas. One newspaper columnist derided the governor for exhibiting the classic male "fear of commitment" by favoring early in his tenure one-time expenditures over costly annual programs.

That pattern continued in subsequent years as surpluses gave way to deficits: Democratic legislators insisted on new spending or tax hikes, Republicans refused to compromise on anything, and Davis got caught in the middle. As the fiscal challenges grew increasingly complex, Davis' failure to win support from his own party helped torpedo his public standing.

The trend culminated this year when Davis proposed in January to close a $36-billion budget gap with some $21 billion in spending cuts and $5 billion in painful midyear reductions. Newspaper editorialists lauded the governor for "ducking the problem no more," but Democrats blasted the plan. Jerry Brown, the Democratic mayor of Oakland, even blamed Davis -- his former chief of staff -- for civil unrest in Oakland, saying a police department plagued by money worries had been unable to send out enough officers: "Stores were burned because of a fear of inadequate money." Still, Davis trudged on, even siding with Republicans to oppose an increase in the car tax until midyear cuts were made, further alienating Democrats.

"I think the governor has forgotten that Democrats are in charge of this Legislature," one Democratic Assembly member snapped. Another added, "A lot of us helped the governor get elected, and now some of us are wondering if we did the right thing." Eventually, Davis caved to Democratic pressure and raised the car tax -- a move that probably cost him his job. But no amount of compromise would ease the ill will with legislative Democrats -- or the perception that Davis had shirked his liberal duties.

"A lot of my colleagues view [the budget] as going too far," said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a moderate Democrat from Pittsburg. Many Democrats "took advantage of the situation by trying to jam him up," he said. Indeed, on a number of other issues, Davis got caught between popular liberal demands and fiscal reality. Burton in particular seemed to relish sending Davis no-win legislation that backed him into a corner. For three years running, for instance, Davis resisted massive union pressure to sign Burton's bills expanding workers' compensation benefits. Davis' quickness with the veto pen even set a state record in 2000 for the highest percentage of bills vetoed in a year -- 25.

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