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A purpose-driven ballot

Democrat Perata wants state voters to weigh in on Iraq in February -- and oh by the way, relax term limits.

June 08, 2007

CALIFORNIA'S FORM of direct democracy -- its propensity for voting on matters most states handle by legislative action -- has been praised for empowering average people and pilloried for elevating sloganeering over thoughtful policy. It also has been hijacked now and again by base political interests. A new proposal to let Californians vote their disapproval of the war in Iraq manages to accomplish all of the above.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) is behind a bill -- which passed the Senate on Wednesday and was ably analyzed by our colleague, George Skelton -- that would ask voters this question: "Shall President George W. Bush, in support of the men and women serving in the Armed Forces of the United States, end the United States occupation of Iraq and immediately begin the safe and orderly withdrawal of all United States forces; and, further, shall President George W. Bush and the Congress provide the necessary diplomatic and nonmilitary assistance to promote peace and stability in Iraq and the Middle East?"

The senator can rest reasonably assured that state voters will answer the question the way he wants it answered if it appears on their February ballot, as he hopes it will. Opposition to the war, significant and growing throughout the country, is overwhelming here. One recent poll found that nearly three-quarters of Californians disapprove of Bush's handling of the conflict. But if the measure merely expresses through the ballot what Californians already have said through the polls, why bother? Here enter the political calculations of Perata and his fellow legislative leaders.

Every ballot is an act of design, and February's presidential primary is a study in the art. California moved up the date of its primary to maximize its political influence, and Perata's bill would give liberal Democrats another strong reason to vote -- the chance to poke the president in the eye presumably being too much for many to pass up. Perata's other agenda, however, is tucked elsewhere in that ballot, where the Legislature intends to give voters the chance to revise California's term limits, making it possible for leaders such as Perata to serve longer terms in one house of the Legislature. And there's the strategy: Liberals tend to be more accommodating when it comes to term limits, so advocates of the proposal like the idea of driving them to the polls with Iraq and then taking advantage of their presence to win support for revised term limits.

Altogether, then, Democrats could pile on Bush and Perata could extend his time in office -- a neat two-step for a senator who opposes the war and likes his job. If it's also a confluence of self-interest and populist policy, even a political stunt -- well, that's democracy in California.

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