Silly Season Hits Full Swing in the Golden State

Posted July 23, 2003 at 3:33pm

I’ve never been a big fan of recall and referendum, two Progressive-era “reforms” intended to give “the people” a way to check the power of elected officials between elections. We already have checks and balances at the state and federal levels, so voters only have to wait a couple of years at any time to correct their mistakes. [IMGCAP(1)]

California voters knew what they were getting when they re-elected Gov. Gray Davis (D) to a second term, yet they chose him to use his best judgment to lead the state for four more years. I’m not saying it was a good choice, but they made it.

And Republicans made their decision when they nominated businessman Bill Simon to be their 2002 nominee for governor. It wasn’t a good choice if they wanted to maximize their chances of winning, because former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and then-California Secretary of State Bill Jones had better chances of beating Davis in the general election, but it was their choice nevertheless.

Frankly, I must be the only politically interested person in Washington, D.C., who isn’t all hot and bothered about the attempt to recall Davis and the possible candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike some cable TV networks, I find the whole California political zoo about as exciting as watching the Detroit Tigers play the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. If it’s entertaining, it’s only because it resembles Ozzy Osbourne’s world.

But when I read some of the comments from normally intelligent national Democratic figures about the recall effort, I wonder how they can allow such silly stuff to come out of their mouths.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), a Yale Law School graduate who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000 and who is running for his party’s presidential nomination for 2004, was quoted recently by Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy as criticizing the recall effort, saying, “If you start to create a circumstance where elected officials … when they become unpopular, can be taken out of office, it’s not the way the system should work.”

Sorry, Senator, but that’s exactly how the system works in California. The Golden State adopted the recall in 1911, and from that time voters have had a mechanism that allows them to do exactly what they are doing. True, they haven’t employed it often or successfully, but the system is in place.

What Lieberman means, I’d guess, is that he doesn’t like the process. He doesn’t think there should be a recall. Fine, but if he has a complaint about the recall process, he ought to take it up with the voters of California, not with those pushing the recall.

Lieberman isn’t the only Democrat to put his foot in his mouth when railing against the recall. The always entertaining Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, lambasted the recall effort this way: “Once again, the Republicans are trying to steal an election from the Democrats. Al Gore won the state of Florida, and Gray Davis won as governor in the state of California.”

Davis certainly was elected governor of California, and I’m willing to give McAuliffe a little latitude in his assertion that Gore won Florida (though as a matter of law he did not). However saying the recall is an effort to “steal” the California gubernatorial election of 2002 or the office of governor is just plain over the top, even if it’s a good applause line for hard-core Davis supporters.

Stealing is illegal, and McAuliffe surely knows that the recall effort is not illegal. While some Davis backers have asserted that some of the mechanics of the recall effort may have violated state law, there isn’t any question that state law provides for the recall of elected officials.

The overall situation in California is chaotic. Davis’ job approval, according to an early-July Field Poll, stood at 23 percent. Never beloved, he’s now seen as a failure. The GOP field of potential successors ranges from those carrying plenty of political baggage to those who are seemingly unprepared for the job.

National Republicans wish the recall would just go away so that the Democratic governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature would receive the brunt of voter anger in 2004. Yet Golden State GOP politicians can’t control their ambitions, and Republican political consultants see dancing dollar signs.

There is only one solution to California’s problems: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D). The 70-year-old former San Francisco mayor and 1990 Democratic nominee for governor currently says that she has no interest in moving to Sacramento. But at the end of the day, she may decide she has no alternative.