August 24, 2003
George Will and George Stephanopoulos, the ideological yin and yang of ABC's "This Week," normally don't agree on much. But they are as one in dismissing California's recall election as preposterous.
"A terrible idea," Will scoffs. "An army of disgruntled voters exercising their ridiculous right to utter a collective 'Oops!' " Stephanopoulos, echoing California Democrats, derides "the whole freak-show nature, joke nature" of the campaign.
They are hardly the only ones with nothing good to say about the upcoming vote on whether to replace Governor Gray Davis. Newsweek mocks the recall as a "California circus" and "madness," while Time describes it as "the most surreal spectacle since the 2000 Florida recount." In the Aug. 19 Los Angeles Times, Larry Sabato, an oft-quoted scholar from the University of Virginia, pronounced it "tyranny of the mob" -- "popular but destructive." Two days earlier, a different academic -- Bruce Cain of Berkeley -- weighed in with a piece calling it "an accident waiting to happen."
To Ted Koppel, who took up the subject on "Nightline," the recall campaign is "a train wreck" that Iraqis must be chortling over. The Economist sees in it "another step away from representative democracy." The editor of The American Prospect, a left-wing journal, slams the approaching vote as a "new-age coup d'etat," while California's state librarian writes it off as "some kind of collective nervous breakdown." Peter Schrag, a noted California journalist, characterizes it as "tragedy, farce, and a lot more . . . as portentous as it is bizarre."
Governor Davis is against the recall, of course; he fumes that it is "undemocratic." On the other hand, former congressman and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta fumes that it is "democracy run amok." And The Washington Post's David Broder, an adamant foe of direct democracy, denounces it as a "nearly unprecedented perversion of representative government" and "the byproduct of almost everything that has gone wrong in our political system."
Harsh words. But if the recall is really as dreadful as all that, why on earth did 1.6 million Californians sign petitions to put it on the ballot? And why is the turnout on Oct. 7 expected to be higher than the 45 percent that voted in the general election last November? Is it just possible that California's voters may actually know what they're doing?
You'd never know it from the media coverage, which has mostly painted the recall campaign as a wacky Left Coast carnival, but there is in fact a strong case to be made for Davis's recall. When he ran for re-election last year, he assured Californians that the state's budget problems were modest and manageable. Only afterward did he come clean: California was in a terrible fiscal predicament, the worst in its history. The state's budget gap soon climbed to $38 billion, more than the deficits of all the other states combined. So dire was California's condition that Standard & Poor's downgraded its bond rating to just above junk status.
Moreover, Californians remember Davis's disastrous supervision of electricity deregulation in his first term; many are also put off by his voracious fundraising, and his reputation for demanding contributions from anyone seeking to do business with the state. It is not for nothing that Davis is the most unpopular governor in California's history.
Whether all this adds up to a compelling case to recall him is a serious question for serious voters, and the campaign deserves more serious coverage than it has gotten. Yes, there are some ludicrous publicity hounds on the ballot, and yes, there is a decided only-in-California aura to the candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But that doesn't detract from the gravity of California's condition or the legitimacy of the recall as a vehicle for repairing it. One of the world's largest and most important political entities is in the midst of a leadership crisis. It is irresponsible and cynical for the press to be treating it as a circus.
The pundits' dyspeptic disapproval of California's recall procedure is meritless. Why should Californians be condemned for making use of a provision that has been in their constitution since 1911? They have not exactly been promiscuous with it: This will be the first statewide recall election in California history. If successful, it will mark only the second time a sitting governor anywhere has been recalled. (The first was North Dakota's Lynn Frazier, who was ousted in 1921.)
For all the talk of "democracy run amok," voters in states that have the recall use their power sparingly. Like the ability to pass or repeal laws via the ballot box -- initiative and referendum -- the recall is a restraint on the power of arrogant politicians and entrenched special interests. In a government based on checks and balances and the sovereignty of the people, it is prudent to have a constitutional tool for removing officeholders who are so abusive or incompetent that it would be unwise to leave them in power until the next election.
A train wreck? A coup? Far from it. California's recall campaign is simply an exercise in democratic accountability. Whatever the outcome on Oct. 7, the cause of self-government will advance