The Recall’s Reach

I have a problem. I can no longer go to a party, a dinner or even a lunch in D.C. without someone asking me about the Davis recall in California.

Problem is, there’s no short way to discuss the recall. For a while, I would just shoot my questioner an appalled glance and say, “You don’t want to know,” but the woods are filled with political people back here, and they do want to know.

Viewed from the East, it looks as if California is about to do something crazy again. Just this Monday, the Wall Street Journal editorial page was gloating that California was on the verge of recapturing the glory it had won when it passed Proposition 13 a quarter-century ago.

The view from the East (though not the Journal’s) is correct, of course: California is about to go crazy. And in explaining the coming, and current, chaos to these pesky Easterners, I tend to focus on a couple of concerns.

First, how did Gray Davis get in this fix?

What Republicans figured out is that Davis may be a wily enough candidate to defeat other candidates, but he’d be in deep trouble if he had to win a referendum on himself. Davis is one of the very few figures in politics for whom the insiders’ perception of him — all he cares about, all he does, is fund-raising — has become the general perception. I suppose that’s because there’s precious little else to perceive.

But Davis’ non-performance during this monumental budget crisis has damaged him as well. No matter that the non-performance has extended to top state legislators: top Republican, state Senator Jim Brulte, has threatened his GOP colleagues with extinction in the March primaries if they vote to raise any taxes; top Democrat, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, has mysteriously absented himself from the process, partly because he can’t really contemplate the destruction of so many important social programs, partly because he can’t sit in the same room with Davis for more than a few minutes without blowing up at him. Excellent reasons both, but not helpful to reaching an outcome.

Next, what are the Democrats supposed to do?

Barrel down two separate tracks. On the one hand, they have to oppose the recall with everything they’ve got, not only for reasons of partisanship and defending good public policy, but because this is an infernal abuse of the recall process, which was intended to remove elected officials who’ve committed crimes or outraged the state’s moral sense. What’s more, the Republicans are engaging increasingly in attempts to change the rules of the game to their advantage: waging a recall only because a Democrat is vulnerable; reopening the decennial reapportionment process in Texas because they could pick up more congressional seats; eliminating the Senate filibuster for judicial nominees. The right is running amok, and cannot be allowed to prevail.

Davis is nothing if not a brilliant tactical campaigner, as his ability to engineer the defeat of Richard Riordan in last year’s Republican gubernatorial primary attests. One poll last week showed 51 percent of Californians favoring the recall with 46 percent opposed, but those are figures that Davis may well be able to turn around if he can campaign against the leading Republican or Republicans on the ballot.

That’s a campaign that Democrats will need to support. At the same time, however, with the Gov in so precarious a position, they also have to have a strong candidate who can win the simultaneous election to succeed Davis if the recall passes. At least four statewide Democratic officials (Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Treasurer Phil Angelides and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi) were already looking at running for governor when Davis is termed out in 2006. If more than one of them plunks his name onto the recall-succession ballot, that could help ensure that the Republicans might elect a governor in this most Democratic of states. And the notion that three of them would defer to a fourth is sheerest fantasy.

Enter, perhaps, the only Democrat to whom they would defer: Senator Dianne Feinstein. By just about every measure, Feinstein is the most popular Democrat in the state. Her Senate seat is up again in 2006, and there had already been mumbling that DiFi, who turns 70 this Sunday, might not want to subject herself to yet another campaign. Reasoning backward from this supposition, some say she might be available to step in to save the day for the Democrats should Davis go down.

The beauty of the Feinstein solution, as some Democrats see it, is that if she pledges to serve as governor only until 2006, the gang of four Democrats would then be free to run in an incumbent-less primary. Longtime liberal critics of Feinstein see her as surely no worse than Davis. (After listening to a friend who’s a veteran of the Sacramento wars discourse on Dianne, I remarked, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you say nice things about Feinstein.” But such are the times in which we live.)

Some devotees of the Dianne-ex-machina ploy go further. As they tell the tale, Feinstein may well commit to appoint Angelides to fill her Senate seat if she becomes governor. Angelides, who has raised considerable money for Feinstein’s previous campaigns, is the most creative, accomplished progressive in statewide office — indeed, along with New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, he’s the outstanding non-gubernatorial Democratic statewide official in the land. With Angelides in the Senate, the way would be clear for Lockyer, at least, to have an easier time of it in the 2006 gubernatorial contest. Moreover, there’s a collective uneasiness that, absent this kind of understanding, Angelides — whose ambition is as large as his liberalism — may put himself on the recall-succession ballot anyway. “Lockyer will take one for the team,” says one Democratic lobbyist. “Angelides won’t.”

I haven’t even gotten to the Republicans, and two more people have just come over to ask me about the recall. Such is my life these days. And so long as this madness persists, hell is other people, and the devil incarnate, as Sartre neglected to note, is Darrell Issa, the Republican dweeb who inflicted this recall on us all.