California is on the verge of staging its first ever recall vote on a sitting governor. If the requisite nearly 900,000 signatures are gathered, as now seems imminent, and the recall petitions qualify in July, a special election will be held in the fall. Voters will decide whether Democratic governor Gray Davis should pack his bags and if so who should replace him.
People's reasons for wanting Davis out are as varied as the Golden State itself. Republicansbut also many Democratsdislike Davis's anti-business agenda, including an onerous family-leave law, a worker's compensation system that bankrupts some small businesses, and one of the highest sales tax rates in the country. But the casus belli is Davis's squandering of the $8 billion budget surplus he inherited and his racking up in its place a $38 billion deficit. During last year's gubernatorial campaign, Republican nominee Bill Simon warned that the state was likely facing a $20 billion deficit. Davis's aides and the media scoffed, even though Davis had demonstrated his profligacy in his first term. State senator Tom McClintockwho lost the race for controller by a whiskerpoints out that California's spending has grown much faster than warranted by either population growth or inflation.
The backers of the recall hope the voters will replace Davis before he can do more damage. This could be an opportunity for a tough-minded conservative. California has the line-item veto. A Republican like Simon or McClintock who used it vigorously to restore the state's fiscal health could find himself in the national spotlight. But no one knows who Davis's successor would be. Once the recall petitions are certified by the secretary of state, ensuring that a vote will take place within 60 to 80 days, the free-for-all to replace Davis will begin.
On the same ballot as the recall, voters will pick his replacement from a list of candidates who have plunked down 60 signatures and $3,500 to get into the race. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Arnold Schwarzenegger are expected to be among them. Whoever gets the most votes, however small the plurality, wins. In a large enough field, the winner might have as little as 10 percent.
The recall is a legacy of the Progressive revamping of the California constitution instigated by governor Hiram Johnson in 1911. Along with the initiative and the referendum, the recall was intended to allow the voters to circumvent regular electionsand even the principle of representation--in favor of direct democracy. The people would change both men and measuresand amend the state constitution--not only when they were feeling Grumpy (as now), but also when they were Bashful (see California's successful 2002 Defense of Marriage Initiative), or even Dopey (the 1996 legalization of the medical use of marijuana). What the Progressives didn't reckon on was how all this would make us Sleepywhen confronted with a 50-page "California Voter Information Guide and Ballot Pamphlet" to explain the bewildering array of propositions.
Notwithstanding the Progressives' pretension to originality, direct democracy was well known to the Founding Fathers. The Federalist Papers takes up the question in Federalist 49 in discussing the idea of regular alterations to the Constitution. Publius notes (but will later qualify) that "the people are the only legitimate fountain of power. [Thus] it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory to recur to the same original authority" whenever they wish to rearrange the principles or powers of the government.
This is the spirit that animated Hiram Johnson, and its results can be seen in the California constitution, a bloated, incoherent hodge-podge stretching more than 130 pages and covering such vital subjects as horse-racing, fruit and nut trees, and assessment rates for golf courses.
The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, has a brevity and has enjoyed a stability that reflect the Founders' belief that direct appeals to the people ought to be reserved "for certain great and extraordinary occasions." Publius warns against using this expedient often or capriciously: "[A]s every appeal to the people would carry an implication of some defect in the government, frequent appeals would, in great measure, deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability."
No one, of course, venerates the government of California or, for that matter, reads the state constitution. So should the direct democracy measures that make California politics so volatile be blamed? Given the systemic dysfunction of California's government, the initiative process, and perhaps even the recall, may actually be constructive. Some initiatives have been noble in purpose and effect: Proposition 209 (repealing racial quotas) restored the principle of color-blind equality before the law to the largest state in the Union.
There is, in fact, a conservative defense of this populism. When the Progressives created the recall, they were looking for a mechanism to check the influence of newly emergent corporate powers. Today, it is the special interests within the government that have the most debilitating influence in our politics.
It is no accident that Davis's diehard supporters are the unions of public employees, who have benefited greatly under Davis. The governor gave the prison guards a stunning three-year pay raise of 33.7 percent last year (and a few months later received a quarter-million-dollar campaign contribution from the corrections officers' union). Now the public employees' unions are closing ranks around their most precious asset: a don't-rock-the-boat, liberal establishment in Sacramento.
Davis may not be as liberal as some Democrats would like, but he has kept the public trough filled. Hence it is the unions, led by the firefighters, that are spearheading the anti-recall effort. Purely to confuse the public and confound the pro-recall petitioners, they are employing their own signature-gatherers. More important, they have muscled a pledge out of every Democratic statewide officeholder to stay off the ballot, in a risky calculation that if the voters are given a choice between Davis and a Republican, the recall can be defeated.
It is noteworthy that today's liberals, the ideological heirs of the Progressives, aren't always pleased with direct democracy in action. The most divisive and decisive ballot initiatives in California have been championed by conservatives: eliminating affirmative action, government largesse to illegal aliens, and bilingual education; preempting the recognition of same-sex marriage; andgranddaddy of them all, Proposition 13capping property taxes, to change California politics ever since.
Given the overwhelming liberal majorities in Sacramentono Republican holds statewide office, and Democrats control close to two-thirds of the legislatureit's easy to see why the recall has gained momentum. For many Californians, anything that unsettles the status quo must have some merit. Yet the constant recourse to direct democracy may undermine a healthy, representative constitutionalism. Conservative critics of the recall have pointed to the possibility of "blowback." Once the nuclear weapon of recall is used, it could become a regular tool of both parties.
The recall is one of the Progressives' sharpest instruments. By turning its edge against the liberal establishment at its most spendthrift, the present recall effort could have the paradoxical effect of prompting new debate about the purpose and limits of government. At the very least, it should remind voters that elections matter.