Every now and then, when my wife and I get together with my parents, we like to play a game or two of pinochle. My parent’s are much more accomplished at the game than I, having played quite a bit when my dad was in the service. At times, when one leads, the other will play a jack in the same suit when play gets back to them. This is known as a “lead back”. It is a “secret” message to your partner to play this suit in order to get the lead back to you. Of course, this doesn’t always work. Sometimes, as my dad is wont to say, “a jack is simply a jack”.
And sometimes, an election is simply an election.
The California gubernatorial special election is now in the past. And there have been no lack of analysis performed by the political talking heads on both sides, explaining what the election “really means”.
There are those who see the election as a vast awakening on the part of California voters to the virtues of the Republican party. There are those who see the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a backlash against incumbents, which bodes ill for George Bush in the upcoming Presidential election. Some seem to think this is all part of a “vast right wing conspiracy” to overturn democracy in states across the union. Others believe it’s the start of open warfare between the two parties in California; that papers will soon be filed for a new special election to overturn Schwarzenegger.
All these analysis overlook some key facts concerning the election in California.
First off, we are talking about a man, Gray Davis, who is arguably the most unpopular governor anywhere in the United States in recent history. With favorable job ratings in the 20’s, about the only thing that can charitably be said concerning his administration is that at least there were some people in California who thought he was doing a good job. It has been said of Governor Davis, that he had all the personality of a week-dead corpse, making even Al Gore, who campaigned on his behalf, seem animated. Be that as it may, personality is not a prerequisite for governance; the people of California had elected him twice, and had he not made a series of what turned out to be abysmal decisions, would most probably not now be ex-governor Davis.
This, coupled with a law on the books in California, which allows for the recall of the Governor, combined to bring about what is probably a unique confluence of events culminating in the election held last week. It’s not as if gubernatorial recall elections haven’t been tried in California before. The law, which was enacted in 1911, provides for recall of statewide officers and legislators, including judges, and the justices of the state Supreme Court. Those who favored it believed that it would help fight against graft and corruption in Government. Those opposed thought that it would be used by extremists and malcontents to harass and remove honest officials from office. In the past 30 years, every governor of California has faced some level of recall attempt, including Ronald Reagan. In total, there have been 31 attempts to remove a California governor since the law was enacted, none of which, until now, have reached the ballot.
It is true that there were Republicans involved in the recall effort. And it is also true that a large chunk of money was provided by Congressman Darrell Issa (R-San Diego County), who started his own recall effort, giving the effort a considerable boost. Two other parties, the Libertarian Party, and the American Independent Party also endorsed the recall effort.
It has been suggested that the entire effort was a plot orchestrated by the national Republican party, to wrest control of the state from the Democrats, and ensure the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. If so, the plot rapidly went awry. Issa, having put a lot of money into the recall, dropped out on 7 August, after Arnold entered the ring, and it became obvious that he was the front runner. Bill Simon and Peter Ueberroth followed suit, leaving Tom McClintock as the only other major Republican candidate still in the race. Despite pressure for him to drop as well, he did not, claiming (rightly so) that he was the only major Conservative candidate in the race. Had this been an orchestrated event, there would have been only one major Republican candidate from the beginning, supported by the national Republican Party. And Arnold’s surprise entry into the race would have been met with party resistance.
In actuality, Arnold’s entry demonstrated a party in disarray. None of the former candidates garnered party support. Instead Arnold did, despite his support of many issues counter to those espoused in the national party platform. A similar attempt to force a recall election in Nevada is, so far, a dismal failure. It seems that the people there simply are not interested in removing their governor. This is the same fate that up to now, recall attempts have met with in California. It takes a huge groundswell of unpopularity before an electorate will motivate itself to not only sign the petitions, but actually get off their backsides and go to the polls.
A groundswell that was apparent in California. Despite the fact that the liberal elite were just fine with Governor Davis, a large number of Californians were not. The Democrats can prattle all they like about Republican plots and vast right-wing conspiracies. It makes for nice 15 second sound bites, and gives them a target to vent their frustration on. However, based on the number of people who showed up to vote, and the voting percentages registered, if it is true that those who voted against Governor Davis were all Republicans and right-wing kooks, then the Democrats have a much bigger problem on their hands than Gray Davis’s ouster. The entire demographics of the state have shifted.
This is highly unlikely, bringing me to my point that sometimes an election is just an election. What the California recall demonstrated is that, if someone is unpopular enough, they can be removed from office. And when the populous is in the mood to remove, and disgusted with politicians in general, there is no telling who they will put into office. Minnesota elected a professional wrestler governor. The United States once elected a peanut farmer president.
Based on the election results, I would not expect Californians to suddenly begin repealing gun laws, building oil refineries, and outlawing abortion. When all is said and done, most Californians remain Californians after the election, which is to say, somewhat to the left of center as compared to most of the rest of the country. And when November 2004 rolls around, I would advise George Bush not to take California for granted simply because the Terminator is on the job. I don’t see a sea change here, merely an electorate that has purged itself of something it found unpleasant, and experimenting with something different.