California's Bad Karma

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Politics in California has become a dismal proposition. The state is so large that most politicians have given up on the standard ceremonies of the stump. There is little human contact, few town meetings or door-to-door work; there are simply too many doors. The prevailing wisdom among consultants is that you run in California by raising a lot of money and putting it all on television. The public has reacted to these soulless exercises with disdainful apathy; Californians tend to be more interested when the state's nutty kernel of political extremists put some hot-button initiative—about race, immigration or taxes, inevitably—on the ballot. Indeed, there is a weird karmic genius to the current electoral gimmick, the movement to recall Governor Gray Davis from office. It has turned politics itself into a ballot issue—with Davis in the dock, representing a system run aground.

The standing joke about Davis is that his personality reflects his name, but Gray is darker than that. He is, in fact, an exemplar of all that is awful about latter-day California politics. He is not incompetent, but he has governed without much creativity through a succession of crises—the rolling electricity blackouts of 2001 and the subsequent high-tech economic implosion. His greatest political skill seems to be an uncanny ability to raise money. He has used this cash to buy television ads, most of them quite vicious.

In his 2002 re-election campaign, for example, Davis violated one of the few rules of postmodern politics. Instead of staying out of the opposing party's primary, he invaded it by spending an estimated $10 million on ads denigrating the more moderate—and therefore more threatening—candidate, former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who eventually lost to an inexperienced conservative, William Simon. "The general election was the nastiest ever," says Dan Shnur, a Republican political consultant. "More money was spent and a smaller percentage of people voted than in any gubernatorial election in state history."

After his narrow victory, Davis promptly announced an astonishing state budget deficit of $38 billion. This wasn't entirely his fault—the recession had caused capital-gains tax receipts to plummet from $17 billion to $4 billion—but Davis had not been honest about the looming disaster during the campaign, and instant karma got him in the form of Darrell Issa, a millionaire paleo-conservative Congressman who bankrolled the successful recall petition drive.

The public's right to recall a defective politician in California, as well as the right to pass legislation by ballot vote, was a populist reform inserted into the state constitution 100 years ago. These changes assumed a responsible electorate and a powerful, corrupt political class. The first assumption was overly romantic and the second overly cynical. Today California suffers from an excess of democracy and a dearth of citizenship. In the past 25 years—starting with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited the increase in property taxes to 1% per year—California has passed a slew of myopic, half-witted ballot initiatives that have pretty much paralyzed the political process in Sacramento. "Every ballot measure has taken discretionary power away from the politicians," says Peter Schrag, author of Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future. "It has become hard for them to respond to crises and easy for them to escape responsibility, since the public writes much of the most significant legislation."

The current recall process is particularly ridiculous. The ballot will have two questions. The first will be yea or nay on Gray Davis; the second will be a list of candidates—not including Davis—to replace him. Davis might lose the governorship with 49% of the vote and be replaced by Candidate X with 10%. There will be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of candidates. All it takes is $3,000 and 150 signatures to get on the ballot. Larry Flynt of Hustler Magazine has declared. Both millionaire Michael Huffington and his egregious ex-wife Arianna may run. Darrell Issa is running; William Simon seems to be. There may be one or two well-known moderates amid the flotsam—perhaps the aforementioned Riordan, for whom victory would be vengeance most sweet. But any victory is likely to be tarnished. "This could hurt Republicans nationally," says Schrag. "It could remind voters of the election of 2000."

Feral fund raising, negative ads and visionless governance are not unique to Sacramento, nor are the efforts of right-wing populist extremists to use constitutional gimmickry to subvert democracy. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was part of the latter trend, as is the current effort in the Texas state legislature—orchestrated by Congressman Tom DeLay—to redraw district lines. As a nation, we seem to be losing the habits of civility and citizenship. Public life is becoming a pricey boutique, catering only to special interests and political eccentrics. The California recall is goofy, irresponsible—and not a bad way to remind politicians that their work involves more than raising money and spending it on nasty nonsense.