It is tempting to regard the chaotic scramble to unseat California's governor, Gray Davis, as simply an amusing carnival of West Coast eccentricity. True, we're talking about a race in which Arnold Schwarzenegger, of all people, is considered the front-runner. True, most of the 200-odd candidates vying to take over seem to think they are mugging for a Hollywood audition, not the governorship of the richest, most populous state in the union.
But this is an experiment in electoral politics that should be treated only up to a point with such levity. The vote on whether to recall and replace Governor Davis is happening because an electorate grown almost fathomlessly cynical about politics as usual is being manipulated by a Republican Party grown equally cynical about the tactics it is willing to employ to grab power wherever it can. Under the guise of a lavish exercise in populist democracy, what we are actually seeing is an attack on the democratic process itself. Depending on how things turn out, California could be the beginning of a much wider assault on elected officials from coast to coast.
Sure, Davis is nobody's idea of a great political leader. He messed up the electricity crisis that hit California in 2001 and now presides over the worst budget deficit in state history. But the fact is, he was elected to a second four-year term just last November. The Republicans could have run Schwarzenegger against him then, except Schwarzenegger chose to make Terminator 3 instead. They could, in fact, have run any number of viable candidates. But their nominee was Bill Simon, an inexperienced right-wing businessman, who, through some singularly inept campaigning, made himself even less popular than the incumbent.
That was when the Republicans decided to play dirty, under the recall provision in California's 1911 constitution. Nobody had ever tried this before, mainly because the threshold for a recall petition - 12 per cent of the turnout figure from the last election - was considered too high. But Darrell Issa, a right-wing congressman from San Diego with a dodgy past, decided he would give it a go anyway.
Issa dug deep into his own pockets to hire paid signature-gatherers who clustered outside supermarkets and shopping malls for months until they had met their quota. Issa clearly believed he would be rewarded for his loyalty with the Republican Party's blessing to take on Davis himself. But he badly misread the cynicism of his masters in Sacramento, and in Washington. The Republicans indeed took a keen interest in his efforts, but they regarded him as a useful idiot and dumped him as soon as the signatures were counted (Issa later burst into tears in dismay.) The party's ambition all along was to take Democrat-dominated California by hook or by crook and establish a West Coast beachhead for President Bush's re-election campaign next year. Despite careful denials, the White House's fingerprints are all over this one.
The recall is being justified with the argument that Davis willfully concealed the size of the budget deficit until he was re-elected. But this is nonsense. The gravity of California's fiscal crisis was well known in Sacramento, California's state capital, and any semi-competent challenger would have seized on it during last autumn's campaign. It would also be wrong to see the recall as a spontaneous outburst of public anger. The anger is certainly there, but it has been manipulated at every turn, with Republican money.
What is happening in California is part of a disturbing pattern of Republicans trying to take by stealth what they cannot have by orthodox democratic means. Starting in the 1990s, when an aggressive new Republican right began to dominate Congress, they have been gunning for anything and everything - most notably Bill Clinton, who drove them to distraction by surviving everything from Whitewater to impeachment. They successfully stopped the vote count in Florida while George Bush was narrowly ahead of Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. More recently, they have been trying to force through a redrawing of Texas's electoral districts just two years after it was last done.
If the Republicans get their way in California, they have promised to try the recall tactic anywhere else that allows it. "Throw the bums out!" may be an attractive slogan to a jaded electorate. But the only bums under threat here are Democrats - a fact that the candidacy of a populist celebrity like Schwarzenegger neatly conceals.
The good news is that the Republicans aren't half as slick and ruthless as they might like to think. Schwarzenegger will face direct competition from three other prominent Republicans who have ignored calls for party unity. The Democrats, by contrast, have just one horse in the race, Cruz Bustamante, the state's Lieutenant Governor . And that's not to mention the possibility that the two-party system itself could be challenged. Since the recall will be one round, winner-takes-all, literally anything could happen - including the election of an independent rabble-rouser such as Arianna Huffington, the darling of liberal Hollywood who knows just how to hate Republicans because she used to be one. Talk about a nightmare scenario - one that may yet make Bush's men regret the whole reckless adventure.
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