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California Chaos

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There are yet other elements that, if not unique to California, combined with particular force, among them the state's very tight term limits, which, in restricting Assembly members to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms, deprive the system of experience, loyalty and concern about the future; and a redistricting plan that, as in the US Congress, leaves very few competitive seats and thus makes party primaries, which draw the most fervent partisans, the most important determinants of who sits in the legislature. Moderates are scarce and compromise hard to achieve.

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Peter Schrag
Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, has been writing for The Nation for...

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And so is moderation. While there's no evidence of a GOP coup, the miasma of political ill will, and particularly the extremes of GOP partisanship and the personal and ideological animosities that come with it, are very much part of California's political atmosphere. Davis, the Democratic governor of the nation's largest and perhaps most liberal state, has been a harsh critic of the Bush Administration--particularly for its failure to help check wholesale electricity and gas prices during the crisis of 2000-01. California has been a target of Administration sniping ever since.

But under this new wave of manipulated "we won't take it anymore" populism, there may yet be another significant, though little-discussed, element: the reaction to immigration and the state's rapidly changing ethnic mix. "Our State is bankrupt from subsidizing Mexicans," said one of my recent reader e-mails, "and it is going to stop--one way or another." The sentiment got full expression recently from columnist and sometime presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who not only pronounced California dead but gave the cause: "massive and unrestricted immigration--an un-repelled invasion from Mexico [to] seek jobs and take advantage of the health care, welfare and free education Americans provided for their people."

Davis's dismally low approval ratings, which will sink still lower when Californians get their new, much higher auto-license bills in the coming weeks, are inseparable from the high number of Californians who tell pollsters the state is heading in the wrong direction. In a huge state like California, where few people know the names of their legislators, the governor is everyone's target. For mainstream politicians, publicly bashing immigrants is gauche these days, but the link is often there, just as it was in 1994, when Californians passed Proposition 187 denying social services to illegal immigrants (which Schwarzenegger voted for) and when Governor Pete Wilson's re-election commercials (produced by the same campaign team that now works for Schwarzenegger) rang with the refrain, "They keep coming."

Because only eighteen states have the recall and so many things in this recall are unique to California, this movement probably won't sweep the country, as the tax revolt did twenty-five years ago. If Schwarzenegger replaces Davis, he even could move California's very conservative GOP toward the center and give Bush a boost in 2004. But it will take a lot more than slogans about cleaning house and pumping up Sacramento to solve California's huge fiscal and governmental problems. Conversely, if by some odd roll of the dice an antiabortion right-winger becomes the next governor, his election could combine with the Florida ghost to energize Democrats and moderate voters, particularly prochoice women, in every part of the country. Bustamante will draw Latinos (and thus Democrats) to the polls, but his very presence in the race reduces Davis's chances of survival. And if Davis is recalled, it could intimidate a lot of other politicians, and not just in California.

So far, despite his macho slogans, nothing from Schwarzenegger has given any indication of how he would restore confidence in California's government, once a national model; stop the already severe Mississippification of its public services and dampen the state's partisan bitterness and political incivility.

And this isn't just a California problem. As the nation increasingly feels the same demographic shifts now evident in California, as it perceives itself under greater pressure from what Buchanan calls Third Worldization and as federal deficits, reductions in public services and tax cuts for the wealthy further hollow out the middle class, the stresses that produced the Davis recall will inevitably find their outlets.

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