The recall of California Governor Gray Davis, scheduled for a vote October 7, calls to mind Karl Marx's statement about history repeating itself, "the first time as tragedy, and the second as farce." But in the case of the California recall, it's tragedy, farce and a lot more all rolled into a single political event that's as portentous as it is bizarre. California is not the entertainment capital of the world for nothing.
There's no easy way to describe this unpredictable, multi-ring political circus. Late in July the backers of the recall, fueled by nearly $2 million from Representative Darrell Issa, a conservative, deep-pockets Southern California Congressman who hoped to succeed Davis, submitted 1.3 million valid signatures, far more than the 900,000 needed to qualify the recall.
That set in motion a process under which voters will decide on two questions: whether or not to recall Davis and, if a majority favors the recall, who should succeed him. But anything is still possible. The entry into the race of actor-muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger early in August was a stunner that entirely changed the dynamics of the election, and, with major challenges still pending in the federal courts, there could well be more.
In the successor election there is no runoff; the candidate with the plurality wins. Thus someone with 15 or 20 percent of the vote--perhaps 1.2 million votes total, maybe less--could become the next governor of a state with 35 million people. And because anyone with a $3,500 filing fee and sixty-five voter signatures can get on the ballot, the successor vote could become an electoral crapshoot in which a relatively weak candidate could win. It also puts a premium on party discipline to concentrate support on one candidate. Given the some 140 candidates, from Schwarzenegger--regarded as a moderate, prochoice Republican, now the star attraction in this show, who promises to "clean house" of special-interest influence in Sacramento--to conservative businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in 2002; to columnist Arianna Huffington, once a conservative, now a born-again progressive; to Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, the next governor could be elected with fewer votes than Davis gets from people who want to retain him in office.
Schwarzenegger's following of movie fans makes him the dominant figure in this race. His entry immediately drove Issa out of the race--he quit one day after he formally announced--and brought in Cruz Bustamante, California's Democratic Lieutenant Governor, the first Latino to hold statewide elected office in the state's modern history, thereby breaking not only his pledge not to run but his party's vow to put all its eggs into the fight to support Davis. Bustamante's campaign, which other Democrats are now forced to support, is to oppose the recall but offer himself as the successor if Davis is recalled.
What's certain is that the recall will make it hard for anyone but a highly regarded and skilled politician to gain the legitimacy and credibility to govern a state already suffering from a combination of severe fiscal problems and dysfunctional government that threatens to decimate public services and produce deficits for years to come. Under the surface there's also the ethnic tension, always more intense in bad economic times, generated by the state's enormous demographic changes of the past forty years.
People who know him regard Schwarzenegger as far more thoughtful and smarter than his wooden Terminator personality suggests. He'll bring new voters to the polls, and though he's competing with two other big-name Republicans (against one Democrat), he still dominates both the media and the race. But can Schwarzenegger, who has no political experience and isn't very articulate, and whose views on major state issues are unknown, probably even to himself, achieve that credibility? Given the impact of California on the nation's economy and politics, that's not an idle question.