"Is California Crazy?" was how The Week magazine billed its political discussion yesterday. Journalists (and gossip columnists, politicos, NYC fixtures and one of California's 135 gubernatorial candidates--porn star Mary Carey) filled Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in Grand Central Station for an afternoon panel on the California recall.
Harold Evans moderated a spirited, serious, chaotic, sometimes comical debate between the scions of two political families (Barry Goldwater, Jr and Ron Reagan, now a fighting independent liberal sort), longtime California state legislator and activist Tom Hayden and profiler of the Kennedy family Ed Klein.
I still don't know if California is crazy, but there were moments when California's carnivalesque politics seemed to fill the room, and it was certainly a lively and fairly enlightening discussion among an eclectic group of panelists.
Ron Reagan (RR): The recall is a terrible, infantile idea. The California public is like a two year old--last year they wanted Mommy to buy them a Gray figure, and this year it's the Arnold doll.
Barry Goldwater (BG): It's democracy, it's revenge, it's a good expression of the peoples' will.
Tom Hayden (TH): We don't need this recall. It's been hijacked by money and celebrity. I've known Gray Davis for thirty years. I've fought with him on many issues. This recall has national implications in that Davis took the advice of the centrists in the Democratic Party--scouring money from corporations--and moving the party to the right--that is, to the center. He abused the grassroots and wound up in the middle of the road, alienating his base. New York should listen; there's a lesson here for the rest of the country, for the Democratic Party. We're looking at the results of the failed strategy of the so-called centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Davis went to the limits with deregulation, with fundraising, and alienated his core base. I still want Gray to win because of what Arnold stands for. I know Arnold and he's a decent guy, but look at his after-school program. It required balancing the budget before it starts up. It's like Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation and that's what we'll have if Arnold's course is followed in California.
Bill Simon, Jr, (who ran unsuccessfully against Davis last year was piped in by speaker phone: Davis should be recalled for his incompetence. He lied about the deficit. Those are adequate grounds for recall.
BG: I'm for anything that increases accountability of government.
RR: Much of what you say about Davis--lying and deficits--is also true of Bush. Shouldn't he be recalled? (Sadly, no one took this bait.)
BG: The California recall is a classic example of failed socialism.
RR: How is it that a man who is supposed to be so courageous on screen, is so cowardly on the campaign trail--refusing to debate Davis?
Ed Klein (EK): You know Maria Shriver told him not to engage in debates with Davis. Remember that Saturday Night Live skit, Hans and Franz, (with Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon playing East European body-builders). Well, if Arnold is Franz, Maria is Hans.
TH: When it comes to the implications of the recall, I don't think we'll see more attention paid to politics. This is celebrity politics with a big bang. And big money. The next Republican strategy is to go to celebrity candidates. Dennis Miller will be next--versus Barbara Boxer--for a Senate seat.
For the Democratic party, the national implication is what Jim Hightower always warns about: There's nothing in the middle of the road except yellow lines and armadillos. The party is engaged in the same debates about Dean's electability. It should be instead healing the breach with Nader and the Greens. The phenomenon of Nader arose because Dems created space for opposition with their pro-corporate policies on NAFTA, WTO. The party has a responsibility to build a bridge to Nader if it wants to be a majority party.
RR: I don't think California will stop being a Democratic Party state but Dems will need to spend more money in California in 2004.
Harold Evans then introduced one of California's candidates for Governor--the porn star Mary Carey, dressed more demurely than usual in a red halter dress. Carey laid out a surprisingly radical platform for the assembled crowd. Its highlights: Tax breast implants ("From Beverly Hills alone, we should bring in millions in tax revenue;" earlier that day, on TV, she had said she would exempt strippers and hookers); Make lap dances a tax-deductible expense; Wire the Governor's Mansion with live web cams in every room ("reality shows are very popular these days, and think if the White House under Clinton had been wired.")
At that point, over the speakerphone, Bill Simon erupted: "Is it too late for me to switch my endorsement from Arnold?," as Hayden declared ruefully, "Well, New Yorkers, you're all Californians now."
And then, in a delayed reaction to Goldwater's statement that the recall was about "socialism failed," Hayden shouted into his mic: "Where's the socialism in California!?"
BG: Well there's been an explosion in growth of government.
TH: So, explosion in growth of government means socialism to you? Then, was Franklin Roosevelt's expansion of government socialism?
Simon: Yes!(By this time, Ron Reagan is looking grimly at Goldwater.)
RR: I was down in Orange County last week, doing some reporting, and there is a fear and loathing of immigrants, immigration.
TH: The majority of the US will be Latino in forty years. It already is majority Latino in California. In my view the most important issue to be decided next week, after the recall, is Prop 54, which seeks to amend the California Constitution to prohibit the state and other public bodies--including local governments, colleges and universities--from classifying individuals and collecting information on them by race, ethnicity, color or national origin. I hope it will be defeated. Dems must build a coalition of middle class whites and blacks and Latinos--but if Dems raise tuitions at state colleges, and rates for homeowners, they're going to lose that possibility.
BG: New York is just as crazy as California. New York has faced these same issues, California is still young; New York is more mature.
Hayden: I don't think the recall is a plot. Davis won with only forty-three percent of the vote--so people saw an opening and seized it.
EK: I'd tell Arnold to get rid of his man tan and Grecian formula. I think he's likely to be a Kennedyesque Republican.
As I snuck out to head back to reality and work, Mary Carey was eyeing Tina Brown's red suit.