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.

The Democrats’ vow to stay out of the successor election was always risky. As the private polls showing Davis’s vulnerability began to come in, they generated intense pressure on Senator Dianne Feinstein, California’s most respected politician, to get into the race. That would have sealed Davis’s fate, but it would also have given the state a chance to regain some equilibrium after the recall and to stabilize its deficit-racked finances. “We need a grown-up,” said one well-connected Democrat, who was among the leaders of the unsuccessful Feinstein draft.

There’s been a lot of talk about the recall as a Republican coup. In the context of the impeachment of President Clinton, the 2000 Florida recount battle and GOP House leader Tom DeLay’s attempt to force a second reapportionment of Texas’s Congressional districts, the charge was hardly surprising.

When the recall began, however, that talk was unfounded. In the first months of the campaign, the White House and those who speak for it in California tried to stay as far away from it as they could: Gerald Parsky, the White House’s man in California, called it a diversion of money and energy from George Bush’s re-election efforts; more recently Bush himself said the recall was a matter for Californians to decide. Given the concerns of the California Business Roundtable, most of whose members are Republicans, that the recall “will have no positive productive results,” and the beating Bush political guru Karl Rove took from Davis in his failed attempt to help former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the California GOP primary in 2002, that diffidence made sense.

But since then, Bush himself has publicly declared that Schwarzenegger would make a good governor even as California papers turned up a memo declaring that White House operatives “will be coordinating seven simultaneous media-friendly events throughout California” to foster the recall.

Nonetheless, there are risks for Bush. The state’s constitution has ambiguous language that, without much of a stretch, would automatically make the lieutenant governor the governor’s successor in the event of any vacancy in the office–indeed, that’s his principal reason for existence. Since Bustamante received more votes last November than any Republican is likely to get in the successor election (or that Bustamante himself will get), it raises the possibility that the ghost of the all-but-forgotten Bush v. Gore fight over the 2000 Florida recount could stalk not only the state but Bush and the national Republican Party next year. A challenge based on the constitutional ambiguity was quickly rejected by a unanimous state Supreme Court, which includes one Democrat named by Davis. Given the reluctance of the justices, who are themselves subject to recall, to get into any political fight, that’s hardly surprising. But the fact that the court is dominated by Republicans, that budget constraints will sharply reduce the number of polling places in this election, making it harder for voters to get to the polls, and that a lot of punch-card ballots will still be used easily invites comparisons with Florida. Local election officials, moreover, are having nervous fits wondering how they’re going to fit the huge list of candidates on ballots.

In fact, the most troublesome element of the recall is its sheer unpredictability. While the recall has been in the California constitution since 1911, no recall of a statewide official has ever qualified. (Only one governor has ever been recalled, and that was in North Dakota in 1921.) But there have been countless recalls of local officials, school-board members particularly, some of which led to bitter tit-for-tat campaigns in which the board members who succeeded recalled incumbents were themselves recalled. That’s produced warnings, like those of GOP media consultant Bob Gardner, of “retaliation and retribution [that] will launch a continuous cycle of disruption and disillusionment, insuring that nothing is accomplished.”

The recall has already produced all manner of extraneous (though maybe not entirely unintended) consequences–particularly the additional pressure on Davis and Democratic legislators to accede to GOP demands for a no-new-taxes budget with large spending cuts in higher education, healthcare and other services. Simultaneously, because public-sector employee unions and other labor groups are funding much of Davis’s anti-recall campaign, it’s given them even more clout with the Governor.

Given California’s orgy of initiatives in the past generation and its penchant for populist eruptions, it was probably only a matter of time before the recall booby trap went off. The Davis recall qualified just twenty-five years after the passage in 1978 of Proposition 13, the measure that cut local property taxes by nearly 60 percent, capped the rate at 1 percent and started the rush of plebiscites that continues to this day.

In the years since, Californians have passed scores of initiatives–from a ban on affirmative action and attempts to deny schooling to illegal immigrants to legislative term limits and the legalization of medical marijuana. Collectively, those measures have shifted the center of gravity in policy-making from elected representatives to the initiative process; simultaneously, because each initiative either mandates or prohibits some legislative act, they circumscribe the legislature’s discretion and thus its ability to respond, thereby creating still more frustrations among voters and leading to yet more ballot measures.

The orgy of plebiscites has also spawned a thriving industry of campaign consultants, pollsters, media experts and petition circulators, who, at an average of one or two dollars per signature, will get almost anything on the ballot, provided the sponsors have the $1-$2 million it takes. Ted Costa, a longtime antitax activist and a veteran of the Proposition 13 campaign, launched the recall barely three months after Davis’s re-election last year. But it was going nowhere until Issa began writing big checks.

But Costa, Issa and their partners were working fertile ground. The poll-driven Davis, who’s never had many friends, was always a relentless fundraiser who ran famously negative campaigns, including his successful undoing during last year’s GOP primary of Riordan, the candidate thought to be his strongest potential opponent. In effect, Davis picked his opponent and then narrowly beat him. Davis also dallied in the early months of California’s energy crisis in 2000-01, when a combination of mismanagement and market manipulation by energy producers drove the state’s wholesale electricity prices to obscene levels. He awarded huge pay increases to the state’s corrections officers, whose union had contributed lavishly to his campaigns, and he has developed a reputation as a man who is simply inaccessible to groups that don’t kick in to his extortionate campaign-funding demands.

Compounding all that was a set of economic and political problems, some of them uniquely California’s, some national, over which Davis has only partial control. The most obvious is the state’s huge two-year, $38 billion budget deficit, caused in part by the national recession, particularly the sinking high-tech industry; in part by a tax structure that magnifies both gains in good times and the losses in declines; and in part by the sharp increase in healthcare costs and, as in many other states, by the spending increases and tax cuts of the good years.

But California also had, and has, problems uniquely its own, particularly the constitutional provision that requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature to pass a budget (California is one of three states to have such a requirement). Thus while Democrats control both houses as well as the governor’s office, the Republican minority has an effective veto over the budget.

In past years Davis was able to peel off a few GOP legislators by offering them some goodies for themselves or their districts. But this year, following the strategy of the ultraconservative Club for Growth–which launched attacks against GOP moderates like Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, who resisted the extremes of George Bush’s tax cuts–Jim Brulte, the Republican leader in the California Senate, threatened any defector with a primary challenge next spring. Blame for the resulting delay went in large part to Davis.

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.

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.