“Take him, he’s yours.”

That was my initial response to the California recall, aimed at a conservative Democratic governor who often has betrayed the state’s large progressive base of voters–the same folks who held their noses to elect and then re-elect him.

But now I don’t buy it. However you feel about Gray Davis, the fact is, this recall has become a shell game, led and paid for by Republicans, that conveniently distracts from the alarming failures and frauds of the White House. That includes the Bush Administration’s blind eye to the energy sting that robbed the California government of a good chunk of its past budget surplus.

The giddy media spectacle of porn stars and action heroes seeking to lead the world’s sixth-largest economy should not divert us from the fact that the key black marks on Davis’s résumé–the energy crisis and the budget shortfall–were both messes created by deregulating, tax-cutting Republicans. In dealing with both, Davis has not pulled any rabbits out of his hat, but he has been a competent leader who minimized the damage. The red ink in California is a mere needle prick compared with the hemorrhaging of trillions in future debt thanks to President Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, the invasion of Iraq and other disasters.

In fact, despite the hysteria, California’s current problems are no more serious than that of many states, including New York and Texas, both run by Republican governors. The underlying problem for all states is a national economy brought to its knees by the epic fall of a panoply of corrupt companies, firms like Enron that used the Republican mantra of deregulation as a convenient cover for looting consumers, stockholders and employees. It is true that California has paid a particularly heavy price for the machinations of Enron and other energy companies.

How dare Arnold Schwarzenegger or any Republican now ignore the well-documented gaming of the California energy market by Bush’s Texas cronies, many of whom landed high posts in his administration? Was Davis responsible for manufacturing spikes in energy prices that nearly bankrupted the state? Of course not–but he took the political hit when the lights went out. It’s a safe bet that Schwarzenegger and the other Republicans running will offer not a word of criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney’s infamous meetings with top energy executives that excluded consumer representatives. The minutes of those meetings are still secret, yet we know that the policy that emerged benefited the con artists who caused California’s energy crisis in the first place.

Nor will the Republicans who bought this recall delve into the role of the Bush-dominated Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That’s the agency that failed in its obligation to bring the energy pirates to heel and force them to properly compensate California for creating artificial shortages.

Davis failed in paying too much to get the lights back on, but I dare any of the Republican candidates for his job to step forward and tell us that they would not have bailed out PG&E and Southern California Edison. They will not because they have no real solutions to the energy problems or any other problems the state faces. Certainly they will not curtail the heavy influences of the prison guards and other law enforcement unions that are milking the state budget and that form Davis’s most reliable base of support. Clearly Davis’ fundraising is obscenely obsessive, but it’s minor compared with Bush’s nonstop money machine.

Were the Republicans not hypocrites, they would applaud Davis for implementing so much of their pro-big-business and harsh law-and-order agenda. Like other conservative Democrats, Davis wanted to appear tough, but a party led by poll-watching chameleons will always make for an easy target.

Ironically, Schwarzenegger is as “liberal” as Davis on the hot-button issues of abortion, gun control and gay rights. And can anyone suggest that Hollywood bon vivant Schwarzenegger better typifies Christian values than squeaky-clean Davis–a decorated officer in Vietnam when his peers were demonstrating in the streets, a guy who has never been known to indulge a moment of decadent pleasure? Didn’t the puritans of the right squirm just a bit when their new candidate told Jay Leno that the toughest decision in his life prior to announcing his candidacy was whether or not to have a bikini wax?

Suddenly the Republicans care not a whit about those social values they have been prattling about, or anything else but defeating a prominent Democrat. They brook no opposition, even from a conservative Democrat; their goal is a one-party system.

If you think politics is all a joke anyway, then vote for whichever opportunist makes you laugh the most. But if you think that meaningful representative democracy requires the scrutiny of the serious primary and election process that Davis has twice weathered, then for a small “d” democrat, a “no” vote on the recall is an obligation.