- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

Supporters of embattled California Gov. Gray Davis have gone to the courts to try to block a recall vote on the ground that some of the petitions were circulated by people who were not registered to vote in California. I wish them well.

Mr. Davis is a terrible governor, and a rotten human being. His political modus operandi has been to raise tons of money from special interest groups, and to use it to smear his political opponents.

These are good reasons for disliking Mr. Davis. But they are not, to my mind, reasons sufficient to recall him. The recall provision in the California Constitution is an important safeguard. I wish more states had it. But the recall provision should be exercised only if there is genuine malfeasance.

If Mr. Davis had been accepting bribes, or putting tax revenues into his pocket, he should go. But if he were thrown out of office early just because he’s a liar and an incompetent, where would we stop? How many other governors would be looking over their shoulders? If the recall vote goes forward, it will accelerate our dangerous drift toward all politics all the time.

I confess that I also want the legal challenge to the recall election to succeed because I can’t think of anything that would benefit Republicans more. Californians now merely angry with the state’s political establishment would be seething with rage at this latest insider maneuver to frustrate popular will. And Democrats would still be stuck with a very unpopular governor, an even more unpopular legislature and an all but insoluble problem. The massacre that would take place at the polls next year, and in 2006, would be awesome to behold.

Since recall backers have collected nearly twice as many signatures as the law requires, it is doubtful the plaintiffs in the lawsuit can keep the question off the ballot. But they could delay the recall election until the primary March 3.

This could be a good result for Democrats, because it would coincide with the presidential primary, which is expected to bring many more Democrats to the polls than would a special election this fall.

But a March primary has its downsides for Democrats. It would keep the issue in the news longer. It could overshadow the presidential primary, depriving Democratic presidential wannabes of attention. Mr. Davis could suck up money Democrats will need to be competitive against President Bush in the fall. Since California’s presidential primary is open, Republicans brought to the polls by the recall election might vote in the primary for the Democratic presidential contender they consider weakest in the general election.

And if Mr. Davis survives the recall, he’ll still be governor, he’ll still be unpopular and he’ll still be facing a crisis nearly certain to drain further what little public support he has remaining.

The optimal result for Democrats would be if Mr. Davis would resign before the recall election qualified for the ballot. This would make Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante — also a Democrat, but much more popular than Mr. Davis — governor, and stop the recall process in its tracks. But that would require Mr. Davis to fall on his political sword, something he is unlikely to do as long as he thinks he has a chance to do keep his job. And though Ms. Bustamante is popular now, his popularity might not last long if he can make no more progress on solving California’s fiscal crisis than Mr. Davis has. And then the ire which has been directed at Mr. Davis personally may be directed more broadly at his party.

The next best outcome for Democrats would be if a popular Democrat, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would put his or her name on the recall ballot.

Mrs. Feinstein almost certainly would win. But the presence of her name, or that of any other Democratic heavyweight on the ballot, would guarantee that Mr. Davis would be recalled.

Some Democrats think the best outcome for them would be to have a Republican win. Then if he couldn’t get his budget plan through a heavily Democratic legislature — as he almost certainly couldn’t — he would get much of the blame now being heaped on Mr. Davis. Misery loves company.

Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration and is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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