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Steven Hayward- Contributor
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Dr. Steven Hayward is Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies for the Pacific Research Institute. He is also nationally recognized for his recently released book, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1964-1980 (Prima Publishing, 2001), and Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity (Prima Publishing, 1997). [go to Hayward index]

Recall and Recollection
Beware of unintended consequences
[Steven Hayward] 8/1/03

Everyone except the indifferent seems to look forward to recalling Governor Gray Davis with relish come October 7. No one so richly deserves the boot. Davis ran for governor in 1998 with the slogan, "Experience money can't buy," which prompted our friend Chuck Bell in Sacramento to suggest the obvious recall slogan: "Incompetence you can't afford."

Davis knew, coming into office in 1999, that if the stock market ever stopped its up-til-then inexorable rise, state revenues would plunge. Yet even after the stock market began its decline in the summer and fall of 2000, Davis kept on spending like a proverbial drunken sailor. And there's no need to waste additional precious electrons recalling his (so to speak) handling of the electricity crisis.

While the prospect of tossing a profligate pol is delightful, we should also keep in mind the doctrine of unintended consequences, and the broader problems of populist democracy in general. The recall, and the California initiative process generally, are outgrowths of the Progressive Era in California, and are intended to make government more "responsive" and "democratic," rather than deliberative and republican. The irony, of course, is that the "Progressive" initiative process has mostly served conservative policy goals over the last generation in California, starting with the event that triggered the tax revolt - Prop. 13 - and running through Prop. 209 (ending racial preferences), term limits, and a state version of the Defense of Marriage Act.

But conservatives' fondness for these Progressive devices in California have caused them to abandon or forget deeper principles about how republican government ought to operate. It diffuses accountability for individual politicians and the two parties. Some days I wonder why, if major questions are to be decided by an initiative vote of the people, we have a legislature at all. But that thought is not far from Ross Perot territory. The very form of the recall - featuring a jungle ballot with multiple candidates, and the winner being the person with the most votes - actually increases the chances that Davis might survive, in which case he would emerge undeservedly strengthened.

If successful, the recall could lead to the de facto transformation of California into something like a parliamentary democracy. In the future, whenever a governor's popularity swoons (remember that Gov. Pete Wilson's polls were very bad in 1992 and 1993), liberal special interest groups are likely to try the recall route themselves; they have more money and are better organized than the right in California. Having done it once, Californians might get used to doing it over and over again - a populist/Progressive form of a "no-confidence" vote, and the elevation of a new prime minister. In a state that is likely to remain dominated by Democrats, the recall may come back to haunt Republicans for years to come.

Just a few thoughts to recall in this recall season.

copyright 2003 Pacific Research Institute



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