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Carol Platt Liebau - Columnist

Carol Platt Liebau is a senior member of the editorial board. She is an attorney, political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA, and has appeared on the Fox News Channel, Orange County News Channel, Cox Cable and a variety of radio programs throughout the United States. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Carol Platt Liebau also served as the first female managing editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Recalling Our Principles
Why the Davis Recall is Worth Reconsidering
by Carol Platt Liebau 5/9/03

It’s hard to like Governor Gray Davis. Like the stereotype of a bad politician, he is self-righteous, cynical, manipulative and grasping – without possessing any of the typical politician’s compensating traits of charm, humor or even sheer entertainment value (think Rev. Al Sharpton).

So it’s no wonder that the movement to recall Davis has caught on like wildfire. For the first time in memory, it seems at least possible that a sitting California governor could actually be removed from office. In fact, as of April 30, recall supporters reported that more than 100,000 of the roughly 897,000 signatures needed to place a recall on the ballot had been collected.

The success of the “Recall Davis” movement is thanks largely to the grassroots. Over 400,000 recall petitions are currently in circulation, with tens of thousands having been sent out in response to citizen requests, and the “Recall Gray Davis” web site estimates that it has logged over 8 million hits since it went online on February 4, 2003. The California Republican Party has endorsed the effort only cautiously, and no single big donor has yet stepped forward to bankroll the campaign entirely, although Rep. Darrell Issa recently indicated that he would offer a six-figure contribution to the recall.

But in an era when recall petitions can be downloaded on the internet, and given the governor’s 56% disapproval rate even within his own party (according to a recent Field poll), a grassroots effort may be enough. Even in the San Jose area, a stronghold of support for Davis (he defeated Bill Simon there last November, 55% to 32%), a full 36% would support recall, with 46% opposing, according to Democratic pollster David Binder. Statewide, a recent Field poll reveals that if a recall initiative were actually placed on the ballot, 46% of voters would dump Davis, with only 43% being willing to retain him in office.

The thought of handing Davis his walking papers is, frankly, an intoxicating one. He has been an unequivocal disaster for California, with his naked ambition, slimy fundraising, and policies grounded only political expediency. And what fun it would be to confound the conventional wisdom disseminated by journalists, political insiders and some pessimistic Republican insiders by actually making it happen! But recalling Davis is, sadly, just not the right thing to do.

First, there are the recall’s opportunity costs – that is, the opportunities that are lost by conservative and Republican activists devoting their prodigious talents, energy and time to recalling Gray Davis. Other missions exist that are certainly equally important (and maybe even more easily achieved!). These include: finding a charismatic Republican candidate to defeat the obnoxiously left-wing Senator Barbara Boxer; ensuring that President Bush carries California; showing Latino voters why they should be Republicans rather than Democrats; and even – can it be said? – formulating and advocating Republican policy prescriptions for California’s recovery, that will illustrate for voters the fundamental differences between the two political parties.

And as a practical matter, even if Davis is recalled, there is no guarantee that he will be replaced by a Republican. It is therefore at least conceivable that conservatives and Republicans could spend their time and treasure electing a new, politically viable Democrat who could ultimately ride the tide of California’s eventual recovery to national prominence. Imagine the chagrin if the recall effort created the Democratic “monster” who went on to win the presidency in 2008!

Even if a Republican is elected (and if the measure does actually makes the ballot, here’s hoping for a Republican victory!), he is left in the short term as a handy scapegoat when Democrats inevitably try to shift blame for the economic conditions created during their one-party control of the legislature and the governorship. Any governor will be forced to take unpopular measures to eliminate the deficit – so why should Republicans create a situation in which a governor of their party is blamed for every “heartless” spending cut and “unfair” tax increase that is imposed?

But most importantly, principle dictates against a recall of Davis. Recall proponents have listed five charges to justify their campaign: that the governor lied about budgetary matters in order to gain re-election; that he lied about his plans to raise taxes; that he supports internet taxation; that he mishandled the power crisis; and that he engaged in ethically questionable fundraising practices. Some – like the latter two – were widely reported and were (or should have been) known to voters by election time. Others – like Davis’ plans to raise taxes – though disappointing, were not completely unforeseeable. Does it really surprise anyone that a Democrat would be inclined to support higher taxes?

Despite the understandable (and entirely justified) anger at the Davis administration, the supporters of the recall must be mindful of the precedent they are setting. As difficult as it is, they should refrain from using the process of recall as another way to get a “second bite” at the electoral apple.

Recall is a drastic remedy – and it should be reserved for those instances where voters are mistaken about a basic assumption upon which they have based their support for a politician. It would be justified when an elected official politician governs in a way that is completely antithetical to the principles upon which he campaigned, or when – for sheer self-aggrandizement – he acts with fundamental disloyalty to the political party that has supported and worked for his election. (Under this standard, recall was certainly appropriate when Republican Doris Allen acceded to Willie Brown’s plan to install her as Assembly Speaker almost exclusively with Democratic support.)

But there are no such circumstances here. When the voters of California returned Gray Davis to office last November, they knew all about him, and didn’t really like him even then – hence the unexpectedly close race between Davis and Bill Simon, a bright, likable but novice Republican who mortally wounded his own campaign through repeated missteps.

Before they wholeheartedly pledge themselves to recalling the governor, Republicans must articulate a standard for recall that they can apply consistently – because politics practiced without consistency becomes a simple exercise in raw power. And without consistency in government affairs, there is no predictability. Without predictability, there is no stability. Conservatives and Republicans have never been the proponents of chaos – and a recall effort grounded in no more than personal dislike and political opposition is an undertaking deeply unworthy of the finest traditions of the Grand Old Party.

CRO columnist Carol Platt Liebau is a political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA.


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