Recalling Gray Davis

George Will

3/11/2003 12:00:00 AM - George Will

BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif.--From here in the southern desert to the Oregon border, California is feeling faint tremors of a possible political earthquake. A state tradition from the early 20th-century, plebiscitary democracy, is being fueled by the synergism of two late 20th-century developments, talk radio and the Internet. The result may be the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, who last November won re-election with just 47 percent of the vote.

California is stewing in its own juices. Hiram Johnson, governor from 1911 to 1917, helped institutionalize such populist devices as the initiative, referendum and recall. Eight decades later Silicon Valley helped democratize the personal computer.

And so, in the first 96 hours after Howard Kaloogian recently established the Web site recallgraydavis.com, he spent many hours in his San Diego County home doing telephone interviews with talk radio programs, many of whose listeners were in cars, on freeways congealed with congestion. Oh, California.

And he says that after 96 hours his Web site had 500,000 hits. Kaloogian, an ebullient 43-year-old attorney and former state legislator, says recall fever is spreading across the Internet ``like a good joke or a bad virus.''

Recall efforts flourish like avocados in California. There have been 32 recall drives against California governors, including every governor since Edmund Brown in 1960. But no effort has made it to a vote. This one might, because even Davis' supporters dislike him, and because of the state's budget crisis. Its size astonishes the nation, and Californians are especially astonished because Davis said during last fall's campaign that all was well.

The deficit is at least $35 billion. So it may be about a third of the 50 states' estimated cumulative deficits, currently $90 billion or more.

The woes of the dot-com and high-tech sectors have disproportionately hurt California, and capital gains tax revenues are way down. Nevertheless, state revenues have risen 28 percent since 1998--which is not as fast as Davis has spent. To close the budget gap, which the state constitution requires, he will have to raise many taxes and fees and cut many programs, and every act will create potential recruits for the recall movement.

The crisis may make it possible to get the 1.2 million signatures considered necessary to be sure there are the 897,156 valid ones (12 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election) necessary to have a recall vote. When the recall petitions are certified, the campaign--currently there are several parallel efforts--will have 160 days to get the requisite signatures, this time employing petitions downloaded from the Internet. Then the state would have a 60- to 80-day window in which to hold the vote, which could come when the budget debate reaches a rolling boil this autumn and the public may be especially cranky.

Davis, in a remarkably limp self-defense, says a recall election would be too expensive, costing the state $25 million. Critics note that California's deficit is increasing at least $30 million a day.

Republicans, who lost every statewide race last November, might pay a steep price for the fun of dumping Davis. President Bush's chances of carrying California in November 2004, and Republican chances of defeating the hyperliberal Sen. Barbara Boxer, might be better if Californians nurture their anti-Davis grievances for two full years.

Also, replacement candidates for governor would appear on the recall ballot. It would be, to say no more, awkward for a Democrat to put his name there. And a welter of Republican and other candidates could result in a new governor thrust into the budget crisis with, say, 20 percent of the vote.

Winning re-election by just 47 percent to 42 percent over an opponent running his first campaign and running it badly, Davis got 1.4 million fewer votes than in 1998. His job approval rating has plummeted to 27 percent. But although he has governed both unsuccessfully and irresponsibly, the fact that he richly deserves disapproval, and that in some sense he may deserve to be recalled, does not mean that voters deserve to be able to recall him.

California is not a Circuit City store. A democracy with periodic elections should not have, regarding elected officials, a liberal exchange policy--any time, for any reason--for voters experiencing ``buyer's remorse.'' Californians deserve to live with the choice they made when they rehired him for four more years just four months ago.