Dump-Davis Dividend

Paul Jacob
Posted: Oct 12, 2003 12:00 AM

If an incumbent politician pulled out a Beretta 9000S and shot each of his challengers in the shins--as authorized by incumbent-passed laws making it legal for incumbents to shoot challengers but not for challengers to shoot incumbents--would anybody claim that the incumbent is merely enacting the transparent "will of the people"?

I just got a note from a long-time reader of my Common Sense e-letter telling me: enough already about the doings in California, get back to the national scene. I guess the last few episodes of both Common Sense and this column have indeed waxed loquacious about Davis, Arnold, and the California recall.

I would argue that the recall has everything to do with the national scene. It helps that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a world-famous celebrity, all of whose movies seem to have been made with the idea of supplying sound bites for his campaign. But the democratic ejection of Davis is also spectacularly emblematic of the sporadic yet real ability of Americans to govern their own government.

There has never before been a recall of a sitting governor in California, and it's happened only once before in the history of the whole country. Just the same, the firing of Davis is a completely reasonable instance of democracy, justified by the completely natural desire people tend to have of wanting to keep some of their money. To be sure, Davis is not a solitary villain. State legislators of all parties are also culpable for all the runaway taxing and spending and fuse-blowing electricity "deregulation." Davis just happened to be the guy with the power to do the most damage, not least by keeping his veto pen locked away in a vault.

Yet even if the recall had never been proposed, or been stymied by the courts, Californians would have enjoyed a failsafe. That's because Davis, like 38 other governors, is term-limited. So although voters would have had to suffer the balance of Davis's second term, there would have been no chance for him to slither his way to a third term. Moreover, thanks to citizen initiative, California's state legislators are term-limited as well; the smaller-time bandits in Sacramento don't have an indefinite lease on political life either.

Voters in 16 other states also term-limit their state legislators, nipping incipient corruption in the bud and regularly rejuvenating electoral competition. That's not good enough. What we need is 50 states with a robust initiative and referendum process, 50 states with gubernatorial term limits, 50 states with state legislative term limits, and 50 states whose citizens have the power to recall any elected official. I don't want to forget the U.S. Congress. They should be term-limited too. We can start with congressmen who have served forty years or more.

Most citizens understand--even if most politicians and pundits don't (or pretend they don't)--that the relationship between voter and elected official is hardly one of one-to-one infallible representation of the voter's values. To be sure, voters share the blame in how things are done in Sacramento or any other state capital. The majority of voters may support unnecessary and destructive government spending as much as they support very necessary and constructive tax cuts. They often do want to have their cake and eat it too (albeit often at the prior urging of career politicians). The most basic reform we need is cultural change that informs political change.

But it is also true that a political dynamic kicks in once a politician attains office, a dynamic that has little to do with promoting either the common good or the most-commonly-demanded goods, and a lot more to do with currying favor with special interests, getting re-elected at all costs, and exploiting the sundry advantages of incumbency to do so. If the excesses of the career politician are going to be checked, the voters are much more likely to do the checking than the career politicians.

Yes, California voters--some of them--re-elected Gray Davis in November of 2002, even though his dastardly nature was by then abundantly evident. What proponents of the thesis that "we already have recalls, they're called elections" tend to ignore, however, is how heavily the deck was stacked against the voter in that election (as it is in many another typical election, especially at district levels). Qua incumbent, Davis enjoyed the typical free ride most incumbents enjoy in primaries. And qua Davis, he succeeded in doing his vitriolic best to ensure that his Republican challenger who emerged to run against him was the politically weakest of the pack.

The result: voters stayed home in droves. And those who did vote disliked both candidates pretty much in equal measure. Lower turnout meant more electoral power for voters eager to continue reaping special-interest booty. So Davis squeaked by, and Californians got migraines.

The recall did not utterly sweep away the advantages of incumbency. After all, 45 percent of Californians were masochistic enough to want to keep Davis. But the recall did allow voters to decide on the governor's fate up-or-down in a way that they could not on election day 2002. And Californians flocked to the polls to do so. Perhaps every election day everywhere should be preceded by recalls of current incumbents.

If this is "mob rule," let's have more.