Voters must face Gray consequences

Posted: Jul 04, 2003 12:00 AM

California must be punished!

No, this isn't fire and brimstone about how the sinful ways of Californians warrant a plague of locusts, frogs and hairless cats (that's a subject for a future column). Rather, it's my sincere belief that American democracy and republicanism will be severely damaged if Californians are allowed to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

When former New York City Mayor Ed Koch was asked to run again during his successor's disastrous term in office, Koch replied, "No! The people threw me out, and now the people must be punished." Whether Koch knew it or not, he grasped one of the most fundamental principles of democracy and republicanism: Everyone should pay the price of mistakes made at the ballot box.

Californians stupidly elected Davis in 2002, but now they refuse to suffer the consequences. They want Davis gone for, among other reasons, they think he lied about how bad the deficit was -it's now $38 billion, more than all other state deficits combined. Davis' approval rating hovers around 21 percent. If things get much worse,

he'll be able to list his supporters by name.

According to California law, it takes only 900,000 signatures to demand a recall. Since the Golden State should really be known as the Petition State, activists will have no problem hitting that target.

What makes things even nuttier is, if there is a recall, it takes signatures from fewer people than you'd need for a small softball league -just 65 -to get your name on the new ballot. This means the race could be divvied up between a mob of boobs and nobodies, and the winner of a new election might need to gain even fewer voters than currently support Davis.

Don't get me wrong, I think there are few politicians in America today more in need of an atomic wedgie than Gray Davis. Not only is he arrogant, he's boring, which makes his arrogance all the more annoying because it feels like he's deliberately wasting your time merely by talking.

If he's not literally crooked, he's certainly ethically challenged. He ran California's finances the way teenage girls manage their credit cards -racking up the charges on a huge shopping spree and then trying to hide the bill. But none of this is impeachable, which should be the only legitimate mechanism for removing a politician from office.

Forget about Gray Davis for a moment (I know it's not hard, even his name is gray). A hallmark of a functioning democracy is the practice of holding timely elections. A hallmark of republican government (and please remember America is a republic), is that the people do not decide what the government should do. They decide upon who should make those decisions.

I am constantly hearing about how we need more politicians who are willing to buck the polls and make the hard decisions that might be unpopular but necessary in the long run. Harvard's Kennedy School of Government even gives out a (usually highly partisan) award to politicians who've raised taxes or steamrolled gun control laws in defiance of the voters' wishes.

Well, how much courage do you expect to get from our politicians when the polls in effect have binding consequences? What happens when low poll numbers serve as chum in the water for every opportunistic politician and activist group who wants to take down an elected politician who makes unpopular but necessary decisions?

The answer is simple: he won't make unpopular decisions in the first place. He will lick his finger, hold it up to the wind and spend his term being led by the often fickle, inattentive and selfish voters rather than trying to lead them.

Punishing voters for their poor decisions is vital because that's the only thing that imbues voting with any significance. Politicians, particularly liberal ones like Howard Dean, like to shout about how voters "have the power" to change things and how people have to take their obligation to vote seriously. Well, that's really only true if their votes have lasting effects. If voters think they'll get a "do-over" if it turns out they made a mistake, voting really won't matter that much.

Any teacher will tell you that students don't show their best effort if they know the test or the term paper won't be graded. Any teacher will tell you that students -of any age -won't hand in their reports if there isn't a serious deadline and serious consequences for those who miss the deadline.

The same thing holds true for elections. The date itself is insignificant, but it's vital that a firm date is set. And, if you vote wrong or miss the vote entirely, you can't have a do-over or the whole thing becomes meaningless.

California has led the country in political trends for decades now. That's why Californians must be punished. If they're not punished now, we all will be later.