Inside the numbers: California

Posted: Sep 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Last weekend, the Emmy Awards featured a skit in which comedian Darrell Hammond impersonated Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bit was funny at first, but it quickly lost punch -- just like the recall election itself. Recent polls show fewer and fewer California voters supporting the recall effort, suggesting that even the most ardent Republicans should hope this debacle soon melts away, regardless of who ends up governor.

Why the gloomy outlook? Because too many candidates, too many tentative election dates, and too many jokes from the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman have too many Californians starting to think twice about the whole thing. At first, they saw the recall as an opportunity to make a refreshing change in how their state is run. Increasingly, they now see that big chance deteriorating into a circus, with too many clowns aspiring to be ringmaster.

That's they way John Morrow feels. He's the 20-something head of human resources at an Oakland, Calif., technology firm. Early on, Morrow had hopes that recalling Gov. Gray Davis "might be a good idea." He was open to considering the various candidates, including Schwarzenegger. But the Terminator's vague answers to basic questions about his leadership plans, along with the endless parade of goofy candidates, has Morrow reconsidering. "Basically, it seems like the (budget) problem is irrevocable. . . . It seems silly to make a change if nothing can be done to fix the problem," he said.

That's why Republicans across the nation should rethink their own high hopes for the California recall. Sure, Gray Davis and the state legislature have let spending spin out of control. Businesses are moving out of the Golden State because of burdensome taxes and over-regulation imposed from Sacramento. In short, California is a mess. But if Davis and his lawmaking lieutenants created this disaster, why on earth should any Republican -- especially one who won't even show up to political forums to discuss the issues -- seek to inherit the mess with less than a full term to reverse the damage? That's like having a contest to see who should captain the Titanic a half hour after it strikes the iceberg.

Supporters of President Bush should be cautious about hitching their wagon to the recall star. Consider the potential results. Should Schwarzenegger or long-shot Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock become governor, there would be precious little time between their hasty inauguration and the 2004 presidential election. That's not nearly enough time to take on a potentially hostile California legislature and entrenched state bureaucracy. The ensuing media blitz to (unfairly) pin the old problems on the new GOP regime would quickly become a widespread blaming of the national party and President Bush.

Admittedly, a defeat of the recall, or a vote to replace Democratic Gov. Davis with Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, would also be treated as a setback for Republicans. But that perception would likely be short-lived. If Davis stays in power, there is little reason to believe he'll be anything but the same arrogant, out-of-touch governor Californians have grown to barely tolerate. A Bustamante win would be unlikely to produce any long-term benefits for Democrats nationally. Besides, California will probably remain a Democratic stronghold in the presidential race, regardless of what happens this fall.

For Republicans, the real lesson in all this is to stick with the GOP's fundamental philosophy. When California Democrats once attempted to recall then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, Reagan's supporters argued that while California law provided for such recalls, the Democrats' efforts were in fact an attempt to usurp the voice of the majority of voters who had already elected Reagan to a full four-year term. They were right. Whether it's a recall petition itself, or a judicial decision that makes a messy situation worse by setting court-mandated dates for voting, interference with the traditional political process tends to damage both elected officials and those who vote for them.

Let's be blunt. What looked like a great opportunity to embarrass the Democrats and rid California of a lousy governor has become a near freak show. The best-known candidate, Schwarzenegger, has spent too much time uttering silly slogans and sidestepping serious discussions that call for specific answers to complex problems.

The best move for Republicans is to act as if the whole recall effort has been nothing but a bad movie with limited distribution. Because -- believe me -- the final reviews are going to be mostly thumbs down.