Getting in the game

Posted: Sep 27, 2003 12:00 AM

There’s a reason we don’t allow the average Joe off the street to stand in the batter’s box against Roger Clemens. Or play one-on-one with Shaquille O’Neal. Or return a punt against the Eagles. If Joe tried any of these things, he’d be lucky to be merely embarrassed. He could end up injured, or worse.

That’s because Clemens, O’Neal and the Eagles are all professionals, athletes who have spent years honing their skills to play at the highest level. In sports, as in any field that’s governed by a strict merit system, being a professional is critical.

Politics is not governed by a strict merit system. Anyone can enter, and run for virtually any office. Many anyones are doing just that.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark wants to be president. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arianna Huffington, and a cast of 100 or so others (mostly political newcomers) want to be governor of California. These uppity amateurs are scorned by veteran political-watchers.

“This game of politics is complicated,” sniffed Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen on Sept. 23. “What are these people thinking?” Cohen also points out, correctly, that once elected, “you actually have to do something.”

Well, let’s consider the current governor of California, Gray Davis. He was elected in 1998 on the campaign slogan “Experience Money Can’t Buy.” Indeed, political experience he’s got, in spades. In fact, political experience is all he’s got.

Much like Bill Clinton, who swung through California recently to campaign for Davis, the governor has done almost nothing in his life except run for office, or work for officeholders. He’s been on the public payroll continuously since 1974, before some of his recall opponents were even born.

So what has all this political experience meant for California? The list of problems on Davis’ watch is lengthy. The state is facing a $38 billion budget deficit. The unemployment rate is 6.7 percent. The San Francisco Bay area alone has lost more than 300,000 jobs since December 2000.

In addition, Californians remember the electricity debacle, which cost the state billions more.

That wasn’t entirely Davis’ fault, of course. It was made worse by the actions of a few corrupt energy companies, including Enron. And it was mostly the result of a poorly planned deregulation scheme -- a scheme that breezed through California’s legislature (filled with political “professionals”) without a dissenting vote.

So Californians may well turn to an amateur to try to solve the problems their experienced politicians have caused. We’ll find out on Oct. 7 whether Davis will keep his job, or, if not, who will replace him.

And the California election, like so many things that happen in the Golden State, is already having an effect on the tens of millions of us who live in the other 49 states. In a desperate effort to save his job, (after all, what else is he going to do if he’s recalled?) professional politician Davis recently signed a measure to give driver’s licenses to “undocumented immigrants.”

Now, why would an immigrant be walking around “undocumented?” Because he is here illegally. Many Mexicans immigrate to California. Some legally, some illegally. But either way, these immigrants want driver’s licenses. This measure will earn Davis votes in the politically powerful Hispanic community. That’s why the “experienced politician” signed it now, even though just a year ago he vetoed a similar measure.

Of course, a driver’s license is the main form of identification in this country. If California is handing them out to “undocumented immigrants,” not only will poor farm workers be able to get them, but would-be terrorists could, too.

Schwarzenegger -- an immigrant himself -- opposed this foolish bill. That’s one more reason to root for the amateur in California.

There were a few of what we might call “professional politicians” among the framers of our Constitution, but they were mostly civilians. Farmers, merchants, lawyers, soldiers -- even a renowned scientist. Somehow these amateurs managed to draft a brilliant document that has provided orderly government across the centuries. Most of the framers would probably be appalled at the notion that one has to be a professional politician in order to serve in government.

In California, and right here in Washington, we’ve got plenty of politicians with decades of experience. They supposedly know what they’re doing. But hardly anyone thinks they’re doing a great job. Let’s not be afraid to give non-politicians -- especially those who have proven successful in other fields -- a chance.