Total Recall

The problem with socialism, noted Oscar Wilde, that most social of socialists, was that it took "too many evenings." It's the left that's always been committed to the permanence of politics, to continual deliberation and decision-making. Conservatism, by contrast, promises fewer evenings lost by leaving more decisions to the market and fewer to the realm of political choice. Part of conservatism's appeal is that now and then, in the lives of ordinary people, there's an end to politics, or at least periodic vacations.

Well, that's the theory. In practice, in American politics today, it's the right that pushes politics into absurd overtimes. In California, Republicans want to rerun last fall's gubernatorial election by waging a campaign to recall the recently reelected Gray Davis. In Texas last week, Tom DeLay tried unsuccessfully to reopen the state's decennial reapportionment process, which was signed, sealed and codified last year.

In each instance, Republicans abruptly announced the resumption of hostilities that by law and custom were over, for the simple reason that the Reeps thought they could win big. To be sure, some democratic niceties may get trampled in their zeal. By law, reapportionments are to be enacted just once a decade, following the census, which keeps the majority party from perpetually reinventing districts to its own advantage (and the bewilderment of constituents). But with Republicans winning control of the Texas Legislature last November, DeLay was certain he could squeeze more GOP congressmen out of Texas if his Austin underlings would just redraw those lines one more time.

Similarly, ever since California instituted recall elections in 1911, they've been meant for public officials who violate the law or outrage public morality. Not even the people behind the Davis recall campaign, however, allege that the governor has done anything legally or morally questionable since his reelection last November. Indeed, the period since November has been the first and only time in his quarter-century in elective office that the term-limited Davis hasn't been obsessively raising money, there being no further office for which he can plausibly run.

Davis' sin is his unpopularity; his approval ratings hover in the mid-20 percentiles. Republican right-wingers remain incredulous that they couldn't knock off Davis last fall, so they've begun collecting the million-plus signatures that would force a recall vote. They're not half so incredulous, though, as California voters will be if they find themselves plunged into yet another gubernatorial contest just months after the relentlessly negative race between Davis and GOP nominee Bill Simon produced a record-low turnout.

The recall process itself can be a travesty of democracy. The ballot includes a "yes" box and a "no" box for the recall proper, followed by a list of candidates vying to succeed the recallee. If the yes votes prevail, the next governor of America's mega-state need only win a plurality among what is sure to be a multitude of candidates who will have plunked down the bucks to appear on the ballot. There are no primaries, no conventions to winnow the field to one candidate from each party.

Then again, the Republican who recently announced that he'd fund the signature gathering and run for governor on the recall ballot, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of San Diego, seems something of a travesty himself. Issa, who made his fortune in car alarms, first sought statewide office in 1998, when he ran for Barbara Boxer's Senate seat but lost the Republican primary. He was finishing strong, but revelations about his life as a businessman -- among them, brandishing a handgun at an employee, and a dubious-looking fire that destroyed his Cleveland factory (the insurance company suspected arson and refused to pay him) -- toppled his candidacy.

But by running in a recall, where the focus is all on Davis, Issa could slip through this time around. Moreover, were he to wait until the next scheduled election in 2006, there would likely be the little matter of dispatching Arnold Schwarzenegger in the GOP primary. This way, Issa may well elude the Terminator, who's busy making pictures just now, having naively assumed that the next gubernatorial election would be held as scheduled.

In his defense, Issa can argue that he's not gaming the system any more grotesquely than his capo in the House, DeLay. One of the Hammer's distinguishing characteristics is his refusal to accept as settled any political decision that goes against him. In 1998, it was above all DeLay who pushed for Bill Clinton's impeachment in the wake of a midterm election in which Republicans lost seats chiefly because the American people didn't want them to impeach Clinton.

The plebiscite suddenly called to exploit a shift in public sentiment, the ceaseless redrawing of districts to maximize the margin of the majority party, the (come to think of it) election of a president by a partisan court -- these are less the marks of a mature democracy than they are of a banana republic. Which, I suppose, is what you get from a government of banana Republicans.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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