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Send in the Dancing Bears

Just when you thought California couldn't get any weirder…

By 9.24.03

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Oy. The full ninth circuit has now reversed the ruling of three of its more creative members and allowed the October 7 statewide California recall election to proceed as scheduled. Punch card voting, it turns out, is not a violation of civil rights. This came as a relief to the hundreds of thousands of voters who had already cast absentee ballots.

And, if we needed any evidence that the three ring circus had resumed, Darrell Issa, bankroller of the recall campaign, has now come out against his own effort, unless one of the two Republicans does the gentlemanly thing and fall on his own sword. In the current divided field, the election of hated lieutenant governor Cruz "what Chicano activists?" Bustamante is a real possibility.

But the choice of who should go is almost Solomonic in its complexity. As Matt Welch, associate editor of the Los Angeles-based Reason magazine, observed yesterday, this election is functionally a part of the local Republican civil war that has raged since the primaries of 2002, when both the local Democrats and the national GOP wouldn't butt out and let the local elephants make up their own minds. The Bush-backed establishmentarian Richard Riordan was trounced by the conservative political neophyte Bill Simon, who then went on to narrowly lose to Davis in the general. Massive recriminations followed.

Welch frames both megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger and state senator Tom McClintock as good representatives of the two state GOP factions -- call them country clubbers and cavemen. He believes that the balance may be shifting toward the Neanderthal this time around: "You have one candidate who's completely frivolous -- gangbangs, pot, God knows what. And you have one candidate who has horrendously specific knowledge of the issue at hand, which is the budget crisis."

Nor, with two weeks left to go, does Welch see an easy solution to the current impasse. Both Arnie and McClintock think, with the other guy eliminated from the race, he could win, and their constituencies may prove unwilling to follow their candidate's advice if he drops out at the eleventh hour. The situation is not unlike a high stakes game of chicken in which neither side has any intention of swerving, and the results may be just as ugly.

Bruce Bialosky, southern California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, confidently predicts "Gray Davis is going to lose and a Republican is going to be elected. … You can just smell it." But his olfactory sense must be more acute than most. In truth, there are all kinds of scents wafting through the warm southern California air: conflicting polls, lawsuits, scandals primed to explode, an unpredictable media that suddenly has to cover statewide politics, a legislative process that has broken down, independent voters who aren't yet sure just what they're going to do. In this carnival-like atmosphere, events can make a hash of forecasts overnight, or even over a short lunch.

At this point, if someone forced me to make a gun-to-the-head prediction, I'd repeat what I've said since the beginning of the recall campaign: Davis takes it. He assembles an ad hoc coalition of liberal Dems, who hate the recall and can't stand Republicans, and Anglos and Republicans, who worry that Cruz would be much, much worse, and who are probably right about that. This unhappy result would put the Tarnished State back to square one, with a profligate legislature, a ghost of a governor, and no end in sight for the people's woes, fiscal or otherwise.

Jeremy Lott is assistant managing editor of The American Spectator.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.