ANAHEIM -- With Democrats panicking over Gov. Gray Davis's impending wipeout in the California recall election, it didn't take long for their grave claim that Republicans are mounting a sophisticated, multifront assault on the democratic process to go from a Paul Begala talking point to a mantra of recall opposition.
Look at the House impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, the Bush brothers' theft of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, the Texas GOP's attempt to force redistricting of their state or the recall, the argument goes. The Republicans aren't just playing hardball -- they're subverting representative government. The assertion's ascension was confirmed in last week's New York Times account of Bill Clinton's unofficial role as adviser to Davis. "'There are a lot of people in the party who are connecting the dots: What's occurring is a conscious and well-heeled effort to try to undo traditional democratic processes,' one of Mr. Clinton's associates said," the Times' Adam Nagourney reported.
The Democrats have a little problem here: their extraordinary claim falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. In Florida, for instance, Al Gore never led in any vote count, whether official or unofficial, in late 2000, or in the CPA-monitored media recounts. And in Texas, no Democrat can explain how Republicans' attempt to force a favorable redistricting scheme is in any substantive way different from what political parties have done since the first census in 1790 -- nor what's sacrosanct about the existing redistricting scheme, which gives the Dems a 17-15 edge in House seats in one of the most Republican states in the union.
But if the assertion of GOP subversion of government is shaky in general, it's downright goofy in California. There is nothing extralegal or undemocratic about the state's recall process. In recent high-profile votes, two California Assembly members and a Santa Ana school board member have been recalled; no one squawked then that there was something undemocratic about the process. This doesn't even deal with the Golden State's history of "direct democracy," in which statewide initiatives dictating public policy have been enacted, for better or worse, every year or two for decades.
Still, what makes the claim that California Republicans are up to something extralegal or undemocratic so laughable is that it comes in a summer in which the Democrats who run Sacramento have made it plainer than ever that they consider the laws of the state to be meaningless.
Consider the ever-changing fate of the California car tax. Because state law dictates that taxes can only be raised by two-thirds vote of the Legislature, Democrats have long endorsed the patent fiction that it is not a vehicle property tax but a "vehicle license fee." In June, Davis ordered the car tax to be tripled, citing a dubious loophole allegedly allowing such an action when state finances are imperiled.
Flash-forward two months. With polls showing the tripling of the car tax to be an anchor around the sinking Davis's neck, Sacramento Democrats last week came up with a plan to repeal the increase and replace the $4 billion that would be lost in revenue with hikes in income and cigarette taxes.
Wait a second, reporters said -- how can you get a two-thirds vote for such tax increases now when you couldn't the first eight months the Legislature was in session?
The response from Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, prime architect of the tax swap plan: Only a majority of the Legislature was needed to raise those taxes because the reduction in the car tax would make new tax rates revenue-neutral overall. Huh?
The outrageousness of this argument -- never made before, much less used before, in state history -- obscured the other outrage: Democrats were now arguing that the vehicle-license fee was in fact a tax, after years of saying the precise opposite.
That was last week. On Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Sacramento Democrats were tackling the pesky two-thirds' threshold in increasing income and cigarette taxes with another approach: They "are looking at labeling the change an increase in fees, rather than in taxes, so they could approve the proposal by a simple majority."
Fee, apparently, is one of those unique words whose meaning depends on the day of the week.
As bad as the car-tax chicanery was, it was dwarfed by another of the Democrats' extralegal schemes: the borrowing of $10.7 billion to paper over the state's structural deficit of $1 billion a month until next summer. The borrowing was key to the budget deal cut in late July to slow Davis's hemorrhaging in recall polls.
So much for the California Constitution, which bans the Legislature from issuing bonds for more than $300,000 unless it is for a single purpose, such as school construction or other public works projects. The Pacific Legal Foundation notes that the California Supreme Court blocked similar borrowing -- in 1857!
No wonder that the "Republican coup" propaganda hasn't stopped Davis's slow-motion collapse in the polls. Just as voters here dismiss the lazy, simplistic view of Margaret Carlson and a hundred other national pundits that Davis is the victim of circumstances beyond his control, they're not buying the claim that this is the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy's latest insidious plot. A Gallup Poll released last week showed 40 percent of state Democrats would vote for the recall.
And that figure might be low. On August 7, the L.A. Times dispatched a reporter to a mall in Downey, a slightly downscale L.A. suburb where more than half of registered voters are Democrats. Her task: a hackneyed "man on the street" story, getting public reaction to the recall.
The result, reported in the August 8 Times: "Thirty people were interviewed. College students, retired folks, painters, mothers with small children, church leaders, students of constitutional law and two unemployed college graduates -- all said they would vote to recall the governor."
If this is what an extralegal coup looks like, then the banana republics of the world have gotten a lot of unfair press over the years. Here's what talk of a California coup is: cuckoo.
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