Davis Recall Effort a Case of Casting Stones
In 1943, George Orwell wrote: “If you compare commercial advertising with political propaganda, one thing that strikes you is its relative intellectual honesty.”
Were Orwell alive today, he would find no dearth of examples to prove his point. In fact, for evidence he wouldn’t need to stray beyond the boundaries of this state and the flagrant hypocrisy, ignorance and opportunism masquerading as the recall campaign.
To say that this process is a travesty of electoral politics is to utter such a commonplace I’m almost embarrassed to commit it to print. On the off chance that I overlooked a hive of pro-recall sentiment somewhere, over the last week or so I have been conducting my own informal poll of California businesspeople to get their thoughts on the political situation.
With the exception of one L.A. factory owner who railed about California business conditions in terms the most hardened rap star would be proud to have in his vocabulary, my polling sample was unanimous in denouncing the recall for reasons ranging from its expense in straitened times (now pegged at $60 million and counting), to the instability it may introduce into the state’s political and economic environment, to the sheer immaturity of returning a governor to the store chiefly because one doesn’t like his style.
This is not the same as saying my respondents expressed admiration for Gov. Gray Davis himself, or that they were at all satisfied with the state’s business environment. None likes Davis, and some frankly detest him. He is cold and arrogant, and has cosseted his friends and political supporters, some of whom are extremely unsavory. (Of course, nothing like that would happen in a Republican administration.)
As for the difficulties of doing business in California, they are legion: The workers’ compensation system is a disaster, energy prices are sky high, regulations are heavy, etc., etc.
But the business community on the whole seems mature enough to know that there’s a limit to how much these ills can be blamed directly or solely on Davis, or on any governor.
Let’s take the energy crisis: Davis has been roundly cursed for having mishandled the meltdown of power deregulation in 2000-01. The bill of particulars states that the governor: (a) committed California to long-term electricity contracts that locked in above-market prices for years to come; and (b) failed to allow customer rates, which were frozen under deregulation, to rise sharply at the onset of the crisis in late 2000. The argument is that holding down rates at the beginning only drove them up more sharply as the crisis built in succeeding months.
Let’s suppose that in late 2000, Davis had allowed electricity rates to rise to then-market levels -- several multiples above the consumer ceiling imposed by the deregulation law -- in anticipation of worse spikes to come. His political opponents would have praised him as a statesman and an economic visionary, wouldn’t you agree?
One can cavil at Davis’ management of the disaster, and no one in his right mind would suggest that he’s above criticism. But who among his challengers can guarantee he or she would have found a sure-fire solution to the same crisis, as blackouts were rolling across the state, two major utilities were threatening to file for bankruptcy protection and the prospect of uncontrollably high power supply costs seemed to extend into the limitless future?
The same willful amnesia afflicts our view of the budget crisis. Davis stands charged with (a) spending all the money that rolled in during the good years of the high-tech bubble and (b) failing to set aside some of that surplus for a rainy day, even though the collapse in tax revenues after the stock market bust was predictable.
Few people actually suggest that the state spent all this money on pure frivolity. As the cash rolled in, Davis and the Legislature boosted spending on health coverage for uninsured children (enrollment increased twelvefold over the level during the Pete Wilson administration) and on education (up 37% for K-12). All of you who thought it was a waste to cut class sizes in grades 1 through 3, or to raise California’s per-pupil spending rate from near rock-bottom among the 50 states to somewhere in the middle, raise your hands.
Meanwhile, student fees in the state university systems were cut by 5%, and what was left over was returned to taxpayers as a rollback of the vehicle tax. Legislators on both sides of the aisle colluded in all of these initiatives, as did the voters who demanded such spending.
Perhaps feeling secretly abashed at their collective guilt, Davis’ critics have retreated to what they seem to think is a sure-fire accusation: that he covered up the real size of this year’s budget deficit in the weeks before the 2002 election.
Leave aside the fact that if every incumbent guilty of downplaying an unpalatable truth before election day were recalled, we would never need term limits -- no officeholder would last six months into a second term. What Davis is said to have concealed is something more or less evident to everyone as far back as last year’s budget, the shortfall of which was more than $25 billion. Implicit in the indictment, moreover, is the notion that, had it been but known that the deficit was $35 billion instead of $25 billion, our crack Legislature up there in Sacramento would have known what to do about it.
Is this plausible?
Obviously, if Davis had proposed slashing programs based on the projection of a huge deficit prior to election day, he would have been pilloried by the GOP, and quite possibly by a few fellow Democrats too.
The kind of cravenness Davis exhibited runs deep in every politician’s soul: To this moment, although armed with the true figures, none of the leading governors-in-waiting has yet proposed a credible program to close the budget gap, whether by cutting programs, raising taxes, some combination of the two, or anything else.
The truth is that the promoters of the recall aren’t looking for solutions of this sort. It isn’t as though the Republicans have been beating the bushes for wise men with experience in fiscal management to carry their standard. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the great Republican hope, boasts as his sole credential in public policy the passage last year of, pardon my French, a spending plan. The annual cost of the after-school program enacted via the ballot proposition he championed is $550 million.
During last year’s gubernatorial race, roving packs of campaign reporters tried to get Republican candidate Bill Simon, who pronounced himself the “candidate of ideas,” to specify a budget-balancing program of his own. The meager proposals Simon did manage to put forth tended to run to ineffective spending cuts in the small part of the state budget that the governor actually controls. He also proposed a cut in the capital gains tax, which, as a millionaire, he presumably pays lots of. (Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”?)
Now Simon is threatening to run in the recall. Under the circumstances, to believe that it would mean a significant improvement in state governance to replace Gray Davis with Bill Simon is like thinking that if Moe can’t handle a job, the answer is to bring in Larry or Curly.
In the last few days, a few political pundits have tried to find a virtue in the unfolding free-for-all by suggesting that it’s gotten Californians interested in politics again and therefore might lead to serious contemplation of solutions to our problems. Like much else written about California from beyond its borders, this is a caricature. That motorists rubberneck at a car crash doesn’t mean they’re acquiring an interest in automotive engineering, or even in traffic safety. What has the voters captivated in the recall is the spectacle, not the substance, because there isn’t any substance.
The sad fact is that the electorate placed itself in this situation -- through its search for a scapegoat for the crumbling economy; its demand for state-funded programs and reluctance to lose them when the money dries up; and its inattention as power deregulation got written by utility companies, electoral campaigns (including this one) got overwhelmed by corporate and special interest money and the intellectual level of our political leaders deteriorated on both sides of the aisle.
As for the politicians, they are merely doing what comes naturally. To blame them for acting opportunistically in a crisis, employing a constitutional instrument somebody unearthed from the attic -- here I am paraphrasing Orwell, not quoting him directly -- is like blaming a skunk for stinking.
Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. Michael Hiltzik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics team.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.