Insufficient Reason

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman      May 14, 2021

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Insufficient Reason
When we consider the crippling infirmities of American politics, let us start with the legendary cynic and social commentator H. L. Mencken, who wrote in 1916 that, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” There is no reason to think this classic aphorism by the “Sage of Baltimore” was directly inspired by the state of California, whose voters only five years earlier had amended into their constitution the populist reforms of the initiative, referendum, and recall. But our tarnished Golden State could well have inspired it, considering how badly things have sometimes turned out. All it takes to initiate a recall is a petition alleging the reason for the recall, but the language fatefully declares, “Sufficiency of reason is not reviewable.” In other words, have at it, folks! Since 1913, there have been 179 recall attempts against state officials, 55 of them against governors alone. Ten recall efforts made it to the ballot, only one of them against a governor. More on that later. Californians once again are about to get it good and hard, in the form of an estimated $400 million special election sometime this fall, an attempt to recall a first-term governor who barely two years ago had beaten his no-name Republican opponent in the biggest landslide for a non-incumbent candidate since 1930. Republicans in California have decomposed into the party of the walking dead. As Democratic voters close in on majority status in our deep-blue state, Republican registration stands at a near-historic low of 24%, down in the basement with the “no-party-preference” (NPP) contingent. But like a zombie army, they just keep coming, crawling out of the grave of the 2018 election and stumbling back toward Sacramento, howling for blood. Many of us have not forgotten the nightmare of 2003 in which Gov. Gray Davis, after a largely successful first term and comfortable re-election, was unceremoniously dumped only a year later after Republicans contrived to blame him for his handling of the 2000-01 energy crisis. But the seeds of that crisis had been sown in the mid-1990s, under an electricity deregulation scheme signed into law by Republican governor Pete Wilson, and mercilessly and illegally gamed by Enron, whose CEO Kenneth Lay had contributed heavily to Republicans throughout the decade leading up to Enron’s 2001 bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the Republican circus had come to town, and by October 2003 Davis found himself facing a recall and a pack of 135 potential rivals, ranging from a child actor and a porn star all the way up to Davis’s own lieutenant governor and the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The election itself was a picnic at a public execution; Gray went down by 55%-45%, and Schwarzenegger won the contest to succeed him by a plurality of 48%. The only saving grace for Democrats was that the Governator proved himself a lot more politically savvy, moderate, and bipartisan than many of us expected, and more recently, he stood up repeatedly as an outspoken Never-Trumper while the rest of his party cowered, groveled, and generally abased itself. In a recent interview, Schwarzenegger found similarities between the 2003 recall and this one and dismissed the idea of a Republican power-grab. But there are many key differences, too. Despite Newsom’s political battering during the pandemic, a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll finds that he still enjoys much higher public approval, at 53%, than Davis’s anemic 24% at a comparable point in the earlier recall campaign. The 40% who support a recall against Newsom is close to the 38% who voted against him in 2018, so he hasn’t really lost much ground. Democratic registration is up a few points from September 2003, but Republican registration is way down, bleeding nearly a third of the 35.3% the GOP formerly held. Most of that has leaked out to independent / NPP voters, whose numbers are up 50% over 2003 and who lean Democratic 46%-37%, according to the PPIC. This is the fifth of six attempts to recall Newsom, the first having been filed in March of 2019, only two months into his first term. Like the others, this recall originally had nothing to do with Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, despite the disingenuous efforts of Republicans to repackage it that way. When Orrin Heatlie, a retired Yolo County sheriff’s employee, filed his notice of intent to mount a recall with the Secretary of State, his bill of particulars against Newsom, in office for only a year at that point, was the usual right-wing white-grievance list: high taxes, opposition to the death penalty, coddling of illegal foreign nationals, support for a sanctuary state and cities, along with water rationing, “restricting parental rights” (?), and just for good measure, threatening Prop. 13. About the pandemic, which wouldn’t even be declared for nearly another month, not one word. About that pandemic: how’s he doing? From a seven-day average high of new COVID cases topping 44,763 on December 22, at this writing, we are down to an average of only 1,824. We have the lowest test positivity rate (hovering around 1%) of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. 40.8% of Californians are fully vaccinated, with another 19.2% partially vaccinated. Everyone over the age of 16 is now eligible for a jab at no cost. We are looking at a target date of June 15 for a complete reopening of the state. And yet, here we are, wasting hundreds of millions on trying to recall a governor nominally for his failed handling of the pandemic—in a state that by any measure is today the nation’s outstanding success story. So who would still be pushing it? Why, the usual suspects, a January LA Times investigation revealed: radical and extreme elements, including “groups promoting distrust of government, science and medicine; peddlers of QAnon doomsday conspiracies; “patriots” readying for battle and one organization allied with the far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys.” The single biggest donor is a shadowy Orange County investor named John Kruger, whose “Proverbs 3:9” LLC PAC (from the Biblical verse, ““Honor the Lord with your wealth…”) quietly kicked in $500,000 toward the recall for the sake of the religious freedom to hold unmasked superspreader events indoors. Ah, Mencken. “Good and hard,” indeed. If you only knew.
Joel Bellman

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May 14, 2021

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