California Dreaming

The Badly Failed Gubernatorial Recall Brings Wider – But Not Too Wide-Lessons


Ah, California

Like my earlier post on Texas, California is not unknown to me. I have lived there twice, have relatives that have lived there and have done business there. It really is a place apart in so many ways. It often is a trendsetter; what happens there eventually spreads around the country. It is big enough, in population, culture, and economics, to carry real weight. So, we pay attention to California as something of a harbinger of our future.

Not to mention that all sourdough bread I have had since leaving California is a pale imitation of the good stuff. And a redwood forest is as sacred a cathedral as I have ever entered. The state is indeed special – if only it does not burn down or earthquake into the ocean.

Newsom Triumphs with Room to Spare

Governor Newsom swept to a convincing victory. Heck, he even carried Orange County, which is about as conservative a county as one could find in California. Almost a 2 to 1 win margin makes it hard for Republicans to cry the election was stolen (but, of course, some already are doing so).

If nothing else, this puts Newsom in the strongest possible position for reelection in 2022 and likely fans his thoughts of bigger things in the years ahead. Given what his working environment has been so far (pandemic waves I-IV, floods, earthquakes, massive refugee inflows, homelessness by the hundreds of thousands) one wonders why anyone would want to do this job for another four years. Must be the free lodging that comes with the job. Housing is expensive out there, you know.

There are interesting lessons here for lots of different people, Californian and otherwise. But it is also worth noting, as we will shortly in this blog, there is much unique in the Californian political environment. Not everything we saw this week translates to the rest of the country. Some of it, importantly, does translate nationally.

 The Origins of this Recall and Why It Matters to the Rest of Us

 Remember that this recall came about primarily because a bunch of Republicans thought it would be a swell idea to go maskless and to lift all business restrictions, right from the start of the pandemic. People, of course, have been tired of restrictions and limitations for quite a long time now, and businesses are justifiably worried about hanging on. Many did not make it – same for a lot of people who died (and many more still are dying – almost all of them unvaccinated by personal choice).

This is important for the rest of us because in the end, common sense won out. People do hate masks, etc. but the vast majority know these are necessary measures. They explicitly rejected the death cult that so much of Republicanism, including at local levels, have come to represent. That is encouraging, both for results and for the potential to heal divisions.

 Lessons Learned for Democrats

One, standing up for common sense and science works politically. Most people get it, and will vote accordingly. Two, highlighting how much like Trump the opposition is also works, and not just in California. Trump never had more than a couple of days with over 50% approvals while he was in office. On his watch, the Republicans lost both houses of Congress and the White House. Following him will get you a rabid base but not much else.

Lessons Learned for Republicans

There are many here as well, although I am doubtful that they will be learned. First, the aforementioned tack of following Trump is a dead end. It could work a bit longer if they get enough local officials elected to tamper with elections going forward, but I think not.

Second, you pretty well thin out your hopes with more than three dozen candidates running for a single office from your side. Three, if you do not appeal at least some to moderate independents, you are toast. On the plus side for them, they did not do as badly as they might have with Latinex males, a trend that has popped up from time to time around the country. This bears attention from both parties.

Oddities in California Governance Models

California offers a very mixed bag of good and bad, of conflicting intent and outcomes. Much of what goes on there comes from good intent of citizen input and government accountability.

One excellent recent example is the no-party primaries – everyone runs against everyone, with the top two candidates going on to the general election. I was skeptical at first, but it generally works. You cannot win such a primary in most places by fanning the flames of your base. Tack towards the middle or loose. Not a bad thing.

But Two Other Processes are Problematic

One is the recall. It is too easy for some determined people with a lot of money to force a recall. It is an expensive and time/energy consuming exercise without much justification in our nonparliamentary system. In the US, you finish your term or get impeached for crimes and other bad behavior.  If the recall option is to remain, it needs to be much cleaner and more difficult to put into effect. Linking who gets fired and who gets hired needs to be direct.

In addition, the way it is set up now, the winner could make no sense. If 50% +1 one voter had decided to oust the governor, he would be gone. Who replaces him? Whomever among the other 43 (!) candidates had the most votes. Could be someone with 15-20% of the vote. Too bad, that is your governor now. Makes no sense.

The other noble intent but flawed in execution is the Citizen Ballot Initiatives. I love the idea of such devices. Would that my current home state (and the one I lived in 20 years before that) had something like this. A lot of good things would have already happened (I have no doubt we would have nonpartisan redistricting and MEDICARE expansion by now if citizens could have voted on them. But our legislature completely covets its power).

The problem with the California variant is that, again, it is a bit too easy to pull off. Have some money and some time? You can probably get an initiative on the ballot. Remember Proposition 13? It so severely limited property taxes that the public school system almost caved in.  It is not unusual for a voter to pick up a ballot that runs over 20 pages. That, once again, makes no sense. Ballot initiatives are great for big issues. They are a lousy substitute for legislation.

Two Very Different States

 We have looked in recent days at two very different states that are choosing very different paths. One on a path determined by its citizens, one on a path chosen by an increasingly nonrepresentative government. Watching both will make for an interesting future.

    Bill Clontz

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