Glen, N.H. — The topic this summer, besides the new woodfire bar and grille up the street and the new tractor ride at the Storyland amusement park, is supposed to be presidential politics. That brandy-smooth John Edwards was in these parts the other day, and the fire-breathing Howard Dean comes through this afternoon. Big deal. The real action is far away.
Far away, it turns out, means really far -- not over in Manchester, but all the way in California. The New Hampshire primary is still pretty staid business, marked by civilized, earnest talk in mountain towns like this one.
Way out there in the cities and television studios of California, the action is wild, and so, it seems, are the characters involved.
There is Gray Davis, a sitting governor so reviled -- except, that is, by the husband of the junior senator from New York -- that he has earned a 70 percent disapproval rating in the latest Field Poll, the authoritative measure of California public opinion. There is Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose political experience is limited to service on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and who is not known to follow any conventional political lodestar. There is Arianna Huffington, a columnist once described as a conservative and now a revolutionary from another dimension in time and space. (Excerpt from the announcement speech of this darling of the right emerita: "This recall is led by an embittered cult of right-wing radicals who have overdosed on tax-cut Kool-Aid.") There are 131 others, too.
America's day may begin in Maine, but its future often begins in California, which in the last century spawned progressivism, the rise of the military-industrial complex and the modern tax revolt, itself a product of a 1978 statewide ballot initiative called Proposition 13. That's why the California recall campaign, which looks like a late-night comedy cabaret of film clips and sound bites, is deadly serious business. Among the issues the country can't escape in this campaign of escapism:
- Are California's problems California's alone? The impetus for the effort to recall Gov. Davis is the deplorable state of California's state finances, but the fact is that dozens of states, including far more sober places like Pennsylvania, have fiscal crises right now. The reasons include outmoded tax structures, runaway medical costs, escalating corrections budgets, relentless infrastructure expenses, even homeland security costs. Plus, of course, the flagging national economy, which has cut tax revenues severely even as it has increased welfare expenditures; 30 states missed their revenue targets in fiscal 2003, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. California may be holding the recall, but the rest of the states are holding the bag, too.
- Is this recall effort merely a Republican effort to overturn an election? The California recall follows the impeachment of President Clinton and the overtime presidential election of 2000. Despite what the Democratic conspiracy theorists say, it's unlikely that the Republican Party has set out merely to overturn election results that are not to its taste. But the message here should not be overlooked: The fervor and muscle with which the Democrats once fought political battles at the city, county, state and national levels are now being matched by the Republicans. The GOP is no longer a genteel debating society given to discussing hoary economic issues over sherry. (Friendly reminder: The pioneer practitioner of this sort of pugilism was elected to Congress in 1946 from Whittier. He was Richard M. Nixon.)
- Are the reforms of progressivism no longer progressive? This is no mere question for the political-science final, but an important question for American civic life. The progressives of Nebraska, South Dakota, Oregon, Montana and California introduced the referendum, initiative and recall at the beginning of the last century as ways to empower the public before the word "empower" was part of the public dialogue. These "reforms" were introduced at a time before state legislatures acquired the professionalism that many of them possess today; indeed, of all the nation's state capitals, Sacramento might be the most professional in terms of ethics, standards and procedures. Now some theorists worry that these so-called reforms are merely tools for allowing politicians to avoid their own responsibilities to govern -- and now tools of government once proposed by liberals are being introduced and embraced by conservatives.
- Is the recall campaign a symbol that the public, in California and around the country, believes that its leaders are more likely to be political professionals than to behave as professionals? This question goes to the heart of the American political problem of the age, the disdain the public has for the men and women it selects as its leaders. The California recall is an assault on a political establishment of which Gov. Davis is the pre-eminent symbol; he has been in politics his entire life and has been a fixture in California government for decades.
- Is the Democratic effort to save Gray Davis likely to hurt the Democratic effort to topple George W. Bush? On the surface, there is no relation between the two political contests. But the newscasts, commentaries and front pages are full of talk of Gray Davis, not of John F. Kerry and Bob Graham and Richard A. Gephardt. This comes at a peculiarly dangerous time for the Democratic candidates, who only recently began to register in the public's mind as plausible contenders for the White House. Now they're being overshadowed. Yet despite the distraction of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Co., the Democrats' future is NOT being determined in California. The real story is in Iowa and here in New Hampshire.
David Shribman is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.