Every so often, the political elite appears to lose touch with large segments of the public.
When that happens, voters take things into their own hands - often passing referendums the establishment deplores (such as California's Prop 13) or supporting third-party candidates (George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992). Sometimes these third-party candidates win - as in the 1998 election of pro wrestler Jesse Ventura (Independence Party) as governor of Minnesota.
Such public discontent has again erupted in California, a state with a history of populist earthquakes that remake the political landscape. Many Californians are fed up with the state government's creeping dysfunction - in failing public schools, the 2001 electricity crisis, and this year's $38 billion budget deficit. They don't think Gov. Gray Davis (D) has heard the message. The recall is the result.
Governor Davis's usual campaign tactic is to disqualify his opponent - usually by running negative TV ads. He and his allies portray the recall as a right-wing Republican coup attempt. Along with the state's labor unions, he has worked hard to keep serious Democrats from listing themselves on the ballot as alternative candidates. Until last week, it looked as if that would work. Despite pleadings from several members of Congress, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's most prominent Democrat, declined to run.
But the surprise entry into the race of Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor and moderate Republican, washed the road out from under the governor like a coastal mudslide. Within hours, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) threw his hat in the ring. That undermines the power-grab argument. (Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi declared his candidacy as well, but withdrew under pressure from other Democrats who want a single candidate to rally around.)
Davis faces a tough challenge: A simple majority of voters can unseat him Oct. 7. His popularity ratings are in the mid-20s, and he won last year's election with only 47 percent of the vote. If he loses, the top vote-getter among 158 alternative candidates becomes governor. His attempt to get the California Supreme Court to put his name on the ballot as an "alternative" failed.
If Davis is proud of his record, he should campaign on it. Meanwhile, both press and public should take this vote seriously: Like it or not, it's a legitimate procedure provided for in California's Constitution. Now the voters must make their choice - and then consider whether the result was worth the cost and whether the messy recall system needs to be fixed.