Let’s take a brief and welcome respite from the Republican fisticuffs in Florida, and trek instead to the state of Wisconsin, where Democrats and labor activists have apparently succeeded in forcing Republican Gov. Scott Walker to face the voters in a recall election this summer.
Infuriated by Walker’s aggressive targeting of public unions during his first year in office – a clash that has resonated with cash-strapped Republican governors elsewhere – his political opponents last week submitted twice the number of citizen signatures required by state law. If Wisconsin officials formally rule that a sufficient number are valid (by all accounts, a foregone conclusion), Walker will have to audition to keep the job that he won at the ballot box in November ’10.Democrats nationwide are stoked at the prospect of taking him down. Walker is their mortal enemy, after all. They hate his anti-union policies, and they hate his alliance with the billionaire Koch brothers. They say he deserves to be ejected in a recall election.But they are wrong.I say this not as a defender of Walker (needless to say), but as a critic of recalls. It was wrong in 2003 when California Republicans succeeded in ousting Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in a recall election just because people didn’t like his policies, and it’s wrong now that Wisconsin Democrats want to oust Walker just because people don’t like his policies. Recalls, which are permitted in 18 states, are inherently destabilizing, particularly when voters are ideologically polarized. What’s the point of staging regular elections if the losing side refuses to accept the verdict as final?I spent 10 days in California covering the Gray Davis recall – lest we forget, Davis was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger – and when it was over, I warned in print that the recall tactic “exemplifies the era of politics as permanent warfare.” I wrote, “A potent new political weapon, undercutting the finality of elections, has been added to the arsenal, at a time when incivility reigns.”Davis was the first sitting governor since 1921 to be removed via recall; the tactic had largely been considered off limits, to be used only when a top elected official was accused of something extraordinarily serious, like a crime. But Davis’ biggest crime was that he had screwed up the budget, spent too much time raising money, and become generally unlikeable. His forced ouster set a modern precedent. Suddenly, the recall tactic was an ingredient in the normal partisan stew.Even though Democrats today are focused on taking down Scott Walker via recall, they cried foul when the tactic was used against Gray Davis in 2003. Chris Lehane, a Davis strategist, complained to me at the time that “the Republicans are trying to circumvent the electoral process.” Terry McCauliffe, the ’03 Democratic national chairman, told me that California Republicans were “trying to take over the government” in a virtual coup d’etat. If Democrats believed, as a matter of principle, that the tactic was wrong then, why is it right now?Well, for one thing, “Scott Walker lied his way into office.” So says Kelly Steele, a Wisconsin recall activist who complains that Walker didn’t signal his anti-union intentions while stumping for the job in ’10. How shocking – a politician campaigned one way, then governed another way. By that standard, they should all be recalled. Steele also complained, to Politico, that Walker has been “bought and paid for” by “wealthy special interests.” How shocking – a politician won with the help of powerful backstage benefactors. By that standard, they should all be recalled.Most telling was this remark by Mike Tate, the Wisconsin Democratic chairman, as he celebrated the signature campaign last week: “An incredible number of Wisconsinites have stood up to be counted and say, ‘We can’t wait for the next election.'”We can’t wait for the next election…Well, that said it all. I was reminded of what Bruce Cain, a University of California political analyst, told me back in 2003. He said that populist anger thrives in an instant-gratification culture:”It’s TV-clicker politics. In our culture, consumers are used to changing a product if they don’t like it. Or if you don’t like a TV program, you get rid of it right away. There’s a greater impatience now, and it carries over into our politics, a growing impatience with elections themselves. ‘Why should I put up with this turkey any longer?’ So you change the channel.”Recalling Scott Walker won’t be so easy – none of his prospective Democratic opponents are polling very well, and a new Marquette University poll puts his statewide approval rating at 51 percent (which, by itself, argues against the appropriateness of a recall) – but if he is ultimately ousted this summer, here’s the question I would ask exultant Democrats:How will you react, in the next time and place, when impatient Republicans try to change the channel on you?
In my newspaper column today, I saluted Stephen Colbert and compared him to Jonathan Swift. Please don’t ask, “Who the heck is Jonathan Swift?”
Back to the GOP race: I’ll be live-tweeting CNN’s steel-cage combat tonight.
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