Is the Recall Justified?

Atrios [*] makes a principled argument against the California recall: it’s undemocratic, he says, to overturn the result of a popular election. Now it’s certainly a reasonable viewpoint that officials ought to have fixed terms rather than serving at the pleasure of the voters, but I’m not sure I see how a fixed-term system is more “democratic” than one that makes every official potentially accountable to the voters throughout his term.

Atrios likens the recall to the Clinton impeachment, and asks whether I’m aware of any “severe ethical transgressions” on Davis’s part that would justify recalling him.

It is my view that the Clinton impeachment was wrong because Clinton hadn’t done, and wasn’t accused of having done, the sort of official misdeeds intended by the founders as the sole basis for impeachment. Impeaching Clinton was an abuse of power.

By contrast, the recall provision of the California constitution does not require that the officeholder be charged with any sort of misconduct; the discontent of the voters is sufficient reason. So I don’t think it makes sense to ask whether the recall satisfies a requirement it doesn’t have to meet.

But, since Atrios brings it up, yes: I am aware, as is everyone in California, of the Governor’s habit of making decisions — in particular decisions about which bills to sign and which to veto — based on which side ponies up more money. Systematic bribery seems like a fairly serious ethical lapse to me.

Contributions will always influence policies until we have publicly funded campaigns, but the “for sale” sign on Davis’s desk is unusually large and centrally placed. It’s not merely a matter of doing things for groups that have contributed in the past and can be relied on to contribute in the future: it’s more nearly an open auction. When Simon called Davis “California’s first coin-operated Governor,” no one bothered to disagree.

But even if you oppose the recall on principle, it’s far too late to save Davis. Take a look at the polls at Daily Kos: every one of them has “Yes” in the high 50s and “No” in the mid-30s. Only outside California is Davis seen as having any chance at all. The only thing standing between us and Schwarzenegger is Bustamante.

It’s appropriate for Bustamante to keep saying “No on recall; yes on Bustamante,” in hopes that Davis will start saying the same thing. But money and effort devoted to saving Davis now is money and effort thrown away.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: