I say this making no particular judgment about whether the country’s most populous state is being governed well or not at all. In a column last week, the venerable George F. Will offered a litany of statistics testifying to the state’s ongoing dysfunction: high taxes, soaring home prices, failing schools and so on.
Nor can I say with any high degree of confidence whether Larry Elder, the Republican radio host emerging as the candidate most likely to replace Newsom in the event of a recall, would be a good or terrible choice. The last time California recalled a governor, in 2003, the voters installed the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which seemed like a perfectly awful idea to the rest of us but ended up working out just fine.
No, my problem with the recall is that it represents yet another attack on the notion that, in a democracy like ours, you have to live with results you don’t always like.
A popular recall of an executive, like an impeachment by the legislature, isn’t supposed to be a “mulligan,” as Will puts it. It’s designed to be a kind of “break glass in case of emergency” — a fail-safe measure for the rare moment when an ethical crisis or a clear change in circumstances makes it untenable for a statewide official to remain in office.
That’s what happened with Evan Mecham, who served just more than a year as Arizona’s governor in the late 1980s before being indicted on charges of fraud and perjury, and who would almost certainly have been recalled had the state’s legislature — led by his fellow Republicans and backed by both of the state’s Republican senators — not impeached him first.
What a recall is not there for is to negate an election just because the remedy is technically available. It’s not there so you can get a do-over halfway through a governor’s term, because you still don’t like the guy and you don’t feel like waiting around for the next campaign.
Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1 in California, so the recall almost certainly represents the best chance Republicans have (if not the only one) to win back the governorship. While some polls show Newsom still leads among registered voters on the issue of a recall, other polls show that Republicans have a marked advantage in enthusiasm, which wouldn’t be the case in a normal election year.
So you might say the recall campaign in California follows a trend — starting with Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and more recently the bogus recount of the presidential tally in Arizona — of Republicans trying to subvert the normal electoral process because it isn’t working out the way they’d like.
(If that sounds like partisanship, I’d point out that I made a similar argument against the first impeachment of Trump in 2019, and I felt the same about the failed recall of Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, in 2012.)
What’s at issue here isn’t about Democrats or Republicans, good governance or bad. What’s at issue is the sanctity of elections and whether we still intend to honor them.
It’s an issue forced by Trump and his allies, whose shameless misleading of their supporters has vastly intensified the problem. But it dates at least to 2000, when George W. Bush won the presidency in an election that many Democrats still consider illegitimate.
The question is whether any of us can accept losing an election anymore, or whether this constant rhetoric about a “rigged” democracy has led us to a place where we are willing to live only with the outcomes we like and immediately set about trying to undo the ones we don’t.
That’s an unhealthy place for a democracy to be. At a minimum, it means we’ll spend all of our time and much of our public money not on actual governance but on re-litigating valid elections.
It also means our kids will grow up believing that there is no such thing as accepting defeat and making the best of it, in politics or in life. There is only winning or trying to reverse the results, by whatever means necessary.
If Californians think Newsom has bungled his job and now regret hiring him, they can kick him to the curb next year, the way they’re supposed to. But they ought not to be complicit in undermining the process and demanding do-overs.
We’ve had quite enough of that already.