West Coast Farce No Laughing Matter

California’s current freak show, also known as the recall campaign, has rightly been disparaged as a parody of democracy. Bankrolled by a millionaire car-alarm salesman, the impending “election” now threatens to depose a governor who was duly elected seven months ago. Among the hundreds of publicity hounds who have filed to run, the candidate most likely to win is an actor who refuses to talk about issues or speak with reporters, except to repeat hackneyed one-liners from his old movies. The estimated cost will be no less than $66 million, further depleting a state whose politically overburdened finances supposedly provoked this exercise.

The darkly comedic quality of this situation is illustrated by reports that New York Governor George Pataki-as guilty as his California counterpart, Gray Davis, of misleading voters about his state’s fiscal condition last year-will soon venture out to the coast to campaign for the recall. Mr. Pataki, whose popularity ratings have plunged since his own re-election, is fortunate indeed that voters will have to wait slightly less than four years to dump him.

Bizarre as it surely is, the California recall is just the latest in a series of episodes that demonstrate the Republican Party’s unquenchable urge to seize power by whatever means are available-even when that means vandalizing American political norms and traditions. Amusing as it is to imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of the nation’s most populous state, the impulses leading toward that conclusion are extraordinarily serious and potentially dangerous.

Consider the abuse of the recall amendment, a Progressive-era good-government innovation that was designed to remove officeholders who were corrupt, not merely unpopular. Its provisions were added to the California constitution at a time when collecting the signatures of 12 percent of the voters was a far more daunting task-and were created, ironically, by opponents of corporate power who would have been appalled by the very idea of Darrell Issa, the Congressman and car-alarm magnate who paid for all those petitions.

Forced to depart the contest abruptly, tearfully and rather mysteriously in Mr. Schwarzenegger’s wake, Mr. Issa got what he deserved when the opportunistic, Austrian-born bodybuilder leaped into the void created by his mischief. Blustering Arnold had mulled aspirations to the statehouse for years, but lacked the courage to risk a real election. Now the White House appears to be helping him muscle his way into power in a manner that has more legality than legitimacy.

Even if the Bush administration wasn’t behind the original recall movement, its operatives have encouraged every step and are scheming to reap the results. (Mr. Issa’s recall counselor was Ben Ginsberg, the prominent G.O.P. election lawyer who oversaw the Bush team in the Florida courts three years ago.)

The President and his advisers don’t care whether the will of last November’s electorate is overturned, or whether this fiasco sets an awful precedent, or whether Mr. Schwarzenegger is qualified to hold office-or even whether the actor shares their conservative social views. What they do care about is getting and holding power.

This bullying approach has long marred the Grand Old Party, dating back at least to Newt Gingrich’s scorched-earth seizure of the House of Representatives, the shutdown of the federal government by Mr. Gingrich’s “revolutionaries” and their plotting of the Clinton impeachment. It was the same attitude that compelled House leaders in November 2000 to send a gang of preppy goons down to Miami, where they intimidated officials during the Presidential ballot count.

The latest and most egregious example of Republican overreaching, until California, was the effort masterminded by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to redraw Texas Congressional districts to his liking. Frankly contemptuous of his own state’s dismayed voters, the ex-exterminator is results-oriented. He thinks more members of his party should represent Texans-and if that requires gross gerrymandering, sleazy fund-raising and the misuse of the Department of Homeland Security, so what?

Nor is Mr. DeLay troubled by the fact that decent Texas Republicans, including senior lawmakers and judges, are dismayed by his gross grabbiness. His sole purpose is to ensure that his party controls Washington after the next election and into the future-not to uphold democratic norms or traditions of fairness. Public opinion, constitutional rights, political consistency and democratic culture are all without meaning for Mr. DeLay. Although his maneuvers have been resisted by Texas Democrats and rejected by Texas courts, nobody who knows him doubts that he is still determined to have his way.

Of course, Democrats and liberals should never mimic the thuggish tactics of the worst Republicans. They should always stick to the rules and maintain a high-minded respect for their fellow Americans. Yet with the Republicans constantly changing the rules, it may be advisable to follow their bold lead just this once. If the Terminator becomes governor, there would be no bar to initiating a new recall petition against him.

Hasta la vista, Arnold?