First Offense

What's wrong with this picture? California's Democratic congressional delegation, meeting behind closed doors, decides that the state's lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, should be the Democrat whose name appears down-ticket on the pending recall ballot. Party leaders successfully lean on the state's Democratic insurance commissioner, John Garamendi, to withdraw from the race.

Meanwhile, over on the Republican side, party honchos from county chairmen to big donors to House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier are doing all they can to pressure two conservative candidates to drop out of the race so that Arnold has a cleaner shot.

In short, the California recall, which has been both hailed and reviled as a great outburst of direct democracy, has actually removed a whole range of choices from voters and resurrected a long-gone and unlamented tradition in the state's electoral politics: the back room.

What the recall has done is eliminated the primary. In a normal election, Golden State Republicans would themselves be able to select who their standard-bearer would be. Democrats would comparison shop among a number of promising candidates, rather than be presented with the fait accompli of Bustamante as their backup standard-bearer.

Indeed, Democrats have every reason to be dissatisfied with both the process and the result. The party has several outstanding statewide elected officials, in particular Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides, who've been planning to run for governor when Gray Davis's term expires in 2006. For progressives who follow such things, Angelides ranks with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer as the nation's outstanding nongubernatorial state official. California's treasurer has directed the state's massive public pension funds toward the redevelopment of inner cities and inner-ring suburbs rather than exurban sprawl, has used those funds to pressure corporate boards to behave responsibly, and was the first California official to propose a serious fix (the establishment of a publicly owned state power company) during the energy crisis.

Before the recall came along, the smart money for 2006 was on either Angelides or Lockyer to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary and the subsequent general election. Each already had roughly $10 million in his campaign kitty. Bustamante, by contrast, had less than $500,000, and it's no mystery why that figure was so relatively low: After three terms in the state Assembly and one as lieutenant governor, he had no achievements to point to, no vision to articulate and no ability to articulate a vision if he stumbled upon one.

But party members are now slowly realizing that the Democrat most likely to be governor after Davis may not be a groundbreaking progressive after all but rather Cruz the Snooze. Just as Republicans are realizing that the Republican most likely to run the state may share few of their values.

The fault is not that of the congressional delegations or donors or other king-makers. In the absence of a primary, somebody had to winnow the field. The blame in this instance rests chiefly with the California Progressives of 100 years ago, whose support for direct democracy was exceeded by their loathing of political parties.

When Hiram Johnson swept into the governor's office in 1911, he and his fellow Progressives didn't merely establish the initiative, referendum and recall. They also abolished political parties at the level of municipal government, and to this day all city and county offices in California are nonpartisan. At the state level, they made it possible for candidates to run in more than one party's primary, a practice that lingered until midcentury.

The Progressives' war on parties did not flow entirely from their disinterested belief in good government. It was in good measure intended to thwart the rise of Debsian socialism in California. In the same year Johnson became governor, socialist Job Harriman came alarmingly close to winning the mayor's race in Los Angeles. The Progressives reasoned they could quell such working-class mischief if party labels were no longer affixed to candidates' names.

And so, they made a fatal misstep in setting up the recall the way they did.

When you think of it, there's no reason why a recall couldn't proceed in two stages. In Round One, voters could decide on whether to recall the incumbent and vote in a simultaneous primary for their party's nominee should the recall succeed. And, if the recall succeeded, voters in Round Two could decide among the party nominees in a runoff. But the Progressives made no provision allowing voters to sort their choices by party. As well, they assumed that recalls would be triggered only by instances of incumbent malfeasance; they believed the process would be largely apolitical.

The abiding mistake of the Progressives was their belief that they could take the politics out of politics. And so, in California today we have what was designed as an anti-political process being used for entirely political ends. It may be direct, but it's hardly democracy.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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