Gray Davis has never been anybody's "progressive." In a 1998 debate before his first election, Davis singled out the caning nation of Singapore as "a good starting place in terms of law and order." When pressed on the point by stunned reporters, he replied: "They don't fool around. There's virtually no crime. If you don't like it, you can get on a plane and go someplace else."
Unless they sentence you to death for drug trafficking, but never mind. Like a good Singaporean, Davis has made passion for enforcing the death penalty a litmus test for judicial appointments, explaining that "My appointees should reflect my views. They are not there to be independent agents." He has not issued a single clemency in a death penalty case; in fact, he has probably set a California record by rejecting more than 98 percent of all parole recommendations sent to him by the State Parole Board.
Unsurprisingly, he's always been more cosy with prison guard unions (who have received hundreds of millions of dollars in raises during Davis' tenure), than civil rights groups. He even managed to alienate Republican-hating Latino politicians, who accuse him of going back on legislative promises, and exhibiting "arrogance" in giving the cold shoulder to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
So how is Davis running against the recall? By pandering, cravenly, to the left. It's brazen and unseemly to behold... and it might just work. Here are some of the early manifestations:
- Caving on Latino activists' biggest issue. Last fall, Davis incurred the wrath of the Latino caucus by vetoing a bill by East L.A. State Senator Gil Cedillo that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Days before the recall election was announced, Davis reversed himself. Coincidentally, Cedillo has become an enthusiastic recall opponent, telling La Opinion that "This is a movement put together by extremists in the state who want to set back government... It's disruptive and it's a bad precedent. We have to commit ourselves to fight it."
- Pre-emptively comparing the election to Florida 2000. Nothing gets Republican-resistant blood boiling more than references to what the progressive left considers the GOP's stolen election. State and National Democratic Party Chairmen Art Torres and Terry McAuliffe, and NAACP State Chairwoman Alice Huffman began beating that drum earlier this week, warning that a reduced number of polling locations would "disenfranchise" poor minority voters, and, in Torres' words, possibly "invalidate" the election.
- Presenting the whole election as a costly vast right-wing conspiracy. "The Republican right, in trying to impose their agenda on California, is costing the taxpayers millions and millions of dollars to satisfy their own political ambitions," Davis spokesman Roger Salazar said last week. This ploy depends on preventing popular Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein from running; but with nine days left until the filing deadline, the first major crack in party discipline has already appeared, in the form of yesterday's warning to Davis by State Attorney General Bill Lockyer not to slime probable Republican opponent Richard Riordan... or else.
This also depends on voters' willingness to swallow the Democrats' sudden concern for fiscal profligacy, after five years of contributing to a $38 billion deficit, which is increasing the state's borrowing cost by hundreds of millions of dollars. It's funny to watch Davis get so agitated about spending $30 million, when he showed absolutely no compunction whatsoever three years ago in deliberately wasting $45 million to send a car-tax rebate by check, rather than in the form of deductions.
"I fought aggressively to make sure it was a check," Davis told the Los Angeles Times back then. "Because people don't appreciate the fact that they're getting a rebate unless they see it in their hands."
- Rallying the base. This may be the hardest of all to watch—Gray speaking bad Spanish in Echo Park, talking about "working families" at South-Central barbecues, visiting women's shelters in San Francisco. With a personality like an armadillo, Davis' flesh-pressing in Jesse Jackson territory is a uniquely gruesome spectacle.
What's worse, maybe, is that it seems to be working.
The lefty media, after battering the governor for years, is now getting all weak-kneed for his with-us-or-against-us stylings. Local paleo-lib poobah Harold Meyerson calls it "a thoroughly partisan abuse of the recall process, redolent of the thoroughly partisan abuse of the impeachment process that we went through in 1998-9." L.A. Times columnist Robert Scheer, channeling Davis' stump speech, insists that "it was the Bush administration and its buddies at companies like Enron that had put the state into an economic tailspin." Santa Monica's house comic Bill Maher argues that "this really isn't about elections at all. This is about a congressman named Darrell Issa, a Republican car alarm magnate who wants to be governor and has spent $1.5 million of his own money to fund the recall effort."
Gray Davis is a triangulator of Clintonian proportions; in fact, he's arguably more impressive, given his utter lack of charisma. He tells progressives he's their last great hope to protect abortion rights and the environment, while reassuring big business and law enforcement unions that he's the last sane bulwark against the crazed lefty hordes. He'll successfully swing between populist left and authoritarian right to beat primary opponents; he managed to derail Richard Riordan by calling him a closet abortionist, and he's been lucky enough to win two elections because his Republican opponents were "out of step with California."
Can he do it a third time? It should be nauseating to watch.