Five minutes before California governor-reject Gray Davis gave his humiliation speech Tuesday night, I had a spirited discussion in the adjacent cocktail room with music producer and Davis supporter Steven Machat.
"What they did, is they just instrumented—inaugurated—the continued erosion of our fundamental rights," insisted Machat, a New York transplant who attended law school (and smoked pot with) Al Gore at Vanderbilt in the mid-'70s (Al was a Deadhead with "no backbone," in case you were wondering). "We voted Gray Davis in; he should be charged and impeached. We should not be having a popularity contest because people don't like what he's doing... And now, it'll make it too easy [to recall future governors]. Assume the new governor gets in November first; May 1st we recall him."
"Would you sign that petition?" I asked.
"In a minute!!"
Moments later, California Democratic Party Chair Art Torres urged the depressed crowd to give a warm welcome to "the best governor this state has ever had."
Given the goofy nonsense coming out the mouths of some California Democrats, it may be tempting to interpret Davis' unprecedented electoral drubbing as a generalized up-yours to the state party. That, I am convinced, would be in error.
Gray Davis is a uniquely loathsome politician who failed to grasp, in nearly three decades suckling the public teat, how his bloodless personality, lack of demonstrable core beliefs, and brazen willingness to auction his own ass to the highest bidder made a bad state crisis worse, and focused voters' wrath quite specifically onto his pale robot shoulders.
Even in his darkest hour, faced with the shame of being only the second governor in United States history to be fired by his own subjects, Davis could not raise himself to acknowledge that it was he—not George Bush, not Darrell Issa, not Kenneth Lay, but Joseph Graham "Gray" Davis, Jr.—who made Tuesday's election possible.
"I am so grateful to all of you, and to the people of California," Davis began his speech. As Salon.com's Heather Havrilesky wrote later, "Um, what? Come on, guy. This is the one night you could at least pretend to be living on the same planet as the rest of us."
After some humble-sounding thanks, Davis launched into a spirited defense of his wretched reign, leaving out any mention that there was a staggering budget deficit in Sacramento that his own misrule helped create.
"Even in the face of a tough recession, some GOOD... THINGS... HAVE... HAPPENED," he chopped out. "We have focused on the schools. Achievement scores are up five years in a row. We have 300,000 more scholarships a year for deserving students who get a B average... We provided health care for one million children that didn't have it when I became governor... [I] signed legislation that will extend health care to working Californians, one million of them starting in 2006. We worked long and hard to protect our environment, and I'm very proud that we have 10,000 acres of urban parkland..."
All of which might well be perfectly lovely, were it not for the little problem of the current state budget relying on $14 billion in borrowing, some of which has already been ruled preliminarily unconstitutional. Gray Davis and the legislature took a bountiful dotcom-era budget surplus, spun it into an annual structural deficit of around $8 billion, and reacted to the subsequent voter outrage by steamrolling tons of new expensive laws and rejecting any connection whatsoever between this kind of legislative promiscuity and the fundamental crisis at hand.
"As the insurgency swelled, the best that liberal activists could do was plug their ears, cover their eyes and rather mindlessly repeat that this all was some sinister plot linked to Florida, Texas, Bush, the Carlyle Group, Enron, and Skull and Bones," L.A. Weekly lefty Marc Cooper wrote in a scathing post-election column. "By bunkering down with the discredited and justly scorned Gray Davis, they wound up defending an indefensible status quo against a surging wave of popular disgust."
The jury is still out on whether the wave will reach the shores of the lefty-dominated state legislature. But my guess is that the effect will be far more subtle than the bludgeon of the recall, and for one good reason: It's the Gray Davis, stupid.
"[I]t's important to note just how cosmically inept a professional pol Gray Davis always was," wrote the L.A. Weekly's Harold Meyerson, who opposed the recall. "Most of the skill sets that pols employ were foreign to our soon-to-be ex-governor. Pols, at minimum, must be able to haggle with their fellow pols, to cultivate supporters and allies, to articulate some principles and defend their record. Davis, at maximum, was never really able to do any of these."
He was a career triangulator who never met any petty power he couldn't leverage to further his career or let the plebes know who's boss. He disdained constitutional rights, blew a Hummer-sized hole through the state budget, and insulted our intelligence at every step. Good riddance.