According to Adam Nagourney of the New York Times, Bill Clinton has provided California Gov. Gray Davis with an interesting way to look at the movement to recall him from office. Here is how the Clinton-coached Davis put it in the Aug. 19 kickoff of his anti-recall campaign:
This recall is bigger than California. What’s happening here is part of an ongoing national effort to steal elections Republicans cannot win.It started with the impeachment of President Clinton, when the Republicans could not beat him in 1996. It continued in Florida, where they stopped the vote count, depriving thousands of Americans of the right to vote.This year, they’re trying to steal additional congressional seats in Colorado and Texas, overturning legal redistricting plans. Here in California, the Republicans lost the governor’s race last November. Now they’re trying to use this recall to seize control of California just before the next presidential election.
Al Sharpton, who is a lousy presidential candidate but an excellent phrase-maker, calls the GOP’s strategy, “Let’s do it again until I win.”
Is the criticism fair? To answer that, let’s break the accusation down into two parts:
1) Republicans are subverting democracy to unseat the opposition.
2) They’re doing this more than the Democrats.
Now let’s consider whether these two assertions apply to Clinton and Davis’ litany of examples. Chatterbox clarified his thinking on these topics by consulting two smart opinion journalists who hold opposing views—Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memoand David Tell of the Weekly Standard. Neither should be held responsible for the conclusions that appear below. These are Chatterbox’s own and inevitably reflect distinctions that are somewhat subjective.
“It started with the impeachment of President Clinton, when the Republicans could not beat him in 1996.” This one’s pretty simple: Clinton’s impeachment did subvert his democratic election, and Democrats haven’t lately tried to do the same to a Republican president (unless you count the movement 30 years ago to impeach Nixon, which was a bipartisan response to crimes of the state that stemmed from the Nixon White House’s own effort to subvert the 1972 election). Chatterbox’s only quibble is that the Republican effort to unseat Clinton actually preceded the 1996 election, though it didn’t really snowball until afterward. (The “vast right-wing conspiracy” began as a small conspiracy conducted by a shockingly well-funded nut fringe.) From the start it was very clearly motivated by the desire to remove Clinton from office; the conservative groups that funded Jones v. Clinton surprised no one when they failed, subsequently, to persist in combating the social evil of sexual harassment.
Tell argues that the removal of Clinton from office wouldn’t have subverted any elections because Clinton would have been replaced by Vice President Al Gore, whom the electorate twice approved as Clinton’s replacement, should one be needed. (In that respect, the Clinton impeachment was more democratic than Nixon’s near-impeachment, which resulted in Nixon’s resignation and the installation of Gerald Ford, whom the national electorate had not approved.) “I would have been perfectly content if Al Gore had been president,” says Tell, “and he’s no Republican.” But if Gore had been needed to take Clinton’s place, it would have been because of Clinton’s forced removal from the office to which he was twice elected. Voters had approved not a Gore presidency but the contingency of a Gore presidency. The person they’d elected president was Clinton.
“It continued in Florida, where they stopped the vote count, depriving thousands of Americans of the right to vote.” This is a much harder case, and in many respects, Marshall points out, it’s sui generis. “Neither side planned to get into that situation ahead of time,” Marshall says, and that makes it “different in kind from these other cases where arguably the Republicans planned to win political contests by illegitimate or unconventional means.” To the extent people behaved badly, it was spontaneous bad behavior.
Deciding whether it was the Democrats or the Republicans who behaved anti-democratically during the Long Count, Tell observes, “would depend entirely on how you viewed the merits of each respective side.” Conservatives can (and do) argue that Gore started the whole thing by demanding a recount, something presidential candidates (notably, Nixon in 1960) had customarily avoided doing publicly for many years. ( Privately was another matter; as Slate’s David Greenberg has pointed out, the GOP, though it lacked candidate Nixon’s public support, nonetheless waged various recount challenges and ended up moving Hawaii’s three electoral votes from Nixon to Kennedy. * The outcome was unaffected.) However, if we focus on the fact that Gore was trying to count votes while Bush was trying to stop the counting of votes, and that Bush ultimately persuaded the (unelected) Supreme Court to do just that even though the Florida counts were very, very close, it’s the Republicans who subverted democracy.
The real villain of the Long Count, though, was neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. It was the Electoral College, which denied Gore the presidency even though he won the popular vote. Let’s get rid of it.
“This year, they’re trying to steal additional congressional seats in Colorado and Texas, overturning legal redistricting plans.” This one’s a split decision. It’s undeniable that the departure from the orderly tradition of reapportioning congressional seats once every 10 years was brought about by Republicans. Marshall, who has written extensively on this subject, points out that before Republicans starting redrawing political maps in Texas and Colorado, no state legislature had second-guessed a decennial redistricting for purely political reasons since the 1950s. “This is completely unprecedented in modern political history,” he says.
Clearly, it’s disruptive and poisonously partisan to redraw congressional districts every time control of a state legislature shifts from one party to another. But you can’t really say it subverts democracy. Quite the opposite: It empowers democracy too much. Allowing a momentary change in the popular will to force unwarranted changes, though bad government, is nonetheless democratic government. It’s democracy on steroids, which can be just as harmful as democracy subverted.
“Here in California, the Republicans lost the governor’s race last November. Now they’re trying to use this recall to seize control of California just before the next presidential election.” Davis is mostly on firm ground here. He is the victim of a uniquely Republican practice; Chatterbox is unaware of any previous instance in which Democrats managed to get a gubernatorial recall vote onto the ballot less than a year after the governor in question, who had not been accused of committing any crimes, was elected. (Slate’s Andy Bowers informs us that only once in American history has a governor been removed by recall, and that was more than 80 years ago.)
Is it anti-democratic? No, in the limited sense that the gathering of recall petitions is a democratic process. Seen in this light, California’s recall mechanism is another example of democracy on steroids. In a more meaningful sense, though, it is anti-democratic because if Davis is removed from office, it’s entirely possible—indeed, likely—that he will be replaced by someone who received fewer votes than Davis did in last year’s election. (The recall vote and the “who should replace Davis” vote are on the same ballot, dealt with as two separate questions. That eliminates the winnowing you’d get in a primary.)
Would the removal of Davis and his replacement by a Republican affect the presidential contest in 2004? Possibly. But that’s fairly speculative. And the ways in which a governor can influence a presidential vote are sufficiently indirect that, were the recall to install a Republican in the nation’s most populous state, Chatterbox would still hesitate to call that a subversion of democracy in the next presidential election.
So, in assessing the components of the Clinton-Davis message, we have one yes, one maybe, one yes and no, and one mostly yes. The chair therefore rules Republicans more or less guilty as charged of conducting “an ongoing national effort to steal elections Republicans cannot win.”
Correction, Aug. 27, 2003: The piece originally stated that the electoral votes were switched from Kennedy to Nixon. In fact, the votes were switched from Kennedy to Nixon and then back to Kennedy. (Return to the corrected sentence.)