August 15, 2003

Total Recall: The California Election Brouhaha

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

When California voters decide whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis in a special election on Oct. 7, they will, in some sense, be determining the political future of the country.

In a campaign that has captured the imagination of approximately 247 candidates and probably about 247 million American spectators, politics as usual has become the politics of the absurd.

Yet part of what makes the California recall tumult so compelling is that it embodies several different cultural and political trends at play in American society. It is at once a sign of the convergence of politics and entertainment, the hyper-democratization of the American political system, and the increasing politicization of the judiciary. And, of course, it involves movie stars.

On thing is certain: As political drama, it's hard to beat.

Ever since Davis was re-elected last year to a second four-year term as governor of California, his popularity has been on the wane. When wealthy, politically connected opponents came up with the idea of a recall to unseat the governor before his time was up, Davis suddenly found himself in politically uncharted waters. The governor's broad unpopularity, largely the result of his mishandling of California's budget and the state's energy crisis, enabled his opponents to gather the 1.6 million signatures necessary to prompt a recall.

Now, with the recall election scheduled for October, the rush of candidates eager to succeed Davis has generated a media-hyped electoral circus. Among the more notable candidates are the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, conservative columnist Arianna Huffington, pornographer Larry Flynt, Lieutenant Gov. Cruz M. Bustamante and Bill Simon, Jr., the Republican who Davis defeated last year in the general election.

For now, the recall election is focused on candidate Schwarzenegger, the most colorful of the serious contenders. His run has many wondering if this election in California, the nation's most populous state, will answer the question of whether the 1998 election of professional wrestler Jesse Ventura as Minnesota governor was an anomaly or a sign of American's political future.

This year, Ohio, too, nearly became another testing ground for the future of entertainment politics, when Jerry Springer-host of a sensationalistic television program involving brawls between the likes of skinheads, incestual siblings, and 14-year-old prostitutes-announced that he was considering a run for the U.S. Senate. Formerly the mayor of Cincinnati, Springer said he ultimately decided not to run because he could not escape the "clutter" of his television show.

In California, it was fitting that Schwarzenegger chose to announce his entrance into the political contest during an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Just a few weeks earlier, the Austrian-born action-film hero sat in the same chair on Leno's late-night program to promote his new movie, Terminator 3. In choosing to make his political announcement on an entertainment program, Schwarzenegger, a Republican, set the tone for the campaign.

In an era where news has become harder and harder to discern from entertainment, Schwarzenegger's candidacy was like a gift from the TV gods. For one thing, it gave CNN an excuse to run footage from the actor's latest films. More importantly, however, it was a sign of the potency of entertainment in determining the outcome of political elections.

This was not the first sign.

In 2000, Al Gore's aides famously sat the vice president down and made him watch a "Saturday Night Live" spoof of his first debate with candidate George Bush, in which Gore's aggressive debating strategy was exaggerated and lampooned. A few days later, a gentler, more agreeable Gore appeared in the second debate, practicing a markedly different strategy.

During that same election, candidate appearances on talk shows and late-night comedy programs were considered at least as important as political television appearances. That wasn't surprising, given that a 2000 survey by a media-monitoring group found that about 50 percent of Americans under age 30 said late-night entertainment shows were their primary source of news.

But it's not only appearances on entertainment shows that, today, can make or break a candidate. It's the entertainment quotient of the candidate himself. By that measure, Schwarzenegger enters the ring with a big advantage over his rivals. Even though some others are entertainment figures in their own right, none come close to measuring up to the "Terminator"-certainly not the diminutive Gary Coleman, the other notable Hollywood candidate, who largely disappeared from the entertainment world after the end of his 1980s sitcom, "Diff'rent Strokes."

Further blurring the lines between politics and entertainment in this election is the question of whether, during the recall campaign, airing films like Schwarzenegger's "Kindergarten Cop" qualifies as free air time for the movie star candidate. The same goes for re-runs of "Diff'rent Strokes." The Federal Communications Commission has a provision that guarantees equal time to rival candidates, and though it does not apply to cable networks, it's likely that any free air time for candidates in the form of entertainment programming will elicit the scrutiny of FCC regulators.

Federal regulators aren't the only officials who are being asked to keep tabs on the California election. With so little time left before the vote, state election officials are worried they may not have enough time to organize the election, arrange for a sufficient number of election-day workers, or get enough ballots ready in time for Oct. 7.

The difficulty of holding the unexpected election is just one of the points the incumbent Davis raised in a legal bid to have the recall vote delayed or canceled. In a sign that observers say points to the growing power of the judiciary in determining elections, Davis appealed in a lawsuit to the state's Supreme Court to put the election on hold. The Republican-dominated court turned down his request.

Two years ago, another Republican-dominated court, the U.S. Supreme Court, turned down the election-related request of another candidate, Gore, in a decision that effectively determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.

While the political power of the judiciary in influencing the California recall drive is by no means insignificant, the process could not have begun without the recall initiative that prompted the special election in the first place.

That initiative portends what some say is an unsettling trend in American electoral politics: that of the never-ending election season. While in countries like Israel the hyper-democratic practice of holding special elections at the whim of a legislative or electoral majority has become commonplace, the phenomenon of holding an early election before an elected official's term is up still is very new to American political life.

Essentially what is occurring, say observers, is that Americans are not accepting the outcome of normal political elections. It happened in 1998 with the effort to impeach President Bill Clinton, when Congress attempted to oust a sitting president on grounds that had little to do with his job performance or presidential politics. It has been happening since 2000, in surveys that show a significant numbers of Democrats saying they still do not accept the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. And it's happening now in California, with the drive to recall Davis.

Already, some Democrats are saying they might use a retaliatory recall election in 2004 if a Republican wins the Oct. 7 special election, which will determine in a single election whether Davis will be recalled and, if so, who the new governor will be.

Of course, given the current chaotic environment, almost anything could happen in the remaining weeks before the election. And though the nation still looks to the pioneers out West to set the course of the nation's future, it may be months or years before America finds out whether this special recall election is the preview to a bad B-movie or the next national blockbuster.