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Democrats Against Democracy

by James Taranto Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2003 at 11:46 PM

There is no parallel between the 2004 election and 1992. It's a whole different ballgame.

For Democrats eager to retake the White House, it must be awfully tempting to view 2004 as a repeat of 1992. In that year, after all, the Republican incumbent was named George Bush, and he had just won a war, or at least a battle, against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The Democrats went on to win their first presidential election in almost a generation.

But 2004 isn't 1992, despite the superficial similarities. Here are some crucial differences:

* The recession of 1990-91 ended later in the election cycle than the recession of 2001, which means the economy is likely to look better by Election Day than it did in 1992.

* In 1992, with the Cold War over and the Gulf War having ended in a seemingly satisfactory stalemate, national security was not a major issue. In 2004 it will be, and Democrats (except Joe Lieberman) are falling over each other competing over who is least responsible about protecting the nation from terrorism.

* More generally, in 1992 the Democrats were hungry enough for victory that they nominated a man who campaigned as a centrist (pro-welfare reform, pro-death penalty). This time around, the Democratic nomination race looks to be all about satisfying the Angry Left.

* In 1992 George Bush faced a semiserious primary challenge from Pat Buchahan. So far there has been no sign of Republican disunity vis-à-vis the younger Bush.

* Ross Perot, running in 1992 as an independent, capitalized on a generalized public discontent with the status quo, an anger that was not ideologically based, and attracted nearly 19% of the popular vote (though he carried no states). This year, the anger is on the left, not the center; and it's more likely to marginalize the Democratic nominee than to take votes away from the incumbent.

Actually, that last item requires some qualification. Although the national mood is more anxious than angry (putting aside hyperpartisan Democrats and the far left), there is a Perot-like phenomenon in one major state. We refer, of course, to the California gubernatorial recall, a populist movement that cuts across party lines and that has produced a Perot-like figure--albeit a more attractive, far less creepy one--in Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This puts the Democratic presidential candidates in a somewhat sticky situation, since the object of California's populist wrath is a fellow Democrat, Gov. Gray Davis--a man who epitomizes the most cynical aspects of Democratic politics. Jennifer Nelson, a writer who has served in Republican administrations in Sacramento, sums up the case against Wilson on the San Francisco Chronicle's Web site,

After spending his first term in office doing nothing but raising money, Davis now wants the public to believe that he intends to focus on the people's business. "Whether I have 64 days or three and a half years, I will spend virtually all of my time on the state's priorities," he said last week during a visit to Chicago.

Gee, why was our governor out of the state, you ask? Was he meeting with bond officials to convince them to raise California's downgraded credit rating? Was he meeting with Illinois officials to find out how that state wooed a major employer like Boeing to the Prairie State?

No, not our governor. He was in Chicago to ask labor leaders to give him millions of dollars to fight the voters' recall.

Unless the courts intervene to cancel or modify the procedure for the Oct. 7 vote, Davis is a sure loser. That's because he needs 50% to retain his office, a threshold he didn't meet even when he was re-elected last November. (He polled a little over 47% of the vote, less the George W. Bush got nationwide in 2000 when he "lost the popular vote.")

So here we have one of the most Democratic states in the country, about to repudiate a Democratic governor. That doesn't necessarily mean Republicans will win; Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is a formidable candidate to replace Davis. Still, you would think the Democrats running for president--none of whom can hope to be elected president without carrying the Golden State--would have the good sense to show some respect for Californians' populist discontent.

Alas for the Democrats, good sense is in exceedingly short supply in their party at the moment. All the major Democratic candidates, as well as all the minor ones except John Edwards and Bob Graham, attended a union-sponsored forum in Philadelphia yesterday, where, Reuters reports, every one of them "blasted California's recall campaign," saying the Golden State is, in the "news" service's words, "being swept by the same right-wing tactics used against Democrats in Florida and Texas and during the impeachment of former President Clinton."

"I think it insults democracy in this country," said Sen. John Kerry of an effort that, according to the California secretary of state's office, collected 1.7 million signatures, 1.3 million of which have been verified. "They should overwhelmingly reject this right-wing, ideological interference in the electoral process of the United States of America," added the haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat, who by the way served in Vietnam.

"This is an attack on the institutions of our government," said Dick Gephardt, referring to a Progressive Era procedure that has been part of the California Constitution since 1911, adding: "That's what Republicans do." Even Joe Lieberman, the occasional voice of sanity, said: "We may disagree, the seven of us here tonight, on a lot of things. But we don't disagree on this one."

Jesse Jackson, who for reasons unknown the Chicago Sun-Times sees fit to have as a regular columnist, is even more hysterical:

Democracy offends reactionaries. The majority of Americans oppose their extreme agenda, so they plot ways to subvert democratic elections.

Now these Jacobins of reaction have increasing control over the Republican Party. In the French Revolution, the extremist Jacobins espoused liberty and the rights of the people, but used the guillotine to silence the opposition. Today's reactionary Jacobins call themselves conservatives but would overturn democracy to suppress the opposition.

That is what the recall effort against California Gov. Gray Davis is all about.

Jackson even seems to hint at political violence, saying that a successful recall effort threatens to "turn American politics into an unending alley fight that could get very ugly very fast."

Over the years California has become a strongly Democratic state; Bill Clinton easily carried it twice, and Al Gore beat George W. Bush there by a margin of almost 12% of the total vote. If Bush carries the Golden State in 2004, it may be because of the contempt the party is now displaying toward the voters of the state.

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