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Guess Who's Coming to the Recall

Bill Clinton comes to California to help Gray Davis and give him lousy, self-serving advice.

12:00 AM, Aug 15, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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CALIFORNIA DREAMING has us all in a fog. The best the Democratic presidential hopefuls can do for attention is John Kerry's Philly cheesesteak gaffe, or Al Sharpton's crack about "slapping the donkey" (there's your bumper sticker: "Democrats--Dumb Asses and Proud Of It").

Not that it's hard to get noticed if you're not in California, but the big news story yesterday: the power crisis in New York. Hey, that was California two years ago: Been there, done that, got the higher utility bills.

Politically, between now and October 7, the Golden State is America's lights, cameras, and action. And if you can't resist the limelight or the cameras, then heed the siren song that drew Jed Clampett: "Californy is the place you ought to be."

Which explains why Bill Clinton has already waded into the recall. The man just can't help himself.

YEARS AGO, a penniless Joe Louis was known as "America's guest" for his reliance on the kindness of strangers. Bill Clinton is the "America's guest" of American politics. Money's not the problem; it's the term-limited Clinton's lack of relevance in a world redefined by national security and individual integrity. Thus we have the spectacle of Clinton showing up in places he doesn't belong, as he did by appearing before the cameras this week to offer guidance to the embattled Gray Davis. I'd say he was stealing Jesse Jackson's act--but Jesse's offering advice too. So is Al Gore. Has-beens, like plane crashes, come in threes.

Clinton's visit was supposed to be a boost for Davis--the man who survived impeachment teaching his disciple how to survive recall. There's only one problem with this: Recall and impeachment aren't one and the same. Ken Starr is not The Terminator. The nearly two-thirds of Californians who now say they favor recall aren't the small minority of congressional Democrats who held fast for their president. And if you dig deeper in the Davis quagmire and deduce how he got into problem, it begins with California's governor trying too hard to be . . . Bill Clinton.

GRAY DAVIS became California's 37th governor in 1999 as a Clinton Mini-Me--staking his fortune on being a centrist and a triangulator. As he declared in his first inaugural address: "I am a moderate and a pragmatist by nature. That is how I campaigned. And that is how I will lead this state into the future. I will govern neither from the right nor from the left, but from the center, propelled not by ideology, but by common sense that seeks better results for all of us. It matters not whether an idea comes from a Republican or a Democrat. What matters is whether that idea is right or wrong--and whether it will work!"

And that worked--for a while. With $10 billion in surplus revenue rolling in every year, Davis could cherry-pick ideas from the left and the right, spreading around enough money to keep all parties placated. Meanwhile, a backlash was building. Davis publicly picked fights with the California Teachers Association. He made farm workers beg for legislation. The only Democratic loyalists who got warm-and-fuzzies from the governor were the ones writing $100,000 checks to his campaign coffer. But it didn't matter . . . until California's economy went south.

Today, Davis finds himself reviled by Republicans and unloved by his fellow Democrats. According to the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California, Democrats give the governor a whopping 60 percent disapproval rating. For some dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, voting against recall--knowing it saves Davis's hide--is like being forced to sit through a second showing of "Gigli." Yes, it's that bad.

The moral of this story: Being Bill Clinton works well if you're Bill Clinton. Gray Davis lacks Clinton's personality (and the Clinton-Gore economy). Davis is devoid of charm; he doesn't make Democratic hearts race. Which is why you won't see Toni Morrison rushing to his defense and calling him "California's first black governor."

WHICH TAKES US BACK to the fault with Bill Clinton's recall logic. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Clinton told Davis something along these lines: "You continue to do the job, and you continue to tell people that you are doing the job. You've got to keep your focus on being governor, no matter what the political pressure."

That's all fine and well, except that the former president has his history confused. The recall isn't impeachment; the better analogy is what Clinton faced in the aftermath of the 1994 midterm elections. Politically wounded, and second in stature to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Clinton felt compelled to whine to reporters: "The president is relevant here."