CALIFORNIA OWES a colossal debt to a Republican reformer named Hiram Johnson. He was the governor who put a recall provision in the state constitution in 1911. The idea was to allow voters to oust state officials who'd become wholly-owned subsidiaries of special interests. Along with the right to enact or nullify laws through the initiative and referendum processes, recall was an advance in democratic accountability and grass-roots political participation. And it is as relevant and necessary today as it was in 1911.

California is in crisis. Its economy, its entrepreneurial spirit, its schools, its roads--nearly everything is declining. And the political class in Sacramento, with Democratic governor Gray Davis at the top, is a large part of the problem. To this, the recall election on October 7 is an appropriate and legal response. Its significance goes well beyond the fate of Davis and the political future of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The recall will answer the three most important questions about California. Will the unresponsive political class that rules in Sacramento be brought down? Will the budget mess be fixed? Will the decline of California be reversed? If Davis survives, the answers will be no, no, and no. But if he's removed from office and the political class is humbled, the answers might all be yes, and California might begin to recover.

With no recall at all, California would continue to stagnate. This would be just fine with the liberals, Democrats, and elitists who passionately oppose this reckoning at the polls. Of course, it's liberal Democratic elitists who tax, spend, regulate, and constitute the ruling political class in California. They have a lot to lose. One of their complaints--that the recall will cost too much, roughly $70 million--is frivolous and hypocritical. These are the folks who prompted Davis and company to boost state spending 37 percent in his first two years as governor and then to continue spending lavishly, even as a recession loomed in 2001 and a gigantic budget deficit grew.

A more serious objection is that the recall is, in the words of Democrat Leon Panetta, "democracy run amok." After all, Davis was just reelected to a second term nine months ago. Should he be forced to face voters again so soon? Indeed he should, partly because of the nature of his reelection. He hung on by a thread, winning with less than a majority over a weak Republican opponent. He won despite deteriorating conditions in the state, despite a glaring lack of leadership, and despite a richly deserved reputation for dunning a large campaign contribution out of anyone seeking access to the governor's office. In Sacramento, they call it "pay to play." And Davis won while dismissing the budget deficit as insignificant. Last winter, when the deficit reached $38 billion, the thread snapped. The California deficit is now larger than the deficits of the other 49 states combined.

Californians don't recall a governor lightly. They've never done it before. Efforts to recall Democratic governor Jerry Brown and Republicans Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson fizzled. This time, voters leaped at the opportunity to sign petitions mandating a recall election. True, Republican congressman Darrell Issa paid signature-gatherers. But wherever they went, lines of eager Republicans, Democrats, and independents formed instantly. Roughly 1.6 million signatures were turned in, far more than the required 897,158 (12 percent of the voters in 2002). Millions more could easily have been obtained. The recall became a mass movement.

The national media have played along with the critics by portraying the recall as a "circus" or "carnival" or "madness." These words appear in the headlines of the latest issue of Newsweek with Schwarzenegger on the cover. The New York Times huffily editorialized against "muscle beach politics." California has been stereotyped for years as an oasis of weirdos. And, yes, there's much to make fun of in the election: Comics, porn actresses, has-been actors, and numerous eccentrics are on the ballot. "It's not dignified or pretty," wrote Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford. "But it is democracy in its pure unadulterated form."

In all, there are 135 candidates on the ballot to replace Davis. Is that too many in a democratic election? Maybe the bar (and the $3,500 fee) for getting on the ballot should be raised. But ballots with multiple candidates are hardly rare. They show up in most elections (though usually there are fewer than 135 candidates) and voters find their way to the major candidates with little trouble. Voters are not stupid. There are four serious candidates at the moment--Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Schwarzenegger, State Sen. Tom McClintock, and Bill Simon--and none seems worried voters won't spot his name on the ballot.

Recall opponents profess to be outraged by the possibility that a new governor might be elected with far less than a majority. Since there's no runoff, it could happen. But it's not likely. Campaigns have a way of winnowing out the marginal candidates, including ones like Arianna Huffington who enter in a blaze of media attention. By Labor Day, the contest may come down to two candidates, Bustamante the Democrat and Schwarzenegger the Barbari--oops, the Republican.

But pity a new governor thrown into a dizzying budget battle with little preparation! Right? Wrong. A new governor will have plenty of time to master details and make decisions. The normal budget process in California lasts from October to January. A new governor will have weeks to decide on budget and policy priorities before getting an estimate of 2004 revenues in late November, then another six weeks to draft a State of the State speech and present a new budget to a cowed legislature. That's time enough.

Let's be clear what the recall is about. It's not about personalities. It's not ultimately about political parties. And it has nothing to do with President Bush and his prospects in the 2004 presidential election. It's about one thing: special interest liberalism. In California, the special interests include Indian tribes and labor unions and state employees and trial lawyers. And they own Gray Davis and state government.

In Hiram Johnson's day, the Southern Pacific Railroad and banks were dominant. The special interests have changed, but the nature of the problem hasn't. Johnson's cure--the recall--was based on the idea that while special interests themselves couldn't be driven into exile, the politicians subservient to them could. Although it might be difficult, the status quo could be uprooted. Today there may be no other means but the recall to revive California. And Californians have Hiram Johnson to thank for the opportunity to help their state.

--Fred Barnes, for the Editors

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