The Washington Times

California’s recall election scheduled for October [provided the courts don’t derail it] presents two interesting political tests. The first pushes at the limit of democratic republican governance [small r, small d]. The second tests the current political strength of partisans of traditional social conservatism within the GOP.

California’s Progressive-era recall procedure is of a kind that sets one to wondering, “What were they thinking?” The idea that the people acting directly through the initiative and referendum process ought to have recourse to remove their governor short of the end of his four-year term is arguably a sensible one. But this is to say, there is also a decent argument against the idea of an early removal provision. And one could also imagine locating the removal power not in the people acting directly but in their elected state representatives, in a process analogous to the presidential impeachment provisions of the U.S. Constitution,

Nevertheless, the procedure for recalling a California governor and finding a successor are truly strange. To review: Voters face a two-part ballot. First, they vote on whether to remove the governor; then, not knowing the result of the first question, in the second part of the ballot they vote for a successor from a long list of candidates who have met minimal qualifying standards. As originally written, you had to vote on the first question in order to qualify your vote on the second, though the courts have since thrown that out. Whoever gets the most votes on the second part wins.

So, we have the very real prospect of Gov. Gray Davis being turned out on his ear, and voters then electing his successor with the barest of pluralities from a field of 135 candidates. The result could be a state of 35 million people governed by someone who won perhaps 15 percent or 18 percent of the vote – and possibly a significantly smaller percentage than voted to retain the governor. Politics in this country gets testy enough when, for example, a president takes office having won in the electoral college but having lost the popular vote. I don’t know what it would be like to try to govern with so trivial a mandate as less than one vote in five, and it’s hard to see what exactly is Progressive about writing the recall provisions in such a way that we might find out.

So, the real test of democratic-republican governance, on the assumption that Mr. Davis can’t persuade voters to retain him, is whether any candidate can break out of the pack and garner enough votes not only to win but also to acquire general public legitimacy. As a practical matter, this boils down to whether the leading Republican can clear the field or marginalize the other contenders on his side and/or whether the leading Democrat can present himself as the clear choice for Democrats quite apart from the question of Mr. Davis.

Now, the leading Democrat in the field is the state’s lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, and his task is the tricky one of attracting not only Democrats disaffected from Mr. Davis but also Democrats who are supporting Mr. Davis wholeheartedly. Many of the latter thought the governor’s best chance for beating the recall would come from a second-part field consisting of exactly no prominent Democrats whatsoever, all of them, in solidarity with Mr. Davis, having declined to run as a potential backup. Mr. Bustamante spoiled that plan [as some Democrat almost certainly would have]. Unifying Democrats under these circumstances will be difficult.

Then we come to the Republican side and the front-runner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie star is anything but a “movement” conservative or any other kind of conservative on social issues. National Review has determined that he “does not merit conservative support.” The California-based Traditional Values Coalition’s Rev. Lou Sheldon has also been on the attack, especially on gay rights and abortion. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger adviser Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, raised the hackles of economic conservatives when he suggested that taxes on some California residential property are inappropriately low, thanks to the distortion Proposition 13 introduced into the system in 1978.

Conservative Republicans who cannot support Mr. Schwarzenegger have at least two other choices, state Sen. Tom McClintock and William Simon, whom Mr. Davis beat last year. The question is: How many conservatives really cannot support Mr. Schwarzenegger?

It is possible that the other Republican candidates, if Mr. Schwarzenegger catches on in the polls, will endorse him and withdraw. But it is also possible that, out of principle, one or more will keep fighting. The next question is whether conservatives will rally to such a principled case – or rather, how many will rally.

How many conservatives view social conservatism, even if they agree with all or most of its major tenets, as important enough to forfeit the claim on their vote of a non-conservative on social issues? There’s a question with big implications for the GOP either way.