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Shocked by recent polling that showed likely voters almost evenly split on the question of whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, California Democrats are pledging to walk more precincts and air more ads.
Those efforts, while necessary, fall well short of sufficient.
In a vote on whether to recall a Democrat, Republicans will have a built-in advantage. Their voters, many Trumpified and defined by a hatred of Democrats, are “full of passionate intensity” (to borrow a line from Yeats). Many Democrats and independents, by contrast, may hardly pay attention to the recall or go to the polls.
How can Newsom prevail? His backers must focus somnolent or distracted Californians on what a Republican governor would likely do to the state if Newsom were recalled. On the retro policies such a governor would inflict on this decidedly non-retro state. And on who that governor might be.
On that last consideration, the same poll that showed the recall had real prospects of passing also showed a clear front-runner among the 30-some-odd candidates who’ve entered the fray: Larry Elder, a radio talk show host in the mode of Rush Limbaugh. Even if disgruntled and disproportionately Republican voters don’t anoint Elder, most of the other candidates also come from Trump country. In today’s Republican Party, no other country exists.
So just what could — and couldn’t — a Trumpian governor do?
Let’s start with what he or she couldn’t. The new post-recall governor surely couldn’t get right-wing legislation through the Legislature, nor even successfully block many, if any, bills that the Legislature enacts, as the Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both houses. The new governor also couldn’t dictate policy or change personnel in any of the offices held by other elected officials, such as the state’s attorney general, lieutenant governor or treasurer. If any of those statewide elected offices come open because of death or retirement, the governor could appoint a successor, but that successor couldn’t take office unless confirmed by the Legislature.
In other matters, however, the governor could do as he or she pleased. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren has often noted, personnel is policy, and the governor could discharge any and all executive branch officials and install new ones who aren’t subject to legislative confirmation. By so doing, the governor could bring any state programs he or she doesn’t like to a shuddering halt.
That could include mask mandates during the pandemic, or state promotion and provision of COVID-19 vaccinations. That could also include ordering state departments to slow-walk or shut down programs that the Legislature has enacted, such as expanding Medi-Cal to elderly undocumented Californians. A court fight would doubtless ensue, but the program could be put on hold until the courts ruled — and the same fate would likely befall other programs not in accord with the right’s priorities.
The new governor could appoint development zealots to the Coastal Commission and order his Department of Labor to stop investigating wage theft. He or she could deploy the National Guard to the border to stop the flow of immigrants and appoint “scientists” who pooh-pooh global climate change to decision-making posts.
And, oh yes — there’s one major appointment, more important than any other, that the governor gets to make in which the Legislature has no say. When Kamala Harris became vice president and Newsom appointed state Secretary of State Alex Padilla to take her seat in the U.S. Senate, that call was, by law, entirely Newsom’s.
Imagine, then, that the state’s senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, age 88, retires, becomes incapacitated or dies during the tenure of a recall-elected Republican governor. That person would surely replace her with a Republican, thereby turning control of the Senate over to Mitch McConnell and instantly dooming much of President Biden’s and the Democrats’ agendas.
The best the state could hope for if a Republican becomes governor — even if only until the regular election of 2022 — is continual constitutional warfare between the governor and the Legislature, much like that between Congress and President Andrew Johnson, who took office following Lincoln’s assassination. Congress was determined to bestow civil and voting rights on Black Americans, while Johnson was a hardline racist completely opposed to the more egalitarian policies of both Congress and his predecessor. Congress passed laws forbidding Johnson from removing Lincoln’s Cabinet members and came close to removing him from office through the impeachment process, but the federal government did little to protect Black people until Johnson left office.
If the Newsom recall succeeds, expect the new governor to lead more social scapegoating and minority-bashing, as well as a change in policies that could make the COVID threat worse.
The intensity of the right’s hatred of Newsom and all things Democratic will never be matched by an equivalent intensity of Newsom love. The way to defeat the recall is for Democrats to show what would befall California under a Republican who governs in the spirit of Donald Trump. Only that would gin up an anti-recall intensity among most California voters.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and a contributing writer to Opinion.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.