That Sense of Relief from California’s Recall Comes Five Years Too Late
[Note to readers: Today's Verdict column, "Why Do We Continue to Use Loaded Words Even When We Know that They Have No Meaning?" represents my latest attempt to channel George Orwell. I always fall short, of course, but I hope that the column might nonetheless be of some interest. In any event, the column below addresses a completely different topic.]
by Neil H. Buchanan
Earlier this month, I again found myself describing various extremes to which the wholly autocratic Republican Party might yet resort. In that column, the I-can't-believe-it's-even-possible-to-be-saying-this possibility du jour was the creation of new U.S. states and the elimination of existing states, in "what would amount to a gerrymandering of the Senate."
Was that scenario "out there"? Sure, but so was the January 6 insurrection -- not to mention Republicans' subsequent efforts to ignore, justify, and shift blame for that horrible day. I ended that column with this:
Maybe it will not be worth it for Republicans to carry out all of the crazy ideas that I have laid out here. But these extremists certainly do not lack energy. They are, for example, trying to recall not just California's governor but dozens of other Democrats who won legitimate elections. Why not pull out all the stops?
I have not checked whether any of the other sixty recalls were successful, but obviously the big news this week is that the main event -- the plan to take out Governor Gavin Newsom and replace him with a talk show host who is at least as bad as Donald Trump -- failed spectacularly. As in an epic blowout, almost a 2-to-1 win, the kind of thing that we do not expect to see even in a deep blue state. (Or in red states, either. Texas, for all of its longstanding voter suppression, only went for Trump by five and a half points last year.)
Is it time to celebrate? Yes, up to a point. Here, I will offer a few observations on where we are now, in light of what happened in California. Unsurprisingly, most of the news is still bad, especially compared to what could have happened in earlier elections.
Even so, winning is better than losing. The stakes here were high not only for the more than one-in-nine Americans who live in the Golden State. One of the most, er, superannuated members of the U.S. Senate is California's Dianne Feinstein, whose mind appears to be failing but who absolutely refused to heed calls to resign before the recall, just in case Newsom would have needed to name her replacement before giving up the governor's mansion to a Republican. (My favorite scenario would have been for Newsom to name himself to Feinstein's seat, but I digress.)
There were not many moving pieces in this scenario, and we could easily have seen Democrats lose their Senate majority even before the 2022 midterms, giving Mitch McConnell free rein to end Joe Biden's ability to do anything (pass laws, confirm judges to the courts, name confirmation-required members of the Administration, and so on). Now, we only have to worry about the many, many other Democratic senators whose replacements would be chosen by Republican governors. And this means not only the most elderly senators like Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, but also people like Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Senators die for reasons other than old age.
I know that some states, such as Maryland, have changed their constitutions so that a governor is required to choose a replacement from the same party as the departed senator. (I voted for that change when I lived in suburban D.C.) Therefore, even though the governor there is a Republican, both Democratic senate seats are safe. But that is not true in Vermont or Massachusetts, the latter of which still has not figured this out.
The California result, then, does not allow Democrats to exhale, but it does at least allow them to catch their breath. Everything can still change without warning. Still, what had appeared to be the most likely path toward a premature flip of the Senate has been avoided. Yay, America!
Are there any other ways in which non-Republicans can find optimism in California's resounding rejection of the latest Republican anti-majoritarian gambit? The op-ed page of The Washington Post has been filled with people saying that Newsom has created a road map for the Democrats in the midterms (or not), or that maybe California's Republicans will "wise up" and understand that they must adapt or die. An even more aggressive version of optimism would hold that Republicans nationwide (not just in California) should be chastened by their flop out West.
I am tempted to say something like, "Color me skeptical," but this is not the time to strike a pose of wry bemusement. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Republicans will do anything other than more of the same, or worse, looking for every avenue possible to undermine democracy. More recalls are coming, in California and elsewhere, and nothing will deter them. Republicans lost the 2018 midterms badly, after which they became even more Trumpified. Trump lost the 2020 election badly (and lost the Senate for Republicans) and incited traitors to sack the Capitol, but even Mike Pence is more Trumpy than ever. Losing a California recall election in an odd-numbered year? Whatever, dude.
Given all of that, as well as the death blows that Republicans in key states have been dealing to our constitutional system this year, I remain deeply pessimistic. In the title of this column, however, I suggest that there was a time when a result like this week's could have been truly good news. Actually, there were two such times.
The more recent time, and the less-good choice of the two, was in 2020. If Trump had truly been thumped, in the way that Newsom trounced the Republicans this week, that might have been a moment when we could have said, "Democracy saved!" In the weeks leading up to Election Day, polls showed Trump losing Florida by up to ten points, Texas by single digits, North Carolina by a lot, and even ever-redder Ohio and Iowa in play. Had those polls been correct, Biden's supporters would not be left saying, "Well, sure, there were only about 40,000 total votes in three swing states that saved us from disaster, but hey, we won the popular vote by 7 million, right?"
Moreover, up to ten Republican senators appeared at various points last year to be in serious danger of losing, including Lindsey Graham and even Mitch McConnell. House Democrats could plausibly imagine adding as many as thirty seats to their majority. Had all of that happened, we might not ever have had reason to learn that Joe Manchin lives on a houseboat in the Potomac, or that there are a handful of similarly muddleheaded fiscal hawks in the House.
More to the point, however, that kind of rout might actually have caused Republicans to pull away from Trump. (And there would have been no reason to foment the storming of Washington on January 6.) That could have been a moment of true relief, because it would have been a situation in which everyone but the most committed MAGA types could say, "Trump had four years, and he absolutely blew it -- by every measure of competence, and on every policy issue -- so badly that he was humiliated in historic fashion, and his enablers also lost."
That is what Nancy Pelosi was talking about when she said that it was important not just to win, but to win bigly. I expressed skepticism at the time, saying that even under those circumstances Trump would have whined about fraud as a pretext for refusing to leave the White House, meaning that perhaps something like January 6 would still have happened (although I clearly did not anticipate that specific event). Even I, however, allowed that a big enough loss might peel off enough Republicans who were never enamored with Trump (McConnell being the most critical possibility) that they would have finally kicked him to the curb.
I am not saying that even a shellacking of this magnitude would have caused Republicans to try to moderate their positions, or even that it would have stopped them from trying crazy stunts like the California recall. It probably would, however, have meant that state-level politicians in Georgia, Texas, Arizona and elsewhere would not have engaged in the orgy of Big Lie-inspired legislating that we have seen in 2021.
An even better time to have seen something like this week's California results was 2016. If, as polls indicated before James Comey's insane last-minute intervention, Hillary Clinton had won easily (ten points or more), it would have been possible to say that something truly remarkable had happened. Even with a press corps that had for decades treated Clinton as the devil incarnate, and even with a Russian disinformation campaign feeding craziness into millions of Facebook pages, we reasonably hoped at the time that the American people -- even the subset of the people whose votes had not been suppressed, meaning a much Whiter and richer electorate than the underlying population -- would have looked at Trump and said, "My god, what were the Republicans thinking when they let this guy take over their party?"
That is the sense of relief that I -- and, I suspect, many millions of people who pay close attention to these things, including plenty of Republicans -- expected to experience on November 8, 2016. Had that happened, the Republicans would have collapsed into recriminations, and their resulting "autopsy" would have made their post-2012 mea culpa look like robust self justification.
It is true that I have written about an imaginable alternative time line in which Clinton won but Republicans used the press's antipathy toward her (and Democrats' defensive crouch) to win by losing. That, however, was based on a scenario in which Republicans had repudiated Trump prior to election day, saving their congressional majorities and forcing Clinton to prove her gratitude at every turn. Had she actually trounced Trump straight up, that would have been a very different world.
The key difference between 2016, 2020, and 2021 is that Trumpism metastasized and mutated over time, at an accelerating rate. At this point, it appears that nothing will stop it from finishing its demolition of the rule of law, because Republicans have egged each other on in the race to abandon their last shreds of faith in winning reasonably free and fair elections. Every loss is chalked up to George Soros's treachery, and no tactic is too underhanded.
Did I breathe a sigh of relief when I heard this week's outcome in California? You bet. But it only made me think about what could have been, remembering that we were twice denied the post-election sense of renewal that had seemed so tantalizingly close. Sigh.