As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Will The Spotlight Ever Fall On Jerry Brown's Ideas, Not His Image?

With the Rasmussen poll numbers filtering through the traditional media, the idea of Jerry Brown being the favorite at this moment to return to the Governor's mansion is taking hold outside of California. Talking Points Memo has a piece marveling at how strange it is to see the "colorful" Brown back in this position, recalling the time-worn stories about Linda Ronstadt and "Governor Moonbeam," although they do acknowledge that "this all contributed to a somewhat inaccurate caricature of him as a left-winger." Indeed, the TPM profile notes that Brown was a fiscal conservative in office and ran on the flat tax in 1992. Clearly, the author was informed by Joe Mathews' cover story in this month's American Prospect, which delves further into Brown's un-campaign for Governor and the puzzling question of what in the heck he's planning to do once he gets there:

But a little talk about the big picture is in order. Outside Brown's news conferences, California is coming undone. This summer, unemployment reached 11.9 percent. Tens of billions of dollars have been cut from the budget in the past year. Thousands of teachers have been laid off. State offices are now closed three Fridays a month. University tuition has been hiked. Thousands of elderly and disabled people are losing their state-provided health insurance.

The crisis is so profound that it may present an opportunity for California to fix its badly broken government. Coalitions on the left and in the center (the right is sitting on the sidelines, enjoying the Armageddon) are drafting plans to change the way the state is governed. They hope to get several measures on the 2010 ballot that would reshape the state budget, call a state constitutional convention, and perhaps unwind much of Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that severely limited the government's ability to raise taxes -- a major contributing factor to the budget hole California finds itself in today.

If any candidate should be talking about this, it's Jerry Brown. After all, Prop. 13 passed during his governorship. But Brown has yet to engage the would-be reformers. In the rare moments when he's asked how the state might be fixed, he talks vaguely of the need to forge compromise and invokes older, better times in California, when he and his father, former Gov. Pat Brown, were in power. "We can talk about 'restoring the dream,'" he told a union conference in Palo Alto during an explicitly political appearance this summer. "Well, I was around when the dream was here."

This is a dodge -- not only of the present questions about what he might do as governor but also of lasting concerns about Brown's own role in diminishing the California dream. Pat Brown was a great builder of the highways and waterways and schools that made the state prosperous, but his son Jerry announced "an era of limits." Since that declaration 33 years ago, the state's population has grown from 22 million to more than 38 million. The state government has not kept up. If Brown has specific ideas on what to do about all of this, he is keeping them to himself.

Brown clearly has a blueprint for winning the election - say as little as humanly possible about the problems that grip the state, and hope that tangerine dreams of the halcyon 70s push him to victory. You cannot blame him - it's a winning formula. With a pathetically thin state political media, it's fairly difficult to run on any issues to begin with, at least ones beyond the bumper-sticker variety. Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected by saying pretty much nothing that wouldn't fit as a movie slogan, and a celebrity-obsessed media let him get away with it. So I don't begrudge Brown the lack of specifics. That's the way the game has been played in recent years.

Indeed, I don't worry about what we don't know about Brown, but what we do know.

Progressives, both then and now, argue that Brown's brand of anti-government liberalism fueled the Prop. 13 fire. If government isn't all that important, what does it matter if you cut taxes? Brown had frozen highway construction, criticized funding for adult education and food stamps, and slashed social services. "I am going to starve the schools financially until I get some educational reforms," he said in one encounter with reporters.

What reforms, governor?

"I don't know yet." [...]

Brown, in the midst of running for re-election, called himself a "born-again tax cutter" and immediately reinvented himself as Prop. 13's champion. (He maintains now that he had to support 13 after its victory because of his oath to defend the state constitution.) Brown went so far as to befriend the legislation's co-sponsor, the anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis. "It seemed like he went over to Jarvis' house frequently," says Joel Fox, who would later serve as an aide to Jarvis. "Mrs. Jarvis would tell stories about serving lunch to the governor with Howard in his pajamas. Howard voted for him for re-election because Jerry convinced him he would implement Prop. 13 in the right spirit."

As it happens, the only thing worse than Prop. 13 itself was its implementation. Brown and the legislature bailed out cities and counties that lost revenues under the law -- and thus established the dysfunctional system of budgeting that plagues California to this day. Tax and spending decisions once made by city councils and school boards were centralized in Sacramento. The state Capitol became a giant piggy bank, with interests on the right and left using lobbying muscle -- and the initiative process -- to carve out special protections for their funds, leaving less for broad public investments. At the rare moments when Democrats tried to make such investments, Prop. 13's two-thirds requirement for taxes allowed Republicans, even when they were in the minority, to block them.

Indeed, the Jerry Brown of recent public comments shows no sign of understanding the present state of the state. He has supported the current Governor in various accounting tricks and tough-on-crime stances that have blown a hole in the deficit. He has stated an unwillingness to take a leadership position on any even remotely controversial issue. He hasn't strayed from that "born-again tax-cutter" mantra. As our own Robert Cruickshank says in this very good article:

"The problem with Brown is that I'm not convinced he's moved past 1978," says Robert Cruickshank, who works for the progressive 700,000-member network Courage Campaign and is a frequent contributor to the blog Calitics. "The lesson he drew from that is that he has to adapt to a more conservative reality. ... I'm concerned that it's not going to be the kind of governorship where you see significant changes in the way California operates."

If this is the Jerry Brown we can expect to "lead" in 2010, I know that progressives will have far better outlets for their advocacy, be it the Lakoff Initiative or the Constitutional convention. As I've said many times, you could elect Noam Chomsky governor and he would still be constrained by the same structural factors that resist true democracy and responsible governance. And Jerry Brown is most certainly no Noam Chomsky.

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