A Year Out, Gov’s Race Lacks a “Change” Candidate


darwin-300x300One year before the 2010 election, Gavin Newsom’s abrupt withdrawal from the governor’s race leaves the campaign without a candidate conveying the message most aligned with California’s zeitgeist of the moment: a call for sweeping reform.

With Attorney General Jerry Brown the lone (if still formally undeclared) Democratic candidate, and a Republican field of former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, ex-Congressman Tom Campbell, and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, the race now presents two fundamental, thematic choices:

Brown and Campbell argue, in slightly different ways, that fixing California is a matter of making government work better; Whitman and Poizner essentially contend that fixing California means getting government out of the way.

At a time when Californians have record-low regard for state government, none of the four has mounted a challenge to the status quo as strongly as did Newsom. A flawed messenger lacking focus and the discipline to raise the vast sums needed, he nonetheless came closest to seizing the mantle of change.

newsomlookright“This is the race that will shake the system,” the 42-year old San Francisco mayor said in his first online campaign ad. Positioning himself as an upstart outsider with bold ideas, his message combined generational appeal with proposals for a green economy and for major structural reforms. Capturing the nomination was always a long-shot for newcomer Newsom, but it was he who most clearly articulated the memes of reform –- a constitutional convention, revising the budget process, reexamining Proposition 13 –- that have arisen amid Sacramento’s chronic gridlock and deficits.

The remaining candidates make studied efforts to cast themselves as scourges of the status quo. As authentic agents of change, however, they fall short by almost any measure. All are Baby Boomers or older, and they are also longtime establishment insiders in business, politics or both. They are campaigning on shopworn rhetoric, threadbare ideology and conventional ideas, offering scant inspiration to alienated voters and angry citizens distrustful and disgusted with the Capitol’s ossified operations.

To be sure, campaigning in the current political environment is an extraordinary challenge. The most recent statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that Californians have dismally low views of the incumbent governor – 30% approve of his performance – and of the Legislature – with its humiliating 13% approval rating.

Worse for the candidates, the citizens of California across the board are deeply pessimistic about its intractable problems: 80% say California is on the wrong track, while two-thirds expect continued bad economic times in the next year. Breaking through this widespread despair and disillusionment requires candidates with uplifting vision, powerful new ideas, exceptional personality or all three. The political platitudes now on display hardly seem to qualify.

Despite his organizational problems, Newsom as a candidate displayed high energy and thoughtful policy thinking — on health care, environmentalism and civic reform. And his courage in simply declaring same-sex marriage legal in his city triggered a national debate over the civil rights of gays. None of the rest of the field has communicated such full-throated willingness to “shake the system.”

Here’s a quick look at the messages of those who remain in the race:

Meg Whitman: With a self-referential pledge – “I refuse to let California fail” – and boasts about herwhitman “spine of steel,” Whitman tells voters that her business skills and experience as a CEO will enable her to fulfill promises of easing unemployment and fixing the state’s battered education systems. She has announced her intention of firing 40,000 state workers and slashing regulations and taxes. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the last governor to woo voters with such a singular, tough talk pitch. But his simplistic, campaign trail prescriptions proved no match for the complex political and policy maladies of the Capitol.

stevepoiznerSteve Poizner: Casting himself as a candidate of “bold ideas,” Poizner promotes a “10-10-10 program” that would cut taxes and spending each by 10% and build a $10 billion rainy-day fund. Notwithstanding his breezy confidence in the alleged transformational power of his plan, it is basically recycled supply side, unfettered market economics of a brand discredited by the Bush Administration. His political makeover, from erstwhile moderate to born-again right-winger, smacks of poll-driven politics-as-usual.

Tom Campbell: The law professor with the MBA and years of political experience campbellprofessoris almost always the smartest guy in the room. An underfunded centrist, at a time when moderates are being purged from the GOP, he campaigns as the candidate of specificity; his mastery of the minutiae of state government generates detailed white papers and avuncular assurances, but in the end his message boils down to more efficient management of the status quo.

EGBrown3Jerry Brown: It is a great paradox that the septuagenarian Brown, the original rock-star politician, now timidly labels himself “an apostle of common sense,” hardly a slogan that screams “new ideas” or invokes the insurgency of his presidential campaign days. Brown has said little about how his late-life governorship would differ from his first, except to suggest he would be more competent in balancing competing special interests, a version of the theme being sounded by Campbell.

None of these messages offers a solution to the fundamental challenge which confronts the next governor: how to slash the maddening Gordian knot of California’s governance structure.

It is instructive that Treasurer Bill Lockyer, while well-positioned to seek the governorship, shows little interest in doing so: “We’re part of a system that was designed not to work,” he recently told lawmakers studying political reform. “You are the captives of this environment, and I don’t see any way out.”

This piece is also being published today in the Los Angeles Times.

subscribe to comments RSS

There are 4 comments for this post

  1. avatar starstation says:

    Your analysis is flawed. You fail to calculate the bluff and bluster of the incumbent governor who when he ran in the recall was the quintessential ‘change candidate’,
    Remember he was going to take on the special interests; end the ‘crazy deficit spending’; blow up the boxes, ad nauseum.
    But…he is perceived as an abject failure by voters who bought into the rhetoric.
    Thus, voters are going to be skeptical of the ‘easy answers’ and blustery BS. Instead they will look for a steady hand to steer the ship of state thru rough waters.
    They will not trust another amateur…or poser. It is Jerry Brown’s race to lose. period.

  2. avatar patwater says:

    Building on starstation’s point, I think you neglect the degree to which a conventional, boring candidate really is a change. Campbell, for example, in that sense is the antithesis of Schwarzenegger: he offers thoughtful, substantive policy solutions as opposed to naked rhetorical appeal.

    The other question I would ask is what do you think the governor really could do “slash the maddening Gordian knot of California’s governance structure.” Standing at the base of the capitol and making a Newsomesque declaration won’t change the facts on the ground. The legislature’s ability to amend the constitution is dependent on the people. The governor does have an enormous bully pulpit with which to influence the legislature and the voters, but Schwarzenegger–dramatically–demonstrates the limitations of that. The governor is in the heart of the gordian thicket and, for better or worse, is irrevocably bound by it. That seems to be the kernel of the NYT Magazine article on the governor’s race (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/magazine/05California-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1).

    Given this, rather than looking for cutsey ads about “elections that will shake the system” as evidencing a “change” candidate, I would look at the degree to which a candidate supports fundamental structural reform (such as a constitutional convention) and will likely reform the “softer”, socio-cultural aspects of our governance morass (like the paralytic culture in Sacramento).

  3. avatar ReilleyFam says:

    The sad truth is what Lockyer stated; the State is broken and cannot be fixed. Instead of looking for solutions we should all be looking to move away or take cover. There are too many intrenched, uncompromising, & polarized interests in CA to get anything done now. CA will change when the entire State breaks and we are FORCED to completely revamp the whole system; sort of like a governmental armageddon. Or, we will just devolve into the equivalent of a permanent 3rd world country.

  4. Government IS in our way, spending all our taxes for a bloated State employee benefits way out of line with the commercial world, and WAY too many employees = People trying to figure out ways to cause more administrative hoops (nightmares) for business to jump through.

    Meg has it right – get government out of the way, off our backs, and out of our pockets. Then people can make money and pay for most of these entitlement programs.

    I personally want someone who has more gumption than Brown who would just be walking down the hall.

Please, feel free to post your own comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.