Throughout 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown’s fundamental antagonist in Sacramento was the Republican minority in the Legislature which refused, under threat of decapitation by the Grover of Norquist, to give him the four votes he needed to place on the ballot a proposal to temporarily extend tax increases that had been approved by his Republican predecessor.
When, as a candidate in 2010, he had promised to repair California and restore its fiscal health, he had miscalculated two things: 1) the increased hyper-partisan atmosphere in Sacramento since his previous tour of duty and 2) the limits of his own personal charm, persuasiveness and influence.
But for a governor of California in recent years – at least since the days of Pete Wilson and Willie Brown, when leaders had power and deals could be made and enforced — finding that one’s most difficult challenge is the opposition party is actually an anomaly. For Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger — and this year Jerry Brown — the most debilitating opposition force in Sacramento is the extreme wing of his own party.
For His Royal Grayness, it was the unruly left wing of the Democratic Party. For the philandering Schwarzmuscle, it was the right wing of the Republican Party (which no longer even considers him one of them).
And now in 2012, for Gov. Gandalf, it is once again the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party, for a while led by the Courage Campaign and the California Federation of Teachers but now in the hands of zillionairess lawyer Molly Munger.
Flying on one wing: Why is it that the left and right wings of the Democratic and Republican parties are so damaging to governors from their own party?
First of all, to become governor of California, one must appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, hold one’s own party loyalists and pick up a majority of the independent and moderate voters who are the fulcrum of power in statewide elections. A governor must be able to lead San Francisco and San Diego, Lodi and Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Santa Cruz.
But as long as gerrymandering was the norm – and politicians could design Assembly and Senate districts to fit their partisan and ideological needs – members of the Legislature represented only one tiny, homogeneous portion of California where the only battle was in a party primary in which the most partisan and ideological candidates succeeded. Left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans – with no interest in statewide consensus – held sway in Sacramento, whether or not anything got done.
There were other reasons why state government became dysfunctional. We spelled them out in detail back in June of 2009 in our Calbuzz Classic “How California Became Ungovernable” (plenty of free parking).
With the creation of new legislative districts by an independent commission and with the new, untested top-two primary system in place for the first time this June and November, we’ll begin to see if part of the ungovernablility problem is addressed by sending to Sacramento legislators who have to appeal more broadly to middle-of-the-road voters than they’ve had to in the past.
The fairly drawn districts – reflecting California’s actual demographic composition and not some phony protect-the-incumbent political geography – may even render another of our classic reasons moot: If Democrats obtain a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature, the noxious requirement for a two-thirds vote to approve a revenue measure may also dissolve (at least for now).
A ballot measure altering term limits – reducing the total number of years a legislator may serve to 12 from 14 – could (if it passes) have an effect, by allowing a member to remain in one house the whole time, thus potentially increasing the power of the Assembly Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem. That could restore some measure of party discipline needed to make consensus deal-making possible.
The Jerry and Molly show: But two other problems we identified – budget initiatives and boom-or-bust taxation – are actually aggravated by the tax-increase measures proposed by Gov. Brown and the headstrong Ms. Munger.
Brown is selling his tax as a boost to education. This is, as our old friend George Skelton has noted, something of a bait and switch since even Brown’s redoubtable adviser, Steve Glazer, acknowledged to Calbuzz that all the funds raised will not provide additional new money for schools. Moreover, because he was pushed from the left by the Courage Campaign and the CFT, his tax measure will rely more on the fortunes of rich people and less on the broad public through sales taxes than he had hoped for. (And it’s easy to understand why Brown would want to oversell his measure: according to the latest USC/LA Times poll, more than six in 10 voters like what he’s selling.)
But at least his measure wouldn’t further restrict options with dedicated funding like Munger’s income-tax-increase-for-nearly-everyone measure would. Her measure is another example of someone attempting to lead from the left creating headaches for a governor attempting to lead from the center.
As Calbuzz Poet Laureate William Butler Yeats wrote just 19 years before Gov. Gandalf was born:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Jerry Brown is a centrist. Like Wilson, Davis, Schwarzenegger, he is trying to hold the center while those filled with passionate intensity flap and swirl around him. It is no service to the civic good for those on his left to set loose mere anarchy.
Another SCOTUS coup d’etat? Not since the Bush-Gore decision has the right-wing of the U.S. Supreme Court made such an outrageous, non-democratic power grab as it positioned to do in deciding the constitutionality of Obamacare. By scheduling six hours of oral argument on the case this week — more than any other matter in nearly a half-century — the court’s Roberts-Scalia-Alito-Thomas clique now has legal cover to carry out the partisan political agenda many legal experts fear it will soon carry out by overturning health care reform.
As Linda Greenhouse, the ex-New York Times reporter who superbly covered the court for years, has made clear, there is no serious question that the action by Congress in establishing the health insurance mandate, the central issue in the case, is authorized by the Commerce Clause. For Roberts et al to produce this made-for-cable dog and pony show to suggest there are sweeping constitutional issues raised by the legislation is a deeply cynical bid to once more serve as purely political enablers of the Republican Party.