Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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State of the State Advice: Try for Understated

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If something seems funny about Jerry Brown’s first State of the State Address tonight (well, his first SOS this time around), you’re not imagining things.

Traditionally, a California governor gives the big speech within the first two weeks of January. The roll-out goes something like this: Stage of the State on Monday or Tuesday, big bad budget announcement on Thursday, q&a at the Sacramento Press on Friday, then four-and-a-half weeks of tedium until the budget’s “May Revise” (translation: adjusting the January forecast for the reality of April revenues).

So why would Brown break with standard operating procedure, and opt instead to give an address closer to Groundhog Day than national hangover-and-college-bowl day?

My guess:

1) Practical Politics. Assuming Brown gives a lengthier oration than his 17-minute inaugural address back on Jan. 3, then it’s safe to say he’ll get into more than the sad state of California’s fiscal affairs. Twenty-seven days ago, this would have been a problem as it would have risked overshadowing priorities number one, two and three for the new Brown administration: convincing enough legislative Democrats and Republicans to get on board with a package of spending cuts and tax cuts, then getting said package on the ballot by mid-March, for a June special election. Sure, Brown will start with the budget tonight. But part of the fun is figuring where he goes after that. For nearly four weeks, it’s been all budget mess, all the time. The governor’s made his point. Now it’s safe to broaden the conversation.

2) Practical Mechanics. Having written a few of these speeches myself (for Pete Wilson, back in the late ’90’s), I can assure you that Brown would have had yet another problem had he tried this back on, oh say, Jan. 9 or so. In drafting the SOS, you look for input from the governor’s appointees out in Agencyland. Moreover, you need those appointees to fact-check what assertions you choose. In case you haven’t noticed, this governor hasn’t been in a rush to fill those vacancies. Imagine the fun of this:“So today I’m calling on my Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing to . . . Huh? What’s that? I don’t have a BT&H secretary.  Hey, skip that thought.” It was amusing when the governor lost his way in his inaugural. We called it quirky. Less amusing if it happens again. He’d look downright disorganized.

3) Practical Magic. We expect our leaders to show vision.  Done majestically, like Ronald Reagan, and we fall in love. Done skillfully, like Barack Obama, and we’re willing to give a first-term senator with scant achievement the benefit of the doubt. Jerry Brown is unusual in this regard: he breezed through last year’s gubernatorial race and his early days office with little emphasis on the future. Californians chose not so much a chief executive last fall as a CFO — someone to make sense of California’s finances. With tonight’s address, Brown now gets a promotion: to CEO. Tell us where you see California five years from now, sir, not five months.

A couple of other thoughts, from the ex-speechwriter’s peanut gallery:

1) It wouldn’t kill Brown to say a few words about the unrest in Egypt. Simply because it’s a reminder that people are willing to risk their lives for freedom. A lot of words have been devoted on this blog and others to the running-down of the state of democracy in California. I’d like to see the governor remind us that our system, though flawed, is precious nonetheless.

2) McKinley Elementary. If you haven’t been following the saga of this struggling school in Compton, I suggest you read up on it. Parents at school have attempted to use California’s “Parent Trigger” law to rescue their kids from the clutches from a chronically failing public-ed system. Compton Unified, in return, has done its best (or worst) to keep McKinley from being converted into a charter school. Noticeably absent in this debate: the new governor (and Kamala Harris and Barack Obama). If Jerry Brown wants to prove that he’s a common-sense education reformer, here’s a good place to start.

Rhetorically, less can be more

3) Brevity. For goodness sake, brevity. President Obama’s State of the Union speech was a sprawling, attention-challenging 62 minutes in length — it look Lincoln less than three minutes to deliver his Gettysburg Address. It started as a theme (“Win the Future” . . . yes, “WTF” for those of you who like to speak in Internet code). It turned into a back-and-forth on all things focus-grouped. The president reached out to his base, he reached out to spending skeptics. He hugged teachers. He saluted the military. He sent a shout-out to gay donors (“don’t ask, don’t tell”) . . . he quickly pivoted and called for expanding ROTC on college campuses. And so it went. A State of the Union, yes — if you define “union” as swing voters in Ohio and Florida. Gov. Brown’s inaugural address was, for all practical matters, the budget part of tonight’s speech. He can devote less time to it tonight, if he likes, and more to that elusive vision.

Then again, I thought Obama could have delivered a different speech last week — devoted entirely, as Brown did in sticking to the budget, not to the state of the union but to the state of Washington’s finances (the President facing a mid-February face-off on the budget, and a debt-ceiling pas de deux beginning in March). Once he settled the debt ceiling, the president could have marched back to the Hill for that “WTF” agenda.

There’s no need for 62 minutes of consternation, triangulation and self-adulation in Sacramento tonight. Jerry Brown should strive for quality, not quantity.

A State of the State that’s . . . tastefully understated.


Written by Bill Whalen

January 31, 2011 at 8:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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