Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Archive for March 2011

One Drought Ends, Another Continues

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Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown (l): down . . . and out?

On the same day that California Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to California’s drought, the state’s political press corps was fast writing the early obituary for the governor’s efforts to rig a special election to let voters sign off on state budget cuts and tax extensions.

Talk about an interesting turn of events: the state’s water shortage ends; its leadership shortage continues.

Here’s how I see it.

In 2008, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide water drought. If only the political drought were that short. I take the latter shortfall — the failure of leadership in the Governor’s Office — back a decade ago to the second half of Gray Davis’ first term, when he began to take on water from the combined weight of a burst tech bubble, persnickety legislative Democrats, and rolling blackouts. Unable to tread such turbulent waters, Davis was recalled in October 2003.

Enter Arnold, who promised to part the waves and magically deliver needed reforms to Sacramento. Unfortunately, the Governator couldn’t walk on water. Crushed in a special election in 2005, Schwarzenegger ditched the reform boom that he carried into office.

And now, Jerry Brown. His selling point last November: as a former two-term governor, he knew how to navigate the same waters that Arnold and Gray couldn’t. But, if indeed the governor’s tax-and-cut strategy is dead (in the water), then it took not even 100 days for the latest governor’s aspirations to find . . . a watery grave.

I spent a good part of Wednesday talking to reporters about the obligatory “why” and “what next”.

The former, I think, is pretty obvious. Everyone’s to blame to this one, as George Skelton correctly notes.  Legislative Republicans with newfound leverage over-reached (seriously, guys, moving the state primary to March and funding state fairs?).

Legislative Democrats also take a hit: the same folks who think it’s every Californians’ inalienable right to vote for higher taxes don’t think pension reform and budget caps deserve the same sunshine.

Brown also deserves a visit to the woodshed. The whole concept of a special election is because he didn’t have the guts, in last year’s election, to call for higher taxes and leave it as that; instead he adopted for special-election/modified-limited hangout.

And there’s California’s dysfunctional political system — one that produces few pragmatic centrists. Then again, that system is driven by voters who don’t much pay attention to Sacramento — and rarely punish the ruling class for failing to do its job.

Where California goes from here isn’t so clear. There’s still the option of muscling the governor’s scheme through the Legislature on a simple majority (i.e., party line) vote. But that may not pass legal muster.

Brown could call for a November election. But, by that time, the same proposed tax “extensions” would instead be tax “increases”. Sounds minor, but it makes for a tougher sell.

I’m interested in Brown, the man, at this point. I want to see how he handles the blame game: does he single-out the GOP for being so stubborn, or does he chalk up the failure of Plan A to those aforementioned problems with Sacramento?

Moreover, as a candidate who ran on the concept that he had the experience, the patience and the lack of national aspirations to stick to the job of making California government once again work (translation: I can do better than Arnold ever did or Meg Whitman ever would), what does the impasse say about Brown’s credibility as a difference-maker under the Capitol Dome?

It took voters the better part of two years to realize that neither Barack Obama nor Arnold Schwarzenegger could live up to their hype. While Jerry Brown didn’t enter office with such eager anticipation, it’s sad to see the bloom off the rose after less than 100 days on the job.

Unless Brown recovers gracefully from this setback and reconnects with the electorate as a leader who’s above the misery-in-motion that is Sacramento, he risks becoming a very early, very lame duck.


Written by Bill Whalen

March 31, 2011 at 3:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Choose a Budget Date, Any Date

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I’m hunkered down here at Stanford, waiting for Judgment Day. That’s Thursday, March 10: California Gov. Jerry’s Brown’s gotta-have-it-by date for getting legislative agreement on a cut-and-tax deal, in time for a June 7 special election.

This isn’t to be confused with Bush the Elder unleashing Desert Storm hours after his announced deadline. There is no hard deadline in Sacramento — only a lot of hard-headed pols. Unless I’m mistaken (and that’s been known to happen), March 10 will come and go without a deal. And, perhaps, March 15. And March 20. Maybe even March 25. Won’t all we political know-it-alls look like fools if April 1 arrives without  a deal in place.

Here’s the problem: the perfect deadline for getting this done already’s come and gone. And that was March 8. Lent. When the pious make a sacrifice for 40-some days. For Democrats: giving way on spending cuts. For Republicans: swallowing hard on taxes.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities ahead for the intrepid lawmakers in Sacramento. So I’d like to help out by offering some historical benchmarks.

March 12 — Franklin D. Roosevelt delivers his first “Fireside Chat”, in 1933. FDR has control of the airwaves and a rapt audience. These are two problems facing the new governor, with the gubernatorial bully pulp downsized to a post-Arnold reality.

March 14 — Albert Einstein’s 132nd birthday. Safe to say the word “genius” has never been applied for Sacramento politics, with the possible of “genius for avoidance”, “genius for failure”. Einstein’s father was an engineer and salesman — pretty much Jerry Brown’s job description these days (in addition to diplomat, arbitrtor and abnormal psychologist).

March 15 — The Ides of March. I’ll spare you the history/Shakespeare lecture. Is Brown’s face to be on the receiving end of angry unions, on his way to the Forum? Or will he be the one to turn on his erst-while friends. (btw, how unfortunate for Caesar that he didn’t live in Madison, Wisconsin, where some senators don’t bother to show up for work.)

March 17 — St Patrick’s Day. Can’t think of a better way to finish that day’s abdication of duty (the governor’s plan doesn’t solve California’s many problems, just kicks the can down the road) than by going out that same night and getting fall-down drunk.

March 19 — The 8th anniversary of U.S. invasion of Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Jerry’s gonna need some serious “shock and awe” to a wary/weary California electorate to buy into any scheme that has a Sacramento dateline.

March 21 — The 140th anniversary of Sir Henry Morton Stanley embarking on his mission to find Dr. Livingstone. California’s been stuck in a cycle of boom and bust economies for about as long. Or so it seems.

March 22 — The 246th anniversary of the Stamp Act’s approval by the British Parliament. Oops, better not let the Tea Party get a hold of this one. This one act didn’t trigger a revolution — it was a series of taxations without representation that led to the colonies breaking away. Is California headed for multi-year taxation cycle, or is the current debate in Sacramento a one-shot deal?

March 24 — The 22nd anniversary of Exxon Valdez running aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Need I say more . . . ?

March 26 — The 32nd anniversary of Israel and Egypt signing a peace treaty. Assuming we make it though a June special election, is there any chance of peace and coöperation in Sacramento, between Democrats and Republicans, for the rest of 2011? 

March 28 — 32nd anniversary of the near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island.  Maybe we save this one for if/when the on-again, off-again negotiations end once and for all, and the meltdown metaphors begin.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 10, 2011 at 12:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Thus Spake MoDowd

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Maureen Dowd

Californians, rest assured: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has visited the Golden State, sat down with Gov. Jerry Brown, hobnobbed with a few swells in La-La Land, and has declared the guv’s budgetary cut-and-tax scheme the responsible thing to do.

A word of caution before you read her column. If you read her stuff, you’ll recognize some of it as typical Dowd-iness: she has to include herself in the conversation, has to tell you what she’s eating, has to drop at least one pop culture reference, and has to include at least one celebrity sighting.

That much, I can tolerate.

Nor am I not the first to notice this trend.

What’s irksome is her conclusion that California is doing the responsible thing, as opposed to other states (Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, etc.) where new or relatively newly elected governors are in very public, very messy — and, arguably very necessary — showdowns with vested interests.

Here are, imo, the errors in Ms. Dowd’s thinking:

1) The California approach is not commendable — not in the sense that, at its core, its gutless. Rather than carry out their responsibilities as elected officials and settle matters under the Capitol dome, the California approach is to have lawmakers ask voters for political cover in the form of a special election. To use a tired cliché from the last election, that’s not “manning-up”.

2) Rather than address our more immediate concerns (California’s boom-or-bust economy, a crushing pension burden, the conundrum that is public education), anything passed in June is but a band-aid — Sacramento’s way of buying time until a recovery occurs a few years ahead. Granted, pension reform might be part of the bipartisan equation for getting the plan on the ballot, but the smart money says it comes nothing close to what the nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission has suggested. That all but guarantees a bigger ballot fight down the right.

3) California’s in its current bind — we gotta get a deal together as soon as March 10, no later by month’s end, in order to stage a special election on June 7 — because Jerry Brown put us in this box. He didn’t want to pull a Phil Angelides (or a Walter Mondale) and make himself the candidate of higher taxes, so he found a clever way to sidestep the liability: promise he’d only raise taxes . . . with the public’s consent. The governor is a clever man. But he complicated things this year by opting for a less-complicated candidacy last fall. Shame on him for trying it; shame on us for not smoking him out.

CA's new emblem?

4) Let’s suppose Brown scores two big wins in the next three months — he gets a bipartisan plan through the Legislature with enough Republican commitment to give it a whiff of bipartisan scent, and then gets voters’ sign-off. What comes next? There remains an A-Z of needed reforms in the Golden State. Where are the governor, Democratic legislators, loyal-opposition Republicans and California’s powerhouse special interests? The answer: all are stuck in neutral; none seems to have an Rx for ails California — other than to blame the other side and bemoan a dysfunctional political system. Call it what it is: a keen grasp of the obvious. In this respect, California is not a national role model. If anything, we’re fiddling while other states at least attempt to put out their fires.

Such is the problem, with the passive approach to managing a state. Too much fiddling . . . while the band plays on.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 6, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized