Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why Jerry Brown's shoe-string campaign is haunting California

On November 3, California’s political pundits were waxing lyrical about Jerry Brown’s political savvy, his genius, his acumen.  About how, even factoring in spending by his (now-spurned) union allies, he’d fended off the nation’s most comprehensive-ever attempt to buy high office by Republican Meg Whitman.

Brown had ignored the advice of his party and op-eds, sat the summer out, hardly deigned to hit the campaign trail through the early stages of the fall, and eschewed grassroots organising.  He argued that he could coast to victory in November by relying on name recognition, limited spending by labour allies, California’s traditional Democratic-tilt, the Republican Party’s propensity towards self-destruction, and a well-placed eleventh-hour barrage of television ads.

And the man who’s done it all—LA Community College Board Trustee, California Secretary of State, two-term Governor, three-time Presidential candidate, California Democratic Party Chairman, Mayor of Oakland, California Attorney General—confounded his critics and, in common with other Democratic candidates in California, bucked the national trend by crushing his Republican opponent.  And his victory put him in a position that, to the casual observer, looked enviable. 

In 2008, Obama’s high-spending, intense political campaign garnered him a heady seven-point victory over Republican John McCain, majorities between 56 and 60% of the Senate, and around 58% in the House of Representatives.  Brown had beat Meg Whitman by 13%, and his party had 63% of the seats in the State Senate and 65% of seats in the State Assembly.  And his was a more unified caucus than Obama’s—the Democrats in California’s State Legislature are, compared with their national counterparts, highly progressive.

But he’s learned something that—savvy pol that he is—he should have known already.  Electoral victory means very little when it comes to governing, especially if the opposition party is hell-bent wreaking mindless destruction all around it.  And the dangers of an electoral victory of the type won by Brown are multiple.  He won a personal electoral victory, but his campaign was so bare-bones, so policy-lite, that he didn’t win a mandate for any signature policy, platform or philosophy. 

He knew what the political arithmetic would look like...California’s districts are so thoroughly gerrymandered that they have lost all capacity to throw up surprises.  He knew that Democrats haven’t been able to break the two-thirds hurdle necessary to pass the tax increases that are necessary to drag the state out of its woes.  And yet he assumed that he could rely on the good-will of a handful of Republicans to, if not pass a budget, at least put it before the people—per his idiotic campaign pledge—so that they could have a say on the maintenance of current tax levels which are necessary to close the budget gap.

Now in the world inhabited by most people, this would be a reasonable assumption.  If the alternative was closing University of California campuses, doubling UC tuition, cutting the K-12 school year, cutting police, slashing social services and mass-layoffs, most people would see the maintenance of current tax rates as an eminently reasonable measure.  The more daring among them might even suggest that, given people’s vulnerability in an economic downturn, now might be the time to shore up our social system, cut tuition, get more people into higher education to aid California in making an economic comeback, and improving our schools. 

This fit of social conscientiousness is all the easier to imagine given the tax breaks we’ve historically handed out to an irresponsible energy sector, to corporations who’ve repaid us by out-sourcing jobs and creating new loop-holes for themselves, and to the extremely wealthy.  It seems reasonable to cash-in on the good-will that Californians have surely cultivated amongst those sectors in a time of hard-ship for those on incomes that aren’t buoyed by bail-outs, bonuses and tax breaks.

But California’s Republican Party inhabits, and has for some time, an alternative universe.  Undeterred by the evidence demonstrating that trickle-down economics was a failure for all but the wealthy, the Republican Party has launched a ferocious assault on public servants, public institutions and, most disturbingly, on the very idea of public good.

While denouncing the deployment of a socioeconomic safety-net for the weak, the sick, the poor, the young or the elderly as ‘government interference’, the Republican Party has never been shy about mounting a full-court press on behalf of wealth—using all of the machinery of government.  The philosophy of the party of the liberal individual is, in short: social welfare for individuals—No!; corporate welfare for the wealthy—Yes! 

Now in many political systems a party that can rake in at most 38% of seats wouldn’t be in a position to actively promote this vision.  But the Republican Party flourishes in California’s political system which inhibits the Legislature’s ability to raise revenue through property tax—an undifferentiated system, making no distinction between individual home-ownership and corporate property—while calling for a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.  This is Minority Rule.

The Republican Party has found that it can accomplish its destructive vision by kicking back and voting—No, no, no, and no, time and again.  Its members, unencumbered by any feeling of responsibility to their constituents, have gone so far as to sign the deceptively-titled Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which assures constituents that signatories would plunge the nation into a debt crisis or depression before they would vote to raise taxes.

This Party, which thrives on inculcating a fear of Government in its supporters, while using that same Government to promote the interests of a select and wealthy few, has had the nerve to accuse Democrats of scaremongering when they draw up a model of what the all-cuts budget that Republicans are calling for would look like.  This is an exceptionally hypocritical claim to make because Republicans who benefit from Minority Rule in California have all the power to kill any budget they’re unhappy with, while none of the responsibility that comes with actually drawing up a budget.  Sadly, Democrats are right in their portrayal of what our society would look like on the heels of an all-cuts budget.

Which brings us to where we are now: Republicans refusing to even allow Californians to vote on a budget, and offering an alternative that would strip away the social safety net while crippling education and law-enforcement and privatising our university system by turning it into an socially-selective institution.

Back to Brown...why does his shoe-string campaign bear much of the responsibility for our plight?

Because by satisfying himself with coasting to an electoral victory he utterly failed to built the grassroots support for his candidacy or for any kind of progressive agenda.  Which means that now, as he criss-crosses the state to drum up support for his budget—already deferred by the Republican Party—he has to start from scratch.  He has to develop arguments that he should have been making a year ago.  He has to try to create a network that a serious, committed politician like Obama realised he had to have in place before an electoral victory. 

Brown may have been right to assert that his credentials, party-affiliation and name-recognition would be enough to allow him to coast to office against a woman who asked Californians to put their state up for sale to the highest bidder.

But he clearly didn’t think through the implications of failing to engage with the public, of failing to build a network of supporters, of failing to be frank about what addressing the budget crisis would mean.  If Brown had created such a network, he would have been able to mobilise it to get the budget on the July ballot by signatures alone—and again, he should have seen the need for such a move long before last month. 

The costs of his failures are severe.  Not only does our state face uncertainty, cuts will drive many public servants out of work, require retrenchment within the private sector, badly damage the quality of K-12 education and—should Republicans be able to marshal public opinion against Brown’s budget in the four months they’ve bought themselves with their irresponsible tactics—spell the end of the public University of California.

Because make no mistake...the corporate-oriented leadership of the University of California, held in check so far by progressives in the state legislature, student and faculty protest, and public opinion, will not pass up the chance to free the University system (or at least its elite campuses) from what they see as the fickle embrace of California.  They will aim to create differentiated fees across the system, at campuses which abandon the ambition of fostering citizenship through a broad range of courses, slowly depart from the dual teaching-research mission and with it, the commitment to fostering student socioeconomic diversity.

If Brown’s miscalculation were to lead to the destruction of California’s public higher education system—the finest in the world—it would be tragic for our state, but a symbolic moment—heralding, as it would, the ascendancy of moneyed power and personal greed over social solidarity and a commitment to fairness.

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