Monday, June 20, 2011

Saint Jerry takes California for a ride


It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally figured out who George Skelton (LA Times columnist) reminds me of.  Michael White, the Guardian’s preening, self-satisfied, “commonsense” political columnist, who wastes more column inches than you could shake a stick at defending the political, social and economic status quo.

Skelton’s analysis is often spot on, but he has a not-insignificant blind spot where Governor Jerry Brown is concerned.  His latest: “An honest state budget still eludes Gov. Jerry Brown, but he has acquired one priceless commodity: a reputation for consistency.  Conviction and commitment.  Says what he means, means what he says.  That’s an invaluable asset for a political leader.  It tends to make him believable, credible, respected”.

The first part of that I can follow, to a certain extent at least.  Californians shouldn’t be surprised at the appalling lack of leadership Brown has given where the principles that should underlie the construction of a state budget are concerned.  His campaign in 2010 made clear that there is scarcely a progressive bone in the man’s body, and that he sees his role as that of a manager rather than a pro-active leader.

Now the first problem with Skelton’s analysis is that Brown hasn’t been as clear as he suggests.  Last week he promised to look very closely at the Democrats’ budget.  If he had been really clear about his dedication to vetoing any of their proposals out of hand, he would have warned them not to waste their time in trying to deal seriously with California’s budget difficulties.  But, in a shallow political move, he led them along before scrambling back from the brink to regain his ill-gotten political capital by siding with Republicans in calling for more cuts to education, social services, employee rights and environmental regulation.

Skelton praises Brown for “vetoing a gimmicky budget”.  But this is praise that ill fits the man who, during his first eight-year tenure as governor, perfected the depressing art of gesture politics, such that many Democrats today think of ‘Brown Mark I’ as a progressive, when in fact he led disinvestment from public services, the ham-stringing of the state’s ability to raise revenue, and had, as his moving principle, the idea that governance by inaction was an effective strategy.

The fabled blue Plymouth and Southwest flights aside, Brown’s absurd campaign promise last fall that there would be no new taxes without the increases being put to Californians at the ballot box was nothing if not a gimmick to get him through November, with nary a thought to what such a promise would mean for the future.

But the worst comes last.  In a rhetorical stab at the Democratic-dominated (but not controlled) legislature, Skelton asks, “Why should a Democratic governor’s philosophical commitment be held in higher regard than a Republican legislator’s?”

This is my biggest problem with Brown: there isn’t, so far as I can see, any philosophy at work besides political self-preservation.  He’s fallen into the trap so cleverly set by the Republican Party and its neoliberal allies in the business and financial worlds, of treating a budget as the be-all-end-all of the political process.  Instead of stepping back and asking, “What are our values and what are the fundamental things that we, as a people, need to provide to each other?” and then working to find solutions that get us where we need—morally and socially—to be, Brown is caught up in scrambling to adjust our morals, our society and our culture around a budget, as though it were something sacred. 

I think that for Skelton and others to talk about “Brown’s burden of consistency” is not only inaccurate.  It is to entirely miss the point, which is that Brown, in common with the leaders of the state Republican Party, is holding the social and economic fabric of our state, and the well being of its inhabitants, hostage to a budget.  And that when Brown goes to the negotiating table, it is without any discernible set of principles other than that the budget must be balanced within the confines of our absurd political system whatever the costs are to Californians. 

Skelton and other Brown fans should think a little bit longer and harder about what they are cheer-leading for.

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