California Governor Jerry Brown loves pointing the finger. Sometimes it’s at Republicans for being intransigent. Occasionally it’s at progressives for not seeing things his way. But usually it’s a complementary finger directed at Jerry Brown himself, for being the “adult in the room” who administers tough love to the citizens of California who, time and again, have elected the man who can dodge responsibility like no other.
Brown’s latest? To attack Democrats in the course of negotiations on the state budget for their fiscal irresponsibility in trying to protect what they regard as critical sections of the public welfare system.
For Brown to call anyone irresponsible is a laugh.
This is the Governor who basically refused to campaign during 2010, contenting himself with a few anti-Meg Whitman ads, and not deigning to explain to Californians how he would govern. This is the Governor who refused to take responsibility for developing an approach to the budget crisis during the election cycle, instead sycophantically promising to give voters the say on any revenue. In other words, Jerry Brown hasn’t ever been particularly interested in doing the job he’s elected to do.
Once Governor, he continued dragging his feet and putting off developing an approach to either our financial or democratic deficit. He dabbled in negotiations with the Republican Party, which anyone who’s picked up a newspaper in the last decade could have told him would be futile, and finally, earlier this year decided to make good on his promise to pass the buck to Californians and put a tax measure on the ballot.
But even in cooking-up a short-term fix to California’s problems, Brown is dodging the real problem. His long career is primarily defined by a broad streak of political cowardice, which has always prevented him from doubling down on the state’s serious problems and from facing up to reality. It became a truism amongst political commentators that Brown’s stint as Mayor of Oakland had grounded him in the process, and in one of his more notable Brown-isms during the 2010 campaign, Brown himself declared that “the process is the plan”.
That sounded good, because California’s existing process is almost uniquely dysfunctional, and badly needs overhauling. But Brown has been steadfast in refusing to make eye contact with the oath-swearing, pledge-taking, die-in-the-last-ditch defenders of California’s most sacred and stupid cow, Proposition 13. Prop 13 not only created a foolishly undifferentiated property tax system which created protections for ordinary homeowners and loopholes for the extraordinarily wealthy. It also wrote the supermajority rules into California’s constitution. The resulting state of affairs means that it takes two-thirds of the state legislature to raise revenue and a minority as small as 33%, given the growth in both population and complexity in California during the past decades, to shred our state’s social system.
Of course, the existence of Prop 13 is a testament not just to the cleverness of affluent real-estate interests which created a defining feature of California’s corporate welfare system while selling it as a populist measure to protect the little guy. It’s also a testament to the laziness, inaction, and irresponsibility of the man who was then Governor—Jerry Brown.
Some things don’t change. In this—surely his ninth and last political life—Brown is starring as the hard-man, who calls out his own party for “fiscal irresponsibility” while putting his own ineptitude on display. Now, as then, Brown’s approach is one totally devoid of moral and personal responsibility. Rather than look out for the welfare of Californians at large, Brown looks after number-one.
If Brown had an ounce of self-respect and an iota of sense of responsibility, he’d put the distracting budget wrangle on hold, not making further cuts to valuable services and institutions this year. He’d explain to legislators and the public that there are bigger, deeper, structural problems in California’s politics, and that only by addressing these issues will we be able to properly define and pursue our priorities. It is only once we’ve closed this democratic deficit that we will be able to go about our politics in a rational manner—one in which elections, and the decisions of voters matter; in which elections are fair, and better reflect voters’ viewpoints; and in which Californians themselves assume responsibility for the considerable role that they play in shaping the politics of our state. That, focussing on the fundamentals of our politics so that we can then debate the needs of our society and then deal with the specifics of the budget, would be the honest thing to do.
But he’s Jerry Brown.
So he won’t.