Saturday, August 3, 2013

Brown Should Run for Re-Election on Reform

California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, is a man notorious for his ability to transcend his own contradictions.  Put another way, California’s public is notorious for its indulgence of these contradictions, even when they come at a high cost to the state. 

On the one hand, Brown sells himself as a big thinker, a man with the future ever on his mind, and a skilled, knowledgeable manager.  On the other, he refuses to tackle California’s big issues, preferring to dabble in small fixes and short-termist politics, and the “future” for Brown rarely seems to extend beyond his next bid for office.  He is content to muddle along from one election to the next, passing the buck to the voters through his ballot-box budgeting, and presiding over a polity which increasingly looks like a failed state (the momentary reprieve granted by Prop 30—which in actuality is a representative example of that failure—aside).

The last thing California needs is some bland technocrat, but even such a technocrat would realise that his or her ability to manage the state is severely hampered by its broken system of government.  In 2010, Brown missed a real opportunity to put large-scale political reform on the agenda, preferring to run a bare bones campaign hampered by neither policy commitments nor ambitions for our state.  While some of his electoral victory that year can be ascribed to Democrats’ registration advantages statewide, Brown’s own brand—based on his experience in government, policy knowledge, and understanding of the governing apparatus—played a significant role.

That made him uniquely placed to lay out a comprehensive version of reform (for some idea of what such a reform package might look like, read Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It).  Instead, drawing on his uniquely-deep reservoir of irresponsibility, he has effectively frittered away his second first term of government, during which he played a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the public, forcing a series of devastating cuts—the damage of which will continue to be felt for years to come—on the state.  The damage he inflicted on California was a petty indulgence, driven by Brown’s calculation that cruel austerity would be more likely to yield a victory for his band-aid initiative than the serious work of campaigning or opening up a conversation about the future of our state. 

His re-election—which many see as inevitable—is 15 months away, and already Brown has built up a massive financial advantage over prospective Republican rivals (he won in 2010 even when outspent something like 5-1).  According to the Los Angeles Times, Brown has something like $13 million on hand, while fellow opportunist Abel Maldonado has $45,000, and certified lunaticTim Donnelly has $27,000.  As Brown’s own electoral victory in 2010 demonstrated, cash isn’t everything, but combined with name recognition, Democrats’ demographic advantages, the GOP’s rabid fundamentalism, and the Brown Brand,  the election could well be a formality.

There could be a silver lining to such a scenario.  Unburdened by any need to expend much energy in countering serious rival candidates, Brown could depart from his lazy opportunism and use what would surely be his final political campaign to treat Californians like grown-ups and offer us a serious reform deal that could provide our republic with an escape route from its downward spiral, its crippling dysfunctionality, our tepid democratic process, and the radical social irresponsibility which has characterised social relations in the not-so-Golden State over the past four decades.

Brown could offer to use his unique position in state politics to break the stranglehold of the two big parties on our electoral process, and simultaneously work to free that process from the tentacles of the special interests.  Brown could reconfigure our direct democracy, integrating it into our system of governance instead of preserving it as an anomalous-feeling carbuncle on the margins of our structure.  He could re-imagine our state’s constitution as a broad document offering guidelines and safeguards, instead of the monstrosity that it is today, riddled with specifics about the tax-code, spending formulas, and laden with shackles, like some choose-your-own adventure story with only awful endings.  He could offer a reformulation of our legislature, as a body actually capable of doing its job, responding to events, and exercising discretion, instead of one easily sabotaged by a small minority and only capable of executing its duties in a state of one-party hegemony.

Such a re-founding of California would, of course, be difficult.  It would need to overcome the opposition of vested interests—both the Republican and Democratic parties, and all of those lobby organisations which have settled into a position in which they effortlessly exert influence over the system.  It would need to conquer the cynicism of voters who place little trust in their elected leaders and who persistently refuse to take responsibility for their own actions.  And it would need to overcome the structural barriers which would impede transformational reform just as they do the everyday practises of governance. 

Brown’s austerity drive and Obama’s embrace of the Bush administration’s terrorism have turned me into an un-registered voter who generally supports the Green Party (which like other parties besides the Democrats and Republicans is prevented from attaining any influence by a prehistoric electoral system).  I’m unlikely to re-register with any party, but I could find it in me to vote for the likes of Brown in 2014 if he found it in him to take California’s structural and democratic plight seriously and tackle our state’s problems with the same solicitousness he has shown his own career over his many decades in public life. 

He should not miss this opportunity to leave a productive mark on the state to which he has attached his fortunes over the nearly forty years since he was first elected Governor.

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