Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Would Jerry Brown Make a Good President?


Unsure of whether to laugh or cry, I instead sought to wake myself from what I was sure would prove to be nothing more than a particularly vivid nightmare.  But despite my best efforts, the headline would not go away.  I instead decided to concentrate my efforts on dismissing what was manifestly an absurd proposition.  After all, a White House run by California’s Governor would require a king-sized dose of delusion, an outsized ego, the ability to misrepresent accomplishments and mislead about ambitions, combined with the ability to flip and flop along the Clintons, who wrote the book on political reinvention. 
And then my head sunk into my hands, for I realised that I had just described Jerry Brown. 
The LA Times article led off with a recitation of homilies that may very well have been written by Brown’s own office.  They were certainly written by someone who is unfamiliar with the state of California, a descriptor that could be accurately applied to Brown, who appears to live in another state, Denial.
According to author Mark Barabak, Brown “boasts a household name, an impressive list of accomplishments in the country’s most populous state some once deemed ungovernable—glowing national media coverage and a deep familiarity with the pitfalls and rigors of a White House bid, having run three times before”.
Brown undoubtedly offers experience and name recognition.  But I strenuously disagree with the idea that Brown has accomplishments in California of which he can be proud, or that he has contributed to making California more governable than it was when he was elected in 2010.  But the article persists in this vein.  “The governor”, it notes, “has widely touted California’s comeback and his record as a model for the rest of the country and, especially, a dysfunctional Washington, D.C.  With support from an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature—and a combination of spending cuts and voter-approved tax hikes—Brown has brought the state’s deficit ridden budget under control, overhauled the education finance system to benefit poorer students, pushed through major environmental initiatives and reaped the benefits—job growth, an improved housing market—of a slow but steady economic recovery”.
Before dispatching the honesty of that portrayal of Brown—cultivated by a vapid national press establishment which comes crawling to hear the Governor’s tiresome homilies—let us deal with the blindingly obvious.  The “successes” that Barabak credits to Brown came as a result of California’s peculiar conditions.  No president is likely to have Democratic supermajorities in Congress.  And the president cannot—and should not—engage in ballot-box budget writing. 
Now on to the real problem with this Panglossian interpretation of our Governor, who resembles less some classical sage in the agora of the “new California” than an addled Nero, fiddling to some orchestra only he can hear atop a social and economic tinderbox. 
Brown’s accomplishments are remarkable in one respect...that they have been tolerated by California’s voters.  Elected Governor by a progressive coalition, he spent two years shredding the state’s social net with a frighteningly deliberate vigour.  He then persuaded voters to pass cosmetic tax increases which he sold as a “fix” but which will do nothing over the long term to address the state’s striking democratic deficit, or the momentum his tenure has given to the fundamentalist doctrine of austerity. 
Jerry Brown is like a thug who mugs someone on the street, takes $50, later returns the victim $10, and expects them to be grateful.  With Brown, it’s always one step forward and two—or three—steps back.
The notion that his tenure in California provides a “model” for the country is risible.  Brown’s model is only any good if you can endorse his punitive assault on public libraries, public parks, public schools, public universities, care for children, and support for the young, the sick, the weak, and the poor.  He balanced the budget on the backs of the working class in a way that has eviscerated California’s civil society and has made some of our state’s most treasured institutions—like the University of California—dramatically more unequal places. 
Far from being novel, this is what Republicans in D.C. have been clamouring for.  Brown has totally ignored the democratic deficit in California, a deficit manifested in the infamous Prop 13 (with its supermajority requirements and tax restrictions), in the disjuncture between the power and responsibilities of voters, in the disconnected nature of the state’s formal and informal governing structures, and in the antiquated voting system California shares with the national government.  By selling his pet initiative as a “fix”, Brown has made it infinitely more difficult for future state leaders to explain to voters that no, nothing was really fixed, and we might need more from them.
Brown has advanced the argument that tax increases in California should require a public vote (of course the same would not apply to cuts to social welfare), a move which is not only a signal abdication of responsibility on his own part, but which introduces an extraordinary degree of uncertainty into an already farcical political process.  He has also proved totally unwilling to do anything with the supermajorities his progressive coalition has won for his party.  Brown has justified the state’s retreat from responsibility in many spheres through his crackpot exposition of “subsidiarity”, which he promptly violates as he seeks to micromanage California’s Universities into marketplaces rather than institutes of higher learning.
The Los Angeles Times quoted Rose Ann DeMoro, a Brown political ally, as saying, “I think Jerry is precisely what America needs.  He has the courage of his convictions, which we haven’t seen in a very long while”. 
Not to put too fine a point on it, but DeMoro is nuts.  California has not become more governable under Jerry Brown.  It has become a place where our governing principles, our governing institutions, and our governors themselves are increasingly dysfunctional, deluded, and disordered.  We live in a place where corrupt prison quotas count for more than children, and where only an abjectly amoral cynic like Brown could thrive as a politician.  Brown governs with more myopic Zen than communitarian zest, more inspired by what the polls whisper than by what any moral compass tells him.
That he looks like an improvement over Hillary Clinton says more about how appalling the prospect of a Clinton Coronation is than about any qualities that our Governor brings to the table.  There are good, progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren who are committed to an affirmative program that transcends their personal ambitions.  Brown offers no such commitment.  His most recent tenure in California has been a case study in political malpractice, and as maddening as the rest of the country might be, I wouldn’t wish Jerry Brown on anyone! 

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