I had the pleasure of traveling to California last week, a place D.H. Lawrence once described as “crazy sensible” because its people think about “just the moment: hardly as far ahead as carpe diem.”
Lawrence was no electoral sage, but he accurately diagnosed how yielding to short-term political pressure produced major problems for the Golden State. Its self-preservation, however, requires a much broader perspective. The state desperately needs to reform its political culture. It can limp down its current path toward fiscal bankruptcy – or alter course and save itself.
Not unlike a Hollywood melodrama punctuated by an old timer seeking redemption, the race for California’s governorship provides a stark example of the choice confronting the state.
The 72-year old Democratic nominee Jerry Brown touts a government employment resume as long as the state’s coastline. He is the current attorney general and formerly held posts as governor, mayor of Oakland, and secretary of state.
While not always seeing eye-to-eye with public employee unions and environmental special interests in past political incarnations, the new and not-improved Brown is now their darling. These are the same folks that swung a wrecking ball into the state’s economy in recent years.
Demolition is an appropriate metaphor. Unemployment is near 13 percent. The share of the state’s budget required to service its debt has ballooned by 143 percent over the past decade, and it is projected to increase by another 50 percent over the next five years. California now has the 44th worst lawsuit climate in the country and ranks second to last when it comes to its business tax environment. It also ranks in the bottom 10 in math, reading, and science scores.
Newsweek even hosted a forum earlier this year asking ominously if California had become the nation’s “first failed state.”
If Brown wins, it will signal a victory for an unsustainable ideology – a triumph for anti-growth, pro-public sector unions, and environmental interest groups.
The Republican nominee is former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Her strong business credentials and lack of a government employment pedigree may be just what the state needs to dig out of its disarray.
Whitman’s challenge to public employee unions’ hegemony is already generating vicious political attacks. My first morning here, Yahoo! served up an ad on my laptop from a group called “California Working Families,” asking: “What Else is Meg Whitman Lying About?” “California Working Families” is a union-funded group.
Last week, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka – the titular crane operator swinging the wrecking ball – visited California to bash away at Whitman, calling her one of two clueless CEO’s – the other, of course, being Carly Fiorina who is challenging Senator Barbara Boxer to represent California in Washington.
“In the political showdown between Wall Street and Main Street, California is Ground Zero,” Trumka said, according to Politico. “Nowhere else in the nation are voters' choices in November so stark… Sisters and brothers, this is crazy.”
No, what’s “crazy” is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.
Over the past decade, California drifted into the clenches of a political monopoly – a Democratic Party largely controlled, operated, and financed by public employee unions.
John J. Pitney Jr., Crocker professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, agrees.
“In California, ‘D’ stands for ‘default option,’” Pitney told me. “According to Gallup, Democrats have a 20-point lead in party ID.”
Organized labor’s power also translates to a strong ground game. “To the extent that there is any grassroots activism in the state, it is mostly the work of organized labor, especially the public employee unions,” Pitney observed. “This year, they understand the stakes. They have a checkered history with Brown, but they are afraid of Whitman and will do whatever it takes to beat her. The GOP has nothing comparable.”
But Whitman is not without her own assets, literally. She has a large campaign war chest, including a commitment to spend up to $150 million of her own money, a sum that would set a new record for self-funding in American politics.