Advancing a Free Society

How Now, Brown Guv?

Friday, December 9, 2011

I have a confession to make: I’m not color-blind, but I do have trouble seeing brown . . . with a capital “b”, as in the current Governor of California.

A year ago, I was of the opinion that the newly elected and reminted Jerry Brown – returning the same he’d held three decades previously -- might be a surprise elixir for an ailing Golden State.

My reasoning: (a) Brown was too long in the tooth to get drawn into presidential politics, a chronic problem with California governors; (b) he was so contrarian and unwed to cliché assumptions that he might effectively flit between the warring factions in Sacramento; (c) he was on a mission to rewrite the flaky “Moonbeam” image, which bode well for more results and less tomfoolery.

A year later, I haven’t given up on Brown, but I do see his sophomore season as maybe his last shot at proving he was worth the price of readmission to the Governor’s Office.

Figure it this way: Brown’s first year was, for the most part, a bust. He thought he could navigate a bipartisan tax deal through the Legislature. That failed. He thought he could introduce serious budget reform. Instead, he pulled a u-ey and signed off a gimmicky spending plan.

And so it went for 2011.

But in 2012, Brown is gambling on a different outcome.

He’s wagering he can get that $7 billion tax hike done – via the initiative process, next November, and not a legislative avenue.

As for that pesky, deficit-ridden budget, we’ll know about that soon enough when the governor deals with both “trigger” reductions and a new spending blueprint due in early January (a blueprint, we’re assuming, that assumes the guv’s $7 billion tax increase passes next November).

Can Brown get his way?

It won’t be easy.

The November 2012 ballot already looks like a minefield of tax-and-spend ideas. And California’s State Legislature, though dominated by the governor’s fellow Democrats, has all the warmth and fuzziness of a stroll through Kandahar Province.

And that leaves us with this question: if it’s a changed outcome Gov. Brown desires, is it time to change tactics and, rather than play the part of the muted insider as he did in 2011, instead venture outside the State Capitol and – like the biggest Democrat of them all, President Obama – engage in a little 1% bashing?

Brown unveiled his tax-the-wealthy initiative this week. But unlike Obama, there was no sentimental journey to a different time and place. California’s governor instead posted this open letteron his gubernatorial website. Moreover,, rather than doing what Obama did in Kansas (asking the wealthy to dig deeper, and in the process using some suspect facts), Brown stayed in technocratic mode and played up the programmatic downside of not raising taxes: such horribles as reducing California’s school year and denying aid to the disabled and low-income seniors.

The problem with this approach: Californians have been hearing about budget horribles for several years now. They’re not immune to the shortfalls facing the state, but I’d argue they’re already heard this movie – the movie-star governor, in fact, warning three years ago of California facing a looming “fiscal Armageddon”.

What Brown needs is a game-changer. A way to free himself from the dysfunction that is California’s legislative process. A way to free himself from the clutter of multiple tax initiatives.

Perhaps California’s governor needs to think of 2012 as the year when he stepped out of the Capitol bubble, risked some political capital (Brown’s 36% disapproval rating is 8 points better than Obama’s 44% in California), and engaged directly with the real world beyond Sacramento.

A sophomore slump on the governor’s part, coming after a mistake-riddled freshman year, is good news for those who covet Jerry Brown’s job – he’s either a vulnerable incumbent seeking reelection in 2014, or might grow sick of the job and not seek a second term.

But it also means another year when California didn’t properly address its financial woes and let too many big decisions go unaddressed – thus fueling voter distrust and disdain.

And all Californians lose, under the scenario.

This is not to suggest that voters should pass his tax increase. Rather, it’s a call for Brown – a victim, if you will, of the natural attention deficit that followed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s departure from Sacramento – to do a better job of trying to raise his office’s profile.

Maybe Brown doesn’t have it in him, at this point in his career, to be a born-again populist or a latter-day Hiram Johnson (ironically, the legendary progressive governor who gave California the same initiative process that is now Brown’s lifeline).

But he can step up his game and do try harder at engaging the public in all that is wrong with the state.

It seems the least Jerry can do given that, in his ongoing effort to rescue California, he’s asking voters to come to his rescue.