Brown might do well to take cue from predecessor

Located just a short stroll from California’s Capitol, Memorial Auditorium has long been a venue for political celebrations. More recently, it has been a graveyard for governors of the Golden State.

Former Gov. Gray Davis held his second swearing-in at the big building in Sacramento. Eleven months later, he was out of a job. His replacement, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, visited the auditorium a week before his historic recall win. Arnold vowed to mend state government’s dysfunctional ways — his reform agenda was unceremoniously terminated.

That Gov.-elect Jerry Brown would choose the same locale to begin a dialogue on the predominant issue facing him in 2011 — a state budget deficit that’s $28 billion and climbing — shows the once and future “Governor Moonbeam” is not superstitious. But just what he can achieve, beyond one-day summits and public posturing, is anyone’s guess.

Having held the job from 1975 to 1983, Brown is returning to the Governor’s Office either in an act of civic-mindedness or as a compulsive campaigner.

He has nowhere (else) to run. At age 72, Brown will soon be the nation’s oldest governor. Sure, there is no stopping Brown from challenging President Barack Obama in 2012 if he wants to be a latter-day Harold Stassen. The problem is, unlike his “we-the-people” crusade against President Bill Clinton and the Democratic establishment in 1992, Governor Moonbeam 2.0 was not designed with ideology in mind. In California’s 2010 gubernatorial race, Brown did not campaign as a neo- or paleo-Democrat.

Instead, he offered himself as a tightwad and an experienced government hand — in short, the anti-Meg Whitman. It is not what the left craves in the way of an anti-Obama insurgency. This is good news for Californians, who have suffered the consequences of three previous governors distracted by national politics.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, only 13 percent of voters approve of the two branches of state government’s working arrangement. Just 3 percent have a great deal of faith in Sacramento’s decision-making process. After seven years of a predecessor enamored of “fantastic” ideas — hydrogen highways, high-speed rail, curbing greenhouses gases — there is an opening for Brown. And that would be embracing smaller-scale ideas.

He might be able to say no to his own base. Gray Davis, the last Democrat to rule California (and, by the way, Brown’s gubernatorial chief of staff), took office after 16 years of Republican governors. He wasted little time before lurching to the left, paying back public employee unions that had paved his way to victory. Brown did the same in 1975 as a newly elected post-Ronald Reagan governor, pacifying liberals with all kinds of goodies, including collective-bargaining rights for the aforementioned unions.

The difference then: Brown was an idealist. Now, he is more pragmatic — or so he would have you believe. The liberals who dominate the state Legislature will expect Brown to sign bills that Schwarzenegger vetoed, such as state-run single-payer health care and access to college financial aid for illegal immigrants. Brown might not be as accommodating.

In the meantime, something far less speculative is California’s horrific fiscal outlook. In addition to the $28 billion budget shortfall that must be solved by next summer, lawmakers face an ongoing $20 billion annual spending-revenue imbalance for the foreseeable future. California’s credit card is maxed out, with $15 billion already owed in “recovery” bonds for budgetary borrowing. Of course, that is peanuts compared to pension obligations, which may run as high as $500 billion.

Where this is taking Brown and his fellow Democrats seemed obvious after his Memorial Auditorium dog-and-pony show Dec. 8 (and a similar event in Los Angeles about a week later): a tax increase, put before voters in a special election at some point in 2011. Also, Brown repeatedly referred to California as “the world’s eighth-richest political jurisdiction,” perhaps a warning sign that he will soon ask the citizenry to surrender more of that wealth.

But before he does so, maybe Brown should talk to the outgoing governor. In special elections in 2005 and 2009, Schwarzenegger campaigned for 10 ballot measures. All four of his measures in the first special election went down in defeat, buried in an avalanche of campaign spending by liberal special interests. In 2009, Schwarzenegger tried to sell California on six budget-related initiatives. All but one — prohibiting pay increases for lawmakers during deficit years — lost handily.

Schwarzenegger understood the folly of his ways, telling reporters at one point: “If I would do another ‘Terminator’ movie, I would have terminator travel back in time and tell Arnold not to have a special election.”

Time will tell if California’s next governor discovers the same remorse.

Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow, analyzes California and national politics. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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