In the wake of Tim Dickinson’s article in Rolling Stone last year pronouncing Gov. Jerry Brown’s “miracle” in California comes John Nichols’s paean in The Nation, entitled: “How Jerry Brown Got Californians to Raise Their Taxes and Save Their State.” While offering left-wing readers a warning that Brown is no “iconic liberal,” or is he the most “progressive” governor–Nichols says that Brown is the best answer to conservative calls for reform.
The argument is that by raising taxes–and convincing the voters to agree–Brown avoided the kinds of union reforms that Republicans like Scott Walker of Wisconsin have used to set their states on the right path. Like other left-wing writers, Nichols places all his emphasis on Brown’s somewhat exaggerated budget surplus, and ignores the state’s massive debt and pension problems, with which the governor has barely begun to grapple.
Nichols also ignores the state’s economic malaise. California has seen only a slight improvement in the past few years, and remains at the bottom of the unemployment heap, while at the same time hosting a disproportionate number of the country’s welfare recipients. The state’s middle class–and the companies they own or for which they work–are leaving as quickly as possible, another fact Nichols chooses to ignore in praising Brown’s efforts.
What Brown has done, above all, is to show Democrats that they have an alternative reform agenda to that of conservative Republicans and the dreaded Tea Party. Raise taxes, and you can avoid serious and painful structural reforms, the thinking goes. The key paragraph in Nichols’s article quotes liberal talk show host Bill Press:
“He’s managing the largest state in the union; he took it over when it was flat on its back, and it is thriving now,” Press adds. “He’s done all this without declaring war on public employees, without mass layoffs of teachers, without any of the John Kasich/Scott Walker draconian talk that says the only way you can balance a budget is by making cuts and breaking the backs of public employees. He’s proved that that’s bullshit.”
Yet neither Nichols nor Press seems to have considered that there is a limit, even in California, to how much the state can expect its residents to pay. A recent Field Poll showed that a striking proportion of California voters “say they prefer lower taxes and fewer government services to higher taxes and more government services.” One in four believed that government spending should not be increased, or should be cut (though they were less enthusiastic about cutting specific programs). That is not a hopeful sign for the left.
On one point, Nichols is correct, though not for the reasons he evidently believes. “Winning big this year could position Brown as a Democrat with the authority to rework the party’s national narrative around a simple premise: government should be considered not part of the problem but part of the solution,” Nichols writes.
There is little doubt that Brown’s chances going into November will be very strong. And that is partly because the GOP has not yet figured out how to shape an alternative governing agenda.
The big-government, Bush-era agenda represented by Neel Kashkari and the stark anti-government agenda represented by Tim Donnelly appear mismatched to the priorities of California voters–and the state’s history. Missing is an agenda that shows how government can, with a light touch, facilitate the best efforts of individuals.
Brown hasn’t got that right, either.