Elections between Republicans and Democrats usually come down to a barely discernible difference between two shades of lawyer, but the race for governor of California presents a rare clear choice: one candidate who knows nothing about government versus one who knows nothing except government.
It’s not clear which option is worse. But the candidates’ official policy positions suggest not just how different, but how equally unsatisfying, Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown are.
Meg Whitman’s disinterest in practical politics is well established. She has barely voted since becoming an adult. Her ideas for California—which we looked at in detail recently—lean toward managementese and blithe, nebulous (though largely true) generalizations. Whitman’s handling of campaign issues—from her former housekeeper’s accusations to her non-solution solution to the public pension crisis—bring her dangerously close to the caricature Jerry Brown has been trying to draw: the private sector innocent, who comes into government unprepared to deal with its vast obstructive strength.
One thing you can say for Jerry Brown: He’s not innocent about politics. It’s hard to think of any candidate in the country with more experience of the pleasureless, maddening power of institutions, and knowledge of the limited capacity of leaders to manage public policy. The rhetoric of frustration has powered Jerry Brown from his “Era of Limits” governorship in the 1970s, through his scolding and ascetic campaign for president in 1992, and into his platform in the 2010 gubernatorial race. “From my experience in starting and running [two charter schools in Oakland], I have gained first-hand experience in how difficult it is to enable all students to be ready for college and careers,” he writes in a characteristic passage from the Education section of his campaign site.
Brown’s dour disposition lends him a straight-talking affability, and it has occasionally led to good things. The Era of Limits expressed itself mostly through the long-overdue cancellation of many public works projects. During the 1992 race Brown campaigned in support of a flat tax. In this campaign, he has shown a more detailed understanding than Whitman of the public sector pension crisis. His platform touts an old American Conservative description of Brown as “much more of a fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan” (a true-enough description, although neither governor had much to brag on there, and the disastrous, deficit-plagued Arnold Schwarzenegger may turn out to have done a better job of restraining the growth of government than either Reagan or Brown).
Brown’s budget platform, in fact, contains many fiscal-prudence classics, including zero-based budgeting, an enhanced rainy day fund, sales of state property, cuts in discretionary spending, and at least one thing that doesn’t sound like a Schwarzenegger retread: a sustained legal campaign to get the state and municipalities out of the many “consent decrees” lawsuit-happy freeloaders have imposed on the government. His budget-reform proposals go on for eight wonkish pages.
I am hardly the first person to point out that Mike Royko’s long-lived “Governor Moonbeam” epithet is probably the least fitting description of Jerry Brown ever coined. The best description of the perennial politician (if you leave out the Dead Kennedys’ portrait of Brown as a fascist dictator in “California Über Alles”) is still Chris Bray’s tribute in Suck.com, written just after Brown’s stunning 1998 victory in the Oakland mayoral race. As Bray noted then, Brown’s flaky-like-a-fox reputation has foiled all opponents:
It wouldn't be hard to use up an entire column on Brown's odd ideas and arguable failures. And it would be kind of fun to use up an entire column on his cranky-tortoise persona (one Times reporter gleefully described Brown as a "badger") and withering diatribes that arrive, unannounced, from an unidentifiable part of the man's highly unusual mind. (See for example the dressing-down he delivers to a classroom full of college students, captured in the wonderful documentary Feed, after they admit that they've never even heard of Marshall McLuhan.)
But it's also hard to overlook the fact that "Governor Moonbeam" earned his nickname during not one but two consecutive terms in his state's highest office, terms that followed his service as California's elected Secretary of State; so he was, you understand, silly, crazy, ineffective, embarrassing, and repeatedly embraced by a majority of the voters—including, in 1978, the majority of the voters in conservative-stronghold-of-conservative-strongholds, Orange County, which includes the home district of former US Representative Bob "B-1" Dornan. Makes all the sense in the world—and explains why leftie writer Alexander Cockburn once wrote that Brown "has one of the most consistently decent, innovative records in US politics," the full exploration of which would take even more columns than the cranky-tortoise stuff. Note also that Brown built up a budget surplus while earning those plaudits from the political left, explaining this interesting fact to reporters with two words: "I'm cheap."
The problem is that there is more to California than its government, and Jerry Brown does not see any of that. Shipping, innovative high-tech, abundant agriculture, and a vibrant entertainment industry are what make the Golden State golden, but you won’t hear about any of them in Brown’s “Jobs” discussion—which is posited entirely on the idea that Sacramento can tax-credit and regulate its way into employment growth. Brown’s jobs platform—which is in fact a plan for massive environmentally correct infrastructure development (under a “Green Jobs Czar,” of course)—is almost surreally removed from the day-to-day reality of an era when Melrose Avenue and downtown Fresno have almost as many "For Lease" signs as functioning businesses. According to business relocation expert Joseph Vranich, the rate at which businesses are leaving the state has tripled in the past year, and with his proud record of suing companies as attorney general, Brown is making that situation worse.
Usually, California is considered a bellwether state, but the 2010 election reverses that dynamic. The rest of the country has soured on promises of jobs for the future and shovel-ready projects, and in elections all over the United States voters seem prepared to throw in with Tea Party crackpots rather than endure any more quack remedies from the Obama Administration’s brain trust. In California, however, we’re partying like it’s 1997, with a moderate-to-pulseless Republican going up against a policy-wonk Democrat who even the venerable lefty Willie Brown suggests is closer to government employees than to voters. Jerry Brown looks likely to win, and to do a competent job of managing the state government. But what California desperately needs is less government.
Tim Cavanaugh is a Senior Editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.