Meg Whitman’s overnight conversion from immigrant-basher to Latino-lover shows that she’s just as adept at self re-invention as Jerry Brown, who became a born-again tax-cutter the night Proposition 13 passed in 1978.
Forgotten was the demand that illegal aliens be denied access to the state’s colleges and universities. Overnight came the Spanish-language commercials on Univision and other Latino outlets showing the candidate amid smiling Hispanics promising jobs. Forgotten was the cry “no driver’s licenses, no sanctuary cities, and absolutely no amnesty. Period.” The face of former Gov. Pete Wilson, which she used not long before to certify her tough-on-illegals bona-fides, vanished.
But Brown’s impromptu comparison of Whitman’s campaign to the big lie tactics of Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels wasn’t all that far off the mark. Whitman’s recent TV attack on Brown only confirmed it.
The Whitman ad (http://www.megwhitman.com/ads.php), played to the refrain of “a lifetime in politics, a legacy of failure” against fake headlines in a fake newspaper, blames Brown for everything from state deficits and unemployment to the troubled Oakland public schools. It bears as much relationship to the truth as Whitman’s career as a non-voter resembles good citizenship.
Contrary to the ad’s implications, It wasn’t Brown’s wasteful spending that blew California’s $6 billion surplus in the late 1970s. It was the state’s bailout of local governments and schools after Proposition 13 cut property taxes by nearly 60 percent.
With hindsight, that turned out to be a strategic mistake: the people who voted for the initiative should have been made to feel its full effects immediately in the drastic cuts in services that would have followed.
Contrary to the ad, it wasn’t Brown who screwed up the Oakland schools; they were a royal mess long before Brown. Nor did Brown as Oakland’s mayor have any real control. He got to appoint two of seven board members, not nearly enough to have any influence.
And if California had a high unemployment at the end of his term as governor, it had a lot more to do with Reaganomics and with Washington’s cuts in defense spending than it had to do with state policy. A decade later, California suffered a far more severe recession under, who else, her friend and campaign chairman, Pete Wilson.
Wilson’s Republican predecessor, George Deukmejian, left him a monster deficit that Wilson closed with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. That, too, has been conveniently forgotten. So has the fact that Jerry Brown’s predecessor as governor, the sainted Ronald Reagan, in 1967 approved what was at the time the largest single tax increase approved by any state in history.
Jerry Brown was hardly a roaring success as governor. He poor mouthed the state’s universities, fiddled while property taxes soared and thus helped create the conditions that led to the passage of Proposition 13, became over-focused on pet theories and new age vanities – small is beautiful, lower expectations, space satellites — and paid too little attention to the daily matters of governance.
But as secretary of state and governor, he broke new ground in the enactment of the California farm labor law and support of farm workers, the most exploited workers in America, in the political reform act, and in coastal protection. As Oakland’s mayor he fostered new development; as attorney general he’s been hyper-active in prosecution of white collar crime and defense of the state’s financial interests.
Neither Brown nor Whitman has offered much that usefully addresses the problems of California’s dysfunctional government or its tangled fiscal system. Neither has shown much indication of a willingness to lead the voters beyond the conventional wisdom.
So far Brown’s experience seems at least to have kept him from embarrassing promises like Whitman’s call to eliminate 40,000 public employees from a state workforce that’s proportionately already among the smallest in the nation.
But the Whitman attack seems to indicate that no one should expect a lot of useful proposals for positive directions. In the months to come we may hear yet more about the voters’ repudiation of Chief Justice Rose Bird and Jerry’s other Supreme Court judges, about his African trip with Linda Ronstadt, about “Governor Moonbeam” and about Jerry’s old presidential ambitions.
That of course, would leave the question of how soon Whitman herself would start looking for her first step toward Washington if she becomes governor this year: vice-president in 2012, president in 2016? If with $150 million she can buy Sacramento, how much would she be willing to spend the next time?
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America is now on sale. To reach Peter, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.