There was a lot of predictable opinion last week that Sacramento Republicans were a little too quick to celebrate their “victory” in forcing Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrats to pass a budget without new taxes or extensions of expiring taxes.
According to the overnight wisdom, the Reps missed their chance to extract pension reform, regulatory reform and maybe even a so-called hard spending cap in return for some give in putting tax extensions on the ballot. Even some conservatives urged them to do it and then expect (hope?) that the voters would reject them.
But given everything that’s been going on both in California and in Washington, the GOP has the Democrats, the governor and the president of the United States all playing on its field by its rules. Democrats are negotiating with one another about what to cut and how much. Nobody is trying to make the strong case for taxes that urgently needs to be made. On that one, Barack Obama wimped out two years ago.
Brown could have taken the tax and spending-cut fight into Republican districts – could have brought teachers, cops, firefighters, the sick, the old, along with parents and their children with him to personalize the cost. But if he tried it anywhere, it wasn’t noticed. Although the opportunities are constitutionally limited, he could, as Treasurer Bill Lockyer urged, have concentrated more of his budget cutting on Republican districts. But that wasn’t tried either.
There’s an eerie similarity between the first six months of Brown in 2011 and the first six months of Obama in 2009. Like Obama, Brown tried to make nicety-nice with a cultish crowd of ideologues who never showed any interest in compromise. Like Obama, he pretended that no meant maybe, even when it was shouted across the room.
There may be something in Obama’s nature that shies from hard-edged confrontation and combat, but with Jerry Brown, the cause may rather be the governor’s deep asceticism — the monastic hair shirt politics that he embraced during his last turn in office: the era of limits, think small, lower expectations.
At times, when he ran for office in the 1970s and early 1980s, as he often did, he sometimes sounded as if he really wanted to become the nation’s public monk rather than the secretary of state, governor, president or U.S. senator that he was officially striving to become.
What seems certain in any case is that both in Washington and, despite the Democrats’ control of the legislature and governor’s office in California, it’s the Republican agenda, meaning the agenda of Grover Norquist, the nation’s most powerful anti-taxer, that’s being implemented.
Here and in Washington, government and government services are being taken down piece by piece. The paucity of revenues has become an immutable political absolute, like the law of gravity, even as the rich get richer and pay an ever-shrinking share of the taxes. They pay less than in the past, less as a share of their income and wealth, and less compared to the share paid by others.
The GOP may not acknowledge that it wants to privatize public schools or drive students of limited means out of the universities, or eliminate tax-funded health care and social services for the poor, or destroy the last vestiges of publicly supported transit or shut the parks. Sometimes, licensed by a complaisant and cowardly media establishment, it even succeeds in denying it. But that clearly is what it’s accomplishing.
If it doesn’t change its politics and broaden its appeal to women, Latinos, gays and the other groups that it’s so consistently neglects and/or disdains, the Republican Party may not have much of a future at the California ballot box.
By next November, the state’s rapidly changing demographics and the two recent revisions in the election system – redistricting by a commission and the top-two primary – may well deprive it of the veto power that the state’s super-majority rule still gives it over tax increases in the legislature. The faster the composition of the electorate gets to reflect the composition of the state’s population, the better it will be.
But in the meantime this aging minority of affluent white men still has the majority fighting one another about who gets pushed off the lifeboats that are becoming more overloaded every day. The recent budget process in Sacramento and the spending plan it produced made that amply clear.
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: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.