California’s Five Wannabes5 min read

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If you want to get really depressed about California and its immediate future, get hold of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine with its 8000-word cover article on the five hopefuls who would be the state’s next governor and the former hopeful who is governor now.

The article, by Mark Leibovich, is readily available on line.

It’s hard to tell from the piece to what extent the five wannabes, Democrats Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, Republicans Steve Poizner, Meg Whitman and Tom Campbell, are really the empty suits that Leibovich makes them out to be – a couple probably are not — or whether the whole point of the piece was nothing more than to gloss the tired old version of California as the nation’s premier repository of silliness.

The cover photo of Newsom in coat and tie standing with a goofy smile on a sunny California beach – yes, like Nixon in that famous clip of yesteryear, he also seems to be wearing wingtips – strongly suggests the latter. Newsom, says one boxed quote, “sees the job of governor as a potentially exhilarating high-wire act. ‘ Candidly,’ he says, “if things were going very well, I don’t think I’d be the best person for the job.’” If 38 million Californians want a little more excitement, all they need is vote for him.

In his passing references to California’s serious issues, many of which have major implications for the nation as a whole, Leibovich collects pieces of the conventional wisdom, even when, as in his facile summary of the causes of gridlock in Sacramento, it’s wrong. Since Democrats have again and again agreed to multi-billion dollar cuts, it is not, as he thinks, just a matter of “’no more taxes’ (Republicans) and ‘no more cuts’ (Democrats).”

And while Jerry Brown, in his prior tenure as governor was indeed labeled “Governor Moonbeam” (by a Chicago columnist) for his space proposals, as Leibovich says, the label applied much more broadly to his inattention to the daily duties of his office and, most particularly to his dithering while the forces that produced Proposition 13 began to roll.

Brown later acknowledged that he didn’t have the attention span to focus on the property tax reforms that were then so urgently needed to avert the revolt of 1978. But to this day, almost no one has said much of Brown’s role in creating the anti-government climate and resentments that helped fuel the Proposition 13 drive.

It was the Brown, echoing much of the 1970s counter-culture, who, as much as anyone, was poor-mouthing the schools and universities as failing their students and who threatened to cut their funding if they didn’t shape up. It is Brown who spent most of his political career savaging politics and politicians, even as he ran for yet another office. Now this is the guy who wants to be governor again. But Leibovich doesn’t tell his readers that long history. Maybe he doesn’t know it.

Leibovich, again picking up on a familiar California political cliché, makes a lot of the fact that both Poizner and Whitman “are the latest in a line of dizzyingly rich candidates in California,” few of whom made it to the governor’s office, notwithstanding the personal millions they spent on the quest.

But he hardly mentions that even as Schwarzenegger was trying to negotiate some budget compromise last February Poizner and Whitman were throwing red meat to the yahoos on the far right. The deal the governor and the legislature negotiated last February, Poizner said, was a “travesty.” He didn’t say then, nor does he say now, exactly how, other than cutting spending, he would close the deficit. Nor do any of the other wannabes say with the remotest precision what spending they would cut.

As she blasted the same deal, Whitman added her own unhelpful suggestions. “What is wrong about it in my view is that the state has done virtually nothing to cut costs in the bureaucracy.” She doesn’t tell us, of course, that the bureaucracy is already smaller than those of other states and that if you cut it even by half, it would make hardly a dent in the deficit. But Leibovich doesn’t trouble himself or the candidates with any such issues.

Leibovich’s piece is titled, “Who Can Possibly Govern California?” but neither he nor his candidates seem to have much interest in answering the much more important more important questions about how it could be done. What he and the Times have in effect accomplished, both in the text and the in accompanying photos of the candidates, all nicely dressed and shot in nice California outdoor settings, is to further reinforce voter contempt for the state’s would-be leaders.

But finally what’s most striking is that it really isn’t about the candidates, much less the state, but about Leibovich – how he traveled around California, chatted with them, went with them to some PR events, and sat schmoozing with Arnold in the governor’s smoking tent – God, how often do we have to hear about that tent?

Where are California and the people who are feeling the pain – the school kids and teachers in hopelessly underfunded schools, the children who are losing their health care, the minimum-wage working mothers struggling to pay their child care, the students who are losing their university grants? Is all this really about nothing?

Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Wednesday for 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 will be published early in 2010.

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