California’s Dysfunctional Government Needs Big Fix

California used to have a government of which, believe it or not, its citizens could be proud. Say what you will about  Governor Ronald Reagan, but, working with Democratic leaders like Speaker Leo McCarthy and President Pro Tem James Mills, things got done. Working with Republican legislative leaders budgets got passed. Important legislation (abortion rights and welfare to name just two) was enacted. The educational system was (relatively) strong and infrastructure was expanded, not just maintained. Yes there were problems and conflicts and pitched political battles, but the people’s business got done.

Not so now. Facing an 18 month budget deficit of over $42 billion (and counting) leaders in Sacramento are stymied by partisanship and hamstrung by procedural rules. A budget deal may be close as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg are hard at work on a compromise. Their deal will bypass legislative Republicans who will no doubt sue the minute any compromise package is signed into law. In the meantime state services are being cut, infrastructure projects are being suspended, state workers furloughed, California’s bond ratings are falling nearly as fast as the public’s confidence in state government.

It’s not like lawmakers are trying to be inept. For example,  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has tried to create a “post-partisan” environment where pragmatism prevails. He just seems unable to stop insulting legislators. While all sides claim to be willing to compromise, each side of the Great Triad of Gridlock (the Governor, Democratic and Republican legislators) have positions that are non-negotiable. It’s hard to find common ground when so many issues are unmentionable. One might admire the tenacity with which Republican legislators cling to their anti-tax principles, for instance, if they would only recognize that these are unusual times that require an open mind. 

If the only result of this embarrassmentwas a diminishment in the reputation of California politicians it would be interesting, but not so bad. Unfortunately, the inability to govern is hurting citizens already on the edge. The independent California Budget Project recently issued a report, Proposed Budget Cuts Come at a Time of Growing Need, outlining the fraying safety net as it’s being pulled by a faltering economy and substantial budget cuts.  The CBP is a liberal group, but that doesn’t diminish the validity of their analysis. While the first to feel the pain from governmental dysfunction are the poor, the impact doesn’t stop there. The middle class relies on state services, too.

Clearly, California’s government needs reform. A first step was taken this year with the passage of Proposition 11. By changing the way the state’s legislative districts are drawn there’s a chance a greater number of pragmatic lawmakers may find it possible to be elected. The more competitive these districts are, the more centrist (and, consequently, less purely ideological) the winners are likely to be. This doesn’t mean they won’t have strongly held beliefs. It’s just that they (hopefully) will be more willing to find common ground with their political opponents than do current legislators who apparently value ideological purity over results.

Proposition 11, however, should be just the start. Another approach to consider would be open primaries combined with run-off elections. Voters would be able to cast their ballot for a candidate in the primary regardless of their political affiliation. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the top two candidates face-off in the general election, even if they are of the same party. Again, the expected result would be lawmakers who can appeal to the broadest cross-section of their communities.

Would this approach weaken political parties? Yes, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.  Parties play an important role in American and state politics. Reducing their influence is not a decision to be taken lightly. However, it’s also important to recognize that candidates are increasingly running outside of the party apparatus. Senator Barack Obama, for example, defeated the establishment’s candidate in the presidential primaries. Governor Schwarzenegger is nowhere near the mainstream of the GOP.  And in California, at least, the parties have done little to earn the support or sympathy of voters. The state’s gridlock demonstrates what happens when partisanship trumps public policy.

Proposition 11 passed narrowly, but it passed. It’s success represents California’s first step down the road toward a new way of electing lawmakers and thus, hopefully, a more pragmatic government . Nothing happening in Sacramento should disuade voters from continuing this journey.

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Blagojevich Scandal the First Test of Post-Partisanship Washington

The election of Senator Barack Obama to be President of the United States could herald a new era of post-partisanship. President-elect Obama has made it clear he intends to listen to all sides, especially those who disagree with him. He seems to understand the reality that to last, reforms must be accepted by a broad range of the political spectrum. Otherwise, the next time the pendulum swings, those changes will be swept away.

The first test of this post-partisan era arrived this morning when federal authorities arrested Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for selling appointment to the seat President-elect Obama has vacated. As United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald put it, “The Senate seat … seemed to be on the verge of being auctioned off.”

Let’s be clear, based on what was caught on tape, Governor (and hopefully soon to be ex-Governor) Blagojevich is the most disreputable sort of politician. He sullied his office and shamed himself and his family. He appears to be an egotistical crook with no shame, judgement or ethics.

Let’s also be clear, based on what we know today, President-elect Obama and his team had no involvement in the Governor’s chicanery. In fact, the Associated Press reports that Governor Blagojevich was caught on tape complaining that “Obama’s people are ‘not going to give me anything except appreciation.”

Despite this reality, the far right wing will seek to tie the president-elect to this scandal. After all, they are both Democrats from Chicago, knew and no doubt endorsed one another, and have ties to the convicted Illinois fundraiser Tony Rezko. So there’s plenty of material for fantasists to use in spinning their conspiracies. That means the zeolots over at GOPUSA and their ilk will have a field day. Who cares?

The real question is whether more mainstream Republicans will rush to judgement. It’s their behavior that will mark the maturity of the GOP. If they respond responsibly it’s a sign they’re willing to give the new president a fair chance — a demonstration of post-partisanship. If they initiate a campaign of innuendo, marked by the accusation of the day, aimed at tainting the incoming administration, it would mark a continuation of the poisonous partisanship that has brought the approval ratings of the Bush Administration and Congress to the cellar they currently occupy.

The appointment scandal is a tragedy. It is also the first test of how the Obama Administration and conservatives in general, Republicans in particular, will conduct themselves. There are unfortunate hints Republicans won’t be able to resist sliding back into old habits. The Republican National Committee, shortly after President-elect Obama statedthat he had “no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening,” issued a statement citing the “President-elect’s history of supporting and advising Governor Blagojevich” and calling on him to “fully address the issue.” The implication: President-elect Obama is involved in some way with the Springfield scandal. And Representative Eric Cantor, the Republican House whip said, “The serious nature of the crimes listed by federal prosecutors raises questions about the interaction with Gov. Blagojevich, President-electObama and other high ranking officials who will be working for the future president.”

I don’t mean to suggest that Democrats and Republicans should hold hands and sing kubaya. The conflict between Democrats and Republicans is real and passions run deep and strong. However, the political reality is that much of the country, and arguably the part of the country that decides national elections, is tired of the old attack dog politics of Washington. The ongoing investigation will bring to light any involvement by Obama’s transition team in Governor Blagojevich’s activities, whether for good or ill. Republicans should focus on helping to fix the nation’s problems and, while keeping an eye on the investigation, let it make it’s own news.

America would would benefit from a post-partisan era, in which party matters, but country matters more. The Republican Party would benefit from such a tact, too. As the recent campaign showed, name calling and fear mongering don’t win elections. Let’s assume the initial reaction by the RNC and Rep. Cantor were simply a natural reflex they can now control. Let’s hope they don’t succumb to the old temptation of cheap shots, but instead embrace a more mature approach to politics and governing.

The truth will come out with or without old politics. But they won’t solve America’s challenges.

Obama’s Cabinet Could Use a Main Street Perspective

President-elect Barack Obama is creating a cabinet of dynamic, capable individuals. His team is devoid of “yes people.” It’s bi-partisan. It’s populated by leaders with strong opinions and a proven willingness to declare them forcefully.

President George W. Bush surrounded himself with strong personalities, too: Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld come to mind. President Bush was unable to prevent the fiefdoms these leaders created from undermining their potential. President-elect appears to have learned from his predecessor’s mistake in this regard. Consider his choice of National Security Advisor. Retired General James Jones arguably brings heft to the table equivalent to what incoming Vice President Joe Biden, incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and continuing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates bring. More significantly, President-elect Obama’s style, termperment and talent is different from those of President Bush. He’s unlikely to tolerate the dysfunction that marked the Bush Administration.

The new Cabinet is not only being populated by individuals with proven track records, but it is shaping up to be diverse, as well. There’s only one group that seems underrepresented: there doesn’t appear to be anyone with a significant business background in the mix. Those already nominated, or on the short list of those expected to be nominated, all have impressive credentials. There are Generals, Senators, Members of Congress, and Governors. Some have led huge government bureaucracies and a major university. But I’m not aware of any that has ever started a company or met a payroll.

Considering the amount of rhetoric surrounding the need to listen to Main Street during the recent campaign, this is surprising. Certainly there are business leaders or entrepreneurs who have something to contribute when it comes to shaping the nation’s future. Running a state. seving in Congress and leading troops is noble and important work. The experience and perspective gained from these activities is important and significant.

Yet it’s a limited perspective. Running a business is different. The skills and abilities are different. So are the expectations and pressures involved. The lessons learned and wisdom gained is different, too.

This is not to say that only private-sector viewpoints matter. Far from it. But those views are important and they should be part of the mix when President Obama sits down to deal with the challenges this country faces. The Wall Street-Main Street dichotomy bandied about in the campaign was somewhat superficial, but not completely. That’s why serving on corporate boards isn’t enough. Bringing into his cabinet someone who has run a business would bring an additional and important perspective to the Cabinet’s deliberations as it faces a long and deep recession.

President-elect Obama is to be commended for building a diverse team. He would do well to increase the diversity just a bit more. The challenges he faces are complex and impact every American. Even those whose lives center around neither Wall Street nor Pennsylvania Avenue. Main Street is important. It deserves a seat at the table.

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Politically Thankful

An economy in meltdown mode, the lamest of duck-like Administrations, two hot wars, a worldwide war on terror, carnage in India, the Middle East a powder keg with Iran going nuclear and so on and so forth. Without sounding like a Billy Joel song, there’s a lot to be concerned about this Thanksgiving. Yet, there’s always something in the cup, even if that proverbial cub is half broken. So here’s a short, incomplete and random list of things to be thankful for, politically, this day of being thankful. Feel free to leave a comment with your own list.

1. Be Thankful Change is Coming.  The election of Senator Barack Obamais thanks-worthy on so many levels. Even leaving aside the culture change that is sure to come with an African-American family int he White House, there’s the hope of a competent government addressing tough problems in a realistic, pragmatic fashion. While President-elect Obama symbolizes the change he promises, his campaign and transition indicate a level of competence not seen in Washington in years.

2. Be Thankful the Bush Administration is Leaving. Even supporters and admirers of President George W. Bush have to thankful that his tenure in the oval office is coming to an end. He’s done some things right, but overall, his record as president is abysmal. While coming to office as the champion of “compassionate conservatism” his administration proved to be neither compassionate nor conservative (fiscally, at least). After eight years America’s standard of living has declined, our standing in the world has declined, and we lack the ability to unify even in the face of tremendous challenges. January 20th can’t come too soon.

3. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Washington. It might look like the Democrats are in complete control of the federal government. They won the White House, increased their majority in the House and are just two votes shy of being able to overcome Republican filibusters with two Senate seats remaining. As any reader of this blog has determined, I’m a Democrat. Yet the idea of one-party rule — regardless of the party — concerns me deeply. Time and again, when one party gains too much control over the government it overreaches. Until the laws of unintended consequences is repealed, having a check on absolute power is a good thing. It forces the majority to pause, listen to the opposition and make adjustments. The result is (usually) better legislation than would have occurred if the party in power were unchecked.

4. Be Thankful the Democratic Party is More Diverse Than It Was Before. While lacking super-majorities, the Democrats in Congress have substantial majorities to work with. While some fear this will result in liberals running amok, the reality is, the Democratic majorities are far from homogeneous. As Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post pointed out, there’s a large number of moderates and conservatives in the most recent classes of lawmakers. Approximately one-third of the Democratic House majority come from districts with”Republican underpinnings (at least at the presidential level.” The Democratic Leadership in both houses will need to accommodate these members if they hope to keep their majorities. The result should be more thoughtful legislation which, while progressive, could avoid swinging the pendulum too far to the left.

5. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Sacramento. Democrats increased their majorities in the California legislature, but failed to achieve the two-thirds super majorities they need to safely ignore Republicans. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that the Republicans in Sacramento are so fixated on avoiding new taxes (while preserving tax breaks, no matter how unfair, already in place) that Sacramento has become a childish, dysfunctional example of government gone silly. Ideology is great. Making a political point is to be expected. Destroying the state’s economy in the name of ideological political points is governmental malpractice. Legislators of both parties need to grow up, quit hiding behind worn out slogans, and start solving problems. Then we’d really have something to be thankful for.

6. Be Thankful Americans Rejected the Politics of Division. Many had come to believe that the way to electoral success in America was to demonize your opponent. That was the Karl Rove approach to winning — and it worked. This year we had Senator John Edwards calling health insurance executives “evil”Governor Sarah Palin rallying the “real America” against the socialists who fail to “see America like you and I see America.” Senator Edwards lost and so did Governor Palin and her running mate, Senator John McCain. Americans are tired of “us versus them” politics. That doesn’t mean it’s gone away entirely; just ask a Wall Street CEO. But the strategy of demonization and division backfired. Senator John McCain’s aura of being a straight shooter shattered when he descended into the Rovian mud. So did his dream of becoming president.

7. Be Thankful There’s Always Another Election.  Change was a campaign slogan this year, but it’s been an American reality since our founding. Every two years we hold those in power accountable. Certainly, there are obstacles. Incumbency is still the most powerful factor in any particular election, followed closely by money. Yet each election night tells a story and brings change. It keeps those in power accountable and, as importantly, nervous. And that’s a good thing.

So that’s my short list for Thanksgiving. I hope you’ll add to it. And I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.

The Republican Dilemma: Follow Palin or Emanuel

The finger pointing within the Republican party has begun. Which is good news. The first stage is denial, but there’s no denying the repudiation the GOP has received in the past two years. They not only lost their majority in Congress, the Democrats gained impressive majorities. They not only lost the White House, they lost it big, losing states that hadn’t gone blue in decades. So that they’ve already reached the blame stage is probably a healthy step. The fun will begin when the Republicans start taking action to recover from their drubbing.

There are a host of directions the GOP can move in, but they generally fall into two categories: they can focus on their base, keeping them in line by focusing on wedge issues (e.g,. gay marriage or prayer in school). Or they can seek to expand their party to include those who may feel unwelcome in the Republican’s ever shrinking tent.

The former approach was honed by Karl Rove, but  exemplified by Governor Sarah Palin. Mr. Rove twice helped elect George W. Bush president by scaring the beejeebies out of voters. This approach is exemplified by demonizing your opponent, scaring your supporters, and diminishing civil discourse. Governor Palin took this approach when she divided the country into  “real America” versus, presumably, “unreal America.” She claimed Senator Barack Obama didn’t see America the way “you and I” do. She accused him of palling around with terrorists and claimed he was a socialist (which can be defined as someone who espouses socialistic ideas). She claimed to be doing God’s will, which, by implication means Democrats and independents who supported Senator Obama weren’t.

A leading advocate of the politics of inclusion, on the other hand, is incoming White House Chief of Staff and current Congressman Rahm Emanuel. In 2006, as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee he was relentless in recruiting candidates who could win in Republican held seats. He used no ideological litmus test, which angered many in his own party. But Congressman Emanuel recruited to win power, not debating points. Win power he did, wresting away from Republicans control of the House for the first time in 12 years even as President Bush was winning reelection.

This is not to say that ideology doesn’t matter. It matters very much. But ideology without pragmatism is a dorm argument. Once the grieving stops, Republicans will need to think seriously about the direction they intend to take. They can follow Governor Palin down the path leading to a party of ever fewer true believers. Or they can take Rep. Emanuel’s path and recruit leaders who share in the core principles of the GOP but would never be considered “pure” by the fierce core.

The Palin approach chooses to see the world as they wish it to be. The Emanuel perspective sees the world as it is. These are the views Republicans need to choose between and, for their sake, before the 2010 elections.

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Was Obama Victory a Landslide?

Just as a rose is a rose is a rose, in presidential politics a win is a win is a win. Senator Barack Obama won. Senator John McCain lost. Ultimately, that’s all that matters. But in America, politics is as much sport as civic duty so there’s been a lot of talk about whether Senator Obama’s win was a landslide or not.

Previously I’ve written about electoral wins of the modern era by non-incumbents. Based on the nine elections since 1932, I expressed my belief that “a non-incumbent candidate receiving 54% or more of the popular vote and/or winning at least 350 electoral votes arrives in landslide country.” So, using that definition, how did Senator Obama do on November 4th?

The results haven’t been certified in all states yet. But as it stands today (updated on November 19, 2008) Senator Obama won the presidency with 365 electoral votes versus Senator McCain’s 173. Having crossed the 350 electoral vote threshold, the Obama camp can claim a landslide.

The accomplishment gets a little murky when the popular vote for president is taken into account:

  • Obama: 66,700,243 votes – 52.7%
  • McCain: 58,227,836 – 46.0%
  • Others: 1, 450,000 (give or take) – about 1.3%

Under the popular vote criteria, Senator Obama missed a landslide by just 1.3%. However, I had an “and/or” in my definition, so I’m giving the landslide medal to President-elect Obama based on his electoral vote total. If you want to add an asterisk to it, that’s fine. Your definitions, and results, may vary, but that’s my take on it.

Even if you don’t consider Senator Obama’s win a landslide, it was certainly impressive. With there now being 10 elections since 1932 without an incumbent on the presidential ballot, here’s how senator Obama’s victory stacks up:

Popular vote: 4th out of 10 regardless of winning party; 2nd out of 5 among Democratic wins (Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover 57.6% to 39.6%)

Electoral vote: 6th out of 10 (if Senator Obama eventually wins Missouri (note: which he did not)  he’d move up to 5th place); 3rd out of 5 among Democratic non-incumbents (again, a Missouri win would move him past Bill Clinton’s 370 electoral college votes).

During the campaign Senator Obama was subjected to viscous attacks on his character, integrity and patriotism. Senator McCain offered starkly different approaches to addressing the nation’s myriad challenges. Yet Senator Obama prevailed by consistently hammering away at the need for change, fleshing out this battle cry with a call for middle cut tax cuts, a quicker end to the war in Iraq, moving quickly on a new energy policy and substantially reforming the nation’s health care system. Whether the pundits consider a victory a landslide or not, they certainly cannot deny it is a mandate for change.

Note: This post was modified slightly on November 19, 2008 to reflect updates to the popular vote, Senator McCain’s victory in Missouri and Senator Obama’s victory in a Nebraska Congressional District (and, consequently, winning of  that state’s electoral votes.

McCain vs Obama: Perspectives on a Historical Election Part II

Whether election night 2008 is a cliff hanger or a blow out is unknown as I write this. Given the amount of spin the candidates are capable of generating and the hyperbolic nature of much of the media, it will be hard to tell — at least without some historical perspective. So as a public service, I offer you perspective, with a focus on (relatively) modern elections.

The percentage of the popular vote non-incumbent candidates received in presidential elections since 1932 were:

  • 1932: Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover 57.6% to 39.6%.
  • 1952: Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson 54.9% to 44.4%.
  • 1960: John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon 49.7% to 49.5%
  • 1968: Richard Nixon won over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace 43.4% to 42.7% and 13.5%.
  • 1976: Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford 50% to 48%.
  • 1980: Ronald Reagan won over Jimmy Carter (and Independent candidate John Anderson) 50.4% to 41.0% to 6.6%.
  • 1988: George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis 53.4% to 45.7%.
  • 1992: Bill Clinton beat George Bush and Ross Perot 43.0% to 37.4% to 18.9%.
  • 2000: George W. Bush lost to Al Gore in the popular vote 47.9% to 48.4%, but won in the electoral college and the Supreme Court.

Third party candidates receiving less than 5% of the vote weren’t included here. Nor were Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman, both of whom were unelected incumbents when they ran for president. For those interested in meaningless statistics concerning these nine elections:

  • The average winner’s percentage was 50.0%
  • The average second place finisher’s was 48.1%
  • The average margin of victory was 6.0%
  • The average margin of victory for the four Democrats is the same as that achieved by the five Republicans on the list
  • The margin of victory was less than one percent three times (33%)
  • The margin of victory was more than 10% twice (22%)

The Electoral College votes received by non-incumbent presidential candidates in modern times:

  • 1932: FDR defeated Hoover 472 to 59.
  • 1952: Eisenhower beat Stevenson 442 to 89.
  • 1960: JFK received 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219 and Harry Byrd’s 15.
  • 1968: Nixon beat Humphrey and Wallace with 301 electoral votes to 191 and 46.
  • 1976: Carter won over Ford 297 to 240 (Ronald Reagan received 1 electoral vote that year).
  • 1980: Reagan received 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49.
  • 1988: Bush (the first) won 426 electoral votes to Dukakis’ 111 (with Lloyd Bentsen receiving 1 vote)
  • 1992: Clinton defeated Bush in the electoral college 370 to 168.
  • 2000: Bush (the second) won over Gore 271 to 266 (with one Gore elector abstaining).

Again, for those interested in the wonderful world of statistics without meaning:

  • The average winner won 375 electoral votes
  • The average second place finisher won 155 electoral votes
  • The average margin in the electoral college was 220 votes
  • The average number of electoral votes earned by the four victorious Democrats was 370
  • The average number of electoral votes earned by the five victorious Republicans was 386
  • The margin of victory was less than 100 electoral votes three times (33%)
  • The margin of victory was more than 300 four times

So when the results come in we’re now prepared. Do the pundits call it a squaker? If so, how does it compare to John Kennedy defeating Richard Nixon by two-tenths a percent of the popular vote in 1960 or Al Gore winning the popular vote by 1.5% in 2000, but losing to George W. Bush by just five electoral votes.

Do they call it a landslide? Then how does it compare to FDR’s popular vote win over Herbert Hoover by 18% or Ronald Reagan’s electoral college blowout over Jimmy Carter in 1980, a difference of 440 electoral college votes?

Based on all this, it seems to me a non-incumbent candidate receiving 54% or more of the popular vote and/or winning at least 350 electoral votes arrives in landslide country. Your definition may vary, but I’m going with these.

Using this perspective, there have been only two popular vote landslides by non-incumbents in modern elections. The first in 1932 and the second 1950 — which aren’t very modern times. George H. W. Bush did have a solid win in 1988, but with 53.4% of the vote fell just short of landslide.  Of the rest, only Jimmy Carter in 1976 reached the 50% mark. 

The electoral college tends to magnify election results, producing a clear winner even when the populace is fairly evenly divided. So it’s not surprising there have been more landslides for non-incumbents when results are viewed through this 350 vote prism. These occurred in 1932, 1952, 1980, 1988, and 1992. Only the Bush/Gore election in 2000 was extremely close. While the elections in 1960, 1968, and 1976 weren’t very close, they were were not electoral college landslides, either.

While all of this might be slightly interesting, when it comes to presidential politics, it’s not whether you win big or small that matters, it’s whether you win at all. Just ask Al Gore about that. Or for that matter, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.

Note: All data on election results came from the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica.