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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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.

Super Delegates are Going to Have to Actually Work!

When the dust settles in a few weeks both Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama will have won a few more primaries, questioned each other’s integrity and capabilities, and failed to wrap up the nomination. Which means the Democratic Party’s super delegates will need to come forward and make a decision.

This is not what they had in mind. Being a super delegate was supposed to be a sure ticket to a big party in Denver come August, not a requirement to anger a powerful leader of the party. Yet that’s what they’re in for. Go with Senator Clinton and the insurgents backing Senator Obama will long remember. Go with Senator Obama and Senator Clinton’s clan will never forget. Denver’s a nice place, but the ticket just got a lot more expensive.

In making their fateful decision, super delegates will likely consider: 1) what’s in it for them; 2) which candidate has the best chance to win in November; and 3) which candidate will have the strongest coattails for the party in November.

The first question is unique to each individual. I addressed the third question in an earlier post. So let’s chat about the second issue for a moment. The headline on Yahoo! Politics today is “Poll: Clinton has better chance than Obama of beating McCain.” Too bad the headline doesn’t really match the content of the story. The story describes an Associated Press poll testing how the two Democrats fair in heads-up competition against the presumptive GOP nominee,  Senator John McCain. Senator Clinton leads Senator McCain 50 percent to 41 percent. Senator Obama and Senator McCain are in a statistical tie at 46 percent-to-44 percent.

But come on. It’s April. And this is 2008, the year of the hit-and-miss polls. There’s a long way to go until November. And Senator McCain has gotten pretty much a free ride of late while the Democrats have been perfecting their circular firing squad techniques. The good news for Democrats is that there’s plenty of ammunition available for the general election. Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen recently pointed out a number of flip-flops by Senator McCain that greatly undermines his appeal to indpendent voters and many Democrats. As she notes: “The Bush tax cuts: McCain voted against them as a senator, but now says he would make them permanent as president. Immigration: he cosponsored a bill in 2005 to make it easier for those in the country illegally to become citizens, but now says that if his own bill—his own bill!—came to a vote on the Senate floor, he would vote against it. After Columbine, he called for more gun control; after Virginia Tech, he said more gun control was unnecessary.”

I point this out not to pick on Senator McCain, but to underscore that polls on the November election don’t mean much now. The public perception of the candidates will change considerably and often in the next six months. Both Senators Clinton and Obama have strengths and weaknesses the GOP will exploit. Senator McCain has weaknesses that make easy targets for any Democratic nominee. In other words, there’s no way of knowing whether Senator Obama or Senator Clinton will fare better against Senator McCain in the general election. But both are likely to do well.

Which leaves the super delegates to ponder the issue of coattails. And, of course, their own self-interest.

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Filling Time: Explaining the Texas Primary

It’s not easy being CNN or MSNBC. They have all those commercials they have to put “news” between. While the commercials seem to arrive every two minutes — and last longer — there actually is a few minutes between each commercial break. Over the course of an evening, however, those few minutes of non-commercial time add up. Filling up that time seems to be a challenge for the networks.  Especially early on a primary night when the votes are coming in slowly. The result is usually the anchor trying to wring momentous meaning from a scattering of votes. It almost makes you feel sorry for them.

But if a typical primary night is bad, pity the news folks dealing with the Texas primary. There’s nothing like them in America — thank heavens. Some states have caucuses. Others have primaries. Texas has both. Complicating things is that the number of delegates chosen by caucus or vote varies by the past voting patterns in each of the state’s 31 Senate districts. Yet another complication? The delegates selected on March 4th are for a state convention in early June. That’s where delegates to the national convention will be selected.

Since the caucuses begin after the polls close, the networks will have primary results before the caucus returns. This will favor the winner of the overall vote even though, in a close race, the loser could wind up with more delegates.  But the reporters have to report something. That’s what reporters do.

What all this means is that in the hours leading up to the closing of the polls in Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont and Texas, the networks will try, gallantly no doubt, to explain the Texas voting process. Again, and again, and again. The problem of course, is that they’re only human. And explaining the Lone Star State’s delegate selection method could turn anyone’s brain into grits.

And then when the polls are over, and they’re done talking about what happened in the other states, they’ll still have to explain the Texas two-step because the results won’t be in for quite some time.

It’s going to be a long, and painful, night.

By the way, one of the most cogent explanations of the Texas primary/caucus wa put together by Greg Giroux of Congressional Quarterly. I highly recommend it.

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