Fixing California

Conor Friedersdorf asks a tough one:

I’ve got a question for Kevin Drum. You and I presumably agree that California Republicans and Democrats are both exceptionally awful, so much so that it’s hard to even think about this state’s politics without despairing. Indeed, I’ll bet that despite our differences in political philosophy, we could hammer out some mutually agreed upon changes that would result in a 600 percent improvement in public policy.

But I also bet we’ll wind up voting differently come November. The last time Democrats controlled the statehouse and the governor’s mansion, Gray Davis and the legislature incurred some egregiously unsustainable costs related to state employees, whose unions are such a powerful interest group here. I’ll be the first to acknowledge the utter dysfunction of California Republicans, our current governor very much included, but I’m terrified to death that the end of divided government is going to maximize the chance that more catastrophic craziness passes into law. And I find it very hard to believe that unified government under Jerry Brown and the current legislature is going to bring about any significant reforms.

Am I wrong?

Wrong? The word hardly has any meaning in this context. A choice between imperious zillionaire Republican Meg Whitman and Democratic retread Jerry Brown is like being asked to choose between dog food and cat food for dinner tonight. Since I’m a cat person, I guess I’d choose cat food because I get to watch my cats lap it up adoringly every night. But that’s not much of a reason, is it?

I have no idea what to do. California is broken and there’s no political will to fix it. And by “political will,” I don’t mean that politicians are unwilling to fix it (though they are). I mean that the people of California are unwilling to fix it. Blaming things on our politicians feels good, but we the people are every bit as fractured.

And look: it’s not just Sacramento. I live in Orange County, ground zero for conservatism in the Golden State. In 2001, right after 9/11, the county board of supervisors unanimously voted to increase pensions for public safety workers by over 50% in a single stroke. Sure, the authorization for the increase was contained in a bill passed by the legislature and signed by Gray Davis. But guess what? Everyone bellied up to the bar, including the supposed fiscal hawks of The OC.

So would things be any better if the former CEO of eBay became our governor? It’s hard to see how. Whitman apparently doesn’t have the leadership chops to even risk talking to the press, let alone the leadership chops to bring some semblance of order to a legislature that’s (a) hopelessly divided and (b) governed by insane rules that practically guarantee deadlock. Would Jerry Brown do any better? I doubt it. But on non-budget issues at least he’s more likely to be on my side of things. So there’s that.

Bottom line: I don’t know what to do. If Arnold is to be believed, our shiny new redistricting and open primary laws will change things starting in 2012. I can’t wait.

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