California’s Empty Chair

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Do you feel lucky? Jerry Brown should. He’s lucky that Clint Eastwood wasn’t talking to him.

President Obama isn’t the only politician who can be accused of being an empty chair. California and its governor have a similar problem, and we all know it. No one is in charge. No one can get anything big done. No one can govern the place.

Clint Eastwood’s brilliant convention talk, which was widely and quickly panned by the mindless media, couldn’t have been better. It was a ray of unscripted sunshine and charmingly vulgar comedy that cut through a campaign season of polished, glossy, meaningless speeches that are merely assemblies of talking points, all of them cynical devices to push the buttons of certain demographics.

But while Clint was seen as “bizarre” or off point to commentators, he – and the central image of the talk – couldn’t have more directly on-message. The chair of leadership in this country, and in Clint’s home state of California, couldn’t be emptier.

Just listen to Gov. Brown’s public statements and you’ll see the problem. This governor talks mostly about all the things that can’t be done. We can’t do tax reform. We can’t mess with constitutional reform. Changing the budget process or initiative process is beyond us. He sounds proud of this can’t-do attitude – he seems to think it shows discipline and maturity and a commitment to “realism.”

That’s what an empty chair sounds like.

How to fill it? Eastwood is too smart and too old to run for governor.

Which brings us to Condoleezza Rice.

Her speech at the Republican convention was well-received by Republicans, particularly California ones. But those Californians who aren’t Republicans should know that Rice has already proved herself to be something more than an empty chair in the state where she now lives.

Rice was a member of the Think Long Committee for California, and signed onto its series of recommendations for big changes in the governing system. Now, you may not like the details of those changes (I certainly could argue with almost all of them), but together they represent a strategy to make the state more governable (by giving more power and authority to certain officials, particularly those who would be part of a new citizens’ council).

In other words, the chair wouldn’t be empty.

Rice would have all kinds of political vulnerabilities – her close ties to W, her Republican affiliation, moderate social positions that would hurt her with conservatives, her inexperience in California politics. And her Think Long work could be an issue, since the committee embraced tax reform that includes not just cuts but also tax increases (through a new sales tax on services).

But if Rice were to stick to the Think Long approach, a Brown vs. Rice race would be a real choice – between an empty chair and someone who, for all her faults, has ideas on how to fix the system so the chair won’t be empty.

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