Can California government hold the political center?

David Kersten
David Kersten is an independent political consultant who lives in the Bay Area. Kersten is also an adjunct professor of public budgeting at the University of San Francisco.

In an increasingly polarized and chaotic political world, this week U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) demonstrated her political knowledge, wisdom and leadership skills by making a series of comments that encourage the Democrat Party and its elected Congressional delegation to “hold the political center.”

Pelosi made a series of very interesting and insightful remarks at recent appearances at the London School of Economics and an in-depth interview with 60 Minutes on CBS News.   

Among other things, Pelosi said that the Democratic Party does not support moving to a “socialist system” because it would not work in the United States, and tried to downplay an increasingly radicalized left wing of the Democratic Party that is pushing an openly “socialist” policy agenda.  

The political environment at the Capitol in Washington, DC, is much different than here in California, but Pelosi’s remarks carry great weight within the Democratic Party nationwide, and the sympathetic national media, because they signal where the party’s leadership believes they need to take the party to win in 2020 and beyond.

In short, Pelosi’s stand against radical “socialism” and hard left policies such as socialized medicine provides the first inkling of a possible rebalancing of power within the Democratic Party at the national level.

Given that both Speaker Pelosi, and Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy both represent California districts, the national political debate inevitably shapes California politics, including the political dialogue and agenda in Sacramento.  

In Sacramento, Governor Gavin Newsom (D) is in charge, but in these turbulent political times it seems like both the national and state political debate can essentially take on a life of its own depending on external events, the national media, and what political ideas and leaders gain traction at a particular point in time.

So the most pertinent question for us here in California State politics, is will Pelosi’s call for moderation and warnings about moving toward a “socialist state” have any impact on the seemingly endless march left of the California Democratic Party towards a “socialist future,” or perhaps more accurately, lack of a future?   

Furthermore, what are the moderating forces within the California Democratic Party and what impact will they likely have as we move through the 2019-20 legislative session toward the 2020 primary and general election?  

President Donald Trump recently stated that socialism is nothing but a road straight to the “poor house.”  It is doubtful that any California Democrat would accept the President’s assessment of “socialist” economic policy, but they might actually listen to Speaker Pelosi, or say, Governor Gavin Newsom.  

Anyone who has followed California politics for a while knows that the state actually has a long history of both pragmatic and moderate political leaders, although this legacy has appeared to have faded in recent decades, particularly over the last 10 years.  

As a longtime observer of politics both inside and outside California, I have always been the most intrigued with “moderate” politicians and policies that are based more on political pragmatism than on ideology.  

Furthermore, I actually believe the key to California’s political future largely rests in the hands of the current and future “moderate” political leaders in California.  

It is no secret that the moderate members of the California Legislature will likely determine the success or failure of the most consequential legislation of the 2019-20 legislative session and beyond.  

But most importantly, it is still an open question about the extent to which Governor Gavin Newsom will be a “moderating influence” on “progressive” policies in the California Legislature and the 2020 statewide ballot.  Such policies include higher and higher taxes and fees, stricter rent control and housing development policies, the phase out of fossil fuels, and the elimination of Prop. 13.

Specifically, campaign rhetoric and promises aside, will Governor Gavin Newsom take up the mantle of the California progressives’ march toward “socialism” or will the Governor choose to become a moderating force that pushes back on the “progressive” policies that ultimately lead to increased government control of the economy, less economic growth and opportunity, and the continued stagnation of the state’s education system?  

Newsom has given some indications that he is indeed a pragmatic politician who does not simply want to destroy wealth in order to try to more equally redistribute it.  Newsom has proposed a fiscally prudent January budget and the scaling back some of Governor Brown’s major infrastructure projects including high-speed rail and the delta tunnels, which suggest a moderating bend on fiscal issues going forward.   

At the same time, the Governor highlights his “progressive” values, deep concern about poverty, the growing wealth gap between rich and poor, and his desire to improve upward mobility and opportunity for all Californians.    

Newsom is already facing his share of tricky political issues and challenges including the aftermath of the deadly wildfire season, the impending PG&E bankruptcy and reorganization, and the seemingly never-ending series of conflicts with the Trump Administration.  

Governor Newsom will continue to be tested, but it will most likely be his handling of emerging political issues, such as new issues or flare ups of existing issues, that will end up defining his political legacy.

That’s just the reality of what we have come to expect from California government in recent history—mostly reactive as opposed to proactive.

While it may be unfair to hold Newsom accountable for most of the policy failures of past Legislatures and Administrations, voters and political stakeholders will certainly hold him at least partially accountable for how he handles these issues going forward.

Furthermore, as policy analysts we cannot just ignore existing Administration policies inherited from the previous Administration that effectively serve to prop up the status quo as opposed to beginning to change it on well publicized issues such as cost of living affordability, tax burden, housing costs, energy costs and pension fund insolvency.  

In my mind, practical politics is “king” because that is how to effectively solve difficult public policy problems.  

What California politics needs now more than ever is a “moderation” of the leftward drift of the California Democrat “progressive” agenda, rather than a continued leftward march.  That’s just the reality of where we are in this state economically, politically and in terms of having a viable and sustainable system of government.

As for the possible impact of external events and crises—natural disaster, economic collapse, energy crises, fiscal crises, homelessness, and the insolvency of state or local pension systems—any number or combination of these crises is quite possible, even likely to occur.

While the Governor and state policymakers cannot necessarily prevent or successfully moderate all of these crises, they can do their best to prepare the state for such events and improve the state’s capacity to “weather the storm” when it comes.

During his campaign Gavin Newsom often used the phrases to describe his leadership style as “leaning into issues,” “not timid,” and “audacious,” which are great qualities to have in a political leader.   

But will Governor Newsom also be moderating, practical, and proactive in a political system that does not necessarily encourage and reward these leadership qualities?

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