Gubernatorial Primary Prequel: The Special Election

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)

What’s the real opponent of the package of budget deal ballot measures in the May special election?

The 2010 governor’s race.

The package is an unsightly, unpleasant group of measures put together by an unpopular governor and an irresponsible legislature that deserves little respect. (And I say that as someone who has been consistently supportive of passing the package). Politically, the package makes an irresistible target for every single person running for governor of California.

Look for those candidates – Republicans and Democrats – to compete with each other in the fury and frequency of their denunciations of the package and the budget deal that spawned it.

The leading Republican candidates will denounce the taxes in the deal, and suggest that voters who support the measures are backing tax increases. The Democratic contenders, seeking to appeal to the liberal electorate in the California primary, will talk about the terrible spending cuts and how they will make sure this sort of thing never happens. Look for at least some of the Democratic contenders to oppose the ballot measures that would take funds from voter-approved initiatives on early childhood and mental health, and to argue against the spending limit that’s a part of the package.

These are free, politically easy shots, with no real consequences to the candidates.

I wonder, however, if the candidates won’t be, in their heart of hearts, hoping that the deal holds and that the measures survive. It will be easier for the eventual winner to govern if the full package of ballot measures (five on the special election ballot, another 2 in June 2010) passes. I’d love to see Gov. Schwarzenegger make this point. He should remind voters that he’s not running for another office and he’s giving them the straight dope, unlike the candidates who will be seeking to replace them. (He’d help his cause by immediately stating that he’s not going to seek a U.S. Senate seat in 2010 or 2012—a great way to illustrate that all that matters to him is repairing the state).

Politically weakened, he will find it next to impossible to lead the campaign for these measures. In fact, he might help as much as he hurts.

To have any chance of success, the governor needs to avoid his usual sloganeering and hucksterism and his usual optimistic warrior thing. He can’t talk about the fantastic future. He needs to practice a little Obama-style understatement and talk in painful detail about the tradeoffs and problems of this deal and these measures. He should admit his own errors and failures in his five years of efforts to balance the budget. Then he can emphatically explain why this terrible compromise is also essential to the state’s ability to go forward.

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