The End for Bass? Villines?

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)

Three weeks to the special election, and defeat looks likely for Props 1A-1E. The governor and legislators who cut the budget deal that includes the measures have talked in the broadest, scariest terms about what happens if the measures fail – the state could go bankrupt! Or off a cliff! Or it goes bankrupt as it goes off the cliff! (Does the long fall erase the debt?).

But the first casualties of defeat likely would be political, not economic. It’s hard for me to see the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Assembly surviving such a defeat. Both Karen Bass and Mike Villines have put their prestige and credibility on the line in making the deal, and defending it. In doing so, they’ve taken a big political risk, and for a good reason. Without a deal, the state’s cash crunch would have hurt not only the government but also the economy.

But when you take a risk and you lose, there’s a price to pay. Bass and Villines crossed key interest groups (SEIU and some other unions for Bass, the anti-tax folks for Villines) and couldn’t even get their own parties to endorse the deal. If the measures go down, another budget deal will have to be negotiated. And, having made a deal that was rejected by voters and their own parties, Bass and Villines would not have the credibility to cut another deal. Each would be wise to resign.

By the same logic, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg could be in trouble as well. But unlike Bass and Villines, who are termed out at the end of next year, Steinberg is in his first term in the Senate. He’d be more likely to fight any attempt to oust him, and it’s not clear there will be an attempt. He draws on a far deeper well of good will in his caucus than Bass or Villines at this point. He probably survives.

And what about Gov. Schwarzenegger? He’s not quitting. And it’s too late in his term to bother with a recall. He’ll not only have to accept the defeat but also he’ll have to reckon with the carnage. As the lone pine in the political desert that is Sacramento, he’ll get all the blame for this, even though he’s spent much of his term trying to find a politically viable way out of the state’s budget mess. Any fiscal disaster that ensues is likely to define his governorship.

That’s why you can expect Gov. Schwarzenegger to go on the air waves if the polls don’t improve for these measures. And why not? He’s got everything to lose politically. If this compromise is going to go down to defeat, he might as well go down swinging — and give California voters advance warning of the consequences of voting “no.”

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