What California needs are a few politicians.
Oh, the state’s got plenty of people who are in politics, holding office, casting votes, giving speeches and collecting their per diems in the Legislature. What we’re short of, though, are real politicians, men and women who pride themselves not so much on getting elected, but on getting things done, things they believe will leave California a better place.
There are plenty of names out there, mostly drawn from years gone by: Democrats like Jesse Unruh, Willie Brown and, more recently, Darrell Steinberg. Or Republicans like Bill Campbell, Ken Maddy and Jim Brulte. Any Sacramento veteran could probably come up with another dozen names or more.
This isn’t some misty walk down Memory Lane, yearning for some Golden Age of bipartisanship – or post-partisanship — that never was and never should be. No, the best politicians are strong partisans who aren’t afraid to work with strong partisans on the other side, each looking to make the absolute best deal for their side.
They also remember three important rules of the legislative game:
1. Politics is the art of the possible.
2. Half a loaf is better than none.
3. There’s always next year.
For example, when angry Senate Republicans last month released a list that they claimed showed how far apart they and Gov. Jerry Brown were on pension reform, what was striking was how much the two groups actually agreed on and what room was left for compromise.
Bans on double-dipping, air time purchases, pension holidays, retroactive benefit increases – all agreed. Changes on the retirement board, revoking pensions for government scofflaws – sure. On other issues like pension spiking, the base for pensions and a cap on annual payouts, the only question was what number to settle on.
(Here’s a hint: when one side wants a five-year average and the other insists on a three-year average, try four years.)
If the GOP leadership included real politicians, they might have taken what Brown offered them and then held out for one or two more concessions that Brown and the Democrats weren’t crazy about, say a temporary spending cap and additional budget cuts. And they would have promised that in exchange for those two things, Brown could get the tax extension election he wanted.
And a Democratic politician would have taken the deal as the best available.
Both sides would have gotten some – but not all – of what they wanted and the business of the state would have moved ahead. Half a loaf, you know, and we’ll try for another bite next time.
Instead, you now have one side, the Republicans, holding out for concessions they are clearly never going to get, even as Democrats and their labor allies retain the delusion that fiddling around the edges of pension reform will be enough to satisfy increasingly unhappy voters.
In this new world of term limits, there’s no percentage in taking the long view on any political issue or taking time to get to know your colleagues in the other party, since it’s quickly up or out for any ambitious officeholder.
Compromise now is a dirty word for the zealots on both sides of the aisle, who would rather see the state founder in gridlock than work out a solution in the political give and take needed to make government work.
Under the harsh, heated rhetoric of current partisan discussions, political opponents aren’t just wrong or misguided, they’re evil. And who can compromise with evil?
So now you have Republicans ready to put draconian plans to slash pensions and attack labor on the November 2012 ballot, while Democrats prepare their own ballot measures to tax millionaires, oil companies and the tobacco industry in an effort to boost state revenues.
That’s what passes these days for a political solution in a state without real politicians.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.