Does the budget signed Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown differ in any meaningful way from the hypothetical budget the Gov. Meg Whitman might have signed, had her $177 million campaign convinced voters to elect her instead? In a Fox & Hounds post that asked “Do Elections Matter?” Joel Fox argued persuasively that the budget deal violates the spirit and perhaps the letter of a pair of initiatives (Prop. 22 and Prop. 26). But it’s also important to ask whether or not the governor’s race mattered either, whether Jerry Brown’s double-digit win significantly changed the eventual outcome of the key policy debate in that campaign — how to solve California’s budget crisis.

Ask yourself what the budget would have looked like under a Gov. Whitman. My guess is that we would have seen another all-cuts budget, with Republican legislators standing even firmer in their no tax pledge and Democratic legislators bowing to the inevitable (perhaps by June 15, but certainly before the start of the fiscal year). The cuts might have been spread around differently — with public employees taking a big hit and universities being spared — to allow Gov. Whitman to keep her campaign pledges, but the basic outlines would be the same as we saw with Gov. Brown. Would an electoral mandate have given Whitman the power to win major pension changes or a tight spending cap, victories that eluded Republicans ? Not likely. Democrats would use their legislative power to block such proposals, leading us right to where we ended up.

If the governor’s race didn’t change the policy outcome of the budget fight, what did it affect? Only the politics. Gov. Meg Whitman would have needed all of the Republican votes she could get for her budget, making her party both responsible and accountable for an all-cuts budget. In the new 2012 districts, this would spell danger. Instead, Republican legislators got the best of both worlds — they achieved their policy goal, dramatically trimming government, without having to put their political lives on the line by voting for deep cuts.