I like David Crane and have been impressed by his willingness to speak out in favor of unpopular causes, even when it’s meant losing his seat on the powerful CalSTRS board and the University of California Board of Regents. That shows political courage.

But Crane’s latest effort, Govern for California, which is devoted to electing “courageous” candidates to the state legislature, is doomed to fail.

Why? For one thing, state legislative elections are all but fixed, and there’s little evidence to suggest a nonpartisan or bipartisan effort to elect candidates can have much impact. For another, Govern for California sees legislators as far more powerful forces than they really are. Their hands are tied – not just by voter initiatives but also by court decisions, supermajorities, and constitutional provisions (that in some cases came out of the legislature).

But beyond these broader concerns, Govern for California has a fundamental problem, even when judged on its own terms. It hasn’t been able to come up with a clear definition of political courage. Instead, it has defined courage in two different ways – and those definitions are in conflict.

Let’s look at Govern for California’s own website.

1. At first, Govern for California defines courage as loyalty – to the voters and values of one’s own party. The site says that most voters don’t know who sits in the legislature, but if they did:

they’d surely be surprised to learn about Democratic legislators who, while publicly vowing support for jobs, colleges, human services, environmental protections and parks, vote adversely to those priorities in order to boost the fortunes of narrow special interests. And about Republican legislators who publicly voice support for jobs but don’t support bills that would improve the employment climate if that legislation would harm a corporate interest or increase state revenues.

Reading this, one would think that Govern for California wants honest partisans of integrity, who don’t let the appeals of narrow interests prevent them from representing voters. Of course, this is largely what we have; public opinion research has shown that California lawmakers more closely reflect the values of the voters that support them than lawmakers in any other state legislature.

But later in the same Govern for California explanation of its intentions, the definition of courage is flipped to say…

2. The willingness of lawmakers to vote against their own parties and their own in service of the common good. The site says:

In the case of Democrats, courage means the willingness to buck narrow special interests seeking ever-greater shares of government spending at the expense of programs, taxpayers and private-sector job growth. In the case of Republicans, courage means the willingness to buck no-tax groups who, even when presented with all the reforms they seek, refuse to acknowledge that sometimes more revenue for the government can produce better outcomes.

So there you have it, would-be courageous legislators: Be loyal to the values of your party and voters, and also buck the special interests and values of your party to protect taxpayers (if you’re a Democrat) and seek more taxes (if you’re a Republican).

At the very least, Govern for California should choose one side of the courage debate. (I vote for #2 – betrayal is often fun, and makes for better stories for us journalists.) But the wiser course would be to stop talking about “courage” and instead think more strategically about what the state needs.

What might be useful would be election of a handful of middle-of-the-road lawmakers, enough of them Republicans, who would pledge to exploit supermajorities to hold hostage tax bills and anything else in which they had leverage. Their demand would be simple: a commitment to a constitutional revision or constitution process to fix the system, so that lawmakers had more power to make decisions—and voters had more power to throw them out of office.