California Democratic leaders are upbeat, and talking about all they’ve accomplished. At a human level, and by conventional political standards, that’s totally understandable. After so many years of bad news and bad budgets in California, Gov. Brown and legislative leaders want to tout their progress – on the budget and in other areas. Brown’s progress has been touted nationally. The notion that California is back is frequently repeated. The end of the legislative session will certainly produce new bills that could be touted.
So what’s the problem, particularly if things are looking up?
The problem has three components. The upbeat message doesn’t match a fragile reality that could be quickly undermined, mostly by forces outside the control of politicians. The upbeat message misinforms the public about the nature of the challenges they face. And the upbeat message will make it harder for Democrats to gain the power they need to make those changes.
Let’s look at each of these three components.
- The fragile reality. California’s globally oriented economy has made some gains, and those gains, in combination with continued budget austerity, have made the budget look balanced for now. But what if the Chinese economy tanks? Or Mexico, the state’s largest trading partner, runs into trouble? Or if the stock market swoons, ramping up the amount California governments must pay to cover pensions? Any of those shocks could make the “we’ve fixed the budget” happy talk look foolish. And it’s likely that one of these changes, or something else we can’t anticipate, will hit.
- Public misinformation. The budget may be balanced, but the state’s fiscal challenges remain dire. Pension obligations and retirement benefits get huge attention. But the infrastructure deficit is huge too – and poisonous to the economy. The state is under-investing in public education, compared to other states and economic competitors. The damage of the budget crisis remains largely unrepaired. Again, happy talk could leave the public with the impression that things have been fixed. They haven’t been. And that will make it harder to get the changes necessary to fix them.
- The difficulty of gaining power. The Democrats are emphasizing their power and their 2/3 control; politicians like to talk about their own power, and the things they are doing with it. The trouble is: the Democrats (and indeed, elected officials of both parties in California) are badly constrained in what they can do, by a broken governing system and by a very narrow public conversation about what’s possible in California.
To gain more power, Democrats should be talking about those constraints on their power – and how those constraints make it hard to repair the damage from the public crisis and address the state’s biggest challenges with the necessary force. The case they need to make is that they need more power to do bigger things.
That message is fundamentally different than the happier one they are currently offering the public. And if Democrats won’t even make the case for taking on the broken system and bigger challenges, there’s no chance that voters are going to give them that power.
This is a form of surrender. And it’s surprisingly short-sighted, not to mention weird, for the party that is winning virtually all of the state’s significant elections to not seek to convert those wins into power, and into change.