As 2014 gets underway, Jerry Brown has succeeded to such a degree politically that he has a problem: things are going too well.
Brown’s political success has been built on political minimalism and diminished expectations. While officially taking on the idea that the state is ungovernable and that the budget is broken, he’s actually embraced both notions, touting the balancing of the budget as having done “the impossible.” He successfully sold temporary taxes as a long-term solution to the state’s problems. He also pushed austerity on an already austere state. The state’s obvious dysfunction allowed him to do this, because things had been so bad for so long that bigger moves seemed imprudent.
But it’s been getting harder for Brown to keep expectations low. The state now is projecting surpluses of decent size. Unemployment has been dropping. Job growth is up. And Brown himself, being a politician, has been unable to resist touting the good news and even suggesting that California is a national model.
And his notices have been so good that there is now talk of a presidential run in 2016.
This, politically, is a moment of danger for Brown. The vulnerability is this: the conversation, and his political fortunes, are too strong compared to that of his state. Because the state government is still dysfunctional. The safety net is still a mess. Disinvestment in higher education remains an economy-crippling reality. The state tax system still produces too much volatility and not enough in revenues. Long-term obligations in retiree health care and pensions still weigh heavily.
When those problems rear their heads, as they will, they’ll provide a nasty contrast with the talk of California comebacks and presidential runs. Political damage is likely.
The smart move for Brown would be to dial back the optimism. Say clearly that he won’t run for president, that the state has too many problems. He should remind people just how broken and dysfunctional California is, and how a big hole it still has to dig itself out of.
And then he should use his political momentum to tackle, finally, some of the state’s bigger, structural challenges.
But that’s not likely to be the way he goes. He’ll stay quiet, and let the good news fill the void during this re-election year. Things are going too well.