No doubt the spin doctor wing of the political consultancy will be working overtime tomorrow morning to try and “explain” what actually happened today, why people voted the way they did, and what signal it supposedly sends to the state government as it tries to pass some semblance of a state budget in the months to come. Already the Republicans (who can’t seem to win more than just over a third of the state in presidential, senatorial or legislative elections) are claiming that this is a mandate for cuts, cuts, cuts, and no new taxes, even though there was nothing remotely close to either an “all-cuts” or a “tax-n-spend” alternative on the ballot. Elected Democrats are a bit less clear, message-wise, although the smarter ones are belatedly focusing their message on the need to fix the budget by going to a majority rule on budget and taxes. Schwarzeneggar, who has been an utter disaster even by his own standards, skipped town and hid behind Obama’s skirts, pretending vainly like Californian environmental standards were somehow his idea, and not an existing political movement that he sort of posed next to when the cameras were rolling.
So why did the measures fail, what does it mean, and what do the voters of California want?
1. The measures failed because anti-tax Republican voters in exurban and rural California were fired up to vote against them while pro-establishment Democratic voters in the Bay Area and LA voted out of resigned obligation; because anti-establishment Democratic voters and several important unions such as SEIU, AFSCME, the Nurses and several of the teacher’s unions didn’t buy the hard sell from the Democratic Party; and because the initiatives themselves were complicated, opaque gimmicks that didn’t provide any kind of a clear way forward for the state. There was very little argument FOR any of them; in essence, the Yes campaign was more of an Anti-NO campaign that scolded rather than sold. In many ways, this felt a lot like the abortive attempt to ram term limit extensions down our throats during the special presidential primary last spring. Voters are exhausted by this chain of special elections, and the options were so disheartening and complicated to sort out that the majority of voters just shrugged and sat the thing out.
2. What it means, given the weird constellation of interests on both sides of the vote, does not translate at all to any partisan or even ideological agenda. On the NO side were the crazies in the Howard Jarvis/Grover Norquist camp, lots of unions, most liberal bloggers, and a fair number of those of us who actually read through the fine print. On the YES side were all elected Democrats, a ton of powerful corporations, the Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, and the CTA teacher’s union. The divide here is between the bipartisan establishment consensus on cobbling together the status quo a bit longer, and people on both ends of the spectrum that want a break from the Grey Davis/Arnold Schwarzeneggar consensus of service cuts, tuition hikes, a few regressive tax hikes, raiding local government, and a perpetually stalemated state government.
What makes it confusing is that now that these initiatives have gotten shot down, the former allies on the NO side will now be at each other’s throats, as both try to define the way forward, now that the status quo has, once again, lurched towards outright failure. This was a battle between the present and the future; the next step will be a battle between two different ideas of a future California. And of course, there’s also the great muddled public, who mostly took a rain check on this election; who they side with, if at all, remains to be seen, but they sure as heck haven’t been willing to vote for the establishment “solutions” we’ve seen in the past several elections, any more than they’ve sided with the various radical solutions proposed by either left or right. It will be interesting to see how the potential default and bankruptcy of the state affects the alignment of the state electorate; at any rate, the present cannot continue.
3. Expanding on the last point, it isn’t really possible to say what the voters of California want, because the state doesn’t think with a hive mind; we are as divided as any society, along various political and regional lines. More accurate, perhaps, is to say that California’s political debate is divided three ways right now, with no one side capable of gaining enough power to rule the state government outright, especially given the 2/3 rule to pass taxes, budgets, and override Gubernatorial vetoes. Even if we were to go to a majority-vote system (which I believe is the only way out of our mess), it would still fundamentally be a matter of grand coalitions and deal-making.
And yet, while the electorate is only really allowed to speak through periodic binary votes on messy initiatives and flawed politicians, the message that the voters (well, a majority of them, at least) seems to be sending, if you look carefully, looks a bit like this:
a. They want the state government to do its job, pass budgets on time, and generally leave them the hell alone. The more of these special elections we’ve gotten, the more exhausted everyone has gotten, except perhaps for political consultants and talking-head commentators, for whom Arnold’s permanent revolution since 2003 has been a full employment program.
b. They are not thrilled with taxes in general, but are more than willing to pay them in specific, especially if it’s tied to programs or state services they like. A lot of the ballot box budgeting via initiative is basically a frustrated electorate trying to go around a state legislature held hostage by the Republican party and the 2/3 rules. The fact that 1d and 1e went down hard, while 1b did the best of the budget-related initiatives can be interpreted as a statement against service cuts and the establishment’s desire to run things from the center.
c. They’re absolutely fed up with politicians, all of them. 1f is basically a giant middle finger to Sacramento from voters across the political spectrum. There is tangible anger out there, and the party that credibly taps into that may well win the next round of battles.
The Republican party has realized that it has no hope of ever actually getting to that 2/3 consensus supermajority point, and so has resigned themselves to just shooting down everything else in hopes of denying control of the state to either the establishment Democrats or the emerging Democratic left. The Democratic establishment hasn’t quite grasped that while they currently control the Democratic party majority in Sacramento, they can’t work with Republicans and can’t just count on the emerging Democratic left to go along with everything they propose by saying “Ooga Booga Republicans!” The Democratic left isn’t going to be a dominant force in Sacramento for another couple of election cycles, but we’re tired of following the lead of establishment Dems who have proven themselves unable to chart a way forward.
What will determine the next stage of budget battles is who will be able to change the rules of this stalemated game, and what coalition will ultimately rule the emerging consensus that comes out of the collapse that’s staring us in the face. The strategy of the GOP is clear: prevent the crisis from being resolved, and try to tap into the rage of a frustrated electorate by pretending that the government’s failure to pass a budget is the fault of the (impotent) Democratic majority. Noone knows WTF the establishment Democrats are thinking, they’ve been very very quiet about how in the world they’d respond to the $15 billion shortfall staring us in the face, much less a defeat at the ballot box that increases that already huge sum. What those of us on the Democratic left tried to do, and what we hope the establishment Democrats eventually join us in doing, is to call the GOP’s bluff, show the voters of California that they have, essentially a choice between bankruptcy, default and the end of the services that they want and have repeatedly voted to preserve through initiatives on the one hand (the GOP way), or else we can end the 2/3 rule and remove the GOP obstacle so that the state government can fully fund those services that people want.
I believe that the promise of a majority budget, and the ability for voters to throw out whatever party cuts too much or taxes too much, will restore a needed dynamism to the sclerotic, dysfunctional state government. Right now, noone is in charge, noone can be held responsible, and nothing can actually get done. It is time to cut Prop 13’s gordian knot, and restore our state to a full democracy again, that rightly self-corrects with the shifting of the political winds and the will of the electorate. If Democrats can successfully make the case that ending 2/3 is a solution to the status quo that the voters so clearly hate, and a vehicle to protecting education, fixing roads, environmental protection, and preserving a social safety net i the midst of a depression, I think they’ll be able to set up a new ruling consensus to replace the prop 13 one.
But we’ll see.
originally at surf putah