California on the Edge: It’s Leadership Time

We all know our state is in fiscal trouble. Local governments, school districts, universities, service providers to the needy and disabled are all bracing for an all-out assault from Sacramento.

The fiscal crisis jeopardizes the state’s ability to borrow in the private market at reasonable rates. The federal government is thus far hanging back, refusing to back loans to the state.

Behind California’s current fiscal crisis is a governance crisis. We must re-examine and fix the underlying problems — from the impact of ballot box budgeting, to ineffective and inefficient oversight systems, to the crippling two-thirds majority rule required to pass budgets and raise taxes. (For a good analysis of these issues, see Evan Halper’s article in the Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2009.)

But, despite the urgency of structural reform, such an overhaul will take years to accomplish, whether through a constitutional convention or by some other means. These reforms will help us avoid the next crisis, but what about the one we are in?

In an emergency, Americans look for leadership.

We tend to have almost unlimited faith that the right leader can solve any problem in any sort of crisis, and while we have been at times disappointed, our history is marked by astonishing feats of leadership in the face of very long odds. And that kind of leadership, generally, is expected to come from a single executive. Space aliens do not arrive on Earth and demand, “Take me to your congressman.” They want to see the president, the governor or the mayor. We can be pretty hard on executives who we think didn’t deliver. Just ask Gray Davis.

So right now, California is looking to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (or Arnold, as most of us quite comfortably call him). We can defend him. We can insult him. At this moment, we need him to lead. First, though, we have to make sure he has some skin in the game.

Until now, Arnold’s political strength has stemmed from his ability to leverage his odd-man-out moderation in the Republican Party to create a third path — pro-business, socially liberal, pro-environment, generally anti-tax but open to discussion — distinct from the right wing of his party. Arnold’s political positioning has hit a “sweet spot” that has become rare in the polarized politics of our day, and it has made him popular among Jewish voters. With his larger-than-life persona and his genius at self-promotion, he has received adoring media coverage everywhere but in California. He is a god on late-night television and in the nation’s capital. And he has enjoyed some well-deserved success, such as when the White House basically adopted the program to limit fuel emissions that he has been pursuing in California.

But on the California budget, Arnold has not delivered the goods.

In fact, he contributed to today’s crisis by keeping his 2003 campaign promise to roll back an increase in the car “tax” (which is really a fee, not a tax, does not require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, and was largely a campaign issue rather than a serious bite out of taxpayers’ pocketbooks). Amortized over the years of his governorship, that one decision has cost the state billions of dollars. Since then, there have been too many stopgaps, and promises that this will be absolutely the last time we do them. 

As the budget has deteriorated, Arnold has shown a propensity to narrate his governorship, casting himself as the frustrated hero. He tried his best, he says, but the “Sacramento system” just didn’t hear the people as clearly as he did. In addition to letting himself off the hook, this approach raises more doubts in Washington and on Wall Street about California’s ability to govern itself. 

The people’s will is not so clear, nor can any politician so easily divine it. The no votes on May 19 were as varied as the measures themselves: a mix of anti-tax sentiment, fear of a spending cap, devotion to voter-approved programs, concern about encouraging gambling, and then there’s the great majority that just stayed home. The one message that is clear as a bell is that the government should get this taken care of and stop bothering us. And for that, we need a governor who sees the possibility of the state’s failure as his own responsibility.

How much different would Arnold be as governor if he were to admit to himself that if the state goes down, it will not only be Sacramento’s fault, not only the fault of the political parties, not only the fault of the bureaucrats or the voters, but his own fault as well? 

Leaders who have that much skin in the game give up on an idealized view of themselves (e.g., “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) and start getting down into the real muck of politics, where the victories can be found.

It won’t be easy. The game has changed since the last budget deal, now that the Republicans have dumped their leaders in the Assembly and the Senate for being too willing to reach an agreement that included temporary tax increases. And selling massive service cuts to the Democratic caucus will be no walk in the park either.

As a voter, I don’t know what is the right mix of spending cuts and revenue sources to close the gap. That’s why we elect people to office. But I do know that I want my governor to use every moment of his last year in office to make sure he leaves the state in no worse shape than he found it. Meanwhile, he can help us get on to the business of structural reform so that we don’t doom ourselves, like Sisyphus, to repeat our struggles over and over again.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.