California’s big chance on the national stage

Everybody knows by now that California swam against the tide on Election Day, giving Democrats a near sweep of statewide offices. But what’s even more important is what this will mean for national governance over the next two years.

With control of the House passing to the Republicans, there is little chance of new legislation. But for all of President Obama’s political failings in the first two years, he accomplished so much on the legislative front that he has a luxury Bill Clinton did not have after he lost both houses of Congress in 1994: Obama can play defense and still win. With historic health care passed, he just has to fight effectively to get it implemented. He doesn’t have to limit himself to school uniforms and other Clintonesque tinkering; he can take on the big stuff.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in an article on Nov. 7, this will be no easy task because the states will have a lot to say about it. A raft of newly elected and sitting Republican governors are already lining up to resist or block the health care plan in their states and to join the lawsuit against its constitutionality. Undoubtedly, the same lineup will attack any attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Leading the pack will be Texas and its right-wing governor, Rick Perry. Texas has long been the poster child for free-market government, and it has high levels of pollution to show for it. Perry, who has talked about Texas seceding from the Union, is now mulling over whether his state should abandon the federal Medicaid program of health care for the poor, and even the impossible idea of withdrawing from the Social Security system. Texas is known for coddling its polluters and attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, so much so that Texans roamed to California to finance the doomed Proposition 23 to overturn our global warming law.

With Texas leading the howling pack, California now becomes a crucial counterweight. The Republican candidate for governor, Meg Whitman, often cited Texas as a model that California should emulate. Had she been elected, President Obama would have faced a monolithic wall of opposition from Texas to the Pacific Ocean. Despite Democratic victories in the Southwest, those governorships went Republican.

There is much irony in this situation. Near the end of the campaign, Jerry Brown ran a brilliant commercial that tiedWhitman to the unpopular Arnold Schwarzenegger. Actually, the truth was that Whitman was running well to the right of Schwarzenegger, but to make that point would have required a more complex ad. Schwarzenegger will leave office with low approval ratings, admired by neither party. But his legacy actually depended on Brown beating Whitman (which is why my guess is that there is no mystery whom he voted for).

Arnold made two critical decisions that will look pretty good in history if the nation manages to provide health care to all and joins the fight against global warming. In September 2006, trying to recover from his awful 2005 ballot measures, the governor signed AB 32, the most advanced program to fight global warming anywhere in the nation. He faced down the opposition of his own party and his business allies. It was that bill that special interests went after with Proposition 23. This year, more quietly, and again against the opposition of his party and business supporters, he signed a set of bills to authorize health exchanges and other programs. Beyond the details, he committed the state not to bitter resistance but to cooperation with the Obama health-care plan. And this year, he campaigned strongly against Proposition 23, making fierce attacks against the outside interests that supported it.

With California in the fight, national Democrats have a better chance of prevailing. This state can offer itself as part of a great national experiment on health care, environment, and other issues and take Texas on. As the campaign against Proposition 23, with the involvement of green-tech industries showed, business is itself divided on some of these issues, and the progressive side may find allies if they don’t treat business as a monolithic enemy. In any case, if Democrats succeed in this, with California’s help, President Obama will owe a debt of gratitude to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.

Beyond health care and environment, the great wild card will be infrastructure. Republicans have managed to block further stimulus, but their weak point is infrastructure. Politicians love to cut ribbons on construction projects. Right now, the Republican plan seems to call for canceling construction projects. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, called a halt to a long-planned, much-needed tunnel to Manhattan, and other Republican governors may go the same route. But it will be politically risky for them in the long run. (I think their plan is to block projects that could help the economy now, and then if Obama loses in 2012, they can restart them and take credit.)

In fact, even those Republicans in Congress who opposed the stimulus begged for the money and then took credit for it in their states and districts. Let us suppose that the new Jerry Brown decides to channel his father, the great builder in California, and take the lead in advocating new infrastructure, such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30-10 plan in Los Angeles to accelerate transportation construction. Such an approach could help President Obama make Republicans in Congress an offer they can’t refuse — to build needed projects in their home bases.

So despite all of our attention to elections over the past few months, it’s really about governance now, about the hard and dirty work of making change filter out from Washington to the states. It looks like in the great slog, California is going to be a big player.

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