Can Gov. Brown Fix California?

Watching Jerry Brown’s low-key but curiously dramatic press conference on the state budget Jan. 10 reminded me that the central task of Democrats, once they are in power, is to prove that government can work. Without that, all great ideas about equality and justice go nowhere. A Democratic leader has to be able to sell his or her own base on the idea that government can’t do everything in order to have a chance to prove to the rest of the electorate that it can actually do quite a lot.

Today, with hatred of government running rampant and some being goaded into violence by reckless and irresponsible public figures, governing with reason is a hard but critical task. Furthermore, the federal government has largely abandoned the states to their own devices during this economic downturn. We’re basically on our own.

Brown’s budget plan begins with truly awful cuts in spending, totaling around $12 billion. The proposed cuts, which must be approved by the Legislature, include a half billion dollars each from the University of California and California State University systems, more than a billion from the Medi-Cal program for the poor, the elimination of the adult day care program, reductions of in-home supportive services, and halving of the CalWORKS program. He would also transfer a number of programs to counties.

Because voters passed Proposition 25 in November, approval of the budget now requires only a majority vote. Republicans cannot veto the budget. Thus, Brown was able to include cuts not only to programs dear to Democratic constituencies but also to business interests as well. He eliminates the state subsidy for local redevelopment and the entire enterprise zone program and removes a corporate tax break passed in 2009.

Brown wants the legislature to pass a spending plan by March, and he needs a two-thirds majority to place a measure on the June ballot to keep in place for the next five years the temporary tax increases that areabout to expire. If voters approve the ballot measure in June, the state will keep another $12 billion in revenue, and it will be able to avoid another round of devastating cuts.

Should the tax measure not reach the ballot or fail at the polls, the other shoe drops and public schools (K-12) and others will take a massive hit. Brown has to be credibly willing to carry out the cuts if the tax measure fails. But he has built in an incentive to Democratic constituencies to work extremely hard to get such a measure passed. Democrats do not want the draconian school cuts or other reductions to happen.

Brown has clearly set out the choice. If the tax measure fails, just multiply today’s cuts by two. For a politician once known for obscure, even Zen-like statements, he has made a surprisingly clear framing of the choice for voters who have been told for a decade that they really didn’t have to make any hard choices at all.

If all the pieces fall into place, Brown will have solved the budget problem for the foreseeable future, erased the image of California as dysfunctional and restored the belief that government can do its basic job. We will have an on-time budget. All he has to do is keep his own base on board and get a few Republicans to vote to put his tax plan on the ballot and then get the public to vote for the measure. He also will have to prove to deeply concerned local officials that the restructuring plan isn’t just a way to transfer dysfunction from Sacramento onto them or they will rally opposition. The state can’t do to the counties and cities what the feds are doing to the states.

So why should Republicans help Brown make government work when their philosophy is that it doesn’t and, indeed, shouldn’t? There is going to be great pressure on them not to vote to place the tax measure on the ballot. The anti-tax folks are already arguing that such a vote would violate their pledge not to raise taxes, even though it would be the voters making the decision. They are justifiably nervous that if the voters do approve the extension, we could see a real change in the assumption that taxes are politically toxic.

But Brown’s budget cuts are bound to get the Republicans’ attention in ways that haven’t happened before. Now that the budget can pass with a simple majority, Democrats can spread the pain around to Republican districts and interests instead of just poor people. Republicans may be able to negotiate a better deal with Brown in exchange for a tax measure that they think will lose at the polls anyway. They may also get some pushing from the Chambers of Commerce and other business interests that want the state to grow and can envision its bond rating improving. A proposed business tax change will advantage in-state over multi-state businesses, showing that business is not monolithic anyway. Business interests have not been immediately hostile to Brown’s plan. And Brown has been careful not to attack Republicans in his budget statements.

If the state budget is a metaphor for government, this is a very dramatic moment for California. Democrats have done a masterful job of winning elections, capped by their performance in a Republican-dominated year. But it will be in governing that the truly memorable work has to get done.

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

The debates won’t matter

Let me hedge my bet.

At the vice presidential debate, the talking points Sarah Palin’s handlers have been stuffing her head with will come out of her mouth so butchered that even Republican voters will say, like Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness”: “The horror, the horror!”

Or, at one of the remaining presidential debates, a contemptuously smirking John McCain will finally become so enraged by having to share a stage with Barack Obama that he will pop his notorious cork right there in front of a hundred million Americans.

Or maybe Obama or Joe Biden will goof or gaffe or otherwise give such a bloody bit of chum to the media sharks that the gazillionth replay of the sound bite will drive every swing voter in the country away from them. But I don’t think so.

Sure, cable yakkers will declare after each debate who won on points, and who on body language; who played Nixon, and who played Kennedy; who won their focus groups of undecideds, and who flatlined with them.

But my guess is that the prestige press headlines will continue to play it safe, as they did after the first debate — “candidates clash” (New York Times), “differ sharply” (Los Angeles Times), “quarrel” (Washington Post) — and that on television, it will be concluded that no one delivered a knockout blow, which will require audiences to remain in suspense, and therefore to keep tuning in, until the photo-finish end.

This election won’t be won or lost at the debates. Nor will it be determined by the two campaigns’ “ground games” — their get-out-the-vote efforts. Nor, unfortunately, will its outcome even depend on how many Americans wake up on Election Day intending to vote for one candidate or the other.

Instead, my fear is that the Electoral College results will hang on the swing state voting systems’ vulnerability to sabotage.

It’s already happening.

In El Paso County, Colo., the county clerk — a delegate to the Republican National Convention — told out-of-state undergraduates at Colorado College, falsely, that they couldn’t vote in Colorado if their parents claim them as dependents on their taxes.

In the towns of Mount Pleasant and Middleton, Wisc., Democratic voters received a mailing containing tear-out requests for absentee ballots pre-addressed to the wrong addresses. Both mailers were sent by the McCain campaign.

Florida, Michigan and Ohio have some of the country’s highest foreclosure rates. “Because many homeowners in foreclosure are black or poor,” The New York Times says, “and are considered probable Democratic voters in many areas, the issue has begun to have political ramifications.”

If you’re one of the million Americans who lost a home through foreclosure, and if you didn’t file a change of address with your election board, you’re a sitting duck for an Election Day challenge by a partisan poll watcher holding a public list of foreclosed homes. In states like New Mexico and Iowa, the number of foreclosures is greater than the number of votes by which George W. Bush carried the state in 2004.

In the 2006 election, according to the nonpartisan Fair Elections Legal Network, black voters in Virginia got computer-generated phone calls from a bogus “Virginia Election Commission” telling them that they could be arrested if they went to the wrong polling place; in Maryland, out-of-state leafleters gave phony Democratic sample ballots to black voters with the names of Republican candidates checked in red; in New Mexico, Democratic voters got personal phone calls from out of state that directed them to the wrong polling place.

Does anyone think this won’t be tried again in 2008?

The reason behind Alberto Gonzales’ attempted purge of U.S. Attorneys was that some of them wouldn’t knuckle under to Karl Rove’s plan to concoct an “election fraud” hoax that would put Republicans in control of the nation’s voting lists.

“We have, as you know, an enormous and growing problem with elections in certain parts of America today,” Rove falsely told the Republican National Lawyers Association, an evidence-less problem crying out for a draconian solution. Does anyone think that Rove’s move from the White House to Fox has dampened Republican ardor for this ruse?

And if all of that doesn’t alarm you, consider the new report on electronic voting systems from the Computer Security Group at the UCSB, which concluded that “all voting systems recently analyzed by independent security testers have been found to contain fatal security flaws that could compromise the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the voting process….

Unless electronic voting systems are held up to standards that are commensurate with the criticality of the tasks they have to perform, the very core of our democracy is in danger.”

And did I mention that on Election Day, some polling places in minority precincts in battleground states will be shocked, simply shocked, to discover that so many people want to vote that it will take hours of standing in line to vote? That is, of course, unless they run out of ballots.

So while the presidential and vice presidential debates will make for swell political theater, the likelihood is that victory will be determined not by how the debates move a small percentage of undecided Americans off the fence, but by the voting experiences of a few thousand voters in a few swing states on Nov. 4.

Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said, “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.”

I think he had it half right.

Those who decide who cast the votes also decide everything.