May 8, 2011


Jerry Brown’s Last Stand (ADAM NAGOURNEY, 5/04/11, NY Times Magazine)

There may be no better prism to view what is happening to the left during this era of the Tea Party than through Brown’s difficulties this spring. Although Brown may never have been the liberal that many took him for, he falls on the left on any conventional political spectrum. In the midst of his bracing talk about the need to change the way business is done in Sacramento, he came under fire for negotiating agreements with California unions — including some big supporters of his campaign — that fell short of winning the concessions he had promised and that fiscal analysts say are critical for his state’s long-term health. Yet at the same time, the argument playing out in this most Democratic of states is not whether there should be cuts in spending on social programs but whether the cuts should be very deep or very, very, very deep. Brown’s budget is hardly the kind of proposal a governor like Brown’s father would have championed.

For all that, it does not appear to be giving him any huge problems with his liberal supporters. Part of that is because this state is coming off almost eight years of Republican rule, which makes Brown seem much more acceptable by contrast. It is also a sign of just how anxious Californians are about the state’s fiscal and political path and how few choices there really are. David Geffen said Brown has shifted because that is the only way to get anything accomplished. “You’d have to call him a centrist — more of a centrist than he was 30 years ago,” Geffen said. “You can only solve problems in the middle. I don’t think you can solve problems from the left or the right.” Most of all, Brown has been around a long time: His supporters trust him, and they know who they voted for. “Jerry and I don’t agree on many issues,” said Jodie Evans, a longtime aide to Brown who today runs Code Pink, the antiwar group. “But I don’t believe there is anybody better to do this job right now. I might be outside the university protesting what he’s doing, but there isn’t anybody I trust the way I trust him.”

A few weeks after introducing his budget proposal, Brown met privately with Democratic legislators. The spending cuts were, as expected, causing distress among Democrats, though they were going to pass them. The tax extensions were even more of a problem; the Republican votes were still not there. When he was done making his presentation, according to people in the room, someone asked: “What happens if Plan A fails? What is your Plan B?” Brown didn’t flinch. “I believe in the Hernando Cortes approach,” he said, invoking the Spanish conqueror. “When you hit the shore, burn the ships. There is no Plan B.” The lawmakers sat in disbelieving silence. But that remark was borne out after the collapse of the budget talks; it was not clear that Brown knew what to do next.

Unless Plan B really is to do precisely what he said he would do: cut billions more from the state’s budget. The governor may be crafty — he is very much a politician — but on this point he seems utterly transparent. “He is what he is, and he’s been it for a long time,” Beatty, who has been a friend of Brown’s for 30 years, told me. “After a few decades of skepticism about him, you can now see he really means what he says.”

In our conversations over the last few months, it became clear that Brown is considering, in the event of failure, a subversive notion, a last-stand response to the Republican agenda of blocking the tax extensions and forcing spending cuts: Let it happen. “If you talk about taxes, you don’t get elected — so that’s a nonstarter now,” he told me. “You have to keep cutting to the point where people say they want to increase their contribution.”

In other words, the only way a majority of Americans might reconsider taxes is if they experience the full brunt of spending cuts, not only in California but also in Washington. “People have never experienced cutting like that before,” Brown told me. “That will create turbulence.” If raising taxes is a nonstarter in this environment, change the environment.

Although Brown did not put it this way, this idea is the reverse of a Republican strategy known as “starve the beast,” in which politically popular tax cuts are intended to force subsequent reductions in government spending. The notion is most identified with Grover Norquist, the antitax advocate (and a powerful foe of Brown’s bid to extend California’s tax increases), who has said he wants to shrink government so that you could “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” What Brown is proposing is to demonstrate just how disruptive a radically smaller government would be. Government might become so diminished that Californians demand to rescue it from Norquist’s bathtub.

If Brown can’t win his battle over taxes, this line of thinking goes, the next best thing would be for him to lose his battle over taxes. California would once again become a great national laboratory. “It will be wrenching,” Brown said.

What if no one, other than state employees, notices the cuts?

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Posted by at May 8, 2011 6:21 PM

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