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Our Duke Plays His Own Jester

September 21, 1986|WILLIAM KAHRL | William Kahrl writes frequently from Sacramento.

It is probably a mistake to dwell at any length on how foolish and wrongheaded most of George Deukmejian's actions over the past four weeks have been on their own terms. Each misstep has already brought its own outcry of pained indignation from those most offended by his positions on prisons, pensions and the state Supreme Court. The only reasonable question to ask in surveying the whole sorry spectacle is how he could have gotten himself into so many pickles at once.

The announcement of his opposition to the reelection of Supreme Court Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin is a case in point. You can take issue with the reasoning for his stand or decry the example it sets, but there remains the essential problem of why he did it at all. His standing with the public is not such that he can swing any votes against Grodin and Reynoso. Nor will the announcement pull any support his way. The people who hate Grodin and Reynoso will probably vote for Deukmejian anyway, and those who don't, won't. The only perfectly predictable effect of his announcement was that it would raise the court-packing charge, which can only hurt the governor and help the two justices.

Similarly, calling the Legislature into an extended session has turned into a no-win situation for Deukmejian. Even if he gets what he wants, a prison adjacent to Los Angeles' Latino neighborhood and a license to raid the public employees' pension fund to prop up the state budget, Deukmejian will still be tarred with charges of racism and feathered with yet another reminder of his tight-fistedness.

Deukmejian had just finished the most productive legislative session of his career as governor, emerging with major successes on South African divestiture and unitary taxation. So why did he push his luck? Even the English kings, after all, learned long ago how dangerous it can be to call the people's representatives together, especially when they'd rather be home.

When a politician campaigning for reelection does something that he doesn't need to, it smells of principle. And I have no doubt that the governor regards his recent behavior as highly principled in the extreme. The problem is that way out on the extreme where Deukmejian has been operating, politics and principle blur and the inertia of past decisions takes over.

Calling the Legislature back into session, for example, must have seemed like a good way of retrieving a few political chestnuts that the governor had fumbled away earlier in the year. The public employees had been willing at one point to negotiate for some use of their pension funds to preserve the governor's much-vaunted but largely illusory billion-dollar reserve. But then Deukmejian forced the issue, and the no-longer-civil servants balked. When the Legislature responded by putting the pension funds further out of Deukmejian's reach, he made up the difference by vetoing funds for a series of popular programs. Now he is fishing for some way to restore them.

In the same way, Deukmejian had already worked himself into a corner on the Los Angeles prison issue when he realized that further insistence might cost him the pleasure of opening two other new prisons in time for the election.

The significance of both these issues has been inflated by a lot of hot air pumped in from all sides of the debate. The fate of California really doesn't hinge on siting a prison in Los Angeles or protecting budgetary reserve. The essential point, however, is that picking fights with the state's largest city and most influential employees' union is a very strange way to run for office.

Perhaps Deukmejian's campaign advisers thought that it wouldn't hurt to run for governor by acting a little gubernatorial, reminding people who is in charge. Unfortunately, calling the legislative leadership names and threatening wholesale release of convicted felons just doesn't convey quite the image of seasoned leadership that Deukmejian might have first intended.

I suspect that the governor's recent misadventures do not arise from principle or political calculation so much as from simple boredom. The arrogance that he has displayed is born of self-confidence.

When Deukmejian first began to draw a bead on both his feet in early August, he was still riding high in the opinion polls and Tom Bradley's campaign was all aflounder. Since then, Bradley has begun to rise in the polls by a mysterious process that may or may not have anything to do with the governor's various alarums and excursions.

Deukmejian's situation could be compared to that of someone who arrives for a tennis date only to find that his opponent hasn't made the scene. Since the court was reserved anyway, the governor started hacking around on his own. So far, he seems to have bent his racket, got tangled up in the net, and twisted his ankle, and now he looks up to see Bradley warming up on the other side. To complete the metaphor, whether Deukmejian has done himself any lasting damage, only a chiropractor or his own pollsters can tell for sure.

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