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Modern Politics, California-Style: I May Be New at This, But I Don't Like It

November 04, 1990|Ron Greenbaum | Ron Greenbaum is a first-year law student at UCLA. and

At the ripe old age of 22, I have joined the legions of voters who are apathetic about this election. My disillusionment stems from the sterility of modern politics. In their quest for election or reelection, politicians are telling us what they think we want to hear.

Our elected officials are afraid to make the difficult choices inherent in governing, because one unpopular decision of importance may lead to defeat in the next election. Because they play it safe, politicians have divorced themselves from their purpose: the responsibility of leading the people.

The gubernatorial race exemplifies modern politics, California-style. Although Dianne Feinstein and Pete Wilson may differ on some issues, the tenor of their campaigns is shockingly similar. Each has made a great effort to demonstrate that he or she is "tough, but caring" and the candidate for "change"--apparently the current prerequisites for election. Both pledge to fight crime and drugs, provide more expansive health care, clean up the environment, support education and keep taxes low.

All these objectives are commendable, but they are impossible to achieve simultaneously. It requires money to build new prisons, help the sick and injured, reduce smog-forming emissions and attract the best teachers.

If we tripled our taxes, we might have enough money to fulfill all of these goals. But nobody wants that. As a result, the candidates have declined to state most of the specifics in their plans.

Feinstein and Wilson know that any definitive statement of their vision will be attacked for either its limitations or exorbitant expense. They persist in describing a fantasy, rather than telling us the truth.

Because of the lack of specificity in their campaigns, the candidates have left us with a difficult choice--a more cynical observer might say no choice.

Both were moderately successful mayors of large California cities. As a senator, Wilson has been described as the most anonymous figure in U.S. politics. It is unclear what he represents. Feinstein has a similar image problem. During the campaign both have labored much harder to label one another than to reveal themselves.

The propositions demonstrate a related problem. The initiative process enables the Legislature to shift the burden for making difficult decisions from lawmakers to voters. We entrust the power of legislation to the Senate and the Assembly, and we pay them for that purpose.

Yet they require us to wade through 221 pages of material containing the 28 propositions and the explanations. Few people, much less we first- or second-time voters, have the sophistication and patience to do so. Thus, some of our most important legislative choices hinge on which side creates better television advertisement.

Consequently, the initiative process often leads to disastrous results. For example, the "environmental" initiatives might clog our courtrooms for years. If Proposition 128 ("Big Green") or Proposition 130 pass, opponents will challenge many of their provisions.

Worse yet, they conflict with Propositions 135 and 138. If all four initiatives pass, state judges may never resolve the mess. As a law student, I should be happy with the initiative process, because it virtually guarantees me and my classmates jobs when we graduate. But as a citizen, I am infuriated with the whole system.

Regardless of the results of this election, the prospects for measurable constructive change appear dim. Neither gubernatorial candidate appears to possess the capacity necessary to tackle the tremendous concerns we will face for the rest of the decade. Similarly, the Legislature seems willing to pass the buck.

Leadership does not require rhetoric as much as the ability to make the right decisions under trying circumstances. For the system to change, we must encourage people to enter office who will speak the whole truth and adopt an unpopular position when it is necessary.

For the last three years, I have been a volunteer adviser for the California YMCA Model Legislature/Court program. Each February, the program brings 1,000 high-school students to Sacramento to debate bills in the Senate and Assembly chambers.

During the last conference, California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown spoke to the student delegates. He delivered the usual inspirational speech, encouraging students to pursue careers in public service. One of his chief points was that our government needs fresh blood. He said most politicians have lost the capacity to deal with the tremendous problems facing California. He said the concern with reelection has become so consuming for most politicians that it has stifled their initiative.

The sad thing, Mr. Speaker, is that you do not know how right you are.

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