This should be the Democrats' year in California. The recession refuses to abate, especially in vote-rich Los Angeles. Pete Wilson, a governor who combines the common touch of George Bush with the affability of Richard M. Nixon, has presided over the worst economy since the 1930s. By any theory of accountability, Wilson should already be halfway out the door.
But he's not--in large part, because he's also inherited Nixon's genius for scapegoating, for those racially charged wedge issues that have been the linchpin of post-1968 Republicanism. Who wants to talk de-industrialization? The problem is immigrants. The problem is liberal values that have impeded executions and limited the growth of the all-important prison sector.
Hold on, though. These are Bill Clinton Democrats who Wilson is attacking. Following the strategy that won Clinton the White House, they're willing to keep Wilson company part of the way down the path to social conservatism--so long as they can also take him to task for neglecting the public investment on which California has always relied.
That, at least, is the theory that underpins the gubernatorial campaigns of Treasurer Kathleen Brown and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi. In the more inelegant realm of practice, it's often looked more like simply caving in.
It's been less of a stretch for Garamendi, who came into the race with a long record of support for the death penalty and skepticism toward Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s judicial appointments. But Kathleen Brown has been compelled to embark on an odyssey.
To overcome the stigma of her opposition to the death penalty, Brown has had to commit to the "three strikes and you're out" initiative. Garamendi has prudently backed off his initial support for the measure. State Sen. Tom Hayden has never favored it.
But with the exception of an occasional Hayden, the California Democrats have learned to play defense, to embrace a "three strikes" here, a spate of executions there. (There are limits to how far they can be pushed: Garamendi opposes the militarization of the border; Brown vows to campaign against the initiative denying medical care to illegal immigrants.) And, thus inoculated against the worst of Wilson's charges, they are presumably able to take it to Wilson on the economy. The payoff for all this defensiveness is their ability to go on the offensive.
So where's the offense?
It's not that there aren't real differences of economic vision between the two parties. Like their Republican counterparts, most California Democrats pay ritual homage to the cult of deregulation. But they part company from the GOP with their new-found stress on public investment. As they tell the tale, the California Creation Epic is all about how Earl Warren and Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr. built the world's greatest public schools and universities, the world's best roads and infrastructure.
Quite rightly, they call for a latter-day version of these policies today. They've become apostles (Hayden particularly) of an enviro-industrial policy: Electric cars and light rail glide across a hundred position papers. They're pushing blue-collar public-works projects like the Alameda Corridor, and white-collar ones like the information highway.
No less than their policies of social retreat, these policies of public investment mark a break from recent past Democratic practice. The gubernatorial campaigns of Tom Bradley, John Van De Kamp and Dianne Feinstein assumed, as a matter of course, the continuation of the California postwar boom. Garamendi, Hayden and Brown make no such assumption. With programs such as these, they propose both to reshape our economy and to give it a jump-start.
The jump-start is the hard part. While a state can pursue its own distinctly progressive investment priorities in boom times (that's precisely what Pat Brown did), it lacks most of the tools to engineer its own recovery. A state has no obvious way to fund a stimulus. The Democrats cannot propose higher taxes in the midst of a recession. They cannot, unlike the feds, rely on deficit spending; that is forbidden, here as in all states, by law.
What's left for the Democrats are stimulus substitutes. Their candidates for governor, treasurer and controller all call for setting aside a portion of the state-employee pension funds for in-state investment, for giving an edge to in-state bidders on public-sector contracts. (Just a few years ago, California Democrats derided this kind of "domestic content" mind-set as appropriate for a fossilized economy like Michigan's, but not for so dynamic a state as ours. Then aerospace turned to a fossil.) They call for the more expeditious sale of bonds. And they call--Kathleen Brown, in particular--for targeting tax breaks to companies that create good jobs, for tax moratoriums on new small businesses.