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Once the Dust Settles, Bring Back the Party of California

History tells us there can be common ground in Sacramento.

October 09, 2003|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr is state librarian and a professor of history at USC.

For the last 10 months, we Californians have subjected ourselves to an unprecedented exercise. We have risked -- some would say lost -- our reputation as a responsible commonwealth. We have spent untold millions in an off-season election that represented the most radical political act possible in a democracy, the recall of a duly elected public official by popular vote.

Have we accomplished anything by this exercise? It all depends upon what happens next.

We are sending a new governor to Sacramento, but if we do the state's business as usual -- which is to say, if we keep state government in fiscal and ideological gridlock -- we will have forfeited our right to be considered one of the leading commonwealths of this planet, despite our ranking as the fifth-largest economy. If we fail to re-found California, we will have wasted everybody's time.

No constitutional convention is necessary for this re-foundation. It can be accomplished within the current framework and protocols of representative democracy in Sacramento. Nor, despite our financial straits, does the re-foundation of California demand any theoretical breakthroughs of budgeteering. Because both Republicans and Democrats together got California into this mess, what is required is that both parties renegotiate state government for the future.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 14, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Earl Warren -- A commentary Thursday on the history of politics in California said Earl Warren won the Democratic and Republican nominations for California governor in 1948. The year was 1946.

Democrats must recognize that without a flourishing private sector there are no revenues for social programs, however necessary and well intended. They must learn that they can only go so many times to the ATM of private-sector business for bailout.

Republicans must recognize that without a stable public sector, the private sector is soon crippled by pervasive social dysfunction. They must cease demonizing taxes and the public sector, provided that such taxes are necessary and the public sector is run as efficiently as possible.

The golden age of public value in California cited by nearly all the recall candidates -- the two decades after World War II, the decades of school and infrastructure construction, the master plan for higher education, the completion of the California water plan, the buoyant optimism pervading the public and private sectors -- occurred precisely because Republicans and Democrats negotiated with each other to achieve what Aristotle defined as the essence of politics, the art of the possible, getting done what can get done.

One Republican governor during those years, Earl Warren, would later be excoriated by conservatives as a liberal when he was chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. And one Democratic governor, Pat Brown, began his political career as a Republican.

How did those Californians achieve common ground when we find it so difficult?

The main reason, I believe, is the fact that the Progressive detente of the early 20th century was still in place. The Progressives, although mainly Republicans, contained a number of prominent Democrats in their ranks. One of the key Progressive reforms of the early 1900s was "cross-filing." Approved by the Legislature in 1913, it allowed Republicans and Democrats to run in each other's primaries. In 1948, for example, Warren won both the Republican and the Democratic gubernatorial nominations. As a young congressman, Richard Nixon came very close to winning the Democratic as well as the Republican nomination to Congress.

Cross-filing kept the elected officials of California focused on a common center. In primaries and general elections, Republicans had to please Democrats, and Democrats had to please Republicans. There existed at the core of California politics a Party of California, to which everyone was expected to belong.

Cross-filing was rescinded in 1959 as the two parties became increasingly dominated by their more polarized liberal and conservative wings. The Kennedy-Johnson years saw the Democratic Party move to the left, pushed by ultraliberal political clubs throughout the state. Republicanism, meanwhile -- inclusive, middle-of-the-road, easygoing in matters ideological -- was influenced by the populist conservatism of the Southwest, a trend that Ronald Reagan consolidated and intensified.

Candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger rarely, if ever, expressed values anchored in fiercely partisan Republicanism. By contrast, he talked over and over about California -- specifically, about how California offered him, as a young immigrant, a way of realizing his dreams. In the months to come, Gov. Schwarzenegger must make this vision of California -- the vision of the Progressives, the vision of the Party of California -- once again the matrix and sustainer of public value and corrective public action.

After the tumult of the recall, the voters want California reformed, revitalized, renewed, restructured if necessary -- indeed, re-founded. And they want it done along fair and sustainable lines. If Sacramento returns to business as usual, there will be more initiatives and more impasses.

In the months to come, this great state (to borrow and modify a phrase from the English Victorian poet Matthew Arnold) will be caught between two Californias: the one trapped in gridlock, the other yearning to be born.

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