One year before the 2010 election, Gavin Newsom's abrupt withdrawal from the governor's race leaves the campaign without a candidate conveying the message most aligned with California's zeitgeist of the moment: a call for sweeping reform.
With Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown the lone (if still formally undeclared) Democratic candidate, and a Republican field of former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman, ex-Rep. Tom Campbell and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, the race now presents two fundamental, thematic choices:
Brown and Campbell argue, in slightly different ways, that fixing California is a matter of making government work better; Whitman and Poizner essentially contend that fixing California means getting government out of the way.
At a time when Californians have record-low regard for state government, none of the four has mounted a challenge to the status quo as strongly as did Newsom. A flawed messenger lacking focus and the discipline to raise the vast sums needed, he nonetheless came closest to seizing the mantle of change.
"This is the race that will shake the system," the 42-year-old San Francisco mayor said in his first online campaign ad. Positioning himself as an upstart outsider with bold ideas, his message combined generational appeal with proposals for a green economy and for major structural reforms. Capturing the nomination was always a long shot for newcomer Newsom, but it was he who most clearly articulated the memes of reform -- a constitutional convention, revising the budget process, reexamining Proposition 13 -- that have arisen amid Sacramento's chronic gridlock and deficits.
The remaining candidates make studied efforts to cast themselves as scourges of the status quo. As authentic agents of change, however, they fall short by almost any measure. All are baby boomers or older, and they are also longtime establishment insiders in business, politics or both. They are campaigning on shopworn rhetoric, threadbare ideology and conventional ideas, offering scant inspiration to alienated voters and angry citizens distrustful and disgusted with the capital's ossified operations.
To be sure, campaigning in the current political environment is an extraordinary challenge. The most recent statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that Californians have dismally low views of the incumbent governor -- 30% approve of his performance -- and of the Legislature, with its humiliating 13% approval rating.
Worse for the candidates, the citizens of California across the board are deeply pessimistic about its intractable problems: 80% say California is on the wrong track, while two-thirds expect continued bad economic times in the next year. Breaking through this widespread despair and disillusionment requires candidates with uplifting vision, powerful new ideas, exceptional personality -- or all three. The political platitudes now on display hardly seem to qualify.
Despite his organizational problems, Newsom as a candidate displayed high energy and thoughtful policy thinking -- on healthcare, environmentalism and civic reform. And his courage in simply declaring same-sex marriage legal in his city triggered a national debate over the civil rights of gays. None of the rest of the field has communicated such full-throated willingness to "shake the system."
So what do we know about the candidates who remain in the race?
Whitman: With a self-referential pledge -- "I refuse to let California fail" -- and boasts about her "spine of steel," Whitman tells voters that her business skills and experience as a CEO will enable her to fulfill promises of easing unemployment and fixing the state's battered educational systems. She has announced her intention to fire 40,000 state workers and slash regulations and taxes. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the last governor to woo voters with such a singular, tough-talk pitch. But his simplistic campaign-trail prescriptions proved no match for the complex political and policy maladies of Sacramento.
Poizner: Casting himself as a candidate of "bold ideas," Poizner promotes a "10-10-10 program" that would cut taxes and spending each by 10% and build a $10-billion "rainy day" fund. Notwithstanding his breezy confidence in the alleged transformational power of his plan, it is basically recycled supply side, unfettered market economics of a brand discredited by the Bush administration. His political makeover, from erstwhile moderate to born-again right-winger, smacks of poll-driven politics-as-usual.
Campbell: The law professor with the MBA and years of political experience is almost always the smartest guy in the room. An underfunded centrist at a time when moderates are being purged from the GOP, he campaigns as the candidate of specificity; his mastery of the minutiae of state government generates detailed white papers and avuncular assurances, but in the end his message boils down to more efficient management of the status quo.
Brown: It is a great paradox that the septuagenarian Brown, the original rock-star politician, now timidly labels himself "an apostle of common sense," hardly a slogan that screams "new ideas" or invokes the insurgency of his presidential campaign days. Brown has said little about how his late-life governorship would differ from his first, except to suggest he would be more competent in balancing competing special interests, a version of the theme being sounded by Campbell.
None of these messages offers a solution to the fundamental challenge that confronts the next governor: How to slash the maddening Gordian knot of California's governance structure.
It is instructive that Treasurer Bill Lockyer, while well-positioned to seek the governorship, shows little interest in doing so. "We're part of a system that was designed not to work," he recently told lawmakers studying political reform. "You are the captives of this environment, and I don't see any way out."