It's the Initiative Thing, Stupid! -- Why It May Not Matter Whether Brown or Whitman Wins

09/14/2010 12:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the national level, as seems to be the case since the days of President Clinton, it's the economy, stupid! But here, in California, it's the initiative process, stupid! that is the reason it may not make all that much difference come November whether Jerry Brown returns for another round as governor, or Meg Whitman gets the job she has spent a small (OK, large) personal fortune trying to win.

I know that many political "experts" will sharply disagree with me: Whitman advocates will argue that Brown has "been there, done that" and doesn't need to do it all over again. Brown supporters will argue that Whitman is the corporate devil incarnate bent on tossing what remains of the state's social safety net overboard in favor of -- well -- favors for her rich buds.

Both of these views are no doubt extreme, and the truth about each candidate, as is usually the case, is somewhere in between the heated rhetorical poles.

But getting back to my point, I doubt it will really matter in many ways who gets elected because it is government by proposition that is what is sinking the ship of state here.

I know the reasons, many of them good ones, why the reform movement in this state in the early years of the last century favored the initiative process we find ourselves with today. But oddly enough, the notions of 18th century representative democracy (rather than direct, democratic rule) are the prescription needed to deal with our 21st century problems,

Currently, in California, when we don't like a policy the legislature or governor proposes, we pass a proposition to get rid of it. And, if we don't like the governor, we pass a recall to get rid of him (or maybe her?). We have used initiatives to greatly restrict property taxes (a big part of the problem now that revenue has really dried up because of the deflating housing market) and we have even used the initiative process to curtail the civil rights of an entire group of Californians simply because they happen to be in the minority.

Even Jerry Brown -- in an obvious effort to counter Whitman's "no new taxes" mantra, says if he is elected governor, any new taxes imposed would be after a vote (can you say PROPOSITION?) of the people. But that is what the people should be electing Brown (or Whitman) to decide, using their judgment. Presumably, once in office, they understand the bigger picture and are best suited to make the tough economic decisions.

But politicians in this state have long been afraid to make tough decisions out of fear that their job contract will be cut abruptly short by a proposition or a recall. Hardly a way to run a state with the economic muscle of a medium-sized country.

Whitman says she wants to "right-size" the state payroll (a not very clever code for firing people) -- while Brown agrees there is waste and says the people ought to decide what services they will and will not pay for. Frankly, I don't see much of a difference there. Either way, people will be laid off.

For sure, the general emphasis of each candidate is very different: Brown more the friend of labor (or, at least, perceived so) and Whitman the friend of big business.

Neither one is probably capable of taming the goofballs in Sacramento who, year after year, find new excuses not to pass a state budget on time.

No. It's the initiative process, stupid! that is the real issue here. Too bad that is not on the November ballot.

Charles Feldman is a journalist and media consultant and co-author of the book, "No Time To Think-The Menace Of Media Speed and The 24 Hour News Cycle." He has covered politics and police in Los Angeles since 1995 and is a regular contributor of investigative reports for KNX1070 Newsradio.