11/19/2010 01:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Reform Agenda -- Red Pills, Blue Agendas and the Neo-Johnsons

As predicted, the party out of power picked up seats in the midterm elections -- as it has to past presidents like Reagan in '82, Clinton in '94 and Bush in '06. The "wave election" or "swerve election" as David Broder calls it, seemed to stop at the Rockies and blue states like California and New York more than held off the red tide. Roughly 60 House seats changed hands as well as 600 state legislative seats in favor of Republicans -- a feat not seen since the midterms of FDR's second term. Taken from a historical perspective, however, the outcome from November 2nd was more normal than abnormal -- especially given our penchant for divided government. With America is coming out of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression and Democrats unwillingness to run on a "reform" message (i.e. health care, Wall Street, energy, etc.), it is surprising Republicans did not do even better.

You do not have to have read George Orwell to know that one of the most abused words in the English language is "reform." It is almost as bad as our penchant for reviving old labels with the word "neo." To hear language mavens Frank Luntz or George Lakoff say it, semantics matter in how we discuss our politics and ultimately which debate frame or narrative resonates best. Reform to the Tea Partier is different from that of establishment Republicans and their understanding of "reform" stands in contrast to progressives -- who incidentally lost few races as compared to the centrist Blue Dog Democrats. Then again, California is the home of renowned political reformer and former Progressive Party vice presidential nominee Hiram Johnson, and this January is the centennial anniversary of his first inaugural speech as Governor of California. Gridlock may be expected outcome from the coming divided government at the national level but following are some reforms on the table during the current lame-duck session in Congress and at least one reform we can pursue at the state level.

The Golden State


The need to overhaul our broken system of state government through a constitutional convention or revision notwithstanding, the three legged stool of political reform in California is Open Primaries, Redistricting Reform and Term Limits Modification. We passed the first this past June and the second earlier this month. Governor Schwarzenegger may be seen as an inaction hero for the ongoing budget crisis in Sacramento but he at least deserves praise for his role in getting measures passed to moderate our partisanship and create more opportunities for cooperative politics.

The youngest and oldest elected governor of California, Jerry Brown, finished his gubernatorial work before the passage of Prop. 140, Term Limits, in 1990 but perhaps he can get behind the California Term Limits Initiative -- set for two years from now. Experience matters in a state as large and complex as ours and all Californians lose when legislators move on because of term limits or the musical chairs that ensue. Why not allow them to spend up to 12 years in either house -- thus allowing us to benefit by their expertise on issues like water, public schools, transportation, etc? The self-proclaimed "Ayatollah of the Assembly," Willie Brown, was part of the reason why Term Limits was passed in the first place. But the former Assembly Speaker lamented the ultimate outcome of term limits at a Pat Brown Institute dinner last spring:

We don't have people who actually sought elections; went door-to-door, rang the doorbells, presented their case -- made their case, suggested solutions to problems, and allowed for debate on those proposed solutions. What we have are people who are just skilled at getting elected -- they are not skilled at serving.

The Feds

It will be interesting to see how reform plays out in the divided government of a Republican House, a barely Democratic Senate and the Obama administration -- often described as "socialist," "centrist" and "leftist" depending on which cable news channel you prefer. You might recall -- for better or worse -- that it was a Republican lame-duck session in 1998 that impeached President Clinton -- so there is precedent for historic action during these sessions. Below are a few reforms under consideration:

  • Passing the DISCLOSE Act. Big Daddy was right in saying that "Money is the Mother's Milk of Politics" but Americans ought to know where it is coming from.
  • Passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Merits notwithstanding, Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid owe their victory in large part to turnout in the Latino community. Promises should be kept and Republicans ought to recognize the political consequences of not dealing with this growing segment of the electorate. If nothing else, pass the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for those who serve in the military or attend college.
  • Ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Military Policy. A court decision already rendered it invalid and the military is ready to say that ending it will not harm our armed forces.
  • Give Serious Consideration to the Budget Blueprint of the Bipartisan Deficit Commission. Democrats AND Republicans would be wise not to dismiss it outright.
  • Ending or Revising the Bush Tax Cuts. Expect a battle royal but it remains to be seen how the tax cuts can be paid for over the long run while also reducing the deficit.


The "Yes We Can" administration has cut taxes for the middle class, will turn a profit on billions spent rescuing Wall Street and has seen economic growth for the last 5 quarters. None of this, however, seemed to penetrate the American consciousness on Election Day -- to say nothing of our military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan that went unmentioned. As Bill Maher said on Real Time in June of last year and said much the same in his season finale on Friday, Obama needs a little Bushian attitude and certitude. Perhaps reform starts at home and that begins by standing on your record, creating a new narrative and showing a willingness to trade punches. The Philippines Congressman and pugilist by trade, Manny Pacquiao, showed in Texas this past weekend what is possible even against a bigger and stronger opponent. The question goes out to POTUS, however, in the words of the UFC's Dana White: "Do you want to be a [expletive] fighter?"

Can We Be Neo-Hiram Johnsons?

Except for a few goo-goos preaching the Good Government Gospel, there are no special interests for reform. The status quo, like victory, has many fathers and an equal number of friends. Some want to reform the system to take it back to the way it was; others want to reform it to right a wrong; still others work to create a better tomorrow. To paraphrase Napoleon from Animal Farm, "All reforms are equal, but some reforms are more equal than others." Equality depends on who is in charge, who is willing to fight for it and who can move the electorate. There is also the red pill reality -- to mix my metaphors -- that incremental reform will not work. Pundits Mark Paul and Joe Mathews have a point when they argue what should be our central task in the Golden State "revising California's Constitution so that our governing system is once again equal to dealing with the state's huge scale, economic complexity, human diversity and political polarization."

A version of this opinion piece is also appearing on the bipartisan political reform CA Forward blog.