11/20/2012 09:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jerry Brown Rides a Wave With National Implications

At 74, Jerry Brown might just be surfing a wave of the future emanating from California. That Brown, a 36-year-old wunderkind when first elected California's governor in the 1970s, did much to generate this wave in a very different time only makes it all the more ironic.

As Brown knows, there's an old saying that the future comes first to California. That's not always a good thing.

The hard right hyper-partisanship that has so marked the Republican Party at the national level, and the gridlock in Washington that resulted, came first to the California Republican Party. So much so that it increasingly, and quite bizarrely, ignored the entreaties of moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who merely won two landslide elections to the governorship and warned Republicans at their 2007 state convention outside Palm Springs that they were sliding way too far to the right.

After spending much of his first year as governor fruitlessly trying to work with Republicans -- not so much because he prizes bipartisanship as some sort of overarching virtue but because a handful of Republican votes were needed to raise revenues under California's unusual two-thirds vote requirement -- Brown went in another direction. He simply beat them at the ballot box. Brown's Proposition 30 revenue initiative, which consists of temporary hikes in income taxes for the wealthy and a quarter-cent sales tax for all to stop education cuts and stabilize the long-reeling state budget, after some hairy moments during the fall won by a smashing 55% to 45%. It's a big win that may point to a path forward for national Democrats.

In his November 6th, 2012 election night speech, Governor Jerry Brown discusses the victory of his Proposition 30 revenue initiative.

Along with that big win comes the victory of Democratic super-majorities in both houses of the California legislature. And the Legislative Analyst Office reported that the passage of Brown's Prop 30 has essentially solved California's chronic budget crisis for the bulk of the decade, reducing the budget deficit through mid-2014 to less than $2 billion.

Should Brown and legislators hold the line on spending, that will lead to budget surpluses in the years ahead.

Amusingly, much of the state media, which all but wrote off Brown's Prop 30 just a few days before the election, even as it was beginning to show clear signs of winning, is now saying he is a shoo-in for reelection amidst a totally new era in California politics. Assuming, that is, that he runs for reelection, which I have no doubt he intends to do.

Brown's big Prop 30 victory, one of the most important victories in recent California political history, reversed the post-Proposition 13 anti-tax dynamic at the ballot box.

I explained how the victory was won right after the election in "How Jerry Brown Pulled Off the Big Prop 30 Win."

Without getting too deeply into the polling weeds right now, the victory was won by cobbling together a coalition which just might work at the national level: Enough older white voters and upper income voters reassured by Brown's high-profile frugal ways combined with huge majorities of people of color and young people.

Private polling had indicated this path to victory, as did the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. Prop 30 was hanging in there under an onslaught of ads funded by a handful of super-rich individuals, hiding behind the innocuous-sounding Small Business Action Committee, and in some cases still anonymous through even more deceptive practices. But it was a few points shy of 50%, historically a very bad place to be for any complicated financial measure, much less a tax hike.

On an October 25th conference call, the poll crew led by USC Unruh Institute director Dan Schnur said that most of the undecided voters on Prop 30 were young people, Democrats, people of color, and Obama voters. Brown himself was very popular with the undecided voters.

This year saw the start of online voter registration, which Brown signed into law and which led to nearly one million new voters, most of them young.

Nearly half of Prop 30's margin of victory came from younger voters, aged 18 to 29, who turned out at a much higher rate than anticipated by the Field Poll and other conventional forecasters.

This is why Brown spent so much time campaigning around colleges in the last few weeks of the campaign, as I noted at the time.

If Brown and Democratic legislative leaders convince Californians that they are managing state government effectively -- Brown just appointed a retired Marine general to run the troubled state parks department -- that example and the coalition which made it possible may just presage the future in national politics.

President Barack Obama won his 51% to 48% popular vote victory, and much more comfortable electoral college victory, with a similar coalition. But the centerpiece of his program didn't include a sales tax hike for all.

People of color and younger voters were key for Obama's national victory, and were even more central to his carrying California -- source of most of his popular vote margin -- where he rolled to a 60% to 38% win over Mitt Romney.

Demographically, the country is moving in California's direction. But demography is merely directional in politics. It is not destiny. Failure to handle the responsibility can destroy a clear political opportunity for Democrats.

Meanwhile, recovery efforts from Superstorm Sandy continue, just as a new report on the climate change front carries an ominous warning. For the World Bank, not known as a conclave of radicals, warns in a new report that the planet faces "cataclysmic changes" from global warming.

So it's a good thing that everyone has been following the lead of California on cutting greenhouse gases, right?

Brown is feeling his oats from the smashing victory of his Prop 30. And the state's landmark AB 32 climate change program, enacted by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and championed by Brown, passed a major milestone last Wednesday when its carbon credits system went into effect through a successful auction.

So last Friday, Brown engaged in something of a victory dance when he spoke at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

In an ebullient mood after his big win on Prop 30 -- which has effectively ended the state's chronic budget crisis, though long-term challenges remain -- Brown, mindful of the new cap-and-trade carbon emissions system and of having another half-billion dollars per year for renewable energy thanks to the passage of hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer's Proposition 39, urged his audience to help get the rest of the nation to "get with it."

He reminded that California has been in the forefront of renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts for decades, beginning with his governorship of the 1970s and early 1980s, revived with the governorship of his former chief of staff, Gray Davis, dramatically ramped up by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and of course carried on in his own new/renewed governorship.

He also scored his "declinist" critics, again rejecting the notion that California, one of the world's biggest and most innovative economies, is "a failed state."

He said that their ilk, which he identifies as conservatives, is "losing power from coast to coast."

As for those who dubbed him "Governor Moonbeam" back in the day, he noted that they aren't around anymore, but he is. Well, a few are still around.

With the state's tax burden increased somewhat as a result of Prop 30′s easy passage, and the state's economic recovery -- unemployment dropped again last month, to a still very high 10.1% -- quite real but somewhat fragile, Brown is vowing to keep the floodgates of spending and taxing under control in this new era of a Democratic super-majority in both houses of the legislature.

Brown occupies the center of California politics, has the ability to pre-empt the left (which in any event is thrilled by his spearheading the passage of Prop 30), and is faced with a right-wing opposition which has lost all real credibility.

A very strong position in which to be. And Brown has a big agenda, some of which he's announced, to continue to pursue, albeit one that is not dependent on much new taxation.

And the Republicans in this state which was the cradle of the Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon presidencies?

Former Governor Schwarzenegger, shooting his new movie Ten in Atlanta, had a big "I told you so" for fellow Republicans last week in the Wall Street Journal.

As I may have mentioned once or twice over the years, Schwarzenegger ventured to Palm Springs in fall 2007 to deliver a California Republican convention speech warning that the party was veering way too far to the right. But activists and party leaders decided to ignore what the recent winner of a second straight landslide election as governor had to say in favor of their treehouse club mentality, which has seen Republican registration in California drop to 29.4%. The Wall Street Journal calls Schwarzenegger "prophetic."

One needn't have a gift of prophecy to see the opportunity for Democrats afforded by Brown's big Prop 30 victory. But one danger of prophecy is a sense of inevitability. And nothing undermines inevitability quite like pretending that nothing can go wrong.

Click here for my compendium of articles laying out the re-emergence of Jerry Brown as governor of California.

Click here for my compendium of articles providing a narrative of his governorship.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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