06/27/2012 09:36 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

The 'Slow Boring of Hard Boards' in an Era of Limits

"We are entering an era of limits. In place of a manifest economic destiny, we face a sober reassessment of new economic realities, and we all have to get used to it.

We can't just ignore the demands of social and economic justice or the fragile environment on which we all depend. But in meeting our responsibility, we are now forced to make difficult choices.

Freeways, child care, schools, income assistance, pensions, health programs, prisons, environmental protection -- all must compete with one another and be subject to the careful scrutiny of the common purpose we all serve.

"It is a relentless test, one which the growing number of former democracies throughout the world have found they could not meet."

Governor Jerry Brown, 1976

"Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It requires passion as well as perspective."

Sociologist Max Weber, 1919

The "hard board" of California politics, boring though it may be at times, is getting bored. This month has brought some more progress on the chronic state budget crisis, the beginning of some results for reform efforts, and, as the state Republican Party continues its devolution, telling early returns on the appeal of independents.

Governor Jerry Brown's budget compromise with Democratic legislative leaders has been adopted.

Brown insisted that California's welfare system become more like that advocated by his old campaign rival, former President Bill Clinton.

He moved Democratic legislative leaders further along in wringing more long-term savings from the chronically unbalanced state budget. The deal requires federal work requirements being met after two years, with only limited exemptions, reduces child care funding, and stops cost of living increases starting next year. It will also move nearly 900,000 children to Medi-Cal from the more expensive Healthy Families program.

These are not exactly accomplishments for which it is appropriate to sing songs of praise, but do provide some needed savings for the budget and political bona fides for Democrats needing to pass their November revenue initiative. With the budget and its trailer bills handed off to Brown, there is also the need for major some action on public pension reform, and the start of construction of high-speed rail is a decision that looms.

Brown is also moving successfully to cut employment costs by 5 percent. After balking at his initial plan for a shorter work week, employee bargaining units are coming around to furloughs. Which, ironically, they hated when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger imposed them.

Meanwhile, the big water bond passed at the tail end of Schwarzenegger's administration, the first big water legislation passed in decades, is still set for the November ballot, a problematic situation in this very challenging fiscal environment if it is not moved and/or substantially altered, especially with no sense of a drought.

Brown last week dropped his current move to block conservative attempts to use the California Environmental Quality Act to block and/or delay construction of the project. Too many environmental groups whose support is necessary to move the bullet train construction authorization -- funds are already at hand for the first phase from the federal government and approved bonds -- through the legislature were balking at any change in the law, fearing that a one change for a green project could lead to other changes for other projects. Notice that I said he dropped his current move.

The state's new open primary system, adopted after the passage of a 2010 initiative championed by Schwarzenegger, was coupled this year with the new districts drawn by the Citizens Redistricting Commission, also championed by Schwarzenegger in a 2008 initiative.

Former Democratic legislator and state finance director Steve Peace, a longtime champion of open primaries, worked with a bipartisan crew of strategists to aid in the initiative's passage. Democratic strategist David Townsend, a Brown adviser, former Schwarzenegger media consultant Don Sipple, who also advised Brown in his 2010 bid, Schwarzenegger re-election campaign manager and McCain for President director Steve Schmidt, and one-time chief of staff to Republican Governor George Deukmejian Steve Merksamer joined with longtime Schwarzenegger consultant Adam Mendelsohn and others to ensure the measure's passage in 2010.

Today Townsend calls the early outcome a success. It's not a panacea, he says, but "it's already making a real impact."

Like another key Brown backer, former Democratic legislator and state parks director Rusty Areias, Townsend saw advances for more moderate Democrats. There were also fewer Republican candidates signing on to the mindlessly reflexive no-tax pledge pushed for years by Washington Beltway lobbyist Grover Norquist.

A report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), surveying the district outcomes so far, concluded that "The new districts have disrupted established incumbents, while the top two primary has altered traditional patterns of competition. The reforms led to closer outcomes."

The open primary and the end of the legislature's gerrymandering of districts is now joined by another reform, albeit on the margins. That's the term limits revision, which passed easily, 61-39, with the undecided breaking heavily in its favor.

Legislators will see the number of years they can serve cut from 14 to 12, but all of them can now be spent in the same house.

The term limits revision could restore greater functionality to the legislature by ending the crazy musical chairs that term limits have engendered, as well as ending the preposterous situation in which new members are not infrequently chairs of committees.

The tobacco tax initiative on the June primary ballot finally went down to defeat in the final count last week, as I expected. But it was closer than expected, losing by only 30,000 votes.

The measure, which would have tacked another dollar a pack on cigarettes to generate cancer research funds, which is, let's say, a not exactly unknown field of endeavor, saw its goo-goo appeal run down by a $50 million advertising campaign by the obviously self-interested tobacco companies.

Yet, even though the initiative was contending with a conservative-skewing low-turnout primary electorate with a policy idea I thought was played out, so much I so I didn't support it -- cancer research is not exactly an unsupported field, and this measure seemed like another way to try to remove an admittedly unhealthy pleasure from low-income people -- it nearly won anyway.

Last week saw another very prominent California Republican, the highest ranking yet, leave the party to become an independent. That's former California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, appointed to the office by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. McPherson was a longtime state legislator prior to the Arnold nod. He is running for Santa Cruz County Supervisor, in a race in which he was already the frontrunner.

McPherson is a moderate conservative, which means that in today's far right anti-Enlightenment California Republican Party he's viewed as an untrustworthy "liberal."

While his registration switch should work -- he's won many races in the Santa Cruz area -- changing horses in mid-stream didn't work out so well for state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who finished at 24 percent, nearly doubling his standing before he switched, but behind Republican Carl De Maio at 32 percent and Democrat Bob Filner at 30 percent.

I wondered when he made the switch -- just 17 days after pushing hard for the Republican endorsement, which he lost to far right San Diego City Councilman Carl De Maio -- if his move would look opportunistic. It actually broke both ways. Becoming an independent propelled him from a distant third-place tie with San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis into major contention, and a brief tie for the lead. But, though Brown praised him for being willing to seek compromise, the move opened Fletcher up to withering fire from both parties, neither of which wanted to see his gambit succeed.

De Maio's camp was so concerned that, in addition to heavy attacks on Fletcher and his move, they also ran advertising to boost the underfunded Democrat in the race, Congressman Bob Filner, repeatedly citing him as "an Obama Democrat." All the better to boost his Democratic vote and lift him past Fletcher -- well positioned for a run-off that did not come -- into the November run-off.

What this means is that Republicans who seek higher office and don't want to kowtow to a hard right party line are going to have to make the independent move sooner rather than later in order to build credibility.

As Fletcher senior adviser Matt David, who was Jon Huntsman's presidential campaign and, as Schwarzenegger's communication director, helped pass the open primary measure, noted, Fletcher had little time to build a power base independent from his longstanding Republican Party ties.

Had he made the move a year or two earlier, however, and never sought the Republican endorsement, Fletcher might well have seen a very different outcome. As it was, he was well-positioned for the run-off against De Maio, which of course never came.

Brown, who didn't actually endorse Fletcher, got a nice boost last week when he attended a fundraiser with Vice President Joe Biden in Sacramento at the venerable 123-year-old Sutter Club.

Biden called Brown "the smartest guy in American politics."

"Nothing has changed," Biden said of Brown, who was governor before from 1975 to 1983. Biden said he met Brown in San Francisco in the 1970s. He said, "He was the smartest guy in American politics then. He's still the smartest guy in American politics."

"He speaks his mind," Biden said, with no little sense of irony. "I like guys like that."

Brown called the re-election bid of Biden and President Barack Obama a "watershed election. We're either looking forward, we're looking at investment, inclusion for all of us, or we pull back to a rather narrow perspective of what America could be."

It's a watershed election for Brown, too.

The sliding Republicans don't have anyone to run for governor against Brown, who will be only a year-and-a-half into his term on July 3, and no Democrat is going to take on a Brown, especially this Brown, in a primary. But his governorship gets even less fun if his plans for the year don't work out.

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