Monday, August 15, 2011

The California Preview

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, the Iowa Straw Poll went overwhelmingly to candidates who would have been considered fringe last time around, with Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul combining for something like 55% of the vote. Some Democrats are taking this as consolation, on the theory that even if Obama is vulnerable the Republicans will nominate someone too extreme to beat him. Meanwhile, we have the usual "centrist" columnists indulging the the usual "centrist" fantasies about some miraculous "centrist" third-party candidate who will solve all of our intractable problems by being, um, "bold." (Because who loves bold solutions more than someone who considers both the mainstream party platforms too extreme?)

All I can say to that is: whatever. I've been here before, dude. Last time it was called "California," and it didn't go well. In fact, it's still not going well. And now we're repeating the California debacle on a grand scale.

In California, where one can have a long and very successful political career inside a single red red red or blue blue blue district, the Republican Party has long resisted nominating moderates for statewide office: only truly true conservatives are pure enough to get the nod for Senator or Governor. This, of course, is a great plan for losing, in a gigantic state with plenty of very blue districts in it. But compromise is for wimps.

This often tempted the Democrats into nominating dull and uninspired candidates who had paid up their party dues and who would not always set the world on fire, but could step back while the Republicans doused themselves with gasoline. About ten years back, a steady and reliable centrist Democratic Governor, the aptly named Gray Davis, was in real political trouble, with his popularity diving from the high fifties to the low forties. Privatizing the electrical grid had turned into a debacle with sky-high prices and occasional rolling blackouts, Davis was unable to fix the problems or to rally the voters to his side. Since he was so vulnerable, and the governor's mansion was in the Republicans' grasp, they nominated a good ideologically pure conservative to make sure they got full value after they won the election. And that's why they didn't win the election. The guy they put up couldn't even beat Gray Davis.

This is what set up the recall election that made Schwarzenegger governor. The Democrats were hoping to stagger through because the Republicans were even more unpopular than they were. And the Republicans were too ideologically rigid to do the sensible thing. It was only through the strange recall process, which sidestepped the Republican nominating process, that a moderate Republican (exactly the candidate the political situation most favored, and the kind of candidate the GOP should have put up to begin with) got on the gubernatorial ballot at all.

There's your Obama-will-get-through-this-because-they're crazy strategy, right there. And I'm not eager for a repeat with higher stakes. Sure, Obama might stagger to a 47%-42% victory, the way Davis did in his re-election campaign, but what's he going to do after that? It's a recipe for a mess.

And for the Friedmans of the world, longing for an independently wealthy centrist to arrive on a big white horse, Schwarzenegger's governorship should provide an illustration of how well that goes, which is not well at all. I despised Schwarzenegger's first campaign, but his attempt to govern was basically sensible and reasonable, and it got him absolutely nowhere. Difficult financial problems don't respond to personal charisma. And entrenched political difficulties don't magically fix themselves when you elect an "outsider." In fact, the problems were worse because Schwarzenegger was basically a governor without a party. His fellow Republicans in the legislature were too ideologically pure to listen to him, and the Democrats didn't owe a Republican governor anything. Neither party had really backed him, and neither had any stake in helping him. Arnold couldn't pass a budget. By the second term, he couldn't pass a slow U-Haul on I-5. Nothing makes legislative partisanship worse than taking the party leadership away. The rank and file legislators just revert to their base political instincts.

If our current Senators and Representatives won't reliably listen to Obama and Boehner, why on earth would they listen to someone with whom they have no political relationship or alliance? If Beltway columnists managed to make enough animal sacrifices to the gods and get, say, Michael Bloomberg elected, that would not be the end of Washington gridlock. That would initiate a new era of much deeper Washington gridlock, as the President of the United States would find himself with no one who would cast a vote, let alone a difficult vote, to help him out.

California is still a political basket case, and it's in real trouble. And lately I've been hearing the same allegedly clever ideas that made California's problems worse passed around as possible "solutions" for the whole country. It's a little like proposing that we put the whole country on the San Andreas fault. It worked badly before, and it will only be worse on a larger scale.

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