Alex Raksin: The Whitman and Brown debate

150 150 Alex Raksin

All the leaves are brown

And the sky is gray

[but] I’d be safe and warm

If I was in L.A.

–California Dreamin’ by the The Mamas & the Papas (written in 1963)

The notion that California is the place to “invent the American dream” may have been conjured up by real estate hucksters, but Californians largely accepted this romantic ideal during the 20th Century, thanks not only to the Mamas and the Papas and scores of other Hollywood musicians and movie-makers, but to the Progressive leaders who created a ballot initiative process that gives voters enough clout to act like a Fourth branch of government.

Today, California Dreamin’ ballot measures—ambitious social and political programs that voters approved, often without scrutinizing their cost—have become increasingly popular scapegoats for state legislators understandably looking for ways to avoid full blame for the fact that California is mired in a $19 billion deficit (one-fifth of its general fund) and three months overdue on its budget.

The state’s leading gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman, are, of course, far too savvy to sabotage their chance of success on Nov. 2 by blaming voters for anything.

In fact, at last Tuesday’s debate at UC Davis, both candidates avoided specifics so zealously, it almost seemed that their real opponent was not the person standing at the next podium, but the Progressive notion that voters deserve to know the details of how their leaders plan to govern.

Just as in his TV ads, Brown soberly intoned “We have to make some tough decisions” without telling us what he thinks those decisions are, while Whitman forcefully pledged to “eliminate government waste” without detailing what she will cut.

Both candidates are probably avoiding specifics in-part out of fear of alienating the special interests in their camp and partly because they trust their ability to balance public and special interests in the behind the scenes negotiations where real deals get made.

Back-room politicking tends to be maligned reflexively by journalists and bloggers, who undervalue Otto Bismarck’s observation that politics has less to do with realizing ideals than with achieving “the art of the possible.”

But what Brown and Whitman seemingly fail to realize is that they have not yet made it to that back room.

According to a recent Field Poll, Whitman’s negative approval ratings have climbed 18 percent since March, while Brown’s rose 10 percent. No one knows exactly why tens of millions of dollars in TV advertising have done nothing to rein in the candidates’ rising negative perception among voters.

It might have something to do with the fact that, rather than acting as true leaders (by, for example, helping voters sort through the very complex Nov. 2 ballot), the two candidates have been behaving as if they were already elected and therefore not burdened by irksome obligations, such as helping the Hoi Polloi make sense of the Nov. 2 ballot, or making it easier for voters to understand exactly how they’d govern.

Brown and Whitman’s advisors will probably advise them to mouth similar banalities and generalities at their next debate, to be held Oct. 12 at Dominican University, a Catholic college 12 miles north of San Francisco.

But those advisors don’t have to carry the day.

Voters interested in encouraging the candidates to avoid banalities should submit their own questions to the university, by contacting Dominican University’s public relations director Dave Albee at 415-257-1308 or For starters, here are some questions that come to my mind:

–To Atty. Gen. Brown: the prison guards’ union endorsed you on Sept. 20, after your opponent announced her support for some reforms the powerful union has long opposed, like building cost-effective private prisons. What are your views on allowing private prisons to compete with public ones, with “success” being defined as increased public safety and lower repeat offense rates?

–To: Ms. Whitman, you pledge, on your website, “to strongly oppose any state or federal efforts that lead to early release of prisoners.” Does this mean that you are opposed to Sen. Leland Yee’s SB 399, which would have allowed judges to review cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole after they’ve spent 15 years in prison?

–To both candidates: On Monday California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said California is talking with Wall St. banks about getting a $5 billion short-term loan to help replenish the state’s cash coffers once a budget deal is reached. Do you think the terms of the loan deal are fair? How can the deal be strengthened to ensure that California taxpayers aren’t ripped off?

The relatively strong direct democracy that Progressives established more than a century ago in California may be rife with imperfections. But Brown and Whitman fail to realize that direct democracy is not up for election on Nov. 2.

They are.

Alex Raksin, editorial director of the social media firm Creative-Connectors.Org, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog by our guest elections columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of California Forward or our Leadership Council.


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