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Jerry Brown’s Alternative State of the Universe

Sacramento

By California’s low standards, Gov. Jerry Brown generally has been a voice of reason in the state Capitol, despite his occasionally unhinged rhetoric about the existential threat posed to the world by climate change. On basic fiscal and governance matters — i.e., on those bread-and-butter issues about which he is not a fanatic — Brown is so calm and adult-like it’s often hard to find Republicans willing to criticize him harshly in a public forum.

That’s why his unusually short and partisan State of the State address Tuesday has drawn so much attention here. He dispensed with the usual niceties of mainly ticking off the many ways that the state has progressed under his leadership. Brown did a little of that, but mostly blasted President Donald Trump — and essentially set himself up to help lead the supposed nationwide resistance against the Republican administration’s policies.

“It is customary on an occasion like this to lay out a specific agenda for the year ahead,” the governor said, before briefly listing some of his accomplishments. “But this morning it is hard for me to keep my thoughts just on California. The recent election and inauguration of a new president have shown deep divisions across America. While no one knows what the new leaders will actually do, there are signs that are disturbing. We have seen the bald assertion of ‘alternative facts.’ We have heard the blatant attacks on science. Familiar signposts of our democracy — truth, civility, working together — have been obscured or swept aside.”

Most of us chuckled at vows of defiance from the state’s legislative leaders, who are a low-skill bunch not exactly ready for prime time. Our new leftist U.S. senator, Kamala Harris, has vowed to fight, but despite unearned media accolades, she’s ill-prepared to battle a president. Even Brown has told his Democratic colleagues to relax and wait to see the kind of policies that come from the administration before vowing George Wallace-style resistance.

But now the gloves are off, and the governor may be the one to take on this role. He’s a skilled and intelligent politician and as comfortable with edgy, off-the-cuff remarks as Trump, so this could be a fun time to be reporting in Sacramento or D.C. He’s more like Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton, in that he doesn’t try to hide his governing ideology. It’s ironic that California’s iconic 1970s-era governor could be progressivism’s last, best hope in 2017.

Writing about the speech, the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters speculated that Brown, who finishes his gubernatorial term in 2018, would be a likely replacement for the aging U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “And what then? Would a fourth Brown run for the presidency in 2020 be off the table? He’d be 82 then, but he’s in excellent health. Judging by Tuesday’s speech, the Trump presidency has given him an injection of adrenaline,” he added.

It would take more than adrenaline injections to make the aged Brown a viable presidential candidate, but whatever he personally does, his Capitol address leaves a blueprint for Democrats struggling to piece together some resistance to Trump. For Republicans, the speech strings together every delusional canard that Democrats embrace, and should remind the GOP that it has little to fear. It need only point out the inconsistencies, bad policies and alternative world in which the state’s unchallenged and dominant Democrats reside.

Brown referred to the debate over global warming:

We all have our opinions but for democracy to work, we have to trust each other. We have to strive to understand the facts and state them clearly as we argue our points of view.… When the science is clear or when our own eyes tell us that the seats in this chamber are filled or that the sun is shining, we must say so, not construct some alternate universe of non-facts that we find more pleasing.

But how can people trust the state’s legislative leaders, who tried — and will surely try again this session — to essentially criminalize disagreements about climate science? Their idea is to use the power of state attorneys general and the state’s unfair business practices laws to clamp down on think tanks, writers, and academics who challenge prevailing climate-change views. How can we “trust each other” if they don’t trust an open debate?

Then Brown made this bizarre point:

Along with truth, we must practice civility. Although we have disagreed — often along party lines — we have generally been civil to one another and avoided the rancor of Washington. I urge you to go even further and look for new ways to work beyond party and act as Californians first.

I can see how the state’s cloistered leadership believes that Sacramento is a model of civility and camaraderie, but those of us who have opposed the Democratic priorities in the Capitol have rarely noticed any such outpourings of graciousness. In fact, the state’s legislative leadership loves to bring out the wedge issues and grind Republicans’ faces in things at every chance, on issues ranging from illegal immigration to bathrooms for transgendered people to you name it.

Sacramento is about as civil as one would expect in any one-party state. My favorite example is when the Senate leadership brought up a resolution in 2014 condemning former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson for a 1994 initiative campaign. The leadership passed a resolution that “expressly acknowledges the harm caused to Californians through passage of the discriminatory and xenophobic Proposition 187 and its corresponding campaign.” The only reason to bring up a long-dead debate was to scare Democratic voters into showing up to the polls.

Even carefully crafted and sincere Republican proposals that deal with important fiscal issues, such as pension reform, are subject to vicious mockery in the Capitol. If Brown and his colleagues think the Capitol is civil, then it just shows that they need to get out a little more.

Even Brown’s most plausible example of bipartisanship is largely bunk. The governor said California Democrats can work with the Trump administration on building infrastructure: “We have roads and tunnels and railroads and even a dam that the president could help us with. And that will create good-paying American jobs.” Yet the governor has repeatedly short-changed infrastructure spending in his budgets, preferring instead to earmark dollars for social programs. Then he holds roads and reservoirs hostage — demanding that voters raise taxes to pay to improve these things.

Among Brown’s noted accomplishments: a boosted minimum wage, higher spending on government-funded health care, the endless fight against climate change, highly divisive efforts to reduce prison overcrowding, passage of a water bond that tilts more toward environmental projects than water storage, drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants, etc. It’s about what one would expect. The Democrats are in charge and the voters here continue to return them to power, but it will be interesting to see how the rest of the country reacts if these are the types of wedge issues that Brown will use to stand up to the Trump administration.

In terms of high-minded rhetoric, Brown referred to California’s “spirit of perseverance and courage” and praised the state’s role as a magnet for immigrants, who make up 27 percent of its population. Historically, California has always been an entrepreneurial place and I, too, appreciate the state’s diverse population and welcoming attitudes. But the state’s Democrats are in denial about the role their policies have played in driving businesses to other states and making it tougher for newcomers to access the American Dream. They don’t see how their land-use controls have stifled housing development and have led to the nation’s highest poverty rates because of the resulting high cost of living.

We’ll see how the forthcoming debate unfolds, but Republicans might be getting what some of them have always dreamed of — Gov. Moonbeam as the national poster child for progressive policies. Fun times are no doubt ahead.

Steven Greenhut
Steven Greenhut
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Steven Greenhut is a senior fellow and Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.
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