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As California Goes, So Goes the Nation, Alas

<i> Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal</i>

With good reason, Californians have long considered their state the cutting edge of social and political change. From the rise of the counterculture and the Ronald Reagan-led conservative backlash in the 1960s, to the tax rebellion of Howard Jarvis and the 1970s holistic environmentalism of Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., the waves sweeping over American politics have often been launched from these shores.

But now, California no longer seems the vanguard of political innovation. Other states rarely look to California for policy initiatives. Since Brown imploded in his second gubernatorial term, the state hasn’t produced an innovative political thinker--someone seen as a clear national leader. The state Legislature is now known more for gridlock and indecision than boldness and creativity. Pollsters say voters here are remarkably disengaged from politics--a finding starkly underlined by lack of interest in the last Los Angeles mayoral race.

All these are signs of a political lethargy stifling the creativity that once defined California. But ironically, in the severity of these problems, California may again be on the front line of political change. Sacramento has become the extreme case--the test-tube model--of the forces enfeebling government at all levels. Operating virtually outside public reach, Sacramento has become the political equivalent of “Lord of the Flies”: a chance to examine what happens when politicians are left on their own, free from supervision. It hasn’t been a pretty sight.

Even more than Congress, state government in California has found it impossible to grapple with major issues--from insurance to the environment--throughout this decade. Call this the inertia paradox: Elected officials grow more entrenched and timid at the same time. Voters return incumbents to office, particularly legislative office, at a rate the Kremlin might envy. Despite an uncharacteristic outbreak of competition in state Assembly races last fall, in the last four general elections only three Senate and five Assembly members have been defeated. In that same period, only one California congressman lost his job. Nationally, only six U.S. representatives lost seats last fall. In less than one-fifth of the House races did the losing candidate come within 20 points of the front-runner, not all of whom were political Secretariats.

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Strangely, this safety hasn’t bolstered legislative courage. If anything, elected officials grow ever more wary of taking controversial steps, preferring to defer to referendums at the state level, and “bipartisan commissions” on the national level. Even as the prospect of losing office diminishes, the fear of losing office seems to be expanding for many officials--making them ever more cautious. “We’re legislating in the easiest way (bending) toward whoever is making the most noise,” said Assemblywoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, chair of the Democratic Caucus.

What explains this timidity? There’s no categorical answer. But the same forces making it easier for legislators to be reelected may be making it more difficult for them to govern. These forces now define politics in California and, increasingly, the nation. Most incumbents typically benefit from limited public attention to campaigns and seemingly unlimited pools of campaign funds. The lack of attention makes it difficult for challengers to be noticed, much less elected. The propensity of special-interest groups to bet on incumbents puts challengers at an enormous financial disadvantage. In California state legislative races last fall, for example, incumbents outspent challengers by almost 5-1. At the federal level, special-interest political-action committees contributed three-fourths of their $160 million to incumbents.

But for legislators, the bill on these easy reelections comes due in office. The same lack of attention that frustrates challengers undercuts efforts to rally public support for new policies. The same contributions that smoothly return incumbents to office snarl legislative deliberations by allowing competing special interests to veto proposals they don’t like. That’s what killed auto insurance reform in the state Legislature last year, despite the abundant signs of impending crisis.

On most issues, legislators understand that they are functioning below the radar of public scrutiny. No California television station operates a full-time bureau in Sacramento anymore, and challengers with the money and savvy to force incumbents to explain their votes are rare. This lack of public pressure perverts the incentives in state government, making it easier for politicians to defer decisions than make them. As long as legislators believe that voters won’t exact a penalty for inaction--as they haven’t now for at least a decade--they will try to avoid painful votes, particularly if the vote could mean crossing entrenched interests. Gov. George Deukmejian’s refusal to invest his own political capital on finding consensus throws more sand into the gears--as do the requirements for two-thirds legislative majorities on key votes.

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The recent move to ban certain military assault rifles in the state offers the exception that proves these rules. Without the extraordinary public attention generated by the Stockton schoolyard massacre--attention that even managed to lure several TV cameras into Capitol hearing rooms--it’s unlikely the state Legislature would have moved against the fierce resistance of the National Rifle Assn. But once the spotlight went on, legislators understood that failing to act could be even more painful than acting--so they pushed through a bill in both houses. It may take another wave of public pressure to move the bill past Deukmejian, whose last minute reservation has stalled the measure.

In Congress these ossifying trends haven’t solidified to such a debilitating extent. That’s largely because members of Congress face far greater press scrutiny than state legislators: The fear of turning up on the CBS Evening News identified as a tool of the chemical or insurance companies concentrates the mind. So does the pressure from national political players to help establish the party’s image by aggressively pushing a legislative program--as, for example, new House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia intends. But all the forces hobbling Sacramento--incentives for inaction, virtually lifetime tenure, the dominant role of special-interest money--are also in Washington and, like barnacles, they accrete.

At both the state and national level, it’s likely this accelerating legislative sclerosis will be raised in the 1990 elections. For the coming congressional races, Republicans, led by Gingrich and Edward J. Rollins, new executive director of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, are preparing a broad-brush indictment of the House Democratic leadership. Building on public unhappiness with the unsuccessful attempt to dramatically hike congressional pay and with the ethical tangles of Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, they hope to portray the entrenched Democratic majority as arrogant, bloated, disconnected and unresponsive. In California, the FBI investigation of the Legislature and the growing disenchantment with the state’s inability to resolve issues except through referendum offer irresistible targets for gubernatorial candidates in both parties.

“My guess is that’s absolutely critical for the 1990 race,” says consultant Darry Sragow, who’s advising San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate. “The notion that politicians are fundamentally not attuned to the needs of the populace but are attuned to the needs of special interests . . . is growing. There is probably a decreasing level of confidence in state government in California.”

Unquestionable. But voters haven’t yet translated that dissatisfaction with governmental breakdown into unhappiness with individual officeholders. It will probably take a scandal beyond anything evident so far--in either Washington or Sacramento--to change that pattern in 1990, and even that might not be powerful enough to shatter the fortified barriers protecting incumbents. The inertia wave rolling out of California shows no signs of having crested.


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