Can He Duplicate Wilson's Touch?

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was a speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson.

With his second inaugural, the State of the State address and the unveiling of his budget proposal occurring this week, Gov. Gray Davis stands to benefit from the rarest of political trifectas: three opportunities, in a five-day span, to connect with attention-deficient Californians.

By week's end, we'll know whether this governor, supposedly humbled by a narrow victory and more responsive to California's needs, is capable of delivering three powerful messages. More important, we'll better know whether he's capable of delivering the state from its economic doldrums.

It's Wednesday's State of the State address that bears closest watching. Unlike the other two speeches, there's a question of what balance the governor should strike.

Inaugural addresses are lofty and futuristic -- political champagne. Budget announcements are policy-laden and procedural; in bad times like this, political cod-liver oil. But the State of the State address: Done right, it's about leadership and big-picture thinking. And those are two commodities missing from the Version 1.0 of Davis.

So how should Davis 2.0 approach Wednesday's big speech? It starts with remembering that, just as his podium stands over the state Assembly floor, the goal is to further elevate his stature as chief executive.

An hour dwelling on the horrors of California's $34.8-billion budget deficit would make Davis little better than the 121st state legislator. What will separate this governor from the herd in Sacramento is if he offers not just a solution to the current fiscal crunch but a long-term course of rehabilitation for an economic climate that's lapsed into bad habits: high taxation and onerous regulations.

That's not to downplay the significance of the $34.8-billion deficit. Yet there is a difference. A state that bleeds red ink is like a house with a leaky roof. But a state with a flawed economic climate is like a house with a crack in its foundation; in California's case, a serious fault line running through official Sacramento.

If he has the time and the inclination, Davis would do well to read the State of the State address delivered a decade ago by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. For Davis 2.0 and Wilson 1.0 are similar -- two governors overwhelmed by a budget crisis.

In 1993, the third year of his first term, Wilson turned his attention to resuscitating the state's economy. Wilson's solution: tax cuts and credits, workers' compensation reform and a top-to-bottom review of government regulations. Two years later, by the time of his 1995 State of the State, Wilson could talk about job creation, not layoffs.

Of course, Wilson had one luxury his successor doesn't: time and an additional term to enjoy the fruits of a recovered economy. If anything, this should further motivate Davis to aggressively explore economic reforms as his predecessor did a decade ago and even speed up the process where possible.

Let's suppose the current California economy is as stubborn as it was from 1990 to '94, when the state's recovery lagged behind that of the nation's. If history repeats itself, a full recovery won't be in effect until 2006, the term-limited Davis' final year in office. That means this governor's successor becomes the luckiest man or woman in California, just as Davis inherited a hot economy in 1999. And it would enhance Davis' future political plans should he seek another office that year -- say, a vacant U.S. Senate seat should Dianne Feinstein retire.

That's looking far down the road. But then again, now is not the time for political shortsightedness. The economy didn't go sour overnight; neither did lawmakers overspend overnight. It took years of misguided actions to put California in this bind. It will take a multiyear plan to lead us out of it.

On Wednesday night we'll find out whether Davis is more interested in the roof that leaks or the foundation that's cracked.

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