Getting past the extremes

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Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. Previously, he worked in Republican state and national politics, including serving as the communications director for Gov. Pete Wilson and for Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.

Think of this week’s special election as a multimillion-dollar Rorschach test. Though the voters made it clear how much they disliked five ballot initiatives proposed by elected leaders to address California’s budget crisis, the message was much more ambiguous as to why they rejected the initiatives or what should come next. As a result, everyone can take from the results exactly what they wish to -- and construct lessons that precisely fit their ideology and worldview.

Conservatives saw the package’s defeat as evidence that the voters don’t want tax increases. Liberals argue that the landslide was proof that voters don’t want spending cuts. Both are correct, but popular solutions to horrific budget crises are in short supply. That means that both sides are going to have to compromise at some future date, leaving these important unanswered questions: When will that date come, and how much pain will be caused along the way?

The morning after Tuesday’s electoral chastisement, Democratic and Republican leaders were saying all the right things. They acknowledged the depth of the voters’ anger and the scope of the state’s budget emergency, and they vowed to work together to solve the problem. But predictable fault lines were already emerging.


Republican legislators reaffirmed their opposition to tax increases but were reluctant to specify spending reductions. Senior Democrats agreed that significant spending reductions would be necessary but hinted that proposals for new taxes were likely to be part of their solution. And in the middle, as always, was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, preparing to spend the summer catching javelins thrown his way from his left and right flanks.

The root of this bipartisan intransigence is a redistricting process that elects only the most conservative of Republicans and the most liberal of Democrats to the Assembly and state Senate. Of the 120 legislators in the state Capitol, only a handful were elected in legitimately competitive races. The rest ran in districts drawn to be safe for members of one party or the other, which means that most legislators are understandably much more concerned about the prospect of losing a primary campaign to an even more ideologically intense member of their own party than about being defeated in a general election. The result is a Legislature far more attuned to the needs of its most extreme and vocal members, with precious little incentive to put aside partisanship under all but the most unusual circumstances.

Schwarzenegger may be the “post-partisan” that he proclaimed himself to be after his reelection in 2006, but he is clearly the loneliest post-partisan in Sacramento.

Over the years, California’s statewide electorate has tended to elect relatively moderate governors, such as Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Gray Davis, neither of whom was ever fully trusted by the legislators of their own party and both of whom warred with their own party’s elected representatives.

And although redistricting reform would not create competitive elections in all or even most of the state’s districts, the hope of redistricting advocates (of whom I am one) is that even a dozen or so relatively balanced districts and more centrist legislators could create a common ground in Sacramento from which bipartisan progress and cooperation could emerge.

One of Schwarzenegger’s most significant accomplishments was his successful push last fall for the passage of a ballot initiative designed to implement precisely that type of redistricting reform. But the irony of Proposition 11’s victory is that he will never be able to govern under the new system. By the time the next census is conducted and the new district lines have been drawn for the 2012 campaign season, Schwarzenegger will have long since departed from his office.


In the meantime, Schwarzenegger and a beleaguered set of legislative leaders will spend the next several weeks weighing the consequences of unconscionable spending cuts against unthinkable tax increases. But before any painful solution can be achieved, they must first convince their ideological bases that an election day victory in May provides scant protection against the unpleasant budget realities that will emerge from a long, hot and nasty summer.