Choosing not to choose

Over the last four years, The Times has steadily expanded its election endorsements in the belief that more information and more opinions help voters arrive at better decisions. We have published our recommendations over the last four weeks for most of the statewide and local offices and measures that voters will face as they begin mailing in their ballots next week or as they prepare to vote at the polls June 8. Our endorsements for the Democratic and Republican primaries for governor and U.S. Senate remain. We now realize that we inadvertently saved the worst races for last. Perhaps the general election campaign will spur the candidates for the state’s most important offices to dig deeper and to present voters with rational plans to move California forward or to represent it in Congress, but in the primary phase, it’s impossible to forthrightly back any of them.

We Californians voted ourselves into many of the problems we face today, but it’s hard to believe that we deserve these dismal choices for the state’s top elected offices. Voters cannot be blamed for being disappointed at the options and dismayed at the process, which is warped by the increasing precedence of money and party leaders over voters.

For example, Democratic voters have been excised from their gubernatorial primary. They will hear no discussion or debate, because there remains only one viable candidate: Jerry Brown. Six others are running, and they deserve gratitude for making a go of it, but they lack the following they need to compel the former governor to engage them in any exploration of their ideas or platforms. Brown’s consultants, allies and Democratic Party supporters skillfully aced out any would-be opponent, such as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, of staff and resources.

The result is that Brown doesn’t have to present voters any plans or positions. He doesn’t have to say whether he will buck his labor supporters and trim the state’s costly pension obligations. He’s the nominee. If you’re a Democrat, you can take him or leave — well, no, you can’t even leave him. He’s who you’re getting.

It’s conceivable that The Times could back Brown in November, if he finally unveils a rational and achievable policy plan for California’s future to pair with his interesting, often inspiring, but somewhat mixed record of achievement. Unless he does so, he’s one more celebrity candidate.

On the Republican side, The Times supported Steve Poizner for insurance commissioner in 2006, and this year it seemed that California voters even outside his party might be ready for his brand of pragmatic conservatism that reflects a Silicon Valley spirit of entrepreneurialism, public service, economic responsibility and social liberalism. But, either out of conviction or in the quest to outflank former EBay CEO Meg Whitman on the right, Poizner has become an adept baiter of illegal immigrants, state employees, human service recipients and all the rest of the right’s imagined evildoers. If he truly believes his new talking points, we’re unable to support him now. If he has latched onto them as part of a cynical bid for political advancement, we can’t support him now.

Nor can we currently support Whitman, who has had ample opportunity to show that she is not simply one more wealthy candidate with no political experience. She has fallen short, instead repeating well-worn cliches (and inaccurate assertions) about the freeloading poor, sanctuary cities and tax-and-spend liberals. She ought to use her intelligence and resources to focus on structural problems such as the state’s volatile tax system, but she offers a campaign that seems to have sprung more from polling and focus groups than from a grasp of her state. Just as Whitman found no reason to vote during most of her many years here, she offers little reason, today, for people to vote for her. Perhaps, after the primary, she or Poizner will get down to the business of laying out an agenda for California that is worthy of our support in a face-off against Brown. To date, neither has done so.

There was some excitement at The Times editorial pages with Tom Campbell as a GOP gubernatorial candidate cut from the same political cloth as Poizner, but with a more academic bent. But Campbell has disappointed on two counts: He left the race, much as Newsom did, because he couldn’t raise enough money and because a pre-election decision was made by many Republican donors and strategists to fund Whitman instead of him; and, on examination, his economics and politics are far more rote and rigid than we had previously believed. Perhaps we still could have mustered some enthusiasm for him in the gubernatorial race, but for Senate we must ask ourselves not only whether we would be getting a more independent and more thoughtful representative, but also whether in the end he would be one more vote for undermining needed healthcare and economic reform.

Of Campbell’s GOP Senate opponents, we found Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore interesting, even impressive, but in the service of doctrinaire conservative stances that we could not support.

On the Democratic side, we find that we’re no fans of incumbent Barbara Boxer. She displays less intellectual firepower or leadership than she could. We appreciate the challenge brought by Robert “Mickey” Kaus, even though he’s not a realistic contender, because he asks pertinent questions about Boxer’s “lockstep liberalism” on labor, immigration and other matters. But we can’t endorse him, because he gives no indication that he would step up to the job and away from his Democratic-gadfly persona.

The fast-growing population of California voters who no longer affiliate with a party are seeking a dynamic and creative representative to help direct national policy. But the substantive debate about whether Boxer or the Republican nominee is the best person must wait until after the primary. Then, we hope, it will be possible to endorse a candidate.

We take the two races together because they are united by the same issues that keep us from being able to endorse in either: the usurpation of voter prerogative by party and by money, and our disappointment in how the candidates measure up to their promise.

In general elections, we put ourselves in the shoes of voters and call on ourselves to make a decision one way or the other, no matter how disappointed we are in the choices. We do not allow ourselves the luxury of not endorsing. But we view party primaries differently, and we laid that out at the beginning of our endorsement process. Primaries are decisions made by party members, and are optional in a way that general elections are not. In this case, we exercise our options, we reject the choices, and we call on whomever party members do choose in June to have a constructive, substantive five-month debate on issues.