Another fine mess

Was it really such a revelation? Come on. As Kevin Drum noted earlier this week in Mother Jones:

Shortly before California's 2003 special election for governor, the Los Angeles Times reported that a number of women had accused Arnold Schwarzenegger of groping and various other sexual advances. Arnold vaguely fessed up to some bad behavior in the past, but said, "I don't remember things that I've done or said 20 years ago. I don't remember things that I've done 30 years ago."

Drum speculates that 2003's hectic, six-week campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis allowed Schwarzenegger's vague admissions to go unexplored. The bamboozled voters got a cad for a governor and, Drum argues, California got a fiscal catastrophe by default.

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Mark Lacter at LA Observed disagrees (as do I). The state's catastrophe had many fathers; Schwarzenegger was only the most recent. According to Lacter:

(L)et's be honest: state government had been on a dysfunctional course well before Schwarzenegger even considered a run for governor. Why? In a nutshell, blame term limits, the outrageous initiative process, and older-skewing Proposition 13 voters who were unwilling to pay their fair share, no matter the consequences down the line. So while Arnold is a tempting target . . . , there was a lot more to the story.

We're all part of that story and all because of our lust for cost-free, snake oil solutions. Here (in part) is what I wrote just days before Governor Davis was recalled in October 2003:

California as it currently stands - and it barely stands - is ungovernable. The fiasco of energy deregulation, the legislature's fiscal irrationality during the dotcom bust, the $38-billion deficit that followed, and the election of the thoroughly unlikable Gray Davis reveal how ungovernable California has become. If the state had been spared one or two of these disasters, Californians might have been able to ignore, as they have for the past decade, the worsening condition of state government. But California is no longer so perfectly golden.

A lot of the talk has been called crazy, mostly by the eastern press, but Californians are no nuttier than Americans are generally. They're just doing politics with what they have at hand, even if it's in a rough way and with tools that are fallible. It's their state government that's crazy, and not because of natural calamity, economic collapse, or widespread corruption. California went crazy playing by the rules.

While legislators scurry though a game of term-limited musical chairs, the seats they take are virtually guaranteed to the Republican and Democratic parties. Reapportionment in 2001 concentrated voters in "safe" districts, assuring the parties that their candidates will be elected, too often in races where they sometimes run unopposed. Gerrymandering also made ideological discipline more effective, since the leadership can threaten wayward incumbents in primary races where party loyalists are the only voters who count.

Term limits and gerrymandering have given Californians a legislature that is more easily led, more stridently partisan, less knowledgeable, and incapable of compromise.

Californians can't say they didn't want it that way. Since 1978 and the property tax revolt, voters have been enlisted 118 times as a "fourth branch" of government to rewrite the state's constitution and overrule its legislature.

Poor, ungovernable California - a state with term limits, a cynical initiative industry, a crushing state deficit, and a "no compromise" political culture. Hapless Governor Davis hardly had a chance to escape the catastrophe of October 7.

We made this mess - not Schwarzenegger. We welcomed the subversion of our natural populism by the initiative industry and its army of signature reapers. We rewrote the state's constitution to restrict the range of items on which sales tax can be collected, establish minimum funding for some programs, and constitutionally earmark revenues for other services. We chose, through Proposition 13, to the make California dangerously dependent on volatile income tax revenues. We voted to make the state legislature a circus of term-limited job hoppers.

And we put our trust in an amiable, photogenic man with a wide, white smile and impossible promises.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Lon R. Fong. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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