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CDP Convention 2010 – The Brave Face Before An Onslaught

I’m here in the press area at the California Democratic Party convention at the LA Convention Center downtown. Speakers today include Nancy Pelosi, as well as the top of the California ticket in November: Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown.

The mood of the conventioneers is a little somnambulent, IMO. You have to understand that California political culture makes the US Congress seem like a model of efficiency. And Democrats are staring down the barrel of Meg Whitman’s $150 million dollar barrage of spending this fall.

It doesn’t have to be this way. From a demographic standpoint, California Democrats should be celebrating their position. They have a clear path to a 2/3 majority in the state Senate with two Republicans leaving Democratic-leaning districts in the Central Valley. The state Assembly, where Democrats successfully gained three seats in 2008, would get a 2/3 majority of their own by replicating that feat in November. This would finally break the Sacramento gridlock and allow the leadership to pass a budget and raise revenue. With the Republican Governor at historic lows – literally the lowest approval rating in the history of the state – winning the Governor’s seat back and even approaching 2/3 in one or both chambers should be in the cards. And there are eight Republican-held Congressional seats where Barack Obama won in 2008, with good Democratic challengers in half of them.

But recognize that Democrats have basically whiffed on two straight wave elections in this state, and this time the political environment won’t be nearly as favorable. The state party has been characterized by fiscal mismanagement (I’ve heard the last regime left a state party Treasury heavily in the red with cash on hand less than what I have in my wallet right now), an unwillingness to aggressively challenge Republicans throughout the state and really a disastrous lack of support in winnable races. Democratic challengers have basically had to fend for themselves, and sometimes work against a state party structure actively invested in their defeat. That’s not hyperbole – Don Perata, the former state Senate President Pro Tem, actually said he would knock on doors for Republican Abel Maldonado in 2008, and muscled every serious Democratic challenger out of the race.

These days, former Congressman and longtime California pol John Burton is the state party chair, and he is deeply invested in Barbara Boxer, his protégé, winning in November, and will basically turn the party into her satellite re-election campaign. He does see the value in using initiatives like the cannabis legalization law to drive youth turnout, but considering how bumbling the state party has been in recent years, I don’t think there’s any reason for confidence that they will provide the resources necessary to compete up and down the ticket.

As for Jerry Brown, he’s scheduled to emerge from his underground location and address the convention today, actually making himself visible for practically the first time in 2010, when his rival Meg Whitman has been blanketing the airwaves. Brown is dirt cheap and actually thinks not spending money to promote himself is something of a virtue. He also believes that not making one statement about what he would do in office is savvy political strategy. Giving Californians absolutely no motivation to turn out in November is deadly when all the key liberal constituencies coincide with drop-off voters. Brown is making Phil Angelides’ 2006 gubernatorial campaign look brilliant.

Ultimately, California Democrats have suffered through a severe failure of leadership, with nobody offering a vision of how to deal with the state’s struggling future. There’s a structural revenue gap in perpetuity. Republicans have a minority veto over fixing the problem. The worst prison system in the country is in the hands of a federal magistrate. Over 1 in 8 Californians are unemployed. Housing prices have crashed. Despite all this pain, Democrats have given no indication that they have an idea how to fix this. The state party wants to pass an initiative reducing the 2/3 requirement for passing a budget but not taxes, which would give Democrats all the responsibility for the pain of cutting spending and none of the benefit of actually dealing with the problem. Even if somebody was arguing for a progressive vision of government, they certainly don’t have any media outlet available to get out their message. The press area is one table long here at the convention, for a state of 38 million people, and it’s not crowded.

We’re in deep, deep trouble in this state, and I don’t get a sense even from the partisans in this room that they think they can reverse the trend.

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David Dayen

David Dayen