California is the largest and most diverse state in America. If it were its own country, California would be in the G8. It is also the most important state: for the last 20 years, California has been home to groundbreaking innovation in semiconductors, the internet, and military manufacturing, and it is even more dominant in present-day innovation around biotech and cleantech.
But California is in trouble.
Over the past several months I spent 40 hours learning about the fiscal disaster that is Sacramento. I also talked to experts about this year's governor's race. Arnold Schwarzenegger is being termed out of office, and there are three Republican candidates and one Democratic candidate vying to take office to implement policies that will put the State back on the road to fiscal recovery.
I begin the piece by comparing Arnold Schwarzenegger to Barack Obama: two charismatic leaders who promised transformational change.
After electing a would-be transformational governor and president since mugged by reality, will chastened California voters seek a more tactical administrator? Can a bland policy wonk defeat dynamic, self-funded outsiders who talk about "leadership" and conducting "top down reviews" of government? Can a commensurate insider who's first a realist beat optimistic outsiders who "reject false choices" and think they can re-make a culture?
Then I recount a panel I attended on California's future:
The CEOs alternated in sounding alarm over the Golden State's dimming star. Ed Colligan, the former CEO of Palm, roused the crowd when he declared the state health care program and failing K-12 schools unacceptable. He was quick to add, however, that Silicon Valley is the "greatest place in the world for entrepreneurs and innovation" and went on to praise the region's weather, culture, and people. It is the California way when talking about its politics: with despair acknowledge the depth of darkness the State finds itself in, but conclude with near-delusional self-confidence that, gosh darn it, we're California, of course things will work out. The California Dream is a highly potent dose of Americanism, and nothing stirs a local audience more than playing directly to the bi-polar hot points which make up this shared imagination.
Then I introduce Tom Campbell, the best candidate in the race, but one whose academic approach may not inspire audiences:
Tom Campbell was the last of the four to speak. He spoke softly and deliberately. He carefully offered three specific policy prescriptions on health care, stressing the benefits of inter-state competition of insurers, anti-trust reform, and litigation reform. (He asked the audience to download his 15 page policy paper.) On immigration, he described the argument for more H-1B visas, and the counterargument. On education, he proposed vouchers for the most disadvantaged and vowed to exempt community college grants from cuts.
It was an impressive breakdown of policy. Absent were emotional pyrotechnics. Campbell served up no red meat. He never once denounced the system in sweeping terms, nor did he anchor his ideas in appeals of hope and optimism. He garnered only polite applause.
I go on to review Campbell's background and policy views. He is a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage fiscal conservative who supports a tax increase who's running in the Republican primary:
Suffice to say, Campbell is an unorthodox Republican with immense political courage. And those are just his economic views. He also supports gay marriage, when 82% of Republicans in the state oppose it, and the right to have an abortion. He and Andrew Sullivan would make good bedmates. Sullivan is a conservative in the wilderness and subtitles his blog "Of No Party or Clique."
Lest Campbell's ideas seem too random, here's one way to cohere them: The Economist. It is Campbell's favorite magazine — which he reads, along with the state's major newspapers, each morning on his Kindle — and his views approximate almost perfectly with the British editors' in charge.
His two opponents in the GOP primary are self-funded outsiders who each have their own serious problems. From Steve Poizner's delusional fiscal proposals, to Meg Whitman's relentless opportunism.
But can Tom Campbell win?
What makes Campbell's campaign so improbable is not just that he lacks personal wealth — that barrier's been surmounted in the past — but that he is positioning himself as a truth teller when there's little evidence truth telling is successful in politics…
Most savvy politicians hold an ends-justifies-the-means attitude toward campaigning. Economically literate Democrats say to themselves: I'll implement the right policies once in office, but first I need to get in office, and doing that requires appeasing unions with protectionist talk. When Obama the candidate dished populist rhetoric that worried America's trading partners, his economic advisor Austan Goolsbee notoriously quipped that Obama was playing domestic politics and that NAFTA was going to be fine. There wasn't a microphone around Goolsbee after that.
Campbell, by contrast, says exactly what he thinks on third rail issues. He's not hedging on politically risky positions. He's not obscuring the seriousness of the budget situation. Campbell's bet is that Californians will take the time to engage his ideas thoughtfully. They may not agree with him but at least they'll respect his courage, the thinking goes. If there were ever a time this strategy might work it would be now: a moment of a peril and one where 80% of Californians say the state is on the wrong track.
The bottom line:
The cold, hard bottom line is that California state government does not need "leadership" as it is often thought of. California does not need big personalities. We've seen how they fare. California does not need outsiders who think they can transform the most complex state in the union, transcend divisiveness, re-make a culture, and balance the budget by eradicating government waste. It needs, instead, someone who can negotiate among entrenched interest groups, a task with no analog in the private sector, and spend four years focused on cleaning up the State's balance sheet.