Californians do not face an easy choice in the race for governor -- as was clear in Tuesday night's debate at Dominican University in San Rafael.
Republican Meg Whitman so parses her positions that at times she seems to stand for nothing. She has had to overcompensate for her spotty voting record by throwing more than $140 million into her campaign -- while she incongruously argues that she can cut the size of state government.
Her budget plan is a joke that over-promises welfare cuts, advocates big tax cuts despite chronic budget shortfalls and then impossibly offers extra funds for higher education.
Voters don't really know if Whitman has what it takes to cut hard bargains with the Democrats who run the Legislature or big labor, which runs the Democrats.
If she has her eye on the White House, and the economy picks up in 2012, she easily could decide to broker feel-good deals that make everyone happy while kicking the can of fiscal reckoning down the road.
Democrat Jerry Brown is a proud cheapskate who has outsourced his campaign to political consultants working for the state-employee unions that have wielded so much clout that the ranks of state workers swelled by 33,000 since 2004 despite chronic budget shortfalls. Yet he blames Wall Street for Sacramento's cash-flow problems.
Brown's supporters argue that their man Moonbeam is no longer a knee-jerk lefty or never was one -- and that the irascible Brown is the more likely candidate to play hardball with big labor.
Brown frequently notes that, as mayor of Oakland, he was pro-development and fought environmental regulations that impeded his goal of increasing downtown residency.
True. But at the same time, an inner Luddite was burning in Dao Mayor's very core. You could see it in his antics to delay the retrofit of the Bay Bridge.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake exposed the eastern span as unfit to withstand a big earthquake. Yet a decade later, when any thinking politician would be pushing for a start date, Brown was pushing for more delays -- for a $50 million bike lane to Treasure Island, a study to explore adding light-rail to the project and a tony design "that expresses the daring of human ingenuity and symbolizes the splendor of Oakland and the East Bay."
Daring is the word. Ten years later still, the retrofit is incomplete, and Oaklanders driving to San Francisco must brave a vulnerable structure supported by old timber pilings.
I saw that Jerry Brown on Tuesday night when he said that he would oppose suspending AB32, the state greenhouse-gas law about to go into effect. "You create uncertainty," Brown explained. "You create doubt for investors."
I think Whitman had it right when she argued for a suspension of the measure in light of the state's 12.4 percent unemployment rate. Whitman explained, "It's not fair to the employees in manufacturing, trucking, packaging, all the other industries, to drive those jobs out of state." Amen.
Referring to the AB32's mandate for the California Air Resources Board to set a "low carbon-fuel standard," bike-lane Brown declared, "My god, they're going to use less oil in California. You bet. We're going to use more California sun and more California wind, and we'll get it done."
He forgets how Sacramento works. Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle's Wyatt Buchanan reported on CARB's gross miscalculations -- overestimated diesel emissions by 340 percent -- that could cost California industry $10 billion to $12 billion.
It's the Bay Bridge all over again. Forget the risks and practical consideration. Everything will turn out OK if you mean well. The problem with Jerry Brown as governor is: Tough times are the worst time for magical thinking.