SAN DIEGO -- The most ominous domestic event of the 1970s was the collapse of self-government in New York City, which before being put into receivership by the state was liberalism's laboratory. Since then, California has been the slate on which liberalism boldly writes its recipe for decline -- high taxes, heavy regulation, subservience to public employees unions and environmentalism that is simultaneously apocalyptic and chiliastic.
Because California's calamitous present -- creative accounting as a rickety bridge to the next budget crisis, coming soon -- might prefigure the nation's future, next year's gubernatorial election is portentous. An especially intriguing candidate in a colorful field is Tom Campbell. Colorful he is not. "Talk softly and carry a small calculator" could be his motto. What glitter, however, are his resume and agenda.
He has a Harvard law degree and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, where his faculty adviser was Milton Friedman. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Working in the Reagan administration in 1983, in the wake of a severe recession, he assumed Reagan would lose in 1984 ("proof of my political acumen," he says; Reagan carried 49 states) and accepted a professorship at Stanford's law school. He represented Silicon Valley in Congress for five terms. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Senate in 1992. He won the nomination in 2000 but lost the election. His third statewide run might work because, after Arnold Schwarzenegger's childlike faith in personality as the conqueror of problems, blandness may be charismatic.
There is no constitutional mechanism to do for California what the state of New York did for New York City in 1975 -- transfer to an improvised authority responsibility for problems the political process cannot solve. But having been California's financial director in 2004-05, Campbell believes politics can restore something like the "Gann limit," a constitutional provision that, from 1979 to 1989 (California's malleable Constitution only intermittently constitutes), limited annual spending by a formula based on inflation and population growth.