The most interesting current political question is not whether Barack Obama will triangulate after his party's midterm shellacking -- he probably won't -- but what in the world California's new/old governor, Jerry Brown, will do in January 2011.
At 72, Brown is returning to a third term as California governor after a hiatus of 28 years to face a $26 billion budget deficit and an unemployment rate above 12 percent. So is it to be more taxes, more government, both or neither?
Both conservatives and liberals agree that Brown will probably do what California's progressive voters elected him to do: keep government and its services big and find the necessary revenue from corporations and more affluent individuals to pay for it. The real debate is over whether he can pull that off in recessionary times.
Conservatives believe he cannot. They argue that the California model of huge public-sector salaries and pensions, high taxes, intrusive government and unchecked illegal immigration is unsustainable, and a prescription for Third World-like chaos and poverty. In this pessimistic view, California is just a year or two behind Greece and Portugal, but without a Germany to bail it out -- especially now, with a tight-fisted Republican-led House that soon may cut off federal subsidies to a now-insolvent California.
Californians, then, will get what they deserve for electing the doctrinaire liberal Brown. Necessary cuts will come only when a penniless California can no longer count on more 11th-hour bailouts.
In contrast, most liberals hope that Brown can find some way to raise fees and taxes to feed the comfortable public sector by counting on the resiliency of a California economy that has always bounced back. After all, the state enjoys world-class ports at Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland. Vibrant tourism draws millions everywhere from Yosemite to Disneyland. Silicon Valley is still the global high-tech capital. Central Valley agriculture is the richest in the world. Hollywood, the Napa Valley and coastal wine industries, a huge construction sector, and still plentiful oil and gas give the state one of the most diverse economies in the world.
If high earners are fleeing the state, exhausted by high taxes and regulations, there will always be new wannabe California dreamers eager to replace them -- drawn to the natural wealth, sun, laid-back lifestyle and vibrant popular culture. In other words, Democrats count on Brown to bide time until the eighth-largest economy in the world kicks back in. That inevitable recovery will allow that the status-quo Brown to claim things got better once he was in office, without him doing much of anything differently.