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.
But there is also a third "Nixon Goes to China" school that envisions a more maverick Brown. Some remember how, in his earlier tenure as governor, he embraced the property-tax reductions of Proposition 13 that he once opposed by claiming ex post facto that they were in line with his own Zen-like frugality.
If the liberal Brown were to now take on out-of-control public spending, he would be immune to the charges of callousness that destroyed multimillionaire outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and would have likewise smeared Republican billionaire gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman had she won. Perhaps given that California already has the highest sales, income and gas taxes in the nation, Brown could shrug and say that any more tax increases would set off an even greater stampede out of the state.
And at 72, the once overly ambitious Brown -- who ran for the presidency three times -- can forget about leapfrogging into the White House. The question now is Brown's final legacy, not his next career move. We know from the implosion of the European Union that unchecked big government inevitably leads to public insolvency. But does it also ensure, Brown might ask, moral bankruptcy?
In a postmodern world of omnipresent cheap consumer goods and all sorts of government-subsidized cradle-to-grave perks, can "small is beautiful" Jerry Brown teach Californians not just that too much stuff is no longer affordable or sustainable, but, at a deeper level, that our out-of-control excesses, appetites and dependencies are no longer good for our souls?
If he can, Brown could finally shed the old caricature of "Governor Moonbeam" and become the landmark philosopher-statesman he once promised that he would be, but was not, three decades ago. And if he can't, he'll be remembered as just another tax-and-spend California ideologue like hyper-partisan Rep. Nancy Pelosi or fossilized Sen. Barbara Boxer -- perpetually fiddling away in office while the redistributive state went up in flames.