The Democratic Supermajority: Use It or Lose It
By Robert Cruickshank
Democratic control of the California State Legislature is nothing new. Since 1970 Democrats have dominated the Capitol, with Republicans having only a narrow majority in the Assembly for a short 2-year period in the 1990s and never having control of the Senate in that time. But since 1978, Democratic majorities have been essentially meaningless. Proposition 13 required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes, a conservative attempt to seize power they had failed to win at the ballot box. In November 2012, Democrats finally won the two-thirds majority in the Legislature that had been so close in recent years.
The question on everyone's mind is now "what will Democrats do with their new power?" To hear California's punditocracy tell it, Democrats shouldn't do much of anything. These pundits, who have been slow to grasp the massive changes in California politics that have unfolded over the last few years, argue that Democrats should be ultra-cautious and resist attempts to make big changes. Larry Gerston provides a classic example of the genre:
Still two facts are clear. First, the Democrats need to be careful not to go so far that they upset those who put them in this exalted position. And second, the Democrats should not take fellow Democrat Jerry Brown for granted as an automatic ally, given Brown's penchant to not raise any taxes without voter approval.
Gerston, like the other pundits, completely misreads the situation. The only way Democrats can upset those who put them in this exalted position is to be hesitant and timid. As recent history shows, Democratic supermajorities always evaporate when they aren't used to solve deeper problems.
California Democrats have a supermajority because the new electorate has killed off the Republican Party, just as I said it would two years ago, and put Democrats in power to renew the California Dream by using government to rebuild social democracy and the prosperity it creates. Democrats didn't win because moderates swung their way, they won the same way President Obama won - by cranking out the progressive electorate to overwhelm the remnants of conservative California.
Here's the key: For Democrats to hold these new seats, they have to keep that base happy and engaged in politics. If they disappoint that base, if they fail to solve the problems of that base, those voters won't turn out in big numbers in 2014 and Democrats will guarantee they will lose the supermajority they finally won.
These pundits, almost all of them white men like me, do not understand this new situation. They're locked into the old mentality of politics, which held that majorities were won by getting enough moderate white support. Those days are over. Here in 21st century California, you win and keep power by engaging, empowering, and improving the lives of a diverse, progressive majority.
History proves this theory. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won two big national elections, seizing first the Congress and then the White House. Obama's 2008 victory brought with it a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, finally reaching the crucial 60 vote threshold that had long eluded Democrats.
But instead of using this majority to solve the pressing problems facing the country, Democrats took a too-cautious approach. They passed a convoluted health care reform bill that few understood and that didn't excite the base. The February 2009 stimulus was good, if too small, but it wasn't followed up with any systematic job creation efforts. Immigration reform went nowhere. Labor unions and environmentalists sat and watched as their key legislative goals were abandoned. LGBT rights sat on the back burner until activists forced it to the top of the agenda on the eve of the 2010 elections.
The result was that in 2010, the electorate that won the 2006 and 2008 elections for the Democrats stayed home - and Democrats lost the House of Representatives as a result. In 2012, that electorate returned, and Republicans were dealt a smashing defeat.
A similar phenomenon recently took place in a West Coast legislature. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won two-thirds majorities in Washington State. Just as in Congress, however, Democrats failed to use that majority to solve major problems. Democratic leaders in Olympia chose the path of caution, worried that they would lose the swing seats if they moved too boldly to address the state's revenue crisis, create jobs, or improve schools. But because of that caution, Washington State Democrats failed to reward their electorate, and lost that supermajority in 2010 anyway.
Political reality, then, makes it absolutely clear that Democrats need to deliver meaningful improvements to people's daily lives if they are going to keep their supermajority. However, that doesn't mean they should just pass whatever they want. Legislators should assume any tax increase or substantial policy action will be put on the ballot for a referendum by wealthy conservatives. Democratic leaders will need to work hand-in-hand with California's progressive movement to determine and then implement a reform agenda over the next two years. Only by a coordinated effort will that reform agenda withstand the certain counterrevolution from the rich that would come at the November 2014 ballot.
What should that agenda look like? Here are just a few ideas:
- Make it even easier to vote. Online voter registration was a big key to the Democratic victories this fall, but there's still a lot of work to be done to make it easier for people to express their democratic rights. Same day registration is a good place to start.
- Bring even more revenue to the schools. Even with the passage of Prop 30, there's still a lot of work to do to fix education. As Scott Lay of the Community College League pointed out on Twitter late last week, Prop 30 brings in $200 million for community colleges - but they've faced $800 million in cuts since 2008. Prop 30 will help California's public schools, but they've been underfunded since 1978 and the new revenue won't fully fix that problem. What's the answer - an oil severance tax? More closed loopholes, something voters showed they'd support by passing Prop 39? More taxes on the rich? Whatever the means, California's schools still need help.
- Make sure every Californian gets good health care. There's no excuse now for not passing single-payer, nor is there any excuse for even something as simple as rate regulation for the current private insurers. Health care in California took a lot of cuts since 2007, and the federal health care bill won't fully reverse those problems. Vermont is moving toward a single-payer system. California should join them.
- Do something to create jobs. Recovery is still slow in California, it's uneven, and wages aren't rising as fast as they should. A comprehensive job creation strategy, likely involving direct government hiring, should be high on the agenda. Matching this with clean energy would be a good start. Infrastructure repair makes sense too. And while they're at it, a solution to the ongoing foreclosure crisis would be especially wise from both an economic and a political perspective.
- Fix the Constitution. California's constitution has serious problems that get in the way of effective government. The Democratic supermajority can't amend the constitution itself, but it can propose new amendments without having to raise a dime for signature gathering to do so. Well-funded neoliberal groups like "California Backward", whose Prop 31 got clobbered, and Nicholas Berggruen's Think Long group, are likely to come up with their own fixes. Democrats should preempt them with sensible changes.
What might those look like? Fixing Prop 13 would be a good start - a split roll, perhaps? Eliminating the two-thirds rule for local tax revenue is probably a more likely win than eliminating the two-thirds rule for the legislature, and with transportation measures in Los Angeles and Alameda counties "failing" even with 64% support, the need for a fix is clear. Dems could even be bold and abolish the useless State Senate and tripling the size of the Assembly. And a fix to the initiative process, whatever that might be, would be especially appropriate after the Munger insanity this year.
That's a brief list, and I'm sure there's a lot more that can and should be listed. But the point here is that unless California's Democratic supermajority uses its power to fix some of the state's deeper problems, they absolutely will lose that supermajority in 2014.
Robert Cruickshank writes on California politics at Calitics and California High Speed Rail Blog. This article was originally published at Calitics.