During an appearance Saturday afternoon with the California Cadet Corps in Orange County, Gov. Jerry Brown took a swipe at legislative Republicans -- not for their policies but for their failure to show what he likes to call "California loyalty." He did this by suggesting that the cadets, who serve California, could be a model for Republicans.
The governor said: "People are having a hard time deciding what our common purpose is. I see in our California Cadet Corps a training of our future leaders, leaders that rise up above their own narrow selfish interests and think about the state and the country first."
That may sound uncontroversial -- and a Democratic governor swiping at the GOP isn't news -- but it's the wrong thing for Brown to say, for three reasons:
1. It's holier-than-thou and un-gubernatorial. The legislative Republicans who oppose Brown's plan are doing so because they don't think it's right for California. Yes, it's frustrating that they won't compromise or offer a plan of their own -- but that's a question of political tactics. I'm quite sure that Republicans love California as much as Democrats, perhaps for different reasons. Disagreement on policy and budgets is not a test of loyalty. Republicans may be wrong, but they're not disloyal. And it's unfair of Brown to suggest otherwise.
2. Brown should worry about being hoist on his own petard. If the budget debate becomes a question of California loyalty, it's easy to criticize the governor too. Those of us who think that California needs top-to-bottom constitutional reform see the governor's budget as a politically cautious proposal that can't get the job done because it fails to address the systemic budget problems that create big deficits. Translate that into the language of loyalty, and one could say that Brown is putting political caution and the polls above what's best for California. Does this make the governor disloyal?
3. The last reason is the most important: Californians' ties to the idea of California are relatively weak. Our state is more like a country, and thus California as an idea isn't clearly defined. We're not all Badgers or Tar Heels. We don't drive the same roads or go to the same schools or watch the same TV stations. We're a collection of regions.
The best parts of Brown's budget proposal -- his efforts to devolve money and authority from the state to local governments -- recognizes that fact. Decisions should be made on the local level because that's where Californians' strongest loyalty lies. If Brown wants to talk about loyalty, he should talk about our need to be loyal to our local communities -- and to each other -- rather than to the state.