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Democrats Learn to Love the Plebiscitary Power Grab

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Opinion: Dems Heart Plebiscites

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LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 8: California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger addresses the news media the day after winning the recall election in a landslide October 8, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. California Gov. Gray Davis lost by a wide margin in the recall, while Schwarzenegger won handily over his nearest Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

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Imagine that Arnold Schwarzenegger was still governor and doing what Gov. Jerry Brown has been doing: pushing his own ballot initiative, and seeking every possible advantage for it along the way.

What would Democrats say about Gov. Schwarzenegger? The governor would be accused of a "power grab". He would be under fire for engaging in plebiscitary politics, circumventing the government to go to the people in the manner of Nasser and other dictators, and raising money that compromises his governing decision-making.

Heck, we don't have to imagine this. This is precisely what happened in 2005 when Schwarzenegger, unable to get anywhere with the legislature in his first year, took his program to the voters via ballot initiative.

Schwarzenegger wasn't nearly as aggressive as Brown in manipulating the initiative process itself, but his move was clearly plebiscitary, and it required millions in fundraising that opened himself up to accusations that his decisions were for sale.

Democrats and labor unions consistently called this "a power grab" and portrayed Schwarzenegger as dictatorial. Today, of course, they are cheerleading Brown making similar manuevers around the ballot.

The hypocrisy here is bipartisan.

Republicans cheered on Schwarzenegger in 2005. Today, they seem to be working from the 2005 talking points of the California Nurses Assn in portraying Brown and the Democrats as power-grabbing, would-be dictators.

Lost in the talking points is a real question of whether, and how, elected officials should use the initiative process.

In theory, plebiscites are bad, and dangerous.

But in practice, California's governing system requires the use of initiatives by public officials. That's because so much of the state system has already been locked in by previous ballot measures and constitutional amendments. So changing anything seems to require the ballot, in some form.

Given this reality, it would be nice if both sides dropped the outrage. But it won't happen -- there's too much political advantage in all the howling about "power grabs."

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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