Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown led California in the time of plenty, when interstate highways wrapped the state in concrete ribbons extending the California dream to housing developments in far-flung places like Rancho Cucamonga and Irvine. His master plan for higher education built on the immediate postwar boom that would see UC Berkeley and UCLA, among others, stockpiling Nobel laureates even before departments existed for them. And he solved, for a time, the age-old question of how to feed the nation from California's farms, while delivering on the California New Deal of two cars in every garage and a swimming pool in every backyard.
Pat Brown also gave California his son, who in his first two terms seemed to lead as the anti-Pat Brown, although still a populist and a dreamer. Now, in his third term, a parsimonious Jerry Brown has made good on his promise to bring the state's books back in balance and stop the fiscal bleeding. But how do we take the next steps and return California to a land of great abundance and prosperity?
The major intervention between father and son was Ronald Reagan, who defeated Pat Brown, and Proposition 13, which in many ways defeated Jerry.
With few exceptions for the past two decades, anti-government, anti-dream activists have thwarted every effort to revive our state and our country. College student debt alone exceeds $1 trillion, essentially indenturing college graduates to lenders for decades, unthinkable in Pat Brown's era when anyone in our state could get a higher education virtually for free, as part of an essential investment in future prosperity.
Last month, California voters passed a progressive income tax increase that even a year ago most thought impossible. And they defeated a sophisticated attack on organized labor's participation in politics, one that looked secure of passage as recently as August. Much to the surprise even of Speaker John A. Pérez, voters also gave a supermajority to the Democratic leadership of both houses of the Legislature, meaning that for the first time since 1933, the Legislature can pass not only budgets, but revenue increases without resorting to ballot measures.
All of this comes in the context of a second term for President Barack Obama and the defeat of three of the 19 rock-ribbed conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives from California.
Analogies fail, but words such as earthquake, tectonic shift and historic realignment come to mind.
Faced with unbridled and even surprising success, the governor and party elders have two choices, or so they think. They can head down a take-no-prisoners path that Newt Gingrich clear-cut when his "Contract With America" shocked even him in the 1994 landslide in Washington. Or they can tread carefully, not "overreaching" to try to keep their power for the long term.
Based on evidence to date, count on the latter course. And if history is any indicator of outcome, count on contractions of that Democratic supermajority in the coming years unless we act boldly. But those are not the only options. The real question is, "What would Pat Brown do?"
He'd envision a new California Dream, one fit to modern times when most voters don't know why or even that Proposition 13 exists. Today's California grew out of Ronald Reagan's 1986 "amnesty" that accepted the reality of a demographic shift, which in turn made Proposition 30 and Barack Obama possible.
Pat Brown would mold this vision not around short-term decisions to tax this or build that, but around what the new California requires to create widespread and long-term prosperity for all its people. He'd articulate these broader goals, then set about building coalitions to achieve them. Such goals might include:
A newly invigorated master plan for public education that once again offers pre-school to post-doc learning without regard to race or economic status.
A health care system that serves everyone with compassion, efficiency and fairness.
An efficient, vibrant, inventive, modern economy with a transportation system to match, accounting for true costs on and benefits to society and the environment.
A society where workers are treated with dignity and respect, and that creates prosperity for all, where immigrants are welcomed, and people of all races, creeds and sexual orientations are treated equally.
This is not so much about changing Proposition 13 or other much needed reforms as it is about articulating a clear vision for the state of our dreams. Obama was much criticized for being "long on hope and short on change." But he won a second term handily by offering a vision for America where everyone was given an equal chance to succeed, and the rich were asked to give back to the country that provided them with the foundation of their success. This, in turn, allows the next generation to succeed, and the American renaissance to take root.
People will pay for government that works for them, that improves their lives. They will not and should not pay for a tax or gush over a rule change; they will invest in the California Dream, their California Dream. That was the vision of Pat Brown.