During his previous terms as governor from 1975 to 1983 Jerry Brown liked to ask his fellow Californians to lower expectations. Judging from the enthusiastic response to his State of the State speech last month, and from his spike in the polls, he's succeeded.
Yes, you can read that in at least two ways:
That the speech, laced with a display of conspicuous erudition even more intimidating than Brown's norm from Genesis and Yeats to Gaspar de Portolá and Oliver Wendell Holmes didn't deserve all that applause. There was even some grudging praise from Republicans.
That Californians and the nation have become accustomed to their narrowing circumstances and grown a little more realistic, even if they aren't altogether comfortable in the hair shirt that their ex-seminarian governor wants to clothe them in.
For the moment, let's give Brown credit: He's probably a better governor than any of his recent predecessors, including himself. Collectively, and unwittingly for the most part, they helped lower expectations about life in California, about public services, about government and about governors.
But as Brown's fortunes seem to improve, let's also keep in mind the wise observation of one of those predecessors: When things go bad in the economy, the governor gets more blame than he deserves; when things go well, he gets more credit than he's earned.
That predecessor was Gray Davis, who once served as Brown's chief of staff and later famously became only the second governor in U.S. history to be removed from office in a popular recall. For Brown, on the other hand, at this moment everything seems to be coming up roses. If he was ahead of his time in 1980, he's right in sync with it now.
But Brown's admonition about lowering expectations may yet be tested in ways that even he doesn't expect notwithstanding the stream of good news that's been coming his way.
We may have reached the bottom of the deep pit we've been digging ourselves into for some 35 years. And in a way the prospect that things won't get worse is worth at least a sigh of relief.
But by any measure you can name, we're still in terrible shape. The state whose freeways were a model for the nation a half-century ago now consigns its drivers to some of the worst roads in the Western world.
Our schools, charged with educating 1.5 million students from homes where little or no English is spoken and a similar number who are growing up in poverty, get less funding per pupil than those in some 40-plus other states.
State support for the state's public universities and community colleges once a global model for their combination of academic excellence, universal access and low tuition has been cut again and again to the point where the University of California is slowly privatizing itself for a future that will inevitably depend ever more on tuition and corporate contracts.
The governor's solution: lower pay for university administrators, more online courses and heavier teaching loads for professors. That may make for feel-good politics and a nice story in the New York Times, but it won't do much else.
Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, surely no cabal of bleeding-heart liberals, found California's prison system guilty of an "extensive and ongoing constitutional violation," in its failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care, a failure, the court held, that can't be remedied without significant reductions in prison overcrowding.
Brown is now telling a lower federal court that the crowding has been reduced enough and medical care improved enough that federal court supervision of the system is no longer justified.
But as New York City has so dramatically proved, by decreasing the prison population and shifting some of the billions spent on incarceration in California prisons suck up more money than the state spends on universities to hiring more cops and the more aggressive crime prevention measures they'd make possible, our cities would be safer and we'd save money to boot. But given the political clout of the prison guards, will Brown ever take us there?
Below all that, moreover, sits the swamp of debt that state and local governments have run up in their attempt to maintain generous public services on the cheap: massive bond issues we sold ourselves as no-cost goodies; hefty pension and retiree health benefit promises due in the future in place of current public employee pay increases; the wholesale neglect of maintenance of roads, bridges, parks, sewers and other public infrastructure.
Brown gets lots of points for trying to bring all that under control. But ever since we passed Proposition 13 in 1978, the last time he was governor, we've been digging that hole. It may take as long to dig out. Lower expectations.