jump to navigation

Winds of change? (San Francisco Chronicle) February 11, 2005

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

Critics accused President Bill Clinton of taking a poll every morning to decide where he stood. In fact, his pollster Dick Morris explained, Clinton knew his own mind but consulted polling data to find the winds that would blow the rest of the country in the direction he wanted to go.

As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger attempts major governmental reforms in California this year, he says his success will depend less on politicians in Sacramento and more on “the people.” While pundits focus on recent polls showing Schwarzenegger remains popular (a 60 percent approval rating), but has lost support among Democrats and independents, a major new report identifies more specific winds of popular opinion the governor must find to carry the state toward the reforms he seeks.

Viewpoint Learning Inc., headed by veteran pollster Daniel Yankelovich, has recently completed a remarkable series of day-long dialogues with more than 500 Californians. The resulting report — “Listening to Californians” — contains a profile of what “average Californians” think about state government and what might be required to fix it. Despite several ill winds that the governor will find in the report, the dialogues suggest that a pragmatic, incremental approach to reforming state government stands the best chance for success.

First, the bad news. Despite Schwarzenegger’s personal popularity, the dialogues revealed no greater trust in state government today than before his election. In fact, there is even more powerful mistrust and frustration toward government than seen previously. It is doubtful that Schwarzenegger’s favorable ratings alone can generate the energy needed for real change.

Further, the people’s distrust of government is sufficiently strong that they are not prepared to undo mechanisms such as Proposition 13 and super-majority vote requirements for bond measures that limit government’s taxing-and-spending power. And they are unwilling to pay more taxes for government as usual. Yet, these are some of the very reforms many politicians want.

The good news for Schwarzenegger’s ideas is that Californians, by and large, are interested in practical, workable solutions to the state’s problems and are less ideologically driven than the popular “red state versus blue state” models suggest. A series of smaller, practical reform steps would connect with voters more powerfully than more grandiose or ideologically based measures.

For example, when asked about the hot-button education issue of private vouchers rather than investing more in public schools, participants consistently reframed the question from the ideological battle between the two competing ideas to a series of pragmatic steps. Californians logically said, let’s begin with more investment in public schools. As needed, let’s offer school choice within the public-school system. Then, many added, if kids still aren’t getting a quality education, let’s provide vouchers for parents to send their kids to private schools. While politicians battle the either/or questions, voters were more likely to prefer packages of practical, blended solutions.

Californians like private/public partnerships, rather than either/or ideological choices. They tend to trust government’s ability to include and assist all people in policy decisions and the private sector’s ability to be efficient and thrifty, especially in addressing state infrastructure needs. Again, people support nuanced, practical solutions and not the issue-based warfare politicians so often present them.

How, then, should Schwarzenegger position himself and his reform ideas to gain support? Consider the four reforms the governor highlighted in his State of the State address earlier this year: converting state workers’ pensions to 401 (k) plans; merit pay for teachers; a mechanism to cut state spending automatically when it exceeds revenue; and redrawn legislative boundaries. The latter two ideas — redrawn boundaries and a mechanism to stop-spending overruns — seem like the sort of pragmatic, less ideological reforms that dialogue participants would support. They target improving government and limiting its power. While reform of state pensions and merit pay for teachers may sound like pragmatic improvements, they challenge major interest groups, namely big labor and teachers’ unions. To the extent voters perceive those groups as troops in an ideological war, they are less likely to garner broad support.

In order to reform the state’s governance, Schwarzenegger will need to find and activate the pragmatic “center” of the state, a group that is clearly frustrated and disillusioned. It may be difficult for an action-hero governor to avoid grandiose and ideological reforms. But if this new report is correct, practical and incremental reforms are the necessary first steps for Californians to trust their government again.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-9.

%d bloggers like this: