Presidential scholar Richard Neustadt once wrote that the president's greatest clout lies in his power to persuade. More than signing executive orders or vetoing legislation, Neustadt claimed, the president succeeds when he convinces others to do what they might otherwise choose not to do.
California Governor Jerry Brown showed a bit of Neustadt over the past few months when he convinced a majority of legislators to do what they, too, might have not otherwise done, when they decided on Friday to fund the first portion of the state's $68 billion high-speed rail project.
Brown had a terrible political headwind to conquer. Public opinion polls showed that the voters were queasy on the idea, given the state's dreadful economy. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives promised there would be no more federal assistance if they had any say over the matter. And let's not forget the initial construction site, from Chowchilla to Bakersfield. Who's going to ride the train there? No one, but that's where the feds with $3.2 billion in matching funds said the building should commence.
Not a pretty picture. Still, Brown persevered.
In some ways, Brown took a page from the legacy of his father, Edmond G. "Pat" Brown, who also proposed a huge infrastructure project. In 1959, shortly after his election to the state's highest post, the senior Brown asked the voters to pass a then-huge $1.7 billion bond to create the California Water Project, the backbone of the state's massive water movement system. At the time, the proposal equaled the size of the state budget. Critics viewed it as an unnecessary boondoggle. Others looked into California's future and saw nothing but trouble without enough water to meet the state's needs. Of course they were right.
We won't know whether the current Brown is right for decades, but we know this: against tremendous pressure he prevailed. And whether or not you believe the high-speed rail project is a good idea, you have give credit to Brown and Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg for exercising a characteristic rarely seen these days--leadership.
Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.