The Theory of the Magic Moderates


As a moderate myself, let me tell you that some of the rumors about us are true. We are smarter than you ideologues and partisans out there. We're wiser. More thoughtful. And -- this is true, I swear -- more attractive to members of the opposite sex. (Notice that NBC hasn't posted a photo of me yet? Well, let's just say I couldn't handle all the unsolicited love letters.)

All that said, the other rumors are false. We can't fly simply by flapping our arms. We can't leap tall buildings in a single bound. And it's been a couple thousand election cycles since a moderate turned water into wine. Since we live by the same rules of physics as you lesser mortals do, there's also this limitation: Moderates have no special powers to balance budgets and find more money for schools in California's broken governing system. No one can do that. The system makes it too hard.

Unfortunately, the theory underpinning most high-profile efforts on reform is that moderates are like the disguised-as-human superheroes played by Will Smith and Charlize Theron in the movie Hancock. The theory is: If you create a new election system that puts more moderates in office, they'll somehow -- presumably via their special magic -- make everything work better. That was the premise of Prop 11, the victorious 2008 ballot initiative to change how legislative districts are drawn in the hopes of creating more competition and electing more moderates. And that's the logic behind Prop 14, the measure on the June 8 ballot to change the rules of primary elections.

Even if these measure end up producing more moderates (as the brilliant and beautiful -- she must be a moderate -- Marianne Kushi of NBC San Diego argued here), the whips and chains that make up the Sacramento budget ratchet -- and make governance impossible -- remain. Moderate legisaltors are going to be just as frustrated as conservatives and liberals -- perhaps more so, given their inclination to compromise -- by the California constitutional restrictions that limit their ability to raise taxes while requiring them to spend money even when the state doesn't have it.

Let's say a new group of strong moderates in the legislature -- let's be optimistic, and say a dozen have been elected -- want to balance the budget with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts. The 2/3 supermajority requirement remains the same stubborn obstacle it always was, making it easy for relatively small groups of liberals to block the spending cuts and of conservatives to block any tax increases.

Or let's say the moderates want to make education funding more rational. That's nearly impossible because Prop 98, the education funding guarantee, has complex formulas that can't be altered (except by the voters). In fact, voters have locked in place so many pieces of the budget -- local government funds, transportation money, the lottery, mental health funding, after school programs, early childhood education -- that moderates won't be able to do very much at all.

Heck, any moderate would, by definition, be smart enough to avoid Sacramento at all costs, no matter what the election rules are.

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