Brown Doesn't Make the Grade

Pundits across the political spectrum and media landscape are giving Gov. Jerry Brown grades for his year.

The grades are similar, with most falling around B.

The LA Times summed up this consensus on its front page this week: "new Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature dominated by his fellow Democrats end the year having struck out on their attempted tax hike and having made few major changes."

The paper added that Brown faced "institutional impediments" that tied his hands.

The reasoning for this sort of grading is similar: Brown didn't get much done though he tried very hard on the budget.

But he was limited by the limitations of partisan politics and of California's famously complicated governing system. 

That's fair enough, as far as it goes. The problem with this grading is that it doesn't go very far at all. In fact, grading Brown in this way -- on his efforts in the face of a tough political climate and system -- may be a disservice to the public.

If you're going to grade Brown on how he serves California, the question is not what he tried to do in the face of a state that's famously difficult to govern.

The question is: what sort of progress did Brown make in changing the rules of a game that makes it so difficult to govern?

The answer to that question -- no progress at all -- gets to the heart of the problem with the Brown administration -- and with the political and journalistic elites that give grades to governors.

It's not merely that Brown didn't get any significant reform of the broken governing or political systems, or that he didn't swing public opinion on the need for such reform.

The problem is: he didn't try reforming.

His governorship has been an argument for working within the existing broken system -- out of a misguided view that political reality makes that the only possible way.

Prominent graders missed this point.


-The Mercury News

In giving Brown a "B," the paper consulted with 10 pundits from across the spectrum and averaged the grades. But the five categories the Mercury News scored in its grade had to do with the management of this year's budget, his courtship of Republicans, his handling of bills and his nebulous vision for the state. The paper failed to judge him on the core question of whether he worked to make an ungovernable state governable -- to fix a broken system. GRADE FOR THE GRADER: C+, for effort.

-George Skelton of the LA Times

He also gave Brown a B, making the strong argument that "His biggest achievement is essentially overlooked: He didn't screw things up worse." 

That's not true, in at least one way.

Hundreds of millions in additional cuts to higher education screwed up the university systems worse, and thus may have done long-term damage to California. Skelton also thinks there's a big budget fix out there, as though it's a matter of merely numbers (and not a budget system that's irretrievably broken). GRADE FOR THE GRADER: B-, since we're on a curve.

-Jerry Brown himself

The governor, meeting with reporters, declined to assign himself a letter grade. Brown claimed progress on the budget and on renewable energy. "I think I took this semester on pass or fail, anyway," Brown said, "and in that case I've clearly passed."

That's why (as Brown noted earlier in the same meeting with reporters) students don't grade themselves.

Too many people are giving Brown a pass.

When it comes to governing in a time that requires complete redesign of the governing system, Brown, for all his efforts, has earned the grade: "Failed to Understand the Assignment."

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