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The voters are furious -- but are they madder at government or big business? That question could define the next political era
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ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY HELLMAN

Political consultants advising Whitman are clearly looking for ways to direct the voter unhappiness into a demand for lower taxes and smaller budgets. She's already vowed to fire 40,000 state workers, and her most recent campaign ad attacks Brown for expanding public programs and raising the state deficit.

So far Brown hasn't challenged that narrative — and some Democrats say he shouldn't. It would be safer, they say, for Brown to get out front and demand his own cuts in Sacramento. "Going after public-sector pensions is a winner," one Democratic campaign consultant, who asked not to be named, told us. "If Whitman beats Brown on those issues, she wins."

But that approach is never going to be effective for Democrats. If the argument is over who can better cut government spending, the GOP candidates will always win. The better approach is to see if progressives can't shift the debate — and the anger — toward the private sector.

As Hightower put it: "You can yell yourself red-faced at Congress critters you don't like and demand a government so small that it'd fit in the backroom of Billy Bob's Bait Shop and Sushi Stand, but you won't be touching the corporate and financial powers behind the throne."

That's where the discussion has to start. And there's no better place than California.

The Golden State is a great example of what happens when the tax- cutters win. In 1978, the liberals in Sacramento, operating with a huge state budget surplus, couldn't figure out how to derail the populist anger of property tax hikes. So Proposition 13, the beginning of the great tax revolt, passed overwhelmingly. Over the next decade, more antitax initiatives went before the voters, and all were approved.

Now the state is heading toward fiscal disaster. The schools are among the worst-funded in the nation. The world-famous University of California system is on the brink of collapse. Community colleges are turning away students. The credit rating on California bonds have fallen so far that it's hard for the state to borrow money. And there's still a huge budget gap.

The tax-cut mentality that led to the so-called Reagan revolution started in California; a political movement that shifts the blame for many of the state's problems away from government and onto big business ought to be able to start here as well. And it's potentially a movement that could bring together people who normally find themselves on opposite sides of the fence.

A case in point: the measure the oil companies have put on the November ballot to repeal the state's greenhouse gas limits. The corporations backing the initiative, led by Valero, argue that California's attempts to slow climate change will cost jobs. That's a line we've heard for decades. Every tax cut, every move toward deregulation, is defended as helping spur job growth.

But the past four presidents have done nothing but cut taxes and reduce regulations — and the result is facing Americans on the streets every day. There is also growing evidence that even Republican voters don't believe everything big businesses tell them anymore. And they're starting to grasp that sometimes deregulation leads to outcomes like larcenous CEOs and unstoppable oil leaks.

So the potential for a successful progressive populist movement is out there. But it's not going to happen by spontaneous combustion.

 

SF SHOWS THE WAY

On the national level, one of the factors creating this gloomy electorate is the failure of President Obama to keep the coalition that elected him active and engaged. The intense partisanship in Washinton has turned off many independent Obama voters, while his progressive supporters have been disappointed by issues ranging from his escalation in Afghanistan to tepid reforms on health care and Wall Street.

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