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Hullabaloo


Saturday, October 19, 2013

 
Adam Nagourney is a terrible, agenda-driven journalist

by David Atkins

Adam Nagourney is already famous as the New York Times journalist always eager to write "Democrats in disarray" stories. But of all of the slanted stories he has written over the years, this one about California has to be the worst.

Nagourney looked at California's resurgent economy and drama-free politics after the 2012 elections gave Democrats a 2/3 supermajority in all houses and put Democrats into every statewide seat, and decided that the reason for it was--wait for it--centrist reforms. No, really:

Lawmakers came into office this year representing districts whose lines were drawn by a nonpartisan commission, rather than under the more calculating eye of political leaders. This is the first Legislature chosen under an election system where the top two finishers in a nonpartisan primary run against each other, regardless of party affiliations, an effort to prod candidates to appeal to a wider ideological swath of the electorate.
As any honest observer of California politics will tell you, the non-partisan citizens redistricting commission didn't result in more moderate legislators. It resulted in more Democrats and less safe Republican seats. Prior to the non-partisan redistricting, institutional Democratic power in the state drew lines to maximize the safety of incumbent legislators, not to maximize the number of winnable seats for Democrats in overwhelmingly Democratic California. When the lines were redrawn to reflect real communities of interest, many Democratic lawmakers in deep blue areas found themselves displaced from their comfortable territories, while many bluish purple areas found themselves realistically able to elect a Democrat for the first time in recent memory. Safe Republican seats also became significantly less safe. More Democrats in office meant crashing through the 2/3 supermajority barrier. It wasn't centrism that led to a better politics in California, but the utter marginalization of Republicans.

As for the awful top-two system? There is no evidence whatsoever that it has decreased partisanship. In deep blue and deep red areas, it has meant a personality-driven, primary circus atmosphere all the way into November featuring Republican-on-Republican and Democrat-on-Democrat races where party bosses and big money have enormous sway. In a few rare cases it has led to perverse situations: for instance, one Democratic district had a race with many Democrats running and only two Republicans, leading to both Republicans making it to the general election. In order to avoid this situation, party bosses now have even greater incentive to clear the field of challengers to the favored candidate. And in most purple battleground districts, races still came down to a normal Democrat vs. Republican battle--except this time, you can't vote for a third party candidate at all. In 2006 if you were a progressive unhappy with Dianne Feinstein, you could cast your vote for the Green Party candidate. Not so in 2012: your only choices were Feinstein, the Republican, write-in, or leave it blank.

Of the many, many faults of the top-two primary system, injecting centrism into elections was not one of them.

Even worse, Nagourney tries to bring relaxed term limits into the picture as well:

And California voters approved last year an initiative to ease stringent term limits, which had produced a Statehouse filled with inexperienced legislators looking over the horizon to the next election. Lawmakers can now serve 12 years in either the Assembly or the Senate.
Yes, that's true, and the relaxation of term limits is a positive development. But to say the passage of that initiative just last year has had a significant impact on legislative culture is ludicrous. It may and likely will have impacts down the road, but the new rules don't apply to legislators already in office. Since the old term limit rules are a complicated mishmash that, to oversimplify matters, give Assemblymembers six years in office and State Senators eight years (they can hop to the other chamber for a short time afterward as well for a maximum of 12 years total), well under 1/4 of the current lawmakers are governed by the new, more relaxed term limits laws. Moreover, any laws to weaken term limits can hardly be called centrist: it is centrists who have been most influential in strengthening term limits laws, and partisan advocates who have been most vocal about relaxing them.

Meanwhile, these two paragraphs are exemplary of moebius-strip backward thinking:

The fact that these reforms are kicking in at the same time that Democrats enjoy ironclad control of the government makes it difficult to draw long-term conclusions about their effectiveness. Some critics of state governance argued that Democratic dominance and the fact that Mr. Brown has proved to be a moderating force on his party, vetoing certain bills on gun control and immigration, were as much driving factors.

“It’s sort of like the good government community and political elite are doing an end-zone dance at the 45-yard line,” said Joe Mathews, a longtime critic of California’s governance system. “We’ve been in this box for so long, there’s such a natural hunger to say things are doing better that things are going better.”
Let's get this straight: Nagourney is crediting "good government reformers" for legislative successes that are due purely to Democratic partisan dominance. Then he cites "critics" who say that all this "reform" might be illusory because it may be jeopardized by Democratic dominance that has only been disguised by Jerry Brown's moderate politics. That's an incredible little tap dance there, particularly since most of the dysfunction that still remains in Sacramento is caused by Jerry Brown's unfortunate insistence on austerity economics during a recession, and the fact that lawmakers and even the governor's own staff have no idea what he will or will not do with his veto pen on any given day. Jerry Brown is a good governor all things considered, but elect a more predictable and reliably progressive governor in California, and the state will run even more smoothly than it does now.

Then there's this head scratcher:

As Mr. Mathews noted, ballot initiatives continue to be a force for disruption in California governance — the most notable example being Proposition 13, which severely limited the ability of governments to raise taxes. Two years ago, voters rolled back the requirement that two-thirds of lawmakers approve any spending increase, removing a major impediment in Sacramento, but there remains a two-thirds requirement for raising taxes.
Did Nagourney forget that not only did voters erase the two-thirds restriction on the budget in order to give Democrats more functional control, but the two-thirds rule is essentially irrelevant because Democrats now have over 2/3 of both houses? Even if Nagourney wrongly chooses to see the relaxation of the 2/3 rule for budgets as some sort of victory for centrism rather than the victory of Democratic partisanship it is, how is it relevant?

This is golden, too:

J. Stephen Peace, a former Democratic legislator who is head of the Independent Voter Project, which pressed for the top-two voting system, said the very fact of Democratic dominance was actually evidence of how the reforms were changing the way business is done.

“Only with a top-two majority would you have an overwhelming Democratic Legislature which is also the most moderate Legislature in 30 years,” he said. “Look at the Chamber of Commerce job kills list — every measure on it was defeated except the increase in the minimum wage...”

There is reason to think that changes in legislative behavior might get more pronounced with turnover and as incumbent legislators who have not faced competitive elections before begin confronting a more competitive electoral landscape.

“We can already see that these reforms are improving the function of the Legislature and forcing people to come out of their partisan boxes and talk to the broader electorate,” said Sam Blakeslee, head of the California Reform Institute and a former Republican member of the Assembly. “We’re seeing, almost against the odds, a more centrist Legislature, at least when it comes to jobs and budget issues.”
Yes, I'm sure that Republican Sam Blakeslee would prefer to give credit for the state's successes to "reforms" rather than to his own party's being utterly relegated to the sidelines. And I'm sure the conservative "Democrat" who pushed the terrible top-two system on everyone while celebrating the positions of the Chamber of Commerce would be pleased to do likewise.

But that doesn't make it true. The painfully obvious truth is that, as Hullabaloo veteran Dave Dayen notes, California is succeeding because we threw obstructionist Republicans overboard and gave total control of the state's executive and legislative apparatus to Democrats. Even Adam Nagourney must be able to see that.

But Nagourney has an agenda he clearly needs to push--journalistic standards be damned.


Update: see also this excellent takedown by Seth Masket.
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