California "Always" Liberal? Ross Douthat Must Be Dreaming

In yesterday's New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat accuses President Obama of "pushing a blue-state agenda during a recession that’s exposed some of the blue-state model’s weaknesses, and some of the red-state model’s strengths."

Asking readers to consider California, which he places against the stellar conservative governance of Texas, Douthat notes:

California, always liberalism's favorite laboratory, was passing global-warming legislation, pouring billions into stem-cell research, and seemed to be negotiating its way toward universal health care.

(his link points to a Time article about Arnold Schwarzenegger's work in this area, who, last I checked, has an R and a 28 percent in state approval rating next to his name)

While California is undoubtedly a national leader in trends of all stripes, understanding the legacy of California governance as being "liberalism's favorite laboratory," couldn't be more wrong. The reasons for California's epic struggles lie, not in the "always liberalism" that Douthat sees, but instead in the Ronald Reagan conservative tax revolt coming home to roost.

In contrast to, say, California's efforts on energy policy, which research shows have created prosperity in the state over the last generation, the tax revolt defining Proposition 13 destroyed a top notch public schools system and, more recently, rendered the state bankrupt. The 1978 ballot initiative, which capped property taxes and mandated a 2/3 rule for the state legislature to pass a budget, has created a structural shortfall in the state budget and a political inability for legislators to craft a solution -- but Douthat doesn't see fit to mention it.

Conservatives love to argue that California has incredibly high tax rates, and, in the case of some specific taxes, that's true. But that's only because Proposition 13 so drastically lowered property taxes as to necessitate raising taxes to compensate for lost revenue. As Ezra Klein, in discussing Robert Samuelson's op-ed on California (which, like Douthat's piece, conspicuously fails to mention Prop 13), notes this morning:

Total state and local taxes take up 11.73 percent of the average Californian's income. The national average is 11.23 percent. And it's been like that for many years:


Far from being "always" liberal, California's electoral votes were supposed to be safe for Reagan's Republicans, giving them a generational lock on the White House. Here again, California was ahead of the nation, this time in discovering that conservatives couldn't govern and is now as deep blue as the Pacific Ocean.

Now that the nation has learned its lesson from eight years of red-state governance under Douthat's vaunted Texas leadership, America followed California, this time for the better, in overwhelmingly rejecting failed conservative governance. Blue-staters (a lot of folks these days) have only had six months on the job after eight years of botched "red-state" governance. It will be a lot longer than that if conservatives like Douthat can't even figure out where they went wrong; Proposition 13 was certainly one of the first places.

Update: Ezra Klein just blogged on Douthat's column as well. He does a nice job taking down the argument that Texas is a good model for anything and the broader red-blue frame that Douthat tries to use.