Sorry, Fresno. You're just a sacrificial lamb in all this.
It may not be big news in national politics, but California actually has a gubernatorial election this cycle. Incumbent Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who has overseen California's emergence from the Great Recession, is being challenged by business-friendly Republican Neel Kashkari, who is perhaps best known for working for Goldman Sachs and overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program under both the Bush and Obama administrations. Kashkari, who has never held elected office before, earned a spot on the top-two general election ballot after a bruising fight with the ultra-conservative but significantly underfunded state assemblymember, Tim Donnelly.
This battle for the right to lose to Jerry Brown was widely seen as a referendum on the future of the Republican Party, at least in California. One one hand, there was Neel Kashkari: the son of South Asian immigrants, moderate on hot-button social issues, and focused on conservative, pro-business economic policies. Donnelly, by contrast, is a border-patrolling minuteman who was arrested for trying to bring loaded guns onto an airplane, and race-baited Kashkari by claiming that he supported fundamentalist Islamic law. Donnelly earned the vast bulk of grassroots Republican support, but Kashkari had better fundraising and far more support from establishment figures, and prevailed.
No independent prognosticator believes, however, that Kashkari has any shot at unseating Brown. The incumbent dominates current polling and has high favorability ratings, even among Republicans—mainly because of the economic recovery the state has experienced during Brown's tenure. To try to even the odds, Kashkari pulled his latest campaign stunt. In an effort to gain some media traction and poke a hole in Brown's narrative of recovery, Kashkari spent a week posing as a homeless, unemployed man in California's economically depressed Central Valley, and penned a piece on his experience in the Wall Street Journal.
More below the fold.
Now, Kashkari merits some plaudits for doing what most Republicans cannot bring themselves to do: attempt to gain a new perspective by seeking to understand the plight of the poor. The Ayn Rand faction of the Republican Party would do well to heed his message that the poor don't want to be poor, but that circumstance often leave them few options. But Kashkari's proposed policy solutions show that he is so myopically wedded to conservative economic orthodoxy that he learned nothing from his experience.
I walked for hours and hours in search of a job, giving me a lot of time to think. Five days into my search, hungry, tired and hot, I asked myself: What would solve my problems? Food stamps? Welfare? An increased minimum wage?
No. I needed a job. Period. Like others, I have often said the best social program in the world is a good job. Even though my homeless trek was only for a week, with a defined endpoint, that statement became much more real for me. A job was the one thing that could have solved my food, housing and transportation problems.
Kashkari had the luxury of having his "homeless trek" only last a week. But multi-millionaires who don't have a gubernatorial campaign or a lucrative position on Wall Street to go back to afterward aren't so fortunate. For the proud people Kashkari met in Fresno who are looking for work as hard as he claims to have, those food stamps and those welfare checks are the only things that keep them fed and sheltered, as opposed to sleeping on the park benches that Kashkari was unfortunate enough to enjoy. And as for the minimum wage? If Kashkari had landed a minimum wage job and actually needed that job to support himself, he might be singing a different tune. What good is working fulltime, after all, if you can't make enough money to afford to live?
Ultimately, though, it's true: good employment is a better salve than a social program. The irony? Kashkari is substantially basing his campaign on opposing California's high-speed rail plan, which would start in the Central Valley and bring tens of thousands of jobs to the area for years to come. Instead, Kashkari advocates for the failed supply side solutions of tax cuts and elimination of regulations. Can Kashkari point to a single regulation that was preventing him from getting a job in Fresno? Likely not. Would any employers he contacted have hired him if only their taxes were slashed, as opposed to keeping the change? Also not likely.
Kashkari is right: the Central Valley needs jobs. But the contrast between the progressive and the conservative visions for how to accomplish this could not be more clear. The progressive vision is to spend money on badly needed infrastructure jobs that will not only support the economy in the short term, but create long-lasting development down the road and improve society as a whole. The conservative vision is to give more money away in tax cuts to those who need it the least in the supposed hopes of indirectly enticing employers to hire, even as public infrastructure crumbles.
Kashkari views himself and his campaign as the way forward for a new brand of Republican campaign strategy, but when the rubber meets the road, all he can propose is the same set of tired, top-down, supply side economic ideas that have been proven ineffective at every turn. And in another irony, he may have significantly hurt the best chance Republicans have of claiming a statewide office in California: the Republican mayor of Fresno, Ashley Swearengin, is in the runoff against progressive Democratic Board of Equalization member Betty Yee in the race for State Controller. It certainly doesn't help Swearengin to have the top of the Republican ticket in California essentially trashing her economic stewardship of the city.
California began its resurgence once the voters gave Democrats a supermajority in the legislature and elected only Democrats to statewide office. This allowed us to pass on-time balanced budgets, rebuild our gutted social safety net, fund our schools again, and get started on badly needed public infrastructure projects. Kashkari's stunt in Fresno proves that Republicans still haven't learned their lesson about how to manage an economy.
See Hunter's treatment of the topic here, replete with a campaign video.