News & Views from 465 California Street


Clint Reilly

Voters say they want leaders who have the courage to take unpopular stands. But election results often prove otherwise. Leaders who advocate out-of-favor positions are often defeated. Leadership conjures the image of the Old Testament prophet who goes out ahead of a wandering people and finds the way to a safe haven. The leader travels in front guiding the way. In fact, political leaders follow their constituents.

The modern science of political research enables politicians to poll voters in order to ascertain their views on any subject. Focus groups pre-test speeches, television commercials, programs and policies. Finely honed solutions are calculated to appeal to constituents – not jolt them with unwanted medicine. Political marketers, like brand marketers for consumer products, create messages for their clients that are carefully calibrated to avoid sparking disagreement.

In the 1984 Presidential election, nominee Walter Mondale violated this cardinal rule when he called for new taxes in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in San Francisco. I was present at Moscone Center that day and I immediately knew the election was over. Though Mondale thought he would be lauded as a leader for prescribing the tough medicine America needed to balance the budget, President Ronald Reagan turned Mondale’s promise into proof that he was nothing more than a tax and spend liberal. In California’s gubernatorial race in 2006, Democratic nominee Phil Angelides made his own promise to raise taxes to put the State’s fiscal house in order. As Treasurer, Angelides was an expert on California’s public finances. I am sure Angelides surmised that his against-the-grain appraisal would be interpreted as an act of leadership. But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger denounced the Treasurer as fiscally irresponsible. Angelides sank in the polls. In the June 1978 California Primary Election, both Governor Jerry Brown and Proposition 13 – Howard Jarvis’s legendary initiative that capped California property taxes – were on the ballot. The political establishment, including Governor Brown, heavily opposed Proposition 13 with an expensive media campaign. Political commercials carried the message “If Proposition 13 passes, California will face Armageddon-like consequences. Police stations, fire stations, schools, colleges will close. Vital services will be disrupted”. Governor Brown led the opposition. When Proposition 13 passed overwhelmingly in June, Brown reversed his position. By the November General Election, Brown had become a staunch advocate for implementing Proposition 13. He decisively defeated his Republican opponent, Attorney General Evelle Younger. Brown learned quickly that following public opinion, rather than leading it, was the wiser political course. Twenty-nine years later, master politician Jerry Brown is the Attorney General of California and today’s polls say he is the Democratic frontrunner for Governor in 2010.

It is often a misnomer that acts of political leadership imply courage. We say that Senator Barbara Boxer takes courageous stands. In fact how much courage is required to be against the Iraq War in a state where over 60% of the voters are strongly against the war? How much gravitas does it take to be against Global Warming when California is a leading environmental state? Boxer’s thin record of accomplishment is a better test of her ineffectiveness as a leader than loud rhetorical stands which do nothing more than echo the majority view without effecting substantive change.

I am increasingly convinced that politicians are rarely the real leaders in our society. Leaders are those outside the political system who are unencumbered by the need to appease multiple interest groups. Leaders are free to define problems as they are and visualize ideal solutions. Leaders create consensus for a broad reform agenda. Leaders can be advocacy organizations like the Sierra Club or a civic watchdog like a newspaper editorial board. The best politicians follow these leaders and forge compromises between opposing forces that move the world forward one baby step at a time.

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