At Most, Larry Elder is the Next Bruce Rauner
by Benjamin Studebaker
As California Governor Gavin Newsom desperately tries to save himself from being recalled, he’s resorted to the same set of tactics Joe Biden used to silence left-wing dissent in 2020. Californians are now told, over and over, that the leading Republican challenger, Larry Elder, is the next Trump, that he poses some kind of existential threat not just to California but to the whole country. Anyone who votes to recall is helping the authoritarian right. Anyone who runs as a Democrat in the recall election is encouraging more Californians to vote to recall Newsom, and that makes it more likely that a Republican will win. They’re using a “threat inflation” strategy. If Californians believe Larry Elder poses an existential threat to them, they will line up behind Newsom no matter how incompetent he is, no matter how poorly he administers the state. The trouble is, it’s just not true. Larry Elder is not the next Trump. He’s the next Bruce Rauner.
Remember Bruce Rauner? In Illinois, in 2014, a businessman named Bruce Rauner was elected governor. Rauner admired Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and hoped to lead Illinois down the same path. He wanted to cut taxes on the rich, gut the unions, and slash spending on public services. His budgets were nightmares for Illinois’ public sector. The end was nigh!
Or, so it seemed. The thing is, Illinois’ state legislature was still in the hands of the Democrats. The Dems had more than 60% of the seats in both the House and the Senate. They were led by Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, an ancient machine politician with an acute understanding of the state’s sordid political underbelly. This made things difficult for Rauner.
Madigan was sly. He’d sit back and wait for Rauner to propose his budgets, allowing them to receive piles of negative media attention. Then he’d ignore Rauner’s proposals and pass his own budgets. Rauner used his veto. The result was a lengthy budget crisis, lasting 793 days. From July 2015 to August 2017, the state remained without a budget, with government departments getting by on a combination of credit and emergency spending bills. The Illinois Supreme Court forced the state to continue to pay its employees and fund its departments. It did not permit a government shutdown.
In 2017, the Illinois state legislature finally slammed the budget through, overriding Rauner’s veto. Even some Republicans voted for Madigan’s budget, just to put themselves out of their misery. Broken and defeated by Madigan, Rauner was annihilated in 2018, losing re-election by almost 15 points. Today the Democrats have even more seats in the Illinois state legislature than they had before Rauner was elected. There is one change–Madigan was subject to more public scrutiny, and he was eventually forced to resign in the face of mounting evidence of corruption. The Illinois Democratic machine is now led by new faces and has a new lease on life.
The Democratic Party is even more powerful in California than it is in Illinois. In California, the Democrats have 75% of the seats in both the Assembly and the Senate. They are perfectly capable of shunting legislation past Larry Elder’s vetoes. What’s more, because this is a recall election, Elder would not be entitled to a full term as governor. He’d still have to stand for re-election in 2022. That’s just a year away! Bruce Rauner had four years to ruin Illinois. His Democratic opponents had just 60% of the seats. And Rauner still failed, and the Democrats still dominate Illinois. Elder would have just one year, against a Democratic caucus that is far stronger. Rauner had the backing a united Illinois Republican Party. But the Californian Republican Party is fielding piles of candidates, with many niche factions voting for many minor figures. If Elder wins, he’ll probably receive little more than a quarter of the vote.
The California Democratic Party could use fresh faces. It doesn’t benefit from sticking with Newsom, who runs an administration already hampered by mistakes, who is already controversial enough to face a recall. Why, then, are the Democrats trying so hard to save this guy?
I suspect it’s because the national party believes a defeat in this recall election would be embarrassing. It would be, and it should be! Newsom mismanaged the federal unemployment program, giving billions to criminals while allowing legitimate beneficiaries to wait eons for urgently needed benefits. The state’s vaccination roll-out was one of the slowest in the country. He’s allowed California’s high-speed rail project to grind to a halt. He overstated the state’s progress against wildfires dramatically. This is not a person with well-developed administrative skills. He shouldn’t be governing a state, let alone one of California’s importance.
Newsom’s defeat would be a wake-up call for the Democratic Party. But no Berniecrats have come forward to seize this opportunity. The left in California is so deferential to corporate Democrats that all of the major players in the state are unwilling to do anything which might allow a Republican to “govern” California, even for a mere year. Newsom has become a liability for both the Democratic Party and the left more broadly, with which he is inevitably associated. But no one will challenge him except for the Republicans. There aren’t even any major declared Democratic primary challengers for the 2022 race.
This is a wasted electoral opportunity for the left. It has been seized on by the right, but because the right is so weak in the state legislature, the right won’t be able to do anything with it. If Newsom is recalled, Elder will be even less effective than Rauner. The Democrats will be embarrassed, but they’ll still run the show. There’s no existential threat here.
If Newsom sticks around, the Democrats will fear their opponents even less than they already do, and the left’s political leverage will only continue to decline.
I went on Henok Elias’ show to discuss this argument. You can see it here: