The Tea Party’s Political Storm
Adam Nagourney has been writing extensively about California politics for the New York Times for a few years now. Usually he makes good insights, but sometimes he misses the point entirely. His article yesterday on California high speed rail falls into the latter category.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California is riding into an election year on a wave of popularity and an upturn in the state’s fortunes. But a project that has become a personal crusade for him over the past two years — a 520-mile high-speed train line from Los Angeles to San Francisco — is in trouble, reeling from a court ruling that undermined its financing, and from slipping public support and opponents’ rising calls to shut it down.
This overstates the case – HSR is not in serious political jeopardy, and as the articles goes on to note leaders in the Legislature continue to support it. But more importantly, it gets the story backward. The “rising calls to shut it down” are coming from Tea Party members of Congress, who have blocked new federal funding and set in motion the court case that Nagourney is responding to (though he is wrong to suggest that the ruling “undermined its financing”).
The main problem is that Nagourney casts Republican opposition as a reaction to the project’s problems, rather than its cause:
“It’s time for the governor to pull up the tracks,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, who is the majority whip in the House. “Everything he has said has not come to fruition. It’s time to scratch the project.”…
“I don’t see them getting any more money from the federal government,” Mr. McCarthy said. “I don’t see $9 billion to build it from California taxpayers, and I don’t see them getting any private investment.”
The only reason “everything he has said has not come to fruition” is because of McCarthy’s own actions. He is not a bystander or a pundit, he is actively working to destroy the project. He is the reason why the federal government won’t give any more money, and he began this anti-HSR crusade as soon as his party got the majority in the House in 2011, well before any of these recent “problems” emerged.
This is an unwanted complication for Mr. Brown, a Democrat, as he enters what otherwise looks to be an easy bid for a second term, assuming he decides to run again. Republicans are united against the project and say they will use it to undercut Mr. Brown’s effort to present himself as a moderate and fiscally prudent check on the Democrat-controlled State Legislature.
A U.S.C. Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey of California voters taken in September, before the latest adverse court ruling, found that 52 percent of respondents wanted the project canceled. Just 43 percent continued to support it. The initiative was approved in 2008 with the support of 52 percent of voters.
Let’s be clear: Brown is in no danger whatsoever of losing his bid for re-election. It won’t even be close. And we can go further and say that HSR won’t be a factor in the race. In 2012 Republicans tried to use HSR against California Democrats and failed in each race it was tried. Those poll numbers aren’t great, but it represents a fairly small swing from the 2008 election.
It’s also important to keep these issues in perspective. Building a piece of major transportation infrastructure is never easy, as Rod Diridon points out:
“We’ve talked about the Golden Gate Bridge having 2,300 different lawsuits against it at one time,” Mr. Diridon said. “Big projects tend to have problems. I think it’s going to go. It may not even be delayed.”
That’s a reasonable point to make and indicates that the “political storm” HSR is facing is more of a common winter rain than a hurricane.
Sadly, Nagourney gives the last word to McCarthy, who again is allowed to talk like a pundit rather than the chief reason for the HSR system’s woes. The reader doesn’t get the true story, then, which is that Tea Party members of the House have waged an ideological war against California HSR which is causing all sorts of problems for the project.
What would have been interesting is if Nagourney had written about the discussions of having California go it alone in funding the project. He has written in the past about California’s divergent political path from the rest of the country, and so you’d think that angle would appeal to him. Instead he wrote a story that ignored the Tea Party’s role in creating the problems in the first place.