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Zen and art of political machine maintenance
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Jerry Brown has a secret plan to balance the California state budget. When the state attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial nominee recently visited the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board, he brought with him a large three-ring binder with his ideas on how to bring state spending back into the black. But he wouldn't tell us what was in the book.

I asked him what he, as governor, would do that state employee labor unions, which are spending millions to get him elected, won't like. He answered, "Well, I'm certainly not going to tell you now."

And: "I'm not going to reveal my negotiating strategy now. I'm going to try to push everybody together." 

Also: "The next governor has to be an honest broker, somebody that people feel is being straight and is talking to them in a real way. I think I can do that."

This is talking in a real way? Trying to figure out what Brown means is like trying to decipher the Da Vinci Code. 

When Editorial Page Editor John Diaz asked what tough calls Brown was willing to make, he answered, "There's only a process that will lead us to where we're going."

When Diaz asked how Brown might want to change Proposition 13, Brown said he had no plans to change it in his notebook. But: "The way I would put it is everything is on the table and everyone's at the table."

Brown is the first candidate for governor in memory who is running for office on no platform so that he can be elected with no mandate.

I have criticized GOP gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman for putting out a glossy 48-page platform that makes the $15 billion in her proposed "spending reductions" appear too easy. For example, while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been struggling to furlough and lay off state workers, Whitman proposes "voluntary retirements" to vacate 40,000 positions over four years. Call it no-pain austerity.

At least if Whitman wins, the Legislature will understand that voters have spoken and that they want Sacramento to shave the size of state government. What will they think if Brown is elected?

Spokesman Sterling Clifford explained Brown's position-lite approach this way: "The reason that there's a logjam in Sacramento is not for a lack of ideas, but a lack of willingness to compromise. Everyone comes in with rock-solid positions they won't move on."

But if Brown goes to Sacramento with practically no positions, Sacto pols are likely to conclude that they can smush him like a cupcake.

Or they might conclude, as Whitman spokesperson Andrea Jones Rivera put it, Brown "has a plan — it is to maintain the status quo in Sacramento."

To be fair, Brown has doled out a few specifics. He says he opposes tax increases unless the voters approve them. He wants to raise employees' share of pension contributions and end pension "spiking." These are hardly earth-shaking positions, however, given that six state employee unions already have agreed to these changes.

Brown also told the paper that he would begin corralling lawmakers and interested parties into budget talks as soon as he was elected.

"I'm talking about hundreds and hundreds of hours" of meetings, he explained, in order to "charm" — if he does say so himself — "and engage and listen." By March 15, he would expect to have a consensus and a measure that would meet the deadline for a special election. The idea presents "the only path forward."

Problem: Schwarzenegger tried a similar gambit in 2005, when he put three measures on the ballot designed to reform government and endorsed a fourth. Voters overwhelmingly rejected all four propositions; the difference is that the governator bypassed the Legislature, but many no-voters said they resented being asked to do the job they sent politicians to Sacramento to do.

After he lost at the ballot box, Schwarzenegger found himself in the race, but out of gas. 

So Team Guru already is walking back that brainstorm. Thursday, quoth Clifford, "The pathway is to work toward a legislative agreement first."

That's a relief — but Brown has not walked back enough. He says that he won't raises taxes unless voters approve them. He no doubt wants voters to believe that means he won't raise taxes.

Do not be fooled. Voters rejected last year's ballot measure — approved by the Legislature and the governor — that included modest (if painful) broad-based tax increases, but they'll always go for sin taxes, taxes on other (richer) people, evil corporations and levies promising to fund pet causes. Brown's voter-approval pledge is a promise of dysfunction.

In Jerry-ese, you could say: "That is not a viable way to get from where we are to where we have to go." Or as he also told the Chronicle, "There's no way forward, except leadership."

Then again, there's always lack thereof.

E-mail Debra J. Saunders at