California Democrats Need Real Opposition

A Book By a Leading Republican Demonstrates the State’s Lack of a Counter-Narrative

California Democrats need real competition—not Republicans like John Cox—to pressure them to deliver on their progressive promises, writes columnist Joe Mathews. John Cox in 2021. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

In our era of one-party rule by complacent Democrats, California might benefit from a coherent and compelling political opposition.

Instead, we keep getting John Cox.

You probably don’t recognize Cox’s name. This goes to the heart of the problem.

Cox, a businessman and former congressional and Republican presidential candidate from Illinois who moved to the San Diego area more than a decade ago, has been the most prominent opponent of ruling Democrats during their 14 years and counting of total political control in the Capitol.

Cox spent millions of dollars running twice against Gov. Gavin Newsom—losing to the governor in 2018’s regularly scheduled election and again in the 2021 recall. Over the past dozen years, Cox has also proposed provocative and attention-grabbing ballot measures, including initiatives to increase the size of the legislature, limit gas taxes, and force elected officials to wear the names of their top donors on their clothing.

None of Cox’s initiatives passed. And he made no lasting impact on political debate, much less the actual governance of this state.

He recently wrote a book that, mostly unintentionally, demonstrates why.

The Newsom Nightmare: The California Catastrophe and How to Reform Our Broken System, published late last year, pulls back the curtain to offer some insider takes on California politics. Cox details, for example, how talk show host Larry Elder’s entry into the 2021 recall race, with the support of the politically toxic Donald Trump, hurt any chance of a Newsom recall passing by allowing the governor “to make Elder, along with the former president, the face of the recall and shift the debate from Newsom’s failures.”

Cox recounts scandals over regulating the utility PG&E, which the state bailed out even after it killed people in fires and a gas explosion. And he offers vignettes of California small businesspeople and mid-level officials frustrated by the overregulation and official secrecy of a state that is great at many things—but not governance.

But like so much of the political conversation in our state, Cox’s book doesn’t add up to very much. Cox offers no future-focused opposition narrative that would pressure Democrats to improve their performance or create public demand to cast them out of office.

The bigger problem is that Cox can’t elucidate what a California opposition could stand for.

Maddeningly, Cox clearly understands the perils of an absent opposition. “Having a single-party supermajority govern every branch of government throws the checks and balances crucial to representative democracy off kilter. It renders democracy impotent,” he writes.

And he correctly points out structural problems in the governing system that give power to rich and powerful people and interest groups. He shows how California legislative districts are so big—by far the most populous of any in the U.S.—that every lawmaker must raise millions to run for office. He details a “pay to play” campaign finance system that allows businesses, unions, and rich people with state contracts to give money to the very same lawmakers who make financial decisions. And he recounts how the outsized power of donors prevents Californians from turning their grand ambitions and good intentions for better education, health care, and housing into reality.

“The key to solving these problems,” he writes, “is to fashion solutions that reflect good practice and policy, forged by intelligent and well-thought-out tradeoffs, that have the effect of helping the vast majority of our people rather than favoring a narrow interest or group.”

But you’ll read in vain for a detailed Cox proposal full of well-thought-out tradeoffs or compromises on major issues. And that’s not the only contradiction in the book. Cox rightly bemoans the politics of personal attacks—personality and cultural wars distract us from deeper problems. Yet he still chose The Newsom Nightmare as his title.

The bigger problem is that Cox can’t elucidate what a California opposition could stand for. His book is all over the place—there’s Ronald Reagan nostalgia, blasts at local bureaucracy, contradictory calls both for tougher regulation and lighter regulation of business, and a bunch of word salad about immigration that might only make sense to frequent Fox News viewers.

There’s also a confusing ending about the national peril of what Cox calls “Californication,” which seems to be about many things but does not have anything to do with an old David Duchovny series about sex in our state.

Cox does draw some blood when he writes about the abusive tactics of trial lawyers and the distorting power of the state’s public employee unions, which saddle government budgets with unsustainable pensions. But he never offers a clear solution to the tricky question of how to take away benefits that are legally guaranteed.

He also takes a few swipes at his own party but doesn’t explain how someone might bring Republicans back to relevance in California.

Cox’s failures of coherence wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that there is another gubernatorial election scheduled for 2026. And already, a half-dozen Democratic politicians—all with long experience in politics and little record of governing success—appear to be running for the office.

There is, as of yet, no clear opponent to these insider Democrats. And there is no one offering a clear prescription for how to change California’s structure so that people in our progressive state finally get the progressive solutions they’ve been promised—higher wages, high-quality healthcare, stronger schools, and affordable housing.

Perhaps someone will step forward to provide real opposition and offer a compelling vision for how to fix the state’s broken governing system and deliver more and better services.

Or perhaps Californians who want a change will be stuck with someone like John Cox, again.


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