Last week, when California governor Jerry Brown vetoed the most noxious bill in a large package of gun-control legislation, many conservatives rejoiced. For the moment, at least, Brown seems to be the best friend Golden State Republicans have—which says a lot about the GOP’s position in a state where Democrats control every constitutional office and supermajorities in both legislative houses. But it’s also a testament to a governor who manages to confound his friends and critics alike. He’s clearly not as far to the left as most of his fellow Democrats. Yet Brown is no moderate, either.

Brown still hews to the “canoe theory of politics,” which he articulated during his first stint as governor three decades ago: he paddles a little to the left, then a little to the right. The latest evidence—from his 800 bill signings and 96 vetoes—shows that he paddles left a great deal more than right, but Brown’s rightward strokes earn him a surprising amount of goodwill from Republicans, who would otherwise have little reason to like him. In vetoing Senate Bill 374, the gun-control bill that sought to ban the sale of semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines and mandate the registration of such existing weapons, Brown included this statement: “The state of California already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, including bans on military-style assault rifles and high capacity ammunition magazines.” The National Rifle Association made stopping the bill a priority, and Brown’s lingo sounded as if it could have been written by the pro-gun group. Yet he also signed 11 gun-control bills, including one that would eventually ban the use of lead ammunition—which gun-rights activists see as an assault on hunting and a possible attempt to ban bullets altogether, given that federal law already heavily regulates non-lead ammo. But his SB 374 veto earned Brown new respect from beleaguered Republicans and a nasty rebuke from Democratic state senate leader Darrell Steinberg, who sponsored the bill.

In another rightward stroke, Brown vetoed a bill that would have reinvigorated the state’s “inclusionary-housing” rules, which require developers to set some housing aside at below-market prices for low-income buyers. The rules have not been actively in force since a complex 2007 state appellate court ruling threw the process into disarray. In his veto message, Brown cited his experience as mayor of Oakland more than a decade ago and displayed a savvy free-market understanding of why such laws make it harder to attract development to low- and middle-income neighborhoods.

When it came to union priorities, however, Brown paddled hard to the left again. He signed a bill that would strip charter cities of state funding if they don’t pay union-mandated prevailing wages, thus undermining one of the key ways cities can control escalating labor costs. He signed bills mandating overtime pay for domestic workers and authorizing pay hikes for state workers. He even signed a bill that makes it nearly impossible to remove or discipline police officers whom district attorneys have found to be dishonest or corrupt. Yet even here, Brown made a few course-correcting strokes. He vetoed a ridiculous bill that would have made it easier for state workers who disappear from work without supervisors’ permission to demand their jobs back. And he vetoed a teachers’ union-backed bill that pretended to streamline the process of firing sexually abusive teachers, but which actually made it harder to get rid of such creeps.

On immigration, Brown stroked hard to his starboard side—with some key exceptions. The governor signed a bill that stops localities from handing over illegal immigrants to federal authorities when they are being held for minor offenses. He also signed a bill giving illegals California state drivers’ licenses—albeit ones with a “marker” distinguishing them from other licenses. State officials will need to determine in coming months what the marker will look like. Yet Brown vetoed a bill that would have allowed legal immigrants to serve on juries, saying, “Jury service, like voting, is quintessentially a prerogative and responsibility of citizenship. This bill would permit lawful permanent residents who are not citizens to serve on a jury. I don’t think that’s right.”

Brown outraged fiscal conservatives by hiking the minimum wage and extending some vehicle license fees for another eight years. Yet he similarly confounded environmentalists by signing legislation to permit but regulate hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Greens wanted an outright ban on the practice, which involves shooting water at extremely high pressure into shale formations to release the oil and gas trapped inside. The state’s oil industry was reasonably pleased at the outcome.

But Brown made little progress dismantling the state’s $848 billion “wall of debt.” He won a massive tax increase from voters last year and pressured the legislature to refrain from raising income taxes further. Yet the governor never used his political capital to push for reforms to the state’s horrifically underfunded pension system or to make any fundamental reforms in a state with much higher service costs—and lower-quality services—than most other states.

The bottom line is that Brown remains firmly in the liberal camp, but he tends to resist the worst inclinations of the Democratic Left. However one assesses his paddling, Brown seems unlikely to push hard for the kind of long-term tax and debt reforms California needs to jump-start its economy and rebuild a stable middle class. In a recent interview, former Reagan economist Art Laffer told me how much he likes Brown. But the main issue—for California and elsewhere—remains the state’s punitive tax structure. It is so “progressive,” Laffer explained, that it seems designed to squelch growth. Meaningful reforms will apparently have to wait for California’s next governor. Unfortunately, the leading candidates waiting for Brown to paddle into the political sunset offer policies that would only make things worse.


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