If "moonbeam" was the light source most associated with Gov. Jerry Brown's first go-round as California's chief executive, the hallmark of his 21st century governorship has been something entirely different: a laser beam.
Perhaps more than any other politician in America, Brown has been able to control his own agenda by publicly focusing on one issue at a time, resisting most politicians' inherent urge to become distracted by the headline-grabbing issue of the day.
For instance, while many Democratic governors very publicly championed the cause of stronger gun-control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings last December, Brown let that opportunity pass.
Although California legislators have reacted by putting together a package of gun-violence bills that are expected to pass in the next week or so, Brown has been almost completely silent on the issue.
In his State of the State address just six weeks after the tragedy, Brown said not a word of it.
He has focused -- yes, like a laser beam -- on just two issues: first, getting California's financial house in order, and second, reforming the state's school finance system to provide more resources to students who face the greatest educational challenges.
And on those fronts, in no small part because of his singular focus, he has largely succeeded.
In 2011, against great odds, he persuaded lawmakers to abolish local redevelopment agencies that were draining property taxes away from schools, forcing the state general fund to make up the difference.
In 2012, he helped to persuade voters to approve Proposition 30, a temporary tax increase that, along with budget cuts he and lawmakers approved, put the state budget back in the black.
This year, he won his battle to reform school financing.
To be sure, there have been some slight detours. He spent some political capital last year to keep the state's high-speed rail plans on track. And he has provided strong hints that he intends to next direct his laser focus on a big-ticket water project.
In the next two weeks, however, Brown's laser approach to governing will be severely tested. A major issue has emerged, one with a mirror strong enough to deflect Brown's focus because it shines the light of public attention directly upon it.
The issue is California's intractable prison problem.
Brown fired his laser at that earlier this year, proclaiming that the state's prison emergency had ended and asking the federal courts to return control of the prisons back to the state. What he discovered is that federal judges and the U.S. Supreme Court do not blink when a mere governor shines his light upon them.
He now faces a Dec. 31 deadline to reduce the state's prison population by about 9,000 to comply with the court's order to relieve overcrowding. Last week, he proposed spending more than $1 billion over the next three years to simply rent space in private prisons in and out of California to create more capacity.
Brown can expect strong pushback from the public. It would mean taking Proposition 30 revenues that voters expected would be spent on schools and spending them on prisons instead. Polls consistently show that voters place their lowest priority for state spending on prisons -- and that most Californians already believe their state spends more on prisons than on schools.
The alternative, as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has suggested, is to sit down with the plaintiffs in the prison lawsuit and try to negotiate a settlement that could persuade the court to extend the deadline to reach its mandated population cap and to also fund rehabilitative programs designed to reduce the high rate of recidivism that is largely responsible for the crowded conditions.
It's possible, but unlikely, that Brown and Steinberg are playing a sophisticated game of good cop, bad cop with the prison litigants. If Brown's plan is approved, the plaintiffs will have won their battle to address overcrowding, but lost the war to achieve lasting improvements in the California prison system.
As long as the governor's plan is on the table, the plaintiffs have every motivation to work out a settlement.
Brown would be best served by putting aside his anger with the courts and not allowing it to disrupt the Yoda-like discipline he has applied so far in his second stint as governor. His best course may be to lay down his lightsaber, settle this issue as efficiently and inexpensively as possible, and regain control of his focused agenda.