Archive for 2011



Press Clips: Sartre & Beckett vs. Krusty & Hobbes

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Top Calbuzz executives assigned our Department of Belle-Lettres and Ersatz Erudition the most pressing, mission critical job of the week: finding a literary reference to best describe the California Doomsday Scenario.

As the on-again-off-again closed door negotiations between Pope Jerry and Republican Capitol bishoprics  kept flickering, it became clearer by the hour that if their talks collapsed, the state was headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.

If, as our sources insist, the governor simply won’t countenance a Democrat-only solution to get his tax extension plan on the ballot, the specter looming over Sacramento, should Republicans stiff him, is that he’ll next put forth a cuts-only fiscal plan, which his party’s lawmakers will never accept, leaving the whole shtunk exactly…nowhere…

And so: What story, what narrative, what metaphor can our fine-writing-done-cheap trolls employ to cut to the chase in labeling this dreadful state of affairs – and that also fits in the headline?

Due consideration, of course, was paid to Sartre’s “No Exit” (“Hell is other people”), to Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” (“Nothing to be done”) and, not least, “Ghostbusters II” (“Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! 40 years of darkness! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”)

And then, amid much mulling, what you like to call your Jesuit-trained governor came up with the answer himself: Leviathan.

Krusty’s elegant bookish solution surfaced in a conversation with our friend George Skelton, who churned out the most enterprising budget story of the week. While others in the Sacramento press corps kept writing the same process story (we name no names -  there’d be too many) Skelton captured the Little Pulitzer for Best Political Commentary That Includes Food.

Scoring the first substantive interview with the governor since the inauguration, George covered all the bases: 1) finagling his way inside Jerry and Anne’s loft, 2) copping a free turkey and cheese sandwich (and crucially, working the food into the story; 3) winning some face time with Sutter. All that plus, characteristically, asking Brown the key question: what does the future hold in the not-unlikely event you can’t reach a compromise with the GOP?

Events will unfold like this, (Brown) predicts without hesitation, if the Legislature fails to muster the required two-thirds majority vote … “I put up an all-cuts budget” … Then the Democrats change [the all-cuts budget] and put in gimmicks. Then I veto it. Then everybody sits there until we run out of money. It’s not going to be a pretty sight. It’s like one-two: No tax, all cuts, gimmicky budget, veto, paralysis.”

“It’ll be a war of all against all,” Brown added.

Or, as we say around the newsroom: “Bellum omnium contra omnes.”

Enclosed by the temporal boundaries of space and time in his (print is dead) column, Skelton unfortunately lacked the breathing room to fully explicate Brown’s classical reference. No worries – that’s who we are and what we do.

Bellum omnium contra omnes,” as every school child knows, was coined by Thomas Hobbes in 1651, and is pretty much the only thing anyone ever remembers about reading “Leviathan” in Humanities I in freshman year:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Now, we don’t necessarily subscribe to the Hobbesian notion that mankind — in the absence of a powerful central authority — is innately avaricious and self-destructive. But let’s face it: if California can’t get a budget, there will be blood.

Forces on the left will set out to soak the rich, slap taxes on oil drilling and services, split the property tax roll and give communities power to raise taxes with a majority vote. Forces on the right will seek to cap state spending, unravel collective bargaining rights of public employees, slash pensions, eliminate union shops and decimate social services and environmental regulations.

Non belle visus.

That said, Calbuzz does strongly agree with Hobbes on at least one key matter of the human condition:

All generous minds have a horror of what are commonly called ‘Facts.’ They are the brute beasts of the intellectual domain.

Amen, brother.

Furry little monster: Speaking of nasty, brutish and short, Grover Norquist turned up this week in the biggest grandstand play since Terrell Owens stole pom-poms from  cheerleaders for the 49ers.

In a less than dazzling display of political gamesmanship, GOP honcho Ron Nehring trumpeted a letter he’d addressed to Brown, which was scooped up by Costco Carla Marinucci, purporting to invite him to debate the anti-tax tyrant at next weekend’s Republican state convention.

Brown mouthpiece Gil Duran responded with just the right tone, offering to send the aforementioned Sutter to debate the Great Toad Man.

Left   unanswered and unassuaged, however, was Nehring’s pitiable lament that Governor Gandalf was behind a “variety of verbal attacks” heaped on Norquist, as editorialists, columnists and sensitive New Media Guys have recently called him out for threatening retribution to any GOP lawmakers who dare cast a vote allowing people who actually, you know, live in California, to decide the fate of Krusty’s tax plan.

Alarmed by Nehring’s allegation, our Department of Ethical Standards and Cheap Shot Journalism Prophylactics swiftly checked our clips and determined that our recent characterizations of the D.C. demagogue – “nihilist,” “extremist,” “Emperor Nero” – could in no way be construed as “verbal attacks.” Whew.

Recommended further reading: Politico examines a hint of a split between Norquist and some establishment right-wingmen, while Washpost whiz kid socialist Ezra Klein conducts a scrupulously fair Q&A with the porcine provocateur.

ICYMI: What can we say, we’re suckers for a doggie conga line.

How Papal Predeccesors Can Help Pope Jerry I

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Jerry Brown’s recent reliance on religious rhetoric in trying to win Republican support for his tax plan may reflect a belief that his only hope for political salvation lies in the power of prayer.

Or maybe it just means he’s suffering delusions of grandeur.

Some media heretics claim that Brown’s drawing of a comparison between the few Republicans willing to negotiate with him and the Jewish elder Nicodemus means the governor is casting himself in the role of Jesus.

But the Calbuzz College of Cardinals and Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, which has analyzed Brown’s canonical pronouncements more fully than any other news organization, just issued a new encyclical, decreeing that the Jesuit-trained governor’s spouting of sacerdotal language suggests instead that he considers himself the Pope, a point he seemed to make in a recent appearance before legislators:

While expressing disappointment at Republicans who have signed anti-tax pledges, he quipped that as a young seminary student he made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that were later withdrawn.

“It took the Pope to do that, but I want you to know we can set up a process where we can dispense people from pledges,” he said to laughter.

“Any Republican that wants a dispensation, they should come down to my office.”

With compromise-minded GOP senators declaring this week that they are at “impasse” with Brown, we recommend he look closely at the political records of five of the 266 popes in Roman Catholic Church history for some key dos and don’ts about what he should do next:

St. Peter (32-67 AD) - The first pope, and the rock upon which his church was built, Peter found perhaps his greatest success during the years he traveled on populist missionary tours throughout the Mideast and Asia Minor – Antioch, Caesarea,  Galatia, Joppe, Lydda, Pontus, et al. – before ending up in Rome.

It’s a good model for Brown, particularly if Republicans remain stubborn, and he should hit the road – Anaheim, Chowchilla, Grass Valley, Jackson, Larkspur, Pomona, etc. – on behalf of his budget plan, before heading back to Sacramento.

A word of caution: Historians tell us Peter met his earthly fate by being crucified upside down by whack job Emperor Nero; Brown is well advised to avoid  being in the same room as Grover Norquist.

Pope Leo I (440-461) - Leo the Great is known for sustaining and expanding the unity of his church at a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to do; among other accomplishments, he persuaded Attila the Hun to leave Italy, and convinced the Vandals to take it easy on the citizens of Rome.

Like Leo, Brown is faced with restoring stable governance to a state in chaos. His equivalent challenge: chilling out the marauding anti-government Visigoths of the GOP.

Pope-elect Stephen (March 23-26, 752) - A Roman priest, Stephen was elected to succeed Pope Zachary but died just three days later, before he was ordained, of what historians say was apoplexy.

It’s understandable that Brown might go all apoplectic over the budget battle, so he needs to just…breathe…and take an ecumenical dose of Zen  meditation the better to stay on the political pathway to a second term. Plus some friendly Ignatian advice: “Age quod agis” – “Do what you are doing.”

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) – Not-so-Innocent was the first pope to levy an income tax, requiring all clergy to fork over one-fortieth of their pay to help support the Crusades. At first, he promised to return one-fourth of the dough if they paid up willingly and honestly; when some complained that the money was being misused, he cracked down and threatened to excommunicate anyone who tried to short the tax man.

The clear lesson for Brown: he needs to make his case for tax extensions both convincing and clear, and if he manages to get his measure on the ballot, he damn well better explain to voters exactly where their money is going.

Pope Pius IX (1846-78) – The cardinals who voted him in were divided into two factions – conservatives who wished to continue absolutism in church governance, and liberals, who backed moderate reforms; when the deal went down, he won by three (decline-to-state) votes.

Pius started his record-long reign as a strong liberal, but became ever more conservative in later years, as he demonstrated shrewd and savvy political skill on behalf of his church while navigating decades of European revolutionary upheaval and ushering in the dogma of “papal infallibility.”

Like Pius, Brown now trends more conservative than in his liberal salad days. Also like him, the governor needs to win support from independents in order to succeed. In the end, however, it would be a helluva’ lot easier for Brown if he just declared himself infallible and passed whatever budget he damn well pleases.

On a more secular note: With the Gang of Five GOP senators who’ve been meeting with Brown having declared an impasse, while unions representing teachers, firefighters, cops and others urge the Legislature to protect pensions, it’s a 50-50 proposition at best that Brown’s hopes for a June vote on $12 billion in tax and fee extensions will come to pass.

Given that the governor has repeatedly stated he will not go for a majority-vote move to get a measure on the ballot (because it’s likely not legal, not to mention politically suicidal) there are basically three theories about what will happen next in Sacramento :

1. Intransigent Republicans will continue to refuse to offer reasonable options for negotiation on a budget agreement because by saying “no” they get what they want: $26 billion in spending cuts.

This is the “Don’t Throw Me in the Briar Patch” approach that Brown unintentionally invited by saying a) he won’t raise taxes without a vote of the people and b) if he can’t get a vote, the only alternative is an all-cuts budget.

2. Many Republicans (the Gang of Five and others) know that $26 billion in spending cuts would devastate local schools, higher education, public safety, state parks and social services (for which they may be blamed), so they’ll hold out until the last minute, expecting Brown to negotiate with himself by offering ever deeper cuts, pension reforms and spending limitations which they just might go along with after the California Republican Party state convention March 18-20.

3. Declaring talks at an impasse – and Brown’s suggestion that things look bad – are just negotiating tactics and in the next few weeks both sides will bend enough to reach an agreement that the Democrats and their labor, environmental and social allies can accept in place of $12 billion more in cutbacks and that a handful of Republicans — bolstered by chambers of commerce and other business groups — can accept as conservative accomplishments to ward off the right-wing, anti-tax political  jihad.

What will happen? Who will prevail? Will Sutter Brown roll over and present his belly to be stroked? Will Pope Jerry?

Calbuzz sez: a combo of 2) and 3).

The Death and Possible Re-Birth of Negotiation

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Whether or not the dozen California Republican legislators (more than enough for a minyan!) who have refused to join the politically suicidal Taxpayers Caucus are all modern day Pharisees, Gov. Jerry Brown was not far off the mark comparing them to Nicodemus ben Gurion, the prominent Jewish elder who is said to have met with Jesus under cover of night to avoid the risk of ostracism.*

“I’m not going to blow their cover,” Brown said of the individuals he’s been meeting with – those who have declined to drink the Kool Aid being dispensed by the Grover Norquist-inspired Ostrich Phalanx and henchmen, like our pal Jon Fleischman.

The small band of savvy Republicans appear to get that a) they are in a position to extract at least some of their cherished goals in exchange for merely voting to put Brown’s tax extensions on the June ballot and b) their old world is rapidly changing, because of the new rules of redistricting and the top-two primary system, so they can’t afford to stand in the doorway and block up the hall.

As Rob Stutzman, the Republican strategist who advised Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor, put it: “They have more leverage than they’ve had at any time arguably over the last decade.” But then guys like Stutzman and Jim Brulte, the former legislative leader, are old-school pols who believe, like Ronald Reagan did, that you negotiate to reach agreement and that agreement – i.e. governance — is a good thing.

At a time when “compromise” has been stricken from the actions and vocabulary of Tea Partiers in Washington and the intransigent governor of Wisconsin (except as a pejorative to attack those who disagree with their rigid stances), the efforts to strike a deal by a handful of GOP legislators in Sacramento is a smart and responsible move, both as policy and as politics.

By bucking the unrelenting pressure of no-compromise apparatchiks and no-tax ideologues in their party’s extremist wing, these Republicans – like Sam Blakeslee, Anthony Cannella, Bill Tom Berryhill, and Bob Huff, to name a few — have set the stage for a political counter-narrative to the bitter union-busting drama being played out in Madison, and the looming threat of a federal government shut-down by Congress under Weeper of the House John Boehner.

If the GOP’s Responsible Caucus can wring enough legislative concessions from Brown to justify the intraparty flak they’ll take for helping him pass the key element of his plan – a statewide vote on extending $12 billion in temporary higher taxes and fees – they also will have a dealt a major blow to the politics of deadlock that have dominated California for a generation.

Urging them on – with visions of business-friendly reforms dancing in their heads – are groups like the Bay Area Council, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and even the California Chamber.

It should be noted, by the way, that Brown’s problem is not just with Republicans. Forces on the Democratic left are extremely upset about the massive spending cuts Brown has already extracted and, if the Republicans seeking a deal overplay their hand and some interest group – the California Teachers Association, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, Service Employees International Union, or any other – decides to oppose whatever deal Brown negotiates, the whole thing could explode.

A way out — our sources are betting — is at best a 50-50 proposition.

As Steve Glazer, Brown’s senior adviser told Calbuzz over the weekend: “We’re sitting on bar stools in a foot of gasoline and everybody’s got a match.”

The ossification of Sacramento was created by a battery of political circumstances, including some so-called “reforms,” that together had the unintended consequence of bogging down the Capitol in the gridlock of polarization and partisanship. The key ingredients in hardening the political cement are 1) diminished party registration 2) non-competitive elections and 3) term limits.

Add to these closed primaries, campaign contribution limits that don’t apply to interest groups and a cable-driven coarsening of political dialogue and you have a recipe for impasse. That’s how we arrived at a situation where negotiation is seen as collaboration and compromise is regarded as capitulation.

Ironically, the sudden willingness of at least a few members of the minority to consider compromise, negotiation and deal-making to be useful and acceptable tools, in place of the just-say-no obstructionism that has long marked the GOP position, may itself have been triggered by two new reforms: a new, non-partisan citizens commission that is redistricting the state and a new “top-two” primary system are both designed to encourage more moderate politics; they may be working even before they’ve fully taken effect.

“With open primaries in redistricted seats in a presidential election all the old rules are out the door,” said Brulte.

Diminished party registration, wherein moderates and those with loose party affiliations have registered in ever greater numbers as Decline to State (independent of a party), has meant that those who still vote in their party primaries are the most ideological, the most partisan and the most intractable voters in any particular political jurisdiction.

In October 1994, Democrats had 49% of registration, Republicans 37% and DTS 10%. In October 2010, Democrats were 44%, Republicans 31% and DTS 20%. Who left the Democratic and Republican parties (or chose not to join them)? Moderates who didn’t want to be part of the left and right wings of the electorate.

So those who won their party primaries – and thus those eventually elected to the Assembly and state Senate – reflected (and shaped) the ideological cast of their districts.  Legislators who refuse to negotiate toward an agreement are, in many cases, perfectly reflecting the narrow electorate – in existing districts — who sent them to Sacramento. It’s the hard core who’s voting.

Non-competitive seats, partially a function of gerrymandering and partly a function of living patterns of the California population, have ensured the election, re-election, and re-re-election of the same voices and interests year in and year out.

One liberal may replace another; one conservative may follow a predecessor, but the ideological shape and tone and color remains the same. The general election means little in most cases because all the action is during the primary. If an incumbent – or a candidate who appears to be an incumbent because he or she served in a different office – is in the race, you can all but forget about it.

Few seats are actually competitive and where they are, it’s almost always just in the race to see who gets to represent the party in November.

Term limits have a compounded negative effect. On the one hand, they drive those just elected to spend ever greater amounts of time planning for their re-election and advancement to another seat in a different house. On the other hand, they leave Sacramento with a neophyte corps of legislators who have no institutional knowledge, no long-term commitment, no real power base in their own communities and less knowledge than the permanent legislative staff and the army of lobbyists who are always on the case.

Moreover, leadership is a joke: it’s almost impossible to enforce caucus discipline, it’s increasingly difficult to speak with one voice for either party, “leaders” are in place long enough to get a cup of coffee and replaced before they’ve found the secret drawer in the big desk or learned the name of the janitor who empties their trash can.

Coupled with campaign contribution limitations that don’t apply to interest groups, term limits mean that instead of the special interests needing the lawmaker, it’s the other way around – legislators need the special interests more than the pleaders need them.

And Now for Something
Completely Different

The handful of GOP legislators who are quietly (secretly) negotiating with Gov. Brown just may get this: by the end of August, the non-partisan redistricting of California legislative boundaries should be completed and the next round of elections will not involve party primaries but a top-two system of electing candidates.

We may even see big labor begin to play a role in what used to be Republican districts. Sources tell Calbuzz there’s talk in the labor community about spending in districts where particular legislators have made it a point to work against their interests.

Candidates who are identified as obstructionist or worse, responsible for massive teacher layoffs, shorter school years, public safety cutbacks, closed state parks, etc., are going to have one hell of a time picking up enough moderate and independent votes to keep their offices. They will NOT be running in tailored districts and they won’t have a free shot at a party position.

You gotta wonder how smart it is to rely on right-wing operators, who ask, like FlashReport’s Fleischman, if “The CalChamber is Ready to Betray Taxpayers Again?” As a Republican, just exactly what is your base if you can’t include the Chamber of Commerce?

No wonder Flash and his cronies on the right are hoping at the GOP convention to change the Republican Party’s rules to give central committees the power to dub candidates official GOP standard bearers. That may their only weapon and frankly, we’re not sure, even if they can adopt this Soviet Rule, that it would do the trick for their people.

As Steve Harmon of the Contra Costa Times so ably noted, the notion that Republicans who voted for tax hikes under Gov. Arnold Schwarzmuscle were driven from office is mostly bunk. “Of the six Republicans who voted for taxes (in 2009), only one later went on to defeat in a Republican primary. Two captured GOP nominations in statewide contests, another was elected to a county post and two others dropped out of politics.”

And that was before redistricting and the top-two primary system. And before Brown, who was allowed to dispense his vows of poverty and chastity in order to leave the seminary, offered dispensation to any Republicans who signed the GOP anti-tax pledge.

* It was to Nicodemus, as reported in the Gospel of John (3:16), that Jesus, after saying that man must be reborn in faith, offered this central concept: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”