When Calbuzz bashed the Democrats’ legislative leaders for getting rolled by Arnold and the Reeps in the budget fight, we heard some cries of “foul” from defenders of Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Senate President Darrell Steinberg.
Steinberg spokesman Jim Evans and blogger/analyst Bill Bradley were among those who dropped by Calbuzz to comment on the post, arguing essentially that Bass and Steinberg had cut the best deal possible.
“The budget sucks, of course,” wrote Mr. Crankypants Bradley, “And your real world alternative would be … What?”
A fair enough question, and one we answer with three words of advice for the Democrats: Go on offense.
As a political matter, the plain fact is that the Republicans in Sacramento out-thought, out-maneuvered and out-led the Democrats throughout the budget fight. Despite huge majorities in both houses, the D’s remained in a defensive crouch, constantly reacting to whatever the Republican governor and his allies decided to do, consistently wilting while constantly whining that the two-thirds vote budget requirement made it impossible for them to do more.
No one’s saying that the two-thirds vote doesn’t make life difficult. We’ve argued repeatedly that dumping it is the single most important reform needed to attack dysfunction in Sacramento. But Democrats by now have managed to work themselves into a complete state of psychological paralysis about it.
Instead of aggressively fighting against the tyranny of the minority, Democrats act like the two-thirds is some unspeakable force of nature, an all-powerful totem before which all must bow down and worship in fear.
Underlying this passive posture are two crippling, if unspoken, assumptions: 1) that policy is somehow separate from politics and 2) that the only reality that matters is that unfolding in the hothouse halls, meeting rooms, chambers, restaurants and saloons of the cul de sac that is Sacramento.
Steinberg, in particular, appears so intent on playing the policy statesman that he seems to have forgotten he’s also a leader of a political party, with plenty of untapped resources available to make recalcitrant Republicans pay a price in their own districts for their stubbornness.
Bass, with her adoring gazes at Schwarzenegger, looks and acts like she’s fallen down the rabbit hole of Sacramento; having lost the perspective that there’s a whole big world outside, she fails to wield the fierce and formidable campaign style weapons at her disposal — money, research, troops and technology — in members’ districts around the state.
The bottom line for Democrats is that, unless and until the two-thirds rule gets rolled back, their last, best hope of prevailing is to start treating their political fights with Republicans as a kind of permanent campaign. Here are five tactics the Dems could use for starters:
1. Bury the petty feuds between the Assembly and Senate and among members. These are a key reason why Democrats never get their act together when they’ve got a Republican governor — at least since the Speaker of the Assembly has become a rotating position. Even when John Burton was President Pro Tem, the Assembly and Senate were constant rivals — a foolish and vain conflict that saps strength from what should be a vital majority party. Sure, term limits have made members crazy, so that everyone’s angling for the next position and looking over their shoulder. But unless the party functions as a power center, majorities in the Legislature aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.
2. Craft a message. If the Democrats had a clear, consistent and collaborative message in the budget fight, they did a terrific job of keeping it secret. Someone in a position of authority – or a collaborative group — needs to step up and start convening conference calls that include key players – top legislative leadership, John Burton and state party operatives, key Sacramento consultants like Gale Kaufman and Jason Kinney, and maybe even representatives of the gubernatorial candidates – to discuss the news and hash out a simple and coherent message in anticipation or response, to be sounded by every player from every platform so that they start framing the debate and defining the issues.
3. Identify and exploit the weaknesses of individual Republican members. Take a lesson from the way Obama’s White House operates in going after political enemies, like Senator Jim DeMint, or the way the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attacks vulnerable GOP members in their districts. Take a hint from Pete Stark, whose interactive map of stimulus spending could be used throughout California Assembly and Senate districts.
Democratic leaders need to put their forces on a war room footing that quickly and constantly spins off web and cable ads, robo calls, earned media opportunities and direct mail ads pointing out exactly what a GOP member’s “just say no” stance means for his district. Flood the zone with truth squads, protests and demonstrations at member’s offices, focusing tightly on the real world impacts to real people – teachers, cops, nurses, service employees, the sick and elderly – of the ideological recalcitrance of GOP assemblymen and senators.
4. Agree on a progressive tax strategy and stick with it. From day to day, the Democrats bounce around about the need for government spending in a recession, embracing a tobacco or liquor tax one day, sales tax reform the next, ending corporate loopholes on yet another. The net effect is to make them look craven and desperate to get their hands on any public money anyway they can, instead of having a coherent strategy of governance that is both progressive and practical, and that speaks to real people.
For starters, develop in depth and detail for the public the arguments for an oil severance tax – it truly is a scandal that California is the only oil-producing state without one – and stick with it instead of folding the first time anti-tax Republicans jump up and go “boo.”’ The tax cut, trickle down theory of government was soundly rejected by Americans in the last election, and Democrats need to stop living in fear that it’s still 1978.
5. Build stronger alliances with the netroots. The most consistent and smartest thinking and writing about progressive politics isn’t happening in Sacramento, but being churned out day after day on sites and by organizations like Calitics, Orange County Progressive, and the California Budget Project. Many Democratic members, just like Calbuzz, may find some of their stuff too lefty, but their reach into communities of interest of political activists makes them invaluable allies in spreading the message about progressive values and reaching critical mass in the battle to shape the political narrative that shapes public opinion.
Surely, professional political operatives in Sacramento can come up with a better list than ours. We’re just a couple of old hacks who’ve watched politics for 60 years or so, and advising partisans isn’t our job. But the next time we take a shot at the Democrats for their feckless and impotent behavior, don’t say we haven’t laid out some alternatives.