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
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.”