Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Republicans--Saw This Movie Before

It's tempting to say it's deja vu all over again, except that everyone says that again and again.  But it does seem that the Republicans in Congress, as illustrated in the recent debt limit "debate," are doing a re-make of what  California Republicans have done in the State Legislature in the last 10 to 15 years. 

The state legislators have made a striking transition from a reasonable, responsible opposition party with an impact on governance to an often strident, uncompromising, increasingly marginalized party that can occasionally throw a huge wrench into the process but does not share in governing on an ongoing, consistent basis.

When I first got involved in California politics in the late 70's, and pretty consistently for the next 20 years, the California Legislature was controlled by Democrats but included a solid, effective, constructive  Republican minority.  It consisted of conservatives and moderates, and even an occasional liberal by the standards of the day. 

The Republican legislators advocated and largely stood by their principles, and they did just vote "no" on many occasions.  However, on a good number of other occasions they criticized and argued, often strenuously.  But, then, after obtaining some, but often not all, of the changes they wanted, they voted "yes." 

This willingness to vote "yes" and to be satisfied with getting some of what they wanted helped make the Republicans into, in political parlance, "players." One of the other key factors was the fact that, due to their mainstream politics and their effectiveness, they held solid minorities, particularly in the Assembly.  In a house with 80 members, they often held 37,  38, even 39 seats. 

Not every issue back then was a hugely partisan one with party discipline and even the Speaker's office being invoked on a regular basis.  So, with some rural and more moderate Democrats sometimes not voting for bills, or with the occasional vacancy, the Republicans could really play a role in shaping legislation.  As we used to say, they were "relevant."

There is a litany of reasons why the Republicans in the California Legislature have evolved into a much smaller, less flexible, and less effective group.  Those factors include term limits, very partisan legislative districts, campaign financing, instant and targeted media, and the general stridency and unwillingness to compromise that permeates our politics and our society.

Whatever the reasons, we now have a Republican Party that is barely a statewide party.  It holds no constitutional offices.  There are places in the state where it comes in third behind Decline-to-State in registered voters.  It no longer realistically strives to be a majority in either house. Instead, the big question mark is whether it will be able to prevent the Democrats from obtaining a two-third's margin in the Senate and perhaps even the Assembly, which would deprive it of the ability to impact almost any issue.  

Candidates in Republican primary elections often seem to try to outdo each other in an effort to stake out the most far right, uncompromising positions.  Once elected, many pride themselves on voting against just about any compromise, even when they secretly hope that it will pass so that the issue will go away or so they can go home. 

Because the annual budget bill and appropriations and tax bills do require a two-thirds vote, California's Republican members of the Legislature still do have a role on some big issues.  They can throw a pretty big stinkbomb into some important debates. 

However, on many policy issues they play little if any real role, stemming both from the low numbers they have in each house and the proportionately low numbers they have on committees, and from what seems to be an unwillingness to accept a compromise and vote "aye" on many issues.  Given the lopsided districts and the fact that the right-wing decides the winner in the primaries, it plays better to just be against.  That is, it plays better if one wants to get re-elected and preserve a career and does not much care about actually shaping policy. 

The newly established Assembly and Senate districts, drawn for the first-time by a citizens commission rather than by legislative leaders, may help the election prospects for those in both parties that are interested in appealing to more centrist voters and in compromising on issues.  The new open primaries, where the top two vote-getters, regardless of their party, earn the right to compete in the general election, may also help.  Countering these possible pluses is the fact that it likely will still be the activists on both the right and the left who put the most cash and the most bodies into campaigns at crucial times. 

Until recently, the U.S. Congress and particularly the Senate was still a place where reasonable voices were welcomed and compromise was looked upon with favor.  The debt limit debacle has destroyed or at least put a large question mark on that.  The recent Republican presidential debate, where the candidates contended with each other to demonstrate who could be the most unbending on taxes, underscored the new "winning" posture.  Not one would accept a hypothetical tax increase countered with a ten-fold spending reduction. 

One guesses that if a hundred-to-one, or even a thousand-to-one, ratio had been suggested, the answer would have been the same.  This might get one the nomination, but it will not win a general election.  It certainly does not display the type of reasonable, middle-of-the-road leadership that the general voting public has usually supported.  It is more typical of the type of politics that has helped make the California Republican Party a very small part of California government. 

 I knew that the California party was on a suicide trajectory a few years ago when a young Republican staffer, probably in sixth or seventh grade when Ronald Reagan's presidency ended, insisted to me that the Republican legislators were "Reagan Republicans" and were against tax increases as a "matter of principle." 

I was not even tempted to inform the young staffer that Ronald Reagan compromised on many issues, including tax increases.  I was tempted to explain that "being against tax increases is not a principle.  A principle is smaller government; lower taxes is a tool to achieve the principle.  Using a particular tool, and how you use it, requires someone to think." 

I fear that the the Republicans on the national level are going or have gone the way of the California Republicans.  I hope not.  The U.S. needs two effective, competitive parties.  I've seen the movie of how the California Republican legislators became the barely one-third minority they are today.  It's a depressing tale with disastorous results.  A re-make on a national level is about as attractive as Arnold Schwarzenegger reprising his role as the terminator. 

1 comment:

  1. Rebecca ChristiansenSeptember 4, 2011 at 1:23 AM

    I love reading your posts. You know, I thank G*d for the Republicans in the Legislature because they are the last stop gap to crazy ville that the Democrats seem so intent on turning California into. I swear, I never thought I would see the day when California would think it was a good idea to fund the higher educations of illegal aliens. I guess its the new chic thing to do but it is just pathetic that the Democratic party has no standards and has no faith in the laws of the land anymore. What if the Middle Class suddenly decided to pick and choose which laws they were going to obey - just like lawmakers? What if Middle Class taxpayers decided that paying state taxes was worthless since $10 billion a year goes to the upkeep of our illegal alien population while our infrastructure decays around us? What would happen if the Middle Class suddenly revolted and there would be no tax base from which the state employees (the biggest Democratic support there is) could get their defined pension? What would happen? I do believe CALPERS would explode from the pressure from actually having to make sound investments. What would happen if the Republican party did become irrelevent? I think the word I'm looking for is Chaos.