POLITICS FEBRUARY 23, 2009
A 12-foot inflatable ATM machine sat outside the Sacramento Hyatt this past weekend, emblazoned with the words “California Taxpayers--Already Taxed To The Max!” The display was one of many illustrations of the anger of delegates here at the California Republican Convention, which met just days after a handful of Republicans in the state legislature broke party ranks to vote for a budget that included $12 billion in new taxes. Facing a $42-billion deficit and unable to carry any debt over to next year due to California’s balanced-budget requirement, the legislature conducted agonizing negotiations for months past its official deadline; breaking even without some kind of tax increases, it became clear, would have required drastic cuts to government programs. But activists at the convention didn’t want to hear any excuses. “We need to send a message,” said Mike Gomez, Solano County GOP chairman. “When you violate our core principles, you’re going to have a problem.”
Jon Fleischman, the southern vice-chair of the state party and publisher of the popular conservative blog Flashreport.com, spent the convention shepherding through a resolution to punish the GOP Judases. “At the end of the day, the party needs to be able to enforce discipline, or everybody just does what they want,” he told me, hurrying through the Hyatt lobby between meetings. Fleischman’s resolution began as just a censure, but by Sunday had turned into a pledge to withhold party re-election funds and support from the legislators who voted for the budget. Like their brethren at the national level, California Republicans are clinging to ideological purity now that they’re stranded in the political wilderness. And the budget crisis in California has only stoked their fury, posing problems for Republican candidates who need to maintain a moderate image for statewide office, and foreshadowing the direction of the national party.
It’s a dangerous time to seek leadership in the party. Just days before the convention, Senate Republicans staged a mutiny against Senate Minority Leader Dave Cogdill, ousting him from the position after he helped negotiate the budget compromise. Even Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has not been able to escape scorn for his part in pressing for the deal. He’s “probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to the California Republican party,” said Tim Hudson, the newly elected northern vice-chair, who sported a “TEA PARTY II” sticker on his lapel. Fleischman said that waiting for Schwarzenegger’s term to end is like “passing a kidney stone.” (The Governator, for his part, skipped the convention to meet with Obama in Washington.) Party elders are doing what they can to temper the rage, but to little avail. After Fleischman’s resolution passed on Sunday, an audience member stormed onto the stage and pulled back the curtains to reveal a sign that read, “THE SIX LOSERS,” displaying the names of the disgraced legislators. Party Chairman Ron Nehring scrambled to his feet to cover it up as the audience cackled and applauded.
The grassroots rage seems unconcerned with the actual challenges involved in the budget negotiations. The general fund over which the legislature has discretionary authority totals around $100 billion, meaning members would have had to immediately eliminate 40 percent of spending to avoid tax increases. Was this possible? “I always submitted that there was a way,” Republican State Senator Tom Harman told me just before addressing a lunchtime audience. “But there was never any serious discussion of that.” Others simply wanted to push the economic crisis to the brink as a test of political will. “I’d kind of liked to see how far it would have gone,” said Paul Smith, a former Congressional candidate from the Sacramento area.
This is not the party Meg Whitman wants to inherit. The former eBay CEO and McCain surrogate recently announced plans to enter the 2010 gubernatorial primary, squaring off against State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. Both are pro-business, social moderates from Silicon Valley, and both are struggling to reassure the party. “I’m going to have my rubber boots on” this weekend to avoid the mud, one Whitman adviser told me before the convention. Pranksters at the convention ridiculed Whitman as “Arnold in a skirt” and “Ms. Potato Head Governor”--a reference to her tenure marketing the toy early in her career--with costumes to boot. She has found herself having to defend her past contributions to Democrats, her failure to register as a Republican until a year ago, and even her failing to vote in past elections (which she apologized for during a lunchtime speech this weekend). Poizner has been trying to explain away hefty donations to Al Gore and John Kerry by claiming they were his wife’s but were issued from a joint bank account in his name. The combative response they both received at the convention does not bode well for the party’s willingness to choose a moderate gubernatorial candidate that has any chance of winning a statewide election.
A few brave souls are calling for moderation. Linda Halderman, a policy advisor to State Senate Republicans and a delegate to the convention, pleaded with the resolutions committee to table the punitive measure. Most Republican legislators, she argued, knew somebody had to vote yes, and the resolution would merely “scapegoat people who simply had the balls to do it publicly, who didn’t take cover by voting no and behind closed doors saying, ‘C’mon Roger, you go up,’” she told the committee. Delegate Paul Green had a better idea: Punish them too. “We need to know … we’re not leaving anybody out of this who was complicit,” he said. Unsurprisingly, the resolution easily passed the committee.
Like the national party, California Republicans are finding it easier to hunker down in their ideological bunkers than reach cross the aisle. The trend is making it harder for any moderate Republicans in California to work with Democrats--and the more cohesive conservatives become, the more strongly they react to betrayal. State Senator Abel Maldonado--who even got Democrats to agree to place an open-primary referendum on the ballot in exchange for his vote--faced opponents at the conference gathering support for a special election to remove him from office. Speakers like Congressman Darrell Issa took open shots at him, and Fleischman called him out by name in front of a crowd of delegates. But Maldonado knew there was no other option. “Republicans couldn’t come up with $42 billion worth of cuts,” he said. “Nobody wants to decimate public education, decimate healthcare, decimate the environment, decimate transportation.” But Maldonado also knows the party doesn’t care for his reasoning anymore. As I spoke with him, he’d just emerged from a banquet hall in which he’d listened to Congressman Tom McClintock excoriate him and his cohorts before the whole assembly. “To consent to [their] actions by silence is suicide!” McClintock exclaimed. “The question I’ll leave you all with is, what are you going to do about it?” If the increasing radicalization of California’s Republicans is any indication, it’s a question that GOPers across the country will be struggling to answer for years to come.
Eric Zimmermann is a writer based in Sacramento.