05/02/2011 06:37 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2011

California Democrats: An Uncertain Trumpet

California Democrats gathered this past weekend in Sacramento for their annual party convention were in a rather curious mood. They've gotten what they wanted. But they have mixed feelings about what they've ended up with.

Like their Republican counterparts who gathered in convention less than a month-and-a-half earlier in the same place, the Democratic activists and various party and interest group leaders, lobbyists, consultants, and politicians are more from the true believing side of things than most voters, even of their own respective parties. But the Democrats didn't have the bursts of strangeness that the Republicans had. Sweeping last November's elections, even as the rest of the country bled red, was very gratifying. But given the state's budget woes, there's little for activists to celebrate in terms of programmatic accomplishment.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist and registered independent from Vermont -- seen here filibustering against President Barack Obama's December budget and tax deal with Republicans -- was the unlikely keynote speaker at the California Democratic Party convention.

And that's before we get to the decidedly mixed feelings about President Barack Obama, which state Democratic chairman John Burton made clear he shares through his structure of the convention and his comments. Obama swept the state in 2008, crushing John McCain, 61 percent to 37 percent. But he hasn't been as left as many activists hoped he would be after the election.

Burton, who spent decades as a left-liberal state legislator and congressman from San Francisco, picked Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the only avowed socialist in the U.S. Senate, to deliver the convention keynote address, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a UC Berkeley professor and frequent critic of Obama administration policies, as the banquet speaker.

Sanders was a huge hit. More about that in a moment.

While California Democrats can't control what goes on in dysfunctional Washington or what Obama does there -- despite the state providing huge chunks of his political finance (Obama had a string of California fundraisers after kicking off the re-elect in Chicago, hitting the Golden State before he went to New York) -- they feel they should control what goes on in Sacramento. But the California capital is as dysfunctional as the federal capital, even with Jerry Brown back as governor, winning in a landslide over billionaire Meg Whitman to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democrats winning every statewide office, and holding big majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.

Not only can they not enact many new programs, they've had to cut back sharply on existing programs. And so far, Brown, who uncharacteristically spent months outside the public spotlight in private negotiations, and other Democrats have been unable to convince a handful of Republican legislators to extend some taxes that most people don't even realize they pay in order to prevent draconian cuts that even conservative Republicans are loathe to actually vote for.

Though legislative leaders John Perez and Darrell Steinberg complained and attacked, delegates looked to Brown to point the way forward in a much anticipated Sunday convention address. But on Saturday, Brown canceled out of the convention, casting a further air of uncertainty over the proceedings.

On Friday afternoon, Brown underwent an outpatient procedure to remove a small basal cell cancer growth from his nose, which led to some slight reconstructive surgery. Brown will not appear in public until the stitches are removed. That might be in a week.

California Democratic Party chairman John Burton, the former congressman and state Senate leader, speaks at the 2009 convention which elected him to the post he first held in the 1970s.

This is a very common procedure for a form of cancer which routinely does not metastasize. Ronald Reagan had the same procedure when he was president. Brown's office in its statement said all the cancer cells were removed.

Incidentally, you can click here for my compendium of articles chronicling Brown's re-emergence as governor of California.

In Brown's absence, the convention saw rising California stars like state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom deliver well-received speeches, as well as a tepidly received luncheon address from U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is still unopposed in her re-election campaign next year.

To gain the approval of the crowd -- many Democratic activists are very unhappy with Feinstein, who is routinely described in the press as by far California's most popular politician but in reality has only a 41-39 job approval split in the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll (Brown is more popular) -- Feinstein delivered a lengthy disquisition on the threat of the Tea Party. Which she pledged to turn back. Despite her underwhelming numbers with no one attacking her, it looks like she'll get the chance, because the Republicans still don't have anyone to try to take her on.

Personally, I missed the enjoyment of Brown at the convention.

It was to have been his first state Democratic convention since he became governor of California, again. Which reminds me that I've attended every California Democratic convention since the last time he was governor, going from very young activist to not so young analyst.

Governor Jerry Brown discussed the state budget impasse a month ago.

Jerry Brown, of course, has gone from being a young governor to, ah, an eternally youthful governor, while the party's chairman, Johnny Burton, has gone from being an entertainingly profane left/liberal party chairman to being, wait for it, an entertainingly profane left/liberal party chairman.

Who says the Democrats don't deliver change you can believe in?

But some things have changed since the '70s.

I'm wondering now if I need a haircut, whereas back then I didn't have to wonder if I needed a haircut. The governor's not quite so concerned with that stuff as he was back then.

Speaking of hair, Burton seemed to be channeling a line from an old David Crosby song, "Almost Cut My Hair." He let his "freak flag fly" with his choice of convention keynoter. That's the afore-mentioned Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who I believe is the only avowed socialist in the history of the U.S. Senate.

Hey, the election was last year. And if the California Republicans can listen to wild man ex-UN Ambassador John "Bombs Away" Bolton, not to mention the toast of Tupelo, ex-presidential candidate Haley "White Citizens Councils were a constructive force" Barbour, as they did in March, why not?

Burton told reporters in a gaggle that if Obama doesn't campaign here, he will win California 53 percent to 47 percent, and if he does, he will win by 56 percent to 44 percent. In 2008, he crushed John McCain here, 61 percent to 37 percent.

But I think Burton is wrong. It's very hard to see a conservative Republican -- the most likely result of the primaries -- getting 47 percent of the vote in California in a high-turnout presidential election year. More likely, it's Burton's personal bent that guides his assessment.

Burton was a John Edwards backer in the 2008 and 2004 Democratic presidential primaries. Edwards, who finished a very distant third behind Obama and Hillary Clinton, was the most leftward candidate with any mainstream appeal.

So Sanders' keynote address, a speech largely ignored by the much diminished state press corps in their brief stories, but very telling about the mood of delegates, was right up his alley.

Sanders received a rapturous response from the delegates. He repeatedly inveighed against record levels of wealth and income inequality in the U.S., declared America to be an "oligarchy," and called for a wide array of social democratic and socialist programs.

From 1980 to 2005, he noted, 80 percent of the growth in income has gone to the top 1 percent, an eye-opening statistic that had the crowd screaming.

Senator Dianne Feinstein delivers introductory remarks as chair of the Obama Inaugural Committee.

Sanders emerged in Vermont politics as a anti-Vietnam War third party figure with a string of losing candidacies before finally winning a four-way race for mayor of Burlington, the largest city in tiny Vermont (population 625,000). After a third losing run for governor, Sanders finally found his way into Congress, and then to the Senate, where he caucuses with the Democrats.

Sanders inveighed against class warfare, as in the rich against everyone else.

"While the middle class is disappearing, while poverty is increasing, people on the top have never had it so good and the gap between the very, very rich and everyone else is growing wider," he declared.

"The top 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom half of America. That's 150 million Americans. These are statistics not for a democracy but for an oligarchy and we are going to change that."

Sanders described the much touted plan by Congressman Paul Ryan, which passed the new Republican House of Representatives as legislation that would "transfer trillions of dollars from a declining middle class and give it to the wealthiest people who are already doing phenomenally well."

After Sanders finished, Burton, a great fan of his friend Warren Beatty's Bulworth, took the microphone again to say: "That speech is worth having voted for me (for party chairman) right there."

Will Burton do the customary thing at next year's convention in San Diego and invite top Obama Administration officials as featured speakers rather than Obama critics? Will it make any difference in a state Obama is a cinch to carry, especially in the wake of Sunday's dramatic take-down of Osama bin Laden?

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes.