California: The Far Right's Ritual Dance on the Edge of the Cliff

03/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Right-wing LA radio jocks John & Ken protest against a ban on mylar balloons, featuring a mock stomping of a Democratic legislator by children. They issue daily threats against any Republican who votes for a tax increase.

Yes, it is Groundhog Day. Again. California governance is poised on the edge of a cliff, for the sixth day in a row one Republican vote shy of passing a budgetary mix of spending cuts, tax increases, borrowing, and various reforms, real and otherwise, to plug the state's $41-plus billion gap over 18 months. Meanwhile, an increasingly conservative Republican Party in this state Barack Obama carried by 24 points dances about in a ritual purification ceremony, promoting non-existent budget solutions and launching coups against conservative party leaders who prove too pragmatic for the true believers.

Before getting to the unintentionally fascinating Republican politics, a word about the state budget. California has had a chronic budget problem dating back to the relatively short-lived dot-com boom, when it took on unsustainable spending programs and tax cuts, with both parties taking part in the party. Then Governor Gray Davis ended up going along, though he had told me he wouldn't. The pressure from his own party was very strong.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was swept into office in the 2003 recall, prompted mainly by Davis's handling of the state's electric power crisis early in the decade, the former action superstar promptly cut the car tax, to massive public approval. (Davis made two mistakes, incidentally, in the electric power crisis, which saw brief blackouts and skyrocketing rates in a partially deregulated system. First, in looking to Bill Clinton's regulators (who didn't help) and not immediately moving to long-term power contracts as the crisis began -- Davis and his advisors shortsightedly didn't want even a small increase in electric rates -- and, later, in not moving very aggressively against merchant power generators manipulating the system.)

This combination of spending increases and tax cuts created a structural budget deficit, routinely papered over with accounting legerdemain and borrowing. The state made some progress, but everything went decidedly south with the advent of what is now the global economic crisis. Unlike the federal government, which can print money and borrow from China, as it did for eight years under George W. Bush, California has to balance its budget every year, or at least do a fairly convincing job of faking it. And unlike the federal government -- and all but two other, much smaller states -- California has the near unique requirement of a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature to pass a budget or increase a tax. But not to cut a tax.

Enter the Republicans, who are getting more and more conservative as their ranks shrink. Republican registration has plunged in this decade while independents and Democrats have shot upward.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger talks post-partisan to the California Republican Party convention two years ago. He's skipping this weekend's convention.

Even as Barack Obama beat John McCain here by the biggest margin since Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater in 1964, 61% to 37%, the Republican Party leadership got more and more conservative. Its state chairman is a disciple and former employee of Beltway right-wing honcho Grover Norquist, who famously said he wants to get "government down to the size where we can drown it in the bath tub." The party itself raises little money. Its legislators come from gerrymandered districts and look for ideological guidance to a far right blogger who established his site while serving on the Orange County payroll as PR man for a sheriff forced from office by a federal corruption investigation. To these folks, the centrist, business-friendly Schwarzenegger is a dangerous radical.

Now the far right is finding new undesirables in their ranks. Like their two legislative leaders who negotiated the budget framework with Schwarzenegger and Democrats Darrell Steinberg, the Senate leader, and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, the country's first female African American speaker.

Now these two Republicans are definitely real, live conservatives. Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines is a Central Valley guy, former chief of staff to the Republican who lost the state attorney general's race to former Governor Jerry Brown by nearly 20 points. He replaced the more moderate George Plescia of San Diego, who the far right disliked for being too star-struck by Schwarzenegger and too friendly with Democrats.

Dave Cogdill, who was just deposed as Senate minority leader in the middle of last night, is even more conservative. Some shrewd moderate Republicans -- there are some left -- described him as the biggest impediment to progress in the state.

Now the very conservative Cogdill -- who less than a year ago replaced the merely conservative Dick Ackerman of Orange County, who was viewed as too close to Schwarzenegger by the far right -- has been replaced by the extremely conservative Dennis Hollingsworth. Why? Because Cogdill is for tax increases to balance the budget. He didn't go that way because he's a liberal. He went that way because he's done the arithmetic.

What is Hollingsworth's alternative? He told a reporter late last night that he may have to think about it for a few days. Actually, it's been the strategy of the far right for more than a year never to spell out how a cuts-only budget would work, because they know that even some of their core voters in their safely gerrymandered districts would balk.

Hollingsworth, who majored in dairy science while attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was one of the formal ballot proponents of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in November. He's way over on the right.

Over the weekend, another far right type tried a coup in the Assembly Republican caucus against the conservative Villines. But it failed, as Villines, a more winning personality than Cogdill, has a better grip on his slightly less conservative membership. Before things ground to a halt early Sunday morning, Assembly Minority Whip Chuck DeVore resigned in protest over Villines' role in negotiating the budget framework and the evident intent of just enough Assembly Republicans to vote for passage of the budget compromise.

DeVore, from Orange County, is a big booster of nuclear power and anti-gay causes. (A lot of nuclear power backers are not happy about that, seeing him as the worst possible front man.) He is also the Republicans' likely sacrificial lamb against U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer next year.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appears with legislative leaders from both parties in an unsuccessful 2007 drive for comprehensive health care in California.

The pattern is clear. As the Republicans have declined in California, they have become even more conservative. As they become more conservative, they are even less open to compromise. And more prone to internecine rites of ideological purification around a no tax/slash everything mantra. Which nonetheless has few if any specifics beyond the bumper sticker.

We see the same thing at the national level. Republicans have lost 52 seats in Congress and 14 seats in the Senate in the 2006 and 2008 elections. They're approaching a hard core. This is why Obama isn't getting many Republican votes, because he's dealiing with ideological conservatives.

Make that scared ideological conservatives, because they have to deal with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity whipping up "the base" against political deviants from the right line.

John & Ken celebrate "20 Years of Rage" by replaying the infamous O.J. Simpson freeway chase.

That's here in California, too, with a pair of radio shock jocks on LA's KFI calling themselves John & Ken. They regularly call for the "heads on stakes" of any Republican in the Legislature who votes for a tax increase.

Now, these guys are really in the infotainment business, even more than the bumptious Limbaugh, who got his start, incidentally, in Sacramento. But they cater to a big, resentful audience. And they have to feed the shark. They're laughing all the way to the bank.

Meanwhile, in world which is not non-serious, California is still stuck in Groundhog Day, waiting for one more Republican vote in the state Senate to start moving forward again. There are two good prospects, who've signaled they're looking for deals.

We'll see how distracted they are by talk show shouters, taxpayer-launched bloggers, and the party's ritual blood dance at the edge of the cliff.

There's no question that this is a crappy budget. You don't really want to cut education and health and human services, or raise taxes, in the midst of a recession. But nothing better that can pass has been proposed.