Bill Bennett told conservative California Republican convention delegates meeting in Sacramento just what they wanted to hear today. In a speech that sounded exactly like what he was saying 20 years ago -- aside from substituting Islamic terrorists for Soviet Communists as the big bad -- the veteran right-wing pundit and former Reagan era education secretary soothed the audience by telling them that their ideology hadn't really lost in November. Because John McCain didn't run as a conservative. Enough of a conservative, that is. And, besides, Barack Obama won big because the education system has brainwashed younger voters.
However, much as they liked being pandered to by Bennett's old-time religion, California's far right Republicans are fit to be tied now. After half of their state convention, they're engaging in a festival of recriminations over a half dozen of their legislators breaking ranks to pass a big tax increase to help out the strapped state budget, as well as another 15 GOP legislators voting to pass an open primary system in the Golden State.
The two moves are viewed as anathema by the far right.
One leading activist, Atlas Pac chairman Lee Lowrey, who threatens a recall of one of the tax hiking Republicans, said holding the line on taxes is the entire key to the Republicans' political identity in California, writing on a conservative blog: "All of us can understand that as Republicans we can disagree on abortion or even gay marriage. But if we can't all agree on taxes, what's the point of the party?"
What's the point of the party, indeed?, Far right leaders see the tax issue and the open primary issue -- in which the two top vote-getters in a primary race, regardless of party ID, would face off in the general election -- as inextricably linked.Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses the new California budget deal, which includes tax increases and an open primary.
"An open primary would literally open the floodgates for tax increases in California," declares blogger and Southern California Republican vice chairman Jon Fleischman, whose Flash Report site is seen by most of the Republicans in the Legislature as the ideological arbiter of right-wing politics. "The open primary system," notes Fleischman with undisguised disgust, "is designed to put more political moderates in the legislature -- the kind that would never hold the line on anything, let alone taxes."
Meanwhile, LA radio shock jocks John and Ken -- who promised "heads on sticks" of any Republican who broke from the right-wing orthodoxy -- are fulminating away against the apostates, especially Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hasn't spoken at a state Republican convention since he urged the party to the center in an address a year-and-a-half ago at the party convention in Palm Springs.
We'll see on Sunday what sort of censure the party meets out to its apostate lawmakers, as the right-wingers threaten. California voters will have to approve some of the fiscal measures in a special election this spring, and the open primary system in the elections of 2010., Between Schwarzenegger and the Republican legislators who at last voted for a budget balanced with tax hikes as well as program cuts and some borrowing against future Lottery proceeds and funds from the Obama economic recovery bill, the far right is very perturbed.
That's because its budget blockade strategy finally failed. California is one of only three states, and the only major state, to require a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature to pass a budget or raise a tax. After years of spending increases and tax cuts, the state saw its budget sink through the floorboards with the advent of the economic crisis and consequent loss of revenue at current rates. California has one of the lowest property taxes in the nation, including for commercial property, thanks to 1978's Proposition 13.
Not that the far right had an alternative to plug a $42 billion budget gap over 18 months. There was never a real counter-proposal put forward. Indeed, party strategists like Fleischman admitted last year that they wanted to keep things as vague as possible, to avoid specific attacks on the impact of their cuts-only approach. The truth is you could lay off every state worker in California and shut down the university system and still not balance the budget.Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs California's landmark climate change legislation, on San Francisco Bay's Treasure Island, in this New West Notes video. The move infuriated the far right.
But that bit of reality doesn't stop the rage on the far right., They've pretty much given up on Schwarzenegger, after he raised the minimum wage -- the very existence of a minimum wage is "socialism," proclaimed these worthies -- and pushed successfully with Democratic legislative leaders for a huge infrastructure development program and the nation's leading program on greenhouse gas reductions.
But not so the state senator who provided the final vote needed for passage, and demanded the open primary system, which Schwarzenegger has also long championed., Orange County political consultant Matthew Cunningham, another far right blogger, organized a group devoted to stopping Abel Maldonado's career with a very incendiary founding statement.
"Members of this group pledge themselves to eternal opposition to any attempt by Sen. Abel Maldonado to advance his political career. He sold his budget vote, imposing the largest tax increase in California history in exchange for legislation he thinks will advance his career. It's time to stand up for Republican principles and apply chemotherapy to this cancerous political career. As H.L. Mencken said, 'Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.'"
He made sure to add that he was speaking figuratively about the throat-slitting stuff.Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ripped right-wing radio shock jocks John & Ken for their constant disparaging of illegal "aliens."
But with the John and Ken talk show rhetoric about "heads on stakes," it paints a pretty gruesome picture of the fury on the far right.
The irony is that conservatives got some major concessions on this California budget. State workers get a big pay cut, some environmental and labor regulation is relaxed, new spending limits are in place, and business interests get about one billion dollars in tax breaks.
The biggest business tax cut amounts to a permanent change in the formula for calculating the income tax for multi-state and multinational corporations. Initially, according to the state Senate, that amounts to about $700 million per year in corporate tax cuts. Eventually, it could amount to $1.5 billion per year. , And unlike the tax increases, which are temporary, the corporate tax cuts are permanent.
But Republicans can't really brag about getting corporate tax cuts to their base voters, only to their political funders.
And in any event, it's not enough.
The far right in California is motivated by angry symbolism. The state party chairman is a longtime employee and acolyte of Beltway conservative Grover Norquist, who infamously said: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
Before Schwarzenegger and Maldonado worked out the final shape of the budget deal over lunch and cigars on the patio of a posh restaurant near the state Capitol, the far right came fairly close to doing just that. At least for a time.
The far right faction is probably fortunate that it failed. Republicans are already down to 31% registration in California, with Democrats at 44% and independents over 22% and climbing. If they really had brought government crashing down in California, they'd be down in the 20s in registration. But this isn't about reality.