03/22/2012 09:44 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

California Republicans Have Only Themselves to Blame

There's a lot of hissing and moaning on the right in California, and among some avowedly middle-of-the-road pundits, about Governor Jerry Brown's compromise with a left-labor coalition on his November revenue initiative. What's the complaint? More taxes on the rich. Part of the complaint is about the fiscal volatility of relying more on people whose incomes can fluctuate. Part of it is about protecting the rich, a bottom-line GOP issue these days.

The fact is that if the Republican Party hadn't determinedly taken itself even further to the right over the past several years, they wouldn't be facing what shapes up in polling as popular soak-the-rich solutions. Republicans took themselves out of the governance play in California several years ago, ignoring what turned out to be a fateful warning speech about their steep decline from then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, turning into a reflexive Party of No.

Brown, who crushed Meg Whitman's biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history as he won a historic third term in November 2010, pushed a more centrist course last year, spending months trying to work with Republican legislators in endless rounds of talks. He began with a big compromise, huge budget cuts delivered on the barrelhead in advance, then spent months working to get a handful of Republican votes needed to surmount California's unusual two-thirds requirement for revenue increases. (Tax cuts, of which there have been many, especially in flush times, require only a simple majority.)

Logically, Brown's plan should have worked. He put forward a tough-minded balanced plan that showed dramatically from the beginning his willingness to cut as well as tax. But logic isn't that big in Sacramento, and it's not at all big with the Republican Party, long dominated by right-wingers, that became even more conservative even after enjoying an unexpected windfall of success with the much more moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to well-informed sources, Schwarzenegger, following his landslide election as governor in the 2003 California recall election, met with state Republican leaders and urged that they begin finding ways to appeal more to women voters, on issues such as education and health care. They weren't responsive.

After his near-death experience in 2005 pushing more conservative initiatives dealing with nonetheless real issues, Schwarzenegger swept to a landslide re-election in 2006, during what was otherwise a very good year for Democrats, pushing an agenda of creative centrism. Clearly he had a very good idea of what it took to succeed, but noticed that most of his party kept on moving further to the right nonetheless.

After an increasingly uneasy experience dealing with the party through much of 2007, Schwarzenegger decided to address matters head on. It didn't turn out as he'd hoped.

Texas Governor Rick Perry's presidential candidacy turned out badly, despite having a party that was ready to nominate someone like him, but he neatly demonstrated the ascendance of the far right in the California Republican Party four-and-a-half years ago.

That's when Schwarzenegger, having won re-election by a 17-point landslide margin 10 months earlier, decided to level with his fellow Republicans at their state party convention outside Palm Springs.

I previewed the speech on my New West Notes blog after reading it the day before.

Schwarzenegger, alarmed by the ever rightward slide of his party despite his two landslide elections while running to the center in 2003 and 2006, went to the California Republican Party convention on a Friday night at a luxury resort hotel in Indian Wells. There, he challenged the growing far right orthodoxy and warned Republican activists that they risked making the party irrelevant in California statewide elections unless they recognized that the center of political gravity in the state was much closer to the center than to the far right.

"Our party has lost the middle," Schwarzenegger warned, "and we will not regain true political power in California until we get it back. I am of the Reagan view that we should not go off the cliff with flags flying. I did that in 2005."

Schwarzenegger used a customary Hollywood metaphor to note that California Republicans were "dying at the box office," and invoked the pragmatism of Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of today's right. Here"s the complete text of Schwarzenegger's address to his party.

Schwarzenegger quoted what Reagan, then the new and "surprisingly" pragmatic governor of California, said to a party gathering 40 years earlier, speaking of the dangers of hyper-partisanship: "Because this is the great common denominator - this dedication to the belief in man's aspirations as an individual - we cannot offer them a narrow sectarian party in which all must swear allegiance to prescribed commandments. Such a party can be highly disciplined, but it does not win elections. This kind of party soon disappears in a blaze of glorious defeat, and it never puts into practice its basic tenets, no matter how noble they may be."

I was there for Schwarzenegger's speech. The reaction of most delegates can best be described as tepid at best. Schwarzenegger's speech was followed immediately by Rick Perry, who not long after Barack Obama's election became notorious for urging that Texas secede from the Union. I stuck around for Perry's talk, curious to compare the response he received to that accorded to Schwarzenegger.

The difference was striking. Perry gleefully countered everything Schwarzenegger had to say, insisting on a hard partisan course, denying the human role in climate change, decrying more spending on infrastructure and education as big government run amok, insisting that tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks were the way to go. The Republican delegates loved Perry's far right red meat.

The GOP's true believers were totally unfazed by the fact that Schwarzenegger had won a 17-point landslide re-election victory over Democrat Phil Angelides, matching his 17-point landslide victory in the 2003 California recall election as the biggest California Republican victory since Governor George Deukmejian beat Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in his 1986 re-election campaign.

I talked with some of the delegates about the practical implications of embracing dogmatic conformity. Most simply didn't care. Perry was telling them what they wanted to hear, echoing the rhetorical flourishes emanating from right-wing radio shows, blogs, and the Young Americans for Freedom alums elected in gerrymandered state legislative districts.

The day after the Republican gathering, I watched John McCain give a luncheon speech at the convention as he worked to reboot his fledgling presidential campaign - a speech in which the Arizona senator talked about the need to take on greenhouse gases. This was less than five years ago, but it might as well have been a different age, given how heretical it would now be for a leading Republican contender to take on that subject.
Driving away from the convention, I gave Jerry Brown a call. The then former governor and presidential candidate-turned-state attorney general made it clearer than ever that he was thinking of running again for governor and wondered about the bottom line on the California Republican convention and Schwarzenegger's attempt to move the party toward the center.

The bottom line, of course, was clear: Schwarzenegger's attempt to move his party away from the far right had already fallen short. Republican legislative caucuses, already moving hard right, would move further to the right. Even his then friend and ally, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and fellow centrist who was the only other Republican elected statewide in 2006, was moving way over to the right at that convention as part of his preparation to run for governor. Future Republican candidates would have to kowtow to a militant ideological rigor.

In other words, the path ahead for Brown was clear.

He had a tremendous opportunity to run for governor from the center/left in 2010 and to prevail against anyone, even the best-funded non-presidential candidate in U.S. history.

As expected, any candidate who made it through the Republican primary had to take on hard right positions problematic in a general election. That reality applied even to billionaire Whitman, who beat the erstwhile moderate Poizner and made a point of identifying with Rick Perry and his hard right Texan ways. While Schwarzenegger, with no love lost for the Texan, eschewed what would have been his customary gubernatorial bet on the 2010 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Texas Rangers, Whitman was all too eager to take on the ceremonial betting role herself.

Whitman bet Perry, whose Texas administration she repeatedly praised as a model venture, a California surfboard against a pair of Texas cowboy boots. She spent $180 million and lost the election to Brown in a landslide, but she got a pair of boots.

As for Perry, he became the darling of moneyed California conservatives before flaming out as something of a know-nothing presidential candidate in a field not exactly dominated by Mensa members. But in the fall of 2007, the right-wing governor of Texas, not the California governor re-elected in a landslide just 10 months earlier, was much closer to being the real personification of California Republicanism, and the brand of uncompromising politics so familiar in California's capital which burst onto the Washington scene in such dramatic fashion in 2011 after the Tea Party-flavored Republican takeover of the House of Representatives.

A few months after Schwarzenegger's telling "Dying at the Box Office" speech, at the beginning of 2008, a year which ended with Barack Obama swamping John McCain in the Golden State, the Democratic edge in California was only 43% to 34%, with 19% independent.

Today, Democrats hold a huge edge over Republicans in registration, 44% to 30%, with independents at a record 21%.

What Schwarzenegger warned Republicans about in 2007 has come to pass. Now they are reduced to hoping that Democrats fail. And complaining about a tax deal far worse than the one they could easily have had last year.

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

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