California’s Ill Elephant

While it’s been a couple of years since I started thinking of Republicans as “them” and not “us,” I nevertheless bemoan their complete collapse, because without a viable opposition party at the state level, Sacramento will never work towards finding solutions to our problems and there will be no check against corruption. But the fact is, the Republican Party in California is approaching zombie status.

For those of us watching California politics, this is old news. But now the nation knows about it because yesterday, the Gray Lady ran a piece earning some buzz about the California Republican Party, although mostly in the form of scorn from conservatives condemning it as concern trolling. They are too quick to dismiss it, and the Golden State as a whole suffers from their misjudgments. The ten or so of them who read this may be too quick to dismiss this post — but I am a persuadable voter, and I’m going in to some detail here about how I can be won back, so I’d hope to earn a response other than a cavalier dismissal of my thoughts.

Now, conservatives may sneer all they like at the New York Times, but the cold, hard statistical fact is that registration in California is down to 30.24% of the total electorate, as compared to 43.39% who are registered Democrats. “No party preference” is 21.31%. In the past sixteen years, Republican registration is down 6.8% of the total electorate, nearly double the percentage loss to “no party preference,” which has gained 10.6% in the past ten years.

Memo to California Republicans: you are doing something wrong. If current trends continue, “no party preference” voters will outnumber registered Republicans in California before the Presidential election in 2020. The highest-ranking Republican elected officials in the state right now sit as minority members of the Board of Equalization, making rulings on what kind of goods are subject to sales tax. These are not indicia of a successful political party. 

The “paper of record” suggests that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unseating of Gray Davis in the 2003 recall was a recent high-water mark for California Republicans. This is only barely correct. Schwarzenegger was not, and did not purport to be, a conservative and was only nominally a Republican. He attained and retained office as a function of his personal charisma and not the loyalty of his ostensible party. The movie-star governor was called “squishy” and distrusted by Republican party insiders, who often refused to support him when he deviated from their constellation of preferred policies. More often than not, the movie star turned to Democrats for support; when he find none there, he attempted to use ballot initiatives to govern as a third alternative. The Republican party machinery withered and atrophied under the movie star’s putative leadership, because he governed in spite of, rather than with, the help of Republicans in the Legislature.

Now, maybe you’re not a Republican and you dislike the Republicans’ agenda, so you look at this and you say, “Good.” Bear in mind that one-party rule tends to create tremendous corruption. Also bear in mind that it tends to create stagnation in terms of policy. It ought to be evident that something is deeply wrong in Sacramento as we enter our third straight year of budget crisis and budget sequestrations; the “fiscal mismanagement” that got technocrat extraordinare Gray Davis thrown out of the Governor’s office in 2003 and which his movie-star successor was only able to put a Band-Aid on long preceded the financial crash of the late Bush Administration.

Not only do Republicans have no candidates and no ideas, they don’t even have a strategy. The Republicans’ plan is to wait until the Democrats completely screw the pooch and then hope that the voters will grow so disgusted with them that they will give the Republicans a chance; no need to actually advance any policy alternatives. No, really. Quoth the chairman of the state party, Tom Del Beccaro:

You can only have 11 percent unemployment for so long before the populace gets tired of the people in power. The Democrats are in a lot of trouble because they’ve had the governorship, the Assembly and the Senate, and the budget is way out of balance; unemployment is third-highest in the nation. They don’t have any plans related to these problems, other than higher taxes. And the issues are coming our way because the biggest issues are budget and taxes.

In other words: “It doesn’t matter how bad we look to the average voter, what matters is that the other guys look even worse.” In the meantime, whatever the other guys propose must be opposed, and no policy alternative need be, or even should be, proposed. This sort of thinking is the product of a reverse Pauline Kael effect: in what universe will chest-beating about same-sex marriage, demonizing illegal immigrants, and restricting abortion rights get a Republican elected Governor of California in 2014? It’s no wonder that the GOP is out of candidates, out of ideas, and is on the periphery of irrelevance because the new jungle primary law renders it entirely possible that before long, the top two vote-getting candidates for statewide office will both be Democrats. If you were running for office in California, would you see association with people like that as an asset or a liability?

The opposition party in California here has grown so weak they not only can no longer find and recruit decent candidates for statewide office — and because of the mathematics underlying gerrymandering, they will also increasingly face the already-manifest scenario of having to face one another in “their” districts. This, in turn, will create greater polarization as the party faithful already seem to take tremendous nose-cutting glee in enforcing ever-more-rightward ideological purity tests upon one another rather than appealing to the median voter — forcing those candidates further away from the mainstream and reducing their politically conservative districts to political backwaters.

I say it again, mainly to Democrats and progressives and liberals: one-party rule is not a good thing. You need an opposition party to make meaningful alternative policy proposals. If the Republicans will not moderate their ideology, then they need to at least find a way to impress voters who do not already agree with them that they have good ideas for what to do with California. And this…

  • Budget: Cut it!*
  • Taxes: Lower them!
  • Education: Get those illegal immigrants out of our public schools!
  • Crime: Increased punishments for everything!
  • Gay People: Eww, ick!
  • Infrastructure: Ahh, we got lots of roads already.
  • Political Reform: Keep that Kenyan socialist off our ballot!
  • Illegal Immigrants: Hunt them for sport!
  • Guns: Hell, yes!
  • Public Health: Opt out of Obamacare!

*But not education, infrastructure maintenance, prisons, law enforcement, Federally-mandated social welfare programs (other than Obamacare), and locked-in pension commitments.

…is not a meaningful set of policy proposals, at least not to people who haven’t already drunk deeply of the Red Kool-Aid.

The GOP needs to do more than sit back and wait for the Democrats in power to make themselves unpopular, both if they’re going to ever win any thing and if they’re ever going to make a meaningful contribution to solving our public problems. They’re waiting for the Democrats in power to become unpopular? News flash: the Democrats in power are already unpopular. They’re already disliked. What Republicans like Del Beccaro apparently don’t realize is that the Republicans have become so disliked here, so much more than the Democrats, that despite hard, empirical evidence that the Democrats are thoroughly corrupted and generally incompetent, the voters will still prefer to return them to power rather than let a Republican make a meaningful policy decision.

They’re not going to change this without a leader, which they don’t have, and they’re not going to change this without better policy ideas, which they need to attract a leader. Even then it would be an uphill battle because there is no party machinery and there really are no good answers to the financial challenges facing the state government. And they’ll need a good strategy as well as a good message, because of the logistics and demographics they’ve got stacked against them in a state arrayed like this one.

Right now, they have none of these. They’re going to wait until the house burns to the ground before they’ll even put together a plan about what to do after that. With that kind of opposition party, it’s no wonder the Democrats aren’t exactly quaking in their boots out here. Consequently, there isn’t much public debate, and there aren’t a lot of answers to our very real problems.

I’m not demanding that Republicans become liberals to re-earn my loyalty. I’m asking them to put together a meaningful and intelligent policy platform.

It’s time to step up your game, California Republicans.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. No candidates? Why, just last election, they had Carly Fiorina, a woman with real business experience. She knew how to cut people’s salaries, lay them off, make poor strategic decisions, get fired, and live off her golden parachute. If that’s not going to appeal to people struggling through a tough economy, what will?

  2. “I’m not demanding that Republicans become liberals to re-earn my loyalty. I’m asking them to put together a meaningful and intelligent policy platform.”

    Why bother?
    I am a registered Democrat in South Florida. Over the past three years, 15 members of the illustrious Democratic Party Machine have gone to jail or are under indictment. I voted for two of those candidates (one in jail, the other just indicted.) They were the “reform candidates.” Turns out their campaigns’ were funded entirely by crooked developers looking to build a housing development. “Surprise,” the developer got the needed approval.

    Local elections have become nationalized. Come November, South Florida will be voting for Barack Obama and a straight Democratic Party ticket. They will not vote for Republicans, libertarians, Independents or Pastafarians. The election was already decided by a guy named Mitch Caesar (local Democratic Party head honcho and lobbyist.) Mitch decides who wins the Democratic Party primary. Mitch is our leader. Mitch is King!

  3. I dunno if you can talk at all about California’s problems without addressing two specific issues:

    1) The ridiculous overuse of ballot initiatives, which have happily enshrined into law the people’s desire to have nice things — and not pay for them.
    2) The high bar, per one of those initiatives I believe, for tax hikes in California. Hence the glorious number of ‘fee increases’, but so few things like “How about we assess property values regularly, instead of when they’re sold, because that’s getting gamed pretty hard by businesses for one thing”.

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens if the GOP loses enough voter share that Democrats can garner the 2/3rds majority to raise taxes.

    California’s a mess, but I’d blame the people themselves before either party — because they voted, in initiative after initiative, for the government to fund this and that to one level or another — then hamstrung the government from raising the funds to pay for it.

    Watching that mess over the last 20 or 30 years is why I’ve come to believe government by ballot iniative is simply not feasible.

    • The two things feed back on one another though. The more inept and hamstrung the legislature is, the more real policy has to be made by initiative. But the more policy is made by initiative, the more the legislature is hamstrung and inept.

      It seems obvious to me that initiatives are a terrible way to make policy. The current self-amplifying mess seems to be a product of things that go back to the early 80s – in particular prop 13, term limits and the shift of education funding from localities to the state. Those were indeed all initiatives, so I guess the legislators can claim the public started it. Really though, the original bugs are in California’s original constitution, which made the assembly too small and initiatives too powerful in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the Southern Pacific Railroad from buying the government.

      The only answer is constitution reform. Which, of course, will have to be accomplished by initiative …

  4. Even as a hard core partisan, I agree that we need t2 parties, partly to help weed out corruption, but also to force us to justify our intellectual positions.

    I’m coming to realize, however, that while at least 2 viable parties are needed, it is beneficial to have a mandate, a working consensus; in the current 46/44 split we see nationally, each party has no incentive to cooperate- why negotiate away what you can win outright?

  5. It’s really strange for the NYT to point to Schwarzenegger as a high water mark for Republicans. The only reason there was a recall vote for him to win was because the Republicans pooched the prior gubernatorial election, losing to an incumbent with an approval rating south of 40% by nominating someone too conservative. If anything, this was an indicator of how low they’d already fallen. That they still haven’t grasped what a losing strategy this is…it never ceases amazing me just how unrealistic true believers can be.

    And you’re exactly right that we need a good California GOP. One party rule is inevitably corrupting. But given the extent to which California is a national policy leader, the importance of this is not limited to California; the whole country needs a better California Republican Party.

    • Not just too conservative but too incompetent .

      Bill Simon claimed to have a photograph of Gray Davis accepting a campaign contribution in his office at the state capitol in Sacramento, which would have been … a misdemeanor! Still, his campaign made this a huge issue, and all of the state and local media was there when he revealed the photograph that showed Davis being given a check in … someone’s living room in Santa Monica!

      Simon’s response was very classy.

      Mr. Simon conceded that his reported photographic evidence was ”now in question” and called on state officials and the news media to investigate Mr. Davis’s ”aggressive and shady fund-raising practices.”

      Simon hadn’t had much chance beforehand, but this clinched it.

      • Gonna have to disagree with you here, Mike. Simon’s quarter-assed retraction was dated October 10, 2002. But his campaign had been a roasted duckling with applesauce dressing long before then — by my reckoning since June 26, 2000. Maybe Richard Riordan could have beat Gray Davis, but Bill Simon was never going to be Governor. Which pains me to say still , as a very dear friend worked long and hard on Simon’s campaign as a speechwriter — but it wasn’t my friend’s fault that Simon was not the right guy to appeal to middle-of-the-road California voters, and I credit my friend’s efforts (and Rudy Giuliani’s enthusiastic endorsement, which back in 2002 still meant something) for being in no small measure responsible for Simon coming within 5% and thus at least losing respectably.

  6. I would guess that if the Democratic domination of California gets strong enough, it will eventually split into two (or more) factions that will become de facto competitive parties – and perhaps in the long run into two or more actual seperate parties. You see the inkling of this (and probably the model of the fault lines) in the overwhelmingly Democratic dominated DC mayoral politics with respect to the Gray / Fenty split.

    • So California will end up like DC?
      Do you believe that is an improvement?

      • DC in the 2010’s is better than DC in the 1980’s
        The reverse is true for California.

  7. We have the same problem in Louisiana except the shoe is on the other foot. The republicans rule here.
    As far as corruption goes, Huey Long was about as corrupt as you could get, but during his reign we got schools, bridges and malaria treatment. So there is dishonesty that benefits the rich and dishonesty that benefits the most.
    In this day and age one can’t raise taxes on the corps because they will move if they don’t like the way things are. Their only concern is the bottom line.

    • What did Boss Tweed say about “Honest graft?”

  8. The wierdest thing about this is its a completely self-inflicted wound. The bay area is the least conservative of the metropolitan areas, and even here you can find plenty of Democrats in name only who’d be head over heals to vote for a relatively conservative candidate if they:

    1. Face up to the fact that everyone in California is complicit in, and benefits from, illegal immigration. One reason the Republican talent pool is so restricted is everyone who ever employed a Latino gardener or nanny is immediately vulnerable.
    2. Learn to deal with the reality of the tax system, which is not that that tax take is too high, but that its erratic and overly dependent on income taxes.
    3. Figure out that the state budget goes primarily on kid’s education and most of the rest goes on health and human services. What little is rest has to pay for the other stuff everyone cares about, like the water system and the state universities. There is nothing to cut that does not impact one of those things, and everybody likes and uses those things, regardless of what Grover Norquist tells your constituents.
    4. Grow up and learn that imprisoning people also costs money. A state that has a budget problem cannot afford to imprison everyone who stole a sock after smoking crack twice.

    I could go on, but those four alone with comprise coming to terms with reality and nothing more. I live in a very small, very white city that, while not actually being Palo Alto can at least get invited to some of the same parties. Anywhere else in the world, such a place would be governed by conservatives. Here, its Democrats all the way, and the local Republican party consists of three extremely old guys who are even whiter than everyone else and a cut-out of Margaret Thatcher with Sarah Palin’s head stuck on it that presumably featured in some of their sweatier dreams. I wish I were joking about the cut-0ut, too.

    • Pretty much this. California needs a republican party for Californians. Instead, it’s got one suitable for Alabama.

      Between the jungle primary and redistricting, we’re going to see this party die completely. But I think that’s something that needs to happen, so that a republican party for California can be grown in its place.

      • I wonder if the open primary will accelerate the process. It must make it easier for independent candidates to make the final ballot with a decent level of support. Its crazy that we now have groups of nominal Democrats campaigning for constitutional reform when the state is run by their supposed-compatriots and the still refuse to align themselves with the Republicans, so toxic has the brand become.

      • The interior parts of CA like Riverside and Ontario are much more like Alabama than they are like the rest of California. This is where most of the GOP power players originate from, and are beholden to.

        • I agree with this to a large degree (with some equivocation about the central valley). Perhaps it is only I who finds it ironic that it is Democratic-controlled gerrymandering that has made the Cal. GOP this way.

        • This is a serious part of the problem. There are lots of solidly blue states like New York and California. However, these states are largely blue because of large-urban populations and large populations of highly-educated suburban voters. The type of voter that used to qualify as a liberal Republican but are now scared away by the hard-right stances of the Republican party especially on social issues.

          However, each of these states has red areas that are just as right-wing as Alabama. Portland, Oregon might be a liberal oasis but the area outside of Portland can be very right-wing.

          I wonder if the same is true for blue areas in red states. Cities tend to be Democratic no matter where they are. I know Salt Lake City has or had a very progressive mayor but other blue-areas in red-states seem more moderate. Possibly because they are gerrymandered into uselessness. Austin is often described as a liberal oasis in Texas though.

    • Basically you are saying we need the reincarnation of Earl Warren? A moderate Republican who was so popular that he ran for reelection as a Republican, a Democrat, and a Progressive.

      As a San Francisco resident (but non-native), I agree with your thoughts. I would probably still be Democratic but I know many people who would like being old-fashioned liberal Republicans. Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits types. San Francisco used to be a Republican city until the 1960s.

      • A latter-day Earl Warren?

        Yes, please. Despite his flaws.

    • “One reason the Republican talent pool is so restricted is everyone who ever employed a Latino gardener or nanny is immediately vulnerable.”

      Although not in the ways you might think. A bizarrely successful line of attack on Meg Whitman was that she dismissed her housekeeper on learning that she was illegal. Apparently she…should not have continued to hire an illegal immigrant?

    • “the local Republican party consists of three extremely old guys who are even whiter than everyone else and a cut-out of Margaret Thatcher with Sarah Palin’s head stuck on it that presumably featured in some of their sweatier dreams.”

      So what you’re saying, here, is that California residents would totally vote for Republicans if the Republicans weren’t such a bunch of funk-free old pervs.

      • Not really. They’d vote for Republicans if their rhetoric and policies were in some way relevant to their reality. The reduction of the party to tiny groups of wierdos in the major metropolitan areas has more to do with the craziness and alienation from power than anything else. If they were pervs, after all, they presumably want to put Thatchers head on Palin’s body, not vice versa.

        • No, Simon, they’d vote for Dems even with GOP positions. It’s about power, not policy.

          Right now the Dems are running up huge deficits which nobody on the street level sees the consequences of yet. What’s not to like about free ponies and no horseshit to shovel?

          The irony about “inequality” is that those who pay little or no taxes have no real stake in the state’s financial health, and vote accordingly. The California equation is the true inequality madness—a small but decreasing number who can afford to live well and shoulder the lion’s share of taxes, and the rest who live poorly [on or off the government dime] but still better than in most other places.

          California had a working equilibrium until a few years ago; now the fit is hitting the shan. The GOP Cassandras like Tom McClintock–the genuine Republican who ran in the recall that put the Governator in—take no delight from this, nor will they ever be acknowledged as having been right.

          What’s a “Cassandra,” anyway?

          • Well, I guess thats the conservative fantasy, innit?

            All of us hardworking Galtian Ubermenchen, saddled with the lazy sponges and looters. They’ll rue the day when we finally withhold our productivity, by gum! They’ll beg us to come back and let them shine our shoes for minimu wage!

            Yeah. As if the working poor who pay little or no income taxes aren’t working harder than ever before, for less.
            As if they have “no stake” in the workings of the state, but the 1% like Mitt Romney, with homes and bank accounts scattered like confetti around the world, are somehow vested with the interest of our state.
            The same 1% who as often as not pay even less in taxes than the waiter serving his meals.

          • People who work for a living have no interest in the local economy, while people who live off investments in multi-national do.

            It’s funny how that works.

  9. Not only do Republicans have no candidates and no ideas, they don’t even have a strategy. The Republicans’ plan is to wait until the Democrats completely screw the pooch and then hope that the voters will grow so disgusted with them that they will give the Republicans a chance; no need to actually advance any policy alternatives….In other words: “It doesn’t matter how bad we look to the average voter, what matters is that the other guys look even worse.” In the meantime, whatever the other guys propose must be opposed, and no policy alternative need be, or even should be, proposed.

    I’m just quoting this because it’s an excellent summary what I repeatedly repeat around these parts. I wonder if all this might not be better captured by a haiku?

    Conservatives remain afloat
    On a raft of ‘no’s
    Their only tool an anchor

  10. I have a lot of like complaints about the Democrats in Texas. Their game plan is pretty much limited to:

    1. Complain about whatever the Republicans are doing.

    2. Wait for Texans to finally get fed up with Rick Perry and the Texas GOP.

    3. Wait for the demographic sea to change.

    The result is that they’ve been out of any power above mayoralty since 1998. They had to scramble to find a half-way decent candidate for the senate. It’s become a feedback loop with their supporters being increasingly disconnected from the state at large, often populated by people who aren’t from here. A friend of mine who worked on a Democratic campaign said that it seemed like there were more from Illinois than Texas in the campaign circle.

    I’m not inclined to vote for Democrats, but the Texas GOP makes me yearn for an alternative the Democrats aren’t really supplying.

      • Illinois Democrats aren’t evil. They just might not be very helpful if you’re trying to win votes in Texas.

    • So basically Texas is exactly like California except the parties swap places?

      • And the Democrats in California aren’t as gung-ho to kill people.

      • Yeah, I’d venture that California’s example is illustrative rather than atypical.

        I’d guess to say that between a third to a half of the states are at least somewhat like this, with one or the other party holding its boot on the other party’s neck, and the other party clueless as to how to break out from underneath the pinfall.

  11. The best thing that the Republicans in California could do would be to eliminate the 2/3rds majority to pass tax increases.

    And then just vote their conscience on the budget.

    Democrats will be stuck. They can either balance the budget, which would require them to fix either expenditures (cutting stuff they don’t want to cut) or raising taxes. Either way, there will be no charge of, “It’s those GOP obstructionists who prevent us from getting anything done!”

    • The Republican Party would never do that.

      The 2/3rds rule is the one way they can hold power in the legislature.

    • ho ho ho HA HA HA

      you poor fool, you actually think that the legislature won’t just increase taxes by whatever it takes to fill all the budget holes?

      HA HA HA

      Although you have to admit that it would provide a vital service. It’s really important that we keep paying the pensions of 52-year-old former firefighters living in Denver.

      • > you poor fool, you actually think that the legislature
        > won’t just increase taxes by whatever it takes to fill
        > all the budget holes?

        Let’s say they do.

        What happened to Grey Davis, again? Oh, that’s right, they *recalled* him.

        Do you really think the California voting populace will stand a higher tax rate than the one they have now? How much higher?

        Because it’s gotta be a whole bunches of freakin’ higher to balance the budget. And if you raise taxes by that much, you have to do the lion’s share of it on the middle class, and the middle class will suddenly start realizing that yes, Virginia, they do have to occasionally pay for the things that they want.

        The 2/3rds rule lets the GOP strangle the budget, it *kills* their political power. All they can do is say “no”, and get blamed for it.

        • “What happened to Grey Davis, again?”

          An unbelievably famous movie star decided to throw his hat in the ring? I think you’re overinterpreting Schwarzenegger’s election if you consider it some kind of popular mandate. I think it had more to do with “holy shit, ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER!”

          “the middle class will suddenly start realizing that yes, Virginia, they do have to occasionally pay for the things that they want.”

          The middle class is well aware that they have to pay for the things that they want, Snarky Snarkerson. I’m pretty sure, though, that they didn’t want to give city service workers sick-time payouts that the middle class lost long ago; that they didn’t want to require full healthcare coverage with no employee contributions for service workers; that they didn’t want to cover pensions that were higher than the former employee’s salary (and that they didn’t want pensions based on a rich-California-coastal-city cost-of-living to go to people who bought a cheap house in the desert outside of Phoenix.)

          • Gee, that’s funny, Duck, because they sure keep voting in people who approve all of those things.

            They only balk when someone raises the vehicle license fee to pay for it.

            You know, that whole, “Why not keep voting for ponies, they keep giving them to me and they keep refusing to charge me for it.”

            If the Democratic legislature had a 51% requirement to raise taxes and pass the budget, one of two things would happen: they would raise taxes and within 4 years you’d see an enormous resurgence of the GOP party in California, or they’d have to cut something.

            If what you really want is political power, you’d settle for letting the Democrats shoot themselves in the foot by raising taxes for a couple of years.

          • That is, restores the vehicle license fee to its normal rate because the state is no longer swimming on other sorts of tax revenue. Which proves that the one thing a politician can not afford to be is responsible.

            But if 30 years of tax-cut-mania haven’t proven that, I’m not sure what sort of demonstration would work.

    • The Dems survive on ethnic tribalism. There’s no problem w/GOP positions, even the social agenda—Prop 8 won, you know. That the GOP is too conservative is a truism that ain’t true.

      Hell, I voted Jerry Brown over RINO Whitman because he had a better chance at restraining the madness than she.

      There’s no point in becoming Democrat-lite. For what purpose? As Harry Truman put it with colors reversed, people will elect the genuine article every time. You vote gay issues, gov’t giveaways, open borders, taxing the bejesus out of the rich, the Dems are gonna give you more of what you want.

      Billions on high-speed trains to nowhere, that sort of thing.

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