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Family feud

The budget impasse shines a light on GOP divisions and Schwarzenegger's failures.

August 05, 2007|Bill Whalen | Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, was chief speechwriter for former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

A California governor at odds with legislators from his own party isn't breaking news. Rather, it's the same old soap opera -- not that anyone would dare mistake the politicos in Sacramento for "The Bold and the Beautiful."

Before Arnold Schwarzenegger's arrival in the Capitol, Gray Davis and legislative Democrats feuded about whose job it was to implement whose vision. Before him, Pete Wilson denounced uncooperative Republicans as "irrelevant" for saying "no" to a budget fix.

So the summertime rift between Schwarzenegger (who backs the Assembly-passed budget) and 14 GOP senators (who are holding out for $1 billion less in state spending) that has kept California without a spending plan past the July 1 deadline is history repeated. To pass the budget with the required two-thirds majority, at least one more Senate Republican must approve it.

Only there's a wrinkle. The spat is about more than whether or not another billion dollars gets spent; it highlights the Republican Party's struggle to find a direction and be a driving force in state politics. And it speaks volumes about Schwarzenegger's failure to control spending -- which has increased by nearly one-third in the last four years and shows no sign of slowing -- and to change Sacramento's way of doing business.

Give Schwarzenegger credit for trying to slow global warming, pushing stem cell research and favoring domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians -- all stands that many Republicans run from yet a majority of Californians support. Part of his legacy will be that of a governor who on some issues was years, if not a generation, ahead of his party.

But it has come at a price. As the fourth anniversary of the recall election approaches, the 14 holdout senators -- call them the "Benedict Arnolds" in the budget revolt -- have cast their lot with the Republican runner-up in that 2003 contest, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks). He is a grim, by-the-book social and fiscal conservative -- an all-purpose scold to Schwarzenegger's upbeat glad-handing. He's also the anti-Arnold in another sense: McClintock has never won statewide office. In short, he represents the same set-in-stone conservatism that led to Republican defeats in the 1998 and 2002 gubernatorial races.

For die-hard conservatives, the GOP's Gang of 14 is the movie "300" come to life -- if you believe that defending the pass at Thermopylae and causing the budget impasse in Sacramento are one and the same. Yet the defense of fiscal conservatism doesn't come across as all that heroic.

That's because the messaging needs work.

Consider what happened after the GOP caucus, in late July, proposed $300 million in welfare cuts to help balance the state's books. On paper, the idea was to limit grants for noncompliant recipients, fleeing felons and noncitizens. But on the nightly news, the face was that of a welfare recipient who didn't look felonious, just plain scared. You decide who wins that PR exercise.

To gain the upper hand in next year's budget deliberations, Republicans need to do a better -- and earlier -- job of educating the public on the sillier aspects of Sacramento budgeting. For example, the Assembly-approved budget funds thousands of state jobs that the Legislature has already eliminated. By spotlighting such foolishness, the GOP would be in a stronger position to drive the budget conversation.

But state Republicans need to do more than improve their tactics. They must devise a winning strategy for the much larger war of ideas.

In the national GOP contest to succeed President Bush, "compassionate conservative" isn't part of the dialogue. Instead, the Republican hopefuls are trying their best to channel Ronald Reagan. The problem is that none of the leading candidates represents an ideological movement, as did Reagan.

State Republicans will face a similar situation when they choose their next gubernatorial nominee. In the conservative-dominated primary in 2010, no GOP candidate will embrace Schwarzenegger's idea of "post-partisanship." But there is no winning alternative philosophy in a Democratic-leaning state, other than being the party of "no" on the budget and most matters that look even vaguely progressive.

This is not to suggest that divorce proceedings are underway between the governor and his conservative Republican "friends" in the Legislature. A reconciliation of sorts will occur once Schwarzenegger starts issuing vetoes that anger Democrats, such as his refusal to go along with same-sex marriage. And perhaps the healing will extend into next year, especially if Schwarzenegger revisits public employee pension reform and takes on the teachers union over merit pay as part of education reform.

But there would probably be no spat between the governor and his party -- nor a budget impasse, for that matter -- if Schwarzenegger had delivered on his promise not to spend more than the state takes in. That, and his other promises to change Sacramento's ways: legislation written without any hearing, state budgets chock full of fuzzy math and phony economic assumptions and a Capitol still hostage to gridlock and partisan preening.

It's an irony hard to overlook: The star of "Hercules in New York" most likely will leave office in January 2011 having failed to clean out Sacramento's Augean stables of underperformance, waste and shady political practices.

No wonder Republicans complain about having seen this movie.

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