It may appear today that California Republicans are looming large, because the handful of those who make up the state Senate minority are filibustering the state out of a budget. But in fact they are missing in action, turning themselves into a rural fringe and booting their chance to offer California a politically tenable and fiscally responsible alternative to the Democrats.
The 15 Senate Republicans who are leading the Capitol to the fiscal year's fifth week without a budget argue that their intransigence is all about fiscal responsibility. But the details of their proposed cuts speak more about ideology. For example, they insist on cutting family planning, birth control and abortion from Medi-Cal services for girls who don't have parental consent, effectively imposing on a portion of the population an abortion consent requirement that Californians have rejected at the ballot box twice in the last five years.
Senate Republicans would eliminate CalWORKS payments for more than 150,000 children whose parents aren't meeting their work requirements. It's the kids' own fault, perhaps. They should have picked better parents. Other cuts appear in line with a belief that government should be shrunk at any cost.
Republicans also are demanding a clause to undermine Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown's efforts to limit the environmental impact of sprawling suburbs, and it's no coincidence that those still sparsely populated but gradually disappearing areas of California are the ones that send the few Republican lawmakers to the Senate and the Assembly.
Voters in the deserts and valleys, and the suburbs that ring Los Angeles and San Diego, are not yet beset by the urban issues faced by the majority of Californians -- inadequate commuter rail, snarled freeways, unaffordable housing, gang crime. They have a right to their view, but the law that makes California the only state in the union besides Rhode Island and Arkansas to require a two-thirds vote to adopt a budget gives undue power to a handful of increasingly extremist GOP legislators.
There is another way. Voters ousted a Democratic governor and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as a moderate who understood the centrist sentiment that long has been a guiding principle in California. He may have angered his party's lawmakers by his outreach across the aisle, but Republicans who revel in seeing their leader get his comeuppance may, in the long run, merely be dooming their party to the margins.
The state's method of drawing district lines exacerbates the problem. In order to guarantee themselves safe seats, Republicans agree to districts that increasingly segregate them from California's mainstream. While their successful candidates become fewer in number, they move further to the right. That's bad news not just for the GOP, but for a state that finds itself with only the Democrats setting the agenda -- except at budget time, when everything falls apart.