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September 29, 2006

In Praise of Division

David Broder's gushing encomium to Arnold Schwarzenegger's newfound moderations has already been rightly, resoundingly mocked throughout the blogosphere. Broder's belief that Schwarzenegger's election-year conversion to a liberal agenda "demonstrat[ed] in the most dramatic way possible the value of political independence" is so naive as to be hilarious, particularly coming from an ageless political observer like Broder. Schwarzenegger's actions demonstrate the value of being liberal in a liberal state. Had Arnold gone independent in the opposite direction, as he had in the preceding period, we'd all be buzzing with excitement over incoming governor Phil Angelides.

That said, there is an interesting dynamic that Broder fails to note. When the legislature is controlled by one party and the governor hails from the other, election year conversions on the part of the executive can actually be much more successful. Say you have Democrat Gray Davis and a Democratic Congress. Gray wants to herald the election by passing some major global-warming bills, a minimum wage increase, and various other do-gooder bills. Republicans want to deprive him of the accomplishments. And so they do: They filibuster, they block, they hold up in committee. They keep the legislation from happening, as it both offends their ideology and harms their political chances.

Now let's say you've a Republican governor with a Democratic legislature. He spends part of his first term trying to govern from the right, and is stymied at every turn. Come election year, polls show him behind, so he decides the minimum wage really isn't that bad after all, and while some warmth is nice, he doesn't really want the planet cooked. So he pivots and begins pushing a liberal agenda. The Republican Party in his state, completely yoked to his success, will not block the legislation. They need him to succeed, and win reelection. And the Democrats in the legislature want the bills. And the governor wants the accomplishment. It's a much smoother process that sets up incentives allowing divided governments to pass a whole lot more legislation than governments dominated by a single party.

That's what Arnold was able to do. His "independence," while completely opportunistic, actually allowed for much more liberal legislation than a Democratic governor could have passed. Had Bustamante been wielding the pen, Republican legislators would have blocked his agenda. As it is, Arnold decided to go liberal but, being a Republican, could do it without his party's outright opposition. Neat trick, and one that's had good results for California.

September 29, 2006 in California | Permalink


Very smart post.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 28, 2006 11:12:51 PM

Your conception of the minority party's power in the California legislature is way off. Democrats control all the committees and the Senate Pro Tem position, and the speaker of assembly position. They also have wide majorities in every committee.

There is no way Republicans could tie anything up, for any substantial amount of time, in committee.

IF Democrats wanted to do something, they'd do it, especially given the tactics Villaregosa coined when he was the leader of the assembly. Namely,replacing any member of any committee he believed would vote the wrong way.

Nunez continues this cut throat technique. Nunez also has a habit of radically restructuring committees whenever he wants. Take the 2004 incident when he striped Ken Maddox, a republican from the OC of 4 of his 5 committee positions as Nunez radically restructured the committees to insure Democratic dominance.

Simply put, If a Democratic governor was in CA and wanted laws passed, it would happen (unless he is incompetent or seen as weak). It would be almost impossible for republicans to stop.

You're also missing an important component in CA politics that Arnold is currently capitalizing on.

Fabian Nunez is best Friends with Antonio Villaregosa. Villaregosa hates Angeledes, thus Nunez hates Angeledes.

Arnold suddenly is getting all this great legislation passed. Why is that? You think the Democrats in the legislature are dumb enough to let him get a victory like this so close to an election? Give me a break!

When Arnold terms out, guess who will be looking like a million bucks for governor, especially after Arnold is done screwing up this state? Villaregosa.

Conversely, if Angeledes is Governor, and Arnold gets the boot, Villaregosa suddenly won't look so golden when he becomes ready to accend to the throne of governor in a few years.

Nunez is helping Arnold Screw Angeledes to help Villaregosa when the time is right. It's like aging a good bottle of wine.

The sad thing is as soon as this election is over, Arnold will move to the hard right again and appoint corrupt people to important administrative positions as he did before, and continue to push a right-wing agenda.

Arnold has not been "stymied" at every turn. He's been very successful at apointing some questionable people to very important places. An example would be Jerry Secundy to the California State Water Resources Control Board.

Secundy is a 28 year oil industry veteran and is very connected with corporate interests. He has also shown a distain for water quality and the environment while partially in charge of CA's most important resource: water.

Arnold is going to swing hard to the right once the election is over, just like last time, and the Dems controlling the legislature want that. The more he messes this state up, the better Villaregosa is going to look.

I don't see how political good ole' boy networks and right-wing cronies benefit anyone in CA, Ezra.

Sure minimum wage is up, we got started on global warming finally, but the Harm Arnold is doing and will do to CA will far outweigh any benefit.

(Take a look at some of Dan Walters' pieces in the Sac Bee, and you'll know what I'm talking about when it comes to committee shenanagans and CA democrats.)

Posted by: Tony | Sep 29, 2006 1:03:02 AM

I think that Ezra may be overstating the power of a minority-party executive in this case. California is getting left-of-center policy-making because... California is a left-of-center state. Republican fever dreams of turning CA red via the Governator aside, CA voters are getting the policies that reflect their policy preferences, because Schwarzenegger wants to be reelected. It's useful to the Republicans to be able to follow in Schwarzenegger's wake electorally, but this isn't anything more than getting out in front of a parade to lead it rather than being stampeded by it.

Posted by: NBarnes | Sep 29, 2006 6:26:32 AM

Not at all. Actually go and look what the minority R's did to Davis on taxes and the budget. They destroyed him.

Posted by: blargh | Sep 29, 2006 9:18:44 AM

an excellent post, ezra.
thank you.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 29, 2006 10:34:19 AM

Ezra is reading too much into this situation. Here in Michigan, the Republicans control the House and Senate. They have spent the last two years making sure Gov. Granholm(D) has very few accomplishments to run on. They have given her the bare minimum of cooperation because gerrymandering of their districts ensures they'll still be in the majority next term.

Posted by: Marv Toler | Sep 29, 2006 10:46:30 AM

They keep the legislation from happening, as it both offends their ideology and harms their political chances.

Too bad this theory doesn't seem to apply to Congress, at least not when torture's involved...

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Sep 29, 2006 11:14:05 AM

Plumer's right on that. Also, Granholm would have had to be moving right for that to be the case. I should've specified that this is really when the governor is in a state that opposes his/her political ideology, as is the case with arnold. They have to move towards the middle.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 29, 2006 11:53:45 AM

Because of various initiatives almost all key bills in the california legislature - budgets and taxes require super-majorities. So the minority is in an extra-ordinarily strong position to block the majority.

Posted by: Gar Lipow | Sep 29, 2006 11:59:24 AM

Broder's been taking Orwell lessons recently. Pandering is independence! Acquiescence to extremism is moderation! Opposition to extremism is dangerous extremism! And so on...

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Sep 29, 2006 2:39:45 PM

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