California's Party of No Takes Center Stage, Or Does It?

Between its strange state convention last weekend and the ongoing state budget impasse, California's party of no has seemingly taken center stage in the not so Golden State. But is that really so? And is it a good thing for Republicans if it is?

Surely the spectacle of the Republicans' state convention in Sacramento did nothing more than further cement the party's reputation as an increasingly narrow club of ideologues. And during the week, most Republican legislators mirrored just that, though some continue to negotiate with Governor Jerry Brown. But it remains to be seen how serious they are, and if their ultimate goal is to shoot the moon and try to look good.

After nearly three months of talks, Brown has been asking Republicans for a "term sheet" of what it will take to close the deal. Finally, late on Friday, Republicans released it. What it is, as you see here, is a Christmas wish list, filled with items unrelated to the budget crisis, including moving the state's primary election. Of course, that list was put out by Republican leaders in the Legislature, not most of the legislators who've been negotiating with Brown.

At their convention just down the block from the state Capitol, the gravitational forces on Republican legislators were all too evident. The party's dominant far right ideologues tried hard to prevent any compromise with Democrats, voting overwhelmingly to oppose a combination of deep budget cuts and extensions of 2009's temporary tax hikes even if major changes were effected on public pensions and regulations and state spending limits were put in place.

Mississippi Governor and veteran super-lobbyist Haley Barbour was the featured speaker at the California Republican Party convention. Barbour, caught in a recent controversy over his defense of white citizens' councils during the civil rights era, has no more chance of beating the first black president of the United States, much less carrying California, than you have of flying to Mars.

In fact, party leadership went so far as to demand that Brown debate their champion. Who was, after billionaire Meg Whitman was trounced last November despite spending a record $180 million... a professional anti-government lobbyist thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C. Former Jack Abramoff running mate Grover Norquist thought he had the California Republican legislative caucus locked up with the overwhelming majority having signed no-tax pledges. Which he and other zealots interpret as preventing any public vote on taxes.

California Republican Party chairman Ron Nehring, who was a longtime aide to Norquist, challenged Brown to debate Norquist, who infamously said that he wants to reduce government "to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub," at the convention. It was a ridiculous idea, and the response from Brown's spokesman Gil Duran was to offer Brown's Welsh corgi, Sutter Brown, as a more appropriate debating partner for a far right lobbyist from the other side of the country.

But that level of thinking is typical for these conventions. I've been to many of them. Some of these activists get very worked up. A top aide to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger nearly got into a fist fight at the bar of the posh Hyatt Regency at Capitol Park -- Schwarzenegger's Sacramento residence through his governorship -- during the 2009 state GOP convention when a far right type decided to express his disapproval of Team Arnold's moderate politics by shoving him. At an earlier Republican convention another drunken far right activist challenged another top Schwarzenegger aide to a fight. I don't have stories like these from California Democratic conventions.

Though he wasn't there, Brown was undoubtedly following, with some bemusement and amazement, the spectacle of an imploding California Republican Party convention. Because what did happen is almost as strange as the Norquist-Brown debate that didn't happen.

The Republicans hate California's new open primary even more than the Democrats. After first trying create a new rule allowing small groups of right-wing activists to name party nominees, they came up with a compromise: The Republican Party will hold a primary election before the primary election. So that Republicans will know who to vote for in the real primary election. How will this new primary be organized and, more to the point, paid for? Who knows?

Longtime Beltway anti-government lobbyist Grover Norquist, here shilling his book "Leave Us Alone" at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference, was the choice of California's Republican leadership to debate Governor Jerry Brown about the state's budget crisis.

After first threatening to censure any Republican who voted to allow a special election on the budget and taxes, the party came up with a "compromise" position: No taxes, no matter what, even with major reforms on supposed Republican priorities.

And no alternative, either, as the party also didn't the logical thing and endorse $26 billion in budget cuts.

As part and parcel of these doings, which seemed like especially sophomoric hijinks happening on the opening weekend of a new war, Republicans also tried to bar the press from a convention luncheon speech by pollster Frank Luntz on the silly grounds that he had secret information to impart. To hundreds of delegates.

Then there were the "star" attractions. In addition to Luntz, there was ex-UN Ambassador John Bolton, the noted neocon, and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who has zero chance of beating Barack Obama and even less chance of carrying California.

Finally, the convention came up with a new party chairman, a fellow named Tom Del Beccaro. Whose claim to fame prior to this was that he sued trying to block Jerry Brown from becoming California attorney general in 2006 -- Brown won in a landslide -- on the spurious grounds that Brown wasn't really a lawyer.

It was all too preposterous, and I mostly checked out of it to watch the new Libyan War unfold in real time on Al Jazeera.

On Monday night, Brown addressed a large gathering a block away from where the Republicans had just met. At the annual California labor legislative conference, Brown was in strong form.

He promised not to attack legislative Republicans, with whom he's still negotiating, but got a few zingers in nonetheless, getting the crowd of 800 roaring in the process.

"If you're not going to vote to extend taxes, you're not going to vote to cut, you're not going to vote to do anything to redevelopment, so, what the hell are you going to do?" he said. "By the way, if you're not going to do anything, why do you take a pay check?"

I told Brown last year that he was likely to find Republican legislators just as recalcitrant as Arnold Schwarzenegger did, and that the only advantage he had -- in addition to his sparkling personality, of course -- is that the situation is even more glaringly obvious now than it was in the past.

But the deal still isn't done.

Brown on Thursday signed big budget cuts and fund transfers to take care of nearly half of the state's $26.6 billion deficit. But he acknowledged he still doesn't have a deal with enough Republican legislators to satisfy California's unusual two-thirds vote requirement on tax measures to place the other half of his solution -- extending temporary tax hikes from 2009 -- on a June special election ballot.

He also did not rule out placing the tax extensions on the ballot through a majority vote procedure which many lawyers say will technically work, but won't provide a bipartisan patina to the package. Nor did he rule out a November ballot measure drive. In fact, he didn't rule out any number of scenarios.

Most state Republicans have continued to balk at okaying a special election, even though some recent polls indicate that the tax extensions are a tough sell.

Why don't they go ahead and let the voters reject taxes? From the ones I've talked to, for a very simple reason. They are still afraid they would lose the election. Because the campaign would expose the even more draconian cuts that would be the alternative.

Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation on Thursday authorizing billions in budget cuts.

This is why Republicans continue to absolutely refuse to present any alternative budget, a practice they first rolled out a few years ago, to Schwarzenegger's grave displeasure.

The new/renewed governor said that there are some legislative Republicans who seem to want to get the budget plan on the ballot, and are insisting not only on solving the present budget crisis but also other problems relating to over-promises on public pensions, limiting state spending, and making some regulations easier to deal with.

Brown noted that it's hard to solve all problems at once. But he's also signaling his labor allies that some reforms look politically necessary.

In answer to a question, he gave some short shrift to the idea that the budget plan needs some associated reforms to make it more palatable to voters. If that's what he thinks, he's probably wrong about that.

When will this deal get done?

The answer to that, in Brown's phrasing, lies in the hands of the Lord.

While the budget follies unfolded in Sacramento, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger landed on the Xingu River in Brazil.

Meanwhile, accompanied by his old friend, filmmaker James Cameron, Schwarzenegger toured the Amazon region on Wednesday by seaplane. There they met with indigenous people threatened by a massive dam project -- slated to be the third largest in the world -- which Cameron has been crusading against.

On Thursday, Schwarzenegger and Cameron spoke at the 2nd International Forum on Sustainability in Manaus, Brazil, confluence of two great rivers and capital of the nation's Amazonas province.

Did Schwarzenegger miss not being at last weekend's California Republican Party convention in Sacramento? Schwarzenegger gave a prescient speech to the Republicans at their fall 2007 convention outside Palm Springs warning them of impending marginalization in statewide elections if they continued their drift ever rightward. His message fell flat, but the delegates lapped up Texas Governor Rick Perry's far right red meat when he followed Schwarzenegger on the program. In the last few years of his administration, Schwarzenegger usually didn't bother to come up with excuses for not attending.

Did he miss the now highly predictable budget moves by Sacramento's entrenched lobbies and ideologues with which successor Jerry Brown is now painfully contending?

Let me see if I can remember from when we talked.

Will Jerry Brown end up finding dealing with the dysfunctional legislative scene as unproductive as Schwarzenegger did? Or are Republicans doing the best job possible to discredit themselves and make their party irrelevant?