Are dragons next? Perhaps it’s no surprise that references to mythical animals increasingly are being used to describe the state budget. After all, California’s budget negotiations have been surreal for years.
But there also appears to be a growing effort by Democrats to paint their Republican adversaries as childish and out-of-touch with reality. If one were to make a press conference bingo card to bring to Democratic budget pronouncements lately, a winning card would likely contain lots of words like “mythical,” “magical,” “reality,” “irresponsible,” and yes, “mermaids.”
Mermaids, of course, have become the theme creature for these budget negotiations — as in the actual human women in costumes who swim around a tank in Dive Bar, a block from the Capitol. The new watering hole has come to symbolize the redevelopment issue, because a developer was able to build it and two neighboring businesses by cashing in on a complex deal that recycled older redevelopment funds. In that case, though, another Republican — libertarian-minded Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, a major opponent of redevelopment agencies — was perhaps the main evangelist for the image.
On Tuesday morning, Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, and Assembly budget chair Bob Blumenfield, D-San Fernando Valley, rolled out the next wandering monster: unicorns.
Mainly it was Blumenfield, who made several references to the mythical, one-horned horses, including this zinger: “The time for being against everything is over. That’s not governing. Republicans need to stop chasing unicorns. I have a five-year-old girl who believes in unicorns, and that’s fine.”
Blumenfield actually introduced his unicorn theme in March, when he compared Republican budget ideas to unicorns at a late afternoon press conference after a long day of budget negotiations that went nowhere. According to sources, the unicorn theme had been bouncing around among Democrats for months, but Blumenfield’s references were his own, off-the-cuff response.
Of course, Republicans have long been known for being far better than Democrats on the basics of political communication, rolling out catchy and consistent themes that have largely defined public debate for years. Many of these, of course, were meant to portray Democrats as out-of-touch elitists with their heads in the clouds.
And they even got to the unicorn theme first. Around April Fool’s Day last year, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a spot mocking the Obama administration for “solving global warming by replacing cars with low-emission unicorns powered by rainbows.”
Of course, rainbow-and-unicorn comparisons in politics have a far longer history than that. It’s all part of one of the fundamental battles of politics: redefining the center more towards your own way of thinking. Overall, it’s something Republicans have done far better than Democrats in recent decades — attaching extreme-sounding words to your opponents like so many refrigerator magnets.
Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway, R-Visalia, offered up her own version of opponent-as-extremist bingo in her official response to the Perez presser, checking off the boxes for “irresponsible,” “dangerous criminals,” and “tax increase.” Her opening led the theme perfectly with this simple, declarative, make-the-voters-feel-good-about-themselves sentence: “I live in the real world outside of Sacramento.”
But one thing that does seem to be changing is the discipline with which legislative Democrats have been hitting their Republican counterparts with a few key words designed to marginalize them. Perez pointed out that Republicans, who make up 35 percent of the Assembly, gave just 7 percent of the votes to the almost $14 billion in cuts that passed last month.
This also allowed him to get in one of the more successful phrases Democrats have been able to add into the discussion in recent years - the “all-cuts budget,” as in, “There are no votes for an all-cuts budget” and “It’s just a brutal reality that all-cuts is not going to be the solution.”
Perez followed up with a letter to Conway that afternoon, though since it was also sent to the press corps, one could argue about who was really the intended audience. It used more measured language; you’d need “disappointing,” “partisan sound bites” and “obligation” for a winning bingo card.
Perez also invoked the federal government shutdown — a sign that Democrats again see this as a winning issue —stating: “Your caucus has an obligation to work with Assembly Democrats on approving temporary revenue extensions necessary to protect schools and public safety from billions of dollars of cuts that will jeopardize our economic recovery and threaten the safety of Californians.”
It’s coming ahead of competing road shows. Gov. Jerry Brown, Perez and other Democrats will be heading out into Republican districts in the coming weeks to, as Perez put it at his presser, “talk to their constituents.”
Meanwhile, Conway headed off to Texas on Wednesday with nine GOP legislators and a pair of Democrats: mod-squad Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Tracy, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. The stated goal of that trip is to look at the success that state has had with lower taxation and regulation - though Democrats have contested some of their figures.
Of course, each effort comes with its pitfalls. For Republicans, leaving in the middle of a stalled budget process could invite comparisons to the 14 Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin in February to prevent a vote on a bill to end collective bargaining for public employees — or the Democratic legislators who fled Texas for Oklahoma in 2003 to stop a redistricting effort. And it won’t do much to persuade voters for whom Texas brings up mainly negative connotations.
For Democrats, it’s the risk of further alienating rural voters by appearing to be urban elitists who question their values and their voting choices.
And the road shows themselves come ahead of a pair of elections. First, a potential taxpayer decision on tax extensions or increases — that difference being defined both by timing and party allegiance. Republicans “ran out the clock,” to quote a new favorite Democratic catch phrase, on Brown’s proposed June special election. But such a vote may come in either September or November, possibly with a signature campaign backed by the California Teachers Association. Democrats have little hope of such an initiative winning in the areas they’ll visit, but will seek to pick off enough swing votes to give a proposition a fighting chance.
On Tuesday, Perez also invoked the possibility of using a pickoff strategy to get enough Republican votes for some sort of tax increase without going to voters. “I’m not the governor and I didn’t make that promise,” he said of Brown’s campaign pledge not to raise taxes “without a vote of the people.” It was a mild threat that also put a little daylight between himself and Brown - something that may help the governor’s efforts to appear centrist.
And centrist may be the name of the game in 2012, when most current legislators face reelection fights in top-two primaries in districts that may be radically different from their current forms. For a politician, it’s the equivalent of sailing for the unknown parts of the map - the ones that used to marked with the warning, “There be dragons.”