Top 5 tips for Democrats’ circular firing squad

Nov. 5, 2012

By John Hrabe

Just a day before the election, California Democrats seem intent on self-destruction. Liberal activist Molly Munger has been trashing Jerry’s tax hike. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman have spent more than $13 million in their battle to the death. And Rep. Pete Stark has engaged in a “defamation” campaign against fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell.

Scott Lay, publisher of Around the Capitol, recently observed, “The governor’s tax increase has a very uphill battle at this point, after a hammering from the No on 30 campaign and mixed messages associated with Molly Munger’s Proposition 38.”

“How Molly Munger can live with herself — after virtually every independent political analyst in California advised her that she would crush school finances by going ahead with her self-indulgent ballot measure — we have no bloody idea,” lamented CalBuzz’s dynamic duo Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. California Democrats haven’t quite perfected some of the California GOP’s finest circular firing squad techniques.

5. Draw Clear Ideological Battle Lines: “You’re Either With Us or Against Us”

All parties have battles between party purists and moderates. What makes the California GOP so special? The California GOP has a particular knack for turning its ideological differences into organized grassroots fights.

When infighting reaches the level of your grassroots youth organization, you know it’s a serious problem. For years, California Republicans had not one but two young Republican clubs, the California Young Republicans and the Young Republican Federation of California. The state wasn’t overrun with baby elephants, thereby justifying two clubs.

The second young Republican group was the result of an ideological split between conservative activists and the liberal Bill Thomas machine. In 2011, the two clubs finally reunited, but not without one last stand from the former Thomas-ites.

This feud groomed an entire generation of GOP activists in the tradition of party feuding. How many of the party’s problems were compounded by the young Republican divide? How much resentment dates back to meaningless endorsement votes by the Y’s? Conflict causes grudges and, in turn, more conflict.

For Democrats, Gov. Jerry Brown has sown the seeds of a similar intra-party ideological divide. On pensions, the death penalty and school funding, Brown has staked out moderate ground, which should offend younger liberal activists. In a desperate effort to save Prop. 30, Brown has even courted the state’s business community with a recent appearance “at the headquarters of the Bay Area Council in San Francisco.”  The Occupy crowd within the Democratic Party can’t embrace Brown’s solicitation of big business.

Brown has moved so far to the right it’s unlikely that his younger self would approve. Brown once persuaded his father to stay the execution of a convicted rapist. In 2010, the former seminarian proclaimed, “There’s probably no person in America who has fought to enforce the death penalty more than I have.” This brash George W. Bush-style rhetoric can’t sit well with liberal Democrats, nor can Brown’s budget cuts. How can liberals accept Brown state budgets that spend more on prisons than schools?

The top-two primary will result in more “moderate versus liberal” Democratic general elections. In the Bay Area, Sally Lieber, a former three-term Assemblywoman, is doing her best to win a State Senate seat against the moderate, pro-business Assemblyman Jerry Hill.  Moving forward, the Democrats’ litmus test could be Prop. 30 and Prop. 38. Did you back the moderate measure or stand up for schools?

4. Offend a Key Voting Bloc

The California Republican Party’s downfall is inextricably linked to its poor standing with Latino voters.  It’s perfectly reasonable to disagree about immigration policy, but you can’t ignore the cost of that position.  Just compare California to Florida, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than half a million voters. Although Florida Republicans are outnumbered, they hold more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the state legislature. One savvy California political consultant told me that’s all because the Florida GOP courted Latino voters.

How do Democrats match that act? Can Democrats really offend a key voting bloc like California Republicans did with the Latino community? It’s tough to see a comparable scenario. But, it’s worth pointing to Brown’s latent sexism in his treatment of Munger. Brown’s first response to Munger was to dispatch his wife as an intermediary. Gust is a power player in her own right, but she doesn’t hold any official position.

Male donors aren’t passed off to a spouse, why was Molly? Can anyone say gender didn’t play a role in how the Brown team responded to Munger’s insurrection?  If Brown was serious about avoiding the 30 vs. 38 battle, why didn’t he personally call Munger?

The California Democratic Party has been no better than Brown in supporting women. The party has few high-ranking Democratic women in leadership positions. Governor, Lt. Governor, Controller, Treasurer, Superintendent of Schools, Insurance Commissioner, California Democratic Party Chair, Speaker of the Assembly, Senate President Pro Temp and the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco: man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man. Women hold just four of the highest positions: Secretary of State, Attorney General, Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore and Senate Majority Leader.

3. Use the Party Machine to Defeat Republican Candidates

The California Republican Party has a long history of officials using the party machine to exact revenge. Between meaningless party resolutions and votes to censor party officers, there are just too many examples to recount them all. The most recent example of party machinery working against Republican officials is occurring in the congressional battle between Rep. Gary Miller and State Sen. Bob Dutton. According to the Press Enterprise’s Cassie MacDuff:

“With two Republicans running against each other for the vacant 31st Congressional District seat, the California Republican Party has taken sides.

“A mailer showing a snoozing state Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, hit mailboxes this week. It paints him as a “big spender” who needs to ‘wake up.’ The CRP sent out at least three other mailers supporting Dutton’s foe — Rep. Gary Miller, R-Rancho Cucamonga — who was faced with having to run against another fellow Repub in his home district (in and around Diamond Bar), or move east to the new district (Rancho Cucamonga to Redlands) and take on Dutton. He took on Dutton.”

By using the party machine to exact revenge, you force people to take a side publicly. Only one official Democratic organization has endorsed Prop. 38: the Santa Monica Democratic Club. If Democrats want to really cause intra-party chaos, they should use the party machine to punish these renegades. De-charter the organization. Refuse to reappoint the party members. This mutiny can’t go unpunished, if Democrats want their circular firing squad to lock and load.

The Stark vs. Swalwell battle has gone down this path. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Carla Marinucci reports, “The president of a major East Bay Democratic Club has expressed revulsion at what he calls the ‘defamation’ campaign being run by Democratic East Bay Rep. Pete Stark, 81, who’s seeking his 21st term in a close contest against Democratic Alameda County prosecutor Eric Swalwell, 31.”

2. Scare Away Donors

The California Republican Party’s finances mirror the state’s. Both go through boom and bust cycles: the party waits for one wealthy benefactor or rich gubernatorial candidate to infuse it with cash in much the same way that California has relied on windfall profits from tech companies. Both need a broad base of support for long-term financial stability.

California’s many unions fund the Democratic Party. How on earth could Democrats scare them away? Prop. 30’s failure could set off a mad scramble among unions for precious state dollars. If Brown’s measure loses, there won’t be enough money to keep everyone happy. Education leaders could regret their decision to back Brown’s tax increase. Higher education already has broken ranks with legislative leaders. Should the tax increase fail, budget animosity will increase.

1. Losing Just Proves We Were Right!

The most important factor to a successful circular firing squad is interpreting your party’s losses as proof that you were right in the ideological fight. Loss isn’t a reason to change positions, tactics or your losing approach. It’s just proof those other guys screwed up.

Again, it doesn’t matter which side you’re on. Party purists and centrists selectively use party losses to reaffirm their moral superiority and self-righteousness. Look at the California GOP’s track record of failed US Senate nominees. In 2000, Tom Campbell proved voters wouldn’t embrace a moderate Republican. In 2006, Dick Mountjoy proved that conservative Republican candidates lose statewide elections. In 2010, Carly Fiorina was too conservative. In 2012, Elizabeth Emken was too moderate.

On Wednesday, look for similar recriminations from Democrats as they continue to take aim at one another.

John Hrabe’s first piece on Democratic circular firing squads is here.

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