Peter Schrag

Viewpoints: GOP's problems arrived in California first

Published: Friday, Feb. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 - 10:08 pm

For those of us who've watched the transformation and meltdown of the California Republican Party for the past 30 or 40 years, today's much-discussed problems of the national GOP seem like déjà vu all over again. And the causes are pretty much the same.

And for the same reasons, if former state Sen. Jim Brulte, who's almost certain to become chairman of the California GOP, can manage to yank his party back to relevance – a daunting task, to say the least – California might again become a national model in that department as well.

In California, Gov. Pete Wilson's embrace and exploitation of Proposition 187, which sought to deny undocumented immigrants and their children all public services, including K-12 education, is widely regarded as one turning point in his party's decline.

It was that political decision, symbolized by Wilson's famous TV ad in his 1994 re-election campaign – it had the refrain, "they just keep coming" – that drove Latinos into the open arms of the Democrats, where they and their children have been ever since. What makes that particularly ironic is that Wilson belonged to the last generation of moderate Republicans.

Earlier, in 1978, in an indication of the general drift, Howard Jarvis, chief author of Proposition 13, had declared (in these pages) that he was sick of all those "illegal aliens who come here to get on the taxpayers' gravy train."

But if the GOP's hostility to undocumented immigrants – and in many cases, all non-European immigrants – is one symptom of the growing discomfort of many older, white Americans with the new world growing under and around them, it's hardly the only one.

And here again, that new world emerged sooner, and most obviously, in California. It was Ronald Reagan, the great avatar of modern Republicanism, who in 1967 signed the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, at that time one of the few liberal abortion laws in the nation.

It was Reagan who approved what was then the largest tax increase in state history. It's doubtful that with that record, the GOP would ever nominate him again.

It was California that passed open housing laws and other anti-discrimination laws. It was California that led the nation in environmental policy and laws promoting energy efficiency.

It was the California Supreme Court that struck down the state's ban on gay marriage, and while the voters narrowly passed Proposition 8 in 2008, it's doubtful, given the swing in public attitudes, that it could ever pass again.

In 1977, according to the Field Poll, 28 percent of Californians approved of gay marriage. In 2008, just before the last surge of intensive campaigning led to the narrow passage of Proposition 8, 51 percent of Californians approved of gay marriage. Now, according to the Field Poll, 59 percent approve.

In the intervening 30 years, there was a wide swing toward tolerance among Democrats (26 percent to 65 percent) and independents (33 percent to 61 percent) but no change whatever among Republicans (28 percent to 25 percent).

Our postwar backlash against progressivism began in 1978. We tried to drive out undocumented immigrants in 1994, decades before Arizona's SB 1070, and well before Mitt Romney added "self-deportation" to the Newspeak dictionary. In the 1980s, the Legislature, with some help from Democrats, killed state abortion funding (always restored by the courts). In the same decade, Gov. George Deukmejian tried to strike family planning from the state budget.

Put another way, the California GOP was captured by the tea party long before the tea party had a name.

For California, most of that is probably now just an embarrassing era in our history, a dark chapter like Chinese exclusion and Manzanar and Tule Lake. Non-Hispanic whites are now just another minority in California and, for the first time, there are more Latinos than whites and at every election more of them go to the polls. On that score also, California leads the nation.

The question now is whether, and how, the GOP will get comfortable in that new world – which it desperately needs to do if it's to remain a viable party, part of the political dialogue that's essential to a strong democracy. And since much of the reaction began here, maybe reaction against the reaction could begin here as well.

Our great political divisions are not just economic and ethnic, but generational. Latinos, the fastest growing segment of the electorate, and African Americans are, if not Democrats, alienated from, and often disgusted by, the GOP. But so are most younger voters.

The California GOP's record to date doesn't offer great encouragement for the national party. The brightest sign is the likely choice of Brulte. When he was the minority leader in the Senate, Brulte once told me that despite his conservatism – he had once threatened any Republican who voted for a tax increase with a primary challenge – he was in the left wing of his party. Like Reagan, he was more a pragmatist than an ideologue. So far, in any case, there aren't many others on the horizon who would even try.

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