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Viewpoints: California GOP should worry about optics of federal shutdown

If you’re one of those tortured souls who believe that right-wing conspiracies account for life’s annoyances, then this past week was all cattle and all tin-foil hat.

Monday saw two milestones that makes liberals dyspeptic: the 17th anniversary of Fox News Channel’s inception, and the 10th anniversary of the California recall election, which began with a conservative-fueled petition drive.

By week’s end, the nation had endured a fortnight of a partial shutdown of the federal government – gridlock that began when congressional Republicans turned the federal government into the Faber College homecoming parade and the last scene of “Animal House”: “This situation absolutely requires a futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part ... We’re just the guys to do it.”

I won’t defend the GOP’s intransigence because, from a strategic standpoint, it’s nonsensical. The endgame is to make 2014’s congressional races a referendum on the horrors of Obamacare; the shutdown drowned out reports of the law’s struggle to get off the ground – websites crashing, citizens receiving surprisingly higher premiums in the mail. Even President Barack Obama’s press conference on Tuesday lacked a single question about Obamacare glitches.

That said, this impasse was inevitable. Twenty years ago, the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan advised Bill and Hillary Clinton not to proceed with health care reform. His warning: “Anything important passes the Senate 70-30 or it does not pass at all.” Obamacare fell 10 votes shy of Moynihan’s standard and nowhere near political closure – not after the controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision, Obama’s cherry-picking of which sections to delay until after the next election, tea partiers spoiling for a fight, House Speaker John Boehner’s fondness for 11th-hour brinkmanship, and Democratic strategists who see the impasse as their ticket to regaining the House in 2014.

Here’s one more reason why Washington isn’t working: it’s divided along partisan extremes, just like Sacramento.

Obama was re-elected by a 5-million-vote cushion, but voters handcuffed him by opting not to split tickets. Of today’s 234 House Republicans, all of 17 come from congressional districts that voted for Obama in 2012 (Bill Clinton carried 79 such districts in 1996). Only seven Democrats come from districts that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.

This creates three problems: Members of both parties worry more about primaries than general elections; the president has few “split” districts where he can attempt to pressure a member to cross party lines; the president is afforded no respect (not a single Republican voted for Bill Clinton’s economic plan in 1993; in 1981, 48 House Democratic crossed the aisle and voted for President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts).

The comparison to California isn’t exact, as the House of Representatives has undergone three political convulsions in the past 20 years, compared to a brief Republican takeover of the state Assembly in the mid-1990s. Unlike Washington, California gets its fiscal business done on time – but only because the numbers and the rules give one party the run of the place.

But the polarization is just as bad three time zones to the West as it is in Washington. Sure, there’s bipartisanship in Sacramento when it comes to protecting leatherback sea turtles from extinction, or Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry from paparazzi. Otherwise, the sight of lawmakers working in harmony under the state Capitol dome is about as common as sweater weather in July.

The question, then, is whether California Republicans can improve their current plight (no statewide offices, super-minorities in both legislative chambers) by adopting the same obstructionist attitude in the nation’s capital.

The guess here: no.

The government shutdown is about the 2014 congressional elections and the opening phase of the 2016 presidential race, where Republican hopefuls already are jockeying for position.

Californian Republicans aren’t playing for 2014 or 2016 – not when the party lacks viable candidates and is playing catch-up on fundraising and nuts-and-bolts organization. A more realistic goal would be to gain competitive footing by, say, 2018 – while adapting the party to an evolving California political landscape.

Which leads to a problem in the making for the state GOP, thanks to its cousin at the national level: The federal government shutdown is killing whatever slim chances were left for immigration reform in 2013 – further poisoning the well with California’s Latino voters.

This won’t resonate with much of the House majority – only 38 of the House’s 234 Republicans hail from districts where Latinos account for 20 percent or more of the population. But California’s a different animal. Latinos represent one-third of the state’s adult population and only 16 percent of Californians likely to vote, but both numbers are rising – and working against Republicans as registered Democratic Latino voters outnumber Republicans by nearly a 4-1 margin.

Republicans here could choose not to worry – of the 15 congressional districts the GOP won in California in 2012, only one was by less than 9.6 percentage points. But that’s 15 House seats versus 38 for Democrats. After the 2000 election, California’s House delegation was 27 Democrats, 25 Republicans.

The difference could be no more stark: a week ago, Gov. Jerry Brown traveled to Fresno to highlight the new law granting driver permits to illegal immigrants. Just before that, Rep. Devin Nunes, a Visalia Republican representing the nation’s seventh most Latino district (46 percent), characterized his colleagues as “moronic” and “lemmings with suicide vests” for bringing on the government shutdown.

California’s most prominent Democrat is doing an end-zone dance. A Republican who’d like to climb that high thinks his teammates have been in too many scrimmages without a helmet.

You decide who’s ahead on the scoreboard.