CA Link to Debt Limit Crisis


If the fight over the debt limit in Washington this week feels familiar to you as a Californian, it should.

UPDATE: Debt ceiling vote delayed.

One of the most important Republican strategists in the DC fight cut his teeth in the last decade's budget fights in Sacramento.

That strategist is Kevin McCarthy, a Congressman from Bakersfield and one of the most important California politicians who most Californians have never heard of.

He's #3 in the House Republican leadership hierarchy, counting votes in the post of whip. In that role, he's shaping the strategy in the ongoing back-and-forth over the federal debt limit.

And most of what he learned about strategy in high-stakes budget negotiations was from his time in Sacramento. McCarthy was the Assembly's top Republican in Gov. Schwarzenegger's first term.

The tactics employed by the GOP in Sacramento budget fights resemble those used by the GOP in DC this week, in three ways:

1. Relentless message and internal discipline.

Which is to say, stick together. Republicans in Sacramento were in the minority but tended to move and vote as a block, increasing their leverage.

They never stopped talking about the state having a spending problem, not a revenue (even when that wasn't true). This playbook is being closely followed in Washington.

2. Take hostages.

You're reading about all kinds of demands that GOP leaders in Congress are making as the price of getting their votes to raise the debt ceiling. That's classic Sacramento.

Since Republican votes were needed to pass a budget before Prop 25's passage in 2010 (and still are needed to approve revenues), Sacramento Republicans produced long lists of demands that they wanted met in exchange for their votes on the budget.

A recent New York Times magazine profile portrays McCarthy as tellling Tea Party Republicans not to oppose the debt ceiling outright but to use it as an opportuity to get something they want.

"We all ran for a reason,” McCarthy tells them in the profile. “What’s most of concern to you? What is it that we think will change America?”

3. Be shameless, and don't behave like you're in the minority.

Republicans in Sacramento were a small minority, but they always behaved and talked as though they had an enormous popular mandate. Republicans control only one half of the legislature branch in Washington, but they're acting like they run the place.

That comes in part from McCarthy, who told his fellow Republicans at a 2009 dinner shortly after President Obama was elected: “Let’s not act like the minority. Let’s challenge them on every single bill and on every single campaign — and let’s do it right away.”

This is sound political strategy, in that it amplifies Republican power and concerns.

But it also relies on creating the sense of constant crisis and chaos. As we've learned in California, the culture of crisis is not healthy for a government, or a state. 

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