In an era of partisan morass, when nothing passes the Senate without 60 votes and the definition of bipartisanship is attracting a single outlying member of the opposite party, it's hard to imagine a political system any more broken than Washington's. But Washington's dysfunction looks downright efficient when it comes to California, a state that redefines partisan gridlock and government inaction.
And yet California is trying something new, something that gives hope to those calling for a revitalized middle. At a time when Democrats and Republicans alike inherently distrust each other, and when both sides are becoming more partisan, the Golden State is creating an atmosphere that has the opportunity to foster centrist candidates.
"California is the light at the end of the tunnel of our dark, hyper-partisan politics," says political consultant Mark McKinnon, who has worked for Democrats and Republicans alike and who serves on the board of No Labels, a group that aims to break down partisan walls.
Two recent developments in California's political landscape—a bipartisan redistricting commission and a new primary system designed to empower moderates over the partisan bases of both parties—are fueling the hopes of centrists like McKinnon.
They come at a time when California badly needs to encourage compromise to fix budget problems that have festered since the late 1970s. If a new generation of moderates are able to reach that compromise, the most broken state in the union could be the one that guides the country back to a functioning government.
Californians cannot blame anyone but themselves for the long quagmire they have faced. After voters slashed property tax rates in 1978, a bipartisan succession of governors struggled through a series of budget crises to find a mix of budget cuts and revenue increases palatable to enough legislators to close increasingly large deficits.
But time was working against those governors. Legislators, interested in keeping their jobs and maintaining the status quo, drew maps during the decennial redistricting process that ensured the vast majority of seats would be uncompetitive (Evidence of California's virtually unparalleled redistricting success; in the last decade, including during wave elections in 2006, 2008, and 2010, just one seat changed party control, when Democrat Jerry McNerney beat the ethically challenged Rep. Richard Pombo in 2006).
The absence of competition means a party's nominee need not appeal to independent voters; the only fear any Republican or Democrat has of being defeated comes from a member of their own party better able to appeal to the base in the primary. That creates a powerful incentive to strike the harshest possible partisan tone, and a disincentive to work across party lines.
The proliferation of more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats made governors' balancing acts increasingly difficult. California rules require support from two-thirds of the legislature to pass a tax increase, meaning a distinct minority of members farthest out on the fringe can delay crucial budget agreements. In some cases, it became impossible to muster a two-thirds majority necessary to make the choice among unpalatable options such as cuts to school budgets, a massive program of prisoner releases, or a tax hike, whether modest or expansive. In an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, governors are frequently reduced to begging a single Republican member and promising legislative favors simply to allow the government to continue to function.
But amid the sad state of California's political affairs, two factors suggest the extreme divisions between Republicans and Democrats stand a chance of breaking down.
Thanks to an initiative approved by voters in 2008, for the first time in the state's history its new congressional district lines will this year be drawn by a non-partisan commission made up of 14 members, including members of both parties, as well as independents. The commission was not able to consider where a current member of Congress lived as it drew new borders, and it had to draw compact districts to comply with the 2008 initiative.
After a series of meetings around the state, the commission ratified new maps late last week, districts that appear to offer more competitive seats than any map in recent memory. To win those seats, parties would do well to nominate candidates who offer a greater appeal to centrist and independent voters.
The second development, ironically, gives the parties much less say in selecting a nominee. Under a 2010 voter initiative, the top two finishers in a primary advance to the general election—regardless of their party affiliation. That means there is no guarantee a Republican or Democrat makes it through to November; a primary could just as easily produce two Republicans, or two Democrats (That was almost the case in a recent special election in California's 36th Congressional District, where a Republican businessman made it to the general election by a scant margin).
The new arrangement gives independent voters a bigger say in a primary, and it could lead to more centrist candidates winning election. Even in the safest of Democratic districts, for example, a coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans could defeat a liberal electorate in November. It will not pay, in other words, to kowtow to the base rather than to more moderate voters. Compromise with members of the other party may remain grounds for a challenge from within one's own party, but it won't be the threat a primary challenge has become.
The "top two" primary system doesn't guarantee a moderate wins; in a similar system in 1991, Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer finished third in an all-party primary, leaving Democrat Edwin Edwards, whose alleged corruption was well-known in the state, to face off against David Duke, a white supremacist who finished second in the primary. A recent study in Washington state, which also has a top-two system, hasn't led to an increase in moderates in the legislature.
"Independent voters differ attitudinally from voters who identify with a political party. They are more cynical of politics and government, and are the least likely to turn out, especially in an election which is not in November of an even numbered year, like a primary," said Ron Nehring, a GOP strategist and former chairman of the California Republican Party. "Candidates still need to identify and turn out a base, and add voters to their winning coalition based on issues which resonate with independent voters, while dampening enthusiasm for the opposition. This system still rewards candidates who can build and maintain a base."
But at a moment when hyper-partisanship seems to promise endless gridlock, California represents the possibility of something different. "There are a lot of elements that have led to the paralyzed, poisonous system that we have today, but California has launched some reforms that could reverse course toward some sanity and a system that appeals to mainstream America rather than the extreme fringes," McKinnon said.
Prospects for a revitalized center, at a moment when the tea party movement and liberals in Congress are coming to dominate their respective caucuses, is probably years away. But from the state that helped guide us toward our current, unsustainable crisis of partisan gridlock, a path has emerged to drag us out.