There are dozens of speeches still posted on Barack Obama’s campaign website that the President delivered over the last several years, beginning with his statement opposing the Iraq War in 2002 and concluding with his Election Night victory address this past November. One entry that has received less attention was a floor speech from his first few months in the U.S. Senate, when Obama warned his new colleagues about how their constituents were becoming increasingly unhappy by the overly partisan behavior they saw in Washington.
"What they don’t expect is for one party – be it Republican or Democrat – to change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet." said the new Senator. ".we need to rise above an ‘ends justify the means’ mentality because we’re here to answer to the people – all of the people – not just the ones wearing our party label."
The circumstances under which Obama leveled his warning were historic. Senate Republicans, who then controlled that chamber, had become increasingly frustrated with the unwillingness of the Democratic minority to be more cooperative in moving forward with President Bush’s judicial nominations. The GOP leadership had become so impatient at the Democrats’ stubbornness that they devised a legislative maneuver that would allow them to confirm judges with a straight majority vote, rather than the super-majority of sixty votes that had historically been required to end a filibuster. Soon, the Republican power play had become known as "the nuclear option" for the constitutional damage that would be done to the institution of the Senate.
We currently face a similar situation in California, where members of a minority party – Republicans this time — are resisting efforts by the majority Democrats to pass a state budget. Like the Senate Republicans back in Washington a few years ago, Democrats in the state legislature have become so infuriated that they have developed a strategy that can increase taxes by a simple majority rather than the two-thirds super-majority that has historically been required. In Sacramento, the majority party’s exasperation with the impertinence of the legislative minority grows by the day, and calls to abolish the two-thirds requirement for budget passage grow louder as well.
In a better world, California lawmakers would follow the example of how the U.S. Senate resolved its own gridlock without eliminating the ability of credible opposition voices to be heard. When a constitutional crisis appeared imminent, seven Senators from each party came together to negotiate a compromise in which a few Bush nominees were withdrawn in exchange for many who were confirmed. Hard-liners on both sides were unhappy with the agreement, but the end result allowed both Republicans and Democrats to achieve many of their goals. The stalemate was resolved and the federal government was able to continue to fulfill its responsibilities, providing for considerable advantages for the majority party but preserving the rights of the Democratic minority as well.
That’s unlikely to happen here. The two parties in the legislature are separated by an even wider ideological gulf that their Congressional counterparts. Recent polling from the Public Policy Institute of California that shows lessening voter support for the two thirds budget requirement will only encourage the majority to revisit the scorched earth approach before a budget agreement is reached.
Governor Schwarzenegger may have provided the first steps toward a long-term solution to this type of intransigence when he successfully fought for the passage of a ballot initiative last November that would increase both the chances of competition between the parties for legislative seats and the likelihood of some centrists of both parties gaining election. While life would be much easier if there was no minority party in government, the way out of our current mess can be the increased electoral competition and greater balance provided for by Proposition 11. The result will be a legislature in which the majority can work cohesively with the minority — rather than simply ignoring them.
Can California resist the impulse toward the type of kill-or-be-killed majoritarianism that our new president warned of three years ago? Yes, to coin a phrase, we can.
Dan Schnur is the Director of the Jesse M. Unruh of Politics at the University of Southern California. He has previously served as Director of Communications for former California Governor Pete Wilson and the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain.