Summer vacation put the family on the West Coast just in time to hear California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pronounce recalcitrant legislative Democrats "girlie men." Alarmed Dems huffed and puffed with predictable indignation.

Our boys -- both teenagers -- thought the episode was a hoot. It was also familiar.

The solid majority of Democrats in the California Assembly should take a measure of the once-solid majority of Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly, who greeted Republican Gov. George Allen with similar derision 10 years ago.

On the cold January day of his inaugural, Allen took to the south portico of the Virginia state capitol and said, "Virginians know that government policies have been diminishing opportunity and stifling initiative under the heavy, grimy boot of excessive taxation and spending and regulation." Allen was, of course, describing the policies of the Democrats, still firmly in charge. His successful campaign for governor, Allen declared, amounted to a victory for "taking back Virginia's government for Virginians; it was taking it back for you, not for stolid, status quo, monarchical elitists." You know, girlie men. Get rid of them, and it's milk and honey for everybody.

That's the political calculus, anyway, and it may, in the long run, prove as effective for Schwarzenegger in California as it was for Allen in Virginia. That is, if the California Democrats go through the same stages of denial and disorder that Virginia legislators did.

The pattern goes like this: You start with compromise. Let us try to work together, the Democrats will say. Sure enough, Schwarzenegger reached agreement on the state budget -- the source of the immediate dispute -- with the legislature's leadership Wednesday. Photo ops all around.

Allen did that, too. On the state budget. On prison reform. On welfare reform. On educational reform. And the photos made for good history. Nary a smiling Democrat in them is still in office.

After the compromise? Destruction.

No matter how friendly or accommodating he may have been, when the next election rolls around, a confident governor will be saying, "Look at what we got done -- and we can get even more done without them." Schwarzenegger already is talking about making the California Assembly a part-time enterprise. It won't happen, but it will neatly frame the next election. Democrats for the status quo; Republicans for reform.

Guess how that works out?

Even now, with their legislative numbers having dwindled to insignificance, Virginia Democrats struggle to grasp what happened to them. A recently concluded forum sponsored by the University of Virginia Center for Politics had ex-legislators -- including some Republicans -- bemoaning the loss of civility and camaraderie. The thrill is gone and all that.

Well, that was the idea. It's not about reasoned policies, reallocation of resources and solving problems. It's about replacement. Hard, mean and relentless.

Allen left the state with the largest budget in Virginia's history. He didn't care. He tried to get a $2.5 billion tax cut through, but when that didn't work, he went on a spending binge. Whatever works.

Schwarzenegger is doing the same thing. Lots of populist boilerplate combined with pragmatic maneuvering. He's popular, charming and intensely competitive. Ditto Allen.

Institutional resistance is hard. That was the experience in Virginia. The Democrats, once put on the defensive, failed to find their strongest ground and often defended too much. That was a mistake. They assumed voters would remember all the good they had done. Another mistake. Many tried to make it on their own. Mistake No. 3. Besides, Democrats instinctively try to make nice. They'll split the difference. Even when they're mad, they'll do elevator music for you, as they did all last week in Boston.

Meanwhile, the Republicans -- the hard-core operatives and cynics, mostly -- will see how much lead pipe they can collect. They don't laugh when they lose, and they recognize a challenge when it's been made.

Girlie men. Monarchal elitists. Pick your slur. It's just a signal of what's to come. We'll see if the California Assembly Democrats figure this out any sooner than their counterparts in Virginia did.

gcmorse@cox.net