SACRAMENTO — From California to Wisconsin to Ohio, the partisan vitriol had been spreading from statehouse to statehouse until it erupted in Washington last month as Congress debated the debt limit and brought the nation to the brink of default.
Months of haggling in Congress over budget cuts pushed Standard & Poor’s on Friday to downgrade the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history. David Beers, global head of sovereign ratings at S&P, said the key consideration was “the nature of the debate and the difficulty in framing a political consensus.”
Residents in states plagued by budget deficits and statehouse showdowns over government spending are familiar with the difficulty of discourse infused with an especially negative tone.
And that tone in Washington and beyond is only likely to deepen as the nation heads into a presidential election year.
In Minnesota, a standoff led to a three-week shutdown; Wisconsin Democrats fled the state rather than kill public employee bargaining rights as similar feuds between unions and conservatives erupted nationwide; and after months of talks, not a single California Republican was willing to vote for the state budget.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) blamed that state’s budget impasse on “extreme right-wing caucus members” who he said “understand little about government and care even less.”
The state’s GOP chairman, Tony Sutton, responded by calling Dayton “a spoiled rich guy” and questioning his mental fitness — possibly alluding to his previous struggles with depression.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) faced a budget showdown with unions that assailed his policies as harmful to the middle and working classes. He chastised a liberal group that opposed his plans to privatize more government functions.
“It’s all in the pursuit of selfish power,” Kasich said at the time.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown returned to the job after 28 years promising to repair a fractured legislature. He hoped to persuade lawmakers from both parties to set aside their differences out of “loyalty to California.”
The Democratic governor proposed what he called a moderate approach to addressing the state’s nearly $27 billion budget deficit — calling for a mix of spending cuts and temporary tax increases, much like the plans considered by Congress during the debt-ceiling debate. After months of negotiations, Brown couldn’t persuade enough Republicans to agree, leaving him to sign a Democratic budget that passed without one GOP vote. Without Republicans, Democrats were unable to extend the expiring tax increases.
Brown, 73, said he was shocked by the intransigence of elected officials compared with his first tenure as governor from 1975 to 1983. Issues that used to be nonpartisan are now politicized, he said.
“There’s nothing in the Republican Party historically that demands the level of obsessional dogmatism that I see,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “On the other side, the Democrats all vote together, too. So we’re really missing the independent, robust debate that democracy assumes.”
A prelude to the summer showdown in Washington came this spring in Wisconsin, a historically moderate and progressive state. Decades of divided government there ended last fall after Republicans won the governor’s office and majorities in both houses of the legislature.
Democratic lawmakers fled the state and thousands of protesters stormed the Capitol for weeks after Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans tried to approve a major rollback of public employee benefits and collective bargaining rights for government workers. Walker eventually signed the changes into law, but six Republicans and three Democrats face recall elections this month.
“The rhetoric and the division between the parties probably goes to the high points precisely when control of institutions is in doubt,” said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The tone is especially sharp because many Americans are afraid about the future of the country, said Sal Russo, a longtime Republican operative based in Sacramento and founder of the Tea Party Express, a well-funded wing of the populist movement. But voters — and those they elect to state offices and Congress — have sharply different views on what the future should be, he said.
“There’s people who are in office today with very different visions,” Russo said. “It’s difficult if somebody wants to make government much smaller and somebody wants to make government much bigger. How do you compromise on that?”
Russo, whose group is one of many factions in the movement, said he supports toning down the rhetoric. He said that compromise is sometimes essential in government and that the eventual deal on the debt ceiling was an example of the imperfect balance it requires.
“I would say to conservatives, ‘Well, you lost in 2006 and 2008, and those people don’t agree with you.’ And to those liberals, ‘Hey, you lost in 2010,’ ” he said.
The conflict over the way forward is only likely to intensify as the parties jockey for control of the White House in 2012.
In addition to a great divide between Democrats and Republicans, both parties have to contend with vocal internal factions.
Bob Hertzberg, a former California Assembly speaker who is part of two statewide groups attempting to restructure the state’s government, said that the angry tone is not healthy and that politicians must learn to adapt to the new reality.
“It’s our challenge as a democracy to figure it out and still be leaders. . . . It’s just harder,” he said.