The Book of Revelation is probably not the first source most governors would reference to explain their political problems.
For California chief executive — and ex-seminary student — Jerry Brown, however, the New Testament text that prophesies the end of the world provides a spot-on symbol for Sacramento’s ills.
As Brown explained it in an interview, the Capitol’s deadlock and dysfunction may be traced directly to the “Four Horsemen of the Tax Apocalypse” — his moniker for a quartet of unelected, right-wing advocates and media outlets that so terrify and bully Republican officeholders that political compromise on fiscal issues has become all but impossible.
“It’s emotionally quite wrenching for any of the Republicans to embrace anything that the Four Horsemen of the Tax Apocalypse oppose,” the governor said. “If that group, or even maybe any one or two of them, invoke the dreaded ‘T word’ [taxes], they do cower.”
Brown’s comments are significant in illustrating and detailing a powerful political dynamic that operates under the radar of most voters. As the Republican Party has grown ever more conservative on tax and spending issues, ideological purity and discipline increasingly are enforced — not by legislative leaders, but by individuals and organizations who have not been elected to anything.
Nationally, the loose alliance of Tea Party groups, often fueled by contributions from archconservative interests such as the super-wealthy industrialists David and Charles Koch, has succeeded in pushing the congressional Republican caucus and the party’s presidential contenders far to the right in efforts to defund and dismantle government operations. This effort was shown both in the GOP’s recent political brinkmanship over the federal debt limit and disaster-relief funds and in positions taken by its field of would-be challengers to President Barack Obama, who all unanimously agreed in a recent debate, for example, that they would not accept a deficit plan that included $1 in taxes for every $10 in spending cuts.
In Sacramento, any Republican lawmakers inclined to compromise on fiscal issues with the governor and legislative Democrats similarly are systematically pressured, threatened, or attacked by hardball tactics of Brown’s “Four Horsemen,” a group of political players unfamiliar or unknown to many voters:
• Grover Norquist, the head of the Washington, D.C.–based Americans for Tax Reform, is the author of the absolutist no-taxes pledge that Republican candidates across the country are pressed to sign at risk of facing a more conservative primary foe sponsored by the group or its allies. Norquist played a key role in this year’s budget fight, when he met with GOP lawmakers in Sacramento to warn that voting even to put Brown’s tax proposal before voters would be seen as a violation of the pledge.
• Jon Coupal, the head of the well-financed Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, effectively exercises veto power over tax issues raised in the Legislature by awarding or withholding the group’s endorsement from Republican candidates. Brown recently found himself negotiating a tax issue not with GOP lawmakers but with Coupal: “If you don’t get Coupal’s vote, you won’t get any [Republican] votes,” the governor said.
• John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, the Rush Limbaugh–styled hosts of the John and Ken Show on L.A. radio station KFI AM 640, often use their daily airtime to rail against Republicans whom they deem too moderate, as they did in routinely trashing Meg Whitman, the party’s failed candidate for governor, and in helping to ruin the careers of a handful of GOP legislators who voted for tax increases in a budget deal in 2009.
• Jon Fleischman, a Republican operative, runs FlashReport, a conservative Web site that serves as a bulletin board for right-wing advocates and politicians, assails GOP politicians who don’t toe the line, and acts as a megaphone for Norquist and Coupal, whose writing often appears on the home page.
“They are embedded in a deep belief system that does not permit any association with something that could be called a tax increase — even to allow voters to vote on a tax increase,” Brown said. “And that’s basically what individual Republicans told me, ‘Even though I’d like to vote for that, I can’t; it’s basically a death sentence.’”