Mystery Legislative Theater 2024: GOP battle for sanity turning into a bad sci-fi

Ahh, it’s the legislative season. Wake up and smell the lithium because the crazy has now begun.

Coming into the 2024 session, the politicians among the Arizona Republicans announced to the reporters at the Arizona Republic that the plan was to focus on pragmatism. They won’t focus on provoking a cavalcade of vetoes, the GOP said.

Ooohhhh, my former Gannett brethren up at the Phoenix newsroom… I’m selling the Brooklyn Bridge, right here in Tucson. You might want to put your political team on it.

Yeah, they seemed to take the legislative GOPers at their word.

Turned out, Republicans couldn’t make it three minutes into Gov. Katie Hobbs State of the State address without declaring war. 

I use a lot of science fictions references in this piece and I’m fine with it. I didn’t need Journalism or Poli Sci classes to cover the Legislature these days. All I needed to cover the MAGAs, I learned from watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the 1990s.

They’re like a dumbed-downed Klingons (“If you were any other man, I soil myself where I stand!”).

Republicans know on some level that their schtick isn’t working. On another level, the schtick is all they’ve got. Troll libs, play victim, hurt people, repeat. Where’s the fun if they pass bills a Democratic governor would sign?

Arizona Republicans have become what national Democrats have long been nationally, in the eyes of state voters.

Across the country, the public agrees with the Democrats on issues from a path to citizenship for migrants, to expanding health care coverage for everyone else. Voters just hate the idea of putting Democrats in charge. They just seem more comfortable with power in the hands of (I’m just gonna say it) white men, serving white men’s interests. That’s the only logical reason so many voters believe all Democrats want to defund the police, but it’s not fair to paint all Republicans as insurrectionists. 

In Arizona, voters have started to feel that way about MAGAs. I bet they agree with a lot of the bills Hobbs vetoed, but elections are starting to show they don’t like the people voting to pass them in the Legislature.

Ask Kari Lake, Mark Finchem, Abe Hamadeh, Martha McSally (twice) and the Orange  rind himself what its like to run under the MAGA banner in Arizona. All but McSally have been claiming election fraud. Winners don’t usually say that. Either they know they lost and don’t care, or they are just departing from reality.

Any single Republican in the state House or Senate can cost their party the majority on any vote; the GOP has just a one-seat edge in both houses. So they become the guy who just pounded 34 shots telling himself to act sober before walking in the door.

Except they can’t. They have to defy Hobbs because it’s how they are drawn. They must seek contrast, because it’s in their DNA. They can no more blend in with normal people than a vending machine can jog.

That was obvious before Hobbs even entered the House chamber to deliver her State of the State address. The speech was … eh, Hobbsian. The reaction was pure theatre.

House Speaker Ben Toma swore up and down he would never back off universal vouchers for all parents in Arizona to send their kids to private schools. The plan is blowing a billion-dollar hole in the budget to subsidize the elites, but that doesn’t matter. It trolls the libs. Toma promised to keep doing it and then instructed the sergeant at arms to let Hobbs into the room.

During the speech, Senate President Warren Petersen didn’t just fail to applaud a single line from the governor. He sat over her right shoulder and refused to even look at her.

But they had nothing on state Sen. Anthony Kern, who stood with his back to Hobbs as she delivered her formal address. Then he tweeted/X-ed/Twixed a shot of the performance with the message: “Today, I stood and refused to recognize extremist Democrat Katie Hobbs’ tyrannical agenda…”

OK, timeout. Wait. Senator, you are terrorized by Katie Hobbs. Katie Hobbs? My dog wouldn’t be intimidated by Katie Hobbs, and Ragnar (Viking, that he is) is intimidated by kittens, Tonka trucks and some of your more imposing lawn furniture.

Anyone who finds Hobbs tyrannical, must never describe themselves as an “Alpha Male.” Forget “Beta” go straight to the lower strands of Omega, if Kern can’t make eye contact with this particular governor. She wasn’t the tough chick in high school. She was the smart girl who did all the work on the group project so boys like Kern could slouch and still get As. 

Scary? No.

Look, I’m not here to bash everyone on the Right. The Legislature had some regular people with drastically different views on policy matters than I might take a lot of the time (but not always). I’m looking for sanity, not moderation. In Texas, Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Roy and Dan Crenshaw are (comparatively) sane. I think their policies are dangerous and crazy but they aren’t actively hallucinating on the job and so bully for them. Team America!

I got grief for being too nice to Doug Ducey and I came this close to calling him a mass murderer during the pandemic. He played music I hated. He just never called his guitar a polka dot flamingo and for that I remain grateful.

Scary thought: Real work needs doing

The Republicans in the Legislature actually have work to do and working with Hobbs is necessary to do it.

They must come up with a way to override the state’s constitutional limit on education funding, otherwise local school districts will suffer huge cuts they can’t afford.

Lawmakers must also come up with an extension of Prop 123, to continue tapping the State Land Trust Fund for needed cash. The 10-year plan was passed in 2016, and should go to the voters for reauthorization in 2025, before it expires.

The Arizona Commerce Authority must be re-authorized, amid some sketchy findings during an audit. This is the state’s economic development wing and jobs are kind of important.

And there’s an $850 million hole in the budget caused by a universal voucher system.

Each of these require more than performative nonsense to figure out, and sober action clearly isn’t Trumpy enough. 

Sadistic theatre is the point. The base just wants to know the people they elect are savage enough in retribution for Democrats having passed Obamacare or the presence of gays in society or whatever their grievance du jour might be.

Veto machine

Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed a record 143 bills last year, to some pearl clutching. “Oh my stars! Is there nothing this woman won’t reject?”

Hopefully not, if it’s the kind of crazy legislation that makes it harder to vote than to attack transgender Arizonans. And the Legislature sent a lot of that stuff at Hobbs. That was the plan from the jump.

“We are going to fight tooth and nail,” stated Southern Arizona’s own Rep. Cory McGarr told Tucson’s own Garret Lewis on KNST shortly after Hobbs was elected. “I want her to have to veto good legislation every day.”

The new governor found McGarr’s terms acceptable. 

The typical bill she nixed was classic Republican gamesmanship. Send her up a piece of legislation that makes a great #hashtag and then force her to veto for reasons that can only be properly explained with an 18-minute PowerPoint presentation.

They want to crack down on sex offenders. So a veto of a stupid redundant law protects deviants. Arguing points is a loser when tweets beat explanations, hashtags beat tweets and vibes beat all. Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock, Antifa, Trump.

Democrats used to force symbolic vetoes when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were president. It never really worked. They only create real mischief if voters basically trust a party to be normal. Red Hat has ruined its Arizona brand since it started rallying to outrageousness in 2018.

The whole point of MAGAism has nothing to do with American greatness. It’s a cult that rallies to the outrageous. That’s how they distinguish their membership, apart from those of us who have been “blue-pilled.”

They miss a big point: Why would people who took the blue pill vote for people who took the red pill?

Be clear, this isn’t Morpheus’ little popper. It makes people believe in adrenochrome conspiracies and evil mermaids. Oh yeah. “Wicked Mermaid Theory” is coming to a Thanksgiving near you.

Anyone to the left of Rusty Bowers has always felt queasy about Arizona politics but we never felt enslaved or like we lived under tyrannical rule. We didn’t move to Colorado or Washington. However, it’s a whole ‘nother thing to live inside a political party’s bad mushroom trip.

And our numbers are now growing into a Grand Canyon State majority. If Democrats lose in November, I’m pretty sure it will be True Progressives who do them in by not voting because anyone who isn’t a normal Republican is suddenly acting like they’re 11 years old. That’s another column.

No, Hobbs’ vetoes aren’t a liability. She’s got a job approval right around 50 percent, which I’m willing to bet is higher than the Legislature.

Becoming self-aware?

In fleeting moments of clarity, Republicans recognize this.

The one thing I will give the party’s standard-bearer is that the man can read a room and knows how to slither words around what he really means.

Neither are particularly true of his followers, or at least they haven’t been.

Never was the disconnect more on display than when Trump’s lawyers this week argued that, yes, the president can turn SEAL Team 6 into his own squad of hitmen and hand them a kill list of domestic enemies without legal consequences. I could sense Trump’s eyes fall as he sat in the courtroom thinking. “Don’t say that!”

The idea is to keep the base happy in code the moderates can rationalize away.

In fleeting moments of clarity, the GOP knows their best interest requires them to be normal and responsible. They just can’t do it.

Republicans like Sen. Justine Wadsack have tried and I think failed to copy their leader. Her whole point is to provoke lib tears by running bills that would make Arizona a safer state for mass shooters than it is for drag queens.

Now, even she’s saying she’s going to be nicer.

“There will probably not be really any controversial bills that I’m running this year,” she said in the Republic article. “Last year, I ran the bills for the people. This year, I’m running the bills for the state.”

Ya see, Justine, the state is the people. Unless she’s talking about running bills that are better for the government at the expense of the people. That doesn’t seem smart.

I get what she’s trying to say but I’ll believe it when I see it. It’s how I feel about actually cloning dinosaurs. I have zero expectation of running across a triceratops between my apartment and Fry’s this year and I don’t expect a party defined by having the guts to behave badly suddenly on its best behavior.

They can’t even get through a milquetoast speech by Hobbs without performative nonsense and vows of total war to defend the indefensible.

It’s abundantly clear now that guys like Kern define tyranny as anyone who opposes any of their policies taking part in the democratic process. His freedom requires the opposition not speaking up, not running for office and definitely not winning. 

The rest of us just have to sit down, shut up and do as we’re told as we are lectured about mermaids and pink flamingos.