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Interim Dean Pete Peterson on the "End of the CA GOP" | Fox & Hounds

Two Books and the End of the CA GOP

By , Interim Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016 | Fox & Hounds

Sometimes the impact of a book is not just what’s in the book, but when you read it. Such was my experience reading Jim Lacy’s edited volume, Taxifornia 2016, while I finished Arthur Brook’s The Conservative Heart. Taken together, the books can constitute the head and heart of a California reform movement for the 21st century, but left separate, each book – but particularly Lacy’s – only speaks to segments of California’s center right. In many respects, Taxifornia 2016 shows us what we should care about, while The Conservative Heart illustrates why we all (Republicans, Democrats, and DTS voters) should care.

Taxifornia 2016 features many of California’s leading conservative journos ranging from Steve Greenhut and Brian Calle to Jon Fleischman, Katy Grimes, and F&H’s own, Joel Fox, and many more. The book follows 2014’s Taxifornia, for which Lacy was the sole author. The trade-offs between the two formats are evident: while the later book covers more policy real estate than the former in its 14 chapters, it also lacks the stylistic consistency of the earlier book.

As we enter the winter of 2016, it is a perfect time to pick up and read Taxifornia 2016, for in this time of polar bear plunges into various cold bodies of water, this book is a cold slap in the face of the supposed “California Comeback.” On issues ranging from criminal justice failures to mega-project transportation boondoggles to low-performing education systems, I frequently found myself gripping the book with increasing pressure as I read one incredible policy mistake after another. This book should come with a warning printed on the front cover: “Those with high blood pressure should read this book with caution and in take 15 minute meditation breaks between chapters.”

At its best, Taxifornia 2016 combines informative history, the right amount of outrage, and actual policy recommendations. I’m thinking of John Hrabe’s chapter on higher education, which posits some interesting ideas on finding a larger role for California’s community colleges in what has become an unwieldy and unsustainable “Master Plan”. Shawn Dewane, a current water district official, puts his expertise to work in a comprehensive essay about water policy, effectively demonstrating the power of market mechanisms and alternative water sources in remedying our boom and bust water cycles.

Brian Calle’s chapter on demographics is a must-read for anyone wanting both a historical and futurist view of our state’s tremendous diversity, and what it means for California politics. His deeper look at how California’s ethnic composition differs between Northern and Southern California with varying political implications is both intriguing and important. And T.J. Fuentes’ essay on transparency outlines in a wide-ranging way both legislative and technological solutions, along with case studies in making government more accountable to all Californians.

At its less than best (every chapter is at least informative), Taxifornia 2016’s chapters are heavy on describing the problems with only hints at solutions. The chapters on transportation, pensions, and income inequality fall into this category: all helpful and accurate, but downright depressing. Jon Fleischmann’s chapter on corruption should be read in every high school civics class as a lesson in what happens when even less than absolute power can corrupt absolutely. His answers to the problems ranging from “Shrimp Boy” to Bob Filner are to “rejuvenate civic engagement in California” (something I heartily support), and “to shrink the size and scope of government,” since, “corruption is going to become only more institutionalized and more extreme, as government grows even larger and more powerful” (no disagreement from me there either).

You will finish Taxifornia 2016 and wonder, “How could any logical Californian vote for a liberal Democrat?” And that, my fellow Republicans, is the problem. Most Californians do register and vote on the left side of the aisle.

Even the few, proud, Democrats who dare to pick up Lacy’s book, will probably agree with assertions made throughout. Most thoughtful DTS and moderate Democrat voters I know acknowledge California’s myriad policy challenges – from K12 education to pensions and goofy mega-infrastructure projects. But they see few alternatives.

Which is why you should read Arthur Brooks’ The Conservative Heart within minutes of finishing Taxifornia 2016 – if not for your edification, at least to calm your heart rate. Where Taxifornia 2016 is a plunge into the Pacific, The Conservative Heart is the warm towel someone hands you when you get out. Brooks – the president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and an economist by training – dedicates the book to one of America’s great social scientists (and former Pepperdine policy professor), the late James Q. Wilson. With Brooks’ quantitative academic background and this dedication, I wondered whether the pages that followed would be filled with charts and graphs, and there are some of those.

But Brooks understands, as his friend, the late Jack Kemp (another Pepperdine policy professor) famously said, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.” Brooks doesn’t avoid data. Early on, he cites a series of public opinion surveys about how Americans regard the two major political parties. He notes, “56 percent of Americans say they believe the word compassionate describes the Republican Party ‘not at all well,’ versus 5 percent who say it describes the party ‘very well.’”

Already I can hear the sighs of the conservative reader, “Uh oh…not another dose of ‘compassionate conservatism’, which we know is just another way to describe ‘big government conservatism’, which failed miserably under George W. Bush.”

Stay with me, dear reader. The book is not about that. Brooks understands – as California Republicans should – that in a democratic republic, perceptions that determine who people vote for are ultimately important to success in the policy arena. “First, you win the argument,” Margaret Thatcher famously advised, “then you win the vote.” But Brooks takes this mantra a step further to consider that arguments are not just won on facts, they can also be won through persuasion, and, dare I say, friendship.

And here, by focusing on “the problems of poverty and economic mobility”, and demonstrating the failures of the Left in addressing these issues, The Conservative Heart becomes an indispensable guide to political dialogue for California Republicans in the 21st century. As Brooks writes, “Progressives in America have always insisted that we focus our attention on the plight of the poor and vulnerable,” but the voluminous policies spawned by LBJ’s “Great Society” in the 1960’s and forward, “often treat work as a punishment, view struggling people as liabilities to manage, and focus and unequal distribution of incomes instead of unequal and insufficient opportunity.”

Weaving social science research (one graph showing that poverty rates correlate much more closely to overall economic vitality than government spending) with powerful personal stories about the homeless getting work through Manhattan’s Doe Fund to the debilitating effects on work and civil society by a massive social welfare program in India, Brooks fashions a subtle, but unmistakable indictment of centralized, bureaucratic, government policymaking disconnected from real caring about the citizens it is meant to serve.

Brooks writes, “our movement should be focusing not on the people who make it to great wealth, but rather about those who never get rich – but thrive by lifting themselves up out of poverty, building their lives, supporting their families, and understanding their true purpose.” Regularly, Brooks introduces data to show that in the midst of one of our more Progressive eras in Washington, DC, “we are increasingly becoming two Americas” – where grassroots solutions are squashed by bureaucratic interventions by the more powerful (as in the small business accreditation complex) and liberal policies that are based on myths (11 percent of minimum wage workers live in poor households).

To be clear, Brooks is not trying to graft an alien set of values onto conservatives that are more politically palatable, but is asking those on the right to better communicate these values, which are often demonstrated – if quietly – through action. The Conservative Heart features data from one of his earlier books, Who Really Cares?, which researched the giving habits of self-described American liberals and conservatives. A quick synopsis: “households headed by a ‘conservative’ give, on average, 30 percent more dollars to charity than households headed by a ‘liberal’; “Conservative families gave more than liberal families within every income class, from poor to middle class to rich”; “If liberals and moderates gave blood like conservatives do, the blood supply in the U.S. would instantly jump by about 45 percent.” With all these facts, still, as Brooks resolves, “the sad truth is than millions of Americans I’d add Californians today think conservatives are oblivious to the struggles of their everyday lives.”

To bring Brooks’ themes to a more local level, I get the sense many Californians from a variety of political perspectives see the state as “two California’s” – divided along a number of fault lines: geographic (coast vs. inland), class, and ethnicity. This, in one of America’s bluest states. But increasingly, on issues so well defined in Taxifornia 2016, a newer, different fault line is introduced between those who are politically connected on topics like environmental regulation and public sector employment, and those who aren’t. The recent news about Sacramento’s widening income gap provides a cruel metaphor for the disconnection many feel relative to political elites.

It is this last group of Californians – the ones dubbed by the American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen as “The Out’s” – the State GOP must target and persuade because many of them aren’t Republicans, but as Reagan once quipped, “they just don’t know it yet.”

In recent years, California Republicans have seen their declining political fortunes as a sign of weakness, but in this era, declaring you’re the “Outsider Party” is not a bad thing. To “win the arguments” only demands connecting policies to the reality that the Party wishes for “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (as our first Republican president said), and that the main goal is not to simply win arguments or event elections, but to protect the “pursuit of happiness” for all Californians.