California’s GOP Plays it Safe When Safe Equals Death
In September 2016, Michael Anton published an influential essay entitled “The Flight 93 Election.” It compared the 2016 election to the tragic Flight 93 of 9/11/2001. Anton’s essay opened with this: “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.”
California’s GOP faced a similar existential choice this weekend at their semi-annual state convention, when they had to elect a new party chairman. California’s GOP, like Flight 93, faces certain death. Many would say it is dead already. A new term has been coined to describe the status of the GOP in California, a “mega minority.” Whereas a “super minority” means your party holds less than one out of every three offices, a “mega minority” means your party holds less than one out of every four offices. That would describe California’s GOP these days, where they control a mega minority in the State Assembly, the State Senate, California’s Congressional Caucus, and the higher state offices such as Governor, Lt. Governor, etc., where they are not represented at all.
Three people rose to the challenge of flying California’s GOP into 2020, hopefully not crashing on the way. Firebrand populist and 2018 Gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen, who is openly supportive of president Trump, the thoughtful veteran Steve Frank, who served as the party’s vice chair and is senior political editor of the California Political Review, and Jessica Patterson, who served as 2010 gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s statewide field director, and more recently as CEO of “Trailblazers,” an organization that trains GOP candidates.
It is a simplification, but probably accurate, to reduce the contest between these three candidates as one between the insurgents – Allen and Frank – and the establishment candidate, Patterson. Travis Allen, whose grassroots support terrified California’s GOP elite as much as Trump’s did nearly three years ago on the national stage, had the largest and most vocal contingent of supporters. Frank, who did not terrify the establishment quite so much, enjoyed a surprisingly strong strong showing of grassroots support. More surprising, and very revealing, was Frank’s alliance with Allen, where both candidates pledged to support whichever of the two gathered the most votes if the contest wasn’t resolved on the first ballot.
As it turned out, on Sunday morning the establishment candidate, Patterson, received 651 delegate votes on the first ballot, which at 55 percent meant a second ballot was unnecessary. Allen got 366 votes, Frank got 175. It wasn’t close, but it wasn’t a blowout, either. If just 55 more delegates, out of 1,192 total, had gone with an insurgent, California’s GOP might have had a Trump supporter running the state party.
To sustain Anton’s metaphor, the establishment is still in California’s GOP cockpit, at the controls. The insurgents, with pots of scalding coffee and a serving cart as a battering ram, have crashed into the door, and the door has held. Will the plane now crash? One thing is certain, it’s in a nose dive. So why should business as usual be good enough? What did GOP delegates have to lose by supporting Allen, or Frank, besides perhaps their pride, or in some cases their jobs? Is that what this came down to?
Why else prevent the passengers from taking over the GOP cockpit? Does anyone actually care if California’s GOP lives or dies anymore? Why shouldn’t it devolve into a regional party? Protect seven congressional seats, because that matters. Turn seven or eight additional congressional districts into battlegrounds, and try to get them back, because that matters. Stay in control of a few counties. Orange. San Diego. Kern. Let the State of Jefferson contingent continue to make noise up north. That’s it. Apart from protecting these last, scattered redoubts, California’s GOP does not matter. This bears repeating. California GOP: You don’t matter.
That’s the challenge that’s been handed to establishment favorite, Jessica Patterson, a thirty-something professional political operative whose first big job was working for Meg Whitman. Meg Whitman. Remember Meg Whitman? This is the business executive who ran for governor back in 2010, burning through $178 million – including well over $30 million from donors who were so embittered by her disastrous failure that they never came back.
Remember how that turned out? Whitman got smacked down, hard, in the general election by Jerry Brown. Whitman, or, let’s be accurate, Whitman’s fabulously remunerated consultants, ran a campaign where the vapidity rose in direct proportion to the millions spent. Whitman ran a campaign without an edge, without so much as an improvised serving cart, much less an actual battering ram, fighting to reach the cockpit in a plane that was already well into its dive. Meg Whitman’s campaign was a debacle. It was an embarrassment.
Is that what’s in store for California’s GOP? More Whitman style platforms, agendas, campaigns? Because if so, who cares?
Patterson’s more recent experience is as the CEO of the California Trailblazers, an organization that “recruits, trains and elects Republicans to state legislative office.” How’s that worked out for the GOP? After the 2014 elections, the GOP still held 28 sets in the state assembly. After 2016 they were down to 25; after 2018, they were down to 20. After the 2014 election, the GOP still held 13 seats in the state senate, after 2018 they were down to 10, although they may pick one more in an upcoming special election. It doesn’t take a political consultant to read those numbers. The plane’s in a dive.
California’s GOP in the 21st Century: Cowardice Masquerading as Propriety
Blaming the obstreperous Trump for the GOP’s failures in California is easy. But when it wasn’t Trump, it was something else. Back in 2012, well before the age of Trump, Prop. 32 was defeated. For those who don’t recall, Prop. 32 would have required public employees to, oh my God!, affirmatively consent to having their union dues withheld, before California’s public sector unions could continue to ransack public employee payroll departments to the tune of at least $800 million per year.
Public sector unions spent over $73 million to defeat Prop. 32, and its defeat happened to coincide with a particularly poor performance by the GOP in several California races. What did the consultants claim? They said that the presence of Prop. 32 on the ballot galvanized the opposition. That it caused higher turnout among pro-union democrats. They blamed Prop. 32, instead of their own, tepid, expensive campaigns, for the failures of the GOP that year.
And what of Prop. 32’s campaign strategy? During that campaign, a supporter with sources highly placed in the Democratic party, delivered a confidential memo to the Prop. 32 campaign. In that memo, Democratic strategists acknowledged that their deepest fear was that the Prop. 32 campaign would tell voters the truth: California’s public sector unions are running the state into the ground. These unions won’t budge on pensions which are bankrupting the state, and they’ve destroyed the public schools. But did the GOP consultants, who the Prop. 32 donors demanded take over the Prop. 32 campaign, pay attention to this opportunity?
No. They didn’t. Apparently it would have been unseemly to actually fight to win. Instead, in an acrimonious meeting with the insurgents who had beaten the odds and gotten Prop. 32 onto the ballot, they declared the campaign would be cast as “campaign finance reform.” While technically one could argue that Prop. 32 was about campaign finance reform, everyone knew it was really about public sector unions. So the unions successfully branded the campaign as “Paycheck Deception,” instead of what it was, “Paycheck Protection,” and proceeded to outspend and out maneuver Prop. 32’s proponents.
You can go all the way back to the special election of 2005 to find examples of California’s GOP tepidity. It’s easy now to forget the excitement incoming Governor Schwarzenegger generated among the GOP faithful in California. Here was a candidate, as far removed from the establishment as Trump was a decade later, sitting in the guest’s chair, telling Jay Leno and half of America that “it’s the unions that are breaking California, and I’m going to terminate them.” And he tried for a full legislative season, during his first year as Governor, and he got nowhere. So in 2005 he took his case to the people, filing four initiatives – a balanced budget, redistricting reform, lengthened evaluation period for teacher tenure, and paycheck protection. The consultants, what a surprise, talked him out of a fifth – pension reform. And what happened?
There Schwarzenegger was, on television again, saying it was up to the people to save California. But he said it by himself. Alone. Where was California’s GOP during that entire election season? Instead of tapping into the populist momentum that had put Schwarzenegger into office, and giving it voice, most of them were running away from Schwarzenegger as fast as they could. Nobody who condemns Schwarzenegger for later pivoting left should forget that back in 2005, while the unions spent well over $100 million to defeat his initiatives, the GOP and its donors did not step up to match them in money or, more importantly, in their tone. They went to their safe spaces, protected their safe seats, and continued as the minority party, the dwindling opposition. Bleating haplessly. Losing.
These are the people who run California’s GOP. They’ve lost their mid level donors because mid-level donors can’t afford to support, over and over again, tepid, losing campaigns. They’ve lost most of their big donors because big donors would rather move their money into states where they can win. And as of Sunday, February 24th, they’ve lost their grassroots support. That part is probably just fine; political consultants working for California’s GOP don’t care much for the grassroots. The nice consultants – most of them – view grassroots activists with bemused tolerance. Others view them as an annoyance. On February 24th, they were more than a nuisance, they were a threat, crushed with moderate difficulty. Tragedy averted.
But the plane is still in a nosedive.
An Agenda to Make California’s GOP Relevant Again
What California’s GOP elite doesn’t seem to appreciate is that they have nothing to lose. They’ve lost every battleground district. The Democrats are going to do whatever they want in the legislature. Corporate interests are cultivating competing factions among the Democrats. All the smart money is with the Democrats, because the Republicans don’t matter anymore. Instead of doing the bidding of the handful of remaining donors, and the consultants they control, California’s GOP should seize this opportunity. Does Jessica Patterson have the convictions, the courage, the independence, and the vision to do that? To take that risk? This is a tremendous moment.
How often does any organization have the chance to experiment wildly, to try something radical, to risk everything, because they have nothing to lose? That’s what faces California’s GOP today. Finding a pilot who will give the plane a soft landing, or prolong the time until the crash, accomplishes nothing. Push the throttle. Pull some Gs. Stress the airframe. Take a chance. Because otherwise you’re dead.
Trump, for all his tactless bombast and alarming disregard for convention in almost all things, has stimulated political engagement at a level not seen in the last fifty years. Trump’s ability to challenge the premises of America’s uni-party elite on the issues of trade, immigration, foreign interventions, and “climate change,” along with his disregard for the pieties of libertarians and socialists, and his indifference to the encroachments of political correctness – all this may eventually be recognized as having had an extremely healthy impact on America at a critical time. California’s GOP insurgents recognize this. California’s GOP elites do not.
There are issues specific to California that can – at the risk of appropriating a phrase that may offend the clean limbed, manicured elites with guilt by association – “make California great again.” It is not necessary for California’s GOP to select all of these issues. They can pick and choose. Any one of them has the potential to be of transformative value with California’s voters. All of them address the greatest inequity that Californians confront, but never solve – the criminally high, utterly contrived, scandalously avoidable, punitive cost-of-living in this state.
To make California affordable again, a new, unafraid, assertive California GOP would have to rethink its ideological underpinnings. It would have to violate many socialist and libertarian taboos in favor of pragmatic choices reminiscent of 1950’s California, when vast sums of government funds were applied with an efficiency that makes mockery of today’s tangle of bureaucratic delays and interminable lawsuits.
For example. it isn’t heresy to use government funds, from bonds or operating budgets, to subsidize infrastructure. What’s needed, however, is a determination to set priorities that benefit the people of California, and a willingness to fight through waves of endless litigation to score precedent setting court victories. Doing this will help ensure that most of the money spent in subsequent projects will go to people who operate heavy equipment, instead of most of it paying people who sit in front of keyboards. Some of these priorities might themselves be heretical, or anathema to special interests, but here goes….
Enact school choice. Don’t just fight a rear guard action protecting the beleaguered charter schools. Approve school vouchers and allow competition between traditional public schools, charters, parochial schools, and private schools. Quit tiptoeing around this issue. California’s public schools are a ridiculous mess. Turn the state into a laboratory for education, and let parents choose which schools their children will attend. A lot of pedagogical debates would be settled pronto, if principals and teachers were able to run their schools any which way they wanted, yet were held absolutely accountable by the parents.
Enforce the Vergara reforms so it is easier to retain quality public school teachers and easier to fire the incompetent ones.
Offer vocational training in the trades as an option for high school students after age 15, including private sector funded apprenticeships for high school credit. Look to the European systems for examples.
Restore the balance in California’s colleges and universities so that the ratio of faculty to administrators is 2-to-1, instead of the current ratio that allows administrators often to outnumber teachers.
End all discrimination and base college admissions purely on merit. Expand STEM curricula so it represents 50 percent of college majors instead of the current 20 percent. In all publicly funded institutions of higher education, fold all of ethnic and gender “studies” majors into the traditional fields of history and sociology. Consolidate these majors and reduce the number of enrollments to make room for more STEM enrollments.
Get rid of all of the horribly misguided campus “safe spaces” and other malevolent hate-nurturing segregationist boondoggles. Stop appeasing the professional race hustlers. Tell the truth to people of color – California is the best place in the world to thrive, California is a tolerant, diverse society, and all this victim mongering will not make society better and will not make you successful or happy. Say this loud and proud and never back down. Fire the entire diversity bureaucracy. Forthwith.
Criminal Justice and Immigration
Restructure the penal system to make it easier for prisoners to perform useful public services. For example. along with working the fire lines during fire season, they could work all year clearing dead trees out of California’s forests. Use high-tech monitoring devices to reduce costs. Reserve current prisons only for the truly incorrigible.
Support comprehensive federal immigration reform that includes merit based legal immigration, and attenuates chain migration. Support something, anything, that squelches illegal immigration. If that’s not a border wall, then push for stronger employer verification. Quit agreeing with the Democrats. This is not a “manufactured problem.” It is not in the interests of American citizens, especially in low income communities, to continue to allow the entry of unskilled immigrants – legal or illegal – and the only people who don’t accept this are either denying basic economics or they are part of a special interest group. Come to some reasonable accommodation with ICE.
Add at least one lane to every major interstate in California, and upgrade and resurface all state highways. Widen and upgrade roads up and down the state. Kill High Speed Rail.
Begin investigating and facilitating private sector rollout of next generation transportation solutions, including coordinating development of aerial taxi corridors as well as high speed “hyperlanes” for next generation smart electric cars. Prepare for the advent of flying cars, self driving cars, share cars, ride hailing, micro-transit companies, and high speed cars.
Complete plant upgrades so that 100 percent of California’s sewage is reused, even treated to potable quality. Kill the Delta Tunnel(s) and do seismic upgrades on the Delta levees instead – that will have to be done regardless. Build a hatchery to replenish Delta Smelt.
Unlock water markets. If farmers had the right to sell their water allotments without risking losing their historical water rights, municipalities would never have shortages of water. It’s truly that simple, because California’s total urban water consumption – all of it, residential, commercial, industrial – is less than 7 million acre feet per year, whereas farmers in California consume on average over 30 million acre feet per year.
Pass legislation to streamline approval of the proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach, and fast-track applications for additional desalination plants, especially in Los Angeles.
Spend the entire proceeds of the $7 billion water bond, passed overwhelmingly by Californians in 2014, on storage. Build the Los Banos Grandes, Sites, and Temperance Flat reservoirs, adding over 5.0 million acre feet of storage to the California Water Project. Support federal efforts to raise Shasta Dam. Pass aggressive legislation and fund aggressive legal actions and counteractions, to lower costs and enable completion of these projects in under five years (which is all the time it used to take to complete similar projects).
Work towards a grand bargain on water policy where environmentalists accept a few more reservoirs and desalination plants in exchange for plentiful water allocations to threatened ecosystems, farmers pay more for water in exchange for undiminished quantities, and taxpayers bear the burden of some new debt in exchange for permanent access to affordable, secure, and abundant water.
Permit slant drilling to access 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits from land-based rigs along the Southern California coast. Build an LNG terminal off the coast in Ventura County to export California’s natural gas to foreign markets. Permit development of the Monterey Shale formation to extract oil and gas. Permit construction of new natural gas power plants.
Promote nuclear power as a solution that not only makes the dawning electric age – from electric cars to rampant, exponentially multiplying bitcoin mining operations – utterly feasible. Nuclear power is only costly because permits and regulations and insurance premiums (mostly to insure against the cost of lawsuits, not actual hazardous calamities) are artificially elevated. Retrofit and reopen San Onofre. Keep Diablo Canyon on line and add capacity. Permit construction of “generation 3+” nuclear power plants and prototype micro-reactors.
Housing and the Homeless
Unlock open land for development. Quit acting like there’s not a single square mile of open space that isn’t sacred to the environment. California has over 25,000 square miles of cattle ranch land. If just 20% of that land were developed, California’s urban footprint would double. Enough already. Then subsidize practical new public infrastructure (i.e., roads, not “light rail”) throughout new regions opened up for land development.
Repeal the 2006 “Global Warming Solutions Act” and “Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act” of 2008 and make it easy for developers to build homes on the suburban and exurban fringes, instead of just “in-fill” that destroys existing neighborhoods. Cancel the war on the single family dwelling, and allow developers (or in some cases even require them) to build homes with large yards again. Repeal excessive building codes such as mandatory photovoltaic roof panels. Create a regulatory environment that encourages private investment in new housing developments instead of discouraging it.
Allow police to enforce vagrancy laws, even if it means expensive corrective litigation going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Build inexpensive tent cities for the homeless. Some cities in California have already had success with this tactic. The corrupt and futile opposite extreme is to construct “permanent supportive housing” which in Los Angeles has cost over $400,000 per apartment unit.
Pensions and Infrastructure
Require California’s public employee pension funds to invest a minimum of 10 percent of their assets in infrastructure projects as noted above. They could issue fixed rate bonds or take equity positions in the revenue-producing projects, or a combination of both. This would immediately unlock approximately $80 billion in construction financing to rebuild California’s infrastructure. At the same time, save the pension systems by striking down the “California Rule” that prevents meaningful pension reform.
Once the California Rule is abolished, prospectively reduce pension multipliers to pre-1999 levels for all future work for all employees, existing as well as new hires. That, along with defending the reforms of PEPRA, might be all it would take.
Vision and Leadership Will Save California’s Republicans
The establishment GOP fought off an insurgency on February 24. Their new chairman, Jessica Patterson, called for all the factions to join together and work as a team. But until California’s GOP is willing to embrace bold policies that will offer California’s struggling middle and low income communities opportunities for upwards mobility, they will remain irrelevant. It isn’t enough to “join together.” It isn’t enough to secure some reliable flow of donor support. To thrive, a political party needs to have a distinct vision of the future, a policy agenda that will achieve that future, and leaders that understand and can express that vision. Those qualities are more important than money. Meg Whitman proved that.
An important reason Democrats win is because they invariably speak with moral authority, whether they deserve it or not. But the moral worth of Democratic policies is shallow. In the name of earth justice and social justice, they have made California the most inhospitable place in America for low and middle income residents. The Democrats are incapable of compromising on their rhetoric or their policies. They are locked into the ideological straight-jackets of climate change hysteria and identity politics. The Republicans must demonstrate their ability to find the balance that Democrats are incapable of finding. They must promote and enact policies, some examples of which have just been described, that challenge some of the premises of environmentalism and social justice. There is a moral value to providing opportunity by making California affordable. There is a moral value to instilling pride by abandoning race and gender preferences. There is a moral value to embracing policies of abundance – by turning the private sector loose to increase the supply of housing, energy, water, et. al. – rather than creating politically contrived artificial scarcity.
One very encouraging sign at California’s state GOP convention of February 2019 was how diverse the attendees have become. Democrats should find this very alarming, because the so-called “people of color” at the GOP convention were not part of the rent seeking coalition that Democrats have built, looking for reparations and entitlements to compensate for their supposedly disadvantaged status. These were confident, self-sufficient individuals, who valued the opportunity to compete and succeed on their own merits. There were hundreds of Latinos, Sikhs, Indian Americans, African Americans, Asians. More of them than ever, they came to Sacramento to be among fellow Republicans. This should not only trouble Democrats, perhaps it should also trouble establishment Republicans, because nearly all of them were enthusiastic Trump supporters.
If you were at the GOP convention last weekend, you could have talked to a Latino whose cousin has a ranch in the Rio Grande Valley. He would have told you why we need border security. You also could have talked to an African American grandmother who has watched hope return to members of her extended family, because they have good jobs in the Trump economy. These people are proud Americans. They don’t want to be patronized or appeased, and more and more, they see right through the Democrat’s game. They want the tough truth. Because honest hard work, reckoned by immutable and evenly applied standards, is the only true pathway to achievement. They are waiting for Republican leadership to fight to make California great again, not attempt to become Democrat-lite.
The themes that will capture new voters can’t just be marketed as “bold.” They have to be bold. There is an alternative vision, embracing solutions, not just identifying problems. It can incorporate some or all of the agenda just set forth. But it will mean launching a sustained assault on the government unions, the extreme environmentalists and their allies, the plaintiff’s bar, and the social justice fanatics that have taken over public education. It will require challenging not their lofty idealism or their proclaimed altruism, but their premises and their methods.
No, we are not running out of land, energy or water, and yes, we will entitle vast tracts of open land for development and build infrastructure including dams and desalination plants and encourage private sector investment partners.
No, if we don’t go “100 percent renewable” by 2050 the planet will not burn up, and yes, we will develop natural gas reserves and build nuclear power plants.
No, we will no longer admit unqualified students to colleges and universities, and yes, we will establish uniform admissions requirements, reserving our enrollments for the finest students in the world.
No, we will not tolerate mediocre results in our public schools, and yes, we will fight for school choice, vouchers, charters, and eliminate union work rules that prevent dismissing or laying off bad teachers.
No, we will not allow pensions to bankrupt the state, and yes, we will restore pension benefits going forward to pre-1999 formulas, and we will require California’s pension funds to invest at least 10 percent of their assets in California infrastructure projects.
For every no, there is a yes. For every problem, there is a solution. And the moral worth of these solutions must be asserted unflinchingly. These solutions will create opportunity for all Californians. Fighting for these solutions is risky. It will invite a furious response from the entire Democratic machine. But it could work. And it’s the right thing to do.
Maybe it’s time for California’s establishment GOP, including the donors and consultants who have retained their power over the party, to acknowledge the things Trump’s done or is trying to do that make sense. By acknowledging the value in every good idea, no matter where it comes from, they might not lose their souls. In fact, it might be their salvation.
Jessica Patterson was endorsed by every living ex-chairman of California’s state GOP. Many influential observers expressed gratitude that the “pale, male, stale” California GOP was going to elect a woman to pilot the plane. But when the plane is in a nose dive, everybody on that plane, no matter what their race or gender, wants the best pilot to fly the plane. If the best pilot is a purple, non-binary alien from the planet Remulak, that pilot will be pushed into the cockpit. It’s too soon to know how Jessica Patterson will run California’s Republican party. The fact that she was endorsed by the people who have managed its decline is not helpful. The fact that she is “not Travis Allen, Trump supporter,” is not helpful. Hopefully she will embrace policies, and recruit leaders, who will change the trajectory.
Do not play it safe, Ms. Patterson. Safe equals death. This is an emergency. To paraphrase Auden, consultants are not wanted now, put out every one; pack up the pollsters and dismantle the focus groups. And to extend Anton’s Flight 93 metaphor into the fantastic realm of star fighters rather than airliners, “use the Force, Luke.”
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Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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