Whenever I write and speak about California's dire economic and political situation, I am met by people who demand answers. "We know the state is in a mess," they say. "Why don't you tell us how to fix it rather than harp on all the bad news?"
Simple answers are nice, but sometimes there aren't any. As I retort, anything that will fix California can't possibly become law given the political environment here. Anything that can become law won't correct the problem. Perhaps Californians can come up with some state-saving ballot initiatives, but I don't see any Prop.-13-like movement on the horizon.
So we watch as the state lumbers along, with its budget deficit, growing pension liabilities, crumbling infrastructure, and broken political process. Many Californians, especially older ones tired of fighting losing battles, have headed to other states, mostly conservative ones throughout the inter-mountain West. I don't blame them, but I'm not going anywhere. This is home—and a beautiful one at that—and maybe things are not yet hopeless.
But reformers need to take the longer view. There's no magic wand, no single policy that will return California to past glory. It took a long time to create the current mess and it will take time to unravel it. Reform will require broad coalitions that include many of our fellow Californians who don't share our political views. This is a Blue State after all. There are few specific policies that will go anywhere, so for now the GOP—which, for better or worse, is the only real alternative to the Democratic machine—should be about ideas, about putting together a new bundle of issues, and revisiting some old, failed approaches and policies.
Let's start with the tough issue of immigration. The Republican grassroots is angry at the perceived waves of illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico. Activists are at odds with the business community, which fears additional layers of regulation and needs a growing low-cost workforce. Republicans admit that Latino voters tend to share their values, but mostly vote for Democrats. That's in part because of the GOP tone on immigration, which is harsh and off-putting.
Virtually every Republican Assembly or Senate candidate poses in some campaign mailer taking a tough stand at the border. Candidates try to outdo each other to appeal to the conservative voters who turn out in the primaries. This helps win the race in the short term, but does long-term damage to the Republican brand.
A few months ago, I wrote about Republican legislators who were part of a press conference sponsored by Russell Pearce, the Arizona state senator who sponsored that state's controversial anti-illegal-immigration law, SB 1070. Pearce and the California Republicans, I wrote at the time, "featured families who were victimized by illegal-immigrant criminals, thus making the not-so-subtle suggestion that Mexican immigrants are a danger to us all." They introduced an Arizona-like bill they knew would go nowhere. It was about posturing.
Earlier this month, Pearce was recalled from office and replaced with another conservative Republican. His replacement, Jerry Lewis, supports a tough line on illegal immigration but promises a more "civil tone." Tone can be as important as policy when it comes to sensitive issues, especially ones that revolve around ethnic issues.
I'm not against taking tough stands and using tough language on most issues. Politicians who are too focused on "civility" often are just trying to shut down a debate that's not cutting in their favor. But when a major party's approach to an issue is needlessly costing it the support of a growing population, it's time to look for fresh approaches.
"You know I'm a conservative, Steve," said Paulo Sibaja, a Sacramento-based Republican activist and friend of mine. "But I've been so put off by the immigration rhetoric of the Republican Party that it sometimes makes me question whether I should even belong to the party." This is a widespread sentiment.
Some prominent Southern California conservatives recently introduced a plan for a guest-worker program. The details aren't as important as the message, which is that some Republicans recognize the current GOP approach toward immigration is counterproductive.
The Obama administration and the Bush administration have essentially solved the immigration problem by killing the economy. "Mexican census figures show that fewer Mexicans are setting out and many are returning – leaving net migration at close to zero, Mexican officials say," reported the Los Angeles Times. "Arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol along the southwestern frontier, a common gauge of how many people try to cross without papers, tumbled to 304,755 during the 11 months ended in August, extending a nearly steady drop since a peak of 1.6 million in 2000." Drug violence and border crackdowns have contributed to the reduced flow also.
A calmer immigration approach would help make the Republican brand more palatable to non-Republicans. Then the GOP needs to focus on what some people call the "Politics of Aspiration." The party needs to develop an agenda that revolves around opportunity, around policies that help everyone—especially those in the working and middle classes—get ahead in life.
Lower-income Californians suffer most from the policies advocated by the state's dominant Democrats. Liberal environmental policies impede upward mobility by driving up home prices. Union domination destroys public services, especially education, and leads to higher taxes and debt. The Democratic regulatory approach is great for those who already have made their millions, but it makes it nearly impossible to start a small business and build wealth.
Unfortunately, as I wrote last week, the GOP is going in a different direction. GOP legislators mostly supported those redevelopment agencies that run roughshod over the property rights of average people. The GOP is still fighting losing social battles rather than recasting itself in a more libertarian direction that could appeal to broader audiences by rallying around the issues of freedom and opportunity.
This sort of change won't happen overnight, but it's time to recognize the problem.