Most of the activists, insiders, and lobbyists I talked to during the recent California Republican Party convention in Sacramento expressed optimism about their party despite blistering election losses and falling voter registration levels that will soon—I'm only half-joking here—have the party competing with the Greens and the Peace and Freedom folks.
Their optimism came from the election of former lawmaker Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga as party chairman. "California Republicans have chosen a former state lawmaker known for his fundraising work to lead the party back from the brink of irrelevance in a state that once was a GOP stronghold," according to the Associated Press report.
Given Brulte's financial connections and vast Capitol experience, he was able to unite the conservative and moderate wings of the party. Unite might be too strong of a word. The GOP has its back against the wall, is deeply in debt, has no blueprint for regaining momentum and is thoroughly lost ideologically. It was more of a "If you want it, you can have it" situation.
Also good news, the party event featured less of that internal bickering that has plagued past California GOP events (although it did have a couple of scandals, including yet another one that involved some party member talking about rape). The old saying about academic battles being so vicious because the stakes are so small should be refined. The stakes are so miniscule for the state GOP now that it's not even fun to fight with each other anymore.
Convention cynics joked that the theme was, "Republicans love Latinos." Almost every public event was designed to highlight the party's embrace of the state's burgeoning Latino community. The party finally has recognized that it can't win without deep support from a group that doesn't vote for Republicans in large percentages, that it is now paying the price for its past approach to immigration issues, and that its outreach efforts are a joke.
Sending GOP emissaries into Latino neighborhoods to convince them to vote for the GOP worked as well as if left-wing Latino activists sent emissaries to Newport Beach to sign them up for the Democrats. The new efforts are designed to "grow" candidates and send them through the Republican pipeline. Unfortunately, it's hard to launch this effort without it smacking of pandering. I'd feel better, also, if the new candidates were more about principles, less about ethnicity and values.
If I were giving the convention a theme, I'd borrow the name of the 2009 movie, "He's Just Not That Into You." California's voters just don't care about the party. Ginning up fund-raising by nominating a deal-cutting former lobbyist makes sense from a party-structure standpoint. But where are the GOP leaders who engage in the battle of ideas? And do they even know what ideas to engage in?
The Saturday luncheon featured Karl Rove, who blasted the Obama administration for increasing the federal government's debt and failing to deal with the crushing entitlement burden from Social Security and Medicare. But as former President George W. Bush's top adviser, Rove led policies that doubled the national debt and worsened the entitlements situation under the faulty idea that voters would embrace the GOP if the party handed out goodies. Delegates in attendance should have at least walked out of the room or booed loudly.
Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine spoke at a lunch event. He is a solid conservative, but one who fled the state for Austin. He makes great points about Texas policy, but California Republicans will take away a different lesson: How do I find a good job in Dallas?
Some of the politicians were even championing their newfound willingness to reach across party lines. That sound nice, but the Democratic Party is committed to expanding regulation, increasing taxes, blocking reform to union entitlements and creating new government programs and agencies. Once in a while, an occasional "point of light" will emerge—i.e., a growing consensus for reforming the project-halting California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). But the Dems don't need Republican support for that or anything else.
What's an irrelevant party to do? Its new approach will take many years to change the state's political climate at best, and California is in desperate straits now.
Instead of worrying about process, the party needs to build ideas that resonate with the public. Republicans will never compete with Democrats in the game of government give-away. They need to boisterously rebuild that old "Leave Us Alone" coalition and point out why government is the main obstacle to every Californian's freedom and prosperity, although I'm not sure how many of the party's leaders or activists believe that.
Look at how Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul single-handedly rammed the issue of the Obama administration's police-state policies on drone attacks into the forefront of the national discussion. Likewise, courageous and visionary California Republicans—OK, that's probably an oxymoron—must engage Californians about how the union-controlled democratic majority is turning our state into North Korea with palm trees.
That might not make the GOP lobbyists and consultants happy, but the party needs ideological leadership now even more than political leadership.