California's Republican Party Is Irrelevant. Embracing Criminal Justice Reform Could Help Change That.
Conservatives and moderates don't agree on much, but they do agree on this: The state GOP is dead in the water and needs a new strategy to revive itself.
California's two major Republican factions—conservatives and moderates—have been arguing about the future of the party for at least two decades. They don't agree on much, but after the California party's midterm drubbing they do agree on this point: The state GOP is largely dead in the water and needs a new strategy to revive itself.
A recap is in order. In 1998, 46.8 percent of voters were registered as Democrats, 35.8 percent as Republicans and 12.4 percent chose "No Party Preference." As of 2018, the Democrats held fairly steady at 44.4 percent registration, but those independents grabbed second spot with 25.5 percent and Republicans had sunk to 25.1 percent. On Nov. 6, Democrats took seven GOP-held congressional races (one has yet to be certified), won every statewide office and expanded their supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate.
"The California Republican Party isn't salvageable at this time," wrote former Republican Assembly leader Kristin Olsen or Modesto in a widely discussed post-mortem. "The Grand Old Party is dead—partly because it has failed to separate itself from today's toxic, national brand of Republican politics." She pointed to the need for a New Way. That refers to a group of moderate Republicans, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who are pushing for bipartisan approaches.
Unfortunately, there's nothing new about this direction. Bipartisanship is great provided you find common ground on substantive limited-government issues. That's a pipe-dream given the views among the Democratic majority. Schwarzenegger's administration, which epitomizes this approach, started out with calls for government reform, but devolved into warmed-over liberalism. Been there, done that.
But the current conservative approach of doubling down on Trumpism will only lead to the party's obliteration. Trump's nationalistic approach, and his hardline stances on immigration and law and order, has been tried repeatedly. In 1994, Proposition 187, which would have denied most public services to illegal immigrants, passed overwhelmingly. But it did long-term damage to the party's brand. And the party has never gotten away from its inflexible tough-on-crime stance.
The only thing the party has left to offer is tax cutting. I'm as big of a tax cutter as you'll find, but Republicans need a broader range of issues. There's plenty there to work from given the state's poverty rates and housing crisis, but Republican lawmakers need to build credibility among voters who increasingly equate Republicanism with the plague.
One good place to rebuild: criminal-justice reform. The past few years California has made dramatic changes in its approach to incarceration. While the Jerry Brown administration was, say, dealing seriously with a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding, Republicans largely resisted. These and other proposed reforms would, in their tiresome rhetoric, let violent criminals out on the streets or hobble the police.
There's a strong free-market case and civil-liberties case for reforming these government-run, union-controlled systems. The think tank I work for, the R Street Institute, and groups such as Right on Crime make the right-of-center case for shaving out-of-control spending, battling recidivism and coming up with alternative sentences for low-level offenders. Conservative Texas, for instance, has shut down prisons as California built new ones. Sadly, the state GOP's one-note approach has made its input irrelevant, which is too bad given that some Democratic proposals really do go too far.
Here's an example of a better approach. The U.S. Supreme Court just heard arguments in Timbs v. Indiana, involving the government's use of civil asset forfeiture. In 2015, Indiana confiscated a vehicle from a man charged with selling heroin to undercover officers. Because he allegedly transported the drugs in the car, the state took the SUV. There are innumerable instances of governments taking private property from people who haven't even been accused of a crime.
The Eighth Amendment is at issue, given its prohibition on "excessive fines." Forfeiting a $42,000 Land Rover far exceeds the fine ($10,000) and the value of the drugs at issue ($225). When the Indiana solicitor general seemed to hedge in his answer to whether the amendment applied to states, Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Republican appointee, retorted: "And here we are in 2018, still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really? Come on, General."
This is a sign that the court might rein in these abuses and a reminder of the liberties-based approach that conservatives should take when it comes to criminal-justice matters. When California tried to reform its asset-forfeiture laws over the years, Republicans often were resistant. The state did so in 2016, with most Republicans eventually voting yes. But the GOP should be leading the charge on these issues, rather than going along kicking and screaming.
Instead of arguing over a moderate v. conservative approach, the party needs to be creative and come up with a new bundle of relevant, freedom-friendly issues that will appeal to a wide swath of Californians. It's worth a try. Nothing else has worked.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at email@example.com.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.