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Saturday, November 12, 2005

The California Republican Problem

As a lifelong Californian and resident of the southern San Francisco Bay Area, I love the place and will likely never move. Natural wonders abound, within a short day-trip distance, or overnight or an easy weekend drive away. We love to hike and backpack, and having lots of nature nearby more than makes up for the high cost of real-estate and such - at least for us. Also, Mountain View, CA is typically about 80 degrees in the summer and 60 in the winter, with relatively low humidity; our utility bills are rarely over $100.

We often toy with thoughts of selling our 1300 square foot "duet house" (a townhouse-ized duplex where each side owns its half) on a busy street in Mountain View in favor of a lovely McMansion that is located Somewhere Cheap; with the proceeds of the sale, we could pretty much buy one with cash. But those Somewhere Cheaps don't have the local tech companies that I work at, are usually far from international airports (my wife is from Shanghai and we visit the in-laws about once a year), and don't have much in the way of Chinese grocery stores and malls. Between that, the weather, and the fact that my extended family is here, I'd rather not move.

That said, a constant frustation is California politics. For whatever reason, states with large "creative" elements in their economies tend to be "blue" states dominated by Democrats and civil-service unions, and California is no exception. The once-powerful state Republican Party, that gave us Ronald Reagan, is a weak, pathetic thing that hasn't seated a governor in a non-recall election since the mid 1990s, and has an unfortunate tendency to nominate unelectable candidates to run for the office. (Arnold would have never survived a Republican state nominating convention; he's far too socially liberal.) The state Democratic Party is an entrenched, incumbent party in thrall to civil-service unions, identity politics hustlers, and trial lawyers, with all the rusty corruption and ideological silliness that comes from being The Ruling Party.

Making things even worse is the identification of state civil-service unions with their nominal function. That is, if you "support education", a common perception is that you have to do the bidding of the teacher's union, both as a politician and as a voter. The teachers' unions have come to be seen as super PTAs.

If I were advising the state Republican Party, I'd advise the following:

o Don't pretend you're in Texas or Oklahoma. Once you leave San Bernadino County, any resemblance to west Texas ends. The focus of the State Party must be economic opportunity and entrepreneurship, not cultural conservatism. Much of the state's electorate is aggressively secularist, so policies - like abortion - motivated by Christian conservatism are net losers in that they drive away otherwise interested voters. However, policies that emphasize choice and freedom and that contribute to cultural conservative goals could be winners, such as vouchers, charter schools, and other school choice issues.

o Californians are natively optimistic risk-takers, so curmudgeonism should be avoided whenever possible. Curmudgeonism is the sort of whiny conservatism that rants about "too many Mexicans" and that advocates buying gold for The End is Nigh. Remember Reagan: a sunny optimist who speaks to a bright future without being dour. Curmudgeon policy issues: anti-pornography, excessive concern with guns (fight for the second amendment, but don't go overboard; keep the NRA at arm's length), anti-immigrant politics.

o Work on the nonwhite entrepreneurial vote. Figure out a way to discuss border control as a crime and terrorism question, not coded racism. Also, improving schools, making it easier to start and run businesses, and law and order issues will work very well with everyone. Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, and Vietnamese are hardworking and entrepreneurial, and are largely ignored by the Democratic Party beyond the identity-politics crowd.

o Make it clear that civil service unions are employee unions, not public advocacy groups. One problem is that many people who don't pay much attention to politics think outfits with names like "National Education Association" are public advocates, not teachers' unions. Same for "Brotherhood of X", where X is some civil-service function.

If one thinks about unions, would one regard the UAW as the best advocate for the American auto industry? Not hardly. The same goes for civil service unions - in fact, more so, since "management" in civil service unions are the people themselves.

o The Republicans need a way to discuss education policy. This means that Republicans need to come with an alternate means of discussing education in the context of better public schools, if nothing else to counter the monopoly on policy debate currently held by the teacher unions. School choice is important, but not enough; without a means of at least discussing the direct improvement of public schools, school choice becomes a curmudgeon issue.

Update: on educational policy discussions, this article is quite interesting as a way to finesse the debate away from "how dare you question The Teachers!" to something more public-friendly and likely to work.

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