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Where Are You, California Republicans?

Just in case the California Legislature's passage of a landmark water bill earlier this week had convinced you that John Judis is wrong and that things are finally looking up for the Golden State, William Voegeli's essay in the current issue of City Journal might put things back in gloomy perspective.  Voegeli asks a worthwhile question: Given that the overall tax burden in California is fairly high relative to other states (with some complicating factors), why aren't public services like roads, schools, and police in California any better than in low-tax jurisdictions like Texas?  Voegeli's answer is that a substantial percentage of California tax revenue funds generous public-sector salaries and social programs for low-income residents, rather than true public goods that all residents can use.

I have two quarrels with Voegeli's argument.  The first is that, while he hypothesizes that California's tax burden is a primary factor in driving residents out of the state (this is the first decade in which California will have negative net migration), he doesn't offer any evidence for that conclusion.  Surely the fact that the median home price is more than $100,000 higher in California than in Texas has more to do with the states' migration patterns than the $1300-per-year difference in tax burden Voegeli identifies.

Second, it seems wrong to lump together public-employee salaries and welfare payments into a generalized category of wasteful spending.  While it's certainly hard to justify the generous compensation that, for instance, California prison guards receive (thanks to their politically powerful union), there's an obvious rationale for the state's social safety net spending: Californians are more willing to use the power of the state to improve the lot of the working class than Texans are.  (This was more true before the last few rounds of budget-cutting in California, but it's still the case.)  That may be a good choice or a bad choice, but it doesn't make California's government objectively less efficient or effective than Texas's.  It's just a different set of values.

That said, much of Voegeli's argument about the poor state of public services in California is sound.  My question is: what does that say about the California Republican Party? 

I think this is an underappreciated point.  Here you have a state in such a mess that even committed members of the majority party are exceptionally unhappy with state government.  And yet the opposition party has not only failed to take power, it has essentially abandoned all hope of doing so in the foreseeable future.  It's as if, in response to the Bush years, the Democratic Party had just casually taken a pass on the 2008 election and nominated, say, Dennis Kucinich.  It's difficult to think of any other political culture (aside from maybe Japan in the latter part of the twentieth century) that so consistently defies basic political science assumptions about how rational parties behave. 

There's a huge number of disaffected Californians eager to embrace moderate Republicans as an alternative to the moribund Democratic establishment--and yet the state party stubbornly refuses to move to the center, pushing instead a far-right economic and social agenda that has very little appeal to the median California voter.  The California GOP resembles nothing so much as a clueless twentysomething guy who, in a bar full of attractive single women, perpetually fails to make any headway because all he can talk about is World of Warcraft and his fantasy football team.  Running hard to the right might make sense in states where dyed-in-the-wool conservatives can get elected, but how many more losses will it take to prove that California isn't one?

It seems to me that California Republicans have made the strategic decision that the supermajority requirement in the state legislature gives them enough power to achieve their main goals without making the compromises necessary to actually take control.  That's a choice they're certainly entitled to make (though they run the risk that 50.1 percent of the electorate will get sufficiently frustrated to amend the state constitution and institute majority rule).  But that's a pretty weak and uninspired aspiration for a political party to have, and it clearly hasn't produced very good results for the state.  In reading essays like Voegeli's, California Republicans ought to ask themselves whether they're really happy just obstructing the Democratic agenda, or whether it might be worth it to try to win a majority again and see if they can get state government back on track.