Semi-Critical Notes on Mayor Faulconer’s Speech
Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego
Shortly after I published my outline for a report on future Inland Empire Republican revivals, I opened up Carla Marinucci’s Politico California Playbook a few days past, and discovered that Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego has been thinking, as well, on the future of the California Republican Party. The Mayor of America’s Finest City delivered a speech on Tuesday, August 15th (full transcript here) to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco entitled “The New California Republicans.” He addressed various issues facing the state and called for a pragmatic and reformist California GOP to overcome odious national forces- he named no names- and balance the California Democrats.
After reading the transcript of the speech, I had some thoughts, which I deliver here in the dying format of “Notes.”
FACTIONS OF THE CONTEMPORARY CALIFORNIA REPUBLICAN PARTY
One– the California Republican Party in the 2nd Jerry Brown Era basically has two factions. These are the “Jon Fleischmann” conservative populists, who embrace the residents of both well-to-do suburbs and rural counties and count among them both candidates for Governor of California this cycle, John Cox and Travis Allen, as well as former gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly; and the “Charles Munger Jr.” moderate conservatives, who are clustered in upper-class suburbs around the state’s metropoles, and include most of the party’s establishment and leadership, including former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, presently embattled Assembly leader Chad Mayes, and former statewide candidates like Duf Sundheim, Pete Peterson, and David Hadley (full disclosure: the author worked for Duf Sundheim’s 2016 U.S. Senate campaign and greatly respects Peterson and Hadley.)
One could argue, and I do, that exposure to power and responsibility causes former Fleischmann activist types to evolve into statesmanlike Pete Wilson figures (though I hope never to see certain activists exposed to real power, for everybody’s sake!) But for better or for worse, the Fleischmanns control the dialogue and activism and the Mungers control the money and levers in the party. That results in a dangerously unstable alliance that often results in political cannibalism, as Assemblyman Mayes is experiencing at the moment. Both factions need each other, but the greatly outnumbered Munger establishment needs the Fleischmann activists less in terms of getting stuff done, and more in terms of staying in power. And to everybody’s circular, spiraling detriment, the establishment is presently unable to keep the loyalty of the activists sufficiently to expand the GOP’s power base in the state.
Which leads us to part two: Mayor Faulconer and his speech.
WHY MAYOR FAULCONER’S VISION IS INSUFFICIENT
Two– Mayor Kevin Faulconer is the epitome of the Republican establishment in California. Smart, suave, relatively bipartisan, and ostensibly a public servant rather than an ambitious climber, he could literally be Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s benign twin. And his speech- technocratic, focused on centrist principles, aspirational towards policy success rather than political victory- reflected his persona and standing immensely.
As a standard run-of-the-mill social moderate-liberal and fiscal conservative, Mayor Faulconer is the darling of California’s Republican elites, and reportedly an individual who the donor Charles Munger Jr. has repeatedly attempted to recruit into a Senatorial or Gubernatorial run. His speech, again, reflected the purported moderation, bipartisanship, and reformism the Mayor hopes to inject into California politics. His five points were a libertarian social ethos, an openness for immigrants, a conservative environmentalism, a turn away from national problems and towards Californian problems, and an emphasis on fiscal and bureaucratic reform at every level in California politics.
I don’t disagree with any of these stances in particular, and as mentioned before, I’ve associated in the past and continue to associate myself with California Republicans whose instincts incline towards these views. So in general terms, I don’t necessarily think any of these stances are bad steps. I do, however, think they are each and altogether insufficient to get us to the kinds of reform the California Republican Party desperately needs to reclaim relevance.
Yes, yes- Mayor Faulconer is the only prominent Republican in the state in the post-Schwarzenegger years. Clearly his model has succeeded, at least in a certain part of California. Any alternative model I could propose doesn’t have the backing of empirical political success, and is thus on the low ground. This all being said, I still find problems with the Munger-Faulconer approach that need to be acknowledged.
First off, we’ve seen this tried before. Faulconer’s model of social moderation/government reform/fiscal conservatism was basically the gist of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial instincts, and Governor Schwarzenegger’s post-2010 public advocacy. Perhaps the Governator was simply the wrong vehicle for these reforms, being an actor rather than a politician. But I think it goes deeper than that- the fact of the matter is, this kind of incrementalism just doesn’t seem bold enough to either sustain the passion and hearts of the millions of California voters needed to constitute a movement, or to actually push for reforms sufficient to resolve California’s pressing problems. I don’t necessarily think an “alternative vision” of the state is feasible or healthy, especially given the reactionary sorts of polity many far-right Republicans envision; but Bill Buckley’s critique of the Rockefeller Republicans, however loathe I am to admit it, still stands: me-too-ism really sucks as an opposition party’s credo.
Second off, the current model of governance for the state is going haywire, and simply trying to run our current model a little bit better is like patching holes in a boat with duct tape. The fiscal problems, which are very real, will be imposing constraints on our ability to fund basic infrastructure and basic human services in the coming years, and even if you’re not one of these fiscal conservatives who treats budget aesthetics as something like a political religion, anyone should be able to acknowledge the need for any polity to pay its debts. Then go ahead and add the standard raft of non-pension still-blue problems blue states and cities across America face- infrastructure overruns, shoddy delivery of healthcare and welfare services, education second to most and third to some, overweening regulatory costs doing terrible things to the housing market and energy supplies, misguided distractory crusades towards 100% green energy and 0% social prejudice, etc. etc. etc.- and you start to get an idea of why Los Angeles municipal voter participation is in the single digits. Perhaps I am overly dire- I do, after all, work for the noted firebrand Joel Kotkin as a research assistant, and a lot of his thought seeps into me- but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that reforms in governance beyond just charter schools and fiscal restraints are important these days.
Three, and this is probably the most “policy-relevant” critique I have- there just isn’t a constituency for Faulconer-Munger technocracy big enough to win statewide offices or legislative parity, let alone majorities. If there were, Republicans would control more than just one L.A. City Council District, and would probably have a few more big-city mayorships outside Southern California. We also probably wouldn’t have ceded the Dems a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature, and we probably would’ve gotten a socially-liberal/fiscally-conservative Republican into the Top Two Primary System for the 2016 Senate race. In other words, socially liberal/fiscally conservative masses of California voters would’ve voted some of their own into office, if they really were a big enough faction to do anything of significance politically in the state. But they’re not.
CONTOURS OF SOMETHING ELSE?
Three– Sure, you might say. Throw stones all you want, but at least Faulconer’s trying. What do you have to offer, oh ye of little faith and little influence in California GOP politics?
Honestly, not much right now, I concede. Earlier today I wrote up a piece outlining a study of voting patterns in Long Beach and the Inland Empire, in hopes of a Republican revival among the apparently socially-conservative/fiscally liberal voters there. My preference for the future of the California GOP is, of course, something somewhat liberal on fiscal and government matters while being somewhat conservative on social and cultural matters, tailored for the issues and demographics of the late 2010s and early 2020s- perhaps a combination of Democratic Governor Pat Brown’s ambitious economic, infrastructure, and educational initiatives, and Republican Governor Ronald Reagan’s working-class appeal and emphasis on law-and-order politics. (Incidentally, this is the kind of program Richard Nixon likely would have pursued, had he been elected Governor over Brown in 1962.) I’ll have to go back and look at the legacies of California’s late-20th Century Republican governors Wilson and Deukmejian, and mid-20th Century Republican governors Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight; but for some reason I suspect that during their gubernatorial tenures they practiced something along these lines.
I wrote a report for an employer of mine which remains unpublished- I might publish an edited version sometime- arguing a different but similar tack. That is, that the contemporary California Democratic Party is premised, perhaps unconsciously, on centralization of decisionmaking in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and on an absolute hostility to the physical “build-stuff” industries of energy, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture. And that therefore, the Republican Party of California ought to orient itself less on “size of government” and taxation issues, and more on a re-orientation of power from the metropolitan city centers to more local communities, including neighborhoods, small towns, and counties, while simultaneously supporting deregulation and subsidies in the interests of the industries currently being ignored or attacked by California Democrats. This kind of court-country politics is not really antithetical to the previously proposed tack of big projects and social conservatism- in fact, look at the New Deal coalition’s composition in relation to Franklin Roosevelt’s great domestic achievements. There is a shocking similarity in the roles the California Republican Party can take in “lifting up the common man” and building new greatness for California, in opposition to rather than secondhand partnership with California’s contemporary Democratic elite.
Perhaps, whatever the substantial policy agreements between Faulconer-Munger politics and “Neo-Nixon” politics are, the basic disagreement is a class representation issue- whether or not the vision of California’s elite and necessary upper class ought to be realized in California for everybody’s benefit, or whether representatives of the lower orders ought to be brought into the fray and bring alternative visions to fore. The degree to which Republicans cooperate with Democrats or build alternative visions to that of the Democrats, then, would be the litmus test of representation here.
In any case, I’d prefer a CAGOP with a third leg outside of Faulconer-Munger and Donnelly-Fleischmann- a leg socially moderately conservative and fiscally moderately liberal, capable of producing both an elite and a voter base, hopefully capable of acting independently of either other leg, and hopefully capable of being a decisive force in the future of the Republican Party of California. An outline of what such a faction would look like awaits, though I’ll probably be taking a stab at it when I turn to write that report on Inland Empire-Long Beach Republican prospects.
Again, I reiterate- I don’t necessarily oppose the substance of Faulconer’s speech. Among the proposals he outlines there are some that I agree with; among the same there are others I disagree with.
The overarching thrusts of the speech, though- that California Republicans must distinguish themselves from the national party, that they must focus explicitly on resolving California’s great issues, that they must provide a reformist alternative to California Democratic excesses- I find myself in complete agreement. The tendency of California GOP activists to be, more or less, standard run-of-the-mill national commentators and little else, renders them impotent and useless for all practical purposes. The Munger elites and Faulconer, for all their policy errors and intellectual flaws, are at least seeing the right kind of problem, and some contours of forward movement. That’s something, and perhaps in time the idea will spread.
I don’t know if Mayor Faulconer and Co. are going to set up some form of “New California Republicans” advocacy group or think tank, or not. If they do, I certainly will be working to get involved, if at all possible. It’s a cause that we need worked on and fought for soon.