California’s conservatives should draw from the Tory playbook
There is a successful model for a conservative comeback, should California’s right wing endeavor to import it, offered by their contemporaries in Great Britain: the blue-ribbon sporting Conservative Party.
In the aftermath of the recent and stunning victory by the British Conservative Party, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the United Kingdom’s political right was in the wilderness from 1997 to 2010. In fact, there had not been a non-coalition Tory government for nearly a quarter-century.
A similar state of affairs, minus the electoral resurrection, is very much like the one currently facing the California GOP.
Democrats control every constitutional office and have enjoyed uninterrupted control of both chambers of the Legislature for 25 years. With the exception of a few brief periods of control over the executive branch, Republicans, and conservatives in particular, have been a marginal political force in the state.
In Britain, during the period of well-established leftist control, a government that touted itself as “New Labour” held power in Westminster. They built a large and enduring parliamentary majority by embracing a nominally free-market-friendly approach to policy, not unlike the latest crop of Democrats in Sacramento.
Political moderates and the business interests situated in Britain’s financial heart, the “City”, embraced New Labour because the movement eschewed public ownership in favor of markets. They did so with the understanding that the fruits of those markets would be redistributed. But the free-market political center could tolerate such activity so long as onerous regulation and hefty tax rates were kept in check.
More than 5,000 miles away, on Sacramento’s K Street, where California’s largest and most influential business interests sit, observe and engage in the political process, a quiet approval of the California Democratic Party’s “New Labour” moment has, in part, facilitated the endurance of substantial Democratic majorities.
In exchange for subduing their predilections to tax, spend and control private enterprise, California Democrats have been quietly supported by market-friendly interests as they pursue other aims. Policies that embrace undocumented immigrants, that strengthen public sector unions and that seek to redistribute what revenue is collected all have become law with a minimum of growling from K Street.
K Street’s acquiescence is alarming to California Republicans, and rightly so. But in an age of single-party hegemony, political and regulatory arbitrage makes sense. Accordingly, complaining to the market moderates about how bad they have got it under Democratic governments has not been, and will not be, enough to move them away from their vital support of California’s left.
The road back to conservative power in Sacramento will need to follow a similar path to the one charted by British Conservatives on their trek back to power in Westminster. That means upsetting cozy relationship between the left and market moderates. To do so, just as New Labour embraced the center-right, the minority Conservative Party embraced the center-left.
That realignment was far from a surrender of the party’s core; instead it was an effort to express a clear intensity of preference for free markets – above all. The Conservatives honed their message by eliminating distracting ancillary issues from the party platform. They embraced gay marriage, offered a believable policy agenda to assist the poor and promoted worker protections where possible.
Taking those steps addressed the threshold electability issues that kept the City in New Labour’s camp for fear of quiet regulatory reprisal. It also allowed the Conservative Party to speak with unapologetic force about the need to reform entitlements, to shrink the public sector and to spur private enterprise.
The New Labour movement, however moderate, was unable to tread that transparently conservative path. As the governing party, New Labour had the burden of actualizing the policy that it claimed to embrace, and in the face of the financial crisis of 2008, it was unable to do so. The fall of New Labour occurred when the Conservative minority forced the party to show its true far left-leaning predilections. New Labour simply could not sustain the austerity measures that were needed to right Great Britain’s economy.
While no global economic crisis is immediately apparent on the horizon, the volatility of California’s revenue through the state’s reliance on the largesse of a tiny minority of wealthy taxpayers; the terrific funding obligations that the state has incurred; the slow-coming tidal wave of toxic pension obligations; and the profoundly inadequate nature of the state’s infrastructure are all problems that have eluded viable orthodox left-wing solutions. They all present occasions for California conservatives to make a case that an authentically free-market party is worthy of the support of market moderates or K Street.
Free-market conservatives are winning across the Anglosphere. Britain, Canada, Australian and New Zealand all have center-right governments, because they presented compelling economic messages that left-wing parties, even moderate ones, could not brook. There is no reason that a similar phenomenon cannot occur, even in California.