Reinventing the Safety Net

On last night’s GOP LeagueCast, I alluded to Republicans’ catch-22:  Their core conservative message is community-centric, but community-centric policies are impracticable at the federal level.  Instead, our GOP leaders in Washington focus on shuttering clumsy and unprincipled federal programs and policies–a righteous agenda–but are unable to roll out state and local programs and policies fill the holes they would create.  In other words, the GOP is heavy on “Repeal” and light on “Replace.”  This is the heart of the objection that Republicans are the “Party of No” and why they are always playing defense when it comes to health care and immigration and other social issues.  And when they do take the initiative, such as with No Child Left Behind, it backfires badly.

So here’s a concrete suggestion that I would be making to California Republicans if this were still a two party state: Take the lead on solving this state’s overcrowded prisons and over-incarceration problems with conservative principles:

  • restore rehabilitation,
  • reform three strikes,
  • restore mental illness treatment,
  • incorporate substance abuse training,
  • incorporate job training,
  • consider decriminalizing marijuana.

I realize that, at first blush, many of these do not look “conservative” at all.  Aren’t conservatives all about retributive justice and harsh punishment for criminals?  Isn’t the GOP the champion of Three Strikes?  Weren’t state mental hospitals dismantled under Governor Reagan?  And for heaven’s sake–GOP, the party of “legalizing it”?

But I say these objections overlook other aspects of the GOP that have gotten short shrift over the past many years.  The GOP has a strong interest in family, and while single mothers deserve all the support we can give them, the best support possible is to restore their husbands and their children’s fathers.  The GOP can be tough on crime and actively work to rehabilitate those who have paid their debts.  Individual responsibility should not mean a cold shoulder.

Let’s put it this way:  The GOP, in California in particular, tilts at windmills when it tries to curb spending.  Might as well spend it in a way that furthers conservative values of virtuous and productive citizens rather than policies that create dependency and recidivism.

There is a difference of opinion on whether Three Strikes is truly effective, but even LA’s DA Steve Cooley recognizes it’s time to reform it, as voters just did last week by approving Prop 36. And short of legalizing marijuana as Washington and Colorado did last week, California Republicans could favor decriminalization so as to end imprisonment for marijuana use–a punishment well in excess of the offense.

While we’re at it,at the local level, GOP leaders could promote human relations councils to improve the public’s trust of schools, police, and other local institutions. In my work with the Human Relations Commission in Orange County, it is painfully obvious that the communities that most depend on our public institutions are the most alienated from them.  The Commission works as a liaison that tries to make these groups feel heard and that recommends ways to ameliorate social tensions. Given the tenor of the GOP in recent years, it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m the only openly conservative member on the Commission.  The GOP needs to change that tenor and realign with its community-oriented principles.  While conservatism focuses on the importance of our institutions, Republicans too often throw their arms up at tough local problems, leaving “personal responsibility” to do all the work.

These restorative, revitalizing, rehabilitative measures would reduce the need for debilitating and dependency-creating safety net policies, strengthen families and communities, improve the economy, reduce state spending in the mid- to long-term, and reduce the burden on the prison system.  The latter would have the happy side-effect of decreasing the demand for prison guards and thus hitting the union’s membership rolls and pocketbook.  In other words, these policies would neutralize the powerful prison guards union without once mentioning pensions, immunizing the GOP from the meme that seeks to pit them against the middle class.  They would also give the GOP credibility as the party that cares about building virtuous citizens and healthy communities, and Democrats as the party that puts well-meaning but clumsy, ineffective, band-aids on problems.

These ideas fall in line with John Hinderaker’s excellent observations:  The social issues that were a net gain for the GOP were crime and welfare in the 1980s.  They can be again.

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. These are almost all good ideas. I as a liberal would fully support them. I’ve worked in substance abuse treatment and mental health care and doing more of those things would help greatly. Restorative Justice is a good concept. Job training and education for prisoners are good ideas.

    I’d be remiss to not mention that making more substance abuse treatment facilities and mental health care programs cost money. One party generally supports spending more on such things and another party tends to not want to spend on such things. If a liberal type suggests more money for rehab programs and work training for prisoners how would “talk radio conservatives” react. How would politicians react to spending money on those kind of people. I’ve seen what happens when D’s push for those things. Its not pretty. Your heart and ideas are in the right place on this. Get a few R’s on this and you have plenty of D’s along with you.

    • You’re absolutely right, of course. This is why the GOP needs charismatic leaders to articulate these ideas and couch them in terms of true conservatism, or community-centered conservatism, or compassionate, or what have you. This is the other catch-22: These policies are local, but all the really talented Republican leaders head straight to Washington, where they can do precisely the least possible good for their party (i.e., where all they can do is talk about tearing down policies in place without solid ideas for fixing the problems those policies at least try to address). We need some to stick around here and make the case for state and local policies. This is a two part project. Not everybody can disappear off to D.C.

      • Washington can do a lot to support these kind of policies. Firstly there is money. Many state/local programs ( almost all the ones i have worked in) applied for and got Fed grants. Also the Fed level can support research and coordination. The Feds really don’t control that much of the social service net but they can do a lot to support it.

  2. Gawd. If only…
    (In short, great idea! I almost typed “impossible to implement”… and then I remembered you guys just got the jungle primary. Find a few influential black dudes to run (you got connections, you say?), and you might actually be able to start a party).

    Would you be interested in a post on the GOP’s Primary Problem?

  3. The GOP, in California in particular, tilts at windmills when it tries to curb spending. Might as well spend it in a way that furthers conservative values of virtuous and productive citizens rather than policies that create dependency and recidivism.

    I would love to see this. One of the strongest reasons I have for staying away from the Republican party is that they seem to prefer to maim government programs and let them become a hopeless mess when we’d be much better off if they tried to make them work along conservative principles. They give the very strong impression that they’d rather see a project fail and become a disaster than acknowledge that government can do good things by contributing.

    The sad part is that we really need conservatives who want good governance to contribute. It’s not like the political process couldn’t benefit from real hard-nosed accounting and data-driven skepticism. Replacing broken programs with better, more efficient policies would be a win for everybody. “Let it all burn” seems to get the Tea Party really excited, but it doesn’t work for me, and it seems to me that anybody who espouses it is rightly marginalized.

  4. Tim,

    That’s some conservatism I could support without objection. I’d love to see the GOP move that direction.

    And by the way, apologies for mispronouncing your last name all these years (not that you could actually hear how I was saying it in my head, but, hey, why not).

    • Shit, how is it pronounced? I always thought it rhymed with “towel”.

      • I never picked up on the “towel” connection, but yes, that’s how everyone instinctively pronounces it. Family lore is that the original German spelling is Koal, pronounced “ko-all,” but after they immigrated to America, people started mispronouncing it “cole.” To preserve the original pronunciation, someone added the “w.” As a result, we lost the original spelling (Kowal is a common Polish name, as I understand, but we’re not Polish) and traded one mispronunciation for another. On top of that, most of my family just pronounces it “cole” anyway. Except for my uncle, usually three sheets, who walks around muttering, “it’s ko-wall. KO-WALL!!”

        So I usually don’t even bother correcting anyone given the name is basically engineering to be mispronounced.

        • I haven’t listened yet so I’ll need you to tell me how you prefer it. My name is a Polish one that we misspelled and mispronounced to make it Americanized… Unfortunately, now no one, Pole or American, can get it right.

          • Strange. I wonder how common a story that is?

            I don’t even pronounce it consistently. I tend to pronounce it “cole” in informal settings. In court, I state my full time with the “original” pronunciation: Timothy Ko-Wall (emphasis on both syllables).

  5. You’d get a lot of votes out of it. I did the math recently, and most of my politically aware friends identify themselves as Republicans, but invariably favored Obama over Romney. Californians of my generation recognize that the GOP has been on the wrong track for many years and are hoping it finds its way to a new conservatism. One that doesn’t hate me for my sexual orientation, one that can be accepting of immigrants, one that doesn’t blindly deny evolution and climate change. This sounds like a great step towards a better Republican Party for California.

  6. I host a series of Social Justice forums at my church here in Orange County, where we gather together people of different political persuasions- ranging from liberal like me, to Tea Partyiers.

    One of the main goals of the group is to find areas where conservatives and liberals can agree, and build from there to create social justice.

    The core of conservatism and liberalism share a common root- the idea of communal responsibility, obligation, the dignity of every individual, and placing the good of the group ahead of the self.

    For conservatives, these are expressed as patriotism and religious piety; for liberals, it expresses as concern for the poor and empowerment for neglected groups like women and minorities.

    There is a way for both sides to share overarching goals, while disagreeing about the mechanics of reaching them.

    • LWA, that sounds like a great series. Does your church happen to be in the vicinity of Huntington Beach/Costa Mesa? My wife and I are looking.

    • Hey, LWA: those sound like conversations that I would love to be part of. I live in Newport Beach. Are these fora open to non-members?

  7. Tim, this would make a significant difference for me for a state level (I am a CA voter in West OC, maybe not too far from you – I’m in CA-48), though as stated elsewhere here there is no bleedin way I’m voting GOP for any federal office.

    I’m a persuadable liberal – e.g. I voted for Riordan in the primary (switched registration for that; otherwise I left the GOP in the early 80s) and wrote him in for the general, since I utterly despised both major party nominees.

    What you write reminds me a bit of Sam Brownback, who I gather has actually expended a bit of political capital on prison reform – good on him. I can’t imagine voting for Brownback, but I can respect his willingness to actually Do the Right Thing about something, coming I believe out of his conscience rather than the desire for political advantage (if somebody wants to disabuse me of that respect, go ahead – any illusion is worth dispelling. You don’t need to list all Brownback’s positions – I know. Instead, explain to me why his prison reform stuff is in fact cynical).

    Throw in something on welfare reform whereby e.g. unemployment benefits and medicaid slowly phase out rather than being a cliff and I’m more with you, and if well done you guys might peel off a few nonwhite votes (again, we’re talking state level; I see the national level GOP as hopeless for the forseeable future in terms of reclaiming a majority in CA).

    The other thing I have seen suggested by rightwingers before the post-2012 panic (e.g. I remember some postings at when it was active) is running plausible candidates for mayor of large cities other than San Diego. And not shooting them down when they run for governor, of course.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  8. Tim,

    This is a strong piece. I like much of what you said here (the ONLY quibble I’d make is that your conversation about the family seemed limited to heterosexual couples but I don’t think that is worth threadjacking). This quote, in particular, stood out and I’d actually love to see it fleshed out in greater detail (either here or, ideally, in it’s own post):
    “But I say these objections overlook other aspects of the GOP that have gotten short shrift over the past many years.”

    I think both ideologies (conservative and liberal… fish D and R) have laudable core values. The folks at the helms of both movements often have little sense of these. Conservative focus on community is wonderful. If the conservatives got back to their true core values, we’d be in a better place. Likewise for the liberals.

  9. It seems kind of facile and even crude to say that “crime and welfare” can be issues on which the GOP can realize a “net gain” “again” like they did in the ’80s if in fact the way for them to do this is to effect turnabouts in their attitudes on them and for the most part seek to undo the damage that they themselves caused in realizing that first round of net (political) gains (certainly with respect to crime, drugs and incarceration – this post doesn’t really lay out a welfare agenda). But this doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good thing for the party to do. It would be.

    • Wasn’t meaning to be quite so harsh here, Tim, and I was thinking more in terms of this being Hinderaker’s point rather than yours. Also, I made the point more to raise the issue of whether this amounts to trying to make political gains coming and going on a couple of issues (i.e. by papering over inconsistency on them) for the purpose of discussion, not to absolutely assert that it’s the case. I expect that there’s a good conservative case for why it’s not that, especially in terms of welfare and federalism (though also arguments to be made why it does amount to this in practice). If you want to take up that discussion, I’d be happy to hear the case.

  10. You’d have an easier time convincing the Democrats to adopt some Federalist principles. Sad but true.

  11. Really excellent piece. This approach would go a long way toward making me consider Republicans, particularly at the local level.

    Sadly, on the national level, I think you’d have to start a Bull Moose party to draw in the conservatives who would back this and openly advocate for it. A clean break from the GOP brand might be the only way to convince the people who were hurt most by the 1980s crime & welfare stands to give you a chance instead of just assuming that they were being played.

  12. Great piece Tim. With some quibbles, Hinderaker’s piece was also quite good- his characterizations of liberals and Democrats seem incorrect, as does his implication that Republicans uniquely engage in serious soul-searching after losses, but his diagnosis of the party and movement’s problems (in effect, that the party is the victim of its own successes in the 80s and 90s) is right on the money.*

    One thing I have noticed the last few days, with some notable exceptions, is that an awful lot of conservatives are doing serious soul-searching of a sort that I did not see at all in 2008. Most, represented most forcefully by Gov. Jindal’s remarks yesterday about Romney’s justification of his loss, are reaching roughly the same conclusion as you and Hinderaker: the party is in trouble because it doesn’t speak to actual concerns of most people. I saw last night a post by Allahpundit effectively throwing in his lot with Douthat and Salam’s Grand New Party argument:

    All of these, notably, focus on addressing real concerns to real problems that the Democrats have a difficult time addressing for various reasons – most liberals no doubt are interested in prison reform, for instance, but have no ability to really make it happen, especially in California as you’ve argued in the past, without alienating a powerful constituency (the prison guards’ union).

    While your proposals are focused on California and obviously are not the sorts of big-picture issues that could form the spine of a national coalition, I think you sell yourself short by thinking that they have no relevance whatsoever nationally. As others have noted, it was a pet issue of Sam Brownback; but he was not alone in this – Jim Webb, who was more a forward-thinking conservative alienated by the GOP than a liberal Dem, was passionate about it, and it’s long been probably Congressman Frank Wolf’s (R-VA) top priority issue.

    I recognize that there are also no shortage of conservatives out there who are insisting that the party double down on being the Party of No. But that’s ok as long as there are a sizable number of conservatives who are refocusing their priorities and recognizing that there’s a major difference between being conservative and being reactionary.

    *Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve been making this exact argument for a good five years now.

    • The soul-searching tendency is very real this time around. There are a lot of political reasons for that, but I think it’s the press of history too (see, e.g., Dennis Sanders’ excellent guest post). We’ve moved from a relationship system to a more arm’s length system that brings both greater prosperity but also some instabilities inherent in market economies. Libertarians have been most consistent in articulating free market principles and progressives in articulating the importance of regulation and centralization. Republicans have been really caught in the middle: they pay lip service to free market principles but, whether because of cronyism or just the reality of being a major party, wind up voting for policies that often make them indistinguishable from progressives/Democrats.

      So while the GOP continues to experiment with its economic liberty recipe, it ought to take Douthat/Salam/Jindal’s points seriously. As I mentioned on the LeagueCast, while I still don’t think Santorum is the right candidate for 2016, he actually had the right idea on connecting the GOP’s economic principles to family and community. In other words, it’s easier to justify deviations from strict economic libertarianism if your priority is on virtue of the individual, family, and community rather than cold, mathematical notions of economic efficiency and growth.

      • I can’t say that I disagree with any of this, Tim. Right on, IMHO – to be honest, the quality of the soul searching has me feeling more optimistic about the country’s long term future than I’ve been in a very long time.

        I agree with your assessment of Santorum, too – for all his faults, the guy was the best the GOP had this year when it came to taking an active interest in matters of immediate and actual concern to people. In many respects, this fact is also why I felt he was the only truly “authentic” candidate in the race. He was of course largely following in the footsteps of Huckabee’s 2008 campaign, just with fewer deviations from conservative orthodoxy.

  13. Writing and thinking on this post has given me an insight into what the “liberal mind” looks like, perhaps. Being conservative, I’m generally against spending on government programs unless there’s a demonstrated upside. In contrast, my impression of the left is that spending for the primary purpose of making society nicer will, in the long run, also make it better off economically, too. But there’s sometimes not much support for the economics of certain kinds of spending because the economic part is secondary and thus sustained more on the hope that doing good things will spin off other good things.

    I realize the policies mentioned in the OP would be a hard sell to the GOP as currently constituted. How do we afford all this stuff? Will it pay off? When? As I consider these questions, I realize I’ve transitioned away from thinking about them in terms of economics primarily. Instead, the effects these programs would have, if successful, are preconditions to having a successful economy in the first place, adhering to the idea that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” This is how I imagine many on the left think of their favored policies when confronted with economic objections, even while I still believe the left supposes far more such preconditions than the right does.

    • This is a good start. Lots of liberal policies do put econ a distant second at best. While lots of social welfare ideas will actually help make the econ better in some ways, the econ is just not the primary focus. Many liberals will tout, not incorrectly, the econ benefits to policies but that is just not the main focus. There is more to a healthy society then good economics. And a healthy economy/free market will not provide for all the needs of a healthy society.

    • I think the recidivism rates would be where a lot of the savings would come in, and reduced need for other services.
      There’s no way that I could agree to the notion that having 3% of our population incarcerated is of benefit to either the economy or the community.

      • California’s incarceration rate was more like 3 tenths of a percent (actually, about 450 per 100,000 at its height, iirc). But yes, that’s an unacceptable ratio.

  14. Hey, these are great ideas, and I support them (and you for thinking and writing about them).

    The big issue I see (from my perspective) is how do you expel “those people” and “those kind of people” from the Republican vernacular?

    All that you say above is true. In addition, “those people” are an integral part of Republican thinking about prisons. Or, at least, from where I sit, I hear “those people” or some variant every single fishing day. I don’t think most people realize what kind of message that sends to me every day. The message it sends to my wife. To my kids. On my bad days, I hate every single Republican in the country by the end of the day, because that’s the message I hear – I’m one of those people that you (Republicans) hate. Not just for one reason, but for hundreds of reasons.

    Try it. Listen to every time you read or hear something like that. 47%. Moochers. Takers. Those people. Young bucks. I only voted because I was given gifts. There’s a million versions. And, imagine that every time you hear it, you realize that they are talking about people just like you and your family and your kids. You’ll stop listening to it after a while, because it’s too painful. But, for some people, you can’t stop listening because you know that they are talking about you.

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