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.