Do We Have a “Grover Norquist Problem”?

Pete Peterson
Candidate (R) for California Secretary of State, and Executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy

The recent news from the political research firm Grassroots Lab, that registered Republicans comprise a majority of California’s local government elected positions, has sent shockwaves through the Party’s ranks. In a state where Democrats are a super majority in the Legislature and hold every statewide office, the fact that Republicans serve in about half of the state’s mayoralties and council member positions appears as an oasis in Death Valley.

But is this oasis a mirage?

Interviewed about their findings by the Los Angeles Times, Grassroots Labs’ Robb Korinke noted that since most local elections are nonpartisan, the Republican label is not as important—often even unknown by voters. It’s when local Republicans run for state office that problems begin: “The second they move on, they’re viewed through a much different lens,” Korinke said. In Robb’s view, that “lens” is the glass ceiling of social issues from abortion to gay marriage.

I agree with Robb (who I’ve worked with on government transparency efforts), that to win many state-level offices – much more, statewide offices – Republicans need to temper at least their rhetoric on social issues. But I’m increasingly persuaded, that to rebuild what should rightly be a two-Party state, Republicans will also have to change how we talk about an even more important issue: the role of government.

Fortunately, the path to this reorientation is found in Grassroots’ study and how it is being reported. The Los Angeles Times piece spotlights one elected local government Republican – Randy Pope, city councilman in Oakley. Described as a “conservative-tinged libertarian with a strong aversion to big government and the nanny state”, Pope was elected to council in this East Bay Area burg that has a majority Democratic registration. He is one of four registered Republicans on the five-seat council.

Decrying the fact that he “can’t choose which light bulb I want to illuminate my living room,” the Times notes that Pope ran for City Council in 2010, focusing on “quality-of-life issues: public safety, traffic, schools.” Later in the article, “GOP activist” Celeste Grieg allows, “there are very important issues that people care about” like “crime and potholes and fixing sidewalks.”

Hmmm…these sound like government-related issues to me. Maybe government isn’t “the problem.” Maybe the problem is the scope of the policies it regulates and/or its performance. It should be noted that Pope is an Oakland police sergeant.

When Pope says, “I think the people who know me would vote based on my performance,” the issue becomes clearer. Because when voters cast their ballots, it’s not simply based on the candidate’s “performance”, but on their perception of how government has performed while the candidate has been (or has not been) in office.

Google the phrase “Anti government Republican”, and you’ll find over 113 million references. In the wake of a Federal Government shutdown, you shouldn’t make a drinking game out of how many times Democratic politicians and their pundits use the term if you need to drive anywhere in the next 24 hours.

It was Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who famously quipped that, “I just want to shrink [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” I’m convinced that most Independents, and maybe all Democrats think this is how Republicans view government generally.

As I wrote in this piece a few months ago, the dirty little secret in local (and many state) governments is that they are in fact getting “smaller”, but at the same time they are becoming more expensive. What does this look like? In analyzing the City of Chicago’s public sector pension mess, The Wall Street Journal found that in the 10-year period between 2002-2012, the total city workforce was reduced by 20%, while the total payroll costs have increased by 15%.

Let that math sink in for a minute. This is a dynamic that is afflicting almost every city in California as well as the state. A friend of mine who is the city manager of a fairly wealthy California city told me a couple weeks ago that at the current retirement rate of baby boomers from the public sector workforce, these fiscal problems will force more cities into bankruptcy, and push others “who thought they were safe” to the brink.

When Republicans push vague “government is the problem” rhetoric, we are banging on an open door…and losing the trust of those in the center, and even some on the center left who are increasingly disturbed by stories like Detroit, and Stockton, and Vallejo and San Bernardino. Government isn’t always the problem, but government does have a problem: promises of services that can’t conform to fiscal reality.

It is an environment described in the current book, The Solution Revolution by public sector experts, William Eggers and Paul MacMillan:  “The defining feature of Western-style government – its success in catering to a wide variety of citizen needs – has become its greatest liability. Governments are going broke while contorting themselves into ever-stranger positions to satisfy often contradictory constituent demands.”

This policy problem becomes a political one when Republicans go before California’s voters to ask for their vote to run the government. How can we wonder why Californians – particularly Latinos, Asians and African Americans – don’t vote for a Party that is perceived as wanting the government “drowned” (i.e., dead)?

Looking out over the challenges facing state and local governments due to many of the factors outlined here, local government expert Bob O’Neill recently described this era as a “time of ‘creative destruction’ for the public sector in a piece for GOVERNING Magazine. The term is borrowed, ironically, from the free market economist, Joseph Schumpeter, who first used it to describe the dynamics of a market that “destroys” old industries (like buggy whips) when new ones come on the scene (like automobiles).

Implicit in O’Neill’s use of the phrase is that the public sector is already under assault by environmental factors ranging from the fiscal to the technological. Republicans, then, can’t be seen as the folks seeking its “destruction”, but as the Party who will creatively lead more effective governments through this historic time. O’Neill writes that in this coming decade, “Performance and results — not just inputs and outputs — increasingly will matter.” This sounds like a framework everyone from moderates to the fringe can agree upon. Republicans, then, need to be the “Party of Performance.”

Pete Peterson is Executive Director at the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University and is a Republican candidate for California Secretary of State.

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