The prolific Victor Davis Hanson wrote an excellent piece for National Review two weeks ago, in which he attributed California’s present middle-class stagnation and decline in economic opportunity to the devolution of California’s two-party system in the 90s and the Golden State’s emergence as a de facto one-party Democratic state. Hanson describes how a favorite Democratic policy inexorably led to the decline of the Republican voter base:

Higher taxes and increased regulations have driven out lots of small-business owners. In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of disgruntled middle-of-the-road voters voted with their feet and left for no-tax Nevada, Texas, or Florida.

The state devolved into a pyramid of the coastal wealthy and interior poor — the dual constituencies of the new progressive movement.”

But there is more to the story of the decline of the California Republican Party than malign Democratic plots to drive out the middle-class constituency. In particular, the Republican Party has clung to old policy dogmas rather than adapting to the new demographic realities of the state, and as such has been left behind at the polls.

We can argue til the cows come home whether the Wilson Administration’s endorsement of Proposition 187 or the 2008 Prop 8 controversy painted the California GOP as an exclusionist and intolerant bunch of reactionaries (though even if they did, the party has taken steps in its last two statewide conventions to reconcile itself with gays and Latinos through charters and platform changes.) But fundamentally, the reason California Republicans have consistently failed at the statewide polls has more to do with a lack of imagination in economic policy, than with regressive social stances.

For example, two recent cases. Many Republicans opposed an infrastructure bill that would have raised the gas tax and increased licensing fees, and for good reason- such measures would have increased the regulatory burden on the working and middle classes, who are already struggling enough. But while many Republicans supported the idea of spending more on crucial infrastructure repair, few counterproposals about how to fund the service (i.e., budget reform) were made public, if they were discussed at all.

And with the recent success-cum-failure of SB-350, Governor Brown’s sweeping legislation to reduce California’s carbon emissions, California Republicans mounted a uniform opposition. This was all well and good- carbon-limiting legislation is incredibly hostile to economic growth and social mobility– but the Republican opposition offered no counterproposals as to how carbon emissions might be more effectively reduced (i.e., nuclear power plants.)

The primary battle California Republicans must fight, as the minority party, is the battle they’re already fighting: a staunch stand against the excesses of the blue-and-green regulatory state which, despite its noble intentions, tends to squelch rather than aid the California Dream. But there is an almost-as important secondary battle California Republicans must fight, without which victory in the first would be fruitless. That is the battle for a pro-growth state investment strategy.

California has a long and bipartisan history of bold, expansive projects in the public interest, from the freeways to the California Water Project to the University of California. These “Hamiltonian” investments, to use a term of James P. Pinkerton’s, tend to spur broad-based economic growth by smoothing the cogs of the economy and providing the public, and the market, with necessaries the public and the market cannot provide for themselves. This “nation-builder” state model is a far cry from the expansive regulatory behemoth we have now, that centralizes policymaking and serves an entrenched bureaucracy. But it is also a more activist approach to government than most California Republicans are willing to stomach.

There’s no reason why California Republicans should be reluctant to embark on bold plans. Victor Davis Hanson argues that big infrastructure projects were crucial to the state’s middle-class development (albeit conducted by private individuals like Henry Huntington rather than government development agencies. Then again, that was more a public-private partnership than a private project, as all of California’s major projects have been.) Even the CAGOP’s favorite son, Ronald Reagan, for all his talk of “small government,” undertook a bold public project while president- the development of the “Star Wars” missile defense systems that are now, decades later, becoming a reality in American strategic life. So big projects are not anathema to the Reagan tradition.

The fact of the matter is, even if the main reason for the California Republican Party’s decline is the flight of middle-class voters to milder tax climes, it would be foolish of the party to mope around and complain about being shut out of office. It needs, instead, to develop a positive electoral strategy that can win over Californian voters, and a dynamic governing strategy that can improve those voters’ lives. Bold and sensible public projects (desalination and nuclear plants and better roads, not reduced climate emissions or high speed rail,) coupled with the party’s commitment to cleaner government and a better business climate, could be a very appealing agenda for a currently-uninspired electorate.