I have been struggling for the last two weeks over this post. Originally, I had promised those who attended the November meeting of the Clear Lake Area Republicans that I would post here and on the club’s website the results of our “Open Microphone” night, which included a focus-group style discussion of important issues. But, as I analyzed my notes from the discussion in the context of all the continuing political news that has unfolded over this time, a lot of other thoughts became jumbled with my analysis.
So, this post is going to flow in three parts: a general observation on the state of our political stalemate; an analysis of what was said during the focus-group discussion on November 20th; and, finally, some personal conclusions for our candidates to think about as we head into the final stages of the primary season for the 2012 elections.
General Observation: There are two different visions as to how wealth is created and distributed
We are now at least 100 years, or about 4 generations, into a national journey during which we have debated the proper role, size and scope of government in our society. Because of the precarious state of public and private finances in this country and throughout the Western World, I think we now have arrived at a fork in the road. One path before us is paved with the idea that wealth is created and distributed as a result of public central planning and allocation of resources, and the other path is paved with the idea that wealth creation and distribution is the end result of the myriad of individual decisions and investments made privately every day throughout society. The modern Democratic Party is the guide for the first path, and the modern Republican Party is the guide for the second path. As a nation, we now have to decide which path to follow, and which guide to join (as we conservatives also evaluate whether the Republican candidates who seek to be our guides understand, and are capable of handling, the task ahead).
The two parties’ disagreements today reflect this fork in the road. Today’s Democratic Party is not just the party that advocates for a greater role for government, its constituency is government: from the professors, scientists, teachers, bureaucrats, laborers, and public union bosses who populate the government schools, agencies and departments at every level of government; to the recipients of government grants and entitlements; to those who have been indoctrinated in the universities controlled by the government professors; and to those whose lives and decisions are made easier by delegating an increasing number of societal services to government. In fact, if you just compare the number of government employees at all levels of government today with employment figures from a generation ago, it is possible to say that the middle class of a generation ago, who were employed in manufacturing and were union members, didn’t disappear, they simply morphed into a new generation of unionized government employees in universities, schools, cities and capitols across the country—and those public unions control the modern Democratic Party.
Thus, is it any wonder that this group sees every dollar paid in taxes to, and spent by, government as a legitimate, if not primary, form of wealth creation and distribution, when such dollars pay their salaries and union dues, and justify their employment? Is it any wonder that this constituency not only chafes at any mention of a reduction of revenue flowing into government coffers, but seeks to increase the size of government and tax rates whenever possible? Is it any wonder that so much of governmental costs are spent on the type of unproductive staff functions that the private sector has successfully purged from their balance sheets over the last generation? And, is it any wonder that this group has been willing to increase the size of public debt to fund the increase of their own salaries and benefits, and maintain and expand their increasingly unproductive jobs and agencies?
Meanwhile, the rest of us, who work in the private sector, or who work in those traditional public-sector jobs that actually serve the community (like police officers and fire-fighters), or who continue to be feel personally responsible for the welfare of our families and our communities, are the ones left with the bill to pay the taxes to support the unproductive Democratic government. We look to the Republican Party to remove government from the grip of the Democratic Party and its constituencies, and to refocus government toward its proper, limited role—to provide a secure environment and infrastructure for the private, individual activities that create wealth, build families, enrich communities, and maintain our exceptional society. But we are anxious, because we believe the GOP has failed to defend the process of private wealth creation and distribution adequately in the past, and we are concerned that the GOP won’t rise to the occasion now. Moreover, we sense that, if the long journey toward increasing government isn’t diverted soon, we will go broke—and we fear that the exceptional society we hold so dear won’t survive this bankruptcy.
With this observation about the fork in the road in mind, let’s listen to what some of our fellow Republicans said recently.
The Focus Group
On November 20th, the Clear Lake Area Republicans tried something different. Rather than bring in a speaker, we let everybody speak. Now, this wasn’t as chaotic as it sounds, and what I think we each learned from the experience was very interesting.
After we gave candidates an extended time to talk, we conducted the rest of the meeting as a focus group. The purpose of the discussion was to identify and discuss the most important local, state and national political issues to address in 2012, and then to identify and discuss our biggest political concern and our biggest political hope for 2012. For that last discussion we agreed that most conservatives would give the same answer to both—the defeat of Obama—so you had to identify your next greatest concern and hope. Here’s what we learned:
Two issues of primary concern at the local level going into 2012 are the continuing Sanctuary City policies of the City of Houston, and the size of public spending and debt of cities, school districts and Harris County (including the impact of unfunded future obligations related to public pensions). Although other issues were discussed (including taxes, NASA jobs, sustainable development planning, transportation needs, water availability, shorter police response times, and the need for more patrol officers), none of these issues compared in importance to the concerns people have over the impact of illegal immigration on Houston and Harris County, and the ballooning public debt.
At the State level, education was almost the sole issue of concern. To the group, the term “education” is actually an umbrella term to cover a wide array of issues that can be boiled down to concerns over the quality of education in the classroom (e.g., the ratio of teachers to students in the classroom), the process of education (e.g., regulations burdening school districts, the cost of the high administrator/staff personnel to teacher ratio, the lack of competition between schools and districts that vouchers would foster, and the influence of teacher unions), and the financing of education (e.g., the allocation of taxes to education, the cost of teacher pensions and benefits). As one participant noted as it became apparent that education was the key concern at the state level, education-related spending takes up most of the State Government’s budget, so it is natural that it would be the primary issue of concern. Again there were other concerns, including a strong concern over the political processes that stymie real reform in Austin (which manifests itself in a continued anger over the re-election of Joe Straus as Speaker of the House), and the inability to control the flow and costs of illegal immigration. However, the problems with education were by far the most important issues to the participants.
Finally, the top National issues were immigration and border security, and the control of entitlement spending.
After having lengthy discussions about the state and local aspects of these issues, we moved pretty quickly into a more general discussion about common themes from our discussion. Through this discussion, we distilled the issues down to some common themes. The thread that wove through all of our discussion was the conclusion that the non-Constitutional processes by which government is functioning (seniority, incumbency, lobbying, party control, committee and agency work by staff and bureaucrats, etc.) creates bottlenecks that cause inaction, and that inaction leads to continuing failures to address the issues people are most concerned about, including education reform, budget and debt reform, border security, and immigration reform. These bottlenecks also impede the ability to have any meaningful influence on private-sector growth that creates jobs. Addressing education, spending, immigration and growth, will require addressing the cause of these bottlenecks, too. In the end, what the participants believed was necessary was more voter and citizen involvement in the process to break the bottlenecks and force action.
Then, we gathered the chief concerns and hopes going into 2012. Here are the concerns in as close to their exact quotes as possible:
- “Jobs, just jobs”
- “I fear the elections won’t be held”
- “They won’t fix things in time”
- “They will continue to follow the old path”
- “A continued culture of dependency”
- “Reallocation of wealth”
- “Not prepared”
Here are the unvarnished hopes:
- “Elect 60 Republicans to the U.S. Senate”
- “Get liberals out of government”
- “Honest politicians”
- “We get more voters than the Democrats”
- “We must wake up before it’s too late”
- “Return to a citizen legislature”
- “Return to the people”
- “Get the people out to vote”
- “The administration should bring back the Space Program”
- “Return to the ways of our forefathers”
- “Get control of our oil”
- “I’m wrong”
A few observations jump out from all of these comments:
- a little surprisingly, education is lurking as a major issue by itself, and beneath the surface of, or intertwined among, a lot of other issues we are concerned about (like immigration, government spending and debt, and jobs);
- a primary problem is a concern with process across all levels of government (from the Speaker’s race last year, to the failures at all levels to address the serious education, budget and immigration issues)—the process (seniority, incumbency, lobbying, party control, committee and agency work) as currently structured and implemented is perceived to be designed both to avoid addressing or resolving complex or controversial issues, and to keep citizens from being a part of the problem-solving process; meanwhile, there is still a firm belief that the Constitutional structures and processes provide the answer, they just aren’t being followed; and
- the concerns and hopes expressed by the club members confirm the high level of anxiety the polls are reflecting—there is a general belief that the Obama years have brought us to a real tipping point, and people have grave concerns about what could happen, but still have a lot of hope that we can fix the messes that have been created.
- The consensus was that the fundamental answer to all of these problems is broader and deeper voter/citizen involvement at all levels, including more effective issue and civics education for voters, and greater influence over the legislative process after the election.
I go back to a post I wrote in October, in which I quoted this passage from a Time magazine essay from the summer of 1984:
… What kind of people do Americans want to be? They want to be a great deal better than they are—not only better paid or better clothed, but better. Not merely passive recipients of favors from the governmental All-Daddy, or, on the other side, shrewd looters cooking the books and snickering through loopholes. The potential idealists inhabit the middle between those two caricatures. They crave material well-being, certainly. But they also want to be, saying it plainly, active participants in the larger enterprise of their nation. They want to do some good, to make changes. The candidates who stir this energy, will have discovered fire.
Republican candidates for offices at every level of government next year should heed this observation, and think about how to challenge voters to help get us back on the right path. Unfortunately, too many of our candidates today seem to be locked into one of two paradigms: either they stake out an all-or-nothing position on every issue, that meets with equal or greater resistance from the Democratic government constituency; or they seek so much compromise that the Democratic machine rolls right over them.
We need to break out of these paradigms with a realism grounded in our principles—a realism designed to ignite the energy of those who want to reform this government while guiding us down the path toward such reform through deliberate, sustained actions. Such real leadership may compromise along the way, but it never retreats from the path toward reform.
My own view is that the candidates who promote such real leadership will discover fire by demonstrating effectively how promoting the private sector, employs people, builds families, and enriches communities, and that promoting growth of the public sector does not. They will discover fire by addressing real reform in our schools that results in a better and broader education of our children with more efficient use of our tax dollars. They will discover fire by translating the dysfunction within the public educational system into a micro-example of the macro-problems facing this country (deficit spending, union/pension problems, administrative and regulatory overload, the burden created by illegal immigration on our public treasury and institutions, the inefficient and ineffective preparation for employment in the 21st Century marketplace, a loss of focus on the core mission of the institution, a failure to adapt its functions to the productivity and technological revolution of the last generation) and, then, by promoting solutions to those problems in a way that removes the stifling grip of the Democratic Party and its constituencies from government and returns government to the people. Finally, they will discover fire by challenging voters to stay involved after the election, and by showing voters how to stay constructively engaged in the process of governing in order to help resolve the county’s problems.
If our candidates discover this fire, they will turn the public’s anxiety into the energy needed to preserve our exceptional society for the 21st Century.