With President Donald Trump out of office, it’s unclear who the GOP’s messenger-in-chief will be for the midterm elections. But California is where the Democrats dispatch messages from their party’s future. In their clairvoyance, those dispatches point the way for the substance of the GOP midterm narrative. It’s a simple one, which can be called the California platform: the idea that if, in 2022, you vote for Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, you are in effect voting to make the whole nation look like California.
Detractors might say that the GOP can’t simply be “against” something, they must be “for” something, but the complete and utter assault on the middle class by the media/tech/Hollywood/politician class is more than enough of an agenda in its own right. Given what is currently happening in California, doing “nothing” — simply standing athwart history and yelling stop — is in itself momentum enough to carry the GOP to midterm victory.
To his campaign’s — and the media’s — credit, President Joe Biden made the election a referendum on President Trump’s personality, as opposed to substantive policy debate. But while Trump was crucified on the altar of public opinion amidst what we can only now hope was the apogee of the Coronavirus Pandemic, certain baseline assumptions about the nature of a “moderate” and normalcy-driven Biden Presidency were taken as axiomatic. Those baseline assumptions no longer pertain. Those of us who maintained all along that the center could not hold in a Biden presidency have been vindicated: It is now becoming clearer by the day that the president does in fact want America to look more life California.
While California progressives see such a goal as vindication and a badge of state pride, middle America — the independents and center-left moderates in Arizona, Georgia, and even the “blue wall” of the Upper Midwest and the Rust Belt — need to be enlightened as to what the Californianization of the country would look like.
If, in the words of LA Times journalist Evan Halper, “California is emerging as the de facto policy think tank of the Biden-Harris administration,” then the electorate in the rest of the country needs to know exactly what that dystopian misrule looks like in practice. Given that our as-yet unopposed favorite to become the 47th president, Vice President Kamala Harris, hails from said dystopia, a closer examination of California politics and public policy is all the more warranted. If, as the adage goes, all politics is local, then the national GOP needs to paint a vision of what 49 more Californias would look like across the nation.
One of the best places to start is environmental policy. For the green left, in California and nationally, it is a window onto one of two things: elite disdain for the middle and working classes, or, alternatively, total elite delusion as to the devastating economic effects that many green policies would have for the quality of life and standard of living of everyday Americans. Take, for instance, California Kamala’s insistence in swing states on the campaign trail that Biden would not ban fracking as president. Perhaps having learned his mistake by issuing gay marriage certificates a decade ahead of the 2015 court decision legalizing it — and much to the chagrin of Democratic strategists who speculated it helped tip the vote away from John Kerry in swing states — California Gov. Gavin Newsom this time held his tongue until after election day. It is impossible to say whether Newsom’s recently announced fracking ban would have spooked swing voters in states like Pennsylvania had he declaimed the puritanical prohibition prior to Nov. 3, 2020, but now that he has, the GOP needs to make Joe, Kamala and the “moderate” Democrats running for (re)election wear that policy like a millstone around the neck.
Biden has already done much to help Republicans in their effort. By voluntarily announcing the aspiration to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 from 2005 levels, Biden is energizing the environmental activist left while exposing a vulnerable flank of voters who pulled the not-Trump lever thinking it was also the not-Green New Deal lever. GOP activists and Senate and House campaigns need to go on the offensive right now by telling persuadable moderates what the mini-Green New Deal already looks like in California: $4 dollar gas, hundreds of dollars more in vehicle registration and registration renewal fees, a bullet train to nowhere and electric vehicles that do little more than virtue signal to the sensibilities of the climate woke wealthy. Meanwhile, a GOP which takes the interests of the middle class to heart can offer a stark choice: “environmental justice” (in the words of Biden’s press release) or an affordable middle-class way of life. Voters must understand, as California demonstrates, that you don’t get to have both.
Electric vehicle technology has improved, but not enough to offset the drawbacks in price point and lack of range. EVs currently make up only 2% of the American car market, and Newsom wants to ban the option that 98% of Americans utilize by 2035? One can already see the bumper stickers: “we are the 98% percent.” What is more, in an age of fierce geostrategic and economic rivalry with China, does the average American really want to cede our country’s fracking-enabled energy independence? Do most Americans really want to voluntarily forfeit a relatively affordable and abundant supply of domestic oil and natural gas to a lithium-ion dependent EV model in which China already commands 80% of the raw material refinement process?
A recent Weekend Interview in the Wall Street Journal with Steven Koonin, formerly the Obama administration’s chief scientist at the Energy Department, provides a historic opportunity for the GOP to reorient climate policy closer towards reality, and if Democrats maintain course on the fringes of the climate left, crush the latter in the midterms. As a former Obama appointee who does not dispute climate change itself, but merely the efficacy of statistical models to predict the future warming and its impact, Koonin and his public awareness campaign to de-radicalize the extremist climate movement could be an unprecedented opening to Republicans in the climate debate. Conservatives might finally get a chance to shift the global warming debate away from the charge of “climate denial” and also offer them a real choice in the process — one that falls somewhere between the false dichotomy of climate change apocalypse and complete inaction.
If, as Koonin argues in his forthcoming book “Unsettled,” climate change is real but algorithm-derived warming projections and the estimates of their economic impact are eminently fallible at predicting the future, why are we willing to base such drastic transformations to our economy on such tenuous data? How is it that an Obama administration official who contributed to a Democratic president’s climate change policy is suddenly a pariah to the party that elevated him to such heights? In the context of banning gas powered cars and fracking, alongside technologically and financially untenable decarbonization goals, the party of climate know-nothings suddenly looks more appealing; independents and moderates in states yet to be hit by the green revolution sticker shock will begin to realize how much they took for granted being able to fill up their car or heat their home without cashing out their 401Ks.
Further, as California attests with its poverty rate hovering close to 20% and its median home price pushing $650,000, hyper-regulation and ambitious climate goals do not lead to the “high paying union jobs” that Biden claims, but rather to the opposite — to the evisceration of the middle class. The problem is, if the California model goes national, there will be no more Texases and Idahos to flee to — not least of which because your EV will run out of juice before you get there. How is Biden going to rebuild the middle class by emulating the policies of the state that has done most out of any, or close to it, to destroy the middle class? When the patient ceases to breath, you don’t call Dr. Kevorkian back into the room.
Biden’s climate ambitions must be reframed by Republican candidates in the midterms as overreach which fundamentally threatens the standard of living for all but the wealthy. Into the void must step a Republican majority willing to address climate change with pragmatism, not ideological fervor. Before the midterms, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and surrogates should take the offensive in battleground states and districts to articulate and further refine the alternative climate policy they’ve already started to shape.
On a final note: family policy. In an era of indisputable populist politics, this is no time for free-market fundamentalism. Proposals by Republican Sens. Mitt Romney, Mike Lee and Marco Rubio to expand the child tax credit and generally promote family formation need to be seriously considered, irrespective of whose specific plan gets adopted and who uses it to propel their 2024 Presidential Bid. Republicans should likewise study closely the work of policy wonk Oren Cass. His critique of the over-financialization of the American economy to the detriment of meaningful investment, along with his nuanced and learned approach to family policy offer a path forward for the new populist-nationalist right. Reaganesque vitriol against such policy avenues as simply “democrat-lite” need to be assessed against the backdrop of a political life-or-death struggle to define and defend some definition or normal and vision of the common good. In the words of Micah Meadowcraft, managing editor of The American Conservative, “Politics is about the normal, and political rhetoric is about the normal, because civil society and government aims towards some idea of the good life.”
Post-COVID-19 Americans are and will be desperate for a return to some kind of semblance of normal–of a life that will not erode under their feet with every step. California, with its portrait of the Green New Deal in miniature, it’s cultural incoherence, and its general inhospitable regard to middle-class American life is a glimpse of the country’s future under unchecked one-party rule. It’s that future — the same one that Joe and Kamala embrace and celebrate — that Republicans must run against in the midterms.
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