Let's be straight with each other, 2006 was a disaster, so what happened to the GOP base? First, the symptoms: (1) GOP straight-ticket voting in decline, (2) weak GOP recruitment and in running for office, versus outstanding candidate selection by the Democrats, (3) fundraising for state and local parties in Texas is in decline, and (4) reduced GOP club interest and activism.
Why Are The Grassroots Slipping Away?
First, the abandonment of conservative principles by some GOP officials after running as conservatives.
Second, the perception that political involvement really doesn't matter because the only real political change that occurs is on the margins.
Third, GOP competency in running government like a business has been punctured by Katrina, the Iraq war and some ineffective state and federal agencies.
Fourth, the GOP has unfortunately come to stand for the party of corruption, the ethically challenged, insider deals, and sex scandals. We need to have zero tolerance for our candidates and officeholders when it comes to corruption and ethics. We can never again have on our ticket - the Neys, the Foleys, the Sherwoods and the others who we wouldn't do business with in our private lives.
Fifth, the weakening connection between elected officials and the grassroots and the significant need for mutual cooperation and respect.
If you look at our activist history, we conservatives are in an eternal search for "Mr. Right" and generally speaking we have been disappointed over and over again. Realistically, this won't change until we get changes in our party.
The most recent disappointments, at least in some areas, are President Bush & Governor Perry, who by the way, TCR likes both personally.
Let's go over a litany of conservative complaints with the President:
- runaway federal spending;
- a new Rx drug entitlement;
- little effort to control our virtually open border; and
- late with a plan to right the War in Iraq and by the way can anyone tell me why our goal is not victory in this war defined as ending state sponsorship of terrorism and why we aren't talking about it? No wonder the war in Iraq is declining in approval with the American people.
Governor Perry, who many believe was a tough conservative leader, recently disappointed us with a string of decisions like:
- the gross receipts income tax;
- the executive order mandating shots for HPV for 11 year old girls - which is nanny government at best and significant over-reaching of the legislature at worst;
- runaway state spending and his lack of support for true enforcement of the state constitutional limitation on spending;
- the trans-Texas corridor usurpation of among other things, property rights; or
- his recent modification of his position on border security and illegal immigration.
I could go on but you know the story and have lived through it.
We Need To Go Back To The Future: Since 1968, the GOP has held the White House for 24 years (and the Democrats for 12 years). In 1964, Ronald Reagan gave a seminal speech for Barry Goldwater called "A Time for Choosing."
In 1999, TCR's editor wrote a booklet introduced by Ed Meese called "A Time for Choosing - 35 Years Later." Needless to say, things Reagan talked about were a lot worse in 1999 for the most part, than they were in 1964. The depressing thing is in 2007 we have slid even further down the slippery slope as the country moves away from our conservative vision.
What Can We Do? I bet you are wondering what we can do to get our grassroots interested again.
If the GOP is to be a conservative party we should look to the past and see what has worked. I believe political conservatism must be pushed by the political party because you can trust the grassroots.
From 1996-2002 we proved in Harris County how a political party can galvanize the grassroots and advance conservatism and we can do it again locally, statewide, and nationally.
Let me explain.
Upon taking office we immediately laid the basis for moving the Republican Party into local issues and into non-partisan elections.
We did it for four reasons:
- first, locally is where we can have the most influence. As a major political interest group we had basically taken ourselves off the playing field by staying out, sound familiar?
- local elections were non-partisan but not non-ideological. We let the liberals use city councils and school boards as a minor league for future partisan candidates;
- with combined budgets of billions of dollars we were letting our political adversaries use that money to fund their friends so the money would get recycled into political donations that would hurt our partisan candidates; and
- the vision we have for reforming the federal government or state government could more quickly be applied locally with more significant impact on our daily lives.
In our analysis of how to use this opportunity we made a critical front-end decision - we would never oppose anything - we are only for. We found you can word anything in that way and that voters generally like parties and leaders who are positive.
The first challenge we faced was the large troubled local school district wanted a big bond issue and many in the Party wanted us to oppose it. We took an opposite tact - we said, "we should not be a Party that just says no." We stayed neutral and it was defeated, but we were not stigmatized as being against children and their education.
We then created, for the first time in our history, a Local Government Platform Committee and an Education Committee to study, collaborate with key elected officials and recommend a common sense platform. The ten-point common sense Local Government Platform included among other things:
- Citizen control of local government via recall and 'initiative-and-referendum'
- Term limits as established by the voters;
- Neighborhood approval prior to annexation;
- Limiting spending to basic health, safety, and infrastructure needs;
- Requirement of a two-thirds majority to increase taxes;
- Outsourcing, privatization and competitive bidding for goods and services;
- No unmarried partner's municipal benefits.
We also released a common sense education program for the Houston Independent School District, one of the largest in America, which included:
- Reducing the teacher-to-student ratio;
- Outsourcing and privatization;
- Zero tolerance for disruptive students;
- Opportunity scholarship for students to attend the private, parochial, public, or charter school of their choice; and
- Alternative certification and merit pay for teachers.
Our Executive Committee of over 500 men and women voted almost unanimously to adopt both platforms.
Now we had laid the basis for involvement in local politics and in non-partisan elections.
Our Candidates Committee screened candidates in local races. Not coincidentally, the issues being talked about in many races were ours. Even candidates with Democratic Party pedigree were showing up and addressing our issues. We even received favorable coverage in the major liberal newspaper, The Houston Chronicle, not noted for supporting Republican candidates and conservative ideas.
No more could candidates get away with hiding their philosophy and intentions under the cover of "non-partisan" elections. This was major progress.
Our success was mixed, we placed seven on the Houston City Council with grades of B or above, we made progress on the Houston School Board and won the Mayor and three of four Council races in Bellaire, Texas. But most importantly, we had laid groundwork for our conservative issues.
As we moved into 1998, the foundation was in place for future success that would also benefit us in partisan elections.
We were the Party of ideas locally and candidates for city and school district races reached out to us for our advice and assistance.
In mid-1998, the Houston Independent School District again needed a bond issue passed and asked for a meeting between the Superintendent and Republican Party leaders to discuss their situation.
We went to the meeting and the first thing we did was tell the Superintendent our number one responsibility was electing our 1998 ticket and explained that the past bond issue campaigns had used funds raised to boost votes in Democratic areas, which obviously didn't help us. We told then Superintendent Paige, "If you can't pledge that there will be no money spent on boosting the Democratic vote and that money instead would be given for us to publicize our position and education platform, there is nothing to talk about." After a short break, Dr. Paige said he could satisfy us.
We then continued the meeting, we asked for a point-by-point progress response to our platform and the plans for the future, for accountability without satisfying us on our issues, there would be no support. The district did in fact make significant progress and the Education Committee of the Party recommended a vote in favor.
We mailed thousands of brochures, paid for by the Bond Campaign, which showed why Republicans care about education and children and laid out our report card on the school district's progress toward our agenda. We did this with their money which otherwise would have helped the Democrats and the bond passed with 74% of the vote.
While around the country we had a disappointing election, we won a historic countywide sweep in 1998 primarily because of our positive issue oriented campaign, our stand on education, and with a great top to bottom ticket. The Democrats ran an issue-less negative campaign whose ticket quality was weak and lost.
So we can learn from the past and apply it to build our conservative party and movement.
We must ensure our standard bearers govern as they campaign and be held accountable by their party.
We certainly can come together on a simple national and state platform based on what was probably the most brilliant political document of our generation, The Contract with America of 1994.
It was simple, it was understandable and it was easy to insure and insist on responsiveness from GOP candidates who pledged support. Contrast that with the ridiculous length of our current platforms, which after adoption are quickly ignored and forgotten.
After we pass a conservative platform of one page, we must (before the primary) get our candidates to sign on or not and make sure the voters know who is with us and who is against us, defeating the latter in the primary.
After the election, the party needs to insure responsiveness by our elected officials. Accountability is essential, and yes, when an elected official flip-flops on us, accountability requires giving the naughty official the opportunity to return to the private sector.
Next, in Texas, we need to take a hard look at adoption of a "Virginia type" convention-primary system where the grassroots and party leadership are the entry door to be a candidate on the ticket. This also reduces the chance that big special interest money picks our candidates, as opposed to the conservative GOP base. Under the present system, big money can buy nominations by TV, radio, and mail and can overwhelm a conservative candidate and ignore the party activists during the primary.
Finally, we need to be effective in office. We need to demonstrate that we as conservatives can run a limited efficient government, which controls spending and reduces the out of control tax burden (or government mandatory fees, which are in essence the same thing). Such wonderful conservative think tanks like Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have a plethora of great ideas in this area that are unfortunately followed by government all too infrequently.
OK, what should we want in our national platform?
For starters, conservatives can agree on:
- fiscal responsibility, more tax cuts and reduction in the size of government and government spending;
- we must fight for the preservation of America's Constitution, religious freedom and our pro-life culture;
- a strong America, must act in its own best interest in foreign affairs without waiting for the UN's or other country's permission.
- we need to end illegal immigration and support legal immigration.
For a state platform for 2008, here are some suggestions:
- Residential property tax cap will be reduced to 5% less an index adjusted for inflation (just like income tax benefits are adjusted for inflation), so we don't pay taxes on phantom property value increases.
- TABOR-type state spending controls with teeth, limiting state increases in spending to the increase in inflation and population.
- Repeal the new gross receipts business tax (which could mean taxing a business that makes no money) and instead institute a broad based consumption tax at a rate lower than current one.
- End bilingual education in Texas to be replaced by an English First curriculum.
- Support a constitutional amendment to require a super majority before raising of any taxes.
- Eliminate the top 10% rule on college admissions as it discriminates against students going to better high schools.
- Institute a pilot program for school choice for student in under-performing schools.
With a new vision for conservatives, and principles with accountability we truly can have a rendezvous with destiny we all can be proud of, as Ronald Reagan said years ago:
"You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the final step into a thousand year new Dark Age."
The Texas Spending Cap Waiver:
Is This A Good Thing For Conservatives?
The problem with the Texas Constitutional limit on spending is even more pronounced now with the vote to "waive" the cap. It does seem perverse that we have to bust the cap to provide property tax relief, and this early in the session, how do we know it's necessary? Senators Dan Patrick, Jane Nelson and Robert Nichols all wondered about that. Some even suggested that maybe we can reduce state spending before we look at busting the cap.
For fiscal conservatives, the big problem is probably not this year, but in two years. By raising the cap by $14.1 billion, the legislature raises the baseline for the new cap in 2009, which would permit but not require, increased spending.
Conservatives are watching. Is this just another way to increase spending now and in the future? And it points out we either need new spending limits with teeth or we need to clarify the present limits as suggested previously in TCR based on the Edd Hendee/CLOUT lawsuit pending against the State of Texas.
COMING (Friday, March 9, 2007 at 8 pm) on Channel 8 PBS in Houston, Texas - The Connection - Red, White & Blue, featuring TCR Editor Gary Polland and liberal commentator David Jones with a Media Roundtable. Coming soon: Ambassador Edward Djerejian, Senator John McCain and The Connection takes on Austin.
About Your Editor
Gary Polland is a long-time conservative and Republican spokesman, fund-raiser, and leader who recently completed three terms as the Harris County Republican Chairman. During his three terms, Gary was described as the most successful county Chairman in America by Human Events - The National Conservative Weekly. He is in his tenth year of editing a newsletter dealing with key conservative and Republican issues. The last five years he has edited Texas Conservative Review. Gary is a practicing attorney and strategic consultant. He can be reached at (713) 621-6335.