After early January’s Capitol Hill riot, many commentators have been quick to dismiss the Republican party as doomed—too far split between the party’s populist and establishment elements to endure. And in large part, they’re right: If the Republican party is to survive, it must deliver competent governance that effectively addresses the systemic failures that are leaving Americans more in debt, more overweight, more unhappy, and more lonely than ever before. To face these monumental challenges, a new generation of competent conservative leaders must rise to the occasion. And for an example of what these new leaders should be like, one should look no further than those who for years have already been carrying out the functional, solutions-based governance that’s so desperately needed today: U.S. mayors.
Though the likes of Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene make for a lively base and good television, they fail to deliver substantive policy changes that actually benefit their constituents. Merely making people feel they are culturally or emotionally represented is an embarrassing substitute for actual governance. On the other hand, it’s easy to understand criticisms that adept politicians like Senator Mitch McConnell have secured and wielded power in a manner that has left everyday voters feeling ignored. Thus, the difference between today’s populists and the establishment is between those who yearn for government that addresses popular needs but are incapable of governing, and those who understand government but ignore the task of governing.
These two groups are not irreconcilable, but to bridge this gap, a new generation of leaders must respond to the actionable challenges that have birthed populism with effective policies. While the United States currently lacks such politicians at the federal level, where politics is at a standstill, solutions-first Republican mayors have been getting this kind of work done for years.
Far removed from the clamor of national politics, voters across the entire political spectrum have elected conservative mayors, like Mayor Faulconer of San Diego, whose management abilities and pragmatic approaches have improved their daily lives. After all, issues like education, public safety, and housing have a far larger impact on everyday life than virtue signaling crusades like impeachment and language codes. From Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami, whose direct outreach to high-flying tech and financial ventures has already attracted 17 prestigious firms, including Spotify and Goldman Sachs, to Mayor John Giles of Mesa, AZ, whose urban, development-focused conservatism has transformed the sleepy Phoenix bedroom community into one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, it’s our mayors who remember that what’s most important in politics is coming up with solutions, not self-aggrandizement or puffery.
Perhaps the clearest example is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who enjoyed broad support in the heavily Democratic city until terming out just last month. Working with a city council dominated by Democrats, Faulconer was the only mayor of a major US city to reduce street homelessness by 12%, both treating the issue’s symptom by increasing homeless services and addressing the underlying housing shortage by stimulating home building through zoning and regulatory reforms. While at the national level such willing bipartisanship earns nothing but scorn, Faulconer has been able to develop working relationships with Democrats while still maintaining broad enough support from conservatives to be the apparent Republican frontrunner in the race for California governor. Whether or not Faulconer is successful in this endeavor, his path from city councilman to mayor to competitive Republican gubernatorial candidate in a wildly progressive state is a lesson for Republicans across the country: competency counts the most, even in the face of an overwhelming Democratic majority.
While the role of senators and representatives are different from the role of mayors or governors, they share a common mission of problem solving and removing barriers to solutions. Mayors and governors, even in strong executive systems, require a cooperative legislature for most major changes, giving legislators broad power to dictate agendas and ensure that the needs of their own, smaller constituencies are addressed. Congressional Republicans could learn much from Faulconer and his peers in applying bipartisanship to work with the Democratic majority where possible to dismantle or prevent harmful programs and create new ones of limited (but targeted) scope and duration. Though executives often naturally guide the agenda, every legislator has the capacity to take charge and lead on issues the executive power neglects.
For example, though few prospective Biden policies are as popular as raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour in order to keep up with rising costs of living, in reality, the Congressional Budget Office estimates having done so at the start of 2020 would have led to a median expected loss of 1.3 million jobs by 2025, or in the worst case, 3.7 million jobs. Rather than merely treat the symptom of relative wage stagnation with fiat wage policy, as the Biden administration has proposed, competent conservatives would identify and eliminate what regulations—whether zoning, housing, labor, or financial—are causing costs of living to rise so quickly in the first place. Additionally, such leaders would work with public and private partners to increase workers’ human capital, and thus their wage potential, by expanding opportunities through community college and paid apprenticeship programs that help citizens become skilled workers earning significantly more than the minimum wage.
Republicans, especially in the wake of President Trump, have no choice but to seize the opportunity to heal and grow the party by offering concrete alternatives to Democrats’ platitudes and mismanagement. But instead of falling for the demographically-doomed trap of partisan retrenchment, Republicans should look to America’s mayors — examples of pragmatism, listening, and competence — as a guide for its future, if it is to have one at all.
Kenneth Schrupp is editor of The California Review and a Young Voices contributor writing on the intersection of business, politics, and media.