Rhode Island Republicans need a new policy strategy.
Two stories in the news recently have been nagging at me in combination over the past week. The first is the Republican response to Democrat Governor Dan McKee’s State of the State address, as delivered by Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz. Here’s the part that resonates particularly oddly:
Where McKee called for cutting the 7% state sales tax to 6.85%, de la Cruz called for tax rebates and slashing the sales tax to 5%.
“Why does RI continue to be so timid and lackadaisical with tax policy?” she asked.
The message that emerges is that Republicans will generally follow the same path, but with the knobs turned a little bit more toward the private sector and economic growth. Now put this difference in context of a different story, which has received coverage out of proportion to its practical importance to the lives of Rhode Islanders:
Ten environmental groups wrote to McKee this week, thanking him for highlighting the issue of litter in his speech. “Despite decades of anti-littering efforts and an increase in access to single-stream recycling in the state, litter and marine debris continue to be a persistent and growing environmental problem,” they wrote. …
So the groups urged McKee to join them in asking the General Assembly to pass a container deposit law, or “bottle bill,” calling it “the single most impactful policy we can adopt to reduce litter in the state.”
We could take hold of the rope that the activists dangle out there for a tug of war. Up to 47% litter reduction! But what’s the scale, how’s it counted, and what’s the cost? That would be falling into the trap, however.
More important is how this policy embeds assumptions into the debate that advance progressive causes. It assumes, a priori, that litter is palpable problem, generally from environmentalist (rather than quality of life) principles. It is structured to express a priority of the environment over the economy (as distinct from a policy that increased policing, for example). It is presented with an open-ended target that can never be achieved (inasmuch as the benefits are stated in percentages of change, wherein it will always be possible to reduce litter by 80%, no matter how much it has already gone down). It implies that the policy must be universal (otherwise one might ask whether Rhode Island would make much difference, considering that every shoreline state around us already has such policies, yet bottles still wash up on our beaches).
The contrast between the two approaches to advocacy described above is striking. The ascendant progressives push specific policies that cleverly carry their ideological assumptions along with them. The fading Republicans demand that the state make adjustments in degree.
To some extent, this imbalance is structural and built into the differing worldviews. Still, it seems to me that the RIGOP would do better to march along two complementary paths. Conservatives could mirror the environmentalists and pick issues that seem to address practical problems but require assumptions that can be expanded. School choice is such an issue.
The second path would involve making more noise about the assumptions themselves. One can state this with only decreasing confidence, but we might reasonably hope that a majority of Rhode Islanders actually would not agree with the ideology behind the state’s progressivism if it were made clear.
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