Fred Barnes’ recent put-down of California in the Weekly Standard, the journalistic flagship of Washington’s conservative intelligentsia, is as good evidence as any that sometimes the conventional wisdom is right on the mark.
George W. Bush can forget the Golden State, says Barnes, who is the magazine’s executive editor, because he can win the presidency without California’s 54 electoral votes. California thus doesn’t mean much to his campaign.
And, says Barnes, it doesn’t mean much to the rest of the country either. We are no longer the nation’s political bellwether because we are demographically and politically so different; we are no longer the nation’s envy because our quality of life has deteriorated and our schools and our other public services are so lousy. The piece is called “California doesn’t matter: The political future once happened there. No more.”
To the extent that the Weekly Standard reflects Republican thinking, California Democrats can take Barnes’ piece as good news. Maybe Bush will blow us off the same way his father did in 1992. “California has become a fairly reliable Democratic state,” says Barnes. “If [Bush] goes ahead and wages a sustained campaign here, as he has promised California Republicans he will, it won’t directly affect the election at all. Bush can win California only as part of a national Bush landslide. In other words, Bush doesn’t need California. For him, the state is a luxury, pure froth.”
Barnes also argues that, contrary to a lot of other calculations, the outcome of California’s contested congressional races won’t have much impact on Republicans’ chances of retaining the House. More important, he says, the state has become too liberal and too Democratic to be a leading political indicator.
Paradoxically, he also seems to suggest that, two decades after Proposition 13 sparked the national tax revolt, the state’s major voter initiatives “have lost their national relevance,” presumably because they’re too conservative.
In fact, a lot of what Barnes says is a little off the mark — another example of the Beltway’s penchant to be clever rather than right. Virtually everything that the Republicans tried to play up at last week’s convention seemed tuned to the nation’s new political demography, however much the party’s real politics still belied the effort: the attempt to showcase minorities; the cessation of immigrant bashing; the downplaying of anti-gay and anti-abortion rhetoric; Bush’s stress on his good relations with Mexico and his support among Texas Hispanics. Virtually all of it resonated with the lessons of the Republican disasters in California in 1996 and 1998.
Barnes is also wrong about the declining clout of California’s voter initiatives. A clone of Proposition 209 outlawing race-based affirmative action, which passed in Washington two years ago, would likely have passed in Florida this year if the state’s supreme court hadn’t moved so slowly on its pre-election review that it was kept off the ballot. Meanwhile, Gov. Jeb Bush, the candidate’s brother, trying to derail a hot-button issue that might have brought out a lot of liberal voters, adopted one of its key provisions, essentially ending all affirmative action in the state’s public universities. A clone of Proposition 227, curtailing bilingual education, had a similar fate in the Colorado courts, though it, too, will probably be back. In Arizona, a clone is on the ballot and will probably pass.
But Barnes is even further off the mark in his broader conclusions. California, as he acknowledges, has 12 percent of the nation’s population and one fifth of the electoral votes needed to become president, and it will have still more the next time around. By then, it is also likely to have two more House seats — 54 as against the present 52.
Those numbers alone make the state hard to ignore. And since it will be the Democrats who get to reapportion those seats next year, the chances of the GOP retaining its slim House majority will be even slimmer, if not this fall, then certainly by 2002, when candidates run in the new districts.
Giving those issues even more weight are two other factors: One is called Hollywood, the other Silicon Valley. Together, they’re not just two of the most powerful cultural forces on Earth, but also the source of huge amounts of political money. That money will go to both parties, and sometimes to fringe causes, but in general it will tend to reflect the general political culture of its sources. And that culture tends to be tolerant on social issues and increasingly multiethnic in its outlook. Environmentalism began here and still drives the national agenda.
A decade ago, it was generally assumed that California, which had not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, or for a Democratic governor since 1978, was comfortably in the GOP column. Even Bill Clinton’s California victory in 1992 was thought to be a bit of an aberration. Now it’s assumed that because of the growing importance of Latinos in California’s politics, and because of its general tolerance on social issues, it will belong to the Democrats indefinitely.
That assumption may be no safer than the one about indefinite GOP hegemony back in 1990. More important, the country shows every sign of following California’s culture and politics, in part because this is where the images are made, and in part because all of America is becoming more high-tech and browner and greener and a bit more tolerant. Just look at Philadelphia.