There is a new spirit afoot in California. Call it
It’s the very reverse of the ethos that made California into
America’s largest state, the center of world technical innovation
and social progress.
There is a new spirit afoot in California. Call it “can’t-do.” It’s the very reverse of the ethos that made California into America’s largest state, the center of world technical innovation and social progress.
No political move of the last few months epitomizes this new attitude better than one decision by state legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown, one that got little attention because it was drowned out by news coverage of the possibility America might default on its national debt and the subsequent downgrading of the U.S.A.’s credit.
That move came when next year’s California presidential primary election was consolidated into the early June date that’s traditional for the state’s legislative and congressional primaries.
The switch means almost all Californians will have absolutely no influence over the selection of presidential candidates by either major political party. There’s not likely to be much of a challenge to President Obama for the Democratic nod, no matter what, but half a dozen major Republicans are now contesting for their party’s nomination, and California could have had enormous influence there.
Under rules of both parties, California could not have voted first in the nation even if it wanted to. The first Tuesday in February was the earliest possible date to vote in 2008, and something similar would have applied next year. California did vote on the first February Tuesday last time around, and went for Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain.
McCain’s California victory cemented the GOP nomination for him, rendering the rest of his springtime campaigning a pro-forma activity. The Clinton win here revived her candidacy after Obama shocked her in Iowa and almost beat her in New Hampshire. Without the California win, Clinton would have been out of the running early. With it, she stayed alive well into May.
So California was important three years ago. And it could have been as decisive for Republicans next year as it was last time, chiefly because the GOP has a winner-take-all system here, giving all its California national convention delegates to the leading primary vote-getter even if that candidate doesn’t get a majority of Republican votes.
But Brown and the Legislature took a defeatist view, figuring California will never be anything but a presidential piggy bank. Candidates drop in here to raise money, then leave to spend it elsewhere.
The state aimed to put at stop to that starting in 1996, when its primary moved up from the traditional June date to March. Only after other states made their votes even earlier did California move into February.
Next year, though, Californians will be mere spectators during the presidential nomination process, as the tail wags the big dog of national politics. That’s what it amounts to when small states like New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina decide races that have enormous impact on places with which they have little in common. Only the super-wealthy in California will have influence, paying thousands of dollars to hobnob with presidential possibilities during the private sessions where they raise millions of dollars.
This decision drew some clearly uninformed comment from so-called experts.
Here’s one such statement: “We’ve learned that shifting a date doesn’t matter,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. One hopes the rest of the institute’s work is better informed than this comment, which completely ignored the major impact California had in 2008. Decisive for McCain, major-league influential for the Democrats.
It’s true that California didn’t exert as much clout as some hoped – but nevertheless, it had a big impact. And by persisting, it might have had even more next year. But the “can’t do” spirit embodied in Regalado’s remark carried the day.
Why is all this important? Because politics is not a spectator sport directly affecting few besides the players. When candidates don’t campaign much in California – and they’ll spend virtually no time here during the fall runoff campaign next year because both parties consider this a solid “blue” state – they have no clue about what’s important to Californians.
Obama campaigned here during the primary last time and learned how important issues like clean air and offshore oil drilling and transportation and immigration are to Californians. His administration has acted on that knowledge.
By contrast, George W. Bush rarely came to California, either as candidate or president, and his administration battled this state’s top officials, Democrat and Republican, for years over energy policy, pollution and more. About all he saw of California was the inside of swank hotels like the Century Plaza in Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Fairmont and Mark Hopkins. Moving the primary to June could easily put California back in that situation.
Giving up influence is never a good thing for any state, even more so when you are the largest one. Californians can only hope the can’t-do spirit evinced in the primary election move doesn’t spread into other areas.