Not that long ago, it was a maxim of American politics that new trends start in California and steadily work their way east to the rest of the nation. That certainly was true back in the days when Proposition 13 inaugurated a nationwide tax revolt in 1978 and former Gov. Ronald Reagan took Golden State conservatism and ebullience all the way to the White House in 1980.
Not this year.
Whatever else it may have indicated, the 2010 election shows that California now bucks national political trends rather than starts them. While most of the rest of America was going solidly red, California proved to be as blue as ever. Even so, there are important lessons in the results for Californians — and indeed for the rest of the country.
First, we’ve been told for decades by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance crowd that there is far too much
corrupting money in politics. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman just provided at least 140 million reasons why that assertion is baseless. If ever it was possible for a wealthy candidate to buy an election, the former eBay CEO should have been a shoo-in.
With her millions, Whitman assembled a campaign juggernaut that saturated the airwaves with advertisements, flew the candidate and her entourage around the state in a fine chartered jet, employed the services of multiple professional political consultants with the shiniest resumes, and convened glamorous Beverly Hills fundraisers.
In the end, about all Whitman received out of it was an unpleasant encounter with a former employee and the wrong end of Jerry Brown’s 54 percent majority. Voters obviously are influenced by what money can buy, but being rich is no guarantee of winning.
Second, we also have been told for decades that the only way Republicans could win major statewide offices here was to recruit attractive, articulate and successful moderates with demonstrated records of achievement rather than offering a continuing slate of conservatives more appropriate to the Reagan era.
Between Whitman and GOP U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, it is difficult to imagine two candidates who more perfectly fit the recommended profile. Yet, both were soundly defeated in a year when most of the rest of the nation was voting solidly Republican. In the end, neither Whitman nor Fiorina were sufficiently convincing as credible alternatives to Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer to motivate enough voters to switch. By contrast, Reagan was twice elected California governor and twice president of the U.S.
That may be somewhat unfair, at least to Whitman, however, as Reagan was succeeded in the Governor’s Office by Brown, who during his tenure made decisions that ultimately empowered the public sector unions to acquire their current death grip on state government and finances with devastating consequences. Thanks to the same unions, a few months after Brown takes the oath of office as governor for a third time, Whitman may well be glad he has to confront them instead of her.