Advancing a Free Society

Is California the New Greece...Or a Province of Rome?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Amidst a typically gentle yet breezy twilight in the San Francisco Bay area, President Obama did something also typical for this moneyed region: he held a pair of fundraisers, with scant attention paid to the Golden State’s ailing economy – an economy Mitt Romney sees as a scourge of the nation.

Think of it as a modern-day Caesar visiting a conquered land. Only, the goal is to collect a multitude of healthy tributes – with no promises of new roads or aqueducts.

Veni, vidi . . . we take Visa.

I don’t intend this to be mistaken for partisan whining. Candidates of all persuasions take the long plane ride to the West Coast for the paring o’ the green (sometimes, with a little golf thrown in). Indeed, Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, will be in this neck of the redwoods next week for some Republican looting and plundering.

But what the latest Obama visit underscores is a 20-year devolution of California from a coveted and contended state to one so predictable in its November voting habits (and so easy to parody) that both parties now take it for granted – politically, though certainly not financially.

It’s not as if the Golden State lacks for ways the Obama Administration could help.

For two decades, California governors (including Pete Wilson, whom I worked for in the 1990s) have sought a more generous reimbursement for such matters as illegal immigration and state-federal Medicaid formulas. Certainly, Gov. Jerry Brown wouldn’t object to a few federal dollars to help whittle down his $16 billion deficit (and perhaps climbing).

But good luck getting help from Washington: should California get a few billions dollars, the line forms at the rear for other states looking for their own handout.

Still, it’s not as if Obama couldn’t ride to California’s rescue.

During his most recent Bay Area swing, he could have ventured near one of the largest Chinatowns outside of Asia and offered new ways to spur Chinese tourism to California (Chinese tourists spend, on average, about $7,000 per visit; survey show California’s a favorite destination for travelers from that land). Speed up the visa process and potentially more foreign tourists will come to the Golden State, adding sorely needed revenue. Besides, the State Department just stepped up its efforts in Brazil to get more travelers there to come to South Florida.

Or, Mr. Obama could have spent some public face time now too far from just-gone-public Facebook, in the heart of Silicon Valley (where, judging by donations to Romney, there may or may not be some unhappy tech campers). There, he could have echoed something Bill Clinton said earlier this month in an appearance at the Bay Area Council’s Outlook Conference: blow the lid on H1B visas that allow foreign techies to work in California.

Clinton’s approach to seducing and securing California in the Democratic electoral base is worth noting in any discussion of the Golden State’s current presidential neglect (neglect of a nonfinancial nature, that is).

In 1992, in a three-way race, he carried the Golden State with 46% of the vote (32.6% for George H.W. Bush; 20.6% for Ross Perot). It was the first time since 1964 that California, the land of Reagan and Nixon, went with a Democrat.

Clinton made sure it stayed that way, dispatching his Cabinet officials to the Golden State on what seemed like a weekly basis. Clinton himself invested time in the state – personally, even more so once the First Daughter enrolled at Stanford in the fall of 1997.

The difference then and now: Obama’s visits are heavy on both money and symbolism (nation’s first African-American president; nation’s most diverse society. Clinton, though not shy about shaking the California money tree during his presidency (and post-presidency, as Lady Gaga can attest), worked much harder to show he was on the same policy page – this first-term visit to the Southland, stressing at-risk youths and law enforcement, a good example of how Clinton went to pains to show California that he not only felt its pain, but wanted to cure its ills.

Things have and haven’t changed since the days of those very hands-on Clinton visits (what’s more hands-on than the leader of the Free World wiring a classroom for the Internet?). The economy took off during his second term; it’s currently mired in a recession equally as awfully, if more so, than the one in his first term.

The nation-state, meanwhile, has little to do with the outcome of national elections. Clinton carried California by 13% in 1996; Al Gore’s advantage in 2000 was 11.6%, not too far off John Kerry’s 10% winning margin in 2004 (Bush, in the process, becoming the only American president to win two terms without once carrying California). In 2008, Obama pushed the margin to an absurd 24% (pretty much where California surveys had the Obama-Romney race back in February).

The question is: what will it take to end this presidential practice of taking the money and running . . . to battleground states (on his last visit to California earlier this month, for example, Obama raked in nearly $15 million at George Clooney’s house, got up the next morning and played some pickup ball with Clooney’s filmdom pals, then jumped on Air Force One to jet off to Reno, Nevada, where he talked relief for the state’s depressed housing sector)?

The President could have done the same in California, which has had it own slew of foreclosure problems. Or, on this latest drop-by, he could have talked up California home prices and sales that just happened to be on the rise in April.

Instead, the President kept the remarks limited to those who paid to hear him speak. Which doesn’t sounds very democratic. But is what comes from being in a state that’s too comfortably Democratic, for lack of competition.