Could a Californian Be the Next President?

- Maret 10, 2018

SAN DIEGO—The California Democratic Party’s most recent, weekend-long binge on self-satisfaction unfolded here late last month under the slogan “California: The Big Blue Beacon of Hope,” with a party chairman who promised that “folks across the country are looking to California to show the nation how it can be done.” Hoarse and hypercaffeinated, several thousand activists and party officials were packed inside a cavernous convention center overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and they roared when the leader of the state Senate, Kevin de León, told them, “It’s time to move our nation’s capital to California.” They cheered again when Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom suggested that the cosmos already had. “For the world’s sake,” Newsom said, “the sun now rises in the West. We are America’s coming attraction.”

On issues from immigration to taxes, climate change to gun control, California has established itself as a pole of the Democratic resistance to President Donald Trump—most recently with the Justice Department’s lawsuit against California over its protections for undocumented immigrants. But the rhetoric from the state party’s annual convention reflected something more: As the midterm elections and the run-up to the 2020 presidential contest draw closer, California Democrats are beginning to test the national salability of a state—and its brand of Left Coast, Best Coast politics—long viewed in many parts of the country as off the wall. (“We’re always seen as fruits and nuts,” is how former Governor Gray Davis put it to me.)

Of course, Californians aren’t new to the national stage. The state sent Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon to the White House; Governor Pete Wilson briefly competed for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996; and Jerry Brown, the current governor, ran for president himself three times. But that was more than 25 years ago. Now, for the first time in a generation, the increasingly liberal state is likely to put forward at least one, and possibly more, credible Democratic presidential candidates in 2020. The state’s decision to hold an earlier primary election that year is also expected to shift the presidential nominating process more heavily to the West. And so, a raft of California Democrats have been making regular pilgrimages to other early primary states to tout the work they’re doing.

The reception has not always been kind. Democrats across the country may point to California as a model on greenhouse gas emission standards, gun control and protections for low-wage workers and undocumented immigrants. But that doesn’t mean the average American is particularly fond of California. A 2012 poll by Public Policy Polling found that Americans viewed California more negatively than any other state, with particular loathing from Republicans. Last week, California was dragged through the mud again when U.S. News & World Report ranked California dead last in quality of life and a subpar 32nd overall in its report on the nation’s “best states.” And it doesn’t help that, in the age of Trump, America’s coasts have taken a beating from the president and his supporters for being out of touch.

All of which means California politicians seeking to develop a national profile face a difficult balancing act. On one hand, they can sell California as an outlier at the vanguard of progressive politics. On the other, they must make the case that California is not so different from Iowa or South Carolina, and that Californians aren’t coastal elites, but, rather, relatable and electable.

Eating tortilla soup from a to-go container in a conference room across the street from the state party convention last month, Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist and Democratic megadonor, told me, “I am highly aware that people around the United States of America view Californians as a bunch of smug, arrogant, kind of extremists.”

Not everyone thinks the state’s envoys can persuade the rest of America otherwise. “There’s no yearning for California to show us the way,” Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti touched down in his state in February. “This idea that somehow California is going to lead us out of the abyss? I appreciate the fact that y’all legalized marijuana. But they’ve got to stop smoking it at their political conventions.”


Not long ago, California and its politicians had little appeal to a broader audience. With spiking unemployment and a multibillion-dollar state budget deficit during the recession, California drew unfavorable comparisons to Greece. In his final State of the State address, in January, Brown recalled East Coast newspapers portraying California in the late 2000s and early 2010s as “ungovernable” or “doomed.” “The Coast of Dystopia,” one New York Times Magazine headline read.

Now, two years ahead of the next presidential election, the state is running a surplus, with economic growth outpacing the rest of the nation’s. When Trump boasts about job gains, Democrats here roll their eyes and point to the state’s own, stronger numbers. They revel in comparisons to Republican-held states, too—as when Steyer last year wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times contrasting the effects of tax increases in California with tax cuts in Kansas. While California prospered, he wrote, “In time, Kansas’ budget tanked, funding for higher education was slashed, businesses began to flee the state, and [Republican Governor Sam] Brownback earned the distinction of ‘most unpopular governor in America.’”

It isn’t just the economy. California’s conflicts with Trump and the Republican-held Congress have made progressive stars of California House members who are more accustomed to obscurity. Representative Ted Lieu has his 600,000-plus Twitter following; Representative Adam Schiff has his frequent TV hits about the Russia investigation; and Representative Eric Swalwell keeps turning up in Iowa. Garcetti has traveled to New Hampshire and South Carolina, and the billionaire Lester Crown threw a luncheon (not yet a fundraiser) for Garcetti in Chicago in January. This past weekend, Senator Kamala Harris went to Selma, Alabama, to march with civil rights activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and to speak at the Martin and Coretta King Unity Breakfast. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both made that trip in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.

Back at home, California Democrats talk in increasingly urgent terms about the state’s star role in national politics, as the progressive antidote to Republican control in Washington. On the night last month that Washington verged on its most recent government shutdown, California’s Assembly speaker, Anthony Rendon, appeared at the University of California, Los Angeles, to lead a panel discussion about “California Exceptionalism.” “There’s this incredible contrast between what’s happening in Washington, what’s happening in so many other states, versus what’s happening here in California,” Rendon said, seated beside a muralist, a theater director and the architect Frank Gehry. “There’s always been this sort of rendering of California as different from the rest of the country. It’s something that’s always interested me. But it seems as though there’s been no time better to assess that than there is now.”

Trump’s election, Rendon said, laid bare “this very clear distinction between what California seemed to be saying about an inclusive society, what California seemed to be saying about multiculturalism, what California seemed to be saying about democracy itself, versus what a lot of the rest of the country seemed to be saying.” Later, in a hotel suite overlooking the convention center where Newsom and de León were igniting the crowd, Rendon said he had come to view California “as having a responsibility now toward setting a certain tone that’s important not only for the 40 million people who live here, but for other people as well.” Perhaps a candidate from California could succeed nationally on his or her own merits, he said. (Rendon predicts Garcetti could galvanize “hipster” voters in Lincoln, Nebraska, just as well as in Los Angeles.)

But, as he slouched sideways and draped one Converse-clad foot over the arm of his chair, Rendon second-guessed whether California’s politics could resonate more broadly across the country. “It’s a different set of dynamics,” he said.

“The status quo basically resists new ideas,” Gray Davis says. “Washington is the epitome of that, so they always thought California was kind of weird, whether it was our lifestyle or our openness to new ideas.”


On a brisk morning in January at a bayside patio in Long Beach, Garcetti was laboring to make a connection. Hosting a breakfast for state Democratic Party officials gathered for a meeting from across the country, Garcetti floated between tables, embracing Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and promising the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, Troy Price, that he hoped to visit soon. Addressing the group, Garcetti pleaded, “Don’t look at us as outliers.”

“It’s true we do have more Kardashians than you do,” Garcetti said, “but we’re mostly not Kardashians.”

Garcetti, the California politician most overtly weighing a presidential run, then reminded the audience that Long Beach, once a popular destination for Midwesterners, was once known as “the Iowa of the West,” before making the case for his state’s mass appeal. “Forty percent of all the Christmas presents and Hanukkah gifts you get come off of ships right here,” Garcetti told the crowd. “So, I can go to Maine and Florida, and I can be in Illinois and Texas and tell them how many jobs come from the working men and women that unload those ships, and take American goods abroad, as well.”

“Own this place,” he implored the crowd.

In reality, few Democrats from other states could recognize—much less own—the power Garcetti’s party wields here. California Democrats hold every statewide office and overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Registered Democrats in California outnumber Republicans by nearly 20 percentage points, and while the rest of the country went for Trump in 2016, voters here legalized marijuana, approved stricter gun control measures and made certain felons eligible for early parole. California lawmakers passed so-called sanctuary-state legislation to protect undocumented immigrants. They are now debating the merits of universal health care and, for environmental reasons, banning gas-powered vehicles and plastic straws.

In many other parts of the country, Democrats are on defense. In Iowa, Democrats in the minority are consumed with Republican advances on guns, abortion and collective bargaining measures that California has long taken for granted. “We have a welcome mat out for anyone who wants to help us come and fight back on this,” says Price. But, he says, “We don’t get to have conversations about how far, what we can push forward. Right now, we’re just trying to stop, as best we can, some of these draconian policies that the GOP’s been pushing forward.”

“I do think that there is a belief out there that folks from the coast may not fully understand what it’s like here in the Midwest,” Price adds, “or what it’s like in other parts of the country.”

How would a California Democrat fare as a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020? Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who splits his time between Los Angeles and Madison, Wisconsin, says we don’t have a good test of that yet. “On the one hand, California’s a big place, it’s cutting edge, it’s sometimes a trend setter, it’s diverse, it’s important,” Maslin says. “On the other hand, it’s also seen as quirky and different, and people are envious at times, or sometimes dismissive.”

Rhetorically, California’s recent track record isn’t great. For several election cycles, Republicans have successfully branded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as a “San Francisco liberal,” casting her as a boogeyman in elections across the country. Kamala Harris came under similar criticism during her campaign for California state attorney general in 2010, when Steve Cooley, the Republican district attorney of Los Angeles, ran advertisements juxtaposing images of Harris with the San Francisco skyline.

Sean Walsh, a Republican strategist who served on the White House staffs of Reagan and George H.W. Bush and worked in Pete Wilson’s administration in California, says, “The rest of the country, I don’t think, really is ready for, basically, socialism, or socialistic kinds of messaging.” Politics that are “mainstream on the west side of Los Angeles,” he says, are “not necessarily mainstream on the west side of Dallas, or the west side of Tallahassee—big states that Democrats need to win.”

Then there’s Trump. After his trouncing here in the 2016 general election, the president said last year that California “in many ways is out of control,” and he hasn’t let up since. Meeting with state and local officials in Washington last month, he ripped into the state for its policies protecting undocumented immigrants and its relatively high tax rates. Other Republicans have criticized California Democrats for a statewide poverty rate that ranks highest in the nation when adjusted for the cost of living. And for years, more people have been leaving the state than moving in.

Trump, the first president since Dwight Eisenhower not to visit California in his first calendar year in office, is expected to make his first official visit to the state this month. When he does, he is planning to poke California right in the eye—focusing attention on prototypes for his proposed border wall. On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions touched down in Sacramento to herald litigation accusing California of obstructing federal immigration enforcement, a broadside that Brown derided as the Trump administration “basically going to war against the state of California, the engine of the American economy.”

Some Republicans think that’s a smart strategy, and one that’s likely to continue playing well in much of the country. “Donald Trump is running everything against California, and that is genius,” says Mike Madrid, a longtime Republican consultant in California. “His people are completely in tune with how different California is, and while there are people who want to move to California, there is no state that wants to be like California. That’s not a thing.”

Steyer, who has spent at least $20 million on his campaign to build national support for impeaching Trump, insists it is “very, very fast to get to a normal, honest conversation” with people in other states. But as he prepared to embark on a 30-event “town hall” tour starting in the Midwest—stirring speculation that he, too, will run for president—Steyer suggested California’s reputation is often on his mind.

“You have to say to people, ‘We’re not coming here to tell you we’re smarter than you. … We’re not coming here to tell you we’re the pros from Dover, we’re the know-it-alls, we’re the snot rags,” Steyer says. “No, the fact of the matter is we’re facing a lot of the same problems as you. We are trying to deal with them honestly and with a point of view about what the right relationship is between citizens and each other, and citizens and the government. And we feel strongly about it, and we want to talk about it.’”

Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, recalls telling a joke once, at a benefit many years ago, about the proportion of Californians who are sane. But he thinks Americans have always revered California as much as they’ve lampooned it. “We look upon California as unusual, different, but impressive. And if someone who comes out of California who looks and acts what we consider to be normal, I think they would be taken at face value,” Rendell says. “California’s like your very successful brother you like to kid all the time about being different. But in your heart, you know it’s impressive.”


Start typing and press Enter to search