Somewhere between the 10-year siege of Troy and the Thirty Years’ War, there’s California’s two decades and counting of political redundancy.
In 1994, Mexican flag-waving protesters flooded downtown Los Angeles in opposition to the anti-immigrant Proposition 187. In 2016, the same green-white-and-red tricolor seems destined to follow the immigrant-bashing Donald Trump wherever he goes in the Golden State.
In the summer of 1998, libertarian millionaire Ron Unz trotted out Proposition 227, replacing Spanish bilingual education with English immersion. In 2016, Unz is back on the June ballot – as a U.S. Senate candidate speaking out against a fall initiative that would dismantle his proposition.
Also in 1998, voters approved Proposition 10, imposing a 50-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes in the name of early childhood development. In 2016, voters may see a ballot initiative slapping a $2 tax on cigarettes for the sake of health care.
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The list of 1990s greatest hits continues. The state’s death penalty, brought back to life two decades ago, may be headed for the gallows in November via the initiative process.
We’ll very likely have another Clinton on that ballot, plus maybe the choice of two women to send to the U.S. Senate to serve alongside Dianne Feinstein – a scenario similar to 1992.
It begs the question: Are we moving ahead, or just spinning in circles?
Some presidential elections serve as genuine course corrections. Franklin Roosevelt’s ascent in 1932 marked an end to three decades of laissez faire Republican rule. Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980 was the counter to FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
This won’t be the case in 2016, which is more like seasickness than a sea change.
Sure, Hillary Clinton sounds more like President Barack Obama with each passing week. And she will – until she’s convinced she’s locked up his minority and millennial fan base. But who’s willing to wager that the ever-calculating, ever-cautious Clinton will continue Obama’s progressive agenda, much less create a new Democratic paradigm?
The same applies to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. His is a candidacy of noise making and oversimplistic promises of deal-making. So much for a dramatic reversal of Obama, or a much-needed GOP brand makeover.
Each of the last three American presidents had a chance to put a lasting imprint on the political landscape, as did FDR and Reagan. None of them did.
Bill Clinton’s centrism didn’t survive beyond his presidency. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was overwhelmed by his focus on national security after 9/11. Obama’s strategy as president cost his party dearly (15 senators, 11 governors, 69 congressmen).
California’s situation with its last three governors isn’t all that different. Gray Davis, abruptly swept out of office in the 2003 recall election, left an incomplete legacy. Arnold Schwarzenegger swerved across political lanes like a first-time Humvee driver. Jerry Brown’s “paddle left, paddle right” style of governing will keep gubernatorial chroniclers baffled for years to come.
The next governor’s race in California in 2018 could be one of those sea changes – likely a Democrat pushing their party decidedly to the left (yes, there is a further left in Sacramento).
Or so it may be if Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, currently running hard to replace Brown, governs as he’s campaigning – a mix of ideas more progressive than the incumbent (legalizing marijuana, stricter gun control) while throwing caution to the media wind (going on Bravo and fielding questions on his daily hair regimen and whether he’s ever “taken a dip in the man pool”).
Bravo to the idea of California breaking out of its rut. Just so it doesn’t devolve into a Bravo viewing party.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.