President Barack Obama is back in California on Friday – a visit that’s officially about curbing identity theft (he’s taking part in a cybersecurity summit at Stanford University) but just as much about abetting a legalized form of larceny (he’s attending a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco).
Welcome to the 2016 presidential race in which Republicans, Democrats and a lame-duck president have this much in common – continuing the not-so-grand tradition of persuading Californians to give many, many thousands to candidates and causes.
Already, in this new year, Jeb Bush has visited the Golden State, as have fellow Republican presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Perry and Scott Walker. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rolls into Sacramento at month’s end for the California Republican Party’s winter convention.
Credit these pols for finding the Golden State on their campaign atlases. The question is: Do they have anything to offer to the state’s voters in return for collecting donations?
By my estimation, only one Republican so far has come up with a California-inspired idea. That would be Donald Trump, who assures us that he won’t desecrate the golf course he owns in Los Angeles by building luxury homes. (Fair Deal, Square Deal, Hair Deal?)
Potentially, there is a way for California to get on the Republicans’ radar. Ironically, it could be as a mirror of the GOP presidential selection process that may boil down to a referendum on the dueling philosophies of Bush and Walker.
Here’s Bush, son of America’s 41st president and the 43rd’s younger brother, at the Detroit Economic Club last week: “I know some in the media think conservatives don’t care about the cities. But they are wrong. We believe that every American and in every community has a right to pursue happiness. They have the right to rise.”
That came only a few days after Walker, the recently re-elected governor of Wisconsin, had electrified a gathering of Iowa GOP activists by offering artery-clogging helpings of conservative red meat: defunding Planned Parenthood, undoing federal regulations, and allowing for concealed carry and a “castle doctrine” for gun owners.
Not that Iowa and Michigan are to be confused with California, but there is a parallel to Republicans’ struggle to regain relevance in the Golden State – a choice of moderating to the center or veering further to the right. Both beliefs will be on display at this month’s party convention.
To listen to Bush backers, to win a national election, the GOP has to show sincerity and sensibility – “compassion,” as his older brother would say – on immigration and education reform and minority outreach (a portion of Bush’s Detroit speech was a not-so-veiled swipe at Mitt Romney’s infamous remark about 47 percent of Americans paying no federal income taxes).
Walker supporters, on the other hand, want more of that old-timey conservative religion – a fighter to Bush’s lover. And no GOP hopeful more embodies that than Walker, the survivor of two bitterly fought gubernatorial contests plus a nasty labor-driven recall effort, all within the past five years.
Time will tell if the GOP can work through its branding issues. And it’ll be interesting to hear what Christie has to say when he comes to Sacramento, as his own image has see-sawed between conservative bully and blue-state pragmatist.
Meanwhile, here’s a proposal for dealing with the sad state of California as little more in national politics than a big piggy bank. Regardless of political affiliation, we can agree that most anyone who can write a check upward of $30,000 (the asking price these days for candidates trying to fund super PACs) has money to burn. Why not place a dollar-for-dollar levy on donations to a political group totaling more than, say $5,000, with the proceeds going to civics education and voter outreach projects?
It won’t change one party’s struggle with what direction to head. It won’t change one president’s relentless pursuit of money (after Obamacare, maybe his greatest legacy). But it might provide a better use for campaign dollars other than feeding the political beast.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.