This column comes from the nation’s capital, where it dawns on me that I’ve reached a dubious milestone: the first one-third of my professional career was spent practicing the black arts of politics, policy and media here in Washington, D.C.; the more recent two-thirds has been toiling in a similar vineyard in California.
With time comes perspective, and in my 35 years of this existence, I’ve never seen the two lands this far apart. To the extent that D.C. casual observers inquire as to California’s health, it’s the near-calamity at Lake Oroville or the coming comedy that is Calexit. Back home in Silicon Valley, the obsession is the man in the White House.
And that’s a shame, because California should be better engaged in this town at the moment – and vice versa.
My visit coincided with the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. The informal theme: “m & m” (“Medicaid and money”). No one has more at stake in this conversation than California, whose Medi-Cal population is larger than the entire populations of all but three other states. Yet Gov. Jerry Brown was a no-show this weekend.
One thing apparent about life inside the beltway, other than its inherent self-absorption (seriously, who cares about the White House Correspondents Dinner?): neither party has recovered from the election.
One thousand hours into their run of the federal government, congressional Republicans can’t decide how to play the hand they’ve been dealt. Is Donald Trump their only means to a desired end (tax reform, torpedoing Obamacare, conservative judges) and thus worthy of a close embrace? Or is the wiser play to keep a healthy distance as the presidential tantrums and administration’s frenetic pace portend a big crash?
As for Democrats, the problem begins with denial that Trump’s a legitimate president. But a severer malady is the party’s addiction to identity politics. Case in point: a battle over whom to head the Democratic National Committee that was as much about color as competency. If you want to counter that Democrats care not about cosmetics, please explain how California Sen. Kamala Harris is considered presidential timbre?
How long will Republicans stay in “hold ’em/fold ’em” mode? You’ll know more roughly the same time that California revises its budget forecast.
Over the next several weeks, the Trump White House and congressional conservatives have to reconcile a series of incompatible concepts that were evident in Tuesday’s presidential address. Tax reform, Obamacare repeal and a reversal of immigration policy all can’t happen at once. Trump can’t merrily throw dollars at defense and infrastructure without spending cuts. He can’t cut much so long as he insists federal entitlements are off-limits.
As for the Democrats’ obsession with identity? Get used to it. There was a Gov. Brown attending the national governors meeting – Kate Brown of Oregon.
About the other Gov. Brown: she tilts at the same windmills as her colleague to the south. While in Washington, Kate Brown went after the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement actions.
But Oregon’s governor has notoriety that Jerry Brown doesn’t. She’s the first openly bisexual head of a state. Once outed, she recalls, her parents said it’d be easier on them if she were simply a lesbian. Some of her gay friends called her “half-queer”; straight friends credited her sexuality to indecisiveness.
It’s a compelling story, as the B in the LGBT chain seemingly draws less notice. But one of the takeaways from 2016: the electorate was less enthusiastic about pioneering.
Maybe that’s a function of Hillary Clinton being a flawed messenger, or a testament to Barack Obama’s unique sales skills. Perhaps it’s time for Democrats to stop fixating on racial, gender and sexual labels.
Then again, it’s one way to get an indifferent D.C. to take closer notice of the West Coast – even if it’s a state other than California and a Brown other than Jerry.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.