Bill Whalen

Will California do as well in presidential spotlight as South Carolina?

Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for a photo with supporters at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., on Feb. 26. Bill Whalen says that state portrayed itself well before the February primaries, and that California will get its close-up before its June 7 contest.
Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for a photo with supporters at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., on Feb. 26. Bill Whalen says that state portrayed itself well before the February primaries, and that California will get its close-up before its June 7 contest. Bloomberg

To paraphrase Norma Desmond of “Sunset Boulevard” fame, California had best prepare for her close-up – a June primary preceded by weeks of journalists prowling the state.

It’s going to be a rough time for supporters of my old boss, Gov. Pete Wilson, as we’ll revisit 1994’s Proposition 187 and the Republican Party’s disconnect with Latino voters that some trace back to that initiative. Fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger won’t like the parallels between the Governator’s rage against the Sacramento machine in the 2003 recall election and Donald Trump’s present-day body slam of the GOP establishment.

But what happens when the lens zooms out to a wider view of California? Will the media see a nation-state worthy of emulation?

Common sense already has taken a shellacking this election year. A repugnant magnate with little in the way of a moral or political compass poses as a populist diviner. A polarizing, battle-scarred public figure would have us believe she’s suddenly a lifeline to love and kindness.

One state that seems to have its act together and held up well under the presidential spotlight is, of all places, South Carolina.

Yes, it’s the state that the non-South reflexively dismisses as a social and political loony bin (“too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum,” noted a local Unionist who opposed secession back in the day).

But set aide whatever knee-jerk clichés come to mind and consider these arguments in favor of the Palmetto State:

Economics

Protectionist demagogues who ventured into South Carolina for its February primaries found a state flourishing in international commerce. Boeing builds 787 Dreamliners in North Charleston. Last week, the 2 millionth BMW assembled in South Carolina sailed off to Bremerhaven, Germany.

Trade agreements have become a convenient tackling dummy in this election. But what South Carolina shows is the utility of overseas investment in a transformative economy. It also offers another economic lesson, one that fiscal conservatives won’t like: The state uses incentives to draw business (for Boeing, property tax breaks and up-front money via state bonds).

Diverse leadership

The state that was home to the opening salvo in the Civil War and, decades later, a segregationist presidential campaign by native son Strom Thurmond counts among its political leaders the nation’s only Indian American governor (Nikki Haley) and one of the only two African Americans in the U.S. Senate (Tim Scott).

Contrast that with a Republican presidential field that started with only one woman and one African American among 17 candidates, or to California political leadership that’s lily white and aging.

In the aftermath of last summer’s mass shooting in Charleston – nine black parishioners slain by a lone white gunman – it was Haley who called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds.

She also has called out Trump for his anti-immigrant policies. Her response when Trump went after her on Twitter: “Bless your heart.” That’s a Southern woman’s way of telling someone to do the anatomically impossible.

Tolerance

Two months before the church shooting, Charleston faced another racially charged tragedy. A 50-year-old black man was shot multiple times in the back by a white police officer.

The city didn’t erupt in riots on either occasion. Instead, 20,000 locals marched for peace in honor of the church-shooting victims. All California cities should have the same dignity.

This isn’t to suggest that South Carolina is infallible. The state trails the nation in per-capita income and in labor participation. In one recent survey, 3 in 4 South Carolinians who support Trump said that all immigrants take away jobs from U.S. citizens.

We’ll soon know if California “Trumpkins” are just as xenophobic when they get their close-up.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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