Turning Off the Soft Lighting : It's Time To Accept That Washington Won't Help

Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is an international fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Business and Management in Los Angeles and author of "Tribes," to be published by Random House

The Los Angeles riots have again underscored California's position as the crucible of the American experience. Yet when the elections are over in November, the state is likely to find itself increasingly marginalized in national politics, no matter who the President is.

Indeed, beyond their obvious interest in California's electoral-vote harvest, none of the three prospective major candidates for President has a strong connection to the state. George Bush has always treated it as an afterthought. Add to that the indignity of Vice President Dan Quayle being assigned the California portfolio.

Bill Clinton, a Southerner with Ivy League connections, is no potential friend, either. His enterprise-oriented urban ideas could work well here, but his pandering to the politicians of entitlements, like Democratic Party Chairman Ronald H. Brown and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), undercuts his commitment to an agenda based on self-help and personal responsibility.

Ross Perot, also a Southerner, is largely foreign to the state's culture and economic structure. He does have long-term connections to the military-industrial complex, but defense is hardly the state's economic future.

Whatever its meaning for residents, California's marginal role in national politics plays wonderfully to the prejudices of the permanent bipartisan political class in Washington. "We're the Freddy Kruegers of American politics," observed Tom Krantz, a Reagan Administration holdover who now serves as associate director of the Emergency Management Agency. "There is such a delight (in Washington) in both parties that California would not have a major candidate in the race. They won't have to deal with the kooks and nuts."

Krantz mostly traces the anti-California mood in Washington to a yawning cultural gap between the state and the national media and political Establishment on the East Coast. Whatever their politics, most of the state's most compelling figures--such as Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. or Ronald Reagan--reflect a mind-set and penchant for experimentation peculiar to the West Coast.

"It's very difficult to penetrate the consciousness of California," concedes Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute. "There's almost a predisposition against regular politics, a massive indifference. (Californians) don't seem to care about established political figures."

But not all the state's problems can be blamed on the classe politique. Much of California's marginalization is self-imposed--the failure of its political leadership to move the June primary to a date when California could have more of a say in the choice of presidential candidates.

Political exile also means that the concerns--multiculturalism, Pacific Rim trade, environmental protection--of California rank low on the priority lists of those seeking national office. It's too much to ask of a product of Greenwich, Conn., and of Houston country clubs to appreciate the cultural dynamics of a state whose majority population will be Latino, Asian or African-American in 20 years. Or for a governor of a state that barely grew during the 1980s to comprehend California, which added the equivalent of nearly three Arkansas to its population during the 1990s.

Clinton's snickering remarks about Brown's "re-inventing" himself belies a deeper lack of comprehension of the realities of life in California. The state is protean. The effects of the huge cultural, demographic and technological shifts of the last decade cannot be captured in simple truths or shaped by what passes for public policy prescriptions.

"Every year we get hundreds of thousands of new people. We can't afford to get bored or satisfied with ourselves," says Kathleen Brown, the state treasurer. "The California approach is about challenging what is acceptable to be thought about. We can't really be satisfied with tinkering with the status quo."

This gap between the California approach and Washington politics-as-usual is likely to persist. In the short run, the implications may be less than pleasant for the state's hard-pressed economy, which, since the huge irrigation schemes of the early 20th Century, has often benefited from federal largess. From the mid-'40s to the late '60s, military spending alone accounted for up to one-fifth of the state's gross product. Whole regional economies, from Monterey to San Diego and Long Beach, revolved around the presence of defense installations.

Although California's dependence on defense is down by as much as two-thirds from the Vietnam era--and not nearly as much as Maryland's and Virginia's--the state should expect additional cutbacks because of the end of the Cold War. But political marginalization means that California may pay a disproportionate price for demilitarization.

To a large extent, this has far more to do with national politics than with "lack of competitiveness," the favorite explanation of the local press and the state's business and political leaders. Even the Ueberroth Commission on competitiveness cited the lack of a powerful lobbying presence in Washington as among the state's most critical problems.

In reality, the late 1980s was a time when California surrendered the political initiative to other regions, most notably the South, which has become the best feeder in the slop house of contemporary politics. The increasing power of the bipartisan Texas-Southern alliance--and the stunning ineptitude of California's congressional delegation--has been evident in everything from who bears the brunt of military cutbacks to the handing out of choice research projects.

In the reductions announced for the National Guard, for example, California will absorb a whopping 43% cut in personnel, more than twice the percentage cut for most Southern states and almost three times the hit slated for Texas. In 1991, 10 bases in California were ordered to close before the end of the decade, twice as many as in Texas and about the same as in the entire former Confederacy. Of closures with the greatest projected economic impact, California had more than twice as many as the South.

A Clinton or a Perot in the White House--and two beginners in the U.S. Senate--doesn't augur much of a change: California will remain mostly friendless in Washington. But we should not regard these bleak prospects as entirely negative. Instead, we should accept the reality that the time for counting on Washington for much of anything--be it bailing out the aerospace industry or rebuilding Los Angeles--has long since passed.

Yet this dearth of federal assistance should in no way imply that Californians can simply count on markets and enormous economic assets to cure ills. Rather, Sacramento, as well as local governments, must concentrate on developing strategies that assume Washington had, by some act of divine grace, actually disappeared and that economic growth is now the state's responsibility.

In this spirit, we should dedicate ourselves to devising local initiatives to deal with the myriad problems--the budget, inner city, education and transportation--that confront us. With the knowledge that Washington is unlikely, under any administration, to have the wherewithal or the will to help much, California should act decisively in its self-interest, remembering Hillel's dictum: "If I am not for myself, who shall be for me?"

The fact we may have lost the battle of Washington is all the more reason why we should turn our attentions to winning the battle here.

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