Is Bill Clinton jilting California? There are many who say that California's clout in Washington will diminish now that the president has assembled his second administration absent the California faces from the first term. They say that too much Clinton familiarity with California has bred indifference. There has been some cluck-clucking in official California circles that the state can hardly retain the same influence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. now that Clinton has no further need of the state's 54 electoral votes. Maybe it will. Maybe not. But there surely will be a difference in the second term.
From the day he took office four years ago, Clinton courted and pampered California as if his political future depended on it. It did. California was the heart of the president's 1996 reelection strategy. Clinton could not win a second term without California, the political wizards said. Win California and the rest would follow.
Clinton came to be associated with California almost as much as Ronald Reagan. In his frequent trips here, Clinton often brought federal checks and other benefits. He inspected disaster scenes and sympathized. He golfed with local pols and supporters. The administration was heavily stocked with Californians in key spots--in the White House, in the Cabinet and scattered throughout the agencies. Most critically, there was a Californian, Leon Panetta, as White House chief of staff.
The courtship succeeded. Clinton won California, won the election and will be president for four more years. So, what now? There indeed is a homeward flow of talent to California from Washington. The emigres include the secretaries of State, Defense and Commerce, plus Panetta, a potential candidate for governor.
Democratic members of Congress from California implored Clinton to "maintain your commitment to our state" with new Cabinet selections, but to no avail. With Clinton's Friday nominations, there will be no Californians in the Cabinet and just one new California face in a key sub-Cabinet post, that of former UC Berkeley professor Janet L. Yellen as chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors.
But Cabinet appointments in themselves do not necessarily give California clout. It's not likely that Secretary of State Warren Christopher or Secretary of Defense William Perry spent much time jawing with the president about parochial California issues. Perhaps the most effective advocate for the state was not a Californian at all but the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, the consummate Washington insider.
If California's influence recedes, however, the state can try to fill the breach. Perhaps Republican Gov. Pete Wilson could end his constant verbal warfare with the White House and work with Democratic leaders in the state Legislature and Congress to advance a united California cause.
And if Californians want to play hardball, they should remember this: Bill Clinton may not need California's electoral votes anymore, but someone else will.
Al Gore, welcome to California.