Republican presidential candidates tend to treat California like a generous but prickly aunt — a good source of cash, not company. Although they swing through for fundraisers, they don’t spend much time wooing primary voters because the state’s primary isn’t held until June, by which time the nominee is often decided. Nor do Republicans campaign here much before the general election because they have little chance of winning the state’s electoral votes.
Nevertheless, California is widely seen as the cradle of modern GOP civilization because it was the birthplace of Richard Nix ... err, Ronald Reagan. Eager to position themselves as disciples of the Gipper’s small-government teachings, 15 of the 16 major Republican presidential hopefuls will make the pilgrimage to the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday for a nationally televised debate. Too bad they won’t stay long enough to recognize how odd the setting is.
The most dissonant aspect is the popularity of “outsider” candidates, led by real estate mogul Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, last seen in this state losing to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010. This troika has tapped into the public’s disillusionment with Washington, D.C., and its persistent partisan gridlock, touting their utter lack of experience in government as if it were an advantage.
Reagan, though, apprenticed for his terms in the White House by putting in eight years at the helm of one of the largest state governments in the country, sharing power with the rival party. Having that sort of experience is no guarantee of success in the nation’s capital, but it is certainly good preparation for navigating the polarized interests on Capitol Hill and across the country. A CEO (or the head of a surgical team) who is used to giving orders may be surprised by how little control the president has over agendas and outcomes.
The GOP field as a whole has shown little interest in the environmental challenges that Reagan’s home state is wrestling with these days. California agriculture has dried up rivers and lakes, and has drained groundwater so much that the land is sinking. And now, in the midst of a severe and sustained four-year drought, agricultural acreage is expanding, leaving insufficient water for everyone. Yet climate change is a topic non grata among the candidates, and to the extent that any of the candidates have discussed the drought, they have blamed crazy environmentalists for blocking dams and diverting “farmers’ “ water to keep fish species from going extinct. In short, they have been advocating big-government spending on mammoth dams and subsidized water instead of letting the science and the free market guide agriculture.
If they were to hit the hustings in California the way they do in Iowa, more candidates might also recognize how dependent this state’s farms and other businesses have become on immigrants, including laborers, engineers and entrepreneurs, and how silly it is to think that the problems in the immigration system can be solved by magically sealing the borders. California is on the leading edge of the demographic changes — and so many other issues — that every state is likely to confront eventually. If only it weren’t at the end of the campaign trail.