IF YOU ASSUMED California's antiwar fetish crested the moment Michael Moore thanked the Academy, dissed the president, and took his Oscar home, guess again.
Politicians here in America's dream factory have made breaking with the majority on Iraq a reliable source of amusement and amazement--as much a daily staple of the California Experience as the tanning index, surf reports, and the Lakers.
Consider these two latest installments:
The morning after Moore's stunt at the Academy Awards, Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn dropped by the Florence Nightingale Middle School in nearby Cypress Park to discuss the conflict in Iraq. The news of the day wasn't what Hahn said. Rather, it was what he did: signing a petition circulated by a sixth-graders declaring the war "unjust" and predicting "[m]any innocent people of Iraq as well as American lives will be lost."
It wasn't the mayor's first antiwar moment. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Hahn signed a City Council resolution opposing combat without U.N. support. According to the Los Angeles Times, the mayor told reporters: "We are very supportive of our troops in Iraq. There is a difference between being supportive of our troops and saying we think this is a wonderful idea." When asked to explain why the nation supported the war effort, Hahn's reply was Americans are "confused."
But not as confused as Democratic legislators in Sacramento, who want to pass a resolution supporting the troops in the field--only without any mention of the nation's commander-in-chief. As one Assembly Democrat diplomatically explained: "Some members have made an argument that [Bush] failed in his diplomatic responsibilities and has failed to make a compelling case to the American people that it was justified to undertake this kind of mission now."
The list of California dissenters goes on: Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark called the bombing of Baghdad "an extreme act of terrorism." His Bay Area neighbor, Rep. Barbara Lee, was the lone "no" vote when the House authorized use of force against terrorists following the September 11 attack. And then there's Rep. Maxine Waters, the grand dame of antiwar, anti-Bush sentiment in the House who, when not accusing the CIA of peddling crack in inner cities, has trashed both Bushes for their Iraq policies.
All of which raises a good question: What will California's antiwar posturing achieve? Will it change the administration's mind? Of course not. Nor, as the polls show, is it swaying public opinion in the rest of the country.
However, there is a possible side-effect to California's public displays of disaffection--one that's particularly troubling for in-state Republicans who already struggle for relevance in the Bush world. The barrage of anti-Bush gestures could further cement this state's reputation as out of the political mainstream--and, a year from now, a state best left undisturbed by the president during his reelection campaign. Which would raise an even grimmer prospect for Californians who live under the illusion that their state drives national trends and decides national elections: We might no longer be as important as we think.
Conventional wisdom says that political trends move west to east across America, like the jet stream, beginning in California. That's no longer the case. It's more southwest to northeast--from the Sun Belt to Washington. No landmark movement has emerged from California since Ronald Reagan and Proposition 13. Illegal immigration reform and ending racial quotas (California's Propositions 187 and 209) were supposed to be the beginning of national revolts in the 1990s. Both died from neglect inside the beltway.
Meanwhile, look down the bench of California's key political players and there's no budding Reagan or Nixon--or even a gadfly like Jerry Brown. This hasn't been the case for more than a half-century. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is the state's leading national figure, but too liberal for a national ticket. The current governor, Gray Davis, is the lamest of lame ducks, his presidential hopes dashed. The California Republican with the best shot of landing on a national ticket would be Condoleezza Rice, and at present she's more of a concept than a proven quantity.
Which raises a tough question for the Bush White House: Is California worth the time, the effort and the risk--not to mention the long flight and the aggravation of so many hostile voices?
The Golden State's 55 electoral votes in 2004 are tantalizing. Indeed, if Bush's strength is such that he carries California, he'll probably be on his way to a 40-state win. Then again, there's an easy formula for reelection that skirts California: concentrate on the states that Bush narrowly lost in 2000. Begin with Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin--Bush's closest margins of defeat in 2000. That's 39 electoral votes. The second target group, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Washington, were 7 percent losses (or less) for Bush in 2000. That's another 53 electoral votes. The big selling point for this strategy: flexibility. The president's team could pick a combination of nine states to target and offset the loss of California, instead gambling big on one state.
It's something worth keeping in mind as California continues to strut and preen in their discontent. Nothing said or done in Los Angeles or San Francisco or by any California member of Congress will change the president's attitude toward war. But it might change his attitude as to where he campaigns next year.
Bill Whalen is Research Fellow at the Hoover Instutition, where he follows California and national politics.