Why no one from the Golden State shines presidential

Monday, July 26, 2004

Geography could explain why California hasn't produced a viable candidate for president in a generation: It's too big. It's on the wrong coast.

Then there's demographic theory, the tale of a changing California: The more homogenous state that was Ronald Reagan's springboard into the White House simply no longer exists.

Some observers blame California's dearth of presidential aspirants on the polarized state of politics here. Others point to reapportionment, still others to term limits.

Regardless, as California's 441 delegates -- the most of any state in America -- stream into Boston for the Democratic National Convention this week, one thing is abundantly clear: The most populous state, the wealthiest, the most diverse, the state whose residents donate more money to presidential campaigns than any other, hasn't had a top-tier contender for the Oval Office in nearly a quarter-century. And no one from either party is waiting in the wings to step into such a national leadership role.

Larger than life

"We haven't had, until [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger, our share of larger-than-life folks running for office," said Ken Khachigian, a Republican strategist who has worked with candidates and presidents stretching back to Richard Nixon. "It's sort of sad. We're the biggest state, the most innovative state, the most creative state and they're just not there."

It's not that California has no champions on the national scene. Viewers who tune in to convention coverage today will see a tribute to America's nine Democratic female senators. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein will be on stage -- but won't have speaking parts. On Thursday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the leader of House Democrats, is scheduled to address the delegates.

Schwarzenegger, who is barred by the Constitution from being president because he was not born in America, has a prime-time speaking slot during the Republican convention, which begins in late August.

The full package

But as many political experts point out, there are men and women with the full package it takes to make a serious presidential run -- stature, message, money, presence. And then there's everyone else. California politicians these days fall into the latter category.

"The positions from which a candidate gets viable [to run for president] are senator or governor," said Stephen J. Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University and author of "The Road to the White House."

And therein lies part of California's problem. Boxer, 63, is identified so strongly with liberal causes that her name has never made lists of would-be presidents. Feinstein, 71, has had her name surface periodically as a strong prospect for vice president. But her wealthy husband's vast business interests have given some Democratic leaders pause.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown and the late former Sen. Alan Cranston, both Democrats, and former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, ran for president, but none of them came close to winning a party nomination. Former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was mentioned as a possible contender, but his political career ran aground with his recall last fall.

Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said of California's lack of major presidential aspirants: "At the most superficial level, it's because our governors were boring and our senators were women."

And what happens when the state is not on a president's radar? Consider President Bush's response to California's energy crisis, Cain said. The federal government's response was limited, while "a Democrat from this state would have been Johnny-on-the-spot," Cain said.

But California has changed dramatically since Nixon and Reagan were in power. According to the state Department of Finance, non-Hispanic whites made up 67.07 percent of California's population when Reagan was elected president in 1980. Hispanics made up 19.41 percent of the population, blacks 7.54 percent and Asian-Pacific Islanders 5.23 percent. By 1999, non-Hispanic whites were in the minority. Today, they make up just 47 percent of the population, with Hispanics at 32.5 percent, Asians at 11 percent and blacks at 6.5 percent.

No longer there

"The state that produced Ronald Reagan -- a largely white, suburban state, is no more," said John Kenneth White, professor of politics at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In fact, like diversity, many of the attributes that make California distinctive are factors that work against candidates who aspire to the nation's highest office. A key one: geography.

Dan Schnur, a Sacramento consultant who was communications director for the 2000 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said presidential contenders from California are hindered by the long distance between it and the crucial early campaign states -- Iowa and New Hampshire.

"The relationships, the networking and the connections all become much more difficult when you're on the other side of the country," Schnur said.

If you're the governor of an eastern or Midwestern state, it's just a hop by plane to the first-in-the-nation caucus and primary sites. But a California governor must spend hours just getting to Iowa or New Hampshire to give the requisite speeches at Lincoln Day dinners and fund-raisers for congressional candidates.

The state's political dynamics also have become a hindrance, experts say.

While California's recent governors have been moderates, its congressional delegation and state legislature have grown increasingly polarized, with more and more staunch liberals and staunch conservatives, thanks to reapportionment. As a result, many lawmakers have little cross-over appeal, which can stymie any pursuit of higher office.

"Virtually all the [state's] members of Congress -- with a few exceptions -- are coming from districts that don't look like the country as a whole," said Roy Behr, a Boxer campaign strategist.

Elected officials, political strategists and academics who specialize in state and national government were hard pressed to think of a Californian who's in the pipeline for national greatness.

To Schnur, the most likely path between the Golden State and the Oval Office would be the repeal of the 26th amendment, which bars naturalized citizens such as Schwarzenegger from the presidency.

"Once you get past Schwarzenegger, it's tough seeing a likely prospect," Schnur said. "There might be a future president in the state assembly or a city council or a school board somewhere, but it's like figuring out which rookie home-run hitter is going to break Hank Aaron's record." Added Khachigian, "There's such a thing as presidential timber. It's a fairly rare commodity.

"After sitting at the knees of Nixon all those years in San Clemente, I have to quote him: 'Politics is not prose, it's poetry.' Very few understand the poetry of politics. There's a certain quality you cannot put your finger on, other than to say there's someone who's got it."

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