Today class, we consider the California Primary

Friday, May 25, 2012

A former student, recently relocated to California, wrote me to ask for advice in our upcoming election.  Teachers live for the teachable moment, so even if this student last sat in my class 17 years ago, I found this more exciting than any other aspect of an election that doesn’t have much else to recommend it.  Here is my answer:

Dear Sheryl,
Welcome to California.  I wish we could offer you a more interesting first election, but while on a national level, this election offers lots of characters and plot, if not a lot of solutions to our national problems, statewide it’s pretty dull.  The more interesting election will come in November, when Governor Brown asks for a tax increase to help close the budget shortfalls.

At the top of the ticket, both parties have already settled on candidates, so that our only choice is whether to endorse those choices, or register a protest.  I’m not sure how much good that does.  Remarkably, Democratic primaries in four states have given President Obama less than 60% majorities, even when there is no reputable candidate running against him.  Yet no legitimate challenger has stepped forward to do so.  I remember the year Lyndon Johnson dropped out of his re-election campaign because the second-place candidate in New Hampshire finished close enough to embarrass him.  Yet this year, Americans Elect has a place on the ballot in over 30 states, and no candidate seems interested in pursuing it.

On the Republican side, Mit Romney will be the candidate, and nothing California can do will change that.  Some people may complain about this, but I am much happier having candidates vetted and winnowed in small states where voters actually get to meet and go face-to-face with candidates.  California is a media state, where money talks, but few voters get a personal look at the candidates.  If several candidates had survived until the California primary, our size would seal the deal, but if we have no say here, we have other ways to throw our weight around.

The question then becomes whether we want to use our vote to send Romney some kind of message.  If, for example, I vote for Santorum in the primary (even though he’s already dropped out), would that send a message to Romney that I would like him to pick a social conservative like Huckabee for Vice President?  I have no way of knowing, and it’s an iffy proposition that has ten ways it might backfire.  I’m still trying to decide.

The race for senator is even stranger.  There are 24 candidates, of whom Diane Feinstein will capture about 60% of the vote, and the other 23 will average less than 2% apiece.  The second place finisher, who might come in with five or six percent, will be Feinstein’s opponent in November.  It could be one of the 14 Republicans, or another one of the six Democrats, or even a Libertarian or one of the two Peace and Freedom candidates.  (Correction: It was late at night when I wrote this.  If Feinstein gets 60%, there won't be any run-off in November.)  I won’t vote for Feinstein, but I don’t recognize the name of any challenger.  The truth is, in a media state, running is so expensive that serious candidates (if the Republicans could actually come up with one) looked at this race and decided it wasn’t worth it.  In our last election, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina threw immense amounts of personal wealth at races for governor and senator, and came away empty.

For all intents and purposes, California has no statewide Republican Party.  They manage only a feeble minority in the state legislature, and elect no statewide officials.  I blame this on Pete Wilson, a governor we had in the 1990s.  Because he had no appeal to social conservatives in areas where their instincts are best (such as Life), he had to demagogue the issues where their instincts are worst (for example, xenophobia).  As a result, he convinced the Hispanic population (fast becoming the biggest voting block in the state) that Republicans wished they would go somewhere else.  I keep hoping for a Republican who can change that image, but I don’t see one yet.

I don’t know who is running for Congress in your part of the state.  In my area, the Republican incumbent, Devin Nunes, doesn’t impress me very much, but the Democrats had to import a candidate from the Bay Area to offer any challenger at all.  He has a nice biography, but had to move 250 miles to live in our district, and has no connections here.  I hope your district offers a better choice.

The only real decisions on this ballot come with two propositions:

Prop 28 tinkers with term limits for our state legislature, shortening the total time a senator or assemblyman can serve in Sacramento, but allowing them to serve it all in one house or the other.  We keep experimenting with term limits, but few people can argue that we’ve actually had better overall government since the experiment started.  It is harder to decide how much term limits have been a positive or negative factor in the increasing failure of government over the last decade.  I am inclined to vote yes on 28, even if I don’t expect it to produce any miracles.

Prop 29 creates a new tax on tobacco.  Ordinarily, when I see R.J. Reynolds paying big bucks to influence my vote, I would automatically vote against them.  However, there are some unsettling aspects of this tax.  Both the pro and con campaigns seem to be primarily financed by money from outside the state.  It starts to look to me like national groups like the American Cancer Society—ordinarily supported by donations and corporate sponsors—would like to increase their financial base by raiding Californians with a dedicated tax.  We opened the door to this a few years ago with a bond issue to support stem-cell research.  Now we’ll have a tax to support cancer research.  Is this really a proper role for state governments at a time that we can’t pay the bills for basic state services?  Government does not belong as a partner in every worthy effort.  Nor should every good effort be released from the need to justify themselves on a regular basis to donors.  In November, I plan to vote for Governor Brown’s tax increases for the general fund, and I certainly don’t consider myself a friend of Big Tobacco, but I think I will vote “No,” on 29.

This has been fun.  It always brings out the teacher in me to be asked a good question.  You get an “A” for paying attention in class.

Mr. Carroll



It certainly will be something to see after the elections. I am confused sometimes as an experience voter, but to be a newbie would be overwhelming. It will be a roller coaster from here on out.

And I agree, government doesn't have to be involved in everything.

Steve said...
May 27, 2012 at 7:32 AM  

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