Greetings from California, the KwikeeMarket Kash machine of American politics.
Every four years, those of us who love political theater get to watch our economic betters fawn and be fawned over by the folks who want to hold the highest political office in the land. If it were a movie, this would be the trailer: Running for national political office? Well then, come out to the Golden State! Enjoy the weather! Punch in a few code words and, like magic, a billionaire with time on his hands will spit money out at you!
This used to be a strictly Hollywood sport. You know, Barbra Streisand, Patricia Duff and the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus, Ronald Reagan and Alfred Blomingdale. But once President Bill Clinton started dropping by venture capitalist John Doerr’s Woodside manse, Silicon Valley’s collective geek head got completely turned. Things haven’t been the same since.
So up and down the Blue edges of our Red State – in other words, L.A. and San Francisco – we have fun aplenty when the pols come calling on the stars. The start of this presidential cycle is no different. Only this time it matters a bit more. The state’s move to put its primary at the beginning of the election year may be the state – for the first time in a long time – actually matters in presidential politics.
So, down in L.A., entertainment mogul David Geffen is spitting money at Sen. Barack Obama, saying Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton can’t win. Here in the valley, moderate Democrat (and a great example of the phenomenon I refer to as Progressive Libertarians) Andy Rappaport is supporting John Edwards.
No slouch when it comes to Clinton-bashing, Arianna Huffington has said that she can “just smell the calculation” when it comes to Clinton. That’s probably because she uses that same perfume and recognizes the scent. Here in San Francisco, Laureen Powell Jobs and Susie Tompkins Buell are hard at work raising money for Clinton. They at least have the good manners not to bash the opposition by saying what many believe: That a black man can’t win. He can, but not this year.
On the other side of the aisle, John McCain’s support of the Iraqi war is setting him back. That might be temporary if Hillary Clinton is, in fact, the Democratic nominee. But McCain, who did well in the state seven years ago, isn’t much on movie stars and has never liked Silicon Valley’s geeky know-it-alls – two more strikes there – so he’s not going great guns here.
Mitt Romney hasn’t bothered. California knows from Mormons and Romney’s pre-presidential moves to the right on gay marriage in particular aren’t going to sit well with a state that’s happily elected and re-elected a former bikini-wearing body builder. On top of that, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s done his level best to put the state’s conservative voters in a box.
That means Rudy Giuliani could do very well in the business-minded forums of L.A. and Silicon Valley – in his early forays, he’s gotten the attention of some deep-pockets and his haunts are Schwarzenegger’s as well – but it remains to be seen if an actual New Yorker can get elected president. Rudy’s the John Edwards of his party – known, safe, secure.
Like Spring Training, all this warming-up can give you a sense of the season to come. A better way to look at how Calfornia’s power brokers are behaving going into the 2008 election is to call it what it is: A new way for wealthy, upper-class Americans to confront – or avoid – their prejudices.
In fact, this may well be the election where Americans of all income levels confront their prejudices about religion, race, gender and class.
Barack Obama may well think he can win the presidency on this, his first try at office. But it’s more likely that he’s running this time to show Americans that there are lots of black politicians who are not Al Sharpton – remember that Annie Liebowitz portrait of Sharpton at the hairdresser? – and not Jesse Jackson with his sloppy finances and personal behavior. There is no way to put that message in a campaign speech or a talking point. There is, however, a way to demonstrate it. By running. So you can run again. And win.
Similarly, David Geffen may well be right, Hillary can’t win. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t try. And, well, you have to wonder if Mr. Geffen, a man at home in the company of men, doesn’t just prefer Obama’s chic multiculti background to the company of former pal Bill’s sometimes shrewish wife. Throw in Arianna Huffington’s self-appraisal disguised as political assessment. You wanna talk calculation, let’s talk about the woman once married to a gay man who happened to be heir to one of the nation’s largest oil fortunes, and you’re done. A woman can’t win because we don’t want a woman to win. Add to this the chorus of LA-based Al Gore supporters – these are the folks who have confused an Oscar nomination with the one for national office – and, when you total up all the “anybody but Hillary” support you’ve got a wall of retro sexism that even Sharon Stone couldn’t scale. Not that she wouldn’t try.
To some extent, Clinton’s got the same problem Obama has. Only she’s smarter, shrewder and more experienced. But again, it’s the demonstration that will carry the day. What Clinton has that Obama doesn’t, however, is a strong group of articulate – and obviously sexist – opposition that may, in the end, make her look better, particularly to moderate women, than her critics realize.
This election brings up prejudice against Mormons, too. And East-Coasters with funny names. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s walking a careful path here, stepping neatly into John F. Kennedy’s footsteps. It seems ludicrious, now, to think that a vote for a Roman Catholic was once considered daring but it was and, eventually, we’ll feel that way about Mormons. But in the meantime…someone’s gotta walk the walk. Romney will be joined in that little runway strut by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. They run. They demonstrate that it’s not them, it’s us.
The only two men free of this problem are Sen. John McCain, war hero and, once upon a time, a plainspoken pol if there ever was one, and former Sen. John Edwards. It’s likely that McCain will head some ticket – his own, independent run or the Republican Party. The base may not like him but unless things change very dramatically, Romney and Giuliani are – or were – too liberal, period. McCain will also draw a lot of Democratic men who don’t like Clinton and most Republicans realize this.
Edwards – who better start gaining ground fast if he’s going to stay in this thing – is, once again, a likely vice president, probably with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket. Why? Well, he “softens” the former first lady, for starters. And, in the end, there’s one prejudice we get to keep in this election because it’s been validated. Elizabeth Edwards is probably the only woman in American politics today who can stand on stage next to former President Bill Clinton and not trigger a raft of nookie jokes.
As for the rest – New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack – no one in California cares. Why? Well, none of the state’s deep pocket donors – folks to whom the phrase “give or take a million” is not surreal or impossible – really has an interest in that messy stuff that involves voters. Until one of these unknowns wins something – anything – that’s not going to change.