SAN FRANCISCO Californians think everything good begins where America's day ends, and some California pols, mostly Democrats, are determined to make themselves even more relevant. They took the first step this week in pursuit of a louder say in choosing the presidential candidates.
The California presidential primary, now scheduled for June 3, would be one of the last, and usually by the time Californians vote the issue has been long settled, with the winners packing up for their national conventions.
The last time the California primary actually mattered was 1964, more than four decades ago, when Barry Goldwater, with a spectacular sprint through the final 72 hours, edged Nelson Rockefeller. The result sent the New York governor to oblivion, and the senator from Arizona returned to the convention in the old Cow Palace six weeks later for his brief and only hurrah. But the conservative revolution was on the way.
There's a partisan edge to the debate. The promoters of the earlier primary want to use the occasion to adopt a ballot initiative to nibble away at term limits, and this, in fact, may be what the urge to surge to the front of the line is all about.
The getaway caucuses of Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire are safe, at least for now, but several other states are eager to follow the California lead in moving on up. Legislation is pending in Illinois, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Indiana and New Jersey, and bills may soon be tossed into the hopper in New York. "Everybody's sort of watching everybody else right now," says a researcher for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's this giant game of chicken." Either that, or a game of getting ducks in a row.
Californians contribute a lot of the campaign swag only to see it spent elsewhere. The celebrity game originated here, and as naive as the Hollywood Democrats may be you can't blame them for grousing that the campaigns are actually spun elsewhere. The celebrities only get to watch and wait, pushed aside to irrelevance when their money goes east. Alec Baldwin, the movie actor, vowed to leave the country if George W. Bush was elected, and six years later his plane is still on the runway at Los Angeles International Airport, still waiting for the tower to clear him for takeoff. All he can do is sit abandoned in a pool of his own frustration in a new season of irrelevance.
"California is the biggest, most influential state in the nation," state Sen. Ron Calderon, the Democratic sponsor of the legislation to move up the primary, complains to the Los Angeles Times, "yet the current June primary virtually ensures that the major party nominees will be determined before our votes are cast."
True enough, but moving the primary to February is not without risks. With the field in both parties clogged with candidates, there's always the prospect that Hillary, Obama and John Edwards (he's neither despised nor idolized enough to get only one name), will slug each other into a stupor in the Democratic primaries, while Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney bash each other into a torpor in the Republican arena. This would leave the decision to states with primaries in April, May and even June.
Californians have sowed primary confusion before. A decade ago the worthies in Sacramento moved the primaries to late March. Other states leaped, too, and by 1996 California was only 32nd in line. Not very impressive for the state that commissions trends and controls tides. By the time Californians voted in 2004, so had voters in 20 other states, and everybody knew that John F. Kerry would be the nominee. "Any early primary didn't make us any more relevant," says Fabian Nunez, the speaker of the state Assembly. "The only result was a lower turnout."
There may be another consideration of relevance lighting legislative fire. "It's not really about relevancy," says Dave Cox, a Republican senator from a Sacramento suburb. "It's about changing term limits and redistricting. We shouldn't be spending $50 million or $60 million to add a primary election."
Maybe not, but the legislation moving the primary was adopted in the Senate by 31 votes to five, and it goes now to the Assembly. Relevance in politics only means you never hesitate to reward yourself first.