Should GOP Sing 'California Here I Come'?

On Monday, President Obama visited California to raise money for Senator Barbara Boxer, who would like to begin a fourth decade in Congress. He conceded that she could lose her seat. The two ideological soul mates hope to stem a rising anti-government tide that appears set to erode Democrats’ control of Washington this November. But there are increasing signs that Mr. Obama and Ms. Boxer will be disappointed if they assume Californians do not share other Americans’ distaste for the shocking expansion of government.

Just as Massachusetts voters got a sneak preview of Obamacare in the form of Romneycare and responded by electing a Republican to the Senate on a singular mission to halt government-run medicine, Californians have been experiencing a preview of President Obama’s broader statist agenda and its ultimate result. By all accounts, they are not pleased. A state government run of, by and for public employees unions, which Mr. Obama and his allies are now working to solidify in Washington, has led in California to ever-increasing taxes, deficits and unfunded pension liabilities that recently were estimated to total $535 billion.

High taxes—including America’s highest statewide income levies—combined with excessive regulations and Sacramento’s hostility toward wealth-creators have driven businesses out of California. This has caused a jobless rate that just reached a new high of 12.6%. The counties to the east of Los Angeles have rates as high as 15%. In the state’s Central Valley, unemployment is nearing Great Depression levels of 17-22%. It is there that matters have been made even worse by the environmentalist allies of Ms. Boxer, who have joined forces with the federal government to wage a highly effective regulatory war on farmers and manufacturers.

Needless to say, neither Mr. Obama nor Ms. Boxer brought up these sticky points during his short visit. In fact, Mr. Obama did not venture beyond safely choreographed gatherings of the state’s liberal elite, where donors contributed up to $32,500 per couple for dinner with the liberal duo.

Nearly every candidate President Obama has campaigned for since taking office has eventually lost at the polls. The same can now be expected with Ms. Boxer, who is more or less tied with her most likely election opponent this fall, former Republican Congressman Tom Campbell. But more importantly, her support stands at only 44%, significantly lower than the 50% support for reelection under which incumbents are thought to be imperiled. Mr. Campbell’s strength against Ms. Boxer has been rising steadily since he entered the race in January.

Mr. Obama probably calculates that a state that last went for a Republican president in 1988 will somehow end up reelecting Ms. Boxer this November. He may be wrong. The state’s fiscal and economic calamity has resulted in a record low 9% approval rating for the Democratic-dominated legislature. Voters are apt to see Democrats in Sacramento and Washington as birds of a feather, which will not help Ms. Boxer. Indeed, the Obama-Boxer program for maximum government is a far cry not only from the limited government principles Americans are now embracing in greater numbers—it also differs considerably even from Bill Clinton’s once-espoused “New Democrat” brand of liberalism, which at least had a place for free enterprise and had many fans in California.

In Mr. Campbell, Ms. Boxer faces her strongest opponent yet, and one well positioned on key size-of-government issues this year. When they both served in the House of Representatives in the 102nd Congress, Campbell was rated #1 by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation for frugality with federal dollars. Boxer came in 412th place.

Reached for comment on Monday, Campbell lamented the human toll Boxer’s brand of spendthrift governance has taken on California: “It’s amazing if you look at all the opportunity that could have happened but didn’t because of government spending.” He noted the fundamental difference between those who look to government to provide employment compared to those who believe that prosperity and jobs come from free enterprise. Mr. Campbell can also contrast his record and statements on national defense favorably to those of Ms. Boxer. When Saddam Hussein was raining down scud missiles on Israel and U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, then-Congressman Campbell urged a strong military reaction. Then-Congresswoman Boxer called for a “pause for peace” to talk with Saddam. More recently, Mr. Campbell has criticized President Obama for a weak Iran policy and his administration’s preemptive condemnation of a notional Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites.

The key question for both Republicans and Democrats is whether the possible and perhaps probable end of Ms. Boxer’s career will be a one-time event or the beginning of a new trend that creates a space for center-right ideas and policies. Californians have seen the downside of Obama-style liberalism perhaps more directly than residents of any other state, and have turned sour on incumbent liberals despite the limited historical reach of conservative voices here.

Furthermore, the grassroots Tea Party movement is active throughout California and Democrats’ control of Sacramento is looking more like a glass jaw than an asset. While none of this foretells a conservative state in the making, Californians’ disillusionment with the results of excessive government creates an opening to make the state a battleground. Come November 2, President Obama and Senator Boxer may be nostalgic for a “Left Coast” that just isn’t quite the same as it was.

Christian Whiton was a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration. He is a principal at DC Asia Advisory and president of the Hamilton Foundation.

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