BERKELEY — For eight glorious years, California has been the Clinton administration's favored child--showered with federal gifts, tended to by special White House staff and, most of all, flattered and charmed by the personal ministrations of a president whose heart will never belong to Chappaqua, N.Y., where the Clintons bought a home, the way it has to West Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
All that changes next month, no matter who is in the White House. But, clearly, a transition from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush would be a lot more jarring for the state's lopsided Democratic political establishment than the switch from Clinton to Al Gore. So, do ordinary Californians hunker down for possibly four years of federal famine and the presidential cold shoulder? Hardly.
For starters, no White House occupant ignores a cache of 54 electoral votes (at least 55, possibly 56 by the time the next presidential election rolls around), and no politician, regardless of home state or party affiliation, ignores a state that offers some of the most lucrative fund-raising venues in the country. According to figures compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Republicans raised $114.1 million in California this election cycle, more than in any other state except the District of Columbia.
At the most basic level, that kind of political math creates its own full-service imperative. It means that come fire, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster, the wheels of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will turn fast and efficiently. George W. need only look to the final year of his father's administration to learn what happens when a president is perceived to be too slow or too tightfisted with disaster relief.
Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, leaving hundreds of thousands without shelter. While national television flashed scenes that looked like Dresden after the Allied bombing campaign in World War II, local officials railed about federal ineptitude and red tape so horrendous that National Guard troops were delivering food to the area but not distributing it because no one had ordered them to. The entire affair was a public-relations disaster for President George Bush, who eventually dispatched his transportation secretary, Andrew H. Card Jr., to help straighten things out on the ground. George W. has named Card as his prospective chief of staff.
Clinton demonstrated precisely the opposite approach in California, where an unusual string of natural disasters in the early 1990s punctuated the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In retrospect, perhaps it only seems that he set a new dollar standard of federal largess in binding up the state's wounds. Maybe it was just the presidential-empathy factor having a significant multiplier effect.
Even if Californians have to accept that no politician will ever match Clinton's ability to feel our pain, it is worth remembering George W.'s remarks, during the first presidential debate, about visiting flood victims in Southeast Texas with FEMA chief James Lee Witt in late 1998. Bush, like Clinton, is a hugger! That augurs well for California.
Nothing about having a Texas Republican occupy the White House alters California's position as the ATM of national politics, but the mix and the venues for collecting that cash would probably change in a Bush administration. The Texas governor already has strong ties to Silicon Valley's top executives, notably John Chambers of Cisco Systems and Jim Barksdale of the Barksdale Group. If anything, his ability to satisfy the high-tech community's policy agenda promises to be greater than Clinton's, because he wouldn't be facing the cross pressures Clinton did from important Democratic donor groups like trial lawyers and organized labor.
In the entertainment industry, corporate Hollywood has always been more supportive of Republicans than Democrats. It's the industry's creative side that favors Democrats, and nobody since John F. Kennedy has had a greater affinity with Hollywood celebrities than Clinton. Look for less, maybe even none of that kind of hobnobbing from Bush and safely assume that the likes of Barbara Streisand and David Geffen and Steven Spielberg would not be getting invitations to spend the night at a Bush White House.