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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

There's No Future in Bad Forecasts

January 06, 2002|JOHN J. PITNEY JR. | John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

By now, we've all had our fill of forecasts for 2002. As we digest these bold predictions, it's wise to remember that the future seldom divulges its secrets. Return to the Januarys of yesteryear, and you find that Californians could have had little clue about the immense changes ahead.

Sixty years ago this month, the United States had been in World War II for only a few weeks and no one grasped how the war would reshape domestic life. In Orange County, as in many places, the military presence was growing. The Tustin Marine Corps Air Station opened in September 1942 and a similar base in El Toro followed in March 1943. But while acknowledging that Orange County was "shouldering its full share" of the war effort, The Times observed on Jan. 2, 1942, that "the old life of the county goes on." More than 100 packinghouses processed citrus. "Cattle graze in wide, green pastures. Seemingly endless fields are planted to beans, sugarbeets and other vital crops."

Ten years later, the fields no longer seemed endless. Postwar suburbanization had increased the county's population by 66%. The Cold War was on, and many new residents worked in defense industries. Still, the scent of orange blossoms stayed in the air. In January 1952 it appeared that the county would remain mainly agricultural.

The following year, Walt Disney asked the Stanford Research Institute to find the best site for a new kind of family theme park. Just two years later, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, marking the county's emergence as a worldwide tourist destination. By 1962, it was certain that tourism and tract housing would roll back the county's citrus groves.

It seemed equally likely that Yorba Linda's favorite son, Richard M. Nixon, would beat incumbent Democrat Pat Brown in the November gubernatorial election. Nixon failed, however. One reason for his defeat was unforeseeable early in the year: the Cuban missile crisis of October, which eclipsed state politics and kept Nixon from reaching the electorate at a crucial stage of the campaign.

In January 1962, couch potatoes had two main TV choices at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights: Bonanza and GE Theater. The host of the latter was a fading actor named Ronald Reagan. Though he had given some political speeches, nobody thought of him as a candidate, and certainly not a GOP standard-bearer. He was, after all, a registered Democrat. In January 1972, Reagan was serving his second term as the Republican governor. Richard Nixon, the big loser of 1962, was now president--but his reelection was in doubt.

On Jan. 4, 1972, The Times ran a column speculating on how Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) would govern after beating Nixon. One problem for Nixon was GOP dissent over China policy. Orange County Rep. John Schmitz said: "I have no objection to President Nixon going to China. I just object to his coming back."

Schmitz ran against Nixon as a third-party candidate, and in a close election, he could have been a spoiler in key states, just as Nader was in 2000. The China visit proved popular, as did detente with the Soviet Union, and the apparent end of the Vietnam War. In November, Schmitz was irrelevant and Nixon carried 49 states.

Ronald Reagan was president in January 1982. But the GOP's prospects were bleak as a nationwide recession loomed over the political landscape. Orange County Republicans were slipping. Democrat Jerry Patterson had held a congressional seat since the mid-1970s, and Jerry Brown, of all people, had carried the county in the 1978 gubernatorial election. Now Brown was running for the U.S. Senate.

Brown lost to Pete Wilson in November 1982, and Patterson fell to Bob Dornan two years later. By the mid-1980s, the GOP was on the upswing in both the county and the state. The surge would not last. "Going into 1992, I almost see it as the year California politics becomes unhinged, in the sense of traditional trends," said state Democratic Chairman Phil Angelides, now state treasurer.

For once, a prediction came true. In November, Bill Clinton became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to carry the state. Political turbulence was obvious in early 1992 because the economy was in poor shape. Nationwide, voters blamed the GOP White House for the slump.

Times were especially tough in California, and Orange County officials were bracing for unprecedented cuts. But toward the end of January, county Treasurer Bob Citron announced some good news about tax revenue from big businesses. The figures bolstered hope that the county would weather the crisis. Two years later, the county was bankrupt.

So now that we're in 2002, what's next? The only sure thing is that a lot of forecasts will prove wrong.

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