Is California out Front or Just out There?

Article excerpt

As the the 20th century began, California was an insular territory consumed by parochial issues. Its role in defining the national character was middling, as was its population relative to other states.

Today, it is America's behemoth. It sends vibrations across the land with almost every move it makes and operates on such a large scale that its governor, for instance, who isn't even running for reelection next year, already has raised more campaign funds than the lead contenders for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Yet as political and social scientists peer into the coming century, there is some question whether California is really leading the nation, or rather increasingly veering off into its own universe.

A range of analysts have concluded that while this state's throw- weight continues to rise its role as a national leader has shifted. It is now much more of a leading indicator in economic and social spheres than in public policy.

No one doubts that this state "leads" the US and will continue to in a statistical sense. It has the largest population, the largest economy, and the greatest political clout, measured through membership in Congress and the number of votes it casts in the Electoral College to elect a president.

And in terms of culture and economics, the Hollywood dream machine and the Silicon Valley technology revolution have global influence.

When it comes to setting the agenda for public policy, however, some analysts say California is propelled more and more by dynamics that are atypical. What happens here, they argue, either doesn't apply elsewhere or is viewed skeptically enough that if adopted elsewhere, its form changes substantially.

Part of this is simply the natural evolution of the relationship between this state and others. Whereas earlier this century California was seen by many as the model of the future, today it has been roughed up by experience and is viewed less admiringly by outsiders.

"California has matured and it's clearly no longer the answer to everyone's dreams," says Joel Kotkin of the Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University in southern California.

Growing divide

Others see a deeper separation developing between this state and the rest of the nation, a result of demographic trends and the state's own failings in the public-policy arena.

"California has become less typical, less the leader, and more the exotic state it was at the beginning of the century," says Michael Barone, co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics."

California's influence and peculiarities were both evident earlier this month when Florida Gov. Jeb Bush outlined new policies to deal with the touchy issue of affirmative action.

California voters in 1996 outlawed racial preferences in state education and employment, partly because elected leaders failed to deal with the issue. Governor Bush seems determined to prevent the divisiveness over the issue that developed in California by preempting a more sweeping Florida ballot initiative akin to what passed in this state.

Also noteworthy in the early stages of this presidential campaign is the effort Republican front-runner George W. Bush has made to distance himself from the way California dealt with another hot- button issue: illegal immigration.

In what appeared a harbinger of shifting social policy, Californians restricted public benefits to illegal immigrants in 1994. The US Congress curtailed benefits to undocumented immigrants, too. But California's controversial law, largely dismantled by the courts, now looks like a momentary response to toughening economic times rather than a national trendsetter.

Last year, this state banned bilingual education, another social- policy change that drew national attention as a potential social tsunami generated on the West Coast. …