In David Frum’s weekly CNN column, he weighs in with a rather odd perspective on California, Texas, and the state of the Republican Party. Essentially, Frum seems to be arguing that the ascendancy of Texas and the decline of California signify bad things for Republicans.
A predisposition toward knee-jerk devil’s advocacy makes for a fine attitude in an academic teaching a freshman seminar, but it’s far less appealing in a political analyst of Frum’s stature. If you adopt this tactic in professional life, you end up in rather uncomfortable corners. Before you know it, you’re making ridiculous political predictions, like saying eBay’s Meg Whitman is “a likely presidential candidate for 2016″ if she wins the governorship of California. This line is so absurd, it makes me wonder if Frum has ever actually seen Whitman at a political event, or if she exists only in his mind as some perfected ideal of moderate-tech-businesswoman-turned-politician? Whitman may prove to be a fine governor if elected, but a theoretical national candidacy would attract zero excitement within the Republican Party or the conservative base. If Frum is looking for his “not-Palin,” she’s it, including that failure to excite anyone not named David Frum.
But on to Texas. Frum writes:
[T]his new Texas-led Republican Party found it much more difficult to carry the rest of the country than the old California-led party. In the three presidential elections won with a Texan atop the ticket, the GOP averaged 328 electoral votes. In the four elections won with a Californian atop the ticket, the GOP averaged 459 electoral votes.
The electoral vote statement here is completely irrelevant given the way Frum constitutes it, and besides, this cuts both ways — in 1964 the (Democratic) Texas candidate won a 486-vote blowout. Let’s look at plain outcomes: what state wins more, TX or CA?
Frum separates the postwar elections into pre- and post-1988 periods. So let’s do the same — what follows are the year, winning party, and states of the winning tickets in all the Presidential elections from 1948 to the present:
1948 — Democrat — Missouri/Kentucky
1952 — Republican — New York/California
1956 — Republican — New York/California
1960 — Democrat — Massachusetts/Texas
1964 — Democrat — Texas/Minnesota
1968 — Republican — California/Maryland
1972 — Republican — California/Maryland
1976 — Democrat — Georgia/Minnesota
1980 — Republican — California/Texas
1984 — Republican — California/Texas
1988 — Republican — Texas/Indiana
1992 — Democrat — Arkansas/Tennessee
1996 — Democrat — Arkansas/Tennessee
2000 — Republican — Texas/Wyoming
2004 — Republican — Texas/Wyoming
2008 — Democrat — Illinois/Delaware
You’ll note that after Frum’s 1988 cutoff, there’s no more California at all, for Democrats or Republicans, which seems to belie its importance as any determinant of national politics — perhaps because the American people stopped wanting to live like Californians, or perhaps because California stopped producing the kind of innovative and uniquely driven political personalities it once did? I think that’s a bigger question, and an interesting one.
But in any case: let’s weight the argument toward Frum and look at the comparison between Texas and California since World War II, as he does. What do we find? In the sixteen elections since World War II:
- A Texan has headed 4 winning tickets, of which 3 were Republican.
- A Texan has been present on 7 winning tickets, of which 5 were Republican.
- A Californian has headed 4 winning tickets, of which 4 were Republican.
- A Californian has been present on 6 winning tickets, of which 6 were Republican.
That’s a slight edge to Texas in winning-ticket presence, and it holds its own in heading the winning ticket. California’s presence on a winning ticket is uniformly Republican, and Texas’s presence on the same is very heavily Republican.
Bottom line: Frum’s thesis of a massive Golden State advantage doesn’t really hold up. The choice in American politics is hardly between California or Texas, any more than it is between Illinois and Arizona — but even if it was, it seems having Texas on-board is historically a good bet.
Much of this seems to be reading too much into things. Perhaps Frum’s saying that he misses the days of Nixon and Reagan over the days of HW and his old boss George W. Bush. Perhaps he’s saying that he’d prefer Arnold Schwarzenegger to Rick Perry as a future leader of the party (Frum implies that the reason Schwarzenegger isn’t considered presidential material is that he’s constitutionally barred from running — it has more to do with the fact that he’s the most unpopular governor in the history of California). The idea that California — even if Republicans knock off Boxer and retain the Governorship — will reassert itself as a driving force in Republican politics is just hard to see happening.
I’ve had coffee with Frum just once, a few months ago, before the AEI kerfuffle (in fact, following an Arthur Brooks meeting with a fascinating interview I’ll share here at some point). At the time we had an interesting conversation. We disagreed about health policy then as now — I personally think Frum’s perception of the process and the nature of the reforms, which he shared at the time but made public in his later column (which has certainly attracted attention), is just completely out of touch with reality. But as I said, he’s a political analyst, and analysts who look at the big picture tend to see things as sweeping changes and momentous tides. The last thing Frum said to me before he got on the elevator was “in ten years, everyone will agree with me.”
We’ll see. I do think Frum honestly believes, as Jonah Goldberg observes, that conservatives must follow the paths of their ideological kin in Canada and Britain to have any future. The more logical path toward a return to relevance is pragmatic good governance, as is readily evident in New Jersey and Virginia, where reform-minded Republicans knocked off Democratic majorities last year by promising to cut taxes, run things better, fix bureaucratic problems, and dismantle wasteful programs. But when you’re always playing devil’s advocate, you tend to launch expeditions in search of more Richard Riordans, not noticing the examples right in front of you.
By coincidence, there just happen to be more potential Riordans in California. I suspect that’s the real difference.