California's Geriatric Liberal Leadership

California's Geriatric Liberal Leadership
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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Next year marks a century since Lulu Hunt Peters, a Californian by way of Maine, gifted the world with “Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories.”

Ever since, the Golden State had stood at the vanguard of defying Father Time. Look no further than Orange County and the city of Irvine, home to Botox giant Allergan, or Big Sur’s Esalen Institute, which is dedicated to “integrat[ing] body mind, heart, spirit and community in a nurturing relationship with the environment.”

Or so Don Draper discovered.

A funny thing about the Golden State: the pursuit of youth doesn’t apply to its political hierarchy.

Jerry Brown, the nation’s oldest governor (he turned 79 last month), is serving a record fourth and final term as California’s chief executive.

Dianne Feinstein, the nation’s oldest U.S. senator (she turns 84 in June), first ran for San Francisco supervisor in 1970 – the same year Gov. Brown launched the first of what adds up to a dozen citywide, statewide and nationwide campaigns. Whether she seeks another term next year is a popular guessing game here.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, age 77, traces her California political ancestry to a House special election held 30 years ago. She succeeded Sala Burton, who won the seat following the death of her husband, the legendary gerrymanderer Phil Burton.

About the Burtons: Phil’s brother John, who turned 84 last December, is stepping down this month after an eight-year run as chairman of the California Democratic Party. It marks the end of six decades of Burtonian influence on state and local politics dating back President Eisenhower’s re-election in 1956.

The purpose of reciting these resumes isn’t to disparage anyone’s age. Rather, it’s to highlight California’s struggle to find a place in a Democratic Party that, come 2020, stands to benefit from a fresh face with fresh ideas.

For all of Hillary Clinton’s struggles in 2016 that are now coming to light, thanks to unnamed consultants, she may have been done in by a simple fact of math: at age 69, she didn’t fit the Democratic youth template.

Four non-incumbent Democrats have claimed the presidency since the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s hold on the job. Jimmy Carter, 52 years of age when he unseated Gerald Ford in 1976, was the oldest of the quartet; John F. Kennedy, age 43, the youngest. The other two – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – were 46 and 47, respectively, at the time of their first victories.

Meanwhile, over the same stretch of time, seven non-incumbent Democrats failed in their presidential quests, Hillary Clinton being the oldest. All, save Hillary, fell between the ages of 52 and 60. One could argue that she simply didn’t present the youthful image her party craves.

Which takes us back to California’s Democratic graybeards. They’re respected and venerable. But do they fit in with their party’s angrier, more progressive nerve center?

Feinstein, for example, was heckled at a mid-April town hall in San Francisco. Pelosi, assuming she seeks re-election next year, will face a challenge from the left: Bernie Jaffe, an employment trial lawyer with a penchant for Bernie Sanders, single-payer health care and bashing Pelosi for special-interest fundraising.

As for Jerry Brown, you won’t find a Democrat more passionate about climate change. But he’s not a fan of single-payer health care, is skeptical about the virtues of legalized recreational marijuana, and revels in the perception of being a fiscal spendthrift. 

Had Brown sought the presidency in 2015 -- would the fourth time have been the charm? -- it wouldn’t have been as the flighty dreamer of the 1970s and 1980s or the angry outsider of 1992. Instead, he might have offered himself as the “paddle left, paddle right” centrist in the room. Feel free to look up the fate of non-New England pragmatists in early Democratic primary states.

So is there room for California is the Democrats’ future? The answer: time – and the 2018 election – will change things.

If Jerry Brown would seem an odd fit for progressives looking for ornate ideas and a pound of The Donald’s flesh, the current frontrunner to replace Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, is the opposite.

Consider Newsom’s bona fides were he to seek the presidency in 2020: He was at the forefront of same-sex marriage (as mayor of San Francisco back in 2004, Newsom defied state law by handing out city wedding licenses). Last fall, he supported successful ballot measures imposing stricter gun laws and legalizing pot; and he wants to take a universal health-care system that he imposed in San Francisco statewide.

The one thing working against Newsom’s national trajectory: timing. He turns 50 this fall, so the window is closing on running as yet another inspirational 40-something Democrat. Should Newsom become California’s 40th governor in January 2019, he’d have to forsake state Capitol intrigue for summertime jaunts in Iowa and New Hampshire (Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan also sought the presidency in their first gubernatorial terms).

A California Democrat on a more favorable 2020 trajectory: Sen. Kamala Harris, a.k.a. “California’s Barack Obama.” OK, she doesn’t fit the age paradigm (Harris, who is of African-American and Tamil-Indian ancestry, turns 53 this fall). However, she does imbibe the progressive Kool-Aid: At CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s confirmation hearing, she launched into a litmus test on gay rights and climate change.

Still, the notion of a Democratic presidential candidate with less than one term in the Senate and whose main selling point is multi-racial appeal? That could never work ...

Perhaps a California Democrat will take the plunge in 2020 or 2024. If you want to widen the speculation pool, add Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, age 46, who might make a play for Feinstein’s seat should she decide to retire next year.

Either way, it’s part of a larger narrative of California that we are overdue for something big. The Golden State hasn’t experienced an Olympics competition since 1984, a Super Bowl parade since 1995, or a major earthquake since 1999 (mercifully, it was in a remote location). 

The last major California player to make a presidential run? Former Gov. Pete Wilson, who took a brief stab at it in 1995. Otherwise, the nation’s most populous state has been a White House dry spell ever since O.J. Simpson beat his murder rap.

The big California story in 2017: the end of a historic drought. Perhaps that also will apply to national politics. 

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics, and host of Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at


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