WEST LOS ANGELES, the community I represent in the state legislature, is known for affluence, liberalism, celebrities and, it is claimed, Frumpies (formerly radical upwardly mobile young professionals).
At this point in the election cycle, however, West L.A. becomes a fund-raising colony for an Eastern empire known as the national Democratic Party.
During one recent two-week period, our political money was harvested by seven Democratic U.S. senators, 10 Democratic Senate hopefuls, and two congressional candidates. The parade ranged from Ted Kennedy to Joe Kennedy, from a North Dakotan to a Floridian, and included Maryland opponents Mike Barnes and Barbara Mikulski.
Most of these people were sent by the national Democratic campaign committees, each with aspirations in the $50,000 range. As 1988 approaches, the expectations of presidential candidates will be boundless. When the money has been collected, however, the phones from Washington to California stop ringing, for it is a common assumption among Democratic "insiders" that California produces little but money and Republicans who inexplicably become president. Since the California primary comes last, we normally have less influence on the nominating process than tiny New Hampshire. Indeed, in 1988, 75 percent of the Democratic delegates will be chosen by April 5 -- two months before the California primary.
This feeling of being a colony with little say in the national destiny has been expressed by many other Democrats in the 13 Western states -- most of which have statehouses in Democratic hands. But since it is assumed by national Democrats that Republicans have a lock on the West, presidential candidates generally invest their time and resources east of Iowa.
In the heyday of the winning Democratic coalition of northern New Dealers and southern Democrats, it was possible to forget the West. But never again.
Even one Republican strategist, Kevin Phillips, is inclined to agree. He believes the Democratic are too liberal on race to expect much support from the South, and therefore has no choice but to turn West. Phillips has found that the Mondale-Ferraro ticket did best in the Northeast, upper Midwest and the Pacific states of California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. "This is the basic outline of what could conceivably be a winning combination in 1988 or 1992," he say.
However, Phillips significantly adds, "the Democrats will have to find a way to transfer leadership and candidate selection to the more Yuppie wing of the party while keeping enough labor/blue-collar elements loyal."
In building what Phillips crudely calls this "Yuppie/Pacific" strategy, forces symbolized by Gary Hart may be able to play a constructive bridging role, whether Hart himself prevails or not. For they are on their way to creating a "new center" in American politics.
This "new generation" of politicians -- many of them Western governors, senators and congressmen -- has been winning majorities on state levels in spite of the decline of the national party by invoking the theme of "investing in the future" rather than a return to the Democratic past:
*They have emphasized economic competitiveness -- a state response to the trade issue that goes beyond protectionism.
*They have created new partnerships between government, business and labor -- an alternative to the politics of adversarial, begger-thy-neighbor self-interest.
*They favor the entrepreneur and the principle of citizen participation in economic decisions -- a fresh alternative to bureaucratic corporate behavior.
*They spent money on education and job training -- an investment in human capital rather than welfare.
*They have enacted new regulations against toxic contamination -- an area where the public wants strong government.
*They address crime prevention and support tough sentencing -- moving away from pie-in-the-sky solutions to violent crime.
*They enforce nondiscrimination and equal opportunity laws -- without quotas or symbolic appointments of the unqualified.
*They are decentralist by disposition -- not apostles of Washington control. Most prevelant in the West, this generation has little stake in the traditional power structures.
While these new Democratic officeholders can be faulted for being too managerial and not visionary enough, they nevertheless show that Democratic victories are possible without having to scrap the core Democatic belief in a positive role for government. And while not as progressive as I would prefer, their fundamental pragmatism makes them comfortable with the notion of competing in the West and other traditional Republican strongholds.
The question of a future westward tilt is at root a question of whether leadership in the national party will shift hands or retreat into its past. There are major demographic, economic and political realities requiring significant adjustments by national Democrats in the next two years if they want to grab an historic chance to win an open presidential seat. All of them are symbolized in the debate over turning West.
*Demographic shifts are widely noted but little heeded by national Democrats. Population growth in America is not exactly bursting in centers of traditional Democratic loyalty. The Western states will acquire 20 new congressional seats in the coming 15 years, while Frostbelt states will lose 38. If Texas is counted as a Western state because of its location, high-tech industries, family farms and large Hispanic population, these figures dramatically escalate -- as if a second California were added.
This demographic shift is also ethnic. There are far more Hispanics in the West than there are the blacks who are now the party's primary minority constituency. Hispanics are expected to grow to one-third of California's population by the year 2000, and Asians will double their numbers to 10 percent while blacks will remain at 7 percent. Democrats cannot take the loyalty of these growing minorities for granted.
*Nowhere more than in the West can you see the economic shifts of the rise of the services and high-technology sectors and the decline of organized labor. Among 25- to 34- year old workers, the percentage in unions fell from 18.2 percent in 1984 to 16.7 percent in 1985 alone. Among women, who are spilling into the workforce in record numbers, the percentage in unions is only 13.2. Less than 3 percent of all employes in finance, insurance and real estate belong to unions.
The high-tech sectors, moreover, are heavily entrepreneurial and individualistic in ethos, distrusting labor leaders and government bureaucrats as much as TV evangelicals and corporate conglomerates.
Service-sector workers tend not to vote or to remain beyond the present organizational reach of the traditional Democratic coalition, while the high-tech constituency is becoming "dealigned" or Republican in spite of the Moral Majority.
The point of this recitation is that national Democrats are organizationally composed of economic sectors whose heyday is in the past.
*The political shift confounding national Democrats is that the baby-boom generation simply does not behave according to expectation. Thought of as natural McGovernites in the early '70s, they were the most apathetic constituency in the Nixon-McGovern election as measured by turnout. A decade later they were identified as a Republican goldmine. But when activists among them attended the Republican State Convention in California recently, they rejected the anti-abortion planks of the New Right, and polls show them to be moderate or liberal on social issues.
The parents of the baby-boomers were garment workers or foundrymen who were helped by the New Deal Democrats, and for that the baby-boomers are thankful. But they themselves cannot be loyal to nostalgia. They are the first generation in America likely to end up doing less well than their parents. So while they are too modern for the rigid pieties of the Falwells and Robertsons, they were hardly inspired by Walter Mondale's 1984 promise of a tax increase. They live in small apartments in Santa Monica or tract homes in San Bernardino, and sink their savings into car repairs more than quiche. Often they work in newly created occupations -- like Federal Express couriers -- that didn't exist 10 years ago and may not 10 years from now. It's no surprise that such workers have fundamental uncertainties about the future of the economy. Most of all, baby-boomers favor a "quality of life" agenda. And in this, too, the West has led the way. In 1972 California passed the strongest coastal protection act in the country by a vote of the people. In 1976, the California state government imposed the strictest safeguards in the nation on the operation of nuclear powerplants. As a result, a state that was supposed to have over 50 nuclear reactors by the turn of the century now has only four reactors, but instead has the largest alternative energy industry in the nation.
The pervasive issue in every local election in California today is development -- the impinging of commercial or industrial growth on neighborhoods. Growth control has become a banner held up by everybody from San Diego Republicans to San Francisco Democrats.
It is this concern for values and human-scale living that attracts people to the West and motivates much of their political behavior. There is a deep concern that economic growth should mean something more than bigness and centralism. It should promote invention, entrepreneurship, education and job-training and not occur at the expense of health or the environment. By turning West, in short, the national Democrats can find not only the necessary numbers of voters but a revitalized spirit and theme as well.
Can the Democrats reach these new voters while holding their traditional constituencies in 1988? If traditional party groupings follow their short-term interest, the answer is probably no. Their differences will simply become even more cantankerous.
But the possibilities for change are there. Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast Democrats are actively discussing regional approaches to make the national party take them seriously in 1988. California Rep. Mel Levine, for example, is floating a proposal for a mid-March, 1988, California primary.
It remains for the national party to design a nominating process in 1988 which requires that all presidential candidates invest time, money and campaign efforts among the Western and independent voters whose loyalty will be necessary to win in November.
If it does not, the party will be in danger of becoming a numerical minority and little else. The opportunity of organizing a new governing coalition will fall to the Republicans, or pass by unheeded.