MENLO PARK, Calif.
Fifty Julys ago, up the road near San Francisco, the Republican National Convention gave its presidential nomination to Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who knew he would lose: Americans were not going to have a third president in 14 months. Besides, his don't-fence-me-in libertarian conservatism was ahead of its time. His agenda, however, was to change his party's national brand.
Today, in this state where one in eight Americans live and where Democrat presidential candidates can reap 55 electoral votes without spending a dime or a day campaigning, the Republicans' gubernatorial candidate has an agenda and spirit similar to Goldwater's. Neel Kashkari is not, as some suggest, an anti-Goldwater, diluting the state party's conservatism. He is Goldwater 2.0, defining conservatism half a century on.
He relishes “turning upside down” the parties' stereotypes. The Democrat candidate, 76-year-old Gov. Jerry Brown, is “the old white guy.” Kashkari, the 40-year-old son of Indian immigrants, was born in 1973, the year before Brown was first elected governor. Brown is a government lifer, having been secretary of state, attorney general and Oakland's mayor when not unsuccessfully seeking a U.S. Senate seat and the presidency.
Kashkari prospered in the private sector, a place foreign to Brown. Born in Ohio, Kashkari studied mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois, came to California to work in the aerospace industry, then earned an MBA from Wharton, joined Goldman Sachs and landed a Washington job with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. As a Treasury official during one of the most dangerous periods in America's economic history, from July 2006 to May 2009, Kashkari says: “I saw the best in our political system.”
He remembers that, with a liquidity-deprived financial system pushing the nation to the precipice of a depression, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell simply said, “Of course we'll find a way to get this done.” The politically perilous but nation-saving business of bailing out the banking system was done in days. “What other democracy in the world,” Kashkari asks, “can move that fast to deal with a crisis?”
Today, California is a one-party state: Democrats have 2-1 majorities in both legislative chambers and 40 of 55 members of Congress. Republicans hold no statewide office. All of which has something to do with these facts: California has the nation's highest income tax, sales tax and poverty rate (adjusted for the cost of living), and the second-highest gasoline tax. Only four states have higher unemployment rates.
Running against Brown requires discerning silver linings on black clouds. Kashkari says of polls showing Brown leading 52-32: Well, 100 percent of Californians know who Brown is, so 48 percent are looking for an alternative.
“If I get Jerry on a debate stage,” Kashkari says, “anything can happen.” That is true, as is this: Goldwater lost 44 states but won the future. His conservative cadre captured the GOP, which won five of the next six and seven of the next 10 presidential elections. If California becomes a purple state and Democrats can no longer assume its 20 percent of 270 electoral votes, Republicans nationwide will be indebted to the immigrants' son who plucked up Goldwater's banner of conservatism with a Western libertarian flavor.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.